Nicely Said

When I come across something I think is particularly well written or well said, or that I admire for the writer’s creative choice of words, effective syntax, and clarity of thought, I like to share it with you.

“With reform measures, support is often a mile wide and an inch deep,” Kousser said.
Field Poll: More California voters prefer spending cuts, not taxes, to close deficit
Sacramento Bee editorial, March 5, 2010

Thad Kousser is a University of California, San Diego, political science professor who worked on the Field Poll.

I like that “mile wide, inch deep” description of voter support for reform measures. Reform is good, in general, until you discover it will affect you as well.

“The old joke is that General Motors is just a health insurance company that makes cars on the side,”San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Adam Hill said during a pension presentation at a recent board meeting. “My concern is that the county government is becoming a pension provider that provides government services on the side.”
The Public Eye: Pension promises threaten California cities, counties
Sacramento Bee blog
April 11, 2010

This concisely sums up the level to which California’s state and local governments have descended, thanks to the pure greed of government employee unions and the equally culpable politicians who signed off on labor contracts with extravagant pensions and benefits.

More and more of our tax dollars flow to comfortable pensions for public employees while less and less trickles to the government services we all rely on, including education, law enforcement, and repairing our streets and highways.

Our state’s unfunded public pension liability may be as high as half-a-trillion dollars, according to a report done by Stanford University graduate students.

And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then from hour to hour, we rot and rot:
And thereby hangs a tale.
From Shakespeare’s As You Like It

Ask any aging baby-boomer about this. It’s not how we like it.

“The law is an ass”
In Ch
arles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, when the character Mr. Bumble is informed that “the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction,” Mr. Bumble replies, “If the law supposes that … the law is a [sic] ass—a [sic] idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.”

Amen to that, Mr. Bumble! I often think of your perceptive remark whenever I come across a ridiculous law completely divorced from reality, that solves nothing and may actually make matters worse.

Bumble is right! Proof the law can be an ass:

  • In Virginia, tickling a woman is unlawful
  • A North Dakota law says it’s illegal to lie down and fall asleep with your shoes on
  • Oklahoma law forbids taking a bite out of another person’s hamburger
  • An Oregon law requires dishes to be drip-dried
  • You may not bite off another person’s leg, so says a law in Rhode Island
  • It is illegal not to drink milk in Utah
  • In Nebraska, bar owners may not sell beer unless they brew a kettle of soup simultaneously
  • Mispronounce “Arkansas” and you break a law in that state
  • And in my state, California, a law forbids eating an orange in your bathtub

See asinine laws for all 50 states in a wonderful article by Annie Tucker Morgan, I’m Under Arrest for What? Fifty Bizarre US Laws, at

“I think Apple knows how to teach people about things they don’t yet know they want”
Michael Gartenberg, Altimeter Group (a strategy consulting firm focused on emerging technologies), commenting on  iPhone upgrade.

This just about sums up Apple’s marketing brilliance.

Copyright © The National Human Genome Research Institute

Something we learned from the Human Genome Project is that the entire 6 billion-member human species goes back 7,000 generations to an original population of about 60,000 people. Our species has only a modest amount of genetic variation — the DNA of any two humans is 99.9 percent identical.
Garrison Keillor, The Writer’s Almanac for June 26, 2010

“It was on this date that rival scientific teams completed the first rough map of the human genome. “

What profound information is packed into those two sentences! Only one-tenth of one percent of my DNA makes me a distinct individual; in every other way, down to the smallest detail, I am identical (or at least my DNA is) to any other human being. When I read that, I’m reminded of Matthew Arnold’s “The same heart beats in every human breast.”

And 7,000 generations! Think of all the life stories that have happened as generation after generation unfolds, “struts and frets its hour upon the stage,” and then makes way for a new generation and new stories.

And who were these 60,000 original people?

And, most important, what’s the point? Are we just vehicles for our genes?

Just found this:

“Researchers at London’s Kew Gardens said Thursday they’d discovered that the Paris japonica has a genetic code 50 times longer than that of a human being. The length of that code easily beats its nearest competitor, a long-bodied muck dweller known as the marbled lungfish.”
Claim: White flower has world’s longest genome

This speaks to the marvelous efficiency of the
human genome. Think of the early computers that would fill a room and weigh several tons, while today you can hold a computer in the palm of your hand that is thousands of times more powerful.

I’m reading The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. That illustration of a cell with its DNA spilled pulled out? It could represent a normal cell in your body, or one that spells your doom:

“A cancer cell is an astonishing perversion of the normal cell. Cancer is a phenomenally successful invader and colonizer in part because it exploits the very features that make us successful as a species or as an organism.

“Like the normal cell, the cancer cell relies on growth in the most basic elemental sense: the division of one cell to form two. In normal tissues, this process is exquisitely regulated, such that growth is stimulated by specific signals and arrested by other signals. In cancer, unbridled growth gives rise to generation upon generation of cells.

“Biologists use the term clone to describe cells that share a common genetic ancestor. Cancer, we now know, is a clonal disease. Nearly every known cancer originates from one ancestral cell that, having acquired the capacity of limitless cell division and survival, gives rise to limitless numbers of descendants… 

“But cancer is not simply a clonal disease; it is a clonally evolving disease. If growth occurred without evolution, cancer cells would not be imbued with their potent capacity to invade, survive, and metastasize. Every generation of cancer cells creates a small number of cells that is genetically different from its parents.”

Cartoon from an article “What makes you you? Ask your genome”

The cure to cancer, the secret of immortality, may result from unlocking the human genome.

“And the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.'”
Genesis 3:22


“There is a wonderful reason that explains why human beings have developed two different minds. it is because in the whole world there are really only two problems. I’ve always found that to be a comforting thought, only two problems in the whole world. One problem is, “you know what you want but you don’t know how to get it”, and the only other problem is, “you don’t know what you want.”

Steven Snyder, quoted in a recent Productive Living email from David Allen, author of Getting Things Done.

I thought what Snyder says here is interesting, so I did a little research on him, see what other pearls of wisdom he has. Oh, boy. Lots of hype, “one of world’s foremost experts on Accelerated Learning.” Claims to have read a book a day when he was only three years old.

My interest in what Snyder has to say evaporated with his “Dialogue of Two Minds“, where BrainMind and HeartMind have a little tête-à-tête and decide to collaborate to achieve “success, love, health, and happiness.” BrainMind will FOCUS, be the steering wheel, and HeartMind will contribute PASSION & DRIVE, be the gas pedal.

Have you noticed that the Brits never produce boorishly written claptrap like this? Only in America do you have this how-to-succeed-in-business psycho-babel.



Homonyms, Homophones, and Other Confusingly Similar Words

Homonyms are two or more words that share the same spelling, or the same pronunciation, or both, but have different meanings and origins.

Homonyms come in two basic flavors:

Homographs are words with the same sound and the same spelling but different meanings. An example is bear. You have bear as in manage to tolerate (“I can barely bear Steve’s jokes”) and bear as in the big, furry mammal (“Steve was about to tell his stupid Smokey-the-Bear joke, so I ran out of the room”). Another example is spring (the season), spring (leap suddenly), and spring (that metal coil thingy that absorbs movement).

Homophones are also words pronounced the same but that have different meanings. Unlike homographs, homophones have different spellings. The English language has many more homophones than homonyms. Just a few examples:  red/read, here/hear, there/their, write/right and  blew/blue.

If you find yourself noticing homographs, homophones, and other confusingly similar words, please leave a comment with your favorites.

Here’s a few of my favorite homophones…

canvas firmly woven cloth; a sail
canvass detailed examination; survey

chord group of musical notes
cord length of rope or stack of wood

cousin the child of your aunt or uncle
cozen to cheat; to defraud

gristle cartilage: tough elastic tissue
grizzle To make or become gray

lean lacking in fat
lean to incline or bend from a vertical position
lien legal right to a debtor’s property

sleight stratagem; dexterity (sleight of hand)
slight slim; frail; meager

timber growing trees or their wood
timbre quality given to a sound by its overtones

Let’s go back to canvas and canvass.

According to my well-thumbed copy of The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories, these two words have a common ancestor… Marijuana! Read on:

“Canvas cloth is often made of hemp. Cannabis, the Latin ancestor of canvas, was the classical Latin word for hemp and is, in modern scientific Latin, the generic name for the hemp plant, or marijuana. It probably also has the same non-Indo-European ancestor as hemp.

At one time it was a popular sport or, when carried to extremes, an effective punishment to toss a person in a canvas sheet. The Duke of Gloucester, in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part I, threatens the Bishop of Winchester with similar treatment:

Thou that contrivedst to murther our dead lord,
Thou that giv’st whores indulgences to sin.
I’ll canvass thee in thy broad cardinal’s hat
If thou proceed in this thy insolence.

It is not difficult to see how extended senses like ‘to beat or buffet’, ‘to attack’, or ‘to thrash out or discuss’ developed from figurative use of the verb canvass. The evolution of the familiar sense ‘to solicit support’, which appeared early, is unfortunately not clear.”

So there you are: canvas and canvass, two homophones that have different meanings but a common Latin root, which happens to be pot!

See my master list of all the homonyms, homophones, and other confusingly similar words I’ve posted to date

What’s In A Word: Cherry-pick

Whenever I come across  cherry-pick, it catches my attention. But laziness has always always overcome my curiosity about the origin of this word.

Until now.

I was reading an LA Times article about charter schools. Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are not under the thumb of school district bureaucrats.

Freedom from the rules and regulations that govern public schools comes with a catch: charter schools must deliver results. It’s all spelled out in the school charter.

Opponents claim charter schools succeed at the expense of public schools. An educator in the Times article accused charter school operators of cherry-picking the best students.

That’s quite a visual: cherry-picking the best students. This time I put my newspaper down and went to the online dictionaries to see why cherry-pick is so expressive.

At I found this:

cher·ry-pick [cher-ee-pik]

–verb (used with object)
1. to select with great care: You can cherry-pick your own stereo components.

–verb (used without object)
2. (in retail use) to buy only the sale items and ignore the other merchandise.

Not satisfied with that bland definition, I went to and discovered a definition closer to my understanding of cherry-pick. Cherry-picking, I think, is not exactly cheating, but pretty damn close.

(tr) to choose or take the best or most profitable of (a number of things), esp for one’s own benefit or gain cherry-pick the best routes

But it was at that I found an explanation that jibes with my understanding of cherry-pick.

The term cherry picking likely originates with the process of picking fruit from a tree [well, DUH!]. When picking a type of fruit, such as cherries, a person might search for only the best cherries, such as those that are the healthiest. By only picking the best cherries, another person who sees the harvest might make the incorrect assumption that all cherries on the tree are as healthy.

The charter school opponent picked the perfect way to describe his beef with charter schools.

He went on to say, “Each child is unique. Some cherries are bigger than others. Some riper. Some slower to mature. Some easier to bruise and faster to spoil.”

Individual attention, not cherry-picking, is a better way to raise a school’s performance levels in reading and math. All students benefit.

Wisegeek has a full explanation of cherry-pick in all its connotations. Check it out here.

The wording on this poster I found on the web better describes "pettifogging" (definition below) than cherry-picking. Here's my new definition of cherry-picking: to achieve unearned success by preselecting only the best. A related expression is "stack the deck" -- to manipulate events, information, etc., especially unethically, in order to achieve an advantage or desired result.

 verb (used without object), -fogged, -fog·ging.

  1. to bicker or quibble over trifles or unimportant matters.
  2. to carry on a petty, shifty, or unethical law business.
  3. to practice chicanery of any sort

One way to stop cherry picking. Or is it a metaphor for kids (all kids, not just the best students) trapped in public schools where school district bureaucrats forbid innovation by parents, teachers and principals?