Erik Naggum (1965-2009)
June 21, 2009 3:00 PM   Subscribe

If anyone could flame from beyond the grave, it is he. Erik Naggum was a young programmer and Usenet philosopher who exemplified the new breed of smug Lisp weenie. His hatred for Perl, C++ and XML fueled his Olympian rants. He was cruel, but smart; he was articulate, but he used arguments ad hominem; he left a trail of scorched earth, but he had devoted friends. I didn't know him, but I enjoyed his expression of free thought. He died young after years of torment; R.I.P.

Thanks, Google Groups.
posted by e.e. coli (72 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
So the question is sore asshole, or ulcerative colitis?
posted by humannaire at 3:21 PM on June 21, 2009


Whoa. Analogizing the usage of XML to rape, that's pretty acrimonious. In his Olympian cosmology I guess I belong in Hades.
posted by XMLicious at 3:32 PM on June 21, 2009


Wicked smaht boyah.

.
posted by localroger at 3:37 PM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Whoa. Analogizing the usage of XML to rape, that's pretty acrimonious.

Argh! Metaphors are supposed to aid communication, but I'm slowly coming to the depressing conclusion that -- for many people -- they just muddy the water. I don't mean to pick on you, XMLicious (especially since you're probably joking), but you -- or the jokey persona you're putting on -- is missing what things the writer is comparing.

I see this all the time, especially when writers use hot-button topics as metaphors. For instance, if I write...

A kid forgetting his first day at school is like a Jew forgetting the Holocaust.

... someone will inevitably charge me with comparing an agonizing school day with the death of six-million innocent people. But that's NOT what I'm comparing. I'm comparing one person forgetting something to another person forgetting something. I'm not comparing the two things being forgot (I'm NOT saying a bad school day is like the Holocaust). I'm comparing the RELATIONSHIP of person A to the thing he forgets to the RELATIONSHIP of person B to the thing HE forgets. My point is that people don't forget traumatizing events.

Similarly, if I say "the warm feeling I get when I listen to Bach is like the feeling a freezing man gets when he steps in front of a roaring fire," I'm not comparing Bach and fires; I'm comparing warm feelings. My guess is that that example wouldn't confuse as many people, because it's not based around race relations, rape, antisemitism or whatever. It's not a topic that is so hot that it interferes with people's ability to think logically.

I'm sick of being told I'm being ridiculous for comparing this to Hitler or that to Global Warming when that's not what I'm doing. But I'm starting to think the fault is mine. That I should quit using analogies that even mention topics like this -- that doing so obscures my point.

Here's the example from the link:

They are not identical. The aspects you are willing to ignore are
more important than the aspects you are willing to accept. Robbery
is not just another way of making a living, rape is not just another
way of satisfying basic human needs, torture is not just another way
of interrogation. And XML is not just another way of writing S-exps.


As you can see, he's not analogizing XML to rape. He's comparing types of ignoring.
posted by grumblebee at 3:56 PM on June 21, 2009 [19 favorites]


... someone will inevitably charge me with comparing an agonizing school day with the death of six-million innocent people.

Not to derail, but I would speculate that the vast majority of the time, it's not that people misunderstand your comparison but that they disagree with your larger point and choose to feign misunderstanding in order to perpetrate a kind of incidental ad-hominem attack on you. People like that are jerks and will find some other way to be jerks even if you avoid such metaphors.
posted by juv3nal at 4:05 PM on June 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


Why do you hate Jews, grumblebee? They're perfectly good people, for the most part.
posted by kaibutsu at 4:13 PM on June 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm comparing the RELATIONSHIP of person A to the thing he forgets to the RELATIONSHIP of person B to the thing HE forgets. My point is that people don't forget traumatizing events.

But if those relationships are at all comparable, then that implies that the "things they forget" are comparable as well! Otherwise they wouldn't evoke similar reactions in persons A and B. I know you mean they're similar in type, not scale, but nowhere in your analogy do you specify this. (This is why the Bach example isn't a parallel case: it's clear on the surface that you're not comparing scale, since one kind of warmth is metaphorical and the other is literal.)

It's true that people are misreading your comments, but I think that's less because people are incorrigibly illogical and more because you're putting information into your comparisons that you don't intend.
posted by decagon at 4:18 PM on June 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


Whoa whoa whoa. grumblebee -- Are you saying that Jews invented XML as part of a zionist conspiracy to control the internet? That's fucked up, man.
posted by Saxon Kane at 4:19 PM on June 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


Also:
"Argh! ...
posted by grumblebee"

Eponysterical?
posted by Saxon Kane at 4:20 PM on June 21, 2009


(For the record, I do agree that Hitler and global warming, etc. tend to make it impossible for people to analyze an argument rationally, and that this makes them poor choices of comparisons in any case.)
posted by decagon at 4:20 PM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


My guess is that that example wouldn't confuse as many people, because it's not based around race relations, rape, antisemitism or whatever. It's not a topic that is so hot that it interferes with people's ability to think logically.

You nailed it exactly. Metaphors which use unnecessarily inflammatory objects of comparison distract the reader from the larger point and are thus poor communication.
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:25 PM on June 21, 2009 [6 favorites]


grumblebee's successful derail is a fitting tribute

.
posted by you at 4:31 PM on June 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


Validating the input prior to processing is a good
idea when processing would take minutes, if not hours, and consume
costly resources, only to abend.


Wow, mainframe lingo. That's O.G. in nerd world.
posted by sleslie at 4:37 PM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


44 is young to die, but not to be a programmer.
posted by DU at 4:42 PM on June 21, 2009


His hatred for Perl, C++ and XML fueled his Olympian rants.

/pours out a 64-bit double for /his homie
posted by DU at 4:45 PM on June 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


I miss the feeling of being absolutely certain that I am correct and everyone who disagrees with me is either confused or wrong. In the early years of my career, after I'd found my feet but before I'd learned that I didn't know as much as I thought I did, I had that certainty. I wrote long, impassioned emails to co-workers and employers explaining in fine detail why I was correct and why they were either confused or wrong. I was emotionally involved.

Nowadays, it's code. I write code. The client sometimes wants code that differs from the code I would've written, but they're the client so I write the code they want to pay for. And when I close the IDE I'm done with it.

I miss that feeling though.

Erik Naggum, I salute you.
posted by ook at 4:54 PM on June 21, 2009 [8 favorites]


Why do we admire smart people who are difficult to get along with? Is there a cognitive dissonance thing going on here, where we justify the effort to penetrate their abrasive carapace by holding up the gold innards beneath it? Are there no similarly smart people who are also nice?
posted by fatbird at 4:56 PM on June 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


We admire them too, fatbird.
posted by hattifattener at 5:06 PM on June 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


That is some top-flight invective there. I particularly love the ascii-art idiot gauge, on which the unfortunate victim is graciously positioned a couple of steps away from absolute stupidity.
    |--------------------------------------------------------------------------|
    idiot         ^                                       common lisp programmer
                 you 
I haven't seen real old-school flamage like that in a long time.

As you can see, he's not analogizing XML to rape. He's comparing types of ignoring.

grumblebee, that is so perfectly wrong that I almost feel you must be intending a deadpan troll. While ostensibly he merely offers other examples of ignoring, in fact this is a deliberate, bathetically humorous claim that XML is on a par with rape and torture. The choice of examples is not a distracting mistake, it is a rhetorical gambit.

For example, if I said "grumblebee, you're an inspiring leader, like Hitler!", you would be a very odd person if you thought I was merely paying tribute to your charismatic powers.

Are there no similarly smart people who are also nice?
There are, but by nature they don't come up with comments that lack nothing in ire except being delivered at 100 dB by John Cleese.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:14 PM on June 21, 2009 [6 favorites]


So I've been reading about natural language processing and working on graph clusterization algorithms, and I heard about this "reuters" data set that's referenced a lot. I managed to download it and look at it and there were a bunch of ".sgm" files. I didn't know what those would be but when I opened them it looked like XML. But then I realized that it was actually SGML files. From, like, the 80s. It looked like it would only take a tiny bit of work to turn these into XML documents (basically, they would need an open/close tag around the entire file) and they should be able to parse just fine. Obviously, people have done some horrible things with XML, though.

Anyway Paul Graham is proof that you can be a Lisp programmer and still stupid.
posted by delmoi at 5:48 PM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


He had an asshole transplant at the last moment, but apparently the asshole rejected him.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:57 PM on June 21, 2009 [7 favorites]


From the NY Times article about the forger Van Meegeren, on why you should not rashly compare things to Hitler.
Years ago, I interviewed four people for my film “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control” – a topiary gardener, a lion tamer, a mole-rat photographer and a robot scientist. Around the same time I also interviewed Fred Leuchter, a designer of execution-equipment and a Holocaust denier. I had never intended to put Fred Leuchter with the others – even though they were filmed within days of each other. One editor tried to encourage me to mix them up in one mélange.

Julia Sheehan, my wife, argued against it, “Hitler is not a spice. When you put Hitler in the soup. It becomes Hitler-soup.”
posted by hexatron at 5:59 PM on June 21, 2009 [16 favorites]


For example, if I said "grumblebee, you're an inspiring leader, like Hitler!", you would be a very odd person if you thought I was merely paying tribute to your charismatic powers.

That's different. You are directly comparing me to Hitler. You're saying I am an inspired leader in the same way that Hitler is an inspired leader.

Here's what I'm talking about (using an example that is, hopefully, disconnected from anything emotionally charged):

A dollar-fifty will get you access to a cup of coffee just as surely as a library card will get you access to a bunch of books.

Clearly -- I hope -- I am not comparing coffee and books. I am comparing two ways of getting access to something. I am saying that to get access to books, you don't need to go through a complicated process, you just need a really simple "key" called a library card. Similarly, to get access to a cup of coffee, you don't need to trade two lambs and a bushel of hay, you just need a dollar fifty. Books and coffee aren't similar except in the way one accesses them -- with a simple transaction. No one would read my sentence and say, "You're nuts! Books and coffee aren't similar at all! You can't compare them!"

On the other hand, if I wrote...

Sixty bucks will get you access to a streetwalker just as surely as a library card will get you access to a bunch of books.

... somebody would surely say, "You asshole! You're comparing books to prostitutes!"

I do think you have a point about rhetoric. Though taken literally, my two examples both have the same meaning -- they are both about how a simple "key" gets you access to books -- my choice of hookers vs. coffee is going to have some sort of psychological affect on readers.

I don't think a reader is insane if he says, "You weren't literally comparing books to hookers, but by using them in the same sentence, you forced me to think of them both at the same time."

Okay, why did I do that?

One possibility is that I DID want the reader to think of books and hookers as somehow similar, and I was using a sneaky rhetorical device to get the job done while claiming that's not what I was doing.

Another possibility is that I wanted the reader to think about how easy it is to get access to books IF you have a library card, and to make that clear -- emotionally clear -- I came up with what I thought was a vivid metaphor: how easy it is to get access to a streetwalker if you have sixty bucks in your pocket.

If you say, "Well, if that's your intent, you're an idiot, because you can't bring up hookers (or Hitler) without people suspecting your motives," I won't necessarily disagree. Which is what I said in my original post.

I don't know if this is a gift or a curse, but my mind groks comparisons easily (I've always been awesome at those SAT "A is to B as C is to ?" questions.) So even though I had family members who died in concentration camps, I don't get riled when I read an analogy that simply USES Hitler in some way. I naturally focus on what's being compared and how. So I'd claim that I'm not being an idiot when I use Hitler in my analogies. My mistake is failing to account for minds that are different than mine.

Which makes me sound snobbish, I know. I don't mean to be a snob. But some minds seem to work in a clockwork (A leads to B leads to C) manner while others tend to work in a more associative manner -- one in which words spark related images, and those images overpower literal, logical connections.

I don't think one mode is superior to the other, but it is confusing when the two sorts of people get into a conversation with each other. I'm using the word "rape" to explain some point while my friend is thinking, "Rape! Oh my God! My cousin was raped!"

Let's take another look at the quote:

The aspects you are willing to ignore are more important than the aspects you are willing to accept. ... rape is not just another way of satisfying basic human needs ... And XML is not just another way of writing S-exps.

His initial claim is that sometimes when two things are similar in various ways, people ignore the more important ways that they are different.

Rape IS a way of satisfying a basic human need, but if you just look at rape that way, you're missing the most important thing about it. It's not JUST a way of satisfying a need -- more importantly, it's an act of violence! And if you ignore that fact, you're a fool.

My guess is that Naggum used the rape example because he thought that, once pointed out, it's obvious. You can't deny that ignoring the violent aspect of rape (and saying it's just a way of meeting a need) is foolish. He probably thought that once he made the rape example clear, his reader would get that we sometimes miss the forest for the trees. He can then make his point that XML is another such case. It's not like rape except in the way that people foolishly ignore the most important points of both topics.

Now, if you still want to claim that he's doing more than that -- that he's also using sneaky rhetoric -- I can't prove otherwise. It's an interpretive issue. But I don't think my interpretation is impossible. Misguided or not, I've gone through that same thought process when writing, without any intent other than to make my point clear.
posted by grumblebee at 6:13 PM on June 21, 2009 [5 favorites]


Grumblebee: internet posters who complain about people misunderstanding their use of Hitler metaphors, are like Nazis who complain about people not liking their racial policies. Or something like that.
posted by happyroach at 6:32 PM on June 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


Here's what I'm talking about (using an example that is, hopefully, disconnected from anything emotionally charged):

*Insert an example that is about 1500 miles away from rape.*
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:45 PM on June 21, 2009


Well, why would I insert an example involving rape when I was purposefully (and openly) using an example that was disconnected from anything emotionally charged?
posted by grumblebee at 6:49 PM on June 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


grumblebee: as someone who has suffered from hypothermia more than once, the music I would compare to a warm fire for someone who is freezing would not by any means be Bach. It would be Merzbow, Bastard Noise, or maybe The Haters. The warmth hurts like fuck, you really really want it to stop, despite the fact that you know it is saving your life. The cold, by the time you are truly freezing, is comforting and makes you soothed and sleepy and you only know in a very abstract and hard to directly understand way that it is killing you.
posted by idiopath at 7:05 PM on June 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


The thing is that there are all kinds of non-violent non-criminal analogies or parallels he could have made. But out of all the possibilities he chose not just rape, but rape and torture and robbery. This isn't just an innocent and technical parallel, it's the sneaky rhetorical device you speak of above.

He is plainly trying to be pejorative. He's not simply conveying that it's a misapplication or that it's a poor fit for its purpose, he's saying (on top of that) that it's heinous and craven. Hence my comment that his cosmology would put me in Hades for using XML.

I think I'm pretty good with analogies too (people have said so) and the thing is that I know why I would choose particular analogies. I usually try to respond with an equally figurative flourish... I of course didn't literally mean that Erik Naggum, RIP, believed in the existence of the Greek mythological underworld.

But besides that, he was explicit! He followed that up with There are some things in life that you do not do if you want to be a moral being and feel proud of what you have accomplished.

And look at the end of the subsequent paragraph: If GML was an infant, SGML is the bright youngster far exceeds expectations and made its parents too proud, but XML is the drug-addicted gang member who had committed his first murder before he had sex, which was rape.

(I'm not horribly offended by his comment or anything, I was simply pointing out that the OP's use of the word "hatred" to describe his attitude is quite apropos. Someone who's trying to impute moral depravity in that sort of situation is definitely showing quite a bit of emotion.)

Similarly, in my experience whenever during the last year someone has said, "Obama is a charismatic and powerful orator. Just like Hitler," although that's a technically correct analogy because Hitler was indeed a great orator, the person who says that invariably follows up with other insinuations or arguments attempting to paint Obama as being dangerous and potentially a maniac dictator. Thus far I've never heard someone compare Obama's oratory skills to those of Hitler and then go on to say nice things about him.
posted by XMLicious at 7:12 PM on June 21, 2009


He liked DSSSL; he clearly never had to use it in a production environment.
posted by scruss at 7:30 PM on June 21, 2009


scruss: I've been looking at DSSSL with some sense that CSS turned out to be an inferior choice. I'd be interested in knowing what the warts of DSSSL were, if for no other reason that I could feel better about what we ended up with.
posted by weston at 7:56 PM on June 21, 2009


I'm not comparing the two things being forgot (I'm NOT saying a bad school day is like the Holocaust). I'm comparing the RELATIONSHIP of person A to the thing he forgets to the RELATIONSHIP of person B to the thing HE forgets. My point is that people don't forget traumatizing events.

grumblebee: I am one of those people who would object to your example of boy-first_day_of_school vs jew-holocaust. Because I believe that the relationship between the boy and his bad school day is not the same as the relationship between a Jew and the Holocaust. I believe that the nature of the Holocaust and its severity renders it a fundamentally different kind of 'traumatizing event', so different that you are unlikely to form the same kind of relationship with it that you would have with a bad school day.

I think you're right to draw a distinction between the things being forgot and the relationship between the thing and the person. But I'm pointing out that the distinction is not absolute. Sometimes, the things being forgot determine the nature of the relationship between the thing and the person. So when you comment on the similarity between relationships, sometimes that is a comment on the similarity between the things in those relationships.
posted by nihraguk at 8:20 PM on June 21, 2009


Are there no similarly smart people who are also nice?

Oh, thank you for giving me this opening to say something I've wanted to mention for a while: yes, yes there are. In fact, there are...

- Smart people who are also nice
- Attractive people who are also modest
- People in relationships who are also supportive and sane
- Rich people who are also generous and giving
- Poor people who are also intelligent and capable
- (type of) people who are also (not a stereotype)

It's just that these kind of people make for boring television, boring movies, boring books, boring TV shows, boring conversation; nobody likes talking about good people doing good things and living good lives. Everybody wants conflict, and drama, and even "good" people tend to get discussed only when they are in conflict with "bad" people.

When you're inundated with the interesting people, hundreds of times a day (in large and small ways), and the only people you have to compare 'em to are the few boring everyday nice people you live and work with, you start to think the nice folks are the exceptions.

Well, they're not. They're the rule. They're simply boring. Which I think is wonderful, which is why I try to surround myself with boring people whenever I can, because they're awesome.

Of course, we don't have a lot to talk about, which is why we spend so much of our disposable money on interesting tv shows, movies, books, and so on, and why at parties the conversation inevitably turns to the one person we all know and hate, even though we haven't seen them or talked to them in literally years.

So yes, yes there are. Just remember to take the smart, hostile people (and all the other interesting folks) for what they are: there for our amusement. Be amused by them, then get back to living your boring but simply lovely and enjoyable life.
posted by davejay at 8:35 PM on June 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


What you're talking about grumblebee reminds me of the brouhaha over the republicans Twittering comparing themselves to Iranian twitters. Under yr clinical readings, they're also right. But they completely miss the point, which is that to use highly emotive and meaningful topics in analogies with the mundane is to trivialize them.

It's not that the analogies are wrong: like you say, they aren't. But they *are* shitty. Anyone who uses the holocaust as a prop in their analogy about childhood is insulting, just as much as anyone who uses the plight of rape victims to illustrate a point about fucking XML.
posted by fightorflight at 9:08 PM on June 21, 2009


grumblebee is right.
posted by jock@law at 9:31 PM on June 21, 2009


Please do not bother to elucidate.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:50 PM on June 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


I see this all the time, especially when writers use hot-button topics as metaphors. For instance, if I write...

A kid forgetting his first day at school is like a Jew forgetting the Holocaust.

... someone will inevitably charge me with comparing an agonizing school day with the death of six-million innocent people. But that's NOT what I'm comparing. I'm comparing one person forgetting something to another person forgetting something. I'm not comparing the two things being forgot (I'm NOT saying a bad school day is like the Holocaust). I'm comparing the RELATIONSHIP of person A to the thing he forgets to the RELATIONSHIP of person B to the thing HE forgets. My point is that people don't forget traumatizing events.

This is either deliberately disingenuous or a sign that on some level you just do not understand the way that most people process language. Yes, obviously if you were to express this relationship in the notation of formal logic or - I know! Write it in lojban! - then sure it is the relationship that is analogous.

Most people are not machines designed for logical parsing and the emotional connotations of your comparisons are every bit as real as the logical denotations that you are trying to convey.
Now, some people feel very much more comfortable with logical statements than with ambiguous emotional content, many of these people spend a lot of time on the internet.

That's fine, I like those people myself. It is a little silly though for these people to not recognise that other people will process what they are writing differently than the way they themselves do. I could write this comment in a language other than English, the reason I don't is that it would baffle my intended audience.
posted by atrazine at 11:10 PM on June 21, 2009


grumblebee is right.
posted by jock@law at 5:31 AM on June 22 [+] [!]


I assume you're a lawyer - which is a super profession for people who like reading statements extremely logically (isn't that what the LSAT is?). I don't know what kind of lawyer you are, so I have no idea if you ever represent clients in jury trials, but realise that the formal study of rhetoric was begun by Greek lawyers doing precisely that.

Grumblebee is not wrong, his logic is impeccable. So too is the logic that says that if you put that statement about the Holocaust before a broad audience, you will get a response that has almost nothing to do with what you are trying to say.
posted by atrazine at 11:21 PM on June 21, 2009


This is either deliberately disingenuous...

I think he's wrong, in that he's proposing an interpretation of these sorts of analogies that will leave out part of the spectrum of what is being communicated, but I don't think that grumblebee is being disingenuous. In my experience he's a pretty straight shooter and is one of the MeFites least likely to engage in rhetorical theatrics.
posted by XMLicious at 11:34 PM on June 21, 2009


atrazine: jock@law is a criminal defense lawyer who specializes in defending cops. He's that kind of lawyer
posted by blasdelf at 12:34 AM on June 22, 2009


Also, (he says, finally reading the links) I like the stuff this guy write. It is refreshing to see that kind of idealism rather than "fuck it, we'll hack it together in a week, nobody will care". Craftsmanship is a virtue that I greatly prize.
posted by atrazine at 2:10 AM on June 22, 2009


Unless there are some hints of what similarities you are supposed to focus on, the salient features of your chosen example for the analogy are going to be assumed to be the basis of the relationship you are trying to illustrate.

Not understanding that is like being a pedophile Nazi, declawing cats with gusto while advocating burning tires to hasten the progress of global warming. (i.e. it's undesirable)
posted by JeNeSaisQuoi at 2:32 AM on June 22, 2009


Craftsmanship is a virtue that I greatly prize.

Yeah! Craftsmanship! Woo!

I like the stuff this guy write.

:(
posted by Kwine at 5:35 AM on June 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


My kingdom for a 30 second edit window.
posted by atrazine at 5:44 AM on June 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


grumblebee is wrong.

Or at least he was, back when he'd reference inflammatory info in analogies. Logical or not, if they don't aid communication, it's a mistake to use them in prose or speech. Which is what I said in my original post.

This fact irritates me, but a fact is a fact.
posted by grumblebee at 6:20 AM on June 22, 2009


Long after I had learned everything I wanted to know about programming in Common Lisp, I continued reading comp.lang.lisp for the regulars' anecdotes and Erik Naggum's rants. To me, he was the Harlan Ellison of Lisp, and in some way he still is - an author I stopped reading a long time ago and would probably not enjoy reading anymore, but always a source of sweet nostalgia.
.
posted by erdferkel at 6:21 AM on June 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


I was not particularly fond of the anger Erik showed on the Lisp groups, but his comments were always worth understanding, even when he was wrong. Although his flames were destructive overall to the Lisp community, a deep reading of his posts reveal deep insights.
posted by wfitzgerald at 6:34 AM on June 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Er, make that:

Although his flames were destructive overall to the Lisp community, reading his posts carefully often yielded deeper insights into computational thinking, Lisp, and computational representations.
posted by wfitzgerald at 6:36 AM on June 22, 2009


Grumblebee is absolutely right. He has two basic points:

1) People misunderstand how metaphors work (A is to B as C is to D doesn't imply similarity between A and C, nor between B and D, but that the relationship between A and B is the same as the relationship between C and D)
2) He thinks the fault is his, that his choice of analogies obscures his point, and that he should stop using them.

If he only said (1), then, yeah, there's plenty of room for disagreement with him. But with followup (2), I really can't see what there is to disagree with. Most of the people who here are disagreeing with him are really just replying to his point (1) with counterargument (2). From what I can tell, if person A says (2), and person B says (2), that's not a counterargument. That's agreeing with person A.
posted by Bugbread at 7:00 AM on June 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


How difficult would it be to implement the Naggum Markup Language he describes in that XMLpost?
posted by wobh at 7:12 AM on June 22, 2009


But with followup (2), I really can't see what there is to disagree with.

Because you missed out

1.b) He implies that if people did understand how metaphors work, it would be fine to use all sorts of emotively-charged analogies and compare X to Hitler and so on.

But that's not true. I admit the biggest problem with using them is the people who erroneously say "you mean X=Y? Shocking!", but it's not the only one. As I said earlier, there are also those who take umbrage at the use of serious topics as props to make a point that is lame in comparison, who don't like those topics being trivialized.
posted by fightorflight at 7:16 AM on June 22, 2009


fightorflight,

I understand that, but if everyone was on the same level about how metaphors worked, and approached them in the purely logical non-emotional way, then they wouldn't be taking umbrage at the use of serious topics to make a point, would they? They may disagree with the accuracy of certain comparisons, but that's true whether or not the comparison is to Hitler or to doughnuts.

For example, the schoolchild forgetting first day of school::Jew forgetting Holocaust comparison would be inaccurate because the Holocaust is so traumatic that it's impossible to forget, while I confess I don't remember my first day of school. But compare that with "a schoolchild forgetting his first day of school is like a person forgetting their own name". This is an equally invalid comparison, because it takes pretty severe shock or drugs to forget your own name, while forgetting ones first day of school is relatively easy.

So what grumblebee is saying is if people just looked logically at the analogy, without drawing in the associations that go with it, it isn't that both those analogies would be correct. They'd be equally incorrect. But people wouldn't take more umbrage with one or the other. That's his (1).

And his (2) is that people do draw in associations (and people do make analogies with the purpose of drawing in those associations), so they're best avoided.
posted by Bugbread at 7:28 AM on June 22, 2009


Yes, I see what you mean. Just don't think his 2) was as you said it. I read his 2) as "and people can't understand the analogies, so there's no point trying to use them".

Because asking people to "approache them in the purely logical non-emotional way" is totally unrealistic: language doesn't work that way. You'd have to be some kind of sociopath to expect people to use language with no regard for emotional or other connotations, while it is much more reasonable to get frustrated at people who can't follow the point of an analogy.
posted by fightorflight at 7:44 AM on June 22, 2009


Well, my other point is to disagree with the people who claim I'm trolling or being purposefully dense. (I guess you wouldn't expect me to agree with that stuff.)

I'm trying to explain how it's possible to honestly make the mistake of using inflammatory references in metaphors. I also see how, to some people, such mistakes seem like they MUST be purposeful.

The thing is, if you're good with logic -- if you naturally think logically instead of associatively* -- then such analogies are not inflammatory to you. They are just sharp. If you're that kind of thinker, you have to make a serious effort to step outside your shoes to get how someone else might be offended. How good you are at stepping outside your own shoes depends on how gifted you are socially. It's no secret that many geek-types rate high on the Aspie charts.

[* I fear this will offend some people, since "thinking logically" tends to be taken as a meaning "intelligent." Please forgive my clunky use of words. I can't come up with a better way of stating what I mean, but I hope you'll accept that I don't think I'm smarter than most people. I do think that everyone reacts to prose on at least two levels: word association and sentence logic. Some people lean more towards one than the other, which says nothing about intelligence.]

Which is to say it's possible that Eirik was not trying to inflame when he made his comparisons. (Though, of course, he WAS trying to inflame in general.) It's possible he was trying to make his point in a sharp, clear way. I agree that with him, it's a dirty test-tube, because he's such an angry writer.

If we could bring him back to life and ask him if he meant to offend people with his analogies (or if he REALLY thought using xml is like rape), and he said, "yes," I wouldn't be surprised. But I also wouldn't be surprised if he said (and meant) that he DIDN'T intend that -- that he was just trying to make his point crystal clear by using sharp images. What confuses me are the people here who are SURE of his motives -- those who can't possibly imagine that a smart person might mention rape and xml in the same sentence without purposefully trying to get people to think he meant they were somehow alike.

I'm also confused by those who think Eirik is the type to use passive-aggressive rhetorical tactics. He doesn't seem that type to me. To me, he seems like an ego-ist who wouldn't bother giving himself a conversational out. (That's what passive-aggressive tactics do: they allow you to say, "Hey, I never SAID using xml is like rape!") To me, he seems like someone who would outright say "XML-users are like rapists" if that's what he believed.

As a professional writer (with some Aspie leanings), I know the allure of inflammatory references. They're seductive because they are clear (if you forget some people read more associative than logically).

Let's say I'm trying to explain how outraged a little kid felt when he got sent to his room without supper. I don't want to just write "he felt outraged," because that's telling rather than showing. I want to give my readers a visceral feeling!

So I start thinking of other sorts of people who feel outraged. At first, I come up with "as outraged as a guy whose computer crashes for the fifth time," but that doesn't really capture the absolute fury little Bobby feels when he gets sent to his room -- the feeling of unfairness and injustice.

I kick around several ideas and finally settle on this:

He felt like a black man forced to sit in the back of a bus.

Yes! That totally captures Bobby's feelings of rage and injustice!

Imagine my surprise when readers accuse me of being racist! "You're comparing a kid being sent to his room with racial prejudice?!? Are you HIGH?"

I try to explain that I'm not comparing these these two thing. I'm just trying to come up with a sharp image to make the reader feel what Bobby feels. Sure, a black guy who is segregated has much more of a right to his feelings of injustice than a kid who is sent to his room, but that's neither here nor there. I'm writing about feelings.

As a reader, I would respond well to a sentence like that. I would not assume the writer is racist. And since I instantly get those sorts of logical connections, it would not even occur to me that the writer was likening getting sent to one's room with racial segregation. Because on a literal level he's not.

Which is not to say I'm a typical reader. But I am the kind of reader and writer that I am. Yes, I should make a better effort to try to put myself in the shoes of more "normal" readers. And I try hard to do that. I am not excusing sentences like my example, above. I'm am just trying to explain how a certain kind of writer might write a sentence like that without meaning to offend in a sneaky way.

If you're a gifted social thinker (e.g. someone low on the Aspie scale), this will probably seem absurd to you. Of course if you mention race people are going to miss your logic! If I claim not to be instantly aware of that, I must be lying! I can see why people feel that way, but I don't think it's necessarily true -- especially in a community of geeks.
posted by grumblebee at 7:52 AM on June 22, 2009


@wobh

I believe that Naggum was obliquely (and ironically) describing the LISP family of languages.
posted by e.e. coli at 8:06 AM on June 22, 2009


If I'm reading grumblebee right, then I'm in total agreement. I use analogies like he does (though I do avoid Hitler and rape analogies), and have gotten in trouble for doing so. I don't think other people are wrong for responding to subtexts I don't intend. Do I wish they were on the same page as me? Sure, of course, but that's not because I think they're wrong and I'm right, but that it would be easier if people had more similar discursive styles. But they don't, and that's the facts, and it doesn't make them or me righter or wronger, so I need to adapt my communicative style to the audience, and I try to do that by using analogies which I personally think are less clear, but which don't distract folks from what I'm trying to communicate, and are therefore actually more effective.
posted by Bugbread at 8:09 AM on June 22, 2009


The thing is, if you're good with logic -- if you naturally think logically instead of associatively* -- then such analogies are not inflammatory to you. They are just sharp.

See, I fundamentally disagree with this. I am good with logic, and do naturally think logically. I have absolutely no problem parsing your analogies. But I still have a problem with them (and with Eirik's, and with all the others like them).

I certainly wouldn't assume you were racist from the bus analogy, but I would nonetheless be scornful of it. Because while you aren't equating being sent to one's room with segregation you are likening the feelings of the guy on the bus to the feelings of the kid sent to his room. You're asking the reader to evoke the emotions of the guy on the bus –- which are hugely complex and deeply nuanced –- and then convert that to the pique of a 5-year-old with a tantrum.

If you can't see at all how that's not a sentence to "respond well to", I'm not sure how to explain it. Try this: It's an equivalence relation, so it must be symmetric, right? So imagine it in reverse: you had met the guy on the bus, and said "wow, you must be pretty damn angry about this -- probably really angry, like a 5-year-old sent to his room unfairly, right?".

Eirik's original analogy isn't of the same form -- he's not equating using XML with rape. But he is using the concepts of a negatively life-changing assault to make an analogy about a technicality. It's not wrong, it's just inappropriate and disrespectful, like using your grandmother's love letters to prop up a wonky table. Sure, it may well be a consequence of being high on the Aspie scale. But, er, that's why it garners opprobrium, because it's act born from a mental disorder. Its use is excusable, not defensible.
posted by fightorflight at 8:27 AM on June 22, 2009


Logical - associative isn't really a spectrum. It's more like two individual tanks. If your logic tank is full and your associative tank is empty, the bus example is probably fine. If your associative tank is full and your logic tank is empty, the bus example is probably straight racism. If both tanks are full, the bus example may not be straight racism, but problematic for a host of reasons.

And I guess if both tanks are empty, you're just kinda cool with everything, although you don't really understand much of it.
posted by Bugbread at 8:36 AM on June 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


tankist.
posted by fightorflight at 8:42 AM on June 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thinking about it a little more (sorry to keep blabbering on), I think there is also the issue of being able to adjust your tank levels depending on the situation. There are lots of logical folks who like escapist movies, despite the fact that they're illogical, by simply ramping down their logical demands. And there are some blowhards who just can't turn off their logical demands and enjoy escapist fun.

And, likewise, if you know someone pretty well, and they make an analogy which would seem racist, but you know they're just really logical and not very associative, you can take it at face value without subtext, ramping down your own associative demands. And there are some people who just can't turn off their associative demands, and cannot be disuaded from thinking that the commenter is racist, perhaps deciding (if they normally seem non-racist) that it's actually just a deep latent racism that even the commenter is unconscious of.

The problem is that there aren't that many people that we really, really know on the net, so when you're talking with someone who makes what looks like a loaded analogy, you can't be sure whether they're using it as a rhetorical smear tactic, or if they're just non-associative people. And, likewise, when someone says something crazy illogical, you can't be sure of whether they're just an illogical person, or if they're actively trolling. Hence internet drama.
posted by Bugbread at 9:08 AM on June 22, 2009


Eirik's original analogy isn't of the same form -- he's not equating using XML with rape. But he is using the concepts of a negatively life-changing assault to make an analogy about a technicality. It's not wrong, it's just inappropriate and disrespectful, like using your grandmother's love letters to prop up a wonky table.

While we're discussing metaphors, I want to say that I love your grandmother/love-letters one. It's the most vivid one I've read all day!

But I disagree with it. I ageed that it's offensive to use grandma's letters as a table prop. But it's also subtly different from what Eirik is doing.

However, before I explain what I mean, I'd like to say that "being offended" is a feeling. If you're offended, you're offended. I'm not going to (ridiculously) tell you that you're not offended or that you have no "right" be offended. I'm just going to try to explain why, while I am offended by someone wiping his ass with grandma's love letters, I'm not offended by referencing rape in an analogy. But I'll admit that the distinction I'm about to make is subtle. It may strike you as mincing words. In the end, all that matters is whatever reaction you have. As a writer, that's what I should care about -- the reaction of my readers.

1) Grandma's letters are one-of-a-kind. It's not like there are 40 sets of originals. There's only one set. Whereas references to rape are are infinite. If I put the word "rape" to one use, I am not making it useless for other tasks.

However, this is not my main point. Even if there were 40 sets of originals, I would still be offended if someone used one set for toilet paper. So...

2) Here's the subtle distinction: there's a difference -- to me -- between a tangible object and a textual reference to an object or idea. For instance, if you actually use grandma's letters as toilet paper, I'll be offended. I'll also be offended if you say, in prose, that you'd like to use her letters as toilet paper. In the latter case, you're using prose to point to a real world object and expressing a desire to do something offensive to it. (Although I do find this offensive, it's less offensive to me than actually abusing the real-world object.)

On the other hand, I won't be offended if you just bring up the idea of using grandma's letters as toilet paper. I am not offended by my doing so, above. I am also not offended that you brought up using her love-letters as a table stop, though -- given your logic -- I think you should be! You likened writing something offensive with abusing actual letters that once belonged to a loved one! Can't you see -- by your logic -- how you shouldn't have written that?

Let's say I wrote the following...

It offended George to hear Mary sing the Mozart area off key. It was seemed disrespectful, as if someone was using his grandmother's love letters as toilet paper.

Here, I'm not actually using the letters as toilet paper; nor am I saying I would like or intend to do so.

Still, I can see two understandable ways of reacting to that sentence:

1) Just the MENTION of using grandma's letters as toilet paper is offensive, because it puts the image in the reader's mind. Grandma wouldn't want the reader to have such an image in his mind, so it's disrespectful to her to conjure it!

2) Writers should be free to evoke any images they want to evoke, with the clear understanding that evoking an image does not affect the material world (other than causing some neurons to fire in readers' brains.) A reader who picks up a book is entering into a "contract" with the writer. By picking up the book, he is saying, "I accept the fact that as a result of reading this book, I may see certain uncomfortable images. That is the price I am willing to pay for reading -- and it's also the thrill of reading. I will not blame the writer for conjuring up images I don't like. And I understand that when the writer conjures such images, they are not real -- they don't affect the real world. For instance, a writer who describes a concentration camp is not the same as a concentration-camp attendant. The latter is killing Jews. The former isn't.

I believe that all people should be treated with respect. I don't believe the same is true for ideas. Ideas are toys that can (and should) be tossed about and stomped on. I do realize that if I stomp on an idea that's important to you, you may feel that I am disrespecting you. I don't take that lightly. In general, I refrain from stomping on ideas if I feel that that doing so will offend people. I am willing to curtain my intellectual freedom for the sake of others in that way.

What I would like in return -- but what I don't think I'll get -- is the benefit of the doubt. If I make a lapse and accidentally use "rape" in a sentence in which I'm not actually advocating it, I would like people to believe that I'm not willfully trying to offend. That's it's sometimes hard to follow the writer's dictate to be sharp and clear while, at the same time, remembering to blunt some edges.

There's another way we disagree: you are likening the feelings of the guy on the bus to the feelings of the kid sent to his room. You're asking the reader to evoke the emotions of the guy on the bus –- which are hugely complex and deeply nuanced –- and then convert that to the pique of a 5-year-old with a tantrum.

In my view, emotions are simple, raw states. There's no such thing as simple joy and complex joy*. There's just joy. You may disagree, but I'm just explaining my belief. And I hope that when you understand that, you'll see that my motives were pure when I made my "back of the bus" analogy -- even if you think I'm misguided.

[*One my feel joy for simple or complex REASONS, but the those reasons are not the same as the emotion itself.]

I am NOT saying that a 5-year-old's pique is as important or serious (or worthy for our consideration) as the rage of someone who is a victim of racial prejudice. And I didn't say that in my sentence. The fact that you think I did is exactly the issue I've been talking about. (Again, I am not blaming you. I think you are reacting in a common -- though not universal -- way.)

Have you ever seen a child throw a tantrum? It is PURE rage. It is intense. It consumes his entire body, mind and soul. It is every bit as intense as the rage of a black man who has been sent to the back of a bus.

Again, it is not as important. It is not as worthy of our attention. But I never claimed it was. I just claimed that Bobby FELT rage akin to the rage of a black man being sent to the back of a bus. Of course, I can't literally know that is true, because I'm not a black man, and I've never been sent to the back of a bus. But I'm basing my assumption on some basic beliefs I have about how emotions work. (And you -- or a black man being sent to the back of a bus -- can't know it's not true, because they can't really know how enraged Bobby feels.)

When a black men gets angry about how he's treated, his anger does not contain hundreds of years of prejudice. (Feelings don't contain history.) It's "just" anger. One great thing that fiction can do, in my opinion, is to continually remind us that we all have lizard brains. That the language of emotion is profound but not infinite. I am capable of feeling all the things that you, your mother, and Malcolm X have felt. Maybe other people have more of a "right" to those feelings (if that even means anything), but that doesn't change the fact that feelings are universal.
posted by grumblebee at 9:33 AM on June 22, 2009


But it's not just a matter of being inflaming or provocative or of people being offended. It's an actual part of the message, of the communication Naggum is making with those words. As I pointed out above he states it explicitly in his final sentence in that paragraph:

There are some things in life that you do not do if you want to be a moral being and feel proud of what you have accomplished.

In addition to the conceptual parallel he was making, he specifically chose robbery, rape, and torture because he wanted to at the same time convey a moral judgment, that XML is despicable and craven. If you ignore the meaning behind his selecting analogies from that category you're missing part of his actual message, which he expounds on later.

Similarly in the example I gave above where Obama's oratorical skills are analogized to those of Hitler, if you assumed that the speaker had not been trying to make further parallels between Obama and Hitler beyond the domain of oratory you would be wrong. You'd again be missing part of the content of the communication.

And when you're debating in front of an audience and trying to persuade them of your point over another's there's a dimension beyond the intended content of the words. Even if your interlocutor was genuinely innocent in his or her mention of Hitler it still will probably have the effect of biasing the audience's interpretation of the debate. So it's in your interest, and a smart move rhetorically I think, to immediately respond to the implication rather than wait and see whether it was accidental or intentional. You want to straight up point out that the additional parallel the words might imply is not valid, rather than allowing the audience, perhaps distracted by your interlocutor's other words, to silently muse on the validity of the implication on their own. You want to bring it out in the open and address it.

I don't think that this is a matter of logic or even taking things literally because the message I'm talking about is a possible literal interpretation of the words. (At least, as literal as a simile can be anyways.) I think that this is a matter of projecting your own opinion and viewpoint onto Naggum's words and saying to yourself, "He can't possibly mean that, I would never say that." But he did mean that; to ignore that aspect of what he was saying is to misconstrue his message.

One more thing - this does not seem true to me:

When a black men gets angry about how he's treated, his anger does not contain hundreds of years of prejudice. (Feelings don't contain history.)

When a person whom I know makes me angry my anger is influenced and nuanced - possibly attenuated, possibly intensified, possibly mixed with sadness or other hurt - based upon my history with that individual. Similarly someone's emotion in a more anonymous incident can very well be influenced by their perception, true or false, of history.
posted by XMLicious at 10:05 AM on June 22, 2009


I feel sorry for Erik Naggum. He dies young, of a horribly painful disease, and he can't even have an obit thread on MetaFilter without a massive, stupid derail.

.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 10:21 AM on June 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


Okay, Crabby Appleton. I'll quit my part of the derail. If anyone wants to continue it, I'm available on MeMail.
posted by grumblebee at 10:35 AM on June 22, 2009


Thanks, grumblebee! Couple of points, though:

I think you should be! You likened writing something offensive with abusing actual letters that once belonged to a loved one! Can't you see -- by your logic -- how you shouldn't have written that?

No, I don't think I do! I think the problem is in your dichotomy of ways to react to the use of the image. For you, a reader can either be offended by the whole notion of even daring to use such an image, or can give limitless reign to a writer's right to abuse ideas. But there's a third way, and that's the one I'm arguing.

For me, there's absolutely no problem in using the idea of grandma's letters in your Mozart analogy – so long as you want it to be understand that George treats Mozart very seriously, and feels deeply about it. Similarly with the black guy. "He was furious when he discovered he'd been rejected purely because he was American. He felt like a black man forced to sit in the back of the bus" is fine.

What matters here is not so much that certain topics are sacred cows, never to be used on pain of insta-offence; it's more a question of appropriateness. Contrary to what you say, references to rape are not infinite – at least, not with the connotations they hold just now. Using a word repeatedly in a forcedly different context changes its power, and meaning. I want to say that writing something offensive is like abusing actual letters? That seems an appropriate use -- just as it's appropriate to use pictures of the holocaust to illustrate historical texts, and not so much to advertise your beer bust.
(and to get heavily meta, it's OK for me to use the holocaust in my analogy there because I'm doing so in an attempt to maintain the dignity of certain ideas, and thereby ultimately accord respect to the holocaust)

I am NOT saying that a 5-year-old's pique is as important or serious (or worthy for our consideration) as the rage of someone who is a victim of racial prejudice. And I didn't say that in my sentence. The fact that you think I did is exactly the issue I've been talking about.

I'll try to be clearer, because I certainly didn't think you did that. What you did was liken the way Bobby felt to the way the black man did. You said the feelings were the same. This analogy isn't wrong, but I do think it is bad. Because although you believe that feelings are devoid of nuance and history and so forth, I don't think this is a distinction you'll be able to stand up. The feelings themselves may be of pure emotion, but if this is to be communicated, you need to explain and understand the context – we naturally draw a great distinction between, say, righteous anger and inexplicable rage. This is actually something you depend upon in your analogy. To create the image of the tantruming child, you seek the pure rage of the victim of racism. But to do so, you have to also conjure all the context that gives this man his rage to allow the reader to conjure it in his mind.

This is universal. Unless your reader, however logical, can conjure up the position of the black man – which will involve understanding the historical context of the guy – and try to give himself a conception of his rage, the analogy will be useless. For it to work at all, every reader must create in his mind this whole loaded topic. The associations are required.

Then, once it's all installed, you expect the reader to strip away all that meaningful context, distill the pure emotion, and give it to the child. You're utterly discarding that huge amount of context. This isn't sharpness or clarity, it's building a mansion to keep you dry instead of putting an umbrella up. This is what I mean about appropriateness – not wholly in the sense of offensive v not offensive, but in the sense of not using a bazooka to swat a fly.

Even if you do think ideas should be trampled, surely you'll accept that some are more fit for purpose than others? It wouldn't be so bad if you were bazooking flies on your farmland, it'd just be a bit dumb. But to do so inside the Vatican and then ask Catholics to give you the benefit of the doubt because you're just trying to be sure you get the fly and you don't mean to blast holes in the statues of saints is, well, you get the idea?
posted by fightorflight at 11:08 AM on June 22, 2009


Ack sorry, didn't see that. I too am MeMail-able..
posted by fightorflight at 11:08 AM on June 22, 2009


I feel sorry for Erik Naggum. He dies young, of a horribly painful disease, and he can't even have an obit thread on MetaFilter without a massive, stupid derail.

I've only read a few of his rants, but I would guess that this thread is probably the kind of obit he'd wanted. Need more ad hominem, though.
posted by ymgve at 11:45 AM on June 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


This comment thread is to Erik Naggum's death as rape is to the Holocaust.
posted by Bugbread at 11:59 AM on June 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


Is there a treatment of some sort for verbal diarrhea?
posted by c13 at 9:44 PM on June 22, 2009


This discussion is precisely the reason they should never have removed analogies from the SATs. Really, it's not that hard, folks.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:00 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


They removed analogies from the SATs?? Wha?!
posted by Bugbread at 1:16 PM on June 23, 2009


Fascinating. ~_^
posted by jock@law at 1:13 PM on June 24, 2009


They removed analogies from the SATs?? Wha?!

I know, it boggles my mind, too.
History of the structure of the test

In the early 1990s, the SAT consisted of six sections: Two math sections (scored together on a 200–800 scale), two verbal sections (scored together on a 200–800 scale), the Test of Standard Written English (scored on a 20–60+ scale), and an equating section. In 1994, the exam was modified, removing antonym questions, adding math questions that were not multiple choice, and allowing the use of a calculator for the first time. The average score on the 1994 modification of the SAT I was usually around 1000 (500 on the verbal, 500 on the math). The most selective schools in the United States (for example, those in the Ivy League) typically had SAT averages exceeding 1400 on the old test.

Beginning with the March 12, 2005 administration of the exam, the SAT Reasoning Test was modified and lengthened. Changes included the removal of analogy questions from the Critical Reading (formerly Verbal) section and quantitative comparisons from the Math section, and the inclusion of a writing section (with an essay) based on the former SAT II Writing Subject Test. The Mathematics section was expanded to cover three years of high school mathematics. [source]
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:10 AM on June 26, 2009


« Older In Buffy Vs. Edward (Twilight Remixed), Edward Cul...  |  "Necronomicons: The Scariest B... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments