Saturday, October 22, 2016

Understanding trees

Lab GirlLab Girl by Hope Jahren

This is an odd cocktail of a book made up of three ingredients, shaken or stirred together with varying success.

First, there’s the science: beautifully written, poetic but rigorous explanations of how trees grow and reproduce: like Biology A level taught by Seamus Heaney.

Second, there’s the story of how a child from ice-cold Minnesota made her way in the world, found love and – well, I won’t give it all away.

Then there’s the inside view of academia: how a scientist makes a living; the interplay of hard graft, hard won connections and the large dose of luck needed to wring a stable livelihood from even the most brilliant work.

Put all that together over 300 pages and sample it a little at a time over a week or so and the effect is like hanging out with someone who goes on about different parts of their life in unpredictable ways. There’s no question that Jahren is an interesting companion. But sometimes you just wish she’s tell you more about the trees and less about her lab partner Bill, and sometimes the other way round.

Ah yes, Bill. It’s hard to believe that this truly eccentric character and his peculiar relationship with Jahren isn’t a work of fiction. He starts as a kind of down-and-out, living in a hole in the ground, then in a car. But he’s completely reliable, the ultimate fixer of things that need fixing in a lab. He works night and day and has no other life – living in the lab as a step up from his previous arrangements.

Jahren is devoted to Bill, and, as his employer and only source of material wellbeing, wracked with guilt about him. There seems to be no sexual or romantic side to their relationship. He’s more like a twin, but she is the leader. According to her allegedly verbatim accounts of their conversations, he’s smart and well-informed, canny and wise. Because Jahren is not hugely self-absorbed, the book sometimes seems to be more about Bill than her. If you don’t want to hear about Bill, you won’t like the book.

What makes the book better than the above may sound is the quality of the writing:

In the end, trees die because being alive has simply become too expensive for them. Whenever the sun is up, leaves are working to split water, add atmosphere, and then glue the whole mess into sugar that can be transported down into the stem, where it meets dilute nutrients that were laboriously pulled up by the roots. A plant can bundle all these treasures into new wood and use it to strengthen the trunk or branches. But the tree also has many other demands: replacing old leaves, making medicine against infection, pumping out flowers and seeds – these use the same raw materials, there are never enough to spare, and there is only so far out or down the tree can go in order to search for them. Eventually it will require more nutrients to maintain the branches and roots that do not grow quite far out enough to capture those nutrients. Once it exceeds the limitations of its environment, it loses all. And this is why you must trim a tree periodically in order to preserve it. Because – as Marge Piercy first said – both life and love are like butter and do not keep: they both have to be made fresh every day.

Whether Lab Girl is more than a set of essays, sewn into a quilt at the insistence of a publisher, is another question. But there's no doubting the quality of the ingredients.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Another dispatch from the wild frontier of the tech business

Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up BubbleDisrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyon

Disrupted fits neatly into an entertaining genre of first person accounts of the madness of the tech revolution. Michael Wolff’s Burn Rate (1998) was an early classic, a hilarious account of a dot com startup that failed to deliver the promised riches to Wolff or anyone else involved. Start Up by Jerry Kaplan (1994) and The Leap by Tom Ashbrook (2000) both tell similarly sad tales of startups that are no longer with us. Then there’s Amazonia (2004), James Marcus’ record of Amazon’s messy transition from employing writers like him to deciding that algorithms did a better job. Douglas Edwards’ I’m Feeling Lucky (2011) is set in the bizarre world of Google. And there are more.

The best of these books are written by journalists who were unable to resist the promise of easy money, and, foolishly, it usually turned out, jumped on the tech bandwagon. Things never quite work out as hoped, and, either to exorcise the disappointment or because it’s the only work then on offer, the ex-journo, having left the business, produces a book about life in the crazy world of tech startups.

What makes Dan Lyons’ account special is his extreme cynicism about the company he’s joined from the moment he walks in the door. Indeed Hubspot, as it’s called, does appear to be gripped by its own brand of world class lunacy. The inevitable decoupling between our hero and his techie colleagues is especially bloody.

HubSpot is (still) a Boston-based marketing company. Lyons’ descriptions of it reminded me most of a fictional tech business, The Circle in Dave Eggers’ 2013 book of that name. There are the same armies of eager young people, the same cultish devotion to the company’s ideals and the same grandiose ambitions, somewhere between inspired and unhinged.

I mean, would Eggers have considered this plausible? HubSpot’s co-founder, Dharmesh Shah, brings a teddy bear called Molly to meetings to represent the customer, because in the words of Shah’s manifesto for company culture Hubspot should always be “solving for the customer” (shortened to “SFTC” in the company)? Hence Molly sits there, to remind everyone of the customers. Shah even posts a picture of Molly in her little chair at a meeting on LinkedIn. Lyons is not impressed:

“Here are grown men and women, who I presume are fully sentient adult human beings, and they are sitting in meetings, talking to a teddy bear. And I am working with these people. No: worse! I am working for them.”

Then there’s the company mantra of HEART, the values HubSpot aims to live by: Humble, Effective, Adaptable, Remarkable, Transparent. Everyone gets a mark for each of them from their manager, which as Lyons points out, seems more like just a measure of how much their manager likes them.

All that kind of thing may be silly, but is unlikely to give anyone a nervous breakdown. What might is the way Lyons was ostracised by his colleagues for not being ‘HubSpotty’ enough (the term being a straight imitation of Google’s ‘Googly’). Meanwhile, his bosses switch unpredictably between non-communication, being warm and supportive, and subjecting him to bullying campaigns of nit-picking micromanagement in which, by his account, he was constantly tripped up despite playing along with the demeaning tasks he was set.

The story is a gripping and pacey tale of highs and lows, with some vivid character studies. But Lyons uses them to make bigger points. First, he shows how a narrowly-defined company culture in which people are praised for being ‘a good fit’ can be a proxy for a discriminatory regime. In his case, for example, he claims the culture disadvantaged older workers like him. Lyons called out the co-founder for as good as admitting as much in a published interview.

Second, he puts HubSpot’s IPO - from which, against the odds, he profited modestly - into the context of other tech flotations in today’s bubbly market. He argues that while the venture capitalists and founders get extremely rich, the ordinary workers don’t – at least not as much as they used to. And that the business fundamentals of the likes of HubSpot are not as solid as they should be for a stock market flotation. They are often still not profitable, and may never be. For the market, the only metric that counts is sales growth. But while that may impress share buyers who provide the original investors with a windfall, it’s not a good basis for a long-term bet on a company.

If you’ve been surprised by the book, you’ll be astonished by the epilogue. Serious but unspecified crimes are alleged in connection with some of the people he’s depicted, about his writing the book you’re reading. But far from that making publication a problem, Lyons goes the other way: he gives us the real names of more of his protagonists. It’s a dramatic and disturbing end to the story.

So what did HubSpot say about Lyons’ apparently damaging portrait of its strange (at best) ways? Well, they addressed some of his complaints in a statement on Linkedin. There are a few admissions, including on diversity. But many questions remain unanswered. There’s no comment, for instance, about the extreme treatment to which Lyons was subjected by his manager. Nor of the criminal allegations.

There’s enough in this book to make great film but it would be much darker than The Social Network. Lyons describes his trademark journalistic attitude as “acerbic”. I’d say it ranges from caustic to, occasionally, plain bitter – albeit with apparent good reason.

It remains to be seen whether in years to come Disrupted will be of interest on account of Lyons’ attitudes as an older worker having difficult adapting to the 21st Century workplace, or because of Hubspot’s bizarre but, it turns out, transitory workplace and business practices.

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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Money, class, luck and boredom: Trollope's convincing world

The Small House at Allington (Chronicles of Barsetshire #5)The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope

The Small House at Allington is the fifth of Trollope’s Barsetshire Chronicles series, and is John Major’s favourite novel.

This is a long book: 845 pages in my OUP World’s Classics edition. But Trollope knows how to keep his readers guessing to the end. As in life, things don’t work out as neatly as in musicals.

Indeed, Trollope’s story draws the reader in with its realism. Good characters have their faults and bad ones their virtues. Only on the fringes of the story does Trollope allow himself to skip the nuances. So there are passing references to a Mr Optimist and a Mr Fiasco, minor civil servants. But only a step closer to the main narrative we meet, for instance, a minor character, an official called Mr Butterwell with a convincing hinterland: he “had walked his path in life discreetly. At the age of thirty-five he had married a lady with some little fortune, and now lived a pleasant, easy life in a villa in Putney.”

It is easy to imagine Trollope drawing inspiration from his Post Office colleagues for such details. Similarly, he must have drawn on his knowledge of London for the subtle gradations of status of its various districts. Young Crosbie picks a house for himself and his fiancĂ©e in (the fictional) Princess Royal Crescent, “a very fashionable row of buildings abutting upon the Bayswater Road,” which boasts a view of Hyde Park from one end. The house wasn’t ideal: “the street being unfinished had about it a strong smell of mortar …but nevertheless, it was acknowledged to be quite a correct locality.” And it could have been worse: “we know how vile is the sound of Baker Street, and how absolutely foul to the polite ear is the name of Fitzroy Square.” The bride’s family was paying, so the groom didn’t get his choice, which was Pimlico. That was rejected after the bride had a warning from a friend: “For heaven’s sake, my dear, don’t let him take you anywhere beyond Eccleston Square!”

Equally convincing is Trollope’s meticulous recording of the financial constraints which have such a powerful hold on his characters. Young John Eames starts work in London with a salary of 80 pounds a year plus an allowance of 20 from his mother. At the other end of the spectrum, Plantagenet Palliser receives seven thousand a year from his uncle. As a rough rule of thumb, it feels as though money can be multiplied by a hundred to bring it into today’s world – putting Eames on £10,000 a year and Palliser on £700,000.

The negotiating of jobs, houses and marriages determined people’s lives. If they got it right, they could look forward to decades of security and respectability. But as Trollope shows so vividly with young Lily Dale, a blameless girl of modest means, if you put a step wrong, or are unlucky enough to be treated badly, the consequences are devastating.

Even with apparently good luck, the road to respectability can be tough. A young married couple who hardly know each other are thrown together. If they haven’t the means to entertain or even be entertained (which means arriving and leaving a social event in an expensive carriage), life can be agonisingly dull. Crosbie and his wife, who can’t afford to honeymoon in Paris, discover that six weeks in a hotel in Folkestone, starting in the middle of February, can be quite a test. As Trollope comments drily: “all holiday-making is hard work, but holiday-making with nothing to do is the hardest work of all.”

After Folkestone, life off the Bayswater Road was even more boring for the Crosbies. There was no money to go riding in Hyde Park: “she would tell her husband that she never got out, and would declare, when he offered to walk with her, that she did not care for walking in the streets. ‘I don’t exactly see, then, where you are to walk,’ he once replied.”

Trollope’s virtuosity is not as self-conscious as Dickens’; his set pieces are vivid and engaging but our attention is seldom drawn from the story to the writer. It’s true that Trollope often addresses his reader with a companionable comment on his own work, but it’s never self-dramatising: “of whom else is it necessary that a word or two should be said before I allow the weary pen to fall from my hand?” If Trollope’s social range is a little less spectacular than Dickens’, the ground he covers is rendered with complete solidity. The Small House at Allington feels like a true story, perhaps a little polished in the telling, but true nonetheless. At the end of the book, it’s hard not to wonder how Squire Dale, Eames, Crosbie, Belle and Mrs Dale are doing.

John Major must surely have seen himself as Eames, the hardworking, brave, honourable young man who found himself moving in wealthier circles of higher social standing. Huntington sounds like Allington but it can't be that neat.

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