How (and Why) I Wrote My First Twitterbot

This week, I wrote my first twitterbot.

For a while, I’ve been interested in Twitter robots – not spambots that auto-follow everyone who mentions Justin Bieber, but those that do something interesting with language or online data, such as Metaphor-a-minute, which uses the Wordnik API to generate random metaphors, or Library of Aleph, which tweets captions (without the photos) from the Library of Congress’s photo collection.

I’ve wanted to create a twitterbot, but didn’t think of an idea until this week while listening to one of my favorite songs, Elvis Costello’s “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?”, and about to tweet (for the 2nd time) my favorite lines:

So where are the strong?
And who are the trusted?

It struck me that questions found in song lyrics could make a good Twitter account. Questions in song alternate between the profound:

– and the ridiculous:

A single line from a song can also be rich in memories and connotations. I now had my idea for my twitterbot.

How I Wrote It

There are a ton of “how to” options online. Because I want to learn more about Node.js, I chose this tutorial from Christian Paulsen to create the basic structure and functionality of the twitterbot.

Next, I needed questions. I put out a call on Facebook for my friends’ favorite questions from songs and ended up receiving more than 150 suggestions. I put all these into a text file and created a script that selects a random line and posts it on Twitter. If you’re interested in this sort of thing, I put the script on Github.

To automate posting the questions to Twitter, I downloaded LaunchControl, a small utility that lets you create and edit automated tasks on a Mac. Technically, LaunchControl just provides a GUI for Mac’s launchd process – see more here – but it makes launchd’s fairly confusing format much more readable. I have the script scheduled to run every three hours at the moment.

This process isn’t perfect – it runs whenever our computer is being used, but not if it’s asleep or off. So one of my next steps is to convert an old Mac into an always-on home server that can (among other things) run the Twitterbot 24–7. I’d also like to make the posting a bit less random by avoiding repeated questions too frequently or grouping some multiline questions together.

Overall, the project was very fast (started on Thursday night, finished by Saturday morning) and tremendous fun, and I’m collecting ideas for other bots. I’d like to try pulling texts from an API or a public domain source (Book of Common Prayer, perhaps?) for my next one.

Oh, and be sure to follow Lyrical Questions on Twitter.

The Illiterate Apostles?

Saint George Preca has been likened as a succe...

The notion of apostles as “illiterate” would have been a surprise to many throughout history. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

NPR recently interviewed Reza Aslan, a Muslim convert to Christianity who later left the church, but never lost his fascination with Jesus. He has a new book out about Jesus called Zealot.

Overall, I found the views expressed in the interview to be much more nuanced and considered than many of those from ex-Christians who write books about Jesus. In particular, his point that Jesus was crucified for sedition is a good one, though his following point that one should focus on the death of Jesus, rather than his birth, isn’t going to cause too many waves among practicing Christians. Those “in the know” have always recognized that Easter is more important than Christmas.

This part, though, about the education of the apostles and nature of the New Testament struck me as an example of someone applying anachronistic assumptions about authorship and literacy to ancient texts.

[The Apostles] were farmers and fisherman [sic]. These were illiterates; they could neither read nor write, so they couldn’t really espouse Christology, high-minded theology about who Jesus was. They certainly couldn’t write anything down. Instead the task of spreading the Gospel message outside of Jerusalem, of really creating what we now know as Christianity, fell to a group of urbanized, Hellenized, educated Jews in the Diaspora…

Some of the apostles were fishermen, certainly. Matthew was a tax-collector, but for most of them, we simply don’t know what their professions were. (I don’t know where he gets “farmers” from – none of the apostles are ever identified as farmers.) Considering the economy of 1st century Judea, “farmer” seems like a decent enough guess for their professions. On the other hand, Jesus spends much of his ministry in cities, and we learn in Luke 8 that his disciples included several wealthy women from prominent households.

Further, as Kenneth Bailey (among others) has written, “literacy” in the ancient Middle East was quite different than the skills we think of as “literacy.” The inability to read or write should not be confused as a measure of an ancient person’s education or intelligence. In  oral cultures, the ability to remember and recite is more highly valued than in our contemporary culture. The Pharisees, for example, believed that the oral traditions transmitted alongside the written Hebrew Scriptures were indispensable for correct theology. (This oral tradition was eventually written down as part of the Talmud.) It’s virtually certain that the apostles, like many other first century Jews, had large amounts of Scripture committed to memory. The New Testament implies that they did the same with Jesus’ life and teachings. (For example, Paul uses technical language from rabbinic educational methods to describe how he was taught about the resurrection.)

As far as the fact that others wrote down the Gospels and other early Christian letters, the New Testament freely admits as much. The use of secretaries and scribes was common in the Ancient Near East; we have records of prominent politicians and scholars discussing  their reliance on literate servants.

Finally, regarding the apostles’ abilities to “espouse Christology, high-minded theology about who Jesus was” – well, who could? Observing that the scribes of the New Testament were urban Hellenistic Jews doesn’t really explain anything. As I have written before, the ethical and theological content of the New Testament, written by a handful of authors from the same small circle of disciples in a very compact geographic area over a couple of decades, is unprecedented in human history. Matthew’s Beatitudes, Mark’s miracles, Luke’s parables, John’s high Christology (yet written in such simple Greek), Paul’s ethics and theology, the typological faith of the anonymous author of Hebrews, the powerful apocalyptic imagery of Revelation – is this output any less remarkable if we think the authors were Greek-speaking city dwellers?

How do we account for this sudden explosion of religious genius? It’s as if Gandhi, MLK, Billy Graham, and the Dalai Lama all went to the same kindergarten.

One final thought: a book about Jesus by someone named Aslan? If this guy were an orthodox Christian, no one would believe it.

Hey Dilbert: Don’t make fun of the unemployed.

Disclaimer: I take comic strips very seriously. Just ask my wife.

Dilbert (character)

Dilbert (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m a fan of the comic strip Dilbert by Scott Adams. Last year, it provided some much needed humor during an awful work situation. But yesterday and the day before, Adams decided to turn his mockery toward the long-term unemployed. He has introduced an unnamed character who has been “out of work for such a long time.” First, he’s depicted as falling out of a chair, because he can’t figure out how it works. In the second strip, he’s told that the corporate policy manual is kept “in the cloud,” so he looks up to the sky to find it. Basically, the guy is stupid, incompetent, and ignorant of anything resembling recent technology (if “the cloud” can still be considered “recent.”)

Hilarious. Adams manages to reinforce all of the worst stereotypes about long-term unemployment through a couple of not-very-funny jokes.

Recently, I was underemployed for about six months, working part time for a former employer and doing several freelance projects to make ends meet. During this period, I met many people who had been unemployed or underemployed for far longer. Several of them had been actively searching for work for years. I met most of them at a local organization called the Job Search Focus Group, which I highly recommend for anyone in Greater Cincinnati looking for a new job.

The long-term unemployed fell into a few different groups:

  1. The largest, by far, were people in their 50s and 60s who were far OVERqualified for the positions they were applying for. They kept losing out to folks in their 20s and 30s who, because they had much less experience, were much less expensive to hire.
  2. For others, their entire industry had imploded because of structural changes in the economy. They were struggling, not to learn new skills, but to communicate how their already-polished skills transferred to other fields.
  3. Finally, there were those who had been out of the workforce because of non-job-related issues, such as taking care of their family or dealing with an illness. In a few cases, illness had left the person unable to continue in their former line of work, so they were in the midst of reinventing their entire career. It takes most of us 20 or so years to prepare for our first career, so you might see how starting a second career might take some time.

According to Adams, such people can’t even be trusted to sit in a chair.

Most of Adams’ humor is directed toward people in power, such as managers and CEOs, toward annoying office habits that all of us encounter (and have been guilt of), or towards absurd figures like talking animals who want to take over the world. Here, Adams has chosen to laugh at someone facing an extremely difficult personal transition, one which our society regards as shameful, and emphasize that his shame is deserved because he is too stupid to hold down a job.

Adams began Dilbert while working at Pacific Bell in the 80s and early 90s, and he’s had a long relationship with United Media. Telecom and journalism have both been through major upheavals since the 1980s. How many people has Adams worked with who have faced long-term unemployment?

You might reply that Dilbert is a comic strip and that it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. I’m not so sure about that latter part. One of the strengths of humor is its ability to “speak truth to power.” Dilbert’s caricatures of clueless manager and selfish CEOs have resonated with millions because those are the people with the power. Posting a Dilbert comic on your office cubicle is a small, harmless way to coping with the absurdities of American office life. Humor exposes truths that are too difficult to talk about with a straight face.

In this case, instead of “speaking truth to power,” Adams has chosen to “speak mockery to the powerless.” And that’s not funny.