Archive for December 2018

An eye

Look what you’re saying

A while back, someone remarked in passing that a mutual friend had “such beautiful blue eyes.” I was surprised—and a bit embarrassed—to realize that in all the years I’d known the woman in question, I had never noticed the color of her eyes. In North America, social convention dictates that we look someone directly in the eye while conversing, so failing to register my friend’s eye color implied that my communication skills were faulty too. But if I can be forgiven for ignoring the iris, the pupil is something that clearly deserves a great deal of attention, because it can tell us much more than the words someone speaks.

Size Matters

Would you believe that medical science has come up with two different words that mean “the measurement of pupil diameter”? It’s true. The general term, pupillometry, refers to any pupil measurement—usually performed using infrared cameras or sensors, because visible light would cause the pupils to contract and throw off the readings. A more specific term, pupillometrics, refers to the evaluation of one’s pupil size as an indicator of interest or emotion. University of Chicago biopsychologist Eckhard Hess coined the term in 1975. Hess discovered that when someone looks at something that causes positive feelings (or even just sparks interest), the pupils dilate—whereas the pupils contract when the person looks at unpleasant or uninteresting things.

Moreover, we subconsciously pick up cues from others’ pupil sizes and use them to help us form opinions about people. Hess performed an oft-cited study in which men were shown carefully retouched photographs of women. In half the photographs, the pupils were made to appear larger than normal, and in the other half, they were smaller. The men in the study invariably perceived the women with larger pupils as being more attractive and friendlier than the very same women in photographs where they appeared to have smaller pupils. And yet, none of the men in the study could say why they found one set of women more attractive than the other.

Can pupillometrics help you to find true love? A number of books and articles suggest you can determine if the person you’re dating is truly interested in you by paying attention to their pupils while talking. If they’re consistently large, take it as a good sign. To convey the impression that you’re interested in someone else, keep the lights dim to allow your own pupils to dilate. Beware, though: pupil size can indicate interest in anything—not necessarily romance. If you’re hungry, the sight of food will make your pupils large. Be sure your date isn’t really looking at someone behind you eating an ice cream cone.

Pupils can give away even more information when examined electronically. Because your pupil’s response to light varies measurably when you’re tired, devices now being installed at checkpoints along major highways use pupil response to test whether truck drivers are too fatigued to drive safely. Pupil response has also been shown to be a surprisingly accurate indicator of drug use. Even some drugs that don’t show up in urinalysis can be detected with a 30-second pupil response test. Because pupil tests are fast, inexpensive, and noninvasive, they are being used in some correctional facilities as a pre-screening mechanism: only those who fail the test are asked for urine samples.

Look Both Ways Before Answering

Pupil size isn’t the only way your eyes communicate. The direction in which someone looks while talking can also speak volumes. As you’re probably aware, the brain is divided into two hemispheres. The left hemisphere is primarily responsible for logic and analytical thought, while the right hemisphere is where emotional and creative thinking occur. Because the right brain governs the left side of the body and vice versa, we tend to look to the left when using our right brains and to the right when using our left brains.

Recalling existing information is largely a right-brain task, which means that when we’re trying to remember something we usually look to the left. Conversely, we typically look to the right when trying to construct a description or a story, making use of the logical powers of the left brain. To make matters even more interesting, looking upward suggests that a person is using images or visual memories. Looking downward is associated with kinesthetic or emotional memories, while looking directly left or right usually means the person is processing auditory data.

I’ve read in several places that because looking to the right means a person is constructing something new, this implies lying. But I’ve also read exactly the opposite—that looking to the left suggests lying (presumably because the creative right brain is being used). Still others claim that whichever direction you associate with lying, you have to switch it if the person is left-handed! In reality, the association between gaze direction and truthfulness is a tenuous one. Making up a new sentence doesn’t necessarily involve making up a new fact, after all. And although left-handed people are slightly more likely to be right-brained than right-handed people, one’s dominant hand doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with one’s dominant brain hemisphere. All the same, law-enforcement personnel are regularly taught to take note of a suspect’s gaze direction during an interrogation. Although eye movement is much less foolproof than a polygraph, it can suggest areas in which someone is not being entirely forthcoming.

I don’t recommend accusing anyone of lying just because of a rightward glance. But it does pay to listen to what they eyes say, and to be aware of how other people may interpret your involuntary eye reactions. What you learn about your friends could be even more valuable than knowing their eye color.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on June 10, 2004.

Image credit: Pixabay

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Glasses of champagne

It is customary in numerous countries to welcome the new year with a champagne toast at midnight. Although we frequently had real champagne-from-Champagne when we were living in France, here in San Diego we typically choose a much less expensive local approximation—a California sparkling white wine. I hereby give you license to define “champagne” as loosely as you see fit today; no need to be a French wine snob. For that matter, you can put some sparkling apple juice in a flûte and call it champagne if you like. Because, come on, it’s New Year’s Eve and you do need to get at least a bit of sleep, right?

Image credit: Pxhere

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Tabacón Hot Springs

The relaxing side of the Arenal Volcano

Volcanoes are generally considered rather scary, unsafe places. There was that whole Pompeii incident, of course, and Mt. St. Helens, as well as numerous more-recent examples. Any sensible person knows that you don’t want to be anywhere near a volcano when it erupts, and that volcanoes have the nasty habit of erupting at unpredictable and very inconvenient times. Nevertheless, dozens of active volcanoes around the world have become major tourist destinations (and indeed, I’ve visited more than one myself). PR types minimize the danger, of course (“Over 27 months without a tourist fatality!”), and, statistically speaking, the odds do indeed favor a safe visit. But many thousands of tourists take the risk because volcanoes are so strange and interesting. Most of us know volcanoes only from stories that are set in faraway places and therefore have a mythological character; seeing an active volcano in person seems a little bit like seeing a unicorn—something that doesn’t seem like it could really exist.

In central Costa Rica, the Arenal Volcano offers the quintessential volcano tourism experience. Practically the entire economy of the nearby town of La Fortuna is based on tourism. There are hotels, lodges, restaurants, tours, hikes, and activities of every description that cater to people who make the long drive to the area in the hope of hearing the rumble and catching a glimpse of spewing smoke, ash, and steam from Arenal. But by far the most famous (and most expensive) attraction besides the volcano itself is Tabacón Hot Springs, part of the Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort.

Forgotten But Not Gone

Tabacón was once a tiny, quaint village nestled at the base of Arenal Peak. The mountain had been a volcano once, yes, but it hadn’t erupted since 1525 so its history was effectively forgotten. In 1968, a class of schoolchildren in Tabacón was given the assignment of drawing a picture of their town. When one child labeled the mountain “Arenal Volcano,” the teacher marked it wrong: “Arenal Peak is not a volcano, it’s just a mountain.” A few days later, the mountain erupted. The entire village of Tabacón and the nearby town of Pueblo Nuevo were wiped out, destroyed by ash and hot gases. Although many of the town’s residents fled when the rumbling began, 78 people died.

But after the shock of the tragedy wore off and volcanic activity mostly settled down, the volcano turned into a tourist attraction, eventually becoming one of the top destinations in Costa Rica. Such was the popularity of the volcano that enterprising developers decided to erect an elaborate resort on the site of the former town of Tabacón, and that is now the epicenter of tourism for the area.

Over the next four decades, there were several other significant eruptions and a few fatalities. A major eruption in 1998 forced the evacuation of nearby hotels, and lava came rolling down the hill as close as 500 feet (about 150 meters) from the resort. In between these major events, Arenal remained quite active, with minor eruptions many times a day. By day there were puffs of smoke accompanying the menacing rumbles, and on a clear night you could see orange streaks running down from the peak. All this merely enhanced the site’s appeal as a tourist destination. Since 2010, Arenal has been mostly quiet, with only occasional activity, though of course that could change at any moment. The lack of potentially deadly volcanic activity has knocked Tabacón down a bit on the list of most popular attractions in Costa Rica, but there’s still much to recommend it.

Tabacón now consists of two sites: a hotel with famously expensive views of the volcano, and the expansive hot springs and spa complex across the road and around the corner. The term “hot springs” is not strictly accurate, as the source of the water is an underground river, but the water is heated naturally by the volcano so the net effect is the same. The water is channeled into a series of interconnected pools where, because the hot water is mixed with cold water in varying proportions, the temperature ranges from briskly cold to 105°F (41°C). Signs next to each pool indicate its temperature, though I can say from experience that some 41° pools are hotter than others.

Caution: Water May Be Hot

The pools themselves, some of which include waterfalls you can sit under for a natural massage, were for the most part constructed from local stone in such a way as to look quite natural. I realized just how natural they were the first time I stepped in one. The bottom was littered with large, slippery, irregularly shaped stones. It was sometimes quite difficult to move around without slipping, tripping, or stubbing a toe. Then I began to notice there were very few handrails, no signs urging caution, and no requirement that guests sign a release form before using the hot springs. I laughed to myself when I realized that such a place could never exist in the United States; it would be either regulated or sued out of existence in a week. That made me enjoy the experience all the more—a place where adults were given credit for some common sense, where simple pleasures could be appreciated without a generic, artificially sterile environment. Imagine that.

The grounds where the hot springs are located are meticulously manicured but still appear to have been carved out of a little corner of rain forest, which in fact they were. It gives you a sort of “Jurassic Park” feeling—a controlled slice of a wild environment. And despite the large numbers of tourists, it is a wonderfully relaxing place.

Float Me a Loan?

I had just one disappointment: a much-hyped warm pool with a swim-up bar. I had never been to one before and that sounded like great fun. Contrary to what was stated in our guide book, the swim-up bar accepted only cash. (Granted, this was quite a few years ago, and things may have changed since then.) If I may say so, a cash-only swim-up bar is about the silliest thing I’ve ever heard of. Once you get to the bar and figure out you can’t pay for anything, you have to get out of the pool, go back to the locker room, get some cash, return to the pool and wade out to the bar carefully, holding bills so they don’t get wet—and with nowhere to put your change. After all that aggravation, you’re going to want a very large piña colada to settle your nerves. Fortunately, those are easily obtained.

After a long day of trekking through the hot, humid rain forest, there’s nothing like a nice relaxing soak in a hot, humid spa. No, really. Strangely enough, the hot water actually feels very refreshing, especially in the evening. We didn’t plan far enough ahead to get reservations for a room at Tabacón—which is just as well since we got a better deal and a great view at another lodge down the road (the Arenal Observatory Lodge)—but day passes are available for a modest fee, and often included as part of other tour/adventure packages. When Arenal is not busy devastating the countryside, it’s often clouded in, so you may travel halfway across the country and find there’s nothing to see. The hot springs themselves are still worth the trip, but all the same, I suggest watching your step on those wet rocks.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on July 18, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on September 6, 2004.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Bacon slices

I’m an omnivore, although for a variety of largely practical reasons I mostly eat pretty low on the food chain. I could imagine being a lacto-ovo-vegetarian (that is, someone who eats plant products plus dairy and eggs, but no animal flesh), with a single exception: bacon. Sure, serve me up a veggie patty instead of beef and tofu in place of chicken, but there’s no non-pork product that can satisfy my hankering for bacon. Today’s not the only “holiday” that celebrates bacon in some form, but I’m happy for any excuse to indulge.

Image credit: By Lara604 from Seattle, WA (Perfect bacon slices) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Not a mot juste, an aproposism

The right word (for “the right word”)

Don’t bother looking it up in the dictionary. The word aproposism isn’t there yet; I coined it back in 2003 and it has been used in the wild by (checks notes) approximately zero other people since then. But it had to be done. English is full of words that mean “the wrong word” in one sense or another: misnomer, malapropism, solecism, hyperbole, oxymoron, and so on, not to mention related concepts like misunderstanding, misconception, and misapprehension. This must show that English speakers value an apt choice of words and dislike an inappropriate choice. And yet, where is the word in English that refers to a choice of expression that’s just right? There isn’t one. Or wasn’t, until I came up with it.

There is, of course, the expression mot juste, which (per Merriam-Webster) does in fact mean “the exactly right word or phrasing.” Problem solved, right? Well, no. The phrase is French, and although it appears in many English dictionaries, it’s not terribly common—and it’s typically italicized (as I’ve done here) to denote that it’s a not-yet-fully-integrated foreign term. It’s also a two-word phrase, not a single word; and being French, it doesn’t follow the usual English pronunciation rules. In short: no, sorry, that won’t do at all. (For the sake of completeness, I’ll also mention another two-word French phrase you’ll find in your English dictionary: bon mot (“good word”), which refers to a clever remark or a witticism—but here, we’re not concerned with cleverness so much as appropriateness.) English ought to have a word that refers to a good choice of wording and that (whatever etymological roots it may have) at least sounds like the rest of the language.

You Don’t Say…

The need for this word arose when I was researching some well-known misnomers and malapropisms. I noticed that, amusingly enough, sometimes malapropisms were mistakenly referred to as misnomers, and vice versa. A misnomer, by the way, is an inappropriate name for something or someone, whereas a malapropism is the (often humorous) misuse of a word due to its similarity in sound to another word. So, for example, you might say that “correctional facility” is a misnomer if you believe behavioral correction does not occur there; similarly, “atom” is a misnomer for a unit of matter that can in fact be subdivided further. But if you say “purposefully” when you mean “purposely” or “disinterested” when you mean “uninterested,” that is a malapropism.

One website I looked at referred to the misuse of “healthful” to mean “healthy” as a misnomer, but that’s incorrect. An adjective cannot be a misnomer. The usage in question was a malapropism, as was the use of the term “misnomer” in place of “malapropism”! (As long as I’m coining terms, I’ll call this particular blunder a recursive malapropism.)

In any case, good writers would naturally want to avoid such mistakes, but how does one refer succinctly to a felicitous word choice? If I want to say, “I’ve chosen the correct word to mean ‘the wrong word,’” what sort of an activity have I thus performed? Or how can I describe the word so chosen? In either case, the correct term can only be aproposism.

Is It Apropos?

Careful readers may wonder why I didn’t use the shorter apropism, i.e., malapropism without the “mal-.” Three reasons: first, “apropism” is etymologically indefensible; second, aproposism is easier to remember because it contains “apropos” (appropriate); and third, aproposism is harder to pronounce—everyone likes a good tongue twister.

The reason “apropism” is etymologically indefensible is that the word “malapropism” itself has a rather dubious pedigree. The term was not derived directly from French, as you might suspect. Instead, it comes from the name of a character—Mrs. Malaprop—in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 comedy The Rivals. Mrs. Malaprop’s lines were peppered with verbal blunders, and the name was supposed to be a joke for those who knew some French—a catchy shortening of “malapropos,” which means “inopportunely.” Malapropos, in turn, is a combination of mal (“bad”) + à (“to”) + propos (“purpose”). All that to say: the pos in aproposism serves to tie the word more directly into its French roots, rather than basing it on a comedic English corruption of a French term.

That said, here’s my official definition:

aproposism (ə ˈpräp ə ˌsiz əm), n. [Fr. à propos, to the purpose < L. ad, to + propositus, pp. of proponere, propound + -ism < M.E. -isme < O.Fr. < L. -ismus < Gr. -ismos, nominative suffix]

  1. The act of choosing a felicitous word or phrase.
  2. A word or phrase so used.

So there you have it. Never again must you wonder about the right word for “the right word.”

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on October 29, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on December 19, 2004.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day