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Computer Science Solves Successful Fiction

Computer scientists over at Stony Brook University have figured out what makes one fiction book more successful over another.

“Predicting the success of literary works poses a massive dilemma for publishers and aspiring writers alike,” said Assistant Professor Yejin Choi. “We examined the quantitative connection between writing style and successful literature. Based on novels across different genres, we investigated the predictive power of statistical stylometry in discriminating successful literary works, and identified the stylistic elements that are more prominent in successful writings.”

Choi and colleagues found that frequent use of words such as “and,” “but,” and “or” are more often used in successful books, along with prepositions, nouns, and pronouns. Verbs, adverbs, and foreign words are more often used in less successful books, along with topical, extreme, and negative words.

“Successful” was defined by Project Gutenberg download counts, and the research team studied eight genres—adventure, mystery, historical fiction, fiction, science-fiction, love stories, short stories, and poetry.

“For a small number of novels, we also considered award recipients—such as Pulitzer and Nobel prizes—and Amazon sales records in order to define a novel’s success,” Choi said. “Additionally, we extended our empirical study to movie scripts, where we quantified a film’s success based on the average review scores at”

Choi believes the research is the first of its kind.

“To the best of our knowledge, our work is the first that provides quantitative insights into the connection between the writing style and the success of literary works,” Choi said. “Previous work has attempted to gain insights into the ‘secret recipe’ of successful books. But most of these studies were qualitative, based on a dozen books, and focused primarily on high-level content—the personalities of protagonists and antagonists and the plots. Our work examines a considerably larger collection—800 books—over multiple genres, providing insights into lexical, syntactic, and discourse patterns that characterize the writing styles commonly shared among the successful literature.”

(photo credit: orangeacid via photopin cc)


Books Read in 2013

As I’ve done in the past, here’s the list of books I read this year. More than once I surprised myself with a, “I read that book?” statement. Either that says more about the book’s impact or my memory. I’m guessing the latter.

Some of the stand outs this year include Bossypants (first time I’ve laughed out loud in a long time while reading a book); How to Live (a fascinating biography of Montaigne);  Hotel Iris, Tenth of December, and Dream of the Wolf (three writers who know what the hell they’re doing); and Anna in the Tropics (a play I wish I had written).

The list:

Bossypants by Tina Fey
How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell
Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
Relearning the Alphabet by Denise Levertov
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa
Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
The Underpants by Carl Sternheim, adaptation by Steve Martin
Tenth of December by George Saunders
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy
Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters by Jean Shepherd
Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions by Guy Kawasaki
Essential Self-Defense by Adam Rapp
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach
Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds
Rise Up by Matthew Rohrer
Doubt: A Parable by John Patrick Shanley
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
The Hothouse by Harold Pinter
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
Light Boxes by Shane Jones
Ode to Walt Whitman & Other Poems by Federico Garcia Lorca
The Shining by Stephen King
The Art of Living by Epictetus, interpreted by Sharon Lebell
The War Prayer by Mark Twain
A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss
Anna in the Tropics by Nilo Cruz
Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara
Three One-Act Plays by Woody Allen
The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
Nocturne by Adam Rapp
In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell
Venus Drive by Sam Lipsyte
After Visiting Friends: A Son’s Story by Michael Hainey
Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan
Interactive Acting: Acting, Improvisation, and Interacting for Audience Participatory Theatre by Jeff Wirth
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigols by Paul Zindel
A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion
Venus in Fur by David Ives
Seventh Heaven by Patti Smith
Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare
Dog Songs by Mary Oliver
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl
Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook by Gary Vaynerchuk
Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins
The Last Cowboy: A Life of Tom Landry by Mark Ribowsky
Dream of the Wolf by Scott Bradfield
Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

(photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc)

Ugly Employees Are Targets of Abuse at Work

Looks shouldn’t matter, but they do, especially in the workplace. That’s the conclusion two researchers came to in a study about counterproductive work behavior (CWB), defined as “behavior intended to hurt the organization or other members of the organization.” They wanted to know why particular employees are targets of abuse.

“Over the years, much attention has been devoted to understanding CWB and its related concepts,” wrote Brent A. Scott and Timothy A. Judge in “Beauty, Personality, and Affect as Antecedents of Counterproductive Work Behavior Receipt.” “We tested a model that positioned CWB receipt as a function of employees’ personality (neuroticism, agreeableness), their appearance (physical attractiveness) and the negative emotions felt toward those employees by their coworkers.”

Two studies showed that disagreeable and physically unattractive employees received more abuse from their coworkers, coworker negative emotion felt toward employees was associated with CWB receipt, and the relationship between employee agreeableness and CWB receipt was due, in part, to coworker negative emotion, the authors write.

“For managers, knowing who the targets of harmful behaviors such as CWB are likely to be may help them to monitor susceptible employees to prevent them from becoming victims or to provide counseling and social support if prevention attempts fail,” Scott and Judge wrote. “For employees, although it is difficult to alter one’s physical attractiveness and, presumably, one’s level of agreeableness, employees should realize that, whether fair or unfair, appearances and personality matter in the workplace.”

(Image via Flickr: Lin Pernille Kristensen/Creative Commons)

Singing Helps You Learn a Foreign Language

French Flag

I’ve been learning French for the past few months. My method, via Memrise, is to learn 1,000 words, while also learning phrases. It’s a slow process, but it’s starting to stick.

Perhaps, though, I should set my language lessons to a tune. According to a new study in Memory & Cognition, singing in a foreign language can improve learning of the language.

Take it away news:

Adults who listened to short Hungarian phrases and then sang them back performed better than those who spoke the phrases, researchers at the University of Edinburgh’s Reid School of Music found. People who sang the phrases back also fared better than those who repeated the phrases by speaking them rhythmically.

Three randomly assigned groups of twenty adults took part in a series of five tests. The singing group performed the best in four of the five tests.

In one test, participants who learned through singing performed twice as well as participants who learned by speaking the phrases. Those who learned by singing were also able to recall the Hungarian phrases with greater accuracy in the longer term.

Hungarian was chosen because it is unfamiliar to most English speakers and a difficult language to master, with a completely different structure and sound system to the Germanic or Romance languages, such as Spanish and French.

Dr. Karen M. Ludke, who conducted the research as part of her Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Music in Human and Social Development, said: “This study provides the first experimental evidence that a listen-and-repeat singing method can support foreign language learning, and opens the door for future research in this area. One question is whether melody could provide an extra cue to jog people’s memory, helping them recall foreign words and phrases more easily.”

I’m sure there are plenty of French songs I can use to help with my learning the language. In fact, I’ll cue up some Serge Gainsbourg right this minute.

(Image: Jawbone Radio)

Fish Linked to Hand Gestures

Tickle by Caroline

You can blame fish for why you gesticulate when you talk.

“We have traced the evolutionary origins of the behavioral coupling between speech and hand movement back to a developmental compartment in the brain of fishes,” said Cornell University Professor Andrew Bass….wait a minute….his last name….the subject….something fishy is going on here.

Nevertheless, carry on, fish expert.

“Pectoral appendages (fins and forelimbs) are mainly used for locomotion,” he said. “However, pectoral appendages also function in social communication for the purposes of making sounds that we simply refer to as non-vocal sonic signals, and for gestural signalling.”

In fish, a single compartment in the hindbrain controls the pectoral muscles as well as the muscles used to produce sound. You can find the same close coupling of neural networks in mammals.

“Coupling of vocal and pectoral-gestural circuitry starts to get at the evolutionary origins of the coupling between vocalization (speech) and gestural signalling (hand movements),” Bass said. “This is all part of the perhaps even larger story of language evolution.”

Great, now every time I see someone gesticulate I’m going imagine that person as a fish. Thank you, science.

(Image via Flickr: Caroline / Creative Commons.)

New Interactive Projector Being Built

Now this looks cool. Carnegie Mellon University researchers recently developed an interactive touch interface. It’s called “World Kit,” and a user can project it on to any flat service. It’s currently bulky, as you’ll see in the video; however, the researchers are working on getting it down to the size of a light bulb.

How would you use something like this in your home or business?

What Change Are You Trying to Make In People?

Notes from Seth Godin by Lauren Manning

Seth Godin spoke last month at CreativeMornings, a monthly lecture series in New York, about the way you view your work. He said that everyone (including your boss) is a client, and that you should ask yourself, “What change am I trying to make in the people I work with?”

So then, let’s talk about meetings and events, because Godin does in his talk. He brings up technology and the ubiquitous connections available to everyone.

We’re in the connection economy, and connection creates value.

Meeting and event planners often want a quick elevator pitch to define their professions. What Godin just said is the best job summation I’ve heard in my 10 years in the industry. You don’t need any more than that. If you’re a meeting planner and someone asks you what you do, then recognize that you’re being asked the wrong question. Correct it by saying why you do what you do. It’s part of the perception change you’re trying to make in people.

What’s important is, did it make a change happen? Did it make someone cry? Did it save a life? Did it connect two people in a way they wouldn’t have been connected?

Godin’s main point is that you bring value to the world. You’re the master of your own fate, because of the connections that technology offers.

Everyone owns a media company if you want to. If you want to put on an event and have 500 people come, you can. If you want to write something online and have a million people read it, you can. If you want to be in the connection business, you can. This is really bad news for people who are insisting on being picked, because you’re not going to get picked.

I agree with Godin. Too often, people sit around and wait for someone else to handle a challenge. For example, when the mainstream press writes about the meeting and event industry in a negative light, the first thing heard from planners is, “What is my association doing about this?”

Your association, I’m sure, is doing something about it, but you have to remember that most large associations are just that: large and cumbersome. By the time they get around to addressing a challenge, a new one has popped up. Individuals, though, can address challenges much quicker by going back to that question, “What change am I trying to make in the people I work with?” (In this instance, the people you work with are reporters.)

Godin concludes his talk with a story about the 1927 Solvay Conference. Seventeen Nobel Prize in Physics winners attended the conference. However, most of them won the prize after 1927.

The person who organized the conference didn’t just go down the list of Nobel Prize winners. What he did was he created a platform and expectations. And when you went to that conference, you looked around and said, “Wow, I need to raise my bar.” Then you looked around and you said, “There is potential here because some of these people aren’t even as smart as me, and if I push myself even harder, there’s a lot of open territory ahead.”

There is a lot of open territory ahead. The question is, are you going to take responsibility for your own destiny?

(Image via Flickr: Lauren Manning/Creative Commons.)

The History of Luminous Motion

The History of Luminous Motion

I received a comment on here last month from Scott Bradfield, telling me that his first novel is now available as a Kindle download, with a cover designed by his son and a new afterward. I’m a huge Bradfield fan (see my review of another of his books), and this is great news. His writing style and themes just click with me, and I’m happy that more people will now be able to read him via tablets and smartphones.

The History of Luminous Motion is the story of an 8-year-old boy…wait, let me just tell you what it says on the back of the book, because that’s perfect: “An astonishing first novel–Blue Velvet meets Oedipus Rex–about an eight-year-old whose needs and intelligence are light-years beyond–and outside–the norm: a boy obsessively, inexorably, fatally attached to his mother.”

I remember thinking when I first read the book, “This narrator is eight years old?!” And then, “Damn, this book is phenomenal.”

Because of Bradfield’s comment, it’s made me want to read it again. I admit I won’t read it on a Kindle, since I have a couple of printed editions (why, yes, I do have the advanced reader’s edition, thank you for asking). However, if you don’t have it, download it, and fall in love with one of America’s greatest underrated writers. It’ll be the best $5 you spent this week. And while you’re at it, download his e-book, Confessions of an Unrepentant Short Story Writer, for 99 cents.

Scott Bradfield may not be on everyone’s lips at the moment, but once you read something by him, you’ll never forget it.

– By Jason Hensel

The Piano by Leo

It Takes More Than Practice

It’s a well-known belief that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at a skill. However, a Michigan State University psychology professor is tapping the brakes on that axiom.

“Practice is indeed important to reach an elite level of performance, but this paper makes an overwhelming case that it isn’t enough,” Zach Hambrick said.

Hambrick suggests that natural talent and other factors are major influences.

“The evidence is quite clear that some people do reach an elite level of performance without copious practice, while other people fail to do so despite copious practice,” he wrote in the journal Intelligence. Ah, this may explain why I’m still struggling with piano lessons.

In looking at 14 studies of chess players and musicians, Hambrick found that practice only contributed to about one-third of the differences in skills among them.

Hambrick says that intelligence, innate ability, the age at which someone starts learning an activity, and working memory capacity could all contribute to the other two-thirds differences in skills.

Don’t worry. There’s some good news.

“If people are given an accurate assessment of their abilities and the likelihood of achieving certain goals given those abilities, they may gravitate toward domains in which they have a realistic chance of becoming an expert through deliberate practice,” he said.

In other words, build on your strengths and not your weaknesses.

–By Jason Hensel

(Source material: Michigan state University. Image via Flickr: Leo/Creative Commons.) 

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