Everybody Lies

It took me about 5 hours on Christmas eve to read the whole of Everybody Lies: What the Internet Can Tell As About Who We Really Are, including Acknowledgments (that is 284 pages out of 338 in the hardback edition). This is worth a mention. In his conclusion, the author Seth Stephens-Davidowitz says he knows very few of us, who started the book, are still reading. Data gleaned from Kindle readers by Amazon says fewer than 7% of those who started reading Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, a full 499 pages in its hardback edition, actually finished it. Fewer than 3% finished the much-lauded Thomas Piketty book Capital In the 21st Century, which is 704 pages long. Now there is a surprise. We do not need Big Data to tell us that these books were abandoned by vast numbers of those who started reading them. Even those who are unfamiliar with Umberto Eco’s antilibrary effectively maintain one. Books are regularly abandoned, left unread, even unopened. But when they are on your Kindle, Amazon gets to see how much you read of them.

Big Data, as seen in Google searches (and some other online sources), is the digital truth serum, Seth S-D writes. We go online to bare our souls about parents, children, significant others, our bodies, our fears etc, to find answers to dilemmas, personal quandaries, weird curiosities and awkward sense of humour, without fear of losing social approval or our coolness quotient. That idea is the crux of this book.

The other key insights — or powers of Big Data — Seth S-D demonstrates are: everything is data, that Big Data can enable us to zoom in meaningfully into smaller datasets to gain new insights, and that Big Data allows us randomised experiments at scale to find true causal effects in phenomena and observations such as how do our preferences and opinions form.

Big Data for all its potential misuses — Minority Report gets a namecheck — has its uses in helping us feel less alone in our quest and our weirdness. That list of drop down options to complete our search from the Google home page subtly tells us about those others like us, as well as those who started a query the same way but were seeking something else.

Towards the end, chapter 7 of 8, the author contends with limitations of Big Data: the curse of dimensionality (essentially a cognitive limitation), the risk of forgetting the meaning we were seeking through it, the risk of missing what cannot be measured, and the fixation with what can be measured aka the importance of perspective.

The book is quite readable, weaving stories on sex, politics, baseball and other common human pursuits, and often funny. The author’s granny, brother and family find a mention. There are 30 pages of references — Notes — which are oddly not cross-referenced in the main text. The book is also a tad too long, especially the Conclusion. I also have a few other nerdy nitpicks. For instance, in opening with the limits of intuition, Malcolm Gladwell is name-checked but not Gerd Gigerenzer whose work Gladwell paraphrased. Why the nitpick? Because Gigerenzer has made the point about how intuition or gut feel is a sum total of all the “data” we have garnered through life experience, compressed into a heuristic that we draw upon in System 1 thinking (that Kahneman mentions in his largely-left-unread tome). It would have been a neat segue into the author’s messages “everything is data” and the rest of the limitations. But as I said it is a nerdy nitpick.

And one last thing. I bought the Kindle edition of the book first. It was just over $2. About 8% in, I bought the physical book because unsurprisingly, I read faster on paper and retain more, and my eyes do not get tired. Amazon data gleaning may suggest I abandoned the Kindle book. Unless it correlates that abandonment with the data point that I also bought the hardback from another Amazon store (making it easier for them to track me instead of going to the physical store where I buy most of my physical books), and that this review is appearing on this blog.

Everything is data. Big Data however is not everything.

Star rating: 4 out of 5 

Usefulness note: The book will interest all those who enjoyed Freakonomics, More Sex Is Safer Sex, and similar books.

The Myth Gap

A few years ago, while teaching undergraduates in India, I noticed that I had to temper my inclination to use Hindoo mythology to make certain points. The need to temper arose from discovering that almost nobody in the classroom was familiar with those myths. Not that I fared better with using contemporary cinema references! It turned out my students did not often see the films as they came out, and if they did watch a film — usually assigned as course material — they seemed to have watched an entirely different film from the one I saw. That was my experience of “the myth gap”.

I bought Alex Evans’s The Myth Gap when it came out in early 2017, and read it in short snatches of time while waiting or on the tube in one day. This weekend of August 12-13, 2017, with the backdrop of white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville VA, which, at the time of writing, had already claimed the lives of a young woman and two cops, I re-read this book in one sitting. Even including 11 pages of references, the book comes in at under 150 pages and is a three hour read.

The book is divided into four sections and the fourth section starts with this quote from Karen Armstrong:

“A myth does not impart factual information, but is primarily a guide to behaviour. Its truth will only be revealed if it is put into practice – ritually or ethically. If it is perused as though it were a purely intellectual hypothesis, it becomes remote and incredible.”

These myths are what this book is about — shared stories about people, their trials and tribulations, change and transitions in history, things being broken and mended. While the author focuses on climate change as a narrative hook, the framework could apply to almost anything – repairing post-Brexit schisms in the UK, returning India to a place of precarious but reliable communal harmony, making America a welcoming place for all again.

In the first section “The front line”, the author makes the case for myths; in the second “Myths for a new century” he talks about the characteristics of the stories we need; in the third section “The everlasting covenant” he uses Biblical stories to illustrate the idea of a covenant and consequences of breaking it; and in the final section “And we all lived happily ever after”, he outlines the praxis of using stories to build an alternative future.

Through the story of how climate change activism on the verge of winning some essential victories was hamstrung by the emergence of the Tea Party movement in 2009, Evans shows how for a political idea to gain steam, it is important to build a movement, build it around small groups and have a terrific story to tell. He also shines a light on the problem with “enemy narratives”, which divide us instead of uniting for personal transformation as well as demanding more of our political leaders. Stories, not policy statements and evidence based arguments, provide what we need except we don’t have any — the myth gap of the title. Consumer brand marketing has stepped into this gap — the myth being “we are what we buy” — but that has been destructive especially in the context of climate change, driving collective over-consumption, waste, and environmental degradation. Timothy Snyder, whose book “On Tyranny” I have read and reviewed, and recommend highly, has written about how history teachers us the fear of resource scarcity. This is the danger — collapsitarianism — which has been successfully used to incite panic and exploited by many through history. This collapsitarian thinking has its ritual too, he writes — “prepping” — evident in Silicon Valley billionaires seeking other citizenships or buying bunkers.

Utter collapse however is also a chance for renewal and innovation, Evans argues, and I was reminded of the exact sentiment found in Bhagwadgita, a Hindoo religious tome, or a myth you could say I am familiar with.

यदा यदा हि धर्मस्य ग्लानिर्भवति भारत ।

अभ्युत्थानमधर्मस्य तदात्मानं सृजाम्यहम् ॥४-७॥

परित्राणाय साधूनां विनाशाय च दुष्कृताम् ।

धर्मसंस्थापनार्थाय सम्भवामि युगे युगे ॥४-८॥

This is Krishna speaking to Arjun who is expressing his doubt about the war against his elders and his cousins and clan: “O Bharat, whenever Dharma (a complex construct implying righteousness, duty, religiosity) declines, I manifest myself. To protect the sages, to destroy the evildoers, and to re-establish Dharma, I return again and again through the ages.”

The myths we need require a collectivist view, a longer view of the future, and a better purposeful vision of our future together. Citing Michael Ventura’s The Age of Endarkenment, about adolescence and need for purpose, the author says that to create a sustainable future, we need to grow up, become adults as a species. In the interim there is the existential grief, that James Hillman has written about, arising from what we are doing to our planet. This grief may be repressed, as we often do, which causes more harm. Or it may be projected, say through enemy narratives. There is a need to acknowledge this cycle and to “atone”, Evans writes, which would encompass not just repentance but also reparation and restorative justice.

Oddly for a book about stories, I found the third section, where Evans actually uses biblical stories to make his point, too long drawn, although Margaret Baker’s turning upside down of the Ark of the Covenant story is fascinating. My reaction however illustrates his argument for the need to find myths that resonate with us personally and then for all of us to find agreement and put together “a quilt of compatible myths”.

The message is clear. Even though what we see as evil is as much personal as it is structural, what we say and do in our daily lives can have global implications. To that extent, dialogue is essential and Evans writes that dialogue with active listening on both sides is often better conducted in relatively small groups. Even as many of us reject religion and politics as bases for joining collectives, our need for belonging remains, and the emerging collectives, with their shared identity, interests and projects, can drive meaningful change.

While all too brief, the chapter titled “Technology and the future of myth” interested me greatly as it discussed how the advent of AR/ VR/ MR technologies can change how we tell and participate in the myths in the future. The book finishes on an idealistic, optimistic note on the Eden 2.0 we can yet choose to create.

On re-reading, I found the book much more dense and richer than I recall from the first reading. It is an exhortation to change, to drive that change meaningfully, to build a sustainable future together. It is a book written with expertise, empathy, exploration at its core as well as optimism for the future. It is thought provoking and could serve as a great personal manifesto for driving meaningful change.

Star rating: 4.5 out of 5 

Usefulness note: While fires burn around us, we have to make two simultaneous choices — to douse the fire, and to plan to rebuild a structure that is fire-proof to the best of our abilities. This weekend was tough for optimism but it also is the reason why all of us, who want a different future from the one unfolding in front of us, should read it.

Small Data

Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends attracted my attention for several reasons. One, I am interested in understanding the world better, so other people’s ways of seeing, ways of making sense of things interest me. Two, I read anything that can be vaguely filed under “decision making”. Three, that the title appears to rail provocatively against the tide of “big data” drowning us these days.

Martin Lindstrom, the author, is a Danish consultant to brands. As a 12-year old he was once confined to hospital where, to entertain himself, he started keenly observing others in his ward and the various nurses and doctors who came to visit, and making hypotheses and testing them. As a keen Lego maker as a child, he notes in passing an encounter with Lego’s lawyers and then how later he was able to help the brand remain on course even as the company feared it was losing its market as kids became more engrossed in online games and communities.

The book is full of stories from Lindstrom’s assignments for various brands in many different countries. His insight often benefits from his outsider status in the cultures he studies whether as a middle-aged man observing teenage girls’ fashion behaviours, or as a Danish man trying to disentangle the Indian Mother-in-law-daughter-in-law dynamic in joint families. He also shares a story of when he had to go off Pepsi in his personal life to become a more-or-less dispassionate observer in order to help the brand.

In telling his stories, Lindstrom goes off on tangents sometimes, but also links back to experiences described in other chapters. This quirk has personal appeal for me because in conversations, I am quite prone to telling side stories and going off on tangents to enrich a thread but unlike many others, I also have the ability to always come back to the main narrative.

In the last chapter, Lindstrom shares his 7Cs framework of observing and making sense of small data. That framework, alas, is the weakest link in this book. I can see why it might have been compelling to abstract his “magic” into a framework others could use. But when I put my business person and sometime teacher and trainer hat on, I know that people missing the obvious and not being keen observers is quite common. That ability to observe aside, being able to link things, and to reject or persist with various hypotheses is Lindstrom’s real USP. The framework would go nowhere with those whose ability to see is not as keen as the author’s.

The references and the index are helpful but if you seek academic research type references, this is not a book for you. Read it definitely but read a lot more besides.

The stories are good and amusingly regaled, even if sometimes correlation-causation-explanation-inquiry get muddled, and some hypotheses or conclusions seem a bit too far fetched. As a way of seeing and explaining the world, the book would easily nudge “big data” obsessed business decision makers into questioning and reflecting.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: A good light read, which I would heartily recommend, but not for those seeking robust academic style frameworks and concepts.

Tales from The Quran and Hadith

When my best friend from school came a-visiting recently, she asked me what I wanted from India. I resisted asking for mangoes, choosing instead a copy of Rana Safvi’s Tales from The Quran and Hadith. I am both an atheist-agnostic and a reluctant reader of fiction or stories, but I am curious about the nature of faith and about religions, especially to understand human beings and their motivations better. Further, Rana Safvi is blessed with an amazing ability both to regale stories and to make them accessible through her prolific writing, as evidenced by a recent award bestowed on her.

To invoke a cliche, the book is a breezy read. The stories are narrated quite simply and the prose is evocative. I am aware of several Islamic — Shia, Sunni, Sufi — traditions and artifacts such as the Sword of Ali. The stories in the book put flesh on the bones of my knowledge of some of those.

Mohammad’s marital life was one of the most fascinating threads for me. His first wife, Khadija, was a successful business woman, his employer, a widow, and an older woman. This, by any modern standards, is a pretty remarkable woman, not least because she chose him as her husband. Further, in contrast with the practice of the time, he did not take another wife while Khadija was alive. He did subsequently take eleven wives, according to the book, most of whom were widows or slaves or women captured as prisoners-of-war, and some of whom proposed to him. I know this book did not promise that it would dwell on why these narratives of open-minded and forward thinking have gotten lost but I would have liked to read more stories of the social transitions. Perhaps Rana Safvi will write another book.

The book has several stories of women with self-determination and independent thinking such as Asma bint Abu Bakr. I was quite taken aback by the story of Zulaikha, where the protagonist’s passion for a younger, handsome servant is the theme. I was reminded of Irawati Karve’s Yugant, where she writes about Mahabharata from the women characters’ point of view, and Chitra Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions, that is told in Draupadi’s voice. It is hard to read Tales From.. without often thinking about why it is crucial that we have more female narrators, modern day trobairitzes.

The book brought several personal delights for me, which I concede may be minor or unimportant for others. One of these was that I learnt how names of prophets and angels travel across various Abhrahamic religions. Another was to learn the etymological roots of certain words e.g. muhajir, meaning migrant, hijrat, meaning migration, and Hajj, the pilgrimage, all of which are related to the story of Hajira and her sacrifice.

One of the things that made the book easier to read is that the author chose not to write PBUH each time Prophet Mohammad’s name was invoked. I feel however the book would have been improved with the inclusion of an appendix with some kind of timeline to explain some of the key events in Islamic history, as well as an index with the names of the key characters in the stories so that the stories could be re-read, for instance, to create a fuller narrative of a specific character’s life.

Some sloppy editing, both grammatical and usage related, lets the book down. This was avoidable.

Star rating: 5 out of 5

Usefulness note: I would delight in gifting copies of the book to my curious atheist friends as well as to any others, who love reading stories culled and curated from books they may otherwise not stretch to reading.

Life Moves Pretty Fast

Just over 300 pages, including several Top-n lists, notes and an index, Hadley Freeman’s Life Moves Pretty Fast is a breeze to read.

Written in the chatty style of friends nattering over a coffee or a beer in a British pub — although Freeman was born in New York, she seems to have grown up in the UK and now lives in London — the book is almost deceptive in the seriousness of its thesis. The book explores the complex dynamics of race, gender, class, relationships, and identity, without being dry or boring.

Freeman builds the case — although you wouldn’t know it from the ease of her storytelling — that 80s Hollywood films discussed important social themes, and did so in a manner essential to the story, that is no longer seen in films. This is, to a great extent, owed to the fact that the earlier studio driven system of film-making has now morphed into a handful of corporate owners focused less on story telling, and more on profitability of specific market segments, such as China, for whom Transformers 4 was made. This push for profitability in non-English speaking markets may also be why subtlety, complexity and nuance are being lost in favour of violence and cartoonish characters. After all, there is no need to translate violence, she argues. As readers, we find ourselves agreeing with her, as we do with many of the other key points she makes.

That these studios are owned and controlled by men means that it is increasingly tough for women to get films made, which explains a lot of things about modern day Hollywood fare but I digress.

The chapters are organised by film and a dominant social theme, although as we dive into each chapter it becomes clear that social themes come in clusters. Freeman discusses abortion (Dirty Dancing), the multi-facetedness of love (The Princess Bride), the interestingness of women (Steel Magnolias, whose back-story is as moving as the film was impactful), the importance of parents (Back To The Future), social class (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).

Using Ghostbusters and Top Gun, she writes about the idea of masculinity and male friendship. The chapter fascinated me no end not least because well I don’t have to worry about being masculine but as women, we deal with men who have to. I read twice the chapter discussing When Harry Met Sally. Freeman writes an ode to romantic comedies, and gender, love, and how the depiction of women in films is cliched and stereotypical and reductive.

Freeman however saves the best for the last. In a chapter titled “Eddie Murphy’s Eighties Movies: Race can be transcended”. That chapter made me wish the book went on a bit longer.

Ironically the only chapter I did find a drag was titled “Batman: Superheroes don’t have to be such a drag”.

The book could have been edited a bit tighter. I struggled to resist reading it without a highlighter or pencil in hand. There were several occasions where I felt that some of the most crucial, impactful points Freeman makes may be at risk of being missed altogether. The voice can sound a bit teenager-y at times but I wouldn’t dwell on it as a shortcoming of the book.

There is a skill in discussing uncomfortable themes, themes we can relate to so obviously we don’t think they merit a discussion at all, without getting all het-up, moralistic and preachy. Freeman demonstrates the skill in spades. There is mention of the Bechdel test, for instance, but it doesn’t make it to the index, that remains steadfastly focused on the names of films, actresses and actors that appear in the book.

This review gets out on the Saturday of the second May bank holiday in the UK. You have time. Read the book, watch the films, but this time you may well do it with a different angle on them.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: A book about Hollywood films of the 1980s will likely best appeal to those who were growing up in that time. But it should be read by all those interested in cinema and its power to reflect and shape social discourse, indeed document it in a story telling format.