The Strange and Twisted Life of “Frankenstein”

Frankenstein isn’t just one of the classic literary novels of its time, one that helped invent science-fiction as we know it, but it’s also a fascinating story in itself — written by an 18-year-old girl, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who at the time was married to the famous poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. This piece by Jill Lepore looks at her background and upbringing and the role her life as a young mother might have played in her incredible creation.

“Frankenstein” is four stories in one: an allegory, a fable, an epistolary novel, and an autobiography, a chaos of literary fertility that left its very young author at pains to explain her “hideous progeny.” In the introduction she wrote for a revised edition in 1831, she took up the humiliating question “How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea” and made up a story in which she virtually erased herself as an author, insisting that the story had come to her in a dream

Source: The Strange and Twisted Life of “Frankenstein” | The New Yorker

The Desperado

This is a fascinating story about the most unlikely bank robber you could ever meet: David Averill, a 58-year-old, mostly blind former computer programmer with only one foot (the other one was amputated due to complications from diabetes) who robbed a nearby bank not so much for the money as for the free health care he expected he would be able to get in prison.

Averill waited as the man opened his drawer and handed over $2,900 in a loose stack of bills about two inches thick. No one else in the bank seemed to realize what was happening. Money in hand, Averill hobbled back toward the entrance, then stopped halfway across the room. “Hey,” he said, waving the wad of bills in the air to draw attention. “I just robbed you. Please call the police.”

Source: The Desperado — The Atavist Magazine

Patricia Lockwood · The Communal Mind

This piece by Patricia Lockwood in the London Review of Books, which she also gave as a lecture, is really quite extraordinary in the way it describes what it’s like to have your brain infected by the viral Internet.

The amount of eavesdropping was enormous. Other people’s diaries streamed around her. Should she be listening to the conversations of teenagers? Should she follow with such avidity the compliments rural sheriffs paid to porn stars, not realising that other people could see them? She lay every morning under an avalanche of details, blissed: pictures of breakfasts in Patagonia, a girl applying foundation with a hardboiled egg, a shiba inu in Japan leaping from paw to paw to greet its owner, white women’s pictures of their bruises – the world pressing closer and closer, the spider web of human connection so thick it was almost a shimmering and solid silk.

Source: Patricia Lockwood · The Communal Mind: The Internet and Me · LRB 21 February 2019

If you were terminally ill, would you tell your children?

This personal essay in The Atlantic raises a difficult ethical question. The author and his wife found out that she had about three years to live, but didn’t tell their three young children because they didn’t want them to worry. So they knew she had cancer and that it had returned, but didn’t know it was terminal. The good news is that she wound up living for 10 years, and her children all say they are glad they didn’t know, because they would have worried too much. But it’s still a really tough question. Shouldn’t they have known the truth?

My father died of cancer, and he refused to talk about his prognosis because he didn’t want to dwell on the negative — he wanted to focus on getting better (which was never really an option). I respected his choice, but it meant that we couldn’t really talk about his eventual death, or what would happen afterwards, or even about his life, because to do so was to acknowledge what he didn’t want to talk about. I wish we had had the ability to do that, but then I wasn’t a young child, so my perspective is probably significantly different.

We decided not to tell the kids. Marla knew that once our three daughters understood that their mother had been given 1,000 days to live, they’d start counting. They would not be able to enjoy school, friends, their teams, or birthday parties. They’d be watching too closely—how she looked, moved, acted, ate, or didn’t. Marla wanted her daughters to stay children: unburdened, confident that tomorrow would look like yesterday.

Source: My Wife and I Didn’t Tell Our Children About Her Cancer – The Atlantic

A personal take on those plagiarism accusations against former NYT editor Jill Abramson

It’s an odd feeling to have an otherwise unremarkable passage you wrote appear as an exhibit in a case of plagiarism, especially when those accusations relate to the former executive editor of The New York Times, and especially when the allegedly plagiarized passages appear in a book about the state of modern media and journalistic ethics. And yet, here we are. Just to recap, a chunk of a blog post I wrote for CJR in May of last year, about Facebook cracking down on “low quality” news, appears with what are arguably minor alterations in former Times executive editor Jill Abramson’s book “Merchants of Truth.” I know this because Michael Moynihan, a correspondent for Vice News Tonight on HBO, collected a number of examples of alleged plagiarism in a Twitter thread on Wednesday, and my blog post was one of them.

Do I feel as though something has been stolen from me? Not really. It was a fairly factual description in a fairly factual blog post, not something creative that I agonized over for weeks. And yet, it’s still irritating that there’s no mention of where it appeared at all. Would it have been that hard to say “as mentioned in CJR?” That would have been nice. And that’s in part what plagiarism is — it’s not a law, it’s more of a standard of behavior that we hopefully aspire to, especially as journalists. It may be an antiquated concept with all the aggregation that happens in our current media environment, but this isn’t a quickly lashed-together blog post, it’s a book by the former executive editor of The New York Times, who theoretically should know better. And it undoubtedly reminds some (including me) of the nonchalance with which that newspaper often does stories that other news outlets have covered without mentioning or linking to them, something the paper’s own public editor referred to as a failing.

There also appear to be much more egregious examples than the one involving me. In all, Moynihan listed six examples in which material from other places appeared with relatively minor alterations in Abramson’s book, and he only looked at the chapters that referred to Vice. That’s six examples from two chapters. Writer Ian Frisch also posted more than half a dozen examples from the book where large sections from a piece he wrote about Vice — a piece that was only ever published on his personal website — were used, including quotes from interviews he did. Frisch later noted that while credit is given in the end notes of Abramson’s book, “the endnotes do not go into the depth of how much this section about Thomas relied on my article. She quotes Thomas as if he’s speaking to her directly. This would not fly for a mag article.” Moynihan noted that at least two of the examples he gave — including one where a paragraph was used virtually verbatim — were not cited in the book’s end notes at all.

In a response on Fox News, where she was being interviewed by Martha MacCallum, Abramson said “I most certainly did not plagiarise in my book,” but later added on Twitter that she takes the allegations seriously and would “review the passages in question.” She also said she “endeavored to accurately and properly give attribution to the hundreds of sources that were part of my research,” and that the attacks on her book from Vice staff reflected their unhappiness with her portrayal of the company, which she referred to as “balanced.” Her publisher, Simon & Schuster, which paid a rumored $1 million for the rights to the book, issued a statement saying the book was “exhaustively researched and meticulously sourced,” but that if any changes or attributions were necessary, “we stand ready to work with the author in making those revisions.” (I reached out to Abramson for comment but as of publication time had not received anything. If I do get a response, I will add it here).

A number of people have defended Abramson’s approach, including NYU law professor and intellectual property expert Christopher Sprigman, who said that the “so-called plagiarism controversy is fake,” since Abramson just took “basic facts and re-phrased them.” True plagiarism, he said, is taking others’ original ideas or distinctive expressions without credit. But while that may be the way some people see the concept, it’s not the way Jill Abramson described it when she was the managing editor of The Times, when the newspaper was accused of plagiarizing two sentences from a piece written for The Miami Herald. Even though the sentences were factual, Abramson told Slate writer Jack Shafer that the Times writer had committed plagiarism. “I think when you take material almost word-for-word and don’t credit it,” that qualifies as plagiarism, she said.

There’s no question that the word “plagiarism” has a fairly wide range of definitions, depending on who is doing the defining. A guide to how to avoid plagiarism published by Sprigman’s university, for example, has 11 different variations on the term, including The Ghost Writer and The Misinformer. It defines what it calls the “too-perfect paraphrase” as when a writer cites a source “but neglects to put in quotation marks text that has been copied word-for-word, or close to it.” And as Moynihan mentioned, at least two of the sections that Abramson used that are virtually verbatim — a section from Malooley’s Time Out article and one from the Ryerson Review of Journalism magazine in Toronto — are not referred to in the end notes at all. It’s not that doing this should be considered a capital crime, it’s more that if you’re the former executive editor of one of the leading journalistic institutions in the country, and you’re writing a book at least in part about journalistic ethics, you should maybe be held to a somewhat higher standard than if you were a freelancer writing your 15th blog post of the day.

The tragic tale of Audrey Munson, the most beautiful woman in the world

This is such a fascinating story — how Audrey Munson, a young girl from Rochester, became the muse for dozens of famous artists and sculptors around the turn of the century, her face and body immortalized in statues and busts all around New York. And then, just as suddenly, she was out of fashion, fell on hard times and was eventually committed to a mental institution.

She modeled for the greatest sculptors and painters in New York, including Alexander Stirling Calder, Daniel Chester French, and Karl Bitter. She made thirty-­five dollars a week and lived simply, in a small one-bedroom apartment that she shared with her mother. The art that she posed for, however, was a gateway into the upper echelon of society. When Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands commissioned Bitter to create a Venus de Milo statue “with arms,” Audrey’s arms served as the inspiration. The Rockefeller

Source: Descending Night – Believer Magazine

Fake news and viral social battles in the 17th century

They may have taken place at a much slower pace — months or even years instead of minutes or hours — but the 17th century saw its share of social warfare and accusations of “fake news.” Christy Henshaw writes at the Wellcome Collections website about an argument that took several years to play out. And the subject? Whether or not one Richard Dugdale was possessed by a demon.

There’s a lot more to that iconic photo of a Dust Bowl mother

This is a fascinating story that I was unaware of: As Jason Kottke points out, the iconic picture of a mother cradling her children during the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s has become a symbol of the Great Depression, but there is a lot more to it than it first appears. For one thing, the woman in question wasn’t a resident of the migrant camp where it was taken — she had stopped to fix the family’s car — and she was also a full-blooded Cherokee

An experiment in creating a “travel log” with interactive map

One day awhile back, I saw someone post on Twitter that they had created an interactive travel log that combined a regular blog-style overview of a number of trips with a map that automatically flew to and then zoomed in on the place the person was writing about. It looked pretty cool, and the person who created it — Lauren Hallden, a product designer with Stitch — made the code open-source by putting it on Github. So since I’ve been playing around on a test server I have, I decided to see if I could replicate what she did, and I think I’ve gotten it working pretty well. I liked it so much I created a second one focused solely on our trips to Italy, including our time in Turin, Venice, Cinque Terre and the Amalfi Coast: Travelog: Italy.

In a nutshell, it uses a relatively small amount of CSS and JavaScript, combined with a map API from MapBox, which is free to use as long as you don’t make a lot of calls to the database. Lauren did a really good job of marking up the code and explaining it on Github, so it’s obvious where to input your API key, where and how to add the GPS co-ordinates (naturally, Google’s GPS co-ordinates are the opposite of the way that MapBox does it, so that takes some manual editing) and where to put your images. I had an issue with permissions on my pics, but once I got that sorted out it was dead easy to put together and I think it looks pretty cool.

Best part of doing this was it forced me to go back through all of my photos from our various trips last year, and that reminded me of how many amazing places we had been and how much fun it all was. I’m thinking I might make other travel logs for individual trips. Thanks for doing this, Lauren, and for allowing others to re-use your code.