WAKE UP, SHEEPLE!

Photo by Sam Carter on Unsplash

This is a reblog of a post with the above title (used deliberately ironically, of course), on my own personal blog, which I use to vent my spleen about issues that are engaging me; generally, but not exclusively, politics and the repercussions therefrom. I normally avoid airing my personal views on this Wilfred Books WordPress blog, preferring to confine it to subjects & themes that might have concerned Wilfred Risdon, the subject of my biography, Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles: for further information, please click through to the about page on this site.

Link to the blog:

http://www.jonrisdon.co.uk/blog/database/alt_blog080521.html

Top 60+ Most Popular Social Networking Sites

Social networking sites can be a very useful marketing tool for authors.

Nicholas C. Rossis

Social media book marketing | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

We keep hearing that we must promote our books on social media. Given the billions of people who get online every day, this seems like a great idea. With so many media out there, however, how can you choose which one’s right for you?

Thankfully, Hostgator Coupon Code has published an exhaustive list with 60+ social networking sites and a quick description of each. If you’ve ever wondered what the heck Tout or Shutterfly is, here’s your chance to find out. This epic list includes the following, among others:

  1. WhatsApp – Simple. Secure. Reliable Messaging and Calling
  2. Facebook – It’s free and always will be
  3. Twitter – See what’s happening in the world right now
  4. Instagram – A photo and video-sharing social networking service
  5. YouTube
  6. WeChat – A multi-purpose messaging, social media & mobile payment app
  7. Tumblr – Micro-blogging and social networking website
  8. Flickr – An image and video hosting…

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Adult Education under Pandemic Conditions: Challenges & Perspectives

How will adult education change in response to the pandemic?

thelearningprofessor

Across the world, the pandemic has transformed adult education. After over a year, some governments are looking at a falling number of infections, and starting to relax restrictions. It seems a good time to take stock of the pandemic’s impact and the sector’s response, and this Call for Papers is therefore highly timely:

The Coronavirus pandemic has disrupted all aspects of life, including lifelong learning and adult education. It has had a profound impact on the formats, demand, and opportunities for adult education. Most notably, there has been an increase in digital formats and online learning, whereas many forms of in-person instruction were postponed, canceled, or reduced in scope. On the supply side, the pandemic has shaped the conditions under which providers can operate and offer instruction. Regarding participants, demand for adult education has increased in some areas because changes in working and living conditions triggered by the pandemic require…

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Book Review

Photo by Vadim Burca on Unsplash

Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

This is not an easy book to review; not because I don’t know what to say about it, but because I know virtually nothing about H P Lovecraft’s writing, so I wouldn’t want to jump to any lazy conclusions about the presumed connection between this book and Lovecraft’s own oeuvre. I was attracted to the book because I recently watched (and enjoyed, albeit with some ongoing confusion) the HBO dramatisation, which was shown serially in Britain on Sky (and seems to have taken some considerable liberties with the narrative, but I suppose that is only to be expected, using the mitigating excuse of “dramatic licence”) and, inevitably, two of the drama’s main characters were depicted on the latest edition of the book’s front cover: this paperback was published in 2020 by Picador, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-1903-2. Unfortunately, the book’s Wikipedia page isn’t a great deal of help here:

Lovecraft Country is a 2016 dark fantasy horror novel by Matt Ruff, exploring the conjunction between the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft and racism in the United States during the era of Jim Crow laws, as experienced by Black science-fiction fan Atticus Turner and his family.

See above for citation

Lovecraft’s own Wikipedia page is somewhat more helpful, but I will return to that at the conclusion of the review. The book is actually a portmanteau of eight separate, but connected stories, the first of which gives the book its name. The story starts in 1954, with the return of Atticus Turner, who has just been released from military service, having served in the American war in Korea, to his home in Chicago. Although the story starts in an apparently ‘normal’ world, it very quickly becomes clear that this normal world is a very difficult one for black people (or ‘coloured’, as they are often referred to, which is at least polite), and that the events which ensue are going to be seen & interpreted through the lens of this difficult, and very often painful reality.

Before long, magic becomes an inescapable part of the fabric of the story, which makes the journey upon which our protagonists have embarked, even more perilous. Atticus’s father, Montrose, has gone missing, and in New England, where they hope to find him, Atticus, his uncle George, and his childhood friend Letitia encounter thuggish & provocative white police officers (inevitably), but also the white, patrician Braithwhite family: father Samuel and son Caleb will figure in the rest of the story, and become a presence that it is impossible for Atticus & his associates to ignore. The Braithwhites are members of one of a loose confederation of quasi-Masonic Lodges, but this appearance is merely superficial, as their main purpose appears to be the use of magic; and not always a beneficent one, unfortunately. Atticus’s family also appears to have a knowledge of the same esoteric arts practised by the Braithwhites, and George & Montrose are also members of a Chicago Masonic Lodge; one exclusively for Black members, of course.

To give any more plot details would be unfair, but it might be helpful to add a few details about Lovecraft himself here, to support the description of the environment which Atticus & co. encountered as ‘Lovecraft Country’. Lovecraft’s Wikipedia page states, somewhat confusingly, that he began his life as a Tory, which is normally understood as a British political persuasion, but despite apparently becoming a socialist after the Great Depression, it is clear that some of his views were also incontrovertibly right-wing, to the extent being arguably fascist; although the page also states that the form of government advocated by Lovecraft bears little resemblance to that term; I would take issue with that, having researched fascism for the biography of my relative, Wilfred Risdon, because in the early 1930s at least, it was possible for fascism to also embrace socialistic principles. Unfortunately, his racial attitudes were not unusual for the time, although it would seem that his earlier (prior to the 1930s) denigration of non-white races later modified somewhat, to an opinion that different ethnicities should remain in their area of origin and, ideally, not intermingle, unless they, presumably only the white races though, were prepared to assimilate completely.

However, returning to the book, it is an engaging story; and having seen the television dramatisation, notwithstanding the dramatic liberties, does help to a large degree with visualisation of the action (but I appreciate that not all readers would be able to avail themselves of this facility); but the battle of wits between our protagonists and the white antagonists, not least because the Black characters are able to show, with considerable ease, that they are really the match of (and, often, superior to) their white oppressors, both actual & putative, makes the narrative very enjoyable, especially if equality, fairness, and human rights are important to you. This is highly recommended, and you don’t need to be a connoisseur of fantasy fiction to be able to enjoy it; although that undoubtedly helps!

Book Review

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Two Tribes, by Chris Beckett

I have to confess upfront that this book was something of a disappointment for me. The book back blurb includes the paragraph: “Two Tribes is a reflection on the way our ideas are shaped by class and social circumstances, and how they change without us even noticing. It explores what divides us and what brings us together. And it asks where we may be headed next.” So far, so good, and the book starts well enough, but I could see the book’s thickness rapidly diminishing as I was reading, and I was wondering why the wider story outside the characters’ immediate actions, which is threaded right through the book, was not moving forward as quickly as I thought it could. The book is categorised as ‘speculative fiction’ (which is a new category to me), and Beckett is clearly an intelligent & thoughtful writer, detailing the thought processes behind the characters’ action.

The story is presented as a reconstructed history of the time in England immediately following the Brexit vote, from the point of view of a historian & archivist, Zoe, who works in the Cultural Institute in “the bleak, climate-ravaged twenty-third century”, after she discovers the two hundred and fifty year old diaries of the two main characters, Harry, an architect, and Michelle, a hairdresser, so a certain amount of ‘embroidery’ is practised by Zoe, to flesh out these two people’s lives, and she actually resorts to explicit fabrication in the creation of some characters with whom Harry & Michelle come into contact, for the novel she has decided to write, although it is outside her professional remit, to the consternation of Zoe’s friend, and putative lover, Cally.

England is under the ostensibly benign supervision, in the form of the Guiding Body, of China, as a result of some sort of catastrophic societal breakdown (and living conditions are still rather primitive for some of the population), and this is the aspect of the story that I felt Beckett could have developed better; of course, it would inevitably be speculation & hypothesis, but I feel it is something of an abrogation of the author’s responsibility, to work back from an imagined future with only lightly sketched details of how that future came about. Harry and Michelle are from different backgrounds, but for Zoe, it is “an extraordinary stroke of luck” that another diary, Michelle’s, overlaps both chronologically & geographically with Harry’s, so it is possible for Zoe to present the very real discord that has been experienced in Britain following the ‘leave’ Brexit vote through the eyes of a character effectively from each side of the divide; and people’s accents & enunciation are examined in some detail to emphasise their social difference. Beckett points out our own hypocrisies & blinkered thinking in the discussions the characters have and, for me, this is the most successful aspect of this book, because in the real world, it is widely recognised (possibly more by the ‘remain’ side than the ‘winners’ of the vote) that this episode in our early twenty-first century history is producing many more negative than positive repercussions.

Where the book falls down is in not projecting forward, apart from in the very broadest brush strokes, to describe how the societal collapse came about. At some stage, ‘normal’ life broke down sufficiently (which might have coincided with a collapse of democratic government) for armed conflict to begin, with two factions, the possibly somewhat clumsily named, but easily understood, Liberals & Patriots fighting for dominance. China must have had sufficient investment in the country, presumably, to want to protect it, and an agreement was reached whereby the country was invaded, enabling a Protectorate to be established, creating a Guiding Body “of qualified, able and scientifically minded people”, using Nine Principles to develop the country in a way appropriate to one of the factions, albeit patrolled by armed militiamen, which is roughly when the story starts. How did social media ‘argy-bargy’, and current-affairs navel-gazing programmes, descend into armed conflict? Would having a theoretical scenario presented here prevent it happening in real life? Probably not, but knowing how bad things could become should spur us on to work ever harder to preserve peace. The paperback version of the book that I read was published in 2021 by Corvus, London, ISBN 978-1-78649-933-2.

Reading in Lockdown 2.0: The fourth month

More reading suggestions from the Learning Professor in Lockdown 2.0.

thelearningprofessor

26 March – 25 April

I seem to have read more than usual this month, though I’ve no idea why. Howe, I’ve not yet finished Jill Lepore’s excellent survey of America’s past (it’s long, unsurprisingly).

Fiction

Shalom Auslander, Hope: A tragedy

Yousra Imran, Hijab and Red Lipstick

Krischan Koch, Mordseekrabben

Deborah Massan, Out for Blood

Peter Robinson, Not Dark Yet

Theodore Storm, The Rider on the White Horse

Dagmar Maria Toschka, Alte Anker rosten nicht

Non-fiction

Roy Foster, On Seamus Heaney

Jill Lepore, These Truths: A history of the United States

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Book Review


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Coffin Road, by Peter May

The scenario of a protagonist waking up, in a state of some jeopardy, either current or recent, with no knowledge of his or her identity or the chain of events which has precipitated the current situation, cannot be unique to this book, but it is a refreshing change; and, of course, the misdirection can be laid out right at the beginning, a fog (both literal & figurative) which the protagonist and, implicitly, the reader, has to penetrate to unravel the mystery of why he; in this case, a man; came to be washed up on a beach somewhere with total amnesia. The Coffin Road of the title is an ancient way which was taken across the Isle of Harris for burial rites, because the east side of the island was too rocky for burials, so the body had to be carried across to the western side, where the natural soil was more accommodating. The reason for this road being used as the name of the book is not immediately clear, but suffice to say that the road is significant to the story.

The man doesn’t discover his true name until well into the story so, up until that point, he only has the information he has gleaned from the people in his immediate vicinity to go on and, although they seem plausible enough on the surface, it takes a while to discover that some of them might be deceiving him, but why? Ostensibly, the man is writing a book about the mystery of the missing lighthouse keepers of Eilean Mòr (Gaelic for big island), who went missing without trace in December 1900, almost exactly one year after the light was first lit on the largest of the seven Flannan Isles; at the outset, he has no knowledge of how he came to be doing this, but when he reads a booklet about it in the cottage he is renting for the duration, he is instantly gripped by the story. He is aided & abetted, to some extent, by an attractive (of course!) young woman, apparently the wife of an academic taking a year out with her in this beautiful, but rugged, location; the unnamed man is also having an illicit liaison with this woman, and he sees no reason initially to question this, for a variety of reasons!

Unfortunately for the man, who is apparently a sailor of some expertise, there is a dead body at the location he is given to understand was the last place he visited before his accident, so to add to his current confusion, he also has the terrible foreboding that he might have been responsible for this murder. Into this mix, but separately at first, is thrown a teenage girl in Edinburgh, who is trying to discover the truth about her father’s suicide because, although all the information available to her points to this being the case, she can’t accept that he would abandon her, given that she knows how much he lover her; unfortunately, she is riven with guilt, because the last time they parted, she told him that she hated him.

Although this might seem like a pretty conventional thriller, before long the real message of the story becomes apparent: there is an environmental catastrophe on the horizon; getting closer by the day, in fact; and this book is the vehicle for this message, so I am very happy to share it. Of course, most of the educated world is aware of the issue, but the problem that needs to be addressed is the cavalier, money-driven attitude of the agrochemical industry, especially given the vast potential profits that can be made from the products of this industry: so how can this real threat be alleviated, if not removed completely? I know nothing about this author, but he has produced at least seventeen books, one of which is non-fiction, so he is clearly a well-established writer, and I will certainly keep a look out for his work in future. Coffin Road was published in 2016 by riverrun, an imprint of Quercus Editions Ltd., London, in paperback, ISBN 978-1-78429-313-0.

Book Review

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I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov

This is possibly the best known of Asimov’s stories, but the book with this title is, in fact, a series of nine short stories, published individually between 1940 & 1950, plus a fictitious introduction, in a connected thread, and it is also one of five ‘robot’ books written by Asimov; the epithet ‘seminal’ can surely and safely be ascribed to it, in the science fiction genre. Younger readers might initially associate the title with a 2004 film of the same name, directed by Alex Proyas, and starring Will Smith; given that it is a few years since I watched this film, from what I can remember, it bears little resemblance to Asimov’s original: the Wikipedia ‘blurb’ tells us that the original screenplay, Hardwired, was “suggested by Isaac Asimov’s 1950 short-story collection of the same name.” The underlying message of the film might not be too far removed from the original, however, because Asimov’s portmanteau essentially uses the technology of robotics as a vehicle for psychology, philosophy and, possibly, even morality: how much autonomy can we, should we, give to what are machines or, perhaps, cyborgs; if they have organic content in the form of a positronic brain (a term conceived by Asimov, and now very well known in science fiction); and if we do, how far would we be able to trust them, in view of their likely superiority, both mental & physical?

Of course, AI (Artificial Intelligence: “founded as an academic discipline in 1955”, according to Wikipedia, so very much springing out of, if not necessarily inspired by, Asimov’s thinking) is now a very widely known, if not necessarily understood, concept, and it is used in a plethora of applications, from internet search engines to what are now referred to as ‘smart’ devices; the worry, which some technologists are probably quite happy to dismiss as ‘conspiracy theory’, is that much of the work that AI does goes on unseen, in the background, so it is virtually impossible to monitor its activity and the repercussions for society, especially where privacy & human rights are concerned: perhaps these wider implications weren’t obvious to Asimov when he was writing the stories in the American post-war, white heat of technological development, although it is pretty clear that he was aware of the dangers that intelligent, autonomous robots could present.

These creations, initially of mankind but, before very long, self-reproducing, can be made to be beneficent (probably the best-known example of which is the android Data, from the Star Trek Next Generation series) just as easily as they can be made bellicose, as they would be when (rather than if) the military were allowed to dominate their development: the difference would be governed by the primary programming of the neural net (another name for the positronic brain), and it must be assumed that the military’s killing machines would not be given the fundamental & inescapable guidance of Asimov’s wonderfully precise & concise Three Laws of Robotics, “designed to protect humans from their robotic creations”, hence the clear & present danger which would be obvious to all, including (but expediently ignored by) the military.

The protagonists of these stories are three main characters, the primary one being, to Asimov’s credit, a female ‘robopsychologist’, Dr. Susan Calvin, the other two being engineers Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan, who have to deal ‘on the ground’ with different situations involving robots, in the chronological course of the narrative. It is structured in the form of a memoir of a series of interviews with Calvin by an unnamed future version of a journalist (he is only ever referred to by Calvin as “young man”: he is thirty-two), who is acquiring background information on her for his “feature articles for Interplanetary Press”: he already “had her professional ‘vita’ in full detail.” The year is 2062, and over the course of the interviews, Calvin gives the journo her thoughts on both her life, to that point, and sketches in the scenarios involving the main & supporting characters, which are described in the third person, including Calvin herself.

There are many interesting aspects to this series; the first is the obviously, and occasionally, in our terms comically, antiquated manifestation of the future technology as it could be conceived in the late 1940s; another is the way that everybody, across this future society, is quite comfortable with anthropomorphism of robots, primarily derived from their nomenclature: “Dave”, from DV-5; “Cutie”, for the QT series; but the first robot mentioned only has a human name, Robbie, rather prosaically, although ‘he’ cannot vocalise, being “made and sold in 1996. Those were the days before extreme specialization [sic], so he was sold as a nursemaid…” Also, and somewhat depressingly for me, it is taken for granted that capitalism will still be operating in this technological future, but it doesn’t have to be so: there is at least one highly developed ‘alternative’ system, Resource Based Economy, embodied in the work of Jacque Fresco and his collaborators in The Venus Project — it is difficult to pin down exactly when his work would have first achieved some prominence, but he was born in 1916 (died 2018!) and, according to the website, “Fresco’s lifelong project stems from his firsthand experience of the Great Depression, which instilled in him the urge to reevaluate how many of the world’s systems work.”, so it is possible that Asimov was aware of this concept, but whether he chose to ignore it is a moot point.

The impression given by Dr. Calvin’s reminiscences, for all her obvious genius professionally, is that she is distinctly ambivalent about the advisability of humanity’s inexorable & irrevocable reliance upon robots and AI, and her empathy, for all she could come across as occasionally cold & arrogant, is presumably the vehicle by which Asimov conveys his own reservations: any tool, or weapon, has no impetus other than the autonomy which is bestowed upon it, so an inert tool is subject to the use to which a human being might put it, but it appears that Asimov was wanting to warn us of the dangers of opening Pandora’s Box. Thankfully, those concerns are being addressed to some extent, but inevitably, secrecy associated with humanity’s protectionism embodied by global military forces means that it is possible that wider society will have no inkling of how far development of autonomous AI has progressed before it passes the point of no return: perhaps the best we can do is hope and work for peace wherever possible. The paperback edition of the book I read was published by HarperVoyager, London, in 2018, ISBN 978-0-00-827955-4.

10 Effective Ways to Avoid Distraction While You Write

Are you easily distracted when you try to write? These ten recommendations should help!

Nicholas C. Rossis

As writers, we’ve all struggled with people, thoughts, and objects constantly distracting us while writing. In my case, it’s an energetic 5-year-old who loves interrupting me to show me stuff like the dragon egg she painted as soon as I sit down to write.However, there are plenty of other interruptions in our lives.

Thankfully, there are as many ways through which you can reduce and even eliminate these distractions to make an environment for yourself to maintain a steady focus on the writing task at hand. Here are ten effective ways to ward off any distractions while you write.

Writing | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Turn off notifications

Screens are distracting. And so are the constant pings from our phones that we’re habituated to respond to. Blocking out any distractions such as your phone or Chrome’s notifications sounds is important whether you’re typing on your laptop or writing on paper. If youturn off Chrome notifications

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Free and Paid Photo Editing Tools

Do you edit photos after you have taken them? This is a review of some of the best popular photo editing apps available.

Nicholas C. Rossis

I frequently write about free photo editing tools like Picture Colorizer; a tool that automatically colorizes your old photos. But what happens if you need more than that?

Then it may be time to upgrade to a paid photo editing tool.

An increasing number of people use their iOS or Android device to take pictures instead of a camera. Phones come in cheap and you can easily carry them in your pockets. Besides, manufacturers are always adding new features to their phones to help you take wonderful photos. As a result, we’re all flooded with great photos (and even more not-so-great ones).

Of course, this poses a dilemma. Do you download your photos to your computer, edit them, and share them on social media? Or should you make changes to your photos by using third-party photo editing software on the phone itself?

If you’re an old-timer like me who…

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