Special Pleading in the Time of Cholera


As we move through these strange times, one fallacy to keep a close eye on is a special pleading. The short version is that a special pleading is an argument that a particular case doesn’t follow a generally applicable rule. Arguments about exceptionalism, uniqueness, and justifications for deviations from rules almost always fall into this pattern. 

Sometimes special pleadings are just examples of magical thinking or mindless optimism (i.e., “This terrible thing affecting the whole economy won’t impact me because reasons,”) but they are often more deceptive. They can be used to justify failing to implement unpopular responses recommended by experts or to institute sweeping uses of state authority. More prosaically, they are often used to excuse personal mistakes or lapses in judgment and checking oneself against self-justification is a useful exercise. And as various political actors try to relax pandemic-related restrictions, we are likely to hear more of them. We already hear plenty of examples in healthcare policy, usually as ways to argue why universal healthcare is uniquely impossible in the United States, and it would unsurprising if we didn’t hear more regarding the pandemic. 

But here’s the thing: sometimes a special pleading is justified. There are situations where the general rule might not apply. But you need to interrogate very closely what the reason that justifies it would be. Many of the purported justifications for a break from a rule are really a distinction without a difference. Before you claim that some situation is unique, spend the time to figure out why it unique, and tease out the implications of that uniqueness.


Born to Inveigle


One category of old joke includes law firm names like “Dewey, Cheatem, and Howe.” Most of these jokes are not very good, and I prefer the baseball stathead jokes from Parks & Rec. But once in a while, you come across something perfect. Like the fact that this article (don’t ask why I needed to read it) quotes someone who works at a “a consulting agency for brand designs” who has the actual last name “Shillum.”

Talkin’ Baseball


For the first time in nearly a decade, I’m starting the baseball season with optimism. I’m sure the Mets will find some way to make me regret that, but for now, here’s a distinction most baseball fans ignore:

When a batter hits a ball into fair territory, and the ball leaves the playing area, but does not do so on the fly (and at least 250 feet from home plate), the batter is awarded a double. See MLB Rule 6.09(e)-(h). The typical example of this is a ball bouncing over the outfield fence. Most fans would call this a “ground-rule double.” But it’s not. It’s an “automatic double.” A “ground-rule double” is one that is awarded based on the idiosyncratic rules of particular ballparks. Another summary is here.

Wisdom and Knowledge


An unsourced quote (or at least one I’ve never found a credible attribution for) that I’m fond of:

“Knowledge is knowing that Frankenstein is not the monster. Wisdom is knowing that Frankenstein is the monster.”

But see xkcd.



A “skeuomorph” is a type of vestigial design element, that refers to an older, no longer necessary, feature of an object. Look at your phone, there are probably a few right there. The Apple logo for the phone on an iPhone is one (the headset looks like an old phone), and the notes app resembles a legal pad. This is one of those things, like bad kerning, that you have trouble un-seeing.

Pittsburgh Rare


“Pittsburgh Rare” is a term for a steak cooked so that the outside is seared (black) and the inside stays rare (blue). Alternatively referred to as “black and blue,” “Chicago-style Rare,” I have no idea where this term comes from. Wikipedia has an explanation, but without any citation, and some internet research doesn’t turn anything up.

The Sound and the Fury


The award for silliest sentence I’ve read recently goes to SFist:

“There is significant statistical noise in that chart, since as previously noted not all calls to SFPD are for fires. But the statistical noise would apply equally to all districts, so the overall trends appear valid.”

Are Mission Landlords Really Burning Their Own Buildings?: An Analysis

I don’t even know where to start with this one. So I’ll leave it without comment.

Chickens say “balk” 


This came up at a recent ballgame: does the word “balk” come from baseball?

The answer is “no,” but it’s an interesting no. In baseball, a balk is an illegal motion by the pitcher, and results in all runners advancing one base. It’s a famously hard to understand rule. If it ends the game (i.e., if the home team has a runner on third in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth), it’s a “walk off balk,” or “balk-off.” That is very rare.

But the word does not from baseball. It enters English from the Old Norse “balkr,” (or is at least a cognate of balkr) and originally was a noun meaning an unplowed ridge (like a ridge between two plowed lines, sometimes as a border). It then came to mean a ridge that had been left unplowed by mistake, before evolving meaning a mistake or blunder generally.

But look at the frequency of its use in English.


There is general decline in its usage until around 1880, or around the time that organized baseball really got going. I can’t say if it was a word that bounced back into common usage and got picked up by baseball, or if baseball accounts for its renewed use, but the timing works out. There are some other oddities in the earlier frequency of the word, but I can’t explain those at all.