Poor Harold Snipperpot is about to turn seven and longing for his first proper birthday party. Normally too uptight for parties, his parents relent and call up Mr Ponzio, the local problem solver, who promises something “absolutely extraordinary” to mark the day.
Into the family’s pristine palace, all art deco antiques and potted plants, marches a mob of wild animals. All is fine at first: Dad snaps a selfie with a camel, a penguin gazes out of a stained glass window, but there’s a smirking alligator climbing the stairs followed by a hippo with a bottom so big and ripe for destruction that calamity is surely imminent.Continue reading... Read more »
A wide-ranging study claims that, whether in mathematics or the arts, computers won’t create anything of value unless they acquire consciousness
Marcus du Sautoy is the kind of science writer who cares more about questions than answers. In his books he tackles “unsolved problems”, “number mysteries” and “the great unknown”, topics at the edge of human understanding. They are subtitled with words such as “odyssey”, “exploration” and “journey”. But Du Sautoy is a flaneur: his trips are not motivated by destinations. This is both the main strength and flaw of The Creativity Code, a wide-ranging and fact-packed tour d’horizon of current applications of artificial intelligence in mathematics and the arts.
So much of what is written about AI is either hype or scepticism about the hype. Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer and perhaps the first AI-hype sceptic, wrote that “it is desirable to guard against the possibility of exaggerated ideas… the [computer] has no pretensions whatever to originate anything”.
As he sees it, the creative heavy lifting is often being done by the programmer, and not the program itselfContinue reading... Read more »
When the BBC’s gender pay gap was revealed to the public in 2017, it unleashed a firestorm. The corporation’s top seven highest-paid stars were men. This single set of data had an instant transforming effect, raising the salaries of hitherto overlooked women almost overnight, and putting the bloated salaries of certain men under the spotlight. It proved that statistics matter. In our time, they have a power of their own.
In Invisible Women, campaigner and writer Caroline Criado Perez brings gender data like this to the fore. Although it sells itself as a book about data bias, it’s more of a book about data on bias, a catalogue of the facts and figures that document persistent gender inequalities in society.
We don’t win by just having more streetlights. We win when there’s a change of mindset, of attitude and behaviourContinue reading... Read more »
Two engaging writers offer contrasting routes to the mess the UK finds itself in today
How should we assess a collection of essays? Does the mere act of collecting disparate pieces of work by the same author within the confines of a single book mean we should hold them to a higher, or different, standard than the one we would apply if we picked up a yellowed copy of the magazine they originally appeared in? That’s the difficult question raised by James Meek’s Dreams of Leaving and Remaining, which collects some of the essays Meek wrote for the London Review of Books in the years before the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, albeit not in the order they were published. It is dotted with Meek’s present-day reflections.
Meek, a former foreign correspondent of some renown, is widely considered to be a master of expeditionary journalism: you know the type, when our fearless writer travels out into the country, interviews the locals and draws a series of conclusions, generally the ones they held at the start of their journey. Usually, but not always, the travelling journalist – think Chris Arnade’s journeys into Donald Trump’s America – returns from their journey recommending a greater measure of cruelty to people seeking to move to the country in question, and a modicum of increased compassion for the ones who already live here.
Anyone who has found themselves newly politicised by the convulsions of British politics in general will find this handy
Related: How to see beyond BrexitContinue reading... Read more »
The Borough Press, £12.99, pp288
Billed as a Kuwaiti #MeToo novel, this fascinating debut is a lot more nuanced and understanding of contemporary Arab life than that might suggest. Dahlia’s 30th birthday is fast approaching but she, much to her parents’ concern, is still unmarried and living at home, beset by anxiety attacks. She has a good job and supportive friends, but dreams of escape - a bit difficult when she can’t leave the country without her father’s consent. The ending might surprise western readers, but it celebrates the choices Dahlia can and does make.
CA Lejeune, a pioneer of the art of newspaper film criticism, started her career at a time when films were looked on as a low-grade form of entertainment.
In 1921, an article called The Undiscovered Aesthetic appeared over the initials CL on the back page of the Manchester Guardian. It was a plea for the recognition of that new art form, the kinematograph: “Shame it is that the finer intelligences, the more perceptive critics, should ignore the need for discovery, and allow the young art to mature unworthily for lack of guidance.”Continue reading... Read more »
Namwali Serpell’s impressive first novel is an indulgent, centuries-spanning slab of life marbled with subplots, zigzagging between characters and decades to play snakes and ladders with the bloodlines of three Zambian families with roots from around the world.
Starting in the company of a Victorian photographer following the footsteps of Livingstone and ending in a near future where Aids vaccines are injected by micro-drones, the novel shifts in tone and style over multiple storylines. In postwar Piedmont, we see a partisan fighter murder his brother to steal his job on the Zambezi river as well as his African-born lover. In 60s Surrey, a tennis player losing her sight sets tongues wagging when she stumbles into a relationship with a student from northern Rhodesia. Besides romance and mystery, there’s comedy, when a teenage girl in newly independent Zambia joins the nation’s short-lived space programme, a thread drawn on fact.
What initially seems an old-fashioned saga proves more interested in genre than in characterContinue reading... Read more »
Burgess Prize runner-up 2019: Tara McEvoy’s analysis of a collection that explores the form’s boundaries earned her joint second place in this year’s Observer/Anthony Burgess prize
• The winning review: Jason Watkins on Daisy Campbell’s Pigspurt’s Daughter
• Joint runner-up: Kate Wyver’s reflections on the video game Sorry to Bother You
Tara McEvoy, 25, is a PhD student and editor of the Tangerine, a magazine of new writing. Her work has been published in Vogue, the Irish Times and the Wire. She lives in Belfast. Her piece “confidently navigates challenging material”, and, most importantly, sent the judges “back to the poems.”
James Baldwin described the predicament like this: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” Terrance Hayes’s latest collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, makes visible the outlines of the trap of history by pushing against the constraints of the 14-line sonnet form. The result is a book that speaks with urgency and authority, bearing witness to the absurdities and cruelties of the present moment.Continue reading... Read more »
Yohann Koshy, 26, is a journalist and critic whose writing has been published in Vice, the Baffler, Financial Times and elsewhere. He lives in Oxford where he is co-editor of New Internationalist magazine
On 15 September 2008, the same day that Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, an anonymous account on Twitter published its first tweet: a monosyllabic “No.” A childish negation – of what? of whom? – this “No” set the tone for what would become a defining satirical voice over the course of a decade. Wint, who goes by the handle @dril, now has 1.23 million followers and an unrivalled reputation.Continue reading... Read more »
This year’s Observer/Anthony Burgess prize for arts journalism goes to Jason Watkins for his review of the writer and actor’s one-woman show about her celebrated late father Ken
• Joint runner-up: Kate Wyver’s reflections on the video game Sorry to Bother You
• Joint runner-up: Tara McEvoy on Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin
Jason Watkins is a special needs teacher and tutor for pupils out of education based in Otley, West Yorkshire. He previously worked in TV and as a film researcher. The judges praised his “lively, casually erudite style, in the best tradition of Anthony Burgess’s own work for the Observer”.
In naming his daughter after the Greek goddess of discord and misrule, maverick director/actor/playwright Ken Campbell gave her a lot to live up to. Pigspurt’s Daughter, a solo show by Daisy Eris Campbell to mark the 10th anniversary of her father’s death, is a window on a remarkable parent-child relationship bound by a love of logic-defying overstimulation and an aversion to anything routine or everyday.Continue reading... Read more »