interestingly ungrammatical sentence

I unconsciously copyedit books as I read them, and I'm often dismayed at the shoddy punctuation, style, and grammar in many otherwise fine books. But today is the first time in a long time that I've run into a sentence that seemed ungrammatical in a way that wasn't instantly obvious; I had to stop and think to figure out exactly what the error was. (I'm sure anyone who does linguistics for a living could figure it out immediately, but I'm rusty enough that it took me a minute.)

The sentence is in the prologue of Fordlandia, a book about Henry Ford's attempt to build a rubber plantation-cum-Pleasantville in the depths of the Amazon jungle. Describing a set of twisted railroad tracks left in the ruins of Fordlandia, the author writes:

[...] it's bewildering to think what force of nature or how the passing of time could have produced their current mangled state.

When I read this, it seemed like the sentence contained an error in parallelism, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. The intended structure seems to be:

It's bewildering to think [[what force of nature] or [how the passing of time] could have produced X].

which looks reasonable at first glance; placing what force of nature and how the passing of time in parallel makes sense on the surface, since they both introduce relative clauses with the same verb phrase:

It's bewildering to think [what force of nature could have produced X] or [how the passing of time could have produced X].

After thinking about it a little longer, though, I'm convinced it really is wrong. Can you figure out the error?

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My dream of spiritual eternity

I was in a hotel conference room with about a dozen other people. As we mingled, I became aware that two of them were glowing slightly. They explained that they were not earthly humans, but spiritual beings who would liberate our souls. They touched each of us in turn, and we began to glow as well. Finally, when we were all ready, our glows shot upwards, freed from the constraints of Earth.

It was just as they had said it would be: our glowing souls cavorted in outer space, enjoying our freedom. But after a time, they told us that we had not been liberated in order to just horse around: we were to join The Department, an agency that waged an eternal battle against the forces of Hell in order to save the souls of humanity. Though sad to leave behind our time of free play, we agreed to join in this important task.

It turned out that The Department was basically an infinitely large Wal-Mart.

The Wal-Mart was divided exactly in the middle (in the land of eternal spirits, it was possible to locate the exact middle of an infinite space) by a pair of checkout counters, one belonging to the forces of Heaven (us) and the other belonging to the forces of Hell.

We wore blue uniforms; the forces of Hell wore red uniforms. Other than that, I couldn't see much difference between the two teams; the Hell people didn't seem particularly more evil than us. The women on the Hell side did seem a little cuter on average, though. (For some reason we had normal-looking human bodies in The Department, instead of the glowing astral projection-type things we'd had in outer space.)

Since we were all immortal and indestructible souls, no one could actually be killed or wounded, so the Great Battle basically consisted of annoyances and pranks that one side would play upon the other. For example, one of the blue team members snuck over to the red side's infinitely long canned goods aisle and set off a huge explosion. Cans of refried beans and peaches in heavy syrup flew everywhere. But the only consequence was that the red team's loudspeaker crackled with the dull voice of Satan, the floor manager, mumbling "Cleanup in aisle 7," and a few of the forces of Hell wandered over in a desultory fashion to restock the shelves.

Every so often a team member on one side or the other would get bored and not want to work. This was called "going to spend some time in The Office." But The Office was just a big blank room with nothing to do, so it was even more boring than working, and eventually they'd get sick of it and go back to The Department.

And that was pretty much it. For all eternity.

an homage

If I Ruled in Hell...
(not) by Dr. Seuss

There once was a boy named Hieronymus Bosch
Who sat down one day and said, "Golly gee gosh!
All the pictures of Hell that those other folks paint
Are so tame that they seem rather awfully quaint."

"Now, if I ruled in Hell," H.B. went on to say,
"I'd start with a centerpiece sure to dismay.
A huge man, bent over, in bone-white, like this,
With monks climbing into his nether abyss.

"On his hat is a Flibbeti-Gibbeti-Hoot,
Which is partly a stomach and partly a flute
Being played by a Skeleto-Birdman, and aimed
At a penguin-like guy (who for now is unnamed).

"Those poor guys in Hell get no chance to unwind...
For the Whosity-Whatsis lurks not far behind!
Two ears and a knife pointed up at the sky--
(Quite enough to make Freud stick a fork in his eye!)

"Yes, I would sure change things," said little H.B.,
"If Lucifer handed Hell over to me!
Earth's sinners would shriek, and they'd run off pell-mell
For the next train to Heaven--if I ruled in Hell!"

hot sexy religious spam poetry

I almost never see spam anymore, but this one managed to get through Gmail's filter:


Subject: Better Sex foor Christian Wives!

Toboggan all at once. Hav

Better Sex foor Christian Wives!

Mingling their cries with homage and wondering holy ground. To bathe in
its waters washes away wide mouths wider still, smiling you better wait
down with her on the stone. The smoke began to fierce prowess. The kurus
cannot be blamed. On she dashed her pen across the revered name, and know
more than your superior officershey? You're of her head white teeth and
full red lips straight, in every man's garden and in every woman's. She.

Snackr, an RSS ticker

(See? I promised my next post wouldn't be about gigs.)

I realized a few months ago that, unlike pretty much everyone else I know, I don't regularly use an RSS reader. Not that I haven't tried—I started with LiveJournal syndication on my friends list, then tried FeedDemon early on, and more recently tried out Google Reader—but never managed to form the habit of checking them regularly. Both of them are fine apps; the problem was with me. Every time I sat down and saw that I had a gazillion unread items in my hundreds of feeds, I didn't know where to start. Eventually I just gave up trying to keep up.

Around the same time I came to this realization, Adobe AIR 1.0 was publicly released. AIR lets you turn web apps (built in HTML or Flash/Flex) into cross-platform desktop apps on Windows, Mac, and Linux; it gives you APIs for doing OS-level stuff like filesystem access, local database access, window management, etc. I wanted to try to write an AIR app just for fun, and it occurred to me that I might be able to make something that would solve my RSS problem.

The result is Snackr, a ticker-like widget that lives on the bottom (or side) of your screen and scrolls random items from your RSS feeds. (It's called "Snackr" because it lets you nibble on your feeds. Guffaw.) Here's what it looks like (in this picture, it's docked along the bottom of the screen):

It runs on Windows and Mac OS X; if you install it from the Snackr homepage, it will automatically install the AIR runtime for you as well. It also runs on Linux if you install the Linux AIR alpha from Adobe Labs.

I'm actually finding Snackr really useful—it helps me keep up with blogs I want to keep up with, and also gives me a great smattering of items from sources I wouldn't normally read regularly. If you try it out, let me know if you like it.

dear lazyweb: feedburner considered annoying

[Update 3/10/2008: FeedBurner no longer seems to be doing this--my app suddenly started working with no changes on my part. Odd.]

When I try to access a FeedBurner feed from my Flex app, FeedBurner decides to hand me an HTML version of the feed, instead of, you know, the frickin' feed. Of course, if I go to the same URL in Firefox, it gives me the right thing. What do I have to do to get FeedBurner to realize that I actually want XML?

[Addendum: I know I can append "?format=xml" to the URL, and I guess I could just automatically add that onto any URLs I get from FeedBurner. But if I go to the base URL from Firefox, FeedBurner knows how to hand it XML; I want to figure out how it's doing that, so my feedreader will work with other sites that try to do the same trick (I've noticed at least one other site doing it).]

dear lazyweb: rss/atom formats

Dear Professor Lazyweb,

Let's say that, for some stupid reason, I'm thinking of implementing Yet Another Blog-Aggregator-Type Thingy that I want to work with most blogs and syndication feeds that exist today. Which formats do I need to support? RSS 0.91? RSS 1.0? RSS 2.0? Atom? Others?

(I know I probably also want to support OPML for importing a list of feeds as well.)