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Articles by Loughborough academics featured on The Conversation

Caught between Trump and Kim, Japan is nervous and alone

North Korea’s nuclear test, by far its largest, came less than a week after it test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile that flew over northern Japan, triggering a national text-message system known as the J-Alert.

For Japan, the security implications of both these tests are immense. The missile test showed that Kim Jong-un’s regime now has the capacity to strike the Japanese mainland with relative ease, while Pyongyang’s apparent grasp of hydrogen bomb technology means it could potentially vaporise a chunk of the continental US mainland. That changes not just the magnitude of the North Korean threat, but the very foundations of Japan’s national security.

The US’s commitment to protect Japan is currently based on the idea that the American mainland remains safe from North Korean retaliation. But faced with the reality that North Korea could soon be able to strike American soil, there is now a serious question mark over how willing the US will be to come to Japan’s aid while its own security is at risk.

This puts Japan in a highly difficult position. Its alliance with the US has been the bedrock of its foreign and security policies since at least the 1960s, and until now, any countermeasure against North Korea was based on the assumption that Washington will come to Tokyo’s help. In other words, Japan has for decades been able to invoke American military power as part of its own diplomatic clout. No more.

This long-held assumption was dashed by Donald Trump’s seeming disregard for the larger implications of a military conflict with North Korea. If anything, North Korea would probably respond to US military action by deploying conventional artillery against South Korea and the massive US military presence there. As for Japan, North Korean response will either be a nuclear attack on American military installations in Japan or even an attack on Japanese cities using chemical weapons mounted on missiles currently being tested.

In other words, the unprecedented exchange of provocative, escalatory language makes clear that a miscalculation by either the Trump administration or the Kim regime could precipitate an attack on Japan. Even the possibility of a military strike on Japan marks a significant deterioration in the regional political environment, and Trump seems to be ignorant of the consequences – or worse, willing to disregard them. That in itself is enough to put the US-Japan alliance in jeopardy.

Bad neighbours

Then there’s China, with whom Japan’s bilateral relations have markedly deteriorated since the dispute over the uninhabited Senkaku (or Diaoyu) Islands escalated in 2012. Ideally for Japan, a Sino-US dialogue on Korean peninsula could provide a common forum for Japan and China to set aside their mutual misgivings and focus on the North Korean threat instead, But with the two countries still mired in a territorial dispute and nationalism surging on both sides, their relationship is too poisonous for them to co-ordinate properly.

This awkwardness is complicated further by Trump’s erratic approach to China. While the Trump administration thinks China holds the key to restraining North Korea, in reality, there is not much China can do. Beijing doesn’t want North Korea to implode under economic pressure, and the last thing it wants is for South Korea to absorb North Korea. While Beijing might feel blackmailed and wrongfooted by Pyongyang, it will not countenance sharing a border with a heavily militarised US ally. In short, all China can do is to hope that the tensions subside without a military escalation.

Will Japan go nuclear itself? It certainly has the know-how and the technology, but the domestic opposition would be immense – as proven by unusually large student protests against the government’s constitutional changes to expand the miltary’s role. More than that, South Korea and other East Asian countries might well follow suit rather than be left behind. It’s hardly a recipe for shoring up one’s own sense of security.

This leaves Japan very lonely in what it thinks is a very dangerous neighbourhood. Despite the so-called shuttle diplomacy between Japan and South Korea’s leaders, meant to ensure the two are as communicative as possible, the US and China’s behaviour is what matters. Indeed, Sino-Japanese tensions show no sign of subsiding – not an encouraging development when the prospect of a nuclear war is more real than ever.

Japan is in a bind. It can do hardly anything alone, and the American nuclear umbrella is increasingly becoming a liability rather than an asset. North-east Asia is suddenly a truly dangerous place. And in its efforts to keep safe, Japan is feeling increasingly alone.

The Conversation

Taku Tamaki does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

We need to consider the social implications of bots writing books about instant chocolate milk

kikujungboy /

We still tend to think of authors as geniuses. Conversations about prize-winning novels often revolve around authorial intent, and writing a bestseller will tend to confer a certain amount of fame. But this timeworn state of affairs is shifting. The reader, more than ever, is moving centre stage – a shift that is being catalysed by the development of natural language generation (NLG) systems by computer scientists around the world. Written language is no longer a uniquely human construct.

NLG is the process whereby computer data is translated into everyday human languages. NLG has already been applied for many purposes, including aesthetics (poetry, say) and information transfer (for example, weather updates). We’re now at a point where computers generate texts largely indistinguishable from human-authored texts, and at rates incomparable to that of humans.

Written language has, for hundreds of years, served as much of the world’s dominant form of knowledge transfer. Yet history reveals that the author hasn’t always been regarded as an individual creative genius. The medieval European writer, for example, was what we’d now deem a plagiarist, pulling from a range of source texts to make their own. A text wasn’t a manifestation of individuality, but a means for preserving knowledge passed through the generations. Medieval scholars cared little about their books’ writers: they cared about the ancient truths held within.

1628 depiction of Haarlem printing press from 1440. Wikimedia Commons

However, ushering in what book historian Elisabeth Eisenstein calls “cults of personality”, print supported a shift in the cultural mindset. Suddenly the author’s individuality, more than their contribution to the collective, was praised. Of course, print wasn’t solely responsible for this large-scale change, but it certainly both influenced and was influenced by the development of modern individuality.

Now, the success of modern NLG companies represents a further shift in the same direction, further emphasising the individual over the collective. The reader dominates when texts are created especially for her.

The cult of the individual

NLG supports the production of highly localised content: so localised that the algorithm produces it for the individual rather than any collective, accommodating unique social circumstances and worldviews. In such a hyper-individualised climate, reading becomes less of an effort to find authorial intention, and more a personal experience of meaning-making. This shift is symptomatic of a greater shift from a shared culture that reveres expert views afforded by social institutions to one comprising niche groups representing personal interests. No one likes being told what to think. NLG can accommodate individuality.

Nowhere is NLG’s affirmation of individualisation clearer than in the rise of companies like Automated Insights and Narrative Science, which specialise in the generation of news and business intelligence reports for large-scale and niche audiences alike.

Transforming datasets (for example, sports scores, performance measures) into readable narratives, these companies’ systems rapidly generate texts that are highly personalised in both content and register. Such texts present situations in which information appears disembodied from its conveyor. The author is obscured, an uncertain entanglement of human and computer.

While NLG systems may produce texts for mass audiences, one of these systems’ most novel features is their ability to generate texts on even the most niche subjects. Philip Parker’s patented algorithms, for example, generate entire books marketed to specialised clientele. The 2018-2023 World Outlook for Instant Chocolate Milk, Weight Control Products, Whole Milk Powder, Malted Milk Powder, and Other Dry Milk Products Shipped in Consumer Packages Weighing Three Pounds of Less Excluding Nonfat Dry Milk and Infants’ Formula is 310 pages long and priced at a reasonable $995 USD. This book – like the rest of the series – offers easy-to-read charts revealing industry trends. Interested in instant chocolate milk? Parker’s book is a godsend.

A bot can write a book about that. urbanbuzz /

Intellectual blinders

But there are ethical issues with such “personalisation algorithms” driving niche content. After all, there’s a fine line between supporting readers’ decisions and controlling them, as a group of researchers from the Oxford Internet and Alan Turing Institutes argue. In theory, personalisation improves decision-making by filtering out irrelevant information contributing to information overload.

But this filtering process, which is always subjective, reduces exposure to diverse views that may be considered irrelevant or contradictory to the individual being catered for. And if everyone is presented with customised content, exaggerated monocultures form wherein individuals become trapped in echo chambers that only reinforce their current beliefs instead of challenging them.

It may seem pedantic to dedicate such consideration to personalised content like business reports. Yet the systematic omission of “irrelevant” data creates intellectual blinders with very real social implications. We need balanced perspectives – the products of diverse views that challenge our own – to create policies that serve wide publics.

So today’s tendency towards populist anti-intellectualism not only stems from underlying distrust of institutionalised hierarchy, but also from the rise of a hyper-individualised culture partially supported by personalisation algorithms. Everyone’s opinion is valid in light of the information to which she’s been exposed. Indeed, individualised computer-generated content seems to indicate a general defiance of institutionalised hierarchy. The reader, rather than the author, is in control. The reader determines what information matters.

There’s value in individualised computer-generated texts. Readers can get the information they want, quickly. Businesses can evaluate performance in seconds. The issue is not the technology – it is what the technology represents. NLG companies promoting mass production of customised texts survive because readers believe that their individualities are, at least in some contexts, to be prioritised over the collective. This is nothing new: the emergence of print in the 15th century catalysed the development of the modern individual. What is new is the state of hyper-individualisation permitted by an increasingly digitised – and customised – culture.

Individuality is important. But so is society. There is a balance to be struck as the use of NLG continues to spread.

The Conversation

Leah Henrickson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

Going through university clearing? Then make sure you do these four things


Every year, in August, thousands of students in the UK receive their A-level results and discover whether or not they have got the marks needed to take up a place at their chosen university.

If they fail to make the grade – or exceed them – students telephone university clearing centres, to try and find a more suitable course. Twenty years ago, getting a place through “clearing” was seen as something of a failure. Now it is not. Not only are grades often higher in clearing than the original prospectus listing, but students can “adjust” their offer to secure a better place.

For the students making these calls, it can often be a nerve wracking time, filled with unknowns and uncertain outcomes. So to try and find out what makes these calls a success, we transcribed and analysed 300 calls at a clearing contact centre last summer. We looked at how people spoke on these calls, as well as what they said. We were able to identify common patterns in the way the calls unfolded and what made a difference to the final outcome.

So to try and make things a little easier if you are going through clearing, we’ve put together some tips based on our analysis.

1. Do your research

Clearing may seem like a mad dash to the finish, but while there is an element of time pressure in trying to get on a course at a university of your choice, it’s still worth taking time to research which universities or courses to apply for.

It was revealed in our research that university websites are updated more rapidly than UCAS’s, so prepare for your call by checking the grade requirements and spaces beforehand.

If you have your heart set on a particular university, make a list of all the available courses you would be willing to study at that institution. Flexibility will help you, but make sure it’s a course you actually want to do as it’s a big commitment.

2. Know who’s who

It’s also worth having a look at who the key members of staff are in your relevant department or subject area. Our research showed that when students’ grades did not meet the requirements, they sometimes asked to be transferred to the relevant department – but for these students, just asking to be transferred did not always work.

We found that having the name of the programme director or admissions tutor for the course was more likely to result in a transfer. So make sure you look these up ahead of phoning, and have these names to hand throughout the call.

Don’t be clueless when it comes to clearing. Pexels.

3. Have all your information ready

When you phone a clearing centre, make sure you are in a quiet place where you can concentrate. Have your laptop, tablet or computer in front of you, and pen and paper by your side to scribble down any last minute notes. Make sure you have all your grades clearly written out so you can refer back to them at a moment’s glance.

As well as doing this, make sure you have any other relevant information to hand from the offset. This could include details of extenuating circumstances surrounding your A-level performance – as this might change what universities will offer.

Our research showed that call takers at clearing lines don’t know about these circumstances, and don’t ask about them either. So if you don’t mention them, the call will close without you maximising your chances of an offer. And remember that unless you have nominated them on your UCAS form, your parents cannot call on your behalf.

4. Don’t waste time

In our research, we saw a number of instances where students made repeat calls – presumably to try and speak to a different call taker – to see if they could get a place that way. But our analysis showed that repeat calling simply wasted everyone’s time – slowing down call takers and other callers. In the calls we analysed, there wasn’t one case where repeat calling produced an offer when the original call did not.

The take home lesson here is to understand that you only get one chance to call a university clearing helpline – so make sure it counts. It’s also worth knowing that many university clearing lines are open well into the evening, and even the week following results day so don’t feel disheartened if you can’t get through when you first call – lines are likely to be busy. Be patient but persistent and you’ll get through eventually.

The Conversation

The research was funded by Loughborough University.

Elliott Hoey does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

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