On the dangers of the thesaurus and The Great Gatsby

I got a personal message on Goodreads the other day by somebody spruiking his new book site. It was great, he said, you can chat to people about books on it. After making the obvious point that he was telling me that on a site where people chat about books, he enthusiastically assured me that if I just went and had a look, I’d see….

So I did. Book-talks.com You need a login to see chat rooms, but you can see books and their blurbs without that. I zeroed in on The Great Gatsby on account of how it’s more or less my favourite book. And this is what I read:

The Great Gatsby is a 1925 novel composed by American creator F. Scott Fitzgerald that follows a cast of characters living in the anecdotal towns of West Egg and East Egg on prosperous Long Island in the late spring of 1922. The story essentially concerns the youthful and baffling mogul Jay Gatsby and his eccentric energy and fixation on the excellent previous debutante Daisy Buchanan. The Great Gatsby investigates topics of debauchery, vision, protection from change, social change and abundance, making a representation of the Roaring Twenties that has been depicted as a useful example in regards to the American Dream.

Something odd is going on here. It’s either been written by a non-native person with a thesaurus…or an algorithm? I put a sentence into google and discovered the answer.

The Great Gatsby is a 1925 novel written by American author F. Scott Fitzgerald that follows a cast of characters living in the fictional towns of West Egg and East Egg on prosperous Long Island in the summer of 1922. Many literary critics consider The Great Gatsby to be one of the greatest novels ever written.[1][2][3][4]

The story of the book primarily concerns the young and mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby and his quixotic passion and obsession with the beautiful former debutante Daisy Buchanan. Considered to be Fitzgerald’s magnum opus, The Great Gatsby explores themes of decadence, idealism, resistance to change, social upheaval and excess, creating a portrait of the Roaring Twenties that has been described as a cautionary[a] tale regarding the American Dream.[5][6]

The blurb has been taken lock stock and barrel from wiki’s The Great Gatsby entry and a thesaurus loving algorithm has changed some words to make it ‘original’. The comparisons between the two are hilarious. It would make a nice lesson for school kids on understanding what a thesaurus is and the dangers of using it.

In Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman

4.30pm yesterday Start reading page one.

4.31pm Tablet makes noise. Stop to check email.

4.35pm Continue reading page one.

4.36pm Check phone, may be a test message.

Well, it would be easy enough, evidently, for most people’s diary of reading this book to go like that. But I, and most people who are important to me, aren’t like that. We hardly ever turn on our phones, if we do, we forget that they are on, get the text message days later. Don’t have smart phones.

I suspect Alan Lightman will never have the right audience. People like me don’t live in the way he rues. The people who might get something out of it aren’t going to. In fact, he pretty much concedes that it’s a do as I say, not as I do book. He did get a smart phone, later than other people, and was addicted within days.

One of the things I love about having a proper computer, with a proper screen, is that it’s in its proper place. It isn’t part of me. It’s part of the room it sits in. Very occasionally it goes on a trip and reappears in another part of the world, part of another room. Never part of me. Going to my computer is a conscious act and this keeps addiction to a minimum. When I do go through periods of sitting there, ‘wasting time’ it’s for a purpose, pretty much that which is, after all, the message of the book. There are some things one can look at in a sort of Zen way, if you like, whilst sitting on a computer, whilst one’s brain is in the background, figuring something out. It can be calming, it can be a way of pushing stress away. I collect on Pinterest pictures of green. Perhaps for a person living in the middle of a European cityscape with no chance to take the daily meandering rural walks as a child Lightman wistfully refers to, these take the place. I hope they aren’t just an addiction.

But I spend substantial periods away from my computer too. Lightman doesn’t talk about cooking, but much of the ‘drudgery’ involved is mindless, exactly the sort of time one’s mind can transport itself. Washing up, chopping, stirring. One of the reasons I resist using machines to do the work of chopping is that it would take away that time, it would replace it with ugly noise and forced concentration. Lightman also doesn’t mention knitting, the Zen of nice white women who are wealthy enough to do knitting for the process without concern for the time taken. A privilege we have, that our mothers didn’t, who knitted furiously to get that jumper we needed ready for the moment.

I walk everywhere, unplugged. There was a period in my life when I listened to music while walking, but I seem to have left that long ago. I have never driven so the anger and stress of that appallingly wasted time has never been part of my life. On public transport I read. Or stare out the window. Or knit. Contemplate.

Time – of course it’s our enemy in the end. We will run out of it. But on a day to day basis it is not my enemy, it has little to do with my life. When walking, if presented with the shorter path which has the pollution (in every respect, especially noise) of motors or the peace of the pedestrian path, the latter is taken almost every time.

There is nothing special about any of this, they are choices we all make. Many choose to be plugged in so that they don’t hear the trees as they walk along the lake. Many choose to take a photo of their surrounds, rather than look at them. Many choose to evaluate their lives through the competition of Facebook. In the case of time, I’ve often been accused of having the time to spare, to for example, cook properly. But I make that choice. The person accusing me of it spends a lot of time watching football on TV. They don’t see the choice as they cook indifferent meals for their children, butchershop marinated meat, supermarket chopped vegetables. On the one hand, I suppose it is something I give people, cooking properly for them. On the other, for much of the process I get the possibility of the sort of time Lightman says he wants, but can’t give himself. Not really. He doesn’t even convince himself properly, let alone the rest of us.

He says nothing we didn’t already know in this book, perhaps he says some of it a little better, being the nice writer and thinker that he is. But….it’s a TED talk. Sigh. Converted into a little book (because it isn’t long enough to sustain a normal sized book) padded out with pictures which I found irrelevant and irritating. I would have preferred more words for my money, if I’d been the sort of person to buy such a book. Which I’m not.

The book itself is part of a series, the TED talk capitalist drive at work. I guess people get suckered into buying the lot. I don’t see it rising above the morass of that whole industry.

I don’t see why the book and the talk couldn’t have just said this:




Germany seeks to maintain ban on Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’

Germany seeks to maintain ban on Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’. Quoted from expatica.com:

Germany wants to uphold an effective post-war ban on the publication of Adolf Hitler’s manifesto “Mein Kampf” after its copyright comes up for grabs at the end of next year, officials said Thursday. Justice ministers from the 16 German regional states agreed that reprints of the 1924 book in which Hitler railed against the “Jewish peril” should still be prevented beyond the rights’ expiry date. Since World War II, Bavaria state, which holds the rights because Hitler was officially a resident of Munich when he died, has maintained an effective ban on the book in Germany by blocking any reprints. But those rights expire at the end of 2015, 70 years after Hitler commited suicide.

An annotated version of “Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle”) being compiled by a historical institute is however expected to still be published after Bavaria signalled in January it would not seek to prevent it. Bavarian Justice Minister Winfried Bausback has welcomed the “clear signal against intolerance, xenophobia and anti-Semitism” sent by his regional counterparts. “Germany has a particular historic responsibility which we must fulfill,” he said, adding the world was closely watching Germany’s handling of the “inhuman” book. “We want to consistently exhaust the available means of criminal law — we owe that to the victims of the Holocaust and their relatives,” he said.

Justice ministers agreed at a two-day meeting in the Baltic coastal resort of Binz that any non-annotated version of “Mein Kampf” is to be prevented after the rights’ expiry on December 31, 2015. They also asked chief public prosecutors to discuss the legal issues with the federal public prosecutor general and report back.

Hitler started writing “Mein Kampf” in prison after his failed putsch of 1923. After his rise to power, millions of copies were published. From 1936, the Nazi state gave a copy to all newlyweds as a wedding gift.

On Censorship and the experience of writing Fair Play or Foul.

Dear GR management (GRM in this review). I assert my right as the author of this book to write what I consider to be relevant by way of a review. Please don’t delete it!

Dear GRM, occasionally I write reviews for a shelf called ‘pairs’. I copy the same review to the two different books I discuss. Please don’t delete either – or both (how would you decide?) – though I appreciate it breaks your new rules.

Censorship is like bacteria, or those tiny little mites that live on each of us in their millions without us being conscious of them. We are surrounded by censorship, we all live by and through it, every day we exercise it ourselves and experience the censorship of others. From the time we begin to learn to speak we are told and told and told what we can’t say. We find out that speech is anything but free and we so quickly take it for granted and learn how to operate within the context of free speech that isn’t free, that maybe we never think about the ramifications of that at all.

For some the beginning of this issue, as it pertains to GR, is the deletion of some reviews by management. Various people decided that it was a violation of free speech – unacceptable censorship – and began to fight to change that. Mainly they fought by making sure they wrote things that GR would have to delete to be consistent with their own policies. My understanding is that those who had their reviews deleted like to read fiction for teenagers that they consider to be badly written and then trash it in ways that apparently entertain them. Other people on GR have come to their support by protesting.

But what IS free speech? I expect I can speak for anybody reading this that there is no such thing as free speech, only ever something approaching it. I expect anybody who does genuinely believe in free speech is right now safely locked up in a place for sociopaths. This means, therefore, that there are some sort of rules guiding what free speech is. Some of those are legal. Some are a matter of morality, perhaps personal, perhaps peer-shared, perhaps imposed by some other extra-legal body. Should a GRReviewer (GRR) be allowed to insult writers gratuitously or otherwise? The protest movement itself seems to think that this is acceptable as far as I can tell. One insults a writer and if they notice, they cop it on the chin. That’s free speech. Further, it would appear that the protesters consider that they have the correct ‘definition’, if you like, of what ‘acceptable free speech’ is, whereas others – the GRM in this case, do not.

So my first point is that I, if nobody else on GR, is uneasy about this idea. Why should a small group of GRR be the ones who make this decision? Why are they the correct arbiters of what is the acceptable notion of free speech and appropriate censorship rather than GRM or anybody else for that matter? And, I couldn’t help being curious to know, do they practise what they preach?

Recently I posted a comment on a thread that was started by somebody leaving GR. Quite some time ago now, she had accused me of being anti-semitic on a review I posted. Note that as it happened, it was my own book I was talking about, so I guess both reviewer and author were being called anti-semitic. I have to say this rankled and rankles still. I can’t imagine a worse thing to be called – and the nature of what followed was unsatisfactory to say the least when she refused in public or private to discuss what she had stated, defriended and blocked me. So much for free speech, I thought at the time, as I left her comments up. Eventually a year or more after they were posted, I finally decided free speech be blowed and deleted what she had written. So, moving forward to my recent comment on her leaving, having stated a lack of sadness at her departure – the following happened. I was told by various friends of hers who are fighting the free speech campaign to “fuck off”, to “delete my comment and apologise”, that I was a “toxic bitch”, an “idiot”, and so on. I was also blocked from being able to post more, so I could neither defend myself nor apologise, if I had thought that was the right thing to do.

Interesting. So, it is perfectly fine for somebody to come to my party – in this case my review of my book – and call me anti-semitic – but it is not okay for me to go to their party and express in what I can only call a polite way – my reference point being the responses posted – that I am not sad somebody who has accused me of this rather dreadful thing is leaving.

Most illuminatingly, one GRR who has some thousands of GR friends said rather gleefully this on the thread after quoting part of my comment:

when someone who has a reputation of being unpleasant and toxic has reviews deleted, no – no one cares

In case you are wondering, she was talking about me.

This it seems, is getting to the essence of what ‘free speech’ means, at least in terms of GR protests. It is a highly prescribed affair, to do with patronage, popularity. It is not about principle.

One of the things that I am now curious about, but may never know the answer is this. Nobody came to my defence on this thread. Of course, this maybe because everybody reading it was in general agreement with the free speech advocates who were trashing me. But then again, maybe it was a fear of expressing themselves in view of the mob they would have to face to do so. I’ve been wondering about this all day, only to receive a private message late this evening in which the person who sent it said

I saw that everyone freaked out at you…which was really unfair, mean-spirited, and completely in opposition to the very kind of free speech they think they are supporting.

Not a huge amount of data, but still, it comforted me that my theory about all this might be right, a theory based on the last time I was involved in a battle for free speech. What people say in private and what they are willing or able to say in public can be very different things. Which brings me to this book.

In the early nineties I wrote a book – this book – which examined various high profile cheating scandals in bridge. In a nutshell I suggested that maybe the people accused of cheating hadn’t been, that the chiefly American accusers might be wrong as a consequence of strong cultural differences between their understanding of bridge and those of other nationalities. I also suggested that the Ely Culbertson might have deliberately destroyed a competitor for the HUGE money by creating the idea that he was cheating. I sent this book to several publishers and was prepared for polite declinations. I was not expecting what actually happened which was that I received vitriolic angry rejections. My book was being censored by mainstream publishers; their problem wasn’t whether it would sell, but they hated the ideas in it. What could I do? I thought I’d produced a good book that would sell, but I put it in a drawer and moved on. One day, however, I mentioned it to a top Australian player who asked if he could look at it. He took it home and brought it back first thing in the morning. Damn, I thought. It wasn’t any good after all, if he hasn’t even bothered reading it. But in fact what had happened was that he sat up all night with it and we now spent some hours talking about how wonderful he thought it was. He thought I should keep trying to get it published. I sent it to the editor of a UK magazine who serialised it. Then I self-published it.

Although it received nice reviews, soon after its release Jeff Rubens, editor of by far the most important bridge magazine Bridge World wrote a hostile editorial about it. He spoke, I guess, for the real heavyweights of bridge in the US, ex-world champions and such like. A reader sent in a very mild attempt to defend the book and that attracted yet more editorial anger. Wow, two hostile editorials. I knew I really had written something that was worthwhile at that point. Nobody else wrote to Bridge World to support me after that. Meanwhile the edition quickly sold out and I started getting feedback from people which was unexpected and completely the opposite from the diatribes that appeared in Bridge World. More than one person said it had been life-changing for them and they really meant it. It let them be more tolerant to others, to be less paranoid and angry about other people. Many people read it in a night. Somebody wrote to say he’d stayed up all night reading it and went down to a shop to buy three more copies to give people the next day. A bridge partnership stayed up all night reading it aloud to each other. Non-bridge players read it. I was invited to present a talk to a magicians’ convention in Vegas. Ten years or more later I still occasionally received these mails.

Lots of people wrote to say that they agreed with what I’d said.

But not one person wrote in public that they agreed with it.

Who could blame them when they saw what had happened to the first poor devil who made a stab at it in Bridge World? Mobs are scary to stand up to and Bridge World and the elite of US bridge are (in this context) a mob. We can say all we like that we live in a culture of free speech, but what does that really mean? I was wondering about all this today as I considered the situation regarding the post where I was attacked with such vitriol by some of those representing the cause of free speech. Is there a group of Goodreaders out there who don’t approve of the way in which free speech was exercised in this case, but are too scared to say so? Are the GR protesters a righteous mob? I have the toughness that comes of being what others have called a toxic bitch so I’m willing to stand up to mobs. But are other people? More to the point, since in the grand scheme of things it is neither here nor there if anybody sticks up for me, is there a mass of people on goodreads who are too scared to have a public point of view disagreeing with the protesters? They have, after all, set themselves up as the righteous defenders of free speech. If one questions them, is one doubting the very idea of free speech? Does that scare people? Is the protest movement speaking for the many silent, or not? Do they need majority support to morally justify themselves?

Going back to the book I wrote, some years later came another development. One of the ex-world champion US players who was a prominent accuser of others being cheats published an autobiography in which he presented various evidence to support his case. Trouble is, some of his evidence was factually incorrect. Whether by mistake or not, he had materially changed the stories of played hands in ways that made it look worse for those accused. I collected together both his stories and, from official records, what actually happened in each case, wrote it up and sent it to Bridge World. Does it surprise you to hear that BW declined to publish my article. Now, this was surely an intrinsically interesting story – ‘world champ lies in book, were the Italians REALLY cheating?’ – and yet he claimed that people weren’t interested. Censorship can use so much to bolster its imposition. But consider this. If all those people who wrote privately to me to support me had done it in public, Jeff Rubens would most certainly not have been able to use this as his excuse. Meanwhile it has gone into history, this false evidence used to accuse some truly great players of cheating.

So this review is addressed more than anything to people who may be in doubt about what is going on here at GR, but are too scared to speak, nervous to speak, or perhaps simply don’t understand why it might be important.

SPEAK!!! On the thread I mentioned at the beginning of this review I was blocked from speaking any more. I wish to make that point to make it clear that I wasn’t bullied into stopping, being bullied isn’t something I take to readily. Don’t be bullied. Not by GRM. Not by the protesters. Say what you think. In a way the latter is harder, if you disagree with GRM because they will be unfailingly polite, whereas the free speech advocates can say what they like, how they like, where they like. Okay!! Still speak! They are maybe a bit sharper with a pen than you are? So what. Still speak. Free speech isn’t worth a low-flying fart, it doesn’t really exist, without interaction. Here you can still do that. If you agree with the protesters, speak up. I’ve long been predicting a world where Amazon will be a straightforwardly evil presence, but not yet. If you are uneasy about the protesters, perhaps you are on the side of rubbished authors or GRM SPEAK UP!!! I have no idea if speaking up is ever a right, but it is surely sometimes a duty and I really think this is a case where it is a duty. How you are treated by the protesters doesn’t really matter. If they disagree with you, they might tell you to fuck off, call you toxic – that’s their definition of free speech. But live by yours. In the end that is all free speech can be: what YOU think it is. Not what GRM thinks. Not what Manny thinks. What YOU think. That is, it is what we all think, which makes it, of course, a right dog’s breakfast.

But if you are doing that, exercising your right to free speech in a closed room on your own with the lights off, either through fear, or because other people have told you that you can say what you like but NOT where it counts, I assure you that this is not free speech, even if the free speechers tell you so. If that was free speech, well, Soviet Russia was its most loyal supporter. There, after all, you weren’t stopped from saying what you thought, only from saying it where anybody was listening. There is no difference between a bureaucracy telling you where you can say something and a bunch of people on GR telling you that. The effect is the same. This seems so obvious to me that I can’t understand why it isn’t obvious to the protesters, in so far, at least, as it pertained to my modest experience with them.

I am reminded of what happened to Colin McGinn, who lost a great deal of his life recently after a student reported him for sexual harassment. A group of academics stated in a public letter that “We recognize Dr. McGinn’s right to free speech” but that he should not be allowed to say anything in public about the situation or to defend himself publicly by talking about what happened. This despite the fact that he was being trashed by media in one of those stories that still sells newspapers. He was at perfect liberty to talk about anything that didn’t actually matter to him.

Fortunately right now, you have more rights to free speech than McGinn, and a great duty to use them. This ad appears on Amazon at the moment:

Forum Moderator

We like to think of our forums as a Free-Speech Zone. And freedom works best at the point of a bayonet – or a “Delete Post” button. As Forum Moderator, it’ll be your job to keep the forums safe and sanitary, while highlighting the posts that actually have something valuable to say. You’ll slap the bad guys’ hands and the good guys’ backs.

If you are tired of Hydra, if you are thinking it doesn’t really matter if such and such is deleted, keep in mind that this is really what you are fighting about. ‘Safe and sanitary’ scares the bejesus out of me. I can’t distinguish it from something you’d see in a Soviet Russia or Communist China re-education camp. But that’s just my opinion. PLEASE HAVE YOURS. And please remember that it doesn’t really count if nobody can hear it.

More on why to avoid Amazon

If you support Amazon, you know, go with the flow, take what’s good for you, as some think is the right thing to do, these are some other practices you are supporting:

Censorship by Amazon such as the removal of wikileaks from their Cloud.

Amazon campaigns designed to exploit small businesses until they are able to kill it completely: Amazon actively and explicitly advises people to go into shops to see what they want to buy, touch it, talk to a sales person about it etc and then buy it from Amazon. I’m not just blaming Amazon for this, people don’t have to go along with it. But they did and do. Please be advised that where you sit in my ranking of the world is scum.

Censorship of books. This one is both alarming and hilarious and results from the modern mentality of people wanting to get everything for nothing. ‘Hey, this is SO great. You get on Amazon, you buy self-published books and they are SO cheap.’ Then the complaints start coming in when people pay small amounts of money for crap. It’s a small amount of money because the writers have cut out the people who used to turn their writing into something publishable. So Amazon started to employ people for whom English is not their first language (this is my understanding), doubtless paying them the fair wage that all your good supporters of Amazon care about so much, and got them to start going through these self-published books and pulling them off Amazon lists, informing the writers that they had to be brought up to a publishable standard. How interesting that Amazon is now the world opinion on what that is. Laughably, some people pulled were well-established and credentialed writers who used language in the ways they pleased….not what these censors had learned in high-school English classes, however. Not that the writers are laughing, but hey, go with the flow, right, boys. What do you care if Amazon employees re-write the books you buy for next to nothing on Amazon.

I particularly like this story as a person who has spent quite a lot of my life not only writing, but also editing, type-setting etc. By all means buy books that aren’t edited by people with an appropriate command of the English language, by all means buy books from people who have no idea how to design and type-set a book. But what’s with complaining when you get an illiterate awful looking .pdf that somebody’s friends did a Twitter promotion for? What’s THAT all about?!!

Amazon Turk, crowd-sourcing, which some of you will know about. You get a group of people to do work for you, ranging from unskilled to highly skilled, ranging in pay offered from nothing (seriously) to whatever you think is appropriate. I am involved with a uni group in Geneva who has been using this to gather data for their research. A little while ago they got a message from Amazon saying that they were in violation of their agreement for asking workers to download an app. Interesting in itself – why WOULD this be illegal? One would think it is a free market place, you put a sign up saying $x/hour, download a program to speak French in your phone and do ‘y’. Next workers would decide whether they wish do to this. But no, for whatever reason, it is illegal. Being a uni group, spread around the world, it took them a while to figure out what to do about this. Meanwhile, Amazon wrote to them, closed their account for ever with no possibility of recourse to any higher authority AND confiscated all the money in their account. That’s pretty interesting, wouldn’t you say? Amazon tells you that you are doing something illegal, closes you down and takes all your money whilst giving you no right to appeal, discussion, NOTHING. Not that they didn’t try writing to support to discuss it further. A handy way for Amazon to make a few extra bucks, wouldn’t you say? I’m gobsmacked that this is legal.

For those going with the flow, skip this, as you won’t care…., but some of you may not know that after goodreads had a sort of tactical falling out with Amazon where we all thought goodreads was on the right side, goodreads enlisted even more people than usual to do their unpaid librarian’s work on the site. Indeed, I sat next to Manny as he spent some hours now and then putting lots of book information back onto the site as part of his attempt to help. Not that he did a lot of work, but I surely do feel sorry for all the ‘librarians’ of goodreads who have done all this unpaid thankless work, thinking that it was because a few nice computer dorks who like reading needed help setting up their site. And I challenge Paul in his idea that ALL these sorts of things are started up by people expecting to make a huge amount of money whilst getting most people to work for nothing and that we should all know and expect that. I don’t know it. I am on various sites that I don’t think are like this at all. Why should the internet be any different from businesses in general? There are some that are set up for greed. There are lots set up for love. I think people believed goodreads was one of the latter….but it turns out it wasn’t.

What I am at a complete loss to understand is that to me, speaking as a historian, it is so obvious that what is happening with Amazon is close to some horrific science fiction story somebody like Orwell or Bradbury would write and we all would be reading thinking, hey, we’re gonna make sure THAT never happens. But it is. And you all don’t get it.