Ancient peoples gave us many gifts, the first of which was the Agricultural Revolution, leading to civilization itself. Among the latter’s boons–or possibly its cause–was alcohol, used as a means of preserving food in the days before refrigeration, but also as a way to sterilize contaminated water. But as always, time allows some things to ferment into greater potency, while leaving other things to rot. Language too often takes advantage of time to decay.

One example of this is the way many attach -ology to Modern English words. Best practice is to take -ology, a suffix formed from the ancient Greek word, λόγος (logos), meaning, word or more broadly, reasoning. Best practice is to find a Greek noun for the subject that is to be studied when forming a new word. Unfortunately, too many would-be coiners of terms are lazy and just slap -ology to modern words.

The case I have in mind today is “mixology,” supposedly the study of mixing drinks. But “mix” is the modern form, and it derives from a verb that didn’t involve what Jeopardy refers to a potent potables. The correct verb here is κεράννυμι (kerannymi), which referred to mixing wine with water–recall the purpose of sterilization–in vessels like this:


called a krater. Our word, crater, merely changes the first letter. Now the ancients had some form of distillation way back when, but distilled spirits date from the high Middle Ages at the earliest. Still (if you’ll excuse the pun), the verb whose root is kera relates to alcoholic beverages and thus is accurate in spirit (I can’t help myself). Therefore, the study of mixing drinks is kerology.

Of course, I prefer my drinks neat.



Those of us who spend much time arguing the question of gun rights on the Internet often run into examples of Markley’s Law in action. What is Markley’s Law, my non-gun-enthusiast readers may be asking?

Markley’s Law: The adage that any Internet discussion regarding firearm owners will eventually mention male genitalia.

Generally, this takes the form of someone who supports gun control claiming that gun owners are compensating for small anatomy. But obsession with penises isn’t the only defect of personality to be found in those who yearn to violate the rights of others. Submitted for your consideration is a new law, based on many observations:

As t (time) increases, the probability that a gun control supporter will make a sexist or homophobic remark about a gun rights advocate during a discussion on guns approaches 1.

This observation is all the more interesting since gun control supporters tend to be on the left of the American political spectrum, and thus such language would be unacceptable by their fellows in any other context.


Jaw, Jaw

Winston Churchill once said that jaw-jaw is better than war-war.


He’s famous for leading Britain in the world’s most recent global war, among other things, and his comment came in 1954, after he had written his history of World War II, but presumably it recognizes the superiority of talking to physical fighting.  More recently, the Dalai Lama, speaking of his nation’s occupation by the Chinese, expressed the idea that dialogue is the only way to solve human problems.


Not that dialogue has done anything to free Tibet, but he’s sticking to his verbal guns.

These statements do raise the question of whether discussion solves any problem.  How often have we heard people insisting that we just need dialogue, that we just need to listen to each other?  And yet, anyone who’s been in an argument with a family member or followed politics or engaged in a conversation on Twitter should know that talking so often doesn’t reach agreement or cooperation on matters that people hold deeply.

As regular readers of my weblogs know, I support both gun rights and gay rights.  I also accept the science of evolution and climate change.  These things make for some interesting discussions on Twitter in which I find myself supported by my fellow Twitterati on one subject, while being vehemently opposed by the same people in other areas.  It’s fascinating to watch someone make what looks like a good argument one day, then turn around and make a sloppy one the next.

Of course, it’s harder to spot the logical and factual errors on a position we support, since we tend to be much less critical of ourselves and our allies, and when given the choice to go after errors, it’s more comfortable to attack an opponent, rather than a supporter.  But of greater concern is the fact that so many people develop a conviction about a topic and then become impervious to facts and logic.

What are we to do about this?  One answer that I’ve addressed before is a slow but steady solution:  education.  The more ideas and information people are exposed to, the more open–it is to be hoped–they are to considering a variety of positions in a logical manner.  Note that this comes from what we call a liberal arts education.  The liberal arts are aimed at teaching the skills and knowledge a person needs to be a free person, rather than focusing on some specific requirement for a particular job.

But as I said, education is a slow process, and even educated people get caught up in the passion of belief.  This leaves us with the question of why we should bother to debate ideas at all.  I offer three answers:

1.  Not everyone is decided on every subject

We must remember that for every infuriating true believer out there, many more people will be undecided on the subject.  Make a good argument, don’t take crap tossed at you, and trust to the potential goodness in all of us.

2.  Support freedom of choice

These debates remain theoretical and intellectually interesting so long as we don’t rush off to pass laws.  This is the reason that I call myself an eleutherian.  Whenever possible, and it’s possible much more often than we’d like to believe, leave people free to act on their own beliefs while we act on our own.

3.  Consider the argument being made

That means keeping this open:


and engaging this:


Those, naturally, are the hardest part.

Crossposted on Greg Camp’s Weblog.

Have you found yourself stating a fact in a conversation–say some arcane statistic from baseball, the conjugation of Lithuanian verbs, or the air speed velocity of an unladen African swallow–only to be asked how you knew such a thing?

The latter of that list illustrates the kind of exchange that often happens:

The question as to how someone knows a particular fact generally carries specific implications with it:

1. Is that in fact a fact?


As the saying goes, 78.6% of all statistics are made up on the spot–including this one.  One reasonable implied challenge in the question above is in regard to the accuracy of the fact being cited.  Take the origin of the Guinness Book of World Records.  Said tome was marketed as a way of settling disputes in bars.  Today, with smartphones as ubiquitous as opinions, a world of information is available at our fingertips–or, at least, thumbtips.  Verifying a statement is easy, so long as we understand the difference between reliable sources and otherwise.  The person who can quote facts from memory is treated as something of a fossil, someone who wastes time and effort by storing knowledge in a biological hard drive.

What this postmodernist view fails to comprehend is that absorbed information becomes a part of the person holding it.  Who you are is a combination of your memories and your personality.  The more diverse and expansive the former is, the more the latter can make of itself.

2.  How is something learned?


One method of learning is research, the act of combing through available sources to find the desired fact.

Another is that dreaded plague of childhood:


practice.  Whether it’s threading a needle, producing pleasing sounds from a musical instrument, or hitting what you aim at, learning is often a process of doing the same damned thing over and over until the skill is mastered.

The other method, namely experimentation, is illustrated by the first image in this article.  Yoda’s claim that there is no try is silly pablum, evidence that George Lucas would have made a better film if he’d never heard of Eastern mysticism or Joseph Campbell.  There is indeed try.  Try is what we do to find out if a given notion is possible or practical.

But in all of these, the essence is work.  And that’s why some are astonished when a person comes out with some curious bit of lore.  It disturbs their settled laziness to find that someone else put forth such effort.

 3.  How do you know that?


But the most common meaning of titular question is to express surprise that the person addressed has absorbed a particular piece of knowledge.  An example of this comes from my experience discussing Tarot cards with a writing acquaintance of mine.  She was shocked to learn that I know anything about a divination practice, since she held a view of me more suited to the fellow with the pointy ears.  And that’s the point here.  When we find that someone knows a fact that isn’t in keeping with our view of the person, we feel offended.  How dare a person not conform to our theoretical model of the person?

Instead, we recall Aristotle’s opening to the Metaphysics that we all desire to know by nature.  While we may justifiably explore the path a person took to knowledge, ultimately, its possession should come as no surprise.  Learning is one part of the essence of being human.


Writers who are serious about their craft pour a lot of themselves into their writing. I’m a writer myself, so I know how this feels. But having written, the author wants the world to see it. And this urgency creates expectations.


A milestone gives a sense of accomplishment, but it also creates the expectation of more to come on a regular schedule. This is the idea of a deadline.

But consider how long it took you to write your book, story, article, poem, or whatnot. If you write for a newspaper or similar, you follow a formula and crank out the product. That’s hard.


If your work is creative, you have more time.


Unless you’re on a deadline, that is–from your publisher, for example, and may we all suffer that fate.

But this article is about editors. Remember this guy?


Our work combines the creative and the mechanical. Planting commas where they belong and pulling out the strays is something that a machine should be able to do, but efforts to date at getting word processors to check grammar and spelling in a reliable way leave much to be desired. And so we editors plow through manuscripts, seeding and weeding.


That much can be done on a steady pace, determined by how many errors the writer made and how much stamina the editor has.

But there’s more to it. The creative part of writing can’t be done mechanically. And that means that it’s hard to predict how long editing for the flow of the narrative or the motivations of the characters or so forth and such like will take.

This reminds me of the old line about how the work can be done in a good, quick, or cheap manner–pick any two. That’s the fact of life. So you can have your book edited by tomorrow, but it’ll cost you, or the work won’t be worth much. Or you can let your editor do a good job in the time it takes. But whatever choice you make, keep reading, keep writing, and keep submitting.

Crossposted on English 301: Reading and Writing.

The popular image of guns of the Old West has it that everyone went about with a Winchester 1873 lever-action rifle and a Colt Single Action Army as a sidearm. But the reality is more complicated. A whole lot of the activity happened before 1873, and there were many other guns doing work west of the Mississippi.

One of them was the Sharps rifle:


The Sharps was designed by a fellow named Christian Sharps–you’re surprised, right? The patent came in 1848, and the rifle in 1851. That’s the same year that the Colt Navy was sold for the first time, by the way, making that a good year.

From the first, it was a large-bore, precision rifle, aimed at hitting targets at long range, whether we’re talking enemy soldiers or large animals. The Sharps was a single-shot, originally in .44 caliber, though .52 became the standard. It was used as a sniper rifle with a Malcolm scope by the sharpshooters under Hiram Berdan’s command,


though the rifles were used on both sides, especially in the shorter carbine version favored by cavalry troopers, including my western character, Henry Dowland.


Unlike most infantry rifles, the Sharps was a breech-loader.


The trigger guard acted as a lever that dropped the breech block, opening the rear of the barrel.


A paper or linen cartridge was then inserted. A Maynard tape primer was installed on many of these, working something like a modern cap gun.


Closing the action cut the rear end of the cartridge to expose the powder inside. These rifles were often converted after the Civil War to .50-70 or .50-90 metallic cartridges–that means .50 caliber and seventy or ninety grains of black powder shoving along a bullet of some 400 or 500 grains at around 1,400 feet per second, an ounce of lead chugging along at a good rate.


As such, they were the classic buffalo gun. The accuracy potential of the rifle was enhanced with tang sights,


and a set trigger on some models. Squeezing the rear trigger set the front trigger to a lightweight pull, necessitating less effort and thus less disturbance of the aim in firing.

These features show up in various films, notably Quigley Down Under and the 2010 version of True Grit. Billy Dixon, a scout for the U. S. Army, used one in real life to shoot an Indian who was part of the siege at the Adobe Walls outpost in northern Texas. The range was 1,578 yards. Dixon said it was a lucky shot, but the besiegers figured that they didn’t have a chance and gave up.

Until the advent of smokeless powder, the Sharps was one of the most powerful firearms going. And the good news is that companies are making reproductions today.

The news today (2 February 2014) announced the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

He was a remarkable actor, able to play roles with great depth, but also able to find the quirky recesses of a personality. I first became aware of him in Scent of a Woman. His list of films is not nearly long enough, but he is unforgettable as Truman Capote, and he found the intensity of Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War. He also could shone in quieter roles, such as a classical violinist in A Late Quartet, alongside Christopher Walken and Capote costar Catherine Keener.

But there is one role that will always be one of my all-time favorites:

The Count

The film fits into my political philosophy, and Hoffman is a master of social revolution.

Mr. Hoffman, you didn’t have to do this to upstage the Superbowl. I’d have watched you bringing to life any role of your choice instead. But you will be remembered.

Crossposted at Oghma Creative Media.


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