28 September 2009

Trolling the Seas of Idiocy

Blogs with far more commenters (and by extension, readership) than mine sometimes find their comment section has degraded into a what is called a "flame war." A flame war typically begins when either an ignorant or careless commenters submits a comment which other readers find beneath the quality of the blog's accepted, though often unwritten, standard. The flamers, engaging in flaming, often quickly degrade into personal attacks on the victim's intelligence, or that of the victim's mother. Flamers often build off of each other, with little regard for the content of previous comments, frequently resulting in duplicative criticism of the victim. The flame war technically begins after the victim responds and is subsequently inundated with additional criticism, often involving a reference to the flamer's certitude that the victim's IQ is below a certain nominal level (typically 10-20). Ironically, it appears that the flamers maintain a cognitive image of themselves as the victims (citing themselves as victims of their subject's mental ineptitude).

More clever, less depressing, and altogether vastly more entertaining is the "troll." A troll may have many motives, but a common one is to start a "pitched" or "reverse" flame war in which the initial flamer, out of ignorance of the subject, becomes the subject of the flaming. The ideal blog for such a troll is one in which the subject matter requires a degree of knowledge/fluency in order to comment intelligently and for which readers generally have strong opinions. A concise example of the beginnings of a troll-trap induced reverse flame war on a grammar blog is captured perfectly by the following xkcd.com comic:

Effect an Effect

27 April 2009

A world full of muggles

Dictionary.com has three definitions for muggle. One is "a marijuana joint" that hearkens back to the 1920's. The next is a common person, especially one who is ignorant or without skills. Certainly, it was this latter definition that inspired J.K. Rowling to use the word to denote persons without magical powers in Harry Potter, which is the third definition dictionary.com provides.

For this post, I'd like to focus on the second definition, in the context of the third. I have no problem with a dictionary adding the Rowling definition of muggle to the dictionary. Language is a medium of communicating meaning, and in today's world muggle is widely understood to convey the meaning Rowling invented in 1996.

Certainly, today we don't use the word muggle to juxtapose a non-magical person with a magical one, since no magical people exist. If someone even dared to use the word in professional or formal conversation, they'd elicit either a hearty laugh acknowledging the allusion to one of the most popular series every written, or an uneasy laugh sympathizing with an ignoramous.

We say ignoramous because no rational and informed person believes in magical people. Keep that in mind.

27 March 2009

Interview with Daniella Brodsky

I've called it an interview because the conversation was decidedly uni-directional. I arrived a little late to The Front Page in Washington, DC, and Daniella had already finished her daily writing and was enjoying a glass of sauvignon blanc. Daniella, perhaps most famous for her novel Diary of a Working Girl, was seated at the bar with a well worn copy of White Oleander. She admits to having read it more than once, but more on that later. Now if that isn't a toxic signal to any man, I'm not sure what qualifies, yet Daniella turned out to be anything but.

(Note, I didn't have my tape recorder on me so the following is not verbatim. Daniella, feel free to call me out if I've misrepresented any of your statements.)

Me: Daniella, do you often write at bars?
D: I like to get there early before all the hustle and bustle. Seeing as I don't have a "day job" it's not that difficult.

Me: In a few words, what would you say is the genre of your novels?
D: Women's fiction. About women, for women.

Me: Perhaps I'll be your first male reader. So, I see you're reading White Oleander (it's the movie edition and we spend a minute or two identifying all the actresses on the cover).
D: I've read it several times. In fact, one time I accidently left it in an airport bathroom. I had to get my friends on the next flight out to pick it up for me. It was probably sitting there for 2 or 3 hours. I was worried somebody would have gotten water all over it. But when I got it back it had all these little passages written inside the cover (she shows me the writing). It's 3 or 4 different people and the funny part is, none of the messages really make any sense, they are very stream of conscience, you know? I mean I'm not sure what makes sense to write in a copy of White Oleander left in an airport bathroom...

Me: I've actually been trying to write for some time. My biggest problem, I think, is that I can't visualize the plot at the beginning. I'm afraid to start because I worry that I might write my way into a corner such that I can't make the plot work.
D: You shouldn't let that deter you. I never know what is going to happen when I start a novel. In fact, I once had one of my characters steal my story for about 10 pages. It was a real struggle. It took me 10 pages to wrestle the story back from this character. Some people say they know how the story will develop, but no one does. Not at the start. If you want to write, you have to write. Try to do it everyday. Even if it is just for 20 minutes.

At this point, several beverages deep, I excuse myself to the restroom. As I squeeze by Daniella's chair and the wall, I'm impeded by a pair of crutches.

D: You want them?
Me: The crutches?
D: Yes. They're mine. Take them.
Me: But clearly you must need them, right? I mean you don't just bring crutches to a bar if you don't need them. (As an aside, it may not be a bad way to get some pity. But Daniella did not strike me as some one looking for any of that.)
D: (Shrugs) All I'm saying is you can have them.

I carefully steady the crutches as I squeeze through. A very strange and seemingly random bit of conversation. In any event, nature called and then I returned.

Me: So your books are written for women. What would you say to your male fanbase?
D: (Laughs) Oh, him. I'd tell him to get a girlfriend.

Me: Alright, just one more question. How is the author life treating you?
D: Emotionally, it's treating me well. I love it. Financially, quite a different story.
Me: So you'd like it if I went out and bought some of your books.
D: Actually, I'm indifferent. I get $0 for each book sold.

(Clearly, Daniella forgets that the publishers get money for each book sold and if they make money from her books they are more likely to purchase her work in the future. But after a few adult beverages, I'm in no mood to spoil the atmosphere with economics talk.)

At this point, the interview winds down. I thank Daniella and promise to read at least one of her books. If you interested, check out her website, daniellabrodsky.com

25 February 2009

Willful Ignorance

Religion and politics don't typically make good workplace discussion topics. Especially religion. Why not? A major reason is that our religious beliefs are tightly bound up with our individual identities. Therefore, when our beliefs differ from others, we tend to think of the situation as "I'm right and you're wrong." Even if no one says that explicitly, there is an implicit challenge to your beliefs when someone expresses their own.

This causes tension.

In fact, I think this tension is a big reason why we don't talk about religion with friends that don't share our beliefs. We think it will get in the way of our friendship by offending one or both of us. Yet if knowing someone believes differently than you causes offense, it must be because you care about what they think about your religion (and in some way you). And if you care about what they think, then shouldn't you try to find out what they think? And yet that requires you to talk about religion, the very thing we are avoiding by choice.

If this is the case, it may be that we actually don't care much what our friends think about our religion. But if we don't care, then we wouldn't bother purposely avoiding it. I think it is more likely that we hit a psychological snag when these things are discussed openly. We no longer have plausible deniability. Before it is discussed openly, we hold convenient assumptions about their beliefs so we can think about how much fun we have otherwise. After, we can think of little else.