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

Sunday, 26 June 2011

"The Three Emperors" by Miranda Carter

George V looked so like
 Tsar Nicholas II of Russia
that they were
sometimes confused.
This book considers the three cousins who became Nicholas II tsar of Russia, George V, King and Emperor, and Kaiser Wilhelm II. All three had similar childhoods, isolated from normal people (although George, as second son, served in the Navy for ten years and so at least met sailors) and brought up to believe that they were special. They were clearly lonely. Able to understand only royalty, their family formed a sort of pan-Europe business with the belief that family loyalties would trump national interests and ensure peace.

But their world was changing. Each empire needed to grow and there were inevitable tensions as their colonists and merchants clashed in various parts of the world. More particularly, the industrial revolution had created a working class that increasingly demanded a share in power. With their educations, isolated by privilege, they were unable to understand and were all fundamentally reactionary.

At least George was powerless. The British constitution ensured that he understood that he had to work with parliament and obey 'his' prime minister. Nicholas and Wilhelm were autocrats. They believed in personal rule (Nicholas was the only man in Russia who could authorise divorces and name changes) and attempted to enforce their will on 'their' people.

Not only was it fundamentally absurd that a single person could possibly rule complex modernising countries such as Germany and Russia but their isolation from the governed both because of the layers of courtiers through whom all information was filtered and distorted and because of the conceptual gaps between emperor and plebeian meant that autocracy was doomed.

In the end they didn't want the first world war. The Russian defeat by the Japanese in 1905 had sparked revolution and the Russian ministers were well aware that another war risked revolution (although Nicholas seems not to have had any idea that he could possibly be deposed). Wilhelm, for all his aggressive posturing, was frightened of war and tried at the last minute to back out of it as he had done several times before. But the Austrian's aggressive response to the Serbians abject apologies after the assassination at Sarajevo tipped the balance. War was inevitable. The colonial clashes and the militarisation of German society (which had been encouraged by Wilhelm) had led to several crises in the previous few years in which last-minute diplomacy had just averted war. At some point the tipping point would be reached.

The war destroyed the idea of empire. Although George V clung on the Tsar had abdicated and been assassinated before the armistice. Kaiser Bill abdicated on armistice day as did the Emperor of Austria-Hungary. Also in 1917 the 'tsar' of Bulgaria and the king of Greece both abdicated. The last Ottoman Sultan was deposed in 1922.

A beautifully written book about a fascinating period in history.

June 2011; 500 pages

Friday, 17 June 2011

"Tulku" by Peter Dickinson

13 year old Theodore flees from his father's mission as Boxer rebels burn it. Rescued by a colourful ex-music hall actress turned botanist, Mrs Jones, he travels with her and Chinese Lung to Tibet. There an old Lama decides they bear the secret to the reincarnated Tulku.

A fast-paced adventure story with three-dimensional characters, real human relationships and brilliant descriptions of beautiful landscapes with a little bit of mystery.

June 2011; 301 pages

Saturday, 11 June 2011

"1599" by James Shapiro

In this fascinating book Shapiro (who also wrote Contested Will) chronicles a year of Shakespeare's life during which he wrote Henry V, As You Like It, Julius Caesar and Hamlet. He shows how circumstances changed the way Shakespeare wrote. For example, Will Kemp, the clown who had played Falstaff, left the company (to Morris Dance to Norwich). So Henry V has no Falstaff, despite having promised Falstaff to the audience at the end of Henry IV part II. The clown parts in the subsequent plays are more subtle, matching the skills of the new comedian.

 Another important event was the popularity of Montaigne's Essays. Suddenly it became fashionable to consider oneself the subject of writing. Shapiro believes that this encouraged Shakespeare to develop the soliloquies that characterise Hamlet.

This was an excellent book which translates Shakespeare from a myth into a real flesh and blood writer.

Also read Shapiro's brilliant 1606 about King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.
Other, equally recommended, Shakespeare biographies reviewed in this blog include Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World and Shakespeare and Co (which is mostly about Shakespeare's contemporaries) by Stanley Wells. Also read Charles Nicholls: The Lodger which mentions Montaigne in the context of Measure for Measure.

June 2011; 373 pages

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

"The History of Mr Polly" by H G Wells

The anatomy of a mid-life crisis.

Alfred Polly was an only child who was sent to school by 'his parents' (although his mother died three years before), then apprenticed in a department store when significantly lacking in mathematical ability but extraordinarily well read with a massive imagination; a superb salesman with an ability to charm others with his nonsensical mispronunciations of words. He goes through a number of jobs before a legacy from his father enables him to set up shop in a place called either Foxbourne or (later) Fishbourne. He marries at the same time and then spends 15 years regretting a loveless marriage and slowly going bankrupt (in common with almost all the other shop-keepers). So he sets his shop on fire for the insurance and becomes a hero in the ensuing blaze; then he abandons his wife and ends up working at a country inn.

It is an amusing little story enlivened by acerbic wit:
"Outside the regions devastated by the school curriculum he was still intensely curious." (p15)
"On the whole he preferred business to school: the hours were longer but the tension was not nearly so great." (p17)

Any word play: "if, indeed, one may speak of a recent meal as a circumstance - seeing that Mr Polly was circum" (p9)

June 2011; 234 pages

'Smart Swarm' by Peter Miller

This book analyses animal behaviour and tries to learn lessons for they way humans do things (especially in the business world). He considers ants, bees, termites, birds, fish and locusts. Some of his lessons seem contradictory but I suppose one wouldn't expect behaviours that have evolved would necessarily be the same in species that fill different ecological niches. Thus the haphazard way in which ants pass communicate and therefore manage the nest is very different from the way honeybees do.

Foraging ants wander randomly to find food and then scuttle straight back to the nest, laying down a pheromone trail as they do so. Other ants follow the pheromones, laying their own. Soon the best trails are those most strongly marked with pheromones so the ant paths become marked. I have experienced this; if you disrupt an ant trail using an obstacle such as your foot which they have to go around and you leave that long enough then remove it the ants will continue to loop around the now non-existent obstacle, blindly following the pheromones. That might suggest parallels with business!


Instead of relying on a priori algorithms to lay down procedures top-down, just trying something and scoring how well it succeeds can quickly transform routing problems through complex networks (such as the travelling salesman problem) whether geographical or virtual.

Honey bee scouts search for great places for the swarm to hive and then return home and communicate with the others using dance. Lots of scouts do this, many checking out the places suggested by their rivals and then (maybe) and the hive then decides. They have a sort of distributed democratic decision making procedure. First the scouts possess diversity of knowledge, second the hive only swarms once there are sufficient scouts agreeing on the best place to go (a sort of Tipping Point concept).

Miller explains the Wisdom of Crowds idea in terms of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire 'Ask the Audience' strategy. Imagine you have to choose which person was NOT a member of the Monkees (A, B, C or D) and you asked 100 random people. Suppose only 7% know the right answer but 10% can narrow down the answer to a 50:50 guess and another 15% can eliminate one wrong answer leaving the remaining 68% to make a pure guess. So the right answer gets 7+5(half of 10%)+5(one third of 15%)+17(one quarter of 68%)=34%. The other options will share the remaining 66% giving 22% each. So there will be a clear majority for the right answer even though 93% of the sample guessed (to some extent)!

But the key to true wisdom is to ensure a useful diversity of knowledge and that this is expressed. There are lots of irrationalities to which humans are prey when making decisions such as anchoring (eg when a salesman suggests an initial figure for the cost of a product so that all other prices are compared to this 'anchor'). Other decision traps include preferring the status quo and the 'sunk-cost' trap. Miller diverts to talk about the Beer Game ( from Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline) and then explains how town meetings in Vermont are run according to Robert's Rules of Order (whose best rule is that everyone who wants to should have the chance to speak before anyone may speak twice).

Miller next compares the way termites repair a damaged hill with the chaos that ensues when a highly connected system such as a power network fails and a small initial failure cascades through the system (which made me think of what happens when a person dies). Termite hills apparently are designed to regulate the environment inside the nest (which is actually below ground) by using resonating air columns to catch and tame turbulent winds. Miller suggests we should develop buildings where the walls are porous and thus able to regulate the internal environments of the buildings without using energy eg for air-conditioning.

Termites work using stigmergy,  a form of positive feedback in which the action that one agent performs makes it more likely that the same or other agents will perform the same action, such as when you get an intrinsic reward from the performance of a task. Stigmergy involves indirect collaboration which, Miller implies, could solve failures of highly connected networks, although he never really suggests how. It seems to be connected to wikipedia.

Miller then compares two forms of networks: small world and scale free (which is one in which a proportion of nodes are many times more connected than other nodes in a 1/r way). Random failures affect small world networks most but scale free networks are very vulnerable to hub failures (if one airport in the world closes then air travel is unlikely to be affected because most airports handle a few planes to weird places but if that airport is Heathrow then there is big trouble). In scale free democracies a small group of well connected individuals are able to impose their will on everyone else. Later Miller shows that informed individuals can also effect big changes on inter-connected systems as the Wisdom of Crowds meets Tipping Point meets Critical Mass.

Generally "it doesn't make much sense to discuss the properties of network structures ... without also discussing what it is that you want them to do." (p149)

He also explains about the power of mimicry in social animals when discussing the flocking of birds or fish. He discovers that starlings use a sort of small worlds network in which they pay attention to 7 other starlings (presumably because they cannot cope with the amount of information processing that paying attention to more than 7 implies). This creates swirling behaviour and also the sort of phase transition discussed by Philip Ball in Critical Mass. In schools of fish communication seems to travel in a wave that moves up to 15 times faster than any single fish. Because this form of communication means that not every animal needs to be on high alert against predators, all animals can spend more time feeding and therefore each animal is more likely to survive. The phase transitions seen between one sort of shoal formation and another are classic threshold situations: Critical Mass meets Tipping Point.

Society "consists of institutional arrangements to overcome those divergences between perceived individual interest and some larger collective bargain." (pp265-266)

I learnt the expression 'ground-truth' which means to apply a theory or simulation to the real situation to see whether it works in practice.

Other great books in this area include:

  • Six degrees about small world networks by Duncan Watts
  • sync by Steven Strogatz
  • At Home in the Universe by Stuart Kauffman about fitness landscapes
  • How Nature Works by Per Bak about sandpiles and self organized criticality; an excellent explanation of complexity science
  • Deep Simplicity by John Gribbin which is a brilliant introduction to this whole field
  • The Information by James Gleick although his Chaos (not reviewed on this blog) is perhaps better

Other books not reviewed on this blog on this topic include:

  • The Wisdom of Crowds 
  • Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell about fads
  • Ubiquity which is brilliant about fractals and power laws
  • Critical mass by Philip Ball which is a brilliant explanation about phase changes

Fascinating although a lot of what is said are points better made elsewhere.

May 2011; 269 pages