The Butterfly Effect by Jon Ronson

the butterfly effect jon ronsonThe Butterfly Effect is an original Audible documentary by Jon Ronson. He explores how technology has changed the porn industry and by extension all of us. He begins by interviewing the man who used technology to create what became PornHub, a YouTube-style platform for porn. This discursive approach takes in, among other things, porn stars in the San Fernando Valley, the death of an Italian priest, and a Norwegian stamp collector.

Ronson is a sensitive interviewer, letting people tell their own story. He’s also a great storyteller and each episode has intriguing hooks, twists and a teaser ending so you have to keep listening. I’m almost afraid of giving spoilers, but certain things particularly stayed with me.

In Montreal, the data analysts who worked behind the scenes at PornHub were almost oblivious (or in denial) of what they were working on. They just focused on the task. Meanwhile, a whole generation of women lost work in porn because of the search categories that they created in response to the way people access porn. Women under 20 get work in the ‘babysitter’ and ‘cheerleader’ categories, women over 30 get the ‘milf’ roles, but between those ages they are unemployable. (There’s an interesting analogy here with Amazon’s book categories, where discoverability is increasingly driven by genre.)

In another episode, Ronson is on a porn set during the making of a movie. There is an orgy scene and many of the male performers are watching porn on their phones so they can get an erection. It seems watching someone have sex with a porn star is more arousing than the imminent prospect of actually doing it. The analogy here hardly needs stating.

Ronson doesn’t take a position on porn per se but he considers the way in which people ignore the human consequences of porn and the way in which they simultaneously are excited by it and despise the people who work in it. Porn stars report being spotted in the street and facing hostility from the very people who have recognised them.

At one point Ronson sets up an interview which is somehow both poignant and deeply ironic. An old-school San Fernando porn director whose income has dropped dramatically because of piracy challenges PornHub’s founder. The director expresses exasperation at his lack of empathy as free illegal downloads drain away his livelihood, but he asks no such questions about the effect on people of the films he makes.

This documentary is thought provoking and fascinating and I listened to it in one sitting. The stories it tells are sometimes dark, often strange and occasionally moving.

The Butterfly Effect is available as an audiobook and as a podcast.
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Neurotribes by Steve Silberman

neurotribes by steve silbermanNeurotribes opens with a question – why is autism suddenly so visible? From popular culture to the children of the author’s contacts in Silicon Valley, he keeps hearing about autism. He sets out to discover why.

His quest takes in the history of our understanding of autism, the reasons for the increase in the diagnosis and the changing experiences and treatment of autistic people.

Neurotribes is written with the pace of a thriller, and vividly brings to life academic rivalries, tabloid panics and science fiction fandom. Interspersed are the stories of the people the author has encountered along the way – autistic people, their families and carers, clinicians and writers, and even movie stars.

Parts of the book are very dark, including the accounts of institutionalisation of people dismissed as ‘feeble-minded’ and the horrors of Nazism. It is a timely reminder that Hitler was not an aberration but a man who exploited ideas which were widely articulated in Europe and the US at the time.

A running theme through the book is the tension between those who think that autistic people need to be ‘cured’ and those who think that society benefits from the strengths of autistic people and should accommodate their particular needs. The book ends on a positive note as it discusses the self-advocacy movement and profiles autistic people who have found their own ways to live fulfilling lives.

I found Neurotribes a fascinating and moving read.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley.
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For a different perspective on this book, read Calmgrove’s review

Learning from Baby P by Sharon Shoesmith

learning-from-baby-pOver Christmas I turned on the radio halfway through an interview with Eddie Mair on Radio 4. I didn’t know who he was speaking to but she was making some important and insightful comments about child protection and more broadly, society’s conflicted attitude to children. It was only after some time that I realised Mair was speaking to Sharon Shoesmith, who was Director of Children’s Services in Haringey at the time of Peter Connelly’s death. I’m glad I didn’t know who it was because I was able to listen with an open mind. The interview made me want to read Learning from Baby P.

Peter Connelly was 17 months old when he died with horrific injuries. He was known to social workers, medical staff and police. Subsequently his mother, her boyfriend and his brother were convicted of ‘causing or allowing’ his death.

Learning from Baby P is based on Shoesmith’s PhD thesis on the political, social and cultural response to the death of Peter Connelly (initially known only as Baby P for legal reasons). While she explains the theoretical underpinnings of her work, the book is written for the general reader.

She outlines the political and practice framework in force at the time. There was a model of child protection based on ‘predict and prevent’ – a belief that we could stop children being harmed as long as the correct procedures were followed.

Shoesmith argues that this is not realistic. There is risk and there is uncertainty. Uncertainty is not quantifiable, and it frightens us. It is easy to look at a case with hindsight and see what might have been done differently, but that is not the same as saying the outcome could have been predicted or prevented.

Such a model also provides a false sense of security for social workers. If you have followed all the procedures then you have done the right thing. If anything happens you won’t be to blame. In fact, official reports suggest that social workers at Haringey Council were following procedures and yet took the fall for failings in Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Metropolitan Police.

Shoesmith asks what it was about this death in particular that led to such a public outcry. Although there is no single source for statistics on child deaths (which in itself says something about society’s priorities) the data we have indicate that there were 57 deaths by familial child homicide (non-accidental deaths) in the year Peter Connelly died. Why did this one attract such attention? Horrifying as the details were, it was unfortunately not unique.

Shoesmith considers this in a chapter which deals chronologically with the political and media fallout after the verdict in the Baby P case. We see the opportunism of then Leader of the Opposition David Cameron and the political manoeuvrings of the man we have since come to think of as that nice Ed Balls from Strictly, but who at the time was Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. The Sun editor at the time, Rebekah Brooks, launched a campaign and petition which succeeded in dictating government policy, including the sacking of Shoesmith and frontline staff. (Shoesmith subsequently won an appeal against the sacking.)

Police briefed against social workers and criticism was focused on Haringey Council, which Shoesmith argues was particularly vulnerable because of its identification with the Left and a previous high-profile child death, that of Victoria Climbié. Particularly disturbing is the evidence she has uncovered that Ed Balls’ department was involved in drafting supposedly independent reports and ensuring the outcome that suited their political agenda.

One thing that I was not aware of was that there has never been an inquest into Peter Connelly’s death. The decision was taken on the basis of the number of investigations that had already been carried out, but as Shoesmith states, these were about the roles of the various professionals and agencies, rather than the death itself. Nor has anyone spoken to the three people convicted. What might we have learnt if they had been interviewed? Despite all the thousands of pages that have been written, we still don’t know exactly how or why Peter Connelly died.

Cases like Peter Connelly’s are so shocking and outside most of our experience that we can’t bear to think it is happening. We want social workers to make it all go away and we are angry when they are unable to do so. Blaming individuals reassures us that there is a solution to the problem, that the failings are theirs, and that we are not responsible.

In the Eddie Mair interview, Shoesmith talks about the increasing number of children going into care. There were 50,000 when Peter Connelly died, and there are 70,000 now. If this rate of increase continues, it could be 100,000 by 2020. Would that be a good thing or a bad thing? We aren’t even asking the question.

I received a copy of Learning from Baby P from the publisher.
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Want to know more? You can listen to the full Eddie Mair interview with Sharon Shoesmith on BBC iPlayer

1666 by Rebecca Rideal

16661666 tells the story of the Great Plague, the second Dutch War and the Great Fire of London through the eyes of the people who were there. It’s a seamless stitching together of perspectives and experiences into one dramatic and coherent story.

Characters recur, some well known, such as Pepys and Rochester and Margaret Cavendish (the subject of another recent book, Margaret the First) others less prominent – traders and preachers and bakers.

The strength of 1666 is its immediacy. You feel like you are there, listening to the cacophony of voices, rummaging through records and contracts and accounts. The flipside of this is that you lose depth. Reading it I did at times feel hungry for something more challenging, analysis rather than description, a stronger sense of the social and economic forces at play. Although I don’t have an in-depth knowledge of the period – most of what I know I’ve absorbed through osmosis and a childhood obsession with Jean Plaidy novels – there wasn’t much here that was new to me.

However, 1666 does tell you a great pacy story. The author makes it seem easy, rather than the mammoth task it must have been. It’s a good overview and starting point if you want to get a flavour of the period and some pointers as to where to find out more.

I received a copy of 1666 from the publisher via Bookbridgr.
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In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland

in-the-shadow-of-the-sword-tom-hollandA historian reviewing In the Shadow of the Sword would be able to comment on Holland’s interpretation of the sources, offer alternative opinions, place the work in the context of current scholarship. I came to this book knowing very little about the subject, but since that will be true of many readers I’ll write from that perspective.

In the Shadow of the Sword is an account of the decline of the Roman and Persian empires in the Near East and the rise of the Arab empire. It tells the story of the rise of monotheism and the role religions played in the shifting of political and military power.

Holland takes you through the significance of Zoroastrianism in the Persian empire, the history of Judaism and the Jewish populations across the region, the growth of Christianity and how it impacts on Rome. It’s only a hundred or so pages from the end that we reach the story promised in the introduction – the rise of the Arab empire as Rome and Persia are both brought low following a devastating plague and years of military conflict.

In the Shadow of the Sword makes some points that were new and interesting to me – for example that Judaism and Christianity represented a threat to their opponents, because they were not tied to a particularly location or shrine, as pagan religions were. Holland shows how written texts were central to the power or religion – and how political and religious leaders were willing to rewrite them to suit political expedients. He highlights the link between religion and militarism, such as the early Christians likening their role to that of a soldier, and the suggestion that the word ‘pagan’ is derived from a Latin world meaning ‘civilian’.

Along with the analysis there are anecdotes ranging from the macabre to the absurd  – grisly accounts of early Christians welcoming martyrdom by ever more cruel torture and death, a burgeoning tourist industry as pilgrims flock to holy sites and relics, an Arab ruler famed for his golden dentures and fearsome halitosis.

In the final chapters of the book, Holland tries to distinguish the historical figure of Muhammed from the version in the Qu’ran. He says that no contemporary accounts of the life of Muhammad are known and that much of what is understood about him comes from writings two hundred years after his death. In particular he questions how Muhammad could have lived in Mecca, a remote desert outpost, when the Qu’ran clearly draws on contemporary religious and cultural ideas which suggest involvement in trade and awareness of the other Abrahamic religions and their adherents.

Holland’s writing is clear and relatively accessible but he does favour long sentences in long paragraphs in long chapters, which, coupled with my lack of context and the unfamiliar names meant I paced myself, reading a few pages at sitting, so I could absorb what I’d read. The book also has a really useful timeline, a glossary and a list of dramatis personae.

This was an interesting and readable account and, for me, an introduction to new ideas and one that made me want to learn more.

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The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis

undoing-project-ukI’ve read quite a few books on popular psychology and behavioural economics so I expected to skim a bit but I was gripped by The Undoing Project from start to finish.

It tells the story of the collaboration between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two gifted academic psychologists who have changed the way we think about rationality and decision making. It combines the biographies of the two men, a discussion of their key ideas and vignettes of other people who have been influenced by them or applied their thinking to fields ranging from sport and medicine.

Lewis contrasts their backgrounds. Kahneman grew up in constant danger in Nazi-occupied France, while Tversky was born into a pioneering and politically active family in British Palestine (later Israel). He describes their fierce intellects and contrasting temperaments – the reserved, anxious Kahneman and the charismatic, risk-taking Tversky.

The book gives you a strong sense of Israel during the early years of the state and their commitment to the country. When the Yom Kippur war breaks out and the two men are in California, they immediately head home to return to the army and active duty.

Lewis explains their ideas in a comprehensive and clear way. Their most famous work, for which Kahneman went on to win the Nobel Prize for Economics, was their debunking of the rational actor (or ‘man’) at the heart of classical economics. We all rely on heuristics (rules of thumb or gut responses) and most of the time that works well enough. But Kahneman and Tversky identified situations where these stop us making rational decisions, particularly those involving complex or statistical information. They demonstrated their ideas by using pleasingly everyday case studies, and found that even statisticians were fooled by them.

The Undoing Project is intriguing on the relationship between Kahneman and Tversky. It gives you insights into their friendship but there is a sense that their closeness was a mystery to even their closest friends and this for me is what drives the story.

Kahneman and Tversky agreed to be interviewed by Miles Shore, a psychiatrist who was studying the working methods of ‘fertile pairs’. He found that successful professional pairings are almost like happy romantic couples. They finish each other’s sentences, their intimacy leads them to exclude others, and crucially, there is a sense that their work is the result of their combined effort. They are unable to attribute the different elements to one member of the pair, their ideas arise organically from their collaboration.

Sadly, like a romantic couple, their relationship had periods of jealousy and professional rivalry and as the title suggests, estrangement.

Michael Lewis combines a serious treatment of their work with a moving human story. I actually felt bereft when I finished this book.

I received a copy of The Undoing Project from the publisher via Netgalley.
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The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry

the-descent-of-man-jpgConceptual artist, broadcaster and transvestite Grayson Perry is always entertaining, and this is an accessible, if uneven, read on masculine identity and power.

If you’ve read about or thought about gender you won’t find much that is new here, but you might find a way of talking about it to the people who say with genuine bewilderment, ‘We should just treat everyone the same’ or, ‘What about men’s rights?’ Perry’s humorous and well observed conception of the ‘Default Man’ explains why the dice are loaded against women (and some men).

He is also very strong, as you’d expect, when talking about the cultural aspects of male identity, about design and the way consumerism exploits and perpetuates gender differences for commercial gain (‘shrink it and pink it’). He draws on his own experiences of growing up with a violent stepfather, and embracing both his ‘masculine’ (mountain biking, militarism) and ‘feminine’ (fashion, intuition) sides.

The later chapters are less successful. The section on men and violence felt a little unfocused, as if he was outside his area of expertise (or had a deadline looming). He mixes in a slew of stats on crime rates, a series of snippets that felt like they’d been culled randomly from broadsheet comment pieces (the problem is no male role models in the home, the problem is bad role models in the home) and stories from  All Man, his TV programme on masculinity.

There’s not much in the book about economics (apart from the section on consumerism and a nod to post-industrialism). There are a few references and quotes from academics but none for his assertions on nature versus nurture, which feel a bit simplistic.

The problem is that Perry is addressing masculinity at the individual level. If guys could just get in touch with their caring, intuitive side, they’d like themselves better, and women would like them better too. This takes no account of the men who gain from the exercise of power. Try telling Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin that they’d be happier and more fulfilled if they adopted a more respectful and empathetic attitude to women, and allowed themselves to feel vulnerable.

This book might be a useful introduction for some but I’m not sure it will reach the people who most need it. Perhaps when your drunk uncle is on his third port after Christmas dinner and starts grumbling about how you can’t even joke about groping a woman these days, you could hand him a copy. But I doubt that he’d read it.

I received a copy of The Descent of Man from the publisher via Netgalley.
View The Descent of Man on Goodreads