The Universe of Discourse

Fri, 26 Apr 2019


What is the shed in “watershed”? Is it a garden shed? No.

I guessed that it meant a piece of land that sheds water into some stream or river. Wrong!

The Big Dictionary says that this shed is:

The parting made in the hair by combing along the top of the head.

This meaning of “shed” fell out of use after the end of the 17th century.

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

Cuneiform tablet fanfic

This week I learned that there are no fewer than seven fanfics on AO3 that concern the Complaint letter to Ea-Nasir, a 3750-year-old Babylonian cuneiform tablet from an merchant angry at the poor-quality copper ingots he was sold. Truly, we live in an age of marvels.

I've said here before that I don't usually find written material funny, with very rare exceptions. But this story, Pay me Baby, Treat me Right, was a rare exception. I found it completely sidesplitting.

(Caution: sexual content.)

[ Addendum: However, I still demand to know: Where the hell is my Sonar Taxlaw fanfic? Fanfic writers of the world, don't think this gets you off the hook! ]

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Hell is the absence of God

This is definitely the worst thing I learned this month. It's way worse than that picture of Elvis meeting Nixon.

Six tall black men, members of
the Harlem Globetrotters (including Meadowlark Lemon) stand in what
appears to be a hotel ballroom.  In front of them is Henry Kissinger,
smiling and holding a basketball with the Globertrotters’ signatures. Henry Kissinger alone, smiling
and holding up a Harlem Globetrotters game jersey with the number ‘1’.

Nobel Laureate and noted war criminal Henry Kissinger is also an honorary member of the Harlem Globetrotters.

As Maciej Cegłowski said, “And yet the cruel earth refuses to open and swallow up everyone involved.”

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Sometimes it matters how you get there

Katara was given the homework exercise of rationalizing the denominator of $$\frac1{\sqrt2+\sqrt3+\sqrt5}$$ which she found troublesome. You evidently need to start by multiplying the numerator and denominator by !!-\sqrt2 + \sqrt 3 + \sqrt 5!!, obtaining $$ \frac1{(\sqrt2+\sqrt3+\sqrt5)}\cdot \frac{-\sqrt2 + \sqrt 3 + \sqrt 5}{-\sqrt2 + \sqrt 3 + \sqrt 5} = \frac{-\sqrt2 + \sqrt 3 + \sqrt 5}{(-2 +3 + 5 + 2\sqrt{15})} = \frac{-\sqrt2 + \sqrt 3 + \sqrt 5}{6 + 2\sqrt{15}} $$ and then you go from there, multiplying the top and bottom by !!6 - 2\sqrt{15}!!. It is a mess.

But when I did it, it was much quicker. Instead of using !!-\sqrt2 + \sqrt 3 + \sqrt 5!!, I went with !!\sqrt2 + \sqrt 3 - \sqrt 5!!, not for any reason, but just at random. This got me: $$ \frac1{\sqrt2+\sqrt3+\sqrt5}\cdot \frac{\sqrt2 + \sqrt 3 - \sqrt 5}{\sqrt2 + \sqrt 3 - \sqrt 5} = \frac{\sqrt2 + \sqrt 3 - \sqrt 5}{(2 +3 - 5 + 2\sqrt{6})} = \frac{\sqrt2 + \sqrt 3 - \sqrt 5}{2\sqrt{6}} $$

with the !!2+3-5!! vanishing in the denominator. Then the next step is quite easy; just get rid of the !!\sqrt6!!: $$ \frac{\sqrt2 + \sqrt 3 - \sqrt 5}{2\sqrt{6}}\cdot \frac{\sqrt6}{\sqrt6} = \frac{\sqrt{12}+\sqrt{18}-\sqrt{30}}{12} $$

which is correct.

I wish I could take credit for this, but it was pure dumb luck.

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Men who are the husbands of someone important

It's often pointed out that women, even famous and accomplished women, are often described in newspaper stories as being someone's wife, but that the reverse rarely occurs. The only really well-known exception I could think of was Pierre Curie, who was a famous, prizewinning scientist (1903 Nobel Laureate, yo), but is often identified as having been the husband of Marie Skłodowska Curie (also 1903 Nobel Laureate).

But last week brought another example to my attention. There ware a great many news articles reporting that Salma Hayek's husband had pledged money to help rebuild Notre Dame cathedral. His name is François-Henri Pinault, and he is a billionaire. And the husband of Salma Hayek.

For example:

“Billionaire Francois Pinault and his son, Francois-Henri Pinault, who is married to actress Salma Hayek, said…”

Notre Dame fire – Salma Hayek’s French billionaire husband Francois-Henri Pinault pledges £86million

Salma Hayek’s Billionaire Husband Pledges More Than $110 Million to Rebuild Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral


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Mon, 01 Apr 2019


Yesterday I mentioned the rook:

Wikipedia also tells me that the rook is also named from the sound it makes.

This is the “rook” that is a sort of crow, C. frugilegus. It is not related to the rooks in chess. That word is from Arabic (and earlier, Persian) rukh, which means a chariot. Before the game came to Europe, the rooks were chariots. Europeans didn't use chariots, so when they adopted the game, they changed the chariots to castles. (Similarly the elephants turned into bishops.)

Okay, I've known all this for years, but today I had another thought. Why were there chariots in the Persian form of the game? The Persians didn't use chariots either. Chariots had been obsolete since the end of the Bronze Age, thousands of years, and chess is nothing like that old.

The earliest forerunner of chess was played in India. But I confirmed with Wikipedia that it didn't overlap with chariots:

Chess is believed to have originated in Eastern India, c. 280–550, in the Gupta Empire, where its early form in the 6th century was known as chaturaṅga (Sanskrit: चतुरङ्ग), literally four divisions [of the military] – infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariotry, represented by the pieces that would evolve into the modern pawn, knight, bishop, and rook, respectively.

Were the Guptas still using chariots in the 6th century? (And if so, why?) I think they weren't, but I'm not sure. Were the chariots intentionally anachronistic, even at the time the game was invented, recalling a time of ancient heroes?

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