Synchronous Narratives, Small Data, and Measure Veracity

I’m, at the moment, looking for a particular problem to work on for my dissertation. It feels a bit backwards the way I’m going about it–I know what kind of solution I want to deploy, but I’m looking for a problem to solve with it. It’s a bit like running around the house with a hammer, looking for nails to hit, or running around with a new saw, cutting up wood into bits for the hell of it. The danger is that I could end up cutting all my wood up into tiny shavings, having had a blast with the saw but finding myself homeless at the end of the day.

My tool in this case isn’t a saw, but the abstraction of narrative schemata. The idea is, using dependency parses and coreference chains, you can extract which verbs are likely to co-occur with a shared referent. For example, arrest, search, and detain often share role fillers of some kind–policesuspect, or something referring to something that is one of those two.

A corpus of news contains all kinds of relationships like those, buried inside the language data itself. Ideally, these represent some sort of shared world knowledge that can be applied to other tasks. To demonstrate that this isn’t mere idealism is what I’m looking to do my dissertation on at the moment.

Back in the spring, I took my first attempt at this, and it went ok. My hypothesis–one of convenience, mostly–didn’t pan out, but there were interesting trends in the data. That resulted in a problem, though; I had two things to sort out: was my hypothesis wrong? Was the measure I used to determine that fact suitable for doing so? There was some minor evidence that the measure was suitable, but nothing conclusive.

Instead, I started sniffing around for other hypotheses–things someone else had already thought of, and that may be demonstrable with narrative schemata as an overlying application. Per my typical procrastination, I stumbled upon a recent article on Salon that critiques national press coverage of Rick Perry, claiming that narratives presented in the national press diverge wildly from those presented in Texas papers.

With an author having shown this qualitatively, it’s ripe for quantitative replication. It would make a great experiment for showing the veracity of whatever measure I end up devising.

The difficulty comes in with corpus building. There isn’t a corpus of these texts lying around. I’d have to dig them up myself, from numerous scattered sources. Additionally, the number of sources is likely to be limited. I may be able to obtain a few hundred articles if I’m relentless. Prior work on schemata began with millions of articles. The robustness of the approach may be questionable, in this case.

Of course, the difference in size may be the source of an interesting result in and of itself, but it’s not what I’d set out to demonstrate when searching for a problem that demonstrates the veracity of my measure.

Thirteen Years Later

They hate our freedoms.”

There’s little that pisses me off more than this sentence. It’s been used to justify thirteen years of warfare and widespread state surveillance, and it’s complete bullshit.

They hate our freedoms as much as we hate theirs; it’s really got nothing to do with why what happened did. It’s the conception of justice as vengeance. It’s the belief that our way of life is average, normal, and optimal, and imposing it on others is, in a universal sense, justifiable. It neglects centuries of Western powers rampaging through the Middle East in pursuit of religious or economic gain and in the process leaving power vacuums and anger, leading to further intervention, leading to further power vacuums and anger.

No matter who is responsible, the cycle of suffering will continue. While someone over here mumbles “mrrca” repeated, asserting their own patriotic righteousness, just that same mumbling sounds like “Allahu akbar” on the other side of the globe. They both believe in the absolute truth and justice of their own side, and to push on other another reinforces and maintains that sentiment. The equal and opposite reaction is evil, and the push becomes good. The justification is built on a selective compassion for dead compatriots. Death begets death, the slaughter continues, and as a solution, violence allows for one and only one victory condition: suppression or annihilation of the opposition.

So, here we are again, bombing what festered in a power vacuum we created. Nor will this be the last time. Nor will the next time be the last time.

Bombs are expensive. As long as there is someone to drop the bomb on, there are those who sell bombs. Bombs are good for business. Bombs guided by expensive electronics are even better.

George Orwell rolls in his grave.