Where I Stand

In case you are wondering where I stand today… yes you, you know who you are…

Your obstacles feed my tenacity. You have strengthened my resolve in ways you can’t even imagine.

No, I am not done. You haven’t even tired me a little.


… not today, not tomorrow… NEVER.

Is this clear enough for you?

Better yet… do you think I’m kidding?





Any questions?

Call Me a Snob, but Amazon’s Idiotic Reviews are Useless via Rhymer Rigby

None of this is going to stop me from using Amazon, but it does make me wonder if, rather than suing the shills, Amazon’s time and money might be better spent funding professional critics. As it is, all the current system does is provide an answer to the question, “Is it better to ask the opinion of one person who reads 100 books a year or 100 people who read one book a year?”

Last weekend, Amazon announced it was taking legal action against 1,114 people who it claims have posted fake product reviews on its site. This comes on top of lawsuits against wholesale fake review providers. The point, the e-commerce giant says, is that such reviews, “significantly undermine the trust that consumers and the vast majority of sellers and manufacturers place in Amazon.”

Oh really? As a consumer I trust Amazon to be extremely convenient and keenly priced. But its reviews are not worth the pixels they’re displayed on and haven’t been for years. Relying on Amazon reviews is like walking into your local Chicken Cottage and asking half a dozen punters “What’s the best restaurant round here?”

The classic Amazon review is a 4* review. This could mean literally anything. The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber gets four stars (an average of 139 reviews) and enjoyed widespread critical acclaim. Meanwhile, Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told by Christian also gets four stars (an average of 5,500 reviews). Most professional reviewers said it sucked. This, lest we forget is a book featuring the immortal line: “My cock concurs.”

Surely 4100 reviewers can’t be wrong? Well, actually they can be. And what’s more, they can be significantly more wrong than 140 reviewers.

Back in the 00s, there was a fashionable notion called “The Wisdom of Crowds” – the idea being that, if you solicited enough people’s answers to a given question, you’d get an accurate answer. But with book or film reviews, this is demonstrably not true. Rather than wisdom, you get the tyranny of the majority – a mob that knows what it likes and likes what it knows. Any informed opinion is drowned out. Which is why on Rotten Tomatoes (which aggregates critical opinion), Transformers: Age of the Fallen gets a 19pc rating while on Amazon it gets a nice fat four stars.

OK, you might say, but you’re being a snob. Maybe my not liking EL James or Transformers films doesn’t mean they’re bad. It just means they don’t appeal to my hoity-toity elitist tastes. As The Dude says in The Big Lebowski, “That’s just your opinion man.”

But there’s a problem with this argument. Once you start conflating popular with good, you inevitably embark upon a road to all sorts of fun conclusions like McDonald’s being finest restaurant in the world, Dan Brown being one of our great authors and Benidorm being the very best holiday destination there is.

In fact, I have a feeling that Amazon reviews have actually got worse over the years. The reason? Back in the Amazon’s salad days, its reviewers were likely to be early adopters who were better-read than average. Now, they’re more like a cross-section of society and the crowd isn’t so wise anymore. I know, know: you’re not supposed to say these things. But then you look at the thousands of five star ratings that Jeffrey Archer gets – and what else is there to say?

Dan Brown's Inferno features Robert Langdon in drag

Dan Brown’s Inferno features Robert Langdon in drag

But even if you are a Dan Brown fan, you may still get a raw deal from the ratings system. The recommendations system based on your own and others’ browsing is unlikely to serve you up the mid 80s Hungarian literary classic Sátántangó (“Not a plot driven piece. It moves at the pace of a stone hedgehog.”) on the basis of having bought The Da Vinci Code (3.5*), but it might give you something like Norwegian by Night (4*) or The Laughing Monsters (3.5*). Both of these are classed as thrillers, but they are of the thoughtful, demanding kind. Which is why you end up with Amazon reviews such as “The more I read the more confused I got” (Laughing Monstors) and “So much E – L -O – N – G – A – T – E – D detail, EXTREMELY BORING” (Norwegian by Night)

Still, I dare say both are fair reviews if you’ve picked your 3.5-4* thrillerexpecting zingers like, “My French stinks, Langdon thought, but my zodiac iconography is pretty good.”

“Once you start conflating popular with good, you inevitably embark upon a road to all sorts of fun conclusions like McDonald’s being finest restaurant in the world”
Rhymer Rigby

There’s more to it though. The system itself seems designed to bunch reviews around the four star mark. You can’t award a product zero stars. The minimum is one. But the fact is most people give good ratings. A helpful 2014 analysis of new electronics products showed that over half the people rating the products gave five stars. The next biggest was four. The average is 3.9.

It’s not just Amazon either: FiveThirtyEight says that film review sitesthat rely on the public suffer from the same highly positive bunching.

Back on Amazon, and this means that most products get a rating between 3.5 and 5, so you effectively have four different ratings (Amazon rounds to the nearest half star). In the abstract, you may understand this, but in practice, your brain tells you that there’s very little between a 3.5 star product and a 4.5 star product. Except, when you’re using this compressed scale, the former effectively is 25pc and the latter 75pc.

Scarlett Johansson in Under The Skin

Scarlett Johanssen reacts to a series of poorly written Amazon reviews

This wouldn’t matter if the raw material for the ratings wasn’t so dodgy, but it is. Let’s take a film – Under the Skin. It gets a mere three stars out of five on Amazon – and the largest single rating is a single star – which, pretty much puts it down in “It sucks” territory. Yet quite a few professional critics rated it one of the best films of 2014.

I suspect Under The Skin suffers from having a big name (Scarlett Johanssen) and a well-known director (Jonathan Glazer). Like Norwegian by Night and The Laughing Monsters, this put it in crossover territory where, despite being a difficult, arty film, it gets a fair number of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen fans. They watch it and, perhaps, unsurprisingly, think it sucks. So the superb Under The Skin gets three stars while Transformers, which really does suck, gets four.

None of this is going to stop me from using Amazon, but it does make me wonder if, rather than suing the shills, Amazon’s time and money might be better spent funding professional critics. As it is, all the current system does is provide an answer to the question, “Is it better to ask the opinion of one person who reads 100 books a year or 100 people who read one book a year?”


2014 in Review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,200 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 20 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

10 Benefits of Reading: Why You Should Read Every Day via Lana Winter-Hebert


When was the last time you read a book, or a substantial magazine article? Do your daily reading habits center around tweets, Facebook updates, or the directions on your instant oatmeal packet? If you’re one of countless people who don’t make a habit of reading regularly, you might be missing out: reading has a significant number of benefits, and just a few benefits of reading are listed below.

1. Mental Stimulation

Studies have shown that staying mentally stimulated can slow the progress of (or possibly even prevent) Alzheimer’s and Dementia, since keeping your brain active and engaged prevents it from losing power. Just like any other muscle in the body, the brain requires exercise to keep it strong and healthy, so the phrase “use it or lose it” is particularly apt when it comes to your mind. Doing puzzles and playing games such as chess have also been found to be helpful with cognitive stimulation.

2. Stress Reduction

No matter how much stress you have at work, in your personal relationships, or countless other issues faced in daily life, it all just slips away when you lose yourself in a great story. A well-written novel can transport you to other realms, while an engaging article will distract you and keep you in the present moment, letting tensions drain away and allowing you to relax.

3. Knowledge

Everything you read fills your head with new bits of information, and you never know when it might come in handy. The more knowledge you have, the better-equipped you are to tackle any challenge you’ll ever face.

Additionally, here’s a bit of food for thought: should you ever find yourself in dire circumstances, remember that although you might lose everything else—your job, your possessions, your money, even your health—knowledge can never be taken from you.

4. Vocabulary Expansion

This goes with the above topic: the more you read, the more words you gain exposure to, and they’ll inevitably make their way into your everyday vocabulary. Being articulate and well-spoken is of great help in any profession, and knowing that you can speak to higher-ups with self-confidence can be an enormous boost to your self-esteem. It could even aid in your career, as those who are well-read, well-spoken, and knowledgeable on a variety of topics tend to get promotions more quickly (and more often) than those with smaller vocabularies and lack of awareness of literature, scientific breakthroughs, and global events.

Reading books is also vital for learning new languages, as non-native speakers gain exposure to words used in context, which will ameliorate their own speaking and writing fluency.

5. Memory Improvement

When you read a book, you have to remember an assortment of characters, their backgrounds, ambitions, history, and nuances, as well as the various arcs and sub-plots that weave their way through every story. That’s a fair bit to remember, but brains are marvellous things and can remember these things with relative ease. Amazingly enough, every new memory you create forges new synapses (brain pathways)and strengthens existing ones, which assists in short-term memory recall as well as stabilizing moods. How cool is that?

6. Stronger Analytical Thinking Skills

Have you ever read an amazing mystery novel, and solved the mystery yourself before finishing the book? If so, you were able to put critical and analytical thinking to work by taking note of all the details provided and sorting them out to determine “whodunnit”.

That same ability to analyze details also comes in handy when it comes to critiquing the plot; determining whether it was a well-written piece, if the characters were properly developed, if the storyline ran smoothly, etc. Should you ever have an opportunity to discuss the book with others, you’ll be able to state your opinions clearly, as you’ve taken the time to really consider all the aspects involved.

7. Improved Focus and Concentration

In our internet-crazed world, attention is drawn in a million different directions at once as we multi-task through every day. In a single 5-minute span, the average person will divide their time between working on a task, checking email, chatting with a couple of people (via gchat, skype, etc.), keeping an eye on twitter, monitoring their smartphone, and interacting with co-workers. This type of ADD-like behaviour causes stress levels to rise, and lowers our productivity.

When you read a book, all of your attention is focused on the story—the rest of the world just falls away, and you can immerse yourself in every fine detail you’re absorbing. Try reading for 15-20 minutes before work (i.e. on your morning commute, if you take public transit), and you’ll be surprised at how much more focused you are once you get to the office.

8. Better Writing Skills

This goes hand-in-hand with the expansion of your vocabulary: exposure to published, well-written work has a noted effect on one’s own writing, as observing the cadence, fluidity, and writing styles of other authors will invariably influence your own work. In the same way that musicians influence one another, and painters use techniques established by previous masters, so do writers learn how to craft prose by reading the works of others.

9. Tranquility

In addition to the relaxation that accompanies reading a good book, it’s possible that the subject you read about can bring about immense inner peace and tranquility. Reading spiritual texts can lower blood pressure and bring about an immense sense of calm, while reading self-help books has been shown to help people suffering from certain mood disorders and mild mental illnesses.

10. Free Entertainment

Though many of us like to buy books so we can annotate them and dog-ear pages for future reference, they can be quite pricey. For low-budget entertainment, you can visit your local library and bask in the glory of the countless tomes available there for free. Libraries have books on every subject imaginable, and since they rotate their stock and constantly get new books, you’ll never run out of reading materials.

If you happen to live in an area that doesn’t have a local library, or if you’re mobility-impaired and can’t get to one easily, most libraries have their books available in PDF or ePub format so you can read them on your e-reader, iPad, or your computer screen. There are also many sources online where you can download free e-books, so go hunting for something new to read!

There’s a reading genre for every literate person on the planet, and whether your tastes lie in classical literature, poetry, fashion magazines, biographies, religious texts, young adult books, self-help guides, street lit, or romance novels, there’s something out there to capture your curiosity and imagination. Step away from your computer for a little while, crack open a book, and replenish your soul for a little while.

Long Live Mom


To his father’s dismay, Michael likes to watch cooking shows and British comedy.

The other day we were watching Top Chef when I ask Michael “Do you think you might want to be a chef?”

“No, it’s a little disgusting,” he responds. “I still want to be a scientist when I grow up.”

“I’m so proud of you,” I say.

“I hope you’re not going to die soon because I want you to see me be a scientist when I grow up.”

“I’m not going to die. I have a long way to live,” I laugh.

“How much longer?” asks Michael.

“Another 60 years,” I say in a huff.

Don’t tell him I’ll be 100 years old in 60 years, but I have decided that I WILL live that long.