Drag is waste. Reduce it.


The Serial Comma

As I've mentioned, misapplication of the concept of irony is a pet-peeve of mine. What can I say, I have a thing about correct word use. Not that I'm necessarily above making such mistakes myself, mind, but I try.

As it turns out, I'm also a bit of a stickler for grammar. I prefer to punctuate liberally, as you may have noticed, and I make every effort to do so correctly. I also don't like the word "stickler," but I went ahead and used it anyway, just for you.

And with that introduction out of the way, I will move on to the subject of this post: the serial comma. That's the comma that falls between the penultimate (second-to-last) item and the conjunction in a comma-separated series, according to the Wikipedia entry. For example, between "Kermit" and "and":

Miss Piggy, Kermit, and Gonzo are muppets.

Also commonly referred to as the Oxford comma or the Harvard comma, as per the house styles of the Oxford and Harvard University Presses, respectively, the serial comma is the subject of some debate among grammarians, and it seems that opinions vary widely on the propriety of its use.

In fact, legal and technical style guides advocate for the serial comma, whereas newspaper style guides such as those of the Associated Press and the New York Times advocate against it.

In legal and technical writing, clarity is of utmost importance, and the serial comma is encouraged for exactly that reason. It is particularly important in cases where one or more items in the series is more than one word in length, for example:

I think turkey, ham and cheese and roast-beef sandwiches are yummy.

As you can see, the above is questionable without the serial comma. Was that (1) turkey sandwiches, (2) ham and cheese sandwiches, and (3) roast-beef sandwiches, or was it, perhaps, (1) turkey sandwiches, (2) ham sandwiches, and (3) cheese and roast-beef sandwiches? You'll never know, but hopefully you can see how a comma before one of those "and"s would have been very helpful.

Why, then, are newspapers opposed? The primary reason, or so I've read, is that it's a superfluous character, and ever pressed-for-space newspaper articles take their space where they can get it.

While it may sound like a bad idea to (potentially) sacrifice clarity for the sake of occasionally being able to cram an extra word into an article, it could certainly be argued, and rightly so, that clarity need not be sacrificed at all. When the serial comma is omitted, the responsibility falls to the writer to ensure that the meaning is clear — fuzzy meaning is then the fault of the writer, and cannot be blamed on a missing comma.

I'm always an advocate of personal responsibility, as I mentioned in a previous post. In this case, though, I'm going to have to take the side of clarity and consistency. The serial comma is not mandatory, and it's certainly not essential in all cases, but it never hurts. Use it.

Below is a selection of other places you can find discussions on this issue. I have read many more posts and articles than these in putting this post together; those linked to below are, in my opinion, the best of the bunch.

Get It Write
The Professional Training Company
World Wide Words
Random House

Also of note, the serial comma makes an appearance, although not by name, at Number 5 on the University of North Carolina Writing Center's list of "seven easy steps to becoming a comma super hero."


Blogger by Tag, Part 2

Three things —

First, regular readers will have noticed that my grand tagging plan is coming along nicely. As nicely as was to be expected, that is.

Second, regular readers may also have noticed that although it was promised, there's been no sign of a blog re-design. Well, I'm working on it.

Third, in the interest of keeping you, ahem, interested, my next post will be about something completely different: punctuation. Stay tuned.



Ialmost forgot. The second Ars Technica article that I linked to in my last post had a link at the very end to a comic that I, personally, found extremely amusing.

I shared that comic with my girlfriend and with a friend of ours, and, based on their responses, I now realize that a certain amount of background knowledge is required in order to fully appreciate it.

If, having now brushed up on your Masters of the Universe, you feel ready, enjoy!

Viva Wikipedia, Part 3

The Seigenthaler fallout continues... if that means nothing to you, go read my first two posts in this series here and here, respectively, and then come back.

Ars Technica — always a good read — has two new articles up pertaining Wikipedia's recent time in the spotlight.

In the first, Ken "Caesar" Fisher digs a little deeper into the Nature study (seriously — if you're lost, read this) and the broader Wikipedia-reliability issue.

The gist of it is that Wikipedia founder Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales has recently responded to the accusations of inaccuracy in Wikipedia by stating that (a) people really shouldn't be citing encyclopedias as authoritative sources in the first place, and that (b) Wikipedia may have its flaws, but it's worlds better than where people were probably going before... that is, than any ol' sketchy website.

As the Nature study demonstrated, Britannica isn't much better than Wikipedia as far as accuracy is concerned, and I think Wales' first point is a good one. His second is a bit more complex, as Seigenthaler would no doubt agree. The problem is that people expect sketchy websites to be sketchy, whereas people generally expect Wikipedia to be reliable. The question of accountability arises when, on occasion, Wikipedia turns out to be not-so-reliable. But does the fault lie with Wikipedia for not doing a better job of controlling their content, or with the user-base for having expectations that are out of wack with reality?

Personally, I think people spend too much time looking for someone to blame and not enough time taking responsibility for their own actions. Wikipedia never promised to be accurate... quite the opposite, in fact. I think people should spend a little more time appreciating the amazing resource that Wikipedia is, and a little less time nattering on about its shortcomings.

And what better way to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, than to spend your daily Wikipedia-appreciation time making Wikipedia better.

Oh. Right. I promised two Ars articles. The other is about Wikipedia's recent addition of a few more anti-vandalism measures. It's a good idea, it's certainly relevant, and it's not overly exciting... read it here if you care.


Viva Wikipedia, Part 2

In response to the recent Wikipedia trustworthiness controversy — see my first post on that here — the fine folks over at Nature have put Wikipedia to the test.

According to this well-written Business Week article, Nature found that, out of a random sample of 42 entries of a scientific bent, Wikipedia had, on average, just 1 more error per entry than the much-vaunted Encyclopædia Britannica.

What's more, they also polled more than 1,000 scientists who had contributed to Nature, and found that 17% consulted Wikipedia on a weekly basis. And we should all know, by now, that the more smart people that use Wikipedia, the better — because they can FIX MISTAKES that they find there.1

By the way, you can check out Nature's own report of their findings here.

I'll repeat myself one more time, just for good measure: viva Wikipedia!

1 Yes, in fact, I did read the Nature article, and I saw that part where they said that while 17% of those scientists use Wikipedia on a weekly basis, only 10% of them contribute to Wikipedia while they're there. What do I have to say about that? Two things. First, it's better than nothing. Second, shame on the rest of them.


Asserting My Web-Design Prowess

OK, OK. I don't actually have much web-design prowess. But I'm working on it! This blogging thing has inspired me, and what that means for you, dear Reader, is that you should be expecting a blog re-design in the near future.

As I mentioned, I'm still in the "learning" stages of web design. I'm currently using my other web page as scrap paper, as it were, for my experimentation. Thus far, I've been doing all of my playing locally. From now on, though, I'll publish whatever I've got at the end of each day. For a preview of what's coming, or just for a chuckle, feel free to visit.

All that said, I should point out that this is more motivated by my desire to learn than because I feel a re-design is in order. As with my Tagging Initiative, the biggest changes will occur under the hood. I intend to keep the "look-and-feel" mostly the same, because, honestly, I quite like Blogger's templates. I just think it's time for me to take control.


Blogger by Tag

Iam in the process of tagging my posts. "Tagging" is the hot internet term for assigning keywords, or "tags," to just about anything on the web for easy searching and on-the-go categorization — as always, see the Wikipedia entry. Tags are a form of metadata. That is as much information theory as you're going to get from me.

There is no native Blogger support for tags or categories, so things here could be a bit messy over the next few days as I screw around under the hood.

After a thorough Google search (because that's where information comes from), I feel in the Blogger-tagging know. Many creative individuals, of which I am not one, have though up clever ways by which to implement tags in Blogger. These "hacks" fall under three broad categories:

1. Leveraging the tagging power of del.icio.us.
2. Creating a new blog for each category and linking them together in a clever fashion (this is more category- than tag-oriented).
3. Linking to an intra-blog Google Blog Search for each tag.

Each of these hacks has its own advantages and disadvantages. I'm starting with 3, as it's the easiest to implement. Further down the road, I might move to a more powerful and elegant combination of 1 and 2. That is, of course, unless Blogger beats me to the punch, which, given the apparent popular demand, is likely.1

I'll try to keep you, loyal reader, posted (har har! — blogging puns). Please do let me know via comment if you have any questions, complaints, suggestions, or, um, comments.

1 Speaking of popular demand — if you, like me, want Blogger to add native tag support, make yourself heard! Blogger keeps a running user Wish List, so go vote vote vote for "I want a way to organize posts by topic or category."

Update: apparently our voices were heard, because tagging support was among the features Google chose to included in the new Blogger (they call them labels, c.f. Google Mail). DR has been updated appropriately and my hack-y system has been removed.


Seigenthaler v. Wikipedia? — Viva Wikipedia

Tags: Wikipedia, News

One John Seigenthaler, Sr., has been making a big fuss over Wikipedia lately. You can get the whole story just about anywhere, such as from a New York Times article or, as should come as no surprise, a Wikipedia entry.

The meat of the situation is this — Seigenthaler happened to come across the Wikipedia entry about himself recently, and he didn't like what he read there. It implicated him in the RFK and JFK assassinations or something... but that's not important. What is important, is this: he has made and is continuing to make a huge stink over it.

I do feel bad for him, honestly. He seems like a nice fellow who was offended by what he read about himself, and, on top of that, he's concerned that anyone could write similar "slander" about anyone or anything else, and hapless readers might accept it as the truth.

But poor John, unfortunately, just doesn't understand Wikipedia. Wikipedia is founded on two basic ground rules:

1. If you know something and it's not in there, add it.
2. If you find something in there that is incorrect, fix it.

These are the rules from which Wikipedia was born, and the rules according to which it continues to grow. A true User of Wikipedia accepts them and abides by them. What Seigenthaler should have done when he came across his bio is fix it, and then post an explanatory note in the entry discussion. It would have been quiet, under the radar, and correct from then on.

Instead, he made a fuss. Who does this benefit, other than the news-media? No one that I can see. It has caused him an even greater headache, though, as his entry is now a juicy target for wikivandalism.

Wikivandals, by way, deserve to beaten over the head with all 32 volumes of the Encyclopædia Britannica.


The Express

I read the Express on my way into work most mornings. Or the first few pages of the Express, anyway... my commute is fairly quick.

A publication of the Washington Post, the Express is a free commuter newspaper distributed at Metro stations and most major bus stops throughout the District. For the most part, it's a great paper... and given that it's free, one can't complain overly much about its shortcomings.

The fine folks who publish the Express do their very best to include every tidbit of major news each day. Everything, though — headline stories included — is fairly brief. This is (a) because it's free, after all, and (b) because it's for commuters like myself, who don't have time to read an entire newspaper.

For the most part, this strategy works out wonderfully. Articles generally present enough information for the reader to have a clue about what's going on, but not enough for the reader to feel informed without doing further research. Think of it as the RSS version of a real newspaper, minus the links to more info.

Occasionally, though, I come across an article that deperately needs either more detail or less detail in order to make sense. One such appears in today's edition. I'll give you the first half... trust me that the second half doesn't supply any further relevant information.

Lake Searched for Survivors
After Quake Shakes Region

Rescuers in fishing boats searched for survivors Tuesday in a central African lake at the epicenter of a strong earthquake that killed at least four people. Monday's quake had a magnitude of 6.8, strong enough to cause widespread heavy damage. ...(AP)

What's going on here? There was an earthquake. Fine. A lakeside town was at the epicenter. OK. The lake is being search. Erm. For survivors. Huh?

Why are they searching the lake? Why are there earthquake victims in the lake? How did they get there? I have no idea.

Furthermore, the earthquake happened on Monday. They are searching the lake on Tuesday. In fishing boats. For survivors. Survivors, being people who have been inexplicably tossed -- by way of powerful earthquake -- out of their village and into the nearby lake, and have since been treading water for at least 12 hours. Right.

Express... a little help, here?

I don't mean to imply that they're making things up — I imagine that their facts are accurate.1 This is simply a matter of presentation. Couldn't they at least try to write these snippets so that I am not left scratching my head? If I wanted to think first thing in the morning, I would do the crossword or something.

1 Actually, the Express isn't responsible for the facts here. The little "(AP)" tag at the end of the story indicates that the information itself came from the Associated Press.


Driving Me Crazy, Part 2

When I was learning how to drive, it was made very clear to me that when waiting in a line of cars, whether at a stop sign, a traffic light, or just in traffic, one needs to be careful not to obstruct intersections with cross-streets. The appropriate protocal is to stop before any such intersection, and move forward only when there is room for your car on the other side.

Walking through downtown DC, however, it is clear that I am one of the few who is aware of this practice. Hence, irritating offense number two.

Imagine this scenario:

1. A long line of cars is waiting at a red light.
2. The light turns green, and the cars begin driving through.
3. The cars on the far side of the light begin lining up at the next light, and the line backs up to the current light.
4. The cars on the near side continue crossing, and the line backs up through the current light, BLOCKING THE INTERSECTION.
5. The light changes.
6. Cars traveling along the cross-street cannot proceed, because the intersection is blocked.

I saw this happen at nearly every intersection I walked through on my way home last night. And it gets worse.

You would think that the drivers who are being obstructed would realize the problem, and make a mental note about how one should behave in such a situation so as not to perpetuate this bad behavior. But no. Eventually the intersection clears, and the line of cars on the cross-street begins passing through the intersection. You will recognize this as step 2, above. Now repeat 3 through 6. Over and over again.

The icing on the cake? What follows, invariably, after step 6:

7. Honking.

Driving Me Crazy, Part 1

People in DC drive terribly. People in Boston drive terribly too. I imagine drivers in most major cities are terrible.

I think it's the congestion. Traffic moves slowly enough that drivers can get away with doing things that would be deadly at higher speeds, and streets are crowded enough that there is little chance of them being pulled over for it.

There are two offenses that particularly irritate me. Number one: honking.

City drivers honk persistently, and I do not understand it. Mostly, they honk when traffic is moving more slowly than they would like, which is often. Perhaps they are under the impression that they are contributing to improving traffic flow by leaning on the horn, but believe me when I say that they are wrong. Most likely, it is the only outlet for their frustration with the fact that it can take 20 minutes to travel 1 mile in city traffic.

For you, city driver, I have two words: public transportation. Sooner or later, increasing population density will make city driving prohibitively slow, and you will give it up. Until that time, please stop honking. You are giving me a headache.


  • Purpose: user-interface critique (ranting), among other things.
  • Justification: I use things; I have opinions; I have a blog.