Cultural biases built into Gmail and FB autocorrect spelling

Two examples:
1. No matter how many times I type a student’s name, Shaoni, in Gmail, Gmail’s autocorrect always wants to convert that to “Shane.” Ditto for Facebook. Shaoni is a South Asian name. Shane is a name popular with those who revere American westerns, etc. (There’s a famous YA novel and movie called Shane from the 1950s, about a renegade loner-hero with a heart of gold.)
2. Gmail and FB do the same with the last name of a Latino author I’m teaching this semester, constantly “correcting” Urrea to “Urea” (which means urine!) despite repeated corrections of this “correction” made by me.  (Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The House of Broken Angels, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, and other novels.)
Wouldn’t it be possible to add some simple AI where if a suggestion were rejected more than 3 times by the same user the system could “remember” that? Just a (hopeful) suggestion.  (Yes, I know it’s possible to reject suggestions by clicking on the little X button. But when you’ve got lots of typing to do and email etc. to get through, having to reject repeatedly wrong prompts really is a waste of time.)
We all know that Google and FB have other quirks (to use a too-mild word) that are more damaging to our society than imperfect autocorrect algorithms. But how about using some of their millions to pay a few bright 20-something coders to fix these problems?  They’re not, actually, unrelated.
Or am I mistaken and all this is an Apple autocorrect issue?  (I use a MacBook Pro.)
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On Contradictions in Nathaniel Rich’s “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.”

Nathaniel Rich’s issue-long essay in this week’s New York Times Magazine receives a title worthy of a play: “Losing Earth: The decade we almost stopped climate change. A tragedy in two acts.” It’s definitely worth an hour or two of your time—and it’s accompanied by powerful photos by George Steinmetz of global examples of climate change in action. However, for all its fascinating research and dramatic storytelling, Rich’s essay is fundamentally flawed both in its narrative and its contradictory conclusions.

On the one hand, plenty of evidence is marshaled to conclude that “human beings, whether in global organizations, democracies, industries, political parties or as individuals, are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations” (66).

Yet, unwilling to end, apparently, so bleakly, the essay then veers in its conclusion to hoping for some sort of future “revolution” sparked by young people and driven not by reason but by fear:

“At some point, the fears of young people will overwhelm the fears of the old. Some time after that, the young will amass enough power to act. It will be too late to avoid some catastrophes, but perhaps not others. Humankind is nothing if not optimistic, even to the point of blindness. We are also an adaptable species. That will help. … Rational argument has failed in a rout. Let irrational optimism have a turn. it is also human nature, after all, to hope” (66).

But why should a revolution be needed? Why was reason routed? The article clearly shows us why, yet its conclusion hesitates to name it. It’s corporate capitalism’s power and money acting as an invisible hand to alter the course of both the global economy and American democracy. It’s not “human beings” as a whole who are the villains because of a flaw in our nature. The oil and gas industry—and many others, including chemical and timber companies, and agribusiness giants like Monsanto, all of whose collaboration with the oil and gas conglomerates goes largely unexplored here—intervened. At first they used “collaboration” and sponsorship of scientific research and meetings. Then they turned to outright and covert nullification, using both mass media and secret lobbying and cash. So are “we” really to blame?

The article also shows no interest in chronicling the story of others fighting climate change who were not elite scientists testifying to elite congressmen.

Perhaps the most startling sentence the Times judged to be fit to print: “But in order to become a revolutionary, you must first need to suffer.” Hmmm.

Rich has a novel well worth reading. In that form he can be more daring. It’s Odds Against Tomorrow, which imagines how the citizens of New York City and the surrounding area will adapt when most of the 5 boroughs are flooded and tall buildings are repurposed as islands.  It’s hardly a first-rate novel, but is definitely intriguing.  Odd that the Times’s bio on Rich neglects to mention it.


Postscript: there IS a great novel that’s emerged out of the climate change/science revolution crisis. It’s the Moby-Dick of our Anthropocene era, and a masterpiece: Richard Powers’ The Overstory (2017).

In this novel novel, humans seem to be the main characters until it begins to become clear that trees are the true protagonists, the heroes of time, for only they (and other plants) can take carbon out of the air and generate oxygen and many other things. Whatever carbon-sink technology humans may be able to come up with, it will never be able to match plants’ way with greenhouse gases.

To tell this overstory (Powers’ clever pun), like a great tree this epic spans millennia, not a mere decade or so, or even 75 to 100 years. To save the human, we must first decenter and corral human arrogance. This novel plots how to do that. It also deconstructs the narratives of our allegedly postindustrial/postcolonial era with as much encyclopedic ambition and panache as Melville did with the discourses of nineteenth-century industrialism and imperialism.

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Garbage In / Garbage Out: Why is Facebook Using Its Powerful Resources To Help Teachers Teach Bad Common Core Standards In AP English Classes?

Facebook on its Summit Learning Resources Site for K-12 English & Language Arts teachers is now promoting ready-made lesson plans for teaching Common Core standards. Sounds good, right? But many of the lesson plans are screwed up because so many of the Core standards are so inane. For instance, under “characterization” (how literary narrators use different methods for revealing a person’s habits, motives, effects on others, etc. in a story) the lesson plans follows the Core in making insane distinctions between “indirect” and “direct” characterization, with NO clear discussion of what this distinction is, much less why it’s important to know it.

I’ve checked the answers below that Facebook and the Core Curriculum claim to be “correct.” But: WHY are the lists of features in question 3 below examples of “direct” characterization, whereas the techniques listed in question 4—like showing us a character’s speech, actions, or thoughts—”indirect” rather than direct characterization? Why is presenting us with visual description DIRECT characterization, whereas giving us what a character does or says (or thinks!) INDIRECT??

The direct/indirect category distinction as presented below is nonsensical and poorly defined, yet it is then to be drilled into the students as the gospel truth. If a student raises a hand and says she or he doesn’t understand the whole system is set up to make the student feel dumb. And pity the poor teacher who has to explain the difference between direct and indirect using the examples given!

Who or what came up with this direct/indirect distinction, defined it this poorly, and then determined that it had to be taught in AP English classes across the country as part of students’ essential learning?

Judge for yourself using these examples, taken directly from the Summit Learning Core Curriculum site. The “•” marks the “correct” answer, according to Common Core.

Question 3: The process by which an author creates characterization through the explicit use of description adjectives, phrases, and epithets is known as . . .

• Direct characterization

Indirect characterization

Question 4: The process by which an author creates characterization through a character’s speech, actions, thoughts, physical appearance, and relationships with others is known as. . . .

Direct characterization

• Indirect characterization

If you’re curious to see more examples of how tech platforms are accelerating rather than helping solve the crisis in education (due to the garbage in => garbage out effect), check out Facebook’s Language Arts Summit Learning models for yourself:

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On Canons and “Headcanons” in Cultural Studies

Yes, “headcanons” (one word) is a term. Has been for awhile.

Interesting conundrum: while the idea of an agreed-upon “canon” has been treated with increasing skepticism in literary studies (though not by all parties), the concept thrives in popular culture, especially fan culture. Though its meaning slightly changes. Here’s the definition of canon and a corollary, “headcanon,” from Urban Dictionary: “Used by followers of various media of entertainment, such as television shows, movies, books, etc. to note a particular belief which has not been used in the universe of whatever program or story they follow, but seems to make sense to that particular individual, and as such is adopted as a sort of ‘personal canon.’ Headcanon may be upgraded to canon if it is incorporated into the program or story’s universe.”

So pop culture acknowledges how subjective a “canon” can be, but it also yearns for the authority the word “canon” once had, and grants that authority to show-runners and story-lines when their show’s details (especially plot developments) appear explicitly to confirm a particular interpretation that was circulating among the fanbase. In some cases, particular fanbase theories or “headcanons” actually influence creators working on new episodes. Happened with Charles Dickens’ serial novels in the 19th century, and happens now.

What seems to have been jettisoned is the old notion of a key set of works in a particular genre that represent the best and the most influential works in that field, ‘canonical’ models for others to copy and try to surpass or challenge. But has it? Pop cultural history hardly does away with the idea of “canonical” works you need to know well if you’re going to have any claim to legitimacy in that cultural field as a fan or creator (or both). Its fans are fanatical (and can argue fanatically) about what’s the “best” in a given terrain or network vs. what’s more secondary or tertiary. And pop culture also repeatedly proves T. S. Eliot’s famous notion that a strong new work rearranges the past (the canon), elevating the status or importance of some of its predecessors or antecedents and consigning some other works suddenly to seeming rather old-fashioned or out of it (which is one reason for why works slip out of the “canon”).

Some canon-drums for you to think about today…

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Why Judith Butler is Overrated

One of many reasons why Judith Butler is grossly overrated: Here’s a passage from her new book Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, followed by 2 brief comments of mine, one a translation of Butler-ese into regular English. Overall, she’s trying (and failing) to shape a theory of collective action.

“[W]hen bodies assemble [in] public space (including virtual ones) they are exercising a plural and performative right to appear … that asserts and instates the body in the modes of the political field [to deliver] a bodily demand for a more livable set of economic, social, and political conditions no longer afflicted by induced forms of precarity” [the latter’s a word meaning in a continually ‘precarious’ position due to economic, social, and political conditions. I’m not criticizing Butler’s use of this word].

a) translation: “when bodies assemble they are protesting being hurt and are demanding change.” To which i would add, “well, duh.”

b) this “theory” applies equally to a Donald Trump rally (at least, as its participants perceive it) as to a Take Back the Night rally in support of rape victims. Therefore how is this “insight” at all useful, other than allowing people who read this kind of prose to feel they are theorizing (from a safe distance) support for activists elsewhere?

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On Colson Whitehead’s new novel, _The Underground Railroad_

Three chapters of Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Underground Railroad, were published as a special print supplement to last Sunday’s New York Times (Aug. 7). What’s so extraordinary about the novel’s vision is not that he makes the “underground railroad” metaphor literal, so that we have to rethink what it really meant. No, the really extraordinary thing is that the world his heroine Cora is trying to escape is not just slavery-time but also Reconstruction and Jim Crow and twentieth-century forms of racist science and “utopian” social management–all postslavery incarnations of racism that show up when she emerges from underground at the different “stops” on her journey north.

Whitehead’s use of fantasy/sf time-travel techniques exposes the terrifying _continuity_ of multiple forms of oppression, erasing the bright line some like to draw between slavery “then” and modernity “now.” It’s Afrofuturism for the Black Lives Matter era, while also powerfully remixing 18th and 19th century writings by Crevecoeur, Douglass, Jacobs, and others on slavery and its effects on both whites and blacks.

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Brief comments on Terry Eagleton’s latest book, Culture (2016)

See CultureCulture by Terry Eagleton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lucid and concise readings of Burke, Swift, Herder, Austen, Marx, Wilde, and T.S. Eliot, among others. The book is less focused and persuasive when Eagleton traces the long and complicated dialectic between capitalism and various meanings of “culture.”

Eagleton’s own version of Marx’s base vs. superstructure dichotomy has various forms of cultural “superstructure” competing with each other and often canceling each other out. He also understands these competing versions of “culture” to be hubristic: each thinks it is the most powerful force of all, able at will to intervene into capitalism’s workings and alter its course, or free to transcend it. These various understandings of “culture” certainly don’t think of culture as secondary and determined by/complicit with economic forces and structures, as Marx did. Eagleton despairingly mocks cultural studies’ and postmodernism’s various forms of delusion in his Swiftian concluding chapter, “The Hubris of Culture,” which traces how capitalism and the marketplace have more power over our ideas of culture than ever before, basically erasing any possibility for culture to generate powerful oppositional ideas and energies, as opposed to various forms of consumerism and status acquisition.

Some quotations:
“[C]ulture has shed its innocence. Indeed, the history of the modern age is among other things the tale of the gradual demystification of this noble ideal. From [culture’s] sublime status in the thought of thinkers like Schiller, Herder and Arnold, it becomes caught up in a dangerously rhapsodic brand of nationalism, entangled in racist anthropology, absorbed into general commodity production and embroiled in political conflict. Far from providing an antidote to power, it turns out to be deeply collusive with it…. (148)

“[C]apitalism has incorporated culture for its own material ends… this aestheticized mode of capitalist production [the ‘culture’ industries, the ‘creative’ economy, etc.] has proved more ruthlessly instrumental than ever” (152). “Neo-liberal capitalism has no difficulty with terms like ‘diversity’ or ‘inclusiveness,’ as it does with the language of class struggle” (154).

“Today’s cultural politics … speaks the language of gender, identity, marginality, diversity and oppression, but not for the most part the idiom of state, property, class-struggle, ideology and exploitation. Roughly speaking, it is the difference between anti-colonialism and postcolonialism. Cultural politics of this kind are in one sense the very opposite of elitist notions of culture. Yet they share in their own way that elitism’s overvaluing of cultural affairs, as well as its distance from the prospect of fundamental change.” (160-61).

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Freedom and Fate in Game of Thrones, “The Door”

For Game of Thrones fans, please don’t read this until you’ve seen Season 6, Episode 5 (“The Door”).

Normally stories about time travel dramatize the power of human agency, our potential ability to know and intervene in past events and therefore change the future. These stories seem to be about the struggle for human freedom, not being sentenced to an immutable Fate. (Some examples are Back to the Future or, on a more profound level, brilliant parables about slavery such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Of course many other examples of time-warps in story-telling could be cited.)

But warg time-travel in Game of Thrones, Season 6, Episode 5 (“The Door”), suggested the other, scarier possibility of time travel: your Fate is already written and it can neither be changed nor understood by you until the moment when you must live out your destiny. Time travel can allow you to see your destiny but, like the Medusa’s stare, such a vision will paralyze you.

When the stable-boy Wyllis has his warg vision of the future (remarkably like an epilepsy attack), he repeats to himself the one phrase that embodies his adult Fate: he has to “hold the door” against the White Walkers’ armies of undead, allowing Bran and Meera to escape while sacrificing his own life. Though it’s a heroic self-sacrifice, Wyllis’ vision of his future is so traumatic that when he awakens from his vision he looses speech and understanding and can only repeat a cryptic or garbled version of his battle-cry. His one word is his Fate, and “Hodor” becomes his name. Hodor appears to have no idea what that word means, much less what his future holds. Yet on some deep level he reenacts that future moment’s pain again and again each time he says his name: we now have learned the “memory” of his death is buried in his name. It’s the revelation of that traumatic pain, as well as his heroic last stand, that made so moving the final installment of Hodor’s story.

Doesn’t this kind of time travel seem deeply deterministic? Like the Greek parable of how the gods erased our memory of our future Fate and mercifully gave us Hope instead. Bran too may be traumatized by his warg visions, by the ways in which (in his dreams at least) he understands that he was responsible for Hodor’s death. How Bran’s guilt and painful knowledge will influence his future actions will be fascinating to see as Season 6 unfolds. (And of course we can’t know from the books: the TV show’s now gone off-script into a future that George R. R. Martin hasn’t yet written.)

Obviously many characters who believe they can seize and control their destiny prove to be deluded: consider Stannis. But Thrones also offers up numerous stories that tempt us to believe that heroism means remaking your identity, sacrificing yourself for others’ needs, and changing the path of history—Jon Snow and Daenerys, for instance, particularly now in Season 6 after they have both emerged reborn from apparent icy or fiery deaths. Yet even as we thrill with their new power and growing confidence, it’s hard not to wonder whether their Fates too are already written and completely hidden from them. One of the reasons why we keep watching is to find out.

With characters like Cersei and Tyrion, Sansa and Arya/No One, the Fate/Freedom conundrum is just as hard to parse. Being driven by revenge has given Cersei a powerful sense of purpose in Season 6. Or does her anger control her, though now she’s better able to disguise it? Sansa’s confrontation with Littlefinger—one of the most powerfully written and acted scenes in all of Season 6—certainly makes us feel that she’s moved decisively past the delusions of her “innocence” into an adult world where she will now be a clear-eyed leader. Her story too will be fascinating to see unfold.

As will Tyrion’s. Is his new confidence that his destiny is to bend the arc of history toward justice deluded or righteous? Both Grey Worm’s and Missandei’s skepticism at Tyrion’s chutzpah (is there a Valyrian word for this?) certainly should give us pause.

Arya’s hidden Fate is perhaps the most ambiguous and intriguing of all, at least for those of us who believe characters don’t have to have armies at their command to be important. All of the major characters in Thrones arguably have split identities—but Arya’s split self/selves is really tricky to map. She’s currently at least two people, not one: whatever future self or selves she’s about to become, but also (despite her repeating—like Hodor?—that her new name is “No One”) because it’s clear Arya still retains and hides her Stark identity, her sense that she has her own revenge and reunion plot to pursue.

So, do plots about time travel in Game of Thrones amplify our sense of human freedom and responsibility? Or do they pretty much shut it down, proving that our Fates are already written? Revealing glimpses of the past and future, do warg powers paralyze or free?

At present, Thrones’ plotlines and character tensions are ambiguous enough that we can’t answer these questions—and that kind of suspense is one of the marks of good story telling. But maybe too it’s the job of good stories and their endings NOT to give us either/or answers to the fate and freedom questions I’ve said stories pose.

I leave you with one last thought: when Bran returns to the distant past in “The Door,” he doesn’t intervene; he just watches and gains knowledge. It’s when Bran wanders in his warg vision in the *present*—accidentally giving away the presence of himself and his friends to the White Walkers—that Bran does deadly damage, damage that in future he’s going to have to try to repair. Or was that his Fate all along? What understandings of his (and our) freedom and fate will come through “the door” at the end?

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On David Bowie’s Bluebird

Re David Bowie’s “Lazarus,” from his brilliant final album, Blackstar, the New York Times has this to say: “The song is a man in total distress, and then finding a way out, in his imagination, so he could still be alive, in freedom, as a bluebird. It’s the message of the whole show.”


Here’s a question. Could Bowie have known Charles Bukowski’s famous poem “Bluebird”? Probably? Listen to this brilliant reading of Bukowski’s short poem by “Tom O’Bedlam” on YouTube:

Bukowski’s earlier poem heads in some different directions from Bowie, exploring what macho male identity tries to kill or hide. But both CB and DB use the bluebird to signify the beautiful and the immortal in us–

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On Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, 1962 and 2015

My recent essay on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel, comparing it with Amazon’s 2015 The Man in the High Castle‘s 10 episodes. Summary: Amazon’s adaptation of Dick’s novel is a brilliant transformation of it just right for America’s flirtation with fascism in 2015 (Trump, Cruz, et al).

The novel was unusual for Dick but unleashed a decade of great writing by him: it’s an experiment in counter-factual history, imagining what might have happened in the U.S. if Japan and Germany had got the A-Bomb first and won World War II.

When you click on the link below, this .docx file containing the essay will download to your computer, stored in your download folder:


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