Silicon Valley, app magnate and Syrian food


Silicon Valley, app magnate and Syrian food

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH reads and cooks with abandon, as usual.


IT'S hard to remember how we lived before the advent of the computer and modern technology. Those of us on the wrong side of 60 can still remember the days when one had to book landline calls to far-flung places at an exchange. Times when one had to master shorthand if one wanted to be a good journalist. The upper-50s will think back with nostalgia to the old Nokia cellphones that were as heavy as a brick.

Now everything is different. The baboons in Pringle Bay are controlled by a brigade of monitors who track and signal the primates' movements with cellphones. Teenagers stress 24/7 over social media on their phones. Students write stunning assignments with the help of AI.

Technology controls our lives. Call it progress, call it modernity. Kara Swisher says it's a disease that corrupts our lives because a handful of Silicon Valley's richest geniuses didn't keep their promises to use their finds so the world could become a better place.

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Technocrats roasted

Swisher is a tech journalist who has created a career out of radical criticism of Silicon Valley's brain trust. Mention any name and you can be sure she'll be ready with damning facts. That's why her memoir, Burn Book, is such an invigorating experience. Swisher tolerates Reed Hastings (co-founder and executive chairperson of Netflix) and Apple's Tim Cook and Steve Jobs. The rest, well, eugh!

Swisher is on first-name terms with everyone in Silicon Valley (since her days at the Wall Street Journal) and has upset Elon Musk to such an extent that he doesn't talk to her any more. “He's a desperate attention seeker, a classic narcissist who has turned into a malignant narcissist," Swisher says.

Swisher has solutions to the great dangers that Silicon Valley's intellectual giants unleashed on humanity. “We need a government that will let the technology leaders take responsibility for what they do," she says. I suspect she's thinking especially of Mark Zuckerberg, and of the people she's caused to break out in sweat in front of the TV cameras. (Zuckerberg, she says, is a danger to humanity.)

Burn Book is a memoir, and finally, after impaling and roasting the technocrats on her kebab stick, she reveals more about her human desires and pursuits. It's really touching to realise that the biggest regret of someone with such a broad vision of everything that has gone wrong with humanity since the Americans sent people to the moon is that she didn't give birth to more than one baby.

Not everyone likes someone who is so naggingly right about everything, but I love her and her poison tongue. She doesn't hesitate to quote all the ugly things that have been said about her. This alone is superior reading. But when she's positive, it comes with a twist in the tail. “I'm not as afraid of AI as I am of the bad people who will make better use of AI than the good ones."

Nothing is simple, neither is Kara Swisher.

Burn Book by Kara Swisher was published by Little, Brown and costs R475 at Exclusive Books.

Culinary adventure

About a year ago, I started a new culinary adventure when I discovered Sabrina Ghayour's book Persiana Everyday. At the beginning of this year, I got my hands on Imad's Syrian Kitchen and now I can report with a very happy belly that this byproduct of the Syrian diaspora provides never-ending pleasure.

Imad Al Arnab couldn't face the mess in Damascus, fleeing Syria in 2015. Eventually, he started a diner in London that provided the title for this cookbook. The book provides a useful introduction to Syrian cooking culture and ingredients. Much of it will be familiar to followers of Yotam Ottolenghi.

Especially useful is the lesson in mixing spices such as dukkah and bagarat, and how to season oil with all kinds of things. But the real treasure trove here are the 90 recipes, the dipping sauces and the main courses. With a vegetarian in the house, I lingered at the wonderful things one can do with a whole cauliflower, and to pacify my own meat hunger I made the Syrian fish and chips. Lentils get quite a few innings, sometimes in combination with rice.

Naturally, Arnab had to make concessions to the British, who must have thought he had opened the gates of the exotic heavens to them. I'm not that fond of his desserts. Overly sweet. But at least there is one he makes with pistachios that appealed strongly and often to my inner glutton.

Imad's Syrian Kitchen by Imad Al Arnab was published by HarperCollins and costs R765 at Exclusive Books.

App magnate

I'm desperate to read detective stories that don't conform to any pattern. Patterns bring predictability. Helle & Death swerves away from the old “closed room" formula. One cannot pay tribute to Agatha Christie and EC Bentley by means of a pastiche of their work.

Oskar Jensen, a professional musicologist, places this novel entirely in the present. The instigator of the troubles in a remote home is a tycoon who made his money with an app he created. Jensen's main protagonist is Torben Helle, who isn't exactly fond of the tycoon.

The tycoon, Anthony Dodd, has his guests, all old college friends, hand in their cellphones. In this way, the closed room mystery becomes a story of double confinement and the guests are forced to solve for themselves the murder that takes place in the house. It is then that one realises it is impossible to elude the past of the genre — Helle, an academic, uses an arsenal of cunning that detective story writers of the past have placed at his disposal. That Oskar Jensen does manage to do so speaks volumes, especially since he also works against the traditions of TV's Nordic noir series. Jensen is Norwegian by background and there are many Norwegian details in the novel. To me, he is Richard Osman's strongest rival.

Helle & Death by Oskar Jensen was published by Profile and costs R475 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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