Monday, September 17, 2012

What the f...?

I recently received one of those widely distributed emails containing Powerpoint presentations with all sorts of ostensibly little-known fun facts, the sort of thing that tries to make you feel that you are learning something by reading it and therefore not thoroughly wasting your time.  And, on the surface, the “facts” are sort of fun: all polar bears are left-pawed, pigs have 30-minute orgasms, and so on.  But the “fact” that caught my eye was this one: the word “fuck” originated from an acronym

The slide states, as fact, that in ancient England no one could have sex without the express permission of the king.  Therefore, couples having sex would hang a placard on their door on which was printed “F.U.C.K. - Fornication Under Consent of the King”.  Hence, that’s where the word “fuck” came from.  Isn’t it great to know this cool, fun fact?

The problem is that as cool and fun as the explanation may be, it is just plain wrong.  And it only takes a couple of clicks to debunk it.  With some help from, (articles making basically the same point may be found here and here) let me count the ways:

1.  Acronyms did not become commonly used words until the 20th century.

2.  Just a moment’s thought reveals the absurdity of the notion that people would need their king’s consent to have sex.  Just for starters imagine the logistics involved, the time that the king would need to invest granting such consents and the impossibility of enforcement.

3. The word “fornication” has, since its origins, referred specifically to sexual activity outside of marriage.  Therefore, the supposed placard would be inaccurate when applied to married couples wishing to have sex.

The truth of the matter is that, unexcitingly perhaps, the word “fuck”, like most other words, crept into the English language from other tongues, most likely Germanic languages.  The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang cites the Middle Dutch “fokken” (to thrust, copulate with), the Norwegian dialect “fukka” (to copulate) or the Swedish dialect “focka” (to strike, push, copulate) or “fock” (penis).

Even today, when so much of the world’s knowledge is instantly available to most of us, we tend to take things at face value, particularly when they are presented to us in writing.  Canards are circulated and perpetuated, and misinformation runs rampant.  While universally available instant communication has accelerated the proliferation of disinformation, universally available information has not had the opposite effect.

And, by the way, although pig's orgasms do last up to 15 minutes, polar bears are not left-pawed.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Where have you gone, Neil Armstrong?

On Saturday August 25th, Neil Armstrong died at the age of 82.  

As I'm sure is the case for anyone over 50, one of my most powerful memories ever is watching a grainy, black and white image where I could barely make out a man in a huge space suit stepping off a ladder, and struggling to understand that what I was watching was taking place 240,000 miles away, on the surface of the moon.  Although the 8-year old version of myself did, of course, realize that the event was historic, I could not imagine that, 43 years later, it would still stand as (arguably) mankind’s most significant accomplishment.

It has been reported that Armstrong’s serene personality and low profile demeanor were among the reasons NASA selected him over his crewmate Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin to be the first man to step off the Lunar Module on that fateful July 20th.  If this was indeed the case, history bears NASA's decision out as amazingly prescient, for Armstrong, who thus became the public face of the most important feat ever performed by human beings, handled his post-mission role with elegance, aplomb and self-deprecation.  Always deflecting personal credit and instead emphasizing the team nature of the undertaking, Armstrong unassumingly faded into the sunset, never flying into space again and leaving NASA in 1971 for a teaching position in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati.  Even his choice of university exemplified his aversion to pretension, since he felt that the faculty at the small aerospace department at UC would not be annoyed at his coming straight into a full professorship with only a master’s degree, as they may have been, for example, at the larger department at his alma mater Purdue.

In my mind, Neil Armstrong is as much a hero for the way in which he handled himself after his moon landing as for his role in the landing itself.  In the words of Charles F. Bolden Jr., the current NASA administrator, Armstrong “carried himself with a grace and humility that was an example to us all.”  Armstrong precisely embodied the prototypical test pilot / astronaut mentality, so brilliantly exemplified in movies such as "The Right Stuff" and "Apollo 13", where the emphasis is on quietly getting things done, and letting others do the celebrating.  Doing their job, not for the money, not for the fame, but because it's a job that needs doing.   The satisfaction of a job well done is reward enough for these men and women.

Neil Armstrong's legacy transcends his accomplishments and instead encompasses the idea that humility enhances heroism, while self-aggrandizement deprecates it.  In the face of today’s choreographed touchdown dances, appalling self-promotion and shameless exhibitionism, Armstrong’s quiet, dignified modesty should be held up as the way accomplishments ought to  be celebrated.  The first man to walk on the moon “...always believed he was just doing his job”.  All of us, from multi-million dollar athletes on down, can certainly benefit from that example.

One final tidbit from the Google Search blog that should leave us all awash in humility: NASA used about as much computing power for the entire Apollo program, in flight and on the ground, as is used for a single Google search today.

What have you and I done with the computing power at our disposal?