The second blog (out of four) in the series “academic exploits in times of Corona”. Let me tell you about a fascinating seminar I did in Amsterdam, at the UvA. My presence was virtual, which was a pity coz my dear friend Teja lives just around the corner – just think of those tingling glasses and gastronomic goodies we had to deny ourselves. Hopefully we can make up for it at some point in the near(er) future.
Anyway, the seminar was not what I had expected. At all. I thought I was going to learn something about the technical construction of language. Well, I suppose I did learn about a specific kind of construction. The kind that helps you to find to identify who really wrote a particular document. Or even, when there is more than one author, to identify who has written which part. For instance, some real detective work has been done on the writings of Hildegard of Bingen. Do you know about her? If not, look her up. She was an abbess, a famous composer of sacred music, mystic, philosopher, scientist, writer – and born in 1089! She must have been quite a woman. Anyway, she was a bit of a control freak. Her clerks were not allowed to change anything in her texts without her approval. But it is thought that she put a lot of trust in her last clerk, to the extent that he may have completed or even written some of her texts.
Curious? Have a look at this documentary. I thought it was wonderful, so exciting to find out what must have happened. Of course these researchers did not just look at the writings. They already knew a lot about her, her life, the general context, other authors, so they had an idea where to look. Still, a remarkable discovery (if you have not started the documentary by now, do it soon, or I will give up you).
Great stuff, right? But interesting as it was, I was wondering how to relate it to my research topic. And then I thought about the authorship of rules and regulations in security (my daytime job for those of you that do not know). I described the problem once to my supervising professor, at the start of my back-to-academia project. You will find it tucked away in my original problem definition, in this post. The problem with anonymous texts or texts that have been written by a “body” of people, is that it is almost impossible to get textual clarification. As I put it in that other piece:
“There is no one to ask. There is no author to ask for clarification, nor is there an easily accessible expert group. An additional problem is that reaching out to the publisher of the regulation or standard in question, must be done through proper channels, i.e. not something just any employee can do. Usually, the best that may be achieved is to send in a formal request for clarification – which may or may not be processed during a future maintenance window”.
The discipline that does this kind of investigation is called stylometry. Basically, stylometry analyses measurable textual features: word and sentence length, various frequencies (of words, word lengths, word forms, etc.), vocabulary richness, use of punctuation, use of certain expressions and preferences for certain spelling variants. You can imagine that the more texts you have by one particular author, the more you get to know about his or her particular stylometric style. Such analyses also allow you to pick out texts that seem odd, i.e. do not have the characteristic features commonly found in texts by that particular author.
What I find fascinating is that these kind of features are the ones we are not aware of: our use of little worlds like a/an/the, for instance. So disguising your handwriting or attempting to stay anonymous will not stop the literary detective from finding out who you are!
So I thought I’d study official, parliamentary, publications by and about the Dutch Tax office. Which turned out to be a lot more work than I thought, because it is not possible to get the documents from one particular dossier in one go. But since I only wanted about 50, that was doable, so I started collecting. I found some really interesting things. For instance, the official “functional” authorship which was stated on the documents (minister of finance, secretary of state, audit chamber, Dutch tax office, ministry of finance) rarely matched the author or group of authors that – according to tools and theory – actually wrote those documents. The most amazing was a set of two letters, one by the prime minister and one by the head of the audit chamber which appear to have been written by the same person. Which is weird, considering the audit chamber is suppose to check out the government.
At this point the seminar’s professor said that I must be very very careful interpreting these results, and perhaps I would like to do a further study and involve a data scientist. 🙂 Yes yes, I understand. This must be the n-th time where I have written something which might be a little explosive to publish. Like my paper on “naive normativity in animals”, or the piece about “artificial intelligence and profiling”. I suppose in this case – unlike the other two – there really is more work to do. After all, it was the very first time I played with these tools, and I am still not sure about their limitations.
If you want to read my paper, it is here. It is a bit dry, because it is basically analysis, but you will get the idea. Some pretty graphs included. I also did an analysis on trustworthiness. This was of particular interest because some of the documents in recent debates were said to contain falsehoods. I ran tests to find out if any signs of untruthfulness could be found. And I found? The opposite. All of these text breathed a 1000% “you can trust me”. Which probably means that in texts, trustworthiness cannot be measured, or maybe that trustworthiness is a style which can easily be faked. Or perhaps our society is not so interested in truth anymore.
My next blog will be about Frege. Yes, the one that sort of incidentally provided the mathematical foundation for the whole analytical philosophy of language approach which I found so very boring when I was first at university. I dared to go back into hell, and I will tell you the story. Next.
Just in case you don’t know Cassandra’s tale, I will tell it to you briefly. Otherwise you won’t understand this post. There are some variations to the tale, but they don’t matter much, and I get to pick my favourite one, as this is my blog 🙂
Cassandra is a figure in Homer’s Iliad, the story of the Trojan War. Some say she was a daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. Whoever her parents were, she also was a priestess at the temple of Apollo. As you may know, the Greek gods were much like humans. Cassandra was a pretty red-head, and Apollo the god of Art, Medicine and Wisdom. And male. So after a while they came to know each other in a (pre)biblical sense which pleased them both, and the relationship lasted for quite a while. Long enough for Cassandra to become clairvoyant – divinity tends to rub off on you. That is why Cassandra is depicted with green snakes around her head, whispering in her ears. These are Apollo’s symbol.
Cassandra was not supposed to talk about her relationship with Apollo. She did not, at first. Eventually, she could not resist boasting about it to her friends, or perhaps she only told her best friend and the story got around. Apollo found out and was not amused. He ended the relationship at once. He could not take away Cassandra’s clairvoyance, so he cursed her instead. She would continue to predict the future, but no one would ever believe a word she said.
Next time we hear of Cassandra she is in the middle of the Trojan War. The Greeks have just left an enormous wooden horse in front of the city and sailed away. The Trojans are really happy that the Greeks are gone and prepare to wheel in what they regard as a peace offering. Cassandra begs them not to. She tells them to be very careful of “Greeks bearing gifts” and that this horse will doom them all.
The Trojans laugh her off and wheel in the Horse. At night, the Greek soldiers come out of the Horse. The rest is history.
What has Cassandra to do with me? You may wonder, depending on whether you know me personally, and if you do, at what time in my life. Some of you know that I sometimes use Cassandra as an email alias. So yes, I identify with her. There is a reason for that. I sometimes see true, in the sense that a situation lights up, and I can see all the strands connecting and move into the (near) future. It is not anything magical. I think most people will recognise patterns like that. For me, usually it is about things that I have been worried about or have been looking at for a long time. Often I find myself doing parallel thinking, as if I partition off issues that are not urgent or take a long time or are painful, and leave them to roam my mind on their own. You know, when suddenly an insight hits you, and you realise you must have been thinking about it subconsciously for quite a while.
I suppose that my years of working in information security have strengthened this already existing character trait. But even when I was very young, I had this great need to understand. This may have been amplified because my parents kept secrets. I don’t know why they did that, because it caused all sort of problems for them also, but they did. I think they just liked keeping secrets. Made them feel as if they were in a an adventure of their own making. Big and small lies. To illustrate, one big lie was about my father not being my father – he got swapped for my stepfather when I was 6. Not exactly an age when you can do this kind of thing as a parent without the child noticing, but this is what happened. The truth came out when I was 27 and no longer had any idea about this. Can you imagine? I suppose now that if one is used to telling big fibs, the small ones come easily. So I myself try not to tell even small fibs. Of course I fail, because everyone tells small lies all the time. Fortunately I blush easily so you can tell 🙂 Anyway, I was an intelligent and inquisitive child and I adored my parents. So if I happened to stumble across some inconvenient fact, or memory, or something that did not quite add up, I would – naturally – go to them with my findings. My parents would prefer to keep the secret – whatever it was – intact, and tell me I was wrong. As I believed them, this made me try even harder to see clearly, to collect the right facts, to understand better. Counter-productive, as family harmony goes, as you might imagine. But a very formative experience for me. I have to understand, I just have to. You might say that I do it to myself.
In my adult life, my insights are sometimes about important issues nobody wants to know about. Or admit to. Life seems to throw these kind of situations at me. I must have done something very bad in a previous life. When that happens, when people do not want to know what I need them to know, things get very awkward for me. If it is the other way around, and someone points out some fault line in what I know, do, think or feel, I may become uncomfortable. Yet in the interest of humanity, friendship, love and most of all, the wholeness and coherence of my own soul, I will step over my shadow and try to improve myself. Failing that, I will admit to my deficiencies. Not because I like to, but because I don’t want someone else to pick up the tab for strain caused by me. I don’t mean to say that I am some kind of ideal person who will always recognise her own faults. But I try to. Scheming with yourself is a bad idea, you lose you clarity if you do that. Or so I believe. As a result, when someone does not want to go uncomfortable truth-diving together but gets angry at me instead, I don’t know what to do, not even how to continue the relationship with that other person. If there are conflicting responsibilities as well, I get ill. The pressure becomes too much for me. So I try to be careful but life keeps happening, somehow.
My problem, I suppose, is that I have no intuitive grasp of why people might not enthusiastic about gaining a new insight. Maybe I am a bit simple, even autistic in my approach. Often people are very different from me, as I have found out to my cost. Some get hostile because they assume I am trying to shift some power-balance in my favour. Or worry about their own loss of power or status if some not-so-pretty fact might come out in the open. Or assume that I am trying to beat them at something. It does not matter if I tell such people that I am not interested in power, status or image. Or that I would rather not be right. That I would not say anything unless necessary. But whatever I say, I will not be believed. I think their reasoning is that if they feel bad about what I say, it must be my fault for willingly inflicting this feeling on them. As if that were my objective, to annoy or hurt them, or to show them up or belittle them in some way. When this kind of – let’s call it – mismatch occurs, it has nothing to do with the relationship I may have with that person. He or she may be my best friend, favourite family member, or even my employer, and still prefer not to know what I feel we need to look at.
Now at this point it would be nice to tell a couple of stories, but I cannot do that here. Such stories don’t involve just me but also other people, you see? But I will give the Dutch speakers among you, one titbit (the others will get the drift anyway).
I was invited to give my views on what is wrong with the Government IT systems and post them on this website. This is a mega-issue in parliament at the moment. So I wrote a piece. If you are Dutch and you read it carefully, you can probably see what I try to say, although it is very carefully worded and may require some experience with government and IT issues. The company lawyer says I won’t get into trouble over it. Let’s hope so, and otherwise, too bad. You see, civil servants are not suppose to speak about anything work-related in public. Because our boss is the Minister, so everything gets politicised. Anyway, this piece did not materialise overnight. Imagine it as an abstract covering memo to a pile of reports that were presented over a period of say, 15 years.
The other story is a silly story. It illustrates how touchy Cassandra is. You may dislike or denounce her, but do not doubt her integrity. I was 24 when this happened. I was just back from the UK and living on the 13th floor of a student flat just outside Amsterdam. I was trying to re-adjust to Holland. Like re-learning to ride a bike, finding out what generally accepted notions like an “acceptgiro” (money) and a “strippencard” (travel) were about. I tell you, you are not easily believed when you claim you failed to get a “strippencard” for the bus because you are stupid foreigner – in perfect Dutch. This was not a happy time for me. The man I had come back to Holland for had decided I was not sufficiently delicately mannered to be married to him, as I used my hands to get the last bit of meat from my favourite lamb chops. My friends said I made a timely escape, but I was heart broken at the time. Financially I was totally broke as I had no income or support, and was trying to get by on odd jobs. These odd jobs were soon to flourish into full time jobs – it never rains but it pours, but had not yet. My health was not good. Just explaining that I may have been a bit lonely and feeling sorry for myself at the time, so susceptible to people and things that I would have normally avoided.
There was this guy who was interested in me, and he wanted to know my life’s story. Think: candle lit room, music, brooding presence. I cannot remember the guy’s face or name, but I remember he had the corner room, near the communal phone. I did not think my life all that interesting. I had been at Oxford where there were so many truly exotic and exciting people. So I gave him a resume of the main events as they appeared to me at the time. When I was done, he looked at me, and he said: “You made that up. That much could not have happened in your life”. I just stared at him. I had played things down, if anything. Why would he not want to believe me? Of course his designs had not been on my story at all – that was me flattering myself – he had intended to play quite a different role. But I never gave him a chance to explain. I just got up and left. Nobody, and I mean nobody, accuses me of lying. End of never-to-happen-anyway romance. Cassandra has her professional pride.
Back to Cassandra. Another pretty picture of her here. Tearing at her hair before a burning Troy.
So what happened to me to spark off this post? Well, in a previous post I told you my professor wanted to talk to me about my paper. We spoke last Friday. He said he would help me if I decided to publish, which is good to know. But there is a catch. He feels my paper should be published, because it shows very convincingly how a well-known philosopher is sloppy to the point of being fraudulent. Like citing sources that are not available or do not support claims made. But: this would be my very first publication. It would probably be published in the same journal as this philosopher published her articles in. I would very probably be attacked “in return”, by her and by other people supportive of her, because that is what usually happens. So, a lot of unpleasant reactions from very clever and experienced people. Not nice, I have seen examples. My Professor thinks that I am made of stern stuff (which is not quite true), but even so, he reckons that it is not in my interest to do this to myself.
It made me laugh. I never imagined that I would run into this kind of problem in an academic context. Which maybe is a bit naive on my part. But I was really very surprised to find myself in this situation. You see, I had not gone looking for defects at all. In fact, I had been really enthusiastic about this philosopher’s theory – still am. I was very unhappy to find out how badly it was grounded. But once I saw a thread, I had to pull it, and then another one came out, and soon I found myself checking all her claims and all her references over three of her articles. This is me, I cannot help it. Once I see a pattern, I have to know. What emerged was nothing to be proud of, for an academic. So I can see why my professor thinks someone ought to publish my findings. Particularly because she did not respond to the helpful and friendly email I sent her in the early stages of my paper. In her shoes I would have been delighted to receive such feedback (someone checking your research free of charge and offering to point out all the things you have overlooked yourself), but she probably was not so happy at this prospect.
The bottom line – I will not publish. The topic is quite far removed from what I want to do my PhD on. I also much prefer to publish something constructive rather that de-constructive, however supposedly brilliant. And last but not least, I am Chicken. I am fed up with having conflicts with people who are not and never will be in my universe. Not now, please. I am enjoying myself too much, on this going-back-to-university project. Never mind, Cassandra. Go and play somewhere. But if you want to read it, it is here.
PS. I wrote this post quite late at night, and saw some mistakes the next morning. Which I corrected and then added some bits. So if you think the text has changed from when you read it before, it is not you, it is me 🙂