May 12, 2022
An study of the factors behind economic growth attempts to reveal the ‘great cogs’ that drive development
For most of human history, we were caught in a stagnation trap. Improvements in technology and productivity led to population increases, and all those new people gobbled up the surplus, so that overall living standards always reverted to the historical average, barely above subsistence. Thomas Malthus, the unfairly maligned English clergyman, assumed this would always be the case. And yet, at least in the fortunate global north, things have been very different for the last century or so. How come?
This is the question the economist Oded Galor devised his rather grandiosely named “Unified Growth Theory” to address. (He uses lots of metaphors from physics, including “phase transition”, “economic black hole”, “gravitational forces”, and the like.) His answer, briefly, is that we sprang free of the Malthusian trap because of the effect the Industrial Revolution had on fertility rates. Rapid technological change placed a higher value on education, and families invested more in children’s schooling, which meant they could not afford to have so many children as before. So productivity gains were not swallowed up by burgeoning population. This virtuous cycle has persisted until the present, and might even, Galor suggests with unfashionable optimism, help us combine continued growth in living standards with reductions in carbon emissions. Continue reading...
Mar 30, 2022
The modern online environment undermines our independence of opinion, argues a human rights lawyer
It is often said that people are entitled to their opinions. But are they really? Do you have a God-given right to believe that torture is good, or that the moon landings were faked? To the extent that opinions are not merely secret possessions but dispositions to act a certain way in society, they are everyone’s business. So, no, you don’t have an inalienable right to your dumb opinion.
Unfortunately, that was also the position of the Spanish Inquisition and witch-hunters, who dreamed up vicious ways of attempting to uncover inner impiety. So these days we generally separate opinions (or beliefs) from the expression of them. Expression can be regulated, in the case of incitement to hatred, for example, but opinion is sacrosanct. It’s a fundamental freedom, but one that is everywhere under attack. Continue reading...
Mar 17, 2022
An editorial manager at Penguin tells the inside story of how an idea gets from an author’s head onto your bookshelves
If you were writing a satirical guide to the deadening jargon of university research assessments, you might well advise your reader: “Words must be conceived thoughtfully and birthed precisely for maximum narrative impact.” But it comes as a surprise to meet that disturbing sentence in Rebecca Lee’s otherwise jolly and friendly guide to everything that must happen behind the scenes before a book is published.
As an editorial manager at Penguin Random House, Lee is someone with long experience in instructing copy-editors, proofreaders, indexers, printers and all the other unsung heroes who, if they do their job well, invisibly make the author’s glory seem effortlessly attained. It doesn’t always go well, though; disarmingly, Lee admits to having been “part of a team that managed to print 20,000 copies of The Importance of Being Ernest”. Continue reading...
Jan 13, 2022
In this playful French prizewinner, the mysterious duplication of a plane and its passengers kickstarts an interrogation of reality
In the first chapter of this novel a hit man remarks to himself: “No one realises how much hit men owe to Hollywood scriptwriters.” But how does the author know? The throwaway joke, along with an unashamed obsession with verbally recreating and namechecking the mise-en-scène of streaming TV drama, is typical of the book’s effervescent playfulness. Hervé Le Tellier, after all, is the current president of Oulipo, the French “workshop of potential literature” whose past masters included Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec. And what he has done here would delight his forebears with its paradoxical nature: he has written an Oulipan bestseller, a Prix Goncourt-winning novel that has already shifted a million units on the continent.
Each chapter of the book’s first section introduces a different cast member, mainly French or American, in a different novelistic or televisual style (deftly handled in Adriana Hunter’s clever translation). After the hit man, Blake, we meet a writer, Victor Miesel, followed by film editor Lucie, architect André, musician Slimboy, six-year-old Sophie and her pet frog, lawyer Joanna, and mathematicians Adrian and Meredith. Victor’s story is a hilariously deadpan satire on the Parisian literary scene: his two unbestselling novels glory in the titles The Mountains Will Come to Find Us and Failures that Missed the Mark, while he also “translates entertaining English-language bestsellers that reduce literature to the status of a minor art for minors”. (He commences work on a book entitled The Anomaly, because of course he does.) Continue reading...
Jan 05, 2022
Ever felt something but struggled to express it? A new book might help you put a name to your ‘proluctance’
In 1983, Douglas Adams and John Lloyd published the classic satirical dictionary The Meaning of Liff, comprised of words for which there were no words yet. For instance: “Moffat, n., That part of a coat which is designed to be sat on by the person next to you on the bus”, or “Trispen, n., A form of intelligent grass. It grows a single, tough stalk and makes its home on lawns. When it sees the lawnmower coming it lies down and pops up again after it has gone by.” Novelty language books being an evergreen format, we are now offered The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig, the bound form of a long-running website, which is like a much more earnest and emo version of The Meaning of Liff.
The presiding mood here is a lugubrious narcissism, signalled by defining various nuances of loneliness, anxiety, bittersweetness and things that are “poignant”. There is “haunting solitude” (“wildred”) or “complicated solitude” (“innity”). There are terms for microanalytical worries about one’s “quintessential self” or “inner self”. The star lexeme here, which the author fondly observes has entered some people’s online vocabulary since he proposed it some years ago, is “sonder”, defined as “the awareness that everyone around you is the main character of their own story”. Continue reading...
Jul 29, 2021
The word ‘pingdemic’ is spreading as fast as the pandemic. But the meanings of ping stretch from the wild west to showjumping
Are you enjoying the pingdemic? Huge numbers of people are being told to self-isolate by the NHS Covid-19 app, which issues the instruction even if you have been sitting on the other side of a solid wall from an infected person. But what exactly is a “ping”?
From the early 19th century, “ping” was used onomatopoeically for a high-pitched metallic sound, and also for the sound of bullets flying overhead or ricocheting, perhaps borrowing some of the older sense of “ping”, to prick or stab (from the Latin pungere). From 1983, it could also mean a message sent from one computer to another to establish a connection, and so our modern use combines both. Continue reading...
Jul 17, 2021
Social media giants contribute to global conflicts and allow misinformation. How have they gained so much control, and what is that doing to our lives?
It’s good to remember that every time Mark Zuckerberg claims that he founded Facebook in order to connect people or build communities, he is somehow forgetting that he first created the site in order to enable himself and his fellow dorm-dwellers to rate Harvard’s young women on their looks. But then, Zuckerberg has never been the sharpest tool in the box. He once said that Facebook wouldn’t interfere with Holocaust-denial on its service, because it was hard to impugn people’s motives for denying the Holocaust, before a couple of years later announcing that his “thinking” on the matter had “evolved” and Holocaust denial was now frowned upon. Well, evolution does work slowly.
But as Charles Arthur’s coolly prosecutorial book shows, social-media algorithms don’t just allow people with nefarious interests to get together: they perform as active matchmakers. “Facebook was hothousing extremism by putting extremists in touch with each other,” concluded Facebook’s own internal investigations in 2016. Not only that, Facebook was “auto-generating terrorist content”: its “machine learning” systems created a “Local Business” page for “al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula”. Continue reading...
Jul 15, 2021
Once denoting wariness, then a euphemism for birth control, extra ‘precautions’ are now on Boris Johnson’s agenda. What does the word mean?
The prime minister recently indicated that even after 19 July, trumpeted as Covid freedom day, we might still need to follow some “precautions”. A cynic might suppose that this term is now being used only so that the government can say that it lifted its “restrictions”, or what were vaguely termed “measures”. Otherwise, what’s the difference?
In Latin, praecautio means circumspection or wariness, deriving ultimately from cavere, to take care. (Which is where we also get “caveat emptor”.) Its first recorded use in English is by the diplomat Sir Henry Wotton, writing from Dublin to the poet John Donne in 1599. Wotton recommends to Donne a certain “gentleman of Germany” who might be helped with a sum of money after “due precaution” taken to ensure his deservingness. Much later, “precautions” became a 20th-century euphemism for birth control. Continue reading...
Jul 02, 2021
From the first race to the moon to the plutocrats’ search for the next Earth, a story of great risks offers rewards
At the end of July the second richest man in the world, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, plans to blast himself into space, a project that has prompted a satirical global petition asking him to stay there. If the history of human space exploration ended at that moment, with the phallic self-launch of a narcissistic tax avoider, it would be a bathetic endpiece to a remarkable story that began with Nazi weaponry and has encompassed arguably the greatest achievement to date of human civilisation.
It is nearly 50 years since people last walked on the surface of the moon – the moon! – in an age with no internet or smartphones, driven there in rattling tin cans at unimaginable speeds by huge controlled explosions. Boosters of the modern app economy love to claim that right now the pace of technological change is the fastest it has ever been, but they are somehow forgetting the period between 1957, when the USSR put the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit, and 1969, when three men flew to the moon and two of them descended in a separate spacecraft, walked around collecting rocks, and then blasted off again, docking with the original spacecraft, before flying back to Earth and splashing down safely in the ocean. Continue reading...
Jun 19, 2021
Blake Morrison on boomers, Chris Power on Gen X, Megan Nolan on millennials and Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé on Gen Z … which books shaped your generation?
It took till the end of the decade for the 60s to arrive in our provincial backwater, but the impact was all the stronger for being delayed. Unlike my parents, who’d survived the war and settled down to build a comfortable life, I yearned for risk, adventure, escape. I had a vision of it already from Mr Toad in The Wind in the Willows – “the open road, the dusty highways … Travel, change, interest, excitement. The whole world before you and a horizon that’s always changing” – but Mr Toad was a comical figure, whereas Sal Paradise, the narrator of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, was cool. Continue reading...
Jun 10, 2021
Instead of using complex strings of code, or demonising innocent geographical areas, the Greek alphabet offers neutral names for ‘variants of concern’
The politics of naming plague variants was fraught even before Donald Trump began talking about “the China virus”. Spaniards were not thrilled at being nominally blamed for the 1918 pandemic of “Spanish flu”, now known as H1N1. But strings of numbers and letters are hard to keep track of, so perhaps there is a middle way between those and the demonisation of perfectly innocent geographical areas. Just because a nasty new bug is first noticed in a place doesn’t mean it originated there.
It is for such reasons, indeed, that biomedical officialdom has decided to start using more neutral names for what are euphemistically called “variants of concern”. The “Indian variant” of the Sars-CoV-2 virus, now the most prevalent in the UK thanks to Boris Johnson’s liberal policy with the borders he took back control of, has been renamed Delta, being the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet. (Kent was alpha, South Africa beta and Brazil gamma.) Continue reading...
May 19, 2021
Who should regulate false information? A ‘nudge’ expert and former adviser to Barack Obama takes on free speech
At the end of February 2020, Cass Sunstein, the academic lawyer and “nudge politics” entrepreneur who was once Barack Obama’s regulatory tsar, wrote an opinion piece about Covid-19 for Bloomberg News. “A lot of people are more scared than they have any reason to be,” he complained; the real peril was “excessive fear”, which might hurt the economy. Within a month, more than 1,000 people had died in New York alone. In his new book about what we can do to mitigate the spread of false information in society, Sunstein castigates the Fox News anchor Sean Hannity for failing to take Covid seriously on 27 February – the day before his own opinion piece, which he mysteriously fails to mention. Must Sunstein now cancel himself?
Sunstein was not lying, any more than Hannity was: they both believed that the risk of coronavirus was being overstated. But Sunstein was doing one thing that Hannity was not: he was presenting himself as an expert by adopting a wonkish pseudo-scientific tone, ascribing the supposedly ungrounded fears about the new virus to cognitive bias: one he himself named “probability neglect”. This appeal to the realm of the “cognitive” lent unearned rhetorical authority to Sunstein’s pronouncements about the virus, which were no less dismissive than the Fox News presenter’s. Continue reading...
Apr 27, 2021
From Duchamp to Orwell, fascism to Brexit … this collection of journalism and speeches showcases one of the world’s best haters, who has never composed a dull paragraph
Jonathan Meades is a sceptic. Not in the debased sense of someone who gullibly parrots the claims of shills and the deluded that global warming is a hoax, or that masks don’t mitigate the spread of respiratory viruses. Nor in the idly egotistical sense Meades himself identifies as “the English bents towards spiritual sloth and intellectual incuriosity, what we dignify as scepticism”. But in the fiery and ancient sense of scepticism: he is not just a man of little faith but an enemy of belief itself: a jeerer at creeds, a sneerer at doctrines of all flavours, metaphysical and otherwise.
He has too much sly wit, of course, to identify himself as such: “While it would be beguiling to appoint oneself part of that knowing cadre which lacks conviction,” he admits in the preface to this new collection of journalism and speeches, “I lack the conviction to do so.” He does not, like some celebrity pontificators, award himself a gold star for his ability to identify junk. He is too busy enjoying himself blowing raspberries. Meades sees faith everywhere, and loudly despises it everywhere. Not just in the screeds of terrorists or Catholics, about which he is entertaining enough (in one piece, he refers lightly to “the Church’s strong suit, paedophilia”), but also in politics. Continue reading...
Mar 25, 2021
Lamentably, shedding a virus doesn’t mean we get rid of it – but it’s a different story when employers shed staff
Have you checked whether you’re shedding lately? It was recently reported that “viral shedding” of Sars-CoV-2 is strongest in the afternoon. Pleasingly, the OED notes that “shedding” can also mean “a collection of sheds”, such as David Cameron might compose his memoirs in – but that is not the sense we want right now.
Whereas your garden-variety shed is an old English variant of the word “shade”, the verb “to shed” derives from Old English scēadan, from an old Germanic root meaning “to divide or separate”. An early sense in English was agricultural, as farmers would (and might still do) speak of shedding sheep into separate pens, or shedding calves from cows. From there “shed” acquires other senses, of parting hair, pouring forth (as roach fishes do their spawn, observed a 16th-century commentator), spilling liquid (or shedding blood, or tears), or emanating sound, heat, or ardent photons – “shed the light of love”, as Wordsworth’s “The Prelude” has it. Continue reading...
Mar 04, 2021
Is it possible to have more than five very close friends? A miscellany of modern research reveals the life-saving power of our relationships
“There is nothing to which nature seems so much to have inclined us, as to society,” wrote Montaigne in “Of Friendship”, an essay celebrating and mourning his BFF, Etienne de La Boétie. According to research cited by the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, however, men are much less likely to have a “best friend forever” than women, who are more socially skilled in general. This finding might have surprised Montaigne, who supposed women lacked the “constancy of mind” even to be adequate friends to their husbands.
Dunbar belongs in the rarefied ranks, along with Avogadro and Euler, of those who have had a number named after them. His own is 150, which represents a rough cognitive limit to the number of people we can have a stable social relationship with, and so is more or less the natural human group size. In this pleasantly chatty book, a miscellany of modern research on sociableness, he rehearses this argument and his other famous idea – that language evolved so that gossip could replace time-consuming mutual grooming – as well as citing lots of other social-science experiments. Some, to be sure, will not amaze anyone who is not a literal extraterrestrial: “We gain a surprising amount of information from the nonverbal cues that we wrap around our words when we speak,” for example, though it’s not surprising at all. Others are more interesting: the fact, for example, that people who sing together in choirs subsequently enjoy an increased pain threshold, or that conversations involving more than four people are unstable and will usually split into two. Continue reading...
Feb 17, 2021
The standing stones at Avebury and the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney are henges, but it is generally agreed that Stonehenge is not. But why?
In archeological news, researchers have recently unearthed evidence to suggest that Stonehenge was originally built in Wales, before being taken and re-erected at its present site in Wiltshire. But what is a “henge” anyway?
Since “henge” was an old English word for “hang”, it is thought that the place name “Stonehenge” meant “the hanging stones”, ie the lintel pieces suspended across two columns. In 1932 the British archaeologist Sir Thomas Downing Kendrick proposed the back formation “henge” to describe any such neolithic monument in a circular or oval earthen enclosure, including Woodhenge, a site discovered in 1926 where concentric rings of timber poles were once erected, for reasons still uncertain. Continue reading...
Jan 01, 2021
Do we think of people who keep fit as more successful? The history and politics of an idea
When did “fitness” become a pastime in itself, an interest separated from any particular physical activity? When people employ a “personal trainer”, what are they training for? What is the thing for which they must sweat to attain a state of perpetual readiness? And when did “fitness” become not just a physical but a moral good, the obligatory aim of every citizen? Luckily this book enables one to approach such mysteries from the comfort of one’s armchair.
The word “fit” appeared in English (as “fyt”) in the 15th century, meaning appropriate or well suited. In Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Henry VIII, when the king sends for his new secretary, Gardiner, saying “I find him a fit fellow”, he doesn’t mean that the man has admirable cardiovascular capacity. And so something may be fit for a king, or not fit to be repeated, down the ages. Early on, too, “fitness” acquired a moral patina, as it could mean a person’s worthiness rather than simply suitability, and “the eternal fitness of things” was an 18th-century catchphrase about humans’ correct (“fitting”) relationship with a divinely ordered universe. Continue reading...
Nov 19, 2020
An international taskforce tackles global heating in this chilling yet hopeful vision of how the next few decades might unfold
It opens like a slow-motion disaster movie. In the near future, a heatwave of unsurvivable “wet-bulb” temperatures (factoring in humidity) in a small Indian town kills nearly all its inhabitants in a week. The Indian government sends up planes to spray sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere to mimic the dimming effect of major volcanic eruptions. This does not, naturally, meet with unalloyed approval around the world.
A new international climate-crisis body has been “charged with defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves”, and is quickly dubbed the Ministry for the Future. It is led by our protagonist, Mary Murphy, former foreign minister of Ireland. Her outfit may or may not also have a black ops wing, but a shadowy terrorist network called the “Children of Kali” has no white ops wing: it uses drone swarms to crash passenger jets and container ships in deadly protest at continuing carbon emissions. Continue reading...
Nov 19, 2020
From clockwork to computer ... this fascinating study looks at metaphors for the brain and explores the colourful history of neuroscience
Is your brain a computer? Is mine? Is Boris Johnson’s? And if so, where is the tech support hotline? Brains were once conceived of as marvellous clockwork, pneumatic or hydraulic devices, but for the last 70 years we have been encouraged to think of our wetware as our own modern technology. But the brain doesn’t contain any digital switches and was not designed for the convenience or edification of any external user. The idea that it is a computer is just the latest in a series of metaphors, and one that is looking increasingly threadbare.
So runs the argument of the zoologist Matthew Cobb’s rich and fascinating book, which divides neatly into two parts, or hemispheres. The first is a cultural and scientific history of how previous ages thought of the brain. It was a collection of cavities through which animal spirits flowed; then it became a machine, which was a breakthrough idea: perhaps you could investigate it as you might any machine, by breaking it down into its constituent parts and seeing what they do. This suggestion had to be invented, being first put forward in the mid-17th century by the Danish anatomist (and bishop) Nicolaus Steno. Continue reading...
Nov 12, 2020
The government’s reversal of policy on free school meals is just the latest in its long line of U-turns
The UK government made a “U-turn”, it was reported, when it agreed after all to extend free school meals, adding another letter to the very bad Scrabble rack representing its policy history. But why a “U-turn”?
The distinction between “u” and “v” as separate letters (they were the same in the Roman alphabet) dates only from the 16th century in Europe. In the early 19th century we hear of a lecture hall lit by gas from “u tubes”, which sounds rather modern. An 1825 medical text, meanwhile, refers to a “u-like” bone in the neck, the hyoid (literally, shaped like the Greek letter upsilon). Continue reading...
Nov 04, 2020
The government may be hoping ‘uplift’ will raise spirits, but their latest feel-good word can also mean seismic change …
When first asked to extend free school meals over the holidays, the British government pointed to its “uplift” to universal credit of £20 per week. The media dutifully mentioned the “uplift”, but when did it become impermissible to say simply “raise” or “increase”?
It was the American writer Nathaniel Parker Willis, friend of Edgar Allan Poe, who first used “uplift” as a compound noun in 1845, in a poem describing the baby prophet Nathan’s presentation to King David: “His brow / Had the inspired up-lift of the king’s.” In the following decade geologists described how land could be subject to “uplift” over time. Not until the mid-20th century was it adopted in business to mean (at first) an increase in prices, and therefore profits – as in the fees charged to the government by Serco. Continue reading...
Sep 01, 2020
From pick-up artists to incels … a journey through the ‘manosphere’ explores the radicalisation of misogynist men
Some men have for years been trying to deny women the right to their own safe spaces. In the 1970s, the anti-feminist “men’s rights” movement was born, including one US group called the National Coalition for Men. As Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism project, explains, this body has “repeatedly entered lawsuits against women-only spaces – alleging discrimination on the part of sports teams, networking events, and groups seeking to increase women’s participation in business and technology … It has also filed court cases seeking to force the defunding of women’s domestic violence shelters, unless they admit men.”
Related: Men going their own way: the rise of a toxic male separatist movement Continue reading...
Aug 29, 2020
Does exercise help you lose weight? Does jogging wreck your knees? … An evolutionary biologist provides entertainment and helpful tips
Mark Twain once said that he got all the exercise he needed acting as a pallbearer at the funerals of his friends who exercised regularly. Similarly, Donald Trump reportedly thinks the human body is like a battery with a limited store of energy, and so chooses not to use up any of it on exercise. This may be the only thing the two men have in common.
Suspicion of exercise, though, is entirely natural, as the evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman points out in this entertaining and informative book. When interviewed, modern hunter-gatherer peoples are mystified as to why westerners should be obsessed with running long distances and lifting heavy weights when they don’t have to. Continue reading...
Aug 26, 2020
The government repeatedly called Ofqual’s method of determining grades robust - shortly before abandoning it. So what does the word really mean?
The British government repeatedly said that the algorithm designed to make up exam grades for pupils who weren’t able to take them was “robust”, shortly before abandoning it because it was apparently broken. So how robust is an official claim that something is robust?
To call things “robust” is arguably a kind of crypto-machismo, which is to be expected from the particular men currently misgoverning us. It originally referred to bodily sturdiness, as in William Caxton’s 1490 translation of the prologue to Virgil’s Aeneid, when the hero proves his “robuste puyssaunce” by yanking a tree out of the ground. It derives from the Latin robustus, literally “made of oak”, and thereafter strong or firm. Continue reading...
Aug 15, 2020
From ‘Covid-secure’ offices to healthcare ‘heroes’ bracing for a new ‘wave’, the language around coronavirus is infected with political rhetoric
The word “alert” comes from the Italian “all’erta”, literally “at a high place”, describing a military watch or guard duty. The UK government’s advice to “stay alert” in order to “control the virus” therefore implied that it would be easier to spot an invisible microbe if one were standing on a hill. Perhaps the underlying motivation for this much-ridiculed slogan was that it set the rhetorical scene for future spikes in deaths to be blamed on the people themselves. Did you die of Covid-19? Too bad: you weren’t alert enough. Survival of the fittest, and all that. Continue reading...