Friday, October 13, 2017

Nicknames matter - the quiet change from "Rocket Man" to "Little Rocket Man"

We know that words matter, whether spoken, written, or even the unspoken ones.

Words matter so much that humans spend countless hours debating the "correct term" for something physical or abstract. Open any paper on a random page, including the sports section recently, and you find numerous examples. In case an article or opinion piece does not explicitly define or delimit terms and their meanings, you can be sure that the reader comments section will make up for it - unless the comments function is blocked, which in turn is an unspoken statement by the publisher.

For example, did the German governing Christian Democratic Party just agree with its Bavarian appendix Christian Social Union on a ceiling for refugees to be allowed into the country?

Well, they did agree on a recommended maximum number of refugees, allowing the Bavarian hardliners to claim victory while leaving the promise of "no ceiling" made by current and future Chancellor Merkel unbroken.

Some labels are less obviously damaging and require historians or economists to tease out the underlying reality. Take the chippy "gig economy" in all its independent glory and self-determination. As it turns out, pre-industrial work was very much like today's gig economy, and today's auto rickshaw drivers in India work in the same basic gig setup as the Uber or Lyft drivers. Minus the web company that funnels customers to them.

One of the common tools of the word fighter is nicknames and derogatory labels. An older example is the label "death tax" used by American conservatives for the estate tax.

The most in our face labels, very literally when you call an American president the Orange Thing, are nicknames attached to a specific person. All it takes is swapping out one word against another, like for the death tax, or adding a loaded adjective, as was done to stigmatize a candidate as Crooked Hillary. 

The more elaborate version removes the person and highlights one or more traits of the person, for example The Orange Thing. Readers in 2017 will easily recognize the person so labeled. "Thing" is, of course, a derogatory moniker, depersonalizing a human. 

In professions where brawn and heroism are common descriptors, mainly in law enforcement and the military, nicknames associated with a certain level of aggressiveness are a standard of praise. Take the example of James "Mad Dog" Mattis, general and US defense secretary. Mad Dog would probably not be considered praise if given as a nickname to, say, a librarian or a math teacher.

Sometimes, nicknames go wrong.

What happens next is a tribute to the power of nicknames and to the importance of quietly fixing a nickname gone wrong.

That's where Rocket Man comes in.

The nickname Rocket Man for the leader of North Korea burst onto the stage when US President Trump used it in a speech at the United Nations this September.

Rocket Man - the term, not the man - posed several problems in addition to reminding the older folks among us way too much of the Elton John hit (link to the official music video here). Fans of the song lyrics might well have been wondering if the president was doing a triple-meta-slam of Kim Jong Un by alluding to the song line "high as a kite".

To the blogster, the real issue with Rocket Man was that it missed its negativity target. Rocket Man has some positive connotations, and even the context of the speech could not make the positive vibe go away.

Within a week or so, the blunder was fixed: Rocket Man was replaced with Little Rocket Man throughout the media. "Little" put the North Korean leader in his place, thus rectifying the image.

Just for the sake of completeness, calling the North Korean strongman Rocket Man goes back to at least 2006, when the British Economist magazine featured Jong Un's father on the front page under the headline Rocket Man.

Friday, October 6, 2017

More major German media sites blocking ad blockers - good riddance

Over the past few years, major German news sites have moved to denying access to folks who use ad blockers.

The principle is as simple as it is German: Unblock or pay, or we give you no access.

Nasty German tabloid rag BILD was the first of the majors, the blogster recalls. This one was a godsend. Finally, no more late night peek at the latest screaming headlines designed to rile up readers and stir anger and divisiveness.

More respectable papers followed, such as Sueddeutsche Zeitung, and more recently Spiegel Online. The funny things about Spiegel Online is that its international, i.e. English language, section is still accessible to users with active ad blockers at the time of this post.

Maybe they don't want to seem provincial, maybe they haven't gotten around to modifying the site.

In a little over a week, Frankfurter Allgemeine will be next. To their credit, they are nice enough to notify readers of the upcoming policy change.

Die Welt has a free section and a "Plus" section.  Economics weekly Handelsblatt refuses active ad blockers too.

What does this mean to the blogster?

Should it* be worried about missing insightful discourse or crucial news?

Absolutely not. There are still freely available German news sites, both general and specialized ones. To be honest, only a few authors of all these papers will be missed. Much of the news is not just predictable but also almost indistinguishable at times anyway, no matter if you read Spiegel or Frankfurter Allgemeine,
The huge German public television system has been receiving the blogster's contribution for years, paid grudgingly, but the blogster's household has neither a TV nor a radio. So, why not finally use some of the 'services'?

And then there is the small matter of not being limited to German or English. French and Spanish work just as well, and over the next few years, they will have the distinct advantage of not covering the populist right AfD excessively, while it will dominate much of the German native news.
Lastly, exploring other German news sources may offer the opportunity to expand the blogster's view of country and culture.

So, thanks for all the fish.

* Gender neutrality rules!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The day they stopped the press for the blogster

It will come as a surprise to readers that the blogster has a few published articles to its* name. They appeared in trade journals, the kind of slender glossy print matter that comes with membership in an organization of like-trained and like-minded individuals and entities.

One of pieces even made it into a book**, which led to arguably one of the nicest phone calls ever by a friend who enthusiastically blurted out "you got published again" before she caught her breath.

But this was not the piece for which they stopped the press.

That one happened a couple of years earlier, and it taught the blogster a several lessons. The story of the article is unremarkable up until the call by the journal's editor. One day, the blogster sat down and wrote a five or six pager about the kind of work it was doing at the time. In a fit of uncharacteristic assertiveness, the blogster sent it to The Journal***. Then it went off to some class.
Upon returning, an agitated companion said: "You had a call from the editor of The Journal about the article. She said she stopped the press and needs you to call her back today."


What's this about?

I wrote an article and sent it to them. 

You did what?

I wrote a piece and sent it to them.

Tense, the companion handed the blogster a post-it with a name and a number.

The blogster called, the editor answered and told the blogster how much fun the piece was. And yes, she liked it so much that she intended to bump another article to a future issue and print this one instead. Hence the urgency of the call. What regional chapter are you a member of, the editor asked.

I'm not a member of the organization.

Oh, you are not, the editor hesitated. The she added: Oh, well, I'll print it anyway if you sign the contract. As a member publication we don't pay authors, though.

The lessons came in the months following publication. The first one, closest to home, was that the blogster's companion never quite recovered from the episode, because, you see, the companion was supposed to be the super smart and assertive one.

The second lesson was peer feedback, which can be summarized in the perennial you can't please them all. Some in the field loved the iconoclastic take on aspects of the profession, others said it presented the field in a detrimental light. In other words, even experts take things personal.

Lesson number three would be: if you don't try you will never know if someone will stop the press for you.

* Gender neutrality is prized at the K-Landnews.
** Yes, there is some pride here.
*** We'll call it The Journal to avoid giving you details.