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July 5th, 2022 (Permalink)

Crack the Combination III

The combination of a lock is three digits long. The following are some incorrect combinations, each of which has one correct digit though it is in the wrong position:

  1. 283
  2. 625
  3. 032
  4. 368

Can you determine the correct combination from the above clues?

WARNING: May cause mind-boggling.

July 2nd, 2022 (Permalink)

A Warning Sign1

Can you see what's wrong with the following sign? It took me a minute or two to spot it, so you might want to take some time to study it before reading on.

Boiling Water

What is "visual damage"? Would it be damage to your eyes after getting squirted in the face with boiling water?

According to the sign, the "visual damage" would be to the "tap top assembly", whatever that is, rather than to your eyes. Presumably, what the sign maker meant was "visible" damage, that is, damage to the tap top assembly―or should that be the "top tap assembly"?―that is severe enough for you to see. Apparently, if the damage is not bad enough to see, you just shouldn't worry about it.

Surely, "visible damage" would have been a clearer and more precise wording, but is it actually wrong to use "visual" to mean "visible"? In general, "visual" as an adjective means "of or pertaining to vision"2, and visibility certainly pertains to vision. Some dictionaries give "visible" as one of the possible meanings of "visual"3. Moreover, none of the reference books on common errors that I usually check warns against confusing "visual" and "visible", though that could be because the confusion is uncommon.

One of the few dictionaries that I've found that argues against the "visible" meaning of "visual" is H. W. Fowler's dictionary of usage. Here's the entirety of Fowler's entry:

Visible means capable of being seen; visual means pertaining to seeing. The visual arts are concerned with the production of the beautiful in visible form, visually appreciated. This differentiation is sometimes obscured by the misuse of visual for visible, for which indeed dictionary authority can be found. But the differentiation is worth preserving. For instance the wrong word is used in the descriptive phrase Diagnosis by visual symptoms; the method of diagnosis is visual, but the symptoms are visible.4

Furthermore, while it's difficult to spot the mistake―if it is one―in the warning sign, in other contexts it's misleading to use "visual" to mean "visible". For instance, suppose that you were scalded by the hot water and complained that you couldn't see the sign because something obscured it. Would you say that the sign was "not visual" or that it was "not visible"? Surely, all signs are visual or they wouldn't be signs, but some are not visible because of obstructions.

Similarly, there's a recent movie called The Invisible Man, about a man who could not be seen. Could it have been titled "The Non-Visual Man", instead? That suggests to me a blind man, who cannot see, rather than one who cannot be seen.

Logically, the relation between "visual" and "visible" is that the former is the more general word, and the latter more specific. It may not be, strictly speaking, wrong to call damage to the hot water dispenser "visual", but "visible" is more specific, and thus more informative. So, whether or not it's a mistake to use "visual" to mean "visible", the distinction between the two words is worth observing.


  1. Thanks to Lawrence Mayes for calling this issue to my attention, supplying the photograph of the sign, and for versions of the examples I use.
  2. "Visual", Cambridge Dictionary, accessed: 7/1/2022.
  3. For instance, the online Merriam-Webster dictionary gives "visible" as the third meaning of "visual"; see: "Visual", Merriam-Webster Dictionary, accessed: 7/1/2022.
  4. H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2nd edition, 1965), revised & edited by Sir Ernest Gowers; under "visible, visual."

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Recommended Reading
June 30th, 2022 (Revised: 7/2/2022) (Permalink)

When More is Less & Who are the Experts?


  1. Plato. The Republic, 488A-489A; Jowett's translation.
  2. Eric W. Weisstein, "Condorcet's Jury Theorem", Wolfram's MathWorld, accessed: 6/29/2022.
  3. Douglas O. Linder, "Criminal Procedure in Ancient Greece and the Trial of Socrates", Famous Trials, accessed: 6/29/2022.

Disclaimer: I don't necessarily agree with everything in these articles, but I think they're worth reading as a whole. In abridging them, I may have changed the paragraphing and rearranged the order of the excerpts in order to emphasize points.

June 26th, 2022 (Permalink)

Inflation and "Record-High" Gas Prices

Inflation in America increased to 8.6% last month, a level that we haven't experienced for forty years. An important aspect of that inflation is the price of gasoline, which has risen at a rate much higher than the overall rate of inflation, increasing by nearly 50% over the last year1. You don't need the news media to tell you that the cost of gasoline has gone up a lot this year: just fill up your gas tank and you'll be painfully aware of it. Nonetheless, the news media keep referring to "record" or "record-high" gasoline prices2. In what sense is the price a "record"?

The claim that gas prices are setting new records is based on an average of prices nationwide compiled by the American Automobile Association (AAA). According to the AAA, the current national average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline is $4.903. The "record high" was actually set on the 14th of this month at $5.016, so it's not now at a record-setting price, but only about a dime away.

What the news media don't usually mention is that AAA's average measures nominal gas prices, that is, simply the price on the pump unadjusted for inflation. Inflation is money losing value over time―which it's been doing unusually fast for the last several months―so that a dollar today is not worth what it was yesterday. A dollar this year will buy less gas than it would have last year, let alone ten, fifty, or one-hundred years ago.

Given inflation, comparing prices from many years apart is comparing apples to oranges or, for a less hackneyed and fruity analogy, it's like comparing prices in American dollars with prices in Canadian dollars without taking the exchange rate into consideration. "The past is a foreign country", as L. P. Hartley wrote4. So, to compare today's prices to those many years ago, you should adjust for inflation5.

Adjusting for inflation, the previous record was set in 2008, when prices averaged $4.116, which is $5.49 in today's dollars7. Inflation is running so high currently that it's entirely possible that we'll see inflation-adjusted prices exceed $5.49 in the near future, which would be a real as opposed to a merely nominal record price.


  1. Aimee Picchi, "Inflation surged 8.6% over the last year — fastest since 1981", CBS News, 6/10/2022.
  2. For just one example: Chris Isidore, "Average US gas price hits $5 for first time", CNN, 6/13/2022.
  3. Gas Prices, American Automobile Association, accessed: 6/26/2022.
  4. L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953), prologue. From Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, Justin Kaplan, General Editor (1992, 16th edition), p. 692.
  5. If you want to adjust prices for inflation, see: Elizabeth B. Appelbaum, "The Consumer Price Index and Inflation - Adjust Numbers for Inflation", Mathematical Association of America, 12/2004. The math is not difficult, but you can use the Bureau of Labor Statistics' online calculator, instead: "CPI Inflation Calculator", Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
  6. Sarah Hansen, "5 Facts That Show How Painful Gas Prices Are Now", Money, 6/7/2022.
  7. I used the BLS calculator to adjust for inflation, with June of 2008 for the previous record, since the source gave the nominal price only for the summer of that year and not the month. I also used May of this year, which is the last month for which data is available, for the current price.

June 9th, 2022 (Permalink)

How to Get a Correction or Retraction in Ten Easy Steps

If, in the course of amateur fact-checking, you discover a factual error in a publication, what should you do then? You've received the benefit of not being misled by the error, but what about other readers or viewers who will not make the effort to check the mistaken claim? My suggestion is that you request a correction or retraction from the source that made the mistake, so that unwary people will not be misinformed.

What's the difference between a correction and a retraction? In a correction, the article itself may be edited to remove or correct the error, and usually a notice at the top or bottom of the article will notify the reader that a correction has been made. Sometimes, the article itself will not be corrected, but a correction appended at the beginning or end. Other times, the notice of a correction will appear on a separate corrections page, though this is not good internet practice.

A retraction is more drastic than a correction, and you are unlikely to get one for a single mistake unless it undermines the thesis of the article. In a retraction, the entire article will be removed, with perhaps a note replacing it that explains the retraction. Articles are most likely to be retracted for extensive plagiarism or fabricated information rather than easily correctable errors.

  1. Don't request a correction over a difference of opinion: Only make such a request when a publication has committed a checkable factual error. If you're not sure whether something is a matter of opinion or of fact, then review the previous entries in this series on fact-checking1. If you're not sure whether something is a factual error, or whether it's a factual error, then don't ask for a correction. Be sure that you're on solid ground before contacting a publication. If it is a difference of opinion, then there are many ways that you can challenge the publication's claims: send a letter to the editor, add a comment to the article, or write and publish your own response. Don't waste your and the publication's time by demanding the correction of an opinion.
  2. Request a correction first: Have the courtesy to contact a publication and request a correction or retraction before you publicly criticize it for a mistake. Give it a chance to do the right thing. This warning includes adding a public comment to an article if the publication allows such a thing, so don't use such comments as a way to try to get a mistake corrected or an article retracted.
  3. Be polite: If you want to get a correction or retraction, don't insult the readers of your request or the publication for which they work. Don't call them ignoramuses, fools, or worse―they may actually be ignorant fools, but don't say so. Assume that they want to get it right. Don't use sarcasm to suggest that they are idiots, or that it is unlikely that they will honor your request―there's no better way to get them to ignore you. If you violate this rule your request is most likely to end up in the trash.
  4. Don't curse: This, of course, is part of politeness, but it may need special emphasis nowadays. If you curse at the person reading your request or the publication the person works for, your request will justifiably go in the trash.
  5. Be specific: Describe the error you want corrected exactly and precisely. If you just have some vague feeling that an article is mistaken, then you're not going to get a correction anyway, so don't bother asking for one.
  6. Be able to prove your case: Don't request a correction or a retraction unless and until you can prove the publication committed a mistake beyond a reasonable doubt. This is an unfair standard, but it is likely to be the one that you'll be held to. If there's any way for a publication to wriggle out of the need to correct or retract something, it will usually try to do so. Publications do not like to issue corrections or, especially, retractions. So, you need to have such a solid case that there's no wiggle room. If you can't prove your case, you can still request a correction or retraction, but don't expect one.
  7. Don't hold your breath: As I mentioned above, publications don't like to make public corrections, let alone retractions. This is true―perhaps especially true―of even the most prestigious and reputable institutions. So, don't be surprised if your request is silently rejected.
  8. If your request is granted, thank the publication and its representative: This, of course, is also a matter of politeness. However, we need to encourage publications to admit error and correct the public record, so thank them when they do so! Anybody can make a mistake, but they did the right thing despite the likelihood of public embarrassment, so they deserve praise and reward for doing so.
  9. If your request is denied or ignored, don't demand that your subscription be cancelled: In the lapidary words of William F. Buckley, Jr.: "Cancel your own goddam subscription!"2
  10. Go public: If you did all of the above, and the publication still does not correct or retract its mistake, publicly embarrass it! There are, of course, many ways that you can lay your case before the public. About the only thing a publication likes less than issuing corrections or retractions is being publicly shamed for getting something wrong. If the publication allows comments to its articles, you can add your correction of it to the comments. You can contact a rival publication, especially one with a different political slant, which may be eager to point out the mistakes of its competitor. Just as we need to reward those who do the right thing, we need to punish those who do not. Let's make it easier and less painful to admit error than not to.


  1. In chronological order:
  2. William F. Buckley, Jr., Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription: Notes and Asides from National Review (2007)

June 7th, 2022 (Permalink)

Crack the Combination II

The combination of a lock is three digits long. Here are some incorrect combinations:

  1. 054: Two of the digits are correct, one is in the right position, but the other is in the wrong place.
  2. 754: Two digits are correct but both are in the wrong positions.
  3. 742: Two of the digits are correct, one is in the right position, but the other is in the wrong place.

Can you determine the correct combination from the above clues?

WARNING: May cause brain-teasing.

June 4th, 2022 (Permalink)

Cite or Site?

A report in the The New York Times from fifty years ago about a water main break contained the following sentence: "A portable toilet unit on the construction cite also fell into the hole in the street.1" The toilet, of course, was on a construction site.

"Cite" is a verb, most commonly occurring in scholarly writing, which means to point to a source of supposed evidence for a claim or a quote2. In this weblog, I often cite sources for the information and quotes that I write about.

In contrast, "site" is usually a noun meaning "place", as in "web site" or "construction site"3. Given that the two words are pronounced identically, they are easy to confuse. Oddly, only two of the books I usually check, and sometimes cite, warn against such confusion4, though it seems to be a common error. In my experience, the most common mistake is to misspell "cite" as "site", though the confusion obviously can go in the opposite direction, witness the Times example.

Since "cite" is a verb and "site" is usually a noun, it's possible that a grammar checking program will catch confusion of one for the other. However, "site" can also be used as a verb meaning "to place", which means that a grammar checker may not catch it. My old copy of Microsoft's Word program flagged "cite" in the above example, and one online program automatically changed it to "site", though another did not. So, I would suggest that you test whatever program you usually use to see whether it would catch this mistake. If not, you can either upgrade your program or add this distinction to your mental software.


  1. Martin Gansberg, "Subway Flooded by a Broken Main", The New York Times, 9/28/1970. I found this example in the following article: "'Cite' vs. 'Site' vs. 'Sight'", Merriam-Webster, accessed: 6/4/2022.
  2. "Cite", Cambridge Dictionary, accessed: 6/4/2022. For instance, this note cites the entry for "cite" in the online Cambridge Dictionary.
  3. "Site", Cambridge Dictionary, accessed: 6/4/2022.
  4. They are:
    • Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl's 101 Misused Words You'll Never Confuse Again (2011), p. 29
    • Robert J. Gula, Precision: A Reference Handbook for Writers (1980), p. 209

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