Thursday, May 19, 2016

Weasel of Doom's Book Rating System: New Media versus Classic Media Rating Systems

No, not you.
Fellow book blog Weasel of Doom has a book rating system. This blog doesn't.* This gives me a good chance to discuss what it means to rate a book, as so many other sites like doing.

First, why did I pick Weasel of Doom as an example? Simple. I love the blog's name (see picture above), whoever runs it reads an obscene number of books, one of those books is a Max Barry book, and the blog gives an A to the works of Guy Gavriel Kay.

An abridged version of the rating system is as follows:
Five stars – Excellent (A). If I were told to pick books to take with me to a desert island, these are the ones I would take.
Four stars – Good (B). Would recommend to others.
Three stars – Average (C). Writing was enjoyable, time went by quickly, but I am not seized with desire to run out and buy the author’s back list.
Two stars – Bad (D). Either the writing was clunky, or plot holes abounded, or protagonists were not likable (or all of the above).
One star – Aweful [sic] (F). Writing is horrible, plot non-existent, protagonists inspire hatred. 
The presence of tens of thousands of great books in the world leads me to (hopefully) avoid the D and F categories. I freely admit that any attempt to rate all the newest books, rather than established classics, inevitably results in a lower overall average. This is where the key difference makes itself seen.

When rating new media, unless you're evaluating an established artist at his/her creative peak, there are bound to be ups and downs. This is where a traditional star rating system is best. It started with short story reviews but has since been overshadowed by movie reviews. Determining which book to buy out of the four new releases that haven't gone on sale yet and thus are excruciatingly expensive is when quality ratings help someone. Weasel of Doom's looks good enough, basically a retread of the classic 1-5 star system, although I'd like to see more pluses and minuses. At the top end, there's a large gap between an instant legend and a merely "good" book. I could see a B+ or A- handed out a fair bit, so it'd be interesting to see Weasel of Doom tap that space a little more.

When rating classic media,** presumably someone liked it. Otherwise, it would fall into obscurity with barely a trace. This is the reason oldies stations play a combination of their eras' greatest hits and most critically acclaimed songs. When people go back even farther, to times so old the art is more of an archaeological artifact than anything that could reasonably be called pop culture, it's less about whether the work is good. Evaluation then becomes about noting the influence it's had on later works, what sorts of tastes go well with it, and how a modern reader can relate to it. Sure, I think Julius Caesar is better than Othello, but how is that any use to the tenth-grader who's been assigned one or the other? I haven't read a Shakespeare play since 2010, and I have an odd tendency to read Elizabethan literature.

NOTE: "Protagonists inspire hatred", from Weasel of Doom's rating system, is a more ambiguous phrase than it seems. Do they inspire hatred because that was the author's goal, or are they merely unlikable? A character like Jason Compson inspires hatred quite effectively, regardless of who the actual protagonist of The Sound and the Fury is. A character like Bella Swan, according to these reviewers, inspires the type of hatred that makes me glad I haven't read Twilight.

As with many breakable rules of writing, the answer to the question "Is the author achieving what s/he set out to achieve?" is a good standard here. It's also the standard I try to use when rating anything, including when approaching works for which I have no compass due to moral, cultural, political or other reasons. Do I, a decided non-linguist, give a linguistics book four stars or four and a half? I don't know. All I can do with a book so far outside my area of knowledge is say how easy a read I think it is and how much I think someone can learn from it. Books are communication - I'm here to evaluate the relaying of the message.


*I try to avoid rating books on their merits. Instead, as you can see from my Educational Content and Ease of Reading ratings, I tailor the books I've read to the audience that would enjoy them the most.

**I've rated my share of new books on here. I did that yesterday. It's hard to believe, but Night Circus used to be new too.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

May's Book: History's People

History's People by Margaret MacMillan
History (2015 - 348 pp.)

History's People has an admirable goal: to explain and illustrate "the important and complex relationship between biography and history, individuals and their times." (front dust jacket) Margaret MacMillan, of Paris 1919 fame, does so using disparate tales of historical figures grouped into five rough categories: Persuasion, Hubris, Daring, Curiosity, Observers. These categories also serve as the five chapter names, with the introduction being part of the first and the conclusion being part of the fifth.

Most of the book consists of extended anecdotes about MacMillan's couple dozen chosen historical figures. She brings out their personalities through drifting between their impacts on the world and their more private times, such as in her comparison between Otto von Bismarck the diplomat and Bismarck the disaffected rural young adult. Analyses of the Prussia of the 1860s are balanced by a portrait of a Bismarck who gleefully wrote: "I shall get pissed on the king's birthday and cheer him vociferously and the rest of the time I shall sound off regularly and my every other word will be; 'Gad, what a splendid horse!'". (30) Max "Lord Beaverbrook" Aitken receives a similar treatment: MacMillan oscillates between his wit and his politics, including the timeless quotation, "Nothing... is so bad as consistency." (168) Aitken and I agree on that. MacMillan uses Margaret Thatcher as an example of a strong-willed democratic leader who ruled by her principles until that no longer worked: "Standing up for principle, showing leadership, being tough - these had served her well in the past. And she had driven away almost anyone who would tell her she was making a huge mistake..." (116) Thatcher rose to her height during the Falklands War and fell from grace over a poll tax; as always, it is seemingly boring taxation issues that decide the fates of titans.

Followers of the past few decades' growth in women's history should be delighted to read "Curiosity", in which MacMillan tells stories of women who discovered more in their societies than was thought possible. They tended to be British, and they tended to live in the colonies, such as Elizabeth Simcoe (Upper Canada), Fanny Parkes (India) and Edith Mary Durham (the Balkans). Among Simcoe's observations is a description of a raccoon, which "resemble[s] a Fox, are an exceedingly fat animal with a bushy tail." (235) The most surprising Simcoe-related tidbit is that in 1790, Upper Canada's population was only "around ten thousand". (226) Its remoteness in the context of the British Empire and its extremely low population make it almost like an 18th-century analogue to what Nunavut (pop. 31,000) is within Canada now.

History's People is an easy, accessible read. This is good for anyone wanting to read it in a less-than-traditional-academic setting, like on an airplane. Each chapter is readable in one sitting, so the book only takes about five hours to read in total. (It may take longer if you lack a history degree but I have no data on that.) The page count is deceptive because the margins are almost an inch on the top and sides, with an A4-style bigger bottom margin. History's People is readable in a week if you're willing to devote some time to it, which is ideal for a book-a-week-style undergraduate history capstone seminar course.

The downside to the book's accessibility is its lack of citations. There is a good list of sources at the end, but there are no pinpoint footnotes or endnotes. Although I am inclined to trust MacMillan's research based on her previous work, this is nonetheless bothersome in the event I would want to cite History's People in anything else. The upshot is that it reads like a lecture series. I wouldn't be surprised if she'd told these stories as lectures before.

The stories often don't feel relevant to each other. Although MacMillan draws parallels between the subjects' experiences, especially in "Curiosity", many of the facts appear arbitrary. The book would have been improved by more frequent reference to the central thesis of intersection between history and biography "Hubris" especially falls victim to disjointedness. Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin can be grouped in a time period if for no other reason. Grouping Woodrow Wilson and Margaret Thatcher as Anglosphere democratic leaders lacks insight considering the drastically different backgrounds they had and circumstances they faced. Aside from the disastrous attempt to join the League of Nations, Wilson never really fell. His refusal to send any Republicans to the Paris Peace Conference, though, including either William Howard Taft or Henry Cabot Lodge, portended more recent American events.

Tunnel vision, the superimposition of contemporary values onto people who lived in previous worlds, is all too common in history. MacMillan warns against it in her discussion of characters whose problems largely reflected their time periods: "We cannot expect, for example, Queen Elizabeth I of Britian to have behaved like a twenty-first century feminist. And whenever we are trying to understand why historical figures behaved as they did, we must always try to gauge what they themselves could plausibly have seen as the alternatives before them." (85) Much like Monday morning quarterbacking tells us little of how NFL players should have won championships, history's people are limited to the facts and ideas before them. In History's People, and especially in its well-written conclusion, MacMillan takes on a difficult but rewarding topic: how the world shapes people, and in turn, how they shape it.

Ease of Reading: 7
Educational Content: 7

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Higher Education Act and the Problem of Success

Monday on LinkedIn Pulse, Carlo Salerno argued against the reauthorization of the United States Higher Education Act by noting that schools already pay indirectly for dropouts through recruitment and other efforts. Therefore, subsidizing of dropouts by schools isn't needed, as it creates a situation in which schools pay twice. The US government clearly doesn't agree.

The argument for what the Department of Education calls "focusing higher education on student success" can be found here. Its chief arguments, in sum, are that (a) "In today’s economy, higher education is no longer a luxury for the privileged few, but a necessity for individual economic opportunity and America’s competitiveness in the global economy"; (b) "Colleges have not focused on keeping costs down, and tuition has spiraled out of control"; (c) "more students need access to vastly more affordable and quality higher education opportunities"; and (d) "We must shift focus toward creating an accountability and incentive structure that provides educational opportunity by ensuring that students are graduating on time with an affordable, meaningful* degree or credential".

I'm far from against making higher education more affordable. As a Canadian, it's practically my duty. It's the commodification of  education that makes me bristle.

The DoE's argument has two major problems:

1. It underestimates the efforts that go into graduation

Tuition payment, enrollment and attendance are not guarantees of graduation. There is an increasing attitude that someone who pays to attend a university should receive a degree simply for having paid, such as these discussions in The Economist, US News and the University of Florida's online newsletter. Notions of return on investment for degrees play on this simple theme; a degree is something to be purchased that will pay off after some amount of time, much like a stock paying dividends. Purchasing a stock requires no more effort than the purchase itself, though. There isn't a series of tasks ensuring that the purchaser is qualified to hold it. Purchasing a seat in a classroom isn't purchasing a degree.

Salerno makes a good, but incomplete, point in saying that
"If institutions could control how much students learn, then why would they consciously choose to send unprepared graduates into the labor market where they struggle to find and keep employment? And if they could control who graduates and who doesn’t, what economic rationale do they have for producing a mix of graduates and dropouts?"
Institutions can't control the labour market, nor can they control how much students learn. However, there may be an incentive for certain undergraduate programs to have a positive failure rate in order to emphasize the difficulty and rigor of the program. Note that a failure rate and a dropout rate aren't the same thing. A student who gets an F in one class may perform wonderfully in all the others.

When thinking of a dropout rate** as an accumulated failure rate, it starts making more sense. If professors are willing to award Fs, and students are the ones in charge of how well they perform academically, it follows that certain students will have higher failure rates than others. The ones who fail most frequently are more likely to drop out. While I can't imagine schools like when students drop out, between academic probation and professor availability there's only so much a school can do. A collegial atmosphere that encourages independent attendance of professor office hours does more to help students learn the material than any number of ROI-based talks can.

To conclude with a clunky yet apt analogy, think of paying for tuition as buying a lawnmower and graduating with a degree as having freshly cut grass. Buying a lawnmower doesn't lead to having freshly cut grass. It's the actual mowing of the lawn - in other words, the work the student puts into his or her university courses - that leads to the desired outcome. The better the mowing, the nicer the lawn. Paying tuition gives a student a chance to succeed, not an irrevocable ticket to success. To expect otherwise is to place an obligation on professors that belongs on the students.

2. It focuses on a limited definition of success

The above news columns, as well as Kevin O'Leary's attention-grabbing anti-BA, anti-movie-making videos from last year (and their rebuttals), discuss O'Leary's favourite topic: making money. There's nothing wrong with making money. It just isn't a useful metric for success in isolation.

Consider two students, each with a Bachelor of Arts. For sake of argument, let's say neither advances to graduate or professional school, and neither enters a traditionally high-paying field like investment banking or public administration that often recruits from non-traditional disciplines.

Student Q takes a retail job out of school that pays $30,000 annually. This is about double the United States's federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, and higher than almost all state/municipal minimum wages. Possibly the employer even said the higher wage was directly due to the employee's university degree, which is consistent with the Department of Education's article linked above stating that "College graduates with a bachelor’s degree typically earn 66 percent more than those with only a high school diploma". There is no real opportunity for advancement at this hypothetical retail job other than possibly becoming a store manager at some unspecified future time. Given turnover rates in the retail industry, this promotion is a die-roll at best.

Student R doesn't work much after graduation, maybe a few part-time jobs, maybe ones that don't even require a university education. However, Student R does any of:
  • Train to be an Olympic athlete (possibly beginning this training during university)
  • Complete a creative project such as a book or movie that garners more critical or aesthetic appreciation than income
  • Participate in and/or coordinate global volunteer efforts, possibly in places he or she learned about while in university
  • Any number of other things that would take too long to list
Critical successes often resonate more than financial successes. They often last longer too; in 2014, the New York Times posited that someone whose income is in the 98th percentile's children will only earn in the 65th percentile. The only metrics for success the ROI-based articles, the Department of Education or Salerno use are graduation rate, time to graduation, and future earnings. None of these accurately predict success on any grand scale. The subjects learned in university can lead to these successes that are nearly impossible to quantify.

These two problems dovetail.

The ROI attitude toward university - that a degree is a purchase that yields dividends - and the narrow definition of success speak to strikingly similar attitudes. They combine to state this: in the short term, a degree is a piece of paper to be purchased, and success is embodied in the attainment of that purchase. In the long term, a degree's results are in future earnings, and success is embodied in those earnings. It should be evident by now why this attitude is wrong.

Success isn't showing up and receiving something that's given to you. Whether in university, in business or in anything else, it's about understanding the challenges you face and putting in the smart, hard work to address them. The same way no one would ever start a business and then put in no subsequent effort to make it succeed, no one should ever expect to enroll in a university and then not be expected to put the necessary effort into success.

Hopefully people don't miss that.


*"Meaningful" is never defined. Some sources attempt to allocate meaning by major (for example, engineering tends to be thought of as "meaningful"), but none focus on what the student is actually learning.

**This is a dropout rate due to academic factors. Financially motivated dropouts are a different issue entirely.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Me on Amazing Stories: Multiple Intelligences and "The Little Black Bag"

I now have a blog on Amazing Stories. Amazing Stories is one of the oldest science fiction magazines in existence, having first come about in April 1926. It's been discontinued at times but now survives with blogs attached for the present day.

My first entry, "Multiple Intelligences in 'The Little Black Bag'", is now available for consumption. It applies Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences, especially interpersonal and intrapersonal, to a story in which intelligence is paramount but even the smartest suffer. Cyril Kornbluth's "The Little Black Bag" is an unheralded classic of science fiction, so I was happy to make a discussion of it my first entry.

I'll also post writing prompts over there. The Amazing Stories format, more narrowly focused than here but with less of an obligation to be remotely entertaining, fits them perfectly. While you're here, you can read about anything from raccoons to early 18th-century religious spats. While you're there, classic SF (up until about 1960 unless I decide otherwise) is king.

Here's my author page:

A fun quirk: unlike the typical every Monday, every Friday, etc. format, I'll be posting full entries over there on the 10th of every month and writing prompts on the 30th.