Jun 25

Let’s Deconstruct a Very Bad Sentence

A Very Bad SentenceToday, we are going to consider a very bad sentence. And it was written by a really smart guy.

When people tell me I’m smart or knowledgeable, I tend to scoff at them. It isn’t false humility. I do know that in an absolute sense, I’m quite smart and knowledgeable. But I’ve spent most of my adult life in a social group where I am accepted because of creativity rather than my pure intellectual fire power. I can normally keep up with others, but I’d have to put myself in the bottom half of the group. One person who is really smart and knowledgeable, by my way of looking at it, is Corey Robin.

A couple of weeks ago, Robin wrote, When Advertising Is Action: Clarence Thomas Channels Hannah Arendt and Friedrich Von Hayek. It’s often the case that he writes things that tax my intellect. This is one of the reasons I hold him in such high regard. If I can just stick with him, I learn things. And, of course, he isn’t just smart; he’s a creative thinker; he doesn’t bore me.

The Very Bad Sentence

But he ended this article with such a bad sentence that I had to say something. I don’t present it to make him look bad, of course. He’s writing on a blog. I would hate for anyone to judge my writing (much less my editing) on the basis of my blog. But the sentence presents a great pedagogical opportunity that I just can’t pass up. Plus, it is something I run into all the time while editing:

Whether and how he thinks it relates to these other political arts — Is it meant to be a substitution for those political arts, such that the First Amendment, in protecting commercial speech, finds or identifies a new realm of political action in the sphere of the economy? — remains to be seen.

There are lots of little things that make this a bad sentence. For example, there is needless repetition. Why would one write “finds or identifies”? Either that’s some kind of legal distinction or a verbal tick. But what most makes it a bad sentence is its structure.

What’s Wrong

It’s a long sentence: 51 words, if I counted correctly. That in itself is not a problem. One can write very long sentences that are clear. But in this case, there are two sentences put together in the most confusing manner possible. The base sentence is perfectly understandable, “Whether and how he thinks it relates to these other political arts remains to be seen.” And that would be a fine way to end his article.

Fixing the Sentence

But in the middle of the sentence, he asks a question that muddles up the whole thing. It would be different if it were a simple question. But it is quite a complex sentence that can’t be interjected this way. If he wishes to retain the overall structure, he needs to break it up into a number of sentences. The way I look at this kind of writing is that at the end of every sentence, there is an unstated question, “Got that?” The reader should be able to answer yes every time.

So he can start in roughly the same way: how does he think it relates to these other political arts. And he can end the same: it remains to be seen. But he can’t expect the reader to remember what it is that remains to be seen (at least without rereading the sentence). So that’s the first change that needs to be made — if he wants to maintain the overall structure (which I think is a mistake).

The middle section needs to be cleaned up. It is the part of the sentence that makes me uncertain of the sentence’s meaning. Is he saying one or two things? I think it is one. I think he means this, “Is it meant to be a substitution for those political arts, such that the First Amendment, in protecting commercial speech — finds or identifies a new realm of political action in the sphere of the economy?” But I still think that deserves two sentences.

A Better “Sentence”

I propose the following sentence:

We don’t know how he thinks it relates these other political arts — or even if it does relate. Is it meant to be a substitution for those political arts — such that the First Amendment — in protecting commercial speech? Will he find a new realm of political action in the sphere of the economy? How he thinks it relates to these political arts remains to be seen.

Yes, this paragraph is now 15 words longer than the original one-sentence paragraph. But it is far more clear. It only requires one read-through. None of it is great, but it doesn’t include one bad sentence. And you can see how the unstated “Got that?” works after every sentence. And if we put a “Got that?” at the end of the paragraph, I think we can truthfully answer yes. That wasn’t true with Robin’s original sentence/paragraph.

I may have changed the meaning of what Corey Robin originally wrote. But that simply makes the case that his sentence was not well constructed to start with. This is about more than a bad sentence. When you are a great thinker like Corey Robin, what you most want is clarity. And that may be why I noticed why this was such a bad sentence. I want to know what he has to say. I wouldn’t have cared if I were reading a lesser mind.

Jun 25

On Seeing My Great-Nephew and Not Being Fired

Jesus HectorFor the first time in what I think is years, Frankly Curious went a whole day without anything being posted. There was no big reason for this. I didn’t go to the hospital. I didn’t get fired. But I’ll explain how it happened.

On Wednesday, I logged 10.5 hours at my day job. That’s a huge amount of work. Most people think that 10.5 hours is a long time to work in a day. But I don’t think they really understand. At a normal job, it’s different. There are breaks and there is lots of time that isn’t productive. But I keep close track of my billing hours — down to the minute, although I bill in five minute increments. So I ended up working until almost 3:00 in the morning. And it was good. I got a lot done.

Cuteness of Babies

On Thursday, I was going down to my niece’s place to meet my great-nephew, Hector. So I got up a bit before 7:00 so that I could work two more hours before leaving. I didn’t manage that; I got 95 minutes logged. It was a fine day, however. My sister had told me that she could spend the whole day watching Hector sleep. I privately scoffed at that. Yet when I got there, I found that I felt the same.

I know it’s all evolutionary. If we weren’t coded to find babies adorable, we would certainly kill them all. But it still seems weird to me. One of the main things that preoccupies me is the scientific fact that we humans don’t have the control that we think we do. And while it may not be a scientific fact, free will is also a delusion. But to have these facts staring at me in my life always bothers me — probably because, for me, there’s a very clear distinction between my intellectual life and my regular life.

The Long, Long Drive

Regardless, I didn’t get back home until after 6:00 (over three hours on the road because the Bay Area may not be Los Angeles, but it’s still a major California urban area). And I was exhausted. I did manage to log a couple of hours of work and then I collapsed. I would have thought that would have been the end of it, but it wasn’t.

The next morning — Friday — I woke up at 7:00 and did what I do every morning: I check my email to see if there were any calamity that I had to deal with. There was not. That’s been interesting. This last week, my workers don’t seem to have been doing that much work. Or maybe it’s just me. I’ve been so focused on a new part of my job that managing the old part of my job seems easy.

Not Getting Fired

Actually, I’m really unhappy with this new part of my job. I just see it very differently than my boss does and I wish that he would find someone else to do it. And I’ve been doing everything I can to get him to relieve me of this work without firing me altogether. But I’m not very good at balancing these kinds of things. So when Toni (who is certainly above me and who I rely on greatly, but who no longer seems like my boss) said she wanted to talk, I said that was fine as long as I wasn’t going to get fired — I wasn’t up for that at the moment. She replied, “Fire you? Pft. You wish.”

Well, she has that kind of right. I think I would like to be fired. But just for a month or two. That would be awesome! But it would require being fired from Frankly Curious too.

Anyway, I did almost nothing productive yesterday. I was still very tired. But more than that, I was mentally tired. I couldn’t face doing any work. I spent most of the day laying on the couch watching movies. I did think of a lot of things to do, but I just couldn’t manage to get up and actually do anything. But I’m back at it now. I guess.

I do plan to finally write an article that has been sitting around for two weeks. No, it’s not politics. More grammar. Although in this case, it’s more “elementary writing.”

Jun 23

My Job Description Requires I Be Wrong About Quotation Marks

Quotation MarksAs you all know, I work with writers all over the world. This creates a special problem. It’s difficult to work with freelancers regardless. When you work with employees, everyone can be depended upon to know the company style. But that’s asking a bit much for a writer who might have a dozen clients. But I find dealing with the British variants of English to be more annoying. This is mostly because I think the British are just being difficult by insisted upon things like adding unnecessary “u” characters into words that clearly don’t need them. I’m also not keen on the use of “s” when “z” is obviously called for. The quotation marks are different.

The British are absolutely right about quotation marks. And in practice, they are far more important than all the Us and Zs combined. There are two aspects of this. The one that most offends me is the ordering of quotation marks. It’s very possible that I will die due to a brain aneurysm because I start thinking about how we move from two to one to three when nesting quotes. The second issue is equally maddening but it doesn’t upset my sense of mathematical clarity quite as much. I am talking about, of course, the way quotation marks interact with punctuation.

Numbering Quotation Marks

The British number quotation marks the way that one would if one were simply not crazy. You could be stupid or ignorant or lazy, and it wouldn’t matter. You would decide that quoted material should go inside a single quote. If the quoted material contained quoted material, that would go inside double quotes. And if that quoted material contained its own quoted material, it would go inside triple quotes.

If, by chance, your triple quoted material contained quoted material, it would be a sign that you were brilliant, mean, or both. But in the British system, we would know that it would go inside quadruple quotes. This is, I have been told, the same way it works with the American system. But I doubt very seriously that American typesetters would have decided something that simple if this were an issue that ever came up in practice. For one thing, how is it that the sequence goes 2-1-3-4? I suspect the Americans would have decided that the proper designation would be something bizarre like five tilde marks, two quotation marks, and five more tilde marks.

I said, “He asked, ‘You won’t believe, but she said, ”’I found a remarkable sentence that read, ~~~~~”~~~~~Americans really don’t know what they’re doing with their quotation marks.~~~~~”~~~~~!”’?’!”

There is simply no reason to go from 2 to 1 to 3. But I go along because that is the way we do it here in the good old United States of Typesetters (typesetters having more power in this country than linguists). Strangely, though, I don’t so much mind it in sentences; I more mind it when used in a scare quote or some other place where a single word has quotation marks around it. Because in that case, it really doesn’t matter. But, you know: consistency!

Quotation Marks and Periods

The British sensibly apply quotation marks to the text being quoted. Americans understand this, because we do the same thing when it comes to exclamation and question marks. We understand that the following two sentences mean very different things:

  1. He said “yes!”
  2. He said “yes”!

The placement of the exclamation marks in those two sentences dictate who is excited about him saying yes. It’s critically important.

But when it comes to the period or the comma, there is no distinction. It really doesn’t make sense to write, “He picked up ‘the book.'” It implies that the period belongs to “the book,” but it doesn’t (just as it does with the comma in this sentence). This really bugs me. The main reason is that it is almost always the case that the period or comma logically belongs outside the quotation mark. So if you just wanted to make the language as easy as possible (and I do), you should always have them outside and not inside the quotation marks.

But the reason we do this is because typesetters of one time thought inside looked better than outside. Undoubtedly, they would have done the same thing with the exclamation and question marks as well, but there are too many cases where this would lead to utter confusion.

We Must Be Wrong Together

So I have to apologize to my writers who learned British English. On matters having to do with quotation marks, they are totally right. And I am forced to “correct” them. It sucks. But there is nothing I can do. I have written our style guide (and continue to expand it). In theory, I would stipulate that we do things the logical British way. But practically, I can’t. I have to maintain a style guide that makes sense to the reader, even though the reader is wrong.

For example, the style guide says:

Data – Data is plural, but we’ve lost the war. Use it incorrectly unless you are also using datum in the same area.

Copy editing is really not concerned with making sure the copy is correct. It is concerned with making sure the copy seems correct to the intelligent and “educated” reader. And really, we use a stupid approach to quotation marks because the United States has a bigger GDP than the United Kingdom. It’s sad.

Jun 22

Bernie Sanders Does Not Have to Endorse Hillary Clinton

Endorse Hillary ClintonThere was one argument against Bernie Sanders being the Democratic nominee that I most hated: he isn’t even a Democrat. There are many reasons why I hated it. For one, it’s tribal. For another, it has nothing to do with policy — or even electability. But most of all, I just didn’t see that it mattered to the Democratic voter given Sanders has always caucused with the Democrats. Just the same, it is for this reason that I had hoped he would endorse Hillary Clinton once the primary was over.

But Bernie Sanders does not have to endorse Hillary Clinton. As a practical matter, it probably doesn’t matter anyway. But he’s his own man and he can do what he wants. As I’ve stated many times, Sanders managing to get over 40% of the primary vote had little to do with Sanders. It was important because it was a sign of the rise of the left wing of the Democratic Party. And I know enough about the party to know that there are a lot of people in that rising left wing who voted for Hillary Clinton. So there is no doubt in my mind that the Democratic Party is in the process of a long leftward turn.

Sanders and the Long-Term

I’m not sure exactly what Bernie Sanders gets from not endorsing Hillary Clinton — or even what he thinks he gets. And it doesn’t really matter to me. I’m not so much interested in what the Democratic Party does this month or this year as I am what it does this decade. And I’m fine with Hillary Clinton as the leader of the Democratic Party. How she governs will ultimately depend upon us. And to some extent, I’m relieved that I don’t have to put up with four years of liberals gradually figuring out that they had elected President Sanders rather than Emperor Sanders.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not thrilled with Clinton. But Sanders wasn’t perfect either. As for Jill Stein? Why would I make a symbolic vote for someone I don’t agree with any more than I do Clinton? The truth is, in modern America, there is no real difference between Sanders, Clinton, and Stein. The Democratic Party has chosen my second choice and I endorse that choice.

More Than Politics

I have a more personal reason for endorsing Hillary Clinton. Despite the caricature that the right has created of her as some kind of supergenius harpy, she’s actually one of the most abused political figures of my lifetime. I think the treatment of Jimmy Carter is worse, but his is mostly implicit. The attacks on Clinton are explicit and personal. And it has made me sad indeed to have heard many of them from my fellow Sanders supporters.

I endorse Hillary Clinton. That doesn’t mean I agree with her completely. But I largely agree with her (which is all I could say about Sanders too). My endorsement means that I think the world will be far better off with a Clinton presidency over a Trump presidency.

I have little idea where other Sanders supporters go from here. I know the vast majority of them even now endorse Hillary Clinton because they plan to vote for her. Other than that, I can’t say. Further, I don’t know where Sanders himself is going. But there is a shining city on the hill that we should all be moving toward. The energy in the Sanders-Clinton war is wasted.

In his column yesterday Morning, Paul Krugman was out there dutifully pushing a new Clinton talking point: Sanders lost big. Although it’s technically true, it’s disingenuous. And I hear similarly silly statements coming from the Sander’s side. Krugman is wrong not to admit that Sanders ran a remarkable campaign and did incredibly well; but the primary wasn’t “stolen” from Sanders as I keep hearing.

I Endorse Hillary Clinton

Something Sanders said over the weekend bothered me. He seemed to be implying that because he disagreed with Hillary Clinton about certain things, he couldn’t — at least right now — endorse her. That’s just silly. On 20 January 2017, one of two people will be sworn in as President of the United States: Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. If there were little to distinguish them, remaining neutral would be fine. But there is a very great deal to distinguish them.

I endorse Hillary Clinton. That doesn’t mean I agree with her completely. But I largely agree with her (which is all I could say about Sanders too). My endorsement means that I think the world will be far better off with a Clinton presidency over a Trump presidency. And any liberal who thinks that a Trump presidency would lead to long-term liberal gains has not been paying attention to politics over the past four decades.

And Bernie Sanders? He can do whatever he wants. I voted for him because I wanted him to be the nominee. My second choice was always Hillary Clinton. And in the context of the 44 presidents that we’ve had, I think she will be good and maybe even great.

Jun 21

2016 Platform Committee Testimony in Phoenix

Platform Committee 2016

In my continuing adventures of observing the political process in person, I went to the Democratic National Committee’s Platform Committee testimony section here in Phoenix. This is where the Committee asks ordinary people to weigh in on what they think the Platform should say.

Platforms have a long history in the US and elsewhere even though now few people read the ones put out by parties. In fact, you can say that Martin Luther’s 95 Theses were a platform as was the Communist Manifesto even though we don’t really think of them that way. The Democratic Party’s first one was in 1840, and it is slightly different than the one we will adopt in Philadelphia.

Once upon a time, they were a vital tool for parties to help spread the word about them and sometimes, like in 1948, were a way of saying to the world, :This is who we are. This is what we believe in. And this is why all of those former Democrats ran out the back when we adopted this.” The reason I mention that one is because it was the start of a major split of the Democratic Party that culminated in the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Johnson’s declaration that we would lose the South for a generation.

Platform Committee Testimony

I got there in the afternoon around 1:30. The room wasn’t super full since of course everyone could watch this on C-Span, so most people didn’t need to go in person. They were wrapping up the morning session on energy and the environment. While the speakers had 3 minutes each to talk, there was also time for questions and answers so naturally it took a long time.

I was at the Platform Committee meeting for the health and safety testimony in the afternoon session. There were a few stand outs. First was the President of Arizona’s College Democrats[1], Joseline Mata.  She was one of the students stuck in an abstinence only school and was asking that comprehensive sex education be given to students.

The next one was Monica R Simpson, executive director of SisterSong, a national organization devoted to women of color’s reproductive justice. She had an amazing story to tell and she was also one of those people who knows how to work a room — building emotions through the use of her mellifluous voice. She talked about the lack of access to all of reproductive health care, not just abortion, in many states. Later she was able to get a photo with Platform Committee member Dr Cornell West, who she obviously was excited to meet.

There were three women who spoke from the nurses union and they were not having any of this nonsense about the ACA. They want single payer and they want it now. This caused the closest thing to drama we had all day when Neera Tanden asked some rather pointed questions about Germany having a private insurance system that covers everyone. The last woman broke down in tears over how hard it was for her to use her insurance — she has it, but it is too expensive to use. This is one of those things that make policy decisions so difficult as an elected official because you don’t want to tell someone crying no, but…

The final speaker at the Platform Committee testimony was Pam Simon. Pam spoke about guns as she is now one of the members of Everytown for Gun Safety after surviving the shooting in Tucson. One of the things that stuck out to me were her remarks about how fast the shooting was. She said he killed and injured 19 people in fifteen seconds. She also described how ordinary of a day it was for her and her friends on staff — she expected to go with Gabe Zimmerman to help him pick out a place for him to hold his wedding.  She is a nice lady. (We sat next to each other for a little bit and I promised to take pictures of her speaking.)


It took a very long five plus hours to hear everything (started at 2:05, finished at 7:45) but it was interesting to observe. This is part of people having a say in how their country is run. Even though almost no one reads the actual documents anymore, they do stand as a collected statement of where a great deal of Americans are at.  It gives us a chance to give a voice to the voiceless beyond merely voting.  And we got to do it in air conditioning!

Jun 20

Writing Is Seduction

Stephen King - Writing Is SeductionIt is possible to overuse the well-turned fragment, but frags can also work beautifully to streamline narration, create tension as well as to vary the prose-line. A series of grammatically proper sentences can stiffen that line, make it less pliable. Purists hate to hear that and will deny it to their dying breath, but it’s true. Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes. The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story… to make him/her forget, whenever possible, that he/she is reading a story at all. The single-sentence paragraph more closely resembles talk than writing, and that’s good. Writing is seduction. Good talk is part of seduction. If not so, why do so many couples who start the evening at dinner wind up in bed?

—Stephen King
On Writing

Jun 20

My Best Friend and the Art of Love

My Best FriendMy Best Friend, or Mon Meilleur Ami, is one of my favorite films. But I haven’t watched it in a while. And after watching it this afternoon, I was shocked see that I had never written about it. I’ve always thought it a flawed film, but I don’t think that’s true anymore. I do wonder why we Americans can’t seem to make films like this. The American filmmakers who are capable of making such films are too cynical. And I’m not saying that I’m above that. All my fiction is cynical — at least on the surface. (I think about it like M&Ms: a hard cynical shell and a gooey middle.

My Best Friend is about a bet. François (Daniel Auteuil) is a very successful art dealer. His partner, Catherine (Julie Gayet — yes, her) bets him that he has no best friend. Indeed, all his business associates confirm that he has no friends. To give you some idea, the film starts in a church. He is doing business on his cell phone. He says, “Sorry, I have to call you back. My client just got here.” And we see six men carrying a coffin in. He’s there so that he can talk to the widow about a deal they were in the middle of.

Still, François isn’t crude or coarse; he just seems clueless; he never learned what it was to be a friend. So François has a week to present his best friend. And in the process, he spends a great deal of time with a taxi driver, Bruno (Dany Boon). And although it takes a long time for him to realize it, François does have a best friend: Bruno. But he’s still clueless and focused on the bet. This leads to Bruno being devastated, when François stages a demonstration for his colleagues of what a great friend Bruno is. He succeeds: everyone agrees that Bruno is a great friend, but that François is a total jerk.

My Best Friend and Love

The core of My Best Friend is laid out late when Catherine tells François, “You asked about the acid test [of friendship]. There isn’t one. I forget who said, ‘There’s no love, only tests of love.’ The the exact opposite is true. There’s no test. There’s only love.” Catherine admits that her part in the bet was based upon her anger at not being allowed to be François’ friend. He’s just no good at it — or even knows what it means.

By the end of My Best Friend, François seems to have figured out the friendship thing and has many healthy relationships. It is just that none of them are with Bruno who is far too hurt by his betrayal. But, of course, they finally do get back together — acting more like best friends in grammar school than the grown men that they are. We are even left with the two of them accepting of their obvious lies. Because there’s no test. There’s only love.

You owe it to yourself to find and watch My Best Friend. It’s that rarest of things: a “chick flick” for guys. But one that gals will love too.

Jun 19

The EU’s Ridiculous Morality Play

Paul KrugmanThe so-called European project began more than 60 years ago, and for many years it was a tremendous force for good. It didn’t only promote trade and help economic growth; it was also a bulwark of peace and democracy in a continent with a terrible history.

But today’s EU is the land of the euro, a major mistake compounded by Germany’s insistence on turning the crisis the single currency wrought into a morality play of sins (by other people, of course) that must be paid for with crippling budget cuts. Britain had the good sense to keep its pound, but it’s not insulated from other problems of European overreach, notably the establishment of free migration without a shared government.

—Paul Krugman
Fear, Loathing and Brexit

Jun 19

“Boring” Is a Dangerous Political Tactic

Boring Mark ShieldsOne of the guiding principles of my life if that one of the worst things is to be boring. I would much rather deal with someone with wrong but interesting ideas than someone with right but dull ideas. I’m just not going to spend a pleasant hour about how we all should try to be a bit more understanding of each other. But I’ve always thought of it in a personal way. Now I think there is a political aspect to it. And that is nowhere so true as the Friday episode of The PBS NewsHour when Mark Shields and David Brooks come on to discuss the week’s news in way so boring that you won’t have a clue what they talked about five minutes later.

Part of the reason the segment is always so boring is that Brooks and Shields don’t much disagree. And this is due in large part to the fact that The NewsHour thinks that a well-spoken but extremist right-winger like David Brooks should be countered with a man whose own promotional materials say, “Mark Shields is free of any political tilt.” He’s also one who military giant Lockheed Martin seemed to like to have around to give what were doubtless well-paid speeches.

PBS Wants to Be Boring

But you can’t blame it all on Shields not being a liberal. When E J Dionne fills in for Shields, the segment is almost as boring. The truth is that The PBS NewsHour wants the segment to be boring. They want to portray the Overton window to be so small that it really doesn’t matter if you go out to vote. Because if you don’t you’ll either get one of two people who are pretty much the same. This is an amazing accomplishment, when you consider that while Mark Shields really is a Milquetoast, David Brooks is an extremist.

Boring David BrooksNo reasonable person watching Bill O’Reilly thinks that they are getting the objective truth. They know that it is Bill O’Reilly’s opinion just as they know that he has a major anger management problem. But the calm discussion gives the impression of hearing the objective truth. And that’s really dangerous — especially when you consider the kind of people who watch The NewsHour. Because what you get is a lot of, “I agree, but…” I agree we should bomb Canada, but I think we should drop 20,000 bombs, not 40,000 bombs.

Boring Stops Debate

Listening to the first part of the segment last Friday, I learned that Shields thought that Obama’s comments on the Orlando Massacre were better than Hillary Clinton’s. Brooks thought the opposite because Clinton mentioned terrorism. And in so doing he got to go on for some time with the unquestioned framing that Orlando was a terrorist attack, even though there is nothing to distinguish this from any other mass shooting. Oh, except that the shooter was a Muslim. And there certainly wasn’t someone on the left to — even ever so gently — push back.

If The PBS NewsHour were not so intent on being boring, people might see that there are different opinions on these matters. Indeed: people might see that there are opinions at all and not just the God given Truth. So boring isn’t just a waste of time; it is also a deeply dangerous tactic of the power elite.

Jun 18

Meaning in a Meaningless World

Writing and MeaningYesterday, on the NPR show Marketplace, Kai Ryssdal signed off, “Friday! Quitting time!” And I thought, “Maybe for you!” I was actually shocked to learn Friday morning that it wasn’t Thursday. But it didn’t matter. Every day is exactly the same. Well, not exactly the same. My writers tend to take the weekends off, so I am able to get caught up with editing. This is a bigger and bigger deal as I do more and more straight management. Which I hate. Just in case you were wondering.

Today, as this is published, will be exactly one year that almost all of my income has come from one company: Quality Nonsense. But I don’t really work for it because it isn’t really a thing. It’s an umbrella company that owns other companies, one of which apparently makes a lot of money, because I keep getting paid and all the writers keep getting paid and the owner is in a different country every day or two. I call him the International Man of Mystery. And there’s much to that. He is an odd bird. He’s a business guy, obviously, because he’s created a number of really successful businesses. But he’s also a total nerd.

This isn’t to say that we agree about everything. There is a reason why I work for him and not the other way around. And we had a bit of a disagreement about the way something ought to be done early this week, and it threw me into a deep depression. As for the specifics, they don’t matter — even to me. But it brings up the issue of meaning. And I’ve spent a great deal of this last week wondering what the point of all this is. I’m well paid for what I do, but we (Okay: I!) always come back to Schopenhauer and the ultimate paradox of life. Here, I’ll put it in a box so you can really think about it:

You work today so you can make money so you can survive until tomorrow. The next day, you work so you can make money so you can survive until the next day. The next day, you work so you can make money so you can survive until the next day. The next day, you work so you can make money so you can survive until the next day. The next day, you work so you can make money so you can survive until the next day…

The only possible answer has to be that you enjoy what you do today. And that requires that your life have meaning. But does mine? Does yours? Oh, don’t think me naive! I know people fool themselves into thinking their lives have meaning. But I think it’s meaning on other people’s terms. It’s about making money. Or it’s about being good so God will let you into the greatest after-party possible. Or it’s about fame. And they are all, well, someone else’s idea of the good life. I guess they work fine if you aren’t self-aware enough to realize that they aren’t your dreams and your meaning.

Arthur Schopenhauer(None of this should be taken as a slight against my employer, who I’m sure has enough money to never work again. I get more the impression that starting successful businesses is to him much like solving Sudoku puzzles are to me. But I don’t know. Nor do I care. I’m talking about myself.)

What I want — what I have wanted for about a decade — is a theatrical company where I could produce a new kind of play that I’ve invented. I’ve written about 20 plays of this form that combine everything that I care about. And that’s the catch. If you need to depend upon an audience of people like me, you will go out of business before the first act is over.

So I continue on, because I have to make a living. And what I do is, well, not inspiring. It is not a story/documentary about a group of teens who burn themselves to death on video just to be “cool.” But it ain’t brick laying either! It requires every bit as much work and creativity as “The Post-Postmodern Comedy Hour,” which regular readers will know is the best thing I’ve ever done. I’m paid (Well!) to be creative doing regular stuff. Because regular is what sells because most people are “regular.”

I don’t mean to associate myself with them in the least because I am nothing compared to either of them, but is it any surprise that David Foster Wallace and John Kennedy Toole both killed themselves?

This week has helped me see something more clearly, though. I can’t write novels. Well, I can write novels; I have written a novel. But there is no way that the stories I want to tell can be done as novels. Readers won’t put up with it. The one novel I have written really isn’t me; it’s a standard mystery; it is not the sort of thing that I would want to read; it’s just the sort of thing that I have figured out how to write from other writers.

Another thing I learned this week is that I’ve got to find a way to balance my paying work with the work that gives my life meaning. Otherwise, I will eventually decide that assuring tomorrow comes won’t really matter.

Jun 17

Fredrik deBoer Is Being Unfairly Attacked Even If He Is Wrong on Policy

Fredrik deBoerI generally agree with Scott Lemieux, but I think he’s being disingenuous in his article, The Party Left Me And Other Complaints of the Voter-As-Atomistic-Consumer. It’s an attack on Fredrik deBoer’s article, I Am Opposed to a Hillary Clinton Presidency Because of Her Policies and Her Political Judgment. Martin Longman apparently completely agrees with Lemieux. And it just makes me think, “Didn’t anyone read deBoer’s article to the end?

You see, if you didn’t read deBoer’s article to the end, you would get a skewed view of it. Most of it is a litany of everything he disagrees with Hillary Clinton about. And he has the right. As I’ve often noted, Bernie Sanders is no socialist but just a good old fashioned New Deal Democrat. Fredrik deBoer is a socialist, apparently. He wrote, “I am a lukewarm supporter of Bernie Sanders. I am not much of a Democrat. Sanders would be, in my ideal world, the compromise candidate himself.” So it isn’t surprising that he has lots of complaints about Hillary Clinton’s policies. The majority of it consists of 5 long paragraphs starting, “I am opposed to a Hillary Clinton presidency because…”

Not About Hillary Clinton

But the article is not about his displeasure with Hillary Clinton. His displeasure is with those who he thinks claim that there is something pathological about people on the far left. He is responding specifically to Amanda Marcotte, who wrote in New Republic:

What you’re seeing is a huge drift in the party, away from having our leadership be just a bunch of white men who claim to speak for everybody else. We’re moving to a party that puts women’s interests at the center, that considers the votes of people of color just as valuable as the votes of white people. Unfortunately, some of the support for Sanders comes from people who are uncomfortable with that change and are looking to a benevolent, white patriarch to save them.

I understand Fredrik deBoer’s irritation. I’ve fought this same battle for a long time. The idea that Sanders supporters like him because he’s a white guy is ridiculous. Young women overwhelmingly support Sanders; are we really to believe that they are racist and sexist? And didn’t these same people vote for a black man in 2008 and 2012? What Marcotte wrote is the result of something that is all too common in the world of liberal punditry: the “I’m the perfect liberal” syndrome. In it, the pundit thinks that they are the most liberal that you can reasonably be. The king of this is Jonathan Chait who is fine with people considerably more conservative than he is but utterly intolerant to anyone slightly to the left of him.

Fredrik deBoer Doesn’t Like Being Called a Sexist

Fredrik deBoer’s entire article is summed up in this passage:

You might reject any or all of these substantive reasons for rejecting a Clinton presidency. You might find them deluded or unfair. You might take them to be self-evidently ridiculous. You might find that my characterizations of Clinton’s policies are biased or inaccurate. You might find them accurate and believe that they are the correct policies. All of those are reasonable, constructive responses. But they are all arguments based on substance, on acknowledging the existence of meaningful and relevant differences between two candidates who have vied for the same party’s nomination. Instead, so often these discussions have focused, as Marcotte and others have done relentlessly, on left-wing politics as a matter of hidden pathology, secret motives, and bad faith.

Now it turns out that I don’t agree with Fredrik deBoer on his reasons to not vote for Hillary Clinton. And I reject his argument against voting for the lesser of two evils. It strikes me as elitist. People with secure lives can look at the long-term, but a Trump presidency would be horrible for the weak in the short term (and the long term, I believe). So I’m with Scott Lemieux on those matters.

But despite Lemieux claiming that deBoer was just asking for a substantive debate, he’s being disingenuous. Fredrik deBoer was asking that people not claim that he didn’t have arguments and was just against Hillary Clinton because he was a bigot.

I’m not saying that Lemieux can’t attack deBoer’s arguments against Clinton, but they are a side show in the article he picked, and his article misrepresents beBoer’s argument.

Jun 17

Less vs Fewer: Pedantry at the Grocery Store

Express Lane: Less vs Fewer

This is a photo of the Express Lane at Whole Foods. In general, I won’t shop there because I believe that a really expensive supermarket should at least pay its people well, and it doesn’t. Also: John Mackey. But I was in a rush and I needed a bottle of really expensive beer. And so I made my way to the Express Lane and that’s where I was confronted with the less vs fewer question.

For those of you who are not into grammar, there has been a raging debate among pedants about less vs fewer. Well, it’s not exactly a debate, because all the pedants are on the same side. You will set them off if you say, as the sign above might, “15 items or less.” You see, “fewer” is for countable things and “less” is for non-countable things.

So you might have fewer bottles of water, but you would have less water. But would you be confused if someone ran up to you during a fair and said, “A guy just grabbed a box of bottled water! Now I have less bottles of water!”? No, you wouldn’t. And you wouldn’t be confused if someone said they had fewer water, even if it sounded really weird.

Pedant at the Checkout

So there’s this guy in front of me, who is one of these blow-dried health nuts — a combination of Gordon Gekko and Johnny Appleseed. And he looks up at the sign and says to the clerk, “I love it when they get the grammar right.” The clerk is at first confused and then says, “Oh, fewer! Yeah, I’m kind of a grammar guy myself.” I don’t mind the clerk; he’s just doing his job. But the customer! It took all my powers of restraint to not start shouting. It’d be something like this:

Realy?! You think that’s grammar? And how is it you know that it should be “fewer” and not “less”? It’s because your 7th grade teacher brought up the less vs fewer controversy to you. And now, you go around the world trying to make Mrs. Grammar Pedant proud of you! Can you give me one good reason why “less” is inferior to “fewer” in this case? No you can’t! It’s just a rule you learned and you somehow never learned that grammar and spelling are descriptive and not proscriptive.

The truth is the less vs fewer question is a made up one. The word “less” dates back to before the 12th century. It was at least 600 years later that someone decided that what really distinguished a learned person from a prol was how they used two identical words.

Less vs Fewer Is Pointless

This kind of stuff enrages me all the more now that I do so much editing. Because this kind of rubbish just gets in the way of work. Even a good writer needs a tremendous amount of help from their editor. There just isn’t time to worry about such trivialities. I’m far more concerned about than vs then than I am less vs fewer. At least those first two words have very different meanings.

Worrying about less vs fewer is just foolish. Or fatuous. Or silly. Oh my God! What is the exact right word to describe this this?! I’m sure there are people buying eggplants in Whole Foods right now who won’t have a clue what I’m talking about.

Vacuous maybe?




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