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, 24 April 2011

"Between the Assassinations" by Aravind Adiga

Aravind explores the life of ordinary people in this tourist guide to the (fictitious) South Indian town of Kittur. Each character struggles to survive against poverty, corruption, and the caste system. A wealthy schoolboy explodes a bomb in his chemistry class to humiliate his teacher. A Deputy Headteacher struggles to keep his favourite pupil pure. An Oliver Twist from the villages  gets mixed up with Fagin. An old virgin housekeeper works for her master.

All of these characters have thwarted dreams; they are all defeated by the system. Their puny struggles against it are doomed. In the end, the poor are always exploited by the rich. But every character is written from the inside, with flesh and blood and hopes and needs.

A stunning chronicle of a dreadful society.

April 2011; 355 pages

Friday, 22 April 2011

"Samuel Pepys: The unequalled self" by Claire Tomalin

This is a massively readable biography about a key player in the dramas of restoration politics.

I knew Pepys wrote a diary and recorded the Great Fire of London; I knew he was involved as a civil servant with the navy. I had not realised how much he played a part in so many of the key historical events of his time.

He was the son of a London tailor. Fortunately his uncle lived in a farmhouse in Brampton near Edward Montagu, a prominent Huntingdon landowner from Hinchingbrooke House, who knew and fought with Oliver Cromwell. Through this connection Pepys was sponsored to go to St Pauls School (he truanted for the day to watch the execution of Charles I) and thence to Magdalen Cambridge. He then started working for Montagu who became an important naval admiral under the Commonwealth. After Cromwell (referred to regally as Oliver) died and the Commonwealth under his son Richard began to dissolve into factions, Montague changed sides with brilliant timing and Pepys travelled to Holland with him to pick up Charles II and James, Duke of York, to take them back to England. Montagu became the Earl of Sandwich and Pepys received a significant boost to his career and an important role in naval administration.

He worked hard with the navy for many years. Not only did he get a decent salary but he also received presents from the many people who sought naval contracts (though goodness knows why they wanted to do work for the navy because the typical Stuart court never paid its bills). His career did not suffer when the Dutch sailed down the Thames to the Medway and burnt the dockyards in 1667, exposing a scandalous inadequacy in Britain's preparedness during war. His first setback was when he became a member of parliament and was attacked for being a Catholic by Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury (who was effectively Britain's first Prime Minister and inventor of the party system lisitng all MPs as either 'w' for worthy or 'v' for vile; Shaftesbury started the anti-Catholic, anti-Stuart Whig party and Pepys was a Tory). Though Pepys was not a Catholic he was tolerant and employed Catholics and his (now dead) wife was French and in the feverish atmosphere of Titus Oates and the Papist plot these were enough to have him thrown into the Tower (though acquitted at trial) and for him to lose his job. He spent five years in the wilderness (during which time he attended Charles II at Newmarket in an attempt to win a job back but only succeeded in taking down Charles's account of his escape after the Battle of Worcester including oak tree) before the Duke of York (who had been Britain's Lord High Admiral and as such respected Pepys's abilities) succeeded his brother as James II. Pepys then became, in effect, the Minister for the Navy. Of course James was forced into exile in three short years and Pepys once again lost his job (and briefly earned another spell in the Tower as a suspected Jacobite). He then retired.

As well as all this, he was a member of the Royal Society and mates with Hooke, Wren, Evelyn, Halley and Newton. He was President in 1684 when he commissioned the History of Fish that took all the Society's spare cash and meant that Principia had to be privately printed.

So Pepys had a fascinating life and Tomalin tells the story well.

As well as Montagu/ Sandwich Pepys's other early patron was George Carteret. Carteret had been de Carteret but changed his name on joining the Navy because it sounded too French. As governor of Jersey he had held it for Charles I during the Civil War; he later worked for the Commonwealth Navy and changed with perfect timing during the Restoration. He retired to 'Hawnes' which later became Haynes Park in Bedfordshire near Ampthill.

After his first wife died Pepys took a common law wife who lived in Woodhall near Hatfield.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

"The Snowman" by Jo Nesbo

A blockbusting whodunnit style thriller with no fewer than three red herrings (all of which are reasonably obvious as red herrings). A serial killer is on the loose in Oslo. Inspector Harry Hole (atypically irascible alcoholic loner) and his new sidekick Katrine investigate the disappearances and sometimes gruesome deaths of women. Well written but absolutely standard fare.

Kept me going though. I read it in under four days.

April 2011; 550 pages.

Friday, 15 April 2011

"Norwegian Wood" by Haruki Murakami

Toro Watanabe's best friend Kizuki kills himself when they are both at school. When Toro gets to University he meets Naoko, Kizuki's girlfriend. As Toro grows up, studying and shagging in the free love days of 1968 and 1969, his relationship with Naoko gets ever more complicated. He visits her and her friend Reiki in a lunatic sanatorium in the mountains; Reiki plays Naoko's favourite Beatles song, Norwegian Wood. Back at University, Toro meets the bossy Midori who wants him to be her boyfriend but he cannot commit to her while Naoko needs him.

Toro, a strange introvert but someone who fascinates others, gets fucked up. The last sentence says: "Again and again I called out for Midori from the dead centre of this place that was no place."

Another quote: "An unfair society is a society that makes it possible for you to exploit your abilities to the limit."

There is a lot of death in this book. (There is also a lot of explicit sex.) We know Naoko will die almost from the very start. Kizuki and Naoko's sister have both killed themselves. Midori's mum is already dead, her dad is dying.

I once had a girl
Or should I say
She once had me.

I think Toro was very much had by Naoko.

Murakami's prose is unsettling in its clarity. A compelling read.

April 2011; 386 pages

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

"Under the Skin" by Michel Faber

Isserley drives along the A9 seeking well-built male hitch-hikers. She picks them up, chats to them to make sure they have no-one who will search for them, sedates them and drives them to a lonely farmhouse on Scotland's Eastern shore. There they are castrated, their tongues are removed and they are fattened up. In a month they will be butchered and their meat shipped back to the alien planet from which Isserley comes.

 But Isserley's polluted planet with its regimented society contrasts unfavourably with the Earth: she has never known free oxygen and free water from the sky. Her job, hunting hitchers, causes her stress and the pain of the operations she was forced through to look at least approximately human (and hideous in her eyes) causes her agonising pain. Then the gorgeous son of the boss comes to visit; he is a vegetarian and wants to put an end to this monstrous trade.

On p203 the sensitive hitch-hiker just after the wannabe rapist quotes 'oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive" and attributes it to Shakespeare when actually it was Sir Walter Scott. SURELY A SCOT WOULD HAVE KNOWN THAT!!!!!!

Sorry. Geek moment. Over now.

A macabre tale exploring the morality of eating meat with hints of much deeper issues.

April 2011; 296 pages

Monday, 11 April 2011

"The Information" by James Gleick

I have previously read 'Chaos' by this author which is probably the definitive lay guide to Chaos Theory so I was expecting another fascinating and challenging book. I was not disappointed.

He started with Claude Shannon considering the mathematical theory of communication; he then leapt backwards to jungle drums and the redundancy necessary to send information through a very noisy channel and quickly into writing, dictionaries, Babbage's Analytical Engine, telegraphy and telephony. This brought us back to Shannon who worked with Alan Turing, we considered bits and Turing Computers.

And then the book got more difficult and more magical. Because information theory seeped into biology. Genes are messages. In a sense life is all about information transfer. Richard Dawkins entered with the 'Selfish Gene': we are just vehicles for the transmission of genetic information. If the meaning of our lives is merely to transmit information then why does that have to be in the form of DNA? Richard Dawkins also invented the concept of the meme. Shakespeare may have had no great grandchildren and thus his genetic inheritance is dead but his memes have spread around the world: memetically he is the father of us all. And thus life has an alternative meaning to the passing on of genes: it could be about passing on your memes. Life is all about information transfer.

But so is the universe. Shannon realised the correspondence between information and entropy: the forms of the mathematical formulae are the same. As the second law of thermodynamics ('entropy increases') governs the direction of time, so the universe can be interpreted in terms of information. Perhaps, Gleick speculates, the observation that the universe is particulate, made of ever smaller individual particles, is because information is particulate with the irreducible fundamental particle of information being the bit.

I got lost when we came to quantum entanglement, qubits, and teleportation. Apparently the Einstein, Podolsky, Rosen paradox was true.

Then, after I had swum out of my depth, shallow water rescued me with a gallop through blogs and wikis and the sense that we are now being drowned by the information flood.

Wow! What a journey. A wonderful read.

April 2011; 426 pages
Gleick, J. 2011 The Information: A history, a theory, a flood London Fourth Estate

These are the notes I made as I travelled:

  • "The Muses are the daughters of Mnemosyne" (p25)
  • "The persistence of writing made it possible to impose structure on what was known about the world"  (p36)
  • On p53 he tells us that the writer of the first English dictionary, Cawdrey, wrote "wordes in one sentence and words in the next" on his title page but the facsimile of the title page on p52 uses 'words' only.
  • The word spell "first meant to speak or to utter. Then it meant to read, slowly, letter by letter" (p53): a link with the concept of a magic spell?
  • The concept of feedback, positive or negative, is quintessentially about information (p238)
  • Once psychologists had cottoned onto the idea of information they could model perception as a channel carrying information from the outside world to the brain. They started measuring "the likelihood that listeners would hear a word correctly when they knew it was just one of a few alternatives" and "the effect of trying to understand two conversations at once" (p258)
  • Whereas Physics works with Laws, molecular biology is understood in terms of algorithms (p299)
  • Samuel Butler claimed a hen is an egg's way of making another egg (p302). Daniel Dennett in 1995 said 'A scholar is just a library's way of making another library' (p303)
  • "The history of life begins with the accidental appearance of molecules complex enough to serve as building blocks - replicators. The replicator is an information carrier. It survives and spreads by copying itself. The copies must be coherent and reliable but need not be perfect; on the contrary, for evolution to proceed, errors must appear." Alexander Cairns-Smith suggested that, before DNA, "replicators appeared in sticky layers of clay crystals: complex models of silicate minerals." (p304)
  • Ideas have 'spreading power', 'infectivity'. Ideas evolve.  (p311) Dawkins meets Sperry meets Gladwin's Tipping Point. The infectivity of ideas is demonstrated by fashions and by viral videos. The evolution of ideas is demonstrated by Chinese Whispers (although this also shows that idea copying is so unreliable that it would be unlikely to lead to evolution in the biological sense).
  • Greogry Chaitin defines randomness in terms of algorithm length. The longer the algorithm needed to generate a sequence the more random the sequence is (and the more information the sequence contains). "Looking for patterns - seeking the order amid chaos - is what scientists do, too." (p332) "This is what science always seeks: a simple theory that accounts for a large set of facts and allows for /// prediction of events still to come. It is the famous Occam's razor." (pp332-333)
  • Matter falling into a black hole contains information. (p357) Hawking radiation has zero information. (p358). "If the black hole evaporates, where does the information go? According to quantum mechanics, information may never be destroyed" because otherwise the laws of Physics are not reversible in time on a microscopic scale (p358). Hawking initially thought that the information escaped into another universe (p358) but later conceded that this does not happen (p359) although I don't quite understand how he proved this.
  • Information as entropy implies that thought requires energy although the thermodynamics of computation shows that the energy is only used up during erasure: "Forgetting takes work." (p362)
  • "It remains difficult to know when and how much to trust the wisdom of crowds ... to be distinguished from the madness of crowds as chronicled in 1841 by Charles Mackay, who declared that people 'go mad in herds' .... Crowds turn all too quickly into mobs, with their time-honored manifestations: manias, bubbles, lynch mobs, flash mobs, crusades, mass hysteria, herd mentality, goose-stepping, conformity, groupthink - all potnetially magnified by network effects and studied under the rubric of information cascades." (p420)
  • In 2008 Google's warning system for flu based on web searches for 'flu' "discovered outbreaks a week sooner than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention" (p421)
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
  • Smart swarm by Peter Miller
  • 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