In the privacy of my complacency, I am pleased to count myself moderately bright – not Stephen Fry clever but, you know, able to tie my own shoelaces and read without moving my lips. So it is bracing for me to venture from time to time into areas of learning where I find myself very much the pedestrian, and the reason I do here is because I am very interested in the matter of how algorithms impact upon our lives and in the relation between artificial intelligence and human consciousness.
Rob Smith is a bona fide expert in evolutionary algorithms. He has helped create software systems that learn fighter jet manoeuvres, describe immune system behaviour, reveal emotion in financial markets and explain how social networks propagate political polarisation.
Despite their ubiquity, algorithms are not well understood by the general population. They are now so complex that nobody can properly unpack them, and they display emergent properties that no-one can predict or control. Rob Smith has written a magnificently lucid book explaining how we got here and showing what algorithms are and what they are not. Carefully delineating how they were developed, and what assumptions and prejudices underlie them, he has written a timely and engaging book for the interested layman. Me, in other words.
What is the purpose of debate? Is it to convince somebody, somewhere of something, or is it merely to undermine the other side and bolster your own prejudices?
You may have noticed that political discourse is not always conducted in a civil and measured manner. Especially when the participants are physically removed from each other, say via journalistic writing or social media. In particular, right-wing polemicists are fond of throwing around terms like ‘libtards’, and claiming to have ‘crushed’ or ‘destroyed’ their opponents. There is an unattractive swagger to the claims of some of these people to have exclusive title to the use of logic. Ben Burgis, a philosophy PhD and avowedly Marxist, thinks that the left needs to work on its debating chops.
In his feisty little book he discusses the way that the right has claimed the high ground of dispassion, and proposes approaches and tools for countering this unwarranted security. Taking aim at the traditional leftist hostility to the very notion of logic, and such right-wing bêtes noire as Ben Shapiro, Burgis takes up the cudgels on the side of the angels. “Don’t mistake this book as a plea for civility” he writes. Not much danger of that, Ben.
We all have our guilty pleasures. Mine include horror films, prog rock and, for the purposes of this interview, comic books. For me it was American super-heroes: Batman and the Fantastic Four and speech balloons screaming, “Mortal, I say thee nay!” and “Not all my power can save me!” But actually, comic books have come a long way since the cheap paper and four-colour separation of my childhood. They are glossier, they are more detailed, much better presented, and much more expensive. Joel Meadows takes a tour of some of the finest and most illustrious practitioners of the art of graphic story-telling, bearding them in their lairs – or ‘studios’ – exploring their techniques and work-spaces in a sumptuously illustrated volume. From stalwarts of the industry such as Bill Sienkiewicz and Walt Simonson to current stars like Frank Quitley and Frank Cho, he takes us right to their drawing-boards. It is a lovely book and it vividly reminds us what we liked about comic-books in the first place – the drawings.
Joel highlights some upcoming events. We will list them here as information becomes available:
A man can travel well and he can travel badly*. The hero of Randy Ross’s God Bless Cambodia is on the ‘badly’ end of the scale. At 48 Randy Burns is tired of ‘the miserable game’ (dating). He has been laid off from his job. His friends are getting paired up and unavailable to him. And then in a bookshop he comes across a travel guide that promises marvels and delights if he were to take a four month tour of the world on the cheap. It is lying. A succession of red-eye flights takes Randy through South America, Europe, Africa and the far east, searching for romance, but more often discovering that he had arrived out of season. Randy, the author, mines a rich seam of comedy in the misery of a certain kind of American man out of his comfort zone. Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson it is not. But then maybe Bill Bryson has never tried to hire a ‘money-honey’ girlfriend in Thailand. Tim talked with Randy on skype while somebody was fixing Randy’s roof. With a hammer. *Women always travel well.
When we use the word ‘philosophy’ what we usually mean is “western philosophy’. But as the philosopher and bestselling author Julian Baggini points out in his new book, western philosophy accounts for only around 20% of the world’s population. Other peoples have other philosophical traditions, and as Dr Baggini argues, the underlying philosophical assumptions inform and shape the ways we think and live, even if we never consider them.
Tim is perhaps the ideal reader for this book, insofar as he is
fairly parochial in his philosophical outlook, and he found it stimulating to
be asked to consider the bigger picture and see how other traditions chime
with, contrast with, and shine a light on the western outlook. He found it
rewarding and enlightening, and he couldn’t wait to tackle some of the issues
in conversation with the writer, and also to take up the cudgels on behalf of
“Many people ask what are Beatles? Why Beatles? We will tell you. It came in a vision – a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them ‘From this day on you are Beatles with an ‘A’. Thank you, mister man, they said, thanking him.” So wrote John Lennon, shortly before he became the most famous man on the planet.
And that’s all the background you’re getting. Tim is a self-confessed Beatles anorak. Many people have Chekhov’s Revolver on their mantelpiece, but only Tim has Stanislavski’s Sgt Pepper and Dostoevsky’s Rubber Soul as well. And he is only too delighted to delve into the minutiae of John Lennon’s life with a fellow… anorak.
There are countless Lennon biographies, which variously just map out the events of his life, or in lurid terms portray a monster, or a broken child or a grotesque. Being John Lennon is not a memoir, but a full-scale life by a man who knew Lennon well, as a friend, and shows him as a human being. Ray Connolly met the Beatles when they were making Magical Mystery Tour, and he was one of the journalists Lennon regularly turned to when he wanted to talk. And Lennon loved to talk. About the Beatles, about Paul McCartney, about Yoko Ono, about May Pang, and everything else in his life. But mostly about John Lennon.
On the personal level Tom Kirkham was already having a bad year. He was feeling his mental health wobbling. And Tom Idolised Prince. He was devastated. He felt the urgent need to do something to give his life structure and purpose. So he decided to attend a live music gig every week for the next year. Music is Tom’s balm and his passion. And with this plan he at least knew what he had to do. No matter how he felt, he had to get to that gig. Pop Life is a heartfelt, funny, ever so slightly crazed chronicle of that intense year.
John Maynard Keynes said, “Above all, let finance be primarily national.” Keynes understood the dangers of unfettered finance, and if he’d had his way the Bretton Woods system of international controls would have been still stronger. In his new book, the distinguished journalist and commentator, Robert Kuttner, writes, “Government needs to explicitly assert its right to prevent global laissez-faire forces from undermining its capacity to devise and broker a decent social compact at home.”
Kuttner’s book brilliantly sketches the construction before and after the Second World War of a system in which capitalism was effectively regulated and delivered widespread benefits, at least within the western democracies, and its dismantlement in the period since the mid-70’s. He shows with admiral lucidity how and why the free-trade shibboleths captured the centre-left and acquired the power to hugely favour a tiny and very narrow section to the disadvantage of the overwhelming majority.
We can see the results in the election of President Trump, in Brexit and in the rise of ultra-nationalist far-right parties in Europe and beyond. The dangers are obvious, and Kuttner draws disturbing parallels with the rise of fascism in the thirties. Can democracy survive? Tim was hoping to ask him that very question.
When we visit Toby Litt in his office at Birkbeck University of London he tells us that all the books in the building have had to be removed because the Georgian building can’t take the weight. All, it seems, except those in his office, which appears to be single-handedly keeping the faith. This seems right. Toby is very much a man of literature – he teaches creative writing at Birkbeck and he has published thirteen fine novels and collections of stories. But Toby’s new book is not fiction. It is by turns a meditation on his ancestry, the meaning of being a father, an examination of the neglected sport of Cumberland and Westmoreland Wrestling, an essay on writing and a treatise on masculinity. Somehow it all adds up..
You might think it eccentric to speak of a golden age of satanic possession, murderous infants, flesh-eating crustaceans and Nazi leprechauns, but for enthusiasts of paperback horror novels, the 70’s and 80’s were the glory days. This was a time of the most lurid nightmares spawned, it seemed, from the very bowels of Hell. This was a time when books were proud to be horror rather than ‘chiller’ or ‘thriller’, and when the word Satan on the cover was a guarantee of sales (even if there was nothing supernatural inside). Grady Hendrix has written a hugely entertaining history and celebration of this splendid time. We talked to Grady via skype from a restaurant kitchen in downtown New York. At least that’s where he said he was… we haven’t visited our basement since. Continue reading →