English Is A Germanic Language

From Rosetta Stone:

German is widely considered among the easier languages for native English speakers to pick up. That’s because these languages are true linguistic siblings—originating from the exact same mother tongue. In fact, eighty of the hundred most used words in English are of Germanic origin. These most basic, common words in English and German derive from the same roots, making them amazingly similar. That’s why an English word like “friend” is “freund” in German. Plus, there are an incredible number of German and English words that aren’t simply related, but identical: arm, hand, kindergarten, angst, bitter, and many more.

Generally, if you’re an English speaker with no exposure to other languages, here are some of the most challenging: Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Icelandic, Thai, Vietnamese, Finnish, Japanese, and Korean.

Link to the rest at Rosetta Stone

From Oxford International:

History of the English language

Charles Laurence Barber comments, “The loss and weakening of unstressed syllables at the ends of words destroyed many of the distinctive inflections of Old English.”

Similarly, John McWhorter points out that while the Norsemen and their English counterparts were able to comprehend one another in a manner of speaking, the Norsemen’s inability to pronounce the endings of various words ultimately resulted in the loss of inflectional endings.

Many of you will be forgiven for thinking that studying an English Language course consists of English grammar more than anything else. While English grammar does play a part when taking courses to improve English overall, it is but a small part of the overall curriculum where one becomes immersed in a history that was partly influenced by myths, battles, and legends on one hand, and the everyday workings of its various social class on the other.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the English language itself really took off with the invasion of Britain during the 5th century. Three Germanic tribes, the JutesSaxons and Angles were seeking new lands to conquer, and crossed over from the North Sea. It must be noted that the English language we know and study through various English language courses today had yet to be created as the inhabitants of Britain spoke various dialect of the Celtic language.

During the invasion, the native Britons were driven north and west into lands we now refer to as Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. The word England and English originated from the Old English word Engla-land, literally meaning “the land of the Angles” where they spoke Englisc.

Old English (5th to 11th Century)

Albert Baugh, a notable English professor at the University of Pennsylvania notes amongst his published works that around 85% of Old English is no longer in use; however, surviving elements form the basis of the Modern English language today.

Old English can be further subdivided into the following:

  • Prehistoric or Primitive (5th to 7th Century) – available literature or documentation referencing this period is not available aside from limited examples of Anglo-Saxon runes;
  • Early Old English (7th to 10th Century) – this period contains some of the earliest documented evidence of the English language, showcasing notable authors and poets like Cynewulf and Aldhelm who were leading figures in the world of Anglo-Saxon literature.
  • Late Old English (10th to 11th Century) – can be considered the final phase of the Old English language which was brought about by the Norman invasion of England. This period ended with the consequential evolution of the English language towards Early Middle English.

Early Middle English

It was during this period that the English language, and more specifically, English grammar, started evolving with particular attention to syntax. Syntax is “the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language,” and we find that while the British government and its wealthy citizens Anglicised the language, Norman and French influences remained the dominant language until the 14th century.

An interesting fact to note is that this period has been attributed with the loss of case endings that ultimately resulted in inflection markers being replaced by more complex features of the language. Case endings are “a suffix on an inflected noun, pronoun, or adjective that indicates its grammatical function.

Late Middle English

It was during the 14th century that a different dialect (known as the East-Midlands) began to develop around the London area.

Geoffrey Chaucer, a writer we have come to identify as the Father of English Literature and author of the widely renowned Canterbury Tales, was often heralded as the greatest poet of that particular time. It was through his various works that the English language was more or less “approved” alongside those of French and Latin, though he continued to write up some of his characters in the northern dialects.

It was during the mid-1400s that the Chancery English standard was brought about. The story goes that the clerks working for the Chancery in London were fluent in both French and Latin. It was their job to prepare official court documents and prior to the 1430s, both the aforementioned languages were mainly used by royalty, the church, and wealthy Britons. After this date, the clerks started using a dialect that sounded as follows:

  • gaf (gave) not yaf (Chaucer’s East Midland dialect)
  • such not swich
  • theyre (their) not hir [6]

As you can see, the above is starting to sound more like the present-day English language we know.
If one thinks about it, these clerks held enormous influence over the manner of influential communication, which ultimately shaped the foundations of Early Modern English.

Early Modern English

The changes in the English language during this period occurred from the 15th to mid-17th Century, and signified not only a change in pronunciation, vocabulary or grammar itself but also the start of the English Renaissance.

The English Renaissance has much quieter foundations than its pan-European cousin, the Italian Renaissance, and sprouted during the end of the 15th century. It was associated with the rebirth of societal and cultural movements, and while slow to gather steam during the initial phases, it celebrated the heights of glory during the Elizabethan Age.

It was William Caxton’s innovation of an early printing press that allowed Early Modern English to become mainstream, something we as English learners should be grateful for! The Printing Press was key in standardizing the English language through distribution of the English Bible.

Caxton’s publishing of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (the Death of Arthur) is regarded as print material’s first bestseller. Malory’s interpretation of various tales surrounding the legendary King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, in his own words, and the ensuing popularity  indirectly ensured that Early Modern English was here to stay.

It was during Henry the VIII’s reign that English commoners were finally able to read the Bible in a language they understood, which to its own degree, helped spread the dialect of the common folk.

The end of the 16th century brought about the first complete translation of the Catholic Bible, and though it didn’t make a markable impact, it played an important role in the continued development of the English language, especially with the English-speaking Catholic population worldwide.

The end of the 16th and start of the 17th century would see the writings of actor and playwright, William Shakespeare, take the world by storm.

Why was Shakespeare’s influence important during those times? Shakespeare started writing during a time when the English language was undergoing serious changes due to contact with other nations through war, colonisation, and the likes. These changes were further cemented through Shakespeare and other emerging playwrights who found their ideas could not be expressed through the English language currently in circulation. Thus, the “adoption” of words or phrases from other languages were modified and added to the English language, creating a richer experience for all concerned.

It was during the early 17th century that we saw the establishment of the first successful English colony in what was called The New World. Jamestown, Virginia, also saw the dawn of American English with English colonizers adopting indigenous words, and adding them to the English language.

The constant influx of new blood due to voluntary and involuntary (i.e. slaves) migration during the 17th, 18th and 19th century meant a variety of English dialects had sprung to life, this included West African, Native American, Spanish and European influences.

Meanwhile, back home, the English Civil War, starting mid-17th century, brought with it political mayhem and social instability. At the same time, England’s puritanical streak had taken off after the execution of Charles I. Censorship was a given, and after the Parliamentarian victory during the War, Puritans promoted an austere lifestyle in reaction to what they viewed as excesses by the previous regime. England would undergo little more than a decade under Puritan leadership before the crowning of Charles II. His rule, effectively the return of the Stuart Monarchy, would bring about the Restoration period which saw the rise of poetry, philosophical writing, and much more.

It was during this age that literary classics, like those of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, were published, and are considered relevant to this age!

Late Modern English

The Industrial Revolution and the Rise of the British Empire during the 18th, 19th and early 20th-century saw the expansion of the English language.

The advances and discoveries in science and technology during the Industrial Revolution saw a need for new words, phrases, and concepts to describe these ideas and inventions. Due to the nature of these works, scientists and scholars created words using Greek and Latin roots e.g. bacteria, histology, nuclear, biology. You may be shocked to read that these words were created but one can learn a multitude of new facts through English language courses as you are doing now!

Colonialism brought with it a double-edged sword. It can be said that the nations under the British Empire’s rule saw the introduction of the English language as a way for them to learn, engage, and hopefully, benefit from “overseas” influence. While scientific and technological discoveries were some of the benefits that could be shared, colonial Britain saw this as a way to not only teach their language but impart their culture and traditions upon societies they deemed as backward, especially those in Africa and Asia.

The idea may have backfired as the English language walked away with a large number of foreign words that have now become part and parcel of the English language e.g. shampoo, candy, cot and many others originated in India!

English in the 21st Century

If one endevours to study various English language courses taught today, we would find almost no immediate similarities between Modern English and Old English. English grammar has become exceedingly refined (even though smartphone messaging have made a mockery of the English language itself) where perfect living examples would be that of the current British Royal Family. This has given many an idea that speaking proper English is a touch snooty and high-handed. Before you scoff, think about what you have just read. The basic history and development of a language that literally spawned from the embers of wars fought between ferocious civilisations. Imagine everything that our descendants went through, their trials and tribulations, their willingness to give up everything in order to achieve freedom of speech and expression.

Link to the rest at Oxford International

What is Syntax and Why is it Important to Understand Language?

From Akorbi:

What is syntax?

Syntax is a term used by linguists to describe a set of principles and rules that govern sentence structure and word order in a particular language. In English, the general rule of syntax follows the subject-verb-object rule. The subject refers to the person or thing (a noun) performing the action, the verb describes the action being taken, and the object (another noun) refers to what is being acted upon (if anything).

More than 85% of the world’s languages put the subject first in a sentence, making it understood who or what performs the action. Many of the rest of the languages put the verb first, followed by the subject and the object.

Syntax may also include descriptive words such as adjectives and adverbs that add descriptions to nouns and verbs. Prepositions, like “to” and “above,” communicate the direction or placement of an object or subject.

Examples of Syntax in Various Languages

Every sentence in English breaks down to “subject-verb-object” no matter how long you make it.

“John cautiously drives the red car in the snow” shortens to “John drives the car.”

Spanish follows the same basic structure, except the noun and adjective are inverted. “Juan conduce con cautela el coche rojo en la naive.” The phrase “coche rojo” means “red car” in English, but in Spanish it reads as “car red.”

However, in both sentences it’s understood that the car is red as opposed to anything else because the word “red” is adjacent to the word “car.” That’s because of syntax rules that govern Spanish and English.

. . . .

Modifiers

Modifiers, such as adjectives and adverbs, should be close to the noun or verb that they modify in the sentence. The relationship between a modifier and its referent can be clarified with commas or punctuation to ensure the correct meaning is communicated.

“The deft driver swerved his car to the right to avoid an accident just in time.”

You could change this sentence to, “The car’s driver swerved deftly to the right just in time to avoid an accident.”

Both sentences are grammatically and syntactically correct. However, the second sentence is more clear. He swerved just in time to avoid an accident.

Turning Syntax on Its Head

Have you ever heard Yoda from Star Wars speak? He turns syntax on its head by putting the subject towards the end of the sentence instead of the beginning.

“When 900 years old you reach, look as good you will not.”

Ordinarily, you say to someone, “You won’t look this good when you reach 900 years old.

Link to the rest at Akorbi

Discussion: Language

From MIT Open Courseware – Introduction to Psychology:

Session Overview

How do I move meaning from my mind to yours? 

Discussion

Language is just incredible – think about how easy it is for us, as babies, to learn our native language effortlessly, and yet how hard it is, once we’ve already learned a language, to learn another.

I think about this every time I see a Chinese baby speaking perfect Mandarin. I have a master’s degree in linguistics and I’ve been trying to learn Mandarin for 10 years, but I’m just awful at it. And language is just spectacularly complicated in terms of our capacity for explaining things. There are sentences that you utter, or that friends utter, that have never been uttered before in the history of the human language, and that will probably never be uttered again, and yet they’re perfectly understandable.

We can talk about language in terms of signals for communication, that is, the perception and production of speech and sign, or what you have to do to move the message from one place to another. We can also talk about language as structures for information, or what the rules are that govern how the basic building blocks of language go together to convey meaning – including rules for sounds, words, sentences, and discourse.

In psychology, some of the big questions about language have to do with language acquisition (both as babies and as adults); the brain bases of speech and language; and communication and language disorders, such as aphasia and dyslexia. Language is a huge topic, but we’ll hit some of the highlights here.

Demonstration

Phonology is the structure of the sounds that make up the words of a language. Phonemes are the building blocks of speech sounds. Phonemes aren’t large enough units of language to convey meaning all by themselves, but they do distinguish one word from another. For example, bit and hit differ by one phoneme. English has about 45 phonemes altogether.

But think about two things. One, there’s a lot of sounds that we can make (whistles, coughs, snorts, etc.) that aren’t linguistic. Two, there’s incredible variety in how the people around us pronounce the “same” sound. Think about people speaking with different accents, or how you sound when you have a cold. How does the brain handle this?

Listen to Tyler describe and demonstrate the phenomenon of categorical perception: (Includes recorded demonstrations of “bad/bat” and “slash/splash” courtesy of UCLA Phonetics Lab, used with permission. The original recordings, and many others like them, are available at Peter Ladefoged’s website Vowels and Consonants.)

Demonstration

However, we don’t rely on our ears alone to determine what we’re hearing. The McGurk effect is a famous example of how visual cues impact our perception of speech sounds. For this demonstration, you will play a single, five-second video clip three times, with different instructions each time.

First, play the video with your eyes closed. Make note of what the man is saying.

(PG Comment: This is a very short video. On PG’s computer, at the close of this video, YouTube starts another that doesn’t seem to be related.)

Second, play the video again with your eyes open. Now what is he saying?

Third, mute the sound on the video and just watch his mouth move. What does it look like he’s saying?

What do you think is happening in this situation? Why?

. . . .

Demonstration

Consider the following joke:

A woman is taking a shower when her doorbell rings. She yells, “Who’s there?” and a man answers, “Blind man.” Being a charitable person, she runs out of the shower naked and opens the door. The man says, “Where should I put these blinds, lady?”

The use of the word ‘blind’ in this joke relies upon the particularities of English semantics and syntaxSemantics refers to the meaning of a word or a sentence; syntax refers to the rules for combining words into sentences. The word ‘blind’ has several meanings (it can be an adjective or a noun), and the one that comes to mind first for most listeners is ‘visually impaired,’ so “blind man” is at first understood as adjective + noun. However, the rules of English syntax allow us to interpret noun + noun phrases such as ‘ice cream man’ not as ‘a man made of ice cream’ but ‘a man who sells ice cream.’ It’s not until the punchline is delivered that you realize that it was a different meaning of ‘blind’ all along.

Link to the rest at MIT Open Courseware

20 Rare Languages Still Spoken Today

From Universal Translation Services:

Languages:

Culture is the most personal thing society came up with. It defines the people of a community and regulates their everyday life. There are many aspects of culture, but language is the most important. Figuring out humans’ first language is impossible, but we know some ancient tongues. We can also figure out which is the least spoken language. But languages die, too, even if they were quite famous at some point. Latin is a good example of this because it was a mighty tongue once, but today, it does not have a single native speaker. Experts are sure half of the seven thousand languages spoken today will become extinct within a hundred years.

Here are the top 20 most spoken languages in the world:

  1. English
  2. Mandarin
  3. Hindi
  4. Spanish
  5. French
  6. Standard Arabic
  7. Bengali
  8. Russian
  9. Portuguese
  10. Indonesian
  11. Urdu
  12. Standard German
  13. Japanese
  14. Swahili
  15. Marathi
  16. Telugu
  17. Western Punjabi
  18. Wu Chinese
  19. Tamil
  20. Turkish


What Are All the Languages in the World?

Language defines our cultural identity. More than seven thousand languages are spoken in the world. Some have less than a thousand speakers and risk becoming extinct. At the same time, others have millions of speakers. English and Mandarin are two vernaculars with over a billion speakers. Spanish is one of the most widely spoken languages.

. . . .

The Rarest Language in the World

Kaixana is an unknown language because it only has one speaker left today. Kaixana has never been very popular. But it had 200 speakers in the past. However, that number has been reduced to a single digit today. Learning is a complicated task since there isn’t much known about the vocabulary.

. . . .

What is the Oldest Language Still Spoken Today?

The oldest language that is still spoken today is Tamil. It has been around for at least 5000 years. It is spoken in India by more than 60 million speakers. Other old languages that are still spoken in the world today with little changes are Greek, Hebrew, Egyptian, and Farsi. Sanskrit is another language that has been around for over 3000 years, but it is only spoken by Hindu priests nowadays.

Link to the rest at Universal Translation Services

Language City

From The Wall Street Journal:

Words are coined and money talks, but the link between linguistics and economics is more than metaphor. Most notably, as Ross Perlin writes in his superb “Language City: The Fight to Preserve Endangered Mother Tongues in New York,” the English-speaking peoples’ geopolitical dominance has made their language the “reserve currency of communication.” But economic power can pull as well as push, luring immigrants and refugees to the metropole with the prospect of better lives, or at least better pay. So it is, Mr. Perlin writes, that New York City is now home to some 700 languages—there are roughly 7,000 extant—making it the “most linguistically diverse city in the history of the world.”

Linguistic variety is “often seen as a problem, the curse of Babel,” but for a linguist, New York City is a riotous collection of living specimens—a “greenhouse, not a graveyard.” Many of its languages have only thousands or hundreds of speakers worldwide. Mr. Perlin, who has a doctorate in linguistics, helps run the Endangered Language Alliance, which works to document such minority tongues. “Language City” centers on six: Yiddish; Seke, from Nepal; Wakhi, from the borderlands where Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and China meet; N’ko, a script invented in 1949 to standardize a family of West African languages; Nahuatl, from Mexico and Central America; and Lenape, the language of New York’s first inhabitants.

The heart of “Language City” is portraits of individual New York-based speakers. Mr. Perlin writes about their work as well as his, capturing the grind of immigrant life with empathy, balance and wit. (Linguistic fieldwork, which involves coaxing people to talk while you note every nuance of their speech, is excellent training for journalism.) “If the country was rich we would never leave,” says Husniya, a Wakhi speaker from bleak post-Soviet Tajikistan. But she savors the city’s entrepreneurial energy: “New York opened my eyes. It shapes you to be a human being, not dividing based on religion, face, or race, or anything.”

. . . .

Mr. Perlin can set a scene with quick, sure strokes. “Boris, sipping from a slim-waisted glass of Turkish tea on Emmons Avenue, insists that he is not the last major Yiddish writer,” he writes of an aging Brooklynite born in Bessarabia. “This village has elevators. We step into one of them,” begins a chapter on Rasmina, a young speaker of Seke. Her language originates in a cluster of five villages in upland Nepal and is spoken by some 700 people in the world. At one point or another 100 of them have lived in a “vertical village” in Brooklyn—a six-story apartment building where a now-forgotten Nepali established a foothold decades ago.

Rasmina visits a class Mr. Perlin teaches at Columbia so that his students can practice field techniques. Like most of the world’s languages, Seke is barely recorded on paper; there’s no dictionary or grammar guide. In fact, Mr. Perlin notes later, as he travels with Rasmina back to Nepal, most languages are documented only “once, if at all.” In class, his students ask Rasmina the words in Seke for a range of objects and concepts, such as body parts and family relationships, drawn from a set of putatively universal vocabulary items called a Swadesh list. Even these are tricky for English speakers: Seke, like Russian and other languages, treats limbs as integral units, with a word that means “leg-foot” and one that means “arm-hand.”

Wonderfully rich, “Language City” is in part an introduction to the diverse ways different languages work. Seke and other “evidential” languages, for example, have different grammatical forms to indicate how the speaker knows what she’s asserting—whether from observation or inference, hearsay or hunch. Other languages syntactically “tag the speaker’s surprise at unexpected information” or have a special temporal marking “just for things happening today.”

It is also a brief survey of U.S. immigration, full of piquant detail about its tortuous history. Ellis Island, contrary to legend, was known for linguistic sensitivity, with translators capable of handling 20 languages—though premium-class passengers could skip immigration checks altogether. It’s the kind of book where even the notes are pinpoint portraits. Did you know that when Andy Warhol met Pope John Paul II (in 1980), they spoke Ruthenian? “Though Warhol famously said ‘I come from nowhere,’ ” Mr. Perlin deadpans, “his family in fact came from Mikova in what is now Slovakia.”

Why do we need so many languages, though? There’s something that seems inefficient about slicing one world into 7,000 pieces; there’s a reason that developing a universal language long seemed like the easiest route to utopia. It took surprisingly long to realize that sharing a language is no cure for conflict. The concerted push to preserve endangered tongues is only a few decades old, and the benefits it claims are more subtle than those of the biodiversity movement that helped inspire it. Exotic species have yielded many valuable medicines, but we’re not going to discover a treatment for cancer in an unfamiliar grammar. A central dogma of modern linguistics is that all languages are functionally equal: “Any society can run in any language,” as Mr. Perlin puts it.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Squire Trelawney

Squire Trelawney, Dr Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17-, and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn, and the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut, first took up his lodging under our roof.

Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson

Leap Years

There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail. The three extra days were for leap years.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

The adultification of YA

From The Bookseller:

This year marks my sixth anniversary of becoming a bookseller. I started off at Waterstones in Newcastle, and moved to work for the bound in Whitley Bay just after the pandemic. I read a little of everything, from niche horror novels to the latest bestsellers. But what really galvanised me as a bookseller – and led to my own writing career – was the YA section.

Books for teens are incredibly important. As a step between the younger titles and more mature novels, YA is an invaluable place to explore new, mature topics in a safe, approachable way. Kate Weston, as an example, talks about period poverty, feminism and systemic misogyny – incredibly important topics for readers coming to terms with those topics for potentially the first time – while still writing fun stories about teenage girls and their friends, who are about the same age as my own YA Book Club members: between about 12 to 15.

When I attended YALC last year, I was eager to find some new titles I could add to 2024’s reading list for my club members. However, as I was feverishly picking up proofs, pin badges and tote bags in that very specific YALC hysteria, it suddenly hit me that I was seeing a lot of books marketed towards me – a reader in her mid-30s. But not much for my Book Club. Everywhere I looked, I saw merchandise for titles such as Fourth Wing and Sarah J Maas, and new titles that were looking to scratch that same itch: namely, romantasy with more than a dash of ‘spice’.

A recent article in The Millions states that more than half of readers buying YA books are older than 18. Which can be amazing. Heartstopper’s popularity with adults, for example, points to a desire to read Queer stories that adult readers may not have had access to in their own teens. And many of the authors writing in that sphere are incredible. Holly Jackson, Adiba Jaigirdar, Sophie Gonzales and many more write fantastic YA fiction that adults can pick up and enjoy.

. . . .

But recently the YA genre seems to be ever more focused on those readers specifically. The marketing has had a very definite shift; so many books filled with ‘spice’ have cute cartoon covers that look identical to wholesome teen romances, making shelving tricky for the uninitiated. Social media does not help. I had a horrifying instance of a 10-year-old bringing A Court of Thorns and Roses to the till in the same pile as the new Jacqueline Wilson because they’d seen it on BookTok.

There are also far more books in the YA section itself that are romantic in nature than not. This is understandable – publishing is a business, trends will be followed. But I feel that chasing more mature audiences and themes is to the detriment of teens who are not ready for, or just plain do not want, intense passion in their fiction.

At Book Club last year, we read a fantasy book that I thought was swoony enough to be fun without being weird for a group of teenagers to discuss with an adult. It includes some flirting, a few heated looks, and builds up to a passionate kiss before the couple are interrupted for the climactic battle. What surprised me was that even this level of romance made some members uncomfortable – and since then we’ve had a few instances of ‘the kissing’ being a mark against a book we’ve discussed. This leaves me diving into a publisher’s backlist, looking for titles before the recent romantasy boom that would engage my readers that, crucially, they haven’t read already.

I often wonder if this is a case of overexposure – that romance that was once fine, or even sought out, is now leaving young readers cold because of the constant pushing of romantasy and ‘spicy’ stories. The idea of the brilliant, enthusiastic kids I know being pushed out of their own genre just because they don’t want to read about sex makes me more than a little sad.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

The Books Behind the 2024 Academy Award Nominations

From Publishers Weekly:

It’s Oscar season! And while the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences makes no bones about its foremost love being for the cinematic arts, each year’s Oscar nods clearly indicate how deeply beholden the film business is to the business of books. To illustrate the point, we’ve rounded up our reviews of the books adapted into, or inspiring, this year’s Academy Award–nominated films, from Oppenheimer and Nyad to American Fiction and The Boy and the Heron.

American Prometheus

Though many recognize Oppenheimer (1904–1967) as the father of the atomic bomb, few are as familiar with his career before and after Los Alamos. Sherwin (A World Destroyed ) has spent 25 years researching every facet of Oppenheimer’s life, from his childhood on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and his prewar years as a Berkeley physicist to his public humiliation when he was branded a security risk at the height of anticommunist hysteria in 1954. Teaming up with Bird, an acclaimed Cold War historian (The Color of Truth ), Sherwin examines the evidence surrounding Oppenheimer’s “hazy and vague” connections to the Communist Party in the 1930s—loose interactions consistent with the activities of contemporary progressives. But those politics, in combination with Oppenheimer’s abrasive personality, were enough for conservatives, from fellow scientist Edward Teller to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, to work at destroying Oppenheimer’s postwar reputation and prevent him from swaying public opinion against the development of a hydrogen bomb. Bird and Sherwin identify Atomic Energy Commission head Lewis Strauss as the ringleader of a “conspiracy” that culminated in a security clearance hearing designed as a “show trial.” Strauss’s tactics included illegal wiretaps of Oppenheimer’s attorney; those transcripts and other government documents are invaluable in debunking the charges against Oppenheimer. The political drama is enhanced by the close attention to Oppenheimer’s personal life, and Bird and Sherwin do not conceal their occasional frustration with his arrogant stonewalling and panicky blunders, even as they shed light on the psychological roots for those failures, restoring human complexity to a man who had been both elevated and demonized.

Poor Things

Winner of the 1992 Whitbread Prize, Scottish writer Gray’s ( Something Leather ) black comedy uses a science-fiction-like premise to satirize Victorian morals. Ostensibly the memoirs of late-19th-century Glasgow physician Archibald McCandless, the narrative follows the bizarre life of oversexed, volatile Bella Baxter, an emancipated woman and a female Frankenstein. Bella is not her real name; as Victorian Blessington, she drowned herself to escape her abusive husband, but a surgeon removed the brain from the fetus she was carrying and placed it in her skull, resucitating her. The revived Bella has the mental age of a child. Engaged to marry McCandless, she chloroforms him and runs off with a shady lawyer who takes her on a whirlwind adventure, hopping from Alexandria to Odessa to a Parisian brothel. As her brain matures, Bella develops a social conscience, but her rescheduled nuptials to Archie are cut short when she is recognized as Victoria by her lawful husband, Gen. Sir Aubrey Blessington. In an epilogue dated 1914, cranky idealist Victoria McCandless, M.D., a suffragette, Fabian socialist, pacifist and advocate of birthing stools, pokes holes in her late husband Archie’s narrative. Illustrated with Gray’s suitably macabre drawings, this work of inspired lunacy effectively skewers class snobbery, British imperialism, prudishness and the tenets of received wisdom

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

New Yorker staff writer Grann (The Lost City of Z) burnishes his reputation as a brilliant storyteller in this gripping true-crime narrative, which revisits a baffling and frightening—and relatively unknown—spree of murders occurring mostly in Oklahoma during the 1920s. From 1921 to 1926, at least two dozen people were murdered by a killer or killers apparently targeting members of the Osage Indian Nation, who at the time were considered “the wealthiest people per capita in the world” thanks to the discovery of oil beneath their lands. The violent campaign of terror is believed to have begun with the 1921 disappearance of two Osage Indians, Charles Whitehorn and Anna Brown, and the discovery of their corpses soon afterwards, followed by many other murders in the next five years. The outcry over the killings led to the involvement in 1925 of an “obscure” branch of the Justice Department, J. Edgar Hoover’s Bureau of Investigation, which eventually charged some surprising figures with the murders. Grann demonstrates how the Osage Murders inquiry helped Hoover to make the case for a “national, more professional, scientifically skilled” police force. Grann’s own dogged detective work reveals another layer to the case that Hoover’s men had never exposed.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Cox Communications wins order overturning $1 billion US copyright verdict

From Reuters:

Cox Communications, the cable television and internet service provider, convinced a U.S. appeals court to throw out a $1 billion jury verdict in favor of several major record labels that had accused it of failing to curb user piracy, setting the stage for a new trial on the matter.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, ruled on Tuesday that the amount of damages was not justified and that a federal district court should hold a new trial to determine the appropriate amount.

. . . .

A Virginia jury in 2019 found Cox, the largest unit of privately-owned Cox Enterprises, liable for its customers’ violations of over 10,000 copyrights belonging to labels including Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group and Universal Music Group.

. . . .

A spokesperson for Cox said that the company was pleased with the decision to set aside the verdict but disagreed with the ruling that it still infringed.

“Providing homes and businesses with the broadband service that so many depend on in their daily lives should not be a violation of copyright law,” the spokesperson said.

. . . .

More than 50 labels teamed up to sue Cox in 2018, in what was seen as a test of the obligations of internet service providers (ISPs) to thwart piracy.

The labels accused Cox of failing to address thousands of infringement notices, cut off access for repeat infringers, or take reasonable measures to deter pirates.

Atlanta-based Cox had told the 4th Circuit that upholding the verdict would force ISPs to boot households or businesses based on “isolated and potentially inaccurate allegations,” or require intrusive oversight of customers’ internet usage.

Link to the rest at Reuters

PG hasn’t read more than the summary of the case as reported by Reuters, but is surprised there was no mention of The Digital Millenium Copyright Act in the OP.

He’ll be doing a bit of poking about to determine how the DMCA worked or didn’t work for Cox.

Last Lines

Only when I am in bed, at dawn, listening to the cars down below in the streets of Paris, my memory betrays me; that summer returns to me with all its memories. Anne, Anne, I repeat over and over again softly in the darkness. Then something rises in me that I welcome by name, with closed eyes. Bonjour Tristesse!

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

The AI party is just getting started

From Market Insider:

All eyes are on Nvidia as it is scheduled to report its fourth-quarter earnings results on Wednesday after the market close.

Nvidia has spearheaded the excitement seen in artificial intelligence technologies, and investors will look to the company’s results to see if the hype can continue.

Wall Street analysts are laser focused on the company’s demand outlook for its AI-enabled H100 GPU chips, which can sell for upwards of $40,000, as well as its planned product roadmap over the next year.

. . . .

  • Revenue: $20.41 billion
  • GAAP earnings per share: $4.23
  • Adjusted earnings per share: $4.60
  • Gross margin: 75.4%

While Nvidia has seen incredible demand for its chips from cloud hyperscalers like Microsoft and Amazon, regulatory hurdles have curtailed its ability to sell chips to China, which made up about 20% of its total revenue last year.

Driving much of the strength in Nvidia’s business has been its exposure to data-centers. Investors will be looking to see just how much demand could be left for the data-center market, and whether Nvidia has lost any market share to its competitors like AMD.

. . . .

“The AI revolution starts with Nvidia and in our view the AI party is just getting started,” Ives said.

“While the Street across the board is anticipating another major ‘beat and raise’ special from Jensen & Co. its all about the pace of data center AI driven spending as the only game in town for GPUs to run generative AI applications all go through Nvidia. We believe peak spending is still ahead for the AI market as many enterprises head down the AI use case path over the next few years and we are expecting more good news from the Godfather of AI this week,” Ives said.

Link to the rest at Market Insider

Russian spies are back—and more dangerous than ever

From The Economist:

It is unusual for spymasters to taunt their rivals openly. But last month Bill Burns, the director of the CIA, could not resist observing that the war in Ukraine had been a boon for his agency. “The undercurrent of disaffection [among Russians] is creating a once-in-a-generation recruiting opportunity for the CIA,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs. “We’re not letting it go to waste.” The remark might well have touched a nerve in Russia’s “Special Services”, as the country describes its intelligence agencies. Russian spies botched preparations for the war and were then expelled from Europe en masse. But evidence gathered by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a think-tank in London, and published exclusively by The Economist today, shows that they are learning from their errors, adjusting their tradecraft and embarking on a new phase of political warfare against the West.

The past few years were torrid for Russian spies. In 2020 operatives from the FSB, Russia’s security service, botched the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, the recently deceased opposition activist. He mocked them for spreading Novichok on his underwear. Then the FSB gave the Kremlin a rosy view of how the war would go, exaggerating Ukraine’s internal weaknesses. It failed to prevent Western agencies from stealing and publicising Russia’s plans to invade Ukraine. And it was unwilling or unable to halt a brief mutiny by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group, last year. The SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, saw its presence in Europe eviscerated, with some 600 officers expelled from embassies across the continent. At least eight “illegals”—intelligence officers operating without diplomatic cover, often posing as non-Russians—were exposed.

The study by RUSI, written by Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds, a pair of the organisation’s analysts, and Oleksandr Danylyuk, a former adviser to both Ukraine’s defence minister and foreign intelligence chief, draws on documents “obtained from the Russian Special Services” and on interviews with “relevant official bodies”—presumably intelligence agencies—in Ukraine and Europe. In late 2022, the study says, Russia realised that it needed more honest reporting from its agencies. It put Sergei Kiriyenko, the Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff, in charge of “committees of special influence”. These co-ordinate operations against the West and then measure their effect.

That personnel change appears to have produced more coherent propaganda campaigns. In Moldova, for instance, a once-scattershot disinformation effort against the country’s bid for European Union membership grew more consistent and focused last year. It tied the accession bid to the president personally, all the while blaming her for Moldova’s economic woes. Campaigns aimed at undermining European support for Ukraine have also picked up. In January German experts published details of bots spreading hundreds of thousands of German-language posts a day from a network of 50,000 accounts over a single month on x (Twitter as was). On February 12th France exposed a large network of Russian sites spreading disinformation in France, Germany and Poland.

Meanwhile the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, has also been re-evaluating its tradecraft. In recent years its Unit 29155—which had attempted to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a former GRU officer, in Salisbury, Britain in 2018—saw many of its personnel, activities and facilities exposed by Bellingcat. The investigative group draws on publicly available information and leaked Russian databases for its exposés.
The GRU concluded that its personnel were leaving too many digital breadcrumbs, in particular by carrying their mobile phones to and from sensitive sites associated with Russian intelligence. It also realised that the expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in Europe had made it harder to mount operations and control agents abroad—one reason why the invasion of Ukraine went awry.

The result was wholesale reform, which began in 2020 but sped up after the war began. General Andrei Averyanov, the head of Unit 29155, was, despite his litany of cock-ups, promoted to deputy head of the GRU and established a new “Service for Special Activities”. Unit 29155’s personnel—once exemplified by Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga, Mr Skripal’s hapless poisoners, who insisted that they had travelled to Salisbury to see its cathedral’s famous spire—no longer carry their personal or work phones to its facility, using landlines instead. Training is done in a variety of safe houses rather than onsite. Whereas half of personnel once came from the Spetsnaz, Russia’s special forces, most new recruits no longer have military experience, making it harder for Western security services to identify them through old photographs or leaked databases.

A separate branch of the Service for Special Activities, Unit 54654, is designed to build a network of illegals operating under what Russia calls “full legalisation”—the ability to pass muster even under close scrutiny from a foreign spy agency. It recruits contractors through front companies, keeping their names and details out of government records, and embeds its officers in ministries unrelated to defence or in private companies. The GRU has also targeted foreign students studying at Russian universities, paying stipends to students from the Balkans, Africa and elsewhere in the developing world.

For another example of how Russian spies have turned disaster into opportunity, consider the case of the Wagner Group, a series of front companies overseen by Mr Prigozhin. Wagner initially served as a deniable arm of Russian influence, providing muscle and firepower to local autocrats in Syria, Libya and other African countries. In June 2023 Mr Prigozhin, angered by the mismanagement of the war by Russia’s defence minister and army chief, marched on Moscow. The mutiny was halted; two months later Mr Prigozhin was killed when his plane exploded midair.

Russia’s special services quickly divided Mr Prigozhin’s sprawling military-criminal enterprise among themselves. The FSB would keep domestic businesses, and the SVR the media arms, such as the troll farms which interfered in America’s presidential election in 2016. The GRU got the foreign military bits, split into a Volunteer Corps for Ukraine and an Expeditionary Corps, managed by General Averyanov, for the rest of the world. The latter missed its target of recruiting 20,000 troops by the end of last year, says RUSI, though its strength is “steadily rising”. There have been hiccups: Mr Prigozhin’s son, who mystifyingly remains alive and at liberty, offered Wagner troops to the Rosgvardia, Russia’s national guard, prompting a bidding war between the guard and the GRU, according to the authors.
. . . .

Mission Possible

Russian intelligence, though bruised, is firmly back on its feet after its recent humiliations. In recent weeks the Insider, a Riga-based investigative website, has published a series of stories documenting Russian espionage and influence across Europe. They include details of how a GRU officer in Brussels continues to provide European equipment to Russian arms-makers, and the revelation that a top aide in the Bundestag and a Latvian member of the European Parliament were both Russian agents, the latter for perhaps more than 20 years.

“It’s not as bad for them as we think it is,” says Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist, who reckons that the Russian services are “back with a vengeance” and increasingly inventive. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, and once a (mediocre) KGB officer, is “trying to restore the glory of Stalin’s formidable secret service”, explains Mr Soldatov. He points to a case in April 2023 when Artem Uss, a Russian businessman arrested in Milan on suspicion of smuggling American military technology to Russia, was spirited back to Russia with the help of a Serbian criminal gang—a common intermediary for the Russian services.

In the past, says Mr Soldatov, the FSB, SVR and GRU had a clearer division of labour. No longer. All three agencies have been particularly active in recruiting among the flood of exiles who left Russia after the war. It is easy to hide agents in a large group and simple to threaten those with family still in Russia. Germany is of particular concern, given that the many Russians who have moved there could make up a recruiting pool for Russian spy bodies. The flood of new arrivals is thanks in part to Baltic countries having grown more hostile to Russian emigres.

Moreover, Russian cyber-activity goes from strength to strength. In December America and Britain issued public warnings over “Star Blizzard”, an elite FSB hacking group which has been targeting Nato countries for years. The following month Microsoft said that “Cosy Bear”, a group linked to the SVR, had penetrated email accounts belonging to some of the company’s most senior executives. That came on top of a sophisticated GRU cyber-attack against Ukraine’s power grid, causing a power outage apparently co-ordinated with Russian missile strikes in the same city.

The renewal of Russia’s intelligence apparatus comes at a crucial moment in east-west competition. An annual report by Norway’s intelligence service, published on February 12th, warned that, in Ukraine, Russia was “seizing the initiative and gaining the upper hand militarily”. Estonia’s equivalent report, released a day later, said that the Kremlin was “anticipating a possible conflict with NATO within the next decade”.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG understands that Russia is trying to harm the U.S. and any other nations that are allied with the U.S. and such activities need to be taken seriously. However, the OP reminded him of spy vs. spy during the Cold War.

Microsoft’s Azure ‘leads the pack’ as the top managed AI service in the cloud

From Windows Central:

If there is one thing that is painfully obvious to most of us long-time fans of Microsoft, it is that they are not a consumer-facing company but an enterprise-facing one. While that might be less than ideal for those of us looking for the latest and greatest in innovation for Surface devices, Xbox hardware, or even a revival of the long-dead Windows Phone, Microsoft’s push towards an enterprise-only mindset seems to be paying off, especially in regards to Azure AI services for large corporations.

In a recent study published by WIZ, the cloud security firm takes a deeper look at adoption rates of managed AI services in the cloud of over 150,000 cloud accounts. There are quite a few key items to take away from the study, but what stood out the most was the explosive adoption rate in just the last 6 months and Microsoft and OpenAI’s dominance in the market. Let’s look at some of the data from the report and see just how well Microsoft’s AI push is paying off.

. . . .

“Over a 4-month period between June and October 2023, the total number of Azure OpenAI instances observed across all cloud environments grew by a whopping 228% (with a ~40% month-over-month average). For comparison, the average instance growth in the same period for most other Azure AI Services (such as Text Analytics and Bing Custom Search) was only 13%.”

. . . .

As we have all seen in the headlines, Microsoft’s investment in AI is paying great dividends to its investors and driving its value up so high it’s now the most valuable company in the U.S. 

While I’m not ecstatic about Microsoft leaning so heavily into enterprise solutions, they are using their free consumer-facing Copilot as a driving factor of enterprise adoption through word of mouth and general buzz, and it seems to be working. 

Link to the rest at Windows Central and thanks to F. for the tip.

Governor calls for reform of Florida’s book ban policies, after classics removed

From WUWF Radio:

Gov. Ron DeSantis is walking back Florida’s policies that make it easier to challenge or ban a book in the state.

The announcement in Orlando Thursday comes days after a Miami school required students to get a signed permission slip to read books for Black History Month.

DeSantis said he’s calling on the Florida legislature and Florida Department of Education to “reform” the state’s book ban policies.

He said classic books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” should not be allowed to be challenged. Same goes for the dictionary. And under no circumstances should an entire classroom or school library’s books be banned.

“For example, there was a teacher, I think, in Manatee County that papered over every book in the classroom. Whoa, I can’t show. But that’s a lie. That is not true. That is performative nonsense,” said DeSantis.

DeSantis suggested limiting the number of challenges a person who does not have a child in a district can make, or even fining people for challenging certain books.

“Although we like people wanting to be involved in what’s going on, to just show up and object to every single book under the sun, that is not an appropriate situation here,” said DeSantis. “You should not be reviewing dictionaries, and encyclopedias, and just basic things that have been a part of education for a long time.”

DeSantis said the policy was intended to keep sexually inappropriate content out of the classroom.

The Florida Department of Education stepped in earlier this week after a Miami school required students to get signed permission slips before participating in a Black History Month read aloud.

Commissioner Manny Diaz and Governor Ron DeSantis also pointed out that several of the books that have been challenged in some schools like “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank were actually part of the commissioner’s book of the month club, a list of books the commissioner recommends students and their families read every month.

Link to the rest at WUWF Radio

Why right-wing Italians love hobbits, pirates and talking seagulls

From The Economist:

The National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rome houses choice examples of 19th- and 20th-century Italian art. But the books currently on sale in its vestibule have nothing to do with futurism or Arte Povera. They are by – or about – J.R.R. Tolkien, a British writer of fantasy. “One of the greatest authors of the last century,” murmured Carlo Pesce, a Venetian business executive, as he fingered an edition of “The Silmarillion”, a dense narrative even die-hard fans tend to skip.

The books were put on sale as part of a show called “Tolkien: Man, Professor, Author”.

Italy’s right-wing government had sponsored the exhibition as a component of its cultural strategy, which aims to dismantle the long-standing ascendancy of Italy’s mainly left-leaning intellectuals and artists. At a packed news conference held to announce the exhibition, the culture minister extolled Tolkien as “a staunch Catholic who exalted the value of tradition and of the community to which one belongs…a true conservative.” Giorgia Meloni, the prime minister, took time out from her official duties to open the show, and the inauguration was attended by a bevy of ministers from her party, the Brothers of Italy (fdi). It was given extensive, admiring coverage on the prime-time news bulletin of the largest state-owned tv channel.

Italy’s culture minister extols Tolkien as “a staunch Catholic who exalted the value of tradition and of the community to which one belongs…a true conservative”
Attendance was sparse when I visited on a chilly weekday afternoon in January, yet the woman at the ticket office said the turnout had been “pretty good”. Still, the exhibition hardly lived up to the razzmatazz with which it was unveiled. It consisted of film clips and photos of Tolkien, illustrations for his books in which heroes slay dragons and grapple with orcs and editions of his works in a bewildering assortment of languages. There were also costumes and posters from Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of “The Lord of the Rings”, and a clip in which the wizard Gandalf battles the ghastly Balrog. There was even a gaudily decorated Tolkien-themed pinball machine. Meloni pronounced it all “very beautiful”.

. . . .

Tolkien, however, is only one of a strange collection of cultural touchstones held in esteem by Meloni and her party, which dominates Italy’s governing coalition. The fdi champions an array of writers, artists and film-makers who would be unfamiliar to most mainstream European and American conservatives. Surprisingly, few of them are Italian but they provide the country’s nationalists with a store of reference points. And not all of them are conservatives. What they have in common is a shared genre: fantasy.

Link to the rest at The Economist

‘Damage’ Caused by 2023 Hugo Awards Controversy

From Gizmodo:

You’d think the biggest headlines surrounding an annual celebration of sci-fi and fantasy writing would be applauding the winners—but that’s not always the case with the Hugos. Its latest controversy involves works being deemed “not eligible” for consideration at the 2023 event, which was presented by Chengdu Worldcon in Chengdu, China. Now, we have a touch more clarity about what happened—and an apology from the organization as it looks to the future.

The 2023 Hugos were handed out in October, but rumblings about the eligibility controversy began last month, when nomination data revealed certain authors and books had been deemed “not eligible,” despite having the necessary votes to make the list of finalists. The most glaring slight was against R.F. Kuang’s Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution, a best-selling, highly acclaimed work that won the Nebula Award in 2022 for Best Novel as well as the 2023 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.

At the time of the data release, the lack of explanation caused frustration among fans and authors. In a response posted on Instagram, Kuang noted “no reason for Babel’s ineligibility was given to me or my my team… until one is provided that explains why the book was eligible for the Nebula and Locus awards, which it won, and not the Hugos, I assume this was a matter of indesirability rather than ineligibility. Excluding ‘undesirable’ work is not only embarrassing for all involved parties, but renders the entire process and organization illegitimate.”

A stunning investigation posted on Patreon by Chris M. Barkley and Jason Sanford (via Locus) digs what happened at the 2023 Hugos, offering background and context while asking questions like who was responsible for the “not eligible” rulings, and why the works in question were singled out—as well as how much the geographical location of the 2023 awards affected the situation. It’s definitely worth reading the in-depth report yourself for all the details and receipts, but it did find that “political considerations” were behind the exclusion of Babel, as well as potential nominees Paul Weimer (Fan Writer) and Xiran Jay Zhao (Astounding Award for Best New Writer).

“Emails and files released by one of the administrators of the 2023 Hugo Awards indicate that authors and works deemed ‘not eligible’ for the awards were removed due to political considerations,” Barkley and Sanford wrote. “In particular, administrators of the awards from the United States and Canada researched political concerns related to Hugo-eligible authors and works and discussed removing certain ones from the ballot for those reasons, revealing they were active participants in the censorship that took place.” The report further notes that these concerns “were in relation to Chinese laws related to content and censorship.”

In his endnotes, Sanford underlines his main takeaway. “The 2023 Hugo Awards were censored because certain authors and works were deemed to have too many political liabilities, at least from the viewpoint of the Chinese government. While it’s unclear if this was official censorship from the Chinese government or self-censorship by those afraid of offending governmental or business interests, we can now be certain that censorship indeed took place. However, what also disturbs me is that the administrators of the Hugo Awards from the United States and Canada, countries that supposedly support and value free speech, appear to have been active participants in this censorship.”

In a statement released today, Esther MacCallum-Stewart, the chair of Glasgow 2024 – A Worldcon for Our Futures, which will present the next iteration of the Hugos, offered an apology for “for the damage caused to nominees, finalists, the community, and the Hugo, Lodestar, and Astounding Awards” and outlined “steps to ensure transparency and to attempt to redress the grievous loss of trust in the administration of the Awards.”

Link to the rest at Gizmodo

The first thought that raced through PG’s mind as he read the OP was “Innocents Abroad.”

Like a great many successful attorneys, a great many successful authors are intelligent people.

However, both attorneys and authors together with other groups of experts are liable to make classic logical error: because they are experts in one field, they assume they know something useful in an unrelated field.

The intelligent science fiction authors leading the 2023 Hugo Awards thought they had enough intelligence and knowledge to know how the Chinese government would respond to the recognition of an outstanding book of fiction written by a brilliant and accomplished woman, R.F. Kuang, whose parents emigrated from China when she was four years old.

Errors that PG could identify from reading the OP:

  1. Scheduling the Hugos’ big annual awards event in a location requiring lots of travel expenses that would present a financial strain for most of the members of the organization to attend: Dumb or Stupid?
  2. What was the attendance like for this convention vs. previous conventions in more accessible locations?
  3. Did the big shots in the Hugos organization have all their travel, food and lodging expenses paid?
  4. Why choose China? Did anyone consider the political issues/threats/possible reputational damages to the organization?

Sexily ever after: how romance bookstores took over America

From The Guardian:

Five years ago, there was just one. Now bookshops exclusively stocking romance novels are everywhere – aiming to ‘undo generations of shame’

When Jonlyn Scrogham decided to open a romance novel bookstore last year in Louisville, Kentucky, the 37-year-old had modest expectations. The space she rented was tiny; her annual sales projections were small, too.

Though she had been an avid romance reader for decades, she wasn’t sure how many others shared her excitement. She worried that people would think the concept was silly, or that not many people would visit.

But not long after A Novel Romance opened in July, she said, customers were showing up from Tennessee and Virginia, saying they had traveled three or four hours just to visit. Within two months, Scrogham was already halfway to what she had projected would be her annual sales total. And all of this happened without her spending “a single dollar” on marketing.

“It’s all been driven by Instagram, TikTok, word of mouth and Facebook,” she said. “People coming in, and the romance community talking to each other.”

Scrogham is part of a quiet but rapidly growing trend. At least eight other dedicated romance novel bookstores opened across the US in 2023, in cities from Wichita, Kansas, to Belfast, Maine. At least three more have opened so far in 2024, in Florida and in Utah, with another planned in Portland, Oregon.

“People are driving from states away – people who are seeing us online and want to come,” said Jaclyn Wooten, the founder of Blush Bookstore in Kansas. An employee said that one customer described flying in from Baltimore on a private jet. “All the businesses around us are like, ‘What is going on over there? What are they doing?’”

As a genre, romance is defined by its focus on a central love story, and by its promise of a “happily ever after” for its main characters – or at least, in more contemporary novels, a “happy for now”. Romance connoisseurs often refer to the amount of sex in the novels as a book’s “spice level”, which from ranges from quite mild to very spicy indeed.

Six years ago, there was only one romance bookstore in the US: the Ripped Bodice, in Los Angeles, named after the “bodice ripper” historical romances of the 80s and 90s. But as romance publishing has boomed, with US print book sales increasing 117% over the past three years, romance fans are opening up more brick and mortar stores to meet the demand.

Annual print sales of romance novels more than doubled in the past three years, from 18m in 2020 to 36m in 2023, driven in part by BookTok, according to Circana, a consumer analytics firm.

Over the same time, the number of romance-focused bookstores in the US grew from just two to at least 15, with a handful more in Canada and Australia. Many of them have names that play on favorite romance tropes, like Grump and Sunshine, Meet Cute and Slow Burn Books. Their decor – often heavy on the pink – is playful and celebratory, designed as a backdrop for TikTok and Instagram content.

The stores stock a wide variety of popular romance genres, from the Regency-era love stories that inspired Bridgerton, to contemporary novels about hot hockey players, to “romantasy” series like A Court of Thorns and Roses, to a wide range of LGBTQ+ romances. Despite book bans in some US states, 1m LGBTQ+ romance novels were sold between May 2022 and May 2023, a 40% increase compared with the year before, according to Circana.

When the sisters Leah Koch and Bea Hodges-Koch began raising money for the Ripped Bodice in 2015, the idea of a romance-only bookstore had plenty of doubters. Some family members and friends thought the idea was too “niche” to succeed, Leah Koch said. A few older romance novelists criticized the store’s cheeky name, arguing they were portraying the genre in a bad light. Some critics suggested a bookstore focused on sexy romance novels was an affront to religious values.

But the idea also struck a chord among romance fans: the sisters raised more than $90,000 from supporters on Kickstarter to make the Ripped Bodice a reality.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Structure: The Safety Net for Your Memoir

From Jane Friedman:

Structure is the safety net readers fall into. Nailing it is the way we hold space for them and let them know that while we might keep them guessing, or stir up challenging emotions, we’re taking them somewhere important.

Structure is a safety net for writers too. When it’s missing, they send anxious emails to me and other writing coaches asking what to do. As a writer, I know what it’s like to hang from the trapeze bar of an idea and wonder if I can hold on long enough to find both a point and a satisfying ending.

Writers need to cultivate two types of structure: process and project. Process structure sustains you while you’re drafting and revising. Project structure is what you employ to give your work shape.

. . . .

Build a secure process

Your first task is to choose a process to follow. Better yet, form a group that can do this work with you. That way, you’ve got a posse to lean on when the predictable struggles follow.

It doesn’t matter if you select the model Allison K Williams shares in Seven Drafts, the experimental invitations of Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode, the journey Sue William Silverman takes you on in Acetylene Torch Songs, or the first-draft guidelines I offer in this post. Pick one. Use the content as your safety net—at least for your next draft—but don’t be afraid to wander off on your own.

When the inevitable doubts creep in, refer back to your safety net. Bask in its comfort and fall into its guidance. If you’re still lost, explore what’s going on with your writing group. When you’re feeling more grounded, wander off again.

Build your memoir’s structure

Once you understand what your story is about, you’re ready to tackle your project’s structure. Some of you will know exactly what this should be. If you don’t, consider whether a simple or complex structure is best for your book. Some structures, like the three-act, will feel like their own safety net, because they deliver a certain level of predictability. The more experimental you are, the more you must serve as that safety net for your reader by truly understanding the story you’re trying to tell and ensuring that the structure you’ve chosen leads them in the direction you’re hoping for.

After you’ve chosen a structure, learn both the basics and nuances of working with it as well as the skills needed to successfully execute it. As you do this, identify one or two exemplar texts to study, and feel free to pick something everyone’s raving about (it needn’t be a comp title for your work). As you mull over which structure might be the best fit, read reviews for these books to see what resonates with readers. Attend to the things people say about how the book is structured or how the story unfolds.

Now, pick it apart. Map the major turning points on note cards. Analyze the thematic threads woven through the narrative. Find the beats where inner change occurs. Do everything you can to understand its construction.

In your next revision, emulate this text’s structure. At this point, don’t worry if it’s a perfect fit. Just see if you can mold your content into it using note cards. After completing this exercise, see if you can expand, fracture, or break free of this constraint to make it your own. If you get lost, or it feels like you’ve broken your book, go back to the map you’ve created for the original text and look at what you might have missed. Once you’ve regained your footing, try again.

If it still fails to work, or it feels like you’re trying to strong arm your story into a structure that simply doesn’t fit, stop. This is a sign that you’ve chosen the wrong structure.

While this might seem like extra work, this process will allow you to truly understand your story and why a specific structure works. The more faith you have in your story’s structure, the more you’ll become the safety net your reader is hoping for.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Findaway and Corporate Rights Grabs

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

I know many of you have asked me to write about Findaway’s giant rights grab this week. I just finished a short post on it. I’m no longer doing the regular business blog. Instead, I post about business things on my Patreon page. I made this post wide, so everyone can see it, but most posts will not be.

. . . .

A lot of you have written to me, asking me to write a bit about Findaway’s rights grab. I think those of you who wrote knew what I was going to say.

For those of you who aren’t aware of what’s going on with Findaway, I’m going to give you the quick & dirty and then a bit of context.

. . . .

Anyway…on Thursday, February 15, they posted a new Terms of Service that would go live on March 15. It said:

Accordingly, you hereby grant Spotify a non-exclusive, transferable,  sublicensable, royalty-free, fully paid, irrevocable, worldwide license  to reproduce, make available, perform and display, translate, modify,  create derivative works from (such as transcripts of User Content),  distribute, and otherwise use any such User Content through any medium,  whether alone or in combination with other Content or materials, in any  manner and by any means, method or technology, whether now known or  hereafter created, in connection with the Service, the promotion,  advertising or marketing of the Service, and the operation of Spotify’s  (and its successors’ and affiliates’) business, including for systems  and products management, improvement and development, testing, training,  modeling and implementation in connection with the Spotify Service.  Where applicable and to the extent permitted under applicable law, you  also agree to waive, and not to enforce, any “moral rights” or  equivalent rights, such as your right to object to derogatory treatment  of such User Content. Nothing in these Terms prohibits any use of User  Content by Spotify that may be taken without a license.

I was going to underline the egregious parts, but it’s all egregious.

It sparked an immediate and forceful backlash.

Today when I went to look at the TOS, it had changed. It now says: 

Accordingly, and without limiting any payment obligations under Section 5  herein, you hereby grant Spotify a non-exclusive, worldwide license to  reproduce, make available, perform, display, distribute, and otherwise  use your User Content on and in connection with the Spotify Service and  the Distribution Services (as defined in Section 5). This license  permits the use of the User Content by Spotify for systems and product  management and development, testing, training, modeling, and  implementation in connection with anti-piracy and anti-fraud measures  and the discoverability, promotion, marketing, curation, distribution,  and sale (or developing the user experience in connection therewith) of  the User Content and the Spotify Service. Spotify’s distribution  partners also have the right to distribute your User Content via the  Distribution Services, subject to your right to discontinue distribution  as described below in this Section 4 and/or to opt out from particular  Distribution Partners as described in Section 5. For the sake of  clarity, these Terms do not authorize Spotify to use User Content to  create a new book, ebook or audiobook, or to use User Content to create a  new, machine-generated voice without your permission.

Note that some of the terrible language is gone, such as waiving moral rights and the creating of derivative works. It still will let them use your product to train AI though and other stuff, but to my surprise and their credit, they did change their TOS.

Does that mean that after next week, you will find my work on Findaway? Um, no. You will not. As a friend of mine said, they’ve shown their true colors. Musicians have had trouble with Spotify for years and these are Spotify-inspired changes.

Spotify bought Findaway in 2022, paying about $123 million dollars. At the time, Spotify CEO, Daniel Ek, told investors that he was “confident that audiobooks will deliver the kind of earnings that  investors are looking for, with profit margins north of 40 percent.” 

Over the past 18 months or so, Spotify has tinkered with Findaway in a variety of ways, mostly to do with the way that they’re paying content providers. Then this new TOS rights grab, which is not unexpected. In fact, it’s right on time.

Remember, what Spotify wants to do with Findaway and Anchor and all of the other services it is buying is increase profit margins for investors. The company does not care about providing a good service for its content partners. Because this is a giant corporation which is publicly traded, it has corporate goals that have to do with investors, making big money, and profit margins. 

If Findaway does not earn the kind of money that Spotify hopes, then Findaway will be discontinued, broken off and sold, or dissolved.

In other words, don’t expect that lovely tiny company that started in indie audiobook distribution to ever return.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

PG has signed up for access to The Patreon Site Kris set up on January 1 of this year because he likes the style and insights he finds in her essays on a regular basis.

Kris has also structured her Patreon membership costs in a savvy manner. Memberships start at $1.00 per month. There are steps up from that fee, but she includes a lot of interesting resources in the basic tier.

PG has shied away from any number of Patreon offerings that start at $100 per year and go up from there. That price may seem reasonable to some, but, for PG, that large an ask requires a lot more work than he suspects more than a few expensive Patreonistas will be willing to devote to their sites.

Air Canada Has to Honor a Refund Policy Its Chatbot Made Up

From Ars Technica via Wired:

After months of resisting, Air Canada was forced to give a partial refund to a grieving passenger who was misled by an airline chatbot inaccurately explaining the airline’s bereavement travel policy.

On the day Jake Moffatt’s grandmother died, Moffat immediately visited Air Canada’s website to book a flight from Vancouver to Toronto. Unsure of how Air Canada’s bereavement rates worked, Moffatt asked Air Canada’s chatbot to explain.

The chatbot provided inaccurate information, encouraging Moffatt to book a flight immediately and then request a refund within 90 days. In reality, Air Canada’s policy explicitly stated that the airline will not provide refunds for bereavement travel after the flight is booked. Moffatt dutifully attempted to follow the chatbot’s advice and request a refund but was shocked that the request was rejected.

Moffatt tried for months to convince Air Canada that a refund was owed, sharing a screenshot from the chatbot that clearly claimed:

If you need to travel immediately or have already travelled and would like to submit your ticket for a reduced bereavement rate, kindly do so within 90 days of the date your ticket was issued by completing our Ticket Refund Application form.

Air Canada argued that because the chatbot response elsewhere linked to a page with the actual bereavement travel policy, Moffatt should have known bereavement rates could not be requested retroactively. Instead of a refund, the best Air Canada would do was to promise to update the chatbot and offer Moffatt a $200 coupon to use on a future flight.

Unhappy with this resolution, Moffatt refused the coupon and filed a small claims complaint in Canada’s Civil Resolution Tribunal.

According to Air Canada, Moffatt never should have trusted the chatbot and the airline should not be liable for the chatbot’s misleading information because, Air Canada essentially argued, “the chatbot is a separate legal entity that is responsible for its own actions,” a court order said.

Experts told the Vancouver Sun that Moffatt’s case appeared to be the first time a Canadian company tried to argue that it wasn’t liable for information provided by its chatbot.

Tribunal member Christopher Rivers, who decided the case in favor of Moffatt, called Air Canada’s defense “remarkable.”

“Air Canada argues it cannot be held liable for information provided by one of its agents, servants, or representatives—including a chatbot,” Rivers wrote. “It does not explain why it believes that is the case” or “why the webpage titled ‘Bereavement travel’ was inherently more trustworthy than its chatbot.”

Further, Rivers found that Moffatt had “no reason” to believe that one part of Air Canada’s website would be accurate and another would not.

Air Canada “does not explain why customers should have to double-check information found in one part of its website on another part of its website,” Rivers wrote.

. . . .

When Ars visited Air Canada’s website on Friday, there appeared to be no chatbot support available, suggesting that Air Canada has disabled the chatbot.

Air Canada did not respond to Ars’ request to confirm whether the chatbot is still part of the airline’s online support offerings.

Last March, Air Canada’s chief information officer, Mel Crocker, told the Globe and Mail that the airline had launched the chatbot as an AI “experiment.”

Initially, the chatbot was used to lighten the load on Air Canada’s call center when flights experienced unexpected delays or cancellations.

“So in the case of a snowstorm, if you have not been issued your new boarding pass yet and you just want to confirm if you have a seat available on another flight, that’s the sort of thing we can easily handle with AI,” Crocker told the Globe and Mail.

Over time, Crocker said, Air Canada hoped the chatbot would “gain the ability to resolve even more complex customer service issues,” with the airline’s ultimate goal to automate every service that did not require a “human touch.”

If Air Canada can use “technology to solve something that can be automated, we will do that,” Crocker said.

Air Canada was seemingly so invested in experimenting with AI that Crocker told the Globe and Mail that “Air Canada’s initial investment in customer service AI technology was much higher than the cost of continuing to pay workers to handle simple queries.” It was worth it, Crocker said, because “the airline believes investing in automation and machine learning technology will lower its expenses” and “fundamentally” create “a better customer experience.”

It’s now clear that for at least one person, the chatbot created a more frustrating customer experience.

Experts told the Vancouver Sun that Air Canada may have succeeded in avoiding liability in Moffatt’s case if its chatbot had warned customers that the information that the chatbot provided may not be accurate.

Because Air Canada seemingly failed to take that step, Rivers ruled that “Air Canada did not take reasonable care to ensure its chatbot was accurate.”

Link to the rest at Wired

Harry Potter TV Series

From Deadline:

At its Max streaming event in April 2023, Warner Bros. Discovery confirmed a new era is coming for Harry Potter fans. The company announced a TV series based on all seven books about the boy wizard written by J.K. Rowling. See below for the most current answers to the most important questions about the project.

What is the Harry Potter TV series about?

“This new Max Original series will dive deep into each of the iconic books that fans have continued to enjoy for all of these years,” said Casey Bloys, Chairman and CEO, HBO & Max Content about the project, which he also assured fans would be “a faithful adaptation.”

. . . .

Early reports had each season of the series focusing on one book in the Harry Potter book series, which consists of seven novels, but Bloys said the project would run for “10 consecutive years,” which would seem to defy the 1 season, 1 book assertion. For those who say Fantastic Beasts could be leveraged to provide 10 seasons over 10 years, WBD brass said specifically during the announcement that FB will not be a part of the series.

Whatever the case, Bloys promised that, as the company embarks on its new Harry Potter adventure, “We do so with the full care and craft of this franchise.”

Who Is creating the Harry Potter series?

It has taken a bit, given the initial announcement was in April 2023, but in recent months Warner Bros. invited a select group of creatives in to pitch ideas for what the series could be.

Martha Hillier, Kathleen Jordan, Tom Moran and Michael Lesslie were among the original group who presented their visions to the streaming service and Warner Bros. Television, sources said. It’s an interesting mix of Brits and Americans, most of whom have some experience working with streamers and many of whom have shepherded projects in the sci-fi/fantasy space.

. . . .

Early reports had each season of the series focusing on one book in the Harry Potter book series, which consists of seven novels, but Bloys said the project would run for “10 consecutive years,” which would seem to defy the 1 season, 1 book assertion. For those who say Fantastic Beasts could be leveraged to provide 10 seasons over 10 years, WBD brass said specifically during the announcement that FB will not be a part of the series.

Whatever the case, Bloys promised that, as the company embarks on its new Harry Potter adventure, “We do so with the full care and craft of this franchise.”

Who Is creating the Harry Potter series?

It has taken a bit, given the initial announcement was in April 2023, but in recent months Warner Bros. invited a select group of creatives in to pitch ideas for what the series could be.

Martha Hillier, Kathleen Jordan, Tom Moran and Michael Lesslie were among the original group who presented their visions to the streaming service and Warner Bros. Television, sources said. It’s an interesting mix of Brits and Americans, most of whom have some experience working with streamers and many of whom have shepherded projects in the sci-fi/fantasy space.

Link to the rest at Deadline

Strong Passions

From The Wall Street Journal:

Peter Strong’s marriage to his young wife, Mary, had not been particularly happy over the previous few months. Now they were dealing with the death of their 14-month-old daughter. Peter, a bon vivant living off inherited wealth, is anxious to rekindle the romance with Mary. Instead, his wife’s response shocks him. She pulls away, sobbing. “Oh, forgive me, forgive me.” Then she confesses that for the previous two years she has been having an affair with his widowed younger brother, Edward.

In “Strong Passions: A Scandalous Divorce in Old New York,” Barbara Weisberg describes a case from the 1860s that has all the elements of a soap opera—powerful families, a tearful confession, adultery, abortion and the fate of two innocent little girls.

Peter and Mary would never again share a bed, but at first there was no talk of a divorce. “Whatever a couple’s miseries,” Ms. Weisberg writes, in mid-19th-century America “legally ending a marriage was viewed as an abhorrent act, especially among members of the Strongs’ social class.” In New York, divorce was especially difficult because the courts accepted only one cause—adultery—and it would have humiliated both Peter, who had been cuckolded by his own brother, and Mary, who would be branded a “fallen woman.” A wife divorced for adultery would have had to surrender custody of her children. By all accounts, Peter and Mary were equally devoted to their daughters, 7-year-old Mamie and 21/2 -year-old Allie.

Perhaps the Strongs might have managed a quiet separation, during which they would jointly raise their daughters. But then Mary admitted that she was pregnant, and that the paternity was uncertain. Peter was enraged. At this point, either Mary had a miscarriage or Peter secured an abortion. Relations between the couple deteriorated rapidly, and two years after Mary’s confession, Peter filed for divorce. Members of Manhattan’s upper crust were appalled. Mary retaliated by bolting, taking Allie with her and disappearing completely. Meanwhile, Peter was indicted for manslaughter for the murder of his wife’s unborn child.

Ms. Weisberg, a former television producer and the author of “Talking to the Dead” (2004), reconstructs the events that led up to the Strong divorce almost entirely from a few court documents plus the newspaper articles that covered the subsequent court cases. There are no personal papers remaining from any of those involved, except for a few laconic journal entries by Peter’s cousin, the diarist George Templeton Strong. This means the author had no access to the unfiltered voices of the main actors in this family saga, and she has struggled to bring them to life. Nonfiction accounts of long-dead individuals always require a degree of speculation, but “Strong Passions” has more than its share of words like “probably,” “perhaps,” “likely” and “undoubtedly.”

Instead, Ms. Weisberg devotes two-thirds of her book to the overlapping narratives heard in court from an extraordinary number and range of witnesses—“a governess, a detective, a judge’s daughter, an undertaker, an abortionist’s spouse, a laundress and Teddy Roosevelt’s uncle.” She writes that “the series of dramatic incidents that precipitated the divorce suit were clouded by a divergence in bitterly contested versions of what had occurred.” Was Mary a victim or instigator of her affair? Did she admit guilt or deny the accusations against her? Was Peter a brutal villain or a gentle and put-upon husband? Did he have an affair with the abortionist? How many of the witnesses were bribed?

Despite the dramas described in court, Peter was acquitted of the criminal charges for lack of evidence, and the jury in the civil-law divorce case deliberated for 45 hours but remained deadlocked. There was therefore no divorce. George Templeton Strong declared that “the public is sick of this horrible case.” He went on to observe that some commentators found neither Peter nor Mary “particularly admirable,” and as such the two seemed “so well matched” it would be “a pity to divorce them.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

It’s the End of the Web as We Know It

From The Wall Street Journal

The web is in crisis, and artificial intelligence is to blame.

For decades, seeking knowledge online has meant googling it and clicking on the links the search engine offered up. Search has so dominated our information-seeking behaviors that few of us ever think to question it anymore.

But AI is changing all of that, and fast. A new generation of AI-powered “answer engines” could make finding information easier, by simply giving us the answers to our questions rather than forcing us to wade through pages of links. Meanwhile, the web is filling up with AI-generated content of dubious quality. It’s polluting search results, and making traditional search less useful.

The implications of this shift could be big. Seeking information using a search engine could be almost completely replaced by this new generation of large language model-powered systems, says Ethan Mollick, an associate professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who has lately made a name for himself as an analyst of these AIs.

This could be good for consumers, but it could also completely upend the delicate balance of publishers, tech giants and advertisers on which the internet as we know it has long depended.

AI agents help cut through the clutter, but research is already suggesting they also eliminate any need for people to click through to the websites they rely on to produce their answers, says Mollick. Without traffic, the business model for many publishers—of providing useful, human-generated information on the web—could collapse.

Over the past week, I’ve been playing with a new, free, AI-powered search engine-slash-web browser on the iPhone, called Arc Search. When I type in a search query, it first identifies the best half-dozen websites with information on that topic, then uses AI to “read” and summarize them.

It’s like having an assistant who can instantly and concisely relate the results of a Google search to you. It’s such a timesaver that I’m betting that once most people try it, they’ll never be able to imagine going back to the old way of browsing the web.

While Arc Search is convenient, I feel a little guilty using it, because instead of clicking through to the websites it summarizes, I’m often satisfied with the answer it offers up. The maker of Arc is getting something for free—my attention, and I’m getting the information I want. But the people who created that information get nothing. The company behind Arc did not respond to requests for comment on what their browser might mean for the future of the web. The company’s chief executive has said in the past that he thinks their product may transform it, but he’s not sure how.

In December, the New York Times sued Microsoft and OpenAI for alleged copyright infringement over these exact issues. The Times alleges that the technology companies exploited its content without permission to create their artificial-intelligence products. In its complaint, the Times says these AI tools divert traffic that would otherwise go to the Times’ web properties, depriving the company of advertising, licensing and subscription revenue.

OpenAI has said it is committed to working with content creators to ensure they benefit from AI technology and new revenue models. Already, publishers are in negotiations with OpenAI to license content for use in its large language models. Among the publishers is Dow Jones, parent company of The Wall Street Journal.

Activity on coding answer site Stack Overflow has dropped in the face of competition from these AI agents. The company disclosed in August that its traffic dropped 14% in April, the month after the launch of OpenAI’s GPT-4, which can be used to write code that developers otherwise would look up on sites like Stack Overflow. In October, the company announced it was laying off 28% of its workforce.

“Stack Overflow’s traffic, along with traffic to many other sites, has been impacted by the surge of interest in GenAI tools over the last year especially as it relates to simple questions,” says Matt Trocchio, director of communications for the company. But, he adds, those large language models have to get their data from somewhere—and that somewhere is places like Stack Overflow. And the company has responded to this fresh wave of competition by releasing its own AI-powered coding assistant, OverflowAI.

Traffic to sites like Reddit, which is full of answers from real people, could be next, says Mollick. A spokesman for Reddit said that the one thing a large language model can never replace is Reddit’s “genuine community and human connection,” and that its “community-first model imparts trust because it’s real people sharing and conversing around passions and lived experiences.” Reddit is set to go public in March.

Liz Reid, general manager of search at Google, has said that the company doesn’t anticipate that people will suddenly switch over to AI chat-based search all at once. Still, it’s clear that Google is taking the threat of AI-powered search very seriously. The company has gone into overdrive on this front, reallocating people and resources to address the threat and opportunity of AI, and is now rolling out new AI-powered products at a rapid clip.

Those products include Google’s “search generative experience,” which pairs an AI-created summary with traditional search results. “Users are not only looking for AI summaries or AI answers, they really care about the richness and the diversity that exists on the web,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a recent CNBC interview. “They want to explore too. Our approach really prioritizes that balance, and the data we see shows that people value that experience.”

This moment also means there is opportunity for challengers. For the first time in years, scrappy startups can credibly claim that they could challenge Google in search, where the company has above a 90% market share in the U.S.

Eric Olson is CEO of Consensus, a search startup that uses large language models to offer up detailed summaries of research papers, and to offer insights about the scientific consensus on various topics. He believes that AI-powered search startups like his can offer an experience superior to Google’s on specific topics, in a way that will carve off chunks of Google’s search business one piece at a time.

Asking Consensus whether social media is bad for teen mental health provides an instructive example: Consensus uses AI to summarize the top 10 papers on the subject, and then offers a longer breakdown of the diversity of findings on the issue, in which every paper cited is individually summarized.

It’s an impressive feat, one that would take a non-expert human many hours of effort to accomplish on their own. (I’ll save you even more time. The short answer is yes.)

This kind of AI-powered search is also better than simply asking the same question of a large language model like ChatGPT, which is famously lax when it comes to answering such questions, often making up studies that don’t exist, or misattributing information. This is known as the “hallucination” problem, and forcing an AI to draw only from a prescribed set of inputs—like scientific papers—can help solve it, says Olson.

This doesn’t mean that the problem of hallucination can be eradicated completely, says Mollick. This could put Google at a disadvantage, because if the world’s largest search engine gets one out of 10 queries to its AI wrong, that’s a problem, but if a startup with an experimental offering has the same performance, it can look like a triumph.

. . . .

Despite these issues, users may move toward AI-based answer engines for the simple reason that AI-generated content threatens to make the web, and existing search, less and less usable. AI is already being used to write fake reviews, synthesize fake videos of politicians, and write completely made-up news articles—all in hopes of snatching dollars, votes and eyeballs on the cheap.

“The recent surge in low-quality AI-generated content poses significant challenges for Google’s search quality, with spammers leveraging generative AI tools, like ChatGPT, to produce content that — usually temporarily — ranks well in Google Search,” search-engine optimization expert Lily Ray told me.

The problem isn’t just with Google’s search results. AI-generated content has also been spotted in listings within Google Maps, the summaries that appear above and alongside search results known as “featured snippets,” within Google’s shopping listings, and in the news items the company features in its “top stories,” news and “discover” features, she adds.

It’s important to note that Google has for decades battled those who would manipulate its search algorithms, and it continually updates its systems to sweep away spammy content, whatever the source. Its guidelines on AI-generated content, last updated in February, re-iterate that the company is fine with using AI to help generate content—but only if it serves the people consuming it.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Consensus

PG Note: Consensus is an AI that, among other things, works to make certain its answers are more reliable than other AI programs produce. The principal way it claims to increase the reliability of its answers is to focus on more reliable sources – academic research articles is what PG found – instead of general information floating around the web.

Question/Prompt: Has no-fault divorce resulted in an increase in the number of divorces in the US?

Consensus Response:

Top 10 papers analyzed

Some studies suggest that no-fault divorce has led to an increase in the number of divorces and changes in living standards post-divorce, while other studies suggest that it had little to no effect on divorce rates or that any increase was offset by better sorting of couples before marriage.

The Divorce Revolution: The Unexpected Social and Economic Consequences for Women and Children in America

No-fault divorce laws in the US have produced a 73% drop in the living standards of divorced women and their children and a 42% rise in the living standards of ex-husbands.

Journal of Marriage and Family, K. Kammeyer et al 489 citations 1986 – Highly Cited

These Boots are Made for Walking’: Why Most Divorce Filers are Women

Yes

No-fault divorce has led to an increase in the number of divorces, with women often filing for divorce and instigating separation, despite financial and social hardship.

American Law and Economics Review

M. Brinig et al. 189 citations 2000 – Highly Cited document

Further Discussion of the Effects of No-Fault Divorce on Divorce Rates

Yes

The new method estimated that around 57,000 extra divorces per year in the US are directly attributable to the implementation of no-fault divorce law.

Journal of Marriage and Family, N. Glenn et al., 19 citations, 1999

____________________________________________________________________________________

PG Note: The list of studies generated by Consensus continues with further responsive results, each with a title, and the other types of information from the study, date, and number of citations as shown in the first three.

Here’s a link to Consensus, which is in open Beta.

PG’s response to his quick try-out of Consensus is that has the potential to be very useful for its target audience, researchers, by saving a lot of search time and providing an intelligent initial filter that allows the researcher to more quickly identify valuable sources for further examination than a series of Google searches would.

This type of AI search capability would be a slam-dunk useful assistant for attorneys, who have used expensive online legal research systems for a long time.

PG hasn’t stumbled across anything similar from those legal research giants, but then he hasn’t looked.

UPDATE: PG just looked at Lexis, one of his employers from the distant past whose CEO once lectured PG about the internet: horribly disorganized – a complete mess that would never amount to anything.

Lo and behold, Lexis is heavily promoting its AI legal research product, which they promise will provide:

the fastest legal generative AI with conversational search, drafting, summarization, document analysis, and hallucination-free linked legal citations.

It appears that Lexis plans to leave the job of hallucinating to its lawyer/customers.

Or perhaps, legal hallucination is an add-on product available for a small[ish] additional monthly fee.

Writing and Music: a Not-So-Odd Coupling

From Writer Unboxed:

As some of you may already know, in addition to being a highly sought-after shirtless model for romance novel covers, I am also a longtime professional musician, having earned my first money for playing drums at the ripe old age of 14. In fact, music was my fulltime profession until my late 30s. And I didn’t start seriously writing fiction (inasmuch as anything I write could be considered “serious”) until I turned 40. (So you might say that as a writer, I was a 40-year-old virgin. But I digress…)

Coming into a new-to-me art form with a lengthy background in another, I’ve been repeatedly struck by how many parallels I’ve encountered between the two creative paths. It has also been interesting to note the very different experience of learning one art form as a child, and learning another as an adult (inasmuch as a person like me could ever be considered an “adult”).

But I’ll leave the exploration of the whole young-versus-old-artist rabbit hole for some other day. Today, I want to explore five similarities I’ve found in pursuing two art forms – writing and music – at the professional level. I’ll start with the one I think is most important:

1. It’s a business.

Thus far I’ve been calling them art forms, but when you start actively seeking a paying audience for your work – whether written or musical – you quickly become aware that you are dealing with a business, which brings with it numerous rules, obstacles and rites of passage, many of which are not clearly stated or even openly acknowledged. Yeah, it’s fun like that. Trust me: You’re gonna want to wear a helmet.

In each case, because it’s a business, many decisions that will affect your success are A) based on money, and B) out of your hands.

As a musician, this could come down to who is willing to hire you, or to pay to see you perform, or to publish your music (an area that used to be where the money was in songwriting), or to finance your recording and/or tour, or to buy your recordings. Bottom line: It’s about who will spend their money on this thing you chose to do. As the artist, all you can do is make whatever product or service you’re offering as appealing – and as competitive in terms of financial value – as possible.

Writers are in a similar position. Whether you’re pursuing the traditional publishing route, or self-publishing, or trying to get a piece of your dramatic work produced either on stage or screen, somebody else has to decide that what you’re doing (or promising to do) is worth their money.

In both cases, as an artist, you are free to express yourself in any way you see fit. But as an artist who wants to be paid for that art, it quickly becomes obvious that some pathways lead a bit more directly to potential revenue generation than others. Hence my next observation:

2. Genre matters.

For example, a thrilling 70,000-word whodunit with a strong, confident protagonist stands a better chance of selling some copies than a 600-page second-person diatribe exploring the modernist paradigm of discourse that forces the reader to choose between subcapitalist situationism and the dialectic paradigm of consensus. (Incidentally, I have no earthly idea what that means. I got it from the oh-so-useful Postmodernism BS Generator. You’re welcome.)

Similarly, a catchy three-chord pop song performed by an attractive singer whose only formal dance training clearly involved a pole is likely to get far more airplay than say, one of Conlon Nancarrow’s experimental pieces for player piano. (Warning: cannot be un-heard.)

While my examples above focused on some artistic endeavors being more accessible and/or commercially viable than others, genre is about more than simply what happens to be popular. Probably even more important is the way that genre establishes expectation. Genre helps promise an experience to the consumer, sometimes without them needing to read a word or hear a note. When you see one of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels in a bookstore, you know what you’re getting. Ditto when you see a recording by AC/DC, or a poster for an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Like it or not, fitting neatly into a genre makes it MUCH easier to package your work. But that doesn’t eliminate your challenges, because of the next fact I’ll bring up:

3. There’s no “right” way.

If simply checking off some genre boxes was a foolproof formula for success, everybody reading this column would already be a bestselling author. Just because Lee Child earned more money while you read this paragraph than I did in a year, doesn’t mean I can simply write a “Zack Preacher” series of thrillers that will sell equally well. There’s still some magic, mojo and luck involved, along with things like talent, confidence and savvy. And don’t forget determination – most of the “overnight successes” we hear about were years in the making.

But the lack of a “right” way extends beyond genre. There’s more than one route to successful publication, from traditional to self-published, or combinations of both. There are plotters and pantsers sharing space on the NYT Bestsellers list. There are Hero’s Journey writers and Cat-Saving authors and people who’ve never heard of either, all selling beaucoup books. Which is French for “a crapload of,” if I’m not mistaken.

The same goes for music: There are classically trained virtuosos, and self-taught musicians who can’t read a note. There are incredibly polished performers, with seemingly supernatural abilities and machine-like consistency; there are unpredictable punk rockers who can’t be bothered to learn to play or sing, and who may or may not commit a felony during the course of a performance – and that’s if they even bother to show up.

Hell, just among us drummers, there are those who hold their sticks in that rather fancy-looking way you see in Revolutionary War paintings, and those who grip them like a pair of hammers – and an age-old schism between the two schools that can rapidly go off the rails in ways you’d never believe, in the consequence-free verbal-cage-match environment of an internet discussion forum.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

The Pursuit of Happiness

From The Wall Street Journal:

Jeffrey Rosen spent the Covid lockdowns of 2020 reading various treatises by Xenophon, Seneca, Cicero, John Locke and David Hume. He was led to these and other works by a list compiled by Thomas Jefferson in 1771 in which the future president advised a friend on the books with which a good private library ought to be stocked.

For a year, Mr. Rosen writes in “The Pursuit of Happiness,” “I got up every morning before sunrise, read a selection from his list, and found myself taking notes on the reading in sonnet form, so that I could easily remember the daily lesson.” Later, he says, he discovered that important figures in Founding-era America, including Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton, similarly took notes on their reading in verse form.

All this reading and metrical note taking, Mr. Rosen tells us, changed his understanding of that famous phrase in the Declaration of Independence, “the pursuit of happiness.” Today, he says, “we think of happiness as the pursuit of pleasure. But classical and Enlightenment thinkers defined happiness as the pursuit of virtue—as being good, rather than feeling good.”

Jefferson might have been expected to follow Locke, whom he had definitely read, in naming life, liberty and “property” as the chief things to which man has rights. Instead he wrote “pursuit of happiness.” Until roughly the middle of the past century, historians tended to view the phrase as a bit of rhetorical fluff. More recent historians mostly acknowledge that “happiness” had a deeper and nobler meaning in 1776 than it would have two centuries later.

Garry Wills, in his brilliant study of the Declaration, “Inventing America” (1978), traces Jefferson’s words—“pursuit,” “happiness” and many others—to their sources in the writings of British philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries, including Locke. More recently, University of Missouri law professor Carli Conklin has concluded that, for Jefferson and the Founders, the right to pursue happiness meant something like the freedom to align one’s life with the laws of nature.

Mr. Rosen, the president of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, refers hardly at all to the long and tangled debate over the meaning of Jefferson’s phrase and cites primary sources almost exclusively. His book’s overarching argument holds that, for the Founders—he concentrates on Jefferson, John Adams, Franklin and George Mason—the pursuit of happiness lay in the ancient creed of Stoicism.

The Stoics, recall—Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, among others—believed that the good life consisted in self-mastery and the cultivation of virtue. The Founders, in Mr. Rosen’s view, derived their understanding of “happiness,” and therefore of the purpose of political liberty, from the Stoics, in some cases directly, in others via their readings of Enlightenment philosophers such as Locke and Hume. “The Founders,” he writes, “believed that the pursuit of happiness regards freedom not as boundless liberty to do whatever feels good in the moment but as bounded liberty to make wise choices that will help us best develop our capacities and talents over the course of our lives.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Florida school requires parental consent for pupils to listen to Black author’s book

From The Guardian:

A Florida school has received backlash after it required parents to provide written consent allowing their children to engage with a Black author’s book. The permission form detailed an activity in which “students will participate and listen to a book written by an African American”.

Chuck Walter, a parent at Coral Way K-8 in Miami, posted a photo of the slip on X, writing: “I had to give permission for this or else my child would not participate???” He tagged the Miami-Dade county public schools superintendent, Jose L Dotres. (Dotres’s office did not immediately respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.)

Walter’s post comes days after another Miami school, iPrep Academy, drew ire for asking for parents’ permission for students to participate in “class and school wide presentations showcasing the achievements and recognizing the rich and diverse traditions, histories, and innumerable contributions of the Black communities”.

The permission slips indicate how some Florida schools are trying to comply with the state’s “Parental Rights in Education” law, more commonly known as the “don’t say gay” law, and the “Stop Woke Act”, both signed by the governor, Ron DeSantis, in 2022. The former prohibits discussions of sexuality and gender in classrooms, while the latter regulates how race and race issues can be taught in schools. Critics have suggested that Florida lawmakers are aiming for erasure or to teach a false history to the state’s children.

The Florida commissioner of education, Manny Díaz, called the situation a “hoax”, posting on X: “Florida does not require a permission slip to teach African American history or to celebrate Black History Month. Any school that does this is completely in the wrong.”

But DeSantis and other Republican lawmakers in the state have created an environment in which teachers are severely limited in how they can discuss race, gender and sexual orientation in all grades, and officials have not provided concrete guidance on how to comply. As a result, some teachers and districts have created policies, like the permission slip policy, to ensure they are acting in accord with the law.

For Miami-Dade county public schools, compliance has included requiring parental consent for all club meetings and events, guest speakers, college adviser visits and other enrichment activities, the Miami Herald reported. Teachers now face time- and resource-consuming hurdles to ensure their students are able to hear from Black historians and Holocaust survivors, for instance, which has been a normal practice in local schools in previous years.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

From Wikipedia:

Florida Man is an Internet meme first popularized in 2013, referring to an alleged prevalence of people performing irrational or maniacal actions in the U.S. state of Florida. Internet users typically submit links to news stories and articles about unusual or strange crimes and other events occurring in Florida, with stories’ headlines often beginning with “Florida Man…” followed by the main event of the story. Because of the way news headlines are typically written, they can be creatively interpreted as implying that the subjects of the articles are all a single individual known as “Florida Man”.

PG wonders if Florida Schools will be the next big Florida _____________ meme.

On the Future Of Newspapers

From The Falls Church News-Press:

“The internet dissected your daily newspaper into its constituent parts, letting readers find the news they want without ever buying a paper or visiting a homepage – and handing the most lucrative part…, the advertising business, to companies such as Meta and Google that don’t produce news.”

In one succinct sentence, Washington Post opinion writer Megan McArdle told just about the whole story of the demise of local news in her column entitled, “The Great Age of Cord Cutting is Approaching Its End” published in the Post this Tuesday.

Our founder, owner and editor Nicholas F. Benton will be addressing the monthly luncheon meeting of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce on just this reality, its implications and what can be done about it this coming Tuesday, February 20, at the Italian Cafe in Falls Church. He will bring his more than 33 years of experience making the Falls Church News-Press work for more than 1,700 consecutive weekly editions delivered to every household in The Little City to bear on this question that is vital to our democracy.
The landscape for local news in Northern Virginia has changed dramatically over those more than three decades, and the News-Press has endured to become just about the only general news source in the region that still comes out in print.

How to understand what that means for the community it serves, and for those who have lost such a benefit over the years, as well as how and what needs to happen to ensure it continues to get done will be our editor’s subject. The new book, “Life and Times of the Falls Church News-Press,” by the late Charlie Clark, will be available for sale as a resource at the talk, which will also be recorded.

A good newspaper is more than just a chronicle of events in a community, but serves as a vital glue for the components that not only make up, but also seek to advance a community’s ability to provide for its public’s needs, especially as they involve core human and democratic values. For Mr. Benton, this has taken the form of continually shining a light on the community needs for, among other things, smart development, affordable housing and above all education of the young.

The internet and strictly digital sources have unwittingly contributed to the undermining of this approach by shattering information into countless discrete categories, thus disabling the ability of a community’s citizens to function from the standpoint of an overview of these combined values and needs.

Benton and the News-Press since its founding in 1991 have operated from the standpoint of advocating for those who cannot advocate for themselves, and that has meant promoting education for the young by encouraging the kind of economic development that can pay for a quality educational system. It has meant taking sides in opposition to those who resist such developments for selfish reasons, be they big corporate interests or citizens against constructive change.

Link to the rest at The Falls Church News-Press

When PG was in high school, he was the high school sports reporter (and the only sports reporter) for a very small local newspaper that was mimeographed weekly and delivered free to all the mailboxes in town and the surrounding area.

He saw no conflict of interest in writing about games in which he had participated. However, he seldom mentioned his name, in large part because he was not a particularly outstanding player, even on teams comprised of small, slow white boys with a smattering of members of the local Sioux tribe.

As humble as it was, the newspaper, along with school activities, was about all that made the little town a community. When the local schools were closed and students were bussed to schools in a larger nearby town a few years after PG graduated, that little town began to lose population and has continued to decline into just a group of run-down and unoccupied houses.

PG never heard what happened to the lady who ran the newspaper.

Art is always political

From The Bookseller:

On Tuesday, Arts Council of England (ACE) released a statement about the organisation’s funding policy. You have all probably read it by now. The statement warned creatives and organisations against “reputational risk” which ACE defined as any “activity that might be considered overtly political and activist and goes beyond your company’s core purpose and partnerships with organisations that might be perceived as being in conflict with the purposes of public funding of culture”. This was not limited to activities directly funded by ACE.

Is any form of art unpolitical? I write from several places of marginality. Author Bell Hooks calls this marginality a place of resistance. I too see this place of otherness not as a place of deprivation but as a place of opportunity and possibility. Anything and everything I write is political. It has to be. My lived experience, much like any other marginalised writer, is a space of refusal to accept what is laid out for us, the boundaries that are set around our existence, the spaces we are not allowed to inhabit. We learn to oppose these norms that limit our existence, and opposition becomes a necessity, not a choice. Writing is a way of writing ourselves into the mainstream, telling stories that are not necessarily heard, challenging the colonisers and oppressors, and imagining a radical new world where these boundaries and hierarchies do not exist anymore. Writing is a way of finding a counter-language, that hooks calls a “space of refusal” where we say no to the language of the colonisers and oppressors and find a language to name the repression. Once we silence these counter-narratives then we silence the language of resistance.

While I am writing this ACE has released an update, a sort of pushed-into-a-corner, we-are-not-really-bad but only-thinking-of-your-own-good statement; a faux-benevolent backtracking. It mentions “freedom of expression” and “artistic freedom” a few times to allay concerns and outrage expressed widely by artists on social media and elsewhere. Nevertheless, it refers once again to reputational risk, to polarisation and puts the onus on the organisations to make sure “that if they, or people associated with them, are planning activity that might be viewed as controversial, they have thought through, and so far as possible mitigated, the risk to themselves and crucially to their staff and to the communities they serve”.

There are larger questions at stake here as to what the public funds are for if not to fund art that resists the artificial oppressive structures inherent in our society and systems

Perhaps the timing is merely a coincidence as we are witnessing a artificial oppressive structures inherent in our society and systems among artists against the genocide happening in Palestine. If this is silencing and censorship, then of course it isn’t anything new, but to couch it within a concern for “reputational risk” seems disingenuous. There are larger questions at stake here as to what the public funds are for if not to fund art that resists the artificial oppressive structures inherent in our society and systems. If not this, then culture can never evolve beyond the limits of our current imaginations. Preventing creatives from challenging dominant norms, questioning, speaking their truth will only result in a monolith ossified culture, stagnant and festering with dissent and paralysed with fear.

Marginalised writers have lived with these fears for so long. Reputational risk is not something to be taken lightly. For anyone who is an “other” it is an anxiety that lies heavy on their shoulders, something that lurks silently at all times intent on pushing them away further into the margins. The warning against “reputational risk” feels like bullying, and intimidation. And the whole purpose of bullying is to create self-doubt, uncertainty and unease. As we face even more cuts to arts funding and public funding becomes even more scarce, creating a culture of fear is counter-productive to encouraging and supporting innovative art. The ACE stance is silencing of those who have been marginalised, and those who speak up against oppressive forces, telling artists to stay within their boxes, quiet, unchallenging, unresistant, fearful of the repercussions. When people are silenced, it creates hopelessness and despair.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

  1. PG doesn’t agree with more than a bit of the OP. Don’t ask him to identify the bit.
  2. “[fill in the blank] is political!’ is a now ancient technique used by all sorts of people, right, left and center, to shut down argument.
  3. Marginalised, silencing, bullying, intimidation, self-doubt, uncertainty, unease, paralysed with fear, speaking their truth, challenging dominant norms, oppressive structures inherent in our society and systems are in the eye of the beholder. If these conditions are so widespread, horrible and heavy, why doesn’t everyone notice them?
  4. PG’s favorite horror was “faux-benevolent.” Heaven forfend!
  5. “What the public funds are for if not to fund art that resists the artificial oppressive structures inherent in our society and systems.”
    • Does anybody think to ask the public how their taxes should be used? Whether they do or don’t want to fund the creation of things they find abhorrent.”
  6. “outrage expressed widely by artists on social media and elsewhere.” Oooh! Outrage! On Social Media! Who would have imagined there was outrage of any sort on social media? How could we possibly miss outraged artists on social media amid so much reasoned, quiet, calm, and polite conversation with never a hint of anger everywhere we look on social media?
  7. And finally, genocide, the all-purpose horror, not to be missed in any tirade.

The EU’s Digital Services Act goes into effect today

From The Verge:

The European Union’s Digital Services Act (DSA) has officially gone into effect. Starting on August 25th, 2023, tech giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and more must comply with sweeping legislation that holds online platforms legally accountable for the content posted to them.

. . . .

What is the Digital Services Act?

The overarching goal of the DSA is to foster safer online environments. Under the new rules, online platforms must implement ways to prevent and remove posts containing illegal goods, services, or content while simultaneously giving users the means to report this type of content.

Additionally, the DSA bans targeted advertising based on a person’s sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, or political beliefs and puts restrictions on targeting ads to children. It also requires online platforms to provide more transparency on how their algorithms work.

The DSA carves out additional rules for what it considers “very large online platforms,” forcing them to give users the right to opt out of recommendation systems and profiling, share key data with researchers and authorities, cooperate with crisis response requirements, and perform external and independent auditing.

Which online platforms are affected?

The EU considers very large online platforms (or very large online search engines) as those with over 45 million monthly users in the EU. So far, the EU has designed 19 platforms and search engines that fall into that category, including the following:

  • Alibaba AliExpress
  • Amazon Store
  • Apple App Store
  • Booking.com
  • Facebook
  • Google Play
  • Google Maps
  • Google Shopping
  • Instagram
  • LinkedIn
  • Pinterest
  • Snapchat
  • TikTok
  • Twitter
  • Wikipedia
  • YouTube
  • Zalando
  • Bing
  • Google Search

The EU will require each of these platforms to update their user numbers at least every six months. If a platform has less than 45 million monthly users for an entire year, they’ll be removed from the list.

What are online platforms doing to comply?

Many of these companies have already outlined the ways in which they’re going to comply with the DSA. Here’s a brief overview of the most notable ones.

Google

While Google says it already complies with some of the policies envisioned by the DSA, including the ability to give YouTube creators to appeal video removals and restrictions, Google announced that it’s expanding its Ads Transparency Center to meet the requirements outlined by the legislation.

The company also committed to expanding data access to researchers to provide more information about “how Google Search, YouTube, Google Maps, Google Play and Shopping work in practice.” It will also improve its transparency reporting and analyze potential “risks of illegal content dissemination, or risks to fundamental rights, public health or civic discourse.”

Meta

Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, is working to expand its Ad Library, which currently compiles the ads shown on its platforms. The company will soon start displaying and archiving all the ads that target users in the EU while also including the parameters used to target the ads, as well as who was served the ad.

In June, Meta released a lengthy report about how its algorithm works across Facebook and Instagram as part of its push toward transparency. It will also start allowing European users to view content chronologically on Reels, Stories, and Search on both Facebook and Instagram — without being subject to its personalization engine.

TikTok

Similar to the measures Meta is rolling out, TikTok has also announced that it’s making its algorithm optional for users in the EU. When the algorithm is disabled, users will see videos from “both the places where they live and around the world” in their For You and Live feeds instead of videos based on personal interests.

It will also enable users to view content chronologically on their Following and Friends feeds. TikTok is making some changes to its advertising policies as well. For European users aged 13 to 17, TikTok will stop showing personalized ads based on their activity in the app.

Link to the rest at The Verge

How the ghostwriter of Biden’s memoirs ended up in the center of a classified documents probe

From The Associated Press:

President Joe Biden worked so closely with the ghostwriter with whom he is accused of sharing classified secrets that he once declared that he’d trust the author with his life.

Mark Zwonitzer worked with Biden on two memoirs, 2007’s “Promises to Keep” and “Promise Me, Dad,” which was published 10 years later. According to a report released Thursday by special counsel Robert Hur, Biden was sloppy in his handling of classified material found at his home and former office, and shared classified information contained in some of them with Zwonitzer while the two were working on the Biden’s second book.

Hur’s report says no criminal charges are warranted against Biden. It says his office considered charging Zwonitzer with obstruction of justice because the ghostwriter destroyed recordings of interviews he conducted with Biden while they worked on his second memoir together once he learned of the documents investigation. But Hur also said Zwonitzer offered “plausible, innocent reasons” for having done so and cooperated with investigators subsequently, meaning the evidence against him was likely “insufficient to obtain a conviction.”

Hours after the report was released, Biden addressed reporters at the White House and spoke to what he shared with Zwonitzer, saying, “I did not share classified information” adding he didn’t do so “with my ghostwriter. Guarantee you I did not.”

Link to the rest at The Associated Press

No, TPV is not going to turn into a political blog. PG notes this story involves a ghostwriter who was working on a book with Pres. Biden.

OpenAI’s Video Generator Sora Is Breathtaking, Yet Terrifying

From Gizmodo:

OpenAI introduced Sora, its premier text-to-video generator, on Thursday with beautiful, shockingly realistic videos showcasing the AI model’s capabilities. Sora is now available to a small number of researchers and creatives who will test the model before a broader public release, which could spell disaster for the film industry and our collective deepfake problem.

“Sora is able to generate complex scenes with multiple characters, specific types of motion, and accurate details of the subject and background,” said OpenAI in a blog post. “The model understands not only what the user has asked for in the prompt, but also how those things exist in the physical world.”

OpenAI didn’t say when Sora will be released to the public.

Sora is OpenAI’s first venture into AI video generation, adding to the company’s AI-powered text and image generators, ChatGPT and Dall-E. It’s unique because it’s less of a creative tool, and more of a “data-driven physics engine,” as pointed out by Senior Nvidia Researcher Dr. Jim Fan. Sora is not just generating an image, but it’s determining the physics of an object in its environment and renders a video based on these calculations.

To generate videos with Sora, users can simply type in a few sentences as a prompt, much like AI-image generators. You can choose between a photorealistic or an animated style, producing shocking results in just a few minutes.

Sora is a diffusion model, meaning it generates video by starting with a blurry, static-filled video and slowly smoothes it into the polished versions you see below. Midjourney and Stable Diffusion’s image and video generators are also diffusion models.

However, I must note that OpenAI’s Sora is much better. The videos Sora produces are longer, more dynamic, and flow together better than competitors. Sora feels like it creates real videos, whereas competitor models feel like a stop motion of AI images. OpenAI has once again erupted yet another field of AI with a video generator that puts the competition to shame.

Link to the rest at Gizmodo

How to write the perfect plot twist: Anthony Horowitz’s 5 top tips

From Penguin UK:

It’s fair to say that Anthony Horowitz knows his way around a killer plotline. The bestselling author has not only captured readers with his mystery novels, Magpie MurdersMoonflower Murders and the Hawthorne mysteries, but taken on the mantle of his predecessors with two acclaimed Sherlock Holmes novels – The House of Silk and Moriarity – and three James Bond novels. So when he agreed to offer a masterclass in writing the perfect plot twist, we knew we were getting one of the best. 

It’s definitely worth watching The Art of: The Murder Mystery in full to get the depth of Horowitz’s wisdom, as well as stories about how he wrote his fantastic novels. But here are five nuggety takeaways to keep by your writing table (perhaps, like Horowitz, you eschew the keyboard for a fountain pen?) in the midst of your murder mystery-writing. 

1. Don’t underestimate the planning

Horowitz acknowledges that some writers like to sit down and let the story flow out, but he’s not one of them. “I often spend longer planning a book than I do writing it,” he says. “A good example is Magpie Murders, which took me something like 10 years to work out and then about two years to write, but it was a very, very complicated book and required an enormous amount of thinking.

“I put everything down on paper. I make copious pages and pages of notes until I am ready to write and by the time I do sit down at my desk, I have a sort of a map of where I’m going and everything is going to work.” Make sure, though, that you leave a little room to surprise yourself when you get to the page: “If I can’t surprise myself, how can I surprise my reader?”

2. Start with a simple formula

Not sure how that plan should begin? There’s a Horowitz Hack for that: “Start with a simple formula,” he advises. “A plus B equals C. A equals one person, B is another person, C is the reason why A murders B. That’s your bullseye. If that’s original and interesting and surprising enough, then you can tell us who A and B are, and and that’s your next ring.” Once you’ve got the basics, he explains, you can build out into the worlds your characters occupy, who knows them and how they know each other.”  

3. People should be able to guess the twist

Want to know the secret of a killer plot twist? It should be obvious enough for people to potentially guess it – but surprising enough that they rarely actually do. One of the major influences on Horowitz’s work was Agatha Christie, an author who he says always surprises him but “you always feel you could have guessed because all the information has been down there in front of you. When I’m writing my book, I’m very influenced by that. When my publisher or my agent or anybody else reads one of my books, the first question I ask is not ‘Did you enjoy it?’ but, ‘Did you guess it?’ Because that, to me, is the crux of the matter. If they do guess it, I feel a sense of disappointment but at the same time, if they can’t get it, then I haven’t played fair. What I prefer to do is for them to say, ‘No, I didn’t get it, but I should have.’ That’s what I’m aiming for.” 

4. Live inside your book

The best way to bring a story to life? Inhabit it. “There’s one piece of advice I would give to writers: don’t stand on the edge of the book, looking over the edge of the chasm. Live inside the book looking around you,” Horowitz says. “What my characters see, I see. What they feel – the wind or the sunshine – I feel. If I’m inside the book, I’m not thinking about it as being something that you or anybody else will read. I am merely inside the world of the book – all that comes later.” 

5. The only rule is originality

Link to the rest at Penguin UK and thanks to NC for the tip.

My Year of Finance Boys

From The Paris Review:

I shouldn’t have been surprised that the hedge fund analyst knew me better than I knew myself. It was his job to predict distant developments, covert motives, hidden risks, and shortly into our brief relationship he turned his powers of divination on me. After I told him I was writing a novel about finance, he suggested that I’d been drawn to him partly for mercenary reasons: that I was, in a word, dating him for research. He took it in stride—he lived and breathed all things mercenary—but he did issue a polite warning.

“Never put anything I tell you in writing,” he said.

I’d like to think that, in his predictive genius, he also knew I would eventually ignore this warning.

The hedge fund analyst, whom I’ll call Jake, was the last in a string of finance boys I dated during a peculiar if productive period of my life. Almost as soon as I’d embarked on my novel about finance, I’d begun scanning dating apps for Patagonia vests and Barbour jackets. I wanted investment bankers, private equity associates, traders. I maintain that my motives were not as Machiavellian as Jake would go on to imply. I’d decided my novel would treat the technicalities of finance lightly, and I was already doing research sufficient to my purposes: auditing finance classes at the university where I was a graduate student, reading textbooks, conducting interviews. But Jake was probably right that my creative and libidinal impulses became, for a time, precariously interfused.

My interest in finance men as romantic material was as mysterious to me as my interest in finance as material for a book. I’d never earned enough for money to be anything but a source of panic. I had no idea what a derivative was and thought bear and bull meant the same thing. The distinction between a 401(k) and a Roth IRA was lost on me and in any case irrelevant because I had neither. And yet at some point during my years in New York, I became curious about the world of finance, then dazzled by it, and then—as my interest concentrated itself on the men who operated its levers—transfixed. Maybe the political convulsions of 2016 had awakened my class consciousness and spurred me to learn more about the people who shuffled the world’s capital. Maybe, as I neared thirty, I’d grown tired of financial precarity and subconsciously begun a search for a mate who would ease my misery. Maybe I saw in these men an obscure point of recognition. All I knew was that my curiosity would persist until I satisfied it.

. . . .

On my very first outing, I had the fortune or misfortune to have many of my preconceptions confirmed. His name was Andrew, he worked at Goldman Sachs, and he was, to my jubilation, supremely boring. He’d gone to prep school in New England and college in California and now lived with roommates in the West Village, though he had his eye on a one-bedroom in a glass monstrosity in Tribeca. He was tallish, blond, inconspicuously good-looking, and responsibly dressed: the kind of person who lives in your memory only as a pleasing, gleaming outline, devoid of eyes.

He described his life in a white-noise murmur. He told me about a presentation deck he’d recently been tasked with putting together. He told me about the challenge of assessing new markets. He told me about his fraternity days, his weeks on Fire Island. He told me about his life’s dream. He wanted to clamber up the ranks of investment banking, he explained, and then start a company of his own. “I went to the Harvard of California, and now I’m at the Harvard of finance,” he said. “I want to do something unexpected.”

. . . .

In each of these men I saw the same enigma. Something about their jobs seemed to have drained them of personality, blunted their curiosity, thinned out their speech, as if the drama of being a person had been shrunk to a matter of market efficiency, as if after thousands of hours of sitting in conference rooms and hunching before Bloomberg terminals they’d mistaken their spreadsheets, pitch books, white papers, and cash flow statements for materials out of which to assemble a soul. It didn’t occur to me then to wonder if I might be projecting this blankness onto them, or to wonder what purposes of my own such a projection might serve.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

In defence of grumpy old men. The publishing world needs cantankerous codgers

From Unherd:

In every culture, in every era, you will find the archetype of the cantankerous old man. He’s ubiquitous in cinema — the aged, scowling hero of Gran Torino; the feuding codgers of Grumpy Old Men; the dementia-stricken patriarch of The Father — but no less so in real life, where you can find him parked in an easy chair on the shady side of the porch, yelling at the neighbourhood kids to get off his lawn. He can be a comic figure or a tragic one, an object of respect or ridicule, but you ignore him at your peril. The next American president, after all, will be a cantankerous old man. We just have to decide if we want the one with the spray tan and the multiple felony indictments, or the one who recently confused the current French president with the one who died in 1996.

Some old men lose their edge as they age, while others develop a sharper one. Otto Penzler, the white-haired proprietor of the storied Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, would seem to be the latter. Now 81, Penzler is a polarising figure within the mystery writing community, the kind of person whose name elicits either a grin or a wince. In addition to building from scratch the biggest mystery bookshop in the world, he has edited dozens of mystery novels and anthologies and overseen multiple publishing imprints. At the height of his power, a good word from Penzler could make a writer’s career.

But his good words, his critics note, were reserved largely for white, male, heterosexual writers — and Penzler has a reputation for being less than reverent about the sacred cows of his more progressive peers. In 1991, he publicly criticised the women’s mystery writer’s group Sisters in Crime in an interview with the Chicago Tribune: “It’s a negative, flawed concept. It’s an organization that espouses non-sexism but is sexist.” In 2005, he described cosy mysteries as “not serious literature”, adding: “Men take [writing] more seriously as art.” More recently, he excoriated the Mystery Writers of America after the organisation, under pressure, rescinded its plans to honour mystery novelist and former prosecutor Linda Fairstein with a “Grand Master” award for literary achievement. (This was part of a broader campaign to cancel Fairstein over her role in prosecuting the Central Park Five, spurred by a Netflix series that portrayed her as the case’s chief villain; a defamation lawsuit brought by Fairstein against the series’ creators is currently making its way through the courts.)

Among those who dislike him, these incidents are seen as damning evidence in favour of Penzler’s defenestration. A recent X thread, prompted by his upcoming appearance at a mystery event called Bouchercon, bemoans his continued influence despite what the author describes as his “terrible opinions and inexcusable behavior” — although the behaviour in question, as I discovered in the course of reporting this piece, is more a matter of rumour than record. For those who remember the MeToo-era debacle of the Shitty Media Men list, it’s character assassination via whisper network: people will tell you that there are stories, but plead ignorance when asked to relate one. Penzler’s status as a Bad Man is entirely vibes-based. A snub here, a brusque comment there. Once, perhaps, there was a confrontation with a female critic who had panned a book written by one of Penzler’s friends, after she showed up uninvited to a party at his bookstore.

. . . .

Mystery writing, like the rest of publishing, has undergone a reckoning in recent years — and what the diversity activists want is nothing less than a metaphorical asteroid hit, an extinction-level event that clears out the pale-male-stale old guard, and ushers in a colourful new world order. There’s just one problem: metaphorical asteroids, unlike their physical analogue, don’t actually kill the dinosaurs. And while it’s one thing to campaign for the ouster of dead white men from their various places of honour in the sciences, or the arts, or atop the lists of history’s greatest works of literature, it’s quite another to be confronted with live white men — men who’ve worked hard all their lives to get where they are, who do not agree that they have outlived both their relevance and respectability, and who are not about to slink off into obscurity just because the passage of time and the sensibilities of a new generation have rendered both their identities and opinions unpopular.

This all-encompassing presentism, in which every person must be judged by his worse offences against the pieties of the Current Thing, has found an even easier target than our oldest living citizens: those who are recently dead. It’s a phenomenon that makes for some interesting reads in the newspaper’s obituary section. “Herman Cain, a former Republican presidential candidate and supporter of President Donald Trump who pointedly refused to wear a mask during the coronavirus pandemic, has died after contracting COVID-19,” reported Reuters in 2020, while a New York Times obituary for former Interior Secretary James Watt informs readers that he “insulted Black people, women, Jews and disabled people”, before it describes his life or contribution to politics. As the writer Oliver Traldi quipped, “before you read about this man’s life, let’s precisely calibrate your sense of to what extent he was on the right side of history as conceived by readers of this absolute rag in the current year”.

Meanwhile, some progressives have taken it as an article of faith that we cannot wait anymore for these living relics to exit the world’s stage; we have to just push them out of the way. This sentiment was palpable in the MeTooings of people like Garrison Keillor, Al Franken, Leon Wieseltier, and Frank Langella, as well as the ouster of older white men from positions of influence in media, the arts, and more during the Covid-era Awokening. Even if you didn’t necessarily think these guys had done much — or anything — wrong, there was a sense that perhaps they should just go away on principle, for the sake of the cause. Hadn’t they been in power long enough? Wasn’t it time for them to step aside, and give someone else a turn?

Link to the rest at Unherd

As regular visitors to The Passive Voice know all too well, PG has very little respect for many/most of the people who work at traditional publishing houses, old and young, male or female, bond or free. He’ll spare the patient visitors to The Passive Voice another rant about the exploitation of authors that qualifies as, “The way things are done.”

The Loss of Things I Took for Granted

From Slate:

As a college educator, I am confronted daily with the results of that conspiracy-without-conspirators. I have been teaching in small liberal arts colleges for over 15 years now, and in the past five years, it’s as though someone flipped a switch. For most of my career, I assigned around 30 pages of reading per class meeting as a baseline expectation—sometimes scaling up for purely expository readings or pulling back for more difficult texts. (No human being can read 30 pages of Hegel in one sitting, for example.) Now students are intimidated by anything over 10 pages and seem to walk away from readings of as little as 20 pages with no real understanding. Even smart and motivated students struggle to do more with written texts than extract decontextualized take-aways. Considerable class time is taken up simply establishing what happened in a story or the basic steps of an argument—skills I used to be able to take for granted.

Since this development very directly affects my ability to do my job as I understand it, I talk about it a lot. And when I talk about it with nonacademics, certain predictable responses inevitably arise, all questioning the reality of the trend I describe. Hasn’t every generation felt that the younger cohort is going to hell in a handbasket? Haven’t professors always complained that educators at earlier levels are not adequately equipping their students? And haven’t students from time immemorial skipped the readings?

The response of my fellow academics, however, reassures me that I’m not simply indulging in intergenerational grousing. Anecdotally, I have literally never met a professor who did not share my experience. Professors are also discussing the issue in academic trade publications, from a variety of perspectives. What we almost all seem to agree on is that we are facing new obstacles in structuring and delivering our courses, requiring us to ratchet down expectations in the face of a ratcheting down of preparation. Yes, there were always students who skipped the readings, but we are in new territory when even highly motivated honors students struggle to grasp the basic argument of a 20-page article. Yes, professors never feel satisfied that high school teachers have done enough, but not every generation of professors has had to deal with the fallout of No Child Left Behind and Common Core. Finally, yes, every generation thinks the younger generation is failing to make the grade—except for the current cohort of professors, who are by and large more invested in their students’ success and mental health and more responsive to student needs than any group of educators in human history. We are not complaining about our students. We are complaining about what has been taken from them.

If we ask what has caused this change, there are some obvious culprits. The first is the same thing that has taken away almost everyone’s ability to focus—the ubiquitous smartphone. Even as a career academic who studies the Quran in Arabic for fun, I have noticed my reading endurance flagging. I once found myself boasting at a faculty meeting that I had read through my entire hourlong train ride without looking at my phone. My colleagues agreed this was a major feat, one they had not achieved recently. Even if I rarely attain that high level of focus, though, I am able to “turn it on” when demanded, for instance to plow through a big novel during a holiday break. That’s because I was able to develop and practice those skills of extended concentration and attentive reading before the intervention of the smartphone. For children who were raised with smartphones, by contrast, that foundation is missing. It is probably no coincidence that the iPhone itself, originally released in 2007, is approaching college age, meaning that professors are increasingly dealing with students who would have become addicted to the dopamine hit of the omnipresent screen long before they were introduced to the more subtle pleasures of the page.

The second go-to explanation is the massive disruption of school closures during COVID-19. There is still some debate about the necessity of those measures, but what is not up for debate any longer is the very real learning loss that students suffered at every level. The impact will inevitably continue to be felt for the next decade or more, until the last cohort affected by the mass “pivot to online” finally graduates. I doubt that the pandemic closures were the decisive factor in themselves, however. Not only did the marked decline in reading resilience start before the pandemic, but the students I am seeing would have already been in high school during the school closures. Hence they would be better equipped to get something out of the online format and, more importantly, their basic reading competence would have already been established.

Less discussed than these broader cultural trends over which educators have little control are the major changes in reading pedagogy that have occurred in recent decades—some motivated by the ever-increasing demand to “teach to the test” and some by fads coming out of schools of education. In the latter category is the widely discussed decline in phonics education in favor of the “balanced literacy” approach advocated by education expert Lucy Calkins (who has more recently come to accept the need for more phonics instruction). I started to see the results of this ill-advised change several years ago, when students abruptly stopped attempting to sound out unfamiliar words and instead paused until they recognized the whole word as a unit. (In a recent class session, a smart, capable student was caught short by the word circumstances when reading a text out loud.) The result of this vibes-based literacy is that students never attain genuine fluency in reading. Even aside from the impact of smartphones, their experience of reading is constantly interrupted by their intentionally cultivated inability to process unfamiliar words.

For all the flaws of the balanced literacy method, it was presumably implemented by people who thought it would help. It is hard to see a similar motivation in the growing trend toward assigning students only the kind of short passages that can be included in a standardized test. Due in part to changes driven by the infamous Common Core standards, teachers now have to fight to assign their students longer readings, much less entire books, because those activities won’t feed directly into students getting higher test scores, which leads to schools getting more funding. The emphasis on standardized tests was always a distraction at best, but we have reached the point where it is actively cannibalizing students’ educational experience—an outcome no one intended or planned, and for which there is no possible justification.

. . . .

 I have to think that we can, at the very least, stop actively preventing young people from developing the ability to follow extended narratives and arguments in the classroom. Regardless of their profession or ultimate educational level, they will need those skills. The world is a complicated place. People—their histories and identities, their institutions and work processes, their fears and desires—are simply too complex to be captured in a worksheet with a paragraph and some reading comprehension questions. Large-scale prose writing is the best medium we have for capturing that complexity, and the education system should not be in the business of keeping students from learning how to engage effectively with it.

Link to the rest at Slate

PG will leave it to others to confirm or criticize the OP’s claims.

However, as he read the OP, he was reminded of several recent occasions in local restaurants where a young man and a young woman appeared to be on a date, but instead of talking with each other across the table, were each were texting rapidly, their focus exclusively on each of their smartphones.

6 Important Lessons from Covers of Critically Acclaimed Books

From The Book Designer:

A book cover is one of the biggest marketing tools a book has—especially in libraries and bookstores. While many readers like to judge a book by its contents, we often consider reading a book if its cover catches our eye. 

Now, what catches the eye of a reader is purely subjective; it depends largely on the aesthetic biases of the reader—whether that is illustrations, photographs, stark covers, busy covers, montages, heavily colored lettering, monotone typography, etc.

Despite this, you, as an author or book cover designer, can still attract your readers by using good art and/or striking colors on your book cover. In this article, we analyze six covers from critically acclaimed books and pinpoint what makes them so visually appealing.

. . . .

The Centre by Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi 

Cover design by Jonathan Bust, Art direction by Evan Gaffney 

Flowers are some of my favorite things to look at because they come in different colors and shapes (and scents, too, if you’re handling them in real life). So it’s no wonder the book cover of The Centre, caught my eye. 

The dark background made the reds, oranges, yellows, and pinks of the bouquet pop and catch my eye (and the eyes of thousands of readers worldwide). But the longer you look at the cover, you start to notice weird and disturbing details that slowly take center stage: the skull-shaped planter, the carnivorous Venus flytraps, the spilled coffee, and the thorny vines circling the cabinet on which the bouquet stands. 

Once you see these things, you know immediately that the contents of the book won’t be all roses and sunshine; there’ll be dark secrets lurking underneath all the beauty. And suddenly, you feel the urge to find out what those secrets are. 

Lesson: Putting a bright image or object against a dark background is a great way to make your book cover visually alluring. If it aligns with your book’s contents, you can also add some semi-concealed elements that keep people’s attention and awaken their curiosity.

. . . .

Every Drop is a Man’s Nightmare by Megan Kamalei Kakimoto

When I first saw this book cover, I was reminded of The Birth of Venus—a 15th-century painting by Italian artist, Sandro Botticelli, depicting the Roman goddess Venus arriving at the shore after her birth, standing on a giant scallop shell. The painting is stunning, much like this book cover depicting a woman emerging from a corpse flower growing in what looks like a body of iridescent blue water. 

The book itself is a collection of short stories with interesting, yet varied, Hawaiian characters whose lives and emotions burst through the pages and find their way into the hearts of readers. 

Lesson: While it might not be the case with this specific book cover, taking inspiration from popular paintings and cultural artwork to make your book cover art is a great way to make people go, “Oh wow—this reminds me of something I know!” 

The Thick and the Lean by Chana Porter

If you love fruits, this book cover will draw your attention like a magnet. It’ll do the same if you love interesting-looking art, too. The orange of the background blends well with the orange tones used to depict the contours of the woman’s body. The pears, however, interpose with this orange hue, allowing readers to separate the rich background from the center figure and the pomegranate that accentuates her curves.

If you think this book cover, coupled with the title, teases a tale about food, you’d be on the right track. The main characters of this book, Beatrice and Reiko, were born into a dystopian world governed by corporate greed where it’s taboo to enjoy food or have an appetite. This cover encapsulates the women’s fight against an oppressive system that glorifies undue fasting and thinness.

Lesson: While you want to make your book cover stand out from the stacks of books on the shelves, it’s okay to include familiar elements, even if those elements are food. You should, however, employ striking colors, adequate contrast, and a unique concept to make the cover art look interesting.

Link to the rest at The Book Designer

Why Some Are More Equal Than Others

From Literary Review:

The Remigia cave, about eighty miles north of Valencia, features paintings dating from around 6500 BC. Some depict bands of archers hunting ibex; others appear to show executions. These are the ones tourists come for. But the most significant image is the least dramatic. Fourteen individuals gather closely together, watching a lone figure departing from the group. It appears to be an ostracism – a social death, not a physical one.

The hunter-gatherer tribes of that era were perhaps the most equal communities in human history. But this egalitarianism was strictly bounded. Individuals who were not part of the tribe or who broke its norms were cast out or killed. Inclusion required exclusion.

In a famous essay, the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen pointed out that we are all in favour of equality. We just disagree about whether we mean equality of money, or power, or respect, or legal standing, or whatever. The question is ‘equality of what?’ But there is an even deeper question than this: ‘equality of whom?’ Where is the line between those considered as equals and those who are not – between the fourteen and the one?

This is the question animating Equality, a landmark work of intellectual history by Dartmouth historian Darrin McMahon. ‘Time and again we have seen controversies play out over equality’s “substance” and the degree to which it could admit of difference,’ McMahon writes. ‘Did equality imply common religious or national belonging? Was it delimited by sex, title, or race? Or did it free up individuals to make claims on the collective regardless of the fortunes of their birth?’

It is easy to invoke equality without facing its limits. Contra John Lennon, it is actually very hard to imagine a world with no countries. ‘For all the high-minded talk of “global equality” in recent times’, McMahon writes, ‘its contours have most often been imagined from within the walls of nation-states, where equality extends only to those who share a passport and more often than not a place of birth.’

McMahon has set himself an almost impossible task: to analyse humanity’s most powerful and contested idea throughout history and across the globe. Most attempts at total histories of ideas fail. Depth is sacrificed to achieve breadth, the reader is marched along too strict a chronological path or the author gets stuck in an etymological quagmire. But McMahon succeeds. This book is deeply researched, tightly argued and sparklingly written. It ought to be read by anyone interested in equality, and also anyone interested in people, history, God, politics, religion, nationalism, war or love.

The book is structured around what McMahon calls ‘figures’ of equality, a term he uses in the rhetorical sense of a ‘figure of speech’. These figures are explored in roughly chronological order, from ‘Reversal’, the overturning by hunter-gatherers of the dominance of our ape ancestors, all the way to ‘Dream’, the invoking by 20th-century reformers such as Martin Luther King of a new concept of equality founded on universal brotherhood. The only downside of this approach is that it involves a degree of repetition.

There’s no romanticisation in these pages. Not only did hunter-gatherers kill or expel in order to maintain order, they also formed hierarchies. Or rather, hierarchies formed them. McMahon insists that hierarchies are everywhere in human history, just as they exist in every primate community. Human beings ‘cannot live without hierarchies’, he writes, since ‘status is part of the air we breathe’.

One of the big advantages of human hierarchies is their diversity: there’s more than one way to be top dog. McMahon writes that ‘unlike animals, we regularly inhabit multiple hierarchies at once, with the result that a low-status individual in one environment, say a janitor at a corporation, may be a high-status individual, the captain of the company softball team, in another’. This insight is not developed, but it is critical. One way to square equality with hierarchies is to scramble them, not only over generations but also over the course of an average day. In other words, you defang hierarchies not by denying them but by multiplying them.

Link to the rest at Literary Review

Bonus Book About Equality

Writing Rules That Beg to Be Broken

From Jane Friedman:

The following are some of the so-called rules of writing fiction that I take a special delight in breaking. Creative writing is about possibilities, not about restrictions and limitations.

Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down.
In 1962, in a letter to a young writer, John Steinbeck added six tips for writing well. The above was one of those tips. Its error lies again, as all rules do, with its use of the absolute never. I frequently will not, because I cannot, begin a story or novel until I have crafted the perfect first paragraph. Of course there is no such thing as a perfect sentence, but the temporary confidence instilled by thinking that I have crafted one is what allows me to tackle a project that will consume my waking and sleeping hours for the next year or more. Stopping now and then to polish a faulty phrase or image is like taking another hit of confidence.

Five or six hits every morning keep me flying through the hours. But if I cannot fix a weakness within a minute or two, I will not allow my momentum to stall out with fretting and hand-wringing. Placing parentheses around the offending phrase, or highlighting the entire scene, will call my attention to it during the first rewrite.

I do not believe, as some practitioners apparently do, that a morning’s work is like a fast-moving stream through which one must dare not stop paddling, not even for a moment. Go ahead and stop if you want to. Pull ashore. Have lunch. Creep up as close as you can to that egret in the tree. Take a nap if you feel like it. In short, do whatever works for you. The imagination is resilient and flexible, and your routine should be too. But only if that works for you. I am most productive when I adhere, albeit loosely, to the discipline of beginning the morning with a bit of meditation, followed by four to six hours at my desk, followed by a good workout or hike. That’s my routine. It doesn’t have to be yours.

Write what you know.
In the days of Thoreau and earlier, when it was necessary to walk several miles to consult with someone more knowledgeable than you, Ernest Hemingway’s write what you know might have been sound advice. Hemingway also said that every writer needs a friend in every profession, someone whose expertise can be accessed—a statement that appears to contradict the earlier statement.

In order to do my research back in the 1970s and 80s, I had to visit a small-town library every week to order another load of books on interlibrary loan, which made the librarian my best friend. Today, a writer’s best friend is the internet.

I feel certain that Hemingway’s write what you know admonition was not intended to be an absolute. A clearer rendition of that advice would be to write what you know after you’ve done a ton of research and before you forget it all. And always remember that you are writing fiction. Fiction is stuff you make up. You can do that too. You can make stuff up.

Back at the turn of the millennium, I signed a contract, based on a single opening scene, to write two historical mysteries featuring Edgar Allan Poe for Thomas Dunne Books. I had never before written a historical novel and was not confident I could create a convincing New York City of 1840. In one scene it was necessary for me to get Poe across the East River in short order so that he could hotfoot it to Manhattan. I spent weeks trying to find a bridge he could cross or a ferry that would convey him in the allotted time. No such luck. I was stuck. I moaned about this impasse to a friend of mine who was also a writer, and he said, “It’s fiction, Silvis. Make up a bridge.”

Frequently it is the not knowing that brings a story alive, the writer’s desire to know what he does not, which then leads to the character’s discovery of what she did not know, and then the reader’s delight in participating in that discovery.

Show, don’t tell.
A favorite admonition among writing teachers all over the world. This admonition is only half false. The true part is that good fiction is built on dramatic scenes comprised of action, dialogue, description, and conflict—i.e. showing through visual and other sensory details and strong, active verbs. But a certain amount of telling is necessary too. Summary and exposition hold the scenes together. Telling bridges the time gap between scenes and between relevant beats. A little bit of telling, even if it’s something as simple as “Two weeks later,” opens nearly every new scene and every chapter.

So, once again, the problem with the rule is not that it is wholly false but that it is stated too rigidly. Summarization complements dramatization in every novel. In some, it shoulders the narrative load. Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, for example, is a brilliant novel that is almost wholly told rather than shown.

In general, the more “literary” a novel is, the more it relies on reflection, speculation, and summaries of events. That is why a literary novel is so hard to adapt for the screen; so much of the momentum of the story is interior, taking place only in the characters’ heads.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman ran into this very problem when attempting to adapt Susan Orlean’s nonfiction The Orchid Thief for film. The problem was so infuriating that he finally seized upon introducing himself into the story as twins, one of whom was being driven mad by attempting to write the adaptation without sacrificing the book’s artistic integrity, and the other as a hack only too ready to pander to Hollywood’s lack of artistic integrity by changing the story willy-nilly. “Show, don’t tell” is fine advice if you are aiming for a quick sale of movie rights, or if you are fifteen years old and learning how to write in scenes, but the proper amendment of the phrase for the rest of us should be “show when you can, but tell whenever showing isn’t necessary.”

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Judge rejects most ChatGPT copyright claims from book authors

From Ars Technica:

A US district judge in California has largely sided with OpenAI, dismissing the majority of claims raised by authors alleging that large language models powering ChatGPT were illegally trained on pirated copies of their books without their permission.

By allegedly repackaging original works as ChatGPT outputs, authors alleged, OpenAI’s most popular chatbot was just a high-tech “grift” that seemingly violated copyright laws, as well as state laws preventing unfair business practices and unjust enrichment.

According to judge Araceli Martínez-Olguín, authors behind three separate lawsuits—including Sarah Silverman, Michael Chabon, and Paul Tremblay—have failed to provide evidence supporting any of their claims except for direct copyright infringement.

OpenAI had argued as much in their promptly filed motion to dismiss these cases last August. At that time, OpenAI said that it expected to beat the direct infringement claim at a “later stage” of the proceedings.

Among copyright claims tossed by Martínez-Olguín were accusations of vicarious copyright infringement. Perhaps most significantly, Martínez-Olguín agreed with OpenAI that the authors’ allegation that “every” ChatGPT output “is an infringing derivative work” is “insufficient” to allege vicarious infringement, which requires evidence that ChatGPT outputs are “substantially similar” or “similar at all” to authors’ books.

“Plaintiffs here have not alleged that the ChatGPT outputs contain direct copies of the copyrighted books,” Martínez-Olguín wrote. “Because they fail to allege direct copying, they must show a substantial similarity between the outputs and the copyrighted materials.”

Authors also failed to convince Martínez-Olguín that OpenAI violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) by allegedly removing copyright management information (CMI)—such as author names, titles of works, and terms and conditions for use of the work—from training data.

This claim failed because authors cited “no facts” that OpenAI intentionally removed the CMI or built the training process to omit CMI, Martínez-Olguín wrote. Further, the authors cited examples of ChatGPT referencing their names, which would seem to suggest that some CMI remains in the training data.

Arguing that OpenAI caused economic injury by unfairly repurposing authors’ works, even if authors could show evidence of a DMCA violation, authors could only speculate about what injury was caused, the judge said.

. . . .

The only claim under California’s unfair competition law that was allowed to proceed alleged that OpenAI used copyrighted works to train ChatGPT without authors’ permission. Because the state law broadly defines what’s considered “unfair,” Martínez-Olguín said that it’s possible that OpenAI’s use of the training data “may constitute an unfair practice.”

Remaining claims of negligence and unjust enrichment failed, Martínez-Olguín wrote, because authors only alleged intentional acts and did not explain how OpenAI “received and unjustly retained a benefit” from training ChatGPT on their works.

Authors have been ordered to consolidate their complaints and have until March 13 to amend arguments and continue pursuing any of the dismissed claims.

To shore up the tossed copyright claims, authors would likely need to provide examples of ChatGPT outputs that are similar to their works, as well as evidence of OpenAI intentionally removing CMI to “induce, enable, facilitate, or conceal infringement,” Martínez-Olguín wrote.

. . . .

As authors likely prepare to continue fighting OpenAI, the US Copyright Office has been fielding public input before releasing guidance that could one day help rights holders pursue legal claims and may eventually require works to be licensed from copyright owners for use as training materials. Among the thorniest questions is whether AI tools like ChatGPT should be considered authors when spouting outputs included in creative works.

While the Copyright Office prepares to release three reports this year “revealing its position on copyright law in relation to AI,” according to The New York Times, OpenAI recently made it clear that it does not plan to stop referencing copyrighted works in its training data. Last month, OpenAI said it would be “impossible” to train AI models without copyrighted materials, because “copyright today covers virtually every sort of human expression—including blogposts, photographs, forum posts, scraps of software code, and government documents.”

According to OpenAI, it doesn’t just need old copyrighted materials; it needs current copyright materials to ensure that chatbot and other AI tools’ outputs “meet the needs of today’s citizens.”

Link to the rest at Ars Technica