LINGUIST List 2.457

Tue 03 Sep 1991

Disc: Flaming and Colorless Green Ideas

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  1. Ellen Prince, fyi: flaming revisited
  2. , colorless green ideas

Message 1: fyi: flaming revisited

Date: Sun, 01 Sep 91 02:30:28 -0400
From: Ellen Prince <ellen%central.cis.upenn.eduRICEVM1.RICE.EDU>
Subject: fyi: flaming revisited
 Date: Tue, 27 Aug 91 21:11:00 -0600
 From: (Charles Forsythe)
 Subject: Flaming makes the mainstream media (again, I guess)
FLAME THROWERS: Why the heated bursts on your computer network? by Doug
Stewart (copied without permission from Omni magazine Sept 1991 issue)
"You are a thin-skinned reactionary jerk," begins the computer message sent
from one highly educated professional to another. "I will tell you this,
buster, If you were close enough and you called me that, you'd be picking up
your teeth in a heartbeat." There follows an obscene three-word suggestion in
screaming capital letters.
The writer of the above message, sent over the Byte Information Exchange, was
apparently enraged after a sarcasm he'd sent earlier was misinterpreted as
racist. In the argot of computers, his response was a "flame" -- a rabid,
abusive, or otherwise overexuberant outburst sent via computer. In
networking's early days, its advocates promised a wonderful world of pure
mind-to-mind, speed-of-light, electronic conversation. What networks today
often find instead are brusque putdowns, off-color puns and screenfuls of
anonymous gripes. The computer seems to be acting as a collective Rorshach
test. In the privacy of their cubicles, office workers are firing off
spontaneous salvos of overheated prose.
Sara Keisler, a social psychologist at Carnagie Mellon University and Lee
Sproull, a Boston University sociologist, have observed that networking can
make otherwise reasonable people act brash. In studies originally designed to
judge the efficiency of computerized decision-making, they gave small groups of
students a deadline to solve a problem. Groups either talked together in a
room or communicated via isolated computer terminals. The face-to-face groups
reported no undue friction. The computerized sessions frequently broke down
into bickering and name-calling. In one case, invective escalated into
physical threats. "We had to stop the experiment and escort the students out
of the building separately," Keisler recalls. Kiesler and Sproul documented a
tendency toward flaming on corporate electronic-mail systems as well. At one
large company, employees cited an average of 33 flames a month over the email
system; comparable outbursts in face-to-face meetings occurred about four times
a month.
Keisler and Sproull attribute the phenomenon largely to the absence of cues
normally guiding a conversation -- a listeners's nod or raised eyebrows. "With
a computer," Keisler says,"there's nothing to remind you there are real humans
on the other end of the wire." Messages become overemphatic -- all caps to
signify a shout; "(smile)" or ":-)", a sideways happy-face, to mean "I'm
kidding." Anonymity makes flaming worse, she says, by creating the equivalent
of "a tribe of masked and robed individuals."
In real life, what we say is tempered by when and where we say it. A remark
where lights are low and colleagues tipsy might not be phrased the same under
flourescent lights on Monday morning. But computerized messages may be read
days later by hundreds or thousands of readers. Flaming's ornery side is only
half the picture, says Sproull, who co-authored _Connections: New Ways of
Working in the Networked Organization_ with Keisler. "People on networks feel
freer to express more enthusiam and positive excitement as well as socially
undesirable behavior," she says. Sproull finds it ironic that computers are
viewed as symbols of cool, impersonal efficiency. "What is fascinating is the
extent to which they elicit deeply emotional behaviors. We're not talking
about zeroes and ones. People reveal their innermost souls or type obscenities
about the the boss." What, she asks, could be more human?
------- End of Forwarded Message
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Message 2: colorless green ideas

Date: Tue, 27 Aug 91 03:42 EST
Subject: colorless green ideas
Bert Peeters asked about translations of Chomsky's famous sentence
"Colorless green ideas sleep furiously". While I don't have any
translations, I do have the results of a competition held several
years ago at Stanford:
 Date: Wed 30 Oct 85 23:02:50-PST
 From: Paul Roberts <ROBERTSSU-SUSHI.ARPA>
 Subject: Colourless Green Ideas
 [Excerpted from the Stanford bboard by LawsSRI-AI.]
For the Literary competition set on Christmas Eve you were asked to compose
not more than 100 words of prose, or 14 lines of verse, in which a sentence
described as grammatically acceptable but without meaning did, in the event,
become meaningful. The sentence, devised by Noam Chomsky, was:
colourless green ideas sleep furiously.
[...] Competitors rose to this challenge good-humouredly and in force....
 It can only be the thought of verdure to come, which prompts us in the autumn
to buy these dormant white lumps of vegetable matter covered by a brown
papery skin, and lovingly to plant them and care for them. It is a marvel
to me that under this cover they are labouring unseen at such a rate
within to give us the sudden awesome beauty of spring flowering bulbs.
 While winter reigns the earth reposes but these colourless green ideas
sleep furiously.
 C. M. Street
Behold the pent-up power of the winter tree;
Leafless it stands, in lifeless slumber.
Yet its very resting is revival and renewal:
Inside the dark gnarled world of trunk and roots,
Cradled in the chemistry of cell and sap,
Colourless green ideas sleep furiously
In deep and dedicated doormancy,
Concentrating, conserving, constructing:
Knowing, by some ancient quantum law
Of chlorophyll and sun
That come the sudden surge of spring,
Dreams become reality, and ideas action.
 Bryan O. Wright
Let us think on them, the Twelve Makers
Of myths, trailblazing quakers
Scourging earthshakers
Colourless green ideas sleep furiously
Before their chrysalides open curiously
Anarchy burgeons spuriously
Order raises new seedlings in the world
By word and gun upheld
The scarlet banner is unfurled
The New Country appears
Man loosens his fears
The New Dawn nears
Recollect our first fathers
The good society in momentum gathers.
 ("recently discovered sonnet by Alexander Blok")
 translated by Edward Black
(and the winner:)
(got 50 lbs.)
Thus Adam's Eden-plot in far-off time:
Colour-rampant fowers, trees a myriad green;
Helped by God-bless'd wind and temp'rate clime.
The path to primate knowledge unforseen,
He sleeps in peace at eve with Eve.
One apple later, he looks curiously
At the gardens of dichromates, in whom
colourless green ideas sleep furiously
then rage for birth each morning, until doom
Brings rainbows they at last perceive.
 D. A. H. Byatt
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