Back to the Fraktur

A little while ago, I posted a few odd thoughts on the intersection of print and content in response to a much better piece of writing addressing that subject (among other things). As it turns out, I’m not quite finished with those thoughts, so I return to them here by way of yet another deaccessioned library book in my own collection: Auswahl aus Luthers Deutschen Schriften, edited with Introduction and Notes by W. H. Carruth and printed by The Athenaeum Press (Ginn & Company, Publishers) in 1899.

Cover, Auswahl aus Luthers Deutsche Schriften, 1899

Cover, Auswahl aus Luthers Deutsche Schriften, edited with introduction and notes by W.H. Carruth.

Unlike the edition of Nietzsche from 1922 that I discussed in my previous post, this earlier publication is a textbook intended for university students in the United States. It was published under the imprint of the Athenaeum Press in Boston by Ginn & Company, as a part of Athenaeum’s International Modern Languages Series. It’s in better shape than the Nietzsche book, perhaps in part due to its sturdier construction: sewn binding, heavier paper, hard cover. The Athenaeum Press is worth a post of its own, as one of the earlier printing operations built in Cambridge back when the Harvard University Press and the Riverside Press were the biggest players in town. [1]


Title page. Note the typefaces used for the German-language bits (Fraktur) and for the name of the press (in a different Blackletter typeface — perhaps an example of a Textur-family type).

The earliest pages of the text provide a convenient snapshot of the interesting choices being made in the presentation here, including Jacob Grimm’s laudatory comment on the importance of Martin Luther’s language on the title page itself. The editor, W. H. Carruth (Professor of German Language and Literature at the University of Kansas, in the years before he became Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford), chose to assemble a selection of the writings of Martin Luther in a form that rationalized rather than normalized the text:

The rationalizing of the present text proceeds on the theory of removing all merely typographic obstacles to ease of reading, without changing anything that can be essential to the attempt to arrive at the phonetics, and above all the inflection, syntax, and vocabulary of the original (Carruth, Introduction, x).

Unlike the business of normalizing a text, the kind of rationalizing project that Carruth takes on here aims to preserve not just the apparent content expressed in the text, but also the manner of its expression. Luther’s spelling and grammar, for example, were not always regular and do not consistently match later standard or hochdeutsch usage (obviously!). In addition to the unique features of the text as written, earlier print editions sometimes introduced changes from Luther’s original manuscripts that became part of later print conventions. While these things might be corrected in a normalized edition aimed at presenting the book’s content as clearly as possible, a student of Luther’s actual language would be more likely to find a rationalized text (or a diplomatic reprint) useful. This includes preserving not only variant spellings and syntax, but also preserving the typography, for which reason Carruth’s collection of Luther’s writings features an introduction, notes, and editorial commentary in an Antiqua type mingled with Luther’s actual words in Fraktur.


A sample of the typeface mix in the Carruth collection — Antiqua mixed with Fraktur in the presentation of a diplomatic reprint

While Fraktur is used in both the Nietzsche text and in this one in order to signify a kind of authenticity with regard to the language and culture that produced the material it presents, the typeface comes to do so for each book in quite different ways. Long before the Antiqua-Fraktur dispute under way during the time period in which Carruth’s selections of Luther’s writings were printed in the United States, the use of a variety of Fraktur was a relatively reliable way to identify the works of the reformers, including Luther himself. Fraktur was for printing (reformer’s) German, Antiqua was for printing Latin. To present Luther’s German in Fraktur, then, is about more than preserving orthography — it is an act of theological preservation, in which the content of the text is deeply bound up in the typographical means used to express it. This is how Fraktur becomes “German” (and a sort of “people’s” German at that, in acknowledgement of the role Luther himself plays in the development of the language); it is the seed that eventually flowers into the Antiqua-Fraktur dispute of the 19th and 20th centuries. Carruth’s rationalized or diplomatic presentation of Luther’s writings thus occupies a rather different place from Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche‘s reprinting of her brother’s work; the American Carruth is a scholarly outsider acting as a preserver of “authentic” German language, history, and identity where Förster-Nietzsche casts herself as its restorer or protector.

  1. For those interested in exploring the history of the Athenaeum Press further (or just mildly curious about it and about the history of publishing in the US), I recommend taking a look at this lovely Souvenir of the Athenaeum Press and this fascinating silent film about Ginn & Company that includes footage covering most of the actual letterpress printing process they used at Athenaeum. Ginn & Company is now owned by Pearson, and the historic building that housed the Athenaeum Press is currently home to a great many businesses that are not, as it happens, publishers.
Posted in Adventures in Collection Management, Library Business, Philosophy, random stuff, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Duet for Pistons and Gears

I’ve been wrestling with some thoughts about mechanical music and musical machines lately, prompted by two things that came across the ol’ Facebook transom in the last few months: an MIT Technology Review piece from December about musical composition and machine learning and my first exposure to a most marvelous form of orchestrion, the magical rarity that is the Hupfeld Phonoliszt Violina.  This is, of course, only the beginning of a thought. My aim in this post is to explore some examples and see where they take me. I’m most interested in the different roles that coding and proceeding by algorithm play in my examples.

Before I turn to those examples, I want to make it clear that I’m not talking about the kinds of machine music created by more recent electronic instruments (see Peter Manning’s Electronic and Computer Music for that sort of thing, if you’re curious). I’m talking specifically about music originally composed and played by human beings (in this case J.S. Bach and Chopin) on the usual orchestral and recital instruments that happens to have been either adapted for self-playing instruments (orchestrions, pianolas/player-pianos) or recreated algorithmically by machine-learning systems. I’m also not going to deal with music originally composed for self-playing instruments in this post, although there are quite a few of these compositions; I will almost certainly have to say something about them later as a contrast case, as they are an important part of the puzzle that I’m curious about. [1]

Bach to the Future

Johann Sebastian Bach (and he is hardly alone in this, as Baroque folk go) looks at first glance like a good example of a composer whose work is transparently algorithmic in nature. Indeed, this is exactly what drew Hadjeres & Pachet (2016) to Bach’s short chorales, which they selected for their machine-learning project, DeepBach, because a) there are enough of them (389) to provide a useful sample, and b) they are helpfully homogeneous:

All these short pieces (approximately one minute long) are written for a four-part chorus (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) using similar compositional principles: the composer takes a well-known (at that time) melody from a Lutheran hymn and harmonizes it i.e. he composes the three lower parts (alto, tenor and bass) to be heard while the soprano (the highest part) sings the hymn (Hadjeres & Pachet, 2016, p. 1).

The hard part, from the point of view of both composers/musicians and programmers trying to create a system that can generate a piece of music like this, “comes from the intricate interplay between harmony (notes sounding at the same time) and voice movements (how a single voice evolves through time),” and also requires some way to embody the unique features of each voice in the piece (Hadjeres & Pachet, 2016, p. 2). The short version: there’s a lot of math involved, worth exploring at another time. It’s…well, it’s not messy, but it is tricky, and the result they get appears to be a model that can create convincing and original Bach-like compositions difficult to differentiate from the style of ol’ Bach himself.

Here’s an example of DeepBach’s work:

As some of the commenters on the MIT post point out, it’s an interesting attempt, but DeepBach does make some serious mistakes (especially voice-leading errors) that a human composer familiar with the relevant music-theoretical practices would not have made. One thing DeepBach’s creators appear to have done reasonably well (voicing issues aside) is their handling of the Baroque use of the fermata to mark phrases — DeepBach’s composition appears to breathe fairly naturally in more or less appropriate style. Compare the DeepBach sample to some actual Bach (an example the authors offer in the paper — Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten, BWV 434 [146]):

Interestingly, one of the problems that DeepBach’s programmers were trying to overcome was a matter of expert knowledge of harmonic practice and other compositional norms — earlier attempts at Bach generators seemed to them to run aground on the difficulties of generating the rule base (which would need to be pretty detailed) and handling the fact that the results just didn’t sound much like Bach even when they did follow the rules (Hadjeres & Pachet, 2016, p. 2). DeepBach, with a less restrictive rule base that required no expert knowledge, was nonetheless able to generate results that were original (they tested for plagiarism from the learning samples) and, when tested with listeners, seem to have sounded sufficiently Bach-like to be convincing (Hadjeres & Pachet 2016, p. 8-12).

I confess that I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. While the MIT post appears to suggest that DeepBach’s ability to “fool” listeners in the study’s sample is a promising and impressive development for the use of machine learning to analyze music, I’m not convinced that this is actually what the listening test shows. While there are Turing-test relevant reasons to be at little bit impressed here, it’s not clear that being unable to tell one rule-governed composition apart from another that more or less follows the same rules, in the absence of expert knowledge, really signifies anything other than that carefully following certain rules generates predictably similar results. I’m curious about whether the same sample group could consistently tell Bach apart from a human composer who tried to follow his style carefully. I don’t mean to reduce Bach to rules here, only to point out that revealing and following those rules doesn’t necessarily get us as far as we might like it to do.

Just the same, I think there’s another side of this worth thinking about: how do we evaluate algorithmic players, and how do we code for them?

Hupfeld vs. Rabin

Have a look at and a listen to this magnificent beast of a musical machine, The Hupfeld Phonoliszt Violina:

The Violina (created by the Ludwig Hupfeld company (see also) in the early part of the 20th C.) is an orchestrion that includes a piano and three violins. The violins are played by using a rotating horsehair ring “bow” and some mechanical “fingers,” plus what is basically an whammy bar attachment on the tailpieces to create vibrato. It plays music on interchangeable paper rolls, in which the music is arranged and encoded by punching holes of various lengths in the paper. Automatic instruments of this kind often included additional tempo controls (beyond whatever changes were encoded in the music roll or cylinder), and some of them, like the later pianolas that used hand-played rolls and allowed a human musician to join the fun, could be “played” while playing in a way that allowed further personalization of the performance.

The main reason I mention the tempo controls here is that tempo changes are an obvious place to look for something like “style” in an instrument of this kind. Tempo changes, breaks, breaths, etc. can be used to tell the listener where a phrase ends, as well as creating dramatic effects for emphasis, for mood, etc. in the piece, often alongside changes in dynamics. In the video of the Violina above, while there’s not much variation in dynamics (they seem to have set the whole thing to “blare” and, well, damn the torpedoes…), whoever arranged and coded the Chopin roll seems to have tried to build in some style using controlled tempo changes. The effect is a bit strange, especially compared to the work of a human player in the kind of bel canto mode that the Chopin roll coder/arranger is trying to capture. Consider Michael Rabin’s performance of the same piece, for example:

As I listen to both performances, I find the Violina less pleasing and rather awkward, although it remains an impressive engineering achievement. The Violina can do tempo changes, and it can create vibrato using the whammy bar attachment although it is unconvincing when it does so. But why? Is this just a matter of Rabin being a “better” violinist than the Violina (inclusive of both its mechanical properties/technique and the way the roll was coded)? I’m not quite sure what that might mean. Is it an instrument quality issue? The Dutch workshop that restored the Violina in the video used recent European-built factory violins; Rabin played the “Kubelik” Guarneri del Gesu, now also known as the “Kubelik” or the “Rabin”, for a number of years, although I haven’t yet had time to find out whether or not that was the instrument he played for this particular recording. Is it a side effect of the properties of the circular “bow” and the limitations it imposes on play? Maybe, but I don’t think these concerns are especially helpful as explanatory factors.

In order to make sense of my impressions in this case, I need to be able to sort tone, technique, and tempo out here as separate dimensions, especially where the violin and piano parts interact. What I think requires the closest examination is the difference between measured, algorithmically generated tempo choices and the way in which live players make these moves together. There’s something odd about how the Violina attacks a note and makes the transition between one tempo and the next. Perhaps it’s too regular? Could a better roll coder/arranger solve this problem? Maybe, but I suspect that the need for a certain amount of mechanical regularity (bound by the paper roll system design itself) would confound the attempt. The kind of suspension in time that can happen in a live performance, even if the players are trying to keep a careful rhythm, is almost never perfectly regular — the players are responding to each other in that moment, in that performance, and while they may be really consistent about their choices (having practiced), those choices are not purely mechanical in nature. The difference in style between live player(s) and orchestrion might be easier to disguise in something like baroque phrase-marking fermata, but Chopin’s going for something quite different, and I suspect that a machine-learning system with different physical system limitations might not be able to capture it any better than the paper roll coder/arranger did.

What finally strikes me upon reflection is a possibility: could a better player make DeepBach’s efforts “sound more like Bach,” and if that were the case, what would it mean? Is the issue a matter of not having the right understanding how composition and performance are related? What would that “right” understanding look like?

  1. Stravinsky, for example, studied the possibilities of the pianola or player piano quite seriously, and adapted his own compositions for piano roll in addition to writing an etude specifically for the pianola. Also worth mentioning: other composers wrote experimental music specifically for the pianola and related mechanical instruments ( Paul Hindemith, among many others, in the early 1900s, and later Conlon Nancarrow from the 1940s on). At least some of the more recent composers inspired by Nancarrow specifically wrote their pianola material to be “unplayable” by human musicians.
Posted in aesthetics, music, Philosophical Mess-making, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

As it is That Time of Year again (i.e. the closing few weeks of the Spring semester, when apathy and desperation most fruitfully combine), plagiarism, copyright infringement, and other forms of printed malfeasance occupy a lot of my attention. Even my little Wood’s House project is not immune:

Title page of the 1835 Charles Wells printing of Cook's New and Complete Letter Writer

By no means an original gangster.

One of the oldest and most sadly mangled books of the lot is this 1835 US reprint (or adaptation, or possibly outright theft)  of a very popular letter manual first published in the 1770s in London, written/compiled by the Rev. Thomas Cooke. The reason you don’t see a cover in the above photo is because there isn’t one anymore. This book has seen very hard use indeed.

Damaged book with broken binding, missing cover

Cook has come undone.

One nice thing about even a sadly damaged book like this one is that it provides a relatively rare opportunity for someone not otherwise acquainted with the business of bookbinding to take a look at how the object was put together. This book had a sewn (as opposed to glued) binding, although it’s almost entirely ruined now. There are several missing pages in addition to the lost front cover (either where binding thread has rotted or broken or where the pages themselves have crumbled or been torn). Someone seems to have used pages in both the front and the back to do arithmetic — the back cover and last leaves are covered in pencilled calculations, scribbles, and what appear to be the results of someone practicing writing names in a careful, ornamented cursive hand.

Detail, broken binding of an 1835 US reprint of Cook's New and Complete Letter Writer

Time has broken the ties that bind.

While the book in the Wood’s House collection is a preservation nightmare (and not, in any case, an especially valuable piece in its own right), it is an interesting landmark for someone who wants to explore the early history of printing and bookselling in the United States. It is also a fascinating example of a phenomenon that was apparently once fairly common  in exchanges of both materials and social norms between Britain and its former colonies: the repurposed, adapted, and sometimes simply stolen book. I’m not going to go through everything one might want to know about that sort of thing here — those interested in a more detailed account of the odd history of Cooke’s little letter-writing manual should read Eve Tavor Bannet’s excellent Empire of Letters: Letter Manuals and Transatlantic Correspondence, 1688-1820 (Cambridge University Press, 2009), the Prologue of which is available here. Briefly: letter-writing manuals of this sort, which were a highly popular text exchanged between the US and Britain, dealt both with style and with the signification and reinforcement of social norms. They didn’t just model letters — they modeled idealsPoliteness, in this context, is also a socio-economic class signifier.

The attentive reader will have noticed that in the previous paragraph, I spelled the name of the book’s author Cooke rather than Cook (the spelling on the title page pictured above). There’s a good reason for this. The former is apparently the “correct” spelling of the (pseudonymous) author of the London-printed original text. The latter is the “author” of the 1835 US adaptation.* Consider the title page of an 1812 edition of the original text, set, printed, and sold in London as The Universal Letter Writer or New Art of Polite Correspondence:

Title page and frontispiece, Cooke's Universal Letter-Writer (1812)

A screenshot of the frontispiece and title page of the 1812 edition of Cooke’s Universal Letter Writer, as printed and sold by an (unnamed) bookseller in London and Thomas Wilson & Son in York. The edition pictured here is currently owned by the New York Public Library, and may be viewed online in its entirety at the Internet Archive. The frontispiece from the 1835 US edition in the Wood’s House collection is missing, which makes it quite  impossible to compare them.

As we compare the title page of this text to the title page of the 1835 US printing, we notice a few interesting differences (the title, for one), of which the most amusing (to me, anyway) is the author statement. The 1812 book is attributed to “Rev. Thomas Cooke, A.B.,” who is identified as “One of the Authors of the New Royal and Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences.” The 1835 book is attributed to “Rev. Thomas Cook, A.B.” but changes the further author description: “And [emphasis mine] one of the authors of the New Royal and Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences In England.”

Hmmm. Suddenly, either Rev. Cook(e) has a co-author or the adapter of the text thought his title letters (A.B.) required a conjunction in order to join it properly to the description.


More revealing of the nature and extent of the 1835 adaptation, however, is a look at the early pages of the text. In the 1812 edition, for instance, the Table of Contents is at the beginning; in the 1835 printing, it’s at the very end. The actual content of the Preface and a brief set of Directions for Writing Letters is identical in both books, but the 1835 US version omits a section called “A New Plain and Easy English Grammar” that the 1812 London edition puts between the Preface and Directions. The first collection of examples in each book is comprised of “Letters To and From Different Relations,” and each letter is preceded by a brief note naming the sender and/or recipient, as well as (in the case of the first letter of a related group) the topic of their correspondence. The first letter in the 1812 edition is headed “From a merchant in London, to the master of a college, recommending his son as a pupil,” while the header of the first letter in the 1835 edition, which actually deviates in style both from the 1812 edition and from subsequent letters in its own text, is simply headed “On the Respect and Obedience due to Parents.”

The next time in the first section when the two texts match is Letter VII in the 1812 edition (in which four different letters are devoted to the exchange between the father, the master, and the young gentlemen in question and two more are devoted to an exchange about re-homing some orphans with a distant relative) and Letter II in the 1835 text, a letter “From a young Gentleman to his Mother, during his Apprenticeship.” The text of Letter VII (1812) and Letter II (1835) is almost identical (they differ by three words, one of which is just a tense change).

A comparison of the rest looks a lot like this (albeit with some differences in content ordering) — there are shared letters in common mixed among letters unique to each text, and many of the unique letters specifically reflect the presumed location, occupation, and social class of their respective audiences. There are also shifts in location, syntax, and circumstance among otherwise shared pieces; Letter V in the 1835 edition, for example, is “From an aged Lady in the Country, to her Niece in New-York, cautioning her against keeping Company with a Gentleman of bad Character,” while its match, Letter XXV in the 1812 edition, is “From an aged lady in the country, to her niece in London, cautioning her against keeping company with a gentleman of a bad character.”

Regardless of the extent of the adaptation/borrowing  and whether we regard it as illicit or appropriate, the letters collected in both books invariably tell a story — they’re not just examples of how to write, they’re little epistolary dramas illustrating “correct” behavior. They recommend the pursuit of virtue, they politely demand that others respond to obligations appropriately, and they model good business practices. For example: both books include an exchange between “a young gentleman in expectation of an estate from his penurious uncle” (who disapproves of the young woman the young gentleman intends to marry) and the woman he desires. The letter in which she rejects his suggestion that they elope is headed “The lady’s prudent answer” (Letters XXXII and XXXIII, 1835; LXXXI and LXXXII, 1812).  Reading letter manuals like these is a bit like reading a collection of very short educational stories, not unlike the fun to be had with more contemporary mixes of story and instruction like Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s delightful grammar guides (The Deluxe Transitive VampireThe New Well-Tempered Sentence).

I’m not sure how I feel about possibly plagiarized epistolary morality tales, but they sure are fun to read!

* The good Reverend (according to Bannet (2005, p. 194) is probably a pseudonym. The original publisher of this particular strain of Universal Letter-Writer, John Cooke of London, was known for printing work by authors with fictionalized credentials and occasionally bogus names (Rev. Cooke had an A.M. in some editions, for example, and an A.B. in others).

Amusingly, the tradition of playing with authorship for this text continues on Amazon, where anyone who wants to do the work can create their own Kindle or print edition of work currently in the public domain:


There may be an actual Thomas Cook who fits this description, but he is highly unlikely to be the fellow responsible for either the Universal Letter-Writer or the New and Complete Letter-Writer.

Posted in Adventures in Collection Management, Library Business, random stuff | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

My Sunday Night: A Partial Timeline

5:00pm: I am answering email and getting ready to dig in to yet another set of essays here at Spring Term Grade-a-thon 2017. I have already busted two plagiarists this weekend, and expect to hear from them shortly.

5:37pm: I receive an email from Plagiarist 1 (hereafter P1), who is “irritated” by the zero that P1 received on their rough draft and indignant about the accusation of plagiarism. Said plagiarism, for the reader’s information, involved cutting and pasting roughly half of an article from an ethics journal(!) and “laundering” the material through Google Translate, with occasional in-text citations (incorrectly formatted and incomplete) to unrelated sources added for window-dressing and/or verisimilitude.

5:38pm: Really? REALLY?!?!? Oh, nonononono. IT. IS. NOW. OFFICIALLY. ON.

5:39pm: I have just started assembling a color-coded side-by-side comparison of P1’s paper to the original journal article, complete with links to the article, links to explainers about the Google Laundering phenomenon (it ain’t new, folks), and additional commentary. I am prepared to spend all night on this.

The sound that is playing in my head at 5:39PM.

5:40pm: P1 sends a second email, asking whether or not it’s possible to submit something else for a score. The tone of this message is conciliatory. I suspect that P1 wrote the first email after seeing the score and a preview of my comments (only the first sentence, perhaps) in our LMS, and wrote the second email after reading the bit of the comments where I included a link to the journal article from which P1 received such…inspiration. Ehem.

You KNOW I brought receipts.

5:41 – The rest of my damn night: I let the student know by email that Winter is Coming and continue color-coding and backing up my precious, precious evidence. I cannot be stopped, not even by the need to grade all of the other stuff that I should have had done two weeks ago.


Ah, Sunday.

Postscript: Somewhere in there, Plagiarist 2 also emailed, copped to the crime and may be permitted to do penance and/or restitution. P1 has received the Evidence. We’ll see what happens next.

Posted in Philosophy, Rant and Ramble | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Bunnies of Dooooooom!


It is time.

The annual Easter horror is once again upon us, in the form of bizarrely proportioned lapinesque beings with an inexplicable habit of distributing the colorfully painted unhatched offspring of hapless chickens to all and sundry.

Easter Bunny

The giant bunnies mark their prey with fancy hats.

As all five or six of the regular readers of this blog already know, I have my own way of dealing with Easter and the baleful bunnies of spring: The Annual Telling of the Story. It goes a little something like this:

Once upon a time, when I was a small child, my parents bought a gigantic inflatable Easter Bunny. It was about 6 feet tall, and just as Easter Bunnyish as can be. My father blew up the monstrous thing (I am assured that it was a difficult process, which is some small consolation, I suppose, for what follows), and stuck it in a coat closet for safe keeping, so that it would be a surprise.

Oh, how right he was about the surprise.

Imagine that you are a small child. You have visions of sweet little bunnies and candy in your head, and you’re happily hunting all over the house for Easter eggs. It is a fun day, a beautiful day, and you are wearing your Easter best with at least some semblance of grace (for a change). You expect nothing.

Then you open the closet door, and IT comes out.

It is GIGANTIC — as tall as your father (taller!) — and it smells like plastic. It fairly explodes out of the closet. You try to get away in your utter shock, but you are unable to escape — the scary, smelly plastic thing has tackled you.

A young girl poses with the

This kid knows *exactly* what I’m talking about.

All of your worst childhood fears about monsters in closets are in that moment proved entirely reasonable and right. They are real, and they will jump out at you when you least suspect it. Screaming seems to be an appropriate response to reality at the moment, so screaming is exactly what you do.

And your parents…laugh. They can hardly help themselves.

Because it is hilarious. I mean, it really is.

Every Easter, I remember the day paranoia became a reasonable position to take. The monsters in the closet are real, and they will get you, and it will be comedy gold.


Freakin’ BUNNIES, man.

Thanks, Mom and Dad! Happy Easter! :)


Photo credits for the two black and white images above:
1. The Library of Virginia
2. Johnson, Francis P. A young girl poses with the “easter bunny”. 1953. Black & white photoprint, 5 x 4 in. Florida Memory (State Library and Archives of Florida)

Content in this post has appeared in previous Easter retellings, beginning in 2014. Hey, it’s my blog — I can do that if I want to!

Posted in Questionable Parenting, random stuff, Uncategorized | Tagged , ,

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown…

…especially when said head belongs to a lonely gorilla the size of a building who can’t seem to catch a break.

[There will be some spoilers for Kong: Skull Island (2017) here. If you haven’t seen it yet and don’t want the details, well…um…go away, then, right? If you want a short recommendation, I say: go see it! It’s more fun than you might expect, and it does some interesting things!]

Continue reading

Posted in Habitrail Critic, review | Tagged , , , , ,

[Review] The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I would develop short lessons about appropriate responses to information in the context of both general research skills instruction and specific kinds of library information literacy instruction. I’ve been collecting books and links and other resources as I think about it, and the most recent book I’ve read on the subject so far is Brooke Borel’s The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking (University of Chicago Press, 2016). I freely admit (as a loud and proud CMS16 fangirl) that I came for the “Chicago,” but I definitely stayed for the content.



The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking offers seven chapters, the content of the first six of which can be roughly broken down into two categories: an overview of the relevant concepts and procedures and more specific information addressing actual practice. The final chapter is a practice task, followed by appendices that provide an answer to the practice task and a set of useful resources. It’s short (174 pages, including the index and references), but that’s mostly an indication of the efficiency and clarity of Borel’s presentation rather than a sign of any limitations in its content.

The book is peppered throughout with little “Think Like a Fact-Checker” exercises that invite the reader to practice the skills described in the text. These short exercises are a nice touch — they give the reader the opportunity to take on the job of fact-checking in reasonable developmental steps. If I were teaching an introductory journalism course or training students to work on a university publication, Borel’s invitation to the reader to “think like a fact-checker” would be central to my agenda for the course.

This is a book very well suited, in fact, for introductory journalism students. Borel’s account of the work of fact-checkers is presented through specific examples of how that work is done for publication purposes, and includes quite a lot of basic procedural information for someone in or seeking to enter the journalism game. This isn’t a theoretical exploration of journalistic norms — it’s a how-to guide based on the expertise of someone in the business, and reflects both practical and professional norms for the job.

Obviously I am not a journalism instructor — I’m a philosopher who wants to be a librarian. For my purposes (teaching undergraduates in either introductory philosophy classes or library instruction sessions), much of the inside-baseball material about journalistic practice isn’t especially useful, although I think consumers of news media would definitely benefit from becoming more familiar with how journalists and editors do their jobs. The method encoded in Borel’s account of practice is, however, potentially quite useful indeed regardless of audience. Her careful descriptions of how to check different kinds of facts and how to handle different kinds of sourcing are invaluable for anyone trying to develop a basic awareness of how and where to find relevant and reliable information. I especially appreciate her treatment of the distinction between primary and secondary sources and the accompanying information about how to evaluate the credibility of items in both categories. I might not find occasion to assign the entire book, but I would certainly find reason to cite it and to point students toward reading certain pieces of it.

So, short take: Borel does the signal service of providing a brief, clear, useful guide on the subject from a journalist’s point of view, and along the way opens a window into both good research practice and the tricky business of journalism itself. Even if you’re not a journalist, it’s a book worth having around.

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