The coins in the dark puzzle

In the New York Times’ Numberplay column yesterday, Gary Antonick presents an old but good logic puzzle:

There are twenty-six coins lying on a table in a totally dark room. Ten are heads and sixteen are tails. In the dark you cannot feel or see if a coin is heads up or tails up but you may move them or turn any of them over. Separate the coins into two groups so that each group has the same number of coins heads up as the other group. (No tricks are involved.)

I know it’s an old (and good) puzzle because I had read it before, and for this reason, some inkling of the solution was lurking in the back of my brain somewhere. I remember it being relatively simple but elegant. (It seems like the solution to every logic puzzle and half of mathematical proofs are elegant, and that “simple” solutions and “elegant” solutions are heavily overlapping subsets. But on second thought, maybe this one is merely cool or neat.)

The solution
My mostly faded memory of that solution involved moving the coins into two piles and turning over all of one pile, or 10 of one (or both) piles, or 16 of one (or both) piles, or maybe half of the coins, so I tried a few strategies in my head until I came across the right one.

You can’t see the coins, but you can feel them and count them as you move them and flip them. Clearly, you need to separate them into two groups before flipping them, because if you try a strategy of flipping and then grouping them, you won’t be able to tell which ones you’re moving!

Separate the 26 coins into a left and a right group of 10 and 16, respectively. The left group has between 0 and 10 coins that are heads up, and the right group has 10 minus that number heads up. Assume the left group has nothing but 10 heads-up coins, meaning the right group has 0 heads-up coins. Flip over all 10 coins in the left group, resulting in 0 heads-up coins, the same as the right group.

Or assume the left group has 9 heads-up coins and 1 tails-up coin. Flip all 10 over, resulting in 1 heads-up coin, the same as the right group.

Or assume the left group has 8 heads-up coins and 2 tails-up coins. Flip all 10 over, resulting in 2 heads-up coins, the same as the right group.

You can verify that this pattern continues all the way down to 0 heads-up coins in the left group, which, when flipped over, become 10 heads-up coins, the same as the right group.

So no matter how many heads-up coins start in the left group of 10, after flipping them all over, this number becomes the same as the number of heads-up coins on the right side!

The math behind it
I did not arrive at that solution by deduction or the use of any math or equations. Rather, I arrived at it by drawing on my vague memory of reading the solution two or three years ago and by performing a lot of trial and error in my head. When I pose this logic puzzle to my children several years from now, I will tell them what I think is the best way to solve this puzzle: to try a bunch of things until you come up with the winning strategy and explain why it works afterwards, not to come up with a theory to explain what should work and then verify it with several iterations.

But there is, of course, algebra to explain why that solution works:

In the left group of 10 coins, there are n heads and 10–n tails. In the right group, there are 10–n heads and 16–(10–n)=6+n tails. Of those four quantities, it is easy to notice that two of them are represented by the same expression: there are 10–n tails in the left group and 10–n heads in the second group. (This happens because we have chosen the group sizes wisely.) To take advantage of this fact, we need to perform some action that makes the two 10–n expressions refer to two sets of heads instead of one set of heads and one set of tails. As we now know, we must flip over all 10 coins in the left group. This converts the n heads to n tails (not entirely relevant) and the 10–n tails to 10–n heads. Now there are 10–n heads in both groups!

Yet again, immediately upon ignoring my better judgment and revisiting Fark.com one lazy afternoon, I was reminded why I avoid even reading its discussion threads for years at a time. By and large, its members seem to be oblivious, ignorant, sheltered, myopic, antisocial creeps and douchebags who retreat to the safe confines of websites populated by others like them because their real lives are so pathetic and dysfunctional, so disconnected from the real world.

The discussion thread that most recently reminded me of these facts was this one, which was about this column written by a mother who is concerned about the violent, debasing, disturbing porn video her 11-year-old son was shown by schoolmates. It is an interesting, well-written, sensible, level-headed column, so I’ll quote it at length:

Last week my son told me he had watched something horrible online. Something sexual where the young women involved seemed coerced into an act that was brutal and disgusting, not just to an uninitiated 11-year-old, prone to anxiety, but to anyone with a shred of humanity. …

He watched it because one of his new friends told him he should – because it was “funny”. …

He said he had been horrified watching a short video online but was unable to stop thinking about it. He told me he couldn’t “unsee” it, and how he felt his childhood was effectively over. He had not told me anything as he thought I’d be angry with him.

So I’m left cuddling my son, who is strung between childhood and adolescence. He tells me that everything is moving too fast. We talk about his observation that you can’t “unsee” stuff. We talk about how you can’t go backwards. And we talk about the importance of moving forward. I tell him how he needs to grow older so that the world can have a great man in their midst.

Then we talk about the porn industry and how often it portrays women as passive beings. We talk about how women in the video he saw are real people, forced into very unpleasant situations – perhaps mums and sisters, certainly daughters – and we talk about how very far from “funny” videos like these really are. We also talk about how sometimes women choose to go into the sex industry and that when the work is on their terms, that’s OK.

We talk about why people might access porn. That being curious is completely natural. We talk about the difference between what he watched that was brutal and violent and something that the majority of people might find titillating.

I am looking at this through the eyes of my 11-year-old. He can see that there are gradations of porn. Some of it, though an unrealistic view of sex between two consenting adults, is bearable and allows you to retain a basic positive belief in the world. But then there is the degrading, shockingly violent porn that showed him a dark underbelly of an online world that until that moment was largely populated by Minecraft and Harry Potter. Faced with this hideous new information, he simply doesn’t know where to file it.

After watching the video, he changed his settings on his phone to strict. He was the last in his year to get a phone. I held out giving him one, not due to fear of him having access to porn, but because I question why someone his age needs a phone.

A month ago, however, I caved in to his peer pressure. I want him, for his sake, to fit in where he can.
[...]
I use the internet all the time. I am very active on social media. I’ve seen porn – most of us have. But I recognise that this time the internet has crept up and slapped me right in the face.

This week, one of this country’s major teaching unions published research suggesting that 90 per cent of eight to 16-year-olds had at some stage accessed pornography on the internet – many without meaning to – and asked for training in how to deliver lessons warning of the dangers of pornography. This is not about censorship but education. It’s about having frank discussions about the content that our generation has created and giving it a context for the younger generations who are consuming and replicating it.

Children have always found ways to discover the world on their own and that’s essential and it’s important that adults don’t interfere with that discovery and self-education. But it’s our adult world that is increasingly seeping into their childhood, at the touch of a button. And when the mark of fitting in with your mates becomes watching a “funny” video, which is essentially violent porn that changes your world in an instant, then I think we, as a society, need to reassess things.

The Farkers reveal their ugly true colors by jumping all over the author for being a “bad parent” by failing to prepare her 11-year-old (!) for seeing violent, debasing, abusive, coerced pornography, and assuming that what he saw wasn’t so bad, and saying that all normal kids see that stuff sooner or later so 11 is just fine, and the child will never adjust to the real world with his parents sheltering him so much, and they’re obviously cheap, oppressive bastards for waiting all the way until age 11 to buy him a smart phone, and this mother clearly just wants to censor the internet. It is hard to imagine such a large proportion of an entire online community missing the point so badly and failing to address a single issue that the column was actually about. See for yourself:

Yes, oh great and knowledgeable parent person, shelter your son more. That way, he’ll be guaranteed to grow up to become a well-adjusted member of society. There will definitely not be any negative repercussions from trying to protect him from things which he does not understand, and there will be zero chance of your little snowflake having sex-related psychological issues in his adult relationships with women.

The mother was not trying to shelter her son or protect him from sexual content; she was trying to protect him from violent, disturbing, debasing pornography—that means rape! (Only one contributor to that discussion thread even mentions rape, so that says something about Farkers’ understanding of the column and the issue in question.) It is hard to imagine this ignoramus being more wrong about the mother’s point or about what types of experiences will poison the boy’s future adult relationships. The way children get screwed up psychologically and lose the ability to have happy, healthy sexual relationships is by seeing and experiencing the exact things this boy claims to have seen. The people who will have sex-related psychological issues are the ones who think debasing, dehumanizing pornography is “funny” or arousing in any way. Until they are probably in their mid- to late teens, children cannot cope with or understand certain sights and experiences, violent sexual assault among them. Many people who go into pornography, who suffer from dysfunctional intimate relationships, or who become sex offenders have a disturbed conception of sex, intimacy, violence, abuse, and interpersonal relationships, which often results from exposure to something sexual and/or violent at too young an age to process it and cope with it. True, most of these were probably victims of actual abuse and not of an unexpected porn video, but exposure to any sexual content at a very young age and exposure to this type of disturbing sexual abuse at a pre-teen age can very well cause long-term psychological harm. Much more than “sheltering” a boy from footage that, according to the mother, would disgust anyone with a shred of humanity. I trust her assessment of the video more than this basement-dwelling sociopath who probably is aroused by that type of thing.

wait, the mom in the article was rational while taking to her son. at least she was able to talk to him AFTER the FACT. (why she didnt talk to him BEFORE the FACT was actual the cause of the problem. talk to your kids. NOW! Whoops too late.)

“educating pupils to the dangers of viewing internet pornography ”
Yup, the author of the article agrees with the crazies. PORN KILLS!!!!
YES we should all be talking to kids about sex and porn. (teachers and parents, probably not farkers…)
YEs they are going to see it either way, no matter what you do. His not having a phone just meant that he would see it on his friends phone.

The sex talks that parents are supposed to have with their children do not involve describing the types of disgusting, dehumanizing pornography that sick fucks find stimulating or arousing. The author of the column seems to imply that she and her husband have talked to their son about sex to some degree, so they have a mature enough relationship to be able to talk about porn at this time. This doesn’t sound like the first sex-related talk the author has had with her son. (If parents haven’t even broached the topic of sex with their children, then I guarantee they can’t all of a sudden have a calm, rational, fruitful discussion about dehumanizing sexual abuse one night.)

So this Farker’s “point”, if you want to call it that, that the parents were negligent for not talking to their son about sex yet, is almost certainly nullified by the facts. If this Farker’s point was that the parents should have talked to their son about the violent, disturbing, dehumanizing rape-pornography that’s out there, and described it in detail, possibly by finding examples to play for him, so that he wouldn’t be shocked by it when he found it on his own, then this Farker’s disconnection with the real world and human decency is self-evident. If this Farker’s point is that the parents should have already talked to their son about the existence of violent, disgusting pornography but without going into any detail or description, then I don’t see how that would have helped anything in this case. If this Farker’s point is that parents should talk to their children about sex and include some information about the basics of pornography (its purpose, the fact that it’s acceptable and hurts no one as long as its consensual), but not mention violent, dehumanizing pornography, then that also wouldn’t help anything.

In summary, this Farker doesn’t have any discernible point except to lash out at a parent because it makes him feel good to get on his high horse about over-protective parents and the pussification of children, when neither of these factors is relevant.

Several other Farkers were guilty of the same basic kind of misunderstanding: thinking that the issue at hand is talking to children about sex (and even pornography) and that this mother’s failing was that she waited too long, until after her son had been horrified by an online video, to talk to him about sex. Here are the four other such comments I noticed:

1. If you can’t take five lousey minutes to talk to you kids about sex. . .

2. If only there were a way for parents to help their children understand such complex issues.

/then again ,I suppose I’m asking too much as their are innumerable adults walking around with childish notions about sex

3. The problem is shiatty parents. You need to teach your kids when it’s acceptable to view porn, drink, and curse.

4. People are naive to think that their “children” are not having or thinking about sex. Humans are naturally curious. Unless you use the fear of god to fark them up.

Let me make this clear: This column is not about sex or talking to children about sex. It is about an 11-year-old child, who is not even an adolescent and is three or four years away from even starting high school (or whatever they call it across the pond), who was disturbed, troubled, and disgusted by a violent, debasing, dehumanizing video of sexual abuse that he was tricked into watching by his peers, who called it “funny”. (Whether they called it such to trick him into thinking it was a comedic video or they actually found it funny, I don’t know. Probably the former.) No parents’ sex talk with their children should include this type of abusive, coercive rape-pornography, except to warn their children to stay away from it and to remind them that there are some very bad people in the world who don’t respect others and who need to hurt others to feel good about themselves. People should not be exposed to certain things at all in their early childhood years and should only be exposed to palatable, non-disturbing sex and violence as they grow into their pre-teen and teenage years. This mother is rightly concerned that her son and millions of other children could be and are being irrevocably damaged by violent, unsettling images of involuntary abuse and debasement. (Even if the video was fiction staged by voluntary actors, it clearly sounds like way too much for an 11-year-old to see. He didn’t think it was fiction; that’s enough. The author opines that no one with a shred of humanity should react with anything but repulsion to it, and I trust her opinion much more than maladjusted Farkers’.)

No human being should ever perform any violent or coercive act, especially a dehumanizing and abusive act like the one in question; they certainly shouldn’t film it; it shouldn’t exist as pornography, whether staged or real, because no one should be aroused or in any other way turned on by violence and abuse; and if you are aroused by rape and debasement, then you are a psychopath who is unfit for human society.

The purpose of pornography is to sexually arouse the viewers to enhance their sexual experience either alone or with their partner(s). If you are sexually aroused by brutality, coercion, and debasement, then you have a mental illness and need professional help, possibly institutionalization. You are the one who is maladjusted and dysfunctional. I am not talking about insistent or even forceful persuasion in which one person is reluctant but then gives in to carnal desire voluntarily. I am not talking about objectification, which is fundamentally different from dehumanization. I am not talking about the entertainment value of violence and bloodshed in video games, police dramas, and war movies. I am talking about rape, forceful and involuntary, whether it is all fiction or not. The human brain should not be wired to be sexually aroused by any type of violence or coercion, and if yours is, then it is abnormal, and not in the Albert Einstein/Leonardo da Vinci kind of way. The purpose of brutal, debasing rape-pornography is not to add a level of rawness or realism to a story about crime, or to comment on our violent society, or to depict how evil the rapist is for getting satisfaction out of that act, or to make us sympathize with the victim, or to provide an entertaining, bloody fight of good guys vs. bad guys; it is to arouse the viewer by showing brutal rape, as well as depicting the arousal and satisfaction of the rapist. Therefore, just as the occurrence of any violent act is disheartening to any decent human, there mere existence of brutal rape-pornography is something all decent humans should oppose and keep children from seeing, because we shouldn’t want any fellow human to be so disturbed as to be aroused by it. We should never want to see it—we should be disgusted and disappointed it even exists, for the reasons above—and we should be doubly opposed to our children seeing it.

That does not mean we should pretend it doesn’t exist. That does not mean we shouldn’t warn our children about miswired psychopaths who are sexually aroused by violence. That does not mean we shouldn’t teach our children about evil and violence. It simply means children who are barely out of elementary school and cannot possibly understand the complexities of intimacy, sex, and the psychological and physical abuse of rape should not be exposed to disturbing rape-pornography that is more likely to scar them than enlighten them. At least let them get into puberty before exposing them to such overwhelming stuff.

It is bad enough that brutal atrocities have been committed by murderers, rapists, generals, dictators, and other psychopaths throughout history; at least the genocides and wars and serial killings and individual acts of abuse, rape, and murder are universally seen as deplorable acts of violence. But what is even worse is when deplorable acts of violence, whether fictional or real, are depicted as serving the sexual pleasure of the abusers and are filmed for the sexual enjoyment of viewers. It is not healthy for anyone to be aroused by documentary footage or reenactments of wars, genocides, murders, or rapes, and it is equally unhealthy for anyone to be aroused by pornography that is brutal, coercive, and dehumanizing, whether fictional or real. That is why children should never see it and why adults probably shouldn’t, either.

“Too young to have a phone.”
HAHAHAHA HAHAHAHAHAHA HAHAHAHAHAH
For 8 billion years parents have been using this moronic chestnut to keep from having to spend money and to punish their children because when they were kids they had to walk up hill both ways in the snow.

But most 11-year-olds don’t need a cell phone. What do they need it for? They can’t drive yet. It is extremely unlikely that they will go anywhere or be in any situation that the parents don’t know about. Their parents or other parents chauffeur them almost everywhere they go. Most households with children have a land line that the children can use to talk to their friends. The one and only reason any child wants a cell phone is as a status symbol to compare with the other children’s. The only good reason to give a middle-schooler a cell phone is to use in emergencies where using a land line is impossible, which this Farker doesn’t bring up. He assumes parents deny their children cell phones and other gadgets to avoid spending any money above the bare necessities of life and to make their children suffer through all the parents had to suffer through at that age. Wrong and wrong.

Has any kid, ever, said they want to remain a child?

Um, yes, plenty. I have a feeling most children, at least most children who are relatively happy, healthy, well-adjusted children with comfortable, pleasant home lives have wanted to avoid growing up at some point in their adolescence. This feeling was echoed by three or four other Farkers who responded to that comment.

I blame the parent. The kid was smart enough, after viewing said pron, to change the settings on the phone to ‘strict’…the parent should of done that immediately prior to giving their kid the phone. The author’s stated how they saw pron all over the internet and still gave the phone to their kid with unlimited viewing ability.

Parental FAIL.

You don’t need to blame the parent, the child, or the internet that produced the pornography. If anyone, you should blame the child’s degenerate classmates for fooling him into viewing a video by describing it as “funny” and by finding it the slightest bit enjoyable or entertaining. Maybe the parent didn’t know the phone had a “strict” setting (I’m almost certain mine doesn’t), or maybe they didn’t want to shelter the child by being over-protective, which this Farker probably would have objected to if the parent had originally taken those precautions. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, though, so suffice it to say that there’s no need to blame the parent or child or the technology at all.

From the article: He told me he couldn’t “unsee” it, and how he felt his childhood was effectively over.

It’s pretty damn obvious that the author is putting words into her kid’s mouth here. I don’t doubt that he was shocked by seeing something extreme, but there’s no way in hell an 11 year old actually said that.

It’s pretty damn obvious that clueless Farkers will grab onto any person, situation, or story that doesn’t fit their myopic worldview and rail against it with whatever comes to mind, regardless of the validity of their argument.

This Farker seems skeptical that an 11-year-old child would use the word “unsee” or say he felt his childhood was effectively over. First, where have you encountered the word “unsee” in your travels? Mainly on the internet, of course! So this Farker is saying he finds it unlikely that a child of the internet age would use internet terminology in real life? And not only is that unlikely, but the person who put that word into the child’s mouth was the mother, who, while she describes herself as an active, frequent internet user, is not a child of the internet age, is probably in her late 30’s or early 40’s, and is therefore not in the demographic group of most frequent users of internet jargon. No, between the two of them, it is far more likely that the child is the one who used the word “unsee”, rendering yet another Farker’s “logic” completely invalid.

As for the unlikelihood that the child actually said he felt like his childhood was effectively over, that wasn’t quoted and so was obviously the mother’s words. She was paraphrasing the gist of his feelings in her own words. Any half-literate simpleton could deduce that from this thing we call punctuation.

Yet again, a Farker demonstrates his incapacity for a considered, sensible evaluation of the mother’s position, preferring instead to lash out at what he considers an easy target, only to fail to make a single valid point.

But, if there were an instructional on the best way for a mom to not give her son weird sexual hangups for life…this would be the opposite of it.

This mother (and, probably, the father or her partner) has talked to her son about sex and is capable of having a thoughtful, sensible, mature discussion with him about pornography and porno actors. This is exactly what the parents of an 11-year-old should be doing to raise a mature, composed, sexually healthy adult. In contrast, an example of something that would give a person “weird sexual hangups for life” would be seeing shocking, disgusting, dehumanizing, coercive sexual abuse as a pre-teen and being surrounded by peers who think it has any redeeming qualities. These are facts that are obvious to anyone who has actually been through all of childhood, grown up into an adult, had normal, healthy relationships, developed a sense of respect for women, learned that we should be outraged at any and all violence and abuse, and acquired something resembling a decent moral compass.

I am of the opinion that the incident she is describing… never actually happened. Makes for a convenient excuse for a porn-hating article.

The ethics of porn are complex. Some people think everything is simple. Therefore, they choose an opinion that lets them think a complex subject is not complex. This opinion is usually wrong.

This Farker completely ignores an important and long passage of the column. I’ll quote it again:

Then we talk about the porn industry and how often it portrays women as passive beings. We talk about how women in the video he saw are real people, forced into very unpleasant situations – perhaps mums and sisters, certainly daughters – and we talk about how very far from “funny” videos like these really are. We also talk about how sometimes women choose to go into the sex industry and that when the work is on their terms, that’s OK.

We talk about why people might access porn. That being curious is completely natural. We talk about the difference between what he watched that was brutal and violent and something that the majority of people might find titillating.

I am looking at this through the eyes of my 11-year-old. He can see that there are gradations of porn. Some of it, though an unrealistic view of sex between two consenting adults, is bearable and allows you to retain a basic positive belief in the world. But then there is the degrading, shockingly violent porn that showed him a dark underbelly of an online world that until that moment was largely populated by Minecraft and Harry Potter. Faced with this hideous new information, he simply doesn’t know where to file it.

That’s three paragraphs of the mother displaying an understanding that the entire issue of pornography is complex (especially as relates to children) and that it’s not possible to demonize all porn or shun it in a black-and-white manner. And she probably passed at least some of that mature understanding of this complex issue on to her child. She discussed it with him like a mature, responsible parent. This is the polar opposite of what this Farker and most others in this discussion thread have done. This Farker’s conclusion is: “Nope, she made it up. She just wants to demonize porn. Her thought processes and conclusions are wrong.” That is not complex or nuanced but rather jumps straight to conclusions that are not only unsupported by the column but are in fact directly and specifically contradicted by the column. So in fairness to this commenter, he probably didn’t even read the whole thing; that’s why his points are so stupid and vapid.

Yeah, for all we know it was just some video of a chick taking a jizzblast to the face. Hardly violent, but to Pruneface McUptight in the article it’s all ZOMG, VIOLENCE AGAINST WIMMINZ!!!!

Translation: “I didn’t read much of the mother’s column, so I’m just going to take the lazy approach of assuming what I want so that I can bash her as an uptight prude, because this fits more nicely into my myopic worldview, viz., that everyone in the history of the world who isn’t a Farker or other basement dweller who agrees with me most of the time is worthy of scorn and condescension.”

Jesus christ, the kid is 11 so
a) he should already be familiar with porn
b) should be infatuated with it-not scarred by it.
c) might have teh gheys
d) is a pussy

When I was 11 I was smoking unfiltered lucky strikes (quit @ 16), smoking pot (no comment), drinking (never stopped) and looking for a connection for acid & coke (came around a year or two later). Violent porn and Faces of death were old news.

Kids these days are never allowed to grow up or make mistakes, thats why they are all pussies.

Again, this is not about porn or sex, it is about disgusting violence and debasement. It is about the depiction of an immoral, inhuman, illegal violation as sexually enjoyable, filmed for sexual enjoyment. Kids who miss out on seeing violent, debasing rape-porn don’t grow up to be sissies who are scared of sex because of it. In contrast, kids who see violent rape-pornography might very well be more likely to grow up to be sexual abusers and rapists. I don’t have any data from longitudinal or retrospective studies to back that up, but my main evidence is that anyone who is aroused by that already has a disturbed psyche, and only someone with a disturbed psyche can become a sexual abuser.

*sigh* And the quest to censor the internet continues.

There is nothing explicit or implicit in the mother’s column about censoring the internet. Again, instead of addressing the issues the mother brings up—she doesn’t actually propose any concrete solutions to the problem of children viewing porn at ever-younger ages; that isn’t really the point of the column—this Farker just jumps on a simple issue (censorship) that he feels strongly about and that no sensible person could possibly oppose him on and bashes the author for her (imagined) wrongheadedness. Lazy and stupid—par for the course for Fark.com.

That was the most pretentious “think about the children” article I have ever read.

Poor kid.

It was the opposite of pretentious. It was sober and sensible. This Farker probably didn’t actually read the column. If he did, I feel sorry for him that that’s his best guess at the meaning of the column.

Finally, I should mention that eventually several Farkers did chime in with sensible viewpoints and facts that contradicted the sociopaths above, though none of them was very forceful or eloquent about it. That’s the way it goes with online communities like Fark.com: the hivemind is antisocial, ignorant, puerile, myopic, and fervently, crusadingly intolerant of differing opinions—precisely the reason I abandoned Fark and haven’t even logged in since about 2007—and the minority thinkers have to tread lightly to avoid offending too many sheep and starting flame wars all the time.

Seeing Brave in the theater

Shortly after it came out, Kathy and I went to see the Brave in the theater. It was a good movie and all, but one thing I’ll never forget is seeing a mother and two children walking back into the theater during the middle of the movie—in fact, I think it was an important, revealing scene with Merida and that old bear—and the three of them couldn’t care less about what was going on on screen. This was a huge, momentous, plot-altering scene of the movie, and during their whole trip into the theater room, up the stairs, and back into their seats, not even the mother acted the slightest bit interested in turning her head occasionally to the screen to see what was going on, trying to piece together what she had missed, or shushing her kids so they wouldn’t have to miss any more.

It wasn’t that they were being rude; in fact, her kids might not have been making any noise, though that seems doubtful, because they’re kids. What struck me was how little—none, it seemed—this woman cared about a good, interesting, well-told movie and what she had missed of it and how she could catch up with the plot after missing several minutes. Paying attention to and enjoying the movie just weren’t among her goals for this movie outing. Such concerns weren’t even on her radar. Her purpose in taking her kids to see Brave was to go to a public place for a relatively easy, sedentary activity, to avoid the summer heat, and to put her kids in front of some big, colorful, moving pictures for an hour and a half.

I made remarks along these lines, in much briefer terms, either during or after the movie to Kathy, and she agreed it was kind of funny or weird. Unrelatable, at least. We couldn’t relate to someone who would go to a movie, even if it’s a kids’ movie, and have no interest in following and enjoying the whole thing. Now, I fully expect to take our children to some movies or other events where my main goal is to entertain and distract them for a couple hours to ease the burden of caring for them once in a while, but I also expect to at least pay attention to the whole movie and care about following it all. And let’s not forget that kids’ movies these days are on average better than ever, with the possible exception of the wonderful early- to mid-1990’s Disney movies (Brave won the Oscar for best animated film). So anyone who was paying attention to Brave would have become interested and invested in the movie almost immediately. But once the duty of taking her charges to the bathroom or the concession stand arose, this mother’s interest in the movie apparently disappeared. I hope Kathy and I never get like that with our children in the theater. Or even at home when we’re actively watching a movie with our children.

Sentences I like

This is my second post about sentences I’ve encountered that struck me as very well-worded, poignant, impactful sentences that I would have been proud to write. (Here is the first post.)

His teeth felt strange in his head, tiny tombstones set in pink moist earth.
—Stephen King, The Gunslinger

Those gods might not punish at once, but sooner or later the penance would have to be paid…and the longer the wait, the greater the weight.
—Stephen King, The Waste Lands

It was only this clearing that had heard the full and painful measure of her grief; to the stream she had spoken it, and the stream had carried it away.
—Stephen King, Wizard and Glass

And beneath them as the night latened and the moon set, this borderland world turned like a dying clock.
—Stephen King, Wolves of the Calla

We spread the time as we can, but in the end the world takes it all back.
—Stephen King, Wolves of the Calla

A mist hung over the Devar-tet Whye like the river’s own spent breath.
—Stephen King, Song of Susannah

Outside, the wind gusted. The old horse whinnied as if in protest to the sound. Beyond the frost-rimmed window, the falling snow was beginning to twist and dance.
—Stephen King, The Dark Tower

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. … Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
—Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

On the northern faces and higher ground of the rolling hills in the valley divide, the wind combed billowing fields of gray standing hay with rhythmic strokes, while dark evergreen boughs of spruce and pine swayed and shivered in erratic gusts that found their way around to the protected south-facing sides.
—Jean M. Auel, The Plains of Passage

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.
—Robert Jordan, The Eye of the World

There was a steaming mist in all the hollows, and it had roamed in its forlornness up the hill, like an evil spirit, seeking rest and finding none. A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do.
—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Thus it had come to pass, that Tellson’s was the triumphant perfection of inconvenience. After bursting open a door of idiotic obstinacy with a weak rattle in its throat, you fell into Tellson’s down two steps, and came to your senses in a miserable little shop, with two little counters, where the oldest of men made your cheque shake as if the wind rustled it, while they examined the signature by the dingiest of windows, which were always under a shower-bath of mud from Fleet-street, and which were made the dingier by their own iron bars proper, and the heavy shadow of Temple Bar.
—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

No vivacious Bacchanalian flame leaped out of the pressed grape of Monsieur Defarge; but, a smoldering fire that burnt in the dark, lay hidden in the dregs of it.
—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

…nobody wondered to see only Madame Defarge in her seat, presiding over the distribution of wine, with a bowl of battered small coins before her, as much defaced and beaten out of their original impress as the small coinage of humanity from whose ragged pockets they had come.
—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Troubled as the future was, it was the unknown future, and in its obscurity there was ignorant hope.
—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

When the dream of vengeance in which we joined begins to drown all innocence in the blood tide, we are forced to look at the mingling of innocence and violence in ourselves.
—Stephen Koch, Afterword to A Tale of Two Cities

Sixteenth Street traffic moves in frustrated inches and headlong stampedes.
—David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms around the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage.
—David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

The cold sank its fangs into my exposed neck and frisked me for uninsulated patches.
—David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

He chiseled open the fault lines in the others’ personalities.
—David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

I lived with them on Montague Street in a basement down the stairs
There was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air.
—Bob Dylan, “Tangled Up In Blue”

There is no greener green than the green of a ball field in spring.
Buster Olney

Tall green plants, possibly corn, grew in softly sighing ranks that stretched to the distant horizon where the last arc of a huge red sun was setting.
—Dan Simmons, The Fall of Hyperion

Weird Al wrote “Talk Soup” at the request of E! for their show Talk Soup

Holy crap, I never knew this before: Weird Al Yankovic wrote his 1993 song “Talk Soup” at the request of the E! television network to be used on their show Talk Soup.

Well, to put it bluntly, they kind of jerked me around. The producers of the show approached me, asking me to do a new theme song for the show. I wrote the lyrics (which they approved) and then recorded the song (which they said they “loved”). And then they never used it. Go figure.

I’ve always liked that song since I first heard it on my cassette tape of his album Alapalooza (most famous for “Jurassic Park” and “Bedrock Anthem”) back in the mid-90’s. I thought it was kind of funny and/or curious that the “E!” audio logo appeared at the end of the song, which apparently is the same exact clip used by E! and not an imitation. I guess I assumed Weird Al put that there as more of a reference or homage to the TV show Talk Soup, which made fun of daytime talk shows like his song did (before his song did), or maybe something akin to Jim Morrison’s “Stronger Than Dirt” at the end of “Touch Me” (a reference to the Ajax household cleaner commercials of the time, which had a four-note melody similar to the last four notes of “Touch Me”). But it turns out the name of Weird Al’s song, its content, and the “E!” audio logo at the end were made for/came from the TV network itself. You learn something new every day…

Middle-schoolers are awful

My first week of middle school, I started realizing how awful middle-schoolers are as human beings in general. The boys, at least. This was mainly manifested in P.E. class, where I repeatedly saw 6th-grade boys push and shove and grab and bicker and posture and cut in line all just to get a better place in line, whether they deserved it or not. I’m referring to the lines we waited in to come to bat in kickball or rag ball, or to play some other game in the basketball gym.

Looking back, those little douchebags remind me of the boys in the South Park episode “Bebe’s Boobs Destroy Society”. In that episode, Bebe starts maturing a little early and shows signs of boobs in the 4th grade. This triggers a primal sexual-attraction instinct in the boys, and they devolve into cavemen fighting and grunting to compete for Bebe’s affections. Their vocabulary drops to one word, ata, which I guess they use to mean boob.

This is almost exactly what some 6th-grade boys in my class were like. Maybe every 6th-grade class (or 5th, or 7th) is like that to some extent. I think the fact that 6th grade was the beginning of middle school was key in the timing of this Neanderthalism. I didn’t even observe the boys trying overtly to impress girls, but rather I think it was just a male dominance/machismo thing. I’m sure it was all attributable to hormonal changes combined with some evolutionary desire to establish physical dominance in any group and/or new situation, and I don’t doubt several of them would cringe in embarrassment if they could peer back through time at themselves at that age. But a lot of us weren’t like that, and we continued to behave like civilized, intelligent human beings through the rest of adolescence.

Seventh grade was clearly the worst, a year when respect, civility, and decency reached a lifelong low. During 7th grade, I clearly remember thinking how awful many of my classmates were and how much I disdained them. I wasn’t an angstful, emo teenager at all, and I was never one of those depressed kids who felt like an outcast and hated the world. I was the opposite: I just wanted to get straight A’s and obey the rules and never get into trouble and generally conform as long as it didn’t take too much effort or social interaction. I was calm, quiet, and followed the rules, which is probably partly why I disdained all the disrespectful, misbehaving 7th-graders so much.

I think about the dehumanizing, decivilizing nature of our school systems often, especially how their coercive, authoritarian nature, which is actually quite disrespectful to the children from the beginning, engenders so much angst, rebellion, and misbehavior in them. My main long-term concern in life is how to raise my children to be as mature, responsible, and respectful as they can at every age, and to make sure that their educational experience, whether it’s at home or in schools, also encourages and allows them to maximize their self-respect, maturity, and independence at every age. Traditional, bureaucratized schooling, especially polluted with douchebags and Neanderthals as is so common, should be the main thing all parents strive to avoid.

Scientific terms list for spell-checkers/spelling dictionaries

[UPDATE: This post is out of date. Please see my static page Scientific word list for spell-checkers/spelling dictionaries for up-to-date information about these scientific word lists. I mean, the links to the files custom_scientific_US.txt and custom_scientific_UK.txt below will take you to the updated files, because I just replaced the old files with the new files without changing the names, but the information about them is out of date. The non-dialect-specific file custom_scientific.txt is still the same, but that's because I haven't added anything to it, whereas I've added hundreds of thousands of entries to the other two.]

It is amazing how hard it is to find any list, much less a comprehensive one, of scientific terms to add to spelling dictionaries, such as those of Microsoft Word, OpenOffice, LibreOffice, etc. Well, I decided to remedy that by putting my lists online for all to download. I’ve accumulated thousands of terms in my Microsoft Word custom dictionary over my career as a scientific editor, and I added thousands more from such sites as Rawge’s Scientific Names Spell Checker Dictionary, which actually includes several lists of various types of animals; this list of European species names; and my editing company’s house list.

One note about UK/US spellings: the file “custom_scientific” below should be rid of all UK- and US-specific spellings, such as hem-/haem-, -iter/-itre, estr-/oestr-, -ize/-ise, etc. If you find any that don’t belong, or any other typos, please please please tell me in the comments.

I’ve included three files:
custom_scientific.txt (49,552 entries): the words from the above-mentioned sources, minus UK-/US-specific spellings.

custom_scientific+US.txt (58,775 entries): custom_scientific plus all of the entries in my Microsoft Word US English spell-check dictionary that I’ve accumulated over the years. (This includes many AmE-specific spellings but also several thousand terms that have only one spelling and which therefore would belong in custom_scientific above, but I haven’t gotten around to copying and pasting the latter subset there. It also includes several foreign names, geographic locations, and words related to research institutes and departments, such as Recherche and Tecnología, because I encounter them often enough that it was preferable to add them instead of clicking “Ignore all” every damn time and/or because they aren’t similar to any mistyped English word that would need flagging and correcting.)

custom_scientific+UK.txt (52,200 entries): same as previous paragraph but for BrE.

Finally, please download these, copy them, share them, spread them, host them, correct them, add to them, and use them! The more such lists exist on the internet (and, eventually, in software spell-checkers’ native files), the better off every scientific writer, editor, researcher, and student is.

Posted in Career, Language, Science, Writing | 3 Comments

As a scientific editor whose job is to improve the grammar, language, and style of manuscripts by non-native English speakers to the level of native speakers, I experience plenty of frustration every day. But the amount of frustration broken English (broken scientific English) gives me could never compare to the amount caused by Google in its infinitely stupid, bewildering, incomprehensible decision to remove Google Scholar from the list of other Google sub-searches you can click on after searching for something via regular Google search.

At the very top of a Google search results page is a black bar with the alternate search options +You, Search, Images, Maps, Play, YouTube, News, Gmail, Drive, Calendar, and More. Below that is the search box with what I’ve just searched for, and below that is another line of alternate search services I could use to narrow (or widen) the results it gives me: Web, Images, Maps, Shopping, News, and another More. The first “More” dropdown menu includes Translate, Mobile, Books, Offers, Wallet, Shopping, Blagger, Reader, Finance, Photos, and Videos. The second one includes Videos, Books, Places, Blags, Flights, Discussions, Recipes, Applications, and Patents.

Both “More” dropdown menus, or at least the top one (I’m not sure how long there have been two), used to include Google Scholar. Why would they take it away? Why not just add it back? How hard could that be? What would possess them to believe that fucking Offers, Wallet, Flights, Recipes, or Patents are relevant or desired search filters more often than Google Scholar? Don’t they realize that pissing off a sizable portion of your customers for no good reason is generally considered a bad business practice? Sure, there are occasionally good reasons to piss off a lot of customers, such as tightening an over-exploited return policy, instituting tighter security measures, charging for something that used to be free but which is costing you more money than it’s making, etc. But there is not—cannot possibly be—any reason whatsoever for simply removing Google Scholar from the available sub-searches. It boggles the mind.

This inexplicable decision of Google’s reminded me of this recent Onion news video: Google shuts down Gmail for two hours to show its immense power

Gmail servers were down for nearly two hours today in what Google called “a show of their immense power”. In an online statement, the company said, “Tremble before Google! With the mere flip of a switch, we can bring you to your knees.”

Why can’t they just flip a switch and return Google Scholar to the alternative search results list? The inability to switch between full web search results and Google Scholar results is the greatest impediment to my productivity outside of internet distractions and other entertaining things. It would harm literally no one, and its absence is helping literally no one. It just makes no sense.

Sub rosa

There is a fairly strange episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, from the last season, called “Sub Rosa”, that I only saw for the first time sometime in college, in which Beverly Crusher is basically seduced by this spirit or ghost that inhabits a newly colonized planet terraformed in the image of Scotland. She becomes so captivated by it (with obvious suggestions of human–spirit sexual action) that she quits Starfleet and moves down to the planet to live sexually—er, happily—ever after with this ghost, or, as they call it in Star Trek fake lingo, an “anaphasic lifeform”. This ghost had also “enchanted” her grandmother and several Howard women on down the ancestral line, for generations. As it turns out, this anaphasic lifeform has been using the Howard women for generations to stay alive—maybe by feeding off of their life energy, or something. Anyway, the reason I bring this up is that I could never figure out why that episode would have such a strange title and what Latin or roses would have to do with anything, or what that phrase meant. Well, one time a while back at Dictionary.com, sub rosa was the word of the day, and it is an adjective or adverb meaning secret(ly), private(ly), or confidential(ly). That’s cool! I’m glad I found that out! Now, where the hell did that phrase come from?!

What? What’s that you say, Wikipedia? Sub rosa comes from the Latin, literally under the rose, from the ancient association of the rose with confidentiality, the origin of which traces to a famous story in which Cupid gave Harpocrates, the god of silence, a rose to bribe him not to disclose the indiscretions of Cupid’s mother Venus? Hence the ceilings of Roman banquet-rooms were decorated with roses to remind guests that what was spoken sub vino (under the influence of wine) was also sub rosa? Fascinating, Captain…

That’s why God invented…

Have you ever thought about how silly most statements that begin with “That’s why God invented” are? It annoys me when people follow that phrase with something that is obviously man-made. “That’s why God invented helmets,” “That’s why God invented surround sound,” “That’s why God invented makeup,” “That’s why God invented bleach!”

No, humans invented those. What purpose does it serve to thank God for inventing those? How is your point enhanced by saying God invented something instead of saying “That’s why man invented” or “That’s why they invented” or “That’s why people invented” or “That’s why someone invented”?

Since Facebook is too boring and Reddit is too douchey and just all-around awful for anything other than funny pictures, I created a Twitter account earlier this year to follow some of the news and commentary of some people I was interested in. The main specific interest that drove me to finally join Twitter was English language, grammar, and usage experts, such as Bryan Garner, Stan Carey, and Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl). Second to them were sports journalists and broadcasters, many of whom work for ESPN and cover baseball specifically, though this soon expanded to include college football commentators and other great all-around sports journalists, specifically Pat Forde and Dan Wetzel of Yahoo!.

By and by I came to follow, and soon unfollow, several famous sports journalists, comedians, and language experts whose Twitter accounts were just…unexpectedly dull, different from what I expected, or unenjoyable in other ways.

For example, Jason Whitlock, the Kansas City Star sports writer who has become well known for politically incorrect, blunt, and even iconoclastic writing on not just sports but the intersection of sports, entertainment, morals, and society as a whole. He is truly an excellent sports writer, there’s no two ways about it. But his Twitter feed was full of posts about NFL odds and spreads and betting-related things, and his responses to douchebags who probably deserve no response to anything they write online, and not really what you’d expect based on his regular writing topics. I guess I thought he’d offer some brief comments about sports happenings that would resemble the content of his full columns, or maybe one or two sentences summarizing the main points of his most recent column along with a link, or something more commentary- and journalism-related. But he didn’t. Whitlock’s Twitter feed sounded more like an angry black man than an iconoclastic, fearless journalist.

A similarly disappointing one-topic pony is Ricky Gervais. It seemed that 99% of his tweets were about atheism and religion. I care even less about other people’s religions (including atheism) than I do about words of the year, and even lesser about other people’s commentary on other people’s religions, and even lessest about a comedian’s commentary on other people’s religion and circle-jerking about atheism. One or two of Gervais’s followers chided him for tweeting about atheism all the damn time and not about, you know, comedy or TV or movies. (He did occasionally, but those topics were a small minority of his tweets, in my experience.) Gervais responded that the topic of religion and/or atheism is important to him and to most of the world, so he was going to tweet what he found important. That’s a bad policy; he should tweet things that are interesting, and atheism ain’t that.

Another comedian whose Twitter account was just intolerable was Colin Quinn. I happen to like Colin Quinn a lot, especially his old Comedy Central show Tough Crowd, and I even came to like him on SNL’s Weekend Update despite the difficulty of ever liking the person who replaced Norm. But his Twitter feed wasn’t about comedy, either. I mean, he made the occasional lame pun or other groaner, but I think the corniness of some of those jokes was part of the joke. Most of his tweets are actually re-tweets of his followers telling him he’s an unfunny, pathetic, sorry excuse for a comedian who has an awful Twitter account. He must re-tweet every single tweet that’s directed at him or mentions him. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t get why he would re-tweet things that were slamming him as a talentless hack, unless it was kind of a running joke he has with his fans and that’s the type of relationship he has with the ones who “get” it: they pretend to hate him and slam him, but it’s all good-natured ribbing. I have no idea, but it was stupid and boring. And then he tried commenting on societal happenings in a non-comedic way, which is generally fine, especially coming from Quinn, whose excellent show Tough Crowd did exactly that for a half-hour, but several of those tweets just fell flat… I couldn’t take all the completely content-less, confusing tweets, so I unfollowed him, too.

The best comedian I’ve found on Twitter is Jim Gaffigan, by far. All of his tweets are at least attempts at humor, most of them quite funny. Mike Birbiglia is a good one, too, although he leans towards interacting with followers and promoting things and re-tweeting things more than Gaffigan. Conan O’Brien’s tweets are also hilarious, though much less frequent.

Posted in Interwebs | 2 Comments

Stop suggesting rewording or rearranging when word order is not the problem

A recent comment on my post about en dashes, in which the commenter offered one very helpful fix but otherwise tried and failed to improve the clarity of several phrases by rewriting the phrases altogether, is only the latest example of a growing pet peeve of mine: language know-it-alls who offer rewrites when none is needed. Either they think so highly of their own writing or editing ability that they think they can improve nearly every sentence they see by rewording, or they just ignore (or evade) the issue of the post by writing the sentence in a different way instead of addressing the grammatical (or punctuation, or usage) issue that the poster brought up.

Here are three examples of unnecessary rewriting that I’ve encountered recently. The first was in response to a Language Log post by Geoffrey Pullum from 2009 that I only encountered recently (I have no idea how). Pullum corrects the following sentence by adding commas:

Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people’s money, but when they failed the parent company, the client and ultimately the taxpayer had to pay the bill.

Commas are needed after “failed” and “client” for clarity (the latter more optional than the former). Pullum’s version of the sentence is perfectly clear and good. But that’s not good enough for some know-it-alls, who have to butt in with perfectly unnecessary and unhelpful rewrites because they can’t be satisfied with adding only commas, or, possibly more likely, they can’t be satisfied with someone else’s fix of anything. They are basically attention whores. Like Trent, Spectre-7 (whose “fix” is far worse than Pullum’s), and Noetica (whose “fix” is clunky and awkward).

The second example is one of many I’ve encountered on Reddit.com in the Grammar subreddit. Many posts there consist of a poster asking a question about some minor point (that might not even be grammar per se but rather punctuation or usage) or asking for clarification or advice. Again, some people can’t be satisfied with the way anyone else writes anything, so they have to change things around and do things their own way instead of offering something that would actually help the poster. When this poster asks about punctuation, one missellierose insists on dividing a perfectly clear, followable sentence into two sentences, adding a completely unnecessary em dash, and questioning the clarity of the first part of the original sentence, the only part of it that no reasonable person could possibly object to. She offers as an explanation for her over-edit, “Sorry. Doing this is my job…” She is undoubtedly one of those insufferable, self-impressed, overly imposing editors whom Geoffrey Pullum has complained about occasionally.

The third example is from Frozen yogurt with adjectives on top from Throw Grammar From the Train. The author, Jan Freeman, muses about the different ways to pile up adjectives to describe a product that is yogurt, frozen, vanilla-flavored, and made from Greek-style yogurt. She encountered this product in the headline of a Trader Joe’s flyer, and she brought it up because she thought Trader Joe’s got the phrasing way wrong. Freeman prefers “Vanilla fat-free Greek frozen yogurt”, but Trader Joe’s wrote “Frozen Vanilla Greek Fat Free Yogurt”—a sequence Freeman never would have come up with because it is so awful and unclear and therefore wrong. (The main reason it is wrong is because “frozen yogurt” is a single, two-word noun that cannot be separated while maintaining the intended meaning. “Frozen yogurt” should not be broken up any more than “ice cream” should. This is something at least one of her commenters failed to understand, but he is not the commenter I’m writing about.)

The commenter who so annoyed me wrote,

I’d say “Our vanilla frozen yogurt is fat free and made from Greek-style yogurt”. (or possibly “fat-free vanilla frozen yogurt, made from Greek-style yogurt”)

This person utterly failed to appreciate the context of the phrase in question and the function it served in the Trader Joe’s flyer. Maybe he just failed to read Freeman’s full post, because he was too impressed with his own intellect to wait any longer to butt in with his opinion and his rewrite, and this prevented him from learning where Freeman even encountered this phrase. It is a headline! It is a product name! Not a sentence in an essay or column! They didn’t have unlimited space! Your suggestion is totally useless and ignorant! Go away and stop butting in with your worthless “advice” and “fixes”! No one is impressed with you!

In the case of the failed rewrites in response to my en dash post, as well as several others I’ve found before and since, the know-it-all rewriters are wrong because they don’t appreciate or don’t care about any considerations the author may have outside of the phrase or sentence in question. This often comes down to context, which might make a rearrangement or a rewrite that adds verbs and prepositions unacceptable because of simple space constraints, or because of other bulky verb- and preposition-containing phrases in the same sentence. Or a rewording might also be unacceptable because a certain phrase needs to remain fixed, with the same word order, throughout the document. This is more likely in scientific manuscripts with their jargon and technical phrases than in less technical writing.

The commenter on my en dash post objected to my use of en dashes because they create “noun-noun pileups” that are “simply not necessary and create nothing but confusion”. He is obviously wrong, especially in scientific writing, where many molecules, locations, phenomena, processes, or other entities need to have compact, easily repeatable names in which an entire description or concept is encapsulated in a single (often hyphenated) noun phrase, rather than stretched out into a noun modified by a verb phrase and/or prepositional phrase. For instance, he would have changed “small RNA–dependent scaffold” to “scaffold dependent on small RNA”, which just doesn’t work for various reasons that I’m not going to go into. Maybe you need some experience reading, learning, and talking about molecular biology to understand why the word order of that phrase shouldn’t be changed, but either way, it shouldn’t.

Presumably, peevish rewriters like him who object to noun–noun pileups object to them whether they include en dashes or hyphens or neither. It wouldn’t be very useful to visitors of this blag if I included only esoteric biology examples, so below I’ve included some non-technical noun–noun pileups that aren’t the least bit unclear and don’t need to be changed at all. There are many problems with most scientific writing, even by native English speakers, but so-called noun–noun pileups are rarely part of the problem.

One common, context-dependent reason to create such a pileup is parallelism with another noun(s) that has been mentioned in the same sentence or elsewhere in the document. For instance, the commenter on my previous post objected to “conventional extract–treated group”, preferring “group treated with conventional extract” instead. This converts a nice, relatively compact group name into the noun “group” followed by a participial phrase that also contains a preposition. Such a change is often perfectly beneficial, but when you consider that there are other group names in the same study like “control group”, “placebo group”, or “ethanolic extract–treated group”, it might be beneficial to keep the structure of all group names the same: [descriptor]["group"]. When comparing the results obtained in the different groups, it would become overly wordy and awkward to write “in the control group vs. the group treated with conventional extract” or “in both the control group and the group treated with conventional extract” every time, or even a few times. Compare the latter to “in both the control and conventional extract–treated groups”. The shorter one is obviously better and is not the least bit confusing or unclear.

Eliminating the word “treated” would also be a perfectly reasonable fix, creating such group names as “conventional extract group”, “placebo group”, “ethanolic extract group”, etc. My point is that if you want to use the word “treated” at least some of the time, there is nothing wrong with it and there’s an underappreciated punctuation mark that can help you write it more precisely and clearly.

Here’s an example I happened to find shortly after that, from linguist Neal Whitman in a post for the layman about adjectives.

Yankovic himself chose to cluster all the “human propensity” present-participial adjectives, and further separate them into direct-object-incorporating ones…and intransitives

The phrase “direct-object-incorporating ones” is exactly the same as my “noun pileup” examples except that it uses two hyphens instead of one en dash, which many consider just fine. The noun pileup peevers must necessarily object to Whitman’s “direct-object-incorporating ones” on principle, even though there is exactly nothing wrong with it. No, that’s too weak; not only is there nothing wrong with it, it is preferable to a rewrite that stretches the phrase out into a noun followed by a relative clause:

Yankovic himself chose to cluster all the “human propensity” present-participial adjectives, and further separate them into adjectives that incorporate direct objects…and adjectives that are intransitive

If you think this stretched-out rewrite is superior to the original, then you are hopeless and you might as well stop reading now.

One of my Facebook friends recently wrote about the Beach Boys’ new album:

As a loyal fan, I’ve been to many of their concerts, have a Beach Boys-stuffed iPod, and can still remember the first time I heard them on my car radio.

Logically, the noun-pileup peevers must object to the middle item of that list (whose hyphen I would replace with an en dash if I were writing in Microsoft Word, where it’s much easier to insert them), but there is absolutely nothing unclear, awkward, bulky, or confusing about it.

In an email to my employer about our editing policies and practices, I wrote the sentence,

I feel like I have most of the information, policies, strategies, and general editing know-how down already.

Even though it has no place for an en dash, the last item in my list might be objectionable to some peevers because it is not stretched out into “general know-how about editing”. It is, after all, by definition a noun–noun pileup (“editing” and “know-how”). My version is preferable because it is a single, compact(ish) noun unit rather than a noun followed by a prepositional phrase. This makes it go better with the previous items in the list, all of which are single-word nouns. In other words, to remain parallel with the other items in this list (which is preferable but not always necessary), the last item needs to be compacted into a so-called noun–noun pileup.

Here are some more examples of beneficial, even necessary, noun–noun pileups from biomedical research papers:

a comprehensive analysis of GATA1-induced miRNA gene expression changes

The last 6 words of that 10-word phrase are a pileup of 5 nouns and 1 past-participle adjective. To follow the anti-pileup philosophy and stretch this phrase out into a “clearer”, “less confusing”, and “less awkward” wording, we would have to change it to “a comprehensive analysis of changes in the expression of miRNA genes induced by GATA1”. That phrase is not only longer, the antithesis of the goal of every good writer, but it is now both bulkier and more confusing, not leaner or clearer. It is now unclear whether the phrase means “changes in the expression of [miRNA genes that are induced by GATA1]” or “[changes in the expression of miRNA genes] that are induced by GATA1”. The intended meaning is the latter, which is made clearer by the original wording, but the anti-pileup wording actually suggests the former interpretation because it places “induced by GATA1” right after “miRNA genes” instead of “induced”, where it belongs. You could certainly rearrange yet again, yielding “a comprehensive analysis of changes induced by GATA1 in the expression of miRNA genes”, but something about this word order just sounds unnatural. It’s not how I would write it, and not how many scientists would write it if presented with an option.

Organic-Solvent-Tolerant Bacterium Which Secretes Organic-Solvent-Stable Lipolytic Enzyme
(Ogino et al., Appl. Envir. Microbiol., 1994)

To “fix” this manuscript title, which contains two supposedly confusing and awkward pileups, a peever would have to change it to “A Bacterium Which is Tolerant to Organic Solvents and Secretes Lipolytic Enzymes Which Are Stable in Organic Solvents”. Hopefully, I don’t need to explain why that title is awful in about eight different ways. The noun–noun pileups (or noun–adjective–noun pileups) make this title better, not worse.

Collaborative trial validation studies of real-time PCR-based GMO screening methods for detection of the bar gene and the ctp2-cp4epsps construct.
(Grohmann et al., J. Agri. Food Chem., 2009)

Would a pileup peever change that title to “Collaborative studies validating trials by detecting the bar gene and the ctp2-cp4epsps construct using methods that screen GMOs by real-time PCR”? This version just has far too many verbs and prepositions, and it is convoluted. No native English speaker would ever submit such a monstrosity of a title for publication. It is stupid. The noun pileups are not only acceptable, they are superior to a stretched-out, verb- and preposition-heavy rewrite.

Algorithmic Approach to High-Throughput Molecular Screening for Alpha Interferon-Resistant Genotypes in Hepatitis C Patients
(Sreevatsan et al., J. Clin. Microbiol., 1998)

To avoid those pernicious pileups, we’d have to write “Algorithmic Approach to High-Throughput Molecular Screening for Genotypes That Confer Resistance to Alpha Interferon in Hepatitis C Patients” or something equally long and winding. The rearranged title wouldn’t be bad, but it’s certainly not better than the original.

Thus, the use of just one ocular swab would be useful for large-scale qualitative PCR-based screening of dog populations.
(Ferreira et al., PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, 2012)

The pileup peever would have to change the sentence to, “Thus, the use of just one ocular swab would be useful for large-scale screening of dog populations based on qualitative PCR.” Well, obviously the large-scale screening and not the dog populations is the thing that’s based on qualitative PCR, so try putting this participial phrase next to the noun phrase it modifies: “Thus, the use of just one ocular swab would be useful for large-scale screening based on qualitative PCR of dog populations.” That makes it sound like you are PCRing dog populations, which is stupid. The noun–noun pileup version is superior to the only two rearrangements I can think of. The only reasonable rewording I can think of is, “Thus, the use of just one ocular swab would be useful for large-scale screening of dog populations by qualitative PCR,” which converts the sentence’s meaning from a screening that is based on PCR to a screening that consists entirely of PCR, which may or may not have been their intended meaning.

The simple phrase “erythroid colony–forming capacity” would have to be changed to “capacity for forming erythroid colonies”, and by extension, the assay that measures this phenomenon would necessarily go from “(erythroid) colony-forming assay” to “assay measuring (erythroid) colony formation”. The impracticality of such a rearrangement is obvious.

Here are a few more examples with their anti-pileup rewordings in brackets after them:

Expression of the multiple myelocytic leukemia–associated mutant SHP2 (D61Y) in hematopoietic cells
[Expression in hematopoietic cells of the mutant SHP2 (D61Y) associated with multiple myelocytic leukemia]

Hematoxylin and eosin–stained sections of spleens harvested from mice at 8 weeks post-transplantation
[Sections of spleens harvested from mice at 8 weeks post-transplantation and stained with hematoxylin and eosin]

miR-37 increased in a GBR1-dependent manner
[miR-37 increased in a manner dependent on GBR1]

the expression of the erythroid markers hlr3 and scm in miRNA MO–injected embryos markedly decreased compared to control embryos
[the expression of the erythroid markers hlr3 and scm in embryos injected with miRNA MOs markedly decreased compared to control embryos]

The increase in the percentage of CD75/CD131 double-positive cells among miR-37–overexpressing P545 cells was statistically significant
[The increase in the percentage of cells double-positive for CD75 and CD131 among P545 cells that overexpressed miR-37 was statistically significant]

miR-37 enhances retinoic acid–induced neuroblast differentiation by targeting Atf5
[miR-37 enhances the differentiation of neuroblasts induced by retinoic acid by targeting Atf5]

Some of those anti-pileup versions are neutral rewrites, and some are purely inferior. None are better. In the last example, what targets Atf5? Retinoic acid or miR-37? Probably miR-37, but this is much more obvious in the original version.

If I had ever even thought this type of pileup was objectionable or unclear to anyone in any way, I would have paid much closer attention to them over the years and collected dozens if not hundreds of examples of sentences in which they are superior to any stretched-out, rearranged version. I wouldn’t even have to mention any examples whose rearrangements are neutral, because I would have so many where the pileup is necessary for clarity and ease of reading.

If you advised a writer to modify “These changes were GATA1-induced” to “These changes were induced by GATA1”, that would be fine. But the context of the phrase I quoted above prohibits such a rearrangement, which is something I am aware of and you (perhaps) are not. Therefore, rearrangement is not the solution. It cannot be a solution. Stop suggesting rearrangement when you don’t know the context or the jargon. Stop avoiding every problem and every issue by simply suggesting a major rearrangement or rewording when you don’t know the context and you’re unaware of the constraints or goals of the writing. Every blagger who quotes a phrase or sentence to bring up a usage issue cannot quote the entire paragraph it came from, and they are probably not looking for wholesale rearrangements anyway. Some phrases need to maintain a specific word order for jargon-related reasons. Some need to maintain their word order because of parallelism in a list. Some rewordings that stretch out phrases, add a preposition, add a verb, or add a “that are” or “which is” are inferior because of multiple surrounding verbs and prepositions and other phrases that already make the sentence long and clunky enough. Some compact noun pileups are preferable because of a strict word limit.

I’m just so tired of these self-proclaimed language and usage experts chiming in with their supposedly superior rewording suggestions when the topic at hand is not how best to rearrange the words or, at least, the best approach for clarity and precision is not major rearrangement. They see one sentence or phrase in isolation, and they presume to know (or, in fact, disregard) all the contexts the phrase or sentence could appear in and the word limit the author is working under and the meanings of field-specific terms and which words need to stay together as a unit and the author’s possible need to use a certain phrase with a fixed word order in other sentences, and so on and so forth, and the result is that their “fixes” are unacceptable because of length, meaning, clarity, awkwardness, or jargon.

If they chimed in with “Maybe this would work, if word order and length are flexible…,” that would be one thing. But no. They know what’s best because they’ve proclaimed themselves experts and they studied linguistics in college and they work as professional editors in one narrow field, so your over-hyphenated, over-en-dashinated, noun-pileup phrases are inferior, and they’re going to tell you why and plug their ears when you explain what the fucking phrases actually mean and explain that you don’t have room for all of their extra fucking words.

As my extensive scientific and lay examples show, there is a grand total of nothing wrong with many noun–noun pileups, and stretched-out rearrangements of them either improve nothing or make them worse. I’m sick and tired of know-it-all armchair grammarians and self-proclaimed usage experts butting in with their worthless rearrangements, and unless you really know what you’re talking about, I don’t want to hear them.

Synapses, neural connections, stars, and atoms in the universe

Possibly because of the movie Amélie and possibly because people like to quote statistics or calculations without knowing what they mean, it’s fairly easy to find some absurd claims about the number of synapses or “neural connections” in the human brain and how they compare to the number of stars/atoms/something else in the universe.

Near the end of Amélie, the narrator says,

At the same moment, at the La Villette garden, Felix L’Herbier discovers that the number of possible connections in a human brain is superior to the number of atoms in the universe.

The first thing you might think is that “neural connections” means “synapses”, which seems reasonable to me, and the second thing you would then think might be, “Uhh, that would mean there are more synapses than atoms in the brain, which is absurd.” Of course it’s absurd, and false, but the key word in that statement is easy to overlook: possible. Because it says “possible connections”, it takes some more investigation and calculation to see what the statement means and if it’s even true.

The short answer is: Yes, it’s technically correct, and also fabulously meaningless. The long answer is provided by Ricky J. Sethi on madsci.org. The word “possible” converts this from a biology question into a combinatorics problem:

But, if you look for potential, rather than actual, connections, the story changes. If you just look at the number of possible connections between neurons, then it’s simply adding up each consecutive term. For example, if you had 5 neurons and wanted to know the total number of connections possible between them you’d simply add each decreasing term as in: 4+3+2+1 = 10. Think of this as drawing a pentagram and then connecting up each point to every other point and counting the number of lines (or connections). There’s a equally simple formula to let you add up all n terms: [n*(n+1)]/2 (e.g., for n=4, this gives, not surprisingly, 10). So, for a billion, this is [billion*(billion+1)]/2 which is about 5 x 10^17. That’s not so much, is it?

However, the story changes even more when you consider the total number of unique connections; i.e., the total number of unique neuronal “networks” that are possible. Before getting into the “billion” neurons case, let’s again look at a simpler example to illustrate this. Say you have 5 neurons, each capable of making a connection with each of the others. What is the total number of unique connections (or networks) possible for this system? Here, instead of just counting up the number of lines in the pentagram, we’ll treat each path that connects one point to another as the variable and attempt to calculate the number of unique paths that connect all points to all other points. Incidentally, I guess you could also think of this as a variation of the famous combinatorial traveling salesman problem (for our case, you could think of it as sending a action potential from one neuron to a final one and seeing how many different sequences of activation are possible; e.g., the message can travel from neuron 5 to neuron 1 via 5-3-2-4-1, 5-2-4-3-1, etc.). So, let’s get right to it…

Well, the first neuron can make a connection with each of the other 4 neurons. For each of these connections, the 2nd neuron can then only make connections with the remaining 3. So the total number of unique networks so far are 4*3 = 12. For each of these 12 connection possibilities (or permutations), the 3rd neuron in the chain can then only make connections with the remaining two. This brings the total up to 12*2 = 24. And finally, for each of these 24 possible connections, the 4th neuron can only make a single additional connection with the last neuron. So the total number of unique possible connections, or networks, are 24*1 = 24 connections.
[...]
There’s actually a mathematical way of summarizing this by using the factorial notation. Using that, we see the total number of connections was (5-1)! = 4! = 4*3*2*1 = 24. This is a generalization of the standard formula for finding the number of possible permutations for n-1 elements, namely (n-1)!. So, using this notation, if we substitute the figure of a billion+1 neurons, we get (billion)!. This number is enormous. To get some idea of it’s magnitude, I used Mathematica to create the following table:
[He pastes a table going from 1! to 100,000!, showing that the latter is ~10456,000. If that weren't unfathomably large enough, he continues in the next paragraph...]

This seems to imply that 1,000,000,000! is about 3 x 10^5,000,000,000 (my computer just hung when I tried to get it to estimate (billion)!… there’s a reason they’re using DNA computing to solve this! :). This is obviously much bigger than the total amount of known matter.

In summary, the “possible connections” calculation is a math problem, not a biology or neuroscience problem, which makes it totally meaningless.

You know what else can produce an answer that’s greater than the number of atoms in the universe? The number of “possible connections” between stars in the Milky Way. There are supposedly about 200 billion neurons in the human brain and about 200–400 billion stars in the Milky Way. So those two numbers are actually quite close. To calculate the number of “possible connections” between neurons in a human brain is a similar calculation (with similar significance, viz., nearly zero) to the number of “possible connections” between stars in the Milky Way. It’s just a combinatorics problem that exists only in the abstract. Are there actually any connections or networks of any kind between those stars? Well, possibly far away, but none that we know of, and certainly not 200 billion factorial. Are there actually 200 billion factorial connections or networks between the neurons of the human brain? No, and it isn’t possible for there to ever be anything remotely approaching that.

Here’s another thing that would give you a number larger than the number of atoms in the universe: the number of “possible connections (networks)” among all the humans on Earth. Who cares? Those “connections” or “networks” (whatever that would mean) don’t actually exist. We could imagine Professor X in Cerebro looking at all the humans on Earth and drawing every possible line segment and series of line segments connecting their images in every possible combination. What would this mean about humans or society or biology or the universe? Absolutely nothing.

Now, we do know how many connections exist between individual neurons (about 1014 synapses), but we have no idea how many unique pathways actually exist between series of two or more neurons = how many ways there are to connect every individual neuron to every other neuron via actually existing series of synapses. It isn’t 200 billion factorial, which would be the maximum mathematically allowable number, but it isn’t just 1014. These would more properly be called pathways or networks than connections; I think it’s best to limit the definition of “neural connection” to the single synapse level.

Let’s look at some comparisons with real-life numbers that actually mean something, just for fun. The number of synapses in the human brain is approximately 1014 (100 trillion). This is the most common definition of “neural connection” and the only one I was aware of until I encountered this article about Stanford neuroscientist Stephen Smith. Smith says,

One synapse, by itself, is more like a microprocessor—with both memory-storage and information-processing elements—than a mere on/off switch. In fact, one synapse may contain on the order of 1,000 molecular-scale switches. A single human brain has more switches than all the computers and routers and Internet connections on Earth.

So let’s multiply the number of synapses in a human brain by the maximum number of molecular “switches” that a synapse could have, giving us 1014 * 103 = 1017.

How would that compare to the number of atoms in the (observable) universe? The observable universe contains around 1080 atoms, so nothing currently known about the human brain comes close to that.

How about the number of atoms in our Sun alone? There are about 1057 atoms in our Sun alone, dwarfing the number of synapses or molecular switches in all humans who have ever lived by dozens of orders of magnitude (1017 per human * 100 billion humans = 1028 molecular switches, or only 1025 synapses, in the history of our species).

When I first saw Amélie, I remember thinking how absurd its claim sounded, and I remember thinking right then or shortly afterward that I would bet that not only was it false, but if you changed “the universe” to “our Sun” it would still be false. But I didn’t say anything, which is too bad, because I would have been right.

Posted in Science | 2 Comments

Nice Isaac Asimov reference in The Fall of Hyperion

I just finished The Fall of Hyperion, the excellent sequel to Dan Simmons’s wondrous, life-changing Hyperion. I really loved this tip o’ the hat to Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics on page 458 of the paperback version. I don’t think this quote could be construed as containing any spoilers:

It pains the Core to take any human life…or, through inaction, allow any human life to come to harm.

Klaus has destroyed my enjoyment of The Vampire Diaries

Which is to say, the writers have.

The main problem with writing about the CW show The Vampire Diaries is that it constitutes a public admission that I watch the show. But I might not be watching much longer. It’s amazing that a complex show with so many realistic, well-written characters could allow a single character to drag down not only the enjoyability of the show but also the realistic and sympathetic qualities of most of the other characters, all in a single season. That’s what Klaus did with season 3, he’s why the season 3 finale was about half as good as it could have been, and why I’m unlikely to continue watching very far into season 4, if at all.

I already wrote most of what follows in the comments to the A.V. Club’s article about the season 3 finale last weekend. I created an A.V. Club account specifically to rant about Klaus and my disappointment at the season 3 finale. Here, I have added some things, deleted others, and reworded a lot.

***Major spoilers of The Vampire Diaries, Supernatural, and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer follow. If you don’t want to know what happened in The Vampire Diaries season 3 finale, then don’t read on. If you haven’t seen every episode of Supernatural and Buffy yet, then you are deprived and need to go watch them all on Netflix right now. They’re all streaming!***

The point of TVD

To be enjoyable, intriguing, thought-provoking, or enriching to me, a supernatural/horror/fantasy show has to either address universal moral issues or be relatable to me as an average American guy in the 21st century. Shows like Buffy, Angel, and Supernatural do this in one major way: they chronicle the highs and lows of American evil-fighters doing good, killing monsters, and saving people’s lives. They fight for good, which we all want to do and wish our leaders would do in real life. We can relate to them and root for them in their battles. There’s much more to Buffy and Supernatural that we can’t relate to directly, like the isolation and anguish that heroes feel because they can’t have normal lives and because of all the death and misery they witness, but those shows are written in ways that make us not only admire the heroes for their efforts and their victories but also feel bad for all the personal pain and loss that they feel.

In other words, shows like these need to have characters that I either root for or like/relate to/sympathize with. If it has both, that’s a double bonus. It’s true that the writers of TVD make us feel for most of their characters as well, but my sympathy for most of them ran out about five stupid decisions ago.

TVD is supposed to be about normal people making understandable decisions in the face of their very unrealistic, supernatural circumstances. We’re supposed to relate to them on these grounds: what would we do in the same situations? They care for each other and will do anything to save their loved ones, even if this means near-certain death for future victims of certain vampires. I guess the show also strives to make immortal, superpowered vampires sympathetic, emotionally vulnerable, and relatable to us normal humans because of all the experiences and emotions they go through. The purpose of this isn’t to make us ask, “What would I do in that situation if I were a vampire?” or even to make us “root” for the vampires over the mortal humans; rather, I think the main purpose of this character-development aspect of the show is simply to make sure that the characters who are the main focus of most plot lines are interesting characters whom we have some investment in (love, hate, or are at least intrigued by). Many readers and TV viewers are fascinated by vampires; they do afford writers many avenues for plot lines (as well as moral dilemmas) that aren’t available in realistic fiction; so it’s obviously preferable to make the characters around whom the plot revolves interesting and three-dimensional and not just supernatural forces of evil and destruction. So we end up caring about and, yes, even rooting for humans and vampires alike in TVD.

TVD’s first problem: the characters repeatedly make awful, boneheaded decisions

The problem is, most of the humans and at least one of the vampires in TVD make awful decisions, repeatedly, and seem to have learned nothing in three seasons. Matt Donovan is the only human speaking sense to Elena: she needs to get out of town and leave vampires behind forever, for her own good and everyone else’s. (How many people have died or suffered all to save Elena’s life multiple times? Her very association with them is dangerous to many innocents.) Alaric is the only other character to speak any sense about vampires lately. Vampires are an abomination. They are unnatural monsters that disrupt the natural balance of life and death. If TVD is supposed to relate to real-life human viewers, then how can these statements not be true, relevant, and laudable to us? (Given that we’re willing to suspend disbelief about the existence of vampires to begin with…)

Most of the decisions Elena and her enablers have made in the last season-plus of TVD have allowed dangerous, threatening, serial-killing vampires to continue living, continue threatening them, continue killing, and continue making their lives unhappy. Matt and Alaric are right: Vampires are the source of their problems, and making deals with them or finding excuses to allow them to live isn’t going to improve the lives of humans in Mystic Falls, in the long run. Because of their continued bad decisions or inability to actually take a stand (against the Originals) and make a decision, it is increasingly hard to root for any character other than Damon (who was more willing to do what it took to rid themselves of the Originals, from tracking Klaus and Stefan to saving the white oak wood to opposing Elijah’s request to hand over Klaus’s dessicated body), Matt (who kidnapped Elena for her own good, and was right to do so), and Alaric (who is now dead thanks to Bonnie’s stupid decision).

In the interest of brevity and also because I seriously have forgotten about half of the details of the plot lines of TVD, I’ll summarize the collection of bad decisions made by protagonists that were clearly bad at the time they made them, from the last season or so. As far as I see it/remember it, Elena, Stefan, and Bonnie are the main culprits.

First, Stefan agrees to become Klaus’s pet killer in exchange for a vial of Klaus’s magic blood to save Damon from a werewolf bite. Then Stefan saves Klaus’s life when their plot to kill him at that party was unfolding perfectly. His first decision is at least understandable but still heinous and wrong, whereas the second decision is pure stupidity.

Bonnie’s being forced to help Klaus multiple times in his various schemes does make her sympathetic to the viewer as an unwilling or at least grudging participant in non-Klaus-killing activities. These instances of forced assistance are, in fact, what drive her to turn darker and ruthless at the end of the season finale. But Bonnie forfeits all of her “sympathy capital” with her awful decision to transfer Klaus’s essence to Tyler’s body to save her three vampiric loved ones (Caroline, Tyler, and her mom). There are logistical problems to this that reveal how contrived it is and how much the writers dropped the ball on this plot development. Two things are clear about this Bonnie/Klaus plot twist: The writers wanted to keep Klaus around, and they wanted to turn Bonnie into a dark(er), bad-ass witch who’s going to call all of her own shots from now on. By the end of the episode, we as the audience know why Bonnie did that spell (i.e., why it turned out good for some characters), but at the time she did it, it was an awful decision with no good reasoning behind it. She had no idea Evilaric would find Klaus and stake him! She had no idea Evilaric was even on his way there! And even if she knew Evilaric was likely hot on their trail, she should have chosen any number of tactics over giving Klaus new life in a different body. She could have hidden Klaus’s body from Evilaric, worked some magic to incapacitate or stall Evilaric, helped Damon get the body to the ocean, temporarily killed Elena (as she has done to Jeremy) so that Evilaric would die with her, or protected her loved ones from the effects of Klaus’s staking (which would make about as much sense as anything else). These alternatives or almost any other could have induced her to turn dark, jaded, and bad-ass like she did while still writing Klaus out of the show. For instance, a showdown with Evilaric could have forced her to channel darker forces than ever before, would have set her up to be the exact same character in season 4, and would have been a freakin’ sweet battle to end the season. Bonnie had other options, and so did the writers, and any option that keeps Klaus alive was an inferior one.

Elena is obviously the queen of bad decisions and compromises and deal-making and excuse-making, most of which have resulted in her and her loved ones’ lives being perpetually threatened by Originals. I admit that part of the perceived problem with Elena could be the fact that so many courses of action were taken by others to save her, but either way, she seems to be at the center of just about every decision that keeps Klaus alive and compromises with Originals. Compromises to keep humans alive are understandable, but only for a while. At some point, Elena and her enablers have to take a stand against both Klaus and his siblings, and Elena simply refuses to do that. She refuses to fight. She refuses to stand up to them. She thinks she is protecting other people, but she actually prolongs the danger they’re all in by allowing Klaus to continue living. Her latest blunder was agreeing to hand Klaus’s desiccated body over to Elijah, which I assume is the only reason Damon and Bonnie stopped at the storage locker instead of heading east until they hit ocean. A desiccated Klaus is no danger to anyone, but eventually Elijah or one of Klaus’s loyal bloodline would awaken him, allowing him to return to killing and threatening future humans. That possibility should be unacceptable to Elena, as it obviously is to Damon, and everyone who acquiesced is an idiot for doing so. Damon sums up my feelings about Elena perfectly: “You know what else was her call? Everything bad, ever.”

Everyone’s supreme goal in season 3 should have been to incapacitate Klaus forever, and everything that helped him survive a day longer than he needed to was simply a bad decision. If nearly every character (the only exceptions I can think of are Matt, Evilaric, and Damon at the end) makes decisions that are obviously bad and which I wouldn’t have made, over and over and over again, then I stop being able to relate to them or root for them.

Klaus is the main problem

Even given all their bad decisions, they obviously do make them for (what they consider) good reasons, and no one actually wants Klaus alive and well, so in the end they came up with a great plan to incapacitate Klaus forever while allowing his bloodline to survive: desiccate him with some dark magic and bury him at the bottom of the ocean. Given all of their situations and all of the loved ones who would have died with Klaus, this was a perfectly good, understandable, intriguing, well-plotted way to handle their collective personal dilemma. It was also a good way for the writers to end Klaus’s run as the big bad of TVD and rid ourselves of him forever. He needed to be gotten rid of, and most of the characters had found a perfect way to do so. Therefore, I couldn’t hate them too much at that point. At least they weren’t as annoying as Klaus, who is ultimately my main problem with TVD.

Klaus must be the worst TV villain I’ve ever seen. He has the emotional and psychological depth of a 5-year-old and should have been killed off in the middle of season 3. He is so annoying and empty as a character that he basically ruined season 3, including the finale, for me. I mean, name two ways in which Klaus’s psychological or emotional make-up is different from a whiny, petulant, selfish child’s. He has no morals, no sympathy, no care for anything outside of himself, no love of family, no philosophy, no goals, no purpose, other than to create a breed of hybrids. But why? To what end? He doesn’t want to take over the world like Lex Luthor or Voldemort. He doesn’t seem to want much power over the supernatural world, either. He doesn’t love anyone, including Caroline and Stefan. He just wants to survive and be protected by his hybrid army, for no other reason than just because. Every time he doesn’t get his way, he threatens to throw a fit and kill everyone. He doesn’t understand or accept that people’s desires, situations, and lives might be at odds with his own. He hates his parents, not for making him into a monster but for trying to right the wrong they created. He doesn’t serve as any kind of useful analogy or lens through which the viewer looks at humanity, like our dark side or anything like that. He has no shades of gray or sympathetic qualities or any other redeeming qualities that would make us appreciate his perspective, his desires, or his choices. He is a caricature of a child with superpowers, which is excruciatingly boring.

Contrast Klaus to Joffrey Baratheon from Game of Thrones. (No spoilers, I promise.) I’ve never read any of the books, but I’m up to date with the TV show. Joffrey is a petulant, twisted, evil, evil, evil MFer who needs to die more than a thousand Originals. He, like Klaus, acts like an evil, powerful child. But unlike Klaus, he is a useful character as social commentary. From my perspective, Joffrey is the epitome of the evil that will gain power in a world where might is valued over reason, power and privilege are inherited and not earned, and males are considered naturally superior to females in every way. He could never gain or retain any power or influence if those three conditions were not met in Westeros. Klaus doesn’t say anything about our society or its ills except what would happen if a 5-year-old became invincible. I see Klaus as no different from Bart Simpson with omnipotent powers in “Treehouse of Horror II”. He is a boring, useless caricature.

Also contrast Klaus to Angelus from season 2 of Buffy. True, Angelus didn’t have much rhyme or reason to his mayhem and murder except for being a soulless demon who hated humans and liked inflicting pain on them. He was a hedonistic destroyer of human lives and happiness, just like Klaus, except everyone on Buffy was actually trying to kill him. Even Spike hated him and worked against him. And you know what? Even though Willow succeeded in re-souling him, Buffy killed him anyway because it was necessary to stop the hell-portal from opening. Both the viewers and the writers got something great in two different ways: The villain we were all rooting against was defeated, so we were happy about that and presumably so were the writers; but due to unfortunate timing, this meant the viewers, and Buffy, were subjected to a painful, heart-rending death that we did want but simultaneously didn’t want, that was needed but was simultaneously unjust. That is great TV, pure and simple. The writers gave the viewers what we were waiting for for half the season, but it still made us sad and torn at the same time.

The writers of TVD have given us nothing to cheer about, no reward, no catharsis, no triumph in over a season. If we aren’t ever given what we’re rooting for, then at least make us relate to the decisions and failures that led here. I don’t understand Elena’s decision to ignore Damon and give Klaus to Elijah. I don’t understand Bonnie’s decision to keep Klaus alive when at least five courses of action were better suited to keeping her vampire friends safe. I don’t understand their endless compromises to protect already dead people by helping the very monsters that killed them.

Compromise with evil will only lead to more evil, and I cannot continuously root for characters who compromise with evil and do nothing worth rooting for. Nor can I relate to such wishy-washy, incompetent weaklings. If TVD is supposed to provide us with good moral dilemmas that are analogous to real life, then it should create bad guys with realistic shades of gray and with understandable perspectives, goals, and methods. Klaus is useless for that purpose, so his only potential for usefulness is as a villain to root against and a provider of interesting plot lines in which the protagonists lose some but triumph in the end. But the writers refuse to give us that triumph. His place on TVD ran its course, if not by mid-season then at least by the end of the season, and yet the writers refused to write him out of the show. It’s a huge mistake that made the finale less enjoyable and made the whole mess that was season 3 pointless because it had no payoff. There was no reward for suffering through an entire season of monstrous childishness. If the writers won’t (a) give us what we want or (b) provide some good reason for the characters’ failure to give us what we want, then the writers obviously don’t want us anymore.

Maybe they have deluded themselves that Klaus is a good character? Maybe they think a majority of viewers do want him around and so are catering to them? I can’t relate to anyone who thinks Klaus is a well-written or interesting villain, because apparently those people are unfamiliar with good fiction, and I can’t watch a show that caters to such awful tastes. By keeping Klaus around long after he wore out his welcome, TVD has become tiring and frustrating. I’m just so tired of Klaus and the show, and the characters who allow him to stick around.

Really, I feel like most of the characters got the Klaus plot line right. They had an excellent plan, well conceived and well executed. It was the writers who screwed it up.

The moral bankruptcy of TVD

My third problem with TVD is the failure of the characters to address any universal moral principles or the morality of their choices. As a corollary to its being about normal characters who are forced to make supposedly reasonable, understandable decisions in the face of supernatural challenges, this show is about doing everything to protect your loved ones, being there for each other, giving people (twenty-)second and third chances, and love being more important than anything.

In other words, all of the characters do the things they do not because they are right or wrong but to protect their loved ones, disregarding any repercussions outside of Mystic Falls and any universal moral principles. I don’t know if this implies a message that love can/should/will conquer all or that doing everything you can for loved ones is the only principle that matters, but obviously acting only in the interest of love and friendship has produced catastrophic results for nearly everyone. If this show were supposed to be about how stupid/bad people’s stupid/bad choices harm innocent people, then it would be doing a great job. TVD wants to be about characters who will do everything to protect their loved ones, but in fact they almost invariably make choices that hurt (or at least threaten) themselves and others and result in very little justice being served.

The injustices of this show rarely seem to be depicted as such. There is very little right or wrong, just or unjust in TVD; there are only means to ends, and almost all of the characters—human, vampire, or witch—have used every means available to accomplish their ends of keeping characters alive and serving their own selfish love. Their only concern is keeping people alive in Mystic Falls, and if that means letting serial-killing abominations roam free, then so be it. It’s not that they are depicted as dismissive of those future victims. It’s not that they acknowledge others will die but still choose their loved ones over innocent victims because that’s what most people would choose. It’s that the ethical question of saving a dead person’s life in exchange for anonymous future humans is never even addressed.

No one even indicates any awareness of any repercussions outside of their inner circle of friends and family. No one even broaches the topic of what a family of free Originals scattered across the Earth would mean (death for thousands if not millions of innocents over the centuries). They want to get rid of Klaus not because he is an evil murderer but simply to protect themselves; the thousands he would certainly kill for blood, fun, and sport throughout the centuries do not even come up. But then they want to keep Klaus alive, again only to protect themselves. No one even addresses whether Stefan should suffer a punishment for his most recent Ripper spree. No one brings up the ethics of Stefan’s choice to exchange dozens of innocents for his brother’s life; they all presumably understand the decision and would have made the same choice in the same circumstances. No one even fathoms that vampires should be held accountable for all the lives they’ve taken before the current clique of Mystic Falls high-schoolers were born. No one even notices the emptiness of Elijah’s promise to keep Klaus desiccated at least until Elena’s great-grandchildren are dead (what then? centuries of hedonistic murder and rape?). In their selfish, self-absorbed efforts to protect their loved ones in Mystic Falls, the wider repercussions and the more basic issues of right and wrong are never even addressed.

Until Esther and her dark-magic creation Evilaric come along. They have a view of nature that is balanced and fair: nothing can be immortal, everything must die, and human lives are superior to supernatural abominations. Why did it seem so jarring that Evilaric was so absolute and unrelenting in his short-lived crusade? Because hardly anyone ever brought up right and wrong before! His black-and-white view of nature doesn’t have to be accepted by all of the characters, depicted as admirable by the writers, or even received favorably by the viewers; but a show like this needs to have more than one character struggle with the right and wrong of their decisions and the innocent lives they’ve cost. There isn’t even much of a struggle.

If people make choices that turn out bad, that’s OK in a TV show. If people do things they knew beforehand were wrong but they do them anyway, justifying them with self-preservation or love or simple selfishness, then that’s also OK in a TV show, but they need to actually address that. They need to actually have conversations, dilemmas, and arguments about right and wrong outside of their little clique, not just arguments about what’s best for the few humans and vampires they know and love. If the writers don’t want to commit to principles of right and wrong, they at least need to have their characters address those principles. They don’t. It’s all about what will save Elena and/or the people she cares about, with occasional concern for Bonnie’s loved ones, as in the season 3 finale. I appreciate the emotional struggles with befriending vampires, helping vampires, even loving vampires—but characters who don’t even show any awareness of the harm their decisions could cause to the entire world are too selfish and self-centered for my tastes.

Maybe the TVD writers need to take some lessons from Joss Whedon and Ronald D. Moore: Yes, there is good and evil, even if there are shades of gray, and yes, characters can die.

For these reasons, Evilaric was probably my favorite character in this show within the last year because he was about the only one who could actually make a tough choice, stand up for something, get anything done, and see evil for what it really is. Klaus needed to die (DESERVED to die), and so did many others, and he was going to do everything he could to dish out justice to them. I am incapable of seeing anything bad in that. I guess I’m just the type of person who sides with Buffy and Giles and Angel and the Winchester brothers, and not with that twit Elena and all of her ignorant enablers who don’t see that the vampires (especially the Originals!) are the source of their problems and need to be gotten rid of for their own safety and happiness. Yeah, some of their loved ones would die with the originals, but first of all, at least three of those loved ones are only vampires (Caroline, Tyler, and Bonnie’s mom) because these wishy-washy excuse-makers couldn’t get rid of vampires to begin with. But second, what kind of show bases itself entirely around characters who make endless deals and excuses to keep serial killers alive, and tries to dress this up as loving or caring or family-centric or all about love conquering all?

Contrast TVD with Supernatural and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

In my original comments to the A.V. Club article, I said that Elena, Stefan, et al. rarely made tough choices and instead avoided making choices. I can see how this could be inaccurate, and I don’t want to get into a semantic discussion of what constitutes making a choice vs. avoiding making a choice and what makes one tough or difficult. So instead I’ll compare the types of choices TVD characters make with the characters on Supernatural and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

After I contrasted Elena et al. to Sam and Dean Winchester, a commenter there mentioned Sam and Dean’s strategy of refusing to fight the angels’ fight at the end of season 5 of Supernatural. Dean refused to allow the archangel Michael to possess him, which would be required for the angels’ Armageddon. For a long time before Sam accepted Lucifer, Sam and Dean’s basic strategy was refusing to play the angels’ game (namely Zachariah’s). Dean continued resisting after that. Doesn’t this constitute as much of a non-choice as Elena et al.’s refusal to fight and kill Klaus?

Well, not really, but even if it did, there are many aspects of Sam and Dean’s (non-)choices that make them far better, more admirable, and less frustrating than the protagonists of TVD. First and foremost, Dean’s “non-choice” constituted a refusal to play the angels’ game and a refusal to make deals with them! Sam and Dean stood their ground, stood up to nearly invincible beings, and did everything they could, against all personal self-interest and all odds, to save the human race from being wiped out by angel Armageddon. This choice, this strategy, this position, was based on the Winchesters’ firm, unwavering conviction that killing humans is wrong and it’s their job to protect them from supernatural threats.

Second, their “non-choice” to participate in the angel Armageddon was not done out of selfishness or compromise or a myopic protection of only themselves or their loved ones or their town. They refused to play because that’s what was right according to their moral code, which is by all objective and subjective measures far superior to any morals that have been broached on TVD.

Third, Sam and Dean’s approach to the angels, demons, and Armageddon led to the resolution of plot lines, the eventual elimination of enemies, a few heroes to root for and villains to root against, and triumphs that made us happy, actually giving us what we were rooting for some of the time.

These are all the polar opposite of TVD characters’ endless compromises and deals and excuses made for and with Klaus and his siblings. Yes, they are evil, and yes, they need to die. Every deal or compromise they make with them should be a ploy or a trick to stab them in the back (heart) later. A villain’s time on a TV series has a natural duration, an expiration date, a fed-up time after which the villain’s continued existence becomes bad writing, lazy thinking, and insulting to the audience. Good fiction, especially supernatural/horror fiction, has a protagonist(s) to root for and antagonist(s) to root against, and one or the other has to win or lose before too long, not drag out their mutual co-existence by never doing anything to rid themselves of the other.

A final point about Supernatural. In a recent episode this season, Dean mentions that a ghost hanging around the human realm isn’t right. It isn’t natural. It disturbs the natural order of life and death. So much of what they hunt does. Even admitting that no, there are no supernatural things in real life, and no, by definition nothing in the real world can disrupt the natural order, Dean’s point is relatable. It makes sense to us and we sympathize precisely because we live in the real world, in which unnatural abominations would warrant destruction and extinction. This point is, or should be, relevant to TVD and Mystic Falls, but the only people who have brought this up are Esther and Alaric. I loved Alaric when he first appeared in season 1 because he reminded me so much of the vampire-hunting principal in season 7 of Buffy. And I loved Evilaric just as much because he was finally going to open a can of whoop-ass on the Originals. Dean, Esther, and Alaric are right: Vampires are unnatural abominations, even in a show where many of them are protagonists and love interests, and the show needs to at least acknowledge that. The characters need to admit it even while they love and protect (some of) them.

A valuable comparison between TVD and Buffy can also be made. In season 3 of TVD, Stefan goes on a Ripper spree with Klaus for an ostensibly good reason: to save his brother. Klaus gives him an opportunity too good to pass up, but in exchange, he makes Stefan drink bags of human blood to re-awaken his thirst for it. Stefan gives in to temptation and becomes Ripper Stefan again. In season 6 of Buffy, Willow becomes so addicted to magic that it consumes her and nearly cripples her normal human functioning. She’s a pretty bad person and a truly awful friend for the first two-thirds of season 6. During her recovery and her return to normalcy, her beloved Tara is murdered, and this awakens a wrath and a vengeance like the show had never seen. She tracks down Andrew, tortures him, and flays him alive. Despite the fact that he obviously deserved to be brought to justice, everyone tells Willow she is wrong. Using magic and other supernatural means to kill humans is against their moral code, and the old Willow knew that. They try to stop her, not just get their beloved Willow back. Buffy tells Willow it’s wrong to target humans with supernatural methods, that it isn’t what they do and isn’t part of their evil-fighting job.

I think Andrew is the only person Willow actually kills, although she sure threatens a hell of a lot more (all of them). But there are clear parallels between Willow and Stefan. They both have a dangerous addiction (magic or blood). They both choose to better themselves and overcome their addiction (Willow in season 6, Stefan before we meet him). They both went dark/crazy in response to a death or imminent death of a loved one. They both did things we know are wrong and (presumably) their friends know are wrong. Willow actually threatened to destroy the whole world, not just kill a few hundred people! So why do I feel bad for Willow and root for her to return to her normal Scooby-gang ways and continue to like her as a character? Well, because she’s actually helped fight evil and do things worth rooting for, mainly. Stefan is certainly a sympathetic character in a tortured/remorseful/brooding way (in the first two seasons, admit it: he’s basically a combination of Angel and Edward). But he made a calculated decision to put Damon over others (humans), join forces with an obviously evil monster, and kill innocents in acts that were completely unrelated to saving anyone or doing anything else good. Dark Willow was a visceral, enraged reflex to Tara’s murder. She was wrong, but she probably could help herself even less than Stefan could, she at least started out targeting Tara’s murderer, she didn’t actually kill any innocents, and I just like her a lot more. She’s much more likable than Stefan. That’s as good a reason as any to forgive Willow, although her record as an evil-fighter doesn’t hurt.

The TVD writers could take a lesson from this: If you want us to forgive characters and continue rooting for them, (1) make them as likable as possible, and (2) don’t have them kill too many innocents. The differences between Dark Willow and Ripper Stefan are small and few, but some of them are important enough, and I simply like her character a lot more than the wishy-washy, incompetent, non-committal, formerly serial-killing Stefan.

Conclusion

I will reiterate that I think the twist about Klaus’s entire line being dependent on his survival was a good plot and character-development element that the writers added to this season. (It also jibes with most classic vampire mythology: kill the leader and the rest die or stop being vampires.) The characters were faced with a tough personal dilemma and handled it rightly: incapacitate him forever instead of killing him, so that the “good” vampires of Mystic Falls will survive. I only have two problems with that plot line: first, that it didn’t end that way, because of stupid Bonnie who could have prevented Klaus’s death in some other way; and second, not a single character brings up all the innocent lives that will be taken by Klaus’s myriad offspring across the globe.

In the TVD characters, I think I’ve reached a point where I can forgive either amorality or incompetence, but not both. If they have no concern for universal moral principles, then they’d at least better get the job done. If they can’t kill a villain who obviously needs to die, then they’d at least better fail for good, principled reasons, not weakness, deal-making, and other crappy excuses.

Killing off Mikael and allowing Klaus to survive for the rest of the season was an awful decision on the writers’ part. Allowing him to survive past season 3 was simply incomprehensible. The big bad of season 3 needed to be Mikael, and Klaus needed to die at that party, not be saved by Stefan and turn right around and kill the villain who had the potential to be the most interesting one in the show’s history. Or Mikael could also have turned into a protagonist of sorts. Think of how many interesting directions in which the show could have gone with Mikael swooping in and trying to clean up the town! Think of Mikael vs. his children and/or his wife, Esther! What a great season-ending showdown Mikael and Esther could have had! Elena could easily have been turned into a vampire, Bonnie could easily have been forced/driven to turn dark, and Klaus would have died in the middle of season 3, as he needed to.

The en dash vs. the hyphen: more examples for precise English usage

As I wrote in my first post about the en dash and as I explain more extensively in the hyphen vs. en dash section of my grammar page, the en dash can provide wonderful clarity where the hyphen cannot in compound modifiers that already contain a space or a hyphen. Here are some more excellent examples of where the en dash is not only preferable but absolutely necessary for clarity.

single-base mismatch–discriminatable stringent conditions

GEF-H1–RhoA–ROCK–c-Myc–microRNA–p21 signaling axis [GEF-H1 and c-Myc are hyphenated, so a hyphen is unequivocally wrong (a slash would also be fine, though). Saito et al. 2010, J. Exp. Med. 207:2157–2174]

iodine–potassium iodide solution

long-term culture–initiating cells

Twi1p–guide scnRNA complexes

plant-pathogenic bacteria vs. plant–pathogen interactions [the first compounds plant-pathogenic into a single adjective; the second connects plant and pathogen, which are separate organisms that interact]

queen–worker caste determination [a hyphen would compound queen and worker into a single noun or adjective, like plant-pathogenic above]

cell wall integrity–related genes [with a hyphen, it means cell wall genes that are related to integrity]

partial hepatectomy–induced liver regeneration

Se-substituted methionine–containing protein

the combination grocery store–liquor store–short-order restaurant [Stephen King, Wolves of the Calla]

HBV pX–associated protein 8 [a hyphen would mean a pX-associated protein of hepatitis B virus, whereas the actual protein is associated with HBV pX. This distinction is vital when you consider other protein names, such as, you know, the actual HBV protein X.]

GGDEF/EAL domain protein–coding gene [this means a gene encoding a GGDEF/EAL domain protein; with a hyphen, it would mean a protein-coding gene that has a GGDEF/EAL domain]

Here are some examples of when I think you could get by (people probably do) with the hyphen, but the en dash looks and feels better because it’s more accurate:

G418 and ganciclovir–doubly resistant colonies [you would hyphenate G418-resistant and ganciclovir-resistant, so I think you'd still have to hyphenate (or en-dashinate) when doubly is added]

fluorescent protein–tagged AP2-L–expressing parasites

anti–platelet aggregation [with a hyphen, I don't know, would it mean aggregation of anti-platelets or an anti-platelet agent that you're shortening to "anti-platelet"?]

100 Å–scaled protein particles

Wise thoughts on “literally” vs. “figuratively”

In the Salon article by Mary Elizabeth Williams, which I’ve already written two posts about but I promise this is the last one, this comment by machineghost struck me as entirely reasonable and wise:

So the problem with literally becoming *yet another* alternative to “very” is that we no longer have a word which means “no really, I mean this thing actually happened, it’s not just a strong metaphor”. So our language has become less expressive because this particular modification.

This is a good and wise restriction (or, gasp!, prescription) on word meaning and usage, the violation of which does impair clear communication and is entirely unnecessary. As machineghost points out, we already have numerous words and phrases to give emphasis to a statement, even to the point of hyperbole, and using literally to do so degrades the impact of this word when it is appropriate.

The non-necessity of using literally to give emphasis to a statement via hyperbole reminds me of Mark Twain’s admonition against using very to give emphasis to your writing. Good writing typically gets its point across effectively without adding this emphasizer, so it is either unnecessary or is the sign of weak writing.

The same lesson can be applied to hyperbolic, non-literal literally in probably every imaginable context. Take the much written-about instance of British soccer commentator Jamie Redknapp saying “David Silva literally floats around the pitch.” Or another one mentioned in that article, “literally in another galaxy”. The columnist uses history to justify his concession that hyperbolic literally is right and proper, but I’ve always seen history as only a part of any discussion about grammar and usage. Luckily, we in our wisdom can see the error of the ways of those writers of centuries past and can see how the misuse of literally impairs usage by weakening its impact in proper contexts. Writers who used or continue to use it for hyperbolic, metaphoric effect were/are writing ineffectively and impairing the effectiveness of this word in literal contexts.

On top of weakening literally in its correct uses and leaving us with no word to take its place as meaning “no really, I mean this thing actually happened, it’s not just a strong metaphor”, hyperbolic literally is literally entirely unnecessary. If you’re using literally in an obviously hyperbolic, unrealistic, out-of-this-world, impossible, or fantastical metaphor, then the metaphor should do all the work of having a strong impact on the audience, without being “strengthened” by the misleading addition of literally. What, if you say an athlete floats around the pitch or that some people seem to be in another galaxy on a political debate, these don’t have a strong enough impact on the audience, so you have to add literally before it to sort of fool the audience into thinking, “Oh!—maybe he does mean literally—oh, no, of course he doesn’t, but he must be really, really, doubly, triply, extra serious, then!”

This is weak hyperbole for writers and speakers who either can’t write or speak effectively or are so dense/see their audience as so dense that they cannot be satisfied with mere hyperbole. Stan Carey writes about this linguistic inflation and sort of manages to come down on the right side, by the end of the column. He does quote writer/composer Anthony Burgess with a sentiment echoed by machineghost above:

A ‘colossal’ film can only be bettered by a ‘super-colossal’ one; soon the hyperbolic forces ruin all meaning. If moderately tuneful pop songs are described as ‘fabulous’, what terms can be used to evaluate Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?

The literally vs. figuratively debate provides a good example of wise, beneficial prescriptive rules. The rule is: don’t use literally when you mean its exact opposite, figuratively. Breaking it encourages sloppy thinking, writing, and speaking, it insults the audience as if they aren’t smart enough to recognize the hyperbole, and it reduces the effectiveness of literally in its correct uses.

Some of the comments to the (in)famous Mary Elizabeth Williams column that I blagged about yesterday are so stupid they practically drool. It’s a shame I didn’t read this column (or, actually, its comments) earlier, because I could have ranted and raved against their stupidity directly in response to them, instead of here, where they’ll never see it (nor will many others). But this blag’s for my own enjoyment and an outlet for my own thoughts and frustrations, so writing about those comments and their ignorance here is good enough.

(To review, Mary Elizabeth Williams sort of lamented, sort of understood, and sort of threw up her hands in surrender at the Associated Press’s official de-banishment of the sentence-modifying adverb Hopefully, as in Hopefully, the AP won’t make future concessions that actually do harm usage. The objection is that hopefully should only modify specific verbs, describing how an action was done, not modify whole clauses or sentences, because sentential hopefully injects the writer’s own personal perspective (his hopes) into the sentence, where it doesn’t belong.)

The worst offender in the six pages of comments, which were a mix of sensible, smart, stupid, ignorant, superstitious, interesting, boring, and indifferent, was named Francis E. Dec. In response to a professional editor who wrote, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “Hopefully, we’ll all get over it,” Francis E. Dec responded,

(Hopefully, we’ll all get over it.)

What does that sentence mean? Does that mean you are hopeful that some other group accepts this change? You use the term “we,” but prior to that seem to exclude yourself from those who need to “get over it.” Or does it meant hat those who do not accept the change are hopeful?

Perhaps you begin to see the problem with using an adverb when there is ambiguity concerning the verb it modifies? I don’t know who is hoping in that sentence. Do you?

That you might be someone who has worked professionally for thirty years does not shock me. It is, after all, the declining standards of professionals such as yourself that has led to this change in the AP style guide.

Francis is an idiot or, more likely, is being intentionally obtuse to try in vain to make a point. It is obvious who is doing the hoping: the author. Stop being a smug, pedantic little twit. You, I, and everyone who reads that sentence know exactly who is hoping. It is the person who typed it. Stop pretending it isn’t obvious.

Further down, in response to the column itself, Francis E. Dec wrote,

The AP Stylebook editors did this to sell copies. They have no requirement to yield to changes in common usage as they claim. They publish a stylebook, not a dictionary. The job of the style guide is to provide a universal standard for writers in a particular profession. You can bet the MLA style guide, APA guide, and other professional style guides won’t change. (One hopes.)

One hopes? Who is “one”? Which one? You? So you’re filling in your own hope for the unknown hopes of your nameless, anonymous readers, who may or may not share yours? Are you assuming all of your readers’ hopes are one with yours? How are we supposed to interpret “One hopes” if not as “Everyone hopes”? How about “It is hoped”? Well, hoped by whom? Same problem. Why not write “I hope”? Because the first person is forbidden in your weird, stupid fantasy land and we’re supposed to pretend those words just appeared on the page with your name above them? You can’t bear to use an alternative wording that’s at least as clear (“Hopefully” or “I hope”), so you choose to say that “one hopes” instead of saying you hope it, thereby committing in equal severity exactly the same insidious personal perspective injection that you’re trying oh-so-smugly to shoot down.

People like Francis E. Dec are hopeless, self-blinding, insufferable, willfully ignorant, pedantic, annoying little twits who seem invariably to make the same “mistakes” they rail against or worse ones. At best they’re a nuisance that we ignore or brush away occasionally like a persistent mosquito, and at worst they’re a scourge on English usage everywhere, only impeding clear writing with their inane, groundless, ineffective pseudo-rules and harming the credibility of the purveyors of beneficial usage rules because they make us all look like crazy, superstitious pedants.

There are good grammar/vocabulary/usage rules, and there are bad ones, and those who push bad ones that aren’t grounded in logic, aren’t backed by history, aren’t observed by esteemed writers, and don’t improve style or clarity are harming their own language far more than any sentential adverb could.

Later, a commenter named G. I. wrote a thoughtful, sensible comment that was marred by, what else?, a weak objection to to sentential Hopefully:

So it is really pretty simple unless we choose to be perverse about it. That said, I would make a distinction between spoken language and written language re “hopefully.” In spoken language, it is, as its defenders say, merely a short form of “It is to be hoped that.” Like much informal speech, it is inelegant but unlikely to be misunderstood. In written language, it’s wrong for the simplest of reasons: it can’t be diagrammed–it can’t be attached to any word that it modifies with one of those little diagonal stems. (The phrase used as a sentence for effect CAN be parsed: the omitted part of the complete sentence is clearly implied and indicated as such in the diagram.)

Um, learn how to diagram better? I mean, come on, these aren’t fucking Feynman diagrams that illustrate a fundamental force, movement, or interaction of particles and energy under the immutable laws of physics; they are human-designed markings on paper to illustrate the uses of and relationships between human-determined, human-evolved, and human-implemented language components. If your precious diagrams are unable to parse sentential Hopefully, then you and your diagrams are the problem, not the word that makes perfect sense to everyone and has a clear, unambiguous meaning. The nature of sentence diagrams is not constrained by some universal laws; if they have a shortcoming, modify the diagrams, not the language! Sheesh!

In a sentence that begins with Hopefully, the subject doing the hoping is understood (I). Note another type of sentence that has an understood subject: imperative sentences, also known as commands. Go to the store. Read this article. Stop doing that. Their understood subject is You. Sentence diagrams are perfectly capable of handling those understood subjects, so no, I doubt they are simply inadequate to handle the understood subject of a sentence with sentential hopefully.

Finally, in an exchange that was pretty well handled by the more sensible of the two participants, one Rrhain tries to explain that adverbs can only modify adjectives, verbs, or other adverbs, and “They don’t modify phrases unless those phrases function as one of those parts of speech.” (This is simply a false statement.) He uses specific example sentences posted by a previous commenter and tries to rearrange them to make his point, to his own detriment:

Specifically, the adverb is not modifying the clause but rather a specific part of the sentence, either the verb or an adjective. It has simply been separated from it. You can recast each of those sentences to place the adverb directly next to the word it is modifying and remove the comma:

I actually do live in Chicago.
I do actually live in Chicago.
Mrs. Brown arrived surprisingly late despite her usual punctuality.
I usually eat at home.

He is right that many, if not most, sentential adverbs can be moved to the interior of the sentence, adjacent to the verb, adjective, or adverb they actually modify, but interestingly, he misunderstands the surprisingly example not once but twice. Here, he doesn’t understand that the original sentence that another commenter wrote, “Suprisingly, Mrs. Brown arrived late despite her usual punctuality,” has Surprisingly modifying the entire statement, not the arrived or the late. Due to his misunderstanding, he makes surprisingly modify late in clear contrast to the meaning of the original commenter’s sentence. After another commenter explains this to him, Rrhain still refuses to understand:

Whether “surprisingly” is modifying “arrived” or “late,” it is modifying a specific part of speech: The verb or the adjective. It is not modifying an entire sentence. To reduce your sentence down to its bare bones:

Mrs. Brown surprisingly arrived.

This was especially enjoyable and rewarding to me, somehow. This ignorant anti-Hopefully pedant misunderstands his own rules and admonitions, and misuses surprisingly not once but twice, all because he has set himself on this crusade against sentential adverbs and refuses to acknowledge that not just hopefully but many, many more adverbs, such as surprisingly, are frequently, clearly, and correctly used as sentence-modifying words.

With that last suprisingly example, Rrhain insists that Mrs. Brown’s arrival can legitimately be described with the adverb surprisingly only because this adverb modifies a specific verb in the sentence, arrived.

Um, no, it doesn’t. Let’s explore why.

Superstitious pedants like Rrhain love to repeat the mantra that hopefully shouldn’t be used unless the author means that a person was hopeful while doing an action; they performed that verb in a hopeful manner. Therefore, Rrhain and his ilk ought to know how to put verbs and adverbs together and what it means when a verb is modified directly by an adverb like hopefully or surprisingly; after all, they remind us that that’s the only truly correct way to use these adverbs every chance they get. Yet here, Rrhain has used surprisingly incorrectly to modify a verb it has no business modifying! Mrs. Brown did not arrive in a surprising manner; the effect that her arriving itself had on others was not to evoke surprise; she did not perform the arriving in a surprising way. Rather, the whole combined fact of her arriving late despite her usual punctuality is what’s surprising! That’s why Surprisingly should be used at the beginning of the sentence in a sentential role, to modify the whole sentence! However, because Rrhain refuses to allow sentential adverbs, we see him put surprisingly right before the verb, which changes its meaning from modifying the whole fact of Mrs. Brown’s arrival to the nature of her arrival.

It’s almost ironic, except willful ignorance, inconsistency, hypocrisy, and plain stupidity are expected from anti-Hopefully crusaders, so I don’t find his misunderstanding and misuse of surprisingly surprising at all.

He also makes the same mistake in his first post, in a slightly less obvious way:

For example: “I’ll go in a bit.” “In a bit,” while not containing any adverbs itself, is functioning as an adverb, modifying “go” to indicate time. You could use “hopefully” in this sentence: “I’ll go hopefully in a bit.” And in this case, you could easily move “hopefully” to the front of the sentence: “Hopefully, I’ll go in a bit.”

He thinks that “going hopefully” is the same thing as “Hopefully, I’ll go”! What phenomenal ignorance from someone claiming to guard English against degradation and criticizing others for their wrongheadedness! They are not the same. “Hopefully, I’ll go in a bit” means “I hope that I’ll go in a bit” or “I hope that in a bit, I’ll (be able to) go.” In contrast, “I’ll go hopefully in a bit” means that when I go in a bit, which is certain to occur, it will be in a hopeful manner. He thinks that putting hopefully in that spot makes it modify the adverbial phrase in a bit, but it does not. It is modifying the verb go in that sentence. If he meant to express the idea that he will go (for certain) and that he hopes this going will occur in a bit, he needs a well-placed comma: “I’ll go, hopefully in a bit.” Another punctuation change could express the same idea: “I’ll go (hopefully in a bit).” And this sentence can be rephrased, “I will go, and hopefully, this will occur in a bit.” The placement of hopefully and commas in his example can create sentences with three distinct meanings, all of which are, or should be, clear to all native English speakers and which exemplify the glorious flexibility and versatility of the English language. Let’s list them for ease of understanding:

1. “Hopefully, I’ll go in a bit.” Or: “I’ll go in a bit, hopefully.” (I hope that I’ll (be able to) go in a bit.)
2. “I’ll go hopefully in a bit.” (I will definitely go in a bit, and I will perform this going in a hopeful manner.)
3. “I’ll go, hopefully in a bit.” Or: “I’ll go (hopefully in a bit).” (I will definitely go, and I hope this will occur in a bit.)

Now that I’ve corrected his punctuation and adverb usage, we can plainly see that Rrhain is trying to use hopefully to express his own hope (example 1 or 3), and he justifies this by noting that in a bit is an adverb and then claiming that hopefully is modifying this adverb.

Again, no, it isn’t, except in my third example above, which is the only one he failed to type and which I had to write for him. In the first example, hopefully is modifying the whole ensuing clause, to express the speaker’s/author’s hope that the whole clause will come true. Rrhain refuses to accept this, so he tries rearranging the words to show that the sentential Hopefully in example 1 is actually modifying the adverb in a bit, as in example 3, but these sentences mean different things. Hopefully absolutely does not apply to the same group of words in examples 1 and 3. The only way to express the hope that “I’ll go in a bit” will come true using the word “hopefully” is by using it in a sentential role. Any other role applies hope to only a subset of the words, changing the meaning of the sentence.

I don’t know exactly why a preposition (in), an article (a), and a noun (bit) are perfectly fine to function together as a phrasal adverb but hopefully is not acceptable as a sentential adverb. I also don’t know why using Hopefully to express hope that an entire clause or sentence will come true is wrong but using hopefully to express hope that a time-adverb (such as in a bit) will prove true is OK. Either way, the speaker/author is injecting his own personal perspective into the sentence in a “sneaky” way without using the word I (or the far inferior One), which some people object to, possibly Rrhain. I think this “adverbs can only modify verbs, adjectives, and adverbs” rule sounds more like a post-hoc rationalization and extension of their specific opposition to sentential hopefully, in which they’ve tried to extend this position to a general rule that applies to all adverbs. They rail against sentential hopefully, they realize other sentential adverbs are used in identical ways, they want to at least appear consistent and logical, so they created a rule out of thin air to extend their fetish to other adverbs in the name of consistency, against all evidence.

This rule is unnecessarily limiting to the English language and inhibits, not enhances, clarity.

As the coup de grace in my exposure of Rrhain as a cartoonishly ignorant, illogically pedantic anti-Hopefully fetishist, Rrhain uses the adverb Specifically in a sentential role, not modifying any specific verb, adjective, or (phrasal) adverb, in one of his own sentences in the natural course of his writing, i.e., outside of his fabricated example sentences. He writes: “Specifically, the adverb is not modifying the clause but rather a specific part of the sentence, either the verb or an adjective.” There is no way to construe that sentence to claim that Specifically is modifying either is or modifying or any other specific word or phrase. Rather, it is modifying the entire thought conveyed by the sentence. This sentential adverb means To be more specific, and what follows is Rrhain being more specific. The entire sentence and not any one verb is described by Specifically.

This use of sentential Specifically is perfectly clear, logical, and grammatical—features it shares with sentential Hopefully and every other sentential adverb and adverbial phrase that good writers and speakers have used for hundreds of years. And even bad writers and armchair grammarians, apparently.

At the end of his first comment, Rrhain does make a good point that hopefully’s sentential use is more of an interjection, sort of prefacing the whole sentence, but he is very confused about the roles that adverbs play in his own examples.

Posted in Grammar, Language, Morans | 1 Comment

Any writer who rails against sentential Hopefully and the passive voice in general is not worth listening to

Look. I sympathize with Mary Elizabeth Williams. I really do. I hate it when people misuse a word, and I hate the idea of English speakers separated by time and space meaning different things when they use the same words or being entirely unable to understand each other. I have my own grammar and usage “rules” that I always follow and that I think make for more effective writing, but I don’t write about them or mention them to anyone because descriptivists will point out that the rule is arbitrary, has been broken by esteemed writers for centuries, or isn’t usually necessary for clarity. So I stopped caring about them as rules and stopped labeling transgressors as wrong. I just judge them silently and collect examples Garner-style, possibly to be blagged about one day but most probably not.

Plus, if you write about a usage rule or trend that you haven’t studied like a linguist, you’re bound to make material errors much worse than using a word supposedly incorrectly. For example, Mary Elizabeth Williams and her compatriots lament sentence-initial Hopefully because the AP stylebook recently un-banished it, but there is no doubt that every single one of those annoying, smug little pedants has used dozens of different sentential adverbs before, in writing, without batting an eye. Frankly, Obviously, Surprisingly, Next, Additionally, Also, Luckily, Happily, Fortunately, Unfortunately, First, Maybe, etc., etc. (the last two by Williams herself in that very column). This the ONLY ONE they have a problem with, because their parents or teachers had a problem with it and instilled this attitude in them, and they like enforcing rules because rules are good, not because the particular rule in question is good.

It is perfectly reasonable to object to sentential Hopefully on the grounds that it unduly injects the author’s opinion into the sentence either inaccurately (does every reader also hope what the writer hopes?) or subversively (hey, if you want to state your own perspective, write “I hope”; if personal pronouns aren’t allowed in this publication, you should revise your statements to meet the literary or logical rigor it requires, without just asserting things because you hope everyone else agrees). I see nothing wrong with objecting to this sloppiness or personal perspective injection when such objections are warranted. But it’s important to remember that everything that was ever written, even primary scientific literature, was thunk up and written down by a human(s), who had opinions and hopes and functioning nervous systems, so it is pretty rare for an injection of the authors’ hopes to be completely inappropriate and unacceptable. (Even in primary scientific literature, a sentence near the end of the paper could easily and legitimately begin with “Hopefully,” to express the authors’ hope about future studies, discoveries, or advancements. There’s nothing about “We hope” that is superior to “Hopefully”.)

Therefore, while the objection to undue perspective-injecting on the part of the author is understandable, the objection only holds water on rare occasions. In the contexts in which an author would be tempted to begin a sentence with “Hopefully”, chances are exceedingly, vanishingly small that the context is inappropriate for that word. (For instance, in a news article about what terrorist group did what or who died where, I don’t see an AP correspondent writing, “Hopefully, no more dead bodies will be discovered.”)

So the word and its sentential use are not the problem; inappropriate context is, and I challenge any Hopefully pedant to find a single instance of inappropriate, unacceptable, context-ignorant sentential Hopefully in any half-respectable publication.

Now, on to Mary Elizabeth Williams’s interjection against passive voice: “Language is meant to be subverted. (Note bold use of passive voice!)” I echo John McIntyre’s call to that famous passive-voice-misunderstanding-exposer Geoffrey Pullum to explain whether Williams is right in calling that sentence passive, but I’m going to take my own stab at it and say No. I think McIntyre is right when he writes,

Neither bold, nor passive, I think. We could argue whether a past participle following a form of to be is a true passive or merely serving the same function as an adjective in a copular construction, as in the sentence “Ms. Williams’s argument is impaired.”

How about changing one word in Williams’s sentence (admittedly the most important word, but keeping it a past participle verb): “Language is supposed to be subverted.” How about “I am surprised at the level of ire she musters”? These both have the structure [noun] [to be conjugate] [participle], just like her supposed passive sentence. The thing is, meant is being used more like an adjective than a verb; there is no implied actor performing the verb; there is no meanor in her sentence or supposer or surpriser in my sentences. Passive, I think not. Language is the noun doing the action in the sentence; it is the thing that’s meant to be subverted, and it’s doing so right there.

Before hearing about Geoffrey Pullum and, shortly afterward, encountering his screeds against people who mistakenly criticize the passive voice while completely mis-identifying the passive voice in their examples, I never would have guessed that so many language commentators who rail against the passive voice would so often mis-identify that very voice. But they do. Ms. Williams does it here. Dr. Pullum has catalogued probably hundreds of examples, by now, of passive voice bashers bashing something that isn’t even the passive voice. It’s quite astounding.

We should criticize the passive voice when it obscures actors and meaning, so it’s good to avoid it as a general default approach, but the passive voice is frequently extremely useful. Further, if “Language is meant to be subverted” is the passive voice (which I doubt), then obviously any “rule” or even guideline that would bar the use of that phrasing is stupid because that sentence is perfectly fine, clear, and direct! How else are you going to express that idea? Any “rule” that would label that sentence as grammatically “undesirable” or “improvable” is a stupid rule based in ignorance.

Finally, did you ever notice that some (hell, probably all) of the very people who rail against the passive voice are also the people who rail against sentential Hopefully, and that they are being laughably inconsistent in these two crusades? They hate the passive voice because it is supposedly just inherently bad—less forceful, less clear, less direct. But then they go and say that injecting the speaker’s perspective into an article or essay by writing “Hopefully” is inappropriate because not everyone necessarily hopes that. Well, the only two alternatives for expressing the author’s hope are the much more personal “I hope” and the heavily passive and ridiculous-sounding “It is (to be) hoped that”. The former must be far worse than mere “Hopefully” on the personal-perspective-injection scale, and the latter is about the most clunky, stodgy, awkward, unnecessarily passive clause I can imagine. If an author wants to express the meaning “I hope that…”, without starting with “Hopefully”, then he can either use the first-person pronoun, which seems worse than implying his opinion with the word “Hopefully”, or he can write “It is to be hoped”, so the anti-passive, anti-Hopefully crusader is left with either “I hope” or hypocrisy.

Posted in Language, Morans, Writing | 2 Comments

Yu Darvish and Craig Kimbrel will injure their elbows

The first thing that struck me when I saw footage of Yu Darvish pitching last year was that he uses a lot of arm to throw that hard and that his mechanics are similar to those of Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, and Adam Wainwright, all of whose faulty mechanics resulted in elbow injuries that required Tommy John surgery.

The excellent website of Chris O’Leary, a St. Louis–based pitching and hitting instructor, has dozens of helpful and informative animated GIFs, including of the three pitchers mentioned above. On his page about Adam Wainwright and the “inverted W”, O’Leary pinpoints what he thinks Wainwright’s mechanical error was, or at least the source of his problems: he keeps moving his elbow upward for far too long, resulting in his elbow being higher than the ball for too long and even significantly higher than his shoulder for a while. This requires his elbow to twist too much too fast and his throwing hand to whip around and forward too quickly, which puts way too much strain on the elbow over time.

Mark Prior’s mechanics were even worse and make me cringe just looking at them. O’Leary rightly calls Prior’s mechanics a train wreck. O’Leary even created another page comparing Mark Prior’s mechanics to Greg Maddux’s and Nolan Ryan’s, two pitchers who never had serious arm problems (though Nolan Ryan is kind of a freak of nature, so I’m not sure any comparison to him would be fair. I’d love a Roger Clemens comparison because I always considered him to have nearly perfect mechanics.) The story is the same for Mark Prior: elbow too high too late, ball dragging behind it, whipping around too fast too late.

Kerry Wood is among the most famous injured pitchers of the last couple decades, and O’Leary’s Kerry Wood page details basically the same problems that hurt his elbow as hurt the other two. Added to that is Kerry Wood’s somewhat across-body throwing style that presumably helped him snap off his curve ball so effectively. Maybe Kerry Wood’s curve ball contributed more to his elbow problems than his “inverted L” arm motion did, but I think I generally agree with O’Leary’s analysis.

I have little doubt Yu Darvish and Craig Kimbrel will suffer similar fates because I see the same faults in their mechanics: their elbows are ahead of their throwing hands, their elbows come up and back too far, and they have to whip the ball around too fast at the last minute, which puts excessive torque strain on the elbow. Their mechanics seem particularly worrisome because you don’t need GIFs or slow-motion video to detect their faults; they are obvious in real time on TV. Here are a couple photographs of each pitching:

Kimbrel is far worse than Darvish, and I don’t think the fewer innings he will throw as a reliever will save him. It isn’t as evident in those photographs of Darvish as it is in video, but he seems to whip or twist his arm around much more than most pitchers, possibly similar to Kerry Wood in the 1990’s (though I haven’t seen video of pre-injury Kerry Wood in a long time, certainly not enough of it to study it).