The data are annoying

I love the Language Log: smart people having entertaining discussions about how words work. The nice thing about the site is that the discussions are often observational and non-prescriptive. The writers are naturalists, not prudes. They wander through the living world with a butterfly net and a notebook. Language is a thing that happens, the Académie française notwithstanding. Language rises and merges in mesmerizing patterns.

The prissy righteousness of rule-o-philes makes me crazy. Grammatical taxidermy can put a moose head on the wall, but it misses the moose. So I was glad to see this article point out that language fetishism slows down communication and makes us stupid:

“The data are”: How fetishism makes us stupid

Show me the moose! And remember, if you can’t datum, join ’em.



1. The word ERRATA appearing in this post appears in error as there is only one entry in the list of errata. It should be replaced with the word ERRATUM.

2. As there are now, in fact, two items on the list of errata, the first erratum is in error and the spelling should stand.

3. There is no third erratum. Please stop.

Shaving energy at home

There are a number of things that make saving energy difficult. One is that people who can afford to be comfortable don’t like to be uncomfortable. Another is that people often have no idea what really drives energy use in their home. Turning off a few lights really doesn’t compensate for the fact that your new digital video recorder stays busy 24 hours a day.

If you want to help people save energy at home, make it convenient and comfortable to curtail wasted energy. We spend an awful lot of energy heating air and water. If you want to be comfortable, you can’t avoid doing a fair amount of this. But I’ve always thought it’s a particular shame that we pay to heat water for showers and shaving and then we immediately send it down the drain and out of the house. Sure enough, there are people who think about graywater heat recovery, but that’s still (relatively) capital-intensive and far from mainstream.

So what are some ways to simply use less water and still be comfortable? Low flow faucets and shower heads are good. But here’s a brilliant idea that I came across on Indiegogo the other day: the Bonsai shaving tool. I don’t know if they’ll meet their fundraising goal, but I love the idea. Men tend to leave hot water running while they’re shaving. Every last one of them realizes this is wasteful, but the alternative is just too inconvenient. This Bonsai widget is a shaving mug that keeps the razor clean by shooting a jet of water through it. No need to have an open faucet.

Clever and Bright Green!

On seasonal crepuscularity and pseudo-saint Seculus

Because I am sensitive to the waning of the sunlight in the winter, I am always happy to welcome its return. Most years I use this space to call out the day of the year on which the sun sets the earliest. This usually happens around December 9 at my latitude. If you’re wondering why it doesn’t happen on the shortest day (the solstice, December 21st), I tried to explain it carefully last year.

I’ve always felt this day, being special, should have a special name, but I could never come up with anything I liked. So I was amused to see that someone else with strong feelings on the subject has proposed just such a name. A Dr. Richard Wilk, in a letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer (, proposes that we call the day Seculus, where the name suggests that it has nothing to do with religion. What do you think? I’m game. I like the notion of Seculus as a god who refuses to believe in his own existence. And for this act of reasoned restraint, we give him his own saint’s day. The blessings of Seculus upon you!

Now the interesting thing about Seculus is that it varies by latitude. The farther north you go, the later it occurs. As such it provides a sort of perpendicular counterpoint to New Year’s Eve. Because everyone on a single meridian celebrates midnight at the same stroke, we are conjoined in longitudinal fraternity. Seculus, on the other hand, unites us with our latitudinal brethren. Are you on Latitude 42? If so, you are my Secular Sibling, and December 9th is our festal day.

Accordingly, last month I wanted to illustrate exactly when, by latitude, the earliest sunset occurs but alas I didn’t get my act together in time. But now, with the help of some code from the U.S. Naval Observatory I can present a chart that is still timely: the latest sunrise by latitude.

The latest sunrise occurs on the far side of the solstice, as you might suspect. At my latitude it happened about a week ago. Since I am not a morning person, I propose no special holiday for the latest sunrise. But you seasonal affective early risers may disagree.

And here, to complete today’s story, is the Seculus Succession, being a chart of the timing of that noble and moveable feast.