New Hampshire result clogs up moderate lane for Democrats

– Reuters (February 12, 2020)

It’s easy to visualize how a 100 yard dash would go awry if Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, and Marianne Williamson all had their own lanes while Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar had to argue over whose turn it was to use the starting blocks. Lane-sharing in a foot race is contrary to the very idea of having lanes.

In traffic, lanes may be assigned by ethos: slow vehicles to the right, ride sharers to the left, with left-turners in a center lane. But these lanes are meant to form orderly lines, not facilitate a race. The ride sharers all get to where they’re going at the same time.

The race metaphor itself is a dubious description for presidential primary campaigns, where the goal is not to get anywhere first but to gain the most delegates. It’s more like a fishing derby than a marathon. Debates are like boxing, or a combination of boxing and gymnastics (Warren vaults ahead by gut-punching Bloomberg). The peloton in bicycle racing – a pack pursuing a frontrunner – might be the most apt of Olympic metaphors for political campaigns, with doping and dirty tricks being part of the game.

Image: Karl Stull

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To have actual de-escalation diplomacy, don’t you need to have kind of off-ramps that both sides can kind of take baby steps in that direction to kind of develop good faith to show that things are ratcheting down…

– Anderson Cooper, Anderson Cooper 360° (January 6, 2020)

In war, you have an exit strategy. In a diplomatic crisis, off-ramps.

A war is like a party that has become tedious. With an exit strategy, you know in advance where the door is and what excuses you’ll offer. “It was so nice of you to invite us, but now we’ve met all our goals in coming. [Smiling, waving] Good night.”

But a diplomatic crisis is like an accident about to happen on a strange superhighway. For some reason, the superhighway has only one lane. A truck is coming from the other direction. To avoid a crash, you look for a well-paved excuse. “Oh, look, this exit has pie and coffee, and meeting rooms with negotiating tables.”

The same important principle underlies both metaphors: you need an excuse to get out of a war.

Photo: Missouri Department of Transportation

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We are preparing for the battle at the top of the mountain.

– Governor Andrew Cuomo (NY), March 31, 2020

The “mountain” Governor Cuomo had in mind was a statistical curve showing the distribution of COVID-19 cases – coming all at once or spread out over time. A very steep curve would hit the health care system like a tsunami, said ER management consultant Eric Holdeman (mrsc.org, March 24). President Trump questioned whether “mountain” was too tall a term.

You look at most places where that – you can call it the bump, you can call it the hill, you can call it the mountain, you can call it whatever you want – it’s very flat. (April 6)

At the same press briefing, President Trump saw “light at the end of the tunnel,” suggesting there could be rapid progress through the bump/hill/mountain. A couple of weeks earlier, epidemiologist Michael Mina was also thinking in terms of a tunnel: “We are flying blind through this tunnel at the moment, and we don’t know where we are in the epidemic curve” (LA Times, March 24).

Dr. Carlos del Rio of Emory University, a specialist in global health issues, cautioned there is still a considerable way to go back down after reaching the peak of Everest (CNN, April 8). Further imagery on “getting from here to there”:

This may be a marathon, not a sprint . – Tyler Falk (National Public Radio, March 6)

It’s not time to take your foot off the accelerator. – Dr. Anthony Fauci (White House COVID-19 Task Force, March 31)

The only regret we will have is if people cut the parachute before we land. – Gov. Gavin Newsom (CA) (March 31)

Looking ahead to the other side of the mountain, Governor Cuomo anticipated a program of antibody testing: “That is going to be the bridge from where we are today to the new economy” (April 8). A week later, he added:

We are bridge builders. That’s what we do. Sometimes literally, sometimes symbolically, sometimes metaphorically. (April 15)

Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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Got a rocket in your pocket. / Keep coolly cool, boy.

– “Cool,” West Side Story (1957), lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

“Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?” This quip is universally credited to Mae West, from as early as 1936, and there have been variations: pipe, rod, banana. As a device that emits, a pistol is metaphorically more descriptive than a banana. A man who is sterile is said to be firing blanks.

Arising from the same general shape and location, the rocket metaphor takes the penis beyond sex to other realms of male excitability. The Jets want revenge, and testosterone urges action. Hence the call to be cool (heat being a metaphor for emotion).

The timeliness of Sondheim’s rocket metaphor is noteworthy. The USSR launched Sputnik in 1957, and the rivalry for turf in outer space was on.

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Okay, I think we took that subway one stop too far.

– Bill Maher, Real Time (May 3, 2019)

Maher was talking to Moby, who had just made the point that the third-largest contributor to global climate change is animal agriculture. Not addressing animal agriculture, Moby said, was like worrying about lung cancer and not addressing tobacco. This won warm applause.

On a roll, Moby went on. He didn’t like human beings very much (being a pro-animals activist), so maybe it would be just as well to ignore climate change and “you all keep eating beef and bacon until you die.” Everyone understood “you” was being used in the most general sense, but the second-person pronoun sounds personal, and the audience felt…thrown off the Moby train. The silence was like a tunnel with no light at the end.

Maher put the show back on track with his reference to subsurface transportation. In some ways, a lively conversation is very much like an unfamiliar route on a subway. You have a destination in mind but can’t see what’s ahead. Which is why not getting off the conversational train at the right moment is a mistake that everyone with the power of speech has made.

An unlively conversation, too, is like a ride on the subway – on a line that is all too familiar, rolling on rails to the same dreary platforms. As conversational commuters, we must mind the gap.

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The first NASA mission was Ben Franklin’s kite.

– Source unknown (possibly Neil de Grasse Tyson)

Ben Franklin’s kite was like a NASA mission in several ways. Launched during a thunderstorm in Philadelphia in 1752, the kite was an American vehicle sent skyward for a scientific purpose. The vehicle remained in communication with ground control, via the kite string. And it carried a sensor: a metal rod that picked up an electrical charge from the stormy atmosphere.

The charge was conveyed through the wet kite string to a metal key, which was connected to a Leyden jar, which stored the charge. Using scientific tests of the time, Franklin confirmed the jar had acquired a charge and so proved that the nature of thunderstorms was electrical.

Was this a remote-sensing mission, like Galileo, which traveled to Jupiter and sent back science data? Seen another way, Ben Franklin’s kite might have been more of a sample-return mission, bringing electricity from the sky to earth for analysis, the way Apollo missions brought rocks from the Moon – and future missions will someday bring rocks from Mars.

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C’mon, it’s like a zipper!

– I-80 motorist to merging traffic

On a crowded freeway, when two lanes of traffic must narrow down to one, the cars may come together like the teeth of a zipper – two sides taking turns to open and fill spaces efficiently. The “teeth” are not like chomping teeth but like the teeth in the gears of a well-designed machine, such as a pocket watch.

But sometimes the traffic gets jammed, as zippers sometimes jam. Jamming occurs in traffic when some of the drivers see themselves as racehorses rather than gears, jockeying for position in a crowded field where one will come out ahead and the others…well, they’re losers. Clearly, putting racehorses together with gear teeth results in a mishmash, something like a log-jam, in which the benefits of competition and cooperation are both lost. It is bad to mix metaphors.

The word log-jam entered American speech by 1885 (or 1851), and registered in the national imagination as an image of colossal system breakdown by 1907, when the Springfield Weekly Republican reported that a legislative log-jam had at last been cleared in Congress. Traffic jam became a word around 1917. The zipper came to market in 1925 as a closure for boots, a quick and easy alternative to too many buttons.

Photo: Karl Stull

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Hurricane Irma barrels toward Florida

– Repeatedly on newscasts in September 2017

To barrel is to travel with great speed, especially with great weight and force, like a train, bus, or runaway barrel filled with 250 gallons of wine (called a tun, weighing about 2,000 pounds/900 kilos). This use of barrel is an American expression, documented in the 1930s but likely going farther back. In a 1914 short story called “Easy Money,” W.W. Jacobs alludes humorously to the sight of a barrel getting loose on a loading ramp:

“Wot’s the matter?” ses her mother, coming downstairs like a runaway barrel of treacle.

Ancient Rome learned the art of barrel-making from Celtic tribes in the north. Compared to the clay jugs (amphorae) used previously to transport wine, oil, and similar commodities, a barrel was light, less susceptible to fracture, repairable in the event of leaks, and maneuverable. A dockworker could roll a barrel that was too heavy to lift and easily steer it left and right, thanks to the bulging sides, called the bilge.

Satellite video of a hurricane looks like a rolling barrel that sprays wine as it powers toward landfall.

Photo: Tony Thompson, RR modelers blog: http://modelingthesp.blogspot.com/2012/02/wine-as-industrial-commodity.html

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An egg is a space capsule.

– Neil deGrasse Tyson, on Real Time with Bill Maher (May 19, 2017)

An egg is a sealed environment, protecting a passenger. It provides oxygen, nutrition, waste disposal, and shielding against life-threatening conditions outside. It is fragile, but engineered aptly to its purpose, and strong enough for the job most of the time.

An egg is meant to be opened. An egg delivers its passenger to a new world.

Thinking about the first creatures that came out of the sea to live on the land, it’s hard to picture how they transitioned from breathing water to breathing air. Yet it happens every time a chick hatches, every time a baby is born.

So the egg:space capsule comparison brings us to the answer to an age-old question: Which came first, the astronaut or the space capsule?

Obviously, there can be no space travel before there is a space capsule.

Photo: Apollo 5 space capsule, NASA/Wikipedia

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Watch the order as they load the sled. It’s like layering cold cuts into a sandwich, John. It takes maximum efficiency.

– Bree Schaaf, color commentator on 4-man bobsled at the Pyeongchang Olympics (2018)

This is a simile meant for Subway employees. They work on a fast-food assembly line (no wasted motion). And the sandwiches they produce resemble a bobsled. But most of us will have a hard time seeing the urgency – much less the “maximum efficiency” – in everyday sandwichery.

We also have a hard time appreciating the athleticism, performance, skill, and strategy in 4-man bobsledding – which, of course, was the point Schaaf wanted to make. To the untrained eye, bobsledding looks like drinking buddies out for a Saturday night prank, joyriding somebody’s trashcan down an icy hill in Vermont. There they go: Ham, Cheddarhead, Turkey, and Monterey Jack.

Photo: US Army team at 2010 World Cup trials 2010, by Tim Hipps, FMWRC Public Affairs https://www.flickr.com/photos/familymwr/4383583231

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