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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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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Check your popularity with n-grams

Y’all know about n-grams, right? Wikipedia nails ’em:

… an n-gram is a contiguous sequence of n items from a given sequence of text or speech. The items can be phonemes, syllables, letters, words or base pairs according to the application. The n-grams typically are collected from a text or speech corpus.

So there you go.

Hmm, right …

My introduction to n-grams came in the form of a question: which is used more, leaped or leapt (as in the past-participle of leap)? And the answer came back very quickly: both, depending on your market.

Google’s Ngram Viewer is the perfect tool for this sort of question. Simply input the two words separated by a comma, choose the years to search and corpus (the group of texts) you want to examine, and hit the Search Lots of Books button. Here’s my result for US English from 1800–2000:

And British English for the same period:

So two winners, depending on your market.

Often there’s only one clear winner. When it was first published in 2011, a couple friends thought the title of my book Too Many Zeros was misspelt. Surely it should be Too Many Zeroes? Not according to Ngram Viewer, for American …

… or for British English …

Of course, the answer you get will depend on the question you ask. The old GIGO principle — Garbage In, Garbage Out — applies. For example, if I add ones to my list of search terms, the book was hopelessly misnamed:

Not that I’d ever be fooled by that …


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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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Interesting origins

The derivation of well-known words and phrases.

Many familiar English words and phrases have interesting derivations, and because Britain was once a great sea power, a surprising number come from the days of sailing ships …

The base of a sail was its “foot”. If it wasn’t secured and ended up dancing in the wind, it was said to be footloose.

by and large
By means “into the wind” and large means “with the wind”, so a good ship would be said to handle well, by and large.

under the weather
The “weather” side of a ship was the one most subject to ships1wind and spray from pounding waves. Not the best place to be, so anyone stationed was said to be under the weather.

making leeway
Opposite the “weather” side was the “lee” – the side sheltered from the wind. So a “lee shore” was one downwind of the ship, onto which a vessel could be driven if it have sufficient “leeway.”

A “windfall” was a sudden, unexpected rush of wind that gave a ship more leeway.

to be taken aback
A sudden shift in the wind that reversed direction and pressed the sails back against the mast, forcing the ship astern.

three sheets to the wind
“Sheets” were the rope lines used to trim the sails. If several of them came loose, (“went to the wind”), they’d cause the ship to rock about drunkenly.

over a barrel
Flogging was a common punishment for shipboard misdemeanours. The victim was often tied to a grating, a mast, or over the barrel of a cannon.

as the crow flies
Early navigation was often a hit and miss affair, so when unsure of his position, a captain would release a caged crow – which would head straight for the nearest land. By observing its flight from the highest lookout on the ship, (the crow’s nest), they would at least know the direction of the shore.

ships2knowing the ropes
There were miles of cordage (or rope) on a sailing ship and a good seaman knew the purpose of every one.

toe the line
When called to muster, the crew would stand to attention with their toes touching a seam on the deck, thus toeing the line.

slush fund
Salted meat, part of the ship’s provisions, was stored in barrels. When empty, they fatty sides of the barrels were scraped clean and the resulting slurry of “slush” was sold off by the ship’s cook when ashore.

no great shakes
Room was precious on a ship, so when barrels were empty, they were dismantled. The pieces, called “shakes”, took up less storage space, but they had little value.

pipe down
The bosun pipe – a type of whistle – was used to pass orders to the crew. They were piped to meals or to all hands on deck. When a watch went off-duty, they were “piped down”.

first rate
Ships were rated by the number of heavy cannon they carried. A ship of 100 or more guns was a “first rate” line-of-battle ship. Second rates carried 90 to 98 guns, third rates 64 to 89, and so on.

Admiral Edward Vernon was known as “Old Grog” after the grogram coat he habitually wore. In 1740, he ordered that sailors’ rum – traditionally served straight – be watered down. The mixture became known as “grog”.

start with a clean slate
The watch keeper would record speeds, distances, headings and tacks on a slate tablet. If there was nothing requiring their attention, the slate would be wiped clean before being passed on to the next watch.

above board
Anything on or above the open deck in plain view.

a square meal
In good weather, the crew were served meals on square wooden platters.

at loggerheads
Loggerheads were long-handled tools with an iron ball on one end. When heated, they were used to seal the pitch in deck seams. They also made handy weapons for quarrelling seamen.

the devil to pay
“Paying” was the term used for caulking the seams between planks, typically with pitch or tar. The “devil” was a particularly awkward seam.

A scuttlebutt was a butt with a scuttle – a keg of drinking water with a hole cut in it. Sailors would gather round it to drink and exchange gossip.


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Voting now on for the Oddest Book Title of the Year

Forget the Oscars. The finalists for the 38th Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year have been announced. The seven finalists are:

  • Behind the Binoculars: Interviews with Acclaimed Birdwatchers
  • Paper Folding with Children (A craft book that appears to assume children are extremely flexible.)
  • Reading from Behind: A Cultural History of the Anus
  • Reading the Liver: Papyrological Texts on Ancient Greek Extispicy  (An academic study on sacrificial sheep.)
  • Soviet Bus Stops
  • Too Naked for the Nazis (A biography of a musical hall troupe.)
  • Transvestite Vampire Biker Nuns from Outer Space: A Consideration of Cult Film



The award was originally conceived in 1978 as a way to avoid boredom at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair. There’s no ceremony or monetary prize for the winner, but a “passable bottle of claret” is given to the person who nominates the winning entry.

Previous winners have included:

  • Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice (1978)
  • The Joy of Chickens (1980)
  • How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art (1989)
  • Highlights in the History of Concrete (1994)
  • Living with Crazy Buttocks (2002)
  • The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories (2003)
  • The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification (2006)
  • Cooking with Poo (2011)
  • Strangers Have the Best Candy (2014)


Voting is now open to the public until Tuesday, March 15.

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