June 2015

Amazon has changed the way that it pays authors for books that readers borrow via Kindle Unlimited from a per book payment to a per page read payment. This has, obviously, caused uproar, which I’ve mostly ignored because I still loathe Amazon, am no longer self-publishing (though still writing), and don’t have a snail in the race. 

However, people’s differing interpretations of what a per-page model will reward have been quite interesting, in that they’ve shown up one of publishing’s biggest blind spots: Quality. 

Hugh Howey says that the new system will reward good books

In fact, I think most people analyzing KU and the length of works to offer are getting it wrong. KU does not reward longer works: It rewards good works. It rewards gripping works.

In fact, KU will not reward good books, but books which are “finishable”, and some of those finishable books may be gripping, but being gripping is not a prerequisite for finishability. 

Finishability is a concept that Michael Bhaskar, Chris McCrudden and I came up with during a Twitter conversation a while back. It means exactly what it sounds like it means: That quality of a book that keeps you reading, sometimes despite your better instincts. 

Some books are delightfully finishable. You just sail through them like a skiff on friendly waves, barely aware of the act of reading. Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker or Tigerman, for example. You feel almost bereft when you finish them. 

Some books are finishable with a little effort: Harry Potter 4, which really needed to be half the length and put me off the rest of the series. 

Some books you finish because although they are terribly written, they are still somehow compelling. Flood by Richard Doyle is one of the most appallingly written books I’ve ever read, but it’s a firm favourite of mine. There’s no craft there at all, no skill or finesse, yet the book is a page turner, and it’s a fun read because of the plot. 

Some books you need to be bloody minded to finish. They’re awful. Really terribly awful. No craft, no plot, no joy at all, but you keep going because goddammit you are going to finish it because your paid good money for it. Harry Turtledove’s Supervolcano: Eruption is the perfect example. Only stubbornness kept me going through this turgid heap of shit.  

Then there are the unfinishable books, the ones that life’s just too short for. The Casual Vacancy, for example. A book where I could not have cared less about the characters, and where I rapidly realised that I was resenting the time it was stealing from me. 

So a finishable book is not necessarily a good book. There’s no linear relationship between quality and finishability. A shitty book can be very finishable. And some books are finishable not because of any inherent qualities at all, but because they have become a cultural touchstone which peer pressure demands that you finish. Whatever all the reverse-snobbery types say, 50 Shades is a truly shitty set of books, and their massive popularity has little to do with quality and much more to do with people not wanting to be the only one who hasn’t read them. 

Which brings me to another point: Rarely does finishability have anything to do with popularity. Only for aberrations like 50 Shades does popularity force finishability, and it’s important to recognise that 50 Shades is an aberration, in every possible way. It is not how publishing usually works, so it teaches us nothing other than that aberrations happen. 

So what actually is finishability? I’m going to borrow a concept from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, a book that many see as a productivity, bible although personally I didn’t manage to finish it. Allen talks about ‘open loops’, which he defines as: 

anything pulling at your attention that doesn’t belong where it is, the way it is.

So open loops are things like tasks that you know you need to do but haven’t written down or done yet. Open loops lodge in the mind like a pip between teeth. They irritate. They draw your attention. They demand to be resolved. They cause procrastination. 

GTD deals with this by getting you to write everything down so that your open loops are saved somewhere and you can put them out of your mind and focus on what you’re supposed to be doing. And it works. It’s why I keep comprehensive lists, and it’s also why tools like Omnifocus, for me, become the place where my To Do items go to die. If I write it down, I might discover that it’s not worth doing. 

How does this relate to finishability? A finishable book is one that sets up open loops which your mind demands that you close. These might be big, meaty questions: Does she survive? Do they get it together? Who is the mysterious stranger? Does the island get blown up at the end? Sometimes they might be subtler: How does this peculiar relationship play out? Is this person really who they appear to be? How reliable is our narrator? 

You can’t put the book down because you need to have your questions answered, and as soon as possible please. You need to know what happens. You have. To. Know. You cannot go through life not knowing. 

This is why books that end without answering the key questions that they’ve set up are so fundamentally irritating. You are robbed of the opportunity to close that damn loop, get rid of that mental pip that lodged in your brain. And worse, you know that you’ll never be given the answers (unless they come in a sequel). 

An authors ability to set up compelling questions in the reader’s mind has no relationship to how good they are as a writer. People love Dan Brown not because of the grace of his prose, but because he knows how to pace the opening and closing of loops. You have a constant flow: Each new open loop provides a reason to keep reading, each closing loop gives you a jolt of satisfaction at a “task” completed. 

Amazon’s new pay-per-page regime will not reward long or short books, or good books, or well written books. It will reward finishable books, and particularly easily finishable book. 

The thing that worries me is that not every book that is worth finishing is easy to finish. 

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With great power comes great responsibility.

Whilst we mostly associate these words with Spider-Man, the notion that power is necessarily bound to responsibility goes back hundreds, if not thousands, of years and it is no less true today.

A less well-known quote, spoken by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, is also true:

No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.

Taken together, these quotes tell us that if you are in a position of influence, you have a responsibility to choose your words carefully, because words themselves have great power.

And this is why I’m so fundamentally disappointed by those in British academia who are coming to Sir Tim Hunt’s defence without considering either the responsibilities inherent in their positions of influence, or how his and their words can damage others.

Much has been written about Sir Tim’s comments about women in Korea, and if you’re unfamiliar with the story then Google is your friend at this point. There is a lot of debate about whether Sir Tim’s comments were meant as a joke, and thus whether they carry as much weight as if they were made seriously.

But the “just a joke” excuse is problematic in and of itself: When we tell people that they shouldn’t be offended by offensive words, we’re both normalising the offensive opinions contained in the “joke”, and belittling the people harmed by the promulgation of those opinions.

For the record, I don’t believe that this was either a joke or a mistake. According to those who were there, such as Deborah Blum or Connie St Louis, his was not some off-the-cuff comment. St Louis tells us (2:21:29, available until around 8 July) that he was told “not to go down this ‘Ha, ha’ route” before he made his comments, and that he talked for “five to seven minutes”, rather than just making a single aside. Blum tells us that she and others challenged him the next day. And this was, as far as I can tell, before his ill-advised comments to the Today programme.

However, whether or not Sir Tim was joking is ultimately irrelevant. He should never have spoken those words in the first place. As a Nobel Laureate, a professor and a Knight of the British Empire, Sir Tim definitely has power, influence and authority. He therefore has a responsibility to think very carefully about the words he uses in his public and professional lives.

People in Sir Tim’s position have an obligation to use their power to help, support and inspire others, not to denigrate a group of people — in this case, women — who are already at a disadvantage. Sir Tim failed in that obligation. He did not take his responsibilities seriously. Instead, he abused his position of power and has either refused to or been incapable of understanding the impact his words have had, or how he is supporting the institutional sexism rife in academia, and particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths).

Even when his failure was pointed out to him, instead of reflecting on what he’d said, he doubled down and, as far as I am aware, is yet to produce a full and proper apology.

And worse, we’ve now seen a raft of people, men and women alike, in positions of significant influence and power in academia and public life have come out to defend Sir Tim and in the process belittle the concerns that women, and many men, have about sexism in science.

Ottoline Leyser and Dame Athene Donald, both senior figures at Cambridge University, supported Sir Tim in The Times, in a paywalled article that cannot be widely read.

UPDATE 22 June: The letter below is actually from Lord Winston, not Leyser & Dame Athene, so apologies for the misattribution.

Their Lord Winston’s letter begins (my bold):

Sir, Whether or not University College London pressurised Sir Tim Hunt to resign after his remarks about women in laboratories, it acted utterly wrongly. A quiet phone call followed by a gentle face-to-face conversation with the Provost should have decided a joint statement on this trivial matter.

Apart from being a brilliant scientist with a Nobel Prize for his outstanding work, Professor Hunt is a gentle, unassuming and warm individual. Indeed, he is a scientific role model not only because of his lack of arrogance but also for his concern to support more women in science.

Sir Tim Times letter

I find it frustrating that they Lord Winston would decide to characterise Sir Tim’s comments as a “trivial matter”. Discrimination is never a trivial matter, nor are public comments disparaging women. It is especially disappointing that Donald, who has a reputation as someone very supportive of women in STEM, should decide that sexism is trivial when it is one of her friends who is criticised.

The Telegraph reports Leyser & Dame Athene as saying:

Fear and anger are natural responses that we all feel when challenged both individually and institutionally.

They have an important role to play in bringing issues to the fore, but they get in the way of finding solutions to complex problems.

It’s time for all of us to stop cowering and shouting, buck-passing and fingerpointing and start listening and talking.

This command to ‘move on’ is just as disappointing, bringing with it as it does the implication that somehow our concerns are no longer valid, now that so many people have weighed in on the issue. That is simply not true. Problems do not just go away because lots of people have opinions, and telling people to move on is condescending and inappropriate for anyone with the influence and power these women wield.

Then another eight senior figures, Nobel Laureates all, chipped in with their opinions. Unsurprisingly, they too wrote in The Times, behind a paywall, and they too come out on Sir Tim’s side. Again, The Telegraph gives us hints as to the contents of the letter.

(If anyone has a link to these letters which is available without a subscription, please leave a comment.)

Sir Andre Geim, of the University of Manchester, wrote:

The saddest part is probably the reaction by the UCL top brass who forced Tim to resign. So much for the freedom of expression by the very people who should be guardians of academic freedom.

Sir Andre completely misses the mark here, because this is not about academic freedom at all. Sir Tim did not release research about the relative successes of male-only labs vs female-only labs, so this is not about preventing him from publishing a paper that makes us feel uncomfortable. This is about a personal opinion, which many have found derogatory, expressed in a professional context where such opinions are very likely to be robustly challenged. Sir Andre forgets that freedom of expression is not freedom from the consequences of expression, and the science elite should be held responsible for their mistakes the same as everyone else.

And then there are the comments of Boris Johnson, Professor Brian Cox and Professor Richard Dawkins, also in support of Sir Tim, and also failing to adequately address the serious issue of sexism in science.

What really disturbs me about this is that the British academic (and political) elite appear to be closing ranks around a man who has made sexist comments and who is refusing to deal with the repercussions of those comments. Sir Tim’s words are indefensible. Describing oneself, apparently quite comfortably, as chauvinist, making demeaning comments about women, and then refusing to properly apologise for those remarks is not a slip of the tongue and it is not acceptable. It is not something that senior scientists should be supporting.

The message this sends to women is that British academe is still sexist, still does not know how to recognise sexist behaviour, has no desire to tackle sexism, and, indeed, will even support men who make sexist comments.

The message this sends is that it’s still too risky for women to call out sexist behaviour, because even other women will not censure sexism.

This is incredibly damaging, and the damage only gets worse as more and more academics decide to support Sir Tim, instead of recognising the seriousness of his error and encouraging him to make a full and sincere apology. Maybe if that happened, maybe if we saw clear signals that sexism will not be tolerated, we might be able do that moving on that Donald and Leyser are so keen on.

If academia needs an example to follow, they should take a serious look at how the Australian Chief of Army Lieutenant General David Morrison dealt with much more serious accusations of sexism made in 2013.

Lieutenant General Morrison does not mince his words:

Those who think that it is OK to behave in a way that demeans or exploits their colleagues have no place in this Army.


On all operations, female soldiers and officers have proven themselves worthy of the best traditions of the Australian Army. They are vital to us maintaining our capability, now and into the future. If that does not suit you, then get out. You may find another employer where your attitude and behaviour is acceptable, but I doubt it.


The standard you walk past is the standard you accept. That goes for all of us, but especially those who, by their rank, have a leadership role.

If Lieutenant General Morrison can be so very clear, to very emphatic when dealing with a much, much worse situation, why can academia’s leaders not be so clear that sexism of any degree is unacceptable, in any situation, from any member of faculty in any position?

Is there not one senior academic, one Nobel Laureate, who will stand up and in unflinching language decry sexism and the support of sexism that we are currently seeing from so many leading figures? This isn’t about Sir Tim anymore. This is about an inability amongst senior scientists to understand and take seriously the responsibilities that their power has bestowed upon them.

UPDATE 22 June: Here’s a fantastic post by Hilda Bastian about the problems with the “it’s just a joke” defence, complete with references. Well worth a read.

Sexist and other discriminatory disparaging humor takes a code for granted: its funniness relies on people recognizing the stereotypes that are the basis for the joke. It asks us to not take discriminatory stereotyping seriously. That’s not going to take the sting out of it.

Ford and Ferguson concluded that jokes don’t create hostility to the outgroup where it doesn’t already exist. But the evidence, they said, showed that joking reinforces existing prejudice. If you joke about women and get away with it, those who are hostile to women will see this as social sanction for their views and behavior. The joke tellers don’t themselves have to be actively misogynist to end up encouraging others to be.

And according to the Daily Mail (sorry!), two Nobel scientists have come out against Sir Tim’s comments, so that’s something to applaud:

However, 2014 shared Nobel prize winners for medicine, husband and wife Edvald and May-Britt Moser, from Norway, said Sir Tim’s speech was in no way beneficial to women.

‘Hunt’s statements point to attitudes that contribute to the continuation of inequality between the genders in science,’ they were reported as saying.

It’s a shame, though, that their comments were buried at the bottom of the article and haven’t been as widely discussed as those defending Sir Tim’s words.

Finally, @JennyRohn tweeted this, which made me sad, but underlines why we need to keep talking about sexism and calling out sexist comments and behaviour:

A woman scientist I know just said, “I’m afraid to tweet this”: http://t.co/KiLvyhlWZN by @suw – I think that speaks for itself

Please note that comments are moderated, and I will not be publishing any comments that are abusive. 

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