The Internet of Garbage

One of the best decisions I ever made was to subscribe to LitHub. A recent newsletter tipped me off to the fact that The Verge was making The Internet of Garbage available for free, and minutes later it was on my Kindle app.

Author: Sarah Jeong

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.16 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: A brief history of contemporary Internet hate and death threat campaigns, as well as suggestions to mitigate them.

Recommended audience: Anyone who uses the Internet but doesn’t know what “doxxing” means

In-depth thoughts: Much of what Jeong reports on here isn’t new to me, but then again I’m a digital native with one eye constantly on the Internet hellscape. Many people aren’t, though, and so when cases of online harassment boil over to the point where traditional media outlets begin reporting on them, there is inevitably something lost in the explanation. The Internet of Garbage is an excellent 101 primer on the subject. And therein is my only criticism: it doesn’t go beyond the 101 level. But since the reason The Verge put out a free interim edition of the book is in anticipation of a forthcoming expanded edition; perhaps that new edition will have a bit more meat to it.

But again, it’s easy for me to say that because I’ve kept apprised of Internet hate campaigns from the beginning. For other people, this is exactly what they need. For EFL readers, the language is crisp and direct, with the most potentially confusing terms helpfully defined.

Sacred Economics

I’ve blogged here before about my participation in Simbi, an online bartering communitySacred Economics is a book I found there; hardly surprising given Simbi’s raison d’etre and Eisenstein’s skeptical attitude towards currency, credit, and capital.

Author: Charles Eisenstein

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.25 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Eisenstein presents the history of economics and argues that we’re in the midst of a model shift from profit-based capitalism to community- and connection-based gifts.

Recommended audience: Anyone

In-depth thoughts: I read this alongside Sapiens, which was an interesting experience. It was the equivalent of hearing a history of humankind in stereo, in two slightly different arrangements. Some points are similar and mesh really well; some are contradictory and require further research and scrutiny.

I want to say, straight off the bat, that there are a lot of un-founded assertions and bizarre speculation presented here that I recognize immediately as such and, as someone amenable to Eisenstein’s larger thesis, that I regret made it in what appears to be the more or less latest edition of the book.  If Harari was too much of a materialist for my taste, Eisenstein wasn’t enough of one: infinite energy inventions by Tesla and the like weren’t quashed by greedy capitalist pigs, they just never existed; the sun isn’t powered by human gratitude and isn’t less yellow than it was thirty years ago; homeopathy isn’t a viable substitute for evidence-based medicine*. It’s hard to tell if Eisenstein genuinely believes these assertions or if he’s presenting them as a rhetorical flourish on his larger point, but either way they damage his credibility.

On the other hand, Eisenstein makes no attempt to disguise the fact that Sacred Economics represents his own theory of economics. Instead of taking anything as a given, he makes a very solid effort to defend his theory (through his own arguments as well as copious amounts of research and quoting from others), rather than taking it as a fact and spending most of the book explaining human history.

Yellow suns and homeopathy aside, Eisenstein touches on a lot of important issues. I was torn between four and five stars for just that reason: I don’t want to endorse faulty reasoning or bad science, but I also think people need to reassess their perspective on money and where it comes from and what it does. That alone makes the book worth reading.

Eisenstein’s style is warm and personal, if somewhat rambly. It should be an approachable text for high-intermediate learners, though economics is a complex topic and even after multiple close readings I’m not sure I walked away understanding everything.

*For a fair, evidence-based look at the measured benefits of homeopathy (and there are some! but not the ones its adherents usually claim), I’d recommend Jo Marchant’s Cure. You can read more about it in my review from a couple of years ago.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

I received Sapiens as a birthday present last year, and then promptly waited another year to actually read it. What can I say? When you spend a lot of your day job reading, and your free time participating in three (maybe four now?) different book clubs, it’s hard to prioritize reading for your own sake.

Image courtesy Harvill Secker

Author: Yuval Noah Harari

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.45 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Harari traces the evolution of society and humankind from the earliest assorted versions of humans to the present day.

Recommended audience: Humans

In-depth thoughts: Harari does an excellent job of framing human history within his central thesis: what makes societies and civilizations work is our species’ imagination, and our collective ability to create useful fictions that we can all agree on and participate in. This mass agreement, powered by a species-wide ability to imagine, organizes disparate groups that might not otherwise have much in common, or much reason to trust each other.

Nonetheless, Harari doesn’t do a lot of work to prop up that thesis in the first place. I’m willing to take it as a given, because as a reader and an editor I’m inclined to believe in the power of story, but it’s still easier to categorize an empire as a useful fiction than, say, human rights. Everything is based on a fundamentally materialist view of “existence” and what counts as existence, and I think that’s a view that needs a lot of examination and defense before it can be used as a foundation for anything.

Harari’s style is direct and simple, almost to the point of choppy. Not to the point where it ruined the book for me; it was just something I noticed. In fact, the relatively simple sentence structure he favors means that this is an excellent choice for English students. Perhaps this was an intentional style choice (if you’re explaining and describing complex ideas, no need to make the writing complex as well) or perhaps it was a result of the translation from Hebrew. I’ll probably be re-reading it in Swedish myself.

Ancillary Justice

Earlier this year it felt like I had a reading dry spell: one mediocre book after another. Feminist science fiction book club to the rescue! Ancillary Justice was the August selection and it reminded me of everything that can go right with good sci-fi.

Image courtesy Orbit

Author: Ann Leckie

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.98 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: The now-embodied AI of a huge starship travels across the empire they once served to exact revenge on the emperor.

Recommended audience: Sci-fi fans; in particular, fans of Asimov’s Foundation series, who might be interested in another vision of “Roman empire in space”

In-depth thoughts: The great technological marvel of the science fiction empire in question is ancillaries: human bodies used as a extensions of a starship’s AI, something like a miniature Borg collective. Leckie very skillfully navigates this perspective and, more than being a cool gimmick, this splintering of awareness is also an important story element. Leckie’s writing is also polished and economical, with enough details to keep the reader anchored but not so many you become overwhelmed; in a way, it’s exactly how you can imagine a very sophisticated AI would describe and process the world: picking out one or two concrete and salient details out of an input of thousands or even millions, but at the same time failing to make distinctions that humans can sort in an instant. (In this case, the AI has difficulty with all of the different gender markers in the assorted cultures they encounter.)

While the story is full of invented names and languages (always the case in space opera), the clear-cut prose should be relatively easily navigable by high intermediate learners.

 

Carry On, Jeeves

Back in June I organized a book swap for the Meetup I co-organize, The Stockholm Writing Group. I came away with a bunch of new children’s books for my work library, plus Carry On, Jeeves.

Author: P. G. Wodehouse

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.28 stars

Language scaling: C1

Summary: A collection of Jeeves short stories, including “Jeeves Takes Charge,” “The Artistic Career of Corky,” “Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest,” “Jeeves and the Hard-Boiled Egg,” “The Aunt and the Sluggard,” “The Rummy Affair of Old Biffy,” “Without the Option,” “Fixing It For Freddie,” “Clustering Round Young Bingo,” and “Bertie Changes His Mind.”

Recommended audience: Anglophiles

In-depth thoughts: Despite a life-long affinity for British pop culture and humor, Carry On, Jeeves was my first-ever exposure to P. G. Wodehouse. I wasn’t exactly disappointed, but I wasn’t blown away, either. Certainly Wodehouse is a master of the plot, and has an impeccable ear for character voice, but there is an element of “privileged men getting to do whatever they please” that is unappealing in this day and age, at least for me, especially in combination with the rather dated, stereotypical women characters. I can see what makes the stories enduring classics, though, and they’re certainly diverting. I might have also been in a grumpy mood when I read them.

Advanced learners might enjoy Wodehouse’s prose, which is polished and distinctive. I wouldn’t recommend these stories for beginner or intermediate learners, however, who might find the old slang terms too much of a barrier of entry.

Proust and the Squid

My ongoing self-directed professional development in the field of translations sends me deep into the academic and coursebook stacks at Stockholm University, most often within the linguistics section. On my last visit, Proust and the Squid caught my eye—what a title!—and, after just a moment’s hesitation, I added it to my stack.

The UK version of Proust and the Squid
Image courtesy Icon Books, Limited

Author: Maryanne Wolf

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.8

Language scaling: C1

Summary: Wolf sketches a short history of reading and the written language within a neurological framework, and hypothesizes about the neurological basis for dyslexia and other reading disorders.

Recommended audience: Elementary school teachers; special education teachers; book lovers; dyslexics

In-depth thoughts: I wasn’t expecting Proust and the Squid to be as good as it was, and I went into it expecting to enjoy it. Wolf manages to make complex neuroscience accessible to the layperson.

I debated whether to give this 4 or 5 stars. For anyone who works with young learners, this is a solid 5 stars. Wolf’s approach to typifying reading disorders and pinpointing what seems to be happening in the brain in these situations will no doubt prove useful for teachers, tutors, or parents with dyslexic children. I imagine it would be interesting to special education teachers as well, though maybe much of what Wolf touches on here would be covered in even greater detail over the course of a special education degree. Adult dyslexics might also appreciate understanding the neuro- and physiological foundations of reading and what’s happening in their brains in particular.

For the general public, I would say it’s only 4 stars, only because while the history of reading and the brain is fascinating for me, its immediate relevance to everyday life is more oddity than urgent. Wolf is largely accessible when writing about the hard science, but she tends towards to err on the side of obscurity rather than simplicity. It’s largely for that reason I would consider this a difficult book for English students (unless they were particularly motivated.) I’ll certainly have to read Proust and the Squid a few times to really appreciate it. It’s also been over a decade since the initial publication. I’d love to read an updated edition and see if there have been any new breakthroughs.

2023: A Trilogy

I’m planning on doing a buddy read of Ulysses this year, and much as I love and patronize libraries, some books are impossible to read unless you own them and have access to them at your leisure. (How many times did I try reading a library copy of The Second Sex, for example?) I spent the afternoon in town browsing The English Bookshop, and while I ended up having to special order Ulysses from their Uppsala store, the chance to browse the random selection led to me finding books I wouldn’t have otherwise. 2023: A Trilogy was one of them.

Cover of "2023: A Trilogy" by The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu

Authors: The Justified Ancients of Mumu, aka The Kopyright Liberation Front, aka Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.67

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: A “found footage” type of story. At the most basic level, the story is a satirical sci fi dystopia/utopia where five corporations benevolently rule the world and a programmer named Winnie Smith might just have solved the problem of immortality.

Recommended audience: Anyone who thought the original Illuminatus! trilogy was too much of a slog, leftover KLF fans, anyone who enjoys meta and self-referential texts, pop music nerds, anyone nostalgic for the 80s and 90s

In-depth thoughts: A boy I had a crush on in high school thought the Illuminatus! trilogy was one of the best books ever written and so I devoted a summer to trying to read it. I made it halfway through and never finished, but it was enough that even years later I can recognize the countercultural significance of things like 23, 17, and fnords.

This is important because Drummond and Cauty have packed 2023 full of Illuminatus!  references (mixed in with the literary and pop music references). If I hadn’t been able to call back to those particular references, I might well have been too lost to appreciate the book.

It’s a fun read if you’re either in the know or thirsty for meta, slightly experimental satirical science fiction. Whether or not this would be a good read for English students depends on how familiar they are with the cultural references in question, and how willing they are to track different narrative levels. The language itself isn’t too difficult, but the allusions and the metanarratives might be too frustrating for some readers.

The Spider King’s Daughter

The June selection for my Facebook book club was The Spider King’s Daughter, the debut novel by Chibundo Onuzo. I went in hoping that it would pull me out of the book slump brought on by RadianceHow I Became A North Korean, Gena/Finn, and the middle grade books I previewed for some of my students. The Facebook book club has the best hit/miss ratio out of all three that I’m in, after all.

 

Author: Chibundu Onuzo

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.42

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Abike, the daughter of a wealthy (and shady) businessman, encounters “Runner G,” a street hawker with a tragic past, and the two begin a relationship. Things take an unexpected turn when Runner G takes a fresh look at his own history.

Content warning: The book opens up with a gruesome scene of animal cruelty, but everything else afterwards is fairly tame

Recommended audience: Thriller fans; YA fans looking for something a bit grittier; those interested in Nigerian literature

In-depth thoughts: Onuzo is an engaging writer and I hope she continues down that path. (Her second book, Welcome to Lagos, came out last year. Hurrah!) This was engaging at a time when nothing else I was reading could capture my interest and Onuzo deserves a lot of praise just for that.

My favorite parts of the book all involve spoilers. I will say this: what starts as a meet cute adolescent love story takes on an unexpectedly darker tone. Or maybe I should have been expecting that, considering that the book opens with Abike telling us about how her father had her beloved dog deliberately run over.

Most of the reveals were more or less obvious, but the book doesn’t rely on the shock of those reveals for impact. I think, even, Onuzo expects readers to already know the truth from the very beginning. It’s how the characters react to these reveals that’s engaging and unexpected.

The book switches between Abike and Runner G’s perspectives, with Abike’s in italics. Reading extended passages in italics is straining, at best, but Onuzo’s prose (and the short paragraphs) make it much easier than in other books (James Agee’s posthumous A Death in the Family, for example). At the book’s climax, when we switch between Abike’s and Runner G’s perspectives rapidly—at every line, for a short while—this typesetting choice proves very necessary.

Set in Lagos and with secondary characters from poverty classes with little or no education, there is a fair amount of pidgin English and Nigerian slang in the dialogue. Readers will be able to discern meaning from context in most if not all cases, but EFL readers might be a little disoriented at its initial appearance.

Radiance: Book Review

The June selection for Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club was Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance. I didn’t know it, but Valente was already on my book radar thanks to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Now I’m wondering if I can bring myself to read it.

UK cover of Catherynne M. Valente's "Radiance."

 

Author: Cathrynne M. Valente

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.77

Language scaling: C1+

Summary: In an alternate history, where the human race masters interplanetary travel at around the same time they figure out movies, a young woman disappears on Venus while shooting a documentary about a ravaged diving village.

Content warning: Some surreal gore here and there.

Recommended audience: Fans of postmodern literature, alternate history fans

In-depth thoughts: I wanted to like this one and I didn’t.

If I had to pick one word to describe Radiance, it would be “overindulgent.” The structure Valente chooses (or rather, the lack of structure) does nothing to contain this tendency towards overblown wordiness or direct us to an understanding either of events or character.

Take, for example, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Like Radiance, there is a whole bunch of documentation (rather than narration), but in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, it all works to move the story forward and every single scrap in there contributes something to the story. Not so in Radiance. I quickly sorted out the bits that were most likely to move the plot along, read those, skipped the rest. At least the book is well labeled, which makes for easy fast-forwarding.

The other thing that makes Radiance overindulgent is the style. Valente’s writing is, as another reviewer put it, “high-octane purple prose.” It’s overwrought, it’s too much, and while I get it’s supposed to be an art deco gothic and therefore can be expected to be a bit much, it’s a bit much everywhere. It works in some situations (gossip columns, a few personal diaries) and falls flat in others (transcripts of conversations: actual human beings don’t talk like that).

There’s another layer to Radiance, or at least there’s supposed to be, about how the narratives of our lives and celebrity lives are constructed and so on and so forth, but it was just really hard to care because the writing and presentation is so distant from what it’s conveying that it’s impossible to care about any of the characters. It’s impossible even to know them, for the most part.

Valente is clearly a competent, if not talented, writer, but in Radiance she gets caught up in her own hype and it feels like no one around her told her “no.” As far as novels for EFL students go, or postmodern science fiction, there are better choices out there.

DuoLingo Updates Spring 2018

Any good app will be consistently updated, if not necessarily often. Bugs are fixed, security flaws are fixed, improvements are made, among other things. But DuoLingo recently made a fairly substantial change to their model in a relatively recent update.

Earlier, the visual cue for “mastery” of a lesson was the icon appearing in gold rather than full color.

 

This has been replaced with a “crowns” level in a given lesson.

Screenshot of the DuoLingo Android app.
RIP my 54-day streak.

Whether this is a better or worse model than the “golden” badges probably comes down to personal psychology. Some people will find it more motivating than the old model, and vice versa. What I personally find annoying is that there seems to be no way to test out of the crown levels (the same way you can test out of the initial levels). Really, DuoLingo, I promise that I’ve mastered reading and writing Cyrillic and Hangul. I shouldn’t need to sit through redundant, tedious review just to prove to the algorithm that “no really, I got this.” This was also true in the old model; you periodically had to refresh your levels even in the very, very basics. But it’s more marked here, I think. Maybe if you get to level 5 in a lesson, DuoLingo considers it “mastered” and you never have to review it again? I haven’t had enough initiative to find out, yet.

My big issue, though, is less with this change and more, after years of using DuoLingo in a variety of languages, that the SRS system underlying the app is surprisingly primitive. It’s static and top-down rather than genuinely responsive.

DuoLingo doesn’t atomize based on individual lexical units, but rather simply on its own lessons. While a given lesson will repeat a question you got wrong (and not let you complete the lesson until you get it right), the system as a whole seems to have no memory of what you’ve messed up over the long term, because it’s only keeping track of the last time you reviewed a particular lesson, not which words or phrases you consistent mess up.

Let’s say that I have a comfortable mastery of 60% of the words in a given lesson, struggle a bit with 30%, and then struggle a lot with the last 10%. A productive review session would focus on that 40% I struggle with and sprinkle the ones I’ve mastered throughout, both to maintain them and also for motivational purposes. That kind of data would be trivial to track: which words do I get right every time; which ones do I almost get, or forget somewhat frequently; which ones do I only get after repeated attempts or provide totally wrong answers for. It would, presumably, also be trivial to come up with an algorithm to prioritize future lessons based on that data. That’s exactly what Anki does when you choose “incorrect” or “hard” rather than “good” or “easy,” after all.

But a DuoLingo review session will simply be 60% “needless” review and 40% productive review (depending exactly on how your own mastery of a lesson breaks down). It’s a wasted to chance to review what actually needs reviewing, and it possibly borders on over-reviewing (which can actually be counterproductive!). The “weak words” that will be tested in the next review aren’t the ones you’ve gotten wrong in the past; it’s all of the material from whatever lesson in the unit has gone the longest without review. It doesn’t matter if half the words in that lesson are ones you actually know well.

The other problem is that simple review (that blue barbell in the corner) doesn’t seem to count towards any crown levels. The XP you earn at least counts towards your daily goal, so you can maintain your streak (a powerful motivator for many Anki users), but it seems silly to not connect those reviews to crown levels as well. But maybe this is simply a bug that will be addressed in a new update.