Chatological Humor (Updated 8.24.07)

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Gene Weingarten
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 21, 2007; 12:00 PM

DAILY UPDATES: 8.22.07 | 8.23.07 | 8.24.07

Gene Weingarten's humor column, Below the Beltway, appears every Sunday in The Washington Post magazine. It is syndicated nationally by the Washington Post Writers Group.

At one time or another, Below the Beltway has managed to offend persons of both sexes as well as individuals belonging to every religious, ethnic, regional, political and socioeconomic group. If you know of a group we have missed, please write in and the situation will be promptly rectified. "Rectified" is a funny word.

On Tuesdays at noon, Gene is online to take your questions and abuse. He will chat about anything. Although this chat is updated regularly throughout the week, it is not and never will be a "blog," even though many persons keep making that mistake. One reason for the confusion is the Underpants Paradox: Blogs, like underpants, contain "threads," whereas this chat contains no "threads" but, like underpants, does sometimes get funky and inexcusable.

Vote in this week's poll.

Important, secret note to readers: The management of The Washington Post apparently does not know this chat exists, or it would have been shut down long ago. Please do not tell them. Thank you.

Weingarten is also the author of "The Hypochondriac's Guide to Life. And Death" and co-author of "I'm with Stupid," with feminist scholar Gina Barreca.

New to Chatological Humor? Read the FAQ.

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Gene Weingarten: Good afternoon.

I got ticked off by a question in last week's updates, and so the rest of you are going to have to suffer through a pompous, obnoxious and possibly career-sabotaging intro today. Blame the person who wrote in last week to question my snide suggestion that the likelihood of the existence of an afterlife was roughly the same as the likelihood that we were all created by an enormous hamster named Philip Clendennon. (Please note, for the sake of accuracy, that I originally wrote the name of the hamster as "Philip Clendonnon." This was a typo. The Holy Hamster is Phil ClendEnnon, and I wanted to set the record straight.)

Anyway, that post in the update dared to assert that perhaps I was exaggerating matters, and that the possibility of a Heaven where good is rewarded for all eternity with an afterlife of dancing fairies, is far more likely than the Clendennon Creation scenario. And I answered thus: "Yeah? Why?"

But I was troubled all weekend. Sure, my response was insulting and dismissive, but somehow, it wasn't sufficiently ... arrogant. It allowed for the remote possibility that some people might not be deeply offended.

So I thought I would aggravate matters today by presenting my Mathematical Proof That The Likelihood of A Deity and/or Other Supernatural Explanations For Life and/or Afterlife Declines to a Probability Approaching Zero.

Please note that I retain the copyright for this illustration, which probably will be studied and cited by theologians for generations. I thank Ms. Elizabeth Kelly for the colorful artistic enhancements.

As you can plainly see, the line representing Presumptions of Magic has a steadily downward slope of approximately 43 degrees, beginning in the era when hominids attributed all observed phenomena to supernatural causes. These include such things as Thor creating lightning with thunderbolts, dyspepsia being caused by disruption of bodily humors, torrents being attributed to the weeping of Matlalcueitl, the Aztec rain goddess, plus your occasional Cacodaemons, Simulacra, Succubuses and whatnot. EVERYTHING had a mystical explanation. That's because people were fearful, ignorant, and desperate to give meaning to life.

If a philosopher or social scientist were to try to encapsulate a single principle that yoked together the intellectual process of civilazation, it would be a gradual dismantling of presumptions of magic. Brick by brick, century by century, with occasional burps and hiccups, the wall of superstition has been coming down. Science and medicine and political philosophy have been on a relentless march in one direction only -- sometimes slow, sometimes at a gallop, but never reversing course. Never has an empirical scientific discovery been deemed wrong and replaced by a more convincing mystical explanation. ("Holy cow, Dr. Pasteur! I've examined the pancreas of a diabetic dog, and darned if it's NOT an insulin deficiency, but a little evil goblin dwelling inside. And he seems really pissed!") Some magical presumptions have stubbornly persisted waaaay longer than others, but have eventually, inexorably fallen to logic, reason and enlightenment, such as the assumption of the divine right of kings and the entitlement of aristocracy. That one took five millennia, but fall it did.

There remain many unanswered questions about how the world works, how our bodies work, where we came from, and so forth. We're workin' on 'em. When you think about it, though, there is only one fire-from-the-sky booga-booga notion left. But it's a biggie.

So here we are in 2007. And the question we must ask ourselves, as dispassionate truth seekers, is: Which is the most likely place that civilization will find itself in the year 3000? Will it be position A, or position B?

I'll wait here while you examine the chart. Feel free to use rulers, protractors, calipers, etc.

Sheesh.

Okay, then!

I want to link to a fascinating article in Vanity Fair, about the mentally retarded son Arthur Miller banished from his life, almost from birth. If you read it right now you won't get back to the chat, but I won't complain. It's an amazing story, though its greatest irony is never quite laid out. Miller's plays (in particular "Death of a Salesman" and "All My Sons", both written before the birth of the boy) are about the ultimate impossibility of denial, about lives that are haunted by a prior act of emotional cowardice or avarice.

This is just a fascinating tale.

--

Today, we inaugurate a new Chatological Humor Feature, namely the Googlenopes of the Week. The first, from the excellent website Googlenope.com, is "koala antivenin," by Andrew Sleeth of Raleigh, N.C. Mine is "the pompatus of horniness."

---

Please take today's poll. As some of you realized, it was based on the last two ( Aug. 12| Aug. 19) Post Ombudsman's columns.

As if today's self-indulgent intro was not enough, I am going to be deconstructing this poll elaborately, explaining why you are all fine, ethical people who have no understanding of how journalism actually works. Don't feel bad about this. Judging from the responses of many journalists to this same issue, most journalists don't have any idea how actual journalism works, either.

Sunday was a terrific comics day. We have a triple Comic Pick of the Week: Sunday's Rhymes With Orange, Sunday's Doonesbury, and Sunday's Pearls. Sunday's Foxtrot is a bit telegraphed, but that is one terrific punchline. I like Friday's Speed Bump, and reluctantly applaud Friday's Baldo because it is magnificently idiotic.

Okay, let's go.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I am not a reporter, so I do not know the correct answer to this, but I can tell you how things happen in my area. I was quoted once in the press as stating I thought someone, at age 67, was "too old" for the position he was seeking. What was wrong with the quote was: the reporter never interviewed me. Plus, that is not what I felt, especially since I am one who heralds the fact that there was someone at age 90 still working on the job. I called the newspaper, and the editor stated to me "the writer only has to presume to know what you would have said in the situation."

Years later, this editor was on a panel with two other newspaper editors. I asked them this scenario, and the other two editors insisted that such a thing could never happen. The editor who did it sat there quietly and never said a word.

I guess the story is: most editors are ethical, but there are some out there was aren't. I have learned to not always trust that quotes in newspapers are what they claim to be.

Gene Weingarten: Uh. Wow.

This is rather startling. I'd say it sounds like the editor was kidding, but apparently not.

As an editor, I once told someone complaining about an error in a story that "clearly, this was no error. It has been published, so it is an established fact." There was dead silence on the other end of the line, until I burst out laughing.

We corrected the error.

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Funny Papers: I'm reading the chat without pants on, but I'm not Chatwoman. Who am I?

Gene Weingarten: Scocca?

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Socc, ER: Gene,

The Italian soccer player who was headbutted by the French team's player in the World Cup final has disclosed the insult that spurred a red-card-earning retaliation: "I prefer the whore that is your sister."

What! What kind of inarticulate insult is that? Please tell me something was lost in translation.

I trust you will respond to this, since it touches on two areas of philosophical interest to you (no, not soccer and Europeans, I mean eloquence and ho's).

Gene Weingarten: I never understood, and still do not understand, why an insult without facts behind it has any power to offend.

If a stranger tells me my daughter is a whore, it would not bother me at all. He does not know my daughter, so it is a meaningless taunt. A childish yammer. Only the truth has the power to injure.

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Alexandria, Va.: Would it be wrong to name a boy after a dead friend (who happened to be 82 when he died 10 years ago) if that guy's name was Merideth?

On a side note, I feel kinda bad that I have to go check his tombstone to see how it's spelled.

washingtonpost.com: My guess would be "Meredith." He can join the "Boys with Girls Names" club.

Gene Weingarten: Um, do you LIKE the name Meredith? If you do not, it would be wrong.

You should do what the Jews do. If you want to name a child after Aunt Dorcas, it is considered appropriate to simply appropriate the first letter of the name. Hence, you are doing right by the abominably named Dorcas by naming your daughter Debbie.

In your case, I would not recommend Mordecai.

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Nope, nope, nope: Gene, you realize you're about to drive Googlenopes into the ground? It's OK to find one serendipitously, but by making it an industry you are killing the humor. Someone will use an AI engine and a good dictionary to churn out a list.

"Dude, forsooth"

Gene Weingarten: That's a good one!

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Arlington, Va.: I don't know where else to turn... You are the only place I can think of that both grants anonymity and would answer my question. My husband swears that men don't wear a clean pair of boxer shorts everyday (i.e., they'll pick up the pair that's on the floor from yesterday and wear them again). I think this is gross and that everyone should throw their underwear in the laundry after a wearing. Is this true that men consider boxers to be more like blue jeans (don't need a wash after every wear)?

Gene Weingarten: Fortunately, I can answer this one and set you straight. Most men will not PUT ON a soiled pair of shorts. But they might keep it on overnight, and then into the next day.

You're welcome.

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A dyslexic dog: Sometimes, I think the answer to life is so simple that it amazes people that they have complicated answers to something so simple. Everything is life. Life requires the consumption of other life in order to continue dying. We die when something else finally consumes us.

Light and matter are only different realities of life. That is why Einstein was able to make his breakthroughs by realizing they are different aspects of the same, responding to the same eternal physical laws of the universe.

What happens to us when we die? Who created life and the are the physical rules of the universe set down by pure reality or by some creator? Well, my time is up. I have to run.

Gene Weingarten: Wow, man, what is that wall made of?

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Poll software: I'm sorry you and Liz had to cough up for it -- maybe you should open a PayPal account so we can all contribute. There's no way the WP is going to reimburse you.

Gene Weingarten: UNless this is the WP posting this, we don't know that yet.

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So that makes us even...:"you are all fine, ethical people who have no understanding of how journalism actually works."

Well, you have no understanding of how theology works, yet you feel free to pontificate (ha!) and lecture us about it.

Gene Weingarten: True enough.

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Washington, D.C.: Gene, please understand that what I am about to say does not change the fact that I adore you. If atheism were a religion (and, I actually think it is, albeit one without a deity), you would be one of the most intolerant religious blowhards I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, er, reading. You don't know that there is no God or afterlife or whatnot. You believe it, just as I believe (not know) that those things exist. We will both have to wait until we are dead to find out who is correct. Until then, I really do not care if you don't believe in God, and think no less of you for it. Just please quit trying to convert me.

Gene Weingarten: I can't quarrel with any of this. I have said in the past that I believe atheism to be a religion. The best rebuttal was when someone said that is like saying that not collecting stamps is a hobby.

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Mordecai: If I do name my kid Mordecai, can I just call him "three finger"? What if by age 5 I'm just calling him TF or Fingers?

Gene Weingarten: Fingers is a great nickname.

This is an old-man baseball reference, by the way.

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From an agnostic: Your intro raises the interesting question of what constitutes magic, does it not?

Gene Weingarten: Magic is the supernatural.

I don't believe in karma either.

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Fairfax, Va.: Re: "I prefer the whore that is your sister."

A little context is necessary to understand the quote. The Italian player was tugging on the jersey of the Frenchman, and the Frenchman made a comment something like "What, you want a little love from me?" That's when the Italian responded with "I prefer the whore that is your sister."

Gene Weingarten: Thank you. Much clearer. But still. Who could get offended by that? Unless his sister happens to be a whore.

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Your Mom, MA: The power of the insult has nothing whatsoever to do with it's veracity. It is rather an expression of a rival's emothional or physical prowess over you. An egomaiac like Zedane cannot abide a taunt.

Gene Weingarten: But it's not an effective taunt!

If you call a fat person hippo butt, that is an effective taunt.

I call my son "fatboy." It's a joke between us. Dan is not remotely overweight.

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Monroe, Maryland: Just checked my Gmail. Google offered this up as "Funny Quote of the Day"...

Marilyn Monroe - "It's not true that I had nothing on. I had the radio on."

Funny?

Gene Weingarten: Yes.

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Early Intro?: From last week:

Gene Weingarten: Good Monday morning. This is our Early Intro, one of several new features of Chatological Humor.

Pretty short-lived new feature?

Gene Weingarten: Hm.

Well, it was intended to re-introduce the poll, but I guess I promised something more, huh?

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Athens, Ga.: Gene,

Last night I had a dream that you had died. It was awful and strange to feel such loss over someone I had never met. Does this Internet chat ever just weird the crap out of you? That so many of us feel like we know you when we have never met at all? Are you scared of death? Sometimes I get really terrified of dying, of there being nothing after ... but I wonder if that should matter? Anyway, don't die soon. That would suck.

Gene Weingarten: Thank you. I stopped being scared of death after surviving what was supposed to be a fatal disease. I got to see both my children grow up into adults. I don't think anyone can ask for any more out of life. I'm ready.

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Laurel, Md.: I am astounded. The chart actually makes perfect sense. But I believe it should approach the horizontal line of reality and perfect scientific knowledge as a declining sloped curve, never quite reaching the point where all humanity understands everything, as there will always be some remnant of non-acceptors of scientific fact. But yes, it really does make sense. And my nomination for googlenope of the week: "convicted rabbinical authority."

Gene Weingarten: Very nice. Yes, as I said, it will always be "approaching" zero, calculus wise.

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St. Louis, MO: I was with a group of friends last night, including a recently married couple, who were relating a recent incident. She was in the bathroom; he entered to talk to her. He was carrying food at the time. She thought bringing food or drink into a bathroom was disgusting (regardless of where it was being consumed or not -- the mere presence of food in the bathroom). He didn't think anything was wrong with it. Every girl present agreed immediately with her; every guy took his side. Obviously this would be perfect for a poll; failing that, what is your judgment?

Gene Weingarten: Was she on the pot? I wouldn't do that to a woman, any woman.

I once edited a story by a Vietnam vet who described the moment he knew he wasn't going to like Vietnam. He walked into the latrine, and there was a guy on the toilet eating a sandwich.

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Washington, D.C.: When you were born, was your mom 16? Was your father 17? Did you grow up in a housing project?

If yes, then please judge Michael Vick and say he's dead to you. It'll solve all the larger problems of society. You're so brilliant.

Gene Weingarten: I don't care how you grow up. If you get your jollies hanging dogs, you are dead to me.

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I know you hate the word fiance, but...: My fiance and I were trying to have a small, inexpensive, family-only wedding but it ballooned out of control both financially and in causing stress. So we canceled it. We're going down to the courthouse next week with our parents and siblings, and we're so thrilled. We never really wanted a wedding to begin with--we just wanted to be married.

My mom's furious. She hasn't lost any money, just some time and energy...and the chance to play hostess at a wedding. She keeps calling and telling me I'm a horrible selfish person who doesn't love her. And my grandmother's decided she's not coming because we're not being married by a priest.

Any idea how to deal? She's being really mean about it, and I can't help but wonder if we're doing the wrong thing. I'm an only child, if it matters.

Oh, hey, also--we'll be having a pastafarian--flying spaghetti monster--party with spaghetti and beer on the date we would have been married. Want to come?

Gene Weingarten: You. Are. Doing. The. Right. Thing.

Shame on your maternals.

I'll be there in spirit. You know, instead of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it COULD be worshipping Philip Clendennon, the Holy Hamster.

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Technolo,GY: Anything that is beyond our technical comprehension is magic.

Bring someone who has had no access to any of our ordinary technology, and he will be impressed or afraid of your god-like power to create light by moving your finger, or pointing at the talking box and making the images change.

Gene Weingarten: Well, precisely. THAT IS HOW RELIGION STARTED.

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Rebuttal, rebuttal:"The best rebuttal was when someone said that is like saying that not collecting stamps is a hobby"

Atheism is when you spend as much time telling everyone you meet about how you don't collect stamps as the other guy spends actually collecting stamps.

Gene Weingarten: That's good.

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I thought you might enjoy this: Good Morning Gene,

I have both a question and a story for you.

My little brother is almost four years old. Earlier this year, whenever he was injured, he had a tendency to say that the problem area had been bitten, as in "Bit the foot!" or "Bit the hand!" One day, during potty training, he was on the toilet trying to poop. Apparently this was a difficult and painful endevor, as he looked up at my father in distress and yelled "Daddy, it has TEETH!"

Q: Whenever I am on the verge of having an orgasm, the soles of my feet feel like they are burning. Do you have an explaination for this?

Gene Weingarten: Are they touching the light bulb?

Haha.

Sorry.

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Poll Land: Have you ever changed or cleaned up a question asked during teh chat?

Gene Weingarten: I've wanted to, many times, such as to delete tedious praise of me. Can't do it. Not in my power.

Liz, do you do it?

washingtonpost.com: As a duly deputized chat producer, I'm spozed to fix things like typos and make sure questions appear in Post style. The thinking is that IF WE lEt EVVVERY Q GO THRu as S0bmited, it would be distracting and slow people down as they scan the chat.

Funny, you should ask, though, because I left your misspelled "teh" in your question for fear of being accused of editing.

Interesting factoid: Never in my seven years of doing this has anyone written in to complain about having their spelling/grammar cleaned up.

Sometimes I'll also leave a question as is if it adds to the general flavor of the question. F'rinstance, lending support to the idea that the commenter is a dolt.

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Rockville, Md.:"But they might keep it on overnight, and then into the next day. "

Not if I showered upon awaking. If I were camping (or similar), I'd keep them on as I was dirty. If I got cleaned, the boxers must be clean too (assuming a clean pair were available).

Gene Weingarten: Right. Precisely.

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Telling my Husband: Update on telling my husband: He arrived home on Friday. I'd gotten pizza from our favorite local take-out joint knowing that, in our house beer is must with pizza. As predicted, he pulled two bottles out of the refrigerator and handed one to me.

I handed it back and asked "Can you hang onto that for me until April?" He asked, "Why April?" I replied, "It is almost 9 months away." There was a long pause. He just kept asking "Really?" Then there were tears and lots of happiness.

Oh, and I want to thank the person who suggested the doppler rental. Unfortunately, it is too soon for me to hear anything with it.

Gene Weingarten: Awww.

This is the lady who told us before she told hubby.

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Gene Weingarten: Private to two people who sent very serious questions, one about contemplating suicide and one about her mother: I'm thinking about these. Please look to tomorrow's update for an answer.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I feel bad that you had to pay for the poll software yourself. I think that every one of the chatters should send you $1 in the mail. Would that cover it?

washingtonpost.com: No need. Gene's a rich writer/screenwriter. He can afford it.

Gene Weingarten: Don't tell the rib I'm rich. She'll wonder where all the money is.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Terrific poll this week. Although I don't edit hard news, I have to wrestle with quotation problems frequently in the newsletters and puff pieces that hit my desk each week.

The fourth and fifth questions seem very clear-cut to me. Question 4 illustrates the usual stammering and rephrasing people do when they are working out a complex thought -- it is completely unnecessary to quote it, and I would fully expect an editor to remove it. Question 5, however, seems to me as much a failure of news-gathering as of proper quotation. It's clear from the interview subject's stammering that, at best, his positive spin was contingent on ignoring certain indicators. The reporter should have posed a follow-up question asking the interview subject to pin down how and why he qualified his answer. As it stands, the reporter grossly oversimplified the quote.

The second and third questions were the toughest, and I was very surprised by most people's responses. When I am editing, my rule of thumb is that I correct grammar, spelling, and factual errors in quotes if the quotee is not the focus of the article. In the second example, the story is about an electrocution. Leaving the quote unchanged adds nothing to the authenticity of the story; it distracts the reader and transforms gripping eyewitness testimony into a humiliating demonstration of one civil servant's illiteracy. A quote riddled with bracketed words, -sic], and lots of paraphrasing is worse, because it not only calls undue attention to the worker's mistakes but also makes the reporter seem patronizing. Correcting the quote makes the speaker's intentions clear and keeps the reader's focus on the accident, not the eyewitness. On the other hand, the Redskins story was -about- Clinton Portis; as the subject of the story, he should be represented with his own words.

What I find odd is that the readers who insist on quoting Portis accurately because "we all know that's the way he talks, and it would be ridiculous to represent him any other way" are the same readers (by percentage, anyway) who want to litter the poor line worker's speech with brackets and paraphrasing. By this logic, wouldn't you leave the line worker's quote verbatim, too?

Gene Weingarten: YOU GOT IT ALL RIGHT!

Okay, onto the poll analysis.

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Gene Weingarten: Okay, the poll.

I need to say that my views on this subject do not represent the views of management. In fact, on the surface, at least, they contradict the views of management so thoroughly that one could argue I am an outlaw in need of incarceration. This would be a troublesome fact were it not that I am so obviously correct.

What your answers show is that, by and large, you expect and demand total accuracy in the presentation of quotations in the newspaper. What's between quotation marks should be exactly what the person said. It's a reasonable position, entirely ethical, but completely impractical.

I do basically agree with you, actually, except we differ on what "exactly" means. This is a far more nuanced and complicated issue than you, or many of my colleagues, seem to think it is.

There is no more important principle for a journalist to follow than to tell the truth, as best he or she can. Everything else is secondary to that. And the "truth" can be a pretty elusive thing. Telling the truth in a story, particularly a large and complicated story such as those that appear in the magazine, involves a hundred decisions, some as big and holistic as whether you have really understood the nature of the story, some as small as spelling people's names right.

Somewhere in between is the issue of quoting people correctly. This responsibility exists side by side with other responsibility, and sometimes bumps up against them a little bit: One is being fair to people. Another is writing in an engaging, concise manner that doesn't confuse people.

If a writer is going to be completely honest with himself, he is going to admit that, in most cases, even despite his best efforts, his quotes are somewhat imprecise. Not many writers routinely use tape recorders (I almost never do; I find it hurts the effectiveness of an interview-people tend to talk to the tape recorder, and I am so worried with the machine is working, I get distracted), and even fewer know Pittman shorthand. (I don't.) The fact is, we're taking notes as best we can. We are using abbreviations. We are not getting absolutely everything the person is saying; we are editing as we go, maybe not writing down certain things that seem irrelevant. So our notes are at best a very good approximation of what was said. We may well have two sentences appearing together in our notes that were not, in fact, said in one interrupted string. We're not always going to remember that when we go to interpret our notes. This may be an inconvenient fact, but it is a fact. We are trying as best we can to get everything important down. Good reporters are very good at that, but they are not perfect.

If I am reading my notes from an interview and I see "Im not sure what happ when exploded," I will not know for sure whether the person said "I'm not sure what happened when it exploded," or, for example, "I'm not sure what happened when the bomb exploded." Just not totally sure. Am I going to call this person to ask him whether he said "it" or "the bomb." Of course not. For one thing, he'd have no idea what he said. For another IT. DOESN'T. MATTER. There is truth, and there is strict adherence to absolute fact. The first is very important. The second, in many cases, is inconsequential.

So. We begin with that fact. Quotes are a well-intentioned approximation.

Now, does "exact" mean that if a man sneezes during a quote, I have to put that in? Obviously not. How about if he is a person who says "uh" every few seconds? We putting that in? No, right? Well, "uh," is really part of someone's speech pattern, isn't it? Can an argument be made it belongs in an "exact" quote? Maybe you make that argument, if you're an idiot. But we've already entered a touchy area. We are changing quotes with impunity, aren't we? We're deciding what's part of the quote and what isn't.

Imagine a man who says, about the graduation of his daughter, "I'm bursting inside because I have such high expectorations for this darling girl, this center of my life." Are we going to quote that man verbatim, exposing him to complete ridicule for something as simple as a blurted word-misuse? If we did, that's all anyone would remember about that quote. Of course we're not going to do that. A complete purist would argue that you'd have to mess around with the sentence: "I have such high [expectations] ." But you know what? That raises an odd question in the reader's mind - what did he say? What word did he use? Was it a epithet of some sort? It stops you.

So, I change that. I know for one hundred percent certain what word that man MEANT to use. I just change it. I have no guilt about that.

Which brings us to the poll, and the eyewitness to the electrocution. The man who is no celeb, just a guy on the street who saw something awful and talked about it imprecisely and ungrammatically. I'm saying the reporter made no mistake at all in changing that quote, and the best way I can explain it is with a hypothetical example:

Let's say that the reporter noticed the misuse of "Teflon" as the guy was saying it, and after the quote said to him, hey, you mean a Tesla coil, right? And the guy says, oh yeah. At that point, does the reporter say, "Okay, can you say the sentence again, with "Tesla" instead of "Teflon," so I can get the quote verbatim? No reporter on earth would do that. You just sub the word. So, looky here, suddenly your "exact" quotation takes another hit, doesn't it? Your quote will not be "exact," but you feel it is accurate.

Is there any difference at all if the writer doesn't notice the error until he gets back to the office? And he knows for certain what the man meant, so he changes it? Any difference at all?

It's about truth. Telling the truth as best you can. It is not about some picky, arbitrary adherence to rules that can be totally impractical.

Why not lard up the quote with [brackets] and ellipses and paraphrases? For a very good reason. These things make a story harder to read, and, in the case of a fine and colorful quote, do injury to the elegance of the story. These things are important, too; more important than worrying about changing Teflon to Tesla.

And as far as using ellipses this is a reporter's copout. Ellipses in a quote, by the way, always mean that words are omitted. See, WE know that, but 40 percent of YOU don't. So we do it to cover our butts, but you know what? We're not really helping you at all if you don't know what we're doing.

Why correct his grammar? Here's why: When a non-famous person is quoted, his quote is out there in the paper, naked. We do not get to see how he is dressed or how he conducts himself, so we can judge him on things other than the words he speaks. We have only the words. And if those words are ungrammatical or imprecise, very often, in the mind of the reader, that's the purpose of the quote. That's what the reader will notice, not the import of what he is saying. Consider the proud father having high expectorations for his daughter. It's just not fair.

The spoken word is not like the written word. There are fits and starts and digressions, and you can't hold the first up to the standards of the second.

Speaking of fits and starts and throat-clearings, that is what was happening to the guy talking about the president being in a bubble. In between his two salient points, he was clearing his throat, with sentence fragments, try-out concepts, etc. I have zero problem excising this from his quote. It doesn't change at all the substance of what he was saying - it just makes it clearer for the reader to follow. There is no assault at all on the truth here.

That's what I keep coming back to: Are you changing a significant truth, in any way, by altering a quote for clarity? I always ask myself, is there any possible way this person, when he sees his quote in the paper, will think that I in any way misrepresented what he said? If the answer is yes, or if I'm not sure, I won't do it.

Case in point: The last guy, talking about the economy. I think the reporter erred in that case. What the newsmaker said in between his quoted lines might not have been coherent or quotable, but it was not insignificant. He was uttering some reservations about the economy that almost seemed to belie what the quote was saying. I would have asked him to elaborate; and if there was no opportunity to do that, I would have paraphrased him with something like this: "While Smith said there were troubling economic indications with the mortgage market " and then launched into his quote.

In this case, the editing of his statement did harm to the truth.

The Clinton Portis quote (the only REAL quote in the poll), in my judgment, should not have been changed, for precisely the reason stated in the poll answer. This is not some nobody being forced into the public eye. This is a celeb, speaking before cameras and microphones, quite aware of what he sounded like, and speaking in a familiar locker room patois. Changing it was a mistake.

Finally, one anecdote. The story I wrote about the violinist, Joshua Bell, pivoted on one very lengthy quote from a man named Mark Leithauser. Here it is:

MARK LEITHAUSER HAS HELD IN HIS HANDS MORE GREAT WORKS OF ART THAN ANY KING OR POPE OR MEDICI EVER DID. A senior curator at the National Gallery, he oversees the framing of the paintings. Leithauser thinks he has some idea of what happened at that Metro station.

"Let's say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It's a $5 million painting. And it's one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: 'Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.'"

That quote was derived from a desultory, fascinating, hour-long conversation Leithauser and I had over the phone about the nature of art. I cobbled the quote together from things he said throughout the conversation. Every single word in there is his, but he didn't say it all in one rush like that. He experimented. He first put the painting in a flea market, but that wasn't quite right. Then he amended it, with the idea of a restaurant. Initially, he didn't specify Ellsworth Kelly, but then he thought of Kelly, and added it. Also the steps and columns, etc.

Now, I could have used his entire quote, which would have been literally six times as long and almost impossible to follow, and filled with extranea. Or I could have cobbled together the quote with brackets and ellipses and paraphrases, making it dense and confusing and look like something taken out of an encyclopedia. Or I could just cobble together the quote, preserving the accuracy of what he said but making it immediate and easy to read. That's what I did.

Days went by. The story's deadline approached. I fretted. I asked myself, will he feel I misquoted him? I didn't think so. But this was not the usual quote-cleaning; this was major renovation. Finally, I called him. He was Europe. I tracked him down. I explained what I had done, and read him the quote, to get his approval. He laughed and approved the quote, and didn't seem to quite realize that he HADN'T said it exactly that way, in one take. He also seemed shocked that I had bothered to check on something so trivial.

For what it's worth.

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Portland, Ore.: So, how is it that the Style Invitational entries tend to be SO much better than the entries to the cartoon-caption contests on the last page of the New Yorker? Are Post readers funnier than New Yorker readers, or is the NYer contest that much harder?

Gene Weingarten: The Invitational participants, about 100 of them, are essentially professional humorists. They've been at it a long time.

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Para, DE: Gene - Can you explain to me why a distinguished newspaper like the Washington Post coninues to include the dreck that is Parade Magazine in with its Sunday supplements?

Gene Weingarten: Because it's basically free and some dorks like it.

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Arthur Miller: As the sibling and guardian of someone with Downs Syndrome, I understand Arthur Miller's inability to cope with his son's condition. But I also think that by Miller was trying to buy his way out of guilt by including his son as an heir near the end of Miller's life. Miller did do right by his son at the end, but no amount of money can buy back an institutionalized life.

Gene Weingarten: True.

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New York, N.Y.: I live in a typical Manhattan apartment. My wife and I would often joke that when we have our child, we were going to have to velcro it to the wall in order to have enough room. My wife broke the news to me that she was pregnant by asking me to select from a few velcro samples.

Gene Weingarten: Ha. I like that.

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About the new poll: It remembers that we've taken it before from the same computer, which is fine. But does it mess things up if we go back later to see what the results are and just leave answers blank?

washingtonpost.com: Nope.

Gene Weingarten: Yeah, this is important: No reason you can't check the results without voting again.

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Silver Spring, Md.: These. People. Crack. Me. Up! I love the folks who actually TAKE THE TIME to post that you are a blow-hard know-it-all, and that they can't stand you. Everyone who reads this chat even once already knows this. Your faithful readers enjoy this business, and they know that you express sincere opinions in an over-the-top manner because that's your shtick. But, really people, if you hate this so much and disagree, just don't click that link! It's even easier than avoiding gasbags on the radio or boob-tube!

Whew! I think I need to go say a few Hail Hamsters now and continue reading "A Modest Proposal"

Gene Weingarten: I like it when people put my in my place. It doesn't really sting because, as you say, it's shtick. But it's not ALL shtick. There's conviction behind most of it. It''s the TONE that's shtick.

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Cynic AL: Soo... if you don't believe in God, why does your timeline use BC and AD?

Gene Weingarten: Because I am old.

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Portland, Ore.: Hi Gene. I really enjoy your column and chat, and usually really enjoy the links provided. But one of the links yesterday really bothers me. It was the video of the couple waiting to find out if she was pregnant. I was laughing away at it until the guy made the comment "you stupid bi***...". In my view, that is one of the most hateful phrases that can be directed towards women. So, I have a question for you: what phrase directed towards men carries such hatred and disgust? Can you think of any?

Gene Weingarten: Uh, wow. I can think of plenty of more offensive phrases, about women or men. But, honestly, I don't see why that is offensive, in the context of satire. He was not calling her that. It was a joke.

There are plenty of put-downs of men, none of which I can say here. Most imply that the man is less than verile. In certain Hispanic countries, the word "marecon," which is an insult to a man, is considered so incendiary that manslaughter defendants are given some leniency if it can be established that they were responding to that epithet.

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Alexandria, Va.:"I ... like ... hot dogs ... without condiments," said Gene Weingarten resolutely and definitively.

washingtonpost.com: Well done!

Gene Weingarten: Hahaha.

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Chatwoman, the Cens, OR: So it would appear that Ms. Lizzie wouldn't let you link to the hand gesture skit (because, you know, none of us have ever flipped the bird at anyone before). But in the history of this chat, has there ever been a time where the Chatmistress censored something and, in retrospect, you were thankful that she did?

washingtonpost.com: It wasn't flipping the bird, buddy.

Gene Weingarten: No, it wasn't flipping the bird. It was a more graphic gesture. Any of you can find it on your own on youtube by searching "whitest guys" and looking at the first entry. We just can't link to it.

I think this was a close call -- it's very funny, but pretty vulgar -- but I don't think Liz erred.

I believe Liz has saved my butt several times. My inclination is always to go for it. That is not always the smartest inclination.

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Shuddering: HOLY MOLEY!! I do that shudder thing sometimes, I was convinced it was a blood sugar thing and I had diabetes but the Doc doesn't thing so. Sometimes the shudder is so bad its hard to walk but yes always goes away after a couple minutes. I have even tried wrapping myself in blankets but that doesn't seem to help stop the shuddering. Please Mr. Master-of-All-Weird-Medical-Conditions, figure out what this is.

Gene Weingarten: I've had this for thirty years, and never figured it out.

You know, about 50 people wrote in to say they have experienced it, too, but most of them were not parallel to my experience. I don't shudder like that when in the bitter cold. I shudder AFTER experiencing the bitter cold, but before being totally warm. A perfect example is if you are walking in the bitter cold to your car, underdressed for the occcasion. Then you get into the car. It is still cold in the car, but much warmer than what you have just experienced.

THAT's when the shudder begins. And, yeah, two minutes is about the duration. It's an overpowering feeling. You c-c-c-c-and t-t-t-talk through it, for example.

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Philosophy majors unite: Gene said: "Obviously, we have free will. That's a given -- it is demonstrated every day. Therefore, the question is, does this mean we have some sort of "soul" independent of our body.

But any organism with consciousness also has free will. We can see free will in the actions of a goldfish. Does a goldfish have a 'soul'?"

SURELY you can't be serious. How do you know you have free will? It might feel like you are choosing one thing and could have chosen another, but how do you know it's not just the highly contingent way that all the physical stimuli you've ever experienced have coincided in a single moment? Starting from this premise is completely illegitimate and ignores thousands of years of philosophy.

It's all the more difficult to make any statement about the free will of a goldfish, whose consciousness you've never experienced. Does a tree have free will? A bacterium? A slug? If not, how could we know whether a goldfish does?

Seriously, you are wronger about this than you are about dark chocolate.

Gene Weingarten: So if we don't have free will, then our lives are determined at our birth? Every single thing we do is pre-programmed?

I'm more ready to admit error on dark chocolate.

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Bowie:"Para, DE: Gene Weingarten: Because it's basically free and some dorks like it. "

It also helps me keep in mind that red-staters aren't all bunch of yokels, nuts and bigots.

Gene Weingarten: What do red staters have to do with it?

The thing about Parade is that it tends to be THE Sunday mag of any place without a large newspaper. It's what people think a mag is. Sad.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi Gene,

Maybe my point of view on this will be considered moot because I don't have children (yet), but I honestly don't understand how anyone could empathize with someone who leaves their child to die in an overheated car. How is this any different than involuntary manslaughter? Say someone has a car accident (hence the word "accident") and kills a mother of three. Why should that person be punished, but not the mother who leaves a helpless infant to roast to death?

I don't see the distinction.

Gene Weingarten: Under ordinary circumstances, I don't think either of these people should be legally punished. You think that someone who makes a mistake driving (running a red light, for example) and kills someone is a worse person than someone who makes a mistake driving (running a red light, for example) and doesn't kill someone?

To me, intent is everything.

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Psst, Liz...: Hey Liz, what is Gene really like to work with? Is it all laughs, or can he be Mr. Important Columnist Diva?

washingtonpost.com: He's a dream. And he always remembers my birthday.

Gene Weingarten: Uh oh.

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Re: Babysitter framing a father: Gene, why is that ridiculous? My husband is a high school teacher, and has been cautioned by other teachers, male and female, and administrators, never to be alone in a room with a female student. Other males teachers also have taken this precaution. That way, if the student falsely claims that the teacher came onto her, there are other witnesses that no such thing happened.

Gene Weingarten: If I trust a young woman to take care of my child, I am going to trust her not to try to frame me for a sexual assault. I just couldn't live like that.

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Dee, OJ:"In certain Hispanic countries, the word "marecon," which is an insult to a man, is considered so incendiary that manslaughter defendants are given some leniency if it can be established that they were responding to that epithet."

Where does that concept fit in your statement that "only the truth has the power to injure"?

Gene Weingarten: It doesn't. I think people who react violently to it are idiots. But it's a phenomenon. Hey, Zedane headbutted the Italian. Idiot.

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The Empress of The Style Invitational: Why the Style Invitational entries tend to be SO much better than the entries to the cartoon-caption contests on the last page of the New Yorker: Because the Invitational's judging is so much better, of course -- those New York people probably toss all the best stuff. Except when they gave first prize to Invite regular Jay Shuck of Minneapolis, whose caption was terrific.

Gene Weingarten: Ah. Yes. Of course.

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New York, N.Y.: If Rupert Murdoch bought the New York Times, do you think it would start running comics?

Gene Weingarten: Yes.

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Denver, Colo.: Hello Gene,

I've only been casually following the googlenope situation you've created, but please, picture if you will, this scene: Me, a usually totally hot woman with a penchant for the dramatic, lying in bed with horrible stomach cramps and slowing dying from nonstop diarrhea (I've recently returned home from Mongolia, of all places). I'm clutching my belly and groaning and shouting as loud as my dehydrated vocal chords will allow at my loving husband who keeps asking me if I think a bran muffin or banana would help my circumstances (he's adorably, but obviously dangerously, clueless). After consulting a doctor, we google the suggested antibiotics to compare their merits. I also ask him to google the specific description of my ailment, to see if we could get an ETA on death: "Poop water that comes out of your butt." No hits. Maybe this isn't a strict googlenope, but it made me laugh. And, it turns out I'm not dying after all. Sweet.

Gene Weingarten: And as of this instant, it no longer is a Googlenope.

That is the magic of Googlenopes.

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Re: quotes: You're pushing the line with "Tesla" vs. "Teflon." I have no idea what a Tesla coil is, and i suspect most reporters don't either. It's one thing to clean up grammar, but to change technical terms presumes that the reporter knows the subject matter better than the person quoted, which can be dicey. Suppose an economist gives a quote that refers to "the federal discount rate," but the reporter thinks, "she must have meant 'the federal funds rate.'" Does the reporter make the change?

Gene Weingarten: No, the reporter does not make that change.

But from context, it's OBVIOUS the guy meant Tesla coil, with a big spark and hair standing on end. He could have meant nothing else.

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Richmond, Va.: hey gene,

if you don't mind me asking, what usually fatal disease did you conquer? I have some recollection of reading a dave barry column many moons ago where he referred to you as being a terrible hypochondriac until you actually became ill with something serious. I am also a hypochondriac, just wondering what helps...

Gene Weingarten: Hepatitis C. At the time it was diagnosed, the prognosis was very bad. I wrote a book about this.

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Portland, Ore.: jesus prom king christ, chatwoman. can't you at least get the host of the show to run his extensive comments through a filter so we don't get question marks for every damn apostrophe, dash, and quotation mark?

washingtonpost.com: I am going to talk about this with someone in Gene's home who has an understanding of computers and we will resolve this by next week.

Gene Weingarten: Crap.

Well, Chatwoman will clean it up after the chat. Won't you, darlin?

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Conservative vs Liberal: When I was in high school my dad explained the differences btw conservatives and liberals to me by saying, "if you are young and conservative, you have no heart, if you are old and liberal, you have no money." Always made a bit of sense to me.

Gene Weingarten: Ha. Not bad.

Just yesterday, I was interviewed by Bob Edwards for his new XM radio show. I was defending liberalism. At one point he asked me, as a liberal, to defend when life began. I said: "You know how when a baby is, like, three months old, and she is lying on her back, and she realizes, "hey, I'm biting some toes"? Well, one day, she is going to realize, "Hey, I'm biting MY toes." That's when life begins. When you have the knowledge that you are you.

See, this is a VERY liberal view. So, I might remain liberal even if I get rich. It's hardwired at this point.

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Question: So, last week you said your daughter Molly was beautiful, not hot. I think the same of my children. My question is: what if a kid is truly ugly? Would the parents recognize that or would subjectivity make them blind to this and they would think they have a beautiful child?

I think they would think their child is beautiful. Your thoughts?

Gene Weingarten: I think they would know their kid is not "conventionally" beautiful.

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Washington, D.C.:"When you were born, was your mom 16? Was your father 17? Did you grow up in a housing project?"

How insulting. I grew up dirt poor (I believe the current PC term is "food insecure"). My parents weren't even from this country. My neighborhood was overrun by gangs. And yet, somehow, I grew up to not harm animals for sport. I'd venture a guess that a lot of people who grew up in less than stellar circumstances also grow up to not harm animals for sport. There's a wonderful bit of classism in that quoted statement.

Gene Weingarten: Yeah, it was a really stupid post.

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Bethesda, Md.: Gene,

This may have already been asked/answered but I noticed a star next to some of the answers on the poll results -- are those your answers?

washingtonpost.com: Those are your answers.

Gene Weingarten: Ha.

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Hartford, Conn.: In how many newspapers does your column run? When is the Hartford Courant going to start running your column?

Gene Weingarten: Not all that many. Something like 20, although a bunch of them are pretty big papers.

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Very Anonymous, USA: Hello, Dr. Gene,

You're the only person to whom I feel close enough to ask this question. I'm a woman who has never achieved, ahem, climax during sex. I know it's possible; I've read about it in books! I refuse to fake it, so eventually it's going to cause problems in my relationship (with a man, since that'll affect the advice, I'm sure). Be as snarky and sarcastic as you like, Gene and chatters, but please help me!!!

Gene Weingarten: Well, I believe you need to see a sex therapist, whom a gynecologist should be able to refer you to. I believe the first question the therapist will ask you is whether you can give yourself an orgasm. So be ready to answer that one.

Or, heck, answer it here. Can you? If so, then I'm thinkin' it's an issue of educating your sex partner on how to treat you.

I love that you asked ME.

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Shuffle, AD: The Whitest Kids U Know skit with the woman peeing on the iPod shuffle as a pregnancy test seems to be ripped off from an older video of indeterminate source (it claims to be from Apple, but I doubt it). Watch this. It which was posted to YouTube more than six months before the other skit.

Gene Weingarten: WOW. That's a bummer.

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Let's just say...:...that there was some sort of radiation in our brain tissue, something we do not have the scientific ability to detect yet, which allowed us to be sentient, something that non-sentient life forms lacked. Let's say that this radiation was given off in extreme amounts at the moment of brain death. Is it not possible that there are other dimensions that energy could go to, not unlike the Christian paradise? Or perhaps, as the Buddhists think, it could inhabit a fetus or newborn child?

I don't know if there's a God or not. I refuse to rule anything out.

Gene Weingarten: I have no idea what you are talking about!

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Virginia: Thank you for saying, more eloquently than I can, exactly what I believe. We've been slowly ridding ourselves of superstitions for centuries, and I think that belief in God is no different than believing that the world was flat and monsters and dragons lived beyond the edges of the earth.

Gene Weingarten: It is precisely the same thing. It is coming up with a mythical explanation for things we don't understand. It is mythology.

Some of it is beautiful mythology.

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Conservative vs. Liberal: My father, a very conservative man, told me that the difference between the two is that conservatives only look only at the consequences, ignoring the possibilities while liberals look only at the possibilities, ignoring the consequences. He told me the that the only reason the government worked was because the two of them existed in tandem.

Gene Weingarten: Hm. This seems to make some sense.

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Poll explanation: Spoken like someone who has never been misquoted. What makes reporters think that a journo degree confers mind-reading powers upon them?

Gene Weingarten: We don't mindread, or presume to mindread. There is no mindreading in any example I gave.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: In 1991, the Supreme Court was asked to decide whether altering a quotation constituted "actual malice" (knowledge of falsity, or reckless disregard for the truth), required to be proven in a libel case if a public figure wants to win.

Justice Kennedy wrote in the opinion that although "in general" quotation marks around a passage indicate that the speaker's words appear verbatim, as a matter of law, altering a quote to clean up grammar or syntax isn't "actual malice" as long as the alteration does not "result-s] in a material change in the meaning conveyed by the statement."

In this case, the journalist who had "altered" the quotations was Janet Malcolm, whose profile of Jeffrey Masson appeared in the New Yorker.

Several retired journalism academics filed a friend of the court brief in the case, urging the high court to rule that, as a matter of law, altering a quotation would be actual malice.

Gene Weingarten: You can't discuss this without understanding the nature of the alteration. There is no actual malice in changing Teflon to Tesla, because no one is hurt. No lie has been told.

Actual malice requires hostility, or reckless disregard for the truth.

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Shuffle Rebuttal: Post date on YouTube does not equal original airing. Many original postings were torn down in the great copyright purge of '06.

Gene Weingarten: I'm really hoping that the routine was not stolen.

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Dear Anonymous: Quit thinking about Gene when you're with another man and you should be fine.

Gene Weingarten: Tragically, many women find this impossible to do.

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Blind Date Lab: What are the stats on date lab? Have any couples ever entered into a long term relationship as a result? Seems that most are busts, which isn't surprising considering they are blind dates.

Gene Weingarten: There's been at least one wedding.

Exactly: Blind dates. What are the chances?

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Breaking News: Presidential candidate Lee Mercer, Jr. has announced that Ann Richards had endorsed his Presidential candidacy, and that she did so, from what she is beyond death.

So, skeptics, that proves the existence that you all deny: there is a Lee Mercer Jr. running for President.

Gene Weingarten: I cannot fight this logic. You win.

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Modica, Seriously: Thanks to my fabulous job with the U.S. government, I work an hour from Modica, home of the only dark chocolate you don't hate. My husband and I spent the better part of a Saturday afternoon driving down there, only to find that all of the shops were closed for no good reason. Reposo was over and it wasn't a holiday. We got badly lost getting there (my fault) and I got a little carsick. My husband was not enjoying himself. In the end, we ended up buying some of the special Modica chocolate in a grocery store near the town square. We had only lived in Sicily for a few weeks at that point and thought we got a bad bar because it was the texture of sand suspended in chocolate... incredibly gritty. There were some rather nasty insinuations about the IQ of a person who would suggest driving over hill and dale in Sicily to eat the world's worst chocolate.

I'm still not impressed with the stuff. The taste is great, but the texture is so wrong that I have a hard time getting past it.

Also thanks to the spiffy government job, I've had a chance to sample chocolate all over Europe and Belgian truly is the best. Both milk and dark are the perfect examples of their craft. Even the mass produced stuff (Cote D'Oro) is great. The highlight of a trip we took my parents on was the afternoon I spent with my mom at the Museum of Chocolate in Brugge. We both reeked of milk chocolate for hours.

washingtonpost.com: I love the sandy texture. It doesn't melt away instantly.

Gene Weingarten: I'm with c'woman. The grit was the best part.

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Way Better Shuddering: At least three men I know shudder like that, but only after the big O. They each apologized afterwards. I, also a man, have never shuddered like that.

Is this common and/or related?

Gene Weingarten: I dunno. Like I said, this is one medical condition I've never been able to research. I don't share that little wrinkle.

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Washington, D.C.: When George Bush (or any other Republican) refers to the opposition as "the Democrat party" do you think the paper should insert "[sic]", edit the word to "Democratic", or leave it alone? I think it's usually left alone, even though many realize what the Republicans are trying to do: refer to the opposition without using a word ("Democratic") that has such a positive connotation (and which they exploit to no end). I guess the reasoning is that papers feel that if they leave it alone they are at least allowing the public to make their own judgments about why the Republican said it in such a way.

And I REALLY disagree with that.

Gene Weingarten: They are using it tactically. Of course we should not edit it.

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Shuddering: Our 20-month-old son had a febrile seizure last month and the doc said not to put him in a bath to control the fever because after he came out of the lukewarm/cold water, his body would shudder for a couple of minutes in order to bring up the body temperature -- he said it was a reflex that some people get when they are exposed to something cold and there body instinctively needs to warm up.

Gene Weingarten: Oooooh. That sounds plausible! Shudders bring up the body temp. But why does it happen AFTER the initial bath of cold, and not during it?

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Editing?: What does [sic and [brackets] in articles mean. I always see them and never know what sic is and I always assume brackets are substitution of a word or adding in an implied word to better convey meaning, but those are just guesses.

Gene Weingarten: Sic means "we know this is an error, but it is what the person said." Brackets are what you think they are.

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Gene Weingarten: Okay, thank you all. Sorry about the unreadable treatise. We will fix for later and the day, and the updates.

Next week, same time.

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UPDATED 8.22.07

Washington, D.C.: I have been a lurker for a while. It has been interesting. Here is a real life conundrum for you. I want to live. I have reasons to live, but I have my family who complains that I just don't make enough money to support them in comfort, No matter how much I make it isn't enough. The only way that I can make them happy is to die so that the insurance will provide enough. You may think this is a joke but I am crying as I write this and I will make sure that I will do this in such a way as to make sure they are not burdened by guilt. I wear my best jewelry in shady parts of town and have picked out some bridge overpasses that could be accidental. If I do make it an accident, will it be OK? It hurts so much to live...

Gene Weingarten: Okay. First, if this is not real, shame on you.

I'm going to answer it anyway, on the assumption that you are not a jackass.

I think you need to see a therapist, and this is not just the knee-jerk reaction of a columnist who is supposed to tell troubled people they need to get help. There is something disordered in your thinking, and I think talking about this to a skilled third party will help you enormously. You don't sound nuts at all, you sound as though you have lost your bearing.

Think about this: Just from what you wrote, it is clear that you love your family. You may resent their attitudes, but you worry about causing them to feel guilt. At the same time, you say you feel that they care only about your money, but you're also convinced that if they felt responsible for your death, they'd be burdened. That doesn't jibe with unconcern for you. I think you may be getting lost in unrealistic fears.

From a purely practical standpoint, the answer to your last question is, no, if you make it an accident, it will not be okay. Best case scenario, your family will be haunted by suspicion that you killed yourself; worst-case scenario, they'll have no doubt. And no money. Insurance companies spend a LOT of time and cash on accident reconstruction, exactly for situations like this.

You really should talk to a professional.

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Dallas, Tex.: Gene: I've got a medical issue I need your advice on. About seven or eight months ago, I woke up one morning with numbness in my left hand. It is only my pinky finger and the side of my ring finger closest to the piny finger. I thought I had just slept on it wrong. Sometimes it is numb, other times a bit tingly. It never went away. I saw my primary doctor who referred me to a neurologist, but I haven't been yet. Do you know what is wrong with my hand? The doc ruled out carpal tunnel because that is the nerve that affects the other fingers.

Gene Weingarten: This is called a paresthesia, a numbing in the extremities. The pinky and half of the ring finger are controlled by one nerve. And yes, carpal doesn't go there.

Little things can create this, but I think it's good you're seeing a neurologist. It shouldn't persist this long.

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Inspirati, on: A new googlenope "fine outhouse dining."

Gene Weingarten: Superior!

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E. Hogwash, again!: I looked up "marecon" in my Spanish-English dictionary and it's not listed all I can make out is that the epithet has something to do with making somebody seasick or nauseated? Either that or the person is a cashew. Or a macaroon.

And The New Yorker "throws out all the best stuff"? No wonder I keep getting rejection slips!

Gene Weingarten: A marecon is a homosexual, but it carries a much more vulgar connotation. It is closer to the long c-word that Lenny Bruce did a routine about. It is considered a terrible insult in some macho Latin cultures, particularly Cuban cultures.

When my wife was a prosecutor in Miami, there was a whole type of crime that prosecutors called "marecon murders." It was a murder that occurred over that taunt.

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Car Accident: This morning, I was in a huge hurry on my way to work. I was preoccupied with what my day held and I rear-ended a car at a stop light because I was not really paying attention. I had hot coffee in my lap and I was running late.

"Great, just great", I moaned.

The driver opened his door, leaned out of his car and stared at me. He was a dwarf. He got out, studied the damage on his bumper and walked towards me as I rolled down my window.

He said, "I am not happy."

To which I replied, "Well, which one are you then?"

Gene Weingarten: This is obviously not true, but it made me laugh.

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Gene Weingarten: This just in, from my friend Horace LaBadie --

Accepting your history of the decline of magic, we still need to ask ourselves: Are people better off now than in, say, 249 B.C.?

Is, for example, the United States better governed than the Roman Republic was, enslaved as it may have been by presumptions of the supernatural? Every important action taken by the Roman government was preceded by taking the auspices: The consul-elect would sit in a tent that had been raised on a sacred space and observe the flights of birds before taking office. If he did not perform the ritual correctly, his entire consulship could be deemed invalid. (Flaminius was removed from office for this offense.)

A Roman general could not lead his men into battle, unless the sacred chickens showed that the gods approved of the battle. True story. The Roman consul Claudius Pulcher could not get the sacred chickens to eat prior to a naval engagement against the Carthaginians off Sicily. He became so frustrated that he threw the chickens overboard in their cages, saying, "If they will not eat, then let them drink." He fought the battle and LOST. He was impeached afterwards, not for bad naval judgment, but for neglecting the auspices.

With our current leadership, are we better off that the Romans were?

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UPDATED 8.23.07

Washington, D.C.: While writing my dissertation, I pulled quotes from what seemed like at least five billion letters and diaries. Putting the quotes into my text while maintaining their integrity was absolutely no big deal, thanks to the miracles of brackets, ellipses, and other tricks.

I can't speak for other disciplines, but mine - history - considers maintaining the integrity of quotes to be absolutely essential. You do not screw around with a quote for any reason without letting the reader know, and if you do and are found out, your peers ensure that you suffer shame and humiliation.

Is the standard different for journalism? If so, why? Do brackets and ellipses and so forth muck up the copy and make it look disjointed or something? What is up with that?

Gene Weingarten: Two differences:

1. You are quoting the written word. That's different. We need to edit quotes because the spoken word is not as precise or perfect as the written word. This is the most important factor.

2. You are writing history texts. Not to denigrate history texts, but conciseness and writing elegance is less important than in journalism. Your criteria are somewhat different.

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Fairfax, Va.: Why don't you like the word fiance? I just recently aquired one, so that is what I have been saying. Anything better I can use? Future rib?

Gene Weingarten: "My girlfriend." Why do you have to announce to everyone you meet whom you are planning to marry? Why is this anyone's business?

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Re: Truth: I'm trying to understand your point about only the truth having the power to injure. I don't seem to have the necessary emotional armor to deal with insults and unconstructive criticism. So I am injured by all such comments, regardless of their basis in reality. Maybe I assume on an unconscious level that everyone else's views of me are always right.

Gene Weingarten: So if a stranger tells you your mother is a fat whore, you will wonder if he knows something about your ma that you don't?

A previous poster had it right: This is a crude person's declaration that he has the power over you to insult you, and you can't stop him because you are weaker. And it would be true only if this taunt actually bothered you.

In the street (when a kid and young adult in New York) I had street punks say stuff like this to me. My reaction was always to smile. The smile said, "what, that's supposed to get me mad?"

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Tesla, OK: But the thing that makes your hair stand on end is a Van de Graaff generator, not a Tesla coil.

Gene Weingarten: Oop.

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When life begins...: So at what point do abortions become murder? You wouldn't seriously argue that a parent could kill her three month old child because she doesn't look at her toes and know they're hers?

Gene Weingarten: Hahaha. No, I wasn't being serious when I said that life begins at three months. I was being preposterously liberal, for a radio show.

I added, "Up until three months, I think in terms of legal rights, children should be considered dogs. I am in favor of very strict punishment for abusers of dogs, however."

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Channel Surfi,NG: You're flipping throught the TV channels and you happen upon a movie you've seen countless times before and yet you feel compelled to watch it again and still find it entertaining. What movies still capture your attention in that manner? BTW the All-Bran TV commercial you linked to in a previous chat is a real commercial. I viewed it several times on the CBS network this past weekend.

Gene Weingarten: "Casablanca." "The Wizard of Oz." Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," which is on TV more than you'd think.

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UPDATED 8.24.07

Conservative v. Liberal, part II: George Will has written that the guiding principle of conservativism is freedom while the guiding principle of liberalism is equality.

Gene Weingarten: I think this is pretty good, actually.

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Cens, OR: What, the Post can't link to a YouTube site, but the venerable BBC can post on its own site a link to the future Prime Minister of England making the SAME obscene gesture?

Gene Weingarten: This is funny!

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Colorado Springs, Colo.: Gene,

My youngest son committed suicide almost a month ago. He had been seriously mentally ill since late adolesence. Anti-psychotic and antidepressents helped somewhat with the auditory hallucinations, but nothing ever really made them go away. He lived a life that was mostly painful, despite all our efforts to help. He staged his death in a way that caused the least amount of hurt for those of us who loved him, and made certain that his brother, a former Marine, would be the one to find him.

So, did he have a right to do it? I don't know. He's free at last, but there's a hole in me that is never going to go away.

My house is empty and sad.

Gene Weingarten: I think he had a right to do it. I think you owe it to his memory to try to make your sadness recede, over time. It is what he wanted; he would want your happiness, now.

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Calgary, Alberta, Canada: "Cynic AL: Soo... if you don't believe in God, why does your timeline use BC and AD?"

Can't you beleive that a man named Jesus Crist lived and died, that he was a great example of man adn what mankind can be/achieve, but was not the LITERAL Son of God?

That is what I've always thought.

Gene Weingarten: Sure. But it's not the B.C. that is inconsistent with atheism at all. It's the A.D. That means Anno Domini, the year of our Lord.

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Manchester, N.H.: I know that ellipses in a newspaper quote mean that words were omitted. However, it seems that amid the tubes of the internets, it has come to reflect a pause in thought. I suspect that might explain why 40 percent of votes went that way.

Gene Weingarten: If it is used in a quotation, it means that words were omitted. If it is used in the narrative, all bets are off. Writers use it to mean different things.

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Factoid: Submitting to next week's chat makes you smarter.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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