Look at the Sky

Seriously, look up once in a while. The sky can tell you all about what the weather is doing, or even WILL do, later that day or tomorrow. Here’s some tips!

Clear Blue Sky (No Haze or Clouds)

Is really rare in Louisville, KY. We swelter in a humid continental climate, on a large river. Enjoy this nice picture of a cloudless desert landscape, instead.

A teddy bear cholla patch. And now you have a hint at an upcoming post!

By Ciar (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A totally clear sky like this means that there’s so little moisture in the atmosphere that clouds can’t form. It probably won’t rain for a while, since water vapor has to move in before that can happen.

 

Cirrus Clouds

Indicate that a mass of moist air is moving back in, and rain or snow might be possible soon.

Wispy thin cirrus clouds.

By Ron Clausen – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61703893

Remember: “Mare’s tails and mackerel scales mean rain in three days.”

 

Haze

City haze on main street, Louisville, KY.

There we go. That’s weather we’re all familiar with.

When it’s hazy, it means that there’s a layer of warmer air trapping air pollution and humidity close to the ground. If this inversion is strong, it will prevent clouds from developing. If clouds manage to punch through it, storms could be strong. If you see haze, it probably won’t rain, but if it does, it will storm.

 

Fair Weather Cumulus

Fair weather cumulus clouds - fluffy and flattened, as if confined by invisible panes of glass on top and bottom.

By Nicholas A. Tonelli from Pennsylvania, USA (Prairie Walk (2)) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

These clouds in an otherwise clear sky mean that there’s convection going on, and enough water vapor in the air to form clouds. However, the air pressure is too high, or the convection too weak to really build up. If you see these early in the morning, it might rain later, but if they’re about in the afternoon, it’s going to continue to be nice for a while.

 

Cumulus Congestus

And now the clouds are starting to pile up.

Big, intimidating cumulus congestus clouds, towering above the trees.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=101225

If you see these before noon, someone’s in for a soggy evening.

 

Thunderstorm (Cumulonimbus)

A big thunderstorm cloud with a characteristic flat anvil-like top.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=100357

A column of convection so strong that it piles up high enough to splash flat against into layer of hot stable air of the stratosphere is certainly a thunderstorm. Always be aware of clouds like this with flat “anvil” tops: they’re the towering monsters of the sky, multiple times bigger than other cumulus clouds, and capable of producing severe weather like hail, tornadoes, and flooding.

And now you know some of what the sky can tell you about the upcoming weather. Keep an eye out, and it might just come in handy!

 

Weird and Rare Clouds

Although the following clouds are unusual or rare where we live, they are really cool, and that’s worth something by itself.

 

Fallstreak Hole

Fallstreak hole in a cloud with ice crystals raining out.

By Pfranson – Taken by Paul Franson in Warr Acres, Oklahoma with a Casio EZ-Z1050 Previously published: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pfranson365/4238892215/, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27741283

This can happen when clouds made of water vapor are just on the point of freezing into ice crystals. When some of the water vapor freezes and clumps together, it snows out of the cloud layer, leaving a hole in the cloud.

 

Lenticular Clouds

When air pressure drops abruptly (as when wind flows around mountains), layered, lens-shaped clouds like these can form.

Lenticular clouds looking like a stack of pancakes over a mountain range.

By Alpsdake – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16399555

 

Roll Clouds

Are clouds that occur when a wave propagates in otherwise still air on the verge of being able to make clouds. The low-pressure pocket travels through the air, made visible as a cloud that seems to slowly roll through the air. Gliders and birds can “surf” the atmospheric wave for long distances. There’s a very reliable roll cloud called the Morning Glory that propagates on the Gulf of Carpentaria in Australia. No pictures, because pictures really don’t do it justice.

Squeeze the Source!

After all those science-y posts, here’s a return to history, with the very first ever Squeeze the Source challenge!

Last time we did history, the topic was the amazing history of high-heeled shoes. You can be a historian too, if you learn how to squeeze information out of sources. Pretty much everything around you, past and present, has a lot to say about who made it and why, even to the point of throwing light on the society and technology of the world they were made in.

Since squeezing sources is a skill, and requires some practice, I’ll show you how it’s done, and then demonstrate with a few sources, before turning you loose on poor, unsuspecting Caravaggio. (Don’t feel bad for him though: his biography reads like a laundry list of every possible crime against public order you could commit in late Renaissance Italy, punctuated by massive amounts of corruption – hey, it was Renaissance Italy, what did you expect? – and artistic brilliance. Besides, he’s been dead for centuries. He won’t mind.)

Cover of the book Caravaggio: a Life Sacred and Profane.

“Troubled Artist” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Getting into constant brawls with street toughs is one of the least ridiculous and drama-filled things in his life. Why, yes, the library has this book. Why do you ask?

How to Squeeze a Source:

  1. You know things too. Don’t forget that.
  2. Unleash your inner four-year-old.
  3. Don’t take anything for granted, or make assumptions.
  4. Ask the blindingly obvious questions.
  5. Answer everything with equally obvious answers.
  6. Follow those obvious answers to their conclusions.
  7. Collect and connect these conclusions to the broader world.

Demonstration: Coconut Cup

A photo of a coconut cup. carved coconut with silver settings.

A Coconut Cup.

What’s this? A coconut cup.

What’s it made of? Coconut shell and silver.

Fancy or Plain? Really fancy. Carved coconut and lots of silver work. Engraved writing. Some serious time investment and skill went into this. Probably specialized artists involved.

So, writing: more about that? In a Latin alphabet, like English, but I can’t read it. Looks like it’s Dutch maybe?

Where was the cup made? Northern Europe.

Any other details? The carving on the coconut shows a woman with scissors, and a sleeping man in her lap, with soldiers standing by. Sampson and Delilah! Clothes look contemporary to the time the cup was made though. I’d guess 1600s ish.

Artists make art because people buy it. Who’s buying fancy coconut cups? Rich people.

What do I know, based on the coconut cup? Northern Europe in the 1600s has specialized carvers and silversmiths – an economy capable of supporting artisans. Coconuts are special and extra fancy to them, for them to bother encrusting one in silver, and going to all that trouble to decorate it. They also got the coconut from somewhere, so they either have trade networks to the tropics, or someone’s very carefully hoarding the precious coconuts that wash up on the beaches. Religion (Sampson and Delilah – they’d have to assume that others would know what the carving is of), wealth, and trade literally on display in this one object. I’m sure if I understood the language, I’d know even more.

And that’s how you squeeze a source. The catch, however, is in the unexpected stuff. I can’t read the language on the cup, and I don’t know why Sampson and Delilah are so important, in this context. I just don’t have enough cultural knowledge of the social world in which this cup belongs.

The most important thing is this: if you get in a plane, and travel to a different place, you find yourself in another culture, and you will be missing some important information to help you understand the world around you. The most fundamental things are up for grabs, as soon as you find yourself operating in a new cultural environment. Here’s the kicker, though: if you had a time machine, and travel to a different time, even if you stay in your own place, you’ll find yourself in a different culture too. There’s things we take for granted that someone from just 100 years ago would find alien. So always go with what the source is telling you, and don’t let your assumptions blind you to what’s right in front of your face.

 

It’s Your Turn!

Cardsharps by Caravaggio. Italian, Circa 1594.

Cardsharps by Caravaggio

Have a good look, ask the questions, and see what you can learn about Caravaggio’s world.

Ask yourself questions like:

What’s going on in this painting? What objects do you see? Anything recognizable? Materials? Behaviors of people? Clothes? What are people doing? What can you tell about each person in the painting? Their interactions? Who would buy this painting? Why? What does this tell you about Caravaggio’s society?

 

Good luck, and happy source squeezing! (By the way, squeezing lots of sources to make some kind of cohesive Ultimate Source Fruit Punch Medley is called historical research. One source is a nifty thing, but lots of sources, all consistent – that’s the basis for a thesis.)

Eclipse Viewing

Get ready for the eclipse on August 21 and don’t fry your eyes!

Sunlight is dangerous, even if you don’t look right at the Sun. Sunglasses exist to protect your eyes from ultraviolet radiation, which can cause permanent damage, and even blindness. People who live in places with a lot of sun bouncing off snow have come up with stylish and effective protective eyewear – and all just to protect the eyes from reflected ambient light off snow and ice. (Snow blindness is effectively a sunburn on your retinas. OUCH.)

man wearing traditional snow goggles made of bone. Stylish!

By Julian Idrobo from Winnipeg, Canada (Inuit Goggles) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

While these snow goggles are stylish, and won’t freeze to your skin in really cold weather, you’ll need different techniques than normal sunglasses to view the Sun.

The sun, producing a Coronal Mass Ejection.

The Sun, our local star, a gravity-driven nuclear fusion reactor. Don’t mess with it.

The reason they say never look at the Sun is that the light that can burn your retinas is invisible to the eye, and also emitted by the corona, which is not blocked during an eclipse. Also, your reflex to close your eyes to protect them from damage is tuned to visible light. So, if you look right at the sun during an eclipse, it would be too dark to trigger the protective reflex to blink, and yet those ultraviolet rays are busy frying your eyeballs. Nice. So: get appropriate viewing glasses.

OR

Make a pinhole projector, and project the image of the sun onto a piece of paper. It’s super easy.

Materials:

A Piece of Heavy Card Stock, or a Cereal Box

Scissors (for cutting the cereal box)

A Push Pin

White Paper

 

Procedure:

Cut the back off a cereal box, or get a piece of card stock. Stab a tiny hole in the middle of the box piece. Go outside in the sunlight with your card stock piece and the piece of white paper. Place the paper on something still and flat, and hold the thin cardboard over it, so that it projects an image of the Sun on the white paper. You can safely look at this image of the sun on the paper all you want. You can even use this to see sun spots, when the sun isn’t being eclipsed. (Yes, studying sun spots like this is a really easy and cool science fair project.)

(And if it’s overcast, you can still watch the eclipse by weather balloon from the edge of space at this link.)

More suggestions for homebrew eclipse viewing devices on NPR’s Skunk Bear YouTube channel.

Happy Eclipse Viewing!

3 of the Coolest Names on Earth

Beyoncé’s Horsefly

Beyonce's horsefly specimen.

By Erick (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Scientific name – Scaptia beyonceae – is an excellent example of how species can be discovered after lurking in archives or museum collections for decades or even centuries. Although it was collected in 1981, this Australian horsefly specimen was discovered in 2012 on closer inspection to be unique enough to warrant its own brand new species, and the researcher decided to honor pop icon Beyoncé with the name of this shiny gold diva among horseflies. After some media buzz, the rare fly is now famous enough to bear her name as a common name as well: Beyoncé’s Horsefly.

 

The Destroying Angel

Destroying Angel mushroom.

Destroying Angel mushroom.

Anything whose name has a “The” before it has got to be pretty boss, and this mushroom has just about the most intimidating name of any living thing – and with good reason. If you’ve ever been told (and you ARE being told right now) to NEVER eat wild mushrooms, the Destroying Angel and its relatives are the reason why. Insidiously, at some stages of growth, they are look-alikes for perfectly edible mushrooms. Even worse, if you eat them, symptoms don’t show up for hours afterwards, and then you might feel better the next day – only to die from liver failure. The only hope is prompt medical treatment, which can involve a liver transplant. Even so, most people poisoned by the Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa) and its relatives die of it. Read these case summaries of a poisoning outbreak in California in 2016. And that’s successful treatment. Yikes. (By the way, if you’re struggling with medical jargon, “cerebral edema and permanent neurological impairment” means “skull filled up with fluid squeezing the brain so hard it caused permanent damage.”) For safety’s sake, leave wild mushrooms alone.

Javan Chevrotain

Javan Chevrotain, or mouse deer, male with fangs.

By Sakurai Midori (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.1 jp (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.1/jp/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

On a much lighter note, this is one of my favorite creatures, purely because its name is so much fun to say. Chevrotain. Shev-ro-tayn. Shev-ro-tayn.  Javan Chevrotain. Sssheeeeevrotayn. It’s the best thing. Chevrotains are also known as mouse-deer, although they’re not mice at all, and are much closer to very small deer, like the size of your cat. None of them have horns or antlers. Oh, and some of them have fangs. Mouse-deer also have some of the best names in general. The Javan Chevrotain’s scientific name is Tragulus javanicus, which sounds like a spell in Harry Potter, but is actual latin. Chevrotains comprise the Family Tragulidae, and are artiodactyl (even-numbered-hooves on each foot) ungulates (mammals with hooves).

The Javan Chevrotain, Tragulus javanicus, an artiodactyl ungulate in the Family Tragulinae. Here’s one browsing in the forest, competing with quail, and at least one junglefowl: the ancestor of chickens. Tiny, fanged jungle deer.

A Picture History of High Heeled Shoes

Everything in our world has a past. Literally everything. Machines, everyday objects, words and languages, feelings, people. Everything.

Hiding in plain sight everywhere are fascinating histories. Today, I’m going to tell you the story of these:

Louboutin shoes. Red sole, black uppers.

Louboutin Shoes
By Arroser (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

But, before we get to the shoes, we’ve got to start with something completely different.

a Belgian horse

MaleneThyssen [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5), via Wikimedia Commons

Huh. This is already headed in some unexpected directions. During Europe’s early adoption of horses as cavalry mounts, people sat on blankets, or right on the horse’s back. The stirrup hadn’t been introduced yet.

Like so:

Marcus Nonius Balbus sitting right on a horse. No stirrups. Or even a blanket.

Marcus Nonius Balbus sitting right on a horse. No stirrups. Or even a blanket. Take a good look.

If you want to shoot a bow from horseback, you need a strong, compact-sized bow (or one that you can swing over the horse’s neck), and a really steady seat on the horse. The stirrup was probably invented by horse-archery cultures in central Asia, and spread like wildfire. As it turns out, having a way to engage your feet in staying on an already panicky and high-strung large animal is a really good idea.

Everybody’s got stirrups.

Mongolian horse archery with stirrups.

Nobody does horse archery like Mongolia goes horse archery. Stirrups FTW. (Pretty much literally.)

But there’s another problem. If Marcus Nonius Balbus falls off his horse, he faceplants in the dirt. If you have stirrups, and nothing to stop your feet from slipping through, this could happen:

Painting of cavalry trooper dragged by a foot caught in the stirrup of his horse.

Giovanni Fattori: Lo Staffato, CA 1880
Dragged and trampled. Ouch.

So, stirrup-using cultures (that didn’t change the shape of the stirrups to a closed-toe design like Japan did) wore boots with heels to minimize the risk of being dragged and trampled to death by a panicking horse. That’s why cowboy boots have heels.

Black cowboy boots. Heels evident.

By Ealdgyth (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So far, then, we have heeled boots = cavalry. Did I mention that horses are really expensive? They’re expensive. They get weird, often fatal health problems for bizarre reasons. They eat a lot, and need lots of grassy pasture. You can’t really shear them for wool, and in Europe, people don’t drink horse milk. They’re pretty much only for transportation. Given how expensive horses are to maintain, horse troops were the elite branch of pre-modern militaries. Cavalry, Cavalier, Chivalry. Heeled boots = cavalry = high status. Eventually, European gentlemen (or any man who wanted to look like one) started wearing heeled boots and shoes and commissioning portraits of themselves in fancy riding gear purely as a statement of status.

Portrait of a man in fancy riding gear with boots.

Willem Heythuijsen by Frans Hals 1634 “I’m just gonna lean my chair back casually so you can appreciate how much I’m in the painting-commissioning horse-owning class.”

So, by this point in the late 1600’s through the 1700’s, men’s fashionable power-shoes had heels.

Women’s fashion had adopted heeled shoes too, as an edgy, fashion-forward touch. (I wanted portraits, so you could get a good look at context, but was too hard to get a good portrait of a woman with her feet visible in normal clothing at this point in history – I could only get a couple of ballet dancers in heeled shoes, and that’s not really a representative occupation. So here’s the shoes themselves.)

Men’s SERIOUS BUSINESS Power Boots:

Nice brocade-faced men's boots with ribbon trim.

Nice brocade-faced men’s boots with white silk ribbon trim.

Women’s fancy heeled shoes:

Women's fancy brocade shoes.

Women’s brocade shoes. French.

Even a century later, by 1800, Women still wore flats sometimes:

Women's slippers, 1800. You wouldn't look twice at these, if someone wore them today.

Women’s slippers, 1800. You wouldn’t look twice at these, if someone wore them today.

Even small children often wore heels:

Children's shoes, could be worn by girls or boys.

Children’s shoes, could be worn by girls or boys.

Men’s Boots for When You Want to Look Like a Greek Hero and Still Ride a Horse While Not Compromising Safety or Style:

Boots of white calf leather, with gilt leather on top, and heels, made to look like Ancient Greek sandals, while actually being riding boots.

I included these, because I love them so much. The sandal parts were probably covered in gold leaf, too. We have to get these back in style, guys.

But it was Louis XIV of France who took heeled shoes beyond fashion statement and into politics.

What you need to know: Louis XIV became king at an insanely young age, when his father died, and he was only four. What were you worrying about when you were four? Louis faced a massive power struggle between his mother, the Catholic church, and the nobility that eventually devolved into a civil war – the Fronde – that pitted the nobles against the crown. Although the rebellion was put down, and Louis XIV confirmed as King, clearly drastic steps had to be taken to control the aristocracy, reduce their riches, and sever them from their power bases in the provinces.

Louis XIV decided to solve this complicated political crisis by holding the nobility hostage to their own social-climbing at a purpose-built palace: Versailles. The previously powerful French aristocracy literally became victims of fashion. You could only get involved in politics (Promotions! Appointments! Bribery! Sweet Kickbacks!) if you got access to the King. You could only get access to the King by attending elaborate ceremonies when Louis XIV got up every morning, and by being there to hand him his undershirt, and maybe whisper suggestions to him. People fought fatal duels over these privileges. You could only get invited if you impressed the right people with insane, extravagant parties. The nobility quickly left their lands, and moved to Versailles, living in apartments on site and attending crazy entertainments and dances, and gambling enormous sums of money.

Louis XIV rewarded those who came to the court at Versailles with the right to wear red-heeled shoes. The right shoes became a status marker, dividing those who were politically in from those who were outcasts. To underline his uncontested power, Louis XIV also commissioned several ballets starring himself and lots of portraits showing off his legs. Legs were very important: until the advent of pants after about 1810, a man had to have good strong calves (which look better in white stockings and heeled shoes). If you were worried that your calves were too weak, you could get calf pads to beef them up a bit.

Louis XIV as Apollo. Ballet costume.

Whether in costume as Apollo

Louis XIV showing off his legs in red stockings.

Or in red stockings

Louis XIV showing off his legs in white stockings.

Louis XIV had great legs, and won’t let you forget it.

Louis XIV portrait, with an ermine lined cloak and red heeled shoes.

Everything about this portrait is about projecting power and wealth. Massive ermine-lined cape. Silk stockings (the better to show off his perfect legs) with diamond-encrusted garter buckles. RED HEELED SHOES.

Anyway. That’s how high heeled shoes became a fashion statement, and why Louboutin shoes have red soles – subconsciously we read it as: the shoes of a rich and fashionable person. Eventually, men started to wear pants after about 1800, and since there were no stockings to show off nice legs, men’s truly high heeled shoes went extinct except for actual riding gear. Women continued to wear heels, though, especially once hemlines rose high enough to show off stockinged legs. These boots were made for walkin’ indeed: go-go boots basically require miniskirts.

For extra bonus points:

Louis XIV on a horse as a quote of a Roman equestrian statue.

Louis XIV on a horse, based on a Roman equestrian statue. Note the lack of stirrups and heels. This gives an idea of the relationship of heels to horse riding, as well as just how much of these portraits are put together out of the artists’ imagination and bank of visual references, rather than painted from life. This is the seventeenth century equivalent of Photoshop. If Louis XIV really did ride a horse in costume, for safety’s sake it would be with stirrups and heeled sandal-imitating boots, like the example earlier. I love it when sources back each other up so neatly.

For even more, here’s General George S. Patton!

General Patton and his dog, Willie. Also note the famous riding boots.

An adorable photograph of General Patton and his dog, Willie. Also note the famous riding boots. This is one modern case in which the footwear becomes part of the identity of the person. Clothes are all about communication, as much as protection from the elements.

 

 

LFPL Anime Clubs

Just a friendly reminder, anime fans!

Hello Kitty Cafe

By Laika ac from UK (Hello Kitty Cafe) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Fandom Obsession Level: Hello Kitty Café.

The Louisville Free Public Library system has a few regular anime clubs! Come prepared to talk, snack, and watch your shows.

 

Teen Anime Club

Shawnee Branch

Thursdays, 6:30 PM – 8:30 PM

 

Anime Club

Middletown Branch

Second Monday of every Month, 6:30 PM – 8:00 PM

 

Pokemon train

All aboard the Pokétrain!

Mathematical!

Romanesco Broccoli: the mascot of awesome mathematical stuff.

Romanesco Broccoli: the mascot of awesome mathematical stuff.

You deserve cool things. Mathematical things, in the Adventure Time sense. All too often math is treated like a chore, but it is, and should be, mind-blowingly awesome. It could be the coolest subject you ever study, but textbooks seem to have the special quality of sucking the joy out of everything.

Let’s start with an episode of Adventure Time as an example, specifically the one where Finn gets glasses that make him super smart, and invents a device for blowing bubbles that have any number of dimensions. It’s possibly the most concise explanation of higher-dimension geometry I’ve ever seen. A shadow falling on a flat surface is a projection of an object in two dimensions. A two dimensional bubble casts a one dimensional shadow. A three dimensional bubble casts a two dimensional shadow. A four dimensional bubble casts a three dimensional shadow into our three dimensional space. Another way to think about it is like this: every object of the next-highest order of dimensions has an object of the previous order as its “face.”

A square has a line for each of its four faces that define it in two dimensional space. A cube has a square for each of its six faces. A tesseract or 4D hypercube – a four dimensional object – has a cube for each of its eight three dimensional faces. Watch this video, which shows a tesseract rotating so you can get a good look at it and understand how it’s put together. It may help to realize that none of the cubes pass through each other during the rotation. When they squash and stretch, it’s not a small cube passing through a bigger one, but rather the bigger faces popping out towards you and the smaller ones passing in the distance behind. The lines are all the same size, and the angles are all 90 degrees. It’s perspective, not changing actual shape. Eventually you’ll get it.

Meditate on the tesseract.

You like what you see? Spend some time on Vi Hart’s youtube channel, or Numberphile.

Or, read a breezily-written book on mathematics. Here’s Looking at Euclid is one of the best introductions to math that I’ve encountered. Also, this won’t be the last about mathematical mathematics on this blog. Here’s a teaser, in case the broccoli wasn’t a tip-off.

Dragons and Constructed Languages

The Dragon's Cave by Georg Janny, 1917

The Dragon’s Cave by Georg Janny, 1917

The earliest written work in any kind of the English language is Beowulf, which has a horrible, treasure-hoarding dragon in it. Because he was a philologist (expert and critic of written languages and language histories), and arguably the foremost scholar on Beowulf, J. R. R. Tolkien knew all about the dragon, and wrote a bunch of stories for his kids, which eventually mutated into a novel, The Hobbit. Beowulf‘s dragon is a creature of mindless animalistic greed and savagery, but Smaug, the dragon and central antagonist of The Hobbit, can talk. Imagine him voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. But if Bilbo Baggins can understand Smaug, and there isn’t any magic involved here, they share a common language, Fire-Drake and Hobbit. One of the reasons for J. R. R. Tolkien’s works’ staying power is that the world created for them is fully realized enough to bear up under questions like this. So, what language do Bilbo and Smaug share?

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth books, including The Hobbit, and all of the books in The Lord of the Rings, English is used as a stand-in for Westron, a hypothetical fictional language commonly spoken on Middle Earth. As a philologist, though, Tolkien created several full-fledged languages, and even language families and language histories (!!), to inhabit his fantasy universe. Elvish languages, such as Sindarin, are a language family, and have their own fictional history. In a very real way, The Lord of the Rings isn’t a fictional work with made-up languages in it, but rather Middle Earth’s fictional languages happen to be wrapped up in a pretty neat story.

The connection between dragons and artistic languages doesn’t stop there, however. You probably know at least three words in Dovahzul. Click and drag between the brackets to reveal. [ FUS RO DAH! ]

The main plot-line of the 2011 video game Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim revolves around dragons. Taking a step further still from Smaug’s command of Westron, not only do these dragons talk, but their language has the power to change reality. In this game, words spoken by someone who truly understands them become focused into a Thuum, or Shout, with different effects depending on the meaning of the words, from breathing fire, to knocking enemies backwards, to turning invisible, or revealing the presence of the undead. The acquisition of words in this language is pivotal to the gameplay in Skyrim. The developers of the game created Dovahzul as a complete artistic language to serve this purpose, and all of the dragons in the game speak the language as well. Over time, the language was expanded and fleshed out by the fanbase, and now Dovahzul is a full-fledged artistic language.

Brush up on your vocabulary and grammar here!

Architecture

Don’t Get People Killed

Everybody likes buildings that don’t collapse. That’s the one thing that absolutely everyone can agree about in architecture. Whether you’re building a land diving platform in Vanuatu, or a scientific research retreat in San Diego, structural integrity is the first priority. This is a long list of the kind of thing that happens when buildings fail.

land diving platform

By Paul Stein from New Jersey, USA (The Tower) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Structural integrity FTW! (Land diving is the ancestor of bungee jumping, and has a good safety record due to smart practices in material choice and design enforced by tradition. Nifty.)

Make Sure the Building Does Its Job

Does the structure do what it was designed to? It’s nice if your building stays up, and looks good, but does it do a good job at what it was designed to do? What if you built an award-winning library, and people found it unpleasant, or even creepy to read in? That’s a problem.

Looks Good

Does your building look good, or at least get across what it’s trying to communicate? Few structures aren’t meant to communicate anything. An example would be a missile silo. The best kind of missile silo is the kind nobody knows is there.

Minuteman Missile Silo Above Ground

This is a Minuteman missile silo doing a very good job of not being noticed.

Missile silo with skylight added.

This is a Minuteman missile silo as a museum feature. With the addition of a skylight, it’s now doing a very good job of being a tourist attraction.

Now THIS is a building meant to communicate something.

Marie Antoinette's cottage

By Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium (Marie-Antoinette’s estate at Versailles, France) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

FANCY. Oh, wait, that’s just the custom-built cottage that Marie Antoinette commissioned for the grounds of the palace at Versailles.

Versailles garden facade.

By Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium (Chateau de Versailles, France) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

There we go. That’s the real palace.

“Fancy” doesn’t quite cut it as a description. Oh Dang.

So… What Happens When Communicating Wealth Goes Wrong?

Your house gets featured on McMansionHell, an excellent blog and all-around resource for information on jaw-droppingly ill-advised buildings, and architectural theory. That’s what happens. For an even further exploration of architecture, there’s also Arch Daily Classics like these. If you really want to beef up on architecture, you can always search the library database of subjects by keyword.

subject keyword search

Keyword search by subject. Yes, this will make your life much easier.

Happy researching!

Duck Duck Goose

The ducks and geese have paired up for the spring, and you know that this means! Goose attacks are going to be pretty likely. Don’t get Tyrannosaurus rek’d by a goose. They can be very aggressive, especially when nesting.

goslings

If you can see these, the parents aren’t far behind…

An adult goose can weigh 15 lbs, so be careful.

As for the ducks, here’s a fun experiment to try. Go look at some mallard ducks. You can find them in parks with ponds, or other places near water. Usually, the males have green heads. Compare the number of males (drakes) to the females (ducks). Notice anything unusual? I’ll hide what you’ll probably find out in this bracket, in white text. Click and drag between the brackets to reveal the spoilers. [ There will probably be more drakes than ducks, by a pretty large margin. ] Weird, huh. Why do you think that is? Click and drag for the answer.

[ Females sit on the nest and are more vulnerable to predators, which probably leads to to the sex imbalance. Birds have a similar sex determination system to us mammals, so you can assume that there’s an even number of male and female ducklings hatched. ]

And that’s not all the duck weirdness going on. If you saw the ducks at just the right time, in mid-summer, you might not have noticed any drakes at all. Ducks moult completely, losing all their feathers, and, while they grow back in, they’re flightless, and very shy. Right after this, and before growing in their breeding plumage for the fall, the drakes’ feathers come in looking just like a duck. This brief, non-breeding plumage is called eclipse plumage. The only way to tell while the males are in eclipse is that male mallard ducks’ bills are yellowy or olive, not orange-y black.

drake/duck pair

This is a drake/duck pair of ducks. The drake is the one with the green head.

drake in eclipse

This is actually a drake mallard, disguised as a ladytypes duck, which are supposed to be camouflaged against predators anyway.

If you want to take your bird-observing to the next level, check out the Bird Guide from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Or, check out a handy, portable, and comprehensive identification key from the library. Ducks are really odd, actually. If you want to do more than dabble in a different sort of dabblers, read this book for a deep dive into the wood ducks, the most fabulous of all ducks. Ducks and geese hatch ready to follow the parents around, and start life out with a leap from the nest. Watch hooded merganser ducklings take the plunge.

Happy duck-watching!