On insults-4: The responsibilities of a blog author

In my private discussions with other bloggers about the issue of whether one should ban offensive commenters, the point was made that even if I could live with such comments, other readers may find them so offensive that they leave and never return because they think that by allowing them, the host is condoning such views. The suggestion was also made that men seem to be more comfortable with creating and being in a heated atmosphere and that if the blog host is not careful, the blog may become an exclusively male preserve. This is a serious argument that merits serious consideration. What is the blog host’s responsibility to provide a congenial environment to all who choose to visit? [Read more…]

On insults-2: Heated language on the internet

Once in a while, a furious debate flares up about the proper tone that people should use in exchanges with one another on the internet. This occurs within the skeptic community as well, the most prominent division being between the groups now referred to as accommodationists and the new atheists. The most common charge laid against the latter is that they sometimes use intemperate language in criticizing both religion and the accommodationist position. [Read more…]

The deplorable practice of quote-mining

Scholarly articles tend to follow pretty much a four-step formula.

  1. The author identifies the problem being investigated, explains why it is of interest, and why it is important to find a solution.
  2. The previous solutions to the problem are discussed and reasons are given (in the form of evidence and arguments) as to why those earlier attempts are unsatisfactory.
  3. The author proposes a new solution to the problem and gives reasons (again in the form of evidence and arguments) why the new solution should be accepted.
  4. Other auxiliary problems will usually also be identified and addressed in the course of making the larger case.

In order to make the case that their research is important, [Read more…]

The evolution of language

In a comment to a previous post Jared A suggested that I would benefit, especially in my posts on religion and atheism, from using words more precisely in order to make my points clearer. In particular, he said that the word ‘myths’ usually refer to sacred narratives, while ‘scriptures’ refer to sacred writings. The beliefs in the scriptures, if codified, are referred to as ‘doctrine’ and [Read more…]

Belated anniversary commemoration

What with one thing and another, I forgot to mark the sixth anniversary of this blog, which began on January 26, 2005. I never imagined that it would continue for this long. I estimate that I have written close to two million words. For most of the time, the blog consisted of an op-ed length essay every weekday but last year I started adding some short posts as well.

I am now undertaking a new book project that will take up some time so I may have to cut back on the essays a bit. These take more time because they consist of reasoned arguments that have to be thought through and worded more carefully. But at the same time, those essays are the ones I like the most because I also learn from researching and writing them, so they will not disappear.

Thanks to all the people out there who read and comment.


As someone who reads and writes a lot, I have got attuned to the rhythm of words. When someone uses a cliché, it is as jarring to me as a sudden wrong note in a piece of music.

I personally try to avoid clichés as much as possible and in trying to be alert to them, I started keeping a list of those that I hear that immediately trigger a negative response in me. Here is my list so far:

Speak truth to power
Last time I checked (when used in a sarcastic way)
Think outside the box
When the rubber meets the road
Hit the ground running
A perfect storm
Connect the dots
Light at the end of the tunnel
Start with a clean slate

Anyone else have phrases that grate on the ears (itself a phrase that is on the edge of entering clichedom) that they want to add to this list?

Pointless dedication

Take a look at this passage below and see if you notice anything unusual about it.

Upon this basis I am going to show you how a bunch of bright young folks did find a champion; a man with boys and girls of his own; a man of so dominating and happy individuality that Youth is drawn to him as is a fly to a sugar bowl. It is a story about a small town. It is not a gossipy yarn; nor is it a dry, monotonous account, full of such customary “fill-ins” as “romantic moonlight casting murky shadows down a long, winding country road.” Nor will it say anything about tinklings lulling distant folds ; robins carolling at twilight, nor any “warm glow of lamplight” from a cabin window. No. It is an account of up-and-doing activity; a vivid portrayal of Youth as it is today; and a practical discarding of that worn out notion that “a child don’t know anything.”

Not notice anything, other than the author’s love affair with quotation marks? That is not a surprise because it is quite subtle. What is noteworthy is that passage does not contain the letter ‘E’ even though in normal English that letter is the most frequently used and occurs roughly 13% of the time. The above paragraph is taken from the 267-page 1939 novel Gadsby written by Ernest Vincent Wright where he avoided that letter entirely.

Such letter avoidance is not that unusual apparently. John R. Pierce in his book An Introduction to Information Theory: Symbols, Signals, and Noise (1980, p. 48) gives other examples.

Gottlob Burmann, a German poet who lived from 1737 to 1805, wrote 130 poems, including a total of 20,000 words, without once its using the letter R. Further, during the last seventeen years of his or life, Burmann even omitted the letter from his daily conversation.

In each of five stories published by Alonso Alcala y Herrera in Lisbon in 1641 a different vowel was suppressed. Francisco Navarrete y Ribera (1659), Fernando Jacinto de Zurita y Haro (1654), and Manuel Lorenzo de Lizarazu y Berbuizana (1654) provided other examples.

When I read about such people, I have a reaction that wavers between admiration at the dedication and the single-mindedness that such acts require, and bemusement at the sheer pointlessness of it all. Since we knew in advance, in principle, that what they did could be done, there seems to be no reason to do these kinds of things other than to show that there exists someone somewhere willing to spend the time and effort to do it. The Guinness Book of Records seems to consist of a lot of items like this, making it a repository of human pointless dedication.

Anniversary reflections on this blog

Today’s post will mark the completing of three years since this blog began. Although I tend to ignore anniversaries of any kind, they do provide convenient points at which to step back and look at the big picture, to reflect on what was achieved, what was not, and where one should be going.

I have been on a regimen of writing five op-ed type essays a week, resulting over the last three years in over 700 essays and close to 900,000 words. The blog has registered about three million hits.

While it is not easy to produce this level of output, it is not that hard either, provided one is interested in what one is writing about. One of the consequences of producing this output is that I now have extreme contempt for most of the well-known columnists (david Brooks, Maureen Dowd, Charles Krauthammer, David Broder, Richard Cohen, etc.) that occupy the pages of newspapers and magazines. Many of the better known ones are employed full time and have paid researchers to help them gather material for their columns. Given all those resources, it is remarkable how vapid and lacking in content their columns are.

Let me make clear that I am not saying that I am better than them. But given that I have a full-time job and have to do all my own research and edit my own work on my own time, I feel that these columnists should be producing far better output, instead of the superficial dreck they currently do that wastes so much newsprint. In fact, there are very many writers on the web (Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Matthew Yglesias, Steve Benen, Juan Cole, Stephen Zunes, Robert Jensen, the pseudonymous Digby, Justin Raimondo, Jim Lobe, Ray McGovern, Greg Sargent, Paul Craig Roberts, Alexander Cockburn, to name just a few off the top of my head) who produce far, far better political analyses than the so-called elite columnists, and many of them are also writing on their own and on their own time. These good web writers not only have sharper intellects and biting prose styles, they provide links to the sources so one can see if the facts on which they base their analyses warrant their conclusions. In contrast, the well-known op-ed writers tend to rely on Villager cocktail party chatter and unnamed sources, making their output more like political gossip columns

On the basis of the quality of the content, the traditional columnist should have long ago become extinct. But we must remember that these columnists serve a much more important purpose than informing readers and it is this that keeps them around. These columnists are like the goal posts on a football field, they define the boundaries within which the political game must be played, with the so-called liberals at one end and the so-called conservatives at the other end. To be considered ‘respectable’ and be invited to play, one must tacitly agree to stay within these defined boundaries. Step outside those boundaries, or even question the rules of the game, and you are out of the game and summarily excluded. You are no longer ‘serious’, just some kind of wild-eyed, irrational ideologue.

Furthermore, the so-called liberals and so-called conservatives are both part of the one pro-business/pro-war party that rules this country. They are all Villagers.

Writing this blog has been of benefit to me personally. The sheer discipline that it forces on me to write daily has resulted in greater productivity. Last year I had five articles accepted for publication, three of which started out as extensive blog entries, which meant that I had done much of the research and writing and editing long before I considered submitting it to a journal. The other two articles were also to easy to write because of the discipline that has been imposed on me by trying to meet the demands of the blog. The blog has made me a far more efficient writer, if not necessarily a better one.

There is one thing about the blog that I have still not quite come to terms with, and that is the personal exposure. I am by nature a private person and initially saw myself only writing about abstract ideas in a coolly analytical way, without revealing much about myself. But it is hard to maintain that level of detachment when one is passionate about something. Although I do not dwell on the details of my personal life (which is very boring anyway), I have discovered what writers know, that you cannot help but reveal things about yourself whenever you write about anything you care about. You inevitably reveal your attitudes and values.

I have tried to come to terms with the fact that regular readers of this blog must have a pretty good idea about what drives me as a person. I still find it disconcerting, however, when I meet someone for the first time and that person says “Oh, I read your blog”, because I realize that that person knows quite a bit about me while I know nothing about that person.

But that is a minor discomfort. The blog has been a source of intellectual stimulus for me. It has not yet reached a stage where I have run out of new ideas to write about and start repeating myself, although reading some of the old entries I find myself surprised at some of the things I had forgotten I said. But so far, I have not regretted anything that I have posted or found anything completely wrong, except for predictions for the winners of political contests where I am almost always wrong.

The blog is still fun for me, which I why I keep writing. Thanks for reading.