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Let’s chat

It’s funny, I’ve noticed that one learns a lot of vocabulary in science-fiction. This is also true to a lesser degree in fantasy, but it’s mostly science-fiction in my experience. Before you say this is obvious, know that I don’t mean only technical terms. I’ve mentioned that I recently watched Firefly again, and this one popped out at me for the first time:

Palaver, noun & verb. e18

A noun.

1 In W. Africa: a dispute, a contest. e18

b hist. A talk, a conference, a parley, esp. between (African) tribespeople and traders or travellers. m18.


a Unnecessary, profuse, or idle talk. m18.

b Cajolery, flattery. m18.

3 Business, concern. W. Afr. colloq. l19.

4 A tiresome or lengthy business; (a) fuss, (a) bother; trouble. colloq. l19.

B verb.

1 verb trans. cajole, flatter, wheedle, (a person). Also folk. by into, out of. e18.

2 verb intrans. Talk unnecessarily, profusely, or idly; jabber. m18.

The origin of palaver is uncertain, but it’s probably West African pidgin from the Portuguese palavra from the Latin parabola, meaning parable.

I was astonished because in all the times I’ve seen the episode (“Shindig”), I didn’t hear it. This time it was different only because the writer appears in the commentary track, and she mentioned that because the word is no longer in common use, no one knew how to pronounce it. This is doubly strange because I’m pretty sure I’ve heard that commentary track before. Not all of it, apparently.


Hypergolic Capable of spontaneous inflammation on contact; hypergolic propellants are useful for spacecraft propulsion. An example is the mixture of dinitrogen tetroxide, N2O4, and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine, (CH3)2NNH2, which was used by Apollo astronauts to leave the Moon’s surface.

The New Penguin Dictionary of Science, M.J. Clugston, 1998

I certainly didn’t conceive of a fuel/oxidizer combination that would spontaneously ignite, but what a great idea! The folks planning the lunar landings couldn’t have felt comfortable with the astronauts on the surface relying on a single engine to get them back to the command module. If anything went wrong with that engine, the astronauts on the surface would stay there for the rest of their very short lives. The lunar module did end up using only one engine, but it’s dead-simple. Ignition requires only opening the valves to the oxidizer and fuel tanks. The two liquids flow to the rocket engine, come into contact, and spontaneously ignite. There’s no ignition system to fail. It’s elegant in its simplicity.

On the downside, this particular bipropellant combination is very toxic with dinitrogen tetroxide being corrosive and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine a carcinogen that the skin easily absorbs. Every rose has its prickles.

How much do you like cheese?

I’ve learned two new words today!

They are caseophile and turophile. They should probably only count as a single word because they both mean the same thing: a connoisseur or lover of cheese. During our departmental meeting this morning, one of my co-workers mentioned that there’s a cheese shop in the west end of town so I looked it up. It’s called Serious Cheese, and I saw the words in the Serious Cheese blog.

So why are there two very different words for the same thing?

To my great surprise, neither word appears in the Shorter Oxford! Expanding my search to the web at large, it seems that cāseus is Latin and turos is Greek, and they both translate to the English word, cheese.

In my mind, cheese translates to yum!

Stupid much?

With great interest I read John Timmer’s article for Ars Technica called, “Kentucky lawmakers shocked to find evolution in biology tests.” They were surprised because although the state government has tried to get evolution removed from the state curriculum, the federal government determines the content of nationwide standardized tests, and with evolution having such strong scientific support, both in terms of scientists and evidence, it is featured prominently in the standardized tests.

The article quotes Senator David Givens,

I would hope that creationism is presented as a theory in the classroom, in a science classroom, alongside evolution.

What the senator fails to understand is that the word ‘theory’ in the context of science, has a very specific meaning. Creationism certainly does not qualify. Not only is it not a scientific theory, it’s not science at all.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines theory in the commonly used sense the senator using:

loosely. An unsubstantiated hypothesis ; a speculative (esp. fanciful ) view.

The same dictionary defines theory in a scientific context:

A system of ideas or statements explaining something, esp. one based on general principles independent of the things to be explained ; a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment and is accepted as accounting for known facts.

The theory of evolution fulfils the requirements of this definition nicely.

The article goes on to quote Representative Ben Waide,

The theory of evolution is a theory, and essentially the theory of evolution is not science — Darwin made it up.

Under the most rudimentary, basic scientific examination, the theory of evolution has never stood up to scientific scrutiny.

Waide has one characteristic in common with the perfect crime: no clue. Evolution is indeed a scientific theory, just as gravity is a scientific theory. In fact, we know more about how evolution works than about how gravity works. Does Waide think Newton made up gravity, and it doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny?

These guys would be a hoot if they weren’t responsible for helping to run the government. Their incredible ignorance can, and does, cause real harm.

Talking type

I often use this space to bitch. I also won’t apologize because if it really bothers you, you’ve long since gone elsewhere. In this entry however, I will tell you about a peeve of mine, and explain why it bugs me.

If you know me, you likely also know that I’m a bit of a type nerd. You’ll notice that I didn’t say I’m a font nerd. Being a type nerd, I know that font doesn’t mean what most people think it means.


A font is a particular typeface, in a specific style and size. For example, 10 pt Helvetica bold is a font. Both 11 pt Helvetica bold and 10 pt Helvetica italic are different fonts.

Type style

A type style is a particular typeface in a specific style. For example, Helvetica bold is a type style.


A typeface includes all the styles and sizes. For example, Helvetica is a typeface. This is what most people mean when they say font.

As with most terms, not everyone uses them in exactly the same way. Style describes a variety of permutations like roman, italic, bold, and small caps, while type style generally refers to the definition above, but the terms are often used interchangeably. Most type terms are used in multiple ways, but context often makes the meaning clear. Context is why I know most people mean typeface when they say font.

Knowing this, font may seem so specific that it’s not much use. I largely agree, which is why you’ve probably never heard me use the word. The term was more important in the past however, when changing the size of text was not as simple as entering the required point size in a field.

Before computerized type, presses used metal letters that were manually set into place, thus the term typesetting. If you wanted a different font, you had to get it as you couldn’t simply change the size of the metal letters you had. This is also why the companies that produce type are often called foundries. When type was metal, making it required an actual foundry.

In the early days of computer type, fonts were truly fonts … they were bitmapped and not scalable. If you had only 12 pt Helvetica normal, you didn’t have Helvetica normal at any other size or style. Even after scalable fonts appeared, bitmapped fonts remained for a time because scalable type wasn’t as clean at small sizes. Today, bitmapped fonts are largely unknown for print, but they have limited use for on-screen display.

Times, they are a changing. And the changes haven’t stopped yet!

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