Book review: The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould

The Mismeasure of ManThe Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

IQ tests are very good predictors of how well you will do on IQ tests.

This revised edition of The Mismeasure of Man tackles the field of hereditarianism and its related attempts at justifying hierarchical social structures. Or put another way, it explores the stinking swamp of race science with hopes of getting people to notice the stench.

I’ve not previously delved into the history of race science and hereditarianism. I was aware that it was a thing, that it keeps raising its ugly head every few years (Human Biodiversity – HBD – is a recent version you may have heard of), and that it pollutes an entire corner of psychology. As such, this book was enlightening and also disheartening. It reinforced just how a priori the entire field is and why it will continue to be popular.

The first time I became aware that IQ testing wasn’t actually doing what the marketing claims would have you believe was in high school. My brother was very intent on “raising his IQ” by studying for IQ tests. Well you might ask, how can you improve your test score on something that is meant to measure something innate? Over the years I’ve read several papers discussing factors that impact test scores (stress, hunger, nutrition levels, tiredness, sleep deprivation, etc) and realised that these intelligence tests aren’t measuring what some would claim. And worse, often the results are interpreted in almost exactly the opposite way to what they should be (i.e. a poor test result is probably more an indicator of some discriminatory factor, like attending an underfunded school, than of being stupid).

So it is well worth reading this book to understand how fraught this field is with literal white supremacists and eugenicists (see my comments below). It isn’t an easy read but is relatively accessible to most people who give it the time required.

Some related papers:
What IQ Tests Test
Does IQ Really Predict Job Performance?

Thoughts during reading:

Have just gotten to the bit about G and Factor Analysis. I’m passingly familiar with principal components analysis, a technique similar in some ways to Factor Analysis, and largely agree with what Gould is saying. It is very easy to not understand what the principal components are actually showing you, let alone what that correlation means. The first thing you learn in statistics is that correlation doesn’t equal causation and something about storks bringing babies.

But this rabbit hole goes deeper still.

I decided to do a quick bit of lateral reading to find some more on G and Factor Analysis. I didn’t get past the former’s Wikipedia page. Just about every reference was from a known white supremacist (Jensen* being particularly prominent as a primary source). Makes it a tad hard to take the field seriously, and hard to find decent research when a jumping-off point like Wikipedia is swamped in BS.

Of course, the rabbit hole goes deeper again.

Another of the people referenced is Richard Lynn (a white supremacist). He and his protege, Emil Kirkegaard (a eugenicist and all-round nasty POS), run a bunch of pseudojournals and a fake research group (Ulster Institute for Social Research) that is all basically a front for white supremacist money to generate pseudoscience. Fun fact: Kirkegaard’s most cited paper has pretty much only been cited by him, fifty-nine times. Thankfully the mainstream doesn’t take these guys seriously anymore, but they have tendrils, as can be seen by Lynn (and other white supremacists) being referenced on the Wikipedia pages.

* Quick note on Arthur Jensen, his Wikipedia bio is much like the G Factor page. It is deliberately misleading and rubbish. You would be forgiven for thinking that Jensen was something other than a white nationalist, avid racist, and in the employ of said same. His funding was barely mentioned in the bio, and he has a whole page on the Southern Poverty Law Centre that doesn’t even get a mention.

Arthur Jensen was arguably the father of modern academic racism. For over 40 years, Jensen, an educational psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, provided a patina of academic respectability to pseudoscientific theories of black inferiority and segregationist public policies. Jensen was responsible for resurrecting the idea that the black population is inherently and immutably less intelligent than the white population, an ideology that immediately became known as “jensenism.”

 

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The Byronic Hero: Isn’t it Byronic?

An overview of the Byronic hero: http://stagenotes.net/phantom/docs/ByronicTraits.pdf

https://study.com/academy/lesson/byronic-hero-definition-characteristics-examples.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byronic_hero

An overview of Romanticism: http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html

Edward Cullen. Han Solo. Killmonger. Lestat. What do all these characters have in common besides being heartthrobs? They share a common ancestor: the Byronic Hero. Brooding, sensual, violent, intelligent, and single-minded, the Byronic hero has been a staple in literature dating back to the 19th century, but the archetype is all over film, TV and even video games. I see you Cloud Strife, all sad and angsty with your giant sword.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favourite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavour.

Book review: Combustion by Steve Worland

Combustion (Judd Bell & Corey Purchase, #2)Combustion by Steve Worland

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Normally it’s only supercars that explode into flames.*

Judd Bell and his partner are busy training for a mission to Mars, while Corey Purchase is touring the USA with his dog. Both are in LA for a meeting about a movie based on their last adventure when an eco-terrorist releases an aerial toxin that destroys combustion engines. In the city that loves cars as much as it does traffic jams, this results in devastation. Can Judd and Corey rise to the challenge once more and save the day? Will it make for a good sequel?

I’ve had Combustion sitting on my shelf since its release. I’d enjoyed the first novel in the series, Velocity, but had not gotten around to Worland’s other books. Seven years later and I can’t remember much of Velocity, but enough that I knew Combustion would be a fun thriller in the mould of Matthew Reilly or Andy McDermott. And I think that sums it up. Combustion could be described as Reilly-lite. Everything explodes, everyone has to do a lot of running for their lives, and someone is always in imminent danger. Good fun!

My only minor gripe with the book is the eco-terrorist villain. It is something we’ve seen a fair bit of in fiction, the villain who is trying to save the planet from humanity’s excesses. Whether it be using mobile phones to trigger a killing spree, a Titan wanting to erase half like a divorce court attorney, or the temporary king of the seas throwing all the garbage back on land, the eco-terrorist always feels like a stupid choice for a villain. Hey, let’s have the bad-guy be trying to do something good but in a really dumb way! I’d have less of a problem with the idea if it actually resulted in a change from the protagonists who fix the problem in a good way instead.

Interestingly, Worland only appears to have published three books (not including two adaptations of screenplays). So I’m guessing the next Bell and Purchase novel might not end well for the heroes. I might check it out at some point.

* Seriously, this list is made up of mostly high-end sports cars that seem to spend half their time catching fire.

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Book Review: Antisocial by Andrew Marantz

Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American ConversationAntisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation by Andrew Marantz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Techno-Utopians: Free speech for everyone!
Crazy Uncles: Let me tell you about the JQ!

Antisocial is an expansion of a series of articles Andrew Marantz wrote for the New Yorker covering the rise of social media as a news source and the right-wing extremists who used it to shift the Overton window. Marantz attempts to discuss some of the history, science, and psychology related to the way we process our news, and how that feeds into the social media experience. This, in turn, is used to show how the extremists have been able to successfully leverage social media to change the social landscape.

As I write this review, there are protests occurring across the USA in response to police violence against minorities. The police, in turn, have become violent in response to the protests, with footage of rampant assaults, documented lies, and targeting of anyone (particular the media) filming them in action. In response to this, some of the people mentioned in the book have organised their extremists to try and make the protesters look bad, with looting, provocation, and violence.

So this was a timely read. Much of the content wasn’t necessarily new to me, as I’ve read around this subject for a while now, but there were still plenty of insights to be had. This was much more in-the-trenches than other books and articles on the right-wing extremists (alt-lite, alt-right, etc), as such you see much more of the central figures. When you see videos from McInnes or Cernovich or the like, they are performing for their audience/followers, you get a much better idea of who they are when the camera is off. This makes some of the players seem reasonably relatable if still “deplorable”, like Cernovich, while others you see them as even worse than first thought, like Spencer.

There was something I noticed about everyone covered in this book. They reminded me of 14-year-olds. The guys were engaged in what amounted to oafish attention-seeking with all the intellectual sophistication of hammers. The women were doing the less macho version of attention-seeking. Yet these were predominantly people in their 30s. The behaviour they should have grown out of, particularly the trolling/bullying, had become amplified by their uniformed and racist politics.

I think the worst part of this isn’t that these people have managed to infiltrate the mainstream with their lazy politics and anti-intellectualism,* but that the social media platforms were quite happy to make money promoting them. The social media giants are presented in the book as naive and heavily pro-free speech, but I think that is too kind. To use an example, Facebook would censor any depiction of female nudity without prompting, but wouldn’t censor blatant bigotry (racism, sexism, etc) even with piles of complaints. As long as threats were veiled enough, they were fine as well. And the outrage would drive engagement and traffic, which made Facebook money, so they didn’t address the ten-tonne elephant in the room.

As I finished Antisocial, I listened to an interesting podcast called It Could Happen Here. The series is from 2019 and looks at how (primarily right-wing) extremists could set off a second civil war in the USA. Many of the points raised in the book were also mentioned in the podcast, so I recommend giving it a listen. And as I mentioned above, it’s rather timely given the protests happening at the time I’m writing this.

Worth reading if you want to know more about why you can’t have a civil conversation anymore.

* A point I should make here is that I’ve noticed some of these people have some very good points. They are anti-establishment for good reason, the establishment is for the rich and powerful, not them. Of course, they take this insight in the wrong direction. One quote really stuck out from Cernovich when he criticised the warmongering that the various politicians push for and establishment media debate, both safe in the comfort of knowing them and their families won’t be the ones dying in combat. But again, they take that insight in the wrong direction, with political positions that are essentially pro-conflict and war.

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https://www.iheart.com/podcast/1119-it-could-happen-here-30717896/?embed=true

Book Review: Kingdom of Darkness

Kingdom of Darkness (Nina Wilde & Eddie Chase, #10)Kingdom of Darkness by Andy McDermott

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Far fetched idea of 2014: Nazis coming back to take over the world.
Me in 2020: That’s pretty plausible.

After Nina and Eddie’s previous adventure, they had decided to spend more time together and travel the world. They stop by in LA to visit some friends when a young man tries to hand Nina some documents. He is promptly shot by someone. And so begins the latest adventure to discover how a buried secret could help bring about an everlasting New-Riech.

The book I read before Kingdom of Darkness was a little bit too emotionally intense to read at the time. So I looked over my stack of To-Be-Read novels and looked for something more fun. There were a lot of crime novels, some heavy themed fantasy, a pile of horror, and then there was Andy McDermott’s book. Note to self: more diversity of novels.

This was exactly the sort of fun adventure I needed. Andy is very consistent in his books, providing plenty of thrills, plenty of implausible scenarios that somehow work, and a bit of humour. The only thing that tugged at my brain was the Nazi = Evil points, which are overly simplistic and lazy. It kinda works for a thriller where the antagonist is meant to be bad because they are bad and have facial scars. But I wish it was a little more fleshed out.

I guess I’ll be needing some more of Andy’s books to read.

Sidenote: the boats on the cover literally feature for a page in the novel. More time is spent rock climbing, car chasing in a stretch Hummer, and fighting on a moving train. Why boats!?

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Little Women – It’s Lit!

Before women were asking “Am I a Carrie or a Samantha?”, they were asking “Am I a Jo or an Amy?” Before there was Edward vs Jacob, there was Laurie vs Professor Bhaer. And over the more than 150 years since Little Women was originally published, there have been (deep breath) dozens of adaptations, feature films, television adaptations, plays, ballets, operas and at least two animes based on it.

So despite being written off as proto-chick lit or kiddie lit or as Alcott herself said, “moral pap for the young,” Little Women has worked its way into the consciousness of readers for the last 150 years, and has stayed there. But what is it about the tale of the March sisters that keeps us coming back?

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Book Review: Funny, You Don’t Look Autistic by Michael McCreary

Funny, You Don't Look Autistic: A Comedian's Guide to Life on the SpectrumFunny, You Don’t Look Autistic: A Comedian’s Guide to Life on the Spectrum by Michael McCreary

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The age-old question: is it really praise if it is unintentionally patronising?

Michael McCreary may still be young but he has done a lot in his life already. This memoir seeks to offer his journey from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis as a 5-year-old, through to becoming a touring comedian in his teens and early twenties. He offers insights into what it is like navigating school and his desire to perform from the perspective of someone on the spectrum.

This was a fun and breezy read. McCreary managed to discuss the way his brain works and help us normies (or neurotypicals) understand the challenges he has, and will continue to, face. There were a lot of insights, most I was already familiar with, that help debunk a lot of the stereotypes. An example is the “idiot savant” idea of autistics, particularly around maths. This stereotype isn’t just insulting and inaccurate, it fails to treat people as people.

One of the highlights for me was the theme of support. McCreary has gotten help and support throughout his life, from his diagnosis, his parents, teachers, comedian mentors, and employers. It is clear that not everyone gets that support and we all need to understand how to meet people where they are at.

The only thing that let this book down was that for a book by a comedian, it was a bit light on for jokes. McCreary certainly kept the tone light and whimsical, but this was memoir first, comedic second. When he has another 20 years worth of material, I expect his memoir to be jokes first!

A short and insightful memoir that acts as a good introduction to autism with #OwnVoices.

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Book review: This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The ClimateThis Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Who’d have thought that systemic problems require systemic changes?

This Changes Everything is an attempt to step people through how the existential crisis of our times, climate change, is a failure of our system of economics (and politics). Thus, despite all the handwaving from the well, and not so well, meaning business celebrities, we can’t rely upon this system to fix the crisis. Klein then attempts to offer up solutions and ideas that could work instead.

I should start this review by saying that, overall I think Klein’s argument and points are correct and well made. The bit about the free trade agreements being written at the same time as the international emission reductions agreements is a great example of the argument. Funny how those two deals were being made yet they didn’t bother to acknowledge that both needed to be aiming at the same goals. This Changes Everything covers a lot of ground, has a lot of detail, and joins a lot of dots that many people have probably not seen let alone joined together.

Obviously there is a “but” coming.

The issue I have with this book extends to a number of points raised throughout the text that seems to be all too common amongst the progressive authors. I think they can be summarised as well-intentioned arguments that are wrong on the details but correct in the broader scheme of things. The easiest way to explain what I mean is with an example.

Repeated references are made to agriculture and how bad modern versions are for the environment.* One example used multiple times is the idea of farmers no longer being allowed to retain seeds and having to buy new seed from (insert evil company name here) each season. This is at best a misunderstanding. Farmers aren’t really plant breeders anymore, they get professional plant breeders to do that. Most seeds are developed by companies or organisations who charge a fee or royalty for use of the seed. Some seeds can be retained, but you pay an IP license of sorts (for where I live, this is called End Point Royalties, paid when the grain is sold). Some seeds, particularly hybrid crops (like the super scary GMOs**), don’t retain traits in successive generations or have sex drift (male:female ratio not optimal for pollination), as two examples. So a farmer could breed their own seed and retain it, they could even retain commercial seed, except those which aren’t suited to doing so.

But that doesn’t mean the point is wholly wrong. Why are most crops bred by private companies or organisations who charge for their use? Why aren’t these companies owned by farmer groups?*** Why have so many public breeding companies been privatised? It could be argued that Klein’s overall point about capitalism and seeds in agriculture is valid, just not in the way it is presented.

These frustrations lead me to do a lot of fact-checking on the rest of the book’s point that I was less familiar with. It makes for disjointed reading despite Klein being mostly correct.

Which leads me to another point. I was reading this book around the time of Earth Day 2020. Another progressive, Michael Moore, released a doco he produced called Planet of the Humans at this time, which was bad in many, many ways. My friend Ketan has a good debunking of it.

One of the points that Moore tries to make in his polemic (all of his docos are polemics) is around how green groups are often part of the problem. Klein also makes this point in This Changes Everything. The main difference between the two is that Moore tries for some cheap shots at the wrong targets, whereas Klein goes into some detail and gives concrete examples of groups being in bed with “the enemy”, highlights unproductive trade-offs and concessions, and rampant hypocrisy (particularly around having funds invested in fossil fuel companies). But worse still, Planet of the Humans is a lazy superficial mess. It holds up outdated denier talking points rather than digging into genuine criticisms. It just acts as a distraction and fuel**** for the denier movement. You have to wonder why they’d release the doco at all.

In conclusion, This Changes Everything is a fascinating book and well worth a read. But do remember to lateral read and lobby to stop the use of fossil fuels.

* This is true but not necessarily for the reasons stated. I’d summarise the problems of agriculture being that it is currently run as an open system and done to make money. Open systems mean that the nutrient cycle doesn’t run in a loop, essentially your poop should come back to the farm. And that farming is a business, so you are rewarded for growing as much as you can on as much land as you can, rather than conserving land that isn’t needed and ensuring what is grown makes it to who needs it.
** They aren’t super scary. Honestly, I think much of the fear comes down to scientific illiteracy, otherwise, people would want better regulation over all new crops, not just GMOs.
*** I’m simplifying, as some are.
**** Do you like puns? Because I’ve got puns.

Some comments I had as I read the book:

I do want to quibble with the bit about exporting industrial agriculture. Sure, the vastly improved technological advancements to agriculture have been shared. That’s a good thing. More food, fewer impacts, less land needed for the same production, etc. But Klein’s overall point still holds, since the improved agriculture hasn’t been used to make more with less, rather it has followed the money and decided to make more with more.

Further on and a similar point comes up. The decentralised and bottom-up approach to fixing major problems is a good idea (with her caveat of needing national/international co-ordination). But it makes a lot of assumptions about how well it would work. This flows into another bit about agriculture and agroecology that is both wrong and right. It’s frustrating because I know where the misinformed aspects come from (I’ve read some of the research from one of the cited experts and it has limited scope outside of his particular location and situation). At the same time, there are still good points being made, like needing to cut the emissions from fertiliser production. It’s just that the answer is renewables being used to make the fertiliser, not pretend we can grow food without fertiliser (unless you have some sort of global bio-waste processing and redistribution happening).

It can be frustrating to read progressive texts. The right idea and goals in mind, just not always able to weed out the nonsense. I get it, seeds and GMOs are bred by companies now… It’s big business… Doesn’t make it evil, nor something that farmers would be able to do themselves.

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How Fictional Pandemics Reflect the Real Thing

Time for another instalment of It’s Lit. This month it’s time to look at zombies pandemic fiction.

Everyone has Covid on the brain at the moment. It is easy to forget that pandemics* occur with painful frequency and that we’ve got a nasty habit of forgetting the previous outbreak – ebola, zika, swine flu, SARS… Our forgetfulness is an interesting trait, but it could be argued that our love of pandemic fiction is where we pour our fears of the next outbreak.

Considering that the risk of pandemics is increasing in both spark and spread, that means pandemic fiction isn’t going to stop any time soon. Long live the zombie!

But it is also worth remembering that pandemic fiction doesn’t have to be a fear of disease and death. It can represent our fear of an all-consuming society that will overrun us, swamp us with mediocrity, and drag us down to become just another mindless member of the hoard. Odd that it comes up a lot during uncertain political climates.

Stay safe. Read a good book. Or a bad one. Whatever.

Although we are currently living through a pandemic that has disrupted our lives and will shape the course of humanity, pandemics have been around since the dawn of civilization, as have stories about fictional pandemics. So now seems like as good a time as any to explore how fictional pandemics have evolved over time, and what they say about their own time.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

* Sidenote: Pandemics have a wider spread than epidemics. Usually, an epidemic is limited to an area, or country, while a pandemic spreads more widely, often globally.
https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/148945

Book vs Movie: The Kingsmen – What’s the Difference?

This month’s What’s the Difference? from Cinefix looks at The Kingsmen and it’s comic origins in Mark Millar’s comic.

While I can remember reading Mark Millar’s Secret Service, I can’t remember having enjoyed it. I’m not actually sure if I read the whole first run. I do remember thinking that it was an interesting if average take on the suave spy genre. 

Needless to say, I was somewhat surprised when The Kingsmen arrived in cinemas. Secret Service didn’t exactly strike me as worth adapting. Bond had been reinvigorated, Vin Diesel’s XXX had come and gone*, and Austin Powers had mined a couple of jokes to death over three movies. Did we need this movie?

Yes.

And it was a surprisingly good movie. Not to mention, it also manages to be an adaptation that, I think, improves upon the source material. I think the “Kingsmen” aspect, as mentioned in the video, was certainly part of what elevated the movie above the source material.

I think if there is anything to learn from Secret Service being adapted, it is that a good adaptation will fully realise the potential of the source material. That doesn’t require faithfulness, but rather an understanding of the themes and ideas.

* And then came back again. Why, I’m not entirely sure.

Science fields mapped with infographics

Do you have trouble visualising where the various fields of science and maths sit?

Would you like to visualise all the fields in relation to one another?

It’s just me?

Again?

It’s a lonely life being a science nerd.

But I’m still going to share this really cool series of infographics that come from Dominic Walliman. He developed them as part of his Youtube science channel.

Check out the videos related to the infographics below!

infographic-map-chemistry

infographic-map-biology

infographic-map-physics

infographic-map-computer-science

infographic-map-mathematics

Dominic Walliman: YouTube | Flickr

Hat-tip: https://mymodernmet.com/science-infographics-dominic-walliman/

Book review: Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks

Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate PoliticsFeminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics by bell hooks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The soul of our politics is the commitment to ending domination.”

Feminism is for Everybody is bell hooks’ attempt to have a text that acts as a summary of feminism in an easy to read format for everyone. She had always wanted a book she could hand to people that did away with the exclusionary academic language of feminism. So she caved and wrote one.

This was an interesting book. As much as it is a book about feminism, it also gives a fairly good argument and overview of intersectionality. Its strengths certainly lay in covering the goals of feminism and why it is important, despite the supposed rights gained since the feminist movement started.

Feminism is for Everybody isn’t without flaws. Aside from her inability to use the word “the”,* hooks doesn’t achieve her stated aim of a book free of academic language. While she does keep it to a minimum, I still noted an academic tone to the writing. So while this is accessible, it does fall short of its stated aim.

Overall, I’d recommend this book to everybody.

* Seriously, it was so distracting. Obviously, this was a style choice but I’m not quite sure why it was made.

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Book review: The Grief Hole by Kaaron Warren

The Grief HoleThe Grief Hole by Kaaron Warren

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Who’d have thought musicians have a dark side?

Theresa helps women find emergency housing. But sometimes that isn’t enough. Sometimes she has to intervene because she can see ghosts clustering around an imminent victim. After an intervention leaves her battered, she goes to reconnect with her Uncle and Aunt, where she is drawn into the mystery surrounding her lost cousin and her art. Is she strong enough to not be drawn in too far?

This is a tough review for me to write as I haven’t actually finished it, yet feel compelled to say something before DNFing.

I bought Kaaron’s book almost two years ago and thought it was about damned time I read it. I was immediately drawn in. As much as I hate using the terms “powerful” and “evocative” in book reviews,* I actually think they are apt here. There are some real gut-punch moments that bring you to the world of grief. The list of awards it has won is thus unsurprising.

And of course, this is exactly the time to read such a book…

With the stress of a pandemic, the upheavals to work, the uncertainties of the near future, this was just not the sort of book I could keep reading. This is a compliment to Kaaron, as this book certainly “evokes”* but that is just not what I need right now. I will have to return to finish the last third when real-life feels less like a horror novel.

* There are quite a few buzzwords that appear in book reviews and blurbs that don’t really say anything. Powerful? Like a steroid munching Nordic strongman, or a highly effecting and engaging narrative? Evocative? As in the imagination is stirred, or the emotions, or both?

Expect my next fiction review to be of something a little more light-hearted.

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Book vs Movie: Jojo Rabbit – What’s the Difference?

This month’s What’s the Difference? from CineFix is the hilarious Jojo Rabbit based upon Caging Skies.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that I haven’t decided to read a book about an abusive Nazi protagonist during the second World War. Obviously, that sort of book would be such a fun read and exactly the sort of rollicking good time I would make space for in my limited reading time.

It will probably come as a major surprise that I haven’t seen Jojo Rabbit as yet. How could I not have seen a movie involving Taika Waititi?

brody-jojorabbit

The answer is children. If you ever want to see a movie in cinemas ever again, either don’t have kids or be very happy abandoning them with a teenager who is only pretending to look after them while they mix your 30-year-old single malt with Coke.

… Or take them along to the cinema with you, like the kids we saw watching Deadpool 2. I’m sure those kids will grow up just fine. Especially once their teacher finally tells them what a strap-on is.

So the take-away from this post is that I want to see the movie even more now.

Book review: Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

Pyramids (Discworld, #7)Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Camels would receive more admiration if they published in the peer-reviewed literature and spat in fewer people’s faces.

Teppic sets out from home to learn a trade. An honourable trade. An important trade. A valued trade. So he attends Ankh-Morpork’s famed assassins’ school. But he has barely graduated when his father dies and he has to return to the family business: king of an ancient land. His new worldliness clashes with the millennia of tradition held in place by the priests of Djelibeybi. These traditions lead to cataclysm and Teppic has to save the land of pyramids before war breaks out. Because war has to break out. It’s tradition.

As I was reading Pyramids – the bit with You Bastard calculating the flares – the sheer scale of the Discworld novels struck me. There are so many little pieces crammed into each book that you wonder how Sir Terry managed to repeat that effort over 40 times. It probably struck me because Pyramids is a more straight-forward narrative with a focus on the character of Teppic. When compared to many of the other Discworld novels I’ve read of late, this one is an “easy read”.

Definitely a 4 mathematical genius camels out of 5 novel.

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Afrofuturism: From Books to Blockbusters

Time for another instalment of It’s Lit. This month they discuss Afrofuturism.

I have to admit that my exposure to Afrofuturism outside of the MCU and music (see below) is limited to one aborted attempt at one of NK Jemisin’s novels. I do own Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed and Samuel Delany’s Babel-17… and haven’t read them yet. That should still get me cool points, right?

Which got me thinking about a point made in the video. Obviously, this genre is not new, yet my personal exposure is somewhat limited. So, just out of interest, I checked my library. No Du Bois, no Butler, no Womack. Jemisin and Tomi Adeyemi do feature. I guess you just need to be a very recent award-winning author to be picked up by libraries.

The point being, black storytelling does seem to face extra hurdles in reaching an audience. Aboriginal authors appear to face similar hurdles unless you’re a professor of writing at a major university and multi-award-winning author.

At least the video has some titles and authors we can all go out and buy.

With the success of Black Panther, the term Afro-Futurism got pushed into the mainstream. But what is Afro-Futurism and what is its place in Black storytelling? In this episode, we give you the starter pack on answering that question.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favourite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavour.

The greatest mashup you’ll ever hear:

Book review: Buddhism is Not What You Think by Steve Hagen

Buddhism is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond BeliefsBuddhism is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond Beliefs by Steve Hagen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Enlightenment or your money back!

How can we see the world in each moment, rather than merely as what we think, hope, or fear it is?
How can we base our actions on reality, rather than on the longing and loathing of our hearts and minds?
How can we live lives that are wise, compassionate, and in tune with reality?
And how can we separate the wisdom of Buddhism from the cultural trappings and misconceptions that have come to be associated with it?

Steve Hagen’s Buddhism is Not What You Think is pretty straight forward. He sets out to answer the above four questions whilst addressing the title of the book. And he does this in the introduction. The rest of the book is pretty much just examples to drive the main point home.

There aren’t too many books that wrap their entire argument/premise up quite this quickly. But that probably comes back to the message Hagen is trying to get across about Buddhism and truth. Essentially, we already know truth, but we are too caught up in everything else in life to see it. Thus, Zen practice and Buddhism are about helping get past the distractions.

This was a fairly solid book for advice around Zen practice. But the philosophy aspects I was after were a bit light on.

We often think we know things when in fact it’s only our imagination taking us further and further away from what is actually happening. What we imagine then seems very real to us. Soon we’re caught up in our imaginary longings and loathings. But if you’re here – truly present – you realize there’s nothing to run from or to go after. You can stay calm…Just be with this moment and see what’s going on.

 

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Book review: Blackwater by Jeremy Scahill

Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary ArmyBlackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Let’s privatise the military. How could that possibly go wrong?

Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army outlines the political landscape of Blackwater’s founding, the personal history of several key players – particularly Erik Prince – and the actions and intentions that made the company so infamous. It attempts to explain and document how mercenaries went through a rebranding to become the operators of choice in conflict zones around the world.

Okay, so I thought I had read enough news articles and the like to have some idea of what Blackwater was about. Mercenaries and the name Blackwater became something of a shorthand for “loose cannons”, becoming the villains in movies and TV shows. But as Scahill outlines, the reality and totality are so much worse than I’d thought. Blackwater and several other companies are discussed, along with the players who made this all possible. You’ll recognise many of the politician’s names, but maybe less so the “contractors”. This was disturbing reading.

They couldn’t get a coalition of the willing, so they turned to a coalition of the billing.

There were a few very important points that were made. The first was how senior political figures decided they wanted to privatise the military and associated intelligence work. This is such a terrible idea that you have to be pretty ideologically bent-out-of-shape to think it is good. The most troubling reason for this being terrible is the lack of accountability this gives these newly privatised people with guns, bombs, and shady contacts. As numerous leaks have shown over the years, the military is already far too unaccountable.*

Which brings me to the second point, that once they are privatised, the companies lobby hard to remain unaccountable, saying they don’t fall under military rules because they are private citizens, and that they don’t fall under civilian rules because they are acting as part of a military force. In essence, they can literally commit murder and they have been positioned by their lobbyists and key politicians to never be even investigated for the crime.

Those points should disturb everyone. You may not see a problem with war profiteering, or religious fundamentalists pushing for war and creating conflict (or at least involving themselves in them), or free marketeers wanting to privatise everything, or private companies hiring “shoot-first-never-answer/ask-questions” mercenaries to guard their kitchen supplies. But I think we can all agree that you have to be accountable for your actions, and Blackwater (et al.) has not been.

After reading this book you’d think Erik Prince would suffer some consequences…. Nope. He’s still going.

The only complaint I have about Scahill’s book is that it was somewhat repetitive. Several points were raised repeatedly, not to highlight them, but because the surrounding issues or players were being discussed again.

After reading this I can only hope that the various players involved aren’t allowed to have positions of power and influence ever again.**

* Because schools, hospitals, cafes, etc are totally legit military targets and not war crimes.
** My hopes will remain unfulfilled, I’m afraid.

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How much do we spend on reading?

A few years ago I published a table from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Wow, you sure know how to party!

Thanks.

Anyway, that table highlighted how much Americans spent on reading per year. Because I’m a Nerdus scientificus, for fun I decided to collate the stats in a spreadsheet and create some graphs.

You are just one big party animal, aren’t you!

I certainly am.

So the first chart is a summary of inflation-adjusted US income, expenditure, entertainment spend, and reading spend by the average “consumer unit”. A consumer unit is obviously the economists’ way of referring to a living, breathing, thinking, cog in the economic machine. Apply the appropriate conversion factors for your country.*

Untitled-1

As you can see, US income and spending haven’t really changed in two decades in real terms. That’s right, despite more wealth having been created in the economy since 2000, the average cog in the machine hasn’t seen a change to their take-home pay. Sidenote: I noticed union membership is rather low in the US as well. Might be related.

Over that same time period, the spending on reading has declined. The line for entertainment wasn’t particularly clear in the above chart, so I made this second one.

Untitled-2

It could be argued that entertainment spend is roughly static over time, while reading spend is clearly declining in real terms. But the question is, what does this mean?

The obvious conclusion that Guardian columnists and other industry wonks will make is that (choose one or all to write your opinion column today!):

  • Kids these days are playing Facepage and Tweeters rather than reading books.
  • People have short attention spans and can’t handle reading decent books.
  • Too many people are Netflixing and Chilling.
  • Something derisive about gaming.
  • Blame falling education standards or immigrants or something.

Yes, the media landscape is more diverse now. This is a true fact, not an alternative one. But that doesn’t really explain the decline. Because reading also became cheaper over that time period. Amazon entered the market, heavily discounting paper books and shipped directly from the warehouse. E-books became a thing, which again changed the cost of buying books.

So you have to question how good a metric spending is to reading. Unless you are writing an industry opinion piece.

I also mentioned the lack of change in household income in real terms. It would be interesting to dig up some figures on financial stress for the average household over this same time period. And I’d posit that entertainment is more likely to involve passive forms, like television, than active forms like reading when stress is higher.

Another metric I’ve discussed before is the reported reading figures. Some of those figures suggest people are actually reading more now, while other figures of how much that is are less encouraging.

Ideally, the industry figures would be more transparent. That way someone could actually crunch the data and to track average individual book consumption and reading totals over time. Then we could put some opinion columnists out of work.

* By this I mean look at the currency conversions and think about whether you reckon your country-people would spend more or less of their household earnings on reading than an average American. More. The answer is going to be more. We’ve seen their leaders.

The Case for Fan Fiction

It’s Lit! is back and they have picked an easy subject to discuss: how Fan-Fic is actually awesome.

I wouldn’t really say I got my start writing fan fiction. Sure, I wrote some stories loosely based upon MacGyver and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But I’d say they were more homages to… Okay, they were fan-fic. Who am I kidding?

That paragraph essentially sums up what I used to think of fan-fic. I appreciated it, recognised it as a legitimate creative outlet, that it could be great fun to write, and that authors should be proud to have people passionate enough about the work that they are being inspired to write their own stuff. But at the same time, I saw it as what beginners did. It was really just for the writers, not readers. That it wasn’t “legit” writing.

It wasn’t worthy!

When Anne Rice was issuing cease and desist letters to her biggest fans, I thought she was a fool. What sort of idiot honestly thinks these fans are somehow ruining her characters and books?

But underlying this argument was the idea that none of those fan-fic stories was any good. Rice’s characters were safe from harm because no hack would be taken seriously compared to the internationally bestselling author. Those stories weren’t even available in real books.*

Then I had somewhat of an epiphany. An author friend made the argument against fan-fic from the premise of copyright and how fan-fic was low quality. They made a sizeable amount of their income from tie-in novels, the books that are licensed to a movie or TV show IP, and written to satiate fans who can’t get enough of the adventures. So you could see their points as defending their meal ticket. But after they made that argument, a professor of writing, who was a published author and also wrote tie-ins, pointed out how they also wrote fan-fic and how this wasn’t about copyright. This was about fans expressing themselves.

It is easy to say that copyright is being breached, despite the clear acknowledgement by everyone involved that fan-fic isn’t canon and isn’t even “sold” to people. No one picks up a Chewie and Yoda slashfic and thinks, “Can’t wait to see this will be in the prequel trilogy movies.” It is also easy to say that the people writing it are all hacks. Except we not only know that isn’t true (e.g. the above writing professor and award-winning authors mentioned in the video). And if these fans are working hard at writing lots of fan-fic, they are bound to become good at it.

So now I stand back and say: Fan-fic is legit.

I mean, where else will I read a steamy sex scene with cries of linguistically impaired pleasure and Wookie growls?

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For years writers of fan fiction were shamed, the butt of jokes, and even subject to copyright litigation. However, in the past few years, with the fan fiction writers of today becoming the published mainstream authors of today the past time is a celebrated benchmark of one’s climb to publication.

In the season two premiere of It’s Lit, we explore what happened and how fan fiction writers were able to come out of the proverbial closet of shame.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

* It was the 90s. If it wasn’t in print at your local bookstore, it didn’t exist. It certainly wasn’t going to overturn the canon.