Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Answers Blowing in the Wind

I was on the mend a week or so ago from a dog bite when a flood of questions entered the mind. Would I have to get a tetanus shot? Would the dog have to get a tetanus shot? Should I have bit back? Why are idioms called idioms and not, say, qualinyms? The amount of questions reminded me, when I found my pending posts file at the Bellairsia office, that I have been meaning to post a few words about questions and answers as a way to address those pointless websites where people ask questions that they couldn't manage to find answers to themselves.

I'm sure you've seen them. Someone that looks like a cartoon character asks a about a situation that he or she is in ("how do you treat a spider bite?") or asks for advice on a particular topic ("how do I start investing money?"). Once the question is asked it's up to the millions of other cartoon characters whose usernames are made up of word fragments to instill wisdom on the one asking questions. Answers are given, ranked, possibly discussed, and then archived for future cartoon characters that have the same question months later.

Where these ad-driven websites tend to become harbours of uselessness is when questions are of a truly mundane nature. "When is American Independence Day" is an example that comes to mind. While I realize non-United States citizens may need to have their facts checked, I suppose I find it odd that people migrate to question-and-answers sites to obtain facts as opposed to just posing the question in somebody-or-other's search engine.

Where I'm going with this are questions that have popped-up in our inbox from such sites that have dealt with John Bellairs. Here's one that seems mostly innocuous:

Q: When is John Bellairs birthday?

We're going to save you time and let you know right here and now that it is Monday, January 17, 1938. Just as innocent:

Q: What is the birth name of John Bellairs?

John's full name, provided here free of charge, is John Anthony Bellairs. That's mentioned on the Bellairsia site proper more than a dozen times, too.

With those soft ball pitches out of the way, now the questions begin turning a bit more specific in nature:

Q: I want a brief description about New Zebedee, Michigan?

That's not a question, genius. Or maybe it is. Care to chime in, Michigan?  Whatever this case the answer is almost as useless as the question:

A: I live in Michigan, but I've never heard of a place called New Zebedee. If you want information on what the Port Huron/Port Sanilac/Lexington/Croswell area looks like I can do that.

Fantastic. Questions also give the impression that the cartoon characters are lazy or stereotypical procrastinators:

Q: I need a book report for the book "The Figure in the Shadows" by John Bellairs? I either want a direct summary or a direct link a dont want a web just need something nice and easy but the summary needs to be pretty decent length .

Again, not a question - unless you put it off for two weeks and woke up the day it was due with a nagging sense of failure. If that was the case then answer might have been, "yes, you do need a book report because you're going to fail if you do not turn one in." In this case the answers help justify my claim the cartoon characters are lazy:

A: Well then, you should probably get writing. Bellairs' books are a reasonably low reading level and not too long (I think I read everything he had in print in like 6th grade), so this really shouldn't be a problem. If you're in a higher grade, its a really easy read, if you're in a lower grade, they shouldn't be looking for much of a report.

A: Why on earth would you not read this book and do the report yourself? This is a quick book, and a really good book. If you want a quick book report for a book this easy, I hate to think what you'll be doing with high school English.

Sometimes readers have only the vaguest memories of characters, covers, or plot points and they present what they know the best that they can:

Q: What is the title of that book by Bellairs that had the short apparation on the cover in an early edition? As I can remember, he kind of looked like Fester Addams.

My uncle Fester (and my aunt Fistula, too) are both tall and broad-shouldered.  The uncle Fester you're thinking about was a short, bald man, and we therefore assume the book in question was The Lamp from the Warlock's Tomb which featured the spider-web-covered demon figure.

Q: What genre is the ghost in the mirror by John Bellaire?

Would more people find the question if the name was spelled correctly? Maybe not!

A: The Ghost in the mirror by John Bellaire would fall in the Fictional Mystery genre. The novel also has an element of fantasy around it since it talks about Mrs Zimmerman and Rita going back in time. The novel is an award book by John Bellaire.

I'm a bit of a loss as to what some of this means - I'm not sure what an award book is - but I suppose it is a fictional mystery. But that's another question I don't want to get into right now.

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