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01:27 pm: Superversive Blog: Signal to Noise

Ever wonder why you are having such a hard time getting along with that once-dear friend who is now on the far side of the political Great Divide? This post might help bridge that knowledge gap.


noise noise_signal-mlab1_png_pagespeed_ce_b_GTiE6tAg

These illustrations are from an article on cameras that can be found Cambridge In Colour


Many years ago, I was playing in a roleplaying game known as The Corruption Campaign, along with my friend Bill of Doom. (Not to be confused with Uncle Bill).

Bill and I were involved in tricky negotiations some arrogant aristocrats (Princes of Amber). Sometimes, these went well. Sometimes, they went badly. But, after a while, I began to notice something.

Bill’s character, Stormhawk, was not a bloodthirsty guy, but he talked like an American. If Stormhawk disagreed with something, he would announce with almost no provocation, in a booming voice, “Kill them all!” or “Nuke them from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”

But he very seldom did attack anyone who was not an outright enemy.

On the other hand, if he liked something or offered someone help, he was very sincere, and he meant what he said.

The aristocrats we spoke with were exactly the opposite. They would make flowery comments that sounded kind or flattering, but they meant nothing by them.

But if they breathed a word of a threat, they were deadly serious, and they meant to carry through.

They thought we Americans were crazy, deadly people.

We thought they were insincere flatterers.


In radio, there is a phrase called signal to noise ratio. It refers to the difference between the desired information ( the signal) and the amount of background interference (the noise).

The problem Bill of Doom and I had when confronting the arch princes was: Incompatible definitions of what was signal and what was noise.

You see, to Stormhawk:

Kindness: signal

Threats: noise

But to the princes:

Kindness: noise

Threats: signal

The lessons learned playing this game (Don’t think D&D. Think “wandering around in your favorite novel with regular moral twists) have proven helpful in our modern world, because what I see when I watch my friends on different sides of the political spectrum is:

Incompatible definitions of what is signal and what is noise.

Let me give an example. Let’s say there are two young ladies, Hanna and Annah (Nice palindromes there, Annah and Hanna, but now that we’ve got across the point—that they are just the same thing in reverse—I’m going to write the first one Anna, for simplicity.)

Bear with me here. This is only an example.

Hannah is pro-life. To her, life is holy. She cannot understand how someone could murder a baby, at any age. Or how they cannot care for these helpless little ones who cannot speak up for themselves. She tries to make it clear to everyone she speaks to, but to her dismay, some folks out there seem to care a great deal about lesser life forms, but they don’t care about babies!

How could this be?

At first, Hannah just speaks to her cause, but people keep throwing the environment in her face, more and more. They care more about falcon eggs than they do about real living human beings—even if they are not breathing human beings yet.

Hannah gets so mad that she blogs: Look, I don’t care about the stupid falcons. They could all die for all I care! We’re talking about babies!!!

Next we turn to Anna.

So…Anna is an environmentalist. To her, nature is holy. She cannot understand how someone could mistreat this beautiful world—that we all have to live in! Or not be concerned for these poor creatures who cannot speak up for themselves. She tries to make it clear to everyone she speaks to, but to her dismay, some folks out there seem to care a great deal about producing more humans to mess up the environment, but they don’t care about falcons becoming extinct!

How could this be?

At first, Hannah just speaks to her cause, but people keep throwing anti-abortion arguments in her face, more and more. They care more about unborn lumps of cells than they do about real living and breathing creatures.

Hannah gets so mad that she blogs: Look, I don’t care about the stupid humans. They could all die for all I care! We’re talking about falcons!!!

Now, on that particular day, Hanna happens to read Anna’s blog, and Anna happens to read Hanna’s blog. Each had written a long piece supporting their side, but the end of the piece was the lines in bold above.

Two weeks, two months, two years later, what is the result? What has each young woman come away with?

Hanna doesn’t recall that she lost her temper and dissed falcons. She only remembers her impassioned plea for unborn life.

Anna doesn’t recall that she lost her temper and dissed human beings—after all, she is a human being. She only remembers her impassioned plea to save the helpless falcons.

But what do they remember about the other person’s blog? Only the last line.


Because to Hannah—babies are signal, and falcons are noise.

While to Anna—falcons are signal, and human beings are noise.

Ever wonder why the opposition—whatever side you are not on—only ever seems to attack and quote the outliners on your side? The most horrible folks? The most obnoxious comments? How they never seem to get the point? How the throwaway line you, or your favorite blogger, tossed off when you were pissed off is repeated everywhere, while the strongly-reasoned arguments are ignored?

This is why.

To them, that throw away line is signal—because its on the subject they care about. To you and your blogger friend, it’s noise.

So, next time you feel the urge to bridge the endless gap—and maybe talk to that crazy lunatic on the other side who used to be a bosom buddy—try this simple trick:

Pick the lines the other person says that upset you the most. Ignore them. Just pretend that they are not there. Pretend that they are static. Noise.

Because, chances are, that to him, it is just noise.

And you’ve been missing the signal, tuning it out, all along.

Then, listen closely to whatever he seems to think is the most important part–even if it sounds like mad nonsense to you. NOT, mind you, what he says at loudest volume—that is likely to be noise, too—the part he speaks about fervently or with reasoning.

From there, you can often find a bridge, a common point of agreement—because at the very least, you now know what the important issues actually are. To use my first example: you are speaking kindness to kindness or threat to threat.

Even if you can’t agree, at least you will be talking signal to signal, instead of noise to noise.

It’s difficult, but after a few tries, you’ll be a champion Great Divide bridger in no time.

Give it a try.

And if you run into trouble—you absolutely can’t find the other guy’s signal—don’t hesitate to swing by and ask for help.

If nothing else, it gives me a chance to prove that roleplaying games are good for something after all.




Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon. (link)

Tags: , ,


[User Picture]
Date:April 22nd, 2015 06:09 pm (UTC)
Ah, but in role-playing games, we are assuming identities that are often over the top or contrary to our own in some way. Most people can (hopefully!) separate themselves from their characters.

An exception is in "self" games. I am never going to be in a "self" game again. In a self game, particularly one set in a stressful period as most games are, people sometimes do horrible things. And you look at them and go, "Is that my friend? Did my friend really do that? He's not playing Sir Sillyman or Master Chief Sgt. MoreDoomPlease. He's Richard. This is really Richard."

Terrible things happen, and people act terribly under their own names because "it's just a game."

These "self-games," for me at least, preceded social media, but I see definite parallels. People find a freedom to express their views on their soapboxes (or someone else's) fully. They own these opinions. They will not back down--and there's the illusion that it's just a game. It's just the Internet. Equally bad results. There's a gamelike exhilaration going on. They are high. Out of their senses.
[User Picture]
Date:April 22nd, 2015 06:33 pm (UTC)
Bill and I were playing ourselves. For me, it was a wonderful game (still is...it's been going on for 29 years now) because I decided in that game to raise the moral high bar as far as I could raise it.

And if someone suggested to me/my character that the thing I was trying to do could be done in an even more moral way, I would add that to the mix and see if I could succeed even if I raised the bar even higher.

It was a delightful and amazing experience.

I played exactly the same way as Rachel, but since Rachel started in a world with no Christ, she started with a much lower bar.
Date:April 23rd, 2015 10:30 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:April 28th, 2015 08:51 am (UTC)
The difficulty is when the other person isn't willing to realize you are trying to be reasonable, listen, and learn.
[User Picture]
Date:April 28th, 2015 11:43 am (UTC)
Deliberate animosity is a hard thing to get around.

We can learn how to listen to those who want to talk to us but just do it differently. But those who don't want to talk to us--signal to noise detection won't help with that. ;-(
[User Picture]
Date:April 29th, 2015 02:48 am (UTC)
We've been LJ friends for several years now, and I don't presume to say that I "know" you, but in every interaction I've viewed online, you've always been kind and willing to listen to dissenting opinions.

I knew absolutely nothing about the Sad Puppies until this year. I knew of the Hugos but little about them, either. I'd followed George R.R. Martin's Not a Blog for years, and I remember him encouraging people to vote because the Hugos were their award (except now, they aren't). But, back then, I had a house full of kids which meant less time for reading and fewer dollars for sure! Now, the kids are gone, and I have more of both of the aforementioned. When I discovered that WorldCon would be held in the Midwest in 2016, I was excited and decided to get a supporting membership for this year and attend the next.

I didn't realize all the turmoil about Sad Puppies until after the nominations were announced. I came to the situation too late to nominate and unaware that my membership would be an affront to the TrueFans. I just wanted to participate in and give back to a genre that has been integral to my life. Instead, I find that I'm not welcome at the cool kids' table, which is ironically hilarious, because my science fiction ways were unpopular to the non-science fiction crowd of my youth.

As is my researching way, I took to the Internet to look at all sides. I went all the way back to the inception of Sad Puppies. I read "Making Light." I Googled, read, and digested from a wide spectrum from news sources (most very biased and inaccurate), authors' websites, Twitter, and Facebook.

I think what the TrueFans and Sad Puppies don't realize is that they are being watched by the great unwashed masses, hoi polloi, the little people of science fiction. Some of the behavior and rhetoric is so hateful and venomous that I regret my membership. Authors were saying that the new members didn't love science fiction; they were claiming that they didn't even read! Some were even saying stupid things like the Koch brothers bought my membership. TrueFans were disgusted by the thought of new members. They like the WorldCon being small and are actively against new members.

I'm rethinking attending WorldCon 2016. I'll wait to see what happens at Sasquan before I decide. If people are going to act crazy like a frenetic bag of cut snakes, I want no part of that fandom (or Fandom). I don't need to spend money to be ostracized, belittled, and hated. I'm sure I can get that for free, elsewhere!

The TrueFans are pushing the new members right into the Sad Puppies' doghouse. I wasn't a Sad Puppy, but if the TrueFans don't want me, they have proven the Sad Puppies' charge of insular exclusivity. When the TrueFans band together and decide as a bloc NOT to read the works and agree to vote No Award to Sad Puppy nominations, they've lost any respect or sympathy I had for them. When people advocate putting the Puppies "down," I'm horrified. When people write "basically if the "hero" isn't white and male, the Puppies will get all Sad at you and threaten to rape you to death. Like the good, tolerant humans they are, natch," I'm sickened. When an author opines the correct way to treat the Sad Puppies is "Well, we make fun of them. We refuse to play with them. We refuse to share our resources with them," I flash back to the petty games of the middle school mean girls' cliques.

[User Picture]
Date:April 29th, 2015 02:48 am (UTC)
Another thing that distresses me is how I feel about some authors now. I've always read anybody. I never picked books by genitalia, politics, or race. If I liked a book, I took note of the name of the author so that I could read more; if I didn't like the story, I avoided that author unless a friend tempted me to another written by him/her. Sadly, after reading some of the hateful comments, dripping with condescension and sneering with superiority, from some authors whose works sit on my bookshelves, I won't be able to enjoy their work in the near future. Perhaps, if the Hugos become more welcoming and less abrasive, I'll feel differently about those authors. I hate that, but I'm human, and when someone is toxic, my reaction is to avoid them.

On the other hand, there are authors with whom I was unfamiliar who have calmly and politely stated their viewpoints. I'm going to be looking for their books. I also respect authors who have stayed out of the fray.

That's my outsider take on the whole Hugo brouhaha. No matter what happens--whether the TrueFans decide to drop their animosity and embrace the new members or continue to vilify us--I'll still be reading and loving the genre.
[User Picture]
Date:May 1st, 2015 01:45 am (UTC)
the sad part is some writers, the effect is permanent. Once you've been primed to look for it, you can see them grinding axes in the fiction.
Date:May 2nd, 2015 07:41 am (UTC)


Sasquan will be my first Worldcon, and I've been viewing it in much the same manner. However, I'll also be attending as a member of a fan association, so if the hooraw gets too crazy, I have a retreat. If you go and find yourself being overwhelmed, come find The Royal Manticoran Navy. We'll help you get your mind off the unpleasant aspects :)

William Underhill
[User Picture]
Date:April 29th, 2015 03:07 pm (UTC)
I am so sorry for folks like you who got dragged into something that should have been cordial but wasn't. I do appreciate the time you took to find out the whole story!

I do have two brief comments, though.

1) I would not judge next year's Worldcon by this one. I know that the Baen fans are planning to turn out en mass next year...since it is closer to where many of them live...so it might be a very pleasant con. (That being said, I am hoping that Sasquan also turns out well.

2) For whatever my voice is worth, I would urge you to keep reading authors you enjoy, even if they are acting like jerks right now. A person's life is much longer than one squabble they get drawn into...and the whole point of Sad Puppies is lost if the quality of the story is not put before the person of the author. ;-)
Date:May 1st, 2015 05:10 pm (UTC)
I think what the TrueFans and Sad Puppies don't realize is that they are being watched by the great unwashed masses, hoi polloi, the little people of science fiction.

not quite true. the Sad Puppies have always known ( or at least hoped ) that the 'great unwashed' would be watching.

the reaction of the TruFen to SP1/2 was exactly what Larry said it would be.

the reaction of the TruFen to SP3 has actually surpassed any puppy expectation. accusing a white man who has been married to a black woman for 20 years of racism? accusing women of being men? accusing marxist-socialists of being RSHDs?

it's not that the TruFen waited until 2015 to jump the shark. they always have been shark jumping. it's just that they usually managed to keep it on the downlow so the MundaneFans never really noticed.
[User Picture]
From:Dusty Wallace
Date:May 1st, 2015 03:01 pm (UTC)

Bridging the divide

I like what you're saying. But you may want to tell it to your husband. Who says things like, "The Leftist are Victorians, just as stuffy, just as prone to pretend fainting and pretend hysteria, except that it is any slightest suggestion of normal, healthy, chaste sex-within-marriage sex which causes them vapors, sex based on serious babymaking; whereas anything that demeans the human soul and mars the image of God in man, they applaud."


"I have never heard of a group of women descended on a lesbian couple and beating them to death with axhandles and tire-irons, but that is the instinctive reaction of men towards fags."

Seems he's interested in making the divide larger.
[User Picture]
Date:May 3rd, 2015 02:15 am (UTC)

Re: Bridging the divide

My husband and I discuss this all the time. I often ask him to be more understanding of the other side...but like so many, he sees the phantom noise image not the signal.

That second comment was part of a sarcastic post. John thought it was so obvious that men did not desire to beat gay men that it would be obvious that he was being ironic...as obvious as if he had said: covering them with slugs and marshmallows.

He was surprised and annoyed when people didn't understand this.

Edited at 2015-05-03 02:15 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:May 4th, 2015 01:35 pm (UTC)
I actually thought of this post yesterday while lectio divina-ing. :) I'm making my way through the letter of James right now, and as someone who struggles with my temper, 1:19-20 really hit me between the eyes: "(19) Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, (20) for your anger does not produce God's righteousness." There's so much to unpack there that I've been coming back to it for days, mostly focusing on 1:20, but it occurred to me yesterday that 19 essentially sets up listening and anger as opposites. If we are "quick to listen," we're more likely to be "slow to anger," because we're more likely to hear the signal cutting through the noise and understand that they're coming from a place of good faith. Of course, not everyone is coming from a place of good faith--there are some odious human beings out there--but most people are, and listening can help us to see that.
[User Picture]
Date:May 4th, 2015 02:57 pm (UTC)
Lovely! That is really beautifully put!
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