Monday, April 25, 2011

Game of Thrones

Reactions to HBO's Game of Thrones, now just two episodes into its first season, so far have been mixed, but there's an interesting pattern to the mix.

Fans of the books mostly like the series. That tells you the adaptation is reasonably faithful.

Television critics tend to like the series if they've read the books, or if they've seen the first six episodes (which were sent out in preview DVDs to some critics).

Critics who've only seen the first episode or two don't much like it, and neither do many viewers who tuned in to see what the hype was all about, without knowing much more than what they've seen so far. They tend to think it's derivative, teen-boy, D&D, predictable, sexist, racist, and dull. Nasty and brutish, without being short.

Why are the two groups seeing things so differently?

To the uninitiated, it might seem like a case of "well, the fans and critics were just brainwashed by the HBO marketing machine, or they're easy to please." In other words: Those guys are suckers.

But there's another explanation: People who have peered more deeply into the story (by reading the books or seeing more than two episodes) may, just possibly, know something that the others don't.

I've read the books, so I know the second explanation is the correct one, in this case. Without spoiling too many plot points, virtually all of the elements that are drawing fire from one-off viewers and one-episode critics change. Dramatically. All of the formulaic pins are set up, and then a bowling ball careens through them, leaving them all on the ground.

Author George R.R. Martin plays an interesting game in this series: He starts it off like a formulaic, predictable fantasy slog with a cast of stereotypes (the blonde, scheming villain; the savage Dothraki barbarian; the hopeless damsels; the tough, wise dad with a sword; the kids with their matching direwolf pets).

And then he quite deliberately screws with everything. Sabotages it. Inverts it.

That predictable story arc you thought you saw coming? Way off.

You thought the kids and puppies were safe? Sucker.

That foreshadowing you thought you saw? Guess again.

That woman who seemed so passive, and so overshadowed by the guy next to her? Nope, she's one of the most competent, central characters in the series, and he gets himself killed. Try again. (I'm not spoiling any particular plot point there -- I'm spoiling several of them. This happens with more than one character.)

That savage barbarian? Actually, not a bad dude (once we get past his wedding night). Also, not as important as his wife.

That guy you think you're supposed to hate, because he's clearly the villain? No, you're going to like him. Yes, even though he did that horrible thing to a ________. Later, you're going to like him. You won't be comfortable with it, but it's going to happen. (Again, this happens with several characters.)

That's what the critics who've seen six episodes and readers of the books are talking about -- and not talking about. No one wants to spoil the twists and turns, so we're just being vaguely excited.

We've seen hints of this in the first two episodes, each of which ends with an event that's totally shocking, not because it wouldn't happen in real life, but because we're surprised to see it in a fantasy story. If you've seen the episodes, you know the two incidents.

But the whole series is like that. Lots of rugs, and lots of having them yanked out from under you. I kind of hope the critics who think the show is _____-ist and predictable watch long enough to be ... well, floored.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Rapist Row

A recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal, by Caitlin Flanagan, has one of those titles that pretty much sums up her thesis: "Shutter Fraternities for Young Women's Good."

Flanagan describes fraternities as "providing [young men] with a variety of he-man activities: drinking, drugging, ESPN watching and the sexual mistreatment of women," and refers to its members as a "boorish cartel."

Her opening example, which describes how a young student in 1984 was drugged and gang-raped by fraternity members at the University of Virginia, is horrifying. No one believed the student then. It took 20 years -- and an unsolicited (if weak) confession from one of the men -- for her to get justice. In fact, until the trial, she had not had any evidence she'd been gang raped. She'd lived for years having to proceed as though she'd been raped by only one man, and ultimately, only one of the men was convicted.

I've written before about my own background as a fraternity member, back when I was an undergraduate, and I'll confess that my first reaction to Ms. Flanagan's article was defensive. I thought she was going too far, much as many of the readers commenting on her article online have suggested. I was one of several nondrinkers in my fraternity, and one of many who saw the fraternity experience as a way to build deep bonds with fellow human beings, engage in philanthropic work, and enrich an intellectual college experience by adding to it a study of principles and values. I was never (and still am not) much of a partier. My primary role at such functions was wallflower (during) and designated driver (after). I thought, and continue to believe, that organizations for young men can save them from their tribal and savage instincts, endowing them with civilization and morality.

But I had another reaction to the article: I was angry. Not at Ms. Flanagan, but at the men in fraternities around the country who are drugging and raping women, chanting "No means yes. Yes means anal!," and otherwise acting like brutes. The brute in me would like to see them hanged. (The civilized part of me might insist on a trial first.)

It's taken me a while to sort through those conflicting emotions, to make some sense of them.

Are fraternities worthy groups deserving of protection, or houses of horror that ought to be closed?

Answering this question requires some understanding both of young men and of group dynamics. Some observations:

1. Untamed young men are often disorderly, violent, and hypersexual.

2. In aimless groups of peers, led by other untamed brutes, young men tend to engage collectively in destructive, deviant, or criminal behavior. We see this in everything from street gangs to the rape and death squads of developing nations in civil war. Group polarization is part of the problem here: Most of our instinctive behavior is based on what we think normal is. People tend to become more extreme when the people around them are extreme, because the sense of "normal" shifts. Young men who might otherwise be only inclined to grope may, in the presence of someone raping (and no one objecting), go further. Men who might be inclined not to participate at all might cheer. Men who might normally be inclined to object or rescue might stand mute. That silence, in turn, throws more fuel on the fire. Now the cheerers begin to grope; the rapists start looking for sharp objects. Few things in life are as terrifying as a mob in spiral.

3. However, in the right kinds of groups, ones that provide moral leadership and codes of behavior, men can learn to channel their energies toward the defense of a community and its values. The codes and role models provide a moral compass. The sense of "normal" becomes codified and resistant to spirals. In such environments, men can learn to become husbands, fathers, guardians, protectors. Although results may have varied, the chivalric codes and bushido, codes for knights and samurai, respectively, were aimed at such a result -- at taming the savages in the community and turning them into protectors and role models for young boys. That we have historical accounts of unknightly knights doesn't mean the codes were meaningless, but rather that in some areas or instances those codes were forgotten or unenforced; human beings, women included, have a disturbing tendency to view traditions as funny, expendable, or highly malleable and subject to creative interpretation. An unenforced code is little more than graffiti. Whatever their mis-steps, without such codes, Europe and Japan likely would not have developed as they did. A community without such codes is hard to distinguish from 1994 Rwanda.

Fraternities can be the right kinds of groups, if fraternity leadership hews to the virtues that most such organizations espouse, if senior members act as role models, if the larger community insists that they do so and enforces society's laws, if all parties collectively condemn not only rape but the precursors of rape: groping, drugging, talk of rape.

If members behave ignobly, they should be stripped of membership, prosecuted by the law, and, I mean this part seriously, held in dishonor. Quaint as it sounds, honor is the key to all such codes. Public shame is a better deterrent to poor behavior than whipping. The stocks are a better tool than the electric chair. (Arguably, one of the most destructive developments of the last 50 years has been America's campaign to protect the privacy of wrongdoers. The skyrocketing rates of academic dishonesty of late can, for instance, be traced back to the death of the honor codes of old: In the past, a plagiarist was identified publicly. People knew what he'd done. That had a pronounced effect on behavior. Schools can't out their cheaters, by law. But a fraternity can publicly denounce a former member as dishonorable, and should.)

However, without guidance or enforcement, a fraternity is little more than a disorderly peer group with a funny name.

Which brings me to my complicated reaction to Ms. Flanagan's article.

Fraternities not already doing so need to step it up. They need to take their codes more seriously, and not simply see them as things that pledges have to recite while standing on their heads. The founders of those organizations meant them. They put thought into them. Codes matter. Without them, the fraternity is not really a fraternity, but an impostor. Fraternities need to work with their communities -- and the women in them -- to channel young men in productive directions.

Fraternities that refuse to do this, that remain unguided brute-led rabble, do need to be shuttered.

A fraternity that's functioning can be a good thing, providing focus and direction for young men who might truly need guidance -- but a malfunctioning fraternity is far worse than none at all.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Nigerian spam lords and yet another reason to edit your stuff

My wife has been listing things on eBay lately (because we're trying to clean out the house a bit), and she's received three messages from one guy, whom she has deliberately ignored. The messages are unedited, uncapitalized, abbreviation-heavy, and terse -- like a dashed-off text message.

She says she's ignoring them because one of the things you have to look out for on sites like eBay are scammers or rip-off artists, and one thing most of those guys have in common is terribly edited writing.

"This guy might be legitimate, and may really be interested, but I'm not going to talk to him, just in case," she told me.

It occurred to me, when she said this, that I tend to treat unedited messages as though they're from spammers or con artists, too, and after a few seconds of thought, I realized why: those Nigerian 419 email scams. (You know the ones.) They're always filled with goofs and howlers. When I see an email or unsolicited Facebook message written in anything like that style, I tend to ignore or delete it (unless I recognize it's from a student).

It's a safe bet that lots of literate, educated people have instinctively adopted this Ignore-the-Error-Filled-Message defense. It's sensible and efficient. Of course, it's also likely to hit some false positives along the way. In all likelihood, a few legitimate messages are being lost in the process.

Is this phenomenon a kind of discrimination, like racial profiling, but targeting uneducated people instead of, say, Arabs? Maybe.

Is it reasonable to assume spammers and scammers are going to have lots of errors, and that well-edited messages are more likely to be legitimate?

Yes, I'd say that's reasonable.

If that seems to be a stretch -- and I realize it may -- here's why that assumption makes some sense: Conning people and spamming people are numbers games. The more people you hit, the more likely it is you find a sucker. Most of the suckers are not going to be terribly sharp. So if you're a con artist or spam lord, there's really not a very good reason to worry about grammar. The people who will spot the errors weren't likely to fall for the scam anyway. The people who are likely to fall for the scam aren't likely to care about or notice errors.

For this reason, most people who spend their days sending lots of messages into the Internet's ether, hoping to hook a mark or two, don't bother to edit their stuff. There's simply no compelling reason to bother.

Meanwhile, if you're going to email a complete stranger to ask a legitimate favor or to ask for money for a real thing, you're sending a message to just one person. You probably know the receiver is going to wonder, "Who the heck is this person, and is this some kind of spam?" Most reasonably intelligent senders will slow down to edit, so they'll be taken more seriously and make a good impression.

So, for reasons entirely unrelated to education, legitimate messages will tend to look more carefully edited than dishonest ones.

However, this does mean trouble for some writers out there: If you're writing honest messages but not slowing down to edit, you look exactly like a Nigerian spam lord, and smart people are inoculating themselves against that sort of thing.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The what what?

Students often think "well-written" means grammatically correct.

There's certainly a correlation between good and correct, but the two are not the same thing. Some great bits of writing (including some of my favorite books, and several texts assigned by the writing program that currently employs me) are filled with grammar errors. They're still good.

Meanwhile, sometimes even sentences or headlines that are grammatically correct are badly written.

Take, for example, this recent headline from the Press-Enterprise: "Mojave Desert: Tortoise finds curtail solar-site construction."

The headline is perfectly correct. Heck, it even contains a complete sentence, which is odd for a headline. That's the first rule that usually goes out the window.

But my bet is most readers couldn't make sense of it, or tried reading it but gave up after deciding it was grammatically incorrect. When I first read it, I was thrown off by the word finds, and ended up shaking my head in confusion. I had to look at it twice to figure out what was intended by the headline writer. (The headline writer is probably not the journalist who wrote the article -- those are usually different people.)

Finds in the headline is a noun, not a verb. It's being used in the same sense as "Wow! What a find!" It's a noun meaning something that's been found. They found some stuff related to tortoises. Usually, when we see find used this way, it's a singular noun and it's modified by a clear adjective, like archeological. If the headline had said, instead, "Archeological find curtails solar-site construction," those of us comfortable with the word curtail probably would have understood it just fine.

The problem is that we can imagine a tortoise finding something, and finds with an "s" at the end is less familiar. Moreover, finds agrees with tortoise, so just about anyone reading "tortoise finds" is going to picture a tortoise saying "Aha!"

Readers who don't know the word curtail will picture some sort of vague thing that can be found: "Ah, the tortoise found a curtail, whatever that is." But then the rest of the sentence makes no sense. For those of us who know all the words, we're lost as soon as we hit curtail -- two verbs in a row? That's peculiar. (Then again, I did just read a student paper in which a sentence said "Recently, a judge wrote admitted ..." In that case, it was an error.)

It's tough to avoid these. Pretty much everyone creates a sentence like that at some point. However, most of the time, if you take the writing process seriously, you can catch this sort of thing. Peer reviewers can circle the sentence and write "huh?" in the margins, prompting you to look at the sentence again more carefully. Reading it aloud (or having a buddy read it to you) can help you catch stuff that's easy to mis-read. My point isn't that the Press-Enterprise screwed up; the paper has tight deadlines and these writers are often more rushed than students are. (Hard to believe, but true.)

My point, instead, is that students who want to dramatically improve their writing should review their work not just for errors but for wording that simply doesn't work, regardless of how grammatical it is.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"It has not escaped our notice"

I was looking over a recent scientific article from a research team that includes DNA giant Craig Venter (though he is not the lead author), and it's interesting stuff. They seem in some ways like they're being very cautious and conservative in their discussion of some preliminary findings, which suggest they may have discovered a fourth domain of life. One existing domain is bacteria. Another is every animal with more than one cell (us included). That should give you some idea of how big a domain is.

That's far more significant than discovering a new species, if it's true.

While I was reading through the article, I spotted this sentence:
It has not escaped our notice that the characteristics of these novel sequences are consistent with the possibility that they come from a new (i.e., fourth) major branch of cellular organisms on the tree of life.
That sentence really jumped out at me, because it echoes another very famous sentence in biological science:
It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.
That second sentence is from the 1953 article by James D. Watson and Francis Crick that first described the "spiral staircase" structure of DNA, and showed how DNA might replicate. It's the Nobel Prize-winning article that set into motion almost all of our later discoveries about how life works. The famous short article is perhaps the most frequently analyzed text in science, and that is one of its most famous sentences -- in part because of its hypercautious understatement. They'd pretty clearly made an electrifying discovery, and rather than make a bold pronouncement, they said, in essence, "Oh, yeah, and over here there's this possible ramification, which would be interesting."

For comparison, imagine a priest walking into a landscape where he sees a giant ancient ship parked on a mountain top, a burning bush, and a guy in sandals standing on top of a lake. He writes an article in a religious magazine describing these observations, and then says, "It has not escaped my notice that these may have religious implications." He leaves it at that. That's the sort of understated conclusion that Watson and Crick drew.

By echoing that statement, the "fourth domain" researchers are sending a weird, mixed signal: They're echoing one of the most cautious, humble lines in scientific literature, so you might think they're being equally humble and cautious. But by using that language, they're also clearly associating themselves with some landmark, world-changing discoveries. Intentionally or not, they're implying that "We've found something on the scale of that DNA discovery."

If I had to guess, I'd say the echo of Watson & Crick is a deliberate signal to the community. It's saying, "Officially, on the record, we're not drawing conclusions, but we're letting you know that off-the-record, we think we're onto something huge." If that's the case, it's not remotely humble or cautious at all. It's just clever.