MiSTings and More

The Blog

Well, not really. In the same way that the /fun/ directory is a dumping ground for all the random pages that wouldn’t fit anywhere else, this page is a dumping ground for all the bits and pieces that don’t merit pages of their own.

How to Make a Dry Martini

It’s been a good many years since I was able to drink gin, but I haven’t forgotten how to mix a martini.

1. Get a glass and slosh in some vermouth. No need to measure. Swirl it around so it coats the inside surface of the glass, and pour off the rest.

2. Fill the glass with gin taken directly from the freezer.

3. Drink.

If you can taste the vermouth, there was too much. Olives? Can’t stand them. Ice? You’re just diluting the liquor.

“I’m not an X, but . . .”

The current form is most often “I’m not a racist, but . . .” followed by some blatantly racist utterance. But wait! When I was young, I used to hear “I’m not a feminist, but . . .” again followed by some expression of the belief that women are human beings.

It isn’t about denial of bad traits. It’s a disconnect between label and reality: {thing} is neutral; {name of thing} is bad. It’s the same phenomenon that allows mainstream authors to write science fiction books—The Handmaid’s Tale, Never Let Me Go—while critics happily continue treating them as “real” writers. Speculative fiction is value-neutral; it’s the SF label that makes it bad.


In the bad old days before airlines were deregulated in order to provide better service to their customers, I once had occasion to travel to southern California from another part of the state. This required the following sequence of events:

1. Call PSA, give them $48 (or was it $24?) on your credit card, and book an open-return ticket to LAX. (If you are too young to remember: “open return” means you schedule the first leg in advance, and decide the return trip later.)

2. Call friend in LA, to be greeted with a yelp of alarm at words “LAX”.

3. Call PSA back and change flight—at no extra charge—to Burbank.

4. Visit friend in LA.

5. When it’s time to go home, call PSA and—again, at no additional charge—pick a time for the return flight.

Total cost, $48. Or was it $24? Oh, what terrible days those were!

Retroactive Osmosis

Pay close attention, because this gets tricky.

Rule, based on careful study of pronouncements from various quarters: Every time there is a linguistic change—be it spelling, pronunciation, grammar, usage or even punctu­ation—in England—not the United Kingdom, not Great Britain, but speci­fically and narrowly the midland counties of England—a kind of retroactive osmosis takes effect. The new form becomes correct for all English speakers all over the planet; the older form never existed, even if you heard it every day from your grandparents.

Remember this rule the next time you encounter someone using “sat” or “stood” as participles, or refusing to use the subjective when it is clearly warranted. They are by definition right, and you are by definition wrong.

Possibly the Dutch had the right idea. By giving their colonial dialect a name all its own, Afrikaans, the respective variants can wash their hands of each other and accept no respon­sibility for what happens on the other side of the equator.

Canada’s Worst Mapmaker

Andrew Younghusband with map of Canada

Yes, folks, that’s an actual screenshot. Nominations are now open; casting begins next week.

Why does Andrew Younghusband look so puzzled? He may be trying to explicate an ongoing mystery raised by sister series Canada’s Worst Driver: Why does Alberta produce so many bad drivers? In each season to date, at least one (of eight) competitors has been from Alberta. Many seasons have had two or even three. I realize that Alberta’s popula­tion has been booming—but it has not yet reached one-eighth, let alone three-eighths, of the entire country.

Affirming the Consequent

Every time I decide there is nothing in the world sillier than an Extreme Prescriptivist, holding the unshakable belief that the linguistic rules you learned in primary school are the only rules that have ever existed or will ever exist . . . I come face to face with an Extreme Descriptivist, holding the equally unshakable belief that native speakers can, by definition, not make mistakes.

The underlying premise is that all linguistic change began as a mistake of some kind. This is about as close to tautology as you can get. If you are an Extreme Descriptivist, the conclusion is that all apparent errors committed by native speakers are the harbingers of a change in the language, and there isn’t a thing you can do about it.

This may be the most common of logical fallacies—so common that you may not even realize it’s got a name, Affirming the Consequent.

Premise: All A is B. Observation: B. Conclusion: A.

Some mistakes lasted a surprisingly long time. If you have ever heard someone say “feel badly”, you’ve witnessed the legacy of a period when anything coming after a verb had to be treated as an adverb. And then there was the period of several centuries when English insisted on treating the elements “step” and “in-law” as interchangeable, so your stepmother might be either your father’s wife or your spouse’s mother.

Moral: Don’t despair. Some day, native speakers may remember what made the word “factoid” so useful.

“Original Programming”

A while back I binge-watched several seasons of never mind which long-running Canadian series. The most depressing aspect of the exercise—aside from the knowledge that I now have over a hundred episodes of this tripe sloshing around in my brain—was the screen that displays before the beginning of each episode: CTV Original Programming.

* Human, that is. At the moment I can’t lay my hands on the respective countries’ census figures for moose, elk and Rangifer tarandus.

Hello? Excuse me? “Original programming” is what you brag about when you’re a small-town community-access cable outlet filling that dreary 7 pm time slot. When your audience is an entire country, you’re expected to come up with something of your own. Even Norway, which has roughly one-tenth Canada’s population,* manages the occasional original program to counter­balance the Swedish overdubs.


How happy I will be when the term “passive-aggressive” falls out of popular usage, as words like “complex” or “repression” had their day.

For the first five minutes of its existence, “passive-aggressive” was a psychological descriptor with a clear-cut meaning. In everyday use it has come to mean “any and all behaviors that do not fit the two permitted extremes of outright hostility or groveling subservience”. Do you respond politely in an unpleasant situation? You’re being passive-aggressive. Do you indulge in some fully warranted snarkery? You’re still being passive-aggressive.

Measure for Measure

I come from a long line of people who swam against the tide. I cannot positively assert that I am descended from the folktale character who was so contrary that when her husband threw her in the river, she floated upstream.

* Short version: “riksmål” is its adherents’ name for the North Danish dialect known every­where west of Oslo as “bokmål”.

I guess you had to be there.

What I can say that my great-grandfather was a clergyman in western Norway best known for his 1934 book, Hvorfor jeg blev riksmåls­mann.* Hvorfor jeg blir det. This cannot have made him popular with the neighbors.

Let’s start with a basic fact: Measurements do not exist in a vacuum. You don’t simply dash in like Figaro, measure your bedroom, and then fold up the tape measure and walk away. Those measurements will be used. Added and subtracted to other figures, multiplied by two or four or twenty, divided into halves or quarters or sixths.

This much is obvious to you and me. It was not obvious to the upper-middle-class Frenchmen who invented the metric system, because they had never measured anything in their lives. Measuring was for women and farmers and artisans; it was something that happened in kitchens and fields and work­shops, not in parlors—or legislative halls. When you use measurements in your everyday life, you need them to be flexible. And if there’s one thing a base ten system is not, it’s flexible. If Homo sapiens had not happened to have evolved with ten fingers, it’s doubtful any civilization in the world would have counted by tens. When did you last need to divide a recipe by five?

Computers count by twos. To deal with larger quantities, you can go octal, hexadecimal, base 64 and beyond. But in the end there’s only one divisor.

In real life, threes crop up pretty often. That’s why so many things come in twelves: eggs in a dozen, inches in a foot, pennies to a shilling. It’s the ideal hybrid: 2×2×3. Lots of twos, the occasional three. The extra two lets you step up to fours and sixes.

Did I say that those longago Frenchmen never measured anything? There’s one obvious exception. They all had watches, using increments of twelve and five, 24 and 60.

* I’m not talking about the “metric” clock. Trick termi­nology, there. I said decimal and I meant decimal.

You’ll notice that no place in the world—not even France—has gone over to a truly decimal* timekeeping system, dividing the day into 10 or 20 hours of 100 minutes each, further broken into 100 seconds. They tried, briefly, but it didn’t stick.

The twelve-part division of the day meant, in turn, that longitude couldn’t change either. The two go together. A circle does not absolutely have to have 360 degrees, but the total number has to be divisible by the number of hours in a day. That’s 2×2×2×3, or wo twelves.

Does all this mean that I think it was wrong of the UK to decimalize its currency? Well, yes, as a matter of fact, it does. A country that cannot trust its residents to divide by twelve is in serious trouble. And, for that matter, what on earth was wrong with four paise to the anna, sixteen annas to the rupee?

* England, not UK. The guinea predated Union by a few years.

You can dispense with guineas, though, because let’s be reasonable. As far as I know, England* is the only country on earth that ever maintained a separate currency for use only by the upper classes. Tradesmen charged in pounds; profes­sional men charged in guineas. We’ll let that one go. Besides, nothing else divides by seven. It’s an even more useless number than five, adding to confusion rather than reducing it. Even the Early English Text Society—which cannot have had many working-class members—hedged its bets by listing the membership fee as . . . one pound, one shilling.

If those Frenchmen had really wanted to be useful, they’d have codified a series of infinitely regressing dozens and grosses. Today we’d be rattling off powers of 12 as readily as your average computer geek spits out powers of 2. As it is, I have to do a moment’s figuring even to arrive at 1728.