Violence & American Politics In 2015

hand gun dark
Yesterday’s shooting in San Bernardino, CA has drawn out entirely predictable political reactions. Much of the political left used the shooting as an opportunity to bring attention to horrifying statistics about American domestic gun violence, ultimately proposing that the appropriate prescription is increased gun control at the federal level. The political right—including proponents of the Second Amendment and the NRA—generally seem to see domestic gun violence as a complicated social problem that, at best, won’t be solved by simply increasing the government’s involvement in weapons regulations, and at worst might introduce tricky & unintended consequences. One of their proposals is to increase funding for mental health programs.

Regardless of where you stand on this debate, I can’t help but notice that when a disaster like this occurs and gets immediately linked to a terror organization like ISIS, the same parties jump to completely opposite conclusions. In these cases, the political right asserts that our “national security” is in jeopardy, and that the only solution is to increase the power of federal secret spy agencies and to take a more aggressive line in our foreign policy. The political left cites civil liberties, privacy, and the Fourth Amendment as reasons to not have the government more involved in a situation where increased activity comes with minimal upside.

There are nuances that I’m ignoring here, but I don’t think I’m being unreasonable by illuminating this strange contradiction. One side will demand an immediate government solution to the violent case that fits their narrative, but they’ll vehemently fight back against government solutions if the violence is of a slightly different flavor. If you pay attention to the news cycle you’ll have noticed this pattern by now, and we’ll undoubtedly see more of it during the next mass shooting or ISIS-inspired attack.

And of course, no long-term resolution ever comes from these debates, mostly because nobody is actually looking for a true “resolution” in the first place. No effective compromise can be reached because all sense of reason, compassion, and cooperation has been completely abandoned in favor of individual, religious, party, and corporate interests. In 2015, violence is simply an excuse to yell loudly and accelerate your agenda. Whatever happened to simply “being the change you wish to see in the world”?

I often wonder why it has to be this way. If we really want to build a brighter future for ourselves and all of our children, human egos must find a way to submit to that common objective. The time horizon for our goals should be much further into the future than it is now. We won’t end (gun) violence next year, but over the next 100-1000 years it is absolutely a goal worth aiming for.

Politically, I don’t have answers. There are far too many interests and stakeholders in this game for my hippie head to handle.

But it seems painfully obvious to me that spiritually, we could really use a renaissance.

Cecil the Lion: Wait a Minute, Guys…

They killed this lion

They killed this lion

Something is weirding me out about all of the outrage on social media directed towards a hunter who killed a lion in Zimbabwe. It’s not that I think that the killing was justified, or even that the outrage is *wrong* to begin with. I always think it’s strange when people purposefully engage in violence just for the hell of it.

But I think it’s worth examining our outrage. Why do we choose to illuminate this story as opposed to the other horrifying and preventable atrocities that happen in the world every day—atrocities that happen to human beings just like us!

I’m publishing this post at the risk of being perceived as self-righteous, opportunistic and unsympathetic, but that’s not what I’m trying to do here. I’m writing this to illuminate the fact that people get weirded out by the idea that their priorities might be out of whack. And people usually respond to weird feelings by getting defensive. Go up to somebody at a party and suggest that people might care too much about lions and not enough about human beings; I’m sure it’ll go over well.

But…isn’t that what’s really going on here? People are prioritizing the plight of animals over humans by choosing to express outrage at this incident instead of towards other things higher up on the priority list. It’s like my mother screaming at me for not cleaning my room while I’m sitting here reading a book or doing homework. “Wait a minute…what’s more important here?”

What’s higher up on the priority list in America? How about:

American aggression, including war and drone strikes
American domestic spying programs
American-sponsored torture programs
The tangled mess of American inner-city poverty cycles, police brutality, and the War on Drugs

Those are all issues that I find exponentially more outrageous than what this guy did to the lion.

And I’m not saying that what this hunter did is excusable! I’m not even suggesting that people should be ashamed about how this incident makes them feel. I’m just saying that if it’s possible for people to muster up so much outrage at something as inconsequential to humanity as a guy violently slaying a lion, then it should be possible to muster up much *more* outrage at problems that are actually more outrageous and consequential in the first place.

Politicians pay attention to what the people are upset about, which can ultimately drive the changes we need to make the world a better place.

What are we *really* upset about, and why? This is the conversation that we should be having. So I asked my friends about it, and this was the response that made the most sense:

thread thoughts on apathy cecil lion blurred

I think that apathy is dangerous, and for that reason I think the whole idea of mass outrage is worth examining (which is why I wrote this post in the first place). Outrage is necessary and serves a purpose. Without anger, there’s no instinct to drive change.

But are we really giving up on the important issues because we haven’t figured them out yet? Do we really identify more with African lions than we do with Iraqi children?

(I don’t have the answers, but I think these are the important questions)

Opportunity Cost and Personal Philosophy

I found this somewhere on Google Images

I found this somewhere on Google Images

I wish more people evaluated their actions, thoughts and feelings in terms of opportunity cost.

In microeconomic theory, the opportunity cost of a choice is the value of the best alternative forgone, in a situation in which a choice needs to be made between several mutually exclusive alternatives given limited resources. —Wikipedia

How about a definition in layman’s terms?

Opportunity cost is the value of the next best thing you give up whenever you make a decision. —Simple Wikipedia

Thinking about opportunity cost forces you to look at what you’re doing and compare it to what you *could* be doing.

For example, when you build a parking lot on a piece of land, part of the opportunity cost is *not building* a bar, an office building, or an apartment complex on that piece of land.

Think about the opportunity cost of your thoughts. When you focus your thoughts on your personal narrative, your problems, or your enemies, the opportunity cost is all the time you don’t spend thinking about your career, your skills, other people, or social issues that impact all of us.

Listen, I claim no moral superiority. I’m just some guy, and these are just my ideas that I post on the website I pay for. But thinking this way has helped me to keep things in perspective. It keeps me honest with myself about how I spend my time.

“Right now, am I really spending my time in a way that is consistent with my value system? How am I justifying it?”

Of course, how you rationalize your actions is ultimately up to you. Some people take this to the extreme by holding a very narrow value system and focusing all of their efforts toward one particular goal. The key is to spend time contemplating, questioning, and constantly refining your value system and justification mechanisms. I’ll bet they change over time—that’s life.

And it’s important not to be hard on yourself. Don’t beat yourself up over mistakes. Mistakes are another part of life, and it’s a shame that our society places such a stigma on failure because it’s the only way towards personal growth and development. Perfection is not the metric of success–impact is. To be flawed is to be human.

However, our flaws can be minimized with some contemplation and meditation. And if you still get “bored” in today’s world (and you have a functioning Internet connection), that’s probably a signal to look inward and reevaluate your value system.

Time has always been our most scarce resource. Never in the history of the world have we had more unrestricted access to information, and information is power in this Information Age—power that can be utilized to make the world a better place for all of us. And if your goal is to make the world a better place then watch out, because the opportunity cost of boredom, self-centeredness, and ego is only growing larger as time marches forward.

And if your goal isn’t to make the world a better place…then what is?

July 4th Post: The Inner Critic, Conflict, and Dissent in America

In therapy, they tell you to “silence the inner critic”—the idea being that the source of your problems is the voice inside your head that constantly criticizes everything you think, feel, and do.

I’ve found this to be an incomplete prescription. While a dysfunctional inner critic can drive you mad, it doesn’t mean that you should completely ignore it. The inner critic serves an important function in motivation, critical thinking, creativity, and personal growth.

Who cares? Well, I’ve been through therapy, and I think the most valuable thing about it is that it forces you to seriously think about what your inner critic is telling you and explore the reasons for why it might be saying those things in the first place.

The key is the second part—reflection and contemplation about the ways in which you criticize yourself can be a very rewarding exercise. The process can help you to notice things about yourself that you might have otherwise ignored—insight that forces you to look at what you’re doing wrong, to feel bad about it, and to ultimately make change for the better.

You’ll find that in some scenarios, the inner critic is off base, and this is because your perception of reality is simply inaccurate. If your inner critic is telling you that you’ll never be a good enough student to get into graduate school, but your GPA has never been below a 3.8 in your life, then you’ll have to delve into the details of why your inner critic is saying something that obviously contradicts objective reality. Usually this happens because your feelings and emotions are misfiring, and they need to be calibrated back in line with reality through guided therapy.

However, to think that you should completely silence your inner critic is missing the point. Your fear of not getting into graduate school likely fuels your excellent academic performance, and for this reason it is valuable. If getting into graduate school is a priority to you, then your inner critic is performing an important and necessary function. It only becomes a problem when you realize that you’re afraid of missing out on grad school because your parents have expected it of you for your entire life.

What just happened there? You listened carefully to what your inner critic has been telling you, and then you took the next step and asked yourself why it was saying that in the first place. And fortunately, you finally found the answer. It may not have been the answer you wanted—realizing that you’ve been doing things for the wrong reasons can be traumatic—but you’ll never grow or improve yourself if you only find the answers that you’re looking for.

This point can be generalized to a macro scale. In the United States, I think we focus too much on silencing the inner critic, rather than listening closely to it in order to make improvements for the better. The idea of “patriotism” can be a dangerous thing if it means that patriots must always blindly support their government and its policies. Pride and patriotism can be interpreted as our collective, protective ego that forces us into the pleasant delusion that America has no flaws. Too often, we interpret American dissent as Anti-Americanism, while in reality a thoroughly thought-out dissension that goes against the common narrative is one of the bravest and most patriotic positions a person can take.

Think of it this way: when your close friend tells you that you have a drinking problem, what is your reaction—do you take it personally and make your friend feel bad for hurting your feelings, or do you thank your friend for being honest and looking out for you? When your history professor talks about the Holocaust, do you get upset at him for being a downer and triggering unpleasant emotions, or do you treat the situation as a time for reflection and learning?

I’ve found that, too often in American life and politics, we look at conflict not as a place for connection, growth and intimacy, but as a place for ego, anger and rage. We’d rather avoid conflict in the short term at the expense of facing, addressing, and fixing real problems that will almost certainly damage us in the long term. This needs to change.

There is reason to be optimistic. We live in an era of unprecedented information flow and communication that has fueled more scientific progress, human connection, and creative expression than ever before in the history of the world—all thanks to the free and open Internet. But we need to be careful that we don’t sacrifice all of it because we were too proud of ourselves to even entertain the thought that it was at risk in the first place. And this freedom is most certainly at risk.

What does this mean? It means that we have to embrace dissent, disagreement, and conflict in our lives. Acknowledging conflict is the first step to conflict resolution. And in order for this to happen, it means embracing and loving other people. It means following the golden rule: treating others as you would want to be treated—not just your family, friends, and fellow Americans, but everybody. Making choices that are motivated by compassion and empathy for *every* human being is the only way that we can collectively move towards a more peaceful and prosperous world. And you can help by personally making the choice to be the change you want to see in the world.

American Sniper: Avoiding the Justification for War

***SPOILER ALERT. You’ve been warned.***

This weekend I saw American Sniper for the first time. I’m not much of a movie guy, so I hadn’t ever expected to devote 133 minutes of my life to this film, but I found myself in a situation where I was spending time with family and they wanted to watch this flick, so I went with along with the situation and gave it a viewing.

I’d heard a lot of chatter about the movie in the media even though I never planned on watching it. Some people criticized it as being a pro-war propaganda film. Others praised it as an emotionally-charged character study of an American soldier and his personal struggle in war. Personally, I was hoping that it addressed war from an angle that raised questions about its necessity, legitimacy, and justification.

Unfortunately, I came away feeling that the film left those questions on the table and instead focused completely on Chris Kyle’s personal experience with war.

I did a quick “Ctrl-F” search of the movie script for the word “why”. The word appears 12 times, though only a few times does the word appear in the context of an existential questioning of war itself. I took the four situations and printed them in the photos below:





I’ll spare the analysis here—these scenes scratch the surface of existential war questions, but they are always shrugged off with a “patriotic” justification, or laughed off to avoid contemplation.

Cause it’s the greatest country on earth and I believe it’s worth protecting.

I love to gamble, man. Love those dice.

I do it for you. To protect you.

Without this, there’s nothing.

We gotta take care of our own.

Of course, blind and unquestioning patriotism has been the formula for government propaganda since the dawn of the state. Just ask Hermann Goering, as quoted in Gustave Gilbert’s Nuremberg Diary:


To try to understand why somebody might disagree with the dismissal of American Sniper as pro-war propaganda, I did some searching and stumbled upon this review from Erik Kain on Forbes titled, ‘American Sniper’ Isn’t Pro-War Propaganda.

Here are some of the key takeaways from Kain’s review:

Kyle isn’t interested at all in the politics. He’s so gung-ho in his conviction he very nearly destroys his marriage. He’s also very nearly overwhelmed by PTSD, until he finds a new purpose after the war in assisting other veterans. This is a film that doesn’t bother much with the big-picture stuff. It zeroes in one one man, one soldier, and his struggles.

[American Sniper] portrays an ugly and frightening war from the perspective of someone who believed deeply that what he was doing there was just and right. Whether you think the Iraq war was just and right is another question entirely and one that this film only brushes up against, but never faces head on. There are other films that tackle that question. American Sniper is not one of them.

The problem I see is the politicization of criticism. Rather than view the movie on its own merits, many are using it as a tool to further their own political causes—or to signal their approval/disapproval of certain politics to their chosen tribe.

But good art transcends politics. We can, or should be able to view even a film that has truly hideous politics as a great work of art.

How is it possible to take a movie about war–one of modern humanity’s most abhorrent and shameful defects, comparable to genocide and torture–and separate it from the politics of war? Art is inseparable from the political; separating the two only serves as a means to avoid a difficult and important conversation about the consequences of our flaws. And avoidance is nothing more than a coping mechanism–a way to deal with a traumatic reality in the short term by punting the push for a solution to a later date.

“The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” —George Orwell

Are we really supposed to suspend our disbelief and forget about why we’re fighting in the first place, only for the sake of “getting” and enjoying this movie? Does the “artistic value” of American Sniper really transcend the politics of war? I would submit that this is impossible; simply accepting war as an inevitable reality is, as JFK put it so beautifully, a “dangerous and defeatist belief, leading to the conclusion that mankind is doomed — that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.”

What’s more important: enjoying a war movie, or the conversation about why we wage war?

“Our problems are man-made, so they can be solved by man.”

We MUST aim for peace in the long term, however “naive” and hopeless it might seem in the short term. And as the nation with the most power and influence on earth, America has the greatest responsibility to set an example as a peaceful and compassionate nation in order to make the world a better place. Instead of utilizing our power as a weapon to be wielded as to further exert and expand our dominance, we should take the opportunity–the *responsibility* that comes with so much power–to show the rest of the world that we are not afraid, that we are not paranoid, and that humanity has the capacity to resolve conflict without resorting to violence.

“If you don’t like what is being said, change the conversation.”
Don Draper

Instead, American Sniper rejects this idea by focusing the conversation onto the unquestionable inevitability of violent conflict–a conflict that the United States has initiated and continues to pursue, with no objective, endgame, or conclusion in sight. In this sense, American Sniper cannot be viewed as an advocate of compromise, peace, and human compassion–it ignores the ideas altogether. Consequently, by assuming and accepting the inevitably of a senseless and endless violent conflict, American Sniper serves as a damnation of humanity as powerless to ever overcome it.

Playing With Paint.NET: Photos From Europe

The other day I downloaded Paint.NET to upgrade from the bare-bones photo-editing capabilities of MS Paint. Initially, I only needed the transparency feature so I could make some additions to my speech collages, but last night I found myself playing around with some of the other features on some of my photos from Europe.

Some turned out pretty neat, and others not so much. But I think it’s fun to put your own touch on a photo, even long after it’s been taken.

My favorite photo of the Eiffel Tower

My favorite photo of the Eiffel Tower

Me at the Eiffel Tower

Me at the Eiffel Tower

Eiffel Tower

Eiffel Tower

Eiffel Tower

Eiffel Tower

Our new friend from the Swiss Alps

Our new friend from the Swiss Alps

Zurich, Switzerland at sunset

Zurich, Switzerland at sunset

Our group, waiting in line for the Palace of Versailles

Our group, waiting in line for the Palace of Versailles

Me in a London phone booth

Me in a London phone booth

Our friend, pondering life

Our friend, pondering life

Marty in Belgium

Marty in Belgium

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”

Me at the Palace of Versailles

Me at the Palace of Versailles

London to Amsterdam

London –> Amsterdam

An angel from the National Gallery in London

An angel from the National Gallery in London

I think I’ll continue to develop my computer graphics skills; it’s not like computers are going away any time soon.

Data Art Project: 2016 U.S. Presidential Candidate Campaign Kickoff Speeches

(all the files I used for this project, including text files of the speeches, can be found here on GitHub)

After making collages for political speeches from American history, I had the itch to apply the same concept to current events. The idea here is to see if looking at the context of frequently-used words in modern-day speeches can give us a new angle on a candidate’s message, without wasting time sifting through rhetoric and fluff—a “Cliff’s Notes” version, but with a new twist.

For this project, I made a collage for each of the 2016 US Presidential candidates’ campaign kickoff speeches.

From this angle, we can look at the similarities and differences between candidates in their approach to the same prompt: a speech to declare their candidacy and rally citizens behind their cause. By assuming that the words used most often in a speech are significant, we can look closely at what each candidate chooses to highlight in their speeches, and how it differentiates each of them from their competition.

Can you quickly tell what separates the candidates? What is their message or unique value proposition? Do these images confirm what you already believed, or did you come away with a different impression of the candidate than you had previously? Do the candidates actually say anything substantial with their speeches, or is the rhetoric hopelessly vague and a giant waste of time?

There isn’t any (conscious) political agenda behind this—I don’t particularly like any of the candidates, though I appreciate the (relative) honesty of folks like Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul, and I’ve been critical of Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush on this blog before. But in general, I think that we should force our politicians to be more precise in how they talk to us, in how they talk to each other, and in how they decide and justify policy. We live in the era of big data where our government collects and analyzes massive amounts of data on its citizens—it’s only fair that we turn the tables back onto them by creatively using data, math, and analytical methods to hold them accountable for what they say and do during their time in office.

Anyway, here is the distribution of speech lengths, measured in words (before filtering out stopwords):


Here are the top ten most common words across all speeches after filtering out low-content stopwords. This is measured as an average to standardize for the fact that some speeches are longer than others. For example, after filtering out stopwords, “america” was, on average, 1.02% of the remaining words in each candidate’s speech.


And here is the collection of collages (click on them to make them larger):

Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz

Rand Paul

Rand Paul

Mike Huckabee

Mike Huckabee

Martin O'Malley

Martin O’Malley

Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio

Lindsey Graham

Lindsey Graham

Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

George Pataki

George Pataki

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders

There’s probably room for more mathematical analysis here, as opposed to my visualization-heavy exploratory approach. But I do think the collages have the advantage of being interpretable to folks who might not understand the math-heavy world of machine learning and word2vec models.

Coding Skills

Coding skills are a toolbox for building tools for your brain.

I can use coding skills to visualize data.

I can use coding skills to build tools that automate tasks and save time (I did this for my internship, see my resume).

I can use coding skills to look at things from new perspectives.

I can use coding skills to create new forms of artistic expression.

I can use coding skills to perform complex mathematical computations and drive analysis.

I can use coding skills to be better informed and equipped in order to contribute to the global human rights debate that is becoming increasingly intertwined with technology and data.

I can use coding skills to understand what some other people do for a living, respect their craft, and empathize with their challenges and successes, ultimately making me a better person.

Coding is more than a job. It is more than a niche. It gives you the power to create new ideas and solve new problems. Coding skills give you access to the latest and greatest, and they provide you with the means to improve upon it. Coding skills are the secret of the modern-day polymath.

The Other America, MLK, and Baltimore Riots

My concordance collage of text from MLK's speech, "The Other America"

My concordance collage of text from MLK’s speech, “The Other America”

The Baltimore Riots are all over Twitter, and I’m trying to find a way to understand it all. Protests have turned violent, and there are a lot of people quoting and referencing MLK’s non-violent strategy for social change.

I did a Natural Language Processing art project on MLK speeches the other day, and while I was doing it I read through some of his speeches to try and get a sense of what he was ultimately communicating. While he does preach non-violence and peaceful protest in much of his rhetoric, he also isn’t afraid to acknowledge where violent anger comes from, as he does in his 1967 speech The Other America:

highlighted text

“A riot is the language of the unheard.”

Because without the violence, would there any media coverage? Would anybody actually pay attention? I doubt it.

Here are cold, hard statistics about life in Freddie Gray’s hometown:

baltimore poverty and community statistics

Here is a September 2014 investigation by the Baltimore Sun about police brutality.

Another man has been killed by the police, and there’s still no update from authority about consequence for those responsible. These people are angry and they can’t take it anymore. And nothing that they’ve done peacefully has worked to drive change.

At this point, can you really blame them?


David Simon (creator of The Wire) has a take. The comments section is also worthwhile
Hillary Clinton publicly addresses the issue of mass incarceration after Baltimore riots
Riots as a form of “Altruistic Punishment”
How the New York Times favors the police when reporting on this story
How somebody is leaking false narratives through The Washington Post
Bob Lefsetz writes my favorite email newsletter, and these are his thoughts on Baltimore


It appears that the six officers have been charged with a variety of crimes

This Vox explainer does a good job of outlining the charges

Rearranging MLK Speeches With Python and MS Paint

Martin Luther King, Jr. at his "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC

Martin Luther King, Jr. at his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC

EDITED TO ADD: I’ve shared all the code and files that I used for this project up on GitHub here.

Around 75 minutes into Armin van Buuren’s ASOT: 700 set at Ultra, he played a track that mixed in a clip of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at his Drum Major Instinct sermon, which he gave in February of 1968. Here is the portion of the sermon that Armin cued:

“And I would submit to you this morning that what is wrong in the world today is that the nations of the world are engaged in a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy. And if something doesn’t happen to stop this trend, I’m sorely afraid that we won’t be here to talk about Jesus Christ and about God and about brotherhood too many more years. If somebody doesn’t bring an end to this suicidal thrust that we see in the world today, none of us are going to be around, because somebody’s going to make the mistake through our senseless blunderings of dropping a nuclear bomb somewhere. And then another one is going to drop. And don’t let anybody fool you, this can happen within a matter of seconds. They have twenty-megaton bombs in Russia right now that can destroy a city as big as New York in three seconds, with everybody wiped away, and every building. And we can do the same thing to Russia and China. But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. “I must be first.” “I must be supreme.” “Our nation must rule the world.””

I don’t think anybody would disagree that this is strong and somewhat inflammatory language from Dr. King. So why did Armin van Buuren play this during his Ultra set? For a guy who has been accused of selling out his music for popularity and stardom, why take such a risk by playing something political that might induce controversy? To be honest with you, this was the most shamelessly direct political message that I’ve ever seen or heard at an electronic music event.

So I did some research.

Obviously I am familiar with Dr. King and his importance to the Civil Rights Movement; he has a national holiday named for him, after all, and we learned about him in school. But I didn’t realize that, towards the end of his life and after focusing much of his efforts towards domestic civil rights issues, he ventured into anti-Vietnam War rhetoric.

I also didn’t realize how much FBI surveillance had been placed on MLK. Apparently, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was so paranoid that MLK had “communist connections” that he utilized almost every resource at his disposal in an effort to neutralize the perceived threat. This included a scathing, threatening, and inflammatory anonymous letter to MLK hinting him towards suicide. It’s disturbing to think that people within our own government could be capable of this, but it’s a part of our history that we should own and acknowledge.

After reading through some of MLK’s speeches, I started to look more closely at his language. I’m a pretty big word nerd, and I think that looking at the patterns in others’ speaking and writing can tell you a lot about their intentions and the perspective from which they’re coming from. I wanted to get a better idea of which words MLK used most often, and how he used them in order to carefully craft and convey his message, so I fired up Python and imported the NLTK library.

NLTK has a neat function called “concordance” that lets you search for instances of how a word is used within a text. Here is an example output from MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech when we use the command:

An example of concordance for the word 'dream'.

An example of concordance for the word ‘dream’.

I started playing around with the speeches, looking at the most common words and the context in which they were used. Then I tried putting collections of these outputs (from the same speech) together in MS Paint to show a perspective of each speech through the lens of related concordance outputs. This seemed like a neat art project for a Friday afternoon, so I looked at three of MLK’s speeches and put together a collage for each of them.

These are the three speeches I explored:

1. I Have a Dream from August, 1963 at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

 "I Have a Dream" Concordance Collage

“I Have a Dream” Concordance Collage

This is by far MLK’s most famous speech and was a critical moment in the March on Washington that encouraged Congress to pass civil rights legislation. This speech is widely considered to be one of the greatest works of oratory in history.

After tokenizing the speech text into 1684 tokens, removing the stopwords narrows it down to 828 tokens. This is probably close to an average-sized speech (the speech was roughly 17 minutes long). Here are the twenty most common non-stopwords in the speech:

Most frequent non-stopword tokens from "I Have a Dream"

2. Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence from April 4, 1967 in New York.

"A Time to Break Silence" Concordance Collage

“A Time to Break Silence” Concordance Collage

This was MLK’s first public stance against the War in Vietnam, and it did not make him a very popular man. Many people who supported MLK’s work in the civil rights movement couldn’t comprehend why he had to suddenly speak with dissent towards the war. Political allies abandoned him for his lack of patriotism and support for his nation. The media questioned and criticized his motives, and there were fears that his rhetoric was being influenced by communists.

Here is an excerpt from this speech where MLK addresses these concerns:

“Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?” “Why are you joining the voices of dissent?” “Peace and civil rights don’t mix,” they say. “Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people,” they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.”

Dr. King seems to be speaking about his objection to war, in principle. He goes on to make the point that the incentives in waging the war in Vietnam do not align with his vision of peace and understanding. This is a neat speech to read through and it gives a new light to his legacy: MLK wasn’t just a civil rights leader in a time of racial tension, but an activist for peace around the world—and he wasn’t afraid to criticize his own government when he thought it was acting in the wrong.

This speech was split into 6779 tokens, with 3295 non-stopwords, and it was the longest of the three MLK speeches I looked at. Here are the most frequently appearing words:


3. Drum Major Instinct Sermon from February 4, 1968 in Atlanta.


The clip I referenced earlier was taken from this sermon. This was the last sermon (not speech) that MLK gave before he was assassinated two months later. MLK talks about leadership how all people have a certain “drum major instinct” of attracting attention to themselves as superior, as a drum major does in a marching band. He goes on to explain that conflict between nations and racism all stem from this human trait, and that instead, we need more people to harness it for peace and understanding.

This sermon broke down into 5150 tokens, including 2293 non-stopwords. Here are the top 20 words:



I wish I had some Photoshop or design skills to work some more color into these collages. For now they will have to remain as bare-bones MS Paint images in the “conceptual art” department of data visualizations.

This was a neat project that got me reading about modern American history. MLK and the Civil Rights Movement were at the front and center of 1960s America, with a direct impact on national legislation and the behavior of government intelligence agencies. He had a message that appeals to everybody: people need to work together instead of against each other, and that starts by stopping violence. And I think there’s always been a lot of that feeling in trance music, which is why Armin decided to play MLK at Ultra.