Book review: The End of Policing by Alex Vitale

The End of PolicingThe End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Imagine addressing the causes of crime rather than sending in heavily armed punishers.

Alex Vitale attempts to make the argument for The End of Policing. He covers the major activities of US policing and how these activities are largely ineffective and don’t address the causes of crime. Vitale also argues the actual role of the police is as the enforcers of the state/power/status quo and how this ties to inequality, poverty, racism, and bigotry.

I became interested in alternatives to policing after seeing cops abusing their power. One example sticks in my memory and drove me to read more on the subject. Several years ago a viral video showed 4 cops physically restraining a 12-year-old boy they claimed was autistic, because he “didn’t understand”, not like us normies… At the time my immediate response was of disgust. Four grown men pinning down a kid with autism in exactly the way that would cause someone with autism to have a meltdown was inexcusable. It showed they were the wrong people for the job, as they’d expressed some level of awareness about autism. That it was just a fabrication to excuse their assault, much like the later defences of their actions, showed a callous disregard for the values they are meant to abide by.

There was another example of an Aboriginal man being tasered 20 times whilst in a WA police lockup. I’d include that here but trying to find coverage of that incident is really difficult because it turns out that cops misusing tasers and assaulting restrained people is downright common. Police assaulting Aboriginal people is downright common too.

Prior to reading this book, I was surprised to learn that the common excuse for this overuse of force, that being a cop is dangerous, wasn’t true. The profession doesn’t rank in the Top 10 in any global north country (unless I’ve missed one). In Australia, the most dangerous thing a cop does is drive. Can’t think of any other people that drive anywhere. For the USA, which this book is primarily about, even the presence of enough guns to pay for every S&W executive’s private jet doesn’t make their job riskier than garbage collectors or taxi drivers. That’s not to say the job isn’t without risk, but the big dangers are suicide and the aforementioned driving.

All this is to say that I went into Vitale’s book expecting to receive a bit more insight into the problems with cops and why we need to move away from the policing model. That is what this book delivered. Where it lacked slightly was in transition ideas and alternatives. While there were plenty of alternatives mentioned, how to transition, how to address structural changes, etc., was a bit underdone. In fairness on this point, that would essentially be a whole other book of material and probably needs to be the follow-up.

The End of Policing will probably be pretty controversial to some people. As I’ve tried to explain above, I was already aware of how flat many of the usual pro-policing arguments fall. So I’d encourage people to read this book carefully, do the lateral reading, and see why this argument is solid and worth pursuing.

Comments while reading:
“Part of the problem is that our politicians, media, and criminal justice institutions too often equate justice with revenge.”

Yes. I’ve had this argument with people before. There are two problems, the first being revenge, the second being that people assume blast or dust.

Understandably, people don’t like it when bad things happen to them, so there is this idea of an eye for an eye – or more accurately a life for an eye. We perpetuate that idea in our media and the way we discuss justice, despite the hard fact that it only makes things worse.

The blast or dust problem is a hurdle for a lot of people on justice. I’ve had an argument with people who were justifying straight-up murdering someone for attempting to steal their TV. When I suggested that the death penalty doesn’t apply to petty theft, the response was to assert that I was being soft and that I might as well just give my TV away. There are no potential alternatives to not murdering people to these “justice” warriors – vengeance/revenge is the only answer. Yet I have personally intervened and stopped robberies just by having a chat with someone in a non-confrontational way. Realising that you can address crime without needing to punish someone is very important to advancing our society.

Had to lol. French saying: French people are free to do anything they like, with police supervision.

“Modern policing is largely a war on the poor that does little to make people safer or communities stronger, and even when it does, this is accomplished through the most coercive forms of state power that destroy the lives of millions. Instead of asking the police to solve our problems we must organize for real justice. We need to produce a society designed to meet people’s human needs, rather than wallow in the pursuit of wealth at the expense of all else.”

When you understand how crime arises in society you realise the police aren’t about stopping crime, they are barely about catching “bad guys”. In fact, they’d have little point for existing if we addressed the root causes of crime in our society.

On that point, fun fact, the biggest measure done to address crime was the environmental regulation of lead, which accounted for 56% of the decline in violent crime in the 1990s. Access to legal and safe abortions was the next biggest factor in decreasing violent crime at 29% of the decline. https://www.nber.org/papers/w13097

“The reality is that the police exist primarily as a system for managing and even producing inequality by suppressing social movements and tightly managing the behaviours of poor and nonwhite people: those on the losing end of economic and political arrangements.”

Seeing the police come out against climate change protesters in the past few years really cements this point.

“Reducing social services and replacing them with punitive social control mechanisms works less well and is more expensive. The cost of housing people and providing then with mental health services is actually lower than cycling them through emergency rooms, homeless shelters, and jails, as numerous studies have shown.”

This point is one that so many either can’t wrap their heads around or refuse to engage with. See my point above about an eye for an eye mentality.

“A kinder, gentler, and more diverse war on the poor is still a war on the poor.”

And doesn’t address the poverty to alleviate crime.

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Book vs Movie: Coraline – What’s the Difference?

This month’s What’s the Difference? is on Coraline.

This is another in the long line of books and movies I haven’t yet gotten to. The best I have on Coraline is that one of my writers’ group friends is a big fan of the book.

Okay, tenuous link.

Look, if you want me to read and watch everything, you’re going to have to invent more hours in the day.

In 2009, artisanal stop motion animation house Laika released their first feature film, Coraline. Based on Neil Gaman’s book of the same name, the film follows a young girl stumbling into a fantastic ‘other’ world to become a sneak-up scary kids movie classic. But how did the film adapt the realistic elements of the book into the visual whimsy of a creative juggernaut making its mark in Hollywood? It’s time to ask, What’s the Difference?

Written for the screen and directed by Henry Selick, of The Nightmare Before Christmas fame, both the book and the movie draw lines between Coraline’s worlds of fantasy and reality. The book is able to make it more distinct thanks while the movie is all stop motion whimsy, all the time. So what changes need to be made to the story to account for that Laika trademark look?

Book review: Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks

Consider Phlebas (Culture, #1)Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

That feeling you get when you mutiny only to find out you’re just as bad at captaining.

The war between the Idirans and the Culture is starting. Both are looking for an edge when they become aware of a ship mind that does the impossible. If they can have the mind then they could win the war. But the mind is hiding on a neutral planet, only accessible by Changers like Horza. Horza has to sneak past both armies to capture the mind, but will he survive long enough to see the mission through?

A few years ago, my uncle recommended the Culture series to me. I already had Consider Phlebas on my TBR pile, having picked up a copy cheap somewhere (thankyou online sales). Finally, the book made it to the top of the pile. And I was disappointed.

As far as sci-fi space opera goes, the novel is solid. There is a large amount of action, everyone is rarely not in danger, and the sci-fi elements make for an interesting setting.

Okay. So why the disappointment?

Good question, voice in my head. And thanks for letting up on the demands to burn stuff for that brief shining moment.

The first problem I had was that this novel felt meandering and long. At ~470 pages it feels about 100 pages or so too long. Often the series of events feel unnecessary or drawn-out just so we can get more descriptions of card games and wacky cannibals. I know that sci-fi and fantasy audiences often demand all that filler, but I am a fickle reader who has too many other books waiting in the wings.

The second problem was that Horza was somewhat unlikeable. For the main character to be less than admirable or straight-up evil is fine. But you have to want to spend time with them as they be jerks. Horza wasn’t really up to the task. Maybe this was because it felt like stuff happened to him quite a bit, rather than having agency, or that we were told a lot of stuff about him without seeing him do those things. Or maybe he just felt like a con-man… which is essentially what his character was.

I’m not sure if other books in the Culture series are like this one, being made up of stand-alone novels. Potentially the series improves; this is the lowest rated book in the series by the looks. This leaves me really torn on recommending Consider Phlebas and whether to read anything else in the Culture series.

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Good Shows, Bad Endings

As a science nerd, I love graphs. So this post is an excuse to share the work of Bo McCready.

So who doesn’t love having their favourite show suffer under the inability of the creators to care enough about finishing it properly? Whether it be show runners wanting to do something else, off-set controversies requiring massive changes to the show, or the writers being told they have 8 episodes to wrap up all the intricate characters and plots in a satisfactory way as they join the dole queue, show endings can suffer as a result.

If you go to the Tableau page you can interact with these graphs. You can see the version I’ve saved includes The Simpsons and its slow decline since seasons 5 and 6, that has you questioning how it is still on air 25 seasons later. But you have the ability to add any show.

You can also look at Good Shows with Good Endings. It’s interesting to browse through the list to see several of my favourites: Banshee, Justified, The Wire, Leverage, and Person of Interest. In this graphic I’ve added The Expanse, which has the interesting trend of getting better with each season and finishing at its peak.

As with all data, it is important to take onboard the limitations of this presentation.

Take for example the widely loved mediocrity that was Friends. A highly rated show with a highly rated finale whose entire run could be described as middling entertainment. You can see that largely unchallenging, unengaging, inoffensive entertainment has more of a chance to keep its audience happy.

Another example is Game of Thrones. Hey, remember that show? It was only two years ago. Remember how this pop culture phenomenon died and hasn’t been spoken about with anything other than derision since? I’ve gone into how the final season and finale didn’t manage to meet fan expectations, but worse than Baywatch, How I Met Your Mother, and [insert literally any sitcom ever here]?

I think the takeaway from these graphics is that people need to watch an episode of According to Jim or Big Brother to remind themselves that even at their worst, your favourite show was a well crafted gem.

Film genre popularity

As a science nerd, I love graphs. So this post is an excuse to share the work of Bo McCready.

The first is a graphic of film genres over time. As you can see, some genres are niche (sci-fi and fantasy), some have become less popular over time (westerns and musicals), while some have become more popular (horror and documentaries). Meanwhile, comedy has been dominating since the 1930s.

It should be noted how the films are classified. Obviously, very few films are purely one genre. Westerns would often be (hugely problematic) action movies as well. Some westerns were also romances, and there are at least a few famous musicals in that genre too. More recently, sci-fi could be more accurately termed comic book/Marvel movies. But they also tend to be comedies, action, and box-office gold.

So what does this data actually tell us?

Well, I think it shows a couple of things. The first is that one one genre ever really dominates, despite what we may think. The second is that most films are rarely able to fit neatly within one genre box, no matter how hard reductionists wish they would. And the third is that a bit of humour is always welcome.

How Manga Took Over American Bookshelves

Who likes Manga? And more importantly for the smoking jacket wearing class, is it literature? This month’s It’s Lit! discusses.

Okay, let’s just ignore the American-centric aspect of PBS videos. I’m sure one of their bylaws is about having to do cultural imperialism.

It’s quite interesting how Manga and Anime have percolated out into the mainstream. Most people will have been exposed to at least some of the Anime of various Manga. For myself, I can remember watching Astro Boy as a kid and discovering comics of it at the library. This lead to questions about why they would make a comic of a perfectly watchable TV show? Wouldn’t it make more sense to write something new that could be made into a TV show? Is there some reference in this card index that will help 9 year old me understand this issue better?

At the same time, Manga still has a fringe quality to it. This is partly due to it being (scare quotes) FOREIGN (/scare quotes). But it is also related to the comic format.

You see, comics are made for kids – puffs on pipe whilst leaning against mantle next to log fire, monocle helping me peer down my nose at those Lesser Works.

This tide is slowly turning. People are now able to recognise the merits of comics and Manga. And at some stage we might even get a decent live-action movie based on a Manga.

Astro Boy, Dragon Ball, Akira, Sailor Moon, Demon Slayer, Death Note all these interesting, iconic anime have something very much in common they started off as: manga.

Manga, by its most simplistic definition, are comics or graphic novels originating from Japan, which became extremely popular in the United States starting in the 80s and 90s. We’ve already touched on Western Graphic Novels and Comics, but you know we couldn’t just leave it at that (not with this t-shirt). So today we’re discussing manga as its own rich literature, reflecting the complicated political history of Japan.

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: The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the DarkThe Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hey kids, want some of the good stuff? Take a hit of this Science & Critical Thinking. It’ll blow your mind!!

Carl Sagan takes us on a journey through the history of science and our fleshy meat-sack attempts to understand the universe. He tries to illustrate the difference between knowledge and nonsense. And he tries to instill a sense of interest and wonder in the universe around us, something that he believes is a cornerstone of a functional society into the future.

I first read Demon-Haunted World in undergrad *cough-cough* years ago. I read it again about a decade ago, although have little memory of doing so. So it was interesting to revisit Sagan’s case for following knowledge (through science) in the post-alternative facts world.

Possibly the most obvious aspects of this book are the often-quoted sections about the risks of not valuing education and knowledge. What was more interesting this time around was digging into the offhand remarks and bias of the book. The introduction had a great remark about a teacher being a bully to female students that was barely explored, despite being a great anecdote about how certain groups are held out of STEM fields. Another was the US-centric bias (obviously the book was written by an American for an American audience) which was at odds with the theme of science and education helping everyone.

There were also more disappointments this time around. Sure, I still love the Baloney Detection Kit. And being reminded of how so many curious people don’t get exposed to good information because we don’t value actual knowledge. But I’ve got less time for the scientism that leads to dismissals of philosophy or other knowledge methods. While Sagan’s was a mild scientism, it does feed into something many pro-science communicators can fall into the trap of and comes off as a little arrogant.

I guess I’ll revisit this in another decade. Looking forward to it.

Comments while reading:
Sagan talks about his humble origins and passion for science. It’s good to see someone acknowledge how the “inspiring teacher” trope is often not present, both for those who develop a passion and for those who don’t for whatever subject.

There was also an incidental point made about bullying and sexism that was almost glossed over. He mentioned one of his teachers being very good but also a bully. Someone who delighted in being mean to the female students. This sort of overt sexism (or racism, or bigotry in general) undoubtedly has held back generations of people from STEM. The more subtle versions persist and do similar levels of damage.

The oblique references to post-modernism are a bit disappointing. I understand that Sagan has the common misunderstanding of the philosophy, but I’d like to think someone like him would have taken the time to read and understand it. Although, it would help if the po-mo writers weren’t so verbose and abstract (and being translated from French).

Sagan covers a bit about a Randi hoax done on the Australian media. It was interesting to hear about how credulous our Aussie media were back then. Sorry, what am I saying? They are still credulous fools publishing anything for outrage and eyeballs. The comedy team, The Chaser, just recently pranked the media with a fake Fairy Bread petition with exactly the foaming outrage from conservative media you’d expect.

It’s interesting to come out the other side of organised skepticism and re-read Sagan. He and some of the other more reasonable voices (e.g. Phil Plait) still come across well. But you can also see the scientism. Sagan’s isn’t as pronounced as some others, but you can’t help thinking that Sagan might have slid down the same road into grumpy old man shouting at people on Twitter road that so many of his contemporaries have (cough Dawkins cough). I’d like to think not.

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Book vs Movie: Shadow & Bone – What’s the Difference?

Screen Rant have broken down the differences between book and Netflix show for Shadow & Bone.

I’m about half-way through the series on Netflix. It didn’t exactly wow me out of the gate, but I did think it had potential. A few episodes in and I’m entertained.

I really appreciate the differences between the book and the show. It elevates the show about generic YA and gives us Inej Ghafa earlier in the series.

Although, still generic enough to have me laugh at the super obvious love triangle.

Book review: Burn Bright by Marianne de Pierres

Burn Bright (Night Creatures, #1)Burn Bright by Marianne de Pierres
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s a pill for that: a guide to partying on Ixion island.

Retra’s only friend, her brother, abandoned her to seek pleasure away from the stifling culture of Grave. She decides to follow him to Ixion, enduring the pain of an obedience implant to do so. Once there, everyone is encouraged to party until they burn out and get too old. Retra is more concerned about finding her brother. But in doing so, she uncovers the secrets about Ixion and upsets those in charge.

Burn Bright was fine. It had a fast pace and an interesting world.

I think I was halfway through the book when I made the comment, “I don’t know where de Pierres is heading with this, if anywhere.” I guessed straight away that the various Ixion inhabitants were using the kids as cattle in some way. My assumption was that they were vampires, to be honest. It took until the second last chapter for the big reveal, which wasn’t different enough from my assumption to be much of a “twist”.

This could just be the jaded reader in me wanting something fresher. I wasn’t sure where de Pierres was headed with Burn Bright because it felt like the obvious reveal couldn’t be what we were building to. But it was. Essentially, the big mystery was not interesting enough to make everything else payoff.

Burn Bright is entertaining enough, but I feel like this is a book for younger less jaded readers than me.

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

This month’s What’s the Difference? looks at The Queen’s Gambit.

On my Netflix profile there are a couple of types of recommendation categories that keep popping up. One is “Because you watched John Wick shoot 400 people in the head” and the other is “Movies based on books”. Both are obviously bound to have good recommendations in them.

Needless to say, I became aware of The Queen’s Gambit because of the fact it was based upon a book. That I’d never heard of the book is probably telling you a lot about how many chess thrillers I read.

The changes mentioned in the video above were intriguing. The one that stuck out to me was the mother being turned into a rich woman with a PhD. In the 1950s. This really feels like some lazy shorthand by the screenwriters.

Often in movies you’ll have super-smart characters described as having a number of PhDs. Because smart people obviously feel the need to have multiple PhDs rather than doing postdocs, climbing the corporate or academic hierarchy, and becoming world renowned. It used to be that these smart characters would have a large IQ, but that is falling out of favour. I’m hoping it is because authors realise that IQ has limited utility, but realistically it will be because it has become a cliche.

The idea that the mother had to be rich is something I’ve noted with a lot of films and TV shows of late. There appears to be a fetishisation of wealth happening in our media. Sure, Snowpiercer, Parasite, etc., have all been popular of late. But look at how many protagonists are billionaires (or millionaires). Think about the revision of characters like Spiderman from working class to being wealthy or having wealthy benefactors.

Maybe I’m just having selective memory. There is a noted phenomenon of movie and TV show productions displaying an utter failure to understand what things cost or what poverty looks like. Like having the Friends cast living in apartments that none of them could afford. Maybe I’m just hung-up on the Spiderman example – since a big part of his character was struggling financially whilst being a hero. Or maybe having poor characters makes product placement – like a lime green Alpha Romeo in Michael Bay’s 6 Underground – really hard.

Netflix made chess sexy again with its limited series The Queen’s Gambit. With Anya Taylor-Joy as orphan turned chess prodigy Beth Harmon, writer director Scott Frank created a cinematic portrayal of the mind of a chess genius through substance abuse, struggles with mental health and even the Cold War. But Walter Tevis wrote the novel in a simple, unadorned style that’s a far cry from the stylish and sexy version of the story that wound up in your Netflix queue. So with no restraint on spoilers, it’s time to ask, what’s the difference?

While Anya Taylor-Joy is a more glamorous version of Beth Harmon in the Golden Globe winning awards season darling, the story follows a lot of the same beats. Following her from orphan and prodigy to eventual chess master and world champion, Thomas Brodie-Sangster of Game of Thrones and Harry Melling from the Harry Potter franchise play more complicated versions of their book counterparts. But many of the changes, while seemingly small, have sneaky wide-ranging implications on the Beth’s journey from learning the game from the janitor at an orphanage, to developing an addiction to pills and ultimately her victory over a Russian Grand Master. It’s an interesting and sometimes frustrating collection of changes!

Misunderstanding George Orwell and 1984

Have you heard people refer to us as currently living in 1984? Has someone said to you that data tracking is very Big Brother? Then you might enjoy this video from Dr Tom Nicholas.

I am routinely amazed at the vacuous, superficial, and cherry picked references people make to George Orwell’s novels, particularly 1984.

In some respects, I understand. 1984 is quite a lugubrious read. It and Animal Farm are often read during high school as compulsory texts, a time people are noted for being at the peak of the intellectual prowess. So it is understandable that people remember little, if anything, about Orwell’s books.

But it is frustrating to run across many “appeals to Orwell” by commentators (like Jordan Peterson). These people will present themselves as having read and internalised Orwell’s writing, and are now helping us understand its significance. Yet even just reading the SparkNotes should have people seeing through these commentators.

If there is any one line from Orwell that can dispel the misunderstandings more thoroughly than any other, it is this one from the essay Why I Write:

In this month’s video, we’re looking at the work of both Jordan B. Peterson (author of Maps of Meaning, 12 Rules for Life and Beyond Order) and George Orwell (author of 1984, Animal Farm and Homage to Catalonia).

Professor Peterson has a video on his YouTube channel titled “On Free Thought and Speech in London” in which, inspired by seeing a statue of Orwell, he suggests that one of the aspects which separated the capitalist west from the communist east during the Cold War was an ability for journalists to “say what they think”.

Taking this as a starting point, I seek to dig into uses (and abuses) of George Orwell’s work by Peterson and the political right more broadly. Through contextualising Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm within Orwell’s own life, I seek to draw out the deep critiques of Peterson’s beloved “Western culture” which are contained within those books.

Towards the end, I also consider whether 1984 might provide an interesting lens for unpacking Peterson’s own work and the Cold War view of the world which underlies it.

What’s in a (Pen) Name?

This month’s It’s Lit! discusses author names and why they are often pseudonyms.

One of the things not discussed in the video is just how ancient the idea of pen names are and how they are/have been used to denote multiple authors.

Homer’s works were probably written by many people, making Homer a pen name. Lao Tzu was also likely to be an attribution for the Taoist collection Tao Te Ching, based upon a semi-mythical founder of the philosophy and religion. The author favoured by business and military leaders, and people with aspirations to being serial killers, Sun Tzu, is believed to have never existed. Instead, decades or centuries of knowledge was collected under the name.

More recently, we see pen names being taken for collaborations. James SA Corey of The Expanse fame is the pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Grant Naylor of Red Dwarf fame is actually Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. Ilona Gordon and Andrew Gordon write under the name Ilona Andrews for their adventures in urban fantasy. And Tom Clancy is famously half-a-dozen homicidal monkeys taped together.

In all these instances, you can see why a pen name was utilised. Having two authors on the cover of a book is reserved for franchises, like James Paterson and Clive Cussler. The name that will sell the book is at the top in bold, and the flunky who actually wrote it is attributed somewhere they’ll be missed. So writing teams need a pen name. The more historical examples appear to be about attribution to a progenitor or (semi) mythical figure, either to honour the inspiration for later works (particularly from more oral traditions), or to collect work under one banner.

This makes pen names very interesting. Particularly as knowledge of the author/s fades into history. The art outlives the artist. Yet we still try to figure out who they were and how they came to entertain and influence us long after their passing.

Maybe one day our descendants will be arguing whether James Paterson was a real author or just a marketing brand for blooding new authors. Maybe by then the Clancy monkeys might have mellowed out a bit.

To some people, the idea of a pen name seems kind of weird. If I, a writer, am going to put countless hours of hard work and thought into my masterpiece, why wouldn’t I want to put my own name underneath the title?

But from Stephen King to Ben Franklin to …., who had their own secret aliases, to Mark Twain and Dr. Seuss, whose pseudonyms became so famous that they are remembered by their pen names and not their actual names, the nom de plume has a long and proud history in the literary world.

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: How Themes Changed in Lord of the Rings

It’s been 4 years since the last post about Lord of the Rings. Let’s do this!

This is a slightly different take on the differences between the book and the film. Wisecrack have looked at the major themes rather than diving into all of the changes made in the adaptation.

When I last discussed the Lord of the Rings series (see here, here, and here), I heaped praise upon the adaptations. They were able to trim down the waffle and create possibly one of the best trilogies in film history.

I hadn’t previously given a lot of thought to the changes in the themes between the book and the films. Now that it has been mentioned, the character arcs in the film should have been more obvious to me. I also find the idea that the movies were (accidentally??) made to be more secular is interesting. Perhaps that change is as much to do with when the book was written versus when the films were made.

Given the desire to reboot and remake every intellectual property in the cupboard these days, maybe the next LOTR movies will be given an Avengers style makeover. Lots of quippy dialogue, everyone has lots of money, several of the lead characters spend time with their shirts off and arms bulging, and somehow there will be product placement everywhere.

Unraveling the Myth of Ernest Hemingway

This month It’s Lit! discusses the (mythical) life of literary icon Ernest Hemingway.

I have to admit… Yes, you know what’s coming. I write that line whenever one of these interesting videos covers an author or book I haven’t read.

Anyway, my exposure to Hemingway is decidedly limited. The very helpful Hemingway App is supposedly named for his love of clarity and precise sentence structure, creating simpler, clearer writing. Yet the short stories I have read of his have decidedly complex sentences that are often pushing that clarity level to its limits.

Or to say it another way, similar to what was discussed in the video, there is a myth around Hemingway’s style of writing.

Maybe it’s time to give one of his novels a read.

Here’s the problem with tackling Ernest Hemingway—Ernest Hemingway himself. While the iconic author is mostly known for his feats of literary prowess, from The Sun Also Rises to For Whom the Bell Tolls, to countless short stories—perhaps his greatest fiction of all is his own self-mythologizing. As his brand grew in the 1920s and 30s, so too grew his celebrity and, well, his ego.

So, with Ernie all the while throwing so much self-mythologizing in the mix that it became nearly impossible to separate the Man from the Myth.

But gosh darn it, we’re going to try.

Book review: Children of Dune by Frank Herbert

Children of Dune (Dune Chronicles, #3)Children of Dune by Frank Herbert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you have all your ancestors’ memories, is that better or worse than having them watch you masturbate from the afterlife?

[Warning: this review contains a spoiler for a book released in the 1970s, which obviously requires a warning so that people will be adequately able to navigate to the comments section to complain.]

Paul Atreides’ twin children, Leto and Ghanima, are sick of being treated as children and are ready to rule. Their aunt Alia is possessed by her ancestor, Baron Harkonnen, and wants them dead. House Corrino is plotting to take over Dune, and wants them dead. Some of the Fremen want to return to the old ways, and want them dead. And their grandmother wants to test them with the gom jabbar, which could potentially leave them dead.

This review is being written almost a week after I finished reading it. Usually, a gap of this much between finishing and reviewing suggests I wasn’t left with any strong impressions of the book. And I think Children of Dune certainly falls into the category of “a book I have read”.

The book was entertaining. But it was only adequate.

Dune was a great novel. I felt Dune Messiah was a lesser novel in every way, whilst still enjoyable. Children of Dune was another few steps down the quality ladder.

I think the issue was that Children of Dune didn’t feel as well constructed. What appeared to be major plot points were essentially over before the halfway mark. Another plot point which has been hinted at for three novels essentially came out of left field. [Spoiler] Leto’s transformation really lacks supporting explanation. I mean, I find it really hard to believe that Leto was the first to get high on drugs, pull on a sand trout skin, and realise it gave them superpowers. Herbert introduces this idea as it happens and explains that it was something kids regularly did with their hands for fun. You can’t tell me that no idiot has ever been that wasted and tried it out.[/Spoiler]

Children of Dune was entertaining enough. But I don’t think I’ll read more of the series.

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Book vs Movie: Howl’s Moving Castle – What’s the Difference?

This month’s What’s the Difference covers a beloved movie in Howl’s Moving Castle.

I have to admit to not having gotten onboard of the Studio Ghibli lovefest bandwagon. At best, I can claim to have watched half of Spirited Away and some film analysis videos that sing the studio’s praises.

But, but, Fantasy! And anti-war! And environmentalism! And anti-consumerism! And anti-discrimination!

Yes, I know. I watched Astroboy as a kid.

Seriously, what is it about drawing and animation that leads to having a social conscious?*

Anyway, I like that a lauded production company manages to make book adaptations that improve on the source material. Maybe I’ll give it a watch at some stage.

* Let’s just ignore examples like Scott Adams… who is just terrible despite making some really funny comics in the past.

How Do You Write a Bestseller?

This month’s It’s Lit! talks about what it takes to have a novel become a BESTSELLER!

For anyone who has peaked under the hood of professional writing, what Lindsay Ellis discussed in the video will not come as a surprise. The intrigue really comes from why “bestseller” status is taken so seriously.

To some extent, the status symbol of “hey look, lots of other people like this” is a great marketing tool. It is something of a populist recommendation for those looking for their next read. And that can work. It doesn’t just work for readers, it also works for the industry, who will make decisions based off of that status symbol.

But I have a sneaking suspicion that the gloss is fading on the bestseller status.

Lots of books lay claim to bestseller status on their covers or in marketing blurbs. I first noticed it with indie publishers. While it is nice to tell people hunting for their next gothic-urban-scifi-ninja-alien-western-romance-dinosaur-erotica novel that this example once ranked #1 in that category for 5 hours one rainy Sunday last August to encourage someone to buy it, I’d have said it feels disingenuous to call the novel a bestseller.

This trick has been used with many novels. There are lots of lists in many countries, so if someone sold well after a good book tour of Upper Kent, then they can expect to hit the New Brunswick Daily Gleaner’s bestseller list. Now “bestseller” status is plastered on the cover and readers will see what tickled the fancy of some of the 100 residents of Upper Kent. Let’s not even go into how various groups will game the system to get their favourite books on those lists (selling it to a national book club works wonders…).

Which is why we see reverence being given to the big name bestseller lists, like the NYT list. But this is just as pointless. Exactly how relevant is “success” in a handful of select New York stores to a debut author from Oslo?

So while bestseller status is a nice shorthand for popular reader recommendation, it probably shouldn’t replace actual recommendations.

Here on It’s Lit!, we spend a lot of time pontificating on the high canon of books: Your Shakespeares, your Tolstoys, your… erotic beast wars fanfiction. But today we’re craving something a little lighter, a little fluffier… you know, novels you pick up for the sake of just having something quick– your beach reads, your airport novels, your Books of the Month. Books that, while you might never have to read them for a seminar or a class or that sweet clout, somehow manage to dominate most water cooler discussions about literature. We’re talking Your Dan Browns, your Jodi Picoults, your Where the Crawdads Sing, seriously, how has the book managed to be on the top of every bestseller lists for so many months, I don’t even KNOW what it’s about but it’s my mortal enemy.

These are your blockbuster books, the bestsellers of the bestsellers–And whether or not you read them or turn your nose up at them, for better or worse, they are the tent poles that support the publishing industry.

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: Fully Automated Luxury Communism by Aaron Bastani

Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A ManifestoFully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto by Aaron Bastani
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you labour the point does that make you working-class?

Dr Aaron Bastani is best known as one of the founders of Novara Media in the UK. A recurrent theme to their journalism is a hope to move society toward Fully Automated Luxury (Gay Space) Communism. His book attempts to articulate the whys and hows this will be possible and reasoning for it being the utopia we’re all looking for.

Fully Automated Luxury (Gay Space) Communism has been the dream of lefties since they first spotted a capitalist getting out of bed at noon to start a hard day of reading the paper and smoking cigars at a Gentleman’s Club. The rise of FAL(GS)C has been predicted by people of all political stripes, but notably anyone with one eye on the future. It’s often part of post-scarcity utopias common in science fiction. So writing about it in the 2010’s is not exactly groundbreaking.

In many respects, Bastani’s text is an update on how close we are to utopia right now. While it stands alone as its own argument for FALC, there aren’t a lot of new insights.

This isn’t a bad thing. I think people do need to be reminded that the future we choose to have is being shaped now. That our future could be one that is good for everyone rather than good for the type of people who buy diamond collars for their dogs.

But I felt Bastani laboured the point throughout. This could be because I’m somewhat familiar with most of the points raised. It could be that I was wanting less explanation of the basics and more of the ramifications (see for example my comments below about automation jobs lost vs created). Regardless, I felt this left the book somewhat lacking in its arguments and evidence.

I also felt that there were points made that were somewhat irrelevant or missed huge points. Space mining seems like one of those things people talk about because it has the word space in it. I’m yet to be convinced of the need and point of it. And as great as disrupting the system can be, you have to talk about the transition otherwise you risk making things worse, not better.

If you’re familiar with FALC and read the occasional piece about technology, this book isn’t going to offer any new insights for you. For everyone else, I think this is worth a read to start thinking about the sort of world WE want rather than the world others will create for themselves.

Comments while reading:
I’ve heard Bastani talk about some of this before, but in his writing he is somewhat labouring the point about automation from computers. Yes, automation has happened and will happen from increased computing. But I hope he gets into less of Moore’s Law and more on the jobs lost to automation, if that is increasing, and whether they are being replaced.

Although, on that point, Bastani is trying to argue for FALC, so not really about replacing the jobs as sharing the fruits of their labour, methinks.

While I get the excitement about mining space, I really don’t see the point. As Bastani notes, one precious metal asteroid would oversupply the market thus make the exercise worthless. Not to mention, do we actually need more stuff, or are there just billionaires eyeing off the title of trillionaire? Like phosphorus, supposedly we’re running out… We’re not, actually, we’re just running out of cheap and easy to access sources. Hell, we literally flush away shitloads of nutrients and metals every day. If you change the way we think about our resources (particularly the value we assign) then it could be easier to just use our current planet better. And share better…

The discussion of the future of food and agriculture is interesting if a little inaccurate. We see the common claims about soils only having X harvests left (that is just false, but widely reported), and about meat requiring lots of inputs (bit misleading since something like a cow is used for a lot more than just the meat). In fairness, his mistakes are understandable as there is plenty of scientific literature that makes these same mistakes (which really undermines the credibility of some groups with those in ag science).

But the point about food being able to transition to partly/mostly/wholly being done “in the lab” is true and exciting. It does, however, have to be done as a proper transition, not as a disruption (as implied). Otherwise you’re lining up a genocide for food animals, the collapse of a massive industry, and huge negative environmental impacts (weeds and pests alone would be detrimental). Family farms are the biggest landholders and environmental managers, and I see a logical transition to having them become environmental land managers (reintroducing flora and fauna, documenting said same, controlling ferals, etc).

Bastani’s overall thesis is pretty obvious: hey, look at all of this now and near-future tech. We could literally all sit around and do whatever we want. Wouldn’t that be better than having a handful of trillionaires while the rest of us starve?

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Literary Icons You NEED to Know From the Harlem Renaissance

For Black History Month, It’s Lit! are discussing the Harlem Renaissance, a movement I was completely unaware of until now.

In the video, Princess Weekes made a comment about Langston Hughes being taught in school. Well, maybe in some schools, but certainly not mine.

This ties into a point she makes at the end of the video about how a lot of the figures of the Harlem Renaissance aren’t discussed as much as you would expect. Highly influential poets and authors would normally have a place in the modern literary canon. That they aren’t taught more widely, especially as part of that larger discussion of history and society, is something of a perpetuation of the problem.

But totally worth it so that I got to read ee cummings. Soooo glad I didn’t miss out on his stuff. Playing spot where the punctuation should be is waaayyyy more important than understanding peoples and cultures within our society to help stop marginalisation.

I’ve discussed previously how worthy authors are usually just lucky. Part of that luck is systemic. Being the right colour, writing in the correct language – English being the correct one, preferably in the USA so they can do their cultural imperialism thing – and not being too mean to the orthodoxy fits into the system. If you can’t manage that for some reason, then the literary canon is not for you.

One of the most influential periods in Black American History post-slavery is the Harlem Renaissance, an intellectual, social, and artistic explosion centered in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City.

Novels like Passing by Nella Larsen, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, and the poetry of Langston Hughes were all written during this period and have become important pieces of the American literary canon.

Still, when discussing this topic we tend to flatten the dynamic personalities and identities of the Black folk responsible for making this period so iconic in the literary sense. Not only in America, but as part of the entire Black diaspora.

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.

Covid Writer’s Blockdown

Something I’ve been musing about for – checks calendar – YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME, IT’S ONLY BEEN A YEAR???

Sorry, anyway, something I’ve been musing about is writing during a pandemic. At the start of lockdowns, I remember hearing the buzz about how there would be a rush of book submissions to agents and publishers with everyone having lots of time to write. All those people who believed they had a novel stuck inside them now had enough time to pull out the scalpel and repeatedly stab themselves until they realised they should have taken their doctor more seriously.

But now we’re coming out the other side of that sunny optimism. Articles are starting to appear discussing how lockdown has equalled blockdown.

Punny terms aside, the article in The Guardian touches on much of what I’ve been thinking about without really understanding the issue. It hints at the problem without really spelling it out.

It all comes down to how the creative space works. You need to be able to let your mind wander off to the plains of [insert metaphor here, something really wankery that fits with us creative types] where your story can take shape. To let your mind wander requires a lack of interruptions, a level and type of noise that isn’t distracting, and you have to not be stressed (see my posts on these topics).

Now, what could possibly be getting in the way of creativity during Covid-19?

This is why the original articles talking about how lockdowns would lead to a splurge of novels always seemed optimistic to me. There were only superficial conditions for creativity, not the actual conditions for it. Just having kids in the house all day would be distracting enough to turn the best of times into the blurst of times. Add in working from home and the noted work creep that has had. Add in not working. Add in working on what is called the front-lines in a great reference to trench warfare – and how far away the generals are holding their tea party. Add in home-schooling. Add in stress, financial or existential. Add in feeling crowded in your workspace and then not leaving that workspace for weeks/months on end.

These aren’t the conditions for writing. These are the conditions for sitting on the couch, huddled under a blanket, mindlessly scrolling through social media in search of that sweet sweet shot of endorphins. Is it any surprise that baking sourdough bread, watching terrible Netflix original movies, and tidying the house became popular in 2020?

I recognised this early on and didn’t put too much pressure on myself to write. Sorry, rather, I didn’t put too much pressure on myself to write quality material. Writing wasn’t the problem. Having it resemble something that wasn’t a desperate cry for help or a tirade that would be combed over by profilers wondering why I’d committed such an unspeakable act was the problem.

I’m sure there are writers out there who haven’t had a problem with lockdowns and creativity. From what I’ve seen, dedicated workspaces for writing and a history of consistent writing habits (and being an empty nester) are helpful. But for the rest of us, creativity has been given all the wrong conditions to thrive, so don’t be too hard on yourself.

Or do be hard on yourself. Maybe we could have learned how to be creative under pressure. Maybe we do suck!