Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Links for the next meeting - Enough by John Naish

It's an interesting book, but some aspects and the tone might be unpopular. I expect this to be quite an involved and heated debate at times.

"The concept of presenteeism is interesting. This is where people spend hours at their desks not achieving anything because they are too tired, stressed, under-stimulated, distracted or depressed to be productive.
Workaholics Anonymous is a new movement based on AA principles. In an extreme paradox, earning more simply increases discontentment.
If you don’t know what ‘enough’ is, you are not free.
Corporate Stockholm Syndrome makes people believe that their overwork habits are driven by irresistible external forces. They then frown on normal timekeepers and make their lives a misery.
“All the gear but no idea” applies to fair-weather sports enthusiasts but could equally be applied to many who cannot stop stockpiling possessions.
We have too many options – a torture of choice. 60% of adults only use half of the functions on their devices. Only 1 in 6 reads the manual.
WILFing is a pointless form of shopping: What Was I Looking For?
We always think things will be better in the future. Present quality of life is deemed to be 6.9 out of 10 (and guessed at 8.2 in 5 years time). But when the time comes, it’s still 6.9."

"The chapter that I probably found most useful was the chapter relating to information overload - this chapter definitely resonated with me. I did also find some of the psychological research quoted and described in the book interesting and informative and it was these sections of the book that gave me the most food for thought. On the whole though I found the book a little preachy (something the author ironically talks about not wanting to come across as towards the end of the book) and unoriginal. I think some good points are raised about our cultures and communities - particularly in relation to the vast differences that are evident in western developed nations and developing nations - but overall the book the did not grab me. Maybe I was expecting too much - was the book not "enough"? Maybe I need to reflect on what "enough" means for me in my own way? Maybe I'm just not in the right mindset at the moment to accept the message being delivered? Questions to ponder..."

"The only trouble I had with the book was in the closing pages where he confronted the unsustainability of our capitalist culture. Naish claims that growth cannot continue. Maybe I read too much into it but it started to sound a bit too much like nouveau-Marxism and made me uncomfortable. However, I take the point that at the rate we’re going, we’re going to use up all of the world’s resources on disposable gadgets before little NH finishes college. There’s just too much crap in the landfills to keep this up. He’s right, something has to give.
All in all it’s an interesting book if only to make you consider the profound idea that less is more. Naish’s writing style is engaging, witty and even humorous and that gives his arguments an easy-going, conversational twist. Reading Enough was more akin to dinner conversation than preaching and for that reason is highly recommended."

"What both Naish and [Oliver] James have in common is a deeply degraded view of human beings. Admittedly, Naish sees himself as defending people against the scourge of consumerism, and James would claim that he is trying to protect individuals from mental illness. But both see humans as fundamentally feeble creates who find it hard to cope with the demands of contemporary society.
In particular, both of them see the human desire to improve our lot and obtain more as deeply distasteful. Both of them, in their different ways, argue that humans should curb their desires. For Naish, it is primarily a question of finding techniques for people to develop their ‘inner ration book’. For James, it is about modifying the structure of capitalism to make people less acquisitive and about providing widespread therapy."

"Like other critics, he has no doubt that evolution shaped the human brain. How could it be otherwise, when evolution has shaped every other human organ? But evo psych's claims that human behavior is constrained by mental modules that calcified in the Stone Age make sense "only if the environmental challenges remain static enough to sculpt an instinct over evolutionary time," Pigliucci points out. If the environment, including the social environment, is instead dynamic rather than static—which all evidence suggests—then the only kind of mind that makes humans evolutionarily fit is one that is flexible and responsive, able to figure out a way to make trade-offs, survive, thrive and reproduce in whatever social and physical environment it finds itself in. In some environments it might indeed be adaptive for women to seek sugar daddies. In some, it might be adaptive for stepfathers to kill their stepchildren. In some, it might be adaptive for men to be promiscuous. But not in all. And if that's the case, then there is no universal human nature as evo psych defines it."

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Alexander Masters' new book

Some of us read and enjoyed Stuart, a Life Backwards. The author now has a new book out, about Simon Norton, a mathematician.

There was an extract in The Guardian yesterday:

"Simon's mother, now dead, taught him maths, up to quadratic equations. Astounding, for a British housewife in the 1950s – no one in the family can explain it. Simon says he's a fluke of genetics. Every birth is a gamble by nature, a throwing in the air of infinite possibilities. In Simon's case, "The molecules settled in my favour. Neither of my brothers is particularly intelligent."

Francis Norton, Simon's middle brother, works in a shop called SJ Phillips, the oldest family-run antique jewellery business in the world. It's because Francis keeps the family firm alive and profitable that Simon has never had to have a job or a mortgage and, despite using 17 different variants of bus, train and visitor-attraction discount cards, doesn't actually need a single one of them.

Francis lives on the other side of Hampstead from Simon's oldest brother, Michael. Every year Francis or Michael invites Simon to their house for Passover; and every year Simon arrives with his shoelaces flapping, his bus timetables and his smells, and eats all the parsley.

Simon's first ever mathematical memory is of sitting on his parents' sofa, working out the value of two to the power of 30. One moment he was fidgeting quietly on the cushions; the next he was soaring into the stratosphere of the thousands, and lo! "My life as a mathematician had begun.""

You can read more on Alexander Masters' site, or pre-order it here

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Long Live The Book

This is a short film made by AbeBooks apparently in response to the 'I Hate Reading' group on Facebook, which alarmingly has nearly 450,000 members...

Long Live The Book!

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Orwell Revisited

There was a great article on the BBC website last week, updating Down and Out in Paris and London:

"When I meet Modi from Mali, he looks as if he might drop down dead with fatigue. Like Orwell, Modi is a plongeur, a washer-upper in a big restaurant and he works six days a week, 12 hours a day cleaning pots and pans.

When we talk in the bar of a neighbouring restaurant, his head keeps drooping onto his folded arms and it seems to be such an effort for him to articulate his words that he either slurs them all together in a gluey, glottal jumble, or shoots out small phrases in tiny bursts of energy that fizzle out before the last word has been formed.

Orwell complained that when working as a plongeur he felt as if his back were broken and his head "filled with hot cinders". Modi agrees that he aches all over and at the end of the day he cannot feel his feet.

Because rent in Paris is too expensive, he lives an hour's train ride outside the city. Although after midnight the trains are slower so it takes two hours for Modi to get home. He gets up at 0700 and gets to bed at 0200. Most plongeurs in Paris these days are either Pakistani or West African. I stop asking myself why that is, when Modi tells me how much he is paid - just under 4 euros (£3.50) an hour. He's working, of course, "on the black".

"The last time I had a night out," he says flicking through a virtual diary in his brain, "was... last year.""

Well worth a read, if you read the book.