About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 27 January 2011

"A week in December" by Sebastian Faulks

In London, in the week before Christmas 2007:

  • a penniless barrister with a schizophrenic brother falls in love with a female tube driver who plays Parallax (second life);
  • the Moslem son of a lime pickle manufacturer plans a suicide attack; his father is invested with an OBE
  • a bitchy book reviewer waits to see whether he has won a literary prize
  • a foreign footballer plays his first matches for his new London club
  • and a ruthless hedge fund manager plans to profit from the collapse of a bank while his son smokes skunk

These intertwined lives (there are too many links to be dismissed a coincidence) illustrate the moral bankruptcy of a nation. Faulks laments (several times) his thesis that teachers have given up believing in knowledge and culture. His Moslem fundamentalist sees society through the pitiless eyes of youth: he sees the binge drinking, the pathetic fumblings for sex mistaken for love, the shoddy materialism. And yet his failures such as the tube driver and her barrister boyfriend, suggest that frail, little farting humans, with all our sad illusions, are the only really human people. That what we should fear is certainty: the certainty of Hassan and his Prophet and the certainty of the banker. God and Mammon. Are we a tube train, hurtling through the darkness to rest for a few fragile moments in the light and noise of a station? Or are we a cyclist without lights, making pedestrians leap aside. And in the end, what do we have except love?

This was an interesting book. It kept me reading. But it didn't have the magic of the best the Faulks can do.

January 2011; 390 pages

"The book of general ignorance" by John Lloyd

This book , from the QI programme, debunks many accepted 'facts': who said, let them eat cake? when did the last survivor of the Crimean War die? (2004, it was a tortoise); who was born by Immaculate Conception? (Mary); How many sheep were thee on Noah's Ark? (14). It then proceeds to give acres of utterly trivial but wonderfully fascinating information.

My favourite is about 'Here we go gathering nuts in May'. Nuts don't grow in May; it is too early. The song should be 'Here we go gathering Knots of May' referring to the May (hawthorn) tree that blossoms in mid-May but, until the Gregorian calendar change, blossomed on May day. May flowers give off triethylamine which is the same chemical as that first emitted by dead human bodies which is probably why May flowers inside a house are thought to be unlucky. On the other hand triethylamine is also what gives semen its distinctive smell which is probably why the May tree is a fertility symbol (not just the phallic May pole).

See? Wonderful facts. Exactly my sort of book. Brilliant!

Jan 2011; 281 pages

Sunday, 16 January 2011

"The Black Swan" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The author of this book got up my nose from the start when in the Prologue he describes the probability estimates of a risk manager as having "no better predictive value for assessing the total risks than astrology". Which is clearly wrong. Maybe the predictions of the risk manager are imperfect but they are almost certainly better than astrology.

Taleb tends to over-argue his case and he is rhetorically rude about people who have a different point of view (which prompts my in-built bullshit detectors to suggest that he hasn't got a case). He describes people who live normal lives as "dull" and says they live in "Mediocristan"; "their minds are closed". Teachers and academics have him spitting dust.  "Only military people deal with randomness with genuine, introspective intellectual honesty."

The insults become far worse and far more frequent towards the end of the book. He really doesn't like statisticians, claiming that their entire disciplines are rubbish and that they are closed minded idiots. Most other academics are similarly rubbished. His ad hominem remarks include their dress sense. When someone gets so angry and so personal I always suspect that their arguments are inadequate.

So as a teacher and academic I tried very hard to keep an open mind but as a human I found it very difficult. What are his arguments?

Firstly, their is the problem of induction. He clearly quite likes David Hume. He describes it thus (borrowing an example from Bertrand Russell; Taleb uses intellectuals when he wants to): if a turkey has been fed every day for a thousand days it will probably assume that it will always be fed when in fact the next day it is to be killed. I would suggest that the problem of induction is not so much that we are not aware that recurring examples do not lead to proof but that it would be ridiculous for the turkey to be surprised at being fed on the 998th and 999th days. So there has to be trust in induction whilst at the same time being sceptical. If you were a turkey and you had to bet what what would happen on day 1000 it would make sense to bet on being fed.

The second problem is that of hindsight; he quotes, amongst other examples, the Anthropic Principle. He also quotes Cicero who gives an example of an irreligious man being told of sailors who had prayed and not drowned, and asking about the sailors who prayed and still drowned. Thus the Earth seems a planet perfectly tailored for the evolution of mankind because had it been any different we would not have evolved and therefore would not be here to admire its tailoring (or we would be somehow different and thus be admiring the tailoring that led to the new different us). Another lovely example is that of gamblers most of whom believe in beginner's luck because of their own personal experiences; because, claims Taleb, the gamblers who lost on their first gambles got disenchanted and never became gamblers.

So I admit that these are fallacies that mean that we can never absolutely trust what is to happen but I still cling to the idea that both these fallacies give a pretty good approximation of what is likely to happen.

In the latter part of the book I think his main point is that Gaussian bell curves do not work in financial markets. The evidence for this is the existence of Black Swan events on a frequency that is significantly greater than the Gaussian predictions. I do not disagree with him. Gaussian bell curves work brilliantly on probability distributions characterised by true randomness, that is where one throw of the die does not affect the next. However, in situations where there is feedback, such as with earthquakes, fashions and money markets, Mandelbrotian fractal power distributions seem to work much better. This is still not perfect, as NNT points out you still base your models on historical data so there is always the possibility of something utterly novel happening in the future which you can't predict, but this is surely the best we can do.

But this is all explained much better in Ubiquity by Mark Buchanan and Critical Mass by Philip Ball. And these authors do not spend page after page rudely rubbishing their opponents with the most angry and arrogant invective. NNT does not seem to realise that Gaussian statistics are utterly valid and really useful in their sphere. He does not seem to realise why his particular context is different. But he does seem to believe that he is indubitably correct, there is no room for self-doubt whatsoever, which in a book about the limits of our ability to know is really rather ironic.

There was one concept that gave me pause for thought. He is talking about scalability, which for him is the idea that sometimes the winner takes all. Thus a best selling author doesn't need to put any extra work in once his book has hit the shops but he reaps the reward; another author will have to keep working on the day job. Scalability applies to authors, move stars, bankers etc. Some scientists work all their lives in hop of a big breakthrough, sustaining endless disappointment with hope that one day they will find a cure for cancer. Dentists, on the other hand, work every day for reasonable reward. NNT clearly thinks the former lifestyle is better (if you strike lucky) and maybe it is what I should have done. Next life perhaps!

There are some good ideas in this book though none are original. Nevertheless, in essence he is right. But he does not have the monopoly on truth and the people he is so rude about are also developing truths in different contexts. I prefer an author who presents his ideas more concisely; in the Black Swan the ideas are padded out with an awful lot of rudeness.

Jan 2011; 300 pages

Sunday, 9 January 2011

"The Ghost" by Robert Harris

A writer is hired to ghost the memoirs of ex-Prime Minister Adam Lang following the mysterious death of the original writer, Lang's long time ADC. He flies out to a wintry Martha's Vineyard and into a household, beleaguered by political accusations, isolated, and turning in on itself.

For the first half of the book nothing really happens. There is a sense of mystery but the interest is mostly held as the writer explains the craft of the ghost. This first part is superbly crafted and beautifully described, but a bit slow. Suddenly it changes gear. It becomes faster and more exciting, although considerably more shallow. There is the obligatory one night stand. There are the nagging doubts: would an ex-British Foreign Secretary, now ambassador at the UN, really have the contacts necessary to hire an ex-NYPD cop as a covert operative?

Nevertheless, the book in its entirety is a well crafted political thriller with a little more about it than most.

January 2011; 310 pages

Saturday, 8 January 2011

"Faustus" by Leo Ruickbie

In this readable yet authoritative text Ruickbie tries to reconstruct the life of Faustus (who isn't actually called Faustus) from the seven or so contemporary references that actually seem reasonably straightforward and therefore genuine. Most of them say little more than 'I saw Faustus' and not one mentions the pact with the devil. Mephistopheles himself is a new demon first mentioned in the Faust legend and the derivation of the name

As well as eking out the story (and from time to time mentioned the legend) Ruickbie details the sometimes fascinating background of a Holy Roman Empire trapped between the powers of France and the Ottomans, eternally feuding with itself about both who is going to be the next Emperor, whether the Emperor or the Pope should be top dog, and the nascent stirrings of Lutherism, Protestantism and the Reformation.

Quite heavy going but sometimes a fantastic read.

January 2011; 226 pages

Sunday, 2 January 2011

"Monsters of Men" by Patrick Ness

This is the third volume in the 'Chaos Walking' trilogy and starts immediately after the second one ends.

New World is now at war. The native Spackle who communicate telepathically such that each can link their mind with every other Spackle are attacking the armies of New Prentisstown led by the Mayor and Todd. Viola and Mistress Coyle, leader of the rebellious Answer, are holed up on a hill on which the scoutship from the waiting settlers sits.

The Mayor is teaching Todd to control his Noise. This means that Todd no longer broadcasts his thoughts telepathically to the world, a fact that Viola (his girlfriend who, as a female, does not broadcast Noise) distrusts and dislikes. It also means that Todd can hide from all the awful things he is seeing and doing in the war; it deadens his feeling. It also means that a telepathic bond is growing between Todd and the Mayor; each can start to use thought to control the other and other people. This makes Todd feel powerful. At the same time he is growing closer to the Mayor.

And the Return, the only Spackle who escaped from the slave Spackle concentration camp where Todd was a guard, talks to the Spackle boss, the Sky and vows revenge on Todd.

In the middle of all this Todd, Viola and Bradley from the scout ship are trying to negotiate peace with the Spackle while the Mayor and Mistress Coyle try to take credit for victory, manoeuvring to be the one to rule.

Loads of subplots. But I think it became too complicated and too drawn out. I knew how the story ought to end and I wanted it to end considerably sooner than it did. The actual end was a bit Harry Potterish, using thoughts instead of wands. In his bid to explore every last loose end I think Patrick Ness may have added too many layers. The first book was so tight and left so many questions unanswered. I do not see why the third book could not have been the same.

January 2011; 603 pages