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.

Truism

When there is a move to ban, or restrict, or simply to regulate some product or some activity—regardless of what it is, or how trivial or how wide-ranging its effects—the people who use that product, or engage in that activity, will object vigorously.

Full stop.

National Holiday

Could everyone please stop saying that making Election Day a national holiday would solve all our problems?

First issue: The United States does not have national holidays. There are Federal holidays, and there are State holidays. Each individual workplace chooses which ones to observe.

Second and far more serious issue: Except for government offices and higher-tier white-collar jobs, businesses rarely close on holidays. This applies especially to the ones whose employees most need the time off: fast food, retail, gas stations, convenience stores, you name it. The only ones who benefit from an added Federal holiday are the people who are least likely to need it.

The Bed hadn’t been Slept In

Show me a modern-day detective novel containing this phrase, and I’ll show you a writer who doesn’t know what the words mean. Does nobody in murder-mystery-land make their bed?

As a matter of fact, they don’t. In the world of the Detective Novel of Manners, the maid makes your bed in the morning while you are at breakfast, and turns it down in the evening while you are at dinner. (Midday airing is optional.) “The bed had not been slept in” means that the bed is still in the turned-down condition that the maid left it in last night.

Not many characters in modern fiction have a full-time housemaid.

“America” fails the Bechdel test

Once upon a time on Broadway, Rosalia sang:

Puerto Rico! you lovely island

Island of tropical breezes

Always the pineapple growing

Always the coffee blossoms blowing

to which Anita retorted:

Puerto Rico! you ugly island

Island of tropic diseases

Always the hurricanes blowing

Always the population growing

and so on, winding up with

Ros. When I will go back to San Juan?

An.  When you will shut up and get gone!

Ros. Everyone there will give big cheer!

An.  Everyone there will have moved here.

In other words:

But that would never do for Hollywood, whether in 1961 or in 2021. Out goes Rosalia, rebutted again and again by Anita; in comes Anita, rebutted again and again by . . . Bernardo.

Sigh. Another day we’ll talk about the Unfortunate Implications of And suddenly that name will never be the same to me.

Name That Tune

Question: Which of these melodies do you know? In chronological order:

Answer: All of them. In alphabetical order:

Another One Bites the Dust

Over the span of ten years or so, Clients from Hell built up a small but close-knit following. They ranged from people whose comments you avidly awaited, to profes­sionals with insight, to a handful that made me glad there was an Ignore option. The site even had its own particular style of spam, from an ever-changing array of made-up names.

the apocryphal price list

Near the end of September 2021 came the first cross-post from CFH to Not Always Right. Not long afterward, it was revealed that the site had the same owners—and, conveniently, used the same discussion host. The writing on the wall soon became clear; early in December they pulled the plug. And there was much weeping and lamentation.

But that’s only the most recent loss. Over the years I’ve said farewell to:

To say nothing of the forums at Rat and Mouse Club of America, which died a quiet death as people relocated to social media.

Critical Research Failure

On a lighter note . . .

There is a scene in a contemporary novel—no need to name it—where the heroine is listening to, or at least eavesdropping on, a barbershop quartet rehearsing. As she listens, she identifies the best voice as the baritone.

(Pause here for everyone to recover from rolling on the floor laughing uncon­trollably.)

Uh, no. Sorry, author. The baritone is a vocal quartet’s viola, the essential core of the harmony. But if his* voice stands out, he’s in the wrong part. Compare Beau Brummell’s dictum that a man whose clothes attract attention is not a well-dressed man.

* Or her voice, in a female quartet. By convention, they go by male names. The “baritone” is typically a mezzo, the “bass” an alto.

The Longest War

If I hear one more commentator calling Afghanistan “the longest war”, I am going to go stark staring mad.

The longest foreign war? Sure, for a given definition of “foreign”. The longest named war? Already it gets iffy. What’s certain is that the war of—well, let’s call it the War of Continental Conquest—went on for several centuries. (Spoiler: The United States won.)

The longest war? Not by a long shot.

Mask Mandate

When you really need to communicate, you have to talk to people in their own language. That being the case, I am disappointed that I don’t see more signs like this:

PRIVATE PROPERTY

. . . and then the specific rules as needed.

It Could Never Happen Here

Q: Why couldn’t what happened in “Minimar” happen here?

A: Because from day one, our wannabe dictator went out of his way to antagonize the military. Them’s the breaks.

At Long Last

United States: Hurrah! We have a female Vice President!

India, Israel, United Kingdom, Pakistan, Iceland, Philippines, Germany [redacted for space]: And your point is . . . ?

Doctor, Doctor

What the Wall Street Journal should have said, omitting the only-in-America drivel about “unless you’ve delivered a baby”:

An academic doctorate is not used socially. If you are teaching class, participating in a scholarly conference, or giving expert testimony in court, you are Dr. Lastname. Anywhere else—for example, when you are appearing in the capacity of First Spouse—you are simply Mr., Mrs. or Ms. Lastname.

Now, if the WSJ had truly wanted to be nasty, instead of just irritatingly patronizing and condescending, they might have observed that the Ed.D. is the lowest of all doctorates. It’s analogous to the difference between a degree in Elementary Education and a degree in any legitimate academic subject. Back when UMI published dissertation abstracts in physical, dead-tree books, there were two volumes each year: one for Ph.D.s of all kinds, and another—almost as big—for Ed.D. alone.

Like I said: If they had truly wanted to be nasty.

Oh yes and . . . under no circumstances does one address an adult stranger as “kiddo”.

Privilege

When my cat Greebo was young, he spent a full calendar month trapped inside a vacant house. (Vacant, not empty. Thankfully, the plumbing was not in tip-top condition, and the kitchen was full of dry staples: cornmeal, cereal and so on. There were also probably fewer mice in the house by the end of the month.)

Finally he was spotted by a neighbor, who helped me climb in a window and retrieve him. This was on a side street in a small town, but it did cross my mind that it was a good thing we were a couple of middle-aged white women.

And that’s where it gets meta. Because we were middle-aged white women, I was able to think this purely as a joke.

Whither the Onion?

How do satire sites stay in business? Consider the real-life headlines they’re faced with:

Faced with that kind of competition, you have to ask yourself: What’s the point?

Current Events

As far as I can make out, the operative fantasy works like this:

In early March 2020, all the world’s countries got together and decided to invent a mythical “pandemic” whose sole purpose was to cause inconvenience to the United States.

I’m kidding, of course. In reality there are no “other countries”. Those varicolored blobs on the map are simply NPCs, with no existence except as they affect the US. They’re not inhabited by actual humans.

Other People’s Children

There is a popular notion—it seems to be especially widespread in the US—that having children is a personal indulgence, no different from keeping a pet.

You might think it would be transparently obvious to a person of average intelligence that all the goods you consume, all the services you use, are supplied by other people’s children. And, therefore, that it is to your own advantage to make sure all of those children grow up healthy and well-educated.

Guess not.

How the Other Half Lives

A defendant on Judge Joe Brown mentioned, as part of her narrative, that she had borrowed a friend’s car to go buy baby formula.

This was not presented as a dire emergency, as the first step in a ghastly concatenation of circum­stances leading with tragic inevita­bility to the accident that prompted the litigation. It was simply backstory.

Now, there are things that a sentient adult never runs out of. For example, I have never had an entire household come down with food poisoning all at once, and have therefore never run out of toilet paper. Surely baby formula would be at the very top of that list—and all the more so if you do not have independent transportation to run out and buy the essential item when disaster strikes.

Read It and Weep

I found this bumper sticker at the checkout counter of the dollar store, and laughed so hard I had to buy it. The photograph includes the original packaging—and a bit of my kitchen wall—just so you know I’m not making it up.

bumper sticker in Papyrus

Word Censors

I was once a moderator on an animal-oriented forum. Well, technically I still am, but the forum is no longer active. Inevitably there were issues involving word censors.

Issue #1: One Forums member—an administrator, no less—kept accidentally mistyping the name of a beloved pet so it came out as a vile ethnic slur. We dealt with it by setting the slur’s censored form to . . . the name of the pet.

Issue #2: A member posted about her experiences working in a dog-grooming parlor, and told a story about the German Shepherd on her table reacting badly to the @#$%^ on the next table. This puzzled us, since it was an animal-oriented forum and therefore the proper term for female dog was not censored. All became clear when I looked into the body of the post, and found that the author had consistently misspelled Shih-Tzu.

In My House

There are people who let their smartphone do all the work of every object they have ever owned. And then there’s my house. It contains:

. . . oh, and a smartphone, two tablets, a desktop computer and a laptop. So shoot me.

On the other hand, I did not replace my clock radio when it died. The older of the two tablets is allowed to do that job.

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.

Postscript: Decades after arriving at the above recipe, I was intrigued to learn that this is also how the Prince of Wales makes a martini. Funny, I’d have put him as more as a dry-sherry kind of guy.

“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.

Deregulation

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 resulted in the following sequence of events:

1. Call PSA, give them $48 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 outbound leg in advance, and decide the return trip later. Typically you’ve got a year.)

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. 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 home 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 subjunctive 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 every season during the show’s 14-year run, at least one (of eight) competitors was from Alberta. Many seasons had two or even three. I realize that Alberta’s popula­tion is 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.

What we have here is the most common of logical fallacies—so common that you may not even realize it’s got a name, Affirming the Consequent.

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.

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 pretty exactly one-seventh Canada’s population,* manages the occasional original program to counter­balance the Swedish overdubs.

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

Passive-Aggressive

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