Category Archives: Reviews

Go Read a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman

I hesitate to say this because I am white and I am English, but I am calling bullshit on much of the discussion I have seen about Go Set a Watchman. The discussion about this book  should not be about whether or not it should have been published or whether or not it’s a good book. The discussion should be about racism.

We should be talking about institutional racism (a subject the book raises explicitly and addresses unsatisfactorily). We should be talking about what we do when good people we love expose themselves as racists (the central topic of the book and presumably of Lee’s life, and one it addresses discomfortingly). We should be talking about what we do about changing racist communities we are part of (again a central topic of the book, and one it answers weakly). We should be talking about being a White Ally, especially about being a bad White Ally, and about racism in the Northern States (all things the book exposes, possibly without meaning to). We should be talking about hindsight bias and revisionism, confirmation bias and blind-spots (again, exposed on every page). We should be talking about the links between the easy assumptions of class superiority that Lee makes and the racism she rejects.

These are the elephants in the room and the fact that the conversation is not about any of these things tells us so. And the more that people make the conversation about other subjects, the more they are sticking their fingers in their ears and saying “la, la, la I can’t hear you”.

So, yes, the book should most certainly have been published and yes my friend it’s worth reading. I will go further – I think you should read it because of Charleston, because of Portland, because of Ferguson, because of Mark Brown, because of Trayvon Martin, because all of this is happening now 50 years after Lee drafted the manuscript and submitted it to a publisher.

Is it well written? – Yes, but not as well written as Mockingbird. Get over it.

Will it change your view of Mockingbird? I don’t know.

It changed my view of Mockingbird, though I want to read that book again.  I now think of it as a fairy story and as a dangerous one at that because it’s a way for people to say “Oh, I’m not a racist, I’m Atticus, or Jem, or Scout”. I now see the artifice in Mockingbird: I see Scout’s clear-eyed wisdom as artificial, no six year old was ever that wise. I see also the naïveté in the assumption that Atticus and the Finches could possibly not be racist in a society where people owning other people was still a matter of living memory. It’s hard to read Watchman as a draft not a sequel but at one point in Watchman the adult Jean Louise says to Calpurnia “Please, I’ve got to know. Did you hate us?” and shivers go up your spine as the silence lengthens. Having said that, I link below to clearer-eyed reviews of Mockingbird which see it in a more nuanced light.

Did Lee give full and knowing consent? – I don’t know. She seems worryingly vulnerable, so possibly not. I am however certain that circumstances have given us a double gift, and we should read Go Set a Watchman, engage with it, and be grateful.

Enron in Edinburgh

I’ve finally seen Enron on stage. Briefly, for those who don’t know, Enron used clever and initially legal accounting techniques to big up their profits and tuck their losses away out of sight and, for a while at least, out of mind.   Not the most obvious material for a play. However my initially-not-very-interested-in-the-subject husband came away enthralled by the story and with a reasonable understanding of  hedging, trading above book and the role and effects of the raptors. So kudos to Lucy Prebble for that. Plus, it’s excellent.

Enron the Play

Enron is not a Greek  tragedy of our times, even though the tale includes hubris, ethical dilemmas (not that many of those, actually) and a suicide.  It’s too technical to be a farce, not quite funny enough to be a pantomime (“We did nothing wrong” “Oh yes you did” “Oh no we didn’t”)  so a musical play is just about right.

The staging is arresting: the two main numbers are the trading floor in the first act (which is the poster-piece for the play) and the California power-cuts in the second.  Both of these are great set pieces, but I was mightily irritated by the first which showed traders in the brightly coloured trading jackets of an open outcry trading floor.  You see, Enron’s not just a story about greed, it’s a story about vision.  Like it or lump it Skilling really was a visionary and the people who worked there really were the smartest guys in the room.   So Enron pioneered online trading – “Enron Online”: the clue was in the name.  I accept that having 8 men wildly gesticulating their buy and sell messages is much more theatrical than having 50 of them crouched over computer terminals.  But the inaccuracy  annoyed me so much I couldn’t pay attention to the rest of the first half.  And  it detracts from the tension between bricks and clicks which is one of the more interesting things in the Enron story.  You see, they weren’t just crooks, they were also visionaries.  Skilling really was trying to bring about a technological future the rest of the world just didn’t get at the time.  A future that we live in now. Video on demand, anyone?

The four main parts in the play are Chairman, Ken Lay, CEO Jeffrey Skilling, CFO Andy Fastow and hot business babe “Claudia”, whose career and character echoes that of Rebecca Marks.  (Marks left before the proverb hit the fan, was not involved in the frauds, and would be  in a position to sue if her lawyers felt like it). This drastic pruning is I think fair. However I was unconvinced by the characterisation of Fastow as a jittery nerd.  From my reading of just about every book available, Fastow was neither fawning nor socially inept; like the others he was clever and corrupted by his own ambition.  I was also surprised by the presentation of Skilling and “Claudia” as sexual partners. Their rival visions for the organisation were more than enough reason for them to dislike each other without  any need for urgent and unsatisfactory sex. Which brings us back to the bricks and clicks tension:  “Claudia” in the play and Marks in reality focused on traditional businesses, power plants, water companies, pipelines and the like.  Ok, they were hubristic failures, but they did raise cash in the fire sale.  Skilling’s vision was to change the nature of business by introducing trading into markets which hadn’t been traded before.  They were both wrong of course, which ultimately was why Enron fell.

One thing that fascinated me was that at no point in the play did the Edinburgh audience applaud when I was there on Saturday night; not the set-pieces, not the soliloquies, and very nearly not at the end.  There must have been several people in the theatre that night, or over the run at least, who could have written the equivalent play about RBS and I could have had a good stab at writing one about HBOS myself.  Edinburgh is not unsophisticated financially, even if its financial services companies are banks rather than trading houses or accountancies.

Maybe the sights and sounds of plunging share-prices, lost life savings and venial leaders were just the teensiest bit too close to home.

Other stuff I’ve written about Enron.

The Facebook Privacy Row 2 – The Social Network

We went to see the film the Social Network last night, which is about how Mark Zuckerberg co-created Facebook, and the ensuing law suits with people who claimed he had misappropriated their ideas (in one case) and their money (in the other case).

What is shown on the screen must be pretty much law-suit proof.  We are talking about the bio-pic of a billionaire, after all.  There are other signs that the big spend was on lawyers.  It certainly wasn’t on special effects; the “outdoor” scenes at Henley Regatta were clearly filmed in a tank.  And it wasn’t on stars either; the only name star is Justin Timberlake playing Sean Parker who co-founded Napster. (We are of course meant to love the knowing irony of that casting).

In the first five or ten minutes of the film, Zuckerberg’s girlfriend when he was 19, Erica Allbright says:

You are probably going to be a very successful computer person. But you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.

And that more or less positions Zuckerberg for the rest of the film.

Would you entrust your privacy to the Zuckerberg portrayed here?  Hell no.  But of course, film is a two-dimensional medium.  If you look for them, you can see the usual narrative compressions: two of the four people who co-founded Facebook are barely mentioned in the film, for instance, and neither is Zuckerberg’s current girlfriend who (according to Wikipedia (I know….)) who was with him throughout.  And that is an interesting omission, because he comes across as someone whose IQ is stratospheric but whose EQ (emotional intelligence) approaches zero.  Portraying him as maintaining a relationship all that time would undermine the idea that he’s a nerd and an asshole.

I was intrigued that Zuckerberg is portrayed not as someone who  has good ideas, but as someone who spots them.  In one scene a friend asks if a particular girl is dating someone and Zuckerberg realises that “relationship status” is the thing that will change Facebook from an app to a killer app. Likewise, he is portrayed as using the Winklevoss’s idea for a campus-wide social network in the first place, and borrowing Savarin’s algorithm to rank girls based on how hot they are, which is itself an idea he took from some one else.  So he’s portrayed as a harvester,  not a creator.  But if harvesting ideas was easy, everyone could do it. In the movie, Zuckerberg’s stance is summed up by his line:

If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.

And he has a point.

So was anyone in the film actually a good guy?  Savarin, the friend who stumped up the original seed money for servers, is the nearest thing to a good guy.  But our sympathies lie with him because of where he sits in the narrative: he’s portrayed as being out-maneuvered when Facebook got cool and Sean Parker got involved and they all went to California.  He’s the loyal friend, shafted by the asshole.  Then there are the other litigants, the Winklevoss brothers. In one of those unnecessary strokes of narrative cuteness occasionally thrown up by real life, they are olympic rowers and twins.  As one of them says when they are discussing whether they want lawyers or the Sopranos:

I’m six-five, 220 pounds, and there are two of me.

Quite.

Privileged, ambitious, with a sense of entitlement which is annoyingly substantiated by actual physical achievements?Just another kind of asshole, really.

If no-one touches the sympathy button, was anyone here a victim? No, not really.  Not as portrayed in this film. It’s an enjoyable movie about how the prospects of billions makes not particularly attractive people do not particularly attractive things. Im irritated that we are presented with Zuckerberg as a tragic hero in the last five minutes of the film. Heroism isn’t really something you can tack on at the end.

I’m wary of assuming that this bio-pic is accurate simply because it wasn’t made by Oliver Stone even if there are no actual law-suits against it, and it seems I am right to be wary.  An excellent NYT article quotes the film’s writer as saying:

“I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling” … “I feel like, had I met Mark, I would have felt a certain obligation to make the character sound like Mark, walk like Mark, all of those things. And frankly, I probably would have had an affection for him that I wouldn’t have wanted to betray.”

So there are lies, damned lies, and movie scripts.

That said, it’s an entertaining movie if you like that sort of thing, which I do. On top of that, the script is sharply clever, and I like clever.

But I still keep my Facebook settings shut down tight.

TAM London – How should Skeptics debate?

One of the strands at this year’s #TAMlondon was the question of how strident should skeptics be? Tim Minchin referred to this as the question of tone.

P Z Myers argued (calmly, kindly, almost sweetly) for anger, ridicule and truth. D J Grothe by contrast put it to us that we should be both rationalists and humanists, that we have to be good about being right, because being right by itself is not enough. Melinda Gebbie reminded us that one of the sources of failure in the feminist movement was that “didn’t have a maniesto of behaviour”, in other words because too many of them were self-indulgent and became whiny, strident and easily ignorable caricatures.

This disagreement is no surprise: Richard Wiseman (I think) reminded us that when cats get frustrated they talk about herding skeptics. That’s what happens when you have a bunch of people who think for themselves.

I’m with D J Grothe on this one, though. I think the key to how we interact with others (even the dull and ignorant) is respect.   As one of the TAMsters asked P Z Myers

Is it constructive to be so confrontational?

Why the different approaches? What do we want to achieve when we engage with the purveyors of woo? Randi told Robin Ince that he is fuelled in part by anger and wants to expose the liars and shut down the frauds. His motivation for exposing “faith” healers was rage; rage at the shamless way they turned grief and fear, and disability into cold hard cash. Dawkins is angry about the abuses of human rights embedded in Sharia law’s treatment of gays and of women. Evan Harris is disgusted that Boots’ excuse for duping the ill with homoeopathic remedies is that they are also available on the NHS.  There is indeed a lot of anger among skeptics.

However, I suspect that others who claim to be fuelled by anger are just fuelled by the need to be Right. That it’s egotism, pure and simple, and a bullying egotism at that.  One interesting quote from Myers was

“We have science and reason on our side”.

Well, surely it should be the other way round? Shouldn’t we be on the side of science and reason? One of the unexpected highlights for me was Susan Blackmore’s account of her double-blinded, randomised, statistially significant journey from woo to material atheism as she researched for decades but found no evidence for the psychic powers she absolutely believed in.

Back to the question of how should we debate? Too often, exasperated passion comes across as shrillness and underemines the message.  Debates between skeptics and believers frequently collapse in a morass of crossed purposes based on different ways of testing and arriving at the truth. Did Tim Minchin persuade Storm that she was narrow minded and wrong, or merely shout the poor woman down?  Both P Z Myers and Adam Rutherford reminded us: “Don’t be a Dick”.

The success or failure of these debates so often boils down to what kind of knowledge the debaters accept as true. Assertions that my logic is better than your intution are pointless.  Stupidly so. Our double blinded randomised controlled trial does NOT beat their personal experiences (in their minds at least), no matter how much it convinces intelligent, empirical, skeptical us.  Besides which, it is always so much more interesting to find out WHY people think what they think than to listen to yourself prating on about evidence to somone whose touchstone is their intuition.

So do you assume you are dealing with charlatans? Or with fools? Or with people of intelligence and integrity whose approach to uncertainty and evidence are different from yours? And this last one is, of course, much more threatening than the dismissive thought that “they’re all stupid”.

And how do your assumptions colour your debate?

(More on TAM London soon).

Fiction schmiction

One Day - David Nicholls

One Day - David Nicholls

Occasionally people look surprised when I say I don’t read fiction.  This seems entirely sensible to me.  They make it up, you know.  It’s not actually true. It also tends to be drearily written and about people who are unpleasant or dull or both.  Why would I want to spend a few days of my life in their company?

Case in point: I made an exception and bought a copy of One Day: Twenty Years Two People by David Nicholls.

Little Miss Gullible, I chose it based in part on the reviews quoted in the inside.

One Day - Reviews

One Day - Reviews

One Day - More Reviews

One Day - More Reviews

It’s an interesting conceit, to look at a snapshot of two peoples lives on the anniversary of the same day every year. This appealed to me because I am quietly pleased about the richness and multi-dimensionality which is the gift of getting older. And Mary Wesley and Molly Keane have used the long perspective rather well.

Unfortunately it’s shite.

Thank goodness, the publishers, the puffers and the reviewers who say how absolutely fabulous the emperor looks in his lovely clothes don’t fool all of the people all of the time. Two recent opinion pieces make my point for me more generically and with more authority.

… these days  more or less the only novels allowed to be primarily humorous are chick-lit and lad-lit, and these tend to be gurglingly inane – not the kind of intelligent wit you’d formerly get from Waugh or Kingsley Amis … If you want to be “taken seriously”, you apparently have to be serious, or, more accurately, joyless. – Michael Deacon in the Telegraph

And:

Reading Barnes, like reading so many other English writers of his generation – Martin Amis, McEwan – leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner. … I wonder, though, where it came from, this petty-bourgeois uptightness, this terror of not being in control, this schoolboy desire to boast and to shock. – Gabriel Josipovici quoted in the Guardian.

I’m with Deacon, though, I want to be intelligently amused.  But alas, One Day, despite being “the funniest, loveliest book” (according to Jenny Colgan) is dreary, demeaning and dull.  The hero is a shallow and selfish and though we are told the heroine is clever and sexy she’s neither of those things on the page.  At one point the narrator comments what wonderful fun times they had together, but are we ever shown them?  Are we hell. The narrative arc comprises the heroine moving from needy to not quite so needy while the hero becomes more and more of a shit.

Dreariness can be excused if you learn something about the human condition. But these two are tediously adolescent throughout. Someone should tell David Nicholls that self-conciousness is not self-awareness. Hero and heroine never relax in each others’ company, they both have the sort of snide inner-observer which adults only release into their minds when they are drunk.

Meh.

It’s back to the non-fiction shelves for me.

The Eden Project: grabbing you by the mind

Have you ever been to the Eden project in south Cornwall?

What impressed me the most on our recent visit was the way that they present both sides of the ethical dilemmas we face, for example:

How can it be ethical to fly cut flowers a third of the way around the world? But how can it not be ethical to buy flowers that help lift third world farmers out of poverty?  (I paraphrase).

The signs and information boards, none of which I thought to photograph, are full of these dilemmas, so a trip around the bubbles in the clay-pit is thought-provoking rather than a harangue.

I also  very much like the way they support and promote art, and one of the two things I did think to photograph was a sculpture made out of the typical electrical waste each of us generates in a lifetime:

WEEE sculpture, Eden Project

WEEE sculpture, Eden Project

The other is a play area where you were given a bucket of water, jugs, pumps and guttering, and let loose trying to build an irrigation system:

Summer Splash at the Eden Project

Summer Splash at the Eden Project

But I came away thinking how refreshing it is to find a campaigning organisation which tries to engage your mind with complexity and dilemmas, instead of trying to prove their point with over-simplified lectures and “logic”. Oh, and a handbag, I came away with one of these:

Bottletop Bellani Bag

Bottletop Bellani Bag - click to see in Eden Project Shop

I may like the challenge of an ethical dilemma, but not much beats a good handbag.

Not just normal… supernormal

Telegraph: Monster burger containing 4,800 calories unveiled in US

Telegraph: Monster burger containing 4,800 calories unveiled in US - click to read story

I’ve been catching up with podcasts recently, and was fascinated by For Good Reason‘s recent interview about supernormal stimuli with Dierdre Barrett.  She explains much about our problems as animals living in an artificial world: why we over-eat, why socialising online or by texting is more compelling than hanging out with our friends, why everything is louder and faster these days.

Essentially, Barrett researches the way that animals (including us) respond better to artificial over-stimulus than we do to natural levels of stimuli. We want saltier, sweeter, fattier food, bigger breasts, poutier lips, louder and more driving bass beats, faster cuts in our movies and more exciting roller coasters.  We want everything up to 11.  Hell, we want everything up to, 12, 13, 130 … faster, deeper, harder, MORE!

Two examples of animal responses to supernormal stimuli she cites are birds who ignore their own eggs in favour of bluer ones with bigger, blacker polkadots (how sweet, how stupid) and butterflies who boff card-board cut-outs and ignore the real lady butterfly flapping her wings enticingly nearby. How stupid. How ridiculous. How much does this explain about the porn industry?

Barrett’s soothing mantra is that we are people with brains and free-will, and are therefore able to overcome our response to the supernormal.  I was disappointed that Grothe didn’t challenge her on this. I like the way he inhabits the role of devil’s advocate to draw out his interviewees, but he ducked this one. There appears to be increasing evidence that free will is either an illusion or operates at trivial levels at best, which is something that Grothe is well aware of.  (A search for ‘free will’ in his previous podcasts at Point of Inquiry yields 117 hits). It is of course much easier for everyone if we act as if we have free will.  If we don’t, then all sorts of things about society will unravel. But that is another blog post for another day.

So while none of this was epiphanic, it deepened my awareness of the issues.  And if you don’t subscribe to Point of Inquiry or For Good Reason, and you like that kind of thing, then let me recommend them.