Paperhouse reads: Bad Science


My dad would bring the works of Stephen Jay Gould along as his holiday reading for our family weeks in France, and one day he showed me a two-page spread comparing two pictures of dots. In one, the dots were scattered about the page; in the other, they were clumped into whorls and clusters. “Which of these”, asked my dad, “do you think has a pattern?” Obviously, I cheated and looked at the captions so I could get the answer right, but all the same my first inclination was to go for one that with the twists and the spirals.

That was the wrong one: any pattern I’d seen was the result of my grasping brain seeking relationships between randomly positioned objects on the page, while the random-looking sprinkled dots on the other image had been generated with a simple rule governing the space between each point. So, I learnt two things about my judgement. First, that I was very very bad at seeing order in absences; second, that I would eagerly interpret a pattern in any number of things that fell close enough together to seem connected. And, according to the text of the essay¹ this illustrated, most people made the same mistake I did. Human beings are ferociously good strange coincidence detectors, and absolutely horrible at interpreting relationships within large quantities of information.

How horrible? Well, if you read Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in the Guardian, every week has a new example of either general failure to comprehend research and statistics, or cynical exploitation of this general failure. The book pulls together some of the great narratives of irrationality covered by Goldacre on his blog and for the paper: the great greasy mess of the Durham fish oils trials, the strange power of homeopathy, the depressing momentum of the MMR scare.

And what feels invigorating and entertaining as a weekly debunking takes on a more depressing character as it builds up into a bigger argument about the weakness of the media and the failure of public understanding of science. Christ, it really is dreadful. Newspapers and broadcast outlets routinely distort figures, present corporate press releases as interesting facts, and confound unlikly anecdotes with evidence – partly because the average jouralist is no better than any other average person at understanding figures, and partly because of the brutalising demands of churnalism and the economic need to pull out a striking headline.

Bad Science is an excellent tutorial in recognising the shabby stories and filtering out the nonsense from your news consumption (you’ll never read a report about nutrition without muttering, “Yes, but are they a dietitian?” to yourself). Once you’ve started disgarding the misinformation and the mangled data, though, there’s almost no science coverage left to read: some Saturdays, there’s probably only Goldacre. And even with his sharp writing and smart jokes, it’s undeniably all a bit bleak.

But you don’t just get your faith in journalism smashed out of you. You also get a high-speed course in all the mental distortions that make mistakes like mine with the dots, or Nick Cohen’s with the MMR, so easy to make. And then you get a breezy walkthrough of the ways science has developed to compensate for these crippling freaks of perception: placebo controlled trials, statistical analysis, things so sublimely elegant that once they’re explained it seems extraordinary that anyone ever got anything right without them – and so precisely counter-intuitive, it’s astonishing that people worked them out at all.

For regular Bad Science readers, a lot of the book will feel familiar. But the force and clarity gained by putting everything in the same place is great, and even if you’ve soaked up everything Goldacre’s ever written – every post, tweet and blog comment – you should still buy and read this book, especially now it comes in a new mass-market paperback with the previously-withheld-due-to-legal-proceedings Matthias Rath chapter. (If you’ve already paid out for the first edition, the extra chapter is available to download. Lovely.) There aren’t many things you can buy that will genuinely make you smarter, but by giving you a thorough education in your own – and the media’s – ignorance, this book is worth an ocean of fish oil.

¹ Look, I know it’s pretty shabby to have started out a review of Bad Science with an unsourced anecdote. I think the essay is in Bully For Brontesaurus, and if anyone’s got a copy to hand and can correct my shambling memories, I’d be powerfully grateful.

Paperhouse reads: Liver

Liver‘s subtitle is “A fictional organ with an anatomy of four lobes” – because it’s a collection of four short stories all set in the same fictional universe. Between the gory physicality of that summary and its literary precision, Will Self gives a perfect biopsy of his style. Funny, bleak, grotesque, dispassionate: Self’s liver is a bilious organ.


I started reading Self when he was doing the cult books segment for Mark Radcliffe’s graveyard shift show on Radio 1: every few weeks, he’d show up and laud a work of fiction, and a bit later I’d borrow it from the library and add it to my store of teenage pretension. I read Lolita, Perfume and Kafka on Self’s recommendation. I also read Self’s Quantity Theory, Grey Area and Cock And Bull, really enjoying the mixture of dismal sex and absurdist satire. But then Tough Tough Toys… was a bit disappointing, and the columns in the Indy felt laboured and drab, and I let Self drift out of the circle of things in which I was interested. Look, I was 18, barely out of Point Horror and working my way through the best books ever written. It’s almost completely not my fault that I totally underrated Self.

I even managed to miss this happening. But I’ve started to catch up now, and Liver is a decent place to start. All of the extended short stories take place in the same fictional universe, with characters moving between as connecting tissue, although each narrative is essentially self-enclosed. And, more jarringly, each one twists distinctively out of realist-satirical mode and into another genre of its own: Greek mythology, supernatural interventions, sci-fi. The lobes of the book are separate but related, forming a whole from which any part could be lost without changing the function of the book (apart, obviously, from the function of being like a liver).

And it’s also about livers, and the abuses the organs are put to by human appetites. Scabrous about consumption and acute about addiction and desire, there’s a striking lack of compassion despite all the close observation. Sometimes – especially with the characters who stick around across more than one section – this feels almost too hard to take. It’s not the dreadful things Self does to his characters that you mind: it’s that he can’t say anything nice about them while he’s acting as their tormentor.

But the mysanthropy’s the only thing you can see coming. I’ve never read a fiction narrated by a chorus of microbes before. Nor have you (I imagine), and Self throws out these unexpected inventions with the ease of someone who can make this shit up with some to spare. And he can write, too: not just slinging together a few well-constructed sentences, but rolling out perfected phrases by the pageful. His language is excessive and his vocabulary ripe, but it’s controlled excess – the abundant swears have a well-timed precision, and the moments where he throws in one deliberate cliché too many are rare enough to be tolerable.

Paperhouse at the picturehouse: Helvetica


Designer Erik Spiekermann is expressive in his indifference to the Helvetica typeface when interviewed for Gary Hustwit’s documentary: “It’s air, you know. It’s just there. There’s no choice. You have to breathe, so you have to use Helvetica.” But even he acknowledges that the font represents the ultimate refinement in sans-serif clarity. In the extras, spitting out contempt for Microsoft’s Arial, Spiekermann says that the MS font is an imitation of Helvetica – and because Helvetica is “perfect”, Arial was designed by making arbitrary changes to the Helvetica template. “So of course, it’s even worse”, fumes Spiekermann. (See this link for more prime Arial disgust.)

For modernist designers of the fifties and sixties, Helvetica’s sleekness and balance made it perfect for the clean and orderly vision they were pursuing. In the documentary, Massimo Vignelli and Mike Parker speak with genuine passion about this supposedly anonymous typeface, and it’s power to sweep away the whimsy and clutter of postwar design. Within two decades, though, a Helvetica hegemony had risen up, and it’s easy to sympathise with the frustrations of the typographers interviewed here who are bored by the the font. Seventies radical Paula Scher voices the fiercest criticism, identifying the font with globalisation, capitalism and Reagan-voters. So there’s a quiet and beautiful contrast between these intense reactions and the concentrated craftsmanship of the opening, which shows a typesetter at his exacting work.

Helvetica type

The font was designed, and named, by the Haas foundry specifically to serve the international market. And even though it became the native tongue of desktop publishing and municipal signage, its development was a reassuringly manual process of drafting, adjusting, weighting and perfecting until an exactly satisfying alphabet was achieved. When the font’s characteristics are explained – the perpendicular stroke-endings, the careful narrowing of a curve beside an upstroke – it’s easier to understand what makes Helvetica itself, even if it doesn’t explain why it feels so good to look at.

In the documentary, Lars Müller denies that ubiquitous Helvetica is the typographic maniestation of capitalism and calls it instead the typeface of socialism – because it’s accessible to everyone. (If I ever publish anything, I’ll get it set in Helvetica and have “Typeset in the font of socialism” printed in the front matter.) And then, more lyrically, he describes it as “the perfume of the city. It is just something we don’t notice usually but we would miss very much if it wouldn’t be there.” Hustwit’s documentary encourages you to look at something that’s everywhere and consider its history, its function and its meaning: not just Helvetica, but graphic design of all kinds.

The suggestion at the end of the film is that design has become democratised, more or less. Software makes the skills of graphic design available to anyone who can stump up for an Adobe suite, and the importance of online identities means that people are increasingly taking to design in the way that an earlier generation took to DIY to define themselves. (The designers are delicate enough not to mention self-expression through flashing gifs.) Screen-friendly, powerfully elegant on its own and unobtrusive when combined with other elements, Helvetica is ideal for the amateur. In the documentary, Rick Poyner says, “The designer has an enormous responsibility. Those are the people, you know, putting their wires into our heads.” And maybe the future of desktop designers is one where more people will think critically about what design is persuading them of; probably, it will be a future with even more Helvetica in it.

[Theatre review] If I Were A Carpenter

if-i-were-a-carpenterOriginally published in Venue, issue 855. It’s not quite a kicking, but it’s a fair summary of the least enjoyable experience I’ve ever had to slap a number on.

The Provocation company takes a hammer to the idea of social mobility in this new play by Dougie Blaxland, and most of the blows fall short of the target. If I Were A Carpenter presents three families (aspirational upper-middle class, beleaguered working class, and miscreant underclass) facing various cultural and economic crises, all ending in almightily signposted tragedy.

The five-actor cast makes game work of portraying multiple interlinked characters, though the sudden shifts can be disconcerting with only the adoption of some wobbly northern accents to steer the audience through (because the poor are always with us, and they always come from Yorkshire). Additionally, the cast take on the role of chorus, declaiming awkward couplets in the person of various institutions: government, NHS, DVLA (not really), UCAS (really).

But by presenting the instruments of state as the impersonal agents of social repression nurturing what one character calls “the conveyor belt generation”, the play misses the most potent satirical point: institutions fail most often by cock-up, not conspiracy. The flat characters fail to ignite any feeling for the stereotyped issues, and in the end, carpentry doesn’t even come into it. It’s just used as a cipher for honourable manual labour, but the play is so clumsy there’s no sign of workmanship at all.



Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009. Image from Provocation.

Someone Cares

“Rachael! Come back! Look at this! I TOTALLY WROTE THIS! LOOK!”

One day, seeing my own words as pull-quotes on a theatre billboard will not lead me to bellow down the street at my sister to share my excitement. And then, my friends, I will be a Real Writer.

Not yet, though.

Theatre Review: Trade It?

Originally published in Venue, issue 824. Since I wrote this, Show of Strength have received word of a recommendation to Bristol City Council to cut completely the funding they receive. SOS are urging people to show their support for the company by writing to the council (postal and email addresses on the SOS page).

Show of Strength: Trade It?

Show of Strength’s newest piece turns the back alleys and open spaces of Bristol into impromptu stages for a series of ten ten-minute vignettes on the Fair Trade City. Bristol became great through the brutal iniquities of slavery, but the port which once made its money from the buying and selling of people has now become just the place to pick up some ethically produced groceries and organic textiles. Some pieces (the haunted monologue of “Noah”) reinvest the city with the horrors of its past; others (the thrillingly demented “Bag And Baggage”, with Nadia Williams) confront the idea that post-emancipation, slavery has only been displaced to other victims on other continents under the guise of market forces. It’s uncomfortable viewing at times, and not just because the first hour is spent walking the city (alternatively, the Saturday matinee is presented entirely at Temple Church Gardens), but with a satisfyingly rude wit and charismatic performances, Trade It? moves nimbly around subjects which too often invite worthiness.

Having only a short time to establish each character, and a complicated set of issues to hang on them, Trade It? runs close to cliché a few times (one piece, “Original Skins”, loads up the telling details a little too high and sacrifices theatre to theory). However, a sharp sense of drama and a keen eye for the ironies of exploitation ensures that the show almost never stumbles into predictability. Covering a riot of genres – absurdist allegory, kitchen sink drama, huckster sideshow (with expert tumbler) – Trade It? keeps the audience on their feet throughout. But disparate as the pieces may seem, there are powerful associations at work between them. “Big-Mouth Strikes Again” threatens to be a straw-man portrait of a white racist, but Dan Winter’s performance takes a swerve from antagonism into pathos, and the segment becomes even more interesting when “Calling A Spade A Spade” dissects the etymology of racial insults and empties them of meaning.

Under the direction of Robin Belfield, the actors combine naturalism (early on, there are moments of exciting hesitation as the audience gauges whether the latest person to wander along is an actor, or just an unfortunate pedestrian passing through) with the vigour it takes to fill an open space. And throughout, viewers are called on to participate: chanting to summon a zombie, calling out the punchlines to politically dubious jokes, playing the guests at a tense inter-racial wedding – it’s impossible to be a passive spectator. So when the evening concludes with a painfully funny skit on the ethics of global trade, the audience is already a part of the action, and ready to take home the play’s fair-trade moral along with the fair-trade goodie bag. ****

Trade It? Bristol City Centre (starts at Horse and Rider statue, Lewins Mead; finishes temple church gardens), Tues 24 June-Sun 6 July.

Theatre Review: Crown Matrimonial

Unpublished sample piece for Venue.

Crown Matrimonial, Theatre Royal Bath.

With its opulent decoration, static presentation, and painfully deferential attitude, Crown Matrimonial has all the theatrical power of an evening spent staring at a commemorative plate. Midway through the second act, six weeks into the 1936 abdication crisis dramatised in the play, during yet another clipped discussion of love-versus-duty, Patricia Routledge as Queen Mary cries, “Will it never end?”. Audiences might feel a rare stab of sympathy with her as the play shuffles circuitously to its well-known conclusion.

It’s not the cast’s fault – Routledge hits the note of restrained matriarchal power throughout, and receives perky support from sundry royals and household characters. But despite portraying the queen as a woman with love for her children as well as devotion to the monarchy, there is no suggestion that she feels anything as interesting as anguish or even mild conflict when her maternal feelings clash with her regal ones. Positions are entrenched from the outset, and two hours of bickering on a sofa does nothing to make the royal family seem important or endearing.

Repeated allusions to European politics don’t help. As a continent prepares to brutalise itself, the only disgusting thing about Wallis Simpson is that the cabinet spent any time discussing her when they could have been worrying about Hitler. Ultimately, the play’s true villain is modern Britain. “One must move with the times”, remarks Edward, to which a lady-in-waiting ripostes, “Only of they are moving in the right direction.” Mired in tedious conservatism, Crown Matrimonial goes nowhere at all. *