Category Archive: Reading & Writing

Feb 18

Parentheses and Periods: Getting Them Right

Parentheses and PeriodsThis morning I was shocked to read something that Paul Krugman wrote, “Real GDP grew 3.4 percent annually under Reagan; it grew 3.7 percent annually under Clinton (shhh — don’t tell conservatives.)” Krugman knows better, of course. I’ve long been impressed with just how few typos creep into his work — even when he’s writing a lot. So much the better to use him as an example. I don’t want to put him or anyone down for this mistake. And he didn’t make this mistake out of ignorance, I’m sure. But this construct of misplacing a period in relationship to a closing parenthesis mark drives me crazy!

The truth is, this is easy. I really don’t understand why so many people have trouble with it. But trust me: I work with a lot of writers and a lot of them have trouble with it. I wonder if it is an American thing. Last year, I wrote, My Job Description Requires I Be Wrong About Quotation Marks. In England, periods go before or after an ending quotation mark based upon whether the period belongs to quoted material. In American English, we always throw the period before the quotation mark. (I hate this too, but I’ve given up the fight.)

Quotation Marks

Here’s an example from Kristen McHenry’s poem “Museum[1] in her book, The Goatfish Alphabet. Since I don’t want to deal with quotes within quotes, I’ll put this in boxes. Here is the sentence as we would typeset it in America:

My favorite line from “Museum” is, “Feeling their blind way through the drenched black pines.”

But that’s wrong. The line does not end with a period. Here is how it would be typeset in Britain:

My favorite line from “Museum” is, “Feeling their blind way through the drenched black pines”.

So this madness with periods and quotation marks rubs off and apparently makes people think the same is true of parentheses marks. But it isn’t! For whatever reason, we here in America care about this. And like I said: it is easy. It is, in fact, easier than with quotation marks because the intent is clearer.

Sentences Must Stop

Sentences need a stop: usually a period. This is what defines them as sentences. So in Krugman’s example above, he needs a period after the final parenthesis. He could have written it this way, “Real GDP grew 3.4 percent annually under Reagan; it grew 3.7 percent annually under Clinton (shhh — don’t tell conservatives.).” But that parenthetical comment hardly needs its own stop. So better would have been, “Real GDP grew 3.4 percent annually under Reagan; it grew 3.7 percent annually under Clinton (shhh — don’t tell conservatives).”

Personally, I would have rendered it, “Real GDP grew 3.4 percent annually under Reagan; it grew 3.7 percent annually under Clinton. (Shhh; don’t tell conservatives!)” And having read Krugman for a decade, I suspect that’s what he meant to write.

Dealing With Parentheses and Punctuation

Here are my rules for dealing with parentheses:

  1. If a parenthetical comment is not a full sentence, treat it as you would a comment between commas.
  2. If a parenthetical comment is a full sentence, treat it as such:
    • Capitalize the first word
    • End it with a stop (period, question mark, or exclamation mark).
  3. If a full sentence parenthetical comment appears at the end of a sentence, it probably belongs outside the sentence.

But if you ever get confused about whether you need a period or other stop outside a parenthesis, ask yourself, “Is this the end of the sentence?” Remove the parenthetical comment if necessary. It should be obvious then. After you properly end your sentence, then you can put your parenthetical comment back with or without its own stop.

[1] I read a lot of poetry and this is one of my all time favorite poems. It just happens to be written by a long-time friend. When I first read it, I wrote her a thousand-word email message gushing about it. There’s more meaning and beauty in it than in the vast majority of novels.

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Feb 12

Why Is It Grateful and Not Greatful?

Grateful vs GreatfulWhen I was young, I was terrible at spelling. I’m still not a great speller, but I’m okay. Technology has been very good for people like me. I don’t make many meaning mistakes like mixing up “beat” and “beet.” Generally, if I make a mistake it’s a big one. One that still drives me create is “knowledgeable.” It’s only been quite recently that I’ve managed to consistently throw in that final “e.” The truth is that it still doesn’t make a lot of sense of to me. Why not knowledgable? Anyway, I tell you this only so that you won’t think too lowly of me when I admit that I was 19 years old when I learned how to spell “grateful.”

I’m pretty sure it was because I saw a poster for The Grateful Dead. But it might also have been that I noticed a sign for The Grateful Bagel. Regardless, I thought, “That’s got to be wrong.” So I did what I’ve found to be very unusual in our culture: I got out a dictionary and I looked it up. And sure enough, grateful was the right spelling: “appreciative of benefits received.” It turns out that “greatful” isn’t even in the dictionary.

But that’s as far as I took it. In those days, it didn’t occur to be to dig deeper. It didn’t even occur to me that it was odd that it was spelled that way. In those days, English spelling was a mystery. There was no sense to it, so it could have been spelled ghoti, and I wouldn’t have given it any more thought.

Why Grateful?

Today, however, the question did occur to me. And this is the first time that I really gave the word’s meaning any thought. It couldn’t be “greatful.” The “ful” suffix indicates, more or less, “filled with.” And “grateful” doesn’t mean “filled with great.” If you want to put it that way, you would say, “filled with gratitude.” And that gets us pretty close to the reason that we spell the word “grateful.”

Latin: It’s Always the Latin

Of course, in that case, it would just be a synonym for “great.” And we hardly need “greatful,” much less “greatnessful,” when “great” would do.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, “grateful” from the middle of the 16th century. That was when we had long gone version of the word “grate.” It meant pleasing or thankful. And, as usual, it came from a Latin word, gratus. According to my Latin dictionary, it means “beloved, dear, acceptable, pleasing, agreeable.” It gives as an example, “O! Diva gratum quæ regis Antium.” It is by Horace (so much Latin that is quoted is by him), in his Odes, Volume 1, Poem 35. And it means, “Oh! Goddess who reigns over your own loved Antrium.” Maybe.

The main thing is that the word sounds like “great” but that doesn’t mean anything. “Gateful” also sounds like “grate,” which has two modern definitions, First is: “to have an irritating effect.” And second is: “to break into small pieces by rubbing against something rough.” Both of those words come to use via Germany. It is from the word kratzen, which means “to scratch.”

From Youtube: Grateful Dead – Casey Jones 1971.

Why Not Greatful?

But there is a possible use of the word “greatful.” Maybe this is just another example of how Trump is torturing me. But in that construction, the meaning would be “filled with great.” Now that doesn’t quite work. The –ful suffix is normally attached to a noun. But we could stretch it to mean, “filled with greatness.” So we might say, “In his mind, Trump is greatful.” Of course, in that case, it would just be a synonym for “great.” We hardly need “greatful,” much less “greatnessful.” “Great” does a perfectly good job.

I’m certain that Trump sees himself a John Galt type. He did it all on his own. (What rich father?!) Thus Trump isn’t in any true sense grateful. It would be nice to have a homophone just for him. It’s nice to think that the President of the US is grateful, even if just in spoken English.

English Makes Sense

Regardless of Trump, this does clarify why we have the word grateful and not the word greatful. Contrary to what I thought when I was younger, the English language — even its spelling — makes a lot of sense. It isn’t perfect. (What is?!) But if you learn it well enough, you will find that it is pretty accommodating to your personal sense of logic and structure. And I’m grateful for that.

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Feb 12

The Terrible Characters of Atlas Shrugged

Robert Nielsen - Atlas ShruggedThe greatest and most obvious flaw with the book is how terrible the characters are. They are all one dimensional cartoons that are either perfect in every way or horrible in every way. If a character agrees with Rand’s ideology, then they are smart, beautiful, strong, noble, and rich. If a character disagrees with her ideology, Rand makes them fat, ugly, stupid, lazy, and hysterical (most of the villains of the book speak in exclamation marks). Even when villains have sex, it is made clear that they are not attracted to each other and gain no pleasure from the action. Because if you’re not a fanatical libertarian, you are wrong in literally every way.

The descriptions of the heroes are so over the top absurd it’s almost funny. Hank recalls his first day working at the age of 14 in an iron mine and how he cursed himself for being tired and feeling pain, but kept going because “he decided that pain was not a valid reason for stopping.” He then ends up running a series of steel mills and then inventing an entirely new form of steel. I don’t know how Rand thought it was credible that the CEO of a major corporation could also spend years working in a lab on research or that those skills crossed over. As if that weren’t ridiculous enough, he causally invents an entirely new way of building bridges one evening as if that were the kind of thing that happens all the time.

Francisco has to be the most ridiculous/funny. As a child he instantly becomes an expert in everything he does. He sits in a boat and automatically knows how to drive it. When he was 12 he snuck off and got a job working on the railroads, which was nothing because the year before he ran away and worked on a cargo steamer for the summer. Also while he was 12 he single-handedly discovers differential equations. When he was 16 he went to college but also worked in a copper factory. By the time he was 20, he owned the factory. How? By speculating on the stock market, because it is so easy to see which stocks will go up and down. It is weird that none of the heroes have time in their lives when they were fun-loving children; in childhood they were merely miniature adults.

All of the heroes have this absurd element to them. They don’t stop to eat or rest a single time in the book and it is casually thrown in that they haven’t slept for two or three days as though that would have no effect on them. They have no hobbies or interested outside work. Even when they are bleeding they don’t feel any pain. In other words, they are soulless robots, machines good for working and nothing else.

Atlas Shrugged bears a strong resemblance to fascist propaganda in its treatment of heroes. There is a strong emphasis on the cult of personality, of worshipping men of action in contrast to the masses who are too stupid and cowardly to achieve greatness. Democracy destroys accountability whereas dictatorship is the only system where anyone is responsible. All of the best firms in the book are named after their owner and collapse without them.

Atlas Shrugged is less of a novel and more of an excuse for Rand to promote her ideology. The characters are prone to burst out in long-winded speeches at the drop of the hat. The climax of the book is a 60 page speech in which remarkably little is said. However, I noticed that Rand completely avoided debates. The moochers give speeches in isolation as do the heroes; at no point do their paths cross…

–Robert Nielsen
Atlas Shrugged Is A Ridiculous Book

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Feb 02

“Do Not!” by Stevie Smith

Stevie Smith - Do Not!Do not despair of man, and do not scold him,
Who are you that you should so lightly hold him?
Are you not also a man, and in your heart
Are there not warlike thoughts and fear and smart?
Are you not also afraid and in fear cruel,
Do you not think of yourself as usual,
Faint for ambition, desire to be loved,
Prick at a virtuous thought by beauty moved?
You love your wife, you hold your children dear,
Then say not that Man is vile, but say they are.
But they are not. So is your judgement shown
Presumptuous, false, quite vain, merely your own
Sadness for failed ambition set outside,
Made a philosophy of, prinked, beautified
In noble dress and into the world sent out
To run with the ill it most pretends to rout.
Oh know your own heart, that heart’s not wholly evil,
And from the particular judge the general,
If judge you must, but with compassion see life,
Or else, of yourself despairing, flee strife.

–Stevie Smith
“Do Not!”

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Feb 01

Acuphilia: More Exciting Than You Know

Acuphilia - Goling Postal

This image is from the television movie Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, which really is a fine rendering of Pratchett’s work. In fact, I might even say better than his books, but I haven’t read this particular book. Anyway, an element of the film is that people collect pins, much as actual people in our world collect stamps. This makes sense, given that a big part of the movie is the invention of stamps and then perforation.

One of the characters, Stanley, is a pin collector, and so our hero Moist von Lipwig is looking for a way to get him on his side. But how? All the kid cares about is pin collecting. But Moist happens upon a “pin exchange.” The first thing we see inside the exchange is this flier. You probably can’t make out the text at the top. It read, “Pins of every… shape & size.” Then there are two hands holding a bunch of pins, and then, of course, “HOME of ACUPHILIA.”


Now you don’t have to be a bibliophile or a logophile to understand the meaning of “acuphilia.” But if you are a pedant, regardless of the fact that you are a bibliophile and a logophile, you are going to look the word up. The funny thing is, and this gets to the brilliance that is Terry Pratchett, there is no such word. He coined it. Although I have little doubt that through the centuries since the pin was invented, there must have been some people who became obsessed with them for more than their practical value. But no one bothered to make note of it. Those kind of people probably didn’t get out much.

Various PinsThere is very little information about the history of pins, but even the safety pin is 200 years old. Taking a clue from Andrea, pins probably followed closely behind the invention of sewing needles. On that issue, we get a whole lot more information. Sewing Mantra has a great timeline on the History of Sewing Needles. Apparently, needles were first made out of bone and date back 30,000 years! But the first metal needles—made of copper—were produced about 9,000 years ago. So we can assume that pins have been around a very long time indeed.

The problem with seeing pins as something to collect, however, is that there isn’t a great deal of variability with pins—at least not straight pins. This idea is lampooned in the film where Moist wins over Stanley by presenting him with a rare pin, “Number Three Broad-Headed Extra Long.” There is doubtless far more diversity with needles. In fact, I know there is. I remember my mother having needles of all different lengths, thicknesses, and eye sizes. But all the pins were the same. So it is not surprising that there is no word for “pin love” outside the delightfully twisted mind of Pratchett.

Pins in All Their Variety

Contrary to what you might think, the “acu” prefix, as in “acupuncture,” does not stand for needle or the like. If it did, the word “acupressure” would be pretty stupid. Instead, it means “sharp,” as in “acute.” So “acuphilia” would mean literally “lover of sharpness.” But I think that’s close enough for our purposes. At least for the kind of pins that people collect on Discworld. These seem to be limited to straight pins. As a general category, pins are almost anything that hold two things together. “Pin” isn’t so much the name of a thing as it is a description of the job it does.

Bobby PinsSo we have bobby pins, which are neither straight nor sharp. (Though I’m sure some people do collect these because there is an endless variety of them—many quite beautiful.) Similarly, you have clothes pins that aren’t anything at all like straight pins. And paper clips are a kind of pin. Copper brads are pins that these days seem only to be used to pin screenplays together. There are split-pins and Cotter keys for use in machining. And then you have the pins on computer cables and the pins used to plug in a device to an electrical outlet. The whole thing can get quite out of control, which is exactly what pins were design to stop from happening.

I don’t know what exactly Pratchett thinks of the idea of being an acuphile. When I started thinking about it, I figured it was rather silly. But like most things, the more you look into it, the more fascinating it is. Even in its most traditional sense, it is interesting. The original pins were invented to hold two pieces of cloth together for sewing. That’s a brilliant solution. I don’t think I ever would have come up with it. There is nothing obvious about it. (Except that we’ve all seen the technique used since our youngest days.)

Pins rule!

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Jan 23

The Four Ways to Pronounce Banal

Banal - Not That I'm Saying This Art Is - You DecideAs you may have suspected recently, I spent an hour or so grazing on The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. I do this a lot. It’s what passes for fun in my life. It’s great to learn new things. But the big thing I learned was that, contrary to what I thought, I do not pronounce the word “banal” in the most common way.

In addition to learning this, I found out that there are four ways — Four ways! — that people do or have recently pronounced this word. This may seem weird to you, but I have been in a few conversations with people who were angry about my pronunciation. This is, of course, the same old same old, “My grammar school teacher taught me this and so I know it’s right!” Note: they never admit this, but I know ruled-based thinking when I see it. As Fowler said of the split infinitive, “They see no reason why they should not [split an infinitive] (small blame to them, seeing that reasons are not their critics’ strong point)…”

I am not here to tell you how you should pronounce “banal.” I am here simply to share the wondrousness that we English speakers would come up with four ways to pronounce a very simple, two-syllable, word. It never occurred to me. I always thought there were just two. I hope you are as excited as I am to get started.

Fowler on “Banal”

Back in 1926, H W Fowler had a very dim view of this word and the noun version, banality:

These are literary critics’ words, imported from France by a class of writers whose jaded taste relishes novel or imposing jargon. In French they have had a continuous history and a natural development from their original to their present sense; in English they have not, and we accordingly remain conscious that they are exotics. With common, commonplace, trite, trivial, mean, vulgar, truism, platitude, and other English words, to choose among, we certainly do not need them.

Gowers’ Pronunciation

Ouch! But times change. When Ernest Gowers updated Modern English Usage in 1965, he was much more kind to it. Originally, Fowler didn’t even provide an pronunciation. So when American Heritage claims, “Sixty years ago, H W Fowler recommended the pronunciation (ban’-el), rhyming with panel…” it was wrong. It was Gowers who recommended that, as far as I can tell. But I think they are right that no one pronounces it that way today. Certainly, no one of their usage panel did.

The Most Common Banal

A full 58 percent of the people on the usage page chose the pronunciation (bə-‘nal), which rhymes with canal. Can this be true? I don’t ever recall hearing anyone pronounce the word in this way. It is possible that the writers on the usage panel are not that familiar with the details of pronunciation lingo. I know that I always have to look up what the symbols mean on those rare occasions that I really want to know how a word is pronounced.

Then again, I’m a left coast guy. I’ve spent my whole life living at various spots between San Francisco and Seattle. And maybe my ignorance of this pronunciation is a function of that. But I doubt that. David Foster Wallace pronounced the word as I do, and he was raised in Illinois. Note: this can’t be a British thing, because American Heritage deals only with American English.

The Annoying One

When people argue with me over the pronunciation, they like (bā’-nəl), which rhymes with anal. A full 28 percent of the usage panel prefers this pronunciation. That was, of course, over a decade ago, and by my experience, it has been losing ground. I’m sure part of that is due to the fact that it does sound like anal. But more important to me is that the hard-a just doesn’t seem banal to me.

Regardless, I’ve never commented on someone pronouncing banal this way. It’s always the other way around. I say it the “wrong” way and am instructed about the right way to say it, which they know because Moses Mrs Johnston told them in the fourth grade.

My Banal

Now we come to the way that I pronounce banal: bə-‘näl, which doesn’t really rhyme with any word, but sounds kind of like the end of Senegal. It is without a doubt the most common way that I hear people pronounce it. Yet only 13 percent of the usage panel prefers it.

It could be that I think this pronunciation of banal is most common because it is mine, and I’m not that accurate at hearing language. So the most common one sounds to me like mine. But the truth is, it doesn’t matter.

Anyway to Banal

What’s fascinating about this word is that no one can decide. So everything is okay. And I’ve only mentioned the four major contenders. There are a couple of other minor variations. So say it how ever you want.

But Fowler did make a good point almost a century ago: do we really need this word when we have common, commonplace, trite, trivial, mean, vulgar, truism, platitude, and so much more? Maybe. I’m not sure that there is any other word that is quite the same. “Trite” is probably closest, but it doesn’t quite capture of the emotional “meh” that “banal” provides.

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Jan 21

In— for Latin, Em— for French, Confusion for English

The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and StyleSome words in English, such as enquire and inquire, can be spelled with either en— or in–. In fact, from a historical point of view, these two prefixes are the same. As the Latin language developed into French, Latin in— became en–. For example, Latin inflammāre developed into French enflammer, borrowed into English as enflame. Later the word came to be written as inflame in imitation of the original Latin form. During the middle English period, a great number of French words beginning with en— came into the English language, and in many instances the spelling of these words was similarly remodeled to begin with in–. In some pairs of words, however, the difference in spelling between en— or in— has been used to distinguish a difference in meaning, such as in the pair ensure and insure. Because of the difference in spelling, most English speakers today probably consider ensure and insure to be two entirely different verbs, but in origin insure is just a specialized financial use of the word ensure, “make secure.”

The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style

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Jan 13

Are Headlines Ending in a Question Mark a Good Idea?

Question Mark - Betteridge's Law of HeadlinesI was having an email discussion with some people I work with. It was about an article that is really interesting, but based on sketchy science. And one of the people wrote, “Don’t forget Betteridge’s Law of Headlines.” The law is a little obscure. The basic idea is that any article that asks a yes or no question can be answered in the negative. Consider, for example, the headline of this article.

It may not be clear why this matters, so let me explain. Imagine that you want to publish an article that is really thin. Maybe some study just came out that found a negative correlation between drinking Pepsi and getting colon cancer. Well, it’s just one study. There will probably be a dozen more that will show no effect or a positive correlation. So you write the article and publish it with the headline, “Is Pepsi a Cure for Colon Cancer?”

See the trick? You’re not saying that Pepsi stops colon cancer; you’re just asking questions. As Donald Trump might put it, “We just want to find out what’s going on.” It’s a bit sleazy. But more important, it isn’t honest. This is quite different from asking a question in a headline and then answering it in the article.

History of Betteridge’s Law

The concept got its name starting back in 2009. Erick Schonfeld wrote an article for TechCrunch, Did Just Hand Over User Listening Data To the RIAA? The story took off — and not in a good way. It didn’t seem to be true. Ian Betteridge responded to the article at TechNovia, TechCrunch: Irresponsible journalism. He ended the article:

This story is a great demonstration of my maxim that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no.” The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it. Which, of course, is why it’s so common in The Daily Mail.

The Broader View

Of course, the concept wasn’t original to Betteridge. It’s part of a broader discussion of “weasel words.” These are things that non-fiction writers — journalists especially — talk about a lot. For example, I can write, “It seems that there is information that some people believe proves Donald Trump enjoys getting golden showers from Vladimir Putin.” If you notice the “seems” and “some people believe,” you will see that what I’ve actually said is that I don’t know a damned thing.

Should You End Headlines With Question Marks?

But since I don’t want to fall afoul of Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, I am going to answer my question. Are Headlines That End in a Question Mark a Good Idea? Yes! People like them. They click on them. But they are like all headlines: they raise ethical issues. I think the writer should answer the question they ask. Otherwise, they shouldn’t ask a question. TechCrunch shouldn’t have gone with, “Did Just Hand Over User Listening Data To the RIAA?” It should have gone with something like, “Rumor Spreading That Shares User Data With RIAA.” But even that would be misleading because it was mostly that one TechCrunch article that spread the rumor. More accurate would be, “Exclusive: A Rumor I Heard That Shares User Data With RIAA.”

The sad thing is, of course, that ethics be damned. TechNovia doesn’t seem to even exist anymore. TechCrunch is one of the biggest tech websites in the world. According to Alexa, it is the 550th most visited website overall. Of course, it is a great website. But I have little doubt that they made a huge amount of money off that non-great article, even though they were widely criticized for it.

Betteridge’s Law of Headlines is most useful for writers and editors to think about before publishing. If a question headline seems perfect for the article, maybe the article isn’t worth publishing — at least not yet.

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Jan 05

My Christmas Books

BooksI am one of the easiest and yet hardest people to give gifts to. On one hand I love books so you would think, “Easy, I will just get her a book.” Then you realise you have no idea what books I happen to have. Even having a wish list on Amazon doesn’t help as one friend somehow managed to pick the ones I had no interest in reading but had to put on there to placate other friends.

But I am easy to shop for since getting me gift cards to Barnes and Noble always works. So this holiday season, I got book spending money from a couple of people and went digging around for good books to get and now will tell you all about them.

Sex and Politics

My first books was, The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power.

When it comes to powerful women there have been few more powerful than Elizabeth I. (That’s real power and not simply puppetry power like say Queen Victoria after the reforms from the Glorious Revolution continued unabated to now the British monarch runs the military and not much else). The Russians topped her with the German Catherine the Great. (She stole her crown from her husband. Then again, he was incompetent.) And possibly you could consider Tsu-Hsi or Mbande Nzinga.

Fine British Cuisine

Next up is, Seven Centuries of English Cooking: A Collection of Recipes.

This one hasn’t arrived yet but I will experiment with one of the recipes and tell you how fast my kitchen exploded from goodness.

Blood Good Battle

My third books was, Fatal Colors: Towton 1461 England’s Most Brutal Battle.

This was a battle that decided a war, killed a lot of men and took place during a raging blizzard. It is also one of the battles that led to some amazing archeology that you can watch on YouTube.

When you are living through history — like we are — it is helpful to go back to other times where history was being made and see how people reacted to it and what the ordinary had to deal with when it came to the extraordinary. The men and women who dealt with the tumult of a civil war that led to peace and prosperity for most of the time that Edward IV reigned (1461 to 1470 and 1471 to 1483) had to deal with the taxes, the loss of family members, and the social upheaval that war always brings. Some were able to and others were not.

Teen Fiction

The next book was perhaps an odd choice, Forever Again.

One of my favorite authors wrote a teenage book that has a lot more adult elements and a very good twist for the ending. [Bruce Willis is actually dead. -FM] I recommend it because it takes little time to read (I finished it in about four hours) and it reminds me of how different our world is from the late eighties.


My fifth book was, The Wee Free Men.

Terry Pratchett’s death left a huge hole in the world of gentle satire. He also was able to blend different lessons into one book again and again without it seeming dated. On one hand, this book is about a bunch of little blue men with violent red hair. On the other it is a book about the importance of family and defending them from those who wish them harm — even if the harm is in the form of sticky sweeties. It is further about learning who you are and who you can become.


And last on this sort list is, Twenty Five Mystery Science Theater 3000 Films That Changed My Life In No Way Whatsoever.

I followFrank Conniff on Twitter and he is great. He’s always willing to bash a troll in the most droll way possible. But this book has been kind of a dud so far. Maybe you will like it more.

And those are just a few of the books I got with my Christmas loot. I mean gifts.

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Dec 31

Happy Year’s End From Emily Dickinson

Emily DickinsonBecause I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school where children played,
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then ’tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.

–Emily Dickinson
“The Chariot”

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Dec 20

My Problems With Punctuated Names: Joomla Edition

JoomlaOh, Joomla! For those who don’t know, Joomla! is the second most popular content management system (CMS) on the internet — a distant second to WordPress, which is what we use here at Frankly Curious. But it causes constant problems for me in my professional work, because I have to deal with sentences like this, “The three most popular CMSs are WordPress, Joomla!, and Drupal.” You will probably see the problem: I hate following an exclamation mark with a comma.

But the word doesn’t have to an exclamation mark. It could be a period, for example. Suppose some idiot marketing guru decided that a new company should be called Stop. — with the period as part of the name. Imagine that! “The three more stupid recent company names are Pause,, Stop., and What?” The one thing you can say about that is at lease “Pause,” and “Stop.” are clear. But they are only clear because they aren’t at the end of the sentence. Okay, “Pause,” would be clear: “The three more stupid recent company names are What?, Stop., and Pause,.”

Minor Problems Still Need Solving

These are the things that I think about. A lot. These are also the kinds of things that make people create (or at least use) style guides. Unfortunately, having come up in the book publishing business, I only have The Chicago Manual of Style. I really need to pick up a copy of The Associated Press Stylebook. But it doesn’t matter. I cannot find the issue addressed in the former book and I doubt it is in the latter.

Sure, it’s a minor issue. It doesn’t come up that much — even for me. But for months, I’ve been bouncing around, looking for a good solution. There isn’t one as far as I can tell. In the original sentence above, I could just say that the serial comma is not necessary when the next to last item ends with a punctuation mark, “The three most popular CMSs are WordPress, Joomla! and Drupal.” But that doesn’t solve the general problem. And it gives me one more special case to remember. Also: it looks terrible.

Potential Solution

What is to be done? I’ve looked around, and the consensus seems to be, “Whatever feels right at the time.” The most common cudgel is to use the exclamation point when it is convenient and not use it when it isn’t. I don’t like this — although I’ll admit that I’ve used it a lot. A better solution would be just to decide that the people who named Joomla! are stupid and that the name is simply “Joomla.” Intellectually, I like this solution very much.

Emotionally, I hate it. These nitwits decided that the name of their product is “Joomla!” Shouldn’t I respect that? Would I like it if people started calling me “George”? Admittedly, I would be innocent in this regard. There’s no reason to call me “George”; I don’t go around calling myself “Frank#@!”! And there is a very good reason for not calling me Fran: Fran Moraes.

Joomla It Is!

So I’ve decided something for this case alone. Hang on a second and I will put it in my style book… Okay, it’s done: “Joomla!” is now “Joomla.” The funny thing is that before I dictated that it always be “Joomla!” But really: could anyone by confused? “Joomla? What is this Joomla? I’ve heard of Joomla!, but never Joomla. I wonder what it could be?!” No one would be thusly confused.

Now I understand: I am effectively giving all the Joomla developers the middle finger. But I really don’t care. If their name was something common like “wow,” then I could see it. But Joomla is the English equivalent of the Swahili word “jumla,” which means “wholesale” as in “total.” It doesn’t need the exclamation mark. It isn’t a word that is in any English language dictionary.

Beyond This Case

But I am bothered by the larger issue. For example, as far as I know, Orson Welles wanted the name of his film F for Fake to be ?. See the problem? But you probably don’t need to worry about such things. Even most editors don’t worry about such things. And if Kurt Gödel taught us that algebra was ultimately inconsistent, how could we hope for English to be so? But I’ll continue to lie awake thinking about these matter. At least I have “Joomla” dealt with.

The next time someone asks me why I use WordPress, I have a great response, “Because there is no punctuation in its name.” It certainly isn’t because it’s a bad CMS. It is, in fact, a great CMS. I still need to come up with a reason for not using Drupal. Maybe, “It’s spelled wrong”?

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Dec 16

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Obama Presidency

Ta-Nehisi CoatesSince the election, I’ve been clinging to voices of sanity. Anyone with a brain. I like imagining they aren’t outliers. Scientific lectures, comedy, even politicians talking — if the author has something to teach me. So, I’ve wondered, where has Ta-Nehisi Coates been? After all, Trump ran the most overtly racist campaign since George Wallace. Coates is one of our finest essayists — especially on racism in America. He would certainly have a unique way of viewing the election.

As it turns out, he’s been preparing a richly-layered analysis of Barack Obama. It appeared earlier this week in The Atlantic, My President Was Black. It features both interviews with Obama and Coates’ views on the President’s legacy. Like most of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s writing, it caused me both to question and accept many of his conclusions.

Why Was Obama So Centrist?

He notes, “I came to regard Obama as a skilled politician, a deeply moral human being, and one of the greatest presidents in American history.” Skilled and moral, yes. But among the greatest? I’m not so sure. He didn’t pass all that many laws after 2010.

Coates continues, “He was phenomenal — the most agile interpreter and navigator of the color line I had ever seen. He had an ability to emote a deep and sincere connection to the hearts of black people, while never doubting the hearts of white people.”

Obama Was Constrained by Racism

This is unquestionably true. It gets at both my primary criticism of the Obama administration (not liberal enough), and Coates’s ongoing examination of the role racism plays in America. It’s unlikely Obama could have been much more liberal. Any such effort would have been excoriated as “Giving Free Money To Shiftless Negroes” (many Republican voters believe this falsehood).

Obama says as much to Ta-Nehisi Coates, talking about being approached by activist groups: “You feel like saying to these folks, ‘[Don’t] you think if I could do it, I [would] have just done it? Do you think that the only problem is that I don’t care enough about the plight of poor people, or gay people?'”

And here’s the conundrum of Obama — the devil’s bargain anyone who seeks power inevitably makes. The key factor in a “deal with the devil” story is very like the Midas legend; be careful what you wish for, you may get it. Obama was elected on a populist platform he had no hope of enacting. Racism will out.

Election 2016: The Unblackening

Ta-Nehisi Coates unflinchingly describes the myriad versions of racial backlash Obama’s mild-mannered demeanor inspired, and quotes the President in a frank observation of why New Deal politics may now be unsupportable:

But what I do believe is that if somebody didn’t have a problem with their daddy being employed by the federal government, and didn’t have a problem with the Tennessee Valley Authority… that all helped you build wealth and create a middle class—and then suddenly as soon as African Americans or Latinos are interested in availing themselves of those same mechanisms as ladders into the middle class, you now have a violent opposition to them—then I think you at least have to ask yourself the question of how consistent you are, and what’s different, and what’s changed.

Obama and Coates (And you and I!) all know “what’s changed.” Wealth redistribution was fine when it went from richer to poorer white people. After the civil rights movement secured legal racial equality (theoretically anyway), suddenly redistribution became an evil. An assault on freedom. This reaction was in place long before mythical legends of Welfare Queens driving around in their Cadillacs.

I have struggled with the election results. There are two primary reasons. First, I am simply afraid of their practical ramifications for people inside and outside the country. Second, I know the hideousness that produced the results. This is both the hideousness of rapacious corporate greed that’s erased our safety net and the demonizing of the Other, which capitalism is quite happy to exploit. This is America’s fascism. Perhaps it always was.

Being Wrong About the Comforting Narrative

“Racism is never simple,” Ta-Nehisi Coates succinctly observes. Earlier, he delivers a solid refutation of my own previously held position:

One theory popular among (primarily) white intellectuals of varying political persuasions held that this response was largely the discontented rumblings of a white working class threatened by the menace of globalization and crony capitalism. Dismissing these rumblings as racism was said to condescend to this proletariat, which had long suffered the slings and arrows of coastal elites, heartless technocrats, and reformist snobs. Racism was not something to be coolly and empirically assessed but a slander upon the working man. Deindustrialization, globalization, and broad income inequality are real. And they have landed with at least as great a force upon black and Latino people in our country as upon white people. And yet these groups were strangely unrepresented in this new populism.

It’s what scientists call a positive feedback loop. Racism gave Republicans their first opportunities to chip away at the New Deal. That erosion made life for working people worse. That made them blame “government” (for presumably wasting their tax dollars on minorities) more. So it enabled further-right politicians, who slashed the safety net more — and on and on and on.

It’s not “chicken and egg,” because we know what came first. Racism did. But it is a self-strengthening mechanism. A Danish friend once told me their saying is “a screw without an end.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates Makes Me Think

Ultimately, Coates’s article made me reconsider Obama’s time in office. I wanted him to be more liberal. I still want Democrats to be. And yet, even the conservative ACA was seen as a giveaway to Those People. How much more could Obama have done? How do we end the screw?

Can we fight inequality without being accused of racial favoritism? Can we fight inequality without a dedication to alleviating the great injustices done to so many of our citizens? These positions seem contradictory. Since the disease of racism poisons all of us.

And Coates made me aware just how much darker Trump’s election was for people of color. What a slap in the face it is that the centrist, elegant Obamas incurred so much hatred. Even the “talented tenth” (or thousandth) of a percent are never acceptable enough.

Ta-Nehisi Coates noted of an Obama appearance at the storied Howard University, “Six months later the awful price of a black presidency would be known to those students.” What a price! What moral debts we have accrued. And what terrible interest we continue to pay.

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