Cute but not beautiful

Reading Silk: A history in three metamorphoses by Aarathi Prasad for the Financial Times, 27 June 2023

In 1766, two years after his arrival in Buenos Aires, Father Ramon Maria Termeyer, Society of Jesuits, wandered on horseback through a carob forest and into a maze of spiders’ webs so strong, “they got in the way of me and my horse and made my hat fall from my head, unless I took care to break them with a rod.” Glancing around, he realised with a thrill that he was surrounded by cocoons quite as large as the spiders watching him from every branch; and it was a thrill, one might add, not of horror, but of mercantile possibility: what if these spiders could be forcibly silked?

Indeed they could: one of the stranger pictures in this strangest of histories is a contemporary diagram of a 1900 machine made to “milk” related Golden Orb spiders in Madagascar.

Readers coming to this globe-trotting and species-leaping volume expecting vignette after genteel vignette of 5000-odd years of Chinese silk manufacture are in for a very nasty shock indeed. Here be spiders, and not just spiders, but metre-long Mediterranean clams, never mind countless moth species spinning their silks everywhere from Singapore to Suriname. As the entomologist Rene-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur observed in 1711, “nature does not limit itself to a few examples, even of its most singular productions.”

This sets Aarathi Prasad quite a challenge: billed as “a cultural and biological history”, Silk must flit from China, Indonesia and India to South America and Madagascar, and from there to the Mediterranean to examine Procopius of Caesarea’s “cloak made of wool, not such as produced by sheep, but gathered from the sea”.

The Chinese silkworm, Bombyx mori, necessarily holds centre stage, since it has played a leading role in our understanding of the natural world. The 17th-century naturalist and globetrotter Maria Sybilla Merian traced its lifecycle to scotch the idea that small organisms arose spontaneously out of decomposing matter. In 1807 the Italian Agostino Bassi showed how infection was transmitted from a sick caterpillar to a healthy one, in a paper that Louis Pasteur read 60 years later, as he formulated the germ theory of disease.

Then there’s the author’s own experience of these strange creatures, “cute but not beautiful”, and unable, in their adult form, to eat or defecate — “nor do they do much at all as moths, except to mate and die.” As a child Prasad used to feed her larvae with mulberry leaf paste, then watched as they span “cradles of their own making, swaddled in kilometres of pure white silk.”

Chinese silk domestication, which began around the Yellow River, sometime in the Neolithic period, between 7500 and 5,000 years ago, bequeathed us helpless, flightless grubs that require human intervention just to survive. Other domestication strategies were followed in India, where Antheraea paphia, still winged, still brightly coloured, spins extravagant cocoons of rough, rugged, golden tasar silk and hangs them on a “stalk” from its favourite trees. Roman writers, seeing their branches so thickly festooned, thought these silk farmers were harvesting fruit.

Weaving between these natural wonders are the human stories; of Marcello Malpighi, whose dissection of Bombyx mori for the Royal Society in the 1660s took an entire year; of Georg Eberhardt Rumpf, whose survey of cocoon-producing moths in Indonesia triggered a quite surreal string of personal disasters; of Thomas Wardle, whose Midlands factory hands finally worked out out how to bleach and print on tasar silk, triggering a boom in India’s silk exports.

The effort to personalise and dramatise such a wealth of unfamiliar and often downright peculiar information sometimes empurples Prasad’s prose, as when, “with her luggage ready, her younger child and a magnifying glass close at hand, Merian departed over the slick, white-capped waves of Amsterdam’s harbour on that busy seaway out of the Dutch Republic: first to the wind-bound sea channels of the island of Texel, past the Isle of Wight, the storm-worn point of Portland from whose glowing stones London’s St Paul’s Cathedral was still being built, and out of the English Channel into the treacherous, sloping swells of the Bay of Biscay.”

But flourishes like these have their charm, and did after all gift us Termeyer’s spooky, unforgettable ride among the webs of Aranea latro.

Those readers less enamoured of Prasad’s bravura scene-setting will discover more sardonic pleasures. The Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, it seems, owned quite the latest in personal body protection: a bullet-proof vest made of silk. On 28 June 1914 he forgot to put it on.

Scientific accounts of silk traditionally end in Arthur C Clarke territory, rather breathlessly describing how Earth-tethered space elevators made of synthetic silk will propel future astronauts into orbit. Prasad’s not holding her breath over that one, though she does treat us to a futuristic vision of “flexible and biodegradable implantable electronics that record our brain signals” and “edible sensors we could safely consume to track our fitness or the nutritional quality of our food”.

Mostly though Prasad is happy to admit that “more often, scientific progress is just tiresomely incremental.” Technological wonders will follow our continuing investigations, but they will do so in their own good time. One especially gratifying lesson to be drawn from this charming and absorbing book, is that silks will sustain their mystery and surprise and glamour for a while yet.

The opposite of jolly

Reading Fans: A Journey into the Psychology of Belonging by Michael Bond for The Spectator, 24 June 2023

Have you ever loved someone and got nothing back?

Next question: was it really so bad?

We all feel things for people who don’t even know we exist. For most of us the experience is enriching. For me (and you, probably) David Bowie’s life held personal meaning. And if the thin white duke did not rate as your personal companion, then Queen Elizabeth almost certainly did. And if not the Queen, then what about Walter White, from TV drama Breaking Bad? We love fictional characters too. Walt saw me through my divorce.

We enjoy these relationships in private. Sometimes, we meet fellow “fans” and then, as the cheery Michael Bond points out, “One of the incentives for being part of a fandom is that you get to do things with others.”

In Fans, Bond sketches the psychology of belonging very lightly. Why is it, he asks, that sports fans seem to get a free pass, when it comes to chanting, dancing and face-painting? (I’d like to see Trekkies trying to get away with being so ebullient in public.)

Next, he notes that sport is a zero-sum game: “if I win, you lose”, and that this leads to unreasonable love for one’s own team, and unreasonable prejudice towards one’s opponent.

But having begun with such promise Bond, incredibly, fails to connect these two observations, and in doing so, he fails to convey why his subject is so important.

So let’s do his job for him: fans are a species of tribe, and — this is the important bit — tribes win our respect the more tribal they are, which is why sports fans are rarely shamed for being excessively zealous: “their commitment to the cause is expected,” says Bond, “even applauded”.

Tribal behaviour is exciting. It’s had us building civilisations and spilling each other’s blood for over five millennia. Fan groups are simply defanged tribes. (This is why we can, if we want, describe most achievements of world civilisation in the bathetic terminology of fandom. What else is sincere religious faith but a “non-reciprocal fan relationship”?)

Scratch a fan, and you will find a zealot. The more serious they are, the more dangerous they are. Bond’s most engaging passages deal with fans who think their chosen celebrity owes them love and attention. The experiences of songwriter and social media star “Lizzyspit” are illuminating: driven off social media and real-world hiding by an outpouring of hate, all because she didn’t post in the weeks immediately following her father’s death.

The more pathological fandom becomes, the more interesting it gets, and this is bad news for Bond, who would much prefer to champion fandom’s emollient and jolly side.

Bond’s favourite fans (but not — I’d stake money on it — the reader’s) are painfully pro-social, which is why the Jane Austen Pineapple Appreciation Society has, since December 2020, “been engaging in an ongoing conversation on its social media feeds about the use of the pineapple and the origins of white wealth in the early 19th century.” (In the midst of a sixth extinction and a second cold war, this, yes, is the hill they have chosen to die on.)

Bond’s detours into the dark are few, and conducted in a spirit of apology and understanding. Therianthropes believe they are born into the wrong species (and, yes, Bond’s definition of “fandom” does slither about to subsume every glistening oddity). But theirs is “not an obsession or a mental disorder,” only “a conviction, one therians spend their entire lives trying to accommodate.” The sophistry at work here is miasmic.

What’s missing from Bond’s account — and perhaps we can understand this, given our current political moment — is not more horror stories (Bond’s right; he hear enough of them through the media) but simple bread-and-butter scorn. As in the sinking feeling you get (before your inner policeman kicks the door in) when you hear that social psychologist Courtney Plante at Bishop’s University in Quebec, Canada is a furry; that his “fursona” is a neon blue cat named Nuka; and that he’s also a fan of the animated TV show My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, which makes him a Brony.

There’s something off here, something that’s the very opposite of joyful. Therians spend their lives on line criticising the inaccuracies in each other’s accounts of life as a wolf, ocelot, or wot-not. Jolly? I think not.

And yes, scorn is a crude response, but it’s better than sticking both thumbs in your ears and going la-la-la.

Dig here! scorn says. There’s something worth truffling for here!

Bond turned up without a spade.

Life’s shuddering advances

Reading Be Mine by Richard Ford for the Times, 22 June 2023

Move up there: Richard Ford is back again, and once again he’s got Frank with him, his wayward alter-ego.

Since this is Ford’s fifth exploration of the consciousness of sportswriter-turned-realtor Frank Bascombe, here’s a summary. (You don’t strictly need it; it’s not that sort of a series. But there’s no harm in being orientated.) As a young man in the late 1970s, Frank nursed big dreams. In time he learned to pack them away. He got married, had children, and watched one of them die — an event that, not too surprisingly, spelled the end of his relationship. He married again, not very successfully. He’s retired now and wedged comfortably, if bemusedly, in America’s post-retail uncanny, where nothing has any obvious relation to anything else — “The gravestone company that sells septics, the pet supply that offers burials at sea, the shoe store that sells baseball tickets”.

Frank Bascombe is an ordinary man, and this is the fifth instalment of his ordinary life.

Ford’s keenly observing, wise-cracking alter ego, seems on the face of it to be an unlikely focus for over three decades of dedicated effort. Frank has spent most of his life selling real estate. Before that he was a sports writer. He wanted to be the next Raymond Carver, once upon a time, but in his late thirties he decided to get a real job.

This is where Ford and Bascombe parted ways. Ford, too, once tried to get a real job — but wasn’t nearly as savvy as his alter-ego, and couldn’t make a dime outside of becoming a literary giant and our pre-eminent proponent of American realism.

Frank remembers reading that in good novels, “anything can follow anything, and nothing ever necessarily follows anything else.”

This is simply Ford removing the safety-net before embarking on his latest high-wire act. Of course there’s a plot. I’d go so far as to say that there’s a hero’s journey here, as Frank arranges one last trip for himself and his surviving son Paul, a long, flat, boring drive across South Dakota to Wyoming, and Rapid City, and — of all places — Mount Rushmore, “most notional of national monuments, and thus most American”.

Paul has been diagnosed with ALS, a neuro-degenerative condition that is uncoupling his muscles from his brain in something like real time as we read.

Our privileged access to the cockpit of Frank’s head comes at significant emotional cost. There’s no fire exit for us here — no chill-out space scattered with comfy abstractions, opinions or Fine Writing. We’re in for the long haul — Hartford, South Dakota — Mitchell, South Dakota —

Ford being Ford, of course, it all goes like the clappers, leaving us teary and exhilarated (reading Ford is really like getting laid).

For four volumes now, Frank has been learning to navigate the downpour of disconnected stuff that makes up his ordinary life (much of it in New Jersey), stringing eventoids together in ways that will carry meaning. This necessity, to turn one’s own life into a story and remain halfway sane thereby, hit 38-year-old Frank with the power of revelation back when he first appeared, in The Sportswriter, back in 1986.

Now he’s in his seventies, and knows what he’s about, dogged in his pursuit of meaning in a life that (as is usual) happens to him while he is making other plans. (“Why do we not do things?” Frank wonders. “It is a far richer question than why we do.”) Here is a master at work. And I don’t mean Ford (who needs no whoop-hooooorahs from me); I mean Frank.

This is the adventure of a man desperately trying to make life as least like an adventure as possible for his balding, warty, forty-seven year-old son, an oddball for whom “connections between the heartfelt and the preposterous are his yin and yang”, and dying, as we watch, from a disease people regularly kill themselves to avoid. “Short of joining the Zion Lutherans, setting out nasturtiums and registering to vote,” Frank explains, “I’ve done all I can to solidify an idea of normal life for us, so we’re not constantly peeking around the sides of things to confront life’s shuddering advances.”

But is Frank’s everything enough? Frank knows he’s weak, and distractible and, who’s to say? a little bit empty inside. His son certainly says so — but then, his son only ever talks in one-liners (absurd, barbed, both); they’re his strategy for eluding experience. His daughter Clarissa knows so — but that’s her trouble: she thinks that people are knowable, and opinions suffice. She’s the sort of reader who would give up on Be Mine, complaining that there’s no plot.

So what happens? What gives?

Frank and his son spend chapters preparing to visit the Mayo Clinic in Rochester where Paul, a volunteer and “medical pioneer”, is being “celebrated” at the conclusion of a research study. At the last minute, half-way down “death’s bright companionway” and twenty feet from the door, father and son peel away and go instead to pick up their camper van.

Half way through the book, they’re ready to leave Rochester.

There’s a chapter in a Hilton Garden.

There’s a chapter in The World’s Only Corn Palace (I’ve been there; Ford nails it).

There’s a chapter about choosing a near-derelict motel over the Fawning Buffalo Casino, Golf and Deluxe Convention Hotel near Wall, South Dakota.

And it’s here, just a few pages before Rushmore, that Ford tips his hand.

“‘I know we have to do what we have to do,’” says Patti, the motel owner; like most strangers met along this road, she’s sympathetic enough. “‘But we don’t always have to do the precise right thing for the precise right reasons all the time. Okay, Frank?’ She pyramids her dark eyebrows as if she’s imparting sacred truths anybody’d be crazy to ignore.”

And Frank, his shoulder screaming from the effort of lifting his crippled son into their van, takes one look down that primrose path and decides he’s sure as hell not going there: “And of course she’s wrong! Dead wrong! Should I not care that I’m doing what I’m doing and why? Or how I’m doing it? With my only son? Is that ever true?”

Good stories have cracking plots about heroes who must face impossible odds and make great sacrifices. Frank does this each time he orders breakfast. Frank holds himself together the way you and I hold ourselves together (or try to) — by snatching at straws in the maelstrom of everyday life (whatever the hell that is).

And Be Mine is Frank — a 20-foot model of the Titanic assembled from matchsticks.

Or picture this (since that matchstick Titanic might inspire admiration, but never love): picture a novel that feels truer to experience than your own experience.

Or this (since we’re none of us getting any younger, and this is likely Frank’s swan-song): the chance to spend a last few hours with a friend.

Conduits of disease and death

Reading Foreign Bodies by Simon Schama for the Financial Times, 9 June 2023

Right up until the middle of the 19th century, huge deposits of steaming human ordure were carted out of Paris and over the channel to fertilise the fields of England. And good riddance to the stuff, since letting it rot in place would surely have produced a miasma responsible — so most Parisians thought — for everything from smallpox to cholera to bubonic plague.

But Julien Proust (Marcel’s father) realised that there was something wrong with this picture. Even before the germ theory of disease gained currency, Proust conjectured that infection spread, not so much through proximity to decomposing matter, but by its being transported, most likely by people. As Schama puts it: “the very means used to bind the parts of empires more closely – shortening distances, abbreviating shipping schedules, reducing costs, optimizing profits, doing things the modern way – had themselves become the flowing conduits of disease and death.”

Proust is one of a pantheon of heroes (and I do not use the ‘H’ word lightly) propelling Simon Schama’s epic and impassioned history of vaccination from disconcertingly ancient times to the vexed present day.

His book, says Schama, is one more product of the Covid-19 lockdowns, when “parliaments of legislators were reduced to socially distanced barking from the hollow shell of their chambers, while parliaments of birds flocked and chattered.”

While the rest of us were enjoying (at least as far as we could) the birdsong, Schama was contemplating what Covid-19 represents for the planet. His conclusion is: nothing good. The waves of terrifying diseases coming at the world faster and faster are almost always transmitted by animals, and “mutuality between humans and animals has been dangerously disrupted.”

Schama has an historian’s tragic view of life, exacerbated here by his having (like the rest of us) to chain himself to his home office. From here the rise and fall of civilisations have seemed to him “so many vanity projects compared to the entropy of the habitable planet”.

Schama is far too interested in people to spin this apocalyptic jag too far. Soon enough he gets stuck into the stories of the men and women who, confronted by contagion, have tried, and still try (often against rabid opposition — and I don’t use the ‘R’ word lightly, either) to do something about it.

Though Schama’s richest materials here are to do with vaccination,
Foreign Bodies ultimately tilts at a bigger target: how medical knowledge and political force intersect to fight epidemic disease. And when your fatality rates reach ninety per cent, as they did when bubonic plague struck Hong Kong in 1894, you can bet that force will be pretty much your only weapon. Whole neighbourhoods of Kowloon were walled off as British soldiers pulled sick family members out of hiding in closets and chests and bore them off to the Hygeia, rumoured to be a death-ship from which not one in ten would emerge alive. (“This was in fact true.”)

In India, facing the same death toll and the same desperate, militarised sanitation campaign, rumours spread that hospitals had been ordered to cut out the hearts of patients to send to Queen Victoria for her vengeful satisfaction.

This is why, even at some cost to life, governments fight shy of making life-saving treatments compulsory: a show of force invariably does as much damage as the disease. Ronald Reagan understood this: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help’” he once quipped — though I doubt that he had in mind scenes as apocalyptic as Schama’s.

With the aplomb of a young A. J. P. Taylor, Schama neatly balances the obligation to disparage empire with the historian’s love of valorous action. He pricks the pretensions of the Raj, whose grandees thought they had materially bettered the lives of Indians; but he handsomely acknowledges the human efforts expended, in crowded slums and roadside clinics, pursuing that fond vision.

“Something about inoculators, vaccinators and epidemiologists gets under the skin of public tribunes,” frets Schama, “for whom nothing, certainly not epidemiology, is politics-free.”

Might future historians see Anthony Fauci, who as Chief Medical Advisor saw the US through AIDS and Covid, as some sort of imperial shill? They will if they ponder the fulminations of (now former) Fox news anchor Tucker Carlson, who had Fauci down as “a dangerous fraud who has done things that in most countries at most times in history would be understood very clearly to be very serious crimes.”

Compared to what Fauci’s been put through, the British establishment’s treatment of Foreign Bodies’ central figure, the fin-de-siecle vaccine pioneer Waldemar Haffkine, seems positively benign. Haffkine, a Jew from Odessa without so much as a medical degree, wanted to totally upend the Indian Medical Service’s handling of epidemics, replacing brutal quarantine measures with vaccines, mostly of his own devising. Not only did he come up with the first vaccine against cholera (and inoculated nearly 23,000 in his first year in India); by the spring of 1899, a Haffkine serum was protecting half a million Indians against bubonic plague and was being shipped as far afield as Russia. Incredibly, one locally contaminated batch ruined the man’s career and scotched his global plans.

Or maybe not so incredibly: our politics have hardly grown more forgiving, as any AstraZeneca executive involved in the Covid response can tell you.

“Falsely accused scapegoats recur with depressingly predictable regularity in the long history of inoculation,” says Schama. “They are often demonised as the bringers of false hope, the reckless spreaders of contagion, sometimes even secret spies or enemies of a Nation’s health.”

Vaccination is a wildly counter-intuitive process. “It is,” says Schama, “an extraordinary leap of faith for a healthy person or a parent of a healthy child to expose themselves or their offspring to what is essentially a toxin.”

So it is that in each generation, in the face of each new emergency, the powerful have a choice: gamble on hard-won, hard-to-explain knowledge — or appeal to native instinct. And if you want to be told that knowledge and decency win out every time, well, Schama says it: “it is probably best not to ask an historian.”

An explosion in a radioactive cotton candy factory


Reading Under Alien Skies by Phil Plait for New Scientist, 7 June 2023 

You may know him better as “the Bad Astronomer”, whose blog demolishes misconceptions and frauds about the cosmos. Now the tireless Phil Plait is taking us on a journey, to our satellite moon and beyond, past Mars and the Belt, past Saturn and Pluto, to other stars, to binaries and clusters, to nebulae and to the end of all things, as he sends us spiraling past the Schwartzchild radius of a black hole. Throughout (and with a few tiny exceptions), he and we see only what poor, bare forked humanity is equipped by nature to see. This is the cosmos as we would feel, hear and see it. Some measure of security and comfort is provided by spaceships and starships of ever-increasing unlikelihood but, deep down, we’re on our own out here, and trembling at the magnificence of it all.

This artful premise gives Plait licence to discuss what our real future in the solar system might look like, while at the same time exploring some startling stellar exotica. (Finally, I understand the Orion Nebula!)

In the final chapters, on star clusters, nebulae and black holes, our suspension of disbelief starts to come unstuck. This is partly to do with the fact that there’s nothing for us to smell, hear, walk on or trip over. (By contrast, Plait’s evocations of our own solar system are superbly sensual.)

Sooner or later we will be overwhelmed by a universe a lot bigger than we are. Here Plait describes our likely response as we witness the birth of stars:

“Your mind tries to comprehend what you’re seeing, churning out analogies rapid-fire — it’s like an explosion in a radioactive cotton candy factory, like being suspended in a frozen fireworks display, like flying through a million auroras — but in the end you fail. Humans never evolved to comprehend magnificence on a scale like this.”

Some of the grandest wonders in his arsenal are simply invisible to the naked eye. Just now and again, then, the valiant captain of our imaginary starship tweaks the viewscreens, showing us things we wouldn’t have seen by just leaning out the window; and on those rare occasions we may reasonably begin to wonder: what on eartyh are we doing out here? Why did we come all this way, just to watch a video? Couldn’t the same veritée have been achieved, sitting in front of a 5K screen in our pyjamas?

You could argue that Plait should have stuck to his guns, and even in the chapter on black holes, described only what human beings would see with their own eyes. But this is a game we abandoned centuries ago. Our machines have better access to the world than we do, and this has been true at least since Dutch lens grinders invented the telescope.

Much more telling, I think: virtually every wonder in this book is to do with scale. Bigger, brighter, heavier things dominate this account. But where are the stranger things? Is there anything in this account as abidingly weird as — oh, I don’t know — a tree? A house cat? A plate of fish and chips?

Earth beats the rest of the known cosmos hands down for complexity and change. And, yes, there may well be other biomes out there — but Plait can’t just invent them out of whole cloth. That would be fantasy, and this is a book rooted, however speculatively, in the known.

Plait is an able, resourceful and, on occasion, downright visionary guide to the far reaches of outer space. If this book leaves a few readers feeling very slightly disappointed, it’s not Plait who fell short; it’s the cosmos.

For 300 exhilarating pages, short-lived, fragile and under-equipped reader have relied upon imaginary technology to get them places they don’t belong. It is no bad thing if a few of them close this exhilarating book with a renewed feeling of reverence for their own world.

A pile of dough

Reading Is Maths Real? by Eugenia Cheng, 17 May 2023

Let’s start with an obvious trick question: why does 1 plus 1 equal 2? Well, it often doesn’t. Add one pile of dough to one pile of dough and you get, well, one pile of dough.

This looks like a twisty and trivial point, but it isn’t. Mathematics describes the logical operations of logical worlds, but you can dream up any number of those, and you’re going to need many more than one of them to even come close to modelling the real world.

“Deep down,” writes mathematician Eugenia Cheng, “maths isn’t about clear answers, but about increasingly nuanced worlds in which we can explore different things being true.”

Cheng wants the reader to ask again all those “stupid” questions they asked about mathematics as kids, and so discover what it feels like to be a real mathematician. Sure enough, mathematicians turn out to be human beings, haunted by doubts, saddled with faulty memories, blessed with unsuspected resources of intuition, guided by imagination. Mathematics is a human pursuit, depicted here from the inside.

We begin in the one-dimensional world of real numbers, and learn in what kinds of worlds numbers can be added together in any order (“commutativity”) and operations grouped together any-old-how (“associativity”). Imaginary numbers (which can’t be expressed as digits; think pi) add a second dimension to our mathematical world, and sure enough there are now patterns we can see that we couldn’t see before, “when we were all squashed into one dimension”.

Keep adding dimensions. (The more we add to our mathematical universe, however, the less we can rely on our visual imagination, and the more we come to rely on algebra.) Complex numbers (which have a real part and an imaginary part) give us the field of complex analysis, on which modern physics depends.

And we don’t stop there. Cheng’s object is not to teach us maths, but to show us what we don’t know; we eventually arrive at a terrific description of mathematical braids in higher dimensions that at the very least we might find interesting, even if we don’t understand it. This is the generous impulse driving this book, and it’s splendidly realised.

Alas, Is Maths Real?, not content with being a book about what it is like to be a mathematician, also wants to be a book about what it is like to be Eugenia Cheng, and success, in this respect, leads to embarrassment.

We’ll start with the trivia and work up.

There’s Cheng’s inner policeman, reminding her, as she discusses the role of pictures in mathematics “to acknowledge that this is thus arguably ableist and excludes those who can’t see.”

There are narcissistic exclamations that defy parody, as when Cheng explains that “the only thing I want everyone to care about is reducing human suffering, violence, hunger, prejudice, exclusion and heartbreak.” (Good to know.)

There are the Soviet-style political analogies for everything. Imaginary and complex numbers took a while to be accepted as numbers because, well, you know people: “some people lag behind, perhaps accepting women and black people but not gay people, or maybe accepting gay, lesbian and bisexual people but not transgender people.”

A generous reader may simply write these irritations off, but then Cheng’s desire to smash patriarchal power structures with the righteous hammer of ethnomathematics (which looks for “other types of mathematics” overlooked, undervalued or suppressed by the colonialist mainstream) tips her into some depressingly hackneyed nonsense. “Contemporary culture,” she tells us, “is still baffled by how ancient cultures were able to do things like build Stonehenge or construct the pyramids.”

Really? The last time I looked, the answers were (a) barges and (b) organised labour.

Cheng tells us she is often asked how she comes up with explanations and diagrams that bring clarity “to various sensitive, delicate, nuanced and convoluted social arguments.” Her training in the discipline of abstract mathematics, she explains, “makes those things come to me very smoothly.”

How smoothly? Well, quite early in the book, “intolerance of intolerance” becomes “tolerance” through a simple mathematical operation — a pratfall in ethics that makes you wonder what kind of world Cheng lives in. Cheng’s abstract mathematics may well be able solve her real-world problems — but I suspect most other people’s worlds feel a deal less tractable.

A lawyer scenting blood

Reading Unwired by Gaia Bernstein for New Statesman, 15 May 2023

In 2005, the journal Obesity Research published a study that, had we but known it, told us everything we needed to know about our coming addiction to digital devices.

The paper, “Bottomless Bowls: Why Visual Cues of Portion Size May Influence Intake” was about soup. Researchers led by Brian Wansink of Cornell University invited volunteers to lunch. One group ate as much soup as they wanted from regular bowls. The other ate from bowls that were bolted to the table and refilled automatically from below. Deprived of the “stopping signal” of an empty bowl, this latter group ate 73 per cent more than the others — and had no idea that they had over-eaten.

It’s a tale that must haunt the dreams of Asa Raskin, the man who invented, then publically regretted, “infinite scroll”. That’s the way mobile phone apps (from Facebook to Instagram, Twitter to Snapchat) provide endless lists of fresh content to the user, regardless of how much content has already been consumed.

Gaia Bernstein, a law professor at Seton Hall, includes infinite scroll in her book’s catalogue of addicting smart-device features. But this is as much about what these devices don’t do. For instance in his 2022 book Lost Focus Johann Hari wonders why Facebook never tells you which of your friends are nearby and up for a coffee. Well, the answer’s obvious enough: because lonely people, self-medicating with increasing quantities of social media, are Facebook’s way of making money.

What do we mean when we say that our mobile phones and tablets and other smart devices are addicting?

The idea of behavioural addiction was enshrined in DSM-5, the manual of mental disorders issued by the American Psychiatric Association, in 2015. DSM-5 is a bloated beast, and yet its flaky-sounding “Behavioral Addictions” — that, on the face of it, could make a mental disorder of everything we like to do — have proved remarkably robust, as medicine reveals how addictions, compulsions and enthusiasms share the same neurological pathways. You can addict humans (and not just humans) to pretty much anything. All you need to do is weaponise the environment.

And the environment, according to Bernstein’s spare, functional and frightening account, is most certainly weaponised. Teenagers, says Bernsteins, spend barely a third of the time partying that they used to in the 1980s, and the number of teens who get together with their friends has halved between 2000 and 2015. If ever there was a time to market a service to lonely people by making them more lonely, it’s now.

For those of us who want to sue GAMA (Google, Amazon, Meta, Apple) for our children’s lost childhood, galloping anxiety, poor impulse control, obesity, insomnia and raised suicide risk, the challenge is to demonstrate that it’s screentime that’s done all this damage to how they feel, and how they behave. And that, in an era of helicopter-parenting, is hard to do. danah boyd’s 2014 book It’s Complicated shows how difficult it’s going to be to separate the harms inflicted by little Johnny’s iPhone from all the benefits little Johnny enjoys. To hear boyd tell it, teenagers “obsessed” with social media are simply trying to recreate, for themselves and each other, a social space denied them by anxious parents, hostile authorities, and a mass media bent on exaggerating every conceivable out-of-doors danger.

The Covid pandemic has only exacerbated the stay-at-home, see-no-one trend among young people. Children’s average time online doubled from three to six hours during lockdown. It use to be that four per cent of children spent more than eight hours a day in front of a smart screen. Now over a quarter of them do.

Nor have we merely inherited this dismal state of affairs; we’ve positively encouraged it, stuffing our schools with technological geegaws in the fond and (as it turns out) wildly naive belief that I.T. will improve and equalise classroom performance. (It doesn’t, which this is why Silicon Valley higher-ups typically send their children to Waldorf schools, which use chalk, right up until the eighth grade.)

Bernstein, who regularly peppers an otherwise quite dry account with some eye-popping personal testimony, recalls meeting one mum whose son was set to studying history through a Roblox game mode called Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (set in ancient Greece). “Since then, whenever she asks him to get off Roblox, he insists it is homework.”

Bernstein believes there’s more to all this than a series of unfortunate events. She thinks the makers of smart devices knew exactly what they were doing, as surely as the tobacco companies knew that the cigarettes they manufactured caused cancer.

Bernstein reckons we’re at a legal tipping point: this is her playbook for making GAMA pay for addicting us to glass.

Here’s what we already know about how companies respond to being caught out in massive wrong-doing.

First, they ignore the problem. (In 2018 an internal Facebook presentation warned: “Our algorithm exploits the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness… If left unchecked [it would feed users] more and more divisive content to gain user attention & increase time on the platform.” Mark Zuckerberg responded by asking his people “not to bring something like that to him again”.)

Then they deny there’s a problem. Then they go to war with the science, refuting critical studies and producing their own. Then, they fend off public criticism — and place responsibility on the consumer — by offering targeted solutions. (At least the filter tips added to cigarettes were easy to use. Most “parental controls” on smart devices are so cumbersome and inaccessible as to be unuseable.) Finally, they offer to create a system of self-regulation — by which time, Bernstein reckons, you’ve won, or you will have won, so long as you have proven that the people you’re going after intended, all along, to addict their customers.

You might, naively, imagine that this matter rests upon the science. It doesn’t, and Bernstein’s account of the screentime science wars is quite weak — a shallow confection built largely of single studies.

The scientific evidence is stronger than Bernstein makes it sound, but there’s still a problem: it’ll take a generation to consolidate. There are other, better ways to get at the truth in a timely manner; for instance, statistics, which will tell you that we have the largest ever recorded epidemic of teenage mental health problems, whose rising curves correlate with terrifying neatness with the launch of various social media platforms.

Bernstein is optimistic: “Justifying legal interventions,” she says, “is easier when the goal is to correct a loss of autonomy”, and this after all, is the main charge she’s laying at GAMA’s door: that these companies have created devices that rob us of our will, leaving us ever more civically and psychologically inept, the more we’re glued to their products.

Even better (at least from the point of view of a lawyer scenting blood), we’re talking about children. “Minors are the Achilles heel,” Bernstein announces repeatedly, and with something like glee. Remember how the image of children breathing in their parents’ second-hand smoke broke big tobacco? Well, just extend the analogy: here we have a playground full of kids taking free drags of Capstans and Players No. 6.

Unwired is not, and does not aspire to be, a comprehensive account of the screen-addiction phenomenon. It exists to be used: an agenda for social change through legal action. It is a knife, not a brush. But it’ll be of much more than academic value to those of us whose parenting years were overshadowed by feelings of guilt, frustration and anxiety, as we fought our hopeless battles, and lost our children to TikTok and Fortnite.

On not being a horrible person

Reading The Human Mind by Paul Bloom for New Scientist, 11 May 2023

Inspired, he tells us, by The Origin of the Universe, John Barrow’s 1994 survey of what was then known about cosmology, the Canadian American psychologist Paul Bloom set about writing an introductory tome of his own: a brief yet comprehensive guide to the human mind.

Emulating Barrow’s superb survey has been hard because, as Bloom cheekily points out, “the mysteries of space and time turn out to be easier for our minds to grasp than those of consciousness and choice.”

The first thing to say — though hardly the most interesting — is that Bloom nevertheless succeeds, covering everything from perception and behaviour to language and development; there’s even a small but very worthwhile foray into abnormal psychology. It’s an account that is positive, but never self-serving. Problems in reproducing some key studies, the field’s sometimes scandalous manipulation of statistics, and the once prevailing assumption that undergrad volunteers could accurately represent the diversity of the entire human species, are serious problems, dealt with seriously.

Of course Bloom does more than simply set out the contents of the stall (with the odd rotten apple here and there); he also explores psychology’s evolving values. He recalls his early behaviourist training, in a climate hostile to (then rather woolly) questions about consciousness. “If we were asked to defend our dismissal of consciousness,” he recalls, “we would point out that intelligence does not require sentience.”

Intelligence is no longer the field’s only grail, and consciousness is now front and centre in the science of the mind. This is not only a technical advance; it’s an ethical one. In 1789 Jeremy Bentham asked whether the law could ever refuse its protection to “any sensitive being”, and pointed out that “The question is not, Can [certain beings] reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

Suffering requires consciousness, says Bloom; understanding one enables us to tackle the other; so the shift in interest to consciousness itself is a welcome and humanising move.

This strong belief in the humanitarian potential of psychology allows Bloom to defend aspects of his discipline that often discomfort outside observers. He handles issues of environmental and genetic influences on the mind very well, and offers a welcome and robust defence of Alfred Binet’s 1905 invention, the measure of general intelligence or “intelligence quotient”. Bloom shows that the IQ test is as robust a metric as anything in social science. We know that a full half of us score less than 100 on that test; should this knowledge not fill us with humility and compassion? (Actually our responses tend to be more ambiguous. Bloom points out that Nazi commentators hated the idea of IQ because they thought Jews would score better than they would.)

Bloom is concerned to demonstrate that minds do more than think. The privileging of thinking over feeling and intuiting and suffering is a mistake. “A lot depends on what is meant by ‘rational.’ Bloom writes. If you’re stepping outside and it’s raining and you don’t want to get wet, it’s rational to bring an umbrella. But rationality defined in this manner is separate from goodness. “Kidnapping a rich person’s child might be a rational way to achieve the goal of getting a lot of money quickly,” Bloom observes, “so long as you don’t have other goals, such as obeying the law and not being a horrible person.”

Bloom’s ultimate purpose is to explain how a robustly materialistic view of the mind is fully compatible with the existence of choice and morality and responsibility. This middle-of-the-road approach may disappoint intellectual storm-chasers, but the rest of us can can be assured of an up-to-the-minute snapshot of the field, full of unknowns and uncertainties, yes, and speculations, and controversies — but guided by an ever-more rounded idea of what it is to be human.

The mind unlocked

Reading The Battle for Your Brain by Nita Farahany for New Scientist, 19 April 2023

Iranian-American ethicist and lawyer Nita Farahany is no stranger to neurological intervention. She has sought relief from her chronic migraines in “triptans, anti-seizure drugs, antidepressants, brain enhancers, and brain diminishers. I’ve had neurotoxins injected into my head, my temples, my neck, and my shoulders; undergone electrical stimulation, transcranial direct current stimulation, MRIs, EEGs, fMRIs, and more.”

Few know better than Farahany what neurotechnology can do for people’s betterment, and this lends weight to her sombre and troubling account of a field whose speed of expansion alone should give us pause.

Companies like Myontec, Athos, Delsys and Noraxon already offer electromyography-generated insights to athletes and sports therapists. Control Bionics sells NeuroNode, a wearable EMG device for patients with degenerative neurological disorders, enabling them to control a computer, tablet, or motorised device. Neurable promises “the mind unlocked” with its “smart headphones for smarter focus.” And that’s before we even turn to the fast-growing interest in implantable devices; Synchron, Blackrock Neurotech and Elon Musk’s Neuralink all have prototypes in advanced stages of development.

Set aside the legitimate medical applications for a moment; Farahany is concerned that neurotech applications that used to let us play video games, meditate, or improve our focus have opened the way to a future of brain transparency “in which scientists, doctors, governments, and companies may peer into our brains and minds at will.”

Think it can’t be done? Think again. In 2017 A research team led by UC Berkeley computer scientist Dawn Song reported an experiment in which videogamers used a neural interface to control a video game. As they played, the researchers inserted subliminal images into the game and watched for unconscious recognition signals. This game of neurological Battleships netted them one player’s credit card PIN code — and their home address.

Now Massachusetts-based Brainwave Science is selling a technology called iCognative, which can extract information from people’s brains. At least, suspects are shown pictures related to crimes and cannot help but recognise whatever they happen to recognise. For example, a murder weapon. Emirati authorities have already successfully prosecuted two cases using this technology.

This so-called “brain fingerprinting” technique is as popular with governments (Bangladesh, India, Singapore, Australia) as it is derided by many scientists.

More worrying are the efforts of companies, in the post-Covid era, to use neurotech in their continuing effort to control the home-working environment. So-called “bossware” programmes already take regular screenshots of employees’ work, monitor their keystrokes and web usage, and photograph them at (or not at) their desks. San Francisco bioinformatics company Emotiv now offers to help manage your employees’ attention with its MN8 earbuds. These can indeed be used to listen to music or participate in conference calls — and also, with just two electrodes, one in each ear, they claim to be able to record employees’ emotional and cognitive functions in real time.

It’ll come as no surprise if neurotech becomes a requirement in modern workplaces: no earbuds, no job. This sort of thing has happened many times already.

“As soon as [factory] workers get used to the new system their pay is cut to the former level,” complained Vladimir Lenin in 1912. “The capitalist attains an enormous profit for the workers toil four times as hard as before and wear down their nerves and muscles four times as fast as before.”

Six years later, he approved funding for a Taylorist research institute. Say what you like about industrial capitalism, its logic is ungainsayable.

Farahany has no quick fixes to offer for this latest technological assault on the mind — “the one place of solace to which we could safely and privately retreat”. Her book left me wondering what to be more afraid of: the devices themselves, or the glee with which powerful institutions seize upon them.

“And your imaginations would again run out of room…”

Reading The Beetle in the Anthill and The Waves Extinguish the Wind by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. For The Times, 18 April 2023 

In Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s The Beetle in the Anthill, zoopsychologist Lev Abalkin and his alien companion, a sentient canine “bighead” called Puppen-Itrich, are sent to the ruined and polluted planet Hope to find out what happened to its humanoid population. Their search leads them through an abandoned city to a patch of tarmac, which Puppen insists is actually an interdimensional portal. Lev wonders what new world this portal might it lead to?

‘“Another world, another world…” grumbles Puppen. “As soon as you made it to another world, you’d immediately begin to remake it in the image of your own. And your imaginations would again run out of room, and then you’d look for another world, and you’d begin to remake that one, too.”’

Futility sounds like a funny sort of foundation for an enjoyable book, but the Strugatskys wrote a whole series of them, and they amount to a singular triumph. Fresh translations of the final two “Noon universe” books are being published this month.

Arkady Strugatsky was born in Batumi, Georgia, in 1925. His kid brother Boris, born in Leningrad in 1933, outlived him by nearly twenty years, though without his elder brother to bounce ideas off, he found little to write about. The brothers dominated Soviet science fiction throughout the 1970s. Their earliest works towed the socialist-realist line and featured cardboard heroes who (to the reader’s secret relief) eventually sacrificed themselves for the good of Humanity. But their interest in people became too much for them, and they ended up writing angst-ridden masterpieces like Roadside Picnic (which everyone knows, because Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker is based on it) and Lame Fate/Ugly Swans (which no-one knows, though Maya Vinokaur’s cracking English translation came out in 2020). Far too prickly to be published in the Soviet Union, their best work circulated in samizdat and (often unauthorised) translation.

The stories and novels of their “Noon universe” series ask what humans and aliens, meeting among the stars, would get up to with each other. Ordinary conflict is out of the question, since spacefaring civilisations have access to infinite resources. (The Noon universe is a techno-anarchist utopia, as is Iain Banks’s Culture, as is Star Trek’s Federation, and all for the same unassailable reason: there’s nothing to stop such a strange and wonderful society from working.)

The Strugatskys assume that there’s one only one really grand point to life as a technically advanced species — and that is to see to the universe’s well-being by nurturing sentience, consciousness, and even happiness.

To which you can almost hear Puppen grumble: Yes, but what sort of consciousness are you talking about? What sort of happiness are you promoting? In The Waves Extinguish the Wind (originally translated into English as The Time Wanderers), as he contemplates the possibility that humans are themselves being “gardened” by a superior race dubbed “Wanderers”, alien-chaser Toivo Glumov complains, “Nobody believes that the Wanderers intend to do us harm. That is indeed extremely unlikely. It’s something else that scares us! We’re afraid that they will come and do good, as they understand it!”’

Human beings and the Wanderers (whose existence can only ever be inferred, never proved) are the only sentient species who bother with outer space, and stick their noses into what’s going on among people other than themselves. And maybe Puppen is right; maybe such cosmic philanthropy boils down, in the end, to nothing more than vanity and overreach.

By the time of these last two novels, the Wanderers’ interference in human affairs is glaring, though it’s still impossible to prove.

In The Beetle in the Anthill Maxim Kammerer — a former adventurer, now a prominent official — is set on the trail of Lev Abalkin, a rogue “progressor” who is heading back to Earth.

Progressors travel from planet to planet and go undercover in “backward” societies to promote their technical and social development. But why shouldn’t Abalkin come home for a bit? He’s spent fifteen years doing a job he never wanted to do, in the remotest outposts, and he’s just about had enough. “Damn it all,” Kammerer complains, “would it really be so surprising if he had finally run out of patience, given up on COMCON and Headquarters, abandoned his military discipline, and come back to Earth to sort things out?”

By degrees, Kammerer and the reader discover why Kammerer’s bosses are so afraid of Abalkin’s return: he may, quite unwittingly, be a “Wanderer” agent.

So an individual’s ordinary hopes and frustrations play out against a vast, unsympathetic realpolitik. This is less science fiction than spy fiction — The Spy Who Came in From the Cold against a cosmic backdrop. And it’s tempting, though reductive, to observe the whole “noon universe” through a Cold War lens. Boris himself says in his afterword to The Beetle…:

“We were writing a tragic tale about the fact that even in a kind, gentle, and just world, the emergence of a secret police force (of any type, form, or style) will inevitably lead to innocent people suffering and dying.”

But the “noon universe” is no bald political parable, and it’s certainly not satire. Rather, it’s an unflinching working-out of what Soviet politics would look like if it did fulfil its promise. It’s a philosophical solvent, stripping away our intellectual vanities — our ideas of manifest destiny, our “outward urge” and all the rest — to expose our terrible littleness, and tremendous courage, in the face of a meaningless universe.

In their final novel The Waves Extinguish the Wind — assembled from fictional documents, reports, letters, transcripts and the like — we follow a somewhat older and wiser Maxim Kammerer as he oversees the heartbreaking efforts of his protogée Toivo Glumov to prove the existence of the Wanderers for once and for all. It’s an odyssey (involving peculiar disappearances, bug-eyed monsters and a bad-tempered wizard) that would be farcical, were it not tearing Glumov’s life to pieces.

Kammerer reckons Glumov is a fanatic. Does it even matter that humans are being tended and “progressed” by some superior race of gardener? “After all,” Kammerer says to his boss, Excellentz, ‘“what’s the worst we can say about the Wanderers?’” He’s thinking back to the planet called Hope, and that strange square of tarmac: ‘“They saved the population of an entire planet! Several billion people!”’

‘“Except they didn’t save the population of the planet,”’ Excellentz points out. ‘“They saved the planet from its population! Very successfully, too… And where the population has gone — that’s not for us to know.”’