Academic Gibberish: There’s an App for That!

ApparentlyScreen Shot 2014-02-26 at 8.50.47 AM some of the nonsense that makes it into conference proceedings is not the work of weary academics with unfortunate prose styles,  it’s just computer-generated gibberish. A report on the Nature Web site has the embarrassing disclosure that scientific and technical publishers are now pulling over 100 fake papers that got through “review for merit and content” despite being computer-generated garbage. (How did they pass peer review? Does one computer algorithm just check another computer’s output to make sure it’s “quality gibberish”?)

From the opening of the piece:

The publishers Springer and IEEE are removing more than 120 papers from their subscription services after a French researcher discovered that the works were computer-generated nonsense.

Over the past two years, computer scientist Cyril Labbé of Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble, France, has catalogued computer-generated papers that made it into more than 30 published conference proceedings between 2008 and 2013. Sixteen appeared in publications by Springer, which is headquartered in Heidelberg, Germany, and more than 100 were published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), based in New York. Both publishers, which were privately informed by Labbé, say that they are now removing the papers.

Later in the piece, there’s this delicious bit of how to:

How to create a nonsense paper

Labbé developed a way to automatically detect manuscripts composed by a piece of software called SCIgen, which randomly combines strings of words to produce fake computer-science papers. SCIgen was invented in 2005 by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge to prove that conferences would accept meaningless papers — and, as they put it, “to maximize amusement”

I’m surprised that it wasn’t “fake social-science” or “fake lit crit,” after all, the knock-offs being so difficult to tell apart from the real product. I hope the software is still in development, and we’ll have modules soon for fake “Judith Butler” or “Slavoj Žižek.”

P.S. Wikipedia discloses that it’s been going on for years! Academic Spam.

London Review of Books: Listening Room

Came across this letter in a recent LRB, which, despite showing a politician I mostly loathe in faintly positive light, does nail one Monty Pythonesque aspect of business life. The “difficult” person may actually be the one who is listening.

From the London Review of Books

Thatcher or Williams

Writing about Shirley Williams and Margaret Thatcher a while back, a permanent secretary at the Ministry of Education who served both described the two as complete opposites of each other (LRB, 19 December 2013). When you entered Williams’s office she would welcome you and be very interested in what you had to say. As you talked she would put her head on one hand, look very hard at you and drink in every word. She could not have been more sympathetic. Thatcher, on the other hand, was never very pleased to see you and when you said, ‘Minister, there’s something I must say,’ she would reply: ‘Do you absolutely have to?’ She would listen with an angry look as you tried to persuade her of the folly of one of her policies and at the end she would shout that it was all rubbish and handbag you.

However, the next day you would notice that Thatcher had accepted some or all of your recommendations and now considered them her own, whereas Williams never altered what she had decided in the first place. She had given you tea and sympathy but had refused to hear a word: Thatcher had given you hell but had allowed your words to percolate through.

R.W. Johnson
Cape Town


Dilbert has also noted a version of this phenomena, as is his wont:


Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 7.41.17 AM

This Just In: Tax Cuts Work!

Raised, as I was, by socialist parents during an era where kids sang Woody Guthrie songs during elementary school assembly, I’ve always pretty much been the poster child for a “tax and spend liberal.” I’ve always been okay with taxes, and may be one of the few willing to pay more particular if they serve civic needs and aim towards fairness.

So I am shocked, shocked to find out that cutting taxes–and allowing superstars crafty loopholes (literally)–does fuel economic growth and artistic innovation. To wit: Abba’s essence of the 70’s look, a product of tax policy!

From a Guardian report on their new book:

And the reason for their bold fashion choices lay not just in the pop glamour of the late 70s and early 80s, but also in the Swedish tax code.

According to Abba: The Official Photo Book, published to mark 40 years since they won Eurovision with Waterloo, the band’s style was influenced in part by laws that allowed the cost of outfits to be deducted against tax – so long as the costumes were so outrageous they could not possibly be worn on the street.

The tax scofflaws in one of their less outrageous get ups.

Now we know what Grover Norquist will be wearing (and listening to) if he manages to drown the US Government in a bathtub.

Poetic Words: Jill Osier’s Snow Poem

Snow Becoming Light by Morning

by Jill Osier

In case you sit across from the meteorologist tonight,
and in case the dim light over the booth in the bar still shines
almost planetary on your large, smooth, winter-softened
forehead, in case all of the day—its woods and play, its fire—
has stayed on your beard, and will stay through the slight
drift of mouth, the slackening of even your heart’s muscle—
. . . well. I am filled with snow. There’s nothing to do now
but wait.

Boston snows of yesteryear (from the BPL Flickr stream.)
Boston snows of yesteryear (from the BPL Flickr stream).

Periodic Table of Storytelling

The “Periodic Table” meme has gotten a little threadbare, but I did like this recent one (picked up via Laughing Squid)


It links through to TVTropes, truly a weapon of mass distraction.

The Thirty-Six Dramatic SituationsOf course, all genres and disciplines have their tropes and clichés. When I was a child, I found my mother’s copy of Polti’s The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations and thought “only 36?” we have more than that in our household. Couldn’t make heads or tales out of it as a 4th grader. Years later it was re-released and I got it out of the library on a lark. It turns out to be learned, and rather interesting, and yes the same plots show up again and again; something he traces to Greek drama often. I don’t remember most of them them, but am sure that the great hits are all there: “a stranger comes to town” “cat and a dog in a bag together” “love under false circumstances” “the night we never met” “wounded healer” all variety of love polygons, overheard confessions, crossed signals, love close up and far away, mistaken identity; and that perennial favorite “embarking on a daring enterprise.”(Just looked that one up: it’s #9).

No. 9 of 36.
No. 9 of 36. Read them all on Open Library.

Polit was writing mostly about 19th century and earlier works, where masters and servants were a big trope in storytelling, whether tragic or comic. And what a godsend servants and class relations were to writers (judging by the insane popularity of Downton Abbey to audiences too). They can drive dialogue and action on as they overhear, interfere, serve loyally or betray, and of course tumble in and out of love, bed, windows, jobs, jump seats and much else with cliff-hanging verve. Yet another trope. Gotta wind down. Perhaps a Biblical quote, the original urtext/fake book for so many plots, provides a good way to end:

“What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.”

So true, particularly if you are a TV writer!

Reasonable Words: Fact Checking in a Digital World

Years ago (pre-Web) I was a news researcher for the Washington Post, and in a job before that responded to inquires from Congress as a staffer at the Congressional Research Service. Both jobs involved digging things up and fact checking in books (“You Could Look It Up“) and in expensive databases that you dialed up and used arcane search strings to mine.  Now resources beyond anything I had access to (and that included the largest library in the world when I was at LoC) are are few taps of a cell phone away. But in that constant blizzard of content, what’s reliable? What counts as news? What factual standards should reporters aim for, particularly in a breaking news situation?

A group of journalists has just put out a web resource to address this issue, The Verification Handbook. I’ve only just begun to browse it, but the content looks strong and the need is real.

The Verification Handbook

Thanks to Joyce Venza’s school library blog, Never Ending Search for the pointer.

Monday Morning: Winter Rain

Snow promised, but only rain so far in DC. Not quite Dickensian, but still poetic, as rain always seems to be (when it’s not dire, that is):

The Fitful Alternations of the Rain
By Percy Bysshe Shelley

The fitful alternations of the rain,
When the chill wind, languid as with pain
Of its own heavy moisture, here and there
Drives through the gray and beamless atmosphere.


"Alleys; Pedestrians; Umbrellas; Boston (Mass.)" from the BPL's great Flickr stream. (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.)
“Alleys; Pedestrians; Umbrellas; Boston (Mass.)” from the BPL’s great Flickr stream. (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.)


And for musical rain: Horowitz playing the “Raindrop” Prelude of Chopin, Op. 28, No. 15…although there seems to be some doubt about whether the “Raindrop” nickname really came from the composer or not.

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