So You Need to Use a Comma

People freak out about commas.  Please don’t. Yes, commas are hella confusing (the Chicago Manual of Style dedicates 59 distinct sub-sections to them, and even then there is ambiguity and opinion and wiggle room leftover), but knowing these four little things will almost entirely solve your comma problems.

1. The “Oxford”/”serial” Comma

This is technically the “list” comma: When you give a list, you put commas between individual items.  E.g.,:

Go to the store and get eggs, pineapple, a ’57 Chevy, and enlightenment.

N.B. that the last comma (which I’ve put in red) is disputed; that lil fella is an “Oxford comma”.  Some folks say it’s unnecessary (including, at least at one time, the AP Style Guide), preferring:

Go to the store and get eggs, pineapple, a ’57 Chevy and enlightenment.

But this can lead to hilarious ambiguity, such as this oft-quoted (and probably apocryphal) book dedication sorely in need of an Oxford comma:

This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God

—or this actual and verified sentence published in the Times of London a few years back:

Nelson Mandela was a highly accomplished man.
Nelson Mandela was a highly accomplished man.

FYI, serial commas apply to lists of adjectives, too:

You mean that fat, red, flabby car?  It’s mine.  Why?

2. The “if, then” Comma

“If . . ., then . . .” statements need commas:

If you don’t cut it the fuck out, then I’m going to freak the fuck out.

Where this one tricks people is that we often omit the then in an “if, then” statement—nonetheless, we still need the comma:

If you don’t cut it the fuck out, I’m going to freak the fuck out.

3. “That/which” commas

Rule of Thumb: “that” is almost never preceded  by a comma, while a standalone “which” is almost always preceded by a comma:

You know that dog I hired?  Turns out he has no idea how to use Excel, which is super annoying.

(So what is a non-standalone “which”?  “Which” used in a phrase like “that which” or “in which”—in those cases, you don’t stick a comma before the “which,” because that would muck up the phrase.)

4. Commas by Ear

There are a ton of other commas (“parenthetical commas,” “conjunction commas,” “direct address commas,” etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseam)—fortunately, there’s an easy way to figure out where to put them without learning a ton of new rules. Here’s the trick:

Commas indicate places where you take a brief pause when saying something.

So, there’s a really easy way to get your commas right most of the time:

Read it aloud; if there’s a place where you naturally take a half-pause or shift volume, then stick a comma there. If you don’t pause, then strike the comma—unless it’s one of the three situations listed above.  

For example, say:

Dave <pause> why did you say that?

That pause is the direct address comma:

Davewhy did you say that?

Or try:

Did you know that Nate <pause> the terrible drunk in my carpool <pause> is marrying my sister?

That’s the parenthetical comma:

Did you know that Nate, the terrible drunk in my carpool, is marrying my sister?

This fourth rule is the golden rule, since most of the first three types of commas are also marked in speech by a pause or volume/tone shift—but sometimes those commas can be subtle to the ear, which is why it’s worth knowing the first three rules. Rule #4 will keep you covered 90% of the time, while Rules #1–3 will help you catch the tricky 10%  

We’re done here. Go forth, my children, and sin no more.

(Want more details?  Start with the Purdue Owl on Commas, and then move on to the Chicago Manual of Style, if need be.)

Emails to reps done!🇺🇸⌨️ Topic: @POTUS’s dumbass—& perfectly legal—”Muslim device travel ban” is a distraction

Here’s what I wrote—just in case you’d like to call your reps about something similar:

SUBJECT: Plz don’t get distracted by the White House’s “Muslim device travel ban”

Dear TKTKTK,

Like many of the folks calling and emailing you today, I’m distressed by the White House’s newest arbitrary travel limitation: No laptops or tablets can travel carry-on from 10 airports in Muslim-majority countries.  Why?  Has there been a specific threat?  No.  Because recent attacks have had something to do with using laptops and tablets (but not phones or phone-sized game systems) as weapons or to conceal weapons?  No.  Heck, according to this morning’s New York Times, this new ban was rolled out without sufficiently informing the TSA in advance.

But I’m not writing about that, because I think this “Muslim device ban” is a dumb, arbitrary move that’s perfectly within the Administration’s powers—and I also firmly believe that it is being tossed into the news cycle as a distraction, diverting our attention away from FBI Director James B. Comey’s public acknowledgment that the FBI is indeed investigating Trump/Kremlin ties, and that there is enough substance there for months of investigation, and may include the White House.

Please continue to focus on Trump/White House ties to Russia (both during the election and now), as well as Trump family conflicts of interest (ranging from Trump’s sudden receipt of valuable Chinese trademarks after years of delays to the sudden popularity of Ivanka Trump’s fashion line—which coincidentally followed immediately after the President of the United States publicly scolded a department store for not carrying it, and the Counselor to the President appeared on national television and told citizens to “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff.”)

And, as ever, please keep up the good work.  We shall defeat them one by one.

Thank you!

All Best,

David Erik Nelson . . .

I don’t know what bugs me more: the vicious anti-Semitism or the terrible math

Just a quick take here.  These flyers were found posted around the University of Illinois Chicago:

Whoa! Racist, but persuasive—there's even footnotes!
Whoa! Racist, but persuasive—there’s even footnotes!

The argument looks kosher—there’s a neat graphic, and even footnotes to a reputable, impartial source!  But if you actually look at the link indicated for footnote #2, you find pretty much nothing other than this graphic:

Actual facts once again wreck a perfectly usable racist trope. Also, way to go, American Hindus!
Actual facts once again wreck a perfectly usable racist trope. Also, way to go, American Hindus!

While this graph does show 46% of Jews to be in the top 18% of earners (the largest percentage for an identified American religious group), it is not possible to extrapolate what percentage of which religious persuasions occupy the 1% from this graphic (i.e., those earning in the $500,000 to $1.2 million range).

Anyway, just another reminder that on November 8, 2016 me and my kids were fired from being White—again. 🇺🇸🔥

Simple DIY Guitar Stompbox Demo: Seeing is Believing; Be Hear Now (pun!)

A reader recently asked for audio samples of a few projects from my first book, so I made this quick lil video:

(Daaaaamn does that fuzz tone wail—and it’s literally ~$5 in parts!)

You might need headphones to hear the detail on the straight tremolo, but the throb becomes really pronounced at the end when I chain the two effects together.

In the process of uploading that demo video, I stumbled across this guy’s build of the Single-Chip Space Invader synth from my most recent book.  Oh, man, do I love that Star Wars lunchbox he used as a case! So rad!

Any of this look rad?  You can download a “jam pack” of complete projects drawn from both books. Click here now to get your free Junkyard Jam Pack PDF!

My novelette “The Traveling Salesman Solution” is now available on Kindle! #FridayReads

Read the tale that David Gerrold (the guy who invented Tribbles!) called “a very disturbing story”!

In “The Traveling Salesman Solution” a wheelchair-bound veteran of the “War on Terror”—now working in the IT department of a Big Ten university—starts investigating suspicious marathon results, and ends up face-to-face with an absolutely chilling mathematical conundrum.

My 2016 Novella is a Finalist for the Asimov’s Award—and you can read it FREE!

My latest novella—”Where There is Nothing, There is God”—is a Finalist for the this year’s Asimov’s Award.  Asimov’s has posted all of the finalists for free download; nab ’em and read up!  (HOT TIP: Karl Bunker’s “They Have All One Breath” is an especially worthy read.)

Here’s a direct link to the PDF of “Where There is Nothing, There is God”

FYI: This novella is a standalone, and there are two other standalone stories set in this universe (both have appeared in Asimov’s, and one won the 2013 Asimov’s Award). Check ’em out:


I’ll Be at the Michigan Writing Workshop on March 25!

Just a quick note: I’m on the faculty of the Michigan Writing Workshop this year, doing fantasy and science fiction critiques (I still have a few open slots, they tell me).   Lots of interesting speakers this year (I’m especially hoping to drop in on D.E. Johnson’s thriller/mystery/crime writing sessions; I dug his book The Detroit Electric Scheme).

Yesterday someone threatened to blow up my daughter’s daycare

…because it is a Jewish daycare in a Jewish Community Center and we are Jews. This is the second bomb threat we’ve received there in under 10 months. For context, in the preceding 11 years, our JCC received zero bomb threats. (I’ve written more about this at various times—here are a few posts—but the tl;dr is that hate crimes targeting Jews are absolutely off the charts right now.)

This probably makes you sick to your stomach. If so, please call your reps and tell them so. I have no clue what they can do about any of this. I just know that it’s better to light a candle than to sit and curse the dark.

Thank you.

hand

White Supremacy, THE PURGE, and “the least racist person you’ll ever meet”

A couple summers back my wife and I watched THE PURGE on Netflix.  We weren’t expecting great chops as either sci-fi or horror (it’s sort of the lazier ends of both), but we were both sorta taken aback by how bafflingly racist the whole thing was.

Just to be super-duper clear: I’m not saying that the filmmaker is racist (I don’t really have any clue who the guy is; he looks white-ish in pictures, but who knows—or really cares—what his identity is).  I’m not saying the actors are racist.  I’m not saying that any aspect of the conscious intent of the film is racist. In fact, it sorta goes out of its way to be tokenishly multicultural and non-racist (the only totally morally uncompromised primary character is the nameless black male, one of the more prominent secondary characters is a black woman, there’s an Asian man in the mix, and all of the villains are white and explicitly upper-class)—which what was precisely what made it so baffling: even though the film worked to be formally racially progressive, both my wife and I (nominally white people) found ourselves queasy with some of the lines these actors were obliged to say (specifically constantly and exclusively referring to the black man as a “pig”) and found ourselves almost simultaneously asking aloud mid-film:

“Jeez!  How the hell would a black person feel watching this?”

Or, more to the point, how would a black person feel watching this film knowing what I know?

Because, through a crazy coincidence, I happened to know something about this film not immediately apperent to average viewers, but certainly known to the filmmakers:

The film opens with a montage of faux surveillance cam footage of various violent crimes, establishing the cultural mood of this near-future dystopia (you see some of this montage at around the 26sec mark in the trailer embedded above).  The sort of things you’d expect: Liquor store robberies, riots, a woman getting held up at an ATM, a black man with a sawed off shotgun jumping a police station lobby counter and firing at police officers, etc.

But here’s the catch: I recognized that last piece of footage, which I’d stumbled across in 2013 doing research for a client.  It was not faux anything; it was actual CCTV footage from a Detroit police station.  The black man with the shotgun was 38 year-old Lamar Moore, his motive is still unknown, and he died during that attack. In fact, he was fatally shot just after the piece of footage used in THE PURGE‘s mood-setting montage.

The final, violent minutes of a black man’s life were used to set the mood for a mediocre Ethan Hawke vehicle.  Someone found that footage and edited it in.  Someone made sure the rights were cleared, so they wouldn’t get stung on copyright infringement later.  And that someone didn’t seem to think, in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin, that this might plausibly be a sore spot for anyone (for example, 37 million Americans).

This, for me, finally highlighted the bright line difference between “racism” and “white supremacy.”  Racism is really about a conscious framework, a deeply seated belief that people of color or Jews or immigrants or whoever have certain essential characteristics that make them unfit.  White supremacy is assigning the interests of white people primacy–generally in complete ignorance of the experience of non-Whites, in much the same way that you probably never think about the impact patching a hole in your eaves has on the squirrels who’d set up house in your attic.  A racist thinks black people are lazy and Jews are greedy cheats (or whatever), while the vast majority of rank-and-file white supremacists probably don’t think about them at all.  While all white racists are implicitly white supremacists, not all white supremacists are necessarily racist.

Do the makers of THE PURGE think ill of black people?  I don’t think so–but I also don’t think they honestly considered the existence of black viewers as sentient entities who might view this film and think “What the fuck are you people doing?!”

And this, right here, brings me to the President, and why it makes me insane to hear him get all huffy about being “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life” and “the least racist person.”

’cause Donald Trump is the guy who’s says stuff like this:

Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day. … I think that the guy is lazy. And it’s probably not his fault, because laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is, I believe that. It’s not anything they can control.”

Meanwhile, I’m a Jew, and even if I’d never met another Jew in my life, I’ve still met me.  And earlier today I was hanging out with Brian, and he’s black, and he–likewise–has met himself (as well as his sister, his children, his parents, etc., etc., etc.)  Obviously, we’ve met each other.

And I really and sincerely do not believe that Donald Trump is so tremendously stupid or naive that he honestly believes that he is less anti-Semitic than every living Jew and less racist than every living African American.

As such, the only possible way that he could believe the sentence “I’m the least anti-Semitic/racist person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life” is if he either doesn’t conceive of Brian and me as being part of the “you” he is speaking to (which is weird, since I heard him say that in a live presser, and therefore literarily was part of that “you” at the very moment he spoke) or he does not conceive of us as being “people.”

Does this make him a racist or an anti-Semite?  No, not at all; he’s a white supremacist, and he really and honestly doesn’t even think about me and Brian existing at all, nor how his words and silences impact our lives.

Meanwhile, as I write this, the wave of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers continues: There was one two hours ago in New Orleans, on top of the 11 on Monday, bringing us to a total of more than 70 this year.  For comparison, a “normal” year might see two dozen bomb threats targeting JCCs and synagogues total for the entire year.

I imagine some of you are getting damn tired of hearing this, all this whining and “identity politics” that “divide America” by “drawing attention to our differences” because, after all, we’re all the same underneath.  I hear you, and I understand.  But I’m absolutely terrified that, in the absence of me saying this stuff, then you aren’t thinking about the fact that I exist at all, and might just do things—or fail to do things—that get me and my children killed.

UPDATE: Exactly twenty minutes after posting this I got an email telling me that a bomb threat had been called into my daughter’s daycare at 9:10 AM.  They’ve evacuated the building, and my daughter is currently being hidden someplace secure, someplace I do not know where she is, while they sweep the building.

So here we are.  This is my day.  This is America in 2017.