or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, June 24, 2012


I don't know about you, but when I see a logo of some sort, my brain immediately and without being asked begins to unpick it for meanings.

Not everybody's brain works the same way. Jim's doesn't. He's a very visual person and an artist, but he doesn't analyze graphical images for subtextual meanings. As an example of what I mean, this is the outside of the Halifax Metro Centre:

I don't even know how it came up in conversation, but I mentioned the fact that the logo, which consists of two stacked squares, two right triangles, and a circle, was obviously meant to represent the letters H M and possibly C (I could argue it either way). I mean, it was obvious to me: Jim, who had been living in Halifax for years before we met, had seen the sign hundreds of times and had never even considered that the logo might be anything other than an abstract design.

When I saw the following ad on Pharyngula, I thought, "Oh, you have got to be kidding me."

It reads "Ascent of Atheism": it's for an upcoming conference in mountainous Denver, Colorado, and so the large 'A's are shaped like mountains. Very clever!

And also unfortunately a very bad idea, because if you treat the 'A's as literal mountains, as graphical objects, then the logo reads "Scent of Theism". Did it not occur to anybody involved in the design of this thing that when you chop off the first letter of the two main words in the logo — a thing which in fact the design invites you to do by making those letters perform double duty — then the logo would take on a drastically different meaning? Because it's the FIRST THING I THOUGHT OF.

This is really just a variant on proofreading: you have to let any kind of visual information, whether text or graphics, pass under at least two different, and I mean very different, pairs of eyes before you unleash it on the public, because if there's a critical mistake or an unintended meaning, you have to give as many people as possible the chance to catch it.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Spaced Out

This is just me whining. You really don't have to read it. I do, however, have to get it out of my system.

The other day on Slate — of course it was Slate; it's always Slate — there was an article about eating in outer space which contained this sentence:

Unlike robots, which don’t need to eat, drink, or even necessarily return to Earth, humans require fuel.

If you hack out that subordinate clause in the middle you get the following assertion: "Unlike robots, humans require fuel."

Robots require fuel. Duh. They don't eat, obviously, not in the way that people eat, so they don't have to eliminate — they don't create unpleasant waste products that need to be disposed of (except for heat, which is easily dealt with) — but they still require fuel.

How did this thing make it out of the writer's brain and into his word processor? And how did it get past the eye of an editor? Oh, right: there doesn't seem to be one.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Hell's Belles

The other night I was Netflixing and I ended up watching St. Trinian's, an approximate remake of the 1954 film The Belles of St. Trinian's, and don't judge: it may not be a good movie in any of the usual senses of the word, but it is ridiculous, mindless fun, and sometimes that's just what you need after a long day's work.

What you see up there is a screen shot taken a few minutes in, and you will need to click on it to make it readable and see why it caught my eye. It flashed by on the screen, and of course my proofreader's brain caught the typo "attemps", and I thought, "Obviously the producers wouldn't make a mistake like that, and so it must be deliberate." And naturally enough it was. There are two other errors in the part of the letter that we can see, an unnecessary comma after the first word and "you're" substituting for "your", and therefore the filmmakers are indicating to those of us who pay attention that however bad the education may be at St. Trinian's, whatever banker wrote that letter has clearly had an even worse one, and therefore is no match for the headmistress and her students, which of course turns out to be true, or else we wouldn't have a film.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Amateur Hour

Here on Towleroad is a very nice video from the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention: it's probably safe for work, although it contains shots of men implicitly getting it on, but it's nothing you couldn't show on television. Cable television, anyway.

And then of course a concern troll had to make his voice heard in the comments section:

How about a campaign promoting gay monogamy?

whereupon someone else chimed in:

I would oppose a campaign to promote "monogamy" (in quotes because, etymologically, it means "one wife" which, to me, doesn't seem appropriate for a pair of men).


Etymology is not for amateurs. There's really no excuse for this sort of thing any more: if you're using the Internet to comment on something, you can use it to look up the facts of the matter, too.

I suppose "-gamy" and "-gyny" seem kind of similar, but they're not the same thing. "Gyne" is indeed the Greek for "woman" or "wife, but "monogamy" is from the Greek "monos", "single", and "gamos", "marriage": "gamos" is also the source of "gamete", a sex cell, either a sperm or an egg, given their name by Gregor Mendel, presumably after the fact that the two cells have to fuse together ("marry") and not the fact that people have to be married for this to occur.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Much of a Muchness

The other day I was having a conversation with a friend, and part of it ran more or less like this (dialogue not guaranteed accurate):

HER: You stopped writing your blog!
ME: Yeah, well, it was mostly fuelled by rage, and I just don't really feel it any more. Although I am increasingly pissed off by "of a", as in "It's not that big of a deal."
HER: I've...never heard that in my life.
ME: You should Google it! "Much of a..." is standard, but "not that big of a deal", "too long of a book to read", and the like are everywhere, and they're wrong.

And they are. And I do feel as if that structure is becoming more and more prevalent. Language Log has a piece about it dating from 2004 (the link to the Columbia Guide to Standard American English is lamentably dead), and the numbers are small: "big of a" got only 161,000 hits. Just this second? FIFTY-FOUR MILLION.

The argument against the "of a" structure is pretty basic: you say "a big deal", so you would reorder it to say "not that big a deal", which is to say "a deal [which is] not that big". The word "of" never even comes into play. But the influence of "much of a" is so strong that it has contaminated everything around it, and so we get things like this comment in the A.V. Club article Are Trailers Spoilers?: If someone says the spoiler will "ruin" something, maybe they've chosen too strong of a word. And from an actual A.V. Club article, People in Horror Movies are Stupid: Tasha can't get over the characters' stupid behavior, but Genevieve doesn't think it's that big of a deal.

It's spreading. It's going to take over. We are watching the evolution of the language, and I can't say I like it — in fact, I loathe it and it makes me grit my teeth every time I read or hear it — but languages change over time and it's probably just as well that there's nothing we can do about it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


We saw "Prometheus" this weekend, and while it has some gorgeous cinematography (this would be a good movie to see in the IMAX format) and some nail-biting sequences (including a gut-wrenching caesarean section), it's not really very good: the only sense I can make of it is that it must have originally been at least three hours long, but the studio demanded it be cut down to two, and as a consequence there are obvious gaps in the narrative, the characters behave in ways that seemingly make no sense, and the film is a collection of bits rather than a coherent story.

The problem, though, starts at the very beginning. (Spoiler alerts.) After a series of sweeping vistas of a lush Earth with no evidence of animal life, presumably billions of years ago, we see a pale, muscled humanoid (entirely human, actually, except for a slightly odd but not completely freakish upper face) standing on a rocky outcropping by a massive waterfall.

Above him is a spaceship which departs, leaving him with a small cup of liquid — scary, black, and moving of its own accord — which he drinks, after which his body rapidly breaks down: he tumbles down the cataract and into the waterfall below, whereupon his body dismantles itself into component DNA. His species, then, has either created animal life on Earth or has changed the course of its development by replacing existing DNA with its own. Fast forward to the near future: human beings think they have discovered an invitation to a planet which will answer their questions about their origins, which will lead them to the descendants of that fellow above, dubbed the Engineers.

We are expected to believe, then, that evolution after many millions of, or even a couple of billion, years produces creatures which look more or less exactly like the originating species, and that when we discover the Engineers, they haven't changed at all, which is to say they have stopped or sidestepped evolution entirely, and all I can say about that is

Evolution doesn't have a goal, doesn't have an endpoint: human beings aren't some apotheosis of life on Earth, but just another interesting solution to the problem of existence. Evolution doesn't produce creatures who are fitted to some ideal template. It's dependent on environment and random mutations, and as the environment changes, living things change in response. And they keep changing, too. The Engineers couldn't have distributed their DNA on Earth and assumed that human beings would be the result: there are too many variables for them to control. And even if humans had evolved from Engineer DNA, by the time we discovered them, the Engineers wouldn't look much if anything as they had when they seeded the planet: we would have diverged in the intervening millennia. (If you can find a copy of Man After Man by Dougal Dixon, possibly at your library because it's out of print, you'll find it a fascinating look at the evolutionary history that led to humans and one of the infinite directions it could potentially go in the future.) (Also, read this. Hilarious!)

ANYway. The name "Prometheus" is Greek: he was a Titan, one of arace of gods, who bestowed the gift of fire on the human race and was punished for his theft by being chained to a rock and having his liver torn out by a giant eagle: since he was immortal, his liver would regenerate every night, only to be devoured again the next day. (Eventually he was liberated by Hercules.) His name, depending on whom you ask, is derived either from the Greek for "forward-thinking" ("pro-" plus "-methos", related to "mind" and "mental") or from Sanskrit "pramathyus", "thief", since he stole fire from the gods to give to humans.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

You're Soaking In It

The advent of Windows 8 will have little effect in this household: I'm a Mac man, Jim uses Linux, and though we both use Windows at work, they're both older (aka legacy, aka primitive) versions.

Slate's Farhad Manjoo doesn't much care for it — the piece is titled "You'll Hate Windows 8" — and this guy, Michael Mace, likes it even less. Here's his screen grab of the Start screen:

He actually likes that part, called Metro, based on international signage. I think it looks kind of cheap and flat: kindergarteny.

Here's what he has to say about it:

Instead of application icons, Metro features large rectangles (or tiles) in primary colors which are clicked to launch apps, and which can also display live content (like the time or a message).

Do most people think "primary" means "bright"? Because I see that mistake a lot. Back when the movie "Dick Tracy" came out, reviewers kept talking about the movie's "primary colour palette", when it was nothing of the sort: according to Wikipedia, "Early in the development of Dick Tracy, Warren Beatty decided to make the film using a palette limited to just seven colors, primarily red, green, blue and yellow—to evoke the film's comic strip origins...."

Red, yellow, and blue (in pigments — light uses a different set of rules) are the primary colours, which we can mix to make the secondary colours: orange, green, and violet. In turn we can mix a primary and one of the two secondaries which contain that primary to make the six tertiary colours. The colours in that screen grab above are actually mostly secondary: lots of violet, orange, and green, with a few shots of blue and red and a bit of (tertiary) teal.

I think when people use "primary" in this context, they actually mean "saturated". A colour's saturation is a reflection of how far it is from a grey of the same value (brightness or darkness). You can't have a primary yellow-green, but you certainly can have an extremely saturated yellow-green

or a modestly desaturated one like this

or a heavily desaturated one like this.

Those are all the same colour, just brought increasingly closer to grey.