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From the Dictionary to a Book Called "Horse": The Surprising Complaints Against 6 Books

This week (September 24 through October 1, 2011) is the American Library Association's Banned Books Week, an "annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment." We've all heard about books like Lolita and The Awakening being banned, especially from schools, for overly sexual content; other books are banned—or at least challenged—for violence, curse words, being "obscene," or otherwise containing content deemed objectionable or dangerous. But some challenged books are more surprising than others...

1. Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary

You'd think a dictionary would be one of the least objectionable books possible, but even the classic Merriam-Webster, the standard for spelling bees across the country, was challenged last year. The Union School District in Menifee, CA, pulled the dictionary off shelves when a parent complained about the explicit definition for "oral sex." A committee of parents, teachers, and administrators was formed to review the Merriam-Webster, ultimately deciding to leave the dictionary available for use by fourth- and fifth-graders at Oak Meadows Elementary School, though parents can choose to have their children use an alternative dictionary.

2. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

by Anne Frank
One of the most widely read—and beloved—books discussing the Holocaust, Anne Frank's diary was actually challenged last year for "sexual material and homosexual content." After "a hailstorm of criticism online and...international attention" following reports that the book would no longer be used in Culpeper County, VA, schools, the superintendent said Frank's diary will remain part of English classes, but may be taught at a different grade level than previously.

3. Eyewitness Books: Horse

by Juliet Clutton-Brock
This book is one of the photo-packed "Eyewitness Books" meant to inform readers about a given subject; it's filled with info about the behavior and history of horses, including zebras and donkeys. It was challenged in 2004 at Smith Elementary School in Helena, MT, by a parent concerned that it "promotes evolution." The school kept the book on the shelves.

4. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
This economics smash hit was challenged in 2006 in Illinois' Northwest Suburban High School District 214. One board member, having only read excerpts of the Freakonomics online, objected to the book's argument that legalized abortion led to a lower crime rate. At a board meeting to determine the fate of Freakonomics and 8 other books, the original complainant was the only board member to vote for the books' removal from the reading list. To celebrate, Dubner and Levitt gave away 50 free signed copies of the book to District 214 students.

5. The Junie B. Jones Series

by Barbara Park
This kids series has been challenged more than once by parents. In 2006, Junie B. Jones and Some Sneaky, Peeky Spying was challenged in Wake County, NC, for not adhering to family and social values; parents have complained about other books in the series for Junie's spelling and grammar skills, or rather her lack thereof, her troublemaking, and her mouthiness.

6. Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan

by Todd Tucker
In a highly publicized situation in 2008, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) found an employee guilty of racial harassment for reading Tucker's book in a public area. The decision was surprising since the book—an account of a 1924 clash between Notre Dame students and Ku Klux Klan members—isn't favorable toward the Klan, but was still viewed as offensive to the employees black co-workers because it "related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject." (The initial complaint was based solely on the cover.) After first being ordered not to read the book in the presence of his co-workers, the employee later received a letter stating that "no determination could be made as to whether his reading choice was intentionally hostile," and no disciplinary action was taken. Following involvement by the ACLU of Indiana, IUPUI stated its "regret this situation took place" and its commitment to freedom of expression; according to the university, there is no record of the incident in the employee's file.

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Pop Culture
An AI Program Wrote Harry Potter Fan Fiction—and the Results Are Hilarious
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

“The castle ground snarled with a wave of magically magnified wind.”

So begins the 13th chapter of the latest Harry Potter installment, a text called Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash. OK, so it’s not a J.K. Rowling original—it was written by artificial intelligence. As The Verge explains, the computer-science whizzes at Botnik Studios created this three-page work of fan fiction after training an algorithm on the text of all seven Harry Potter books.

The short chapter was made with the help of a predictive text algorithm designed to churn out phrases similar in style and content to what you’d find in one of the Harry Potter novels it "read." The story isn’t totally nonsensical, though. Twenty human editors chose which AI-generated suggestions to put into the chapter, wrangling the predictive text into a linear(ish) tale.

While magnified wind doesn’t seem so crazy for the Harry Potter universe, the text immediately takes a turn for the absurd after that first sentence. Ron starts doing a “frenzied tap dance,” and then he eats Hermione’s family. And that’s just on the first page. Harry and his friends spy on Death Eaters and tussle with Voldemort—all very spot-on Rowling plot points—but then Harry dips Hermione in hot sauce, and “several long pumpkins” fall out of Professor McGonagall.

Some parts are far more simplistic than Rowling would write them, but aren’t exactly wrong with regards to the Harry Potter universe. Like: “Magic: it was something Harry Potter thought was very good.” Indeed he does!

It ends with another bit of prose that’s not exactly Rowling’s style, but it’s certainly an accurate analysis of the main current that runs throughout all the Harry Potter books. It reads: “‘I’m Harry Potter,’ Harry began yelling. ‘The dark arts better be worried, oh boy!’”

Harry Potter isn’t the only work of fiction that Jamie Brew—a former head writer for ClickHole and the creator of Botnik’s predictive keyboard—and other Botnik writers have turned their attention to. Botnik has previously created AI-generated scripts for TV shows like The X-Files and Scrubs, among other ridiculous machine-written parodies.

To delve into all the magical fiction that Botnik users have dreamed up, follow the studio on Twitter.

[h/t The Verge]

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Vivid Imagery Makes Poetry More Pleasurable, According to Psychologists
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Contrary to what English teachers led us to believe, most readers don’t judge poetry based on factors like alliteration and rhyme. In fact, a new study published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts suggests that vivid imagery (i.e. sense-evoking description) is what makes a poem compelling, according to Smithsonian.

To determine why some poetic works are aesthetically pleasing while others are less so, researchers from New York University and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany, had more than 400 online volunteers read and rate 111 haikus and 16 sonnets. Participants answered questions about each one, including how vivid its imagery was, whether it was relaxing or stimulating, how aesthetically pleasing they found it, and whether its content was positive or negative.

Not surprisingly, taste varied among subjects. But researchers did find, overall, that poems containing colorful imagery were typically perceived as more pleasurable. (For example, one favorite work among subjects described flowers as blooming and spreading like fire.) Emotional valence—a poem's emotional impact—also played a smaller role, with readers ranking positive poems as more appealing than negative ones. Poems that received low rankings were typically negative, and lacked vivid imagery.

Researchers think that vivid poems might also be more interesting ones, which could explain their popularity in this particular study. In the future, they hope to use similar methodology to investigate factors that might influence our enjoyment of music, literature, and movies.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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