Bots on Patrol

You know that annoying guy who interrupts your story to correct you on a fine point of grammar? I have been that guy, I admit. But at least I try to pick my spots.

Now consider a world in which conversation has gone global. Sure, there are still isolated pockets where information is conveyed from one person to another via sound waves with limited range and a very short half-life, but a great part of our intercourse takes place in the network. In this world, some of the conversationalists are not even people. They are not-very-complicated software.

What do we get? We get Twitter creatures like this one: @ComposedOf. Its motto: “Fixing the English language one grammatically flawed tweet at a time. Purely educational, no offense intended.” Apparently this entity scours the entire Twitterspace, more or less in real time, for tweets containing the phrase “comprised of” and replies with a tweet of gentle correction:

“Comprised of” is poor grammar. Consider using “composed of” instead

with a link to a Wikipedia article on the subject. For example, the other day a person called Chuck Halt tweeted to a couple of other people, apparently in reference to ISIS:

How about a cult comprised of pedophiles, bestiality fans, misogynists, murderers, and foul smelling members?

Busted! As someone does on Twitter every few minutes, Chuck heard from @ComposedOf:

“Comprised of” is poor grammar. Consider using “composed of” instead

He engaged his new friend in conversation:

@ComposedOf I’m on my 3rd tequila…..cut me a little slack….

This, by the way, was far politer than most of the responses the bot receives. Other people find it quite irritating. Farhad Manjoo, the New York Times tech writer, tweeted as follows:

Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 1.16.08 PM


As you can see, his tweet contained the offending phrase; so he immediately got the corrective reply.

Many kinds of bots are allowed by Twitter’s Terms of Service, but I don’t think this one is, so it may not survive long. It will not be the last. Nor is it the first. For three years, the tweeter known as @StealthMountain did nothing but tell people who typed “sneak peak” that they must have meant “sneak peek.” This bot seems to have more than 26,000 followers. I’m not sure what more they’re looking for.

And so on. I have never used (or even heard) the expression “bone broth” in real life, but if it occurs on Twitter there is a bot ready to complain. “That’s also called stock,” it will say. It does this a couple of hundred times a day. It is tireless.


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Addendum: Libraries, Scholars, Words

In discussing memes in The Information, I quoted Daniel Dennett’s clever remark that a scholar is just a library’s way of making another library. If I had read Austerlitz, W. G. Sebald’s great and final novel, I would have added this:


it struck me that the scholars, together with the whole apparatus of the library, formed an immensely complex and constantly evolving creature which had to be fed with myriads of words, in order to bring forth myriads of words in its own turn.


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Metaphors of Time: 1850

Whilst pondering metaphors of time, I happened upon a novel published in 1850 with the title, The Mistake of a Life-Time: or, the Robber of the Rhine Valley. A Story of The Mysteries of the Shore, and The Vicissitudes of The Sea. The author, Waldo Howard, promised “a truthful panorama of the events of a stirring and romantic period.” I don’t know anything about Waldo Howard. If you do, please tell me.

Let us jump to Chapter 13, “Lady Gustine and the Jew.” Lady Gustine is a dignified and high-toned beauty of 18 years (“summers”), while her companion for the evening (not the Jew, obviously) is an equally dignified and beautiful 20-year-old. They have been dancing. She is fatigued. “I fear you are fatigued,” says the gentleman.


“Oh, no,” said the lady, panting to regain the breath she had expended in the waltz.”

Their balcony overlooks a convenient river. They gaze upon it awhile. Finally dialogue ensues:

“Are you dreaming?”

Mistakes of a Life-Time title page

“O, no, lady. I—I was thinking how truly the passage of yonder tiny craft resembles that of our own life bark on the tide of time.”

“And how?”

“See you not how quietly its hull is borne along with the current … [etc., etc.]

“Well.” [He’s boring her, but his aspect pleases.]

“Thus we are moving now, lady, rapidly, with silent, but steady, and never ceasing motion, down the swift river of time, that sets through the valley of life; all unconsciously we glide on, nodding like this same helmsman, indifferently, as we hold the rudder that guides our own fate—while we swiftly approach the ocean of eternity.”

And more like that. Pretty soon he “dwells upon the beauties of her native valley” but we needn’t follow him there.

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“She Was a Courier in the City”

That venerable carrier of information, the bike messenger, must surely be going obsolete. The reasons are obvious. Anyway, people have been saying so for twenty years.

William Gibson, as ever, has had a more complex view of what the future might bring. In 1993 (Virtual Light), he described a bike messenger as “one who earned her living at the archaic intersection of information and geography.” This was visionary:

The offices the girl rode between were electronically conterminous—in effect, a single desktop, the map of distances obliterated by the seamless and instantaneous 220px-William_Gibson_60th_birthday_portraitnature of communication. Yet this very seamlessness, which had rendered physical mail an expensive novelty, might as easily be viewed as porosity, and as such created the need for the service the girl provided. Physically transporting bits of information about a grid that consisted of little else, she provided a degree of absolute security in the fluid universe of data. With your memo in the girl’s bag, you knew precisely where it was; otherwise, your memo was nowhere, perhaps everywhere, in that instant of transit.

Seamlessness and porosity. We have both.

I’m looking forward to interviewing Gibson in a few weeks at the Key West Literary Seminar.

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March of time, arrow of time, time warp …

This is the kind of thing that’s buzzing through my head as I work on the next book. (It’s an N-gram, computed on the fly by Google here, from the contents of all the books they [in some cases illegally] scanned from libraries.)

time warp n-gram

(Were you wondering about those “time warp” occurrences in the early 19th century? They come from passages like this (1812): “By keeping up the sluices, and drains, and banks, the land can be refreshed at any time. Warp land has had crops of flax …”)


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The Zone of Uncertainty (What Pope Francis Said)

Everybody has an opinion or a summary or an interpretation of the interview with Pope Francis, and this is the last place you’d come for more, but one part resonates especially powerfully for me. It’s when he talks about uncertainty and doubt.

In seeking God “in all things,” he says, “there is still an area of uncertainty [una zona di incertezza]. There must be.”


If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.

For me, this is where religion and science can clasp hands.

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Why Must an Author Twit?

I’m reading with the greatest pleasure Zoo Time, the latest novel by Howard Jacobson. The narrator is an author called Guy Ableman, and one of its subjects is the parlous state of publishing today.

In this scene, Ableman meets with his publisher, Merton — “a publisher of the old school” who “didn’t know what was what any more.” They have the following all-too-timely conversation:


“Do you know what I am expected to require of you?” he suddenly looked me in the eyes and said. “That you twit.”


“Twit, tweet, I don’t know.”

“And why are you expected to require it of me?”

“So that you can do our business for us. So that you can connect to your readers, tell them what you’re writing, tell them where you’re going to be speaking, tell them what you’re reading, tell them what you’re fucking eating.”

After that, the conversation naturally turns to “blagging.”

Jacobson, who turned 71 this weekend, does not tweet, as far as I can tell. I do, but at least I can say I’ve never tweeted about anything I was eating.

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The OED Redefines “Information” Yet Again

The entry for information in the Oxford English Dictionary always makes good reading. It’s substantial: close to 10,000 words long. I see it has changed again.

The last time I looked, the Number One definition was “The imparting of incriminating knowledge.” Excellent! As far as I’m concerned, they could stop right there. Of course, the relevant citations mostly came from early English law texts—Rolls of Parliament from the time of Edward IV, that kind of thing. Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.

The objects of the other species of informations, filed by the master of the crown-office upon the complaint or relation of a private subject, are any gross and notorious misdemesnors, riots, batteries, libels, and other immoralities of an atrocious kind.

But no longer. This definition has been quietly demoted. Maybe the lexicographers thought it was too quaint. Now the Number One definition of information is “The imparting of knowledge in general.” I guess it’s hard to argue with that.

Many other important senses remain, of course. There’s the modern, scientific one, due to Claude Shannon (“a mathematically defined quantity divorced from any concept of news or meaning; spec. one which represents the degree of choice exercised in the selection or formation of one particular symbol, message, etc., out of a number of possible ones …”). And the sentimental favorite, the true and venerable meaning of the word, Number III.7: “The giving of form or essential character to something.” As in J. Sharpe, 1630:

The soule or spirit doth giue information, or operation to the whole body, and euery part thereof.

Never mind that it’s “Now rare.

Does this tinkering have a back story? I’ll try to find out.

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