act now

Sometimes people use words to make things sound more urgent than they are.

If someone nearby tells you to “act now” and nothing in your immediate area is on fire, you might want to have some follow-up questions ready. If someone on TV or the internet tells you to act now — lest you miss out on some exciting offer or other — you should definitely put it out of your mind for at least 72 hours before making a decision.

A request to “act now” should give you pause, and not just because the people who say it don’t always have your best interests at heart.

The other reason to be suspicious is that in a real emergency, no one will ever say “act now” to get you to do something about it. You might hear DUCK or RUN or PUSH THE BUTTON or DO NOT PRESS THE BUTTON, but no one is going to tell you to act now. There isn’t time. So calm down, ask a few questions, and be glad you’re not on fire.

what’s in a name: the department of justice

You’re a busy person. You can’t pay attention to everything all the time. That’s why you keep me around — because you know that every so often I will burst into the room and grab you by the front of your shirt and say something like Oh my god do you guys realize the U.S. government calls its court system the Department of Justice.


They may as well call it the “Department of Fairness” or the “Department of We Never Convict Innocent People Or Let Murderers Go Free.”

They also could have called it the Department of Courts, but they didn’t.

Names are important.


“Progressive” has a whole bunch of meanings, but my favorite is the one that is supposed to mean, more or less, “liberal.”

Progress is completely subjective. It depends on where you are and where you’d like to be. Any time society changes in a way that makes it more appealing to you, you’re going to think it has made progress. Obviously. Progress toward the the thing you want. That’s why everyone likes progress.

The fact that we hear “liberal” and “progressive” used interchangeably is hilarious. It means that at some point in political history, liberal people just sort of collectively decided that from then on, their ideas would be called “progressive.” And despite the implicit slam on conservative (regressive?) ideas, they somehow tricked their conservative friends into saying it, too!

Sneaky, huh?

extraordinary rendition

Extraordinary rendition sounds like a very good production of a play (“We saw an extraordinary rendition of Hamlet at the Globe Theatre!”), but it means capturing someone and hiding him in a secret prison in another country.

The U.S. government did this to a lot of people after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

I don’t know about you, but I find it sort of alarming that shipping people off to shadowy foreign prisons without so much as a phone call home is something my government does so often that they decided to give the practice its own special name. On top of that, the name they chose could not sound less like what it means — a clear sign that they know it’s a crazy/terrifying thing to do, but would prefer not to think about it.

Or would would prefer not to have you think about it.

spin cycle: never mind the sound cannon

Welcome to the first installment of Spin Cycle, where we shake our collective fist at people who are bullshitting us in the news.

Today we are going to talk about sound cannons.

First of all: Yes! There is such a thing as a SOUND CANNON. The science of how it works is pretty cool, but the name tells you everything you need to know. It’s like a regular cannon, except it shoots sound instead of cannonballs.

The Chicago Police have apparently gotten their hands on one of these things in preparation for some large protests that are about to happen.

So, to recap: We have a large, tense political protest and a military-grade weapon. If this combination of things sounds dangerous to you, the spokesperson for the Chicago Police would like you to forget about the sound cannon. It is, she says, “simply a risk management tool.”

Ooooh, risk management. Right. Very boring. When you put it that way, a sound cannon is essentially the same thing as health insurance.

I don’t mean to pick on this lady. We all say dumb things at work sometimes. It’s just that I live in Chicago, which means that the Chicago police may — at any time, really — decide to blast me or someone I know with a goddamn sound cannon, and she’s trying to convince us it’s some kind of dull bureaucratic necessity. Okay? It’s a military-grade weapon, not a fucking seatbelt.

Look, I’m glad it’s not my job to make sure no one burns the city down this weekend. But it’s important for everyone — especially the people wielding the giant weapons — to be honest about what they’re doing.

Consider the difference between these two questions: Is it okay to manage risks? Is it okay to assault thousands of people at a time in the name of public safety?

what is an analogy?

You might think analogies are boring, stupid word games The Man makes you play on standardized tests like the SAT to prove how much you want to go to college.

Your heart is in the right place. We hate standardized tests, too. But unlike the SAT, analogies are really interesting and important, so you might as well stick around for this one.

An analogy is like a metaphor on steroids. The point of an analogy is to make you think about the relationships between things.

Imagine you’re standing straight up with your arms raised toward the sky. You might say you’re standing like a tree. That’s a metaphor.* An analogy is a little more specific. If you want to draw an analogy between yourself and the tree, you’ll have to explain why “tree” is a good metaphor for how you are standing. For example, your arms are sticking out of your body the way the branches stick out of the tree.

On a standardized test, you’d write it like this — tree:branches::you:arms — but all you’re saying is that a tree’s relationship to its branches is like your relationship to your arms.

When analogies try to compare a lot of different things all at once, they can get pretty confusing, and sometimes they go horribly wrong. We’ll talk about the ways that can happen another day.

*Misguided pedants: We don’t talk about similes here because we like having friends.


The words people invent can tell you a lot about the things that matter to them. Like there is a reason we have a word for the internet but no word for the supremely uncomfortable feeling you get when you understand a joke but still don’t think it’s funny and everyone around you is laughing and you’re just standing there like an asshole:

The internet is way more important to us than that feeling.

But sometimes words hang around long after we stop caring about the things they describe. Take the word “bastard.”

“Bastard” used to refer to a kid whose parents weren’t married. For a long time, when you called someone a bastard, you were basically saying, “Your parents were not married when you were born! This accusation should make you feel ashamed if it is true and insulted if it is not true!”

No one thinks about that anymore, of course — it’s just a generic insult — but it shows how deeply people once cared about stupid bullshit like whether your parents were willing to get and stay married even if they didn’t particularly like each other.

Of course, people still care about all kinds of stupid bullshit, and we have the words to prove it. We’ll talk more about those things later.

do you have a moment?

Have you ever gotten roped into talking to someone who was collecting donations for a nonprofit organization?

Sure you have. You were walking and he was standing in the middle of the sidewalk, grinning and holding a clipboard.

These people with the clipboards don’t come right out and ask you for money. Not at first, anyway. They always open with something like “Do you have a moment for the environment?” or “Do you have a moment to rescue a blind orphaned puppy from a burning building?”

It’s hard to say no, isn’t it? Hard enough that you sometimes cross the street to avoid the clipboard people altogether? Even though you know what they’re really asking is “Hey, will you give me some money?” and you don’t want to give them any, it’s still not easy to look an aggressively well-groomed stranger in the eye and say you do not have a moment to help remove landmines from central-African playgrounds.

Ten seconds ago, this guy was the jerk who interrupted your lunch break to ask you for your credit card number. Now you’re the jerk who hates children. See how quickly he turned it around? All he had to do was ask you the right question.

reverse racism

Q: Hey! What’s racism?

A: It’s when you think one race (your own, usually) is superior to another one.

Q: Okay, so what’s reverse racism?

A: Oh, that’s something some white people say when they think non-white people are being racist against them.

Q: So, when the non-white people think they’re better than white people because of their race.

A: Yeah.

Q: That sounds exactly like regular racism.

A: It is!

Q: Then why don’t they just say “racism?”

A: How should I know? Probably it’s because they don’t pay attention to what they’re saying. But maybe it also has something to do with history. White people have been real dicks to people of basically every other race at some point in history (sometimes very recent history), and whether they want to admit it or not, as a group they still benefit from the racist systems their ancestors set up. And of course some white people are themselves racists. So in the United States (where there are tons of white people around), when racism is in the news, the people doing the racist shit are usually white. That doesn’t mean no one else is a racist, but it does make it easy for people who don’t think very hard to confuse “racism” with “white people acting racist.”

Q: But then why is it pretty much only white people who say “reverse racism?”

A: Weird, huh? It makes it sound like only white people can be real racists, which is both condescending and somehow also offensive to members of all races.

Q: It’s racist, in a way.

A: In two ways.

Q: Oh, boy.

compassionate conservative

Okay, look, we’re not going to fight about politics today. That’s not what we do here. I’ll let you decide how you think “compassionate conservatives” are different from regular ones.*

But in general, be wary of people who can’t wait to tell you how compassionate they are. In fact, watch out for any person too eager to share any of his or her personality traits with you. Next time you hear the term “compassionate conservative,” I hope you’ll imagine a grinning stranger shaking your hand aggressively and saying, “Hi, I’m Honest John, and this is my friend Not-Racist Mike.” John may indeed be honest and Mike might be the least racist person you’ll ever meet in your life, but you’ll be understandably skeptical until you see how each man acts.

Also, if you belong to a group that makes you feel like you have to let other people know you’re compassionate before you even name the group, maybe it’s time to find some new friends.

*As far as I can tell, the difference is that compassionate conservatives care about poor people but don’t think the government should help them, whereas regular conservatives don’t necessarily give a crap about poor people and also don’t think the government should help them.