## For some reason, I really liked The Host

Last weekend Kathy and I watched the movie The Host on Netflix. It’s based on the novel by Stephenie Meyer, whose name I just found out has no A’s in it. This movie is yet another example of why you (or at least I) shouldn’t read other people’s opinions of a movie, TV show, or book, or even peek at the average rating at a place like Amazon.com, IMDb, or Rotten Tomatoes, before checking it out yourself. Luckily, I didn’t, so I had no idea how down on this movie most people were, even though I knew it was based on a Stephenie Meyer novel that Kathy quit reading early on and that her friend finished but disliked. Sometimes a low rating can lower your expectations so much that you enjoy it more than you expect, but other times it can make you expect badness and notice it more acutely than you might have. This is especially true if you read negative reviews first and hear what specific criticisms people have.

I love science fiction more than any other genre, whereas Kathy couldn’t even finish Hyperion. (I mean, seriously, Hyperion! An all-time masterpiece of science fiction! Everyone should like that! At least she liked Ender’s Game, though I still haven’t been able to talk her into reading Speaker for the Dead.) Even so, this movie was her choice. We tend to take turns choosing what we watch, and she chose The Host this time. For obvious, Stephenie Meyer–related reasons, this was more of a “her” movie in our Netflix queue, though given its premise and the fact that it is science fiction and not fantasy, it should have been a movie that I’d be expected to like more than she would. It’s kind of funny, though, and a good thing, that we both end up liking most of the movies that are chosen by only one of us. Some recent examples are Moneyball (mine), What To Expect When You’re Expecting (hers), and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (hers). A good example of a movie only the chooser liked is The Messenger (mine). Oddly enough, I think two other Saoirse Ronan movies were liked less by the chooser than the other person: I didn’t think The Lovely Bones (hers) was all that bad, though I certainly have no desire to watch it again or buy it; and she might have liked Hanna (mine) a little more than I did, though I don’t think either of us will want to see it again. I also seem to remember Kathy liking Rare Exports (mine) more than I did. In these three cases and possibly others I can’t remember, the chooser’s relative dislike of a movie was probably related to their high expectations, which was why they chose it. See? Always have low expectations!

Many movie critics and fans are probably still waiting for the deeply talented Saoirse Ronan to headline a high-quality movie, but I think The Host fits the bill. I understand the widespread criticism that the movie is slow, plodding, and low on action, but I was not bored or indifferent during a single scene. It isn’t an action-packed movie, but I think that’s fine because that’s not what it was meant to be and not what it needs to be. The movie didn’t feel too long or dragged out at all.

A second common criticism is Stephenie Meyer–related: the love rectangle is not compelling, it’s too young adult-y and teenage girl-y, it’s too infected with Nicholas Sparks sappiness, and the two boys are not given enough depth or characterization to make us feel strongly about it. I also understand this criticism but disagree with it more strongly than with the first one. I didn’t think it was too pandering to a teenage-girl audience; I merely thought it was depicting what a teenage girl in Melanie’s situation might go through. I should mention that the four characters in this love rectangle are Melanie, the alien that inhabits her and controls her body (“Wanderer”), and the two aforementioned boys. I did think that Melanie’s reasons for wanting Wanderer to do this and not wanting Wanderer to say that to the two boys, as well as her brother and uncle, were not explained and fleshed out as fully they could have been, causing a little frustration and confusion in me, but this was the only aspect of the movie I found frustrating.

The third common criticism I encountered in reading the reviews after I saw the movie was that the dialog between Melanie (from inside her own mind) and Wanderer (using Melanie’s actual voice) was unintentionally funny and atrociously written. I strongly disagree. I’m no professional movie critic and know nothing about how to write movie dialog, but I found the dual-personality aspect of Melanie/Wanderer well written and expertly performed. I thought Ronan’s acting, the script, and the directing perfectly depicted the conflicted nature of a mind struggling to assert itself—to exist—and an alien struggling to justify its actions and reconcile them with its sense of morals. Other than the overall science-fiction storyline, Ronan’s portrayal of this inner struggle was the highlight of the movie for me. But maybe it could have been even better if that struggle was less about boys and more about deeper ethical and psychological issues.

The main reason I’m even writing this post, now 800-plus words in, is to respond to a truly vacuous, clueless, bafflingly stupid statement by Claudia Puig in her review of the movie for USA Today. The premise of The Host is that an alien species has invaded and populated the Earth by taking over our bodies and our minds. When an alien does this, the human host is effectively killed; their mind ceases to function if not exist altogether, and the body is controlled by the alien. The alien can access all of the host’s memories, which is especially useful for finding rebels who would prefer not to be killed and their species exterminated. The thing is, a rare human will have a strong enough psyche to rebel against its possessor and stay alive, as Melanie does. Usually when this happens, the other aliens just remove their comrade and kill the rebelious host or possess the host with a stronger, more ruthless alien. Only a few small pockets of living humans remain, in hiding or on the run. But according to Claudia Puig, these rebelious hosts and the insurgents who have avoided parasitization altogether are being irrational and primitive, because look at all the progress the aliens have created!

Like Twilight, the action is slowed by too many dull-eyed stares meant to be smoldering. A bigger problem is that the aliens are an exceedingly pleasant bunch who have rid the world of its problems. What’s not to like? The human rebellion comes off like a bunch of hillbillies angry for no justifiable reason.

I’ll repeat that in case your mind was too blindsided and dumbfounded by such idiocy to process it: An alien race wants to exterminate the human race and is damn close to doing it, and the humans who resist this eventuality are “hillbillies” who are “angry for no justifiable reason.” It boggles the mind. One is liable to sit agape in horror and depression at the psyche that could conjure such an opinion—at the types of real-world leaders, ideas, and solutions Claudia Puig would endorse and the horrors we would have to inflict upon our fellow humans to achieve her ideal order. It’s like she perceives “progress” and “peace” as some nearly tangible, identifiable things that have value on their own and should be strived for at all costs, regardless of who is doing the striving and who is benefitting from them. She must have had the same scornful reaction to all that pesky resistance the Borg face from all those hillbilly humanoids who like their species they way they are. She must not have objected to the Borg’s assimilation of the human race at the beginning of Star Trek: First Contact and must have been equally annoyed and confused at the Enterprise for going back in time and foolishly trying to stop it. There is literally no difference between the Borg and the aliens of The Host, except superficially. I never thought I could lose all respect for someone as a person from reading a mere movie review, but I never thought I’d read anything so contradictory, so insulting, to rational thought in a mere movie review.

## Probability problem from Star Trek: The Next Generation

In the first episode of season 7 of Star Trek: TNG, “Descent, part II”, a certain character (no spoilers from me!) tells another character that a medical experiment has a 60% chance of failing, meaning it will kill the subject. But, this evil character says, since he has three captives to perform the experiment on, “the odds are that at least one of the procedures will be successful.”

Is he right? Is there a >50% chance that at least one of the procedures will be successful? With a 40% chance of succeeding and three trials to get it right, it seems obvious at an intuitive level that at least one of them will succeed. But because I last watched this episode shortly after my first semester of Statistics, I thought it’d be fun to calculate the exact probability that at least one of the procedures will be successful.

From introductory Statistics, we can see that this is a relatively simple binomial experiment, with $$p$$ (the probability of success) $$= .4$$ and $$n = 3$$. As is often the case when you need to calculate the probability that something will happen at least once, it is easiest to calculate the probability that it won’t happen, and subtract that from $$1$$.

So,

$$P(all three procedures fail) = .6^3 = .216. \\ P(at least one procedure succeeds) = 1 – .216 = .784$$.

There are two other ways to compute this probability. Hopefully, they yield the same result!

From an important binomial probability theorem,

$$b(x; n, p) = {n \choose x} p^x (1 – p)^{n-x}$$

where $$b$$ is the probability mass function (pmf) of a binomial experiment, meaning the probability of a single outcome (as opposed to the cumulative density function, which measures the collective probability of multiple outcomes), $$x$$ is the number of successes, $$n$$ is the total number of trials, and $$p$$ is the probability of success. The notation $${n \choose x}$$ is pronounced “n choose x” and means the total number of ways to choose $$x$$ outcomes out of $$n$$ possible outcomes. This is a good introduction to combinations (and permutations).

First, let’s use the binomial pmf to calculate the probability of zero survivors among the three procedures:

$$b(0; 3, .4) = {3 \choose 0} (.4)^0 (1 – .4)^3 = .216$$

As it turns out in this simple example, the above computation is just $$1\cdot 1\cdot .6^3$$, so basically the same as the original high-school-level computation we did first. I’ll go out on a limb and assume that subtracting this from $$1$$ will give the same result as it did above.

We can also use that binomial pmf to calculate the probability that one procedure will succeed plus the probability that two will succeed plus the probability that all three will succeed. This calculation would ignore the reality that the evil experimenter will stop after the first success, but to calculate the probability that at least one procedure will succeed, we need to include all three of them.

$$b(1; 3, .4) + b(2; 3, .4) + b(3; 3, .4) \\ = {3 \choose 1} (.4)^1 (1 – .4)^2 + {3 \choose 2} (.4)^2 (1 – .4)^1 + {3 \choose 3} (.4)^3 (1 – .4)^0 \\ = .432 + .288 + .064 = .784$$

I know of one final way to calculate the probability that at least one procedure will succeed: use the TI-83’s binomcdf function. It is located under the DISTR menu, which is the 2nd option on the VARS key. The syntax is

$$binomcdf(n,p,x)$$

and this tells you the cumulative probability of all outcomes in a binomial experiment from $$0$$ to $$x$$ successes. In this case, we are interested in the cumulative probability from $$x=1$$ to $$x=3$$, not $$x=0$$ to $$x=3$$. Therefore, in the TI-83 we can type either

$$binomcdf(3,.4,3) – binomcdf(3,.4,0)$$
or
$$binomcdf(3,.4,3) – binompdf(3,.4,0)$$

Both commands tell us the cumulative probability of zero successes through three successes minus the probability of zero successes, and both give $$.784$$.

So we can see that our common-sense intuition was right: with a 40% chance of success, the chances are very favorable that at least one of the first three trials will produce a success.

At what point does the probability of success surpass 50%? My guess is two trials. This can be easily confirmed by changing $$n$$ from $$3$$ to $$2$$ and calculating the binomial probability:

$$P(getting at least one success out of the first two trials) \\ = b(2; .4, 2) + b(2; .4, 1) = {2 \choose 2} .4^2 .6^0 + {2 \choose 1} .4^1 .6^1 \\ = .64 \\ (= 1 – b(2; .4, 0) = 1 – .36 = .64)$$

Another, more high-school-ish way to verify the probability of succeeding within the first two trials is to realize there are only two ways this could happen: succeed on the first trial, or fail on the first trial and succeed on the second:

$$P(succeed on the first trial) + P(fail first and then succeed)\\ = .4 + .6\cdot .4\\ = .64$$

Another thing our evil experimenter might be interested in is the expected value of the number of captives he will need to achieve success. Expected value is basically a weighted average. This is a good beginner’s summary of expected value. One of the first things that strikes any Statistics/Probability student about expected value is that you should hardly ever actually expect to get the expected value in an experiment, because often the expected value is impossible to achieve. For instance, your experiment only produces integer outcomes, but the expected value, being a (weighted) average, is a decimal. This is the case with many binomial experiments. The number of captives our evil experimenter will perform the procedure on is $$1$$, $$2$$, or $$3$$, but I bet the expected value of this binomial experiment will be between $$1$$ and $$2$$.

The definition of expected value as a weighted average is more apt for random variables than binomial variables, but you can still calculate expected value for binomial distributions. In fact, in this case we can calculate two different expected values.

First, the simple, standard expected value of a binomial distribution: $$E(X) = np$$. That is, the expected number of successes from $$n$$ trials is $$n$$ times the probability of success. Pretty simple, huh? So

$$E(X) = np = 3\cdot .4 = 1.2$$

So if he performed the procedure on all three captives, he should expect $$1.2$$ successes. Similarly, the expected number of successes after the first two trials is $$.8$$, and the expected number of successes after the first trial is $$.4$$.

But that’s not the expected value I originally referred to. I said the experimenter might be interested in the expected number of procedures he’d have to perform to reach one successful procedure. I can’t find any definitive theorem or formula that tells how to calculate such an expected value in my Statistics textbook or the few places I’ve looked online, but I think it’s this:

$$1 = n(.4) \\ 1/.4 = n\\ 2.5 = n$$

In other words, since each experiment has a $$.4$$ chance of succeeding, how many experiments do you expect to need to reach $$1$$ success? What times $$.4$$ equals $$1$$? It’s $$2.5$$.

That’s higher than I expected. That was the number I expected to be between $$1$$ and $$2$$. This seems incongruent with our result above that the probability of success surpasses 50% after two trials. If the probability of success becomes better than even after two trials, shouldn’t you expect to reach one success in $$\leq 2$$ trials? And shouldn’t the expected number of successes after two trials be something greater than $$1$$, instead of $$.8$$, then? I know both sets of calculations are correct, so this is either one of those counterintuitive results you often get in probability, or I’m framing one of the questions wrong…

## Yes, that useless pseudo-rule against ending sentences with a preposition is a useless pseudo-rule

It always has been, and it always will be.

One of the many problems with arguing with strangers on the internet is that people insist upon things that they are not sure about. They argue, often heatedly and passionately, in favor of a point that they are not 100% sure is correct. Arguing about the value of one opinion over another is OK, though clearly millions of people get way too vicious and hateful about it every day. But if you’re arguing about some issue that is reasonably easily verified as true or false, then you aren’t really arguing: you’re either explaining why someone else is wrong or proving yourself ignorant.

Believe it or not, this happens fairly often between people arguing about language and grammar on the internet. The refusal of some people to understand that they are wrong on matters of fact or on matters of terminology or definitions, and their continued insistence that they are right about something that they haven’t even bothered to look up or cite any sources on, is the reason I no longer contribute to any discussion about language and grammar on any website, even when it seems like a simple matter of fact vs. falsehood.

For example, a couple years ago I commented in a flippant, dismissive way that “Never end a sentence with a preposition” is a useless pseudo-rule up with which I shall not put, etc. Someone responded with something like this:

I would argue there is no such thing as a “useless pseudo-rule” – there is only how people speak. In certain settings, avoiding ending your clauses with a preposition can make you sound erudite and cultured, and in some settings it can make your sound like a pompous twat with a stick up your ass. The only rule is that one should be aware of how best to communicate with one’s audience.

Clearly he or she did not understand what the word “rule” means. The reason some over-zealous schoolteachers and grammarians created that rule is because they considered it wrong to violate it; that’s what rule means. My point in calling it a pseudo-rule is that it was never actually a rule of grammar because it has never been wrong to violate it; they just concocted it to enforce stiff formality in school students; nothing about the history or evolution of English suggested that it was ungrammatical or even unwise to end sentences with prepositions. The reason I called it useless is because, well, if it is neither ungrammatical nor harmful to break it, then it doesn’t help and we shouldn’t pay attention to it at all!

Notice the internal contradictions in that person’s comment:

there is no such thing as a “useless pseudo-rule” – there is only how people speak

So you agree with me.

The only rule is that one should be aware of how best to communicate with one’s audience.

So you agree with me! If it isn’t wrong to break it, then it isn’t a rule! That’s what rule means! But since people tried to pass it off as a rule for decades, it is apt to call it a pseudo-rule.

It seems accurate to say that my use of both the words “useless” and “pseudo-rule” is redundant. Since “Never end a sentence with a preposition” is not and never was a rule of English grammar, that makes it useless as a rule per se.

But I also contend that it is useless as style advice. I think my interlocutor even agreed with that, although they were so busy being indignant and contradictory that they probably wouldn’t realize it:

In certain settings, avoiding ending your clauses with a preposition can make you sound erudite and cultured, and in some settings it can make your sound like a pompous twat with a stick up your ass.

That’s true of like a hundred different words, phrases, and grammatical constructs! There are no rules for or against using them! If it is true that X can be good or bad, then “It is a good idea to do X” is bad style advice, because it might in fact be a bad idea to do X. If you want to change your “rule” to “If the situation calls for it, then do X”, then, first, that’s different from “Always do X” or “Never do X”, which is the subject of this post and my original comment that spurred this idiocy, and second, it’s unhelpful (useless!) advice anyway because it doesn’t help writers determine when X is called for.

It is grammatical to end a sentence with a preposition or not. It can be good style to end a sentence with a preposition or not. If you go out of your way to write in an unnatural, stuffy way to put the preposition at the end of your clause, it will probably make you sound like a pompous twat who doesn’t recognize good style. That’s the whole of it! It’s not a rule and never was. It is not (often) good style advice. There is nothing to argue over. In some cases you can call it bad style, in some cases you can call it good style, and in other cases it doesn’t really matter. That’s why it’s not a rule at all, and that’s why it’s useless to even make an issue out of it.

## The infinitude of prime numbers—Euclid’s proof in my own words

Euclid is believed to be the first mathematician to prove that there are infinitely many prime numbers. Most of us learn only that Euclid established and codified the framework of two- and three-dimensional geometry, but he accomplished far more than that. I think middle-schoolers and high-schoolers are given the impression that Elements was merely a book about the rules and characteristics of geometric shapes, angles, and relationships, but it contained important theorems about number theory, arithmetic, and algebra as well. He was a superb number-theorist and second only to Archimedes among mathematicians of antiquity.

In contradiction with his pigeonholing by school students as a mere geometer, Euclid’s most famous and perhaps most important individual contribution to mathematics is his proof that there are infinitely many prime numbers. This proof also appears in Elements. In my non-scientific experience browsing math websites and blags, Euclid’s proof of the infinitude of primes is almost universally considered one of the most beautiful, elegant (they love that word) proofs in the history of mathematics.

When I read the proof at Wikipedia, I understood it pretty well after reading it a few times, but I found that several months later, I couldn’t remember it or restate it. So I sought out a few more versions of his proof and found a couple that explained it even better. Now I know it for good because I understand it even better than I did the first time—naturally, I understand it best when stated in my own words—and I’ll publish it here for anyone who might be helped by seeing my version:

First, remember that every integer greater than 1 has a unique prime factorization, i.e., it can be written as a unique combination (product) of prime numbers or is prime itself. This is called the fundamental theorem of arithmetic and was also first proved by Euclid. For instance, 12 is factored as 2 x 2 x 3, and 36 is factored as 2 x 2 x 3 x 3. (These examples make it clear that the number of repetitions of each prime is part of the uniqueness, though their order doesn’t matter.)

Now to the meat of the proof. It is basically a proof by contradiction: assume the conjecture (“there are infinitely many prime numbers”) is false, and see that it cannot actually be false. So assume there are finitely many primes, or that you have gone reeeeeaalllllly far out along the number line and have reached the last prime number. Now multiply all of the prime numbers together. Call their product N. Obviously N is not prime because it has a prime factorization: all of the prime numbers. (As a side note, observe that N must be even because it has 2 as a factor. In fact, you know its last digit is 0 because it is divisible by both 5 and 2.)

Add 1 to N to get a new number, N + 1. There are exactly two possibilities for the type of number that N + 1 is: it is either prime or composite. If it is prime, then our assumption was false, because this prime is larger than the supposed largest prime.

If N + 1 is composite, then it has a unique prime factorization. What is that factorization? Well, we don’t know what it is, but we know what it isn’t: it does not include any of the prime factors of N. This is because N + 1 would give a remainder of 1 if divided by any one of the primes, or any combination of the primes, that produced N—by the nature of addition and multiplication, you would have to add 2 to N to get a number that is even divisible by the lowest prime, 2. And you would have to add 3 to get the next number divisible by 3, add 5 to get the next number divisible by 5, etc. Since N is exactly divisible by any and all combinations of those primes, N + 1 would give a remainder of 1 (as opposed to some other remainder) when divided by any combination of them. This means N + 1 is not divisible by any prime factor of N. Therefore, composite N + 1 has some prime factor that was not included in the factors of N, so the supposed list of all primes missed at least one.

This process can be repeated ad infinitum for any N and N + 1 and their prime factors, meaning any finite list of primes cannot include them all, so there are infinitely many primes.

## Stupid, pedantic formalism fetishists are turning however into a conjunction that is replacing mid-sentence but

The more I hear people speak and read their writing in all kinds of situations, in real life or in TV/movies, in blog posts, essays, or informal discussion threads, in scripted dialogue or narration or while ad-libbing, the more often I notice however being used as a direct replacement for but, with the same intonation of the voice, cadence of speech, and use of commas as with but. The reason for this is easy to guess: English-speaking students across the world have been misinformed about the appropriateness of various words by at least two generations of pedantic turgidity/formalism fetishists, mainly in English class. Hundreds of millions of people have been taught that But (and its sister conjunction And) absolutely should not, under any circumstances, be used at the beginning of sentences in anything approaching a formal, academic context.

But this admonition is simply wrong. It is pure fantasy. It has no basis in grammar, history, or the traits of polished, edited, formal English prose. It appears in no English style guides in existence. Some person(s) just made it up out of the blue decades ago, presumably to train young students away from starting every other sentence with And. There are editors and entire editing companies (I work for one) that replace every sentence-initial But with However,—and they don’t even do it manually; they run a macro in Microsoft Word that automatically makes this replacement. This is how categorically, inexcusably wrong they see sentence-initial conjunctions. And based on what? It is literally a rule that they, or someone they learned “English” from, conjured up from their own imaginations. Bryan Garner explains why this superstition is completely unfounded. Sentence-initial conjunctions are not less formal, less educated, or less proper or appropriate in any imaginable context or register. Some people just need to get that through their heads and un-learn the misinformation they were inculcated with as youngsters.

In the meantime, until the tide of superstition turns away from this love of sentence-initial However and intolerance of sentence-initial conjunctions, we will continue to see however creep into the proper territory of but in the middle of sentences as well.

I think it’s ironic that this widespread mis-use of however has been caused by the formalism pedants themselves. They hate the mis-use of punctuation around mid-sentence however (so do I), and they hate the appropriation of new meanings or functions by existing words (I do sometimes as well). But their zealotry against sentence-initial conjunctions has had such an effect on self-conscious, unconfident, under-educated English speakers that millions of them now use however as a coordinating conjunction in direct replacement of but, presumably because they want to sound more smart, formal, or fancy. But they don’t. They sound less educated and less competent. It makes it clear that they don’t know the difference between different types of conjunctions (even at a subconscious level), don’t understand the difference between the adverb however and the subordinating conjunction however, don’t know how to use commas and semicolons correctly, and need to rely on turgid formalism instead of the content of their message to have the desired impact on their audience.

## Summer miscellany

Typical Redditor: Reads seven Harry Potter books that are about love, friendship, family, innocence, loyalty, cooperation, the triumph of good over evil, the corrupting influence of power, and the good that will come to good-hearted people, and all he can focus on is the inconsistencies in magical spells, magical items, and magical abilities.

Today I learned: The garbanzo bean and the chickpea are the same thing!

It’s a shame we can’t leave Christmas lights up all year. They’re so pretty and fun and festive. I guess your neighbors would really get sick of them, and I personally wouldn’t want to leave them up all year because that would decrease the specialness of Christmas lights at Christmas time. But I wish that wouldn’t happen. I wish our homes and cities could look like that all the time and remain special.

Ira and Asa sound like women’s names. Every time I hear the name Ira Gershwin, I think of a female blues or jazz singer, and every time I hear the name Asa, such as Asa Phelps in an awesome episode of The Simpsons, it makes me think of a woman’s name. How many other men’s names end in A? It’s just confusing.

When I was a young child, the first car I remember my parents owning was a 1987 or 1988 Ford Taurus. One of the main things I remember about it was the digital speedometer display. I think I’ve only seen a digital speedometer in one other car since our Taurus. I remember every time the car started up, all of the pixels or bars of the digital display would temporarily light up, so that the speed said 88 for a second, and every time I saw that, I thought of the Delorean in Back to the Future going 88 mph. I’d say to my mom, “Oh, no, Mom, we’re going to go back in time!”

Are there even any toilet paper rolls that aren’t “double” rolls anymore? At what point does it become pointless to continue referring to a toilet paper roll that is now standard-size as a “double roll”? The same can be asked of laundry detergent: Almost all of them are now 2x- or 3x-concentrated detergents now, so is any company ever going to drop the “2x” or “3x” label? They’re probably hesitant to because then it would seem like theirs is less concentrated than other brands and that you’d get fewer washes out of the same-size bottle, even though the number of loads is clearly indicated on every bottle. We could be stuck with meaningless “double” and “2x” and “3x” on these products forever, or at least as long as they are made.

I’m making Kathy watch Star Trek: The Next Generation with me on Netflix, and we’re already on the sixth season. I remember wishing, when I watched TNG as a child and then a college student, that Geordi would say the line, “But you don’t have to take my word for it,” or at least, “You don’t have to take my word for it,” as the actor LeVar Burton did on Reading Rainbow. I guess serious dramas can’t cheapen themselves with allusionary humor like that, but I think it would have been worth it. Castle has made all kinds of Firefly references, and it’s no worse for it.

If there were a hell and each person’s hell were individualized to their darkest fear or worst way to spend eternity, my personal hell would be forever being on the verge of a sneeze but never being able to sneeze.

Posted in Books, Entertainment, Food, Life, TV | 2 Comments

## 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!

## Farkers are antisocial, maladjusted creeps

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

Posted in Books, Writing | 2 Comments

## 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.

Not as bad but far more annoying was the Twitter account of Ben Zimmer, the American linguist best known as the director of the Visual Thesaurus and occasional contributor to Language Log. Maybe my problem was that I started following him at the wrong time of year, but if that’s the case, then the wrong time of year is a quarter of the damn year. It seemed like he tweeted or re-tweeted a dozen posts a day for weeks about the goddamn word of the year. (There are, like, eight words of the year, published by different dictionaries or societies. I don’t know and definitely don’t care which one he is associated with.) I never dreamed any person or group of people could care that much about a stupid word of the year choice. It was so incredibly boring and frustrating because he seemed to re-tweet every single tweet about a word of the year or about his amazing, life-changing, Earth-shattering, society-defining, internet-captivating discovery that the term “Black Friday” was first used by Philadelphia police officers to describe the traffic conditions the day after Thanksgiving, not by stores or advertisers. That’s an interesting finding and an article worth reading, but not tweeting and re-tweeting and re-re-tweeting a dozen times in one fucking weekend. But seriously, that was nothing compared to the multitude of tweets and re-tweets that came from him about the fucking word of the year. I could not imagine caring less about an English language topic than that. So I finally realized he was never going to tweet anything interesting, so I unfollowed and never looked back.

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.