random thoughts to oil the mind

Category: Books Page 2 of 14

[:en]Book reviews amongst other things.[:de]Buchrezensionen unter anderem

Freedom Next Time

What you need to know about humans is that they are dicks. And if you give them any power their dickness prevails over everything else.

That beautifully succinct phrase comes from a review on Good Reads and is an understandable frame of mind to find yourself in after reading this book. Reading it ten years after publication, it’s almost surreal how little has changed in the intervening period, how the wheels of progress continue to grind on the gears of conservatism. In Freedom Next Time John Pilger surveys the state of peoples suffering under the weight of ignorance, ill-will, apathy and condescension in various theatres of the world, turning the spotlight in turn on Palestine, India, Afghanistan, South Africa and the Chagos Islands.

The Chagos Islands is a pretty clear-cut test, and one which our western democratic system will likely fail miserably. In the dying days of empire, the British government swapped a conveniently located group of rocks in the Indian Ocean for a few bits of military hardware from the Americans. The people living there were forcibly evicted and will never be allowed to return to the place of their birth, never mind that their removal constitutes a crime against humanity. As Pilger attests, this buck will be passed back and forth, the Brits blaming the Yanks, the Yanks blaming the Brits, while the case is shuttled often enough through the courts until everyone affected by the travesty is tidily dead. Maybe in the middle of this century we’ll see an official apology to the victims’ descendants, similar to the likes given to victims of slavery and oppression elsewhere in the world. But the political establishment doesn’t give a rat’s arse, and those individual politicians who might are far too lightweight to go tilting at such windmills.

At least with the Chagos Islands, the case of moral virtue is clear and it is merely the duplicity of realpolitik which means that justice will never be served to the islanders. In covering Palestine, however, Pilger covers an area of the world which can only get worse until it gets better. The social equation underlying the political facts is a simple one, even if it remains unwritten: Jews > Arabs. Big mon Trump’s recent declaration of support for the occupying forces is just the latest embodiment of this, and indeed a rare case of someone being up front about reality. A two-state solution is a nice sound bite to be throwing around, the ‘peace process’ a wonderful phrase to pay lip-service to, but Palestine will presumably remain a problem zone until it is eventually eradicated, almost like Kosovo in reverse.

The more interesting chapters are also the less clear cut, more contestable issues, where Pilger investigates the lot of people left behind by political and economic change in South Africa and India. He points blame at the ANC for selling out the anti-apartheid movement and abandoning some of its core principles in cosying up to vested interests. However it’s hard to imagine how his occasional purported alternatives would have brought about more prosperity than the current situation. Similarly his chapter on India shines a beam to highlight the transparency of India’s booming economy, though the overall picture here is murkier than elsewhere, and there’s certainly been more positive change in this part of the world in the past decade than elsewhere, even if the problem of poverty remains a massively significant burden.

Obviously the style of this collection is journalistic and as such suffers from those usual pitfalls. Chapters are padded with random exemplary introductions, events highlighted which don’t necessarily have any bearing on the case at hand and indeed over time start to lose relevance and punch. But in particular, as Pilger has his agenda to pursue, the narrative isn’t drawn as broadly as it could be. Whilst happy interviewing the politicians and the victims of their policies, he does little to examine the opinions of the pillocks who put those politicians in power, which would have been of particular interest for example in the Palestinian conflict or the missed chances of the ANC.

Despite its advancing age, Freedom Next Time remains a worthwhile read since the political situation in many of these regions has barely evolved. The basic working principle which Pilger highlights time and again is that simple human trait, where political representation fails to defend the rights and interests of the downtrodden, whether it be through ignorance, apathy or occasional sheer malice. The book greatly attests to the prevalence of dickness in human nature.

Reading Roundup

Some years ago (last decade!) I decided to do a brief round-up of some recent reads. Sadly I don’t find make the time to gather my thoughts and sum up my opinions, so in no particular order, I thought I’d write a few words on some of the books that have graced my bedside table over the past few weeks.

Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks

In essence, this is the story of what happens when you put your money where your mouth is, even when your mouth is currently being fuelled by the wrong kind of babble-juice. Tony Hawks found himself challenged at a party that his oft-regaled anecdote of seeing someone hitchhiking with a fridge in Ireland was pigswill. In the morning, a note beside his bed seemed evidence that he’d taken up a £100 bet that he could do the same, circumnavigating the emerald isle with a home appliance.

What follows is a quirky adventure blending English stoicism and the Irish devotion to the craic, replete with fridge surfing, radio DJs, island kings and a night in the doghouse, all culminating in a triumphal march through the capital celebrating the pointlessness of it all. For anyone enjoying Irish sensibilities, there are plenty of amusing moments along the way. Ultimately a very pointless little book, but entertaining nonetheless.

The Great Dune Trilogy by Frank Herbert

A handful of words aren’t enough to do justice to Dune, let alone its two sequels Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. The first novel in particular is something of an operatic masterpiece, which despite such a depth and richness of ideas never bogs down as something like the oft-compared Lord of the Rings clearly does. Where other series focus on the science or the fiction, Dune creates an entire mythology, replete with political system, religion and technology.

I’ll be honest, reading all three novels back-to-back was something of a stretch, particularly as the second doesn’t live up anywhere near the expectations harboured following the operatic majesty of the first. Dune Messiah has something of a marmite effect on the fans. Fortunately the final volume in the original trilogy returns to better form, adding more sweeping strokes to Herbert’s epic canvas, without dawdling too much on the details. Definitely well worth reading the first if you’re a fan of (science) fiction in depth. Despite the few tweaks, David Lynch’s film captures the general tenor of this vision beautifully.

The Lady Vanishes & The Spiral Staircase by Ethel Lina White

A pleasant surprise with two short novels in one slender volume. It’s something of a shame that they are both published here under the names of the films they inspired rather than the books as they were written (The Lady Vanishes was originally entitled The Wheel Spins; The Spiral Staircase as Some Must Watch). The Lady Vanishes is rather overshadowed by the films and has a somewhat slow pace, which probably isn’t helped by knowing the story in advance. It’s almost a pity that this novel gets first billing, since the lesser-known The Spiral Staircase is the stronger of the two in my view. An atmospheric setting, strong characterisation, the gradually building suspense – the comparisons with Agatha Christie are unsurprising and genuinely well deserved.

Both of these thrillers deliver some classic 1930s suspense and mystery, and while the films probably outshine the novels on which they are based, as a light diversion for fans of mystery and skulduggery, you could do far worse.

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal

‘They’re very intelligent animals.’ There’s a platitude I’ll never tire of hearing. When it comes to

In this relatively short but accessible volume, primatologist Frans de Waal takes us on a tour through the world of animal intelligence, or at least the study of it. He points out how human beings, so obsessed with their own navels, are wont to move the goalposts any time some semblance of anthropomorphic intelligence is found in animal test subjects. ‘Animals aren’t intelligent because they can’t something’ is always true as long as something remains. They can’t use tools, talk, empathise, plan ahead, show regret, recognise their reflections, deceive. Each time some evidence appears which suggests the contrary, human exceptionalism comes up with the next new something to define the experience of the human condition.

Aside from the proselytising, de Waal rightly highlights the difficulties of any kind of study in this area. Human beings have an extremely difficult challenge in designing tests for non-human subjects to measure non-human capacities. That is the real question written on the cover, though it sometimes gets lost amidst the examples and de Waal’s broadsides against those in the behaviourist camp. Nevertheless, at its core it presents an interesting conundrum. The book could’ve done with some streamlining, but as a piece of popular science it offers an excellent introduction to the subject.

[Photo by Karim Ghantous on Unsplash]

The Blind Watchmaker

Blind WatchmakerWhat is it about the theory of evolution which makes it so difficult to comprehend? Why does it require a leap of faith for many people to understand? And why do they feel they need to believe in evolution in a way they never would with, say, gravity?

Having finally got around to reading The Blind Watchmaker this year, one remark really stuck in my mind, when Dawkins turned to describing the human experience in terms of units. The way we perceive the world around us is intrinsically bound to the way we encounter it. We consider time, for instance, within a fairly specific range. Once we go beyond that range, our natural, indeed evolutionary faculties are incapable of perceiving the world outside those bounds with any degree of accuracy. That’s not to say we hit a brick wall when we step beyond that range. We’re still perfectly capable of contemplating the meaning of extremely long or short timescales, for example. We can measure them, compare them, calculate them; we can analogise and use metaphors. But we are far from being able to really grok what they mean.

Take things on the shorter end of the scale. Seconds are easily counted. We’re capable of working out how long a particular journey will take us, able to estimate how much faster it will be if we’re travelling by bicycle or car. But break the second down and it soon stretches into the theoretical. The speeding bullet or the flash of lightning travel far faster than our perception allows. Sometimes we can physically sense the difference, such as when a crack of lightning reaches our eyes before our ears, but beyond that, these events exist beyond our realm of experience.

At the other end of the spectrum, most of us find it difficult to measure things even in years. When did we move house? Was it three years ago, or four? When was that holiday to Cyprus? Five years ago? Six? We usually find little memory tricks to work out the answer, supporting our assumptions with unrelated facts (‘it was the year Jane started going to school… the Olympics were on in Beijing…’) Or we end up relying on physical evidence to corroborate the facts.

Where Dawkins really hits the nail is in how we view chance. With average lifespans under 100 years, we think relatively little of crossing roads, driving cars, climbing ladders or changing light bulbs. Accidents happen, people injure themselves and even lose their lives doing such mundane activities every day. But that only ever happens to other people. The risks are small; so small that we’re willing to take them on a daily basis. Experience teaches us the difference between perceptible and theoretical risk, the difference between the overt perils of grabbing a hot pan without oven gloves and the insidious hazards of an unhealthy diet.

Yet what would happen if we were to have natural lifespans in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of years? Those relatively slim chances of being fatally injured while crossing the road would suddenly have an entirely different dimension, given the number of times you do this in a lifetime. All of those otherwise hidden dangers, the risks we acknowledge without really understanding them, would become as clear to us as those overt dangers, since most people would come a cropper before reaching the natural limits of their lifespans.

The point is that our ability to contemplate unlikely events soon passes from the sensible to senseless. We grasp the chances of tossing heads, the likelihood of a rainy day in July. But beyond a certain limit, even the little sliver of rational thought in our minds gives way to thoughtless instinct. That one in a million chance becomes indistinguishable from impossible. A typical argument used against the theory of evolution runs along the lines that scientists have been trying to recreate the origins of life in the laboratory for decades. All their best efforts have been for nought, ergo that theory cannot possibly be true. Dozens of scientists in dozens of laboratories having been trying for dozens of years to reproduce an event that happened (at least) once across billions of planets in billions of solar systems over billions of years.

The numbers are staggeringly large, making them indistinguishable from impossible. And if not downright impossible, at least so perishingly unlikely that only with blind faith could you believe it to be true?

[Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash]

The Numerati: How they’ll get my number and yours

The NumeratiRecent springs and bounds in technology have opened the floodgates to a wealth of information that once required millions of man-hours to collect, collate, evaluate and assess, if indeed it ever happened at all. Now all of that can be handled, stored and processed by computers, constantly being fed by millions of users who are often happy to give up snippets of their information for the tiniest of benefits. But what hidden potentials lie waiting among those mountains of bits and bytes? And who are the people forging the algorithms to find those golden nuggets?

That’s what Stephen L. Baker attempts to sort out in The Numerati, a neologism he has coined for the computer scientists and mathematicians getting their hands dirty with our data. The book takes an admirably thematic approach and looks at developments across a broad spectrum of society, covering ways in which advancements have and will affect the worlds of work, commerce, politics, medicine and romance. As we increasingly rely on modern digital technology in every facet of our lives, using websites and mobile phone apps to shop, watch films, hire services, chat with friends and find romantic partners, the ways in which our data is gathered and used should become of paramount importance to us, issues which Baker repeatedly attempts to underline throughout this book.

Unfortunately there are two major problems with the way in which it is put together. The first is the nature of Baker’s writing. The journalistic style which works well for a five-page article – leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for the reader to follow as he explores a specific thread – soon becomes tiresome when padded out into the length of a book. Each chapter feels like a separate article treating the same subject from a different angle, covering the same issues in another light, and bound together for this collection. As a result, it feels like the author is often repeating himself, hammering on about the same points, whilst spinning out his yarn with frivolous descriptions of what colour tie his interviewee is wearing or what flavour coffee he’s sipping whilst waiting for his next meeting. There is an inordinate amount of filler here in what is only a slender volume.

Yet the far greater criticism of this book is the fact that Baker doesn’t really understand what he’s writing about. This may sound like harsh criticism, but it’s all part of the disarmingly honest style which is supposed to appeal to the casual reader. Baker is certainly up front about this, and I was in no way expecting the pages to be decorated with mathematical formulae. However, the author has a genuine admiration for the work his Numerati do that borders on an almost medieval fear: he treats them as if they were dabbling with arcane black magic that regular mortals would never be able to comprehend. The description of these wizards and their work thus comes across as being very superficial, and fails to deliver any meaningful content to readers who might be even vaguely familiar with the topic.

To give the author his due, his treatment of the subject is sober and balanced, pointing out the need for caution and vigilance when it comes to privacy issues and the anonymisation of data. At the same time, Baker points out the limitations of mathematical models, and the potential for mistakes in the statistical handling of large data sets. Yet he also emphasises the untapped benefits behind the collection of medical data, or for companies and employees alike in being able to combining the skills and traits of the workforce intelligently, and shows how each of us is willing to give up our as much of our personal information as necessary when it comes to finding romance.

Overall, Numerati is a somewhat wordy summary of the direction big data is changing the world in many areas. It touches on the hidden benefits that may be tapped in the future, as well as the dangers of indifference when it comes to issues of privacy and limitation. However, the chatty, journalistic style leaves this already slim work rather thin on the ground in terms of delivering information, and many people with a vague interest in the subject will learn nothing of novelty. Finally, the author’s reverential treatment of his genius Numerati, and perhaps ingenuine lack of understanding for what they do, leaves the book feeling like a case of the blind trying to lead the blind.

[Photo by Paul Bergmeir on Unsplash]

Uncommon People: Resistance, Rebellion and Jazz

Uncommon HobsbawmUncommon People is a collection of Eric Hobsbawm’s essays spanning the majority of his long career, from the 1950s to the mid-1990s. It brings together a wide range of topics, collected under four headings: The Radical Tradition, Country People, Contemporary History and Jazz.

Under “The Radical Tradition”, there are essays addressing Thomas Paine, the Luddites, the radicalism of shoemakers, the difference between labour traditions in France and Britain, the development of a distinctive working class culture, the skilled manual wage worker in Victorian moral frameworks, the iconography of male and female representations in labour movements, the origins and history of May Day as a working class celebration, the relationship between socialism and the avant-garde, and Labour Party stalwart Harold Laski.

“Country People” includes two longer essays, one providing a general overview of peasant politics, and a second study of land occupations, as well as an essay on the Sicilian Mafia.

The rubric “Contemporary History” features pieces Hobsbawm wrote while the embers were still hot, with pieces on Vietnam and guerilla warfare, May 1968, and sexual liberation. As a result they tend to feel dated, though as contemporary reports are still of interest for this very reason.

Finally, the “Jazz” section contains half a dozen reviews and short writings on Sidney Bechet, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, jazz in Europe, jazz after 1960, and jazz’s relationship with blues and rock. A final essay, slotted under this Jazz heading, was written on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in America, and highlights the oft forgotten benefits and advances this event brought about, from the notion of a Utopia, to the development of a theory of evolution, and the spread of staple foodstuffs like potatoes and maize.

The problem with this collection is that being of such a broad spectrum, only a handful of the essays are likely to appeal to the reader. Some of the pieces, particularly the shorter jazz reviews and essays, are written in an easy, affable manner, whilst many of the essays on peasant and working class movements are far more technical and heavily footnoted, and really require a background understanding to get anything from them. Nevertheless there are plenty of gems here: the essay on the Luddites amongst other machine-breaking groups highlights how the word inherited has little to do with the motivations of those people; his coverage of the development of a distinctive working class culture highlights the symbolism of something as mundane as the flat cap; whilst the essay on the Vietnam war and guerilla warfare has interesting implications for modern day conflicts such as in Afghanistan.

Page 2 of 14

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén