Culturematic II: the nuts and bolts

(please read yesterday’s post before reading this one)

The point of the Culturematic is that it can “think” things we cannot.  

Barry Bonds and David Brooks, these two people are worlds away.  I would submit that there are virtually no naturally occurring circumstances in which their names would appear together.  

More to the point, they are disparate elements in a very diverse culture, so that even if we were to find these names sitting together, we would dismiss this as noise.  Actively making a conjunction between them?  Unthinkable.  No, really, I mean this literally: unthinkable.  

What I needed then was a simple program that would make random combinations.  I can’t program.  I don’t even know the basics of HTML.  (Sad, really, but there you are.)

So I was going to have to find one on line.  It took all of Saturday and most of Sunday, hunting first for the right search terms and then for the code.

Eventually I found The Virtual Professor.  This is a wonderful invention of someone at the University of Chicago Writing Program.  The VP creates spectacularly inflated pieces of academic rhetoric.  The author claims his/her intent is not rhetorical.  Hmm.

I lifted the code from TVP and I downloaded a trial version of Adobe Dreamweaver.   So now I was working with code I did not understand on a program I did not know.  

First, I replaced TVP noun list with the following

Noun = new Array();
Noun[0] = “Mel Gibson”;
Noun[1] = “Hulk Hogan”;
Noun[2] = “Bono”;
Noun[3] = “Barry Bonds”;
Noun[4] = “David Letterman”;
Noun[5] = “Hillary Clinton”;
Noun[6] = “Martha Stewart”;
Noun[7] = “Tyra Banks”;
Noun[8] = “Janice Jackson”;
Noun[9] = “David Brooks”;
Noun[10] = “Jon Stewart”;
Noun[11] = “Tom Ford”;
Noun[12] = “Oprah Winfrey”;
Noun[13] = “Arianna Huffington”;
Noun[14] = “Mos Def”;
Noun[15] = “LL Cool J”;
Noun[16] = “Mark Harmon”;
Noun[17] = “Bryan Singer”;
Noun[18] = “Judd Apatow”;
Noun[19] = “Jennifer Lopez”;
Noun[20] = “Jon Stewart”;
Noun[21] = “Malcolm Gladwell”;
Noun[22] = “Sean Combs”;
Noun[23] = “Christopher Hitchens”;
Noun[24] = “Graydon Carter”;
Noun[25] = “Kathy Griffin”;
Noun[26] = “Barbara Walters”;
Noun[28] = “Henry Kissenger”;
Noun[27] = “Skip Bayles”;
Noun[29] = “Joss Whedon”;
Noun[30] = “Johnny Depp”;
Noun[31] = “Francis Ford Coppola”;
Noun[32] = “Tom Cruise”;
Noun[33] = “Lorne Michaels”;
Noun[34] = “Diane Swayer”;
Noun[35] = “Katy Perry”;
Noun[36] = “Quinton Tarrantino”;
Noun[37] = “Madonna”;
Noun[38] = “JJ Abrams”;
Noun[39] = “Tina Fey”;
Noun[40] = “Charlie Sheen”;
Noun[41] = “Stephen Hawking”;
Noun[42] = “Natalie Portman”;
Noun[43] = “Hugh Laurie”;
Noun[44] = “Clay Shirky”;
Noun[45] = “Tiger Woods”;
Noun[46] = “Jay-Z”;
Noun[47] = “LeBron James”;
Noun[48] = “Jennifer Aniston”;
Noun[49] = “Howard Stern”;
Noun[50] = “Glenn Beck”;
Noun[51] = “Ryan Seacrest”;
Noun[52] = “Kenny Chesney”;
Noun[53] = “Robert Pattison”;
Noun[54] = “Cameron Dias”;
Noun[55] = “Stephanie Meyer”;
Noun[56] = “Stephen King”;
Noun[57] = “Sarah Jessica Parker”;
Noun[58] = “Lil Wayne”;
Noun[59] = “Julia Roberts”;
Noun[60] = “Brad Pitt”;
Noun[61] = “Richard Branson”;
Noun[62] = “Bill Clinton”;
Noun[63] = “Lady Gaga”;
Noun[64] = “Sandra Bullock”;
Noun[65] = “Simon Cowell”;
Noun[66] = “Pink”;
Noun[67] = “Dr. Phil”;
Noun[68] = “Beyonce”;
Noun[69] = “Taylor Swift”

Not a perfect list.  I was watching the English version of Being Human on Apple TV (my birthday gift) and who knows what effect this had.  Two days later, its clear to me that this list ought to have cast the net more widely than it does.  More sports heroes, politicians, journalists, captains of industry and so on.  I mean “Rupert Murdock,” how could I miss him?

I contemplated the idea that I should combine two names and a pretext.  So I added some pretexts or “modifiers.”  As with any Culturematic, I wasn’t really sure what it was I was trying to do.  As with any Culturematic, the idea seemed to be to “try it and see.”  As I noted in yesterday’s post, one of the output here was:

Lady Gaga and Glenn Beck struggle to establish a parent-child dynamic.

And I liked this a lot.  I could engage in the wildest thought possible and it would take me years and years to think of something so successfully strange.  (The simpler option would be to take one name, not two, from my noun list.  I didn’t test this.)

But was this combo when that was useful for any useful purpose?  That will take some conjuring.  I think it tells us at least that the postmodernists are wrong when they insist things have been draining of meaning.  If this were true, this output would be less strange, less distant, less hard to put out.  

Here is my list of pretexts.  They are a bit daft.  Again remember I was watching Being Human.  (They sound now like vaguely like David Letterman “top ten” lists.  But you have to try.)

Modifier = new Array();
Modifier[0] = “trying to persuade Les Moonves to back their new show”;
Modifier[1] = “trying to set up a Fair Trade Network in South America”;
Modifier[2] = “consider swapping identities”;
Modifier[3] = “have agreed to sing the National anthem at next year’s Superbowl”;
Modifier[4] = “are thinking about buying an African nation, a small one”;
Modifier[5] = “are starting up a hip little art gallery in the NYC meat packing district”;
Modifier[6] = “are breaking into a Hershey’s factor under cover of darkness”;
Modifier[7] = “eating together in a Paris cafe”;
Modifier[8] = “fighting for a place in line outside an Apple store”;
Modifier[10] = “sharing a Glee episode”;
Modifier[11] = “going to a Harley rally”;
Modifier[12] = “join forces to fight the power”;
Modifier[14] = “ask Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to fund their Tikibar”;
Modifier[15] = “working hard on their syncopated swimming routine”;
Modifier[16] = “take to a lighthouse in Newfoundland”;
Modifier[17] = “driving an Airstream to SxSW”
Modifier[18] = “struggle to establish a parent-child dynamic”;
Modifier[20] = “fighting the tyranny of big budgets”;
Modifier[21] = “consider swapping identities”;
Modifier[23] = “are thinking about giving up tenure”;
Modifier[24] = “consider swamping identities”;
Modifier[25] = “come up with a new peace plan for the Middle East”;
Modifier[26] = “wondering why all men can’t be brothers”;
Modifier[27] = “looking for a future on reality TV”;
Modifier[28] = “surfing the conceptual drift”;
Modifier[29] = “hoping for a show of their own on ESPN”;
Modifier[30] = “in a Paris cafe”;
Modifier[31] = “working the tension between nature and history”;
Modifier[32] = “looking for their own show on USANetwork”;
Modifier[33] = “deciding who has the upper hand”;
Modifier[34] = “think we’ve been a little hard on Tiger Woods”;
Modifier[35] = “wondering how we invented pop culture”;
Modifier[36] = “have had it up to here with ‘high’ culture”;
Modifier[37] = “riding the new train to Tibet, under protest”;
Modifier[38] = “can’t decide: Antigue Roadshow or Pawn Stars”;
Modifier[39] = “putting the industry in the culture industry”;
Modifier[40] = “are thinking of going all artisanal all the time”;
Modifier[41] = “, working on new concepts of civil society”;
Modifier[42] = “thinking someone should send Charlie Sheen a fruit basket”;
Modifier[43] = “committing to post-Hegelian criticism one day at a time”;
Modifier[44] = “trying to decide which one is the Other”;
Modifier[45] = “winning, duh!”;
Modifier[46] = “mining indeterminacy”;
Modifier[47] = “think there is really something rum about the academic world”;
Modifier[48] = “in a Paris cafe”;
Modifier[49] = “sky diving together”;
Modifier[50] = “Venture capital in the intellectual world”;
Modifier[51] = “are wondering, ‘that’s what you’re going with?'”;
Modifier[52] = “think it’s perfectly ok to answer a question with a question”;
Modifier[53] = “think it’s not too late for you to become an anthropologist”;
Modifier[54] = “are building their own Culturematic laboratory”;
Modifier[55] = “wonder if Austin is still as great as it used to be”;
Modifier[56] = “Outward bound”;
Modifier[57] = “believe in disinterested observation”;
Modifier[58] = “an anthropocentric experiment”;
Modifier[59] = “rocking the Dewey Decimal System”;
Modifier[60] = “want two of the roles in Being Human”;
Modifier[61] = “sharpen their chops as master story tellers”;
Modifier[62] = “are they commodified objects? Oh, come on!”;
Modifier[63] = “embrace corporeality?”
Modifier[64] = “looking for triumph in all the wrong places”
Modifier[65] = “famous, but still looking for their mooring”
Modifier[66] = “are not sure in all comes down to factual knowledge, after all”;
Modifier[67] = “still believe in the Red Sox”;
Modifier[68] = “thinking of staring a trailer court in the public sphere”;
Modifier[69] = “went off Starbucks well before you”;
Modifier[70] = “looking for hidden messages and the secret code”;
Modifier[71] = “opening their own digital agency”;
Modifier[72] = “searching for autonomous selfhood”;
Modifier[73] = “have heard some stuff about Area 51”;
Modifier[74] = “still waiting for the Wikipedia page”;
Modifier[75] = “fighting the effects of rank prejudice”;
Modifier[76] = “think LeBron should have stayed in Cleveland”;
Modifier[77] = “thinking about switching homes and lives”;
Modifier[78] = “switched at birth!”;
Modifier[79] = “struggle to remain civil”;
Modifier[80] = “well concealed Amtrak enthusiasts”;
Modifier[81] = “treats celebrity as a contagion”;
Modifier[82] = “exploring materiality in a digtal age”;
Modifier[83] = “learning the rules of a celebrity economy”;
Modifier[84] = “searching for a narrative sequence that does not require a car chase”;
Modifier[85] = “unsafe at any speed”;
Modifier[86] = “boldly embracing romantic inwardness”;
Modifier[87] = “two words; road trip now”;
Modifier[89] = “are not binary opposites”;
Modifier[90] = “still hoping for a chance in Triple A baseball”;
Modifier[91] = “taunting the abyss”;
Modifier[92] = “think Brazil is where the future happens”;
Modifier[93] = “wish that Gen Xers would just get over it”;
Modifier[94] = “really sick and tired of enlightenment rationalism”;
Modifier[95] = “speaking the unspoken”;
Modifier[96] = “mainstreaming marginal worlds”;
Modifier[97] = “knowing the unknowable”;
Modifier[98] = “assault the market place”;
Modifier[99] = “hoping for a spot on TMZ”;
Modifier[100] = “putting celebrity gossip behind them”;

So now the hard part.  How to change the Virtual Professor Code in order to make this Culturematic.  It’s really just horrible to admit to this.  I just kept making changes in the code with the hope of producing the output I was looking for.  The Javanese have a metaphor for stupidity: a water buffalo listening to a symphony.  Consider me so.  Here’s what I “did” to the code.

function Pootwattle(){

subject = pickAny(Noun);
object = pickAnother(Noun, subject);

bookref = pickAny(BookRef);
reviewverb = pickAny(ReviewVerb);

//The sentences are constructed here:

var PootSays = “” + subject + ” ” +
verb + ” ” + object + ” ” + objmodifier + “”;

var SmedSays = “” + objmodifier + ” ” + “”;

There must be several people out there who can do better than this.  Please do better than this!


I owe thanks to three inspirations for this exercise.  

First, to Bud Caddell for showing me that the spirit, indeed, the genius, of the Victorian inventor in contemporary guise.  

Second, to David Bausola, aka “zero influencer,” for his brilliant work creating, to use the fancy linguistics lingo, “syntagmatic chains out of paradigmatic classes.”

Third, to the Writing Program at the University of Chicago.  Please would you let me know the name of the author of this program. 

22 thoughts on “Culturematic II: the nuts and bolts

  1. Rick Liebling

    This is beyond awesome, and as someone with less programming skills/knowledge than you, I’m impressed with your effort. As diverse as that list of personalities is, they all do have something in common: they are all personal brands. I wonder what would be the result if you included corporate brands into the mix? Another layer of interesting with a result like: “Jay-Z and The Snuggie are committing to post-Hegelian criticism one day at a time.”

  2. Grant Post author

    Rick, thanks for your kind words! Yesterday’s post brought deafening silence, and I thought, “Yikes, is this just me? Is this an anthropologist thing?” Corporate brands, excellent idea. Pam and my brother in law, last night over dinner, were suggested we could put fashion types (genres) and food traditions (genres) into this “vegematic” and see what happens. Thanks again. Grant

    1. Rick Liebling

      It’s all about experimentation, but at some point I think you also run the risk of just creating Mad Libs. I’d also add that the ‘Culturematic” is really just the start of the process. The fascinating part would be to then go to the “Big Board” to track the rise of these disparate inputs and see where they both are hitting cultural touchpoints and develop an insight that could make their asymmetrical partnership viable.

      1. matthew

        I agree…this is just an opening experiment. But the work and the value of this is to focus the variables in some meaningful way so that you can get some discrete chunks of “information”.

        Run the Culturematic with 5 names that are similar and 1 or two that are disparate. Run it with sentences that are bubbling through culture right now and 1 or 2 that are more fringey.

        Again, I wrote a post on a similar theme… How to not be 93% Predictable

      2. Grant Post author

        big board positioning is an excellent idea! Could we measure the distance between these creatures and speed and direction of their movement through contemporary culture, if any. We really are going to need a laboratory!

        1. matthew

          I think you can make measurements in some ways between these “creatures”. It would be rough but you could make a sort of six degrees of separation metric between person X and person Y and then chart how those sentences which embody cultural memes intersect with the person X and person Y.

          For example if the person between Lady Gaga and Hilary Clinton is Andrew Cuomo. (Gaga went to Sacred Heart School in NYC, sister still goes there. Cuomo’s nieces attend the same school. Gaga’s mother and Cuomo’s sister are friendly)… you could make a case that Andrew Cuomo’s commentary on culture ripples in both directions towards Gaga and Clinton in terms of awareness.

          Just spitballing here. But I think that could be measured coarsely.

  3. Sailaja

    This might be interesting if you included key blogs, memes etc. In addition, why limit to simply ‘celebrities,’ there are those on the WWW that are influencers, but not really known by the mass public (ie their life is not captured on People magazine).

    What do you now plan to do with those outputs? How are you going to analyze those?

    1. Grant Post author

      this culturematic turns on recognition. And for general purposes you need very large celebrities in order to increase the possibility of recognition. But you’re right, you could do this for smaller communities. Would there still be discontinuity. I would think so.

  4. David

    You nailed it with “this culturematic turns on recognition”.

    Though, “syntagmatic chains out of paradigmatic classes” *does* has a ring to it.

    Over a chat with John Griffiths this week about Tarot cards, I asked him,
    what’s the best way to generate rare questions.

    It’s something I’m trying to build in Weavrs

    Here’s the plan – Weavrs sifting through their findings and post a relevant invented question to their blog.

    We had some fun with the process last year with the @Recipeer Twitter bot
    – remixing ingredients from Wikipedia in to serving suggestions in under 140 characters.

    It’s like using AI to invent questions for humans to answer instead of using AI to try and answer for us.
    With Weavrs, you’ll get to create the character type which will generate the type of questions you want.

    Any thoughts or references?

    p.s. Keep up the coding!

  5. Armando Alves

    Hi Grant,

    If no one shows up the next few days and delivers, i’ll be glad to code something up this weekend.
    Any more info besides what’s in the post?

  6. Chelsea

    Hey Grant,

    This isn’t really a response to the programming needs you have, but
    rather a way to test your own assumptions about what constitutes an unexpected

    As background, this game came from hours of boredom as a student, trying to avoid studying.
    Take two people (or objects or ideas) you think of as very different. Then go to Wikipedia
    and see how many links it takes you to get from one to another.

    For instance I just went from Lady Gaga to Glenn Beck in 6 Wikipedia jumps.

    Lady Gaga – Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – LGBT Rights Opposition – Christianity and Homosexuality –
    Christian Right – FOX News Channel – Glenn Beck.

    I find this helps you look through your assumptions as to what things you think are
    dissimilar, and try to see how to link them.

    A way to test your thinking.

    The real challenge is to come up with something that is impossible or takes someone forever to link.

    I challenge Grant, and everyone else to come up with the hardest (and thus most different)combination

  7. Cynthia Kurtz

    Hey, I love this. It is exactly the kind of catalytic provocation I like to use in my work in organizational and community narrative. Three comments: (1) Why not include some historical people? Why not get Napoleon and Abe Lincoln in there? (Also some of us out-of-it non-tv-watchers don’t know who half the people in the pop celebrity pantheon are …) (2) I program and would be willing to help out with this project, a little. So if you want help send me a note! (3) I wrote a long and probably boring paper about playing with social simulations for this very purpose (available at

    Cynthia Kurtz

    PS I can’t remember why I have your blog in my reader thingy, but I was looking over your pages here and on the “Consulting” page I found this funny typo: “I can the CEO a short-course on American culture” which may be hilarious but is probably not the message you intend to transmit? 🙂

  8. Dylan Thomas


    I just came across these posts and I think its an intriguing way to crank out “more interesting” thoughts.

    We met briefly at Planningness about a year and a half ago. I admire your work and would love to contribute my programming and planning knowledge to building a more robust Culturematic. Drop me a line if you would still like help.

    –Dylan Thomas

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