Are Graphic Novels… Novels?

This month’s It’s Lit! dives into the world of graphic novels.

Obviously, I’m a fan of graphic novels. I think that the format provides an interesting and engaging storytelling method. Sometimes I think of graphic novels as a step between novels and movies (storyboards anyone?). Other times I think of them as a great way to pair down a story to its elements. And then there are the times when I don’t think too hard and just enjoy reading graphic novels.

I’ve previously written about how the snobbery of literature is especially pointed when it comes to graphic novels. And it always seems to come back to holding up a very certain kind of novel as “literature” and everything else as “unworthy”. Something I’ve come to call defending Fort Literature from the invading Lesser Works.

Maybe if people just gave graphic novels a chance to entertain them…

In the past few decades, literature has expanded to not only mean the “novel” but “graphic novels” as well. Today we are gonna break down how the graphic novel went from the comic book store to the classroom. 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: Debt The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

Debt: The First 5,000 YearsDebt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Invent money so you can take it off of people… Ingenious?

Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a comprehensive dive into the history of money, credit, and society/economy. It acts as a direct refutation of the commonly taught economic ideas about money and exchange systems that make up our economies (past and present). In doing so, Graeber draws on countless examples, historical evidence, and anthropological research to outline the major flaws with our current economic system.

This book was a very important read. It doesn’t just overturn many assumptions, it shows how those assumptions are taught as fact to perpetuate our current system. But probably the most important point Debt makes is that our current system doesn’t fully account for the human economy which means it will ultimately fail and we need to replace it with a system that does account for everything.

That said, at about halfway through Debt I found myself starting to wave my hand for Graeber to move it along a bit. At two-thirds, I was signalling for him to wrap it up already. Having read several of Graeber’s books and essays now, I feel Debt was his most important but also most meandering. In some ways, it reminded me of Das Kapital in this respect.

I fully expect this book will be ignored by economists, with fists firmly shoved into ears. You should probably read it though.

Comments while reading:
I’ve heard the barter (myth) explanation so many times. But now that I’ve read some examples of where that isn’t used, or is used quite differently from what we conventionally are told happened in the past, you realise that its pretty much a whole-cloth nonsense. I mean, who’d have thunk that sharing would have been common among our ancestors? It’s still common today when things go pear-shaped. So bloody obvious.

MMT explainer on the creation of money. Having read about MMT (Modern Monetary Theory) in Stephanie Kelton’s book, seeing it used here only reinforces both texts. Someone needs to create a market, hand out credit and demand a proportion be repaid. Goods are exchanged. Eventually, money turns up as an accounting measure.

Interesting side note about the Hindu philosophy of Nyaya that rivals pre-Socratic philosophy. It has an interesting idea about how logic shouldn’t be doing a content-independent “formal language” but instead incorporating logic with content in the language of the philosophy. They also independently came up with atomism. Funny how we don’t hear Nyaya discussed but we are hammered with “western philosophy”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nyaya

Two-thirds through and I’m signalling for Graeber to wrap it up. I understand that when overthrowing orthodoxy you’re going to have to show your work… but I kinda feel like the point could have been made in a few hundred pages less.

Summary: the orthodox view of money and the economy is wrong. It doesn’t correctly understand nor value the entirety of our human economy, which is more correctly a credit system. The credit system is actually how our society works, thus we have to move our economic system to one that utilises this. Essentially, mutual aid and trade. The evidence for this is seen in every community, every time there is a disaster, and throughout history. /end.

View all my reviews

Book vs Movie: Netflix’s Rebecca – What’s the Difference?

This month’s What’s the Difference from Cinefix looks at Rebecca.

I think it was quite interesting to have the director involved in the discussion of doing an adaptation. Many of the points he made about what you can and can’t do are a good take-away.

One of the key points made was around what is cinematic. In books you can make a point or convey an idea without having to bash the reader with it (unless you are Dan Brown, in which case you’ll bash them with it repeatedly just to make sure that the people who take 6 months to read a book don’t forget something important). Movies can’t do that to the same extent without leaving the viewer a little bit dissatisfied. Unless you are being very arty, in which case, imply away and trigger years of debates over whether Cobb was still dreaming.

Unfortunately, I think the thing missing from this video was the discussion of the success of various choices made in adaptation. It is all well and good to say that “we wanted to give her more agency” but was that done effectively? Does that remain faithful to the book, or is it a departure that was unwarranted?

The other thing that was missing was a discussion with the author about the adaptation and their thoughts. Why didn’t they dig up Daphne du Maurier and and reanimate her corpse for a quick interview? Are people even trying these days?

Last night I dreamt director Ben Wheatley joined us for an episode of What’s the Difference! Netflix’s update to the Daphne du Maurier classic Rebecca is here and the filmmaker behind the latest adaptation walked through some of the finer points of the process. How does a 1930’s romantic thriller murdery mystery that’s been in print for 80 years find it’s way to a modern streaming platform with Armie Hammer and Lily James? It’s time ask Ben Wheatley, what’s the difference?

Australian literature is chronically underfunded — here’s how to help it flourish

Kate Winslet in the 2015 film The Dressmaker. The film was based on the novel by Australian writer Rosalie Ham. Screen Australia, Film Art Media, White Hot Productions

Gail Jones, Western Sydney University

This is an edited version of author Gail Jones’ submission to the parliamentary inquiry into the creative industries.

Literary culture carries profound social value. In general terms it is essential to employment, cultural literacy and understanding of community, as well as to Australia’s post-pandemic recovery and growth. It is also radically underfunded and in urgent need of new support.

I am particularly concerned with the low level of investment in literature through state and federal funding agencies compared with other art forms.

The economic benefits

Literature is a mainstay of the creative and cultural industries, which contributed $63.5 billion to the Australian economy in 2016-17. Creative arts employ 645,000 Australians and those numbers were increasing before the pandemic. Literature operates in the economy in many and complicated ways, since writers are “primary producers” of creative content.

Books form an often invisible bedrock of robust resources for the wider economy. They provide creative content in areas such as film, television, theatre and opera; moreover they contribute fundamentally to the educational sector, to libraries, events and what might be called our forms of cultural conversation.

Julia Ormond and Angourie Rice in Ladies in Black, a 2018 film based on the novel by Australian author Madeleine St John. Lumila Films, Ladies in Black SPV, Screen Australia

The most conspicuous areas of economic benefit and employment are libraries, universities, schools, festivals, bookshops and publishing.

Indirect benefits, such as to tourism and cross-cultural understanding, are often overlooked in reference to the economic benefits of literature. Our books carry implicit, prestigious reference to a national culture and place; they attract interest, visitors and students and arguably establish a presence of ideas above and beyond more direct mechanisms of cultural exchange.

Cross-cultural exchange and understanding are crucial to the literary industries and of inestimable benefit in “recommending” Australia and its stories.

However, writers’ incomes are disastrously low, $12,900 on average; and COVID-19 has eliminated other forms of supplementary income. It has always been difficult to live as a writer in Australia (which is why most of us have “day jobs”) and it is clear writers are disproportionately disadvantaged. Although essential to the economic benefits of a healthy arts sector overall, writers are less supported by our institutions and infrastructure.


Read more: Five ways to boost Australian writers’ earnings


Total literature funding at the Australia Council has decreased by 44% over the past six years from $9 million in 2013-14 to $5.1 million in 2018-19. The abolition of specific literature programs such as Get Reading, Books Alive and the Book Council has been responsible for much of this decrease.

We need additional government-directed support such as the funding delivered to visual arts through the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy ($6.6 million in 2018-19), regional touring delivered through Playing Australia ($7.4 million 2018-19) and the Major Festivals Initiative ($1.5 million 2018-19).

Melbourne’s State Library. Valeriu Campan/AAP

Shaping national identity

The literary culture in Australia is chronically underfunded, but its benefits are persistent, precious and immense. “Social well-being” requires social literacy, a sense of connection to one’s history, community and self: these are generated and nourished through narrative, conversation and reflection.

The literary arts create a sense of pride, community and solidarity. A single library in a country town can offer astonishing opportunities of learning and self-knowledge: how do we calculate value like this?


Read more: Friday essay: the library – humanist ideal, social glue and now, tourism hotspot


As someone who grew up in remote and regional areas, I’m aware of how crucial libraries and book culture are to a sense of connection with the nation. Moreover, reading is an indicator of mental health, especially among young people.

Brothers Douglas and Dare Strout read a school book together while home schooling in Brisbane in April. Darren England/AAP

“National identity” also requires reflexive literacy: social understanding and agency derive from reading and writing; a nation that neglects its literary culture risks losing the skills that contribute to creative thinking in other areas — including in industry and innovative manufacturing. Local reading and writing initiatives have had remarkable success in areas like Aboriginal literacy and aged care mental support.

More Australians are reading, writing and attending festival events than ever before. Reading is the second most popular way Australians engage with arts and culture.

Writers’ festivals are flourishing and attendances growing. Libraries remain crucial to our urban and regional communities. It is no overstatement to claim that literature has shaped and reflected our complex national identity.

Australian literature at universities

The formulation of a Creative Economy Taskforce by Arts Minister Paul Fletcher is a positive step in establishing better understanding of this crucial economy. I would draw attention, however, to the lack of literary expertise on the taskforce. The appointment of a publisher or a high-profile Indigenous writer, for example, would give more diversity to the collective voice of our literary community.

The additional appointment of an academic concerned with Australian literature, such as the current director of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, would further enhance the claims of literature.

The education sector will have a role in implementing creative arts initiatives. There has been a deplorable lack of support for Australian literature within the academy.

Under the current wish to renovate the jobs sector through the creative arts there is an opportunity to direct dedicated funds within the education budget to establishing a Chair of Australian Literature in each university (or at least in the Group of Eight).

There is currently one Chair at the University of Western Australia and a privately endowed one at the University of Melbourne. Postgraduate scholarships could also be offered specifically in the area of Australian literary studies.

Alexis Wright, pictured here in 2007 after winning the Miles Franklin award, is the Boisbouvier Chair of Australian Literature at Melbourne University. Dean Lewins/AAP

For a comparatively small outlay in budget terms, such a move would signal direct support for Australian reading, writing and research and would be widely celebrated in the education and library sectors.

‘Embarrassing’

It is embarrassing to discover that some European universities (in my experience Belgium, Germany and Italy, in particular) study more Australian literature than is offered in our own nation.

The case for increased Australia Council funding in the neglected area of literature has already been made. Writers’ incomes are, as attested, direly low and I worry in particular about diminishing funding for new and emerging writers.

An injection of funds into the literature sector of the Australia Council is another efficient and speedy way in which to signal understanding of the fundamental role of literature to our cultural enterprises and economic growth.

Cuts to publishing, festivals, journals, individual writers’ grants and programs generally, have had a disastrous effect on the incomes and opportunities for writers in this nation. Notwithstanding a few highly publicised commercial successes, most writers truly struggle to make ends meet. The “trickle down effects” — from a sustaining grant, say, to a literary journal — have direct economic benefits to writers and therefore to the wider economy.


Read more: Literary magazines are often the first place new authors are published. We can’t lose them


Most writers’ work is not recognised as a “job”; if it were, if there were a definition of “writer” as a category of honourable labour (such as it is, for example, in Germany and France), writers would be eligible for Jobmaker and Jobseeker benefits.

This may be blue-sky thinking, but I look forward to a future in which forms of precarious labour, like writing, are recognised and honoured as legitimate jobs.

Another area that may work well with literature is foreign aid. The government of Canada, for example, donates entire libraries of Canadian literature as part of its aid program. (I’ve seen one installed on the campus of the University of New Delhi.)

What about gifting libraries of Australian books as part of our aid program? Hamilton Churton/PR Handout

This works as a stimulus to the host economy (benefiting publishers and writers) and also the receiving community, for whom access to books and education may be difficult. It also encourages study of the host culture’s writings and has benevolent “soft power” effects of inestimable worth.

‘Literature houses’

The government has indicated physical infrastructure (buildings and so on) will be necessary to the renovation of the domestic economy post-COVID. This is a wonderful opportunity to consider funding “literature houses”, purpose-built sites for readings, writer accommodation for local and overseas residencies, places for book-launches, discussion and the general support of literature.

The Literaturhaus system in Germany, in which all major cities have funded buildings for writer events, and in which, crucially, writers are paid for readings and appearances, is a wonderful success and helps writers’ incomes enormously.

The Frankfurt Literaturhaus. shutterstock

The inclusion of Indigenous, regional, rural and community organisations in proposals for “literature houses” would stimulate local building economies and generate community recognition of Australian literature.

The Regional Australia Institute considers creative arts as a potentially productive area of regional economies. However its 2016 map of Australia has a tiny space allocated to creative industries (situated around Alice Springs and linked to the Indigenous art industry). This strikes me as a radical imbalance and a missed opportunity.

A priority for this inquiry could be support for initiatives in literature, perhaps through existing library or schools infrastructure, to address creatively matters of both rural innovation and disadvantage.

Encouraging workshops in writing, including visiting writers, addressing reading and writing as a creative enterprise for the community as a whole: these could form the basis for an enlivening cultural participation and skills. Dedicated funds in literature for regional, remote and rural communities are urgently required.

Literature, in all its forms, is crucial to our nation — to the imaginations of our children, to the mental health and development of our adolescents, to the adult multicultural community more generally — in affirming identity, purpose and meaning.

Gail Jones, Professor, Writing and Society Research Centre, Western Sydney University

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

I have a couple of points to add:
1) $12,900 average but $2,800 median. The Median figure is much more relevant and telling.
2) Literature needs to be defined as all of the genres, not just the small section that is held up as “important”. Otherwise you will further erode the writing industry.

See more here:

https://tysonadams.wordpress.com/2018/01/24/writing-in-western-australia/

https://tysonadams.com/2018/01/10/literary-fiction-in-crisis/

The (Stephen) King of Horror

This month’s It’s Lit! is looking at the career of Stephen King.

I’m not sure I fully appreciated Stephen King until more recently. When I was younger I didn’t get into his books; IT was particularly popular when I was in primary school. Then when I was a bit older, I tried a few novels with mixed results (Carrie was great, the first Dark Tower didn’t grab me).

My view of King changed when I picked up On Writing. Every writer recommends it as a must read for budding authors. It was while reading this book that I realised just how prolific and successful King has been.

Take a look at the NYT bestseller lists for fiction. From the mid-70s through to today you will battle to find a year where King didn’t have at least one bestseller. That’s without even looking at top 10s for those years either. There aren’t any authors with that sort of staying power and talent. Most would battle to even churn out something half-readable after a decade or two.

So:

Few writers have had the sheer staying power, popularity, and prolific output as Stephen King. From insatiably flesh-hungry clowns and sentient cars to telekinetic teenagers and mystical gunslingers, if there’s one author who has taken up valuable real estate in that part of our imaginations, it’s Stephen King. But it’s not just his monsters that have lasting power—it’s also the very human and very psychological elements in his work that linger.

So come with me, Constant Reader, while I lead you through the dark and twisted world of Uncle Stevie, the King of Horror…

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 vs Movie: They Live – What’s the Difference?

This installment of What’s the Difference? covers one of the classics of 80s filmmaking. CineFix gives a big middle finger to the man with They Live.

Does anyone else remember video rental stores? No? Just me?

Okay, so imagine there’s a Netflix but instead of a library of movies of questionable quality and some series that will be cancelled after two seasons on your TV, there is a store you visit to borrow these shows and movies.* You can only borrow a few at a time for no longer than a week. And these borrowings are handed to you on a thing called a VHS tape cassette. This is deemed superior to watching broadcast TV, which consists of two channels, one of which is Elvis movie re-runs and sport, the other is designed to appeal to people whose hip isn’t up to making it out on Sunday mornings anymore.

Anyway, VHS rental tapes used to have a lot of junk before the start of the movie. This included anti-piracy warnings, a helpful reminder that this was a VHS tape, warnings about not pirating this tape, and trailers for other available titles. Fast-forwarding didn’t work that well, due in part to the slowness of fast-forwarding at the time, and the ingenuity of some dirtbag at the VHS factory who made sure all anti-piracy warnings took into account fast-forwarding in their design. Honestly, it was just easier to set the tape playing, go and fetch snacks, and come back when you stopped hearing super-serious voice-overs.

It was on one of those rented VHS tapes that I first saw an incredibly cheesy late 80s early 90s voice-over trailer for They Live. To say I desperately wanted to see it was an understatement

Of course, back in those days, we had to walk 50 cubits through freezing deserts up hill wearing a bag filled with bricks to get to the physical not-Netflix store. And while they called themselves a video rental business, there was no guarantee they had any of the films that were advertised on their videos. They Live was certainly one of the films not at our store. It wasn’t until almost a decade later that I saw a censored for TV version of the film.

The reason I tell this tragic story of childhood disappointment is to highlight how long I had to wait to actually see They Live. And despite that anticipation, the movie still met/exceeded my expectations. It is a classic of B-movies and one that has only gained more appreciation with time rather than less. As discussed in the Cinefix video, the themes about unrestrained capitalism are even more relevant today with a reality TV star for US president, billionaires splattered all over our media, and growing inequality.

The original short story and comic (linked below) are used as the premise of the movie. But as discussed in the video, you can do things in a short story that you can’t in a movie. That means we have to show more of the world, establish characters, kick-ass and chew bubblegum. If anything, I was disappointed with the short story after seeing the movie.

If there is any year to read Eight O’Clock in the Morning and watch They Live, it is 2020.

The comic based upon Ray Nelson’s story:
http://sapcomics.blogspot.com/2012/01/nada.html

The original short story Eight O’Clock in the Morning by Ray Nelson

* If anyone wants to comment on the origins of Netflix as a response to Blockbuster and late fees, feel free.

Book review: Clear Bright Future by Paul Mason

Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human BeingClear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being by Paul Mason
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Humans: Okay, no killing people.
AI: Slavery is cool though, right?
Humans: No, no killing, no slavery!
AI: But you do it all the time. No fair!

Clear Bright Future is Paul Mason’s attempt to address the “value alignment problem” with regard to our society and the potential of AI. He sets out how we largely don’t have a set of values, thanks to things like neo-liberalism, post-modernism, and scientism, and how we desperately need to define our values. Those values, he argues, should be clearly defined, humanist, and done before the capitalists, authoritarians, or other ne’er-do-wells ruin the future.

I first became interested in reading Mason’s books when I saw his Google Talk about Post-Capitalism. He was one of the first people I’d heard make a clear argument for something that is lurking in every digital age IP lawsuit. Clear Bright Future jumped up my reading list thanks to my local library and an interview where Mason discussed the need for society/humans to decide what we value and to start making it a priority.

The overall point made in this book is valid and Mason does a reasonable job of making a convincing argument. Even if he is completely wrong about humanism, he is completely right about needing to define our values. Our values. Not someone looking to make a buck. Not someone looking to become dictator for life. Everyone.

And here comes the but. But, I think Clear Bright Future falls down as some points made are attacks on strawpeople or gross simplifications. He’ll swing between exacting explanations and diverse insights and then make quick leaps via these lazy tactics.

Take for example his comments about science moving from claims of hard objectivism to (a more realistic) subjectivism. Mason essentially engages in a confusing blend of scientism and anti-scientism. He talks as if science is simple hard facts (when it is within X% error, contingent on assumptions, within certain frames of reference, etc.) and then rejects the science that shows things are more complicated than that.

Another example is his criticism of postmodernism as anti-humanist and the foundation of a lot of today’s problems. Somewhere there is a philosophy professor shaking their head and chuckling at the idea that postmodernism texts have resulted in anything other than incomprehensible books and an industry of metanarrative loving critics blaming it for everything. At best, Mason is mistaking a part of the field for the whole. Sure, the rejection of the simplistic and metanarrative claims of earlier humanism is certainly a po-mo thing, but hardly the whole thing (e.g. see this)

These flaws do detract a bit from what is a very interesting book with a compelling message. Definitely worth reading and thinking about what our values are.

Other reviews worth reading:
Clear Bright Future by Paul Mason review – a manifesto against the machine
Review of Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being

Comments while reading:
You can sustain an economy on life support, but not an ideology. People were starting to ask when things would get better for them rather than for yacht owners. (Paraphrased)

Having seen some of Mason’s work before I’ve been interested in his take on things. He offers insights and ideas you haven’t considered. I also find I don’t entirely agree with his conclusions. In one part he was outlining the idea of material realism (materialism) which was a pretty decent lay explanation. But then he sort of created a strawman to suggest that modern tech economies claim to create value out of nothing (computers create their own data, thus value, without work). I’m not sure that the people who say that actually believe it, rather they are using a heuristic.

View all my reviews

Book review: Future War by Robert H Latiff

Future War: Preparing for the New Global BattlefieldFuture War: Preparing for the New Global Battlefield by Robert H. Latiff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

USA: Hello Mr Scientist, can you make me an even more horrifying way to kill people?
Scientist: Sure. But it might not be a good idea.
USA: We’ll worry about that later. Here’s some money.
Scientist: I’ll get started.

Retired Major General Dr Robert Latiff spent much of his career looking at the cutting edge of military technology. As both a scientist and an officer, he knows what is already being developed to wage war, and is well placed to speculate about the future of war. He doesn’t just want to let us in on what war will look like, he wants us all to help ethically shape the future of war.

This book was both fascinating and deeply annoying to read. I think my biggest problem with Future War was that, for someone wanting to talk about war ethics, Latiff selectively presents the military, political leaders, and history so as to feel deliberately obfuscatory. Now, this is probably about Latiff being a retired Airforce Major General and thus his bias is showing. But maybe that is the problem. Maybe the people who get to talk about war ethics and new tools of war, are ultimately going to be too biased. At least Latiff is aware of this bias since he raises the issue of the conservative and “yay war” bubble many of his colleagues work in and calls for the general public to be involved.

I wrote down a lot of comments as I was reading (see below) because of my frustration. One of my first comments was the “America: Fuck Yeah!” sentiment that was present. I don’t think that is entirely fair to Latiff. He does express a reasonable level of awareness, but when someone talks about “keeping America safe” you really feel like forcing them to include a list of war crimes, atrocities, and coups that the USA has been involved in.

The insights into technology are extremely interesting. If you follow tech at all you’ll love what is discussed. It is the ethical considerations where I think the book falls flat. The examples of what ethical considerations are interesting but also feel ultimately hollow.

If someone is planning how to kill others, particularly lots of others, then that is unethical.

The arguments around Just War Theory and the ethics of war strike me as hand-waving bullshit dreamt up by status quo warriors. Unfortunately, I don’t have the background in moral and ethical philosophy to really dig into how it is wrong. No doubt there is a lot of material justifying war because that’s what very serious status quo academics do as part of their contribution to the war effort so that no one ever asks them to actually fight and die in one.

Ironically, by the definitions of Just War Theory, I think you’d battle to find an example of a Just War. Which makes the entire idea of ethical warfare a comfort blanket to pull over your face as you invade a country to secure their resources freedom.

Some people are scared of the technology and potential of future war portrayed here. I’m more scared of how Latiff’s calls for a discussion of the ethics involved aren’t going to happen in any meaningful way.

Comments as I read:
Only two chapters in, but already there is this overwhelming “America: Fuck Yeah!” attitude present. Threats could get hold of the weapons we’re developing… is said unironically. USA aren’t working on this (anymore after a feasibility analysis) but China doesn’t have any such ethical compunctions…

Considering this book proposed to cover the technology and ethics of future wars in the opening, I’m already sensing that Latiff is probably going to pretend that the USA has never committed acts of genocide, war crimes, invasion, etc. whilst insisting they need new cool gadgets to do more of that stuff with.

Halfway in the new technologies are being discussed as inevitable. But it is then asserted that new tech will be used for war. That doesn’t have to be so. Kinda feels like no-one ever stops and makes the argument that massive military research budgets could instead be civilian research budgets. Can’t really weaponise something when you’re not starting out building it as a weapon and pouring billions into doing so.

Three quarters in and the ethical discussion is taking shape. Just War and the like are being utilised. Some really good points are made but then are undermined by selective presentation of realities. E.g. Latiff makes a really good point about requiring strong ethical and moral frameworks (Warrior Code, etc) in the development of weapons, use of weapons, and the accepted practices of troops (when politicians justify or promote the use of torture, the command structure will follow, and thus the troops will utilise it). But he then skirts around how the military have been indoctrinating soldiers with increased efficiency to be killers, how they have researched making their soldiers more able to kill people, how they train them to think of “the enemy” as “inhuman” to make them able to justify killing to themselves.

I’m really having trouble with the supposed ethics of all this. Ultimately, all this tech is being developed to kill people. That’s premeditated murder. Ergo, that is unethical. There isn’t really a justification for that. A lot of handwaving is done based upon the idea that “the other side” will behave unethically, so we have to be prepared to “defend ourselves” (i.e. to also act unethically). The worst part is that this self-perpetuating cycle is often leveraged to gain power, resources, and profit (the latter is mentioned briefly in the third section by Latiff).

Philosophically, a lot has been written about Just War Theory, particularly against criticisms of it. I’m somewhat surprised that there isn’t a solid argument against it. Take for example Jus ad bellum. Let’s find a war that fits that definition. Particularly from the losing or instigating side. Ever. Just War Theorists certainly seem to try and pretend this occurs. People trying to kick wars off certainly try to make the argument of just cause (etc.). But most of those arguments are hollow, revisionist, and often straight-up lies (WMDs in Iraq anyone?).

Almost feels like a lot of money gets thrown at people to justify war.

Last chapter has some interesting points about echo chambers, ideological divides, society involvement, and American exceptionalism. All very good points. But again I find myself spotting what Latiff doesn’t discuss and what he skips over.

E.g. He says that the average American is removed from war and largely uninformed/ignorant of it. But that is by design and moreover, the military is actively involved in keeping people ignorant. He made a point about no war critical films having been made whilst skipping over the fact that if a production studio wants to make a military film they need to have everything ticked off on by the military (it’s why US military is awesome, bad elements are rogues who meet justice, they never commit war crimes, etc, etc.). Military intelligence was actively involved in the lies that took the US to war in (insert massive list here). The military routinely covers up atrocities, war crimes, abuse, rape, etc.

https://www.law.upenn.edu/institutes/cerl/conferences/targetedkilling/papers/KammFailuresofJustWarTheory.pdf

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/war/

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

https://ethics.org.au/ethics-explainer-just-war/

View all my reviews

Book review: The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

The Last Wish (The Witcher, #0.5)The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

All decent predictions rhyme.

Geralt of Rivia has a lifetime of adventures. He roams the world looking for monsters to kill and coin for doing so. Not all monsters are easy to kill and not everyone is happy for him to be in their kingdom.

A few years ago I read a couple of Volumes of Witcher comics. I made the comment in my review of them that they were okay and I was interested in reading some of the novels they were based upon (or extensions of). When I was about halfway through The Last Wish I was asked by someone what I thought of it. My comment was that it was just like the Netflix series: Okay. Not bad, not good, just okay. Entertaining enough. So the comics, show, and book were all similar in that they were all okay.

The Last Wish is essentially a short story collection with an interlude between each. This interlude ties each story together and culminates in the final story. This works reasonably well as Geralt’s adventures have the feel of short stories more than one long story. But that’s probably also why it was a little underwhelming as it removes some of the tension that adventure stories revel in.

The Netflix series is a reasonably faithful adaptation of this book, so if you’re coming in late (as I am), then you’ll recognise most of this. The book is superior in one respect as it is more apparent that these short stories are all twists on various fairytales, which adds something the show lacked. Although, the small changes between the book and the show seem to have been made by someone who was trying for a more gritty or ambiguous Geralt (and Yennefer) and didn’t give it enough thought.

Overall, I might get around to reading more Witcher. Or maybe I might get around to watching the second (and final) season of Henry Cavill playing Geralt.

“People”—Geralt turned his head—“like to invent monsters and monstrosities. Then they seem less monstrous themselves.”

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Book review: The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber

The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of BureaucracyThe Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy by David Graeber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Profitable paperwork? This world makes no sense.

The Utopia of Rules is a collection of David Graeber’s essays around bureaucracy. He dives into where bureaucracy came from, how it was changed by the rise of large private companies, how this is impacting society, and how we secretly love all this stupid stuff just a bit too much. Graeber combines history, illustrative anecdotes, anthropology, and insights that you realise have been staring you in the face for years. He also argues that we’ve largely accepted bureaucracies as they now stand, but because of the implications for power relations, we should try to change or remove them.

With the recent passing of David Graeber, I thought I should read some more of his work. I’ve previously read the excellent Bullshit Jobs and wanted to dive into some of his other work. That lead me to his essay Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit which in turn lead me to The Utopia of Rules. That essay is incorporated and expanded in this book to bring it into the main thesis. Other sections similarly come from essays published elsewhere, so if you’ve already read many of Graeber’s essays and articles, you’ll recognise a lot of the material here.

I think one of the most interesting insights from Utopia of Rules was how bureaucracy has morphed from the civil service that ran society (and was a great place to park stray aristocrats and military officers) into the bureaucracy of big business. Some will bristle at this insight until they realise that “cost recovery”, “KPIs”, and “performance reviews” are in all big organisations, regardless of them being public or private. This builds on Graeber’s insights from Bullshit Jobs, that showed the private sector was often more guilty of waste, mismanagement, paperwork, etc. to the point of creating entire useless jobs to do them.

How this bureaucratic system is then used to exploit the public, uses implicit and explicit violence, and obfuscates accountability is also interesting. Graeber’s example of trying to apply for health insurance for his mother is how companies profit. They effectively keep money for the company/government that is due to the public they are meant to be servicing.

This is also where I disagree slightly with Graeber. In a complex society, there is a need for some level of organisation (bureaucracy). Is it a good idea to have a senior research scientist spend a large part of their time filling out paperwork, applying for funding, and reporting to the funders rather than doing research? Well, no. But is it a good idea for that researcher to just get money and do whatever they feel like without any reporting? Well, no. As much as no researcher is just going to blow their grant money on a sports car and Columbian Marching Powder, the paperwork is meant to create a solid research plan, figure out what underlings they’ll need, and get the creative work solidified (hypotheses, designs, etc). That the paperwork doesn’t really achieve this is something that needs to be criticised, especially as the reason it fails and is needlessly time-consuming and complex is because of that private company influence Graeber outlined.

And Graeber argues that bureaucracies are no longer analyzed or satirized. This is a large part of the problem. We experience them every day, but those with power effectively stifle any input we have to reforming them. Satire and social critique are a useful tool in this regard, which I assume is why Graeber’s review of The Dark Knight Rises was included. He uses it as an example of institutional power using popular media to control the narrative and condemn social critique and movements.

Overall, I enjoyed The Utopia of Rules and look forward to reading more from Graeber, particularly Debt.

“I asked him why everyone was still waiting for even one bank official to be brought to trial for any act of fraud leading up to the crash of 2008.
OFFICIAL: Well, you have to understand the approach taken by U.S. prosecutors to financial fraud is always to negotiate a settlement. They don’t want to have to go to trial. The upshot is always that the financial institution has to pay a fine, sometimes in the hundreds of millions, but they don’t actually admit to any criminal liability. Their lawyers simply say they are not going to contest the charge, but if they pay, they haven’t technically been found guilty of anything.
ME: So you’re saying if the government discovers that Goldman Sachs, for instance, or Bank of America, has committed fraud, they effectively just charge them a penalty fee.
OFFICIAL: That’s right.
ME: So in that case … okay, I guess the real question is this: has there ever been a case where the amount the firm had to pay was more than the amount of money they made from the fraud itself?
OFFICIAL: Oh no, not to my knowledge. Usually it’s substantially less.
ME: So what are we talking here, 50 percent?
OFFICIAL: I’d say more like 20 to 30 percent on average. But it varies considerably case by case.
ME: Which means … correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t that effectively mean the government is saying, “you can commit all the fraud you like, but if we catch you, you’re going to have to give us our cut”?
OFFICIAL: Well, obviously I can’t put it that way myself as long as I have this job …”

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Book review: Dear Child by Romy Hausmann

Dear ChildDear Child by Romy Hausmann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I imagine lion voice is pretty much speaking like Aslan.

For 13 years, Matthias and Karin have been desperate to find their daughter Lena. Then one evening, their estranged friend and local detective phones with news. A woman matching their missing daughter’s description has just been hit by a car and is in hospital. But the woman isn’t Lena. The young girl with her, however, is definitely their granddaughter. How can that be? Where has this woman and their grandchildren been all these years? And where is Lena?

When I read the blurb for this novel I was immediately interested. Normally these sorts of mystery stories (they call it a thriller, but it is a crime-mystery) are all about finding the missing girl. This novel starts after she has been found. Interesting take.

As you can imagine, a large part of the story deals with trying to piece together what happened as the victims try to process their trauma. The police are trying to figure out identities and piece together the evidence. The grand/parents (primarily Matthias) are still trying to push the investigation. The children are trying to process being out of their regimented cabin life. And the rescued Jasmin (not Lena), having escaped her tormentor, is still haunted by her experience.

After finishing Dear Child I wasn’t quite sure what I thought of it. The initial premise and first few chapters really grabbed me. The story is very well written and feels like the recounting of actual events. And similarly, the ending is great and offers catharsis to the story and characters. But I think the middle only really served to keep those two sections apart. So much of the mystery and events of the story are driven by characters doing stupid things. Sure, that also makes it feel human and real, but at some point it stops being how that character would behave and more of a contrivance. I wanted things to progress, not get bogged down.

Or to put it another way: I felt the story needed less Matthias and more Hannah (the daughter of Lena). Having her perspective for the story would have kept the mystery interesting and buried. It would have also kept Matthias from being the annoying speed-hump in the story.*

I can see this novel appealing to the psychological thriller audience. But for me, I can’t give Dear Child more than 3 stars. It’s a good book, but probably not exactly my cup of tea.

I received a review copy of Dear Child in exchange for an honest review.

* In fairness, Matthias’ actions are completely understandable and well-drawn. He isn’t a bad character but he is annoying, deliberately so.

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The Fiery History of Banned Books

Time to talk about banned books again.

I’ve been talking about banned books here for quite some time. Australia does it, USA has an annual banned books week (1, 2, 3, 4), and without fail, the reasons for banning books are stupid.

If there is any one term to summarise why books are banned it is because something in the book makes someone feel uncomfortable.

Don’t particularly feel like discussing historical and contemporary racism in the USA, especially if this discussion highlights current social and personal failings to address the issue? Then ban Huckleberry Finn (or just drop it from the curriculum) because it uses the N-word.

Does discussion of sexuality and sex make you blush or feel inadequate for only knowing one position (facing west and thinking of England)? Then ban books that mention sex. Or nudity. Or sound like they might be.

Is the book you’re reading treat LGBTQI+ people as (shock horror) people? Then quick, ban that thing before anyone has a chance to empathise with a marginalised group and think that treating them poorly shouldn’t be happening.

Since at least 213 BCE, book burnings have been a reaction to the power of the written word. When roasting paper in a giant circle went out of style (at least in the intellectual sphere), the governments would take it upon itself to ban books. However, when we talk about book bannings today, we are usually discussing a specific choice made by individual schools, school districts, and libraries made in response to the moralistic outrage of some group. This, while still hotly-contested and controversial, is still nothing in comparison to the ways books have been removed, censored, and outright destroyed in the past. So on that happy note, let’s … explore how the seemingly innocuous book has survived centuries of the ban hammer.

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.

Can robots write?

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

Shutterstock

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”.




Read more:
Friday essay: a real life experiment illuminates the future of books and reading


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:
Computing gives an artist new tools to be creative


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.

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‘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.

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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.”

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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.

View all my reviews

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.