Tag Archives: data

Big Data, Small Data, and the Ethics of Scale

This past summer, two Cornell University scholars and a researcher from Facebook’s Data Science unit published a paper on what they termed “emotional contagion.” They claimed to show that Facebook’s news feed algorithm, the complex set of instructions that determines what shows up where in a news feed, could influence users’ emotional states. Using a massive data set of more than 689,003 Facebook accounts, they manipulated users’ news feeds so that some people saw more positive posts and others more negative posts. Over time, they detected a slight change in what users themselves posted: Those who saw more positive posts posted more positive posts of their own, while those who saw more negative posts posted more negative ones. Emotional contagion, they concluded, could spread among people without any direct interaction and “without their awareness.” 

Some critics lambasted Facebook for its failure to notify users that they were going to be part of a giant experiment on their emotions, but others simply thought it was cool. (My Infernal Machine colleague Ned O’Gorman has already outlined the debate.) Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, just seemed confused. What’s all the fuss about, she wondered. This latest experiment “was part of ongoing research companies do to test different products.” Facebook wasn’t experimenting with people; it was improving its product. That’s what businesses do, especially digital business with access to so much free data. They serve their customers by better understanding their needs and desires. Some might call it manipulation. Facebook calls it marketing.

But, as technology writer Nicholas Carr points out, new digital technologies and the internet have ushered in a new era of market manipulation.

Thanks to the reach of the internet, the kind of psychological and behavioral testing that Facebook does is different in both scale and kind from the market research of the past. Never before have companies been able to gather such intimate data on people’s thoughts and lives, and never before have they been able to so broadly and minutely shape the information that people see. If the Post Office had ever disclosed that it was reading everyone’s mail and choosing which letters to deliver and which not to, people would have been apoplectic, yet that is essentially what Facebook has been doing. In formulating the algorithms that run its News Feed and other media services, it molds what its billion-plus members see and then tracks their responses. It uses the resulting data to further adjust its algorithms, and the cycle of experiments begins anew. Because the algorithms are secret, people have no idea which of their buttons are being pushed — or when, or why.

Businesses of all sorts, from publishers to grocery stores, have longed tracked the habits and predilections of their customors in order better to influence what and how much they consume. And cultural critics have always debated the propriety of such practices.

Eighteenth-century German scholars debated the intellectual integrity of publishers who deigned to treat books not only as sacred vessels of Enlightenment, but also as commodities to be fashioned and peddled to a generally unenlightened public. Friedrich Nicolai, one of late eighteenth-century Prussia’s leading publishers, described the open secrets of the Enlightenment book trade:

Try to write what everyone is talking about . . . If an Empress Catherine has died, or a Countess Lichtenau fallen out of favor, describe the secret circumstances of her life, even if you know nothing of them. Even if all your accounts are false, no one will doubt their veracity, your book will pass from hand to hand, it will be printed four times in three weeks, especially if you take care to invent a multitude of scandalous anecdotes.

The tastes and whims of readers could be formed and manipulated by a publishing trade that was in the business not only of sharing knowledge but also of producing books that provoked emotional responses and prompted purchases. And it did so in such obvious and pandering ways that its manipulative tactics were publicly debated. Immanuel Kant mocked Nicolai and his fellow publishers as industrialists who traded in commodities, not knowledge. But Kant did so in public, in print.

These previous forms of market manipulation were qualitatively different from those of our digital age. Be they the practices of eighteenth-century publishing or mid-twentieth-century television production, these forms of manipulation, claims Carr, were more public and susceptible to public scrutiny, and as long as they were “visible, we could evaluate them and resist them.” But in an age in which our online and offline lives are so thoroughly intertwined, the data of our lives—what we consume, how we communicate, how we socialize, how we live—can be manipulated in ways and to ends about which we are completely unaware and we have increasingly less capacity to evaluate.

Sheryl Sandberg would have us believe that Facebook and Google are neutral tools that merely process and organize information into an accessible format. But Facebook and Google are also companies interested in making money. And their primary technologies, their algorithms, should not be extracted from the broader environment in which they were created and are constantly tweaked by particular human beings for particular ends. They are pervasive and shape who we are and who we want to become, both individually and socially. We need to understand how live alongside them.

These are precisely the types of questions and concerns that a humanities of the twenty-first century can and should address. We need forms of inquiry that take the possibilities and limits of digital technologies seriously. The digital humanities would seem like an obvious community to which to turn for a set of practices, methods, and techniques for thinking about our digital lives, both historically and conceptually. But, to date, most scholars engaged in the digital humanities have not explicitly addressed the ethical ends and motivations of their work. (Bethany Nowviskie’s work is one exemplary exception: here and here.)

This hesitance has set them up for some broad attacks. Th recent diatribes against the digital humanities have not only peddled ignorance and lazy thinking as insight, they have also, perhaps more perniciously, managed to cast scholars interested in such methods and technologies as morally suspect. In his ill-informed New Republic article, Adam Kirsch portrayed digital humanities scholars as morally truncated technicians, obsessed with method and either uninterested in or incapable of ethical reflection. The digital humanities, Kirsch would have us believe, is the latest incarnation of the Enlightenment of Adorno and Horkheimer—a type of thinking interested only in technical mastery and unconcerned about the ends to which knowledge might be put.

Most of the responses to Kirsch and his ilk, my own included, didn’t dispute these more implicit suggestions. We conceded questions of value and purpose to the bumbling critics, as though to suggest that the defenders of a vague and ahistorical form of humanistic inquiry had a monopoly on such questions. We conceded, after a fashion, the language of ethics to Kirsch’s image of a purified humanities, one that works without technologies and with insight alone. We responded with arguments about method (“You don’t know what digital humanities scholars actually do.”) or history (“The humanities have always been interested in patterns.”).

In a keynote address last week, however, Scott Weingart encouraged humanities scholars engaged in computational analysis and other digital projects to think more clearly about the ethical nature of the work they are already doing. Echoing some of Carr’s concerns, he writes:

We are at the cusp of a new era. The mix of big data, social networks, media companies, content creators, government surveillance, corporate advertising, and ubiquitous computing is a perfect storm for intense influence both subtle and far-reaching. Algorithmic nudging has the power to sell products, win elections, topple governments, and oppress a people, depending on how it is wielded and by whom. We have seen this work from the bottom-up, in Occupy Wall Street, the Revolutions in the Middle East, and the ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge, and from the top-down in recent presidential campaigns, Facebook studies, and coordinated efforts to preserve net neutrality. And these have been works of non-experts: people new to this technology, scrambling in the dark to develop the methods as they are deployed. As we begin to learn more about network-based control and influence, these examples will multiply in number and audacity.

In light of these new scales of analysis and the new forms of agency they help create, Weingart encourages scholars, particularly those engaged in network and macroanalysis, to pay attention to the ways in which they mix the impersonal and individual, the individual and the universal. “By zooming in and out, from the distant to the close,” he writes, digital humanities scholars toggle back and forth between big and small data. Facebook, Google, and the NSA operate primarily at a macro level at which averages and aggregates are visible but not individuals. But that’s not how networks work. Networks are a messy, complex interaction of the micro and macro. They are products of the entire scale of knowledge, data, and being. Social networks and the ideas, actions, and interactions that comprise them emerge between the particular and the universal. What often distinguishes “the digital humanities from its analog counterpart,” writes Weingart, “is the distant reading, the macroanalysis.” But what binds humanities scholars of all sorts together is an “unwillingness to stray too far from the source. We intersperse the distant with the close, attempting to reintroduce the individual into the aggregate.” In this sense, scholars interested in a digital humanities are particularly well suited to challenge basic but dangerous misconceptions about the institutions and technologies that shape our world.

If we think of Facebook and Google and the computations in which we are enmeshed merely as information-processing machines, we concede our world to one end of the scale, a world of abstracted big data and all powerful algorithms. We forget that the internet, like any technology, is both a material infrastructure and, as Ian Bogost has put it, something we do. Every time we like a post on Facebook, search Google, or join the network at a local coffee shop, we participate in this massive, complex world of things and actions. We help form our technological world. So maybe its time we learn more about this world and remember that algorithms aren’t immutable, natural laws. They are, as Nowviskie puts it, rules and instructions that can manipulate and be manipulated. They are part of the our world, bound to us just as we are now to them.

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Apple Watch and the Quantified Self

Today Apple unveiled its latest technological creation, the Apple Watch, a wearable computer that tracks not only time but your every step, heartbeat, and calorie. With their latest product, Apple contributes to the growing availability of devices and apps that track and record our activities and biostatistics such as Fitbit, Basis, and My Fitness Pal. Given Apple’s commercial influence, the Apple Watch may well turn the nascent Quantified Self (QS) movement into a cultural mainstay delivering “self knowledge through numbers.”

Apple Watch

Apple Watch

Most QS practices track health-related activities such as calorie intake, exercise, and sleep patterns, but they are increasingly used to document and track experiences of grief, exploration, and productivity. And tracking apps and devices are even making their way unexpected areas of life experience. Attempts to measure the soul, data point by data point, for example, are increasingly common. Just last January a Menlo Park pastor teamed up with a University of Connecticut sociologist to create SoulPulse, which, as Casey N. Cep explains, is a

 a technology project that captures real-time data on the spirituality of Americans. SoulPulse attempts to quantify the soul, an unbodied version of what FitBit, the exercise-tracking device, has done for the body. After filling in a brief intake survey on your age, race, ethnicity, education, income, and religious affiliation, SoulPulse contacts you twice a day with questions about your physical health, spiritual disciplines, and religious experiences. Each of the surveys takes less than five minutes to complete.

SoulPulse encourages users to learn about their “spirituality” through the power of big data and digital automation. This may sound crazy, but what’s the difference between tracking your daily prayer life with an app and doing so with another set of repeatable instructions, such as the Benedictine Rule and its set of daily readings and reminders to ponder God?

Many aspects of the QS movement are anything but new. Western cultures have long maintained practices that document behaviors and experiences in order to discipline ourselves. Capitalism and quantifying the self have been intimately linked for some time. Early accounting practices allowed businessmen to understand the consequences of their behavior so that it could be modified in the future. Merchants developed account logs that allowed them to track the results of their business transactions and to modify them in the future.  Perhaps they had purchased too much grain and it spoiled before it could be sold. In the following year, the same merchant could alter his practice based on this cataloged information. And Frederick W. Taylor’s scientific management theories relied on precise measurements of workers’ efficiency.

And more in the tradition of St. Benedict, people have long kept track of their spiritual lives. Benjamin Franklin dutifully recorded his success in adhering to a list of thirteen virtues each day. Diaries and journals have long been witness not just to bad poetry but to detailed lists of eating and sleeping habits. Weight Watchers and its point system, founded in 1963,  turned such practices into a business.

Despite such similarities, tracking devices such as Apple Watch are not the same as eighteenth-century diaries. The former have the potential to revolutionize the health sector and facilitate better care, but what happens when they don’t just give away our desires on Facebook (I like this!) but open up a one-way data stream on our bodies? How long will it take for all that personal data to make its way to our insurance companies? (The now-common annual biometric screenings will seem quaint by comparison.)

Self-reflection and personal development are broad cultural values. But what happens to us when we focus on aspects of ourselves that are easily recorded and converted into numbers? QS enthusiasts advocate for the expansion of tracking devices from the private sphere into the work environment, where they might provide insights on employee selection, promotion, and productivity. How will tracking social and personal behavior, such as how many times one smiles during the day, alter work environments and those who inhabit them?

Digital practices and techniques for tracking and disciplining the self are different from the analogue and print predecessors for several reasons. First, what they can track has expanded. Benjamin Franklin most likely didn’t know the rate of his perspiration. Second, the precision with which data is measured and recorded is continually increasing. Similarly, tracking devices and apps are increasingly frictionless: They do their job with minimal interruption and effort on the part of the user. Finally, the digital format of the data represents a marked difference from records of the past. Many of these tracking devices easily connect to apps and programs that analyze the data, dictating to the individual a pre-programmed assessment of success or failure. The digital nature of the information also makes it easily available and transferable.

These new developments and the manufacture and dissemination of these technologies and apps through popular and trusted brands such as Apple are likely to expand the degree to which individuals come to imagine themselves, their bodies, and their habits through and as numbers. As we continue into our quantified future, will these new digital practice alter what will means to be a good person, a successful person, or an efficient person? Will be we able to juke the numbers?  Just because the technology is intended to track behavior and facilitate modification of that behavior doesn’t mean that it won’t be put to other purposes. What will we make of our new digital tracking practices and the self that we come to know through numbers?

Claire Maiers is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Virginia.

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Beyond the Democratic “Experience” of an Archive

Plato’s critique of writing is still widely known. He worried that the “technologizing of the word,” to use Walter Ong’s phrase, would lead to the erosion of the soul’s memory, and therefore to the end of true learning, which for Plato was but a form of remembering. One can only imagine Plato’s horror at our contemporary data society, where the word has been even more radically technologized. Digital computing entails the reduction of meaning to the stark logic of ones and zeroes, positive and negative, off and on. Far from representing a return to the “primitive,” this reductionism represents the technological perfection of writing, at least according to demands of efficiency: vast amounts of data can be stored on small devices for recall only when prompted.

But it is obvious that to live in a data society is not necessarily to live in a society that remembers, that actively recalls and engages the past in the present. Indeed, one legitimate worry about data is that it is only  “stored to forget” (as my colleague Kevin Hamilton once said in an atypical Platonic moment). Hitting “save” is like hitting “forget.” How provocative it would be if some programmer would create an add-on that would change every instance of “save” or “save as” on a machine to “forget” or “forget as”!

Given the fraught status of memory in a data society, it is little surprise that archives have become intensified sites of anxiety, energy, creativity, and labor. The library sciences are overwhelmed at present with the question of “archiving” the digital. The digital humanities have spurred manifold archival projects, each trying to re-imagine the archive in a digital world. Various humanistic disciplines—from art history to literature to history—have devoted volumes recently to the question of the archives. Since these are intentional sites of memory in a society typified by automated memory, it is little wonder they are particularly meaningful social, political, and cultural sites.

But what are the archives? It is a question not all that different from one I asked earlier on this site about metadata. Indeed, it is a question not far off from the one my colleague at The Infernal Machine, Chad Wellmon, recently posed, “What is literature?” Chad’s answer was essentially, “it depends.” It depends on time, place, circumstances, and all those other things that go into the making of what we call “culture.”  No doubt, we could say the same thing about the archives.

I am struck, therefore, by a contrast in democratic cultures between two national security archives I recently visited, one virtually and the other in person. Both have large holdings from the Cold War. Both are run independently of the government. And both directly address the ends of democracy in their mission. And yet the meaning of these two archives could not be more different, especially with respect to what they assume about the nature of democracy.

The first, George Washington University’s impressive National Security Archive, plausibly claims to be the world’s largest nongovernmental archive. I visit it online regularly. Founded some thirty years ago “by journalists and scholars to check rising government secrecy,” the archive has a team of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawyers among its staff. One of its several claims of “extraordinary, quantifiable success over the past 25 years” is “40,000 FOIA and declassification requests to more than 200 offices and agencies of the U.S. government that have opened more than 10 million pages of previously secret U.S. government documents.”


Archivists at the Archivo Histórico de la Policia Nacional. Photo courtesy of Human Rights Data Analysis Group.

The other archive I visited in person two months ago. The Archivo Histórico de la Policia Nacional in Guatemala City, which I introduced to readers of The Infernal Machine in my last post, consists of the 80 million documents and photographs that formed the records of the Guatemalan National Police. The National Police, as I discussed, were responsible for a prolonged reign of terror in Guatemala City during the Cold War, all part of the state’s relentless efforts to “disappear” from political existence anything and anyone that might challenge its legitimacy, power, or authority.

What are the “archives” in these two places, and what does their meaning have to do with the nature of democracy? To walk into the Archivo Histórico de la Policia Nacional is to walk into a justice factory. It is to see groups of gowned and gloved workers organizing, processing, and digitizing documents and photos. Their goal is to take the archives dumped by the National Police as piles of trash in an abandoned building and to reconstruct, as nearly as possible, the structure and contents of the police records. Building archival structures that replicate the original institutional structures of the archived agency is standard archival practice. But here the mission is different from any North American archive I know of.

Archivists at work in the Archivo. Photo courtesy of Eric Sandeen.

Archivists at work in the Archivo. Photo courtesy of Eric Sandeen.

For at the end of one hallway at the Archivo sits the bare office of the human-rights prosecutor. No computer sits on a desk. Rather, the Archivo is itself the prosecutor’s “data” storage machine, his file system, his memory bank, his evidence repository. The reconstruction of the police archives, a massive and multiyear project, is being meticulously carried out so that the perpetrators of the “disappearances” might not only be identified but brought to justice. The democratic ethos of the Archivo is oriented toward political justice, a change in the state of affairs in Guatemala. In crucial respects, the Archivo “ends” in the prosecutor’s office.

I have never been in the National Security Archive, so I cannot attest to what its facilities look like. (I imagine office cubicles, computer screens, water coolers, and so on.) While the National Security Archives has collaborated in lawsuits and even prosecutions (including the prosecution of retired army general and former president Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala, ultimately stymied by the Constitutional Court of Guatemala), it is apparent that the National Security Archive is an information factory first, a judgment factory second, and a justice factory only remotely.

The democratic ethos of the National Security Archive is strongly informed by the idea of “freedom of information.” In the 1950s the lawyer Harold Cross and American Society of Newspaper Editors launched the “freedom of information” movement as a way to counter the growing secrecy of the federal government in the context of the cold war. This movement would eventually help bring about the Freedom of Information Act, signed in 1966 by President Johnson, and used widely by the National Security Archive. Cross wrote in his 1953 The People’s Right To Know: Legal Access to Public Records and Proceedings:

Citizens of a self-governing society must have the legal right to examine and investigate the conduct of its affairs subject only to those limitations imposed by the most urgent public necessity. To that end they must have the right to simple, speedy enforcement procedure geared to cope with the dynamic expansion of government activity.

In most respects, Cross approached his work in a forensic spirit: “information” was needed for journalistic investigations and, more broadly, to make the government accountable to the people. Yet, underlying Cross’s efforts and those of the editors of the newspapers that he represented, was a faith in the stand-alone democratic virtue of “openness.” Exposure, closely related to exposé, was itself a kind of democratic good. The National Security Archives today continues this faith: most of its work ends in well-timed publicity statements like this, this, or this.

Exposure, to be sure, is a democratic good. But is it therefore a democratic end? Are archives that expose government secrets inherently democratic? Is the opening of archives itself a democratic accomplishment?

Of course, democratic societies need information, but the democratic culture of the United States is too prone not just to the rather crass assumption that more information is always better but to the more sophisticated Whitmanian and Deweyan assumption, more recently championed by Richard Rorty, that democracy is ultimately a matter of “experience.” “Information,” especially freedom of information, fits nicely with such a notion of democracy. “Information” is synonymous with exposure and exposure itself a kind of democratic good. Archives in this Deweyan cultural context become potential sites of exposé, disclosure, revelation, and so on—all aiming ideally toward a broadly distributed culture of critical judgment. Justice, in this Deweyan world, would seem to be a spontaneous outgrowth of the proliferation of democratic experience, rather than a particular end to be achieved through concerted and focused effort.


At work in a justice factory. Photo by Ned O’Gorman.

To be sure, judgment is both the beginning and end of justice. We move toward justice through acts of judgment, and justice is enacted in an authoritative act of judgment. But in Deweyan culture, judgment reigns so supreme that it can take the place of justice. If “experience” is at the heart of democracy, democratic experiences can proliferate quite apart from substantive changes in the state of affairs. [Indeed, a curious connection can be drawn between Deweyan democratic culture and the activities of the NSA and other surveillance agencies. Both “archives as information for critical judgment” and “data as information for analysis” can and do operate quite apart from immediate concerns with justice.]

The Archivo Histórico de la Policia Nacional challenges these Deweyian assumptions as it insists that exposure is not enough. The democratic culture of the Archivo is one where history, condensed in the archives, is proactively oriented toward justice through acts of exposure, yes, but moreso through the construction of structures of accountability, of justice, even in a political context where those structures are regularly frustrated by corruption, cronyism, and fear. Still, the people of the Archivo persist in their factory-like work, working toward a country not yet achieved. The goal of democratic politics, they attest, is not ultimately a broad realization of critical judgment and widespread forms of democratic “experience,” but justice, an objective order, a state of affairs, indeed a state. Richard Rorty offers no categories for understanding the methodical labors of the Archivo.

[Thanks to Paul McKean for teaching me about Harold Cross.]

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Who’s Afraid of Nate Silver?

On Monday Nate Silver unveiled his revamped 538 blog. Flush with ESPN cash, Silver has collected a team of writers, editors, and “quantitative editors” to carry out an experiment in what he calls “data journalism.”

After Silver left The New York Times, Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ public editor, said that he had “disrupted” the Grey Lady’s culture of journalism, especially its political journalism. Silver’s

entire probability-based way of looking at politics ran against the kind of political journalism that The Times specializes in: polling, the horse race, campaign coverage, analysis based on campaign-trail observation, and opinion writing, or “punditry,” as he put it, famously describing it as “fundamentally useless.” Of course, The Times is equally known for its in-depth and investigative reporting on politics. His approach was to work against the narrative of politics – the “story” – and that made him always interesting to read.

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 9.19.57 PM

In the ramp-up to the launch of the new 538, Silver took a few shots at “traditional” journalism and its proclivity toward punditry. He singled out the opinion pages of the Times, The Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal in particular. Op-ed columnists at these bastions of cultural authority thrive on simplicity and a reliance on one idea regardless of the subject:

They don’t permit a lot of complexity in their thinking. They pull threads together from very weak evidence and draw grand conclusions based on them. They’re ironically very predictable from week to week. If you know the subject that Thomas Friedman or whatever is writing about, you don’t have to read the column. You can kind of auto-script it, basically.

It’s people who have very strong ideological priors, is the fancy way to put it, that are governing their thinking. They’re not really evaluating the data as it comes in, not doing a lot of [original] thinking. They’re just spitting out the same column every week and using a different subject matter to do the same thing over and over.

It’s ridiculous to me that they undermine every value that these organizations have in their newsrooms. It’s strange. I know it’s cheaper to fund an op-ed columnist than a team of reporters, but I think it confuses the mission of what these great journalistic brands are about.

Silver’s answer to this is data journalism, and 538 is an experiment in how it might be done.

Some find Silver’s talk about journalism, data, and evidence rather empty. Offended by Silver’s attack on opinion, the cantankerous Leon Wieseltier defends “bullshit,” Silver’s shorthand for op-ed journalism, and asks more simply: what’s wrong with conviction? Not every judgment or opinion is a matter of facts that can be culled from the data.

Many of the issues that we debate are not issues of fact but issues of value. There is no numerical answer to the question of whether men should be allowed to marry men, and the question of whether the government should help the weak, and the question of whether we should intervene against genocide. And so the intimidation by quantification practiced by Silver and the other data mullahs must be resisted. Up with the facts! Down with the cult of facts!

In his excitement to tar Silver as a hard-headed positivist oblivious to the varieties of evidence and argumentation and protect us all from the “intimidation by quantification practiced by Silver and the other data mullahs,” Wieseltier makes a hard and fast distinction between fact and value.

And this is where Wieseltier’s embrace of commentary through conviction sounds more like commentary through charisma. Silver’s point is not that data are facts that speak from an unmediated truth to those who only have the will to listen. Data is not easily collected, organized, explained, and generalized. Data is more like a process. There’s no such thing as raw data. Data is hard won, theoretically complicated, and wrapped up with questions of value, questions that Wieseltier claims Silver and all his “intimidating” fellow data journalists fear. But that’s just not true. For Silver, the point is that data journalism

isn’t just about using numbers as opposed to words. To be clear, our approach at FiveThirtyEight will be quantitative — there will be plenty of numbers at this site. But using numbers is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce good works of journalism.[..] Indeed, as more human behaviors are being measured, the line between the quantitative and the qualitative has blurred.

Silver is trying to figure out what counts as evidence, argument, fact, and value in a digital world awash with easily accessible information. Data, as he puts it, does not have a “virgin birth.”

It comes to us from somewhere. Someone set up a procedure to collect and record it. Sometimes this person is a scientist, but she also could be a journalist.

Wieseltier’s appeals to “conviction” are meant to avoid such complications and force us into the sure, steely arms of the charismatic critic, someone who believes in something and has no patience with “diffidence.”

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