Saturday, 31 August 2013

Sponsorships, or Fox Guards Henhouse

One of the benefits of working for my company is that in August we get Friday afternoons off. It's a nice way to get a start on the weekend, whether by getting stuff done, leaving town or just visiting tourist spots that would be prohibitively crowded on weekends.

That was my plan this latest Friday, the last one of the month. I'd been reading David Toomey's Weird Life recently, and wanted to go check out the Natural History Museum and see if it had anything about that stuff. During the week, I also got talking to one of my colleagues, who'd been to an exhibition of pictures by Sebastiao Salgado, a Brazilian photographer; she said it was amazing, so I duly bought my ticket and went to check it out.

Salgado's pictures are mostly concerned with natural life and with indigenous cultures, generally in extreme environments - some were of the San people of Africa, others of Antarctica and still others of the native tribes in the Amazon. With the pictures of tribal peoples, in particular, he conveyed the sense that they have been living the same way of life for thousands of years - at least, as much as you can convey that sense by taking pictures of them.

Still, it was beautiful and thought-provoking in the way it made me think of the fragility of these people's lives and social systems, and the poignancy of the gulf between their way of life and mine. I don't want to romanticize it too much, but the people he snapped in the jungles of South America and Papua gave the impression of not wanting much - they live in a place that appears to provide them all they need, as long as they remain within balance with it.

I'm probably imposing a lot of my own world view on them, but if nothing else, it's interesting to see that there are still societies living like that. Of course, their ways of life are generally under threat from development, mining and - let's be honest - enormous poverty. They are minorities in their own countries, and generally without a voice, because they don't interact much with the outside world.

In any case, these were my thoughts until I got to the end of the exhibition. That's when I saw the sponsor: Brazilian mining company Vale. I'll admit I'd never heard of Vale before that moment, but the wrongness hit me immediately, even despite their rhetoric about corporate social responsibility. Just for good measure, I had a quick look for them on my phone, and turned up this tidbit about them "winning" the Public Eye award for having the most "contempt for the environment and human rights in the world".

Frankly it's not important whether or not Public Eye's allegations are founded or not, though. It could be run by the nicest people in the world, but at the end of the day a mining company exists to rip valuable materials out of the ground, regardless of what's covering them. There is absolutely no way to square that activity with protecting fragile ecosystems or the territories of indigenous peoples. Not one.

So you can imagine that on making that discovery I was not incredibly impressed. To be honest, it's still bothering me twenty-four hours later (hence this blog post). What did intrigue me, though, was how the feedback sheets provided by the museum asked us specifically about the sponsor and whether we knew of it before (I took the opportunity to point out my displeasure at that selection); even more intriguing is the fact that the posters on the tube advertising the exhibition carry no mention at all of the sponsor.

Usually special exhibitions at London's museums are emblazoned with the sponsors' logos. BP is one that keeps appearing, for instance. This raises a question or two - does the Natural History Museum believe advertising the sponsorship by Vale would put people off, or just that nobody would recognize the name? Or, given that they point out how the original sponsors pulled out and Vale kindly stepped in at the last minute, are they even the slightest bit embarrassed by the connection?

It's a little too much to expect, frankly - but I hope they are.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

The Lost Continent

One of the many books I'm reading currently (by which I mean keep a bookmark in) is The Lost Continent, Bill Bryson's first travel narrative and a description of his trip across the continental US soon after the death of his father. Like all debut books, I get the sense that it generally sank without a trace at its first publication, a fact he alludes to in his next book, Neither Here Nor There. In fact I believe both books were completely ignored by the British book-buying public until he came out with Notes from a Small Island, which just goes to show that nobody pays attention to you until you start talking about them.

In any case, ignored or not, I end up re-reading the Lost Continent every couple of years (along with In A Sunburned Country, which is published here as Down Under), because I'm fascinated by his take on America at the time, and because he has an amazing gift for metaphor. But in the midst of the current re-read I was struck by something odd: he devotes almost as much space in the book to Philadelphia as he does to New York City, and the state of Pennsylvania gets twice as many pages as all of New York State (yes, I just went back and counted).

Now, part of this is because of the vagaries of Bryson's itinerary. He had access to a car for the Pennsylvania section, but got to New York by bus. This, and his route up the coast toward New England, is why he doesn't have anything to say about upstate New York. But I still found it kind of odd, because Philadelphia, as far as I can tell, doesn't appear to be part of the cultural conversation in any way.

Obviously most foreigners think of New York City when they think of America, which is fair enough because it is, in many ways, the cultural epicenter of Anglophone civilization (some British patriots might say it's London, but London spends so much time trying to become New York that I think it's clear which is the more influential city). They're also familiar with Los Angeles, and in a more nebulous way with San Francisco, although charmingly they aren't aware that the two cities aren't right next to each other, as they appear on maps.

New Orleans and Chicago and Boston are well-known, as is Washington DC, all for obvious reasons. Baltimore is also on the cultural map, because of the Wire, but Philadelphia? It's rare that I hear anybody mention the place these days, except in the context of how they put up a statue to Rocky Balboa (in fairness, there's also the sitcom It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but that doesn't seem to be A Thing like the Wire was).

So this was why I was struck by Bryson's description of the place, with unknown treasures and even its own dialect of sorts (I was reminded by the book that Philadelphians call sidewalks "pavements"). I was even more struck by the fact that when he got to New York, he had to introduce key features of it, like Donald Trump or Times Square, and that he was constantly in fear of mugging and/or murder.

The latter can be explained by the fact that he was writing in 1989 or so, which puts it during the late Ed Koch's mayorship of the city. He was about four years off from the Giuliani years, so deep within New York City's dark period, something that I think New Yorkers haven't really recovered from, at least based on my mom's impression of Columbia, way up in the 120s (what she still calls Harlem), when I was going there.

Harder to conceive is the idea that anyone reading the Lost Continent might be unfamiliar with Times Square, or even Donald Trump. Because New York's emergence from the squalor of the 70s and 80s coincided with my awareness of the place, I find it hard to get away from its current glitzy image as a shopping mecca (incidentally, that's why I call it the Anglophone world's cultural capital, not because it's got better museums or art or publishing). Even when I moved here for the first time in 2001, people in London knew about Manhattan, Times Square, all of that stuff - shows like Sex and the City were even then working their way in the cultural consciousness.

But then, I guess that's what happens as time passes (I'm aware this is a subject I've been covering a lot recently on this blog, but please bear with me). We are now almost as distant from the publication of the Lost Continent as Bill Bryson himself was from the vacations he describes taking with his family in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the past three decades the world has grown more interconnected, so that a person in London (or Sao Paulo, or Mumbai, or wherever) actually is familiar with what life is like in New York - or at least life for certain socio-economic strata.

At the same time, though I think it's a shame that the world's image of America has narrowed onto primarily New York and LA. As I hinted in the previous paragraph, we may know about life in New York, but it's mainly from the perspective of rich white people who can afford to live there. Even the polarizing Lena Dunham show Girls depicts a certain class of people who are pretty divorced from life in the Outer Boroughs.

By being so interested in what shoes rich white socialites are wearing, we miss out on seeing what life is like for normal people in places like, say, Baltimore or New Orleans or Philadelphia. When I watch Friday Night Lights, which is set in small-town Texas, it's clear that you aren't seeing the same America that Carrie Bradshaw lives in.

I'd like to see more of it - so where are the dramas set in Philadelphia?

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Rate of Change

I'm currently reading The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes, as a result of an outpouring of enthusiasm on Twitter, along with Amazon UK pricing it at 99p a few weeks ago as part of a special promotion. It's not bad, but I have to admit I'm not loving it - I'm not much for thrillers in general, and the ones about serial killers have never appealed to me.

But something struck me while I was reading it, which I figured I'd try and discuss briefly here. The plot, without any major spoilers (because I'm only about halfway through anyway), revolves around a serial killer who travels through time, between the 1930s and the early 1990s, collecting victims in an order of his own choosing, rather than chronologically. At one point, reflecting on the House he uses to travel, he notes that his range of travel is limited to those years, with 1993 the latest he can go.

Having glanced through the table of contents, with chapters denoting the date in which they occur, I'd noticed that, and was wondering about it myself. My conclusion was that 1993 was probably the last year before the internet started to become widely known - it was certainly my first experience of it (and just as you'd expect from the early years of the web: reading snarky top ten lists about Star Wars and Star Trek).

This is important to the story, because one of the killer's victims survives an attack, and when she's recovered she goes looking for him by taking on an internship at the Chicago Sun-Times. All of her research is analogue, involving microfiche and sifting through loads of boxes.

So what struck me was this: a possible reason why Lauren Beukes set her story during those decades is that the internet would have made the search for the killer much easier, and that those decades were a lot more similar to one another than the years since the internet spread throughout our culture.

I've written before about how I think the 80s had more in common with the 50s than with the 90s. I might be over-generalizing, but I do think it's correct to say that the rate of change in our culture has accelerated since the internet took over. As I stated in that previous post, my sisters' experiences growing up were pretty different from my own, and this was with just seven and ten years of age gap between us all. I grew up watching Sesame Street, Mr Rogers, and reruns of Star Trek and Hawaii 5-0 and old Western TV shows; they had Barney and cable TV.

This is why, whenever I read Bill Bryson's more autobiographical books - like The Lost Continent or Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid - I can recognize certain aspects of my own childhood in his, despite the fact that he was born almost thirty years before I was. And going back even further, I can recognize some of what Bryson talks about in stories and sketches by, for instance, James Thurber, who died in 1961 and whose career spanned the 30s, 40s and 50s.

So when I think of the life I'd like to lead, if I ever marry and have children and all of that, my imagination uses my own childhood milieu as a template: suburban house, car, yard, dog and/or cat (I like both), family trips once or twice a year, and so on. On the other hand, this all might be unrealistic, for the simple reason that it's not sustainable anymore. If it ever was.

For one thing, house prices are way out of reach for most people, I'd say, particularly if they're single and not working in finance or tech. For another, every place is getting more and more crowded. It seems perverse to say this about California, when I live in London (which I sometimes find unbearably full; I kind of dread going to China as a result), but it's true - developments creep out farther and farther each year, and the freeways are crowded even at midday on weekdays.

So no house in the suburbs, which means no yard, probably no car (because they're a pain in the ass to have in the city), and probably no pets (not that I particularly want to clean up dog shit - this is one of those jobs that I could theoretically farm out to my notional children), because landlords are strict about that and apartments are no fun for animals that need space.

On the other hand, this life that I'd like, and that currently appears out of reach, is kind of a new development in and of itself, despite already being a relic. This concept of a suburban middle class, which a lot of us seem wedded to, has really only existed since the early 20th century, where before the middle classes (or mercantile classes, if you go back far enough) lived in the cities. Naturally, technology moved on between the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, but not quite as fast as it did following the Industrial Revolution (and the rate of change sped up even more once we got flight and cars and electricity).

So I guess the whole convoluted point comes down to this: I'm kind of nostalgic for a way of life that seems to have been around for a long time, but actually wasn't. My grandmother - who was born in 1917, when flight was still new - probably saw the suburban way of life of the 50s and 60s and 70s as a new innovation, compared to her own upbringing.

The question, then, is what kind of life people just graduating from college now are envisioning for themselves. And further, will that gap between wishes and reality be even wider for them than it is for me?

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Ben Carson vs Socialism: the Myth of the Self-Made Man

On Wednesday, while waiting for my flight back to London, I had occasion once again to survey the selection of books on offer at San Francisco International Airport's news stand/bookstore. It was a powerful reminder that, awful as the WH Smith concessions at UK airports are, they usually have a wider selection than the thrillers and right-wing screeds infesting American airport bookshelves. I suppose that's why Tom Clancy's books are called "airport novels", eh? Because they satisfy both of these requirements.

Anyway, one of the books that caught my eye was by Ben Carson, entitled America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great. Not being in the current of American news, I had no idea who this guy was (although that's now remedied thanks to Wikipedia), so I had a quick look at the back cover, and the inside front blurbs, to see who was endorsing him. After all, you can generally get a good idea of where someone's politics lie by who likes them. And, appropriately enough, one of the endorsements was from Billy Graham's grandson.

Not that I really needed that - conservatives are usually the only ones writing books like that. I'm not sure why, because I don't really think liberals are particularly satisfied with the way America's going, and it might help us win the meme war if we co-opted some of that language for ourselves.

Anyway, Dr Carson had a chapter in his book entitled "Capitalism: Pros and Cons". I wanted to see what a conservative guy thought was negative about capitalism (maybe that there isn't enough of it?), so I flipped through and had a look. Instead of a nice, orderly list, or even sections entitled "pro" or "con", he just talked about growing up in poverty in Boston and how his mother pushed him to excel in school. So far, so uncontroversial - conservatives may not believe this, but liberals like to see people do well, too. That is, after all, why we advocate social programs and sharing wealth.

He then talked about a friend of his who worked at the FAA and came up with an invention to make plane landings more stable. This friend was offered $500 or so for his invention, so he (not unreasonably) decided to go into the private sector to see if he could get more money for it. He was promptly hired and told he'd get a certain percentage of the profits, but then just as promptly quit when his new boss reneged on that deal. So he then went into business for himself.

That's where I stopped reading, because I wanted to grab a sandwich ahead of my flight, and it wasn't that interesting anyway. But the implication seemed to be that this friend's experience could only have occurred in America. I'd like to posit the opposite: not only are European countries amply supplied with bureaucratic and inefficient agencies, but you can get cheated by your employer just about anywhere. So much for a shining city on a hill.

More to the point, and jokes aside, it is also possible to set up your own business in supposedly socialist countries like the UK, Germany, Sweden, etc. I'm always irritated by this idea that a lot of American conservatives have, that the US is the only productive place in the whole world, while the rest of Europe is sitting around eating bon bons on vacation. While the rankings change all the time, depending on who's crunching the numbers, the US consistently fails to hit the top spot - particularly considering that the European economies offer a lot more vacation time and still hit comparable productivity numbers. It also kind of suggests that the Asian economies could let their people ease off, since they're never anywhere near the top anyway.

The other thing that bothers me about Dr Carson's line of reasoning is the widely cherished idea among conservatives that they're completely self-made. Obviously Dr Carson's experience will be different from mine: he's black, he grew up in poverty and pulled himself out, and built himself a successful medical career, followed by time in the national spotlight thanks to his writing and speaking opportunities.

But what if one little thing had been different? What if, at any given point in his life, he hadn't had help from somebody else? For instance, if his mother hadn't pushed him to continue studying, would he have eventually become a neurosurgeon? I suspect not. Same with his college and medical school experience - people helped him along the way at various points, while others of his peers didn't receive the same help at the right time and didn't end up with the same level or type of success.

Or think of his friend at the FAA - without the "socialistic" idea of a federal agency to regulate aviation, this guy might not have had a job in the first place. He certainly wouldn't have had the experience to come up with his invention, or the credibility to pitch it convincingly to a company in the private sector. He might have come up with something else that would have made him rich - but it's not a given.

I guess all I'm saying is that the next time someone says they're completely self-made, and that nobody gave them anything to get them where they are today, they should take a closer look at their own experiences. They might find that they've received a lot more help from the people and institutions around them than they thought.