December On the Slant & Shakespeare

Discuss the views of your favorite Genii columnists.

Postby Alain Roy » 11/15/03 09:07 AM

When I received my December issue of Genii (very good issue, Richard) I eagerly read Mr. Racherbaumer's column, On the Slant, as I always do. What a teaser! He mentions a fascinating approach to figuring out if Shakespeare's works were all written by Shakespeare or not:

For years, scholar have argued about the provenance of Shakespeare's works, and it was recently reported that "a team of researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center believe they have settled the debate, using a new computer program..."

But you don't tell us how they settled the debate. What a sneaky way to encourage us to actually go out and look for knowledge on our own instead of having it spoon-fed to us.

After a few minutes of interaction with our favorite oracle, Google, I found an article titled Information categorization approach to literary authorship disputes by Yang, Peng, Yien, and Goldberger. The official PDF file of the article may not be available to everyone, I'm not sure. It looked like a subscription was needed, but my university IP address may have authorized me--I really don't know.

Two of the interesting findings in the paper: Edward III seems to be have been more likely written by Christoper Marlowe, and The Noble Kinsmen seem like it may have been co-authored by John Fletcher and Shakespeare.

The authors of this paper also analyze a classic work of Chinese literature, The Dream of the Red Chamber and classic American works, The Federalist Papers.

As interesting as this work is, I don't think is clearly settles the debate. The authors have an indication of statistical similarity based on words used by authors. It is fascinating, but can we found counterexamples? Places where it doesn't work? Do authors take on different styles consciously that look different with this approach, or are they unable to do so? I think I would enjoy doing some research in this.

-alain
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Postby Bob L » 11/15/03 11:24 AM

For those allergic to Google:

http://www.macalester.edu/~kaplan/cs121 ... ysicaA.pdf

Thanks Alain for calling attention to this.
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Postby Guest » 11/15/03 12:55 PM

This debate isn't settled, and that's not what Jon said. He said that a team of researchers believe that they've settled the debate. This has been an ongoing debate for centuries.

Analyzing compositional style is art, not a science. Computers make many mistakes in the simple act of grammar-checking; analyzing style is a far more advanced pursuit.

I would be interested in hearing how they attempted it, though.
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Postby Alain Roy » 11/16/03 07:50 PM

No, I know that Jon didn't say the debate was settled. He quoted an newspaper article that said that researchers believe that the debate is settled. I found no indication in the source material that the researchers believe that the matter is settled, and I would have been shocked if I did. Newspapers stretch the truth a bit.

It does make me think that there is interesting work to be done here. I'll have to get my coding hands dirty again.

-alain
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Postby Guest » 11/25/03 04:52 PM

Alain, my friend,

Thanks for calling our attention to this fascinating article and ensuing discussion. I really enjoyed it!

Email me and tell me your current "snail-mail" address, as I want to mail you something.

Regards,

Jon
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Postby Jon Racherbaumer » 11/25/03 07:16 PM

There will be a much longer post regarding the paternity of Shakespeare on my BLOG. It is a tad long for this Forum and perhaps too far afield from the topic of magic per se to use up the bandwidth. Interested parties can go to my Blog in a week or so or less.

www.JonRacherbaumer.com
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Postby Lisa Cousins » 11/26/03 09:35 AM

While visiting London, Mark Twain was invited to a dinner held by a society that believed Francis Bacon was the author of all of Shakespeare's works, and when the group asked for his opinion on the matter, he would not commit: "I'll wait until I get to heaven, and ask Shakespeare who did write his plays."

One of the Baconians sniffed "I don't think, Mr. Clemens, that you will find Shakespeare in heaven."

Twain replied: "Well, then you ask him."
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Postby Guest » 11/26/03 01:56 PM

Ah! The welcome return of the wayfaring Ms. Cousins!
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Postby Guest » 12/08/03 08:08 AM

Until recently it was believed that A Visit from St. Nicholas was written in 1822 for Clement Clarke Moore's two daughters, Margaret and Charity, and later published anonymously in The Troy Sentinel (Troy, NY) on December 23, 1823. However, in 2000, Don Foster, in a book Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous (New York: Henry Holt, 2000) demonstrated that Moore could not have been the author.
Foster used similar technical methods to those under discussion.
Foster concluded that it was probably written by Major Henry Livingston Jr. See http://eir.library.utoronto.ca/rpo/disp ... m1312.html
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Postby Lisa Cousins » 12/17/03 10:19 AM

I acknowledge that computers are extremely useful for certain things, such as doing math and keeping the global magic community in continuous conversation, but their brand of "proof" will never succeed in convincing people in general of such ephemeral, gut-level things as the authorship of famous literary works. These types of questions make for fun and interesting intellectual puzzles, but nothing in this line will ever be definitively resolved by computer. I'm sure that all of the members of that Francis Bacon society were totally convinced of the correctness of their position, felt that the issue was resolved, and would have been more than pleased to tell you why - and yet we still call all of those works "Shakespeare" and we continue to use the term "Shakespearean" and hold Shakespeare Festivals and watch movies called "Shakespeare in Love." I have no doubt that "A Visit From St. Nicholas" will continue to appear with the name Moore attached to it, with Livingston's name a footnote, if mentioned at all. "The computer said so" is as nothing compared to long use and custom and familiarity when it comes matters such as these.

Again, while asking these questions can certainly be intriguing, the "name on the label" is the least important part of the story. As Emerson put it, "The inspiration which uttered itself in Hamlet and Lear could utter things as good from day to day, forever." He advises that one encounter the living genius that expressed itself in these and other great works of literature "and respond in the same pitch."

Computers, despite their undeniable utility, have no ability to sing that tune.
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Postby Bill Mullins » 12/17/03 12:14 PM

Allow me to respectfully disagree with Lisa Cousins, in that she gives credit to "the computer". It was Don Foster who identified the real author of the poem, just as it was Don Foster who figured out that Joe Klein was the author of Primary Colors. The computer was simply a tool he used to do so.

Computers are getting the same credit/infamy in the current BCS college football controversy, in that "the computers" are wrong when they rank Oklahoma over USC. The computers are simply the tools that Jeff Sagarin, Richard Billingsley, and others use to implement their subjective opinions about how good the various teams are, based on their win-losses, opponents, whatever. If you think that USC is clearly better than Oklahoma or LSU, your beef is with the programmer/designers, not the "computers".

Likewise, the credit goes to Yang, Peng, Yien, and Goldberger in the original Shakespeare discussion -- not to the computers they used.
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Postby Richard Hatch » 12/17/03 03:01 PM

Originally posted by Bill Mullins:
Allow me to respectfully disagree with Lisa Cousins, in that she gives credit to "the computer". It was Don Foster who identified the real author of the poem, just as it was Don Foster who figured out that Joe Klein was the author of Primary Colors. The computer was simply a tool he used to do so.
I would like to point out that Don Foster's conclusion that Moore did not write "Twas the Night Before Christmas" is a subject of ongoing controversy. I gave a copy of Foster's book to Martin Gardner, who has done a fair bit of work on this poem and he did not find Foster's arguments compelling, nor does Joe Nickell, professional debunker for CSICOP (the profile on Nickell in THE NEW YORKER about a year ago goes into this issue).
Foster's initial claim to fame was for having attributed "A Funeral Elegy" to Shakespeare. More recent scholarship has identified a different author and Foster has gracefully accepted that conclusion. So the field of "forensic linguistics" seems to remain as much an art as a science. Still, it would be fascinating to see what Foster and others with such expertise would tell us about Erdnase! I sent an unsolicited email to Foster at Vassar about 3 years ago hoping to interest him in this mystery, but received no response. When I read his book, I learned that he gets about a dozen such requests each day!
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Postby Jon Racherbaumer » 12/18/03 09:55 AM

I agree with Hatch. Forensic linguistics is in its infancy and is still largely an art. Same applies to computer analysis. One day, however, we may be able to clearly identify "Literary DNA." In the meantime, it is simply another tool in seeking whatever Truth is Out There or In There.

I've been recently intrigued with another question: Why are some of us interested in provenance?

Onward...
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Postby Matthew Field » 12/18/03 10:32 AM

Originally posted by Jon Racherbaumer:
Why are some of us interested in provenance?
There's an interesting question, Jon. I suppose it has to do with being interested in magicians (i.e. people), not simply in effects (i.e. material). When you have in interest in the people who create and when you see something interesting, it follows that you would want to know who created it, and what the inspiration (history) might have been.

At least that's true for me, personally.

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Postby Bill Mullins » 12/18/03 01:54 PM

Originally posted by Jon Racherbaumer:
Why are some of us interested in provenance?
It's another puzzle, like how the coin got under the card.
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