Famous Razors

No, not one of these!

Razors aren’t just for shaving. In philosophy, a razor is a rule of thumb that allows for the elimination (the “shaving off”) of unlikely explanations.

The most famous is Occam’s razor (sometimes written as Ockham’s razor), named after William of Ockham, (1288-1348), an English friar, philosopher and theologian who reckoned “Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate”, which translates as “Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity” — in short, the simplest explanation is most likely to be correct. This is exemplified by the phrase, “If you hear hoofbeats in the night, think horses, not zebras.”

But William of Ockham isn’t the only one with a razor. Here’s a few more you might like to consider, some serious, some not so serious…

Hume’s razor: “If the cause, assigned for any effect, be not sufficient to produce it, we must either reject that cause, or add to it such qualities as will give it a just proportion to the effect.”

Hitchens’s razor: (from the late Christopher Hitchens). “The burden of proof or onus in a debate lies with the claim-maker, and if he or she does not meet it, the opponent does not need to argue against the unfounded claim.” Or as Marcello Truzzi, founding co-chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal once put it, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.”

Heinlein’s Razor: has since been defined as variations on “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, but don’t rule out malice.”

Newton’s flaming laser sword (or Alder’s razor): “If something cannot be settled by experiment or observation then it is not worthy of debate.”

Sturgeon’s revelation (aka Sturgeon’s law): “Ninety percent of everything is crap.”

Murphy’s law: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”

Finagle’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong, will — at the worst possible moment.”

Mrs Murphy’s Law: :Anything that can go wrong will go wrong while Murphy is out of town.”

Muphry’s law: (Note the spelling!) “If you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.”

Parkinson’s law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Peter principle, The: “Managers rise to the level of their incompetence.” (People stop being promoted once they stop performing effectively.)

Segal’s law: “A man with a watch knows what time it is. A man with two watches is never sure.”

Hofstadter’s Law: “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”

 

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“A little lesbian joke …”

The Bechdel Test
The Bechdel test — sometimes called the Bechdel-Wallace test — began as “a little lesbian joke in an alternative feminist newspaper” back in 1985. Posed in a comic strip by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, it asks three simple questions:

  1. Does the story have at least two women in it?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. About something besides a man?

At first it seems a little silly — until you start looking at the data. In one study of almost 900 successful US films from 1950 to 2006, the ratio of male to female characters remained stable for more than half a century: 2:1. But women were portrayed as being involved in sex twice as often as their male counterparts.

A 2014 study of 120 films made worldwide showed only 31% of the named characters were women, a figure reflected in another study of 700 films made between 2007 and 2014. Only 30% of the speaking characters were women.

Why does this matter? According to US National Public Radio’s Neda Ulaby:

“it articulates something often missing in popular culture: not the number of women we see on screen, but the depth of their stories, and the range of their concerns.”

It’s still largely applied to films, but it’s equally applicable to books. Goodreads has lists of crime, SF, YA and general fiction that pass the Bechdel test and it’s also been applied to the classics.

The Finkbeiner test

The Finkbeiner test  is a checklist to help journalists avoid gender bias in articles about women in science. Proposed in 2013 by Christie Aschwanden, a health columnist for the Washington Post, it was named after Ann Finkbeiner, one of her colleagues, who decided to write about an impressive astronomer and “not once mention that she’s a woman” because “when you emphasize a woman’s sex, you inevitably end up dismissing her science”.

The pair were concerned about this sort of thing:

“Jill makes a fantastic role model…because she is married, has two children and has been able to keep up with her research.”

(In a profile of biologist Jill Bargonetti in the New York Times.)

“No matter how much she bends time, there’s no escaping the fact that she’s just turned 43 and that if she wants to have kids she’s going to have to get on with it soon.”

(In a profile of pre-eminent physicist Lisa Randall in the Guardian.)

“She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children”

(The New York Times again, in an obituary of rocket scientist Yvonne Brill.)

So Aschwanden proposed seven rules for stories to pass the Finkbeiner test. The story cannot mention:

  • The fact that she’s a woman
  • Her husband’s job
  • Her child care arrangements
  • How she nurtures her underlings
  • How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  • How she’s such a role model for other women
  • How she’s the “first woman to …”

She adds:

Here’s another trick. Take the things that are said about a female subject and flip them around as if they were said about a male. If they sound ridiculous, then chances are good they have no business in the story.

Apply that trick to the examples above and you’ll see exactly what she means!

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Advice from J K Rowling

When J K Rowling spotted a Twitter comment from @beauty_jackson that read:

“HEY! YOU! You’re working on something and you’re thinking ‘Nobody’s gonna watch, read, listen’. Finish it anyway.”

she responded with a memorable series of tweets:


That text in full:

There were so many times in the early 90s when I needed somebody to say this to me.

Even if it isn’t the piece of work that finds an audience, it will teach you things you could have learned no other way. (And by the way, just because it didn’t find an audience, that doesn’t mean it’s bad work.)

The discipline involved in finishing a piece of creative work is something on which you can truly pride yourself. You’ll have turned yourself from somebody who’s ‘thinking of’, who ‘might’, who’s ‘trying’, to someone who DID. And once you’ve done it … you’ll know you can do it again. That is an extraordinarily empowering piece of knowledge. So do not ever quit out of fear of rejection.

Maybe your third, fourth, fiftieth song/novel/painting will be the one that ‘makes it’, that wins the plaudits, but you’d never have got there without finishing the others (all of which will now be of more interest to your audience).

— J K Rowling, April 2017

 

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Context is everything! Cats and dogs in the Bible

I spotted this quote in a magazine this week …

“The dog is mentioned in the Bible 18 times — the cat not even once.”
–W E Farbstein, on the Old Testament

… so I thought I’d check it out with a quick free download from Project Gutenberg, and a text processing tool that’s built into Linux (called AWK, if you’re interested). I discovered that dogs actually get mentioned 41 times in the Bible. Here’s the breakdown:

  Old Testament:  
     “dogs” 18
     “dog” 14
  New Testament:  
     “dogs”   8
     “dog”   1

But Farbstein is right about cats; not a single mention. There’s a lot of cattle (153) and even nine caterpillars, but no cats.

The quote seems to suggest that this is a good thing — for dogs — but the unsavoury context of many of the mentions I found led me to investigate further. Here’s what Wikipedia’s List of Animals in the Bible says about the subject:

Dog — The dog in the East does not enjoy the companionship and friendship of man as in the western countries. Its instinct has been cultivated only insofar as the protecting of the flocks and camps against wild animals is concerned. In the towns and villages it roams in the streets and places, of which it is the ordinary scavenger; packs of dogs in a half-wild state are met with in the cities and are not infrequently dangerous for men. For this reason the dog has always been, and is still looked upon with loathing and aversion, as filthy and unclean. With a very few exceptions, whenever the dog is spoken of in the Bible (where it is mentioned over 40 times), it is with contempt, to remark either its voracious instincts, or its fierceness, or its loathsomeness; it was regarded as the emblem of lust, and of uncleanness in general. As some Muslims, to the present day, term Christians “dogs”, so did the Jews of old apply that infamous name to Gentiles. A greyhound is mentioned in Proverbs 30:31.

To which Bible History Daily adds:

Dogs in the Bible were not well loved. To be called a dog was to be associated with evil and low status.
There is evidence in the Bible that physical violence toward dogs was considered acceptable (1 Samuel 17:43; Proverbs 26:17). To compare a human to a dog or to call them a dog was to imply that they were of very low status (2 Kings 8:13; Exodus 22:31; Deuteronomy 23:18; 2 Samuel 3:8; Proverbs 26:11; Ecclesiastes 9:4; 2 Samuel 9:8; 1 Samuel 24:14). In the New Testament, calling a human a dog meant that the person was considered evil (Philemon 3:2; Revelation 22:15).

So mention of dogs in the Bible isn’t a positive thing at all. In fact, it’s quite the reverse!

 

 

 

My cat says she could’ve told me so.

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Literary Putdowns

In America, only the successful writer is important, in France all writers are important, in England no writer is important, and in Australia you have to explain what a writer is.
Geoffrey Cottrell

It was one of the dullest speeches I ever heard. The Agee woman told us for three quarters of an hour how she came to write her beastly book, when a simple apology was all that was required.
P.G. Wodehouse

He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.
William Faulkner (on Ernest Hemingway)

To say that Agatha Christie’s characters are cardboard cut-outs is an insult to cardboard cut-outs.
Ruth Rendell

If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.
Dorothy Parker

What a man Balzac would have been if he had known how to write.
Gustave Flaubert (on Honoré de Balzac)

An editor should have a pimp for a brother so he’d have someone to look up to.
Gene Fowler

From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.
Groucho Marx

A great many people now reading and writing would be better employed keeping rabbits.
Edith Sitwell

You’ve got the brain of a four-year-old boy, and I bet he was glad to get rid of it.
Groucho Marx

This is not a book that should be tossed lightly aside. It should be hurled with great force.
Dorothy Parker

Thank you for sending me a copy of your book. I’ll waste no time reading it.
Moses Hadas

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Dylan Thomas: ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night’

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

Dylan Thomas, 1914 – 1953

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Do you know about Reader View?

glasses

 

I do a lot of reading, from books, e-readers and online, but the latter is my least favourite medium for a couple of reasons:

1: Ads

I block ads, not because I’m opposed to advertising per se — I realise they “monetise” a lot of the free content on the web — but I am opposed to winking, blinking, distracting ads that draw my eye away from what I’m reading. They’re like muted TVs in bars. You can’t help by be distracted by the flickering movement.

I’m not talking about reading brief snippets here. I’m talking about longer pieces, often serious, sometimes complex, interesting or just things you need to think about carefully. How anyone can imagine a reader’s experience is enhanced by, well, stuff like this …

annoying

… is beyond me. So I block them all at source with a browser add-on. (My current favourite is uBlock Origin.)

Here, for example, is a before from  a local news site …

stuff1

and after …stuff2

(Note that the “before” shot doesn’t show the zooming, panning, insistent horror of that car banner ad.)

 

2. Awkward text

The second off-putting thing about about online reading is that on my 24″ wide-screen monitor text is often spread from side to side. The head and eye movements required to read longer pieces is simply unnatural. I’ve been known to shrink the application window to facilitate more comfortable reading, and even cut, paste and print longer pieces to afford a more comfortable read. (Yes, Wikipedia this includes you.)

In the past I’ve used tools like Readability, but that became unnecessary last year when Firefox added Reader View to its URL bar. Chances are, you missed it entirely.

Reader View “strips away clutter like buttons, ads and background images, and changes the page’s text size, contrast and layout for better readability.” In short, it transforms the likes of this …

wiki1500px

into this …

wiki2-500px

Is that not 1,000% better?

You’ll find the Reader View’s icon on the right of the URL box …

ReaderView

Just click it to toggle it on and off. It’s just possibly the best thing for reading since the printing press!

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Svetlana Alexievich

Svetlana AleSvetlana Alexievichxievich is an investigative journalist and winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature. She was praised “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”.

If that sounds a bit obtuse, try reading her speech to the Nobel Foundation, delivered a few days ago.

Caution: some of these stories will tear at your heart-strings.

I drove to a hospital for Afghan civilians with a group of nurses – we brought presents for the children. Toys, candy, cookies. I had about five teddy bears. We arrived at the hospital, a long barracks. No one has more than a blanket for bedding. A young Afghan woman approached me, holding a child in her arms. She wanted to say something – over the last ten years almost everyone here has learned to speak a little Russian – and I handed the child a toy, which he took with his teeth. “Why his teeth?” I asked in surprise. She pulled the blanket off his tiny body – the little boy was missing both arms. “It was when your Russians bombed.” Someone held me up as I began to fall.

Suggestion: Don’t try to skim through this. Save it for your lunch break or, better still, print it out and curl up somewhere quiet.

The online version’s here. The English PDF is here.
[Text length: 5,300 words. Typical reading time:18 mins]

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