30 October 2014

The joys of the mechanical pencil

People who write notes in ink must be very sure of their thoughts. I write notes in pencil: it seems more polite. Penciled notes are always provisional and erasable. But the apparent humility — or, perhaps, smug performance of humility — in my choice of penciling is counterbalanced by the fact that I eschew the humble wooden pencil. I must have a mechanical pencil, the kind you click to advance the lead. And when I say “a mechanical pencil,” you should know that I mean “lots of mechanical pencils.”

Read the rest at the Atlantic.

22 September 2014

Why we’re not as irrational as the nudgers want us to think

Humanity’s achievements and its self-perception are today at curious odds. We can put autonomous robots on Mars and genetically engineer malarial mosquitoes to be sterile. Yet the news lately from popular psychology, neuroscience, economics, and other fields is that we are not as rational as we like to assume. We are prey to a dismaying variety of hard-wired errors, and prefer winning to being right. At best, so the story goes, our faculty of reason is at constant war with an irrational darkness within. At worst, we should abandon the attempt to be rational altogether.

Yet the modern thesis of severely compromised rationality is more open to challenge and reinterpretation than many of its followers accept. And its eager adoption by today’s governments threatens social consequences that many might find undesirable. A culture that accepts on faith the idea that its citizens are not reliably competent reasoners will treat those citizens differently than a culture that respects their reflective autonomy. Which kind of culture do we want to be? Continued →

18 September 2014

This Changes Everything: Capitalism v the Climate, by Naomi Klein (Allen Lane)

Right-wing deniers of the robust findings of modern atmospheric science sometimes claim that the whole idea of global warming is just a front. What “warmers”, as they call them, really want is allegedly not just a sharp reduction in fossil-fuel emissions but a wholesale socioeconomic transition to tree-hugging socialism. Such cynics will be gladdened by Naomi Klein’s new book. For in it she does explicitly argue that the present “climate emergency” provides an excellent excuse for global revolution.

Read the rest at the New Statesman.

13 September 2014

Meeting Murakami

“Strange things happen in this world,” Haruki Murakami says. “You don’t know why, but they happen.” It could be a guiding motto for all of his fiction, but he is talking specifically about a minor character in his new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. The character is a jazz pianist who seems to have made a pact with death, and is able to see people’s auras.

“Why that pianist can see the colours of people, I don’t know,” Murakami muses. “It just happens.” Novels in general, he thinks, benefit from a certain mystery. “If the very important secret is not solved, then readers will be frustrated. That is not what I want. But if a certain kind of secret stays secret, it’s a very sound curiosity. I think readers need it.”

The world’s most popular cult novelist is sipping coffee in the sunny library of an Edinburgh hotel, which – perhaps disappointingly for admirers of his more fantastical yarns – is not reached through a labyrinthine network of subterranean tunnels. Murakami is relaxed and affable, rather than forbiddingly gnomic. “I’m not mysterious!” he says, laughing.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

4 September 2014

Personal, by Lee Child (Bantam Press)

Someone has taken a shot. At the president of France. In Paris. With a sniper rifle. Like in The Day of the Jackal. But it wasn’t Edward Fox. And it wasn’t Jack Reacher. Someone else. Who was it? And why? Those are some questions. And Reacher is going to find the answers. By fighting some men. And shooting them. With his bare hands. And some bullets. Jack Reacher.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

30 August 2014

The novelist David Mitchell doesn’t believe in the death of the book. “Books take hundreds of years to disappear, once they’re printed. That’s just a fact, isn’t it?” he says, mock quizzically. “But the internet, that depends on a network of power grids. That’s not a matter of opinion. And those grids depend on energy sources. That isn’t just some liberal sandal-wearing Guardian attitude.” He smiles. And as the oil and gas run out, he asks, “Where is the energy coming from?”

That is one of the questions powering Mitchell’s new book, The Bone Clocks, which is possibly his best novel yet. True to form, it features a set of interlocking stories in multiple genres. There is a teenage girl running away from home in the 1980s, a sociopathic Oxford undergraduate cavorting in the early 90s, the story of a war reporter, a literary satire about a novelist and his critic enemy, and an epilogue of dystopian near-future science fiction, with civilisation retreating in a global “Endarkenment”. Irrupting into these stories, meanwhile, is a supernatural war. The good guys are a group of people who get reincarnated 49 days after they die, with full knowledge of their past lives. The bad guys achieve a kind of pseudo-immortality – they stop ageing, but can still be killed by violence or accident – by murdering psychic children, “decanting” their souls into an evil wine. “A book can’t be a half-fantasy any more than a woman can be half-pregnant,” a literary agent in the novel says, not having read this one.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

16 July 2014

Live for the moment. Be spontaneous. Be free and happy. Don’t worry about the future. Act as though it’s your last day on earth. Such is one modern conception of the good life. Adverts encourage us to drop everything and jet off for a city break at the last moment, or to walk at random into a bar where we are sure to meet a new gang of stock-photo besties, all ostentatiously sipping the same brand of transparent liquor. People are reluctant to make concrete social arrangements, so just say, “Text me.” Serendipity is our friend; planning is for losers. “Spontaneity” is rhetorically offered as the reason to celebrate both online social media and last-minute travel bucket shops.

It hardly seems to matter that anyone who really acted according to this ideology would be a kind of sociopath. Truly living in the moment and embracing utter spontaneity would render you, for instance, unable to make and keep promises, or to formulate any kind of plan for helping yourself or others. You’d turn into someone like the amusing but oddly disturbing character Old Merrythought in Francis Beaumont’s play The Knight of the Burning Pestle (recently revived to hilarious effect at the Globe in London). Merrythought spends all his time singing and drinking ale, because he assumes there will always be meat on the table come dinnertime. Being so spontaneous would make you, in short, a fantastically annoying and irresponsible flibbertigibbet.

Why, then, is the dream of spontaneity so attractive?

Read the rest at the New Statesman.

4 May 2014

Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why, by Scott Weems (Basic Books)
Humour: A Very Short Introduction, by Noël Carroll (Oxford)

Trying to explain a joke has long been considered a paradigm of pedantic futility. That hasn’t stopped thinkers through the ages erecting vast and subtle theories of comedy. But none of them had brain-scanners. Perhaps cognitive neuroscientist Scott Weems can explain once and for all why Louis CK is funny and David Cameron isn’t.

Very early on, the book’s ultramodern tone is set. We are invited to agree that no one could ever have properly known anything about a complex sociocultural phenomenon before lab volunteers started being rolled gently into fMRI tubes. “Humour has some very clear ingredients,” Weems says, “ones that science is just now beginning to reveal.” That sounds exciting. Let’s see what they are. When people in scanners found certain cartoons funny, Weems explains, various parts of their brains increased in activation, and those parts are associated with the “dopamine reward circuit”. What does this reveal to us about the nature of humour? Sweet FA, unless it had never occurred to you that it is pleasurable to be amused. The “dopamine reward circuit”, according to other studies, also gets a jolly workout from cocaine, chocolate and video games. So: nothing new about humour here.

Read the rest at the Guardian.