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!


Punctuate this

Can you punctuate the following text to make it meaningful? It is possible:

Smith where Jones had had had had had had had had had had had had had the headmasters approval

Like, "Like"

I've received some e-mail on this post. More than anything, what gets goats about that post is this:

"The party which I told you about yesterday was, like, super fun."

I expected you to object to which. I've certainly heard you on the subject of restrictive clauses before! But no—it turns out that you don't like like. (And one of you, L------, doesn't like super fun, but I'll leave that for the moment. It was super fun, dammit. I know: I was there!).

Is like, in this case, ungrammatical?

No. Language Log posters have had lots of posts on this subject and here's a good one from Invented Usage. All give at least a nod, if not a genuflecting bow, to M. Siegel's paper: "Like: The Discourse Particle and Semantics" (J. of Semantics 19(1), Feb. 2002). I've borrowed heavily from their legwork, so, like, ladles of acknowledgement are seriously in order.

Like seems to be used primarily (though not exclusively) to either emphasize or signal a hedge about vocabulary choice. In these cases, it modifies a noun (or noun phrase) or verb (or verb phrase). For example:

- "Hume wondered whether the, like, causal connection, actually exists." (Lots of similar hedges are perfectly acceptable. Consider if you will or as it were or um.)

- "Did you, like, publish it already?" (Compare with and let me be clear on this.)

- "It was, like, super fun." (Ditto.)

Like is also, of course, used to signal a quote: "She was like, 'Hobbes was fond of his dram.'" (One day I'll have to write something about that other reviled quote signaller: all. "She was all, 'Hobbes was fond of his dram.'" Or how about both together?? "She was all like, 'Hobbes was fond of his dram.'")

I bet you can come up with some more examples, especially if you live with kids. Do they influence us or is the other way 'round? My 7-year-old was listening to me on the phone with a friend the other day. When I hung up, she said "You just said 'like' three times." Ooops.



I'm underwhelmed at the number of answers (correct or otherwise) I've received so far to the puzzles I've posted. But I'll keep it up because I'm, um, into this kind of thing.

Have you heard of pundles? These are puzzles like this old chestnut:


(psssst: "Man Overboard!" But you knew that already.)

These can get rather clever. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. WwOoOlLf

2. H2O + NaCl, H2O + NaCl

3. GfRoAoVtE

Have a go.


O Best Beloved

Don't make 'em too vulgar-big. I wouldn't look like Giraffe—not for ever so.

Leopard started out as the 'sclusivest sandiest-yellowest-brownest of them all. No spots at all! When he lived on the High Veldt, O Best Beloved, he could easily hide and surprise Giraffe and Zebra and all the rest of 'em out of their jumpsome lives. He could indeed! After a time, though, they learned to avoid anything that looked like a Leopard. And finally Giraffe and Zebra moved to the forest, which was all 'sclusively speckled and sprottled and spottled, dotted and splashed and slashed and hatched and cross-hatched with shadows.

Leopard wondered where his where all his breakfasts and dinners and teas had gone. And when he went to look, he stood out like a sunflower against a tarred fence. Leopard needed to change his skin. And he did, O Best Beloved! He did indeed—he got all fulsome spotty and dappled. Now Leopard can lie out on the bare ground and look like a heap of pebbles. He can lie out on a leafy branch and look like sunshine sifting through the leaves. He can lie right across the centre of a path and look like nothing in particular. And he can catch Giraffe and Zebra. Oh yes he can!

I'll tell you a secret, O Best Beloved....

The Ethiopian didn't press on those spots. He didn't do it with his five fingertips. He didn't indeed! Forget what's in the "intelligent design" section in your new biology text books, O Best Beloved! (I don't think even grown-ups would keep on saying such a silly thing if their president didn't say it—do you?) No—it's called natural selection, O Best Beloved, and you can look it up!

Photo credit: Dianne Chamberlain.
Gratitude and heaps of acknowledgement of course to Rudyard Kipling.

The zoot challenge

Zoot (a close friend and, well OK, relation) has issued a challenge to me and Mark: each week one of us will provide a photo and then we all write about it without peeking at each other's posts. Deadline: midnight PST. Today is the first challenge. You'll see my effort in the next post. I have a little under three hours and a heck of a lot of thinking to do.

For this, I'm introducing a new label to this space: challenge.


I'll just stay behind, thanks

Have you heard of the Left Behind video game? It's the Book of Revelations brought to life in CGI. Available at WalMart. Guess who you get to shoot? Non-Christians, that's who! Yeah! Never too early to teach kids all about religious warfare!

But apparently its user interface is crap.

Whatever... Worse than "No Problem"?

Mark's great post about "no problem" reminded me of an article by Nick Paumgarten that I read in The New Yorker magazine a couple of years ago. It was about another supremely annoying response: "whatever." Until I read Paumgarten's article, I couldn't articulate why exactly I found this so irritating...

The article is worth reading in full because Paumgarten weaves in a lovely anecdote about Russell Crowe exploding into physical violence when a hotel desk clerk gives the "W" response to Russell's complaints about the phone service. (I'm not usually on the side of physical violence, but My Dear, there are limits to what one simple Australian can be expected to take.)

Here are the hightlights:

"'Whatever' is as incendiary as it is nonchalant; the nonchalance is what makes it incendiary. 'Whatever' turns disengagement into something withering and mean."

"...moralists ... regard the routine deployment of 'whatever' as the ultimate symptom of indifference in the culture at large."

"The word immediately exhibits a complete lack of respect for your point of view or situation...It’s basically saying that your point of view is crap."


What Was She Thinking? Notes on Class

My book club meets tomorrow. It's usually quite a drunk-fest, and frankly we rarely get around to discussing the book, but I want to be prepared this time because they actually let me pick the book. It's the first time they let me pick since I picked Confederacy of Dunces last year, which Did Not Go Over Well To Put It Mildly. In fact, it went over so badly that I hear about it pretty much every time we meet ("...well, that one sucked but at least it didn't suck as hard as Confederacy of Dunces," is a typical remark you'll hear two or three times on a given evening.) It's only with large reservations that they were willing to give my current suggestion, What Was She Thinking (Notes on a Scandal) by Zoe Heller, a try. I've got a lot on the line, so I've got to get organized.

I don't want to bore you with the same old summary you'll find in everyone's Amazon.ca (or .com, if you prefer) reviews, but I'll just give you a super-duper quick synopsis to put you in the picture before I get to my main point. The story is set in modern England. Barbara, the narrator, is a teacher and is usually described as a bitter old spinster (or something worse) which is a bit narrow I think but I'll let it go. She is formidable but lonely, and she latches onto a bright, beautiful, upper class teacher called Sheba who is new at the school. Barbara is obsessed with Sheba and her life, and this topic makes up the bulk of the narrative. Sheba starts an affair with a teenaged boy at the school and this is the scandal referred to by the title (or is it? hmmm....I'll let you decide). Of course, it all comes out in the end—Barbara plays a key role in this—and Barbara records every detail in her notes.

What really struck me about the book—and I've been surprised that I haven't seen much written about this elsewhere—was how much class came into the story. Barbara is middle class and she is critical of those that she perceives to be above or below her social class. She also is an intellectual snob (does that go with being middle class? Not sure). The book has plenty of revealing examples of her feelings about this.

Barbara's snobbery is not surprising; it's pretty consistent with what you learn about her character throughout the book. What does come as a surprise, at least to me, is Sheba's snobbery. This is only revealed at the very end of the story, when Sheba finally explodes at Barbara after discovering that she was the one that spilled the beans about the affair and has been keeping detailed unflattering notes of the whole business. Up until this point, Sheba is portrayed as wonderfully accepting and nonjudgmental—this is part of her charm—but of course this could be because we are seeing her through Barbara's eyes and hearing what Barbara chooses to tell us.

So, here is what Sheba says near the end. (Keep in mind that Sheba is unspeakably furious at Barbara. She blames Barbara for the loss of her family, her reputation, her lover, her job, her home...everything. And this is the worst insult she can come up with. Very telling.)

"You have such delusions of grandeur, don't you? It's fascinating.
You actually think you're somebody. Listen. Let me tell you something. You're nothing. A bitter old virgin from Eastbourne."

OK, this is going to be my angle for Friday night. Wish me luck. And if I'm looking for a new book club on Saturday, you'll know why!


Rat fricassee

My family and I just had a lovely visit with our friends Mich and Pete and their two darling daughters. The kids spent a lot of time playing make-believe. One of the games that I think my 7-year-old came up with, bless her, had the kids piling the rat toys that M&P have lying around (I'm just going to let that go without much comment, but yes, rat toys plural) into a large cast-iron frying pan. This reminded Pete, and Pete reminded me, of this:

Blackadder: [suspicious] What's on the menu?
Baldrick: Rat. [shows him a big black rat] Saute or fricassee.
Blackadder: [peers at the rat] Oh, the agony of choice. Saute involves...?
Baldrick: Well, you take the freshly shaved rat, and you marinade it in a puddle for a while.
Blackadder: Hmm, for how long?
Baldrick: Until it's drowned. Then you stretch it out under a hot light bulb, then you get within dashing distance of the latrine, and then you scoff it right down.
Blackadder: So that's sauteing. And fricasseeing?
Baldrick: Exactly the same, just a slightly bigger rat.

Black Adder IV, Episode 1 (Captain Cook)

No problem

[No problem] has replaced "You're welcome," but it implies something very very different. It implies that something that would have been a problem wasn't, only because of the very positive attitude of the person saying it.

For the rest of this hilarious and perceptive post about the phrase "no problem," (only in America, I swear), read this: http://functioncall.blogspot.com/2007/05/non-problematic-thinking.html.

It's great.

Lights and switches

Here's another of my favorite puzzles:

You have three switches connected to three bulbs. The switches and bulbs are in different rooms. You can't see the bulbs from the switch room and vice-versa.

Your task: adjust the switches and then make a single visit to the bulb room to determine which switch is connected to which bulb. You can't revisit the switch room after you leave it.


Margery Allingham

I love Margery Allingham. She wrote mystery novels for the most part; many could be categorized as adventure stories too. But it's not usually the plot of her novels that I love (although I have no complaint about the way she spun a yarn). I don't care who dun it. I don't find myself racing towards the ending, dying to know how it all comes out. No. What I love are Allingham's characters and her descriptions of universal human feelings and behaviour—so often, I find myself thinking, "Yes... that's captured it exactly." And often it's just a word or two in a passage that does the trick.

I just re-read The Fashion in Shrouds, first published in 1938. The first thing that struck me was the simple phrase "sickening deterioration" that Allingham uses to describe the feeling that one gets when one's love is gradually losing interest and one knows it. Perfect.

And how about this, a paragraph that appears near the beginning of Chapter 8 after an embarrassing scene at a restaurant:

It was a comic moment but it passed too soon, leaving only a growing sense of embarrassment as half-a-dozen diners at other tables swung round to stare with that insolence which comes from an attempt to look casual, or perhaps invisible, before they returned to warn their companions not to look round immediately.

Insolence. Without that word, I suspect the paragraph would not have caught my eye. I certainly wouldn't be telling you about it. But its presence made me stop and read the passage through a couple of times, relishing the aptness of the description.

Great God in Boots!

I love the following quote from the Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, Vol. 1 (1967):

For two or three years...I was a Hegelian. I remember the exact moment during my fourth year when I became one. I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco, and was going back with it along Trinity Lane, when I suddenly threw it up in the air and exclaimed: "Great God in Boots! -- the ontological argument is sound!"

Ontological arguments proceed from a priori premises (by reason alone) to a conclusion. The first version of the ontological argument for the existence of God was made by St. Anselm in the 11th century. He claimed that it is self-contradictory to state that God does not exist:
1. God is, by definition, a being greater than which nothing greater can be imagined.
2. Existence in reality is greater than existence only in the mind.
3. God must exist in reality; otherwise, God would not be that which nothing greater can be imagined.

(Thanks to wikipedia for this simplified version of the argument.)

Compelling though this argument has been, in one form or another, to many over the years, even Russell changed his mind before too long and of course became a famous atheist. (Or agnostic, if you prefer. Russell dithered a bit about how to best categorize his position. For other philosophers, Russell felt that agnostic was the more precise term: absence of belief in god rather than presence of belief in no god. However, he agreed that for the person in the street, atheist was the more meaningful label).

Many rebuttals to the ontological argument object to the notion of existence as a property. Attackers (including Kant) argue that considering existence as a property confuses the distinction between a idea of a thing and the thing itself. Other objections criticise the "truth by definition" in premise 1.

However, my point here is not to refute the argument. I just wanted to share with you this lovely image of the young crane (Crane?)-like Russell, strolling through Cambridge on an evening long ago, thinking about this argument, and then suddenly stopping and tossing his tobacco tin into the air in excitement as an idea took hold. Isn't that gorgeous? It's one of my favorite philosophical anecdotes (SO much more pleasant than Wittgenstein allegedly lunging at Popper with that bloody poker).

P.S.: For quite a nice write-up about the ontological argument and various objections to it, see this entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:


Are you hungry? Angry?

This is my favorite comic at the moment. I love xkcd's comics in general (see sidebar for a link), but this particular one is special—it is funny, involves a famously annoying puzzle, takes the hatless one down a peg or two, and has a satisfyingly gory outcome (as gory as it can get for stick figures, at any rate).


Have you seen this? Available from iBelieve.

I don't know what to say. Except to ask the obvious questions:
Whatever will they think of next?
How do I get an upside down version?
What would Brian Boytano say?

How do you measure 45 minutes?

Here's one of my favorite puzzles. You have to, like, PROMISE not to go a-googling for the answer.

You have two pieces of string. They are of different lengths and different materials. All you know is that each one, when lit on the end, takes exactly one hour to burn up completely. You can't assume that either burns at a consistent rate; for instance, one may burn quickly at first and slow down near the end, and the other may (or may not) do the opposite.

Using only the strings and some matches, how do you measure 45 minutes?

[Hat tip to Darren.]

Send me your favorite ones.


Do you get excited when I say "Cray"?

Geek chic. For about a week, I thought I might have invented the term. And then I got around to googling it and, um, no. No. It's been around awhile and seems to be in wide use. It gets nearly a million google-hits, in fact.

Be that as it may, I got a taste of what it is to have this mysterious quality a couple of years ago when I worked for Cray. At parties, rather than leading a conga line (tiring) or tying a maraschino cherry stem in a knot with my tongue (impossible), I found I got quite a respectable circle of admirers when I said these four words:

"I work for Cray."

[Inevitably, this would be received with awe and amazement. And confusion: I live in Canada. It wouldn't have had nearly the same effect in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, where everyone works, or has worked, for Cray.]

Responses were along the lines of:
"You mean, Cray as in the supercomputer company?"
"Oh My God Are You Single?"
"Didn't SGI buy them?"
"You guys running Linux on the dual-core Opterons?"
"How many teraFLOPS are we talking about?"
"What the hell are you trying to do with that cherry stem?"
...and so on.

I suppose this says something about the type of parties I go to. Everyone always knows who Cray is. Everyone can quote the Dead Parrot sketch. Many prefer to do complex calculations in hex rather than tired old decimal. And many will happily discuss their recent Risk victories in much the way that Rimmer did on Red Dwarf: "Anyway, to cut a long story short I threw a five and a four which beat his three and a two, another double six followed by a double four and a double five. After he'd thrown a three and a two I threw a six and a three."

I'm sorry I don't work for Cray anymore. The technology was cool, the people were amazing, and I loved those trips to the mid-West, but—in all honesty—it's that look of awe from thin bespectacled male strangers that I miss the most. I just don't get the same sort of attention anymore.

P.S.: Did you ever see that Simpson's episode in which Homer is temporarily replacing Smithers as Mr. Burns's assistant? In one scene, Homer is trying to bring Mr. Burns all the things he asks for and failing miserably. Mr. Burns scorns it all:
"You call this breakfast?" [flinging plates to the floor]
"You call this a tax return?" [sweeping papers off the desk]
"You call this a supercomputer?" [using a crowbar to smash a large machine that is very clearly marked CRAY across the top]
...and on and on. I thought it was hilarious.

Who threw that ball?

To paraphrase William of Occam: "All things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one."

Now, William was a religious man; however, his principle (known as Occam's razor) is frequently used by atheists, scientists, and other clever people to argue against belief in god. Here's approximately how it goes: Existence is mysterious. God is mysterious. To explain existence by trotting out God is to simply to compound the mystery: we haven't actually simplified anything. And the added mystery is arguably even more mysterious because it asks us to lay aside reason (omnipotence? omniscience? AND omnibenevolence? In this world?). Surely a hypothetical creator requires an even greater explanation than the phenomena that it's meant to explain.

That's like saying, "Hm. Broken window. Wonder how that happened. I do see a baseball lying there in the broken glass, and y-e-s-s-s-s.... those are some 9-year-olds running away and whooping with laughter, but I have my doubts. Yes, I have my doubts. No one actually saw the ball leave the tip of their bat and crash through the glass, right? In that case, I'm gonna go for Tash. Tash was responsible for this, mark my words. Oh? You don't believe in Tash? Just because there's no evidence for his existence? Well, he's shy that way. It's part of his...."

Oh, that should do it. I think you get where I am going with this. Surely the simplest solution is the 9-year-olds, right? You all agree with me there? So why is it that for the most important of question of all, so many of us would rather choose the more mysterious and complex answer over the simpler, more reasonable, and scientifically sound alternative?

Who are you going to give that gin to?

What is wrong with the grammar in the following sentences? C'mon, this is a test. Sit up straight, spit out your gum, suck in your stomach, and pay attention. I know you love this kind of thing.

1. I am going to quickly run to the liquor store; what's your fancy?

2. Who are you going to give that gin to?

3. If anyone looks like they've had one too many, get them the hell out of my car.

4. The party which I told you about yesterday was, like, super fun.

Think you know? I hope you've scratched down some ideas. Would you be surprised if I were to tell you that all four sentences are grammatically just dandy?

[Update 2007/05/07: Some of you seem disinclined to take my word for it. That's fine; I expected some doubt. I gently lead you here instead, then, for a post by the more impressively degreed and persuasive G. Pullum: http://http//itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004348.html

He doesn't provide the same lurching example sentences, but he addresses the split infinitive, the preposition at the end of the sentence, the singular they, and the which/that distinction.

Note that I have not said anything about style; I'll admit that all of these sentences can be improved, especially if we specify that the gin in question is Bombay Sapphire. My point is only that they are not grammatically incorrect.]