When Nerds Collide: Grammatical and Mathematical Geekery

I stumbled upon this exchange while double-checking something on hyphen use. The full debate is here:

@whoa: It is relevant in that it was an example of where dozen isn’t really considered a number: All of math. 2 * 6 = 12 When choosing to write it out, you would write “two times six equals twelve” not “two times six equals dozen.” You could say “two time six equals a dozen” but now you have an article in there. If you feel comfortable calling that a number, so be it. I was just pointing out that it may be misleading to consider dozen the same kind of number as twelve much like a six isn’t the same “kind” of “number” as six or 6. –  MrHen Jul 26 ’11 at 22:35
@mrhen, That’s preposterous. “Jimmy has a dozen eggs, he gives Sally half, how many does he have left?”. Answer: 12 * 1/2 = 6. According to your logic, ‘half’ wouldn’t be considered a number either? A dozen is a real number, even in Math… –  whoabackoff Jul 26 ’11 at 22:50
@whoa: I am simply trying to point out the difference between dozen and twelve with regards to their qualifications for the label “number”. There is a difference and just calling dozen a “number” may be misleading. And yes, it would be just as misleading to refer to “a half” as a number. Or “a whole” or “first”. Do they technically qualify as numbers? You tell me. My point is that even if they do, there is a difference between those and numbers like 9, 10, pi, i. –  MrHen Jul 26 ’11 at 23:02
@whoabackoff: So, according to your definition of number, pair times pair times few equals dozen? Nevermind that you are ignoring the fact that pair, few, dozen, score, hundred, gross, etc. are commonly used as units of measure. –  Patrick87 Jul 27 ’11 at 1:05
Did you read the Wikipedia article? Clearly I’m not the only person alive who thinks calling “dozen” a “dimensionless unit of measure” is acceptable. If you accept this Wikipedia page to be at all authoritative, I don’t see how you can come to any other conclusion than that you are incorrect in this matter. –  Patrick87 Jul 27 ’11 at 15:13

The Tyranny of the Exclamation Mark

This post has been sponsored (and checked) by Grammarly.com. I use the grammar and plagiarism checker at Grammarly.com because misplaced interrobangs get good men killed.


I’m not a tremendous fan of exclamation marks. The old ! has its place, of course. Floating disembodied over surprised comic strip characters, denoting a factorial in mathematics. But I feel it’s dug out an undeserved niche in certain types of correspondence in such a way as to force itself upon those of us who feel exhausted by its enthusiasm.

An example: in any type of semi-formal business correspondence, from email to the lowly sticky-note, where one is either requesting a favour or acknowledging one, isn’t it the most natural thing in the world to end with “Thanks a lot! -Cathy”? Of course it is. Who could blame you? Certainly not me. In moments that will be forever tinged with the taint of shame and weakness, I’ve done it myself.

But I haven’t done so unthinkingly. In fact, each time has been a struggle: the better, truer part of me striving to end on a (completely appropriate) period. But the ubiquity of the exclamation mark has conspired to make the lack of it seem an intentional slight. The context of modern standard practice may cause readers to assume disinterest or even sarcasm when your thank you comes bearing a mere period. In the end, it’s simpler just to cave and add that painful vertical line.

Why does it matter? Simple honesty. I’ve long harboured the suspicion that many individuals of my acquaintance “laugh out loud” less frequently than their use of this phrase suggests, and I, at least, have no wish to misrepresent myself via disingenuous punctuational emphasis.

(Indeed, this particular acronym has almost forgotten what it stands for, apropos of nothing compulsively, it has become a new type of punctuation: one with absolutely no modifying effect; the Metamucil of the written word, a tasteless fibre to pad your messages while adding zero meaning. “Lets go 2 teh mall lol!!1″ indeed.)

But the ! cannot be denied. It is the LOL of the adult world. So many have come to expect it, its absence is more significant than its presence. A period is a slap in the face. You might as well sign off with a string of expletives.

So, I submit. I wait and bide my time. Perhaps the tide will shift. Perhaps, one day, it will be possible to be less than manically enthusiastic in text, and this will be a life choice others can accept. In the meantime, I won’t swim upstream.

Thanks for reading. I mean, thanks for reading!


It’s been a bit quiet here of late. Few updates. As it happens I have been writing a bit, but most of it’s been content development for a private educational company so it’s nothing I can link to here. But it’s also true that I’ve been limiting my work intake for most of the fall season. No real reason other than that I felt like slowing down a little bit and the easiest way to accomplish that is to accept less writing assignments.

Meanwhile I’ve made it a goal to make a small dent in the pile of non-review books I’ve been wanting to read. I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction on social science topics which have all had more overlap than I had expected. I’ve just been working on an audiobook of Slavery by Another Name, which is all about the post-Civil War Southern United States.

It’s not a metaphor for racism or something vague like that. It turns out that after Lincoln freed the slaves, a huge number of them actually continued as slaves through corrupt economic and legal apparatuses that basically allowed small town sheriffs to arrest the United States’ newest citizens on phoney charges, whereby they’d be sentenced to hard labour, which was then contracted out to railroads, plantation owners, mines, etc. Often the paperwork would get lost and their “sentence” would never end. Yes, slavery actually continued well into the twentieth century, and no, it wasn’t a rare thing but actually extremely widespread in those regions.

I also just finished Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, which talked a lot about debt peonage, which works the same way, except it’s a fine or debt that has to be worked off, and which can never be repaid because the indebted person is only paid a pittance. So debt peons too are basically slaves, but it’s justified by an account book instead of racial ideology or archaic customs of war.

On the heels of wrapping up 1491, about North American society before (and, to some extent, also immediately after) Europeans arrived, I picked up Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, subtitled An Indian History of the United States. It tells the tales of Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and other leaders of indigenous nations set against or attempting to make peace with the United States during the same period discussed in Slavery (about the time of the Civil War until the end of the nineteenth century.

It’s an incredibly infuriating and sometimes hard to read story. Many indigenous groups experienced horrors a par with the Jewish Holocaust or African American slavery. In fact, in some parts of the country, huge numbers of indigenous people were kidnapped and sold into slavery, often in Mexico. And in many parts of the country (most, perhaps), American military and government groups sought no less than the complete genocide of all indigenous peoples, to the extent of slaughtering entire villages of unarmed women and children, begging for mercy (look up the Sand Creek massacre).

It’s easy to forget how recent all this has been. Yes, some of the Nazis who murdered Jews are still alive today. But some of the people who murdered indigenous people unconscionably (or who continued to keep African slaves in defiance of the 14th amendment) were still alive when Auschwitz was up and running, so it’s just one generation further back. All of this horrible stuff happened very recently, but maybe it’s easier to learn about the terrible things that happened across the Atlantic rather than what happened much closer to home.

Besides all this heavy stuff, I read Gateway, one of Frederik Pohl’s best-known novels, which I got at the used bookstore a few months ago. Coincidentally, I decided to read it just before hearing that he’d passed away, which made reading it a little bit, funereal, I suppose.

It’s quite good. Some of the old guard of SF have a reputation for not really getting character development or dialogue or other things of that sort. But Pohl’s pretty good in that department. The conceit that has almost the whole novel be told in a series of flashbacks during a man’s therapy sessions with a robot psychiatrist — I thought it would just be a gimmick but the novel has a psychological payoff that really worked for me.

Mr. Pohl, you will be missed.

So, what should I read next? (No, don’t tell me. My bookshelf is quite full.)

Tuesday Links (07/09/13)

A Mathematician Goes to the Beach: Topology and modesty.

Semicolon (Lonely Island): Some inappropriate lyrics and some questionable punctuation advice.

How to Brand a “Useless” College Degree: It’s education puff piece season. Stay tuned for September when we learn how (North American) college students can’t spell and don’t know math.

Tuesday Links (07/02/13)

Why MBA-Bound Johnny Still Can’t Write: Sure, I’m a writer, so I have a bit of a bias here. But I majored in physics. I learnt this stuff in high school, and I wasn’t about to hand in sloppy work during the odd humanities elective of my post-secondary coursework. But graduate program business majors, portrayed here as the quintessential D-students, study everything from business communication to marketing, then complain about being put upon for basic writing skills like grammar, punctuation, and spelling. It’s called branding, friends. Employers want someone smart and hard-working, and this isn’t how you project that image. Way to devalue the degree.

21 Jokes Only Nerds Will Understand: I’m afraid there are two I just don’t get.

What You Wish For: Windows 8 is the worst.

Tuesday Links (06/04/13)

This 27-year-old repaid $28,115 in debt – in under two years: A lesson in austerity and belt-tightening.

Paul Krugman’s right: Austerity kills: Aaannnd here’s the bad news. Is it a surprise they call economics “the dismal science”? You just can’t win.

Bosses more likely to be psychopaths, study says: I know, right? Actually this is nothing new, studies about the higher incidence of psychopathy in certain fields have been around for years, and it’s not surprising that someone with minimal empathy and maximal manipulative abilities would rise to the top in certain workplace cultures (if not most). But the top ten lists for careers that attract the highest and lowest numbers of psychopaths are new to me. It seems I make both lists. So which of my two major careers represents the “real” me?

Tuesday Links (05/28/13)

Dinosaur Comics: “We enter a world where the Internet never got invented. Broadcast media, like fries, rules supreme.” Fast food references and alternate history go together like two beef patties and special sauce.

Space is the New Canada:“In Canada, the wild is slow, certain death. Nature is an unstoppable destructive force and there is no overcoming it. Canada has not been conquered by man, we have simply built fragile fortresses in which we huddle, praying against the day the dark and the cold erode them and take us.”

Canada’s Boreal Forest is the Amazon of the North: And I daresay it’s as much in danger.

A post-console world: “Has the concept of a dedicated gaming machine become outdated?”

Tuesday Links (05/21/13)

Real Monopoly: “. . .[N]o one ever actually reads the rules of Monopoly. Monopoly is something you learn through word-of-mouth in childhood, like riding a bike or tying your shoelaces. . . . So the set of rules we play by is the shared cultural set of rules passed down through the generations, and not the ones written on the booklet inside the box.”

How to design a small rental apartment: Zen and the art of tiny apartment living. Both form and function are critical.

Tuesday Links (05/14/13)

Haruki Murakami and the Art of Japanese Translations: “The Japanese language acquires much of its beauty and strength from indirectness—or what English-speakers call vagueness, obscurity, or implied meaning. . . . Alternatively, English is often lauded for its specificity. Henry James advised novelists to find the figure in the carpet, implying that details and accuracy were tantamount to literary expression. Is it possible that Japanese and English are two languages so far apart that translators can only reinvent their voices by creating entirely new works?”

15 Ways to Improve Winnipeg: From my first newspaper, U of W’s Uniter, a very well-done and thought-provoking special issue.

Tuesday Links (04/23/13)

How your grammar skills affect your salary: “On the face of it, my zero tolerance approach to grammar errors might seem a little unfair. After all, grammar has nothing to do with job performance, or creativity, or intelligence, right? Wrong. If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use “it’s,” then that’s not a learning curve I’m comfortable with.” Food for thought.

Explosions and the Meaning of the Boston Marathon: “A New York Marathon shirt means someone got lucky in a race lottery. A Boston Marathon shirt means they’ve run fast. The finish line today was one of the saddest, most terrible athletic scenes ever. But in an ordinary year it’s extraordinary. Well-trained amateurs from all over the world: sweating, straining, slowing, sprinting.”