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

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

"Delta of Venus" by Anais Nin

This is a Penguin Modern Classic. The blurb calls it a "glittering cascade of sexual encounters .... Her vibrant and impassioned prose evokes the essence of female sexuality in a world where only love has meaning." It is a dirty book. The short stories cover more or less every conceivable sort of sex including necrophilia, lesbianism, homosexuality, fetishism, voyeurism, bestiality ... Basically it is pornography. I certainly didn't get a feel for character or "a world where only love has meaning". Mostly it was a boring list of bits and who did what to whom; it was rarely arousing. Sometimes there was pretentiousness: "the famous Parisian chic" that gives a "Parisian woman a trimness, an audacity, that far surpasses the seductiveness of other women."

Perhaps it was shocking and groundbreaking when it came out, revealing that women had naughty thoughts on a par with those of men, but today it is a slightly boring dirty book.

Hard to finish. April 2010; 225 pages

Friday, 16 April 2010

"The Great Wave" by David Hackett Fischer

You wouldn't have thought that a book subtitled Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History would be a great read but I really enjoyed this. His thesis is that economics goes through periods of stability, when prices reamin stable, and periods of voltatility when prices rise. The four price revolutions are the Mediaeval (around Black death time and the Peasants' Revolt) in which prices rose by 0.5% pa, the 16th Century (English Civil war; Thirty Years war etc) when they rose by 1% pa, the 18th Century (French revolution, Napoleonic Wars etc) when they rose by 2% and the Twentieth Century (WWI, WWII etc) when they rose by 4%. These were interspersed by the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Victorian period and ... we haven't got there yet. You will have noticed that periods of inflation are marked by wars and revolutions; H-F believes that they start when populations rise and commodities run short  and food and fuel prices start to rise and wages fall and rents rise so that inequalities in socieities get worse and that is why it ends with revolutions. Meantime the periods of stability are times when there are great advances in learning.

Except that the time at present when there is high inflation and lots of wars but learning has improved dramatically but so has the population. Are we presently having a price revolution or are we in a period of stability? H-F believes that the fall of the communist world suggests the end of this price revolution; perhaps we have then enjoyed twenty years of stability but clearly food and fuel prices are whizzing up at the moment so perhaps another revolution is about to start. Or maybe if you look at the misery elsewhere in the world we are still in a long revolution.

Interesting points:

The monetarists are wrong. Price revolutions are not started by increases in the money supply. The post renaissance revolution is oftem blamed on the Spanish importation of Gold and Silver from the Americas but it started thirty years before the first shipments and before the discovery of the silver mountain of Potosi.

On page 84 I discover that Nicolaus Copernicus invented a monetarist model!

On page 135 the Seven Years War starts nine years before it ends when George Washington is defeated (did he ever win a battle) by the French in a scrap in western Pennsylvania.

On page 252 "the laisser-faire prescription, 'let the free market take its course' has in the past eight hundred years created human suffering on a scale that is unacceptable. It is also unnecessary.  .... In economic history, equilibrium is the exception rather than the rule. A free market restores equilibrium only to break it down again .... In the full span of modern history, most free markets have been in profound disequilibrium most of the time."

On page 255 he quotes from the New York Times (Oct 4th 1995) "if government does not know what it is doing it will be tempted to meddle less with private industry .... More likely, it will still meddle, only less wisely."

Great book

April 2010, 258 pages

Monday, 12 April 2010

"The World According to Garp" by John Irving

Not quite sure why there is so much hype about this novel!

This is a family saga about Jenny Fields, a nurse who wants a child without a man; she straddles a dying airman and has a son whom she brings up at a posh New England boarding school. She writes a best selling autobiography and becomes a hero of the new feminist movement; her son, Garp, becomes a minor novelist kept by his wife, and a very anxious father. He and his wife love one another and their sons but they have infidelities which (er) climax in death and mutilation. Convalescence, rehabilitation and a best-selling novel lead to a further wave of deaths and mutilations.

A book about anxieties in which your worst fears really do come through; a book about feminism, rape, mutilation and death. Lots of horror and occasional humour.

April 2010; 570 pages

Friday, 2 April 2010

"Summer of Blood" by Dan Jones

This is the history of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.

Richard II was the son of the Black Prince and only a boy when his grandfather Edward III dies and he came to the throne. The country was facing bankruptcy as the Hundred Years War dragged on (the French were raiding the South coast and the Scots were raiding the north of England) and government was haphazard and dominated by John of Gaunt, the young king's uncle. The social order had been seriously weakened by the Black Death; labour was scarce but the law forbade labourers from charging too much for their services whilst compelling them to work. During a parliament in Northampton (when King Richard stayed at a manor in nearby Moulton) a poll tax was declared: even the poorest labourers had to pay. The scene was set for rebellion.

The revolt seems to have started in Essex around Brentwood or possibly Fobbing where poll tax collectors were said to have looked up a young girl's skirts to see if she was a virgin (and thus exempt from paying). But the unrest soon spread to Kent; Abel Ker lead the rioters to sieze Rochester Castle and march on Maidstone; at Maidstone Wat Tyler took charge. Inspired by the Lollard preacher John Ball the Kentishmen marched on London. H

ere they confronted the boy King Richard on three separate occasions: first at Rotherhithe where he refused to get out of his barge. After this the rebels stormed across London Bridge (the Londoners let the drawbridge down), destroyed the Savoy Palace and beseiged the Tower.

Then Richard rode to Mile End where the Essex rebels had encamped to talk to them in the hope of providing a diversion so that the most hated people in the Tower could escape. This failed but at Mile End he was presented with a charter requesting that all men should become free (ie not bound serfs), that there should be a land rent limit and that no one should be required to work. He granted this, and then said they could catch and punish traitors.

They spilled across London "catching traitors". They entered the Tower (some one let the drawbridge down) and killed the Treasurer and the Archbishop of Canterbury; Henry of Derby, later Henry IV, was saved by being hidden by a guard. One man was dragged from sanctuary at Westminster Abbey and killed. There was rioting and looting.

Finally Richard met the rebels at Smithfield. Wat Tyler rode out to meet him; the Mayor of London accused Wat of insulting the King by his coarse manners and stabbed him. The boy King then took charge, riding out to the stunned commoners and leading them away from Smithfield while the Mayor and his men found enough armed men to force the Kentishmen to leave London.

The rebellion continued across Britain for a fortnight, largely in the South East (including Cambridge, St Albans and Huntingdon) but as far afield as Bridgwater and York. John Ball fled north, writing letters as he went, until he was captured at Coventry. One of his letters mentions Piers the Plowman!

This book was an absolutely gripping read.

April 2010; 211 pages

"The Decisive Moment" by Jonah Lehrer

Lehrer is a neuroscientist who wrote Proust was a neuroscientist. He also writes a blog called The Frontal Cortext

His essential thesis in this book is that we are not the rational beings that we like to think we are, nor can we be. Our emotions are essential to us being able to make decisions and to make the right decisions. Many micro decisions are made faster than we can think (for example a batsman hitting a cricket ball that was bowled at a speed that makes it impossible to react by thinking. These decisions are made by our subconscious which has learnt how to make the right decisions based on long practise. He gives the example of a radar operator during the Gulf War who spotted a blip on his screen moving towards an aircraft carrier. The blip was moving in the same place and at the same speed as a friendly plane; nevertheless he took the decision to shoot it down. Later it was found to have ben a missile. No analysis of the tapes could provide evidence of why his hunch had been correct; his decision was made essentially on his gut feeling. But later it was realised that the blip had first appeared 3 sweeps of the radar later than a normal plane and it had been this (and the hours of staring at radar screens) that had aroused the fearful feelings in his subconscious.

But Lehrer also provides examples of situations where rationality has conquered emotions (thank goodness), for example the firefighter who, realising that he couldn't outrun a fire, decided to set the hillside in front of him alight and then lie down on the smouldering remains, thereby creating his own firebreak. Then there was the pilot whose plane lost all hydraulic control to ailerons, flaps, undercarriage, everything. The only way he could steer the plane was to fire the two engines at differential rates. He worked this out by a process of careful rational thought while the plane was falling through the air.

Things I learned and linked with:
  • The Dweck experiments in which students praised for their intelligence on a first test chose easier subsequent tests and scored worse on a final test than matched students praised for the efforts on the first test who chose harder intervening tests and therefore challenged themselves and learned faster. (p5-57)
  • A quote from Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics: "Anyone can become angry, that is easy. But to become angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not easy." (p107)
  • ADHD as a manifestion of the retarded development of the pre-frontal cortex which renders the sufferer unable to resist the temptation for immediate gratification. During adolescence the pre-frontal cortex of an ADHD sufferer can be 3.5 years behind 'normal'; however they usually catch up by the end of adolesence. Teenagers find it hard to resist temptation if the consequences are delayed; the solution may be to make the consequences immediate. "When West Virginia revoked driving permits for for students who were under the age of 18 and who dropped out of school, the dropout rate fell by one-third in the first year." p113
  • 'Choking' happens when you start to think about an action that has moved into the unconscious competence arena, like a golf player who starts thinking about the swing that has become natural to him. Moving something back from unconscious competence into conscious competence means that the rational mind starts to interfere with processes that have been filed away into the subconscious; this causes mistakes. p135
  • Too much information can distract and confuse experts who have learned to act using instinct. "College counselors were given a vast array of information about a group of high school students. The counselors were then asked to predict the grades of these kids during their freshmen year in college. The counselors had access to high school transcripts, test scores, the results of personality and vocational tests and application essays from the students. They were even granted personal interviews .... The counselors were competing against a rudimentary mathematical formula composed of only two variables: the high school grade point average of the student and his or her score on a single standardized test .... the predictions made by the formula were far more accurate than the predictions made by the counselors .... While the extra information considered by the counselors made them extremely confident, it actually led to worse predictions." p155 This makes me think of our sixth form interviews!
  • "Being certain means that you aren't worried about being wrong." p202
  • There are two types of thinkers: hedgehogs and foxes (there is a Greek saying that the fox knows many thinfs but the hedgehog knows one big thing). Hedgehogs are certain. They ignore contrary information. "The fox relies on the solvent of doubt. He is skeptical of grand strategies and unifying theories." p231
  • CRM (Cockpit Resource Management) is the training programme that tries to convince air cockpit crew to dissent from the view of the pilot. p242-3. Using it during cardiac surgery at Nebraska Medical Centre has raised the percentage of 'uneventful' surgeries from 21% to 62%.
A fascinating book, not as magisterial as Irrationality but a quick light read through the mechanisms of decision.

April 2010; 247 pages