Need Help Building your Daily Writing Ritual?

Just a quick one:  For folks who are having trouble with writer’s block (either in their professional or creative work), I’ve put together this little week-long clinic.  Totally free, no strings attached.  My gift to you.  Check it out:

Clearflow Creative Writing Clinic

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.)

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!

Good News, Everybody! We Finally Know for a Fact that the Electoral College Has Outlived its Function

I outlined my thinking more fully about two weeks ago (here’s the post: The Final Test of the Electoral College), but I think it’s fair to say that the Electoral College has finally proven itself to be, at best, a quaint vestigial

(This "America golem" is Nazi propaganda from WWII, but remarkably apt this month. Expect to see him here often.)
(This “America golem” is Nazi propaganda from WWII, but remarkably apt this month. Expect to see him here often.)

growth on the Republic, and at worst a systemic effort at the national level to generally discount the value of votes in the most populous states (which are also, incidentally, where the densest populations of immigrants and people of color live) in favor of giving undue weight to those in the least populous (and, entirely coincidentally, predominately white) sections.

Please contact your state reps and encourage them to support the National Popular Vote. Abolishing the popular vote has seen support left, right, and center in recent years, including that of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  I have it on good word that the National Popular Vote way of going about getting this done is basically the only way it’s gonna happen; support them. usa-american-flag-waving-animated-gif-26

(source)
(source)
(image source—I added the red labels to ease comparison)
(image source—I added the red labels to ease comparison)

Could your office’s awful flickering fluorescents stave off Alzheimer’s?

Almost certainly not, but listen:

Crappy fluorescent fixtures flicker at 120 Hz (i.e., 120 times each second, twice the frequency of the AC mains)—but that’s when performing perfectly.  Usually, you won’t notice that at all.  In fact, a flicker can get down to around 60 Hz before the average person can see it (I’ve been told that this was part of the motivation for choosing that frequency, as early incandescent bulbs would tend to noticeably pulse along with the AC).

But if the fluorescent light is visible and unambiguously flickering, then it’s Nackratte_01definitely down below 50 Hz.  And here’s the thing:  the bright LEDs they’re using in this experiment to successfully treat and reverse symptoms of Alzheimer’s, they’re pulsing at 40 Hz—i.e., the “creepy horror-film industrial building” frequency.

(Please do listen to the entire podcast before deciding to spend a lot of time sitting under shitty office lights; the research is in its infancy and the rate of successful transfer of Alzheimer’s research from rodents to humans is something like 0.4%).

 

Drawing with Sound on an Oscilloscope

No CGI, no digital effects, no computer even; just some electrical testing equipment and an audio recording.  Pretty neat and a lot of fun to watch—so neat and fun that I was, in fact, pretty dubious at first.  So I borrowed an oscilloscope from my local public library and tried it out—AND IT WORKED!

Here’s Jerobeam Fenderson’s explanation of the effect, and another article with several neat videos.

Here’s Fenderson’s older “Drawing Mushrooms” video, which is the one I tested myself:

Metal-on-Metal: Convert an Old Shovel into a DIY Electric Guitar

I love watching Rob Scallon rock out on a shovel guitar.  FYI, this is a totally doable afternoon DIY project for any of you (yes, even you!) or the bored teen in your life.  You can build something just like this (or a hockey-stick bass, an electric broomstick banjo, an axe ax—you get the gag) using the methods laid out in the “$10 Electric Guitar” project in my first book (click here now to get a FREE copy of that project—and, if you’re near Metro Detroit in July, you can come to Motor City Steam Con where I’ll be running a workshop on electric-guitarifying stuff).

Wnat more DIY musical shenanigans?  I’ve got a whole new book of crazy music projects.

I Have Been Pwned; You Probably Have, Too (Alt Title: “God Fucking Dammit, LinkedIn!!!”)

THE SHORT VERSION

If you use LinkedIn, then your email and LinkedIn password have probably been compromised.  If you reuse the same password across several sites, then you are likely a total sitting duck waiting to get exploited.  Go change passwords NOW!

THE LONG VERSION

This breach seems to have gotten less press than usual, even though it’s liable to have a broader impact on folks, so I want to make sure it’s on everyone’s radar:  

An enormous hack of LinkedIn accounts has surfaced (details).  Crackers snagged ~164mil login credentials; since the passwords were stored as a unsalted hashes (i.e. “not securely”), the vast majority of these passwords were cracked.

I took the liberty of checking a couple friend/client email addresses while I checked mine (using this tool), and found that most of the emails I checked were included in the hack (as was I).  LinkedIn hasn’t proactively informed anyone I’ve contacted about this. So, I’m spreading the word.

The immediate problem is losing control of your LinkedIn account (which, let’s be real, doesn’t necessarily mean much for most people).  The bigger problem is that many folks reuse the same password on many sites.  If the email:password you used on LinkedIn is the same as the one you used on Twitter or Facebook or Gmail, then those accounts are now also up for grabs.  While a LinkedIn account may be of limited value to criminals, a Twitter or Gmail account can be much more useful, and a bank or credit card account—let’s not dwell on it.  Did you start changing passwords yet?  Go change passwords NOW.

THINGS TO DO RIGHT NOW

  1. Go here (Yeah, it looks sketchy; it’s legit) https://haveibeenpwned.com/
  2. Plug in the email address you use to log into LinkedIn (or any email you use to log in to any site; this service tracks many data breaches)
  3. If you get a green bar, you lucked out.  If you get a red bar with “oh no!” in it, continue to step #4
  4. Read whatever details the site offers about the breach(es) you’ve been included in, and change your password(s) immediately.
  5. Also set a new password anywhere else that you used that same password 

EXTRA CREDIT

Passwords are inherently crappy.  It’s just a fact of life.  Consider upping your security in two ways:

  1. Set up “two-factor authentication” (also called “2FA”) on any account that lets you do so.  Different sites have different systems (and, alas, call them different things), but they all boil down the same: Once 2FA is set up, logging into your email account (or whatever) will have an extra step.  First you enter your username and password and hit submit (like normal).  Then they ding your phone (either with a txt or via app) and wait for your to respond (either by clicking “accept” on the app or entering the six digit code they’ve texted you). If you don’t respond, you can’t get in.  This makes it impossible for someone to log into your account unless they have your username, password, and your phone.  Much more secure.  (I’ve added 2FA to several personal web tools I depend on, as I was getting hammered with a brute force attack a couple weeks back.)
  2. Please seriously consider using a “password manager” or “password locker.”  This is a piece of software (or service) that securely stores your usernames and passwords for all of your accounts.  That way, you don’t have to chose easily remembered passwords for all of your accounts.  Instead, you choose one very good password for your locker, and then let the locker generate insanely hard passwords for your individual accounts (all of my passwords are now 20+ characters long and randomly generated).  Lots of folks like LastPass and 1Password.  I prefer KeePassX and use MiniKeePass on my phone (I have lots of nit-picky reasons, but the tl;dr: The software implements good encryption algorythms in a secure way; it’s open source and well vetted; it’s not “cloud based”—”the cloud” is just “some other dude’s computer” [with all that implies, viz. security risks], and a cloud computer full of the master keys to folks’ online lives strikes me as an attractive nuisance, at best).

Sorry to be your bad news bear today; I hope you all get green bars and nonetheless CHANGE YOUR PASSWORDS, GET A PASSWORD MANAGER, AND START USING 2FA WHENEVER YOU CAN!!!