The Death of Expertise

Statler and Waldorf

You all think you’re right, but we know we’re right!

The recent media furore over sick child Charlie Gard was emblematic of one thing, the death of expertise. The desperate and easily-led parents argued with the Peadiatricians at the world-renowned Great Ormond Street Hospital that treatment for their terminally ill little boy should be extended. It duly went to court, the Doctors naturally won, being experts in the care of sick children, but a media storm was ignited by the usual subjects in the UK tabloid media. The extreme right wing NHS haters then fanned the flames, and were buoyed by US Clown-in-Chief Donald Trump who tweeted that America would help.

Mike’s a thick as pigshit knuckledragger

America couldn’t (the US Doctor hadn’t even looked at the boy’s brain scans and turned out to be a publicity seeker) , the kid’s still going to die, and the parents have now ungraciously admitted defeat. It would have been a suitable example for “The Death of Expertise” , a new book by Tom Nichols adjunct Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College, bemoaning the arrogance and ignorance of the mob.

A good read about how far we have fallen

It’s mainly US-focused, but none the worse for that, and describes the “narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism” currently poisoning the polity, ultimately resulting in self-defeating disasters like Brexit and the Presidency of Donald Trump. The ground he covers isn’t exactly revelatory with the Dunning–Kruger effect, the internet/Facebook and ‘news as entertainment’ highlighted as causal factors. The chapter on higher education was interesting, and all in all, it is well-written and engaging.

I do think he’s left some things out though. In particular the spread of managerialism from the corporate sector to just about everywhere else, the standard of public/state education, the decline of reading fiction, and the infantile nature of popular culture, especially Hollywood.

Daily Mail readers comment on story about some new photos of Hitler that have recently been found. Sigh.

A population that doesn’t read stories can’t empathize with others. A population that can’t concentrate on a serious (non-action, non super-hero) film is unlikely to be able to show common-sense, and good judgement when faced with complex problems. How a mob of mawkish Daytime TV watchers can be so easily manipulated as in the Charlie Gard case is just another example of why public education needs a thorough overhaul and vastly increased investment in the UK and the US. This wouldn’t happen in Holland or Germany, or Canada.

It’s a depressing topic for sure, but this is not a depressing book. Like Statler & Waldorf it’s sometimes nice to wallow in righteousness and it’s a theraputic response to the tidal wave of knuckledragging ignorance crashing over the Anglo-American world.

All That Man Is

A lot of literature written about men describes the way they would like to be viewed from the outside, Cool, calm, collected, James Bond, Jack Reacher. If you want anything that delves into a man’s actual feelings, inadequacies, or the challenges we face daily, it is likely to be heavy on imagery and description, rather than the confessional nature of books focusing on women. Hemingway’s male characters don’t tell you how their feeling but you guess from the words and actions, like an outsider looking in. The modern antidote to this a UK TV show called “Peep Show” where the two main (male) characters are accompanied by a voiceover charting their tortured internal logic, selfishness, occasional selflessness, frequent helplessness, and general bafflement at the human condition, as they desperately try to keep up appearances and conform to the masculine ideal. If you liked that deep look into the psyche and thought processes of men, then a new book of short stories “All That Man Is” by David Szalay is for you.

All that man is

Captivating, real.

The book is in nine parts, all set in various parts of Europe, with each story about a different man at a particular stage of life, emerging from adolescence, youth, maturity, middle age or older. None of the characters have much in common on the face of it (penniless posh English student, French tourist, Russian Billionaire, retired civil servant, Scottish misanthrope) but all have exactly the same fixations – sex or love, money and the associated pride, status and self-image. The strange thing is you start each story thinking “this clown is nothing like me” but every single time you get this awful echo of your own past, or fear of your own future.

It’s mesmeric despite some of the rather depressing subject matter. Part 9 is the story of the bitter middle-aged drunken Scot living a rentier (The absurdly inflated UK housing market pays for all sorts of people globally, I promise you) in Croatia. His self-delusion, sheer greed and sense of entitlement is something to behold. I always used to have running joke with Asian expat friends that if it all went wrong you could just retreat to Batam (a dusty Indonesian island across the Singapore strait) and eke out a meagre existence drinking cheap beer and eating $1 mee goreng. The fact that this guy chose Croatia is by the by – it’s the same mode of existence. His travails and disasters are cringeworthy but absolutely ring true. For modern day realism, sly, dark humour and Szalay’s chameleon like ability to make each character alive and believable in very different contexts, this is highly recommended.





A Whole Life

Simple and hypnotic

Simple and hypnotic

There aren’t many books I can read in one sitting, and “A Whole Life” by Robert Seethaler isn’t one of them. It took two sittings. Before I went to sleep and after I woke up. Probably 2 hours in total as it’s not a very long novel, but strangely hypnotic. There isn’t much of a plot – the novel just details the miserable childhood, moderately better coming-of-age, solitary maturity and relatively happy old age of an Austrian mountain man, Andreas Egger, through the twentieth century.

Egger is the definition of phlegmatic. Whatever life throw’s at him, including natural disasters, lost love, the eastern front, and the small-minded Alpine neighbours’ typical Austrian conservatism, he accepts.

Egger does not search for meaning, he just lives, without getting frustrated over events that he cannot control. The important things in his life are his and his alone, like the first time he meets his future wife. He doesn’t look for meaning, he accepts the small victories with gratitude, rather than trying to balance them on some imaginary scales against any amount of suffering or misfortune.

The book has been a best seller in Germany. I naturally read the English translation and to me, it was beautifully done. Highly recommended.

When Breath Becomes Air

Beautifully written and very insightful

Beautifully written and very insightful

I am supposed to be writing a short piece about skiing in the Japanese Alps east of Tokyo. A self-indulgent vehicle for some spectacular POV skiing videos and a smug record of my transition from social media workhorse in Singapore to international bon viveur and adventurer. Life just doesn’t work like that though. Months of planning my post-resignation ski odyssey, my “fourth ski season” with guided adventures, and endless powder didn’t add up to anything.

I was supposed to wave goodbye to Singapore on the morning of January 29th and fly to Tokyo sipping Champagne in SIA economy plus. Instead I was flying to Manchester in KLM economy with a bleeding 2.8 cm deep, 3 cm diameter, surgical wound in my upper thigh and a ringing (literally he called me just before I headed for the airport on the evening of January 28th) endorsement from a surgeon that the suspected post-op diagnosis was a disease called Melioidosis, and that I should seek immediate treatment.

So instead of a cosy Ryokan in a snowy wonderland, I’m in isolation room J14, infectious diseases ward J3 in North Manchester General Hospital, approximately 11 miles from where I grew up. It started as these things do with a minor irregularity, a cut that wouldn’t heal that I noticed over Christmas. Through January, my health spiralled downwards and gradually, disbelievingly, I realized that this was going to be no extended ski holiday and I was heading into a medical whirlygig.

Bearding up in ward J3

Bearding up in ward J3

Without going into extravagant detail, the treatment consists of regular intravenous antibiotics, combined with poking, prodding, scans and encouraging words. So I’m left with hours to fill and reading is my way of escape. Currently a bestseller in the US, “When Breath Becomes Air” is the memoir of a late, eminent neurologist & neuroscientist Paul Kalanithi who was diagnosed with lung cancer at 36 years old and died in March 2015, 8 months after birth of his first child at 37. “Couldn’t you read something more cheery?” queried my Mum who is worried about my mental state. Well actually when I’m plunged into a new situation (first general aneasthetic, first hospitalization, first time anyone’s said “this is treatable, the prognosis is good”) my first reaction is to read up. I have suddenly developed an interest in medicine, illness, and death that is completely at odds with my distaste for the subject as recently as the “Call the Midwife” Christmas special.

The first thing about this is it isn’t a conventional cancer memoir, detailing every stage of his illness, treatment and decline. It’s much more about the man’s life, his struggle to become a brain surgeon, and the experience of having his dream snatched away just as he stood atop his professional mountain. There are countless reviews of this book online, most much more insightful than this but I have a few observations. Firstly, it’s beautifully written. As much as anything this man was a writer and I recommend it just on the basis of that. Secondly it is very moving, but only in the sense of being a frank unsparing memoir, not in a schmaltzy, glib “Scrubs” kind of way.

My fascination is really with the chapters about how he decided to become a neurosurgeon and the struggle that ensued. I would find the responsibility of making decisions on a person’s immediate physical future virtually impossible I think, and it’s reassuring to know that, despite medicine being his “calling”, Dr Kalanithi took years to come to terms with it. Secondly, although it sounds macabre, the descriptions of operating, are fascinating, better than any diagram, you get a feel for what he actually did as a surgeon.

Lastly the theme of this book is death and it gives lie to the myth that Doctors are some kind of omnipotent force, with a black and white line between treatment and decline. He freely admits that physicians are necessarily working in a grey area where they make frequent but unavoidable mistakes. They simply cannot know the outcome of any particular course of action, and just rely on judgment and instinct based on an exhaustive education and experience. The religious dogma that life is sacred and that the physician is always working to extend it is completely undermined by the complexity of treating serious injuries and chronic disease. Even in his own final days this reality is clear with his and his doctors’ rejection of a ventilator to help him breathe in favor of morphine and a more peaceful and necessarily quicker death. If that isn’t a form of voluntary euthanasia I don’t know what is. It happens every day all over the world and I hope the dignity of this choice is extended beyond cancer to other conditions like MS or locked-in syndrome where people live in a kind of excruciating limbo for potentially years.

For my part, despite my current affliction I didn’t find it depressing at all. Kalanithi’s real insight is Hemingway-esque in that he decides it is the struggle that’s the stuff of life. Bad things will happen to you and, within reason, you just have to suffer through, just as you should enjoy the good times. Not much help? Well, that’s reality for you.

“Submission” – Best Novel of 2015

Best seller in France and other literate countries

Best seller in France and other literate countries

Submission” by Michel Houllebecq is a triumph. It’s maybe the best novel he will ever write – with his familiar middle-aged male anti-hero finding redemption in the arms of Islam, rather than the destructive spiral down evident in his previous works. The plot has been much talked about in the wake of Charlie Hebdo and subsequently Paris. A middle-aged French academic, Francois, witnesses the Muslim Brotherhood ascend to power after the 2022 Presidential election, and the subsequent Islamization of France, including the Sorbonne where he teaches. The media have used the word “controversial” to describe the book, because they lazily assumed it was a critique of Islam. It is nothing of the sort, it’s a critique of modern consumer society, just like his other books. The depiction of Islam seems to be quite neutral and accurate – a patriarchal, illiberal cult with a political mission to control society via an exclusively male elite. I’m not clear what’s “controversial” about that. The reception to the book has been mixed. There are two camps – those who have read it (very positive reviews) and those who haven’t (he’s an Islamaphobe). In fact the book doesn’t cast any judgement on Islam – it’s just a scenario. A scenario that may suit some (middle aged sexually frustrated blokes) and not others (feminists, jews, gays, people with an education), but could lead to a more stable society, somewhat at peace with itself. Personally I don’t like the idea, but my opinion won’t matter. In the end ‘submission’ might be the easy option, which is exactly Houllebecq’s point.

Says it all

Says it all

Some critics have also poured scorn on Houllebecq’s predictive power, seemingly unaware that by deriding his imagined future, they are implicitly making predictions themselves. As far as I can see his portrayal of a gradual Muslim takeover via the current political process, given a hopelessly divided France, is the only way Islam can succeed. Terrorist attacks certainly help cow the population and encourage division, but the ultimate route to power is through co-opting the existing ruling class, not via violent revolution. The so-called ‘moderate’ Muslims in France, the UK and elsewhere realize that. Only last week Mr Establishment himself, Catholic UK Labour MP Keith Vaz, said that the reintroduction of blasphemy laws would be fine with him. How the mask slips! Houllebecq also has decent form on imagining society’s future. His 2001 novel “Platform” culminated in a Islamist terrorist attack on western tourists in Thailand. That prospect would have been considered far-fetched in mid-2001, ahead of 9/11 and ofcourse the Bali bombs in October 2002.

As with previous Houllebecq classics like “Whatever”, “Platform” and “Atomised”, the main character is a cynical, lecherous hedonist whose life is crumbling around him as he enters middle-age. His satire of modern French society, and modern academia is as savage, accurate and funny as ever. As an expert on nineteenth century French author Joris-Karl Huysmans, Francois retraces some of Huysman’s steps towards his (Huysman’s) eventual embrace of Catholicism, mirroring Francois’s own spiritual journey from despondency and nihilism, towards Islam. Francois comes to realize that the reinstatement of a patriarchal society will actually give men like him social status, and renewed purpose, through continued access to the the only thing that motivates him, sex with young women – via polygamist marriage.

The novel is definitely one to re-read, and somehow I found it uplifting. Well-written, poignant, funny, and a clear warning that simultaneous handwringing over terrorist attacks, while appeasing the nonsensities of “moderate” Islam will only yield one result. I would also recommend his earlier works, especially “Atomised” and “Platform”.
This very good interview with Houllebecq in the Paris Review is also worth checking out.

Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay

Judge the book by its cover- underwhelming.

Judge the book by its cover – underwhelming.

Sweet Caress” is one of those most disappointing of things; a bad book by a favorite author. I’ve read everything (fiction-wise) that William Boyd has ever written and as soon as I heard about this I knew I would buy it.

The book is a fictional set of memoirs by a character called Amory Clay whose life spans most of the 20th century. Boyd’s used this same technique before in his most acclaimed novel “Any Human Heart“, so I had no doubt he could pull it off. He’s also successfully written females as the main character – in his clever thriller “Restless“. The sad reality is though it doesn’t work in this case. Boyd still writes beautifully and the novel starts well….but the character doesn’t develop for me. Her love interests, which are central to the book just feel random. A selfish american bloke, a fat french clown, a shell-shocked English soldier (supposed to evoke her Dad) and tedious descriptions of each man’s penis (Big, small, bendy..who cares!)

The 1930s Berlin section just doesn’t evoke the place, and her reaction to fairly cataclysmic events is pretty much indifference as far as I can tell, all the way through the book. Even some of the research just seems below par versus previous Boyd books. The Vietnam section appears to be drawn from watching “Platoon” – cliched beyond belief. I get the impression the publisher wanted this, and Boyd did the best job he could even though he must of known it wasn’t working. Just a very average book interspersed with dull, grainy photographs. I finished it out of loyalty to Boyd but if I was on Amazon I’d give this 2 stars maximum. Bizarrely it has some positive reviews, but as I’m learning, doing book reviews is difficult, whether you like the book or not, and I think some of the reviewers maybe have gone on reputation.

Amory Clay’s family has a fun way of describing people & things to each other through the book – using four words only. A neat idea I think. For “Sweet Caress” I would choose: Boring, pretentious, flat, arduous.

Suite Francais

This poster gives away a bit of the plot. She's cuddling zee German!

This poster gives away a bit of the plot. She’s cuddling zee German!

Warming to the wartime romance theme, the next film I decided to watch on my October round-the-world plane medley was Suite Francais, which despite the title was a Hollywood production. Michelle Williams what can I say? You are a most fantastic actress, and apart from the misguided “My week with Marilyn” this movie continues your fine form. The plot is ostensibly a romance between the lonely Lucille (Williams), who’s husband is a POW in Germany, and a lonely German officer (played by some German bloke) billeted with her and her scary mother-in-law (Kristen Scott Thomas playing it beautifully) in their pretty manor house. Really though the film is about how a close-knit community copes when an outside influence comes to bear (topical I think) and captures the class-ridden hierarchy of French village life very well. We all tend to think if the Nazis came to town and occupied us we’d be the heroes, blowing up railway lines and sabotaging the Onion soup etc, but this film shows it’s never that simple. It also shows that in order to resist effectively, you have to engage and collaborate with the oppressor to some extent. Just like in an office environment.

Another reason to watch this movie is that Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian only gave it 2 stars and said it was a bit dull. You know when he doesn’t like something it’s potentially good, as this is the film critic who gave the woeful god-bothering allegory “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” 5 stars. His review of Suite Francais is classic of the type with a series of breathtakingly stupid statements like: “The movie version’s final words sonorously remark that the war would continue for four more years – not something Némirovsky could have known.” The Nemirovsky he refers to is Irene, the original author of the novel on which the film is based, who died at the hands of the Germans in 1942. The manuscript was later found and only published in 2004 and is apparently worth a read. Presumably as a film critic Bradshaw is familiar with “adaptations” and “versions” and “screenplays” which kind of allow the film maker to do exactly what the fuck they like, whether for good or ill, and in this case they are clearly looking back with a bit of hindsight. Durrrrrrrr. Anyway, don’t worry about Bradshaw, watch the movie and the extraordinary way that Michelle Williams manages to be sexy without really being that sexy. The only thing I really didn’t dig was the mournful piano playing. I know it’s what brings them together but If I’d made the film I would have had them bonding over a card game or something, to avoid it.

Station Eleven – “Survival is Insufficient”

StationelevenUKHC

I’ve read a lot of novels in 2015 but Station Eleven is the best so far. Emily St John Mandel’s premise isn’t exactly original – sometime around 2010 99% of the world’s population has been wiped out by an aggressive swine flu pandemic. Civilization collapses and the “lucky” survivors are left living one day to the next, hunting for food and forming small farming communities.

The twist is that Mandel switches between the lives of the protagonists before the biological cataclysm, as well as various periods up to “year 25” after the event. The novel is character driven, although there are enough moments of tension to keep you interested in the plot. The focus is not on a Hunger Games/Mad Max style violence and degradation, but on the survivors attempts to hold on to what is important and retain some semblance of the previous civilization, regardless of the odds. By juxtaposing this with various characters stories in the years, weeks and days leading up to the outbreak, Mandel asks some real questions of the reader. In a world of impermanence, what is really important to you? How do you distinguish what you want from what you need? Is information technology an unambiguous force for good, or is it a commercially driven distraction? What are the parallels between pervasive narcissism on social media and the lives of celebrities? I could go on.

There were so many times reading this when I was just stopped in my tracks and starting thinking more clearly about my own life. You cannot ask more of literature than that.

 

Kindle Voyage 3G – A Brief Review

The Kindle Voyage 3G was a kind of compelled purchase for me. My old Kindle 3G with keyboard was still working fine but the battery wasn’t doing great – lasting only a couple of days rather than two weeks. Here’s photo of the new Kindle Voyage from a recent flight I took up to Bangkok.

KindleVoyage (1)

Ok, I was reading Goldfinger, again.

 

The best things about the Kindle Voyage are its slim, light design and the built in reading light. Navigation with the touch screen isn’t as good as with the old non-touch version but maybe that’s just me. The battery lasts about a week of heavy use and all in all I’m pretty happy. At GBP229 I guess you could say it’s expensive but as my constant companion it seems pretty good value to me. Lastly, I bought a conventional book style leather cover from a third-party rather than pay the absurd 50 quid for the Amazon ‘Origami’ cover. It cost a tenner and has a really nice feel so very happy!

 

 

 

“The Test” by Brian O’Driscoll

I don’t read a lot of sporting biographies, and I can’t recall reading one about a rugby union player, especially as I’m foremost a rugby league fan. Brian O’Driscoll, or BOD as he’s known, is a bit different though. The outstanding player of his generation, and the most-capped international ever, the Irish legend has always been worth watching.

BOD

His autobiography “The Test” is nothing special in literary terms, and nor is it ‘warts & all’ style, with O’Driscoll content to keep a lot of opinions to himself. In particular, apart from his admiration for various Leinster (Ica Nacewa, BOD loves you!!!) & Ireland players, he keeps his assessments of others to a minimum.

The best bits were his descriptions of particular tries, which are fascinating for a rugby aficionado. The complexities of breaking down a defence, the fine margins and luck involved are made clear. A great many rugby union fans would do well to read these sections given number of people that think the game was more skilful back in the 1980s or 90s. It wasn’t – defences were just disorganized and weak in comparison to today. He’s obviously taken a lot of technicalities on board from rugby league and talks about his admiration for the game, and a night out with Australian legend Andrew ‘Joey’ Johns in the book. Fair play to BOD, he also talks about some of the mistakes he made in big matches so you can’t accuse him of rewriting history.

Overall O’Driscoll seems a likeable, rather than fascinating, character, and his autobiography reflects that. He did however fulfil his considerable potential as a rugby player, and not many as talented as he can say that.