Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s intelligence without the guidance of another.

Immanuel Kant

Business Musings: Stars

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

Me and the Google (as a friend of mine calls it) spent what I almost termed a “dispiriting” hour as I searched for the 21st century’s superstars in a variety of fields. I say “almost termed” because, when I think of it, “dispiriting” is the wrong word.

Adult me, who loves this modern world of indie publishing and going directly to the reader, doesn’t mind the lack of superstars or “big names” as most people call them.

Teenage me, who was trained to figure out the coolest, latest, most “in” superstar (and to judge people based on who they liked and who they didn’t like), feels…well, not dispirited either. But at sea, maybe. Because it’s not as easy as it was fifty years ago to figure out who is guiding the culture.

That whole concept—guiding the culture—comes out of curation. And class-based curation at that. Hardcovers, considered permanent and as a result difficult to afford, were for upper class and/or educated readers. Paperbacks came out of World War 2, and became even more popular thanks to the GI Bill (here in the States) paying for the education of anyone who served.

Paperbacks were considered disposable, though, like the pulp magazines before them. So anything that was in cheap paper was considered cheap fiction, and not worthy of all the things we used to measure “good literature.”

Curation is an important part of the creation of superstars. Yes, the fans have to like what they see, but to get the maximum number of fans to like something or someone, there has to be an information funnel. People need to see that something or someone in very, very, very large numbers.

Even so, those numbers don’t mean a lot when you move across the globe. Global superstars were extremely rare, even back in the day, and were often only in the movies—especially action films that didn’t have a lot of dialogue. Global superstar writers really didn’t exist ever. Each language and/or country had their own stars and often those writers didn’t translate well into a different culture.

Instead, books became blockbusters across the globe, and I’ll get to that in a later post.

One of the many, many reasons that global superstars are rare has nothing to do with language or cultural barriers in the arts. The reason is that there were no curators worldwide. Here in the States, we had a tightly regulated curation system in the mid-20th century, and it was all based on distribution.

There were only so many shelves in bookstores across the nation. Books that went into department stores (remember those?) were the cheap disposable kind (or as we knew them, the mass market paperback). Records had similar issues. There was a large struggle to get radio play, considered free advertising, and then record stores and yes, those department stores, clamored for the music that their customers came in and asked about.

Even then, nothing remained on the shelves long. There just wasn’t space.

Just like there wasn’t space in the movie theaters for more than a handful of films. The movie theaters expanded from showing one film for a month or two (the 1970s) to three or four films at the theater in the mall (the 1980s) to multiplexes (the 1990s), but even that didn’t make distribution easier.

Someone curated who saw what film, just like someone curated who heard what record, just like someone decided who read which books.

Television expanded outward faster, thanks to the arrival of cable, but the networks, which had dominated since the 1950s, held sway until we entered the new century.

Curators told us what to watch. We, the audience, chose among the curated product and accepted or rejected what we found.

Along the way, we found our favorites. Since the curators were nameless and faceless to people outside of the various industries, we couldn’t follow the curator, so we had to find a different way.

We followed the artist, the author, the actor. We couldn’t even follow the television program or the book series because the curators would often discontinue the television program or the book series for reasons that had nothing to do with popularity, and everything to do with contract negotiations or the difficulty of controlling the producers or other behind-the-scenes problems.

Because there was so little actual product out there, we had “watercooler” conversations in which everyone—and I do mean everyone in a particular country/culture—had an opinion about the latest bestseller, the latest movie, the latest album released.

Now, movies can appear and disappear without anyone noticing. It doesn’t matter if we make it to the theater before the movie leaves because the movie will eventually stream. Finding music that we like is as easy as picking a playlist on one of the streaming services, and in many ways, we curate those ourselves based on algorithms of things we have listened to before.

Books are similar. I’ve complained here before about the fact that I have to actively search to find a new release by one of my favorite authors. Many of those authors don’t have newsletters, not that I always open the newsletters that I get, letting them clutter up my inbox.

Distribution has changed, which is something I deal with on this blog a lot. Curation still exists, but it’s essentially worthless. It’s a dying profession in a dying corner of dying parts of the various entertainment industries. 

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

Accessibility in Books: Australia’s New Publishing Guide

From Publishing Perspectives:

You may recall that last year, Australia’s Institute of Professional Editors (IPED) made a point of firmly backing up the Australian Publishers Association as it released its first major effort in analyzing the diversity and inclusion of its industry’s workforce.

. . . .

Today (June 8), we learn that the Institute of Professional Editors is releasing a 200-page guide designed to assist publishers and editors everywhere to create accessible books.

Books Without Barriers: A Practical Guide to Inclusive Publishing may throw some industry players who’ve seen the word “inclusive” used in relation to workforce and content diversity.

In this case, however, “inclusive” refers to accessibility issues such as those embraced by the WIPO-based Marrakesh Treaty, Benetech’s accreditation, the work of Fondazione LIA, and other initiatives designed to make publishing’s work accessible to those who are in some way visually disabled or otherwise challenged in traditional modes of reading.

Publishing Perspectives understands that the new guide, released in-country at the end of April, has taken two years to prepare and was developed “to provide a comprehensive resource for accessible books that covers the whole book-publishing process,” emphasis theirs.

. . . .

Julie Ganner chairs the organization’s Accessibility Initiative Working Party and says that it’s that end-to-end element that makes Books Without Borders unique, covering accessibility requirements for both digital and physical formats.

Ganner says, “The Australian Inclusive Publishing Initiative’s 2019 publication, Inclusive Publishing in Australia: An Introductory Guide, made the legal, social, and business case for creating accessible books.

“However, we couldn’t find a single resource for the book publishing industry that described how to actually do so, [covering]  the whole book-publishing process.

“Therefore, we decided to create our own resource,” she says, “one that continues the aims of the Australian Inclusive Publishing Initiative. And before we knew it, what we’d originally envisaged as a short guide had become a 200-page book.”

Ganner’s position is interesting not least because she and the organization see a editors playing a key role in developing reading materials that are, as is said in Benetech’s circles “born accessible” from inception.

“We hope that the advice provided in the guide,” she says, “will help transform the way editors think about editing and support them in the transition to more inclusive publishing practices.”

. . . .

In four parts, the book “outlines the barriers to reading that people with print disabilities may experience if their needs are not supported,” and it “describes how to avoid creating these barriers at each stage of the publishing process.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Court to Hear Bids by Amazon, Publishers to Dismiss Revived Price Fixing Case

From Publisher’s Weekly:

It’s deja vu all over again: in a brief order this week, Magistrate judge Valerie Figueredo has set oral arguments for June 22 to hear motions from Amazon and the Big Five publishers to dismiss an amended civil lawsuit accusing them of an illegal conspiracy to fix e-book prices. The hearing comes some 10 months after Figueredo found insufficient evidence for the initial case to proceed, prompting a do-over.

The case was first filed in the Southern District of New York on January 14, 2021, led by firm Hagens Berman, the first firm to sue Apple and five major publishers for colluding to fix e-book prices in 2011. It alleges that the Big Five publishers—Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster—are co-conspirators in a hub-and-spoke scheme, with Amazon to suppress retail price competition and keep e-book prices artificially high. In March 2021, a second, associated suit accusing Amazon and the Big Five publishers of a conspiracy to restrain price competition in the retail and online print trade book markets was also filed. That case was also dismissed, amended, and refiled last year, though it is not clear whether the June 22 hearing will include the motions to dismiss that case as well.

From the outset, Amazon and the publishers have insisted the conspiracy claims are “implausible” and unsupported by any evidence. And after a marathon July 27, 2022 hearing, Figueredo agreed, recommending that presiding judge Gregory Woods dismiss both cases. Woods accepted Figeuredo’s “well-reasoned” and “thorough” reports, and dismissed both cases last September—but in a twist, the cases were dismissed without prejudice, giving the plaintiffs a chance to file amended complaints.

Amazon and the publishers insist there is still no case. “While the [second amended complaint] has swelled plaintiffs’ allegations by more than 30 pages and 100 paragraphs, those additions overwhelmingly consist of repetitions of the same alleged facts from the [complaint] that the court has already determined do not state a claim,” reads a December, 2022 letter from Amazon lawyers.

The plaintiffs argue that the case should be allowed to proceed. “The question at this stage is not whether Defendants have in fact violated the antitrust laws but, rather, whether Plaintiffs have met pleading requirements so that their claim—accepting all allegations as true and drawing all reasonable inferences in their favor—should get past a motion to dismiss,” the plaintiffs argue, insisting they have cleared that bar.

While the revived complaint adds details about the “supracompetitive” profit margins on e-book sales Amazon is able to reap and invokes Judge Florence Pan’s October 31 decision to block Penguin Random House’s acquisition of Simon & Schuster on antitrust grounds, it appears to still suffer from the key deficiency of its predecessor: the lack of any direct evidence suggesting coordination among Amazon and the publishers.

Link to the rest at Publisher’s Weekly

3 Ways Writers Block Their Success (While Thinking They’re Hard at Work)

From Jane Friedman:

In my early thirties, my aunt sent me a copy of The Secret, a movie claiming my thoughts determined my destiny. I watched it once, then shelved it, knowing I couldn’t just imagine my way to success. Yet my years as a writer and writing coach have taught me that the movie had a point. While you can’t wish your way to a book deal, your thoughts drive what you do.

Most of us spend our time dreaming of the external yes we hope to achieve—whether it’s an accepted pitch, query, or book deal. All external yeses stem from the yes inside you. But many of us lead from our no without realizing it. Those nos stem from feelings of unworthiness, doubts about our work, and fears that we’re not good enough—which are easy to trigger in a competitive field where you’re expected to cozy up with rejection.

It’s easy to spot our internal no when we’re feeling low, but many of these nos disguise themselves as hard work.

Because I recently appeared on the Hungry Authors Podcast, I divided these nos into the three hunger-based categories writers regularly fall into.

The Too Hungry Writer

Too Hungry Writers want everything yesterday, largely because they feel constantly behind. They work tirelessly on their projects, giving up time with family and friends to meet word count or revision goals. Ask them to take a break from their projects, or set a completed draft aside, and watch their eyes narrow as they mentally knock you out. How can they quit when their books must be done by a certain date (like a milestone birthday)?

While Too Hungry Authors are fierce writers with a killer work ethic, they often snack on scarcity, which feeds them lies about how there’s not enough time, or they’ll be worthy when their book gets picked up, or if they land an agent and Big Five deal.

But overwork gives them tired eyes. Muscling through revisions on manuscripts that haven’t rested will cause those tired eyes to gloss over problems. Sprinkle in impatience and a tinge of burnout and they’ll send their projects out before they’re ready.

What starts out as pre-submission optimism soon sours as the rejections pour in. Having worked hard, these external nos feel like personal failures, which leads to more scarcity thinking, which can make a Too Hungry Author ravenous.

Fortunately, you can address what you can identify, and the fixes for this problem are simple. First, make this your mantra: you and your project are on time. Repeat it to yourself until you believe it. If you can’t shake your doubts, think about the authors who raced to publish in 2020 thinking it would be their year, and the relief many experienced when their books weren’t published.

Once you’ve committed to slowing down, let projects you’ve worked on intensely rest for at least a couple of weeks, but better yet, a few months. Spend time with family and friends. Go on a vacation. Write something else. During that project’s fallow period, take a few classes to inspire you and help you see your work in a new way.

I know this will be especially hard for the Too Hungry Authors who either crawled their way out of the next category or fear falling into it.

The Writer Who Fails to Eat

Writers Who Fail to Eat put everyone else’s needs ahead of their own. They want to write, but they fear that it’s too self-indulgent—or selfish—when so many other things need to be done. Some fear not being seen as productive. Others worry their efforts aren’t valuable if they’re not income producers.

So, they focus on other people’s crises, try to do everything, and overbook themselves so much there’s no time for their writing projects. A portion of these writers complain about their lack of time, but others are baffled by their lack of progress, because it seems like all they do is focus on their writing.

Take the writer who signs up for countless classes or participates in five writing groups. They give insightful feedback, tirelessly support their writing communities, and have the best book recommendations. But ask them how much time they’ve spent on their latest draft, or how much they’ve gotten done, and the answer is usually not much.

The more you prioritize others, whether it’s your clients, paid work, children, or writing group members, the more you reinforce the belief that your passions aren’t worthy of pursuing, and you’re not a person who gets things done.

The antidote is simple. Create a small writing goal (like fifteen minutes, three days a week), schedule it, and make it as regular as your bowel movements. Yes, this might mean letting something go or asking for help, but those precious few minutes will make the rest of your day more meaningful. If caregiver guilt gets in your way, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How do you feel and behave when you make time for your writing?
  • How do you feel and behave when you don’t?
  • Which version represents the self you want to share with others?

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Japanese government issues statement on AI and copyright regulation

From GameReactor:

Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, an agency under the country’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, has issued a statement setting out new guidelines on the use of artificial intelligence and its purposes during a seminar on AI art and copyright.

The document states that AI may be used for educational, research and non-commercial purposes freely, but not if there is an economic benefit or commercial purpose. AI-generated art that uses another artist’s work and is used for commercial purposes, or not for personal use, may be considered copyright infringement, and the copyright holder can sue for copyright infringement.

This also applies to AI that learn/copies an artist’s style, without the artist’s permission the copyright holder can claim damages or an injunction as copyright infringement, or even be subject to criminal penalties.

Although it initially appeared that Japan was going to establish much more flexible legislation than Europe with regard to the use of artificial intelligence, it seems that they have reconsidered their options and the risk to creators and artists.

Link to the rest at GameReactor

Five key takeaways from the House Judiciary Committee hearing on AI and copyright law

From Verdict:

In light of several high-profile lawsuits in recent months, countries’ legislative frameworks are finally beginning to grapple with the challenges thrown up by copyright law and generative artificial intelligence (AI).

In January 2023, Getty Images announced a lawsuit against Stability AI in London’s High Court of Justice, alleging that the Stable Diffusion image generator infringed Getty’s copyrighted photographs and trademarks.

And, in February, the award-winning visual artists Sarah Andersen, Kelly McKernan, and Karla Ortiz filed a class action complaint in a US District Court in California against defendants Stability AI, Midjourney and DeviantArt, alleging that their works were used without permission as part of the companies’ AI training set.

Earlier, in November 2022, a group of anonymous programmers filed a class action lawsuit against GitHub, a Microsoft subsidiary, and OpenAI, alleging unauthorised and unlicensed use of the programmers’ software code to develop the defendants’ AI machines, Codex and Copilot.

Recognising a need for action, the House Judiciary Committee in the US has held a hearing, examining the intersection of generative AI and copyright law. The hearing, which took place on 17 May 2023, followed the Senate hearing on AI oversight the previous day, in which OpenAI CEO Sam Altman took the stand. What were the five key takeaways from the witness testimony?

Sy Damle, Latham & Watkins LLP and former General Counsel of the US Copyright Office, argued that “the use of a copyrighted work to learn unprotectable facts and use those facts to create products that do not themselves infringe copyright is quintessential fair use”, and that the training of AI models generally adheres to this principle.

He spoke against the view that generative AI’s ability to replicate artistic styles undermines any fair use defence, saying, “This concern has nothing to do with copyright, which does not, and has never, granted monopolies over artistic or musical styles.”

2. Implementing a statutory or collective licencing regime would be a project “many orders of magnitude larger than any similar scheme in the history of American law”.

Sy Damle argued that it would be a bad policy to introduce statutory or collective licencing under which any use of copyrighted content to train an AI model would automatically trigger a payment obligation. This is because it would prevent case-by-case evaluation, eliminating the fair use doctrine.

Moreover, he observed that implementing such a regime would be overwhelmingly complex. A statutory licencing scheme would need to cover every publicly accessible work on the Internet – a body of work which likely numbers in the tens of billions. There are also an uncountable number of “orphan works” without identifiable owners, which would lead to massive volumes of unmatched royalties. 

3. AI systems could generate outputs that potentially infringe on artists’ copyrights and right of publicity in various ways.

Chris Callison-Burch, Associate Professor of Computer and Information Science at the University of Pennsylvania and Visiting Research Scientist at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, pointed out that outputs of generative AI can violate copyright laws. For example, via memorisation of datasets, AI systems can output identical copies of copyrighted materials.

However, he observed that Google and other companies are developing strategies to prevent sophisticated prompting by the user that would elicit the underlying training data.

Text-to-image generation systems also have the ability to produce images with copyrightable characters in their dataset – a problem that may be hard for AI developers to avoid without a registry of copyrighted or trademarked characters.

He suggested that other uses of generative AI may violate “right-of-publicity” rather than copyright law. For example, there is the case of the AI-generated song called “Heart on My Sleeve””, designed to sound like the artists Drake and The Weeknd. There is also the issue of “substantial similarity” where outputs of generative AI systems look very similar to some of their training data.

Callison-Burch pointed out that there are several technical mechanisms that are being designed by industry to let copyright holders opt out. The first is an industry standard protocol that allows for websites to specify which parts should be indexed by web crawlers, and which part should be excluded. The protocol is implemented by placing a file called robots.txt on the website that hosts the copyrighted materials.

Organisations that collect training data, like Common Crawl and LAION, follow this protocol and exclude files that have been listed in robots.txt as “do not crawl”. There are also emerging industry efforts to allow artists and other copyright holders to opt out of future training.

Link to the rest at Verdict

Creative Machines? The Riddle of AI and Copyright Authorship and Ownership

From Lexology:

The AI Explosion

It’s probably no exaggeration to say artificial intelligence (AI) exploded into the public consciousness in late 2022 and early 2023.

ChatGPT, the AI chatbot from OpenAI, reached an astonishing 100 million monthly active users in January 2023, just two months after its launch, beating out TikTok (nine months) and Instagram (two and half years) in the time taken to reach that figure.

Not as fast, perhaps, but since their public release in 2022, both Midjourney, Stable Diffusion, Stability AI, and DALL-E 2, from OpenAI, have attracted millions of users.

Now capable of producing stunning artwork in seconds, generative AI technology has been used to produce millions of images, music, lyrics, and articles.

The meteoric rise of AI has given new life to the age-old question of whether machines will eventually replace humans, this time in the art and creative spheres, and prompted dozens of lawsuits from those humans battling to establish clear guidelines about copyright.

Artists have sued over alleged use of their work by programmers to train their AI algorithm raising the rather philosophical question of whether a machine is capable of creating art?

The answer has far-reaching real life consequences, particularly in the field of copyright.

Artists, AI and copyright

The generally accepted principle is that copyright laws aim to both encourage authors and artists to create novel works and to ensure that having done so, they are able to receive fair compensation for their efforts.

Which raises the question of whether work created by AI, which is not (yet) sentient and requires no reward or compensation for creating works of art, be afforded the same copyright protections?

For the time being, the legal world has generally replied in the negative, maintaining that only work created by human authors can be protected by copyright:-

  • The United States Copyright Office, in denying copyright registration to the graphic novel Zarya of the Dawn generated with Midjourney technology, affirmed that copyright does not protect works created by non-human authors;
  • In the landmark Infopaq case (C-5/08 Infopaq International A/S v Danske Dagbaldes Forening), the European Court of Justice ruled that copyright only applies to original works reflecting the “(human) author’s own intellectual creation”;
  • In Australia, the Federal Court of Australia ruled that phone directories authored by computers are not protected by copyright, notwithstanding the presence of some input from human editors.

Some countries, however, have decided to address this issue by attributing authorship and thus copyright of computer-generated work to the humans who programmed AI to generate the work. This interpretation was pioneered in the UK under section 9(3) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (the “CDPA”), which states that:

In the case of a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work which is computer-generated, the author shall be taken to be the person by whom the arrangements necessary for the creation of the work are undertaken.”

In section 178 of the CPDA, computer generated works are defined as works “generated by computer in circumstances such that there is no human author of the work”, thus acknowledging the possibility of work without human authors.

In passing the bill, the late Lord Young of Graffham, then the Secretary for Trade and Industry, commented “We believe this to be the first copyright legislation anywhere in the world which attempts to deal specifically with the advent of artificial intelligence…the far-sighted incorporation of computer-generated works in our copyright system will allow investment in artificial intelligence systems, in the future, to be made with confidence.”.

This piece of legislation demonstrated remarkable foresight on the part of UK lawmakers, considering the CPDA was drafted in 1987, when computers were just starting to become available to the general public.

Similar provisions soon found their way to the law books of jurisdictions strongly influenced by the UK legal system, such as Hong Kong, India and New Zealand.  For example, section 11(3) of the Copyright Ordinance (Cap. 528) of Hong Kong provides that:-

 “In the case of a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work which is computer-generated, the author is taken to be the person by whom the arrangements necessary for the creation of the work are undertaken.

On the face of it, these provisions, which will be referred to as the “Arrangement Model” in this article, seem to provide a simple and elegant solution to the conundrum posed by generative AI technology. Whoever does the work in “preparing” an AI to create a work is the author and copyright owner.

It also seems to match the “sweat of the brow” intellectual property doctrine, which states whoever has the skill and puts in the time and effort to create the work deserves protection.

However, I would argue the Arrangement Model does not adequately reflect how modern generative AI operates and creates massive legal uncertainty.

This article will explore the major shortcomings of the Arrangement Model in attributing copyright to AI-generated works.

Prompts, algorithms and iteration

Broadly speaking, modern AI operates via “machine learning”.

It doesn’t rely on direct instructions carefully written into a program by a programmer, which provides precise steps for the machine to follow to complete the task.

Instead, the machine combines large amounts of raw data with iterative and intelligent algorithms to discern patterns in the data from which it can learn to complete the task without any direct input from a programmer.

The output can be improved by feeding prompts to the machine that “learns” by further refining its data analysis to find more complex and efficient patterns without the developers’ intervention or input.

This leads to the first problem under the Arrangement Model.

How to identify the person who “makes the necessary arrangements for the creation.

Let’s say a user asks the machine to create a picture of a cat with an apple. They would type in a text prompt such as “Create a picture of a cat holding an apple.”

The machine would then search, usually online, for any references or pictures of cats, apples and of cats holding apples. It would then use the algorithms programmed into it to analyse the data, discern patterns and reproduce its own version of a picture.

Further prompts from the user, for example, “create the picture in the style of Van Gogh” would lead the machine to run further data analysis on references to the artist Van Gogh, discern patterns in the painting style then attempt to reproduce those techniques in its own picture.

All of this complicates answering the question of who made the necessary arrangements.

Is it the user who wrote the prompts? Is it the programmers who wrote the algorithms the computer used? Or is it the artists of the original pictures used by the machine in its data analysis?

Arguably it’s “all of the above.”

  • The artwork would not be generated but for the text prompts entered by the user;
  • The artwork cannot be generated if the developers/programmers had not written the algorithms;
  • The artwork cannot be generated if no original pictures are available for the AI to reference and learn from.

It could be argued all of the above, or at least the users and developers, could be joint authors or co-authors, but the present conception of “joint authors” and “co-authors” in copyright laws all pre-suppose a certain degree of collaboration or common design, which is clearly absent in most cases involving generative AI works.

In most cases, developers of AI systems do not collaborate with users in any specific work. They may not have any idea what the users are generating using the AI tools they developed.

That AI programmes can operate autonomously without the developers’ input is the exact purpose of developing AI technology in the first place. So either the definition of joint authorship or co-authorship will need to be changed, or the concept of joint authorship/co-authorship simply does not apply.

Algorithms, not creativity

A related problem with the Arrangement Model is it may attribute authorship to people who have no creative input or even creative intent at all. Notably, the provision of “mak(ing) the necessary arrangements for the creation” does not specify that the arrangements must be creative.

The role of developers in AI is largely about writing algorithms and providing data the machine can learn from using those algorithms. In most cases, developers are not responsible for generating the final work.

Since developers have no creative input in the end product and may not even have any intention to create any kind of artwork, it is arguable that attributing authorship to them runs contrary to the basic premise of copyright laws. A comparable analogy would be that camera manufacturers do not claim copyright ownership over photographs taken by people using their cameras.

Link to the rest at Lexology

Supreme Court rules Twitter not liable for ISIS content

From SCOTUSblog:

The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled against the family of a 2017 ISIS attack victim who sought to hold tech companies liable for allowing ISIS to use their platforms in its terrorism efforts. The lawsuit seeking to hold Twitter, Facebook, and Google liable for aiding and abetting international terrorism cannot go forward, a unanimous court found. And based on that decision, the justices sidestepped a major ruling in a separate case on the scope of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which generally shields tech companies from liability for content published by users. The justices sent that case, Gonzalez v. Google LLC, back to the lower court for another look – suggesting that it too was unlikely to survive.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for a unanimous court in Twitter v. Taamneh, a lawsuit filed by the family of a Jordanian citizen, Nawras Alassaf, who was killed in an ISIS attack on an Istanbul nightclub in 2017. The lawsuit relied on the Antiterrorism Act, which allows U.S. nationals to sue anyone who “aids and abets, by knowingly providing substantial assistance,” international terrorism. The Taamneh family argued that Twitter and the other tech companies knew that their platforms played an important role in ISIS’s terrorism efforts but nonetheless failed to take action to keep ISIS content off those platforms.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit allowed the family’s lawsuit to go forward, but on Thursday the Supreme Court reversed. Thomas noted that the “mere creation of” social-media platforms “is not culpable,” even if “bad actors like ISIS are able to use” those platforms for “illegal — and sometimes terrible — ends. But the same could be said of cell phones, email, or the internet generally,” Thomas emphasized.

Instead, Thomas explained, what the family’s argument really boils down to is that the tech companies should be held liable for “an alleged failure to stop ISIS from using these platforms.” But the family has not demonstrated the kind of link between the tech companies and the attack on the nightclub that it would need to show to hold the companies liable, Thomas reasoned. Instead, he observed, the companies’ “relationship with ISIS and its supporters appears to have been the same as their relationship with their billion-plus other users: arm’s length, passive, and largely indifferent.” And the relationship between the companies and the attack on the nightclub is even more attenuated, Thomas wrote, when the family has never alleged that ISIS used the social-media platforms to plan the attack.

Indeed, Thomas noted, because of the “lack of concrete nexus between” the tech companies and the Istanbul attack, allowing the family’s lawsuit to go forward would effectively mean that the tech companies could be held liable “as having aided and abetted each and every ISIS terrorist attack” anywhere in the world.

Link to the rest at SCOTUSblog

How a Chatbot Went Rogue

From The Wall Street Journal:

A mental-health chatbot that veered off script—giving diet advice to people seeking help from an eating-disorder group—was programmed with generative AI without the group’s knowledge.

The bot, named Tessa, was the focus of social-media attention last week when users of the National Eating Disorder Association’s website reported the rogue advice. The bot incident illustrates how AI-enabled assistants can deliver unexpected and potentially dangerous results as they become a bigger part of daily life.

Michiel Rauws, chief executive of San Francisco software developer Cass, said that in 2022 his company rolled out an AI component to its chatbots, and that included Tessa. 

Rauws said Cass acted in accordance with the terms of its contract with NEDA. NEDA, which didn’t pay for the service, took Tessa offline last week. 

“We were not consulted about that and we did not authorize that,” said NEDA CEO Liz Thompson about the AI upgrade.

AI assistants trained in the language of therapy present an alluring—though risky—option as demand for physical and mental-health care explodes, and many people are untreated because of a global clinician shortage.

“We simply don’t have enough nurses and doctors to provide the level of care we’re used to and we need technology to help solve for that,” said Rich Birhanzel, the global healthcare industry lead at consulting firm Accenture.

But using technology to fill in the gaps must be done carefully, he said.

And from the start, AI chatbots have been known to screw up. In one test chat with Microsoft’s OpenAI-powered Bing chatbot, the software said it would like to steal nuclear codes. Google’s version, Bard, provided incorrect information during its first public demo. And lawyers who recently used OpenAI’s ChatGPT to draft court documents cited nonexistent legal cases that the bot had apparently invented.

Researchers at several universities, including Washington University School of Medicine and Stanford University School of Medicine, built Tessa as a closed system. It couldn’t go off-script, said Ellen Fitzsimmons-Craft, an associate professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine, one of the researchers.

The researchers devised a decision tree of answers to questions people might pose about body image, weight and food. The chatbot couldn’t initially generate new answers from ingested information, the way ChatGPT does.

Tessa was tested in a clinical trial, and considered effective once researchers checked in with users six months later. In February 2022, NEDA decided to offer it as a resource for at-risk visitors to its website (though not to people deemed to have eating disorders).

Cass administered the software for NEDA from Tessa’s start, but the AI component was added later in the year.

“In most cases it performed really well and did and said the right things and helped people get access to care,” Rauws said. He said in the instances when users pointed out flaws, the company was able to fix them in less than an hour.

Rauws said its data set was restricted to authoritative sources. And as a safeguard, he said, the AI-generated answers came with disclaimers. In the case of the weight-loss advice, the bot recommended consulting with a healthcare provider.

Thompson said that NEDA didn’t know generative AI had been added and that the organization thought the chatbot was still running on the original closed system.

Eating disorders are complex physical and mental disorders, she added, and when talking to people who have them, “every single word matters.”

Thompson said Tessa will remain offline until NEDA and the university researchers who initially created Tessa revalidate all the chatbot’s content.

. . . .

“We can’t yet trust AI to offer sound mental-health advice,” said Fitzsimmons-Craft. 

Tessa’s unsanctioned advice came to light over the Memorial Day weekend, after news articles said NEDA was replacing its human-staffed informational helpline with Tessa. While the organization did close the helpline, Thompson said the idea that it was replaced with a bot is incorrect.

The articles drew people to NEDA’s website where many tested Tessa, according to Cass, peppering the bot with questions about weight loss and healthy eating. Some received the dieting recommendations.

Synthetic empathy

Chatbots are developing a knack for discussing therapeutic or medical situations. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego conducted a study in which participants said ChatGPT provided more empathetic answers than doctors.

Adding generative AI to these bots—that is, the ability to go off script—increases the difficulty of auditing such software, because their answers don’t have a clear origin. Bots are trained on massive troves of text, but they don’t regurgitate passages of that text.

For healthcare, the underlying data sources must be vetted and up-to-date, and even then, the bots trained on them must be well crafted and controlled, Accenture’s Birhanzel said. He said he advises clients to have full visibility into the data model of any chatbot they deploy and to thoroughly test it to ensure unwanted answers don’t slip through.

“People have to have extreme confidence if they’re going to rely on something that’s giving advice,” he said.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal


The Adventure Continues

Today, PG had an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine.

The surgeon was kind enough not to comment about what a contrast PG’s shoulder was to those attached many of his other patients, genuine athletes.

The doctor said he could perform a surgery to insert a funny little bent plate and screw the plate onto PG’s clavicle to hold things together. Then, in three or four months, another surgery would be necessary to remove the bent plate because while it was in place, PG would be unable to raise his arm higher than his shoulder.

The second approach would be to do nothing at all, which would result in the broken chip healing into the rest of PG’s clavicle. This would result in a bony clavicle knob that would be visible in x rays, but unlikely non-observable for those who glanced at PG’s shoulder.

The doctor was willing to go either way at PG’s discretion.

Suffice to say, a choice of having two surgeries or an invisible knob was not difficult for PG to make.

Knob it is.

Bonus Quote:

We are reaching deep within ourselves to adjust the master knob.

Kevin Kelly

PG expects to be blogging again tomorrow.

A Broken Clavicle

PG finally went to the doctor and had an x-ray performed.

Turns out, he chipped a piece off the end of his left clavicle.

He was sent home with a sling and is seeing a sports medicine doctor tomorrow for some sort of treatment.

PG is quite mindful of which arm he uses for carrying something heavy now.

More blogging tomorrow.

These doomsday warriors

These doomsday warriors look no more like soldiers than the soldiers of the Second World War looked like conquistadors. The more expert they become the more they look like lab assistants in small colleges.

Alistair Cooke

Tool or Terror? Looking to Literature to Better Understand Artificial Intelligence

From The Literary Hub:

“The Algorithm knew the timing of our periods. It knew when and if we’d marry,” begins “The Future Is a Click Away,” a curious short story in Allegra Hyde’s new collection, The Last Catastrophe. “It knew how we’d die… It knew what seemed unknowable: the hidden chambers of our hearts. When it sent us tampons in the mail, we took them. We paid.”

In an arrestingly quirky first paragraph, Hyde sets up the central conceit of the story: that in an unspecified future, humans live in a world where something only known as “the Algorithm” sends them packages—often twice daily—that they have not ordered, unlike, say, on Amazon, but that seem to uncannily reflect their needs (as well as their budgets, for the Algorithm usually only sends packages that each person can afford). It’s a playful satire of artificial intelligence and corporate surveillance into our lives—one that seems funny until it isn’t, for it hits all too close to home.

The way the packages appear to reflect people’s needs truly is uncanny, to the point that the Algorithm begins to seem like a soothsayer, an omniscient presence that knows the destinies of everyone in its seemingly infinite delivery radius. If an item it sends isn’t immediately necessary, most people still keep it, believing it will become just that—and it often does.

One character receives a set of scouring sponges, which she scoffs at—already having regular sponges in abundance—until she burns the lasagna that night and realizes the scouring was necessary. Another, Anastasia, receives an ankle brace, despite having no immediate injury—until she goes on a hike that week and sprains her ankle. “Was the prediction predicated on a kink in Anastasia’s posture—the reality of weakening cartilage embedded in a lifetime cross-section of bathroom selfies?” the narrators wonder. “Or was there an air of recklessness in her email signs-offs that week (ttyl, Anna)?”

The questions are humorous, but they reflect the all-encompassing gaze of the story’s algorithm, combing through all aspects of people’s lives—and the justifications people invent. Is it digital divination, the futures determined by remarkably powerful artificial intelligence? Are the items just random, and the characters subconsciously fulfill their package prophecies by doing things to likely make the items fit their lives? “In the end,” the narrators say, “the Algorithm’s methods didn’t matter so long as she got what she needed.”

The characters must choose to accept and pay for the items, as the majority of people do, or they can return them—though the latter is so culturally rare as to seem gauche, even a touch blasphemous. I use the term “blasphemous” because accepting the Algorithm’s packages quickly takes on the quality of a religion.Artificial intelligence is already deeply embedded in our culture, yet all too many of us seem to think of it as something new.

“The Algorithm works in mysterious ways,” Hyde writes, parodying a common theistic catchphrase—but it’s also true, for no one seems to know how the Algorithm really works. “Unbelievers,” the chorus of narrators deems the odd few who return their packages, like Inez, a woman in Denver who prefers doing things on her own and who functions as the story’s central apostate, rejecting every package she receives.

Like God, the Algorithm’s origins are never really explained; the believers just accept that it’s there, deeply attuned to their personal needs, offering them a capitalistic heaven on Earth if they accept the simple dogma of its clairvoyant deliveries. (And if they pay four annual installments of $39.99.)

The charmingly strange 19th-century Russian philosopher and early transhumanist, Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov, imagined that advances in technology would not only allow but necessitate that humans literally transform the profane Earth into a Christian Heaven, complete with resurrections of the dead through science; the Algorithm, far more simply, creates heaven by doing all the thinking and anticipating for people, rendering them happy, zealous zombies—sans resurrection—with well-stocked homes.

To repudiate the packages, as Inez does, is to risk judgment and wrath, as well as the puritanical outrage and genuine confusion of its followers. The latter is because, as the narrators note, they’ve known the Algorithm since birth—or, perhaps more accurately, it’s known them. “We did not understand [Inez’s] resistance to the Algorithm,” they say.

All we knew for sure was that the Algorithm understood us. After all, we’d been inside its system since before we knew how to type—back when our parents first posted photos documenting our infant-bodies, swaddled and squishy in hospital beds. Although we had no proof, we suspected that the Algorithm might have known, even then, the fates that lay before us: not only what items we’d need, but who we would become… From our first uploaded image, the Algorithm had been invested in our futures. It had analyzed the texture of our baby blankets, the micro-musculature on our crying faces, the awkward cradle of our parents’ arms. Then again, perhaps the Algorithm had known us before we even officially existed—extrapolating likely outcomes from our parents’ data points, and our parents’ parents’ data points—a long legacy of information digested and decoded, translated into the deliveries that appeared outside our doors.

The passage is at once charming and alarming, and it is here that Hyde reveals the true extent of the Algorithm’s control and reach. It isn’t new; these narrators have never known a world where it didn’t exist. If Gen-Z’s population is by and large digital natives, the population of “The Future Is a Click Away” consists of Algorithm natives, which may partially explain their naive trust in this unseen artificial intelligence.

It is a world of capitalist and almost Calvinist predestination, a world they have inherited from their ancestors’ ever-increasing desires to document huge swathes of their life online. The sad revelation is that these characters haven’t abdicated control of their lives to the Algorithm, exactly; they simply were raised in its technological church, and unlearning these lessons or living without them, as Inez does, takes tremendous effort, just as it does to leave the community you were raised in.

Still, the Algorithm’s gifts come at costs beyond what you pay per package. Sometimes, Hyde writes, the packages aren’t actually within the receivers’ financial means—but rather than returning them, people go to extremes to pay for them, blindly trusting the Algorithm’s reasoning even if it means bankruptcy. If they start losing sleep over it all, they are sent sleeping pills, and other products to address whatever problems being in the system has engendered; this seems reasonable at first, but it is really just a way for the Algorithm to keep them under its control.

And then there are the darker, stranger gifts. The narrative’s turn comes when a character named Lacy receives three large, inexplicable packages: a scuba suit too big for her, a lifetime supply of mayo despite her not liking the condiment, and a coffin. In a world of Algorithmic destiny, the implication seems clear, if cruel: eat enough mayo to fit into the bigger suit, and then die, perhaps from a heart attack. Lacy and the narrators are bewildered, but they reassure themselves that the Algorithm must not be questioned, that “[i]f Lacy was meant to have these items, then it was only a matter of time before she understood their purpose.” She doesn’t use them, and, in time, the Algorithm begins sending everyone more and more items, until it seems to constantly rain unrequested, enigmatic products.

Then there are the frightening eventual outcomes for those who say no to the Algorithm. When Inez needs some sugar, a box of it appears on her lawn; she refuses it, and because she doesn’t return it within a prescribed period of time, she is arrested. Chillingly, we never see where Inez ends up, or if she’s even still alive—all because she wanted to remain independent, wanted to stay off the proverbial algorithmic grid. Don’t buy into the system, Hyde suggests, and you become a sinner in the hands of an angry digital megacorporate god—a statement that sounds paranoid, silly, overly far-reaching until it isn’t.Fears of jobs being lost to automation aren’t new, but they’ve increased dramatically since this recent rise in A.I.’s visibility.

The story, after all, briefly references “riots [that] broke out in some cities,” which may well be in response to the crushing, financially devastating system of the Algorithm—but rather than the narrators exploring what is going on, they are shielded from the violence by the Algorithm, which sends them “bottles of milk… predicting that tear gas would be carried on the wind and irritate our eyes.” Stay back, look away, the message seems to be, and I shall protect you—the very message of the police in general, at least if they are talking to the wealthier whiter citizens they are more likely to exercise restraint towards.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

“Like dropping a nuclear bomb”: Will Google turn digital publishing upside down with AI search?

From What’s New in Publishing:

Google announced a raft of releases at its I/O 23 developer conference. From changes to its Maps functionality to a new ‘Magic’ photo editor and composer, the tech giant unveiled a host of AI-driven features designed to improve customer experience.

One, the introduction of generative AI search, has been called the most radical change the internet has seen since Google came to dominate search back in the early 2000s.

A ‘nuclear bomb’

Google announced plans to change the way search engine results are presented, demonstrating search results generated using AI. Writing on, consumer tech reporter Matt Novak said:

At the risk of overstating the potential consequences, it will be like dropping a nuclear bomb on an online publishing industry that’s already struggling to survive.

Novak’s reaction was sparked by a search query that asked “What’s better for a family with kids under 3 and dog, Bryce Canyon or Arches?”. In a traditional search, this query would likely have surfaced a host of travel articles that compared these US national parks as a family-friendly vacation destination.

Instead, the AI-powered search delivered a conversational style answer that directly addresses the suitability of the parks both for the children and the dog.

AI-powered search delivered a conversational style answer

Complex searches

At the moment, complex searches have to be broken down into smaller parts, leaving users to filter information to piece together the exact answer they want. With generative AI, Google Search will be able to understand the original query.

Users will see suggested next steps along the AI-powered ‘snapshot’ of key information. Tapping a suggested next step takes users to a new conversational mode where they ask more about the topic, with context carried over from question to question.

Lost referral traffic

The problem for publishers lies in the fact that AI search is delivering direct responses to users’ queries. Online publishers currently rely heavily on the referral traffic generated from search engines; users visiting web pages for more information are monetized through ad impressions.

If Google Search is using content scraped from the open web to compose answers, users will have no need to click through to the web pages that form the raw material for the AI’s answers. 

Google says its suggested next steps links will generate clicks and that it is trying to be completely transparent about where it is getting the information for its answers. But Novak argues that this is like expecting people to click on Wikipedia source links. He said:

Sure, someone who’s intensely interested in the topic might click on those links. But the vast majority of users will just read the Wikipedia entry without worrying about all the sources.

Link to the rest at What’s New in Publishing

PG recalls that when the internet was spreading like wildfire many years ago. There were a huge number of “End of the World” articles, some online, others on paper. (Yes, children, PG is that old.)

The internet changed lots of things, but PG doesn’t remember seeing people starving in the streets or jumping out of windows from the 49th floor with such frequency that it was dangerous walking on the sidewalk in any large cities.

English Capitalization Rules

From The Grammarly Blog:

English capitalization rules require that certain words, like proper nouns and the first word in a sentence, start with a capital letter. Although that seems simple, some words are capitalized only in certain situations, and some words seem like they should be capitalized but are not—how can you tell which is which?

In this guide, we explain how to capitalize when writing and cover all the English capitalization rules. We also share a list of what words need to be capitalized and provide a few capitalization examples. But first let’s talk a little about capitalization in general.

English capitalization rules: When to capitalize

Knowing which types of words to capitalize is the most important part of learning English capitalization rules. Basically, there are three types of words you capitalize in English:

  • the pronoun I
  • the first word in a sentence or line of a letter (e.g., Sincerely)
  • proper nouns

That last one, proper nouns, is where a lot of the confusion comes from. Some words, like the name Albert Einstein, are always capitalized; however, others are capitalized only in certain situations and are lowercased in others. For example, directions like north and west are normally lowercased but are capitalized when they’re used as part of a geographic name, like the West Coast.

Let’s take a closer look at what words need to be capitalized and when.

What words need to be capitalized?

People’s names

Both the first and last names of a person are capitalized. Likewise, middle names, nicknames, and suffixes like Jr. are also capitalized.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

Historical names that include descriptive words often follow the rules for title capitalization: Prominent words are capitalized, but small words like the or of are not.

Ivan the Terrible

Maria of Aragon


Capitalization in titles is where a lot of capitalization errors come from. The title of any piece of work—books, movies, songs, poems, podcast episodes, comic-book issues, etc.—requires capitalization, but only certain words in the title are capitalized.

What words need to be capitalized in titles? For starters, the first word in a title is always capitalized. Nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs all need to be capitalized in titles as well.

Small words like articles and prepositions are generally lowercased, unless they’re the first word in a title. However, some style guides have their own preferences, so double-check if you have any doubts.

The Catcher in the Rye

Of Mice and Men


If you’re using the name of a place, capitalize it. This applies to everything from tiny Deer Creek to the massive planet Jupiter.

New York City

Lake Victoria

Keep in mind that if you are not using the name of a place but the general word to describe it, you do not capitalize that word.

The Grand Canyon is a good canyon, but I wouldn’t call it “grand.”

Countries, nationalities, and languages

In English, countries, nationalit ies, and languages are capitalized. Country names fall under the category of places, but by extension the names of the people who live there and the adjective form of their culture are also capitalized. This includes languages.


a team of Haitians

Haitian cuisine

Link to the rest at The Grammarly Blog

The Birth of a Book

From Writing Cooperative:

This past year I’ve had the pleasure of helping more than one friend celebrate a very special birthday.

Their book-birthday.

Each was such an exciting day for every one of those authors, marking the end point (or, perhaps not really…there’s all the marketing, book signings, promotion etc. still to come) of a very long journey.

The writing of a book parallels a pregnancy, at least in my mind it does. In both, a fully developed entity is created from nothing. This is a slow process, beginning with a spark of life, then building tiny piece by tiny piece, until the end result is nothing short of a miracle.

Of course, when you’re building a baby, your body does that building without your conscious awareness. Sure, you may feel morning sickness, and other physical discomforts, but as far as the actual creation process, you just go along for the ride, eating sleeping, working, while your body creates this miracle. Unlike writing a book, where you are COMPLETELY aware of the massive amount of work that is required.

Oh, and most often, the gestation period for a book is MUCH longer.

Recently, I’ve thought a lot about all that is required to take a book from a sparkle in someone’s mind, to an actual published piece of work, whether that be a digital copy, or one in print.

Guess what? It’s a hell of a lot of work!

A short time back, I had a glass of water sitting on my bedside table, and because I didn’t want to mark the wood, I’d pulled an old paperback from my bookcase and I’d set the glass on top of the book.

It took a moment for this flippant act to sink in. When it did, I freaked out and apologized out loud to this poor author whose blood, sweat and tears I’d so blithely used as a COASTER!

Ashamed, I gently wiped the surface of the book, (which was not damaged, by the way) and placed it carefully back into the safety of my bookcase.

How easy is it for us, as readers, to consume the words of others without giving the slightest thought to what it took to create those words. I used to do it, all the time. I devoured books in massive quantities. I read, and occasionally re-read because the book was so amazing I couldn’t get it out of my head. But more often I read and tossed aside, I read and returned to the library without a second thought, or worse, I read, and ripped apart the book— Gasp! Not physically, I’m not that big of a monster —filled condemnation for the author who had failed to entertain me like I’d expected to be entertained.

No more.

Link to the rest at Writing Cooperative

Carbon Emission Labels on Books

From Publishing Perspectives:

Speaking at the Global Sustainable Development Congress in Thuwal, Elsevier‘s global director of sustainability, Rachel Martin, has told an international audience that within five years, it’s likely that all mainstream printed books will display labels on their front and/or back covers, specifying their “environmental credentials.”

“This will not only give consumers more information,” Martin told her audience, according to the event’s organizers. “But it will help publishers, authors, and booksellers too.”

Martin, as Publishing Perspectives readers know (here is our pre-London Book Fair interview with her), has become a leading figure in the international book business’ bid to bring its operations and output into environmentally responsible ranges. Working closely with the International Publishers Association (IPA) and the programs it’s leading, some of them in cooperation with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals framework, Martin was a player in the development of London Book Fair‘s Sustainability Lounge earlier this year.

. . . .

In her comments made Thursday (June 1) at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, organizers say Martin pointed out that a single paperback book emits “on average the equivalent of between one and four kilograms (2.3 to 8.1 pounds) of carbon dioxide.” Indeed in international estimates, the average international carbon footprint for a human being each year is believed to be the equivalent of some 4.5 to 5 metric tonnes (4.9 to 5.5 tons) of carbon dioxide.

In the United Kingdom, Martin said, that range of emission may rise to as much as 9 or 10 metric tonnes—and to more than 15 metric tonnes in the United States—but might be as low as 2 or fewer tonnes in India.

Martin, the congress says, told the audience that she sees the value of product-labeling for books to be the logical consumer-demand response as world citizens become better versed in the details of the climate crisis and responses being made by many industries and businesses, including book publishing.

. . . .

“In the near future,” she said in the conference’s report to us, “consumers will think much more about the environmental cost of what they buy. How much carbon is stored in a book will be something they consider and something that influences what they choose to read.

“Books teach, entertain, inspire, and enrich our lives, but they also have an impact on the planet. By calculating the carbon footprint of our books, we can make more informed choices.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG says, “Read Ebooks and Save the Planet!”

AI Is About to Turn Book Publishing Upside-Down

From Publisher’s Weekly:

The latest generation of AI is a game changer. Not incremental change—something gentle, something gradual: this AI changes everything, fast. Scary fast.

I believe that every function in trade book publishing today can be automated with the help of generative AI. And, if this is true, then the trade book publishing industry as we know it will soon be obsolete. We will need to move on.

There are two quick provisos, however. The first is straightforward: this is not just about ChatGPT—or other GPTs (generative pretrained transformers) and LLMs (large language models). A range of associated technologies and processes can and will be brought into play that augment the functionality of generative AI. But generative AI is the key ingredient. Without it, what I’m describing is impossible.

The second proviso is of a different flavor. When you make absolutist claims about a technology, people will invariably try to defeat you with another absolute. If you claim that one day all cars will be self-driving, someone will point out that this won’t apply to Formula One race cars. Point taken.

This isn’t about Formula One publishing. I’m going to be talking about “good enough”—about what people will accept, what they’ll buy, and what they’ll actually read. I’m not going to claim that Formula One publishers won’t be able to do a better job than AI on many of the processes described below. But I’ll challenge you to consider exactly where the human touch brings sufficient added value to justify the overhead in time and costs.

Does any of this mean that there will be no future for great novels and fine nonfiction studies? Of course it doesn’t. That’s not my point.

Do I doubt that there will still be fantastic cover designs from talented designers? Of course there will be. We’ll still stumble on new books on bookstore shelves and, humbled by the grandeur of their cover designs, declare that there’s no way they could have been designed with AI. And sometimes we’ll be right.

. . . .

Professional copyediting is the kerning of 2023. The tech is not quite here today. I don’t think that GPT-4 can yet handle copyediting to the standard that book publishers require. But that ability is going to be here sooner, not later. While professionally copyedited books may still be “better” to a refined editor’s eye, you won’t be able to sell more books with the professional human touch. They will already be good enough.

What about developmental editing? You might not let a GPT make the final editorial decisions, but you’d be foolish not to ask it for suggestions.

And ChatGPT will become the patron saint of the slush pile. Its abilities to evaluate grammar and logical expression allow it to make a once-over assessment of whether a book is (reasonably) well written. It might not spot the gems, but it will know how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Ah, you will say, recalling one of those manuscripts that were rejected by 100 publishers but went on to become an unexpected bestseller—surely a GPT might miss those, too. Yet so did 100 purportedly well-trained publishing professionals.

. . . .

For the publishing industry, online distribution and advertising have separated writers from readers. Self-published authors have proven that the closer one gets to their audience, the more fans they will get and the more books they will sell. While online resellers aggregate audiences into big broad buckets, AI disambiguates them, enabling writers and readers to forge direct connections.

Amazon has become an overpriced rentier that publishers can ill afford. It can still be a door opener for new authors, but for established publishers it charges too much for what it delivers.

Amazon’s dominant position in bookselling is not going to change overnight, nor even in the morning. But part of the publishing transformation that AI will engender will be a series of energetic attempts to disrupt Amazon’s position in the distribution ecosystem. As media continues to morph, AI seeds new delivery channels. Amazon will try to dominate each new channel via acquisitions, as it did so brilliantly when it bought Audible in 2008 for $300 million. But Amazon is a lesser player in the video and gaming spaces, and, as yet, in the new entertainment channels that AI is germinating. This is shaping up as a classic example of Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail.

But I see a bright future for bookstores. It can be chilly in AI’s uncanny valley, and bookstores will remain singular sources for camaraderie and the human touch.

Link to the rest at Publisher’s Weekly

The last paragraph in PG’s excerpt raised the question in PG’s mind: “Are people who go to bookstores unable to find “camaraderie and the human touch” anywhere else?

PG imagined a book, “The Lonely Lives of Bookstore Customers.”

The Big Business of the British Empire

From The Wall Street Journal:

Those of us who went to school before our past was rewritten as a catalog of the White Man’s crimes were taught that empire—with all its vices and virtues—was built by monarchs and statesmen. In “Empire, Incorporated,” Philip J. Stern tells us that this picture, while not inaccurate, is quite incomplete.

British colonialism in particular, Mr. Stern says, was conceived by investors, creditors, entrepreneurs and, lest we forget, parvenus and embezzlers. This cast of men-on-the-make flourished alongside sovereigns and their ministers and produced what Mr. Stern calls “venture colonialism”—a form of overseas expansion that was driven by a belief that “the public business of empire was and had always been best done by private enterprise.”

The history of British colonialism is really the history of the joint-stock corporation. A novel strategy in the mid-16th century, this form of enterprise procured capital from an array of investors with ownership shares or profit-sharing and created a single legal entity, often granted special privileges. Among much else, the joint-stock corporation made undertakings on a global scale newly possible.

But what made joint stocks so appealing also made them “unsettling,” Mr. Stern writes, and a faction in Parliament worried about the clout of these companies in far-flung places. There was, no doubt, a class component to the apprehension. The original investors in the East India Co.—the pre-eminent joint stock, from its founding in 1600 to well into the 19th century—were all merchants, with only one aristocrat among them.

By the 1620s, the East India Co.’s demographics had changed, its successes attracting a posher class of investor. But the company ingeniously—and audaciously—refused to admit the king himself, “fearing the loss of independence it would entail,” Mr. Stern explains. The public justification for this apparent irreverence was that it was unseemly for the king to enter into commercial partnerships with his subjects.tells us how the joint-stock corporation shaped British colonialism. As a narrative, the author says, “it is like a novel that places an originally supporting character in the center of the story,” elevating fortune-hunters into fabled men. Robert Clive, that most infamous of the nabobs enriched by the East India Co. in the mid-18th century, and Sir Humphrey Gilbert, a mass killer of rebellious Irishmen who took possession of Newfoundland for the crown in 1583, were both VCs, or venture colonialists. As were Thomas Smythe, the first governor of the East India Co. and later treasurer of the Virginia Co., whose tobacco yielded great riches; and Sir Thomas Roe, who went as the ambassador of James I to the court of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir even as his true purpose was to secure a trade monopoly in India.

England’s “portfolio colonialism” came into existence through royal charters, by which the sovereign doled out juicy commercial advantages to those who petitioned for them. These plums ranged from exemptions from duties and taxes to the prerogative to claim territory overseas in the name of the crown (as Gilbert did in Newfoundland). The terms could be audacious, Mr. Stern observes, allowing companies to run all sorts of enterprises over “ill-defined geographic spaces insouciantly superimposed over indigenous sovereignty.” Breathtaking claims to territory or jurisdiction resulted in assertions of rights to “sacrosanct” private property that were enforceable in British courts. The charters redrew the maps of the world.

The first such charter was granted to the Muscovy Co. in 1555. Mr. Stern writes that the company effectively became “the English government over Anglo-Russian commerce” and, as a conduit of relations between England and Russia, exercised “de facto command over Anglo-Russian diplomacy.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal


Thanks to all who expressed their concern about Tumble 2.

The skin covering PG’S left shoulder – front, back and top – is a lurid combination of deep blue and purple. This the largest bruise PG has ever had, including high school football and t-boning the side of a car while riding a motorcicle in college at a speed of about 45 mph. (PG’S right shoulder made a very large dent in the car’s door.)

Mrs. PG is examining PG’s shoulder on a regular basis and may take him to the doctor is she sees or senses any turn for the worse or an outbreak of a different color on his shoulder.

PG was planning to blog today, but decided to give his shoulder another day to return to its normal happy-chipper-monkey, ship-is-never-sunky self.

Sore Back

PG did what for him was a lot of physical labor today and his back started whispering that it needed to become prone.

Of course, PG ignored those whispers and continued to labor as if he were still many decades younger. Age is all about how old you feel inside after all.

PG’S back decided it was time to play be no more Mr. Nice Guy when it came to its wants and needs. Shortly thereafter, PG laid himself down.

After the passage of a reasonable period of prone time by any measure, PG got vertical to face his computer screen. His back demurred about what was a reasonable length of prone time consisted of and immediately started complaining at a much higher volume.

PG says, “Listen to your back! It may not be smart and stylish compared to your muse, but it knows how to express its wants and needs and will not be ignored!”

Impromptu Acrobatics

PG was trying to carry too many items down some steps at Casa PG earlier today.

He missed a step, took a tumble and banged up various parts of his ancient anatomy.

Nothing is broken. Ice is helping and PG’s body will soon regain its typical vim and vigor. However, PG won’t be making any blog posts today.

In Flanders fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae, Canadian poet, soldier, and physician

And I’m proud to be an American

And I’m proud to be an American,
Where at least I know I’m free,
And I won’t forget the men who died,
Who gave that right to me
And I’ll proudly stand up next to him to defend her still today,
Cuz there ain’t no doubt I love this land,
God bless the USA

Lee Greenwood

Memorial Day

PG notes that today, May 29, is celebrated as Memorial Day for all those who have died, but, especially those who died in service to their nation as soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines.

In most places in the United States, if you visit a cemetery on Memorial Day, you will see lots of flowers and other tokens of respect and memory for deceased family members.

Let every nation know

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

John F. Kennedy

Workers at Park Slope B&N File for Union Election; Hadley, Mass. Store Votes for Union

From Publisher’s Weekly:

Barnes & Noble workers at the Park Slope, Brooklyn, store filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board on May 25, seeking representation from the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). The news comes a little less than a month after workers at the flagship B&N store in Manhattan’s Union Square launched their own union drive, and on the same day as 15 workers at the B&N outlet in Hadley, Mass., voted unanimously to join the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 1459. The Union Square B&N election is scheduled for June 7.

In a release, the RWDSU said that a majority of Park Slope workers had signed RWDSU authorization cards and that workers had asked B&N to voluntarily recognize the union “so that contract negotiations could commence swiftly.” The election, the union added, could be held as early as next month. There are more than 30 union-eligible workers at the store, including baristas, booksellers, cashiers, and maintenance staff.

“I have been working at this store for over a year, and I constantly see how our low wages affect me and my coworkers in what I can choose to afford each week,” Haruka Iwasaki, a senior bookseller at the Park Slope store, said in a statement. “There is an unfair balance in how much I am working and how much we are getting paid. I want all of us to experience full-time benefits like health insurance if we work full-time hours. For these reasons, we are coming together to create a better way to work at this place that we love.”

B&N workers organizing union drives at multiple stores have now launched new national social media accounts: @BNWorkers on Twitter and @BarnesandNobleUnion on Instagram.

Earlier this week, at the U.S. Book Show, B&N CEO James Daunt addressed changes to the company’s previous hierarchical employment structure, noting that the bookseller is focusing on providing better compensation and career development opportunities for bookstore employees. Virtual attendees responded to Daunt’s assertions in the online chat, asking why the company has not raised base pay.

Link to the rest at Publisher’s Weekly

PG says this sort of thing doesn’t work very well with discounted pricing at BN. He suspects the real beneficiaries of the unionization efforts will be independent bookstores. To the best of PG’s knowledge of the unionized locations mentioned in the OP, there are likely indie bookstore alternatives if customers don’t like what PG anticipates will be Barnes & Noble’s new pricing policy in unionized stores.

Barnes & Noble is also going to have tougher negotiations with traditional publishers regarding discounts from publishers’ “list price” if this sort of employee movement spreads along the many large cities on the Atlantic coast of the US.

The comic opera of England

From The Economist:

You lug your wicker hamper across the stiletto-punctured lawn and bag a spot beside the ha-ha. You say “ha-ha” a lot because this is the only chance you get. Smoothing your frock or tuxedo, you head inside for the opera—in this case, “L’elisir d’amore”, Donizetti’s comic delight of 1832—re-emerging at the long interval to picnic and covet your neighbour’s candelabra. Before the gong sounds for the second act, you stroll around the lily pad-crowded lake, to a soundtrack of popping corks and the distant bleating of doomed lambs.

Held on a Tudor estate in the blissful countryside of East Sussex, the summer opera festival at Glyndebourne, which opened on May 19th, tends to be described—often by foreigners—as the epitome of Englishness. In reality, it is more of a caricature: dressing up, drinking and ogling old houses are widespread English pastimes, but black-tie opera and Pol Roger are minority pursuits. In 2023, however, Glyndebourne does indeed offer a state-of-the-nation tableau, just not in the way you might expect.

The weather was kind on the opening weekend, so patrons didn’t need to summon the sangfroid to picnic in the rain, as occasionally they must. But a strike on the railways, a scourge of the times, complicated the trip. It nixed the train back to Victoria station, meaning Londoners had to petition for ticket refunds and drive. (A bank of electric-charging points has been installed in the car park, but it lacks another useful amenity: someone, perhaps a jobbing Old Etonian, to do up your bow tie.)

The opera-house stage, meanwhile, is a battlefield in the culture wars as well as a set for melodramas. Opera’s plots abound in toxic masculinity, abused heroines and ethnic stereotypes; left alone or revised, they are liable to upset somebody. Confessing that the “social assumptions” in some past productions “may offend audiences today”, Glyndebourne has vowed to do better. Settling into his seat, one regular dispensed with a printed synopsis as he already knew the story—that is, he groaned, unless they had changed it. Donizetti got off lightly, but the festival’s “Don Giovanni” has been accused of neutering the titular rake.

Then there is the old-fashioned politics, and recent scarcity, of money. Producing high-end opera is horribly expensive—and companies everywhere are feeling the pinch. Audiences are ageing. In America, philanthropy is erratic. In Britain, state funding has been slashed, leading Glyndebourne to cancel its usual autumn tour (it will instead put on some affordable shows at its home base). The glorious summer festival receives no subsidy, but tickets are pricey and go mostly to paid-up members. It will be sad if what, at its best, is the supreme art form is ever more a preserve of the rich.

Enjoying this European art in an English idyll, it is natural, too, to reflect on the underlying bonds. Glyndebourne’s story marries English eccentricity with continental talent: founding it with his wife in 1934, John Christie, then the estate’s master, drafted in starry refugees from Germany and Austria to give it some oomph. Gus Christie, his grandson and the current boss, has worried publicly about the impact of Brexit on the economy and the opera’s finances.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Here’s a look at Glyndebourne via Wikipedia

AI Literary Analysis

Prompt: Write an analysis of each of the novels written by Charles Dickens.

Answer: Charles Dickens was a prolific writer who authored many novels during his lifetime. Here is a brief analysis of some of his most famous works:

  1. The Pickwick Papers: Published in 1836, this was Dickens’ first novel and was written in a humorous style. It follows the journey of the Pickwick Club, which is dedicated to exploring and reporting on the eccentricities of British life.
  2. Oliver Twist: Also published in 1836, this novel follows the life of a young orphan boy named Oliver Twist, who is mistreated and exploited by those around him. It highlights the plight of the poor and the unjust treatment that they often receive.
  3. Nicholas Nickleby: Published in 1839, this novel follows the life of a young man named Nicholas Nickleby, who sets out to make his fortune after the death of his father. It explores themes of social injustice and the need for compassion towards the less fortunate.
  4. A Christmas Carol: Published in 1843, this novel tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly and selfish man who is visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve. It is a timeless tale of redemption, highlighting the importance of kindness, compassion and charity.
  5. David Copperfield: Published in 1850, this is an autobiographical novel which is based on Dickens’ own life experiences. It tells the story of a young boy named David Copperfield and his journey to adulthood, exploring themes such as social class, love, and personal growth.
  6. Bleak House: Published in 1853, this novel is set in the 1850s and highlights the corruption and decay of the legal system in England. It tells the story of a legal case that drags on for years, ruining the lives of those involved.
  7. Great Expectations: Published in 1861, this novel follows the life of a young boy named Pip, who dreams of rising from his lowly roots to become a gentleman. It explores themes of ambition, class, and the corrupting influence of wealth.

Overall, Charles Dickens’ novels are known for their social commentary and their vivid portrayal of life in 19th century England. They largely deal with themes of poverty, injustice, and the importance of compassion and empathy in society. Dickens’ unique storytelling style, which often features memorable characters and intricate plotlines, has made him one of the most beloved and celebrated authors of all time.–

The Secret History And Strange Future Of Charisma

From Noema:

In 1929, one of Germany’s national newspapers ran a picture story featuring globally influential people who, the headline proclaimed, “have become legends.” It included the former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and India’s anti-colonialist leader Mahatma Gandhi. Alongside them was a picture of a long-since-forgotten German poet. His name was Stefan George, but to those under his influence he was known as “Master.”

George was 61 years old that year, had no fixed abode and very little was known of his personal life and past. But that didn’t matter to his followers; to them he was something more than human: “a cosmic ego,” “a mind brooding upon its own being.” Against the backdrop of Weimar Germany — traumatized by postwar humiliation and the collapse of faith in traditional political and cultural institutions — George preached an alternate reality through books of poetry. His words swam in oceans of irrationalism: of pagan gods, ancient destinies and a “spiritual empire” he called “Secret Germany” bubbling beneath the surface of normal life. In essence, George dreamed of that terribly persistent political fantasy: a future inspired by the past. He wanted to make Germany great again.

George dazzled Germans on all sides of the political spectrum (although many, with regret, would later distance themselves). Walter Benjamin loitered for hours around the parks of Heidelberg that he knew the poet frequented, hoping to catch sight of him. “I am converting to Stefan George,” wrote a young Bertolt Brecht in his diary. The economist Kurt Singer declared in a letter to the philosopher Martin Buber: “No man today embodies the divine more purely and creatively than George.”

Max Weber, one of the founding fathers of sociology, met Stefan George in 1910 and immediately became curious. He didn’t buy George’s message — he felt he served “other gods” — but was fascinated by the bizarre hold he seemed to have over his followers. At a conference in Frankfurt, he described the “cult” that was growing around him as a “modern religious sect” that was united by what he described as “artistic world feelings.” In June that year, he wrote a letter to one of his students in which he described George as having “the traits of true greatness with others that almost verge on the grotesque,” and rekindled a particularly rare word to capture what he was witnessing: charisma.

At the time, charisma was an obscure religious concept used mostly in the depths of Christian theology. It had featured almost 2,000 years earlier in the New Testament writings of Paul to describe figures like Jesus and Moses who’d been imbued with God’s power or grace. Paul had borrowed it from the Ancient Greek word “charis,” which more generally denoted someone blessed with the gift of grace. Weber thought charisma shouldn’t be restricted to the early days of Christianity, but rather was a concept that explained a far wider social phenomenon, and he would use it more than a thousand times in his writings. He saw charisma echoing throughout culture and politics, past and present, and especially loudly in the life of Stefan George.

I knew: This man is doing me violence — but I was no longer strong enough. I kissed the hand he offered and with choking voice uttered: ‘Master, what shall I do?’

— Ernst Glöckner

It certainly helped that George was striking to look at: eerily tall with pale blueish-white skin and a strong, bony face. His sunken eyes held deep blue irises and his hair, a big white mop, was always combed backward. He often dressed in long priest-like frock coats, and not one photo ever shows him smiling. At dimly lit and exclusive readings, he recited his poems in a chant-like style with a deep and commanding voice. He despised the democracy of Weimar Germany, cursed the rationality and soullessness of modernity and blamed capitalism for the destruction of social and private life. Instead, years before Adolf Hitler and the Nazis came to power, he foresaw a violent reckoning that would result in the rise of a messianic “fuhrer” and a “new reich.”

Many were immediately entranced by George, others unnerved. As the Notre Dame historian Robert Norton described in his book “Secret Germany,” Ernst Bertram was left haunted by their meeting — “a werewolf!” he wrote. Bertram’s partner, Ernst Glöckner, on the other hand, described his first encounter with George as “terrible, indescribable, blissful, vile … with many fine shivers of happiness, with as many glances into an infinite abyss.” Reflecting on how he was overcome by George’s force of personality, Glöckner wrote: “I knew: This man is doing me violence — but I was no longer strong enough. I kissed the hand he offered and with choking voice uttered: ‘Master, what shall I do?’”

As German democracy began to crumble under the pressure of rebellions and hyperinflation, George’s prophecy increased in potency. He became a craze among the educated youth, and a select few were chosen to join his inner circle of “disciples.” The George-Kreis or George Circle, as it came to be known, included eminent writers, poets and historians like Friedrich Gundolf, Ernst Kantorowicz, Max Kommerell, Ernst Morwitz and Friedrich Wolters; aristocrats like brothers Berthold, Alexander and Claus von Stauffenberg; and the pharmaceutical tycoon Robert Boehringer. These were some of the country’s most intellectually gifted young men. They were always young men, and attractive too — partly due to George’s misogynistic views, his homosexuality and his valorization of the male-bonding culture of Ancient Greece. 

Between 1916 and 1934, the George Circle published 18 books, many of which became national bestsellers. Most of them were carefully selected historical biographies of Germanic figures like Kaiser Frederick II, Goethe, Nietzsche and Leibniz, as well as others that George believed were part of the same spiritual empire: Shakespeare, Napoleon and Caesar. The books ditched the usual objectivity of historical biographies of the era in favor of scintillating depictions and ideological mythmaking. Their not-so-secret intention was to sculpt the future by peddling a revision of Germany’s history as one in which salvation and meaning were delivered to the people by the actions of heroic individuals.

In 1928, he published his final book of poetry, “Das Neue Reich” (“The New Reich,”) and its vision established him as some kind of oracle for the German far-right. Hitler and Heinrich Himmler pored over George Circle books, and Hermann Göring gave one as a present to Benito Mussolini. At book burnings, George’s work was cited as an example of literature worth holding onto; there was even talk of making him a poet laureate. 

Link to the rest at Noema

General, your tank is a powerful vehicle

General, your tank is a powerful vehicle
It smashes down forests and crushes a hundred men.
But it has one defect:
It needs a driver.

General, your bomber is powerful.
It flies faster than a storm and carries more than an elephant.
But it has one defect:
It needs a mechanic.

General, man is very useful.
He can fly and he can kill.
But he has one defect:
He can think.

Bertolt Brecht

AI risk ≠ AGI risk

From The Road to AI We Can Trust:

Is AI going to kill us all? I don’t know, and you don’t either.

But Geoff Hinton has started to worry, and so have I. I’d heard about Hinton’s concerns through the grapevine last week, and he acknowledged them publicly yesterday.

Amplifying his concerns, I posed a thought experiment:

Soon, hundreds of people, even Elon Musk, chimed in.

. . . .

It’s not often that Hinton, Musk, and I are even in partial agreement. Musk and I also both signed a letter of concern from the Future of Life Institute [FLI], earlier this week, which is theoretically embargoed til tomorrow but is easy enough to find.

I’ve been getting pushback

1 and queries ever since I posted the Hinton tweet. Some thought I had misinterpreted the Hinton tweet (given my independent sourcing, I am quite sure I didn’t); others complained that I was focusing on the wrong set of risks (either too much on the short-term, or too much on the long term).

One distinguished colleague wrote to me asking “won’t this [FLI] letter create unjustified fears of imminent AGI, superintelligence, etc?” Some people were so surprised by my amplifying Hinton’s concerns that a whole Twitter thread popped up speculating about my own beliefs:

My beliefs have not in fact changed. I still don’t think large language models have much to do with superintelligence or artificial general intelligence [AGI]; I still think, with Yann LeCun, that LLMs are an “off-ramp” on the road to AGI. And my scenarios for doom are perhaps not the same as Hinton’s or Musk’s; theirs (from what I can tell) seem to center mainly around what happens if computers rapidly and radically self-improve themselves, which I don’t see as an immediate possibility.

But here’s the thing: although a lot of the literature equates artificial intelligence risk with the risk of superintelligence or artificial general intelligence, you don’t have to be superintelligent to create serious problems. I am not worried, immediately, about “AGI risk” (the risk of superintelligent machines beyond our control), in the near term I am worried about what I will call “MAI risk”—Mediocre AI that is unreliable (a la Bing and GPT-4) but widely deployed—both in terms of the sheer number of people using it, and in terms of the access that the software has to the world. A company called Adept.AI just raised $350 million dollars to do just that, to allow large language models to access, well, pretty much everything (aiming to “supercharge your capabilities on any software tool or API in the world” with LLMs, despite their clear tendencies towards hallucination and unreliability).

Lots of ordinary humans, perhaps of above average intelligence but not necessarily genius-level, have created all kinds of problems throughout history; in many ways, the critical variable is not intelligence but power, which often caches out as access. In principle, a single idiot with the nuclear codes could destroy the world, with only a modest amount of intelligence and a surplus of ill-deserved access.

Link to the rest at The Road to AI We Can Trust

I would rather be ashes

I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.

Jack London

How Should We Feel About Barnes & Noble Now?

From Book Riot:

When I realized my childhood Barnes & Noble was closing, I was devastated. I’m an indie bookstore lover, but growing up, there were no indie bookstores in my town: only one gorgeous, cozy Barnes & Noble. We went to book clubs there as kids, met there as teens basically every Friday night, studied for the SATs there, got coffee there to catch up over summers home from college. It held tons of concentrated memories.

The good news was that it was simply moving, not closing for good. It would have a new location and be one of the first “new Barnes & Noble stores” using their new layout, approach, and model. But was that good news?

Let’s back up. Years ago, there was a push to support indies over mega chains, but in recent years, Amazon’s threat has changed the story somewhat, leading many book lovers (me included) to acknowledge that Barnes & Noble, as one of the few remaining brick-and-mortar chains, is still a preferable option over Amazon. They’ve made some headway over the past couple years as they once again spin to becoming the “hero” of the story, the big-box store that outlasted and survived Amazon, proving our love of physical locations and physical books despite the odds.

. . . .

However, their new attempts to rejuvenate their stores are a way to appropriate the warm coziness and trust we have in an indie bookstore while taking away the mechanics of an indie on the back end. The maze-like layout is meant to be a “curated, cozy, and welcoming space for communities to work, read and browse.” But while branding and new layouts may seem innocent, anyone who has worked in the business world knows that it’s often more complicated than it appears.

After Barnes & Noble was sold to a hedge fund in 2019, owners Elliott Advisors brought in James Daunt, the chief executive of UK chain Waterstones (owned by the same company, I should add). His strategy for saving Barnes & Noble included giving local stores more individualized flexibility to choose what they sell based on local demand, moving away from the gifts and toys section, moving locations into smaller physical spaces, and redesigning the stores.

It’s not a coincidence that Barnes & Noble sought to capture something of what the indies were bringing to the table. Over the pandemic, books boomed, but so did a certain nostalgia for physical spaces and for wandering and browsing in-person. Indie bookstores benefited from this, and new ones have been popping up all over the country over the last few years. Barnes & Noble wants to take advantage of this moment.

But all moments aren’t created equal. As Jenn Northington unpacked in her piece in 2022, there was a 12.4% drop in hardcover sales from 2021 to 2022. And in 2022, Twitter buzzed with the realization that Barnes & Noble’s new policy seemed to be to stock only hardcovers that had “proven sales” records, making it harder for debut authors, “genre” authors, and authors traditionally neglected by the industry (people of color, queer and trans authors, disabled authors, etc.) to be discovered.

. . . .

Northington says it best:

“If the only hardcovers you can find at your local branch are also the ones that are on the bestseller list, which are also the ones getting marketing dollars, which are also the ones that the algorithms are suggesting to you online, then the chances of, say, a debut author from a marginalized community getting their book in front of your face long enough for you to see it and consider buying it are lower than ever.”

Some argue that it’s okay because B&N will still sell a more diverse selection of paperbacks — these rules are only for hardcover releases. But how can you get a paperback printing if your hardcover doesn’t sell? And how can your hardcover sell if a bookseller won’t sell it unless you can prove it will sell in advance?

Barnes & Noble is trying to capture the wonder of wandering your local indie bookstore, while simultaneously narrowing how much you could possibly discover. It wants you to think that it’s as personal and local as your independent bookstore would be, while showing you the same five books you’ve already seen blasted all over BookTok. They’ll continue to get that good bestseller money while convincing people that they’re in a community space.

. . . .

The implication is obvious. Barnes & Noble is trying to improve their bottom line. Which is fine: a bookstore is a business, and a chain needs to make money to keep stores open. What I don’t like is that they are quietly prioritizing profits in ways that hurt the goals of the literary community while also pushing this vision of Barnes & Noble as your local indie that supports your community and is a haven for readers. They are putting on the costume and language of a pretty neighborhood independent bookstore, but their inner mechanics are still all big-box chain corporation. They’re trying to disguise their profit-driven corporate decisions behind pretty warm-lit curtains.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

PG doesn’t recall that he’s read anything about it, but he wonders if the partner/employee/etc. at Elliot Advisors who championed the acquisition of Barnes & Noble in 2019 has been fired, demoted, etc., for what was surely a huge mistake from the standpoint of making money.

The British Male!

From The Paris Review:

To be British is a very complicated fate. To be a British novelist can seem a catastrophe. You enter into a miasma of history and class and garbage and publication—the way a sad cow might feel entering the abattoir. Or certainly that was how I felt, twenty years ago, when I entered the abattoir myself. One allegory for this system was the glamour of Martin Amis. Everyone had an opinion on Amis, and the strangeness was that this opinion was never just on the prose, on the novels and the stories and the essays. It was also an opinion on his opinions: the party gossip and the newspaper theories, the Oxford education and the afternoon tennis.

The British male! Or at least the British bourgeois male, with his many father figures, both real and acquired. From certain angles, in certain photos, Amis looked like Jagger, and so he became the Jagger of literature. He was small, true—I feel a permanent pang of camaraderie at his line in The Pregnant Widow about a character who occupies that “much-disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven”—but he was also hypermasculine. It wasn’t just his subjects: the snooker and the booze and the obsession with judging all women “sack artists.” It wasn’t even just the style: an inability to leave a sentence alone without chafing at every verb, the prose equivalent of truffle fries. It was also the interview persona, all haughtiness and clubhouse universality, however much that could be contradicted in private by thoughtfulness and generosity of conversation.

But most of all, his British maleness was in the purity of his comic perception of the world. He practiced a very specific form of oral literature—anecdote, putdown, punchline, alcoholic joke: monologues from the ruined-dinner table. This morning I picked up an old copy of Money taken from my parents’ house and there they were, the riffs: “You just cannot park round here any more. Even on a Sunday afternoon you just cannot park round here any more. You can doublepark on people: people can doublepark on you. Cars are doubling while houses are halving.” Or: “I should have realized that when English people say they can play tennis they don’t mean what Americans mean when they say they can play tennis. Americans mean that they can play tennis.” Or: “This guy had no future in the frightening business. He just wasn’t frightening.” A novel by Amis is an apparatus for each line to find its best exposure. ” ‘Yeah,” I said, and started smoking another cigarette. Unless I specifically inform you otherwise, I’m always smoking another cigarette.”

This vision of the world as comedy is why the Amis novel that still seduces and alarms me most is Time’s Arrow, his first experiment into Europe. That novel famously tells the life of Tod T. Friendly in reverse, beginning in a postwar American suburb and ending with him transformed into Odilo Unverdorben, one of the psychopathic doctors at Auschwitz. This means that appallingly touching things happen in the camp: gold is carefully placed back into Jewish mouths; smoke becomes a corpse, which becomes a living person, who is then beautifully reunited with their family. Ghettos are dismantled. Meanwhile, everything is narrated in a tremulous high style: there is, for example, the shoe, in an antechamber to the gas chambers, “like a heavy old bullet thrown out of the shadows, and skilfully caught.” Naturally, our narrator is delighted by this beautiful arc of history, always tending towards improvement—“A shockingly inflamed eyeball at once rectified by a single injection. Innumerable ovaries and testes seamlessly grafted into place. Women went out of that lab looking 20 years younger.”

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Vin de Noix, the Drunken Poetry of Walnuts

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

….It was 1995. France beckoned, and a home I had long forgotten was found again. It was the beginning of how I thought of bread as a character. And the beginning of writing Tales of the Mistress…

“When I said I’d like to drive past the Eiffel Tower I didn’t mean through the belly of Paris.” My husband, Rich, glared at me. He clearly objected to the route I had chosen for us as he careened our summer-sky blue Peugeot down a long narrow street full of fromage store fronts, boulangeries, and chocolateries that had barely seen the light of day, yet alone the headlights of a car, for four hundred years. Nor had they cared to. 

“But everything begins with the appetite in France.” It was my first time as an auto passenger in Paris. During November’s International Association of Culinary Professionals Conference I was a rider of Le Metro. And a Rue walker. The pile of maps under my feet shifted when we rounded a tight turn and I rolled the window down to hear June bustin’ out all over the Place de la Concorde. In the back seat were our two sons, Erick and Jaryd, aged ten and seven. They were not happy about the long ride ahead. But they would be happy about the two bottles of Orangina rolling around at my feet. I handed them back to our sons. 

Also at my feet were our precious Auto Europe rental papers, and a book. I picked up the Food Lover’s Guide to Paris by Patricia Wells which was stuffed with maps I had torn out of an Atlas to guide us. 

The lover’s guide to food and Paris had hypnotized me and put me in possible eternal denial of anything more pressing needing my attention. On page two-forty-six I read that Lionel Poilane had a brother named Max who also baked bread and worked with the same ingredients as he, flour and yeast and water and love, (okay they didn’t say love but I knew that’s what he was thinking) and they had five huge wood-fired ovens running for twenty-four hours a day but that he was stuck on a bread that was less acidic than his famous brother and he took a bag of it with him whenever he went out to eat and in fact ate bread with bread and bread with everything even sorbet and prided himself on the fact that he baked breads like pain au levain and petits pain aux noix and that he was lean and intense. And poetic.

The word poetic rang through me like a church bell from Notre Dame as we drove past trucks and stocky French men, singing to their crates of lettuce and cauliflower. And parsley. They smelled like salad. Or maybe was it oysters and anchovies? I couldn’t ask my husband to turn the car around to confirm. From their voices the men seemed as though they could care less about our being lost, and perhaps Paris had been planned this way. To get you lost in a dream of love, and song and food. Soon, I too forgot about being lost. I found myself waving and dreaming of poems to lettuce.

We sailed by the unloading truck as if in slow motion and I imagined spending the afternoon deciding who and what would dress the lettuce. Just as we turned the corner the heads of a feathery French laitue, lettuce, looked like, well, an exotically plumed bird. This was France. This was love. Or maybe was the sun blinding me? 

Was there more Orangina? No, but we’d stop soon, I said. 

Just as Max and Lionel Poilane were obsessed with bread, so I would measure the path of June against my memory of the first vin de noix, walnut wine that I had tasted in November on a post conference tour to Gascony after the Paris meeting with IACP. 

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

Talking About Microfiction With Sci-Fi Ya Author Sophia Hanson

From Almost an Author:

Today I’m talking with Sci-Fi YA author and fellow columnist here on Almost an Author, Sophia Hanson, about microfiction. I reached out to her after noticing her microfiction on Instagram. I have a love-hate relationship with microfiction. Fitting a piece of writing into the limited perimeters is hard enough, but toss in a time constraint and it requires some major flexing of those writing muscles!

DJS: Was the month-long Instagram challenge the first time you’d tried microfiction?

SH: I’d tried microfiction once or twice in response to Instagram contests. Cassandra Hamm holds prompt contests quarterly. They are tons of fun. I’d never done a month-long challenge before, but wanted to push myself to do the next hard thing. Thirty-one days of posting new content to prompts was definitely out of my comfort zone, and I decided to learn how to include images in the posts. I learned about Canva, tagging, and writing even when I didn’t feel inspired.

DJS: What was the hardest thing about producing microfiction?

SH: Including a whole idea/world within those fifty words, but sometimes it was just as hard to land on fifty, not forty-seven or forty-nine.

DJS: I can certainly agree with that! The exacting word count of microfiction had left me blinking at my computer screen a time or two.

In what ways did writing microfiction affect and benefit your writing?

SH: I love learning how to write tight, and I love writing to prompts. It’s a great challenge, especially when you’ve been working on a larger piece, because it helps to reset your brain and refresh those creative juices.

Link to the rest at Almost an Author

The English language

The English language has a deceptive air of simplicity; so have some little frocks; but they are both not the kind of thing you can run up in half an hour with a machine.

Dorothy L. Sayers

As it spreads across the world, who owns English?

From The Economist:

What country does French belong to? The answer seems obvious: France, as it says on the label. But there are roughly four times as many speakers of French outside France as there are within it. Who does Portuguese belong to? You might now hesitate to blurt out “Portugal”, remembering that Brazil’s population is about 20 times bigger than Portugal’s. Maybe Portuguese belongs jointly to them both. But then 70m people live in African countries in which Portuguese is an official language. Perhaps it belongs to them, too.

The English can be under no illusion that the language of the same name is exclusively theirs. The small matters of the other nations in the British Isles, and of the superpower across the Atlantic, make clear that it is joint property. But these countries—along with Canada, Australia and other Anglophone peoples—must at some point come to terms with the fact that, even collectively, their language no longer belongs to them. Of the estimated billion people who speak English, less than half live in those core English-speaking countries.

Every day, the proportion of English-speakers born outside the traditional Anglosphere grows. Perhaps 40% of people in the European Union speak English, or about 180m—vastly more than the combined population of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In India, calculations range from 60m to 200m. Most such estimates make it the second-biggest Anglophone country in the world.

English-speakers pride themselves on the spread of the language, and often attribute that to an open, liberal-minded attitude whereby it has happily soaked up words from around the world. In the coming century, though, English will do more than borrow words. In these non-Anglophone countries, it is becoming not just a useful second language, but a native one. Already it is easy to find children in northern Europe who speak as though they come from Kansas, the product of childhoods immersed in subtitled films and television in English, along with music, gaming and YouTube.

Today, many learners still aim for an American or British standard. Textbooks instruct Indian English-speakers to avoid Indianisms such as “What is your good name?” for “What is your first name?”, or “I am working here for years” instead of “I have been working here for years.” A guide to avoiding Europeanisms has long circulated in European Union institutions, to keep French- or German-speakers from (for example) using “actual” to mean “current”, as it does in their languages.

Yet as hundreds of millions of new speakers make English their own, they are going to be less keen to sound British or American. A generation of post-colonial novelists has been mixing native words and phrasings into their English prose, without translation, italics or explanation. Academic movements such as “English as a lingua franca” (elf) have been developing the ideology that speakers—no longer referred to as “non-native” but rather “multilingual”—should feel free to ignore British or American norms. Karen Bennett of Nova University in Lisbon says the university website has been translated using words common in southern European English—like “scientific” for “academic”, or “rector” for “vice-chancellor”. The appropriate local dialect is not British or American but elf.

Given enough time, new generations of native speakers contribute not just words but their own grammar to the language they learn—from older speakers’ point of view, distorting it in the process. “I am working here for years” is a mistake today, but it is not hard to imagine it becoming standard in the future in culturally confident Anglophone Indian circles.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Librarians, Publishers, Bookstores Join Lawsuit Over Arkansas Library ‘Obscenity’ Law

From Publisher’s Weekly:

Some 17 plaintiffs—including the ALA’s Freedom to Read Foundation, the Association of American Publishers, the American Booksellers Association, and the Authors Guild—will file a federal lawsuit over a recently passed law in Arkansas, Act 372 of 2023 (also known as SB 81), which exposes librarians to criminal liability for making allegedly “obscene” books available to minors.

According to a report in the Arkansas Advocate, news of the suit comes after the Central Arkansas Library System board of directors voted on May 25 to proceed with the litigation. At press time, the suit had yet to be filed.

In a statement to PW, ALA officials confirmed their participation in the suit. “The American Library Association is pleased that the Freedom to Read Foundation, our First Amendment legal defense arm, and our state affiliate, the Arkansas Library Association, are participating in the lawsuit to vindicate Arkansas residents’ freedom to read,” ALA president Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada told PW. “The government has no place in deciding what books people can borrow or buy.”

The law in question, which was signed by governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders on March 31 and is set to take effect on August 1, removes an exemption from prosecution for school and public libraries and would empower virtually anyone to challenge the appropriateness of library materials in Arkansas. Library staff found to have “knowingly” distributed or facilitating the distribution of allegedly obscene material to a minor—defined as anyone under 18—would be open to a potential felony charge.

The impending lawsuit in Arkansas is the latest in an escalating legal offensive being waged by freedom to read advocates in response to the ongoing surge in book bans and legislative restrictions nationwide.

Link to the rest at Publisher’s Weekly

Germany: ‘IGLU’ Shows School Reading Skills Lagging

From Publishing Perspectives:

A regular analytical program called the International Primary School Reading Study (IGLU) in Germany has this month announced a disturbing result: the number of primary schoolchildren in that market who cannot read to adequate levels of skill continues to increase.

There’s some irony here, in that the report from May 3 made by the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels, Germany’s publishers and booksellers association, in coordination with the book wholesaler Libri found that 16- to 29-year-olds seem to be purchasing books at an accelerating rate.

The primary-school group, of course, is younger, but an uncomfortable implication here is that unless their reading skills make some progress, they may reverse the trend toward bookish consumerism that has gladdened the eye of many in the industry’s retail sector.

The new study from IGLU, carried out every five years, looked at the reading skills of some 4,600 students and encompassed data from 65 nations and regions. And as the Börsenverein puts it in its media messaging, “If you can’t read properly, chances are closed to you, first at school and then at work.”

The proportion of children who don’t have sufficient reading skills, the Börsenverein reports, “has risen significantly compared to 2016: every fourth child leaves primary school without sufficient reading skills.”

In its announcement, the publishers’ association says, “The Reading Foundation and the German Book Trade Association are calling for an immediate political and social rethink. Together with the German Book Trade Association, the Reading Foundation founded the ‘National Reading Pact.’ More than 180 partners from business, science, society, and politics have come together here to make reading promotion binding, so that educational justice can finally become a reality.”

And to that end, the initiative is striving for a nationwide package of measures,” the Börsenverein says, “that should ensure binding and uniform structures for all parties involved in reading promotion. The aim is for all children and young people in Germany to be able to read.”

‘Promoting Reading Must Have the Highest Priority’

Peter Kraus vom Cleff, general manager of the German Book Trade Association, says, “The results of the current IGLU study are alarming.

“They show once again how urgently we must act. Reading skills are essential for self-determined social participation and the key to a successful professional life. Thus, promoting reading is not only fundamental for the individual path through life, but for our entire democracy.

“Together with the Reading Foundation and a broad alliance from politics, business, and society, we strive for a well thought-out cooperation to improve reading skills in Germany. Because from now on, promoting reading must have the highest priority in Germany.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

The State Of Being A Published Writer In 2023 Is Really Weird, And A Little Worrisome

From Chuck Wendig: Terribleminds:

So, a few things upfront: first, I am a privileged author who sells well and is able to support himself and his family on writing books. Second, none of this post is to be taken as fact, but rather, as opinion — it relies, quite frankly, on “artisanal data” (aka anecdotes) and also, y’know, vibes. As such, I am, like many, looking at a room through a keyhole and will certainly not be seeing everything.

All that being said —

Being an author — aka, the fancy word for “writer of books” — vibes real weird right now. There is worry on the wind. To be fair, it’s always a little weird. Being a creative person in any realm is, I assume, a chaos reigns situation on the best of days. Nothing is certain. The ground is ever weak beneath our feet. A career as a “writer-of-books” has for me always been in part the strategy of eyeballing the peaks and valleys, and making sure that you’re building the proper ramps and bridges over the gaps before you ramp the car and crash it into a fucking ravine. In this sense, worry is always part of the bargain. Shit could go sideways one of a hundred different ways we can foretell, and another hundred we can’t. Worse, we’re kind of low-hanging fruit in a lot of ways — books are (to my mind, incorrectly) viewed as a luxury, a frippery, a whiff of the ol’ fol-de-rol.

So, what’s bringing the extra worry?

. . . .

Book events are erratic in terms of attendance, and as a result, publishers don’t seem to be using them as much, which means booksellers are asking authors, “Hey, can you tell your publishers to please send authors to us?” If booksellers are hurting, we’re hurting. (I have deeper thoughts about book events and how to make them consistent and amazing, but that’s for a different post, I think.)

Hardcovers are problematic, now? Hardcovers are maybe too expensive, probably — whether that’s inflation or greedflation, I dunno, but your average wallet paid too much for eggs and rent, and that doesn’t leave money for the Fancy Big Book Purchase. Some bookstores carry fewer hardcovers now because of this (also, space issues), and some publishers are committing to fewer hardcover releases and jumping instead to paperback. But if we lose that first step entirely, it shortens the long tail of the book, putting everything on, say, the paperback. (Sidenote, I have said and will always say, I really miss the MMPB format, and wish that format was still a thing. I know I am an OLD MAN YELLING AT CLOUDS, but boy ****** howdy I’d love to see spinner racks of paperbacks again. Put them everywhere! Pharmacies! Tire shops! Pet stores!) To be clear, a lot of books have forgone the hardcover step in the past — but the number seems to be dwindling anew, which to my mind is less than ideal.

Mainstream media is closing doors, not opening them. Once upon a time, a lot of media outlets had (said with naive reverie) coverage devoted to books. Oooh! Ahh! Except, ennh, uh-oh. Some outlets have now shut down all book coverage or have narrowed the aperture so tightly that the only coverage allowed is for the Mega Big Bestsellers. BuzzFeed News, which once upon a time covered book stuff, shut down entirely. And now there’s a surge in news coverage simply being farmed out to “artificial intelligence,” which is to say, clumsy algorithmic plagiaristic aggregators (because there is nothing intelligent about it, and a whole lot that’s artificial, though more on AI later). So, where once we could count a little bit on maybe, maybe getting some breadcrumbs of media coverage… well, the Gulls of Capitalism have gobbled up those crumbs, leaving us naught but an empty plate.

Social media is more or less collapsing. The internet in general is getting less reliable overall, in part due to misinformation, disinformation, and the waves of garbage and glurge barfed forth by various bots and algorithms. Once upon a time, Googling something was a reliable way to learn about it, but now you’ll likely find yourself on a raft floating on a sea of bad information. Social media has become the staging ground for all this shit (and also how, in part, it leeches into the groundwater of the rest of the internet), and as such, social media has started to fall apart like everything else. Twitter is ****, run by a vain maniac who keeps holding up anti-Semitic and anti-trans and anti-vaxxer and other ******like he just opened a bigotry blind bag and wants to show you the “cool thing” he just found, lol, lmao, laughing-crying emoji. The wheels are coming off everything and now attention is fractured across social media. And publishers — long having us and themselves lean very hard on that very same social media — are left with shattered landscape on which to walk. Where do you go to talk about your books? There are places, but attention is now diffuse, and it’s hard to know who’s even going to see it given how engagement is throttled unless you’re paying $8 a month for Twitter Blue, which doesn’t seem to do shit anyway, and also marks you as a chump helping to enrich an *******.

Link to the rest at Chuck Wendig: Terribleminds

Here’s a link to Chuck’s Books

Crazy-Busy Around Casa PG

PG apologizes for the lack of posts.

There have been a great many things voraciously consuming his time this week.

He anticipates/hopes that tomorrow will be a bit quieter and he’ll have some time to post.

‘The Forgotten Girls’ Review: The Friend Who Was Left Behind

From The Wall Street Journal:

When journalist Monica Potts came across research detailing a striking drop in life expectancy among the least-educated white Americans, she returned to her depressed rural hometown of Clinton, Ark., to investigate. She was especially interested in understanding the rise in midlife deaths among white women, but her focus promptly narrowed to one woman in particular: her childhood best friend, Darci Brawner.

In the years after high school, Ms. Potts had attended Bryn Mawr College, earned a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, and established a successful career as a reporter. (She currently covers politics for the website FiveThirtyEight.) Ms. Brawner, on the other hand, had failed to complete high school and developed addictions to methamphetamines and methadone, cycling in and out of prison and rehab while her mother and stepfather raised her two children.

The question driving Ms. Potts’s clear-eyed and tender debut, “The Forgotten Girls,” is why, given that she and her friend were both smart and ambitious and hell-bent on escaping their blighted hometown, did one succeed and the other fail? The author hopes that determining how their paths diverged will illuminate the drop in life expectancy, which is widely attributed to suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol-related fatalities—the so-called “deaths of despair” identified by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton after their 2015 study of rising mortality. While Ms. Brawner does not belong to that sad demographic—hers is rather a life of despair—Ms. Potts wonders whether her repeated attempts to turn her life around are “just delaying the inevitable.”

Ms. Potts is well-positioned to explain her insular birthplace to outsiders. She retains strong ties to the community in the foothills of the Ozarks, and she didn’t merely helicopter in to report the book: She left the Washington, D.C., suburbs to move back permanently in 2017. People there trust her and speak to her candidly. They include not only Ms. Brawner, but other friends from the ’80s and ’90s, along with their parents and former teachers.

As its subtitle, “A Memoir of Friendship and Lost Promise in Rural America,” suggests, this book is as much the author’s story as a piece of reportage. Ms. Potts reconstructs events with the help of her teenage journals (she’s granted access to Ms. Brawner’s as well), and she considers ways she might have failed her friend. “When I began my investigation into what was happening to women like Darci,” she writes, “I didn’t realize how personal and emotional this journey would become.”

While “The Forgotten Girls” glancingly addresses larger forces like the disappearance of solid blue-collar jobs in Clinton and the desertion of the downtown business district, the narrative is rooted in the two women’s experiences. Readers might feel that the solution to the riddle of why one girl grew up to succeed and one to fail is hiding in plain sight: Ms. Potts, though poor like Ms. Brawner, came from a relatively stable family that prioritized education.

Though the author hesitates to assign blame to Ms. Brawner’s mother and stepfather, their parenting appears lax by any definition. Ms. Brawner’s home had a den with its own entrance to the street, and she and her older brother turned it into, in the author’s words, “a twenty-four-hour teenage clubhouse, complete with alcohol and, later, drugs.” Meth, in fact, was more easily accessible than alcohol.

In a town without much to do, and where smart kids were unlikely to be challenged by their schoolwork, Ms. Brawner began drinking and taking drugs in her early teens; she became sexually active at 14 and essentially had a live-in boyfriend by 16. Ms. Potts is critical of the town’s dominant evangelical churches, which stressed trust in God’s plan above all else. This, she argues, encouraged people to surrender control of their own lives. Ms. Brawner’s mother seemed to be a mere spectator to her daughter’s slow derailment. When Ms. Potts asks her how she handles problems, she replies, “Oh you know, I just give it up to God.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

This story resonated with PG because he grew up under somewhat similar circumstances. Fortunately, there were no drug problems, but there were more than a few problems with alcoholism.

PG graduated as the valedictorian of a class of 22 students. His high school girlfriend was the salutatorian. PG and his high school girlfriend were the only ones who graduated from college. The #3 graduate went to nursing school for a couple of years. Most of the others didn’t apply to college and the two or three who did dropped out well before completing a degree.

The schools in that tiny town closed for good a few years after PG graduated. The students from the town and adjoining farmland were bussed to a larger town nearby. The town’s population is about two-thirds its size when PG left for good. Based on what PG has been able to determine from online research, there are a lot of abandoned houses in the town. The house where PG lived was torn down a few years after he left.

Some parts of rural America are thriving due to improvements in agricultural practices, but a great many of the towns are in stasis.

PG’s younger brother was a successful real estate broker in Iowa prior to a premature death. Iowa farmland is right at the top of the most productive farmland in the world, due to a combination of very good soil and a good climate for growing corn, soy beans and similar midwestern staples.

PG’s brother recounted a typical conversation he had frequently with some of the older farmers who had spent their entire lives farming. When he asked them what would happen to the farm after they were unable to handle the hard work of fertilizing, planting, cultivating, harvesting, etc., they would often respond that their children would take over the family farm which had remained in the family for 75-100 years.

“Well,” my brother would say something like, “Is your daughter who’s an ophthalmologist in Los Angeles going to come back to take over the farm or will it be your son who’s a stockbroker in Manhattan?”

The farm provided for a good life for the family, but the kids found something that interested them more than farming.

On one such occasion, my brother sold a large family farm to Goldman Sachs, a large stockbroker and financial firm headquartered in New York City, who recognized the asset value of the farmland, but which hired a farm manager to oversee its large Iowa land holdings, but the land was unlikely to ever revert to a family farm.

Never judge a book

Never judge a book by its cover; a movie by its book; or a video game by its movie.

Ashwin Sanghi