Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Grammar moment: the pitfalls of the computer grammar checker

“But it can’t be wrong – the computer said there were no errors!”

Computer grammar and spelling checkers may have their uses, but they also have a serious dark side, especially for students new to the art of writing. The problem is that novice writers, not trusting their own skills, put way too much faith in the computer. They just don’t realize that, even as beginners, they have far better skills to tell when the grammar is right. They attribute far more intelligence to the computer program than any piece of software is capable of having, especially not the grammar checker that comes with the biggest name brand word processor.

The spelling checker might not be as seriously flawed, but its influence is more insidious. When it encounters a word not in its dictionary, it makes guesses to what was originally intended, listing words in order according to the spelling checker’s estimate of likelihood. But more than half the time, the word at the top of the list is NOT the word the writer intended, and if the writer assumes that the spelling checker’s choice is the right one, the writer ends up with the wrong word. Thus, spelling errors have nearly disappeared from student writing, but misused words are epidemic – I have lost count of the number of times I have seen “defiantly” used for “definitely,” or “untied” used for “united.”

I have seen cases in which students are so untrusting of their own judgment, and so trusting of the computer, that they go through their papers, making changes, often at random, until every last green or orange squiggly underline disappears. The results are atrocious, and far from grammatically correct. I once received a paper on which the student had misspelled her own name – when I asked about it, she said, “The computer said it was wrong, so I fixed it.” This was a name that the student was proud of, that her mother had chosen carefully because it was unique. But the student chose the computer’s “correctness” over her mother’s intentions.

Yes, spelling and grammar checkers can be useful, but primarily in the hands of more advanced writers who can make the judgment of whether the computer has pointed out a legitimate concern or has simply flagged as an error something that is not really an error. I tell my students, time and time again, that the computer is wrong more than half the time, that the computer flags what might be an error, but it’s up to the students to look closely and figure out whether there’s really an error there. But they still go blindly with what the computer says. I would love to disable the grammar checker, and maybe the spelling checker, too, on any computer in the student computer labs. However, that’s a losing battle – too many people are too fond of the checkers.

I’m not alone in my complaints. There is a professor in Seattle who has discovered similar problems. At one point, he was even considering suing Microsoft for its lousy grammar checker. On a more humorous note, there’s a Wiccan who discovered that there is a difference between a spell checker and a spelling checker.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Gerald’s new wheels

And boy, are they big

A couple of years ago, when Gerald (then known as WCMIK) became eligible for a learner’s permit, I made a blog post speculating what sort of vehicle would be appropriate for him, and I even invited readers to respond to a poll to give their input.

Among the vehicles under consideration was the Cavalier, El Caballero, with the comment that no self-respecting teenager would be caught dead in something so un-cool, so he would be less likely to drive in such a manner that he would end up dead. That car got totaled last summer when he was driving it and a tire blew (thanks, Fu Sheng Tire Works, for making a tire that self-destructed after only 1000 miles). The Expedition, Babe, was also on the list; Gerald has decided that Babe is also seriously un-cool, since it is a gas guzzler and hard to maneuver in cramped parking lots. But he’s gotten quite skilled at maneuvering it with boat trailers on launch ramps.

The 1974 Oldsmobile was never something he seriously considered – it has handling and gas mileage worse than Babe, without the usefulness on boat ramps. Besides, that car is now a celebrity, having had a bit part in the movie No Country for Old Men. His great-aunt is keeping her hands tightly clutched upon her Volvo. The 1982 Lincoln Town Car might still be available, but it would require a journey (both physical and metaphorical) to retrieve.

A couple of other vehicles came up in subsequent discussion – a 1967 Opel Kadett, in which there would be no danger whatsoever of Gerald ever getting into trouble for going too fast, and a 1983 Mercedes 240D, just slightly the worse for wear after being in a rollover crash (the windshield wasn’t even broken, and the engine ran just fine).

Now that Gerald is over 18, he has access to his college fund, and while he’s preserving nearly all of it for his future tuition bills, he has chosen to spend a small bit of it to buy himself a set of wheels. He bought a set of big ones, with a Jeep on top.

From a fuel-economy standpoint, this wasn’t the best vehicle he could have bought. But he was looking into other factors, such as getting out into the wilderness to camp (hence the heavy-duty gear racks) with some buddies (hence getting a Cherokee rather than a Wrangler). He’s going to college at Arizona State, and it is important to him to be able to escape to the cool mountains on the weekends. And, as the photo attests, he has also discovered he enjoys rock-climbing with a vehicle.

On the more prosaic side, Gerald has also showed his ability to cope with modern red tape and paperwork. The day after he bought his wheels, he, by himself, went and took care of the insurance and registration. That Jeep is his and his alone, and he is responsible for it, and he knows it.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

American Dream, interrupted


A couple of years ago, a new restaurant came to our neighborhood. I learned of it when somebody came through, leaving take-out menus on everybody’s front door. With some charmingly humorous spelling gaffes (one of which even made Jay Leno’s Headlines), the menus announced the coming of a new Chinese take-out restaurant just around the corner.

I went first because it was conveniently close. I continued to go because the food was great and the prices were excellent. I was originally disappointed that the place didn’t serve iced tea, but about a month later, a sign proudly announced, “Now serving fresh brew ice tea.” The tea was good, and the business philosophy was good. The people running the place clearly listened to customer requests.

The restaurant was run by a family of immigrants, and their English wasn’t always so good. But they were always cheerful, and the food was always the best, and the prices were astonishingly low. They could provide a lunch special for about half the price of the major nationwide Chinese-food fast-food chain, with much better food. The major national chain uses steam tables and heat lamps to attempt to keep food warm; the little family hole-in-the-wall eatery wouldn’t put anything into the wok until after the food was ordered. And the $3.75 lunch special was huge – a big bowl of entrée plus rice, and a small bowl of soup, and an egg roll, and a fortune cookie. It was more than I could eat for lunch; I would have enough left over for a light supper, too.

Once Gerald got his driver’s license and was independently mobile, he became an even more regular customer. He got to know the family that ran the place fairly well.

But Wednesday, that family’s American dream was horribly disrupted. An armed robber came in, shot one of the family members in front of three other people, including her 4-year-old child, and took the tip jar.

The tip jar.

A young woman, a member of a close-knit family, a mother of a small child, was killed, just for a few dollars in the tip jar. In a place where the lunch special is only $3.75, there’s not going to be much money in that tip jar, especially at 1 in the afternoon, when the place has only been open two hours.


Witnesses saw the male suspect and a female companion flee in a black car with chrome rims – they also got partial license plate numbers. Before too long, police found the car in the parking lot of a nearby shopping mall. It was a nice car – an originally economy car that had been nicely upgraded, with lots of nifty accessories, including a fancy paint job and those chrome wheel rims that aided in the identification of the vehicle. I am totally baffled about why somebody with a car like that could be so desperate for cash as to kill a woman for the tip jar in a low-budget Chinese take-out place. Just one set of fancy chrome lug nuts – for just one wheel, not all four – would be worth more than the money in the tip jar.

And if the robber wanted money, why did he try to hold up a place that, as far as I could tell, was definitely NOT raking in the cash? As low as the prices were at this place, there was no way the family could be making much at all. The robber would definitely have found more money at the super-slick nationwide Chinese-food chain, which charges twice as much for the same amount of (lower-quality) food and does much greater volume. Or why didn’t he hit one of the really big non-Chinese fast-food chains? For that matter, once he had shot his victim, why did he take just the tip jar and not the money in the cash register?

The answer that I can come up with for those questions is ugly. This was a hate crime. Yeah, at first I thought maybe it was a drug crime, because drug addicts often act illogically when they’re trying to get money to finance their addiction. But even drug addicts look for where the money is, and that’s not a hole-in-the-wall Chinese take-out.

Yes, in the past in this blog, I have been critical of the Chinese government and Chinese industry. I have lost a cat and a car because of defective Chinese products. My blog has been banned in China. But I have never, ever, been critical of the Chinese people. And this family, by traveling to the United States and starting a business here, has made a dramatic and clean break from the Chinese government. Not only that, they have started a small business, the epitome of the American Dream. This family represents what is good about immigrants and the energy and industriousness that immigrants bring to this country.

It just makes me sick that some people can’t tolerate that.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Rhetoric moment: The key to writing a good essay

Think of yourself not as a student or journalist, but as a lawyer

One key feature distinguishes the essay from other forms of writing: It must make a point. This point doesn’t have to be specifically stated, but it must always be there; there must always be an underlying “moral of the story” that gives meaning to the essay. In English composition, this underlying point is known as the thesis.

First, there’s figuring out exactly what point you want to make. It’s OK if you’re not exactly sure when you begin writing your essay. You may discover your true thesis somewhere along the line as you are writing. You may not even have a vague idea of your thesis at first, and it may be that through your writing you eventually arrive at a thesis.

Or you may start with a clear idea of what you want to prove, and that’s OK, too. Some people write better with the road map that a thesis provides. If you’re that sort of person, you might want to write out your thesis on a yellow sticky note and stick it to the frame of your computer monitor as you write, so you can keep on track.

Here are some characteristics of the thesis:

· It is a complete sentence. It contains a subject and a complete verb, and it can stand alone. “Pickup trucks” is not a thesis, since it’s not a complete sentence – it’s just a topic. On the other hand, “Pickup trucks are not just for cowboys any more” is a thesis, since it’s a complete sentence and it also meets the other criteria to be a thesis.

· It expresses an opinion, not a fact. If, on a clear day, I look out the window and say, “The sky is blue,” that is something that is observable and verifiable, and that is not subject to contradiction, except possibly by my teenage son, whose duty it is to contradict everything I say. Thus, “the sky is blue” is not a legitimate thesis.

· Not only does it express an opinion; it expresses an opinion that is debatable, that will not be automatically agreed with by just about everyone. I could say “Child abuse is bad,” and that would indeed be an opinion, since it involves a value judgment. But I’m not likely to find many people who would disagree with me. To be a good thesis, it has to be something about which there is disagreement. If, instead, I were to say, “Because child abuse is bad, parents who abuse their children should be sterilized,” then I would have a thesis, because I would have something that a lot of people would argue about.

· It can’t be a question. It must be a statement. However, if you have a question, the answer to it might be a good thesis. Thus, “Is democracy the best form of government?” is not a thesis, but if you answer either “Yes, it is,” or, more challenging to prove, “No, it isn’t,” you have a thesis. If you’re dealing with a controversial topic in which you’re trying to bring the opposing side to your point of view, you may leave the question unanswered at first and bring the reader to your answer by the end of the essay – but at some point you are going to have to answer the question and answer it clearly.

So having a good thesis is crucial to having a good essay. The second part of writing a good essay is proving that thesis.

This is where you start thinking like a lawyer. You’re Jack McCoy, and you’re presenting evidence to the jury to prove your case. (Yeah, I know, McCoy’s now the boss, so he’s not in the courtroom any more, but maybe you’re an assistant DA on his staff.) A good lawyer doesn’t say, “I just know John Doe shot Joe Blow, so there,” and then sit down. A good lawyer will present supporting evidence, such as ballistics reports that show the bullet found in Joe Blow’s body matches John Doe’s gun, and witnesses who saw the two men arguing just before the shots rang out, and so on and so forth. And the defense lawyer is going to present other evidence to try to prove that Doe didn’t shoot Blow, and you’ll have to counter that evidence.

When you’re writing your essay, you have to provide the same sort of supporting evidence that is needed in a criminal trial. And you have to anticipate what the opposition is likely to say, and refute that point of view. You want to present solid evidence, and you want to explain it thoroughly, and you want to make sure that the evidence that you present counters the evidence that the other side presents.

This even goes to the structure of the essay. In a trial, the lawyers start by explaining what they’re going to prove and how they’re planning to prove it. Then they go through all of the evidence, the witnesses, the expert testimony, and all of that stuff. Then, at the end of the trial, they sum everything up for the jury, to remind the jury of all of the testimony and evidence that has been presented – and they try to end on a note that resounds with the jury. That’s just the same as the introduction, body, and conclusion of an essay.

So when you’re writing an essay, stop thinking of yourself as writing something nice to please your instructor. Think of yourself as a lawyer proving your case. Give me solid evidence that’s going to make an impact on the jury.

The big difference, if you’re writing an essay, is that you may not be dealing with life-or-death or earth-shaking issues. “Pickup trucks are not just for cowboys any more”: Present evidence to show that these versatile vehicles are great for housewives taking large dogs to the vet, and for teenagers and young adults who give them spiffy paint jobs and lots of chrome and cruise up and down Montgomery every Friday and Saturday night. “Setting up a salt-water aquarium is a fun and rewarding hobby”: Give lots of evidence to show how much you have enjoyed setting up your own aquarium.

So that’s the key to writing an essay – have a point to prove, and provide evidence to prove it.

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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

“Wind event”

Semantics, euphemisms, and doublespeak

I have been told that I have made a serious mistake in my previous blog post. The weather situation that caused massive damage to marinas and boats at Elephant Butte Lake this past weekend was NOT a “storm.” It was a “non-thunderstorm-related wind event,” according to official accounts. There may have been one or two additional nouns pressed into use as adjectives to modify the phrase further.

A quick search of the Internet shows that “wind events” happen frequently on Mount Washington, in New Hampshire, and that in California, fire-fighting crews are especially wary of “Santa Ana wind events” that might aggravate wildfires.

To my mind, the term event carries positive connotations – a special occasion, a celebration, a party. Something that involves destruction, whether of boats and marinas, or of property in the path of a wildfire, shouldn’t be characterized as an “event.”

But then, my semantically inclined mind wandered farther … what’s the origin of the word “event”? It has vent in it, the Latin for “wind.” Is a “wind event” simply a “wind wind”?

Nope, it turns out that’s not the case. The vent in event comes from the Latin venire, “to come.” So it wasn’t a wind wind, it was a wind that came.

Still, the use of the term “wind event” definitely reduces the perceived severity of what happened. Imagine this in an insurance claim form: “A wind event resulted in the involuntary conversion of the watercraft.” Sure sounds better than “The storm blew my boat onto the rocks, where it got smashed to bits.”

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