Fun: birds in small words

The webcomic xkcd posted a comic a while ago that explains rocket science using “only the ten hundred words people use the most often.” It’s a great idea, and clearly the creator thought so too, since he’s now writing an entire book around the concept. He has also made freely available a tool that allows you to write using only those one thousand most common words.

Here is the first sentence of an old post (Animal visual illusions), as I originally wrote it: “Animals interact visually all the time.” Here is the same sentence rewritten using only those thousand most common words: “Animals do things with each other using what their eyes see all the time.” The second version is much harder to understand; there is definitely value in having more than a thousand words to work with.

But what about words that don’t represent some especially nuanced or complex concept, but exist for the sake of specificity: labels, like bird species names? Dark-eyed Junco does not pass muster in the xkcd word checker tool, unsurprisingly. I can get as far as Dark eyed small brown bird that jumps along the ground and has white on the outside of its — but now I’m in trouble: tail isn’t allowed; neither is butt feathers or bottom fan. I have to switch directions and go instead with: Dark eyed small brown bird that jumps along the ground and has a white stomach and black head and looks round in the cold.

juncos_everywhere_Berkeley3

Why not just say “Very great best bird”?

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Advice from whales and elephants: listen to Grandma

Grandmothers are an evolutionary mystery.

Well, not grandmothers exactly: rather, women who have passed menopause. Human men can sire children as long as they live, but human women can’t have children after they go through menopause. But why do we have menopause at all—why stop having babies? Isn’t it always better, evolutionarily, to have more babies?

I don't know, this might be too many babies...

I don’t know, this might be too many babies…

The mystery is far from solved, but we have some good clues.

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Why do animals lick their fur?

Furry animals can spend a lot of time licking their own fur. Here, a mother sea otter demonstrates:

The simple explanation—that these animals lick their fur to keep it clean—is more or less true, but not nearly the whole story: animals get a lot more out of licking their fur than a stain-free coat.

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