Your Words Speak For Themselves

Today a friend of mine posted the link from Lifehacker about the new Wolfram-Alpha Facebook Analytics app.  Being a huge fan of Wolfram-Alpha, Facebook, and introspective self-analysis, I thought this was a brilliant idea.  And it was!  I learned a lot about myself and my friends’ perceptions of me.  My most liked picture was of me drinking a bottle of wine in Paris, and my most commented picture was a copy of “A Dance with Dragons” with the elated “AAAAHHH!  ITS OUT!”

But what I want to focus on right now is something I found much more revealing.  The most frequently used words from my Facebook posts.

My Most frequently used words on Facebook.

When looking at this list I am struck by the fact that the word “Love” is among them.  It’s literally in the top ten things I say out of all the words in the English language.  There is also a sense of immediacy here, as “Day,” “Today,” “Now,” and “Time” can attest.  But Facebook status updates are often about the now, and less about the past.  Though “Going” implies the future, and where I’m headed.  “Think” and “Know” illustrate that I am bound up in my mind, and my sense of understanding (true or not).  “People” comes first, and after that “One.”  Perhaps that’s my communal nature showing itself; E Pluribus Unum.

Facebook is the pulse of where I am now.  It’s where I spend a lot of my time online, and where I communicate with people that I care about in a very real and tangible way.  It’s rare for me to friend someone who I’ve never met in person, or someone who is only tangentially connected to me.  So there is truly a sense of love in the now there.  Strange that I would feel that way about connecting to people through a website.

But this got me thinking.  I’ve only been on Facebook since March of 2008.  I’ve been on Livejournal for nearly a decade!  I joined LJ in August of 2003, and for the most part I used LJ in a very similar way of connecting with friends, sharing silly status updates, writing blog posts and doing memes.  So, let’s look at my LJ Tags.

My LiveJournal Tags ranked by Frequency of Use

True to LiveJournal’s roots in the deep old beginnings of Web 2.0, there was no good way for me to extract my tag data.  So I went to my tag page, copied it out and ported it to Excel.  Maybe I’m being too harsh.  I honestly didn’t bother to go looking for an app or a tool to export my LJ tag data, but surely one must exist.

Anyhow, I love the top ten list, because they are a perfect picture of who I used to be.  That’s right, I feel like in a lot of ways this data is really me five years ago.

Faeries refers to the Radical Faeries, a kind of anarcho-communist radical queer spiritual movement.  I used to live and breathe Radical Faeries.  But not so much any more.  Our local circle has broken apart like a dandelion and blown to the four winds, and I haven’t been to a gathering proper in about 4 years or so.  Though the Philly Gatherette two years ago did rekindle something in my soul, I still don’t feel as connected to Faeries as I used to.  Silliness, Books, and Music however are still very high on my priority list.  And though the JOB has changed, it still ranks high as well.

Store is the tag that cuts the most.  It’s a latent reminder that I had a dream of running a metaphysical shop.  I even did for a while with a good friend of mine.  But the economy was shit and Pagans barely want to pay for classes, much less books and supplies.  So, we closed it.  It is firmly a part of my past, and seeing it there in the top ten reminds me how old this list is to my life.

Bitchery is the one I’m least proud of.  It is the tag I use for venting about things that annoy me, regardless of their severity.  From something problematic at work to the cold blooded depths of conservative rhetoric.  That’s what’s stored in the bitchery tag.  Though I feel that “commentary” and “introspection” lean me back into the more reflective state that I prefer to share with the world now.

I am somewhat relieved to see that “queer” comes before “memes” but the frequency of the memes tag says a lot about the age of this page.  Remember that article I wrote about how much I hate memes.  Yeah.  Well, we all grow up, right?  uh, right?  Well, maybe “Comics,” “TV” and “Anime” say something about the state of my grown-up-ness.  But even there I feel I’ve changed a lot.  My reading tastes have floated back to non-fiction and novels, and graphic novels have become much less frequent in my life.  Though I still love them.  And anime is nearly non-existent to me now.  Sad.

My WordPress Tag cloud

But if Livejournal is the snapshot of what my life used to be (even though I still use it from time to time to talk about other stuff), then this WordPress account is the snapshot of where my brain is now.  I’ve had this account since Feb 2011, so about a year and a half now.

I went into this WordPress project with a lot of focus.  This was going to be my professional site, and I was going to use this venue to sort out the content for my work related commentary, and push the content that was more focused on gender, queer stuff, and spirituality to my Livejournal.  And I think that focus really shows.  “Libraries,” “Google,” “Books,” and “Ebooks,” are the four largest elements here.  That’s definitely intentional.  This blog really looks at how these new technologies change and shape our experiences with library culture, and I spend a lot of time thinking about where these things can lead us.

I will also say that the volume of content on this blog is substantially smaller than in both Facebook and Livejournal, which have a rich background of years of data to analyze.  The relative newness and the focus of this blog means that only a few things will rise to the top, because there isn’t as much to draw from.  Also, this page is not the same kind of social experiment that LJ or Facebook is.  This is a content sharing system, but the level of social interaction through a WordPress page is (at least in my experience) substantially lower.  Not everyone is going to WordPress to catch up with their friends.  Rather it’s a place where people share articles like this.

In looking at all of this data about myself, I see my own personal growth.  It’s a story of a maturing adult, still playful, living in the new, but always exploring new things.

There’s a burgeoning field of literary and historical analysis called “culturomics” where people use the vast, scanned body of literature in Google’s ebook database to mine through for instances of words being used throughout the whole of published literature.  It’s incredibly fascinating.  And I believe that this exercise tonight is something that may be applied in the future when we study the lives and works of individuals.  Looking at their tag clouds, or analyzing the density or frequency of word use can tell you something very different than the meaning embedded in their sentences.  Breaking words from their context shows you an individual’s preoccupations.  Putting those two things side-by-side tells you what they said as well as reveals their focus.

Maybe it’s narcissistic to want to be the subject of future historian’s data analysis projects, but damn if I don’t want to be there!

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Patenting a Rectangle

Let’s all move to Octagons.

This week in bizarro patent law drama, a jury found that Samsung violated patents held by Apple corporation which included among them a patent on the rectangular shape of the phone.  The jury awarded damages in the amount of $1 billion to Apple, which amazingly was around a third of what Apple asked for in damages based on market share.

This is obviously a horrible abuse of patent law, and just continues to underscore the very deep need for reform in the American patent system.  There should be no way possible to patent something so basic and obvious as a shape.

So, now Samsung has to either a) pay to license the fucking shape of a phone, or b) come up with something new.

I say that something new is already out there.

In the megahit sci-fi reboot of Battlestar Galactica there was a pervasive use of octagonal paper.

When life tells you rectangles are patented,  you make octagons.

I see this as the wave of the future.  The workaround for all future generations is to create a general public license on octagons, that forbids anyone from claiming direct ownership of the form.  And all future generations will live in the BSG world of our dreams.

Why is There No Liberal “Canon” of Literature?

The Sierpinski Triangle is an example of a nested fractal.

Beverly Gage over at Slate asks a great question, and answers it without actually saying so.  In “Why is there no liberal Ayn Rand?” she lays out the fact that conservative candidates always return to the same philosophical, literary roots.

But one of the movement’s most lasting successes has been in developing a common intellectual heritage. Any self-respecting young conservative knows the names you’re supposed to spout: Hayek, Rand, Ludwig von Mises, Albert Jay Nock. There are some older thinkers too—Edmund Burke, for instance—but for the most part the favored thinkers come out of the movement’s mid-20th century origins in opposition to Soviet communism and the New Deal.

But then she makes  a leap in the very next sentence.

Liberals, by contrast, have been moving in the other direction over the last half-century, abandoning the idea that ideas can be powerful political tools.

I think in this instance she’s absolutely wrong.  Primarily because of what she says shortly thereafter.

Here’s the key point right here.

The New Left reinvented that heritage in the 1960s. Instead of (or in addition to) Marx and Lenin, activists began to read Herbert Marcuse, C. Wright Mills, and Saul Alinsky. As new, more particular movements developed, the reading list grew to include feminists, African-Americans, and other traditionally excluded groups. This vastly enhanced the range of voices in the public sphere—one of the truly great revolutions in American intellectual politics. But it did little to create a single coherent language through which to maintain common cause. Instead, the left ended up with multiple “movement cultures,” most of them more focused on issue-oriented activism than on a common set of ideas.

This is where I feel she loses perspective.  Contemporary liberalism differs so markedly from contemporary conservatism, because of the former’s focus on the value of of the individual.  Liberalism has redefined itself as a politics that recognizes the complexity of society, the complexity of life, and thus cannot, and should not, pit one group against the other.  Your cause is our cause, your rights are universal rights, and the plight of the smallest is the plight of the whole.  It is utterly inclusive, often to the point of being somewhat ridiculous.

A complaint I have levied against liberal politics is that we can barely articulate a stance at a rally to give a unified voice.  If you’ve been to a political protest in the last ten years you’d know that it’s not just about ending war, it’s about the plight of minorities, about Palestine, about Hurricane Katrina victims, about rape culture, about pot legalization.  It’s a crazy quilt of issues, and everyone wanting their voice to be heard.  But we liberals believe that our voices, no matter how small, should be heard, because all voices have value.

XKCD Comic

This is the reality of liberal politics.

So, how can we ever begin to develop a corpus of literature, to develop a “consistent message?”  We can’t.  It’s impossible.  As Randall Munroe, very effectively, said yesterday “Human subcultures are nested fractally.  There is no bottom.”  There are further minority politics embedded deeper into every group.  There are fringes on the fringe of the fringe.  We just continue to dig deeper, excavate new layers of complexity, and say, “yes, you too are a part of us.”  Once we’ve read through a vast body of feminist literature, we then look at different waves of feminism, and how that’s changed over time, and then look at challenges to each subsequent iteration, and then and then and then.  The same is true of black studies, queer theory, any other ethnic, religious, and minority group that has ever, or may ever cross through here, and then the deal with the incredible new layers of reality that people are adding to their identities on a daily basis, otherkin, furries, polyamorists, cyberpeople, transhumanists, virtual people, who knows what else may come…

The homogeneity of thought that comes from a canon of literature is great for people who don’t want to have to think about the harsh, and complex realities associated with anyone’s lives other than their own.  It allows them to develop a rigid sense of morality, a definite set of what is in and what is out, and allows for the crafting of legislative agendas that move through like clockwork, because they’re not bound up in the morass of having to explore how their ideology impacts anyone, and if it does, well, the fact that they “don’t get it” is reason enough to just let them go.

There is no liberal canon, because we can’t stop saying “Yes, we care.  Your life is valid, and I want to understand you better.”   The liberal canon is the library, and studying it is the work of a lifetime.

Embellishment, Fabrication, Plagiarism, and Remixes

cover of Imagine by Jonah Lehrer

Imagine…using citations.

Jonah Lehrer is the latest in a long line of writers caught up in the scandal of fabricating facts in order to construct a good narrative for his book.  Recently a writer at the Jewish magazine The Tablet was fact checking the Bob Dylan quotations in Lehrer’s book Imagine, and discovered that a good number of the quotes are misstatements, cobbled together phrases from disparate interviews, or, some of them, fabricated entirely in order to sell Lehrer’s thesis.  In a bit of poetic irony, the focus of the book was on how creativity works.  Prior to the reveal that he fabricated these Dylan quotes, the celebrity slam site Gawker, had been criticizing Lehrer for rehashing a lot of his older articles, mining them for material for his new job blogging at the New Yorker.  Is self-plagiarism even a thing?  Lehrer has since resigned his role at the New Yorker.

While sad, this kind of story is nothing new.  Every year a new scandal comes out where people have been caught in the act of embellishing upon the truth, constructing facts to suit their narrative, and flat out stealing the words from other people’s mouths.

Earlier this year it was Mike Daisey.  Daisey had been doing a very successful one-man show called “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which explores the working conditions at Apple Corporation’s Chinese factories in Shenzhen; a portion of that show was picked up by NPR’s This American Life as “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory.”  That segment became the most played story the show that had ever aired, and ultimately Apple began investigating and working to fix the conditions of the workers at their factories.  But with this success came scrutiny, and it started coming out that pieces of Daisey’s story were not lining up.  Journalists at NPR’s Marketplace, who were very familiar with the Chinese factory conditions started fact checking, because elements from the story just didn’t jive with their recollections of those very same places.  Ultimately it came out that Daisey had cobbled together elements from other journalist’s experiences, sensationalized the few elements he did experience firsthand, and basically said that he did so because it made for a better narrative.  This American Life was mortified; they pulled the piece, issued a retraction, and had an entire show dedicated to exposing the truth behind the story.  The whole affair made show host Ira Glass and NPR examine the delicate line they walk between storytelling and journalism.  Amazingly the scandal has done little to stop Mike Daisey’s career, in fact, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is currently being performed by Mike Daisey right now at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in DC.  Ironically, Mike Daisey also did a one man show entitled Truth {The heart is a million little pieces above all things} about how Author James Frey embellished his novel A Million Little Pieces, and got caught very, very publicly.

A Million Little Pieces, derived from maybe three or four pieces.

A Million Little Pieces was billed as James Frey’s memoir of his life as a drug addict and criminal.  Pieces recounts some incredibly gruesome details surrounding his experiences on drugs, in detox, and the horror stories about being repeatedly busted by the police and spending hard time in prison.  The book came out to mixed reactions when it was released in 2003, particularly among people who had a critical background in substance abuse and crime.  But it was once the book was picked by Oprah’s Book Club in September 2005 that everything started to unravel.  Frey’s first appearance on Oprah in October got people questioning the factual nature of this book that was billed as a truthful memoir of a very rough life.  So the folks who run the tell-all website The Smoking Gun went digging for evidence of James Frey’s criminal background, and what they found was that Frey’s life was not as hardcore as he stated, and that in fact he had hardly ever been in jail at all.  TSG spent six weeks pouring into the details, and found that while he may have been arrested a couple of times, his offenses were petty misdemeanors with local cops, and his hardened life behind bars was anything but hard, nor was it barely any time at all.  They even turned up the fact that he had recounted a story of a horrible train accident that took the life of two high school girls he knew, and inserted himself into the narrative surrounding their death.  After The Smoking Gun story came out on January 8th, 2006, Oprah got Frey and his editor back into the studios. On January 26, 2006 she very publicly called him out on every detail that was embellished in that book.  Frey admitted on national television that he made things up. Amazingly, sales of the book barely slowed down, and it was still on the bestseller lists nine months later.

Wherein Lincoln travels through time.

But James Frey is old news.  Let’s talk about Bill O’Reilly.  In November 2011 the National Park Service, who oversee the Ford’s Theatre historical site reviewed Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s book Killing Lincoln.  The Ford’s Theatre is the site of Lincoln’s assassination and the NPS contracts with a bookshop full of Lincoln memorabilia and literature there.  The Park Service, wanting to maintain the integrity of the historic site, reviews all of the products for their accuracy before they are added to the shop.   O’Reilly’s book was determined to be too factually inaccurate and lacking in documentation to be worthy of being sold at the Theatre.  Reviewer Rae Emerson provides chapter and page quotations from Killing Lincoln, contradicted by factual references from numerous other sources to support the verdict.  Among the embellishments are such glaring errors as Lincoln meeting in the Oval Office, which didn’t exist until forty years later during the William Howard Taft administration.  While it could be argued that factual inaccuracy, or embellishment make for colorful storytelling, the fact that O’Reilly is a journalist makes the laxity all the more glaring.

Honestly, we’ve all taken shitty notes.

If journalists get knocked for not fact checking, a historian’s reputation can be ruined if they slip up, especially if the error involves more than just not reporting facts accurately, but plagiarizing the work of other historians. Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of several presidential biographies and a regular commentator on PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer was caught up in a plagiarism scandal in 2002.  The Weekly Standard ran an article that laid out how Goodwin had lifted entire phrases, sometimes paragraphs from three earlier works when composing her 1987 book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.  The quotations were not cited or even listed as quotes in the book.  Goodwin attributed the error to writing out her notes for her books in longhand on legal pads at the time, and she issued a public correction of her work as well as disclosing the settlement she reached with author Lynne McTaggart, who wrote the book Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times, a source for some of Goodwin’s quotes.  But the gaffe cost her credibility, and for several years she did not appear in her role as a PBS expert historian.

The W stands for Wikipedia.

But what if it’s not a historian or a journalist, but actually a history maker who plagiarizes?  What if it’s a former President?  Well, it happened.  Former President George W. Bush was caught plagiarizing in his book Decision Points.  Ryan Grim at the Huffington Post detailed a handful of instances where the former President, and most likely his assistant Peter Rough, lifted passages from other books and publicly accessible news articles about events that took place during the Bush presidency.  The strangest thing is that many of the anecdotes refer to events where Bush was not even present, like the inauguration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.  That story was taken word for word from Ahmed Rashid’s article in the New York Review of Books.  But that’s just the beginning of a litany of stories lifted in their entirety from other writers, not the least of which was journalist Bob Woodward’s book Bush at War, and General Tommy Franks’ memoir American Soldier.  Looking for unattributed quotations in Decision Points became something of a game, and ultimately a joke.

But plagiarism doesn’t always devastate a writer’s career or make them a laughingstock.  In 2010, 17-year-old wunderkind Helene Hegemann was called out regarding her debut novel Axolotl Roadkill for taking as much as up to an entire page from an earlier book entitled Strobo.  Nevertheless Hegemann was nominated for a prestigious award for new German authors, and the prize committee was fully aware of the plagiarism.  Rather the author defended her use of previous works as being a product of her generation’s exposure to mashups and remixes.  In fact the committee viewed this as a central conceit of the novel.

And it’s true that, to some extent, society’s attitudes toward copyright are changing.  The ability to rapidly copy files makes plagiarizing (or remixing) incredibly easy.  You don’t even need to type the words yourself, just highlight, copy and paste directly into your document.  This ease of use has removed a lot of the burden of plagiarizing.  Where Goodwin copied from book to notepad to typewriter, and lost source information in the process, today a writer need only copy and write an entire book never knowing or caring the source of the material.  Then again, just as easily that same author can copy and paste the URL of his source directly into his document, just as I have done throughout the process of writing this article.

I’ll leave you with this wonderful little Op-Doc from the New York Times entitled “Allergy to Originality” where two characters debate whether or not anything could be considered original anyway.