Believe it or not, I’ve had some questions about the blog in side correspondence lately. Like: What’s up with the new look and feel of the website? Who are Tim Peach and Brian Freeman, anyway? Why are the comments so long? How many people read this?
To find the answers, I sat down with Mark Grannis, the founder of the blog. What follows is an unedited transcript of the interview.
Q. So what is up with the new look and feel of the website?
A. I decided to change the format for two reasons: the increasing number of posts by other writers (about which I’m very happy), and the increasing use of “tags” on at least some of the posts. Our old format listed the tags and categories for each post at the top, which looked terrible. The name of the author was also crammed in there, obscured by all the tags. So, I searched for another template and this is the one I came up with. It’s far from perfect, though I think if I could just make the font smaller on the two outside columns I would like it much better.
Q. What are “tags” and “categories”?
A. The “categories” are the things on the right-hand side that organize the posts by general topic. Obviously, if you get too many categories the list isn’t useful anymore, so I try to keep those general enough that we’re likely to have a decent number of posts in each category. “Tags,” though, are used across the Internet so that you can find similar items even on other websites. They’re generally more specific than the categories, and not necessarily reserved for things you think you’ll write about again. WordPress (our blog host) used to treat tags and categories as if they were the same, but they recently saw the error of their ways and beefed up their support for tags. And although I ignored that change for a while, tags are used so widely that I eventually decided I should start tagging my posts.
Q. What does that have to do with the look and feel of the blog?
A. Well, I have a limited number of standard blog templates to choose from, and our old format listed all the tags and categories at the top of each post, all in a big jumble. The jumble obscured, among other things, the name of the post’s author. I didn’t want people to think one of Tim Peach’s posts was mine, so I changed formats.
Q. Who is Tim Peach anyway?
A. Tim Peach was my roommate for a couple of years at Georgetown. He was also our class valedictorian, which really goes to show if you know what I mean, but what he was really known for was his mouth.
Q. You mean his sarcasm?
A. No, I mean his mouth. He can actually open his mouth so wide that he can fit the entire circumference of a beer can between his top and bottom teeth. That may not sound impressive, but try it some time. Go into your break room at work and see if anyone there can do it. I’ve met a lot of people, but Tim is the only one I’ve ever met who could do that.
A. Brian Freeman. The main things you need to know about Brian are that he has perfect pitch and that he used to keep his pocket knife in a plastic bag when it was in his pocket, so as to prevent pocket lint from getting into the hinges. Surprisingly, this actually makes a difference. If you run into Brian, ask him to show you his knife and you’ll see. Oh, and coincidentally, Brian was the salutatorian of our class at Georgetown.
Q. So the valedictorian and the salutatorian are both writing now? What are you, some sort of class rank groupie?
A. No, or my own class rank might have been better. I don’t think I had any idea of Tim’s or Brian’s class rank until after graduation. And Brian looks perfectly normal and athletic, so you’d never really guess he was the salutatorian. Now Peach, you might guess.
Q. How did you find out about Brian’s perfect pitch?
A. Brian and I sang together in a group called the Chimes. We performed monthly at a bar in Georgetown called The Tombs, which is in the basement of a fine French restaurant called 1789.
Q. Why are you telling me that The Tombs is in the basement of the 1789?
A. Because it’s relevant to one of the answers I’ll give below.
Q. Was Tim Peach a Chime too?
A. No, but Dave Fitzgerald was. Is, actually.
Q. Is Wendy Gittings ever going to post again?
A. Yes. Soon.
Q. Is Brian going to keep posting?
A. Yes. And I just remembered one more thing about Brian, which is that he also enjoyed minor fame for his illustration of the concept of consequentialism, something I made rather a hash of in my post a few days ago.
Q. Yes, you did. How did Brian illustrate the concept?
A. Well, when Brian and I were seniors, he heard a couple of us talking about a really great course taught by Professor Daniel Robinson. It was called Forensic Psychology because Robinson was in the psychology department, but really it was philosophy, mostly an examination of the connection between personal autonomy and blameworthiness. Brian thought the course sounded good, and since it was the last semester of senior year he wouldn’t have a chance to sign up for it later, so he just started coming to listen to the lectures. And the lectures were quite a show. Robinson was an impressive intellect in a big frame, and he really commanded the attention of the room when he spoke. So one day Professor Robinson was inveighing against consequentialism in general, and hostage-taking in particular, and he asked the class to suppose that someone took over the 1789 and said they were going to blow it up unless the university expelled one particular student who had done nothing to deserve expulsion. What should the university’s response be? The class was silent, because no one particularly wanted to be the one whom Robinson put through the steps of the moral analysis, but Brian raised his hand and asked, “Would they blow up The Tombs as well?” Robinson pointed to Brian and said to the rest of the class, “You see? That is consequentialism. Blatant consequentialism.”
Q. You went to a lot of trouble to set up that joke.
A. That’s not a question.
Q. Sorry. Did you go to a lot of trouble to set up that joke?
Q. I thought so. How many people actually read what’s on the blog?
A. We have about 25-30 subscribers, and on any given day somewhere between 35-100 “hits” on the site (not counting mine or those of any other author who is logged in). I’d like to have more people chiming in with comments, and I’d particularly like for more of the comments to come from different perspectives. Of course, for that to happen, the readers we currently have would have to forward links to their friends and draw other people in. I’m not sure how much of that currently goes on. I suspect the occasional stranger who comments usually finds us using Google.
Q. Speaking of strangers, one of the unusual things about Reasonable Minds is that almost nothing is anonymous. Why is that?
A. I think the situations in which anonymity makes a conversation better are very, very limited — almost nonexistent. I know we have readers who do not comment for fear that their comments would be unfairly associated with an employer, or a spouse, or a spouse’s employer, or some other affiliated organization, and that’s too bad. Anonymity would be a way around that. But there are substantial downsides. For one thing, civility takes a real beating; I don’t think anyone who has spent any time in the blogosphere has the slightest doubt that anonymity leads people to say things they would never say to someone face to face. And although I can’t prove it, I think anonymity leads some people to say things they don’t even believe. On law blogs, for example, one often gets the sense that anonymous correspondents are just writing snarky things because they like being snarky, and they really don’t care whether what they’re saying moves the discussion forward at all. That hasn’t been a problem so far on this blog, which is why I do not actually require readers to log in before they comment, but if the tone of the conversation ever headed south we’d have to fix that.
Q. Another unusual thing about this blog is that the comments from readers are often as long as or longer than the posts to which they respond. Did you intend for it to be that way?
A. No, I honestly didn’t, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, a long comment indicates that the post raised some meaty issues, and I certainly like it when people dig into those instead of just letting them sit there or admiring them from a distance. But on the other hand, I don’t want people to think they have to hit the library before they comment on something. I guess, as usual, my preference is for both/and. I don’t want people to think they have to choose between writing eight paragraphs or nothing at all, but I also don’t want to inhibit people from writing eight paragraphs if that’s what it takes to engage critically and respectfully.
Q. How long does it take to write a post?
A. It varies widely. I think most of the time is really in the reading rather than in the writing. And if I’m just passing along some interesting article by someone else, with a quick comment of my own, that sort of post only takes a few minutes. But if I’m writing something longish, with links to other sources and topic sentences and a clearly stated thesis and possibly even some research, it could take hours, and the hours might be spread out over a week or more until I feel like things have come into focus. I have some unfinished drafts that I started months ago that just never ripened for one reason or another.
Q. Do you often mix your metaphors like that?
A. Sadly, yes.
Q. What should readers do if they’d like to write a post instead of commenting on one of yours?
A. Send an e-mail to mark at reasonableminds dot org.