Unexpectable Know-Where-It-Goes

My daughter received a cute toy from her dentist the other day. It's a bouncy ball, all covered with knobby bits. Which means that its bounces are unpredictable - it careens around the room in a most unexpected manner.

Guess what my son calls it, lacking a ready-made term for it?

Unexpectable Know-Where-It-Goes.

No one could do better.


Dinner table debate

Oh and how I love Stephen Fry. He's been blogging lately, which is a treat. Blessays, he calls them; you can access them from this site: http://stephenfry.com/blog/

In a recent blessay, "Getting Overheated," Fry writes of a dinner party at which he got into a debate with an American about global warming. It's well worth reading, mainly for some very good points he makes about intelligent argument and his reasons for taking action even in the absence of utter certainty. And he says some amusing things about Terry Pratchett fans that I managed not to take personally. Read it, do.

What struck me first in this article, though, is an observation Fry makes about the difference between the average Brit and the average American 'round the average dinner table (and this has nothing to do with whether the milk or the tea goes in first*):

I like to think I’m never vituperative or too ad hominem but I do know that I fall on ideas as hungry wolves fall on strayed lambs and the result isn’t always pretty. This is especially dangerous in America.... Americans are not raised in a tradition of debate and that the adversarial ferocity common around a dinner table in Britain is more or less unheard of in America. ... To a Briton pointing out that something is nonsense, rubbish, tosh or logically impossible in its own terms is not an attack on the person saying it – it’s often no more than a salvo in what one hopes might become an enjoyable intellectual tussle.... Americans really don’t seem to be very good at or very used to the idea of a good no-holds barred verbal scrap. I’m not talking about inter-family ‘discussions’ here, I don’t doubt that within American families and amongst close friends, all kinds of liveliness and hoo-hah is possible, I’m talking about what for good or ill one might as well call dinner-party conversation. Disagreement and energetic debate appears to leave a loud smell in the air.

Is this so? Americans unused to debate? Adversarial ferocity? Verbal scraps? This is not my experience, but I experience Americans as a Canadian, not as a Brit. Anyone else care to weigh in?

* Milk first is, my dear, non-U. And I can even tell you why: Poor quality tea cups could crack when filled with boiling water straight from the kettle as Orwell recommends. If it's, "Milk in first, Dinah, and save the crockery," then we know a thing or two about the quality of your tea service. The finest bone china requires no such manoeuvrings.


What comes once in a minute, twice in a moment, but never in a thousand years?

(Sorry for the long absence, my loves.)


Oh, wicked, bad, naughty Zoot!

Well, I was saving this for Zoot's birthday. But that's too long to wait. Here you are then, Zoot; you were not the first Zoot I knew. This is a gem of an excerpt from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). With love, Dingo.


DINGO: No, I am Zoot's identical twin sister, Dingo.

GALAHAD: Oh, well, excuse me, I--

DINGO: Where are you going?

GALAHAD: I seek the Grail! I have seen it, here in this castle!

DINGO: No! Oh, no! Bad, bad Zoot!

GALAHAD: What is it?

DINGO: Oh, wicked, bad, naughty Zoot! She has been setting a light to our beacon, which, I just remembered, is grail-shaped. It's not the first time we've had this problem.

GALAHAD: It's not the real Grail?

DINGO: Oh, wicked, bad, naughty, evil Zoot! Oh, she is a naughty person, and she must pay the penalty -- and here in Castle Anthrax, we have but one punishment for setting alight the grail-shaped beacon. You must tie her down on a bed and spank her!

GIRLS: A spanking! A spanking!

DINGO: You must spank her well. And after you have spanked her, you may deal with her as you like. And then, spank me.



I came across The Hall of Documentation Weirdness again recently, a great site by a Vancouver writer called Darren Barefoot. It features unintentionally hilarious technical illustrations from around the world, made all the more humorous by Barefoot's quizzical captions.

The site has been around for a few years now, and it's as good as ever, although I notice that it now includes some ads. (I remember its popularity spiked back in 2002 or 2003 when it got slashdotted: Barefoot was probably inundated with offers that he could not refuse.)

Anyway, it's wonderful; you must check it out. Here's a teaser:

"From a Dell computer box. I believe the caption should read 'If you drop this box on a dog, don't trip over its tail'."



I attended a seminar on somefink called "minimalism" recently. Naturally, what this is depends entirely on the context. If I were an art historian, you might think I was talking of Stella or Serra. If I were an architect, you might think I was talking of Mies van der Rohe.

But I am a technical writer. (Now, stay awake. I'm not finished yet. You don't want me to tip Tilted Arc [1981] over on you, now do you? It's heavy.) Talk of minimalism in technical writing circles always comes 'round to JoAnn Hackos, technical communications superstar. Yes, we have them too. Superstars, that is. You haven't heard of them, but they're out there. And Hackos is their Queen.

The seminar was unbelievable!

Here are the highlights:
- We write too much; no one reads it. (This manual..., In this chapter..., This document assumes..., Before you begin..., Introduction..., Getting to Know the Product Features..., Navigating the User Interface..., Document Conventions..., Related Publications..., Overview of...Using the Such and Such Feature....) Yawn, yawn, yawn. All a waste of time and space.
- We don't provide what people want. (Just tell me how to increase the volume of my cell phone! Just tell me how to increase the volume on my cell phone! Just tell me how to increase the volume on my cell phone!)

We meticulously document every software feature, yet we're still somehow missing the point.

Why? Because we don't understand what customers are actually trying to do with the product. It's actually easier to write from spec, from talking to engineers, and from looking at the user interface than it is to talk to users. So that's what most of us do. But it won't do. It won't do.

I was pretty inspired to do things differently. Stay tuned. I hope I'll have more to tell you soon.



Remember when I got all excited about the iBelieve?

Well, the Christian techies are at it again. Check this out: GodTube ("Broadcast Him"), a video social networking site that sounds like a cross between YouTube and Facebook.

It's described here as "The fastest growing Internet site in the US" with a growth rate of 973 percent in the single month since its launch. The same article tells us this about the site:

One of the hottest and "most viewed" videos on the site's home page is called "Rapture – End of Times". It depicts recent world events as a prelude to the second coming of Jesus Christ at which time only the faithful will accompany the saviour to heaven (in the video they disappear into thin air during an Adobe Flash of lightning*) leaving the sinners and non-believers behind in a hell on earth of their own making.

* LOVE that: Adobe Flash of lightening. Why can't I think up these gems?

Ergonomic Keyboard for Pirates

Spotted off the starboard bow of Language Log. Did you know that today is Talk Like a Pirate Day?

I looked up avast, by the way. According to Merriam-Webster, this is "a nautical command to stop or cease." Sort of like the seafarin' version of ESC.


What do you get when you cut an earthworm in half?

Did YOU think the answer was "two earthworms"?

Sadly, no.

Turns out that the lengthy Death Spasm of the earthworm outlasts the attention span of small children.


You: "Hey! Two earthworms. Cool!"

You: "Hey! Dirt! Cool!"
You: "Hey! Isn't that Jacques Cousteau?! Cool!"
You: "Hey! Ice cream! Cool!"



Fact courtesy of Q.I.
Q.I. courtesy of Richard.
Jacques Cousteau distraction courtesy of Scott.


Don't Forget the Chicks This Time

I am thinking of getting my boss this t-shirt for Christmas. She will LOVE it. Shhh... it's a secret.

Available in assorted sizes from the fine fellow who brings us Dinosaur Comics.



A friend forwarded me an e-mail message from the Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy about their Masters of Science in Animals and Public Policy program*. He had a feeling that one of the words in the message would raise my eyebrows a fraction. He was right. Here it is:

"You might like to know that we have completed a second year of rigourizing** our curriculum."


I have nothing against made-up words. All words, after all, are made up by someone at one time or another. This, however, is a particular type of made-up word that bothers me: it does not improve the sentence.

It's pretty clear that rigourize is inspired by the adjective rigourous. According to m-w.com, rigourous means manifesting, exercising, or favoring rigor: very strict. Tufts is making this program more rigourous; I can see that, but only after stopping at this new word, doing a quick translation, and returning to read the rest of the sentence.

In this case, the new construction murkifies the sentence, blockifying my comprehension. Instead, I would suggest:

"You might like to know that we have spent two years making our curriculum more rigourous."

And I do! I do like to know!

* Which sounds simply spanking! Here's an enticing description of the program (from the same e-mail message):

Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy pursues research on the changing place of animals in society. Our Master of Science in Animals and Public Policy (MAPP) is an interdisciplinary degree in human-animal studies and public policy.

Human-animal studies is kin to environmental studies with a focus on wild or domestic animals in relation to nature and society. Our program is interdisciplinary with a curriculum that balances theory, methods, topics and research. We welcome students from the natural and social sciences, as well as the arts and humanities. We also give due attention to both qualitative and quantitative modes of research.

**His word absent from the dictionary or not, our Tufts author is not utterly alone: rigourize gets 7 hits in a Google search; rigorize, 1,150. Looks like the Americans are more likely to use it. Our author, I'm guessing from the ou spelling, is likely a Brit or Canadian living in the US, but I'll wager he's been there awhile.


More Pundles

Here are some more pundles*; good luck!

o er t o


k k
c c
u u
t t
s s
word word word word

* Acnowledgements to http://www.billsgames.com/. No peeking though. You know I hate that.


Customs and Immigration

I'm in California at the moment (lunch, Mr. Kite? Monday or Tuesday?). My husband and my two little kids are here too. They decided to come along to keep me company because I am here for a full week. We are lucky to be here. Let me tell you about the nasty thing that happened to me at the Vancouver International Airport.

If you're travelling to the US from Vancouver, you clear (if all goes well) Customs and Immigration in Vancouver. I've never had any problem crossing... until yesterday.

I got a bad feeling from the officer right from the moment we were directed into his queue. He took his time before he looked up from the glow of his computer screen to acknowledge us. I won't say greet us because, um, that didn't happen. (Despite the pure fiction they have displayed on posters in the Customs Zone at the airport: We pledge to greet you with courtesy and welcome you to the United States. Ha! More like, We pledge to get erections while we give you the silent treatment until you start to babble and cry.) Anyway, he asked some questions, and then slowly and deliberately reached for an upsettingly non-handy fat purple felt pen.* I could tell this wasn't his regular pen. He wrote a big letter "H" on my customs card. "H"?? I've never seem that before. What could I have said to give me the worrisome H?

Then he said, "Go in there." And pointed to a set of closed doors. Not a good sign. (Did I mention that it is 4:30 am?) I said, "Is there a problem?" He said, "I don't know."

To make a long story short, we had a long wait in the second room. The clock was ticking (as clocks do), and I was starting to get nervous about missing my flight (the fam was on a later flight so I wasn't as worried about them). Finally, I had some more questions from a slightly nicer person and found out that I am violating NAFTA rules by coming down here to do work. The only reason they finally let me through was because I swore up and down that I was only coming here for training and that I wouldn't do a stitch of work (so help me god). The fact that I work for the same company in Vancouver as the one that I am visiting in the US? Makes no difference. The fact that I am doing the same work in Vancouver as I would do in the US? Makes no difference.

Good to know. Wish my company had given me a heads up (does this take an apostrophe? I've often wondered. I will look it up someday).

They added an annotation to my passport record. I expect that border crossing will get harder from now on.

I ran and made my flight with 2 minutes to spare. I am not in very good cardiovascular shape.

But here we are. We're having a pretty good time.

* Yes, I need that many adjectives.



My favorite books from my childhood are those in C.S. Lewis's Narnia series. In particular, I love The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Naturally, when I was a little mite, I didn't pick up on the Christian symbolism. Now that I am a Big Fat Atheist, I notice it all right, but don't give a hoot. Actually, that's not quite true: if anything, I rather enjoy it. I suppose it's because the books were already special to me.

More of a problem for me is the fact the Susan doesn't get to come back to Narnia at the end of the series. Why not? This is especially hard for a child reader to understand. A child reader wants the whole family together: the thought of an excluded one is hard to accept.

I can tell, even from the very first book that she appears in (T.L.t.W.a.t.W.), that Susan is not Lewis's favored child. She doesn't want to give in to the magical world. In Prince Caspian she is the last to see Aslan and is responsible for leading the children astray while they are on their way to join the battle. In The Last Battle, Susan does not appear and is described by one of the children who returns as "...no longer a friend of Narnia." But why? Is it because she is too cautious and sensible to believe (to have faith?) or is it because (as some critics think) she is becoming a sexual being, more concerned with her own beauty?

And what of Aslan's words in T.L.t.W.a.t.W.: "Once a king or queen of Narnia, always a king or queen of Narnia"? How are we to reconcile these things? Perhaps Susan just has to wait for her turn. Maybe she has a thing or two to learn first.

Neil Gaiman (most awesome modern fantasy writer) wrote a short story a few years ago called "The Problem of Susan." (It appears in his recent collection, Fragile Things.) This story features an elderly Professor Hastings, who is Susan Pevensie in her dotage. Worth a read. Gives quite a different perspective. Don't read aloud to children.


Water and Wine

I'll admit that the puzzles that appear here are easy for me to pull together for your enjoyment: I don't make them up. They're the lazy girl's blog post. The low-hanging fruit. You'll see more of them when I'm busy. When I don't have time to do a proper post about (a) what I'm reading*, (b) atheism, (c) language, or (d) funny stuff, I'll give you a puzzle to hold your interest. I want you to stay with me!

So, without further ado:

You have a glass of water and a glass of wine. Both glasses contain the same volume of their respective liquids. Take a teaspoon of the water and add it to the wine, then take a teaspoon of the wine and add it to the water.

Question: Is there now more water in the wine glass or vice-versa? Can you give a simple explanation for your answer?

* Harry Potter book 7, I'm afraid. All of creation is reading this at present. My cousin told me of a recent spoken word performance she attended: the performer simply took a seat, paged to the end of the latest Harry Potter, and read the last 4 pages aloud. He was booed.


Explain this sequence

Explain why this sequence is ordered as it is:

8 5 4 9 1 7 6 3 2 0


T-Rex is damn sexy!

Surely you agree! Enjoy more of his awesome exploits at qwantz.com.



As a follow-up to this post, I feel I should alert you to the existence of the term wev.**

This, apparently, is a short form of whatever, come to us through the intermediate stops of whatev and whatevs. Yeah, it sux having to text words of eight or more letters...unless they are strings (can't really call them "words") like omfgrofl or kthxbye: eight little letters doing the work of many, many more.

I don't like wev—not because it's abbreviated, mind you (I luv abbrvs! Abbrvs rck! UR N MY BRAIN, TOXOPLASMOSING MY GRMMR***)—for all the same reasons I don't like whatever, but I suppose it has a breezy newness to it. At least, it does for me; at least, it does so far.

**Yes, yes, this is also from Language Log.

***I didn't make this up. I don't know who did. I wish it were me.


Democrats are finding God

I'll just say it: they're finding God to get votes. I don't believe for a minute that Clinton, Obama, and Edwards are devout. Heck, I can barely bring myself to accept that they're theists. Someone has been advising them that an avowal of faith would be a smart tactic.

Is this a bad move? I know what R. Dawkins would say (dear R. Dawkins is bursting a gasket), but I'm not sure. Here's an excerpt from the July 12 Time magazine cover story, "How the Democrats Got Religion":

The most conservative white Protestants, [John C. Green] says, are all but off-limits to the Democrats. But then there are more than 22 million voters he calls "freestyle Evangelicals," worried about not only their eternal souls but also their kids' schools, their car's fuel efficiency and the crisis in Darfur. In the past, those voters may have leaned Republican in part because the G.O.P. has been far smarter about presenting itself as friendly to people of faith while painting the Democrats as a bunch of sneering, secular coastal élites.

But the Republican lock on Evangelicals may be breaking. The percentage of white Evangelicals who self-identify as Republicans has declined from roughly 50% in 2004 to about 44% this past February, according to Green. Now the number is closer to 40% as more Evangelicals choose to label themselves independents. "There is a loosening of the Republican coalition, particularly among people under 30," Green says, "but it is not yet a movement toward the Democrats. It is a small but real change."

One does what one must do, I suppose. It's clearly a tactical move. But I can't help but wonder whether any mainstream American presidential candidate would have the courage to unflinchingly claim to be an atheist in 2007.*

* I don't know about Nader. Google** brings me back atheist, agnostic, humanist, and secular when I search Nader+religion; I'm not sure what Nader himself officially claims. And Nader doesn't count as mainstream, now, does he? And he's not a candidate this time, at least not so far.

**Wow: Google does reveal that Nader is simply dripping with Cisco Systems stock. Interesting, at least to me. But wildly irrelevant to this post.


Steel belt around a sphere

Because you are such quick and clever puzzle-solvers, I'm going to raise the (ahem) belt a bit. This one is hard. Acknowledgements to Martin Gardner.

Imagine that you are standing on a perfectly smooth sphere that is as large as the Earth (in circumference). A steel belt is wrapped snugly around one of the equators of the sphere.

Now, a length of steel, one meter long, is added to the belt (the belt is "opened", the new segment added, the belt fastened again). The segment adds to the length of the belt sufficiently to raise the belt off the surface of the sphere by the same distance all the way around. Will this segment lift the belt high enough so that you can:
- Slip a playing card under it?
- Slip your hand under it?
- Slip a baseball under it?

For bonus points:
- Is your answer different if the sphere is the size of the sun?

For extra do-decko bonus points:
- Explain your answer.


Enduring Love

Have you read Enduring Love by Ian McEwan? No? Well, do.

I've read it before and am reading it again now for book club purposes. (Yeah, book club! There's hope for you yet!) I wish I hadn't let so many intervening years (6 or 7) go by since I last read this book.

Here's what I love:

- The entire opening chapter. There is nothing to equal it. It stands alone beautifully. In fact, I do believe, although I couldn't swear to it (the front matter of my edition makes no mention of it), that this chapter was originally published as a short story and that is how I first encountered it. A picnic, a yell, five men running toward each other across a field, disorder, tragedy, guilt, the beginning of obsession. I don't want to tell you any more: just read it yourself and then let me know what you think.

- The writing is exquisite. Here's an example; the narrator is describing his experience of recounting the story of the tragedy to friends:

I watched our friends' wary, intelligent faces droop at our tale. Their shock was a mere shadow of our own, resembling more the good-willed imitation of that emotion, and for this reason it was a temptation to exaggerate, to throw a rope of superlatives across the abyss that divided the experience from its representation by anecdote. Over the days and weeks, Clarissa and I told our story many times to friends, colleagues, and relative. I found myself using the same phrases, the same adjectives in the same order. It became possible to recount the events without re-living them in the faintest degree, without even remembering them.* (p. 36)**

- The philosophical questions: What are our moral obligations to our fellow humans; are they different for relations than for strangers; how do we balance self-interest and altruism? What is the biological basis for altruism? How does game theory impact our decisions?

- The science vs. religion threads that appear throughout the story. Rationality vs. irrationality.

- The discussion of love. The parallel discussion of obsession.

* This exactly how I feel when telling a friend a story about something that happened to me. If I have a 1 hour delay in the airport, it pisses me off a certain amount. Let x be that amount. I tell you about it... now, you may like me, but you're not me, so although you sympathize, my feelings of x will elicit something less than x in you. 1/2 x, let's say, if I am lucky. OK, so when I tell you about my experience, I am trying to do more than give you the bare facts. I want to communicate how the experience made me feel. So, without meaning to lie, really, my 1 hour wait at the airport somehow becomes a 2 hour wait at the airport in the retelling. And now you, bless you, feel x too. Thank you.

** Vintage Edition, 1998.


On Holiday

Not much will happen here for 10 days or so. But rest assured that I will be having a great time playing on the beach, looking for sand dollars, getting my toenails painted**, eating great food, soaking up the sun, singing campfire songs... my husband is practising his guitar as we speak. He's working his way through the set list. I'll ask for Dragostea din tei. Charles will ask for The Battle of New Orleans. (He's American; where you see British in this cheerful little ditty, replace it with Canadian...

We fired our guns and the British kept a'comin. There wasn't nigh as many as there was a while ago.We fired once more and they began to runnin' ... down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

OK, it was a long time ago. We'll all sing along and shoot the British for an evening.)

Michele will ask for Radiohead's Pearly. Angela will ask for Fix You by Coldplay. The kids will ask for Baby Beluga (or maybe not, they are getting older) and Lollipop (Mika). Bob and Derek will ask for Pink Floyd (Owen can only play Comfortably Numb, so we'll hear that a couple of times). Strangers on the beach sometimes shout out requests. Things like, "TOM PETTY!!" and "SHUT UP!!" Yes, it will be lovely.

I'll see you in a bit. Be good.

**I know the toenails don't really fit in with all that beach stuff. But there is a spa right by the beach resort! Woo-hoo!


Two Trains and a Fly

I hope this doesn't remind you too much of the problems you had to work out in Grade 7. This one is a little different.

Two train engines are facing each other on a single track, two hundred miles apart. Simultaneously, they begin to move towards each other at 50 miles per hour (assume they don't have to take any time to get up to speed). Predictably, they crash.

At the outset, a little fly is sitting on the front of one of the engines. When the engines begin to move, the fly immediately takes off and flies towards the other engine. When it reaches the other engine, it turns around and returns to the first engine and so on, back and forth, to and fro, until the fly is crushed in the impact. (Tears.) Before the crushing, the fly flies at 75 miles per hour.

Question: How far does the fly fly before the impact?

PS: Puzzle is from What is the Name of This Book, by Raymond Smullyan (Prentice-Hall, 1978).


Sabbath Mode

My new KitchenAid electric range (Architect Series II) arrived today. As soon as it was plugged in and its gleaming surfaces admired, I curled up with the Use and Care Guide (wouldn't you? You wouldn't?? Well.).

It has more special functions than I know what to do with:
1. Fahrenheit and Celsius conversion
2. Tones On/Off
3. Tones High/Low
4. Cooking Time Completions Tones On/Off
5. Dehydrate
6. Oven temperature calibration
7. Sabbath Mode

As I read this list, a few thoughts flit across my mind:
- The copy editor wasn't checking for consistent casing.
- Can you download personalized tones for the Cooking Time Completion?
- Dehydrate? Awesome!
- Oven temperature calibration is definitely more control than I need.
And finally:
- Sabbath Mode? "Sabbath Mode" as in A MODE FOR THE SABBATH?

Yes, that's right. A mode for The Sabbath. With this mode, Mode 7 (how appropriate), you can program the oven on Friday afternoon so that it will cook the food at the right time and at the right temperature on Saturday. You don't have to do a stitch of work. I presume that opening the door to get the food out of the oven and bringing it to the table doesn't count.

And I haven't even told you the really interesting part. Are you ready? To quote from the Use and Care Guide (p. 18), emphasis added:

The oven temperature can be changed when the oven(s) [(s)?] are in the Sabbath Mode. No tones will sound, and the display will not change.

You know what this means, right? If, on The Sabbath, you wander over to see how the meal is cooking (by itself), and you think, "Fuck! I accidentally programmed it to cook at 500 degrees—that's 200 fucking degrees too high!!" well, there's a surreptitious way out of this little pickle for you. You can quietly adjust the temperature and No One Will Ever Know.**

**No one except God, that is.

PS: Zoot's staying over... I blame her for my bad language.


Big Words

Conrad Black. I shall tell you what I know about him; I shall not Google him first. Here we go:

Not much.

I know that he's a Canadian publishing magnet. (Some of you may even say magnate. Fussy.) I know that he's married to Barbara Amiel, stylish right-wing columnist. I know that he is an English Lord (Canadian birthplace be damned). I know that he is (was? former?) CEO of Hollinger. I know that he's in trouble related to some alleged financial jiggery-pokery. He's presently on trial, in fact.

Do I like him? Do I dislike him? Well, up until one week ago, I was completely neutral. I was Sweden. I was beige. I was pH 7 on the subject of Conrad Black. I was 21 degrees Celsius. I would have been an excellent juror.

I don't know a lot about his alleged crimes and what I do know doesn't worry me much. I can't pretend to be interested; the news of his trial is, to me, soporific.

I did read something last week, however, that moved me off my neutral stance. I've become... if not Sweden, then Denmark, perhaps. Pink. pH 8. Nearly 22 degrees C. Not a lot of movement, you'll notice, but something.

It was this delightful article by Ian Brown, which appeared in the June 16th edition of the The Globe and Mail. It's called "Vocabulary: Are we losing our lexicon?" and it's well worth reading in full.

Brown opens by stating that Black's lawyer (Brown and Black! That's funny!), Edward Greenspan, won't let Black take the stand. And it's for quite an interesting reason:

The problem is Mr. Black's fondness for whacking big words: tricoteuses (knitters of yarn, used to describe reporters and gossips, augmented by the adjective "braying"), planturous (fleshy), poltroon (a coward, a.k.a. former Quebec premier Robert Bourassa), spavined (lame), dubiety (doubt: Mr. Black rarely uses a simple word where a splashy lemma will do), gasconading (blustering) and velleities (distant hopes), to list just a few of his verbal smatterings. Mr. Greenspan fears the Lord's lingualism will turn off the jury.

I like Conrad (may I call you Conrad?) for this. It's reason enough, isn't it? It's odd that Greenspan is concerned Conrad will "turn off" the jury. I bet they'd love it.


Crossing a Bridge

Four men need to cross a bridge at night:
- No more than two can cross at a time
- They need a flashlight to cross, and they have only one
- They all start on the west side and all need to end up on the east side
- They take 10, 5, 2, and 1 minutes to cross, respectively

What's the most efficient way for them to cross?

And to add a note of suspense: a madman turns up after 18 minutes to kill anyone left on the west side or still on the bridge (i.e., 19 minutes is not the correct answer!).

Thanks go to Darren—this tricky one is from him.


Steig and Peet

I have been enjoying two fabulous children's authors: William Steig and Bill Peet. They have a lot in common, it turns out.

Both were American. They were contemporaries: Steig was born in 1907 and died in 2003 (aged 95); Peet was born in 1915 and died in 2002 (aged 87). Both charmingly illustrated their own stories*. Both had interesting careers outside of their work as authors: Steig was a cartoonist for The New Yorker; Peet wrote for Disney.

Both wrote stories about innocent child or animal protagonists battling the odds to achieve something. Steig's characters outsmart evil captors, break free from enchantments, and face storms to find their way home for a happy reunion with loved ones. Peet's stories frequently contain an environmental message. In one story, a little bird flies from New York City to California to live in a redwood tree. In another, a group of animals hop a train to try to find a new home after their habitat is destroyed.

Gripping stories, sweet pictures, engaging characters... yes, yes, yes. But what I am enjoying the most at the moment is the rich vocabulary in these books. They are for quite young children, really, but neither Steig nor Peet shies away from big or uncommon words. Here's what I've found in a quick flip-through of the ones that happen to be lying about:
- Steig: perplexed, ceased, compote, exclamations, defecate**
- Peet: chortled***, blunder, diminishing, bedraggled, sycamore, indestructible

I read aloud to my kids every night. And I've had enough of Go Dog Go, Green Eggs and Ham****, and Are You My Mother? I love books like this instead: books that engage me as much as they engage the kids. My kids prefer them too.

* With a few exceptions; for instance, Steig's later work was illustrated by others. Hard to draw when you're, like, 92.


*** Peet loves this word! I've seen him use it in at least three different stories.

****Am I the only one out there who is not a fan of Dr. Seuss's illustrations? Creepy. Why are they all smiling with their eyes closed? And all those floppy feet...


Default position

Recently—since I've started getting all outspoken and all—I've had people ask me the difference between atheism and a religion. I was silenced (briefly) by the question—not because I thought it was a silly one, not at all. I was silenced (briefly) because although it is clear to me that there is an enormous difference, I didn't have a good answer all ready. I've been thinking about it over the last couple of weeks, when... guess what? I found that someone has expressed it beautifully for me. So here you are then; a marvellous quote from Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation:

Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, atheist is a term that should not ever exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a non-astrologer or a non-alchemist. We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs. An atheist is simply a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (87 percent of the population) claiming to 'never doubt the existence of God' should be obliged to present evidence for his existence—and, indeed, for his BENEVOLENCE, given the relentless destruction of innocent human beings we witness in the world each day.

And, for good measure, here's a nice succinct quote from a fellow called Don Hirschberg (I have to confess I hadn't heard of him before today, but I like his analogy): "Calling atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair color."

What does this all mean? Well, it means that we should think of atheism as a default position—like disbelief in astrology or alchemy—that we ought to hold until we are presented with sufficient evidence to switch.


Four men in hats

Here's a fantastic puzzle that I found here (no peeking).**

Imagine four men buried up to their necks in the ground, as shown in the illustration. Between A and B is a solid brick wall. The men can only look forward, so A and B can see only the brick wall, C can see only B, and D can see both B and C.

The men know that among them are four hats: two black and two white. None of the men knows the colour of the hat on his own head.

To avoid being shot (I l-o-o-ove puzzles that include that phrase), any one of the men must correctly call out the colour of his own hat. If he gets it wrong, all four men will be shot. The men are not allowed to talk to each other and have 10 minutes to think.

After one minute, one of them calls out the correct colour of his own hat, thereby saving them all. I'd like to think that what happens next is that they are immediately dug up, relieved of their triangular hats, and taken to a Radiohead concert as a reward.

Questions for you:
1. Who calls out?
2. How does he know?

** I pinched the illustration from that site too.

Sir Salman

Salman Rushdie became Sir Salman last week: on June 15, 2007, he was knighted by the Queen.**

Here are some quotes, running the gambit from frightening, through appropriate, to fluffy.

A Pakistani government minister sees this as justification for suicide attacks: "If someone exploded a bomb on [Rushdie's] body he would be right to do so unless the British government apologises and withdraws the 'sir' title." (The Guardian, June 18).

The Guardian sees this as a "...belated endorsement by the British establishment."

My favorite is one that Bill Poser found and mentioned on LL; he doesn't identify the original author: "The queen is a piece I recognize, and so is the knight, but what, scacchically, is a "rushdie" and how does it move on the board?"

(Scacchically, Poser tells us, is an adverb that means "from the point of view of chess." This obscure word is recorded in the OED*** as dating back to 1860—thanks to Language Hat for looking it up for us.)

** On the same day, the founders of an erotic lingerie line received MBEs.

***The OED may approve, but my spellchecker frowns.

[Update, 2007-06-20: Seriously now. Predictably, things have worsened. An Iranian government official calls the knighthood "a provocative act," and Pakistan has asked Britian to rescind the honour.

This takes me right back to 1989. Coincidentally, I happen to be reading God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, and in Chapter 2, "Religion Kills," he reminds us of some of the public statements made by religious organizations when the fatwa against Rushdie was first issued. Rather than the universal outrage that one might have expected, Hitchens reminds us that the Vatican, the archbishop of Canterbury, and the chief sephardic rabbi in Israel agreed in official public statements that, while the threat of violence was a pity, The Satanic Verses was indeed blasphemous. Other public figures agreed. If you haven't yet read the famous exchange of letters between Rushdie, John Le Carre, and Hitchens that appeared in The Guardian in November 1997, now is the time to remedy that.]


Kid Birthdays

I have a confession. I make it with some hesitation. In my circle of friends, this is like saying "Recycling is stupid!*" or "Omg, like, too bad Stephen Harper is already married!" It's like saying that one loves watching Fear Factor or Blind Date**. It's like installing one of those TOTALLY offensive noisy huge above-ground grass-killing backyard pools (not to be confused with those dear little wading ones that you can fill up with cold water from the garden hose)***.

Here it is: I adore goodie-bags from little kids' birthday parties. I like putting them together and handing them out; I like receiving them (well, I don't receive them, more's the pity, but I do look forward to the moment when we're all in the car on the way home and my kids tell me what they find in the ones they've been given). Yeah, yeah, plastic crap. Yeah, yeah, too much sugar. Yeah, yeah, waste of money. I know what you're thinking; I hear what you're saying. But I like them anyway.

My kids both have birthdays in the spring. This year, we did quite different things for each. For my daughter, we booked a party at... well, I don't think I want to give you the actual name of the venue because I don't want to do it any Google-harm. But I can tell you, small circle that you are, I don't mind you knowing. It was at that large, silver, Buckminster Fuller-inspired geodesic dome in Vancouver that was built for Expo '86. That should narrow it down sufficiently for you. I love the place, actually, which is why we picked it for the birthday party in the first place. Big Mistake.

Here's what I didn't like:
1. We thought we were getting a decorated party room. The web site assured us we didn't need to worry about our own decorations (unless we wanted "extra".... I guess that was a cue to probe further).

What we got: a cold room with one drooping "happy birthday" banner (lowercase intentional, if not strictly accurate) that had obviously been up for awhile. Two plain brown tables shoved together with no attention to alignment. Stacked chairs.

2. We thought we were getting our own Science Leader, a dynamic person who was to show the kids some age-appropriate science experiments.

What we got: a distracted teenager arrived 15 minutes late, wheeling in a Van de Graaf generator. At that point, I was quite pleased to see him and optimistic about the hour's worth of experiments that we should still have time for. However, after few rounds with the generator (four or five kids got to come up, touch the thing, and have their hair stand up), our leader left to "check on lunch." After lunch (see item 3 below), which was delivered by someone else, there was still no sign of him. I went looking and found him eating his own lunch. I asked if there would be any more experiments. He bounced up. "Sure!" he said, as if this was quite a good idea of mine and he'd be happy to oblige (!!!!). Back in he came and... plugged in the Van de Graaf generator again! I couldn't believe it! I was beginning to view this old dented silver thing much the way a circus visitor, who is wondering where all the lions and tigers are, views a depressed motheaten old goat as it is lead around the ring a few times for the crowd's entertainment. And that was IT! That was it for the "science experiments"!

3. We thought we'd have a decent lunch.

What we got: Utter failure. I take a good portion of the responsibility here because I should have known that pre-made sandwiches are a risky choice for a group of 5- to 7-year-olds. Of course there will be ones who don't like the lettuce or tomatoes. There will be ones who don't like tuna. Yeah... there's a reason that hot dogs are the birthday food of choice. But that big science dome and the BC chain restaurant that has a presence there have to take responsibility for the lack of freshness—even I couldn't choke down one of those sandwiches, and there were a lot of leftovers to deal with. Old lettuce. Can't bear it. (The lemon meringue pie went over very well! We brought that.)

4. We thought we'd have a great time knocking about the place, checking out the exhibits, after the official "hosted" part of the party was over.

What we got: The most terrifying 5 minutes of my life. This is another thing that I take responsibility for. I should have realized that getting 12 5- to 7-year-olds from a party room downstairs to the exhibits upstairs requires more than two adults. We made it, finally, after the longest 5 minutes that I've ever experienced. We got all the kids into one smallish exhibit room and then my husband and I sat outside its entrance to make sure no one left. We spent the entire time counting and re-counting kids until their parents started to arrive for the pick-up. Comparing numbers. Checking lists. Counting again. Oh, the sweet relief when we could start to match up kids with their parents and cross responsibilities off our list.

Compare this with my son's birthday. We had it at home. We planned every detail ourselves: crafts, party games, and make-your-own-pizza. No tired old goats. No fear of losing anyone. No uneaten food. It was great! And a LOT cheaper. We could afford to do more with the goodie bags.

* I shamefacedly admit to being half-hearted about cleaning out the cat food tins.
** Never!!!!!


The Monty Hall Problem

This is a very famous puzzle; you may have come across it before. I absolutely love it. I love it because it is counter-intuitive (clue) and controversial to the point of emotional debate** (clue), and yet the problem is easy to describe and the solution is reasonably simple to explain.

Don't get me wrong: complex math does some serious work behind the scenes (so they tell me; I'll take their word for it), but you don't need to be a mathematician to understand the solution...at least on a superficial level.

The Monty Hall Problem gets its name from the host of an old TV game show called Let's Make a Deal. In the show, Monty offers a contestant a choice among three closed doors. Behind one is a new car; behind each of the other two is... I forget. Something less desirable than a new car. Maybe a goat. Yeah, I think that's it: each of the other two doors conceals a goat. (I know I could Google this but I am doing my best to write it down from memory.)

After the contestant makes his or her choice, Monty opens one of the unselected doors to reveal a goat. The car is either behind the contestant's choice or the only other remaining closed door. Then Monty asks whether the contestant wants to switch doors or stick with the original choice.

Question: Should the contestant switch? Does it make a difference to the odds of winning?

What do you think?

** The letters to the editor in the magazine that published the solution to the problem, Parade, got quite heated.


Creation "Science" in Alberta

Did you know that we have a shiny new creationism museum in Canada? It's called the Big Valley Creation [ahem] "Science" Museum (the derisive quotes and sarcastic throat clearing are mine all mine) and it's in Alberta. Apparently the owner was prepared for demonstrators to interfere the ribbon-cutting ceremonies, as they did when a similar museum opened in Kentucky, but no. Twenty people came to watch the event (I think the local bowling alley was having its lanes waxed so folks needed something to do), and they were polite. This is Canada, after all.

The Canadian media didn't bring this news to me—I found it on the Friendly Atheist's site.

P.S.: Ooh! Ooh! So excited! Bought the Hitchens book today! Will tell you how is soon.


Add a line, change a number

I can't seem to stop it with the puzzles. I hope I am not driving the non-puzzlers among you mad.

Here is a number: VI

Can you add one line and turn it into a 7? That's easy!! VII

OK, smartie. Here is another number: IX

Can you add one line and turn it into a 6?


Fry and Laurie on Language

Language Log posted this recently. Hi-lar-i-ous. Even funnier is that Fry and Laurie probably were around 30 at the time.


Another pundle

You guys did pretty well with my last batch of pundles. Here is another one (hat tip to mr. kite; mr. kite knows a lot of good puzzles!):

Can beliefs be immoral?

Does it matter what we believe? Is everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion? Or can beliefs be immoral? Some people think so.

W.K. Clifford, mathematician, says:

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.


Every time we let ourselves believe for unworthy reasons, we weaken our powers of self-control, of doubting, of judicially and fairly weighing evidence. We all suffer severely enough from the maintenance and support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to.... But a greater and wider evil arises when the credulous character is maintained and supported, when a habit of believing for unworthy reasons is fostered and made permanent.

T.H. Huxley, biologist and Darwin's Bulldog, says:

It is wrong for a man ["or woman," said in an Eric Idle voice] to say he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he ["or she"] can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty.

Brand Blanchard, philosopher, says:

...that where great human goods and ills are involved, the distortion of belief from any sort of avoidable cause is immoral, and the more immoral, the greater the stakes.

The reason for the position of these thinkers is this: Our actions are guided by our beliefs. If our beliefs are mistaken, our actions may be immoral.

What do you think? Is it reasonable to apply the word immoral to a person's beliefs? Or must we reserve that term for actions? Or can we call a person's beliefs immoral only if their resulting actions are immoral? I don't know what I think.

(Acknowledgements to T. Schick Jr. and L. Vaughn for posing this question and collecting these quotations in their book How To Think About Weird Things.)


But sometimes I want to keep them

Omit needless words. So say Strunk and White. And so do many others who write on writing. Be concise; be direct. These are the virtues.

God knows, it's a proud day for me when I can turn something like this:

To maintain synchronization between the two controller cards, the operating system occasionally performs an automatic reload of the standby controller card. To facilitate the automatic reload of an controller card, the auto-boot variable must be set to true.

Into something like this**:

To synchronize the controller cards, the operating system occasionally reloads the standby controller card automatically. Set the auto-boot variable to true to enable this process.

(I ran a word count on the before and after, I confess. Don't scream, but sometimes I'm tempted to include this type of data in my annual self-appraisal at work. So far I've refrained. I suspect that's been wise.)

Now I want to show you something else. Something wordy. Something that would cause any measure of the FOG index to choke. And yet something from which not a single word could be excised. It's from Stephen Fry's Paperweight; it's from a review Fry wrote of Bernard Levin's book, In These Times:

I have to confess right here and now that my feelings upon being called upon to review an anthology (and it is Levin himself who says that the volumes are collections of pressed flowers, and we all know that an anthology is, if it is to be taken au pied de la lettre, nothing more, nor indeed less—and who would have it otherwise?—that a posy or, mutandis mutandis, nosegay—though no doubt the gentlemen who busy themselves with instructing us how to live and speak would have words to say, nay, shriek, on the subject of how gay or otherwise the nose may, or, come to that, may not be, for as sure as eggs are graded ovular Euro-units there will lurk in some dank council cupboard a malevolent creature whose 'nosegay' is now proscribed, look with a spot I damn it—of flowers, and if you, having followed the wild and twisting path of my clauses to a successful conclusion, can sight, in the purple distance, the welcoming beacon that promises an end to this parenthesis, then Levin is the writer for you—five hours of reading Levin and the plain English sentence is only a dimly perceived memory, if I can just find my way out of this clause, I will join you....) are not unlike that of a schoolboy on being called upon to write a report on his schoolmaster.

That's 231 words, kids! In one sentence. I wouldn't omit a single one. But perhaps it all comes down to how one defines needless.

**Yes, this is what I do all day. I know some of you repair injured bodies, enlighten young minds, preserve our environment. Some of you create businesses, look after children, rescue animals. Some of you take care of the aged, drive our economy, define public policy. Some of you create music, create art, create dance. Some of you design buildings, write books, program computers. Some of you study the stars. Unclog drains. Breed mosquitoes.*** Police our streets. Search for a cure for cancer. Lead Expotitions to the North Pole.**** But I, I...well, I turn this (that nobody reads) into that (that nobody reads). But that's OK!

***Ha ha! Did you notice that this one isn't virtuous? I do know someone who does this. He does it with a surprising amount of enthusiasm.

****Who Am I Kidding? Obviously I am getting carried away. I have 6 readers that I know of. And none of you likes long cold hikes.


Masked Cards

Here's a logic puzzle. I found it in Martin's book There Are Two Errors in the the Title of This Book, and he cites a 1968 experiment by Wason and Johnson-Laird.

You have four masked cards as shown in the image below. Which of the cards must you unmask in order to answer this question: Is it true that, in all cases, when there is a circle on the left there is a circle on the right?

Of course you can unmask all the cards and find out that way, but you don't need to unmask them all to be sure. Which cards must you unmask?

LOLCats and LOLCode

Although I am an avid reader of a few blogs (see sidebar), I don't read many blogs. This means that when people talk about what is going on in the blogsphere*, I usually have no idea what they're talking about. I rely on the blogs I read to do the legwork and bring tattered fragments back to me. The biggest source of information for me in this area is Language Log, a blog that has an insane number of readers, many erudite posters, and a keen interest in how language is evolving in the, um, blogosphere.

It's thanks to LL that LOLCats and LOLCode have come to my attention. LOLCats are captioned cat photos; apparently they're all over the place. Did you know about this? I saw this comic from xkcd a couple of weeks ago, and I Totally Did Not Get It. I do now.

What interests LL posters about these cats is the grammar. Here's what Linguistic Mystic has to say:

Cats have bad grammar, and it’s funnier that way. In many of the pictures I found, I’ve noted pretty significant deviations from conventional English Grammar. Ranging from the incorrect application of language rules ("eated"), to internet style contractions ("plz" for "Please"), to out and out incorrect verb agreement ("I are serious cat"), many of these captions use blatantly bad grammar. The fact of the matter, though, is that the bad grammar somehow makes it funnier.

And now, we have LOLCode. Here's a canonical example from the lolcode site:


Four syntax elements in four lines:
- HAI and KTHXBYE are the start and stop block delimiters.
- CAN HAS is a feature request, like require or include.
- VISIBLE is a print statement.

I wonder if this will take off. Or if they'll develop an object-oriented version (cats and kittens!)


* Yep, I feel the same way when I say blogosphere as I do when I swear. Or say the word bling**.

**One of my more embarrassing moments lately was when I found myself explaining to a friend in a very UNCOOL WHITE LADY kind of way what bling is. My much cooler friend watched my pathetic writhing in mounting horror for a few minutes before she put me out of my misery. Told me I was a very sad loser and at least 8 years behind the times. And that I was a loser. A very behind-the-times sad one.

Fire on an island

Test your survival instincts:

You're on an island that is completely covered with dry grass. A fire starts at one end and the wind is blowing it towards you, fast! The fire is too wide for you to go around it, and the coastline of the island is jagged cliffs—no sandy refuge for you, I'm afraid. What is a good strategy for you to avoid being burnt?


Rows of trees

Here's a puzzle that had me stumped for awhile:

How do you plant 10 trees in 5 rows of 4?


Not just romance, but...

Is this this article really telling me that Harlequin Publishing not only publishes romance novels, but that it also publishes African-American romance novels? What the hell?? We have plain old reg'lar romance and African-American romance? What am I supposed to conclude here?

Official God FAQ

You've probably seen this. I know you cruise the Internet for just this kind of thing. In fact, I think at least three of you have sent it to me.

For those of you who haven't seen it yet, enjoy: http://www.400monkeys.com/God/

Locked boxes

Here is a very good puzzle that I'd never heard before I came across it today. (I found it here—but don't peek yet!)

There are two locked boxes. Each box contains the other's one and only key. Each box can only be opened with its own key. How can I open both boxes?


Oh that's a terrible shame

Perhaps it's just my imagination, but the word Schadenfreude seems to be in much heavier rotation these days than it was 10 years ago. Or perhaps it just appears that way to me because of the company I keep. (Like, no offense. At least you're well read. Very nasty sometimes, but exceedingly well read.)

A blog called Separated by a Common Language held a contest this year to find the best import from British English to American English and vice versa (wanker and muffin top**, respectively, if you don't want to rouse your great corpse sufficiently to click the link). The blog's author also gave out a special award to the best word coined by one of her readers. The word: Googleschaden. Its definition: the way in which pundits' past pontifications can now come back to haunt them. More to the point though, surely, is the satisfaction the rest of us feel when this happens.

Yes, if you've said Bad Things about your employer on the Internet using your Real Name (watch yourselves on those newsgroups!), you might regret it. But, goodness knows, you have my heartfelt sympathy.

**I can't bear to define this for you. Do you already know what it is?

Regularly scheduled programming

When I started this, I promised myself that I would not let more than two days go by without a post... and, good christ, it's been SIX! I fear that I've lost my regular readers (i.e., Darren).

Here's what I've been up to:
1. Hosting friends.
2. Working hard.
3. Teaching Sweet Girl to ride her bike (she's the only 7-year-old who is unable to ride a 2-wheeler, tie shoelaces, or swim, but she can play a mean Ode to Joy on the piano, and she's very, very good at Yelling).
4. Avoiding calls from the PAC (that's Parent Advisory Council to you). I'm not one of those volunteering mothers.
5. Planning Dear Boy's 5th birthday. Cutting out donkey shapes, buying plastic crap, etc.

I miss you all, though! Will think of something clever to write soon.


If not who, which?

Mark asked (he knows I live for this kind of thing):

I have a grammar question: Is it correct to use the pronoun "which" to describe a person, as in "They were the people which were represented by stone pillars...." Or must it be "They were the people who were..."

According to Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage and The New Fowler's Modern English Usage, it's neither grammatically incorrect nor unprecedented in usage to use which (or that) to refer to people or entities that consist of people. Examples abound.

For instance, older translations of The Bible have these versions of a well-known line:

Our Father which art in Heaven (1611)
Our Father that art in Heaven (1885)
before settling on:
Our Father who art in Heaven

That duly acknowledged, however, both MW and Fowler's agree that it is more common and more widely accepted to use who for references to people. This move also means that you don't have to worry about whether the relative pronoun is part of a restrictive clause. (Should the which be a that or vice-versa and does it matter? If you use who, it's the same pronoun either way.)

Anywho, this is all just a long-winded way of recommending that you use who. But know that if you decide against it, you're neither wrong nor in poor company.


Take your time with lollies

Whenever I go to San Francisco, I stop at the same little airport shop to pick up something for the kids on my way home. I try to get something different each time I go. This time, I was all set to buy a 3-dollar bag of salt-water taffies, each wrapped in its own translucent white paper (I love the paper! I love it way better than I love the taffies!), when the woman behind me in line started talking up the See's Candy Lollipops. They were about 15 dollars, but they did look good! The check-out clerk agreed—they were good! Another person in the line thought they were good too! So I thought, heck, I can part with the extra 12 dollars for something as good as that. I bought them.

And they are so good! Cafe cream, chocolate, vanilla, and caramel. (I think the marketing team was completely out of ideas after naming the coffee one.) I totally recommend them. Keep an eye out next time you're there.

I always, always, crunch hard candy. I can't not crunch it. I'm in a rush, you see. My mother has spoken to me about this many times over the years (quite recently, too), but I never really thought that anything bad would actually happen to my teeth.

(Can you guess what's about to happen?)

So, the other day, I was crunching away on a vanilla one, when I thought, "HEY! There are little ROCKS in this lolly!!!!!" Scenes of legal action started running through my head. Not that I am really the litigating type, but I could be! I COULD BE! What if this isn't rocks? What if it is mouse bones or something?

It wasn't rocks. You know what it was: my molar. Upper right. In bits. Pretty much destroyed. Sad, hey? It didn't really hurt though, and—good news—it got me to the dentist. There was a lot of drilling but it was nothing like what James Frey went through (or did he? Or. Did. He?) in A Million Little Pieces.

I have a temporary crown on that molar at present. I go back next week for the porcelain one. I haven't had a lolly since this happened, but I will. And I will be patient with it.

This is the second in the Challenge category. See what Mark and Zoot have come up with.


Waiting for a Train

Here's another puzzle. I came across a version of this puzzle in one of Paul Sloane's books, but I don't know who originally created it.

OK, there's a guy called Dennis (why Dennis? Because we're in that sort of mood, that's why. Tell me if this makes you laugh). He has two girlfriends: one lives in City A and the other in City C. Dennis lives in City B, which is between City A and C. He visits one of his girlfriends each weekend. He travels by train: a northbound train takes him to City A; a southbound train to City C.

Now Dennis loves both of these girls equally. So equally, in fact, that he can never decide which one to visit. He leaves his visits in the hands of Fate. When he goes to the station for his weekend away, he arrives at a random time and waits for the first train that comes along: that decides whether he goes north or south. Because both trains leave at half-hour intervals, Dennis figures that he has an equal chance of going north or south. He figures that over the long run, things should even out and he would visit the girlfriends approximately the same number of times.

This is not how things turned out. After a year's worth of visits, Dennis has visited the girlfriend in City A approximately eighty percent of the time. The girlfriend in City C has been sorely neglected.



The Case of the Missing Apostrophe

Guess what!!!! (I'm pretty excited about this.) I found out why Tim Hortons has no apostrophe!!!! There is a Real Reason!!!!**

Here's what my research has yielded. Sit down and listen.

The restaurant started out (in Ontario in the 1960s) as Tim Horton's. The apostrophe was dropped only when the chain expanded into Quebec (not sure when that was). In Quebec, by law, all business signage has to be translated into French, so Tim Horton's Donuts would become Les donuts de Tim Horton. Producing new signs for Quebec would be expensive, so the chain dropped the apostrophe and became Tim Hortons (pretending, you'll notice, that this somehow removes any hint of the possessive. By the letter of the law, maybe, but it doesn't change the semantics).

In English Canada, we complain about the missing apostrophe. In Quebec, no one is fooled. They know exactement what went down.

**I doubt the same can be said for Milestone's.


I don't swear much. Well, I do, but it's just bottom drawer sort of swearing. Bloody this and Damn that. Oh for God's Sake! this and Bugger that. (What? WHAT??) This isn't to say that I mind it when other people swear—I don't mind a really boiling curse, as long as it is delivered at the appropriate time and with confidence.

Confidence is the crux of my problem. When I swear, I feel like I do when I'm wearing a wide-brimmed red hat. Or enormous earrings. Or sunglasses with rhinestones. Or all at once! Imagine that. On someone else: charming; on me: ridiculous. When I swear, I feel like I'm on stage, delivering a line... badly. The timing is off. I feel like I have invisible finger quotes in spasm above my head.

I can't even manage it in writing. (And don't even suggest those censorious asterisks.) Lucky for you. You can send the kids here and feel quite safe—they're in good hands.



Time for another puzzle. And, like, way to go with the problem solving to-date! You're just encouraging me to keep this up.

This one is from my friend J. I cried quietly to myself when he first sent it to me, but I solved it in the end. I know you can too.

You have $136. You have to divide it up into some number of bags, in whole dollar increments, so that I can come along and ask brashly for any amount and you can give it to me by handing over one or more bags (without rearranging the amounts inside). What is the minimum number of bags you require?

I had to ask J a couple of follow-up questions; I'll repeat them here for your benefit:
Q: Do I know the amount in each bag?
A: Um. Yes. (duh)
Q: When you ask for an amount, can you ask only for whole dollar increments? (Like, $12.56 is not allowed, right?)
A: Correct.

Strawberry tart!

Did you know that Tim Hortons has strawberry tart on the menu? It reminds my very silly friend Pete of this:

Woman: (Switching the radio off) Liberal rubbish. Klaus, What do you want with your jugged fish?
Man: Halibut.
The jugged fish is halibut.
Well, what fish have you got that isn't jugged?
Woman: Rabbit.
Man: What? Rabbit fish?
Woman: Yes. It's got fins.
Is it dead?
Well, it was coughing up blood last night.
All right I'll have the dead unjugged rabbit fish.
Man: Well that was really horrible.
You're always complaining.
What's for afters?
Woman: Well there's rat cake ... rat sorbet ... rat pudding ... or strawberry tart.
Man: Strawberry tart?!
Woman: Well, it's got some rat in it.
How much?
Three (rather a lot really).
Man: Well, I'll have a slice without so much rat in it.
Man: Appalling.
Moan, moan, moan.

From Episode 29, Monthy Python's Flying Circus.

As for me? Lawks, before today, I didn't even know Tim Hortons had strawberry tart. I never go there. It has nothing to do with the missing apostrophe (I'm trying really hard not to mind about that; can you tell?). It has nothing to do with anything, really, I just... well, I never go there. So there. It's not deliberate. Stop going on about it.

Anyway, Pete: thanks for the laugh. And thanks for making sure we don't go too many days without a new rat recipe.


Goodbye Fallwell

The Friendly Atheist has compiled some reactions to Fallwell's death from various groups and individuals, starting with the American Atheists and working his way down, down, down to Pat Robertson. You can read them all here, but here are the bookends:

American Atheists:

...the Rev. Jerry Falwell was a dangerous man who opposed and worked against many of the key values underpinning our secular American democracy.

Pat Robertson:

Jerry’s courage and strength of convictions will be sadly missed in this time of increasing moral relativism.

The Friendly Atheist also posted a link to a CNN interview with Christopher Hitchens. It includes some stellar quotes, including this one:

The empty life of this ugly little charlatan proves only one thing, that you can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth in this country if you will just get yourself called reverend. Who would, even at [CNN], have invited on such a little toad to tell us that the attacks of September the 11th were the result of our sinfulness and were God's punishment if they hadn't got some kind of clerical qualification?

And there's lots, lots more being said in the blogosphere. I've never seen so many atheists wishing so fervently that hell exists!


I like very few biographies (auto or otherwise). Actually, now that I come to think of it, I read very few biographies. They simply don't tempt me. I stride right by the biography section in the bookstore or library without it even registering in my field of vision. Kinda like true crime, romance, sports, self-help (well, I do notice self-help. I point and laugh at it a bit and move on), interior design, astrology, and graphic novels.

I only go for biographies of people I'm already completely captivated (obsessed?) by. Usually writers. Here are some I've read and loved:
- By Heart: Elizabeth Smart a Life, by Rosemary Sullivan
- Experience, Martin Amis
- Moab Is My Washpot, Stephen Fry
- Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov
- Inside Memory: Pages from a Writer's Workbook, Timothy Findley

But if I don't already know you and love you...meh. Don't want to read about you.

Ahem. We were assigned an autobiography at book club last week. Not going to say what it is yet. I'll give it a chance: it might be good. I will read it cheerfully. I still owe them one for Confederacy of Dunces.

And maybe I will find that I can be captivated by the life story first, and the life's work second.



I don't think I ever say the word ethos out loud. Good thing, too, because if I did I might stop getting invited to parties.** Ir-reee-DEEM-ably pretentious. Right?

You might think so if you had a look in Merriam Webster:

ethos (n.): The distinguishing character, sentiment, moral nature, or guiding beliefs of a person, group, or institution.

What's wrong with simply saying character or moral nature, for heaven's sake? Aren't those better choices?

Yes: for that definition. But there is a particular use of the word ethos that MW doesn't tackle head-on. And for this use, really, no synonym quite does the job.

Ethos is one of the three modes of persuasion that Aristotle lists in On Rhetoric. (The other two are logos and pathos, but I'll leave those for now.) As a mode of persuasion, ethos is appeal to authority. You hear speakers (and read writers) do this all the time. They do it when they argue that they are suitable to represent their position:

- I've been an MP in this riding for 12 years and I know my constituents: they don't want a needle-exchange program.

- I'm a tenured professor in Stanford's philosophy department, and I say the ontological argument for the existence of God stinks, I tell you, it stinks!

- As your doctor, I should tell you that all that echinacea tea you're drinking isn't doing a darned thing.

Notice that none of these statements above makes any argument for the truth of their claims other than a simple appeal to the authority—the credibility—of the speaker. It's not enough to establish the truth of a proposition, but it is often persuasive.

So why do I murmur ethos quietly to myself from time to time?

Because if we don't have sufficient authority ourselves (damn! I'm not an MP/tenured philosophy professor at Stanford/doctor!), we borrow it. I do it all the time:

- Studies have shown...

- My mum says...

- Everybody knows...

(And here's a recent example, which is what got me thinking about this tonight.)

I have to watch it; someone may catch on. But keep in mind that you can't really dismiss an argument because you don't think the speaker has sufficient ethos. (Well, you can, but you shouldn't.) You have to look at how the argument hangs together logically. And that's logos.... (at least that's what the experts tell me) and maybe I'll talk about that another time.

**Wait, wait, waaaaaaaaaaait a minute—I already have stopped getting invited to parties. Damn! It's 'cause I said semiotics once, right? I can't believe you heard that. But that was only a joke! Honest! I wouldn't know a semiotics if it stood up in my soup!