Maquina Lectora

Notes of a curious mind

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Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide by Lynsey Hanley

Class is a Communist concept. It groups people as bundles and sets them against one another,”  wrote Margaret Thatcher in 1992. A couple of year later, John Major hailed Britain’s “classless society” and just before the 1997 elections John Prescott announced that “we’re all middle class now”.

Politicians used to pretend that there are no class differences in Britain and therefore the “class gap” received almost no attention at all. But pretending does not mean that class differences don’t exist or that they are no longer important.

Each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty,” wrote thirty years ago the British sociologist Richard Hoggart. In the second decade of the 21st century, class distinctions still pervade almost all aspects of English culture and life.  And continuously, find new ways of expressing themselves.

According to a BBC survey in 2013, the traditional categories of working, middle and upper class are outdated (only 39% of the people in Britain fit in these three categories). They have been replaced by seven social classes which include, in addition to traditional occupation, wealth and education, the economic (income, savings, house ) and cultural (interests and activities) capital.

Class is such a complex concept, after 20 years living and working in the UK, I am still struggling to grasp all the aspects of class divide and social mobility. We have known that social mobility is lower in the UK than elsewhere in Europe and that is failing; the university access gap between rich and poor has actually widened in recent years.

In her book Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide,  Lynsey Hanley describes her upbringing on the Chelmsley Wood council estate in the 1980080s, as well as the experience and the significance of undertaking social mobility in the context of wider social inequality.

Hanley also writes about respectability as a condition within working class communities. Respectability as against rough. She examines the idea of respectability as a way of how individuals are preserving dignity and self-respect and also as a way of getting closer to the values of dominant society.

“Respectability is a property of your specific circumstances: circumstances which permit you, or at least make it easier, to maintain the appearances and felling of self-respect.”

Richard Hoggart, and especially his book in The Uses of Literacy (1957) is a great influence to Lynsey Hanley. Following Hoggard’s detailed description of British urban working-class people in the years spanning the second world war, Lynsey Hanley also sets her book and the story of social mobility in a specific time and place.

“This is an attempt to make, out of a personal story, a sense rather more than the personal.”

_Richard Hoggart

Lynsey Hanley’s book helps to bring class back on the map and the conversation. She also sets a few existential questions about social mobility and describes how the physical walls of council estates sustain what she calls ‘walls in the head’ – the ‘invisible barriers to knowledge, self-awareness and social mobility’. It is a fantastic book.

 

From Mars Exploration to Space Station and System Z. An ambitious programme to study the Earth

On 15 July 1965, the Mariner 4 spacecraft sent the first close-up images of the Red Planet to  Earth. These blurry images  revealed the cratered, rust-colored surface of  the planet and discouraged those who believed that there might be life on Mars. A  New York Times editorial said that “Mars is probably a dead planet” and most of the scientific community agreed, at that time, with this account.

Mariner 4 image, the first close-up image ever taken of Mars. This shows an area about 330 km across by 1200 km from limb to bottom of frame, centered at 37 N, 187 W. The area is near the boundary of Elysium Planitia to the west and Arcadia Planitia to the east. The hazy area barely visible above the limb on the left side of the image may be clouds

Mariner 4 image, the first close-up image ever taken of Mars. This shows an area about 330 km across by 1200 km from limb to bottom of frame, centered at 37 N, 187 W. The area is near the boundary of Elysium Planitia to the west and Arcadia Planitia to the east. The hazy area barely visible above the limb on the left side of the image may be clouds. Credit: NASA

Nevertheless, NASA continued its exploration of Mars. Mariner 9 (1971)  revealed a planet of varied environments and changed scientists’s perceptions about the Red Planet and led to Viking mission. Viking 1 and 2 landers were the first spacecrafts to touch successfully the surface of Mars in 1976.

A few months before the launch of Viking 1, in  1976,  NASA invited a team of specialists to discuss extensively all aspects of the Mars in a three-week meeting. Concluding the meeting Michael Mc Elroy of Harvard University, said something he had been discussing with a few other earth scientists for some time: “You know, we’ve never done anything like this for earth.”

The need for a multidisciplinary programme to study global change was the subject of the discussion for some time within the scientific community. A few Earth scientists were pondering a multidisciplinary geosphere-biosphere research programme in the context of IGY, but the political, economical and ideological circumstances that could endorse such a venture, did not exist at the time.

The arrival of Reagan administration in 1981 brought a change in NASA’s leadership. The new administrator James Beggs, and Burton Edelson, head of the Office of Space Science and Applications (OSSA), had taken a keen interest in using satellites’ technology for Earth observation but their enthusiasm was not shared by NASA’s associate administrator Hans Mark. Mark, a strong supporter of the space station – NASA’s major project that period – believed that an earthly science programme could damage NASA’s priorities in space and it could provoke an escalated antagonism with other agencies, NOAA for example.

Richard Goody

Nevertheless, Hans Mark asked the guidance of Richard Goody, a geophysics of Harvard University, with whom Mark had worked with when he was Director of the Ames Research Centre. Richard Goody recalls that Mark took him aside (in an used Xerox room) and explained him NASA’s idea about an ambitious global climate programme. It included a large space mission to observe the earth system and explore the links and the interactions between the major system components of the earth, how they have evolved, function, and how they may be expected to evolve on all time scales.

The idea of the Earth as one interacting system had a certain appeal for Richard Goody. He suggested that such a programme could bring a focus to NASA’s observation programme which, at the time, did not seem to have a sense of direction. It could also protect the agency from Reagan administration budget cuts. He agreed to participate in the project.

But, there was a problem. NASA’s Earth observation program had been in NASA’s applications division, which purpose was the development of practical commercialising technology and its  budget was far too small to support the development of new knowledge.  After much discussion,  the agency made a tempting offer that both scientists and bureaucrats found hard to turn down.  NASA proposed a satellite remote sensing system which was dubbed “System Z” and called for the Space Shuttle to lift the polar-orbiting Earth-observing platforms into space.  By carrying the cost of the satellite platforms, NASA’s  hoped that the money for System Z would have come from Space Station Freedom (the NASA project that led eventually to the International Space Station).

This artist’s concept depicts the Space Station Freedom as it would look orbiting the Earth, illustrated by Marshall Space Flight Center artist, Tom Buzbee. (1991) Source: Wikipedia

The basic concept behind System Z was integrated Earth observations. More specific to gather satellite data on world ecology and natural resources and predict the Earth’s habitability over the next 50 or so years.

The feedback received by scientists was positive and optimistic. Thomas Donahue, former chair of the NRC Space Science Board, referred to System Z, as “a gift” that “was merged with the developing ideas about putting a lot of Earth observing remote sensing instruments on a single platform”. System Z would allow them to conduct simultaneous measurements of many environmental and climate variables such as air and surface temperatures, vegetation, cloud reflectivity, and ice cover, observe the multiple factors that affect earth’s ability to support life and better understand the past and future but most importantly predict the trends of future climates.

An early sketch of “System Z.” Credit: Mark Abbott; Originally published by the Earth Observer. Source: NASA

President Reagan refused to launch the Space Station Freedom initiative in 1982 and then again in 1983.  Since System Z was tied to Space Station program it had been forces to wait until the President’s approval. He finally announced – overruling most of his advisers – his approval during his January 25, 1984 State of the Union address. “A space station will permit quantum leaps in our research in science, communications, in metals, and in lifesaving medicines which could be manufactured only in space,” he said and invited the allies of the United States to participate in the space station program.

While System Z was not approved as part of the Space Station Programme at this point, NASA decided to move forward with the development of the system, now renamed Earth Observing System (EOS).


  1. The Search For Martian Life Begins: 1959-1965,  On Mars: Exploration of the Red Planet. 1958-1978, https://www.hq.nasa.gov/pao/History/SP-4212/ch3.html
  2. Edward Edelson, “Laying the Foundation”, Mosaic 19,3/4 (Winter/Fall 1988),6
  3. Kennedy, The U.S. Government and Global Environmental Change Research, 4
  4. Richard Goody, “Observing and thinking about the Atmosphere”, Annual Review of Energy and the Environment, 27 (2002), 15
  5. M. M. Waldrop, “An inquiry into the state of the Earth”, Science, Vol. 226, No 4670 (October 5, 1984), 34
  6. G. Taubes, “Earth Scientists Look NASA’s Gift Horse in the Mouth” ,Science, Vol 259, No 5097, (12 February,1993), 912
  7. William K. Stevens, ‘Huge space platforms seen as distorting studies of earth’ New York Times 19 June 1990, Section C, page 1.
  8. Ten Presidents and NASA, https://www.nasa.gov/50th/50th_magazine/10presidents.html

Little Nothing by Marisa Silver

“Think of a flower blooming,” says the midwife to Agata. “A rose opening, the petals pushing out ….out …..”

But childbirth is not as gentle as the opening of a rose, and the baby girl is not the perfect baby, her parents have dreamed.  She looks “like a rag doll sewn together from cast-off parts,” cries the mother. The baby girl is a dwarf, a disfigured little thing with a big head and short limps that smells of roses. The mother called her Pavla, which literally means little.

Pavla lives in a small village somewhere in Eastern Europe in the late 1800s, at the turn of the century, perhaps. When her parents let her attend school, the other children call Pavla Little Nothing and they assault her in a deliberately humiliating way. These humiliations prepare her for the struggles that await her in the next years.   As she matures, something enticing happens, ‘an unmistakable loveliness reveals itself.’ Her beauty agitates the villagers, makes them wonder if she is really real.

Fearing for their daughter’s future, her parents visit local doctors looking for a treatment to her dwarfism. It is when one of these “doctors” slowly stretches her apart that Pavla’s physical form makes a radical change, the first of several body transformations that seem to be motivated by some existential experience: life and death, meaning and happiness, good and evil.

“How easy is to admire evil, to become entranced by its singularity of purpose and its amoral beauty.”

Little Nothing reaches back into a magical and horrified world of gypsy curses, circus shows, werewolves, war and rural poverty. It a story about love, but it is not a love story, not in the classic sense anyway. It is a love that exists beyond the realm of the physical, it is a love that motivates, it is a way to find out who you are.

Marisa Silver’s writing is raw, intense and vivid. Little Nothing is not an easy book, the impossibility of some of the events may not appeal to everyone.  It is a thrilling and wonderful book, an allegorical, complex and ambiguous fairy tale about metamorphosis.

“Marcus fell silent. Danilo looked at the sky and watched the sound disappear into the vast emptiness where nothing and everything exists and where all stories begin.”

A Day in the Life of the Brain by Susan Greenfield

“Without consciousness, life would indeed be pretty much the same as death. The conscious condition makes life worth living: yet what is it, this insubstantial, intangible inner … what exactly?”

Consciousness, once the province of philosophers and theologians, has become in the past few decades one of the great scientific challenges, a fascinating topic of research in psychology and neuroscience.

Susan Greenfield, a Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University, heads a multi-disciplinary research group exploring novel brain mechanisms linked to neurodegenerative diseases. In her book A Day in the Life of the Brain draws on her own research to illuminate the mystery of consciousness in the course of a single day in the life of the brain.

Susan Greenfield takes everyday activities – waking up, walking the dog, eating breakfast, at the office, problems at home, sleeping and dreaming – to explore how the human brain is working. Her theory is that coalitions of millions of neurons are responsible for consciousness. These ‘neuronal assemblies’ play a central role in organising all the networks in the brain and somehow these neuronal assemblies provide a collective continuous experience of consciousness.

The book shows how the brain works, its complexity and the functionally of certain areas. It   has some good insights and it is written in a simple style, devoid of difficult jargon. It sheds some light on consciousness.

A Brief History of Feminism by Patu and Antje Schrupp

“behind us lies the patriarchal system; the private house, with it nullity, its immorality, its hypocrisy, its servility. Before us lies the public world, the professional system, with its possessiveness, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed.”

Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas

What is feminism anyway?

To start with, feminism is not the belief that one gender should be raised in power above another. Feminism is not against men. Feminism is against patriarchy, that is the system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.

Feminism is one of the most important and certainly most enduring and progressive social movements of the past two centuries. It is common to divide the history of modern feminism into a First, Second, and Third Wave. As times are changing, we are now entering in the fourth phase with feminism moving from the academy and back into the realm of public discourse.

Women are coming out of the closet, they dare to discuss difficult subjects, such as violence and sexual harassment. Intersectionality, race, ethnicity gender, class, and ability, are all part of the discussion.

Now, the book. A Brief History of Feminism is a  graphic novel about the history of feminism. It is a short book, just 80 pages. It begins with antiquity and the early days of Christianity, it moves to Middle Ages and the Enlightenment and finally at the beginnings of the organised women’s movement and the third-wave feminism and intersectionality. It examines – briefly – the fights for autonomous pregnancy and against domestic violence.

Along the way, you learn about a few of the most important figures in the history of feminism. Flora Tristan, a courageous woman, who in 1825 fled her violent husband and broke the social behaviours of a nineteenth century woman. Flora described herself as “an unfortunate Pariah”, and linked the oppression of women and the oppression of the proletariat before Marx and Engels. Also, the poet Audre Lorde,  Elizabeth Cady Standon, Sojourner Truth, Emma Goldman, Simone de Beauvoir, Sulamith Firestone, Angela Davis, and more.

It is not a complete history of feminism. The focus is Western Feminism, mainly in the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany. It could be characterised as a guide on the history of Western Feminism. I really enjoyed it. It is beautiful, clever, funny and informative.

Translated by Sophie Lewis

Published by The MIT Press

The Sea and the Summer by George Turner

“Nothing can save this crumbling planet except the elimination of three quarters of it’s people.  And we know that can happen.”

A few months ago I discovered George Turner. For someone who loves science- fiction, not to know George Turner is frankly embarrassing. My only excuse is that The Sea and the Summer does not feel like a science-fiction.  It is so closely based on extrapolation of proven scientific facts that it is difficult to describe it as science fiction at all. The plot is not great but the structure of the story is interesting and complex. There is an intense human feeling throughout the book; the novel is character-driven rather than plot-driven.

Born in 1916, George Turner was already an accomplished novelist before he started writing science- fiction in the late ’70s. The Sea and the Summer first published 30 years ago, in 1987, but it still holds remarkably well. The story sets in mid-21st century Melbourne; global warming, rising temperatures and sea-levels (from the greenhouse effect) combined with automation and economic collapse has created a caste line system between those with jobs “the Sweet”, and the unemployed welfare takers “the Swill”. The Swill (90% of the total population) live in big towers, in enclosed overpopulated enclaves at the edges of the cities, with just enough to survive on. It is a vertical slum in the Greenhouse Years.

There are also the people who live in “the Fringe”, a place between the two camps where the people who lose their jobs end up before being absorbed by “the Swill”. It is there, in the Fringe where the two brothers, Teddy and Francis Conway, end up after the death of their father.  They react differently in this change; Teddy passes a special exam to join a special police force, and Francis uses his talent for numbers to join the back market working for a Sweet wealthy businesswoman.

George Turner examines several issues in this novel. Overpopulation, environmental destruction, economic collapse, and the inability of our societies to distribute resources and opportunities in a fair and equitable manner. There is also a second shorter story with the main story, that takes place in the distant future. Humanity has survived the Greenhouse Years, and is preparing to face another Ice Age

The Sea and Summer is not an entertaining story. It is a vivid, remarkable and uncomfortable account of life on the edge.

The novel won the second Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1988.

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