Monday 16 March, 2020

Quarantine reading

If (as seems possible) some of us are going to be confined to barracks for a substantial period, it would make sense to lay in a stock of useful reading material. There’s always the final volume of Hillary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, of course. But for non-fiction addicts here’s a list of some books that, in one way or another, shed light on our current crisis. It’s worth remembering that (a) we’ve been here before, and (b) that pandemics hold up a mirror to human nature — and to society.

Albert Camus, The Plague
Published in 1947, this modern classic tells the story of a plague sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran. It asks a number of questions relating to the nature of destiny and the human condition. The characters in the book, ranging from doctors to holidaymakers to fugitives, all show the effects the plague has on a populace. Though set in the 1940s, the book is believed to be based on the cholera epidemic that killed a large percentage of Oran’s population in 1849 following French colonisation.

I was struck by a Guardian essay about the book by my Observer colleague, Ed Vulliamy, in 2015 during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. “Most of us read The Plague as teenagers”, he wrote,

and we should all read it again. And again: for not only are all humankind’s responses to death represented in it, but now – with the advent of Ebola – the book works on the literal as well as metaphorical level.

Camus’s story is that of a group of men, defined by their gathering around and against the plague. In it we encounter the courage, fear and calculation that we read or hear in every story about West Africa’s efforts to curtail and confront Ebola; through its narrator, Dr Rieux, we can identify with the hundreds of Cuban doctors who went immediately to the plague’s Ground Zero, and those such as the Scottish nurse currently fighting for her life at the Royal Free Hospital in London.

Adam Kucharski, The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread and Why They Stop. Published earlier this year. The author is a mathematician who works at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where he works on the mathematical analysis of infectious disease outbreaks. The book uncovers the underlying principles that drive contagion, from infectious diseases and online misinformation to gun violence and financial crises. It explains what makes things spread, why outbreaks look like they do, and how we can change what happens in future. It’s beautifully — and clearly — written (I’m reading it at the moment and can testify to that.) Funnily enough, I ordered it before COVID-19 hit the news, because I’m interested in the way that memes and conspiracy theories spread virally online. Serendipity rules OK.

Frank Snowden: Epidemics and Society: from the Black Death to the present, Yale, 2016. A real big-picture, long-view work of historical scholarship. examines the ways in which disease outbreaks have altered the societies through which they have spread — shaping politics, crushing revolutions, and entrenching racial and economic discrimination, affecting personal relationships, the work of artists and intellectuals, and the man-made and natural environments. Gigantic in scope, stretching across centuries and continents, Snowden’s account also seeks to explain the ways in which social structures have allowed diseases to flourish. “Epidemic diseases are not random events that afflict societies capriciously and without warning,” he writes. “On the contrary, every society produces its own specific vulnerabilities”. The New Yorker recently published an interview with Snowden which explores these questions. One passage in the conversation particularly stood out for me:

Epidemics are a category of disease that seem to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are. That is to say, they obviously have everything to do with our relationship to our mortality, to death, to our lives. They also reflect our relationships with the environment—the built environment that we create and the natural environment that responds. They show the moral relationships that we have toward each other as people, and we’re seeing that today.

If you’re settling down for a long quarantine, this book will keep you absorbed for quite a while.

Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, Souvenir Press, 2011. A masterpiece of investigative reporting. Shilts covered the AIDS epidemic from 1982 for The San Francisco Chronicle, the only US newspaper willing to give its full attention to the epidemic. He traced the roots of AIDS beginning in 1976 to two events and focussing on the mysterious illness of a Danish physician working in Africa. Before the virus even had a name, it had leapt across continents and destroyed communities, while the world stood idly by. It was, after all, a disease that affected ‘only’ gay men. There are lots of echoes of the Trump Administration in Stilts’s account. Like the present President, Ronald Reagan’s budget cuts affected the programs that needed funding for the necessary research. His Administration also dismissed scientists, thereby delaying the discovery of pharmacological defences. Remind you of anyone? Other culprits include: the businesses whose decisions to keep blood banks unaccountable and bathhouses liberated helped to spread the disease; mainstream media, for its reluctance to report AIDS; and the blasé attitudes of political officials, public health authorities, and community leaders. There are heroes in this story too, of course. But somehow it’s the villains we remember. Will it be any different this time?

Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year. Although a novel published in 1722, it’s really an early example of imaginative journalistic reportage. It’s an account of one man’s experiences of the year 1665, in which the bubonic plague struck the city of London. It’s presented as an eyewitness account of the events at the time, but Defoe was only five years old in 1665, and the book itself was published under the initials H. F. and is probably based on the journals of Defoe’s uncle, Henry Foe, who lived in London and survived the plague. It’s still a vivid read.

Dorothy Crawford, The Invisible Enemy: A Natural History of Viruses Published in 2000, this is an overview of the viruses that have wreaked havoc in the past. She looks at the havoc viruses have caused in the past, where they have come from, and the detective work involved in uncovering them. Finally, she considers whether a new virus could potentially wipe out the human race. It’s informative and readable. James Meek wrote an informative review of it for the London Review of Books in 2001.

Richard J. Evans, Death in Hamburg – Society and Politics in the Cholera Years 1830-1910 A terrific study by a formidable historian of the way Hamburg reacted when it was hit in 1892 by cholera.

Allan M. Brandt, No Magic Bullet – a social history of venereal disease in the United States since 1880 In a way, this book has echoes of the story told in Randy Shilts’s book on AIDS. Brandt demonstrates that Americans’ concerns about venereal disease have centered around a set of social and cultural values related to sexuality, gender, ethnicity, and class. At the heart of our efforts to combat these infections, he argues, has been the tendency to view venereal disease as both a punishment for sexual misconduct and an index of social decay. This tension between medical and moral approaches has significantly impeded efforts to develop “magic bullets”–drugs that would rid us of the disease–as well as effective policies for controlling the infections’ spread.



Scott Adams has a new book out. Note the subtitle. Blurb reads:

Even the smartest and most educated among us can slip into ‘loserthink,’ since we haven’t been exposed to the best thinking practices in every discipline. Psychologists, engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, historians, and artists, for example, all see the world through different filters. If we don’t understand the basics of those filters, we’re likely to fall into loserthink. Some signs you’ve succumbed to loserthink include: inability to get your ego out of your decisions, thinking with words instead of reasons, failing to imagine alternative explanations, trusting your preferred news sources, and making too much of coincidences. And with the never-ending stream of urgent notifications on your phone and anger on your social media feeds, it’s easy to feel miserable, defensive, anxious, poor, and sick. But Adams offers a cure for loserthink by teaching you the most productive thinking practices from a variety of disciplines. In this book, you will learn how to… Recognise the walls of your own mental prison and break out. Understand the world in a way you have never seen it before. Be among the most perceptive and respected thinkers in every conversation. Your bubble of reality doesn’t have to be a prison. This book will show you how to break free.

Autumn books

In one of my periodic attempts to impose order on my study I rounded up all the books I have been

  • reading
  • reviewing
  • need to read for work
  • want to read for pleasure

And, having done so, wondered about my sanity.

From the top down…

How to summarise

Janet Malcolm has written a masterful review of Benjamin Moser’s authorised biography of Susan Sontag. Here’s a representative sample:

Moser’s biography, for all its pity and antipathy, conveys the extra-largeness of Sontag’s life. She knew more people, did more things, read more, went to more places (all this apart from the enormous amount of writing she produced) than most of the rest of us do. Moser’s anecdotes of the unpleasantness that she allowed herself as she grew older ring true, but recede in significance when viewed against the vast canvas of her lived experience. They are specks on it. The erudition for which she is known was part of a passion for culture that emerged, like a seedling in a crevice in a rock, during her emotionally and intellectually deprived childhood. How the seedling became the majestic flowering plant of Sontag’s maturity is an inspiring story—though perhaps also a chastening one. How many of us, who did not start out with Sontag’s disadvantages, have taken the opportunity that she pounced on to engage with the world’s best art and thought? While we watch reruns of “Law & Order,” Sontag seemingly read every great book ever written. She seemed to know that the opportunity comes only once. She had preternatural energy (sometimes enhanced by speed). She didn’t like to sleep.

Do read the whole thing. It’s worth it.



Today is Bloomsday — the day when Joyce enthusiasts all over the world celebrate Ulysses. In my case, I always host a Bloomsday lunch in which guests drink red Burgundy and eat Gorgonzola sandwiches. Why? Because that’s what Leopold Bloom had when he lunched in Davy Byrne’s pub, taking a break from his perambulations around Dublin.

This year’s lunch was special because one of the guests was an old friend, Dr Vivien Igoe, who is one of the foremost experts on Joyce’s connections with his native city. Her new book, The Real People of Joyce’s Ulysses came out last week, and throws a fascinating light on Joyce’s powers of observation and imagination.

We’ve always known that most of the hundreds of characters in Ulysses were drawn from real people, and many of them appear under their own names in the pages of the novel. But who were they, really? Now we know, thanks to an extraordinary piece of scholarship.

Michael Lewis on Lightspeed

Michael Lewis is, IMHO, one of the best long-form journalists around and his new book is well up to his usual standard. In many ways, it adheres to the classic Lewis formula: find a scandalous set-up of which most people are blissfully unaware; locate some smart guys who have detected the systemic scam and figured out a way to profit from their ingenuity; and then tell their story.

In this case, the story is basically about the speed of light – or, to be more precise, about how the time-difference (in millionths of a second) that it takes an electronic share transaction to traverse one fibre-optic connection rather than another can provide an exceedingly lucrative trading advantage to those who have the kit and the know-how to exploit it.

In the video clip he explains the nub of the idea but, as always, it’s not so much the story as the way Lewis tells it — which is why his book is a must-read for anyone who cares about this stuff.

Writing about it in Quartz, Matt Phillips quotes from another part of the TV interview

“If it wasn’t complicated, it wouldn’t be allowed to happen,” he says. ”The complexity disguises what is happening. If it’s so complicated you can’t understand it, then you can’t question it.”

“This problem”, Phillips says, “goes beyond stock markets: The US financial system is awash in unnecessary complexity. And the reasons are simple: Complexity is profitable and it keeps regulators at bay. ”The jargon of bankers and banking experts is deliberately impenetrable,” wrote economists Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig in their indispensible The Bankers’ New Clothes: What’s Wrong with Banking and What to Do about It. “This impenetrability helps them confuse policy makers and the public.”

There are some echoes of the sub-prime/CDO scandal in Lewis’s new book, in that the people who are supposed to understand how the system worked had little or no idea what was going on under their corporate noses. He recounts how the ‘good’ guys in his tale discovered this when they sought to enlighten leading figures in the financial world about flash trading:

The most sophisticated investors didn’t know what was going on in their own market. Not the big mutual funds, Fidelity and Vanguard. Not the big money-management firms like T. Rowe Price and Capital Group. Not even the most sophisticated hedge funds. The legendary investor David Einhorn, for instance, was shocked; so was Dan Loeb, another prominent hedge-fund manager.

This is an indicator of a really serious underlying problem in our networked world — the stupendous power that superior knowledge, IQ and technical understanding confers on some people. We are completely dependent on systems that are so complex that virtually nobody understands how they work — and how they can be manipulated and gamed by those who do understand them. The obvious rejoinder is “twas ever thus”, but I think that’s too complacent. What’s different now is that the level of technical expertise needed is beyond the reach or capacity of almost everyone. Which means that the elites who do ‘get’ it — and those who employ them — have colossal advantages.

LATER The book has made a BIG impact, to judge from the media coverage, and mostly the reactions have been complimentary. But there were a few contrary opinions. And Andrew Ross Sorkin, writing in the New York Times made some good points.

There is only one problem with Mr. Lewis’s tale: He reserves blame for the wrong villains. He points mostly to the hedge funds and investment banks engaged in high-frequency trading.

But Mr. Lewis seemingly glosses over the real black hats: the big stock exchanges, which are enabling — and profiting handsomely — from the extra-fast access they are providing to certain investors.

While the big Wall Street banks may have invented high-speed trading, it has gained widespread use because it has been encouraged by stock markets like the New York Stock Exchange, Nasdaq and Bats, an electronic exchange that was a pioneer in this area. These exchanges don’t just passively allow certain investors to connect to their systems. They have created systems and pricing tiers specifically for high-speed trading. They are charging higher rates for faster speeds and more data for select clients. The more you pay, the faster you trade.

That is the real problem: The exchanges have a financial incentive to create an uneven playing field.

Footnote: Readers on IoS devices may not be able to see the video clip, for reasons best known to the late Steve Jobs.

The rise of e-reading

Fascinating Pew report on the e-reading phenomenon.

Main findings:

A fifth of American adults have read an e-book in the past year and the number of e-book readers grew after a major increase in ownership of e-book reading devices and tablet computers during the holiday gift-giving season.

The average reader of e-books says she has read 24 books (the mean number) in the past 12 months, compared with an average of 15 books by a non-e-book consumer.

Those who read e-books report they have read more books in all formats. They reported an average of 24 books in the previous 12 months and had a median of 13 books. Those who do not read e-books say they averaged 15 books in the previous year and the median was 6 books.

For device owners, those who own e-book readers also stand out. They say they have read an average of 24 books in the previous year (vs. 16 books by those who do not own that device). They report having read a median of 12 books (vs. 7 books by those who do not own the device).

Overall, those who reported reading the most books in the past year include: women compared with men; whites compared with minorities; well-educated Americans compared with less-educated Americans; and those age 65 and older compared with younger age groups.

30% of those who read e-content say they now spend more time reading, and owners of tablets and e-book readers particularly stand out as reading more now. Some 41% of tablet owners and 35% of e-reading device owners said they are reading more since the advent of e-content. Fully 42% of readers of e-books said they are reading more now that long-form reading material is available in digital format. The longer people have owned an e-book reader or tablet, the more likely they are to say they are reading more: 41% of those who have owned either device for more than a year say they are reading more vs. 35% of those who have owned either device for less than six months who say they are reading more.

Men who own e-reading devices and e-content consumers under age 50 are particularly likely to say they are reading more.

The prevalence of e-book reading is markedly growing, but printed books still dominate the world of book readers. In Pew’s December 2011 survey, they found that 72% of American adults had read a printed book and 11% listened to an audiobook in the previous year, compared with the 17% of adults who had read an e-book.

This is really interesting stuff which, among other things, tends to undermine the widespread meme about the ‘death’ of the book. It’s the old misconception: confusing function with format.

Full report here.

Digital abundance

One of the points I often make in lectures is that economics has severe limitations as an analytical framework for looking at our new media ecosystem because it’s the study of the allocation of scarce resources, whereas what characterises the digital ecosystem is abundance. That sounds glib when I say it, but this installation by Erik Kessels — on show as part of an exhibition at Foam in Amsterdam — makes the point vividly. It features print-outs of all the images uploaded to Flickr in a single 24-hour period. There are several rooms like this…