Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve

What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing

[Amazon Link]

This is a fun book written by "statistician and journalist" Ben Blatt, who brings the power of Python's Natural Language Toolkit to analyze the writings of various famous (and some deservedly unfamous) authors. For example: people (like Steven King) will tell you to avoid adverbs, especially -ly adverbs; there are better ways to communicate. (Sometimes the advice is in joke form: use adverbs sparingly. Heh!)

But how well do authors follow that advice? Are there differences between authors? (Yes: Hemingway and Toni Morrison used relatively few. J. K. Rowling and E. L. James use a lot.) How about different books by the same author? (Also yes, and in many cases an author's more critically-acclaimed works have fewer adverbs than his or her others.) This is all presented with bar charts and tables. Cool!

Other queries: are there significant differences in male and female writing styles? How about between Americans and Brits? Do authors have "favorite" words? (Well, see the title.) How well do authors follow their own writing advice? Can you determine authorship of anonymous or pseudonymous works by crunching word use? (Yes, this was done convincingly for The Federalist Papers, showing that Alexander Hamilton got a little too enthusiastic in claiming authorship of some of them.)

And more.

Blatt doesn't seem to have carried out his investigations in any systematic way, just looking for answers to the questions that occur to him. Although he's not kidding about the "statistician" part—his Harvard degree is in Applied Math—there's not a lot of worry or discussion about whether the results he teases out of the data are significant. That's fine, it's still fun.

URLs du Jour

2017-06-16

Proverbs 25:27 gets a little weird with the dietary/thinking advice:

27 It is not good to eat too much honey,
    nor is it honorable to search out matters that are too deep.

Or maybe this is what Wittgenstein was talking about when he wrote "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

[He wasn't the Nazi, was he? No, that was Heidegger.]

@kevinNR writes From Americans to Americans. (Although the URL indicates a more pedestrian title, like "A Second Civil War is a Dumb Idea".)

This is a dangerous moment in our history, about which we ought to be honest. President Donald Trump is an irresponsible demagogue who ought never have been elected to the office he holds — but he was, legitimately, fair and square, your favorite Muscovite conspiracy theory notwithstanding. That being said, the actual immediate problem of political violence in the United States is overwhelmingly and particularly a problem belonging to the Left. This is not a “both sides do it” issue: Paul Krugman can speak on any college campus in this country without enduring mob violence and organized terrorism — Charles Murray cannot. There is not anything on the right like the mass terrorism behind the Seattle riots of 1999 or the black-bloc riots of the day before yesterday. The Democratic party, progressive organizations, and college administrations have some serious political and intellectual housekeeping to do here — but, instead, they are in the main refusing to acknowledge that they have a problem. The line between “Punch a Nazi!” and “Assassinate a Republican congressman!” is morally perforated.

A lot of wisdom therein, and a touching tale of our first, last, and only Civil War.

■ Charles C. W. Cooke Everything Wrong with Our Gun Debate In One Tweet. And here's the tweet:

This in response to a reported comment from a GOP rep: “After today I wonder whether or not I will ever feel safe going to a baseball field.” Charles comments insightfully.

I’m sure its author is sincere and means well. Nevertheless, this line represents everything I hate about our debate over gun policy. It’s mawkish, it begs the question, and it smugly assumes that the disagreements over guns are the result of a lack of empathy or experience rather than of conflicting views on the best way to shape law.

It's all about feelings for some people. And it's a short trip from "You disagree with me" to "You are a terrible person because you must not share my feelings."

■ Can humans expect AI to just fight fake news for them? Find out the answer to that pressing question from Tom Simonite at Wired: Humans Can’t Expect AI to Just Fight Fake News for Them. The (so far meager) results of a competition for a fake-news-detecting algorithm, the "Fake News Challenge" are described.

You can expect Fake News Challenge contestants and others to gradually ask more of their news-analyzing algorithms, but don't hold your breath for fully autonomous fact checkers. Existing technology isn't close to having the ability to understand language and make decisions that would be needed. Giving machines to effectively censor certain kinds of information would also come with a lot of baggage. "I think there’s a chance to algorithmically identify things that are more likely than not to be 'fake news,' but they will always work best in combination with a person with a sharp eye," says Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University.

Rosen also makes the subtle point: "There is almost no interest in the demand for fake news." Gee, why not?

■ We are all outraged by this (I'm picking Jim Treacher, but I could have picked many others): The NYT Is Straight-Up Lying About Sarah Palin And Gabby Giffords. Specifically, going out of its way to blame Palin's "incitement" for the shooting of Giffords and others. That was clearly refuted back then, but that didn't stop yesterday's NYT editorial from resurrecting the libel.

I don’t believe that the New York Times editorial board believes this. They know it’s not true. They’re lying, because they think the lie is necessary. In order to maintain the fiction that they’re the good guys, they need to twist this around and blame the people who are being physically attacked for their beliefs. As Ben Shapiro puts it: “The facts don’t match the narrative, so the facts must die a gruesome, slow death.”

I'm so old, I can't remember when I expected honesty or decency from the New York Times editorial board.

■ The WaPo covers the important story: The surprising number of American adults who think chocolate milk comes from brown cows.

Seven percent of all American adults believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows, according to a nationally representative online survey commissioned by the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy.

Well… Professor Althouse puts my reaction well:

There's nothing dumber than forgetting that other people might have a sense of humor and are screwing with you.

Let's all try to remember that.

■ Speaking of the important questions: How long was Bill Murray's character (Phil Davis) supposed to be in a time loop in the film “Groundhog Day”? This is at the "Science Fiction & Fantasy Stack Exchange", a "question and answer site for science fiction and fantasy enthusiasts" The neat thing about this q-and-a thread is that it includes responses from the movie's director, the late Harold Ramis, and the screenwriter Danny Rubin.

Spoiler: Rubin had a clever mechanism (and wrote some dialog) to let viewers know how many loop iterations Phil had been through, but it was dropped from the actual movie.