The abuses of etymology

Originally published April 7, 2o14

Mark Liberman at Language Log has an excellent critique of the statement, tweeted by the BBC World Service, that “The Inuit language doesn’t have a word for freedom, the closest is ‘annakpok’ which means ‘not caught’.”

Applying the same literal interpretation to the English word “free,” we find this:

If phrases like “not caught” seem inadequately abstract or general, it’s worth remembering the etymological history of our own word free — according to the OED the development is from “around” to “one’s own” to “(members of the household who are) one’s own blood (as opposed to slaves)”…

So, if we wanted to pursue the etymological fallacy to its logical conclusion in this case, we’d have to admit that the English concept of freedom is inextricably xenophobic, meaning something like “the state of being a privileged insider”.

In contrast, the Romance forms derived from Latin libertas “liberty” and liber “free” derive from an Indo-European root *lewdʰ-o- that apparently also gave us Latin libido “pleasure, unlawful or inordinate desire, passion, caprice, wilfulness, wantonness”, Greek λιφ- “to desire”, English libertine, etc. So we can add (misleadingly but not without philological justification) that liberty is etymologically the pursuit of selfish pleasure. (Alas, lewd is not from the same source…)

In comparison, “not caught” seems pretty reasonable, as does the Chinese 自由 (zì yóu), which in Literary Sinitic was originally “self + follow/from/due to”, i.e., “deriving from self”, implying “to make decisions for oneself”, “to be one’s own master”, “to take one’s own initiative”, “not to be constrained and restricted”.

So, what are we to make of all this? Well, any number of things. But first and foremost, to me, is the danger of casual study; facts without wisdom. Casual study emphasizes differences: differences between modernity and the past; differences between Anglo-American culture and the cultures of Native Americans, Asians, Africans, etc.

Another example: I heard a story, about a tribe, native to Africa. Instead of using directions North, South, East, West, like us God-fearing white folks do, they navigated in relation to a local lake, and this was supposed to show their backwards, limited viewpoint, I guess.

Except, it’s not the natives whose viewpoint is limited; it’s people who think they can judge somebody they never met based on that anecdote. As a resident of West Michigan, I may use words like “east” and west”, but I am thinking “away from the lake” and “towards the lake,” just like that supposed tribe.

At one point, I may have been able to convince myself that I held in my head the true cardinal directions. Then I moved to Michigan City, where the lake was north, and all bets were off.

The real world doesn’t have a compass rose and north at the top. It has landmarks, and we use them. It has words, that evolve from one meaning to another, and we use them, too; often without any understanding of their “deeper meaning” that some foreign reporter is just dying to tell her audience.

Bunslinger and the Altered Time Rat

Originally posted March 21, 2014


An epic thread on the GURPS forums: change a letter, change the advantage. Some choice examples:

Wombat Reflexes When threatened, you can move at high speed for 90 seconds. And then stop. And move very slowly.

Trained by a Masher Nobody makes better potatoes. Nobody.

High Paint Threshold You can work around paint for days on end and not be overcome by fumes.

Inane Attack You make your enemies laugh every time you get violent… seriously they are mocking your attack.

Combat Refluxes  You vomit out your giblets when attacked, like a sea cucumber

Vampiric Kite  This is an alternative to Signature Gear. You possess a magical kite that can drain life out of other kites, rendering them useless and incapable of flying, whereas your kite becomes more adept at it.

Doesn’t Steep Your internal temperature is unaffected by being submerged in hot water.

Bunslinger Deadly accuracy with baked goods

Unbillable Utility companies, physicians, attorneys, and the like may not collect payments from you for services rendered.

Enhanced Mime Sense Foes will find it impossible to trap you in a box.

Divine Flavor You taste delicious. Predators and cannibals (or herbivores if you are a plant) react accordingly.

Honest Lace Nobody will doubt the sincerity of your lace

Park Vision You get +4 to Vision rolls to spot open parking spaces.

Enhanced Tim Sense You have an uncanny ability to detect the presence of anyone named Tim, even if they attempt to lie about their name.

Enhanced Fracking By managing a hydrocarbon extraction mining operation, you can double its extraction speed. This only works if there is anything to extract.

Extra Farms This perk allows you to buy more Wealth than your single farm would reasonably support, because your either own or work at one or more extra farms.

Extra Heath If you already own rural property, you also legally own a small moor or heath nearby as well. It does not give any extra income (unless you buy extra levels of Wealth), but you can tell people to get off your land.

Extra Kegs When throwing low-brow parties, you never run out of beer – it just takes a few minutes for someone to roll your extra kegs out of the back room. Inebriated people may have to make DX rolls to move the kegs.

Cod of Honor When holding aloft a cod (or similar fish), onlookers will treat you as perfectly honorable, even if they know your aren’t.

Prefect Balance You can reliably play magistrates and officials off against each other. You can also drive midcentury British automobiles on two wheels and similar feats.

Altered Time Rat You have an ally that is a surgically enhanced rodent from the future.

Intuit Ion: You have an instinctive sense for the electrical charge of atoms.

Grue Faith You just know that if you turn out the lights, a monster is going to get you.

Elves and Toasters

Originally published March 19, 2014

Conversation of the day (yesterday). Mike was describing an argument he was in on  reddit.

Me:I didn’t get into any arguments today.How boring. Mostly because I was looking at GURPS stuff instead of reddit. PDFs are generally not very argumentative


Me: This is GURPS. Elves can crossbreed with toasters if the GM allows it.

Mike: AAAAAAAH! *head explodes*

Me: did your head crossbreed with a grenade?

Cartoons and Fables – How Cosmos Got the Story of Bruno Wrong

Giordano Bruno statueOriginally posted March 17, 2014

Tim O’Neill has one of the most complete and detailed takedowns of the extreme bad history in the Giordano Bruno segment of the recent Cosmos reboot:

Bruno is the poster boy of the Draper-White Thesis – the idea that science and religion have always been at war and an idea beloved by the New Atheist movement despite the fact it was rejected by actual historians of science about a century ago.  Try to engage in an attempt at intelligent discussion of the real and much more complex and nuanced interrelations between religion and what was to emerge as modern science in the medieval and early modern periods and Bruno is usually brandished as “proof” that the Church was the implacable and ignorant foe of early science.  After all, why else did they burn him for daring to say the earth wasn’t the centre of the universe and that the stars were other suns with planets?  For those who prefer simple slogans and caricatures to the hard work of actually analysing and understanding history, Bruno is a simple answer to a intricate question.  Nuance and complexity are the first casualties in a culture war.


Originally published March 12, 2014

Phrenology bust

I bought this phrenology bust, which now sits on a bookshelf in my living room, as a decoration for my wedding. It fit our theme — steampunk — and allowed everyone involved to make endless puns about the “head table.” All in all, not a bad deal.

Now, I can’t speak much to the origins of this particular head. I bought it at an antique shop… well, you could call it an antique shop; maybe more of a junk shop. Like many such heads, it credits L.N. Fowler.

What interests me most in this model is that there are three different spots which all amount to “you like to have sex”: conjugality sits somewhere behind your left ear; love of sex a little bit up and to the right, and below that, towards the curve of your skull, reproductive love.

So if we can get out our calipers and measure your skull to be even a bit larger than normal in one of three areas, and you like sex, clearly we’re getting at something!

Or, you know, you’re one of practically everybody who likes sex and has irregularities in skull shape.


Not to pick on the Victorians exclusively here, I see this all the time. Hey, sometimes I’m tired, irritable, or feel a little off… also, I’ve been known to, on occasion, eat bread! (or soy, milk, salt, MSG, “processed foods”). Not to make light of serious allergies, but the symptoms of serious allergies are not “sometimes I’m irritable.” That’s a symptom of being a person.

And, sure, if it makes you feel good… even placebos can have a positive effect. Reducing stress is a pretty powerful thing. But turning every little thing around us into poison is not reducing anybody’s stress! A forum of normally intelligent moms linked to a scare article about acetaminophen (tylenol), prompting a response from a scared mom saying she wasn’t going to use tylenol for her teething baby any more. Her replacement? Whiskey. “Because it’s natural.”

Sorry, 21st century, you’re not winning awards for logical thinking, either.

Cast Iron Pizza

Originally published March 8, 2014

My cast iron pizza recipe is based primarily on this recipe for pizza dough and this recipe for cast iron pizza with enough variations and comments to warrant their own post.

First, the pizza dough. There are a lot of ways to make pizza dough, but I find one of the easiest ways is to use a bread maker. Bread makers are really helpful gadgets and you can usually find a ton of them at thrift stores, because a gadget that includes “wait four hours” as part of its instructions doesn’t really scream “convenience” to most people. But with just a little bit of forethought, you can totally be eating fresh bread all the time for less than you’d spend on even cheap store-bought stuff.

Anyway, pizza dough in the bread maker.

Dump these ingredients into your breadmaker, in roughly this order:

  • 1 cup flat beer. I used Bud Lite because I was trying to get rid of it. You could use a better beer, but I actually think “light” beers add just about the right flavor for this recipe. If you use a microbrew or something, consider combining it with some water.
  • 2 tablespoons butter.
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour.
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons yeast.
  • Dried herbs, as desired. I use oregano and basil, and I avoid garlic, despite the fact that I love garlic, because my bread maker manual tells me that it is “not a true friend of yeast”. You’ll have another chance to add flavorings when you make your finished pizza, anyway.

Select the “dough” cycle on your breadmaker and let it run. It should take about an hour and a half. After that time, you should see a nice, soft ball of pizza dough. Yay! I think this dough has kind of a sourdough smell to it, thanks to the beer.

Ball of Dough


If you’re making your pizza now, this is a good time to preheat your oven so it has time to get up to temperature — 450 degrees.

Now you want to roll out your pizza dough so that it’s a bit larger than your pan. My pan is a 10.25″ skillet that comes as part of the dutch oven-skillet combo from Lodge. This doesn’t seem like a very big pan, but with this recipe it will easily serve 2-3 people.



The author of the original article said you shouldn’t need any oil if your pan is well-seasoned. I think my pan has a good season, but I still used a bit of canola oil to be sure. Either way works, I’m sure.

Oil or not, put your rolled-out dough in your pan and fold in the edges to make a nice crust. It doesn’t have to be super-neat, just make sure the edges are taller than the center. After that, you can add your sauce, toppings and cheese. Definitely use that order so that your toppings don’t burn — it’s the only way I can actually *enjoy* pepperoni, rather than sigh and scrape of bits of rubbery burnt meat.

OK, this next part is where the macheesmo method is pretty cool. Pizzas need to be cooked hot and fast to maintain a good crunchy exterior, chewy interior texture. But your pan takes a long time to heat up in the oven.

So the first step in your cooking process is to put your pan on the stove for three minutes at high heat. This will heat your pan with minimal effect on your pizza. 

After the pan is heated, transfer it to your preheated oven for 10-15 minutes until the cheese is melted and the crust is a nice golden brown.

Slice of pizza


TL;DR If you’ve read this far, see my cast iron pizza recipe without witty commentary for a good cooking reference.

US History Education: Not Smart Enough to be Biased

Bald Eagle

Photo from US Fish and Wildlife Service, Northeast Region

Originally published March 6, 2014

A poster on reddit wanted to know if schools still taught US History from a nationalistic, great-man view of history. Looking back, I found this difficult to answer, because I can neither say “yes, their teaching had a clear institutional bias” nor “no, they did a great job teaching about the nuance of history”.

My high school history curriculum consisted solely of “what videos can we get from ISD,” so it’s hard to point to a specific bias there, apart from a bias in favor of Ken Burns style documentaries (i.e. really long ones).

To be fair, some of my teachers actually tried to teach, but for all their efforts, their results were not much better. It would be difficult to pinpoint any particular bias, that much is true, but mostly because the overall teachings represented little more than some form of flawed or outdated scholarship filtered through a massive game of telephone.

Typical history lessons from my K-12 educational career include such fine pieces of scholarship as:

  • Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, was an African-American.
  • All conflicts between Christians and Muslims, or Jews and Muslims, are part of one long conflict that started with Isaac and Ishmael (no, this wasn’t a Christian school). The major example of the time was the Balkans conflict.
  • The United States won the Revolutionary War by using guerrilla tactics while the dumb British stood in lines and wore red. Once we became a country, we forgot how to guerrilla, and that’s why the Vietnam War was lost.
  • The Civil War was about taxes. Also something called a cotton gin, which may or may not be a cocktail.

The Moneyball Election — How Statistics are Important (And how they aren’t)

I originally published this on November 9, 2012 at

Much has been made of 2012 as the moneyball election. It has been an election where statistics, data mining and algorithms all take on a new and increased importance—not only for “armchair political scientists” who follow Nate Silver, but also for the candidates themselves, and Obama and his team proved far better at moneyball than Romney and the GOP. Many GOP pundits were impressively, spectacularly wrong this year, as anyone who witnessed Rove’s near-meltdown on Fox News can attest. Now, Karl Rove is a smart guy, and he employed some shrewd strategies back in 2004, but he didn’t seem to see this one coming at all.

Karl Rove and a protestor with handcuffs

I told you, AFTER the broadcast…

I’ve been following “moneyball” and sabermetrics for the past year, not in relation to politics, but in relation to the Chicago Cubs, whose new owners fired general manager Jim Hendry after a trio of disappointing seasons in 2009-2011 (which had followed, in turn, on the heels of 2007 and 2008′s back-to-back division titles). They hired a new general manager, Theo Epstein, who had applied the moneyball strategy originated in Oakland to the larger payroll of the Boston Red Sox and broke an 86-year World Series drought for that franchise.

One of the initial hallmarks of sabermetrics that is emphasized in the book and film Moneyball is the importance of getting on base. While baseball’s marginally autistic fans have always loved to recount any given player’s batting average, sabermetricians emphasize that a walk is as good as a hit in getting men on base. Since the ability to draw walks was undervalued by most teams, Oakland was able to get some good deals on guys who got on base more often than their batting average indicates.

Now, that’s great news for the 2002 A’s. But what a lot of people who watch Moneyball might not realize is that, from where we sit ten years later, everybody and their brother is looking at on-base percentage. In 2012, you can’t just pick up some guys who takes walks, pat yourself on the back and say LOOK MA, I’M DOING SABERMETRICS.

Baseball board game
There are numbers and everything!

OK. Back to Karl Rove a moment. In 2004, Karl Rove was a master of demographics. He focused on exurbs—upper-class, outer-ring suburbs like Rochester, MI or Loudoun County, VA—as the keys to constructing Bush’s 2004 victory.

In 2012, Fox News Channel literally zooms in, again and again, on Loudoun County, VA as a key to that state and the nation.


The ideas aren’t bad—they really did work, in the past. But they fail to account for current conditions.

Cats at a sliding door
One of these times, this door will lead into summer.

It’s not that one side is using statistics and the other isn’t. Sure, Peggy Noonan might not be quoting you the latest poll numbers—because she’s a speechwriter. But everyone has stats guys—including the GOP.

But, look, RBI is a stat. wRAA is a stat. They both measure a player’s offensive output. They’re both imperfect stats. But one of them is better than the other.

In the end, though, moneyball isn’t about any particular stat, or set of stats, or algorithm, or anything you can put your finger on. It’s about staying three steps ahead of the competition, information-wise, and even more importantly about maintaining an organization that can turn on a dime and put that information to use.