Fictional Text Analytics

There’s a great moment in John Scalzi’s Redshirts where statistical analysis is mentioned, and it comes down to comparing texts:


“So what you’re saying is all this is impossible,” Dahl said.

Jenkins shook his head. “Nothing’s impossible,” he said. “But some things are pretty damned unlikely. This is one of them.”

“How unlikely?” Dahl asked.

“In all my research there’s only one spaceship I’ve found that has even remotely the same sort of statistical patterns for away missions,” Jenkins said. He rummaged through the graphic elements again, and then threw one onto the screen. They all stared at it.

Duvall frowned. “I don’t recognize this ship,” she said. “And I thought I knew every type of ship we had. Is this a Dub U ship?”

“Not exactly,” Jenkins said. “It’s from the United Federation of Planets.”
Duvall blinked and focused her attention back at Jenkins. “Who are they?” she asked.

“They don’t exist,” Jenkins said, and pointed back at the ship. “And neither does this. This is the starship Enterprise. It’s fictional. It was on a science fictional drama series. And so are we.”


On Publishing Conflicts

The thirty-fourth day of #stayathome was spent mostly focused on copyright issues surrounding a successfully defended dissertation. The good news is that the dissertation was not only an academic success but was already under contract with a university press. The bad news was that the university press used a terrible boilerplate contract and the dissertation had received incorrect information from university personnel. (This happened prior to me coming on board as chair of the dissertation.)

This has resulted in something of an impasse: the press claims complete copyright for the manuscript and the university requires that the manuscript be submitted to ProQuest. Now the rules of ProQuest are that copyright remain with the author, but ProQuest still offers the option of buying a copy of the submitted manuscript, so they are in fact able to make copies. A ten-year embargo is possible, but it’s not clear if the university press is likely to budge. The university uses ProQuest because as a public university it feels that knowledge created here should be publicly available. The mandate comes down to a sentence in one document and a sentence in another.

The big picture is easy: the university’s mandate is to make public the knowledge it produces. In being published as a book, the dissertation accomplishes that and more: it will be more widely available, and at a cheaper price, than it would in ProQuest. The publisher’s mandate is to maximize the profitability of publishing this book. This can be accomplished by the ProQuest embargo — surely, the principal profit in the book will be in its first ten years!

The takeaways are many:

  1. For dissertators: read all the fine print at your institution. Do not depend on anyone’s advice unless they are, one, in a position to give it, and, two, they give it to you in writing.
  2. For all dissertations, and really all academic authors: read the contract. (More on this below.)
  3. For university presses: revise your contracts to be human.

In addition to the inflexible guidelines maintained by the university, there is the inflexibility of the contract. The particular press here is not alone. I’ve seen similar language in other contracts, and, indeed, when the press that published The Amazing Crawfish Boat first sent me a contract, it looked like this. Here’s the thing: I revised the contract, sent it back, and they were fine with the revisions. Here are the revisions I would suggest:

  • Copyright: Depending upon the severity of the contract, most presses want the copyright to your book. Some will recognize that there’s a span of time, but many will not or they will use the fuzziest of notions: that they maintain copyright “so long as the book remains in print.” Here’s the thing: in the digital era, books remain in print forever. The cost of maintaining an ebook approaches zero, and with print-on-demand, a publisher need not keep inventory of a book. I recommend you strike this out and change this to a flat “ten years or when the book goes out of print, whichever comes first.”
  • Derivative Works: Publishers like to act like they are going to do all kinds of things, but they aren’t. They are going to publish the book. Unless they have committed to publishing an audiobook version, then you should maintain that right. Also, if you plan to publish follow-on work or companion works, which should actually help to drive sales of the original, be sure to maintain that right. (The changes in wording here will depend on the contract.)
  • Subsidiary Rights: I think it’s fair to allow a publisher to keep whatever percentage, usually it’s half (50%), of the proceeds of subsequent print versions of the book, but I would cross out the clause involving other adaptations (video, audio, whatever). Also, the clause that says something like “we get half of net proceeds from anything not specifically set out in this paragraph”? Cross that out, too.

As you can probably tell, much of this language is drawn from industry presses and university presses have simply adopted it whole cloth because, in being oppressive, it works entirely in their favor. In my experience, having a conversation is pretty easy: common sense works here. Too many academic authors, especially first-time authors, are so excited about their book getting published or so worried that should they ask a question or request a change in the contract that the publisher is going to suddenly change their mind about publishing the book. No sensible press would: they have invested time and energy in lining up the manuscript for their press. They are not going to suddenly throw up their hands and yell: “That’s it! We’re out!” They are simply going to say “No.”

What you rights you are comfortable giving to them and for how long and with how much of the possible revenue … well, that’s ultimately a decision you alone can make. All I am suggesting is that you think about it, at least some, before signing your name.

On Teaching Online (So Far)

Today marks the 33rd day of quarantine, or, rather, a state-wide policy of staying at home. Others elsewhere living under other circumstances will count a different number of days. I count 33 days since Friday, March 13, when the university where I work announced that classes were cancelled for the following Monday and Tuesday and that when Wednesday dawned, all classes would be online.

I was somewhat luckier than most. I had begun to have conversations with my students that week about what it would mean if we had to go online, and so we had made plans together, which helped, I think, the eventual deployment. I remember quite clearly working through some of the finer points of how we would conduct ourselves in my eleven o’clock class when, as class was finishing one of my students looked at his phone and announced, “Oh, it’s official. We’re going online.” (Of course, my university announced it first on Twitter, and then about an hour later sent an email to faculty.)

So, it’s been a month — well, three and a half weeks really — and I have learned a lot about teaching online, appreciating that how you gauge comprehension is a fundamental shift between the two environments. In face-to-face lectures and discussions, you have an entire range of facial expressions, gestures, and postures that reveal to you the scope and depth of someone’s understanding of the material being examined. A slight eyebrow furrow can lead you to re-state a proposition with a different set of words that raises not only that person’s eyebrows but a host of others. A different person’s posture reveals they are having a bad day or, perhaps, they haven’t prepared for class, prompting you to think about ways to re-engage them, give them reason to seize the next opportunity to examine the material for themselves, looping them back into the next discussion. All of this changes online, and the number of solutions that some learning management systems offer to assess student learning now begins to make sense — though, I confess, I continue to think that any number of them are rather unimaginative and, honestly, somewhat trivializing of any content which must pass through them.

A couple of other things tumble out of my experience of online teaching so far, the first of which is time management, which I glimpse not only through the lens of my screen but also through watching my own high-school aged child adapt to the change in circumstances. While my daughter spends hours in front of the computer, I am not entirely sure that it is an effective use of her time. That is, I think she confuses time spent staring at the screen with time spent working. I don’t think I am being unfair here, because I can be equally guilty of allowing myself the “quick break” to watch a YouTube video, sometimes educational like something from 3 Blue and 1 Brown or StatQuest but also just as likely, if I am being honest, to be the highlights from a Premier League game or a woodworking video (that I justify as avocational advancement). What my daughter lacks and what my students lack, and perhaps even I lack, is the regimentation of the varied workday. My daughter is quite clear about it: she was quite used to her day being broken up into chunks, each of which allowed her to focus quite clearly on the task in front of her, confident that there would be a change of class, a change of topic, and, perhaps, a change of pace. This kind of clear set of steps accompanied by variation is one way to be productive. As an adult I use it quite often. Indeed, I am entirely reliant now on being good at scheduling my day in a way that gives me the opportunity to focus intensely on a particular task, but often that focus is driven by the fact that it is bounded and I know that I can push because coming up at two o’clock, for example, I am going to break for coffee and a stroll into the garden (or what we would like to be a garden at some point in its stunted existence).

Finally, there is the matter of writing. No matter what I teach, I think the one thing that I can contribute to my student’s own personal and intellectual development is the ability to write well: to develop ideas, to base those ideas on clearly-defined inputs, and then to communicate those ideas, analytical or argumentative, well. If anything should be conducive to writing it’s the online environment. After all, at its base, the internet is simply bits being sent from one computer to another, mostly in the forms of words (or things like words like HTML tags). Or, put another way, much of our electronic communication, especially among my students, is based on some form of texting — the particular application/platform within which they text is less important than the fact that they exchange words so readily.

So you would think that shifting to all-online teaching would be a boon to the teaching of writing, but so many people are so anxious about writing that you actually spend considerable amount of time as an instructor giving them confidence, and that often comes in the form of one-on-one sessions before and after class, in the hallway, or in your office. I now spend a considerable amount of time inside Teams doing much the same, but it is far more difficult and takes far more time. (And, to be honest, this kind of effort is not rewarded institutionally: we have so devalued the teaching of writing that it’s really a wonder it gets taught at all.)

Synesthesia

I don’t remember where I encountered it now, Reddit or some other social media platform, but there was a post that took you to a webpage that claimed to generate your name as a barcode of colors as those letters would appear to individuals with synesthesia. But I want to know: are such color associations universal? Or are they more individualized?

Laudun as a Synesthetic Color Bar

Laudun as a Synesthetic Color Bar

At some point I may explore the matter more, in the mean time, here is my last name in blocks of color, which I may use in further revisions of this website: I rather like the brown and green combination. (Given that I only use color to offset links, I don’t quite know how I would implement that: regular text in brown and links in green? There’s not enough contrast between the brown and navy blue and black to be used, and red … no.)

Website Updates

It was time to fold the experimental portfolio site into this main site and to re-direct the URL, jl.net, here. Not so much “one ring to rule them all” as “too many things in too many places.” (And, to be clear, this has been going on behind the scenes as well in my private reading, note-taking, and writing applications. I will, perhaps, write about that at some point.)

Most of the materials have come across and either created new pages, focused on outlining my teaching philosophy or my attempts to work towards diversity, revised extant pages, or replaced extant pages entirely. The last is the fate of the research page as it once was, and I am pasting below its discontents:


I like to make things. I make a lot of things with words, and those things get called essays or books, but I’ve also used words to make things like grants, CDs, television programs, databases, and code. (Words words words.) Here are a few things I’ve made (a complete list of such things can be found on my vita):

The Makers of Things

The Amazing Crawfish Boat is my book on how a bunch of Cajun and German farmers and fabricators invented a traditional amphibious boat. It’s the first book-length ethnographic study of material folk culture in Louisiana — really, the first ethnography in Louisiana studies since Post’s Sketches.

An Olinger Boat

An Olinger Boat

The idea for the book came in the wake of the 2005 hurricanes, when a national debate erupted about the nature of land (in Louisiana) and what it meant to re-build an American city (New Orleans). A lot of land got dismissed as “wetlands”, which, it seemed in the view of most pundits, was really not land at all. I thought it would be interesting to investigate how people in Louisiana actually imagined the landscape on which they live and work, and what I found was an amazing series of adaptations and innovations, the most iconic of which is the crawfish boat. There’s more information on the book and the project behind it.

The Shape of Small Stories

My more recent work has focused on Why Stories Matter, where I explore the shape of stories both as a form as well as an experience. From local legends about treasure to contemporary legends about Slender Man, I’m interested in how stories shape our experience of the world and how we shape the world through stories. I ground my explorations not only in my home field of folklore studies but also in contemporary work in cognitive and computational models of narrative. A lot of the work you see on the Logbook that has to do with textual analysis/text mining using Python is part of this work.

The Way Louisiana Treasure Legends Work

The Way Louisiana Treasure Legends Work

Text Analytics

As I have explored the shape of stories and as I have begun to develop an understanding of ways to describe and/or analyze narrative computationally, I have begun to develop a small collection of scripts in Python that, for now, is simply known as Useful Python Scripts for Texts that is available on GitHub. Given interest in it, and my own commitment to developing a computational folkloristic that will pair well with other folklorists, like Tim Tangherlini, working in this area, I have begun to draft a larger text that describes what work can be done.

Louisiana Studies & Digital Humanities

I have done a lot of work in Louisiana studies, both in terms of producing original research but also in trying to find more ways to engage the diverse audiences interested in folk culture:

  • In 2003 or so, I joined the faculty and staff at the Center for Louisiana Studies. The state of the Archives of Cajun and Creole Folklore and the dream of leaping forward a technology or two provided me with the reason to write a grant to the Grammy Foundation. With those funds we made the best possible digital copy of taped recordings, and, then we used those digital copies to open up the Archives to a variety of interested individuals with a variety of purposes. We ended up with some pretty amazing results, as you can hear for yourself in the first two CDs released under the Louisiana Folk Masters brand: Varise Conner and Women’s Home Music.
The first Louisiana Folk Masters CD

The first Louisiana Folk Masters CD

  • The idea for Louisiana Folk Masters was born out of a desire to make the folk culture — real folk culture and not the stuff too often served up in the popular media — more accessible. I dreamed up a series of products that would have as their basis the materials either already in the Archives of Cajun and Creole Folklore or that materials that were being generated with the Archives in mind. The CDs were just the first step. Television was next. As luck would have it, Louisiana Public Broadcasting was interested in expanding its approach to the genre of “human interest” stories. I worked with LPB on two profiles: one on Creole filé maker John Colson and another on Cajun Mardi Gras mask maker Lou Trahan. (Clickable links to the videos coming soon.)

I’ve also written grants for a number of other projects — mostly because I like to see what happens when you come up with something new and fun: what can others do with it?

  • Humanities Research and the Tourism Commission. While I was still involved heavily with the Center for Cultural and Eco-Tourism, the good folks from Acadia Parish came to the Center and asked for help brain-storming possible ways to improve their tourism infrastructure. We eventually proposed Rich the First Time, a media archive and database that would consist of high-quality inputs gathered by folklorists (mostly our students) that would be available for a variety of outputs.

  • In 2007 or so, the director of the Humanities Resources Center, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts, and I began a conversation about what it would take to support faculty and students in their research and publishing in the new era of cyberinfrastructures. We decided we needed a room full of equipment that could do anything someone was willing to dream up and try out. The Louisiana Digital Humanities Lab was born in that moment.

If you arrived here looking for the forms I created for field surveys, media logging, and archiving. (Specific links are to the Scribd pages.) You may also be interested in my collection of interview tips.