Wednesday, January 27, 2016

"Be Soft" mystery solved/How to smell a rotten quote

Years ago I went crazy trying to find the true origins of a quote often misattributed to Kurt Vonnegut. Today I am happy to say the mystery is solved, thanks to Wikiquote's page on Kurt Vonnegut under the section "Misattributed." See:

Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let the pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.

  • Originates in a 2007 blog post by Iain S. Thomas entitled The Fur

I have, since my rant several years ago, discovered the Quote Investigator by Garson O'Toole, who does an amazing job of research. It has given me great hope that there are still people who care about the truth of things.

Last year, I ran an inspirational newsletter for an educational business. This newsletter featured a new quote every day. I got a fair amount of practice at weeding out quotes that were misattributed or inaccurate in some way.

In general, people slap the wrong name on a quote because it is a way to get attention. Everone shares words of wisdom by Einstein, but who cares what Jo Shmoe said?

There are several ways you can smell a rotten quote, however. For one thing, people who wrote and lived a century ago were really not that pithy, I promise. They used more, and longer, words to express their point. If it's a succinct quote, be wary.

In the case of the above quote, I felt that our famous black humorist, Kurt Vonnegut, would never offer up something so hopeful. It just doesn't fit his tone. If he were to offer up something hopeful, it would not be so blatant; it would be layered with ironic observations.

Be wary of GoodReads. The quotes you find there are never verified. They are all user submitted. Even if you find a quote submitted by more than one user, it is still likely wrong. Some erroneous quotes have been entered a thousand times or more. Likewise, ignore BrainyQuote or any other quote aggregate. These places do NOT verify sources.

However, try out Wikiquotes. Quotes submitted there should be linked to their sources, where possible, and the discussions pages yeild further breadcrumbs on a quote's true origins.

It's ok to cite an unknown author. If you have done your best to verify a quote and just can't find its originator, it's best to admit that the author is unknown, rather than slapping a famous person's name on it.

"Author unknown" is different from "Anonymous." "Anonymous" means you have found the orginal source, say a newsletter or article older than any other reprinting, and that original printing has no name attached to it because the name was purposefully withheld. "Author Unknown" means you have no way to discover who published the original.

Translations are tricky. I tried to quote some translations and found them to be so widely varying in content that they were not useful, unless I had a published book and therefore a somewhat official translation. I found a lot of translations online by amateurs, some more pithy and quotable than others, and ultimately decided not to quote them unless specifically citing the translator in addition to the famous person being quoted.

A pet peeve of mine: funny quotes are often misattributed to Mark Twain. Mark Twain was not the only funny person in our history; in fact if you see a Mark Twain quote it is most likely to be WRONG. Go to the Mark Twain Project, UC Berkely's vast searchable archive of Samuel Clemmens writings, and search for your quote there.

If there is one thing I have learned from reading the Quote Investigator web site, it's that oftentimes there is no "one source." Something funny is written a long time ago, in the midst of a very wordy paragraph, and over time, people knowingly and unknowingly cite this witticism again and again, slightly altering words or phrasing; eventually we are left with something a good deal more succinct or pithy than the original. Those end up, say, in graduation speeches by people we've never heard of.

My final bit of wisdom, ironically, is a source-unknown joke of internet fame. Enjoy.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

YouTubing and Ten Minute Challenges... But why? Why?!

Browse YouTube for long enough and eventually you will run into a 10-minute challenge - a single, few-seconds-long clip of some anime, repeated on a loop for ten whole minutes. Hetalia's Italy saying "pasta," over and over and over and over.... for example. (*shudder*)

And then I found this ten hour challenge, wherein Star Trek and bad electronica meld together seamlessly, and suddenly the world is a happier place...

BUT, the reason this post goes on my journalism blog and not the hideously innane annals of Facebook:

Is YouTube a verb now? Someone with an updated stylebook: Could I have started this post simply saying "YouTube for long enough..." ?

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

A Journalist's Duty

I have developed an unshakable hatred of every 'fact' that circulates Facebook, and an undying love of

My latest quirk is uncontrollable fits of quote-verifying. Every time I see a pretty graphic with a quote overlaid, I -have- to verify that quote's source.

My latest temper-tantrum is over this quote, which near as I can tell is falsely attributed to Kurt Vonnegut:

 Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let the pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place... 

If anyone anyone anyone can find where this quote originated, please let me know. Thanks!

UPDATE: Mystery solved! See my blog post on the solution.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

CIA in Afghanistan

Rarely have I seen a more awesome story. Read through to the end!

How'd the Post get it?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Grammar Nazis, Stephen Fry, and word power

I have only just discovered the marvel that is actor/comedian/geek/writer Stephen Fry. His quite-charming, too-bad-we're-both-taken British finesse has only been accentuated now that I've discovered his Web site, which humanized him to me somewhat. He writes often prolific blessays, and - Lord help me! - I'm addicted. Just listen to this sentence; just imagine his cadence if he were to orate it.
Words are free and all words, light and frothy, firm and sculpted as they may be, bear the history of their passage from lip to lip over thousands of years. How they feel to us now tells us whole stories of our ancestors.

This is from a (long, skip to his later half if you must) blessay on language, in which he entreats pedants (that's British for Grammar Nazis, keehee!) to quit being stuffy about language. He argues that language is a living thing, and change is fine, even when that change springs from misunderstanding and misuse (such as "meld" to mean "melt" and "weld" rather than "announce," is his example). He further thinks that although grammatically there is a distinction between "5 items or less" and "5 items or fewer" on the grocery store quick-check sign, to actively pursue the distinction takes the joy out of language.

Do Grammar Nazis, he wants to know, ever "yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it?"

And now that he's said it so beautifully, I find it hard to disagree. What is the place of an editor except to clarify meaning by enforcing a stuffy standard that actually says that how living, breathing people talk is wrong? How does that make sense?

Despite that... There is something to be said for a precise standard, especially in today's litigious society. If I write an article about someone, I don't want to misrepresent their intentions by twisting them with my own unclear vocabulary. And I especially don't want to be sued for that!

Throughout my journalistic career, I've been continually impressed by the power of language. Even in its absence it is powerful! Once, while covering a church sex scandal, I neglected to mention that the victim was suing the priest personally, as well as suing the priest's church. The victim's friends, upon reading in the paper that the lawsuit was against the priest's church, assumed the victim was only going after the church and thus the church's deeper pockets - and therefore was uninterested in true justice at all. The simple oversight on my part equaled a loss of face for my source - and that is irrecoverable.

Prose can always be misunderstood - and it's the job of a good writer to try to diminish that in whatever way possible. If clarity is our main goal, then, a balance must be struck between the creativity that allows the further expression of an idea, and the grammar rules that bind word usage.

And maybe how strict our usage gets should depend on the value of the context. For example - how important is it, really, if I say to my friend, "That commercial for Aquafresh infers it's the best toothpaste brand ever" when what I really mean is implies? My point is still succinct and clear no matter the construction. But if I write in an article that President Obama infers (surmises) that Putin is an asshole, that's quite different from implies (suggests). Implies assigns a verbal action on the part of the president, and infers suggests a thought process that may or may not be oral at all... and so, with the wrong word, I could end up either putting words in the president's mouth or taking them away. Libel suit, anyone?

Well... that's a pretty drastic example. But editors do more than merely clarify meaning through grammar and word usage. They fact-check, they quote-check, and generally ensure truth and accuracy are not forgotten. If Sarah Palin had a good solid editor looking over her speeches, maybe she would have sounded less like an idiot when the pundits descended. (Maybe.)

The truth is, wherever you find as much power as there exists in language, you will find both corruption and watchdogs. I like to think both corrupter and defender play part in the joy of language. Accurate language brings us closer to truth, and few things are so joyous as a well-written story that rings with truth, and breathes life to truth, and celebrates truth. That is the joy of language.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Voter Reg. Lookup in Sacramento County

Sacramento County now has a Web site where you can confirm your voter registration status. I found this a few months ago but then lost track of it, so I thought I'd just put it out there in the most visible place I can.

It's getting close to being too late to do something if you're registered incorrectly; if you have troubles, please call Sacramento County at 1 (800) 735-2929.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

I edit, but only socially...

I've recently become fascinated by Wordonistas and Grammar Nazis who professionally edit grammar and punctuation. I've always been interested in the subtleties of language, but only recently have I become aware that you can edit socially (as opposed to editing in a cold dark classroom alone). See my list of journalists' blogs on the right? Fully half of those are editors' blogs - and the list is far from complete. How EXCITING!

No? Not exciting? Maybe you agree with this columnist. Then again, maybe you don't...

In my reader

A friend of mine has just started a blog and was asking about what I read. I thought I'd take a moment to write about the kind of things you'd find in my Google Reader... as a sort of pay-it-forward/thank-you-for-blogging moment of recognition to some of the folks who are part of my weekly routine.

The true value of the online experience is that we are able to connect as human beings, so I've tried to express here what I appreciate about each blog. It's not the tool that's important, it's the content.


Achenblog - Joel Achenbach at the Washington Post always has amusing news or non-news (by which I mean opinion prose) to share. His humorist prose is stronger for the fact that he writes to readers as if they were human.

The Latest from Capitol Hill - This is the Sacramento Bee's Capitol Alert service (by subscription only, but subscription is free). The Sacramento political stories are quick and easy to read, and best of all, the writers have a sense of what makes "real news" to a political junkie like me.

365 Days of Trash - "Sustainable Dave" has pledged to throw nothing away for one year. He keeps all his trash and recycling in his basement, and does everything he can to cut back on waste. He usually blogs about news related to sustainable living.

Creative Endeavors

Some of these artists are personal friends of mine, and some I have never met. They are all driven by an enormous love for their craft, and I admire their work and follow it closely - because these blogs allow me to do that. It's a joy to enjoy the arts, and that's what the arts are there for!

Musings and Meanderings - A blog by sci fi/fantasy author Christie Golden, who lovingly brings to life many of my favorite characters.
Ommatidia - 101-word short stories, five days a week, by Brendan Adkins. The prose is idea-heavy (my favorite kind), and has to be - it's hard to get across an entire story in 101 words!
On My Easel - Thoughts and works of artist Michael Georges. I find his oil paintings can just light up my imagination.
Penny Arcade - Not only for the hilarious comics drawn by Mike Krahulik, but I adore the written prose by Jerry Holkins. I believe he's one of the most truly influential literary critics alive today. (I don't mean to say he's a critic of literature - rather, his written critiques are literary in themselves.)
Phoenix Requiem - A comic by Sarah Ellerton - I find it hard to understand most graphic novels spatially, but this one has captured my interest despite that.
Poker Face - ED Lindquist is an award-winning author who writes weekly shorts and novels. I especially love the rich descriptions - the way a phrase turns from under her pen can be so pleasing, and conjure such captivating images.
Selserene's Machinimasochism - This machinima artist bases all her movies in the online game World of Warcraft. I love her sense of aesthetics - and humor.

Then of course come the Write Club blogs, which you can learn about here.

Copy Editors

My 'Journalism' links may belong in a seperate post. There are too many to cover. So here are the fun ones, the ones that both embrace, and break wildly free from, banality.

Bill Walsh's Blogslot - Wit from a Washington Post editor/grammar book author. See, told ya editing was fun.

The Engine Room - These two subs (UK copy editors) have a keen eye and funny, keeping-it-real voice. I suspect normal people (aka, non-editors) enjoy their blog too.

Conjugate Visits - Another fun grammar blog. Egad, Brain! They're everywhere!