School Literature

A recent article in The Conversation caused a bit of a stir. Titled Old white men dominate school English booklists. It’s time more Australian schools taught Australian books it was bound to ruffle some easily offended feathers.

The article itself was a fairly standard call for greater diversity in school texts. It’s an old discussion that is apparently taking a fair bit of time to leak through to the sorts of people who follow The Conversation to post opinionated comments but don’t read their articles. I’ve covered it here with the worthiness, important books, snobbery, guilty pleasures arguments and the PBS It’s Lit series (particularly this episode).

The basic gist of the article is that it would be really nice if some of the additions to the school book list were actually being taught to kids. We’re still seeing the same old “favourites” being taught, mainly because they’ve always been taught so there are plenty of SparkNotes on them.

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The audacious dream is to expose kids to more authors, diversity of texts, and some of the other great books that weren’t written by a dude wearing a ruff. I’d hope that this more diverse array of texts will inspire a lifelong love of reading by showing kids that there is more to reading than a couple of 400-year-old plays and some poetry that even poets regard as pretentious.

What was interesting was the response on social media and in the comments.

There aren’t any great female and people of colour authors!! I’d have learned about them in school if there were!! Stop being racist and sexist against white men!!

Arguments like this are, of course, said without a hint of irony.*

These arguments are always frustrating. The traditionalism argument about how great these authors are ignores how those texts make it onto the syllabus in the first place and that literally no one wants to take them off anyway. It also feeds into the larger problem of Book Wardens, who suck all the fun out of reading. I want to make a joke about crusty old vampires ruining reading, but they sparkle now, so they’d make it fabulous.

There is also the reactionary culture warrior aspect to this argument. Quick, someone who knows more about this subject suggested we make a change for the better: Man the keyboards, all caps the objections, haul out the canards!

These brave warriors are the last defenders against those evil thinkers and knowers. Only they can protect society from people who would dare to acknowledge there are other decent books worth reading.

In some respects, they remind me of the Literati who bravely defend Fort Literature from the invading hordes of the Lesser Works. As I’ve pointed out previously, the origins of what we call literature versus genre have their origins in the class divide during the Industrial Revolution. Workers got to read one type of magazine, whilst richer managers (but not the capitalists) got a fancier magazine. The stories that were published in the fancier magazines became literary, whilst the rest was genre. So it is quite literally the snobbery of class divides deciding what is literary.

These reactionary culture warriors aren’t necessarily siding with the Literarti so much as reinforcing the status quo. They like the nice ye-old definition of literary and artistic merit we often operate under in society. But it isn’t a good definition as it is more about what a certain group of people like. And that certain group holds the power, which the reactionary culture warriors need to defend at all costs!**

Maybe if these warriors (and literati) were to actually read some of the other great books they might learn something.

* Said on the internet, the greatest information resource in history, no less. But worse, the article and people like myself were pointing out the problems with their arguments. It’s like trying to lead a horse to a glue factory and they are refusing to acknowledge they were too slow for racing.

** The reason why is interesting. For some, it is just about “change bad”. For some, it is about pwning the libs, which as far as I can tell appears to be anyone who has read a book since high school. For others, it is about sucking up to those with power or influence in the hopes they will be rewarded in some way. This seems like an odd position to take given the topic at hand, but it has to be about the only time I’ve seen an Arts Professor lauded for their support of (insert classic literary text here). We live in strange times.

Creativity and Listening to Music (possibly) Don’t Mix

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As a confirmed music fan and a person who likes to think of themselves as creative, a press release from Lancaster University piqued my interest. It detailed a study that looked at students and their ability to perform creative tests with or without music playing in the background.

For myself, I’ve found that I only listen to music (or podcasts, or video essays) if I’m doing something mindless. If I have to concentrate or try and be creative, the music has to stop. It literally feels like I have too much going on in my head.

This research appears to confirm my impressions, but it should be noted that the experiments only had a small number of participants (30, 18, and 36), and the differences, whilst highly significant, were small. Interestingly, in the third experiment, general background noise (library noise, so not loud and distracting) didn’t appear to impact creativity.

Here is the press release:

The popular view that music enhances creativity has been challenged by researchers who say it has the opposite effect.

Psychologists from the University of Central Lancashire, the University of Gävle in Sweden and Lancaster University investigated the impact of background music on performance by presenting people with verbal insight problems that are believed to tap creativity.

They found that background music “significantly impaired” people’s ability to complete tasks testing verbal creativity—but there was no effect for background library noise.

For example, a participant was shown three words (e.g., dress, dial, flower), with the requirement being to find a single associated word (in this case “sun”) that can be combined to make a common word or phrase (i.e., sundress, sundial and sunflower).

The researchers used three experiments involving verbal tasks in either a quiet environment or while exposed to:

  • Background music with foreign (unfamiliar) lyrics
  • Instrumental music without lyrics
  • Music with familiar lyrics

Dr Neil McLatchie of Lancaster University said: “We found strong evidence of impaired performance when playing background music in comparison to quiet background conditions.”

Researchers suggest this may be because music disrupts verbal working memory.

The third experiment—exposure to music with familiar lyrics- impaired creativity regardless of whether the music also boosted mood, induced a positive mood, was liked by the participants, or whether participants typically studied in the presence of music.

However, there was no significant difference in the performance of the verbal tasks between the quiet and library noise conditions.

Researchers say this is because library noise is a “steady state” environment which is not as disruptive.

“To conclude, the findings here challenge the popular view that music enhances creativity, and instead demonstrate that music, regardless of the presence of semantic content (no lyrics, familiar lyrics or unfamiliar lyrics), consistently disrupts creative performance in insight problem-solving.”

Reference:
Emma Threadgold et al, Background music stints creativity: Evidence from compound remote associate tasks, Applied Cognitive Psychology (2019). DOI: 10.1002/acp.3532

Super Wings – Too Serious

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The latest craze in our house is Super Wings with the various character catchphrases having entered my own lexicon. Super Wings is a children’s toy advertisement TV show following the adventures of the red delivery jet imaginatively named Jett. The various sentient planes on the show have the ability to transform into robots and I’m left with some very important questions.

Jett is the series protagonist. Every episode he is dispatched to another location far across the planet to deliver a package. Yes, just one package. Anywhere on the planet. By jet plane.

How does this package delivery company manage to stay financially afloat!?!

I’ve crunched the numbers on a single 3,500km adventure and just the cost of fuel would be ~$3,000. That’s an expensive package. But Jett is modelled off of an F-16 Falcon which has a range of ~4,000km, yet routinely does deliveries of twice that distance. Not only would Jett have to stop over for fuel or do an aerial refill, neither of which have been shown to occur in the show, but those package delivery costs would also further sky-rocket.

This company’s package delivery economic model can’t work. Either the packages, which are often small items like badminton racquets, are freighted with super expensive delivery fees to only extremely wealthy clients, or the company runs at a massive loss. Now, we already know from the list of clients that many of the package recipients are not wealthy. One adventure sees Jett deliver a sled to a Moroccan villager, and whilst Moroccan’s aren’t living in the poorest African nation their average take-home pay is half that of an average Aussie. This leaves us with a company that has to be running at a loss.

But does it? They have to pay for that fuel somehow. Jett’s employment must be worth something. As a sentient transforming plane surely Jett must have economic needs to be met. Jett might be internationally famous, but I doubt that keeps a roof over his head and whatever equivalent of clothes on his back there is for an anthropomorphic plane – paint maybe?

That leads me to conclude that the package delivery company must be operating with an ulterior motive. It can’t be drug smuggling, even their profit margins couldn’t cover the ridiculous costs involved. Or maybe not. Maybe Jett and his deliveries are a cover for the smuggling operations that other delivery planes are involved with. Jett might be the publicity-friendly face covering for a much darker trade. Maybe sentient planes delight in trafficking human slaves around the world. If so, they already have the police in their pocket.

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There is another possible explanation for the company’s motives and it relates to Jett’s adventures.

Without fail, every delivery that Jett performs he manages to instigate a series of unfortunate events. You have to wonder if Jett is a magnet for Murphy’s Law*, is some sort of Clouseau-esque character, or an agent of mayhem. Regardless, these events require Jett to call on his friends, the eponymous Super Wings, to help clean up his mess.

Several of these Super Wings friends appear to work at or are based out of the same facility as Jett. It is unclear why a package delivery service would have such broad-ranging staff – police, rescue, passenger, a WW1 biplane. It is also unclear why they are always so readily on-call to help. Are they just waiting for Jett’s latest mishap? But the biggest question is how they manage to fund the involvement of all of these extra staff for every delivery adventure. I’ve already covered how expensive just the fuel would be, but a minimum of two staff per delivery, one staff member unable to perform their primary role whilst helping out Jett, and the extensive travel time to far-reaching parts of the planet, and we start to see a mounting cost that has to be footed by someone.**

But what if these unfortunate events and resultant adventures for Jett and the Super Wings are a deliberate act? What if Jett and his package delivery employers are secretly working toward nefarious ends? They could, in fact, be trying to drive socio-political instability in far-flung places around the world. The only question that would then remain is if Jett is a knowing participant in this nefarious plot or if he is merely a pawn in a dastardly game of epic proportions.

Hopefully, all of these questions will be answered as the Super Wings series unfolds.

*For anyone lucky enough to be unfamiliar with it, Murphy’s Law states: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

**Perhaps the aftermath of every episode is the delivery of an invoice for extra associated costs. Maybe that is how the package delivery service makes its money. Lure people in with a super cheap luxury personalised service and then charge for all of the added expenses incurred when Jett’s mayhem inevitably occurs.

Movies that need claws

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Hugh Jackman is a proud Aussie export. We love that he is a Hollywood A-lister, and even more that he makes the rest of us Aussies look awesome.

But, and there always is a but, Hugh has appeared in some films that could have been greatly improved with one simple addition. I give to you the list of movies that would have been much improved if Hugh had popped the adamantium claws and gone berserker.

Van Helsing
Let’s face it, anything would have improved this schlocky mess of a movie. Instead of Hugh turning into a werewolf toward the end, if he had turned into Wolverine and shniketied some vampires, this would have been watchable.

Australia
Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have Wolverine living in outback Australia? Then he could have taken on the invading army during the WW2 scene.

Scoop
Imagine a Woody Allen film with Wolverine in it! Imagine the boat scene with Hugh going Wolverine on Scarlet Johansen’s character, and Scarlet going Natasha Romanov on him! Imagine if this newly awesome film wasn’t directed by a creep!

Deception
Imagine if this film didn’t suck. I think adding Wolverine to the mix would have done wonders for this lame movie.

Real Steel
Wolverine versus Robots. I rest my case.

Swordfish
Who else wanted to see Hugh decapitate John Travolta in this film? Or any Travolta film barring Pulp Fiction?

Pan
I’m not sure anything would have made this a film worth watching, so claws wouldn’t have hurt.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Wouldn’t it have been great if Hugh was playing Wolverine…… Wait a minute. This movie sucked even with Wolverine in it.

Fastest Ships Ever Created

Below is a wonderful infographic that compares a selection of the fastest ships ever created. Very cool.

The Fastest Ship in the Universe : How Sci-Fi Ships Stack Up
The Fastest Ship in the Universe : How Sci-Fi Ships Stack Up Created by: FatWallet.com

Worth heading over to the original page for the discussion section. Highlights include which ships were missing, and a better estimate of the Heart of Gold’s top speed.

Is fiction actually fiction?

There has been an interesting duo of videos by PBS’ Ideas Chanel. Mike discusses some interesting concepts surrounding fiction, like the fact that fiction is as much real as it is made-up and vice versa. Worth a watch.


The two videos cover a lot of ground, but one of the more important points I’d like to highlight is the idea that we can’t have fiction without reality. We need something to anchor our ideas and make-believe, shared experiences that allow us to understand and accept these fictions. There are plenty of examples of this, but one of the cooler examples is looking at depictions of the future at various stages throughout history. Compare what sci-fi movies of the 50s thought computers would look like now to what they actually look like, and you see a 1950s computer. Our imaginations actually suck a lot more than we think.

But here’s an idea about our inability to imagine the future: what if our imaginations don’t actually suck, but instead we ignore the outlandish imaginings that are actually more likely in favour of stuff we already know? Think about it. Or don’t, I’m not your boss.

Nye vs. Ham: science vs. nonsense

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There is a general rule in arguments: don’t argue with stupid people, they drag you down to their level and beat you with experience. That is pretty much the problem scientists and experts have when debating anti-science proponents – such as creationists, anti-vaccinators, anti-GM campaigners, climate change deniers, etc. Yet Bill Nye the Science Guy decided that, in the interest of science and education, he would debate a creationist.

The debate started with Bill Nye and Ken Ham stating a 5 minute opening piece. Then Ken went into his 50 minute argument, which is when my cushion really started to earn its keep protecting my desk from damage.

I really find it hard to fathom how anyone can be credulous of Ham’s statements. In his 50 minutes he used all sorts of logical fallacies, most notably his videos of “creationist scientists” as argument from authority. But it wasn’t this that really got the lump on my forehead rising, it was the use of “evidence” for his argument that simultaneously refuted the arguments. One example was the phylogenetic tree for dogs. Ham argued that the rise of Canis lupus familiaris from a wolf (yeah, just one, let’s just let that one go through to the keeper) was what you would see from biblical predictions of dogs speciating after the global flood 4,000 years ago. Just one problem. Teeny tiny. The figure showed dogs evolving from a group of wolf ancestors over the course of 14-15,000 years.

He didn’t just do this once, he did it repeatedly. Another example arose when he was talking up one of his creationist pals who helped design a satellite (or something, didn’t really care because it was irrelevant). He used the example of how scientists had been debating how old the universe was: they couldn’t agree on the age. The part he left out about that particular debate was that the age of the universe was somewhere around about 13.8 billion years old (+ 37 million years), and they had a bunch of data they were trying to make sure they had the errors accounted for. The debate was about the difference in the confidence range (or error margin) between the Planck satellite measures and the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe measures. The error margin is 6,000 times greater than the age of the Earth that Ham claims. The Earth’s age is still 2 million times older than Ham’s claim, yet he uses this example as if to give credence to his claims.

Now Nye did his best in his 50 minutes to show that Ham’s claims were flawed, but also how evidence and scientific observation and prediction work. Others have claimed, and I agree to an extent, that Nye’s mistake was to try and cover too much ground. If he was talking to a receptive audience he would have destroyed Ham and had the crowd eating out of his hand. But at a creationist museum, with a bunch of science deniers, it would come across as too much information and too confusing. Although Nye’s last couple of minutes pretty much killed the entire debate, with trees, rocks, size of the universe, distance from stars but limits of how fast the light can travel, all showing that the Earth and Universe are much much older.

The first rebuttal saw Ham carrying on about “you weren’t there so you don’t know.” Brian Dunning had a great take on this particular argument:

There is a rumor that Bill Nye @TheScienceGuy debated evolution with Ken Ham. Not true. It did not happen, because you weren’t there.

In this first rebuttal, Ham again used evidence that rebutted his own claims, especially when talking about radio-carbon dating. Showing that measurements have error margins, or can be somewhat imprecise, doesn’t negate the fact that the measurements are still many orders of magnitude outside of the age of the Earth claimed by Ham. Then he moved onto saying that the bible is right, everything else is wrong (let’s just ignore that the bible isn’t even consistent with itself, let alone the fact that it is a translation of a translation, thus literal interpretation isn’t supported by biblical scholars).

Nye then rebutted Ham’s statements. His classic put down was for the claim that every animal and humans were vegetarian until they got of the ark: lion’s teeth aren’t really made for broccoli.* Ba-zing!

Next Ham tried to point out that creationism isn’t his model (then he blames secularists for scientists). This is true, there are other nutters who came up with this crap. But Ham tried to pretend that “scientists” came up with the various creation models (NB: just because a scientist said something, doesn’t make it science or scientific). Then he talks about species and kinds and how Nye was confusing what a kind was. Easy to do when the idea of a kind is bullshit and unsupported by any actual science.

Nye then tore apart the claims about the rise of species from kinds using the basic math involved. He also called bullshit on the ship building skills of ancient desert people. The main point in this rebuttal was that Ham hadn’t addressed Nye’s point adequately, and that Ham’s claims aren’t supported by the majority of religious people, let alone scientists.

My desk and forehead had had enough by this stage, so I didn’t watch the Q&A section, but it can be viewed here.

The point I wanted to make from this was that Ham had a huge advantage in this discussion. I’m not talking about the home team venue, nor the credulous crowd, I’m talking about the lack of need for evidence. All Ham had to do, and pretty much what he did, was seed doubt in science and then declare “creationism wins” (which might as well be “God did it”). This is the problem with any debate with anti-science: the scientists have to prove their case with evidence and logical reasoning; the anti-science side only has to sow some doubt. And that doubt can vary between legitimate claims through to flat out lies, it doesn’t matter. So Nye shouldn’t have taken the debate.

But Nye was right to take the debate.

Hang-on. Have you hit your head against your desk a few too many times during that debate?

No. Bill Nye is a well known and respected science communicator. He went into the belly of the beast to stand in the echo chamber and sow some doubt (how’s that for a metaphor-fest?). As he stated himself, Nye knows that America (and the world, but let’s allow him his patriotism) needs science and innovation for the future of society. Creationism and other anti-science nonsense undermine this. If no-one challenges the group-think and echo chamber of the creationists (et al.) then they will continue to be mislead and misinformed by people like Ken Ham. You can’t have someone reject evolution yet rely on germ theory for modern medicine. You can’t have someone reject radio-carbon dating yet use medical imaging. That is incompatible, that is a rejection of reality, and it leads to stupid stuff happening that curbs development of new technologies and advancements to society.

Other opinions on who won:
Shane proposes that Nye needed to pick a couple of points to hammer home. This feeds into science communication research that shows you can get distracted from the main narrative with too many points. 

Christian Nation have Bill Nye winning the debate 92% to 8%. 

Update: Richard Linski has blogged about the debate and Ham’s use of his E. coli evolution work. Not surprisingly, Ham completely misrepresented the work. As I said above, Ham did this with many examples in his presentation. It is important that people realise just how deceptive Ham’s statements and claims are.

Update: It is clear that many of Ham’s supporters were not listening to Bill Nye and are wilfully ignorant. This Buzzfeed article (yeah, I know, Buzzfeed) brings up a lot of the points that Nye addressed, explained clearly and simply, showing they didn’t listen to Nye, and slept through school.

Update: This article makes a nice statement that ties into some of my points about why Nye took the debate. To quote:

It brought new attention to YEC (Young Earth Creationism) to exactly the people we need to see it- the large swath of Christian and other religious parents who think of Intelligent Design or Guided Evolution or some other pseudo-scientific concept when they imagine “teaching the controversy“. These people are embarrassed by people like Ken Ham. They know the earth isn’t 6000 years old, and they understand just how impossible it is to square that belief with observable phenomena.

Update: I quoted Brian Dunning above and he wrote an article for Skeptoid about not debating anti-science people. I agree and disagree with his points as you will see from what I’ve written here and what Brian has written in his article. We can’t just preach to the choir, but we can’t provide legitimacy to nonsense either.

Update: The ever awesome Potholer54 just posted a video on one point about evolution and Ken Ham’s rebuttal of his own arguments. Worth watching.

* Okay, not the best point to make, as teeth aren’t definitive of diet, but if the comment is viewed as being representative of animal physiology overall, then it is a very valid putdown of the vegetarian claims.

Merry Whatever and Happy Celestial Orbit 2014

In honor of the Xmas season

There are so many religious, non-religious, familial and festive events on this month, leading into the switch over to the new calendar year of 2014. So I hope that whatever end of year, harvest festival, solstice or denominational event you are celebrating, that it is a joyous one.

I’ve had a great year, published a few short stories, I have a novel in submission, my son has gone from sleep, eat and cry to eat, play, sleep and cry, and you have all shared that with me here. I hope you have had a good year as well, or at least one that will make you look forward to 2014 as much as I am.

So, join me again next year, slightly older, slightly wiser, slightly hungover and ready for some fun.

Cheers, Tyson.

Running the Cross by Tyson Adams

My short story, Running the Cross, appears on Thrills, Kills ‘n’ Chaos. Have a read and then check out some of the other brilliant short stories there. They’ve just had a special Halloween week for all the horror fans.

Running the Cross is also available in a longer format from Amazon if your bookmark button is playing up.

THRILLS, KILLS 'n' CHAOS

It’s called “Running the Cross”, or simply “The Cross”. It is dangerous.

I’ve been here before. It’s a small town in South Australia where twelve rail lines merge, an east-west alignment of freight trains travelling from various states. Once every few months, the timetables align and twelve trains converge in a slightly staggered pattern. For the few that are fast enough, strong enough, determined enough, or just plain crazy enough, this is the place to test your mettle. No-one will stop you, except the trains.

The Cross had gained a level of notoriety in running circles, even attracting some big-name Olympic athletes to the dusty town. I’m not an Olympian, but I share a place with those who have completed The Cross.

One Olympic aspirant had made the town, and Running the Cross, infamous on a sunny afternoon one July. There are two paths you can choose: the first is…

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Tomorrow is the Melbourne Cup – Rossleigh’s Tips

I was going to write a scathing diatribe on horse racing and my thoughts regarding The Melbourne Cup. I know some people love horses and horse racing, and I’m sure they are up-to-date with their therapy bills, but I’m just not a fan of this once a year dog food and midget hype.
Fortunately for me, Ross has written a great blog about The Melbourne Cup.

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Ok, I know that many of you will consider the whole Melbourne Cup scene an example of the worst excesses of Western decadence, but to show you that I don’t have to always attack the rich and famous, here are my Cup predictions:

  1. The Commentary Team will talk about how lucky they’ve been with the weather.
  2. Someone off a Channel 7 show will be asked to give you a tip, which will be one of the favourites. It will lose badly.
  3. Race 1 will be won by a very young horse. They will tell you that it was a very cheap buy. Most people won’t realise that they could have bought a very expensive car for the same amount of money.
  4. At some point in the day, they will interview the groundsman about how he gets the roses looking so lovely. He will resist the temptation to tell them by…

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