Wednesday, 30 April 2008


A synonym is a word that means the same as another. Necessary and required are synonyms. An antonym is a word that means the opposite of another. Wet and dry are antonyms. While synonyms and antonyms are not in themselves interesting, the complexities and irregularities of the English language sometimes make synonyms and antonyms interesting to explore. Many complexities result from words having multiple definitions. A trivial example is a word with synonyms that aren't synonyms of each other, the word beam, for example, having the synonyms bar and shine. Similarly, some words have antonyms that are neither synonyms nor antonyms of each other but completely unrelated: the word right, for example, having the antonyms wrong and left.

A more interesting paradox occurs with the word groom, which does not really have an antonym in the strictest sense but has an opposite of sorts in the word bride, which can be used as a prefix to create a synonym, bridegroom.

The word contronym (also the synonym antagonym) is used to refer to words that, by some freak of language evolution, are their own antonyms. Both contronym and antagonym are neologisms; however, there is no alternative term that is more established in the English language.

Contronyms are special cases of homographs (two words with the same spelling). Some examples:

  • anabasis - military advance, military retreat
  • apology - admission of fault in what you think, say, or do; formal defense of what you think, say, or do
  • aught - all, nothing
  • bolt - secure, run away

More contronyms at

Tuesday, 29 April 2008


Doolittle's Wharf

  • Dr. Van Helsing described what steps were taken during the day to discover on what boat and whither bound Count Dracula made his escape. "As I knew that he wanted to get back to Transylvania, I felt sure that he must go by the Danube mouth, or by somewhere in the Black Sea, since by that way he come. It was a dreary blank that was before us. Omme ignotum pro magnifico, and so with heavy hearts we start to find what ships leave for the Black Sea last night ... we find that only one Black Sea bound ship go out with the tide. She is the Czarina Catherine, and she sail from Doolittle's Wharf for Varna, and thence to other ports and up the Danube.
  • From Mina Harker's Journal, Dracula, by Bram Stoker.

Doolittle Raid

  • The Doolittle Raid, 18 April 1942, was the first air raid by the United States to strike the Japanese home island of Honshū during World War II. The mission was notable since it was the only time in U.S. military history that United States Army Air Forces bombers were launched from a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier on a combat mission. The Doolittle Raid demonstrated that the Japanese home islands were vulnerable to Allied air attack, and it provided an expedient means for U.S. retaliation for Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The raid was planned and led by Lieutenant Colonel James "Jimmy" Doolittle, already a famous civilian aviator and aeronautical engineer before the war.
  • See

Dr. Dolittle

  • Dr. John Dolittle has the world in his hands: A beautiful wife at his side, two adorable daughters and a career that could not go better. One night, he nearly runs over a dog with his car. The dog yells "bonehead" and disappears. From then on, his childhood ability is back: To communicate with animals. Unfortunately, the word of Dolittle's ability is spreading quickly. Soon, many animals from rat to horse flock to his place to get medical advice. But his colleagues suspect he's going mad, and as the clinic Dolittle used to work for is about to being taken over for a huge amount of money, many decisions have to be made. Believe him? Put him into a mental institution? Sell the clinic? But also his family is close to breaking apart. Until a circus tiger falls seriously ill.
  • See

Monday, 28 April 2008

I'll pencil you in

This is what a person says when he is making a tentative appointment.

"I'll Pencil" (because the appointment can be erased) "you in" (to my schedule book).

Ozzy: Hey, can I come up to your big fancy office and make fun of you?

Boohiss: Er. I'm kinda busy this week. Tell you what, I'll pencil you in for 4:30 on Thursday


Sunday, 27 April 2008


24 June.--Last night the Count left me early, and locked himself into his own room.  As soon as I dared I ran up the winding stair, and looked out of the window, which opened South.  I thought I would watch for the Count, for there is something going on.  The Szgany are quartered somewhere in the castle and are doing work of some kind.  I know it, for now and then, I hear a far-away muffled sound as of mattock and spade, and, whatever it is, it must be the end of some ruthless villainy.

From Jonathan Harker's Journal, Dracula, by Bram Stoker

A mattock is a hand tool similar to a pickaxe. It is distinguished by the head, which makes it particularly suitable for digging or breaking up moderately hard ground. A mattock has a broad chisel-like blade perpendicular to the handle.This broad-bladed end is effectively an adze that could be used as a hoe as well. The reverse may have a pointed end, in which case the tool is called a pick mattock, or instead have an axe-like splitting end, then it is a cutter mattock. A combination axe and mattock used for fighting forest fires is a pulaski. In some regions of the southern USA, the mattock is called a "grub hoe" or "grub axe".


Saturday, 26 April 2008


Homer (circa 750-650 BC)

Homer is the name given to the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, the two major epic poems to have survived from Ancient Greece. These two poems are central to Western literature and culture.

Nothing is known of Homer as a person. In fact there is not even agreement on whether one person created both the 'Iliad' and the 'Odyssey'. Both poems seem to have been composed at some time between 750 and 650 BC, but it is thought they were shaped out of older material handed down verbally by singer-poets. Nonetheless, Homer is conventionally depicted as a blind, bearded man.

The 'Iliad' tells the story of the final year of the Trojan War, focusing on the activities of the Greek hero Achilles. The 'Odyssey' describes the adventures of another Greek hero, Odysseus, as he returns home after the fall of Troy.


Friday, 25 April 2008


Although the generic term bakelite has become widely used to describe any thermosetting plastic material, there was also a trademark for the name when used to describe the specific material which was the real Bakelite (TM)

Bakelite, the world's first synthetic plastic, was developed between 1907 and 1909 by Leo Baekeland, a Belgian, by then living in the United States of America. When you see the spelling of his name, you get an idea where the inspiration for the name bakelite came from.

Dr Baekeland also made other inventions during his career as a research chemist, most notably he had already developed a photographic paper, for which he sold the patent to Eastman Kodak for a million dollars ($1,000,000)

The importance of Bakelite was that it was the first material which could be shaped when heated and which held this shape when cooled again, a property which became known as thermoplastic.

This greatly extended the scope for mass producing products and was effectively the dawning of the Age of Plastics.


Thursday, 24 April 2008

Types of hammer

If you’re not an expert or professional craftsman, how do you know which hammer is right for which job?

Did you know there are actually many different types of hammers, each with a special purpose?

Choosing the right hammer will pay off in the long run by doing a better job, faster, and safer.

Below we have listed the most popular hammer types to help in the decision of which to use:

  • Common Nail Hammer With Curved Claw - used for general carpentry work and, of course, nail pulling.
  • Rip Hammer With Straight Claw - used for general and heavy carpentry work, framing, ripping.
  • Finishing Hammer - used for cabinet making, finishing, general carpentry.
  • Ball Pein Hammer - used for riveting, center punching, and bending or shaping soft metal.
  • Hand Drilling Hammer - used for powerful work such as striking masonry nails, steel chisels and masonry drills.
  • Soft-face Hammer - for assembling furniture and wood projects, setting dowels, and any task which requires non-marring blows.
  • Tack Hammer - used to drive small nails, furniture upholstering and more.
  • Brick Hammer - designed for cutting and setting bricks of blocks, and for chipping mortar.
  • Drywall (Wallboard) Hammer - used for drywall work, marking wallboard, making cutouts, sets nails with dimple for easier finishing, corner nailing (in some versions).
  • Carpenter's Mallet - for use in furniture assembly, shaping soft sheet metals or any project that requires non-marring blows.


Wednesday, 23 April 2008


A kind of metrical foot. A dactyl is a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables: for example, "Canada," "holiday," "camouflage." (The name comes from the Greek for "finger" — as in pterodactyl, "winged-finger" — and you can remember the pattern by thinking of the three joints in a finger: long, short, short.)

Because a dactyl has three syllables, it's called a triple meter.

Classical epic poems were traditionally written in both Greek and Latin in dactyllic hexameter.


Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Rittmeister Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen

Manfred von Richthofen was born on May 2, 1892 in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw Poland). He died on April 21, 1918, age 25, in the skies over Vaux sur Somme, France. His people called him der rote Kampfflieger (The Red Battle-Flyer), The French called him le petit rouge, and he is known in the English speaking world as the Red Baron.

In a time of wooden and fabric aircraft, when twenty air victories insured a pilot legendary status and the coveted Pour Le Mérite (the famous "Blue Max") , Richthofen had eighty victories, and is regarded to this day as the ace of aces.


Monday, 21 April 2008


A trilogy is a set of three works of art, usually literature, film, or video games that are connected and can be seen as a single work, as well as three individual ones.

Most trilogies are works of fiction involving the same characters or setting, such as The Deptford Trilogy of novels by Robertson Davies or The Godfather films of Francis Ford Coppola. Others are connected only by theme: for example, each film of Krzysztof Kieślowski's Three Colors trilogy explores one of the political ideals of the French Republic (liberty, equality, fraternity) and each novel in Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy uses formats from detective fiction to explore existential questions. Trilogies can also be connected in less obvious ways, such as "The Nova Trilogy" of novels by William S. Burroughs, each written using Brion Gysin’s cut-up technique.


Sunday, 20 April 2008

Colours that serve as beverages and vice versa…

Burgundy, champagne, chartreuse, claret, cream, rose, and possibly wine, possibly coffee.


Saturday, 19 April 2008

Fates: The three Greek Goddesses of Destiny and Fate

Otherwise known as the Moirae, these timeless old hags weave the threads of destiny that control your life. The original spin doctors.

They are:

CLOTHO who spins the Thread of Life,

LACHESIS who allots the length of the yarn, and

ATROPOS who does the snip (the final one).

All the good and evil that befalls you is woven into your destiny and cannot be altered even one jot. You may find this a little unfair, but it's the stuff great Greek tragedies are made of.


Friday, 18 April 2008

Clinton's "is"

"It depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is. If “is” means is and never has been, that’s one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement."

"Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true."

See full story at

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Careen and career

Q - It seems that the words "career" or "careen" when used to describe a vehicle or person turning a corner recklessly are used interchangeably--except that "career" sounds kind of cute to my ear. Information please.

The distinction between careen and career is an old Usage Issue that doesn't trouble many people nowadays.

A -The original relevant sense of careen is 'to lean or tip to one side while in motion; sway'. So a car going rapidly around a corner would careen around it. The original relevant sense of career is 'to go at full speed; rush headlong, especially in a reckless way'. A car going rapidly around a corner could also be careering.

The main usage concern is the use of careen to mean 'rush headlong' with no implication of swaying--the use of careen to mean career. This was once criticized, and is still objected to by a few people. Most, however, even the rather conservative types, aren't bothered much by it.

A main reason for this is the difficulty of determining which word is meant; it is usually not possible from context to tell exactly what is being implied. After all, any sort of rapid, reckless motion could certainly involve leaning as well.

This development of careen to mean 'rush headlong' is chiefly found in American English, first recorded in the 1920s. British English still preserves the distinction.

The word career is ultimately from a Latin word for 'course; route'; in English it first meant 'speed on a course'. Careen is from a word meaning 'the side of a ship', and as a verb first meant 'to cause (a ship) to lie on its side, for repairs or painting', which is why the 'leaning' aspect is there.


Wednesday, 16 April 2008


Careening a sailing vessel means to beach it at high tide in order, usually, to expose one side or another of the ship's hull for maintenance below the water line when the tide goes out. Small boats need not always be laid over.

Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island contains a reference to the practice: the Hispaniola is purposely beached on the island. Although the purpose of this is to avoid the uncertainties of anchoring her with nobody aboard, that a piratical crew member would be quick with the suggestion—and the means of freeing the ship later—shows his familiarity with the practice.


Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Shaw on Observation

"The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it."

George Bernard Shaw

Monday, 14 April 2008

Food etymologies traced to nobility

Bouche a la Reine, chicken a la King, bloody Mary, Baron of beef, maids of honour tart, queenies, any kind of Sandwich, chocolate a la Marquis, pommes Dauphinois, pomme Dauphine, pommes a la Duchess, and Queen of puddings.


Sunday, 13 April 2008

"Scotch" or "Scottish"?

Scots' preferred adjective for Scotland and for themselves is "Scots". "Scottish" is also acceptable. But "Scotch" (although used by Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, and still used by some Americans of Scots descent) is now considered offensive by many Scots. Certain Scots hold that only three things can be "Scotch": "Scotch whisky", "Scotch egg", and "Scotch mist". They are not interested in considering additions to this list, although many other terms containing "Scotch" can be found in dictionaries.


Saturday, 12 April 2008

Redundant pleonastic tautologies

Q: What word describes redundancies like "PIN number"? "Advanced planning"?

A: Pleonasm. A pleonasm consists of two concepts (usually two words) that are redundant. What does "redundant" mean? Well, how about "more than enough; overabundant; excess; and superfluous"? Still having a problem understanding what pleonasm means? Some pleonastic expressions are also known as tautologies. Tautology means, "needless repetition of an idea in a different word, phrase, or sentence; redundancy; pleonasm." What about pleonasm? It means, "the use of more words than are necessary for the expression of an idea; redundancy." So it is that we go around in circles: pleonasm means tautology, which means redundancy, which means pleonasm, which means tautology, ad infinitum.


Friday, 11 April 2008

Causal Determinism

Causal determinism is, roughly speaking, the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature. The idea is ancient, but first became subject to clarification and mathematical analysis in the eighteenth century. Determinism is deeply connected with our understanding of the physical sciences and their explanatory ambitions, on the one hand, and with our views about human free action on the other. In both of these general areas there is no agreement over whether determinism is true (or even whether it can be known true or false), and what the import for human agency would be in either case.


Thursday, 10 April 2008

Homographs, homonyms & homophones

Homographs will have the same spelling and will have the same meaning or origin or pronunciation.

Homonyms may have the same spelling and will have different meanings and different origins and the same pronunciation.

Homophones will have different spellings and different meanings and the same pronunciation.


Wednesday, 9 April 2008

"It ain't over till the fat lady sings"

"It ain't over till the fat lady sings." Often quoted as "The opera ain't over till the fat lady sings", and sometimes confused with Yogi Berra's, "It ain't over till its over."

This universal image calls to mind an overweight soprano brandishing a spear and wearing a Viking helmet. It is clearly rooted in Wagnerian opera, specifically "The Ring of the Nibelungen". The "fat lady" is probably best associated with character Brunhilda in "The Valkure", "Siegfreid", or "Twilight of the Gods". At the endings of these operas, Brunhilda is asleep, singing, and dead (respectively); leaving the opera, "Siegfried" as the most logical choice.


Tuesday, 8 April 2008

40 Years in the Future

By James R. Berry, Nov 1968

IT’S 8 a.m., Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2008, and you are headed for a business appointment 300 mi. away. You slide into your sleek, two-passenger air-cushion car, press a sequence of buttons and the national traffic computer notes your destination, figures out the current traffic situation and signals your car to slide out of the garage. Hands free, you sit back and begin to read the morning paper—which is flashed on a flat TV screen over the car’s dashboard. Tapping a button changes the page.

The car accelerates to 150 mph in the city’s suburbs, then hits 250 mph in less built-up areas, gliding over the smooth plastic road. You whizz past a string of cities, many of them covered by the new domes that keep them evenly climatized year round. Traffic is heavy, typically, but there’s no need to worry. The traffic computer, which feeds and receives signals to and from all cars in transit between cities, keeps vehicles at least 50 yds. apart. There hasn’t been an accident since the system was inaugurated. Suddenly your TV phone buzzes. A business associate wants a sketch of a new kind of impeller your firm is putting out for sports boats. You reach for your attache case and draw the diagram with a pencil-thin infrared flashlight on what looks like a TV screen lining the back of the case. The diagram is relayed to a similar screen in your associate’s office, 200 mi. away. He jabs a button and a fixed copy of the sketch rolls out of the device. He wishes you good luck at the coming meeting and signs off.

Ninety minutes after leaving your home, you slide beneath the dome of your destination city. Your car decelerates and heads for an outer-core office building where you’ll meet your colleagues. After you get out, the vehicle parks itself in a convenient municipal garage to await your return. Private cars are banned inside most city cores. Moving sidewalks and electrams carry the public from one location to another.

With the U.S. population having soared to 350 million, 2008 transportation is among the most important factors keeping the economy running smoothly. Giant transportation hubs called modemixers are located anywhere from 15 to 50 mi. outside all major urban centers. Tube trains, pushed through bores by compressed air, make the trip between modemixer and central city in 10 to 15 minutes.

A major feature of most modemixers is the launching pad from which 200-passenger rockets blast off for other continents. For less well-heeled travelers there are SST and hypersonic planes that carry 200 to 300 passengers at speeds up to 4,000 mph. Short trips— between cities less than 1,000 mi. apart—are handled by slower jumbo jets.

Homes in Mi’s 80th year are practically self-maintaining. Electrostatic precipitators clean the air and climatizers maintain the temperature and humidity at optimum levels. Robots are available to do housework and other simple chores. New materials for siding and interiors are self-cleaning and never peel, chip or crack.

Dwellings for the most part are assembled from prefabricated modules, which can be attached speedily in the configuration that best suits the homeowner. Once the foundation is laid, attaching the modules to make up a two- or three-bedroom house is a job that doesn’t take more than a day. Such modular homes easily can be expanded to accommodate a growing family. A typical wedding present for the 21st century newlyweds is a fully equipped bedroom, kitchen or living room module.

Other conveniences ease kitchenwork. The housewife simply determines in advance her menus for the week, then slips prepackaged meals into the freezer and lets the automatic food utility do the rest. At preset times, each meal slides into the microwave oven and is cooked or thawed. The meal then is served on disposable plastic plates. These plates, as well as knives, forks and spoons of the same material, are so inexpensive they can be discarded after use.

The single most important item in 2008 households is the computer. These electronic brains govern everything from meal preparation and waking up the household to assembling shopping lists and keeping track of the bank balance. Sensors in kitchen appliances, climatizing units, communicators, power supply and other household utilities warn the computer when the item is likely to fail. A repairman will show up even before any obvious breakdown occurs.

Computers also handle travel reservations, relay telephone messages, keep track of birthdays and anniversaries, compute taxes and even figure the monthly bills for electricity, water, telephone and other utilities. Not every family has its private computer. Many families reserve time on a city or regional computer to serve their needs. The machine tallies up its own services and submits a bill, just as it does with other utilities.

Money has all but disappeared. Employers deposit salary checks directly into their employees’ accounts. Credit cards are used for paying all bills. Each time you buy something, the card’s number is fed into the store’s computer station. A master computer then deducts the charge from your bank balance.

Computers not only keep track of money, they make spending it easier. TV-telephone shopping is common. To shop, you simply press the numbered code of a giant shopping center. You press another combination to zero in on the department and the merchandise in which you are interested. When you see what you want, you press a number that signifies “buy,” and the household computer takes over, places the order, notifies the store of the home address and subtracts the purchase price from your bank balance. Much of the family shopping is done this way. Instead of being jostled by crowds, shoppers electronically browse through the merchandise of any number of stores.

People have more time for leisure activities in the year 2008. The average work day is about four hours. But the extra time isn’t totally free. The pace of technological advance is such that a certain amount of a jobholder’s spare time is used in keeping up with the new developments—on the average, about two hours of home study a day.

Most of this study is in the form of programmed TV courses, which can be rented or borrowed from tape _ * libraries. In fact most schooling—from first grade through college—consists of programmed TV courses or lectures via closed circuit. Students visit a campus once or twice a week for personal consultations or for lab work that has to be done on site. Progress of each student is followed by computer, which assigns end term marks on the basis of tests given throughout the term.

Besides school lessons, other educational material is available for TV viewing. You simply press a combination of buttons and the pages flash on your home screen. The world’s information is available to you almost instantaneously.

TV screens cover an entire wall in most homes and show most subjects other than straight text matter in color and three dimensions. In addition to programmed TV and the multiplicity of commercial fare, you can see top Broadway shows, hit movies and current nightclub acts for a nominal charge. Best-selling books are on TV tape and can be borrowed or rented from tape libraries.

A typical vacation in 2008 is to spend a week at an undersea resort, where your hotel room window looks out on a tropical underwater reef, a sunken ship or an ancient, excavated city. Available to guests are two- and three-person submarines in which you can cruise well-marked underwater trails. Another vacation is a stay on a hotel satellite. The rocket ride to the satellite and back, plus the vistas of earth and moon, make a memorable vacation jaunt.

While city life in 2008 has changed greatly, the farm has altered even more. Farmers are business executives running operations as automated as factories. TV scanners monitor tractors and other equipment computer programmed to plow, harrow and harvest. Wires imbedded in the ground send control signals to the machines. Computers also keep track of yields-, fertilization, soil composition and other factors influencing crops. At the beginning of each year, a print-out tells the farmer what to plant where, how much to fertilize and how much yield he can expect.

Farming isn't confined to land. Mariculturists have turned areas of the sea into beds of protein-rich seaweed and algae. This raw material is processed into food that looks and tastes like steak and other meats. It also is cheap; families can have steak-like meals twice a day without feeling a budget pinch. Areas in bays or close to shore have been turned into shrimp, lobster, clam and other shellfish ranches, like the cattle spreads of yesteryear.

Medical research has guaranteed that most babies born in the 21st century will live long and healthy lives. Heart disease has virtually been eliminated by drugs and diet. If hearts or other major organs do give trouble, they can be replaced with artificial organs.

Medical examinations are a matter of sitting in a diagnostic chair for a minute or two, then receiving a full health report. Ultrasensitive microphones and electronic sensors in the chair's headrest, back and armrests pick up heartbeat, pulse, breathing rate, galvanic skin response, blood pressure, nerve reflexes and other medical signs. A computer attached to the chair digests these responses, compares them to the normal standard and prints out a full medical report.

No need to worry about failing memory or intelligence either. The intelligence pill is another 21st century commodity. Slow learners or people struck with forgetful-ness are given pills which increase the production of enzymes controlling production of the chemicals known to control learning and memory. Everyone is able to use his full mental potential.

Despite the fact that the year 2008 is only 40 years away—as far ahead as 1928 is in the past—it will be a world as strange to us as our time (1968) would be to the pilgrims.


Monday, 7 April 2008

Kiel Canal

The world`s busiest artificial waterway, the KIEL-CANAL (known in Germany as the NORD-OSTSEE-KANAL) runs for almost 100 km right through Schleswig-Holstein - from Brunsbüttel to Kiel-Holtenau - and links the North Sea with the Baltic. An average of 250 nautical miles will be saved by using the KIEL-CANAL instead of the way around Skaw. During its building phases naval strategies were important - today the KIEL-CANAL is the basis for the trade between the countries of the Baltic area with the rest of the world.


Saturday, 5 April 2008

Murphy's Other Fifteen Laws

1. Light travels faster than sound. This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.

2. A fine is a tax for doing wrong. A tax is a fine for doing well.

3. He, who laughs last, thinks slowest.

4. A day without sunshine is like, well, night.

5. Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

6. Those who live by the sword get shot by those who don't.

7. Nothing is foolproof to a sufficiently talented fool.

8. The 50-50-90 rule: Anytime you have a 50-50 chance of getting something right, there's a 90% probability you'll get it wrong.

9. It is said that if you line up all the cars in the world end-to-end, someone would be stupid enough to try to pass them.

10. If the shoe fits, get another one just like it.

11. The things that come to those that wait, may be the things left by those who got there first.

12. Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will sit in a boat all day drinking beer.

13. Flashlight: A case for holding dead batteries.

14. The shin bone is a device for finding furniture in the dark.

15. When you go into court, you are putting yourself in the hands of twelve people, who weren't smart enough to get out of jury duty.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Elementary, my dear Watson

This phrase was never uttered by the character in any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's written works. Though "Elementary," and " dear Watson." both do appear near the beginning of The Crooked Man (1893), it is the " dear Watson" that appears first, and "Elementary" is the succinct reply to Watson's exclamation a few lines of dialogue later. This is the closest these four immortal words ever appear together in the canon.

The association of this quote with the Sherlock Holmes character likely comes from the closing lines of the 1929 film The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

See "Elementary, my dear Watson" and other Famous Misquotations at

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Descartes quote

The story goes that Mrs Descartes was throwing a New Year's party to celebrate the arrival of 1630 and had spent weeks preparing. She had invited all the local jet (equestrian?) setters.

Moments before the guests started to arrive she instructed Descartes that the pastries on the table to the side were not to be eaten until after midnight to make sure there was enough food to keep the guests from leaving too soon. To make sure, she tasked Rene with the job of guarding them until an hour or so after midnight at which time she would invite the guests to help themselves. Though deep in thought, he agreed to mind the table.

As the party got into full swing, Descartes found himself in an absorbing philosophical discussion with Vandyke over why Titian removed a church from the Venetian background in one of his paintings. To hear each other better, the two wandered away from the crowd, in the direction of the forbidden baked goods.

Without Descartes noticing, Vandyke starting munching thoughfully on a pastry. Suddenly Descartes snapped out of his thoughts and realised what Vandyke was doing. His reaction surprised Vandyke who figured that Descartes surely must have just thought of something of great significance. Discretely, Descartes wrote a message on a napkin and handed it to Vandyke so as not to attract his wife's attention. However, just at that moment they were interrupted, which meant Vandyke could only stuff the napkin into his pocket for later.

The next morning he removed the napkin to see what profundity his friend had bequeathed him and, sure enough, there scrawled in Descartes hand was an expression of timeless insight, "I think they're for 1 am."

Tuesday, 1 April 2008


Within mathematics Descartes did a great deal, but his name is most often used as the adjective in "cartesian coordinates". That refers to the way we graph things with one set of numbers labeled along one (usually horizontal) line and another along a line at right angles to the first (so they can also be called rectilinear coordinates, but cartesian seems to be used far more often) and associate pairs of numbers with points in the plane that contains those two lines. (When I was younger, cartesian was usually written with an upper-case C, but such formality seems to have disappeared now.)

By using this scheme Descartes made it possible to connect geometry and algebra or arithmetic. The power of this connection in solving problems in both fields has been enormous. He did a lot of other things that come up in a History of Mathematics class, but this is where a typical student hears his name.