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One Writer's World

Getting to the Heart of Poverty

I came across Evicted by Matthew Desmond (Penguin Random House, 2017) as part of my research for a novel I'm working on. It is riveting, gut-wrenching, and illuminating. Here's my review.

In a book that is both heartbreaking and intellectually rigorous, the author follows eight families in Milwaukee as they struggle to maintain housing for themselves and their families despite extremely limited funds, sometimes inhabitable housing, and landlords ready to evict for petty or sometimes no reason, or just to get a different tenant. Every challenge facing a tenant is explored in greater detail in notes with statistics and documented research.


The author is fair to the landlords as well by following at least two landlords and recording their words, views, challenges and reasoning for their actions. The author listens and records, and attends housing court where he listens to other landlords.


It is impossible to summarize the contents of this book, but consider some of the incidents. A recovering addict must choose between medication and rent; he chooses rent and becomes homeless. A disabled man paints another apartment for the landlord and is credited with a pittance, insulted with complaints, and remains behind in his rent, facing eviction. Without a telephone or car, tenants must still find another place to live in a matter of days. Attending a court hearing can mean missing work and then losing a job. Eviction with or without a court order can mean losing not only an apartment but also all their possessions unless they have a place to go. Putting things in storage may keep them safe for only a month before charges pile up and soon everything a tenant once owned is gone.


If a tenant does attend a court hearing, he or she faces a landlord with a knowledgeable lawyer, and a judge who may have little understanding of the dire situation facing thousands of poorly housed families.


This book is an indictment of America's love affair with property rights and denial of the basic right of decent housing.


Unlike many other books on poverty in America, the author offers a deeper understanding and solutions. Ending poverty for 90 percent of the population is possible. Housing vouchers for everyone who needs one should be available, and free to use anywhere in the country, in any neighborhood. No one should be denied access to decent housing. If all vouchers were movable, poor families wouldn't be isolated in the worst areas of cities, the prey for avaricious landlords.


This book should be required reading for everyone concerned about poverty and basic decency in this country.

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Can a ChatGPT really write?

For the last few days I've been coming across discussions about AI, specifically the ChaptGPT, a new AI technology that can produce essays, articles, even book-length manuscripts. As a writer, I have the same visceral fear as many others: does this mean I'm out of a job? The short answer is no. The long answer is in a sample of the ChatGPT product, below.
First, I asked a friend who loves this techie stuff (and understands it) to ask it a question: Can it detect historical errors in mystery novels? I asked that because I had been thinking about writing a post on the quiet but ongoing hubbub surrounding a minor historical error in an otherwise delightful and intelligent mystery featuring a much loved and admired historical figure. My friend and I got talking about it, and this sample of the ChatGPT is the result. Any good writer will recognize the problem. I've trimmed the original text for space considerations but you'll be able to guess that not much is missing.
                Minor Historical Errors in Mystery Novels: A Guide for Readers
Mystery novels have always been a popular genre, captivating audiences with their twists and turns, and puzzling clues. But while they may be entertaining, they are not always historically accurate. In fact, many mystery novels contain small historical errors that can detract from the reader's enjoyment of the story. Here's a guide to some of the most common minor historical errors found in mystery novels and how they can be corrected.

1. Incorrect dates: One of the most common historical errors in mystery novels is the use of incorrect dates. For example, a character may refer to a historical event as having occurred in the wrong year or the wrong century. These errors can often be easily corrected by checking historical records or consulting a reliable source.

2. Inaccurate fashion: Another common error in mystery novels is the depiction of fashion from a particular time period. For example, a character may wear clothing or accessories that were not popular during the time period in which the story takes place. To correct these errors, authors should research the fashion of the era in question and ensure that their characters' clothing and accessories match the period.

3. Misleading language: Another common error in mystery novels is the use of language that is misleading or incorrect. For example, a character may use a word or phrase that was not in use during the time period in which the story takes place. To avoid these errors, authors should consult a reliable historical dictionary or resource.

4. Misrepresentation of technology: In some mystery novels, the depiction of technology can be incorrect. . . .

5. Geographical inaccuracies: Another common error in mystery novels is the depiction of geography. . . To avoid these errors, authors should consult maps . . .
In conclusion, minor historical errors in mystery novels can detract from the reader's enjoyment of the story. However, by researching the time period and consulting reliable sources, authors can ensure that their works are accurate and enjoyable for all readers. So, next time you're reading a mystery novel, keep an eye out for these common errors and enjoy the story with the peace of mind that comes from knowing the details are correct.
Nothing in the text is wrong or misleading, but the writer (and careful reader) should recognize the problem. Aside from being slick, wordy, and repetitive, the essay says almost nothing beyond the obvious and superficial. There are no specific examples from published novels, no discussion on how important one error compared to another might be, and no broader discussion on the drive for accuracy as opposed to the drive for other aspects—characterization, for example. The style is generic and nondescript, more like a neutered business text. But the issue is errors in fiction.
Suppose Mr. Macawber couldn't subtract? Would it matter? If a writer (like me) called the bridge over the Mystic River the Mystic River Bridge in a story set in the 1970s, would my reader care? (The name was changed to the Tobin Bridge in 1967.) Every time I go over the bridge I'm confused about the name. I live here but it doesn't help. Every time a city or town changes the name of something, I'm set adrift. It matters to me as a writer and as a resident, but I doubt anyone in Michigan or Arizona would notice or care. Still, I want to use the correct name for the time in question.
To me the ChatGPT essay above is no more than the basic instruction a teacher would give her students assigned to write an essay, laying out how to construct a paragraph. If this is what the ChatGPT produces, even if it becomes more sophisticated, I don't know any writers in danger from it. But where meaningless verbiage is called for, rest assured ChatGPT work is already present, and will grow more common over time.

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