Format War Veteran

There are many important decisions that shape our lives and by which we judge other people.  Coke or Pepsi? Rolling Stones or Beatles? New York or LA? Cats or dogs? iPod or Zune? That last one was pretty easy for the vast majority of people.  The competition between two titans of the technology industry to be the music player in your back pocket should have been a heated battle that raged for years. Instead, Microsoft’s Zune never achieved more than 10% of the market, taking two years to sell as many units as Apple sold in a month.  A few short years later, the Zune was quietly shuffled off to the format war graveyard. 

As long as we have had media on which to record our art, there have been competing formats.  While more modern examples like Betamax vs VHS or Blu-ray vs HD DVD may leap to mind, format wars go back as far as the days of Thomas Edison and the first audio media, wax cylinders.  The first format war was between Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner, both of whom invented competing types of media for the phonograph. Edison first pioneered the wax cylinder in the 1880s. He originally intended it as a means of recording telephone conversations, but the cylinders soon became a popular format for musical recordings.  In the following decade, Berliner released the disk record, the shape we’re familiar with today. Disks had originally been used solely in children’s toys, and in the beginning their sound quality was poor. Frighteningly, terrifyingly poor. Look on YouTube for the first talking dolls. Chucky had nothing on these girls.

Baptism by…

Baptism announcements in church newsletters are not usually cause for much excitement outside of the initiate’s family, certainly not a matter for the state supreme court.  Unless you’re a particular Syrian-born man who claimed that the church in Tulsa, OK where he converted to Christianity agreed to keep his name private. They posted it on the church’s website, as they do with all baptisms, making it the first google result for the man’s name.  Which is why, when he returned to Syria, he was kidnapped and tortured, and why he later took the church to court. 

It took the man, only called John Doe in court documents, three days to escape his captors, several months for he and his wife to return to the United States, and multiple surgeries to repair the injuries he’d received.   He cannot return to Syria, leaving behind a son, a house, and two cars, and received frequent death threats. Doe sued First Presbyterian for $75,000, accusing it of breach of contract, negligence, and outrage. (more…)

Surprise Polyglot

Like all things, English has changed and developed over time. Though it began as a German language, many words are taken from Latin and French. The grammar is also from other Germanic languages, but neither is it much like that of Romance languages. Romance languages, like French, Italian, Spanish, and Romanian, come from the far western reaches of the Roman empire, where people spoke common, or vulgar Latin.

As its name suggests, the English language began in England. Germanic tribes (Saxons, Angles, from whom we get the word English, and Jutes) came to Britain from around 449 AD, pushing out the Celtic Britons or making them speak English instead of the old Celtic languages. Some of the Celtic languages, like Welsh, Irish Gaelic, and Scottish Gallic, are still clinging on today. The Germanic dialects of these different tribes became what is now called Old English. Old English did not sound or look much like the English spoken today. If a time machine dropped out off back then, and you didn’t immediately kill them with disease, you’d be unlikely to understand more than a few words. (more…)

Read A Rainbow

What do the missing words in the following book titles all have in common?: The ___ Mile, Where the ___ Fern Grows, The ___ Letter.  Need a clue? Here’s an easy one: Fifty Shades of ___. That’s right, all of these books these have colors in their titles, like a butterfly in the sky. Let’s take a look at these books and read a rainbow.

Let’s kick off the show with the most widely-circulated colorful book – the yellow pages.  You don’t ever hear, “I’m in the book” anymore and our fingers don’t “do the walking” as much as they do the swiping these days.  Considering that there have probably been more phone books in print than any other publication in the history of the world, this represents a large cultural shift in a relatively short amount of time.  The first phone directory was created in 1878 on a single piece of cardboard, with fifty listings, and it didn’t have any numbers. It only listed the names of the businesses that had a telephone, since human operators connected all calls and the average person needed to be taught to use their newfangled telephone.    (more…)

Panto to Python – a history of British Comedy

“The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created.  This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”  Thus begins Douglas Adams’ Restaurant at the End of the Universe, sequel to his culture touchstone The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  That’s the book that gave us the answer to life, the universe and everything, though not the question. Welcome to episode number 42, which I have decided to devote to [drumroll] the history of British comedy.  That means we’re going to try to cram hundreds of years, thousands of performers, and a dozen mediums into a half-hour show. But don’t panic. 


British comedy history is measured in centuries, from chase scenes and beatings into Shakespeare’s comedies to the misadventures of Mr. Bean.  Even as times, tastes, and technologies changes, some themes are eternal.  Innuendo, for example, has been a staple in the literature as far back as Beowulf and Chaucer, and is prevalent in many British folk songs.  King Charles II was such a fan of innuendo that he encouraged it to the point that Restoration comedy became not only its own genre, but an explicit one at that.  The repressive Victorian period gave us burlesque, though not in the same form as the shows you can see today – more vaudeville than striptease. Absurdism and the surreal had always been an undercurrent, which firmly took root in the 1950’s, leading Red Dwarf, The Mighty Boosh, and Count Duckula.   (more…)

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