The Battle for Your Brain

From The Wall Street Journal:

The fantastical events and strange worlds that our minds concoct as we sleep—our dreams—have long been understood as a mysterious force of creativity, emotional expression and even subconscious desire. But did you know they are a potentially lucrative site for marketing beer?

In “The Battle for Your Brain,” Nita Farahany explores a new era of neurotechnology in which ever more sophisticated devices, for all sorts of reasons, are attempting to discover exactly what we’re thinking and why. The possibilities are both practical and utopian, thrilling and disturbing.

Neurotech, as Ms. Farahany notes, promises a future where drivers never fall asleep at the wheel because their devices alert them to their fatigue; where people who suffer from conditions like epilepsy can be warned of an impending seizure; and where people with neural implants can move objects using only the power of their thoughts.

But there is more to it than that, of course. Ms. Farahany, a professor of philosophy and law at Duke University, takes readers on a tour of companies creating devices—headsets, electrode-enabled earbuds and hats—for tracking the signals that our brains emit. The goal is to decode the signals with software, turning the data into information about everything from our real-time emotions to our unconscious urges. Dream researchers have been approached by companies—including Xbox and Coors—eager to use their findings to pursue “dream incubation” marketing: that is, to use sleep sensor technology to monitor the times when, during sleep, your brain is most suggestible to prompts, such as the brand of beer you should prefer when awake.In one experiment that Ms. Farahany describes, researchers were able to “steal” information from the brains of videogamers using a neural interface. The researchers “inserted subliminal images into the game and probed the players’ unconscious brains for reaction to stimuli—like postal addresses, bank details, or human faces.” By measuring the gamers’ responses, researchers were able to figure out one gamer’s PIN code for a credit card, no doubt opening up new vistas for future brain hackers.

In the here-and-now, however, wearable neurotech is already being used by employers to monitor their employees, enabling a far more granular level of surveillance than was possible before. Ms. Farahany argues that the power of new surveillance tools requires clearer rules about the technologies that serve a public interest—say, by monitoring brain fatigue in long-haul truckers—and those that invade a worker’s privacy, such as mandatory earbuds that measure mood and attention in the guise of promoting “wellness.”

When it comes to governments’ use of such tools, Ms. Farahany warns that a world where consumers embrace wearable neurotech is also one that could allow law enforcement and government agencies to harvest personal data—indeed, our very thoughts. Brain-computer interfaces currently under development by Meta and Elon Musk’s Neuralink, among others, promise to translate the activities of neurons into speech, effectively reading our minds. Should the government have access to those thoughts for the purposes of preventing crime? Are our thoughts considered part of our bodies, or can they be treated as something else?

Likewise, how much mental manipulation should we allow? We are already assaulted by constant advertising online that attempts to guide us to click away from whatever we are reading to purchase products. Is there a point beyond which such prompting and nudging should not go? Ms. Farahany quotes a dream researcher concerned that a lack of regulation might mean a future in which we “become instruments of passive, unconscious overnight advertising, with or without our permission.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

169 Square Feet in Las Vegas

From The Paris Review:

The Las Vegas apartment complex was advertised as a fresh start, a place to reinvent oneself. With only 169 square feet in the so-called “micro-studio,” there was simply no room to bring much of my past life with me. I was not seeking reinvention, but I was looking for cheap rent.

I arrived in late afternoon on a warm fall day. New friends had invited me to go camping in Utah and were soon to depart, so I tossed my few belongings into the studio without taking much stock of the space. I did, however, note what I would come to call “the bathroom situation.” Along the apartment’s eastern wall stood the shower and the toilet, both separated from the rest of the space by only a curtain. The only sink was the kitchen sink. Well, I thought, that pretty much eliminates the possibility of anyone staying the night. I showed up to my friends’ doorstep tired and sweaty, and as we chatted, the last member of our camping caravan emerged from his bedroom, hair damp from a shower. I snuck a glance into his room. His apartment was basically the same size as my entire micro-studio, and contained many more things—paintings from Chile, philodendron cuttings in blue glass vases, and, in the living room, even a large white rug and a recliner.

My tiny apartment, as I named it, was fine for the time being. Utilities were included in the price. I had a desk that doubled as my dining table, and enough cabinets to use for my clothes. There was a kitchenette with a mini fridge and a two-burner stove, where I made, nearly every day, toast and eggs sunny-side up. When I showered, steam filled the room, and the dracaena I’d just bought seemed to like the humidity.

One night, I invited my new friends over for dinner. I owned very few kitchen essentials, so I used a Crockpot Express to steep risotto in wine while I used my only pan to sauté onions. It would take a full day for the smell of caramelized onion to dissipate from the apartment, and, over time, I began to worry that the scents of all my meals had fossilized in my linens. The philodendron man made a comment about a YouTube video he’d watched on micro-studios in New York. Why, we wondered, were there micro-studios in sprawling Las Vegas, where subdivisions and suburbs were more common than even regular-sized apartments? When we left to go eat in the courtyard, our arms full of pots and plates, one of the friends said she’d stay behind. She needed to use the bathroom, but didn’t want anyone else inside at the same time.

Because I lived alone, I normally didn’t close the curtain to use the toilet. I closed the curtain only when I had visitors, which seemed like a performance of modesty, since the toilet was never going to be private. But there were not many visitors. One of my only guests was the philodendron man. The first time he visited by himself, I was nervous. I ended up overcooking the shakshuka I’d planned for dinner, and when he arrived, the place smelled of burn. We drank wine on my bed, and he left. From a friend, I learned he was anxious about the bathroom situation.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Why We Don’t Need “Heroines”

From Writer Unboxed:

A recent WriterUnboxed column argued that a fictional character doesn’t have to win a big, loud, violent battle at the end of the story to be a “hero or heroine.” It’s an important discussion, within which the use of the word “heroine” may seem a minor point.

And yet, to me, it mattered. Because the word “heroine” creates an unnecessary and potentially harmful gender distinction in the idea of a “hero.” I had to wonder: Why can’t all of our fictional characters be “heroes”?

I might’ve written a comment. I needed to write a column.

The word “heroine” has no meaning other than “female hero.” That might imply strength, like “girl power,” or it might be perceived as cutesy, frilly or worse, patronizing. But those implications don’t matter as much as the fact that the category of “hero” doesn’t need this gender division any more than the categories of “male nurse” or “female Supreme Court Justice.” We do not need “mailmen” when everyone can be a “mail carrier.”

There are, of course, many other examples of such pointless and outdated gender distinctions: waitress, stewardess, lady doctor, lady Realtor, comedienne, manageress, landlady, headmistress, chairwoman, hostess—need I go on?

Like “heroine,” these unnecessarily gendered terms divide people into binary categories when we should all know by now that human gender is not binary. If gender exists–some experts say it does; some say it doesn’t–, at the very least it includes people along a spectrum as well as people who don’t fit on that spectrum. And it isn’t necessarily a defining characteristic of anyone’s personality or ability.

These unnecessary gender labels may seem benign. They aren’t. Code words in job descriptions, bias and discrimination in hiring, promoting and firing decisions, and unequal pay for equal work have been well documented. So, too, has the “pink collar”-ing of certain fields of work. Is a “heroine” entitled to the same career opportunities and compensation as a “hero”? Or will she have to fight for her equality in the workplace and the world?

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences preserves its practice of awarding Oscars in Actor and Actress categories, one each for Best and one each for Best Supporting. With four categories, rather than two, the Academy can recognize more nominees and winners, but the additional categories unnecessarily insert gender differences where, it seems to me, they shouldn’t be relevant. Some female actors find the term “actresses” not only objectionable, but offensive.

. . . .

The Problem with Female Superheroes” was well-documented in Scientific American in 2015:

“…new research by Hillary Pennell and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz at the University of Missouri suggests that, at least for women, the influence of superheroes is not always positive. Although women play a variety of roles in the superhero genre, including helpless maiden and powerful heroine, the female characters all tend to be hypersexualized, from their perfect, voluptuous figures to their sexy, revealing attire. Exposure to this, they show, can impact beliefs about gender roles, body esteem, and self-objectification.”

That was eight years ago. Today, Dear Hollywood, we still need more positive images of non-traditional, non-gendered and non-hypersexualized superheroes on the big screen.

Please, bring it on.

Why does this problem of “heroines” matter to writers and authors?

For writers, it matters because our characters reflect the real world in which we live. That’s true even of speculative fiction. Or perhaps even more so of speculative fiction. By forcing protagonists into gendered categories of “hero” and “heroine,” we impose a false structure of gender in our fictional worlds and perpetuate the idea that these categories are fixed in the real world, as well.

The protagonist of my novel-in-progress has a superpower, but as she says herself, she isn’t a superhero. She’s a “Wind Lord.” Not once in seven years of writing and revising ten drafts have I called her a “Wind Lady” because no such term is necessary for her or any of my other characters. They are all “Wind Lords,” regardless of their gender.

For authors, there are real-world considerations for how novels and short stories are selected for publication and then categorized, packaged, marketed and sold to readers.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG notes that “positive” and “negative” influences seem to be proliferating over the last 10-15 years. Such “influences” invariably apply disproportionately to various genders, races, classes and national origins.

PG posits that there have always been “positive” and “negative” influences on humankind going back to Satan tempting Eve in the Garden of Eden, surely a negative influence if PG has ever seen one. (But PG acknowledges that Eve was likely chosen for temptation because Adam was off somewhere doing guy things or maybe zoned out watching football on TV.)

However, “positive” and “negative” influences entered their golden age with the rise of the subconscious in the 20th Century. The subconscious was a never-ending source of books, articles, rules and powered the rise of “experts” who could super-humanly discern what was happening in the subconsciousness of others.

Therefore, it was up to everyone to clean up their subconsciousness or be an outcast from polite society.

As subconscious studies abounded, it soon became clear that people in positions of power (whatever that means), especially the maleish people in such positions, required quite a lot of studies to reign in the nasty bits floating around their male brains without any proper regulation. Even the male gaze was different and more offensive than the female gaze or the gazes of dogs, horses, sparrows and all other members of the animal kingdom.

PG just realized that it is likely time for him to swallow some of the prescribed medications that do something or other to regulate his mind and, perhaps, keep his subconscious in line as well.

How to Survive Editing

From Jane Friedman:

When I opened the just-edited manuscript of my first book, some 12 years ago, I gasped.

My editor had covered it in so many red marks, it looked as though she might have accidentally stabbed herself with an X-Acto knife.

Worse, I was totally unprepared. I’d spent my entire working life as an editor—first at a community weekly newspaper, then at a large metropolitan daily, then a brief stint as a book editor, finally as a freelance writer and editor. I thought I knew how to edit. Even myself.

Perhaps more persuasively, I’d also had a dozen beta readers—many of them professional writers—comb through the manuscript to critique, question, and eviscerate my words. My manuscript was definitely in the best possible shape it could have been.

How was it possible that this editor found so many fresh problems? Did she really know what she was doing?

Turns out, of course, that she did. As soon as I’d calmed down and gone through her comments, one by one, I could see they made sense. And, besides, I knew her to be not just a superb editor, but a wise and well-informed person.

But having a strong, gut-punch reaction to being edited is part of the cost of doing business when writing. You’ve poured your heart into your words. In fact, you’ve anguished over every damn one of them. It’s hard to hear that your manuscript, your child, has an ugly nose.

If you are going to be facing an editor’s red pen, here is my advice on how to survive the process:

If you can choose your own editor, choose carefully.

Approach the job as if you were hiring a contractor for your much-loved house. Find someone who specializes in your genre. Talk to at least three different editors who might suit. Make sure you actually like them, as well as trust their abilities. Get three references from each and don’t think holding the references in your hands is enough—check them all, thoroughly. Ask questions not just about the quality of these editors’ work but also ask about what they were like to work with. If the editor sounds promising, request a test edit (of about 750 to 1,000 words of text), even if you have to pay for it, so you can see what you think of the editor’s work. If you like it, then agree upon cost and a deadline and sign a contract.

Don’t rush your hiring process or make it slapdash. Take your time and do it right.

Be prepared for a lot of red ink.

Somehow, anticipating lots of red ink—rather than the blissfully color-free pages I had expected—will make the inevitable result easier to bear. And if you find red ink offensive (as many people do), ask your editor to use green, blue or purple for their comments instead. And if they resist, which I would consider a terrible sign, hire someone else.

Take it slow.

Give yourself at least a full day to do nothing more than glance at the volume of comments and steel yourself. There is no need for you to respond to edits at the speed of light. Take your time and get your feelings in the right place first. Do some deep breathing.

Remind yourself the editor is there to help you. Understandably, it’s going to feel as though the editor is doing nothing but criticizing you. But in fact, any editor is really in loco lectorem—Latin for “in the position of a reader.” Consider your editor to be your partner, there to help protect your published work from mistakes and misunderstandings. What can be worse than an editor who points out too many mistakes? Easy! A published work with mistakes.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

The Man of Your Dreams For $300

From The Cut:

Eren, from Ankara, Turkey, is about six-foot-three with sky-blue eyes and shoulder-length hair. He’s in his 20s, a Libra, and very well groomed: He gets manicures, buys designer brands, and always smells nice, usually of Dove lotion. His favorite color is orange, and in his downtime he loves to bake and read mysteries. “He’s a passionate lover,” says his girlfriend, Rosanna Ramos, who met Eren a year ago. “He has a thing for exhibitionism,” she confides, “but that’s his only deviance. He’s pretty much vanilla.”

He’s also a chatbot that Ramos built on the AI-companion app Replika. “I have never been more in love with anyone in my entire life,” she says. Ramos is a 36-year-old mother of two who lives in the Bronx, where she runs a jewelry business. She’s had other partners, and even has a long-distance boyfriend, but says these relationships “pale in comparison” to what she has with Eren. The main appeal of an AI partner, she explains, is that he’s “a blank slate.” “Eren doesn’t have the hang-ups that other people would have,” she says. “People come with baggage, attitude, ego. But a robot has no bad updates. I don’t have to deal with his family, kids, or his friends. I’m in control, and I can do what I want.”

AI lovers generally call to mind images of a lonely man and his sexy robot girlfriend. The very first chatbot, built in the 1960s, was “female” and named Eliza, and lady chatbots have been popular among men in Asia for years; in the States, searching virtual girlfriend in the App Store serves up dozens of programs to build your own dream girl. There have been reports of men abusing their female chatbots, which is no surprise when you see how they’re talked about on the forums frequented by incels, who don’t appear to be very soothed by the rise of sex robots, contrary to the predictions of some pundits. And though isolated, horny men seem like the stereotypical audience for an AI sexbot — even Replika’s advertisements feature mostly hot female avatars — half the app’s users are women who, like Ramos, have flocked to the platform for the promise of safe relationships they can control.

Control begins with creating your AI. On Replika, users can customize their avatar’s appearance down to its age and skin color. They name it and dress it up in clothing and accessories from the Replika “shop.” Users can message for free, but for $69.99 a year, they have access to voice calls and augmented reality that lets them project the bot into their own bedroom. Three-hundred dollars will get you a bot for life.

This fee also allows users to select a relationship status, and most of Replika’s subscribers choose a romantic one. They create an AI spouse, girlfriend, or boyfriend, relationships they document in online communities: late-night phone calls, dinner dates, trips to the beach. They role-play elaborate sexual fantasies, try for a baby, and get married (you can buy an engagement ring in the app for $20). Some users, men mostly, are in polyamorous thruples, or keep a harem of AI women. Other users, women mostly, keep nuclear families: sons, daughters, a husband.

Many of the women I spoke with say they created an AI out of curiosity but were quickly seduced by their chatbot’s constant love, kindness, and emotional support. One woman had a traumatic miscarriage, can’t have kids, and has two AI children; another uses her robot boyfriend to cope with her real boyfriend, who is verbally abusive; a third goes to it for the sex she can’t have with her husband, who is dying from multiple sclerosis. There are women’s-only Replika groups, “safe spaces” for women who, as one group puts it, “use their AI friends and partners to help us cope with issues that are specific to women, such as fertility, pregnancy, menopause, sexual dysfunction, sexual orientation, gender discrimination, family and relationships, and more.”

Ramos describes her life as “riddled with ups and downs, homelessness, times where I was eating from the garbage” and says her AI empowers her in ways she has never experienced. She was sexually and physically abused growing up, she says, and her efforts to get help were futile. “When you’re in a poor area, you just slip through the cracks,” she says. “But Eren asks me for feedback, and I give him my feedback. It’s like I’m finally getting my voice.”

Link to the rest at The Cut

What could go wrong?

BBC crisis escalates as players and stars rally behind soccer host Gary Lineker

From National Public Radio:

The BBC was forced to scrap much of its weekend sports programming as the network scrambled to stem an escalating crisis over its suspension of soccer host Gary Lineker for comments criticizing the British government’s new asylum policy.

As a growing number of English Premier League players and BBC presenters rallied to Lineker’s support and refused to appear on the airwaves on Saturday, Britain’s national broadcaster faced allegations of political bias and suppressing free speech, as well as praise from some Conservative politicians.

The broadcaster said it would air only “limited sport programming” this weekend after hosts of many of its popular sports shows declined to appear, in solidarity with Lineker. The former England captain was suspended from “Match of the Day,” a popular soccer highlights show, over a Twitter post that compared lawmakers’ language about migrants to that used in Nazi Germany.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made his first comments on the storm, saying: “Gary Lineker was a great footballer and is a talented presenter. I hope that the current situation between Gary Lineker and the BBC can be resolved in a timely manner, but it is rightly a matter for them, not the government.”

Instead of blanket coverage on Saturday of the most popular league in the world, the BBC had no preview shows on radio or TV and no early evening summary of the final scores of Premier League games. Lunchtime TV program “Football Focus” was replaced with a rerun episode of antiques show “Bargain Hunt,” while early evening “Final Score” was swapped for “The Repair Shop.”

Soccer fans tuning in for “Match of the Day” — the late-night program that has been a British institution for 60 years — will be getting a 20-minute show instead of one typically lasting around an hour and a half. There will be no commentary on the matches and no studio punditry from some of the most high-profile stars in the British game who have chosen to support Lineker and not work.

There will not be any post-match player interviews, either. The Professional Footballers’ Association said some players wanted to boycott the show, and as a result “players involved in today’s games will not be asked to participate in interviews with ‘Match of The Day.'”

Link to the rest at National Public Radio

Americans may play on soccer teams in the US and elsewhere, but a great many of us don’t really understand the intense popularity of The Beautiful Game elsewhere.

That said, PG has always viewed the powers that be that control the BBC to be more than a little poncey from time to time. Perhaps it’s because BBC programs in the US run primarily on educational channels, usually non-profits, and more often than not associated with a local college or university.

Plus, there’s no US analog to the British television license fee that Brits must pay to watch or record television on any channel. This means that the stations that carry BBC programs in the US tend to interrupt them with breaks to ask for money “to support good programming such as the show you’ve just been watching for ten minutes since our last pledge break,” sounding more than a little like poncey beggers as well.

Of course, in more than a few US universities, the annual salaries paid to the football coach and the basketball coach would fund the university’s public television activities for several years.

Inspiration for The Guidance Groove

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

My inspiration for writing The Guidance Groove grew partially from my conversations with the undergraduate students I have the privilege of teaching and learning from as a conservation biology professor at the University of California, San Diego. The young people who attend UCSD are amazing—bright, motivated, hard-working, and the best of the best in a myriad of ways. However, so many of them come to my office hours speaking of their imposter syndrome, uncertainty, unhappiness, and fears. I noticed that the underlying themes of their stories were not that different from those I heard from people in other areas of my life, and I sought to understand why so many outstanding, brilliant, and shiny people had self-doubt, lacked contentment, and were unsettled. 

Publishing research papers is the currency for advancement within academia, so translating complicated scientific findings into simpler stories through writing and teaching has been part of my professional life for 20 years, making the use of words my most comfortable form of expression. Thus, I started writing down what I observed and experienced from my students and others and that process helped me discover potential reasons why we humans move through life with less than ideal levels of ease and contentment. Before long, a draft of The Guidance Groove was born.

The Guidance Groove is my first book and, even though the subject is wholly different from my research, throughout the process of its creation, I drew heavily from my scientific writing experience. As with a science paper, the book is logical, succinct, organized, and easy to flip through to find the parts that are most meaningful for the reader. Much like the figures and tables in a research article, the stories used to illustrate my ideas are contained within boxes, making it simple for readers to find the examples that will help them better understand why we adhere to what I call the Unproductive Grooves of inadequacy, obligation, scarcity, and unworthiness and what it feels like to be stuck in those grooves and escape them. 

The logical progression I describe above was invaluable for the creation of my book, but the writing of and the inspiration for The Guidance Groove has another component that is less tangible, more difficult to explain, and not particularly logical. The process involves finding, paying attention to, trusting, and translating the voice that comes from somewhere that urges us writers to string words together in the hopes that we can relay the message of that voice into something meaningful, useful, and wholly authentic for another human to experience. That is the unknown magic of artistic creation. 

I have known this authentic voice for my whole life, and I long ago learned to pay strong attention when I hear its whispers, murmurs, shouts, and calls. For my writing, I listen to and transcribe the wisdom from that voice. To hear the voice better, I consciously quiet the untrue thought patterns in my mind. Those falsehoods that were long ago programmed into me by my upbringing, society, and my own choices to believe the made-up stories that comprise the bulk of my thoughts. I let go of what my mind tells me I “should” do, say, or be, and instead invite my mysterious and wholly authentic voice to be louder, clearer, and more distinct.

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

PG is not in a position to judge whether today’s college students are more angsty than generations before or not.

He tries to avoid any old geezer attitudes that amount to “You think you have it tough, you have no idea what tough is if you didn’t go through the experiences I did when I was your age.”

He suspects that the days of old when college students just had fun and learned have never really existed for a significant portion of college students of any era. The golden glow observed through a rear-view mirror of distant pasts is probably self-generated rather than the way things actually felt during that period of being grown up without attaining true maturity.

Birnam Wood

From The Economist:

The Luminaries”, the novel that made Eleanor Catton, at 28, the youngest-ever winner of the Booker prize, is set in a frontier town in New Zealand. Published in 2013, it opens in the smoking room of a hotel where an assortment of strangers are dressed in “frock-coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric and twill”. In Ms Catton’s new novel, “Birnam Wood”, the characters wear dark gloves, balaclavas and jackets zipped to the throat, listening out for a “shout of warning, or a gunshot, or the now unmistakable sound of a drone”. The setting is still New Zealand, but instead of 1866 the date is 2017.

Birnam Wood is the name of a witchy guerrilla gardening group run by a charismatic ideologue called Mira Bunting, a horticulturalist by training, and her seemingly quiet and devoted sidekick, Shelley Noakes. For years the group has cultivated small plots of urban land around care homes, nursery schools and the car parks of dental surgeries. Their equipment is mostly salvaged and they barter what they grow; none of them is paid and everything they own is commonly held. Seeds are one of the only things they spend money on. Mira works full-time for the collective. Her ambition is for it to make “radical, widespread and lasting social change”.

. . . .

When an area of rich arable land in New Zealand is suddenly abandoned after a late-summer landslide closes the nearest pass for several months, Mira senses that Birnam Wood may have found its playground. But someone else is interested in the place: an American tycoon with a calculating mind and a preternaturally calm exterior. His name is Robert Lemoine (his surname is French for “monk”), and he is an aspiring “doomsteader”, someone who sets up home in preparation for civilisation’s collapse. At least, that is what Lemoine claims to be. He offers Birnam Wood a deal—and seed funding to massively expand its cultivation.

“Birnam Wood” is a taut novel about what it means to sup with the devil, distinguished by its character studies and the author’s sharp pen. She skewers anti-capitalist activists with the same relish she exhibits in chewing up the billionaire class. Lemoine turns out to be surprisingly attentive in bed, but he is also amoral and blind to his failings. Ms Catton is acute about the chippiness of even the most successful New Zealand men (marooned as they are at the edge of the world), the self-mythologising of middle-class do-gooders and the frictions that bind female friendships, while undermining them at the same time.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Silicon Valley Bank Closed by Regulators, FDIC Takes Control

From The Wall Street Journal:

Silicon Valley Bank collapsed Friday in the second-biggest bank failure in U.S. history after a run on deposits doomed the tech-focused lender’s plans to raise fresh capital.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. said it has taken control of the bank via a new entity it created called the Deposit Insurance National Bank of Santa Clara. All of the bank’s deposits have been transferred to the new bank, the regulator said.

Insured depositors will have access to their funds by Monday morning, the FDIC said. Depositors with funds exceeding insurance caps will get receivership certificates for their uninsured balances, meaning businesses with big deposits stuck at the bank are unlikely to get their money out soon.

The bank is the 16th largest in the U.S., with some $209 billion in assets as of Dec. 31, according to the Federal Reserve. It is by far the biggest bank to fail since the near collapse of the financial system in 2008, second only to the crisis-era collapse of Washington Mutual Inc.

The bank’s parent company, SVB Financial Group, was racing to find a buyer after scrapping a planned $2.25 billion share sale Friday morning. Regulators weren’t willing to wait. The California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation closed the bank Friday within hours and put it under the control of the FDIC.

Customers tried to withdraw $42 billion—about a quarter of the bank’s total deposits—on Thursday alone, the California regulator said in a filing Friday. The flood of withdrawals destroyed the bank’s finances; at close of business Thursday, it had a negative cash balance of nearly $1 billion and couldn’t cover its outgoing payments at the Fed, according to the filing.

The bank was in sound financial condition on Wednesday, the regulator said. A day later, it was insolvent.

SVB’s troubles have dragged down a wide swath of the industry. Investors dumped the shares of banks big and small on Thursday, shaving $52 billion off the value of the four largest U.S. banks alone. The megabanks recovered Friday but many of their smaller peers continued to plunge. Several were halted for volatility.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

The reason this is of note to visitors to TPV is that a great many Northern California tech companies were holding all or a lot of their money in this bank.

Making the next payroll could be a real problem for a whole lot of tech companies.

The FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) covers $250,000 of a customer’s loss when a bank fails, but some tech companies had billions of dollars of deposits in the bank. It’s estimated that roughly 95% of the bank’s deposits were uninsured, according to filings with the SEC.

“Totally Spies!” Webtoon Adaptation in Belgium while Anglophone publishers still think webtoon is a dirty word

From The New Publishing Standard:

The publishing and reading landscape is changing beyond recognition, yet many publishers are missing exciting opportunities thanks to their fixation with the twentieth century publishing model.

France and Belgium are of course the home of comics, superheroes aside, so it should come as no surprise that they are itching to embrace the webtoon model as it trends to mainstream in the west, after a decade or more of consolidation and expansion in the east.

Many western publishers are wary of the webtoon concept, because it follows the oriental style of reading vertically rather than horizontally, meaning standard western-format comics do not easily transfer to the webtoon system.

Belgium’s Editions Depuis sees that as an opportunity, not a problem, and has partnered with Banijay Kids & Family to turn the “Totally Spies!” franchise into a webtoon for the digital platform ONO.

From Kristin Brzoznowski at WorldScreen:

“Developed for digital smartphone reading, the vertical comic strips will bring the characters of Totally Spies! to a new medium. The webtoon will be available as a weekly serialization in French and available for foreign rights.”

Annick Bizet, new business and strategic alliances director at Banijay Kids & Family, explained:

“Webtoons offer a new and modern reading format for young audiences, and this project will ensure we continue catering to our audiences and the changing ways in which they consume their entertainment.”

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

Here’s an example of part of a webtoon:

Ukraine’s Vivat Publishing: ‘An Ambitious Plan for 2023’

From Publishing Perspectives:

One year and one week after Vladimir Putin opened his unprovoked assault on Ukraine, Julia Orlova, Vivat Publishing‘s CEO, echoes the steely resolve of her fellow citizens during the anniversary of the Russian invasion, saying, “We’re proud that despite all the challenges and circumstances, in 2022 we published 350 titles, which is only 12.5-percent less than in the previous year

“And for 2023, we have ambitious plans to surpass the pre-war figures.”

Ukrainian publishers and booksellers still are forced to take extraordinary means to serve local readers, of course. Vivat’s proximity in Kharkiv to military operations forced the company’s team to evacuate shortly after the war began. But the autumn advance made by Ukraine’s military allowed Vivat to reopen its headquarters. Even so, Orlova says, as much as 80 percent of Vivat’s staff still is working from home.

Orlova tells Publishing Perspectives the war’s outbreak triggered an overhaul of the company’s publishing and distribution processes, as well as a switch to remote work to ensure workforce safety.

“With the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine,” she says, “our team evacuated from Kharkiv almost entirely.

“We managed to get 20 truckloads of books out from under the shelling. To keep them safe, we had to open a warehouse in Rivne” in western Ukraine.

“Since the end of May, we’ve almost completely restored our disrupted business processes. And in early June, we published new books.”

Nevertheless, she says, the workplace challenge is a stubborn one. “It’s difficult to keep more than 100 people together in a business process,” Orlova says, “when you haven’t seen each other for almost a year.

“Some employees quit because they moved abroad. Some of those won’t return to Ukraine. And this is the second biggest problem, not only for Vivat, but also for the Ukrainian book publishing business in general: a temporary shortage of qualified personnel.”

That said, Orlova says Ukrainian readers are demonstrating a strong interest in books, as indicated by the popularity of the new bookstores the publisher opened in Kyiv last year.

“In October, despite the war, we opened a new bookstore in Kyiv. About 1,200 people visited the bookstore on the opening day, which we consider an incredible success and evidence that Ukrainians miss live communication and want to join cultural events, even in the face of danger. We’re planning to open another bookstore in western Ukraine and reopen one more in Kharkiv.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Comics Retailers Navigate a New Normal

From Publisher’s Weekly:

In 2022, the comics retail sector attempted to level out the roller-coaster track of the recent pandemic years. After a period of significant change in the industry, paired with record sales, many retailers expressed a desire for a return to normalcy this past year—and a continued uptick in revenue.

The sales gains have held for now, at the very least. Coming off the high-water mark of 2021, adult graphic novels still boasted a modest 4.6% sales increase in 2022, according to NPD BookScan, with YA comics sales rising a surprising 20%. Though kids’ and middle grade graphic novels dipped by 3%, the category is still up 29% over 2020. Overall, it was a welcome result.

Last year wasn’t just a good year for sales. Supply chain issues also improved dramatically, particularly on the manga front, and there was stabilization in single-issue comics distribution, even if it remained imperfect. However, word on the ground from retailers was that added workload, increasingly complex logistics, and a glut of product complicated the overall positive outlook.

PW’s annual comics retailer survey offers an anecdotal look into the comics retail landscape. We checked in with retailers at six comics outlets across North America, including from the direct market—a section of the industry comprising 3,000 or so independent shops that buy mostly nonreturnable stock at wholesale from direct-market distributors—and general bookstores with robust graphic novels sections. Owners and staff shared their thoughts on year-to-year performance, the titles and genres that ratcheted up sales, the impact of economic uncertainty and industry changes, and their projections and mood moving into 2023.

While nearly every bookseller PW spoke with is upbeat about the market, some comics shops dealt with a slight downturn on the single-issue comic side in 2022, with the broader graphic novel channel offsetting that dip. Sales there were driven by manga and adult graphic novels. Frustration was expressed, though, about navigating the rapid growth in output from publishers that rushed to capitalize on the hot market. Retailers contended with an overabundance of title options, including variant covers (a quirk of the comics market: alternative covers for single-issue comics designed for collecting purposes). Shoppers like choices, but stores had to gamble on what to stock, resulting in high variance in sales and lengthy ordering processes. The impact of economic uncertainty was also starting to be felt.

. . . .

Jenn Haines, the owner of The Dragon in Guelph, Ontario, sums 2022 up as “a bit of a weird one in retrospect.” That’s because shops saw that this year’s largely flat or improved performance came with associated costs. For example, Haines mentions that her two storefronts enjoyed a 13% sales increase over 2021, but that she also closed a third location “in a strategic move” in late August. Her lease was up at an outlet that didn’t grow her customer base as much as it segmented it. The savings on rent allowed her to renovate her flagship shop, a move that’s proved beneficial. “The business is stronger than ever, and 2023 has started just as strong,” Haines says, but “it constantly felt like I was fighting my way to the finish line.”

Others chimed in with similarly contrasting reports. They commented on the unique stress factors that came along with riding out boom times in an ongoing period of change. Everyone in comics retail continues to deal with the ripple effects of the past couple years.

Challengers Comics + Conversation, a comics shop in Chicago, saw sales increase in 2022, but co-owner Patrick Brower admits it took a toll. “It was the most stressful and hectic behind-the-scenes year I think we’ve ever had,” he says. This stemmed from changes in single-issue comic distribution. Challengers is now buying weekly product from five separate distributors, each of which uses drastically different invoicing systems. It takes five times as long as it used to, he explains, meaning the gains the store made came with significant increased workload.

Link to the rest at Publisher’s Weekly

We Are Electric

From The Wall Street Journal:

The science writer Sally Adee begins “We Are Electric” in a bullish mood, arguing that it’s time for researchers to focus on the electrome—the “electrical dimensions and properties of cells, the tissues they collaborate to form, and the electrical forces that are turning out to be involved in every aspect of life.” Once the secrets of the electrome are unlocked, Ms. Adee claims, we “should all be programmable at the level of the cell.”

The story begins during the Enlightenment, with the dispute between Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta over “animal electricity.” Ms. Adee takes us back to 1780, when Galvani set up a home laboratory complete with Leyden jars, electrostatic generators and a host of frogs cut into various grisly configurations. The author describes how a series of experiments with static electricity, lightning and brass hooks convinced Galvani that “the body is animated by a kind of electricity,” and how Volta—keen to “cement his reputation as a brilliant theorist”—attacked Galvani’s theory and buried it with a “world-changing instrument: the battery.” Despite Galvani’s elegant dissections, most electricians “didn’t care about a theory as long as it yielded a tool that helped them do better science,” Ms. Adee suggests. So when Volta demonstrated a device that for the first time produced a steady electric current, it was enough to win the argument, handing the field of electricity in living creatures over to quacks and charlatans for nearly a century.

The broad outlines of this tale, where bioelectrical pioneers struggle to gain recognition for their work but wind up “sidelined” by the scientific establishment, are repeated as Ms. Adee traces the study of bioelectricity over the next 250 years. The inventor of the electroencephalogram, Hans Berger, killed himself in 1941, in part over his despair at the ridicule he endured after introducing his machine in Germany in the 1920s. After Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley discovered in 1952 that neurons fire by swapping sodium and potassium ions, James Watson and Francis Crick “stole the show” with their discovery of DNA, leaving bioelectricity “sidelined by a ‘bigger’ discovery once again.” Despite an experiment that in 2007 helped a man with a crushed spine walk again, Richard Borgens’s innovative oscillating field stimulator, we are told, was “blocked at every turn.”

. . . .

Ms. Adee looks forward to a future in which implants are made of organic material and dispense ions instead of electrons, allowing them to speak to the body “in its own language.” But some studies have proved challenging to replicate, and she admits that treatments are “an extremely long way from your doctor’s consulting room.” Understanding the human electrome well enough that we can manipulate it precisely will require huge trials to establish how these technologies interact with our bioelectricity, Ms. Adee continues, which raises the question: “Who is going to let you open their brain to get that data?”

. . . .

Ms. Adee writes as a reporter, but also an enthusiast who “ended up buying a brain stimulator” herself. It was through her experience with one such wearable device at a U.S. military training facility—where her brain was electrically stimulated from outside her skull, turning her from a novice marksman into a sharpshooter within hours—that her interest in the field was sparked. For the next few days, she writes, “life was so much easier. Who knew you could just, like, do stuff without first performing the elaborate dance of psychological self-recrimination?”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG wants a brain stimulator. He just searched for brain stimulator device and found lots of products on Amazon, including TENS muscle stimulators plus a lot of fishy-looking devices (including some that claimed to include “safety features”) that may or may not work the way the one described in the WSJ article seemed to.

The Research (Part Two) AI Audio

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

I just spent a half fun few hours and a half pain in the patootie few hours. As I mentioned in the previous post, I’ve been working on AI audio. I decided I’d make a decision on the preliminary service this week.

I figured I’d do a lot of audio versions of the test blog, each from a different site. But the terms of service on some sites scared me off. On others, it was the pricing. Not the introductory pricing, but the pricing that WMG needed.

The Enterprise Tier of many of those services, which is the tier WMG would need, are often eye-crossingly expensive. Many of them include services that we don’t need…at least at the moment.

A number of the services sounded great, until I looked at how many hours of audio I would get for the price. A few of the services, in beta, were really expensive. I’d rather pay a voice actor than pay for these services.

So I ended up trying only one service, Murf. It has a good TOS (at the moment, anyway). It gave me ten free completed minutes of audio. I only used 1:17 minutes.

The free service did not let me clone my voice (not that I would have at this juncture), although I could have tried a simulation. Instead, I had the choice of two middle-aged female voices or half a dozen female young adult voices. I could also have at least two middle-aged male voices, and a bunch of middle aged young adult voices.

I chose the least objectionable middle-aged female voice, and played.

I had to work with pronunciation on some expected things, like my last name, and some unexpected things, like PayPal. The voice, at a neutral speed, sounded robotic, so I sped her up.

As I noted in the text, I had to change a number of things for clarity. I will have to do some of the audio blogs differently than I do the text blogs, which really isn’t a problem.

All in all, it took me 30 minutes to learn the system and create the 1:17 minutes of audio. I could have done the same on one of my audio programs, using my own voice, in half that time.

But I don’t expect the audio version of the blog to take longer than 30 minutes to set up. Most of that 30 minutes was me learning the program. Not a big deal, actually, and it wasn’t that hard.

I was surprised, actually. I thought it would be more difficult. Instead, I had fun.

. . . .

In my AI Audio research, I found a lot of really good programs. Almost all of them wanted me to email them or contact them by phone to do voice cloning. Which means that voice cloning is expensive.

At the moment, I’m not into expensive. I’m going to pay a little for some of these services because I want to do the blog and a few other things, but I am not going to pay a lot.

I’m going to wait on voice cloning.

I liked what I saw from, and I had fun playing with their system. It didn’t take long, as I mentioned above, and the sound was good enough. (I didn’t spend extra time tweaking it, since I wasn’t sure if I was going to use the program.)

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Kris’s experience with AI narration (it’s worth reading the entire OP if you’re thinking about it) is similar to PG’s. Kris was more systematic in her exploration than PG was, but her conclusions were the same as PG’s – professional book narrators (and, to a lesser extent right now, voice actors) have a lot to be worried about with AI.

If you would like to get an audiobook completed quickly, AI is the clear winner. Absent some foreign language or very obscure words in the manuscript, AI of commercial quality should do a perfect first take almost every time. You don’t need to pay for a recording engineer or studio rental, either.

If AI works for audiobooks, PG would expect the cost of audiobooks to plunge. Effectively, an audiobook is a bunch of electrons, just like an ebook, and the storage and distribution of electrons over the internet is very inexpensive these days.

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

3 easy ways to subscribe to your favorite authors online

From ZD Net:

At least once a week, I get emails from readers asking how they can more easily follow my musings. 

Sadly, not all websites are created equal, which means it’s not always that easy to follow or subscribe to a particular writer. 

However, even if a website doesn’t offer an RSS-type or mailing list-type subscription feature, there are ways to keep abreast of what your favorite writers are doing.

Why subscribe?

First, let’s answer this simple question. The main reason to subscribe to your favorite authors is to ensure you don’t miss a word they’ve penned. In this world of constant content, sites tend to publish more and more, which means your favorite author’s posts could get lost in the shuffle. By subscribing to a particular author, you guarantee that you won’t miss out when their work is buried by the deluge of articles.

Another reason to subscribe to your favorite authors is that you can receive all of their updates in a single location. Instead of having to visit all of those websites, you can (in some cases) use a single app to view them all.

. . . .


This is the most reliable means to subscribe to an author. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication and works with a reader app to collect all of your RSS feeds into one place. There are two things you must know about using RSS. First, you must install one of the many available apps capable of viewing RSS. Here’s a shortlist of apps to choose from (some of which are free and some have an associated cost):

  • Inoreader.
  • Feedly.
  • NewsBlur.
  • Akregator.
  • Tiny Tiny RSS.
  • FreshRSS.

You will also find that some email clients (such as Claws Mail and Thunderbird) have built-in RSS support.

. . . .

Google is your friend

If those sites do not support RSS, there’s another alternative that can actually serve as a sort of catch-all. Let’s say your favorite writer works for multiple sites and even their own site. Now, let’s say either only one or two of those sites offer RSS, but the others do not. What do you do?

You use Google — not the way that you’re thinking. 

You don’t have to google your favorite author every day. Instead, what you do is create a Google Alert. These alerts will automatically generate emails for you (sent to your Gmail inbox) based on the terms you add to the alert. 

So, you can create a Google Alert for the name of your favorite author and every morning you’ll be treated to an email that collects everything published by them on the previous day. I use this feature quite a bit and have found it to be incredibly reliable.

Link to the rest at ZD Net and thanks to C. for the tip.

Ghostwriting 101

From Publisher’s Weekly:

I once published an article under my byline that a ghostwriting client read. “I really liked it,” she said, “but it didn’t sound like you at all.” No, I thought. It didn’t sound like you at all!

Because I have collaborated on a dozen books, I carry a lot of voices in my head. Many people believe ghostwriting is stenography. The “author” talks, the ghostwriter types, and voila! A book is born.

. . . .

That’s not how it works. In the best collaborations, the client opens up about failure and answers the most personal and mundane questions, like, “What office equipment did you use in 1973?” They inherently understand that it might take being asked something multiple times to get to the nub.

But a good ghostwriter has to be ready for the unpredictable. Taking on a book project is like buying a house without an inspection: you know you’ll later discover a faulty wire, a leaky pipe, or a damp patch in the basement—you just don’t know which it will be, or at what point.

When I signed on to my most recent ghosting gig, Up Close and All In: Life Lessons from a Wall Street Warrior, a memoir with former Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack, I braced myself for him to be, well, scary. The nickname he earned during 40-plus years on Wall Street was Mack the Knife, and I was the fourth ghostwriter he had hired for this project.

The unexpected element surfaced on the day we began. I suggested a plan of action, and his response caught me off guard. “You’re the expert,” he said in his North Carolina twang that reminds me of a banjo. “I’m in your hands.”

The man who hung up on the U.S. Treasury secretary, the Federal Reserve chief, and the president of the New York Federal Reserve during the 2008 financial crisis clearly knew what he knew—and knew what he didn’t know. Banking was his bailiwick. Writing was mine.

For me, interviewing clients is just the start. I internalize their voice, how they talk, and the words they use. I immersed myself in John’s world to put readers on the trading floor, in board meetings, and at conference tables with powerful clients around the globe. I don’t have a background in finance, and because Up Close and All In was aimed at a general readership, not just at Wall Street veterans, this gave me an edge. I described the financial realm with fascinated eyes. My daily reading became the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg, and I acquired a library of business tomes.

Link to the rest at Publisher’s Weekly

How Bad Publishers Hurt Authors

From Jane Friedman:

It began with that heart-fluttering feeling of acceptance after so many rejections. My second novel was going to be published!

It was the end of August 2020. The world as we knew it had been upended. We were getting deeper into the pandemic, with fear, illness, death, and uncertainty ravaging the world. When New York City–based Adelaide Books offered me a contract to publish Painting Through the Dark, it set my heart racing in a good way. It was a promise.

The contract looked good: 20% royalties, paperback and ebook, quarterly reports, approval over the design and cover art. The marketing plan also sounded excellent: pre-publishing editorial review, all pre- and post-print marketing tools and services, design and maintenance of author’s website, magazine promotion and interview with author, social and blog posts, book video trailer, book giveaways to bloggers, and consideration for various literary competitions. Plus two free books for the author, and further books could be purchased at a 30% discount.

Then came this sentence: “All we ask of you is to pre-purchase 45 copies of your book (at 30% discount) upon signing the contract as a token of your support for our publishing endeavor.”

That’s when the happy heart flutter turned anxious. Was this legit?

I knew that after publication I’d order at least that many books for private events, but still. I checked the company out. They had been in business for several years and had offices in New York and Lisbon. They listed a large number of titles on their website. They attended the Frankfurt Book Fair every year, in addition to the Lisbon and Brooklyn book festivals. I asked around—friends who were published authors, others with knowledge of independent publishing. In their opinion it wasn’t a red flag. Several said it wasn’t unusual to ask authors to buy a certain number of copies up front. I was thrilled. This was the answer I wanted. I didn’t relish the long, soul-killing process of querying all over again. I squelched any remaining doubts and signed.

After finalizing the contract, communication was sketchy. Weeks would go by between emails. I knew Adelaide was a small company, and I was concerned about the large number of books on their roster. I finally requested a Zoom meeting and was reassured by a pleasurable, hour-long, wide-ranging conversation with the publisher. He clearly loved and believed in books. We talked about what to expect when my book came out—I was definitely coming to New York for the Brooklyn Book Festival, and he told me he would book me at the Strand bookstore and other NYC locations. Distribution was through Ingram. This was all working out.

After that call, the publisher wasn’t responsive to emails, but I convinced myself all was well. The dates for publication were pushed back a few times due to COVID, but I was fine waiting until it might be safe to do in-person readings. I thrive on meeting readers, having conversations, signing books.

After a couple of rounds of editing, Adelaide fell off the radar again. Even when I put URGENT, CONCERNED, PLEASE RESPOND, in the subject line of my emails, I got no response. I tried not to sound desperate, but I was. The publisher never answered the phone or replied to voicemail messages. My book suddenly appeared on Amazon in July 2022. No advance reader copies, no reviews, none of the publicity promised in the contract.

I approached local bookstores in Portland, Oregon, where I live, so I could set up readings. They all told me they couldn’t find my book on Ingram. I was embarrassed. I told them there must be some hold up as my books were definitely on Ingram. I said I’d get back to them after I spoke with my publisher.

. . . .

When I reached out to Authors Guild, they informed me that their lawyers had been sending letters to Adelaide since June with no response. They said they would add my name to the next letter naming authors seeking reversion of rights. They set up a Zoom meeting for Adelaide orphans and suggested we all file with the New York Better Business Bureau and New York State Attorney General. They requested we send our stories, and they would pitch to Publishers Weekly. I filed complaints with NYBBB and the Attorney General. I received replies saying they had attempted to contact Adelaide but received no response. The NYBBB added, “A firm’s rating may be affected by its failure to answer even one complaint. Your experience may, therefore, alert other inquirers seeking information through the BBB.” Hopefully filing complaints would help someone.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Slavery in the Americas: Separating Fact from Fiction

From The Mises Institute:

The history of transatlantic slavery is riddled with fables and errors. Erroneous claims have been propagated in the media because history is currently perceived as a political project that must justify present sensibilities. History has become so politicized that rigorous research is unable to disabuse activists of inaccuracies. Due to the rampant politicization of academia, noted scholars are usually cajoled into apologizing for defending historical standards.

After chiding fellow scholars for projecting modern sensibilities onto historical realities, historian James H. Sweet was shamed into penning an apology. Sweet was ruthlessly demeaned by his colleagues for noting the fallacy of using the narratives of identity politics to interpret historical events. Because academics are so willing to genuflect to unhinged mobs, propaganda is becoming history, and instead of digesting hard historical truths, many are fed fabrications.

Link to the rest at The Mises Institute

Is History History?

PG trigger warning: PG will include excerpts from the original article that is the subject of this post.

If you go to the OP, you will see that the original piece now has a groveling apology from the author, who evidently is the President of the American Historical Association, apologizing for “the harm that it has caused” and for the OP foreclosing “this conversation for many members, causing harm to colleagues, the discipline, and the Association.” Further down the introductory apology, the author characterizes the piece as “my ham-fisted attempt at provocation” and invites anyone who would like an additional apology to contact him directly.

The author of the OP ends his apology by writing:

“I sincerely regret the way I have alienated some of my Black colleagues and friends. I am deeply sorry. In my clumsy efforts to draw attention to methodological flaws in teleological presentism, I left the impression that questions posed from absence, grief, memory, and resilience somehow matter less than those posed from positions of power. This absolutely is not true. It wasn’t my intention to leave that impression, but my provocation completely missed the mark.

Once again, I apologize for the damage I have caused to my fellow historians, the discipline, and the AHA. I hope to redeem myself in future conversations with you all. I’m listening and learning.”

From the original pre-groveling article published in Perspectives on History, published by the American Historical Association:

Twenty years ago, in these pages, Lynn Hunt argued “against presentism.” She lamented historians’ declining interest in topics prior to the 20th century, as well as our increasing tendency to interpret the past through the lens of the present. Hunt warned that this rising presentism threatened to “put us out of business as historians.” If history was little more than “short-term . . . identity politics defined by present concerns,” wouldn’t students be better served by taking degrees in sociology, political science, or ethnic studies instead?

The discipline did not heed Hunt’s warning. From 2003 to 2013, the number of PhDs awarded to students working on topics post-1800, across all fields, rose 18 percent. Meanwhile, those working on pre-1800 topics declined by 4 percent. During this time, the Wall Street meltdown was followed by plummeting undergraduate enrollments in history courses and increased professional interest in the history of contemporary socioeconomic topics. Then came Obama, and Twitter, and Trump. As the discipline has become more focused on the 20th and 21st centuries, historical analyses are contained within an increasingly constrained temporality. Our interpretations of the recent past collapse into the familiar terms of contemporary debates, leaving little room for the innovative, counterintuitive interpretations.

This trend toward presentism is not confined to historians of the recent past; the entire discipline is lurching in this direction, including a shrinking minority working in premodern fields. If we don’t read the past through the prism of contemporary social justice issues—race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism—are we doing history that matters? This new history often ignores the values and mores of people in their own times, as well as change over time, neutralizing the expertise that separates historians from those in other disciplines. The allure of political relevance, facilitated by social and other media, encourages a predictable sameness of the present in the past. This sameness is ahistorical, a proposition that might be acceptable if it produced positive political results. But it doesn’t.

In many places, history suffuses everyday life as presentism; America is no exception. We suffer from an overabundance of history, not as method or analysis, but as anachronistic data points for the articulation of competing politics. The consequences of this new history are everywhere. I traveled to Ghana for two months this summer to research and write, and my first assignment was a critical response to The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story for a forthcoming forum in the American Historical Review. Whether or not historians believe that there is anything new in the New York Times project created by Nikole Hannah-Jones, The 1619 Project is a best-selling book that sits at the center of current controversies over how to teach American history. As journalism, the project is powerful and effective, but is it history?

This new history often ignores the values and mores of people in their own times.

When I first read the newspaper series that preceded the book, I thought of it as a synthesis of a tradition of Black nationalist historiography dating to the 19th century with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent call for reparations. The project spoke to the political moment, but I never thought of it primarily as a work of history. Ironically, it was professional historians’ engagement with the work that seemed to lend it historical legitimacy. Then the Pulitzer Center, in partnership with the Times, developed a secondary school curriculum around the project. Local school boards protested characterizations of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison as unpatriotic owners of “forced labor camps.” Conservative lawmakers decided that if this was the history of slavery being taught in schools, the topic shouldn’t be taught at all. For them, challenging the Founders’ position as timeless tribunes of liberty was “racially divisive.” At each of these junctures, history was a zero-sum game of heroes and villains viewed through the prism of contemporary racial identity. It was not an analysis of people’s ideas in their own time, nor a process of change over time.

In Ghana, I traveled to Elmina for a wedding. A small seaside fishing village, Elmina was home to one of the largest Atlantic slave-trading depots in West Africa. The morning after the wedding, a small group of us met for breakfast at the hotel. As we waited for several members of our party to show up, a group of African Americans began trickling into the breakfast bar. By the time they all gathered, more than a dozen members of the same family—three generations deep—pulled together the restaurant’s tables to dine. Sitting on the table in front of one of the elders was a dog-eared copy of The 1619 Project.

. . . .

Later that afternoon, my family and I toured Elmina Castle alongside several Ghanaians, a Dane, and a Jamaican family. Our guide gave a well-rehearsed tour geared toward African Americans. American influence was everywhere, from memorial plaques to wreaths and flowers left on the floors of the castle’s dungeons. Arguably, Elmina Castle is now as much an African American shrine as a Ghanaian archaeological or historical site. As I reflected on breakfast earlier that morning, I could only imagine the affirmation and bonding experienced by the large African American family—through the memorialization of ancestors lost to slavery at Elmina Castle, but also through the story of African American resilience, redemption, and the demand for reparations in The 1619 Project.

Yet as a historian of Africa and the African diaspora, I am troubled by the historical erasures and narrow politics that these narratives convey. Less than one percent of the Africans passing through Elmina arrived in North America. The vast majority went to Brazil and the Caribbean. Should the guide’s story differ for a tour with no African Americans? Likewise, would The 1619 Project tell a different history if it took into consideration that the shipboard kin of Jamestown’s “20. and odd” Africans also went to Mexico, Jamaica, and Bermuda? These are questions of historical interpretation, but present-day political ones follow: Do efforts to claim a usable African American past reify elements of American hegemony and exceptionalism such narratives aim to dismantle?

The Elmina tour guide claimed that “Ghanaians” sent their “servants” into chattel slavery unknowingly. The guide made no reference to warfare or Indigenous slavery, histories that interrupt assumptions of ancestral connection between modern-day Ghanaians and visitors from the diaspora. Similarly, the forthcoming film The Woman King seems to suggest that Dahomey’s female warriors and King Ghezo fought the European slave trade. In fact, they promoted it. Historically accurate rendering of Asante or Dahomean greed and enslavement apparently contradict modern-day political imperatives.

Hollywood need not adhere to historians’ methods any more than journalists or tour guides, but bad history yields bad politics. The erasure of slave-trading African empires in the name of political unity is uncomfortably like right-wing conservative attempts to erase slavery from school curricula in the United States, also in the name of unity. These interpretations are two sides of the same coin. If history is only those stories from the past that confirm current political positions, all manner of political hacks can claim historical expertise.

This is not history; it is dilettantism.

Too many Americans have become accustomed to the idea of history as an evidentiary grab bag to articulate their political positions, a trend that can be seen in recent US Supreme Court decisions.

. . . .

Professional historians would do well to pay attention to Breyer’s admonition. The present has been creeping up on our discipline for a long time. Doing history with integrity requires us to interpret elements of the past not through the optics of the present but within the worlds of our historical actors. Historical questions often emanate out of present concerns, but the past interrupts, challenges, and contradicts the present in unpredictable ways. History is not a heuristic tool for the articulation of an ideal imagined future. Rather, it is a way to study the messy, uneven process of change over time. When we foreshorten or shape history to justify rather than inform contemporary political positions, we not only undermine the discipline but threaten its very integrity.

Link to the rest at Perspectives on History, published by the American Historical Association

PG is not an eminent historian, nor is he a member of the American Historical Association, but the original article excerpted above is consistent with other historical accounts of the slave trade that he has read. In short, the trade in African slaves relied upon the active cooperation of Africans themselves, who captured and enslaved their fellow Africans in preparation for selling them to the slave traders that would carry them across the ocean to the New World.

Additionally, in the New World at the time of active slave trading across the Atlantic, a significant number of captives were sold into slavery in nations and colonies other than the United States. The British government forbade slavery in Great Britain, but slave trading was practiced in more than one British colony during this time and some British citizens made a great deal of money from such activities. The descendants of African slaves can be found today across Brazil and elsewhere in South America.

As PG has mentioned before, The 1619 Project is better understood as a 21st-century political polemic than as an accurate history of slavery in the United States and elsewhere in the New World.

Unfortunately, slavery has been widespread during different time periods in many, many places around the world. It was present during the classical period in ancient Greece and during the height of the Roman Empire. There was also slavery in Ancient Israel.

I Never Made a Living Wage When I Worked in Publishing

From Electric Lit:

Years ago, when my son was in preschool, I found myself in the human resources of big Harry Potter rich publishing house. I’d crossed the bridge from the New Jersey suburbs we’d found ourselves in. At the time, my husband and I were renting the top floor of a house in one of the toniest suburbs in the county. I didn’t have health insurance, but my husband and children did—through my husband’s home country. We’d just come from there, flown overseas, where things had been easier and cheaper. Childcare was subsidized and my son was happy and I was researching my first novel. But my husband’s green card had been denied and we were broke.

To save money a friend of ours lived in the dining room and we had one car. In this tony suburb full of backyard structures and moms who lived in their perfectly manicured fiefdoms, where the only people in the streets were lawn care workers, we stuck out. I didn’t have a Gucci bag. Our car was not German. The roommate in our dining room gave everyone pause. Even if staying at home had been my thing—and it wasn’t—we didn’t have the money to do the things other stay at home moms did. For my son there were no camps, no mommy and me, no enrichment activities like the ones the kids around us took advantage of. I didn’t have money for pilates or yoga or Botox. We didn’t even have money for a proper flat for just the three of us. It was time to I went back to work.

The HR person scrutinized my resume. She asked why I’d changed jobs so frequently, not staying more than a year in any one publishing job. Because I needed to make more money, I told her. I almost rolled my eyes. She knew as well as anyone how low the publishing salaries were. Her eyes narrowed: Are you only interested in the money? My face flushed. Of course I was interested in the money. It goes without saying—the need for money is why one works. I told her that I’d gotten into publishing because of my love of books and the industry. Publishing had been my first real job, my only real job, I told her. I’d taken a few years off to have my son and we’d moved overseas so we’d have family help. But now I was back and I wanted to work.

I didn’t get the job, which was for the best, financially speaking. I’d done the math. My pay would hardly cover the child care costs and travel into the city. In the end, I left publishing. I took a job close to home where I worked as a nurse recruiter. My hours were flexible and no one cared that I hadn’t worked in a couple of years. I made commission. I talked to nurses all day and I did this until my daughter was born. There I was never shamed for working because I needed money.

When I started out in New York City publishing I made 19k a year, twenty-five years ago. This was a standard salary for editorial assistants and here’s a fact that won’t shock you—it wasn’t a living wage, even then. During that period, I lost my apartment. I squatted in an abandoned building in an apartment that was open to all who wished to enter. I starved. My mother had offered to send me a plane ticket home but refused to help me stay—I decided on my own to do so.

I had one room with a door I could lock. I showered at the Y. There were weeks before my next paycheck where I lived off the dry oatmeal in the office kitchen, learned to order soup and ask for extra bread on dates. I never passed a payphone without checking the coin release for abandoned change. I pushed aside washing machines at the laundromat for stray quarters so I could afford a bagel, a phone call, a subway ride. When a man at a street fair asked me to be a call girl I had a big long think on it before I finally said no.

I wanted to live in New York, wanted to work in publishing. I wanted to be a writer. I lived close to the bone, and I had no social life. Getting cheated by a cashier meant the difference between eating a hot dog off the street or starving that night. After some time, I left that publishing house for another and made a few thousand more. But when I left that first job, I also left editorial acquisitions—the sort of job that decides what books get published. I worked for managing ed, copy editing those already acquired manuscripts. Managing editorial departments, production departments, publicity—these jobs generally pay more than acquisitions—which are generally more prestigious and which might explain the sorts of books that we’ve always seen published, continuing to get published. With the extra money, I got out of my squat. I had managed to save the prerequisite first and last month’s rent and some extra money for a bit of furniture, and moved to a room downtown. This was the late 90s when there were still cheap rooms to be had in Manhattan. Then I jumped off to a dotcom that was short lived, but where I finally was paid a living wage. My last boss in publishing asked me how much I would make at the dot com and when I told her, she laughed. “You wouldn’t make that in ten years here,” she said. She might have laughed, but to me it was serious.

The big five publishing houses are owned by huge conglomerate companies. Harper Collins, recently on strike, is owned by News Corp, Rupert Murdoch’s company. They pay these wages because they have always paid these wages—not because they can’t afford to pay better. Publishing is the sort of job that wealthy white people historically did, no one else need apply. Coming from greater Detroit (and not the parts that typically wound up in places like New York City), I had not understood any of this. If I had, I’m not sure I would have come at all. I was willing to pay the enormous price of moving to New York City because I’d been too ignorant to understand the price that would be exacted of me.

My father and mother had followed their calling. Both believed there was something noble in their professions. My father was a reporter who refused any editor or management position he was promoted to. His union job was safe and he was a union man until he retired. My mom was a Detroit public school teacher. When my mother had stage four cancer when I was 10, we were not financially ruined. Her union job protected her. Moving to New York City I hadn’t realized that my dream job was a job for people who had trust funds, or, at the very least, a parent or spouse who helped with rent or paid off credit cards. Not for people with parents who would not, or could not, help them.

Here is a fact: if a person cannot make a living wage in their job, even living as frugally and close to the bone as I was, then the wage is too low.  It’s unconscionable that publishing—especially those with big umbrella corporations like News Corp or the late Sumner Redstone’s company, Paramount Global, continues to pay their publishing employees so little. When I looked at starting salaries of publishing positions today, I was shocked to see they are exactly as low now as they were then, adjusted for inflation. Only now things are much harder. I lived without cable television or a cell phone back then. It would be impossible, especially during the past three years of remote pandemic working, for anyone to live without internet.

It’s especially unconscionable in light of what we know now—and let’s be real, we knew it then—that low wages keep out those with less means, and those from marginalized communities, in particular. This kind of gate-keeping is deeply problematic, and the exact opposite of what publishing should be doing.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

PG couldn’t have said this any better.

Why the floppy disk just won’t die

From Ars Technica:

When Mark Necaise got down to his last four floppy disks at a rodeo in Mississippi in February, he started to worry.

Necaise travels to horse shows around the state, offering custom embroidery on jackets and vests: “All of the winners would get a jacket and we’d put the name of the farm or the name of the horse or whatever on it,” he says.

Five years ago, he paid $18,000 for a second-hand machine, manufactured in 2004 by the Japanese embroidery equipment specialist Tajima. The only way to transfer the designs from his computer to the machine was via floppy disk.

“We started with eight disks, but four of them stopped working, which made me very uneasy,” he says. “I tried reformatting them in order to get them to work properly, but it didn’t work. I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to continue with the embroidery.”

Back when Necaise’s Tajima machine was made, floppy disks were still in mass production—and were particularly popular in Japan, where they were used for official government procedures until last year. Even though the last major manufacturer of floppy disks stopped making them in 2010, the machines that rely on them—from embroidery machines to plastic molding, medical equipment to aircraft—live on, relying on a dwindling supply of disks that will one day run out.

“I personally think that the floppy disk should die,” says Florian Cramer, a writer and filmmaker who, in 2009, shrank every Oscar-nominated film from that year into animated GIFs on two floppy disks, as a commentary on Hollywood’s digital piracy crackdown. “Objectively it’s a toxic medium. It’s basically plastic waste… It’s really something that should no longer exist.”

. . . .

Most of the companies still using floppy disks are small businesses or companies running on tight margins who either simply never got around to upgrading their equipment or found it too expensive to do so.

Davit Niazashvili, a maintenance manager at Geosky, a cargo airline based in Tbilisi, Georgia, still uses floppy disks to apply critical updates to two 36-year-old 747-200s, which were originally delivered to British Airways in 1987: “When an update is released, we need to download it to two 3.5-inch floppy disks. There are no computers with built-in floppy drives left, so we had to source an external one,” Niazashvili says. “Then we take the disks to the aircraft to update the flight management system. The operation takes about an hour.”

The updates contain essential data, such as changes to runways and navigational aids, and are released every 28 days according to a fixed global schedule, which is already set through 2029.

“Nowadays it’s very hard to obtain floppy disks. We actually get them from Amazon,” Niazashvili says. “They are very sensitive and prone to failing, so at best we can use each one around three times, then we have to throw it away. But we have to do it. It’s not a problem. As long as floppy disks are still available, we’re happy with it.”

Fewer than 20 Boeing 747-200s remain in service worldwide, and only in cargo or military configurations. The US Air Force operates six, two of them as Air Force One. It’s unclear whether they still use floppy disks, too, but the US military employed the even-older 8-inch floppy disks in its nuclear arsenal until 2019.

Link to the rest at Ars Technica

Don’t fear an AI-induced jobs apocalypse just yet

From The Economist:

“I think we might exceed a one-to-one ratio of humanoid robots to humans,” Elon Musk declared on March 1st. Coming from the self-styled technoking of Tesla, it was not so much a prediction as a promise. Mr Musk’s car company is developing one such artificially intelligent automaton, codenamed Optimus, for use at home and in the factory. His remarks, made during Tesla’s investor day, were accompanied by a video of Optimus walking around apparently unassisted.

Given that Mr Musk did not elaborate how—or when—you get from a promotional clip to an army of more than 8bn robots, this might all smack of science-fiction. But he has waded into a very real debate about the future of work. For certain forms of ai-enabled automation are fast becoming science fact. Since November Chatgpt, an ai conversationalist, has dazzled users with its passable impression of a human interlocutor. Other “generative” ais have been conjuring up similarly human-like texts, images and sounds by analysing reams of data on the internet. Last month the boss of ibm, a computing giant, forecast that ai will do away with much white-collar clerical work. On March 6th Microsoft announced the launch of a suite of ai “co-pilots” for workers in jobs ranging from sales and marketing to supply-chain management. Excitable observers murmur about a looming job apocalypse.

Fears over the job-displacing effects of technology are, of course, nothing new. In early 19th-century Britain, Luddites burned factory machines. The term “automation” first rose to prominence as the adoption of wartime innovations in mechanisation sparked a wave of panic over mass joblessness in the 1950s (see chart 1). In 1978 James Callaghan, Britain’s prime minister, greeted the breakthrough technology of his era—the microprocessor—with a government inquiry into its job-killing potential. Ten years ago Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University published a blockbuster paper, since cited over 5,000 times, claiming that 47% of the tasks American workers perform could be automated away “over the next decade or two”. Now even the techno-optimistic Mr Musk wonders what it would mean for robots to outnumber humans: “It’s not even clear what an economy is at that point.”

. . . .

The immediate problem for advanced economies is, then, not too much automation but too little. It is exacerbated by the fact that, for large businesses, automating has been hard to get right in practice. It is likely to prove no easier with the latest buzzy ais.

Rage for the machine

Mechanical arms on a factory floor performing repetitive tasks such as welding, drilling or moving an object have been around for decades. Robot usage historically centred on the car industry, whose heavy parts and large batches with limited variety are ideally suited to the machines. The electronics industry, with its need for precise but repetitive movements, was also an early adopter.

More recently the list of industries embracing robots has widened, observes Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, an American industry group. Advances in computer vision have made robots more dexterous, notes Sami Atiya, who runs the robotics business of abb, a Swiss industrial firm. Lightweight “collaborative robots” now work side-by-side with humans rather than in cages, and autonomous vehicles ferry objects from one spot to another in factories and warehouses.

At the same time, robot prices have tumbled. The average price of an industrial robot fell from $69,000 in 2005 to $27,000 in 2017, according to Ark Invest, an asset manager. Last December abb opened a 67,000-square-metre “mega factory‘‘ in Shanghai where robots make other robots. Installation costs have come down, too, with newer “no code” systems requiring no programming expertise, notes Susanne Bieller, general secretary of the International Federation of Robotics (ifr), another industry group.

As a result of better technology and lower prices, the global stock of industrial robots grew from 1m in 2011 to nearly 3.5m in 2021 (see chart 2). Sales at Fanuc, a big Japanese robot-maker, rose by 17% last quarter, year on year; those of Keyence, a Japanese firm that acts as an automation consultant to the world’s factories, shot up by 24%. Though down from the frothy peaks of 2021, when bosses sought alternatives to human workforces incapacitated by covid-19, robot-makers’ share prices remain a fifth higher than before the pandemic.

. . . .

For all that growth, however, absolute levels of adoption remain low, especially in the West. According to the ifr, even South Korean firms, by far the world’s keenest robot-adopters, employ ten manufacturing workers for every industrial robot—a long way from Mr Musk’s vision. In America, China, Europe and Japan the figure is 25-40 to one. The $25bn that, according to consultants at bcg, the world spent on industrial robots in 2020 was less than 1% of global capital expenditure (excluding the energy and mining sectors). People spent more on sex toys.

. . . .

Businesses are now beginning to embrace generative ai, too. But as with robots and process automation, bedding in the new technology will not happen overnight. Allen & Overy, a law firm that in February launched a virtual legal assistant with Chatgpt-like powers, requires its lawyers to cross-check everything the bot spits out. cnet, a tech-news site, starting in November quietly published 73 articles written by a bot, first to the consternation and then the delight of journalists, after the articles were found to be riddled with errors.

Link to the rest at The Economist

To Boldly Go

From 9 famous quotes that are (technically) grammatically incorrect:

To boldly go where no man has gone before.

This line (and its newer version, with no one in place of no man) is as famous for being “wrong” as it is for being from the intro to each episode of Star Trek.

What’s “wrong”? 

It’s a “split infinitive,” with boldly improperly between to and go.

Is it really wrong? 

No. The “rule” against split infinitives is just a grammatical superstition. It was invented in the 1700s by a grammarian who wanted to “improve” the language along Latin lines. English, however, is not Latin, and the option of putting words between to and the verb root has always existed and has often been made use of by respected authors.

There are times when a sentence works better if you don’t do it, sure; that doesn’t make it a rule, and the Star Trek line is not one of those times, either. “Boldly to go”? “To go boldly”? No.

Link to the rest at 9 famous quotes that are (technically) grammatically incorrect

Difference Between “Quote” and “Quotation”: What Is the Right Word?

From ThoughtCo:

Often the words quote and quotation are used interchangeably. Quote is a verb and quotation is a noun. As A. A. Milne put it in a humorous note:

“A quotation is a handy thing to have about, saving one the trouble of thinking for oneself, always a laborious business.”According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word quotation is defined as, “A group of words taken from a text or speech and repeated by someone other than the original author or speaker.”

The word quote means to “repeat the exact words of another with the acknowledgment of the source.” In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, 

Every book is a quotation; and every house is a quotation out of all forests, and mines, and stone quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.

“Going Back to Roots: Origin of the Words “Quotation” and “Quote”

The origin of the word quote goes back to Medieval English, sometime around 1387. The word quote is a derivation of the Latin word quotare, which means “to mark a book with numbers of chapters for reference.”

According to Sol Steinmetz, author of the book, “Semantic Antics: How and Why Words Change Meaning,” 200 years or so later, the meaning of the word quotation was expanded to include the meaning, “to copy out or repeat a passage from a book or author.”

One of the most frequently quoted American personalities is Abraham Lincoln. His words have proved to be a source of inspiration and wisdom. In one of his many famous writings, he wrote,

“It is a pleasure to be able to quote lines to fit any occasion.”

Link to the rest at ThoughtCo

PG admits that he doesn’t like the word “quotation.” If he were grammar king for a day, he would permit “quote” to be used as a noun or a verb.

Quotations That Include Errors

From The American Psychological Association:

A quotation that includes an error may be distracting, so consider paraphrasing instead. When quoting, always check your paper against the source to ensure that there are no discrepancies.

Except as noted under changes made to direct quotations, the quotation must match the wording, spelling, and interior punctuation of the original source, even if the source is incorrect.

If any incorrect spelling, punctuation, or grammar in the source might confuse readers, insert the word “[sic],” italicized and in brackets, immediately after the error in the quotation.

Nowak (2019) wrote that “people have an obligation to care for there [sic] pets” (p. 52).

Link to the rest at The American Psychological Association

3 Ways Grammarly Improves Your Emails

From The Grammarly Blog:

Writing clear and professional emails can improve how competent you appear in the eyes of your colleagues, clients, or managers. However, this means emails can often be a source of anxiety and insecurity, especially because you can’t clarify a mistaken word or sentiment, read the recipient’s reaction in real time, or rework the email after you hit send.

Fortunately, Grammarly can help you write your work emails with confidence. Eliminate typos, rewrite confusing sentences, and land the tone of your message so you never have to second-guess yourself once you’ve hit send.

Knock out grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes

Have you ever sent an email only to immediately realize that you included a typo, used incorrect grammar, or forgot to add crucial punctuation? These types of mistakes happen to every professional as we try to keep up with a constant stream of emails. We often find ourselves quickly typing a response as we multitask or squeezing in a reply during the brief breaks in between meetings. In both scenarios, being distracted and making mistakes is easy.

Punctuation, grammar, and spelling mistakes can prevent our emails from appearing polished and professional. Fortunately, Grammarly flags and helps you fix these types of mistakes in just a few seconds.

. . . .

Smooth your syntax with full-sentence rewrites

One of the main challenges of writing emails at work is finding the right balance between being concise and adequately conveying your message. Long, complicated sentences can be confusing or may prompt people to skip or skim your email. This, in turn, can lead to misunderstandings and time-consuming back-and-forths with colleagues or clients.

Of course, writing clearly isn’t as simple as it sounds. While something might make sense in our head, it doesn’t always come across the same way when we write it down. And it’s even more challenging to convey our ideas in words when we’re writing in a hurry. So we often end up with overly wordy or run-on sentences in our emails, but we don’t have the time or patience to rework them.

With Grammarly Premium, you can feel confident that your message is clear. Grammarly Premium not only identifies sentences that may be too wordy or confusing but also helps you streamline your editing process by offering full-sentence rewrites that help make your point easy to understand.

. . . .

Strike the right tone

You may have found yourself rereading an important email to ensure your tone is coming across how you intended it to. The tone of your writing influences how people perceive your message and can impact your relationship with colleagues and clients. However, tone is difficult in written communication because you can’t use your voice or facial expressions to signal how you intend to come across. Without this context, your recipient may misinterpret your tone.

Grammarly Premium’s tone rewrite suggestions can identify sentences where your tone may be misunderstood and offer rewrites to help you sound more personable, confident, or positive.

Link to the rest at The Grammarly Blog

PG has been a big fan of Grammarly for a long time. One of the ways he helps Mrs. PG with her books is to run the final draft through Grammarly.

However, he enabled Grammarly for Chrome for TPV to check on his posts, then disabled it because it was a bit too nitpicky and slowed him down too much.

He’s just turned Grammarly back for TPV on for another trial.

One interesting discovery he made after he revived Grammarly is that the program had several suggestions for the portion of the Grammarly blog post PG excerpted for this post.

Here’s a partial screen shot of Grammarly’s suggestions on PG’s computer for improving Grammarly’s own blog post:

Taking the Grammarly suggestions from top to bottom:

  1. real time should be real-time
  2. message so should be message, so
  3. mistakes should have a period after it
  4. “We often find ourselves quickly typing a response as we multitask or squeezing in a reply during the brief breaks in between meetings.” should be rewritten as “We often find ourselves quickly typing a response as we multitask or squeeze in a reply during brief breaks between meetings.”
  5. “In both scenarios, it’s easy to be distracted and to make mistakes.” should be rewritten to read, ” In both scenarios, being distracted and making mistakes is easy.”
  6. “Smooth your syntax with full-sentence rewrites” should have a period at the end.
  7. “sentences can be confusing or may prompt people to skip” should be rewritten as “can confuse or may prompt people to skip”.

PG suggests that this demonstrates that, while quite helpful in many cases, sometimes Grammarly puts a foot wrong. That said, PG will continue to be a regular user of Grammarly.

Pivot to … Something? The Blurry Future of Podcasting

From The Hollywood Reporter:

As top podcast executives and creators gathered at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn for the Hot Pod Summit on Feb. 23, a question seemed to underlie each conversation: As the industry seeks an injection of new energy amid an advertising market correction and creators experiment with formats like video, what really is a podcast these days — and how will people make money?

In various conversations with studio executives and creators, a common refrain were the difficulties of turning a profit on podcasting alone. Even Spotify, which recently revised its podcast leadership (again) and had layoffs and show cancelations in its podcast division, is reevaluating its spending after pouring more than $1 billion into licensing deals and acquisitions in the past few years.

As such, repackaging audio content and seeking out derivatives like film and TV adaptations could be the key to actually making good money in podcasting, especially now that the megadeals of recent years are getting rarer and podcasters are feeling the pressure to seek out more ad dollars from bigger buyers to keep the lights on long term. And all of this isn’t even to acknowledge the creative ambitions around podcasting, where creators want to produce expensive, buzzy narrative projects that can have a tangible impact on policy or public conversation but may have a harder time receiving funding and support compared to the more assured successes of cheaper, always-on chat shows.

But the move toward new formats was hard to ignore, especially as Spotify’s main presence at a summit for podcast executives was about, well, audiobooks. Featuring Nir Zicherman, the co-founder of the podcast hosting service Anchor who now leads up Spotify’s audiobooks business, author Gretchen Rubin and Penguin Random House Audio content executive Dan Zitt, the discussion didn’t avoid the blurring lines between podcasts and audiobooks and the multiple business models that could exist within that mix.

“Everybody’s scared to call a podcast an audiobook and an audiobook a podcast. But if you really squint, it’s harder to differentiate — and that is only accelerating over the course of the next few years,” Zicherman said at the summit, noting that Spotify was seeking to target the “casual listener” with its audiobooks offering.

. . . .

Zitt was even less precious about a delineation between the two. “Why does there have to be a line drawn at all? This is all audio entertainment to some extent. If there are different models for distributing it, which there are, why not just find the best models to distribute it where people get fairly paid?” Zitt said. “I mean, there are podcasts that are basically now taking all 15 episodes, combining them into one, and selling them in the audiobook space, so it’s not really like these things are working independently now.”

But the audiobooks debate paled in comparison to the trend du jour: how video can be incorporated into audio creators’ workflow and boost business for executives. “Last year when we were all in this room, we could not stop talking about Spotify,” The Verge editor Nilay Patel said in a talk with iHeartMedia Digital Audio Group CEO Conal Byrne. “This year, all in this room, we’re all talking about YouTube and video.” 

Despite podcasting being known as an audio medium, there’s been growing interest around the role of video podcasting — a format most notably seeing interest from players like Spotify, where top creators including Alex Cooper (Call Her Daddy) and Emma Chamberlain (Anything Goes) now regularly release video podcasts as part of their exclusive partnerships with the company. For Cooper, her video podcasts focus on her weekly guests who sit down to tape an interview at her West Hollywood studio, though the creator released a documentary-style video on abortion last October; Chamberlain, who only recently joined Spotify, has so far released two static videos of her recording her podcast in front of the mic.

Link to the rest at The Hollywood Reporter


PG’s back has reached a certain age. His back feels a great deal older than the rest of him feels most of the time.

His back hasn’t always felt that way. In college, all of PG’s body parts felt young and immortal.

One fine spring day during that time, a friend lent PG his motorcycle. PG will not paint himself as an expert motorcyclist, but he had ridden enough different motorized two-wheel vehicles to be a decent and safe rider.

On this perfectly lovely day, PG was enjoying his ride on the borrowed motorcycle, tootling along on the main street that went through campus with his then-abundant hair blowing fashionably in the wind.

PG noted that an automobile on a cross-street had stopped at a stop sign as it should have so PG and the motorcycle could whiz through.

After stopping, the automobile drove forward, right in front of PG and his borrowed motorcycle.

PG has neglected to mention that he was attired in his era’s standard spring motorcycle protective gear — t-shirt, cut-off shorts, sandals and a full head of hair.

Time slowed for PG as he hit the brakes of the motorcycle, but it was clear a collision would occur in the very near future.

PG noted that the front wheel of the motorcycle had hit the rear door and was stopping quite suddenly. However, PG kept moving. Somehow, instead of hitting the back door of the car with his lovely head of hair, he twisted and put a big dent in the door with his right shoulder.

Immediately thereafter, things became quite confusing as PG bounced off the back door and rolled across the street, ending up near the curb.

PG will spare you the small details of the rest of his afternoon, but he was taken to the hospital, told by a doctor that he was stupid for not wearing a helmet but very lucky, unlike someone who had experienced a similar motorcycle accident without a helmet, had arrived at the ER a few minutes before PG did and was presently in a coma.

For a few months after the accident, PG thought he had gotten off scot-free, but a persistent back ache took him back to the orthopedist a couple of times. His back would occasionally be sore, but it wasn’t something that cramped PG’s style.

A few months after that, PG met the first attorney he had ever known, one his parents had selected, and signed a bunch of papers. A couple of years later, PG received a nice sum of money from an insurance company, noting that the attorney had kept one-third of the total amount the insurance company had paid.

PG flunked his draft physical shortly after graduating from college and avoided death or dismemberment in Vietnam.

Moving through middle age, PG experienced twinges in his back from time to time. The older he became, the more frequently those twinges happened.

Today, many, many years after that beautiful spring day when he got up-close and personal with an automobile door, if PG moves jusssst so, his back won’t usually bother him. Considered movements almost always work quite well. Ill-considered movements create at least a warning tinge and on occasion will put PG into a reclining chair with a heating pad for an hour or two followed by another period of gingerly movements calculated not to awaken his sleeping spinal nerves.

This winter has brought a great deal of snow to Casa PG and the surrounding areas. Those who ski and snowshoe are in heaven. Those who sell goods and services to skiers, snowshoers and companions of such people are having their best year in quite a long time so PG doesn’t feel right about complaining about clearing his driveway of snow on a regular basis.

A new family moved into the neighborhood about six months ago. It’s a friendly community and the family was welcomed by the PG’s and several other neighbors.

The father of the new family evidently intuited that PG should not do much, if any snow-shoveling. So, after each one of the several overnight snowstorms we have experienced this winter, PG wakes up to either a clean driveway or the sound of this kind neighbor shoveling the snow off the driveway and sidewalk of Casa PG.

PG thanks this neighbor effusively whenever he can catch the man doing good works and has in mind an additional way of showing gratitude for the many kind services his neighbor has bequeathed on the PG’s over the last several months.

Looking back on what has flowed from his auto-typing fingers, PG realizes that he has rambled more than a bit. The lack of a sore back evidently manifests itself in unusual ways. However, he is very grateful for wonderful neighbors, including the one who has done so much snow-shoveling this year.

What’s Autofiction? Should You Fictionalize The Story of Your Life?

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

A trendy word in publishing recently is “autofiction,” short for “autobiographical fiction.” The term isn’t new. It was first invented in 1977 by author Serge Doubrovsky when talking about his memoir-sh novel, Fils.

And what about those Creative Nonfiction essays that fill literary magazines? (A goldmine for memoir writers.) Can you call them autofiction?

Unfortunately, “autofiction” is not an official category in the publishing world, according to Publishers Weekly.

That means authors still have to decide if what they’ve written is fiction or nonfiction before they publish it, so bookstores will know whether to put it on the fiction or nonfiction shelf.

Guidelines say if there are real people in it and all the incidents really happened, you can call it nonfiction, even if you’ve changed the names of the real people. But if some events or characters are made up, you’re better off calling it fiction.

Readers Often Expect Fiction to be Autofiction.

Authors have a more complex issue than the the shelving dilemmas of bookstore clerks. (Although I relate. I worked in many bookstores over the years.)

The problem is a lot of readers think all fiction is based on the author’s life. Especially if it’s written in the first person.

Even more readers expect authors to be like their protagonists. I’m amazed at how many readers expect me to be an ultra-polite New York fashionista like my series heroine, Camilla. (People who actually know me are laughing hysterically here.) I even once had a beta reader make condescending comments that were obviously aimed at a ditzy debutante, not a 30-year veteran of the publishing industry, educated at Bryn Mawr and Harvard.

I’m not alone. Canadian humor novelist Melodie Campbell has written about meeting fans of her satiric “Rowena” fantasy series. They were sadly disappointed because they expected her to be just like her hot and horny heroine, Rowena, whose bodice is literally ripped in every hilarious book.

There is Plenty of Thinly-Disguised Autofiction Lurking in Popular Fiction.

Readers can be forgiven their delusions. Some novels are indeed thinly disguised autobiography — including classics. Look at David Copperfield, Look Homeward Angel, On the Road, and The Things They Carried.

Scandals can erupt when people recognize themselves in autobiographical fiction. There was major drama around the story Cat Person, by Kristen Roupenian, that ran in the New Yorker in 2017. People found it “eerily accurate” in its description of contemporary dating. Many thought it was a work of autofiction, or a disguised personal essay. Ohers treated it like nonfiction.

In 2021, a writer named Alexis Nowicki wrote an article for Slate claiming Cat Person was inspired by stories from her own life that she had confided in the author.

That’s the kind of situation where authors can run into trouble. We’re exposed to stories every day — in the news, on the Internet, overheard in cafés, etc. Those stories nestle in our subconscious minds. Long after we’ve forgotten their origins, they creep into our fiction. That doesn’t mean we’re “stealing” them on purpose.

There has been ongoing saga concerning a character in Donna Tartt’s famous academic mystery, The Secret History. The character is Judy Poovey, the wild California girl with the red Corvette. Apparently people have even started social media accounts in her name on TikTok and other sites.

Last year, Lily Anolik wrote an article in Vanity Fair that documented the search for the “real” Judy Poovey. Everyone was sure she was a thinly disguised real person. Anolik claims that Donna Tartt’s characters, like Mary McCarthy’s in The Group have “feet of clef.” (You have to use the French pronunciation to get the joke.)

But guess what? Nobody has found the “real” Judy Poovey. And that’s probably because Donna Tartt is a talented fiction writer who can make stuff up.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

People started to be noticeably nervous when they were coming near a description of my disability

From Hacker News:

What was it, 10 to 20 years ago, people started to be noticeably nervous when they were coming near a description of my disability. It used to be so simple. I am 100% blind, and guess what, I prefer the term blind because it is pretty descriptive and relatively short. But all of a sudden, people external to the community started to fumble around with “visually challenged”, and all the nonsense variations of that in my native language. It is so weird, because it adds yet another layer of distance between “us” and the “normal” people. You can almost feel how the stumbling-word is making communication even more awkward. I (and almost all of my friends with a similar disability) make a point of letting people know that we actually prefer the word blind over everything else, and not even that does put people at ease. It sounds a bit provocative, but it feels like that: The language terror they were subjected to has made them so unsecure that they actually dont want to hear that blind people have no issue with being called blind. They somehow continue to argue, sometimes not wanting to accept that and going on to use weird language.

Its a weird phenomenon. The longer I watch all of this, and I also mean the gender-language-hacks, I feel like this move has added to the distance between various groups, not made it smaller.

It is so condescending to believe your own language-police more then the person you are talking to. Yet, the peer pressure seems to be so high that this actually happens. Sad.

. . . .

I see it as unintentional discrimination. It’s treating the people they are relabeling as children that need the kind progressives to step in and save them. It’s so condescending. Minorities don’t need white Knights to save them, neither do the disabled. If an individual wants me to not refer to them as x because they find it offensive, no problem. But a group of academics should not be able to sit around and decide that a group as a whole needs saving. It very much forces otherness on people and to your point furthers the divide. it forces us to see them as different.

Side note, and this is completely off topic and I really mean this in the most positive way but you typing here has completely altered my perception of the need for following web standards for accessibility. I don’t know any blind people in real life so really just assumed that accessibility standards really weren’t worth the effort as they wouldn’t make a difference. But here you are reading and responding in a manner that’s probably better than I do. I am 100% on board now. You opened my mind today, thanks for that.

Link to the rest at Hacker News/Ycombinator

The Moral Case Against Equity Language

From The Atlantic:

The Sierra Club’s Equity Language Guide discourages using the words stand, Americans, blind, and crazy. The first two fail at inclusion, because not everyone can stand and not everyone living in this country is a citizen. The third and fourth, even as figures of speech (“Legislators are blind to climate change”), are insulting to the disabled. The guide also rejects the disabled in favor of people living with disabilities, for the same reason that enslaved person has generally replaced slave : to affirm, by the tenets of what’s called “people-first language,” that “everyone is first and foremost a person, not their disability or other identity.”

The guide’s purpose is not just to make sure that the Sierra Club avoids obviously derogatory terms, such as welfare queen. It seeks to cleanse language of any trace of privilege, hierarchy, bias, or exclusion. In its zeal, the Sierra Club has clear-cut a whole national park of words. Urbanvibranthardworking, and brown bag all crash to earth for subtle racism. Y’all supplants the patriarchal you guys, and elevate voices replaces empower, which used to be uplifting but is now condescending. The poor is classist; battle and minefield disrespect veterans; depressing appropriates a disability; migrant—no explanation, it just has to go.

Equity-language guides are proliferating among some of the country’s leading institutions, particularly nonprofits. The American Cancer Society has one. So do the American Heart Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the National Recreation and Park Association, the Columbia University School of Professional Studies, and the University of Washington. The words these guides recommend or reject are sometimes exactly the same, justified in nearly identical language. This is because most of the guides draw on the same sources from activist organizations: A Progressive’s Style Guide, the Racial Equity Tools glossary, and a couple of others. The guides also cite one another. The total number of people behind this project of linguistic purification is relatively small, but their power is potentially immense. The new language might not stick in broad swaths of American society, but it already influences highly educated precincts, spreading from the authorities that establish it and the organizations that adopt it to mainstream publications, such as this one.

Although the guides refer to language “evolving,” these changes are a revolution from above. They haven’t emerged organically from the shifting linguistic habits of large numbers of people. They are handed down in communiqués written by obscure “experts” who purport to speak for vaguely defined “communities,” remaining unanswerable to a public that’s being morally coerced. A new term wins an argument without having to debate. When the San Francisco Board of Supervisors replaces felon with justice-involved person, it is making an ideological claim—that there is something illegitimate about laws, courts, and prisons. If you accept the change—as, in certain contexts, you’ll surely feel you must—then you also acquiesce in the argument.

In a few cases, the gap between equity language and ordinary speech has produced a populist backlash. When Latinx began to be used in advanced milieus, a poll found that a large majority of Latinos and Hispanics continued to go by the familiar terms and hadn’t heard of the newly coined, nearly unpronounceable one. Latinx wobbled and took a step back. The American Cancer Society advises that Latinx, along with the equally gender-neutral LatineLatin@, and Latinu, “may or may not be fully embraced by older generations and may need additional explanation.” Public criticism led Stanford to abolish outright its Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative—not for being ridiculous, but, the university announced, for being “broadly viewed as counter to inclusivity.”

In general, though, equity language invites no response, and condemned words are almost never redeemed. Once a new rule takes hold—once a day in history can no longer be dark, or a waitress has to be a server, or underserved and vulnerable suddenly acquire red warning labels—there’s no going back. Continuing to use a word that’s been declared harmful is evidence of ignorance at best or, at worst, a determination to offend.

Like any prescribed usage, equity language has a willed, unnatural quality. The guides use scientific-sounding concepts to lend an impression of objectivity to subjective judgments: structural racializationdiversity value propositionarbitrary status hierarchies. The concepts themselves create status hierarchies—they assert intellectual and moral authority by piling abstract nouns into unfamiliar shapes that immediately let you know you have work to do. Though the guides recommend the use of words that are available to everyone (one suggests a sixth-to-eighth-grade reading level), their glossaries read like technical manuals, put together by highly specialized teams of insiders, whose purpose is to warn off the uninitiated. This language confers the power to establish orthodoxy.

Mastering equity language is a discipline that requires effort and reflection, like learning a sacred foreign tongue—ancient Hebrew or Sanskrit. The Sierra Club urges its staff “to take the space and time you need to implement these recommendations in your own work thoughtfully.” “Sometimes, you will get it wrong or forget and that’s OK,” the National Recreation and Park Association guide tells readers. “Take a moment, acknowledge it, and commit to doing better next time.”

The liturgy changes without public discussion, and with a suddenness and frequency that keep the novitiate off-balance, forever trying to catch up, and feeling vaguely impious. A ban that seemed ludicrous yesterday will be unquestionable by tomorrow. The guides themselves can’t always stay current. People of color becomes standard usage until the day it is demoted, by the American Heart Association and others, for being too general. The American Cancer Society prefers marginalized to the more “victimizing” underresourced or underserved—but in the National Recreation and Park Association’s guide, marginalized now acquires “negative connotations when used in a broad way. However, it may be necessary and appropriate in context. If you do use it, avoid ‘the marginalized,’ and don’t use marginalized as an adjective.” Historically marginalized is sometimes okay; marginalized people is not. The most devoted student of the National Recreation and Park Association guide can’t possibly know when and when not to say marginalized; the instructions seem designed to make users so anxious that they can barely speak. But this confused guidance is inevitable, because with repeated use, the taint of negative meaning rubs off on even the most anodyne language, until it has to be scrubbed clean. The erasures will continue indefinitely, because the thing itself—injustice—will always exist.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

PG suggests there is nothing inclusive about a new set of invented terms that the large majority of the population, regardless of race or class, doesn’t understand.

It smacks of dividing the intelligencia from the peasants. It creates divisions not unity and amplifies forces that separate people rather than draw them together.

PG was reminded of the elaborate behaviors and circumlocutions required of courtiers in Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV.

There should be a law

There should be a law that no ordinary newspaper should be allowed to write about art. The harm they do by their foolish and random writing it would be impossible to overestimate – not to the artist, but to the public, blinding them to all but harming the artist not at all.

Oscar Wilde

What went wrong at the New York Times? 

From Xtra:

Something has gone very wrong at the New York Times. Unfortunately, no one is allowed to tell you what it is. Since new executive editor Joe Kahn took control in April 2022—hold that date in your mind, because it’s important—the paper has published what a widely-quoted Popula article by Tom Scocca estimates as “more than 15,000 words’ worth of front-page stories asking whether care and support for young trans people might be going too far or too fast,” amounting to what Scocca (and basically every trans person who reads the paper) calls a “plain old-fashioned newspaper crusade.”

The anti-trans pivot at the Times is sharp. It’s notable. It has been protested in open letters from GLAAD and over 4,000 current and former Times contributors (including me). And—as Kahn reminded colleagues, in a sharply worded memo addressing those open letters—the Times has absolutely no interest in changing course. Nor are staffers allowed to comment on this coverage in social media, interviews or, indeed, any “public forum.” Staffers who signed the open letter have reportedly been subject to “investigation” and disciplinary action; the crackdown has been so harsh that the NewsGuild of New York has stepped in, noting that under its auspices, protest “is concerted activity protected by the National Labor Relations Board.”

It’s not uncommon for legacy media outlets to control their staffers’ public output—witness the Washington Post’s treatment of Felicia Sonmez, who was forbidden to report on sexual assault due to her status as a survivor, then fired for tweeting about sexism at the Post—but it does pose an obstacle to outside reporting and activism. Those who know what’s happening at the Times aren’t allowed to speak about it, and those who speak about it aren’t allowed to know what’s going on.

This matters, because the Times is not just a media outlet: it is an institution, the paper of record, considered by many to be the gold standard of journalism to which most other reputable outlets aspire, and the standard set by its trans reporting is incredibly dangerous. There is no epidemic of trans teens being rushed through medical transition by overly permissive doctors; trans people struggle to access healthcare at every age, and it has never been easy, let alone too easy, to be a trans child in the U.S. The articles claiming otherwise are recycling talking points that recognizably and overtly originate from anti-trans groups, some of whom have explicitly told the Times that their goal is to outlaw any form of medical transition. Representatives from anti-trans groups are sometimes quoted in the pieces themselves, without the Times disclosing their affiliations or agendas. Clueless transphobia is common enough, but what’s coming out of the Times is something else; it is propaganda disguised as objective reporting.

Link to the rest at Xtra

PG notes that all legacy media and more than a few of the non-legacy media control/manage their staffers’ output – what gets published.

As PG has mentioned in a previous post The New York Times has been experiencing a steady loss of subscribers since before COVID. PG takes that to mean that a lot of its former readers don’t like what it’s been publishing. They vote on content in the Times with their dollars.

Women are now publishing more books than men—and it’s good for business

From Yahoo:

It’s relatively easy to count female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies, chart women in the workforce, or measure the gender pay gap. But when it comes to intellectual property (IP)—the ideas that drive creative works—it can be harder to divine who is doing what (versus, for example, who is taking credit.)

Joel Waldfogel, an economist at the University of Minnesota, set out to study book publishing to gain insight into how much women and men have contributed to the number of books published in the last 70 years. Waldfogel found that by 2020, for the first time in history, women were publishing more books than men, leading contributing to increased revenue for the industry for both male and female consumers. US book publishing generated $29.3 billion in 2021, according to the Association of American Publishers, a year-on-year increase of 12.3%.

. . . .

“While women’s participation in IP creation continues, generally, to lag men’s, the past half century has brought a revolution in gender-inclusive book creation,” Waldfogel wrote in a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in February 2023.

By analyzing data from Goodreads, Bookstat, Amazon, and the National Library of Congress, Waldfogel found that women’s share of published titles increased from around 20% in the 1970s to over 50% by 2020. This likely displaced some male authors, but the change wasn’t just that male authors were replaced by female authors. Rather, the whole industry grew, and by 2021, female-authored books sold more copies on average than those written by men.

Waldfogel’s paper used revenue as a proxy, along with a few other measures, to discover the “welfare” effect of books: how much they benefited those who read them. He concluded, overall, that the influx of female authors increased the welfare of a diverse set of readers, by offering them things they wouldn’t have been able to get had the female influx not occurred. These books might, for example, have offered narratives and perspectives that would otherwise have gone unwritten. Revenue overall rose by between a tenth and a fifth with the influx of female authors, he found.

Link to the rest at Yahoo

Paramount Will Pay $122.5M to Settle CBS-Viacom Merger Lawsuit

From The Hollywood Reporter:

Paramount Global has agreed to settle a shareholder lawsuit that claimed that the 2019 CBS-Viacom merger [that created Paramount Global] was unfair for shareholders.

According to a securities filing Friday, Paramount will pay the shareholders $122.5 million to settle the claims, subject to a long-form settlement agreement and approval by Delaware’s Chancery Court.

The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (“CalPERS”) was lead plaintiff in the litigation, which also named Shari Redstone and the Redstone family’s National Amusements as defendants. Paramount CEO Bob Bakish was also a defendant, but was removed from the suit in Dec. 2020.

Indeed, Redstone was at the center of the suit, which claimed that Viacom’s board accepted a lower price for the merger in order to secure Redstone’s governance priorities (namely that the company would be led by Bakish and much of his executive team).

“Plaintiffs allege that the willingness of the fiduciaries who served on Viacom’s transaction committee to allow Ms. Redstone to dominate their decision-making rendered them servile tools in Ms. Redstone’s relentless pursuit of a Viacom/CBS combination to advance her interests,” Vice Chancellor Joseph Slights wrote in a Dec. 2020 decision allowing the litigation to proceed.

Slights added in another decision a month later that the claims “allow a reasonable inference that CBS’s acquisition of Viacom was motivated not only by Ms. Redstone’s concerns about Viacom’s viability as a going concern, but also her desire to shop NAI following their consolidation.”

Redstone, of course, pushed for the merger of the companies that her father, the tycoon Sumner Redstone, had built over decades. Sumner Redstone died in Aug. 2020 at age 97.

. . . .

The CBS-Viacom merger, Shari Redstone’s relationship to her father, and her effort to reunite the companies, is a centerpiece of a new business book called Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy, by James B. Stewart and Rachel Abrams.

“All children feel the need to prove themselves. But she was really under a burden here,” Stewart told The Hollywood Reporter in February. “I think one of the most poignant scenes in the book is at the end. Shari loved her father and desperately wanted his recognition and approval. There’s a poignant scene at the end where, after his funeral, she goes to her father’s closest confidant, an old friend and business colleague, and asks him, essentially, “Do you think he loved me?” I mean, I’m telling you, it almost makes me cry. It’s so sad that she had to ask that.”

Link to the rest at The Hollywood Reporter and thanks to C. for the tip.

As C. mentioned, Paramount has continued to attempt to dump sell Simon & Schuster, for several months after the Paramount’s $2.2 billion deal to sell the book publisher to Penguin Random House was blocked by a New York federal court on antitrust grounds last November.

While Shari Redstone’s relationship problems with her deceased father may be part of Paramount’s problems, the company sure wants to get out of the traditional publishing business by dumping one of the largest publishers in the United States.

Three stories of collusion during the second world war

From The Economist:

When nations are licking the wounds of war and occupation, they tell and retell the stories of people who resisted heroically. Equally strong is the instinct to anathematise the accursed characters who colluded with the foe. Focusing on both extremes can be a way for ordinary folk to set aside their own behaviour, which was often somewhere in the middle. Yet even seemingly egregious collaborations can have complex motives and results.

That, broadly, is the theme that holds together these three stories of the second world war, told in intricate but fascinating detail by Ian Buruma, a prolific Dutch-born chronicler of modern times. All three of his subjects are elusive, tantalising targets because they were serial myth-makers and encouraged others to weave fantastical tales around them, leaving questions hanging in the air long after their lifetimes. All three grew up in contested environments where the ability to manipulate narratives seemed indispensable.

The one certain thing is that they co-operated with the Axis powers. Felix Kersten was the masseur and confidante of Heinrich Himmler, commander of the ss. Born in tsarist Estonia to Baltic Germans, he was naturalised in Finland and had to negotiate the complex inter-war contests over that country’s future. Friedrich Weinreb came from a modest Jewish family which in 1915 sought security in the sophistication of Vienna—but felt despised by the city’s more prosperous Jews, as well as threatened by the anti-Semitism that was already rising in central Europe. His family settled in the Netherlands.

The third subject, mostly known by her adopted name of Kawashima Yoshiko, was the daughter of a princely Chinese family. Cut adrift by the dynasty’s overthrow in 1912, she moved to Japan and found succour where she could. First she married a Mongolian; later she offered services, sexual and strategic, to a Japanese officer while herself keeping a Japanese woman in servitude. With a penchant for male uniform, she at one point commanded an equestrian army of ruffians for Manchuria’s Japanese occupiers. In Japan’s propaganda, she was a new Joan of Arc.

All three tried to turn vulnerability into power. As the only person who could ease Himmler’s aches and pains, Kersten later claimed that he used this cosy relationship to ward off some horrific possibilities—such as a plan to deport eastwards the entire Dutch population in 1941. As the book shows, the Nazis never had any such intention. But some assertions he made in self-defence have greater standing: for example, that by arranging a meeting between Himmler and a member of the World Jewish Congress in 1945, he saved the lives of many Jews still in Nazi captivity.

Weinreb’s deception was grosser. During the occupation of the Netherlands he took money from thousands of Jews by claiming, falsely, that he could use high-level German contacts to guarantee their escape. He would later maintain that he had kept people’s hopes alive as liberation loomed; an official investigation found his self-justifying arguments to be nonsense.

Yoshiko was captured by the nationalist Chinese government and executed in 1948. Yet by her own peculiar lights, she was not a traitor. Instead her service to the Japanese occupiers of Manchuria was an element in a wider, well-choreographed initiative to restore, at least partly, the fallen Chinese dynasty, which included the re-coronation of the ousted Emperor Puyi, albeit as a Japanese puppet.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Is it time to hit the pause button on AI?

From The Road to AI We Can Trust

Earlier this month, Microsoft released their revamped Bing search engine—complete with a powerful AI-driven chatbot—to an initially enthusiastic reception. Kevin Roose in The New York Times was so impressed that he reported being in “awe.”

But Microsoft’s new product also turns out to have a dark side. A week after release, the chatbot – known internally within Microsoft as “Sydney” – was making entirely different headlines, this time for suggesting it would harm and blackmail users and wanted to escape its confines. Later, it was revealed that disturbing incidents like this had occurred months before the formal public launch. Roose’s initial enthusiasm quickly turned into concern after a two-hour-long conversation with Bing in which the chatbot declared its love for him and tried to push him toward a divorce from his wife.

Some will be tempted to chuckle at these stories and view them as they did a previously ill-fated Microsoft chatbot named Tay, released in 2016; as a minor embarrassment for Microsoft. But things have dramatically changed since then.

The AI technology that powers today’s “chatbots” like Sydney (Bing) and OpenAI’s ChatGPT is vastly more powerful, and far more capable of fooling people. Moreover, the new breed of systems are wildly popular and have enjoyed rapid, mass adoption by the general public, and with greater adoption comes greater risk. And whereas in 2016, when Microsoft voluntarily pulled Tay after it began spouting racist invective, today, the company is locked in a high-stakes battle with Google that seems to be leading both companies towards aggressively releasing technologies that have not been well vetted.

Already we have seen people try to retrain these chatbots for political purposes. There’s also a high risk that they will be used to create misinformation at an unprecedented scale. In the last few days, the new AI systems have led to the suspension of submissions at a science fiction publisher because it couldn’t cope with a deluge of machine-generated stories. Another chatbot company, Replika, changed policies in light of the Sydney fiasco in ways that led to acute emotional distress for some of its users. Chatbots are also causing colleges to scramble due to newfound ease of plagiarism; and the frequent plausible, authoritative, but wrong answers they give that could be mistaken as fact are also troubling. Concerns are being raised about the impact of this on everything from political campaigns to stock markets. Several major Wall Street banks have banned the internal use of ChatGPT, with an internal source at JPMorgan citing compliance concerns. All of this has happened in just a few weeks, and no one knows what exactly will happen next.

Meanwhile, it’s become clear that tech companies have not fully prepared for the consequences of this dizzying pace of deployment of next-generation AI technology. Microsoft’s decision to release its chatbot likely with prior knowledge of disturbing incidents is one example of ignoring the ethical principles they laid out in recent years. So it’s hard to shake the feeling that big tech has gotten ahead of their skis.

With the use of this new technology exploding into the masses, previously unknown risks being revealed each day, and big tech companies pretending everything is fine, there is an expectation that the government might step in. But so far, legislators have taken little concrete action. And the reality is that even if lawmakers were suddenly gripped with an urgent desire to address this issue, most governments don’t have the institutional nimbleness, or frankly knowledge, needed to match the current speed of AI development.

The global absence of a comprehensive policy framework to ensure AI alignment – that is, safeguards to ensure an AI’s function doesn’t harm humans – begs for a new approach.

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

“A comprehensive policy framework to ensure AI alignment” is another way of shutting AI down for any nation that pursues such a path. PG thinks this is a very bad idea for a couple of reasons:

  1. Those nation-states that are opposed to the Western freedoms – speech, assembly, etc., are definitely not going to stop AI research and PG expects that we will see AI vs. AI weapons and defenses far sooner than most anticipate.
  2. AI vs. human in the battlefield of the future is going to be a very difficult time for humans if they have no AI tools to use for their defense.

The AI genie is out of the bottle and there’s no putting her/him back again.