City remembers: New York mayor Bill de Blasio at the 9/11 memorial. Photo: Getty
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It’s New York, it’s almost Christmas and we’re ladies: but we’re not here to shop

Tracey Thorn’s Off the Record column. 

I’m sentimental about New York. I’ve spent enough time here over the years to feel some connection but never enough for the magic to fade, so it’s still Wonderland to me. In my ear sings Paddy McAloon – “Strolling Fifth Avenue,/Just to think, Sinatra’s been here, too . . .” – and I share his rose-tinted specs.

So I’m almost disappointed to discover that nowadays two women visiting for a long weekend, as my sister and I are, will be assumed by everyone from the check-in people to the cabin crew to be on a shopping trip. It’s New York, it’s the run-up to Christmas and, hey! You’re ladies, you must be shopping, am I right?

No, we’re not and despite our smiles we are slightly affronted at the suggestion, for we are here not to buy but to look. To walk and wander, eat and drink, marvel at it all. To “hang”, if you like. We have restaurants booked, theatre tickets lined up, excursions planned, a four-day, non-stop itinerary to keep to, so we are ready and raring to go. Much like the man next to me on the plane who, as we prepare to land at JFK, reaches into his bag for a can of deodorant and shoves it up his shirt to give each armpit a blast. It’s New York, after all. Being prepared is the least you can do.

I first came here on tour back in the 1980s; old photos show me eager and youthful, posing reverentially outside the Brill Building, my dyed blonde spiky hair blown back by the howling gale at the top of the Empire State. In the 1990s, Ben and I tried living here for a very short while, in an apartment over a now-derelict shoe shop on Chambers Street where, a few years later, some of the rescue operation would be based after 9/11.

Our stay was long ago and the city has changed so much, but the shadow of 9/11 and all that followed still hangs over it. At least, I assume that shadow is what accounts for so much of the continued security everywhere – the bag searches at the Empire State Building, the police presence all the way across the Brooklyn Bridge, the coastguard patrol boat with a machine gun mounted on the prow escorting the Staten Island Ferry.

The romantic in me has always seen the city as a place of vibrancy and joy but these reminders of sadness are hard to ignore. They’re brought into focus at the 9/11 Memorial, a vast water feature sited on the footprint of the twin towers. There’s something Zen-like and calming about it, a huge version of the flowing water in Japanese temple gardens, but at the same time I can’t help seeing it as a kind of giant sink, conjuring up the unwelcome thought of lives being washed away down the plughole. The idea feels disrespectful but perhaps it’s not wrong to feel the awful sense of loss and of waste. People literally vanished into the ground beneath our feet here, down where the water flows.

After this sorrow, the rest of our trip is all joy. We walk for miles and stare at all the sights and drink in little bars to a soundtrack of Feist and New Order, Spandau Ballet and Dolly Parton. We go to an evening of Peggy Lee songs performed by a varied line-up of singers, all fantastic.

Finally, for our last night, we splash out on a midtown hotel with a view. Checking in, we hear that our travel agent is one of the hotel’s “preferred partners” and from that moment we are treated like royalty, both of us upgraded to a suite on the 49th floor and handed $100 to spend in the spa. Being a cool and world-weary traveller, I spend only two hours taking photos of the room, which is the size of a decent flat.

Even this high up and through the thick double glazing, you can hear the streets below, car horns and police sirens. On it goes, noise and lights, all day and all night, a gift of sound and vision.

When I return later, a fog has descended and my room is almost lost in it. The view now is pure Gotham City. Or Blade Runner, thrilling and spooky and I have never felt further from home.

If I ever get blasé about New York, please take me out and shoot me. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt