The Value of Dystopia by Brandon

In response to Michael Solana's "Stop Writing Dystopian Sci-Fi—It’s Making Us All Fear Technology," which had inspired "We Need Dystopias Now More Than Ever."

Solana's essential message is, "Technology is our salvation, so why do those pesky Luddites keep trying to challenge progress and scare us?" Science fiction, like life, has always contained both utopian and dystopian themes, optimism and pessimism. If dystopias are suddenly overrepresented — which I think is untrue — it's probably worth asking why they're so popular, and maybe even trying to learn from them.

Perhaps they'resymptomatic of something important: frustrations with roots in very real social grievances, as with the co-existence of extreme poverty and technological near-omnipotence in Elysium; or concern with how tech's extraordinary possibilities are often subverted for cheap and exploitative purposes, like in Andri Snaer Magnason's Love/Star and M.T. Anderson's Feed; or, per Paolo Bacigalupi's fiction, the day-after-tomorrow imminence of resource scarcities and ecological catastrophe; or misgivings about the interconnected, seemingly fragile nature of globalization's networks, which are exposed by so many zombie/outbreak movie plots.

From a certain perspective, The Hunger Games is a parable for a moment when teenagers and young adults struggle to find jobs in a hypercompetitive marketplace. It's also an obvious parable of unconstrained big-government power. Solana's take is, "So what the hell are we supposed to make of the Hunger Games?"

An interesting historical aside is how much dystopian sci-fi — here I use the term "dystopian" loosely, as does Solana, who seems to think any story with conflict, such as Battlestar Galactica, is anti-technology — was written by cyberpunks of the 1980s and early 1990s. Most of those authors, such as William Gibson and Charles Platt and Bruce Sterling, were also early adopters and techno-proselytizers. They had a front-row seat from which to appreciate science fiction's great, lasting lesson: that technology is inseparable from human nature, culture, economics and history.

Antibiotics and washing machines and packet-transfer protocols and high-yield crop varieties are all tech. So are AK-47s and online identity theft and flash-crashes and multiple pesticide-resistant corn. The Google campus is a marvel of technology's possibilities; so was the East German surveillance state. The world is a messy place, as is progress. Sci-fi, and its dystopias, reflect and reflect upon that tension. They nourish critical thought. Rather than embracing tech on faith, as an article of secular theology, we'reencouraged to understand that technology isn't a magic-wand principle that absolves people from the hard work of progress.

Instead Solana sees technology as "perhaps the only thing" that can solve society's most pressing problems. He calls for a Panglossian science fiction, its highest purpose to "prepare people to accept the future without pain," an antidote for those Luddites who "have challenged progress at every crux point in human history."

It's telling how he refers so flippantly to that social movement. (And, the copy editor in me can't help but mention, so nonsensically: "At every point in human history"? Did Ned Ludd, smasher of mechanical looms, also invent a time machine?) Luddites weren't broadly anti-technology, but rather opposed a particular piece of machinery that threatened their livelihoods. I've no idea whether their stance was beneficial to society at large, but calling it anti-progress is a stretch, unless one thinks progress and technology are synonymous, inextricable and very simple. ("Why do we keep writing sad stories about the West African slave trade, when we could be writing fabulous tales about fast ships and cotton gins!")

We need fewer dystopias and more Star Trek, laments Solana. And indeed Star Trek is one ofour most powerfully positive, and flat-out powerful, sci-fi stories. But what makes it so inspiring, apart from the transcendent fun of a good adventure smartly told, isn't holodecks or transporters or photon engines. It's the vision of an egalitarian, multiethnic and muscular democracy, in which great power is wedded to humility and generosity. As for the technology, the Klingons and Borg and other bad guys have it, too.

Image: Enokson/Flickr

Thoughts on Taxidermy, Fashion & Bighorn Sheep by Brandon

Seen on the G train: A bookish young hipster bringing home the taxidermied head of a bighorn ram.

As a kid I saw bighorn sheep several times, though I'm not sure whether the memories are my own or appropriated clips from Marty Stouffer's Wild America. Probably both. Sure-footed and wary, deep-chested rams colliding with an impact that should crack the mountain.

Recent lines from the New York Times: Two interior designers live in a 2,000-square-foot TriBeCa loft featuring "a stuffed baby seal in a glass-encased seascape diorama … and many other taxidermied creatures, including a wallaby, a hawk with a rabbit in its talons and an enormous lion’s paw, claws fearsomely intact."

Less recent lines: So-and-so, directors of the play 69°S., in which white-parka-clad puppeteers on stilts recreate the Antarctic ordeal of Ernest Shackleton's icebound crew, are "the kind of theatrical couple who collect old taxidermy."

It's easy to envision. The mounted deer head, or even a mountain goat; fox on the floor, weasel on a table, beside some early-industrial instrumentation of indeterminate purpose and terrariums made from laboratory glassware.

Maybe so-and-so aren't like this. Maybe they deviate from type. The point is that there is a type, a predictable bohemian aesthetic, a kind of. (One that, should I sound too superior, I happen to share, at least somewhat. Not being able to afford large-animal taxidermy until it falls from fashion and lands in eBay, naturalist prints take their place. A dozen or so. Including one of a bighorn, natch.)

Fashion alters and cheapens what it consumes. If you're not careful, you lose what you buy, especially when fashion and personal taste -- identity -- converge for a time in agreement. When cultural waves recede, they cause erosion. Awareness is a seawall.

There are at least two distinct currents to this mainstreaming of naturalia. Label one the Nineteenth Century Explorer: Spiced with steampunk, evoking an age of mannered discovery, gentleman adventurers launching expeditions and returning with tales to delight drawing-room crowds. A spirit of mechanical marvels and curiosity cabinets, maps drawn well but incompletely, of biological ephemera and naturalists' drawings.

Where does it come from? A rejection of overt consumerism, possibly, inasmuch as natural history seems intrinsically less commodifiable and more authentic than other subjects.

A necessary thrift amidst a stagnant economy and fears of collapse; pressed flowers and folios taken from library discards are, in their non-boutique varieties, reasonably priced.

A psychic escape from the pervasive sense that no space on our map remains blank, that civilization has filled its container and is pushing back inwards. A need for nature in denaturalized lives.

Or maybe the meaning is not so dark. Maybe naturalia frames emerging appreciations of urban and suburban ecologies, or a sense of new, as-yet-unfilled maps arising in digital and social space, freed from old topographies. Maybe it's nothing more complicated than an appreciation of beauty.

Maybe it's all these things.

The second of naturalia's currents is easier to decipher. Hipster rustic, a reclamation of 19th and early-to-mid 20th century white Americana as a rich and authentic source of culture. Then as now, times were hard; people were tough, self-reliant, frugal; naturalia of a piece with the lumberjack henleys and Red Wing boots and engineer jackets.

The fashion industry, as frivolous a professional class as exists, needed for the last several years to clothe themselves in utility. Once that might have seemed like co-option, revolutions drained of power through branding, but it felt more like guilt. If you're going to blow $300 on impulse with unemployment at 10 percent, it should be made of waxed canvas. Go Forth, advises Levi's.

The economy's better now, of course, so fashion has moved on to chillwave hiker. The art school kids walking to class late in winter look like they're off to climb Mt. Rainier in the early seventies. The Chelsea boys look like they've come back and changed for dinner. This summer they'll go on day trips to Yosemite.

Animals are a part of all this, for explorers and hikers alike, but as setting. A sign, a signifier, a t-shirt drawing of a deer based on an image found in the first page of Google's image search. And I can't shake the feeling that naturalia debases nature, turns animals into objects, renders our beautiful, extraordinary living world and its inhabitants as aesthetic commodities with no more or less meaning than paisley or a bright colorway. It's life as accessory.

That pleasant young man on the G train.* A bighorn's head, severed from any sense of its heaving flanks and liquid eyes, its meaning as a species or experience as an individual. It is signage.

I give my gum to the rats and whistle at the mockingbirds.

* Of course, for all I know his dad took him to see bighorn sheep when he was young, and he studies them in graduate school and always dreamed of having one's head and is himself named Ram. Et cetera.

Good-Bye and Thank You, Mr. Bradbury by Brandon

"Well, what do you make of it?"

A small boy, stunned by the circus-poster effect of the old man's attire, blinked, in need of nudging. The old man nudged:

"My shirt, boy! What do you see!?"

"Horses!" the child blurted, at last. "Dancing horses!"

"Bravo!" The doctor beamed, patted him, and strode on. "And you, sir?"

A young man, quite taken with the forthrightness of this invader from some summer world, said:

"Why … clouds, of course."

"Cumulus or nimbus?"

"Er … not storm clouds, no, no. Fleecy, sheep clouds."

"Well done!"

The psychiatrist plunged on.


"Surfers!" A teen-age girl stared. "They're the waves, big ones. Surfboards. Super!"

"And so it went, on down the length of the bus and as the great man progressed a few scraps and titters of laughter sprang up, then, grown infectious, turned to roars of hilarity. By now a dozen passengers had heard the first repsonses and so fell in with the game. This woman saw skyscrapers! The doctor scowled at her suspiciously. The doctor winked. That man saw crossword puzzles. The doctor shook his hand. This child found zebras all optical illusion on an African wild. The doctor slapped the animals and made them jump! This old woman saw vague Adams and misty Eves being driven from half-seen Gardens. The doctor scooched in on the seat with her awhile; they talked in fierce whispered elations, then up he jumped and forged on. Had the old woman seen an eviction? This young one saw the couple invited back in!

Dogs, lightnings, cats, cars, mushroom clouds, man-eating tiger lilies!

Each person, each response, brought greater outcries. We found ourselves all laughing together. This fine old man was a happening of nature, a caprice, God's rambunctious will, sewing all our separateness up in one.

Elephants! Elevators! Alarums! Dooms!

When first he had bounded aboard we had wanted naught of each other. But now like an immense snowfall which we must gossip on or an electrical failure that blacked out two million homes and so thrown us all together in communal chat, laugh, guffaw, we felt the tears clean up our souls even as they cleaned down our cheeks.

Each answer seemed funnier than the previous, and no one shouted louder his great torments of laughter than this grand tall and marvelous physician who asked for, got, and cured us of our hairballs on the spot. Whales. Kelp. Grass meadows. Lost cities. Beauteous women. He paused. He wheeled. He sat. He rose. He flapped his wildly colored shirt, until at last he towered before me and said:

"Sir, what do you find?"

"Why, Dr. Brokaw, of course!"

— Ray Bradbury, "The Man in the Rorschach Shirt"

Photo: Svennevenn/Flickr

The Other Seasons by Brandon


Even though winter isn't yet over in Maine, spring has signaled its arrival. Evenings are brighter; sparrows are flocking; here and there a warm breeze surprises the cold. But before spring fully arrives comes a period of thaws and rain known locally, for self-evident reasons, as mud season. And then, after spring but before true summer, comes blackfly season, when the cost of a pleasant evening is a ring of itching bites at your sockline.

Thinking on this got me wondering about what other local, vernacular seasons existed, marking life's cycles in richer detail than the standard four seasons. I put a call out on Twitter; this is what it returned, arranged roughly from the present.

California is now more than halfway through mudslide season, which goes hand-in-hand with flood season. In upstate New York, it's partway through pothole season, which will last until the end of spring. On the Hudson, spring brings shadbush season; those bushes bloom in time with shad returning from the sea. In New York City, where city-planted street trees are wind-pollinated, it's allergy season, and fiercely so. In Alaska, it's breakup. Over the course of several weeks, seven months of snow melts in the day and refreezes each night.

From spring until next winter in the midwest it's construction season. In the Pacific northwest, it's still grey season, alternately known as rainy season, which lasts year-round, minus summer. (In Texas, there's almost summer and gone summer.) Summer in Arizona is also monsoon season, and well into Nova Scotia's summer comes mosquito season.

Summer is tourist season in Maine, followed by blueberry season; blackflies are forgotten, but in Arizona it's whitefly season. In Washington it's drought season. Bermuda Longtail season marks the start of college in Bermuda. Around this time fire season begins in California and will last through Christmas, perhaps longer.

In Vermont, after the leaves fall but before it snows, is stick season. With any luck, there will be an Indian summer. Alaska's winter is presaged by freezeup. The arrival of northerners in Arizona is the beginning of snowbird season, ending with their April departure.

In California, it's always earthquake season.

Image: Mud season in full effect, by Dwight Sipier.

Many thanks to @TheFebrileMuse @electriclinds @Grathio @xDD0Sx @ginthegin @Wildlife_of_NYC @rutterkinuk @gospark @Sherry111 @brookgarden @_ami_d @aworldgoesnova @digitaldraco @hectocotyli @WNYPager @cherylhc @NYCWW  @wood757 @little_panther @maugui @vandergoog @akscubaduck @socctty @knotanes @thankascientist @reverendbink @twnstar2 @Grathio @reverendbink @tv @Tiny_Ninja @bfwriter @broseph_P @MauriceSt @daveguy @Earllaks @smpa

Why the WikiLeaks Address Won't Be Found Here by Brandon

In calling on citizens to Tweet the digital address of WikiLeaks, civil liberties activist John Perry Barlow was right to declare that an infowar is on, and online citizens its soldiers. But the WikiLeaks army is not one I will join.

Many people I respect, including my Editor in Chief Evan Hansen, want WikiLeaks to receive the First Amendment freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution to the press. Like any freedom, however, freedom of the press inevitably conflicts with other values, and has never been absolute. It exists only to the extent that people and institutions respect it, and is shaped by ongoing negotiations between principle, consequence and expedience.

In a string of landmark Supreme Court decisions on press freedom -- New York Times Co. v. United States, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., Near v. Minnesota, Food Lion v. Capital Cities, Nebraska Press Assn. v. Stuart -- a common theme emerges: The press can legitimately justify claims to free speech, even when they intrude on claims of national security or due processs or privacy, because of its own care in excercising those freedoms.

Sometimes the Court -- Supreme, or that of public opinion -- upholds them. Sometimes it curtails them. But even curtailments are narrow, and press freedom can be defended in good faith against powerful, often legitimate criticisms because the press acts carefully, with thoughtfulness appropriate to the implications of their freedom. The Pentagon Papers, to use a popular example, were published only after exhaustive editorial reflection, balancing potential harm against potential good.

With freedom comes reponsibility. The New York Times and Washington Post fulfilled their end of the bargain. Against executive and military pressure, the Supreme Court upheld the speech of grown-ups. Julian Assange's intentions are noble and his courage inspiring; should he be charged with crime by the United States, I hope he walks away free or escapes from jail. But to receive the protections of a free press, he must accept the responsibilities of a free press. He has not.

Instead he's avoided them. Many of the latest WikiLeaks documents benefit the public, or could, and many could result in great personal harm; rather than weighing the consequences, document by document, he released them all, and absolved himself of any further duty or obligation -- of any practical conscience -- by invoking his own ideological absolute good, transparency. The ends justified the means.

Much about WikiLeaks is right. But so long as its operators refuse the moral duties incumbent upon a free press, it can't expect to be free.

Image: The New York Times on Sunday, June 13, 1971, via PBS.

Note: I subsequently wrote a gallery for on science- and environment-related leaks from the diplomat document release, which felt more than a little hypocritical. On the other hand, since the information is out there for anyone to see, shouldn't it be covered. My final answer to this dilemma was to donate the money I received to Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom organization that's condemned Assange's irresponsibility but fought to keep WikiLeaks online. That seems just about right.

An iPad Critique by Brandon

Several days ago a friend asked what I thought of my iPad. I didn't answer right away, as we were communicating via instant message, and typing more than a few words on said device is a miserable process; and more than a few words are needed. The iPad is a marvelous device — but that only makes its flaws more profound. It's also a political object, an embodiment of two deep and opposed forces in Apple's corporate soul: toolmaker and marketer.

The friend was only the third person to whom I'd even admitted iPad ownership. I'm embarrassed, ashamed even, that in the middle of the Great Recession I plunked down $499 on a new toy — and did so hours after it went on sale, along with thousands of other fanboys, having spent years reading and anticipating every dribbled rumor of an Apple tablet. There was something pathetic about this, symptomatic of a certain impoverishment of the spirit, a feeling only heightened by Apple's smugly solicitous promotional campaign, which ascribed to the iPad the portentousness of Stonehenge and the usefulness of penicillin.

Yet it wasn't just toy lust. I'd anticipated the iPad because I depend for my livelihood on computer tools, and there's no finer maker of consumer tools than Apple. Foremost among these is the OS X operating system, a work of genius that left Windows behind by a full decade and turned my computer into a cognitive extension of myself, making possible a workflow that I couldn't sustain on a traditional Windows machine. Learning my job hasn't just involved refinements in writing and reporting, but in my use of computers. And a tablet-form computer would be quite useful: while traveling or taking trips in the city, I'd be able to do light work — requiring email, text documents, and web browsing, with just a few windows open rather than dozens — without carrying (and losing or damaging) my laptop. I could use it lying down, something that's just not pleasant on a laptop, and for reading long articles and perhaps books — again, unpleasant on a laptop.

Existing netbooks and handhelds are limited by clumsy software and physical form, and ebook readers useless for anything else. The iPad would fit this odd niche between laptop and handheld, utility and convenience. It would be an everyday device, which brings us to the fantastic physicality of the machine. Criticisms that it's a super-sized iPod Touch are misguided. As with a candle and a lantern, a difference of degree is also one of kind. The screen is large enough to interact easily with any single application; its resolution verges on print-like; the body itself fits comfortably in hand or on a reclining chest, almost like a book. These physical traits, along with the crisp responsiveness of applications and smooth transitions between them, are not eye candy. They're necessary interface elements, maintaining a continuity of experience that allows a tool to be what Heidegger called ready-to-hand, and scientists have since validated: the literal fusion of tool with self, its subjective experience as an extension of mind-body. While watching a video or reading a book or surfing the web, the iPad attains this.

Such success, however, makes the iPad's failures more frustrating. I wrote the original draft of this essay on a train, precisely the sort of situation for which I'd wanted an iPad; but I wrote with pen and paper, as I'd forgotten my wireless keyboard, and typing on the iPad  is an utterly miserable exercise. The on-screen keyboard, which appears when text needs to be entered and claustrophobically covers the screen's bottom half, are hypersensitive and awkwardly arranged — too far apart for hunt-and-peck, too close to type naturally. Unless one is content to type very slowly, it's difficult not to make constant errors. All punctuation other than a period, comma, question mark and exclamation point require an extra keystroke that activates a secondary keyboard screen, making them clumsy to use and further slowing typing. As a result, a keyboard-less iPad is best suited for short, code-style text messaging phrases. For anything more, it hobbles writing and therefore thinking.

Of course this is fixed by a keyboard, but it shouldn't be a problem at all. The handwriting recognition software Apple developed more than ten years ago for the Newton handheld is still the industry's most sophisticated, and the iPad is its ideal device. The absence of handwriting input defies explanation, except as a vehicle for selling keyboards or an active discouragement of writing.

Less immediately obvious but just as frustrating is the lack of a file management system. The desktop metaphor for information management has become so ubiquitous that it's easy to take for granted, and to forget how intuitive it is. The desktop metaphor also suffers from connotations of stodginess, as if categorization by arrangement had not been refined since the Stone Age, but rather invented fifty years ago by IBM bean counters. Various design theorists, including Apple, have talked of replacing the desktop metaphor. One envisioned replacement gathers all of a person's files into a single, undifferentiated pool that's accessed through "smart" searches of keywords and tags. However, unless searches are consistent and omission-free — which is not the case in OS X, where Apple implemented elements of this system* — then important information is omitted and forgotten.

Sorting by hand isn't foolproof, but it's reliable, and the process is very useful. Organizing files isn't simply a chore, but a way of coming to know and understand and ultimately control information.

On the iPad, Apple has fulfilled its desktop-destroying dream. As with OS X, smart search aspects of the infopool metaphor are used, but in tandem with program-specific file arrangement. For example, there's no way to interact with the document I'm now typing — having remembered my keyboard on a second train trip — except to access the file in the program that created it. This approach works fine in certain instances — having music and podcasts accessible only through iTunes makes sense, as I use only iTunes to play them — but for others is inadequate. Articles I write for work can involve dozens of files: interview transcripts, audio files, journal articles, web pages, notes. On the iPad, they're scattered between programs, which ultimately act as gatekeepers to my own files.

Third-party programs do provide some basic and necessary file management, but they're rudimentary compared to OS X's Finder. Moreover, there's no simple way of synchronizing folders or files between the iPad and another computer. Individual programs may do this, but — for example — my book project folder and its files can't be conveniently moved, nor can the half-dozen text files that I use every day and are crucial to my workflow. This further hobbles the iPad's use as a work device, but it's of a piece with other operating system shortcomings. Except for a few Apple programs, it's impossible to have two applications running at once; it's not at all possible to have two windows open on the same screen.

Apple has designed a wonderful tool, and shackled it. Implicit in the operating system is pressure to use the iPad not for construction or creation, but consumption — in particular,  consuming content that Apple sells, having positioned itself as a purveyor of digital music, movies, books and applications. This would be fine if Apple allowed the operating system to be substantively modified, but that's forbidden, a policy that made sense for the iPhone but here is controlling and greedy.

For years, Apple has promoted itself with heavy-handed lifestyle marketing, consultant-based hipsterism and calculated coolness, but the computers themselves were distinct from all that. Perhaps Apple was different then; perhaps citizens had different expectations for their computers. Whatever the case, marketers now seem to have the upper hand. Let's hope it doesn't stay that way.

Image: Via Jamais Cascio

* In tandem with a desktop metaphor, smart searches and folders in OS X can be tremendously useful. With one keystroke, my computer can call up all files altered in the last week, arranged chronologically — a very handy trick. And I can't imagine not having Spotlight, the instantaneous search tool.

Fleabane by Brandon

About two years ago, I started a list on Wordie of fine-sounding words. When I last went to add a word, however, the update function was disabled. I'd probably logged in so infrequently that a defunct-account subroutine kicked in, though I prefer to think of dust gathering on the computers, and a repairman's sneeze sending words sparkling into the air like motes in a sunbeam.

At any rate, it's time to plant a new (and hopefully better-tended) list, and to harvest the old. The last intended entry was the name of a flower I photographed on the morning the old list clunked, then looked up. A short-lived perennial member of the Aster plant family, it flowers between May and July, and is formally known as Erigeron philadelphicus. It's also called fleabane.

Ishkabibble. Not in the dictionary; a slang term meaning "(as if) I should worry!" or "who cares?" that emerged in the United States in the early 20th century. Etymology unknown.

Saxifrage. Any of a genus (Saxifraga of the family Saxifragaceae) of chiefly perennial herbs with showy pentamerous flowers and often with basal tufted leaves. Date: 14th century. Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin saxifraga, from Latin, feminine of saxifragus breaking rocks, from saxum rock + frangere to break.

Hecatomb. An ancient Greek and Roman sacrifice of 100 oxen or cattle; the sacrifice or slaughter of many victims. Date: circa 1592. Etymology: Latin hecatombe, from Greek hekatombē, from hekaton hundred + -bē; akin to Greek bous cow.

Prairie. Land in or predominantly in grass; a tract of grassland. Date: circa 1682. Etymology: French, from Old French praierie, from Vulgar Latin *prataria, from Latin pratum meadow.

Mycorrhiza. The symbiotic association of the mycelium of a fungus with the roots of a seed plant. Date: 1895. Etymology: New Latin, from myc- + Greek rhiza root.

Abstruse. Difficult to comprehend. Date: 1599. Etymology: Latin abstrusus, from past participle of abstrudere to conceal, from abs-, ab- + trudere to push.

Eleemosynary. Of, relating to, or supported by charity. Date: circa 1616. Etymology: Medieval Latin eleemosynarius, from Late Latin eleemosyna alms.

Ocarina. A simple wind instrument typically having an oval body with finger holes and a projecting mouthpiece. Date: 1877. Etymology: Italian, from Italian dial., diminutive of oca goose, from Late Latin auca, ultimately from Latin avis bird.

Amalgam. An alloy of mercury with another metal that is solid or liquid at room temperature according to the proportion of mercury present and is used especially in making tooth cements; a mixture of different elements. Date: 15th century. Etymology: Middle English amalgame, from Middle French, from Medieval Latin amalgama.

Mélange. A mixture often of incongruous elements. Date: 1653. Etymology: French, from Middle French, from mesler, meler to mix.

Axiomatic. Taken for granted, self-evident; based on or involving an axiom or system of axioms. Date: 1797. Etymology: Middle Greek axiōmatikos, from Greek, honorable, from axiōmat-, axiōma.

Arable. Fit for or used for the growing of crops. Date: 15th century. Etymology: Anglo-French or Latin; Anglo-French, from Latin arabilis, from arare to plow; akin to Old English erian to plow, Greek aroun.

Cash-cropping. (Not in the dictionary; from memory.) The practice of raising crops for sale, rather than as livestock feed.

Elohim. God — used especially in the Hebrew Bible. Date: 1617. Etymology: Hebrew ĕlōhīm.

Parabola. A plane curve generated by a point moving so that its distance from a fixed point is equal to its distance from a fixed line; something bowl-shaped (as an antenna or microphone reflector). Date: 1579. Etymology: New Latin, from Greek parabolē, literally, comparison.

Globophobia. (Not in the dictionary; from memory.) Fear of balloons.

Ferrous. Of, relating to, or containing iron; being or containing divalent iron. Date: 1851. Etymology: New Latin ferrosus, from Latin ferrum.

Crepuscular. Of, relating to, or resembling twilight; occurring or active during twilight. Date: 1668. Etymology: Latin crepusculum, from creper dusky

Twilight. The light from the sky between full night and sunrise or between sunset and full night produced by diffusion of sunlight through the atmosphere and its dust; an intermediate state that is not clearly defined. Date: 15th century. Etymology: Proto-Indo-European dwo + Proto-Indo-European leuk bright, white light.

Parsimonious. Exhibiting or marked by parsimony; frugal to the point of stinginess. Date: 1598. Etymology: Middle English parcimony, from Latin parsimonia, from parsus, past participle of parcere to spare.

Biophony. (Not in dictionary; from memory). The totality of sounds made by non-human animals in a given environment.

Alpenglow. A reddish glow seen near sunset or sunrise on the summits of mountains. Date: 1871. Etymology: part translation of German Alpenglühen, from Alpen Alps + Glühen glow.

Piebald. Composed of incongruous parts; of different colors, especially spotted or blotched with black and white. Date: 1589.

And because deadlines are pressing, the rest of the words, in one fell swoop: sanguine, tourmaline, paprika, cygnet, anise, vicissitude, Valkyrie, hangers-on, vermilion, pumpernickel, crystalline, chrysoberyl.

Wrong Numbers by Brandon

The phone rang yesterday afternoon. I picked it up.

"Hi, is this Chicky's Run?" asked the caller. She had a jaunty voice with a hint of country drawl.

"I'm sorry, you've got the wrong number," I said.

"Oh. Sorry about that!" she said brightly.

"No problem," I said. "Have a good one."

"You too!"

Afterwards, I found myself thinking that the call had been, in some odd way  I couldn't really articulate to myself, rather pleasant. It had something to do with its unexpectedness, with the sense of flower-potted window opening for a moment into another person's world, and being closed with a polite wave; a small, self-contained and very human moment.

Each day I'm involved in about a dozen business-related calls. In every one, I'm asking someone for something, or being asked. The conversations might be enjoyable, they might even be a talk between friends, but there's a pretext. The Chicky's Run mixup was refreshingly free.

And as I thought about it, I realized that I couldn't remember my last wrong number conversation. When I misdial, I end up in someone's voicemail, and hang up quickly. I assume the reverse is true.  No doubt people make more calls than ever; but in an age of cell phones, Skype and incoming caller ID, this particular interaction seems to have vanished.

Whether it says anything about our historical moment that a wrong number now seems a comparatively meaningful interaction, I don't know. But I kind of miss them.

Image: Dennis Markham

The Language of Horses by Brandon

In a few slender leg bones and fragments of milk-stained pottery, archaeologists recently found evidence of one of the more important developments in human history: the domestication of horses.

Unearthed from a windswept plain in Kazakhstan, the remains were about 5500 years old, and suggested that a nomadic people now called the Botai had learned to ride a creature that had captured mankind's imagination thousands of years earlier.

Among the first literal depictions of just about anything were pictures of horses, drawn on cave walls thousands of years before other Central Asian nomads thundered out of the steppes and across history.

"Our awe in their presence," wrote John Jeremiah Sullivan in Horseman, Pass By , "is as old as anything we can call ours."

Little wonder, then, that between primal fascination, the success of mounted warriors  and the appreciation of farmers, our language should contain such a rich equine vocabulary.

To describe age and sex, there are males and stallions; colts, foals and fillies; mustangs and broncos and greenbrokes and geldings. They come in roan and palomino coats, piebald and dapple, chestnut or dun, medicine hat and pinto and war shield. They can gallop and trot, canter, lope, forge; have fetlocks and forelocks, hocks and coffin bones, gaskins and pasterns; fall victim to azoturia and spavin, fistulous or mutton withers, lockjaw, moon-blindness.

Such wonderful words, the linguistic equivalent of old farm tools whose purpose eludes modern eyes, but are obviously well-made. Many words derived from humanity's long experience from the natural world possess this quality. Take the words recently removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary: beaver, otter, magpie and minnow; dandelion and ivy; willow, sycamore and acorn; liquorice and marzipan; saint, devil, dwarf and goblin.

In their place we get blog, MP3, voicemail, database, chatroom, celebrity, biodegradable, block graph. The dictionary's publishers explain that children are more likely to encounter these words in everyday life. With some exceptions, they're almost certainly right. Still, I can't help hoping that a shipment of Oxford Junior Dictionaries someday sinks in the horse latitudes .

Image: Lascaux cave painting detail, from Wikipedia.