Advances in computing power, natural language processing, and digitization of text now make it possible to study our a culture's evolution through its texts using a "big data" lens. Our ability to communicate relies in part upon a shared emotional experience, with stories often following distinct emotional trajectories, forming patterns that are meaningful to us. Here, by classifying the emotional arcs for a filtered subset of 1,737 stories from Project Gutenberg's fiction collection, we find a set of six core trajectories which form the building blocks of complex narratives. We strengthen our findings by separately applying optimization, linear decomposition, supervised learning, and unsupervised learning. For each of these six core emotional arcs, we examine the closest characteristic stories in publication today and find that particular emotional arcs enjoy greater success, as measured by downloads.
n Veterans Day this year, which lands very near the release of the film Trumbo starring Bryan Cranston, I thought I’d take a moment to remember my old friend and mentor Millard Kaufman.
Millard not only fought for us in the war, but when he came back home he helped to defend our right to free speech and our ability to pursue happiness in a very fundamental way in his career as a screenwriter. I often hear friends in the entertainment industry say, “This isn’t brain surgery, we’re not saving lives, here.” but in a great sense Millard was doing that in small steps throughout his career. Millard Kaufman enlisted in the Marines in 1942, served on Guadalcanal, landed at Guam with the 1st Marine Brigade (Provisional) where he wrote an article for the Marine Corps Gazette about the battle, then participated in the Battle of Okinawa with the 6th Marine Division.
I met Millard 20 years ago in 1995 on a trip to Los Angeles with Matt Gross while we were ostensibly programming the 1995 Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium entitled “Framing Society: A Century of Cinema” which coincided with the 100th anniversary of film. Dr. John Irwin, the long-time head of the Writing Seminars Department at Johns Hopkins, had provided us with a long distance introduction as Millard was a Hopkins alum from the class of ’39. So we met him at his home in the Hollywood Hills looking out over a forested sanctuary. Over our first simple tuna fish sandwich lunch, we began a friendship that spanned the next decade and a half.
Most may remember Millard Kaufman, if at all, as the co-creator of the cartoon character Mr. Magoo, who he based on his uncle, while many others will know his Academy Award nominated films Take the High Ground (1953) or Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). I’ll always remember him for his charm, his wry wit, his ability to swear comfortably in any company, and his sense of fairness.
Apparently Hollywood itself has glossed over his contribution to helping to maintain Dalton Trumbo’s writing career in the recent release of Trumbo (2015), in which he isn’t mentioned (or portrayed on screen). [I’ll note here that I haven’t yet seen the movie, and may boycott it for the slight.] It is here in which Kaufman’s strong internal moral compass pressured him to help ensure Trumbo’s freedom of speech and, in part, his writing career. In short, the House Un-American Activities Committee’s (HUAC) pressured Trumbo which resulted in Trumbo’s being blacklisted in Hollywood and effectively destroying his writing career.
Trumbo and Kaufman shared the same agent at the time, George Willner. One day, relatively early in Kaufman’s career, Willner approached him to see if he would be willing to put his name on the script Gun Crazy that would turn into the 1950 film-noir crime classic to allow it to get made. As Millard told me many times, “I didn’t have much sense then, but at least I had sense enough to say, ‘Let me talk it over with Laurie’ [his wife].” “But we discussed it and we believed it was rotten that a man couldn’t write under his own name,” Kaufman told Daily Variety in 1992. That same year Kaufman, a board member of WGAw, officially requested that the Writers Guild take his name off the credits and replace it with Dalton Trumbo’s name. Kaufman’s fronting for Trumbo helped allow the film to get made, and Trumbo’s career to continue on, even if in the dark. As a board member of the Writer’s Guild Millard helped to restore credits to many writers of the blacklist era who were similarly slighted as a result of their politics at the time. It’s a travesty, that a film gets made highlighting this exact period in Trumbo’s life, but Millard’s small contribution to it has been all but forgotten. Fortunately there are enough who do remember to tell the story.
When I think of Millard and his various contributions, my favorite is always that he wrote the stunning script for Bad Day at Black Rock (MGM, 1955), a superb Western suspense film starring Spencer Tracy as a one-armed veteran facing mysterious enemies in a small desert town. The film shows how post-World War II America could be be both horrifyingly racist and cowardly, but it also showed a way out through Tracy’s character which always reminds me of Millard’s high-mindedness. It was such a great film, I was personally honored to screen it on November 3, 1995, as the premiere film in Shriver Hall after we had mounted a year-long renovation of the film equipment, screen, and sound system. The day before we were all honored to have Millard speak on “Censorship in Film” as part of the Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium.
For those who never had the chance to meet him, I’m including a short 3 minute video of several clips of him talking about a variety of topics. The Millard portrayed here is the no-holds barred man I’ll always remember. Thanks for fighting for all of us, Millard!
For those looking for more information about Millard Kaufman, I’ll include the following articles:
- Millard Kaufman: The 90-year-old boy novelist: McSweeney’s remembers the boisterous fiction writer, World War II soldier and co-creator of “Mr. Magoo”
- Mr. Magoo Creator Millard Kaufman on Being a First-Time Novelist at 90
- LA Times Obituary: Millard Kaufman, 92, dies; Oscar-nominated screenwriter
- NYTimes obituary: Millard Kaufman, 92, a Creator of Mr. Magoo, Dies
Marginalia and Revision Control
At the end of April, I read an article entitled “In the Margins” in the Johns Hopkins University Arts & Sciences magazine. I was particularly struck by the comments of eminent scholar Jacques Neefs on page thirteen (or paragraph 20) about computers making marginalia a thing of the past:
I actually think that he may be completely wrong and that current technology actually allows us to keep far more marginalia! (Has anyone heard of digital exhaust?) The bigger issue may be that many writers just don’t know how to keep a better running log of their work to maintain all the relevant marginalia they’re actually producing. (Of course there’s also the subsequent broader librarian’s “digital dilemma” of maintaining formats for the future. As an example, thing about how easy or hard it might be for you to read that ubiquitous 3.5 inch floppy disk you used in 1995.)
A a technologist who has spent many years in the entertainment industry, I feel compelled to point everyone towards the concept of revision control (or version control) within the realm of computer science. Though it’s primarily used in tracking changes in computer programs and is often a tool used by large teams of programmers, it can very easily be used for tracking changes in almost any type of writing from novels, short stories, screenplays, legal contracts, or any type of textual documentation of nearly any sort.
Example Use Cases for Revision Control
As a direct example, I’m using what is known as a Git repository to track every change I make in a textbook I’m currently writing. I can literally go back and view every change I’ve made since beginning the project, so though I’m directly revising one (or more) text files, all of my “marginalia” and revisions are saved and available. Currently I’m only doing it for my own reference and for additional backup not supposing that anyone other than myself or an editor possibly may want to ever peruse it. If I was working in conjunction with otheres, there are ways for me to track the changes, edits, or notes that others (perhaps an editor or collaborator) might make.
In addition to the general back-up of the project (in case of catastrophic computer failure), I also have the ability to go back and find that paragraph (or multiple pages) I deleted last week in haste, but realize that I desperately want them back now instead of having to recreate them de n0vo.
Because it’s all digital, future scholars also won’t have problems parsing my handwriting issues as has occasionally come up in differentiating Mary Shelley’s writing from that of her husband in digital projects like the Shelley Godwin Archive. The fact that all changes are tracked and placed in a tree-like structure will indicate who wrote what and when and will indicate which changes were ultimately accepted and merged into the final version.
Screenplays in Hollywood
One particular use case I can easily see for such technology is tracking changes in screenplays over time. I’m honestly shocked that every production company or even more likely studios don’t use such technology to follow changes in drafts over time. In the end, doing such tracking will certainly make Writers Guild of America (WGA) arbitrations much easier as literally every contribution to a script can be tracked to give screenwriters appropriate credit. The end results with the easy ability to time-machine one’s way back into older drafts is truly lovely, and the outputs give so much more information about changes in the script compared to the traditional and all-too-simple (*) which screenwriters use to indicate that something/anything changed on a specific line or the different colored pages which are used on scripts during production.
I can also picture future screenwriters using services like GitHub as platforms for storing and distributing their screenplays to potential agents, managers, and producers.
Redlining Legal Documents
Having seen thousands of legal agreements go back and forth over the years, revision control is a natural tool for tracking the redlining and changes of legal documents as they change over time before they are finally (or even never) executed. I have to imagine that being able to abstract out the appropriate metadata in the long run may actually help attorneys, agents, etc. to become better negotiators, but something like this is a project for another day.
In addition to direct research for projects being undertaken by academics like Neefs, academics should look into using revision control in their own daily work and writings. While writing a book, paper, journal article, essay, monograph, etc. (or graduate students writing theses) one could use their own Git repository to not only save but to back up all of their own work not only for themselves primarily, but also future scholars who come later who would not otherwise have access to the “marginalia” one creates while manufacturing their written thoughts in digital form.
I can easily picture Git as a very simple “next step” in furthering the concept of the digital humanities as well as in helping to bridge the gap between C.P. Snow’s “two cultures.” (I’d also suggest that revision control is a relatively simple step one could take before learning a particular programming language, which I think should be a mandatory tool in everyone’s daily toolbox regardless of their field(s) of interest.)
Start Using Revision Control
“But how do I get started?” you ask.
Know going in that it may take parts of a day to get things set up and running, but once you’ve started with the basics, things are actually pretty easy and you can continue to learn the more advanced subtleties as you progress. Once things are working smoothly, the additional overhead you’ll be expending won’t be too much more than the old method of hitting Alt-S to save one of your old Word documents in the time before auto-save became ubiquitous.
First one should start by choosing one of the myriad revision control systems that exist. For the sake of brevity in this short introductory post, I’ll simply suggest that users take a very close look at Git because of its ubiquity and popularity in the computer science world and the fact that it includes a tremendously large amount of free information and support from a variety of sites on the internet. Git also has the benefit of having versions for all major operating systems (Windows, MacOS, and Linux). Git also has the benefit of a relatively long and robust life within the computer science community meaning that it’s very stable and has many more resources for the uninitiated to draw upon.
Once one has Git installed on their computer and has begun using it, I’d then recommending linking one’s local copy of the repository to a cloud storage solution like either GitHub or BitBucket. While GitHub is certainly one of the most popular Git-related services out there (because it acts, in part, as the hub for a large portion of the open internet and thus promotes sharing), I often recommend using BitBucket as it allows free unlimited private but still share-able repositories while GitHub requires a small subscription fee for keeping one’s work private. Having a repository in the cloud will help tremendously in that your work will be available and downloadable from almost anywhere and because it also serves as a de-facto back-up solution for your work.
I’ve recently been playing around with version control to help streamline the writing/editing process for a book I’ve been writing. Though Git and it’s variants probably seem more daunting than they should to the everyday user, they really represent a very powerful tool. I’ve spent less than two days learning the basics of both Git and hosted repositories (GitHub and Bitbucket), and it has been more than well worth the minor effort.
There is a huge wealth of information on revision control in general and on installing and using Git available on the internet, including full textbooks. For the complete beginners, I’d recommend starting with The Chronicle’s “A Gentle Introduction to Version Control.” Keep in mind that though some of these resources look highly technical, it’s because many are trying to enumerate every function one could potentially desire, when even just the basic core functionality is more than enough to begin with. (I could analogize it to learning to drive a car versus actually reading the full manual so that you know how to take the engine apart and put it back together from scratch. To start with revision control, you only need to learn to “drive.”) Professors might also avail themselves of the use of their local institutional libraries which may host small sessions on learning such tools, or they might avail themselves of the help of their colleagues or students in the computer science department. For others, I’d recommend taking a look at Git’s primary website. BitBucket has an excellent step-by-step tutorial (and troubleshooting) for setting up the requisite software and using it.
What do you use for revision control?
I’ll welcome any thoughts, experiences, or additional resources one might want to share with others in the comments.
In all the sadness of the passing of Robin Williams, I nearly forgot I’d “written” a short joke for him just after I’d first moved to Hollywood.
Killing some time just before I started work at Creative Artists Agency, I finagled my way into a rough-cut screening of Robin William’s iconoclastic role in PATCH ADAMS on the Universal Lot. Following the screening, I had the pleasure of chatting with [read: bum-rushed like a crazy fan] Tom Shadyac for a few minutes on the way out. I told him as a recent grad of Johns Hopkins University and having spent a LOT of time in hospitals, that they were missing their obligatory hospital gown joke. But to give it a karate chop (and because I’d just graduated relatively recently), they should put it into the graduation at the “end” and close on a high note.
I didn’t see or hear anything about it until many months later when I went to Mann’s Chinese Theater for the premiere and saw the final cut of the ending of the film, which I’ve clipped below. Just for today, I’m wearing the same red foam clown nose that I wore to the premiere that night.
Thanks for the laughs Robin.
Write a joke for Robin Williams.
My first realization I was hooked on Oscar was when I seriously began pondering one of mankind's most profound dilemmas: whether to rent or buy a tux. That first step, as with any descent down a...
This is a great (and hilarious) story by and about the writer of THE KING’S SPEECH.