Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Dignity of Mosses

As one of the few people on the planet that has not read Eat Pray Love (2006), Elizabeth Gilbert's bestselling memoir, I approached her novel The Signature of All Things (2013) without too much expectation.

I am not sure what lead me to pick up his book. Gilbert was in Australia earlier this year at the All About Women festival I attended, although I did not attend her sessions. But then I saw her on ABC's The Book Club and Marieke Hardy praised her Signature so I thought I would give it a chance.

Set primarily in Philadelphia, the story begins in 1800 with the birth of Alma Whittaker the long-awaited child of wealthy botanical import/exporter Henry and his Dutch wife Beatrix. Alma is a fiercely intelligent child, with her intellect making up for her lack of beauty. She naturally becomes fascinated with botany and can converse with authority on plants of all types. As she ages she becomes fascinated by mosses and spends her life work studying them.

Alma's pursuit of mosses is only matched by her pursuit of love and belonging. She falls in love with an unobtainable man, and then marries another equally unattainable. Then, in later life, realising she has only ever really known the White Acre estate on which she has resided, Alma sets out on an extraordinary journey to Tahiti and Amsterdam in which she makes a monumental discovery.

Gilbert's writing is beautiful - describing orchids and mosses with such detail - and she transports the reader back in time convincingly.  She covers the abolitionist movement, pharmaceutical discoveries, the voyages of Captain Cook, and the discoveries of Darwin. Alma is a wonderful character, vividly depicted, and I enjoyed travelling with this witty, intellectual, woman of science.

Signature is a big, ambitious book and the result was somewhat uneven for me. There were parts I enjoyed thoroughly and became engrossed in, particularly the first half of the book describing Henry Whitaker's upbringing and his work for Sir Joseph banks in Kew Gardens. But in other parts, like the trip to Tahiti, I felt the story dragged and lost momentum. Overall though I would recommend this book, particularly to those with an interest in natural history and a love of plants. This would make a great book club read as there is so much to discuss.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Shame on You, Shame on Us

Welsh journalist Jon Ronson's latest book is So You've Been Publicly Shamed (2015). I had the privilege of hearing him speak on the topic at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas on 5 September 2015. I was intrigued by his views on public shaming so bought his book and read it in the days following the Festival.

Ronson looks at how the Internet, particularly Twitter, has been used to ruin people. Social media has given everyone a voice, but it has also given rise to a virtual mob.

Several high-profile shaming are explored. Justine Sacco, a young PR rep who made a bad joke on Twitter before boarding a flight, landed to find herself trending on social media, the most searched term in Google, and fired from her job.

Likewise, Lindsey Stone posted a joke photo on Facebook for her friends. Months later someone made it public and Stone was reviled on social media and lost her job.

Bestselling writer Jonah Lehrer was exposed for plagiarism and inaccuracies. He was reviled in social media and when he attempted an apology who we shamed even further.

The book has come out just as the Ashley Madison scandal happened in which the personal information of thousands of people from an infidelity dating site were exposed by hackers. This has lead to the public shaming of those named to the point of social ruin and in several instances to suicide.

Ronson shows that the punishment of these public shamings far exceed the action that caused them. Public humiliation, threats, sackings and abuse from often anonymous strangers on the internet cause deep psychological harm. Women are treated far more harshly then men in this arena with threats of sexual violence a common form of trolling.

Shame researcher Dr Brene Brown writes that "shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough." In most of the cases Ronson explores good people were brought down by shame.

He also checks in to see how people are after they were destroyed. Dr Brown writes that "If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive." In Ronson, Stone, Sacco and even Lehrer found a sympathetic ear and perhaps his book will aide in their recovery.

The message here is one of empathy and restraint. Before we all pile on and add our voice to the collective shaming, consider whether we are hiding behind our internet avatars. If we wouldn't pick up torches and pitchforks to chase people out of town, why would we do so virtually?

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Eyes on the Prize

The Man Booker Prize shortlist was announced on 15 September 2015, whittling the 13 titles down to six.

I was somewhat surprised that none of the past shortlisters Anne Enright, Tom McCarthy and Andrew O'Hagan (1999) made it this year.

But I am pleased that The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma and Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings are on the shortlist.


My pick for the winner is Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread (2015). She is one of my favourite writers and I am keen for her to win. But I would also be happy if the prize went to The Fishermen.

Here is the shortlist:
  • A Brief History of Seven Killings - Marlon James (Jamaica)
  • Satin Island - Tom McCarthy (UK)
  • The Fishermen - Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria)
  • The Year of the Runaways - Sunjeev Sahota (UK)
  • A Spool of Blue Thread - Anne Tyler (USA)
  • A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara (USA)

The winner announced on 13 October 2015.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2015 - Day 2

Day two of FODI (Sunday 6 September 2015) was a great opportunity to attend a range of thought-provoking sessions.

Technophilia - Panel
Marc Fennell chaired a panel discussion featuring Martin Ford and Marc Lewis about addiction to technology.

Ford is a software developer and author of The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (2015).  His argument is that artificial intelligence, mass automation and rapidly advancing technology will see many jobs disappear. In terms of technophilia, he talked about the potentially unhealthy dependence many people have on their smartphones and other devices.

Lewis is an addiction specialist who has written The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction is Not a Disease (2015). As a neuroscientist he spoke about how technology can be healthy and cited examples of video games which can teach important life skills. While I purchased Ford's book and  look forward to reading it, I do not think I want to read Lewis' book on addiction.


I had expected the panel to be a lively discussion, but instead it was rather boring. There was a brief moment when Lewis and Ford disagreed and it got interesting, but for the most part it was rather tame and certainly not dangerous. The presentation is not yet available on YouTube.



Knowledge Wars - Peter Doherty
Peter Doherty was an excellent choice for my next session. Winner of the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1996 for discovering the nature of the cellular immune defence, he is passionate about science. He despairs that in the popular press and on social media there is so much misinformation about important subjects like immunisation and climate change.

Doherty makes a passionate plea for ordinary citizens to become informed about science so as to make up their own minds about these important issues. During his talk he spoke about how education has become dumbed down so that our understanding of basic scientific concepts is limited.

He was quite funny in his talk, making digs at politicians, lawyers and judges for their lack of knowledge. His main concern at the moment is climate change and the misinformation being spread about it. Doerty's presentation is available to watch on YouTube.

His new book, The Knowledge Wars (2015), is a science book for non-scientists, encouraging us to look for the evidence in the information presented to us. I spoke to Doherty as he was signing my book and he was delightful.

Bad Education - AC Grayling
My final session was the one I was most looking forward to today. British philosopher AC Grayling delivered a presentation on education that was inspiring, witty and thought-provoking. Education is a passion of mine so I was keen to hear what Grayling had to say.
His main argument centred on how we tend to think of education as a necessary tool for getting a job instead of education for broader life skills. Grayling argued that "education is for life and for living". He made a passionate plea for the Humanities to be taught alongside STEM subjects and highlighted how the study of history, literature, philosophy, languages and the arts make people better human beings as they better understand the human condition. His presentation is available on YouTube and well worth viewing.

Grayling was delightfully erudite, joking about how we should all be reading Plato in the bath. The hour passed so quickly and I could have listened to him forever. After the session I spoke to him as he signed a copy of his latest book The Challenge of Things - Thinking Through Troubled Times (2015). He told me a joke about lawyers as we talked about my work in education. He was very impressive and I look forward to reading his book.
So that was my Festival of Dangerous Ideas for 2015. The highlights for me were Naomi Klein and AC Grayling - both delivering powerful presentations. I also thoroughly enjoyed Peter Doherty, Peter Greste and Jon Ronson. 

I have a lot of reading to do, having come home from the Festival with a stash of signed books, including:
  • So You've Been Publicly Shamed (2014) by Jon Ronson (Read September 2015, see review)
  • The Rise of the Robots (2015) by Martin Ford
  • This Changes Everything (2014) by Naomi Klein
  • The Challenge of Things (2015) by AC Grayling
  • Knowledge Wars (2015) by Peter Doherty

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2015 - Day 1

One of my favourite events each year is the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI), an annual event run by the Sydney Opera House and The Ethics Centre. In the past few years I have heard many fabulous speakers and writers including: David Simon; Hanna Rosin; Evgeny Morozov; Anne Summers; Dan Savage; Salman Rushdie; Kajsa Ekis Ekman; Lydia Cacho and many, many more.

Here is a summary of what happened on day one of FODI (Saturday 5 September 2015) for me:

Capitalism and the Climate - Naomi Klein
Canadian author Naomi Klein spoke about her latest book This Changes Everything (2014) about climate change. Klein started by talking about Australia's indigenous people and made a compelling case for greater respect and understanding of indigenous people around the world. She then talked about refugees and the humanitarian crisis arising our of the Syrian civil war. She was pointed in her comments about our government's stance on asylum seekers and critical of offshore processing.

Klein went into detail about Nauru and the plight of its citizens, being wedged out of their tiny island by mining excavation on the inside and rising sea levels on the outside. She made the point that the guards of war refugees today could become climate refugees tomorrow.

Articulate, intelligent and compelling, Klein delivered a wonderfully crafted speech. She spoke of empathy and human dignity, and made a plea for all of us to be kinder to the people around us. Klein's presentation has been filmed and uploaded on to YouTube, which is well worth watching. She also has a documentary film of This Changes Everything coming out soon.

I knew of Naomi Klein as she was a year or so ahead of me at University of Toronto. In 2000 I picked up a copy of her bestselling No Logo (2000) and was really impressed by her analysis of branding and globalisation. So I was delighted to talk briefly to her after her presentation and have her sign both No Logo and This Changes Everything for me while we spoke of Toronto.


Journalistic Freedom - Peter Greste
A week ago the Egyptian court finally handed down its verdict in the retrial of the Al Jazeera staff Peter Greste, Mohamed Famy and Baher Mohamed, sentencing them to three years. Today I had the pleasure of hearing Greste speak about his ordeal and about the threats journalists face around the globe.

Greste spoke with Mark Colvin about how he ended up in Egypt, his arrest, his time in prison and his release. He spoke about how journalism has changed over the course of his career. In early days being a journalist was dangerous because of the situation journalists were often found in - war zones, natural disasters etc. Now journalists are often targeted by kidnappers and assassins and used as bargaining chips.

He reminded the audience that he has been convicted and is still fighting to clear his name, and fighting to have his colleagues released. His session was a powerful reminder that journalism is not a crime and that social media can be used to bring about positive change.

Shame Culture - Jon Ronson
I had heard of Welsh Journalist Jon Ronson and his books - The Psychopath Test (2011), The Men who Stare at Goats (2004) - for a number of years. But it is his latest book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed (2015), that interested me in this session.

Ronson's presentation focussed on shame culture in the internet age and how public humiliation has become rampant on platforms like Twitter. His presentation focussed on how a mob mentality can take over and people can use the anonymity of Twitter to shame others. He pointed to examples like Justine Sacco who posted a joke tweet before boarding a flight to Africa, and landed to find that she was trending on Twitter, being shamed as racist and fired from her job.


Ronson and Jon Safran spoke about shame culture and how easy it is to be caught up in the mob mentality. The audience questions were interesting, particularly about whether shaming can ever be a good thing - citing the example of MP Bronwyn Bishop's travel expenses.

I am quickly working my way through Ronson's book and will blog about it shortly (Update: read review). His presentation is also available on YouTube.

What I Believe 
The last session for the day was an interesting discussion featuring Frank Brennan, Peter DohertyMalarndirri McCarthy, AC Grayling, Helen Razer, Adrienne Truscott and Jon Ronson.

I had expected it to be a panel discussion with interaction among the guests. Instead each person was given ten minutes to deliver a monologue on their beliefs. This was interesting but I found it went on a bit long. The highlights were Frank Brennan and AC Grayling. I have linked all of the speakers to the YouTube video of their presentations.

Day two of FODI will feature Peter Doherty, AC Grayling, Martin Ford and others.

My previous festival experiences can be seen on this blog: