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Mark Twain

Linguistic analysis isn’t hooey

For the second time in two months, I’ve seen a case where a linguist analyzed writing and tried to conclude whether someone was or wasn’t the author of a suspicious e-mail message. The first was a threatening letter purportedly sent to Christopher Coleman, who was convicted last month of murdering his family, and the other was Paul Ceglia’s attempt to prove he owns a substantial share of Facebook.

The inevitable flood of comments calling such analysis “black magic” followed. But as an author, I have to give validity to it.

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Quoting famous people accurately

If you’re going to quote people on the Internet, you might as well quote them accurately. Here are some tips for quoting famous people accurately, based on my own detective work on one of my favorite quotes.

“The problem with quotes on the Internet is that you never can know if they are genuine.” –Abraham Lincoln

The death of bin Laden prompted a couple of quotes attributed to Mark Twain and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to be repeated endlessly on social networking sites. It turned out both quotes were false. Inaccurate quotes also tend to pop up in election years.

Here are some good tips to avoid spreading fake quotes the next time something really newsworthy happens. One nifty trick: A Google search, filtered by date, to see if the quote existed anywhere before the event.

“Abraham Lincoln” may be right, that you can never know for certain, but you can get a really good idea with a little bit of digging.
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I went and saw Emily last night. She was beat up, but not as badly as you’d expect someone who’d been thrown from a car to be. She was still in ICU because they’re worried about her spleen. She was in pretty good spirits considering everything she’d been through in the past 36 hours.
I mentioned to one of my coworkers that I was going to the hospital after work to see a friend in ICU. She said those kinds of visits were hard. I guess they are, but I’ll take an ICU visit over a funeral visitation any day. Maybe it’s hard to know what to say, but I guess I’ve found it doesn’t matter too much. Look at Job. Job lost everything, then was struck with leprosy, so then he went out to the town dump and sat there. His three friends went out there to be with him and spent a week there with him, without a word. Then when they finally did speak, they said, “You idiot!”

During those times, I think it’s good to remember the words of Mark Twain. If God had wanted us to talk more than we listen, he’d have given us one ear and two mouths.

I looked into her eyes and saw someone who’s fighting, but she’s tired, frustrated, and impatient. What I didn’t see was someone at the end of her rope. I could tell she looked into my eyes and saw someone who cared. I didn’t really have to say much else.

Now.. Generations.

Generations. Today I relate better to 40-year-olds than I do to 19-year-olds. I have friends in their 30s who relate really well to me, and to everyone else I know who’s close to my age, but I can’t step down the same number of years that they can.
One possible explanation is intelligence and/or maturity level, but I know some 19-year-olds who are more mature than I was at that age, and I know our 18-year-old intern at work is one of the most brilliant people I’ve met. So that explanation, though it may have had some merit when I was a lot younger, doesn’t have much now.

I’ve found a possible explanation.

The theory of generations goes like this. There are four basic generation “personality types,” if you will. They’re cyclical. We hiccuped once after the Civil War and skipped one type, but that’s the only time we’ve done so in the roughly 500 years that people of European descent have lived in the Americas.

Quick disclaimer: All of the examples I’m about to cite are male. My source doesn’t include a lot of female examples. Knowing the birth dates, obviously, you can fit female examples into these.

The first type is the Civics. The book says this is the most basic type, but it’s the one I understand least. They’re very rationalist and value social harmony. The two Civic generations of recent memory were born in 1901-1924 and 1982-2003. Historical figures from Civic generations include Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. Two recent examples of Civics are Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. (This was the generation we skipped immediately after the Civil War. That makes sense–that time period wasn’t very compatible with rationalism and social harmony.)

The Adaptive generations understand the others better than any other type does. They’re compromisers, above all else. Recent adaptive generations were born in the years 1925-1942 and 1843-1859. Interestingly, the current adaptive generation, known as the Silent Generation, has yet to produce a U.S. president and looks ever less likely to do so. Historical Adaptives include Teddy Roosevelt and The Great Compromiser Henry Clay. Contemporary examples of Adaptives include Ralph Nader and Walter Mondale.

Does the Idealist generation need any further explanation? OK. Think hippies. Recent Idealist generations were born 1860-1882 and 1943-1960. Historical examples of Idealists include Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and Winston Churchill. Contemporary examples of Idealists include George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Hmm. We was robbed. Or maybe we just gave our Idealists too much power too soon this time around. Churchill was 66 when he became Prime Minister. (It also would have helped if we’d picked an Idealist who could keep it in his pants, but hey. We make these stupid mistakes so future generations don’t have to, if they’re paying attention.)

I don’t think the Reactionist type needs much explanation either. GenX (born 1961-1981) is reactionist. So was the Lost Generation (born 1883-1900) that so influenced the Roaring Twenties. Reactionist Charles Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” and aptly described his generation and mine. We’re all or nothing. We produce crooks like Al Capone, we produce traitors like Benedict Arnold, pirates like Captain Kidd. We also produce scathingly perceptive artists like Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and wildly successful tycoons like Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller. We also produce great generals like Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, and can even claim the Father of our Country, George Washington, as one of our own.

Now, here’s the idea. Knowing the cycle and the general characteristics, it’s easier to watch history repeat itself. And while you can’t predict the future, you can predict future trends on this model. You can’t predict who the great leaders of a generation will be, but you can in broad, general terms describe the heroes and goats of a future generation based on the best and worst characteristics of that generation. And since generations define events as much as events define generations, it’s sometimes even possible to describe future events in broad, sweeping terms.

But I think I like it best as a tool for understanding people. I’m not going to understand today’s 14-year-olds by looking at how I was at 14. Sure, there’ll be some similarities but just as many differences. Since today’s 14-year-olds are a Civic generation, in order to understand it, I really have to go back to the next-most-recent Civic generation. In my case, I have to go to my grandparents. If you want to know what GenX is going to be like when it starts hitting the big 50, your best bet is to look at the Lost Generation (those who survived that long–which should, in itself, tell you something) at a similar age.

Based on past history, GenX will have its day, crisis will come–and GenX will prove to be very adept at being both part of the problem and part of the solution–then struggle with and eventually give way to an Eisenhower-like generation, which will either comfort you or scare you.

[added later] Well, duh… I forgot the best example of what GenX coulda shoulda woulda been (and still could be). Unfortunately, not many of us remember the story of Samantha Smith, the 10-year-old from Maine who wrote to Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov in 1982 and asked why the Soviets wanted to conquer the world.

What was remarkable about her? Mostly she was in the right place at the right time. At the peak of the Cold War, here was a child who stepped forward and asked a tough, innocent question no other generation was willing to ask. She asked her question, unafraid of whether she’d be ignored. And her question just happened to be heard.

She’d be 28 now. Who knows whether she would have faded away back into a normal life, or if she would have become a voice of the generation. Unfortunately, she died in a 1985 plane crash.

But we’ve still got time. GenX’s spokesperson doesn’t necessarily have to be Kurt Cobain.

Who is GenX?

Bible Study last night. My buddy Sean and I led the discussion, using “Too much [whatever], not enough God” as our topic. We prepared like mad dogs–I’ll bet we each put more than five hours into preparation for this thing–and yet I still looked every bit as disorganized as I do when I prepare an hour beforehand. So it goes. I think when I speak in front of a group I’m always going to look a bit disorganized and a bit eccentric and it’s probably just part of me. People seem to like it anyway. One of our regulars brought a couple of friends, and one of the friends came up to me afterwards and asked if I was on the radio, because I seemed to have the voice and charisma for it. That was odd. I’ve never been complimented on my voice before. And the charisma is easily explained. There wasn’t anyone there tonight I was trying to impress. (Which ought to teach me something, but I’m digressing.)
At one point, the subject of Generation X came up. I think it was because the other friend (the one who didn’t compliment me on my voice) talked about how he never plans anything in advance. It just happens and that’s how he likes it. Of course I’m exactly the same way–Sean and I made up two thirds of the sadly defunct Bastions of Decisiveness, and believe me, it was a sarcastic nickname–and one of the girls piped up, “You…. I know you! You’re a GenXer! I read a book about you!” Of course she was laughing as she said it.

And that’s a hot topic for me. Churches fret over how to reach GenX and what they have to do differently. As far as I can tell, churches didn’t operate too differently when I was young from how they operated when my parents were young. And there was a point in their lives when they didn’t have much to do with any church. But they came back, as much for the sake of my sister and me as anything else. They may not have always liked the church, but they trusted the institution for whatever reason.

Now we GenXers are growing up and having kids of our own. Some of us are coming back. Most of us aren’t. And on average, we’re waiting longer to have kids, so there are buckets of us out there who have nothing to do with a church and don’t really care to. Meanwhile, churches’ ranks are dwindling as their members age, and our generation is a large, mostly untapped resource.

What gives? I think one of my ex-girlfriends put it very well. We were talking about gifts and abilities, and I told her sincerity was all I’ve got. She rolled her eyes, as she often did with me, and said, “Sincerity is everything.” I’ve forgotten a lot of things she said to me, but I’ll probably carry that to my grave. In fact, I was talking to someone else a couple of weeks ago and I said that sincerity is usually more important than good intentions.

What else about GenX? I don’t think we like hypocrisy all that much. Bill Clinton didn’t alienate my generation at all. He was as old as some of our parents, but as a demographic group, we dug him. You can say a lot of things about Bill Clinton, and I certainly have because I can’t stand the sorry excuse for a man, but you can’t say he was a hypocrite. But our generation has great disdain for people like Jimmy Swaggart, who said not to do one thing and then did it.

I think the biggest difference between GenX and the previous generation is that the previous generation accepted that hypocrisy exists and you can’t get away from it, and that sincerity is nice but you won’t always find it. GenX isn’t tolerant of that. If you’re insincere, talk to the hand. If you’re a hypocrite, don’t let the door hit your backside on the way out.

And, yes, I’ll say it. It’s easier to find insincerity and hypocrisy in a church than almost anywhere else.

So… I help organize this group of GenXers who meet on Friday nights to read the Bible, of all things. That’s prime party time. But, consistently, 15-20 people come. Most churches don’t have 15-20 GenXers in the sanctuary on Sundays. What’s the secret?

Here’s the secret. There’s no bull with me. I am what I am. At one point tonight it looked like I got choked up and someone commented, asked if I needed Kleenex. Actually I wasn’t choked up. I just lost my place. But I don’t try to hide anything. I’ve got an expressive face, so I’m easy to read. They’ve never seen me get choked up at the beginning like that, but it wouldn’t be out of character. You want sincerity? I’ve got it and so do the other people who lead.

As for hypocrisy, we’ve all been around the block, some of us more times than others, but we don’t try to hide it. And when I say, “Here’s how to overcome this problem,” I’m generally not talking from experience. When I talk about the problem itself, I usually am. But I look to see what God says about solving a particular problem, because when it comes to life’s problems, I sure haven’t solved very many, and I’m not afraid to talk about those failures. Neither are the others who lead.

OK. So we’ve taken care of the sincerity and hypocrisy. That’s not enough to bring people back. What is?

I think it was Mark Twain who said God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. We listen. At least I listen. I listen to the questions people ask and the prayer requests they give. You can tell what’s bothering a person based on those things. And what’s bothering one person is usually bothering more than one. You can tell that from looking at those things. If you see a pattern, you go for it. Go find what God has to say about it. The Bible’s not a short book. Name any life experience, and chances are the Bible’s got something to say about it.

No one ever comes and feels like they wasted their time. Sometimes they have other reasons for not coming back, but that’s never it. We have deep and challenging discussions. But they’re not academic. It’s stuff that we’ll spend the next couple of weeks applying to our lives.

So here’s the secret formula. Check hypocrisy and insincerity at the door. Listen. Care. Then go where that leads. Interestingly enough, it usually leads to relevance.

So much for me ever writing a book about ministering to my lost generation–it’s not a subject long and complex enough to be worthy of a book. But if the sales of my last book are any indication, that’s probably just as well.