Beat the Dictionary

In 1936, the winning word was eczema. In 1967 and 1970, the words were chihuahua and croissant, commonly viewed words in TV ads for Eucrisa, Taco Bell, or Burger King.

Somewhere along in the 2000s is when the spelling bee contestants stepped up their game so much that the words became more difficult, less recognizable. In 2003: pococurante. 2011: cymotrichous. 2017: marocain.

2019 spelling bee winners
The eight winners of the 2019 Scripps spelling bee, photo by Erik Lesser

In 2019, as you may already have heard, there were eight winning words because the 2019 Scripps Spelling Bee resulted in an eight-way tie. Just for the record, those words were Auslaut; erysipelas; bougainvillea; aiguillette; pendeloque; palama; cernuous; and odylic. I’d be surprised if you even recognize anything besides bougainvillea.

Social and technological changes have created a competition that seems otherwordly in difficulty, yet there are more ties and more winners than ever. Contestants hustle to cram as many words in practice as they can, use special computerized services, hire coaches, and reportedly spend 30 hours a week looking up the meanings of prospicience and antipyretic.

One question widely circulating is: Should we do anything about it?

Continue reading “Beat the Dictionary”

War Over the Thermostat

As hundreds of tornadoes blasted across the midwest this past week, the impact of climate change popped up in a more mundane but perhaps significant way in two New York Times articles about room temperature. A recent study found that energy consumption increases as you get older, especially quite old, meaning a lot older than I am right now. Another study showed clearly that women and men perform cognitively very differently depending on the temperature. Both of these studies suggest our battles over the up and down arrows on the thermostat are just beginning.

Over 70? Never Be Without a Snuggie

A study published in Energy Research and Social Science looked at the use of energy stratified by age, including impact from variables of income and housing size. The data from 1987 to 2009 used pseudo-cohorts, a sciency way of saying that the study was designed to look at age groups that changed over time. In other words, they looked at energy consumption by age, and they followed those age groups for about twenty years.

From “Age matters: Ageing and household energy demand in the United States” in Energy Research and Social Science, September 2019

Apparently young people don’t use as much household energy, most likely because they run around and live in small rooms, like dorm rooms. Multi-person families buy bigger houses, so that the entire family uses relatively more energy, which seems to pick near age 50. Energy use then decreases, but starts to drive upward again after age 70.

When the researchers added income to the model, the upward slope tipped even higher, meaning that having more income when you’re older magnified the impact. This wasn’t true for those under age 30, though. Whether income was included or not, people in their twenties don’t use as much energy, whether they can afford it or not. A lot of the increase in use as people get older was due to housing size, though not all of it.

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The Real Macbeth

When the hurly-burly’s done,
when the battle’s lost and won…


–Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act I: Sc 1: Line 3

Macbeth was a real guy. King of Scotland. Lived in a Castle near Inverness. Defeated Duncan and succeeded by Malcolm. Many things that Shakespeare used in his play were factually accurate. However, most of the characterizations of king Macbeth were historical gaffes.

Those of us who had to read Macbeth in high school, who had to diagram Shakespeare’s five act opening-climax-denouement cycle and to write papers about how Macbeth’s tragic flaw, his obsession with ambition, led to his downfall, were given the wrong impression. Macbeth the real King of Scotland (1040-1057), was not a murdering madman, but a far more complex, elusive, and interesting person whose true ambition may have been to unite Scotland.

Cawdor Castle
Cawdor Castle, formerly home to Macbeth, currently home to the Campbell’s.
Photo by kajmeister.
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Worlds Rebuilt (Crossing the Pond IV)

Near Cobh, Ireland
When in doubt, add a lighthouse. Entrance to Cobh, Ireland, photo by kajmeister

Humans have an urge to build things. Plop down on a sandy beach, and you start to create hills and draw designs. If your coffee shop booth has a stack of rectangular jam packets, you may soon be constructing a pyramid. Maybe you don’t call that building, but that’s semantics. We are busy creatures; we like to make things. When we want to, when we can, we like to remake them. In my trip across the Atlantic, we’re now touring spots near the English channel–at Guernsey, Cobh, Dublin, and Belfast–where I see this over and over.

Bunker Reborn

Guernsey is an island a spit’s distance off the coast of France, yet heavily affiliated with Britain. That is to say, it’s poised between Britain and France philosophically. The currency is the pound, the cars drive on the left side, and they sing God Save the Queen. Yet they live on streets called Rue de Felconte and de la Rocque Poisson, and the markets are full of croissants rather than scones. Actually, the markets are full of banks and real estate companies because, as our guide Ant put it, he’s “not allowed to tell us they’re a tax haven.” Because Guernsey is a tax haven, and the offshore money is rolling in.

New construction threads through the downtown area, St. Peter Port, slowly turning it from quaint to modernized. You can barely find any reminders here of the Nazi occupation that blanketed the island from June 1940 to May 1945. Children were evacuated; meat and other food was confiscated; 1000 residents were deported and sent to camps; prisoners brought in for construction were starved. What the Germans mainly seemed to do, in fact, was build bunkers. They built fortifications and towers and heavily-protected turrets and armories that apparently were never needed. Churchhill and the British ignored the island and went straight at Normandy when they were strong enough to take France back, and the island was too far away for Germany to use it as any kind of springpoint into England. Continue reading “Worlds Rebuilt (Crossing the Pond IV)”

Come Out to the Coast, Have a Good Time… (Crossing the Pond III)

Suppose you are a fisherman in something something B.C., in the quite far western Mediterranean, and a gale blows up which pulls your reed boat out into those great Atlantic swells. You hunker down in the bottom, near the fish you’ve caught, hang on for dear life for a couple days, surviving on fish-scale-tasting rainwater, until you scrape up on porous rock, a thousand miles from your village on the mainland. You’ve discovered the Azores.

Reed Boat
Reed boat, from atlantisbolivia.org/areedboathistory

Not so, says a Portugese government commission appointed to determine who discovered those islands to the west of Portugal, which they own, which they got to first, which belong to them and no one else, mine, mine, mine. Still, archaeologists have persisted in trying to determine who got to the Azores first, and that’s one of the mysteries we encountered in our first week after crossing the Atlantic. Who were the first people on the Azores, and where did they go? How might you own half the world? If an earthquake and tidal wave were to level your city, how would you get past it? And, lastly, is it possible to have too much chocolate?

To answer these questions, we visited Ponta Delgado on São Miguel, Lisbon, and Bruges. Continue reading “Come Out to the Coast, Have a Good Time… (Crossing the Pond III)”