One more Molly added to my army, time to gather another into the horde

It’s the beginning of another month, and time to announce the Molly winner for October, and that sninily unique Pharyngulistan honor goes to…Mattir.

No sooner do I announce one winner, though, than we just move on to collecting nominations for the next one. Leave your comments here declaring your appreciation of some particular person for their contributions to the threads of November.

The janitor is annoyed

I’ve had to make some changes to how comments are filtered here. Here is the only allowed html that you can use in any of your comments:

<a href=””></a>
<br />

This is rather minimal text formatting: you can do a little bold, italics, or underscore, with blockquotes and links. That’s it. This is all retroactive, unfortunately, so if you had old comments with fonts in color, or imbedded images or videos, those are all gone.

All it took was a little abuse of the flexibility we used to have. Right now, I am really overloaded with work, so coming in this morning and finding that a few people had played games with text positioning via style commands, splatting garbage all over the page outside the bounds of the comment box, was not a happy moment. I had concerns that the site had been hacked, notified the administrators, and then it took some effort to track down the offending comments that had the bad code imbedded in them. This is more than just annoying. It’s causing me extra work, costing me time, and breaking the trust I have in commenters here.

One thing you have to understand is that I have very little tech help here in comment management — it’s all me, monitoring the comments for spam, cleaning out old crap when it comes to my attention, trying to tweak the filters to block problems. Don’t even bother suggesting technical solutions — I don’t get to add or modify the blog code, and there is virtually no tech help to speak of, beyond the basic business of keeping the server running. I’m the janitor around here. Taking advantage of the liberties I provide to puke up nuisances on the page causes me extra work, and I’m not going to put up with it at all.

So I’m adding a new criterion for banning. Trying to abuse the system in any way, no matter how helpful your intent may be or who you are, will be grounds for insta-dungeoning. Try to put all of your comments in bold? The <b> tag will be removed, and so will you. Try to create a wall of white space with <br /> tags? Gone. Try to take advantage of the absence of length limits on comments by dumping pages of screed? I’ll fix that for everyone. (Actually, that last problem is common—I’ve got spammers who every day dump 10K+ piles of text on the site; they’re automatically caught only because they always manage to include one of the filtered words somewhere in the clutter).

Jeez, people. You should know the universal rule: don’t piss off the janitor. It’ll help you in real life as well as on the blogs.

Survivor Pharyngula: The Anti-Climax

I’ve hated those Survivor TV shows for as long as they’ve been on — I’ve never been able to sit through a single episode. Staging a phony zero-sum game and encouraging backstabbing betrayal and vicious psychopathic behavior is not my idea of fun.

I have this fantasy version of the game in which there are months of lead time, lots of promos highlighting the most odious aspects of each contestant’s personality, with elaborate web sites (all in flash, of course) pushing the competitive edge, all working to build audience anticipation to a fever pitch. Then the day of the premiere comes, and everyone tunes in and is sitting on the edge of their seat waiting for the blood to flow. It begins with a tracking shot from a helicopter of all the contestants lined up on the beach: there’s the smarmy announcer, the yuppie, the stoner, the bitch, the liar, the OCD freak, the bumbler, the pretty one, the fanatic, the lazy one, the self-righteous preacher, the clueless one, etc., all looking smug and ready to cut each other’s throats. The copter pulls away to a long shot of them artfully posed on a glittering tropical beach, when suddenly…a bright flash! The camera and chopper tumble about erratically! As the pilot and cameraman get everything back under control, the view swivels to a fiery red and black mushroom cloud rising from the sea, where the island has ceased to exist. And then, finally, the opening title appears in some melodramatic apocalyptic font: SURVIVOR: GAME OVER, MAN. Fade to black. Cut to one hour of solid commercials for Viagra, tranquilizers, and adult diapers.

That’s a little violent, I know. Alternative ending: the helicopter just flies away, carrying the entire camera crew with it, leaving the whole crop of contestants, staff, and producers abandoned on the island. No camera time for any of them; their only prize is to survive and find a way home again, without the artificial structure of bizarre games and cash prizes. The final title is SURVIVOR: WHO CARES?.

This episode of Survivor Pharyngula concludes with the second ending. I was a little worried when I got up on Sunday morning and discovered that the entire site was down and you couldn’t get to anything on Scienceblogs at all — had somebody read my mind and pushed the self-destruct button? Uh-oh. But no, that was a completely independent event, entirely accidental. The planned outcome is as follows: nothing happens at all. I fly away from the game, waving bye-bye, and telling you all that you’ll get no help from me, and you need to work it all out for yourselves.

Why, yes, I am a deceptive rat-bastard. Haven’t you figured that out yet?

I was hoping that this would be a little exercise in self-awareness: I thought the message was a little obvious, especially given that the results included a lot of popular commenters and the process involved throwing p*o*o. You were supposed to recognize that the line between a troll and a regular and valued commenter was sometimes very thin indeed.

I need you all to take a moment and see things from my perspective. I don’t read the comments in detail; I can’t. I skim through them. I get them all forwarded to my email account, where I can easily sort through them and get a feel for the big picture. I’m still in the helicopter, flying over the city, looking down on the traffic, and all I care about is that it is moving smoothly; it’s fine with me if you’re all honking your horns and waving angry fists out the windows, as long as everyone is moving along. I sometimes see major blockages developing as someone tries to disrupt the flow, and I’ll remove the troublemaker, especially if they have a habit of screwing up conversations; sometimes I’ll set up alternate routes, new threads with the idea of diverting some of the noise; and sometimes I’ll spot obvious maniacs who come barreling in screeching and howling, and I’ll use my disintegrator beam to take them out before they cause a pile-up. But I’m usually a bit aloof from the comment threads. I have to be, and I often feel like it’s a mistake for me to dive in, fun as it would be, because having an invulnerable helicopter cruising along in the traffic lanes is a recipe for disaster.

So here’s the outcome: no one is getting banned, yet. One gomer, yanshen71786, is showing real potential for it — responding to a request to demonstrate that he demonstrate that he can be an interesting commenter with yet another long series of self-righteous, plodding recitations of his dogmas ain’t encouraging — but I do have some rather bendy and subjective principles at work here, and I’m not going to undercut them in this instance. This is mostly a free-speech zone, and if you want to come in and preach racism and homophobia and misogyny and creationism and libertarian politics, all things I hate, you can…and we have a body of opinionated smart commenters here who will cheerfully carve your ass up, season it well, roast it, and serve it back to you with a garnish of bacon, and that’s the way I like it. You can cuss. You can argue vehemently. You can fight angrily. None of these are bannable offenses, and if they were, most of the valued OM winners would be banned right now.

Get it? Because you disagree with someone isn’t cause to ban them.

I’m sorry to disappoint. I do agree, though, that the comment threads are getting a little rough and dog-eat-dog, but it’s not entirely the fault of the recent influx of brain-dead trolls. It’s also because the culture here has gotten a little trigger-happy, so I’m making a call to everyone to think for just a moment before blasting away…for only a moment, though, so that you can aim a little better, and without any condemnation of the blasting away part, which is always fun.

Here are a few rules to follow. Well, actually, they’re more like guidelines — we’re a rather lawless bunch, and in particular, I’m a kind of Chaotic Neutral overlord, perfectly willing to turn a blind eye to sporadic infractions, or even to charge in and break my own rules if I want. I generally don’t for the entirely pragmatic reason that some degree of predictability helps fuel the fires.

  1. The “post no bills” rule. I detest spammers, and they come through routinely and I simply eliminate them without comment. But there are occasional commenters who come through and do the equivalent—they’ve got their boring hobby-horses and they repeat the same tired claims over and over again. If you can’t be creative in your arguments and respond intelligently to your critics, you’re just another spammer. I will delete you. Pharyngula is not your billboard.

  2. The “stupid is as stupid does” rule. You can be a dick here, you just can’t be a stupid dick. Barreling in with idiotic claims that have been dealt with a thousand times before, as if you’ve got something novel to say, is a behavior guaranteed to stop a thread cold as everyone turns their cyberpistols on you. It’s boring. I’ll whisk you away for your own good and tell you to go play in the kiddie sandbox somewhere else.

  3. The “three strikes” rule. This one has been informally in operation for years, and it’s a simple idea: if you see a comment from someone you’ve never heard of before, a newbie, don’t open fire right away. Politely ask for clarification, begin a conversation, and if they demonstrate inanity after they’ve made three comments, then you can open up with the flamethrower. Give new people a chance!

  4. The “no prayers” rule. This is something that’s beginning to annoy me: the frequent calls for banning of individuals from other commenters. I am not your personal deity who will throw thunderbolts at objects of your wrath, and you don’t get to invoke a deus ex machina to give you a shortcut in an argument. Don’t tell me to ban someone. Don’t threaten anyone with banning. I’m watching, and if someone is genuinely disruptive and sending threads into a death spiral of acrimony, I’ll notice and take care of it. But if someone is disagreeing with you or is just being stupid or hateful, it’s your job to deal with it, not mine. Relish the challenge, savor the gristly bloody chore of taking them in your teeth and chewing them up.

  5. The “make ’em laugh” rule. Are you really, really angry with someone? Do you just want to make them explode and disappear and never comment here again? You could always use the Firefox killfile script, but you could also follow the formula many of the more popular commenters here do: ridicule, sarcasm, and comedy. It works! Calling someone an asshole is cathartic, but if you really want to make it sting, mockery is much more potent. It also keeps the conversation going entertainingly, rather than in boring back-and-forth wrangling. I’m much more inclined to let a non-productive argument continue if it is amusingly expressed.

We now commence our regular schedule of ads for Zoloft and Depends.

You may be missing the spectacle of pitting idiots against one another, but have no fear, some of them are still on track for expulsion if they can’t lighten up and be more participatory than preacherly. And that’s addressed to more than just the known trollish objects of our contempt.

Miss me?

Scienceblogs was down for the count most of the morning — we had some annoying technical glitch on the server, nothing malicious. Now you can read this. Right? If you can’t, let me know by leaving a comment describing exactly how the site is no longer visible, why you can’t comment, and any other strange circumstances that impair your ability to read or write the page you are viewing or commenting on.

Survivor Pharyngula: The Second Round

I have reviewed the audition tapes you all sent in for Survivor Pharyngula, averaged together the scores given to people who had multiple recommendations, and sorted them into a ranked list, and then arbitrarily threw out everyone who got below a score of 40. Here’s the list of Enemies of the Threads.

  • yanshen71786
  • Professor Frink
  • j-brisby
  • Al B. Quirky
  • Sili
  • MaxH
  • Manny Calavera
  • Brownian
  • Joshua Zelinsky
  • Ing
  • Walton
  • Cuttlefish
  • Ogvorbis
  • sandiseattle

Rascals and troublemakers, every one. But the list is too long! I have to whittle it down a bit before we move on to the next stage, so in my role as capricious autocrat, I’m going to give them all a chance to ask to be excused. Beg for mercy, entertain me, show cause to keep you around, and perhaps I shall decide on a whim to remove you from the list. It doesn’t matter if I agree with your views or not, demonstrating a sense of humor would be a plus, as would being able to make a rational argument.

I want this list cut in half, at least — if every one of these people shows that their presence is worth something to the site, maybe I’ll just call the whole show off.

So, before I throw you to the mercies of the Pharyngula commentariat, you irksome infernal rabble-rousers can show me why I should keep you around. Unless you want to be thrown to the mob, of course…

Survivor Pharyngula: The Audition

Lately, we’ve had a number of threads blow up into furious arguments, which is fine and normal, except that they’ve also been fueled by contributions from an assortment of new (Yay! We like new people!) noisemakers who don’t seem to respond well to argument themselves (Boo!), and there’s been a great deal of non-productive turmoil going on. It may be time to purge a few of the more poisonous commenters.

This is stage 1 of our Survivor Pharyngula competition, in which we’ll determine if we really do have an infestation of pests that need to be culled. After all, I’m not going to invest in helicopters, exotic tropical real estate, imported venomous snakes and poisonous insects, hand grenades, and all those tiki torches if there isn’t sufficient cause, and if we have no contestants! So today we’re just going to poll the readership and see how far we get.

In the comments to this post, please post the names of any trolls you’d like to see banned, with an explanation — just plop a name out there, and I’ll ignore your comment. Your explanation should state why this person detracts from the discussion and foments confusion and derails discussions. To pseudo-quantify everything, please also give the individual a p*o*o score.

The p*o*o score consists of 3 assessments, on a scale of 0 to 5, of the three parameters that define an annoying troll. Here are those three:

  • Persistence: In itself, this isn’t a bad thing; most of the regulars here would have to give themselves a 5 in this category, too. Trolls that only rarely pop in, throw out a drive-by bit of noise, and don’t hang around to ramp up the chaos really aren’t much of a problem and don’t deserve the effort of banning. It’s the ones who squat in one thread and obsessively comment a hundred times in a day who need some cleaning up.

  • Obliviousness: Does the individual actually respond intelligently to argument? Then they’re not a troll. Intelligent response does not equate to simply surrendering to the will of the dominant clique, either; disagreeing but actually replying to criticism with efforts to clarify and defend is a habit that should be encouraged. Repeating the same noise over and over again is to be discouraged. The purest examples of this have been the occasional posters who do nothing but post Bible verses in threads, often with no connection to the topic at hand.

  • Obnoxiousness: This is the parameter that everyone notices. We do have certain values in the Pharyngula culture that can be rubbed the wrong way: in general, we despise sexism, homophobia, stupidity, and anti-scientific attitudes, and people who charge in brashly and flout those values are going to annoy a lot of us. So let’s be honest, sometimes we just feel that we “hate that guy”, and it’s because they violate the norms here. It is perfectly fair to evict someone who does not fit in, especially if they’re persistent and oblivious. But also be fair here: if a creationist showed up who honestly wanted to discuss evolution, we should be tolerant. This should be the parameter you give the most thought to, since there is a lot of subjectivity tied up in it.

Let me give you an example: the notorious Piltdown Man, because he has once again this morning appeared in the comment threads under a new pseudonym, despite being banned long ago.

Pilty clearly gets a 5 for persistence. Just the fact that he’s banned yet keeps creating new posting accounts to throw out his drivel is sign enough. When he was allowed to comment, he’d go on and on in threads to stir up crap. In fact, Pilty was so stubborn and determined and noisy that if we are restricting ourselves to a 5 point scale, maybe I shouldn’t assume the regulars here get a 5 — nobody competes with Pilty for inane repetition.

Pilty also gets a 5 for obliviousness. Among his recent attempted postings is a copied 4500 word screed claiming that it is a good thing to stigmatize people who engage in unapproved behavior (such as homosexuality), but that stigmatizing pedophilia is part of a witchhunt that fractures social structures — none of it original, he just copied and pasted in this big block of text. Not only is it not an attempt to discuss, but it’s so predictably Pilty — he’s easily spotted despite his penchant for changing pseudonyms because his obsessions are so well known.

Pilty always gets a 5 for obnoxiousness. Posting a treatise instead of a link? Obnoxious. Arguing that gays are justifiable targets? Obnoxious. Knee-jerk support for every policy of the Catholic church, including minimizing the crime of pedophilia? Obnoxious.

He’s easy. Are the new crop of trolls also easy? Justify why they should be banned.

Now for the twist. There has to be a twist, right?

Everyone who nominates a troll for banning must also give their own p*o*o score, as honestly and objectively as they can. I’ll reject your ballot if you can’t exhibit that much self-awareness.

For instance, as a commenter, I’d give myself a 2 (generously) for persistence: I’m always around, but I usually avoid getting into prolonged wrangles in the threads. I’ll also give myself a 2 for obliviousness, because I’m a rather strongly opinionated guy, but I at least try to pay attention to what people are complaining about. I’m also going to give myself a 3 for obnoxiousness — opinionated again — but also because I don’t mind provoking a little controversy (as the guy writing the articles, I’d probably get a 5).

You are allowed to argue with other people’s p*o*o score. If I’d said my obnoxiousness was only a 1, I would hope you’d challenge me on that. If you think I’m even worse than a 3, link to a comment where I’m clearly evil, and argue for a higher score. We’ll try to reach a consensus on our scoring of the trolls.

Now for the twist on the twist. Everyone with a p*o*o score is auditioning for Survivor Pharyngula. That means you’re in the running if you are so obnoxious as to throw stones at some else.

OK, everyone, got it? If you want to throw someone in the dungeon, name them, give a good argument for why getting rid of them would improve the commenting climate here, and give us your estimate of their p*o*o values. Then give your own self-assessment and your own p*o*o scores.

If there are no nominees, Survivor Pharyngula will be cancelled…and that’s OK.

The Molly that TruthMachine will be sad to see

For a long time, TruthMachine has been the only person to have both been awarded a Molly and also been threatened with banning. Now he has to share that distinction with Walton, who has won the Molly for September.

Now pick one for October by leaving nominations in the comments. Don’t get all contrary and try to elevate some random troll, though: that’ll be taken care of a little later today when Survivor Pharyngula goes live.

The NSFW problem

Roger Ebert has a thoughtful post on the problem of not-safe-for-work images. It’s a real problem, and it’s a curious example of self-imposed censorship built on an artificial fear. I don’t care who you are, you’ve all seen pornography, you’ve all heard profanity, yet somehow, if even a tasteful nude or an obscenity neatly typed in a small font face appears in a web post, people freak out: I could have viewed that in my workplace! My eyes aren’t allowed to see a breast or a penis between the hours of 9 to 5!

There’s good reason for that, of course, and Ebert discusses some of it.

I haven’t worked in an office for awhile. Is there a danger of porn surfing in the workplace? Somehow I doubt it. There is a greater danger, perhaps, of singling out workers for punishment based on the zeal of the enforcers. And of course there is always this: Supervisors of employee web use, like all employees, must be seen performing their jobs in order to keep them.

There is also this: Perfectly reasonable people, well-adjusted in every respect, might justifiably object to an erotic photograph on the computer monitor of a coworker. A degree of aggression might be sensed. It violates the decorum of the workplace. (So does online gaming, but never mind.) You have the right to look at anything on your computer that can be legally looked at, but give me a break! I don’t want to know! I also understand that the threat of discipline or dismissal is real and frightening.

I’ve made it through two years on the blog with only this single NSFW incident. In the future I will avoid NSFW content in general, and label it when appropriate. What a long way around I’ve taken to say I apologize.

I think he misses a couple, though.

One is the one-sided nature of most erotic images that makes a workplace situation more difficult for those who are already struggling: women. Ebert himself does this, since his examples are all of lovely naked women. Why not naked men? Ebert is a male, he clearly enjoys the female form, but if he’d used examples of erotic male nudes, there’d be a little more distancing from the subject, a little more objectivity. I like looking at naked women, it tingles my hypothalamus in interesting ways; I don’t object to pictures of naked men, but I’m afraid there is no thrill here, not even a sense of forbidden, hidden fear. It’s easier for a male to dismiss images of women as simply beautiful and non-threatening, because he isn’t likely to be the target of objectification and lust, which actually are inappropriate in a working environment where women want to be treated as equals.

Avoiding even the appearance of discrimination is reason enough to avoid these loaded images, but there’s also a more universal reason that we have this problem, and it’s unfortunate. It’s the tyranny of the ideal, and it also is on display in Ebert’s post.

Whenever we talk about sexualized images and their virtues as simply representations of beauty, we always trot out examples from art of nubile young men and women in the prime of health, typically slender and unwrinkled and unburdened with any trace of experience. This is what we are supposed to look like, is the message, beauty is in this smoothness, these unmarred curves, this hidden youthful suppleness exposed. What we will regard as beauty in our bodies is such a narrow band of reality that it means that very few of us actually have a positive self-image, and not only every porn image, but every ad on billboards and television, reinforces that message that you aren’t worthy.

And of course it’s made worse for women, because the standard image of women is that ideal of young and fertile and lubricious. Are you pretty enough to be on a billboard? If not, there’s something wrong with you. Even as a man I can feel this, since no one is going to mistake me for a 20 year old Adonis, but at least I’m mostly spared the optic cacophony constantly reminding me that my body is homely and sub-standard.

But it’s not, not really. Everyone has bodies that serve them well, that carry them through life and give them pleasure and work hard, but somehow we’ve fallen into the trap of idealizing such a specific set of features that we spend most of our lives lacking the proper appreciation of them, in part due to the way the advertising and pornography industries work to promote a standard and punish anything outside that standard with neglect. This is another reason to avoid “NSFW” images — not because they’re unsafe for our eyes, an absurd concept already, but because we need to rebel against the homogenization of beauty.

Here’s a counter-example. When we talk about erotic images of bodies, we all know exactly what we’re talking about, and it isn’t my body or even the bodies of most of the readers of this article. If I posted an image of my kind of body (or, probably, your kind of body) it would be as an object of derision, something that people would mock because it’s not perfect enough, not pretty enough, or just plain ugly. I know; I posted one photo of my breast on facebook*, and got a flood of email that can be summarized as “ooh, yuck”.

Why can’t we treat bodies like we do hands? Look at this; this is not a youthful hand, it’s not an unlined hand, it’s not a smooth and perfect hand…but it’s beautiful.


We can look at a baby’s hand, a young woman’s hand, or a gnarled old man’s hand and see loveliness and function everywhere, and respect the evidence of lives lived well. We’ve been acculturated by the tyranny of a narrow ideal to only be able to approve of bodies that fall into a tiny category that we can call ‘fuckable’. Outside of the art world, you simply don’t find images of bodies that are not airbrushed and photoshopped and selected for that kind of exclusively sexualized purpose.

It’s very easy to make a case for tolerance of images of beautiful people in a state of undress. I’ll believe we’re ready to be liberal about the use of what we call NSFW imagery when the case can be made for the beauty of a naked old man without a volley of derision and expressions of disgust and disappointment because they’re not a slim naked young woman.

*There was a good reason: it was to protest facebook’s policy of censoring photos of women breastfeeding their babies. While it’s embarrassing to be mocked for the fact that I don’t have a sculpted, youthful figure, it was worth it to point out the hypocrisy of a ridiculous policy. Consider it another act of sacrilege, and that I did a fabulous job of defiling most people’s ideal of what a breast should look like.