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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 16, 2010

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Siphons, Robin Hood, Lost

Everybody knows what a siphon is. You have two containers of fluid, one whose contents are at a higher level than the other. You connect the containers with a tube full of fluid, and it will flow from the higher to the lower until they balance (or the higher one is empty).

I saw it done several times as a kid, always to get gasoline from a car's tank into a can that could be used to fill the tank of a lawnmower, motorcycle, or another car. The tube was inserted into the full gas tank, and then the guy would suck on the tube like a straw until gasoline came into his mouth.

Then he'd quickly put the flowing end of the tube into the target tank and hold it there till it was full enough.

Meanwhile, he had gasoline in his mouth. Nowadays people have apparently smartened up a little -- any amount of gasoline taken into the body is poison, and I haven't seen it done in years.

Still, even though we all know what a siphon is, apparently we don't all know why it works. I remember a smug teacher once asking us why we thought siphoning worked. "Gravity," we said. "That's why water seeks the lowest level."

"No," said the teacher. "It's air pressure. The atmosphere presses on both containers of water and pushes the liquid through the tube."

I remember sitting there puzzling about that. Wouldn't the air pressure on the higher liquid be marginally less than the air pressure on the lower one? If it were air pressure, wouldn't the fluid therefore flow up into the higher one?

Besides, air pressure, on an open container, is gravity. (Pressure inside a closed container can be different from the ambient pressure -- thus tanks of compressed air or liquid, airplanes that maintain higher cabin air pressure than the atmosphere outside, and submarines that maintain lower pressure inside than the water outside.)

But to prove it, the teacher showed us in the dictionary that the definition of a siphon said atmospheric pressure was the force moving the liquid from one container to the other.

Well, guess what? Dictionary definitions are made up by people doing their best to explain the meaning of a word. And if they get it wrong, the error can persist for decades.

That's because, once there's a perfectly good definition (or so you think), there's no particular reason to write a new one. And if the definition is in the Oxford English Dictionary -- the dictionary with the most authority of any in the English langauge -- the definition is taken as gospel by later definition-writers working on other dictionaries.

So the error about the meaning of siphon, introduced in 1911 in the Oxford English Dictionary, has been reproduced faithfully for nearly a century.

Meanwhile, real scientists don't look in dictionaries for explanations of scientific phenomena. So they never know where their students are getting their absurd ideas.

Finally, an Australian physicist -- Stephen Hughes of the University of Queensland -- noticed the discrepancy and cared enough to see how widespread the error was. Said he, "An extensive check of online and offline dictionaries did not reveal a single dictionary that correctly referred to gravity being the operative force in a siphon."

He went on to explain, "It is gravity that moves the fluid in a siphon, with the water in the longer downward arm pulling the water up the shorter arm."

When Hughes reported the error to the staff of the Oxford English Dictionary, he was told that no one had ever questioned the definition in the century since it was written!

Luckily, the dictionary's current update is at R, so a change in the definition of siphon still has time to get into the next edition.

People misuse dictionaries all the time. It used to be that dictionaries contained only the "correct" definition or pronunciation of a word. But in the 1950s lexicographers (people who make dictionaries) began using a value-neutral process, merely reporting how the language was being used.

Thus gross mispronunciations are reported as being just as valid as the correct pronunciations -- so the furniture sales industry continues to speak of a bedroom "suit" instead of "suite," as if the "e" were merely decorative, and the accents of verb/noun pairs are converging on the noun accent (verb "conTRACT" and noun "CONtract" now converging on "CONtract" so people say "He CONtracted the disease" as if "he" had entered into a business relationship with it).

Now, this is perfectly all right, as long as you don't care how you sound to educated people. But those who learned the correct ("received") pronunciation can't help but feel at least surprise, and usually a bit of contempt, for people who regularly mispronounce perfectly ordinary words. It is especially irritating in television and radio personalities, whose mispronunciations spread quickly because so many people hear them.

(Though there are other people, like me, who rather admire individuals, not on the air, who clearly learned a word only from reading it, and making their best guess at pronunciation. This suggests that they grew up in a society that did not use the word, and have bettered their vocabulary by reading alone. This is, in my view, admirable.)

When it comes to definitions, however, the lexicographers are right. Words not only shift in meaning, they should do so. Language bends to fit the needs of those who speak it, and where a nuance -- or a whole new word -- is needed, why not grab an existing word and make it fit?

But siphon was not a case of reporting a shift in meaning. Instead, it was an attempt by a lexicographer to include in a definition a bit of information that is not actually part of the definition at all! Siphon is used to mean the transfer of liquid from one container to another by an enclosed tube, without regard to why it works.

The why is a matter for science education, not dictionary definition, because the word siphon is used for the process whether or not the person saying it has a clue about how it works.

What do we learn from this? That dictionary definition writers are fallible human beings, and just because a dictionary says something doesn't mean it's so.

Meanwhile, science often falls into the same trap as the definition-writers, of relying on authority even when authority is ludicrously wrong. "We all thought it worked this way, but now we realize it works another way entirely" -- how many times has that sort of thing been said in the history of science?

Millions of times. Because that's what science looks like when it's working properly: Better explanations constantly replace worse ones as we get more data or better theoretical models.

And, however slowly, dictionaries work the same way. It only took a hundred years to correct the error in the OED's definition of siphon.


Don't forget the showing of the final episode of Lost on the big screen at the Carousel Theater on Sunday night! Festivities start at 7:00 p.m. with the recap of the whole series to date, then continue with the actual final episode from 9:00 to 11:30 p.m.

The Carousel is helping the celebration by charging no admission for this showing, and offering popcorn and drinks for the profit-killing low price of $1.50 per item.

This is going to be the biggest Lost party in North Carolina. Our local ABC affiliate is making it possible by allowing the broadcast (and they are also going to contribute Lost-related prizes). But whether you get a prize or not, you get to see the episode on a theater-sized screen (using the brightest projector) and with theater-quality sound.

As for the quality of the episode itself, let's face it: After all these years, no climax is going to feel completely satisfying. There have been rather silly moments in the latest episodes -- the harsh American accent of the "mother" of the warring twins Jacob and Smoke Monster, for instance, was a ludicrous choice, and the mumbo-jumbo Jacob murmured before handing the cup of enchanted water to Jack left us chuckling at the unintentional humor.

It's a problem when you raise expectations over several years, but at least the Lost writers are doing a much better job than, say, the writers of The Matrix. And give ABC credit for allowing them to choose an ending date for the series so it can go out with a bang and not a whimper.


When I found Iron Man 2 more than a little disappointing, I consoled myself by telling my family that the movie I was really excited about was the new Robin Hood.

Ever since Kevin Costner's botched-up Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (directed by Kevin Reynolds with weak-kneed screenplay by Pen Densham), I have been wishing for a good Robin Hood movie.

The biggest problem with the Costner Robin Hood was that Kevin Costner simply can't do swashbuckling heroics. His low-key acting style was flat wrong for a supposedly charismatic leader -- who would follow him into battle? -- and Morgan Freeman made Costner's weaknesses all the more obvious because he, as the implausible "Moor now living in England," did a much better job of giving inspirational speeches.

Previous Robin Hoods have not aged well, in my opinion. The 1938 Michael Curtiz-directed version, starring a perpetually enthusiastic Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, just feels silly to me and always has since I first saw it in the 1950s. The best thing about it is Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne -- but Basil Rathbone as villain was often the best thing in any given movie.

It's just sad that the version of Robin Hood that is most faithful to the original stories is the 1973 Disney animated feature with humanoid animals playing all the characters. Though it is nice to hear great performers like Andy Devine, Peter Ustinov, Terry-Thomas, and Roger Miller doing some of the voices.

The very best version of Robin Hood is actually a sequel. Robin and Marian (1976), directed by Richard Lester with a script by James Goldman (who wrote the brilliant The Lion in Winter), takes it for granted that everyone knows what Robin Hood and his gang did in their youth as they lived in Sherwood Forest and robbed from the rich to give to the poor.

Now, back from the Crusades, they don't quite know what to do with themselves. Marian (Audrey Hepburn) is a nun now and has no time for Robin; and Robin himself (Sean Connery) is a tired old soldier.

Despite the offbeat sequelish nature of the story, never have these parts been played by a finer cast. Robert Shaw as the Sheriff of Nottingham, Richard Harris as King Richard the Lionheart, Nicol Williamson as Little John, Denholm Elliott as Will Scarlett, Ian Holm as King John, and Ronnie Barker as Friar Tuck -- every part is played to perfection.

And this is arguably James Goldman's best script. Yes, the ending is tragic -- but it's also noble and romantic and beautiful. This is realistic heroism at its best, and should be on anybody's list as one of the hundred best movies of all time. It's certainly on mine.

But it still leaves one wishing for a great movie about the original story -- Robin Hood in his heyday. And since 1938's overacted, under-serious version, that's the movie nobody has bothered to make.

So I thought -- fool that I was -- that the 2010 version of Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, with Ridley Scott directing, would finally be that movie.

I could not have been more wrong. Because this has by far the worst script of them all.

That's right -- Mel Brooks's satirical Robin Hood: Men in Tights did a better job of telling a warm, moving, believable story.

The actors in this latest Robin Hood do a heroic job -- of trying to make this stupid script mean something to us.

I hear that originally, the first version of the screenplay was trying to tell the Robin Hood story from the point of view of the Sheriff of Nottingham. That's actually a good idea. But the problem is Hollywood. You have to have an A-list actor playing Robin Hood, and the moment that happens, the story has to be about Robin Hood. The Sheriff-of-Nottingham movie could only be done as an indie film.

One of the reasons that Costner's Robin Hood stank up the screen was because of the amount of time they wasted trying to tell the "true" story of Robin Hood, identifying him with a purported Locksley of Locksley Hall. Ho hum.

But this movie apparently thought that Costner's version wasn't boring and historically silly enough. So these writers -- including Brian Helgeland, who should have known better -- tried to give it all kinds of medieval stink and sweat, along with a historical context that is so surpassingly irrelevant that the movie never actually seems to begin.

That's right, the movie ends where the actual story of Robin Hood and his merry men in Sherwood Forest begins.

Or so I'm told. Because after 50 minutes, we walked out.

We might as well, we decided, since not only were some of us falling asleep, all of us wanted to.

When a nap seems a better choice than the movie you're supposedly watching, you might as well go home.

But in those 50 minutes of tedium and stupidity, the only thing I found entertaining was the sheer madness of spending this much money and talent creating nothing. Because this is a movie that kept beginning. Time after time, we seemed to be starting over, and yet none of the storylines amounted to anything.

Lady Marian Loxley has her grain stolen, and can't get the local priest to release any grain from his granary so they can plant anything this year. (An absolutely stupid idea since [a] even corrupt medieval priests knew that having the local gentry unable to plant grain for the coming year would cut into the church's portion, and [b] the priest in that parish was almost certainly appointed by Lady Marian herself or some other secular official to whom she could have appealed, successfully, for relief.)

Meanwhile, we get to watch a deliberately de-heroicized King Richard die (as he died) of an arrow shot from the wall of a castle he was besieging. (But Richard's relationship to his men, his antics and conversations, and even the historical circumstances of the battle -- it had nothing to do with the Crusades -- were ludicrously wrong.)

We see an absurd conversation between Eleanor of Aquitaine and Prince John, saying words they could never have said and depicting a relationship they never had, not a speck of which was relevant to any storyline in the movie; not to mention the fact that most modern moviegoers have no idea who either character was in history, and the scene did nothing to help them.

We also watch Robin (Russell Crowe) doing con-man tricks with three cups and a ball -- only his game turns out to be "honest." (There is no point to the game if it isn't a con.) Yet after he proves to his challenger that he did not cheat, Robin attacks the man! Why? Is he really that stupid? Yes! Yes, he is!

This is how stupid Robin is. After they happen upon the scene of an ambush, where the crown of the late King Richard is up for grabs, Robin actually suggests that he and his band of merry archers should mount the horses of the knights who were slain, wear their armor, and pass themselves off as knights!

Thus we learn that Brian Helgeland, who wrote A Knight's Tale, has managed to base his career on medieval movies while not understanding even the tiniest fact about actual medieval life.

Anyone with eyes could have seen that archers were not knights. The massive shoulder muscles, the callused fingers, the complete inability to ride a horse or wield a sword or lance -- these would have been dead giveaways.

Then, the moment they opened their mouths to speak, the charade would have been over, because the armiger class in England at that time spoke Norman French amongst themselves, while the archer class spoke "English" (what we would call Middle English).

Obviously some archers could understand enough French to get by, and many -- or most -- knights from England itself could speak enough English to give orders to the locals; but the fact remains that unless these archers were fluent in the Norman French of the upper classes in England, they could not pass themselves off as any kind of knights, especially not the kind of knight who would be entrusted with the crown of the dead king.

But what do you expect from writers who have a (pointless) scene between a French-speaker and an English-speaker, where the language barrier is first made a big deal of and then dropped completely, in which both speakers, in the real world, would have spoken only French.

Apparently these poor writers didn't realize that the kings of England at that time derived most of their income and power from their holdings in France, and spent most of their time there. It would be another hundred and fifty years before English became the primary language of the kings of England.

OK, I get it -- ignorant as the writers were, the audience is at least as unknowledgeable about English history. What actually kills this movie is that there is no character who is presented as admirable or even remotely sensible; none whose motivations we can understand, let alone sympathize with. There is no storyline that seems to be going anywhere.

There is a brief moment when Robin refers to his own upbringing, and as our 16-year-old said after we walked out, "That was the only story that sounded interesting at all. Why didn't they make a movie about that?"

Why indeed.

I have heard from some people who rather liked the movie -- pretty much the way a lot of us rather liked Iron Man 2 -- it wasn't much of a story, but there was lots of action and some pretty good acting.

But the story of Robin Hood is a legend. An authentic one, passed down for generations. It's a story, for pete's sake, and yet nobody since the Disney cartoon animal version has even tried to tell it!

Wait. I take that back. The Liam Neeson-starring Rob Roy actually came closer to telling the authentic Robin-Hood story than any of the films under that actual name. Though Neeson suffers from the same inability to be heroic as Kevin Costner, the cast was otherwise almost as brilliant as the Robin and Marian cast (Tim Roth as the villainous swordsman, and Jessica Lange, John Hurt, Eric Stoltz, Brian Cox, and Brian McCardie in other important roles).

So here's my advice. Unless you regard movies as nothing more than an excuse to stare at bright pictures while imbibing salt and fat in the form of popcorn and high-fructose corn syrup in the form of giant vats of soda pop, don't bother seeing this miserable excuse of a Robin Hood.

Pop your own popcorn and crack open cans of your own soda pop at home, while watching the brilliant Robin and Marian, the pretty darn good Rob Roy, the mostly funny Robin Hood: Men in Tights, or the adequate Disney animated Robin Hood with talking animals wearing clothes. Or even amuse yourself with the pathologically enthusiastic ham performance of Errol Flynn in the 1938 version. Every one of these is better than the current travesty.

Meanwhile, I think it's time that someone who actually knows history and understands storytelling wrote a script for a real Robin Hood that would give us the experience that made this an enduring legend.

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