Cultural gold mine lurks in digitized books

The digitization of books by Google Books has sparked controversy over issues of copyright and book sales, but for linguists and cultural historians this vast project could offer an unprecedented treasure trove, wrote Dec. 16.

In a paper published today in Science, researchers at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Google Books team in Mountain View, California, herald a new discipline called "culturomics", which sifts through this literary bounty for insights into trends in what cultures can and will talk about through the written word.

“The possibilities with such a new database, and the ability to analyze it in real time, are really exciting,” says linguist Sheila Embleton of York University in Toronto, Canada [where she is a Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures & Linguistics, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies].

The resulting data set contained over 500 billion words [but] not all isolated strings of characters in texts are real words. Some are numbers, abbreviations or typos. In fact, 51 per cent of the character strings in 1900, and 31 per cent in 2000, were ‘non-words’. “I really have trouble believing that,” admits Embleton. “If it’s true, it would really shake some of my foundational thoughts about English.”

According to this account, the English language has grown by more than 70 per cent during the past 50 years, and around 8,500 new words are being added each year. Moreover, only about half of the words currently in use are apparently documented in standard dictionaries. “That high amount of lexical ‘dark matter’ is also very hard to believe, and would also shake some foundations,” says Embleton. “I’d love to see the data.”

In principle she already can, because the researchers have made their database public at This will allow others to explore the huge number of potential questions it suggests, not just about word use but about cultural history. “The ability, via modern technology, to look at just so much at once really opens horizons,” says Embleton.

Stafford case publication ban was an anomaly, says Osgoode prof

The publication ban that kept the outcome of a high-profile Ontario murder trial under wraps for months sounded alarm bells for legal observers across the country and resulted in the secret conviction of a troubled teenager, experts said Thursday, wrote The Canadian Press Dec. 16.

But despite their alarm at the ban that suppressed all information about a guilty plea in the death of eight-year-old Tori Stafford, lawyers were quick to label the case an anomaly rather than a precedent-setting example that would guide the treatment of future similar trials.

James Stribopoulos, a law professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, said the ban’s scope was “absolutely over-the-top” and resulted in some alarming outcomes both for the press and the accused, but believes the tempered ruling handed down in May is more appropriate, since it allows the media to report on Terri-Lynne McClintic’s plea but restricts what can be published about Michael Rafferty.

Such moderate bans are par for the course in high-profile criminal trials, he said, adding they are necessary to strike a balance between public transparency and fair trial rights.

“There’s nothing groundbreaking in terms of law here,” said Stribopoulos. “The judge applied established legal principles previously set down by the Supreme Court. It’s not a huge legal precedent by any stretch of the imagination. It’s actually a conventional application of existing legal rules to a new set of circumstances, which happens all the time.”

Canadian Stage outreach

We’re happy to see that Canadian Stage’s Matthew Jocelyn is doing exactly what the company needs: stretching in new directions, wrote NOW magazine Dec. 16. Not only has his programming for his first season been eye-opening for audiences…but two new enterprises promise more adventures.

One is a co-production with The Company Theatre that will be part of Canadian Stage’s season next year at the Berkeley Street Theatre. The second is a project to develop directorial talent for the national and international stage. A partnership that begins next September with the York University MFA Program in Theatre-Stage Direction, the two-year course of study will have participants doing their academic and studio work at York and putting it to practical use in projects at Canadian Stage and through an internship with a company in Canada or abroad.

Canadian Stage has created the position of associate artist for director Kim Collier to help oversee the program. Can’t think of better choices than Collier and Jocelyn to help new directors learn their craft, wrote NOW.

The fight, the torment, the return

Almost two years have passed since Corey Fulton’s girlfriend told him the worst thing he’s ever heard, that 21-year-old York student Don Sanderson had died in a Hamilton hospital after never regaining consciousness, wrote The Globe and Mail Dec. 17 in a story about Fulton’s return to playing hockey this season. Fate had matched Fulton and Sanderson in a Major League Hockey Senior A game on Dec. 12, 2008, in Brantford, goading them into a third-period fight. Then it was misfortune that closed the deal.

The hockey world mourned while debating the value of fighting at any level of play, especially when someone loses his helmet. The arguing was lost on Fulton. He was free-falling into grief and guilt and didn’t care much about the game anymore.

The Sanderson family, parents Mike and Dhana, were gracious when Fulton visited them in the hospital. They told him he should keep playing because their son would have wanted that. Fulton went to the funeral, then slipped into isolation.