Archive for July 2018

Don't Be a Dick flowchart

Wil Wheaton is an actor, author, and all-around nice guy. July 29 is his birthday—he turns 46 today. In 2007, he wrote a blog post declaring July 29 to be Don’t Be a Dick Day, and “Don’t be a dick” later became known as Wheaton’s Law. Although the original context of the rule was online gaming, this Important Life Principle can be applied to pretty much anyone in any situation, ever. I would tend to suggest something more along the lines of “Be kind,” but that’s admittedly a higher bar. Not being an awful, inconsiderate human being is at least a solid first step. And it’s something you can practice any day of the year! But seriously, today of all days, please don’t be a dick. (And happy birthday, Wil!)

Image credit: By Wil Wheaton [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Bust of Demosthenes in the Louvre

Improving your diction, Athenian style

It’s a good thing I had never heard of Demosthenes when I was a child. I would have gotten in trouble. My mom would have said, “Don’t talk with your mouth full.” And I would have replied, “Don’t you want me to be a famous orator like Demosthenes? I’m training!” And then I would have been sent to my room without any more of whatever my mouth was full of. Kids, this is why grownups are always saying things like, “You’re too young to understand. Just take my word for it.” It’s for your own good. And if you get in trouble for talking with your mouth full, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Repeat After Me

Even as an adult, I get in trouble over Demosthenes. One evening Morgen and I were watching My Fair Lady on TV. For those unfamiliar with the story, a linguistics professor in London named Henry Higgins makes a wager with a friend that he can rid a working-class girl, Eliza Doolittle, of her Cockney accent and teach her to speak like a proper lady. In one of his many drills, he insists that Eliza fill her mouth with marbles and then read a series of phrases. So of course I said, “Oh, just like Demosthenes.” Morgen gave me one of her patented looks that means “How do you expect me to know these obscure facts if I don’t read about them on Interesting Thing of the Day?” I was tempted to respond with a look that meant “Oh come on, everybody knows about Demosthenes,” but I opted instead for the path of marital concord. After all, one shouldn’t look a gift topic in the mouth.

Appropriately enough, Demosthenes had a name that, for many English-speaking people, is a tongue twister. I have always pronounced it “di MAHS thə neez,” which is what my trusty dictionary says. However, no less an authority than Demosthenes Spiropoulos, proprietor of the website WorldOfDemosthenes.com, says his name is pronounced Dee-moss-sta-knees. So take your pick; I suppose it depends on how authentically Greek you want to sound (which, in my case, is not at all).

Speaker System

The story is this. Demosthenes lived in Athens from 384 B.C. to 322 B.C. As a young man, he suffered from a speech impediment—which may have been a stutter, an inability to pronounce the “r” sound, or both. He designed a series of exercises for himself to improve his speech. According to legend, he practiced speaking with stones in his mouth, which forced him to work very hard to get the sounds out. When his diction became clearer, he got rid of the stones and found he was able to enunciate much more effectively than before. He also practiced reciting speeches while running and speaking over the roar of ocean waves to improve his projection. These strategies must have worked, because Demosthenes achieved fame as the greatest orator in ancient Greece. He is best known for his passionate speeches urging the Greek citizens to defend themselves against invading Macedonian king Philip II.

Naturally this story is repeated often with a moral of “work hard, be persistent, and you will succeed.” Alas for Demosthenes, historical acclaim is all he got for his efforts. His speeches, though popular and well-received, did not prevent Greece’s conquest by Macedonia. Shortly thereafter, Demosthenes was falsely accused of taking a bribe and sent to prison. He escaped, but remained in exile until Alexander the Great died. Demosthenes then returned to Athens and once more tried to lead a popular uprising. He failed again, but not without attracting the attention of the authorities. When he learned that he faced imminent capture and possibly death, he committed suicide by taking poison he had long kept hidden in a pen. Tragic though his end was, the story of Demosthenes’ dramatic forensic achievements continues to inspire speakers to this day.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on October 6, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on September 26, 2004.

Image credit: Louvre Museum [CC BY 2.5 ], via Wikimedia Commons


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

In my younger and more foolish days, I felt that milk chocolate was the only type of chocolate worth eating. Well, I had a lot of goofy ideas back then. Now I’m a dyed-in-the-wool dark chocolate guy (Less sugar! Better taste! More serotonin!), but I suppose, just for one day, I can sacrifice my principles and consume some milk chocolate. Because, you know, everyone is doing it today. (Wait, does it count if I have a glass of milk with my dark chocolate? No? Drat.) Well, no need to belabor this—there’s chocolate to be eaten. Enjoy!

Image credit: By Siona Watson (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

The Thinker

The story behind Rodin’s famous sculpture

There’s no getting around it: in junior high and high school, I was a nerd. I actually wore pocket protectors. I had my digital watch synchronized to the second with the school’s clocks. I excelled at academics (especially science and math), I dreaded phys ed, and I didn’t understand sports. I was in the band, but never got elected to the student council. The few friends I had were also nerds, and we had no idea why being smart didn’t make us more popular.

One of the nerdy activities many of us overachievers participated in was Academic Games, in which students from various schools competed in tournaments of math, language, and social studies games. The best players on the best teams got to attend the national finals. The one year I went to the nationals, my team and I failed to distinguish ourselves, but we did leave with lovely T-shirts bearing the program’s logo: a picture of Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker. That was my favorite shirt for years, and once when I wore it to an amusement park, I had a caricature made of my head on The Thinker’s body. So I like to think that Rodin and I go way back.

No Laughing Matter

On a visit to the Orsay museum in Paris, I saw a casting of Rodin’s monumental work, the Gates of Hell. This enormous bronze sculpture features hundreds of three-dimensional figures arranged on and around two doors. According to the placard nearby, the Gates of Hell was inspired by Inferno, the first book in Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s epic trilogy The Divine Comedy. So, of course, all these folks are depicted in a variety of anguished poses. And there at the top, in miniature, is The Thinker, looking down at the spectacle below. The first time I saw this sculpture, I thought, “Oh, that’s what The Thinker is thinking about,” which seemed like a fascinating revelation. However, that first impression was largely inaccurate. There’s much more to The Thinker than meets the eye.

In 1880, the French government commissioned 40-year-old sculptor Auguste Rodin to create a grand entrance for the planned Museum of Decorative Arts. Rodin was quite fond of Dante’s poetry, and decided almost immediately that the entrance to the museum should depict characters from the Inferno. The specifics, however, took a long time to evolve. After a couple of years and hundreds of sketches, Rodin had created models of many characters that would later appear in the finished piece—including The Thinker. At that time, Rodin intended the figure to represent Dante himself, pondering the poem that had been brought to life before him; accordingly, Rodin referred to the figure as The Poet and began to call the entire sculpture the Gates of Hell.

Thinking On His Own

Over time, however, the individual figures took on lives of their own, as more and more of those smaller studies became independent works. Rodin’s vision for the overall piece began to stray ever further from the poem, and his plan for the final set of characters changed constantly. When he realized that The Poet would become a large, stand-alone piece outside the context of the Gates of Hell, he renamed it The Thinker. Meanwhile, though the museum for which the Gates of Hell was to have been the entrance never got built, Rodin continued working on his sculpture off and on until his death in 1917. The Gates of Hell, which Rodin never considered finished, was not cast in his lifetime.

There are now a total of 25 castings of The Thinker in its largest size (and many, many smaller ones)—not to mention the various posthumous castings of the Gates of Hell. Because Rodin created the plaster molds, all can be considered equally “authentic” and “original.” But one of the 10 castings of The Thinker made during Rodin’s lifetime sits atop his tomb in Meudon, a Paris suburb. What is The Thinker really thinking about? Perhaps he’s pondering his creator’s eternal reward.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on January 18, 2005.


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

The Administrator

If you work in any sort of office environment, there’s an excellent chance that your business employs someone (or maybe multiple someones) as system administrators, or SysAdmins. These are people who keep computers and networks functioning—they often work behind the scenes but they’re also the folks you call when something doesn’t work. These clever and talented people are often among the least recognized and appreciated, but trust me: most businesses would collapse without their expertise. So show your SysAdmin some love on System Administrator Appreciation Day, celebrated on the last Friday of each July. (Of course, you should show them love all the time, but today, perhaps that love could take a more tangible form.)


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day