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text 2019-01-07 23:12
Unpublished, so why bother? DNF
A Lady in Need - Emily J. Holt

I picked this one out of the Kindle inventory -- now just over 5800 titles -- and started it Sunday afternoon when the gloom and grey and cold and rain made me a lady in need of entertainment.


Oh, ugh, the first couple of pages were terrible, dull, unfocused, telling-not-showing.


I blamed my disappointment on other factors -- I no longer trust my own opinion -- and decided I'd better check out other reviews to see what everyone else was saying.


That's how I found out this book no longer exists.  It's been pulled from Amazon.


It has a few reviews on Goodreads, and although some are the usual glowing, gushing raves, some of the others point to the same issues I saw within just a few pages.


There's no reason for me to continue with a book I'm not enjoying.  Maybe the author is rethinking the quality of her book, but at this point I don't care.

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review 2019-01-07 04:56
Factfulness by Hans Rosling
Factfulness - Hans Rosling,Anna Rosling Rönnlund,Ola Rosling

This is both a useful book and a simplified one that never questions its westernized assumptions. Hans Rosling, a Swedish professor of public health, armed with decades’ worth of UN statistics, wrote this book (with the assistance of his son and daughter-in-law, who published it after his death) to convince people in rich countries that the rest of the world is better than we think, and that several logical fallacies prevent us from seeing it that way.

On the one hand, he’s absolutely right. Insulated in our well-off countries, we tend to hear about other places only in the news, which generally reports only the most dramatic, i.e., the most tragic and appalling stories. We struggle to see members of “other” groups as non-uniform and to believe their cultures can change in the way our own have (in fact, many societies around the world are changing and developing much faster than western Europe and the U.S. did). As a college student who only knew about Africa from the news, I remember thinking that one couldn’t afford to care what was going on there because it was only one horrible tragedy after another. In reality this is far from the truth, and I have to credit my world books challenge (to read a book set in each country in the world, with a preference for books by authors from the country; I’m up to 165 out of 201 now) for showing me a more accurate picture of what everyday life around the world is like. But UN statistics also show that the world is improving in many ways, such as widespread access to electricity, primary education, and vaccination against deadly diseases. And yet, many people in rich countries don’t know this and even believe the world is getting worse.

But there’s a lot Rosling misses too. His quizzes to test people’s knowledge of the world (one of which is included at the beginning of the book, and which distinguished audiences at his talks have consistently flunked) are designed to encourage wrong answers. Let’s look at the first three questions:

1. In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?
A: 20 percent
B: 40 percent
C: 60 percent

2. Where does the majority of the world population live?
A: Low-income countries
B: Middle-income countries
C: High-income countries

3. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has…
A: almost doubled
B: remained more or less the same
C: almost halved

Answers: 1. C; 2: B; 3. C

Rosling emphasizes throughout the book of how badly people answer these and similar questions. But many are designed to fool you. Question 1, for instance: leaving aside the issues of what constitutes a “low-income country” and “finishing primary school” (different countries’ educational systems being different), this question cues a negative answer because its options skew so negative. The incorrect answers set a lower bracket in test-takers’ minds, suggesting that 60% is a very high number indeed. When all we’re really saying is that something over half of girls in poor countries go to school at least until, what, age 11 or so? – an achievement, absolutely, but one leaving lots of work still to do. I wonder, if test-takers were asked to produce their own answer rather than seeing these suggestions, whether their guesses would be much higher. And then too, despite all the logical fallacies listed, one Rosling doesn’t mention is the fear of being labeled “naïve” for believing positive things about the world; might some test-takers’ answers be influenced by the desire to come across as jaded and cynical rather than as privileged Pollyannas?

Question 2 is an issue of definitions. Rosling chides people from wealthy countries for seeing everyone else as simply “poor,” despite their differences, but viewed from a wealthy country, everybody else is in fact “low-income.” Rosling divides the world into four income levels. Level 1 means living in a mud hut or flimsy house without electricity, traveling only on foot, and spending the vast majority of one’s time fulfilling basic needs: fetching water, gathering firewood, cooking over a fire pit, etc. Level 3 means having consistent electricity and running water, having access to some form of motorized transport such as a motorcycle, having many modern conveniences and kids in school, but still having to work very hard for what you have and falling short of Level 4, where you don’t have to worry about basic needs, have a car, can fly somewhere for vacation, etc. Certainly the differences between Levels 1 and 3 are enormous, and I think Rosling’s four-level framework is far more useful than the old first-world/third-world or developed/developing dichotomies, but people who answer incorrectly might not be as uninformed as he believes.

Question 3, though, is legitimate. Not everyone knows what “extreme poverty” means by UN definitions (living on less than $2 a day), but the basic fact is that standards of living have risen around the world over the last few decades, yet most people in Level 4 countries don’t know it. The book does a great job of driving home the progress that has been made, even while pointing out that much more is needed.

But Rosling’s analysis has two major issues. One is that it’s quite simplified. It’s nice, for instance, that most children in poor countries are in school. But in India, huge numbers of poor children remain illiterate even after several years of schooling. Of course learning can’t be improved without people buying into education, but if education isn’t happening in the schools, their value is limited.

And Rosling’s income divisions are quite rough, as I realized when visiting Dollar Street, a site set up by Anna Rosling Ronnlund that compiles pictures of the homes and belongings of people around the world at various income levels. It’s interesting to view, but an issue that quickly becomes clear is that people are classified into Levels 1-4 based on income per person, regardless of the number of people in the household. So, for instance, an American family of four (parents and their young adult children) with an income of $996 per month per person is considered Level 3. Now, living alone in the U.S. on an income of under $1000 per month puts you below the poverty line, with money tight even to meet basic needs, but a family of four with $48,000 a year and no childcare expenses is doing all right, as this family seems to be based on the photos. They’re nowhere near the poverty line, which for a family of four is $25,100. The effect of pooling resources is huge: every home needs a kitchen, for instance, but add several more people to your home and you still only need one kitchen. So the income level cutoffs, which seem useful to describe the rough income levels of different countries as a whole, are far less helpful for individual households.

And finally, Rosling assumes throughout the book that development is always good, without ever addressing the question directly. It was interesting to read this book alongside Unbowed, a memoir by a Kenyan activist for democracy, human rights and the environment. As a child, Maathai lived on Level 1 or 2, but that didn’t mean a terrible life; she found enjoyment and pride in cultivating the land, had a large, supportive family, and loved the storytelling around the fire each evening as the family waited for the food to cook. To Rosling though, Level 1 is nothing but suffering, and he never acknowledges any potential downsides to development except for environmental degradation. Now, it’s fair to say that it’s easy to romanticize “a simpler lifestyle” from one’s couch, while parents who have buried three of their five children have no such illusions (one of the key statistics Rosling often uses is child mortality). But loss of family, community and cultural connections can lead to increased mental health problems, while today’s diets, high in fat, sugar, and processed foods, lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other serious health problems. Rosling, though, paints a uniformly positive picture of modernization without acknowledging its costs.

All that said, his description of logical fallacies is still useful. For those still reading, they are below:

The Gap Instinct: The notion that humanity divides into two groups, with a significant gap between them, such as “rich countries” and “poor countries.” Countries’ income, like probably most other things, is actually on a continuum.

The Negativity Instinct: Paying most attention to negative information, such as apocalyptic news reports, without noticing the gradual improvements that get far less attention but are more impactful in the long run.

The Straight Line Instinct: Assuming a phenomenon will continue to occur at the same rate (this one is mostly for analyzing data: world population growth, for instance, is already slowing).

The Fear Instinct: People are more afraid of dramatic events that tap into our primal fears of violence, captivity, and poison, than of everyday stuff that’s more likely to occur. This is why American parents won’t let their kids walk places for fear of extremely rare stranger kidnappings, despite the fact that car accidents are far more common and deadly.

The Size Instinct: Also about analyzing data: get numbers into perspective by finding something to compare them to, and focus on the biggest items on a list (for instance in a budget) rather than the tiny ones.

The Generalization Instinct: Assuming that all members of a group are alike, or that two groups are similar when they aren’t.

The Destiny Instinct: Assuming something “will always be” the way that it is and that “culture” is immutable - at least when it comes to cultures other than our own.

The Single Perspective Instinct: Using your pet theory to explain everything that’s happening in the world and how to fix it.

The Blame Instinct: Looking for someone to blame for a problem can cause you to stop thinking. Looking for the system that caused that person’s behavior can be much more productive.

The Urgency Instinct: Decisions made in haste are poorly thought-through; slow down on important stuff.

At any rate, definitely an interesting book, and probably especially useful for those whose knowledge of the world mostly comes from the news. Even for those who are more knowledgeable, it’s useful to be aware of the ways your brain can trick you. That said, I think this book should form the beginning of a conversation rather than the end of it.

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text 2019-01-05 04:17
I don't review genres I know nothing about.

I don't read genre horror.  I kinda don't like it.  Blood and gore and that stuff is just icky to me.  Disney's Snow White scared the crap out of me when I was about four years old and I've never stopped being creeped out by horror movies and books.


When Halloween Bingo rolls around, I try to read a little bit of sort-of horror, but I don't enjoy it.


I have never read any of Stephen King's fiction.  None.  I tried The Stand, but I didn't get it and quit after about 10 pages.  I tried one other book, title forgotten, but it creeped me out within four or five pages, so that was the end of that.


I don't review horror fiction.  I don't read it, I don't have any idea what's good horror and what's bad horror, and I have no standards against which to measure anything I'd read.


Hard science fiction isn't my thing either.  It doesn't scare me or give me negative feelings; it just doesn't interest me.  So I read almost no hard science fiction and therefore I don't review it.


My go-to genres are historical romance, gothic romance, and romantic suspense; epic fantasy; and mystery.  Once in a while I'll pick up a thriller or a straight historical novel, so I have a little bit of background there.  These therefore are the genres I'll rate and review and pick apart microscopically.  They're the only ones I feel confident I can determine good writing from bad writing, thus good books from bad books.


I don't and won't negatively review books just because they're in genres I don't enjoy reading.


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text 2019-01-02 20:56
Rules for Reviewing: #1 - There are no rules

:::::huge sigh of frustration:::::


Some of us have been around this circus long enough to remember when there was an entire website devoted to telling reviewers that they were wrong for writing negative reviews, that reviewers were supposed to support authors, that reviewers who were also authors were obligated to support and help other authors, that reviewers who were also indie/self-publishing authors were evil bastards if they didn't automatically promote other indie/self-publishing authors AND offer them free editing services.


Apparently Amazon made the decision sometime in 2018 or maybe even before that, that in order to leave a product review (including book reviews), a customer must have purchased $50 worth of goods from Amazon in the calendar year and continue to buy at least $50 worth of goods in each subsequent year.  One presumes that this is an effort to curb the ongoing tsunami of fake reviews from fiverr accounts and other sources. 


Some reviewers and/or authors are upset about this.  One presumes that most of those upset are either authors (or other vendors) who were using fake reviews to boost their sales, or they were providers of fake reviews who were getting paid for them.


Please remember that the onslaught of fake reviews from fiverr and independent reviewers had been going on at least since 2013 and it had been brought to the attention of Amazon and its co-conspirator Goodreads with mountains of documentary evidence.


Please also remember that yours truly was responsible for the removal of over 6,000 fake reviews from Goodreads and it was only a drop in the bucket.  Almost all of those reviews were five-star recommendations.  A healthy portion of them had been purchased from fiverr.  Some of the fiverr shills returned again and again and again under different Amazon and Goodreads accounts, leaving fake five-star reviews to boost the sales of otherwise underperforming, shall we say, books and their authors.


These are fake reviews because they are not based on an honest, unbiased reading of the book.  They are purchased commercials, minus the disclaimer that the reviewer has been paid to deliver a glowing recommendation whether or not he/she has read a single word of the text. 


Setting aside all of the fake, purchased, commercial postings that masquerade as reviews, what constitutes a real review?


Because Amazon is a commercial site -- they're directly selling products -- they are bound by certain regulations of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. So . . .


1.  You can't review your own product, not even under another name/account.

2.  You can't have a friend or family member review your product.

3.  You can't negatively review a product with which your own product is in direct competition.

4.  You can't take any compensation for a review.


Amazon makes all of this very clear in their guidelines.  If they think you might have violated those guidelines, they can remove your reviews and even remove your account.  It is their site; removing your reviews is not government censorship.


So let's suppose that you are an average consumer who has met Amazon's requirement to have spent $50 on the site.  You've read a book and now want to review it.  What are the rules and regulations for doing that?


There are none.


You don't have to read the whole book.  If you loved or hated the first two pages, you can write and post a review based on that.  You can even write a review based on your anticipation of reading -- or not reading -- the book.


You don't have to be helpful, to either the author or to other readers.  You don't have to analyze why you liked or didn't like the book.  You can say it was filled with errors and not list any of them. You can say it had the most sound scientific foundation of any book ever published even though you know nothing about science.  You can claim it is historically inaccurate even if you know nothing about history. 


Now, if you want to establish a reputation as a trusted reviewer, one who has a large following of dedicated readers who can't wait for your next recommendation, one who receives hundreds or even thousands of free books each year because authors and publishers value your opinion, then you probably want to learn about the science behind science fiction or the history behind historical fiction.  You might want to refresh your knowledge of grammar and usage and punctuation.  You don't have to know everything there is to know or read everything there is to read, but getting a solid background in the literary genre of your choice is still a good idea.


Back in the day when I was reviewing for Rave Reviews magazine, I got stuck with a lot of horror and hard science fiction novels.  This was manifestly unfair to the authors and the readers, because I knew almost nothing about either genre.  I couldn't tell if a book was a good example of its type or not.  (I didn't get to review romance because that entire genre was handled by the parent magazine, Romantic Times, and they had their stable of professional reviewers.)  But I could at least describe the plot and express an opinion on whether I liked the characters or the writing.


When an Amazon or Goodreads or BookLikes or blog-based reviewer takes on the task of reviewing any given book, the only rule is honesty -- and it's one many reviewers break without consequences.  I understand this, and I've said so often enough before.  If the reviewer decides she wants to maintain the flow of free books by giving everything a four- or five-star review, that's her choice.  Is it honest?  Probably not, but she'll never admit it.  She'll say she just doesn't review books she doesn't like, or she only reviews books she finishes and she doesn't waste time on books she doesn't like.  Or she may simply state that she's never read a really bad book.


Readers who trust these rave reviewers are free to do so.  Maybe they don't care what the reviewer's real standards are.  Maybe they don't want to risk going beyond the reviewer's recommendations.  They're free to do so.


There's no rule that they have to post negative reviews.


But there's also no rule that a reviewer can't or shouldn't post a negative review.  Nor are there rules governing how a reviewer writes a negative review.


A reviewer doesn't have to justify her dislike of a given book.  She can if she wants to, but she doesn't have any obligation to.  Again, if she wants to establish a large and dedicated following, the better her reviews help her readers make up their own minds about a book, the more likely she is to gain followers. 


I'm a notoriously unlikable reviewer.  I incurred the wrath of That Website because I didn't let up on authors who published what I thought were poorly written books.  My reviews were often very detailed analyses of bad writing, bad research, lack of originality, poor formatting, and so on.  Some readers criticized me for spending so much time on a negative review.  Why go to all that trouble for a book I didn't like?  Because I wanted to.


Because most of the books I reviewed like that were free on Amazon, and I felt free or not, they should have been better written.  Even poor people like me deserve well-written books. 


But I also know -- and I've said this before, too -- that there are too many writers out there who never get critical feedback on their work.  Everyone tells them how great their book is, but "everyone" consists of Aunt Jane and Neighbor Brenda, and the writer never hears from someone who knows how stories are supposed to be constructed and how punctuation works. 


Sadly, there are people out there who call this "gatekeeping," as if there should be no standards.  They become angry and defensive, and yes, they have the right to do so.  There are no rules against it.  Neither are there rules against gatekeeping.


As a reviewer, I'm not going to like every sexually promiscuous heroine.  I'm not going to like every medieval setting.  I'm not going to like every beta hero.  I reserve the right to judge each book on its own merits.


I also reserve the right to challenge people who try to tell me how reviewers should review.  If you want to review that way, then go right ahead.  But please, don't tell me I can't review my own way, too.



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