Letters To The Editor

Letters from subscribers about the editorial content of The Browser should be sent by email to editor@thebrowser.com. We will ordinarily publish a letter without the writer's name; if you would like to have your letter attributed, please say so when writing. We may edit letters for relevance and clarity — Robert


Female novelists

4th November 2022

In a letter to Browser subscribers this week I recommended novels that I had found enjoyable as "comfort reading". All were by white men of a certain age: Richard Ford was 62 when he published Lay Of The Land in 2006; Anthony Trollope was 56 when he published The Eustace Diamonds in 1871; John Le Carré completed Silverview in 2020 before his death at the age of 89.  

A number of subscribers wrote to me expressing surprise and dismay that I had recommended novels by men only. One letter which gave me much pause for thought came from Mary Ann Sieghart, this year's Chair of Judges for the Women’s Prize For Fiction. With her permission, I reproduce our exchange below.

— Robert Cottrell


From Mary Ann Sieghart to Robert Cottrell, 2nd November 2022

I enjoyed your Browser email on comfort reading, but I can’t help pointing out that you’ve only recommended fiction by male authors. I’m sure this wasn’t a conscious decision, but as the Chair of Judges for the Women’s Prize For Fiction this year, I can assure you that women make very great novelists!

One of my bugbears, as I set out in my book, The Authority Gap, is that while we women will read just as many books by men as by women, men tend not to return the favour. On average, they read four books by a man for every book by a woman. Why? Women are just as good writers as men, and research by Goodreads finds that men actually give slightly higher ratings to books by women than to books by men. So it’s not as if they won’t or don’t enjoy them. This summer, I launched a #menreadingwomen campaign in the The Guardian.

Perhaps you could redress the balance by writing your next newsletter about your favourite books by women? You might, by the way, love this year’s Women’s Prize winner: The Book Of Form And Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki. It’s clever, funny, original and philosophical. — Mary Ann Sieghart


From Robert Cottrell to Mary Ann Sieghart, 3rd November 2022

Thank you for writing. I have followed the reception of your book with admiration. I agree with everything that you say here (and there).

I didn't develop the point about old white males in this particular piece only because I felt (and, I see now, wrongly) my shortcoming was so painfully clear. For comfort reading, I am at home with old white males because I am myself of that demographic. These books are all, to some degree, tales of old white male privilege.

For reading and writing in principle and in general I want universality, because I value honesty above all, and I think a writer can only be honest about the life which they know and the world in which they live. I want to read people writing about the identity that they feel.

I saw on every page my own bias towards male writers when I was editing The Browser on my own until 2019. I did not want or intend to favour male writers and yet I did so.

Happily, since Caroline Crampton took over as editor-in-chief, and I have become her colleague, I hope between us we have been achieving a better balance.

My weekly letters generally go out only to a small group of Browser subscribers who have asked to receive them; I think on this occasion I pushed a wrong button and sent the letter to everyone. My record has been better over time than this isolated letter might suggest. Most of my previous letter was about books by Caroline Elkins, that of the week before was largely about a book by M.E. Sarotte.

I may even be an outlier from your general rule, in preferring novels written by women over novels written by men, at least in new literary fiction. By "preferring", I mean, more willing to give a book a try, more willing to make a speculative purchase, with a greater expectation of enjoyment. In recent weeks I have been reading Lauren Oyler, Hermione Hoby, Jenny Offill, Jenny Erpenbeck, Rebecca Goldstein, Katie Kitamura and Kate Atkinson. I have discussed books by Goldstein and Atkinson in recent letters; likewise Iris Murdoch's novels, which I appreciate no longer count as "new"; but I do wonder, when I read Murdoch, whether I am encountering in her fiction a mirror-image of what a female reader might feel when reading a book by a male novelist — in the case of Murdoch, with respect to her male characters, the outer behaviour is plausible, but the inner life does not really add up.

I will read the Ruth Ozeki, of course. The only book I have so far read from your 2022 Prize shortlist is Louise Erdrich's The Sentence, which was wonderful, so if the Ozeki tops that, I have a treat ahead. Of last year's list I loved Piranesi, if not quite as much as I had Jonathan Strange; and in some ways I enjoyed the Patricia Lockwood more. From years gone by, Naomi Alderman's The Power made a tremendous impression on me, one of those books which changed the way I thought about the world. — Robert Cottrell


Mary Ann Sieghart to Robert Cottrell, 4th November 2022

I’m so glad you enjoy contemporary female novelists. I didn’t have you down as one of those men who only read books by men, which was why I was surprised and felt I had to write to you. I agree with you about Iris Murdoch, by the way, except that I find the inner life of her female characters as implausible as that of her male ones! — Mary Ann Sieghart


The Endowment of Princeton

3rd October 2022

Editors - As an enthusiastic daily reader of The Browser’s recommendations, I was disappointed to see the truly appalling Malcolm Gladwell piece, not only linked in the first place but also highlighted in the Sunday quiz.

The Browser’s summary in the quiz reads “The endowment of Princeton is now approaching $39 billion, from which the annual income alone would be enough for the university to educate all its students for free and still bank an unspent surplus of about $2 billion each year.”

Oh dear, no!  Here are the two big mistakes in Gladwell’s calculation:

  1. Gladwell relies on a historical average return, without adjusting for inflation – that is, a nominal return. If Princeton continues to earn that same nominal return and spends it each year, it will maintain its nominal spending constant but will not keep up with inflation.  This is a particularly serious problem in higher education, where it is well known that costs grow faster than average because higher education does not benefit from the technological improvements that drive down the costs of smartphones and flat-screen TVs.  The Higher Education Price Index (HEPI) has had inflation of 3% or more in recent years (before the pandemic and global resurgence of inflation) so at least this much must be subtracted from Gladwell’s return if one wants to calculate the spending that Princeton can indefinitely sustain.
  2. Gladwell uses Princeton’s average return over the last 20 years, rounding down slightly to 10%.  This ignores the fact that the prices of all long-term assets (stocks, bonds, real estate, etc.) have been driven up during this period by a massive decline in long-term real interest rates from about 4% at the turn of the millennium to a negative value in 2021 when he ends his analysis.  The decline in real interest rates is a sign that future returns will be lower than normal, not higher as they temporarily were during the transition.  Certainly one cannot expect another 4 percentage point decline in interest rates to boost returns in the next 20 years – that particular piece of luck has run out.  Most US universities assume they can earn a 5% real return going forward, and in my view even that is too optimistic: 4% would be more reasonable.

Of course, correcting Gladwell’s calculation doesn’t alter the fact that Princeton is a very wealthy university.  Even 5% x $37.7 billion = $1.885 billion which is roughly Princeton’s current operating cost.  But the final problem with his article is that he thinks people give money to Princeton and similar universities to pay for current operations.  No, they make donations to expand the operations of the university, creating new buildings, research institutes, etc.  There is no reason why that should not continue even if Princeton has a large enough endowment to cover its current operating costs indefinitely.

Finally, I strongly object to the tone of writing like this:

“This breakthrough happened quietly, as many epochal events often do, buried in a press release issued by the school on October 29, 2021. Why was the breakthrough ignored until now? I cannot say for certain, except that perhaps few observers of America’s educational system are as unhealthily obsessed with the fine print of Ivy League press releases as I am.

But when I read the news, I will tell you in all candor, I gasped in shock. For years I’ve been quietly predicting that this moment would someday come. And now it has.”

Malcolm Gladwell wants you to believe he’s a solitary genius who can see things that escape others.  He doesn’t ask himself if he might just be out of his depth.  I’m sorry that The Browser gave so much free publicity to this inferior and irritating piece of work.

- John Campbell, Morton L. and Carole S. Olshan Professor of Economics, Harvard University


The Naming of Numbers

12th December 2021

Editors - Regarding the Sunday Supplement puzzle, 12th December 2021 -

🗣️
If you were to put all the numbers from zero to infinity in alphabetical order what number would come second? — from Difficult Logic Puzzles by M Prefontaine (solution available in supplement)

"If you list all the number from zero to infinity in alphabetical order, what would be the second number..." is interesting because it automatically leads you to assume something when you look at the answer: that you mean whole numbers and whole numbers only. Then the answer makes sense. Unless...

If you THEN start to think about how whole numbers are named, especially around the world, it means you need to include "billiard" when talking about either the long-scale trillion or short-scale quadrillion. I acknowledge it is only used in English very rarely, but it's still worth considering if you love numbers. So "eight billiard" comes before "eight billion".

But what if you start to include fractions? Well, then I believe you have to think again. Depending on how you write a number, with, for example, "two and a half", "a third" or "a hundred" being fairly standard, you instantly have a number of numbers that fit between eight and eight billion (or indeed eight and eight billiard). "Eight and a..." will be after "eight", and I feel that "eight and a billionth" (if you are going to discard "billiard") comes next.

Of course NOW we have to consider the fractions between zero and one and the way they are written, e.g. "a half", in which case we move rapidly away from anything to do with "eight" - being "an eighth", "an eighteenth", an "eightieth" and so on - and shift to some very small numbers such as "a billionth" or indeed "a billiardth". If you allow both of these then I think "a billiardth" is first and "a billionth" is next (even I am going to bypass phrases such as "a billionth billionth" as there is a correct word for it).

However (and at this point you'll be VERY glad to hear, almost finally) if anything to do with "billiard" is out of bounds but fractions ARE included, then I think (but am happy to be proved wrong, as are all good scientists) that "a billionth" is first and "a centillionth" is second.

I do have to accept all of this is academic if you write fractions as, say, "two and one half" or "one third" (i.e. "one" in place of "a"), in which case we are back to "eight" and "eight billion", which I am pretty sure why "billion" isn't the first number as it is classed as "one billion" rather than "a billion" or just "billion" on its own. Indeed if you happen to post this, I can already imagine the snorts of derision at me assuming "a" can be used instead of "one" in numbers of any kind.

 -  Stephen Yeardley


Global Capitalism

15th November 2021

Editors -  Ajay Singh Chaudhary’s polemic against global capitalism seems to me a bit unbalanced. As a one-time professional economist, I would agree that capitalism was in the room when many of the social, economic and ecological problems we face today were coming to the boil, but as in any who-done-it, being in the room is hardly enough to prove guilt.

Besides, it was also in the room when a number of positive developments were playing out. The fall in global poverty rates over the past 40 or 50 years as noted many times by the World Bank and the fall in global violence over a longer period as noted by Stephen Pinker.

And there are some inherent positive characteristics to global capitalism, or “free markets,” as its less harsh critics sometimes refer to it. It is diverse and decentralized. It allows for variety and individual choice.

That is not to say that inequality and the other problems Chaudhary lights upon aren’t real. But what is his solution? I really couldn’t figure that out. Some capitalists are quite powerful, but nothing like as powerful as state actors can be: witness Xi’s recent crackdown. In fact, capitalism has been a counterweight to tyranny as often as it has been its bedfellow.

The conventional economist’s response to our current global woes may be less eye-catching than a lusty polemic — more like keyhole surgery and less like decapitation. It is a combination of regulation, and taxes that address inequality and externalities. A modified capitalism; what you might call free markets with guard rails; freedom constrained by politics and policy to the minimum extent needed to address inequality, environmental degradation and our other ills. That involves a massive change agenda with many hurdles to be overcome, but it also offers a more positive vision of our destiny than simply ranting against the world and implying that the way forward is to destroy everything we have.

  – Charles Taylor


Illiers

5th September 2021

Editors - Regarding the Sunday supplement quiz, 5th September 2021 - Sorry, but it's not in Normandy.  Proust’s Illiers, now officially known as Illiers-Combray, is about 20 miles from Chartres, in the Eure-et-Loir department, about 70 miles SW of Paris. He did write a good deal about a town in Normandy he called Balbec, based on Cabourg—which is (thank you, Google) 166 miles west of Illiers-Combray.

 - Laurel Wilson


Marc Ribot

18th August 2021

Editors - Whist certainly one to make some incredibly noisy music (Yo! I Killed Your God) calling Marc Ribot a noise guitarist (Poet, Place, Noise, Mars, Rays) is a great disservice to his incomparable contributions to jazz and avant garde music.

From Los Cubanos Postizos to The Lounge Lizards to his Shoe String Symphonettes he's continually shown that his guitar playing is extremely versatile and among the best around. Pigeon holing him as a noise guitarist serves to diminish his incredible musicality and technical ability.


Bringing Up Baby

18th July 2021

Editors - I am enjoying the latest developments to the Sunday edition of The Browser, and note with some delight that I am able to make a slight factual emendation to the second of the week’s quiz questions (The Sunday Supplement, 18th July): by the dialogue in Bringing Up Baby, it seems that three days have passed with Susan following the dog around her aunt’s estate before she is able to retrieve the missing ‘intercostal clavicle,’ which ended with the dog presenting Susan the bone in question as a gift. Only then does she come to the workplace to deliver the news that a) the bone has been found, and b) the million dollar gift to the museum will be made after all. Declarations of love are then exchanged, and only then does the brontosaurus skeleton collapse, leaving our leads in the scaffolding.


Hay bales

14th July 2021

Editors - I'm a regular reader and just wanted to check the provenance of the Romanian hay article. I ask because cone shaped hay bales are common across northern Europe, and it's not clear from the article what the special significance of the Romanian approach is? See for example, http://katewritesandreads.blogspot.com/2016/07/a-time-to-reap-2-how-to-make-haystack.html?m=1 or http://deborahheal.com/making-hay-1788/

 - Amit Kamal


Battle of Talas

27th June 2021

Editors - Regarding The Sunday Supplement quiz, 27th June -  Sorry to point this out but it was the Abbasids who won at Talas, their general (probably not an Arab) had helped oust the Ummayids shortly before.

Their army was largely composed of Persians and Turkic groups. They were allied with the Tibetans against Tang expansionism.


Violent crime vs. Murder

28th June 2021

Editors – The homicide/crime graph below is an example of misleading statistical presentation. In the form of an annualized line chart, the reader is led to believe that the prior year there was 10% Homicide but in 2020 there was 25% — that’s 2.5x the amount of murder and we should be terrified! In fact, the chart represents that in 2020, the annual change from the year prior was +10%. In 2021 it is +25% from the year before, but drawing a progression line between the two does not show the change in rate of homicide, but rather the 2nd derivative of homicide rates (the rate at which the rate of change is changing)… it’s useful or statistical analysis but 2nd derivatives are designed to grossly exaggerated a trend for analysis.

Futhermore, the chart is ambiguous as how the 2021 figure is determined. Is it a projection based on current rates? Is it where we already are in 2021? Or some other formulation?  We can’t actually answer these questions because the original source linked to for the chart does not cite its own methodology or link to a data set beyond broadly crediting “FBI”.

   – Andrew Cafourek


Caligula

2nd May 2021

Editors – In your reference to the podcast “Little Boots” (Rhodes, Punk, Caligula, Strike, Pox) the emperor in question is not Nero, but Caligula, a name that translates as little boots.

Thanks for a most useful and informative service.

  – Barry Bedrick


Nuclear Energy

30th April 2021

Editors — As a reader working in the energy industry, I always love to see related content coming through in your excellent curation. I also enjoy that you don't hesitate to recommend non-mainstream viewpoints.

The nuclear viewpoint in the article you listed is common (popularised by Freakonomics) where typically non-energy experts make the case for nuclear in a variety of ways, but start by glossing over the assumption that we need it. In this article it was done with the following sentence:

"Nuclear power is the sword that can cut it: a scalable source of dispatchable (i.e., on-demand), virtually emissions-free energy. It takes up very little land, consumes very little fuel, and produces very little waste. It‘s the technology the world needs to solve both energy poverty and climate change"

This is not really true. The short answer to why we don't have lots of new-build nuclear power is that we now have alternatives that are cheaper and do the job better.

It would be great to see that opposing viewpoint come through in a counterpoint to help inform other readers, since it's commonly misunderstood (understandably - a lot of energy content out there is written by entrenched interests and it's not easy to find good analysis from objective viewpoints). Let me know if you would like specific recommendations on articles. Otherwise, the clues to look for are "dispatchable renewables" and "why baseload generation is a myth".

  – Andrew Payne


Economic Freedom In China

5th March 2021

Editors — Matt Ridley's take on innovation in China (Discourse) is astonishingly bad. The author claims that:

— China no longer copies intellectual property (no nation or company outside China would agree);
— that China leads the world in Internet use (sure, as long as you’re happy to use the domestic Internet, because the prominent non-Chinese apps and websites and services are all blocked inside China);
— that Chinese infrastructure development is the envy of the world (if so, that is a by-product of complete state control and the unfettered use of eminent domain);
— that there is general acceptance of a work ethic in which entrepreneurs flog their employees 9:9:6 (ask the workers about that);
— that a Chinese entrepreneur "faces almost none of the delays and restrictions that a Western one does. He is not required to get permits, licences and go-aheads from multiple beadles and bureaucrats of the state. He just gets on with it: hires new researchers, builds a new production line, sets up a new company".

This last claim is ludicrous. The enormous Chinese bureaucracy and the administrators of its well-developed legal system would surely disagree.


America And China

2nd February 2021

Editors — The Longer Telegram (Atlantic Council) was a fascinating article. Thank you for including it. However, it also left me thinking: "As a non-expert, I could easily be swayed by this forcefully and authoritatively stated argument. I need to find a counter argument". Daniel Larison, in American Conservative, provides a thought-provoking counterpoint.


The Limits Of Cynicism

25th January 2021

Editors — A different editorial direction seems to be needed if you have reached the point of including someone like Curtis Yarvin (Gray Mirror) as deserving of a hearing. Yarvin is a fairly standard-issue neo-fascist. His supposed "cynicism" that "allows no place for the possibility of virtue or sincerity in others" is the least of his offenses, and makes him sound merely misguided or mistaken.

The world is becoming a tinderbox in which forces gathered by Yarvin and people like him are exceptionally dangerous. With irreparable and catastrophic damage from climate change looming along with the need for collective action, there is no remaining room for error or lost time. Writing like Yarvin's should not be indulged and platformed just because it seems amusing or clever, which it isn't. It is time for writing that is serious, not for writing that merely seems novel, fresh, clever or even eloquent.


Britain And Europe

17th September 2020

Editors — Edward White (Paris Review) is incorrect to say that the British people voted in 1975 to enter the EEC. In fact they voted to stay in the EEC. Prime Minister Edward Heath had taken the UK into the EEC in January 1973. When Labour won the 1974 General Election Prime Minister Harold Wilson held a referendum to decide whether to remain in the EEC or leave. The majority of people voted to stay in the UK. Hope someone can inform Mr White of his error!


Siege Of The Third Precinct

25th June 2020

Editors — Seizing a police station (Crimethinc) isn't "protest" or civil disobedience. It's a needless act of violence that easily could cause substantial loss of life. I doubt you'd be glorifying such behavior if it spread to your neighborhood. Too bad we forgot how effective non-violence can be. MLK and Gandhi managed to lead two of the most significant revolutions in human history.


Truth And Bellingcat

7th June 2020

Editors — Despite being a lawyer of [many] years experience and having lots of other Establishment-type background, I now find myself much more aligned on the weightier issues from the same kind of perspective as Pilger, Chomsky et al. I am not a conspiracy theorist, and I try to start from basic principles on every question.

So, as to Bellingcat (Guardian) I start from their reportage itself. Much of it on Syria I found wholly unbelievable and simply flying in the face of facts. When I began to dig deeper into the likes of Media Lens, Craig Murray, Ben Norton, Mark Curtis, Ray McGovern, Consortium News, David Graeber etc etc I began to see a broader picture of state interference all over the place.

Consider, for example, the alleged chemical attack by Assad at Douma in April 2018. The Media Lens report on it is telling. Towards the end of Part 1 you can see a trail of points about Bellingcat and Elliot Higgins. Even the Bellingcat website asserts that it works in partnership with the National Endowment for Democracy, which touts itself as “a keystone of President Ronald Reagan’s legacy”.

I could refer you to more pieces, but it seems to me a matter of whether it seems convincing to you at all. If you dismiss such criticisms as part of the “loony left” or “David Icke-type” flat-earthism, then probably not much I can say will persuade you to the contrary. Have a look for yourself and see what you think. The writers I cite above are all worth checking out—they are all serious journalists, academics or ex-government. A quick Google (or DuckDuckGo) search will take you there.

For my part, I see nothing particularly wrong in directing readers to a Bellingcat site, but I think it worth pointing out to them that his views are “contested”, along the lines one sees in Wikipedia articles that are especially disputed.


(Letters concerning Dave Grossman’s “sheep and wolves” theory of policing have their own page here)

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