S&R at 10: Still thinking, ’cause it ain’t illegal, and we want to keep it that way

Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim— George Santayana, 1863-1952

We’re not fanatics here at Scholars & Rogues. As our founder, Sam Smith, writes today on our 10th anniversary, our unruly mob of scholars and rogues believes in a “fierce commitment to confronting challenging questions facing ourselves, our society and our communities.”

S&R-logo-originalMany, if not most, of those challenges arrive at our digital doorstep because those who are fanatics have lost both their aim and their minds. We, as do you, routinely witness assaults on common sense, on dignity, on respect, and on intelligent public discourse.

We’ve tried to be more than mere witnesses here. When we’ve seen stupidity, we’ve shouted, sometimes whispered, “Hey! That’s not right. Don’t do that.”

But that’s not enough. To again paraphrase my favorite fictional president, Andrew Shepard, those who have lost their way or their minds on an issue do two things and two things only: Telling you to be afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it.

Continue reading

The new-new Enlightenment and the Counter-Reformation

On lighting a fire for scholarly rogueship

US-nazi-flag.pngTen years is a long time, and it passes in a heartbeat.

When Sam invited me to join the Scrogues a decade ago, it was to be the ‘libertarian’ to counterbalance what he saw as a quite left-wing team of writers and scholars who were coming together to think deep thoughts about the world we wanted.

My opening gambit was to point out the dangers of low expectations of those whose betterment we seek.

In truth, perhaps our mistake was assuming high expectations for democracy and liberalism. Continue reading

Scholars & Rogues marks its 10th anniversary

A brief history of S&R: It’s been a great decade. We hope you’ll stick around for another 10 years.

On April 16, 2007, a few of us (mostly immigrants from The 5th Estate on LiveJournal) opened shop at ScholarsAndRogues.com. I suppose we hoped for a doorbusting response, as hordes of people, starving for our unique brand of irreverent wisdom, metaphorically trampled us with pageviews.

That initial team included myself, co-founder Mike Sheehan, Brian Angliss, Jim Booth, Denny Wilkins, Gavin Chait, Rori Black, Robert Silvey and Martin Bosworth. Robert retired, Martin left to start his own site (and then tragically died), Mike doesn’t write much anymore but he’s skulking around here somewhere and I’ve been trying to lure Rori back for years but she’s having none of it.

Along the way we picked up more stragglers, and hopefully you’ve had occasion to enjoy their insight into the contemporary condition as well. Continue reading

S&R Honors: Edmund Blackadder

S&R Honors Edmund BlackadderScholars & Rogues has been around for seven and a half years or so, and during that time we have evolved. Early on we were a political blog with a culturalist bent. These days we’re a “journal of progressive culture” – in a nutshell, we’re a culture blog informed by a strong political foundation. Our writing wanders far and wide, as you may have noticed, but the pieces all seem to fit together.

We have had, through the years, a number of discussions about who we are and who we want to be. In corporate terminology, what is the Scholars & Rogues brand? And while these conversations have occasionally been nuanced and overrun with self-doubt – if you don’t have the occasional crisis of identity in seven years you’re not trying hard enough – I have always had an answer that served as a sort of starting point.

The S&R brand is Edmund Blackadder. Continue reading

A word about S&R’s comment policy

Periodically we find ourselves needing to remind everyone about our comment policy, which is quite a bit different from what you find on other sites. This isn’t a problem for a vast majority of those who visit us, but every once in awhile…

So, here’s the link to the policy, which not only lays out how we do it but also, in a good bit of detail, explains why. In general, I’d note the big difference in how we do it. Other places work off the assumption that all comments are accepted unless they cross a line and need to be removed. We don’t assume that any comment should be accepted automatically, and we don’t post anything without reading it and actively approving it. Continue reading

Scholars & Rogues

Better and betterer: the new and improved S&R

Hi folks. I wanted to take a moment to tell you about some changes here at S&R that we think you might like.

The first one you probably already noticed: we’ve tweaked our design a bit. We did so for a big reason. When we made our last design update we didn’t really understand how it was going to affect our ability to post and properly present photography. As a result, staff photographer Lisa Wright, one of our most talented staffers, got shoved to the side. For that, I want to apologize to her and to you. She’s a fantastic shooter and we’re a lot better when our audience gets to see her work regularly. Continue reading

Watching my dad die

Dad and cat 1962My dad, David White, died on Sunday, September 12, 2010 at 10:10 PM.  I found out the time later–I didn’t think to look at the clock when it happened.  He died after five days in the hospital, after two weeks of being unable to eat, after nearly 25 years of congestive heart failure following a heart attack at age 49.  He died at the end of three days of dying.  I still called him “Daddy.”

People asked if he had been sick.  Well, yes, he had been.  But he had been sick for so long that we sort of took his illness for granted.  When he went into the hospital the previous Tuesday, no one was terribly worried.  My mom called in the evening to tell me that she had taken him to the emergency room because he was still so nauseous that he could not eat.  When I had dinner with them the week before, he had eaten very little because his stomach was upset–he never got any better.  Mom said, “Don’t come down.  They admitted him after we waited in the emergency room for four hours [that was unusual–his heart condition usually rated more attention].  The doctors are trying to get the nausea under control.  I’ll call you tomorrow night and let you know how he’s doing.”

You see, my dad went into the hospital normally once or twice a year, usually for either dehydration or excess fluid on the lungs (it’s the lasix tightrope walk–ask any racehorse).  The doctors would change some of his meds, re-prescribe others, and eventually send him home with an equally well-stocked pharmaceutical larder.  We thought this would be the same kind of incident, even though, after a June hospital stay, we were told the incidents would become more frequent.  He finally accepted a wheelchair (which he never used after it was delivered) and oxygen at home to ease his breathing.

Mom called on Wednesday and reported he had a better day–he had even been able to eat some cream of chicken soup (apparently the dietitian had overlooked his heart condition and had not prevented the soup from reaching him).  I was once again hopeful and promised to leave school early on Friday to spend some time with him.

When she called Thursday night, the news was not so good.  The nausea was back.  The dietitian had cracked down on his food choices.  No more cream of chicken soup (too high in fat, not on the heart diet).  No potatoes or other high potassium foods (the result of a misdiagnosed kidney condition earlier in the year).  My mom argued with the nutritionist–my dad wanted the soup (it had tasted good) and he was going to have his soup, either from their kitchen or from hers.  He got his soup, but he could barely eat any of it.  She said I had better come down on Friday.

On Friday morning I got to school a little early to prep for a meeting.  My cell phone rang as soon as I entered Tudor House.  It was my mom, “You need to come down now.” I picked up my husband, John, and a suitcase and we headed for the hospital an hour away.

Daddy had been moved to the Cardiac Care Unit at Mercy Hospital (I still call it “TM” as in “Timken-Mercy” even though the name changed several years ago).  He had just been settled in the room when I got there.  My sister and mom were both there.  Both had been crying.

CIMG0530My dad had no blankets covering him.

The lack of blankets startled me more than the breathing at first.  My dad wore a heavy down coat most of the time–even in the summer–over his standard t-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, sweater vest, and sweater, all the result of a permanent chill because of poor circulation.  The fact that he was not heavily bundled up and apparently not cold was a bad sign.  The good sign was that he was lucid.

“The doctors said there’s nothing they can do but keep him comfortable.” Mom was that blunt.

The CCU staff was wonderful.  His cardiologist had cared for him since Daddy’s heart attack in 1985 and Dr. U was the one doctor my parents trusted implicitly.  Even he acknowledged the end of the road–my mom said he was almost in tears.  The doctors suspected the nausea was being caused by one of the heart meds that was keeping him alive and there was no way to address the situation.  They would have had to stop all of them and restart them one at a time to eliminate the culprit.  That was not an option.

Daddy’s breathing became more regular as the nurses got his anxiety under control.  But his condition worsened.  He asked for pain medicine in the afternoon–one of the side effects of worsening congestive heart failure is pain in the extremities as circulation weakens in the body’s attempt to keep the vital organs functioning.  His nausea also increased and he began vomiting more frequently.

I must make a confession at this point: I’m squeamish.  I can’t deal with blood or vomit.  My sister was a real trooper when Daddy was actively sick.  I, wimp that I am, ran for the washcloth and the nurse.  At some point while I was out my sister changed the channel from “Law and Order” to “The Kardashians.” It’s weird what details stick with you.  It was the first time that I saw that particular show–it added to the unreal nature of the weekend.

We stayed until late Friday evening and then went back to my parents’ house for the night.  My mom stayed at the hospital.  Sometime that night my parents made a decision.

On Saturday, my dad’s symptoms were about the same.  He slept more and was frequently sick.  At one point, when my sister and mom went for lunch, he woke up for awhile and talked to me about the natural gas explosion and fire in San Bruno, California that was being covered on the news.  We discussed the suspected corrosion of the pipes as a possible cause.

There were a lot of things I wanted to say–but I couldn’t get the words out.  I wanted to thank him for all the understanding over the years, for his constant patience with my mom’s health, for welcoming me home when my life fell apart (more than once).  As usual, I connected with him via the news and missed that emotional piece that neither of us seemed to be very good at.  The opportunity passed.  That’s my biggest regret.

Friends and relatives visited.  At some point one of the nurses brought in a heavy looking round magnet on a cord and hung it from a hook on the wall.  I knew it was a magnet because it stuck to the wall on its side, looking like a bright blue doughnut.

Later Saturday afternoon, my mom asked us all to come out to the waiting room.  She told us that she and my dad talked Friday night and made the decision to stop his remaining meds.  The doctors said that, once that happened, Daddy would die within a short period of time.  They would increase his morphine to continue to keep him comfortable.  He would lose consciousness, his blood pressure would drop, and eventually his heart would stop.  We understood that he was suffering and that nothing could be done and this was the remaining course of action.  Were we OK with it?  Yes.  Did we want to be around when the meds were stopped?  Yes.

Sunday morning, early, we all gathered at the hospital.  He looked around at us and said, “Well, I’m ready if you are.” Daddy kissed us all and told us that he loved us.  I thanked him.  The nurse turned off the IVs, except for the one with the morphine.  He closed his eyes and slept.  We stayed close by.  It felt somewhat morbid to sit and wait.  But I knew I had to stay and bear witness.

After a couple of hours, my dad woke up.  He looked around and seemed to be rather surprised to see us.  He put his head back against the pillow, “What’s taking so long?” My mother looked thunderstruck (I now understand what that expression looks like), “Well! What at kind of a question is that?” My brother-in-law tried to be philosophical, “These things aren’t in our hands.” Me? I burst out laughing, “Well, you’re the math guy.” He seemed to think about that and slept again.  Aside from answering nurses’ questions, he didn’t speak again.

Morning became afternoon.  The nurses brought us coffee, cookies, and some fruit.  Daddy’s blood pressure remained steady.  It declined a bit and then rose again.  My husband and I began to think it might be another day or so.  Later in the afternoon, we made the decision to drive home to the east side of Cleveland to get more clothes and necessities.  On the way back to Canton, we stopped and got some Chinese food.  I got back in the car and found messages from my sister:

    5:51:45 PM Last bp reading 62/17 but they switched arms HR still 70
    5:54:01 PM Ill update u in 10 min
    6:05:17 PM 67/24

I feared I would miss being at my father’s bedside because I was hungry and that I would have to bear that burden of selfishness forever.  I replied:

    6:24:35 PM We’re on our way back.

More messages on the return drive:

    6:27:33 PM He seems the same it may have been the changing arms Hr still 70
    6:36:30 PM 61/18 at 630
    6:43:51 PM We’ll be there ASAP
    6:45:22 PM K i know ur mom wants u to b here

We arrived at the hospital before 7 PM–Daddy was still with us.  My mother and sister continued to cry intermittently.  Daddy’s blood pressure continued to drop.  One of the nurses closed the door to the room and pulled the drape part-way across the windows to give up some privacy.  I sat near his feet, on his left side, my mom on my right, holding his hand.

There was nothing to do but watch the numbers fall and listen to his breathing grow more shallow.  After 9:30 the alarms went off more frequently.  The nurses silenced them–there was no help to summon.  Just after 10, it became clear that it would be any minute.  The final alarm went off.  The nurse took that big blue magnet and placed it on Daddy’s pacemaker to disable it, in case it fired (someone had told me earlier what it would be used for).

Daddy was gone.  We sat with him for awhile, waiting for the doctor to come and make the pronouncement (some things are not done until someone declares them done).  The nurse came in to tell us the doctor was delayed.  We waited awhile longer, saying our goodbyes.  Then we escorted my mom off the CCU floor for the last time.

Daddy70I so wish I had had the courage to have the difficult talks with him: about his illnesses, his final arrangements, his funeral.  But I didn’t.  I understand all the reasons people don’t talk about those things:  it’s a reminder of mortality, it’s morbid, it’s rude.  But I should have asked him how he was really doing.  He told me basics about trips to the doctor–but not about the slow decline over the years.  We could see some of it.  But we never talked about the fact that he was Dying.

In the end, lacking his wishes and input, we improvised–we did the best we could.  I guess that’s how we go through life, despite our best plans and intentions.  We made the funeral arrangements, I immersed myself in a tribute video for the wake, I had a memorial placed in the football program for the high school whose games he attended for over 35 years.

It’s been 3 years now.  Daddy’s ashes still sit on the mantle of the fireplace he built.  I wrote most of this shortly after the funeral.  It took this long to be able to edit the piece without crying–too much.  I think of him with every great science news story, or when some some politician we spoke of gets his comeuppance or I get to travel some place new and wonderful.  Or when I call my mom and get the answering machine and hear my dad’s voice, still taking calls.

Given our mutual uncertainty about the hereafter, I don’t think much about “heaven” in connection with my dad’s afterlife.  I’d like to think he’s sharing another dimension with Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan, finally understanding all those equations and theories that he strove to understand in this life.

Love you, Daddy.

S&R to open new Pacific Northwest Bureau

New York City. London. Oxford. Washington, DC. Western New York. Western North Carolina. Cleveland. The Upper Peninsula. Chicagoland/Indiana. Montana. Denver/Boulder.

Owing to the fact that a majority of the founders either live in Colorado now or did in the past there has been a certain 5280-centric identity here at Scholars & Rogues. Nonetheless, the S&R staff is and always has been fairly dispersed geographically. And we’re about to expand a little more.

In just over a week I’ll be relocating to Seattle to begin a new job in the Pioneer Square district, and if you know the Emerald City I don’t have to tell you how damned cool that is. I’ll be living just over the bridge in West Seattle, a neighborhood I only discovered this week, but which I came to like in a hurry. Of course, the new job is merely the means to an end, with the end being our uncompromising drive to provide our readers with the best, most comprehensive insight into the modern condition possible. That’s hard to do without a West Coast presence, huh?

In the past I’ve been known to write about the occasional local issue here in Colorado, and one might expect the same thing to happen re: my new home in the City of Rain.

The nasty part is that I now have to pack and move, which means I’ll be mostly off the radar for the next week or two. Wish me luck.

S&R makes major change to commenting policy

CATEGORY: ScholarsAndRoguesOnce upon a time I could be counted on to say something like “the comment thread is often the most important part of a blog post.” When you have an intelligent community of good-faith readers and commenters, the initial post need not be fully baked and comprehensive – it can instead be treated as a conversation-starter, a jumping-off point for something larger and organic. I have learned a great deal in comment threads, and I imagine many of our readers have, as well.

I not only participate in comment threads here at S&R, I have been aggressive in counseling my former employers and business clients with blogs to keep the comment section as open and free as possible because such a policy promotes clear, productive communications between the company and its customers. (It also serves an important canary-in-the-coalmine function – if you let your customers say what they want, a lot of times you’ll glean useful information and you’ll frequently get a clue of impending problems before you would through conventional channels.) In sum, comments good.

Lately my belief in the value of the comments sections has waned, and I’m not alone. Nearly everyone on the S&R staff feels some level of frustration at how unproductive our comment threads have been lately, and many other online publishers are encountering the same issues. How to respond? Some sites, including Xark, Dan Conover and Zen Habits, have gone so far as to completely shut comments off. (Some big names, including Seth Godin, The Dish, John Hawks and Talking Points Memo, never enabled comments in the first place.)

Fueling our individual and anecdotal suspicions that the train has jumped the tracks is a new study suggesting that the modern-day comment thread can actually damage the perceived credibility of the original post.

In an experiment mentioned in the Science paper and soon to be published elsewhere in greater detail, about 2,000 people were asked to read a balanced news report about nanotechnology followed by a group of invented comments. All saw the same report but some read a group of comments that were uncivil, including name-calling. Others saw more civil comments.

“Disturbingly, readers’ interpretations of potential risks associated with the technology described in the news article differed significantly depending only on the tone of the manipulated reader comments posted with the story,” wrote authors Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele.

“In other words, just the tone of the comments . . . can significantly alter how audiences think about the technology itself.”

Researchers found that even knowledge of science did not seem to mediate the effects of the comments.

These findings are specifically concerned with scientific conversations, but I suspect a similar dynamic plays out around nearly any kind of expertise-oriented post. I know what I see in comment threads these days often follows the path suggested by the study, regardless of the topic.

Why Have Comment Threads Deteriorated?

So, once upon a time comment threads were great and now they’ve gone to hell. What has happened? I described what I called “Thinkworld vs. Shoutworld” for an op-ed in Editor & Publisher back in 2004, and I suspect what Brossard and Scheufele are finding is eight years of further deterioration around a couple of predictable variables.

First, the rise of social media is siphoning off discussions. There have been a number of times where an S&R post has spurred lengthy and lively comment threads…somewhere else. Like at Reddit or Current or, of course, Facebook. Perhaps the reason here is simple: blogs and online publications like Scholars & Rogues are perceived as “public” space. Anyone can wander in and say whatever.

Your social networks are controlled by you, however. If you want to discuss something we have written, you can port it over to FB and do so with your own circle of trusted friends. You have constructed those networks in a way that suits you – if you don’t like flaming and shouting, you have unfriended the people who are prone to that kind of behavior. Beyond that, these people are “friends,” not strangers. While you may not know them very well all the time, there exists a social contract between you.

Second, what’s left once the nice people are gone? We have known since the ’90s that online conversations can quickly get nasty. Online forums are impersonal and seem to foster appalling behavior of the sort we’d never exhibit in person. There have been any number of times when participants in online groups have hidden behind anonymity and said things to me that they wouldn’t say to my face, and if you have spent more than ten minutes online you have seen this happen. It has probably happened to you. Perhaps you have been the one exhibiting the anti-social behavior yourself, and if so, you may well have felt embarrassed later as you reflected on your actions and words.

The Internet also tends to be a very “male” environment – that is, it favors those who speak loudly and aggressively. Women have never participated as much as we’d like because many of them, if I might generalize a tad, don’t like being bullied by testosterone-soaked jerks. Further, loud debates are frequently not thoughtful ones, which has the effect of driving off a lot of smart folks, most of whom have better things to do than trade insults with people who are more reliant on attitude than intellect.

In other words, over time online environments self-select for the worst elements: the loud, the belligerent, the less informed, those with agendas and firmly closed minds. In other words, says Bora Zivkovic at Scientific American…

But there is another problem here – most of the good, nice, constructive commenters may have gone silent and taken their discussions of your blog elsewhere, but the remaining few commenters are essentially trolls.

This isn’t always the case, of course. We’ve been fortunate here at S&R to host some fantastic comment threads. Lisa Barnard’s recent online dating post, for instance, spurred a genuinely friendly response, and we heard from dozens of people who shared their own experiences in ways that reminded us all of what a comment section ought to be like.

What Can Be Done?

The staff has kicked the comments question around a good bit. We’ve discussed the good and the bad, we’ve offered up a variety of proposals (ranging from “leave it alone” to “kill them entirely”). In the end, we decided that as badly as we want to rid ourselves of the ignoramuses, the jackasses and the trolls, we don’t want to sacrifice those moments where our readers can be genuinely enlightened by smart input from other readers (nor do we want to deprive our thoughtful followers of the chance to engage in public discussions that interest them).

After some discussion, we think we’ve hit on a better model given the current environment: the old newspaper “letters to the editor” section. Our new policy, which is effective immediately, will operate like a cross between that and what we have now.

The New S&R Comment Policy

The comment section will remain at the bottom of each post, and we will encourage readers to craft thoughtful responses to what they’re seeing. Unlike a regular comment thread, which posts the comment unless it’s objectionable, our new approach will reverse the presumption: we will not post a comment unless we feel it legitimately furthers the conversation. This doesn’t mean we’ll require a fully sourced and cited thesis, but it does mean that we need to see evidence of thought and/or insight.

It also means that we won’t be green-lighting any of the “me, too” comments you find on most blogs. If your response is essentially “hey, I like this,” then please hit the “Like” button at the top of the page (and even better, click the links at the bottom of the post, which make it easy for you to share the article with your social networks).

We don’t want our new policy to come off as too intimidating. We do want to set the bar higher, though. If you read the site regularly, it’s obvious how much effort our writers put into S&R, and we can no longer abide those cases where our hard work is undermined by commenters who aren’t advancing the conversation or who are deliberately sabotaging it for their own narrow, cynical ends.

It goes without saying that hateful, ad hominem, substance-free submissions will be deleted and repeat offenders will be banned.

Byron’s birthday…one myth debunked…and replaced by another….

I’ve written several appreciations of Lord Byron, our first Scrogue, over the years for S&R. In one of these, entitled, “Byron’s Birthday,” I mentioned that his lordship’s heart was buried in Greece. Today I received the following comment on that post:

Kathryn January 22, 2013 at 1:36 am 

As current Rector of the Church where Byron is buried, I have to dispute the comment that his heart is buried in Greece. It is in the church, in the family vault, although in a separate casket from his body.

As an academic, I know full well the foolhardiness of using that bastion of misinformation, Wikipedia, as a source – but I’d done just that and so found myself hoisted on my own petard, as it were, by the kind but justifiably critical Rector of Mary Magdelene Church in Hucknall where Byron was laid to rest in the family crypt after being refused burial in Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Still, one hates to be wrong, so I went out and did some serious research on my own to satisfy myself that the Rector’s emendation to my post was, indeed, accurate.

And it was.  So kudos to her for helping S&R get its facts straight.  However…

That, as the old saying goes, is not the end of the story.

In my research I stumbled upon a delightful post on the exhumation of Byron’s body. And another, perhaps even more Byronic myth. It seems that his heart was not the only impressive element of Byron’s person. Here’s a description of why, it would seem, George Gordon was, as Lady Caroline Lamb termed him, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”:

Just like in the portraits. He was bone from the elbows to his hands and from the knees down, but the rest was perfect. Good-looking man putting on a bit of weight, he’d gone bald. He was quite naked, you know,” and then he stopped, listening for something that must have been a clatter of china in the kitchen, where his wife was making tea for us, for he went on very quickly,  “Look, I’ve been in the Army, I’ve been in bathhouses, I’ve seen men. But I never saw nothing like him.” He stopped again, and nodding his head, meaningfully, as novelists say, began to tap a spot just above his knee. “He was built like a pony.”

Ahem.  And so another myth arises about this most mythic of English bards. Be sure, however, to read the post I link to above. The close of that interesting essay offers an explanation for how such a myth might get started…

Happy Birthday, your lordship!

Two years adrift in the blogosphere and no land in sight

We have just marked my second anniversary as a blogger. It’s not clear what I thought I was getting into when I approached S&R for a tryout. But over the last two years I have produced 85 posts. An average post is about 800 words, so that’s close to 70,000 words, a respectable book. It feels like it, too. I know something about what it takes to write a book—I’ve written seven good ones, five of which have been published and two of which are being shopped. I have also written one more that should be buried in the back yard at midnight on a moonless night.

I’ve learned a lot over the course of this. I’ve learned that no matter how hard you work to get the words just right, someone will misunderstand it. I’ve learned that there are some people so cantankerous you can’t even agree with them without setting them off. (Yes, gun nuts, that’s you.) I’ve learned that I shouldn’t do rants. What I think is sharp and funny comes off as acrid and nasty. I’ve also learned that I won’t do series or thematic pieces, like my colleagues Sammy, Russ and Brian. I am good for five or so on a topic, then like Ferdinand the Bull, I wander away and lay down to smell the flowers. Odd, eh? You’d think a novelist would have more stick-to-it-tiveness than that.

Not that I don’t have hobby horses to ride. 80% of my posts have fallen into three categories: Politics (40%,) social commentary (25%,) and Sarah Palin and Tim Tebow (15%.) (For what it’s worth, I was a little worried when Sarah started fading, but I prayed and God sent me another Christian idiot to replace her, Little Tim. Praise to His name. Amen. I guess with Alabama and Texas God must have an unlimited supply of these buffoons. But I digress.)

The remainder of the posts were carved up between the occasional non-Tebow sports piece, book reviews, travel pieces and odds and sods. When I went back over the list, though, I was pleasantly surprised that for the most part the pieces were all fresh and new and distinct both from each other and from what others out there were saying.

As I look down my list of titles, there are not many regrets. But there are a few.

I wish I’d recognized that I suck at rants before I tried to do them. There’s an art to those. When you see Frank take off on a hilarious wild-eyed riff, know it ain’t as easy as it looks. By comparison, my attempts look like the humor column in a high school newspaper.

I wish I had never taken on the issue of obesity as a choice. My position was right, but this is one of those issues that people cannot think clearly and rationally about. Quite a few people got their feelings hurt and I am not sure I really changed anyone’s opinion. I also wrote a post that I meant to be a salute to a charity that was closing its doors, and for reasons I have still not quite figured out, the charity saw it as patronizing and hurtful. I meant well, but I goofed. I wish I’d never agreed to review a book called Sweet Heaven Before I Die. I make a practice only to review books I like. I know what a nasty review feels like. I can’t quote any of the hundred or so great reviews I’ve gotten over the years, but I can tell you word for word the gratuitous nut-shot that Publishers Weekly gave me for my second novel. But I agreed to review Sweet Heaven and at the end, had to be honest about what I’d found.

So out of those 85 blog posts, I’d say I can hold my head up about 80 of them. I’d rather be perfect, but the nature of blogging means that I will never be, and it looks like my personal Oops Factor is about 6%.

There are some things I am genuinely proud of. I called the Republican primary virtually blow for blow months before it started. My accuracy rate was better than any of the pros who work at the big organizations. I got out way ahead of the educational loan scandal and I can even argue that one of my early posts on the topic, “University of Ponzi,” helped accelerate the national conversation. I am also proud of my travel posts about Palau, Costa Rica, Berlin and Galapagos. Others who have been there tell me I captured the essence of those places pretty well.

For the most part, Otherwise is intended to be savage humor, but occasionally I broke from that to write about personal topics, ranging from my painful childhood (A long way from Waycross, Georgia) to the guilt of growing up Southern (The 9:1 Ratio) to grappling with my own latent racism (Would I have voted for Barack if he’d been white?) For the most part, readers were very kind when I put myself out there.

Of course, the thing that drives every blogger crazy is when you work for weeks on something that you think is important and exciting, and it sinks without a trace. I had a lot of those—the vote for Barack piece, my series on the apocalypse, my Dick and Jane primer on Rick Perry. Sadly, I didn’t have a lot of the reverse, unlike my colleagues Sam, Denny, Chris and Wufnik who have seen small pieces on everything from Johnny Rotten to postage stamps to zombies go viral and rack up huge hits. I am like so envious.

It’s not clear what’s next for Otherwise. It’s clear to me that writing blogs has made me a better writer, but it’s not clear that it made the world a better place, which is what we all do this for. I have recently started on a new degree and am stuck into my next novel, and how much time I have for blogifying remains to be seen. Still, writing is the best process known for sorting out your own thinking. Many times I have started a blog and ended up having to rewrite the thing because the logic made me change my position completely. Thank you for helping me think through what it is I really think. Thank you for reading.

Welcome to the new Scholars & Rogues

You’re probably noticing that we’ve painted the place and put up some new drapes. The migration to our new host (actually, our old host – we’ve moved back to WordPress.com where we started in 2007) has been in the works for months. But it’s been a bit of a task, and I’d like to offer massive thanks to Brian Angliss for his work. You know Brian as our resident climate expert, but he’s also our IT guru, and there’s no telling how many hours he’s put in on the move and redesign. Also, many thanks to the rest of the crew – there was plenty of tedious detail work to go around, trust me.

Now, a few comments on the new site and what it means for the reader.

  • New Design: Our old look was a little stale, and this new design strikes us as cleaner and more contemporary. The news/magazine layout also better reflects S&R’s identity as an online journal. Frankly, we were never sure the old design visually or functionally told the whole truth about who we are. And finally, we’re making great use of our new logo (which I absolutely love – many thanks to Laura Manthey Design for helping us nail it).
  • Quicker Access to Content: With our old site’s one-column news hole structure, the top screen only let you see the most recent story or two. Now, between the featured post slider at the top and the top of the two-column news hole below, you’re seeing (depending on your monitor settings) at least six stories. And, as you scroll down, you’re seeing two stories at a time instead of one. The overall effect: a far better at-a-glance take on what’s happening at any given moment.
  • Improved Signal-to-Noise Ratio: Before, there was a lot going on in the sidebars – advertising, promotional widgets and the like – and you may not have really cared about most of it. The new site has stripped all of that away – no more advertising, and the sidebar content is more relevant to the core S&R mission and hopefully to your reasons for visiting.
  • Enhanced Notifications: WordPress makes it easy for you to follow S&R. Click that link at the top of the page and you’ll receive notifications when we post something new.
  • Better Treatment of S&R Honorees: We’ve always honored a “scrogue” in our masthead – someone whose work and career we respect, someone whose story we wanted to share with you. We have moved that to the sidebar now, just below the logo, and unlike in the past, you can click the image to go directly to the story from any page or story on the site. Up first: William Gibson, whom I have called the most important writer of the past 30 years.

Finally, we’ve recently conducted some soul-searching sessions and we concluded that we have drifted away, over the past year or two, from what we think sets us apart from other sites on the Net. For instance, our need to attract eyeballs for our advertisers (which was essential if we going to pay our hosting and maintenance bills) caused us to occasionally lose touch with our commitment to quality over quantity, resulting in content that was sometimes developed because, well, we needed something new up. Also, we had come to over-rely on guest posters, especially where political opinion was concerned. We’re not denigrating those folks – they were talented writers – but that driving S&R message, the site’s defining identity, wasn’t coming from us.

In essence, we had outsourced our mission and had ceded to others the responsibility for speaking in our name.

Since this move frees us from the corrupting need for ad revenue, you won’t be seeing any more of that. Our staff is evolving, as always, and we will use guest content in the right context, but we pledge to our readers that we’re refocusing on the kind of insightful, reflective writing that helped us establish our reputation when we first launched.

We’re excited. You know when you move into a new house and there’s that great evening, when everything is finally put away and you can finally relax and enjoy the place? Yeah, that’s us right now, with our legs kicked up in front of a roaring fire with a pint of premium micro.

We hope you like the new digs as much as we do. If you have any comments, we’d love to hear them.

Oh, how far telephones have come: remembering life in 14th century Hooterville

title or description

By Patrick Vecchio

The most underappreciated aspect of cellphones is that they provide today’s communications students with real-time demonstrations of how far telephone technology has evolved.

Take long-distance calls, for instance. A generation or two of cellphone users don’t know that you used to have to make such calls through an operator—a faceless woman (always a woman) sitting in long rows with other operators in a large, dimly lighted, mysterious room between you and, say, someone you wanted to call in Los Angeles. Continue reading

Quick note on the Aurora shooting

As some of our readers are aware, several S&R staffers live in the Denver area, and Managing Editor Mike Sheehan in particular lives very close to the site of the theater shootings in Aurora. I’m guessing most of my colleagues here have been hearing from friends and family around the country wanting to make sure everyone is okay, and we’ve heard from some in our audience, as well.

The good news is that, as best we can tell so far, the S&R family has been spared from this horror. The bad news is that once again, our community finds itself in the news for tragic reasons.

Our thoughts and best wishes go out to those in our community who were not so fortunate.

Giving 'quote approval' to politicans an act of editorial surrender

Reporters learn their craft in several ways. One is imitation. Another is instruction by a teacher. Another is instruction by experience. The lessons taught by each may be widely dissimilar. But lately, imitation and instruction by experience, unleavened by common sense, have produced poor journalism. That ill serves readers.

Much harrumping by media critics has followed NYTer Jeremy Peters’ revelation of “quote approval” — demands that reporters allow politicians to edit and rewrite quotations chosen for news stories.

Dan Rather calls this “a jaw-dropping turn in journalism.” Says NYU prof Jay Rosen: “This is real power shift. Quote approval is now routine on the campaign trail. Reporters feel they have no choice.” Former News & Record editor John Robinson: “Campaigns get quote approval? Can we embarrass ourselves some more?” And CUNY prof Jeff Jarvis: “1 Journalists should never give quote approval. 2 If they do they’d damn well better reveal it.”

Why would otherwise competent journalists surrender control of their story-telling to the subjects of their stories?
Continue reading

How to be a five-star commenter

When I told my friend Marcus, who edits a major magazine, that I’d signed on at a blogging site, he shook his head. “OK, but the first thing you better do is to uncheck the box that says ‘Allow Comments.’”

“What do you mean?” I protested. “That’s the beauty of the blogging. Instantaneous feedback. A direct connection with your readers. I can’t wait for the comments.”

He didn’t say anything, but gave me a look that showed that he found my naivete both endearing, but at the same time a little pathetic.

Now, eighty blogs later, I have learned through the comments thread that I can’t write, can’t think, and am so woolly-minded and stupid I probably have the attendant at the home tie my shoes. I now know that I am a Neanderthal, brute and all round big meanie. Continue reading

Instant analysis: Amendment One passage in North Carolina is the battle that lost the war for conservatives

Let’s go ahead and call it. It’s 9:47 on the east coast, and with 54% of precincts reporting, North Carolina’s anti-LGBT Amendment One is passing by better than a 60-40 margin. “Pro-marriage” social conservatives are undoubtedly hailing this as a major victory for the “family” and the “sanctity of marriage,” but from where I sit the state’s reactionary forces have done little more than win the battle that loses the war. If I’m Mitt Romney’s advisors (and, despite ample evidence to the contrary, I’m assuming he actually has some), this is one I’d much rather have lost. Continue reading