Jan 13 2019

Book review: Justinguitar.com Beginner’s Course by Justin Sandercoe

This review is a bit of a departure for me, it is of beginners_courseJustinguitar.com Beginner’s Course by Justin Sandercoe.

I’m a big fan of book learning, so when I decided to learn how to play the guitar a book was the obvious place to start. To be honest I picked the justinguitar.com book largely because it was ring-bound, a quick search reveals many other options but envisaging how I would use the book a ring-bound version seemed to make sense.

It turns out this somewhat arbitrary method of selection has worked out quite well. The book is accompanied by a substantial website (https://www.justinguitar.com/), which includes free video versions of the lessons in this book, amongst much other, mainly video, material. The videos are typically less than 10 minutes long, which is ideal. Looking around similar video courses Justin Sandercoe is, by comparison, clearly a very good teacher. His videos are quite casual in their feel but focussed and well put together. There are also purely app based guitar course but that seemed a bit modern for my tastes.

The book is divided into 9 stages, in each stage new chords are introduced as well as associated techniques, such as rhythm patterns and in the later stages scales and fingerstyle picking. A key element of learning chords is “fingering”, which finger goes where.

I got on really well with the chord change aspect of each stage, you’re invited to record how many chord changes you can do in a minute – which is absolutely my thing! I have a spreadsheet recording how my pace has increased over time. I have made satisfying progress. I also feel somewhat triumphant that I can do apparently notorious F-barre chord although don’t ask me to change to and from any other chord at any great rate.

There is an associated songbook, each stage enables a few different songs. I haven’t made a great deal of use of this yet. I found each stage came with a list of 10 songs but I didn’t know which to focus on to improve my skills. Possibly the answer is “any of them”, choose the ones that appeal to your musical taste.

The emphasis is very much on the rhythm side of guitar playing which isn’t where crowd pleasing showing off lies. Sandercoe does have videos showing you how to play classic guitar riffs (like Smoke on the Water, Seven Nation Army, Creep) but these aren’t included in the book. I found these more motivating than the songbook.

It has taken me a couple of months to get through the first 6 stages of the book. I’ve jumped ahead for a few things – starting to play scales, experimenting with fingerstyle playing and playing a 12-bar blues shuffle. As it stands my chord change rate is a bit lower than the goal for the whole book and I’m not very good at strumming and changing chords, certainly not strumming anything but the simplest patterns.

Learning chords from the book works really well. I found learning strumming patterns required the CD sound tracks at the very least and really needed the video lessons, certainly for the more complex patterns.

Beginner’s Course includes listening exercises at each stage, I must admit I didn’t do well with these. I practiced them using an unrelated app which probably didn’t help – I felt I wasn’t making progress. The focus of the app was very much on the speed at which you could recognise chords rather than accuracy.

There’s a little bit of music theory included in this beginners course – simple stuff relating to where notes appear on the guitar fretboard but there’s no real discussion of how chords are constructed and the relevance of musical scales and chord progressions. I’ve looked elsewhere for this since I’m interested, I think Sandercoe actually introduces quite a lot of this material indirectly.

What I’ve really enjoyed in playing guitar has been managing to do a recognisable rendition of Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes within a couple of weeks, playing the 12-bar blues shuffle from the beginners course book, making a passable attempt at Creep by Radiohead. I think my next task is to hunt out the videos for songs that Sandercoe has done which appeal to me and give me motivation to practice some key skills. At the moment I have my eyes on Smells Like Teen Spirit (power chords), Jolene (finger style playing). Hey Joe (riffs), Thunderstruck (fast, simple riffs). It helps that these tracks will impress the girl in my life (Mrs H, aged the same as me).

This review is different from most of my book reviews, it is more about how this beginners course works for me than a review of the book in itself. Learning to play the guitar competently is the work of years, this book is a good start on the path.

Jan 06 2019

Book review: Mapping Society by Laura Vaughan

mapping_societyMy next review is of Mapping Society: The Spatial Dimensions of Social Cartography by Laura Vaughan. This book covers four broad themes around mapping which are presented in the order in which they first occurred. As well as discussing contemporary material there is some re-analysis in terms of “space syntax”. This is a modern theory of urban spaces which measures things like accessibility and connectedness for road layouts. This feels very familiar to me since I use a similar approach to estimate the age of buildings on the basis of street layout.  

The first theme is the disease map: maps of deaths due to disease, typically during epidemic outbreaks. Snow’s map of cholera deaths around the Broad Street pump in 1853 is the best known of these. His innovation was to use the map to identify the cause of cholera as being waterborne, and to use the map as a device for presenting his case. At the time the prevailing theory of disease was that it was airborne – the miasma theory. Snow’s map was not the first of its type though. Vaughan, wisely, doesn’t get into the discussion of the “first” such map but presents Seaman’s map of yellow fever deaths in New York, dating from 1797 as an early example. She cites a study finding 53 published maps of cholera deaths by 1832.

These maps of disease were used as to motivate the introduction of sanitation laws which became widespread during the middle years of the 19th century.

The second theme is poverty. Maps of disease often included data on sanitation and also poverty. Charles Booth’s work on London towards the end of the 19th century is the most notable in this area, his initial study was repeated 10 years later and then a further 30 years on in a separate survey. The novelty here was to measure levels of poverty in some sort of quantitative way, for this he is sometimes called the first social scientist. The fears of society at the time were that ” the poor” formed a cohesive mass that could rise up. Booth showed this was not the case, the poor were poor in many different ways and for different reasons. Poverty was often found in close proximity to wealth. Work like Booth’s was used to motivate changes in building regulation. Booth observed that irregularity of income was important as well as absolute level. One of the observations from this period is that areas of poverty, often identified at the scale of households, where correlated with inaccessibility – being off the beaten track. The poor were not found on the main streets but rather tucked away in poor housing set back behind better accommodation. New infrastructure such as canals and railways could introduce new pockets of inaccessibility – leading to poverty, or at least attracting the poor to areas thus cut off.

Booth’s work helped to motivate slum clearances and ultimately social security policies such as state pensions. Slum clearances proved to be a mixed benefit, all to often the slum is replaced with more desirable accommodation which displaces the original occupants to be replaced by the slightly more wealthy. The problems that the urban environment engenders can be very persistent. The spatial distribution of deaths in Paris due to cholera in 1849 are quite similar to those from the heatwave of 2003.

The third theme was nationality, race and immigration. These arose around the end of the 19th century, in both San Francisco’s Chinatown area, where the outcome was pretty malign in that Chinese immigration was banned and also in the East End of London, where there was a large influx of Jewish immigrants who came as a result of the Russian progroms. The book cites the Venice Jewish Ghetto, founded in the 16th century and where we get the word “ghetto” from. In the US there were maps of race, W.E.B. du Bois, himself an African-American pioneered this work in Philadelphia.  

The final theme is crime, in fact much of this chapter is about licensed premises. In the latter half of the 19th century the drinking habits of the working classes were of intense concern. In the US this concern eventually led to Prohibition but both the UK and US had temperance movements. In the more distant past, public houses and bars served as the “front room” for poorer families. Their own homes were quite probably overcrowded, unheated and insanitary – the local pub was a warm pleasant place to spend any free time. They were also a place to find work, both legal and illegal.

Vaughan highlights that we don’t see maps of the form found in the 19th century in the late 20th century. Typically maps from this later period are on a larger scale, we don’t see data presented at such high spatial resolution but they cover a wider area. For example, the national census in the UK typically presents data at the Lower Super Output Area scale which covers approximately 1000 dwellings. Sometimes data is available at postcode level, such as the Police.UK crime data, a postcode will typically contain approximately 30 addresses. Devices such as mobile phones mean that high resolution data collection at scale is feasible with more modest resources than previously required. However, we would not publish the data in the manner of the 19th century maps because it is personal information, essentially maps such as Booth’s and Snow’s identify individuals including there health and wealth status.

Mapping Society is a beautifully produced book, with colour figures throughout rather than relegated to central pages, it gives some background to those iconic maps with which many of us are familiar. 

Dec 22 2018

Book review: What’s your type? by Merve Emre

whats_your_type.What’s your type? by Merve Emre is described well by it’s subtitle “The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing”. It is the story of Katherine Cook Myers (1875-1968) and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers (1897-1980) who developed the test based on the foundations her mother laid.

The Myers-Brigg Test presents users with a set of forced choice questions which it then converts into 16 personality types based on four axes: introversion/extraversion (E/I), thinking/feeling (T/F), sensing/intuition (S/N) and judging/perceiving (J/P). Your type is denoted by the four letters one from each axis.

I’m fairly sure I’ve taken a Myers-Briggs test in the past and I’ve completely forgotten the outcome, I’ve taken a related test more recently. For which I came out an “architect” – INTJ. I am proud of my label!

The story starts with Katherine Myers. It is fair to say that she was an unusual mother, writing a column on child-rearing “Diary of an obedience-curiosity mother” which was published for many years in the American Magazine. These were the notes of her highly structured programme of child-rearing, as applied to her daughter. They appear to have picked up a theme of the time, in using knowledge for self-improvement. There was a similar movement in Victorian Britain.

This episode leaves you with the impression of a fiercely intelligent woman channelling all her energy into the only outlet the society of her time gave her: the raising of her daughter. She had two other children who died young. Isabel’s marriage and departure was clearly a wrench for both mother and daughter.

Katherine then “found Jung”, the psychologist Carl Jung – more specifically Jung’s psychological types. This fitted with her desire to classify people, and find a place for each in society. Her mission then became to render Jung’s types into something more useable. She corresponded with Jung, and met him once. There was clearly a degree of hero worship and obsession in her interactions with him.

Katherine’s approach to type was very much an individualised “expert” one, Isabel’s contribution was democratisation – making a questionnaire and answer scheme such that customers could apply the tests themselves. Like her mother, Isabel was clearly very capable – winning a prize for her novel “Murder Yet To Come” in 1929. A second novel, “Give Me Death” sounds profoundly racist, it features a Southern family whose members commit suicide on discovering that their line contains “negro blood”. This reflects racist/eugenicist overtones in some of Katherine’s writings.

During the Second World War Isabel’s test was used at the Office of Strategic Studies (OSS) as part of a battery of tests applied to evaluate the suitability of people as spies. During the war, Katherine, amongst others tried to “diagnose” Adolf Hitler with a view to predicting the possible outcomes for the war. Unsurprisingly there predictions were not particularly useful.

After the war Myers-Briggs became involved in the Berkeley Institute of Personality and Assessment Research. This followed on from the OSS work and saw relatively small numbers of candidates taken on weekend “house-parties” for assessments. The candidates were a wide range of the great and the good, but scarcely any women.

Later the Myers-Brigg test moved to the East coast, to the Princeton Educational Testing Service (ETS) which designed and administered the SAT. For a number of years they tried to give the Myers-Briggs test a solid scientific foundation but were ultimately not satisfied with it. The original Jungian psychological types were somewhat subjective, and the Myers-Briggs test had a habit of providing different types on retesting.

The Myers-Briggs test was ultimately to find a home in the Centre for the Applications of Psychological Type (CAPT) which Isabel founded with Mary McCaulley, a psychologist from the University of Florida. Uptake of the Myers-Briggs Test grew enormously in the years after Isabel’s death in 1980.

The new thing that the Myers-Briggs Test introduced was a degree of dispassion in its outcomes. None of the types are described as “bad”, or really can be construed as such. The tenor of the test is positive. It is about finding ones place in society and the world of work. This may run counter to individualistic ideals but it struck a chord with many organisations and individuals. It is an astrology for our times, it gives us a team to join, and guidance on how to live our lives.

In some ways the strongest impression I got from the book was of the Myers-Briggs testing regime as a modern day cult, this is only addressed directly by the author in the Introduction and Conclusions regarding her travails with the CAPT, the current guardians of the Test.

Nov 17 2018

Book review: Inferior by Angela Saini

inferiorMy next review is of Inferior:How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini. The theme of this book is encapsulated in the subtitle. The chapters of the book cover eight broad topics around how science has treated women. Typically they outline something of the background of the established view, and then go on to discuss some more recent revisions.

It all starts with Darwin and a letter from an American suffragette, who receives a somewhat dusty response from him regarding what he sees as the proper,evolved and, undoubtedly lower status, state of women. But Darwinism does give women an opportunity: no longer is their position ordained by God but it is now subject to environment and the laws of nature so a new space for interpretation and equal rights opens up.

The next chapter covers health and longevity, it fits to a degree with the final chapter on the menopause. Women typically live a bit longer than men though are slightly more prone to illness, particularly autoimmune diseases. For various reasons women have tended to be un-represented in medical trials, this is being addressed now. Looking back, the treatment of the menopause as a medical problem to be resolved rather than a normal part of life, is problematic. I think it may have happened to a lesser extent with men with declining libidos in later years being addressed with Viagra. The difference being that Viagra is a short term “solution” whereas HRT has tended to be a long term intervention with unknown side-effects. For many aspects of this book we can look to other animal species to see how they are similar or different to humans, with the menopause pickings are sparse. Pretty much the only example is the orca, where mothers appear to nurture their male offspring throughout there lives.

Much of the recent scientific view on human sexuality are derived from some experiments on fruit flies done in the late 1940s. They showed that males were more promiscuous than females, and the conclusion drawn from this was that males benefitted from spreading their seed more widely whilst females only needed to be fertilised once. This was reinforced by experiments, which can only be described as unethical, involving sending out students to proposition members of the opposite sex. It turns out that men were more likely than women to go sleep with a stranger. But clearly women are considering more than just reproduction in such scenarios – they face a real threat of violence.

Across the world zookeepers are puzzled as to why some of their male bonobos get beaten up by females. All manner of exceptional explanations are provided for this. But fundamentally it is because bonobos have a matriarchal society in which males lacking the protection of females (in particular their mother) are vulnerable to bands of marauding females. This is the reverse of the situation in other primate specifies such as chimpanzees and orang-utans where isolated females are targeted by males.

There is an air of desperation to the efforts to demonstrate that women are different in all manner of biological ways, rather than accept that actually it is the way that society treats women that leads to their disadvantage. Or even consider it, for that matter. Intelligence, or scientific achievement, is covered in a couple of chapters, one of which is entitled “The missing five ounces of the female brain”. Fundamentally the problem here is trying to pull apart abilities such as spatial reasoning on an axis (gender) that fundamentally isn’t that important. It turns out across a wide range of human abilities it’s only the ability to throw and the ability to jump vertically where men exceed women by more than a standard deviation. Human abilities can be variable and typically the differences between genders are much smaller than the differences within one gender.

To exclude women from scientific societies, universities and degree courses until the mid-twentieth century and blame their lag of progress in scientific circles as down to some deficiency in their abilities certainly takes some chutzpah. And the fact that we’re doing this in the early years of the 21st century is an embarrassment. Like many women of her time, my mum left her scientific work when she was pregnant with me, and in at least one case was not even given an application form for an administrative post because she was a mother.

Anthropology makes an appearance with a conference entitled “Man the Hunter” from the 1970s. Here man (the male) is seen as the key player going out on the hunt to provide for the tribe. In fact, “gathering” turns out to be more important because hunting is an unpredictable business and only rarely results in the hunter bringing home the dead antelope.

Inferior is written in a style which I found reminiscent of Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes. We are given the context and something of the character of the scientists who Saini interviews. This is in contrast to a lot of scientific writing, even in popular books, which tends to erase the people. I think it is particularly important for a book like this because much of the book is about the character of people. It is striking that almost without fail those arguing for a biological necessity to the the position that women find themselves in are male and those arguing for a new viewpoint based on societal contingency are women.

The change in mindset this brought to me is how obvious the importance of the gender of the researcher is in determining what is studied but also the outcome.

Nov 02 2018

Book review: Milk of Paradise by Lucy Inglis

My next review is of milk_of_paradiseMilk of Paradise by Lucy Inglis. I’ve been following Lucy Inglis on twitter since before she was writing books, so you can’t treat this as an unbiased report.

Milk of Paradise is the story of opium. It is divided into three parts, covering opium itself, morphine and heroin. Morphine and heroin are derivatives of opium so this collective biography makes sense.

The first part takes us back to prehistoric times and the origins of the poppy from which opium is extracted. The opium poppies grown today are domesticated, there is no wild opium poppy. The ancestral flower comes from Turkey where cultivation started in about 10,000BC. Traces of poppy mixed with henbane, another imported plant used to counteract the side-effects of opium, have been found in Britain dating back to 4000BC, where it could have only appeared through long distance trade. It always surprises me how far goods were traded across the prehistoric world.

The chapter moves on through opium in Roman and Greek times where descriptions are somewhat vague, to the Arab physicians of the 12th and 13th century who were clearly using it for anaesthesia for quite complex surgery. Similar preparations were used in medieval Britain, such as dwale – a mixture of hemlock, opium and henbane in wine. These appear to have gone out of usage.

The next section covers the the global trade in opium, particularly into the Far East. This picks up on some of the themes of The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan. Opium had been introduced to China by Arab traders in the 10th century. As ocean going ships come into widespread use in the 15th century trade increased with tea, coffee and spices coming to Europe in the early years of the 17th century. By the 18th century half the Batavian (modern day Jakarta) spice trade was actually in opium.

The second part of the book, notionally on morphine a derivative of opium, covers the medical uses of opium preparations and addiction. Growing wealth in the 18th century in Britain led to people with sufficient money to abuse alcohol – the Gin Craze. This was paralleled with increasing signs of addictive behaviour in the use of opium. It was a problem in China too which the Chinese authorities tried to address in the face of military action by the British to maintain their trade in opium. Something of a theme in the book is the shameful behaviour of the British over selling opium to China, much of the 20th century has been spent on battling the “illegal” drugs industry. The 19th century was just as bad but the illegal drugs industry was replaced by the “legal” British trade of opium to China, something China tried to stop repeatedly.

The final part of the book covers the 20th century, prohibition and the rise of organised crime and gangs in the supply of drugs. Prohibition of narcotics is a relatively recent innovation in the West, it arose during the early years of the 20th century driven by the US who convened the 1912 International Opium Convention from which international prohibition legislation is derived. One gets the feeling the addiction starts to be seen as a problem when it effects women. Opium and its derivatives had long been used in medicine but the second half of the 19th century saw the growth of the pharmaceutical company who saw benefits in new formulations of existing drugs, the invention of new drugs and the promotion in treating all manner of ailments.

The rise of morphine and heroin was facilitated by the introduction of the hypodermic needle which provided rapid action, and convenience. The downside of this was the increased risk of infection, and addiction.

Also in the 20th century we see how war drives medical innovation, such as ambulances to recover casualties in the First World War, new surgical techniques, new anaesthetic methodologies, new antibiotics and new facilities for delivering medical care as close to the “front line” as possible (like the MASH units of the Korean War. Prohibition and the involvement of Germany as the opposition led to supply problems in the First World War.

In the period between the wars Germany expended considerable effort in innovating new drugs, one gets the impression that both the Allied and Axis forces were fuelled by amphetamines and other stimulants. In fact, more generally, one gets the impression that a large chunk of humanity has got through life in a drug-induced haze from time immemorial.

The book finishes with chapters on Afghanistan and “heroin chic”, the use of narcotics in popular and artistic culture.

I found Milk of Paradise very readable, the division into parts is not strong, much of the second part continues to talk about opium whilst notionally the chapter is about morphine. It is opinionated to a degree, which is no bad thing.

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