Room, Emma Donoghue‘s heavily-garlanded novel, is a captivating, uplifting story well worth the plaudits and glowing reviews bestowed on it.

The tale is narrated more or less exclusively by Jack, who turns five years old at the start of the book and whose whole experience of the world is confined to the locked room which he shares with his mother and to the powers of his own imagination, sparked by the characters on his TV and – more importantly – to the spirited games and routines which he shares with her. It is through his eyes that we see the world and the accepting approach is that of a small boy (we learn little, for example, of physical appearances). Evidently, some prisons are of the mind and Jack is never imprisoned, despite the insular situation in which the tale takes place. The book does not suffer from claustrophobia; Jack is intelligent, keen to learn and to show his learning, and well-adjusted, even if slightly on the autistic spectrum – yet evidently, as is made clear from the beginning, he is still just a little boy. The bond between Jack and his mother is evidently a more significant one than most as a result of their confined surroundings, but it is never a suffocating one and there are frequently evident tensions between them, while the mother is prone to convincing periods of depression. There is a shift in pace in the latter sections of the book which creates a feeling of drag and a certain loss of momentum but the effect, ultimately, is to highlight the bond between Jack and his mother. And it is clear that the end of the novel is not The End.

Despite the evident difficulties the author has created for herself, the tale is convincing in most aspects of its development (a small quibble is that Facebook wasn’t around in 2003, despite the quality of the joke inspiring the reference – this will be less and less obvious to future readers but that shouldn’t prevent its correction now; while we might question the easy nature with which Jack lets some things go as the novel winds to its conclusion). It is also confidently told. Through Jack’s precociousness, Donoghue manages to get in some sharp observations about societal developments yet these only rarely seem forced or portray him as mature beyond his years. Despite the subject matter, this is not a harrowing tale but there are moments of discomfort – as indeed there should be if the work is to convince.

Perhaps above all, this is a feminist novel at both the surface level – in terms of the strength of character and the sheer ingenuity of Jack’s mother – and in terms of the development of the plot, with an interesting cast on the cash-sex nexus and, in modern terms, the absence of fathers from most aspects of domestic life (though it is never anti-male). Indeed, Donoghue has created a uniquely original voice in Jack and a memorable, gripping novel with well-adjudged character portrayal – itself a major achievement, given the challenging setting – and of the plot. All in all, a triumph.

Mobile connections: the threats behind the impressive stats

Interesting news that connected devices in the world now number higher than the population of the planet – the source of which appears to be somewhere around here.

Self-evidently, this is not the same as saying that everyone in the world has a phone – the number of westerners with a multiplicity of devices, providing density figures much in excess of 100%, provides enough of an expanding market to account for by the majority of connected people. Nevertheless, there is an interesting, if obvious, comment to make on the state of international development and solidarity when the number of people without access to safe, clean water and basic sanitation still lies in the billions while those in developed countries have access to not just one, but two, three, four or more connected devices.

Apart from that, it is the growth in mobile which has been so impressive – around 2001, as the chart in this article shows very well, the number of mobile connections globally was around the same as the number of fixed line ones (despite a history of just ten years at that point), but, in the ten years since then, the phenomenal growth rate has seen the number of mobile connections reach a figure around five times that of fixed ones. Indeed, by 2015, there are predictions that the number of connected devices will be twice that of the world’s population as near as 2015, while Ericsson has been predicting 50bn connections by 2020 for at least the last two years.

Impressive growth rates, for sure (if indeed achievable), but, as I argued below, growth as a goal is problematic and, in this context, I also note that Juniper Research has also this week produced another of its warnings that mobile costs may well exceed revenues within four years. Additionally, Nokia is also reporting difficulties arising not least from lower device selling prices as network operators start to drive prices down – a factor which will become more apparent should the France Telecom-Deutsche Telekom procurement link-up be successful – while other handset makers are also feeling the pinch. Counteracting the problems facing mobile companies, at a time of a need for the inevitable increased expansion of investment to deal with the implications for network capacity of such a high number of mobile connections, to say nothing of financially struggling countries looking to spectrum auctions as a source of cheap state finance (which themselves carry evident dangers), is a question that will heavily occupy not only mobile operators and their workers, but also regulators and policy-makers, over the next few years.

Another bubble?

Interesting piece here on reviewing recent valuations of social media firms.

My interest was immediately piqued by the introduction to the article : ‘Traditional metrics are no longer valid when it comes to measuring the value of the new breed of social media companies’, which then goes on to review the valuations placed on four social media firms – with more to come – as a result of stock market flotations. The key quotes come via a ‘technology valuation expert’ at a major firm of accountants troubled by an overlong name and a 90s-oriented obsession with marketing, with the article highlighting that:

…traditional metrics like price-to-earnings ratios do not apply when it comes to social media companies, which tend to prioritise growth over earnings. PwC suggests that a ‘value per user’ metric is more appropriate for these companies, “on the presumption that subscriber bases can eventually be monetised”.

At that point, I had a severe touch of déjà vu, since this is more or less precisely the (ir)rationale which led to the over-inflated values of internet firms being a contributory factor in crashes in stock markets at the turn of the last decade. In short: we’ll throw out tried and trusted means of valuing firms because we fancy gambling your money, pensions, etc. on something new and sexy which we don’t quite understand but which we hope will come good. Markets evidently don’t function in cases of imperfect information – but let’s at least hold this sort of rubbish up to the ill-informed gamble that it is.

Add in the prospect of rising interest rates and a stagnant FTSE100 over the last six months (and a Nasdaq that seems to be in a similar place) and we have at least some of the conditions of 2000’s implosion in place all over again. Oil prices which seem to be rising again following the correction of early May, stubbornly high inflation, a weak economy heading for another ‘soft patch’ and a government whose economic ‘education’ is firmly in the traditions of Alfred Roberts’s Grantham corner shop all add to the pressures.

An unreformed, business as usual capitalism is not only free, but destined, to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. That it seems to be doing so with such a velocity is something of a surprise, but this is perhaps a corollary of governments’ apparent collective refusal to contemplate systemic change, as well as our dependency on financial services and the associated structural problems of the UK economy (on which Larry Elliott had some interesting things to say in yesterday’s The Guardian). An economy so dependent on financial services seems to me to be not only in thrall to the City but also thereby blinded to the problems which imperfect information causes to market-based systems. Until we grapple with that, the economy isn’t going to get better.