Monday, September 16, 2013

Fandom Classics Part 8: Smoke and Mirrors

To read the story, click the image or follow this link

So apparently, "dialog" is now an accepted alternate spelling of "dialogue."  When, exactly, did this happen?  I thought "dialog" was reserved for computer-enabled exchanges ("dialog box" and the like), and that using it to refer to people speaking was right up there with spelling through "thru."  But it seems that my view is now a minority one, even among grammarians.

Doesn't mean I have to like it, though.

Click below the break for my review of TeaPartyCannon's Smoke and Mirrors.



Impressions before reading:  Well, the cover art's pretty darn cute.  I admit that's not the deepest or most meaningful of impressions, but it counts for something.  From the description, it sounds like the premise is one that has a lot of promise, but the fact that it's got four different tags (sad, comedy, adventure, slice-of-life) worries me.  Whenever I see more than two, maybe three, genre tags, it sends up warning flags; often, that's indicative of directionlessness and/or genre confusion within the story itself.  Still, correlation isn't causation, and all that.  I'm hoping there'll be a lot of the comedy-of-errors shenanigans which the picture and description suggest.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  After being blasted out of Canterlot with the rest of the changelings, Mirror wakes up near the outskirts of Ponyville separated from her compatriots, badly hurt, and with a broken horn to boot.  Luckily, she manages to befriend Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie right away, and they agree to help her lie low for a while.  Unfortunately, "laying low" isn't in the cards.

Thoughts after reading:  Often, when reviewing popular fanfics which are novel-length or greater (Smoke and Mirrors clocks in at just over 100k words), I find that the quality of the story improves as I move deeper into the work.  The reason is simple enough in most of these cases: most fanfic authors don't have a lot of experience writing fiction, and the amount one can learn from writing tens of thousands of serially published words is not insignificant.  That's not to say that that's the only reason a story might get better as it goes on, of course, but it's something I've seen a fair bit of.

It is rather less common (at least, among popular fanfics--even with as much as I read, I can't speak to fanfiction as a whole) for a story to become progressively less well written as it progresses.  Oh, there are plenty of stories that start out good and have terrible endings, or which go unwelcome or disappointing places as they progress, but to see a decline in storytelling quality is pretty rare.  Unfortunately, declining quality is exactly what I found here.

Smoke and Mirrors begins with an decent conceit, and for about half of its length sticks mostly to a slice-of-life, show-tone approach.  While I didn't find the writing quality terribly enthralling (the author's tendency to have the narrator inject every character's emotional state as an addendum to their lines of dialogue grated), it was serviceable.  Meanwhile, the main six were all well-characterized, and Mirror's frazzled incompetence was enjoyable enough for what it was.  A number of light-comic scenes fell flat or dragged--an extended "yackety sax" joke which had no place in a purely written medium comes to mind--but there were at least as many that did make me smile.  Much as when I reviewed Moonbeam, I was coming away with the impression that this story might appeal to younger, less experienced readers--not something for me, but not a bad thing in and of itself, either.

Things get progressively worse from there, however.  The emotion tags that I disliked from the first half only intensified in usage, and characters began displaying a distressing tendency to delve into exposition duty.  The actual editing got worse (it was never bad, mind, but there were noticeably more errors in the last third or so of the story), and that's a real rarity in fanfiction.  But the biggest problems lay in two areas: pacing, and setting construction.  The pacing issue is easy enough to give examples of: for one, something like 20-25,000 words (around a quarter of the story) are dedicated to a single battle, most of which consists of various ponies and changelings monologuing at grossly inappropriate times.  But where setting construction is concerned, it's a little harder to elucidate the problem.

You see, it's not that TeaPartyCannon's come up with a boring story, particularly.  It's that too many times, s/he often leaves major developments woefully under-addressed, or else doesn't seem to have thought through the implications of some plot point.  For example, Mirror mentions fairly early on that her kind is capable of using "conversion chrysalises" (on a side note, the author occasionally uses "cocoon" as a synonym for "chrysalis," which bugs me more than it probably should) to turn normal ponies into changelings, though the conversion is purely a physical one; the pony's memories and personality remain intact.  At the same time, it's an important plot point that, although they feed on it, changelings are incapable of feeling love themselves--including so-called "synthetic changelings."  While I can think of a few ways to reconcile these points, TeaPartyCannon never once addresses the issue, and in the final accounting manages to make the two ideas seemingly irreconcilable.

Moreover, character reactions to events are often inscrutable.  To continue with the example I've been using, more than one pony is turned into a synthetic changeling over the course of the fic.  How they and the ponies around them react to this ranges from mild annoyance(?!) to anger--but not, at any point, anything even slightly existential.  I can't help but imagine that a one-way transformation into an insectoid creature with a hive-mind might inspire, say: dread, fear, a sense of lost identity... something.  But instead, a permanent life-altering species change is regularly treated with all the weight of a broken leg: bothersome, but ultimately just part of life.  And that, ultimately, is the problem with most of what happens throughout the story (even in the first half, though there it can mostly be excused thanks to the more comical tone and the lower stakes): things happen, but any sense of importance or meaning is all too often absent.

Star rating:  ☆ (what does this mean?)

At first, I found this story a bit bland in places, but not unenjoyable.  As it progressed, however, storytelling issues increasingly became noticeable, and many of the events and actions which drive the plot are questionable or simply unexplained.

Recommendation:  The first half or so could easily appeal to someone looking for a low-key, slightly generic comedy/slice-of-life about a changeling blending in in Ponyville--I found it bland, but readers looking for something simple and straightforward might find it to their tastes.  The work as a whole, however, has a fair share of issues, and I can only recommend it to those with a particular interest in seeing a changeling comically sputter a lot, along with an interesting, if not altogether internally consistent, portrayal of their history and society.

Next time:  Once Bitten, Twice Shy, by Wynneception

42 comments:

  1. The "dialog" thing is news to me as well. Yet further proof that Civilization's falling apart

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    1. I don't know. Civilization V had a rough start, but it got better once Gods & Kings was released...

      Oh, you mean real civilization. Eh, we've apparently been doomed ever since Shakespeare starting turning in his grave. Pretty soon he'll tunnel into the Earth's core and blow up the whole planet. That'll teach us to screw with the English language!

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    2. From a German's point of view, getting worked up over that is pretty darn hilarious, since "Dialog" is the only accepted spelling in German. And our civilization hasn't fallen apart since it got pieced back together after 1945.

      Now, the whole "'literally' can mean 'figuratively'" thing, on the other hand...

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    3. It's hilarious from my point of view as well. I was poking fun at myself because I actually did overreact, so I was exaggerating my actual thoughts. As for the whole, literally/figuratively thing, that's mere hyperbole. I don't think I've ever heard someone truly confuse their meanings

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  2. "Moreover, character reactions to events are often inscrutable. To continue with the example I've been using, more than one pony is turned into a synthetic changeling over the course of the fic. How they and the ponies around them react to this ranges from mild annoyance(?!) to anger--but not, at any point, anything even slightly existential."

    I don't agree with this. For one thing, the most prominent victim - Carrot Top - makes it very clear that she considers her life to be ruined. She even tries to kill the protagonist over it.

    Secondly, do we really need more existential angst when you also claim the transformation is cosmetic? It's false drama, like worrying about having evil urges when you discover you had villainous ancestors, despite showing no evil inclinations up to this point. It detracts rather than adds to the drama.

    I mean, I'm no staunch defender of this fic - I personally regard it as "meh" - but I certainly never thought any of those issues were, well, issues.

    Also, I swear I commented earlier on this article. What happened to that previous comment?

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    1. "Do we really need more existential angst"? Yes. Yes, we do, especially since the transformation appears to be more than cosmetic, considering the whole hive-mind thing. Kafka's "Metamorphosis" would have held a lot less interest if its protagonist and his environment reacted as the ponies do here.

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    2. I respectfully disagree, though I confess I'm not entirely sure what existential angst was supposed to be included. I thought the issue was already addressed with the character of Carrot Top. She's driven to a murderous rage over the fact that she considers her life not merely changed, but utterly turned around by the transformation, and she argues with Mirror over how it's changed her psyche so much (for instance, being able to hear the rest of the hive, not being able to love her relatives, etc.). Chris compares it to getting a broken leg, but I think the comparison is way off given how it's depicted as totally traumatizing for her specifically, and she's the most prominent example.

      Even if the dialogue during chapter 6 was a bit stilted, why would it have improved the fic to add "existential angst" to that? The story's already focused on a changeling trying to pass off as a pony and worried about her chances of doing so between her two alter egos. There's such a thing as too much angst, and I don't quite understand what kind of angst Chris is looking for that would have improved a fic like this.

      Also, I've read "Metamorphosis", and while I don't doubt its historical importance and academic interest, I didn't find it all that impressive. Apart from his dietary change and one or two minor "insect-like" habits, Gregor Samsa's transformation was almost entirely cosmetic. He was still Gregor Samsa underneath. The main problem was that the community he lived in reacted with prejudice to his new body. Kafka didn't even explain it, which annoyed me as no one character ever seemed to even try and find an explanation for the change.

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    3. I'm with anon on the angst issue. Carrot Top portrayed that side of the transformation just fine for me, and I don't really think the story needed any more of it.

      As for the story overall, I thought it was alright. But, as my previous comments on this blog should have made obvious a long time ago, my standards are clearly way lower than everyone else's here.

      It's definitely not six star level quality though, and I feel it's a little unfair to judge it by those standards when it didn't even make EqD, but I can't rightly disagree with any of the criticisms here. Other than the angst part, I mean. That battle definitely did go on for way too long.

      Like I said, I thought it was alright, but it's not the sort of thing you'd enjoy going into it with a critical mind. It's a "turn your brain off and get some popcorn" kind of entertainment. Like Independence Day.

      Jesus, I could NEVER run a blog like this...

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    4. "As for the story overall, I thought it was alright. But, as my previous comments on this blog should have made obvious a long time ago, my standards are clearly way lower than everyone else's here."

      Aw, don't be harsh on yourself. Just because you don't mind such things, doesn't make your standards "lower" as though they were inferior. They're just different, like your taste in food or entertainment.

      Agreed, though: I could never run a blog like this either.

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    5. Whether it's better for your enjoyment as a reader to be more critical or more generally accepting is a debate I'm sure has been had many times before, but I think I can say with certainty that I'm on the other end of the scale from the likes of Chris, Present Perfect or Inquisitor M.

      I'm not being harsh on myself. I'm just saying I only ever read for fun, and I don't really do the review thing. I'd never read all the way through something I don't enjoy, as Chris has done for this blog several times before. I certainly never stop in the middle of reading and think about things like character voice or emotion tags. Other people do, and criticise stories that do them badly, so they hold their literature to a higher standard than I do. And that's fine.

      It does make one feel out of place reading this blog sometimes, but I like to think I learn a lot from it.

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    6. I think the biggest problem here is that the story vacillates so much on what it actually means to be a changeling: at turns, the presentation suggests both that "the transformation is cosmetic" and that it is a total existential alteration (hivemind, loss of empathy, etc.). Does being a changeling just mean that one gets a few superpowers, and has to grind off one's horn if having a 24/7 audio channel in one's head sounds unpleasant? Or does it mean that one has undergone a true species shift, and is now fundamentally unable to participate in normal life (read without changing one's form, have children with a mammalian pony, feel love, etc.)? The latter is sometimes suggested by the narrative, but character reactions tend to imply the former. Carrot Top may be angry, but note that she's mostly angry about being changed against her will, specifically; she doesn't seem to be particularly mad at the changelings collectively for altering ponies (indeed, to all appearances she gets along with other changelings at least moderately well--she certainly didn't attack or turn in any, and by the end seems to grudgingly prefer them to ponies, even going so far as to self-identify as one), but at Mirror specifically for not letting her out of the chrysalis when she asked.

      And Danny, don't worry. You're still allowed to hang out here, even if you're not as DEEP and LITERARY as me. Heaven knows it's not easy for me, being the sole standard-bearer for quality writing in a world gone topsy-turvy :)

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    7. Your mercy and kindness bring me to tears of joy, Master Chris. I am not worthy.

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    8. "Carrot Top may be angry, but note that she's mostly angry about being changed against her will, specifically; she doesn't seem to be particularly mad at the changelings collectively for altering ponies... but at Mirror specifically for not letting her out of the chrysalis when she asked."

      This is a big part of her grief, yes, but I think you're overselling it. For one thing, how would that make any sense if she didn't consider conversion itself a bad thing? How do you explain the general disgust she has towards changelings, especially in the last few chapters: at their invading her home and trying to rehabilitate her, at how untrustworthy she considers them and how they've made her into an object of hate and fear to other ponies? I agree with everything else (the inconsistencies, and so on), but this just feels like a weak point. And isn't it obvious that she's cutting Mirror some slack for not understanding her actions? She still considers changelingdom itself unpleasant.

      "(indeed, to all appearances she gets along with other changelings at least moderately well--she certainly didn't attack or turn in any, and by the end seems to grudgingly prefer them to ponies, even going so far as to self-identify as one)"

      This just feels invented. She didn't get the chance to do either of those things for the most part because she spent most of the story being "rehabilitated", and by the descriptions of "punishing rebels" and not "breaking her", that sounds effectively like torture. At the battle scene, she comes back only to proudly declare herself a pony through and through, defend her home, and start by attacking a changeling. Her conversation with AJ at the end makes it clear she's still angry for being changed because of the anti-changeling prejudice, hates the idea of being a changeling, wishes the elements had changed her back, and explicitly says she doesn't trust changelings. I certainly saw nothing to suggest she prefers them to ponies.

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    9. I went back and looked at the story, since I had a rather different understanding of the (admittedly uncertain) chronology than you--it seemed to me that Carrot Top must have had several days at least, and possibly a week or more, "on her own" in Ponyville. As near as I can figure, the only way that she could have spent most of the story either being transformed or rehabilitated is if the changeling's grand plan for Canterlot, starting from when Chrysalis first left the hive, took place over a two- or three-day period. Now that I think about it, that may have been what TeaPartyCannon intended, but... well, that brings its own host of issues.

      As for Carrot's opinions at the end of the story, it still looks to me after re-reading the relevant text like her big beef is pony bigotry. She and Applejack have a several-page conversation about what they are and how ponies treat them, Carrot remaining stubbornly pessimistic, before she tacks on a "...and to be honest, I still don't trust those changelings either," before immediately transitioning back to the xenophobia issue. Maybe I'm not reading deep enough into this, but from issue placement and simple wordcount, it sure looks to me like her biggest source of anger is the ponies who are distrusting her, not the changelings who altered her in the first place.

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  3. which bugs me more than it probably should

    HAHAHAHAHA

    Well, that's one off my to-read list. Thanks!

    Also, the dialogue/dialog thing is exactly how I feel about "cyan". It's a computer term. It's part of the CYMK lineup. It's not actually a color, it's just a designation for pixels. (And more pertinently, it is not the color of Rainbow Dash.)

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    1. Guess I've learned something new today. I thought cyan was just one of the many colors women can see but men can't. Wikipedia seems to disagree with you, though

      Rainbow Dash is blue. Cerulean, according to some

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    2. THEY ARE WRONG

      I actually saw a thing about color design words or something, and RD's coloration is appropriately termed "aqua". I think.

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    3. No they're not. Aqua and cyan are functionally identical (beyond personal interpretation).

      Also, I may feel the need to shoot the next person that uses 'cerulean'. Then again, reading about Rainbow Dash makes me want to shoot someone anyway, so what's new.

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    4. > Cyan is not actually a color

      What are your thoughts on purple v. violet? As I understand it, violet is a real color (corresponds to physical wavelengths), whereas purple is combination of red and blue light (an artifact of our color perception). I'm not sure which is more correct in general usage.

      > the many colors women can see but men can't

      Barring tetrachromats and the colorblind, there are no colors unique to either sex.

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    5. I see "violet" as the more technical term, like in the colours of the spectrum, whereas "purple" appears to be the general-purpose word.

      Also, that "combination of red and blue light" thing you're describing is technically neither - it's magenta, one of the three bases of the subtractive colour paradigm along with yellow and (ha!) cyan.

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    6. What are your thoughts on purple v. violet?

      idgaf

      I say purple.

      Also remember there is light color and there is pigment color and the two are not equivalent.

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    7. I beg to differ. When I was younger, my mother would insist that the black shirt I'd picked out was actually a very dark blue (for some time, that had me worried I was colorblind). And consider all the conversations you might've overheard between women over various colors you've never heard of before. Men see only a dozen or so colors; women see a million

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    8. My knowledge of optics, genetics, and physiology is no match for your anecdotal, sociology-based argument! I concede, good colleague.

      Seriously, though, there is a little bit of truth in there. According to the xkcd color survey (blog.xkcd.com/2010/05/03/color-survey-results/), the only color that is consistently differentiated by men and not women is salmon.

      Graphic designers, of course, throw the whole thing off. You can try your hand at differentiating colors here: http://www.xrite.com/online-color-test-challenge

      I don't like spreading misinformation, so I will reiterate that there is no difference between the eyes of normal human males and those of normal human females.

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    9. That's amazing! I was going to say that I doubted anyone would be influenced by my misinformation, as I thought most people would get that I was joking, until I remembered how many times I've been wrong about that in the past. I'm a regular Jonathan Swift

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    10. Little anecdote I thought I'd share to illustrate how poorly my humor translates across the Internet:

      There was once a FB page under attack by cloppers and clopper sympathizers because they falsely perceived it to be a hate group (they'd simply promised likers that, unlike many other fanpages, they wouldn't post any clop/shipping artwork and asked that fans do the same). Knowing the admins must be dealing with a lot of stress, I figured I'd cheer them up, so after apologizing for all the crap going on, I claimed to be a clopper, but one that was only into a particular sub-genre. The joke being that what I'd described was actually normal human porn; not related to the show in any conceivable way

      It completely flew over their heads and they told me it was fine so long as I didn't post any clop art :/

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  4. Everything else aside, the cocoon/chrysalis confusion would entirely wreck the story for me. Well, that's fine... I've been meaning to start 1Q94, anyway.

    *20 pages in*:

    D'oh!

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  5. > So apparently, "dialog" is now an accepted alternate spelling of "dialogue." When, exactly, did this happen?

    1876, when the American Philological Society proposed a list of 11 spelling reforms in a valiant strike against silent letters. The Chicago Tribune began using the new spellings immediately, but few survive to this day. Over the course of the English language's evolution, many words have been changed for simplicity's sake or to reflect hypothesized etymology.

    Commonly accepted changes: catalog (catalogue), gossip (ghossip), color (colour), program (programme), war (warre), member (membre), music (musick), anemia (anæmia), thru (through), fantasy (phantasy)

    Poorly received proposals: tung (tongue), agast (aghast), gard (guard), ar (are), iland (island), sithe (scythe), frend (friend), burocracy (bureaucracy), hight (height), lite (light), fone (phone)

    English has a long and fascinating history of spelling reform. Notable supporters have included John Milton, Ben Franklin, Noah Webster, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Upton Sinclair, Melvil Dewey, and Isaac Asimov.

    I'd also like to point out that your typography is outdated — single sentence spacing has been standard since 1950. Double sentence spacing was last used during the typewriter era, when it helped distinguish in-sentence periods from end-of-sentence periods in monospaced font.

    No, I will not get off your lawn. Progress!

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  6. And while I'm being pedantic: you should use "alternative" to describe different choices and "alternate" to describe things that create a repeating series.

    "Direct current is an alternative to alternating current."
    "Try to alternate your politicians; alternatively, vote someone useful in."

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  7. Speaking of English's constant evolution, did you know "betwixt" is considered archaic? I'm gonna say "screw you" to the dictionaries, 'cause I like that word and I'm gonna keep using!

    Yes, I realize it became archaic long before I was born and no, I have no idea when or where I picked it up, but I've been using it in everyday language for years now

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  8. Wow. I remember approving this fic. I even read the first three chapters. But... a fandom classic? Really? I think I missed the memo. I mean, it could be, but I only heard of it once: when it was submitted.

    Again, not saying it isn't, but all the others you've done I had seen mentioned on several occasions.

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    1. I'd never heard of this story before it was recommended to me, but... well, just look at the numbers it's got. Anything which amasses 19k views on a single chapter's obviously got a pretty big fanbase.

      It's one of the consequences of the fanbase growing and fracturing, I suppose: the left hand can't keep track of what the right's doing anymore, so to speak.

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    2. It was the single most popular "lone changeling meets mane 6" fic while being published. It was one of the most bitched about "why is this not on EqD?" fics period.

      Personally I agree with this review. Tue beginning of the story was way better and more comprehensible than the later. I feel that the problem was far too many subplots and characters being introduced. It was almost like 3 story concepts crammed together.

      Also I really wish I could get updaye notifications on this blog. I am usually late to the party...

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    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    5. I keep track via RSS, both for the blog posts and the comments as well. I'm sure Blogspot's got other ways of notifying people. :B Maybe?

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    6. Yeah... I dunno, you would expect blogger to at least let its own suscribers/members/whatever receive a notification of some sort though...

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    7. Hmm... maybe my issue is only visiting on mobile. Also having no idea what rss means or ever having looked at my blogger account since registering?

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    8. Don't know what RSS means?

      I think ones like you especially would do well to educate themselves.

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    9. Because I spend my life on a computer and absolutely must make use of every little widget, app, utility and plugin in existence?

      Sorry but if in nearly 10 years I have not used something maybe it's not quite as vital to be educated on as you might think. Thanks for the link though.

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    10. RSS is a really great service that brings the internet to you so you don't have to remember to go checking individual websites every day. I'd have said something sooner, but I dunno what the prevailing program to deal with it is anymore since Google Reader shut down. :B I use Feedly.

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  9. I didn't know what RSS was either, and now that I know, I can safely say that I don't care.

    Pass.

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