Book Review: Why Science is Sexist, by Nicola Gaston

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_why_science_is_sexistNo doubt it is a reflection of my own background and insensitivity, but the question of sexism in science has never occurred to me, although I have worked supporting scientists for significant periods. I have missed a lot!

My initial thought when I saw the title was that there was a pretty massive assumption being made – that science was sexist. Fortunately, the author quickly demonstrated that there is sexist behaviour in science, and sexist attitudes. She demonstrates that women are under-represented at all levels of scientific study and inquiry, in all disciplines, and in all areas, including academia and professions, private and public services. She recounts the arguments that mental ability is gendered, although there is no actual evidence for that statement.

Nicola Gaston is a Senior Lecturer in Chemistry at Victoria University of Wellington, and President of the NZ Association of Scientists. The book is a very personal one, including her own experiences, opinions and reactions throughout. Starting from the widely reported incidents involving world-renowned scientists (including a Nobel Prize-winner), she gives many examples of the way that sexism plays out in the scientific world.

But the real question is ‘Why?’ Gaston delves into the research. Subconscious bias and stereotypes are examined. I found some of these alarming – do rational scientists really say things like that? Biological differences are assumed to exist despite there being no evidence for them. Women’s contributions are systematically undervalued or denied. Discussions about women in science are recounted which seem to be quite bizarre. The author demonstrates the considerable extent of our unconscious bias against female scientists, and warns of its damaging consequences for science and for society.

The author’s approach is interesting. There is a mix of objective research studies and personal observations. There are suggestions for positive ways forward, and her personal to-do list. Her call is to rethink attitudes not only to gender, but to scientific inquiry. The 93 pages pack in a lot of data, research, opinions and some conclusions. The writing is clear and the argument easy to follow – and so to accept or reject. But rejection would seem perverse in the light of the material here.

This is a book that raises many difficult questions, and offers some solutions. I found that it challenged some of my preconceptions, and has provided much food for thought. It’s short enough to read, think about and discuss in an evening: do it!

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Why Science Is Sexist
by Nicola Gaston
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN  9780908321650

Book Review: Home Truths: Confronting New Zealand’s Housing Crisis, by Philippa Howden-Chapman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_home_truthsHousing – particularly its availability, quality, and cost – is a common feature of news broadcasts and publications in New Zealand. There can be little doubt that the state of housing in NZ is a critical factor in many of the major issues affecting this country: the economy, employment, immigration, health, sustainability are all affected in one way or another by the housing situation.

Phillipa Howden-Chapman is a frequent commentator on housing issues. She is a Professor of Public Health, and is currently the Director of the University of Otago’s Housing and Health Research programme. She brings to this succinct survey an extraordinary mass of facts, figures, and opinions. She believes that comparatively recently we have lost a lot, and moved towards third-world conditions in many areas. She firmly believes too that access to dry, warm and safe housing should not be determined by a household’s income.

She begins with a survey where we have come from in housing policy. There’s more in this 25-page chapter (they are small pages too!) than might be expected. New Zealand has neglected its heritage of enlightened policies, and a case is made that we now have some of the worst housing in the developed world, especially for the approximately 50% of families in rental accommodation.

The second chapter deals with the interaction between the housing market, and the welfare state, and the third with the importance of housing in the national economy. Here she challenges some of the assumptions commonly made in economic discussions, and demonstrates the role of housing in the recent rapid increase in inequality in our society. And why this matters to both rich and poor.

The fourth chapter ‘Why Does the Quality of Housing Matter’ is, for me, the guts of the book. It is astonishing that in a ‘light-handed’ regulatory environment, legal costs are so high. As might be expected for a health researcher, the author canvasses the health issues caused by poor living conditions. She is scathingly critical of the lack of properly collected data available, and the thin layer of evidence that supports the development of policy. She does not accept current policies around rental houses, and regards current government measures as lukewarm at best. Her proposal is a strong, standardised Warrant of Fitness for all rental accommodation.

The final chapter sets out some directions that the author believes housing policy must move in. She considers policies to make more housing available; to make housing affordable, healthy and sustainable. She describes some successful models from Europe – especially Scandinavia. Changes are needed, she says, at both national and local government levels in the ways that planning and monitoring are done. She advocates mixed-tenure communities, and has several examples. She also calls for greatly increased regulation of the private rental market, in the interests of both tenants and landlords.

Don’t be mistaken: this is not a dispassionate book! The author has done the research (over some decades) and she has a firm conviction that the country can do better. She also knows what she means by ‘better’, and takes no prisoners in allocating blame. In brief, she has an axe to grind, and the facts to grind it on.

On one level, this is an easy book to read. It isn’t long (BWB bills the series as ‘Short books on big subjects from great New Zealand writers’) and the writing is fluent. At another level, it can serve as the gateway to much more: there are extensive notes and references, and it would be easy to follow up the statistics and graphs here in more detail. If you have any interest in society’s well-being, I recommend you read this book.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Home Truths: Confronting New Zealand’s Housing Crisis
by Philippa Howden-Chapman
Published by BWB, part of the BWB Texts series
ISBN 9780947492335

Book Review: Ocean Notorious: Journeys to Lost and Lonely Places of the Deep South, by Matt Vance

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_ocean_notoriousThe Southern Ocean officially doesn’t exist anymore: the hydrological authorities redefined it out of existence. But sailors still know the body of water south of New Zealand, the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, and stretching as far as Antarctica, as the Southern Ocean. And a fearsome place it sounds. The ‘roaring forties’ sounds bad enough, but the ‘screaming sixties’ is something else again. I know that it is supposedly the wind that is screaming, but I’m pretty sure that if I was there, the wind would have competition.

Matt Vance is a sailor who is much more at home in the deep south than most people. He is an expedition guide, and has ferried tourists, bird-watchers, artists and writers to many of the lonely places in this remote area. This book collects the stories he has heard, and the experiences he has enjoyed, and at times endured. Most recently he has guided participants in the Artists to Antarctica programme.

Just the names summon up awe: the Bounty Islands, South Georgia, Auckland Island, and Campbell Island – the list goes on. People will only have heard of most of these places from weather forecasts, disaster reports and reading about the explorers of the ‘heroic age’, like Amundsen, Shackleton and Scott. Cold, barren, wind-swept, dangerous places are challenged by sailors, ornithologists, geologists, climate scientists, artists and writers. Starting on a Russian icebreaker running Southern Ocean expeditions, Vance has spent a great deal of time on the sub-Antarctic islands, and on the ice.

The author gives his own account of this region, and also introduces us to many of the other characters who have made their mark on, and been marked by, this remote and frightening part of the world. Explorers are there of course. So are sailors in small boats, and large ones. The story of the coast watchers during the Second World War (total sighting in 12 months: 2 ships, both ours), and their contributions not only to defence but to science, cast an interesting light on NZ’s attitudes during the war.
Solo sailors feature, as do bird watchers and conservators. What drives a person to spend many months alone, at sea in the worst conditions on earth, in constant danger? Vance tells their story and guides the reader to some understanding of the passions and obsessions that drive these sailors, and graphically describes some of their adventures.

As well as the sub-Antarctic islands Vance has taken expeditions to Antarctica itself, and he tells the stories of the well-known explorers of a hundred or more years ago as if he was there. In doing so he casts new light on them, their motives, and the challenges that they faced. He is able to write as one who has faced similar challenges – albeit with better equipment and much more back-up – and the empathy he has with them shows in the writing.

There are some nice photos to accompany the text, although their reproduction is sometimes a little murky. There are maps too: thank goodness. Vance tells these stories concisely and vividly, and paints a fine word picture of this world that few of us will ever experience.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Ocean Notorious: Journeys to lost and lonely places of the deep south
by Matt Vance
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781927249260

Book Reviews: Maori Carving: The Art of Recording Maori History, and Maori Weaving: The Art of Creating Maori Textiles

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_maori_carving

These slim volumes are two of a series of four, produced by Huia Press, in conjunction with the New Zealand Maori Arts & Crafts Institute. While they really are small (54 and 44 pages respectively) they are packed with information.

Each has the same structure. The origins of the arts are explored – including the legends and traditional stories. There is a description of the materials used, the tools and techniques, the uses both traditional and contemporary, and some of the notable practitioners of the arts.

cv_maori_weavingThe weaving book centres on flax. Maori soon discovered the properties of harakeke “the wonder fibre”, and have used it to create a huge range of useful and decorative objects, including baskets, mats, housing materials, clothing, ropes, and fishing nets. The construction of these articles records histories and stories, and acts as a cultural record.
The book details the steps in selecting, preparing and weaving flax, and respecting the flax plant. The intricate patterns are described, and a wide range of finished products are described. As well as flax, some less traditional materials are shown in contemporary use, including plastic, wire, ribbon and paper. There’s plenty of detail here, although the book is not an instruction manual or how-to guide.

The carving book follows a similar outline, with an emphasis on the wide variety of carved objects produced using the same techniques. Of the uses of carving, most attention is given to carved houses. A significant part of the book deals with how to read a carving – seeing and interpreting details which reveal the history being recorded.

Throughout both books, Maori traditional stories and beliefs are incorporated, giving a broad picture of the place of carving and weaving in Maori culture. For me, a highlight of both books is the inclusion of the stories of practitioners of the arts, and something of the history and development of the art.

The text of each book is clear, concise and easy to read. Photographs make up a large part of each book. These photographs are magnificent! The production values throughout are high. Each book contains a glossary, a bibliography and a list of on-line resources.

Although these are not large books, they manage to include a great deal of information. Perhaps with the others in the series (Marae: The Heart of Maori Culture and Geothermal Treasures, Maori Living with Heat and Steam) they would make a fine introduction to Maori culture for many people who have seen museums, and perhaps visited Rotorua, but want some firm guidance and proper understanding about what they have seen.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Maori Carving: The Art of Recording Maori History
by Huia Publishers and The NZ Maori Arts & Crafts Institute
ISBN 9781775501916

Maori Weaving: The Art of Creating Maori Textiles
Huia Publishers and The NZ Maori Arts & Crafts Institute
ISBN 9781775501923

Book Review: Work Rules! Insights From Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead, by Laszlo Bock

Available in bookstores nationwide.
There seems to be a minor industry around books from inside, or about, Google. This one is from deep inside – Laszlo Bock is the Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google. In simpler times he would be called the HR Director I suppose.

At Google, ‘People Operations’ includes not only hiring and firing, but staff retention, efficiency, evaluation, effectiveness, happiness and culture. And the scale of the operation is overwhelming. Google receives something like three million unsolicited job applications per year. There are many tens of thousands of staff, scattered all over the world. Many, if not most, of them are smart, creative people who could work elsewhere. They are people with ideas, opinions and other job opportunities which are often more lucrative.

This is the story of how Google has developed what it claims to be the ‘ultimate workplace’, staffed by a ‘talent machine’. Regardless of the validity of the slogans, it’s an impressive achievement.

Work has changed – at least in places like Google. Bock looks at the standard HR functions – recruitment, retention, remuneration, reward and the like. He takes the reader through the things that Google does now, and the way things became as they are. He is not shy to share the mistakes that have been made in the past, and the challenges not yet met.

The book is loosely based around common HR issues, which are analysed and adapted to meet Google’s needs. Google is data driven, and so is the book. Many fundamental beliefs about work have been analysed and challenged, then tested. Who would have thought that giving people money might not be a great motivator? But the facts are there: sometimes money isn’t the best motivator. Often aphorisms such as ‘only hire people smarter than yourself’ are reworked with surprising results. But that’s always done with a solid foundation of actual experience and data. Often there is academic research involved as well.

I was struck by the large amount of effort put into building and maintaining Google’s carefully designed culture. It was enlightening to find that many of the infamous perks of working at Google are intended to build culture rather than to retain staff. It was surprising too to find that most of these perks – hairdressers, massage chairs, games rooms and many others – are at no or very low cost to the company. The expensive perks, such as free transportation and meals, are carefully designed to increase the productivity and effectiveness of employees, not only their happiness.

This isn’t a manual of procedures or a collection of recipes on how to run a business. It is a book to provoke new ways of thinking about work. The author is at the top of his profession, and has been recognised widely. He is also a very good writer, with an easy, engaging style – although occasionally the asides get a bit twee. It is worth repeating that he very open about mis-steps in the past, and what has been learnt from them.

While the book is aimed at a general audience, it will have special appeal to managers and executives. Google is not a typical company by any standard. While I was waiting for this book to arrive I read that their new Chief Financial Officer had received a $70 million ‘golden hello’. That’s not an HR issue many of us have to confront. And quite a lot of Google’s policies and procedures are predicated around the sheer scale of the operation – in terms of people and of money. And few workplaces have a culture like Google’s.

Despite these differences between Google and wherever you work, the book is entertaining, and worth reading if only to reflect on how standard management practices may not be the only option out there.

by Gordon Findlay

Work Rules! Insights From Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead
by Laszlo Bock
Published by John Murray Publishers Ltd
ISBN 9781444792362

Book Review: Trackers: How Technology is helping us Monitor & Improve our Health, by Richard MacManus


Available at bookstores nationwide.

”Hello, I’m Gordon and I am a geek”. But although I am a hard-core geek and programmer I have been reluctant to get involved with trackers: hardware or mobile phone apps which measure, and monitor, the body in real time. Indeed, to track my weight, I use a pencil and paper. But I was interested in what is happening, and had many questions.

So this book was an opportunity to get answers to some of the questions about the technology. What sort of measurements could I record? How easy are these things to use? How accurate is the data collected? More importantly, once the data is collected, how should it be interpreted? Is this useful, or just an exercise in narcissism?

Richard MacManus became interested in monitoring his own health when diagnosed as a diabetic. After beginning to closely monitor his own health he has become quite involved with tracking, and has traveled widely visiting lots of people, trying many of the devices that are available.

And there are a lot of possibilities! Trackers range from pedometers to personal genomics: analysis of DNA, and the range is always increasing.

The bulk of the book is a number of case studies, ranging from pedometers to genetics, by way of tracking activity, food, weight, brain activity and internal bacteria (the microbiome). Although the author is based in Wellington, many of the stories are based in the USA, and at least in some cases indicate what we can expect soon, rather than what is here in NZ right now.

The reaction of the medical profession to all this patient-generated information is interesting. The author has found a warm reception from doctors to his own monitoring, and has case studies of doctors who not only recommend, but “prescribe” monitoring to some of their patients. This came as a welcome surprise to me: but still the risks of self-diagnosis are concerning. MacManus makes the point that interpreting the data collected must be done with the aid of informed people. Some of those involved in the industry are not so moderate.

MacManus is careful also to point out the benefits of monitoring one’s health in a social network, for support and motivation. He also describes the increasing importance of ‘gamification’: turning what might easily be a chore into a hobby.

Of course the book is a snapshot of the technologies available at this moment. MacManus is quick to point out that some hardware will be replaced by phone apps, and that hardware might morph into ‘wearables’, being woven into clothing or even implanted into the body.

The author Richard MacManus created the technology blog, and is well known for picking what is coming next in technology. Throughout the book, the writer is describing his own experiences and conversations, in a lively and engaging way. He is an enthusiast for the technology, and for taking responsibility for his own health, and makes a persuasive argument that we should take more responsibility too.

So, after reading the book, many of my questions are answered. No, tracking your health data not just an exercise in narcissism. I am still concerned about the interpretation of the data outside of a medical setting, however. Is a weight loss of 0.4 Kg significant? What should I make of a reduction of 3% in blood pressure? But I am now much better informed.

Even though the devices and software will change, the implications of self-tracing will not. This is an easy to read, well paced survey of an important development.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Trackers: How Technology is helping us Monitor & Improve our Health
by Richard MacManus
Published by David Bateman Ltd
ISBN 9781869538804

Book Review: A Short History of Stupid, by Bernard Keane & Helen Razer

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_a_short_history_of_stupid

I think that the deterioration of public debate, and the absence of common sense and moderation in both media and politics, are pretty much givens now. But why? And where did this come from? These are the questions that this apparently light-hearted, yet fundamentally serious, book seeks to answer.

For these authors, stupid comes in many forms, and damages us in many ways. And yes, ‘stupid’ is a noun for these 329 pages. Many different types of stupid are identified, and an attempt is made to find their origins. Far too many ‘species’ of stupidly are identified to list them all here. But the rise of individualism over social responsibility, vaccination denialism, excessive partisanship in politics, the conflict between sentimentalism and reason, postmodernism, fallacious opinion polling and reality TV might be a representative sample. For me the most important forms of stupidity identified were three: the inability to understand numbers, the preference for emotion over facts, and the ignorance of historical contexts.

A real attempt is made to pin down the development of stupidity in its many forms. This takes us into a elementary, and often light-hearted, discussion of the development of some core ideas in western thought. The authors also make a determined effort to be in seen to be touch with popular culture, invoking as many memes from popular culture as can be squeezed in, from Dallas to the Bond movies. The authors are Australian commentators, and quite a lot of the stupidity is taken from Australian sources.

The historical development is necessarily simplified – this is not a scholar’ tome – and in some places is so condensed as to verge on parody. And although it appears lightly written, it is dense on facts, people, and concepts. More than once I was driven to look something or someone up for more information.

The authors pull absolutely no punches at any point, and write as if everything in the world is binary: right or wrong, black or white. This writing is not nuanced in any way, and no prisoners are taken. To keep the venting going and the book rooted in popular culture and the here-and-now requires the authors to be (as they would probably put it) ‘always on’.
In other words, it’s a rant. A broad-gauge rant, which is based on gently concealed erudition. But a rant nonetheless. And that becomes the book’s weakness. The writing is always turned up to eleven. In places the F-bomb becomes a carpet bomb. This continuous bombast makes reading more than a little tiring. But it’s a great source of one-liners.

Each author has, independently, chosen ten ‘friends of stupid’, and ten ‘enemies of stupid’. In this appendix they turn down the vitriol a little, so paradoxically I found the appendix the most interesting part of the book!

The chapters are fairly independent of each other, and resemble long newspaper columns. That might be the best way to read the book: as a series of independent columns. Digest one thoroughly before tackling the next to avoid fatigue and overload.

It would be great to make this compulsory reading for every journalist, blogger and aspiring politician, but I can’t imagine them persevering with it. It would ruin their life’s work.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

A Short History of Stupid: The decline of reason and why public debate makes us want to scream
by Bernard Keane & Helen Razer
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760110543