Celtic to Gaelic to Irish

What we call “Celtic” is a bit of a misnomer that misses the bigger picture

People use the term “Celtic” to generally describe traditional Irish (as well as Scottish and Welsh) types of art, literature, music, etc. Celtic crosses, Celtic dance, Celtic jewelry, Celtic tattoos even, all have a certain “look” we call Celtic, but it didn’t start out that way.

What we call “Celtic” is largely because of the Celtic Revival movements of the 19th & 20th centuries. This term constitutes a series of narrowly selected cultural elements from a limited range of time in the British Isles. While this generated renewed interest in these particular traditional cultures, the Celtic Revival movements also oversimplified (and flat-out got wrong) other elements of Celtic culture.

Celtic

The Celtic Revival focused on the Celtic cultures found in the British Isles, but the Celts were a lot bigger than that. The Celts were a mix of tribal peoples who originated in central Europe (more or less around Austria) a few thousand years ago. Pinning down exactly where the Celts came from and when they came into being, is debatable.

Eventually the Celts worked their way westward claiming land across Europe and around the 6th century BCE began migrating up into the British Isles. In the 1st century BCE the Romans expanded their empire and killed off many of the Celts in mainland Europe in the process. As a result, the survival of the Celtic culture was primarily in the British Isles but also in a few small pockets of territory along coastal Western Europe.

The Celts had their own language which evolved over the centuries depending on where in Europe they were. Eventually Celtic got split into three categories:

  • Continental: which created a few now extinct languages
  • Britonic: which created a few extinct languages as well as Welsh, Cornish, and Breton.
  • Gaelic

Gaelic

In Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man the Celts became the Gaels who developed their own language of Gaelic. Gaelic then became the basis of three languages:

  • Manx: the (mostly extinct) language of the Isle of Man
  • Scottish Gaelic: spoken in the highlands & the Hebrides of Scotland, it is also called Scottish (which is different though than Scots, which is a different Scottish language that is Germanic based)
  • Irish Gaelic

Irish

The Gaels who made Ireland their home developed their own culture and their own Gaelic language of Irish Gaelic, also just called Irish. Today Irish is one of two official languages of the Republic of Ireland (the other being English). Because of early Irish Gaels leaving Ireland for Scotland and the Isle of Man, Irish Gaelic was the basis of what became Scottish Gaelic and Manx.

Today most people in Ireland speak English as their primary language. Most media, politics, and business is in English. That said, according to the 2016 Irish census 39.8% of the country (1.7 million people) said they could speak Irish. But of those Irish speakers only around 73,000 people (around 1.7% of the population) speak Irish as their primary language. To help the language survive & grow the Irish government has programs & plans in place such as Irish being a mandatory subject in school.

So while “Celtic” tends to mean all things Irish in pop culture, the true roots of Celtic culture are much older and much more diverse. While large parts of Irish culture (including the language) are originally Celtic, not all things Celtic are Irish.


Also: Celtic is pronounced with a hard “k” sound as “keltic”, unless you are referring to the Boston basketball team or the Glasgow football club which use a soft “s” sound as “seltic”.

Cleopatra was Egyptian…ish

Cleopatra was the last in a line of Greek rulers of Egypt

One of the most famous Egyptian rulers, Cleopatra (aka, Pharaoh Cleopatra VII Philopator) was the final ruler of Egypt before the kingdom fell to the Roman Empire. During her rule she commissioned portraits of herself in the traditional Egyptian style and she could speak the Egyptian language (something that her family predecessors never bothered to do). All of this would make it seem like Cleopatra was Egyptian, except she was Greek.

Cleopatra was the last ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a 275 year rule that originated in Greece. The founder of this family dynasty was her ancestor Ptolemy I Soter who was one of Alexander the Great’s most senior generals. When Alexander died in 323 BCE he had a kingdom that stretched across the ancient world from Egypt to India and it had to be managed. After a series of deals & wars, Ptolemy gained control of the Egyptian portion of the kingdom and declared himself pharaoh. Thus began the Ptolemaic dynasty. Under this dynastic rule, native Egyptians were generally held to the lower classes while Greeks held the political and economic power. The Greek descendants of Ptolemy continued to rule over Egypt until Cleopatra’s defeat by Julius Caesar’s grandnephew Octavian in 30 BCE.

A Beatles Opening & Closing

Two of the most famous chords in music

An opening chord

It’s been called the most famous chord in rock ’n roll. It’s the jangly opening chord that starts the Beatles 1964 hit song A Hard Day’s Night which also starts the album & the movie of the same name. This one sound is actually multiple instruments playing different notes simultaneously. For years it has been the subject of debate trying to solve exactly what instruments and chords are being played.


One of the reasons it is so hard to solve this mystery lies in the concept of polyphonic music. In polyphonic music different instruments or voices are playing different melodies that together create a larger whole. European polyphonic music originated in the early Middle Ages but became much more complex by the 16th century and onward (as heard in the organ fugues of J.S. Bach). When you line up the rows of sounds being played, Renaissance era polyphonic music paid attention to the vertical sounds, the harmonies and chords, that could happen when the different rows of music would momentarily come together a key points. This brings us back to the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night.

The opening chord is made up of five instruments sounding simultaneously. When you line up those five instruments, together they produce a sound that no single instrument is playing on its own. This is why it has been so hard to solve exactly what was being played – you have to separate out five different instruments that are sounding as one big chord.

A lot more has been written on this chord, but you can listen to Randy Bachman (of The Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive) recount his experience of getting to visit the Abbey Road Studio and listen to the opening chord one track at a time to break it down.

A Closing chord

From the most famous opening chord, to one of the most famous closing chords. The final chord in A Day In The Life ends both the song and the 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Like the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night, much has been written about the closing cord of A Day In The Life. The song was written by Lennon & McCartney as usual, but their contributions remained fairly separate in the song.

The opening portion of the song was by John Lennon which then transitions to the Paul McCartney portion following a chaotic swelling of the orchestra (which will be used again). The song transitions back to Lennon using a modified melody based on Hey Joe. Following the second Lennon portion the chaotic swelling orchestra is used again to build tension and dissonance. The orchestra swells higher and higher, with seemingly no end in sight.


Frank Lloyd Wright used a concept he called “compression & release” in his architecture. He would compress you into a small space and then, turn a corner, you are released into a spacious open room. His grand open rooms are that much more impressive after you have just been compressed in a small space. He would build tension and then release it in a big payoff. In a similar way, the Beatles architected the end of A Day In The Life.

The chaotic climbing swirling orchestra increasingly builds tension for the listener until suddenly a pause and then an explosion of a thunderous monophonic harmonious final chord. This final chord is actually produced by three pianos and a harmonium all playing an E-major chord simultaneously. It rings out for over 40 seconds by a slow increase in the volume in the studio.

It’s said that upon hearing an early version of A Day In The Life, an already frayed Brian Wilson was left in shambles realizing the the song’s greatness. Jonathan Gould, author of Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America, said the closing chord was “… a forty-second meditation on finality that leaves each member of the audience listening with a new kind of attention and awareness to the sound of nothing at all”

Bringing both chords together, British music critic Ian MacDonald said that the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night and the closing chord of A Day In The Life were “… opening and closing the group’s middle period of peak creativity.”

An added bonus: Jeff Beck’s all instrumental cover of A Day In The Life.

White Hats & Black Hats

The heroes and villains in westerns had reliable looks

In old black & white westerns of the 1920s-40s, the heroes and the outlaws generally followed pretty standard looks. Our heroes would be in white hats, our villains in black hats. This is largely because of Western culture’s semiotic associations that the color white represents good while the color black represents evil. Also, white & black standout more in the colorless mediums of early black & white movies and tv. The show Westworld carried this forward when visitors to the park chose which color hat they wanted, which informed their experience in the park of being a good guy or bad guy. This distinction of white hat or black hat has become a cultural metaphor more broadly. In the hacking community white hat hackers hack ethically in order to find security flaws and work with companies to improve their defenses, while black hats hack to steal information.

Beyond just how they look, some westerns also had the heroes and villains move in certain directions during pivotal scenes. Because most people are right handed, heroes would walk from left to right across the screen with their gun hand visible to the viewer, keeping their intentions known at all times. Villains would approach from right to left, with their gun hand hidden from the viewer, as if hiding their intentions from the audience.

Outside the western

Our association of the color black and villainy extends beyond tv & movies. A study of 25 seasons of NHL hockey found that players wearing black were penalized more frequently than players in lighter colors. Whether the players in black really were more villainous and committed more penalties or that the referees were biased by black clothes, is unclear.

One notable exception with our connotations to the color black of course is the Man In Black, Johnny Cash. Cash sang that he wore black as a visible symbol of his solidarity with the marginalized people who our society has ignored & abandoned.

Johnny Cash sings about being the man in black.

The Hedonic Treadmill

Knowing when to step off the treadmill and be happy

Hedonism is about finding pleasure and avoiding suffering. It ranges from the wild to the mild, but essentially it is a way of thinking where we want to be happy and should seek out ways of making ourselves happy.

The hedonic treadmill (also called hedonic adaptation) is an idea where each of us has a default level of happiness, and that our happiness will return to this default level despite life changes. If we make more money and start living a fancier lifestyle, what might make us a bit happier at first, soon becomes the new normal and we return to our default happiness level. We get more, we get used to it, and then it takes even more to make us (temporarily) happier again. It’s an arms race where it can constantly take more to feel happier and it can go on forever. Whatever the change, we tend to get used to the new speed of the treadmill.

The good news is that it also works the other way around. If we lose a job or some catastrophic accident befalls us, we can adapt to that as well and (over time) return to our default happiness level. In his TED talk on the science of happiness, Dan Gilbert discusses a study of lottery winners and people recently paralyzed, and that after a year both groups had returned to their pre-incident level of happiness. The treadmill can speed up or slow down but your happiness level will adapt.

Epicurus

Epicurus was a 4th century BCE Greek philosopher who created a school of philosophical thought, known today as Epicureanism. While the word “epicure” means someone with fine taste in food & alcohol, Epicureanism is a much deeper collection of teachings that have little to do with food. Epicurus was a hedonist, in that he felt happiness was good and pain was evil, however he taught that we should enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Happiness can be achieved through friendship and living a simple life. Perhaps it’s best to know when to step off the hedonic treadmill and appreciate what you have rather than running faster for more.

The Hippos of Pablo Escobar

In the Colombian jungle, Escobar’s hippos wander.

During his reign as the head of the Medellín Cartel drug empire, Pablo Escobar’s net worth was in the tens of billions of dollars. As such, Escobar could & did purchase a variety of extravagant items. He also spread the money around the local community. The venn diagram of these types of spending overlap with his personal zoo.

In the 1980s Pablo Escobar built a zoo for himself at his countryside estate Hacienda Napoles. He allowed schoolchildren to see the animals on class trips. After Escobar was killed, and Hacienda Napoles was confiscated by the government, most of the animals were dispersed to other (actual) zoos. All of the animals found new homes except 4 hippos which continued to thrive and today have fruitfully multiplied to over 80 hippos. These wild Colombian hippos are becoming a real problem in the region because they aren’t easily contained to just one area, they eat and poop in large quantities, they don’t have many predators, and any solution to the problem (aside from killing them, which the general public doesn’t want) costs money that the government doesn’t want to spend.

The Curb Cut Effect

When a solution intended to help one group helps multiple groups.

Curb cuts go by different names, but around the world they are the small inclined ramps in the sidewalk that provide easy access to the street. Without curb cuts, people in wheelchairs have to either rely on strangers to help lift them up/down between the sidewalk & the street, or they have to wheel along until they find a driveway (which could mean traveling in the street with moving cars). For some, the simple act of crossing the street can be fraught with difficulties.

The first program to install curb cuts was in Kalamazoo, Michigan in the 1940s. Jack Fisher was an entrepreneur, a disabled WWII veteran, and a Harvard educated lawyer who worked to get hundreds of fellow disabled veterans access to medical & financial assistance. It was because of his time with his clients that, in 1945, he worked with the city to get curb cuts and rails installed around the downtown, which gave a wide variety of people easier access to the businesses of Kalamazoo. The intention of the curb cuts was to enable the disabled (veteran or otherwise), but the program had unintended benefits.

The Curb Cut Effect

The curb cut effect is when something intended to help one group ends up helping multiple groups. The curb cuts were designed for the physically disabled in Kalamazoo but turned out to also benefit the elderly, they help delivery people rolling shipments to and from trucks, people pushing babies in strollers, runners, people dragging suitcases, etc.

We can see the curb cut effect again with television closed captioning. What was designed to assist the hearing impaired unintentionally benefited others. Now viewers in loud spaces can read what’s being said on tv, viewers who are new to a language can follow along more easily, shows & movies with strong accents are easier to understand, etc.

The curb cut effect can be found all over. The flexible straw was designed by Joseph Friedman to help his daughter drink from a glass, but now they also help people with mobility restrictions. Gender neutral bathrooms may be for the safety & comfort of trans & non-binary users, but they also shorten the wait time for women while also providing men with more baby changing stations than men’s rooms usually do. Optical character recognition (OCR) was designed to digitize text and help the visually impaired read books, but now the technology also allows everyone’s phones to look at text in other languages and translate it on the fly.

A rising tide lifts all ships

The curb cut effect shows that helping one group can spill over into helping others. If nothing else it is good to help others get fair access to the things most people already have. With the curb cut effect, an investment to help one group can reap a greater return on investment.

Despite this, intentionally spending resources to help just one group is often resisted by society — it can be seen as playing favorites, or creating dependencies on government handouts, and/or that helping just one group is to act at the exclusion of helping others. Most of this opposition comes from political conservatives who tend to have less interest in fairness or helping minorities. American conservatives are more likely to think of financial assistance intended to help the disadvantaged as creating a “welfare state”, despite (paradoxically) that they themselves are the number one recipient of government handouts. What the curb cut effect demonstrates is that, if helping others isn’t reason enough for charity & goodwill, at least you might also be helped in the process.

Carats, Karats, Carets, & Carrots

A crash-course on Carats (measures gems & pearls), Karats (measures gold purity), Carets (a symbol), and Carrots (popular with humans & rabbits)

Carat

The carat is a unit of measurement for the mass of gemstones and pearls. Each carat is equal to 200mg of mass. So the more carats, the larger the stone / pearl (basically the more it weighs). The word carat comes from the Italian “carato”, which comes from the Arabic “qirat” which means “fruit of the carob tree” and also “weight of 4 grains”, which also comes from the Greek “keration” for both the carob bean and a small weight.

Karat

Karat with a “k” is a measurement of gold purity. It comes from the same root word as Carat with a “c”, from the Greek “keration”. Gold products are frequently alloys, different blends of gold and one or more other metals. The karat measuring system is a 24 part system and tells you what the ratio is of gold to other metals. So 1 karat gold is 1 part gold mixed with 23 parts other metal(s). Pure gold is 24 karat and contains no other metals.

Interestingly, pure 24 karat gold is fairly soft and not very resilient for jewelry or coins. Silver, copper, and zinc have been popular metals to pair with gold. These other metals strengthen the gold to make it harder. This is not true of lead, which was sometimes used to make fake gold coins. This is where the idea of biting a gold coin comes from. Most real gold coins were hardened alloys and would not leave a tooth mark when bit, but fake gold coins used lead which would be soft and leave a mark.

Caret

A caret is this ^ , which is a typographical mark used by proofreaders to show where something needs to be inserted into an area of text. Caret comes from Latin for “there is lacking” or “it lacks.”

Carrot

Finally, the carrot we are most familiar with is the vegetable, which originated in Persia. Its name also comes from Greek but from “karōtón” meaning horn, since the vegetable has a slightly horn-like shape. Carrots are a healthy vegetable full of beta-Carotene which is a red-orange colored organic pigment. When we eat beta-Carotene it synthesizes into Vitamin A which is good for you (… in moderation). Due to its color, storing extremely excessive amounts of beta-Carotene (eating way too many carrots) has the side-effect of turning a person’s skin orange through stored deposits in the skin cells.

Under normal circumstances however, beta-Carotene is converted into Vitamin A and can give us healthy skin, a better immune system, and good vision. This last part about better vision is the foundation of the myth that British WWII pilots were such good shots because they ate their carrots. In reality, they secretly had on-board radar and didn’t want the Germans to know about it, so they started a propaganda campaign saying their ace shooing was all due to carrots (which the British had an abundance of).

Marlene Dietrich & Queen

One of the most iconic photos of Queen was inspired by a photograph of Marlene Dietrich

For their second album, Queen II, Queen wanted to explore the theme of duality. This was visually explored through black and white imagery and even labeling the two sides of the album Side White and Side Black. They went to photographer Mick Rock (who had worked with David Bowie, Lou Reed, and others in the mid ‘70s glam rock scene) to photograph the album cover.

Rock had recently been shown a 1932 photograph of Marlene Dietrich from the film Shanghai Express. Dietrich was lit with a technique known as “butterfly lighting” where one of the lights is positioned in-front and above the subject, casting shadows down from the subject’s brow, cheeks, and nose (the shadow below the nose produces a butterfly looking image, hence the name). This was a technique frequently used with Dietrich to accentuate her facial features, especially in her collaborations with director Josef von Sternberg.

When Rock showed this photograph to the band, Freddy Mercury loved the idea that they could recreate it for the album cover.

“I don’t know if it was the shot itself or the idea that [Freddie] could be like Marlene Dietrich—probably a combination of the two,”

Mick Rock

This Dietrich inspired pose was used again in the music video for Queen’s greatest masterpiece Bohemian Rhapsody. The video for Bohemian Rhapsody, at over 1 billion views on YouTube, extends Marlene Dietrich’s influence even further, despite some viewers not even knowing it.

Oil’s Origins

Oil doesn’t come from dinosaurs, it comes from plankton.

When people hear “fossil fuels” they sometimes think that oil (petroleum) came from dinosaur fossils. This isn’t out of left field. At the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933-34 Sinclair Oil sponsored an exhibit that taught people that oil was formed during the time of the dinosaurs. Reinforcing this idea there’s also the logo & mascot for Sinclair Oil, Dino the dinosaur. Sinclair again pushed this connection of dinosaurs & oil at the New York World’s Fair in 1964 even though the science had become pretty clear that oil wasn’t made from dinosaurs. So what makes oil? Plankton.

What are plankton?

Plankton are water dwelling life forms that (more or less) drift with the current. The name “plankton” actually comes from the Greek for “wanderer” or “drifter” which makes them sound like edgy antiheroes in a pulp novel. There are lots of different kinds and sizes of plankton, and they fill all sorts of ecological roles ranging from being food for larger organisms to producing 50% of the Earth’s oxygen. Bacterial plankton formed in the oceans 3 billion years ago and were basically the only form of life until 600 million years ago. That’s an enormous amount of time. So as plankton over that time died, most fell to the bottom of the sea floor and began the process of becoming oil.

Let’s make oil

Lots can happen during hundreds of millions of years. The plankton that fell to the bottom of the oceans continued to accumulate as well as other sediment. The plankton would decompose releasing most of their chemicals but the hydrogen & carbon would remain. This continuous process of plankton and other sediment falling to the ocean floor meant that the former material would be pushed further down and compacted under intense pressure over millions of years, generating heat. It was this pressure and heat that “cooked” all of those plankton into oil.

While it is certainly possible that some dinosaurs may have found themselves a part of this oil making process, it’s just very unlikely they made up much oil – they usually weren’t in the right places and there weren’t enough dinosaurs (not enough raw material to cook with). Instead of being made from some of the Earth’s largest creatures, oil was made from massive amounts of some of the smallest.