Tapping on the aquarium glass?

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The most recent Partially Clips strip:

(Click on the image for a larger version.)

This is an odd metaphor, if you think about it. We're fish in a tank; the journalism-major science writer is a human being, much more intelligent and powerful, who is attempting to communicate with us by primitive and ineffective means. I guess it works if you frame it so that the science writer thinks of the audience as having roughly the intelligence and attention span of aquarium fish.


  1. Polly Glot said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 10:00 am

    I do wish people could be bothered to redraw the pictures for each frame. Honestly, this one even cut-and-pasted the striped fish rather than drawing two.

    [(myl) I do wish people could be bothered to spend a few seconds looking into things before expressing their opinions in public. The stated premise of Rob Balder's Partially Clips strip is "Three panels, the same piece of clip-art in each panel, balloons added for speech, thought, and narration".

    Not only does the picture not change from frame to frame, but Rob doesn't even draw it, he just selects it. It's "clip art" plus "speech, thought, and narration" — "PartiallyClips", get it? In his "Welcome New Readers" page, Rob explains at greater length:

    I write PartiallyClips and I put it together graphically, but I do not draw it. I use royalty-free clip art, and you will quickly notice that the same piece of art is used without modification in each of the three frames. I sometimes get compliments on my art, and I never know how to respond. One guy even invited me to illustrate his book…on stupidity.

    Art is important to many webcomics and webcomics readers, but it's not a big part of what I'm doing here. The creators who use pens sometimes like to bash the ones who use sprites, MS Paint, clip art or other technological shortcuts. But the key to enjoying webcomics is appreciating them for what they are, not slamming them for what they aren't. This is just a gag strip. So laugh, damn you.

    You might not like the premise, but don't complain that the artist does what he set out to do.

    For my part, I think it's a clever idea, carried out in an amusing way. ]

  2. Victoria Martin said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 10:12 am

    I thought the point was that the article the journalist produces conveys no more actual information to his audience than tapping on the glass conveys information to the fish, although the taps, like the article, briefly attract attention. In other words, science articles as written by journalism majors are fundamentally pointless (and not journalism majors are to their audience as human beings are to pet fish).

  3. Grep Agni said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 10:27 am

    All PartiallyClips strips have the same image repeated three times. C.f. Dinosaur Comics, where the picture sequence is always the same for every comic.

    Re Mr. Liberman's analysis: I read this as "tapping on the glass annoys the fish as much as reading an article by a journalism major does." In other words, the science article is beneath the intellectual level of the fish.

  4. Mark P said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 10:37 am

    I guess I understood the metaphor fairly literally. Tapping on the aquarium glass is jarring and annoying. In the earlier frames, the ichthyologist already seems to consider the process annoying.

  5. Aidan Kehoe said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 10:42 am

    I’m with Victoria; I read it as a criticism of the communicative skills of the average journalist when it comes to scientific topics.

  6. Mark Liberman said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 10:46 am

    Aidan Kehoe: I’m with Victoria; I read it as a criticism of the communicative skills of the average journalist when it comes to scientific topics.

    I agree, that's clear. The question is, how is that criticism communicated by the "tapping on the aquarium glass" metaphor?

  7. Sili said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 10:47 am

    I find it hard to believe that prof Liberman haven't already thought of this – particularly since he's a Pharyngula reader (if not Pharyngulista).

    The point is likely one of deliberately overthinking the metaphor.

    I guess that some "flaky humanities graduates" do think of their audience as having the attentionspan of zebrafish, though.

  8. Confuseddave said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 10:51 am

    Simile, surely?

    My interpretation (as a scientist) was that the reader would be aware that the strange and distorted creature on the other side of the glass – apparently a different species – was trying to communicate *something*, but all that came through was meaningless, disorientating and somewhat irritating noise.

  9. Confusing Science With Religion | Thinking Christian said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 1:07 pm

    […] From the comic strip Partially Clips, via Language Log. […]

  10. Nathan Myers said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 1:15 pm

    Is this a good time to post a link to my favorite partiallyclips strip ever?


    Back on topic, and similes aside, doesn't Mark's fish strip use the word "dutifully" in an odd way?

    More precisely on topic, I read the strip as the ichthyologist equating not the reading public, but himself, with the fish. He's anticipating how annoyed he'll be when the article comes out.

    @Polly: Sorry, you're wrong. PC is among the best strips on the web. It's one of a new genre; wondermark.com is a superb example, that has made the jump to print.

  11. Peter Howard said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

    I don't think the metaphor (or simile) stands up to close scrutiny, though this doesn't matter much for the joke. If the fish are naive readers, who take what the science writer says at face value, then the irritation or annoyance point doesn't work. But if the fish are scientifically literate readers, who realise that the article is simplistic or inaccurate, then the parts about them having low attention spans, or being tapped at by a more powerful and intelligent agent don't work. So either way, the metaphor/simile falls over. That it doesn't matter is because the focus of the joke (as I see it) is that the science writer twigs that the tapping explanation is facetious, but still doesn't work out that the reference to narcoleptic fish might also be a wind-up.

    (My knowledge of the prevalence of piscine narcolepsy is, sadly, negligible, but I think we're supposed to assume, for the purposes of the joke, that it doesn't happen.)

  12. Humble Reader said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 3:44 pm

    I don't think the metaphor (or simile) stands up to close scrutiny,

    Isn't that part of what makes it funny, though? The journalist annoyingly expects the scientist not only to intuit what the fish feels, but also to use his theory-of-mind to translate this feeling to us by comparing it to how we feel about something. Instead, he pretends that his theory-of-mind is so shattered by the ridiculous question that he temporarily believes fish are just as annoyed by science journalism as he is–as if he believes that fish feel exactly the same way about having the glass tapped as they do about (in his fantasy or delusion) reading science journalism. So the simile is between the real fish feeling and the fantasized fish feeling (which corresponds to how the scientist feels).

    I don't think it matters whether the fish are naive or literate readers–the point is that the scientist is using the weird simile as a back-handed way of being literal. The scientist wants him to think me=fish=me (how would I feel if I were a fish but also still me) but he actually thinks fish=me=fish (how would a fish feel if he were me but still a fish).

    Or something like that. Point being that his the weirdness of the metaphor seems like part of what makes it funny.

  13. Mateo Crawford said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 6:05 pm

    I'm sorry you didn't explain the overall premise beforehand.


    To be told not to complain when the artist says his drawing is rubbish, 'cos he doesn't care about the drawing and he's therefore followed his intention, might conceivably be called rational, but it's still a silly position to take.

    You're still missing the point. (In fact, it half seems as though you still think Balder is the artist. I'm not sure how much of your comment is to be taken metaphorically.) We aren't giving Balder a pass because he admits that the art is frequently very bad; that the art is frequently very bad is part of the appeal of the strip, insofar as it's interesting to watch Balder spin straw into gold, and the gag often turns on e.g. a revelation in the third panel that provides context for an otherwise inexplicable feature of the clip. If Balder drew the comic himself, or used only 'good' clip art, many very good strips would be impossible, or at least less good. This particular strip, for example, is funnier (to me) because the fish look like nervous wrecks, and because this makes no sense out of the context of Balder's tiny story.

    On topic: I read the punchline as being not about the fish's perception of the journalist, but about the journalist's motivation: tapping the glass is basically vain, pointless and kind of sadistic.

  14. Mark Liberman said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 7:22 pm

    Sorry for confusing Polly Glot, in any or all of the half a dozen identities under which (s)he posts (generally interesting and well-informed) comments here. For us regulars, PartiallyClips is part of the intellectual furniture — for example, here's a list of posts from 2003-2004 with links to the strip:

    "Brain & language, the cartoon version" "Whole Language, the cartoon version", "Dynamic and epistemic logic: the cartoon version","Language fu, the carton version", "Cross-cultural communication: the cartoon version", "Aw++", "Lie or lay: some disastrously unhelpful guidance", "An armed society is a polite grammatical society", "The economics of grading", "… People who love me (be)ause of I've been able to bring them some joy …"

    But in the future, I'll be sure to post a link to Rob's "Welcome New Readers" page.

  15. Polly Glot said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 8:40 pm

    Mateo Crawford: it's interesting to watch Balder spin straw into gold

    Ok, that makes sense to me. I think I get it. Thanks for the ris og ros, Mark.

    Polly & Co.

  16. misterfricative said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 1:53 am

    Peter Howard: I think we're supposed to assume, for the purposes of the joke, that [narcolepsy in fish] doesn't happen.

    I wondered about that myself, but a quick google turned up some narcoleptic zebrafish — http://biology.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371/journal.pbio.0050277&ct=1

    According to the abstract, mutant fish that lack hypocretin receptors don't exhibit the cataplexy or excessive sleepiness of narcoleptic mammals, but they do exhibit 'short and fragmented sleep in the dark'.

  17. Bob is Only Bob said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 8:03 pm

    I found the meaning quite clear. When the scientist reads a science article written by a journalist (and not another scientist), it feels like the world is staring at him from the other side of the glass and tapping. A dull, heavy, thudding sound, trying to understand and failing miserably, only annoying the fish. Just as the journalist is repeatedly tapping at the glass, trying to get the attention of the fish and wondering what they think, the journalist is tapping on the bowl of science, trying to understand the strange forms on the other side and really just annoying the scientist, without gaining anything meaningful.

    The journalist's choice to omit this reply also indicates a level of selective belief. He accepts the scientist's statements as gospel truth, until they directly offend him.

    It's quite layered, and very well written.

  18. Evan said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 6:37 pm


    I think it would have made more sense if the final response were "Like they're being interviewed about science by a journalism major", especially after the setup about stopping his more important work for the interview. But that potshot would seem pettier and probably wouldn't be as irksome to the reporter. So a slightly broken metaphor is the price of a better punchline.

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