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Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

The Glass Bathyscaphe by Macfarlane & Martin

Alan Macfarlane & Gerry Martin’s The Glass Bathyscaphe: How Glass Changed The World has to be one of the most fascinating history books I’ve read for a long time.

Starting off with an overview of the origins of glassmaking, the book passes through various periods of history. But this is not just a summary of what is known. These two authors have a hypothesis, which they develop marvellously as the book progresses. Their contention is that glass was a necessary (though not sufficient) precondition for the Scientific Revolution which occurred in Europe following the Renaissance; and they make a convincing case for counting the Renaissance and the arrival of what they call reliable knowledge as aspects of the same thing. They compare and contrast the situation in east and west, and find many reasons for the difference in the use of glass. They also look at how social and religious conditions changed the perception of what glass could do for a society.

It’s all well written, interesting and engaging – the perfect example of a history book with a ‘bit more.’ Too many history books I’ve read in the last few years have been little more than lists. This one is considerably more.

I got this for a couple of quid at my local Oxfam, so I’m doubly pleased!

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Brand new interview

A few weeks ago I did a new interview for author Juliana Spink Mills’ site, which can be read here. Juliana asked me a lot of great questions, some of which made me think for days…

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Guest blog at Blake & Wight

There’s an updated post on the Blake & Wight steampunk site, based on my earlier blog about the use of historically accurate language. Here it is.

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The Girl With Two Souls full cover

This is the full cover design.

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The Girl With Two Souls new cover reveal

Here it is! The first of the covers created by famed steampunk artist Tom Brown, who, with Nimue Brown, is responsible for Hopeless, Maine amongst other works. Tom has created three covers for the Factory Girl trilogy; also the cover for the upcoming, never previously published novel The Conscientious Objector.

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Thinking, Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman

This is a really fascinating book. I picked it up because I wanted to compare what it said with what other authors have written about social media, but, to my delight, it gave me far more.

Kahneman is a psychologist with an interest in decision making, thought processes, and how such things relate to the economic world in particular. Working with Amos Tversky he won a Nobel award for his ground-breaking, often counter-intuitive discoveries.

This book posits two thinking modes, that Kahneman calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 is quick, “intuitive” (although see later), easily fooled, and quite often wrong. System 2 is our reflective, slow, rational mode. But, it turns out, System 2 is lazy and only comes into play when System 1 is stuck.

The first two thirds of the book especially are a revelation. We all know we’re not entirely rational or reasonable – we all have quirks and foibles, biases and predilections – but this book shows just how irrational we can be, and how easily we’re fooled by such things as verbal framing, halo effects, cognitive illusions and much, much more. This part in particular has great relevance to our online life, since that – social media especially – has been moulded by the international technology companies in order to put us in their thrall. They know what System 1 buttons to push and they do it mercilessly, exploiting people at will and with almost no regulation. (I used this theme in my novel The Autist.)

A later section on decision making is a bit mathematical and detailed, but overall this is an amazing and very thought-provoking book. Everyone who’s concerned about how social media especially is changing our modes of thought, and therefore our behaviour, should read it. Educators in particular should read it! And although it seems at the outset that Kahneman is worried about how easily we are fooled by our intuitive irrationality, he does point out the evolutionary merits of that system and that, if it is fed with truth and reality, it is right at least as often as it’s wrong. But of course, in the digital world, truth and reality is what is being eroded.

Highly recommended.

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The Only Thing We Have To Fear Is Fear Itself

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – Franklin Roosevelt.

The recent election tactics of the Tories made me think of this famous quote. Why did they do something so blatant as to rename their CCHQ Twitter account FactcheckUK? And why have they set up a fake Labour manifesto site, again blatantly? Both of these events have been widely reported, and widely shared on social media, especially on Facebook, where the lion’s share of the election will likely be played out.

What at first sight seems counter-productive is that they were “caught out” so easily. But is that the case? Could they have done both deeds deliberately? It’s counter-intuitive to say so, but, yes, they did do it deliberately, knowing they would be spotted and knowing that a huge fuss would be made about it as a consequence. They were relying on that fuss.

Why? Because, as has been shown by Trump and his kind in America, the way to achieve political success via social media is to erode the public’s confidence in truth and reality. This includes trust in all parties, not least the Tories themselves – the thing that seems so counter-intuitive. But it’s not. In situations where the public’s trust of digital media and politicians in general is low, the Establishment, the right wing, the Tories – whatever you want to call them – will benefit. The Tories will gain from this blurring between reality and fiction, between truth and lies, because in such situations public opinion leans to the right. In times of fear and confusion, people go, however reluctantly, with what seems safest, even if only as the least-worst option.

That Labour have revealed a radical, dazzling, wide-ranging manifesto only plays into the hands of the Tories. This is exactly what they wanted to hear. They want Labour to represent optimism, change, radicalism, because they know that’s exactly what the public in times of distrust and confusion will tend to avoid.

And the Tories want people to discuss and share as widely as possible their blatant lies. It doesn’t matter that they indict themselves. They don’t care about that. They have no scruples and are remorseless in their strategy, playing the British population for every advantage they can get. In the digital world, the right are utterly cynical.

And people are falling for it – voters, the media, news organisations, and those on Facebook.

Worried? You ain’t seen nothing yet. You wait until we have an election with video deepfakes.

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Shrewsbury Biscuit Podcast

On Friday, I did a lengthy interview for the Shrewsbury Biscuit Podcast (Shrewsbury being my home town). Many thanks to Alex and Shane for setting this up. I talk about my time as an author, how and why I write, the relaunch of the Factory Girl trilogy, Tommy Catkins, what Shrewsbury means to me… and much more.

Here’s the link you’ll need.

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Tales From The Spired Inn review

Great review in Britain’s finest genre magazine Interzone – review by Stephen Theaker. Special thanks to Jonathan Laidlow for the photos.

 

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New short video on Factory Girl

I’ve made a new short video on the Factory Girl trilogy.

You can find it here.

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