The Poopbot 3000 (Because This Blog is Classy Like That)

Galleons, when you think about building robots, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? An obedient household helper? An ass-kicking bodyguard? A sex slave?

Whatever your answer, I’m willing to bet it wasn’t “a robot that shits”.

This fiber optic internet really binds up my circuits, man.

Leave it to Canada.

That’s right- Canadian researchers have created a ‘robogut’ to make synthetic feces. For fecal transplants.

Yeah, it’s a thing.

Fecal transplants are a bizarre (yet promising) method of treating some dangerous intestinal bacteria. Like Clostridium difficile, which is responsible for an estimated 14,000 American deaths every year. Essentially, you take healthy bacteria from a fecal donor and transplant it in the sick patient. And voilà! That shit (get it?!) cures you.

It’s not a pretty procedure. There’s this whole bit about putting the fecal sample in a blender and we’re just not going to go into it, okay?

Anyway, even though the donor poo is full of good bacteria to punch the bad bacteria in whatever-the-bacteria-equivalent-of-a-dickhole-is, there is a risk that dangerous pathogens can be transmitted from donor to recipient. So, Emma Allen-Vercoe and her crack (totally unintentional pun) group of Canadian science-types have been trying to synthesize feces, tailoring the microbes in the lab-made poo to each individual recipient.

Unfortunately, it turns out fecal microbes don’t grow well in petri dishes. And so, the team had to make a special ‘robogut’ to grow their dirty little microbes in.

Wait.

WAIT.

It gets better.

What do you think Allen-Vercoe’s team calls their lab-grown poo?

RePOOPulate.

Oh, Canada.

Squilli Degli Innamorati

Have you ever been going about your day, dear galleons, and found yourself thinking of someone dear to you, your thoughts drawn so thoroughly to them that you feel the need to reach out to them, to give some indication to them that they are in your thoughts at that moment? But perhaps you don’t really have anything to say, no specific message, just that need to reach out to them somehow. So you send an awkward text message or leave an odd (and pointless) message and the moment you’re done you feel stupid for having done so, feel like the whole thing has fallen flat, when all you wanted was to reach out for one bright and blinding moment and let that person know you were there and thinking about them.

Well, perhaps you haven’t. Maybe you’re better at friendships and relationships and dealing with people than I am (which is almost assuredly true). Maybe sending those messages doesn’t feel so very awkward to you. But I have always wished there was some easy way to make that brief, glorious connection with a person, without expectations and explanations and excuses.

Turns out, the Italians might have the answer. The squillo.

Besides being the most adorably hilarious name for a method of communication, a squillo is a strange and wonderful way to send a message to another person. See, a squillo is an intentional missed call.

Wait, what?

That’s right. A squillo is a one-ring missed call that is apparently quite common in Italy. You call someone, let it ring once, then hang up. And they are not expected to return the call. That one little ring is the entire message, the entire communication.

But what’s really neat (and confusing) about the squillo is that its meaning is entirely dependent upon context. For example, you might be a little late to meet up with someone, so you send them a squillo to say you’re on your way. Or if someone sends you a message, you can leave them a squillo to let them know you’ve received it. The receiver of the squillo must interpret its meaning based on their relationship to the sender and what they are doing/what their plans are.

And that’s what’s so interesting. See, at no time do these relatives or friends or coworkers or lovers sit down and say, “Here’s what a squillo will mean for us in such-and-such a situation”. Instead, it requires this wonderful, organic method of deciphering its meaning that relies on a knowledge of the person sending it.

Baffling… and beautiful.

To bring this full circle, a squillo out-of-the-blue between lovers can be a cute (in my book), flirtatious way of saying you’re thinking about someone. A blip or buzz from their phone, with your name in the missed call list, and they know you can’t get them off your mind that day.

If only we Americans regularly used this strange little method of communicating. With a simple squillo, I could say “I’m thinking about you” or “I miss you” without the heavy weight of the words. Just a brilliant little spark to light up someone’s day.

Hate is a Battlefield, Too, Ms. Benatar

Today’s post is uncharacteristically serious and topical for me, my galleons, but it’s one of those moments where I’m just full to bursting with opinions. I do that, on occasion, you know- have opinions. And, as a note, those opinions are not always entirely PC. They are also super rambly and might make no sense.

Because that’s how I roll, motherfuckers.

It all started one week ago, with a Suzanne Moore article about women, the recession, and the power of female anger (and the necessity of it). As far as self-proclaimed “feminazis” go, I don’t tend to outright hate Moore’s work (yes, that’s right- I find blind radicalism in any form, good intentioned or not, to be counterproductive and fucking tiresome). She tends to stick more to actual information than attempting to inflame the hearts/minds of the vaginal masses with gross exaggeration and misandry (just because institutional misandry is practically non-existent compared to misogyny doesn’t mean misandry doesn’t exist in other spheres).

However, this particular piece did raise the ire of one minority group. When discussing the unrealistic female body image all-but-demanded of society, Moore stated, “We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.”

Okay, before we hit the reaction, I want to go on record (…if this blog can really be considered any sort of reliable record) as initially believing this statement, while certainly not PC, was never meant to be hateful. And here’s where we take a quick side trip to discuss my own potentially back assward views on sex/gender (for the record, sex/sexuality/gender have so goddamn many terms now that I mostly just end up confused as to what’s going on when I think about all of them– I also don’t particularly understand why… no, you know what, that’s a can of worms for you all to get pissed at me for another day). BECAUSE OF REASONS.

I’m never going to truly understand the idea of believing yourself to be born the wrong  sex. I’m not condemning, I’m simply stating it’s one of those things outside my sphere of experience that I honestly have a difficult time imagining (To be fair, I have a difficult time with a lot of empathy-related issues as well, so we can chalk that up to my seemingly borderline sociopathic self, yes? …That’s a joke, I’m not a sociopath- I’m just emotionally retarded. Oh yeah, I’m un-PC all over the place today). I often think I exhibit more masculine traits than feminine, but then I cry over The Gilmore Girls and I’m stereotypically girly again. I think stereotypically “gendered” emotional reactions and interests are pretty much utter bullshit, anyway. We all exhibit traits of the masculine and the feminine both, some just show greater quantities of one or the other. My father is an ultra-manly, beer-drinking, stuff-building, football-watching dude who also loves to burn scented candles and take long bubble baths. I know people who listen to Lady Gaga and Metallica, wear ruffles and can handle a gun better than you, buy cute boots and enjoy a good Scotch.

We all slide between the masculine and the feminine because, despite our differing genitalia, the sexes are not black and white, this and that, one and the other. We are all people, unique, complicated, walking shades of grey (50 of them, if you are into bad literature- OH SNAP). I’m not saying society necessarily accepts this, I’m just saying that’s how it is.

And because of this belief (and despite more modern definitions of the terms), I do tend to use “gender” and “sex” interchangeably. The words, in my world, are used when describing those nigglingly different sets o’ genitals (heh, I wrote “genTITals” first). I am aware this ain’t PC, yo. But because of my views of “gender” as that sliding scale in each of us (like Kinsey and sexuality- I tell ya, I wish I could have coffee with that man, because we’d have shit to talk about), I don’t feel the need to differentiate between people’s insides in such black-and-white terms of ‘male’ and ‘female’. And yes, I know that some scientific studies have found differences between male and female brains, implying some sort of internal dichotomy I’m straight-up ignoring, and while I do admit that there have been legit differences found in the brains of the two sexes, these differences are never consistent across the board.

We could go on and on about my thoughts on genetics vs society when it comes to supposedly inherent gendered differences in the brain and development (hint: I don’t put a lot of stock in most genetic arguments because we can never study developing children brains in a vacuum without societal influence, rendering all studies/experiments fundamentally flawed), but I’m already way off-topic. Suffice to say, while I understand not feeling like you conform to a stereotypically male or female “gender”, I cannot understand feeling like you were born the wrong “sex”.

But just because something is not within my realm of experience doesn’t mean I don’t respect it. And so, if undergoing surgery (or not, seeing as not all transsexuals are post-op) to switch sexes is what’s going to make you a happy and fulfilled person, shit, fucking go for it. I’m not going to judge you for it (though I might not always use your preferred pronouns if you’re pre-op, and I’m very sorry about that, but I’m not perfect). I think all people have a fundamental right to pursue what makes them happy, so long as it doesn’t hurt others (and no, upsetting your “delicate sensibilities” doesn’t count as injury).

Unfortunately, transsexual culture and drag culture are inextricably wound together in the minds of the general populace. There’s nothing wrong with drag culture, but drag queens/kings are entertainers, basing their looks in caricatures of the other sex and their performances are comedic/satirical. Transsexuals are not caricatures- they are simply trying to live their lives in the sex they believe they should have been born to. For the most part, they are not caricatures- they are real women and real men. They wear jeans and t-shirts and business suits and cocktail dresses and ballet flats and baseball caps like anybody. Unlike drag queens/kings, trans individuals don’t fucking walk around in lime green sequined evening gowns and six-inch platform heels all the time. They are just men and women, dressing down, dressing up, having families, hanging with friends, just fucking being happy.

But, because sex/sexuality/gender is so very confusing and is confused even more by shit portrayals of various groups in media, most folks still confuse drag culture with trans individuals. And so, a trans woman has to be a 6’2″ broad with giant tits, a feather boa, and a silver miniskirt.

So, I assumed Moore fell into that trap. She was trying to give a perfectly exaggerated image of the “ideal” female body type, the type society pushes, and what she was going for when she said that the ideal body shape is “a Brazilian transsexual” is that stereotypical drag queen image people share of a trans woman. Was it PC? OH FUCK NO. It’s also straight-up wrong on most counts. But she was going for an exaggerated image of the ideal female form, and because drag queens are in fact caricatures of femininity, you don’t get more perfect an exaggeration.

At least, that’s what I assumed she meant. But she didn’t say drag queen. She said transsexual. While I was obviously being too optimistic (you’ll see why in a second), I really thought she just confused the two. As a professional writer, I think she could have simply said ‘underwear model’ and we would have understood where she was going. But I didn’t think her intention was, “HaHA, here’s a perfect example to stealthily spread my mega-hatred of transsexuals!” It was a confused and poorly chosen phrase, but I maintained her intent wasn’t hate.

But that doesn’t mean it didn’t offend. The transsexual community was, in fact, very upset by it. They demanded an apology from Moore.

At this point, Moore should have been all, “Shit, I fucked that up. Sorry, everybody, I was just being a bit of an idiot, not an intentional bigot. Swearsies.” If, in fact, she had made the mistake I believed she did.

INSTEAD, she lost her shit on Twitter. And not just in an angry rant way, in an angry, flippant, bigoted, transphobic hate spree. With such gems as:

“I dont prioritise this fucking lopping bits of your body over all else that is happening to women Intersectional enough for you?”

“I dont even accept the word transphobia any more than Islamaphobia You are using ‘intersectionality’ to shut down debate. Its bollocks.”

“!) People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them.”

Okay, I think saying she lost her shit is a bit harsh. She just got nasty with people who were, admittedly, being nasty to her. She was being cyber-bullied pretty hard over this article. That being said, her response really solidified her own transphobia (whether she accepts the word or not) as it really highlights a huge issue facing transsexuals- the idea that a “natural” or cisgendered woman (or man) has more rights than them, is more important than them, and should be held above them.

It’s all some fucked up shit, really. I can’t believe our society is still all “Oh, they gets rights, but you don’t, for some arbitrary ass reasons.”

It’s become obvious, despite her explanation of using the phrase she used (“I deliberately used the word Brazilian transexual as ideal shape small hips and big T and A.”) that she is, in fact, kind of a bigot. At this point, while I’m no longer on her side, I still think the reaction to the initial phrase was a bit much…

More on that in a bit (I’m trying to keep this chronological).

So, there’s bullying going on all over the place on the Twitter, which causes Moore to /gquit that shit. I will not stand up and defend what she said, but I will say this (and I say this a lot and I do, truly, believe it): You cannot fight hate with more hate. What she said was bullshit. Calling her on her bullshit? Super just. But if she was legitimately bullied off of Twitter by people threatening her and her well-being… Well, that shit’s unacceptable. I don’t care what the bitch said.

[NOTE: I don’t know the exact types of messages sent to her. Various sources report her being ‘cyber-bullied,’ which I take to mean threats to her, not criticism of her shit opinions. But I’ve made the mistake of assuming once already in this debacle, so I hesitate to do so again. Judging by her above Twitter reactions to it all, it sounds like people were just calling out her work. Rage quitting because people are criticizing your work and your dickish views? That’s not a reaction to ‘cyber-bullying’, that’s being unable to take criticism. But, like I said, all my information here is really hearsay from later articles regarding this matter.]

I reiterate: Cyber-bullying, for any reason, is not cool.

So, Moore leaves Twitter. Which causes her friend Julie Burchill to write a reaction piece to the whole affair.

And oh boy, I tell ya- nothing I say can ever be as offensive as the shit this cunt writes. Some choice fucking snippets:

“I nevertheless felt indignant that a woman of such style and substance should be driven from her chosen mode of time-wasting by a bunch of dicks in chicks’ clothing.”

“But they’d rather argue over semantics. To be fair, after having one’s nuts taken off (see what I did there?) by endless decades in academia, it’s all most of them are fit to do.”

“I know [tranny’s] a wrong word, but having recently discovered that their lot describe born women as ‘Cis’ – sounds like syph, cyst, cistern; all nasty stuff – they’re lucky I’m not calling them shemales. Or shims.”

“And we are damned if we are going to be accused of being privileged by a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs.”

“To have your cock cut off and then plead special privileges as women – above natural-born women, who don’t know the meaning of suffering, apparently – is a bit like the old definition of chutzpah: the boy who killed his parents and then asked the jury for clemency on the grounds he was an orphan.”

HO-LY SHIT, RIGHT?

Oh yeah, this went over well. In fact, the piece is now the subject of an inquiry by the Observer readers’ editor. Well, no shit. Reading this filth makes me sick to my stomach. Sometimes, I am not PC. But I am not full of this vitriolic hate. Burchill tells us we should see trans women as second-class citizens to “natural” women. Buh-wha? For a supposed “radical feminist”, as she refers to herself, how can she think it’s acceptable to relegate anyone to second-class status? How can anyone think that ever? Why is it only recognized bigotry if she will benefit from triumphing over it?

I mean, this shit is appalling. Disgusting. Loathsome.

So when people blew up over it? Oh shit yeah, I was all over it. The Observer cannot allow this kind of filth to be published (how the fuck did it get published to begin with?). Even in this digital age, with online publications and less formal forms of reporting, there still have to be standards for columnists. And this kind of pure hate? It cannot be allowed.

I mean, what the ever-loving fuck?

***

There is one last thing I would like to mention. Both Moore and Burchill accuse the trans community of language policing, of quibbling over semantics. And, despite my deep reverence for language and the fact that I know semantics are fucking important (no matter what anyone says), I was feeling a little like they were making a point. As I initially argued, the original phrase, while not PC, isn’t inherently transphobic, is it?

So, why was the reaction so intense?

Then I get some context. I will admit to not being terribly knowledgeable about world trans issues- they don’t tend to show up on most major news sites (which is sad in and of itself). And so, it took an article by the well-spoken Roz Kaveney to shed some light on the issue for me and burn away some of my own ignorance on the matter:

At this point Suzanne Moore reprinted in the New Statesman a piece about female anger that complained, among other things, that women were expected to look “like Brazilian transsexuals”. A lot of people seem not to get why this upset most of the trans community.

In the first place there’s the implied dichotomy between women on the one hand and Brazilian trans women on the other – as if Brazilian trans women are somehow not women. But far more important is the fact well over a hundred Brazilian trans women were murdered in the last year alone. The failure of the mainstream press to cover the worldwide war on trans people is a significant failure – one of the major trans community events for the last few years has been the International Trans Day of Remembrance.

OH.

And now it all makes sense. Yes, this would really cut people to the quick, wouldn’t it? Looking at this, you have to wonder at why Moore specifically selected Brazilian trans women for her comment- was it coincidence, or was she jabbing the trans community, trying to bury the knife deeper? Either way, grossly disrespectful doesn’t even begin to cover it.

I get it now. She was wrong.

Moore has since popped back onto Twitter long enough to supposedly issue that apology she should have just fucking given from the start:

“I did not set out to offend and the murder of all women trans or not is clearly something I DO care about. I think readers know this?”

“I am grateful for the support of I have had from many top notch people gay straight trans who cares?”

“As I said I less concerned with peoples genital arrangements than the breakdown of the social contract. Which hurts.”

“If anyone cares to storify the abuse against me please do . I cant It was threatening, ignorant and nasty and my original points got lost.”

“Despite all this there has been much bridge building between me and several trans people who I deeply respect.”

“But I realise that my flip jokes, silliness and general way i behave on twitter is no longer possible.”

“So I do what most pro journalists do and simply self promote and never anything real or “controversial” ?”

“I am sorry to those that I misrepresented and I feel pretty misrepresent myself ( an EDL supporter??)”

“To think I am opposite side of anyone who has had to think long and hard about gender is horrible. I am not your enemy.”

“But I am not ladylike when attacked and fight with fire. Thats me. Otherwise I post music and have a laugh.”

“But for now I see must leave for a while. Really bad things are happening in the world and this is a storm in a double D cup.”

Oh, way to take the high ground there. It’s not an apology, and it still makes her look  like a total twat. “Oh, yes, sorry or something, but poor me.” Real fucking classy, Moore.

Then again, after all this, I don’t expect anything more from you.

Also, learn to Tweet, woman. You’re a professional writer- check that you’re typing your words correctly and for the love of Feynman, punctuate properly.

This whole fiasco is just sad. It’s a quagmire of hate.

Get your shit together, world. Because right now, you sicken me.

Brown Eyed Girl: A Study in Bullshit Studies

Galleons, I loves me some science (which you should really know by now). And I love to share with you lot some of the interesting, astounding, and odd research occurring around the world. But, while I’m prone to girlish squeals of glee at the mere mention of new particles and breakthroughs in quantum teleportation, I always try to remember (and remind you) that we must take all this new research with a grain of salt.

And by a grain of salt, I mean we need to apply the RULES OF SCIENCING to these studies. While established scientific theories have many years of rigorous testing and re-testing, figuring and re-figuring to verify the results of the initial studies behind them, fresh studies introducing new ideas still need to undergo that check-and-double-check process. So, while the scientists involved may have done everything they could to create a strong, objective study, other people may find flaws in their designs (the OPERA neutrinos, anyone?).

When reading science news, it can be easy to slip into a haze of joy/fear over all the studies rolling in… but if you are reading a science news site, it’s likely you are a rational being (most of the time). And so, you’ll be able to take a step back and read these things with a more discerning eye. You’ll be able to separate the quality studies from the questionable ones.

And, in the case of ludicrous “studies” like the following, you’ll get a hearty chuckle. So come, my galleons, and laugh with me at the absurdity.

***

Some folks over at Charles University in the Czech Republic decided to do a little study about what makes a person’s face appear trustworthy. An interesting idea (and one that’s probably a combination of factors, let’s be honest), but you can’t help but wonder how you’d frame an experiment to really study that.

Basically, the group created a simple little test and asked their test subjects to rate a variety of male and female faces based on perceived trustworthiness, basing their test on two features (…somehow): eye color and face shape.

According to the study’s… results, brown-eyed faces were found more trustworthy than blue-eyed (for faces of both genders), while more rounded male faces with larger mouths and chins were seen as more trustworthy than narrow male faces (apparently, female face shape makes no difference- we’re all untrustworthy snakes or something).

So then, to find which was more important (eye color or face shape), they introduced a third test. The third test used photographs of male faces that were identical except for one difference: eye color. And they found? Well, they found that both eye colors were fairly equal on the trustworthiness scale. Seems facial features were more important than eye color.

***

Now, this study is bullshit and a half for so many reasons.

To begin with, how can you make an accurate test for trustworthiness based on eye color? The supposed third test is actually the only test that can actually single out eye color as a factor- everything else has to be the same (the goddamn control of the experiment) in order to test for one specific thing. Using any other type of test, tests without the proper fucking control, make any statements regarding eye color as a potential factor for trustworthiness laughable and a strong case of correlation not implying causation. As test three (what should have been the “eye color test” to begin with) shows, eye color doesn’t seem to actually impact perceived trustworthiness. The researchers falsely assumed (from their flawed ass tests) that eye color caused a change in perceived trustworthiness, but that data was coincidental.

Or, more amusingly, as one of the researchers said, “We concluded that although the brown-eyed faces were perceived as more trustworthy than the blue-eyed ones, it was not brown eye color per se that caused the stronger perception of trustworthiness but rather the facial features associated with brown eyes.”

…Because brown-eyed people all have the same facial features, and all blue-eyed folks have extremely different features. Uh huh.

Not to mention that they were supposedly look at “face shape”, then suddenly start describing facial features. Were the tests designed to test the supposed trustworthiness of various facial features? Well, based on what we learned from the fucking eye color portion, we can assume it’s a hearty “fuck no” there.

The study is just junk. Utter horseshit. I mean, one look at this has you laughing, right? They can’t possibly consider this valid science. This is the kind of shit a bored middle school student does for a science fair project.

Remember, galleons, not everything posted as “science news” is good science. Some of it is crap. Worth nothing more than a derisive snort and an eye roll before clicking away. Don’t be drawn into their lies. Keep a level head when reading any purportedly scientific article. I have faith in your good sense and intelligence, dear galleons. Science is all about questioning the universe around you- questioning the validity of experiments is part of that.

Smart Phone Etiquette 101

Smart phone users, I have a bone to pick with you. I know that fancy little gadget that you paid out the ass for allows you to get online whenever you want, allowing you to look at shitty YouTube clips whenever you desire. I get that. And I’m not even saying you shouldn’t do so. Browse the internet to your little heart’s content.

But please

WEAR. FUCKING. HEADPHONES.

If you are in a room/on a bus/on a train/on a plane/anywhere around other people, wear headphones when you are watching your fucking videos. The people around you do not want to hear whatever crappy Dolly Parton cover you are watching. In fact, those very people are trying to carry on a conversation or read a fucking book, and have absolutely no desire to be subjected to some guy yelling weird shit at passing vehicles. Those people are, in fact, talking or reading. Now, they have to try to talk over your dumbshit noise or attempt to tune out the cacophony while trying to get immersed in their novel.

Smart phone users who don’t use headphones, you guys are just straight-up douchebags. I wear headphones when I’m listening to my iPod so that I do not bother the people around me with crazy German punk Christmas music. I would like, nay, I fucking expect you to show me the same goddamn courtesy.

Enjoy your videos, just enjoy them quietly.

You cocks.

Somehow, I Don’t Think That’s What the Build-a-Bear Folks Meant When They Said Their Toys Are “Stuffed With Love”

Galleons, we did a post a while back that featured this abomination of a homemade sex… toy:

And while I remain mildly disturbed by a woman copulating with a teddy bear, what you do behind your own closed doors (with or without the teddy bear’s consent) is fine. I’d say I won’t judge, but I’m a judgmental twat, so…

However, some people are taking their stuffed ursine lovin’ to the streets. Namely, to the streets of Cinncinati. And when I say people, I really just mean one bloke. Charles Marshall. Seems this fellow got himself arrested last Wednesday after he was caught making sweet love to a teddy bear in the alley behind a health clinic, hauled in on charges of disorderly conduct.

The fate of the poor plush victim remains unknown.

Things get interesting when we learn that this isn’t the first time Marshall has found himself in this situation. Turns out, the man’s been arrestedfour times in the last two years for being found, somewhere, beating the meat with a toy bear.

The first time found him with his pants down in a men’s bathroom at a city library, after which a judge told him to stay the fuck away from libraries. Probably worried the Berenstain Bears series was like porn to the guy.

The fuck?

A few months later, Charles was back in action, once again being caught with his trousers down and a teddy out. The arresting officer noted that Mr. Marshall’s predilections had becoming an “ongoing problem.”

Almost a year passed and everyone was probably starting to breathe a collective sigh of relief. It’s okay to go outside again, children… Oh wait, no. It’s not. Because there’s Charles Marshall, taking Mr. Fuzzles and having his way with your beloved bear. Once again, Charles is hauled in on charges of public indecency for engaging in plushie masturbation in a public area where “minors were likely to be present.”

Now, it’s happened again.

WHEN WILL THE MADNESS END?

…I just gotta know one thing: Has he been monogamous the past two years, or has it been a different bear every time? Is the bear special, or are these just a series of one-night stands in dirty alleys and public restrooms?

Charles, here’s what you do. You go to a furry convention. You mingle a bit, have a few drinks. You find yourself a nice little bear. Chat them up.  Take them home. And you stop giving the Cinncinati police nightmares of your wang in the furry embrace of a child’s toy, okay?

The Tale of the Sanctimonious Scrivener: A Rant

There is an old joke that professors grade essays on their heft. The weightier the paper, the better the grade. Drawing from the idea that the longer the work is, the more time was put into it and the more deserving it is of a higher grade, the concept brings the flaws of human grading into focus.

Which brings us to a recent study evaluating the accuracy of computer programs created to score essays. These programs are by no means new- they have been in use for years, particularly in the world of standardized testing. With so many short essays being churned out by test takers the world over, it seemed a simpler solution to automate the grading process.

Of course, while automated grading of multiple choice tests is simple enough, cost effective, and accurate, can we really say the same for automated essay grading?

According to a study from the University of Akron and a consultancy called The Common Pool, the answer is a resounding yes. They took something like 16,000 essays (with sets that included different lengths, different rubrics, etc.) that had already been scored once by a human, then let a computer (well, several programs, actually) grade them again. The results were almost terrifyingly similar. Want proof? Here’s a chart of the scores on mean estimation… they are all so close that the lines all appear to be one goddamn line:

Of course, charting out other factors yields less impressive-looking graphs, but fuck truth when we have visual impact, right?

Regardless of potential data skew based on the most widely circulated chart from the paper, the study really did find a striking similarity between the human and computer graders. This is the first time a study like this has been done on this scale, and it does a lot to address the many flaws in computerized essay grading. Many programs favor essays with more complex lexical choices, as they are representative of an advanced vocabulary (never mind the fact that one can easily toss around a word without knowing the finer points of its meaning, i.e. thesaurus junkies). Programs also favor length, in both the entire paper and in the sentences in themselves. And, of course, they prefer proper grammar.

However, programs have been ridiculed for favoring these technical aspects at the expense of actual content. Can we honestly dole out high marks to students spouting eloquent garbage? The programs are those theoretical professors grading papers by weight, with no regard for the actual information within. A problem, to be sure.

As artificial intelligence technology advances, though, the programs have become more complicated. They are able to discern some relationships between words and phrases that help them “understand” the meaning of the essays. Last year, the University of Florida did some research on the usage of automatic grading systems using AI technology. The system in place was able to look at something like “the heart pumps blood” and find a relationship between the words “heart” and “blood,” essentially finding the meaning of the sentence by piecing together word relationships built through the rubric created by the teacher.

Interesting, to be sure, but it’s still a crude system that can, seemingly, be easily exploited by a moderately clever student. Like a child beating the square peg into the round hole until the corners break, the systems might be able to hammer out a rudimentary “understanding” of the essays, but just as that mangled square peg will never be a perfect fit for the round hole, so too will these programs never understand complex, intricate writing.

Why, then, would we let these systems do our grading for us? There are many purported advantages to removing the human component in grading. It does away with biases (personal, racial, gender-specific), which curbs grade inflation. It alleviates teacher fatigue (from which can stem errors).

There are pros and cons to both methods of grading, to be sure. And this study seems to add another entry in the pro column of computerized grading.

***

My issue with all this isn’t whether or not the Akron study is accurate. They obviously found a strong similarity between human and computer grading of these essays. To me, this is indicative of a far greater problem.

I am mere days away from completing my English degree, and there is a problem that has been gnawing away at me for the majority of my school-going years. A problem I assumed would vanish when I entered the collegiate world. But it didn’t. It continued on, this relentless march toward mediocrity.

It is a problem with the formulaic nature of writing education.

If a computer can grade an essay with nearly the same degree of accuracy as a human, this says less about our marvelous technology (sorry, but I follow AI research and know even the most cutting-edge experimental programs are nowhere near as impressive as any human mind) and more about the shabby state of our student writing. We teach our students the fucking five-paragraph essay, the rote rehashing of theses to form concluding statements. Pick a topic, back it up with two or three points, wrap it up. There is no room for creativity, for real cleverness, for anything that makes writing art and not just a series of rules to be regurgitated from the tip of a pen or onto a computer screen. As Alexander Pope wrote,

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, as those move easiest who have learned to dance.

Our students are less concerned with writing interesting, engaging pieces exploring novel ways of thinking or delicately bending the rules- they instead hammer out blocky, mechanical essays. They present bland topics with just the right number of supporting facts to net them a decent grade. That’s it.

I have had many professors, and I have never had one that really inspired me to be a more creative, interesting writer. There was one who broke the mold slightly, but even she wasn’t really a powerful force in my academic career. I know that many others have those professors that shaped them, that really touched them, that showed them something about themselves or their course of study or the world that makes the student grateful and better for having known them. I understand that, I respect that, but I neverhad that. My thirst for knowledge, information, and creativity has always best been sated on my own, outside a traditional classroom.

And while I’m sure there are many English professors [And since when are English professors the only ones expected to foster strong writing in their students? You might have a great idea, oh mighty chemist, but if you can’t write a goddamn elucidatory (…fuck you, WordPress, that’s a word) paper to share that work with the rest of the scientific community and the world, then you are shit out of luck, now aren’t you?] out there who really work to engage their students, given my own experiences and the fact that most students, if they had an “inspirational professor”, only had one or two… statistically, most professors just teach their students that mechanical, boring writing.

I suppose it is time for me to clarify a few points here, particularly for those of you who know me and are pointing at the screen in horror, screaming about my hypocrisy. I am aware that I am known for being an exceedingly technical proofreader. Am I not just perpetuating this system I purport to despise? Well… yes, I am. Because there is technically nothing wrong with writing this way. And, in fact, I am a firm believer in understanding and utilizing technically sound writing, particularly in formal settings. And those five-point essays I was harping on about? Well, they are actually a very useful tool to teach young writers about structure. I do not think they are so much the devil as I find them a despicable crutch we are not only allowing older, more advanced writers to use, but we are actively encouraging this kind of lazy writing. While there is less room for creative flair in formal, academic papers, there should be breathing room for a personal voice to show through the formal technical aspects. It’s a delicate balance, tying the writer’s soul into the formal rules… but it’s certainly possible. But we are not teaching (or even encouraging) this kind of skillful writing. Which, I believe, is a travesty.

More on that in a second.

Just last night, I was teasing a boy for marking a diaeresis, as it’s considered rather archaic in modern English. That being said, I was only poking fun because I am a right and proper bitch (and because the two of us seem to communicate primarily in taunts, mockery, and faux arguments). In all actuality, I found the use of the diacritic strangely charming. I have always enjoyed people who strive to plumb the true depths of the English language. Perhaps that’s an English major thing.

But these finer points of language… they are not taught anymore. Or, at least, not to any real degree. Why did diaeresis diacritics fall out of vogue, anyway? Because the variants, sans markings, became more popular. And our schools teach what is popular. Which is fine, which is useful, but which becomes more and more diluted. Our vocabulary shrinks, the finer points of our language get lost, and then where are we? The loss of the flavorful bits of language, those accent marks and mellifluous phrases and cheeky verbage, cripples us. We lose more than just words, we lose imagination and creativity. And as those slowly degrade, so too do advances tied to them. Invention, discovery. This destroys us slowly, across all aspects of human knowledge and progression.

And we just allow it. That is what I have such a problem with.

Formula is a base, just as we have basic vocabulary. But as we continue through our education, we need to be advancing. We build on the base. We learn the rules, then we learn how to break them. Instead, we stop at a simple formula. After we’ve mastered this, we are done. The end of the line for our writing education. Oh, there’s a bit picked up here and there. But there’s no longer any real push to expand your skills.

Not even for English students, sadly.

Our writing can be graded by a computer program. That’s how basic it is, how fucking systematic it is.

Congratulations to us.

***

I don’t have a quick fix solution to this perceived problem. Perhaps you don’t even agree with me that this is a problem. So be it. These were just my bitter, scattered thoughts as I read about the Akron study.

Take this with a grain of salt, like you should all my posts, dear galleons.