Heraclitean River

You can never step into the same river twice. . .

Browsing Posts published by heraclitus

In a previous post, I explored the history of spacing after sentences, where we saw that the common practice for centuries was to include a much wider space after a period (or other mark that ended a sentence).  Since a double space nowadays imitates that practice—which comes from the era where the forms of many of our modern fonts were created—a double space should at least be considered an acceptable choice when typing or typesetting text.  Others will prefer the single space, but it is merely a preference.  I submit that there is room for both, and there is actually room for better typography in general, which could return to a more detailed distinction between different types of spaces with different widths.

I also summarized the history of the Chicago Manual of Style, which demonstrates the shift in preferences and values from 1900–1950, leading up to their current judgmental position where they only include information on sentence spacing to condemn anyone who would try to make such a distinction.  In a Q&A post, one editor explains this position and offers a number of rationales in favor of it:

[I]ntroducing two spaces after the period causes problems: (1) it is inefficient, requiring an extra keystroke for every sentence; (2) even if a program is set to automatically put an extra space after a period, such automation is never foolproof; (3) there is no proof that an extra space actually improves readability—as your comment suggests, it’s probably just a matter of familiarity (Who knows? perhaps it’s actually more efficient to read with less regard for sentences as individual units of thought—many centuries ago, for example in ancient Greece, there were no spaces even between words, and no punctuation); (4) two spaces are harder to control for than one in electronic documents (I find that the earmark of a document that imposes a two-space rule is a smattering of instances of both three spaces and one space after a period, and two spaces in the middle of sentences); and (5) two spaces can cause problems with line breaks in certain programs.

Let’s take each of these objections in turn. continue reading…

The topic of spacing after a period (or “full stop” in some parts of the world) has received a lot of attention in recent years.  The vitriol that the single-space camp has toward the double-spacers these days is quite amazing, and typographers have made up an entire fake history to justify their position.

The story usually goes something like this:

Once upon a time, typographical practice was anarchy.  Printers put in all sizes of spaces in haphazard ways, including after periods.  Then, a standard emerged: the single space after a period.  Unfortunately, the evil typewriter came along, and for some unknown reason (usually blamed on monospace fonts), people began to put wider double spaces after periods.  Typographers railed against the practice, but they could do nothing.  Actual printed work used the single space, but the morons with their typewriters could not be stopped.  Early computers and printers used similar monospace typefaces, and the evil persisted.  Then, in the past couple decades, it became possible to use proportional fonts easily, and finally typographers could step in and save the day again with their single sentence spaces!  The only people today who continue to use double spaces are stodgy old typing teachers and ignorant fools, who dare to think that their practice is okay in the face of the verdict of the experts in typography.

A short version of this story is told, for example, by Grammar Girl in her advice on this question.  But perhaps the worst offender in the promulgation of such nonsense is a particularly self-righteous piece in Slate from earlier this year.  We are told, “Most ordinary people would know the one-space rule, too, if it weren’t for a quirk of history,” i.e., the typewriter.  And we are told that the one-space rule derives from the expert experiences of publishers developed over many years: “We adopted these standards because practitioners of publishing—writers, editors, typographers, and others—settled on them after decades of experience.  Among their rules was that we should use one space after a period instead of two—so that’s how we should do it.”  As to why they believe this to be so, it’s because double spaces are “ugly”: “A page of text with two spaces between every sentence looks riddled with holes; a page of text with an ordinary space looks just as it should.”

The author, Farhad Manjoo, is astounded to find so many educated and ignorant people who apparently believe that two spaces are okay.  He even polls people over Thanksgiving dinner, just so he can tell them how wrong they are!  The author subsequently decides to go on a mission to show them why they are wrong, resulting in the linked article.

Unfortunately, this whole story is a fairy tale, made up by typographers to make themselves feel like they are correct in some absolute way.  The account is riddled with historical fabrication.  Here are some facts:

  • There were earlier standards before the single-space standard, and they involved much wider spaces after sentences.
  • Typewriter practice actually imitated the larger spaces of the time when typewriters first came to be used.  They adopted the practice of proportional fonts into monospace fonts, rather than the other way around.
  • Literally centuries of typesetters and printers believed that a wider space was necessary after a period, particularly in the English-speaking world.  It was the standard since at least the time that William Caslon created the first English typeface in the early 1700s (and part of a tradition that went back further), and it was not seriously questioned among English or American typesetters until the 1920s or so.
  • The “standard” of one space is maybe 60 years old at the most, with some publishers retaining wider spaces as a house style well into the 1950s and even a few in the 1960s.
  • As for the “ugly” white space, the holes after the sentence were said to make it easier to parse sentences.  Earlier printers had advice to deal with the situations where the holes became too numerous or looked bad.
  • The primary reasons for the move to a single uniform space had little to do with a consensus among expert typographers concerning aesthetics.  Instead, the move was driven by publishers who wanted cheaper publications, decreasing expertise in the typesetting profession, and new technology that made it difficult (and sometimes impossible) to conform to the earlier wide-spaced standards. continue reading…

The question of Mormons and Christianity has been receiving a lot of press again of late.  While the statements of Robert Jeffress regarding the First Amendment and religious litmus tests for political office are unusual (and perhaps, in terms of the First Amendment, bizarre) interpretations, his assertion that Mormons are not Christians is nothing new.

In fact, in this belief, he is in line not just with the “three out of four” Southern Baptist pastors, but also the vast majority of mainline Christian denominations.  Aside for the Roman Catholics, most of the major liberal Christian denominations have officially stated that Mormons’ understanding of the Christian tradition is so different as to be considered a different religion.  The Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, the United Methodists, the largest Lutheran Church in the U.S., and many others have passed official policies (often reaffirming them in the past decade or so) that state that Mormons’ understanding of the Christian tradition is so fundamentally different that it cannot be reconciled in even the most basic ways.

On the issue of baptism, where almost all Christian denominations (including even the Roman Catholics) accept the validity of baptisms of all other Christian denominations, the “traditional” Christian churches agree:  Mormons are too different.  Baptism is considered as a universal sign of the entrance into the Christian faith by Christians, but Mormon “baptisms” cannot be recognized by Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and just about anyone else.  It’s not just the Southern Baptists or evangelical right-wingers.

But wait: there’s more.  What about the Mormons themselves?  Do they recognize traditional Christians as “Christian”?  Well, not really.  The historical foundations of Mormonism claimed that the traditional churches were corrupted and therefore apostate (i.e., separated from God and the legitimate faith).

Official Mormon doctrine still declares that while some “traditional” Christians may be a source for divine inspiration or some truth, the ministry and priesthood of traditional Christianity is illegitimate and incapable of performing their theological functions due to their apostasy.  The only true faith, according to the largest Mormon denominations, is Mormonism.  The traditional Christians are not really even “Christian” to Mormons. continue reading…

As the tenth anniversary of the tragedy approached, many people in the media began to write stories of remembrance.

Ten years before, a shocking surprise attack had killed roughly 3000 people.  The perpetrators of the attack had sought to terrorize Americans when the planes suddenly appeared that morning over an unsuspecting city.  Forces were promptly marshaled in response, but many coming to the aid of those involved in the first wave of the attack died as well.  The leaders of the U.S. responded swiftly with strong rhetoric, and soon the country was involved in a long war with soldiers dying in unfamiliar, far-away places.

As reporters began to gear up for the tenth anniversary of this horrific event, they found that most people barely thought much about the incident, let alone the date.  Many newspapers put a small story on the front page, but it was not the lead — it was buried among the dozen or so other miscellaneous items there.  The major magazines barely mentioned the anniversary.

Even in the city where the event had transpired, reactions had become muted with time.  A few small ceremonies and religious services were held, but a reporter who interviewed 15 people on the street in that city found that only 9 of them even knew the significance of the day.  In another town on the other side of the country, another reporter found only 3 of 23 people interviewed could identify why that date was important.

Ten years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the “Day Which Will Live in Infamy,” the vast majority of people in the U.S. no longer thought about the significance of December 7th, 1941.

Some readers may find such a comparison with 9/11 to be a bad analogy or even distasteful, but I think it is important to consider why an event that ultimately resulted in a war that killed hundreds of thousands of American soldiers (and wounded more than half a million more) was barely recalled a decade later.  Meanwhile, this week we are being treated to a non-stop nation-wide media frenzy of remembrance and memorial over an event that resulted in an ongoing war which has lasted twice as long and has resulted in a tiny fraction of that number of casualties. continue reading…

In recent days, the Obama health insurance mandate has received another blow from the 11th Circuit Court, leading to more speculation that the individual mandate will be ruled unconstitutional.

What is often omitted from the current discussions is how we got into this mess in the first place.  The United States has a rather unique (and uniquely dysfunctional) health insurance system.  It turns out that the history of health insurance is riddled with inept government interventions and free markets pushing down the quality of care — the same conditions we continue to see today.

continue reading…

The subject of pseudonyms on the internet has received quite a bit of attention in the past week, following Google’s decision to lock out hundreds of accounts on its new social media platform, Google+.  Why would Google do this as it’s trying to draw new users to Google+?  Because the names looked suspiciously like fake names, which are a violation of Google’s terms of service.  (Never mind the fact that many of these names have turned out to be legitimate, something which has caused major inconveniences for lots of actual users who did not violate Google’s terms of service.)

Are Google’s terms of service a good idea?  Facebook and some other sites also have a real name policy; Mark Zuckerberg has said that those who want multiple identities have a “lack of integrity.”  In its early days, Facebook limited users to people with .edu addresses to try to attract “legitimate” users with real names and identities.  This worked to some extent on Facebook — though even when it was less than a year old, there were already numerous examples of people (usually who happened to have multiple .edu addresses) registering as God, Albert Einstein, and any number of other random people or things.

There are some obvious benefits to real names on social media sites, if the goal is for people to connect to other people they know primarily in the real world.  And real names could help to prohibit a lot of “bad behavior” that comes from truly anonymous users.  (For now, I’m setting aside the problem of how one actually determines who has a “real name.”  Google is not requiring anyone who is named “John Smith” to submit a government-issued ID, but that doesn’t mean that the person is actually named “John Smith.”)

The first issue to consider is the difference between anonymity and pseudonymity.  continue reading…

IMPORTANT NOTE CONCERNING COMMENTS: For a while, I tried to keep up with individual responses to comments on this article, but I don’t have the time to do that with my current schedule.  Many of the new comments pose scenarios that have already been addressed in previous questions or in the article; if you have a question, please take a look through previous questions and responses.  If I do respond, it may take a couple weeks or more, so again I suggest looking through previous responses.


Quick quiz: rank the following three situations in terms of the danger they pose to your child.

  1. You find your child playing outside with a drop of liquid mercury from a broken thermometer.  He’s been handling it for a half hour, and you think he even ate some of it.
  2. Your child accidentally knocks over a lamp with a compact fluorescent bulb in it, and the bulb breaks, though the shards end up out of the way so your child can’t be cut from them.
  3. Your child loves fish, and he wants to have tunafish sandwiches for the fifth night this week for dinner.  You give in.

If you answered (1) as the most dangerous, you need to read on.  Situation (1) is actually by far the least dangerous of the three situations in terms of mercury poisoning.  In this post, I’ll separate out myths from facts concerning liquid mercury (which isn’t very dangerous at all) versus the real dangers of mercury poisoning. continue reading…

Let’s play the pluralization game.  Which of the following is the “correct” plural of octopus?  Which are acceptable variants?  Which are “wrong”?

  • octopuses
  • octopi
  • octopodes

The English-speaking world is divided into about five categories of people here:

  1. People who think octopuses is best because it comes naturally, like children think foots is an acceptable plural of foot, instead of feet.
  2. People who like octopuses because it sounds like the Bond film Octopussy.
  3. People who use octopi because it seems like the way we deal with words in -us, like alumnus/alumni.
  4. People who use octopodes because they think it has a better historical basis (to be explained below).
  5. People who think octopodes sounds silly and pedantic, and octopi is wrong, so they settle on octopuses.  (Many dictionary and style guides go this route.)

Generally speaking, most people probably progress through these categories over the course of their lives.  At first, they chose octopuses, because English words ending in -s form a natural English plural with -es. Then, at some point, someone corrected their use of words in -us to employ the common Latin plural of -i, so they learned octopi either by being corrected from octopuses or else by assuming that octopus would follow that rule.

People who care a little more about words will eventually run into further trouble, though.  They learn that Latin is more complicated, and octopus is apparently from Greek, hence octopodes is supposedly more correct than octopi.  At this point, whether a person joins category (4) or (5) usually has to do with personality.  Someone who wants to be perceived as erudite even if it appears arrogant probably uses octopodes (with the confidence that he or she knows more than most people), while pragmatic people return to the common English plural octopuses.

The problem is — all these people are wrong in some way except for those in category (2).  (Categories (1) and (5) are also close, but the reasons are a little misguided.)  The only undisputed plural for octopus is octopuses.  If you think you know more than I do and want to claim validity for one of the other forms, read on.

continue reading…

UPDATE [8/17/11]: Most of my assumptions depended on the basic idea that Ceglia’s lawyer, who seemed to have a good reputation, had some credibility.  Ceglia later retained council from a major New York firm, which also seemed to indicate he had something.  But from recent news, it doesn’t look good.

In any case, one of my predictions was correct: the lawsuit didn’t go away quickly.  Unfortunately, the rest of my argument depended on an assumption of competent attorneys, who wouldn’t risk sanctions by bringing a suit on the basis of a known fraud and who would make some minimal inquiries before taking a case that was destined to draw a lot of attention.  But apparently high-powered law firms are more gullible than I would have believed.


A lot of commentary out about the Paul Ceglia lawsuit against Facebook seems to assume the guy must be a fraud, particularly since he has been accused of fraud.  They (reporters, bloggers, etc.) assume since they haven’t seen the evidence that it must not exist.

Here’s why I think these are bad assumptions, and why this case will drag on for quite a while — and, in the end, Ceglia will probably walk away with at least a boatload of money, if not Facebook itself.

continue reading…

UPDATE: I removed my previous post on this subject for various reasons.  I still believe the arguments below (and the extended ones in the earlier post) to be valid, however. If you’d like further details as were posted earlier, leave a reply to this post with your email in the appropriate box, and I can send you further information.

My last post (now updated) is quite long, since a thorough understanding of the problem is necessary to really debunk Kennedy’s theory.

Here let me summarize the problems briefly:

  1. Kennedy thought that he was talking about one equally-divided 12-note scale, but he is actually talking about two different ones (which he now admits).
  2. The one scale most people would think of as equally-divided was derived from a theoretical scale of the Harmonicists, whom Plato would be unlikely to follow.  Kennedy now realizes that the scale he wants to use is not related to this anyway.
  3. The scale Kennedy actually matches up to Plato’s dialogues is a different scale, which is not “equally-divided” into 12 parts in any usual sense, so it doesn’t make sense to compare it to the 12-part division of the dialogues, which is essential to Kennedy’s theory.
  4. The second scale has no basis in Greek theory.  Rather, it is speculation that someone playing around with a monochord (an instrument created for experiments in tuning scales, which some historians think may not have even existed in Plato’s time) would have happened upon Kennedy’s theoretical scale because they were using the number 12 as the basis for certain common ratios.  This is a far cry from the “standard Greek scale” we keep hearing about on the news.

Further details can be seen in my previous post.  In sum, Kennedy’s secret hidden musical code is absolute nonsense, as any music theorist (modern or ancient Greek) could have told him at first glance.