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Remembering the Known Unknown, Redux

It happened again. I tried to remember a person (two persons, actually) and remembered several things about them, but not their names. This sounds ordinary enough (especially if you’re a Boomer) but hold on a sec. There’s more.

First, if you’ve never read this entry of mine, it’s might be worth a look. If it’s TL,DR, I’ll summarize: I tried to remember the name of a favorite poet, and failed. However, I did remember that his name was the same as the name of Indiana Jones’ rival in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I couldn’t remember that name either, but I knew it was the same name. After I had gone on to something else for awhile, the name popped up out of nowhere: The poet. The rival.

Clearly, human memory is not a set of SQL tables.

So the other night, I was reading some article online, and it mentioned the hapless Jayne Mansfield in passing, referring to her as a classic “blonde bombshell.” That’s a phrase I hadn’t heard in some time, and after I wondered briefly why there were no brunette bombshells, a peculiar thing occurred to me: There had been two blonde bombshells whose names were odd but very similar, structurally. I remembered that the women themselves were similar, but then again, “blonde bombshell” was a type in its day, and there were many, including Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe, and Jayne Mansfield. Ok. I dug deeper, and came up with another weird recall: Their names both had three parts…but no names appeared. Why is it that I could know that two names each had three parts and were structurally similar, without remembering the names themselves?

Two hours later, while I was reading ARs of the mass storage chapter in my Raspberry Pi book, two names surfaced in the back of my head simultaneously:

Mamie Van Doren.

Monique Van Vooren.

There’s nothing remarkable about either of them, and as I am not a fan of blonde bombshells to begin with, I had to wonder why I remembered them at all. Then again, I can sing the entire theme song of Car 54, Where Are You? which hasn’t been first-run since 1963. Memory is a weird business–especially when it stops working effectively.

Back in the entry I cited from 2013, I posited that we could think before we could speak, and so we probably store the names of things separately from their attributes. I still think this is true, but I think it’s even more peculiar that I could remember attributes of two names without remembering the names themselves. The key may be that we use different neural machinery to store names and attributes, so if the attributes of names are to be remembered, they get remembered by the attribute machinery rather than the name machinery.

It makes evolutionary sense: Knowing that the guy in the next cave is short, strong as an ox, has a stone axe buried permanently in his skull, and has a bad temper is a survival skill. It didn’t matter that he didn’t have a name when there were only four caves in the neighborhood. The attribute that needed to be remembered when looking his way was “twitchy badass.” Names probably evolved out of attributes; think “Eric the Red.” But the attributes came first. Names came about when the world grew so complex that passing knowledge among peers through shared experience was no longer enough.

Evolution doesn’t replace. It overlays. So all that weird freaky ancient stuff is still down there somewhere, and is more loosely coupled to the newer stuff than we might like–especially when it’s the newer stuff that starts to malfunction first.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • Lenin’s head is missing. It was last seen rolling around a forest near Berlin 23 years ago, but nobody can find it now, even though it weighs three and a half tons. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Evidently Lenin loses his head a lot. Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. Shame it didn’t happen in 1890 or so.
  • How far does $100 go in your state? (Backstory here.) Be careful; the figures are state-wide averages. It’s much worse in urban cores. (Thanks to Tony Kyle for the link.)
  • If you’ve never seen one, here’s an ad-farm article. I’ve often wondered if these are machine generated, written by people who don’t know English well, or machine-obfuscated copies of legitimate articles, intended to duck news providers’ plagiarism bots.
  • Wired volcanologist Eric Klemetti reports that a swarm of small earthquakes may presage an eruption from Iceland’s Barðarbunga volcano. The volcano is interesting because its name contains the ancient letter eth (ð) something I don’t recall seeing on Web news sites in a lot of years. To generate an eth on Windows, by the way, just enter Alt-0240.
  • Wired misses as often as it hits. One of its supposed futurists is telling us that the educated elite should be able to license reproduction, and dictate who can and who cannot have babies. By the way, his description of who is unfit to reproduce sounds a lot like the nonwhite urban poor. Articles of this sort are about as wise as “The Case for Killing Granny,” which put Newsweek in a world of hurt back in 2009.
  • To make you love this guy even more, let me quote a summary of presentation he did on Red Ice Radio: “Zoltan argues that ultimately technology will be helpful to the ‘greater good’ and must be implemented, even if by force and even if there are causalities along the way. In the second hour, Zoltan philosophizes about technology as evolution and luck as the prime mover of the human experience. He talks about maximizing on the transhumanist value for the evolution of our species. We parallel transhumanism with religious thinking. He’ll speak in favor of controversial subjects such as a transhumanist dictatorship, population control, licenses to have children and people needing to justify their existence in front of a committee, much like the Fabian Socialist George Bernard Shaw’s idea.” If I were a transhumanist, I’d be ripping him several new ones right now. Or is transhumanism really that nasty?
  • Nobel laureate physicist Frank Wilczek is not proposing thiotimoline, nor anything else (I think) having to do with time travel. He believes that he’s broken the temporal symmetry of nature…which sounds devilish and full of interesting possibilities. As soon as I figure out what the hell it all means, time crystals will land in one of my hard SF concepts in -5 milliseconds.
  • Michael Covington reminded us on Facebook that there are a surprising number of plurals with no singular form, including kudos, biceps, suds, and shenanigans. (I do wonder, as does Bill Lindley, if the very last bubble in the sink is a sud.)
  • That discussion in turn reminded me of a concept for an END piece in PC Techniques that I took notes on but never wrote: the KUDOS operating system, which lacks error messages but pays you a compliment every time you do anything right. In 1992 I was thinking of purely textual compliments, but these days I imagine a spell-checker that plays “Bravo!” on the speakers every time you spell a word correctly. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

The War on “Moist”

I have heard the angry voices (particularly God’s and Stephen King’s–or maybe it was just Stephen King’s) raised against the spreading curse of words that end in -ly, with particular emphasis on dastardly constructs like “only” and “early.” Today, for the first time, I’ve seen lexical blood spilled on a new front, against the horror of the word people are said to revile above all others…


Well. I’m a cultured individual, long steeped in the ways of the world, and no stranger to the pleasures of the mind and the senses. I have tasted anchovies. I have drunk sweet wine. I have read Barry Malzberg. I have danced the Invisible Horse Dance with my nieces and nephews. I have cocked an ear to what was either interstellar noise or leaky capacitors. I have gazed upon the jade sculpture on my tall bookcase until I became…well, you know what I became. I signed up once to pet a naked mole rat, but the line was too long and we had to go home. Genuine WTF moments have gotten thin in this, the seventh decade of my life. But the war on “moist” caught me up short.

I thought it was the primary virtue of cakes. If not, well, what do you call a cake that isn’t dry? Wet? Damp? Sodden? Moldy? (HuffPo takes on this crucial question with elan.)

I see that this is nothing new. The war on “moist” began a long time ago, at least as long ago as 2009. I missed it somehow. The Colorado Springs Gazette did not run the story under a 500-point rendering of “WAR!” Nobody mentioned it on Slashdot, nor Ars Technica, which posts on lots of things it knows nothing about. The war on hated words was highlighted in the New Yorker in 2012, and while there was a long line leading to the word gallows (with “phlegm” and “fecund” fidgeting while waiting their turn) the word eye-to-eye with the Lord High Executioner was “moist.” Men who use the word “moist” are undateable. There is even a Facebook group called “I HATE the word MOIST!” (Well, that certainly nails it.)

So what’s the deal?

The question came up recently on the Facebook wall of a writer friend of mine. A woman whom I don’t know explained: “Just imagine your 65-year-old mother reading it aloud as she reaches a pivotal sex scene in a romance novel. Enough said.”

Enough indeed, especially if you knew my mother, who would be 88 this year if she were still with us. She spent a considerable chunk of her life keeping parts of her house from becoming a little too moist with spilled milk, dog vomit, and thrown cream-of-mushroom mushrooms, which are moist squared. I’m guessing she didn’t have to read sex scenes aloud to be moist-averse. Small children and dogs were plenty.

My view? This has already gone too far. The word “moist” has not been seen in actual use in several months, though many have spoken passionately about it. Alas, its parents “most” and “mist” have unearthed a suicide note. We bludgeoned it, we drew and quartered it, we broke it on Little Orphan Annie’s code wheel, and we mopped up the gore with a towelette. We will not have “moist” to push around anymore. Who will be next? Who? Who?

The New Yorker says: “Slacks.”

I’m in.