Book of the Month :: An Introduction to the Challenging

I’m taking what might be a bit of a risk with the choice for October’s Book of the Month, the subject matter of which is not only difficult but considered by some as genuinely disturbing. I began reading The Comfort of Strangers on its release in 1981: the fact I couldn’t finish it is one of the compelling reasons why the narrative has been returned to and summarily readdressed with a fresh mindset. The best fiction is not necessarily that which entertains or distracts. Having the ability to make a reader think, or to travel outside their comfort zones is perhaps one of the most positive and life-changing qualities the written word possesses. Ian McEwan’s output has achieved this since those early works in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and continues to do so, even as time has mellowed both man and outlook.

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By Thesupermat – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15327467

McEwan was born in Aldershot in 1948 yet grew up in Asia, Germany and North Africa, wherever his father was stationed as an Army officer. Returning to the UK in his early teens he was educated at Woolverstone Hall School, followed by degrees first at the University of Sussex and subsequently at UEA in Norwich. His first book of short stories was published in 1975. Both The Comfort of Strangers and the novella The Cement Garden written during this early period were quickly adapted into film screenplays. However, the novel that won him the 1987 Whitbread Prize, The Child in Time, has only very recently been adapted for the small screen, taking thirty years to make the transition.

McEwan’s writing career between 1975 and 1987 is known as the Ian Macabre period: subject matters are disturbing and challenging, often ignoring and completely trampling over borders of acceptable behaviour. However, the Whitbread Prize marks a distinct change in tone: moral ambiguity and social challenge remain, but the subject matters become far more palatable. His 1983 screenplay for Channel 4, The Ploughman’s Lunch, is a savage indictment of the media world during the Falklands War and hints of his more political works to come. It was however with works which explored the subtleties and shortcomings of human relationships where McEwan began to excel, continuing to demand much from his readers.

Of these, there are stand out choices: Enduring Love is a brutally honest assessment of how fate can alter existence and how obsession (plus mental illness) will drive individuals to extraordinary actions. Atonement considers how an untruth can drastically alter the entire path of many lives and is probably the best known of McEwan’s work, due in part to the 2007 film adaptation which starred Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. Both these novels, as is the case with all those that both follow and precede, hold an almost distorted lens to the frailties of human beings, and the means by which they rationalise their versions of ‘the world around them’ in order to try and understand existence.

In his later works however has come a far more politically active strand of narrative, including reflections on global warming, the right to die and the blurring of boundaries between artistic integrity and government propaganda. His works continue to be optioned for small screen and movie adaptations: On Chesil Beach and The Children’s Act have both been transferred to the big screen and were shown at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, with the semi-autobiographical novel Sweet Tooth in development from the same company who produced Atonement.

This is a man who is no stranger to controversy in his personal life: married twice, part of a fairly acrimonious divorce including a custody battle, whilst also discovering in 2002 he had a brother given up for adoption during World War Two. He’s also been a very vocal commentator on both global warming and the state of the UK post Brexit-vote: no stranger to courting political controversy over his opinions or indeed the subjects he tackles, this traditional Labour supporter continues to mentally challenge both listener and reader when discussing a wide range of different subjects.

It is quite easy to present a biography of McEwan the man, far harder to sum up the depth of his work, and how it is often a slap to the face of far tamer approaches to controversial subject matters. Violence and sexual deviation are commonplace, yet at the same time, there is an intellectual depth and breadth of assessment which makes these variations utterly acceptable in the contexts of their particular narratives. When one looks at his more cerebral offerings, inevitably one common thread persists: the protagonists’ engagement with their version of the ‘modern’ world, and meaning of existence within it.

The world painted in The Comfort of Strangers is less to do with the city in which is it set and far more to do with the issues and desires of the characters: even in a novel such as Atonement where the Second World War becomes an important player in proceedings, it never overshadows the very human responses and actions of McEwan’s players. In fact, one almost feels that the backgrounds to his work are of secondary importance. However, the backdrops painted are a perfect combination of bigger picture and precise detail: drawing a reader in before shocking them with what they are told.

McEwan is not an easy read, or often a comfortable watch. That makes for searing, engaging narratives and important points presented. As readers, stories are often the places to which we escape in difficult times, yet when presented with concepts that cannot be easily rationalised, this can make for uncomfortable sensations. It has taken me three decades to return to an author whose ideas I’m now far more willing to embrace and explore: that long not because of him, of course, but me. Being willing to accept the challenging is often nothing to do with the subject matter presented, and everything about the mentality of your readership.

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It is typical for us as human beings to only cope with so much in daily life: when reality presents events which are difficult to understand, immersing oneself in novels with challenging subject matters may not seem like relaxation at all. However, when you are the one dictating how such content is consumed, there are obvious benefits. It allows an opportunity to take back a notion of control, to dispassionately use a fictional narrative as a ‘what if’ situation for individual thoughts and feelings. Most importantly, as the story being read is not real, there’s the ability to treat it as such and not become overwhelmed by circumstance.

Books are not always presented as escapist entertainment, as is the case with all forms of media for the same purpose. The best experiences are often those that leave us uncomfortable, questioning the reasoning behind their production. As modern society becomes more and more indignant over the content of media, often without ever having consumed it for themselves, to begin with anything that challenges traditional comfort zones and forces a reader out of them is never going to be a bad thing.

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It is up to us as readers to learn how to take contentious subject matters and consume them in a way which not only is comfortable but allows us to attack the narratives on our own terms. For that, there are tools that can be utilised, the ability to become more objective and less judgemental, and to look inside ourselves to understand why such things are possible. A blind acceptance of the World in our own image is not only dangerous, but ultimately selfish behaviour, and yet this is what happens with frightening regularity. This is played out in McEwan’s narratives too, often with fatal consequences for the characters involved.

The truth, of course, is that there is a World of diversity and horror that most of us choose to ignore, often for the sake of our own sanity. McEwan’s work flowers in the places between, where reality overlaps with fiction: worlds we recognise and that have definite ties to our own existence, but yet are often alien and frightening. He forces the reader to think of an ‘alternate’ version of reality where people act as us, but often seem like a version of humanity that makes no sense. It is this abstraction from realism that can allow the reader the means to step back and grasp the bigger themes at play, and how they relate to them… or indeed not.

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It has taken over three decades for me to find the means to connect with McEwan’s style and presentation, and I’m returning with caution to narratives that were abandoned in the past with fresh, more inquiring eyes. His body of work is impressive, substantive and ultimately very satisfying, and if you enjoy The Comfort of Strangers it is simply a stepping stone into a far more complex world of novels and adaptations. I urge you to join me on this journey, and to expand your mind to the places just beyond the reach of your vision.

What can be seen there can be both surprising and significant.

October’s Book of the Month

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to read our Mission Statement

This Month's Content

October’s featured text is ‘The Comfort of Strangers’
by Iain McEwan
You can buy it here.

Each month, the Internet of Words presents a selection of content: fiction, essays, poetry and non-fiction, inspired and directly influenced by our Book of the Month.

To learn more about what you can expect, please read this.



Available This Month:

4th October

An Introduction to the Challenging: Ian McEwan’s career began with difficult, often disturbing narratives that would challenge a reader’s belief in the goodness and sanctity of modern society. That edge still remains, but with age has taken on a deeper significance: we explore his body of work and how the subject matter of his novels never fails to cause some measure of controversy…

11th October

Traversing the Fringes: Our Book of the Month is one of the first stories McEwan wrote in what has become commonly known as his Macabre Phase. How much is a reader prepared to accept in a narrative before the subject matter becomes simply too difficult to stomach?

18th October

From Page to Screen: McEwan’s work has been widely dramatised both on TV and Film, most recently by the BBC who took on what many thought was the unadaptable A Child in Time. We examine the work spawned from this writer’s output and look at the difficulties of adapting challenging narratives to produce compelling viewing.

25th October

Seed: (Short Story) In my head, you and I are lovers… Sometimes, what is the truth and what are lies becomes impossible to adequately divide.


Patreon Only Content

This month’s exclusive Patreon content will consist of poetry based on the breadth of McEwan’s work, including Atonement, Enduring Love, The Ploughman’s Lunch and A Child in Time.

Pledges for the site begin at only $2, which grants you full access to all exclusive material.

Click here to become a Patreon

Book of the Month :: Throw 6 to Start

Throw 6 To Start

As the second sun goes down, Riz wonders if he’s done the right thing.

This is closer to disaster as he’s ever flown, far too late to start wishing the journey had never been undertaken. With Pleasure Planet Pixel in darkness, there is less than a rotation before the Game he’s attending begins, yet Desi is nowhere to be seen. Next time, if this all goes to plan, they’ll not need to take separate transports and can travel as an item.

That word has a comforting ring.

‘Oh, you weren’t lying, you did miss us: we are truly touched!’

Their hand on his arm sends every hair erect, frisson of desire inevitable and inescapable. Turning, they are still in the complimentary spacesuit, not bothering to change after arrival. Iridescent pearl skin shimmers: brilliant light from the nebula above, ethereal beauty that transcends this solar system plus thousands of others. His devil stands, head slightly tipped, reading every thought without care or permission. In their imagination they’re already entwined in the luxury hotel bed, his fears being sucked from a tired and tense body: the Earthman begins to relax.

Riz knows this last year of stress was worth every moment: the prize is already in sight.

‘You were the one who said our lives were getting predictable, so we did consider making you wait, but thanks to the Slingshot mechanical failure that will be the last transport of the day. We could have taken layover until the morning, but there’s too much to do.’

‘I’m sorry we fought at the Terminal. I… sometimes it’s easy to forget how much you can hear in my head.’

‘You have nothing to worry about, Lover Boy. The day somebody else attracts that primate brain, then we’re the one in trouble. Until then, it’s our job to make sure that your pleasure centres are never left wanting. We are VERY good at that task, and intend to only improve over time.’

They kiss him, mouth tart, alcohol and need both all too obvious. The relationship’s odd-fitting, even now: sometimes motivation gets misplaced in a sea of pheromones and sloth. However, his liberation is close: hatched over the NeuralNet, virtual chat room for those with debts that conventional employment would never pay off. The human who loved being fucked by everybody but eventually was screwed by his own naivety, and the Centuran androgyne with a flair for the overly theatric.

If it all worked out tomorrow, both of them would finally be free.


‘Do you believe in fate?’

They’ve woken tangled together but instead of pre-dawn intercourse it is discussion. Desi will know he has nerves that need to be assuaged: they wrap both mind and body around him, cocoon of reassurance, allowing Riz to awaken far better than would happen with stimulants. The question is taking time for them to process, and only now does he grasp why –

‘You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?’

‘Oh, we grasp the human concept, don’t worry. We have an equivalent, we were just trying to work out a visual metaphor to explain.’

Centuran culture is not about words: as a race of telepaths, verbal language is largely redundant. Instead comprehension is based around imagery, often complex fractal patterns that have evolved directly from the very stuff of the Universe itself. The image Desi places in Riz’s brain however is very human: they’re at the last casino visited, win at which removed all but 5% of their joint financial debt. He stands and throws two dice, but then catches both before they hit the table.

Fate is the development of events outside a person’s control, regarded as predetermined by a supernatural power. You throw the dice, and it is fate that decides the numbers. For us, fate is that which cannot be affected by our own minds. We can control the dice in flight and precisely dictate the number that falls, but are unable to truly influence the person throwing.

Their voice in his mind is musical, soothing cadences that make their kiss far more potent than any given by his own kind. That’s what attracted him to Desi, he could indulge an almost constant need for stimulation with a being who had evolved simply for that purpose. Their race didn’t procreate in the same messy fashion as bipedal humans, so there was no need to concern himself with the physical and once that had happened… sensation stopped just being about release, biological offering.

Orgasm takes place in a different way: no body cavities, contraception irrelevant. His body and brain are warped, sensation shuddering from fingertips to follicles. The most intense and beautiful experience that Riz has ever felt, on demand, and which never gets old. There’s a small part of his brain that knows they should be at the Game venue, working out the best place for him to sit so they can still covertly communicate, but today he just lets them engulf his primal brain completely.

The sensation is so great, he passes out with the pleasure.


The water is incredibly cold: Riz is immediately awake.

It takes a second to realise an ice bucket was upended over him, he’s naked and tied to a chair, and that Desi is being restrained by a couple of Law Enforcement automatons. Only two things could have caused this sudden downturn in circumstance: random attack or deliberate action. Causality is a subject Riz knows a lot about: studying Freakonomics at NYSU for four years, working at Church built for the worship of Saints Levitt and Dubner. There wasn’t an outcome that couldn’t be tied to another if you were smart enough to play the algorithms…

This Game was one of many that the WolfIsi Group had manipulated for the last decade, without fail. By coming here, he’d guaranteed that his loan company would notice, and do what always happened in situations where they thought a client was about to escape control. As contract was signed not in blood but DNA, his body remained their property until such times as all existing monetary debts were paid in full: before then they could invoke repossession of that material at any time. He had anticipated them striking at the venue, but as they haven’t, that’s not a problem.

He’d also like to be more clothed for this, but no matter.

The WI officer’s uniform is starched to within an inch of rigidity, yet looks like it could disintegrate at any moment, straining across her huge, genetically-enhanced biceps. The woman’s face regards him not with pity but in a way that could almost be respect: the rules of this engagement might yet be about to change. Maybe they’re not here because of potential collateral loss; perhaps someone finally saw through this deception.

‘Mr Monteverdi, I must say it has been some years since we had a client come this close to completing their payments on time. You are to be congratulated on your industry.’

‘Thank you, I took it upon myself as a personal challenge to pay off this loan on time and to the penny.’

‘Which you will do by simply winning a round of the Game tomorrow, which my superiors feel sure you’ll be more than capable of achieving. That however would mean we’re unable to maintain you as collateral, and under the circumstances this will cause us an issue, especially with the amount of money you seem capable of regularly providing.’

Riz had read the old case files on Fully Paid Loans until he could recite them from memory: in three hundred years, only a handful of clients had escaped death by invoking the clause he would now be forced to use. It would all hinge on the Officer not grasping the significance of Desi, something that now needed to be confirmed…

On cue, comes invasion of his mind: their hands cover his eyes, slim fingers caress earlobes. No-one else is aware of the Centauran’s real identity.

‘Under agreement terms I invoke the Double or Nothing clause in my contract. Details of intention to do so are posted in three public forums plus via time-delayed message on SocalTwetwerks.’

The Officer blinks at Riz, clear confusion etched on hardening features, before headset implant prompts understanding. Robot spiders will be crawling the Solar Internet, confirming that the naked bloke in the chair just completely changed the game. He’s forced WolfIsi to allow him a chance to become debt free with one random action, at the discretion of the Officer. They have fifteen Earth minutes to decide what it will be: in the previous cases coin tosses (which were believed to be weighted to the company’s favour) had decided the outcome, but since all forms of physical currencies became redundant at the end of the century and his contract hadn’t been updated to reflect this due to clerical oversight…

Desi is a mask: beautifully smooth skin, pert yet full, heavy breasts that defied gravity, surgically added slit at her groin to make sure no-one ever checked the DNA details too carefully. It was amazing the number of people who didn’t: she just looked like a human with a skin job. That’s what the desk clerk had her registered as, which might yet be useful, depending on the intelligence of the Officer. According to the Citizens Advice Worldnet, races with a human equivalent IQ of 70 or lower made the best Enforcement teams, being able to understand instructions yet not argue with contentious interpretation…

Riz is confident: all bases are covered, regardless of what happens next. He’s about to gamble the loan he took for gender reassignment to completion, and win.

‘They said you might do this. My boss read your file really well. Thanks to you, there’ll be a new amendment to the standard proposal in the New Year. You should be proud you found a loophole that we’re now going to close.’

Respect turns inevitably to condescension: the Officer pulls from her pocket a small recording unit. If it’s on record, they have to play fair. WolfIsi Legal will now be well aware that if they try and bury him, this part of the Universe will know about the fatality very fast, thanks to many and various messages sent to a lot of very important and high profile media outlets.

Riz made sure nothing was left to chance.

‘Thanks to Clause 27b/6 in your contract, we have the right to substitute an alternative form of random action for the Double or Nothing gamble.’

Riz loved games from an early age: in a world where everybody could work out the odds, he’d taken gambling a stage further. That’s why Desi had been sought out, means by which to take probability and bend it to his own ends. The biggest trick was to lose and make it look as if it wasn’t cheating, by warping the Universe itself to his ends.

‘You have to predict the number on these two dice. That’s our offer. I’m waiting.’

Large, long table by the Hotel room door is picked up, almost dropped in front of Riz’s restrained torso. He has fifteen minutes to accept this offer or lose the Double or Nothing get-out completely. In his head, possibilities land: dice will be remotely controlled by one of the Law Enforcement units, so they fall exactly as dictated. The units will have been picked so they cannot be hacked or interfered with. Just like coins before, belief is that any final result completely controlled by the Company is intractable.

Desi is smiling in his head. Not a small and quet but loud and brilliant, promise of so much once this debt is finally paid. They love the simian, unconditionally, because no other human mind they have encountered was so good at predicting all the outcomes, and playing to win.

‘Six. You’re going to roll a six.’

As the dice are thrown from the giant woman’s hand, Riz decides he quite likes being tied to chairs.


Book of the Month :: Why Numbers are Scary, and Other Stories.

Freakonomics is, undoubtedly, a brilliant book of essays which almost effortlessly uses causality to knit together seemingly disparate truths. However, for me at times it was a hard set of scenarios to grasp. The problem is not the details, but numbers. Economics, as is the case with so many branches of the sciences, relies on a strong mathematical base: understanding how figures interact and create the foundations of this and other scientific disciplines is pretty much essential. I have always struggled with maths, for as long as memory exists: words are natural, almost fluid but the same has never been true with calculations or equations.

In fact, I have nightmares sometimes over the basic inability to cope with mental arithmetic. If there is homework that involves the discipline, I’ll politely remind either son or daughter that dad’s the better person to ask. ‘In mathematics, something must be invested before anything is gained,’ writes David Berlinski in his book ‘One, Two Three’, a study of the basics of mathematical principle: ‘what is gained is never quite so palpable as what has been invested.’ Once I realised that my mind was the problem and not complexity of equations, it began a train of thought that seemed worth sharing.

When asking the question ‘Why am I terrible at maths?’ there were a lot of possible solutions, including the possibility that I might suffer from dyscalculia, which is a form of dyslexia. It is considered a specific developmental disorder, with an estimate that up to 6% of the population could suffer from some form of number ‘blindness.’ This ties in with the inability to read musical notation (despite having been taught to) and my total inability to remember people’s names, which has caused me issues for decades.

However, over time, and with practice, mathematical competence has improved. What normally tends to happen, and this was most definitely the case whenever Levitt and Dubner used numbers to make a point, I’d simply switch off and skip the sections which asked for specific concentration. This had become the way I dealt with other issues too, even when sitting and listening to mathematical discussions. Was it really my brain at fault? In the spirit of using causality to look beyond the obvious, I sought answers from my past. When did the issues with maths truly begin, and could a mental disorder be the cause?

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In the early 1960’s Sir James Pitman (grandson of Sir Isaac Pitman, inventor of a shorthand system) created the Initial Teaching Alphabet (or ITA for short) which was meant to help children learn to read. It meant that, as a child, I was taught two alphabets for basic comprehension and not one: for instance, I will when tired still spell like as liek (with that middle vowel sound part of the ITA ‘phonics’ system, as you can see on the end of the third line of the picture above.) This same confusion remains after decades: I’d not linked this with possible mathematical shortcomings until very recently.

Enter RadioLab, ‘where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.’ This WNYC podcast is much beloved by my husband, and I’ve begun to become a fan myself over time. In this case, Season 6 Episode 5 [Numbers] was the causal link required to jump from one point in a personal chronology to another. In the segment ‘Innate Numbers’ comes explanation and understanding that, as children, we have no concept of numbers whatsoever, and the strict linear progression from 1-10 has to be quite vigorously reinforced before cognition occurs.

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Suddenly, I appear to have discovered a causal connection that not only makes sense, but that feels innately correct. However, thoughts are not facts, and if I want to know the real truth over whether my struggles with ITA as a child really have contributed to a disconnect with maths in subsequent decades, there are other possibilities to consider. I won’t win prizes for mental arithmetic speed any time soon: however from these initial issues, a fear and general lack of interest in mathematics no longer exists.

As I push myself into learning more about my own body, challenging how problems are dealt with, comes a deeper awareness of how reaction to stimulus occurs, using the mental tools I wield with most comfort. It is why, I suspect, poetry rhyming feels far more comfortable than the dissonance of imagery and metaphor: those things work better as prose, and poems are more fluid and natural when flowing almost as music. Then, looking at how my mind now reacts to music, there is no longer simply the enjoyment of lyrics or melody, but a rediscovery of how numbers dictate rhythm.

In this regard, mathematics is the most natural thing in the world: chord progressions and key changes are inherently built into my make-up: at 10 I was a fairly prodigious recorder player, and it was suggested I might take up the clarinet or oboe as a way not only to help with asthma, but to develop the ability… yet issues reading music effectively scuppered the dream. The bigger problem however wasn’t a technical glitch in processes, but a deeper set issue, which only now is being actively addressed.

My biggest single issue with an inability to grasp mathematics is fear.

For a very long time, exercise was the same. Intimidated by others, there was no desire to make an effort, coupled with the belief I simply wasn’t good enough. That changed when knees began to hurt not because of exertion, but simply lack of use. An exercise regime then began with thirty minutes of walking a day, and would extend after taking daughter to school, just around the corner. As the walks got longer I used maths to measure progress, thanks to the Fitbit tracker on my wrist.

That journey now means my own body weight can be lifted, that stamina and strength have been built where none existed before. I’ve lost six inches around my waist, yet weight has remained pretty much static in the last ten months. Here’s another mathematical conundrum: counting calories since the start of the year, I am undoubtedly fitter and slimmer than was the case when this began, yet the numbers say I should be thinner. If I’m being accurate with the reporting of calorie intake, who is to blame?

Well, that’s simple. All those cups of tea have a calorific content. Each snack that wasn’t recorded eventually adds up. Food dropped on the floor and then eaten does not have no calorific value, despite what your brain might try and argue as otherwise. I might be able to fool myself, but the truth remains constant and intractable. Mathematics relies on everybody playing by a very specific set of unmalleable rules. You cannot be creative and hope nobody notices. Even high profile politicians can’t do that and expect to escape scot free.

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Understanding yourself is an exercise in causality. What Freakonomics has done for me is open the door into a world I knew existed, but was too afraid to explore in detail. The final piece in that puzzle has been a course in Mindfulness that was begun (and abandoned) earlier in the year, but restarted a few weeks ago. Thanks to meditation there is now an ability to quieten my mind sufficiently to eliminate everything except coping with the moment. This has busted that door to my mind off its hinges, forcing the reassessment of a ton of stuff that has tumbled out.

Only by putting all the pieces of a puzzle together will one be able to understand the picture presented. For me, mathematics was always boring, pointless and ultimately something little cared for. After reading Freakonomics, there’s no instant desire to go solve complex equations, but I did make myself go back and read anything again I glossed over due to complexity. There’s now an enthusiasm to grasp the stuff that doesn’t make sense on the first read, rather than walking away and this is most definitely a step in the right direction.

When I began the Internet of Words project, this was one of the overriding objectives: make people think. What is now apparent is that it wasn’t just a desire that could benefit other people: this is becoming a deeply personal journey into past, present and future. By challenging our shortcomings, there can often come revelations about the reasons why individuals think and act as they do. It is often the most difficult task to do so, because of the fear of so many things: rejection, disappointment and unhappiness. Except, sometimes by embracing these feelings, comes a deeper understanding of what matters most.

Mathematics no longer scares me, and its comprehension is a shortcoming I’ll work to improve upon. Like everything else, it forms a complex and unique part of what is my whole. Understanding that is never likely to happen overnight, and becomes as much a part of life as clothing choices and dinner contents. However, if there’s never the desire to think past the basic life decisions made, true development as a person is a long way off. In this regard I am more than grateful to Messrs Levitt and Dubner, for helping me take a step into a far more interesting and challenging Universe.

Book of the Month :: The Hidden Side of Everything

Book of the Month

It is a truly brave commentator who’d consider comparing the Ku Klux Klan with a bunch of Estate Agents, but that is exactly what Levitt and Dubner decide to do in Chapter 2 of Freakonomics. This section of the 2005 book is particularly apposite in light of current events, with the alt-right very much front and centre in public consciousness. To understand why this juxtaposition works as well as it does, one must grasp a number of underpinning principles, the most significant of which is causality. This is how selling houses can be connected to lynch mobs without breaking stride: more significantly understanding the principle breaks down a lot of the mystery around what truly goes on in our World.

All of us are familiar with the concept of ‘things happen for a reason’ but the practicalities often depend on how much we think about these things to begin with. It is a basic human reaction to consider what is presented at face value when thrown into unfamiliar situations: two cars hit each other on a busy street, and the relative physical positioning of one to the other will allow us to make certain assumptions over the circumstances by which the accident occurred. However, only by digging deeper does the true nature of these series of events become apparent: who is to blame is often far more difficult to discern than at first appears.

The key to causality is grasping that more than one event can be responsible for an action: a man arrives in A&E with chest pains after our accident in the previous paragraph, and the assumption might be that the impact and pressure of seatbelt across the chest has caused an issue with his heart. However, on discussion with the patient these issues began months ago, without real awareness of cause, and it is only the accident which has highlighted a true risk to his longterm health. Only by making an intuition leap based on the available hospital data does it become apparent that a moment in time has exposed a long term set of relationships between disparate factors.

Once one grasps the fundamentals of causality, it becomes apparent that information also matters a very great deal in our understanding of the World around us:

Information is a beacon, a cudgel, an olive branch, a deterrent – all depending on who wields it and how. Information is so powerful that the assumption of information, even if the information does not actually exist, can have a sobering effect.’

Freakonomics, Chapter 2 Page 63.

If all one does in life is assume that what one sees and hears is all there is, there’s a blinkering of so many potential possibilities as to beggar belief. However, on the flip side, one can then easily invent circumstances and possibilities that simply don’t exist, and that is where the science of economics (in Freakonomics’ case) becomes the vital anchor. It doesn’t have to be economics either: history, biology, sociology all have parts to play in illuminating events and connecting the disparate.

In the case of the Ku Klux Clan—it was making private information public knowledge after the Second World war, by giving (of all fictional people) Superman a new force of evil to confront, that helped to contribute to the destruction of the organisation’s mystique. Understanding the market forces estate agents work under and how they use language to create the illusion of a saleable property, by altering information to present a different version of reality… both groups understand the significance of what happens when someone else exposes their ‘theatre’ and shows the truth behind communications used to sell services, or recruit followers.

However, there’s a more potent thread winding these two units together, and that’s fear. Information can be used for many things, after all: if you smoke too much you’re at greater risk of cancer is undoubtedly rooted in scientific fact, but plenty of heavy smokers outlive peers and carry on puffing away to the end. Yes, being overweight may expose you to multiple health risks, but it does not preclude you from physical fitness, or the ability to do anything a ‘thin’ person is capable of. How you use the tools at your disposal (language, information, argument) to either calm or create tension is as significant as the action itself: this transforms the simplest of statements into either a potent threat, or a persuasive admission.

Creating fear to fuel personal belief is corrupting: your way of life is being compromised by immigrants; you should sell the house because tomorrow, that offer may not exist… both play on basic human instinct to create first conflict, and then offer an obvious and easily provided resolution. They might seem a world apart, but causality tells us how much a roof over our heads matters. We grasp why xenophobia is a potent weapon simply by looking at current world events, and why keeping home safe matters, not simply because if there’s a Hurricane tomorrow everything could be taken away regardless. Challenging individuals by threatening what they stand for and what has allowed them to be happy will result more often than not in a predictable reaction. People can become incredibly susceptible to suggestion, if a canny orator knows the buttons to press.

It is why charismatic individuals such as Donald Trump can become President of the United States: many of you will undoubtedly call issue with the use of ‘charismatic’ in that last sentence, but for others that is what they see. It is the veneer of successful business, of a man who is happy to sacrifice his own desires and ambition (with the exception of golf) to, as he reminds us almost daily, ‘Make America Great Again.’ This is no different to the estate agent’s well-worn sales patter, after all. Trump’s allure to the alt-right comes with more complex baggage however, but they know full well the benefit of snaring the support of disaffected or unhappy white men and women who are also registered voters. In that regard at least, everyone can see how causality allowed the events of the 2016 Election to play out, even if many still fail to grasp the result as valid.

The reason why I urge people to consider Freakonomics as an important part of their cognitive arsenal begins with the acknowledgement of causality’s importance. It can take many years to understand the complexities of modern life, and I doubt there’s anyone who’d view themselves an expert, but these philosophical concepts begin to allow the individual a measure of freedom and autonomy. We may all feel helpless and trapped, but individual acts of rebellion can and do add up over time. Causality matters far more than many people might realise.

It is not simply the understanding of interrelation that is important: ideas such as metaphysics (which examines the fundamental nature of reality) are going to become increasingly significant as science itself reveals more to the Universe than has currently been visible via the naked eye. We will consider the significance of mathematics in the modern world in next week’s essay but for now, Freakonomics asks a basic question of any reader: how much information are you prepared to accept as possible explanation?

With the prevalence of ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ in current society, it is becoming increasingly apparent that individuals would often simply pretend something is right if it allows them a measure of emotional security, even if that is not the case. Watching compassion fatigue on social media after months of disparate economic, political and environmental disaster is a reminder that after a while, everybody just stops caring and gives up wanting change. However, if more of us were able to escape the oppressive gravity of information overload, see beyond what is presented to us at face value, many circumstances could and would affect real progress.

In the case of the increase of natural disasters that are inevitable as a consequence of global warming, proactive donations to charities and organisations ought to become de rigeur, not money after the fact. Increased production of pointless material goods should be tempered against the economic impact of their manufacture. Refusing to listen to contrary viewpoints, turning your social media into an echo chamber should be balanced against allowing companies more and more personal data so they can sell items to you that really aren’t necessary.

Picking and choosing what to listen to and believe matter, but so does ignoring bigger pictures for the sake of a quiet life. The next part of the century will put personal security and information freedom front and centre, and at the heart of it all will remain the individual. There has never been a better time to learn, and to educate yourself on how the World is never as black and white as it might appear. Correlation is not causality, however, and that may be the most important lesson to take from the entire Freakonomics concept.

The only true means by which one is able to understand complexities around us comes from embracing the facts: often it can take time and effort to find them, or uncover the real truths behind circumstance. A solid grounding in scientific principle (whether they be pure, applied or social) is the best foundation anyone will find to truly understand our planet and the people on it. Freakonomics simply takes the building blocks of an accepted world, pulls them apart, then rebuilds the structures in another way. It is a life skill we can all learn from, with considerable and positive consequences long term.

The Phoenix :: Haiku and Micropoetry

The Phoenix.png

I’m a little late with this repost this week, for which I apologise, but it does finally mean the wheels of back-site organisation are working as intended. This will be the final spot from now on for the Twitter site’s Haiku and Micropoetry, and I’ll be attempting to write on a public prompt/own inspiration/public prompt basis from now on. This idea came from my good writing buddy @erynies on Twitter, and is based on this song:

This song is now on a playlist: it made for pretty decent poetry, and has served as a reminder of how useful other people’s words can be to inspire your own.

I hope you enjoy these works as a result.


The Phoenix :: Haiku Edition

The World goes to Hell:
Don’t let it kill you: rise up
Phoenix from ashes.

Set fire to the sky;
Become their inspiration
For a thousand songs.

Listen to this beat,
So many hearts: each one rings
As strident as yours.

Remix possible:
No more vintage misery,
Present victory.

Our joint battle cry,
There is still time: fight with me
Make sure day is ours.


The Phoenix :: Micropoetry Edition

When chaos reigns
You’re soaked right through
There is but one
Thing left to do:

Just reinvent
A thousand times
Existence new
In songs and rhymes.

The earth will burn
And from it rise
Your answers sought
For wiser eyes.

Now fly above
On Phoenix wings,
To reap rewards
That freedom brings.

Born again, life
Redefined: so
Take my hand
Away we go.


 

Book of the Month :: When Steven met Stephen…

It is the summer of 2003. Europe is sweltering under the worst heatwave for 500 years as Malta, Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland all vote to join the European Union. In the US, it is less than six months since US forces invaded Iraq and liberated Baghdad, as intellectual fights rage as to the validity of this action. In the midst of all this, writer and journalist Stephen J. Dubner is asked by the New York Times to go and interview a man who is causing quite a stir in the world of Economics. So, he goes to Chicago, and for the first time meets Steven D. Levitt.

These were the days when social media meant MySpace and Friendster plus very little else: Skype had only just launched and no-one had even heard of Twitter or Facebook. Podcasting only began in this year: if you had an original idea to expound, there was literally nowhere to go other than magazines or newspapers for any radical thinker to find an audience who might be interested. In the case of Levitt, he’d already made a name for himself proposing fairly unconventional theories in a very conventional discipline.

His latest work, ‘The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime’ had aroused interest after publication in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. Levitt argued that a crime wave that had swept the US in the 1990’s had not been arrested by any of the means by which politicians, commentators or indeed sociologists had stated were responsible. In fact, the rapid drop in teenage perpetrators was a direct result of the landmark Roe v Wade legal case in 1971 which legalised abortion and effectively prevented a very specific demographic of potential criminals from ever existing.

This assertion was, understandably, met with a fair deal of academic scepticism (which continued for many years after publication) but Levitt’s work was based not only in fact, but considerable background research. Here was a man who looked at Economics not simply as a series of empirical concepts, but was acutely aware of the interconnectivity of other World events in relation to basic economic theory. Dubner, very much the epitome of the street-smart New Yorker, saw potential for the two of them, but it was his literary agent who can be credited with the inspired notion of getting the pair to write a book.

Freakonomics was published in 2005, the same year as a blog of the same name was launched. The latter tapped into an important, emerging means to capitalise on a new and previously unexplored group of critical thinkers riding a wave of Internet freedom. William Morrow and Company, who distributed the book in the US, sent 100 ‘preview’ copies to specialist bloggers in the hope they’d give favourable reviews. Many people subsequently credit the initial success of publication to the influence of the ‘blogosphere’: as of late 2009 (according to Wikipedia) the book had sold over 4 million copies worldwide. Then came a number of (probably inevitable) challenges to the original concepts covered in the book, a 2006 defamation case, which forced a revised version of the original manuscript to be published in the same year.

The success of the Freakonomics brand wasn’t just in the hands of independent internet writers or thanks to publicity over legal challenges: 2007 saw the blog become so popular it was absorbed by the New York Times, who continued to host it until 2011. By then there’d been a second book, documentary film made about the concept and the establishment of a podcast, Freakonomics Radio. However, more significant was the foundation in 2009 of the Freakonomics Consulting Group, soon changed to The Greater Good or TGG. With a number of Nobel laureates, this rapidly emerging commercial juggernaut attempting to maintain largely ethical status made perfect sense.

In a decade plus, Freakonomics has become big business, the epitome of Internet Brand Awareness. There’s now four books, a bi-weekly podcast and, if you have the cash, the original instigators of the lifestyle are available to come speak at your event. Their publicity blurb joyfully celebrates 600k followers on Twitter and a now fully independent blog that receives two million hits a month. This duo effecively and smartly rode the wave of emerging social networks and established the concept of out of the box thinking as a buzz-phrase for a generation.

However, there are critics, especially when it comes to their assessment of certain subjects (climate change most notably) combined with this peculiar deconstruction of what an American academic can do with enough disparate data to work from. Their joint success has generated the kind of grumpy annoyance that inevitable follows anyone who’s able to be hugely successful at the task in hand: there are imitators of Levitt and Dubner’s partnership all over the World, inevitably including those who resent not having had the ‘idea’ first.

However, this pair have effectively redefined an area of academia, giving the -onomics suffix an entirely new lease of life, and allowing people like me to believe that there is more to explaining why the World works as it does than simply spouting statistics and claiming academic superiority. In fact, I’d not be here today with a Patreon were it not for the belief that acceptable explanations do not simply have to involve one discipline’s set of particulars and no others. Allowing disciplines to overlap and merge, reading data from multiple (and often unexpected) sources means that literature has much to thank science for, history can look to economics to help explain actions… it may be considered by some as homogenisation, but it is a logical reaction to the means by which we now both absorb and react to the vast amount of (often contrary) stimuli available.

Looking for the unexpected answer to a question often allows us the ability to grasp the larger, more fundamental principles at play. In the introduction to Freakonomics, the perfect example of this is the US ‘real estate’ agent who you’d like to sell your house… but does she have your best interests at heart? Not according to the data, say Levitt and Dubner. If you look at the behaviour of Real Estate agents when selling their own houses, they’ll always try and angle for more money themselves, whilst looking for clients to take the first good deal that comes along.

What this pair are asking their readers to do is not necessarily agree with their principles, or indeed subscribe to this way of thinking. They are providing a valid alternative to what is presented as ‘conventional’ thinking. The definition of our individual truth, undoubtedly, is a complex combination of many factors. Sometimes, it is apparent that groups of people aren’t necessarily interested in the scientific facts presented. What they crave is their own, personal comfort away from actual reality.

If you want a perfect example of this in action, spend a moment reading around the subject of clean eating which has rapidly and significantly altered both what we consume and what is considered as healthy in the last decade. This movement owes more than a little to internet evangelicals: often women who have sought to transform themselves, creating a particular lifestyle of foods and detoxes before selling the concept to others via platforms such as Instagram. In many cases, conventional wisdom and scientific fact has been completely ignored in preference to ‘feeling good’ regardless of how this actually takes place.

However, in the last few years, academics and others have been at pains to debunk the transformative properties of certain foods, and that in many cases prolonged exposure can cause long term harm. Many cite this as yet another example of a ‘post truth’ environment many people now choose to inhabit. They would rather be wrong and happy than right and miserable. With the current state of world news right now, it really is not difficult to grasp the appeal.

The truth for most of us should be a combination of acquired knowledge, influence and personal consideration: looking outside what has been your accepted norm and thinking differently is never a bad thing. Challenging what is presented as fact is, after all, never a bad thing. What is increasingly apparent is that the real truth can not only be painful, but potentially damaging to people who refuse to accept that science and mathematics can only be ignored for so long.

Freakonomics challenges us to look at the World in a different way. It uses often disparate facts and examples to present a reality where everything truly is interconnected with everything else. Science’s constant reassessment of the Universe is now showing this to true on a molecular level, with rapid advances pointing the way towards a number of major re-examinations of matter, existence and even the history of mankind itself. As our very perception of reality is both reassessed and altered, it is time to look to the ordinary in order to find answers we can grasp on a personal level.

Now you appreciate the concept, it is time to examine evidence…