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.”


Share this ...
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+Share on LinkedInDigg thisShare on RedditShare on StumbleUpon

“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!

Share this ...
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+Share on LinkedInDigg thisShare on RedditShare on StumbleUpon

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.

Share this ...
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+Share on LinkedInDigg thisShare on RedditShare on StumbleUpon

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 …


Share this ...
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+Share on LinkedInDigg thisShare on RedditShare on StumbleUpon

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.


Share this ...
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+Share on LinkedInDigg thisShare on RedditShare on StumbleUpon

5 English language myths

mythsBustedThe problem — and the delight — of the English language is that there is no such thing as Standard English. Plenty of other languages have language regulators, but there is no equivalent of France’s Académie Française for us.

Here’s five very common ones …


1 : Verbs with -iz suffixes are Americanisms

According to Oxford Dictionaries, “Many verbs that end in -ize can also end in -ise: both endings are correct in British English.” In fact, the -ize form has been around for over 400 years. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first use of “organize” to around 1425. “Realize” dates from 1611. The first -ise version of it, “realise”, didn’t occur till 1755 — more than a century later!

Whichever version you use, just be consistent. Don’t chop and change. But note!

  • Some words don’t have -ize versions — like “advise”, “compromise” and “surprise”.
  • And the few that end in -yse in British English, such as …

… are all spelled with -yze in US English.


2 : Never begin a sentence with a conjunction

such as and, because, but, or, so or also.

‘And why not?’ you may ask. Because it’s just not done!

Apparently this is a childhood rule that no one tells us we can discard when we grow up. It’s much favoured by English teachers to prevent youngsters from writing in fragments — “And then I went home. And then I had some cake.” — but once we’re more proficient with the language, it can be ignored.

Oxford Dictionaries’ OxfordWords blog notes; “The argument against using and or but to introduce a sentence is that such a sentence expresses an incomplete thought (or ‘fragment’) and is therefore incorrect. However, this is a stylistic preference rather than a grammatical rule.”


3 : Never end a sentence with a preposition

Or to quote my favourite casting of this ‘rule’: “A preposition is a terrible word to end a sentence with.”

The idea apparently dates from the 17th century when a handful of writers tried to make English grammar fit more neatly with Latin grammar. Once again, it’s a personal preference, not a rule, and it’s hard to recast some sentences to avoid “breaking” it. Consider, for example;

  • He had no one to play with.
  • Please, come in!
  • But don’t let the cat out.
  • What sort of music are you interested in?
  • I hate being fussed over.

You could rephrase them “properly”, but you’d end up sounding awfully pompous. (“He had no one with whom to play.”)


4 : Never split an infinitive

Another nonsense ‘rule’ from trying to make English grammar fit in with Latin. The Grammarphobia blog notes;

Writers of English have been merrily “splitting” infinitives since the 1300s. It was perfectly acceptable until the mid-nineteenth century, when Latin scholars—notably Henry Alford in his book A Plea for the Queen’s English—misguidedly called it a crime. (Some linguists trace the taboo to the Victorians’ slavish fondness for Latin, a language in which you can’t divide an infinitive.) This “rule” was popular for half a century, until leading grammarians debunked it. But its ghost has proved more durable than Freddie Krueger.

Grammarphobia also provide some delightful examples for you to try un-splitting:

  • Kiri’s landlord wanted to flatly forbid singing.
  • He threatened to more than double her rent.
  • The landlord is expected to strongly oppose weaker noise regulations.

Somehow “The landlord is expected to oppose strongly weaker noise regulations” doesn’t quite work for me …


5 : Never use “they” as a singular pronoun

This ‘rule’ reckons that because they is plural, it must have a plural antecedent. So the sentence “If anyone has an answer, they should tell me” is wrong because anyone is singular.

Actually, there’s nothing wrong with using they as a gender-neutral, non-sexist singular pronoun. Shakespeare and Austen used they, them and their in that context, and no one moans about their poor grammar!

As Geoffrey K. Pullum says on Language Log, “… we have a logically impeccable construction that expert users of the language regularly employ and experienced listeners unhesitatingly accept. I wonder what more one would need to take something to be grammatical.”




Share this ...
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+Share on LinkedInDigg thisShare on RedditShare on StumbleUpon

Secret writer’s tools – The G&O Style Guide

Pacman or Pac-Man? Phony or phoney? Post-modern or postmodern?

At some point in your writing you’re going to need a style guide. Many publishers use the definitive Chicago Manual of Style, but it’s weighty — and expensive! Online tools are quicker — and cheaper — and the best general style guide I’ve come across is the one published by the UK’s Guardian and Observer newspapers. Entries are often short and to the point:

GuardianStyle-zero  and sometimes amusing:


The front page  of the guide is a little confusing if you want to look something up quickly. Better to bookmark the A page and go from there.


Here you’ll find:

  • A style-related quote. (There’s a different one on each page, indexed to the letter concerned, from Aristotle to Zeno by way of Vampire Weekend and Yoda.)
  • A plug for the Guardian’s style guide on Twitter, worth following, if only for gems like this:




  • A clickable A-Z index (much more useful than their homepage).
  • An illustration of one of the phrases therein.
  • And the meat and potatoes, the entries themselves.


The guide is slightly English-centric. You’ll find references to the 11-plus and freshers’ week, but it’s well maintained and bang up to date.



It’s also a great “grazing” resource. Take these two entries, for example:



Or this—proof that even tired cliches can still be made to work:



(PS: It’s Pac-Man, phoney and postmodern.)


Share this ...
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+Share on LinkedInDigg thisShare on RedditShare on StumbleUpon

30 awful analogies

analogiesAs Abraham Lincoln once said, “The problem with the internet is that you can’t always rely on it’s accuracy.”

The awful analogies below are widely attributed to quotes taken from high school essays by US teachers. They’re not! They were actually crafted with the express purpose of producing truly bad analogies. The original source is a 1999 Washington Post contest. Below you’ll find my Top 30—in no particular order—along with credit to the original (awful) authors.

1. He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant and she was the East River.
(Brian Broadus, Charlottesville)

2. Even in his last years, grandpappy had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.
(Sandra Hull, Arlington)

3. Shots rang out, as shots are wont to do.
(Jerry Pannullo, Kensington)

4. The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.
(Malcolm Fleschner, Arlington)

5. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.
(Malcolm Fleschner, Arlington)

6. “Oh, Jason, take me!” she panted, her breasts heaving like a college freshman on $1-a-beer night.
(Bonnie Speary Devore, Gaithersburg)

7. He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame. Maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.
(John Kammer, Herndon)

8. Her artistic sense was exquisitely refined, like someone who can tell butter from I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.
(Barbara Collier, Garrett Park)

9. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.
(Susan Reese, Arlington)

10.It came down the stairs looking very much like something no one had ever seen before.
(Marian Carlsson, Lexington, Va.)

11. The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.
(Jennifer Hart, Arlington)

12. The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife’s infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM.
(Paul J. Kocak, Syracuse)

13. The dandelion swayed in the gentle breeze like an oscillating electric fan set on medium.
(Ralph Scott, Washington)

14. It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.
(Brian Broadus, Charlottesville)

15. Her lips were red and full, like tubes of blood drawn by an inattentive phlebotomist.
(Greg Dobbins, Arlington)

16. The lamp just sat there, like an inanimate object.
(Nanci Phillips Sharp, Gaithersburg)

17. He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.
(Susan Reese, Arlington)

18. She was as easy as the TV Guide crossword.
(Tom Witte, Gaithersburg)

19. Her eyes were like limpid pools, only they had forgotten to put in any PH cleanser.
(Chuck Smith, Woodbridge)

20. She grew on him like she was a colony of E. Coli and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.
(Brian Broadus, Charlottesville)

21. Her pants fit her like a glove, well, maybe more like a mitten, actually.
(Chuck Smith, Woodbridge)

22. She walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs.
(Jonathan Paul, Garrett Park)

23. It hurt the way your tongue hurts after you accidentally staple it to the wall.
(Brian Broadus, Charlottesville)

24. Her voice had that tense, grating quality, like a first-generation thermal paper fax machine that needed a band tightened.
(Sue Lin Chong, Washington)

25. Outside the little snow-covered cabin, a large pile of firewood was stacked like Pamela Anderson.
(Meg Sullivan, Potomac)

26. A branch fell from the tree like a trunk falling off an elephant.
(Jonathan Paul, Garrett Park)

27. The sardines were packed as tight as the coach section of a 747.
(Tom Witte, Gaithersburg)

28. The sunset displayed rich, spectacular hues like a .jpeg file at 10 percent cyan, 10 percent magenta, 60 percent yellow and 10 percent black.
(Jennifer Hart, Arlington)

29. He regarded death with hesitant dread, as if he were a commedia dell’arte troupe and death was an audience of pipe-fitters.
(Brian Broadus, Charlottesville)

30. Her eyes were shining like two marbles that someone dropped in mucus and then held up to catch the light.
(Barbara Collier, Garrett Park)


Share this ...
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+Share on LinkedInDigg thisShare on RedditShare on StumbleUpon