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Archive for February, 2013

UNL professor leads collaboration to open 300 years of books for data analysis

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

In the 19th century, Britain was the world’s superpower, boasting a global empire of 10 million square miles and 400 million royal subjects. And British authors of the era reflected this supremacy, peppering prose with words of command and certainty — ones like always, never and forever.

At the same time in Ireland, writers echoed a different perspective in their books. With the Irish under the thumb of British rule, the nation’s scribes frequently used words that displayed inability or frustration — ones like almost, nearly or perhaps.

Matthew Jockers knows this to be a fact because it bears out in his computer-generated data: The University of Nebraska-Lincoln assistant professor of English has combined computer programming with digital text-mining to produce deep thematic, stylistic analyses in 19th-century literary works. He calls the data-driven process macroanalysis, and it’s opening up new methods for literary theorists to study classic literature.

“But what we don’t know is what happens after the turn of the 20th century,” Jockers said. “The 20th century, as we know, is when the British Empire deteriorates and the Irish gain independence. So do each country’s authors remain as they were in the previous century? Or if they do begin to change their approach, in what ways do they go about it? That’s the kind of question we can address — with access to proper data, that is.”

Now, thanks to an exclusive agreement between UNL and private company BookLamp, Jockers and research collaborators from several U.S. universities have the tools to begin uncovering the answers to that question — and many others. This new research collaboration will ultimately allow scholars to access and analyze book data from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

BookLamp uses digital tools to compare books by theme and writing style, suggesting other books a reader might like based on how closely they match previous reads. To power their algorithm, BookLamp works with publishers across the industry to analyze thousands of titles in its Book Genome Project, which it launched in 2003.

“We can learn a lot about ourselves by looking at the writings that have been published over the years as a whole, at a scale that’s been difficult to do in the past,” said Aaron Stanton, CEO of BookLamp. “We’re not providing access to data for individual books, but instead information that can help answer larger questions about changes in society over time.”

Jockers, who also is a fellow in UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, said that in scholarly circles, the arrangement signifies a big step forward: For years, digital researchers have had a difficult time gaining access to the results of digitally text-mined books from the 20th century, thanks to copyright and access issues. While BookLamp will not directly provide scholars with book texts or book-level data, it does provide corpus-level “anonymized” data that allows researchers to ask questions about key thematic and stylistic structures.

An example may be to query how often female writers used keywords related to traditionally male professions in the 1920s compared with, say, the 1980s, to track the changes in women’s literary roles over time, researchers said.

“Nearly everyone who does this kind of work focuses on the 19th century, because that’s all that’s been available in the digital format, outside of copyright,” Jockers said. “So unfortunately, we’ve been kind of stuck in time for a while. But this arrangement will help us clear that hurdle and we’ll be able to look more deeply into more modern works.”

Jockers leads the collaboration with digital literary scholars at Stanford University’s Literary Lab as well as Arizona State University. It starts with a two-year project involving data from BookLamp, as well as data from 18th- and 19th-century novels already compiled in Stanford’s Literary Lab.

Organizers have dubbed the effort the “Unfolding the Novel” project. Ultimately, they will consolidate 300 years of high-level book data to study long-term literary trends and patterns.

And in the 20th century, those patterns explode into a multitude of modern genres and open up a swarm of new research questions, Jockers said.

With the BookLamp-provided summary metadata, researchers could query information from a range of years — the 1950s, for example — and learn how many times a particular word was used in any of the new genres of the time, from detective stories to romance to science fiction. The text-mined results would shed new, data-supported light upon the various themes and styles authors employed in that decade.

One of the project’s initial queries will be to examine the words and stylistic elements that best allow scholars to distinguish between male and female writers, Jockers said. For example, in the 19th century, male authors were far more likely to use male pronouns than female ones. This indicates their stories were more masculine than those written by women authors, who used male and female pronouns more evenly during the same period.

“We’re interested to learn what happens to this tendency in the 20th century,” he said. “This is, after all, the period of liberalization, so the theory would be that women would begin writing more female-centered work. And, if these movements had any effects on the males, we should start to see a greater attention to the other gender in works by 20th-century men, as well. It will be interesting to see.”

The work of understanding and organizing data from 100 years of literature is long and difficult, Jockers said, much less 300 years of literature. But he said he thinks that he and his collaborators are inaugurating a game-changing, information-rich era of literary scholarship.

“The potential uses of this information are huge,” he said. “BookLamp has been a spectacular partner in the effort; they are genuinely interested in many of the same questions we are, and they are passionate in the pursuit of knowledge.

“The possibilities are practically endless.”

Contact: Matthew Jockers, assistant professor of English, 402-472-1896 or mjockers@unl.edu.

Expert alert: UNL’s Thimmesch on proposed state tax changes

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

In January, Gov. Dave Heineman proposed big changes to the state’s tax system, including the the elimination of the state’s corporate and personal income taxes. Other proposals would eliminate corporate taxes and make more limited changes to income taxes. Adam Thimmesch, assistant professor of law at the University of Nebraska College of Law, studies constitutional limitations imposed on state taxing power and instructs students on the structure and content of the tax system. As debate on the topic begins, we asked Prof. Thimmesch to analyze the proposals and provide us some food for thought.

Governor proposes dramatic changes to state tax system

In his State of the State address on Jan. 15, Gov. Heineman proposed sweeping changes to the Nebraska state tax system. One proposal would completely eliminate the state’s corporate and personal income taxes, while an alternative proposal would eliminate the corporate income tax but make more limited changes to the personal income tax. Both proposals include modifications to the state’s sales tax laws that are intended to offset the lost revenue from the income-tax reductions. The Governor should be applauded for putting tax reform at the forefront of this legislative session. With any major tax reform, however, many issues need to be considered. A few of those issues are discussed below.

Revenue Neutrality

The Governor has indicated that he wants his proposal to be revenue-neutral—meaning that the net taxes collected by the state after the modifications would be the same as they are today. The state’s income taxes currently raise approximately $2.4 billion, and, to achieve revenue neutrality, the Governor has proposed eliminating certain tax exemptions contained in the state’s sales tax laws. The particular exemptions that would be eliminated have been the focus of much of the early discussion regarding the Governor’s proposal. However, regardless of the specific exemptions ultimately revoked, it is assured that the proposal would result in certain Nebraskans paying less in state taxes and certain Nebraskans paying more in state taxes. How that burden would be allocated cannot be certain at this time, but we must be mindful of that factor.  Any sales tax increase will impact both the constituencies that are directly paying the new tax and others who will be indirectly impacted by that tax.

For example, the Governor’s proposal focuses on sales tax exemptions for manufacturers, agriculture, medical equipment and medicine, and purchases by exempt organizations (charities, churches, etc.). It is easy for people who are not in those industries to perceive that those tax increases will not impact themselves.  However, a sales tax increase on those organizations and industries would also impact their investors, employees, customers and the people that they serve—all of whom may be fellow Nebraskans. Like an income tax, the cost of a sales tax ultimately must be borne by some individual. Someone must pay for revenue neutrality. Thus, if the Governor’s proposal is enacted, it is clear that certain Nebraskans will end up paying more in state taxes even though they would be relieved of an income tax burden.

Distributional Effects of any Changes

One particularly sensitive aspect of the Governor’s proposal is how the additional sales tax burden would be allocated among Nebraskans of different income levels.  Of the state’s three major taxes (income taxes, sales taxes, and property taxes), only the income tax is a progressive tax. The state sales and property taxes, alternatively, are generally regressive.  (A progressive tax is a tax that consumes a higher percentage of a person’s income as his or her income increases. A regressive tax is a tax that consumes a higher percentage of a person’s income as his or her income decreases.) If the state is going to shift its tax burden away from income taxes and more heavily onto the sales tax, the tax system will likely become more regressive. When considering fundamental tax reform, then, we should be aware of the distributional effects of any changes and determine whether we are comfortable with those changes. We need to fund government with revenue some way. The question is how we want that burden distributed among our population. Do we want a state where lower-income residents pay a higher percentage of each paycheck in state taxes than do higher-income residents? Or do we not care about regressivity as long as those with higher incomes send more aggregate tax dollars to Lincoln than those with lower incomes?

Structural Impacts of any Changes

Eliminating the state’s income taxes would cause a systematic change to how we fund our government here in Nebraska. That proposal leads to several questions about the overall structure of our tax system.

First, are there benefits from having an income tax?

The state’s income taxes are certainly complex and impose costs on persons and organizations doing business in Nebraska. Eliminating those taxes would thus reduce compliance costs and out-of-pocket tax expenditures (ignoring, for the moment, the potential increased sales taxes paid by Nebraskans). Those are laudable goals, and economists and our legislators should analyze the likelihood of success for the Governor’s proposal on those metrics. However, regardless of those perceived benefits, we must recognize that the income tax does play a significant role in our current tax system. Two benefits are particularly of note.

First, having an income tax offers a broader base of taxation in the state, which gives it more flexibility in times of fiscal troubles. Eliminating the income tax would put more pressure on the legislature to fund the state by raising sales taxes. That may be a difficult task in recessionary times when consumer spending is down and the legislature otherwise wants to encourage spending. Second, income taxes help to offset the general regressivity in our current tax system. (This point is addressed more fully above.) Care should be given to determining how the additional sales tax burdens from the Governor’s proposal would be allocated among Nebraskans of different income groups and how that allocation reflects how we want to raise revenue in the state.

Second, is our sales tax system healthy enough to shoulder the burden?

Eliminating the income tax in favor of higher sales taxes would place greater emphasis on the proper functioning of our state sales tax. Therefore, another factor to consider is the overall health of our sales tax system and whether it is well designed to shoulder that burden. Our state sales tax was enacted in 1967. At that time, the economy was centered on the sale of tangible goods, and our sales tax system reflects that history. Currently, the Nebraska sales tax applies to the sale of goods and some services, but it does not apply to all services. This is one instance where the sales tax picks “winners and losers,” something that the Governor has specifically said that he wants to address with his reform proposal.  If we are going to be serious about reforming our tax system, and we are going to rely more heavily on sales tax, it makes sense to consider shoring up this structural deficiency. The state should also consider what actions it will take to protect its sales tax base from online retailers who do not collect and remit the state’s sales tax and from increased sales of digital products. Modernizing those aspects of our sales tax system could help the Governor to achieve his goal of revenue neutrality without wholesale eliminations of sales tax exemptions that have adequate normative support.

On the latter point, it is worth noting that most of the exemptions currently contained in the Nebraska sales tax laws are consistent with what tax experts would label an “ideal” sales tax and with the sales taxes enacted in other states. Elimination of those exemptions would thus cause our sales tax to diverge from those models. Consequently, in addition to the other issues discussed herein, our legislators must consider whether they desire to further diverge from an ideal sales tax system (and a system that provides exemptions like our neighboring states) to fund an income tax reduction.

Finally, should state property taxes be included in these changes?

Property taxes are largely a local matter.  However, state funding has an enormous impact on state and local governments and the taxes that must be collected via property taxation.  Any reform discussion should also include a discussion of the role of property taxes in Nebraskans’ overall tax burdens.

Conclusion

The coming weeks and months will undoubtedly see significant discussion regarding the Governor’s tax proposal. Much of that discussion will focus on the impacts of removing sales tax exemptions for certain industries or products, but a range of other issues should be also considered. Principally:

  • Who will ultimately bear the burden of higher sales taxes to fund the elimination of the corporate and personal income taxes?
  • Do we care about the regressivity of our tax system?
  • Should the sales tax be modified to become more modern and comprehensive rather than just eliminating exemptions (which may be normatively justified and allowed in other states)?
  • Should property tax reform be included in the discussion?
  • Should income tax reform, rather than elimination, be considered?

Contact: Adam Thimmesch, assistant professor of law, 402-472-4332, athimmesch2@unl.edu

UNL in the national news, January 2013

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

National media outlets featured and cited UNL sources on a number of topics in the past month. Appearances included:

Grace Bauer, English, was quoted Jan. 9 by TIME about the selection of Richard Blanco as President Obama’s inaugural poet.
http://go.unl.edu/pf8

Charlyne Berens, associate dean of the College of Journalism and Mass Communications, was sought out regularly in early January following the nomination of former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. Berens, Hagel’s biographer, wrote columns for TIME and Foreign Policy and was quoted by numerous outlets including The Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times and many others.
http://go.unl.edu/s8p
http://go.unl.edu/hzn
http://go.unl.edu/rx9
http://go.unl.edu/2qv

Wheeler Winston Dixon, film studies, was quoted Jan. 11 by Reuters about the persistence of horror films despite violent national tragedies. On Jan. 10, he participated in an online chat for Postmedia News of Canada on the year’s Oscar nominations.
http://go.unl.edu/d7p

Beth Burkstrand-Reid, law, was quoted Jan. 22 by Scripps-Howard News Service about the legacy of Roe v. Wade on its 40th anniversary.
http://go.unl.edu/d86

Lisa Kort-Butler, sociology, had her research into the content and messages of superhero cartoons featured in USA TODAY, the Today Show, Fox News, Canada.com and a number of other media outlets in early January.
http://go.unl.edu/5gq
http://go.unl.edu/0ea

James LeSueur, history, was quoted Jan. 17 by Bloomberg News on the geopolitical ramifications of a hostage crisis in Algeria.
http://go.unl.edu/rx6

Adam Liska, biological systems engineering, spoke Jan. 16 with NPR News about land use and whether Midwest land could support new biofuel refineries.
http://go.unl.edu/fd0

Richard Moberly, law, did a Q&A on Jan. 14 on the complexities of the Obama administration’s whistleblower policies.
http://go.unl.edu/7as

David Moshman, educational psychology, wrote a Jan. 6 column for The Huffington Post about the 25th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding schools and intellectual freedom.
http://go.unl.edu/k9r

Karl Reinhard, Earth and atmospheric sciences, had his and his students’ research into intestines featured on Jan. 28 by National Geographic News.
http://go.unl.edu/08j

Philip Schwadel, sociology, had his research into support for school prayer among various U.S. religious dominations over time featured by several outlets in early January, including U.S. News and World Report, Yahoo! News and NBC News.
http://go.unl.edu/hcb
http://go.unl.edu/p6p

Susan Swearer, school psychology, was quoted by a number of outlets in mid-January as part of her counseling role with Lady Gaga’s traveling Born Brave Bus Tour. Appearances included Q13 Fox News in Seattle and Rolling Stone.
http://go.unl.edu/u2d
http://go.unl.edu/twx

Matthew Waite, journalism, was quoted Jan. 13 by the New York Times in a column about guns, maps and data that disturb. On Jan. 15, the Times quoted him in a story about the New York State Legislature restricting access to gun permit data in the state.
http://go.unl.edu/78n
http://go.unl.edu/mde

Donald Wilhite, founding director of UNL’s National Drought Mitigation Center, appeared on C-SPAN on Jan. 16 as part of a panel discussion on the consequences of aridity and drought.
http://go.unl.edu/gig

This is a monthly column featuring UNL faculty and staff in the national news. National media often work with University Communications to identify and connect with UNL sources for the purpose of including the university’s research, expertise and programming in published or broadcasted work. Faculty, administration, student and staff appearances in the national media are logged at http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/

To offer suggestions regarding potential national news stories or sources at UNL, contact Steve Smith at ssmith13@unl.edu or 402-472-4226.