A “spandrel” is an “evolutionary by-product.” It is an unrelated trait that travels with another trait, sometimes for totally unknown reasons. One possible example of this is the color of cats: certain fur patterns or colors are linked to higher levels of aggressiveness, but it is unclear why that would be true.

The word originally meant the space between two arches. It was adapted to cover the biological phenomenon by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, in a 1979 essay. The essay (which I haven’t had a chance to read) 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.

Vampires of Boston


I recognize that this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but this Launchsquad post is the worst, at least in how it deals with Oxford commas. I like the Oxford comma, but this post is not going to be a defense of it. Instead, let’s look at the stylistic and logical problems with this post.

The second sentence of this article starts with “[w]e believe that proper use of the serial comma will make your story sound clear, smart and professional….” Great. Why do you believe that? Unless you have a reason, this an argument by assertion. Compare that with:



The second one is better, because it provides a reason why using the Oxford comma promotes clarity. And not to pile on, but they are not “using” the serial comma.
Next, this article switches terms for the same thing. In sentence two, it’s a “serial comma,” while in the quote below, it’s an “Oxford comma.” That would be bad enough, but the quote has another problem.   It claims that in America, we shouldn’t use it because it’s foreign. That’s essentially the genetic fallacy, and not even a sensible version of it;  as the author of this piece knows, it’s also called a serial comma. And you’d think that editors based in Boston would know that it can also be called a “Harvard comma.”

Even worse, the only other argument is an appeal to authority (“according to the AP Style.”) Who cares? Unless you are told to use the AP Style guide for everything, you can use other style guides (there are other style guides that prefer the Oxford comma,) and which might be better systems for your work.  Or, even better, choose the rule you prefer, or finally, and best, have a valid argument as to why using the serial comma is preferable.

Where the Feral Things Are



Two words that are often used as synonyms, “feral” and “wild.” I
learned recently that they
are not quite the same
. A “wild” animal is an animal that has not
itself been domesticated (or is not descended from formerly domestic
animals). A “feral” animal is one that was (or had ancestors were)
domesticated and have since returned to the wild. I have no idea what
the standard is for ancestors, or how to deal with animals that are
crosses between feral and wild animals.

Thus the Rolling Stones were likely
, as the only true wild horses in the world are tahki.