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Posts Tagged ‘Kurt Vonnegut’

Man in Hole II: Man in Deeper Hole

March 19, 2015 | by

Assigning emotional values to words.

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Last month I wrote about Matthew Jockers’s research on the shapes of stories, which has since met with a welter of reactions within and without academe. His critics ask two questions, essentially: Is it really possible to assign every word a reliable emotional valence? And even if the answer is yes, can we really claim that all the plots in the history of literature take so few basic forms?

A rough primer: Jockers uses a tool called “sentiment analysis” to gauge “the relationship between sentiment and plot shape in fiction”; algorithms assign every word in a novel a positive or negative emotional value, and in compiling these values he’s able to graph the shifts in a story’s narrative. A lot of negative words mean something bad is happening, a lot of positive words mean something good is happening. Ultimately, he derived six archetypal plot shapes. (To his credit and my chagrin, he’s refrained from giving them catchy names.) Here’s an example: Read More »

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Man in Hole

February 4, 2015 | by

Turning novels’ plots into data points.

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Kurt Vonnegut

Motherboard has a new article about Matthew Jockers, a University of Nebraska English professor who’s been studying what he calls “the relationship between sentiment and plot shape in fiction.” Jockers has crunched hard data from thousands of novels in the hope of answering two key questions: Are there any archetypal plot shapes? And if so, how many?

The answers, his data suggest, are “yes” and “about six,” respectively.

Jockers, it should be clear, is pursuing a different meaning of plot than the one we conventionally reach for—he conceives of it as an emotional concern more than a narrative concern. His research was spurred by a concept called syuzhet, one of a pair of terms coined by the Russian formalist Vladimir Propp. As Jockers explains, Read More »

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The Flatus of Yore, and Other News

January 24, 2014 | by

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What a gas! Image via Beautiful Decay.

  • Japanese scrolls from the Edo period depict—yes—erumpent, competitive flatulence.
  • Back to more dignified fare. Guess the classic novel from its first sentence.
  • Fact: Kurt Vonnegut wrote a made-for-TV movie in 1972. It’s called Between Time and Timbuktu, or Prometheus-5: A Space Fantasy. Vonnegut later withdrew from the production: “I am not going to have anything more to do with film—for this reason: I don’t like film.” Well. As far as excuses go, that one’s airtight.
  • “I think empathy is a guy who punches you in the face at a bus station, and you’re somehow able to look at him and know enough about what situation he was in to know that he had to do that and not to hit back. That’s empathy, and nothing ever happens in writing that has that kind of moral heroism about it.” A new interview with John Jeremiah Sullivan.
  • As any reader of Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity knows, vagueness can be artful, but it’s especially so in Mandarin writing, where ambiguous sentences resemble optical illusions.

 

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Weapons of Mass Instruction

November 11, 2013 | by

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VONNEGUT

I took my basic training on the 240-millimeter howitzer.

INTERVIEWER

A rather large weapon.

VONNEGUT

The largest mobile fieldpiece in the army at that time. This weapon came in six pieces, each piece dragged wallowingly by a Caterpillar tractor. Whenever we were told to fire it, we had to build it first. We practically had to invent it. We lowered one piece on top of another, using cranes and jacks. The shell itself was about nine and a half inches in diameter and weighed three hundred pounds. We constructed a miniature railway which would allow us to deliver the shell from the ground to the breech, which was about eight feet above grade. The breechblock was like the door on the vault of a savings and loan association in Peru, Indiana, say.

INTERVIEWER

It must have been a thrill to fire such a weapon.

VONNEGUT

Not really. We would put the shell in there, and then we would throw in bags of very slow and patient explosives. They were damp dog biscuits, I think. We would close the breech, and then trip a hammer which hit a fulminate of mercury percussion cap, which spit fire at the damp dog biscuits. The main idea, I think, was to generate steam. After a while, we could hear these cooking sounds. It was a lot like cooking a turkey. In utter safety, I think, we could have opened the breechblock from time to time, and basted the shell. Eventually, though, the howitzer always got restless. And finally it would heave back on its recoil mechanism, and it would have to expectorate the shell. The shell would come floating out like the Goodyear blimp. If we had had a stepladder, we could have painted “Fuck Hitler” on the shell as it left the gun. Helicopters could have taken after it and shot it down.

INTERVIEWER

The ultimate terror weapon.

VONNEGUT

Of the Franco-Prussian War.

—Kurt Vonnegut, the Art of Fiction No. 64

 

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On Occasion, I Write Pretty Well

August 6, 2013 | by

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Via the 92nd Street Y.

 

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The Strange Saga of the Jane Austen Ring, and Other News

August 2, 2013 | by

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  • Thwarted in her quest to bring Jane Austen’s One Ring to the U.S., singer Kelly Clarkson has been forced to commission a replica.
  • The Amazon powers that be have ensured that Vonnegut fan fic is now legal, and one can buy it via Amazon. “Bill Pilgrim, unstuck in time, is going to quickly become a Kindle Worlds favorite,” says a member of the Vonnegut trust, ominously.
  • “I stay away from applied fields—it is my only ethical standard as a ghostwriter. I will not help a nurse to qualify on false pretenses: who knows, it might be my parents who find themselves in their care.” Confessions of an essay-mill writer.
  • Presented without comment: “A Massachusetts resident pleaded guilty to stealing over $600,000 worth of books, audiobooks, and Legos.”

 

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