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Uses and abuses

Wed, 04/01/2015 - 15:50

Hidden features

Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World. By Bruce Schneier.W.W. Norton; 383 pages; $27.95 and £17.99.

SOCIETY has more digital information than ever and can do new things with it. Google can identify flu outbreaks using search queries; America’s National Security Agency (NSA) aspires to do the same to find terrorists. But at the same time people are under constant surveillance by companies and governments, since the rules protecting privacy are hopelessly out of date.

In “Data and Goliath” Bruce Schneier, a computer-security expert, does a fine job of laying out the problems caused by this compulsive collection of personal data, and suggests some steps that would help protect society from the most egregious excesses. The challenges are severe because modern technologies collect large amounts of information on the most innocuous of activities, which formerly left no data trace.

In business, personal information has become a sort of raw material. Many smartphone apps can afford to be free because...

Flash mob

Wed, 04/01/2015 - 15:50

Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories from Around the World. Edited by James Thomas, Robert Shapard and Christopher Merrill. W.W. Norton; 277 pages; $15.95 and £9.99.

IT HAS long been said that Ernest Hemingway kick-started the super-short short story, known as flash fiction. “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” is a six-word narrative often attributed to Papa H. Apocryphal perhaps, but the attribution makes a kind of flash fiction in itself, one completely suited to the early 21st century, when flash really seems to be coming into its own. What better literary meat for people who are self-referential, ironic and glued to smartphones than these swift puzzles or tales—some only a sentence long—which vanish from the screen even as they linger in the mind?

This does seem to be a flash-fiction moment. Last year David Mitchell—better known for expansive novels that are the very opposite of flash—published “The Right Sort”, a story in 280 tweets. This came not long after “The Black Box”, by Jennifer Egan, which first appeared on the New Yorker’s Twitter account in 2012. Twitter...

Time it was

Wed, 04/01/2015 - 15:50

What Comes Next and How to Like It. By Abigail Thomas. Scribner; 240 pages; $24.

ABIGAIL THOMAS is not a painter, but she makes paintings anyway. Using oil-based house paint, which is toxic, she drips, flings and pours colour onto glass and then pushes it all around. Failed compositions are scraped away, yielding new and surprising arrangements. A dopey bunch of apple trees can suddenly become a ghostly stand of birch. “You have to have some faith,” Ms Thomas writes in her beautiful new memoir.

This is not a book about painting. It is about pushing around sometimes toxic material in an effort—sometimes vain, often frustrating—to make something that looks right, or at least to find beauty in the results. This, of course, is what it means to write, and certainly to write a memoir. It is also what it takes to find contentment, particularly in one’s later years, when most of the colour already has been dripped and flung. That is the real subject of Ms Thomas’s book.

In a way, the book is a sequel. In 2006 Ms Thomas published “A Three Dog Life”, a bestselling account of her last years with her husband, Rich, who suffered traumatic brain injuries after he was hit by a car in Manhattan one night. Bookshops groan with personal chronicles of adversity, but Ms Thomas’s work stood apart. In elegant, spare prose, she described what...

Jobs 2.0

Wed, 04/01/2015 - 15:50

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Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader. By Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. Crown Business; 464 pages; $30. Sceptre; £25.

“NEAR-DEATH experiences can help one see more clearly sometimes,” said Steve Jobs. He was speaking about struggling companies. Yet he could easily have been talking about his own life. In 1985 Mr Jobs was pushed out of Apple Computer, the firm he had helped found, only to return after a decade away. In doing so, he mounted one of capitalism’s most celebrated comebacks.

 Mr Jobs’s own professional “near- death” experience helped him learn new skills that enabled him to become probably the most visionary innovator of his time, according to a new book by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli, two business journalists who have long covered America’s tech industry. After Mr Jobs’s explosive temper and meddling ways had led to his expulsion from the company, he spent years working in the wilderness, away from the spotlight. He tried to build a new computer company, NeXT, and he turned Pixar, an animation firm he...

The Brexit dilemma

Wed, 04/01/2015 - 15:50

Exit, stage left

Britain’s Future in Europe: Reform, Renegotiation, Repatriation or Secession? Edited by Michael Emerson. Rowman & Littlefield; 192 pages; $35 and £19.95.

Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe. By Denis MacShane. I.B. Tauris; 240 pages; $25 and £12.99.

The Risk of Brexit. By Roger Liddle. Rowman & Littlefield; 64 pages; $17 and £9.95.

THE newspapers are screaming about Grexit (a Greek departure from the euro). Yet however annoying the new government in Athens may be, neither it, nor its exasperated partners, nor most voters really want the country to go. In contrast, Britain’s Tory prime minister, David Cameron, promises that, if he wins the British election on May 7th, he will renegotiate Britain’s European Union membership and hold an in/out referendum before the end of 2017. In political terms, Brexit may thus be a bigger risk than Grexit.

One predictable result is a spate of new books on Britain’s vexed relationship with the EU, which long predates Mr Cameron and has troubled both the...

Fathers and sons

Thu, 03/26/2015 - 15:47

The Fishermen. By Chigozie Obioma. One; 304 pages; £14.99. To be published in America next month by Little, Brown.

PART Bildungsroman, part Greek tragedy, “The Fishermen” may be the most interesting debut novel to emerge from Nigeria this year. It recounts the story of an Igbo family of four brothers who grow up in a small town in the south-west of the country. Their father is strict, but proud: he wants one to be an airline pilot, another a lawyer, the third a family doctor. The youngest, nine-year-old Benjamin, who loves animals, will be a professor. The townspeople laugh at the paterfamilias and his dreams, but he swats them off like mosquitoes. No loafing for his sons.

Shortly after the father’s bosses at the Central Bank of Nigeria send him to take on a job in another town, though, the boys begin to go astray. “His established routine of composure, obedience, study, and compulsory siesta—long a pattern of our daily existence—gradually lost its grip…Then we broke free.” The boys bunk off school and head down to the river to fish.

One day, by the riverbank, they encounter the...

Delivery man

Thu, 03/26/2015 - 15:47

How To Run a Government So that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy. By Michael Barber. Allen Lane; 336 pages; £16.99.

WHEN Sir Michael Barber, a monkish former teacher, emerged as head of the Delivery Unit that Tony Blair launched in 2001 to ensure that individual government departments implemented reforms, he appeared at a press briefing armed with a massive flip chart and a volley of statistics. This newfangled approach was roundly mocked as “deliverology”. But Sir Michael embraced the term, which describes a semi-science that takes the schemes and dreams of ministers and turns them into reality with as few disasters as possible.

Public-service reform had long relied on ministers mixing political passions and good intentions in the hope that the combination would magically coalesce into good results. That governments across the rich and developing worlds now seek help from experts on reforms shows how much more respectable deliverology has become. In 1995 Mark Moore’s classic, “Creating Public Value”, focused minds in the Clinton administration by laying out the conditions for improving America’s public institutions. Inspired by that book Sir Michael, now head of education practice for the Pearson Group (part-owner of The Economist), has set out to establish some dos and don’ts for...

Works of Glass

Thu, 03/26/2015 - 15:47

Getting crotchety

Words Without Music. By Philip Glass. Liveright; 432 pages; $29.95. Faber & Faber; £22.50.

PHILIP GLASS is probably the world’s most famous living composer. He is known to many as a minimalist, since much of his music is highly repetitive, and he is a prolific film-score creator whose music was used in “Leviathan”, a controversial Russian movie from 2014. His new autobiography shows him to be a decent writer, too.

The book avoids detailed analyses of compositions. Instead, Mr Glass discusses the broad influences—academic, cultural and personal—on his approach to music. In this respect the early chapters are the most illuminating. He was born 78 years ago into a Jewish family in Baltimore, where his father ran a record shop in a down-at-heel neighbourhood. Ben Glass was a fearsome man, who was later to disown his son after he married a gentile. He was “very physical and muscular” and would beat up people who tried to steal his records. But he passed his love of music on to Philip, who would sit, unnoticed, at the top of the stairs, while his father listened...

Land of hope and glory

Thu, 03/26/2015 - 15:47

Snapshot judgment

A Triumph of Genius: Edwin Land, Polaroid, and the Kodak Patent War.By Ronald Fierstein.American Bar Association; 644 pages; $35 and £22.99. Buy from (ISBN=unknown)

“LIKE visiting a shrine,” is how Steve Jobs described a meeting with Edwin Land. The founder of Apple adored Land, the co-founder of Polaroid, a pioneer of instant photography that with its mix of innovation, aesthetics and focus on consumer utility was in many ways the Apple of its day. Land was not only “one of the great inventors of our time”, according to Jobs. “More importantly, he saw the intersection of art and science and business and built an organisation to reflect that.” Like Jobs, the adopted boy to whom he became a sort of father figure, Land was driven, sometimes to the point of obsession, a demanding taskmaster and occasionally difficult to deal with.

Land’s relative obscurity today reflects the fact that the inventions for which he was best known were rendered largely obsolete by the very digital revolution that made Jobs into a business hero and...

Chefs’ specials

Thu, 03/26/2015 - 15:46

Where Chefs Eat: A Guide to Chefs’ Favourite Restaurants. By Joe Warwick. Phaidon; 975 pages; $24.95 and £14.95.

DEDICATED restaurant guides have been around for over a century. One of the oldest, the Michelin Guide, relies on anonymous experts, and more recent models, such as TripAdvisor, reflect consumer comments. Such is the variety of information that the curious diner must wonder where to begin. The restaurant-critic slot in newspapers in Britain, for example, is often treated as a place for writers to entertain rather than advise. The profusion of web content also makes it difficult to know whom to trust.

“Where Chefs Eat” does something different, by serving up the advice of prominent culinarians. So, if you’re considering where to dine in, say, Paris, René Redzepi, Denmark’s best-known chef, mentions Le Chateaubriand, which he calls “a restaurant of the future”, and Pierre Gagnaire, a Frenchman with three Michelin stars, suggests Kifuné—“a hot spot for the Japanese crowd”.

The author, Joe Warwick, co-founded the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” awards; “Where Chefs Eat” is rather more encyclopedic. Its 3,250 recommendations are culled from the responses of 630 international chefs, many of them household names. Its usefulness derives from its culinary eclecticism, stretching from Korean street food at K-Bar in...

Bringers of sorrow

Thu, 03/26/2015 - 15:46

Boko Haram: Inside Nigeria’s Unholy War. By Mike Smith. I.B. Tauris; 233 pages; $29 and £18.99.

“YES, Western education is forbidden,” said the shirtless man with the bandaged arm. “Any type of knowledge that contradicts Islam, Allah does not allow you to acquire it.” It was July 2009, and the speaker was Mohammed Yusuf, the leader of a group of then little-known jihadists. The setting was a hasty interrogation that followed Yusuf’s capture after a brief uprising in north-eastern Nigeria sparked by a clash with policemen. A few hours later he was executed by security forces.

Rather than focusing on the usual subjects of such conversations—locations of weapons and quantities of soldiers, say—the interrogation took the form of a theological debate between two Muslims. Details of the encounter, which was recorded on video, shed much light on the contradictory and messianic world view of Yusuf, the founder of a group that has since become familiar to the wider world as Boko Haram, a name that loosely translates as “Western education is forbidden”. That the group takes exception to such teaching is all too plain....

Pride and promiscuity

Thu, 03/19/2015 - 15:44

The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me: An Aristocratic Family, A High-Society Scandal and an Extraordinary Legacy. By Sofka Zinovieff. Harper; 436 pages; $35. Jonathan Cape; £25.

SOFKA ZINOVIEFF has form as a cultural explorer. She studied anthropology and did research in Greece, a country where she later settled and described insightfully and at times lyrically, both in fiction and memoir. In another work, tracing the life of one of her grandmothers, a communist Russian princess, she dives into the world of the Bolshevik revolution and its aftermath.

Her latest book, which came out in Britain last year and is about to be published in America, brings her much closer to home. But in Ms Zinovieff’s case home is a peculiar place. Having grown up as a free-spirited Londoner whose father hobnobbed with rock stars, she interrupted her Greek investigations when she heard that she had inherited a famous mansion in Oxfordshire, Faringdon House. Suddenly she was “Miss Sofka”, responsible for an estate and entitled to a special pew in the ancient local church.

The story gets stranger still. She was...

Minding the nurture gap

Thu, 03/19/2015 - 15:44

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. By Robert Putnam. Simon & Schuster; 386 pages; $28 and £18.99.

THE most important divide in America today is class, not race, and the place where it matters most is in the home. Conservatives have been banging on about family breakdown for decades. Now one of the nation’s most prominent liberal scholars has joined the chorus.

Robert Putnam is a former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the author of “Bowling Alone” (2000), an influential work that lamented the decline of social capital in America. In his new book, “Our Kids”, he describes the growing gulf between how the rich and the poor raise their children. Anyone who has read “Coming Apart” by Charles Murray will be familiar with the trend, but Mr Putnam adds striking detail and some excellent graphs (pictured). This is a thoughtful and persuasive book.

Among the educated elite the traditional family is thriving: fewer than 10% of births to female college graduates are outside marriage—a figure that is barely higher than it was in 1970. In 2007 among women with just a high-school education...

Long, long road

Thu, 03/19/2015 - 15:44

Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947. By Bruce Hoffman. Knopf; 618 pages; $35.

ISRAEL’S creation has many causes, but among the most powerful, argues Bruce Hoffman, is terrorism. For a decade, the anonymous soldiers of the Jewish underground waged a terror campaign to establish a state, targeting first Arabs, then British forces, then Arabs again.

Mr Hoffman has worked for the CIA and American forces in Baghdad, and he established the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrews University. Although he dismisses some Arab militants of the age as atavistic marauders out to “kill as many Jews as possible”, he maintains a thinly veiled admiration for the Jewish irregulars whose plan to upset Britain’s 25-year rule of Palestine he describes as “unequivocally triumphant” and “brilliant in its simplicity”. “Terrorism,” Mr Hoffman writes, “can, in the right conditions and with the appropriate strategy and tactics, succeed in attaining at least some of its practitioners’ fundamental aims.”

In its infancy, the Jewish Yishuv, or settlement, cheered as Britain assiduously set about fulfilling Lord Balfour’s promise to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine. As the Yishuv’s power grew, however, Britain’s presence became more of a hindrance than a help to its aspirations for statehood...

Rivals and accomplices

Thu, 03/19/2015 - 15:44

Art on an industrial scale

WHEN Graham Beal, the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), realised about a decade ago what a turning point an 11-month visit by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo had represented for the city’s art scene in the early 1930s, he decided to make an exhibition out of it. The culmination would be the DIA’s immovable crown jewel: Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals, a series of frescoes depicting machinery and workers at Ford’s River Rouge plant, which the Mexican artist described as the finest work of his career.

During the period, which Mr Beal refers to delicately as a time of “interesting financial circumstances”, the planned exhibition was put on hold for several years. At that time the city’s funding of the DIA dwindled to nothing and Detroit sank ever deeper into a financial morass. After the city declared bankruptcy in 2013, the emergency manager considered closing the DIA and selling off its art. It was saved by a “grand bargain”. Together, private donors, charitable foundations and the state of Michigan raised $816m to help pay public workers’ pensions in return for transferring...

Loan-star state

Thu, 03/19/2015 - 15:44

Reel love

A Kim Jong Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Film-Maker, his Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power. By Paul Fischer. Flatiron Books; 353 pages; $27.99. Viking; £14.99.

NORTH KOREA, under its former leader Kim Jong Il, was a monstrous “display performance of its own”. This compelling line lies at the heart of “A Kim Jong Il Production”, a detailed and evocative retelling of one of North Korea’s most extraordinary heists: the kidnap of a South Korean starlet, Choi Eun-hee (known as Madame Choi), and her ex-husband and film-maker, Shin Sang-ok. Paul Fischer, a film producer, recounts the well-known story in three engrossing acts.

His set is Pyongyang, the North’s capital: less a city than “a stage on a monumental scale”, its central streets dotted with white marks so that citizens—the extras in this theatre state—move in unison at mass events. The ubiquitous portraits and chest pins of Kim Il Sung, its first dictator, only began under his son, who deified his father to legitimise the succession. The younger Kim developed a keen sense...

The power of one

Thu, 03/12/2015 - 15:48

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The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China. By Chen Guangcheng. Henry Holt; 352 pages; $30. Macmillan; £20.

THE departure from Beijing on May 19th 2012 of Chen Guangcheng, his wife and two children on a plane bound for America marked the end of the most dramatic story of a dissident’s escape from persecution in Communist-ruled China. Mr Chen’s flight from imprisonment in his own home, where he had been kept under watch by hundreds of guards; his arrival at the American embassy in Beijing with Chinese agents in hot pursuit; and the high-level wrangling between America and China that eventually allowed him to head into exile, had the trappings of a Hollywood thriller. And to cap it all, he is blind.

“The Barefoot Lawyer”, Mr Chen’s memoir of his struggle with the thuggery of the state in the poor village in eastern China where he grew up, and of his eventual flight, is a powerful reminder of how some aspects of the country remain unchanged despite its rapidly growing prosperity. The tyranny he describes in his part of the countryside is perhaps...

Full to bursting

Thu, 03/12/2015 - 15:48

Visitation rights

THE Sistine Chapel in Rome is one of the holiest sites in Christendom, the place where innumerable popes have been elected across the ages. It is also a popular tourist destination. The Vatican Museums (of which the chapel is, to many, the jewel in the crown) attracted a record 5.89m visitors last year, almost as many as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which is nearly five times bigger. The crowds are a financial boon. According to the director, Antonio Paolucci, the museums generate around €80m ($87m) from ticket revenue each year and another €20m from merchandising and corporate hospitality. Of that total, roughly half goes toward the museums’ costs (including paying for a staff of 800) and the rest is surplus revenue for the Vatican City.

But the crowds also pose a problem. Four times as many people visit the Sistine Chapel as did in 1980; on the busiest days more than 25,000 visitors a day pass through. Even in quieter periods, crowds wrap around its fortified walls, batting away selfie-stick vendors and touts offering unofficial queue-jumping tours. The carbon dioxide (CO2...

Join the dots

Thu, 03/12/2015 - 15:48

Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much. By Michael Wood. Amazon/New Harvest; 129 pages; $20 and £8.99.

ALFRED HITCHCOCK, the unchallenged master of suspense, had surprisingly little time for mystery. “In the usual form of suspense,” he told François Truffaut, a French director, “it is indispensable that the public be made aware of all the facts involved.” The uncertainty lies in how information is revealed, or re-revealed. The same might be said for any biography of Hitchcock himself, of which Michael Wood’s volume is the latest. The director of such cornerstones of the genre as “Psycho” and “Vertigo” (voted the greatest film of all time by Sight & Sound magazine in 2012) has been so amply scrutinised by film scholars and film-makers that most new studies can only aim to reconfigure existing insights with subtly different implications.

At its most elegant, this slim contribution to the Hitchcock library, by a professor of literature at Princeton, surprises with the splintered connections it makes between individual films and other points of culture and politics. In one exhilarating chapter Mr Wood unapologetically breaks academic form for a free-associative join-the-dots game between the lush film-star swoon of “Notorious”, the postmodern appreciation of Jean-Luc Godard and “Memory of the Camps...

Infamy, infamy

Thu, 03/12/2015 - 15:48

Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool. By Jennifer Jacquet. Pantheon; 209 pages; $24. Allen Lane; £17.99.

So You’ve Been Publically Shamed. By Jon Ronson. Riverhead Books; 290 pages; $27.95. Picador; £16.99.

RAGE over bankers’ bonuses and tax avoidance stalls at a familiar impasse: one side points out that the miscreants’ behaviour is perfectly legal; the other avers that it is still wrong. It is in the resolution of such stand-offs, says Jennifer Jacquet, an academic in New York, that shame comes into its own. “Is Shame Necessary?” is her thought-provoking treatise on the soft power of opprobrium, and its important role in achieving social cohesion in an ever more individualised culture.

In a market society where almost every ethical principle has its price, an appeal to a disinterested sense of civic duty seems at times nostalgic, if not futile. But bring someone’s reputation into it, and suddenly you get results. From community-sanitation programmes in Bangladesh—flagging roadside turds to shame public defecators into changing their behaviour—to successful...