Why I'm Reading Marx

And why you should too ~ Brain Reel #30

When my partner declared a few weeks ago that he’d just ordered a copy of Marx’s Capital (vol 1), my immediate response was something along the lines of:

Really? It’s a bit long. Can’t you read a summary? Surely it’s a bit out of date nowadays anyway? Isn’t reading the whole thing cover to cover only for those radical lefties? Isn’t Marx a bit extreme? Good luck with that.

And I suspect for many of you reading this right now, something similar comes to mind.

Now, I’m a fan of AOC as much as the next person; I’m outraged when I see companies like Uber, Tesla and Amazon treat their workers horrifically; and I’ve never been able to understand how anyone can vote Tory.

But as much as I have always identified as being ‘on the left’, and despite always thinking of accumulation of capital for its own sake as ‘wrong’ somehow, I guess I’ve also seen companies and markets and division of labour/owners necessary somewhat.

I’m not writing this to tell you I’ve had some ‘coming to God’ moment, but because recently I’ve been reading more, and thinking more, and seeing ever more problematic behaviour and systems, and it’s made me realise - frankly - how little I’ve really thought about how much of what I believe is based on certain underlying assumptions brought about by unconscious socially-constructed ideas throughout my life.

When really challenged, I couldn’t really give a good coherent answer for why I didn’t understand why people voted Tory in years gone by (is it just because culturally in Scotland it’s more of a no-no or something deeper?), or why AOC is so great (what does it mean to think someone political is awesome when I can’t fully express my foundational political beliefs?), or why these companies were so bad (ok that one was more obvious…)

And I wonder if maybe it’s the same for you.

~

In high school, we had a class called Modern Studies. I hated it. I thought of politics as boring, as something that didn’t really affect me, as something way too subjective (I ended up studying pure maths at uni, if that helps give an indication of where my head was at). The only things I took away from that Modern Studies class is learning about the death penalty in the US, and - crucially (worryingly, in hindsight) - that democracy and capitalism are inextricably linked, and socialism is communism-lite.

And to be honest, I’ve never properly unpacked these unqualified axioms of sorts I had floating unconsciously in my mind, which I suspect have had more of a role in forming my views on society than I’d like to admit.

I’ve been following the social democratic movement for the last few years like the rest of us, cheering it on and adding my hope to the movement, but I’ve had this nagging thought at the back of my mind: ‘this can’t really work, though, can it?’

~

Working on a book over the last few years that was about unpacking the system of science and tech means I’ve spent a lot of time researching, thinking about and questioning why and how ‘progress’ happens the way that it does. And throughout this time, I’ve become more and more aware of how broken so many societal systems are at their core, and how no matter how much reformation happens in science and tech, it all comes back to something bigger, somewhat outside its control, outside its expertise and outside those of us commentating on its’ level of knowledge.

I haven’t had the language to express properly what I think in a meaningful way; my political understanding hasn’t been strong enough to really lay out my arguments sufficiently; I don’t have the foundational academic understanding to clearly think through and communicate what’s been there nagging at me. These paragraphs are vague for a reason.

Which brings me to Marx.

(Well, to a few other books and articles and writers and podcasts and academics first, but it doesn’t take long to end up at Marx when you start questioning how and why society right now ‘isn’t working’.)

I made a decision a few weeks ago to properly educate myself. About markets and economics and politics and value and philosophy and all that stuff those in power learn about in their Oxford PPE lectures. This maths nerd was going to embark upon something us maths and science grads tend to scoff at…a journey into ~the humanities~

And I don’t mean that no maths or science grad understands this stuff - heck, I’ve had a good enough understanding until now, probably better than average I suspect, through the books and films and podcasts I’ve been consuming over the years, through the jobs I’ve been in, and through my more general curiosity.

It’s not revolutionary to say ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’, but it is to take it to heart and apply it to yourself.

I know that I don’t know a lot. And I’d now like to learn it. Not just for fun (though I am having a great time) but so I can better form my thoughts, better argue my moralistic view of the world, better debate with those I disagree with, better understand the political factions and what they’re really campaigning for, better come to terms with what I think the next steps for society really are, and better challenge why I believe some things as opposed to simply for the purpose of justifying existing ideas.

I think many of us think we know a lot - the last year has made me realise how much I have to learn. Admitting that here to you, frankly, isn’t very easy. It’s like admitting that even though I’m meant to be an ‘expert’ on science and tech, and that I’ve wrote a whole book on underlying systems, that I’m some kind of ‘imposter’, really.

But I suspect that’s why many people don’t bother trying to really understand the world. It feels like an exposure of themselves as unknowing. It feels uncomfortable to be faced with ideas and knowledge and research and data which undercuts things you’ve believed for years; which confuses you; which perhaps makes you feel guilty or complicit.

It’s what’s been stopping me, if I’m to be really honest with you.

~

And so here I am, just finished Chapter 1 of Capital (alongside David Harvey’s A Companion to Marx’s Capital, which I’d be lost without, and a pal who also decided to dive in at roughly the same time with whom I’m doing a wee reading ‘group’ with).

Not only do I feel my understanding of the world has deepened in only 100 pages, but I already understand why that lesson in Modern Studies has blinkered me all this time. I’m not saying one book (or even one chapter) has flipped my worldview on its head (especially as I already agreed with the inherited principle of the book), but instead that the very act of diving into something which feels difficult and alien and outside my expertise; and perhaps scary and confronting too…feels really bloody good.

I’m writing this essay as I’ve felt reading from others going through similar journeys to be immeasurably helpful - in helping me come to terms with central ideas of mine crashing down in front of me. Maybe it’ll do the same for one or more of you.

~

There’s one more thing I’ve nicked from my partner beyond his copy of Capital, and it’s his astute summary of what I’m trying to say here:

“You feel you agree with some social and political principles, but you’re worried you’ve culturally inherited those ideas, and are very aware that you haven’t done the work. You’ve listened to people who have done the work but you’ve taken in their interpretation. So you need to grasp what your foundational beliefs really are, and to do this, you have to do the work for yourself. You have to work out which of those beliefs actually match the words you’re giving to them, and whether you’re dismissing ideas incorrectly, you need to learn what those beliefs and ideas are at their core and where they’ve come from.”

I don’t know if that will speak to you - now, or ever - but if it does, I hope you’ll get in touch with your favourite independent bookshop right now and order yourself some Marx (or whatever your version of Capital is) and also embark on this perilous but ultimately so fulfilling journey of beginning to really understand what you think about the world.


📌 Tip Reel 📌

Currently reading (beyond Marx…):

I started watching the Epstein documentary on Netflix last night - Filthy Rich - so far so horrific (I’m midway through episode 2), but ‘enjoying’ it all the same.

Brilliant piece from Brian Merchant over one OneZero, where he reads works “from the Bible to ‘Epidemics and Society’ to ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ to help predict our post-pandemic future”.

Afropean by Johnny Pitts won the annual Jhalak Prize for writers of colour this week. I’ve placed my order. It’s also been one of the books on the reading list for this great new book club on Instagram run by the wonderful Symeon Brown: @goodreadersclub - this Sunday they’re discussing An American Marriage. It’s one of the few online book clubs that has really excited me.

This essay by Madeleine Dunne on the cost of personal writing is fab and I think you should give it a read.


🕯 What I’m Up To 🕯

Science Disrupt podcast

I’m really proud of our latest episode (iTunes / Spotify), which is us laying down a bit of an explanation of what we mean when we talk about ‘disrupting science’ and why we need and want to be much more honest, open, upfront and realistic about what’s happening in tech and science. (I have a mini rant about VCs and the recent Clubhouse deal). Next week, we’re publishing our interview with Sabine Hossenfelder, which I’m SO excited for you guys to hear!

Smoke & Mirrors

Next event I’m speaking about my book Smoke & Mirrors will be at CogX at 5.30-6pm on the 9th June - I’m being interviewed by Matt Clifford of Entrepreneur First about hype in the cutting edge startup world. I’m also interviewing a personal hero of mine (he is part of the reason I ended up studying maths at uni…) Marcus du Sautoy, about creativity and intelligence earlier the same day (10am).

-> I have a bunch of free passes to the whole festival if you want to join - use code: SPCXSFP100

Book Writing YouTube Series

I was interviewed by Anne-Laure Le Cunff about my book writing process - we totally nerd out about post-it notes, online tools and Scrivener (complete with screen sharing!) You can watch it now if you fancy peeking into the actual ins and outs of gathering research, knowledge and interviews and then somehow turning that all into a book..! (My YouTube channel has a few videos on book writing, including how I got my agent / publisher etc, which you can find here).

Currently Working On

Currently working on a piece to do with the ‘economy of experts’ in terms of gurus, public intellectuals, academics, advisors, consultants…and what the internet has done for credibility, ‘expertise’ and trust.


Find me elsewhere on TwitterFacebookLinkedInGoodreadsInstagramMedium, or through my website.

Until next time,
Gemma 🚀


Gemma Milne is a science & tech writer, author of ‘Smoke & Mirrors: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It’, and is co-host of the Science Disrupt podcast.

Do Yer Duty

Books, sudoku, duty ~ Brain Reel #29

Hey pals,

It’s been a hot minute since we last spoke! Turns out launching a book in lockdown is no less time-consuming than doing it in ‘the real world’… But Smoke & Mirrors is out now, and it feels really bloody good.

(If you haven’t yet got your copy of Smoke & Mirrors, or want to get one as a gift, I highly recommend Lighthouse Books in Edinburgh to buy it from online!)

I’ve been having a think about how to make this newsletter both as interesting as possible for you lot as well as slightly more manageable on my end, and I’ve landed on starting it with a wee essay, followed by my recommendations and updates. Let me know if you prefer this or the previous format, or if you just want to say hi, by hitting reply :)

On with the reel!


Do Yer Duty

Writing about science can feel like both an urgent calling and an indulgent hobby.

You get to tell stories about the unknown, and share crucial information about how our world works, and most people see you as the translator of that thing they didn’t understand in school or the wistful clever clogs in the separate section of the newspaper.

I’m not a news reporter, I’m not an investigative journalist, I’m not a staffer – my job isn’t usually to break new information to the public and I don’t routinely write about viruses or public health.

But every day I wake up and wonder what exactly my duty is in this indescribable time that we’re living in.

‘DO YER DUTY’.

It’s a phrase that’s been carved into my mind, ever since my stonemason dad brought home the big sandstone plaque with those very words he’d hand-chiselled in, and turned what was a first draft piece for a client into a fancy step in amongst a set in our back garden.

I’ve walked on those words for years at home, and pondered what they meant for the kings, queens, knights and soldiers before me. I’d never really thought that ‘duty’ would figure much in my 21st century liberal freelance life – until now.

I feel, like I’m sure so many of us do too right now, a sense of duty to contribute more than what I currently am. Maybe it’s the battle narratives we’re hearing, maybe it’s the talk of heroism of those front-line workers, but the urge to do something drastic, switch focus and ‘jump in’ is there in droves.

Is my duty, with my writing skills, my academic contacts and my ability to dive into research papers not entirely flabbergasted by their contents, to join the ‘ranks’ of the science beat reporters? To help get the often-inaccessible information out to the masses at a time so many are hungry for answers?

Perhaps it’s to hold those in power to account – questioning the official information being broadcast to the public, diving into the government plans to seek out problematic burials, calling out those with influence and authority to do better by society?

Maybe it’s to help get the important messages out, to campaign and debunk and explain – taking a more educator role with my communication background and Twitter followers in tow?

Or, is my duty just to stay home, stay quiet, let those in those jobs already do their thing, whilst I stick to my commentary, my non-public-health focus, my ‘outsider’ status?

The urge to jump in and do something is maybe exactly the problem right now, though. Perhaps the strong desire so many of us have to fix things and get answers and know exactly what’s what is, ironically, hindering progress.

Science, technology and ‘working out how the world works’ are not endeavours with simple answers. The systems which power our societies – health, energy, food, education, transport – they are interconnected, interdependent and highly complex. This has always been a tricky thing to communicate though, and some parts of the media is rightly criticised for its crude headlines, lack of presented nuance and absolutist statements.

Now, with these systems crumbling before us, their moving parts (or lack thereof recently) are laid out for all to see. Like a machine that has been whizzing so fast you can't see the bits in motion, now exposed – with each and every ream of sticky tape holding it together, every cog slightly too big and slightly too small, the amount of oil which has been used to keep it running, the people behind the scenes whose blood, sweat, and tears fuels it...all on show.

As the pandemic continues, and as people shift towards the new-normal, more space arises for unpicking what exactly has happened, what it exposes about our world, and what's next in terms of repairing (and redesigning) society. The fragility of systems like the airline industry and the restaurant sector have been made clear to those on the outside; the interconnectedness of systems such as health, immigration and schools is now plain for all to see; and the fact that our society's systems break when society doesn't engage in them is something most people had never previously considered, but now personally understand. It's unfortunate that it's under harsh circumstances that the reality of how our world works is suddenly made so clear, but if we're to build a better world off the back of the pandemic - a world which is better protected from more international disasters and threats we'll undoubtedly continue to face in the years to come; a world which is closer to the utopian ideals humanity has dreamed of for eons - then right now is the opportunity to dive into those systems, continue to explore how they power our world, and give foundations and frameworks for those trying to build them better.

Jumping into quick answers, definite statements and narratives lacking in this crucial nuance is causing confusion, frustration and diminishing trust in government, the media, and science itself.

It’s my duty, then, to hold back. To sit in the uncertainty. To strive to find nuance in our complex world. And to not make any rash decisions under the guise of trying to fix what cannot be with a simple switch in personal focus.

Our duty right now isn’t disengagement, but considered thought. Our duty is to hold back ill-informed demands, to pick apart the information presented as logically as possible, and to get to grips better with the complex world we live in. Now more than ever should we understand the power of collective action and thought – and we should remember that moving forward.

The world has always needed more nuance; our duty now right now is to take that personally.


📌 Tip Reel 📌

Currently reading:

This video of a dude solving a Sudoku - honestly! - is bloody glorious, and I highly recommend getting a cup of tea and taking a 25 minute break to watch it.

Really enjoyed the latest edition of Popular Information (a brilliant newsletter) on ‘The Rise of the Quacks’ - on pseudoscience and politics.

I loved (/was appalled at) this article from Imogen West-Knights on Why British Prisons Aren’t Working.

The most beautiful (but heartbreaking) 8 minutes of audio come from Anton Ferrie on the Anthems podcast, and I *urge* you to give it a listen. It’s stunning.


🕯 What I’m Up To 🕯

We’ve been busy relaunching the Science Disrupt podcast, and our 2 latest episodes are all about Abolishing Silicon Valley, with Wendy Liu, and Science Communication in the Age of Coronavirus. We’ve got some awesome guests coming up including Mark O’Connell, Sabine Hossenfelder and Rutger Bregman!

I’ve been interviewed on lots of wonderful podcasts about Smoke & Mirrors, here are a few of my favourites (and how they skew most):

I’m now working on my second book - my agent has my first draft of the sample chapter and the chapter outlines, I’m hoping we’ll go out to publishers to try to sell it in the next few weeks..! (I’ve been sharing more on this on my Instagram stories if you want to follow along)

Currently working on a piece on VC hype culture / cult of the entrepreneur and what that means in terms of value creation in Silicon Valley…


Find me elsewhere on TwitterFacebookLinkedInGoodreadsInstagramMedium, or through my website.

Until next time,
Gemma 🚀


Gemma Milne is a science & tech writer, author of ‘Smoke & Mirrors: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It’, and is co-host of the Science Disrupt podcast.

Brain Reel #28

Coronavirus crooks | Join my street team! | Running: be fast or first?

Hey gang,

What a strange world we’re living in right now, eh?

I’ve been struggling to write over the last few weeks, for various reasons beyond, you know, the global pandemic, but I’ve been missing writing my wee newsletter.

So in an effort to get back on track and get the words flowing once more, I’m currently doing an online writing retreat with Urban Writers’ Retreat (it’s free and on again tomorrow, get involved!) and one of the things I told all the folk on the very active accountability Facebook group is that I’d write my newsletter today – so here goes…


🔬 Science Reel 🔬

What is there to talk about beyond Covid-19 in the science section my pals? I must admit, it’s quite a strange time to be a science writer – I’m struck by a feeling of duty to write about the virus, but I’m not an epidemiology or virus expert, and public health isn’t usually my beat, so I’m also struck with a sense of ‘how on Earth do we navigate all this information?!’ much like most people.

One thing I do keep an eye on though is the world of science startups, and the process of taking what’s in the lab out into the market. It means I receive a lot of press releases from small businesses in the biotech sector. One caught my eye the other day – a startup which analyses your DNA, much like 23andme, offering a Covid-19 test for about £120 (and proudly releasing that info to journalists to hopefully help market it for them). You order one, it’s delivered to your door, you do the test at home, post back, and get your results online after a few days.

I couldn’t work out if this was blatant conning of the wealthy – offering a test that wasn’t accepted as good enough by Public Health England to be offered by the NHS – or blatant proof that we do have capacity and capability for more testing, and that which is safely done at home, but private companies are taking up space in the analysis labs. Turns out it’s a bit of both.

A few days later, I saw this awesome – if slightly depressing – piece in the New York Times about the British businesses making a dime off Covid-19 testing.

I guess one thing we can all do is keep an eye on who is doing what over the next few months, and adjust our actions, spending and votes accordingly. The pandemic will eventually start to ease – we must ensure a better, fairer world comes out the other side.


📖 Book Reel 📖

So my very first book, Smoke & Mirrors, comes out in less than 4 weeks! April 23rd 2020 doesn’t feel so far away any more…

It was an exciting day yesterday as I received my very first author copies! Pretty emotional seeing it in print, to say the least…

Image may contain: Gemma Milne, standing and indoor

Of course, I’m pretty gutted about all the events I had booked around the launch being cancelled but I’m still extremely excited to get my words out into the world (and y’know bigger things and all that).

I’ll be gathering as many online events and podcasts and livestreams into a ‘digital book tour’ of sorts, starting with the few I have down at the bottom of this newsletter!

I’ve had a lot of lovely people ask how they can help get ‘Smoke & Mirrors’ out into the world, so I’ve decided to create what the cool kids in the book industry call a ‘street team’.

It’s essentially a group of lovely kind folk who want to help boost the book when it comes out – whether that’s a simple sharing of a tweet or a LinkedIn post on launch day, or reviewing the book on Goodreads or Amazon, or connecting me up with your pals with podcasts, YouTube channels or another kind of audience who might like the book, or seeing if your company fancies doing an (online) event with me around its themes. As Tesco has reminded us for years, every little helps!

I’ve created a wee Typeform (only 8 questions!) which I’d be so grateful if you could fill in if you fancy giving Smoke & Mirrors a wee helping hand, and over the next few weeks, I’ll share some sample social posts and a few other bits and bobs to make it easy to give Smoke & Mirrors a wee boost - I know you’re all super busy!

Join the Street Team!

Pre-order links for ‘SMOKE & MIRRORS: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It’, released April 23rd 2020: Amazon / Foyles / Waterstones / Blackwells / Wordery / Book Depository

Or if you prefer a big fancy green button:

Pre-order and feel great about life!


🧐 Musing Reel 🧐

I watched this interesting Wall Street Journal video about the Nike Vaporfly controversy. It’s a great wee video so I recommend giving it a whirl, but in short, Nike created this trainer which might be giving those who wear it an unfair advantage, due to the dimensions and material of the sole (seemingly it’s like running on a cloud!)

The video introduced to me the idea of 'mechanical doping' - doping not with drugs, but with the equipment you use in the sport; in this case, the shoes you run in.

It brought up an interesting question around what competitive running is about: is it about getting the fastest times possible, or about competition between athletes? It is about being fast, or is it about being first?

If competitive running is about pushing our human bodies to their extremes to get the fastest time, then you could argue that the shoes are fine provided everyone can wear them - which, of course, they can. It’s the argument some make for allowing drug doping in sport: that it would be interesting to see how far and how fast we can go if everyone was put on steroids - they’d all be starting from the ‘same place’. (It sounds eerily similar to those who advocate for brain-computer interfaces, might I add..)

But then where do we stop with adding in other mechanical or chemical advantages? Are we just getting closer to putting athletes in cars and having them drive to the finish line? Where’s the fun in that?

We then start opening questions up about what is the maximum 'help' that athletes should be allowed if we really want to work out what counts as a 'best time' ever. I mean, athletes are really only competing with other athletes alive right now anyway - versus competitions in the past, we know more about nutrition, the tracks are better maintained, the coaching is getting better every year…heck we could start talking about wealthier athletes having access to more expertise so should there be a limit in how much can be spent each year on coaching?

Of course, running can be about competing with yourself, and the fastest times to beat, and it can also be about being the best on the day. So the other side of the coin is: ‘well what about strategy?’ - i.e. surely running isn’t just about being super fast, but by running intelligently: getting to the finish line first, the hare and the tortoise have taught us, isn’t just about speed. It shouldn’t be about the shoes you wear but how well you train and how cleverly you compete. But then, what else do we remove as ‘advantages’ to get it down to ensuring everyone is competing on strategy alone, fairly on the day?

Sport - much like many facets of life - can never truly be fair. But this wee example shows that sometimes it’s less about the technicalities of the advantage and more about the ultimate goal those involved consider most important. Maybe when we see things as unfair and can’t work out why others don’t, it’s because we’re only looking at them through the lens of our own goals - and maybe the way to fix things, or make them fairer through our own eyes, is to find ways to reorient the target for those with a different vantage point.


📌 Tip Reel 📌

I’m currently reading a few books and, so far, they are all incredible:

If you’re looking for an anchor to mark each day right now – I was feeling very out at sea as I’m into my fourth week at home now (started early due to being ill) – I highly recommend finding a movie series and watching a segment each night, one after the other. We’ve done the 8 Harry Potter movies twice now (16 days of glory!); pure escapism, something to mark the end of our workday each night, and gives a sense of progress. A wee thing, but something I’ve been finding very helpful.

This little Vox video on how they colourise old photos was fascinating.


📚 (Digital) Book Tour! 📚

23rd April: Ctrl Alt Delete Podcast with Emma Gannon (pre-recorded)

29th April: FUTURES podcast (live) - get tickets HERE

(Will keep adding to this over time… have lots still to announce but waiting on dates for a few things to be confirmed!)


Find me elsewhere on TwitterFacebookLinkedInGoodreadsInstagramMedium, or through my website.

Until next time,
Gemma 🚀


Gemma Milne is a Science & Tech Writer, has her very first book (about hype and idealism in science and tech) coming out April 23rd 2020, is co-host of the Science: Disrupt podcast, and loves a bit of public speaking.

Brain Reel #27

'Women stuff' and pseudoscience, get a sneak peek of my book, SEWING

Hey you lot,

Long time no speak! It’s been a bit of a mad 2020 for me so far – a mixture of being pretty bed-bound with flu then a chest infection then tonsillitis (clearly I need more spinach in my life), as well as kicking off a new (secret right now…) podcast, recording the audiobook for Smoke & Mirrors and moving flat..! In short, writing my beloved Brain Reel has had to take a hit.

BUT, here we are. It’s March. It’s less than 2 months until my very first book hits bookshelves. I’m self-isolating my clearly crap immune system in my beautiful new flat. It’s getting (a little more) sunnier. It’s time to get back into writing to you wonderful lot.

Onwards!


🔬 Science Reel 🔬

I *loved* this piece in the New York Times by Farhad Manjoo: ‘Coronavirus Is What You Get When You Ignore Science’. This bit in particular:

Science has always faced threats. Its purpose is to shed light on truth, and there have always been those who would stifle the dangerous facts scientists unearth. But today the stakes are higher. How we’ll fight the gravest threats humanity faces will depend on how governments and citizens understand and interpret the findings and cautions of science.

Oh and this bit:

It may sound paradoxical to plead for divine sanction of scientific pursuit. But these are dicey times for science and for scientists, and they need all the help they can get.

And it got me thinking about how we talk about science, or rather, how we don’t, particularly in female-targeted media. BBC Woman’s Hour recently aired an episode on astrology. A book on ‘manifesting’ money by a prominent female influencer has recently been commissioned by Piatkus. Netflix released a series focused on Gweneth Paltrow’s pseudoscientific wellness brand Goop, clearly aimed at and featuring aspiring/middle-class women.

It pains me to see this. Both from the perspective of misinformation and affecting vulnerable people, but also as I really do think this stuff is far too intertwined with the idea of what ‘female things’ look like. Female intuition seems to be getting confused with untested ‘fixes’ fueling various capitalistic agendas. The ‘female trait’ of being open-minded and more emotion-led than logic-led seems to be getting confused with genuinely baffling, not to mention dangerous, ideas. Women as ‘more accepting’ seems to be getting confused with presenting pseudoscience to audiences who are less likely to challenge and fight back against ideas they’ve been conditioned to believe they don’t have ‘the scientific knowledge’ to understand.

Frankly, I feel like this stuff gives women a bad name – fuelling that historical narrative that women aren’t scientifically literate, that we’re gullible, that we’re incapable of being logical. I feel embarrassed when I see it.

Female-focused media has a responsibility to present good information to their audiences they proclaim to care so much about (and not assume women don’t care about science and thus hardly include it), but women reading and consuming and propping up these narratives also have a responsibility to say ‘this is not what we want’.


📖 Book Reel 📖

I decided to release a preview of the book, to give everyone a sneak peek of what Smoke & Mirrors is all about! All the information is over on my website - go have a read and let me know what you think!

Read the intro of Smoke & Mirrors

We recorded the audiobook a few weeks ago, which was a surreal experience to say the least! 4 and half days in a wee booth reading you own words over and over to get them perfect drives you a little crazy, but luckily I did emerge reminded how proud I am of this book of mine. And now you can listen to my dulcet Scottish tones reading it out to you come April (you can even pre-order the audiobook..! *wink wink*) (Also if you fancy a laugh, I posted the outtakes in which I stumble on both easy and hard-to-say words over and over and over again in a wee story feature thing on Instagram)

For those of you holding off pre-ordering as you want a signed copy (honestly, I was surprised / very flattered by how many requests for this I was getting!) I’ve partnered with this lovely independent online bookshop called Big Green Books which you can order this very thing through! Their website isn’t the most ‘2020’ but Simon who runs it is awesome and ordering through them means you’re supporting a cracking wee business instead of Amazon 🙃 (Also I’ve already had some of my book event partners hold off booking dates in April and May due to COVID-19 so there may not be as many in-person events as I’d like…)

Get me a signed copy!

Pre-order links for ‘SMOKE & MIRRORS: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It’, released April 23rd 2020: Amazon / Foyles / Waterstones / Blackwells / Wordery / Book Depository

Or if you prefer a big fancy green button:

Pre-order and feel great about life!


🧐 Musing Reel 🧐

So recently I got into sewing. Yep.

My pal Alice inspired me when I visited her flat for the first time and saw all the clothes she was making from scratch; Netflix’s ‘Next in Fashion’ totally got my creative cogs turning again (they’ve felt a little dormant of late); and then I went to a sewing convention (because of course I did) and was totally taken by all the bits and pieces and fabrics and patterns and kinds of people there.

The whole world of finding a pattern (the garment’s recipe, mainly found online these days), adapting it to your sizes, choosing your fabric and notions and extra pockets (cos I will always add extra pockets), and then spending a weekend whiling away the time making something from nothing…well, it feels bloody brilliant. And it reminds me somewhat of the open-source software world.

It also has made me look at my body in a whole new (healthier, more considered and less emotional) way. I finally understand why things bought off the shelf – no matter my dress size at the time – have always hung off me awkwardly (turns out I have a non-standard hip to waist ratio, who knew). I finally understand why fashion hasn’t ever really spoke to me (I’ve never felt a part of it, but MAKING a thing makes me feel very intertwined). And I feel like I look at clothes in a whole new way – snapping photos at shop windows because I think the stitching is beautiful, or trying to work out in my head how the women in the coffee shop’s dress, with its intriguing seams, was put together, or SKETCHING IDEAS in my little ‘fashion design notebook’ as I watch back episodes of Project Runway. It’s like my eyes have been opened, and it’s cracking.

Get involved people.


📌 Tip Reel 📌

Quanta made this CRACKING map of maths, called The Map of Mathematics, and honestly, I have been WAITING on this ever since it became clear my maths degree was not going to provide an overview of the field and a way to follow it. It’s also beautifully designed! Brilliant.

I joined a new Slack group (well, it’s now on Mattermost…but, same thing) by Anna Gat and her amazing new(ish) talent agency / community, the Interintellect. It’s basically now one of the few places online I check every day, and I regularly feel like the stupidest person in the room as it’s filled with so many brilliant minds. I’d get yourself on the waiting list if I were you. (Also we’re hosting the next London Salon at my place in a few weeks and there are only 12 spaces, so I’d follow Anna to get updates on this too if you want to come along to chat ‘Generalists v Specialists’)

I’ve read 7 books so far in 2020, all of which are reviewed on my Instagram, and next on my list are two proofs – Wendy Liu’s ‘Abolish Silicon Valley’ and Jenny Kleeman’s ‘Sex Robots and Vegan Meat’ – as well as ‘Ideas That Matter’ by A.C. Grayling and ‘Play It Again’ by Alan Rusbridger.


➡️ Next Reel ➡️

  • 24-25 March: London - AI UK (chair) [at the moment this is still going ahead]

(All my upcoming foreign travel, and many of the events I had scheduled in London, have been cancelled / postponed as a result of Covid-19…will be interesting to see what happens to the events and conferencing industry over the next few months)


Find me elsewhere on TwitterFacebookLinkedInGoodreadsInstagramMedium, or through my website.

Until next time,
Gemma 🚀


Gemma Milne is a Science & Tech Writer, has her very first book (about hype and idealism in science and tech) coming out April 23rd 2020, is co-host of the Science: Disrupt podcast, and loves a bit of public speaking.

Brain Reel #26

Irresponsible VCs, TikTok faves, successful people are rejected more

Hey you lot,

I’m writing this from my bed, at 3pm on a Thursday, on day 14 of this stupid January lurgy that everyone seems to have. But I just read this incredibly moving, angering, beautiful, tragic piece of writing and basically it gave me a bit of a kick up the backside and a light dose of: ‘Gemma you’ve really got it quite good’.

(If you need some motivation to get off your arse and write, as frankly it’s really the only positive action you can take from this piece, give it a read.)

On with the reel!

(P.S If you read this before 10pm, I’m going to be live on BBC Radio 3 tonight on Free Thinking, chatting ‘Psychohistory: Isaac Asimov and guiding the future’…full details of the episode here (I’m assuming if you read this after, the recording will also be at this link))


🔬 Science Reel 🔬

So Felix Capital have raised a new $300m fund to keep investing in so-called ‘digital lifestyle’ startups. They’ve invested in companies such as Peloton, Farfetch and Deliveroo.

Oh, and Goop*.

I think we need to have some serious conversations about what it means to be a responsible VC in 2020. There’s plenty out there about impact investing at the pension fund scale, and lots of commentary around those who have oil stocks, but I rarely see anything that really picks apart how early(ish) stage investors spread their monies.

Whenever I’ve challenged - or even simply asked - a VC about investing in companies which are irresponsible, problematic, or even just pointless, they tell me that the only way for the VC model to work is to cynically invest in companies sure to succeed (which most likely aren’t those which make the world better), to then fund risks on the ones which might not have as good a chance (but which are societally more beneficial). So basically, invest in Goop as their bad behaviour does result in profit, and then use that to fund something better on the side.

So I’m left with a few questions:

  1. Is it a lack of skill on the VC side? Are they unable to invest more intelligently / help the better companies find ways of making money to save lazily investing in others?

  2. Is the model of VC fundamentally ill-fit-for-purpose, if we’re looking for a funding mechanism there to make the world a better place?

  3. Are the consumers / the market (/ we) to blame? These companies shouldn’t work but they do - and it’s because people buy their shit.

More thinking required on my end - would love your thoughts to help navigate? Hit reply if you also have some ponderings here.

*I’m not going to go into why this is a problem here, as there’s plenty out there already about their open and active flogging of pseudoscientific products, and problematic exploitation of the fear, vulnerability and self-loathing that celebrity and popular culture inject.


📖 Book Reel 📖

After last week’s rambles about me feeling a bit like I was treading water, since then THINGS have happened!

Such as:

  • Another big mail out to journalists asking if they want review copies (are you a journalist reading this who did not get this email? You know what to do…)

  • Smoke & Mirrors is now on Goodreads! Yay! Can’t wait for my beloved (yes I know the UX is bad) books website to become a place I obsessively check the reviews of my own book on instead of browsing and compiling lists of my own reads! (If you’re on there and still need to do your good deed for today, go take a wee look and click the ‘Want to Read’ button so that when I check it tomorrow it has some stats I can marvel at!)

  • Got confirmed as a guest for a pretty big podcast airing April 30th and I’m already quite nervous?

  • Got confirmed as a BOOK CLUB BOOK whaaaaaaaat

  • Getting 3 new blurbs in from three lovely people who wrote lovely words about Smoke & Mirrors

  • Neil Gaiman liked one of my tweets

Essentially, I guess I was right when I said the treading feeling would be over within the week…

I have a feeling this isn’t going to slow any time soon, so I’m going to stock up on vegetables, get rid of this stupid lurgy so I can get back to the gym, and brace myself for the wave of both craziness as well as possibly disappointing lack-of-things to come.

2020 let’s do this.

Pre-order links for ‘SMOKE & MIRRORS: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It’, released April 23rd 2020: Amazon / Foyles / Waterstones / Blackwells / Wordery / Book Depository

Or if you prefer a big fancy button:

Pre-order and feel great about life!


🧐 Musing Reel 🧐

I got turned down for a grant I’d applied for today. It reminded me of this article I wrote a while back about how successful people get rejected more. Sharing here as I find myself going back and reading my own words every now and again - when those feelings of failure and imposter syndrome and ‘not good enough’ rise to the top.

Maybe the ghost of Gemma-past will give you a wee boost too?

Successful People Get Rejected More


📌 Tip Reel 📌

What I’m reading right now (I put my reviews on my Instagram and Goodreads, if you fancy it):

  • Nein!: Standing up to Hitler (Paddy Ashdown tells, for the first time, the story of those at the very top of Hitler’s Germany who tried first to prevent the Second World War and then to deny Hitler victory.)

If you’re not already following the Washington Post on TikTok, you’re missing out. I’ve watched their latest one on Watergate, with the long-time book critic Ron Charles, maybe about 23 times already today. (If you cba with TikTok, follow the account’s mastermind Dave Jorgenson on Twitter - he posts most of them there too). (I also *love* @ghosthoney on TikTok too - this one in particular).

I wrote about The Syllabus in a previous edition - they’re now doing curated podcast feeds, get involved.

It seems I really enjoy YouTube video essays about films (Lindsay Ellis is a particular favourite), and recently I discovered Taylor Williams through his brilliant video on the ‘confusing lore of CATS or (the morality of Jellicles and non-Jellicles)’. Go watch.


➡️ Next Reel ➡️

  • 27 Jan: London, UK - Echo Chamber Club meetup ‘Believing the Truth’ (attendee)

  • 29 Jan: London, UK - Google’s Future of Insurance breakfast (moderator)

  • 1-5 Mar: Bratislava, Slovakia - Writing retreat with writer pal Phil!

  • 12-13 Mar: Paris, France - Hello Tomorrow (host / moderator)

  • 21-25 Mar: Borneo - Biodiversity mission (press)

  • 26 Mar: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - Thought For Food (host / moderator)


✍️ Work Reel ✍️


Find me elsewhere on TwitterFacebookLinkedInGoodreadsInstagramMedium, or through my website.

Until next time,
Gemma 🚀


Gemma Milne is a Science & Tech Writer, currently writing a book about hype and idealism in science and tech, is co-host of the Science: Disrupt podcast, and loves a bit of public speaking.

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