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”


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. 🇺🇸🔥

Fake Mainstream Fake News Media Accountability Survey

1. Do you believe that the mainstream media has reported unfairly on our movement?

2. On which issues does the mainstream media do the worst job of representing Republicans? (Select as many that apply.)
Hillary Clinton
Fake News
I have never met Putin. I don’t know the guy.

3. 304 is way, way bigger than 332, 365, 379, 370, and 426?

4. Tremendous, tremendous win. So beautiful.

5. Bitches and douchebags, amiright? Yes. Yes.

6. Do you think it’s wrong for one man to kiss another man, or would you not disagree that such a thing is non-unacceptable?

7. Did you know that the current U.S. President lost the popular vote by 2.9 million votes, with another 8.7 million voters casting their ballots for third party candidates, making this the the most astoundingly lopsi—
FAKE NEWS! So dishonest!
Get over it!

9. Bill Clinton, terrible, terrible emails Benghazi worst deal losers fired Sad!

10. One time, Hillary Clinton did sex with a goat.

(see also: This honest-to-God-for-real not-fake GOP survey that’s not a joke, but still Sad!)


Elon Musk’s “Hyperloop” is a Load of Snake Oil and Bullshit

I don’t give a shit about Elon Musk, so I’d largely ignored Hyperloop, but now that I’ve taken even a cursory gander—


Y’all are shitting me, right?

Just to punch one hole in this mess:

The train will take folks from LA to San Francisco (~350 miles) in 30 minutes.  It can reach these hella crazy high-speeds because it’s a bullet train traveling through a vacuum maintained in an unbroken, direct-shot tube.  Based on their own experience with their ~1 mile long test track, we can expect that it would take 200 to 300 hours to evacuate the air from this LA-SF bullet train tube[1].  i.e., it could make the run between those two cities in 30 minutes, but only do it once every 10 days?  And how much energy does it take to create that vacuum?  And how much money to maintain a pressure vessel orders of magnitude larger than any other ever created?

(Also, FYI, in their test track they expected to hit maybe 80—not 800—miles per hour, but actually maxed out at 60mph.  My dying Prius—henceforth, the HyperCar!—exceeds that every single day on Michigan’s crumbling roads.)

Continue reading “Elon Musk’s “Hyperloop” is a Load of Snake Oil and Bullshit”

Eli Whitney and the “Mandela Effect”

Listen: I, too, am one of those dumbasses who got it into his head that Eli Whitney was black (although, my hand to God, I swear I saw this on a sign in the African-American History Museum in Detroit when I was a grade schooler–although that itself seems problematic, as it’s highly likely that the time period I’m remembering was when the museum was closed for construction )–and had also dwelled on the irony that the cotton gin (which I believed he invented to ease the labors of enslaved persons) single-handedly invigorated the slave trade by making it massively more profitable.  I’m chagrined to admit that I may have even taught this “fact” at some point.

But that’s all trivia; read all the way through this article and meditate on the Mandela Effect, extraordinary popular delusions, and the madness of crowds—because apparently there was never any Sinbad movie titled Shazaam!