Questioning Words: Wikipedia Hoaxes?

Nice piece in the WaPo about some of the long-lived hoax pages in Wikipedia.

Well down in the piece, a wikipedian comes to its defense.

“The question is not whether Wikipedia is more or less reliable than a day at the New York Public Library,” Matetsky said. “The question is whether Wikipedia is more or less reliable than whatever other results top Google search.”

When there are no other Google results, of course, it’s hard to call either way. Or worse: When the other results spring from a Wikipedia error, a phenomenon named “citogenesis” by the Web comic xkcd. For years, the Internet record has claimed that “chicken azid” is another term for the dish “chicken korma,” and that Amelia Bedelia was inspired by a Cameroonian maid.

It remains a remarkable resource, and although the inevitable errors and vulnerability to hoaxes or being gamed are real, “citogenesis” certainly existed long before Wikipedia, Ossian springs to mind.

Piltdown Man Researchers
A pre-wikipedia hoax that snared many, including Arthur Conan Doyle.

Two interesting questions: what does and does not get fixed and why? (Even though I don’t know much about the subject, I bet the articles on video games are more accurate-if no more temperate-than those on religion. Secondly, seems like data science could–although it may not be worth it to them–find ever more powerful algorithmic approaches that show which edits or whole pages emit a “hoaxy” feel. Bias might be much harder to nose out, but the “H or NH problem” seems tractable. It’s parallel to the effort to police published research that big data is probably already taking on.

Surprising Words: Gawker Unionizing?

Although it would seem to be the most post-modern/neo-liberal company ever (based as it is on the intersection of gossip and metadata), it appears that the writers at Gawker are trying to kick it old school and unionize.

The New York Observer has the story.

Gawker Staffers Trying to Unionize

“Gawker’s editorial employees are attempting to start a union, writer Hamilton Nolan announced in a post this afternoon. If the efforts prove successful, according to Mr. Nolan, it would make Gawker Media the first major online media company to organize.”

I have no idea if it will work–odds would seem long, but if there is an online ‘working class’ that would benefit from organizing, it probably does include writers and content people as well as those in things like the Amazon Mechanical Turk labor force. Unlike software developers, who in my experience have a fairly intense distaste for organized anything, writers feel put upon (‘because we are’ says a little voice in my head), and although it’s like herding cats, can see some value in coming together.

So stay tuned, like the meltdowns at “First Look” all of this will unfold in real time on the web, with the principals  tweeting copiously about it: and Gawker might find itself Gawked at.


One of the fathers of the American Labor Movement, Samuel Gompers. He may be smiling  at Gawker’s editorial workers’ fight to organize. Gawker readers, on the other hand, will probably be staring at the abs on that guy on the right and thinking about, um, pilates, that’s it. Courtesy of AgnosticPreachersKid at en.wikipedia.


Reasonable Words: WaPo editor Marty Baron, the future is now

Color printing comes to the front page of the New York Times: 1997. A little more than a century after the three-color printing process was developed in 1893.

Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron’s speech on the changes in print journalism is timely and provocative (to use a journalistic cliché) if not exactly a news flash.

A few bits:

“It’s wrong to say we’re becoming a digital society. We ALREADY ARE a digital society. And even that statement is behind the times. We’re a mobile society. Eighty percent of adults on earth are expected to have a smartphone by 2020.”

“But distance between the newsroom and the business side fostered ignorance. Newsroom staff never really understood how we made money – and, in all honesty, didn’t really care. That’s because we made so much. And the business side, I should add, didn’t really understand the newsroom. Because of our dominant position among readers and advertisers, it didn’t seem to matter.”

Today, it matters. We need to know how the bills get paid – more pointedly, how the coverage is funded.”

“We have fostered a tight working relationship with our Engineering department, with 47 engineers working with our journalists. Four years ago, we had only four engineers in newsroom. When we move into a new office within a year, all 47 engineers will be embedded in our newsroom, working side by side with our journalists.”

His points aren’t surprising to me (I’ve been working on the web for 20 years, and tried to make the point about different forms of storytelling a decade back) I’ve also worked at a legacy electronic media company which has had its own struggles with loss of relevance, prestige, and a busted funding model.

But one thing I don’t see candor so often is that it was so damn easy to make $$$ in the newspaper business, at least for the big boys, for so long. Even during my few years as a Post/staffer and stringer, the amount of money the place made was bountiful beyond belief. And as Baron says, for reasons good and bad, the idea of the paper as a business seldom really impinged on the ethos of the 5th floor where the newsroom was. Editorial types came to journalism with a mix of motives, but there are (or at least were) a fair number of public-service minded or wonky types, who had no interest in, or real facility with things like “innovative business models” and didn’t even like to talk money per se.  They wanted to change the world, bring down a corrupt president, “tell the people” or be a foreign correspondent, maybe someday turn out a thumb-sucky book that influenced policy, and then be put out to pasture running a small liberal arts college somewhere. Turns out the publishers may not have been any great shakes at the whole biz model thing either: their task was to steer big elegant ships through monopolistic mass media waters with no actual competitive threats, certainly not in DC at least. Looked at it from that end of the telescope–not a completely fair perspective, granted, what’s amazing is not that the newspaper biz is crumbling cookie-wise as Jack Lemmon would say, it’s amazing that it stayed intact this long.

Another personal observation: as somebody who speaks newspaperman (having been raised by two) but who is also nerdy enough to at least have “advanced beginner” tech-speak skills, I do know these two languages offer abundant opportunities to epically misunderstand other.  It starts with a a software developer (not a ‘technologist,’ Marty!) referring to “content” which which a writer will feel dissed by, and a writer in turn going , “why can’t it just work that way when I press a button?” about some tech feature. It goes down hill from there, and ends with mutual “they just don’t get it.”

The image of “embedding engineers” in a newsroom is a a particular laugh. About the only thing that could be successfully embedded in any of the newsrooms I’ve ever worked in or seen is a bar. Maybe the best innovation is a touch screen app for reporters that brings Diet Coke, cigarettes, booze and coffee directly to their desk, and uses the voice of Hildy Johnson.

The whole Baron thing is worth reading.

When I got a thank you gift from Amazon in 1998, it was a coffee mug with this quote on it.

“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.” –John Cage. The enclosed message from Jeff Bezos (now owner of the Post), pointed out that Cage’s quote was one of his favorites.




Robot Words: Albert Goldbarth

The poet and essayist Albert Goldbarth collects robots and rocketships. He  gave a charming interview to Poetry Foundation about them.  Reminded of this by a photo I took last week of a toy store in window in Amsterdam.

From the end of the interview:
Is there anything you’d like to tell me about your collection that I didn’t ask?
I guess for me some of these robots are beautiful. Some of them have a kind of futuristic look that I really appreciate. They’re part of the future that was promised us, that wonderful future where we really were going to be living on other planets, zipping around to work with little jet packs on our back and changing our personal weather by turning a dial in our homes, telebeaming to one another from the moon, to Mars Port, that beautiful innocent very optimistic and expansive promise-ful future. Of course, it became the world we’re living in now—AIDS and overpopulation and terrorism—but these robots are part of that alternative future. That’s quite lovely to me.

But also when I look at robots, I see heavy manual labor. To a large extent, we imagined that as mechanical creatures they would do our work for us. They would go into the mines on the moon, and they would be the ones to wield the picks to take out all the moon metal. The word “robot” comes from Karel Capek’s early play R.U.R., Rossum’s Universal Robots. Robot, for him, means labor or some heavy manual laborer. But when I look at these rocket ships, these anti-gravity vehicles, these things the size of 12 battleships put together, that nonetheless can zoom off the surface of a planet as if through the pure power of wishing, I think of the exact opposite of manual labor. For me, I think space and spaceships imply a world of immediate wish fulfillment. A kind of technological version of Peter Pan’s flight. And I wish I could articulate well for you how absolutely and deeply beautiful they are to my eyes.

Check out his funny, perceptive poems as well.

30 Days of Opera Tidbits Day 2: G&S and Character

stampContinuing my ( occasional) posting on bite-size intros to opera, today a quick consideration of Gilbert and Sullivan. This refers to a collection of comic operettas written by Arthur Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert over about 25 years in the last quarter of the 19th century.  Very topical in their time, these tuneful pieces sent up everything from the “aesthetic” movement of Wilde et al, “A languid love for lilies does not blight me!” confesses the faux aesthete in Patience to  the do-nothing politicians that seem to plague any era, “The House of Peers, throughout the war/Did nothing in particular, And did it very well” (From Iolanthe).

There are all kinds pleasures big and small in the G&S oeuvre worth pointing out, but I’ll keep it to a couple that relate to opera directly, first in re the old debate about words and music. G&S provides an object lesson of how both can work together, a requirement for a successful opera, which is, despite its reputation a theatrical not a purely musical form. There is probably not much profit in trying to analyze of why or how exactly it works (in G&S no less than in Mozart and DaPonte), but somehow when the wedding is successful you hear the narrative, dramatic, and expressive, ideas of the music realized in the words, and vice versa. The whole gains moral force some how. There is also the need for attention to the sounds of the words as a aspect of the music in itself, something which Gilbert managed, while also managing to let off quite a lot of comic firecrackers.

In capsule: in opera, ideally words and music work together, melding meaning as well as sound.

Then to character: The other thing that G&S shares with opera is the use of an aria to introduce and illuminate a character. (This is not unique to opera, Shakespeare has “aria” like introductions for some characters, and movies and plays introduce characters, whether simple ‘types’ or more nuanced. Sondheim’s <em>Into the Woods</em> does this almost schematically, something thrown into unfortunate relief by the recent film.)

However, opera gets some special kung-fu from the opportunity it offers a protagonist to come out on stage, say “welcome to me!” and proceed to show his or her vocal and theatrical stuff. To wit (chosen from many good examples):

Kevin Kline in the Public Theater’s production of The Pirates of Penzance from the late 70s; he certainly offers a winning self-introduction!

Reasonable Words: In Praise of Bookstores

Back from a quick trip to Belgium and Holland, and heartened by seeing bookstores in cities large in small (three even in tiny Bruges’ quaint old town).

Here’s a photo of one I saw in Amsterdam.

bookstore_Amsterdam_sized DC and Boston have lost a lot of bookstores over the last 10 years: Borders and Waterstone’s are gone, but so are local favorites like Wordsworth’s in Harvard Square, or Trover Shop on Capitol Hill, which had a fascinating combo of politics and experimental fiction.

A few kind words about this endangered species:

“I had a friend once who looked at his library and discovered that even if he completely stopped filmmaking (he was a filmmaker too) and just decided to read the books he had in his library, it would take him until he was 100 years old. He was little bit panicked. But he was courageous. He went out of his house. He went to the bookstore. And he bought ten books.”
― Alain Resnais

Hugo headed off toward the door to leave, but the bookstore was warm and quiet, and the teetering piles of books fascinated him.”
― Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret

“Standing there, staring at the long shelves crammed with books, I felt myself relax and was suddenly at peace.”
― Helene Hanff, Q’s Legacy

“A bookstore is one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking.”
– Jerry Seinfeld

30 Days of Opera Tidbits, Day 1

stampAs is my wont every April and November, I am going to do a 30-day series (give or take a few, seeing that it’s April 5 already). In 2013 it was poetry about music and in 2014 it was great first lines.

For this month, a painless intro to opera in 30 or so bite-sized nuggets. As somebody who has been an opera-lover since my teen years (a future post will reveal the sensational “how I was recruited into the opera lifestyle” story), I no longer recall what it is like to feel daunted by it. Yet many are; just today a friend, considering a trip to see an opera said he thought it would take such concentration, to say nothing of the preparation, that he was permanently discouraged. The idea that it might be something one attended for fun was not a premise he had considered. Rather, like learning a foreign language, or training for a marathon, it might be a worthy task for self-improvement, but not a source of innocent merriment.

One way to back away from this “self-improvement project” (or the even worse “cultural litmus test”), is to sneak in the back door by considering things that share DNA with opera, but don’t have the baggage, in fact, are generally just plain fun. I mean, of course, musical comedies and Gilbert and Sullivan.

The musical comedy tradition, one of America’s indigenous art forms, grew out of operetta and vaudeville—sharing a genealogy with opera: at their root they are story plus music, as is opera

Whether your taste in musicals runs to Spring Awakening and Matilda, or South Pacific and My Fair Lady, they all share the key characteristic that a dramatic narrative is embodied in music for the  voice. The infinite ways this can be accomplished, and, tbh, the equally infinite numbers of ways it can go wrong, have given music theater (and opera before that) its characteristic ability to reinvent itself.

The creators of musicals often (although not invariably) work with a combination of spoken dialogue, songs (typically verse and refrain) duets, larger ensembles and choruses. All of these have precedents in opera, but to get our feet wet with the idea of how music and drama work together, I offer three examples. (I am afraid that my examples will tend towards the classic Broadway shows—I’m the last one to wallow in nostalgia about the ‘way it used to be’ brilliant musicals are being written today–but the examples I have to hand are these.

First: the “Tonight Quintet” from West Side Story.

This is really a dazzling piece of work. If you are not familiar with West Side Story (and you should be) it is based on Romeo and Juliet, and this ensemble brings together the voices of the main protagonists, each anticipating the fateful dance. Each line introduces a musical and a dramatic point of view, building in turn into an ensemble (with the lovers’ lines soaring above.)

So this is an ensemble (meaning a piece that uses multiple voices), a classic operatic form. It illuminates opera’s ability to play with time:  Just as movies rely on narrative techniques like flashbacks or epics use frame stories, operas often stop time during an ensemble, as the action goes inward and we learn what everybody is thinking via the music we can hear (but which isolates the characters). Although, this is possible in spoken drama or novels, but in those the trick is hardly worth the candle, setting it to music gives it a rhetorical dimension that is far more powerful. (Later this month, if I remember, I will post the stunning example of this stopping of time and multiple perspectives in Barber’s Vanessa.)

The next example is “You’re Nothing Without Me” from City of Angels.

Duets are all over the place in opera, most often of the love variety, but running the gamut of dramatic purpose. Love duets are staples of musicals as well, but Cy Coleman. David Zippel, and Bart Gelbart’s loveletter to film noir, City of Angels offers a different take. Here, which the writer who has created a famous detective faces off with his creation as the double narratives that drive the show come to a fizzy head. It’s a show-stopper, a great first act closer for an altogether wonderful show.

Finally, the solo song. This is probably the oldest form in opera, perhaps in music and it taps the atavistic power of the story-teller. Here is an example from South Pacific, in which Emile de Becque (in the Tony winning performance of Paulo Szot) reflects on the love he believes he has lost.

So solos, duets, ensembles, here are the basic building blocks of operas. If you found yourself enjoying these, you are on your way. Next, Gilbert and Sullivan, truly a gateway drug to opera.

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