Monday, 15 October 2012

In response to more pseudo-science published on the Graun...

The below is written in response to this Guardian article and thread: "Status affects how readily people return smiles, research reveals - People who feel powerful are more likely to return smiles of those they see as low status, according to study"

Disappointing, Alok Jha, you should really have known better before splashing this "scientific" research on the pages of the Graun.

Fundamental flaws of the study as reported:

1. Inappropriate Indicators for both Independent and Dependent variables

The stimulus is meant to be "status", the response "submission", and the mediator "power".

Never mind that there is a question about whether a "smile" could be an indicator of "submission" as other commenters already picked up on. And never mind whether the electro signals picked up by the new-fangled gadget are actually corresponding to a smile, as even Carr admits that the subjects were just sat there with a stoic face watching a video screen. (And how can you justify that the signals recorded are indeed a submissive "smile" and not an arrogant "smirk"??? Such question is clearly too complicated for Carr and his team to consider and so they conveniently ignore that and carried on regardless.)

Never mind also that "Status" is indicated by using the proxy of "professsionals" versus "menial workers". As someone pointed out earlier, without knowing the subjects' own background and history it's hard to judge whether they would actually perceive these actors-in-costumes-on-a-TV-screen are indeed high versus low status (and indeed, whether their status perceptions are to do with these actors qua actors, or the roles that they were assigned to play). It's just too bad Carr and his team didn't think about using some kind of standardised measurement tool regarding individual perceptions of occupational status, to make sure they are measuring what they think they are measuring as regards participants' own, rather than researcher-assumed, status perceptions.

Never mind also that "Power" is "primed" by asking subjects to write an essay about their positive and negative experiences. That's the most egregious of the indicators used of the three basic variables being tested in this experiment. Carr and his team chose to ignore validated tools that have been developed to measure self-efficacy (which is really a more appropriate concept in this scenario than the multidimensional construct "Power"), using their laughable exercise as a proxy to gauge subjects' self-perception of "power" when nothing had actually been used to measure their perceived power (or self-efficacy).

It was all just assumed that writing an essay about yourself will have primed you to feel powerful or disempowered when confronting strangers-on-a-TV-screen, regardless of what personality type you are (and indeed, whether you like watching TV or not!).

No, never mind ALL OF THE ABOVE, because they aren't even the worst flaw of this study design. Even if one takes all of the above on face value (no matter how straining of the face validity test these indicators are presenting to us), I cannot believe that no-one, but no-one (not the ethics committee, not the funding body, and certainly not Carr nor his helpers), stop for one second and ask themselves this:

Why is it okay to assume that WATCHING A VIDEO of some actors on a TV screen is the SAME AS INTERACTING WITH THEM IN PERSON????

Helloooo?? Do you think you are actually interacting with George Clooney (or say, Scarlett Johannsson) when you watch him/her on screen??? Somehow, I'd think one would have to be pretty deluded to think this way.

I think the 55 subjects of this study could pretty much tell the difference between smiling at someONE in person (whether initiating or returning a smile), or smiling AT someTHING that happens on a TV screen.

I don't think these 55 subjects, if they are halfway normal humans, would be smiling PERSONALLY AT, say, Zac Braff on TV, irrespective of whether Braff was playing a doctor in Scrubs or a bum in Garden State.

Sure, they might smile at the show, but that's not the same thing as initiating or returning a PERSONAL smile to the actor now is it??

So why is Alok Jha bringing this excretable piece of "research" to our attention??

2. Inappropriate and Unjustified Overreaching of Conclusion and Generalisability

Recall that this is a lab experiment with 55 volunteers. No actual demographics of the volunteers given, and given the sample size, impossible to generalise their facial expressions as being representive of the human race (or even just the American population in general). Yet Carr glibly talks about his findings as if they are automatically applicable to everyday situatoin that you and I would face in our normal course of life.

It is even cheekier for him to use the Senior VP in an office as an example, when he knows full well that his under-powered lab study did not take place in a natural setting whatsoever.

But then, that's what loads of I/O psychologists do - they think they are generating "scientific truth" with an experimental design using fancy gadgets, when really they failed abysmally to even think up a half-decent research design to allow them to test what they wish they are testing.

If anthropologists try to make claims like this Carr guy did given similar study sample and design, they will be laughed out of the auditorium much less having their findings published in national newspapers because their findings happen to be "cute" and "counter-intuitive"!

Really, Alok, you did science?


This was first published on 15 October 2012 at 18:57. It was submitted to the Guardian thread on my moderated account just a couple of minutes prior to this time-stamp.

Unfortunately, as of 16 October 16:48, the mods don't have the balls to put the above criticism through. Despite the Guardian always claiming they want to publish "good" rather than BAD SCIENCE, and despite the campaign run by one of its own star columnists Ben Goldacre who is a lot harsher on bad science reporting than I had done above.

Oh well, Guardian is proving itself to be quite equal to my low estimation of it.

One more thing I will say: it is a disgrace to get a grad with only a primary degree in physics to act as "Science correspondent", much less to cover social science studies! Alok Jha is clearly out of his depth and in over his head. It's like trying to get a reporter just learning his chops on Russia to become a seasoned Middle-East correspondent, FFS.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

In response to Guardian's reportage of Mo Yan's Nobel Prize win

The relevant article is here: Headline as of 18:47 UK time: "Mo Yan Wins Nobel Prize in Literature 2012: Novelist, the first ever Chinese literature Nobel laureate, praised for 'hallucinatory realism'"


11 October 2012 3:37PM

The only reason Gao Xingjian no longer has Chinese citizenship is that his citizenship was revoked by the Chinese government after it expelled him from the country. It's very disappointing that the Guardian, presumably just for the sake of a headline, is legitimising the political persecution of Gao Xingjian in this way.

Since Gao was born and raised in China, writes in Chinese and never chose to give up his citizenship, it's ridiculous to say Mo is the first Chinese writer to win the prize. The most you could say is that he's the first PRC citizen to win it. Since Gao's citizenship was revoked precisely because of his writing, what is actually meant by "Mo is the first Chinese writer to win the prize" is "Mo is the first Chinese writer to win who doesn't annoy the Chinese government"

Disgraceful, Guardian.

Well said!!!

And despite Sarah Crown's later comment about how the Guardian has amended the story, the headline and the standfirst still unashamedly label Mo Yan as the "first Chinese" to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

A bloody disgrace.

There is a lot more I could say about the Graun's CCP bias in its other reporting, but I shall refrain from saying anything here seeing as I am already pre-moderated and every single comment I made has to have first gone through Guardian censorship.


The above comment was submitted at 6:44pm on the Guardian website. As expected, it hasn't gone through, at all. More importantly, the standfirst referring to Mo Yan as the "first Chinese" to win the Nobel Prize for Literature is still NOT CORRECTED as of 12 October, 2012. Says it all about Guardian bias, really. I rest my case.

In response to Mo Yan's win of the Nobel Prize for Literature 2012

In response to 11 October 2012 12:58PM typingfromwork's comment

Red Sorghum was about the Sino-Japanese war. It had nothing to do with the cultural revolution.

A good place to start on that topic would be To Live.

The fact that 3 people recommended your comment shows how ill-read the average Guardian reader is of contemporary Chinese literature.

"To Live" is by Yu Hua, NOT Mo Yan. Jeez.

Yu Hua is way better than Mo Yan, IMO, so I would second your recommendation of "To Live", but not as an intro to Mo Yan's oeuvre.

Also, Guo XinJiang's Soul Mountain is a masterpiece in Chinese, but sadly, it has seriously suffered from a muddled and far-too-literal translation so that the magical realism (Mo Yan isn't the best exponent of this genre of Chinese magical realism, either) inherent in the novel is grossly inelegantly distorted.

I would also refrain from relying on Goldblatt's commendations -- yes, Columbia U is and has been a key institution in training literary Chinese translators ever since it was one of the few pioneering Western institutions that sponsored Chinese academics and students at the turn of the last century. However, Goldblatt's own Chinese-to-English translated works leave a lot to be desired, the use of inelegant Americanisms being the least of the problems.

I'm still looking for a translator who can render Chinese literature into English to the same standard as what Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker were able to do for Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows (original in Japanese). But I haven't been able to find that translator yet. (And don't mention Julia Lovell either, I'm still angry with her distortions of Lu Xun's writings). Murakami is "lucky" to be writing in Japanese, as generally the standard of literary translations from Japanese to English is far superior to those from Chinese to English.

As for a nominee for next year's Nobel Prize that fulfils the "non-European, non-male" criteria as suggested by a poster above, I would say: Banana Yoshimoto. Certainly she should be recognised before Murakami in terms of the beauty of her prose and the emotional depths of her novels, despite their languid pace and homely settings.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

In response to "Will Self and Modernism"

In response to the "Will Self: Modernism and Me" thread on the Guardian (with minor additions and typos corrected). 

I have enjoyed Wil Self's writings on these pages before, but this particular piece, I must say, is unfortunately self-indulgent beyond words, even though I hate to agree with those naysayers who have an aversion towards so-called 'big' words. It is ironic that Will Self counts Franz Kafka as one of his literary heros, for it was Franz Kafka who said, in critiquing Charles Dickens:

" Dickens's opulence and great, careless prodigality, but in consequence passages of awful insipidity in which he wearily works over effects he has already acheived... There is a heartlessness behind his sentimentally overflowing style... his use of vague, abstract metaphors." (Kafka cited in Gabriel Josiponvici's -- yep, the same Josiponvici of whom Self waxed lyrical about in his article above -- introduction to Franz Kafka's "Collected Stories", Everyman's Library, p. xv, my emphasis.)

Although Dickens' and Self's verbosity are of very different kinds, I think Kafka's trenchant critique against heartless overfloridity can be equally stinging where Self's writing in the above piece is concerned. Many commenters have already pointed out passages of "awful insipidity" and heartless, overwrought style in Self's writing above, so I won't belabour them here. I just want to say that it is a bit unfair to portray those critical of Self's style above as brainless philistines who can't be bothered learning big words. I myself love reading philosophical tracts by Continental philosophers in my spare time (yes, really); that doesn't mean that I am not allergic to overly florid writing that wants to wear the stamp of cleverness so earnestly on its sleeve. I can stomach, nay, actually admire, playful cleverness; but Self is just too woodenly displaying his learning (evidenced by the number of thesaurus words conspicuously showcased) in the above article for me to enjoy this piece. Sorry Will.

I also must agree with quite a few commenters here and say that Will Self has got his idea of modernism arse-backwards. What he's straining for is actually not modernism, but post-modernism. What he perceives as his "modernist" critique of pre-modernist writing (or Romantic writing) is actually postmodernist critique of modernist writing (linearity of structure; idea of straightforward progress; technical mastery -- all these are stylistic markers not just of modernist architecture but also of modernist literature, fuelled by a postwar optimism that in retrospect could look trite and naive and non-human.)

So unfortunately Self's bellyaching about not being able to find a 'modernist' way forward is precisely because he's misunderstanding about the task that lays before him. Sure, he made a side note about postmodernist writing not being up to the job by merely "copy-and-pasting" narratives. But that's doing postmodernism a disservice, since bricolage and pastiche are not the only tools at the postmodernist's disposal.

The things that Self admits to hankering after -- chief amongst which being the insertion of authorial will inside the story as a way to destablise and democratise text -- is something that another British novelist, the unabashedly postmodernist Mr. Gilbert Adair, does extremely well. Unfortunately, Will Self gave no indication that he's ever read the late Mr. Adair's work. And this omission seems especially jarring when Self goes on and on about how much he is hoping to find a way out of the modernist morasse to which English fiction has descended. And especially when he wrote about how JG Ballard found a way out via science fiction; he seems to have not realised that another British novelist has also found a way forward via pastiching genre fiction (in Adair's case, it's detective fiction), where Adair entertainingly inverts the well-worn tropes of detective novels to create wonderful spaces not visible in conventional narrative arcs and characterisation.

So whilst I applaud Will Self for nailing the malaise of English novels on its head by arguing that the avant-garde is not about saying the 'unsayable' by merely injecting the taboo into the conventional a la Martin Amis and Irvine Welsh; that it is actually about writing the 'unwritable' by boldly experimenting with form and confounding readers' narratival expectations; Self is entirely mistaken by casting himself as the Lone Mariner in the above article struggling against the tide where none had gone before him. Not only has the late Gilbert Adair already shown us the way through the murky waters of English fiction by his rhetorical brilliance; other contemporary writers are also figuring out ways to move the English novel forward (cf. Jennifer Egan, David Mitchell). Although Egan and Mitchell may well be described as 'bantamweight' writers (to borrow another commenter's useful metaphor), and Adair's novels are sadly neglected by the mainstream (not unexpected given that he was one of the very first to have bravely swam against the conventional tide), it is completely disingenuous (and self-indulgent) of Self to portray himself as a lone voice in the wilderness and forget to pay his debt to others already shining the beacon before him.Rather than being the first truly 'modernist' (or 'postmodern') English novel as Self is so painstakingly portraying his latest work as, 'Umbrella' will have to compare itself with the benchmark set by the late Adair.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

The Great American Novelists -- my preliminary list

There is a recent "literary tournament" mooted regarding the "Great American Novel" (later morphed into the "Great American Novelist" with an arbitrary, and much criticised, 4-book rule) on the Guardian book threads. This is just to record the names of novelists I nominated myself, or nominations from posters I agreed with, or simply look intriguing to investigate further. This is a preliminary list and will be updated once I have more time to delve into the threads in more details. (The numbers are not to be interpreted as rankings but simply to allow me to count to 16):

1. Toni Morrison
2. Carson McCullers
3. Kurt Vonnegut
4. Annie Proulx
5. Joyce Carol Oates
6. Jhumpa Lahiri / Louise Erdrich
7. Chang-Rae Lee
8. Norman Mailer
9. William Burroughs
10. Ursula K. Le Guin / Philip K. Dick (unfortunately discounted after further thought due to the universality of their speculative / science fiction that are not really about the American experience as such)
11. Saul Bellow / John Steinbeck / John Updike / Philip Roth
12. David Foster Wallace / Don DeLillo / Thomas Pynchon
13. Truman Capote / Raymond Chandler / Henry Miller 
14. Charles Bukowski / Bret Easton Ellis / Jonathan Franzen / Chuck Palahniuk
15. Edith Wharton
16. Ernest Hemingway / William Faulkner / F. Scott Fitzgerald

Even in this little exercise it's clear that there are different leagues within the same field, if not determined by talent then at least by period and subject matter or angle. Not to mention the many, many authors not included simply they didn't fit the 4-novel arbitrary rule.

So sod the rules imposed by TenuousFive. For meaningful comparisons for my personal enjoyment of great American literature, I would actually sub-divide the above list (which comprises way more than 16 anyway as I started categorising authors in similar leagues as I perceive them with each other) into the following divisions (of at least four authors per group and in some instances, five authors each):

Division A: Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chang-Rae Lee, Louise Erdrich (non-white American writers)

Division B: Joyce Carol Oates, Carson McCullers, Annie Proulx, Marilynne Robinson, Barbara Kingsolver (white female American writers)

Division C: Saul Bellow, John Steinbeck, John Updike, Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe (white male American writers)

Division D: Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Hunter S. Thompson (dissenting America)

Division E: Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton (the gilded age)

Division F: Truman Capote, Raymond Chandler, Henry Miller, William Burroughs (America's underbelly)

Division G: David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy ("morally passionate, passionately moral fiction" in the words of DFW of a disillusioned contemporary America)

Division H: Thomas Pynchon, Bret Easton Ellis, Charles Bukowski, Chuck Palahniuk ("transgressional American fiction")

Division I: Joan Didion, Larry McMurtry, Susan Sontag, Tobias Wolff (authors who traverse the ground between fiction and faction).

To my mind's eye this is a far more meaningful list, not just tidier in terms of category but better in terms of allowing for some sort of like-for-like comparison (although some of the divisions themselves would also logically cluster together into a bigger group). I do now realise also how much more American literature I need to read in order to just be able to cover the recognised "bests". I know I may never be a completist regarding American literature though, but I do hope to be able to cover enough writings from the above authors to be able to make an informed judgement as to the quality of their writing vis-a-vis one another.

I would say though that I definitely have read enough of Anne Tyler to know she doesn't make the grade (And "Digging to America" is one of hers that I've read, when this was mooted as already Tyler's greatest by one of her fans), much as her supporters would love her to be recognised as a GAN. Unlike another poster though, I wouldn't call her a "chick-lit" author, just as I wouldn't call Amy Tan herself a "chick-lit" author, but I would put her in the same literary pen as Amy Tan, and that's no disrespect to either Tyler or Tan.

I know the very best of Chang-Rae Lee could equal a Toni Morrison, but the lack of Asian American writers with heft is indeed one of those ignored-but-hard-to-miss-bald spots on the Great American literary landscape, if not indeed, the Great English literary landscape itself. Unfortunately Asian American writers are also far more easily dismissed and discounted than other ethnic American writers, at least in Britain, where ethnic novelists apparently only come in the black or brown variety, and so the history of Chinese / Korean / Japanese Americans, and British people with East Asian heritage, continued to be told from the perspective of White novelists (a la J.G. Ballard) or even Black novelists (cf. Zadie Smith in "Autograph Man"). However sympathetic or even empathetic those novelists might be, they are not the genuine, authentic voices we seek.

Against e-book promotion on the Guardian summer reading thread

In reply to this book thread "Summer reading 2012":

Thank you to those contributors above who proudly admit that they don't own a kindle even if Guardian keeps on plugging its advertorials whenever they could for Kindles and IPads (of the latter, if you read the Technology pages, even hardcore Apple fans such as meestersmith are sick of the bias shown by the Guardian when Charles was reviewing the latest Android device).

It's a shame that the Guardian can't seem to give the whole e-book thing a rest, even when simply asking authors / journos to nominate their summer reading.

It seems to be assumed that one MUST now, by decree of the Guardian-sanctioned literati, leave Big Fat Books behind as you are only allowed to consume them in electronic form, because to do otherwise will cause untold damage to your wrists and wallet (via luggage charge) and most importantly, will be Deeply Unhip in An Electronic Age.

Me. I just shake my head sadly at this state of affairs wrought by people so brainwashed by consumerism that they suddenly find all kind of faults with physical books that have been perfectly serving us readers for centuries until the corporates want to start selling us a new bottle. I can't express this more eloquently than Zygmunt Bauman himself, whose physical book (I lament the fact that I even had to put the word "physical" to denote a book!) I've just finished recently:

"One kind of distress is a side-effect of living in a consumer society. In such a society, the roads are many and scattered, but they all lead through shops. Any life pursuit, and most significantly the pursuit of dignity, self-esteem and happiness, requires the mediation of the market; and the world in which such pursuits are inscribed is made up of commodities -- objects judged, appreciated or rejected according to the satisfaction they bring to the world's consumers. They are also expected to be easy to use and bring satisfaction immediately and in a user-friendly manner, calling for little or no effort and certainly no sacrifice on the user's side... One way or another, the offending object (not up to its promise, too awkward for trouble-free use, or squeezed dry of the pleasures it was capable of giving) is disposed of. One does not swear oaths of loyalty to things whose sole purpose is to satisfy a need, a desire or a want."
(p. 107 from "Liquid Life")

I am genuinely saddened by the trend that more and more readers and even writers themselves see books as the "offending object", now all of a sudden "too awkward for trouble-free use" just because the people who want to sell us new gadgets have told us that you can't carry real books on travel holidays anymore as they are all by definition "too bulky" simply by dint of their "crime" of existing in real three-dimensional space.

Who would have thought that we readers are just mere consumers of literature? Somehow in the last couple of years, simply because of the appearance of an electronic reading gadget on the market, many readers are all of a sudden turning up their noses at physical books, books that have served us for centuries if not millenia. Those of us who dare to question the value proposition of e-books have been unceremoniously insulted and jeered on book threads as stick-in-the-mud Luddites who fail to "get with the programme", and the most damning insult of all, as people who "fetishise" books as an "object"!!!!! This, spoken by the very same people who never reckon with their own unthinking gadget fetishism, who never stopped to ask themselves, Why the hell am I complaining about physical books and looking down on physical book lovers just because I personally prefer a newfangled reading gadget?

If we (and by we, I meant real book lovers) have really objectified reading the way the e-book evangelists have accused us of, we would have no qualms about dumping the old book in favour of a new gadget exactly the way the e-book evangelists have themselves behaved. But no, it is actually precisely because we don't fetishise books as objects that we are not persuaded of the value of newfangled gadgets purporting to give us "new books". It is precisely because we book lovers see ourselves as far more than mere book consumers that we do actually swear oaths of loyalty to our physical books -- those friends with whom we have travelled and journeyed far and wide to distant horizons, and deeply into the human condition, those friends who carry our personal history within their pages by the way we've scrawled marginalia and dog-earred them and by the bookmarks and dedications we made within their bodies. Only self-interested sociopaths will turn their nose upon their loyal and dependable friends of hundreds of years' standing, and sneer at those old-fashioned enough to want to remain loyal to their old friends.

(Btw, my comments are pre-modded for some time now because I previously criticised Guardian journalists for their soft-pedalling of our demand for real justice on the LIBOR scandal, so I won't be too surprised if the mods too deem this too critical to see the light of day).

Amended to add:

Oh, and "Liquid Life" by Zygmunt Bauman is a great read for all seasons, but especially great for summer of 2012 as its arguments are very pertinent to recent events as uncovered in the banking sector -- you do have to read through to the final chapters though to get the full force of Bauman's argument, but it is a slim book and it even has a picture of people swimming and relaxing in an azure blue pool on the cover if one needs to pretend one's reading a light-weight summer book rather than a solid but succinct treatise of political philosophy on one's holiday.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Metropolis finale

"The mediator between the head and the hand must be the heart."
--- Fritz Lang, Metropolis

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