English Literature

At my school, all students were entered into the English Literature GCSE. What this meant was that a couple of times a week, we would take out copies of ‘English Literature’ – things like The Crucible, A Passage To India, various Shakespeare plays, poems – and take turns reading them out.

There is nothing that kills a good story more than having a bunch of bored schoolboys reading out books like these, not to mention Shakespeare. For one thing, reading ‘blind’ means that the speaker has absolutely no idea what emphasis to put on the words; for another, it usually took a few weeks to get through a single work. Most of the time I’d already read the whole thing at home right after receiving the book, and so sitting in class took on a special kind of boredom.

As if this wasn’t enough, we would then have to write essays about the ‘significance’ of various parts of the books or plays. What did the red brick colonial house in A Passage to India signify? What is the meaning of this passage in Macbeth? And so on.

Despite all of this, I quite enjoyed some of the books – I still remember The Crucible quite fondly. However, it wasn’t until I saw The Merchant of Venice being performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company on a school trip that I realised his stuff was not only good, but actually really funny. See, until then, my experience of Shakespeare had been these readings in class, and a video of Richard II, where Richard was played by a woman.

Presumably some people liked this production, otherwise I can’t see why our teacher chose to show it. But I can’t think of a worse thing to show a bunch of schoolboys – it just seemed totally ridiculous. It was hard enough trying to follow the play on a TV, but the lead character swapping sex was just too much. I suspect a lot of students from my school still dislike Shakespeare due to these experiences. I don’t entirely blame my teacher, because she was just trying to prepare us for our exams (it was that kind of school), but it seems a shame nonetheless.

A comment on Metafilter reflects my feelings on this perfectly:

As far as I’m concerned, “Hamlet” doesn’t have a “point.” There’s nothing to “get.” It’s not something to see so you can check it off the “things I guess I should see” list.* Please! If that’s your reason for seeing it, don’t see it in the first place…

…I blame school. In school, we’re forced to read Shakespeare when we’re don’t want to. Most of the people I know who love Shakespeare, love him in spite of that, not because of it. Luckily, they already liked Shakespeare before encountering him in school, so the forcing didn’t seem like forcing. Or, if they were like me, they hated it. I hated “Romeo ad Juliet” when I was forced to read it in High School. I hated anything I was forced to read, just because it was forced on me.

Most people in my shoes feel a distaste for whatever was forced on them for the rest of their lives. At 42, I’m only JUST getting over my distaste for math. I can see math is a beautiful subject, but because it was forced on me before I was ready for it, it’s hard for me to shake the desire to rebel against it. And because of gym class, I wonder if I’ll EVER learn to like sports. Luckily, I had other formative experiences that stopped me from associating Shakespeare with school. So I like Shakespeare.

Also, in school, one is pretty much told that we watch/read plays to “get the point.” It’s all about Theme, Message, Social Import, blah, blah, blah. It’s not about crying when Cordelia dies or laughing when Bottom turns into an ass. School ignores or — worse — scorns the best part of fiction: the laughter, the tears, the emotional spice!

Finally, school teaches us that smart people are supposed to like Shakespeare — or at least read/see his plays. If you don’t like it, you’re dumb. So we wind up with a bunch of people who don’t really want to read or see Shakespeare but feel like they should. Of COURSE these people — once they’ve finished with the pain of sitting through “Hamlet” — don’t want to do it again

He’s right. In my class, we never talked about the emotions of the play. We never thought we were supposed to laugh at this stuff, or treat it like anything but a chore.

The GiveWell Fraud

A few weeks ago, I read a New York Times article about a new charity organisation called GiveWell, founded by two young ex-hedge fund managers. The story described how these two mavericks were about to shake up the charity world by using their financial skills to demand and interpret data from charities, and thus discover how efficiently they used their money. These findings would then be used to help donors choose a charity that would give them the best bang for their buck. Some people, however, criticised GiveWell for simply rewarding charities that had the time and resources to provide the extensive data they demanded.

I remember thinking that GiveWell seemed to have an interesting idea in theory, but I was sympathetic to the complaints. In any case, I don’t know much about the charity world (other than what I’m doing with Let’s Change the Game, but that’s another story) so I didn’t feel like passing any judgement.

A little later, on December 30th, a user called ‘geremiah’ posted a question to Ask Metafilter. Geremiah wanted recommendations of websites that evaluated the effectiveness of charities. The fourth comment on that post came from ‘Holden0’ who recommended GiveWell. Geremiah selected Holden0’s comment as the ‘best answer’ and went on to criticise a user, Miko, who’d recommended another site.

Miko proceeded to look at GiveWell’s website, and discovered that Holden0 appeared to be none other than Holden Karnofsky, the co-founder of GiveWell.

(I have to say, this has got to be the most stupid part of this entire story. If you’re going to set up a fake account, why base it on your real name? Sheer insanity.)

A new thread was started on Metatalk to discuss this apparent fraud. Self-promotion is strictly prohibited in Ask Metafilter posts, and it’s even worse if you don’t disclose it. Setting up a second ‘sockpuppet’ account to support your own opinions is also prohibited. Besides these rules though, it would’ve been distasteful to promote your own charity site in such a deceptive manner, while also rubbishing other websites.

Unfortunately, the owner of Metafilter confirmed that both Geremiah and Holden0 were registered by the same person – this was self-promotion, and it was a fraud. Holden0 eventually appeared in the thread to apologise, and claim that lack of sleep was responsible for his lapse in judgement. Members of Metafilter then proceeded to find numerous other cases of Holden promoting GiveWill on other websites without disclosing his involvement – and invariably criticising other sites at the same time.

The board of directors of GiveWell initially didn’t believe what was going on, and then admitted that Holden’s actions were wrong. However, they – and every single other defender of Holden – said pretty much the same things:

  • It was wrong – but it’s forgivable
  • We know Holden, and he’s a good guy
  • Metafilter members are a bunch of vigilantes, dispensing mob justice
  • Worse things go on in the world, why focus on this?

It’s nice that people are so willing to forgive Holden repeatedly promoting his own charity in a reprehensible and deceptive manner. And perhaps Holden is a good guy. But he’s an adult, and he’s supposed to be responsible for influencing the flow of millions of dollars to charities; you would expect him to have some basic sense of judgement.

As for Metafilter members, as far as I can say, they’ve done everyone a favour by uncovering this fraud. No doubt other frauds go on, but they happened to discover this one because Holden was especially foolish in his choice of username, and it’s natural that they would be irritated with someone scamming the website they belong to. They have done nothing except try and get word of this episode to as many people as possible. Not everyone there is an angel – far from it, judging from the assorted ad-hominems and insults that have been flung at Holden. But as far as I can tell, they have not lied or threatened anyone.

Why am I posting about this?

I think what Holden did was wrong. I think his friends are wrong to defend, or dismiss, the indefensible, and then go on to criticise the very people who uncovered the fraud, as if that were a worse sin. But the main reason I’m posting this is because an awful lot of people think that this type of fraud is not only acceptable, but commendable. It’s the way you do business – sure, some people might disagree, but if you want to get ahead, then you do what you have to.

It’s true that far worse things go on in the world, but this sort of fraud goes on every day by people who convince themselves that it’s OK, especially if no-one finds out. It truly is a slippery slope, and it’s not OK. It shows a profound lack of judgement and morals. If people want to continue trusting GiveWell, that’s fine, but they deserve to know what Holden did, and that’s why I’m writing this post – to link to the Metatalk thread, so that when you search for ‘GiveWell’, that’s the very first thing you see.

Metafilter members are currently assembling a page on the Mefi wiki (which I set up, but otherwise have little to do with) detailing all the events of this fraud. If you’re interested in hearing more about GiveWell, here’s an insightful critique from someone within the charity world pointing out the inexperience of the founders, and the fact that they are not actually doing anything that hasn’t been done before.

Remembrance of Books Past

Remembrance of Books Past – an article by Ray Bradbury in which he talks about the idea of rewriting books from memory; a never-realised sequel to Fahrenheit 451. “Why not a sequel to ‘Fahrenheit 451’ in which all the great books are remembered by the Wilderness People and are finally reprinted from memory. What then? Wouldn’t it be that all would be misremembered, none would come forth in their original garb? Wouldn’t they be longer, shorter, taller, fatter, disfigured, or more beautiful?” (via MetaFilter).

Ask Metafilter

Ask MetaFilter – truly one of the best ideas that’s hit the Internet this year. There are other websites that provide general advice, but none with the community and (some might say) highly intelligent and educated userbase of MetaFilter.

Mefi photos

Metafilter UK Oxford meetup photos – a highly geeky and highly successful meetup of Metafilter UK members, featuring drinks, noodles, more drinks, a run-in with the police, a gig in a dive bar, yet more drinks and ice cream. I had a lot of fun and met a bunch of very interesting people; hopefully another one will be organised soon.

Steam Trek

Steam Trek – what a find! Some enterprising individuals have masterfully melded two classic SF genres, Star Trek and Steampunk. The result is a wonderful universe with Her Majesty’s Aether Ships exploring the solar system and protecting the United Kingdom of Planets. Long live Queen Victoria, and may her glorious reign continue as it has for the past 165 years! (preserved by Lunar Selenite technology captured from the evil Moon-dwellers). See the MetaFilter thread I started about it.

GM Spin

I posted a comment in this MetaFilter thread about GM crops, on how research in the area is often misrepresented by the anti-GM lobby. Case in point: it was claimed that the Bt toxin pesticide might actually benefit some pests, meaning that transgenic Bt plants could be utterly counterproductive. In reality, the research data has no grounds for such a conclusion.