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?