Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Of Shoes and Shower Scuffs

I was surprised to find a picture of a shoe like the one below in a fashion magazine layout last year.

The shoe reminded me of a pair of loafers I owned in college.  They were cheap -- like many college students, I had a limited budget -- and the leather behind the heels got stretched and flattened, rendering the shoes useless for hiking across campus.  During senior year, I used them as shower scuffs.

When I saw the picture, I thought to myself, nah, nobody would make a $700 pair of designer shoes with the backs flattened on purpose.  That's crazy thinking.

But  I was wrong.  Recently I saw this pair of also-expensive shoes.  

This made me curious.  I looked online for views of the shoe from other angles and, sure enough, I found that my embarrassing shower scuffs are now a "thing."

Then I looked around online and found many other shoes with deliberately squashed backs.  Here are a couple examples.

I'm not naming designers here, but let me say that these seemingly impractical shoes can be found in many colors and, at prices ranging north of $500.  

If you want a pair, you're going to have to find them on your own. I do not recommend them.

One Last Thing

Here is a spring shoe that really does look like a shower scuff.  It's a bit less expensive, about $300 a pair, which is more than I'd spend on a pair of shower scuffs, even in pink suede. 

Here is an illustration from the designer of how the shoes might be worn.  It appears that the back strap is there only for show.   The look is very casual, almost sloppy, but it has been shown with actual dresses that might be worn to social events.  Go figure.  

If you like this sort of thing, I say, go for it.  As for me -- been there, done that.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

MovieMonday: The Penguin Counters

This is a short movie, about 70 minutes, and so I will give it a short review, and then speak a little further.  The review:

This documentary has too many humans and not enough penguins.

"The Penguin Counters" was funded by a Kickstarter campaign and the Pew Charitable Trusts.  The idea was to follow Ron Naveen -- "Penguins are my passion" -- and his team as they compiled their annual penguin census.  Naveen, in the opening, calls penguins "indicators of ocean health and sentinels of climate change." 

Then it's off for adventure.

Unfortunately, more than half the documentary is about getting to the penguins.   The penguin counting team travels south on a cruise ship that stops at Deception Island, where the depredations of the whaling industry are discussed, and at South Georgia Island, where there is a diverting discussion of Ernest Shackleton and the cracking apart of his ship, the Endurance, in 1915.   

When the team transfers from its cruise ship to its smaller craft, that is documented as well, along with regular dinners that always include large helpings of mashed potatoes.

The movie includes shots of several types of penguins but focuses on the counting of chinstraps, the largest group in the penguin universe.  This is accomplished by visiting known chinstrap hangouts during the season when penguins are homebound, sitting on their nested eggs and awaiting the emergence of hatchlings. 

The counting is done with clickers.  There are many shots of Naveen and his largely silent crew members click-click-clicking as they count penguin nests (not penguins per se) and then assemble their data to compare with previous years' counts. Their belief is that the penguin population is declining because of climate change

My guess is that the traveling film crew was limited by bad weather, and perhaps also by limited funds, and so was unable to get as much film of penguins as had been planned.  Why else would this documentary be only 70 minutes long when most feature films run  between 90 minutes and two hours?   How else to explain the inclusion of footage of a  penguin counter getting a haircut on the boat deck?  


Two matters not addressed in "The Penguin Counters" occurred to me as I walked out of the theater. 

1.  Why count penguins using clickers?  I get that Naveen and his people love-love-love penguins.  Who doesn't?  (To my knowledge, there has never been a movie documenting fluctuations in, say, the mole rat population and the implications for climate change.) Personally, I'd love to visit penguins in situ, but I'm not sure that it's a good idea for humans to go tromping through previously unsundered landscapes and distracting the animals.
       I wonder whether this research could be undertaken more efficiently -- with maps broken into quadrants of known penguin nesting sites and detailed satellite studies and high-res aerial photography during the occasional fair-weather days of appropriate seasons.  Clickers are so 20th century, after all.

2.  There isn't much discussion of how climate change could affect penguin numbers except an assertion that climate change may have reduced the krill population in southern seas. Krill are small shrimp that make up a large part of the penguin diet.
      Krill also make up a large part of the whale diet, according to the movie, which notes that the blue whale was nearly harvested to extinction.  The implication is that whale blubber, used to make oil in the pre-Spindletop days, was the reason for the excess whaling.
      Whaling actually became much more mechanized and efficient in the 20th century, when many more whales were killed, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere.  This is illustrated in the chart below, which comes from

          Think about it:  Whales are big eaters.  If krill are a major food source for whales and the whale population declined precipitously up to and through the 1960s, as seems to be the case, wouldn't more krill have become available to foster an increasing penguin population toward the end of the 20th century?  Could that have been the period of Peak Penguins?  Could the declining penguin numbers since reflect that more penguins a generation ago led to the overconsumption and reduction of the krill population and that a right-sizing of the penguin population is under way? 
          In fact, penguin counting started about 30 years ago.  There are serious scientists who research human effects on animal populations, but data may be too scarce for longitudinal study in this case.
          One more thing:  A 2016 article republished in Scientific American says penguin populations have been declining for 30 years (again without reference to previous populations) and speculates that warmer temperatures have led to declining sea ice, making life more difficult for krill and penguins.  It includes a quote from the spokesman for a Norwegian krill-fishing company who disputes that krill fishing has had any effect at all on any of this.  Who knows?
          Perhaps the penguin-counter filmmakers decided to avoid the whole matter as too complicated and science-y for a general movie audience.  Still, I'm curious.

Two Other Documentaries

The long camera shots of penguins and the land masses of the Southern Hemisphere were the high points of "The Penguin Counters" for me.  In fact, there are two earlier documentaries about the area that I thought were even better.

"March of the Penguins," documents the annual movements of emperor penguins without getting involved in the stories of the humans who love them.  It was released in 2005 and is narrated, excellently, by Morgan Freeman.

"The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition," released in 2000, is a great adventure story about the British ship that broke apart in the region and its crew, led by Sir Ernest Shackleton, who managed to survive more than a year of desolate hardship before making their way home.  

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Larry Fink on Retirement

I'm not a personal friend of Larry Fink, but I have met the guy.  He's disciplined and thoughtful, as you would expect the founder and CEO of Black Rock to be.  His firm manages more than $5.1 trillion for investors of all types.

Anyway.  Fink sat for a long interview that was published in Bloomberg today.  You can read the whole thing here, but be prepared to spend a lot of time on it.

One thing he said is that we are failing to plan for retirement.  He's been banging this drum for a while now, and good for him.  People need to hear it and to act.  From the interview:

       We don’t spend enough time as a society understanding how bad the retirement 

       system is in this country. I think much of the anger in this past election is based 
       on people’s fear of their future. 

       People are frightened; they know they haven’t saved enough money for retirement. 

       They’re going to be highly dependent on Social Security—which, if that’s the only 
       source of income, means living in poverty. 

       In addition, the bigger problem many of our cities and states are facing is that their 

       retirement plans are defined-benefit plans. Their liabilities are so large, and 
       increasing, especially as we transform deadly diseases into chronic ones. 

       That translates into greater longevity and -- you’re witnessing it every day as an

       American -- underspending on our infrastructure. It’s a direct cause of the (poor) 
       financial positions of state and local governments. 

       And it’s only going to get worse.

       I believe the recognition of our precarious retirement position is one of the most

       underappreciated future crises in this country. 

       I think this crisis is going to be much bigger than health care. Health care is 

       immediate. If you don’t have proper health care, it is today’s problem. But as 
       you know -- investing, the whole concept of compounding -- if you’re not building 
       your nest egg year after year after year, you’re not going to have enough savings to 
       retire with dignity.

As Citizens

I spend time in two states whose leaders have been ignoring the public aspect of the retirement problem for years.  In time, as more public employees collect pensions, those expenses will crowd out funding for education, highway maintenance, police departments and other functions that we now take for granted.  Both states need to make plans instead of hoping the inevitable will not come to pass. 

The time to act on this was a generation ago, but doing something today is better than waiting until tomorrow.  We need to hold our politicians to account, which is uncomfortable for them but necessary nonetheless.

As Individuals

It can be hard to tell people to save for the proverbial rainy day, but it has to be done.

We need to save and to tell our children to save, starting as soon as they get jobs.  If your children aren't investing in Individual Retirement Accounts, give them the money as birthday presents and make them open IRAs.  They'll thank you later, or at least remember you fondly for this.  

Sunday, April 16, 2017

MovieMonday: Their Finest

Here's an unusual movie concept -- a young woman making her way as a screenwriter in 1940 London as the Luftwaffe is bombing English cities to soften up the country for an eventual German invasion.

The improbable juxtaposition of the two themes -- a country in peril and the hilarious obstacles faced in making a let's-all-pull-together film -- works very well.

As "Their Finest" opens, Catrin Cole applies for what she believes is a secretarial job and finds herself hired to write "the slop," women's themes in a feature movie.  She is paid less than men, but the fact that virtually all the men are in the military has given rise to her opportunity in the first place. 

Cole is sent to interview two young women, twin sisters, who took the family boat to participate in the Dunkirk rescue, when more than 300,000 Allied soldiers, driven to the French coast by Nazi forces, were picked up by navy ships, fishing boats and other small craft and conveyed to England to fight another day.  

Unfortunately, the sisters' story is not quite the heroic one that is wanted by the filmmakers. 

No matter.  Cole, who wants the job, manages to massage the material she has into something workable.   She teams with an affable older writer and a younger man, a melancholy critic in glasses, to create a step chart of scenes that are pasted on a story board and then rendered in dialogue. 

The British military leaders have many suggestions about how the movie should be written.  An aging and vain actor, also available because all the young guys are in the army, needs constantly to have his personal concerns assuaged.  A blond American soldier with no acting chops is inserted into the story at a late moment in hopes the movie will drum up U.S. military support.

Any of these interferences could destroy the project; not many good stories are written by committees, after all.  Cole proves herself able to make plot adjustments on the fly as well as to craft essential parts of the screenplay.

Over time, her critical colleague admits, "You're doing a good job."  A palpable romantic tension develops.

The film cuts between events in Cole's personal life and London bombings as the plot is built, and then the film-within-a-film group goes on location to shoot exterior scenes.  

One peripheral character in the "Their Finest" serves initially as the irritating liaison between Cole's film crew and the military.  She is a tough broad in pants, and her role grows as she helps move some late-introduced events along.  Somewhere in this period, she says what seems to be the theme of "Their Finest."  It is this:

"It seems to me when life is so very precious it's an awful shame to waste it."  

Given the moment and setting, this makes sense.   As seems to be the theme of many many movies today, which perhaps is appropriate catchup for decades when it was not so, a woman proves herself against multiple challenges.

The movie is interesting and nicely paced.  Its supporting characters are all well played and add to the enjoyment. 

A final point:  I may be the only one here, but I found two plot points about Cole's personal life, dropped in at about the 70 percent and 90 percent marks, pretty darn strained.  Critics generally regarded these as nits at most, but to me they seemed heavy-handed and artificial. I would have preferred smoother story development.

Still, I like the movie.


The movie title comes from Winston Churchill's speech before the House of Commons just after Dunkirk.  It starts with acknowledgement that the retreat from the mainland of Europe was "a colossal disaster," then details all the previous difficulties and those that lie ahead. 

Churchill then vows "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets . . . ." and winds up with this:

"Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'"

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

United Airlines

Just another bleeding United customer

We've all seen the videos of airport police manhandling a guy out of his ticketed seat and dragging him down the aisle on a United Airlines jet.  We all know that he was angry because the airline chose his seat at random and wanted him out to make room for a non-paying flight attendant who was urgently needed in Louisville.  

A company spokesman called the event an "involuntary de-boarding situation," apparently with a straight face.  Happens all the time, right?

 Many people found this story shocking.  Not me.  I posted three years ago about two annoying back-to-back experiences with United.  These were only the most recent stories in a much longer litany that goes back many years and continues to this day.

There are some airlines whose employees treat customers pretty nicely -- Southwest, Alaska and Delta come to mind.  American Airlines is pretty much by the book.  But United, well, United is in a class by itself. 

No Style Points

United screwed this situation up in several ways.

1) After offering first $400 and then $800 (plus a hotel room) to passengers willing to stay over in Chicago, United still needed two empty seats.  The obvious solution would have been to offer more money.  Economists say that there is a certain price at which any market will clear; this is true.  If the company had been willing to come out of pocket for another $1,000, it might have avoided this whole mess.

2) United gate agents let passengers board the jet before enough empty seats had been secured for United's precious employees. It's easier to keep people off a plane than to drag them out bodily, especially in an age when everyone has a cell phone that can shoot little movies.
3) United's CEO, Oscar Munoz immediately blamed the passenger, a Chinese doctor, who, Munoz said, "raised his voice and refused to comply with crew instructions."  (Obedience is very important if you're a United passenger.) 
        Then, said Munoz, the passenger grew "more disruptive and belligerent," and added that "Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this." 
         Apparently "established procedures" allow for roughing up passengers and knocking them unconscious -- who knew?
       This calls to mind the time I heard a United flight attendant say over the intercom that her job was really passenger safety but that she would try to help passengers in her spare moments.  (I am not making this up.)

4) Then Munoz doubled down and sent a cheer-up message to employees; it was picked up moments later by news organizations.
         "This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.
         "While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right."
         In other words: You employees are great; never change.

It seems entirely possible that the United attitude -- employees good, customers bad -- trickles down from company's C-suite to every single airline employee. This is why more than a few people are not big United Airlines fans.


I am flying cross-country tomorrow, and unfortunately my flight is on United.  If I don't make it to my destination, please tell my relatives and friends that I put up a good fight.  

Sunday, April 9, 2017

MovieMonday: The Boss Baby

What to say about this movie?  It's funny, yes, but it does push the envelope.

Its source material, a 32-page picture book, seems to be aimed at children whose family life is about to be upset by the arrival of a new baby.  In that book, the baby wears a onesie business suit, and the family's entire routine becomes a round-the-clock effort to keep the baby happy.  

In a very broad sense, that is the story of "The Boss Baby" movie.  Unfortunately there is not enough plot material in the book to sustain a full-length film.  This led to some amping up of story and action by the creatives at Dreamworks Animation, the outfit that gave us the Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar trilogies, among others.   

The movie opens with a heavenly fiction of babies being prepped for delivery to happy parents.  Then we meet a seven-year-old boy named Tim Templeton, a very happy only child. Tim's bedtime routine includes three books, five hugs, his special song and the full attention of both his parents.

Tim watches, aghast, as a baby wearing a business suit and carrying a briefcase is dropped off by a yellow taxi at the Templeton home and is welcomed by his parents.  

From there it's off to unreality land.  

Tim learns quickly that the baby is not a real baby, but an obnoxious business executive from Baby Corp.  "You didn't go to business school, did you?" snarks the baby as the two battle.  

Turns out Boss Baby has been ordered to earth from the celestial baby factory, known as Baby Corp.  BB's task is to reduce the growing puppy slice of the family-love pie chart, an existential threat to the future of babies.  (Yes, I know, but stay with me here.)  Tim and the Baby Boss can't stand each other, but they agree to work together when the interloper promises to leave as soon as he has accomplished his goal.

Then, having dialed the wacky premise up to 11, the movie aims for 22.  There is an evil CEO (but I repeat myself) at the enemy company, Puppyco, with a complicated backstory and a new puppy initiative that Must Be Stopped. There are references to childhood things -- infant formula, pacifiers, fold-out books -- and then a mean babysitter in drag, a bicycle chase scene, a scramble through airport security, a charter flight of Elvis impersonators headed for Las Vegas and a Puppyco convention where Tim and Boss Baby meet their enemy.  

Theoretically, this is a children's story/movie, and so things work out fine.

Except this isn't really a movie for young children.  The young people in the theater where I saw "The Boss Baby" were between 12 and 14 and obviously were familiar with the Dreamworks Animation oeuvre. They laughed at every preview before the movie, and they laughed all through "The Baby Boss."  

They even laughed at the "Cookies are for closers" line, a play on an Alec Baldwin line in a 25-year-old movie based on a David Mamet play.  Mamet doesn't do kid stuff.  Would the children's mothers even have seen that movie, let alone remembered the line -- "Coffee's only for closers?"  I saw the old movie and have read the play since then, and even I had to look it up.

I used to be a child once, and I remember feeling deep envy for a school friend whose parents took the family to every single new children's movie.  

Now I'm thinking I maybe dodged a bullet. 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Books That Don't Work:The Devil and Webster

Many books are being published these days, and it is difficult to find the ones that are worth reading.  I rely generally on book reviews to help me separate the wheat from the chaff. Sometimes this works, and other times it doesn't.  

In the last month, I have read three highly praised books that were pretty darned bad.  So today I'm going to talk about one of them.  Book reviewers, take heed:  We readers are paying attention.

This book has received many laudatory reviews and is seen as a thoughtful observation of identity politics in colleges today. A typical reaction, encapsulated in the subtitle to a Wall St. Journal critique, was this:  A "sharp and insightful account of the current explosion of student discontent, (that) ought to set off a golden age for the campus novel."

Well, hahaha with that.  Here is my reaction.

The Devil and Webster
by Jean Hanff Korelitz

This book is set in a small New England town and at a fictional college, Webster, whose reputation has grown and changed in the 250 years since its founding.  Once a school for the boorish and disdainful sons of elite WASP families, Webster now is a highly desirable, broadly diverse liberal arts college ranked just below Harvard and Yale.  (It is difficult to explain to anyone outside the Northeast how obsessed people in that region are with this kind of signifier.) 

The person who has completed the college's resurrection is Naomi Roth, a former women's and gender studies professor who has been the school's first female and first Jewish president for a number of years.

Told from Roth's point of view but not in the first person, the book goes on at some length about Roth's history of campus radicalism, her pride at Webster's broadly inclusive student body, her identification with student radicals and her support for same.  She's also dismissive and scornful of people, mostly older white men, who don't share her point of view. Establishing Roth's righteousness takes up almost the entire first half of the book, which seems a bit much.  

When students begin a quiet occupation of the campus's main quad, Roth pays no mind.  As winter approaches and more students set up tents in the space, Roth seeks to learn the students' complaints.  She is distressed to find herself cast in the unfamiliar role of "the man" -- the oppressive campus heavy.

Eventually she learns the students' complaint:  Tenure has been denied to a popular, easy-grading African American professor of folklore.  In fact, the professor has plagiarized the single publication credited to him in his years at Webster.  This is discovered not by his colleagues but by a high school student who remembers reading the original source material in a social studies class. 

Because tenure discussions are confidential, Roth cannot explain the tenure denial.  For this she is reviled as a bigot and a racist.  The protest is led by a charismatic Palestinian student who has been mentored by the black professor and who has his own back story.  He refuses Roth's repeated email requests to meet and talk.  For some reason, she doesn't bother to go down and initiate a conversation at the protest site. 

Things go on and then get worse.  Everything gets knitted back up by the end, and everyone, including Roth, is found to be imperfect in one way or another.  Well, who isn't?

The Central Problem

Roth perceives herself to be powerless and does NOTHING.  She does not confront the Palestinian student or the plagiarizing professor.  She supports the demonstration by providing a luxury potty truck but does not assert that the school's tenure decision is an honorable one.  Some leader.

The Palestinian student has obvious problems, but she defends herself in her own mind by enumerating all the "programs" she has instituted that would have ameliorated those problems.  When things go very badly for the student, she is puzzled and detached, not curious about how she might have averted his sad demise.
When bad things happen -- bad things done by unknown, never-identified others -- Roth becomes a victim again and therefore sympathetic.  She even ends up a with a new boyfriend who looks white but happens to have Native American ancestry.  
Having learned very little from the whole experience, Roth takes up the presidency again. 
Maybe the point of the book is to critique the willful passivity of college bureaucrats today.  But readers and reviewers don't seem to take it that way.  And triumphant passivity is a pretty weak theme for a 368-page piece of literature.  


The book's title is a play on the title of a short story, "The Devil and Daniel Webster," that was a regular junior high reading assignment during much of the 20th century.  

In that book, Daniel Webster, perhaps the most prominent 19th century American never to have been elected president,  argues in a courtroom for the freedom of a farmer who has made a Faustian pact with the devil.  The themes of that story are patriotism, the evil of slavery and, to a smaller extent, acknowledgement of American settlers' mistreatment of Native Americans.  

The last point is shoehorned into the book under discussion here, apparently to establish the virtuous nature of the college president and her wonderful, wonderful inclusive agenda.  Said another way, the title "The Devil and Webster" is an unjustifiable literary appropriation.

Monday, April 3, 2017

MovieMonday: T2 Trainspotting

As the title suggests, this movie is a sequel to "Trainspotting," the film about five Scottish heroin addicts -- or perhaps three addicts, a drug dealer and a mate with severe anger management issues -- that was released in 1996.

I hadn't seen the previous movie, which is still famous for its gritty realism and throbbing soundtrack, and so I screened it at home before I went to see this new iteration.

"T2 Trainspotting" does reward the viewer who has seen T1.  There are many references to the original, from the toilet scene to the train wallpaper to the characters' memories.  

The mates, as they call themselves, now number four, and none is doing all that well.  

  --Sick Boy, now called Simon, has a pub, a coke habit and a Bulgarian girlfriend whom he films in compromising situations so as to blackmail men with families and jobs.  His goal is to turn his pub into a brothel.

  --Francis Begbie, now called Franco, escapes from prison and is still a sociopath. When his wife tells him not to pull Franco Jr., into his next adventures, he tells her "Shut the fuck up!"  When Junior, a college student, agrees with his mother, Franco says, "Maybe I'm nae your dad, eh?" His Scottish burr is so strong that his early dialogue is subtitled.

  -- Spud, the sad sack of the group, is still on heroin and has lost his construction job.  Estranged from his wife and his son, "wee Fergus," he attempts suicide.  

Into this stew arrives Mark Renton, who straightened up, eventually, and who absconded to Amsterdam 20 years ago with most of the proceeds of a big drug deal. 

Mark visits his impossibly patient father and then Simon, who is still angry with him.  Fisticuffs ensue and then a reconciliation that involves robberies and fraud to raise cash for the brothel project.  

There are scores to be settled, and so they are, generally.  T2 has a bit more of a plot than T1, with its theme rendered, again and again, as the movie draws to a close.  There are new, bigger television screens, and the familiar sharp camera cuts and pulsing music. 

Long story short, the lads are still the same old boys they used to be.


The first "Trainspotting" movie was received as trenchant social commentary on hopelessness among the Scottish working class, but it focused mostly on improbably energetic heroin addicts.  It didn't exactly glamorize addiction, but it made the situation more interesting than what we see in the U.S. today -- luckless people comforting themselves with cheap heroin and then dying of the stuff.  

Screwed-up adolescents has been a theme of literature, and particularly of film, for generations now.  Think "Lord of the Flies," "A Clockwork Orange," and "Kids."  T1 was about addicts and small-time thugs in their 20s, rather old for the genre. 
        T2 is about people in their 40s who look unusually energetic and healthy for the lives they have led. If you wanted to find literary references for people of that age and disposition, you would turn to the novels of Charles Bukowski and William S. Burroughs, dark stuff indeed.  

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Puzzled by Pronouns

Which is the appropriate word for the blank space in this sentence?

The baby skunk loved _____ mother.

      A.  it's 
      B.  its 
      C.  their 

If you chose A., you might have cause to sue your third grade teacher.

If you chose B., the correct answer, you are among a dwindling minority of Americans.

If you chose C, you also may be correct, according to the latest edition of the Associated Press Style Guide.


The old AP style guide, a reference used in most newsrooms, said this:

         Their is a plural possessive pronoun and must agree 
    in number with the antecedent. (Emphasis mine.)
          Wrong:  Everyone raised their hands.  
          Right: They raised their hands.

(Most people seem to have forgotten this; "everyone" is in fact a singular pronoun.)

In the example at top, the antecedent, "baby skunk," is singular and typically would require a singular possessive -- its.  (An animal that is not a family pet or a Disney character is generally called "it" on second reference.)

Here is the new AP advisory.

          They, them, their In most cases, a plural pronoun should 
     agree with the antecedent.  They/them/their is acceptable
     in limited cases where a singular and/or gender neutral
     pronoun is overly clumsy.  However, rewording usually is
     possible and always is preferable.

What the AP copy editors seem to be saying is this:  Please try really, really hard not to write that "The baby skunk loved their mother."

Here is the unspoken message:  The Philistines have breached the battlements.


Lore has it that a grammarian in the mid 18th century declared that "man" should be used to speak of a person of indeterminate sex and that "he" should be the pronoun on subsequent references.

This rule was adopted broadly.  You can see it several decades later in the Declaration of Independence.

      We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men
      are created equal, .... That to secure these rights,
      Governments are instituted among men, deriving their
      just powers from the consent of the governed ....

This sort of thing riled first-wave American feminists 100 years later.   To be fair, the women and black and Asian people had reasons to be riled.  None could vote or own property, and even after the Civil War, African Americans were effectively denied the vote in many areas. Women had to wait until 1920 to be trusted with voting rights.

Still, tradition prevailed.  During most of the 20th century, the indefinite "man" and "mankind" were used commonly.  One popular typing-class sentence, falsely attributed to Patrick Henry, was this:

     Now is the time for all good men to come to the 
     defense of their country.

This continued for many years, and nobody seemed to get his panties in a twist about it.

Then came another wave of feminism, and this time the feminists meant business. Academics and serious writers began using "she" instead of "he" for the indefinite individual.
We began to read sentences like these:

      Ask your doctor if she recommends taking the purple pill.

   Even the worst axe murderer deserves her day in court.

I speak only for myself here, but the generic "he" never bothered me.  One general pronoun was needed for speech about a theoretical human, after all, and people had been using "he" for more than two centuries.  Those who had completed elementary school understood that "he" referred to a person of any gender.

Substituting the word "she," on the other hand, bothers me a great deal.  It sounds labored and more than a little twee.  I generally think of myself as a feminist, but this is not a battle I would have chosen.

Another reaction to the "she" revolution in pronouns has been confusion.  Now broad swaths of our increasingly ill-educated population have taken up not "she" but "they" as the go-to pronoun for all nouns, singular or plural, especially in speech but also in writing.

This can be discerned by the rise of unintelligible sentences in ostensibly serious publications.


Robin Williams's appearance on "Inside the Actors Studio" made an audience member laugh so hard they gave themselves a hernia.

If the writer or editor had looked on the internet, he or she could have learned in a flash that the hernia patient was man.  I'd also quibble that it wasn't the comedian's appearance but rather his humor that made the unfortunate fellow laugh.


As online shopping sales continue to increase, Bebe is the latest brick-and-mortar store to slash their physical locations.

Where to start here?  Bebe is not a store; it is Bebe Stores, Inc.  Either way, it is a singular entity, an "it" and not a "they."  Plus Bebe did not "slash its physical locations," which sets up the unintentionally hilarious image of a girl gone wild with a machete. The company closed some of its stores.  


The python is believed to have been approximately four and a half feet long and it's not unusual for them to eat things seven times as big as their heads.

As the AP style mavens noted earlier, a workaround is simple.

The python was between four and five feet long.  Such snakes can eat prey seven times as large as their heads.

Yes, the syntax still sucks, but you work with what you have.


Ng hired Koenig as a co-creator largely because, as a free agent, they could work without incurring mountains of legal paperwork.

I'm not sure what this sentence means, but the writer could have expressed himself/herself/themselves more coherently.  

Ng hired Koenig as co-creator largely because
   a) as a free agent, he could work without ...
   b) as a free agent, she could work without ...
   c) as free agents, they could work without ...


The researchers defined the queen wasps' behavior as "obstinate" if they refused to fly away after repeated poking.  Since they couldn't poke each worker wasp simultaneously when they hatched, they vibrated colonies and introduced a semblance of a moving predator in the form of a ticking metronome, instead.

There are at least three possible antecedents in this mess -- researchers, queen wasps' behavior and each worker wasp.  The casual use of one pronoun, "they," for all of them renders the whole thing unintelligible.  

Ideally, a passage like this would come with a special decoder ring.  Because it does not, let me take a whack:

The researchers defined a queen wasp's behavior as obstinate if she/it refused to fly away after repeated poking.  Since the scientists couldn't poke each worker wasp simultaneously after a batch had hatched, they vibrated the wasp colonies and introduced a semblance of a moving predator in the form of a ticking metronome.

Still not deathless prose, but better than before.


The apartment, in a 1923 building, was relieved of it's molding, baseboards and worn hardwood flooring.

Back to where we started.  "It's molding" is wrong. It's means "it is" and only that.  "Its" is the correct possessive.  

This sentence appeared in a daily newspaper that takes itself rather seriously.  It is unfortunate that a writer was unable to differentiate between it's and its; it is worse that the error got past a copy editor and a news editor. 


Here is an omen:  Facebook announced last year that it had expanded its roster of emojis to 1,080 characters. Emojis are pictures, good for expressing emotions but not good for sharing ideas or conducting discussions or thinking conceptually.
We are drifting back to the times before people communicated in words.  We use sophisticated hardware and software, but we are losing the capacity to converse in a common language that is the product of thousands of years of human development.  

If Descartes lived today, he might have said,  "I feel, therefore I am."

We might as well be making cave paintings.  We are the new primitives.