The founders of International Talk Like a Pirate Day

International Talk Like a Pirate Day began informally in 1995 as an inside joke between two friends, John “Ol’ Chumbucket” Baur and Mark “Cap’n Slappy” Summers. But it really took off in 2002 when Dave Barry wrote a column about it. So when random people approach you today and start saying things like “Arrrr!” and “Ahoy!” and “Let’s go download apps and videos we haven’t paid for,” you’ll know why. If you need help figuring out how to speak in a passably piratical manner—and I know I do—try this Pirate Speak Translator.

Image credit: From the press room [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A propeller beanie

The story of the geek’s icon

When I write technical books and articles, I generally assume my audience is composed of ordinary people, not programmers or computer experts. I try to provide enough context and detail so that any reasonably intelligent person can get the gist of what I’m saying, even without prior experience in the topic I’m discussing. But in one of my books, I described a certain procedure that, because it was somewhat complex, should only be attempted by those with a fair amount of computer know-how. The way I put it was this: “Unlike everything else in this book, this rather involved (and entirely optional) technique does require you to wear a propeller beanie…”

A few months later, I got an email from the man who was translating the book into German. His entirely reasonable question: “What is a propeller beanie?”

I found it surprisingly difficult to answer the question. I can describe what a propeller beanie looks like, but if the translator put the German equivalent for “child’s skullcap with a decorative plastic propeller” in the book, that would not be meaningful to the readers—they’d wonder, “Why must I wear a silly hat to be able to do such-and-such with my computer?” After explaining, as best I could, the cultural significance of the propeller beanie in America, I told the translator that it would be best just to say, “This technique requires you to be technically proficient.” I have no idea if there is any shorthand symbol in German that represents the same bundle of ideas that the propeller beanie does in English. But this exchange, besides bringing back memories of graduate linguistics courses in the problems of translation, made me wonder where the propeller beanie actually came from, and how it came to mean what it does today.

Putting On Your Thinking Cap

Science fiction author and cartoonist Ray Nelson claims to have invented the propeller beanie while still a high school student in 1947. The story is that he and some friends decided to take some pictures parodying science-fiction icons of the day. To represent a hero with an antigravity device, someone decided they should put a propeller on a hat, and Nelson quickly put one together from scraps of plastic he had lying around his room. One of his friends, George Young, believed at the time (and apparently still does) that Nelson bought the cap at a dime store rather than making it himself; Nelson maintains to this day that the cap was his invention. In any case, they all agreed the propeller beanie was a great joke, and Young later wore the hat at a science fiction convention—to much general approval. So Nelson drew a cartoon featuring Young in a propeller beanie as a symbol of science fiction fans. This cartoon led to other cartoons and eventually to an animated TV show called “Beany and Cecil” in which one of the characters, Beany Boy, wore the eponymous propeller beanie. The show in turn led inevitably to merchandising, and thus a cultural phenomenon was born.

There being (as far as I’ve been able to determine) no drawings or stories of the propeller beanie that predate Nelson’s claim, I believe that he did in fact invent it. Due to a series of misunderstandings, Nelson was not properly credited with the invention when it was first commercialized, and though the manufacturer (and the cartoonist from whom they licensed the design) made millions on the propeller beanie, Nelson himself received none of that money. In any case, no one disputes that Nelson was responsible for popularizing the propeller beanie through his cartoons.

Mark of the Geeks

Meanwhile, the sci-fi fans who had made their own propeller beanies by hand and worn them proudly when they were an “in” joke stopped wearing them as soon as they became popular among the mainstream youth of America. Although the propeller beanie appeared in comics for years afterward, the fad itself soon faded, and any child over a certain age who still wore such a cap was considered socially unsophisticated—reinforcing the stereotype of the science fiction fan as being out of touch with reality (including fashion trends). Eventually, however, computer enthusiasts resurrected the propeller beanie as a self-deprecating badge of honor—as if to say, “Yes, we know we’re out of touch with reality, and we’re proud of it!”

That is the sense in which I’ve always known the propeller beanie: a representation of the nerdy technophile. In the early 1990s, I was living in Pittsburgh and working as a computer graphic artist. A few blocks from my office was the headquarters of a small software company, and I got to know several of the employees there through a mutual friend. This company (which has been out of business for many years now) had a group of faithful hangers-on who served as beta testers—people who try out new software before its release and look for bugs, so that they can be fixed before it ships. I signed on as a tester for one of their products, and dutifully found and reported as many bugs as I could. When the software shipped, they honored their best beta testers by giving them a propeller beanie and a certificate that said “Order of the Beanie.” Getting my own beanie was a proud moment, and I think I still have that certificate somewhere. Later, when a friend and I started a (short-lived) consulting company called ComputerGeeks, Inc., we used a picture of a propeller beanie as our logo; our slogan was “We’re geeks so you don’t have to be.”

The classic propeller beanie is brimless and multicolored, typically with alternating wedges of different colors. Some modern designs add a brim—effectively making it into a baseball cap with a propeller. But you can find caps in every conceivable color and style, including caps with multiple propellers in various configurations, and even propellers facing forward, like a windmill. (For an extensive—and I do mean extensive—selection of fully customizable propeller beanies, visit my friends at Geek Culture.) What you cannot find, of course, is a propeller beanie with enough lift to fly off your head—much less take you with it. But the computer geek culture actually uses the propeller beanie in much the same way as it was originally intended: a way to make fun of oneself and the sillier side of the technology we love.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on September 23, 2004.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Take Control Books logo

I did not invent Read an Ebook Day—for that, we can thank Overdrive, a company that makes it possible to borrow ebooks from libraries. But I will, of course, take advantage of this extremely important holiday to remind you, gentle reader, that I run a publishing business called Take Control Books and that sales of our ebooks are what put food on our table. If you want to learn how to protect your online privacy, increase your productivity, solve password or Wi-Fi problems, get more out of your Mac or iOS device or your favorite apps, or do any of dozens of other things with technology, our inexpensive and friendly how-to ebooks are here to help. We offer free samples of all our books, and I think you’ll like them!

Back when Take Control Books started in 2003, ebooks were sort of a novelty. Since the Kindle and its several competitors took off, ebooks have become a pretty normal way to consume books. Amazon, of course, will sell you ebooks on any topic, as will Apple Books (formerly known as the iBooks Store). And as I alluded to above, your local library may participate in a program that lets you borrow ebooks for free and read them in an app on your computer, smartphone, or tablet. Whether you’re reading for pleasure, business, or education; however you go about obtaining your ebooks; and whatever device you read them on, you’ll benefit from a bunch of things you can’t get from paper books:

  • You can search the book, even if it’s not indexed.
  • You can leave notes and annotations without damaging the book.
  • You can store thousands of books in exactly zero shelf space.
  • You can often get interactive content of various kinds that couldn’t appear in print books.
  • You can use text-to-speech to have your device read all or part of a book to you.
  • You can look up words, do web searches, and get other contextual information as you read.
  • In some cases (as when you buy ebooks from us), you can get free or discounted updates to books when they’re revised—just like software.

And look, I get it: ebooks don’t smell like paper, and they’re not quite as safe to read in the bathtub (unless your ebook reader is waterproof, as some are). You can’t give away (or get) used ebooks using Bookcrossing or Little Free Libraries. But you can still curl up with one in a comfy chair or on the beach, and you can usually buy ebooks for less than their print equivalents. So go read an ebook today! (Oh, and did I mention that I both write and publish ebooks? It’s possible that it slipped my mind.)

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A Montezuma Oropendola

Wacky gymnast of the bird world

I’m not much of a bird watcher, but on my first visit to Costa Rica I kept hearing this strange sound, almost like one bird trying to laugh while another one is whistling. That made me look up, and when I spotted the bird that was making the sound, I started to laugh. I had the distinct impression that it was putting on a show just to entertain the tourists, and it immediately became one of my favorite rain forest animals. The bird is called the Oropendola (often, and understandably, misspelled as “Oropendula”). It’s a largish bird that looks black from a distance but is actually dark brown, with bright yellow tail feathers. There are two species of Oropendola: the Crested Oropendola (Psarocolius decumanus) and the Montezuma Oropendola (Gymnostinops montezuma). Oropendolas are native to Central America, with some found as far north as southern Mexico and some as far south as Ecuador and Brazil. In the parts of Costa Rica I’ve visited, the Montezuma Oropendola is more common.


Both species of Oropendola share a unique and rather silly characteristic, as hinted at by the bird’s common name (roughly, “gold pendulum”) and the Latin genus name Gymnostinops. A male Oropendola stands on a thin horizontal branch, with his claws wrapped most of the way around it. Then the bird spreads his wings and swings around the branch so that he’s hanging upside down, his yellow tail feathers prominently displayed above him. Sometimes he reverses the motion and springs back to the top, and sometimes he flips all the way around the branch like a gymnast on the horizontal bar. At the same time, the bird lets out its loud, goofy call. During mating season (January to May), this goes on pretty much all day, every day. Here’s an audio sample:


I also have two brief movies of Oropendola in action. I took these by holding my digital camera up to the lens of a telescope, so the quality isn’t the greatest, but you’ll get the general idea.


Scientists will tell you this behavior serves a purely utilitarian purpose. When a male displays his tail feathers and makes the distinctive mating call, it attracts females, end of story. (In a typical Oropendola colony, there are five females for every male, so the males keep busy.) Like most scientific explanations, this one is sensible and descriptive—but also dull and unimaginative. Thousands of bird species manage to mate without such an elaborate ritual, even if they don’t have yellow tail feathers. I have an alternative explanation for both the swinging behavior and the call: Oropendolas flip around branches because it’s fun, and the call can be translated directly into English as “Wheeeeeeee!” Watch these birds for a few hours and you’ll probably come to the same conclusion.

The name Oropendola is also suggestive of the bird’s unusual nest: a long, narrow woven basket one to two meters in length. Each nest holds just one adult female and her offspring. They hang from the highest branches of tall trees, sometimes in clusters of dozens or even hundreds.

The Birds and the Bees

As with other rain forest creatures such as sloths and leaf cutter ants, Oropendolas participate in some interesting symbiotic relationships. I’ve read two very different accounts, both involving the cowbird, which does not build its own nest but lays its eggs alongside those of the Oropendola. According to one source, Oropendolas like to nest in trees where hornets are found, because the hornets keep away the cowbirds; Oropendolas, in turn, protect the hornets from bees. Other sources say the cowbirds are a desirable neighbor, and that Oropendolas like hornets because they attack botflies, the real enemy. Botflies like to lay their eggs directly on newly hatched Oropendolas, and the botfly larvae feed on the birds. But cowbird eggs hatch before the Oropendola eggs do, and the young cowbirds feed on the botflies, thus protecting the Oropendola.

Oropendolas are not the largest or most colorful birds; most tourists in Central America’s rain forests are really looking for the Resplendent Quetzal, with its absurdly long, bright green tail. But what the Oropendola lacks in sheer flashiness it makes up for in style.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on July 20, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on November 7, 2004.

Image credit: By Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren (Montezuma Oropendola) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A Monte Cristo sandwich

As sandwiches go, ham and cheese is a pretty generic choice, at least if you don’t follow a kosher/halal/vegetarian/vegan diet. If you want to spruce it up, you need to start with an impressive and foreign-sounding name. Then add an ingredient or two and a bit of heat. In the case of a Monte Cristo sandwich, what separates it from run-of-the-mill ham and cheese is partly the choice of cheese (typically a Swiss variety, such as Emmental or Gruyère), but mostly the fact that the entire apparatus is then dipped in egg and fried. Almost like making a sandwich out of French toast. So: more protein, more calories, and you get to charge more for it. Also, it’s kind of delicious, if you go for that sort of thing. For reasons entirely unknown to me, someone decided September 17 should be National Monte Cristo Day, so go make (or buy) an extra-fancy ham and cheese sandwich today.

Image credit: By Visitor7 [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day