The L.M. Boyd Column's Parade of Errors
A debunking of the syndicated newspaper column
July 14, 2004

Each week a number of short but astounding items appear in the L.M. Boyd column (sample) (known in San Francisco as The Grab Bag). These are in the vein of what is commonly called trivia or factoids. A number of them are either completely wrong or at least wrong on a technicality in a way that would be a surprise to most readers. Some of these are compiled here. A number of them are difficult to spot unless one is an expert in the obscure branch of knowledge being discussed. If you spot any of them be sure to email them here so that they may be added to this page.
Grab Bag says ...Truth
"Swimming makes muscles longer but not bulkier." In a fully grown adult, muscle length is fixed and determined by the joint or joints across which the muscle is attached.
Contributed by Richard Masoner.
Grab Bag says ...Truth
"Japanese has no distinctive dialects." Each region in Japan has its own distinctive dialect, many of which are mutually incomprehensible. My mother, who is from the Aomori region, must switch to the Tokyo dialect if she wants to be understood by anybody outside of her region.
Contributed by Richard Masoner.
"Technology" is just about synonymous with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is it not? Little wonder. The word was coined by Dr. Jacob Bigelow, founder of "MIT."
Not only was Jacob Bigelow not the founder of M.I.T. (William Barton Rogers was; I saw it chiseled in concrete every school day for 4 years as an undergrad, and many days during the 9 years I was on the research staff, when I had some reason for going to the other side of the campus from where my office was), which is the glaring error, but while looking him up I discovered he isn't even really the coiner of the word 'technology'. A little "googling" led me to an OED clip which had a 1615 citation for "technologie' as the earliest one, and just to be scrupulous I even confirmed what I already knew from having read the writing in the wall (over the 77 Massachusetts Avenue entrance, actually), that William Barton Rogers was the Institute's founder. In fairness, it does seem that Bigelow did a book in the early nineteenth century that brought the word into prominence in the USA. But he was a Harvard professor even if apparently he was also eventually a trustee of the Institute and had some other involvements I didn't bother to track down. Contributed by Mike Padlipsky.
Q. Forget computer jargon for a moment. In spy talk, what's the difference between "code" and "cipher"?
A. Code uses words. Cipher uses numbers for letters.
Actually a cipher uses other letters to stand in for letters as often as they use numbers. There is more than one different sort of cipher, including substitution ciphers, as seem to be meant here, as well as transposition ciphers in which the letters are systematically re-arranged.
China's late Chairman Mao was indeed "the big cat" – mao is the Chinese word for cat.
There is a Chinese word for "cat" which can be transliterated mao, but it is tonally different from the name of the Chairman, which actually means "hair".
Still can't verify the dubious claim that there's no word in Chinese for "salesman". Can you?
Posing as a question, this doubtful assertion is wrong on a technicality. The Chinese language being based on word ideograms works differently than Indo-European ones. The Chinese jor my mie means "person who does a sale".
There's no such Indian as a Blackfoot, tribespeople say....
(The Daily Inter Lake, 9/26/01)
Guess he covered himself by the "tribespeople say," but all the dictionaries list Blackfoot as singular and Blackfeet as plural.
Contributed by John Crismore
The term "HAM" as an amateur radio operator came from a 1912 magazine.
(Colorado Times-Call, 2004))
The origin was defined in a book by G. M. Dodge The Telegraph Instructor in the mid 1800's – it was a term for a poor telegraph operator. It later carried over to wireless operators and was applied to the amateur operators of the day. Link to the entire story (from an ARRL book)
Contributed by Glenn Pladsen
Grab Bag says ...Truth
"A snapping turtle never snaps in water." Snapping is how they catch their prey! Like all aquatic turtles, they hunt and eat exclusively in the water.
Contributed by Richard Masoner.
"A woodchuck... hibernates for eight months." [out of a year]. The woodchuck hibernates up to 4 or 5 months depending on where they're at.
Contributed by Richard Masoner.
You won't find any toads in Australia.
(Austin American-Statesman, 10/30/01)
Grossly untrue. The Cane Toad (Bufo marinus) was introduced early in the century as an intended predator of sugar cane beatles. It has since taken over the country and displaced many native frog species. You'll find lots of them; in fact there are bounties on them in some places. What he should have said is that there are no toads native to Australia. Contributed by William B. Montgomery
Grab Bag says ...Truth
"Annette Kellerman ... was arrested for indecent exposure" at a Boston Beach because she was "an Australian ... swimmer who knew too little of U.S. laws." Kellerman knew exactly what she was doing and got exactly what she expected: publicity.
Contributed by Richard Masoner.
Grab Bag says ...Truth
Q. What pushes the wind to make it blow?
A. It's not pushed. It's pulled. Into the vacuum created by low pressure in front of it.
(Nov. 23, 2001)
Nothing can be absolutely proved in physics or math if taken to the extreme, but things are said to be "proven", if a good case is made for simplicity of logic and is shown by practical experimentation.

I have not found a physics book yet that has a formula for any kind of Pull. Unfortunately they do use the word. (...among other words I wish they would give better definition, or quit using altogether. But, another story. Much, in a book I wrote.) It is always broken down to the main constituent pressure, which is a push. A pull is nothing more than a push with the leverage being applied indirectly from the intended direction of the pushed object. If one will simply take the time to analyze anything that is described as a pull... it will come out a push (pressure being brought to bear), or something that is yet an unknown cause such as in quantum physics with particle motion. Put the frame of reference around the point of contact. No-one can put their pants on without bringing pressure to bear. A door cannot be pulled open without pressing on it somehow. A horse presses against its horse-collar.

Wind is created in several ways. For weather it is often the heat from the sun warming the earth, for example, that warms the air which has the atomic particles become more active, causing more collisions, making more pressure, causing expansion... a higher pressure area. Any vacuum is only a low pressure area, that the high pressure pushes, pressures, into... i.e. wind.

A book waved, presses air, and creates higher pressure in front of it, and low behind. Called a differential in pressure, or delta P. I have never heard of a differential in vacuum. In fact a vacuum cleaner does not suck. The fan inside cuts into, and pushes air, focused, out the back, making a higher than room pressure aft, and lower than room air pressure at the nozzle intake. The higher room pressure pushes into the nozzle. The nozzle is made smaller than the discharge to give increased air velocity. Contributed by Ron Davis

Fans of this column may also like to read Nougat of the Day.


August 21, 2001
The Grab Bag is making a comeback! Still to be run by Mr. Boyd, it will offer a sort of "best of" old material from the many years of the column. Still unclear is just which newspapers will decide to carry it.
December 31, 2000
Unfortunately I have been too busy with other things to regularly update this page. That doesn't mean I've stopped reading or stopped noticing errors however. Did you all notice that the San Francisco Chronicle was forced to print a retraction last February 4, 2000, because the column got the year of Hemingway's death wrong? Meanwhile, on December 6, 2000, a question comes in from a reader:

Q. L.M. Boyd is retiring at the end of 2000. What inspired you to cite his mistakes?

A. At the end of the day, admiration I suppose. I do look forward to reading the columns every week. Every now and then, in a field where I have some knowledge, I detect an error. That always makes me wonder how much he gets wrong on topics about which I know nothing. How do readers know if any of this is factual or is it all just made up? The column may be a good demonstration of the power of print.

To test the process, I once even sent in this item:

Q. What do they call a German Shepherd in Germany?
A. They call it a Schaeferhund, which translates to Shepherd Dog. In Britain, it's an Alsatian.
A few weeks later out it popped in the column, almost exactly as I had written it. The information is correct, but how much vetting of this factoid was done I have no idea. Perhaps none? Certainly it wasn't attributed, which also bothered me. Maybe the entire column is composed of unvetted, submitted items?

A few years ago, maybe 6-7?, the San Francisco Chronicle published a parody column next to the Grab Bag called "Definitely Not the Grab Bag" which contained a number of silly, spoof items duplicating the style of the column with archaeological exactitude, so I am definitely not the first to feel less than entirely sanguine about all of this.

But I'll also say that if the column goes away I will miss it.

Another question arrives on December 28, 2000:

Q. What in the column entices people to read? Is it the facts? is it the way they are presented?

A. I think the appeal of the column is in three aspects: brevity, obscurity and Boydspeak, the unique style of writing employed. Like a haiku, the prose is spare as winter branch, yet rich enough that no one will find it lacking. It's almost as if the restless spirit of Dashiell Hammett had returned to write a weekly column.

As an example, below you can find two versions of an L.M. Boyd item. The first version you will see is the way the item was originally submitted (by me as it happens) while the second is the same information, translated into Boydspeak.

First the original:

Q. What do they call a German Shepherd in Germany?
A. They call it a Schaeferhund, which translates to Shepherd Dog. In Britain, it's an Alsatian.
And as it appeared in the column on September 17, 2000:
Q. What's a German Shepherd called in Germany?
A. Schaeferhund. That's Shepherd Dog. In Britain, it's an Alsatian.
Not one unnecessary word, and yet impossible to see any way to reduce it further.

By the way, I've learned someone from Yahoo.com is interested in continuing the column for the Internet, where short, punchy items seem a perfect fit. The Internet can probably also be credited with the recent revival of the haiku.

Another interesting aspect of the column is the mysterious "Love and War Man". Why create a fictional secondary author, assuming he is secondary? The Boyd column has hardly been forthcoming in behind-the-scenes information. Indeed we only first saw a picture of Boyd and learned that he is a he named Lou in the past couple of weeks. And why should the secondary author's two topics be Love and War? Apparently an allusion to the "All's fair" proverb? I suppose it adds a sense of both familiarity and extra color. And what about the Love and War Man's occasional and less colorful friends such as the language man and others? These seemingly innocent additions to the column add a sense of peculiarity that lift the reader out of the ordinary compilations of factoids.

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