Transatlantic Table Talk

Writing in the Weekend FT (subscription required), columnist Gillian Tett highlights the cultural differences between dinner party “table talk” on either side of the Atlantic.

She observes that “Amer­ican pro­fes­sion­als tend to take it for gran­ted that when they meet over din­ner they will stage a com­munal debate.”

…the idea is basic­ally the 21st-cen­tury ver­sion of an 18th-cen­tury Parisian salon: the guests expect to enjoy an intel­lec­tual exchange along with the food, a con­ver­sa­tion that might be based around a guest’s book, film, start-up or polit­ical cam­paign (or, fail­ing all that, more dis­cus­sion of the ulti­mate con­ver­sa­tion starter, Trump).

Whereas “Brit­ish rituals are dif­fer­ent.”

Brits tend to eat later than Amer­ic­ans, drink far more alco­hol and hate it when guests ask each other, “What do you do?” (Let alone google each oth­ers’ achieve­ments at the table, which is com­mon in the US.) But what gen­er­ally goes unmen­tioned is a more import­ant dis­tinc­tion: single-table con­ver­sa­tions rarely hap­pen in Bri­tain.

In addition to her work writing for the FT, Tett is an anthropologist and recently appointed Provost of King’s College, Cambridge where — she notes — attempts to impose a single topic for discussion by academics dining at the high table are met with a brusque ““This is just not done here.”

She identifies the source of the difference in the way the two cultures treat intel­lec­tual cap­ital:

In Amer­ica, the cre­ation of ideas is treated as a vital sphere of eco­nomic activ­ity, one that phil­an­throp­ists think needs to be backed, on an indus­trial scale, in many for­ums. Just as the Medi­cis once sponsored cathed­rals or artists, today’s 21st-cen­tury luminar­ies use their cash to spon­sor debate, turn­ing eco­nomic cap­ital into the cul­tural and intel­lec­tual vari­ant. And since Amer­ica is also a place that admires ambi­tion and hustle, this fosters a cul­ture of per­form­at­ive intel­lec­tual dis­play, be that in a TV stu­dio or at a din­ner party.

In Bri­tain, however, hustle is not so read­ily admired and ambi­tion is some­times derided as being pushy or show­ing off. Thus if you are bril­liantly clever, you are admired for con­ceal­ing the fact or crack­ing jokes about it at your own expense. Few Brits stand up in pub­lic and shout that they want to be pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als; or not without a self-deprec­at­ing laugh.

For us plebs who don’t receive invitations to society dinner parties in either country, it’s worth bearing in mind that “per­form­at­ive intel­lec­tual dis­play” is still very much a fact of life in many aspects of American life. Indeed, in my five decades in the States I have grown used to listening to monologues from American’s of all backgrounds: from the boating enthusiast telling you the correct way to trim a sail to the home cook describing their recipe for the perfect lasagna.

The fact I am teetotal somewhat limits my potential to enjoy the drunken revelry of British dinners, amusing as they might be.

The A. I. Sub-editor

My letter to the Weekend FT was somewhat marred by what I thought was a misleading title written by an FTT sub-editor. In contrast, my 2019 letter disputing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s claim to be “the first populist that was elected” was given a brilliant title:

A.I. Sub

Working on tight deadlines, on a Friday night at the FT’s HQ on London’s South Bank, it’s challenging for subs looking to capture the essence of each of the letters on their editorial page.

Would generative A.I. help? I decided to put it to the test, starting with my own letter and this ChatGPT prompt:

Act as a newspaper subeditor. Write short 8-10 word headlines for this letter to the editor [INSERT TEXT OF LETTER]

Here’s the results, following the FT’s choice.

  1. “Alphabet’s Revolution: A Cultural Shift Unveiled”
  2. “Surgeon’s Thesis: Alphabet’s Brain Impact Through History”
  3. “Shlain’s Insight: Alphabet Reshaping Religion, Science, Gender”
  4. “From Goddess to Patriarchy: The Alphabet’s Influence Exposed”
  5. “Challenging Myths: Quinn Dissects Alphabet’s Cultural Impact”
  6. “Shaping Minds: The Alphabet’s Journey Through History”
  7. “Cultural Clash: Quinn Takes on White Nationalist Mythology”
  8. “Optimistic Outlook: Shlain Envisions Brain Evolution Beyond Alphabet”
  9. “Images Over Words: Shlain’s Hope for Right-Brained Culture”
  10. “Feminine Wisdom: Shlain Posits Return Amid Cultural Change”
  1. “Revisiting the Greeks: Professor Quinn on Civilization’s Complex Evaluation”
  2. “Beyond pedestals: Professor Quinn’s Insights on Classical Greek Contributions”
  3. “Greeks and Governance: Professor Quinn Dissects Ancient Achievements”
  4. “Classical Greek Legacy: Professor Quinn Challenges Modern Perspectives”
  5. “Meta Leap in Governance: Professor Quinn Explores Greek Brilliance”
  6. “Transcending Relativism: Professor Quinn on Classical Greek Endurance”
  7. “Civilization’s Essence: Professor Quinn Reflects on Greek Achievements”
  8. “Beyond Reductionism: Professor Quinn on the Greek Civilization Myth”
  9. “Classical Greek Brilliance: Professor Quinn’s Thought-Provoking Perspective”
  10. “Quinn’s Reflections: Rethinking Classical Greek Contributions to Civilization”
  1. “Chloe Aridjis Unveils Delightful Journey Through Madrid’s Prado”
  2. “Aridjis’ Artful Adventure: Two Months at Madrid’s Prado Revealed”
  3. “Museum Sanctuary: Aridjis’ Reflections Illuminate Art and Struggle”
  4. “Prado Perspectives: Chloe Aridjis Explores Museums as Sanctuaries”
  5. “Aridjis’ Madrid Memoir: A Unique Glimpse into Museum Sanctuaries”
  6. “Chloe Aridjis’ Artful Escape: Two Months at the Prado”
  7. “From London to Madrid: Aridjis’ Museum Journey Unveiled”
  8. “Exploring Museums: Aridjis’ Essay Sheds Light on Art Sanctuaries”
  9. “Prado and Beyond: Aridjis’ Journey into Museum Sanctuaries”
  10. “Chloe Aridjis’ Museum Musings: A Unique Perspective on Art”
  1. “JLR Chief’s Bold Request: Should Taxpayers Subsidize Luxury SUV Security?”
  2. “JLR’s Dilemma: Taxpayer Subsidy for Luxury SUV Security Sparks Controversy”
  3. “JLR’s CEO Stirs Debate: Should Taxpayers Foot the Bill for Security?”
  4. “Luxury Car Controversy: JLR Calls for Taxpayer Support on Security”
  5. “JLR’s Taxpayer Appeal: Security Costs or Executive Priorities?”
  6. “Luxury Car Maker Faces Backlash: JLR’s Request Sparks Outcry”
  7. “JLR’s Security Saga: CEO Proposes Taxpayer Support Amid Record Profits”
  8. “JLR’s Bold Ask: Taxpayers Subsidize Security for Stolen Luxury SUVs”
  9. “JLR CEO Sparks Controversy: Taxpayers Footing the Bill for Security?”
  10. “Luxury SUVs and Taxes: JLR’s Request Raises Eyebrows”
  1. “Range Rover Mystery: Unoccupied Idling Raises Security Concerns”
  2. “JLR Boss Called Out: Range Rover Left Idling Sparks Questions”
  3. “Car Park Conundrum: Unmanned Range Rover Raises Eyebrows”
  4. “Range Rover Riddle: Owner’s Remote Starter Mishap Spurs Controversy”
  5. “JLR’s Security Quandary: Unattended Range Rover Raises Issues”
  6. “Remote Start Mishap: Unmanned Range Rover Puzzles Onlookers”
  7. “JLR Customer Education: Unmanned Range Rover Prompts Suggestions”
  8. “Idle Investigation: Unattended Range Rover Spurs Security Discussion”
  9. “Range Rover Dilemma: JLR Boss Urged for Customer Education”
  10. “Mystery at the Station: Unmanned Range Rover Raises Alarms”
  1. “Decoding Tipping Dilemmas: Insights from Jo Ellison’s Column”
  2. “Tipping Tales: Navigating Cultural Differences and Digital Transactions”
  3. “From Paris to Tips: Jo Ellison Sheds Light on Tipping”
  4. “The Tipping Mystery: Jo Ellison’s Column Unveils Insights”
  5. “Cultural Quirks: Jo Ellison Explores Tipping Challenges Abroad”
  6. “Digital Transactions and Human Touch: Tipping Insights Unveiled”
  7. “Parisian Tipping Woes: Jo Ellison’s Column Sparks Reflection”
  8. “Small Change, Big Impact: Jo Ellison’s Perspective on Tipping”
  9. “Tipping Etiquette Unveiled: Jo Ellison’s Column Sparks Discussion”
  10. “From Tears to Tips: Jo Ellison’s Column Resonates with Readers”
  1. “Rudeness and Noodles: Tim Harford Reflects on Wong Kei’s”
  2. “Wong Kei’s Legacy: Tim Harford Explores Rude Service Charm”
  3. “Rudeness Revisited: Tim Harford’s Take on Wong Kei’s Tradition”
  4. “Chinatown Charm: Tim Harford on the Quirky Appeal of Wong Kei’s”
  5. “Noodles and Blunt Humour: Tim Harford Recalls Wong Kei’s”
  6. “Wong Kei’s Wit: Tim Harford Explores the Charm of Rudeness”
  7. “Quirky Dining: Tim Harford’s Reflection on Wong Kei’s Signature”
  8. “Rude Service Charm: Tim Harford’s Nostalgic Wong Kei’s Tale”
  9. “Wong Kei’s Legacy Lives On: Tim Harford’s Humorous Memories”
  10. “Dining with Attitude: Tim Harford Reminisces Wong Kei’s Style”
  1. “McCarthy’s Ambition: A Tribal Tale in American Politics”
  2. “Driven by Ambition: McCarthy’s Political Portrait Unveiled”
  3. “Tribal Politics: McCarthy’s Ambition Revealed in FT Interview”
  4. “US Speaker’s Ambition: A Reflection on McCarthy’s Legacy”
  5. “Political Tribalism: McCarthy’s Ambition Under the Spotlight”
  6. “Retrospective Ambition: Kevin McCarthy’s Political Journey Unveiled”
  7. “McCarthy’s Legacy: Ambition and Tribalism in US Politics”
  8. “Tribal Ties: Former US Speaker McCarthy’s Driven Ambition”
  9. “Kevin McCarthy Unmasked: Ambition and Tribalism in Politics”
  10. “Politics of Ambition: McCarthy’s Tribal Approach in the Spotlight”
  1. “Cheers to Tech: AI and the Future of Wine Experts”
  2. “Wine App Worries: Alice Lascelles Explores AI’s Impact”
  3. “Tech vs. Terroir: Can an AI App Replace Wine Experts?”
  4. “Sipping into the Future: Alice Lascelles on Wine and AI”
  5. “I, Vin: A Catchy Alternative to AI Sommelier Apps”
  6. “Pour Decisions: Alice Lascelles Ponders AI in Wine”
  7. “Wine and Tech: Alice Lascelles Weighs in on AI Sommeliers”
  8. “Sommelier or AI? The Future of Wine Expertise Explored”
  9. “Wine Trends: Alice Lascelles Delves into AI’s Influence”
  10. “I, Vin: A Quirky Suggestion for Wine App Enthusiasts”

Win some, lose some

Looking over these lists, it’s clear that generative AI cannot match the subs at their best. The Eugene Onegin pun went above and beyond the wit of the original letter. Other headlines from the FT were more pedestrian.

However, the AI text overdoes words like “unveiled” and “revealed”. It also inserts the article author’s name too frequently. However, I found it useful as a brainstorming tool, where the final headline can be cherry-picked from suggestions. I plucked my own alternate headline (“Rewiring brains for a return to feminine values”) from a previous list of ChatGPT suggestions. Among the ten suggestions for the visit to the Prado and the McCarthy letter is the exact text used by the FT. I liked “Rudeness and noodles: Chinatown charm” taken from that list of suggestions. “Tech vs. Terroir: Can an AI App Replace Wine Experts?” has appeal.

The Civilization Myth

As I’ve previously noted, the late author Leonard Shlain has written several insightful books that examine how literacy reconfigured the human brain and brought about profound changes in history, religion, and gender relations. I was especially impressed by his analysis of the impact of the alphabet. I wrote a letter to the Financial Times in response to historian Josephine Quinn’s essay The Civilization Myth, which also identified the revolutionary impact of adopting the alphabet on Western culture:

… the arrival of the alphabet was more revolutionary than it may sound. It is apparently more natural for humans to record syllables than individual sounds…Reading and writing in one’s own spoken tongue may seem natural today, especially to English speakers. But for many it is a relatively recent choice, and in antiquity it was unusual…Literacy was a niche skill, learnt with great labor and only by scribes, until the inventors of the alphabet devised a neat trick. Each of their “letters” was originally a little picture, signalling for them the first sound of the word for the item depicted. So the sign for “a” was the head of a bull, “alef” in the Levantine language, “b” was a schematic house or “bet”, and so on. Because the signs represented sounds, not syllables, there were far fewer of them. And you didn’t actually have to learn them anyway: you just needed to know the language, and the trick.

The myth of civilizations

Quinn couched these comments in the broader context of superficially pluralistic “myth of civilization”, where Putin sees Russia as an “original civilization-state”; Chinese premier Xi Jinping has launched a new Global Civilization Initiative, to celebrate the world’s “unique and long civilizations . . . transcending time and space”. Meanwhile

Everyone is worried about the west. For some it is under attack, from refugees, terrorists or wokery. For others the west is itself the problem, forever imposing its own values as a universal good. But no one is sure what it actually is — or rather, where it stops.

She takes issue with scholars who promote the idea of distinct civilizations, “Western,” “Orthodox,” and “Islamic,” with these having roots in the ancient world of Greek and Roman civilizations.

Civilizational thinking of this kind depends on an idea of separate cultures growing like individual trees in a forest, with their own roots and branches distinct from those of their neighbors. They emerge, flourish and decline, and they do so largely alone.

The truth, Quinn argues, is that this view of distinct civilizations is “a modern confection, invented by 19th-century scholars to emphasize the superiority of their own nations and the justice of their empires.”

She sees the interaction between cultures as a critical driver of human social development:

Local and regional cultures come and go, but they are created and sustained by interaction. The encounters involved don’t have to be friendly. But it is those connections that drive historical change, from the boats that brought the African donkey and the Eurasian wheel to the Aegean in the third millennium BCE to the ships equipped with the Chinese compass that brought Europeans to the Americas 4,000 years later, to conquer them with Chinese gunpowder.

Angry White Men

Quinn concludes her essay by debunking the anti-immigration, white nationalism of the emerging authoritarians:

First promoted by the French activist Renaud Camus in his 2011 book Le Grand Remplacement, the theory that the white or indigenous European population is being replaced by immigrants in a form of reverse-colonisation is now a staple of rightwing conspiracy theorists, white supremacists and mass shooters around the world. This poisonous rhetoric depends heavily on the idea of a distinct civilization — French, British, western or white — that is under threat from different and alien cultures and especially from their children.

But it’s the idea of civilization itself that is the real problem, and in particular the notion that it is a zero-sum game, with higher cultures under threat from migrant, fecund foreign values. There has never been a pure western culture that is now under threat of pollution. No single people is an island, unless they’ve been there for a very long time and haven’t invented boats. And that’s a good thing: without new relationships between different people exchanging unfamiliar ideas, nothing much would ever happen at all.

Letter to the Editor

My one complaint with the FT is that the sub-editor who chose the title for my letter misinterprets Shlain. Literacy in the ancient world (the arrival of the alphabet) is precisely NOT like the internet for us. Better would be a title like ‘Rewiring brains for a return to feminine values.’

We are what we wear

Display of wealth through clothes arrived in Europe in the late thirteenth century when a person’s class affiliation was signaled by what they wore. Because dress was recognized as an expressive and a potent means of social distinction, it was often exploited by the upper classes to gain leverage over others.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues that the dominant social classes tend to possess not only wealth but “cultural capital” as well. In matters of dress, this capital manifests itself in the possession of refined taste and sensibilities that are passed down from one generation to the next. Taste is not pure. Bourdieu demonstrates that our different aesthetic choices are all distinctions – that is, choices made in opposition to those made by other classes.

Economist Thorstein Veblen, argues that the drive for social mobility moves fashion. In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Veblen claims that the wealthy class exercised fashion leadership through sartorial display of conspicuous consumption. Upper-class people dressed in way that indicated they did not carry out manual work, that they had enough disposable income to spend on an extensive wardrobe, and — long before Rent the Runway — that they were able to wear a garment only a few times before deeming it obsolete.

American style

Writing in the Weekend FT, columnist Robert Armstrong examines American style and what it says about class. He notes a fundamental dichotomy in what many American’s think of as a ‘classless society.”

If, like me, you think of clothing in terms of cultural capital as much as its visual properties, you will notice that the dichotomy [between workwear and preppy clothes] maps very well on to Americans’ jittery and contradictory attitudes towards its class system. The preppy branch speaks to a fantasy about moneyed ease, about how the upper classes, free from aspiration, fritter their time away sailing, hunting, playing tennis. It is east coast and old money. The workwear branch, on the other hand, speaks to a fantasy of earthy authenticity, of autonomous, honest work. It is western and owes nothing to inheritance and pedigree.

The appeal of both fantasies is apparent and both are peculiarly American, opposed though they may be. We all aspire to be educated and successful, and to be totally relaxed and sophisticated about our success. We all want to be the Kennedys at Hyannis Port. At the same time, we hate all that. We want to be rugged individualists who trust in our hands and live by our word, who don’t want the rich man’s dollar, his country club or his company. To be American is to entertain both the urge to separate from the working class and to identify deeply with it.

The denial of the class system in America is coeval with the class system itself. We Americans all acknowledge that there are wide disparities in wealth. What each of us denies about ourselves is that class retains a powerful moral, social and aesthetic valence. The thinness of our denials is revealed by the incredible persistence of the two styles. Even as it has become standard to criticise the elite and their institutions, prep marches on. And even as we have become a nation of service workers and data manipulators, workwear is everywhere. Class consciousness is inscribed in our clothes.

Weekend Financial Times, January 20, 2023

Armstrong credits Ralph Lauren as a genius who was able to “play the two styles off each other” and that “both the preppy and the workwear traditions are essentially about the outdoors: the idea of physical freedom and vigour. So is the idea of casualness. Part of both codes is not looking like you are trying too hard.”

This in the land where hard work is a fetish that trumps, so to speak, all other values.

Source: Midjourney A.I. — Click to enlarge

Book Review: Babel, by R.F. Kuang

I found this book while browsing in the small bookshop at Point Reyes Station, where I’d bought the Centennial Edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses a year before. Like Joyce, Chinese-American author R. F. Kuang has constructed a unique world where individual consciousness, history, and an altered sense of reality are woven together in a compelling novel that I found utterly spellbinding.

Steampunk meets Harry Potter

Part steampunk, part Harry Potter, and yet absolutely unique, Babel invites us into a magical world of Oxford’s ‘dreaming spires’ in early-Victorian Britain.The four protagonists are plucked from their families and enrolled as undergraduates in the gothic Royal Institute of Translation—also known as Babel. Housed in the tower portrayed on the cover, the fictional Institute sits between the Radcliffe and Bodleian libraries. An Author’s Note apologies for the lack of historical and geographic accuracy, despite the novel being crammed with historical and linguistic references that are stunning in their range and accuracy. Extensive footnotes refer to everything from the Peterloo Massacre, organizational competence of the Luddite movement, the French term for an unfortunate situation (Triste comme un repas sans fromage), and a dizzying number of word derivations and root meanings.

A central theme is the challenges of translation and the power of language.

Linguistic powerhouse

The power of words is, in fact, quite literal. The Britain of the 1830s is, in the author’s telling, a global imperial power due to a monopoly of silver. In this novel, silver bars are the engine behind all aspects of the Industrial Revolution: powering factories, transport systems, guns, and maintaining everything from sewer systems to bridges. The bars are empowered by ‘matched-pairs’ of words with closely associated meanings. The Institute trains and houses native-language speaking scholars from across the Empire who create match-pair words and engrave them on silver bars — as do arcane skills of computer engineers today engrave their code onto silicon chips with the circuitry that powers our world.

Cognates — words in different languages that shared a common ancestor and often similar meanings as well — were often the best clues for fruitful match-pairs, since they were on such close branches of the etymological tree. But the difficulty with cognates was that often their meanings were so close that there was little distortion in translation, and thus little effect that the bars could manifest. There was, after all, no significant difference between the word ‘chocolate’ in English and Spanish. Moreover, looking for cognates, one had to be wary of false friends — words that seemed like cognates but had utterly different origins and meanings. The English ‘have’ did not come from the Latin ‘habere’ (‘to hold, to possess’), for example, but from the Latin ‘capere’ (‘to seek’). And the Italian ‘cognato’ did not mean ‘cognate’ like one might hope, but rather ‘brother-in-law’.

page 227-228

It’s a testament to the author’s storytelling skills that passages like the one above become utterly engaging as the plot develops. This is in no small part to how she paints the academic life in such rich colors. There are more than a few shades of Hogwarts in the eccentric professors, cycle of terms and holidays, midnight japes, and sinister secrets. Threaded throughout is a trenchant critique of British imperialism, racism, and exploitation of the working class. This is as sharp a critique of the early 19th century as it is of today’s headlines:

‘You’re trying to win by punishing the city,’ said Professor Chakravarti. ‘That means the whole city, everyone in it — men, women, children. There are sick children who can’t get their medicine. There are whole families with no income and no source of food. This is more than an inconvenience to them, it’s a death threat.’

Page 497

Hence, the full subtitle of the novel ‘Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution.’

Immediately after the exchange above, the main protagonist claims, ‘Violence was the only thing that brought the colonizer to the table, violence was the only option.’

And yes, Frantz Fanon gets name-checked.

Throughout this mesmerizing novel, Kunang never loses her way as she weaves the many threads of the story together. It made me want to visit Oxford before the silver bars decay, and the city is lost to time.

Book Review: A Thread of Violence, by Mark O’Connell

Alerted by a review in The Oldie magazine that I’d picked up in Manchester airport before flying home this week, I ordered a copy of A Thread of Violence: A Story of Truth, Invention, and Murder by Mark O’Connell. I read it in two long sittings.

Irish front-page news, 1982

I was unaware of the notoriety of the main character: double-murderer Malcolm Macarthur. His arrest in that year, while hiding out in the Dublin home of Ireland’s attorney general, Patrick Connolly, was a scandal that almost toppled the government. Anyone who followed the news in Ireland and the UK in the 1980s would know of this notorious case. But I did not, so I came to book as naive about these events as most in the States will be.

I was hooked after the first three chapters, which detail the background to the crime, the subsequent release of the man from prison after 30 years–apparently, most murderers in Ireland are released from prison after serving just 17–and the author’s attempts to persuade the man to tell his side of the story.

Reflexive reporting

As much as this is a true crime story, it is a story about the writing of the story. O’Connell struggles with both the logistics of reporting–how to gain the subject’s trust–and the moral qualms about how sympathetically to portray him. More than the thread of violence, it is a thread of lies. Macarthur is a fabulist whose narrative is contradictory, evasive, and self-justifying.

The author is a constant presence as a character in his own book. As I wrote of my recent reading of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, in real life, as much remains hidden as revealed. O’Connell addresses the challenge of trying to make sense of the nonsensical–how could a cultivated, bookish man, unfailingly charming to all he met, commit these gruesome crimes? His subject evades precise analysis, and in writing about this, we are shown how fragmented, unknowable, and mysterious the world is.

The Ascendancy

Macarthur was born into the privileged landowning class of the Irish Republic. He inherited from emotionally distant parents enough money to live a life of cultured ease in the Dublin of the 1970s. He frequented the Trinity College library, met with the literary elite, and traveled to London to attend opening nights at the theater. Until his funds ran out.

He then hatched a hair-brained scheme to rob a bank and, in preparation, stole a car and attempted to buy a shotgun–needlessly killing the young nurse who owned the car and the young farmer who owned the gun. On the run, he then imposed on the goodwill of the Irish attorney general–an acquaintance from his days as a flâneur who hung with the Dublin elite–and was invited to stay in his apartment, where, in an even more surreal moment, they were driven to a sports fixture in a car chauffeured by a policeman, while detectives were desperately trying to locate him.

This, O’Connell makes abundantly clear, was due to the regard with which a particular type of upper-crust, bow-tie-wearing, diffident, educated man fooled the powers that be.

Parallels with Congressman George Santos occurred to me, as did the eerie resemblance of his picture on the cover to Tucker Carlson.

The political fallout from the arrest of a murderer in the home of the senior law enforcement officer in Ireland led to resignations and a suspicion of a government cover-up. The newspapers coined the term Gubu (grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre, and unprecedented) when describing the events.

In the end, Macarthur got the life he wanted: long years of idleness to study literature and philosophy in minimum-security prisons and eventual freedom to live a state-supported life back in Dublin where he again frequents the literary salons.

The victims’ families were not given any relief.

Book Review: The Neapolitan Quartet, by Elena Ferrante

The four-volume, 1,693 pages of Elena Ferrante’s masterpiece chronicles the childhood through to late adulthood of two women born in a poor quarter of Naples, Italy.

The novels progress from My Brilliant Friend (Childhood, Adolescence); The Story of a New Name (Youth); Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Middle age); to The Story of a Lost Child (Maturity, Old Age).

The central characters are the narrator, Elena Greco (Lenu), and her childhood friend, Rafaela Cerullo (Lila). The story arc tracks the changes in their relationship against neighborhood poverty and violence, extended family ties, peer groups, and Italian social and political developments from the 1950s to the 2000s. It thoroughly examines the contrasting choices each makes: conformity and bookish study over fiery independence and rebellion, uncertainty versus confidence, and exploring the world beyond the neighborhood against immersion in it.

These contrasts are woven into a tapestry that incorporates over 50 major and minor characters, in addition to the two main protagonists.The Index of Characters provided at the start of each volume becomes a well-thumbed reference. A map of Naples might also help, but it isn’t necessary. Likewise, a knowledge of Italian politics and revolutionary movements in the 1960s and after. And an appreciation of shoe manufacturing, developments in data processing, and academic publishing.

External events are, however, very much secondary to the brilliant psychological insights and descriptions of female friendship, sexuality, motherhood, and the changing role of women in social and intimate relationships.

Above all, these novels shimmer and spark with prose that, in translation, leaps off the page and carries the reader from one breathless appreciation of Ferrante’s skill as a writer to another.

She was like the full moon when it crouches behind the forest and the branches scribble on its face.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

But the condition of wife had enclosed her in a sort of glass container, like a sailboat sailing with sails unfurled in an inaccessible place, without the sea.

The Story of a New Name

The opening of the first volume foreshadows the ending of the last: Lila has disappeared. So Lenu “turned on the computer and began to write–all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.” 1,690 pages later, the sequence of events that led to her friend’s disappearance has been fully described. But not necessarily explained. As convoluted as life, as unclear and contradictory, the plot twists and turns. The unexpected coexists with the pedestrian. The quotidian developments that shape character, the world through a child’s eyes:

Children don’t know the meaning of yesterday, of the day before yesterday, or even of tomorrow, everything is this, now: the street is this, the doorway is this, the stairs are this, this is Mamma, this is Papa, this is the day, this the night.

My Brilliant Friend

In the end, the question remained in this reader’s mind: who *is* Elena Ferrante (a pen name), and to what extent is she Lenu? These books hint that as much remains hidden as revealed, leaving the reader wanting more, and then more, and then more:

Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity.

The Story of a Lost Child

More than anything, I resonated with the theme of escape: from the confines of family and neighborhood, home and hearth. Embracing education as a pathway to freedom, then coming face to face with the realization we can never truly escape:

Leave, instead. Get away for good, far from the life we’ve lived since birth. Settle in well-organized lands where everything really is possible. I had fled, in fact. Only to discover, in the decades to come, that I had been wrong, that it was a chain with larger and larger links: the neighborhood was connected to the city, the city to Italy, Italy to Europe, Europe to the whole planet. And this is how I see it today: it’s not the neighborhood that’s sick, it’s not Naples, it’s the entire earth, it’s the universe, or universes. And shrewdness means hiding and hiding from oneself the true state of things.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

What are you waiting for? Drop everything and launch yourself on the journey with My Brilliant Friend.

Book Review: Frankissstein, by Jeanette Winterson

ser·en·dip·i·ty, nounthe occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.

Following my recent review of two books by Jeanette Winterson, I ordered a copy of her 2019 novel Frankissstein from the library. It was serendipitous, given my current fascination with AI and background in the computer industry. Winterson’s story begins with the incubation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816 with her future husband the poet Shelley, his friend Byron, and his lover, Claire. Trapped indoors by endless rain, the nineteen-year-old Mary is inspired to write a story about a scientist who creates a new life-form. So far, so factual:

Shelley traveled through Europe in 1815, moving along the river Rhine in Germany, and stopping in Gernsheim, 11 miles away from Frankenstein Castle, where, two centuries before, an alchemist had engaged in experiments. She then journeyed to the region of Geneva, Switzerland, where much of the story takes place. Galvanism and occult ideas were topics of conversation for her companions, particularly for her lover and future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley. In 1816, Mary, Percy, and Lord Byron had a competition to see who could write the best horror story. After thinking for days, Shelley was inspired to write Frankenstein after imagining a scientist who created life and was horrified by what he had made.


This is but one theme. The story weaves details Shelley’s life – up to an including the deaths of her husband and Byron, with the Britain of the early 21st century, where Ry Shelley, a young transgender doctor falls in love with Victor Stein, a leading computer scientist championing AI and carrying out mysterious experiments in a network of tunnels beneath Manchester. Meanwhile, sleazy entrepreneur Ron Lord looks to make his fortune launching a new generation of sex dolls for lonely men.

Winterson’s genius is not just the obvious foreshadowing of AI that the early 19th century novel explored, but in the rich series of hints of the shape of things to come which, in 2019, perfectly encapsulates today’s debates about ChatGPT and other forms of AI:

She said, Machines that mimic a mind! Oh! Suppose such a thing should happen one day! Yes! Yes! Imagine, gentlemen, how it will feel if someone invents a LOOM that writes poetry….A POETICAL loom! An abacus of words. A rote poet…

p 136

But look at this! said Ada [Lovelace], lying flat on the floor and retrieving a piece of paper from underneath the contraption with castors that is to change the world. [Babbage’s Analytical Engine]

Yes! Look at this. It will amuse you…It purports to be a letter from Babbage about his latest invention: THE NEW MECHANICAL PATENT NOVEL-WRITER.

I perused the cartoon, and spoofs of testimonials from Mr Bulwer-Lytton and other famous writers:

I am now able to complete a 3-vol novel of the usual size, in the short space of 48 hours, whereas, before, at least a fortnight’s labour was requisite for that purpose…

p. 321


As in her other novels, Winterson’s prose has wonderful poetic passages. She writes of the hopes and fears lovers feel and the fractured possibilities of other lives:

He says, Imagine us. In another world. Another time. Imagine us: I am ambitious. You are beautiful. We marry. You are ambitious, I am unstable. We live in a small town. I am neglectful. You have an affair. I am a doctor. You are a writer. I am a philosopher, you are a poet. I am your father. You run away. I am your mother. I die in childbirth. You invent me. I can’t die. You die young. We read a book about ourselves and wonder if we have ever existed. You hold out your hand. I take it in mine. You say, this is the world in little. The tiny globe of you is my sphere. I am what you know. We were together once and always. We are inseparable. We can only live apart.

p. 161

From the intensely personal to the social and political, the novel straddles the history of computing (Byron’s daughter Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage, Alan Turning, Bletchley Park); the moral dilemma and mechanisms of sexbots; dehumanized life of the Industrial Revolution in Manchester; the Peterloo Massacre; women’s rights and lived experience, starting with Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, and her own experience of losing newborns; and, most succinctly, the experience of being trans:

I’m trans and that means a lifetime of hormones. My life will likely be shorter, and it’s likely that I will get sicker as I get older. I keep my body maleness intact with testosterone because my body knows it wasn’t born the way I want it to be. I can change my body but I can’t change my body’s reading of my body. The paradox is that I felt in the wrong body but for my body it was the right body. What I have done calms my mind and agitates my chemistry. Few people know what it’s like to live this way.

p. 310

Future Imperfect

A protagonist who is living a paradox signifies the larger paradoxes of the past and potential futures:

  • Rock-star poets who abuse their partners even as they pen immortal lines.
  • Crass purveyors of sexbots who serve the needs of the lonely, elderly, and isolated.
  • AI capabilities that threaten our concept of humanity, as problematic as Shelley’s early 19th century imaginative creation.
  • A steampunk assessment of a future computing, limited by Victorian technology:

Imagine, said Ada, it might be possible to build the machine as a city and live inside it…

Would there be more than one machine? I said.

The scale would make it impractical to have more than one, said Ada. And, as it is steam-powered, it would require a great deal of coal.


Funny, inventive, entertaining. A great read. And, guess what, ChatGPT nails it:

While Midjourney pictures it:

/Imagine Mary Shelley and Frankenstein on the shores of Lake Geneva in the rain –v 5

Midjourney: /describe me

A new addition to Midjourney, the AI image generating program, is the /describe command which reverse engineers a photo into an AI prompt. Instead of text to image, you get image to text.

Here’s the results of submitting three very different headshots, with the 4 separate ‘reverse prompts’ generated.

Quiet potency

  1. a man wearing glasses is smiling for a photo, in the style of light orange and dark green, quiet potency, anglocore, poolcore, glasgow style, mottled, rectangular fields.
  2. an older man wearing glasses, white shirt, and green shirt to smile, in the style of lucy glendinning, multiple filter effect, john higgins, light orange and light bronze, spiritualcore, photo taken with provia, steve argyle.
  3. a man smiling for the camera wearing glasses, in the style of light orange and dark green, ogham scripts, webcam photography, grandparentcore, crisp and clean lines, anglocore, abrasive authenticity.
  4. a man in glasses who wears glasses and smiles, in the style of light orange and dark green, steve hillier, keos masons, photo taken with provia, grandparentcore, steve argyle, crisp and clean lines.

I quite like ‘quiet potency’, not so sure about ‘abrasive authenticity’ and in the dark why ‘keos masons‘ was listed (as with all the photographers, designers, and artist names listed I had to Google this to even know what MJ was pointing to.)

Humanist, writer

  1. a man with glasses and jeans wearing a hat, in the style of poetcore, anglocore, grandparentcore, dark brown and indigo, photo taken with provia, quadratura, spot metering
  2. an older man wearing glasses and a hat, in the style of steve argyle, poetcore, max magnus norman, tony conrad, dark indigo and brown, dynamic and energetic, anglocore
  3. man in blue jeans is wearing glasses and a beanie, in the style of anglocore, realist portraiture, grandparentcore, grid, photo taken with provia, humanist, writer academia
  4. harry carver, author of, in the style of adrian donoghue, poetcore, tony conrad, light indigo and brown, george tooker, authentic details, stockphoto.

Again, ‘dynamic and energetic’, ‘writer academic’ resonates. Why ‘quadrantura’?

In fine art, the term quadratura describes a form of illusionistic mural painting in which images of architectural features are painted onto walls or ceilings so that they seem to extend the real architecture of the room into an imaginary space beyond the confines of the actual wall or ceiling. Although the term can apply to the illusionistic “opening up” of walls, it is mainly associated with Italian church fresco painting, notably that of the Baroque era.


  1. an old black and white photograph showing a young man with glasses, in the style of 1970s, flowing fabrics, feminist perspective, terracotta, cloisonnism, softly organic, uniformly staged images
  2. a man with glasses at a sink, in the style of pegi nicol macleod, queer academia, 1970s, alma woodsey thomas, studio portrait, zen buddhism influence, esther rolick
  3. a man in glasses sits on the floor with a towel at his feet, in the style of 1970s, bengal school of art, extremely gendered, women designers, bibliographic anomalies, silver, uniformly staged images
  4. man has his glasses on looking off into the distance, in the style of 1970s, queer academia, dorothy johnstone, photo taken with provia, bengal school of art, alma woodsey thomas

Spot on with ‘the style of the 1970s’ and I like ‘zen buddhism’. Not sure where the ‘towel at his feet’ came from.

Reverse prompts

These reverse prompts can, needless to say, then be fed back into Midjourney to create new images. These are all from the first prompt generated above, in the order shown, with just the text.

Feedback loop

Inserting the original picture into the prompt THEN adding the first block of text produces varied results, closer to the original.

North of England Way…

Inspired by Jeanette Winterson’s and Fiona Hill’s books about their escape from dead-end childhood homes in the north of England, I experimented with the generative AI tool, Midjourney.

First, what would my life have been like if I never left my hometown of Crewe?

PROMPT: <my photo> in a bleak north of England town with rain falling –stylize 1000 –v 5

(Click all photos to enlarge)

This prompt used the latest Midjourney version 5 which was released on Wednesday March 14 to acclaimed levels of ‘stunning’ photo-realism. I certainly found that to be true in the mod of my own photo which looked eerily like Crewe on a rainy day. Friends on Facebook (who did not see the side-by-side comparison), commented that the chap-in-the-cap seemed grim.

In response, I created these variations of the image on the right above:

PROMPT: <IMG from 1st iteration> bemused smile and distant look –v 5

Interesting to see the gender fluidity that crept in.

This was something I’d seen in earlier experiments with a picture of a much younger me (I’m guessing Bristol in 1978 or California very early 80s) which went through a rather rapid series of revisions that rival Bowie at his glam best:


Back to true north. I was next prompted (so to speak!) to experiment with factory girls (figuratively, of course), in honor of the Beatles “She was a working girl / North of England way…”

PROMPT: factory girl in north of England street shot on Tri-X 400 –ar 16:9 –v 5

I borrowed the [camera style] add-on from Midjourney expert Nick St. Pierre on Twitter who posts a wide range of his informative and educational experiments — and where I first learned that version 5 was available.

From here it was a short JOURNEY to a series of less-than-successful attempts to capture the gritty reality of northern life:

PROMPT: Working class men fishing on a canal in the north of England in the 1950s , shot on Tri-X 400 –ar 16:9 –v 5
PROMPT: a crowd of factory workers leaving work on bicycles in north of England town, shot on Tri-X 400 –q 2 –v 5

Dirty Old Town

I moved on to experiment with a couple of folk songs from the 1960s that are anthems to life up North.

The classic ‘Dirty Old Town‘ by Ewan MacColl was written about Salford, Lancs, a short 30 miles north of Crewe. I started with a prompt that tried to summarize the theme of the song:

PROMPT: teenage couple embrace in north of England 1950s with gasworks in background shot on Tri-X 400 –ar 16:9 –v 5

There’s great photo-realism, but the gasworks are not actually what you’d find in Salford or Crewe. I then simply used the lyrics of the first stanza and see what Midjourney made of it. The results were nothing short of astounding:

PROMPT: I met my love by the gas works wall Dreamed a dream by the old canal I kissed my girl by the factory wall Dirty old town, shot on Tri-X 400 –ar 16:9 –v 5

We see the embrace by the canal and the weathered brick wall. There’s no gasworks, but, actually, the lyrics only say they were ‘by the gasworks wall’. Game, set, and match to Midjourney!

Homeward Bound

Having started my JOURNEY thinking about the old home town, it seemed appropriate to end by trying to capture the mood of Simon & Garfunkle’s classic song, written on Widnes railway station.

PROMPT: A teenage boy with a guitar case sitting on a railway platform in the north of England in 1960 shot on Tri-X 400 –ar 16:9 –v 5

As others have noted, version 5 gets the number of fingers correct (earlier versions often showed hands with 6+ fingers or missing thumbs). However, once again, just feeding in the lyrics is FAR more effective:

PROMPT: I’m sittin’ in the railway station Got a ticket to my destination On a tour of one-night stands My suitcase and guitar in hand And every stop is neatly planned For a poet and a one-man band, shot on Tri-X 400 –ar 16:9 –v 5

The one downside to Midjourney is how addictive it becomes. However, others might not agree. Share your thoughts in the Comments below.