The Universe of Discourse

Wed, 06 Jul 2022

Things I wish everyone knew about Git (Part II)

This is a writeup of a talk I gave in December for my previous employer. It's long so I'm publishing it in several parts:

The most important material is in Part I.

It is really hard to lose stuff

A Git repository is an append-only filesystem. You can add snapshots of files and directories, but you can't modify or delete anything. Git commands sometimes purport to modify data. For example git commit --amend suggests that it amends a commit. It doesn't. There is no such thing as amending a commit; commits are immutable.

Rather, it writes a completely new commit, and then kinda turns its back on the old one. But the old commit is still in there, pristine, forever.

In a Git repository you can lose things, in the sense of forgetting where they are. But they can almost always be found again, one way or another, and when you find them they will be exactly the same as they were before. If you git commit --amend and change your mind later, it's not hard to get the old ⸢unamended⸣ commit back if you want it for some reason.

  • If you have the SHA for a file, it will always be the exact same version of the file with the exact same contents.

  • If you have the SHA for a directory (a “tree” in Git jargon) it will always contain the exact same versions of the exact same files with the exact same names.

  • If you have the SHA for a commit, it will always contain the exact same metainformation (description, when made, by whom, etc.) and the exact same snapshot of the entire file tree.

Objects can have other names and descriptions that come and go, but the SHA is forever.

(There's a small qualification to this: if the SHA is the only way to refer to a certain object, if it has no other names, and if you haven't used it for a few months, Git might discard it from the repository entirely.)

But what if you do lose something?

There are many good answers to this question but I think the one to know first is git-reflog, because it covers the great majority of cases.

The git-reflog command means:

“List the SHAs of commits I have visited recently”

When I run git reflog the top of the output says what commits I had checked out at recently, with the top line being the commit I have checked out right now:

    523e9fa1 HEAD@{0}: checkout: moving from dev to pasha
    5c31648d HEAD@{1}: pull: Fast-forward
    07053923 HEAD@{2}: checkout: moving from pr2323 to dev

The last thing I did was check out the branch named pasha; its tip commit is at 523e9f1a.

Before that, I did git pull and Git updated my local dev branch from the remote one, updating it to 5c31648d.

Before that, I had switched to dev from a different branch, pr2323. At that time, before the pull, dev referred to commit 07053923.

Farther down in the output are some commits I visited last August:

    58ec94f6 HEAD@{928}: pull --rebase origin dev: checkout 58ec94f6d6cb375e09e29a7a6f904e3b3c552772
    e0cfbaee HEAD@{929}: commit: WIP: model classes for condensedPlate and condensedRNAPlate
    f8d17671 HEAD@{930}: commit: Unskip tests that depend on standard seed data
    31137c90 HEAD@{931}: commit (amend): migrate pedigree tests into test/pedigree
    a4a2431a HEAD@{932}: commit: migrate pedigree tests into test/pedigree
    1fe585cb HEAD@{933}: checkout: moving from LAB-808-dao-transaction-test-mode to LAB-815-pedigree-extensions

Flux capacitor (magic
time-travel doohickey) from “Back to the Future”

Suppose I'm caught in some horrible Git nightmare. Maybe I deleted the entire test suite or accidentally put my Small Wonder fanfic into a commit message or overwrote the report templates with 150 gigabytes of goat porn. I can go back to how things were before. I look in the reflog for the SHA of the commit just before I made my big blunder, and then:

    git reset --hard 881f53fa

Phew, it was just a bad dream.

(Of course, if my colleagues actually saw the goat porn, it can't fix that.)

I would like to nominate Wile E. Coyote to be the mascot of Git. Because Wile E. is always getting himself into situations like this one:

Wile E., a cartoon coyote has just fired a
shotgun at Bugs Bunny.  For some reason the shotgun has fired
backwards and blown his face off, as Git sometimes does.

But then, in the next scene, he is magically unharmed. That's Git.

Finding old stuff with git-reflog

  • git reflog by itself lists the places that HEAD has been
  • git reflog some-branch lists the places that some-branch has been
  • That HEAD@{1} thing in the reflog output is another way to name that commit if you don't want to use the SHA.
  • You can abbreviate it to just @{1}.
  • The following locutions can be used with any git command that wants you to identify a commit:

    • @{17} (HEAD as it was 17 actions ago)
    • @{18:43} (HEAD as it was at 18:43 today)
    • @{yesterday} (HEAD as it was 24 hours ago)
    • dev@{'3 days ago'} (dev as it was 3 days ago)
    • some-branch@{'Aug 22'} (some-branch as it was last August 22)

    (Use with git-checkout, git-reset, git-show, git-diff, etc.)

  • Also useful:

    git show dev@{'Aug 22'}:path/to/some/file.txt

    “Print out that file, as it was on dev, as dev was on August 22”

It's all still in there.

What if you can't find it?

Don't panic! Someone with more experience can probably find it for you. If you have a local Git expert, ask them for help.

And if they are busy and can't help you immediately, the thing you're looking for won't disappear while you wait for them. The repository is append-only. Every version of everything is saved. If they could have found it today, they will still be able to find it tomorrow.

(Git will eventually throw away lost and unused snapshots, but typically not anything you have used in the last 90 days.)

What if you regret something you did?

Don't panic! It can probably put it back the way it was.

Git leaves a trail

When you make a commit, Git prints something like this:

    your-topic-branch 4e86fa23 Rework foozle subsystem

If you need to find that commit again, the SHA 4e86fa23 is in your terminal scrollback.

When you fetch a remote branch, Git prints:

       6e8fab43..bea7535b  dev        -> origin/dev

What commit was origin/dev before the fetch? At 6e8fab43. What commit is it now? bea7535b.

What if you want to look at how it was before? No problem, 6e8fab43 is still there. It's not called origin/dev any more, but the SHA is forever. You can still check it out and look at it:

    git checkout -b how-it-was-before 6e8fab43

What if you want to compare how it was with how it is now?

    git log 6e8fab43..bea7535b
    git show 6e8fab43..bea7535b
    git diff 6e8fab43..bea7535b

Git tries to leave a trail of breadcrumbs in your terminal. It's constantly printing out SHAs that you might want again.

A few things can be lost forever!

After all that talk about how Git will not lose things, I should point out the exceptions. The big exception is that if you have created files or made changes in the working tree, Git is unaware of them until you have added them with git-add. Until then, those changes are in the working tree but not in the repository, and if you discard them Git cannot help you get them back.

Good advice is Commit early and often. If you don't commit, at least add changes with git-add. Files added but not committed are saved in the repository, although they can be hard to find because they haven't been packaged into a commit with a single SHA id.

Some people automate this: they have a process that runs every few minutes and commits the current working tree to a special branch that they look at only in case of disaster.

The dangerous commands are git-reset and git-checkout

which modify the working tree, and so might wipe out changes that aren't in the repository. Git will try to warn you before doing something destructive to your working tree changes.


We saw a little while ago that Git's language for talking about commits and files is quite sophisticated:

            my-topic-branch@{'Aug 22'}:path/to/some/file.txt

Where is this language documented? Maybe not where you would expect: it's in the manual for git-rev-parse.

The git rev-parse command is less well-known than it should be. It takes a description of some object and turns it into a SHA. Why is that useful? Maybe not, but

The git-rev-parse man page explains the syntax of the descriptions Git understands.

A good habit is to skim over the manual every few months. You'll pick up something new and useful every time.

My favorite is that if you use the syntax :/foozle you get the most recent commit on the current branch whose message mentions foozle. For example:

    git show :/foozle


    git log :/introduce..:/remove

Coming next week (probably), a few miscellaneous matters about using Git more effectively.

[Other articles in category /prog/git] permanent link

Wed, 29 Jun 2022

Things I wish everyone knew about Git (Part I)

This is a writeup of a talk I gave in December for my previous employer. It's long so I'm publishing it in several parts:

How to approach Git; general strategy

Git has an elegant and powerful underlying model based on a few simple concepts:

  1. Commits are immutable snapshots of the repository
  2. Branches are named sequences of commits
  3. Every object has a unique ID, derived from its content

black and white white ink
diagram of the elegant geometry of the floor plan of a cathedral

Built atop this elegant system is a flaming trash pile.

literal dumpster fire

The command set wasn't always well thought out, and then over the years it grew by accretion, with new stuff piled on top of old stuff that couldn't be changed because Backward Compatibility. The commands are non-orthogonal and when two commands perform the same task they often have inconsistent options or are described with different terminology. Even when the individual commands don't conflict with one another, they are often badly-designed and confusing. The documentation is often very poorly written.

What this means

With a lot of software, you can opt to use it at a surface level without understanding it at a deeper level:

“I don't need to know how it works.
I just want to know which commands to run.”

This is often an effective strategy, but

with Git, this does not work.

You can't “just know which commands to run” because the commands do not make sense!

To work effectively with Git, you must have a model of what the repository is like, so that you can formulate questions like “is the repo on this state or that state?” and “the repo is in this state, how do I get it into that state?”. At that point you look around for a command that answers your question, and there are probably several ways to do what you want.

But if you try to understand the commands without the model, you will suffer, because the commands do not make sense.

Just a few examples:

  • git-reset does up to three different things, depending on flags

  • git-checkout is worse

  • The opposite of git-push is not git-pull, it's git-fetch

  • etc.

If you try to understand the commands without a clear idea of the model, you'll be perpetually confused about what is happening and why, and you won't know what questions to ask to find out what is going on.


When I first used Git it drove me almost to tears of rage and frustration. But I did get it under control. I don't love Git, but I use it every day, by choice, and I use it effectively.

The magic key that rescued me was

John Wiegley's
Git From the Bottom Up

Git From the Bottom Up explains the model. I read it. After that I wept no more. I understood what was going on. I knew how to try things out and how to interpret what I saw. Even when I got a surprise, I had a model to fit it into.

You should read it too.

That's the best advice I have. Read Wiegley's explanation. Set aside time to go over it carefully and try out his examples. It fixed me.

If I were going to tell every programmer just one thing about Git, that would be it.

The rest of this series is all downhill from here.

But if I were going to tell everyone just one more thing, it would be:

It is very hard to permanently lose work.
If something seems to have gone wrong, don't panic.
Remain calm and ask an expert.

Many more details about that are in the followup article.

[Other articles in category /prog/git] permanent link

Thu, 02 Jun 2022

Disabling the awful Macbook screen lock key

(The actual answer is at the very bottom of the article, if you want to skip my complaining.)

My new job wants me to do my work on a Macbook Pro, which in most ways is only a little more terrible than the Linux laptops I am used to. I don't love anything about it, and one of the things I love the least is the Mystery Key. It's the blank one above the delete key:

Upper right corner of a
MacBook Pro, with keys as described.

This is sometimes called the power button, and sometimes the TouchID. It is a sort of combined power-lock-unlock button. It has something to do with turning the laptop on and off, putting it to sleep and waking it up again, if you press it in the right way for the right amount of time. I understand that it can also be trained to recognize my fingerprints, which sounds like something I would want to do only a little more than stabbing myself in the eye with a fork.

If you tap the mystery button momentarily, the screen locks, which is very convenient, I guess, if you have to pee a lot. But they put the mystery button right above the delete key, and several times a day I fat-finger the delete key, tap the corner of the mystery button, and the screen locks. Then I have to stop what I am doing and type in my password to unlock the screen again.

No problem, I will just turn off that behavior in the System Preferences. Ha ha, wrong‑o. (Pretend I inserted a sub-article here about the shitty design of the System Preferences app, I'm not in the mood to actually do it.)

Fortunately there is a discussion of the issue on the Apple community support forum. It was posted nearly a year ago, and 316 people have pressed the button that says "I have this question too". But there is no answer. YAAAAAAY community support.

Here it is again. 292 more people have this question. This time there is an answer!

practice will teach your muscle memory from avoiding it.

Two business men
in suits and ties.  One is saying “Did you just tll me to go fuck
myself?” and the other is replying “I believe I did, Bob.”

This question was tough to search for. I found a lot of questions about disabling touch ID, about configuring the touch ID key to lock the screen, basically every possible incorrect permutation of what I actually wanted. I did eventually find what I wanted on Stack Exchange and on Quora — but no useful answers.

There was a discussion of the issue on Reddit:

How do you turn off the lock screen when you press the Touch ID button on MacBook Pro. Every time I press the Touch ID button it locks my screen and its super irritating. how do I disable this?

I think the answer might be my single favorite Reddit comment ever:

My suggestion would be not to press it unless you want to lock the screen. Why do you keep pressing it if that does something you don't want?

Two business men
in suits and ties.  One is saying “Did you just tll me to go fuck
myself?” and the other is replying “I believe I did, Bob.”


I did find a solution! The key to the mystery was provided by Roslyn Chu. She suggested this page from 2014 which has an incantation that worked back in ancient times. That incantation didn't work on my computer, but it put me on the trail to the right one. I did need to use the defaults command and operate on the thing, but the property name had changed since 2014. There seems to be no way to interrogate the meaningful property names; you can set anything you want, just like Unix environment variables. But The current developer documentation for the thing has the current list of properties and one of them is the one I want.

To fix it, run the following command in a terminal:

    defaults write DisableScreenLockImmediate -bool yes

They documenation claims will it will work on macOS 10.13 and later; it did work on my 12.4 system.

Something something famous Macintosh user experience.

[ The cartoon is from ]

[Other articles in category /tech] permanent link

Sat, 28 May 2022

“Llaves” and other vanishing consonants

Lately I asked:

Where did the ‘c’ go in llave (“key”)? It's from Latin clavīs

Several readers wrote in with additional examples, and I spent a little while scouring Wiktionary for more. I don't claim hat this list is at all complete; I got bored partway through the Wiktionary search results.

Spanish English Latin antecedent
llagar to wound plāgāre
llama flame flamma
llamar to summon, to call clāmāre
llano flat, level plānus
llantén plaintain plantāgō
llave key clavis
llegar to arrive, to get, to be sufficient   plicāre
lleno full plēnus
llevar to take levāre
llorar to cry out, to weep plōrāre
llover to rain pluere

I had asked:

Is this the only Latin word that changed ‘cl’ → ‘ll’ as it turned into Spanish, or is there a whole family of them?

and the answer is no, not exactly. It appears that llave and llamar are the only two common examples. But there are many examples of the more general phenomenon that

(consonant) + ‘l’ → ‘ll’

including quite a few examples where the consonant is a ‘p’.

Spanish-related notes

  • Eric Roode directed me to this discussion of “Latin CL to Spanish LL” on the language forums. It also contains discussion of analogous transformations in Italian. For example, instead of plānusllano, Italian has → piano.

  • Alex Corcoles advises me that Fundéu often discusses this sort of issue on the Fundéu web site, and also responds to this sort of question on their Twitter account. Fundéu is the Foundation of Emerging Spanish, a collaboration with the Royal Spanish Academy that controls the official Spanish language standard.

  • Several readers pointed out that although llave is the key that opens your door, the word for musical keys and for encryption keys is still clave. There is also a musical instrument called the claves, and an associated technical term for the rhythmic role they play. Clavícula (‘clavicle’) has also kept its ‘c’.

  • The connection between plicāre and llegar is not at all clear to me. Plicāre means “to fold”; English cognates include ‘complicated’, ‘complex’, ‘duplicate’, ‘two-ply’, and, farther back, ‘plait’. What this has to do with llegar (‘to arrive’) I do not understand. Wiktionary has a long explanation that I did not find convincing.

  • The levārellevar example is a little weird. Wiktionary says "The shift of an initial 'l' to 'll' is not normal".

  • Llaves also appears to be the Spanish name for the curly brace characters { and }. (The square brackets are corchetes.)

Not related to Spanish

  • The llover example is a favorite of the Universe of Discourse, because Latin pluere is the source of the English word plover.

  • French parler (‘to talk’) and its English descendants ‘parley’ and ‘parlor’ are from Latin parabola.

  • Latin plōrāre (‘to cry out’) is obviously the source of English ‘implore’ and ‘deplore’. But less obviously, it is the source of ‘explore’. The original meaning of ‘explore’ was to walk around a hunting ground, yelling to flush out the hidden game.

  • English ‘autoclave’ is also derived from clavis, but I do not know why.

  • Wiktionary's advanced search has options to order results by “relevance” and last-edited date, but not alphabetically!


  • Thanks to readers Michael Lugo, Matt Hellige, Leonardo Herrera, Leah Neukirchen, Eric Roode, Brent Yorgey, and Alex Corcoles for hints clues, and references.

[ Addendum: Andrew Rodland informs me that an autoclave is so-called because the steam pressure inside it forces the door lock closed, so that you can't scald yourself when you open it. ]

[Other articles in category /lang/etym] permanent link

Thu, 26 May 2022

Quick Spanish etymology question

Where did the ‘c’ go in llave (“key”)? It's from Latin clavīs, like in “clavicle”, “clavichord”, “clavier” and “clef”.

Is this the only Latin word that changed ‘cl’ → ‘ll’ as it turned into Spanish, or is there a whole family of them?

[ Addendum 20220528: There are more examples. ]

[Other articles in category /lang/etym] permanent link

Sat, 21 May 2022

What's long and hard?

Sometime in the previous millennium, my grandfather told me this joke:

Why is Fulton Street the hottest street in New York?

Because it lies between John and Ann.

I suppose this might have been considered racy back when he heard it from his own grandfather. If you didn't get it, don't worry, it wasn't actually funny.

cropped screenshot from Google Maps, showing
a two-block region of lower Manhattan, bounded by John Street on the
south and Ann Street on the north. Fulton Street lies between them,

Today I learned the Philadelphia version of the joke, which is a little better:

What's long and black and lies between two nuts?

Sansom Street.

cropped screenshot from Google Maps, showing
a two-block region of West Philadelphia, bounded by Walnut Street on the
south and Chestnut Street on the north. Sansom Street lies between them,

I think it that the bogus racial flavor improves it (it looks like it might turn out to be racist, and then doesn't). Some people may be more sensitive; to avoid making them uncomfortable, one can replace the non-racism with additional non-obscenity and ask instead “what's long and stiff and lies between two nuts?”.

There was a “what's long and stiff” joke I heard when I was a kid:

What's long and hard and full of semen?

A submarine.

Eh, okay. My opinion of puns is that they can be excellent, when they are served hot and fresh, but they rapidly become stale and heavy, they are rarely good the next day, and the prepackaged kind is never any good at all.

The antecedents of the “what's long and stiff” joke go back hundreds of years. The Exeter Book, dating to c. 950 CE, contains among other things ninety riddles, including this one I really like:

A curious thing hangs by a man's thigh,
under the lap of its lord. In its front it is pierced,
it is stiff and hard, it has a good position.
When the man lifts his own garment
above his knee, he intends to greet
with the head of his hanging object that familiar hole
which is the same length, and which he has often filled before.

(The implied question is “what is it?”.)

The answer is of course a key. Wikipedia has the original Old English if you want to compare.

Finally, it is off-topic but I do not want to leave the subject of the Exeter Book riddles without mentioning riddle #86. It goes like this:

Wiht cwom gongan
  þær weras sæton
monige on mæðle,
  mode snottre;
hæfde an eage
  ond earan twa,
ond II fet,
  XII hund heafda,
hrycg ond wombe
  ond honda twa,
earmas ond eaxle,
  anne sweoran
ond sidan twa.
  Saga hwæt ic hatte.

I will adapt this very freely as:

What creature has two legs and two feet, two arms and two hands, a back and a belly, two ears and twelve hundred heads, but only one eye?

The answer is a one-eyed garlic vendor.

[Other articles in category /humor] permanent link

Sat, 14 May 2022

Cathedrals of various sorts

A while back I wrote a shitpost about octahedral cathedrals and in reply Daniel Wagner sent me this shitpost of a cat-hedron:

computer graphics drawing of a roughly cat-shaped polyhedron with a
glowing blue crucifix stuck on its head.

But that got me thinking: the ‘hedr-’ in “octahedron” (and other -hedrons) is actually the Greek word ἕδρα (/hédra/) for “seat”, and an octahedron is a solid with eight “seats”. The ἕδρα (/hédra/) is akin to Latin sedēs (like in “sedentary”, or “sedate”) by the same process that turned Greek ἡμι- (/hémi/, like in “hemisphere”) into Latin semi- (like in “semicircle”) and Greek ἕξ (/héx/, like in “hexagon”) into Latin sex (like in “sextet”).

So a cat-hedron should be a seat for cats. Such seats do of course exist:

combination “cat tree” and scratching post sits on the floor of a
living room in front of the sofa.  The object is about two feed high
and has a carpeted platform atop a column wrapped in sisal rope.
Hanging from the platform is a cat toy, and  on
the platform resides a black and white domestic housecat.  A second
cat investigates the carpeter base of the cat tree.

But I couldn't stop there because the ‘hedr-’ in “cathedral” is the same word as the one in “octahedron”. A “cathedral” is literally a bishop's throne, and cathedral churches are named metonymically for the literal throne they contain or the metaphorical one represent. A cathedral is where a bishop has his “seat” of power.

So a true cathedral should look like this:

same picture as before, but the cat has been digitally erased from the
platform, and replaced with a gorgeously uniformed cardinal of the
Catholic Church, wearing white and gold robes and miter.

[Other articles in category /lang/etym] permanent link

Tue, 03 May 2022

The disembodied heads of Oz

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Certainly the best-known and most memorable of the disembodied heads of Oz is the one that the Wizard himself uses when he first appears to Dorothy:

In the center of the chair was an enormous Head, without a body to support it or any arms or legs whatever. There was no hair upon this head, but it had eyes and a nose and mouth, and was much bigger than the head of the biggest giant.

As Dorothy gazed upon this in wonder and fear, the eyes turned slowly and looked at her sharply and steadily. Then the mouth moved, and Dorothy heard a voice say:

“I am Oz, the Great and Terrible. Who are you, and why do you seek me?”

Original illustration from
_The Wonderful Wizard of Oz_. Dorothy, a small girl with pigtails, has
her hands behind her back as she faces an enormous gem-studded throne,
lit from offpanel by a ray of light. Hovering over the seat of the throne
is a disembodied man's head,
larger than Dorothy's whole body.  The head is completely bald, with a
bulbous nose, protruding ears, and staring eyes with no visible
eyelids.  Everything in the picture has been colored the same shade of
emerald green, except for the head's eyes, which were left uncolored,
emphasizing the staring.

Those Denslow illustrations are weird. I wonder if the series would have lasted as long as it did, if Denslow hadn't been replaced by John R. Neill in the sequel.

This head, we learn later, is only a trick:

He pointed to one corner, in which lay the Great Head, made out of many thicknesses of paper, and with a carefully painted face.

"This I hung from the ceiling by a wire," said Oz; "I stood behind the screen and pulled a thread, to make the eyes move and the mouth open."

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has not one but two earlier disembodied heads, not fakes but violent decaptitations. The first occurs offscreen, in the Tin Woodman's telling of how he came to be made of tin; I will discuss this later. The next to die is an unnamed wildcat that was chasing the queen of the field mice:

So the Woodman raised his axe, and as the Wildcat ran by he gave it a quick blow that cut the beast’s head clean off from its body, and it rolled over at his feet in two pieces.

Later, the Wicked Witch of the West sends a pack of forty wolves to kill the four travelers, but the Woodman kills them all, decapitating at least one:

As the leader of the wolves came on the Tin Woodman swung his arm and chopped the wolf's head from its body, so that it immediately died. As soon as he could raise his axe another wolf came up, and he also fell under the sharp edge of the Tin Woodman's weapon.

After the Witch is defeated, the travelers return to Oz, to demand their payment. The Scarecrow wants brains:

“Oh, yes; sit down in that chair, please,” replied Oz. “You must excuse me for taking your head off, but I shall have to do it in order to put your brains in their proper place.” … So the Wizard unfastened his head and emptied out the straw.

Original spot
illustration from _The Wonderful Wizard of Oz_. The Scarecrow's body
is sitting comfortably atop the letter ‘N’ that begins the chapter. It
is holding a cane and wearing a black suit with a buttoned
jacket. From its shoulders protrudes a forked stick.  At right, the
Wizard is holding the Scarecrow's head.  The Wizard is a short bald
man wearing a white lab coat over his striped trousters and fancy
spotted waistcoat. He is looking with interest at the Scarecrow's
head, with eyebrows raised.  The Scarecrow's head, clearly a stuffed
sack with a face painted on it, is looking back cheerfully.  Locked
around the Scarecrow's head are green-tinted spectacles.  The only
colors in the illustration are two shades of green.

On the way to the palace of Glinda, the travelers pass through a forest whose inhabitants have been terrorized by a giant spider monster:

Its legs were quite as long as the tiger had said, and its body covered with coarse black hair. It had a great mouth, with a row of sharp teeth a foot long; but its head was joined to the pudgy body by a neck as slender as a wasp's waist. This gave the Lion a hint of the best way to attack the creature… with one blow of his heavy paw, all armed with sharp claws, he knocked the spider's head from its body.

That's the last decapitation in that book. Oh wait, not quite. They must first pass over the hill of the Hammer-Heads:

He was quite short and stout and had a big head, which was flat at the top and supported by a thick neck full of wrinkles. But he had no arms at all, and, seeing this, the Scarecrow did not fear that so helpless a creature could prevent them from climbing the hill.

It's not as easy as it looks:

As quick as lightning the man's head shot forward and his neck stretched out until the top of the head, where it was flat, struck the Scarecrow in the middle and sent him tumbling, over and over, down the hill. Almost as quickly as it came the head went back to the body, …

So not actually a disembodied head. The Hammer-Heads get only a Participation trophy.

Well! That gets us to the end of the first book. There are 13 more.

The Marvelous Land of Oz

One of the principal characters in this book is Jack Pumpkinhead, who is a magically animated wooden golem, with a carved pumpkin for a head.

Original spot
illustration from _The Marvelous Land of Oz_. Tip, a young boy in a
hat, jacket, and shorts, is sitting in a pumpkin patch, smiling and holding a
knife.  He has just finished carving the head of Jack Pumpkinhead from
a pumpkin about two feet in diameter.  The carved face has round eyes,
a triangular nose, and a broad, toothless smile.

The head is not attached too well. Even before Jack is brought to life, his maker observes that the head is not firmly attached:

Tip also noticed that Jack's pumpkin head had twisted around until it faced his back; but this was easily remedied.

This is a recurring problem. Later on, the Sawhorse complains:

"Even your head won't stay straight, and you never can tell whether you are looking backwards or forwards!"

The imperfect attachement is inconvenient when Jack needs to flee:

Jack had ridden at this mad rate once before, so he devoted every effort to holding, with both hands, his pumpkin head upon its stick…

Unfortunately, he is not successful. The Sawhorse charges into a river:

The wooden body, with its gorgeous clothing, still sat upright upon the horse's back; but the pumpkin head was gone, and only the sharpened stick that served for a neck was visible.… Far out upon the waters [Tip] sighted the golden hue of the pumpkin, which gently bobbed up and down with the motion of the waves. At that moment it was quite out of Tip's reach, but after a time it floated nearer and still nearer until the boy was able to reach it with his pole and draw it to the shore. Then he brought it to the top of the bank, carefully wiped the water from its pumpkin face with his handkerchief, and ran with it to Jack and replaced the head upon the man's neck.

There are four illustrations of Jack with his head detached.

The Sawhorse leaps across the stream.  Tip, Jack, and the
Scarecrow are tied to the sawhorse, and all four look very surprised.
Jack's head is midair, being left behind. Rear view of the travelers, still astride the Sawhorse, in the
stream.  Jack's head is bobbing in the stream a couple of feet behind them. The four travelers are on the opposite banks, still tied
together, and dripping wet.  Jack's head, imperturbably cheerful as
ever, is floating away. Tip is on his knees on the riverbank, looking worried, and reaching for Jack's head
with a long stick.

The Sawhorse (who really is very disagreeable) has more complaints:

"I'll have nothing more to do with that Pumpkinhead," declared the Saw-Horse, viciously. "he loses his head too easily to suit me."

Jack is constantly worried about the perishability of his head:

“I am in constant terror of the day when I shall spoil."

"Nonsense!" said the Emperor — but in a kindly, sympathetic tone. "Do not, I beg of you, dampen today's sun with the showers of tomorrow. For before your head has time to spoil you can have it canned, and in that way it may be preserved indefinitely."

At one point he suggests using up a magical wish to prevent his head from spoiling.

The Woggle-Bug rather heartlessly observes that Jack's head is edible:

“I think that I could live for some time on Jack Pumpkinhead. Not that I prefer pumpkins for food; but I believe they are somewhat nutritious, and Jack's head is large and plump."

At one point, the Scarecrow is again disassembled:

Meanwhile the Scarecrow was taken apart and the painted sack that served him for a head was carefully laundered and restuffed with the brains originally given him by the great Wizard.

There is an illustration of this process, with the Scarecrow's trousers going through a large laundry-wringer; perhaps they sent his head through later.

The Gump's head has long branching
antlers, an upturned nose, and a narrow beard.  Its neck is attached
to some sort of wooden plaque that can be hung on the wall.

The protagonists need to escape house arrest in a palace, and they assemble a flying creature, which they bring to life with the same magical charm that animated Jack and the Sawhorse. For the creature's head:

The Woggle-Bug had taken from its position over the mantle-piece in the great hallway the head of a Gump. … The two sofas were now bound firmly together with ropes and clothes-lines, and then Nick Chopper fastened the Gump's head to one end.

Once brought to life, the Gump is extremely puzzled:

“The last thing I remember distinctly is walking through the forest and hearing a loud noise. Something probably killed me then, and it certainly ought to have been the end of me. Yet here I am, alive again, with four monstrous wings and a body which I venture to say would make any respectable animal or fowl weep with shame to own.”

The Gump assemblage, as seen in
right profile.  The thing is made of two high-backed sofas tied
together (only one is visible) with palm fronts for wings, a broom for
a tail, and the former Gump's head attached to the end.  Tip is
addressing the head with his finger extended for emphasis.

Flying in the Gump thing, the Woggle-Bug he cautions Jack:

"Not unless you carelessly drop your head over the side," answered the Woggle-Bug. "In that event your head would no longer be a pumpkin, for it would become a squash."

and indeed, when the Gump crash-lands, Jack's head is again in peril:

Jack found his precious head resting on the soft breast of the Scarecrow, which made an excellent cushion…

Whew. But the peril isn't over; it must be protected from a flock of jackdaws, in an unusual double-decaptitation:

[The Scarecrow] commanded Tip to take off Jack's head and lie down with it in the bottom of the nest… Nick Chopper then took the Scarecrow to pieces (all except his head) and scattered the straw… completely covering their bodies.

Shortly after, Jack's head must be extricated from underneath the Gump's body, where it has rolled. And the jackdaws have angrily scattered all the Scarecrow's straw, leaving him nothing but his head:

"I really think we have escaped very nicely," remarked the Tin Woodman, in a tone of pride.

"Not so!" exclaimed a hollow voice.

At this they all turned in surprise to look at the Scarecrow's head, which lay at the back of the nest.

"I am completely ruined!" declared the Scarecrow…

They re-stuff the Scarecrow with banknotes.

At the end of the book, the Gump is again disassembled:

“Once I was a monarch of the forest, as my antlers fully prove; but now, in my present upholstered condition of servitude, I am compelled to fly through the air—my legs being of no use to me whatever. Therefore I beg to be dispersed."

So Ozma ordered the Gump taken apart. The antlered head was again hung over the mantle-piece in the hall…

It reminds me a bit of Dixie Flatline. I wonder if Baum was famillar with that episode? But unlike Dixie, the head lives on, as heads in Oz are wont to do:

You might think that was the end of the Gump; and so it was, as a flying-machine. But the head over the mantle-piece continued to talk whenever it took a notion to do so, and it frequently startled, with its abrupt questions, the people who waited in the hall for an audience with the Queen.

The Gump's head makes a brief reappearance in the fourth book, startling Dorothy with an abrupt question.

Ozma of Oz

Oz fans will have been anticipating this section, which is a highlight on any tour of the Disembodied Heads of Oz. For it features the Princess Langwidere:

Now I must explain to you that the Princess Langwidere had thirty heads—as many as there are days in the month.

I hope you're buckled up.

But of course she could only wear one of them at a time, because she had but one neck. These heads were kept in what she called her "cabinet," which was a beautiful dressing-room that lay just between Langwidere's sleeping-chamber and the mirrored sitting-room. Each head was in a separate cupboard lined with velvet. The cupboards ran all around the sides of the dressing-room, and had elaborately carved doors with gold numbers on the outside and jewelled-framed mirrors on the inside of them.

When the Princess got out of her crystal bed in the morning she went to her cabinet, opened one of the velvet-lined cupboards, and took the head it contained from its golden shelf. Then, by the aid of the mirror inside the open door, she put on the head—as neat and straight as could be—and afterward called her maids to robe her for the day. She always wore a simple white costume, that suited all the heads. For, being able to change her face whenever she liked, the Princess had no interest in wearing a variety of gowns, as have other ladies who are compelled to wear the same face constantly.

Princess Langwidere, a
graceful woman in a flowing, short-sleeved gown, is facing away from
us, looking in one of a row of numbered mirrors. She his holding her
head in both hands, apparently lifting it of or putting it on, as it
is several inches above the neck.  Both head and neck are cut off
clean and straight, as if one had cut through a clay model with a
wire.  The head is blonde, with the hair in a sophisticated
updo. Evidently the mirrors are attached to cabinet doors, for the one
to the left, numbered “18”, it open, and we can see another of
Langwidere's heads within, resting on a stand at about chest height.
It has black hair, falling in ringlets to
the neck, and wears a large flower. it appears to be watching
Langwidere with a grave expression.  The picture is colored in shades
of grayish blue.

Oh, but it gets worse. Foreshadowing:

After handing head No. 9, which she had been wearing, to the maid, she took No. 17 from its shelf and fitted it to her neck. It had black hair and dark eyes and a lovely pearl-and-white complexion, and when Langwidere wore it she knew she was remarkably beautiful in appearance.

There was only one trouble with No. 17; the temper that went with it (and which was hidden somewhere under the glossy black hair) was fiery, harsh and haughty in the extreme, and it often led the Princess to do unpleasant things which she regretted when she came to wear her other heads.

Langwidere and Dorothy do not immediately hit it off. And then the meeting goes completely off the rails:

"You are rather attractive," said the lady, presently. "Not at all beautiful, you understand, but you have a certain style of prettiness that is different from that of any of my thirty heads. So I believe I'll take your head and give you No. 26 for it."

Dorothy refuses, and after a quarrel, the Princess imprisons her in a tower.

Ozma of Oz contains only this one head-related episode, but I think it surpasses the other books in the quality of the writing and the interest of the situation.

Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz

This loser of a book has no disembodied heads, only barely a threat of one. Eureka the Pink Kitten has been accused of eating one of the Wizard's tiny trained piglets.

[Ozma] was just about to order Eureka's head chopped off with the Tin Woodman's axe…

The Wizard does shoot a Gargoyle in the eye with his revolver, though.

The Road to Oz

In this volume the protagonists fall into the hands of the Scoodlers:

It had the form of a man, middle-sized and rather slender and graceful; but as it sat silent and motionless upon the peak they could see that its face was black as ink, and it wore a black cloth costume made like a union suit and fitting tight to its skin. …

The thing gave a jump and turned half around, sitting in the same place but with the other side of its body facing them. Instead of being black, it was now pure white, with a face like that of a clown in a circus and hair of a brilliant purple. The creature could bend either way, and its white toes now curled the same way the black ones on the other side had done.

"It has a face both front and back," whispered Dorothy, wonderingly; "only there's no back at all, but two fronts."

Okay, but I promised disembodied heads. The Scoodlers want to make the protagonists into soup. When Dorothy and the others try to leave, the Scoodlers drive them back:

Two of them picked their heads from their shoulders and hurled them at the shaggy man with such force that he fell over in a heap, greatly astonished. The two now ran forward with swift leaps, caught up their heads, and put them on again, after which they sprang back to their positions on the rocks.

The problem with this should be apparent.

Toto, a small black terrier,
is running, carrying a scoodler's head in his mouth.  The scoodler's
head is spherical, with messsy, greasy-looking hair. In place of a
node it has a mark like the club in a deck of cards.  Its teeth are
large and square and several are missing.  The scoodler's face is in
an expression of exaggerated dismay.

The characters escape from their prison and, now on guard for flying heads, they deal with them more effectively than before:

The shaggy man turned around and faced his enemies, standing just outside the opening, and as fast as they threw their heads at him he caught them and tossed them into the black gulf below. …

Shaggy Man is standing on a
narrow stone bridge over a deep gulf.  He faces a round, dark cave
entrance from which bursts a profusion of flying scoodler heads, all
grinning horribly, thrown by the massed scoodlers emerging from the
cave mouth.  The Shaggy Man is catching two of the heads.  To
his left,the already-caught heads are raining down into the

They should have taken a hint from the Hammer-Heads, who clearly have the better strategy. If you're going to fling your head at trespassers, you should try to keep it attached somehow.

Presently every Scoodler of the lot had thrown its head, and every head was down in the deep gulf, and now the helpless bodies of the creatures were mixed together in the cave and wriggling around in a vain attempt to discover what had become of their heads. The shaggy man laughed and walked across the bridge to rejoin his companions.


A closeup of several falling
scoodler heads, including that of the Scoodler Queen, wearing a
crown.  They scoodlers all seem to be greatly dismayed.

That is the only episode of head-detachment that we actually see. The shaggy man and Button Bright have their heads changed into a donkey's head and a fox's head, respectively, but manage to keep them attached. Jack Pumpkinhead makes a return, to explain that he need not have worried about his head spoiling:

I've a new head, and this is the fourth one I've owned since Ozma first made me and brought me to life by sprinkling me with the Magic Powder."

"What became of the other heads, Jack?"

"They spoiled and I buried them, for they were not even fit for pies. Each time Ozma has carved me a new head just like the old one, and as my body is by far the largest part of me I am still Jack Pumpkinhead, no matter how often I change my upper end.

How now lives in a pumpkin field, so as to be assured of a ready supply of new heads.

The Emerald City of Oz

By this time Baum was getting tired of Oz, and it shows in the lack of decapitations in this tired book.

In one of the two parallel plots, the ambitious General Guph promises the Nome King that he will conquer Oz. Realizing that the Nome armies will be insufficient, he hires three groups of mercenaries. The first of these aren't quite headless, but:

These Whimsies were curious people who lived in a retired country of their own. They had large, strong bodies, but heads so small that they were no bigger than door-knobs. Of course, such tiny heads could not contain any great amount of brains, and the Whimsies were so ashamed of their personal appearance and lack of commonsense that they wore big heads, made of pasteboard, which they fastened over their own little heads.

Don't we all know someone like that?

To induce the Whimsies to fight for him, Guph promises:

"When we get our Magic Belt," he made reply, "our King, Roquat the Red, will use its power to give every Whimsie a natural head as big and fine as the false head he now wears. Then you will no longer be ashamed because your big strong bodies have such teenty-weenty heads."

The Whimsies hold a meeting and agree to help, except for one doubter:

But they threw him into the river for asking foolish questions, and laughed when the water ruined his pasteboard head before he could swim out again.

A closeup of several falling
scoodler heads, including that of the Scoodler Queen, wearing a
crown.  They scoodlers all seem to be greatly dismayed.

While Guph is thus engaged, Dorothy and her aunt and uncle are back in Oz sightseeing. One place they visit is the town of Fuddlecumjig. They startle the inhabitants, who are “made in a good many small pieces… they have a habit of falling apart and scattering themselves around…”

The travelers try to avoid startling the Fuddles, but they are unsuccessful, and enter a house whose floor is covered with little pieces of the Fuddles who live there.

On one [piece] which Dorothy held was an eye, which looked at her pleasantly but with an interested expression, as if it wondered what she was going to do with it. Quite near by she discovered and picked up a nose, and by matching the two pieces together found that they were part of a face.

"If I could find the mouth," she said, "this Fuddle might be able to talk, and tell us what to do next."

They do succeed in assembling the rest of the head, which has red hair:

"Look for a white shirt and a white apron," said the head which had been put together, speaking in a rather faint voice. "I'm the cook."

This is fortunate, since it is time for lunch.

Jack Pumpkinhead makes an appearance later, but his head stays on his body.

The Patchwork Girl of Oz

As far as I can tell, there are no decapitations in this book. The closest we come is an explanation of Jack Pumpkinhead's head-replacement process:

“Just now, I regret to say, my seeds are rattling a bit, so I must soon get another head."

"Oh; do you change your head?" asked Ojo.

"To be sure. Pumpkins are not permanent, more's the pity, and in time they spoil. That is why I grow such a great field of pumpkins — that I may select a new head whenever necessary."

"Who carves the faces on them?" inquired the boy.

"I do that myself. I lift off my old head, place it on a table before me, and use the face for a pattern to go by. Sometimes the faces I carve are better than others--more expressive and cheerful, you know--but I think they average very well."

Some people the protagonists meet in their travels use the Scarecrow as sports equipment, but his head remains attached to the rest of him.

Tik-tok of Oz

This is a pretty good book, but there are no disembodied heads that I could find.

The Scarecrow of Oz

As you might guess from the title, the Scarecrow loses his head again. Twice.

Only a short time elapsed before a gray grasshopper with a wooden leg came hopping along and lit directly on the upturned face of the Scarecrow’s head.

A full-color illustration of
the Scarecrow's head lying on the ground.  The head is a stuffed sack
with the opening loosely tied.  The Scarecrow is smiling calmly (his
smile is painted on) and is looking at the grasshopper that his
perched on on his (flat, painted-on) nose.  The grasshopper, whose
back leg is wooden, is looking down at the Scarecrow's right eye.
Around the two are red wildflowers and stems of tall grass.

The Scarecrow and the grasshopper (who is Cap'n Bill, under an enchantment) have a philosophical conversation about whether the Scarecrow can be said to be alive, and a little later Trot comes by and reassembles the Scarecrow. Later he nearly loses it again:

… the people thought they would like him for their King. But the Scarecrow shook his head so vigorously that it became loose, and Trot had to pin it firmly to his body again.

The Scarecrow is not yet out of danger. In chapter 22 he falls into a waterfall and his straw is ruined. Cap'n Bill says:

“… the best thing for us to do is to empty out all his body an’ carry his head an’ clothes along the road till we come to a field or a house where we can get some fresh straw.”

A full-color illustration of
Cap'n Bill holding the  Scarecrow's head in his arms.   The head is
still smiling, but perhaps a little more wanly than usual.
Cap'n Bill is an elderly man with a red nose and cheeks bushy white
eyebrowsm sideburns, and beard, but no mustache.  He is wearing a
fisherman's rain hat and a double-breasted blue overcoat.  At the
bottom of the picture are
Trot wearing the Scarecrow's boots on her hands, and Betsy, holding
another one of the Scarecrow's garments.

This they do, with the disembodied head of the Scarecrow telling stories and giving walking directions.

Rinkitink in Oz

No actual heads are lost in the telling of this story. Prince Inga kills a giant monster by bashing it with an iron post, but its head (if it even has one; it's not clear) remains attached. Rinkitink sings a comic song about a man named Ned:

A red-headed man named Ned was dead;
Sing fiddle-cum-faddle-cum-fi-do!
In battle he had lost his head;
Sing fiddle-cum-faddle-cum-fi-do!
'Alas, poor Ned,' to him I said,
'How did you lose your head so red?'
Sing fiddle-cum-faddle-cum-fi-do!

But Ned does not actually appear in the story, and we only get to hear the first two verses of the song because Bilbil the goat interrupts and begs Rinkitink to stop.

Elsewhere, Nikobob the woodcutter faces a monster named Choggenmugger, hacks off its tongue with his axe, splits its jaw in two, and then chops it into small segments, “a task that proved not only easy but very agreeable”. But there is no explicit removal of its head and indeed, the text and the pictures imply that Choggenmugger is some sort of giant sausage and has no head to speak of.

The Lost Princess of Oz

No disembodied heads either. The nearest we come is:

At once there rose above the great wall a row of immense heads, all of which looked down at them as if to see who was intruding.

These heads, however, are merely the heads of giants peering over the wall.

Two books in a row with no disembodied heads. I am becoming discouraged. Perhaps this project is not worth finishing. Let's see, what is coming next?


Right then…

The Tin Woodman of Oz

This is the mother lode of decapitations in Oz. As you may recall, in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz the Tin Woodman relates how he came to be made of tin. He dismembered himself with a cursed axe, and after amputating all four of his limbs, he had them replaced with tin prostheses:

The Wicked Witch then made the axe slip and cut off my head, and at first I thought that was the end of me. But the tinsmith happened to come along, and he made me a new head out of tin.

One would expect that they threw the old head into a dumpster. But no! In The Tin Woodman of Oz we learn that it is still hanging around:

The Tin Woodman had just noticed the cupboards and was curious to know what they contained, so he went to one of them and opened the door. There were shelves inside, and upon one of the shelves which was about on a level with his tin chin the Emperor discovered a Head—it looked like a doll's head, only it was larger, and he soon saw it was the Head of some person. It was facing the Tin Woodman and as the cupboard door swung back, the eyes of the Head slowly opened and looked at him. The Tin Woodman was not at all surprised, for in the Land of Oz one runs into magic at every turn.

"Dear me!" said the Tin Woodman, staring hard. "It seems as if I had met you, somewhere, before. Good morning, sir!"

"You have the advantage of me," replied the Head. "I never saw you before in my life."

This appears to be a draft
version of the previous illustration, to which it is quite similar.
It cuts off at the Tin Woodman's waist.  The Woodman is smiling
broadly and holding his axe.  The head looks less surly but still not
happy to meet the Woodman.

This creepy scene is more amusing than I remembered:

"Haven't you a name?"

"Oh, yes," said the Head; "I used to be called Nick Chopper, when I was a woodman and cut down trees for a living."

"Good gracious!" cried the Tin Woodman in astonishment. "If you are Nick Chopper's Head, then you are Me—or I'm You—or—or— What relation are we, anyhow?"

"Don't ask me," replied the Head. "For my part, I'm not anxious to claim relationship with any common, manufactured article, like you. You may be all right in your class, but your class isn't my class. You're tin."

Apparently Neill enjoyed this so much that he illustrated it twice, once as a full-page illustration and once as a spot illustration on the first page of the chapter:

Very similar to previous; it
cuts off at the waist, and the Woodman is holding his axe and smiling
broadly.  The head still appears annoyed at the intrusion, but less disagreeable.

The chapter, by the way, is titled “The Tin Woodman Talks to Himself”.

Later, we get the whole story from Ku-Klip, the tinsmith who originally assisted the amputated Tin Woodman. Ku-Klip explains how he used leftover pieces from the original bodies of both the Tin Woodman and the Tin Soldier (a completely superfluous character whose backstory is identical to the Woodman's) to make a single man, called Chopfyt:

"First, I pieced together a body, gluing it with the Witch's Magic Glue, which worked perfectly. That was the hardest part of my job, however, because the bodies didn't match up well and some parts were missing. But by using a piece of Captain Fyter here and a piece of Nick Chopper there, I finally got together a very decent body, with heart and all the trimmings complete."

Ku-Klip sits on a folding stool.
He is a heavy man with a bald head, white whiskers almost down to the
floor, and wire-rimmed spectacles.  His sleeves are rolled up, and he
brushing glue onto a disembodied right arm, getting it ready to be
attached to the half-built body of Chopfyt.  The body is headless, and
is missing its right arm and the lower half of the left arm.  It has
both legs, but they are clearly different lengths and the two knees
are at different heights. By Ku-Klip's foot is a large jug labeled
MEAT GLUE.  On a nearby table, Nick Fyter's head is watching, waiting
to be attached to Chopfyt's body.

The Tin Soldier is spared the shock of finding his own head in a closet, since Ku-Klip had used it in Chopfyt.

I'm sure you can guess where this is going.

The Tin Soldier is pointing in
shock at Chopfyt, who is sitting in a chair, looking more annoyed than
anything else.  Chopfyt has reddish-brown hair, a scowling face, and a
hooked nose.  He is wearing rumpled brown cloths, and red shoes with
large toes. His hands are clasped around his right knee.  He appears
to be very uncomfortable with the situation but determined to ride it
out.  The Tin Soldier looks just like the tin  woodman, except with
two rows of buttons down his
cylindrical body, and instead of the funnel worn by
the Tin Woodman he is wearing a tin shako.

Whew, that was quite a ride. Fortunately we are near the end and it is all downhill from here.

The Magic of Oz

This book centers around Kiki Aru, a grouchy Munchkin boy who discovers an extremely potent magical charm for transforming creatures. There are a great many transformations in the book, some quite peculiar and humiliating. The Wizard is turned into a fox and Dorothy into a lamb. Six monkeys are changed into giant soldiers. There is a long episode in which Trot and Cap'n Bill are trapped on an enchanted island, with roots growing out of their feets and into the ground. A giraffe has its tail bitten off, and there is the usual explanation about Jack Pumpkinhead's short shelf life. But I think everyone keeps their heads.

Glinda of Oz

There are no decapitations in this book, so we will have to settle for a consolation prize. The book's plot concerns the political economy of the Flatheads.

Dorothy knew at once why these mountain people were called Flatheads. Their heads were really flat on top, as if they had been cut off just above the eyes and ears.

A cheerful-looking Flathead
out with his wife.  He is carrying a halberd, and she a parasol.
They are smiling, and their arms are linked.

The Flatheads carry their brains in cans. This is problematic: an ambitious flathead has made himself Supreme Dictator, and appropriated his enemies’ cans for himself.

The protagonists depose the Supreme Dictator, and Glinda arranges for each Flathead to keep their own brains in their own head where they can't be stolen, in a scene reminiscent of when the Scarecrow got his own brains, way back when.

Glinda is dumping the
contents of a can of brains, which look something like vacuum cleaner
lint, onto the flat head of a blissful-looking Flathead.

That concludes our tour of the Disembodied Heads of Oz. Thanks for going on this journey with me.

[ Previously, Frank Baum's uncomfortable relationship with Oz. Coming up eventually, an article on domestic violence in Oz. Yes, really ]

[Other articles in category /book] permanent link

Sat, 30 Apr 2022

Mental illness, attention deficit disorder, and suffering

Freddie DeBoer has an article this week titled “Mental illness doesn't make you special”. Usually Freddie and I are in close agreement and this article is not an exception. I think many of M. DeBoer's points are accurate. But his subtitle is “Why do neurodiversity activists claim suffering is beautiful?” Although I am not a neurodiversity activist and I will not claim that suffering is beautiful, that subtitle stung, because I saw a little bit of myself in the question. I would like to cut off a small piece of that question and answer it.

This is from Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren (1945):

'No, I don't suffer from freckles,' said Pippi.

Then the lady understood, but she took one look at Pippi and burst out, 'But, my dear child, your whole face is covered with freckles!'

'I know that,' said Pippi, 'but I don't suffer from them. I love them.'

I suffer from attention deficit disorder. Like Pippi Longstocking suffers from freckles.

M. DeBoer says:

There is, for example, a thriving ADHD community on TikTok and Tumblr: people who view their attentional difficulties not as an annoyance to be managed with medical treatment but as an adorable character trait that makes them sharper and more interesting than others around them.

For me the ADD really is a part of my identity — not my persona, which is what I present to the world, but my innermost self, the way I am actually am. I would be a different person without it. I might be a better person, or a happier or more successful one (I don't know) but I'd definitely be someone different.

And it's really not all bad. I understand that for many people ADD is a really major problem with no upsides. For me it's a major problem with upsides. And after living with it for fifty years, I've found ways to mitigate the problems and to accept the ones I haven't been able to mitigate.

I learned long ago never to buy nice gloves because I will inevitably leave them somewhere, perhaps on a store counter, or perhaps in the pocket of a different jacket. In the winter I only wear the cheapest and most disposable work gloves or garden gloves. They work better than nothing, and I can buy six pairs at a time, so that when I need gloves there's a chance I will find a pair in the pocket of the jacket I'm wearing, and if I lose a pair I can pick up another from the stack by the front door.

I used to constantly miss appointments. “Why don't you get a calendar?” people would say, but then I would have to remember the calendar, remember to check the calendar, and not lose the calendar, all seemingly impossible for me. The arrival of smartphones improved my life in so many ways. Now I do carry my calendar everywhere and I miss fewer appointments.

(Why could I learn to carry a smartphone and not a calendar? For one thing, the smartphone is smaller and fits in my pocket. For another, I really do carry it literally everywhere, which I wouldn't do with a calendar. I don't have to remember to check it because it makes a little noise when I have an appointment. It has my phone and my email and my messages in it. It has the books and magazines I'm reading. It has a calculator in it and a notepad. I used to try to carry all that crap separately and every day I would find that I wanted one that I had left at home that day. No longer.)

There are bigger downsides to ADD, like the weeks when I can't focus on work, or when I get distracted by some awesome new thing and don't do the things I should be doing, or how I lost interest in projects and don't always finish them, blah blah blah. I am not going to complain about any of that, it is just part of being me and I like who I am pretty well. Everyone has problems and mine are less severe than many.

And some of the upsides are just great. When it's working, the focus and intensity I get from the ADD are powerful. Not just useful, but fun. When I'm deep into a blog post or a math paper the intense focus brings me real joy. I love being smart and when the ADD is working well it makes me a lot smarter. I don't suffer from freckles, I love them.

When I was around seventeen I took a Real Analysis class at Columbia University. Toward the end of the year the final was coming up. One Saturday morning I sat down at the dining room table, with my class notes, proving every theorem that we had proved in class, starting from page 1. When I couldn't prove it on my own I would consult the notes or the textbook. By dinner time I had finished going through the semester and was ready to take the final. I got an A.

Until I got to college I didn't understand how people could spend hours a day “studying”. When I got there I found out. When my first-year hallmates were “studying” they were looking out the window, playing with their pencils, talking to their roommates, all sorts of stuff that wasn't studying. When I needed to study I would hide somewhere and study. I think the ability to focus on just one thing for a few hours at a time is a great gift that ADD has given me.

I sometimes imagine that the Devil offers me a deal: I will give up the ADD in return for a million dollars. I would have to think very, very carefully before taking that deal and I don't know whether I would say yes.

But if the Devil came and offered to cure my depression, and the price was my right arm? That question is easy. I would say “sounds great, but what's the catch?”

Depression is not something with upsides and downsides. It is a terrible illness, the blight of my life, the worst thing that has ever happened to me. It is neither an adorable character trait nor an annoyance to be managed with medical treatment. It is a severe chronic illness, one that is often fatal. In a good year it is kept in check by medical treatment but it is always lurking in the background and might reappear any morning. It is like the Joker: perhaps today he is locked away in Arkham, but I am not safe, I am never safe, I am always wondering if this is the day he will escape and show up at my door to maim or kill me.

I won't write in detail about how I've suffered from depression in my life. It's not something I want to revisit and it's not something my readers would find interesting. You wouldn't be inspired by my brave resolve in the face of adversity. It would be like watching a movie about someone with a chronic bowel disorder who shits his pants every day until he dies. There's no happy ending. It's not heroic. It's sad, humiliating, and boring.

DeBoer says:

This is what it’s actually like to have a mental illness: no desire to justify or celebrate or honor the disease, only the desire to be rid of it.

I agree 100%. This is what it is like to have a mental illness. In two words: it sucks.

And this is why I find it so very irritating that there is no term for my so-called ⸢attention deficit disorder⸣ that does not have the word “disorder” baked into it. I know what a disorder is, and my ADD isn't one. I want a word for this part of my brain chemistry that does not presume, axiomatically, that it is an illness. Why does any deviation from the standard have to be a disorder? Why do we medicalize human variation?

I understand that for some people it really is a disorder, that they have no desire to justify or celebrate or honor their attention deficit. For those people the term “attention deficit disorder” might be a good one. Not for me. I have a weird thing in my brain that makes it work differently from the way most other people's brains do. In many ways it works less well. I lose hats and miss doctor appointments. But that is not a mental illness. Most people aren't as good at math as I am; that's not a mental illness either. People have different brains.

Things can be problems in two different ways. Some variations from human standard are intrinsic problems. These might be illnesses. But many problems are extrinsic. Homosexual orientation used to be considered a mental illness. But you're queer your main problem is that other people treat you like crap. They hate you and they're allowed to tell you how much they hate you. They tell you you're not allowed to love or marry or have sex or bring up children. It sucks! But “I'm unhappy because people treat me like crap” is not a mental illness! The correct fix for this extrinsic problem isn't “stop being queer”, it's “stop treating queer people like crap!”

DeBoer says:

Today’s activists never seem to consider that there is something between terrible stigma and witless celebration, that we are not in fact bound to either ignore mental illness or treat it as an identity.

I agree somewhat, but that doesn't mean that the stigma isn't a real issue. With mental illnesses many of the problems are intrinsic, and are deep and hard to solve. But some of the problems of mental illness are extrinsic, caused by stigma and should be addressed. Mentally ill people will still be mentally ill, but at least they wouldn't be stigmatized. Mentally ill people are unhappy because they're mentally ill. But they are also unhappy because people treat them like crap.

Many of the downsides of ADD would be less troublesome for everyone, if our world was a little more accepting of difference, a little more willing to accommodate people who were stamped in a slightly different shape that the other cogs in the machine. In Pippi Longstocking world, why do people suffer from freckles? Not because of the freckles themselves, but only because other people tell them that their freckles are ugly and unlovable. Nobody has to suffer from freckles, if people would just stop being assholes about freckles.

ADD is a bigger problem than freckles. Some of its problems are intrinsic. It definitely contributes to making me unreliable. I don't think it is a delightful quirk that I am constantly losing gloves (and hats and jackets and bags and keys and wallets and everything else). People depending on me to do work timely are sometimes justifiably angry or disappointed when I don't. I'll accept responsibility for that. I've worked my whole life to try to do better.

But when the world has been willing to let me what I can do in the way that I can do it, the results have been pretty good. When the world has insisted that I do things the way ⸢everyone else⸣ does them, it hasn't always gone so well. And if you examine the “everyone else” there it starts to look threadbare because almost everyone is divergent in one way or another, and almost everyone needs some accommodation or other. There is no such thing as “the way everyone else does”. I can do some fine things that many other people can't.

I don't think “neurodivergent” is a very good term for how I'm different, not least because it's vague. But at least it doesn't frame my unusual and wonderful brain as a “disorder”.

Returning to Freddie DeBoer's article:

There is, for example, a thriving ADHD community on TikTok and Tumblr: people who view their attentional difficulties not as an annoyance to be managed with medical treatment but as an adorable character trait that makes them sharper and more interesting than others around them.

Some people do have it worse than others. I'm lucky. But that doesn't change the fact that some of those attentional difficulties are more like freckles: a character trait, perhaps even one that someone might find adorable, that other people are being assholes about. Isn't it fair to ask whether some of the extrinsic problems, the stigma, could be ameliorated if society were a little more flexible and a little more accommodating of individual differences, and would stop labeling every difference as a disorder?

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Tue, 26 Apr 2022

What was wrong with SML?

[ I hope this article won't be too controversial. My sense is that SML is moribund at this point and serious ML projects that still exist are carried on in OCaml. But I do observe that there was a new SML/NJ version released only six months ago, so perhaps I am mistaken. ]

I recently wrote:

It was apparent that SML had some major problems. When I encountered Haskell around 1998 it seemed that Haskell at least had a story for how these problems might be fixed.

A reader wrote to ask:

I was curious what the major problems you saw with SML were.

I actually have notes about this that I made while I was writing the first article, and was luckily able to restrain myself from writing up at the time, because it would have been a huge digression. But I think the criticism is technically interesting and may provide some interesting historical context about what things looked like in 1995.

I had three main items in mind. Every language has problems, but these three seemed to me be the deep ones where a drastically different direction was needed.

Notation for types and expressions in this article will be a mishmash of SML, Haskell, and pseudocode. I can only hope that the examples will all be simple enough that the meaning is clear.


Reference type soundness

It seems easy to write down the rules for type inference in the presence of references. This turns out not to be the case.

The naïve idea was: for each type α there is a corresponding type ref α, the type of memory cells containing a value of type α. You can create a cell with an initialized value by using the ref function: If v has type α, then ref v has type ref α and its value is a cell that has been initialized to contain the value v. (SML actually calls the type α ref, but the meaning is the same.)

The reverse of this is the operator ! which takes a reference of type ref α and returns the referenced value of type α.

And finally, if m is a reference, then you can overwrite the value stored in its its memory cell by saying with m := v. For example:

    m = ref 4          -- m is a cell containing 4
    m := 1 + !m        -- overwrite contents with 1+4
    print (2 * !m)     -- prints 10

The type rules seem very straightforward:

    ref   :: α → ref α
    (!)   :: ref α → α
    (:=)  :: ref α × α → unit

(Translated into Haskellese, that last one would look more like (ref α, α) → () or perhaps ref α → α → () because Haskell loves currying.)

This all seems clear, but it is not sound. The prototypical example is:

     m = ref (fn x ⇒ x)

Here m is a reference to the identity function. The identity function has type α → α, so variable m has type ref(α → α).

     m := not

Now we assign the Boolean negation operator to m. not has type bool → bool, so the types can be unified: m has type ref(α → α). The type elaborator sees := here and says okay, the first argument has type ref(α → α), the second has type bool → bool, I can unify that, I get α = bool, everything is fine.

Then we do

     print ((!m) 23)

and again the type checker is happy. It says:

  • m has type ref(α → α)
  • !m has type α → α
  • 23 has type int

amd that unifies, with α = int, so the result will have type int. Then the runtime blithely invokes the boolean not function on the argument 23. OOOOOPS.

SML's reference type variables

A little before the time I got into SML, this problem had been discovered and a patch put in place to prevent it. Basically, some type variables were ordinary variables, other types (distinguished by having names that began with an underscore) were special “reference type variables”. The ref function didn't have type α → ref α, it had type _α → ref _α. The type elaboration algorithm was stricter when specializing reference types than when specializing ordinary types. It was complicated, clearly a hack, and I no longer remember the details.

At the time I got out of SML, this hack been replaced with a more complicated hack, in which the variables still had annotations to say how they related to references, but instead of a flag the annotation was now a number. I never understood it. For details, see this section of the SML '97 documentation, which begins “The interaction between polymorphism and side-effects has always been a troublesome problem for ML.”

After this article was published, Akiva Leffert reminded me that SML later settled on a third fix to this problem, the “value restriction”, which you can read about in the document linked previously. (I thought I remembered there being three different systems, but then decided that I was being silly, and I must have been remembering wrong. I wasn't.)

Haskell's primary solution to this is to burn it all to the ground. Mutation doesn't cause any type problems because there isn't any.

If you want something like ref which will break purity, you encapsulate it inside the State monad or something like it, or else you throw up your hands and do it in the IO monad, depending on what you're trying to accomplish.

Scala has a very different solution to this problem, called covariant and contravariant traits.

Impure features more generally

More generally I found it hard to program in SML because I didn't understand the evaluation model. Consider a very simple example:

     map print [1..1000]

Does it print the values in forward or reverse order? One could implement it either way. Or perhaps it prints them in random order, or concurrently. Issues of normal-order versus applicative-order evaluation become important. SML has exceptions, and I often found myself surprised by the timing of exceptions. It has mutation, and I often found that mutations didn't occur in the order I expected.

Haskell's solution to this again is monads. In general it promises nothing at all about execution order, and if you want to force something to happen in a particular sequence, you use the monadic bind operator >>=. Peyton-Jones’ paper “Tackling the Awkward Squad” discusses the monadic approach to impure features.

Combining computations that require different effects (say, state and IO and exceptions) is very badly handled by Haskell. The standard answer is to use a stacked monadic type like IO ExceptionT a (State b) with monad transformers. This requires explicit liftings of computations into the appropriate monad. It's confusing and nonorthogonal. Monad composition is non-commutative so that IO (Error a) is subtly different from Error (IO a), and you may find you have the one when you need the other, and you need to rewrite a large chunks of your program when you realize that you stacked your monads in the wrong order.

My favorite solution to this so far is algebraic effect systems. Pretnar's 2015 paper “An Introduction to Algebraic Effects and Handlers” is excellent. I see that Alexis King is working on an algebraic effect system for Haskell but I haven't tried it and don't know how well it works.

Overloading and ad-hoc polymorphism

Arithmetic types

Every language has to solve the problem of 3 + 0.5. The left argument is an integer, the right argument is something else, let's call it a float. This issue is baked into the hardware, which has two representations for numbers and two sets of machine instructions for adding them.

Dynamically-typed languages have an easy answer: at run time, discover that the left argument is an integer, convert it to a float, add the numbers as floats, and yield a float result. Languages such as C do something similar but at compile time.

Hindley-Milner type languages like ML have a deeper problem: What is the type of the addition function? Tough question.

I understand that OCaml punts on this. There are two addition functions with different names. One, +, has type int × int → int. The other, +., has type float × float → float. The expression 3 + 0.5 is ill-typed because its right-hand argument is not an integer. You should have written something like int_to_float 3 +. 0.5.

SML didn't do things this way. It was a little less inconvenient and a little less conceptually simple. The + function claimed to have type α × α → α, but this was actually a lie. At compile time it would be resolved to either int × int → int or to float × float → float. The problem expression above was still illegal. You needed to write int_to_float 3 + 0.5, but at least there was only one symbol for addition and you were still writing + with no adornments. The explicit calls to int_to_float and similar conversions still cluttered up the code, sometimes severely

The overloading of + was a special case in the compiler. Nothing like it was available to the programmer. If you wanted to create your own numeric type, say a complex number, you could not overload + to operate on it. You would have to use |+| or some other identifier. And you couldn't define anything like this:

    def dot_product (a, b) (c, d) = a*c + b*d  -- won't work

because SML wouldn't know which multiplication and addition to use; you'd have to put in an explicit type annotation and have two versions of dot_product:

    def dot_product_int   (a : int,   b) (c, d) = a*c + b*d
    def dot_product_float (a : float, b) (c, d) = a*c + b*d

Notice that the right-hand sides are identical. That's how you can tell that the language is doing something stupid.

That only gets you so far. If you might want to compute the dot product of an int vector and a float vector, you would need four functions:

    def dot_product_ii (a : int,   b) (c, d) = a*c + b*d
    def dot_product_ff (a : float, b) (c, d) = a*c + b*d
    def dot_product_if (a,         b) (c, d) = (int_to_float a) * c + (int_to_float b)*d
    def dot_product_fi (a,         b) (c, d) = a * (int_to_float c) + b * (int_to_float d)

Oh, you wanted your vectors to maybe have components of different types? I guess you need to manually define 16 functions then…

Equality types

A similar problem comes up in connection with equality. You can write 3 = 4 and 3.0 = 4.0 but not 3 = 4.0; you need to say int_to_float 3 = 4.0. At least the type of = is clearer here; it really is α × α → bool because you can compare not only numbers but also strings, booleans, lists, and so forth. Anything, really, as indicated by the free variable α.

Ha ha, I lied, you can't actually compare functions. (If you could, you could solve the halting problem.) So the α in the type of = is not completely free; it mustn't be replaced by a function type. (It is also questionable whether it should work for real numbers, and I think SML changed its mind about this at one point.)

Here, OCaml's +. trick was unworkable. You cannot have a different identifier for equality comparisons at every different type. SML's solution was a further epicycle on the type system. Some type variables were designated “equality type variables”. The type of = was not α × α → bool but ''α × ''α → bool where ''α means that the α can be instantiated only for an “equality type” that admits equality comparisons. Integers were an equality type, but functions (and, in some versions, reals) were not.

Again, this mechanism was not available to the programmer. If your type was a structure, it would be an equality type if and only if all its members were equality types. Otherwise you would have to write your own synthetic equality function and name it === or something. If !!t!! is an equality type, then so too is “list of !!t!!”, but this sort of inheritance, beautifully handled in general by Haskell's type subclass feature, was available in SML only as a couple of hardwired special cases.

Type classes

Haskell dealt with all these issues reasonably well with type classes, proposed in Wadler and Blott's 1988 paper “How to make ad-hoc polymorphism less ad hoc”. In Haskell, the addition function now has type Num a ⇒ a → a → a and the equality function has type Eq a ⇒ a → a → Bool. Anyone can define their own instance of Num and define an addition function for it. You need an explicit conversion if you want to add it to an integer:

                    some_int + myNumericValue       -- No
    toMyNumericType some_int + myNumericValue       -- Yes

but at least it can be done. And you can define a type class and overload toMyNumericType so that one identifier serves for every type you can convert to your type. Also, a special hack takes care of lexical constants with no explicit conversion:

    23 + myNumericValue   -- Yes
                          -- (actually uses overloaded   fromInteger 23   instead)

As far as I know Haskell still doesn't have a complete solution to the problem of how to make numeric types interoperate smoothly. Maybe nobody does. Most dynamic languages with ad-hoc polymorphism will treat a + b differently from b + a, and can give you spooky action at a distance problems. If type B isn't overloaded, b + a will invoke the overloaded addition for type A, but then if someone defines an overloaded addition operator for B, in a different module, the meaning of every b + a in the program changes completely because it now calls the overloaded addition for B instead of the one for A.

In Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, Abelson and Sussman describe an arithmetic system in which the arithmetic types form an explicit lattice. Every type comes with a “promotion” function to promote it to a type higher up in the lattice. When values of different types are added, each value is promoted, perhaps repeatedly, until the two values are the same type, which is the lattice join of the two original types. I've never used anything like this and don't know how well it works in practice, but it seems like a plausible approach, one which works the way we usually think about numbers, and understands that it can add a float to a Gaussian integer by construing both of them as complex numbers.

[ Addendum 20220430: Phil Eaton informs me that my sense of SML's moribundity is exaggerated: “Standard ML variations are in fact quite alive and the number of variations is growing at the moment”, they said, and provided a link to their summary of the state of Standard ML in 2020, which ends with a recommendation of SML's “small but definitely, surprisingly, not dead community.” Thanks, M. Eaton! ]

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Mon, 25 Apr 2022

Unordered pairs and the axiom of binary choice

A few days ago I demanded a way to construct an unordered pair !![x, y]]!! with the property that $$[x, y] = [y, x]$$ for all !!x!! and !!y!!, and also formulas !!P_1!! and !!P_2!! that would extract the components again, not necessarily in any particular order (since there isn't one) but so that $$[P_1([x, y]), P_2([x, y])] = [x, y]$$ for all !!x!! and !!y!!.

Several readers pointed out that such formulas surely do not exist, as their existence would prove the axiom of binary choice. This is a sort of baby brother of the infamous Axiom of Choice. The full Axiom of Choice (“AC”) can be stated this way:

Let !!\mathcal I!! be some index set.

Let !!\mathscr F!! be a family of nonempty sets indexed by !!\mathcal I!!; we can think of !!\mathscr F!! as a function that takes an element !!i \in \mathcal I !! and produces a nonempty set !!\mathscr F_i!!.

Then (Axiom of Choice) there is a function !!\mathcal C!! such that, for each !!i\in \mathcal I!!, $$\mathcal C(i) \in \mathscr F_i.$$

(From this it also follows that $$\{ \mathcal C(i) \mid i\in \mathcal I \},$$ the collection of elements selected by !!\mathcal C!!, is itself a set.)

This is all much more subtle than it may appear, and was the subject of a major investigation between 1914 and 1963. The standard axioms of set theory, called ZF, are consistent with the truth of Axiom of Choice, but also consistent with its falsity. Usually we work in models of set theory in which we assume not just ZF but also AC; then the system is called ZFC. Models of ZF where AC does not hold are very weird. (Models where AC does hold are weird also, but much less so.)

One can ask about all sorts of weaker versions of AC. For example, what if !!\mathcal I!! and !!\mathscr F!! are required to be countable? The resulting “axiom of countable choice”, is strictly weaker than AC: ZFC obviously includes countable choice as a restricted case, but there are models of ZF that satisfy countable choice but not AC in its fullest generality.

Rather than restricting the size of !!\mathscr F!! itself, we can consider what happens when we restrict the size of its elements. For example, what if !!\mathscr F!! is a collection of finite sets? Then we get the “axiom of finite choice”. This is also known to be independent of ZF.

What if we restrict the elements of !!\mathscr F!! yet further, so that !!\mathscr F!! is a family of sets, each of which has exactly two elements? Then we have the “axiom of binary choice”. Finite choice obviously implies binary choice. But the converse implication does not hold. This is not at all obvious. Binary choice is known to imply the corresponding version of binary choice in which each member of !!\mathscr F!! has exactly four elements, and is known not to imply the version in which each member has exactly three elements. (Further details in this Math SE post.)

But anyway, readers pointed out that, if there were a first-order formula !!P_1!! with the properties I requested, it would prove binary choice. We could understand each set !!\mathscr F_i!! as an unordered pair !![a_i, b_i]!! and then

$$ \{ \langle i, P_1([a_i, b_i])\rangle \mid i\in \mathcal I \},$$

which is the function !!i\mapsto P_1(\mathscr F_i)!!, would be a choice function for !!\mathscr F!!. But this would constitute a proof of binary choice in ZF, which we know is impossible.

Thanks to Carl Witty, Daniel Wagner, Simon Tatham, and Gareth McCaughan for pointing this out.

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Thu, 21 Apr 2022

Pushing back against contract demands is scary but please try anyway

A year or two ago I wrote a couple of articles about the importance of pushing back against unreasonable contract provisions before you sign the contract. [1: Strategies] [2: Examples]

My last two employers have unintentionally had deal-breaker clauses in contracts they wanted me to sign before starting employment. Both were examples I mentioned in the previous article about things you should never agree to. One employer asked me to yield ownership of my entire work product during the term of my employment, including things I wrote on my own time on my own equipment, such as these blog articles. I think the employer should own only the things they pay me to create, during my working hours.

When I pointed this out to them I got a very typical reply: “Oh, we don't actually mean that, we only want to own things you produced in the scope of your employment.” What they said they wanted was what I also wanted.

This typical sort of reply is almost always truthful. That is all they want. It's important to realize that your actual interests are aligned here! The counterparty honestly does agree with you.

But you mustn't fall into the trap of signing the contract anyway, with the idea that you both understand the real meaning and everything will be okay. You may agree today, but that can change. The company's management or ownership can change. Suppose you are an employee of the company for many years, it is very successful, it goes public, and the new Board of Directors decides to exert ownership of your blog posts? Then the oral agreement you had with the founder seven years before will be worth the paper it is not printed on. The whole point of a written contract is that it can survive changes of agency and incentive.

So in this circumstance, you should say “I'm glad we are in agreement on this. Since you only want ownership of work produced in the scope of my employment, let's make sure the contract says that.”

If they continue to push back, try saying innocently “I don't understand why you would want to have X in the written agreement if what you really want is Y.” (It could be that they really do want X despite their claims otherwise. Wouldn't it be good to find that out before it was too late to back out?)

Pushing back against incorrect contract clauses can be scary. You want the job. You are probably concerned that the whole deal will fall through because of some little contract detail. You may be concerned that you are going to get a reputation as a troublemaker before you even start the job. It's very uncomfortable, and it's hard to be brave. But this is a better-than-usual place to try to be brave, not just for yourself.

If the employer is a good one, they want the contract to be fair, and if the contract is unfair it's probably by accident. But they have a million other things to do other than getting the legal department to fix the contract, so it doesn't get fixed, simply because of inertia.

If, by pushing back, you can get the employer to fix their contract, chances are it will stay fixed for everyone in the future also, simply because of inertia. People who are less experienced, or otherwise in a poorer negotiating position than you were, will be able to enjoy the benefits that you negotiated. You're negotiating not just for yourself but for the others who will follow you.

And if you are like me and you have a little more power and privilege than some of the people who will come after, this is a great place to apply some of it. Power and privilege can be used for good or bad. If you have some, this is a situation where you can use some for good.

It still scary! In this world of giant corporations that control everything, each of us is a tiny insect, hoping not to be heedlessly trampled. I am afraid to bargain with such monsters. But I know that as a middle-aged white guy with experience and savings and a good reputation, I have the luxury of being able to threaten to walk away from a job offer over an unfair contract clause. This is an immense privilege and I don't want to let it go to waste.

We should push back against unfair conditions pressed on us by corporations. It can be frightening and risky to do this, because they do have more power than we do. But we all deserve fairness. If it seems too risky to demand fair treatment for yourself, perhaps draw courage from the thought that you're also helping to make things more fair for other people. We tiny insects must all support one another if we are to survive with dignity.

[ Addendum 20220424: A correspondent says: “I also have come to hate articles like yours because they proffer advice to people with the least power to do anything.” I agree, and I didn't intend to write another one of those. My idea was to address the article to middle-aged white guys like me, who do have a little less risk than many people, and exhort them to take the chance and try to do something that will help people. In the article I actually wrote, this point wasn't as prominent as I meant it to be. Writing is really hard. ]

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