There is no free.

We saw “The Social Network” this weekend. It was very fine, even if it did give the idea that all the women at Harvard — and Stanford, for that matter — exist mainly to simmer, occasionally leaping to a boil during frenzied bouts of speed-sex in restaurant bathroom stalls. But that’s a quibble. On the whole, very fine, a movie about a modern business with a theme as old as humanity itself, i.e., what is the nature of human connection?

And while I understand that the film is not entirely factual, I can’t even get too upset about whatever wrong ideas people take away from it, about the company or its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. I’ve been wondering what it takes to bug an internet company. Have you ever had a complaint with one? Facebook, Google, one of those? Have you ever tried to get a human being on the phone? Hell, have you ever tried to find a phone number? I guess now we know what it takes — make an expensive movie about them. How comforting.

But because all y’all are smarter than I am, can someone out there with some business experience explain the business model of Facebook? Because while I don’t doubt that Zuckerberg is a billionaire, I don’t understand how. Where is Facebook’s cash flow? I don’t pay for Facebook. I don’t see anything more than a rare ad or sponsored link, all for crap like acai-berry weight-loss solutions and so forth. So what, exactly, makes this company worth so much? Where does the money come from?

I am a business moron, but the Wall Street Journal’s reporting on the dark side of the internet economy has been enormously helpful in answering this simple question, which I suspect is this: Nothing is free, and your payment is your information:

Many of the most popular applications, or “apps,” on the social-networking site Facebook Inc. have been transmitting identifying information—in effect, providing access to people’s names and, in some cases, their friends’ names—to dozens of advertising and Internet tracking companies, a Wall Street Journal investigation has found.

The issue affects tens of millions of Facebook app users, including people who set their profiles to Facebook’s strictest privacy settings. The practice breaks Facebook’s rules, and renews questions about its ability to keep identifiable information about its users’ activities secure.

You know how every time you have to submit your e-mail, you get that cross-my-heart statement about how your e-mail information is secure? “We never sell your e-mail address,” etc.? I’ve come to think of this as one of those soul-brother handshakes jerkoffs liked to give you in the ’70s. We all cool? No, I don’t think so.

I really hope the WSJ wins a Pulitzer for this project. I don’t think most people have any idea how much of their information is out there, being bought and sold on the internet. Some of it is pretty disturbing. Ever hear of “web scraping?” No? Well, then:

At 1 a.m. on May 7, the website noticed suspicious activity on its “Mood” discussion board. There, people exchange highly personal stories about their emotional disorders, ranging from bipolar disease to a desire to cut themselves.

It was a break-in. A new member of the site, using sophisticated software, was “scraping,” or copying, every single message off PatientsLikeMe’s private online forums.

PatientsLikeMe managed to block and identify the intruder: Nielsen Co., the privately held New York media-research firm. Nielsen monitors online “buzz” for clients, including major drug makers, which buy data gleaned from the Web to get insight from consumers about their products, Nielsen says.

The story went on to describe the distress of one of the scraped, who had described his problems with depression under a pseudonym, but linked back to his personal blog, which used his real name. Think of all the ways insurance companies have tried to deny health insurance to people who might actually need it someday. Ask yourself if you think any are above a tactic like this. Yeah, I thought so.

Lately I’ve been feeling a little Ted Kaczynski. A friend of ours, a member of our little filmmaking crew who went to Vegas with us last spring, recently had her debit card disabled. She’d paid for some coffee with it at Starbucks next to the Golden Nugget back in April, and last week was presented with a $2,000 charge from that very same coffee shop. Obviously a data theft. Obviously she won’t have to pay $2,000. Obviously it will be handled by her bank, but don’t you wonder, once that stuff is out there, what else is out there? I’ve been thinking for a while of going to an all-cash lifestyle, seeing if it will change my spending patterns, maybe write a story about it and pitch it around. For someone who normally carries about 17 cents in my pocket at any given time, it might be an eye-opener. Certainly it would shield me from at least some data theft. Mark Zuckerberg, I’m not so sure about.

By the way, there’s an error on my Wikipedia page. It isn’t mine, as I’ve had nothing to do with my Wikipedia entry other than glance at it, note the error, and go somewhere more interesting. It appeared during the Goeglein Affair, and I have no idea who wrote it. Actually, now that I look at it, it has a couple of errors. I think I’ll leave them there. If someone’s going to trade in my information for profit, I might as well leave some bad stuff out there, too.

Now I must run. Breaking news on the hyperlocal beat — a missing banker was finally found floating yesterday — and anyway, Monday is always crazed. Later.

Posted at 10:24 am in Current events |

43 responses to “There is no free.”

  1. Scout said on October 18, 2010 at 10:44 am

    We’ve been living on the (mostly) cash basis for a while now and it has been much easier than we could have imagined. I was one of those people with absolutely zero cash on me at all times and found it to be a pain in the ass when lunching with friends and having to split the check with complicated instructions about what goes on which card, or being downtown and having to drive around to find a parking meter with time on it, or having to write a barrista tip on my coffee charge. Now I even give change or a dollar or two to people begging on street corners and I like being able to do that. I used to think I was more free when I had a wallet full of cards that are accepted pretty much everywhere; now I realize that cash creates more of a feeling of freedom than credit/debit cards ever did.

    However, you do need cards for shopping online and we also still use them at the gas pump. So the data miners can still track some of my purchasing and they definitely know if I’m traveling by car!

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  2. brian stouder said on October 18, 2010 at 10:52 am

    I terminated Facebook with extreme prejudice some time ago; in fact, really completing that process was no small feat; for all I know, it still roams the ether, much like a cyber zombie. On one hand, I don’t miss it a bit; but on the other, it’s arguable whether I ever really got it, to begin with. (in a nutshell, the essentially inane nature of that site always reminded me of the back of the school bus).

    Fun fact from Ken Auletta’s talk a week ago: back when Google was still in its infancy (and not yet the King Kong of the internets), the good people at Visa offered them $5 million if they’d simply place the Visa logo on that mostly-white search page that comes up when you go there. The founders of Google, without hesitation, told them “No” – flatly. The venture capitalist investors they had at the time hit the roof! They thought those guys were crazy – turning down such an opportunity (and so much cash!) – but the founders wanted to maintain the trust that they believed was their stock-in-trade, to set them apart from all the other search engines that were around (I recall being fond of Altavista, many many years ago). Auletta’s point was to marvel at the clarity of their vision, and the focus that these engineers (as opposed to simple sales pukes) always maintained.

    The point I took from that was that the illusion of evenhandedness and trustworthiness was always more important – and offered more of a payoff – than short-term loads of cash. And indeed, given all the ways Google has found to make lots and lots of cash, behind the scenes, they were right.

    (Heaven only knows how much google could get for such a logo-placement today)

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  3. adrianne said on October 18, 2010 at 11:33 am

    Nance, what are the Wikipedia errors? (besides the fact that you didn’t lose your job because of the circulation drop, you quit.)

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  4. brian stouder said on October 18, 2010 at 11:36 am

    My guess is that the 2/29 date might be one

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  5. Dorothy said on October 18, 2010 at 11:55 am

    Nope the 2/29 date is correct. If you click on the link in the Wikipedia page to the “Copycat” entry of Nance’s blog, scroll down and you can see the date is correct. She posted it at 7:38 AM in fact.

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  6. brian stouder said on October 18, 2010 at 11:58 am

    Hah; Leap year, indeed!

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  7. nancy said on October 18, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    Adrianne, Nancy Nall is not my pen name. My pen name is, of course, Mark Twain.

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  8. brian stouder said on October 18, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    and/or Madame Telling Tales

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  9. Sue said on October 18, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    Maybe this is old stuff to the folks here, but if not, have you seen this site?

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  10. Dave said on October 18, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Our Facebook account was created by our youngest son, who told us we could keep up with what he was up to by being on Facebook. We were, first of all, pleasantly surprised that he would want us to keep up with him, (senior, IU) and we weren’t sure that we wanted it. So far, we’ve kept it and don’t post too much in the way of personal information on it, in contrast to a cousin I found who posts plenty.

    Ah, card-free, we carry cash for small purchases but any trip to a place like the grocery store which used to bring out the checkbook, brings out the debit card. Scout mentions the gas pump, it’s too convenient to use the card and not even go in the station.

    Oh, and certainly off-topic, but I read through Mike Harden’s stories that the Dispatch put on-line and found that he’d written about people I knew growing up. He truly could make a story out of the most commonplace things.

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  11. Dorothy said on October 18, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    Yesterday I attended my first and last political rally ever. I was drafted into driving some Kenyon students down to Ohio State’s campus to attend the rally where the Obamas would be. It sounded so exciting to see them, and we got “green” tickets (as opposed to the orange which placed people much further away) so we were within 10 or 15 yards of the podium. But the agonizing part was standing stock still for four hours straight (after walking at least 1.5 miles from the parking garage) and not being able to move, sit, bend over, etc. My feet and legs were absolutely killing me by the time we left around 9:00. Two elderly people near me fainted or got sick, and paramedics had to take away the second one, just before the President came out (last speaker of course).

    But I got some really great pictures (about 18 of which are currently on Facebook), and I’ll put them on Flickr as soon as I have time for those of you who know my flickr username. The Prez and the First Lady are about the most photogenic couple I’ve seen in a LONG time and my goodness it was amazing to be so close to them! But unless I get invited to the White House or they swing by my place for a cup of tea, that’s the last time I’ll see a sitting President in person I swear.

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  12. brian stouder said on October 18, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    Sue, an interesting site. Laura Lippman would apparently end up on the pointy side of Ms. Parker’s sword-like pen. (LL had an interesting, laudatory post on Peyton Place a month or two ago)

    Just goes to show – Ms Lippman is much more attuned than Ms. Parker was (or – acidic wit doesn’t really age well; take your pick)

    edit: Dorothy – very, very cool!! And I loved your line “…or they swing by my place for a cup of tea”.

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  13. Jolene said on October 18, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    My sympathies on your long wait to see Obama, Dorothy. It was the requirement to stand for hours that kept me from attending any of the nearby rallies during the campaign. There was a low-cost fundraiser at DAR Constitution Hall a couple of weeks ago that would have meant a chance to see him while seated, but, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to go.

    Here’s a a bit of Obamaesque entertainment for you all.

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  14. Scout said on October 18, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    Dorothy, I would love to see your pictures of the event. As Brian said, “very, very cool!”

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  15. Dorothy said on October 18, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    I’ll post a link to my flickr page once they are in place there, Scout!

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  16. del said on October 18, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    A Lexis search of my name always reveals one of Nancy’s posts in which my last name was mentioned (so now my late night screeds are available to the web-scrapers). But hell, I stand by my nonsense. As for technology/cash, I haven’t had a bankcard for years and when I go to the teller I often mutter that I am a a technology holdout and feel like Ted Kaczynski (hey, that’s my line Nancy). One more thing – if you pay with cash you spend less (something about the feel of greenbacks leaving the hand, I think).

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  17. Dexter said on October 18, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    I still pay some of my bills personally, a bike ride to the office and I pay, and maybe get a writing pen or a little piece of candy in return, just being sociable.
    The Gulf of Tonkin, WMD, and the intent of “internet everything” all turn out to be big lies. I guess we shouldn’t be so trusting.
    I am still quite old school in many ways, never had a debit card, I use cash and personal checks a lot, but I do use credit cards for purchases sometimes and almost all my gasoline is bought with oil company credit cards.
    I just wish I could time-travel to see the son-of-a-bitch who invented the leaf blower, and kill him. Dead. Forever. Grrrr!

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  18. brian stouder said on October 18, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    I love my leaf blower. She always starts, and she blows and blows and blows; she makes short work of a chore that used to opress me – making a neat lawn beneath many tree-loads of yet-to-fall leaves.

    When they take my leafblower away from me, they’ll have to unwrap my cold-dead fingers from her.

    (no doubt, I’ll keel-over of a heart attack one of these Autumns, and that’s EXACTLY what will happen!)

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  19. nancy said on October 18, 2010 at 2:51 pm


    Electric or gas?

    The former is OK. The latter? Let me just say that if you indeed do have a gas-powered blower, I’m glad you live 160 miles away.

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  20. Julie Robinson said on October 18, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    My hubby has also gone over to the dark side and bought a second hand leaf blower when a friend was going condo. It’s electric and he too luvs the silly thing. I was amused by its shape; a long blower tube with the bifurcated bag underneath, bearing a striking resemblance to, well, use your imagination. And it’s big.

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  21. brian stouder said on October 18, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    Gas, baby! I had an electric one, once, and, try as she might she just didn’t blow well enough.

    I’d have missed on a quiz how far away Detroit is; it seemed like a very easy drive to Dearborn (I’d have guessed 100 miles)

    speaking of which – POP QUIZ!!

    5 questions, true or false, and I scored a 100%! (I will say that some of the questions you can guess, just by the fact that they’re asking…but watch out for #5)

    “Five Myths About Sarah Palin”

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  22. alex said on October 18, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    I have a gas blower and if any of you had to deal with a yard like mine you’d have one too.

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  23. Dorothy said on October 18, 2010 at 3:38 pm

    I got 100% brian, and truthfully did not need your admonition about the last question.

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  24. Connie said on October 18, 2010 at 3:51 pm

    When it comes to leaves etc. we are fans of our mulching mower. Whips those leaves into invisibility.

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  25. Sue said on October 18, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    Connie, mulching mower with bag. Then you take the chopped leaves and put them on your beds to decompose over the winter and add lots of good stuff to the soil while suppressing next spring’s weeds. You’ve got next year’s mulch in place or you can put something more attractive right on top next spring.

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  26. jcburns said on October 18, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    One of the errors: Nancy wasn’t known for her snarky comments. She was known for her haunting rendition of “The Big Valley” theme song, complete with made-up lyrics. Maybe I should edit that wiki-p page.

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  27. MarkH said on October 18, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    That’s funny, JC. I always had YOU pegged as the author if her Wiki entry, if only because of the “snarky” intonation. But now, maybe not…

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  28. Jeff Borden said on October 18, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    Matthew Continetti has been serving as She Who’s towel and lotion boy for a few years now, so none of those myths was particularly hard to discern. His suggestion that this perennial lightweight could reform her image, however, is absolute balderdash. She loves being exactly who she is precisely because it requires no work whatsoever. The boneheads who see a political savior in her don’t give a shit about foreign policy or economics or the other insanely difficult issues a real president must confront, so Little Miss Malaprop doesn’t ever need to study issues, read some history, talk with experts, etc. She can throw out some dumb lines, the rubes will smile and cheer, she deposits a six-figure check for delivering a speech that likely would get her a D or a C in my 100-level public speaking class. Rinse, repeat.

    Speaking of Alaska, I see $P’s partner in teabagging, Senatorial candidate Joe Miller, had a blogger handcuffed and detained during a public appearance over the week in Anchorage. Joe has famously stated he will no longer answer questions about his personal or professional life after it was revealed that this deficit hating earmarks hawk pocketed farm subsidies for land he owned in Kansas years ago, and his wife has received public health care benefits, which he opposes for others. The reporter for a blog called Alaska Dispatch was shouting questions, which apparently upset poor Joe and led him to call in his crack private security team. Real tough guy, that Joe. Meanwhile, Joe is invoking East Germany, saying if they could build a wall to stanch the flow of escapees to the west, well, by golly, America can, too.

    This just has to be the stupidest national election cycle ever. Miller, Angle, O’Donnell, Paul, Paladino. . .all of them either crazy, stupid or some combination of the two.

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  29. coozledad said on October 18, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    JeffBorden: I see Paul pulled the old “swagger until they hit you, then weep bitterly” strategy honed by the Right over the years.
    I think Rand would make an excellent Camille.

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  30. Jolene said on October 18, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    Not sure why the link I posted earlier doesn’t work, but try this one.

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  31. brian stouder said on October 18, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    Jolene – that was superb!!

    Huzzah!! Huzzah!!

    (and he is the very model of a modern US President! and I like how he hearkens unto Lincoln, too!)

    And their Michelle was hot, too! (although not as hot as the genuine article, despite that a caller to Uncle Rush called her fat, today, to the very great approval of the over-filled hot-air balloon himself)

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  32. Jeff Borden said on October 18, 2010 at 6:48 pm


    First, how do you listen to that lardy bag of shit without losing your sanity? Second, how is a man who makes the late Orson Welles look svelte in comparison possibly agree with a caller that Michelle Obama is fat? If she’s fat, El Rushbo is a planet.

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  33. Tom M said on October 18, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    I am paranoid about personal information anywhere. When my credit cards or debit cards expire, I cut them up and then take them with me to work. When I get downtown, as I walk to work, I drop some of the pieces in the first trash can i pass, a few in the next one and so on. If I didn’t have kids, I’d probably still be listening to the radio.

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  34. brian stouder said on October 18, 2010 at 9:06 pm

    I hear Uncle Rush in dribs and drabs, probably adding up to 15 or 20 minutes a week, all together.* And indeed, if the pollsters can accurately say how an election involving millions of voters will turn out based on a random sampling of a handful of them, I can also attest to the Tub of Lard’s (I like that designation; thanks!) bottomless darkness.

    Here in Fort Wayne, one of my wife’s favorite FM stations just changed format on her, away from music and into “Talk Radio” (or more like Rant-Radio); she heard 90 seconds of Glen Beck, just enough to hear that Genuine Meglomaniac declare, today, that no one who accepts Federal money should get to vote; specifically Social Security recipients, and Medicare recipients, and the like; it seems to him that their vote is too beholding to continued Big Government largesse

    I asked her what he had to say about Federal money recipients like members of the United States Marine Corps, or NASA astronauts, or (for that matter) people who like to drive down the interstate, or fly on aircraft without fear of crashing into other planes….but she apparently changed the channel before such questions could be intelligently addressed by Meglo-man.

    ‘Course, waiting for that moment would be a genuine fool’s erand!

    *that particularly benighted caller went on to earn the scorn of the Tub of Lard, by worrying that the R’s would win congress in ’10, and then unfairly get the blame when things stay bad, so that Obama will win his second term and congress back in ’12; a rare moment of clarity! el-Lard-o’s response? Cut her off and changed the subject!)

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  35. beb said on October 18, 2010 at 10:05 pm

    Cultural milestones — of a sort. Scooby Doo, which has been in nearly continuous production for something like 40 years aired an episode tonight with Harlan Ellison voicing a character named…. Harlan Ellison. Other writers mentioned in the show include H P Hatecraft and Howard E. Robert. I have no idea who wrote that episode but he or she threw out a lot of fan service.

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  36. Little Bird said on October 18, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    I’ve said this before here, I don’t get Facebook. I’m not a social person so maybe that’s it. I find it boring. I have about 15 friends and those I have accepted curmudgidly (no such word, I’m sure). They send endless messages about the minutia of their lives and I have disabled some of them or whatever you call it, where you don’t have to look at their posts. Why do people think anyone would want to read that? But then why would anyone want to read this comment, so fair enough.

    Dorothy, I envy you getting to see Obama that closely, on election night he and his family were distant specks way far away on the stage, we could only really see them on the jumbo-trons set up at Grant Park in Chicago. But that was still thrilling.

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  37. Deborah said on October 18, 2010 at 10:28 pm

    Oops, that last comment should be from me not Little Bird. Actually she feels completely differently about Facebook, she uses it with gusto, so please note that it is not from her.

    For some reason, because I sent this from my husband’s computer not mine it was set to her info? I was too lazy to get up and walk over (foot issues and all) to my computer. Give me a break I left the office at 8 tonight, my first day back from vacation.

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  38. Rana said on October 18, 2010 at 11:03 pm

    I think the key to finding FB useful is whether or not you have regular physical access to your friends. I don’t, so I find hearing about their days (even in tiny detail) gives me a sense of how they’re doing, what moods they’re in, whether the house is leaking, etc. – basically all the small talk that comes up during face-to-face meetings but not in things like letters or emails. I’m also slightly phone-phobic and very visual, so being able to make these connections through links, pictures and text is great. Ninety percent of my friends and family live elsewhere, so I’m grateful for this way to be in their daily lives, attenuated and artificial as it is.

    That said, we all have our frustrations with the mechanics of the site and doubts about the intentions of the people who run it, so several of us are keeping an eye out for more privacy-friendly alternatives (like the Diaspora project). If alternatives arise, I could easily see a lot of people leaving FB for greener, more private pastures.

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  39. prospero said on October 18, 2010 at 11:19 pm

    What exactly does any one of you think about the spectacularly phony just say no and senatorial hold horseshbut people will blm thia on rhw Preaidwbt. ren’t ;wl;.\le moronsit. How would you say the President is supposed to deal with such abject fucking obstructionist stupidity? Constitutionnly, he has no xhnce.

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  40. coozledad said on October 19, 2010 at 5:34 am


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  41. DEdelstein said on October 19, 2010 at 10:18 am

    If someone puts “snarky” in quotation marks, as in “known for her ‘snarky’ writing,” would that be like saying “teh snark” and therefore be “snarky?” I mean, snarky? I don’t “know” what I “mean.”

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  42. Scout said on October 19, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    Prospero at 39 wins the thread. I just love his posts.

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  43. brian stouder said on October 19, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    Scout – gotta agree. If you read Prospero fast, it seems incoherent; but when you slow down, it’s all in there

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