Monthly Archives: May 2019

Emilia – Do you feel it? Inside of you.

Emilia is a play written by playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm. Emilia is Emilia Bassano, born in 1569 as the daughter of a royal musician. After her father dies when Emilia is just 7 years old she comes to live with Susan Bertie, the Countess of Kent. She gets a good education and introduced to well off men at the court. As there are many uncertainties about the details of Emilia’s life the play describes a possible version of it.
The book was a gift from a dear friend and it made the message resonate that much stronger because of it.

It’s heartbreaking to read how Emilia feels like she is being silenced and tamed.
“My voice feels too loud in here. I must try to whisper more. Though sometimes I can’t help but scream! […] I must try to only speak when I’m asked. No screeching. No jumping about. I’m a young lady now. This is what I’ve learnt. You see? I can be tamed. I know now that as I grow I must also shrink. I must not take up too much space. If I am to marry well I need to practice these tricks to hush my whole being so that I am only seen when needed.”

Emilia is afraid that getting married would mean that she won’t be able to write anymore, that her life will just be focused on supporting her husband and she opts instead to become the mistress of the older Lord Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon and a cousin of Queen Elizabeth I. Lord Carey makes sure that Emilia is well taken care of financially and allows her to continue writing. When he gets Emilia pregnant though he arranges for her to marry her cousin Alphonso Lanier. In the play, it is suggested that Alphonso is gay and that the marriage is one of convenience for both of them. Emilia gives birth to a son that she calls Henry, presumably after his father.

Emilia and William Shakespeare meet by chance and they fall in love with one another and have a passionate affair. Emilia even gets pregnant and gives birth to Shakespeare’s daughter, Odilya, who dies when she is only 10 months old. Odilya’s death breaks something in Emilia and she feels an even stronger drive to write. Her frustration at not being able to get her work published and see it performed as Shakespeare does his work reaches a boiling point.
“The pain and anguish of your own losses written large upon the stage. Does it help? I think it must. If only my own grief could be dissipated as such. But it can’t. Can it? And it is because of this that grief is not my only pain. It is my whole existence in your shadow. It is women born to a status that dooms us to your ill will”.

For me and hopefully for most people living now it’s easy to feel Emilia’s anger and frustration about how unequal women were being treated. In her time she was one of the very few people advocating of equal rights for men and women and it was a dangerous opinion to share.
As Alphonso is spending all of their money and leaves them in debt, Emilia goes to live with Lady Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland and her daughter Lady Anne Clifford. Lady Margaret is also a feminist whose husband George has multiple indiscreet affairs. She asks Emilia to be a tutor for Lady Anne and to write poems for women, to warn them about the wicked ways of men.

As women’s writings are censored and they are only allowed to write about religion and virtues they distribute and reproduce the poems through an underground network of women. When some of them fall into the wrong (male) hands they get paid a visit by Sir Thomas Howard and it becomes clear how dangerous it is to advocate equality.
“Instead of giving thanks for the generous and kind disposition of all men she seems to suggest that men are to be ignored and discarded in favour of a new order in which women are seen as equal. This preposterous notion gives no thought to clear fact that for as long as time immemorial women have never been equal to men and instead must accept the natural order of things. Inferior. Ever more so and subservient to the end. This poetry, if you can call it that, is akin to a call to arms and it is the most dangerous rubbish I’ve ever read. […] Do not forget the growing discomfort the spread of a certain kind of sorcery that this could be described as. You would not want to be tried as a witch Emilia – I fear your crimes would not go down well.”

As Emilia and Alphonso hit rock bottom financially Emilia starts to teach poor women, both because she wants to give these women a voice and to make a bit of money. The women embolden each other to speak up louder and louder, despite the danger. They encourage Emilia to start writing feminist messages hidden in religious poems, so her work can get published and it finally does. These published poems are the only things that she wrote that have been saved for us to read. At least the only ones that she has been credited with as the writer…

Emilia in action

The fierceness of Emilia and the other women is intense and inspiring. It’s emotional even when reading it. I’m sad that I won’t get to see the play (unless it will be extended), but there is talk about a film, so I’m keeping my hopes up. If you are in London while it’s still running I urge you to go and see it. If not I highly recommend the book. Even if just to read Emilia’s final speech, which is quite something.
We’ve come a long way, but we also still have a long way to go. And these days we even have to be vigilant to make sure that we are not going backward!

“Listen to us. Listen to every woman who came before you. Listen to every woman with you now. And listen when I say to you to take the fire as your own. That anger that you feel it is yours and you can use it. We want you to. We need you to. Look how far we’ve come already. Don’t stop now.”

The Happiness of Pursuit – revealing the quest that I’m on

Some of the world’s best-known stories reflect our desire to hear about struggle and sacrifice in pursuit of a goal. We get drawn in because we want to know if the hero is going to succeed.
When I started reading The Happiness of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau I thought the book would describe an inspiring adventure like this. I picked the book based on a recommendation I came across on Pinterest, so I have to admit that I didn’t do a lot of research before diving in.

As it turns out the book is more a “how-to” that provides advice and insights about starting a quest. It suggests that if you feel like something is missing from your life that it would perhaps be a good idea to find a quest of your own. The quest would give you a purpose and a goal to pursue, thus giving your life “meaning”.

A quest is defined as a journey towards something specific, with a number of challenges throughout, that will require personal growth and a sacrifice of some sorts. Most quests don’t take special powers, but persistence and dedication are essential. The book has clichés sprinkled all over it like “If you want to achieve the unimaginable you start by imagining it” and “If you don’t try you might always wonder ‘what if'”.
Both mostly true of course, that’s why they are clichés.

The book describes the quests of many different people, including that of the author. The author’s quest was to visit all countries in the world while many others also have a physical challenge in them like walking across the US or riding a bike or sailing a boat around the world.
Most of the people that were interviewed for the book were unable to clearly explain why they gave up their existing lives to go hunt for something elusive, with a real chance of failure. They were simply unsatisfied with the life they were living and were looking for something deeper.

You can probably tell that I’m not about to sell my home to go on a quest around the world anytime soon. However, almost every book provides some insights or inspiration and so does this one. I did realize that I’m on a quest of some sorts myself, and this might be a good moment to share a bit more about it.

Towards the end of February, I realized that I had read well over a book per week in 2019 up until that point. I made the biggest splash during the Christmas holidays when I spend most of my days reading and running. At that point, it dawned on me that perhaps I would probably be able to read 52 books this year. I’d heard about other people doing that, but until now I’ve always assumed that they would have to be crazy people without much of a life. If that’s true then I now fit into that category and I’m quite comfortable there.

The Happiness of Pursuit is the 26th book I’ve read this year and we’re only 4,5 months into the year. The amazing thing is that I don’t even have to try hard. During the week I keep the television turned off on most evenings and instead I read a book (when I’m not running, rock climbing, or playing tennis or piano). It might not be a quest according to Guillebeau as it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice at all. I love reading and I don’t feel like I’m missing out by not watching TV.

As I was struggling to come up with topics to write about regularly, I figured that writing about the books I read would provide me with an ongoing stream of topics as well as some structure. As long as I finish a book I’ve got the subject of the week’s blog post covered and I just have to sit down and do the actual writing.
So while The Happiness of Pursuit wasn’t what I thought it would be, it did provide a trigger to write about my own goal this year and thus was still useful. Now that I have shared my goal publicly it will be harder to weasel my way out of it in case it does for whatever reason become harder to keep going later in the year. I hope you will follow me on my journey through the books. It would make me very happy!

Thinking Ahead – dealing with the impact of increased complexity

Thinking Ahead is a collection of essays on Big Data, Digital Revolution, and Participatory Market Society (co)written by Dirk Helbing. Helbing’s Wikipedia entry is mostly a very long list of achievements and awards in several areas. His interest and expertise run from traffic management to crowd disasters to the risks and opportunities of the digitalizing of the world. The constant is that all these topics are about managing complex systems. The definition of complex systems as used in the book is: “Complex systems are characterized by numerous interacting actors and factors. Examples are social, economic, or traffic systems, as well as the behavior of crowds or ecosystems. The behavior of these systems is often dominated by their internal dynamics. Attempts to control them from outside frequently lead to unexpected and unintended results”.

Complex systems and the financial market
The financial market and crisis are frequently used as an example by Helbing. The global financial market is so complex that it can’t be monitored and controlled anymore. More and more assets don’t have real-world value. It’s almost impossible to understand what is behind these completely virtual assets, which means that we can’t tell whether their value is realistic or if it’s inflated.
Many ideas about the financial market (conventional economic thinking) and how to manage it and keep it from crashing are either outdated or just plain wrong. These ideas don’t take the effect of all systems being connected into account. The fact that globalization has led to more interconnections between financial markets means that the risk of a local problem leading to a global crisis has increased significantly. The resilience of the system is not described by the average stability, but by the weakest link. To be able to isolate risks a system needs compartmentalization and there are no safety points in the financial market today.

The current models for how the financial market will behave is based on the idea that people are completely rational. That we act as “homo economicus” and make optimal decisions.
It turns out that this is not a truthful projection of how humans behave. While some people might take decisions based on purely rational arguments, most people are impacted by emotions. It’s also not true that all people make decisions that are most favorable for them personally. There is not just “homo economicus”, but also “homo socialis”. “Homo socialis” displays other-regarding and cooperative behavior. While older models might suggest that other-regarding behavior is unfavorable in terms of evolution and will therefore eventually disappear, it turns out that this is only the case if a cooperative person is placed amongst a group of selfish people. If a group other-regarding people can stick together it’s the cooperative behavior that gets favored and allows “homo socialis” to spread.

Big Data
Helbing also dives into the challenges and opportunities of “Big Data”. Big Data is a term that has been around for more than 15 years now and it means that data sets are now so big that they can’t be coped with using standard computational methods. Big Data is also referred to as the oil of the 21ste century. It’s worth a lot of money if we can process it. Big Data in itself doesn’t pose a lot of value or risk. We must learn to drill and refine data so we can transform it into useful information and knowledge.

Big Data

While the processing of Big Data offers a lot of opportunities, it also poses a lot of risks. We share information almost constantly, both implicitly and explicitly. Of course, sharing information on social media platforms is explicit. However, by using services like Google Maps we share our whereabouts. By using loyalty systems in the supermarket it’s possible to determine how you live your life and when your life might be changing. Even just browsing the internet we leave behind a telling tale of our lives, our loves, our hates and our opinions.

The way in which information is processed can reinforce patterns. This means that it can reinforce discrimination and promote homogeneity. If that would happen it could of course negatively impact any minority, but it would also be bad for everyone else. Innovation only takes place if people with unique interests and ideas, who are ahead of the curve, can flourish. Filtering out uniqueness would be disastrous for our well-being and economy.

Another challenge is that we can’t really opt out of all of this information sharing. You can decide to not join any social media networks. Web browsers make it possible to turn off cookies, although it means that many web sites become almost unusable. There are tools that support obfuscating your IP address while you are browsing the web, but this still doesn’t guarantee that you are browsing anonymously. And as the number of smart and connected devices is increasing the amount of data that is being collected is exponentially increasing.

Staying in control of data from you or about you is hard, if not impossible. We cannot control what information companies and people collect about us and we cannot control what they will do with the information, or how long they will keep it. Incorrect information about us might also be stored and even spread. This can happen either on purpose or by accident and it’s very hard to correct it.

The European GDPR law has been created to try and protect people from misuse of data from and about them. It forces companies collecting data to be transparent about what data will be used for and it prohibits them from using it for any other means. Once data has outlasted its original purpose it has to be destroyed and if your data is leaked because it wasn’t adequately protected companies will have to pay significant fines.

Conclusion
To me, the book provided a very interesting brain exercise. In the essays collected in Thinking Ahead Helbing does an excellent job of explaining the challenges and risks of globalization and Big Data in a way that’s relatively easy to understand. He also talks about several ideas that might go some way towards limiting risks and providing solutions. None of these ideas will be easy to implement in the real world though and a lot of them will have a significant impact on the lives of many. Based on the book I find it hard to form clear ideas about solutions.
I would personally be interested in exploring some potential solutions a little more and learning about what steps we could take to get closer to a more stable and a more fair world.