December 30th, 2018


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Freddie Mercury: An Illustrated Biography, by Mark Blake

Second paragraph of third chapter:
A few entries earlier, though, [in Roger Taylor's April 1970 diary] the group was considering another name, Build Your Own Boat, for which Roger had designed a logo. The drummer shook his head at the memory. 'Thank God that idea was abandoned.'
A kind relative, having seen my review of Bohemian Rhapsody, decided that I needed this for Christmas, and she was right. It's not terribly deep - a 200-page survey of Freddie Mercury's life and career, lavishly illustrated, doesn't have a lot of space to get into profound analysis of what he and his colleagues were trying to achieve with their music, but to Blake's credit he doesn't pretend to be doing anything more than running through the high points (and low points) and giving a few pointers to what else was going on. And the pictures are gorgeous; the camera loved him, and even in the snapshots of his pre-fame personality he rather glows.

The book's account of Farookh Bulsara's childhood was pretty interesting. The whole world knows that he was a brought up as a Zoroastrian in Zanzibar; it was news to me that he had attended boarding school in India (demonstrating yet again that the Indian Ocean is a corridor, not a barrier), and then when the family moved to London, their new home was not quite two km from the hotel where we held the most recent 2019 Worldcon planning meeting. I never came close to seeing him live, though some people I knew the summer I worked in Germany did go to the 1986 Mannheim concert (and complained about it, and I have to agree that in the footage his voice is clearly under strain).

Anyway, if I wanted to find out more about his life and work, I'm sure there are more comprehensive sources; this pretty much scratched my itch, and entertained me with the photographs as well. You can get it here.

Factfulness, by Hans Rosling

Second paragraph of third chapter:
The researchers had collected all the Ebola data since the start of the epidemic and used it to calculate the expected number of new cases per day up to the end of October. They showed, for the first time, that the number of cases was not just increasing along a straight line: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Instead, the number was doubling like this: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16. Each infected person was infecting, on average, two more people before dying. As a result, the number of new cases per day was doubling every three weeks. The graph showed how enormous the outbreak would soon become if each infected person kept infecting two more. Doubling is scary!
I was a huge fan of the videos of Hans Rosling, who died in March 2017; and I write as one who generally hates vlogging (even though I have indulged in it myself occasionally). In Factfulness, the book he rushed to complete with his son and daughter-in-law when he learned he was dying, he calls on us all to engage critically with news stories and perceptions about the world - particularly about the state of humanity as a whole, most of all the developing economies. The concept of 'Factfulness', clearly intended as a close relative of mindfulness, is defined as :
the stress-reducing habvit of only carrying opinions for which you have strong supporting facts.
He repeatedly makes the effective point that most people - including the rich, privileged and well-informed - perform less well on a basic test about the state of the world than would a chimpanzee selecting answers at random.

If I can boil it down, his first key message is that things are better than they were, but that should not deter us from making them better still. In particular, humanity is healthier, more prosperous, safer and more peaceful than it has ever been, and the greatest improvements have been made in countries which were desperately poor decades ago and have caught up since. BUT, his second key message is that news reports naturally concentrate on the drama of failure and crisis, so it's easy to get the impression that the world is going to hell; improvements are generally gradual (not always - there is the striking case of the recent decrease in birthrate in Iran, for instance, which of course received no international media coverage) while disasters, epidemics and wars fit the news cycle. HOWEVER, thirdly there is a real climate crisis, but we must be careful not to exaggerate it; the facts themselves are worrying enough, without resorting to worst-case scenarios or irrelevant issues (and he has plenty of cites for those).

I find this all very attractive. If we are looking for a framework to push back against fake news, Rosling's fact-based approach is a very good place to start. but also, if we are trying to get to grips with crises (of which climate change is clearly the most drastic), it's very helpful to be able to point to the progress that has already been made as well as the further steps that are demanded. Certainly I find it easier to be motivated by the thought of building on previous good work than the notion of crusading against an inevitable fate.

Rosling's skill at visual and verbal presentation is very sadly missed. Here are several of his shorter videos, and here are several of the longer ones by him and colleagues. I found it very difficult to choose just one as illustrative, but here's his TED talk in Qatar on the relationship between religion and fertility rates. (Spoiler: he doesn't think there is much of one.)
Highly recommended. You can get it here.

This was my top unread non-fiction book. Next on that pile is The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan.