Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Threat of AI

Kai-Fu Lee has an important op-ed in the NYTimes, "The Real Threat of Artificial Intelligence". He begins by pointing out that all too many discussions of the problems posed by AI turn on the so-called "singularity", when AI will surpass human intelligence. He points out, quite rightly IMO, that however interesting such questions are "they are not pressing". Our best AI tools have little or no understanding of anything, but they nonetheless can do useful tasks and are improving rapidly. These tools will take existing human jobs without replacing them with new jobs.
This transformation will result in enormous profits for the companies that develop A.I., as well as for the companies that adopt it. Imagine how much money a company like Uber would make if it used only robot drivers. Imagine the profits if Apple could manufacture its products without human labor. Imagine the gains to a loan company that could issue 30 million loans a year with virtually no human involvement. (As it happens, my venture capital firm has invested in just such a loan company.)

We are thus facing two developments that do not sit easily together: enormous wealth concentrated in relatively few hands and enormous numbers of people out of work. What is to be done?
The rest of the op-ed addresses these questions and is well-worth reading.

He's call for high tax rates with the government subsidizing "most people's lives and work". The USA and China may well be able to do this. Most countries will not.
So if most countries will not be able to tax ultra-profitable A.I. companies to subsidize their workers, what options will they have? I foresee only one: Unless they wish to plunge their people into poverty, they will be forced to negotiate with whichever country supplies most of their A.I. software — China or the United States — to essentially become that country’s economic dependent, taking in welfare subsidies in exchange for letting the “parent” nation’s A.I. companies continue to profit from the dependent country’s users. Such economic arrangements would reshape today’s geopolitical alliances.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Maybe quantum mechanics isn't so weird after all

I more or less believe that on general principle, but I don't quite follow this interesting article by Philip Ball, Quantum common sense. I haven't read it with care, at least not yet. But I wanted to park some quotes here for the record. I thought this was kind of neat:
It’s not enough, though, for a quantum state to survive decoherence in order for us to be able to measure it. Survival means that the state is measurable in principle – but we still have to get at that information to detect the state. So we need to ask how that information becomes available to an experimenter. (Really, who’d have thought there is so much to the mere act of observation?)

Here’s the exciting answer: it’s precisely because a quantum system interacts with its environment that it leaves an imprint on a classical measuring device at all. If we were able, with some amazing instrument, to record the trajectories of all the air molecules bounding off the speck of dust, we could figure out where the speck is without looking at it directly; we could just monitor the imprint it leaves on its environment. And this is, in effect, all we are doing whenever we determine the position, or any other property, of anything: we’re detecting not the object itself, but the effect it creates.

Just as coupling the object to its environment sets decoherence in train, so too it imprints information about the object onto the environment, creating a kind of replica. A measurement of that object then amounts to acquiring this information from the replica.
What Quantum Darwinism tell us is that, fundamentally, the issue is not really about whether probing physically disturbs what is probed (although that can happen). It is the gathering of information that alters the picture. Through decoherence, the Universe retains selected highlights of the quantum world, and those highlights have exactly the features that we have learnt to expect from the classical world. We come along and sweep up that information – and in the process we destroy it, one copy at a time.

Decoherence doesn’t completely neutralise the puzzle of quantum mechanics. Most importantly, although it shows how the probabilities inherent in the quantum wave function get pared down to classical-like particulars, it does not explain the issue of uniqueness: why, out of the possible outcomes of a measurement that survive decoherence, we see only one of them. Some researchers feel compelled to add this as an extra (you might say ‘super-common-sensical’) axiom: they define reality as quantum theory plus uniqueness.
Seems rather poetic, doesn't it?

Blossom in black and white

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Trump's foreign policy: An end to American hegemony?

Writing in The American Conservative, Andrew Bacevich notes a post-Trump nostalgia for a world order characterized as, "Liberalism, along with norms, rules, openness, and internationalism: these ostensibly define the postwar and post-Cold War tradition of American statecraft." He goes on to note that such a view leaves out a few things:
Or, somewhat more expansively, among the items failing to qualify for mention in the liberal internationalist, rules-based version of past U.S. policy are the following: meddling in foreign elections; coups and assassination plots in Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, Cuba, South Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, and elsewhere; indiscriminate aerial bombing campaigns in North Korea and throughout Southeast Asia; a nuclear arms race bringing the world to the brink of Armageddon; support for corrupt, authoritarian regimes in Iran, Turkey, Greece, South Korea, South Vietnam, the Philippines, Brazil, Egypt, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and elsewhere—many of them abandoned when deemed inconvenient; the shielding of illegal activities through the use of the Security Council veto; unlawful wars launched under false pretenses; “extraordinary rendition,” torture, and the indefinite imprisonment of persons without any semblance of due process.
A bit later:
Prior to Trump’s arrival on the scene, few members of the foreign-policy elite, now apparently smitten with norms, fancied that the United States was engaged in creating any such order. America’s purpose was not to promulgate rules but to police an informal empire that during the Cold War encompassed the “Free World” and became more expansive still once the Cold War ended.
Trump’s conception of a usable past differs radically from that favored in establishment quarters. Put simply, the 45th president does not subscribe to the imperative of sustaining American hegemony because he does not subscribe to the establishment’s narrative of 20th-century history. According to that canonical narrative, exertions by the United States in a sequence of conflicts dating from 1914 and ending in 1989 enabled good to triumph over evil. Absent these American efforts, evil would have prevailed. Contained within that parable-like story, members of the establishment believe, are the lessons that should guide U.S. policy in the 21st century.

Trump doesn’t see it that way, as his appropriation of the historically loaded phrase “America First” attests. In his view, what might have occurred had the United States not waged war against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and had it not subsequently confronted the Soviet Union matters less than what did occur when the assertion of hegemonic prerogatives found the United States invading Iraq in 2003 with disastrous results.

In effect, Trump dismisses the lessons of the 20th century as irrelevant to the 21st. Crucially, he goes a step further by questioning the moral basis for past U.S. actions. Thus, his extraordinary response to a TV host’s charge that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a killer.
Concerning the Trump resistance:
Say this for the anti-Trump resistance: while the fascism-just-around-the-corner rhetoric may be overheated and a touch overwrought, it qualifies as forthright and heartfelt. While not sharing the view that Trump will rob Americans of their freedoms, I neither question the sincerity nor doubt the passion of those who believe otherwise. Indeed, I am grateful to them for acting so forcefully on their convictions. They are inspiring.

Not so with those who now wring their hands about the passing of the fictive liberal international order credited to enlightened American statecraft. They are engaged in a great scam, working assiduously to sustain the pretense that the world of 2017 remains essentially what it was in 1937 or 1947 or 1957 when it is not.
H/t 3 Quarks Daily.

The profession of literary criticism as I have observed it over 50 years

Updated 6.23.17.

In the course of thinking about my recent rejection at New Literary History I found myself, once again, rethinking the evolution of the profession as I’ve seen it from the 1960s to the present. In fact, that rejection has led me, once again, to rethink that history and to change some of my ideas, particularly about the significance of the 1970s.

This post is a guide to my historically-oriented thinking about academic literary criticism. Much, but not all, of the historical material is autobiographical in nature.

I list the articles more or less in the order of writing. In some cases a post has been rewritten and revised several years after I first wrote it. The link I give is to the most recent version.

Touchstones • Strange Encounters • Strange Poems • the beginning of an intellectual life (1975-2015)

This is about my years at Johns Hopkins, both undergraduate (1965-1969) and graduate (1969-72). That’s when, I see in retrospect, I left the profession intellectually, with a “structuralism and beyond” MA thesis on “Kubla Khan,” even before I’d joined it institutionally, but getting my PhD. I originally wrote this while I was working on my PhD in English at SUNY Buffalo. Art Efron published a journal, Paunch, and I wrote it for that. The current version includes interpolated comments from 2014 and 2015.

The Demise of Deconstruction: On J. Hillis Miller’s MLA Presidential Address 1986. PMLA. Vol. 103, No. 1, Jan. 1988, p. 57.

A letter I published in PMLA in which I replied to J. Hillis Miller on the eclipse of deconstruction. I suggested 1) that deconstruction had a different valence for those who merely learned it in graduate school than for those who had struggled to create it, and 2) that it was in eclipse because it did the same thing to every text.

For the Historical Record: Cog Sci and Lit Theory, A Chronology (2006-2016)

At the beginning of every course (at Johns Hopkins) Dick Macksey would hand out a chronology, a way, I suppose, of saying “history is important” without lecturing on the topic. It was with that in mind that I originally posted this rough and ready chronology in a comment to a discussion at The Valve. The occasion was an online symposium that interrogated Theory by discussing the anthology, Theory’s Empire (Columbia UP 2005). I then emended it a bit and made it a freestanding post. As the title suggests, it juxtaposes developments in cognitive science and literary theory from the 1950s through the end of the millennium.

[BTW The entire Theory’s Empire symposium is worth looking at, including the comments on the posts:]

Seven Sacred Words: An Open Letter to Steven Pinker (2007-2011)

An Open Letter to Steven Pinker: The Importance of Stories and the Nature of Literary Criticism (2015)

Steven Pinker has been a severe critic of the humanities for ignoring recent work in the social and behavioral sciences. He has also argued that the arts serve no biological purpose, that they are “cheesecake for the mind.” When I read his The Stuff of Thought (2007) I realized his later chapters contained the basis for an account of the arts. I sketched that out, added a brief account of why deconstruction had been popular, and published it as an open letter, along with his reply. It appeared first at The Valve (2007) and then at New Savanna (2011). In 2015 I posted it to a “session” at I took some of my comments in that discussion along with some other materials and published the lot at as a working paper. In a final section I propose a four-fold division of literary criticism: 1) description, 2) naturalist criticism, 3) ethical criticism, and 4) digital criticism.

Thinking is action as well (in the brain)

June 12, Science News:
Summary: Neuroscientists have recently put forward an original hypothesis -- all these cognitive functions rely on one central function: emulation. This function creates an abstract dynamic 'image' of movements, thereby enabling the brain to strengthen its motor skills and construct a precise and lasting representation of them. The fronto-parietal network, it is argued, has evolved from a network that only controlled motor skills to a much more generalized system.
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This function creates an abstract dynamic 'image' of movements, thereby enabling the brain to strengthen its motor skills and construct a precise and lasting representation of them. The fronto-parietal network, it is argued, has evolved from a network that only controlled motor skills to a much more generalised system. This hypothesis, which is set out in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, would explain why patients who have suffered an injury in this specific part in the brain have sequelae that affect a number of functions which, at first glance, do not necessarily appear to be linked. This research could open the door to more effective multi-modal therapies for individuals with cerebral lesions.

Numerous functional imaging studies show that the fronto-parietal network is activated by very disparate tasks. This is the case for motor activities, such as picking up or pointing to an object, as well as for eye movements -- and even when no movement is involved, if we shift our attention or perform a mental calculation. Radek Ptak, a neuropsychologist at the UNIGE Faculty of medicine and the HUG Division of neurorehabilitation, puts it like this: "Why is the very same region important for so many different tasks? What is the relationship between motor skills, motor learning and the development of cognition in humans? These are the questions that lie at the heart of our research." A review of all the data currently available suggests that the tasks share a common process, which the scientists have termed "emulation." This process, which consists of planning and representing a movement without actually performing it, activates the brain network in the same way as real movements. "But we hypothesise that the brain goes a step further," explains Dr Ptak: "It uses such dynamic representations to carry out increasingly complex cognitive functions beyond just planning movements."

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Radek Ptak, Armin Schnider, Julia Fellrath. The Dorsal Frontoparietal Network: A Core System for Emulated Action. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2017; DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2017.05.002

Friday Fotos: Rainbow Variations on a Blossom

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Cooperative hunting among the orcas?

The orcas will wait all day for a fisher to accumulate a catch of halibut, and then deftly rob them blind. They will relentlessly stalk individual fishing boats, sometimes forcing them back into port.

Most chilling of all, this is new: After decades of relatively peaceful coexistence with cod and halibut fishers off the coast of Alaska, the region’s orcas appear to be turning on them in greater numbers.

“We’ve been chased out of the Bering Sea,” said Paul Clampitt, Washington State-based co-owner of the F/V Augustine.

Like many boats, the Augustine has tried electronic noisemakers to ward off the animals, but the orcas simply got used to them.

“It became a dinner bell,” said Clampitt.

John McHenry, owner of the F/V Seymour, described orca pods near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands as being like a “motorcycle gang.”

“You’d see two of them show up, and that’s the end of the trip. Pretty soon all 40 of them would be around you,” he said.

A report this week in the Alaska Dispatch News outlined instances of aggressive orcas harassing boats relentlessly — even refusing to leave after a desperate skipper cut the engine and drifted silently for 18 hours.
Sperm whales are getting into the act too. Here's a video of whales skimming a line:

"After a particularly heavy assault by sperm whales, fishers are known to pull up lines in which up to 90 per cent of the catch has disappeared or been mangled."

H/t Tyler Cowen.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Jeremy Lent on the Great Transformation

Imagining himself speaking in the year 2050, historian Jeremy Lent imagines how the world escapes climate catastrophe.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism (PDF at

I’ve finally PDF’ed my Open Letter to Dan Everett and uploaded it to Academia,edu:

An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism

Abstract: Literary critics are interested in meaning (interpretation) but when linguistics, such as Haj Ross, look at literature, they’re interested in structure and mechanism (poetics). Shakespeare presents a particular problem because his plays exist in several versions, with Hamlet as an extreme case (3 somewhat different versions). The critic doesn’t know where to look for the “true” meaning. Where linguists to concern themselves with such things (which they mostly don’t), they’d be happy to deal with each of version separately. Undergraduate instruction in literature is properly concerned with meaning. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has become a staple because of its focus on race and colonialism, which was critiqued by Chinua Achebe in 1975 and the ensuing controversy and illustrates the problematic nature of meaning. And yet, when examined at arm’s length, the text exhibits symmetrical patterning (ring composition) and fractal patterning. Such duality, if you will, calls for two complementary critical approaches. Ethical criticism addresses meaning (interpretation) and naturalist criticism addresses structure and mechanism (poetics).

Dan Everett & Me . . . 1
Haj’s Problem: Interpretation and Poetics . . . 1
Will the Real Shakespeare Stand Up . . . 4
Meaning in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness . . . 8
Pattern in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness . . . 13
Contexts of Understanding: Naturalist Criticism and Ethical Criticism . . . 21

Wonder Woman: A Quick Take

After reading the rapturous reviews and reading about young girls exiting the theaters pulling swords from their dresses and spinning lariats of glowing gold I decided to see Wonder Woman. And, yes, it was a good film. And, yes, it was still a superhero comic-book film, albeit with a grrl in the lead.

One of the fight scenes – I believe it was the first one – had me chuckling with glee. Gal Gadot was spectacular; hope she gets a raise for the next one, and profit participation. The trench warfare was appropriately grim – the War to Win All Wars, ha! And the film played nicely with Diana’s expectation that she would be fighting Ares. Her male sidekick tried to tell her it’s only a metaphor – which is surely what much of the audience was thinking as well. But, no, Diana insisted that he was real and that she’d fight him. And the film obeyed, pulling Ares out of leftfield for a final super-spectacular battle sequence (in the course of which boy sidekick sacrifices himself for the good of the cause).

And then there’s that final scene, back in the present, with Diana Prince in her office at the Louvre looking at a photograph sent to her by Bruce Wayne. It’s a photo taken at the front with Diana, male sidekick, and the others in their rag-tag gang. She’s thinking that only love can save the world.

She no doubt believes that. It may well be true. But that’s not what this movie is about. As contrarian economist Tyler Cowen observed, “Yet, immediately beneath the facade of the apparently rampant feminism is a quite traditional or even reactionary tale of martial virtue being inescapable.”

If you’re looking for a heroic woman warrior who fights with love, might I suggest Miyazaki’s Nausicaä? She’s good with a sword, but she also speaks with the animals and she’s a scientist. And, yes, she does save the world.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Jabba the Hutt, or How We Communicate

This post is now over six years old, but it's one of my favorites.

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(10.23.13) They're having an interesting discussion of conversational turn-taking over at Language Log (see the comment HERE). So I thought I'd dig out this three year old post which suggests that conversation is a bit like kids playing in a sandbox, or with blocks, or dolls. Everything is visible to everyone at all times. The trick is to coordinate movements as you move the toys around.

* * * * *

From my notes:
A number of years ago I saw a TV program on the special effects of the Star Wars trilogy. One of the things the program explained was how the Jabba the Hutt puppet was manipulated. There were, I think, perhaps a half dozen operators for the puppet, one for the eyes, one for the mouth, one for the tail, etc. Each had a TV monitor which showed him what Jabba was doing, all of Jabba, not just their little chunk of Jabba. So each could see the whole, but manipulate only a part. Of course, each had to manipulate his part so it blended seamlessly with the movements of the other parts. So each needed to see the whole to do that.

That seems to me a very concrete analogy to what musicians have to do. Each plays only a part in the whole, but can hear the whole.
I don’t know how long ago I saw that program, it may well have been pre-WWW, but certainly not pre-internet, which is older than Star Wars, or at least it’s precursor, ARPAnet, is older than Star Wars. In any event, you can now read about the puppetry behind Jabba at the Wikipedia and elsewhere (scroll down to Behind the Scenes). The above description is accurate enough for my purposes.

And that purpose is to provide a metaphor, not just for music-making, but for communication in general. In particular, for speech communication. The idea is to provide an alternative that thoughtful people can use to over-ride the pernicious effects of the so-called conduit metaphor, which Michael Reddy* analyzed as a pile of lexical habits we employ when talking about language. These habits presume that we communicate by sending meaning through some kind of conduit, whether real (e.g. a telephone line) or virtual (e.g. that air between two people talking). The person at one end of the conduit puts the meaning into a packet of language, sends the packet through the conduit. The other person takes the packet from the conduit and then takes the meaning out of it.

It doesn’t work that way, not the meaning part. What does go through the conduit is a speech signal, vibrations in air, analog or digital signals through electrical lines, characters written or printed on paper, and so forth. But the meaning isn’t actually IN the signal. If it were, then we could understand any language with ease because the meaning would be in the physical signal itself. Alas, that’s not the case. Meanings are linked to segments of the signal by hard-learned linguistic conventions; and the conventions are different for each language.

What happens, then, is that the listener construes the meaning of the signal according to their understanding of the overall context and their understanding of the governing linguistic conventions. The may or may not get it right. And there’s likely to be a bit of conversational negotiation before the speakers agree on whatever is at issue.

And that is what the Jabba metaphor is about. Everyone stands in the same relationship to what appears on the TV monitor showing Jabba’s movements. In the case of a musical group, each person is playing their own part – the drummer, bass player, tuba, glockenspiel, sitar, nose flute, pipe organ, whatever – and is aware of it and what they intend next. The monitor gives them the whole, in which their part must fit.

The case of speech is trickier, for one person speaks while the others listen. The Jabba metaphor suggests that the speaker doesn’t actually know what he or she is saying until he or she actually hears it spoken. And that just doesn’t make sense.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Tickle! Tickle! Magenta!


Extra! Computational Criticism Breaks with Tradition! Sky Remains Overhead

Andrew Goldstone has decided that perhaps so-called distant reading is not reading at all. The document is relatively short, “The Doxa of Reading” (PDF), and will appear in PMLA for May 2017. Goldstone takes “doxa” from Pierre Bourdieu (whom I’ve not read) who regards it “as what participants in the literary field take for granted.” What critics take for granted is “the assumption that the primary activity of academic literary study is textual interpretation.” Though Goldstone doesn’t say so, this wasn’t always the case, though it has been the case for the last five or six decades.

Bourdieu also allows for orthodoxy and heterodoxy, which stand in opposition to rupture. In Goldstone’s analysis–I refuse to call it a reading–the term “distant reading” functions as a heterodox form of reading and does so, in effect, to ward off the realization that it is not a form of reading at all but a rupture from reading. Goldstone’s analysis is both subtle and complex, just enough so that I’m not sure where he stands. But his penultimate sentence seems clear enough: “If we cease to regard the different versions of distant reading as a singular project [...] we gain a wider sense of the possibilities for scholarship.” I take that to mean in some version distant reading computational criticism really does point beyond “reading” and so to new modes of literary investigation.

In the course of his argument Goldstone considers the visual objects that have become a signal feature of so much work in computational criticism:
Looking back on the work of the Literary Lab in a recent pamphlet, Moretti asserts:
Images come first, in our pamphlets, because–by visualizing empirical findings–they constitute the specific object of study of computational criticism; they are our “text”; the counterpart to what a well-defined excerpt is to close reading. (“Literature, Measured” 3)
As an account of a quantitative methodology, this is a strange statement: visualizations are powerful exploratory tools, but they should be considered provisional summaries of the data of literary history, not primary objects. As a description of argumentative rhetoric, however, Moretti’s analogy between visualization and excerpt is illuminating. It positions the “computational critic” as an expert interpreter of visual texts, a heterodox version of the close reader.
He is correct. Those visual objects are not the “primary objects” of investigation. Yes, they are “exploratory tools”.

It seems to me that they have the character of observations (of the primary object of investigation). Think of the images created in radio astronomy; they make look rather like optical photographs, but they aren’t. The process through which they are constructed is different. The visual objects of computational criticism don’t look like photographs; they look like the charts and graphs that are ubiquitous in so many quantitative disciplines. But they have the same status in the intellectual process as those images of radio astronomy, that of observations.

It is through observations that a phenomenon of interest enters the investigative field. Observations as well have something of a descriptive character. Wouldn’t you know, description has recently become of interest in discussions of critical method and practice, along with “surface reading”.

And with that I want to turn to the aborted structuralist moment in the history of literary criticism. Jonathan Culler published Structuralist Poetics in 1975. In his preface he observed (xiv-xv):
The type of literary study which structuralism helps one to envisage would not be primarily interpretive; it would not offer a method which, when applied to literary works, produced new and hitherto unexpected meanings. Rather than a criticism which discovers or assigns meanings, it would be a poetics which strives to define the conditions of meaning.
Culler himself never followed up on the poetics he proposed, nor did others take him up on it. To be sure, we have narratology, a poetics of the narrative. But it is hardly central to the discipline as it has been practiced over the past half-century or so.

A turn to poetics would have been a rupture from emerging interpretive practices (aka reading). But then those practices themselves constituted a rupture from the practice of a discipline rooted in philology and (traditional) literary history. While interpretive criticism has its roots before World War II, it isn’t until after the war that it became the center of critical activity. As that happened interpretive practice became the focus of scrutiny, scrutiny that led, among other things, to the (in)famous structuralism conference that took place at Johns Hopkins in 1966. But the rupture that actually happened, was not a turn to poetics, but a turn to deconstruction. And if deconstruction was noisy and obstreperous at the time, in retrospect it is clear that it was not a rupture at all, but just a further variation on interpretive reading.

It remains to be seen whether or not computational criticism will flourish as a genuine rupture from interpretative reading, though not so much as a replacement as a supplement. If so, will it find common cause with a new poetics, one based on surface “reading”, description, and perhaps even the newer psychologies (cognitive, neuro-, and evolutionary)? Can we move beyond reading, not only in the analysis of large corpora, but in the analysis of single texts? And can we move beyond a meta language centered on notions of reading and space (close, distant, hidden, surface) to one based on the intellectual operations involved (among others, description, analysis, interpretation, explanation)?

* * * * *

Of course I've addressed these issues endlessly here and in my working papers. For a start, see this post from 3 Quarks Daily, “The Only Game in Town: Digital Criticism Comes of Age”, and in numerous blog entries and working papers (e.g. these working papers on description).

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Does "distant reading" presage a return to poetics?

By all means, read the piece Goldstone links to in the first tweet,"The Doxa of Reading" (accepted for publication in PMLA).

See this piece from 3 Quarks Daily (5 may 2014), The Only Game in Town: Digital Criticism Comes of Age.