The Fortnightly Column

As a weekly columnist for a 140-year-old newspaper, I’m an endangered species. I’m like a steak, cooking backwards: rarer by the second. More so now that the run of my column is being halved. There was a contraction in the newsroom. The afterbirth is, as Terry Gilliam might say, “100 percent more Less.”

Ever hear of a “fortnightly? columnist? Neither have I but that’s what what am now. Perhaps I’ll eventually become a monthly, then annual columnist. After that, I’ll publish with less frequency than appearances of Halley’s comet.

I know what I?m talking about ? a kid in my brother’s sixth grade class was a direct descendant of Halley. She was 11 when the comet last visited. The local paper did a story and pointed out that she’ll be 86 when it returns in 2061. That?s about when my next column will run. Or, at least that?s how it seems to a man who?s spent his entire professional career on deadline and needs the juice like some kinda junky.

The comet had been observed before but never as colorfully as when it ranked a mention in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 1066 (medieval media!) when scribe “Eilmer of Malmesbury” spied the comet for the second time in his long life and lamented, “You’ve come, you source of tears to many mothers, you evil. I hate you!”

Eilmer’s comet comments could pass for the reception of one of my columns. But wait there’s more: “It is long since I saw you,” he writes “But as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country. I hate you!”

What the hell is a fortnight anyway? Sounds like an evening spent building a fortress of couch cushions. Apparently, “fortnight” is an abbreviation of “fourteen nights.” Filing a fortnightly column drops my annual published output by 26 columns. It’s all relative I suppose. Even if I filed every one of those 14 nights I’d still only be doing only 1.4 percent the business of Scheherazade.

So, doing 50 percent of my own business ain’t that bad — perhaps it’s the difference between being half-assed and an ass-whole (Ba dum tss. I’ll be here fortnightly). Expect more blogs.

Herb Caen Never Had to Make an Em Dash on a Chromebook

Those of a certain generation may recall Herb Caen, the erstwhile?San Francisco Chronicle?columnist who anchored the Macy?s ad next to his daily forays into what he called ?three dot journalism.? I never met Caen but my mother, when a bank VP, retained his services as an on-call personality. This was during the rollicking ?90s when on-call celebrity earned a five-figure appearance fee to cameo at a company party. My, times have changed. The last time I profited at a party was when someone sent me on a beer run at the?I-T?holiday party, then promptly locked the doors.

Caen didn?t know how good he had it. No one did in the ?90s. For example, this column earns me the same dough the Chron paid when I last filed for them a decade ago. Rates in this market had peaked. I?m not complaining. Given the state of the industry, it?s a small miracle and frankly, since words are free to anyone here in the U.S., my markup is criminal.

And since I?m in in a felonious mood, permit me to steal from Caen himself as I attempt a bit of three-dotism myself. It?s not an homage. It?s because ellipses are easier to type on a Chromebook than my beloved em dash ? literally, three periods versus CTRL+SHIFT+U+2014 ?

Chipotle Cups are Publishing’s New Porn

It used to be the pornographers who pioneered innovative ways to distribute their product, from the banal (like matchbooks and playing cards) to the once-cutting edge province of the Interweb. In the mid-90s, the Federal Communications Law Journal published an essay by attorney Peter Johnson that?succinctly captured porn?s opportunistic exploitation of media:

“Throughout the history of new media, from vernacular speech to movable type, to photography, to paperback books, to videotape, to cable and pay-TV, to ‘900’ phone lines, to the French Minitel, to the Internet, to CD-ROMs and laser discs, pornography has shown technology the way.”

Porn has a way of filling every crevice of medium it encounters, with a particular emphasis on novelty. Until now, the only thing porn hadn?t filled, it seemed, was Chipotle cups (the container used in the cultural low of ?two girls one cup? was unbranded). However, it failed to fill this final frontier — instead Chipotle cups runneth over with literature, thanks to author Jonathan Safran Foer.

Five Authors, Five Cups

Thanks to an appeal made by Foer to Chipolte?s CEO Steve Ells, publishing is taking the big gulp and printing original works by the author and a cherry picked roster that also includes Malcolm Gladwell, Toni Morrison, George Saunders and Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Lewis, who?s site, VF Daily, broke the story.

?I tried to put together a somewhat eclectic group, in terms of styles,? VF Daily quotes Foer?I wanted some that were essayistic, some fiction, some things that were funny, and somewhat thought provoking.?

And now they?re also disposable.

Perhaps porn will have its day at Chipotle when the chain serves adult beverages. Until then, as Ohioan Steve Elbert protested to the Chicago Tribune when a local adult video store was bulldozed for a McDonald?s, ?We think fast food is equivalent to pornography, nutritionally speaking.? Raise your cup to that.

Literary Criticism by Robots

Writers who fear that computers will someday displace them may shudder to learn that the machines won?t just write the books, they will read them too.

In recent months, both researchers and literary critics are harnessing computational power to ?read? books in an effort to divine qualities human writers and readers haven?t the bandwidth to discover themselves (?The Taxonomy of Titles in the 18th Century Literary Marketplace? anyone? Anyone? Bueller?).

Among them are a trio of computer scientists at New York?s Stony Brook University who created an algorithm to predict the success of literary styles that boasts an 84 percent rate of accuracy when analyzing previously published works.

?In a paper published by the Association of Computational Linguistics, Vikas Ganjigunte Ashok, Song Feng, and Yejin Choi said the writing style of books was correlated with the success of the book,? writes Live Science contributor Joel N. Shurkin. Using a process called ?statistical stylometry? to analyze literary stylings in an array of books across genres, the team identified the ?characteristic stylistic elements more common in successful tomes than unsuccessful ones.?

It?s only a matter of time before researchers team up with an agency like Narrative Science, whose artificial intelligence algorithms pair data with ?natural language communication? to produce written content, resulting in bestsellers by bots.


But who would read it? Other computers thanks to Franco Moretti, who founded Stanford?s Literary Lab so that digital dalliances with texts could have a room of their own. His essay collection, Distant Reading, recently won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism and he has been lauded by Wired for his ?his data-centric approach to novels, which he graphs, maps, and charts … if his new methods catch on, they could change the way we look at literary history.?

At first glance, this may make you want to cue up the famous ?Understanding Poetry? scene in Dead Poets Society wherein Robin Williams goads his glass to aggressively edit a couple dozen poetry primers of their analytic assumptions.

(You may review Dr. J. Evans-Pritchard?s chart at the I Love Charts tumblog.)

Actually, Moretti’s work is fascinating ? look over his “pamphlet” on ?Network Theory,?Plot Analysis, which teems with?graphs on the intricate relationships in?Hamlet (big, fat pdf here). However, some in lit-crit circles aren?t enthused with Moretti?s critical approach and suggest putting words into a numbers cruncher can only result in damage to both.

?He thinks that literary criticism ought to be a science,? writes Joshua Rothman for the New Yorker?s Page-Turner blog. ?The basic idea in Moretti?s work is that, if you really want to understand literature, you can?t just read a few books or poems over and over? Instead, you have to work with hundreds or even thousands of texts at a time.?

This is precisely what the algorithms at Amazon and Apple?s respective bookstores do, which can sometimes produce discomfiting results that say more about readers? proclivities than perhaps we care to know. For example, we can forgive readers their fascination with fan-fic-turned-softcore but why the hell is Mein Kampf a bestselling ebook? Vocativ contributor Chris Faraone asks ?Is this what happens when Mein Kampf becomes available in the privacy of our own iPads? Could it be a cultural curiosity much like what?s happened with sleazy romance novels, which surveys show are increasingly consumed in more clandestine e-form??

Hitler vs. PKD

What?s almost more chilling are the results of Amazon?s recommendation engine, which aggregates information from millions of purchases in an effort to upsell consumers on additional product. Click-through the titles on the ?Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought?? prompt for a glimpse into the data-driven future.

So, worse case scenario, Ashok, Feng and Choi?s stylometry breaks down the secret bestseller recipe, Narrative Science bots implement it and later Franco Moretti can explain how we became enslaved to a bestselling Nazi computer overlord via our Kindles.

Somewhere Philip K. Dick is crying.

HT Ivan Hewett.


Among the various breeds of online brain-candy, by far one of the most insidious is the so-called Listicle. A portmanteau of ?list? and ?article,? the word sounds like what would result if you tattooed your grocery list on a particular part of the male anatomy (which would probably fit right in with the adventuresome inksters at Whole Foods, actually). Milk, eggs and what else? Permit me to unzip and check my listicle.

The listicle is usually comprised of a thin lead, a series of bullet points and a vague summary. I?ve written dozens ? or rather, I?ve filed dozens when I was too hung over or bored to write something that required extra line breaks to fill a column inch. This is not one of those moments, tempting as it is to enumerate the ?5 Reasons I Missed My Deadline Again? (No. 3: ?Deadline, I thought you said ?bed lyin? ? so I slept in?) or ?3 Ways to Have a 3 Way Without Your Marriage Counselor Trying to Get Involved ? with Your Wife.?

List-inclined writers often struggle to get as many words into their work as bullet points. Consequently, their pieces read like Bonnie and Clyde?s Flathead Ford. Sure, it drives but?

This isn?t a problem for me since I usually don?t know enough about any one subject to have more than a couple of bullets about it. And I?ve got to gussy those up with copious amounts of verbiage lest my readers notice the holes in my liberal arts education. Actually, there?s just one hole, but it?s vast and black and inhaled a lot of money into oblivion some years ago.

Listicle of Listicles

Predictably, the listicle concept has turned in on itself resulting in listicles about listicles. I?m guilty of having once written, Top Ten Top Ten Lists. Last month, my colleague Rachel Edidin, at Wired?s Underwire blog, published 5 Reasons Listicles Are Here to Stay, and Why That?s OK. Obviously, it?s okay ? has based its business on the concept. ?Listicle is a social blogging platform that allows everyone to create and share listicles,? its site explains. Great, more amateurs pushing out the professionals. Good for you, Internet.

Cracked, the humor site that spun out of its print magazine, has mastered the listicle principle in its own cockeyed way. Every ounce of its content is effectively a list: as in, 5 Random Coincidences That Invented Modern Pop Culture ? No. 5: Stan Lee?s Laziness Led to the X-Men.? Apparently, Lee forewent the work necessary to create origin stories and asked instead, ?What if they were just born that way??

Perhaps that?s how listicles themselves came to be ? they?re not undernourished articles reduced to a collection of skeletal subheads, but rather mutations. With superpowers. And maligned by bigots who fear them. In short, heroes here to clean up the joint, through brute force if necessary.

As Wolverine says, ?I?m the best at what I do but what I do best isn?t very nice.? Yes, Listicles are kicking my ass.

But why? Because, according to Edidin, ?2. Lists Give Us Additional Ways to Interact With Information ? Lists let us process complicated information spatially, transforming it from cluster to linear progression.? Since much of real life is a cluster (add your own four-letter word here), let alone some newspaper columns. Perhaps listicles are the solution to all our problems, perhaps not. All I know is that my name has been on one since grammar school ? usually circled and with a check next to it.

That said, I don?t doubt I?m doing it wrong. I should try to use the power of the list as a force for good ? like not forgetting to buy butter at Whole Foods. Okay, sign me up for a listicle. Just one thing, how bad does it hurt?