Snooping, Blinking and a Controversial Chair

As you may remember, while my eyes have been troublesome, Mr Litlove has been reading to me most days after lunch – a sort of bookish siesta. This has meant picking out books that we’re both interested in, which in reality has meant non-fiction, and mostly psychology studies. Earlier this year we read two related books that couldn’t have been more different.

Snoop by Sam Gosling had an intriguing premise. What Your Stuff Says About You, the subtitle reads, and essentially, it’s about decoding the objects people possess in order to gain psychological insight into them. It’s what most of us do when entering the room of a new acquaintance for the first time, casing the joint to see what kind of books, pictures, music the new friend owns; the fact that Gosling’s research students prove you can make a pretty swift and accurate personality assessment on this basis seems to show there’s more to it than meets the eye (see what I did there?). Gosling proposes that daily clutter can be categorized three ways, as an ‘identity claim’ (things we’re proud to have reflect on us), a ‘feeling regulator’ (things that arouse emotion or contain special memories) or a ‘behavioural residue’ (the overflowing laundry basket that says you’re a slob). Then he introduces the reader to the five big personality traits – openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism – and shows how objects can be character markers of these traits.

And that’s about as far as we got before we abandoned the book. There were a number of problems that stymied us (okay, mostly me) and that forced us to give it up in the end. The first is that, in the history of crossover non-fiction literature there are few academic authors who are quite as evidently pleased with themselves as Dr Gosling is. This is a bit off-putting. The book begins with him showing off his amazing skills to a television producer who has sent him a box of items from the room of a mystery person. From a small tube of skin cream, a hairbrush, a scratched CD of dance music and a photo of a sink area, Dr Gosling deduces an Asian male in mid-to-late twenties who is probably gay. What seems important here is that all this is for the pilot episode of a new program about snooping that would have a role for an expert in such matters (guess who?).

But as we get more examples of Gosling’s prowess, I did begin to question it somewhat. Gosling gives us the example of a large seagull mobile hanging in the office of a research collaborator that catches his eye. What does this tell him about his colleague? What may he deduce from it? After much pontification via the strategies of Hercule Poirot, he decides that the seagull was probably linked to a fond memory or a meaningful event and that it helped his colleague stay calm and focused. When asked, the colleague said she’d bought it at a conference at Stockholm and used it ‘to stop tall people standing too close to her.’ Conclusive, no? No. Dr Gosling helpfully points out that you can’t ever expect one object to tell you everything about a person, and the chances are you’re going to be wrong more than you’re right. And this was the problem with all his argumentation that I heard; it was dilatory, digressive and far from clear. He just couldn’t nail his points.

It was about now that my life began to seem very short and precious to me.

So I had a snoop of my own in Dr Gosling’s acknowledgements and found a very long, fulsome expression of gratitude to his editor and the hours they spent side-by-side writing and rewriting, to the extent that he felt she was a ‘co-author’. Which told me that Dr Gosling had probably got his contract on the TV interest and the high concept and then struggled manfully to write the thing. Of course, in all fairness the problem with a DNF is that it might have become brilliant in its later stages and entirely fulfilled all its initial promise. I don’t know; I never got that far. But maybe that editor whipped him into shape by the end.

Anyhoo, we decided to swap to the book that had first drawn attention to the ‘science of snooping’ and given Gosling his break: Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. Blink is a book about snap judgements and the way they can be more accurate and helpful than second, third and fourth thoughts. Gladwell opens with a marble statue bought by the Getty Museum, supposedly dating from the sixth century BC. The purchase took place after a cautious 14-month investigation by art experts, and then the statue went on display to full fanfare. At that point the trouble started, as other experts and dealers and people from the art world came and looked and felt in their gut that something just wasn’t right. The Getty took the murmurs of uncertainty seriously and further investigations were made. And oh dear, it turned out that the kouros ‘didn’t come from ancient Greece. It came from a forger’s workshop in Rome in the early 1980s.’

So, Blink is a book about the way that our cautious, thoughtful brain can be confused and our quick, grasping one can be clear-sighted. It’s sort of an easy version of Daniel Kaufman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, with extra jolly anecdotes. Because say what you like about Malcolm Gladwell (and I believe some people do), that man has a genius for exploiting the exemplary anecdote. His arguments throughout this book were beautifully made, utterly lucid and persuasive, and consistently interesting.

He moves from the frivolous to the serious and stops at various stations of the cross in between. Pausing at researchers working with five minute videos of couples from which they deduce the likelihood that the couple will stay together, through Warren Harding’s truly disastrous presidency (yes, there are precedents!) which he won almost entirely because he looked the part (exactly like the butler from Downton Abbey, in case you’re wondering), through the madness of market research. Take the rivalry between Pepsi and Coca-Cola and the television adverts Pepsi ran in the 1980s that showed people off the street taking a sip of each drink and declaring Pepsi the nicer of the two. Coca-Cola, rattled, ran its own blind tests and found that 57% of participants did indeed prefer Pepsi. Horrified, they altered the secret formula to make the drinks more similar – and released the product to consumer outrage. Their loyal customers hated the new drink and it was rapidly taken from the shelves never to be seen again. The thing is, what might be nicer on the basis of one sip (because it’s sweeter) is not necessarily nicer to drink at length. The sip test turns out to be misleading.

There are also more serious sides to the book, considering the use of snap judgements in combat situations and in the case of four white officers shooting a lone black man in the Bronx in February 1999. The man was entirely innocent of any crime, and the object he had withdrawn from his back pocket as the officers approached him turned out to be a wallet, not a gun as they had assumed. Gladwell looks at this incident from the perspective of a ‘mind-reading failure’. We have them all the time, instincts that arise and tell us someone is hostile or angry or something else altogether, drawn from another person’s facial expressions and body language. But police officers have to act regularly on those instincts in life or death situations, and sometimes they have terrible results. When you have so much adrenaline pumping through your system that you literally cannot tell the difference between a gun and a wallet, I think that’s a pretty good argument for not arming your average patrol cop, but what do I know?

So, all in all, this turns out to be a book that is just as cautious about snap judgements as it is congratulatory of them. Essentially, Gladwell is carving out a position in which thinking fast is a good idea, and shading in all the areas in which it gives misleading (sometimes disastrously so) results. Essentially, the issue boils down to experience and expertise. The more time you have spent studying something, and the more experience you’ve had in judging and then weighing the results of that judgement, the better your instincts will be.

This does not mean that when we are outside our areas of passion and experience, our reactions are invariably wrong. It just means that they are shallow. They are hard to explain and easily disrupted. They aren’t grounded in real understanding.’

Which, in an age that has become ‘fed up’ of experts, is something we should probably all hear.

Finally, then, a little blink test of my own. Below is a chair that Mr Litlove has recently finished after the style of Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Do you like it or not? I do, but Mr Litlove doesn’t. What does that say about us, I wonder?

The Penguin Rocker and More Books

I have been very remiss in not showing you a photo of the chair Mr Litlove made me for my birthday. Yes, I know what you are thinking: how many more chairs can be deemed anniversary gifts before there is no more room in the house? A very good question, my friends. The answer: not many.

But in the meantime, I’ve always wanted a rocking chair and now I have one. We’ve been unofficially calling it the penguin chair because it just has that flippered look about it. One misconception I’ve been harboring about rocking chairs is that they have their own momentum. Well, they sort of do, but the experience is akin to being on a garden swing. You need to put a little kinetic energy in to keep going. I do think it’s the perfect chair for listening to audio books. I can’t knit as an accompanying activity, so that option is out of the question, but I can steeple my fingers and nod wisely with the best of them.

Now, some more books and let’s plunge into controversy with Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Cather is one of my all-time favourite authors, and at the start of the year I had a re-reading session with her novels. I read The Professor’s House and A Lost Lady again, which are both flawless masterpieces to me. Sapphira is Cather’s last novel, published in 1940 when she was tired and bitter, nostalgic for the past, horrified by the war in Europe and suffering a chronic wrist injury that prevented her from writing in comfort. Maybe for these reasons it’s a darker novel than many, although Cather never loses touch with the beauty of nature and the innate potential for compassion in her characters. It’s set in Virginia way back in the 1850s and concerns the household of local mill owner, Henry Colbert. His aristocratic wife came to him at their marriage with black slaves from her homestead, and although Henry is deeply uncomfortable with slavery, he understands that this is how his wife manages domesticity. He can’t upset the apple cart to the extent of turning the slaves free (in 1850, he’s not sure where they’d go), and so his intention is to treat his people with as much generosity and kindness he can muster, and ensure their lives with him are good.

Sapphira’s relationship to her slaves is quite different. Although we understand that she has been, across her lifetime, a good and generous mistress, just lately a few distressing problems have soured her outlook. First of all, Sapphira has recently become crippled with dropsy – extremely swollen ankles – and must deal with both physical restriction and pain. As a lady she bears it stoically, but it’s not helping her temper. Added to the humiliation of bodily woes, she suspects that her pretty black maid, Nancy, is having an affair with her husband. Now, no such thing is taking place. Henry admires Nancy and he has respect for the attention she brings to her chores. There may be something a tad guilty lurking in the back of his mind, which is why he can’t bring himself to act when he realises a serious problem exists between the women. But Henry isn’t much of an instigator at the best of times. So, lack of communication between husband and wife is consolidated by Sapphira’s jealous mind with suspicion, and the indignity and embarrassment of encroaching old age. Not content with chiding and scolding Nancy and smacking her with a hairbrush at the least opportunity, Sapphira decides to act out in a far worse way.

She contacts the family rake and invites him for a lovely long stay. Naturally, said rake finds Nancy extremely alluring and, since she’s a slave and readily available to him, he’s determined to satisfy his lust. Poor Nancy is in a terrible position. If she becomes pregnant she’ll be thrown out, but how can she avoid the unwelcome attentions of an arrogant, entitled white master? Well, as it turns out, Sapphira and Henry have a daughter, Rachel Blake, and Rachel can’t abide slavery:

It was the owning that was wrong, the relation itself, no matter how convenient or agreeable it might be for master or servant. She had always known it was wrong. It was the thing that made her unhappy at home and came between her and her mother. How she hated her mother’s voice in sarcastic reprimand to the servants! And she hated it in contemptuous indulgence.

Rachel sets out to help Nancy, only it will come at a heavy price for her.

Now here we run into the controversy. This seems to me to be a pretty enlightened tale for 1940, and it would be a humanitarian miracle for 1850. But the criticism that I’ve read of it says it’s still not good enough for the new millennium. The thrust of the story is entirely about the awful consequences that can occur when some people believe they have absolute power over others. But in the general areas of the narrative, there’s enough to offend the sensibilities of some. The term ‘darkies’ is used occasionally. When the slaves are all finally freed, one goes to the bad, which I’ve seen stated as cause for concern. There’s a general sense of the primitive in the descriptions of the servants. I suppose if you have delicate sensitivities in this area, then maybe it’s better to read something else. But it seems to me that if you open a newspaper,  there are far worse examples of racism to be had in the world today than in this book. If you’re okay with historical fiction and its vicissitudes, then it’s worth reading. Myself, I’d rather not miss out on the message that even good people can be corrupted by a fatal combination of misguided entitlement and their own insecurities. In fact, it seems to me vital that such a message be heard right here and now. It seems essential to me to read books like this, flaws and all, to see how much has changed, and how little.

Well I have wittered on so long that once again I’ve used up my thousand words with many more books still to be discussed. Hope to come visiting you all soon, too, and see what you’ve been reading.

Good Grief, Life Keeps Happening!

So much for that new blogging leaf, right? But anyhow, lots of catching up to do and we’ll begin as ever with that titan of domestic anecdote, Mr Litlove. Have I ever told you how lucky Mr Litlove is? I promise you, it is quite galling. Let me give you a brief example: one evening a couple of years ago, he was headed down to London for the evening, which meant leaving the office in especially good time. He did not do this, surprise, surprise, texting me from the back of a taxi with a mere ten minutes before his train left the station, still needing to cover a good ten-to-fifteen minute journey and buy his ticket. But did he miss that train? Oh no. He then texted me from it – the train had been delayed by a perfect ten minutes. This is the sort of thing that happens regularly. The other morning he left early to marshal rowing races on the Cam in cold, drizzly weather. But when he came home to change into his kit to take part in his own race, the clouds parted and the sun shone. ‘You have the luck of the devil,’ I told him. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but I’ve got to stop wasting it on things that benefit everyone when I’m going to have special need of it for my own ventures in the next few years.’

Ah, and never was a truer word spoken, as he’s been pushing that luck of his to the limit lately. He’s certainly been pushing it with me. January was full of little incidents. He handed me my plate of lunch, for instance, not noticing that it was garnished with the plaster that had been holding his blackened nail onto his finger. And then he was forced to admit that the local paper I had been carefully hoarding – it had a great map of all the new housing developments in our area, with average prices, that I thought was perfect for marketing his furniture – had been inadvertently used by him to light the fire in the sitting room.  And then we decided to go to the university library together in my car. My poor old car is rather elderly now and the battery has been dodgy for months. ‘It’ll be fine!’ said Mr Litlove, and I was idiot enough to believe him. So we went to the library, he dropped me at the main doors to return our books and was supposed simply to turn around and wait for me to emerge a minute or two later. But Mr Litlove saw a parking spot, and indeed they are rare at the library. So he parked the car… and turned the engine off. Well, the moment I went through the revolving doors, I knew what would happen. I’ll cut a long story – and a comedy of errors – short by saying that eventually Mr Litlove accosted two students who helped give me a push start. But you can see that he was living on the edge.

So, Mr Litlove attends an upholstery class that is straight out of a Joanna Trollope novel on Thursdays in term time. This means that every week, as Thursday nears, he frets about whether the foam/upholstery fabric/haberdashery supplies are going to arrive in the post in time for class. It’s worth fretting because every week Mr Litlove relies on his sterling luck by ordering his supplies far too late. This week in point was especially time-sensitive because Mr Litlove had decided to make a heart-shaped chair for Valentine’s Day. We’d ordered a lot of fabric samples in pinks and roses and raspberries but when it came to it, Mr Litlove felt that this was a chair crying out for risks to be taken. And so he went for bling, a brilliant copper-red crushed velvet the colour of a flame. Every day he watched the post, anxious for its arrival, and every day his hopes were dashed. The frame of the chair was ready, Mr Litlove was ready, and if his material didn’t arrive, Valentine’s Day would have been and gone by the time the next class rolled around, and the moment would have passed.

On the day of the class, Mr Litlove sat disconsolately on the end of the bed (I was eating my breakfast in it), sending out texts on his phone to his rowing mates, organising some sort of alpha male contest. He was wondering what he could possibly do in class, as there was nothing else in his workshop ready to be upholstered other than his heart-shaped chair. ‘Well, well,’ I said. ‘I can’t quite believe that you are being forced to suffer an inconvenient situation that’s arisen as a direct result of your own foolishness. Welcome to my world!’

And then there was a knock at the door.

Mr Litlove abandoned his text about macho activities and leapt to his feet crying, ‘My fabric! My fabric!’

(I will never get used to this.)

But no, from the sound of his footsteps climbing the stairs as he returned, I could tell that he was not a happy bunny. He entered the bedroom with only one square package in his hand. ‘It’s a book for you,’ he said sourly. Then, just as I was forming a good, pithy moral about planning and efficiency to deliver to him, there was another knock at the door. Mr Litlove ran back downstairs…. and this time his return had a marked skip in the step. ‘She was only playing with me!’ he declared. ‘She missed this package the first time around.’

And so the luck of Mr Litlove held good. Though when he opened his parcel and revealed the fabric, we had to hide our eyes momentarily. ‘What have we done?’ I wondered. Below is the finished article. I think it’s the sort of chair that the Queen of Hearts would sit on in Alice in Wonderland.

heart

‘Darling, this is your Valentine’s Day present from me,’ said Mr Litlove when he’d finished it, and I thought how sweet that was after all those little incidents. ‘Unless I get a really good offer for it,’ he added.

Who says romance is dead?

Well, as ever Mr Litlove takes up far more words than I expect him to and there is no space in this post now for my news. Hopefully I can write a part 2 in not too many days. (Though they may be famous last words.) But be warned – Mr Litlove gets Lewis Carroll, and I get the Brothers Grimm when it comes to recounting tales.

Watch Me Turning That New Blogging Leaf

These past few weeks, I’ve made a new friend. It so happened that, in an idle moment in the weeks running up to Christmas, I clicked on one of those advertising links online that offered me a free in-depth tarot card reading. The reading I received surprised me by being more generous and detailed than I had expected. And since that day, the tarot reader has sent me regular emails, once or even twice a day, offering me limited edition fortune-telling goods of dubious nature, and never failing to inform me of challenges and opportunities on the horizon. I get a daily prediction addressed to ‘Dearest Litlove’, and at the end she always reminds me that she wants the very best for me, and will be delighted to help me out with any dilemma I should encounter. All of January, she has been a more than constant fixture in my relatively empty inbox.

‘You do realise you’re talking to a computer, don’t you?’ Mr Litlove asks me.

‘Surely not,’ I say. ‘I think she really likes me.’

Here’s a general rule of the universe: your inbox will never be more of a wasteland than when you are waiting for emails. At the end of last year I embarked on the wearyingly tedious business of finding a literary agent (or making an attempt at it). I have a novel I’m trying to sell, and I’ve got the novel itself with various friends, and the submission materials with various agents and the result is that now, no one  writes to me. I think it’s going to be a pretty quiet year.

Mr Litlove has also had a quiet start to the year, though for slightly different reasons. He took a fortnight off for the festive season which was very pleasant for both of us. The first I knew about it was the week before Christmas when we were in the car together, headed into town after my first time of asking. ‘You’re being unusually amenable,’ I remarked. ‘Are you feeling okay?’ But as with all pleasant episodes, the end is mired in denial and obstinacy. Mr Litlove is supposed to be making a rocking chair (and I can’t tell you how delighted I am to have a rocking chair in prospect; I’ve long wanted one). But even with my very limited knowledge I can see that drawing the design is not easy. Much procrastination has followed, with Mr L. succumbing to rocking chair fear, and that’s totally a thing. He came into the study the other day, saying ‘Can we have a meeting? I used to have end-to-end meetings all day when I was at work and didn’t feel like doing anything.’ I’d rather staple gun memos to my forehead than have a meeting, and alas, his earlier suggestion of having a works Christmas party for the two of us fell on similarly stony ground. My heart does go out to him. It’s hard to procrastinate with goal-oriented introverts.

Where he can and does get me, though, is in the long-running row debate we are having over the news. For once I have to congratulate President-Elect Trump on providing a story that we can both of us enjoy. Not only an entertaining story, I understand today, but a story so like an old generic spy thriller that the very happy estate of one deceased author has actually brought forth the book with the exact same Russian blackmail plot (cue reprint, I imagine). Anyhow, I digress. Mr Litlove is a news hound. Every day he gets up and reads The Guardian and The Telegraph on his phone for 2-3 hours with Radio 4 playing in the background. In my world, if I did that much reading, it would be called research and it would be intended for a specific project. But the real problem arises between us because I take a very skeptical position in relation to the news. I scarcely believe one partisan word of it. And I am deeply unimpressed with Radio 4’s coverage, especially on the Today programme, which takes a ludicrously adversarial position towards any and every subject, with grumpy, negative, argumentative people intent on making sure all possible arguments are heard regardless of whether those arguments have any value or not. In short, it drives me nuts.

But that doesn’t stop Mr Litlove from inflicting it on me, and so I feel that he should be made aware of the rules in my world. In academia, you can’t put forward an argument unless it is a) fully backed up with evidence, b) grounded by sources whose authority you can prove, c) ready to challenge its own stance because nothing is black or white, it’s always more complex than it first appears, d) ready to show the gaps in its knowledge, or the questions that remain unanswered but eschewing all speculation and unsubstantiated claims and e) acknowledging that stories and arguments are powerfully distorting because they assume shapes that reality does not have, and this must be taken into account. Oh, and there has to be a clear understanding of what’s important and what is not. Doesn’t sound much like the news, does it?

In all fairness, the only decent programme I’ve ever heard on Radio 4 was broadcast last week. It was a meditation on the supposedly post-truth world that we live in. And its conclusion was that we don’t live in a post-truth world, but we do live in a world where the sources of information we trust are deeply polarised. It made the excellent point that to believe anything, it must come from a source – be it person or authority – that we trust, and fit into the framework of knowledge that we accept. So, in other words, if you want to persuade a Christian religious fundamentalist of climate change, throwing more scientists and scientific data at the problem is going to have a counter effect. It’s a bit like saying, if you want to convince Spanish people of something, you can’t go in talking German. So if we apply this thinking to our household problem with the news, the media are going to have to produce arguments more like those I consider to be useful and accurate, if I’m to believe them. But given Mr Litlove is already fully on board with the media, he will resist all criticism (and he does) to the hilt.

As so the individual family mirrors the wider world. We all have radically different sources we trust. But we live in a culture in which all those different voices, all those different opinions are considered to have truth value. How on earth are we going to agree on anything?

Still, if I argue with Mr Litlove for long enough, it does finally make the workshop look more tempting to him….