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August 17, 2008

Lost clarity
Posted by Teresa at 03:10 PM * 66 comments

While helping Patrick find a word today (salonnière is the current candidate), I found a surprisingly well-written article on literary salons in NationMaster.com’s encyclopedia section. A good reference source is a joy forever, so I clicked through to the main page of the encyclopedia, intending to bookmark it. I was very surprised to discover it was a mirror site for Wikipedia.

The reason it surprised me was that I’d already summoned up the Wikipedia entry on that subject, read its cloddish opening paragraph, and moved on to see whether I couldn’t find something better elsewhere. Here’s the first paragraph at NationMaster.com:

A salon is a gathering of stimulating people of quality under the roof of an inspiring hostess or host, partly to amuse one another and partly to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through conversation and readings, often consciously following Horace’s definition of the aims of poetry, “to please and educate” (aut delectare aut prodesse est). The salons, commonly associated with French literary and philosophical salons of the 17th century and 18th century, were carried on until quite recently in urban settings among like-minded people of a ‘set’: many 20th-century salons could be instanced.
I have no problem with that, aside from the bit about “until quite recently.” The article that follows it is clear, decisive, and well-organized.

Here’s the first paragraph of the current Wikipedia version:

A salon was a reunion of men and women of intellect, gathered in the salon (drawing room) of a private home to participate in formal and informal discussions centered around a specific topic. A salonnière, the hostess of the salon, decided upon its central preoccupation which may include politics, literature, art, fashion or business.[1] The participants sought to increase their knowledge through conversation and readings, often consciously following Horace’s definition of the aims of poetry, “to please and educate” (aut delectare aut prodesse est). The term salon is commonly associated with French literary and philosophical gatherings of the 17th century and 18th century, though the practice continues today in many cities around the world.
More words, much less said.

A little poking around soon revealed that the NationMaster.Com entry was the Wikipedia entry until this past spring. The worst damage was done on 02 - 03 April, when one Tkehinde, using what appears to have been a shoehorn and an undergraduate research paper, rewrote the initial paragraph, added bits, rewrote other bits, re-ordered some sections, and added a lot of footnotes. Most of the “facts” are still nominally present, but it’s remarkable how much less clear and comprehensible the revised version is overall.

If it turns out that any of those responsible are people I know, I’ll apologize.

I’ve given up formally despairing of Wikipedia, so I’ll just recommend the difference between the two versions as an illustration of how little it takes to break a well-engineered piece of exposition. Maybe they won’t seem all that different to you. For me, reading the later version is like watching the last act of Noises Off.

Comments on Lost clarity:
#1 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2008, 05:55 PM:

I'm with you until your last sentence, Madame notre Salonnière. The last act of Noises Off is one of the finest pieces of literary clockwork it has ever been my privilege to see.

#2 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2008, 06:35 PM:

Teresa doesn't disagree with you, TexAnne--she was referring to what's happening in the last act of Noises Off, not making an invidious suggestion about the quality of the play itself.

#3 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2008, 07:00 PM:

Sigh. I've started to think of this as "Wiki decay", where good, concentrated, thoughtful work gets overedited into bad work. I suspect Tkehinde, btw, is not a native speaker of English; I don't think a native speaker would use "reunion" in that way.

#4 ::: Gag ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2008, 07:24 PM:
I suspect Tkehinde, btw, is not a native speaker of English; I don't think a native speaker would use "reunion" in that way.
The person who wrote that is probably a native French speaker, since réunion in French means meeting.
#5 ::: Matthew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2008, 07:27 PM:

This kind of thing happens a bit too much. Writing with personality and flow gets killed off because it's "over-familiar" and "unencyclopedic in tone" and is replaced by writing of unimpeded dreariness.

Too often, Wikipedia is a living demonstration of the fact that someone who thinks they know better doesn't always, and it's persistence, not knowledge, that pays off.

And I say this as a fan and enthusiastic contributor to the project.

#6 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2008, 08:59 PM:

Y'know how a camel is a horse designed by committee? A platypus is a beaver designed by wiki.

#7 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2008, 09:20 PM:

Oh, I see, Patrick. Sorry about that, madame! (Vacation's over tomorrow. As a result, I'm not thinking clearly.)

#8 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2008, 09:26 PM:

Further investigation leads to the French Wikipedia article on salon littéraire, the first sentence of which strongly resembles the first sentence of the kludgy English version.

Gah. When will people learn that translation is an art unto itself? I've been doing it for years, and it's hard.

#9 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2008, 10:48 PM:

I'm intrigued by the need for that word - is this related to the quest for tummler recognition ?

#10 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2008, 11:11 PM:

Avram at #6 writes:

> Y'know how a camel is a horse designed by committee? A platypus is a beaver designed by wiki.

This post considered unfair to platypuses/platypi/platypodes. Monotreme liberation now!

#11 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 01:24 AM:

Speaking of platypi, Theresa (Tiger Spot) and I were wondering a couple of things about them recently, and perhaps people here might know, since Wikipedia failed us: (1) They have milk glands, but no nipples. Do the glands just secrete milk continually, or is there some other mechanism for regulating it, and if so, what? (2) Platypi have ten sex chromosomes; the males end up with five X and five Y. How do they keep them straight so it's always five and five?

(Actually, when I did a Google-search to check my premises on the second question, I came across this article, which seems to indicate that the sperm end up either with the relevant five X or the relevant five Y, through what sounds like a not-at-all-understood mechanism. So, to modify the question: Do we actually know anything about how that works?)

#12 ::: Daniel Klein ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 03:26 AM:

I know we've done the Wikipedia vs Citizendium dance here before (in short: I'm an avid fan of the latter, but also realistic enough to see that it's just not taking off), but I've just had a Thought. You know how Citizendium has a special role for experts on certain subjects? Everyone gets to write, but when there is a dispute, the expert has the last word, and only the expert gets to flag the article as "done". Why not create an editor role? I remember a previous wiki discussion here that suggested the creation of a conflict solver role, to be filled for a limited time by people who do no writing/editing during that time. This would be similar: the editor would get to do no editing for content on the articles he assigns to himself, but in any style dispute, he'd have the last word.

Alternatively, there's knols. I'm sure you've heard of it--if not, it's Google's attempt to solve the Wikipedia problem. A knol is an article on any subject. What makes knols different from the current wiki encyclopedias is that every knol belongs to ONE person and there can be hundreds of knols about a given subject. Thus they will be horribly subjective, biased, and actually fun to read (or so they hope). Everyone can *suggest* edits, but it's up to the knol's owner to greenlight/incorporate them. Again we'll have to see how well it will be received by the interwebs, but I like the idea.

#13 ::: A.J. Luxton ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 05:01 AM:

I thought that smacked of the "translated from the French" style.

As such, I can forgive (a little) because at least they are writing on one of their own cultural traditions, however badly.

My partner John has a long and humorous dissection of how the "translated from the French" style gets emulated by native-English-speaking grad students, with horrific results. At one time in his life, he graded these travesties.

Foucault is a good example of the style in its natural habitat.

Fake Foucault is just headache-inducing.

#14 ::: Jason B ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 06:59 AM:

Fake Foucault is just headache-inducing.

The real thing gave me plenty of headaches too. It was worth the pain, but holy shamoley those were some grueling readings.

#15 ::: Adrian Smith ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 07:36 AM:

Alternatively, there's knols. I'm sure you've heard of it--if not, it's Google's attempt to solve the Wikipedia problem.

Or eat Wikipedia's lunch, not that that would necessarily be undeserved. Seems to have been pretty heavily colonised by medics so far. Don't click on "Genital Herpes", my advice.

#16 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 08:51 AM:

My first guess at the Wiki paragraph was that it was the result of someone just learning to summarize without plagiarizing. (Damn the thesaurus and full speed ahead!)

#17 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 09:54 AM:

My take on the Wikipedia paragraph was that the writer was trying to incorporate all the necessary primary knowledge into the text, e.g., the parenthetical definition of salon*, and the appositive definition of salonnière**.

I've noticed this tendency in technical writing by noobs, especially engineers who've figured out that their audience may not understand all the terms they use daily, who haven't yet realized that all that extra text creates traffic jams in the mind that impede the flow, and therefore the comprehension, of the text. The same people also seem to recruit prose the way Marines are recruited: they're looking for a few long sentences.


* Where I would be tempted to use a footnote or a link to a dictionary entry.
** Which, IMO, should have been done in a separate paragraph expanding on the role and consequences of her actions.

#18 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 10:31 AM:

a gathering of stimulating people of quality under the roof of an inspiring hostess or host, partly to amuse one another and partly to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through conversation and readings, often consciously following Horace’s definition of the aims of poetry, “to please and educate”

So, this site is a salon?

#19 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 10:38 AM:

Kevin Marks (9), Patrick was looking for an adjective to describe Jo Walton, who's another shaper and shepherd of good conversation. I hadn't thought about it in those terms, but salonnière would be a good addition to the collection of terms -- moderator, geisha, tummler, animateur, facilitator, troll whisperer, curator -- that have been suggested for people who do that thing with conversations. Shepherd might belong there too.

Speaking of which, I had a funny moment at the last Foo Camp I attended, during the crowded and lively two-hour session on the future of journalism. There were a lot of good thoughts and observations getting traded at fairly high speed, but the session was also getting a bit disorderly, verging on that stage where only the loudest and fastest can count on getting to speak.

I was watching all this from my unobtrusive spot on the floor, but when the noise ratio started to climb, I sighed, stood up, put on moderator body language,* manifested it through a couple more exchanges, and started directing traffic: It's your turn now. ... And yours. ... Yes, I see your hand, you'll be next, and you over there, you're after her. ... Hold off a sec, he's not quite finished. ... Now you. ... Okay, I'll allow that was a good interjection, but we're going back now to the person who had the floor. ... You -- no, I meant the woman behind you; you're next after her. ... Yes, you, the one in the corner who's had his hand up. ... And so on and so forth, all the usual moves.

There was nothing difficult about it -- people start behaving differently as soon as they're sure they'll get their turn -- but I was quietly laughing at myself for being halfway to a cliche.

_______________________
*To look like a moderator, hold your head up as though you're wearing a midsize Elizabethan ruff, and calmly keep watch on the gathering as though you're responsible for whatever happens there. It's the difference between a dog and a sheepdog watching a herd of sheep.

If you're ever at a large gathering and need to spot the organizers and/or police officers and/or designated lookouts, stand in a spot where you can see and be seen, turn into a moderator, and watch to see which heads suddenly turn in your direction. It's also good for looking like you belong in pulpits, behind rostrums, and in front of classrooms.

#20 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 10:39 AM:

Teresa:

The WP version sounds like someone threw a French-language encyclopedia entry into babelfish.

Randolph @#3:

Sigh. I've started to think of this as "Wiki decay", where good, concentrated, thoughtful work gets overedited into bad work.

I'm suddenly reminded of the victims of the cruiform parasites in Hyperion (Simmons, not Keats).

#21 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 10:56 AM:

11: Platypi have ten sex chromosomes; the males end up with five X and five Y.

They're more man than you'll ever be. (Also, they can kill you with their brains.)

#22 ::: John Chu ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 12:01 PM:

I was going to write something about how any text overworked will lose clarity. I don't think it's anything specific to wikis. It probably happens the most there because wikis practically beg you to overwork its text.

In this case though, that it was poorly translated from the French sounds more plausible (definitely more interesting). I was wondering about the odd use of "reunion", and now I know. Cool.

#17: I think world building in SF stories is an analogous problem. You're trying to get the reader up to speed without also ejecting him out of the text.

The problem isn't so much having long sentences as how you build those sentences though. The long sentence that opens the NationMaster.com version works. I think it's because, despite its length, its structure isn't very complex. i.e., it's easy to parse linearly. It doesn't bury important information in a subordinate clause which modifies the adverb modifying the adjective modifying the sentence's object, for example.

The current Wikipedia version actually has shorter sentences, but it's less clear. It doesn't present information when you want it. (e.g., do we really need the definition of "salonnière" while we're still learning what a salon is?)

Oh dear. I think something both Teresa and Debra Doyle said to me at VP two years ago just made sense...

#23 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 12:11 PM:

Teresa #19 Jo is indeed - she just got me to order 3 classic SF books to read via those Tor reviews of hers.
Could the Elizabethan ruff have been designed to get the wearer to perform the right body language?
A shepherd's crook and a ruff together sound ratehr episcopal.

#24 ::: Adrian ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 12:30 PM:

Jo is indeed a salonnière, but I would hesitate to call her a shepherd, considering how she is with actual sheep. (Batting them aside, calling "mint sauce!")

As for the use of the shepherd's crook in moderating a noisy gathering, the president of the university where I went to grad school once silenced a faculty meeting (briefly) just by using one metaphorically. He said, "I regard myself as the shepherd of this little flock, and the provost is the crook on my staff."

As for actual shepherd's crooks, I used to know a dairy farmer who had lots of them. He used them to move calves. At one point, he contributed one to our synagogue, for a Purim Shpiel, because everybody associated the shape with "The Gong Show."

#25 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 12:55 PM:

rea #18:

When it's not a saloon.

#26 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 01:45 PM:

joann @25:

Or Ceylon.

#27 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 02:09 PM:

Or a Cylon.
Or a silo.

#28 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 02:18 PM:

Moderator body language/behavior: I was on a panel titled, "History and Moral Philosophy" once (and never again), there was no assigned moderator.

I had arrived early and sat toward the middle of the table (the panel was, IIRC, six people), and just sort of assumed the job.

All the panellists were strong minded types, but someone had to keep the ebb and flow moving, lest it become a monologue.

#29 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 02:38 PM:

Serge 27: That's so low. You're being silly, but you're not being silly solo. You're about to sully the soul o' this place! So I'll act with celerity* to sally forth and sell you my Solonic suit.


*But not with celery.

#30 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 02:46 PM:

At the start of my postgraduate year's study in computing, we had a whole-class group exercise. It was the usual "escape from an island volcano" scenario, with multiple overlapping goals and a variable number of suitable boats.

I didn't realize until the end that I'd been organizing everything. I was just making sure everyone had their say, and trying to see how the various needs and priorities could be accommodated. Engineered a few compromises, built bridges, found common ground. For me, it was mostly about putting names to faces, starting to make friends. I didn't think much about the mechanics of the exercise after it was finished.

But they remembered, oh, they remembered, when it came time to choose the class representative. First nomination or election I've won in my life. (And a whole bag of trouble that was, too, but fun in its own way.)

Never happened again since. Nosiree, never ever not.

#31 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 02:54 PM:

What's needed here is a way to make it harder to change the text, the better (and maybe older) it is. Starting from nothing, lots of people edit articles, which mostly improve things (because they're starting with either no article, or a stub). That's the part of Wikipedia's history in which "entropy seemed to flow backward."

Later, you have some articles that are still incomplete, stubs, or that were thrown together quickly by non-experts in hopes that someone would improve them. But you also have some articles that were done by genuine experts, or that were written in an extremely clear and concise way. And editing still happens from all sorts of folks on all those articles--the low-quality articles are improved, on average (if only because the moderators can recognize and revert edits that make a good article crap), but higher-quality articles are degraded on average (if only because moderators either can't distinguish very good from okay articles, or because they don't like to revert edits that aren't actively bad/wrong/crap, but which simply make the article a little less well written or a little less informative).

What would be nice is some kind of ratchet. Once an article is pretty good, edits ought to only be accepted when they improve the article. I have no idea how to do that, it's probably not consistent with the basic Wikipedia philosophy, and maybe there's some reason why it just couldn't work. But it sure would be nice if there were a way to get it to work.

The stylistic and factual evaluations of the article are almost independent, too. It's common enough to have a factually accurate description of some technical subject that's all but unreadable, or an easily-read, well-written description that omits all kinds of important details and gets most of the rest wrong. Ideally, you'd like to see articles over time moving toward better-written and more factually correct, including (perhaps by reference) more important details, etc.

#32 ::: Matthew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 03:49 PM:

Some people are intending to use the "flagged revisions" feature that's forthcoming in MediaWiki (Wikipedia's underlying software) to do such a thing, but I don't have much hope for it.

I wholly agree with albatross; there's an average quality Wikipedia tends towards. If an article's worse than that (and many are), it will on average trend towards the average. However, if an article's better than average, chances are that future edits will trend it towards the average as well.

Articles only stay better than that if they're strongly curated by someone or someones who care. However, Wikipedia's nature is that the most persistent person or group at an article gets their way, eventually – not necessarily the most knowledgable or the best writer.

#33 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 03:55 PM:

A lot of the articles on historic topics in Wikipedia were seeded from the 1911 Britannica. You can occasionally see traces of that prose style persisting through the edits, like a palimpsest.

#34 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 04:15 PM:

albatross @ 31

Seems to me that WP and similar swarm sites are examples of evolution in action. The variation comes from the editing of pages; the selection is based on however the site resolves controversy over changes. Obviously there's sufficient variation, so it shouldn't be necessary to bathe WP in X-rays. The problem is having a reasonable selection function, one that converges to "good" text somehow. Think of it like that, and it least becomes obvious why some selection functions don't work.

#35 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 05:05 PM:

Teresa Nielsen Hayden @#19:

I'm sure you've seen the Far Side cartoon with all the sheep at a party and a dog in the doorway? "This party is a disaster! Nobody knows when to eat, where to stand...oh, thank goodness, here comes a border collie!"

#36 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 05:23 PM:

abi @ #30, that's happened to me twice. Once in a mock jury (put on by defense lawyers to test their case against "real people" before trial) and once on, of all things, a deep-sea fishing boat.

#37 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 05:24 PM:

Mary Dell:
  While I remember and like the cartoon, I'm not sure the implication is the best way to refer to our hostess <g>.

#38 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 05:28 PM:

John, 37: Border collies are small, beautiful, of sunny and even disposition, and ferociously smart. What's not to like?

#39 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 06:05 PM:

#38: They can be a real pain in the ass if they don't have sheep to herd, balls to chase, or etcetera.

They tend to self-employ in inconvenient ways.

#40 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 06:06 PM:

TexAnne @ 38

Hear, Hear! We had a border collie for 12 years; he was the most intelligent, even-tempered (as long as you weren't messing with his sheep — err, people) dog we've ever had, and we miss him terribly. My only regret was that we couldn't get him a herd of his own; he looked for things to herd, and was known to herd humans, especially children, other dogs, and even ants.

#41 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 06:11 PM:

Stefan Jones @ 39

Yes, the trick is to give them lots of exercise (I used to run 3-4 miles with him in the morning), puzzles to solve, and other work to do. Ours turned out to be a vermin exterminator; he would leave gifts of dead rodents by our backyard door.

#42 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 06:20 PM:

Stephen Brown ("SF Eye") told me that his border collie, before they got her another dog to herd, would line up twigs and sticks in the back yard (twig, stick, twig, stick).

Makes you wonder if they'd get into Soduko. Sudoku. Ah, that number puzzle thing.

#43 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 06:37 PM:

And besides, on the internet no-one can tell you're a dog...

#44 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 06:41 PM:

Stefan, is THAT what that is?!?!?!?

I've heard it on the radio, and I thought it was people pretending to be pigeons...

#45 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 06:49 PM:

TexAnne:
And, if not suitably occupied, have an incredible capacity for mischief. Oh, wait....

Teresa, given your behavior at foo camp (an uncontrolled group giving you an intolerable itch that you had to scratch, making your presence subtly but emphatically known, controlling group behavior by eye contact and body language) a good case can be made for titling you Border Collie of the Internet. As TexAnne said, what's not to like?
So, what's your opinion of Frisbees?

#46 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 11:29 PM:

TexAnne (1) -- The third act is a thing of wonder. What I had in mind were the events of the third act vs. what's supposed to be happening on stage. The second act is a lot like looking at the entry's history.

Matthew (5), I've seen it again and again. I wish there were a clickbox for "I think this article is very well written, and shouldn't be messed with by amateurs."

TexAnne (8):

Gah. When will people learn that translation is an art unto itself? I've been doing it for years, and it's hard.
It either takes a translator with uncommon talent and experience, or two people -- one to translate, and one to English the translation.

Daniel Klein (12), I don't dare respond to that without first asking a question: does Wikipedia ever get rid of a rule?

A.J. Luxton (13): On the whole, it looks like the French do better by the subject. They have what looks like a decent entry on Salon littéraire; a long and robustly detailed entry on Femmes et salons littéraires which is linked to the general articles on Féminisme and Femme de lettres plus the populous Catégorie Salonnière; and a solid article on Préciosité. Over on the English-language side we have the article on Salon I've already described, which has a section on The role of women but neither mentions nor links to Les Précieuses or the Blue Stockings Society; a very dull entry on Literary society which devotes one clause of one sentence to mentioning three Salonnières before getting down to its real subject, which is enumerating 18th and 19th C. literary societies in American colleges and universities; a decent article on the Précieuses (if you know to look for it); a scanty one on the Blue Stockings Society; and a barely mediocre entry on Women in the Enlightenment.

What's the state of the extant English-language scholarship?

Bruce Cohen (17): I believe you're right; and elegant, too.

Rea (18): It shares some characteristics with salons, though so far we've avoided bouts-rimés.

Mary Dell (20): At least I know now why the French hold so many reunions.

Brooks Moses, Ajay (11, 21): Five X, five Y, for platypi? That's just weird, like all those hexaploid and octoploid Rosaceae. I wonder what happens if one or two of the five get damaged?

John Chu (22): Oh, good. Thank you. Usually we only hear reports of Jim's lecture on plot setting off delayed explosions. The differences between the two versions of the Wikipedia entry bring up some of the same issues I was talking about in my lecture on exposition. Which lesson of Doyle's just lit up in your head?

Kevin Marks (23):

Could the Elizabethan ruff have been designed to get the wearer to perform the right body language?
I don't know the answer, but that's a very good question. Wearing court dress goes a long way toward forcing you to move like a courtier. To see that, look at court dance, which shortly becomes Baroque dance (which was still focused on court). It's big with the self-presentation. I know dance became politically important to some extent, but I don't understand what that meant.

(My two-minute course in better public speaking includes learning how to do at least the top half of a classical dance turnout, which means you're standing a member of the ruling class in a respectable Baroque painting. Not only will this give you the right body language for commanding the attention of an audience, but it'll straighten out your throat and windpipe, and shake off 90% of your pointless unconscious physical mannerisms. Also, other people who stand like that will notice you.)

It makes me wonder whether that learned set of movements was one of the ways members of the nobility differentiated themselves from the other classes. Dress was different from class to class, of course, and manners, and to some extent language. I know that different handwritings were taught; someone looking at one of your letters, assuming you could write, would have a good idea of your class and gender, and possibly your occupation. Personal physical movement might also have been a part of that system. It would suit its needs, being something you learned to do almost automatically, but couldn't learn quickly, so that parvenus who hadn't gotten the proper training would never get it right. Dance was elaborate, time-consuming, important, and above a certain social level nearly indispensable. Young persons received regular lessons, and they and adults devoted a great deal of time to practice. You don't do that with something that isn't genuinely important.

So, if one of the characteristics of the ruling class that no one else moved like they did, was that movement required, reinforced, or just emphasized by their clothing? And how would that relate to body language we still perceive as "person in charge"?

#47 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 11:56 PM:

Dance became politically important because Louis XIV liked it. That's it. Please the king by dancing, and he'll reward you with titles and offices.

Baroque dance rant begins here:

Please ignore Le Roi danse. It's entirely bullshit from the first frame to the last, not just the dance but everything else. For example: no dancer worth his or her salt would choose a marble practice floor, at Versailles or otherwise. (I've stood on the stage of the theater at Versailles. It's a nice, springy, danceable wood.) Nor would Louis have ever EVER gone shirtless in public. And as for his performance style, it's utterly wrong. Showing effort of any kind was tacky. In fact, one treatise calls the desired affect "controlled nonchalance." I've repressed the political machinations, but I remember being furious at the way this French movie had Hollywoodized everything. Costumes, music, dance, politics--grr. Horrible, horrible movie.

For a real idea of what Baroque dance was used for, check out the seduction scenes in Valmont. They're both brilliant and accurate.

#48 ::: Adrian Smith ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2008, 12:10 AM:

Also, other people who stand like that will notice you.

And approach you later, proffering secret handshakes.

#49 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2008, 02:17 AM:

Another thing that must have distinguished the social classes must have been the practicalities of wearing a sword. You have to be aware of where the scabbard is. There are places you don't wear a sword, but that space is still in your mind.

If it comes to that, learning fencing must affect how you move and the stance you take.

#50 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2008, 02:23 AM:

If nobody is leading or moderating, I'll accidently start doing it.

#51 ::: John Chu ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2008, 06:56 AM:

Teresa@46: Her lesson on "sentences that go clunk." I realized that when my sentences go clunk, that's a strong sign that other things aren't working either. (Or, more optimistically, declunking can address story issues.)

BTW, about classical turnout, I got similar advice, from one of my University's best lecturers, during TA orientation in grad school. He insisted on the bottom half of a classical turn out too though. We were to present ourselves in 4th position turned out. It's terrific when I remember. Not only does it shake off your unintentional movements, it lets make your intentional ones more clearly and precisely. It tied into his advice on floorcraft.
(i.e., the audience will pay more attention to some parts of the stage than others. If you want the audience to remember something, say it in a part of the stage they will pay more attention to.)


#52 ::: Nancy C. Mittens ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2008, 07:59 AM:

Two weeks ago, I dressed in "The Dress" at a Renfest. The dress is a confection of silk and velvet, with embroidery and hoops and a corset, period approximately 1550-1600. I love it.

It made me move slowly and gracefully. I was laced so tightly (vanity) I could not exert myself because I could not breathe enough to run or move quickly. The hoops forced me into smaller steps - I could not see my feet, so slower too. The corset enforced ramrod posture, and something triggered in my brain that slow, graceful arm motions were called for.

It was really amazing and fun, but not a way I'd want to live every day.

#53 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2008, 09:54 AM:

TexAnne @#47:

Please ignore Le Roi danse. It's entirely bullshit[...]

Gosh, everyone here in south Chicago seems to love Le Roi Danse, as you call it (admittedly, my French is rusty).

#54 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2008, 11:06 AM:

Teresa @46--absolutely, movement style was critical, and Dave is right about the use and wearing of weapons having its effect. So did horsemanship, when you stop and think about it. While dance is something that all classes did, peasant and working-class dances were different from those of the court--more boisterous, less constrained by the restrictions of clothing. Susan could no doubt say a great deal more on the subject, but I know just enough to know there were differences--look at some of Brueghel's painting of peasant festivities, and then contrast them with depictions of courtly dance in period art.

All of these things--the clothing, the intricacies of both etiquette and deportment (remember when people were still taught deportment as a useful social skill--or perhaps not, although the training Teresa has mentioned before in Mormon-style social graces for young ladies is all about that sort of thing. West Point still takes the trouble to teach cadets posture, as it's one of the factors in command presence we notice without knowing we notice it), the body postures associated with use of weapons and horsemanship, as opposed to arduous physical labor--these are all class markers. Castiglione gives a good overview when he talks about the training of the ideal courtier, and the ideal lady--and interestingly enough, finds good reasons for the ladies to be taught to fence, as well as dance and ride. He also makes an issue of the importance of sprezzatura--of excellence that does not seem studied or effortful in any way.

#55 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2008, 02:00 PM:

Dave Bell #49:

Forty years after my first fencing lessons, having only fenced twice in the last twenty-five years, I still have a very well-defined notion of which is my leading foot and which one is for starting to back up. If the actual physical situtation is counter to this, spectacularly clumsy things can result. (And I just now realized why this was.)

All of which makes me wonder just why it used to be that one component of dancers' training was fencing lessons, allegedly to make them more graceful.

#56 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2008, 02:48 PM:

Jeremy Keith uses 'shepherding' in describing Heather Champ of Flickr

Heather’s role is community manager. Sometimes she feels like a piñata—people beat you with sticks and you still have to give them candy. She’s helped out by a lot people; regular Flickr users.

Good guidelines really help: Don’t be creepy. You know that guy? Don’t be that guy. As Flickr has grown, the guidelines have stood the test of time really well.

#57 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2008, 04:10 PM:

joann: [re: fencing for dancers]

My WAG is that dancers' moves are almost always planned to a fare-thee-well while fencers need to move reactively. Being able to move gracefully while changing your movement in response to something unpredictable is a good thing.

I'm challenged in the opposite direction -- I have a very hard time learning movement sequences, but I'm good at balance games and slipping through a crowd.

#58 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2008, 04:12 PM:

One other thing our Border Collie left us that I forgot to mention. Our youngest son was in his middle teens when we brought the puppy home. Within a year, the stock answer to a parental request was, "You're not the Border Collie of me!"

#59 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2008, 04:19 PM:

One of the reasons for using fencing and dance as training for the body language of leadership, as opposed to using, say, acrobatics, is that the first two disciplines are involved with movement in relation to another human body.

#60 ::: Lexica ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2008, 06:02 PM:

Fidelio @ 54, regarding West Point teaching posture: A few weeks ago, my husband gave a dollar to a guy sitting outside the BART station asking for change. "Thanks!" the guy said. "Hey, which branch of the service were you in?"

Huh? thought my husband. "I wasn't, actually - why?"

"Your posture, man. You're standing up straight."

(Which is actually the result of the Egoscue posture alignment physical therapy we've both been doing, not of past military service.)

#61 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2008, 09:33 PM:

The first convention panel I ever moderated was the same sort of "someone has to" situation: there was one panelist who was overrunning everything and going way off topic. I decided to make the best of a bad situation, and accept that I wouldn't get to talk about the topic myself: I started moderating. That meant stopping her when she interrupted either of the other two people on the panel, and starting to call on audience members. I figured that this would get less resistance than interrupting her back to say my own piece. It worked. For all I know she went home and complained about me to her friends, but my goal was to make that panel work, not fret about my reputation in a corner of fandom that overlapped mine little if at all. (It probably helped that I was the only New Yorker on the panel: quiet I'm not.)

#62 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2008, 07:54 PM:

Bruce #34:

That's kind of the piece of what I was thinking that I hadn't been able to fit together yet. How do we build self-organizing systems that evolve toward continuous improvement? And can that be made to work even past the point where the moderators, or even many/most of the participants, can reliably distinguish between good and just okay articles?

I guess the selection function is limited in its judgement by the humans who vote or choose or whatever. The fine details of the way articles are added/edited/locked/deleted, edits are kept/reverted, disagreements are resolved, etc., are going to define the selection function. I suspect one problem with Wikipedia is that the moderators/admins are not typically experts in the subjects being discussed. That means that they have to implement some kind of selection in which they can't always distinguish whether an edit makes the article better or worse. That looks kind-of hard. And while they can presumably distinguish good from bad writing, their "formal style" rules mostly don't let them use that judgement in a worthwhile way.

I suspect a good first cut for this kind of article is that as the article gets older (since the last major rewrite, say), it should become harder to change (equivalently, easier to revert the edit). Perhaps this should also be weighted based on how many people have read the page, if that's somehow avaibable. I wonder if that would work....

#63 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2008, 12:09 AM:

I've done Court at the Faire for the past 16 years.

My garb affects my posture, carraige and general deportment. I've worn a sword at the Faire since I started, back in 1986. I've worn different classes of sword. All of them require one to be aware of the "backspace" they take up, but the rapier of the upper class also affects how one walks, because of how it the hanger is built it depends from the belt, and then suspends the blade in a series of billets; effectively a set of tiny belts.

When one isn't carying something, the off hand is always on it, keeping it from fouling in things/tripping people.

When carrying something, it has to be accounted for with hips and stride.

All of this makes it plain, from far enough away that the weapon isn't really apparent, if one knows how to wear one. Over time that soaks into one's very bones, so that mannerisms of being armed are part of default body language (I think this is how I spot those who are carrying concealed as often as I do, they "look" armed), and one gets the benefit of that level of class/power, even when one isn't wearing the sword.

Movement speaks volumes.

#64 ::: Calton Bolick ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2008, 08:56 AM:

Er, Wikipedia HAS a mechanism to push for greater quality, namely the Featured Article process and its attendant criteria, as well as the less-bureaucratic Good Article process. And yes, if an article so promoted decays in quality, it is liable to lose its ranking.

Not the greatest system, but it's not as if Teresa has uncovered a problem no one has noticed before.

#65 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2008, 07:58 PM:

Calton #64:

Do the articles that have been judged as good or featured become harder to edit somehow? I read a few of the featured articles, which seemed very good, but I noticed that they still seemed to allow editing. Assuming I made some trivial nonhelpful but not terrible edit, would it get reverted?

#66 ::: Jim Henry ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2008, 07:32 PM:

I've gotten involved in Wikipedia again lately, and have noticed this kind of decay in some of the articles I worked on a lot a couple of years ago, e.g. the articles on Shapeshifting and Esperanto; they're longer and have more information, but less well organized and IMO less well written than they used to be. I suspect that this is an effect of many editors making small incremental changes and only looking at the context of the paragraph or section they're editing, not the whole article; and when you're looking at your Watchlist to see what edits have been made lately to articles you care about, and look at the diffs since the last time you looked at the article, even then you tend to look at the local context. If an edit isn't factually wrong or incoherent, you might not notice that its effect on the article as a whole is bad simply because it's more information than necessary, or was added in the wrong place, or whatever. Once in a while an article needs someone to look at it as a whole and be ready to make global edits for clarity.

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