On Canadians and space and cheeky geekery

I have always been a bit of a space geek. When I was a kid, I read every single book on astronomy in the public library, and I’ve always been fascinated by space and cosmology. I think I like cosmology (the history of the universe) because it means reading books in warm, bright places instead of standing out looking at the stars on cold, blustery nights!

My endless appetite for space and Canadianisms intersect in the current mission of Commander Chris Hadfield, whom I’m sure you’ve heard is currently aboard the International Space Station. The boys and I watched the Soyus rocket launch on December 19 together, and the boys loved the idea that a Canadian was aboard. He will in fact be the commander of the international mission on the ISS starting (if I remember correctly) in March.

I’ve been following @Cmdr_Hadfield on Twitter for a while, partly because he has some fasinating insight and I kind of want his job, and partly because he’s pretty darn funny. Last week, he was a part of what may be my favourite Twitter exchange ever. William Shatner, known of course the world over as Captain Kirk, sent what seems to be a random tweet to Commander Hadfield:

@Cmdr_Hadfield Are you tweeting from space? MBB

The reply still makes me smile. I can’t help but hope this was a flip reply and not something scripted by PR flacks deep in the bowels of NASA. (I’m actually not sure anyone but an astronaut could be so utterly cool.) Commander Hatfield tweeted back:

@WilliamShatner Yes, Standard Orbit, Captain. And we’re detecting signs of life on the surface.

How awesome is that? The next day there was another exchange, this one with @therealNimoy, where they traded LLAPs (that’s, of course, “live long and prosper.”) Geek overload!

And if you’re not a Star Trek junkie or particularly interested in what it’s like to live in orbit (but seriously, how could you NOT be?!), you should still follow @Cmdr_Hadfield for his amazing space pictures of our beautiful planet, like this gorgeous shot of snowy Ottawa tweeted on December 30:

So let’s review: astronomy plus Canadian plus social media plus photography plus cheeky geekery. Seriously, that’s all my favourite things!!

Did you know you can sign up for text or e-mail alerts from NASA to let you know when the ISS will be flying overhead? I’ve dragged the boys out a few times when a fly-past was in the news, but we’ll be especially keen to go out and watch for one now that we’re so engaged with the current mission. Check out NASA’s Spot the Station site to sign up! When I get any updates for passes visible from Ottawa, I’ll post them on my bloggy facebook page.

Commander Hadfield is actually interacting with people, too, answering questions about what life is like on the ISS. If you could ask a question to a Canadian astronaut in orbit, what would you want to know?

In which she achieves maximum geekery

This? Makes me insanely happy.

Star Wars family geekery

I just waited nearly an hour in line for a car wash so I could properly apply my new Star Wars family decals!! The minute I saw them on pinterest, I had to have them. The only debate was whether Beloved would be Darth Vader or Han Solo. “Luke, I *am* your father!” still gets a lot of play around here, but there was no question that I would be Princess Leia (haven’t I wanted to be her just about my whole life?) and if Beloved were Darth Vader then that would leave me representing the entire Rebel Alliance on my own. Which, come to think of it, really isn’t all that far off from reality, is it?

In the end, though, my life-long love of scruffy-headed nerf herders won out. I mean, who doesn’t have a crush on Han Solo? We let the kids pick out their own decals, so that’s Boba Fett, a clone trooper and a jawa in descending chronological order. The at-at and the mouse droid are a nice touch for Katie and Willie, don’t you think?

Star Wars geekery FTW!!!

My latest grammar pet peeve: Peek, peak and pique

Dear Internet Friends,

I love you dearly, but you make me want to bang my head on the desk when you confuse the homonyms peek, peak and pique.

I would have thought the difference between peek and peak should be fairly straightforward, but when I saw them interchanged for the third time in a single day recently, I knew I had to write this post.

verb: 1. to look furtively. 2. to take a brief look.
noun: 1. a furtive look. 2. a brief look.

verb to cause to come to a peak, point or maximum
noun: the highest level or greatest degree (see here for more definitions)
adjective: of, relating to or being a period of maximum intensity or activity (ie peak business hours)

Every time you misuse one of these spellings for the other, an angel loses its wings.

On the other hand, “pique” is a bit more of an obsure term and I may be able to forgive some misuse. But not after today!

noun: a transient feeling of wounded vanity; resentment. (ie “He slammed the door in a fit of pique.”)
verb: to excite or arouse, especially by provocation, challenge or rebuff.

Here’s a quick quiz for you, with the most common incorrect usage I’ve seen:

“Wow, that’s interesting, you’ve really ____________ my curiousity now!”
(a) peeked
(b) peaked
(c) piqued

You picked (c), right? Right! Now go out and pique somebody’s interest while you’re in peak grammar form. Stay tuned for my next rant on “wallah!” versus “voilà!”

Okay, grammar geeks, now it’s your turn: which grammar errors are curdling your milk lately?

An unprovoked attack on Comic Sans font

I was in a committee meeting of the boys’ school council recently, and one of the other members presented a letter of some import that would be going home with each child in the school on behalf of school council. It was a very serious letter with a significant call to action (we’re raising funds to equip each classroom with a SmartBoard), and the author finished his presentation by saying he was open to the committee’s comments on the content, the layout and ‘even the font.’ At which point I pulled my tongue out from between my teeth and said rather timidly, “Well, since you asked? I hate Comic Sans font.”

It’s true. I’m a font snob. I could spend a day or three simply poking around in free font download sites, leaving the children to run feral. Fonts are like the icing on a cupcake — they can make it exquisite or awful. My personal preference runs to classics like Times New Roman and clean sans serif fonts like the Helvetica you’re currently reading, but I’m also a fan of a well-constructed and playful handwriting font. You’d think that since it more or less intersects all of the foregoing, I’d be a bigger fan of Comic Sans — but I’m not. In fact, it pains me to do this, but in the name of objective reporting I have looked up the necessary coding to turn a part of this paragraph into said Comic Sans font. Are you loving it? I’m not, I have to turn it off now!

I don’t know why people use Comic Sans. To me, it’s the font equivalent of turning every statement into a question. It undermines your credibility. It’s the open-fly and lipstick-on-your-teeth of the font world. In my very humble opinion, you should graduate beyond Comic Sans about the time you stop dotting the letter i with a heart or a star. And apparently, I’m not the only one.

To his credit, my co-committee member took my comments in good humour. In fact, he laughed that I carried such a burden of distaste for Comic Sans. And just a few days later, he e-mailed me this article from the Globe and Mail, which claims that Comic Sans will “will improve your memory retention, help your kids do better in school and make your wife love you more.”

There you go. Different keystrokes for different folks. And for all of my sweet friends who now think that I think poorly of them because of their font choice I will concede that for personal e-mail, it’s not a bad font choice — but it’s not a good one, either.

That’s exactly the sentiment that infuses this long and geek-a-licious article that had me at its title: “Why you hate Comic Sans.” It moves through a designer’s analysis of the stroke and weight of the font, goes on for quite a while using terms like stroke modulation, aperture and anti-aliasing, and then moves on to the bit that really intrigued me — the history of Comic Sans.

His conclusion:

So, the story of Comic Sans is not that of a really terrible font, but rather of a mediocre font, used incorrectly on a massive scale. Windows 95 was the first operating system to really hit it big. Just as computers were starting to pop up in nearly every home in America, Windows 95 was finding itself installed on all of those computers, and with it, the font Comic Sans. So now, nearly every man, woman, child, and bake sale organizer find themselves armed with publishing power unlike civilization had ever seen; and few of them really had any design sense.

He also notes:

So, you see, Comic Sans is an archetypal enemy of the Graphic Designer. Its not only an unattractive font, but it also represents the invisible, evil force that is making the “print” designer less and less relevant. A natural reaction to being threatened is violence, and the hatred for Comic Sans is arguably violent.

A good old-fashioned smackdown between classically trained graphic designers and sixty million DIY publishers — how can you not love this stuff? (I have to admit, I have a vested interest in this one. In my day job, I’m a Web manager but Beloved is not only trained in graphic arts but a teacher of them as well. Apparently we’re the Hatfields and the McCoys of the digital world!)

So where do you fit on the continuum? Need a little help to find out? Take five minutes to take this clever and entertaining quiz from Pentagram: What Type Are You?

Apparently, I am Archer Hairline – emotional, understated, progressive and disciplined. I love it!

And you?

Edited to add:
props and bellows of laughter to @sproudfoot on twitter, who sent me the link to one of the most hilarious pieces I’ve ever read on the web, “Short Imagined Monologues: I’m Comic Sans, Asshole

It opens with this:

Listen up. I know the shit you’ve been saying behind my back. You think I’m stupid. You think I’m immature. You think I’m a malformed, pathetic excuse for a font. Well think again, nerdhole, because I’m Comic Sans, and I’m the best thing to happen to typography since Johannes fucking Gutenberg.

and ends with this:

I’m not just a font. I am a force of motherfucking nature and I will not rest until every uptight armchair typographer cock-hat like you is surrounded by my lovable, comic-book inspired, sans-serif badassery. Enough of this bullshit. I’m gonna go get hammered with Papyrus.

And the middle bits are even funnier than that. Really, go read it!!

In which the Dark Side recruits my kids

I might have mentioned that we love flea markets. It’s a little early for flea market season, but there was an antiques and collectibles show at the Nepean Sportsplex this weekend, and we thought it would be fun to check it out.

About two minutes after we got there, I realized that we’d made a huge mistake. We brought out strong-willed, curious, and relentlessly single-minded two-year-old to a place filled with colourful, breakable, and completely untouchable items by the hundreds — all stacked at toddler eye-level. I almost turned on my heel and left, forfeiting the $5.00 admission charge, but Beloved had already been sucked in by a comic book display, and I felt I should stick it out for at least a few minutes for his benefit.

I was craning my neck around, trying to keep one hand on the grabby toddler, two eyes on the big boys, and scope the joint for vintage cameras, when I noticed the guys dressed up in the Star Wars outfit, and I knew we weren’t going anywhere.

414a:1000 Welcome to the Dark Side

Isn’t that awesome? These guys are just dudes who love Star Wars so much that they joined a group called the 501st Legion, “the world’s premier Imperial Star Wars costuming fan club. They do parades, charity events, and apparently collectibles shows. There are 26 local members, at least a half a dozen of which I met today. I can’t tell you how close I came to joining, or how close Simon’s head came to exploding when he got to hold Darth Maul’s two-sided light sabre!! They had little freebies for the kids, including Star Wars coins and cards, and even “Imperial Guard Training Manuals” with colouring pages and puzzles and coded messages. Talk about little-boy heaven!

As if that weren’t enough Star Wars excitement for one day, we found a table selling old-school Star Wars action figures for extremely reasonable prices. We got this land speeder, circa 1995 but still in the box, plus a handful of action figures, for $18. We got Jedi Luke, Lando Calrissian, and Han Solo with removable carbonite. *snicker*

414b:1000 Star wars toys TtV

Beloved contends he bought this Princess Leia in her gold bikini for the boys. I am not convinced.

414c:1000 Bikini Leia TtV

I can’t tell you how excited I am to see the boys playing with proper Star Wars action figures, and not the new Clone Wars crap. Star Wars has been a motif throughout my life — you think we called him “Lucas” randomly? Okay, it was only partly so Beloved could say to him, “Luke, I am your father.”

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go see if I can find a gold metal bikini on eBay.

We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.*

I felt a pang of nostalgic sadness last week when I heard that film director and writer John Hughes had died in Manhatten. His movies were the backdrop and soundtrack to some of my best memories of high school and young adulthood, and his characters felt like people I knew — extensions of the loopy cast of oddballs that were my best friends in my late teen years. Hughes’ characters had an authenticity that resonated with me, and with my peers, in a way few other teen movies of the era captured.

Hughes was one of the first first directors I knew by name, the first one I felt spoke to me on a personal level with his movies (the other one that comes to mind is Cameron Crowe.) Aside from George Lucas, he’s the only director who has multiple representations in my meagre DVD and aging VHS collection, where The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and FBDO sit contentedly on the shelf beside old-skool Sesame Street and Muppet Show episodes, and well-loved copies of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Princess Bride and Bull Durham. Collectively, they remind me of the other lives I’ve lived… lifetimes away yet never too deeply buried in my psyche.

The Breakfast Club was *our* movie, back in those late 80s days where we roamed free into the territory of pre-adulthood. The dozens of quotes gleaned from the Breakfast Club were rights of passage into our circle of friends – populated mostly by the ones who never quite seemed to fit into any of the other cliques – and if you knew that the world’s an imperfect place where screws fall out all the time, you were welcome.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was one of my first real “date” movie, where a boy I’d just met that day came to my house and picked me up and drove me to the movies. Afterward, we parked at Springbank Park. For what it’s worth, it also happens to be the only time I ever cheated on someone — I neglected to mention to the guy that took me to the movies that I had an out-of-town boyfriend. Oops! Chalk it up to 17-year-old fickleness.

I loved She’s Having a Baby when I first saw it, but it was years later when we took a spin through the badlands of infertility and then into the mania of first pregnancy that the movie really spoke to me. Almost 20 years after I saw the movie for the first time, I bought a CD of the soundtrack when I found myself pregnant with Lucas.

And, now that I think of it, my second-ever blog post (a meagre 1,490 posts ago) made reference to The Breakfast Club, where I described my vision of the blog like this:

Do you remember that scene in The Breakfast Club, where Ally Sheedy’s character dumps her purse on the couch? Well, this is my invitation to you to see all the crap that I carry around inside my heart and head.

Yep, almost five years later, that still pretty much sums it up.

Thank you, John Hughes, for the characters and quotes and connections your movie brought to my life.

Got a favourite John Hughes moment or quote to share?

* The title of this post is a John Hughes movie quote. Can you guess which one without looking it up? It’s always been one of my favourites, because it is so very true, even half a lifetime later.

Edited to add: Through the serendipity of Twitter, I stumbled across this gorgeous, touching, very sweet and very sad blog post about one teenage girl’s pen pal relationship with John Hughes. Go read it. Now! If you’re at all a fan, you won’t regret it.

Happy Star Wars Day!

What, you didn’t know it was Star Wars Day today?

Look at the calendar, isn’t it obvious?

(wait for it, you’re gonna groan)

May the 4th be with you!!!!

(I couldn’t possibly resist this one. The intersection of embarrassingly bad puns and hopeless geekyness is my happy place.)

So since we’re talking about Star Wars, I thought I’d share this article from Slate with you (waves to Holly, who sent me the link in the first place) that asks, “Why does Star Wars still take over the minds of young boys?”

The author ponders: “Maybe it’s the combination of simplicity and multilayered detail, good vs. evil in a world of interdependent yet rival creatures. Maybe it all comes down to Darth Vader, with his fearsome helmet and the voice of James Earl Jones. Or maybe the magic element is the open void of outer space as a backdrop.” (It’s a fun article, well-written and wry, but the comments afterward served as an unpleasant reminder that the Internet is a largely nasty place and maybe I should rethink my goals of ever wanting to be published in something like Slate!)

Whatever it is, there’s no doubt that a love of Star Wars is entrenched in the DNA of our family:

In which the evil Lord Vader protects the innocent Frog Prince and half-Batmanned Bruce Wayne from the evil Mamarazzi

Worthy words and banished words

Okay, so retro is cool, right? And retro is basically recycling old stuff and making it new again, often by those who missed it the first time around, right? Grand, so I’m totally retro in finally remembering on St Patty’s Day that I forgot to put up my annual posts in January about the word of the year and the banished word of the year. I’m so kewl it hurts.

Right then. Word of the year for 2008 from our friends at the American Dialect Society is “bailout”. Excellent choice, IMHO.

In its 19th annual words of the year vote, the American Dialect Society voted “bailout” as the word of the year. In the specific sense used most frequently in 2008, bailout refers to the rescue by the government of companies on the brink of failure, including large players in the banking industry.

The winner was selected by popular vote, following nominations from the public. Subcategories include Most Useful (Barack Obama)(!), Most Unnecessary (moofing), Most Euphemistic (scooping technician), Most and Least Likely to Succeed (shovel-ready and PUMA, respectively), and Most Creative:

WINNER: recombobulation area: An area at Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee in which passengers that have just passed through security screening can get their clothes and belongings back in order.

long photo: A video of 90 seconds or less. Used by the photo-sharing web site Flickr.

skadoosh: A nonsense interjection popularized by Jack Black in the movie Kung Fu Panda.

rofflenui: A blended New Zealand English-Maori word that means “rolling on the floor laughing a lot.”

Ironically — or perhaps not so much — “bailout” was also on the list of words nominated for banishment by Lake Superior State University’s “34th annual List of Words to Be Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness.”

Bailout was defeated, however, and the banishment crown went to “the ubiquitous ‘Green’ and all of its variables, such as ‘going green,’ ‘building green,’ ‘greening,’ ‘green technology,’ ‘green solutions’ and more.”

Not a bad choice, even if I do support the movement in principle. What should really be banished is the use of “green” as a marketing term. THAT would make me happy!

If I were to banish any one word from the English language, it would be “utilize.” I can’t tell you how much it makes me cringe to see this word “utilized” when good old “used” would do just fine. Maybe that’s because it’s usually “utilized” by officious users who never pass over a five dollar word when a nickel word would do, and by people who think turning any prose from active to passive voice is a stroke of creative genius. ( /rant)

What say ye, bloggy peeps? What words or phrases would you banish, should you suddenly find yourself King or Queen of the Language?

(And, can I just add one more quick coda to say how proud — and, honestly, a little surprised — I was yesterday when Tristan correctly used the subjunctive tense in the phrase “if I were allowed to” as opposed to “if I was allowed to”. Yay for internalizing obscure grammar rules!!!)

Apostrophe catastrophe

We’ve defended the disappearing hyphen and debated the lowly comma, but it’s been a bloody good long time since we’ve had a dust-up as much fun as the one-space or two after a period debacle.

Thanks to Kerry, though, we can now turn our attentions to the latest incidence of grammar-phobes running amok. From the Globe and Mail :

The city council of Birmingham, England, has decided to eliminate apostrophes from its street signs. Apostrophes are of course normally quite common in British place names, in constructions such as St. Paul’s Square and Acock’s Green. Apparently Birmingham has been quietly removing them from official signs since 1950, and now it faces a non-standardized mishmash of usage across the city. Citizens have often protested against the changing of historical names. After a recent dispute about punctuation in the name of the suburb of King’s Heath – now Kings Heath – the council decided to put an end to the bickering forever, and introduce a simple rule: no apostrophes anywhere. Now, even the Birmingham Children’s Hospital is the Birmingham Childrens Hospital, dashing the ambitions of that city’s schoolteachers to ever hope to teach children how to write.

Further, “In the British press, the pro-apostrophists accuse Birmingham of Philistinism and degrading the English language, while the antis accuse the grammarians of pedantry and uptightness.”

Now, much as I like a good pedantry-versus-Philistinism cage match, I’ll admit that I’m not as frothed about this debate as I have been over some of our earlier language debates. The apostrophe vexes me at the best of times. Just here in the neighbourhood, for example, we have Smiths Falls and Bells Corners with nary an apostrophe to be found. I usually find myself siding with the traditionalists in any language debate, but I find this one particularly hard to defend.

What do you think? Shall we rally the troops to join the Apostrophe Protection Society, or is the simple existence of the Apostrophe Protection Society yet another sign of the pending apocalypse?

In defense of grammar geeks

Courtesy of Kerry, #99 in the ongoing series of Things White People Like: Grammar.

Sheesh, can you believe there are people in the world who get frothed over the use of the comma? Or punctuation? Or the last letter of the alphabet? What kind of geek delights in discovering grammatical errors the same way kids love to find Easter Eggs?

*whistles tunelessly while looking obliquely to the left*


(P.S. If you click through to read the article, be sure to scan the comments. The original post is funny, but seeing how many people completely miss the satire and argue the rules of grammar — correctly and incorrectly — is priceless.)