I’ve been keeping an eye on Randall Munroe for years now. By which I mean – not to be all stalkery or anything – enjoying his stick-man comic strip. You have to (no, really, you do) applaud a guy who finds enough funny in the idea of context free grammars to make it today’s cartoon.

[audience looks around] ‘What just happened?’ ‘There must be some context we’re missing.’

It’s not so much that you had to be there. Although in this case you do as most of the humour is in the image’s title which you shall encounter only if you hover over it with your mouse (I add, possibly unnecessarily) on the actual website.

But he’s recently started up a new site. His drawings are no longer in strip form. Instead they illustrate answers to questions posed by fans. Here’s a bleeding chunk from his discussion of the robot apocalypse.

He talks about how probably the only large group of people who’d be hurt in such a scenario are those who’d be driving around when it happens:

While the cars might be able to control the throttle and disable the power steering, the driver would still control the steering wheel, which has direct mechanical linkage to the wheels. The driver could also pull the parking brake, although I know from experience how easily a car can drive with one of those on. Some cars might try to disable the drivers by deploying the air bags, then roll over or drive into things. In the end, our cars would probably take a heavy toll, but not a decisive one.

So probably the most at-risk-from-robots bunch of humans on the planet is the same as the most at-risk bunch of humans on the planet. Interesting. Yet, not. Hmmm.


Something odd going on at the UK’s department of education. They’re tweeting like crazy (perhaps I exaggerate), insisting that creationism cannot be taught as science in ‘free’ schools.

Free schools – or free-range schools if you prefer to think of education as a jolly romp through open cornfields under blue skies rather than the spike-fenced iron-trammelled roads of statist indoctrination – are largely (but by no means exclusively) religious, private, often quite expensive.

They’re saying that this is because it’s not allowed in state schools, and this is how they’re saying it:

@educationgovuk: Let’s be clear about creationism in free schools. No state-funded school is allowed to use science lessons to teach creationism as fact

I suppose warning bells should be ringing here. Advertised as a statement about creationism in free schools, the tweet veers into the arena of state schools. OK, perhaps a little careless. Let’s try another.

@educationgovuk: It is absolutely not true that free schools will be able to teach creationism as scientific fact. No state school can.

A pretty authoritative statement there. No beating about the bush. Clarity! Good for them. The link will doubtless connect what happens in state schools with what happens in free ones.

The trouble is that it doesn’t. The jobbie in the above – a FAQ (not even an official policy document) – says, with regard to creationism:

[Q] Are Free Schools permitted to teach creationism/intelligent design and obliged to teach evolution?
[A] We would expect to see evolution and its foundation topics fully included in any science curriculum. We do not expect creationism, intelligent design and similar ideas to be taught as valid scientific theories in any state funded school.

So, basically, two questions there to which the answers are, respectively, yes and no.

As anyone can see, the reference they cite is somewhat woolly with regard to what is and what is not permitted as state education. It doesn’t at all prevent C/ID being taught as valid scientific theories in state schools. And it doesn’t force evolution on the poor little tykes coralled into those ungodly science classes either. The DoE just expect things to work out.

So their tweet ‘no state school can‘ isn’t backed up by their reference. Nor is there any hint that what happens in state schools can, in any case, dictate the free school agenda.

But wait – maybe we’ve just got the authority in this scenario all wrong. Maybe the FAQ on the Department of Education’s website isn’t the de facto authority. Is the Tweet Division the real power in the DoE?

I suppose it’s possible that what they tweet overrides anything they write in traditional documents. But perhaps they should make that clear to the world at large.

Inst Grat

The long-story form of a joke is designed to enhance the experience for the listener. But in our age of instant gratification and the short attention span, my listener becomes restive. Since it should be possible that a joke may remain funny if told another way, we try cutting down to the essence. Here goes:


Flood coming.
T offers escape: “Truck?” → X → “No thanks. God provides. Staying.“.
Ground floor floods, X upstairs.
B offers escape: “Boat?” → X → “No thanks. God provides. Staying.“.
Top floor floods, X on roof.
H offers escape: “Helicopter?” → X → “No thanks. God provides. Staying.“.
X drowns.
X in Heaven: “WTF?” → God → “Sent truck, boat, helicopter.


Does it still work? If not, there’s a long version available at radar.

Voice it

It is well known that a T comes out as a D if you speak like one from the USA. So one may hid a ball and not sound as if you’re using the past tense badly, or one could heed an oven with no fear of being in undue awe of white goods, or one might udder a word and not seem to be doing weird with a cow. You can get away with it since this ‘other’ read (in most cases) makes no sense.

So what might it be like if those of the USA also voice their, say, Ps?

The cob told me to wade over there, bud I shall flab my wings and fly. Buddy wants to bud cuffs on me now, so wad do I do? I need to take a bee, y’see.

And also their Ks –

Now the damn’ gob’s at me to worg on a wider line than I’m used to. It’s wider than the bride lights of the siddy – and it’s still much too gold to bee here.



Het spijt mij, says the Dutchman. Es tut mir leid, says the German. Aren’t they quaint, these teutons? Such archaic constructions, the inanimate doing stuff to passive old you, rather than the straightforward activity of the I’m sorry uttered by no-nonsense English speakers.

Be a man – take responsibility, don’t blame an unspecified – possibly inhuman – external agent. It bothers me that …


Hmm. OK, “I am bothered” then. But that’s not the same, is it? ‘Bothered‘ remains a past participle – unlike ‘sorry‘, which isn’t any kind of participle – and so still hints at an external agency having done the bothering to me. Same with annoyed, miffed, etc. And even perplexed. They’re all past participles of verbs, pointing fingers away from us. What’s going on here? What’s so special about being sorry, and how did it get there?

Is it meet it boots me wonder? (Not to go all medieval on your ass or anything).

Circles Good, Rings Bad

Why are circles wholesome and what makes rings nefarious? If you refer to your family circle as your family ring, then your family name might be Kray or Corleone. I presume that members of a Reading Ring will concentrate on works in the Index Expurgatorius. And I really don’t think I want to know you if you’re a member of a Knitting Ring. But it sounds quite cosy having the boss of a drugs circle over to dinner. I’d do it, but I don’t move in those social ri- sorry – circles. I’d openly introduce a circler instead of, sneakily, a ringer into my sports team. The Circle of Fire sounds quite relaxed, rather communal. I suppose it might be, at its scariest, a setting for tribal initiation rites, but certainly nothing volcanic.

Circling isn’t always good of course. It’s not good to be circling the drain.

But ringing it would be so much worse.

Parallel Words

Continuing the theme of nominal accidentology – the study of names which could have been otherwise, and the ensuing differences in derivatives, I want to consider the alternative universe wherein our feet are as useful at manipulation – or podipulation – as our hands. It’s based on a series of tweets emitted back in February, while our esteemed PM worked abroad as a salesman for the arms industry. That moment is passed, so we need not be so personal.

Possible changes in the English language which might have ensued, were our feet as useful as our hands:

  • We’d be able to stand legs akimbo
  • We’d have legs dealers
  • Legs dealers could be entertained with a toe buffet
  • Our politicians could flog sidelegs on trades missions
  • CND would stand for the more general Campaign for Nuclear Dismemberment
  • George Bernard Shaw’s play might have been entitled Legs and the Man
  • Abilene would famously have required surrender, on entry, of all footguns
  • Our Air Forces, Navies and Armies would be companioned with Leggies
  • We’d have a Salvation Leggy
  • There’d be a quip about someone looking “eggless enough
  • There’d be no need for the Black Knight fight scene in Jabberwocky