Dispatch from the Age of Electracy: C2E2 edition

One of my prized possessions (thank you, Joe Hancock and Joy Sperling) is a Dawn of the Dead poster signed by George Romero, Ken Foree, David Emgee, Scott Reiniger, and Gaylen Ross.  Among the various bits of stuff that the seller provided were photos of the signings — attesting to their provenance.  With C2E2 today, I now find myself in the position of preparing to seek photos and autographs from luminaries and scribblers, so this seemed an apt time to offer a few comments on signatures.

Paintings or It Didn't Happen
Paintings or It Didn’t Happen

The signature attests to presence and agreement.  It used to be ubiquitous on contracts and love letters.  It had to be witnessed (the more important the contract, the more crucial the witness).  We have special people whose job it is to watch other people apply their signatures.  In encounters with celebrities, we ask them to sign things as a souvenir, as an agreement (I was here with this thing).  It’s a tangible thing we can take away from our encounter with them.  I can imagine two teens in high school in the fifties:

Teen 1: You’ll never guess who I met when I was in Los Angeles last weekend.  Maryiln Monroe!
Teen 2: Autograph or it didn’t happen.

Of course, the signature only stays reliable as long as we want it to.  In the age of the digital manipulation, it’s but a matter of moments to scan, copy, paste, and render a document that looks as though it was signed by someone who didn’t sign it.  One of the more bizarre ways we maintain a belief in the integrity of the signature is in the use of Faxed, but not emailed, documents.  Two different financial organizations I work with accept faxes as legally binding documents, but NOT email.  Of course, the easiest way for me to fax things is to scan them and use a PDF to Fax service to send them.  We’re approaching angels on pinhead territory here.

With the rise of ubiquitous cameras, the autograph has given way to another form of “I met a celebrity” — the selfie or posed picture.  When we were at Comic-Con last year, we were far more interested in getting photos with recognizable celebrities than autographs.  First, they’re much more compelling as something to share.  Second, they document the human interaction — I met this person — rather than the human/object interaction — this person touched this thing.  Third, for the celebrity, the photo attests to true fanhood because it’s not a commodity.  No one will want to buy a copy of my photo of me and John Hodgman, though there might be people who’d pay slightly more for my autographed copies of his books.

It will be interesting to see if the photograph of the signing makes its way back into legal spaces.  I can imagine photos embedded as part of legal documents showing all the signers and witnesses together, holding up the signed document.  There would be joyous photos (the shared signing of incorporation papers, for instance) and grim ones (I can imagine a thread somewhere highlighting the most depressing divorce-papers-signing photos).

Someday, we’ll have to upload a photo to attach to our e-filing of our taxes, face next to the screen.  It will be automatically updated as our driver’s license picture, and the circle will be complete.


Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Unbreakable

I’m not sure how much of an essay is worth writing here.  Slate excellent pieces about the race issues in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and in particular the disturbing trope of the “hilarious black neighbor” trope that has become so common.  Aisha Harris writes:

The tongue-in-cheek song will be familiar to anyone who’s followed the news or viral trends in the past few years. You may not remember their names, but the faces of the notorious bystanders who have provided unintentional laughs via YouTube sound bites have clearly inspired the character of Bankston, and are impossible to forget. So are their inadvertent catchphrases—“Ain’t nobody got time for that!”; “Hide yo’ kids! Hide yo’ wife!” “I was eatin’ my McDonald’s …”—which have been quoted, remixed, auto-tuned, and meme-ified to excess. These are, of course, the “hilarious black neighbors.” …

Indeed, the hilarious black neighbor has long been an accepted part of contemporary culture, though fraught with race and class connotations. There is a very subtle creative choice here that distinguishes Bankston from the way Charles Ramsey, Sweet Brown, and Antoine Dodson have been received by the public, however: In Kimmy Schmidt, the song is both cleverly subversive and empowering. “White dudes hold the record for creepy crimes,” he says, making the cult leader the butt of the joke; and then, “But females are strong as hell!” It’s not quite as hard-hitting as Ramsey’s oft-ignored, brutally honest statement that “he knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms,” but the sentiment of pointing out the long-held racial division in the U.S. remains. (link)

Like many things about Kimmy Schmidt, the opening sequence doesn’t easily fit into a particular spot as we talk about race.  It’s a complicated commentary on popular culture while also engaging in many of the tropes that shape that same culture.

But what I’m interested in writing about today is the remediation of the auto-tuned news opening.  Consider this path:

  • Six years ago, the Gregory Brothers began posting auto-tuned clips of the news, and quickly became kings of a new style of news interpretation and remix. Sparking many imitators.
  • Over the last several years, some of the most viral moments of news coverage have been auto-tuned by the Gregory Brothers (and others), and the people involved in those stories have, themselves, become famous.  (See the essay quoted above for a discussion of the troubling implications of this trend.)
  • Then, when the creators of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt–a show purchased by a network that only “airs” its shows through online streaming–were inspired by the Ariel Castro case, they decided to use as the introduction a song written in the style of the auto-tuned news songs of Charles Ramsey that circulated after the original kidnapping.
  • So they wrote a satire/close copy of the “hilarious black neighbor” trope, filmed it as a news package (or a bunch of news packages), added in some B-roll, and gave it to…
  • The Gregory Brothers, who then auto-tuned the fake news to be a simulacrum of the real auto-tuned news pieces they create regularly.

I’m not sure what it is that fascinates me about this arc.  Perhaps it’s the meta-and-not-meta aspect of the auto-tuned news package prepared by the same people who auto-tune real news packages.  Perhaps it’s the way tropes of the digital age are finding their way into popular culture in ever-faster cycles. (Evan Gregory says, in an interview about the song, “You know something is an accepted part of culture when it begins to be placed as a plot point in sitcoms.”)

Many people have lamented the notion of “infotainment” or “news as entertainment,” and the way that ratings and the 24 hour news cycle create unwanted (perhaps) market motivations for sensational storytelling.  One aspect of the digital age’s single channel of information might be the blending of that content in our mind.  When we watch news clips on Youtube and we watch fake news clips on Youtube, does our sense of the truth value at the heart of those news clips diminish?

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Two (un)related notes that I wanted to share:

  • As I was writing and reading about the Antoine Dodson and Charles Ramsey viral auto-tunes, I must admit feeling divided about what to say and how to talk about these individuals.  On the one hand, the narrative of the “hilarious black neighbor” is troubling, and the way the Internet chews up these people is pretty disturbing.  And for their part in it, one could be critical of the Gregory Brothers.  In addition, there’s potential friction to be read in the racial implications of white people using a black person’s work to make money.  On the other hand, the fact that the Gregory Brothers have been making this kind of music for a while reduces many of those concerns for me–they’ve established their bona fides to songify the news. Criticisms of the songs are further dampened, to my mind, by the ethical approach the Brothers take to the song publishing — they credit the author of the original video as a co-writer, and split the proceeds 50/50.
  • During the course of researching for this piece, I encountered the strange story of Jay Jackson, the amazing actor who played straightforward news anchor Perd Hapley on Parks and Recreation and has played a newscaster in several other venues. (I know I always giggle at him in Scandal, as his Parks and Rec role has destabilized him as a serious news anchor for me.)  As NPR reports, Jackson is so good at playing an anchor because that was his career before he went into acting. So again, we have a real professional who goes into acting to play a pretend professional doing the same thing.

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Obsolete before it ships

Rule 34
Rule 34

Charles Stross reflected on the relentless pace of culture and the difficulty of writing about the near future or the present in a post about his book Rule 34:

There is a certain pub in Edinburgh that I’ve used as a setting for some key scenes, because it’s quarried out of the side of a near-cliff and is notorious for having no mobile phone or wifi signal. Imagine my joy on discovering that it has acquired a strong 3G signal in the roughly two months since I checked the copy-edited manuscript. (link)

I’m watching this happen, a bit, in the context of my forthcoming book, Title Still to be Determined.  My book, which should come out sometime next Spring, is a monograph about the digital age and detective fiction.  At one point, I make an extended example of the anti-vaccine community as a group that flourishes through the Internet using gate-keeping and strong peer pressure to shape its conversations.  This is an example I wrote a couple years ago (this book has been slow in gestation) that’s now becoming too obvious.

On the one hand, I like that people are now waking up to the dangers of our reduced herd immunity, though I wish we’d not needed the Disneyland Measles Outbreak to get the conversation started.  On the other hand, I’d rather not see any examples or parts of my book become more common than they already are.  Can everyone stop writing about the Internet for the next fifteen months or so?  Thanks.

Sous Chef

Sous Chef: 24 hours on the lineSous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line
by Michael Gibney, narrated by Fred Berman

Sous Chef is part detailed explanation, part memoir, part battle narrative.  It recalls a day in the life of the assistant chef at a mid-level “star rated” restaurant in New York.  Gibney does a great job explaining both what the day is like and why it’s like that.  The book mixes some philosophy of cooking in with science and restauranteurship.  Very enjoyable.  A few extra thoughts:

  • I used to think a “sous chef” was in charge of sauces.  Turns out it means “assistant chef,” a second in command, but more like a chief of staff than a vice president, to use a political analogy.  Calls the head chef “Chef,” and is called “Chef” by those under him.
  • I like the smattering of Spanish throughout the book, given without translation.  I didn’t understand it, but it fits the sense of the world better.
  • The level of intensity required of chefs in restaurants is crazy.  I suspect this is why so many shows focus on kitchens — they’re intense places to work.  My favorite part of the book is when the second seating on the Friday night takes place, and the narrator (who speaks in second person, making you the sous chef) gets into a flow state.  Check out the clip below.
  • Like the other restaurant book I enjoyed, Waiter Rant, Gibney slips into poetic language occasionally, creating city tableaux.  It works okay, but some of his prose gets a little purple.
  • I love the early discussion of the way teamwork and cohesion function as part of a good kitchen.  I’d think this book is required reading for any aspiring chefs, both as warning and as guidebook.

Fred Berman does a good job with the book, bringing a gravelly bark to the tale and handling the variety of languages skillfully.  Worth a look, or listen. (Caviat – I haven’t read any other chef memoirs before, so I can’t compare it with those.)


On Trigger Warnings and Empathy

Neil Gaiman’s recent short story collection is called Trigger Warnings.  Scott Kenemore (author of Zombie, Indiana among many others) wrote about how horror is supposed to cause feelings of discomfort:

in recent years a threat has emerged—a sinister shadow falling over our community, you might say—leaving us even darker than usual.  And I believe that a uniform opposition to it has finally become that elusive unifying quality I could never otherwise find.

This shadow is the movement—in academe and, increasingly, elsewhere—to protect readers from ideas that might trigger feelings of discomfort or trauma.  This trend is disconcerting to horror writers because creating discomfort and trauma is—more or less—what we aim to do.

Making people feel uncomfortable is not a byproduct of our project.  It is our project.  We write novels and stories (and sometimes even poems) precisely so that readers should jump at an unexpected noise, or pull the covers closer in bed that night.  Our goal is to horrify.  To traumatize whenever possible.  To trigger the deepest, darkest fears that we can.

We don’t do this out of allegiance to any form of historical oppression.  Certainly, we do not do it for the money—at least not chiefly.  (Since the “horror boom” of the 1990s, advances in our genre have decreased drastically.  Any opportunists in our ranks have long since decamped for the greener pastures of YA.) Instead, we do this because we think something important is going on when people are scared.  We think it’s possible to be sublimely and transcendently frightened.  We believe fear and discomfort are sensations which, rightly conjured, can put one in touch with some of the most interesting and profound aspects of human existence.  And, yes, also with vampires and zombies and tentacle monsters. (Read the rest here: We ARE the triggers)

I posted this in reply:

You make a good argument about unabashed horror, and the value of texts that cause discomfort. I agree wholeheartedly with your idea about what horror should be.

But I think you’ve misrepresented what trigger warnings should be for, to my mind. Trigger Warnings are about context. They’re meant to signpost upcoming moments for readers who might not be ready for them. Thus, I usually see trigger warnings on non-fiction pieces about controversial topics. I’d think a horror story written as a horror story ought to be its own trigger warning.

But even in the case of fiction (such as last week’s Scandal, a pretty violent show that this week included an extra “violent content” warning), trigger warnings shouldn’t be a way to coddle readers or help them avoid uncomfortable situations: they’re a recognition that for some readers, some topics invoke real life trauma. This isn’t to say those readers should avoid the texts, necessarily, but rather to give them the choice about how to handle them (even just being mentally prepared can make a difference).

By way of example, imagine a story including scenes of rape. Without a trigger warning, a rape survivor may be blind-sided by emotions from their own past because of the story. On one hand, blind-siding a reader with emotions is a great skill for the author. On the other hand, this is unearned reaction — you didn’t make that result as a writer, you happened upon a particular reader’s weakness. If your story’s good (and if you’ve written it, Scott, it would be), you don’t need the cheat of the reader’s previous trauma. Nor will your story’s effect be reduced for the reader whom the trigger doesn’t effect.

To me, a trigger warning isn’t about telling audiences to avoid texts, but rather about empathy, and about recognizing that different experiences urge different kinds of responses.

On modern humor


A few observations without a conclusion.

1. “College Kids Can’t Take A Joke” by Clarence Page, Chicago Tribune (link)
Clarence Page writes about how Chris Rock doesn’t perform for college audiences any more because they’re too sensitive. Page writes:

I marvel at comedians as varied as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Dick Gregory, Freddie Prinze and Joan Rivers who manage to make us laugh about race, gender, religion, ethnicity and politics while dancing on the edges of our touchiness.

But Rock detects a new uptightness in today’s campus audiences. He blames a social culture that has taken hypersensitivity overboard as we try to protect kids from insults and other painful realities of life — like race relations.

This reminds me of some essay I read a few days ago and can’t find in which a comedian explains how he doesn’t resent having to be more careful about what audiences will tolerate, as often the intolerance comes at the expense of lazy humor aimed at othering people.  I suspect it’s a bit of both.  But I think at the heart of his disdain for ‘over-sensitivity’ is the failure to recognize that sensitivity is a good thing — it’s often tied to empathy.  There’s a difference, of course, between being sensitive to how people feel and being unwilling to discuss difficult things.  I hope it’s the latter Rock is discussing.

2. Clarence Page part 2 – Bill Maher protests

There’s another part of Page’s essay that drives me crazy.  Page connects Rock’s lament about over-sensitive college students to this:

…the issue came up when Rock was asked about a protest that tried to cancel HBO host Bill Maher’s December commencement speech at the University of California at Berkeley.

More than 4,000 people signed an online petition to cancel as a protest against his views on Islam, which, among other indignities, he has called “the only religion that acts like the mafia that will (expletive) kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.”

I strongly disagree with Maher’s smearing of an entire religion for the crimes of its radical fringes. But I also disagree with those who think silencing him would be a sensible response.

As Maher put it, “Whoever told you you only had to hear what didn’t upset you?”

Page calls this censorship, to which I say “Bullshit.”  The proper response to speech we don’t like is more speech.  Among that speech can be “Hey Institution I Like, please don’t pay someone saying odious things to come say them to my face at an event celebrating me.”   One of the results of saying controversial things is that some people will tell you to fuck off, as these 4,000 protesters did.  They aren’t saying “Bill Maher should not be allowed to write or be on tv anymore,” they’re just saying they don’t want to be there when he does it.

As to the snarky reply about hearing things that don’t upset you — they clearly already heard those things, have assessed their value in the give and take of conversation, and told Maher to shove off.

3. Leslie Hall (link)

I like Leslie Hall a lot, particularly for her powerful comedic and musical performances that both revel in and define stereotypes about her body.  I mentioned yesterday liking the song “Tight Pants / Body Rolls,” which is both a powerful claiming of herself as a musician and a self-depreciating look at her own imperfections.  Clearly much of the humor comes from Hall’s stage persona, a cuddly 80s-quaffed power diva, but her self-assured song style (as in “This is How We Go Out”) elevates her act far beyond a gimmick, even as she lovingly infuses many songs with nerdcore aptitudes (as with “Craft Talk”).

4. Jokes about Race

As the issue about Rock brought up, one of the touchiest spaces in modern comedy is in thinking about race.  The “post race” moment we find ourselves in results in an odd experience — the comedic angle that “we’re not racist so we can all laugh together at this racist joke, right?”  It’s this attitude that pushed me away from tosh.0 and makes it less fun than I’d like to play Cards Against Humanity.  I always end up with a hand full of cards playing on race stereotypes because I don’t think they’re funny.

I wonder if Chris Rock would lump me in with those over-sensitive college students he doesn’t want to perform for anymore.


Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: End of the semester grading

Note: I’ll be taking a break from the Dispatches from the Age of Electracy series until after the new year.

An interesting conversation opened up on Facebook last week about grading.  The OP asked “Hypothetically, what should I say to a student who’s unhappy about getting 91/100?”

Grading Conversation Original Post
(click ‘read more’ below to see the full conversation)

The comments were varied and interesting, from snarky answers that few teachers would actually say aloud to serious answers about how to assuage or rebuff the student’s concerns.  But while the two tones seem strikingly different, I would suggest most instructors fall in the middle regarding their attitude about students, grading, and the nuances of it.

  • Frustration with minor grievances – it’s really frustrating when students fixate on small grade grievances.  Boy howdy, I know it is.  But where we see ‘just one assignment,’ some students put a lot of stock or interest or faith.  Plus, they only see one of the assignment, rather than the 20 (or 80) we have.
  • Grading is a weird piece of job performance because it’s very subjective (CAVEAT: I’m writing here about subjectively graded assignments, judgments of quality rather than accuracy.).  Teachers build an instinctual “I know it when I see it” meter that allows us to assess quality of projects quickly, but then we have to, you know, explain the grades.  It’s the gap between the assessment and the explanation that’s at discussion here.  And when the difference between two projects comes down to “good but not great,” that’s a hard line to explain or help a student understand how to improve.
  • That said, even adding in a helping of excuse for the caustic space of the Internet, I find the dismissive tone of some of these comments pretty harsh.  It’s easy, as a teacher, to lose empathy for the student and their efforts to understand grades and grading.  And as instructors, we sometimes forget the power this evaluative tool has for our students, and the weight with which the hammer comes down.

And, I think, many of these effects are amplified by Electracy.  The shifting nature of knowledge acquisition and learning means many of the values and relationships between teacher and student are changing, have changed, and will change; these changes manifest, in some ways, on the grading page.  A few thoughts about this:

  • The shift from “Sage on the Stage” to “Guide on the Side” models of teaching recognize that the modern teacher’s role is to facilitate exploration of the subject as an expert.  I’ve written before that what we’re selling in modern higher education is not knowledge, it’s time with someone who understands the field and is good at explaining it.  The grade itself becomes less important because we’re less important as arbiters of correctness or validity alone.  Instead, it’s our ability to explain why the student’s work earned a particular grade that makes us more valuable than Wikipedia.
  • The flattening of hierarchies urges us to be more approachable and urges students to see us that way.  This alteration of relationship (admittedly, this may be a very subjective point) makes it easier for students to discuss and question their grades than they might have before.  The open lines of communication between student and instructor also facilitate this kind of conversation.  I suspect the professor who decided she’d no longer accept emails was, in part, motivated by the idea that if the problem isn’t big enough to come in to discuss, it’s not important enough to discuss at all.  I’d interpret things a different way.
  • Electronic grading also opens up the system, making it visible to students in ways it just wasn’t when grades were kept entirely on paper.  In the past, students couldn’t really “keep track” of their grade.  The professor could do so, but wasn’t really accountable to students if they didn’t.  Now, with electronic grade books, students expect that grades will be updated and up-to-date, and professors have a reasonable obligation to maintain that visibility.  At the same time, students acquire an obligation to manage their own grade.  If something is a surprise, it’s not our fault.

In these contexts, we’ve come to see a more nuanced idea of grading.  It’s not an arbiter of quality alone, it’s an assessment of achievement.  We use rubrics to communicate our expectations and we evaluate using those guidelines.  There’s still plenty of fuzzy subjectivity in our grading, but the onus is on us to explain ourselves, and then on the students to take more responsibility for the process.


Continue reading Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: End of the semester grading

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Profile Pictures and the Digital Age

In a professional development panel at Midwest PCA 2014, I spoke with two colleagues about the job search and job interview process.  In particular, the subject of our panel was “how to give a good interview.”  We discussed Skype interviews and the many pitfalls that emerge from them.  In particular, I mentioned that it was worthwhile to attend to the image behind the person doing the skyping, and to show a professional demeanor in all things.  As a corollary, one of my colleagues mentioned how a member of an interview committee was so turned off by the interviewee’s “unprofessional” profile picture (which featured him holding a puppy) that it soured his analysis of the interview.

I couldn’t help but think of that when someone I Skyped with recently, in a professional context, had this profile pic:


I noticed, just before we connected, that I hadn’t adjusted my profile picture either, which isn’t terrible, but isn’t terribly professional either.  Here it is, just for fairness’ sake:


*Need context on the Age of Electracy?*

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Beguiled by Spam

As all blog owners do, I regularly clear the spam queue from my blog, rarely giving a second glance to comments so clearly machine generated.  I believe early machine comments with non-advertising contents are designed to build a spambot’s reputation on a site so later they can post SEO click content.  Anyway, yesterday I got this comment that was so vague it had to be spam:


But it was posted as a comment on a movie review post that I really liked. So I really wanted it to be real.  Of course, when I googled the email address, I found it on a list of ‘free email addresses’ for spammers and jerkwads to use.  I marked it as spam, but sadly.

*Need context on the Age of Electracy?*

Cabins in the Woods

Last week, after watching Cabin Fever, I started to think about this particular subgenre, and wondered how it would be to watch some of these films side by side.  I discovered that four of them have very similar run-times, check it:

The CabinThe Evil Dead, 1981, 85 min
Cabin Fever, 2002, 92 min
Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, 89 min
The Cabin in the Woods, 95 min

How would these movies be if next to one another?  What would they look like if they played at the same time?  This got me to thinking about the subgenre in a larger way, and I discovered that the Internet doesn’t do a very good job of defining or refining it.  I suspect there is some scholarship that does — something I haven’t looked into yet — but I thought I’d start by making a list of the movies I know fit the genre, and ones I think border it but would be excluded.  (Note, I have not seen all the movies mentioned here, so corrections/opinions welcome; I’ve designated movies I haven’t seen with an asterisk.).

Continue reading Cabins in the Woods

The Death Star Contractor problem and Agents of SHIELD

Watching episode 203 of Agents of SHIELD (the one with the ice guy), I couldn’t help but remember this scene from Clerks:

Because this is one of the first episodes where we see very much inside Hydra, it’s the first where we realize just how much Hydra matches SHIELD.  Like SHIELD, Hydra has secret facilities and awesome technology; like SHIELD, Hydra has world-class scientists and files on everything; and like SHIELD, Hydra has amazing brand management.  It’s always struck me just how much care the SHIELD graphics and art design departments take to brand everything SHIELD.  But this makes sense, in some ways.  The FBI has all sorts of FBI-branded stuff, doesn’t it?

But check this out:

Hydra Jacket

Here we see a Hydra agent being scoped out by a SHIELD sniper.  Right there on her back is a Hydra logo.  We also saw the Hydra logo any number of times in the facility we got to see this episode.  The attention to bureaucratic detail is amazing.  Of course, it’s easy to paint a logo on a wall.  But getting an embroidered jacket?  I love the idea that Hydra not only tasked someone with getting standard jackets for their military operations, but also that they had to get those jackets embroidered. Without uniform jackets, it’s hard to tell who’s a henchman and who isn’t.  Additionally, consider that for most of Hydra’s existence, its nature was so secret that these jackets would have been a dangerous liability. That means these were made since the events of Captain America: Winter Soldier, roughly six months ago. It just seems like a funny thing to have to spend their time on.

Of course, this is the reality of any massive human organization — a certain amount of energy will need to be spent on the overhead of keeping it running smoothly.  Which is where Agents of SHIELD makes an interesting link back to real life.  Here’s an piece from NPR:

The Internet is abuzz with the news of a scathing employee performance review given to an associate of al-Qaida’s North African branch. The employee in question, a man by the name of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is criticized for neglecting his expense reports, blowing off meetings and wasting his employer’s money, among other complaints.

The juxtaposition is both absurd and macabre: murderous terrorist network as Office Space. It just seems so unlikely that individuals who claim responsibility for taking hundreds of lives also engage in the sort of passive-aggressive bureaucratic sniping we associate with innocuous office jobs.

“Who knew that being an international terrorist was less like James Bond and more like Dilbert?” asked a commenter on Reddit. (link)

We see similar reports now about ISIS and its effective propaganda wing, which is run with a net savvy that you know some Fortune 500 companies are studying.  So the idea of a bureaucracy building up around a massive undertaking seems inevitable.  And thus, it’s not only conceivable that Hydra would have embroidered jackets, it’s almost inevitable.  I do wish they’d used the last sequence to show the man who led this mission sitting in front of his computer, filling out a form to explain the agents and equipment lost on the mission, grumbling about his TPS reports.

Nark – where words come from


Reading “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole” for my detective fiction class today, I came across this sentence, warning why most murderers will eventually give themselves away:

…your everyday criminal is seldom clearheaded and dislikes being lonely.  He needs, if not the support of confederates, at least somebody to talk to; his vanity needs the satisfaction of perceiving at first hand the effect of his work.  For this he will frequent bars and coffee shops and other public places.  Then, sooner or later, in a glow of comradeship, he will utter the one word too much; and the nark, who is everywhere, has an easy job.

Wait, what?  I thought ‘narc’ was a term for a drug-cop or rat who gave out his friends with regard to drug crimes.  Now I find that word in a story from 1929, and spelled differently.  A quick search of the Internet reveals this:

1859, “to act as a police informer” (v.); 1860, “police informer” (n.), probably from Romany nak “nose,” from Hindi nak, from Sanskrit nakra, which probably is related to Sanskrit nasa “nose” (see nose (n.)). Sense and spelling tending to merge with etymologically unrelated narc (q.v.). (Online Etymology Dictionary)

How weird that two homonyms would merge as word forms, or that we’d assume the later word was the origin of the word.   Readers, do you know of any other words that have similarly odd etymologies?

PS – I recommend that you do not google the image results for “police informant” as I did when I was preparing this post.  It’s a shockingly small number of rows before you encounter horrible crime images. Fair warning.

Movin’ On Up: thoughts on officiating competitions

Today I take my YMCA Swim Official Level 2 certification class.  After today, and after I take the test associated with the course, I will be eligible to perform a variety of duties at swim meets as an official, at least at meets with YMCA designation (USA swimming, the governing body that organizes swim meets otherwise, has its own certifications, of which I am a “Stroke and Turn” judge.)

magic-judge swim-judge
the glamorous world of meet/match judging. At left, a Magic judge, at right, a swim judge.

I had a long chat with a friend of mine about the ins and outs of refereeing. My experience was as a swim judge, his was as a judge for Magic: The Gathering tournaments.  Both systems were built around making sure all the competitors were following the rules, and both involved making finicky calls about rules in unusual circumstances.  A couple differences we uncovered in the ruling philosophies:

Swimming’s cardinal rule is “benefit of the doubt goes to the swimmer,” with a close second being “if you see it, call it.”  In other words, we look keenly and call infractions as we see them, but if we don’t see them, we can’t call them. If we aren’t sure of what we’re calling, we oughn’t call it.  By contrast, my friend tells me the measure for making a call in Magic is 51% confidence.  The key factor is to maintain the integrity of the tournament.

Regardless of this seeming-gap in the rule-calling, our experiences of doing this work seemed remarkably similar.  We often have to call infractions on people for mistakes, rather than cheats.  You can get a game loss in Magic if you are missing a card from your deck, even if it’s missing because you dropped it on the floor by the last table.  You can get a DQ in swimming if you touch with your hands non-simultaneously on some strokes — if it’s supposed to be a two-hand touch and one hand touches before the other, that’s a one hand touch and you’re DQ’d.

One place we found a clear distinction was in our use of terms.  The standard penalty for an infraction in swimming is the “DQ,” which means that a single race is invalidated for the swimmer.  In Magic, it’s a ‘game loss.’  Since matches are played to best 2 of 3, this isn’t always a match-loss, though it often would be (5 of the 7 match states would make the game loss a match loss).  In swimming, extreme misconduct can involve being ejected from the meet, but this is rare.  Here’s where the confusion came in, at least for a few minutes of our conversation.  In Magic, a DQ is an ejection from the event, along with a six-month ban from other events.

One place we found real similarity is in the nit-picky nature of the job.  Of course easy rules are easy to judge — does the person have enough cards in his deck, is the swimmer on her back for the backstroke?  But the calls are made about tiny details. Did the swimmer initiate a turn immediately, or did he coast a moment first? Does this card get played before that one, or immediately after? But where Magic judges can examine the state of the game for a bit before making their call, swim judges have only the moment the infraction occurs.  We can withdraw a call afterward — upon consideration, perhaps, we can decide a stroke was ‘ugly but legal’ (not a technical phrase), but we can never return to look at the infraction again.  We can only go by what we saw when we saw it.  Hence, the benefit of the doubt goes to the swimmer.

Readers, are you officials in some capacity?  How does your experience line up with this one?

See also: Hey Judge! He did two dolphin kicks! Are you blind?


In one end and out the other. Gulp by Mary Roach

Gulp by Mary RoachGulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
by Mary Roach; narrated by Emily Woo Zeller

Mary Roach’s latest book explores the digestive process, from beginning to end, looking at what scientists think and have thought, what they study, and how they go about it.  It’s great, as usual, with lots of funny moments.  A few thoughts:

  • People are generally fine with their own saliva, as long as it’s in their mouth.  As soon as it has left their mouth, it’s gross.  For instance, they’re far less interested in eating a bowl of soup into which they have spit than one they haven’t.
  • Roach gave plenty of room to Alexis St. Martin and Dr. William Beaumont, the former being a man with a fistulated stomach and the latter being the doctor who used the stomach to experiment with digestion, whether or not St. Martin wanted to do so.  Particularly of note for us as Beaumont was the military doctor at the U.S. fort on Mackinac Island, which we visited this summer (and where I first learned about Beaumont, though mostly in a positive light).
  • As with the book on astronauts, there is a long section on flatus and the people who study it.  Flatus samples are now often collected via special mylar ‘pantaloons’ taped at the waist and legs, with a valve for harvesting the samples.
  • Elvis probably died from having a gigantic colon, something that happens after a lifetime of constipation.  His lifetime battle with this condition is part of why the Graceland bathroom was so well appointed.  The King spent a lot of time on his throne.
  • The section on coprophegia, animals that eat their own waste, was equal parts gross and fascinating.  Not only do rabbits and rats perform this most yucky of acts, it’s essential to their digestive practice.  For instance, there are bacteria in the colon of rats that release vitamins which the rat can only absorb in the small intestine, thus the food must make a second pass through the system.

Once again, Emily Woo Zeller does a fine job with the book, giving a wry twist to many of the more amusing passages and really Roach’s perspective.  Another fascinating book in the continuing line of science writing from Mary Roach.  A winner!

See also: Packing for Mars, Spook, Bonk


Happy Labor Day!

1915 -- Labor Day Parade

Fun facts about Labor Day (from Wikipedia):

  • We proposed it in the US after Canada already had it, but in a stroke of efficiency, we dropped the superfluous ‘u’ from Labour.
  • Because Labor Day has become a major sale day, “some of those who are employed in the retail sector not only work on Labor Day, but work longer hours.”  The article also laments that most of those folks aren’t in unions.
  • It’s also the last day to wear white without looking like a no-class shitheel.  So get out those white pants today.

Happy Labor Day to all of you, dear readers.  Take some time to relax before the September Hammer of school and work and life slams down.  Enjoy it.