A nice definition of metadata, for Rand Paul and others who are still confused

As Henny Youngman would have said, "Take Rand Paul, please..."

As Henny Youngman would have said, “Take Rand Paul, please…”

Stan Dubinsky, the linguist, shared with me this piece that drew me because of the headline, “Take My Metadata.” And not because I pictured Henny Youngman saying that and adding “please.” (I’ve always thought that was a terrible joke, I want to go on the record as saying.) As you know, the headline reflects my attitude regarding what the NSA has been doing the last few years.

But when I read it, I appreciated it most for the definition it provided of metadata:

As a preliminary shot, one could say that in any domain where data has to be recorded, there has to be a scheme of some kind for recording it, and any description of that scheme–data about the way the data is organized–can be called metadata.

Examples will help. The metadata for a book will be the information on the reverse of the title page or in the library-catalog entry: title, author, year, publisher, place of publication, ISBN, and so on (you could add all sorts of other facts). Book metadata is what Google Books has been struggling to correct since its spectacular metadata errors started being publicized by people like Geoff Nunberg and Mark Liberman on Language Log (see here and here and here, for example).

For a phone call the typical metadata would be calling number, called number, time of connection, length of call, and so on. And for an email or a text message, sender’s address, recipient’s address, sending machine, recipient’s machine, date, subject line, and so on.

Crucially, “Call me Ishmael” is not part of the metadata for Moby Dick; that’s the first three words of the content. And “Hi, honey. Are you still at the office?” (or “Lou? Tell Enzo the hit is going down tonight”) is not part of the metadata for a phone call.

It is not clear to me whether Senator Rand Paul truly believes that important freedoms are being stripped away from Americans by the actions of the National Security Agency, which up until midnight on Sunday, May 31, was systematically recording telephone-call metadata for large numbers of mostly innocent Americans. The alternative would be that he is being disingenuous: He simply thinks his status as a possible Republican presidential nominee will be enhanced if he argues against the trustworthiness of government agencies.

But it would demean him to assume that. I think it is more charitable to assume he truly believes what he says. Though that means attributing to him what I take to be a rather stupid belief….

Yes, the examples do help. Thanks.

Oh, and to the critical issue that the writer addressed parenthetically just before that passage: “(And let me warn the purists up front that in this post I am going to be treating data not as the plural of the Latin word datum, but as an English singular noncount noun like airfunfurnitureinformation, or water: I will say the data is stored, not the data are stored.)”

Normally, I would harrumph. But when one is speaking of data in the aggregate, as a massive amount of something, rather than number of things — which is definitely what we’re talking about where the NSA is concerned — perhaps I see his point, and grudgingly decline to protest.

And… I’ll even admit that when most people say “data,” they are speaking of it similarly. But Sarah T. Kinney, my Latin teacher at Bennettsville High School, would rise up and haunt me forever were I to forget for a moment that, by all the gods on Olympus, “data” is a plural, second-declension, neuter noun.

64 thoughts on “A nice definition of metadata, for Rand Paul and others who are still confused

  1. Doug Ross

    The writer’s definition of metadata is not consistent with what we in the IT profession would use. His example of “For a phone call the typical metadata would be calling number, called number, time of connection, length of call, and so on” is only metadata up to the point where it describes WHAT would be captured. As soon as you capture a set of values for those attributes it is then DATA, not METADATA.

    So to say that the NSA is only collecting metadata is completely false. They are capturing DATA and using that data to perform data mining and analysis. The metadata only describes what is being collected. It’s like the column headers in an empty spreadsheet. Once you start filling in the rows, it’s not metadata.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, what really matters is how the government defines metadata. And this writer’s definition seems consistent with the one I’ve heard in the past.

      But in terms of the technical definition, I must bow to your expertise…

  2. Mike

    Phone meta data is far, far more than the “who is talking to whom” than is popularly portrayed. Meta data includes location data as well, and having that is a game-changer, in my view. Assuming I use my phone fairly frequently, someone with access to my historical meta data could have a very clear picture of where I’ve been, where I went after that (think Google satellite view showing my routes), when I was there, how long I was there as well as who I talked to while I was there. And the government can intrude on my privacy to that extent if, at any point, I talked to someone who talked to someone who the government is interested in.

    Knowing who I am (by linking phone number to subscriber name and address) provides access to related vehicle records including license plate. By using location information in combination with license plate info, the gov’t can now access the increasingly-common license plate scan databases collected by real-time scanners in police cars, toll scanners, red-light cams, and traffic cams allowing them an even-clearer map of my whereabouts even on trips where I did not use a phone. Now, knowing where I went and when, it’s an easy jump to credit card databases to see what I spent, when I spent it, and where it was spent and importantly, who else might have spent something at the same time.

    Why is anyone ok with any government entity being able to, at the touch of a button, pull up a spy report of their daily activities when the government has no reasonable suspicion that they have done anything wrong? Remember, meta data can be searched based on a three-times-removed link to anyone under suspicion (not accused, merely suspected).

    It’s positively Orwellian and needs to stop.

    1. Doug Ross

      You nailed it, Mike. This isn’t some passive, benign metadata collection effort.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      So basically you’re saying that, were the government to home in and focus on me in particular (which of course is not what we’re talking about when we talk about sifting through millions of pieces of data looking for patterns; we’re referring to an entirely different, and rare, level of scrutiny), in other words if I were to become a person of interest, then the government might be able to assemble almost as much information about me as Google collects on me every moment of my day.


      Well, that doesn’t bother me.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        One “homes in” = to locate, or “hones” = to sharpen.
        Ms. Language-Person

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Did you see “Hone Alone”? Cute flick about a kid who is left on his own during the holidays in a knife-sharpener’s shop…

            2. Kathryn Fenner

              You even seen a whet stone, or any other honing device? There’s no “in”

            3. Kathryn Fenner

              Nope, you have to say “sharpen the focus on” before you make up new phrases.

      2. Mike

        But if I were a person of interest, hasn’t the government always been able to articulate that interest, put it before a judge and obtain a search warrant? That requirement has never seemed like a very high bar to me. What scares me is that utterly unaccountable, invisible fishing expeditions that are enabled when the requirement to document a specific illegal activity against a specific person or group is removed from the process. Who watches the watchers?

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Congress and the FIFA court watch the watchers. Checks and balances, as intended in our system of constitutional government.

          You become a person of interest when your activity makes you stand out from the background clutter. And I don’t see monitoring that clutter as a “fishing expedition.”

          It’s like being a cop standing on a busy corner watching the thousands of people walk by. If he sees a guy pass by carrying a Kalashnikov, that guy immediately gets extra scrutiny. But the rights of the thousands of others are in no way infringed by the cop standing there…

          1. Mike

            If there’s a court any less concerned with the rights of the American public than FISA, it must be the FIFA court! 😉

          2. Mike

            In all seriousness, I would be far more willing to accept the (potential) infringement on my personal privacy if the government did not fight tooth-and-nail to prevent any public knowledge, effective oversight, or limitations on these programs. Without the Snowden revelations, would we even have known this program and its siblings even existed? Where was Congressional oversight on this? Why didn’t the FISA court challenge it? Because it was easier not to rock the boat until the public became aware that it was going on. There is far, far too much secrecy and complacency in government and it is well-nigh impossible (short of committing felonies apparently) to challenge government overreach.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              The fact that such programs existed was not secret. I had written about them a couple of times over the last few years. Here’s a post that engendered a moderately lively discussion.

              Snowden just released a lot of details (details neither I nor anyone else really needed in order to understand the thrust of the programs), and did so in the most sensational and lurid possible way, with the help of Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian and to some extent The Washington Post.

              And people who just had not been paying attention FREAKED OUT over it. We got a huge, emotional response that caused what we’re seeing now in Washington.

    3. Dave Crockett

      Yeah, I gotta go with Mike on this one. The key thing to me, Brad, is that you are taking it as a matter of faith that all the government is looking for is broad patterns (patterns of movement, patterns of calling, etc.) of potential criminal elements. But what is to keep some miscreant among the untold thousands of government employees who have access to the data from saying I do want to know specifically about Brad Warthen.

      With no accountability, just about anyone in the NSA loop has access to all of that information on Brad Warthen…not necessarily because he is a “person of interest” from a law enforcement perspective…but maybe only because he’s a person who is interesting for a great many reasons….none of which have to do with any criminal inclinations and none of which anyone other than Brad Warthen should have access to without some kind of due process.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I take it as a matter of faith that it is only possible for the government to look for broad patterns, then focus in on anything that looks problematic.

        And I suspect that if I had a thousand years to go in and evaluate EVERYTHING the NSA does, what I would find is that the government lacks the resources to check out everything that it really should…

        Machines can churn through billions of data. But when you try to investigate specifically — when you get into anything that a person my reasonably view as intrusive — you run up against finite limitations dictated by available man-hours…

    4. Kathryn Fenner

      One legally has no expectation of privacy in public.
      There is no reason why law enforcement would pick on someone without reasonable suspicion–but my concern is that that suspicion might be that the target is engaged in protected political activities!

      1. Dave Crockett

        Activities like commenting on the foibles of presidential candidates. Or lawmakers. You know, trotting around like a former newspaper editor and all that….

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Which I do completely openly and candidly, hiding nothing. It is in NO way a violation of my privacy to follow what I write.

          I don’t have a secret, private, secondary level of commentary. I pretty much tell y’all everything. Or everything I have time to write…

          1. Kathryn Fenner

            Right, but since you aren’t an official Conservative ™ *they* are going to come for you…..

            1. Brad Warthen

              Your trademark symbol suggest a major missed opportunity: Sensible people should have trademarked the word before half-baked, nihilistic, classical liberals came along and hijacked it.

              1. Kathryn Fenner

                It’s not trademarkable–too generic and descriptive. You can put a (TM) after it, but never an (R) and I doubt you’d ever establish any kind of rights….

      2. Mike

        You’re correct about the expectation of privacy in public, but that is an evolving area of the social compact if not the law itself. In other words, it’s generally true that I have no expectation of privacy when I’m walking down the street at a particular time and particular place. I think it’s less clear that I have no reasonable expectation of privacy if I am out and about for 8 hours and move from place to place. Is it really unreasonable to presume that I am not being constantly tracked and monitored during that time as I go about my business? After all, there are already laws against stalking. GPS devices cannot be attached to my vehicle without a warrant (U.S. v Katzin), even though it’s moving entirely on public streets, so there are limits, however ill-defined they may be, to monitoring my public movements.

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          Re-read my second paragraph, though–I do see the peril here. J. Edgar Hoover’s acolytes live on…

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            … to which I would say, yes, humans are fallible and it’s possible for any tool to be misused.

            But I wouldn’t recommend that cops not carry batons because they CAN be used inappropriately.

  3. bud

    Everyone has made very good points about expectations of privacy, potential abuse and other important constitutional matters. But let’s just suppose for a moment that these practices were preventing, on a regular basis 9-11 type event. Or at least smaller events like the Boston marathon bombing. That makes this tough. Wouldn’t the most strident privacy advocates screen bloody murder at the government for failing to protect the homeland? I think many would quickly abandon such lofty principals if their children were in jeopardy.

    But that’s really not the case is it? The risk is very low that any attacks have been prevented. I don’t believe terrorist activity poses any serious risk to us in the USA. It’s only in the delusional fantasy world of the neocon who sees bogeymen behind every tree that sees the need for ever more intrusive measures. Absent any real evidence that violations into our precious privacy in a misguided attempt to guard us against imaginary threat. Better to spend our resource fighting drunk driving.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well that’s the false choice we keep hearing about.

      Folks from both sides of the debate falsely frame it as a choice between civil liberties on the one hand and terrorism on the other. I’ve seen people actually defend the NSA programs in the terms Bud describes — “I’d just as soon give up some of my freedom to prevent a terrorist attack.”

      But that’s not a choice we have to make. The NSA programs — as people from all three branches of government who were knowledgeable about them have indicated from the first throes of anxiety over Snowden’s leaks — strike a balance that keeps us from having to make such a choice.

      We get a valuable tool for being alert to possible terrorist activity without violating any innocent parties’ reasonable expectations of privacy.

      Opponents of the programs want to know “Where are all the terrorist attacks this has prevented?” — a somewhat tail-swallowing question, and one that I neither want nor expect the government to answer in detail.

      But I ask the question on the other side of the coin: If this really is a harm to the liberties of ALL of us, where are the victims? Where are all of these innocent folk whose lives have been ruined by this alleged “surveillance state”? If this is such an imposition, there should be millions of them coming forward. Where are they? I’ve seen an allegation here and there, but we should be INUNDATED with them, if this is what the Rand Pauls of the world say it is…

      1. Mark Stewart

        I would argue that your scope is too limited. You are thinking of yesterday and today. Others see this as about what this sets up for tomorrow – and the days after that.

        We face these issues all of the time; questions of strengthening or eroding of rights. Religion in school/government, abortion, the right to bear arms, gay rights, ADA efforts, religion vs medicine, freedom of the press, etc, etc.

        This is not like those. This is not about sorting out citizen vs citizen. This issue is about the pure power of government. One of the most central characteristics of the founding of our country was the determination to construct a government that rejects tyranny. Our system may be messy and it may limit us to evolutionary change at an almost glacial pace. But tyranny we have not seen; not even when FDR was going for a fourth term. However, the framework of the NSA spying is a headlong dive into the tyrannical pool. Whether the data vacuumed up on us all is now used against us or not is not what is at issue here. The real issue is does this create, legitimize and institutionalize a surveillance state the likes of which the world has never seen before?

        This is a situation that would have the Founding Fathers in united opposition. Give me an example of one who would support the Patriot Act were they alive today? Would Lincoln either? Or Eisenhower?

        Something changed in the Cold War aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination as far as how government acts and perceives its citizens. At the very least this issue deserves real debate about the fundamental issues at stake here: universal surveillance and recording.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Debate away. But don’t eviscerate a useful and harmless program while we’re counting the angels on the head of the pin.

          As to your question: “The real issue is does this create, legitimize and institutionalize a surveillance state the likes of which the world has never seen before?”

          The answer is no, it does not. I don’t even see “surveillance” going on here, much less in some form that exceeds that of East German, where the Stasi had half the population watching the other half, and each other.

          Overall, your comment makes a slippery slope argument — rights have not been abused in the past or present, but continue down this path and they WILL be.

          I pretty much always find slippery slope arguments specious. We can only answer for what we DO with a given policy, not what someone might IMAGINE could later be done as an indirect result of the given policy — after some sequence of other policy decisions are made.

          It’s not sound decision-making.

          1. Mark Stewart

            Our structure of governmental checks and balances was created to address that which could happen. That was pretty sound decision-making; I think you would also agree with that, no?

            There is no slippery slope here. In fact, there is no slope to lead us down. There is only the knowable and the unknowable. It’s a stark differentiation. While I generally see things as existing along a continuum, in this case we have only black and white.

            Our democratic republic is built on process, vetting, checks, balances and accountability. It is a system that works – in bright daylight. The type of surveillance that you painted yourself into a corner defending is not any of that.

  4. Norm Ivey

    If the NSA is collecting only what they say are collecting, I don’t see the loss of privacy. I haven’t heard of anybody’s liberties being restricted or impacted in any manner, and until I do, I choose to trust my government.

    On the other hand, there’s been no evidence presented that collecting the data has foiled any plots, either. This looks like one of those times where there is little purpose in the practice, but no harm in it either. In which case, I say you err on the side of less government intrusion and let the practice end.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Norm, that’s a sensible position, but I come to a different conclusion, for at least two reasons:

      — If there’s little evidence it has foiled plots, and no evidence it does harm, I say keep it, and here’s why: It is reasonable to assume that it WOULD lead to valuable intelligence, even if it hasn’t so far (and I sincerely doubt that it’s been totally fruitless). Meanwhile, it is NOT reasonable to believe the program violates anyone’s rights. Just because that cop on the corner hasn’t caught any bank robbers running by doesn’t mean it isn’t a good idea to have the cop there, especially since he does no harm.

      — The “sky is falling” libertarians — the Rand Pauls, the Snowdens, and anyone who uses the absurdly hyperbolic term “Orwellian” to describe these programs, do not deserve to win on this. Their alarmist emotionalism should NOT be allowed to dictate national security policy. That’s a very bad outcome for the nation.

      And yet that’s what just happened in the Congress. Because of their hysterical ranting about imaginary threats to liberty,actual threats to public safety are likely to go undetected.

      As I said, this was never a choice between civil liberties and public safety. Under this program, we had both. Now, under the illusion of protection of civil liberties, we have in truth damaged public safety while getting nothing in return. Nothing but the disturbing precedent of having critical public policies dictated by the most delusional among us.

      1. Norm Ivey

        If the cop on the corner is transferred to another beat, and there are still no bank robberies on his previous corner, there’s no damage to public safety. Letting the NSA surveillance expire would have a similar result, I believe. Many of the terror attacks on US soil have been home-grown: Kaczynski, McVeigh, Fort Hood, Boston. Data collection failed to detect the latter two, and I doubt it would have detected the others. And we had the information we needed to detect the 9-11 attacks before they happened. We just didn’t connect the dots in time. I’m unconvinced that data collection keeps us safer than other methods of investigation and vigilance.

        We are not threatened by either the presence or the absence of the surveillance. We’ve more important things to concern ourselves with right now.

  5. Phillip

    I cannot resist pointing out the irony of someone who is an admirer of Lindsey Graham actually writing the words “their alarmist emotionalism should NOT be allowed to dictate national security policy.” But hey, it’s human nature, right? What one side might call “passion,” the other calls “hysteria.” And it cuts both directions.

    When you’re talking about a new era of highly-sophisticated information-gathering and collecting by government, having that debate and periodically revisiting the issue (strengthening oversight, adjusting limits, etc.) is essential, at a minimum. That’s all that the Senate just did. (Again, referring to that David Cole NYRB piece I linked to in another thread, the concepts of “sunset” and “sunshine”). If even their bipartisan, limited adjustments to the still-continuing metadata-gathering program are unacceptable to you, then that sounds to me like someone who’s no longer calling this a false choice, but rather, coming down pretty hard on one particular side of the fence.

    This is a healthy national debate that’s been going on in the last year or two, finally. These debates (on finding the balance between security and liberty) are themselves representative of the very “values” that we ask our troops to defend in service to their country. Moreover, constitutional safeguards don’t exist only in reaction to past instances of demonstrable harm to individuals: they exist to maintain the very fabric of our freedoms that make us “exceptional,” that are at the heart of our national purpose and identity. They are the small but vital mechanisms that prevent any serious attempt in any imaginable future to go farther in altering the fundamental nature of a liberal democracy. To be extremely cautious and vigilant about granting domestic surveillance capabilities and insisting on strong congressional and judicial oversight is not “hysterical.” To me it simply shows a larger awareness of history and a national resolve that we’re not going to allow the opposite emotional motivator (fear), coupled with an unreasonable fantasy that we can protect ourselves 100% from terrorist attacks, to lead us to undoing fundamental constitutional safeguards that make us who we are.

    1. Doug Ross

      Phillip – I would suggest you don’t use the term “metadata gathering” as it continues the fallacy that what is being gathered is not data. They are collecting data. If they are retaining a phone number it is data. If they are retaining a time of day for a call it is data. If they are retaining a duration of a call it is data.

      Anyway, Lindsey Graham has admitted that he has never written an email in his life. That should disqualify him from running for President as it demonstrates either a complete disconnect from the world we live in or else a desire to avoid any electronic paper trail of his interactions with people. I think we should require Lindsey to have all his conversations recorded while in office. He’s got nothing to hide, right?

      1. Scout

        Ok, so Metadata is a type of data. I don’t see how making this distinction contributes to the conversation. Yes, it’s data, but it’s still not the kind of data that would invade one’s privacy to the same extent knowing the content of the phone call would.

        1. Doug Ross

          A record of phone calls that includes the number dialed from and to, the date, the location, and the duration is not metadata. Metadata describes data, it is not the data. I dont know how much clearer it can be.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Phillip, I reject “fear” and other emotions on both sides of this debate.

      I don’t want us to DO anything out of an emotional response, and I don’t want us to STOP doing something on the basis of an emotional response.

      We had a perfectly reasonable, pragmatic program — a reasonable precaution to take given the circumstances. And the proper safeguards were in place, checks and balances were doing their job, the Constitution was working.

      And then Edward Snowden goes an stirs up emotions. And an emotional decision was made in the Congress this past week.

      And I reject that. Emotion prevailed over careful thought.

      And I can turn what you said around. I’m surprised that someone who rejects Lindsey Graham’s emotional-sounding rhetoric would endorse the fearmongering fostered by that person who is hiding in Russia.

      Of course, his stock is so high as a result of the emotions he has stirred up that he could most likely return to the country now, and pay no penalty. If he has the courage to do so.

      The country is now filled with people who wish to give him an award for what he’s done, and would not tolerate seeing him face actual justice. And that, I confess, stirs an emotion in ME. It disgusts me.

      And I don’t like feeling such emotions. They cloud my Mentat abilities… 🙂

      1. Phillip

        Snowden, Snowden, Snowden…that’s starting to sound a lot like “Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi…”

        Snowden is ultimately tangential to this discussion. At the very least, this issue is (or should be) about far more than one man and his actions. Since we seem to be debating which side is motivated more by raw emotion, I suggest that your animus towards Snowden is clouding your reaction to this rather minor modification of the NSA’s methodology.

        You speak of a “pragmatic program,” one in which “checks and balances were doing their job, the Constitution was working.” What the Senate did last week was, at most, simply tweaking those checks and balances. We’re talking about minor changes supported by two-thirds of the Senate, a bipartisan alliance. Many of the changes relate to recommendations made by the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies. The data-gathering program was reauthorized, with the only changes being, according to the NYT:

        “After six months, the phone companies, not the N.S.A., will hold the bulk phone records — logs of calls placed from one number to another, and the time and the duration of those contacts, but not the content of what was said. A new kind of court order will permit the government to swiftly analyze them. [FISA], for the first time, will be required to declassify some of its most significant decisions, and outside voices will be allowed to argue for privacy rights before the court in certain cases.” But the data-collection programs were basically reauthorized across the board. You should be happy, I would think.

        Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that Snowden is a despicable traitor who should spend the rest of his life in jail. Why should his actions disqualify our elected representatives from even having a modest debate, from revisiting and adjusting in a small way the checks and balances relating to this serious issue?

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Why would I be happy? The point of the program was to skim all records routinely, looking for a pattern that would merit investigation.

          Now, the government has to ask specifically to examine the records held by the phone companies, which makes me wonder how they’re going to know what to ask for, since they’re no longer able to sift for patterns. I guess they’re going to have to have evidence that has nothing to do with phone records. Or they’re going to be guessing a lot, which means that there will be MORE intrusion into the records of people who aren’t doing anything wrong (when they guess wrong), not LESS.

          Go back to my cop standing on a corner analogy. The cop has been banned from the corner. But he can ask to look at somebody specific. How is he going to know who he wants to look at, if he’s no longer on the corner watching?

          The program is pointless now. Near as I can tell, there IS no program. How is that just a tweak?

          1. Doug Ross

            Skimming data is not 100% accurate. What happens when a false positive leads to investigating someone for one thing but results in finding something else unrelated to terrorism?

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              You mean like bank robbery?

              I’m kind of doubting that it would generate the same sort of pattern, but maybe I’m wrong.

              Either way, that sounds OK to me…

              1. Doug Ross

                It could be anything…

                And let’s say your phone number ends up as a third degree of separation from a suspected terrorist. Would you be okay with the Feds coming to your office or questioning your neighbors?

  6. bud

    In the universe of over hyped threats foreign terrorism is right at the top. Brad do you honestly believe thousands of American will die if we abandon the metadata program? That really stretches credibility beyond anything rationale.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “In the universe of over hyped threats foreign terrorism is right at the top.”

      Really, Bud? It astounds me, the things people will believe just because they wish it to be so…

      What threat do you find to be more credible? An attack by space aliens?

      At this point in history, given our conventional military dominance, terrorist attacks are by far the most immediate threat. Strategically, Iran, Russia, and China are BIGGER concerns, just not as immediate…

  7. Bart


    You are falling down on the job as the official “Ms. Language-Person”

    bud – “That really stretches credibility beyond anything rationale.”

    Shouldn’t bud’s sentence be structured in either one of the two following ways?

    “That really stretches credibility beyond any rationale.”
    “That really stretches credibility beyond anything rational.”

    Have a great weekend everyone!!! 🙂

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      One was assuming the lack of an “edit” function was to blame, but thank you for your support!

      1. bud

        The edit function would help. Typing on a tiny smartphone doesn’t help. But mostly my language skill are not what they should be.

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          Your language skills are fine for your job, from what I read. It’s when persons paid to write or to edit make the kinds of bad usage errors such as “reign in” –unless one is a monarch, “tow the line”– unless one is a mule whose name is Sal, “hone in” —never right….that Ms. Language-Person gets her undergarments all tortuous (“torturous” is often incorrectly substituted for “tortuous.”)

          K L-P

          1. Norm Ivey

            I’d like an edit button and a simple “Like” button.

            As an aside, we’re heading to Niagara and planning on hiking a piece of The Erie Canal this summer.

            1. Bryan Caskey

              You’re “philosophically” opposed to them? In what way?

              Like, as in you have an epistemological thing going on here that we need to dig into?

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                I want engagement on the blog. “Like” buttons are a cheap alternative to engagement. WHY do you like it? Defend your position.

                Years ago, there was this trendy thing on editorial pages to do lists of issues with no commentary, just thumbs-up and thumbs-down — or flowers and raspberries, or some other yin-yang device that someone thought was cute.

                I always disliked that sort of thing, not least because it buys into one of the most insidious ideas (or perhaps I should say “nonideas,” since it militates against thought) infecting politics in this country — the idea that everything is either-or, one way or the other, in or out, up or down, black or white, left or right, Democratic or Republican, and so forth.

                Reality is more complex than that, and thinking people should demand more, of themselves and their interlocutors…

                1. Bryan Caskey

                  That’s a pretty good argument. I’m not advocating for (or against) “Like” buttons, I just thought it was kinda funny that you were “philosophically” opposed to them, because I don’t really give the idea of “Like” buttons that much thought.

                  For instance, if someone told me that they were “philosophically opposed to Stop signs being octagonally shaped”, I would kind of think “Whoa. This guy is really fired up about something that I’ve never really thought about as being a big deal. Maybe we should ask him to explain.” (If I had some down-time, that is.)

                  You know, like the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality.

                  I guess you could put me down as a Swing-Voter in the world of Like buttons. I don’t really have deep-seeded convictions about them, and I’m open to both points of view.

  8. Scout

    I don’t know if this is a valid analogy or not but the analogy that occurs to me is when I give a standardized language test to a child, the raw score I get is meaningless unless I also have access to the normative sample for the test which tells me where his/her score falls relative to his peer. The normative sample gives context to the score so that I can tell if my kid’s performance is above or below or on par with his peers. But I don’t know a thing about those peers specifically. I just have the context to see if the one kid I’m concerned about fits into the background pattern or is an outlier. So I think metadata must be like the normative sample.

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