[Milton-L] RE: Humanities and Technology

Schwartz, Louis lschwart at richmond.edu
Mon Dec 20 08:44:36 EST 2010

Now that I've had a chance to look at the piece in Science, I have to say that while I agree with Tom Luxon (and Geoffrey Nunberg and others) that the so-called "findings" in this case were arrived at in embarrasingly crude ways, and that they offer little in the way of insight or discovery, I also agree with Gardner that this sort of computer based study--if done right and by the right combination of specialists in several fields--has considerable potential.

A critique in this case is certainly in order--and I will eagerly sign that letter if we can get it together--but I hope it will clearly register protest about the execution of this particular study (and its arrogant cluelessness about what its authors think it has to tell us), not with the idea of using computers to examine and process a great deal of this sort of linguistic data.

We don't want a clone of this particular study, but it would be good to get one that's better done.


Louis Schwartz
Associate Professor of English
University of Richmond
Richmond, VA  23173
(804) 289-8315
lschwart at richmond.edu
From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] On Behalf Of Shoulson, Jeffrey [jshoulson at mail.as.miami.edu]
Sent: Sunday, December 19, 2010 8:45 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: [Milton-L] Humanities and Technology

I was talking with my brother, a computer scientist who did graduate work in search algorithms and who also has a very strong interest in linguistics, about the story Tom Luxon called our attention to earlier this week.

He'd seen it as well and had done some poking around on the new Google search function on his own.  Like Tom and others, he noticed how the algorithm does not take account of different word forms or cases in its statistical analysis.  He also pointed out that because the scanned texts come from books printed as early as the 16th and 17th centuries and because typography has evolved (and was often a bit spotty), there's a lot of misrecognition in the database.  The example he gave is illuminating:

He searched for the word "clone" to see when it came into frequent use.  He was shocked to discover a high frequency of the word in the 17th century.  When he went and looked at some of the hits, he saw that what the computer thought was "clone" was really "done"--the d had a slight imperfection or space within it that made it look like a cl to the scanner.

Just imagine if Macbeth has said "If 'twere clone when 'tis clone, 'twere bettter 'twere clone quickly."  A whole new play might have emerged...


Jeffrey S. Shoulson, Ph. D.
Associate Professor of English and Judaic Studies
University of Miami
PO Box 248145
Coral Gables, FL 33124-4632

(o) 305-284-5596
(f) 305-284-5635

ON LEAVE, AY 2010-11
Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies
University of Pennsylvania
420 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106

(o) 215-2381290, ext. 413

jshoulson at miami.edu<mailto:jshoulson at miami.edu>

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