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Sunday, January 29th, 2006

Less vs. Fewer Revisited

A friend took pleasure in pointing out that I used a grammatical construct in my last post that I had criticized in the post immediately prior. At least he thinks I did. Clearly, he didn’t bother the read the supporting link that I posted:

According to this rule, less should modify plural nouns only when they suggest combination into a unit, group, or aggregation. Thus “less than three miles” (with “three miles” being a single distance, not three individual miles), “less than $50” (fifty dollars as a sum of money, not fifty one-dollar bills).

I used the construct “less than two weeks”, which indicated an approximation of a specific period of time in a manner that fits into the acceptable use listed above. The “10 items or less” construct refers to a specific enumerated quantity – nine is ok, but eleven is not, and is therefore more correct to use “fewer”.

Of course, everything is relative. The English language, particularly as used by Americans, is extremely flexible and adaptive. Perhaps I shouldn’t pick on Americans – after all, it was in the land that came to be known as England that the language evolved from Old to Middle to modern English. No one is formally in charge of policing the correct use of English, unlike French, and since the prime function of language is to communicate thought between individuals, one can see the advantages in adhering to “common usage”, even when the standard of common usage starts deviating from old, accepted rules. To illustrate my point, I’ll bring up another example – how peeved I am that the word “gender” has come into standard use to replace the word “sex”. “Gender” is, or was, a grammatical term that referred to the masculine, feminine or neuter quality of a noun in languages where it made a difference, and English isn’t one of them. The noun “sex” refers to “The property or quality by which organisms are classified as female or male on the basis of their reproductive organs and functions.” (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition), but we’re mostly familiar with another usage – the contraction from “sexual intercourse.” It’s always been my belief that squeamishness about discussing this other usage in public (especially in America) is what lead to adoption and adaption of the term “gender” to refer to whether a person is male or female. But the use of “gender” to refer to sex has become common usage, and it would be pointless of me to try to get everyone to change back.

Now, I am in no way an expert on English grammar, as a quick perusal of my writing here on this blog would readily reveal. My interest in adhering to more formal grammar, whether I achieve it in practice or not, is rooted in my life experiences. I was initially educated in Australia in the seventies, back when they still referred to the principal of the school as the headmaster, which taught me to aspire to formalism, even if it screwed me up on spelling when I came to the States. In high school, in the US, I studied Latin, which taught me more about the rules of grammar than I ever learned in English classes. My entire life I’ve been an avid reader of both fiction and nonfiction, which exposed me to the ins and outs of usage and taught me the value of good editing; and I’ve often kept a dictionary handy to look up words I encountered when I wasn’t exactly sure as to their precise meaning. And I’m an engineer because my nature prizes precision and detail, which is reflected in my approach to writing.

So when I get on my soapbox about language, I’m really just exemplifying the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, how linguistic determination shapes not only how I approach my world, but reveals who I am. Now there’s a chewy morsel to sink your teeth into.

Well, it’s ten o’clock. Time for me to listen to A Way With Words!

Posted by Greg as Posts About Me, Society at 10:11 PST

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Saturday, January 28th, 2006

Free Federal Tax Software and Online Filing

My W-2 came in, so I headed over to the IRS website to download all the forms and instructions for filing my federal taxes. While I was there, I checked out the eFile options, because I filed electronically last year and the refund was directly deposited into my checking account in less than two weeks.

I was interested in doing my taxes at home, without buying software, and filing on the Internet – and I wanted to do it all for free. Seems to me that when I’m required by law to file taxes, and it’s easier, cheaper, and less prone to error for the government to process my return if it’s filed electronically, that shouldn’t be unreasonable. But, of course, helping people file their taxes is an industry, and government can’t compete with businesses – even if it’s to comply with a government requirement. California already has CalFile that does all the things I want to file my state tax return.

The IRS does make some effort to get people to file online (after all, it’s in their own interest as well) and they list several options. After digging down through their site, past plenty of advice to hire tax professionals, I got to the eFile Using a Computer page. Once again, I’m confronted with the explanation that the IRS can’t compete with private enterprise, and links to tax professionals, but I find that I can file online for free, through a “commercial partner”, as long as my adjusted gross income is less than $50,000. (I’m going to try real hard here to avoid going into depth about my wife’s seeming guilty obligation to atone for the sins of her ancestors by patronizing our local Native American tribes’ casinos; a guilt so deep that she has to put all her winnings back; my rueful observations that the Native Americans have finally come up with revenge for being introduced to whiskey; my own guilt that my ancestors must have either participated in or benefited from the genocide of the colonization of Australia; and my interest in whether the people we know as “Native Americans” once committed genocide on a people that preceeded them to America – possibly Australians. Believe me, this parenthetical comment is restraining myself.) Last year I filed through H&R Block’s free program, but this year I am not eligible.

The interesting thing that I found from a study of this page is that, although the IRS is adroit at handing out links to commercial partners (after all, where do IRS employees go after they put in their twenty?), they mention that you can download software from the Internet and file online, but they don’t give any links on where to find the software to do this. Break out the trusty old Google. In short order I found TaxAct.

TaxAct offers a Standard version of their tax preparation software that is free, without restrictions, and allows you to file online yourself. I looked at the comparisons between their free and commercial software (which is still pretty cheap), and didn’t see any benefit in paying for an augmented version. This, of course, made me deeply suspicious. I started the download process and found it pretty simple, without a lot of obstacles promoting the upgraded versions, and the required registration process was pretty simple and non-obtrusive. I had to give name, state, zip and an email address, and I remembered to unclick the pre-selected “send me offers” box. The site’s Privacy Policy was lengthy and legal, but acceptable.

But I was still suspicious. The provider pledges that TaxAct Standard is free of spyware, and according to my research, it is, so I decided to install it. The EULA is also acceptable – standard non-indemnification clauses, the only warranty is that the calculations are correct (big deal!) – and has no mention of third party software. In fact, it again mentions the privacy policy:

2nd Story Software, Inc. does not rent, sell or share any personal information received in an e-file transaction other than to transmit it to the IRS for electronic filing purposes, or if required by law. For more information on the taxact.com privacy policy, please refer to: http://www.taxact.com/privacy_policy.asp

Now, I don’t like that my return will apparently flow through the company’s servers on the way to the IRS; in fact, it stinks, but it’s my understanding that the IRS will not allow direct filing to their computers. Write your congressman. The website’s privacy policy doesn’t address this issue. I’ve gone through it carefully, and what it says is that it only applies to www.taxact.com. I wonder what server my tax return will be filed through? I’m going to be running Ethereal when I hit the transmit button.

Still, everything about this company says they’re manic about protecting your privacy. I think I’ll cut them a break. As far as my suspicions go, I was almost relieved to see that the software is total nagware – it’s full of offers to upgrade to the Deluxe edition. But that’s ok with me – I only have to put up with it for a couple of hours and I’m done.

Posted by Greg as Family & Friends, Politics, Posts About Me, Software at 15:00 PST

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Friday, January 27th, 2006

10 Items or Fewer

It’s one of those little annoying things to me that even I will admit is pretty inconsequential, but I hate seeing the supermarket checkout lanes marked “10 items or less.” Less is used to indicate a smaller amount when the quantity cannot be enumerated. When a number is given, as in the supermarket sign, the correct term is fewer. Apparently I’m not the only one going around complaining about the grammar error, because I am seeing more and more “10 items or fewer” signs.

So it’s disappointing to me to see today’s Brevity cartoon (this link won’t work until tomorrow, but then it will stay good for 30 days. The current day’s cartoon is always here. ) I know Guy and Rodd are just reflecting what most people see, which makes the impact of the visualization more immediate. I guess cultural satire is not the appropriate venue for a grammar crusade, but it would have been nice to see “fewer” in the cartoon.

And damn it, I wish they would enforce that rule!

P.S. I see that the Random House Word Maven agrees with me about the traditional usage, but doesn’t think it’s worth correcting. Am I elitist, or is she a slacker?

Posted by Greg as Family & Friends, Society at 07:13 PST

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Thursday, January 26th, 2006

Australia Day 2006

Today is Australia Day – a day of national celebration in my birth land. It’s been 218 years since the arrival of the first colonists.

I take pride in having been born Australian – everyone should feel proud of their birthplace – but as an immigrant and naturalized citizen of the United States of America, and particularly as one who served in the armed forces of his new home, there is, of course, some internal conflict. Australia no longer recognizes me as a citizen, and my oath upon becoming American obligated me to renounce any “allegiance and fidelity” to Australia. Here’s the full text:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God. In acknowledgment whereof I have hereunto affixed my signature.

I think it’s an unfortunate circumstance that you can only belong to one country. On a practical and legal basis, as long as the idea of “nations” exists, it is absolutely necessary. I also don’t understand how you can hold dual citizenship when you have given an oath such as this – apparently, some countries are willing to disregard these words, and will still recognize you as their citizen. Fortunately for me, the odds of me ever being placed in a situation where I had to choose between doing what is right for the USA and what is right for Australia is very remote; because I gave my oath and I mean it. I have been asked to risk my life in the service of the Constitution and have done so willingly and obediently, and I would do so again whenever asked. If I were ever placed in a situation where I was asked to betray the United States on behalf of Australia, I would have to report myself to the proper authorities as a potential risk, even if I refused to cooperate. I love America.

And of course, one of the things I love about America is that you can feel proud of your heritage. It’s ok to call yourself an Australian-American, and to show your pride in your country of origin. My family has roots in Australia that are very deep for an Anglo. My ancestors have been there for so long that there’s statistically little doubt as to how they got there in the first place – most likely as British convicts. But that’s ok, hell, it’s even chic nowadays, but I remember a time when the idea would have been unmentionable.

Australia professes many admirable national principles – foremost is the idea of “a fair go for all.” As a nation and a people there have been many failures to live up to those principles, especially in the treatment of the indigenous Australian aboriginals. But what righteous person doesn’t want to confront and deal with their failures when they become aware of them? Even on Australia Day, there is a strong recognition of the past abuses dealt out, and a call to recognize and respect the feelings of those who were done wrong. I think an example has been set for many others, and I am still proud of my roots, and of the vast majority of Australians who continue to sympathize and support efforts at reconciliation, and how all of them debate with respect how best to address these issues.

Australia has a culture in continuous transition – I feel way behind the times in many ways. I don’t know what the current popular opinion is in many current issues, or even what constitutes the current issues, but everything I hear leads me to believe that the principle behind the positions is still the same – “a fair go for all.” I hereby honor Australia, my birth land, a place and a people that have left an indelible mark on who I am and who I ever will be, and I join you in celebrating your national day.

Without violating my oath, I can still say that

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror –
The wide brown land for me!

-Dorothea MacKeller, from “My Country“.

Posted by Greg as Posts About Me, Society at 00:01 PST

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Wednesday, January 25th, 2006

Make the Baby Laugh

It probably isn’t teaching him anything good, but watching Spongebob get slapped around (I couldn’t get the controls to work in Mozilla) seems to be a sure-fire way of getting Boo to laugh.

Posted by Greg as Family & Friends at 11:55 PST

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Tuesday, January 17th, 2006

Blogger Event

How the hell did I get caught up in a debate about poetry? Just goes to show why, as I learned at the San Diego Blogger Event earlier today (or yesterday, by the calendar), this blog is not destined to go far, and as I think about it, why I don’t really want it to.

It was very enlightening to sit down with a bunch of bloggers in person and discuss how long we’ve been in the online connection thing in general, and blogging in particular. It was quite humbling to hear some of these people talk about their 1,000+ unique hits a day, and how to earn some money off of it, when I was feeling happy about my average of 38. The point that resounded was that, in order to be a successful blogger, you need to carve out a niche and stick to it. Those people who have done so commonly bemoaned how their readers complained about any off-topic posts. Well, I don’t have a topic, and don’t feel inclined to select one. Moreover, I don’t feel the need to worry about dealing with $200 a month bandwidth bills.

This blog, however enjoyable it is to write and monitor, is just an incidental effect of my desire to learn how to set up, administer, and as it turns out, learn how to optimize, a simple website. All along I’ve been far more interested in learning the nuts and bolts of the mechanics behind the scene than getting a referral in the mainstream media, Wired, or the gods forbid, slashdotted. I’m learning CSS by reading the manual, making small changes in my files, and checking the result. MySQL is the same, if more intimidating. Learning PHP is just plain fun – after all, it’s coding. Yes, I’ve been excited, and sometimes captivated, by my increases in PageRank, and some of the things I’ve posted have been with an eye to garner more traffic; or more explicitly, to see how high in the search engine results I can get with certain search terms. But it’s just learning how to manipulate the system, much as you manipulate a single computer by coding and compiling.

My theory (and fear) is that if you become a prominent blogger, you actually become a slave to a new master. Content is king, and if you submit yourself to fulfilling the demand to provide the content that drives the traffic that becomes so all-consuming (of the court of King Caracticus), it’s no longer your blog – it’s owned by your readers. Like you unknowingly launched an IPO and all of a sudden you have shareholders that you’re responsible to. I’d rather stick to my humble abode, posting stuff that keeps my family and friends and colleagues informed on what’s going on in my life, sharing some hard-learned lessons with fellow technophiles, or maybe spouting my opinions on local community items that will go no further than the local community. I don’t care if I’m just one of several millions doing the same – this way, it’s still my blog.

Posted by Greg as My Website, Posts About Me at 03:25 PST

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Monday, January 16th, 2006

Inviting a Poetry Storm

My less-than-diplomatic post referring to my opinion of my namesake’s poetry caught the attention of the author. His response was brief, but I can’t discern whether it is the brevity of the mildly amused, or of the offended artist.

So I invited him and his readers to point me in the direction of good samples of his work. He seems quite prolific, so I’m afraid that I’ll be subjected to a Poetry Storm. I’ll read what ever I get, though, and hopefully with the attention that Art deserves. I guess I owe him that for such a callous, off-handed remark. It just goes to show you – be careful what you write on the the Web – anyone can read it!

Posted by Greg as My Website, People, Posts About Me at 06:58 PST

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Saturday, January 14th, 2006

San Diego Blog

I guess Joe Crawford really liked the email submission I sent him containing my post about the Chargers, the stadium issue, and its impact on our community, because he gave me posting privileges at sandiegoblog.com. Regardless of how many others he’s given posting abilities to, I consider it a real honor. It also means, of course, that I have to start writing more about living in San Diego, which inevitably means writing more about local politics. Hopefully it will make up for the frustration that I felt after being caught by a local news team, fastidiously pressed reporter, microphone, camera and sound crew and all, in front of my local Albertsons just after the news broke about the city’s pension scandal and attendant financial morass, and demurring from giving tv-ready quotes because I hadn’t properly assessed the information and considered its implications.

It is also a great opportunity for me to expand the readership of my blog, if I want to follow that path. In the blogging world, politics is the equivalent of Internet porn. But, I guess, it’s a reflection of my interests and leanings that I even think such a thing. I’m sure there are plenty of power bloggers out there that never talk about politics – in fact, I religiously read one – Wil Wheaton. And there’s the namesake poet who has an enviable PageRank, even if, in my philistine perspective, his poetry is crap. But all I see referenced in Newsweek are the political ones – oops, my bias is showing again. I don’t know if it’s ironic or revealing that most of my traffic is generated by my technical posts, but politics is my guilty pleasure.

I’ve wandered a bit from my original topic, but I guess there’s one thing I want to be made clear – I’m proud to call myself a San Diegan.

Posted by Greg as My Website, Politics, Posts About Me, Society at 21:22 PST

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San Diego Chargers Stadium Issue

Ever since confronting the Union Tribune’s foreboding headline today, I’d like to point out that whether the San Diego Chargers are going to leave our town is an issue that ought to get the juices flowing in all concerned locals, and that SD bloggers really ought to be posting their thoughts about it. Personally, there is no way to express the dismay I feel at the idea of losing the Chargers, especially since they appear to be in an effective (if sometimes stumbling) team-building mode that could make them one of the power players, and quite possibly a dynasty, in the NFL. I know a lot of people are still hurting about the Padres rip-off – how they parlayed a single year’s World Series bid into a taxpayer-financed treasury raid for a new stadium and then traded off their power players – but we stand to lose a lot if we let the Chargers go.

This issue embodies a lot of things that can get people worked up – local politics, incompetence, muckraking district attorneys, and even corruption that have lead us to be called “Enron-by-the-Sea“; environmental issues (who let those tanks farms leak all that stuff into our soil, and in South California?); sports, and the corollary – are sports too violent; public finances, or the lack thereof; and the national and international identity of a community that is seen by many as living in paradise, a cutting edge technological powerhouse, an overinflated real estate market headed for a bursting bubble, a place hurt by a confluence of non-locals, and even the drug-trafficking Miami of the Left Coast! Who could turn from sinking their teeth into such a juicy issue and the fallout, whether from jealousy (I walked the dog last night, in the middle of January, in a t-shirt and shorts) or pride?

I issue a call to arms for all San Diego bloggers – write what you think, criticize the others’ opinions, and most importantly, link and trackback to them!

Posted by Greg as Current Events, Football, Politics, Society at 18:47 PST

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BBS Nostalgia

Since I subscribe to the RSS feed of the San Diego Blog, I’ve seen that they’re planning a get-together of local bloggers. I’d really like to go, but I don’t know if I could make a evening social hour (or three.) But then I saw that they are holding a lunchtime meet as well, so I signed up.

While posting my RSVP comment, I thought of how the old San Diego Connection BBS used to have regular meets, and tossed in a comment asking if any old SDC members would be there. It seems an excellent opportunity to catch up with old friends after the Internet killed the idea of local BBS groups socializing online. Not-so-incidentally, it was how I met my wife, Raquel, or Sinamon as she was known then.

That comment lead me to wonder, in that hyperlinking non-linear thinking way, whether there was a way to hook up with old SDC’ers, and a quick search found plenty of links, even a user at SlashDot. I wasted time I don’t have to look at a few of them and even registered at one BBS nostalgia site, even though only one old member of SDC was signed up there as well. But it occurred to me that if I wanted to find them, it would behoove me to be able to be found – and thus this post. Google should have it indexed within a couple of days.

If you were also a member of SDC and would like to get in touch with me, my contact information is posted at this blog. I’d love to hear from you. I was Mate, and I can’t for the life of me remember my user number, but is was in the 1200’s and I got plenty of comments from other users about the former owner of the number, who must have been a particularly kinky female (it was an adults-only site.) I wasn’t a significant influence at SDC – unless you count the fact that I sort of sneaked in there and walked off with the hottest chick in the place. Sinamon and I were also pretty good friends with Twin Peaks – a real mover and shaker, who used to host some pretty hot SDC parties at her home. There’s no easy way to put this, but Debi passed away a couple of years ago from what I believe was a complication from the bariatric surgery that ended her signature largeness and changed her life completely. We still miss her.

Posted by Greg as Posts About Me at 17:46 PST

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