Tag Archives: Quote

History Undusted: On Changing the Course of History

Mahatma Gandhi - Determined, alter history

Originally posted on History Undusted, 11 January 2014
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Digital Echo Chambers

This article is longer than my usual blog, but please bear with me; the issues below affect all of us, and they are important to become aware of; after all, you can only keep an eye on something you see.

I watched a fascinating TED talk recently about an African American man, Theo E.J. Wilson, who went “undercover” online as a white supremacist.  He did it in order to try and understand where some of the internet trolls who were attacking him were coming from, and to try and discover where they were getting their “information” and ideas from.  His findings were insightful.

He discovered something that has become more and more obvious to me lately, and that is that we all live online in “digital echo chambers”.  The definition of echo chamber is “A room or other enclosed space that is highly conducive to the production of echoes, particularly one that has been designed and built for this purpose.  An insular communication space that is of no interest to outsiders or refuses their input.”

The echo chamber is harmless, though annoying, when it comes to shopping or interest feeds; but it can be catastrophic when it comes to life decisions and social or political views.

“If you surround yourself with voices that echo similar opinions to those you’re feeding out, they will be reinforced in your mind as mainstream, to the point that it can distort your perception of what is the general consensus.”

Alan Martin, Wired

Echo Chmaber

Big Brother

The question growing in my mind is, am I telling algorithms online what I want to see/hear/learn, or visa versa?  I’ll give a few examples of what I mean:

Sitting at my dining table chatting over a tea with a friend, our cell phones sat off to one side.  We were chatting about holidays, and she spontaneously mentioned Mallorca (Spanish islands).  The next time we looked online, we both had ads for Mallorca.  This has happened many times – that a live conversation in a private home, with no online searches previously made, have resulted in ads, or articles popping up in suggestions; the conclusion is that Google is listening in on your life.  If you don’t have your phone on airplane mode and your cameras blocked (I keep small post-its on both front and back cameras on my phones, as well as my laptop’s camera), chances are you’re giving away a lot more than you want to.  If you tend to say your passwords out loud as you’re typing them in, you may be giving them away.

Facebook & co.

Facebook, theoretically a social media site to connect with your friends, in reality decides what it is you see, and whose activities you see in your feed.  I haven’t been on Facebook regularly for several months now as I removed it from my home tabs on my browser; that one move has saved a lot of time otherwise being wasted!  Now, when I look on Facebook, I literally see the home feed activities from only a handful of friends out of 300+; most of what I now see in my home feed is Facebook ads, FB suggestions, memories they’ve selected, and unrelated video stream suggestions.  They’re trying to draw me in; but they’ve missed the memo that I’m only there for real connections with friends, and I intend to keep it that way.  Maybe I should turn on my phone’s Wi-Fi and say that out loud… [Keep in mind that Facebook, or Amazon, or Google are not “they” as in human faces seeing your information; they are algorithms designed to harvest it.]

The more time you spend online, the clearer your digital fingerprint becomes; the more the algorithms know about your likes and interests, the more they will feed you just that information.  The dark side of this is that, if someone has temptations in a particular area, they will be bombarded by tailor-made algorithmic choices, guiding them toward the thing they may be trying to avoid.  A recent article in our local newspaper stated that, according to Netzsieger, a comparison portal, 25% of all searches online are related to pornography.  Let that statistic sink in a moment.

.Com is not .Com

And were you aware of the fact that, if you are outside of the borders of the US, a certain monopolistic shopping portal beginning with “Amaz” has been discriminating against you?  The prices you see are not the prices an American within the borders of the US are seeing.  I found this out recently when I was running a sale on one of my books; the sales price was 99 cents; the usual price is $2.99.  But when I went on (I am a registered kindle customer at .com) to see if the sale had begun, the only price I saw was $3.56.  That’s nearly a 20% price increase; no sale in sight.  When I asked them about it, they gave a fluff algorithmic answer, but did not address the real issue.  And they never answered my question whether I, as author, am being paid commission on the higher price or not.

It makes me wonder what else they’re not telling me as both author and as customer, and what else they’ve been charging me more for (likely, everything) than if I lived within the borders of the US; as a result, I’ve taken my online shopping elsewhere.  I will be doing further investigation into this, and if you do online shopping, I would recommend you do the same, and call them on the carpet about it – write complaint emails, and make your voices heard!  Have friends in other countries check out the prices on the same website and product, and compare.

[Now I have another example of the digital eavesdropping:  I’ve been typing up this article in my Word program on my laptop – not directly into the WordPress blog; when I went onto Google to refresh my memory about percentage calculation, I began typing in, “how to calculate” – and it filled in “percentage” – with NO previous such search on my part… they didn’t choose “exchange rate” or any other more common option of mine…]

Breaking Out

So, how can we break out of our digital echo chambers and mess with the results of algorithms?  There are quite a few ways, actually:  Below are a few links to articles about that very topic.  I would encourage you to get informed, and put into action various methods to burst the digital bubble, and breathe in the fresh air outside your echo chamber.

Five Ways to Break Out of Your Online Echo Chamber

You can break out of your echo chamber – and here’s how

How To Break Out Of An Echo Chamber – Your Bubble

 Escape the echo chamber: How to fix your Facebook News Feed

5 Super Easy Ways to Eliminate Your Echo Chamber

Fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles: Under-researched and overhyped

 

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On Bending History

robert-john-kennedy

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”

Robert F. Kennedy

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On Long Walks

“In these days of increasing rapid artificial locomotion, may I be permitted to say a word in favour of a very worthy and valuable old friend of mine, Mr. Long Walk?  I am afraid that this good gentleman is in danger of getting neglected, if not forgotten.  We live in days of water trips and land trips, excursions by sea, road and rail – bicycles and tricycles, tram cars and motor cars… but in my humble opinion, good honest walking exercise for health beats all other kinds of locomotion into a cocked hat.”

T. Thatcher, “A Plea for a Long Walk”, the Publishers’ Circular, 1902

Walking Tours

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On Repetition

History does not always repeat itself. Sometimes it just yells, ‘Can’t you remember anything I told you?’ and lets fly with a club.

John W. Campbell

History Repeats

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On Discoveries

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka (I’ve found it)’, but ‘that’s funny…’.”

Isaac Asimov

Eureka

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History Undusted: Quote, Unquote

Line engraving of The Griffin - William Hawkins's ship during the Armada Campaign, Engraved by C. J. Visscher, 18th Century

The Griffin – Line Engraving by C.J. Visscher, 18th C.

“The art of pure line engraving is dying out.  We live at too fast a rate to allow for the preparation of such plates as our fathers appreciated.  If a picture catches the public fancy, the public must have an etched or a photogravure copy of it within a month or two of its appearance.  The days when engravers were wont to spend two or three years over a single plate are forever gone.”

Journal of the Institute of Jamaica, Volume 1, 1892

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POV

POV is shorthand in the film industry for “point of view” – in that context, it has to do with not only the narrative context but also the camera angles and editing process.  Changing the POV can affect the way the audience – or readers – perceive a character, an event, or the overall atmosphere of a scene.

Mark Twain - History's Ink is Fluid PrejudiceRecently I was watching a history documentary series from BBC called, “British History’s Biggest Fibs”, with Lucy Worsley.  The basic point of the series is that history is subjective; whoever wins gets to name the battles, and shape future generations’ perceptions about events; the victor gets to smooth over their own weak points and play up their heroism for posterity.  PR and spinning a good yarn helped to shape how reigning kings were perceived and toppled, or usurpers could style themselves as “successors”.

When writing a novel, the POV can drastically change a scene either from the inside, or the outside, or both; by that I mean that either the scene itself changes “camera angles” to tell the story from a slightly different perspective, or that something within the scene shifts slightly, affecting the reader’s perceptions of characters or events in the scene.  For example:  I was reading through a particular scene in my current manuscript that I knew I wasn’t happy with, but couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was that bothered me aside from the outcome.  The scene involved an unjust flogging aboard a Royal Navy ship.  The officer on duty was forced by the captain to either flog the innocent man or be punished worse in his stead.  The original scene played out with the officer carrying out the punishment unwillingly but obediently.  The scene’s purpose is to show the gradually decaying grip on reality in a captain going insane; I wanted a stronger contrast, and so I tweaked the dialogue, which changed the outcome:  The officer refuses to punish the innocent man and takes the punishment on himself.  This outcome builds far more tension among the crew, gives grounds for retribution against the true instigator (a snivelling King John’s man of a junior officer), and contrasts the honourable dealings of the officer on duty against the captain’s failing sense of right and wrong.  By shifting the scene slightly, I take the reader and myself down a much steeper path.

POV - Screenshot Marvel's Avenger'sIn this illustration from Marvel’s Avengers film series, the camera angle chosen gives much more of an adrenaline rush than, say, if you were passively watching from off to the side; the fact that the arrow’s flying straight at you gives the scene that extra “kick”.

If you find yourself staring at one of your scenes – or even an entire premise of your story – that you’re not satisfied with, trying shifting the POV (sometimes it helps me to refer to it as the “camera angle”).  Put your inner eye’s camera in a different position in the scene, and see if that unlocks the key to improving that scene, the story arc or a character’s arc.  Keep writing!

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In Other Words – Make Every Word Count!

I’ve been out of WordPress-land for the past week or so; I’ve been focused on editing and didn’t want to blog until I had something worth writing about.  I thought I’d tell you a bit about what I’ve been working on & thinking about:

One golden rule in writing is to make every word count; along that yellow brick road are all kinds of signposts and potholes.  Signposts are things like “make verbs do the actions”, while potholes are “watch out for unnecessary words” – either for the sake of padding word count (e.g. for a short story or report that needs to reach a certain word count), or words that slip in needlessly.  Examples of unnecessary words are -ly adverbs (if we use the best verb, the adverb will be superfluous), strings of adjectives, really, very, and there is/are/were/was.  Recently I’ve been scanning my current manuscript for the kinds of words that slip in easily while writing in a flow; I have a list of things that I watch out for personally, and one item is “there”.  While I try to catch them as I write, sometimes I will intentionally use them as a “place-marker” – knowing that I’ll come searching for them later, find it, and re-write the sentence or scene with a fresher eye than I had at the time I originally wrote it.  That’s just me – I know myself, that I won’t leave things like that long.  If you’re not sure you’ll catch those sentences you want to improve on later, then mark them with a different coloured text, or an e-post-it, or something that will jump out at you.

Mark Twain - Very, Damn

Here are a few examples of sentences (from my current manuscript) with “there” before and after editing:

…there was a crisp off-shore wind… —> …a crisp off-shore wind blew…

…there was no recollection in his eyes… —> …no recollection flickered in his eyes…

…there was a twinkle of amusement in his eyes… —> …amusement twinkled in his eyes…

…there was no sign of the HMS Norwich… —> …the HMS Norwich was nowhere to be seen…

…there would be dire consequences… —> …dire consequences would follow…

…there was a smirk on the captain’s face… —> …a smirk spread across the captain’s face…

Tightening up the wording makes the sentence less clunky and more precise.  Making every word count is not about reducing word count, although that will be a natural consequence sometimes; at other times, by changing the sentence to mean more precisely what you want to convey, it may result in the word count actually increasing.  Just make sure that the words you use carry their weight.  Waffling, rambling & repetition will not win us any brownie points; I could easily go into detail about the ropes of a ship of sail, but it would probably bore most readers to death!  Sometimes “less is more”; it’s enough to say “ropes”.  If I describe a surgeon’s table and list the instruments he’s about to use, it may be TMI (“too much information”) if using the word “instruments” is enough; if I want something more specific, then I could name a tool at a particular moment in the scene.  Though I like the (audio) book “The Host”, by Stephenie Meyer, my one gripe with it is what I call the “roll call” scenes – where the characters present are listed, as if in a roll call.  It’s TMI – it would be enough to say something like, “those I counted as allies were with me”.

Other times, a list of words may become a linguistic collage, painting a picture in the reader’s mind of a character, or a place, or a mood.  A classic example of this is Lewis Caroll’s Jabberwocky; most of the words are nonsensical, non-existent words, but they nevertheless paint a clear image in the reader’s mind.

It’s why writing is never an exact science, and why, as a writer, I can always learn something, always hone my skills.  If I ever become satisfied with my own level of writing, to me that’s a warning sign that I’m missing a significant moment of improvement.  That should never stop someone from publishing – from letting their baby grow up and go out into the world to make other friends – but in the writing and editing process, be prepared to let go of pet scenes, or even some characters, in favour of an improved manuscript.  Making every word count requires that we learn to recognise what counts, and what doesn’t.  So keep writing, and keep honing your skills!

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Novels Worth Reading

As a novel writer, I’m first and foremost a reader; I love to read, I love to buy books, smell them, feel them, upload them… any form is fine by me.  I want the books I read to be witty, intelligent, and well developed in terms of plots, characters and environments.

Kitchen Sink Realism

Everyone has different tastes – that’s why there are so many different genres; but for me personally, there’s also a list of things I don’t want in a novel:  I don’t want to be confronted with messy lives dealing with self-inflicted problem after problem; I don’t want tragic or sad or bitter endings; I don’t want to be confronted with the grit, grime, blood and gore of dysfunctional lives that end up learning nothing, making no character arcs, and end up in the mud by the end of the tale.   This genre description actually has a name:  Kitchen Sink Realism.  It was a cultural movement in Britain back in the ‘50s and ‘60s that was portrayed in films, books, plays, and art – the grit, grime, anger, disillusionment and harsh realities of realistic social scenarios.  It’s what might also be referred to as postmodernism.  My personal response to this kind of novel is, “If I wanted that kind of realistic tension, I could just go hang out at the nearest bar.”

A Tough Nut

I once had an English student, and our focus was medical English in preparation for their upcoming medical exams (two nurses came together for semi-private tutoring).  As part of the lesson we needed to work on basic conversational skills and sentence structures, and I find that the best way to bring in a wide variety of scenarios is usually to do a type of role play – nothing embarrassing, but each person is given a character to put themselves into a situation that they might not normally deal with:  They may be a chef, or a secretary, or a customer in a hardware store.  This particular student, when asked what kinds of books she read, said, “history and autobiographies or biographies”.  When asked what novels she read, she said she found such things ridiculous and a complete waste of time (this was back before I became an author!); she categorically refused to even try to put herself into someone else’s shoes for the scenarios.  My impression of her as a person was that she was narrow-minded, knew it, and was proud of that fact.  She was a hard character, and all the time I knew her or met her afterwards, I never saw a soft side emerge, either toward herself or toward others; I often found myself wondering why she’d gotten into the nursing profession in the first place – as a patient, I wouldn’t necessarily want her working on my ward…  A line from the novel I’m currently writing (Asunder, the third book in the Northing Trilogy) would have fit her life too:  “he has never had the propensity for engendering compassion; I pray he never needs it, as he never gives it.”  An epic love story might do her a world of good.

What’s Worth Reading

What I want when I read a book is to be transported into another life, whether that’s in the past, present or future, on this earth, or on another planet, or in another dimension; I want to be entertained, made thoughtful, learn something about the world around me, and learn something about myself.  Ideally, I will come away from the experience having been changed, in even a small way.  I want to feel connected; somewhere out there is a person I can relate to – whether it be the author, or the character, or other readers that appreciate the same books.

Aside from places and times that are genre-specific, such as science fiction and alien planets in the future, or London in the 18th century, all of the elements of what I like in novels are universal.  Humans the world over, in every century, want to feel connected; to feel that they can relate to something someone else is going through; even to have parts of their own life’s experiences explained through someone else’s perspectives in similar circumstances.  Above all else, at the heart of every good novel – regardless of the genre – is a story of love; that is the ultimate connection between characters.  It may be a child finding the love of a family after being shoved through the knocks of life too much for their age; it may be the hero or heroine finding love; it may be a widow or widower finding love again, or reuniting with true loves; it may be someone coming to the point in their life that they accept and love themselves just the way they are.

On to You!

When you read novels, what is it you’re looking for?  I would love to hear about it – please comment below, even if it’s just a few key words!

novel-colin-firth

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