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Trivia

All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2011 Evan Morris. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

Any typos found are yours to keep.

And remember, kids,
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi

 

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Note

I noticed yesterday (3/25) that parts of this site were not working properly (including the administrative interface). After some Googling and a bit of imagination, I realized that somewhere out there somebody had updated PHP (don’t ask) to be less tolerant of the coding errors riddling the ancient version of Word Press I was using, causing the poor thing to sputter and fail. Da noive of some people.

So I spent today backing up and installing the new version of Word Press (4.1.1), which is tons of fun when you can’t really see what you’re doing. Anyway, the site now works. Sort of. Unfortunately, some of the plugins I use to run the site are too old to work with this new version (Catch 22), and I haven’t yet found replacements.

Long story short, the “Subscriber Content” part of the site is not working at all. I am trying to fix it, but at the moment I’m stymied. Please stay tuned.

January 2015

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi

readme:

Welcome to January, land of enchantment, and by “enchantment,” I mean, of course, frozen mud.

So, did everyone have a nice Getstuffmas? Santa brought us a broken furnace. It didn’t actually break all at once, but started to die a few days earlier, just not coming on until it was way colder in here than the setting on the thermostat. Then it wouldn’t stay on quite long enough to get back up to “warm.” It took us a while to catch on that our own furnace was gaslighting us. Lather, rinse, repeat, and pretty soon it was 12/25 and freaking freezing in here. I hate holidays. Oddly enough, the guy who came to repair it was insanely good at his job and had it humming away in about 20 minutes. At $10 and change per minute. Oh well.

It dawned on me a few days ago that this year, 2015, marks the twentieth anniversary of this website, a fact that I find simultaneously impressive and deeply disorienting. There aren’t a whole lot of twenty-year old websites still around, and the web was a very different place in 1995; I actually had to go buy a couple of books on Unix and HTML to figure out how to get the site up and running. I wrote the first version of the site in Notepad.

A few months later I wrote one of the first general purpose mass-audience internet books, called The Book Lover’s Guide to the Internet (Random House), which was excerpted in the Washington Post and was a huge success, except it made me next to no money for some reason. Probably because my idiot publisher refused to believe it was selling as fast as it was and never printed enough copies, so it was constantly out of stock in bookstores. A couple of years later (1998), I revised the whole book from scratch for next to no money because I was naive and had a lousy agent. It’s still available on Amazon, but please don’t buy it, because it’s about twenty years out of date.

That book did fulfill one of every author’s primo fantasies for me: I got to hang out in a busy bookstore a few days before Christmas (Shakespeare & Co. on the Upper West Side of NYC, in this case) and see dozens of people snatch up and buy multiple copies of my book. It was very cool, but also actually kinda creepy. Hard to explain.

Speaking of books about the internet, I recently read Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, which is very good. It’s much more than just another screed bemoaning the deleterious effects of the net; in many respects it’s not about the net at all, but the modern drive to seek solutions to things which may not, in fact, actually be problems at all. It’s a fascinating and very well-written book. Here is a somewhat long but very interesting interview with Morozov.

Elsewhere in the news, we sat down and watched Life Itself, the bio-pic about Roger Ebert, which I anticipated liking, because I liked Roger Ebert (although he liked a lot of absolute junk). Anyway, the more time passes after seeing the film, the more it strikes me as deeply unsatisfactory, a weirdly lumpy and half-baked effort in desperate need of a competent editor.

On the other hand, I was fully prepared to dislike Finding Vivian Maier because the thought of someone unearthing an artist’s work after the artist’s death and apparently profiting from it is inherently repulsive. But the film is absolutely fascinating, very well done, and shows a real commitment on the part of John Maloof, who bought several boxes of her negatives at an auction a few years ago, to both popularize her work and investigate her life story. I’ve always been a fan of street photographers like Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Gary Winogrand, etc., and Vivian Maier‘s work is at least at their level. She was a genuine genius with an extraordinary eye. She was also a deeply strange and troubled person, a paranoid hoarder with a definite “dark side.” Anyway, it’s a great film. Unfortunately Vivian Maier’s work may soon be withdrawn from public view due to a legal wrangle, which would be very sad.

I just noticed that Netflix is now pushing The Interview at me. I’m gonna pass and stick to P.G. Wodehouse. Meanwhile, please consider subscribing or otherwise contributing to life here at Churchmouse Abbey, for we are as skint as our namesake.

And now, on with the show…

Skeleton key

Warning: Key will not work if holder is being pursued by zombies.

Dear Word Detective: The term “skeleton key” has always been a puzzle to me. Some sources suggest the shape of the skeleton key is suggestive of the shape of a skeleton. I find this unpersuasive. Do you have a better explanation for this term? By the way, is the surname Skelton related in any way to “skeleton”? — Jim Brown.

Yeah, right. Two can play that game. By the way, I have my nomination for the most vexing phrase in the English language: “By the way.” It serves the same purpose as Columbo’s “Just one more thing.” You think you’re off the hook, but then, as in the Godfather, they pull you back in. So last things first: the surname Skelton (probably best known in the US through the comedian Red Skelton) has no connection to “skeleton.” According to the most credible explanation I’ve found, “Skelton” was originally the name of villages in northern England, probably drawn from the Old English “scylf,” meaning an elevated area of land (related to “shelf”), plus “tun,” a settlement. The village name eventually became a “locational” surname for people from the area.

“Skeleton key” will probably be unfamiliar to anyone under about 40, but when I was a kid it was a term spoken with near-reverence. A skeleton key, at least in the mythology of 10-year old boys, was a key that could unlock any door (and thus often featured in low-budget horror and mystery films). There was some truth to the tale, because many houses (including the one I grew up in) had lever tumbler locks on the doors that were operated with “bitted” keys. Such “old-fashioned” keys consisted of a long stem with a sort of metal “flag” at the end into which were cut slots, leaving “bits,” or tines, in a pattern that matched the pattern of tumblers in the lock. If the bits didn’t match the tumblers, the key didn’t work. A “skeleton key,” however, usually had very wide spaces and very narrow bits, so with a little wiggling, a lock could often be opened with a generic “skeleton” key. Though “skeleton keys” in this “bitted key” sense are long obsolete, the term is still used for “passkeys” for more advanced locks, and even the administrative electronic card keys used in hotels, etc.

“Skeleton” as a noun means, of course, the bony framework or structure of an animal’s body, and comes from the Greek “skeleton soma,” meaning “dried-up body” (“skeleton” being from “skellein,” to dry up”). Since the 17th century, “skeleton” has also been used to mean the basic, unadorned framework of something (“The bare bones, the very Skeleton of a Monarchie.” 1647), as well as a remnant of something, such as an army unit, too small to be effective (“Having on board part of the skeleton of the 16th regiment of foot, … consisting of 10 officers, and 62 rank and file.” 1812).

“Skeleton key” employs that “basic framework” sense of the term, and is notable in that it’s one of only a few times when something being a “skeleton” is advantageous. It’s the very simplicity of the skeleton key with its sparse “bits” that, with luck and a bit of jiggling, unlocks the door to the haunted house.