Posts in Thinking

The limits of automatic recommendation systems

I was reading an article in NewScientist the other day about a system devised by academics at Royal Holloway, University of London, which “could form the basis of a recommendation system that makes suggestions based solely on an automatic assessment of the text.” Unlike Amazon’s recommendations, which look at sales, and those on sites like Goodreads, which look at reader reviews and ratings, this one looks at writing style, e.g. the frequency of individual words. Well, I’m sceptical. You see, the very last thing I want to do after reading… Read More

What is privilege?

When people hear about my background, they immediately think I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I went to Oxford, you see, and before that to a pretty exclusive private school (pictured), and even before that to a private primary school. Add in some high-flying jobs and a master’s from an Ivy League university in the US, and people form a mental image of something between Prince William and the Great Gatsby. This talk of privilege often makes me defensive. The implication is that I was handed… Read More

Zen and the art of genius

Have you ever been in the state of “flow”? Everything seems easy and effortless. Problems that would usually stump you for hours you can now solve in minutes. I’ve had those states sometimes in my writing. The words pour out of me, and I can tell they’re good. When I was writing my second novel, A Virtual Love, I wrote the whole of the last chapter in one go, while sitting on a log in a north London cemetery. It was a beautiful experience, and that chapter is my favourite… Read More

Achieve happiness, in three easy steps?

I was in an American-style steak house here in Barbados a few weeks ago, trying to write but being distracted instead by the TVs  in every corner of the room beaming out different cable channels: sport to the left of me, news to the right, an action movie front and centre. One programme particularly caught my eye: a piece on happiness, by CNN. The news hook was the publication of a World Happiness Report, in which countries were ranked by the happiness of their citizens. The puzzle for CNN was… Read More

Guardian feature on independent bookshops

I’ve lamented the decline of independent bookshops on this site in the past, so was pleased to see a Guardian special section on independent bookshops last weekend. It’s available online – I was particularly interested in the listing of all the independent bookshops in London, but there are also similar articles for the other areas of the UK (follow the links at the side of the London one). I’ve been to many of them, but there are some new ones to me as well, like Magma and England’s Lane Books…. Read More

10 hours to live – please act now!

Troy Davis is almost certainly innocent, but he is still scheduled to be executed at 7pm EST today (midnight UK time). There is no physical evidence against him – he was convicted of murder purely on the testimony of witnesses, seven of whom have since recanted their testimony. Several said they were coerced by police into testifying. Nine people have signed affidavits implicating another man for the killing. Still, Troy Davis will die tonight. Please take action by emailing the Georgia parole board. They’ve already denied an appeal for clemency,… Read More

London rioting

I live in Haringay, the same borough as Tottenham, where the riots started that have since spread across London. If you take the 41 bus from the corner of my street, you’ll be in Tottenham in 15 minutes or so. But Crouch End, where I live, is a middle-class enclave, popular with families, full of cute little cafes and bakeries. It’s a world away from Tottenham. So it irked me when I went out to a pub in Crouch End today and heard everyone talking about the rioters with such… Read More

Apocalypse

I like it when fiction writers have something to say about the world. I mean the real world, beyond the world of books. Junot Diaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, wrote an excellent article in the Boston Review recently about natural disasters, focusing particularly on the earthquake in Haiti. It’s rare to read something fresh about an event like that. Somehow the loss of so much life seems to render us incapable of producing anything but platitudes. Junot Diaz, though, provides something fresh. His argument is… Read More

RIP Brian Haw

Was saddened this week to hear of the death of peace activist Brian Haw. There are not too many people in these times who live completely honest lives. We may have our opinions about the way we’d like things to be, but we hide them, or express them timidly. Rather than speaking generally, let me be specific. I am ashamed of hiding my opinions, or only expressing them timidly. I am ashamed that, although I opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I merely went on a few marches, and… Read More