Thoughts about tone

(Personal, Politics)

2012-01-27 13:19
Comment [1]

While browsing for something else, I stumbled across a remark by Tyler Cowen observing the benefits of polite discourse. Or at least the disadvantages of rudeness.

Here’s the thing. There’s a very noticeable difference between friendly and hostile discourse, and in the vast majority of cases, friendly is more effective in many ways.

As Kahneman’s most-excellent Thinking, Fast and Slow points out, people tend to substitute proxy measures. People develop a sense for what tone of conversation is acceptable, but most of the time they’re measuring proxies rather than the actual emotional tone, especially in writing.

Tony Campolo’s amazing speech at an evangelical conference makes the point eloquently:

I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.

He was censured for using inappropriate language, as I understand it. Ne’er has a point been so thoroughly proven by its rebuttal.

What this means is that it’s vital to have control over your tone. If you cuss habitually and without consideration, you are communicating nothing to people who don’t mind, and communicating crassness or stupidity to people who do. But if you never cuss, you’ve cut out a significant portion of the expressive range of your language. Furthermore, if you never cuss, people who do will tend to pick up the impression that you’re prissy; they won’t take you as seriously, and they may well perceive you as holding them in contempt, whether or not you do. The willingness to meet people partway on language usage is a very powerful tool for making friends.

Similarly, if you are constantly hostile in conversations, you accomplish nothing. But… If you are never hostile, if you dare not give offense, you are again denying significant expressive range.

I think it’s vitally important to be able to disagree in a civil manner. But I also think it’s useful to remember that you have the option of choosing not to dignify a particularly odious position with a polite response. This is a completely ineffective communications tactic if used all the time; it makes you out to be totally lacking in self-control, and probably a jerk. But if you are able to be respectful and kind 95% of the time, when people see you drop that and tell someone to fuck off, it does have great communicative power.

My mom points out: All of this includes also baseline references for the people you’re talking to, as well as your existing knowledge of the person you’re hearing talk. It is complicated. My tumblr blog is written much more “offensively” than this one, but both are much more cuss-friendly than a lot of people I know would tend to write; on the other hand, they’re tuned for some of the people I am trying to reach as readers. I can be more polite (and be judged inauthentic), or more coarse (and be judged callow or ineloquent). Rock, meet hard place. Hard place, meet rock.

As with most of life, choice of tone rewards conscious and intentional decision-making.

Peter Seebach


Comment [1]


Law of unintended consequences

(Personal, GeekStuff)

2012-01-27 13:05
Comment [1]

The community over on tumblr (note: my tumblr blog is even more NSFW than this one) is interesting. See. Jesse and I are, quite obviously and visibly, Very Much In Love. And our mutual friend, Luka, has adopted the role of Jesse’s kismesis, which results in hilarity as Jesse and Luka insult each other loudly and obviously.

And this leads to additional hilarity, as a natural outflow of this is that there are occasions on which the funniest thing I could do or say involves calling Jesse a fag. And pretty much every time I unleash random homophobic slurs on my spouse, I acquire new “followers” on tumblr.

Cast your mind back to the posts of yesterday, where I observed that Google+ does not consider “seebs” to be an established identity. Consider that follower relationships on a social networking site almost certainly count towards the establishment of an identity.

Conclusion: There exists a horrific steam of homophobic slurs which, if I emitted it consistently for long enough, would result in Google+ conceding that “seebs” is an established identity.

On a side note: I’ve asked around, and I know a large number of people on tumblr, in Rift (the MMO I play most), and other places, all of whom were thinking about using Google+ for social networking, but stopped because they or someone they care about found the name policy unacceptable.

I think Google+ has been killed. I know multiple people who used it briefly and then left over the name policy. I know more people who used it and then left because the people they would have talked to left over the name policy. And the big public announcement that they were going to allow pseudonyms, which turned out to be an insultingly badly implemented publicity stunt which I cannot believe was a sincere effort to solve the problem, is probably the last nail in the coffin. I might well, if it became possible, create a Google+ account under my real name (note: that’s “seebs”). I wouldn’t use it, though; it’d just be a placeholder with links to the social media I actually use, taken only to preserve the name and keep my identity consistent.

The fact is, no one who got this that horrifyingly wrong and stuck with it for this many months has enough clue to run a social networking site. People who feel entitled to demand that trans people use a name that they would rather kill themselves than go by are not competent to make decisions about social interactions. People who do not see immediately that telling people they are wrong about their personal sense of identity is stupid… well, I can’t trust them, now can I? If they’re dumb enough to do that, they’re dumb enough to do other things.

It’s a shame, because I think if they hadn’t fucked up this one thing, they’d have been in a great position to compete effectively with Facebook. As is, all the initial interest evaporated almost immediately.

Peter Seebach


Comment [1]


People like to be heard


2012-01-26 18:24
Comment [1]

So, thinking about it.

Here’s what’s wrong with Google+‘s new names policy, and why it will not significantly abate the outrage.

Fundamentally, what’s most important to people is to be acknowledged in some way. Right now, the Google+ name appeal system is actively denying any kind of acknowledgement.

1. There is no provision whatsoever for personal commentary of any sort. You can’t offer even a single sentence of explanation for why you would rather use one name than another.
2. The response is a complete form letter, with no acknowledgement at all of anything you said or submitted.
3. You cannot reply.

You get no indication of how the determination was made. Did they even notice that I had 40,000 posts over a period of five years under that name? Maybe, maybe not. I can’t tell whether they didn’t notice it, or didn’t even follow the links because it’s “obviously” a nickname, or what.

And that comes into a very fundamental trait of humans, which Google seems completely unaware of: You can tell people no all you want, but if you don’t demonstrate convincingly that you actually heard and considered what they said, they will always be angry with you. If I’d gotten a response in which they offered a meaningful explanation of why they don’t think the only name my friends have called me by in the last twenty some years is my “real name”, I might have agreed or not, but I would have at least felt like the question got considered.

Instead, I have no evidence at all that my links were even followed. I have no evidence that they have even considered the question “how many people know this guy as seebs?” or “will this guy’s friends have an easier time finding him under this name or that name?”

So I’m furious. I think their behavior is unconscionable and insulting.

Key customer service lesson here: When you want people to accept an answer, be sure you convince them you understood the question, first.

A followup, as a thing has clicked:

Part of the reason this is a big deal is that, for most people, your name is a big component of your self-identity. Telling people they are wrong about their name is a kind of telling them that they are wrong about who they are. This is why any policy like this is pretty much doomed to failure. Telling people they are not who they think they are is stupid; refusing to allow them a mechanism for correcting you is even stupider.

Peter Seebach

Comment [1]


Google+: Getting there, but not there yet


2012-01-26 14:45

Much-lauded announcements that Google+ allows pseudonyms turn out to mean that you can maybe get one through a procedure which doesn’t exist by filling out a nonexistent application.

Here’s the thing. Lots of people, especially celebrities, do everything under a name that isn’t on their driver’s license or passport. Google+ in theory now permits this. Google’s people say this is a vanishingly rare requirement, but of course, they’re subject to huge sampling bias; they’re sampling only people who have signed up to their service.

Fundamentally, not everyone in the world even has a “first name, last name” pair. Some people are consistently known by a full name which includes a middle name. You may not have heard of Stephen Gould, but you’ve almost certainly heard of Stephen Jay Gould. In some countries, single names are common.

Me? I go by seebs. That’s what my spouse calls me. That’s what my lawyer calls me. And Google+ won’t let me create a profile in that name, because it wants a “full name” which is precisely a first name and a last name, no more, no less. Period. Heck, it won’t even let me enter my actual legal name. (My first name is a single letter. It does not stand for anything.)

The option of being known as Firstname “Nick” Lastname is not support for pseudonyms.

Google+ is, in many ways, a much better approach to social networking than the sites it’s competing with. The company is probably less evil. But until they’re willing to let me enter the name I primarily use and display that name and only that name, they are not good enough for me to keep an account created on it for more than five or ten minutes at a time. (I go in occasionally to see whether they’ve fixed it yet.)

The reality is, “seebs” is more my real name than the words on the driver’s license. It’s what should be shown if someone comes looking for me. I’m fine with listing one or more of the legal names as “other names” or “nicknames”, but I am “seebs”.

Peter Seebach



I have VERY FEELS about language and ethics

(Personal, Religion)

2012-01-24 21:00
Comment [2]

I admit it, I’m pretty much a language snob. Some of this is quasi-intentional; I’ve learned that people who say stuff like “i dont read alot of books lol” are often frustrating for me to deal with. Whatever it is, I just plain filter people who write “poorly”.

Enter my friend Luka. If I have ever caught Luka in an unintentional error in grammar or spelling, it is unknown to me. I think I have once disagreed with her about word usage. Once. My mom used to do the New York Times crossword in ink, and I have disagreed with her about word usage more than that, I think.

And then Luka writes:

I was asked to weigh in on this since I have VERY FEELS about young people and suicide.

This doesn’t bug me. It’s obviously not a violation of English grammar. I mean, obviously it is, but it’s not; it’s a carefully-crafted structure for communicating things. I don’t mind it because of reasons.

This ties into a thing that clicked for me a while back. Ever hear of Billie Holiday? She was a sort of a singer. And the thing is… If you were to have a first-year voice student sing those melodies, even if the student pulled it off, that’d be the sort of thing you flunk out of music classes for. Billie Holiday did not sing the melody as written. She didn’t always use notes that were strictly in key, or heck, even notes that were easily expressed in standard staff notation. And yet, she’s a stunning singer.

This is where “you have to know the rules before you can break them” comes in. Skilled writers can do things which are Obviously Incorrect, but somehow they work out to be correct. Luka has VERY FEELS, and this tells you more than anything that would pass muster in 7th grade English would tell you.

Same thing happens with social skills. It’s obviously rude to make fun of the disabled, right? And yet, when I was introduced to a friend-of-a-friend who has a heart condition such that she can have what sound like mild heart attacks when startled, sometimes fainting, I cheerfully observed that her super power is that she’s sort of a defective pillbug. Unkind? Not at all! (I can’t explain why, but people who have disabled friends who don’t resent them probably know the principle.)

This is true of ethics, too. There is a thing I’ve noticed, which is that the people you can trust to do The Right Thing are frequently stunningly casual about breaking apparent ethical rules. This is because they have gotten past the simple attempts to articulate the rules and gotten to something deeper. Just as we mostly eventually learn that telling jokes is not a kind of lying, even when it involves saying untrue things, people get to a state where they are able to get past the simple rules to a deeper set of rules. They can improvise; they understand the melody in a way that staff music can’t annotate. So if it seems like they’re off-key, don’t think “evil”, think “jazz”.

Peter Seebach


Comment [2]


Autism and identity

(Personal, Autism)

2012-01-23 13:58
Comment [2]

Tyler Cowen has a really interesting piece with the catchy title An Economic and Rational Choice Approach to the Autism Spectrum and Human Neurodiversity. I found it interesting, anyway.

One of the commenters writes:

Please, please, please, do not refer to people with autism as “autistics”. I am the mother of a young man with autism and consider the word extremely offensive. He is a person, not a diagnosis. You may make an excellent point, but the use of that term sets my teeth so on edge that I cannot even read your publication. The correct phrase is PERSON, PEOPLE, OR INDIVIDUAL WITH AUTISM.

I reprint my response here in case Mr. Cowen feels that I did not live up to the standards of discourse he prefers for his blog:

You know what?

Fuck. You.

You are not the one who gets to decide whether to be offended. The autistics are, and you know what? I know a lot of autistic pople. NONE of us like “person with autism”, because that insultingly implies that autism is this horrible thing that happened to us, and that the real person is seperate from it.

It’s like referring to someone as a “person with humanity” or a “person with maleness”. This is a matter of identity.

Only place I’ve seen “person with autism” advocated is the eugenics nuts at Autism Speaks who want us wiped out.

I don’t have autism. I am autistic. This permeates everything I experience. It defines what it is like to be me. A thing that was otherwise like me, but not autistic, would be someone else.

So, a followup, someone on tumblr commented on having been corrected both ways. I elaborate:

Honestly, I don’t object to people who, for one reason or another, prefer to say “person with autism”. Heck, maybe there are people of whom it’s true; to be honest, I don’t identify as “male”, just as a person who happens to be male; it’s not part of my identity. Maybe there are people for whom autism isn’t identity-shaping.

But I do object, strongly, to people saying that it’s vital to separate the trait out and make it look alien and not part of the person, because for basically everyone I know (and I know a lot of autistics), it’s very much not that way at all.

I’ve yet to meet a person who has an autism diagnosis and prefers “person with autism”, that I know of.

Peter Seebach


Comment [2]


Rules, boundaries, and autism

(Personal, Autism)

2012-01-22 13:14

Something that has screwed me up occasionally is that I tend to take people precisely at their word.

Back when I was in college, there was a rule against breaking into other peoples’ accounts. Reasonable enough rule, right? I got in trouble, though. I did a few things.

One: I disabled the password authentication for my account. (I did this because the intentionally-slow login process could time out during busy times.)
Two: I ran dictionary lookups against the password tables and made lists of accounts with bad passwords. (“zeppelin” was very common.)
Three: I wrote a program which emulated the login procedure, recorded passwords, pretended to error out, then let the actual login procedure take over.

Now, those of you who aren’t autistic are probably utterly unable to see why I would have done any of these things, given that rule. Those of you who are autistic are probably either unable to see why I got in trouble, or laughing knowingly.

To explain: The issue here is that there’s no reason to do the password-cracking without intent to break into accounts, except pure curiousity. Most people aren’t that curious, and most people tend to view behavior which can lead directly to bad behavior as highly suspicious at the very least. But… For me? I was given a rule, it seemed reasonable (I mean, you wouldn’t want people breaking into accounts, right?), and I followed it. When I was curious as to whether people chose good passwords, I found out by the simplest means available. Since I wasn’t breaking the rule, I didn’t anticipate trouble.

And here we get to why, even “high-functioning”, autism can functionally be a fairly serious disorder. The net result of this is that a large portion of the potential value of my college education was destroyed, because the stuff I could have been learning (and getting formal credentials in) was temporarily made inaccessible. See. The administrative staff involved (Lynn Steen and Roberta Lembke) decided without talking to me at all that I was clearly guilty of whatever I was accused of, and they kicked me off the school computers.

Even with the benefit of understanding at least part of why they thought this was a big deal, I think that was the wrong call. Preventing kids from learning should be a really big deal. You shouldn’t do it based on hearsay accounts and speculation.

I still don’t know what actually happened. My guess is that there were social issues other than just the obvious stuff, and that the social issues are why the administrative staff handled this in such a dramatic way. At the time, my complete non-awareness of status tended to look to people like arrogance and smugness; amusingly, now that I’m comparatively high-status in general, the exact same trait looks like admirable humility. Hah.

And come to think of it: I’m curious enough that I may actually ask them what the deal was.

Peter Seebach




Why Luka is awesome


2012-01-18 21:09

Some person on the Internet was sad. This happens sometimes. He was so sad that he was thinking of killing himself. This, too, happens sometimes. And you know what else happens sometimes? Assholes happen. They write stuff like:

Anonymous asked: You need to get over yourself holy shit. There are people who suffer more than you but continue to live on every day.

Thing about tumblr is, people can reply to stuff.

And that’s where our friend Luka comes in:

Luka is wise.

Quoting the whole thing:

Sad person:

It’s OK to break your leg and feel hurt even though your next door neighbor just broke his neck. His pain is your pain’s meaner, older brother.

It’s OK to feel hurt when your parents are dicks to you, even if a kid in a war zone just lost his parents in a firefight. Having the bond of your family fucked with in any way is shitty.

It’s OK to cry when you get dumped even though your best friend at school’s grandmother just passed away. Sadness doesn’t care if you deserve to feel it or not. Sadness is a douchebag house guest who barges into your heart and makes itself a cozy little nest on your couch, eats all your nutella and leaves when it damn well pleases.

It’s OK to be depressed and not know why. It would be nice if there was a checklist where you go over reasons to be bummed out and tally up the points at the end to see if you qualify for a bad day, but this shit is relative. See also Sadness being a douchebag, only worse.

You don’t need permission from the world to have a problem that isn’t visibly gushing blood all over the living room floor. You don’t have to be the lowest of the low to be allowed to have the full range of normal shitty human feelings. What idiocy to say shit like “get over yourself” to a person talking about suicide, as if anyone on this entire fucked up suffering planet would wallow in misery if there was any other visible option.

Wanna play the Oppression Olympics to find out who’s allowed to complain? Good luck beating the naked mole rat. Jesus christ, those guys crawl through tunnels full of each other’s shit and piss and can’t see for beans and they all look like an old man’s ballsack. Dry your tears, dude on the rooftop, you’re cured. There are naked mole rats wading through piss somewhere in the world. Hoo-ray!

Anonymous, you need to get over yourself holy shit. There are trolls who can’t afford to whine on tumblr about who’s allowed to feel what on the internet. THERE ARE WAR ORPHANS IN MONTANA WHO WISH THEY HAD A KEYBOARD SO THEY COULD BE JERKS ON THE INTERNET. THERE ARE KIDS DROPPING ICE CREAM CONES ALL OVER FLORIDA, WHERE IS YOUR COMPASSION MAN!


Oh for a shotgun full of rock salt for every ass weasel who I see pulling this hackneyed old sentiment out of their collection of ways to be utterly worthless to their fellow man and feel a thrill of accomplishment afterwards.

Even the suicidal kid you think is totes self-absorbed cares more about their impact on the world than your loser ass does. How’s that taste going down, brain hero?

Way to speed up entropy and fail at life while frantically masturbating to the Douchebag Of The Year trophy you keep on your display shelf next to the giant horse dildo oh wait no that’s a photo of you being you.

Suck my invisiballs, anonymous, you smug douche. People with attitudes like yours are why the world has no flying cars. You’re why the space program was canceled and why Fox News runs 24/7. You have failed to be a decent member of the species and your punishment is to be you, such sentence to be retroactively enforced to the moment of your unfortunate squalling birth, because even the timeline abhors your insulting, self-satisfied victim bashing and scorns it for the lukewarm pile of oatmeal puke it is.

PS – I hope you get weeping anal fissures from your colon to your butthole and no one will listen to you sob about the stinging pain because HAHAHAHA GET OVER IT PUSSY I GOT A HANGNAIL.

Peter Seebach



Why SOPA really is that bad

(Personal, Politics)

2012-01-18 12:49

Why SOPA really is that bad.

I can’t really say this much better than Paul Myers can. I will say, as one of those technical geeks… Yes. It really is that bad. It really is that catastrophic.

And here’s the thing. I am a person who makes a living selling intellectual property, and you know what? It’s not helping us, and we don’t need help. The idea that we need better tools to prevent people from ripping us off? Stupid.

The purpose of copyright is not that it’s some kind of God-given absolute moral right to control what other people do with your ideas. It’s to give good enough tools to let you make a living. That’s why we even have the concept of fair use, and it’s why the system originally had copyright terms expire.

And the reality is… Even with all the “piracy” going on, we’re still making money selling books and music. Indeed, for those of us who aren’t in the top ten lists, we’re making more money, because more people have heard of our stuff and end up deciding to buy it.

Look at Louis CK making a million bucks without worrying about piracy. (He made at least a million bucks on it, much of which he then gave away.) The fact is, people in general are pretty willing to pay for stuff if they like it and have the money.

If SOPA were a good idea, it would be a better idea to ban libraries. It’s not. We do not need more control; we need to learn to live without absolute control, because absolute control is not a good way for humans to live. And while people like to think about the control they have over others, the fact is, everyone else outnumbers you; under a regime like this, you’d be controlled more than you’d be in control.

Thinking of commenting? Remember that, in a SOPA world, if I allow comments and any of you ever think of mentioning warez, my blog is taken offline and probably doesn’t come back.

Peter Seebach




Placebo: A new idea for a restaurant


2012-01-16 18:56
Comment [4]

There was some research a while back which found a possibly-surprising result. As most people probably suspect, the difference in perceived quality between wines does not really follow price very closely. But! It does follow stated price; if you serve the same wine to a lot of people, and tell some of them it’s $12 for a box and others it’s $400 for a bottle, the latter like it better. Better yet, they’re right — they really do enjoy it more. Thank you, MRI scans and the like.


This leads to a concept: A restaurant called Placebo. What do they sell? A 50% discount. Which is to say: The entire menu is framed with everything at about twice the price you’d otherwise expect to pay for it, but then your check gets a 50% discount. So say you have a steak roughly of the same quality as the $13 steaks at the Outback Steakhouse. The menu says $26, your bill when it arrives has a 50% discount. But everything you order feels expensive.

For extra credit, you could do interviews and arrange waiters to adopt personalities which suit the customers. Someone comes in who likes Good Wholesome Cooking? We can set you up with a waiter who thinks fancy food is ridiculous. Or, we can set you up with a waiter who is a total food snob, and you can have a wonderful meal knowing that the waiter is missing out on Good Wholesome Cooking. Your call.

The basic idea here is… people aren’t going out to eat for the food, they’re going out for the experience. Why not sell the experience as-such as the product? And thanks to some lovely research done on placebos in the 60s or so, we know that in some cases they work even if you know it’s a placebo — they’ve been shown to treat depression effectively even when explained.

(Note: If someone out there wants to actually do this, I waive all claims to ownership of the idea or whatever, but I’d love to hear about it if you try it.)

Peter Seebach

Comment [4]


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