Technology, product strategy, and design notes, by someone who has helped technology companies like Google and Bloomberg develop new products. Check out the front door or read up about Stefan. Follow new postings via RSS, or get tweets from Stefan
Culture, from The Economist
Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning). By Marion Nestle. Oxford University Press; 508 pages; $29.95 and £19.99.
MARION NESTLE’S heavyweight polemic against Coca-Cola and PepsiCo comes at an odd moment for the industry. Americans are drinking fewer sugary sodas—in 2012 production was 23% below what it had been a decade earlier. Even sales of diet drinks are losing their fizz, as consumers question the merits of artificial sweeteners. From one angle, it would seem that health advocates such as Ms Nestle have won. Yet in America companies still produce 30 gallons of regular (not diet) fizzy drinks per person per year. In many countries, particularly developing ones, consumption is on the rise.
Ms Nestle, a professor at New York University, is both heartened by recent progress and dissatisfied with it. That is no surprise. Her first book, “Food Politics” (2002), remains a bible for those who bewail the power of food companies. In her new book she attacks the industry’s most widely consumed, least healthy product. “Soda Politics”, she says, is a book “to inspire readers to action”. As a rallying cry, it...
Let it not become paradise lost
The Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy. By J.J. Robinson. Hurst; 336 pages; £16.99.
TROUBLED paradises dot the tropics. Equatorial Guinea, Haiti and the Solomon Islands are just three examples. Add to that list the Maldives, a micro-nation blighted by repression, political gangsters and, increasingly, Wahhabi extremists. Life on the islands in the Indian Ocean can be stultifying. Bored youngsters in Malé, the crowded capital, are heavy consumers of brown-sugar heroin. Few places look quite so fragile environmentally. A fire last year at the country’s only desalination plant left it with almost no drinking water.
Yet the story of the Maldives is complicated, because the islands also offer real glimmers of hope. Since the 1970s the small population, around 350,000, has built a luxury-tourist industry that is worth $2.5 billion a year. Maldivians are easily the most prosperous of all South Asians; the country draws Bangladeshis and others to work there. While he was president, Mohamed Nasheed, a bright figure, did much to champion...
Augustine: Conversions and Confessions. By Robin Lane Fox. Basic Books; 672 pages; $35. Allen Lane; £30.
AN INTELLECTUAL colossus of late antiquity, Augustine of Hippo straddled many worlds. Born in north Africa in a town of Romanised Berbers, he moved confidently around the empire’s Italian heartland, which although under terminal threat was still a very sophisticated place. He was sufficiently clever, eloquent and sociable to have made a grand worldly career; instead he devoted his life to articulating a philosophical system that fused Greco-Roman ideas with those of Semitic monotheism. He was a sensual man who embraced celibacy, while rejecting world-views that divided the material from the spiritual. He could speak with magisterial authority and great vulnerability.
Robin Lane Fox, a historian of classical antiquity at Oxford University, finds him captivating. This is not for spiritual reasons (he does not share his subject’s faith) but because of the light Augustine shed, in more than one sense, on the dying imperium. His is the best-known life in the ancient world.
Sign of the times
THE dingy back alleys of Havana are a far cry from the city’s middle-class Vedado district and its Hotel Nacional, and an unlikely home for a hip international art gallery. But on November 27th Galleria Continua, an avant-garde group from San Gimignano in Tuscany that shows Anish Kapoor and Michelangelo Pistoletto and has offshoots in Beijing and Boissy-le-Châtel, an hour’s drive south of Paris, opened its newest space in the renovated Águila de Oro cinema. The chunky Soviet-era projectors have been left in place on the top floor, and the detritus of film canisters and decaying seats has been whipped into a floor-to-ceiling hurricane installation by José Yaque, a young Cuban artist.
Continua’s opening is just the latest sign that the global art world—which, on December 3rd, will gather at Art Basel Miami Beach, America’s buzziest art fair—is on to Cuba. Collectors, dealers and museum curators have been flocking to Havana. The re-establishment of diplomatic ties between America and the Caribbean island in earlier this year mean that interest in Cuban art can only grow.
The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains. By Thomas Laqueur. Princeton University Press; 711 pages; $39.95 and £27.95.
THOMAS LAQUEUR, a professor of history at University of California, Berkeley, opens his new book with the story of Diogenes the Cynic, a philosopher from ancient Greece who asked his friends not to bury his body when he died, but to throw it out for the beasts. When they demurred, he mocked them. He knew that corpses are insensate matter, nothing more; loam, as Hamlet said later, with which to stop a bunghole.
Death, Mr Laqueur insists, has never been a mystery. Dust to dust, says the Christian burial service, whatever it says about the resurrection of the body. The real mystery has been peoples’ resistance to what they know. Though he concentrates on North America and western Europe (largely England and France), Mr Laqueur shows that, in every age and place, people have always needed their corpses. Sacred or secular makes no difference.
Believers in a bodily afterlife may seem to have the edge. But atheists have matched them bone for bone,...
No More Champagne: Churchill and His Money. By David Lough. Picador; 544 pages; $32. Head of Zeus; 532 pages; £25.
Winston Churchill Reporting: Adventures of a Young War Correspondent. By Simon Read. Da Capo Press; 309 pages; $26.99.
HISTORIANS and many members of the public already know that Winston Churchill often took high-stakes gambles in his political life. Some, like the disastrous Dardanelles campaign—an audacious attempt he masterminded at the Admiralty to seize the straits of Gallipoli and knock Turkey out of the first world war—he got wrong. Others, notably his decision as prime minister in 1940 to hold out against Nazi Germany until America came to rescue Britain, he got spectacularly right. But the extent to which Churchill was a gambler in other spheres of his life has tended not to catch his biographers’ attention.
Two new books attempt to fill this gap. The first is “No More Champagne” by David Lough, a private-banker-turned-historian who looks at Churchill’s personal finances during the ups and downs of his career...
Fox Tossing and Other Forgotten and Dangerous Sports, Pastimes, and Games. By Edward Brooke-Hitching. Touchstone; 272 pages; $24. Simon & Schuster; £12.99.
THE burgeoning sport of footgolf is played just as you might imagine. Players hoof a football around a golf course and attempt to hole the ball in the fewest number of kicks possible. The British Footgolf Association claims it is the fastest-growing sport in Britain, and the second footgolf world cup is due to take place in Argentina in January. But before struggling golf courses begin to widen their holes in anticipation, Edward Brooke-Hitching offers a cautionary tale. In 1929 an American, William Edward Code, invented a new sport, which he modestly named codeball. The rules were all but identical to footgolf. Players had to try to be as economical as possible as they kicked a six-inch ball into holes various distances apart on a fairway. Despite a flurry of early interest, the game failed to catch on.
“Fox Tossing”, a lively trawl through long-forgotten sports and games from around the globe, highlights many honourable but unsuccessful inventions...
No Picnic on Mount Kenya. By Felice Benuzzi. Maclehose Press; 320 pages; £18.99.
BARBED wire is not the best material for making crampons. Over 5,000 metres into the sky, facing blizzards and walls of ice, you want the most secure footwear available. Metal spikes snipped from the rusted fences of a prisoner-of-war camp—and hammered into footplates made from spare car parts—are not ideal for the task.
But Felice Benuzzi did not have the luxury of choosing his equipment. An Italian soldier in the second world war, he spent half a decade in internment camps after British forces took Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia) in 1941. In the years that he passed at P.O.W. Camp 354, just a few days’ trek from Mount Kenya, Africa’s second highest mountain, its snowy peaks taunted him. Occasionally, inmates would slip past the sentries and head for neutral Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique). But Benuzzi, a climber, dreamed only of standing on the top of Batian, the summit of Mount Kenya, just a few miles away. Hoisting an Italian flag there, where only a handful of mountaineers had ever trodden, would...
The Other Paris. By Luc Sante. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; 306 pages; $28. Faber and Faber; £25.
“EVERYTHING is always going away,” Luc Sante writes in “The Other Paris”, a moving and discursive portrait of the city’s poor and bohemian past. “Every way of life is continually subject to disappearance.” And so it would seem to be with Paris—for all that it looks, much more than many other great cities, as if it has been carefully protected from the developments of the modern world. With its stringent building regulations and beautiful boulevards, Paris can seem like a living museum. Mr Sante, conjuring a city that has survived many different kinds of violence before the terrorist attacks of November 13th, reminds the reader that this could not be further from the truth.
A Belgian writer and critic who was educated in America, Mr Sante has made it his life’s work to walk alongside those who never make it to the top of the heap. “Low Life” (1991) painted a vivid portrait of life in New York’s Lower East Side in the 19th and early 20th centuries; not for nothing was he a historical consultant on Martin Scorsese’s...
Mr Bojangles was the best
What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing. By Brian Seibert. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 612 pages; $35.
IT IS not the world’s most sophisticated art form, but tap dancing is a big part of American history. Closely associated with jazz music, tappers use the sounds of their shoes hitting the floor as a form of percussion. According to one dancer, tap was “one of [America’s] two really indigenous forms”, with jazz the other. As late as the 1950s that statement certainly held true. Tappers like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Ginger Rogers are icons of America’s economic and military strength of the 1940s and 1950s. But tap also has a dark side: for many people, it has clear racist overtones.
This complex history needs unpicking. However, studies of tap dancing are few and far between. It is a tall order to write about any sort of dance from before the 20th century; the historian must rely on drawings and eyewitnesses, rather than videos. Tap and its ancestors are particularly difficult to research. They have typically been the preserve of the poor and...
Her feet were made for walking
My Life on the Road. By Gloria Steinem. Random House; 273 pages; $28. Oneworld; £14.99.
MANY young feminists do not know who Gloria Steinem is, which is strange given that she has been at the forefront of women’s rights for nearly half a century. Writer, activist and organiser, Ms Steinem has been a founding member of a number of well-known institutions—the National Women’s Political Caucus, the Ms Foundation and Women Against Pornography, to name just a few. She has written extensively on inequality, from musings on “If Men Could Menstruate” to abortions and the wage gap. Barack Obama acknowledged the importance of her work by awarding her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
Ms Steinem’s memoir, “My Life on the Road”, is her first book in over 20 years. Itinerancy was a characteristic of her early years, and her book focuses on the virtues of travel. Every autumn her father would pack the family into the car and drive across America, funding the trip by bartering and selling antiques on the way. The adventures were disruptive; at first the...
THE ingredients of “Futurity”, a new off-Broadway show, promise a noble failure. The story crams together the bloodiness of the American civil war, the barbarity of slavery, the purity of mathematics, the promise of artificial intelligence and the wisdom of Ada Lovelace (Lord Byron’s daughter, who was an early computer scientist and a metaphysicist). Oh, and it is a musical, with tunes that range from folksy to barnstorming, and lyrics that revel in wonkiness (“What’s the animating force from which intelligence emerges/Is it material in nature or a spiritual convergence?”). Add all of this together and you could get a horrible mess. Instead, “Futurity” is a delight.
The show’s arrival at the Connelly Theatre in New York, where it will play until November 22nd, caps a long journey. “I don’t really like musicals, so I thought maybe I could write one I like,” explains César Alvarez (pictured), the lanky star, who also wrote the book, music and lyrics. He was always drawn to the way music can help tell a story, how it “speaks directly to the emotional part of our brain. It literally shakes the viscera.” But he never cared for the formulaic fare typical...
When Europe was flat on its face
To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949. By Ian Kershaw. Viking; 624 pages; $35. Allen Lane; £30.
FOR Europe, as Ian Kershaw notes in this magisterial history, which came out in Britain in September and is just being published in America, the 20th century was a game of two halves. The first saw a cataclysm that brought down empires, plunged the continent into a deep slump and culminated in the horrors of the second world war. At least for Western Europe, the second was, in contrast, a triumph of peace and prosperity. That distinction may explain why Mr Kershaw has sensibly divided his original assignment to write the 20th-century volume in the Penguin “History of Europe” series into two books, of which this is the first.
His broad picture of what went wrong in Europe in the 20th century is built around four related points. First was the rise of ethnic nationalism, something that helped to doom the multinational empires of Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottomans. Next were demands for territorial revision, between France and Germany, in central and...
The Witches: Salem, 1692. By Stacy Schiff. Little, Brown; 498 pages; $32. Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 512 pages; £20.
“IT WOULD be difficult to name another historical moment so dominated by teenage virgins,” observes Stacy Schiff, in a masterly new account of the Salem witch trails. In 1692 writhing girls in the Massachusetts village of Salem, steeped in Puritan teachings about the devil and perhaps also bored, began hurling charges of witchcraft at village women. Accusations spread swiftly. By the time the crisis ended less than a year later, 14 women and five men had been hanged, and another was crushed to death by stones.
The tale is alternately absurd and heart-rending. Suspects were subject to bodily searches. Witches’ teats could lurk in marks like warts or insect bites, perhaps a conduit for the devil to enter the body. Several of the accused were found to have “a preternatural excrescence of flesh between the pudendum and anus”. The unfortunates were kept chained in cold and dank prisons, where some died. Even a five-year-old was held for several months.
Many asserted their...
Between Debt and the Devil: Money, Credit, and Fixing Global Finance. By Adair Turner. Princeton University Press; 302 pages; $29.95 and £19.95.
THE hangover from the debt crisis of 2007-08 can still be felt. Developed economies are growing sluggishly and central banks are maintaining a policy of near-zero interest rates. Debt is still a huge burden on the Western economies, and politicians are arguing about how to deal with it.
Adair Turner was one of the regulators who had to deal with the fallout from the crisis. A classic technocrat, with spells in management consulting and investment banking and as head of the Confederation of British Industry, a lobby group, he took charge of the Financial Services Authority, Britain’s regulator, on September 20th 2008. Only days before, Lehman Brothers had collapsed. He has now reflected on the causes of a crisis that he freely admits he did not see approaching. The problem, he argues, lies in the nature of credit creation.
Most new credit is created by the commercial banking system. In simple economic models, banks take deposits from...
All For Nothing. By Walter Kempowski. Translated by Anthea Bell. Granta; 343 pages; £14.99.
WALTER KEMPOWSKI was one of Germany’s finest post-war writers, though he always lived in the shadow of Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll, both Nobel laureates. Dominating his oeuvre is “Echo Soundings”, ten volumes of eyewitness accounts of the second world war. Yet he was also a talented novelist, his reputation cemented by “All for Nothing”, the last novel he wrote before he died in 2007, which is now translated into English for the first time.
The book is set in January 1945 and centres on a manor house in Prussia, the residence of the wealthy von Globig family. The mistress of the household is Katharina, who leads a quiet life of leisure at a civilised remove from the world outside. But wider events are about to intrude, with fiery glows on the horizon and the reverberations of shellfire heralding the arrival of the Red Army. Daily life is deteriorating as theft and looting gather momentum, despite ruthless punishment by the authorities. Katharina’s husband Eberhard is a Wehrmacht officer in Italy, so the fraught decision of when to flee is hers alone.
Kempowski’s treatment of this dark material is often surprisingly mischievous. Irony shines through his narration as his characters cling onto numbingly petty concerns despite...
The Song Machine. By John Seabrook. Norton; 338 pages; $26.95. Jonathan Cape; £18.99.
EVERY musical genre has its canon: Bach and Mozart for classical, Armstrong and Parker for jazz, Dylan and the Beatles for rock, Biggie and Tupac for hip-hop. Only pop music—the “bubble gum” or “teenybop” tunes played on nightclub dance floors and Top 40 radio—lacks similar critical analysis and acclaim. True, Michael Jackson has been given his due. But it took an early death for the public to value his contributions fully. And no one would mention today’s “manufactured” stars, such as Katy Perry (pictured) or Miley Cyrus, in the same breath as the King of Pop.
John Seabrook takes another tack. “The Song Machine”, a history of the past 20 years of pop music, takes for granted two assumptions, both convincingly demonstrated via a highly engaging narrative. The most basic is that modern “earworm” pop is a high art form, as worthy of appreciation as any other: he calls Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” “magnificent”, for example, and the “hooks” (catchy, repeated snippets of melody) in Rihanna’s “Umbrella” are “wonderful”...
So, here’s the logic
Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century. By Alistair Horne. Harper; 400 pages; $28.99. Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 304 pages; £25.
SIR ALISTAIR HORNE is a wise old bird. One of the British historian’s many books, an account of the Algerian war and its bitter aftermath, was seized upon by a beleaguered president, George W. Bush, four years into the American occupation of Iraq as a source of sound advice in dealing with brutal insurgencies. Summoned to the Oval Office in 2007, more than 30 years after the publication of “A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-72”, it is likely that the ever-courteous Sir Alistair refrained from saying that the best counsel he could have given Mr Bush was not to go into Iraq in the first place. His latest book, published in the author’s 91st year, is a reflection on military hubris and the part it played in 20th-century conflicts.
For the ancient Greeks, hubris was the folly of a leader who through excessive self-confidence challenged the gods. It was always followed by peripeteia...
Fog is for the birds
London Fog: A Biography. By Christine Corton. Belknap Press; 391 pages; $35 and £22.95.
JOHN EVELYN, a 17th-century diarist, lamented the “Stink and Darknesse” of London, and suggested moving smoke-producing industry out, beyond a sweet-smelling hedge to be planted round the city. In the 18th century Joseph Haydn found London’s fog so thick “one might have spread it on bread”. But it was not until the 1830s, when the city’s population exceeded 2m, that London fog became the famous sulphurous pea-souper.
London, in its river basin ringed by hills, has always had what the Scots call “dreich”; cold, wet winter mists that in early November led to flights being cancelled at Heathrow. Pea-soup fogs were quite different; they were so polluted with soot from domestic and industrial coal fires that people coughed up black mucus. As the Times put it in 1853, London’s fogs converted “the human larynx into an ill-swept chimney”. In 1921 a sample cubic inch of air contained 340,000 sooty particles. One of the last great fogs,...
My Way: Berlusconi in His Own Words. By Alan Friedman. Biteback; 300 pages; £20.
THE subtitle of Alan Friedman’s new book on Silvio Berlusconi is misleading. Mr Friedman was granted unrivalled access to his subject: “over 100 hours of meetings, videotaped interviews and conversations”. Yet Mr Berlusconi’s words comprise but a fraction of the text. The rest is Mr Friedman, plus a team of “editorial staff, researchers and fact-checkers”. The writing of Mr Berlusconi’s authorised biography, for that is what it is, seems to have been an enterprise of appropriately extravagant proportions.
The author, formerly a Financial Times correspondent in Mr Berlusconi’s native Milan, says he warned his subject that the book would not be a hagiography. And the author takes care to balance the magnate-turned-politician’s account of his life with other versions. He quotes extensively the former prime minister, his associates and others with whom Mr Berlusconi came into generally friendly contact, but any alternative narrative of his life is made to seem questionable.