At Unbearable At-ness of “@”

Over on her LiveJournal, Seanan McGuire talks about people using the “@” symbol in front of her Twitter alias when they talk about her on Twitter and then being surprised that she might respond, despite the fact that “@”-ing someone’s Twitter name explicitly means that your comment will show up in their reply feed — i.e., that you’re directly letting them know you are discussing them. The basic gist of Seanan’s piece, as I understand it, is that “@”-ing someone is the same as inviting them to participate in the conversation; if you didn’t want to have them in the conversation, you shouldn’t have issued the invitation.

I think Seanan’s basically correct about this. Quasi-public individuals, like authors, should accept that people are going to talk about them and their work online, and that by and large those conversations don’t need the subject of the discussion to pop in and add their own two cents. They should exercise good judgment, in short, admittedly something that authors are not always good at. But if someone is going out of their way to make sure the person knows they are being discussed, using a mechanism that they know is designed to connect that person to the discussion, then it’s disingenuous of them to then act surprised when the subject of the discussion shows up.

(I feel the same way when people title a blog post “An Open Letter to [Insert Name]” and then get huffy when [Insert Name] shows up or otherwise responds. Dude, what did you expect? You posted an open letter to them. Surely you understand that an open letter to some person is actually still a letter to that person? You don’t? Well, surprise! File that one under “words have actual meanings.”)

The way I’ve set up my Twitter client, and because I have a large ego, I pretty much see every reference to my name. My general rule of thumb is to not comment to the people talking about me without the “@” sign, since it’s about me but not to me. I might respond when I think it’s appropriate, but to be honest it rarely is. When people use the “@” sign, I assume they meant for me to see the comment, and I feel free to respond.

I don’t respond to every “@” message, because then I wouldn’t have much other time left in my day, but I could. If the fact of my responding annoyed someone, at the very best, I would slot them into the “people who don’t really understand how to work the Twitters” and then mute them henceforth so I no longer have to see them use Twitter incorrectly. Which I assume would make both of us happy (they are likewise free to mute or block me, which I suspect will have the same happy outcome).

In short, if you’re on Twitter, don’t “@” me (or indeed anyone) if you don’t want to accept the possibility that we might respond. We might, and it’s perfectly correct for us to exercise that option. If you don’t want me to talk back to you, don’t talk to me to begin with. Because if you do, I just might. Thanks.


All Hail Mayonnaise

And just in case anyone thinks I couldn’t do it, here’s a piece I did in 1999, in which I crowned mayonnaise as the Condiment of the Millenium:

Mayonnaise. What, you thought I was going to give it to catsup? Catsup is vile stuff, I tell you — originally made from fish brine. Yes, fish water. Enjoythat on your fries. These days in America catsup refers exclusively to the tomato variety (thus the lame “Isn’t ‘tomato catsup’ redundant?” crack from the ill-educated posing as the ironic), but in the rest of the world, you’ll find catsups made from mushrooms, oysters and unripened walnuts. And here you thought catsup couldn’t get any worse.

Well, okay, you say, but maynonnaise isn’t any better. Off-white and pasty, it’s an ill-flavored goo that’s somehow managed to nudge its way into our food supply. Its provenance is unreliable; most of us know it’s made from eggs, but we couldn’t tell you the process, except to suggest that the eggs that are used to make mayo are being karmically punished.This is what you get for carrying salmonella in the last life.

And then there’s the consistency: Not quite a liquid and not quite a solid. It’s like humiliated gelatin. There’s actually a scientific word for materials in this state — thixotropic — and mayonnaise shares this state with quicksand and drilling mud. And you wouldn’t want to put either of those on your sandwich.

Granted. Mayonnaise can be a horrifying concoction. With the possible exception of headcheese (the normally discarded parts of animal carcasses, suspended in their own disturbingly sinewy aspic — big in Scandanavia, which goes to explain the unusually high suicide rate) there is no single foodstuff as nauseating as warm mayonnaise. My gag reflex goes to DEFCON 3 just thinking about it.

And yet. Mayonnaise has a secret — indeed even noble — past. Like Eastern European royalty, ejected from their palaces by the glorious peoples’ revolution and forced to live the remainder of their lives in genteel poverty in a New York hotel, hocking their jewels headpiece by brooch, their princelings attending — the horror! — public schools, mayonnaise has come far, far down in the world. There was a moment, not entirely shrouded in the mists of time, when mayonnaise was a celebrated sauce, and not just some glop designed to ease sandwiches through peristaltic motion.

The time was 1756. The place: Mahon, a city on the Spanish island of Minorca. The occasion: The capture of the city by the forces of Louis-Francois-Armad de Vignerot du Plessis, duc de Richelieu, and the expulsion of the hated English from that place (what were the English doing on a Spanish island? Hey, it’s Europe). After a hard day beating the crap out of the English, Louis decided it was time to celebrate and ordered his chef to whip up a feast.

The chef decided to make a cream sauce for the meats he was making, but then discovered, to his horror, that there was no cream to be found. Sacre bleu! Showing the improvisatory spirit that can only be brought on by sheer panic, the chef grabbed some eggs and some vegetable oil, put them together, grabbed a wisk, and begun to pray. The result: Mayonnaise, named for the captured city.You decide whether God truly answered that prayer.

The French, perversely, celebrated the discovery, and used it for the basis of a number of sauces and dishes. Mayonnaise verte, with puréed green herbs. Sauce rémoulade, with anchovies, pickles, and capers. Chaud-froid, created when mayo meets aspic. Sauce aoli from Provençal, where the secret ingredient is garlic — and love! It was the taste for aristocratic palates — at least until those palates were severed from the rest of the digestive system during the French Revolution.

Mind you, even today, you can still find mayonnaise used for its first and most elevated purposes. But those moments are few and far between. Most mayonnaise will suffer a far more prosaic fate. Some will be tarted up as a salad dressing, perhaps Russian (so named because the first versions featured caviar), or Green Goddess. It’s like mayonnaise in drag. There’s no shame in it, though, and at least it’s far better than being slathered on a Whopper somewhere on Interstate 10, where your fate is to be consumed in wolfing bites by a speed-ragged trucker who would think that Chaud-froid is that penis-envy dude, were he to think of it at all. Which he wouldn’t.

Oh, yes, mayonnaise has pride. You think of it only as a thick, gummy paste designed to hold your Wonder Bread in place, but it’s known better days. It was meant for finer things than to be a Belgian dipping sauce for french fries (really, what the hell is wrong with those Belgians?). It is painfully aware that adding a dash of paprika during a late stage of processing does not, in fact, make it a “mirace whip.”

And yet, it suffers in silence, accepting your derision. It knows it’s not your fault. The American educational system has no place for the secret history of mayonnaise. It’s accepted its fate with dignity. Mayonnaise does not weep for what could have, should have been. It’s happy just to do its job, quietly. Go ahead and use it in your macaroni salad. Sure, it’s no lobster mayonnaise. But beggers can’t be choosers.


How the Shutdown Affects Me

Question from the gallery:

Now that you’ve written about the shutdown, can you tell us how it’s affecting you personally? How will the debt limit issue affect you, if we default?

With regard to the shutdown, it’s not really affecting me directly (yet). The only federal government service I use directly on a regular basis is the US Post Office, which is up and running because it’s funded outside of taxes. Everything else the federal government does for me is at least one step removed from my wanderings during the day, so as a practical matter I don’t yet see or feel the impact. I don’t suspect this will last if the shutdown drags out, because the federal government underpins quite a lot of the functioning of the US, and those holes will show up more frequently, and I suspect will become more alarming at an increasing rate.

One step removed, I know a fair number of people who are federal government workers or have businesses that rely on the government being up and running in order to function (and for them to get paid). These folks obviously have it worse off than I do at the moment. Congress has said the federal workers, at least, will get paid for all the time they’re furloughed, which is nice, but in the meantime they’ve still got bills to pay, etc.

Also, here in Bradford there are a number of people, adults and children alike, who use the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which is substantially funded through the federal government. The Ohio Department of Health notes on its Web site that the program is funded through October. After that, things could get tight. We already donate to local food banks and charity programs here in town, so we’ll keep doing that.

With regard to a debt limit default, well, like a lot of people I have a 401(k) and other market-engaged retirement accounts, and I don’t like thinking what a default will do to the market. The only “good” thing about that is that I still have at least 25 years until I retire (to the extent that one retires from my particular line of work) so there’s a good chance this immediate stupidity will be flattened out over time.

That said, in the wake of the first US debt default ever and the resulting financial chaos that will ensue from it, to a very real extent we’ll be in uncharted territory afterward. The only thing that I’m fairly certain about is that the folks in Congress and out of it who are currently trying to suggest that we’ll just shake off the default as if it were no big deal are both wrong, and of course monumental hypocrites, as in, if it really were no big deal, they wouldn’t have maneuvered to use it as leverage to force concessions out of Obama. Simply put, it is a hell of a big deal, they know it, and the end result isn’t going to be good for any of us.

The short version of all of the above is that I’m in a good short-term position not to have either the shutdown or the default affect me directly — but the long-term fallout will affect me like it will everyone else. If this were a flood, I’d be on high ground. But if the flood keeps coming, sooner or later I’m going to get soaked like everybody else.

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