Book Review: Dear Mr Pop Star

For nearly ten years the author(s) going by the names Derek and Dave Philpott wrote letters to pop stars querying the lyrics of well known songs. They started to put these on a website that grew in popularity. Then the pop stars started writing back. This book is a compilation of their one hundred best missives. While many respondents appear incredulous at the points the Philpotts raise, they mostly answer in the spirit of the endeavour. The correspondence is pedantically bonkers but amusing.

As an example, Derek Philpott writes to Lindisfarne explaining in some detail why he must decline the invitation to have a pint or two, and pointing out that fog cannot belong to one person only. In response it is explained how ownership of airbourne precipitation in the Newcastle area has been claimed over the years. Should Derek wish to meet for a drink on a Friday night he is assured:

“Lindisfarne are advocates of responsible drinking, i.e. you have to get your round in”

Many of the letters reference the pop star’s other songs making the book an entertaining challenge for aficionados as they try to place track titles or lyrics.

There is an excellent culinary response from Mark Nevin for Fairground Attraction when Derek explains how a recent dinner party was a resounding success despite not being perfect.

Gerard Casale, founder of Devo, salutes Derek’s astute insight and then states:

“De-evolution is real and you are there on the frontline helping to prove it.”

The answers provided can be as bizarre as the questions asked. Some recipients appear perplexed, others serious if surreal. The Philpotts take the lyrics from bygone hits both personally and literally. Owen Paul is told, since he asked:

“My favourite waste of time in the 80s was standing on the terraces at Brentford, and in the 90s watching England in the Euros”

A precis of the reply would be that time enjoyed is never time wasted. The Philpotts do not state if the football alluded to provided any such pleasure, surely an omission requiring clarification.

Part of the pleasure of reading the letters is remembering the songs under scrutiny. I also enjoyed that the Philpotts ignored all the sexual innuendo and metaphor, demanding elucidation of scrutable meanings.

Several of the pop stars mention that the letter received was not the first. One requested:

“please lose my address”

This is a book that should be dipped into and perhaps shared. The format does not change so reading too much at once risks repetition. There are nuggets to be enjoyed from many well known names as well as a few perhaps forgotten despite their songs remaining familiar. Derek Philpott is ‘a character’, in all its meanings.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author(s).

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Book Review: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

This review was written for and first published on Bookmunch.

“These lessons do not conclude with simple answers. They aim to stimulate further thinking, and help readers participate in some of the major conversations of our time.”

Unlike many commentators, Yuval Noah Harari presents his premises, thoughts and conclusions in calm, measured language that takes into account the wider causes and effects of topics discussed. He states that criticisms made within these pages are not condemnation but rather a study of flaws followed by attempts to work out how a situation may be improved. History has shown that opinions are easily swayed by the repetition of clever rhetoric. Here he encourages a more considered approach from all.

“Humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers or equations, and the simpler the story, the better.”

As the title suggests, the book is divided into twenty-one lessons, each covering a significant contemporary subject. These are grouped into five broad topics, opening with The Technological Challenge.

The tools governments use to bolster their power include the threat of war but also, increasingly, machine learning. Data harvesting and the growth of decision making algorithms are the future. Machines, algorithms, may not always get it right, they don’t have to. They just have to be better than humans.

“Humans were always far better at inventing tools than using them wisely.”

Automation in the hands of a benign government may be an improvement but few governments are benign.

“We are unlikely to face a robot rebellion in the coming decades, but we might have to deal with hordes of bots who know how to press our emotional buttons […] The bots could identify our deepest fears, hatreds and cravings, and use these inner leverages against us.”

At an individual level the author writes of the changing job market and how large swathes of the population could find themselves longer lived but unemployable due to a lack of relevant skills in a global economy that increasingly relies on AI.

“Trump and Brexit were supported by many people […] who feared they were losing their economic worth.”

“It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.”

Revolutions in biotechnology and information technology require fresh visions. He asks how we update: liberalism, nationalism, religion.

Following on from the political challenge are chapters on despair and hope. Terrorism, war and God are discussed followed by the impact of ignorance and fake news. Humans, he opines, prefer power to truth.

“If we are not careful, we will end up with downgraded humans misusing upgraded computers to wreak havoc on themselves and on the world.”

On nationalism the author suggests that countries offering so called universal support provide it only within their own borders. This can lead to resentment of immigrants manifesting as culturalism more often than racism. Those who champion liberty and equality need to define for whom and in what form. Globalisation means the victims of automation may live elsewhere.

The global problems considered include: nuclear war, ecological meltdown, climate change, technological disruption. There are repeated references to religion, described as the handmaid of modern nationalism. Mass cooperation can be manipulated by belief in shared fictions.

There is a plea for greater humility. Every creed and culture claims they are the foundation and lynchpin of civilisation. The author delves into his own upbringing as a Jew now living in Israel. He explores the hypocrisy of proponents cherry picking elements of their revered stories to bolster behaviours they wish to enforce.

Due to the same premises and arguments cropping up within many of the lessons, the further into the book one reads the more repetition is encountered. What starts out as impressively calm and precise fact seeking, a search for sense rather than sensation, concludes on a personal journey that demonstrates the author’s privilege.

There are flaws, perhaps minor but irritating. As an example, he asks: why would a robot (AI) have a gender? Perhaps had he read To Be A Machine, in which a male engineer is greatly looking forward to the day when he may own a programmable ‘woman’, he would have a broader grasp of the depressing continuation of such human desires which markets will therefore service.

The lessons have been drawn from essays previously published in the media which the author has collated and reworked to provide a concise and readable study of global problems man faces today alongside those he should be preparing for. There is little new or surprising, rather it enables the reader to focus without the usual partisan bluster.

Any Cop?: The broad scope limits the depth available for each topic. Nevertheless, the content is thought provoking and therefore provides worthwhile reading. Such measured and balanced views are rare in our click bait culture.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: In Search of Lost Books

In Search of Lost Books: The forgotten stories of eight mythical volumes, by Giorgio van Straten (translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre), documents the author’s research into and thoughts on how allegedly missing manuscripts from renowned writers came to disappear. Some are assumed lost due to accidental fire or theft, others destroyed by their creator or at the wish of surviving family. Reasons are myriad and it is the musings on these that form the basis of this work.

How important, really, is any piece of writing? The author states this view:

“The right to protect individuals is sacrosanct, but so is the need to preserve works of literature”

Poignantly, the daughter of one of the writers featured, Sylvia Plath, wrote in a 1997 poem of the appropriation of her mother’s memory by literary commentators who speak as if they had known Plath despite never having met her. Such is the interest and affinity generated by certain literary works.

There are thoughts on ownership and control of written words, of censorship due to the culture of the time along with protection of life and legacy. A memoir written by Byron is suspected destroyed due to its reveal of his homosexuality at a time when this was regarded as more shameful than incest. It would not only have been his reputation that was affected but also those of the men he had had affairs with.

Scholars grow excited at the idea of the rediscovery of writing assumed lost forever. When pages do emerge there are concerns over authenticity.

The book sets down known facts alongside rumour and conjecture. One writer featured, Malcolm Lowry, is reported as having destroyed the manuscript of his second book when he could not achieve the desired perfection. He wished to write an incomparable masterpiece. Such was his conceit that he preferred not to publish rather than submit a lesser work. Of his first book it is stated:

“It was praised superlatively and attacked; vilified by reactionary critics and admired in the most progressive literary circles.”

How familiar this sounds. There are certain books one is supposed to revere to be considered discerning. Opinion may be subjective but will be judged by the self professed experts and their acolytes.

As a lover of literature but one without qualification I found this book fascinating yet its supposition a little frustrating. There are so many fabulous books in existence, is the loss of a few such a calamity? From an academic perspective there may be unanswered questions. Completists may mourn a possible gap in their collection. A reader can always find some other book to read.

An interesting exploration of the reasons manuscripts disappear alongside aspects of writers’ lives and their proclivities. It is succinct and engaging. The importance of the missing works is perhaps a different conversation.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: Lion’s Honey

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Canongate Myth Series is promoted as a series of short novels in which ancient myths from myriad cultures are reimagined and rewritten by contemporary authors. Its focus is intended to be international with writers from a variety of countries invited to participate. Lion’s Honey is the contribution from Man Booker International Prize winner David Grossman who is Israeli. Translated by Stuart Schoffman it promises ‘a provocative new take’ on the biblical story of Samson.

Unfortunately this is not a retelling of a myth but rather a study of the biblical text that strongly implies it is being read as a fact based historical account. There is much cross referencing with writing from the Torah and from Jewish academics. The author picks his way through the tale seeking proof of desired notions rather than as one aiming to enlighten with carefully detached reasoning.

The book opens with a reprinting of the story of Samson from The Authorised King James version of the bible: The Book of Judges, chapters 13-16. This makes for rather dry reading. A foreword then explains that ‘Samson the hero’ is what every Jewish child learns to call the protagonist, despite the fact he was a muscle bound murderer prone to lust and whoring who ended his life as perhaps the first recorded suicide killer. Grossman portrays him as an artist yearning for love. I struggled to agree with the arguments presented for this portrayal.

Key incidents in the story are dissected and debated. Where the author claims a sensuous side I saw attention seeking and licentiousness. Where he tries to depict women letting Samson down I observed how badly he treated them. Samson came across as petulant and bullying; a much desired child, perhaps over indulged by his parents, who subsequently used his immense strength to wreak destruction when he did not get his own way.

As an example, Samson decides he will marry a Philistine he is attracted to, not one of his own people. Despite their misgivings his parents agree to this plan. At the wedding Samson, in a show of one-upmanship, sets his guests an impossible riddle that results in bad feeling and a deadly threat made against his new in-laws. Naturally this upsets the bride. When she asks her husband for the solution to the riddle he berates her, stating he has not even told his parents. Thus her secondary importance in his life is made clear before the wedding celebrations are even complete. That she subsequently acts to save her family is hardly a surprise. Following this Samson shows how vicious he can be, killing strangers and burning the community’s newly harvested crops. The author writes of the hero’s yearning for love. Such barbarism is hardly conducive to a loving marital relationship.

Continuing on the theme of love and a desire for intimacy, questions are posed about why Samson visits a whore. This seemed naive – surely such reasons are obvious. The author sees confusion and emotional need in Samson’s interest in the Philistines. I saw natural curiosity in the world outside a narrow culture. That Samson kept encountering rejections speaks to me of his behaviour around others which, when detailed, is rarely worthy of esteem.

Of course, instead of trying to make sense of an historical figure one could read the story of Samson as a myth and allow that the more extreme events detailed are included to add colour and enhance the telling of the tale. Where this treatise falls short is the apparent seriousness with which the biblical text is being read and certain religious interpretations accepted.

Any Cop?: Lion’s Honey does not sit easily within a series of evocative story retelling. Even as a study I found it unconvincing.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: To Be a Machine

To Be a Machine, by Mark O’Connell, won the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize, one of my favourite literary accolades. It introduces the reader to transhumanism, a movement that aims, by various means, to allow humans to defeat the problem of aging and thereby death. As part of his investigation the author attended events and interviewed proponents of strands of the movement. Their faith in science and zeal to keep themselves alive is akin to a religion albeit with eternal life possible for those who can pay rather than as a reward for particular behaviours.

The first strand discussed is cryogenics which brought to mind ancient Egyptian burial rituals. Corpses are treated to prevent further decay and then stored in the hope that they may one day be reanimated in some new form, a type of reincarnation. Those who cannot afford the full body treatment are decapitated with a view to uploading only the brain. Promoters of this process regard the essence of a person as data, although how they hope to extract this data from the dead is unclear. They believe that the technology will one day be developed. I wondered why they thought future people would see value in bringing back to life those who had demonsrated a god complex.

“The mind is much more than information”

“brains constantly reorganise themselves, both physically and functionally, as a result of actual experience”

The brain is dynamic and there is as yet no precise scientific definition of consciousness. Those who rail against the frailty of their bodies, who wish to develop something more long lasting, regard humans as machines that require an upgrade. They wish to find a way to store the data in their brains that this may be moved elsewhere, enhanced and rejuvenated. The author ponders if only the mega wealthy would be able to afford a version that was ad free.

“I was increasingly aware of the extent to which my movements in the world were mediated and circumscribed by corporations whose only real interest was in reducing the lives of human beings to data, as a means to further reducing us to profit.”

The discussion moves on to the dangers of developing a super-intelligent machine that would view man in the way man now views animals, a useful resource to be farmed for the machine’s benefit. Unlike man, machines bear no malice, hatred or desire for vengeance.

“The fundamental risk […] was not that superintelligent machines may be actively hostile towards their human creators, or antecedents, but that they would be indifferent.”

In creating these machines we would be creating our successors, rendering ourselves obsolete (in 1863 Samual Butler wrote something similar in light of the industrial revolution – these ideas are not new, merely updated in the language of the computer age).

“Once we can automate computer science research and AI research the feedback loop closes and you start having systems that can themselves build better systems”

“It is unreasonable to think that machines could become nearly as intelligent as we are and then stop”

Caution is advised when creating machines and then setting them tasks. Ask a machine to obliterate cancer and it will obliterate every being that could suffer the disease. Harmful behaviours are intrinsic in goal driven systems. Living requires managing risk but it has yet to be worked out how to teach this to an acceptable level to a machine.

The author attends a show put on by those who fund research into robotic development. Many of the developers and those who fund them are based around Silicon Valley, watched closely by the Pentagon. Tasks set for the robots are obviously aimed at producing machines that could be utilised in war zones.

“This is what we did as a species, after all: we built ingenious devices, and we destroyed things.”

Watching as the robots attempt to complete their tasks, it is clear that whilst machines could easily defeat adult humans in intelligence tests, they struggled to match the skills of a one year old in perception and mobility. These robots are

“an instrument of human perversity, in the service of power and money and war.”

It was noted that Amazon are amongst those funding research into robotic development. Unlike human workers, robots do not need breaks, do not complain or form unions.

The author returns to the transhumanists, comparing their fundamentalism with religion. I pondered if heaven was invented because people couldn’t bear the idea of loved ones, including themselves, no longer existing anywhere, and if hell then followed as a means to coerce them into following codes of conduct prescribed by those who would thereby benefit. Religions tend to be overseen by men.

One of the young men talked of looking forward to the development of sexbots, always available for his pleasure and would never cheat on him. The vast majority of those involved in the movement were white and male.

Certain transhumanists look to a future when man as machine may go forth and colonise space – a new type of empire building.

“This is one of the problems with reality: the extent to which it resembles bad fiction.”

The writing style is thoughtful, informative and often humorous. There are many absurdities raised. Transhumanists cannot seem to comprehend how anyone could accept death as inevitable. They do not within these pages address the problem of overpopulation.

This is a fascinating and accessible read that raises many interesting questions. It is hard to comprehend why so many supposedly intelligent individuals have become involved in particular aspects of the research given where it leads. It is worrying to think that possible upgrades may further increase the inequalities in western capitalist society. Funded by the war makers and hyper wealthy, this may not be of any concern to them.

This book is published by Granta. My copy was borrowed from my local library.

Book Review: Brexit & Ireland

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

The United Kingdom’s European Union membership referendum of 23 June 2016 did not go as expected. By a slim majority those of the UK electorate who voted, chose to leave the EU. Since then there has been continuous emotional outrage and rhetoric published in the mainstream media and on social media. Much of this has centred on the personal and economic impact of limiting immigration and the apparent enfranchisement some now assert to openly voice their horrifying xenophobia.

There is, of course, more to it than this. The EU is, amongst other things, a behemoth of bureaucracy. Its increasing federal powers have over the years been the subject of much criticism. Since the referendum vote, the EU’s positive aspects have been much vaunted by those appalled at the prospect of Brexit. Yet because a country leaving the EU is unprecedented, the longer term impact can still only be guessed at.

Brexit & Ireland is written from the latter country’s point of view. Physically, historically and economically close they have been European allies since they both joined what was the EEC in 1973. The two countries recognise many bilateral agreements. Since the Good Friday Agreement brought an end to The Troubles in 1998, the island of Ireland has effectively functioned as one unit, albeit with differing laws and currency north and south. The difficulties to be overcome if the UK leaves the EU while Ireland stays is the subject of this book.

Although it is refreshingly educative to read a calm and balanced account of the potential political and economic issues – rather than the personal – raised by Brexit, the detail makes for rather dry reading. Around half of the text explains the challenges faced by sectors that work across the border and with the UK. These include: agriculture and fishing; food processing and distribution; just in time supply to supermarkets across the Irish Sea. Horse racing and breeding gets a mention as does medical research and the pharmaceutical industry. It is not just goods that benefit from unhindered travel but also a workforce, tourists and students.

Ireland was well aware early on in the process of the difficulties it would have to overcome, yet was hindered by the EU’s stance on negotiations with the UK. If Ireland wishes to remain within the EU then it must abide by EU rules and timetables. After Brexit, the UK wishes to continue to trade without borders but will not accept free movement of people from the entire EU, or the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Other EU member states demand that the UK be punished for daring to leave – they will not countenance allowing the UK to ‘have their cake and eat it’.

A key issue for Ireland is to maintain the peace within the island and this requires that the border remain simply a line on a piece of paper, not a series of cumbersome controls that may require the military to enforce. The EU states that it supports the peace process yet refuses to consider a customs and tariff free arrangement with a country unwilling to pay to be a part of its existing agreements.

“Tusk and his team were eager to help Ireland. But other member states suspected that by being too flexible on the Irish border, they were playing into the hands of the British. Concessions given to Ireland might just suit the British as well.”

“The EU is an historic political project whose future is at stake”

“allowing the UK to have their cake and eat it […] would destroy the European Union”

There are many other borders between EU and non EU countries in the world. Those that function efficiently rely on mutual cooperation. There is reluctance within the EU to allow what Ireland and the UK would benefit from, but other disputed territories, such as Gibraltar or Cyprus, worry that Brexit would set a precedent that they are unwilling to accept.

The author’s access to key documents and political discussion highlights the intransigence over issues which reminded me of the loyalist and republican viewpoints I had to listen to growing up in Belfast. Each side felt justified in their stance, claiming that lack of progress was entirely the other’s fault. It is a comparison that strikes fear given where it led back then.

When it takes a group of EU negotiators two weeks to agree to the wording of a single paragraph in a document, and this can then be thrown out by the DUP unhappy at the suggestion of a border running down the Irish Sea, it is no surprise that little progress is being made. With Theresa May beholden to the DUP since the last UK General Election,

“the unionist and nationalist views on any particular issue come to the fore, rather than the collective interests of Northern Ireland.”

The numerous pages dedicated to the economic difficulties of Brexit are eclipsed by potential damage to the peace process if the EU demands a hard border.

“Peace and prosperity is underlined by the free movement of goods and services.”

“We need to look at the border in isolation and to look for bespoke solutions.”

This does not please certain EU member states.

“Pressure will come on the Commission to balance the wishes of the UK and Ireland and the political wishes of the other 26 leaders around the Council table.”

The author highlights potential positives for Ireland from Brexit but these rely on global businesses being willing to relocate there. Ireland is in competition with other EU countries wishing to attract businesses that will leave a UK that is not in the EU.  Unsubstantiated claims have been made by competitors that Dublin does not have the necessary infrastructure, housing or quality education. Without the UK to support them in EU decision making, Ireland is losing out.

Irish businesses who would be hit by punitive cross border EU custom and tariff regimes could ask for transitional aid from their government to enable them to move business operations south, but the EU is ‘notoriously strict on state aid’. Many businesses rely on the land so moving is not an option.

The final chapter covers a round of negotiations on the details of Brexit and highlights the difficulties of dealing with a notoriously slow moving organisation that scrutinises every detail, fearing a chink in the armour it is building.

“Theresa May was effectively saying ‘if it weren’t for the European Union being so pesky about the four freedoms and things like that, then we wouldn’t have this problem.’”

What comes out of this book is that it is more complex than this, but made more so by the self protecting intransigence of an unwieldy organisation fighting for its survival.

Any Cop?: This is as detailed and factual a perspective as I have read about Brexit. The UK is entering unchartered waters without a map or visible compass. Ireland has clearly stated that it has no wish to follow. Without more flexible support from the remaining EU members, staying may prove untenable.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Under the Knife

Under the Knife: The History of Surgery in 28 Remarkable Operations, by Arnold van de Laar, offers an eye watering, riveting, always accessible account of surgical techniques and development from biblical times through to the present day. The operations detailed focus on well known names – figureheads, tyrants and celebrities – as well as the medical practitioners who pioneered new practices, mostly without anaesthetic. Along the way technical terms commonly used by doctors are explained.

With the benefit of hindsight the unhygienic conditions that prevailed for so long may horrify, as will recurring treatments such as blood letting. For centuries surgeons and doctors were regarded separately, each developing their skills but rarely working together. Progress was sometimes accidental with a key observation or new practice ridiculed by peers until accepted by a high profile patient.

“in the Middle Ages common sense was obscured by tradition. Rather than looking at the results of their actions, our medieval forefathers would follow what some great predecessor had written in an ancient book.”

The Hippocratic Oath, historically taken by medical students as a step towards qualifying as a doctor, used to contain the line ‘I will not cut for stone’, implying that such dangerous practices as lithotomy – stone cutting – should be left to experts. The first operation detailed in the book involves a Dutch man who ignored this advice and, in desperation, cut out his own bladder stone at home. It was larger than a chicken’s egg and somehow he survived. The formation of such stones is explained as is the more standard operation to remove them and how this has changed over the years. Bladder stones are caused by bacteria. What was once an everyday complaint is now rare.

Treatment for asphyxia – problems with breathing – is then explored by detailing treatment of a very famous patient following a shooting – President John F. Kennedy. As we know he did not survive, following in the footsteps of the first president of the United States, George Washington, who suffocated after his doctors refused to perform a tracheotomy – a cut into the windpipe to allow air into the lungs. This and similar treatments are described along with when and why they may be needed.

Further chapters cover other common complaints: wound healing, including reasons for circumcision; shock, which in medical terms means a failure of the blood’s circulatory system; obesity and its complications, recurrent amongst popes over the years; fracture; varicose veins and other problems caused when our ancestors decided to walk on two legs; peritonitis, which killed Harry Houdini; narcosis and the introduction of anaesthetics for which Queen Victoria was thankful; gangrene; aneurysm; castration; hernia; stroke and more.

Bob Marley died because his religion forbade him from accepting required treatment. Alan Shepard became the fifth man to walk on the moon thanks to a placebo. Lenin suffered multiple strokes throughout his life, the causes and effects of which likely contributed to making him the tyrant he became, although he may have been felled due to lead poisoning from a bullet that remained in his body following a shooting years previously.

As well as detailing key operations, methods of diagnosis are discussed along with complications that can arise due to surgical error. Successful surgeons can become much sought after, especially by those willing and able to pay. Michael DeBakey was one such man in the twentieth century. Described as a maestro by his famous patients he enjoyed to the full his reputation and fame. Nevertheless he dismissed an assistant’s concern during an operation and did not follow through when the patient, the deposed Shah of Iran, developed worrying post operative symptoms which ultimately led to the former leader’s death.

“great surgeons can sometimes make a mistake. Complications are, after all, part and parcel of operations and the risk of problems can never be counted out, no matter how great you are.”

Each of the twenty-eight chapters offers a fascinating insight into surgical developments and subsequent treatment. They are written with sympathy and wit in a style that enables lay readers to understand and learn more about doctor’s reasoning, vernacular and limitations.

For anyone interested in little known medical issues suffered by the famous over the centuries, in how their own body functions and the work of those who may be called upon to keep it going, this is a well structured, digestible, recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, John Murray, via Bookbridgr