We don’t know the world

A few years ago I saw a fantastic talk from Hans Rosling about the world and statistics. Okay, I probably lost a few people by implying statistics are fantastic, and now I’ll lose some more by saying statistics ARE fantastic. Unfortunately, Hans is no longer with us, but his son and daughter-in-law – Ola and Anna – are continuing his work with Gap Minder.

Recently they released the results of their 2017 survey of world knowledge. After looking at the results they decided to call it the Misconception Study.* You’ll see why.

That’s right, less than chance. People really don’t know that much about the world.

gms_2017inpage-1024x523

Do you think you could do better? Well, find out! Take the 2018 quiz here. Of course, this is the part where I say that I passed the test. Humble-brag. But in fairness, as I’ve already mentioned, I’ve been following Gap Minder and I like statistics.

Could you pass the test?

*They probably called it that prior, but I’m making a point here, dammit!

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When is the future?

I came across a very cool article about when the future is for science fiction. The question is interesting because we often think of THE FUTURE as being a long way away, but as the saying goes, some infinities are larger than others.

In response to a Tweet, iO9 and researchers Ben Vrignon and Gordon Jackson decided to look at the proportions of science fiction set in the near-future (0-50 years), mid-future (51-500 years) and far-future (+501 years). They took a random sample of 250 science fiction works (books, comics, movies, and TV) created between 1880 and 2010 that were available in the USA in English. Because only the USA matters. Eye rolls are appropriate here.

The results are interesting and broken into decades:

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As you can see, some periods of time emphasise some futures more than others, whilst other periods are more equally spread. The most notable of these is the shrinking of far-future science fiction from the 1970s until the late 1990s. It could be argued that the lack of far-future sci-fi in the 1990s could have been due to the rapid rise of technological change in society, such that everyone viewed the future as being just around the corner. Then after that time, we start to realise the technology just gave us cat memes and we still had a long way to go.

In the original article, they suggest that the changes were due to uncertainty about the future post-2001.

It’s possible that during periods of extreme uncertainty about the future, as the 00s were in the wake of massive economic upheavals and 9/11, creators and audiences turn their eyes to the far future as a balm.

Now it would be remiss of me to draw too many conclusions from this, nor try to offer explanations for any “trends”. We are talking about a dataset that only covers an average of 2 works per year. Two is hardly enough to be representative of any year, and 20 works is at best a smattering of any given decade. E.g. Futurama could be the only representative of far-future sci-fi in the 1990s yet Asimov’s Foundation Series was still going (he wrote his final novel for the series in 1993), the Xeelee Sequence had just started, as had the Hyperion series. Clearly, there were many works not being counted.

It would be interesting to see someone add more data to this analysis and do some breakdowns by media type. Make it so.

Supplemental Materials: More Detail on Middle Future Dates

One of the interesting discoveries we made was that the mid-future (51-500 years in the future) seems to be the most popular period for science fiction, across the last 130 years. So Stephanie created this chart breaking out our data on mid-future SF so you can get a sense of which periods are most popular — you can see that the 100-200 year future is common.

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How literate are we?

An argument that is often raised among the head shaking admonishment brigade, is that there is a woeful level of literacy in society. The argument usually points to comments on social media as examples of falling literacy, or to emoji laden messages, or is writ large in speciously reasoned blog posts like this one.

The reality is held within these charts:

Literate

Literacy scoreLiteracy rates by school year

Yes, as you can see, for over 200 years the world’s literacy rate has been improving. If you go to the source article at Our World In Data you will be able to highlight the 1870-2010 trends. This shows that even quite well-educated nations have improved their literacy rates.

So what exactly are people complaining about? Well, let’s take some of the examples that are often proffered.

I recently reread a number of pulp novels from the sixties and seventies (with an occasional eighties and nineties thrown in for fun) – not literary fiction by any means, just thrillers the likes of which I grew up reading. What immediately struck me is how erudite the books were compared to modern fare. They were written at a much higher grade level than current popular fiction, because, bluntly, the average person was more literate, and the assumption was that folks wanted a little intellectual stimulation with their car chases and explosions – that words with more than a couple of syllables could be salted through a tome without fearing a slew of one star reviews written in Pidgin English bemoaning that the author was trying too hard or must have once seen a thesaurus. Source.

This is, of course, a personal opinion expressed by the blogger rather than hard data. You only have to look at the above charts to see that the average person they are referring to is actually more likely to be literate now than in the 1960’s. I think the blogger has leapt to the assertion that people are less literate now as an explanation for a style change that has occurred. Or just wants to whine about kids these days. Because what blogger doesn’t want to do that?

Now, why would a style change occur in the last 30 (or more*) years? Interestingly, some research suggested that the way we write changes the style of our writing. With the rise of word processors and computers, writers measurably changed their styles.

But has anything else has changed in that time period that could have impacted writing styles? I’m not sure if these are familiar to people or not, but television, gaming, internet, media, are all more popular now than they were 30 years ago. I.e. books now have to compete with more entertainment than ever. So stylistic changes will occur to capture and keep an audience’s attention, lest it strays from the latest literary masterpiece about a dog caring for its cat with terminal cancer to a YouTube video about how white nationalism is okay now for some reason (because of post-modern cultural marxism apparently).

Has reading and writing (literacy) actually changed much, though? It is one thing to say that people have passed the minimum standard level, but it is quite another thing to suggest high levels of literacy are being achieved by more/less people.

Studies on this were actually hard to come by. Yet there is certainly concern about reading and writing proficiency for high-school and university level students:

Three-quarters of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. And 40 percent of those who took the ACT writing exam in the high school class of 2016 lacked the reading and writing skills necessary to complete successfully a college-level English composition class, according to the company’s data.

Poor writing is nothing new, nor is concern about it. More than half of first-year students at Harvard failed an entrance exam in writing — in 1874. Source.

Given the last sentence in that quote, it is probably more accurate to say that the standards are changing. We now expect more of our literacy because more people are schooled and meeting basic literacy standards. For example, in the USA Master’s degrees are now as common as Bachelor’s degrees were in the 1960’s. People are expecting more of education and setting different standards than were held previously.

As an article on The Conversation concluded on this topic:

In 1997 academic Paul Brock gave an enlightening address to educators in which he carefully recounted the ways each generation has bemoaned the falling literacy standards of the younger generation whilst laying the blame at the feet of modern educational methods.

Apparently, we’ve been doing this since literacy first became a thing back with the Sumerians some 5,000 years ago.

The problem is not that literacy standards are falling, it is that literacy demands are changing – and we are not keeping up.

Schools have their role to play, and they can up their game in order to keep up with the times. But employers must also realise that workplace literacy is their core work, not a supplementary remedial program, and plan their businesses accordingly. Source.

In other words, declining literacy standards are a perennial myth that people love to complain about. Styles have changed. Literacy demands have changed. But that doesn’t mean things are going backwards. Much like kids these days arguments, we can expect to see these same points raised again and again with no evidence to support their claims. Because if there is one thing that never gets old, it is complaining about how things are different now than the good old days.

*The blogger’s larger post talks about a change occurring in the more recent 20-30 year period, despite referencing books from the 1960-70’s. You’ll also notice more links to evidence in my post… just saying.

 

Writer Advice: Alcoholism

ice-tea
Ice Tea or Whisky? Your friends won’t know either, and after the first four, you won’t notice the lemon ruining the flavour.

Tip #1: Ice Tea looks just like whisky.

Do you need to hide just how much you are drinking from friends and family but can’t bring yourself to drink gin or vodka? Then “Ice Tea” might be your new preferred drink.

Tip #2: As long as you drink wine from a glass people will assume you are a connoisseur.

Wine is regarded as a classy drink, so as long as you drink it in a classy way, few will notice that some glasses can fit an entire bottle in them.

Tip #3: Don’t use crystal decanters.

Crystal decanters may look classy but they are expensive and are slowly giving you lead poisoning. Instead, just rub the label off of one of your bottles. A cheap and easy solution that won’t be poisoning you.

Tip #4: Wine and Whisky Clubs are your friends.

Even if no-one else loves you, subscription wine and whisky clubs love sending you a new supply of alcohol direct to your house. There is no longer a need to be reminded just how much you hate the rest of the world by having to venture out to the liquor store when home delivery is now a reality.

Tip #5: These lists always need to be five or ten items long.

Seriously, have you ever noticed that? Never four or seven, always five or ten. Sometimes if people are feeling keen, or have an auto-amalgamating post generator, they will stretch to twenty or thirty. Magazines used to do fifty and one hundred lists. Remember that? Of course, no one really cared to read the whole list. Usually, you’d just scan through for things that would catch your attention and then make note of the number one spot. And then write a comment arguing how the list was rubbish.

Banned books

Recently in Australia, there was a lot of moralising outrage about books being banned in school libraries. Was this Political Correctness Gone Mad?

No. No, it wasn’t.

Yes, that’s right, the moral outrage brigade hadn’t even bothered to check any details. That shouldn’t be particularly surprising to anyone who, you know, thinks, but what I did find interesting is the sort of hyperbole used on this issue that never seems to make it to the actual censorship that exits.

I’ve previously discussed the Banned Books Week, an awareness-raising campaign in the USA. Since the USA is a big and influential book market, there are flow-on effects of books being challenged and banned there – although the Streisand Effect can apply here and be a net positive, just ask Dan Brown. Australia also has a censorship board and historical lists of previously banned books have been made public.

When you read through the lists of books that were previously banned in Australia but are now available, you can see how we aren’t/weren’t allowed to talk about sex. We also don’t talk about Aboriginal history. Not talking about sex is still a common theme in today’s Australian censorship standards:

Publications will be refused classification (RC) that:

  1. describe, depict, express or otherwise deal with matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence or revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults to the extent that they should not be classified; or
  2. describe or depict in a way that is likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult, a person who is, or appears to be, a child under 18 (whether the person is engaged in sexual activity or not); or
  3. promote, incite or instruct in matters of crime or violence

Publications (except RC publications) will be classified as Category 2 Restricted that:

  1. explicitly depict sexual or sexually related activity between consenting adults in a way that is likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult; or
  2. depict, describe or express revolting or abhorrent phenomena in a way that is likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult and are unsuitable for a minor to see or read

Publications (except RC publications and Category 2 restricted publications) will be classified as Category 1 Restricted that:

  1. explicitly depict nudity, or describe or impliedly depict sexual or sexually related activity between consenting adults, in a way that is likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult; or
  2. describe or express in detail violence or sexual activity between consenting adults in a way that is likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult; or
  3. are unsuitable for a minor to see or read. Source.

Now obviously the classifications could be very broadly interpreted and implemented. Plenty of books have themes around drug use and abuse, crime is an entire genre, cruelty is in any political memoir, and violence could be retitled thriller. We don’t tend to see those titles banned or restricted. So what does get restricted? As an example, American Psycho has a Category 1 restriction on it and is sold in shrink-wrapping… you know, just in case the words leak out and accidentally encourage someone to take up cannibalism or investment banking.

The number of books impacted by an RC classification is minimal. The 2016-17 figures show none were banned, as compared to video games which had 2 titles banned.

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Publications Classified in 2016-17. Source.

But it does show that a large number of titles were restricted in some way. This is without even touching on the censorship that occurs in access to titles, such as which titles are stocked in stores, which sites can be accessed to buy books, and what ends up in libraries. The restricted categorisation is clearly going to have impacts on where those titles will be available. So I wonder where the moral outrage is over this. Isn’t this Political Correctness Gone Mad? Or is it okay because the people who got outraged in the above video would be the “reasonable adults” who would be offended by these restricted titles?

Or maybe this would all require too much reading on behalf of those wanting to complain about books being banned.

 

Book Review: The Republic by Plato

The RepublicThe Republic by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Old white guys sit around discussing how to set up a totalitarian military state with them as the rulers.

Plato’s famous text covers a lot of ground as it tries to establish what justice is. It covers politics, personal and political ethics, idealised states (democracy ranks third out of four), education, and virtue. The Republic is a heady read, whilst being fascinating.

The strawman style to the interlocuter dialogue did annoy me as a reader. Whilst it was in service of making a larger point, it did make the discourse feel more shallow than it is. Plato’s thinking was also amazingly progressive for an age that predates the enlightenment by the best part of a millennium. But this thinking was also confined by the times.

Plato, along with Socrates and Aristotle, were the drivers behind western society. Books like The Republic put forward a lot of ideas for discussion and dissection, opening the dialogue that would lead to progress. That alone makes The Republic worth reading, but I also found it was worth reading if only to see much of it in context rather than discussed second-hand. E.g. The famous allegory of the cave takes on a slightly different light when not viewed in isolation.

For a more detailed understanding:
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-ethics-politics/

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