Will Big Data Kill Creativity?

Analytics has turned its attention toward ebook readers. Companies can now track the way you read; it may have implications for the way authors write. From the NY Times:

The longer a mystery novel is, the more likely readers are to jump to the end to see who done it. People are more likely to finish biographies than business titles, but a chapter of a yoga book is all they need. They speed through romances faster than religious titles, and erotica fastest of all…

At Oyster, a top book is “What Women Want,” promoted as a work that “brings you inside a woman’s head so you can learn how to blow her mind.” Everyone who starts it finishes it. On the other hand, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s “The Cycles of American History” blows no minds: fewer than 1 percent of the readers who start it get to the end…

He contrasted two romance novels. One had few Amazon reviews and little promotion, but Scribd’s data showed 6 out of 10 readers were finishing it — above average for the genre. Another romance had hundreds of reviews on Amazon, but only about 4 out of 10 readers bothered to finish it. They began closing the book, the data showed, when the writer plunged deeper into fantasy. Maybe this was not a good idea.

Some writers, of course, might not be receptive to hearing this.

“If you aren’t careful, you could narrow your creativity. You won’t take risks,” said Ms. Loftis, the young adult novelist. “But the bigger risk is not giving the reader what she wants. I’ll take all the data I can get.”

Things I do and don’t hear

In the category of “signs of mood affiliation” here is a short list of things I do an don’t hear:

1. Do hear: “Who funded that study showing GMOs weren’t that bad?”

Don’t hear: “Who funded that study showing climate change is a serious problem to future human health?”

2. Do hear: “Are you aware of the methodological and measurement problems of GDP?”

Don’t hear: “Are you aware of the methodological and measurement problems of the inequality data?”

3. Do hear: “That scathing op-ed in the New York Times by the ex-Wall Street executive really hit the nail on the head.”

Don’t hear: “That scathing op-ed in the New York Times by the ex-Wall Street executive was an ‘n’ of 1.”

Do hear: “That interview with the Iraqi teenager who supported America’s invasion was an ‘n’ of 1. Surely, there are many other contrary opinions among Iraqis.”

4. Do hear: “You can’t trust the Coors executive’s argument about alcohol consumption. He works for a brewing company, he’s totally biased!”

Don’t hear: “You can’t trust the MADD (Mother’s Against Drunk Driving) spokesperson’s word about alcohol consumption, her son was killed by a drunk driver, she’s totally biased!”

5. Do hear: “We need to learn from and honor the traditional practices of the Tanzanian farmer.”

Don’t hear: “We need to learn from and honor the scientific techniques of the modern American farmer.”

Excuses I Have Received for Date Cancellations:

-My car broke down and I’m stuck at work

-I forgot I have to take my niece to the fair

-I’ve met someone and I want to see where it goes

-I double booked myself, I have to go to a table gaming birthday party

-I had to take my dog to the emergency vet and now I have to keep an eye on him

-I’m at my friend’s BBQ

-YOU never confirmed so I made other plans

-My tummy hurts (very popular)

-It won’t be sunny

-I’m a boring person and I don’t know what to do

-I can’t make it (no explanation)

The worst part about these excuses is that they often come when I message to confirm. As in: “Hey we’re still on for Odd Fellows at 8 right?” “I can’t, my tummy hurts.” Um…feel free to tell me that BEFORE I message you to confirm. What if I would’ve just shown up?!?! Younger women (I’m 33) tend to give more excuses, but this is not universal.

Scalia’s Dissent

AS you are probably aware the United States Supreme Court today ruled in United States v. Windsor, a case that struck down the federal benefits portion of the Defense of Mariage Act (DOMA). As is usual in such matters barbs were quickly thrown at the so-called “four conservative justicies” with Justice Scalia taking the brunt of it (at least that is my impression from my politically-oriented Facebook feed). I use “four conservative justicies” in quotation marks because this would-be troupe of legal scholars disagree with one another far more than is widely recognized.

There is a mechanized hatred of Scalia discharged with every controversial Supreme Court decision. And it sadness me. The accusations directed toward him blithely glide by matters of prudent legal analysis and strike instead at his character. Few of us will read his dissent and instead, for reasons unbeknownst to me, assume he is a bigot. He must be a bigot you see, because we should march toward equality for same-sex couples and legal or not DOMA had to go. We seem to believe that the law is fungible and should be bent to comport with public opinion rather than the principles on which it was founded. Perhaps. But I won’t quarrel with those who disagree.

I believe in equality for same-sex couples. Some of my best friends are gay. I marched in Seattle’s PRIDE parade last year. I am glad a particularly deleterious portion of DOMA was struck down. But I will not pretend it was the correct legal decision because I have little knowledge of legal precedent or proceedings. Maybe it was, maybe not. And because of my ignorance I will not speak ill of those who disagree with the decision on legal grounds.

Undoubtedly, legal scholars of all persuasions will argue the decision’s merits for years to come. I read Scalia’s dissent so that at least I could be educated. I don’t know if Justice Scalia is a bigot. I want to believe that he isn’t. Either way his dissent today sheds no light on that question whatsoever. Indeed, I found much of his opinion moving and powerful as I do every Supreme Court opinion I have read. Detached from its context as falling on “the wrong side” of a matter of grave importance to so many it is hard to find traces of the homophobic man we so quickly label him to be.

Here are the opening and closing paragraphs of his dissent:

This case is about power in several respects. It is about the power of our people to govern themselves, and the power of this Court to pronounce the law. Today’s opinion aggrandizes the latter, with the predictable consequence of diminishing the former. We have no power to decide this case. And even if we did, we have no power under the Constitution to invalidate this democratically adopted legislation. The Court’s errors on both points spring forth from the same diseased root: an exalted conception of the role of this institution in America…

In the majority’s telling, this story is black-and-white: Hate your neighbor or come along with us. The truth is more complicated. It is hard to admit that one’s political opponents are not monsters, especially in a struggle like this one, and the challenge in the end proves more than today’s Court can handle. Too bad. A reminder that disagreement over something so fundamental as marriage can still be politically legitimate would have been a fit task for what in earlier times was called the judicial temperament. We might have covered ourselves with honor today, by promising all sides of this debate that it was theirs to settle and that we would respect their resolution. We might have let the People decide.

But that the majority will not do. Some will rejoice in today’s decision, and some will despair at it; that is the nature of a controversy that matters so much to so many. But the Court has cheated both sides, robbing the winners of an honest victory, and the losers of the peace that comes from a fair defeat. We owed both of them better. I dissent.

What has become of Tatooine?

A new photojournal by Ra di Martino sheds light on the current condition of Luke Skywalker’s once charming desert estate. You can find many of the photos in this album, which are currently on exhibition at the Tate Modern in London. I’ve copied a few sample images below. All photo credits go to Ra di Martino; you can view his website here.

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