“Why Ms. Brewster: You’re beautiful!”

Emily BrewsterEver since writing Kory Stamper Lightens Hair! I have been getting a lot of visitors searching for information about Ms. Stamper’s collegue, Emily Brewster. And the searches are not as neutral as one would expect; I’m getting a surprising number of visitors to the site who are searching for things like “Emily Brewster is hot.” This is disturbing, of course. And to Ms. Brewster, it must be publicly embarrassing, even if it is privately just a little flattering. A grammarian, especially one of the female persuasion, must find such foci[1] on her looks and fantasized sexual attributes to be problematic. It is hard enough for a woman to be taken seriously in the workplace. But…

The First Issue We Get To

I must discuss two aspects of Ms. Brewster’s newest video. First the important matter: ending sentences with prepositions. I not only like ending sentences with prepositions, I enjoy annoying grammar snobs (who, almost without exception, know less about grammar than I) who believe everything their ignorant grammar school teachers ever told them. As I pointed out when discussing Janis Bell’s delightful, Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences, there is nothing wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition. Emily Brewster waded into these contentious waters over at Merriam-Webster Online. And of course she is on the side of Truth and Justice (that is, my side).

In this video, Ending a Sentence with a Preposition, Emily Brewster discusses the history of the admonition against, well, ending a sentence with a preposition. It turns out that this notion stems back to John Dryden and his belief that we shouldn’t do in English what is not acceptable in Latin. According to Brewster, Dryden—primarily a literary critic—criticized even Ben Jonson—a writer I like no more than that bard, but who was probably the best English-language writer of his day (certainly better than that bard). Dryden was particularly upset about Jonson’s clause (not phrase—does no one care about the difference between a phrase and a clause any more?), “The bodies that those souls were frightened from.” What was he supposed to write? “The bodies from which those souls were frightened”? I will admit that Jonson’s “from” does sound a little awkward when spoken, but as iambic pentameter, Johnson’s clause is far better. Dryden was the worst of what you think of when you think of “literary critic.” (Actually, Dryden was not as bad as I make him sound—at least not in his younger days. You can read a brief biography of him at Imagi-Nation. [Note: link http://www.cosimobooks.com/cosimo/classics_author.php?author=4386 removed because site appears to be infected. You can check it out, but be careful. -FM])

Emily Brewster’s video is a good one—undoubtedly her best, but it does seem that the Merriam-Webster staff are getting a little starved for ideas for their videos. The last one, by Peter Sokoloski, was about when to use “who” and when to use “whom.” In general, Sokoloski’s videos deal with issues related to what words people are looking up. The fact that he made a video about such a trivial issue has me concerned. I, for one, don’t want my Merriam-Webster editors teaching me basic grammar. But probably the videos are not really made for me; they are made for smart people, but not grammar nuts[2]. Brewster’s first video was on the difference between “effect” and “affect”—there’s one I would have yawned at in the seventh grade. But I can’t complain—and I don’t mean to. It seems that Sokoloski covers the sociology of words, Stamper the etymology of words and phrases, and Brewster common grammar errors. And as far as this goes, Emily Brewster hit a home run on her most recent video.

The Second Issue We Get To

When I first wrote about Kory Stamper lightening her hair, I thought (and I’m sorry to say so) that Emily Brewster was too thin—that she could stand to gain a few pounds. As a man who for forty-five years never managed to break the 120 pound barrier and who just two years ago was tipping the scales at 99 pounds, I know that being painfully skinny can be as embarrassing as being obese. So I wrote nothing, but I was thinking it. I was thinking, “Emily, you need to come to dinner at my place a few days a week. I’m an excellent cook and in the last two years I’ve managed to put on 40 pounds of good old-fashioned intellectual flab. Yes, I have joined the ranks of Paul Krugman and you can too.” But I only thought it. And lucky I was, because just look at what has happened to Emily Brewster:

Emily Brewster Change

From the smart girl next door (left) to, “Oh là là!” (right), Emily Brewster has changed her look. It makes me want to say, “Ms. Brewster! You’re beautiful!”—or something similar from a 1940s feature when an obviously drop-dead gorgeous actress lets down her hair and takes off her glasses.[3] The fact is, all that this suddenly glamorous (Okay: a slight exaggeration) grammarian seems to have done is put on a little makeup and changed her glasses. (Thank God she hasn’t gotten contact lenses!) You can’t blame an actor in a video the use of a little makeup, right? But what a difference it makes! It gets rid of those sunken cheeks that were often apparent and it brings out the fullness of her lips. This could all make me very depressed if it weren’t for the fact that the content of her new video is the best yet. She is playing to the medium, but unlike most video actors, for Ms. Brewster, the medium is not the message.

[1] One of the many trivial things that bug me is the incorrect use of words like “data.” The word “data” is plural; “datum” is singular. So even though it might sound just fine to your ear, I cringe whenever I hear something like, “This data is very interesting!” Although there is nothing technically wrong with this sentence (except “data” should be “datum”), the speaker is almost certainly not saying what she thinks she’s saying, which is that a single piece of data (a “data point”) is interesting. What she probably means to say is, “These data are really interesting!”

As a result, I was being a grammatical brat above when I used the word “foci” (pronounced “foe-sigh”) for the plural of “focus.” Truthfully, it would have been far more clear and nice if I had just used the word “focuses.” It turns out that Kory Stamper made an excellent video about how to make such words plural, and she makes a persusive case that the plural of words like “focus” should be “focuses.” However, Merriam-Webster Online lists only “foci” as the plural of “focus.” Fowler states that either form is okay. In general, you will find me using “focuses” except when discussing mathematics or just showing off.

[2] I am a grammar nut. That does not mean I am particularly good at grammar. In fact, it is largely because I struggle so much with it that I find it so fascinating. The subjects I am best at (for example, Aristotelian deductive reasoning), I find far less interesting.

On the other hand, because I do love grammar—because I commonly curl up with Fowler’s Modern English Usage—I am a much greater grammarian than the average American who thinks that the only ones who care about grammar are old people and intellectual snobs. It is when I compare myself to, say, the worst graduate student who Geoffrey Nunberg ever had that I find myself extremely wanting. I would have loved to have become a linguist, but enthusiasm for a subject will only take you so far. So I set my sites lower to being someone like William Safire—at least in terms of his childlike love of a language that he was in no way a master of (and knew it).

[3] Take, for example, Dorothy Malone as the Acme Bookstore clerk who spends an enjoyable off-screen hour with Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. To this day, I find that scene offensive with Marlowe asking her to take her glasses off and put her hair down. Now, it is true that I’ve always had a thing for women with glasses, but please: any man who doesn’t find Malone sexy with hair up and glasses on is either gay or blind. For those interested, Malone was not just another pretty face; she won the Acadamy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Written on the Wind. Here she is in all her intelligent plainness:

Dorothy Malone

More Stamper! More Brewster!

Want to know more about Kory Stamper, Emily Brewster, and the whole Merriam-Webster crowd? Then you are in luck (and in need of a proper life). Here are some other articles that may interest you.

A Most Forgettable Film

Sherlock Holmes (2009)After Mel Gibson’s musclebound Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, it should surprise no one that Guy Richie gives us a similar take on the only slightly less revered character of Sherlock Holmes. However, while we expect Christ to be seen shirtless, Richie’s shirtless Victorian hero comes as a bit of a shock. But then, there is much that is surprising in this modernized Holmes film. As producer Susan Downey (Yes, his wife) says in the DVD featurette Sherlock Holmes Reinvented, “This is not your grandfather’s Sherlock Holmes.” Indeed it is not. But I’m afraid that this is much like saying that the violin Holmes plays in the film is not your grandfather’s Stradivarius; it doesn’t say that it is better—just different. While this film is different from all of your grandfather’s films—Sherlock or not—it is quite similar to all the films produced by Joel Silver (who produced this film) or Jerry Bruckheimer. And perhaps this is why Sherlock Holmes (2009) is such a forgettable film.

I don’t begrudge any generation its own take on a classic. This is one of the reasons that I think that Orson Welles’ Don Quixote project was so great. In it, Quixote and Sancho Panza are anachronisms: 17th century characters in the modern world. In one scene Don Quixote mistakes a motor-scooter for some kind of alien beast. In another, he attacks a movie screen. But that is great film making—or at least its attempt. Despite its makers’ protestations to the contrary, Sherlock Holmes uses the classic eponymous stories almost exclusively for the name. With minor tweaks, the screenplay could have boasted original characters set in modern America, or 18th century Africa for that matter. After all, combining a brilliant but troubled man with an average but stable friend in a buddy picture is no more uncommon than a villain who wants to rule the world—both of which are shamelessly on display in this film.

Not surprisingly, the film gets some things simply wrong in its attempts to modernize its supposed source material. A particularly annoying example of this is how Sherlock Holmes deals with the original character’s habit of injecting cocaine and morphine. The only drug reference here (except, of course, for the large amount of drinking done, because, of course, alcohol isn’t a real drug) is Watson’s chastising Holmes for drinking a drug used for performing eye surgery—an act surely far more dangerous than the injection of pharmaceutical cocaine and morphine. Instead, we see Holmes doing things like getting into fist fights with men twice his size. The point being that Holmes’ use of drugs that the modern mind equates to rape and murder (based upon the criminal penalties we cheerfully accept) must be a sign of his self-destructiveness. In the original stories, however, this is not the case. Holmes used these drugs out of boredom—just as do many if not most modern users. My grandfather’s Sherlock Holmes was far more straight forward. At the end of 1939’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, Basil Rathbone, as Holmes, ends the film by saying, ” Watson: the needle!” No dancing around the issue there.

What makes Sherlock Holmes so forgettable is unclear to me, however. Due to my habit of going to watch new releases with my brother, I see a lot of films very much like this one. Yet I do not forget them. I can tell you roughly what Iron Man 2 or RED were about. And yet, I got over half-way through watching Sherlock Holmes before I realized that I had seen it before. Up to that point, I thought that I just knew what was going to happen next. This is very common—with the occasional exception, like The Sixth Sense—I can usually give you a pretty good picture of acts two and three after watching act one of a modern American movie. In Sherlock Holmes, it was only when I saw the villain kill his father that I knew: I had seen that bathtub before!

I still cannot remember where or when I saw the movie, but there is no doubt that I did. It hardly matters, and it certainly isn’t important. What is important is why I should have completely blocked out having seen it. My working theory is that the film itself is utterly forgettable. It is more or less Iron Man 2 or Batman and Robin without the silly costumes to make it stand out. Sherlock Holmes is a by-the-numbers film that does have the advantage over most other films (good and bad) of literally killing a couple of hours. If you want this experience, however, you are best to put up a sign somewhere that you can’t miss, which says something along the lines of, “Sherlock Holmes already killed two hours; mission accomplished!”

Librarians: Be Afraid; Be Very Afraid

When a writer is poor, he makes great use of whatever free libraries are available to him. In my case, it is the Sonoma County Library, which is, as they say, “Free to use… not free to operate.” And I do donate to the cause—just not anything close to what I get in return. I figure that roughly 70% of the books I read come from the library (20% come from used bookstores and 10% come new from Amazon and Barnes & Noble). The problem with all this library use is, as Krapp said sarcastically, “Getting known.” It isn’t like the library equivalent of Cheers where my entrance elicits the hushed chorus of “Frank!” from the library staff. But they do know me—several by name.

Generally speaking, there are three kinds of people who frequent the library: kids, old people, and the strange—a poorly defined group including the homeless, mentally unbalanced, and me. It still surprises me the quantity of books that children check out during a single visit. It reminds me of the ending of The Man Without a Country—more starved than gluttonous—while it is probably just that unlike me, these children visit the library only rarely. The old people too sometimes check out a lot of books, but mostly their apparent consumption is moderate. The vast majority of “the strange” seem never to check out anything. All of this is to say that I don’t think many patrons get known—certainly not to the depth to which I seem to be known.

A good example of this occurred recently when I checked out Roger Hodge’s The Mendacity of Hope (a very exciting book that I will be writing about soon). The librarian who checked me out seemed surprised that I was reading this anti-Obama book. This may not have been the case at all; she might have just been considering the book’s delightfully clever title. But I knew that she knew me and I thought she was reflecting upon my choice, so I said with casual defensiveness, “It’s a critique from the left.” She just smiled back the way one would to reassure a befuddled child.

When I first started using this library system a year and a half ago, I was struck with the utter disinterest of the library staff. It was as if one could check out 100 Reasons to Love Hitler or Pol Pot’s Tips for Mitigating Over-Population and it wouldn’t so much as dilate an eye. It occurred to me that this was probably part of the training; as one librarian said to me, “Never apologize for your reading choices.” It is not just a question of being allowed to read what you want without criticism; it is a question of privacy—an issue over which librarians have been and continue to be truly heroic.

Over time, I have become a known quantity. How could I not? I go to the library almost every day and I am chatty—at least about the books I’m reading. In addition, I ask a lot of questions. Frankly, I’m a pain, and if the same bird pecked at you every day, you would learn its name—or make one up. So more and more, I have gotten to know the library staff (although not their names) and we chat a fair amount about the books I check out.

About a month ago, I finally made the decision to start my own publishing company, after much pushing from friends and a lot of readers who are unhappy about one of my books being out of print. I didn’t particularly want to look back at these old books, since I made a decision some time ago that I was not going to write books of that nature any more. However, I am known for this work, and this did present a great opportunity to make positive use of a past that greatly harms me when I, say, apply for a regular job. So I went to the library and got three books on self-publishing. The librarian who checked me out asked me excitedly, “Oh! Are you a writer?” To which I responded, “Book out of print, blah, blah, blah.” Now she had to look up what I had published. In response, I calmly freaked out, “No, no: you don’t want to know what I’ve written; you’ll think ill of me!” More or less. To which she gave me a hand gesture that said, “Poppycock!” Of course, I was confident that she would not find anything, and I was right. She seemed deeply disappointed by her null result to which I responded, “I don’t publish under that name—not that it’s too difficult to figure out.” I used to publish under my given, formal, name; this is why I now call myself “Frank”—but I told her none of that.

After I left the library, I felt very bad. I would rather she know the kind of scandalous books I’ve written than think I am a liar. So I came back to the library, found the librarian and gave her my business card, saying, “Go to this website to see my more recent writing.” I didn’t think much more of it until yesterday, when I went to the library to pick up Max Blumenthal’s Republican Gomorrah. She turned around from the returns counter and gave me a big smile. “We were just talking about you,” she said. Then she went on to gush mightily about Frankly Curious. It was a very nice birthday present, even if I am rather bad at taking a compliment.

About a year ago, I checked out a number of books on palm reading for a book proposal (a project I have since abandoned). I found this very embarrassing and it was during one such check-out that I got the line about not apologizing for one’s reading preferences. For some time now, I have thought about writing a book about Glenn Beck called, “Glenn and Me” because we share the exact same birthday (year and all) and an earnest wish to understand the world. It would be interesting to contrast this with the many things we do not share (for example: I’m poor, he’s rich; I’m a fearless seeker of uncomfortable truths, he’s a demagogue; I’m a genius, and let’s be charitable and just say that he is not). It would be very difficult to write such a book, however, because it would require that I read all of Beck’s books. But even more difficult would be overcoming the fear that my librarian pals might think that I was a Glenn Beck fan. (I’m certainly not going to pay to read Glenn Beck’s Common Sense!)

Of course, there has never been a hint of judgement from anyone who works for the Sonoma County Library. And their jobs are not easy. Most people who rarely visit their public library have no idea just how much guff library staff have to put up with. I have seen numerous instances of patrons yelling at staff-members. Yet they always manage such situations with aplomb. They are, after all, angels sent to earth to spread the word. So despite what they may tell us, we should be afraid of what they think of our reading choices. We should be very afraid.

“Getting Known”

This phrase (actually, a whole sentence as he wrote it) is from Samuel Beckett’s great one-act play, Krapp’s Last Tape. The full context is, “Seventeen copies sold, of which eleven at trade price to free circulating libraries beyond the seas. Getting known.” Is it any wonder that of all Beckett’s characters, I identify most (tragically) with Krapp?

Politics: 8 February 2011

Current TV to MSNBC: “Thanks for the brand!

Keith Olbermann has joined with Current TV and will begin broadcasting this Spring. According to Marilyn Sparks, Current TV has been struggling to create an identity. Olbermann will be a great help in that. This whole situation reminds of when the Orlando Magic let the LA Lakers steal Shaquille O’Neal away. As I recall, Orlando didn’t want to pay enough for O’Neal, but they more than lost the extra amount LA paid in the loss to the value of their franchise. MSNBC lost big when they let Olbermann get away. We’ll check back in two years. Don’t be surprised if MSNBC is back to an “also ran” with CNN.

Politics: 7 February 2011

“All Important Independents

I just read NPR’s summary of the Obama-O’Reilly interview. It was typical NPR “take no sides even when a child is stomping on frogs” sort of coverage. But one line really hit me, “To further his appeal to the all-important independents, Obama took the opportunity to underscore that while he’s been labeled by conservative critics an ultra-liberal, he’s really been more of a pragmatist.” I agree with that statement, but I just don’t accept its starting phrase. “All-important independents”? The Democrats lost in the last election because young progressives did not come out to vote, not because “independents” (whatever the hell that means) switched from Democrat to Republican. So this focus on the mythical “all-important independents” is madness. If Obama wins in 2012, it will be because the youth vote comes out again. That is the only story.


I’ve already written about this. This is a good take on it.

Politics: 6 February 2011

Bill O’Reilly Disrespectful to President

It was amazing to me to have just watched the Bill O’Reilly’s interview with President Obama. O’Reilly showed himself to be extremely ignorant, posing questions like, “Many people think you want to redistribute wealth…” This isn’t surprising. I expected the interview to have a little more substance, but I wasn’t shocked. What was surprising was how rude O’Reilly was to the President. He talked over him and dismissed Obama in the middle of answers with things like, “Yes, yes, I know…” as though O’Reilly was just sick of hearing the President’s lies. Had a Republican president received such treatment, the Right would have become unglued. Of course, what Republican President would ever have agreed to an interview with a progressive?

Field Notes from a Catastrophe

Robert Reich said in a recent interview that he no longer believes in keeping a balanced federal budget. Why? Because in general, Democrats are fiscally responsible and Republicans are not. Bill Clinton managed to balance the budget and leave to George W. Bush a federal government that was actually taking in more money than it was spending. And what happened? Bush went on a spending spree (admittedly, helped by a recession) creating the most unbalanced budget in US history. Why should Democrats save so that Republicans can over-spend on their pet projects: tax-cuts (especially for the wealthy) and wars? Thus it is with the issue of global warming. Why should all the rest of the world do something about global warming when the biggest polluter does nothing? And this, I suppose, is why I am glad I no longer work as a “global change scientist.”

What brings this all up is that my niece (to be accurate: the daughter of the sister of the husband of my sister) sent me Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert. The book is a fun read when it is dealing with scientists (which is most of the book). It brings back fond memories of what it is like to be part of a large nerd community. She does an excellent job of showing scientists as regular people—except for the nerd part. For example:

While I was at CRREL [Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory], [Donald] Perovich took me to meet a colleague of his named John Weatherly. Posted on Weatherly’s office door was a bumper sticker designed to be pasted—illicitly—on SUVs. It said, I’m changing the climate! Ask me how!

It’s when Kolbert gets into the political side of the issue that it gets annoying. All the time that I was a graduate student and then a post-doc and finally a lowly assistant professor, I was highly skeptical about global warming. There were two issues:

  1. There was more warming in the middle of the 20th century than there had been since—up into the early 1990s—and the climate models did a very poor job of explaining this.
  2. The sunspot cycle alone seemed to do a pretty good job all by itself of explaining the climate we had seen during the 20th century.

From the mid-90s onward, climate modelers began to incorporate the sunspot cycle into their models. And as a result, everything came together. Once that happened (after I had left the field), I was convinced. As a result of this, I find the current denial of anthropogenic global warming (Or global warming of any kind!) extremely frustrating. It has become clear to me that those who deny the existence of human-caused global warming are exactly the same as those who deny evolution by natural selection. Their beliefs are faith-based; no amount of data or reasoning will ever convince them.

I repeatedly hear people make the same claim: “A lot of scientists don’t believe in global warming” or “A lot of scientists don’t believe in evolution.” In both cases, this is absolutely false unless our definitions of “a lot” are extremely different. What is true is that church groups recycle the same evolution non-believers to make it look like there is widespread dissent, just as conservative groups (like Faux News) do with global warming skeptics. There is, of course, much more room to question global warming than evolution. The problem is that most of those who do not want to believe in global warming do not have the slightest idea what the actual issues are. Instead of questions about errors in climate models, we get statements like those about how humans “create” carbon dioxide when they breathe—a statement that shows a literally laughable ignorance of the earth’s carbon cycle.

Of course, there is a problem on the other side. Most people who believe in global warming are ignorant—just not willfully so. Most could not explain why human exhalation of carbon dioxide is different from the carbon dioxide produced by octane combustion. (Hint: where does that carbon atom that we combine with oxygen come from? Perhaps a plant we ate, that takes the carbon atom away and spits the oxygen back into the atmosphere?) Books like Field Notes are slightly problematic because they depend too much an anecdotal evidence. It’s part of the whole, “Oh, what a hot summer! It must be global warming!” Or: “Oh, what a cold winter! There can’t be global warming! (To be fair, this book is not intended to be an argument that global warming is happening; it takes this as a given and there’s nothing wrong with that.)

Even knowing everything I know about this subject—which is a lot—the book is terribly frightening. I have no children, but I am young enough that I will probably see great human suffering due to climate change in my lifetime.

Book Darts!

The book my niece sent me was probably used in one or more college courses. It has at least three colors of highlighting! In case my niece is one of the highlighters, I have sent her a package of book darts, which, as anyone who knows me well knows, I think are the greatest invention since movable type.

Politics: 2 February 2011

Stock Market Back, Republicans Yawn

The Vancouver Sun reports that the Dow Jones industrial average closed above 12,000 yesterday. This is a 50% increase from where it closed the last day of the Bush administration. I know, big deal. Except that Republicans continue to claim that Obama is not only anti-business, but the most anti-business president in history. One of my biggest complaints against Obama is how much he is in the back pocket of Wall Street and the banking industry. So it makes sense for me to yawn and even be angry that the Dow Jones industrial average has gone up 50% when the unemployment rate has almost doubled. But the Republicans should be dancing in the streets. (Maybe they are—they’re just private streets that I’m not allowed to walk on.)

One Thing About Egypt

I don’t have much to say about Egypt because I don’t know much about it. But I will say this: as best as I can tell, Bruce Cockburn’s lyrics can be used to describe the protesters, “In the flash of this moment, you’re the best of what we are.”

The Return of Edward R. Murrow in London in Cairo

I’ve had my doubts about Richard Engel in the past, but I was wrong: he’s the real deal. This is Murrow during the Blitz.