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

Monday, 26 January 2009

"The Reader" by Bernhard Schlink

This book was lent to me by Clare Warburton.

Michael Berg is a fifteen year old schoolboy who (in 1960?) has an affair with a somewhat older woman. Every time he goes to her flat he reads to her, they bathe and they make love. He is in love and obsessed by her although sometimes she behaves strangely. Then she disappears.

Later as a law student he sees her in court. She is charged with war crimes. Then he realises her secret. The philosophical dilemma is: should you save someone by betraying them when they don't wish to be saved?

The affair and its aftermath are written about in very simple matter of fact prose with very short chapters but the prose can be poetically beautiful.

"I saw the expectation in her face, saw it light up with joy when she recognized me, watched her eyes scan my face as I approached, saw them seek, inquire, then look uncertain or hurt, and saw the light go out of her face. When I reached her she smiled a friendly, weary smile."

Beautiful.

Jan 2009, 215 pages

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre


Winner of the Man booker Prize 2003!

This book is set in the fictional(?) town of Martirio (which is the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese word for martyrdom), the Barbecue Sauce capital of central Texas and concerns Vernon, the survivor of a multiple school shooting perpetrated by his best friend, a gay Mexican called Jesus. Vernon has been arrested as accessory although he is soon released thanks to an honest Judge and an incompetent cop who both belong to the town's leading family. The misadventures of Vernon as he is hounded by a reporter more concerned with career than truth and tormented by his mother and her bizarre lady friends read like a strange mix of "A Confederacy of Dunces", "Catcher in the Rye", "Good Times, Bad Times" and "Decline and Fall". Viewed in one way it is a boy's cry for help in a dysfunctional world. Viewed in another way it is a very black comedy. His relationship with his mother is exactly like that of every adolescent boy: helpless infuriated, unbelieving yet loving and protective.

Symbolism
I guess Vernon is Jesus (not the Jesus who wears silk panties and shoots the school up) and Taylor is Judas. Lally is the devil. I'm OK with the court and the quite nice judge who tries to help Vernon but in the end washes his hands. Death Row is presumably Hell though Vernon is there for rather longer than three days. I have no idea what part the old con plays, nor Mr Nuckles.

Brilliant. Well worth the Booker.

Jan 2009. 274 pages

"The House on the Thames" by Gillian Tindall

If you cross the Millennium Bridge in London to the Tate Modern and then turn right towards the Globe Theatre you will encounter a small terrace of red brick buildings. One of them is the house of the title. This book charts its story from before it was built (when there was an Inn on the site) to the present day. The book tells about the people who owned it, including a family of coal merchants and a film star, and lived in it (including Peregrine Worsthorne). There is some fascinating detail about the area and the developments.

I really enjoyed it. It showed me that you can do history about anything and that microhistory can be as fascinating as Kings and Queens. There were some things that irked me slightly. The last few years are rushed over. The maps simply aren't good enough to be able to work out all the things the author talks about (I absolutely must go to Bankside to see the house for myself). And I never found out when or why the local parish church became Southwark Cathedral. But basically it was a surprisingly gripping read.

Jan 2009 247 pages

Saturday, 24 January 2009

All in the Mind by Alastair Campbell

This is the debut novel by Alastair Campbell who was born in 1957, went to Cambridge, worked on the Daily mirror and then became Tony Blair's spin doctor.

It is about a psychiatrist who suffers from depression and the patients he treats during one week including a rape victim, a victim of sex trafficking, a supposed sex addict, a burns victim, another depressive and the alcoholic secretary of state for Health!

At the start I was slightly bored. It was clearly meticulously researched and journalistic but the characters didn't seem to live. I wasn't involved. However, as the book neared the end I became hooked and the final chapter packed a tremendous emotional punch.

Jan 2009, 294 pages

In Search of Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins

I want to go there!

Kazakhstan is a country about the size of western Europe.

Apples are from Kazakhstan. So are tulips.

Famous people who spent time in Kazakhstan (as prisoners or exiles) include Trotsky, Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn. Kazakhstan had an extensive part of the Gulag in soviet times. It was also the USSR's space base and nuclear testing area. On independence, Kazakhstan was the world's fourth nuclear power in terms of missiles; these were dismantled and the nuclear warheads taken to Russia to be made safe although substantial amounts of unaccounted nuclear material was discovered. The soviets also left a rapidly retreating Aral Sea after attempting to grow rice in the Kazakh desert using massive irrigation schemes.

One of the early British explorers of Kazakhstan (1875) was the ex-Bedford schoolboy, soldier and adventurer Frederick Gustavus Burnaby for whom Burnaby Road in Bedford has been named.

Kazakhstan even claims King Arthur! According to this version of the legend, Marcus Aurelius sent a 5,500 strong regiment of Sarmatian cavalry commanded by Lucius Artorius Castus to Hadrian's Wall in 175. The Sarmatians (from Hungary) were descendants of the Scythians (from Kazakhstan) and traditionally fought on horseback. They carried silk dragons as their banners. The Scythian God of War is symbolized by a sword thrust into the Earth; when a Scythian warrior died his sword was thrown into the sea.

Jan 2009, 296 pages

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

This is a big book which starts on January 1st 1975 with Archie attempting suicide and being saved. He then goes to an End of the World party (the Jehovah's Witnesses had predicted that the world would end on that day) and meets a black girl who becomes his wife and by whom he has a child. The book charts the story of his family and the child and the story of his best friend (an Indian waiter who has twin sons) and WWII comrade with a series of flash backs. There is some wonderful humour and some bizarre goings on and the book gradually builds to another New Year climax. It is a fabulous read and I enjoyed it thoroughly ... until the ending which I thought was a massive damp squib.

The remaining puzzle is: what has it all to do with teeth? I know there is a pivotal incident with false teeth but it still seemed tangential.

If you like Zadie Smith you might also enjoy The Autograph Man but please read the wonderful NW.

Jan 2009

Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

This book, lent to me by my brother-in-law and company lawyer Jeremy, is written by a trader in options, a business about which I understand little. His basic thesis is that most movement on the financial markets is randomly generated statistical noise which dupes us into not expecting the highly improbable.

He points out that randomness can lead to interesting scams. Supposing in January I randomly email 50,000 people with my prediction that the market will go up in the next month and 50,000 with my prediction that it will go down. In February I select those people for whom I was right in January and email 25,000 with the prediction that it will go up in February and 25,000 that it will go down. I repeat this process in March (12,500 each time) and April (6,250) and May (3,125). By the end of May there are 1,562 people convinced that I can predict the market (5 months in a row!!!) of whom maybe half would be prepared to subscribe to my premium advisory service for £50. That's nearly £40,000.

Then he analysed a situation which has a 15% return but 10% volatility (that 10% is a standard deviation so that there is a chance that some returns would lose money) and looked at the chance of such an investment making money. He used a Monte Carlo random path generator. The chance of being up on one's investment after 1 second is 50.2%, after 1 day it is 54%, after 1 month it is 67% and after 1 year it is 93%. He then points out that people hate losing money more than the like gaining it. So if you hate losing twice as much as you like gaining, after 1 second you are probably feeling rather glum; after 1 day you have 54 points of happiness to 96 points of unhappiness, after 1 month the figures are 67 happiness, 66 unhappiness so you break even but after 1 year you are in woopy do territory with 93 happy points to only 14 gloom. His conclusion is that people who monitor there investments on a moment to moment basis are going to feel unhappy and get stressed and have early heart attacks!

Then he looks at things that skew our perceptions. One example is the natural tendency of people to ignore outliers (extreme events); this can be highlighted by the difference between the mean and the median of a set of statistics (the median is an average which ignore extreme events). A second example is the tendency only to see things from history that still apply: this is like marvelling at the wonderful cathedrals from the middle ages and then generalising that "they really knew how to build in those days"; of course we can't see the cathedrals that fell down (or were replaced because they were too ugly). A third is our difficulty at calculating probabilities (he used the famous birthday paradox in which the chances of someone sharing your birthday when there are 23 people in a room is bout 50%). He points out that a lot of people spend a lot of time searching for correlations (he calls it "data mining"); clearly some correlations are caused by random effects so if you mine data long enough you will find such spurious correlations.

But he reserves most of his ammunition for conditional probabilities. If a test for a disease produces 5% false positives and the disease affects 1 in 1,000 and you randomly test a patient for the disease and the test produces a positive result what is the chance that the patient has the disease? Most doctors will answer 95% (100 - the number of false positives). Imagine you test 1,000 people. 51 will test positive but only 1 will actually have the disease. The correct answer is therefore under 2%.

NNT makes his money by betting on unlikely events. He expects to lose money most days because the events he is betting on are unlikely. But he knows that some days he will win a lot.

A very thought provoking book which I must flick through again some time to ensurer I have truly understood some difficult concepts!

Read January 2009; 230 pp