The Devil’s dictionary, Dec. 4 update

See the complete Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases here.

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note: all entries in the Devil’s Dictionary copyright 2016 by Russ Hodge

digestion  a process that plays an essential role in an organism’s health by undoing the negative effects of eating. This requires aggressive enzymes that are contained in a sort of high-security facility called the gut, which prevents them from escaping and digesting the organism they reside in. Digestion is also crucial to the long-term maintenance of ecological systems. Without it, large organisms would eat all the smaller organisms and exhaust the food supply. Digestion returns those at the top of the food chain to the bottom in the following way: a large organism eats another large organism, thereby breaking it down into smaller units so that it can be eaten by organisms with smaller mouths; their digestion, in turn, reduces this matter into even smaller units that can be eaten by other organisms with even smaller mouths, and so on, until the units are so small that they can be eaten by microbes, which have no mouths at all. That’s not the end of it; the process continues to the level of molecules, quarks, superstrings, and stops just before reaching infinitismity. Each passage through a digestive system performs a public service by removing toxins that would otherwise kill the smaller species that feed on its feces. Digestion is the main piece of evidence for the “Giant Robot” school of evolutionary theory, which claims that multicellular organisms arose as the most efficient way for bacteria to reach the food that is stored on high shelves.

conglomerate  an entity consisting of several partners, usually institutes or businesses, which have been joined together, thereby forming a glom. The precise historical meaning of “glom” has been lost, but it most likely referred to the sticky masses of alcohol, bodily secretions, cigarette butts, and other detritus of human civilization that fall to the floor of a bar and become glued together, forming gloms. EU collaborations or multinational corporations are examples of conglomerates.

corroborate  derived from the verb “to rob,” meaning to commit a theft. To corroborate means to join together in a gang or band to commit a crime, usually intellectual in nature.

postulate  to proclaim something while standing on a post: a precarious position from which one can easily be knocked off by the wind, a cow, or the shotgun of a rancher who does not look kindly upon trespassers who stand on his posts.

to deliberate – to consider a topic in a group for the time required to take into account all relevant points of view and as many irrelevant ones as can be produced in the time that is available. This happens most often in a situation such as a faculty meeting where attendance is compulsory and everyone must stay to the end, which places deliberations, from a legal point of view, into a grey area between kidnaping and hostage-taking. The amount of time required for a deliberation depends on the amount of time it ought to take a single person to come to a decision and the number of participants (n). If ten minutes would normally suffice, the time needed for a deliberation can be calculated according to the following formula:

Time = 10n

range  a defined finite space whose boundaries are often described by numbers, in which a cow or another free-roaming object, such as a piece of data, wanders aimlessly about in a leisurely and random manner, sometimes stopping to eat something it finds on the ground, such as a boot, a weed, or a dead armadillo, chewing it repetitively for as long as it takes until it can be swallowed. “Ranging from 1 to 5” indicates the position of the fences that border this space, which an item within the range should not cross. Otherwise it risks being electrocuted by the fence or shot by the farmer whose land begins on the other side.

 

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Cussing in Kansas

 

 

The Devil’s dictionary, Nov. 16 update

See the complete Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases here.

 

note: all entries in the Devil’s dictionary are copyright 2016 by Russ Hodge.

break  as in, to break something  the first stage of reverse engineering, which is a technical skill that forms the basis of pirating software, technology, or the secret recipe for Colonel Sander’s Fried Chicken, which one of my aunts claimed to have reverse engineered and shortly thereafter was never heard from again. Reverse engineering is based on the principle that a technology can be replicated by breaking it into its functional parts, making counterfeits of them, and then assembling the new pieces in the same way as the original. Ideally this is accomplished following the same steps as disassembly but in the reverse order, although minor detours are commonplace, especially if you didn’t take very good notes. Reverse engineering always results in one screw too many or one too few. This has to do with the law of conservation of mass and energy, which dictates that a thing can’t simply disappear without some transfer of mass or energy; otherwise this creates a wormhole or some violation of the space-time continuum and may destroy the entire universe. Thus the extra screw is to make up for the one that was missing the last time.

Break is used for both physical and metaphysical objects, but typically not for whole living organisms; you won’t find “break a cell,” for example, although you can crack them, and it’s also fun to blow them up with the microinjector. If you do find the word “break” in an expression such as “break a horse” (one can’t “break a mule”), or “break a predoc,” or “break yo momma,” the meaning is metaphorical – it is the spirit of the bull, or the momma, or the PhD student that is being broken in some abstract manner. Break can be used with body parts, usually those that are more solid: “break an arm,” and “break some heads,” but some softer parts are included as exceptions: “break your heart,” “broke his brain,” “frequently breaks wind during committee meetings.”

In common usage break bears many negative connotations – dismemberment, disease, death – but also many positive ones (coffee break, break a leg, marriage break). The majority of engineers, but not biologists, claim a broken object originally set them on the path to a scientific career. The parents were out, something broke, it had to be fixed before the parents returned. With furniture it could be done, and maybe the electronics – not so much the pets.

fact  an observation about the identity, quality, or characteristics of something that two people can agree on despite differences in their moods, religious beliefs, gender, or political persuasions, or the number of goats that live in their houses, suggesting that the observation has objective value. Certain things can never be facts, even if their validity is extensively documented and can be measured: the age or degree of fatness of a spouse, the birthplace of a President, or the amount of taxes a person ought to pay. In the United States, since about 2008, there have been no facts at all.

reductio ad absurdum  explaining a system or concept to a level simple enough that a human with an average level of education can understand it without the help of a computer. Thus reductio ab absurdum is the guiding principle in writing articles for newspapers or blogs. If even then it is too complex to be understood, run the text through Google Translate using the “pirate speak” setting.

reproduction  any process that permits something to make a replica of itself, nearly always leading to the creation of something of poorer quality than the original – including photocopying, faxing, sexual intercourse, teaching, gossip, and memory. Repeated rounds of reproduction usually distort the outcome to the point that it is unrecognizeable.

open source  a code phrase which you use to inform someone higher in your institutional hierarchy that his fly is open. In recent years it has been used metaphorically to refer to efforts that involve community action and a free exchange of information, the way that the entire community at the party is aware that the department chairman’s fly is open, and in the open source philosophy it would be unethical to withold that information, so you share it freely with everyone, along with any speculations you wish to share freely about the reason it is open. The open source philosophy predicts that at some point in this process, the chairman will inevitably become aware that his fly is open. If only by the fact that all eyes are pointedly averted from it.

 

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On the publication of “Remote Sensing” by the magazine Occulto

 

 

New cartoons – October 11

Today’s features include the mitotic spindle – drawn for my good friend Eric Karsenti, retirement parties for proteins, and existential questions upon the fusion of sperm and egg.

As always, feel free to repost and send to friends, citing “copyright 2016 by Russ Hodge, http://www.goodsciencewriting.wordpress.com.”

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