Archive for October, 2013

For most of the last week, I’ve been having a troll problem. I’m not going to provide a link, because one encounter with trolls is very much like another. Usually, it starts with a hijacked thread, and involves a lot of generalizations and name-calling based on comments taken out of context, conspiracy theories, and a kind of naive cynicism that insists that I could never have done anything except for the worst of reasons.. This encounter was no different, and, like the others I’ve had, leaves me uncertain how I should respond.

I have no trouble with someone who disagrees with me. I enjoy the benefits of a liberal education, in which differences of opinion are seen as a chance to deepen and expand the discussion. Nor am I young enough to expect everyone to like me – in fact, in most cases, I’m relieved when a troll dislikes me, because I usually don’t think much of them, either.

But as a former teacher of rhetoric and composition, I am by nature incapable of ignoring a fallacious argument – especially if it is directed at me. Let someone judge me by a single sentence from a single work, or misquote or take a sentence out of context, and I’m immediately tempted to leap in with a correction. As I have said many times, if you’re going to disagree with what I’ve said, please make it something I actually said and not something that you imagine that I have said. Whether out of carelessness, vindictiveness, or inability, very few trolls seem capable of reading or reporting with any accuracy or precision, so enticing me to reply is often ridiculously easy.

Not only that, I am all too aware of how others might interpret my silence. Will they go away thinking that the troll’s inaccuracies are true? Will they think that my silence is an admission of guilt, that I am ashamed to reply? Worse, will I think myself cowardly? With such questions buzzing in my mind, I can easily find myself wrestling with trolls before I realize what I am doing.

At the same time, I am well-aware that answering is only going to waste my time. By definition, trolls lack an open-mind, and no eloquence of mine will coax an apology out of them, ever. Anything I say will be taken in the worst possible way, if not dismissed outright, and I will convince them of nothing. If I manage to counter one barrage, another will simply start up from a different direction, often using my replies as additional ammunition against me. Under these circumstances, almost anything else will be a better use of my time.

Usually, I compromise, and confine myself to two replies. That way, I reason, I can satisfy my urge to reply and correct any misrepresentations for any audience without taking up too much of time. This time, unfortunately, I was distracted enough to make several other replies before stepping back, mainly because it has been a couple of years since I dealt with a troll, but I’ll remember next time.

This morning, after the thread’s owner had shut it down, the troll started up again from their own account. I’ve resisted the temptation to see what they are saying, but from experience I can predict it. They’ll revise the encounter to make me seem the unreasonable one, and their friends will chime in with words of support that will make them feel heroic for opposing my Satanic self.

But I’ll let them do so unopposed. I’m annoyed that I let myself be dragged in, and I won’t make the same mistake again any time soon. I never know whether attribute such encounters to hypocrisy, or incompetence, but what is clear to me is that, whatever this last week, it wasn’t a meeting of two minds. Att best, it was only a meeting of one and a half.

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Short men are often said to compensate for their lack of height by being aggressive – Napoleon being the usual example. I hope I don’t act that way, but, if I do, I have an excuse. You see, until I was about fourteen, I was tall for my age.

I don’t know how it is for girls, but height makes a difference to boys, if my experience is anything to go on. For a boy, being big means that you are afraid of very few other children. Generally, nobody tries to bully you, although every now and then another boy might pick a fight.

I imagine being tall could also make you a bully, although I don’t think I was one very often. With my head is full of Robin Hood and King Arthur, I was always looking out for opportunities to act the way they would, and once or twice I made a point of standing up for one or two of the weaker boys in my classes.

Still, a tall and stocky boy can hardly help but be an unconscious bully in some senses. Because of your build, you get used to people thinking twice about taking the ball away from you on the soccer or rugby field, and start to take advantage of the fact.

You know, too, that other children will generally give you more space to sit down, and tend to listen to you more. Even if you don’t actively take advantage of such treatment, you still come to expect it as your due, no matter how guilty the expectation makes you.

However, such things changed when I was in my mid-teens. At twelve, I was 175 centimeters, and taller than every boy in my class except one or two who had failed a grade or two. But somewhere between fourteen and fifteen, I stopped growing at about 180 centimeters. Meanwhile, the other boys were catching up. By the time I could vote, I was on the small side of medium.

Today, the only reason I’m not considered small is because of the arrival of even shorter immigrants from cultures with a traditionally low-protein diet. And even then, the second-generation immigrants are likely to be taller than me.

However, I sometimes wonder if my hind brain has caught up with this reality several decades later. I acknowledge my lack of height consciously, but not very deep down, I’m still conditioned by having been tall in my early years. No doubt the fact that I am usually fit and always stocky contributes to my denial.

At any rate, I’m told that I can still project the easy – or maybe arrogant – air of the tall. On some level, I assume my right to be treated like a tall person, and, bluff being so much a part of human relationships, I am often given it.

Occasionally, such assumptions clash with those of men who are actually tall. Their mild bewilderment amuses me, although I tell myself that if I’m not careful, my assumptions are going to result in me standing up at the wrong time to the wrong giant – possibly one with a gun.

However, the surest sign that I still think I’m tall is how rarely I think of such things. If, as feminists are apt to say, the greatest privilege is not to understand that you’re privileged, then the fact that I don’t usually act the way a short man is expected to is a good indication of how I tend to think.

In fact, mostly I don’t think of my height much at all, unless I’m straining to reach the top shelf in the kitchen. It’s only the behavior of others that reminds me of my relative lack of height, and how important that can be in male body language.

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When you’re widowed, the way I was in 2010, eventually the immediate grief fades. You still find yourself regularly ambushed by memories of your partner, but you start to establish new rhythms and patterns.

The trouble is, these new rhythms and patterns are not nearly as satisfying as the ones you used to have. In particular:


  • No one is around with whom to share the jokes heard during the day, the observations or news, or to talk about a new book.


  • After an event, you have no one to discuss what happened, what other people said, or what meanings or motivations might be behind them.


  • Cooking for one hardly seems worthwhile, and too many nights of takeout soon becomes pathetic.


  • At first, not having someone who needs to know your schedule is like being on vacation. However, after a while, it simply emphasizes that you’re on your own.


  • If you don’t do a chore, it doesn’t get done. Moreover, when you do get around to a chore you’ve been putting off, there isn’t anyone to share it with to make it less dreary.


  • You find yourself dreading social events, because they end with you returning to an empty home.


  • When you hear a car outside, you have to keep reminding yourself that it isn’t your partner’s.


  • You have no one to buy gifts for or to celebrate anniversaries with.


  • At night, the bed seems far too large – and, in winter, too cold.


  • Planning a future for one is a necessity at twenty. Add a few more decades, and it only seems pointless.


  • People keep expecting you to start a new relationship when you are not even sure that you want one.


If you have never had a long-term relationship, or current one is unsatisfying, some of these points might be puzzling. After all, isn’t what freedom from obligation what everyone wants? But obligations are what relationships are all about. You can miss them more than you might imagine – especially when you’ve cheerfully fulfilled them for years and they suddenly disappear from your life.

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The ideal invented name should be realistic, evocative, and consistent. That is, it should look and sound like a possible name, and not like a collection of random syllables. If possible, it should invoke the same sense of adventure that “Terra Australis” and “California” did several centuries ago, while resembling nearby names enough that the illusion of a consistent language is created.

These goals can be accomplished in two ways: by spending decades inventing a language as Tolkien did, or by faking them.

The easiest way I have found to fake these goals is with the help of a dictionary or a vocabulary list from an actual language. My basic technique is to write several hundred syllables on bits of paper and place them in an envelope. Then I draw 1-4 syllables at random, and try to arrange them into something that sounds like a word. Sometimes, I need several tries to get a usable word, but, when I do, I create a list that I can draw on as I prepare a map or name characters. It would be simple to write a simple script that is applied to a file containing the list of syllables, but so far I haven’t bothered.
However, that is not all I do. In addition, I:

  • Study the language I am using just long enough to note its conjugations and declensions so I can add them to the syllables I pull from the envelope.
  • Observe characteristic syllables from the language. For instance, if I were using Latin, they might include “ium” at the end of a town name. Similarly, if I were using Ole English, they might include “wulf” or “raed” at the end of a name. Sometimes, I invent these characteristic syllables for myself. Diphthongs are also useful, so that “th” might suggest Viking cultures.
  • Slip English words or their approximations into my coinages to aid the evocativeness. For example “Tjashaha” contains the word “shah” in the hopes of suggesting the Middle East, while the last syllable of “Narghast” suggests “ghost” and with any luck provides a Gothic air.
  • Decide on suffixes and prefixes that indicate rivers or mountains. For example, in Tolkien, the suffix “or” seems to mean something like “land of” (consider Eriador, Gondor, Mordor).
  • Take care to have a variety of syllables and first letters in the names that I create.

To apply the coined words, I need to have a sense of history – specifically, what lands have settled, invaded, or otherwise influenced by which culture. Typically, all the words based on a particular language will come from a limited number of regions. At the edges of these regions, the influences of different languages will overlap, providing mixed names and more variations for both landmarks and personal names. Now and then, there will be a few outliers due to isolate pockets of a particular language, or perhaps to merchants and adventurers.
When I need to use a word, I start with the list I created, asking myself the subjective question, “Does this word sound like a king’s name?” (or the name of a town or a river). If I have been careful with my coinings, I can find a useful name in the list I prepared in advance. At other times, I have to use the same techniques on the spot, and create some possible choices on the spot. However, the basic techniques remain the same. At every step of the way, I try to build up layers of plausability, creating the illusion of depth from a very small sprinkling of linguistic consistency.

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A recent study of hand prints in prehistoric caves shows that many of the hands were women’s. The media played up this fact as if it were surprising, although why it should be, I’m not sure, considering that we know almost nothing of the cultures responsible for the hand prints. But what caught my attention was a passing comment that a comparison of ancient and modern hand prints shows that the sexual dimorphism of humans was greater 40,000 years ago than today. In other words, men and women look more alike today than they once did.

This comment is interesting to me for several reasons. To start with, it is an example of how short a time is needed for evolution to take place. Forty millennia is a longer time than fifteen, which is about how long humans have been retaining the ability to digest milk into adulthood, but we tend to think of evolution in terms of millions of years – perhaps because establishing that the earth was ancient was a necessary part of proving the fact of evolution in the nineteenth century.

Just as importantly, this tidbit helps to answer those who suggest that civilization has stopped human evolution. Usually, the argument is that, because urban life and medical advances have decreased infant mortality, they have canceled out natural selection, the main mechanism of evolution. However, living to adulthood is only one aspect of natural selection. If nothing else, health and opportunity to reproduce are also part of natural selection.

In fact, it is often forgotten that sexual selection may be as important a mechanism for evolution in its own right. Since culture can determine all these things, it seems more reasonable that it simply because another set of criteria for adaptation, especially since such pieces of information are starting to accumulate to prove that evolution is still shaping humanity.

As to how humans are evolving, the greatest sexual dimorphism usually occurs in polygamous animals. Among gorillas, for instance, males are almost twice the size of females, and multiple mates are the norm for the males. By contrast, species that show little sexual dimorphism are usually monogamous or female-dominated. Given that humans show moderate sexual dimorphism, which seems to be decreasing, the natural conclusion is that we are descended from polygamous species, but evolving towards monogamy or egalitarianism, or perhaps female domination.

(In fact, although a couple of centuries would be an extremely short time for any evolutionary changes to be observable, I sometimes wonder if increased urbanism explains why each of the last few generations of women has been taller than the last, while men’s heights have increased less dramatically. Or perhaps the increased height of women is due to the fact than we have been moving away from societies based on hard labor. In such societies, men are often fed first so that they can continue to work, which opens the possibility that historically women were often underfed or even starved sometimes – an aspect of inequality that, so far as I am aware, has never been acknowledged or studied).

But if humans are becoming less sexually dimorphic, what does that imply for the future? I think I can suggest some answers, because, for much of my adult life, I have lived with a species of parrot that has so little sexual dimorphism that humans can only distinguish male from female reliably by surgical sexing or DNA samples. There are no external sex organs, and even sexual behavior is reliable, since homosexuality does exist.

I like to think that the lives of my parrots are a foretaste of what humans might be becoming. In my parrots, monogamy is the norm, and a hen is as likely to dominate as a cock. The sole exception is male territorial fights, which the hens generally ignore aside from being vaguely supportive of their mates (which amounts to the vague supportive chirp unless another male gets too close to their nests). Egg-sitting is largely, but not entirely the hen’s concern, but most males are supportive spouses and share in the care of chicks, especially immediately after they leave the nest.

The lives of my parrots are not completlye egalitarian, but they’re closer to that goal than anything the living generations of humans can boast. And as a supporter, I am tickled by the idea that feminists can probably state – with much more accuracy than evolutionary psychology usually manages – that evolution appears to be on their side.

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I’m always irked when people cheapen real medical and psychological conditions. To say that you have chronic fatigue syndrome when you are trying to get by on four hours’ sleep a night, or that you have post-traumatic stress when a friend of a friend dies trivializes conditions that cripple those who actually have to cope with them. However, Impostor’s Syndrome has to be the worst trendy condition of all. Not only does it not exist, but it encourages self-dramatization, and its suggested remedies are more about self-esteem than addressing any problems.

You won’t find Impostor’s Syndrome in the American Psychiatric Association’s Manual of Diagnosis. That’s because it’s not recognized as a unique condition, which leaves everyone free to self-diagnose at will. But, so far as it has any meaning at all, it refers to persistent doubts that you deserve your success or current position. Women are alleged to be especially prone to Impostor’s Syndrome, although the lack of assessment criteria means that this allegation is an assumption at best.

Needless to say, this vagueness does nothing to prevent people from believing that the term actually means something. If anything, the vagueness probably helps people to find validity in it. Like a horoscope, people have no trouble applying the vagueness to their own situation.

However, the real problem with Impostor’s Syndrome is not just that it is redundant, but the way that it converts normal behavior into a pathology. Regardless of whether you are a man or a woman, nothing is unusual about being uneasy in new circumstances or wondering whether you measure up to others. These sorts of misgivings are the natural consequence of finding yourself in new circumstances. Nobody enjoys them, but most learn to control them and carry on regardless.

In fact, those who find themselves constantly in stressful situations, such as actors or athletes, are often convinced that, without such uneasiness, they will perform poorly. Instead of dreading such feelings, they view them as a source of nervous energy that can be channeled or converted to improve their performance. To them, confidence in such situations is the abnormal reaction, and struggling to bring anxiety under control the healthy one.

By contrast, those who self-diagnose themselves with Impostor’s Syndrome take the opposite approach. They treat confidence – or, at least, comfort – as their right, rather than learning practical means to cope with their unpleasant but normal reactions.

Such is the power of naming that, once they apply the term to themselves, their anxiety and stress suddenly swim into focus. They are not facing a routine part of life; they have a condition for which they bear no responsibility. The self-drama of having a condition (never mind how it is diagnosed) becomes central to their reaction.

This self-dramatization is not only tolerated, but encouraged by the industry – both paid and unpaid – that has sprung up around Impostor’s Syndrome in much the same way as one has sprung up around Asperger’s Syndrome. Armed with a pseudo-scientific name, this industry encourages its clients to find ways to feel good about themselves. They should exchange stories with their fellow sufferers. They should seek compliments from family and friends. They should use affirmations until they hypnotize themselves into confidence through repetitions of self-praise.

Needless to say, the possibility that anyone might actually be incompetent – a fact that they would be better off admitting as soon as possible – never seems to be mentioned.

Even rarer is the obvious suggestion that the best way to overcome worries is to develop a plan, either of study or action, to develop competence that no one can question. In fact, the industry is likely to warn that such a plan will only increase the worries – which is true enough, but only in the short run. In the long run, building self-esteem with nothing to support it only results in egos that are even more fragile they originally were.

This approach leaves those who believe in Impostor’s Syndrome like people who start to exercise, then complain that they are unable to continue because it causes their muscles to hurt. They spend a fortune on salves and massage when what they really need is a program that allows them to reach a greater level of fitness with fewer side-effects.

None of this applies, of course to genuine anxiety and stress. Both are recognized conditions, and may be centered upon doubts about competence or a new situation. However, the idea of Impostor’s Syndrome is something else, too often having more to do with being comfortable than with genuine problems. I can’t help thinking that most of those who obsess about the idea would do themselves more good if they worried less about their self-esteem and more about finding practical ways to cope with the inevitable occasional uneasiness.

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Ask most people in North America, and they can tell you whether they are an introvert or an extrovert. The terms are by far the best-known pieces of psychological jargon today, far more familiar than even the Oedipal Complex, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. However, I often suspect that accepting either is about as meaningful as knowing whether you are a Taurus or a Capricorn.

Few others share my misgivings. If you enjoy people and being the center of attention, you consider yourself an extrovert and a leader. By contrast, if you prefer your own company and pursuits, you are an introvert, an intellectual and perhaps a power behind the scene. Either way, you pity the other type. You dismiss introverts as weak and potential high school serial killers if you identify as an extrovert, and extroverts as shallow and oblivious if you identify as an introvert.

The justification for such a firm distinction is always that these terms were devised by Carl Jung, one of the great pioneers of psychology. However, citing Jung on matters of psychology is like citing Marx about communism; few people have actually read much of his work aside from a few quotes received fourth or fifth hand.

I have some sympathy for those who avoid reading Jung. I read about three-quarters of his collected works while researching my thesis, and even in English translation, his syntax remains Germanic. More importantly, Jung had a wide ranging mind, and anything he says on a given subject represents only his thoughts as he wrote. Since Jung rarely seems to have fully made up his mind about anything, that means that whatever he wrote in one place usually needs to be compared with corrections, revisions, and even contradictions elsewhere.

The mistake that most people make about extroversion and introversion is to conclude that, because Jung sometimes as those terms refer to people – or at least personality types – in other places he seems to use them to describe behavior or tendencies.

This is a subtle but important difference in emphasis. If you apply these terms to people, then you imply an either-or distinction. Just as a person either is or is not 180 centimeters high, so a person either is or is not an introvert or an extrovert. If questioned, some might grudgingly admit that someone who is a little of both might exist, but, in practice, such exceptions tend to be overlooked by most people using the terms.

Admittedly, every now and then, you encounter someone who calls themselves an introvert pretending to be an extrovert, such these people are a minority. The majority firmly choose sides and never deviate.
By contrast, if you talk in terms of extrovert or introvert behavior, then you open the possibility that people are a mixture of both. A minority of people at opposite ends of the bell curve might be fairly defined as almost entirely introvert or extrovert, but the majority will fall somewhere between the two extremes.

This perspective seems far more descriptive of people than insisting on one label or the other in all cases. I know that in my own case, I can sometimes be unashamedly extrovert, being the first to volunteer an opinion or address a group of people. At other times, if I am distracted by an article forming in my mind, or I am moody or with people I dislike, I would be judged an introvert. I need solitude for writing, but, once I am finished for the day, I want people around me just as much.

Nor, despite their varying scores on Meyers Briggs tests or other psychological horoscopes, do I think that most people are that much different. The most that tests can do is show a person’s tendency at the time they took the test. To get an accurate picture of a person’s range of behavior, I suspect that they would have to be tested repeated over a long period of time – probably at least a month.

Of course, that sort of intensive testing is rarely done. It is easier to label a person introvert or extrovert, based on a single moment or even subjective impressions. But the price we pay for such easy assignments of categories is a view of ourselves and others that is falsified by over-simplification.

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