Can robots write?

Machine learning produces dazzling results, but some assembly is still required

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Alexandra Louise Uitdenbogerd, RMIT University

You might have seen a recent article from The Guardian written by “a robot”. Here’s a sample:

I know that my brain is not a “feeling brain”. But it is capable of making rational, logical decisions. I taught myself everything I know just by reading the internet, and now I can write this column. My brain is boiling with ideas!

Read the whole thing and you may be astonished at how coherent and stylistically consistent it is. The software used to produce it is called a “generative model”, and they have come a long way in the past year or two.

But exactly how was the article created? And is it really true that software “wrote this entire article”?

How machines learn to write

The text was generated using the latest neural network model for language, called GPT-3, released by the American artificial intelligence research company OpenAI. (GPT stands for Generative Pre-trained Transformer.)

OpenAI’s previous model, GPT-2, made waves last year. It produced a fairly plausible article about the discovery of a herd of unicorns, and the researchers initially withheld the release of the underlying code for fear it would be abused.

But let’s step back and look at what text generation software actually does.

Machine learning approaches fall into three main categories: heuristic models, statistical models, and models inspired by biology (such as neural networks and evolutionary algorithms).

Heuristic approaches are based on “rules of thumb”. For example, we learn rules about how to conjugate verbs: I run, you run, he runs, and so on. These approaches aren’t used much nowadays because they are inflexible.




Read more:
From Twitterbots to VR: 10 of the best examples of digital literature


Writing by numbers

Statistical approaches were the state of the art for language-related tasks for many years. At the most basic level, they involve counting words and guessing what comes next.

As a simple exercise, you could generate text by randomly selecting words based on how often they normally occur. About 7% of your words would be “the” – it’s the most common word in English. But if you did it without considering context, you might get nonsense like “the the is night aware”.

More sophisticated approaches use “bigrams”, which are pairs of consecutive words, and “trigrams”, which are three-word sequences. This allows a bit of context and lets the current piece of text inform the next. For example, if you have the words “out of”, the next guessed word might be “time”.

This happens with the auto-complete and auto-suggest features when we write text messages or emails. Based on what we have just typed, what we tend to type and a pre-trained background model, the system predicts what’s next.

While bigram- and trigram-based statistical models can produce good results in simple situations, the best recent models go to another level of sophistication: deep learning neural networks.

Imitating the brain

Neural networks work a bit like tiny brains made of several layers of virtual neurons.

A neuron receives some input and may or may not “fire” (produce an output) based on that input. The output feeds into neurons in the next layer, cascading through the network.

The first artificial neuron was proposed in 1943 by US neuroscientists Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts, but they have only become useful for complex problems like generating text in the past five years.

To use neural networks for text, you put words into a kind of numbered index. You can use the number to represent a word, so for example 23,342 might represent “time”.

Neural networks do a series of calculations to go from sequences of numbers at the input layer, through the interconnected “hidden layers” inside, to the output layer. The output might be numbers representing the odds for each word in the index to be the next word of the text.

In our “out of” example, number 23,432 representing “time” would probably have much better odds than the number representing “do”.




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What’s so special about GPT-3?

GPT-3 is the latest and best of the text modelling systems, and it’s huge. The authors say it has 175 billion parameters, which makes it at least ten times larger than the previous biggest model. The neural network has 96 layers and, instead of mere trigrams, it keeps track of sequences of 2,048 words.

The most expensive and time-consuming part of making a model like this is training it – updating the weights on the connections between neurons and layers. Training GPT-3 would have used about 262 megawatt-hours of energy, or enough to run my house for 35 years.

GPT-3 can be applied to multiple tasks such as machine translation, auto-completion, answering general questions, and writing articles. While people can often tell its articles are not written by human authors, we are now likely to get it right only about half the time.

The robot writer

But back to how the article in The Guardian was created. GPT-3 needs a prompt of some kind to start it off. The Guardian’s staff gave the model instructions and some opening sentences.

This was done eight times, generating eight different articles. The Guardian’s editors then combined pieces from the eight generated articles, and “cut lines and paragraphs, and rearranged the order of them in some places”, saying “editing GPT-3’s op-ed was no different to editing a human op-ed”.

This sounds about right to me, based on my own experience with text-generating software. Earlier this year, my colleagues and I used GPT-2 to write the lyrics for a song we entered in the AI Song Contest, a kind of artificial intelligence Eurovision.

AI song Beautiful the World, by Uncanny Valley.

We fine-tuned the GPT-2 model using lyrics from Eurovision songs, provided it with seed words and phrases, then selected the final lyrics from the generated output.

For example, we gave Euro-GPT-2 the seed word “flying”, and then chose the output “flying from this world that has gone apart”, but not “flying like a trumpet”. By automatically matching the lyrics to generated melodies, generating synth sounds based on koala noises, and applying some great, very human, production work, we got a good result: our song, Beautiful the World, was voted the winner of the contest.

Co-creativity: humans and AI together

So can we really say an AI is an author? Is it the AI, the developers, the users or a combination?

A useful idea for thinking about this is “co-creativity”. This means using generative tools to spark new ideas, or to generate some components for our creative work.

Where an AI creates complete works, such as a complete article, the human becomes the curator or editor. We roll our very sophisticated dice until we get a result we’re happy with.




Read more:
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The Conversation


Alexandra Louise Uitdenbogerd, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Book review: Blood Price by Tanya Huff

Blood Price (Vicki Nelson #1)Blood Price by Tanya Huff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All librarians need the training to minimise loaning occult books to unhinged people.

Vicki Nelson was a respected Toronto detective until her eyesight deteriorated. Now operating as a private detective, she accidentally stumbles upon a vicious murder. Her interest in the case is piqued when more killings occur and she is hired to investigate one of the murders by a grieving client. But the murders have also caught the attention of Henry Fitzroy. The victims being drained of blood brings talk of vampires, and the last thing a vampire like Henry needs is a mob hunting him. Vicki and Henry’s paths cross and they decide to team up to try and stop the murderer.

Half-a-year ago I read Tanya Huff’s Summon the Keeper. I enjoyed that amusing and fun urban paranormal novel so I decided to try Huff’s Blood series. The styles of the two series are very different. The Keeper series is humorous and firmly set in the paranormal world. The Blood series has a much more serious tone and has an emphasis on the paranormal bleeding into the real world.

Blood Price has a lot in common with other detective paranormal stories, like the Dresden Files. So if you enjoy that sort of novel, then you’ll like this too.

Related to this point about similarities to other paranormal series, something I noted with both of Huff’s works was that there were many elements I’d seen elsewhere. But these novels were written and published a decade or more before others were using them. Does that mean Huff is due some royalties or just some hat-tips?

I sense more Tanya Huff books in my reading future.

View all my reviews

‘Let the soul dangle’: how mind-wandering spurs creativity

The Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer was regarded by his friends as a master in the art of mind-wandering. He could become ‘enwrapped’ in his own pleasant reflections, wrote the German humanist Willibald Pirckheimer, at which times Dürer ‘would seem the happiest person on Earth’.

Many of us are familiar with mind-wandering in a number of guises: procrastination, reflection, meditation, self-flagellation, daydreaming. But while some mental meandering seems fruitful, on other occasions it has the unmistakeable bite of a bad habit, something that holds us back from reaching our full potential. Reverie can be a reprieve from reality and a font of inspiration, yes. But equally familiar is the mind’s tendency to devolve into sour and fruitless rumination when left to its own devices, especially when we’re in the grip of depression, anxiety or obsession.

Can art itself be a useful catalyst for nudging us towards more helpful emotions and mental states? Whether in the form of literature, rap or abstract oil painting, many of us know we can improve the tenor of our thoughts by contemplating art. The Germans have a lovely saying for the benefits of keeping an idle (or idling) mind: ‘die Seele baumeln lassen’, meaning ‘let the soul dangle’. Now, the emerging science of neuroaesthetics is beginning to reveal the biological processes that sit behind such ‘dangling’.

To begin with, contemporary cognitive science has presented a vast amount of evidence that mental states send and receive ripples of cause and effect across the rest of the body. Think how your mouth might water when you look at a photo of a tasty chocolate cake, or how tense you feel when watching a suspenseful TV drama. Thoughts, feelings and emotions, whether aimless or deliberate, are a somatic cascade of multiple biological events. And it’s this cascade that art somehow taps into.

Galen, the second-century Greek physician, was well aware of the connection between mind and body. He believed that mind-wandering was the result of physical and mental lassitude, and so prescribed a regime of logic and hard, structured work to avoid it. ‘Laziness breeds humours of the blood!’ Galen is believed to have said. The assumption here is that concentration is a kind of psychobiological discipline, something we have to work at to stop our wayward minds and bodies from veering out of our control.

However, there’s an even older tradition from Ancient Greece that views daydreaming as a boost to our wellbeing. Galen’s Hippocratic forebears argued that mind-wandering was in fact the best strategy for guiding us back into healthy states. And modern-day research in developmental psychology has shown that children and adults who engage in certain kinds of mind-wandering actually display more cognitive flexibility, and perform better when called upon to exercise ‘executive’ functions such as problem-solving, planning and managing their own thoughts and feelings.

Neuroimaging – a method of ‘seeing’ the brain in action – has started to reveal the brain processes that correlate with these mental states. Far from falling idle, the brains of people asked to stay still and think of nothing in particular continue to fizz and pop in patterns of activity known as the default mode network (DMN). These activations are closely related to those engaged during self-referential thinking, the experience of the self, and intuition. Moreover, they are observed alongside activation patterns in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) – the area typically associated with those important ‘executive’ functions. Strikingly, the greater the strength of the relationship between these two domains of the brain – intuition and executive function – the more creativity a person tends to display when asked to solve a problem. Brain scans demonstrate correlation, not causation; but even so, they hint at the possibility that reverie might help to prime us to think both productively and creatively by somehow cementing our sense of self, drawing body and mind together in a train of thought and biological action.

Art can be a catalyst for this sort of reverie, as well as a tool to regulate and control it. Both the basic properties of art (whether it’s in a minor or major key; the colours of a painting), as well as the complexities of its content (the lyrics of a song, the facial expression of a person in a painting), can induce reflections and emotions – and will invariably affect our body’s physiology. Thinking creatively, and engaging with works of art, have both been correlated with DMN activity – especially when people report that the aesthetic experience was particularly strong and meaningful to them. In these moments, our encounter with art seems to trigger an autobiographical daydreaming, a flow experience with a ‘me factor’.

Of course, art can also provoke unhelpful ruminative urges. Listening over and again to that song might not help you get over a heartbreak. But art-induced sadness doesn’t always make you slide into negative mental loops. In fact, art can help us adapt to the immediate source of pain by acting as a prop for emotional catharsis. We all know the strange, pleasurable, consoling feeling that comes after having a good cry. This experience appears to be precipitated by the release of the hormone prolactin, which has also been associated with a boosted immune system, as well as bonding with other people. The arts are a relatively safe space in which to have such an emotional episode, compared with the real-life emotional situations that make us cry. Even sad or otherwise distressing art can be used to trigger a kind of positive, psychobiological cleansing via mind-wandering.

History is full of examples of the relationship between reverie and creativity. Here is one, idiosyncratic example: the German art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929) organised his library of 50,000 books with the aim of promoting mind-wandering. His collection was the kernel for the Warburg Institute in London, where we now work as researchers. Each of the library’s four floors is devoted to one of four themes – image, word, orientation, and action – and separated into sub-themes, such as ‘magic and science’, ‘transmission of classical texts’, and ‘art history’. Guided by Warburg’s ideas about what makes a good neighbour for a book, this unique approach to classification allows a withered 17th-century medical tome to cluster next to texts on mathematics, the cosmos and harmony. The shelves promote intellectual serendipity as you skip from the book (or thought) you thought you wanted, to another intriguing idea or topic that hadn’t even occurred to you.

Art appreciation is held in high esteem in most cultures and societies. It is often portrayed as a laborious cognitive exercise, but this is to forget that the arts provide an opportunity for intense emotional experiences, positive mind-wandering and psychobiological self-regulation. Dürer perhaps captures the activity of such inactivity best of all. ‘If a man devotes himself to art,’ he wrote, ‘much evil is avoided that happens otherwise if one is idle.’Aeon counter – do not remove

Julia Christensen, Guido Giglioni & Manos Tsakiris

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
https://aeon.co/ideas/let-the-soul-dangle-how-mind-wandering-spurs-creativity

Book review: Fake Truth by Lee Goldberg

Fake Truth (Ian Ludlow Thrillers #3)Fake Truth by Lee Goldberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Writer career choices:
a) Book author
b) Propaganda, disinformation, and scheme development for governments
c) Counter-intel agent for governments
d) Office job in a cubicle (it’s this one).

After their successful operation in China, Ian and Margo are back in the USA. Margo is Ian’s CIA handler, Ian has writers’ block and a movie star girlfriend, and the CIA want the next “story” from Ian. Someone is pulling the strings of US sentiments, trying to spark a civil war, and the CIA wants Ian to figure it out. Can he figure it out with an unhealthy dose of cable news and overseas holiday?

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this series so far. In Fake Truth, Lee has pulled together a funny and exciting adventure with some biting critiques of our current political landscape. It’s exactly the sort of fun time you want from a novel released in 2020.

One of my favourite aspects of Fake Truth was the various characters and their real-life inspirations. How can you go past an American movie star, overweight, past his prime, pony-tail, and now in Russia writing propaganda for the Kremlin? It made me laugh even before getting to the part where he referred to himself as the greatest writer of all time.

Well worth reading.

NB: I received an advanced review copy in exchange for an honest review.

View all my reviews

Book review: The Divide by Jason Hickel

The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its SolutionsThe Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions by Jason Hickel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How good is stealing from the poor?

The Divide attempts to help everyone understand that inequality has been made and entrenched by us in rich nations (global North). We created the systems, stole the wealth, marginalised the peoples, and dropped a whole lot of freedom bombs when anyone tried to get out from under our thumbs. Hickel covers how this happened, how it continues, and outlines paths forward that don’t involve growing the global GDP (consumption) by 175 times.

This was a fascinating book. It skewered many of the “good news” narratives that (sometimes) well-meaning intellectuals broadcast about progress and inequality. Too many of the “facts” often lack the context that Hickel brings into play in The Divide.

I first became interested in Hickel’s writing after seeing Steven Pinker’s “Everything is Fine” arguments being challenged by Taleb, Hickel, Giridharadas, and Lent. As much as I’m not a fan of the bloviating Nassim Taleb, his points were the first to make me reassess just accepting the merchants of the status quo’s narrative. That was when I came across some posts from Jason and Jeremy Lent. Before long it became semi-fashionable to dunk on Pinker, even Oxfam got in on the act.*

If there is an area where The Divide falls down it is in the same areas that many progressive books do. I’ve mentioned this before in my review of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. In fact, the problems here are the exact same misunderstandings of agriculture as with Klein’s book. To Hickel’s credit, he does appear to have a firmer grasp of agriculture and doesn’t make as many missteps on other issues.

One of the points that Hickel makes throughout his book has started to gain prominence in addressing environmental issues (like climate change). You can’t just tinker with a growth system and not still end up with many of the same problems. We need a different way to run our economy, particularly so that environmental destruction doesn’t continue to be rewarded as it currently is.

The Divide is a must-read. If people were willing to acknowledge inequality’s causes and how our current systems don’t address it, we might actually start making some progress in not ruining people’s lives.

* Probably why Pinker is complaining about SJWs and chatting with IDW nutbags these days.

Comments while reading…. by comments I mean quotes I liked:
Great quote about how the “good news on progress” narrative is nothing more than an “Everything is Fine” justification of the status quo. You see this a lot and superficially it is correct. Just don’t look too hard.

“This is what I call the ‘good-news narrative’ about poverty. It is a comforting story, a welcome contrast to the depressing tales that often fill the daily news cycle. After all, it feels good to take a step back and realise that things are not as bad as they seem – that in the broad scheme of things, the world is gradually getting better. It is a story that vindicates our civilisation and affirms our deepest and most powerful ideas about progress.

It also serves as a potent political tool. The good-news narrative enjoins us to believe that the global economic system is on the right track. It implies that if we want to eradicate suffering, we should stick with the status quo and refrain from making drastic changes. For anyone who has an interest in maintaining the present order of distribution – the global 1 per cent, for instance – the good-news narrative is a useful story indeed.”

“To eradicate poverty at $5 a day, global GDP would have to increase to 175 times its present size.”

“Right now, the main strategy for eliminating poverty is to increase global GDP growth. The idea is that the yields of growth will gradually trickle down to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people. But all the data we have shows quite clearly that GDP growth doesn’t really benefit the poor. While global GDP per capita has grown by 65 per cent since 1990, the number of people living on less than $5 a day has increased by more than 370 million. Why does growth not help reduce poverty? Because the yields of growth are very unevenly distributed. The poorest 60 per cent of humanity receive only 5 per cent of all new income generated by global growth. The other 95 per cent of the new income goes to the richest 40 per cent of people. And that’s under best-case-scenario conditions. Given this distribution ratio, Woodward calculates that it will take more than 100 years to eradicate absolute poverty at $1.25 a day. At the more accurate level of $5 a day, eradicating poverty will take 207 years. This is the best we can expect from the business-as-usual trajectory of the development industry. And keep in mind that Woodward’s methodology is not able to capture the poorest 1 per cent of the world’s population, who will still remain in poverty even at the end of this period. That’s 90 million people who will remain in poverty for ever.”

“It is tempting to see this as just a list of crimes, but it is much more than that. These snippets of history hint at the contours of a world economic system that was designed over hundreds of years to enrich a small portion of humanity at the expense of the vast majority. By the early part of the 20th century, this new order was complete, designed so that the core of the system – Europe and the United States – could siphon cheap raw materials from the periphery and then sell manufactured products back to them while protecting themselves from competition by erecting disproportionately high tariffs.”

View all my reviews

Book review: The Deficit Myth by Stephanie Kelton

The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People's EconomyThe Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy by Stephanie Kelton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Store: How are you going to pay for that?
Me: By making up money.
Store: Sir, you’re not a government.

In the Deficit Myth, Stephanie Kelton attempts to outline how governments actually spend money, what that means, how decision-makers (and the broader public) fail to understand how government money works, and outlines a new way to think about debts and deficits. It all comes under the banner of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).

There’s a line in the final chapter of The Deficit Myth that essentially sums up the book.
“We are no longer on a gold standard, and yet much of our political discourse is still rooted in that outmoded way of thinking.”
MMT is essentially how fiat currencies operate, yet most of our “the economy is like a household budget” thinking is rooted in the past of the gold standard.

From that point of view, the book is less about making the argument for MMT but rather it is trying to make everyone wake up to reality. This does lead to quite a bit of repetition throughout the book which I note some reviewers were critical of.

Which leads me to a few criticisms. The first is that many of the ideas, such as addressing social inequality and funding for social needs (schools, healthcare, welfare), are things I support but don’t necessarily come under the banner of how the economy works. Kelton is tying these things together, which may be something that is supported in the wider MMT literature but not here. This is especially critical given the fact that not all currencies are fiat in nature, so not all countries/economies could utilise MMT.*

Another criticism was the jobs guarantee. The concept had me immediately thinking of David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs. Kelton does little to dispel this assumption, referring to external works and how they would be community needs (bottom-up) driven. There isn’t really any argument made for this versus a Universal Basic Income or Unemployment Benefits set at just above the poverty line. I’m not against the idea though. As she discusses, this could be used to address a lot of society’s needs and could address a lot of externalities like environmental issues.

My biggest criticism was that MMT wasn’t addressing one of the key problems with the growth/capitalistic economy on a finite planet. There are assertions MMT could address issues like climate change, but there is an assumption that the economy can keep growing. While there are implications that it would be similar to Richard Denniss’ arguments around the shape of the economy changing (growth that isn’t consumptive), there were explicit statements of growing the economy and merely reforming capitalism.

I’ll finish on a positive note because this is a book well worth reading. Something that MMT and The Deficit Myth highlights is how political government spending is. There is always enough money to wage war or give a trust-fund kid a tax cut so they can post even more photos on Instagram of them eating gold flake pizza. But if we start talking about finding money for addressing poverty or funding schools so they can afford books printed this century, then suddenly it is all about “How are you going to pay for that?” It shows that those choices are always ideological. Politicians don’t want to help the less fortunate, they don’t want to have a social safety net (health, education, and income), they want to court power instead. They have literally chosen to let people die (both from lack of resources and in the wars they wage).

* A common critique I’ve seen of MMT is that the countries who have fiat currencies and can utilise printing of money are the same countries who have exploited the poorer nations who can’t use MMT. This ends up being another way to create inequality between nations, handing more power to rich nations or a body like the EU. This is a point covered in Jason Hickle’s The Divide.

Edit: Have to add this great little video from the late David Graeber. It covers one of the points and graphs Kelton has made in her lectures. I’ll be reviewing Graeber’s book on debt sometime soon.

Comments as I was reading:
There was a good point made about government fiscal policy. Essentially, most sovereign governments already utilise MMT for the stuff they want to spend money on. They use the “debt is bad” or “household budget” argument to justify doing the stuff they don’t want to do.

So as Richard Denniss pointed out in his book (and elsewhere), governments always seem to have money for their policies but not for anything the public wants.

Or put another way: government money is political. There is always enough money for anything we’d like to see happen, just politicians who don’t want to do that (and are ideologically opposed to it). People in poverty is a choice a politician has made. People dying from lack of healthcare or hospital resourcing is a choice a politician has made.

I like the description of MMT being how a fiat currency operates while most behave like we still have a gold standard.

Criticism:
MMT has some good ideas about unemployment being used to control inflation, despite that being supposition and at the expense of the most vulnerable in society. But, the jobs guarantee doesn’t really address unemployment or social security so much as offer potentially offer “make work” or “bullshit jobs”. She doesn’t go into a lot of detail in the book (papers are listed though) what the jobs program would entail.

Another point is that MMT is still looking to grow the economy. Higher consumption is still the goal. So it is still firmly in the camp of “capitalism: yay!!” Reform rather than change. Which means it is not addressing the problems raised in The Divide and finite resources.

Kelton does have a USA centric argument. MMT is argued as being awesome and able to solve lots of problems. Except not all countries have fiat currencies.

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Books to musicals

This month It’s Lit! looks at the source material that helps people burst into song.

It’s gotta be said: I’m not a fan of musicals.

Maybe it was the “Andrew Llyod Webber’s Greatest Hits” tape that infected our car stereo during long trips as a child. Maybe it is that for every good song in a musical there is three to twenty average to terrible songs. Maybe it’s that my idea of a musical begins and ends with Elvis movies (We’re Gonna Win This Race).

It appears clear that my appreciation of musicals is somewhat shaped by poor childhood experiences. These scars are real!!

Regardless, it is still interesting to see how the adaptations of books are very important in the creation of musicals. The writing process is obviously very complicated to take a book and not only capture the story in a visual form, but also write songs that don’t make you take a power drill to your ears.

Perhaps transforming books into musicals is the peak of book adaptations.

Some say that theater is dead, and that’s probably because most playhouses the world over are closed at the moment owing to a worldwide pandemic. and yet the musical lives on… on Disney plus — as the nation has been rapt with a filmed version of the Broadway smash hit, Hamilton.

This had us come to the realization that a lot of the bread and butter of musical theater is built off of books! And so, like every television program that starts looking for new ideas, it has finally come to this: The It’s Lit! Musical episode

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.

Young New Zealanders are turning off reading in record numbers – we need a new approach to teaching literacy

http://www.shutterstock.com

Christine Braid, Massey University

Meet Otis. He’s eight years old and until recently he didn’t want to read or write. Then his teacher changed the way she taught and things began to improve.

After a few weeks, Otis (not his real name, but he’s a real child) wanted to read and write at every opportunity. With this new-found knowledge and motivation his skill increased too. And his confidence.

So what was different? Technically, Otis’s teacher had begun using what is known as a structured approach to teaching literacy. Essential for children with a literacy learning difficulty such as dyslexia, it has been shown to be beneficial for all children.

The structured approach is a departure from what is known as the “implicit” teaching approach most teachers have used in the classroom. There are now calls for “explicit” instruction to be adopted more generally, including a petition recently presented to the New Zealand Parliament.

New data suggest this is an urgent problem, with growing numbers of young people turning off reading. According to a recent report from the Education Ministry’s chief education science adviser, 52% of 15-year-olds now say they read only if they have to – up from 38% in 2009.

The report made a number of recommendations, including that the ability to “decode” words become a focus in the first years of school. The importance of decoding to literacy success was reiterated by learning disability and dyslexia advocacy group SPELD NZ. It called for a change in teacher training and urgent professional development in structured literacy teaching.




Read more:
Why every child needs explicit phonics instruction to learn to read


How does a structured approach work?

Structured literacy teaching means the knowledge and skills for reading and writing are explicitly taught in a sequence, from simple to more complex. Children learn to decode simple words such as tap, hit, red and fun before they read words with more complex spelling patterns such as down, found or walked.

Learning correct letter formation is a priority. Mastery of these skills builds a strong foundation for reading and writing, without which progress is slow, motivation stalls and achievement suffers.

children's books with words and pictures
The simple spelling in structured literacy texts helps children decode the words and build confidence.
Author provided

The books children first read in a structured approach employ these restricted spelling patterns. Reading these with his teacher’s help, Otis built on his skills with simple words and progressed to decoding words with advanced spelling patterns.

These structured lessons also allowed him to master letter and sentence formation, so he made progress in writing too.

Old approaches aren’t working

By contrast, an implicit approach to teaching reading essentially means children have lots of opportunities to read and write, and learn along the way with teacher guidance.

Unfortunately, children like Otis can get lost along the way, too.

Implicit reading books use words with a variety of spelling patterns – for example: Mum found a sandal. “Look at the sandal,” said Mum.




Read more:
Explainer: what’s the difference between decodable and predictable books, and when should they be used?


When Otis tried to read these books, he looked at the pictures or tried to remember the teacher’s introduction before attempting the words. But he was not building his skills and was getting left behind.

Otis is not alone, and New Zealand’s literacy results support the calls for change. Despite many interventions and the daily hard work of teachers, it is common for schools to report 30% of children with low reading results and 40% with low writing results.

However, a Massey University study in 2019 found reading outcomes improved when teachers were trained in a structured approach. The results were particularly good for children with the lowest results prior to intervention.

Overall, the findings suggest the change in teaching had a positive effect on children’s learning.

An example of how structured literacy is taught in the US; methods vary depending on the country.

Change is already happening

Fortunately for children like Otis, more teachers are now seeking training in a structured approach. One project based on the Massey research involved more than 100 teachers in over 40 schools. Teacher comments suggest the knowledge and training support has helped them change their teaching for the benefit of the whole class.




Read more:
The top ranking education systems in the world aren’t there by accident. Here’s how Australia can climb up


Further signs of hope include recent Ministry of Education efforts to develop structured approach teaching materials, and the resources now available for teachers on the ministry’s Te Kete Ipurangi support site.

No one pretends change is easy in a complex area such as literacy teaching. But every child like Otis has the right succeed, and every teacher has the right to be supported in their approach to helping Otis and his peers learn.

With courage and effort at every level of the system – not just from classroom teachers – a structured approach to literacy teaching can improve outcomes and have a positive impact that will stay with children for the rest of their lives.The Conversation

Christine Braid, Professional Learning and Development Facilitator in Literacy Education, Massey University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Book review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, #1)Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sing a happy song about imperialism… Oh, there aren’t any?

Breq is all that remains of the once-great warship Justice of Toren. Having been a ship for over a thousand years, she is somewhat annoyed at having been destroyed to keep a cold-war secret. In the 20 years since the destruction, she has travelled to find the tools needed to bring justice for the ship and crew to the Radch. With her new sidekick, Seivarden, she plans to turn the cold-war hot.

In the first few chapters of Ancillary Justice, I wasn’t sure if I was enjoying the story. The usual checkboxes for sci-fi novels were being ticked, but that didn’t really feel like enough to push this into the enjoyment zone. Since this is an award-winning novel, I persisted. Now at the end of the novel, I’m left with the same feeling.

If I could summarise my feeling about Ancillary Justice, it would be that this is an okay novel. Want a sci-fi novel? Then this is certainly one of those.

Reading that summary back, I admit it sounds very scathing. So I want to make it clear that this isn’t a bad book. There is a lot to enjoy with it and is generally well-executed. And in the grand tradition of sci-fi, the satisfying ending still leaves plenty for the sequel. I guess I just didn’t bond with Leckie’s much-hyped novel as much as I expected.

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War and Peace and Everything Else

Okay, I guess we can discuss War and Peace…

I got to about page 8 of War and Peace. So only 0.6% of the +1200 pages.

Well, obviously I didn’t give the novel a fair chance.

Don’t care. I have no intention of revisiting it.

People always talk about battling through War and Peace in small chunks because it is such an important and blah blah blah book. If it was really important it wouldn’t have been so boring as to necessitate reading it in small chunks.

I’ve previously mentioned War and Peace in my post on books people claim to have read but haven’t. As discussed in the video, it isn’t a novel that most are going to get into or enjoy. The appeal of a book of this sort is rather narrow. That doesn’t make it a bad book, despite my comments above, but it does mean that there is a certain cachet to having read it. It is certainly the sort of “important” book literary snobs love to talk about.

In some respects, I’m glad that War and Peace is something of a publishing relic. Otherwise, we might have dozens of “very important authors” churning out 1000 page novels with 500 characters and scant regard for the plot/point.

According to Tolstoy himself, War and Peace was “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle.”

And in this day and age of publishing, where word count, “readability”, and topical relevance are the lifeline of getting a novel to print, we look at books like War & Peace as something of a relic.

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 vs Movie: Total Recall – What’s the Difference?

In this month’s What’s the Difference, CineFix look at Total Recall* and Phillip K Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.

Can you believe it has been 30 years since the release of Total Recall? At least nobody invented Johnny Cabs in that time.

Many years ago I wrote a post discussing my thoughts about the differences between the first Total Recall movie, the remake with Kate Beckinsale (and some guy called Co-lin Faarill), and the book/short story. In it, I talked about how quickly the movies diverge from the book, essentially before the end of the first act (around the inciting incident). And then I went on to spend several thousand words complaining about the lack of massive biceps and extra boobs in the remake.

For me, this comparison of book to movie and remake shows just how far you can diverge from the source material whilst still retaining a lot of similarities. It also shows the strength of the original premise from Phillip K Dick, because even the remake of Total Recall didn’t completely suck, despite having Len Wiseman involved.**

I’m sure by the time the fortieth anniversary for the original movie rolls around, Hollywood will have released at least two remakes, a TV show, a Mars Lander tie-in short movie with a digitally recreated young Arnie, and a triple breast augmentation procedure.

* The first one, not the bland remake with the genocide of robots.

** The remake mainly suffers from being just that bit soulless. It doesn’t feel like anyone involved cared that much about the film, just that it was a good solid paycheque. As a result, they churned out a good solid action movie that is largely forgettable. Another one in the long line of perfectly adequate movies that make you feel like you’ve been robbed of the opportunity for something better. Not bad enough to justify your hate, but not good enough that you’ll forgive its flaws.

Some News:

I apologise for the lack of updates lately. I have several book reviews I haven’t gotten to, a couple of posts I’ve contemplated and then given up on, and a few of my regular posts (like this Book vs Movie series) that I haven’t published. This is partly sheer laziness and partly due to having taken on a freelance writing job for a magazine due out later this month. I’ll attempt to get back to weekly posts soon.

The Constructed Languages of JRR Tolkien

Let’s have a look at making up languages for stories.

I don’t know how I feel about constructed languages in fiction. On the one hand, it can be a great part of worldbuilding, something that adds another layer of realism or interest to the story. On the other hand, it’s a fake language that I’m going to skip reading because I can’t understand it BECAUSE IT’S MADE UP AND NO ONE BUT THE AUTHOR UNDERSTANDS IT.

Obviously, a lot of thought goes into worldbuilding, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy. Part of that will be trying to come up with interesting places that naturally derive the conflicts of the story. Where would it be realistic for a clan of ninja pirates to run a soup kitchen for homeless astronauts? What sort of world would allow a conflict between the soup kitchen and a basketweaving franchise run by outcast chartered accountants?* These are not easy things to construct in a satisfying and consistent/rational way.

Language is a natural extension of this worldbuilding. The ninja pirates are clearly not going to have the same slang or language as the chartered accountants. But they still have to be understood by the homeless astronauts. Does this require a language though? Does it even require rational slang? Is it going to feel natural to Ar and Eye through dialogue or is it going to feel annoying and distracting?

When all said and done, is this just backstory that doesn’t need to appear on the page? Often what happens is that because someone has put so much time and effort into creating a language (or other worldbuilding antics) they feel the desperate need to make sure every excruciating detail is given to the reader. Some readers may enjoy tolerate this, but others may sign the offending author up to be the chief target holder at the World Beginners’ Archery Contest.

As with everything in writing, good execution is key. Especially if you want to avoid just the execution.

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Funny meme is inaccurate**

Tolkien is widely regarded as the most influential author on the fantasy genre… period. But one of the less-discussed aspects of his work is the way Tolkien used constructed language in his writing.

Nowadays authors are constantly making up words and languages for the worlds they build, but Tolkien was unique in that he constructed languages first, and then created worlds so his fictional languages would have somewhere to live.

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.

This channel has an interesting series on writing craft and worldbuilding. The most recent video covered social structures that has some nice parallels with language.

* The answer to both of these questions is, of course, Florida. I don’t want this to sound mean to Floridians, but the latest “Florida man/woman” arrests news articles suggest if there is a place anything could happen, it is Florida.

** Had to share the meme, but a friend of a friend pointed out it is inaccurate, and that Amon Amarth are awesome:

Russell K
Yeah, hate to be that guy, but Treebeard had a name that “was growing all the time” – Treebeard was shorthand for hobbitish convenience. Tolkien had multiple names for most things, and it’s disingenuous for the OP to pick on just one. Mount Doom, for example, was Orodruin and Amon Amarth, a name so evocative it was co-opted by a melodic death metal band.

Book review: Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett

Reaper Man (Discworld #11)Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I AM NOT SURE THERE IS SUCH A THING AS RIGHT. OR WRONG. JUST PLACES TO STAND.”

The Auditors of Reality have had enough of Death. His fledgling personality doesn’t seem right to them. So they contact Death’s boss, Azrael, who decides to give death to Death. This seems like a wonderful chance for Death, who takes a job as the farmhand Bill Door. But The Auditors, being the obviously efficient types, have failed to have a succession plan and haven’t hired the new Death. This creates some interesting problems for the recently deceased residents of the Disc.

When I picked up Reaper Man, my exact thoughts were “I don’t think I’ve read a Pratchett book for at least a couple of months, must be time for another one.” I’m gradually working my way through all the Discworld novels with an emphasis on the ones involving Death and The Watch. The City Watch books often tend to have a more solid plot, whereas the Death novels can feel a bit more ambivalent about plots.

Reaper Man did have a solid plot, but it felt more like a series of pins being used to hang worldbuilding and character development on. If that sounds like a criticism, it isn’t. More an observation that could be applied to most Discworld novels. I mention it here because the character arc ends after the plot, which can mess with some people’s appreciation of stories.*

I’m looking forward to my next Discworld adventure soon.

This short animated pilot is based upon Reaper Man:

* This is pretty much what people are complaining about when they say that The Lord of the Rings movies have too many endings. The plots are tied up long before the character arcs are.

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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?

Lay articles:
Charles Murray is once again peddling junk science about race and IQ: Podcaster and author Sam Harris is the latest to fall for it.
Sam Harris, Charles Murray, and the allure of race science: This is not “forbidden knowledge.” It is America’s most ancient justification for bigotry and racial inequality.

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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