Social networking guilt

Facebook makes me feel guilty. It’s not because the popular social networking site takes bites out of my workday, and it has nothing to do with my self-initiated compulsion to post news items for my friends to ignore (while they chat back and forth, lamenting the end of Scrabulous as they knew it). No, my guilt comes solely from a little link in the right-hand column: People you may know.

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Social networking resolutions

For the past year and a half, I have been distracted to the point of exhaustion by trying out every new information management and social networking mashup that’s found its way into my Firefox plugin folder. These have included Zotero, Google Notebook, Del.icio.us, Diigo, StumbleUpon, Google Docs, Scribefire, and seemingly dozens of other browser plugin cloudware apps.

I’m so over it. I want stability. I want consistency and usefulness without having to open up NeoOffice or Microsoft Word whenever I want to take notes. And no, I’m not satisfied with Scrivener or any of the other note conglomeration packages — I don’t trust them because they organize stuff for me, and, at a deeper level of incongruity, I just don’t think like the people who can make use of those programs.

So, here’s a declaration. I’m going to narrow down the number of plugins I’m using. Zotero? Gone, I think; otherwise why the hell did I spent over $100 on End Note (granted, I didn’t know Zotero existed before the purchase). Google Notebook? Useless for me. Gone. StumbleUpon? A fun diversion, but ultimately useless for me. Gone.

The keepers: Del.icio.us and all its assorted plugins. I just like the site, and I’ve already put so much into it already; Scribefire, handy because it lets me blog quickly, like it did with this post.

Now, Diigo is an interesting question. It’s got some features that I like, such as the ability to highlight Web pages for later reference. However, I don’t want to just mirror my Del.icio.us bookmarks, and I want to post to as few sites as possible when I decide to bookmark an article. And while I see the value of the highlighting, I realize that anything useful to me gets written down and saved either as a .doc file or as a blog post. Rarely do I return to the Web site to go over my own notes again — I just don’t trust the Web site to be there when I get back.

I’ll have to consider Diigo more deeply, but I’m thinking it’s gone.

In a related bit of information, I have to praise Facebook for allowing me to automatically import my Picasa photos and my Del.icio.us bookmarks into my profile there. It kind of makes the “share on Facebook” shortcut pointless, thus streamlining my Web day. Hooray!

Tuesday morning grammar

More comma issues from the Chronicle today:

The robbery conviction stems from the June 23, 2006 shooting death of Jason Cody Wright, 26, a Livingston native whom police suspect was a cocaine dealer. Wright’s body was found in a field off Huffine Lane, touching off a months-long investigation. Lebrum was convicted of criminal endangerment in a separate case, after he punched a man in the jaw, breaking his teeth, during a pickup basketball game.

The problem here comes in the third sentence. I’m tempted to say there should be no comma after the word “case,” but that’s not necessarily true. That is a case where the comma is for dramatic purposes. It indicates more of a pause between the fact that Lebrum was convicted and what exactly he did. It’s a completely optional comma — normally.

In this case, however, the awkward combination of the adverbial participial phrase (“breaking his teeth”) followed by another prepositional phrase (“during a pickup basketball game”) means you have too many elements of the sentence that need commas. In this case, it would have been better to opt for no comma after “case” to avoid awkward pauses during reading.

A different wording that eliminates having the participial “breaking” followed by an -ing form preposition would be better. Consider something like: “…Lebrum was convicted of criminal endangerment in a separate case after he punched and broke a man’s jaw during a pickup basketball game” or “Lebrum was convicted of criminal endangerment in a separate case after he broke a man’s jaw in a fistfight that broke out during a pickup basketball game.” Both are wordier, but I think they get the meaning across more clearly.

Next example, from later in the same story:

Avignone also refers to letters submitted by a pastor and philosophy professor with whom Lebrum studied the Bible and philosophy, and who believe Lebrum can become an asset rather than a hindrance to the community.

In this paragraph, we see a comma after “philosophy.” Why? The comma appears meant to close an informational aside, the fact that Lebrum studied the Bible with the pastor and professor. But if we examine the first part of the sentence by itself, we learn that is not throwaway, extra information. Consider what the sentence would be like without it (and without the “who” clause at the end — for now):

“Avignone also refers to letters submitted by a pastor and philosophy professor.”

So what? We need to know why this person referred to the letters, otherwise the sentence feels incomplete. Hence, we must have the Bible clause; hence, it is essential to the sentence and should not be separated by commas.

Now, we must comprehend the final “who” clause, which has been separated from the main clause by that troublesome comma. The problem with this particular clause is that the reporter already used a form of “who” in the relative clause that we’ve just proved essential to the whole sentence: “with whom.” By switching form back to “who” at the end of the sentence, the author ruined the sentence’s potential parallelism and made it harder to understand. Rather than having two clauses that begin similarly with the same relative pronoun or phrase, we have two different meanings that tug at us from both the passive and active voices. The simple solution would be to make this into two sentences.

“Avignone also refers to letters submitted by a pastor and a philosophy professor with whom Lebrum studied the Bible and philosophy. Both of those men believe Lebrum can become an asset rather than a hindrance to the community, Avignone said.”

Okay then. I think that’s enough grammar for one day, although I’m sure more things will catch my eye as I read on.

Nitpicking Commas

I know it’s a daily newspaper. I know errors creep in from time to time, but I also know that writers, of all people, should take pride in knowing where commas go. Hence, I bring you these examples of where they don’t go from today’s articles on the Bozeman Daily Chronicle Web site:

As of Saturday afternoon prices for gas varied around Bozeman with the Loaf & Jug on Eighth Avenue and College Street, at $4.19 per gallon, the Loaf & Jug at 19th Avenue and Main Street at $4.15 and the Exxon on North Seventh Avenue near Interstate 90 at $4.14.

This selection should not have a comma after the words “College Street.” There’s no grammatical reason for it. There probably should be a comma after “As of Saturday afternoon” since it modifies the entire sentence. Next from an article in today’s edition of the paper:

Forrest said she hopes the block party will become an annual affair, and that other Bozeman neighborhoods will work to become more cohesive.

The comma after “annual affair” is unneeded. It’s joining two relative clauses, not two independent sentences. From a news brief in the paper:

MSU’s College of Agriculture presents the award to an individual or couple who is, or has been, involved in production or agribusiness agriculture, and has exhibited outstanding leadership in Montana agriculture.

This one’s a bit tricky. The commas around “or has been” are perfectly fine, but no comma is needed after “agribusiness agriculture” since the conjunction is joining a compound predicate within a relative clause (the one beginning with “who”), not two independent clauses. And finally from another article in the paper:

The biggest contracts are recommended to go to Central Plumbing & Heating for a $4 million ventilation and heating system; Liberty Electric for a $2.3 million electrical system; and Dick Anderson Construction for $1.4 million for framing and sheetrock, and $975,000 in concrete work.

This one’s pretty basic, but seems complicated because of the complex list with semicolons. In the last part of the sentence, there should be no comma after “sheetrock” (which should be capitalized as a proper noun, by the way). The conjunction is joining a compound object of the preposition, not independent clauses.

Grammar Stickler

It’s time to play Spot the Comma Splice! From today’s articles on the Bozeman Daily Chronicle Web site:

As of Saturday afternoon prices for gas varied around Bozeman with the Loaf & Jug on Eighth Avenue and College Street, at $4.19 per gallon, the Loaf & Jug at 19th Avenue and Main Street at $4.15 and the Exxon on North Seventh Avenue near Interstate 90 at $4.14.

This selection should not have a comma after the words “College Street.” There’s no grammatical reason for it. There probably should be a comma after “As of Saturday afternoon” since it modifies the entire sentence. Next from an article in today’s edition of the paper:

Forrest said she hopes the block party will become an annual affair, and that other Bozeman neighborhoods will work to become more cohesive.

The comma after “annual affair” is unneeded. It’s joining two relative clauses, not two independent sentences. From a news brief in the paper:

MSU’s College of Agriculture presents the award to an individual or couple who is, or has been, involved in production or agribusiness agriculture, and has exhibited outstanding leadership in Montana agriculture.

This one’s a bit tricky. The commas around “or has been” are perfectly fine, but no comma is needed after “agribusiness agriculture” since the conjunction is joining a compound predicate within a relative clause (the one beginning with “who”), not two independent clauses. And finally from another article in the paper:

The biggest contracts are recommended to go to Central Plumbing & Heating for a $4 million ventilation and heating system; Liberty Electric for a $2.3 million electrical system; and Dick Anderson Construction for $1.4 million for framing and sheetrock, and $975,000 in concrete work.

This one’s pretty basic, but seems complicated because of the complex list with semicolons. In the last part of the sentence, there should be no comma after “sheetrock” (which should be capitalized as a proper noun, by the way). The conjunction is joining a compound object of the preposition, not independent clauses.

Should newspaper sites permit user comments?

A couple of articles this week in Gawker and TechDirt (with the latter following the former’s lead) ask whether newspaper Web sites should allow users to comment.

Gawker says newspapers should stop “slumming as blogs and disallow comments” because they rarely generate intelligent discussion. This is in part because users often don’t give a lot of thought to the comments they post — not the kind of thought they’d give to a printable letter to the editor for the same newspaper.

TechDirt’s article makes a good point: “Just tossing up comments and thinking you’ve created a community is a mistake.” That’s why my whipping-boy local newspaper has done with its Web 2.0 endeavors. They put up the sites and expect people to generate the content simply because there is a Web site in need of it, like gas filling a vacuum. While that works with physics, it doesn’t work in online communities if you want them to draw quality content.

Solution? Smarter comments, TechDirt says. No comments, Gawker says. Me? I’m on the side of Gawker when it comes to newspaper articles online. There’s no need for an immediate, unintelligent response to the article. Let the readers write a considered letter to the editor (hard copy or electronic, writer’s choice). When it comes to Web 2.0 communities, whether started by a newspaper or not, make sure they have a purpose. Digg is a popularity contest. Del.icio.us has a niche: Web bookmarks, not just random comments. Give them a “game” to play or a mission and people will take part.