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, 24 September 2015

"Sync" by Steven Strogatz

Fireflies synchronize their flashes for miles and miles along a river bank. Applauding humans synchronize their claps. The Millennium Bridge in London was almost overwhelmed as hundreds of people developed synchronized staggering. Electrons synchronize their waves to enable superconductivity.

This book is about how oscillating systems can spontaneously synchronize. That sounds abstruse, difficult and rather boring. Strogatz makes it exciting. He writes about a wide range of topics, explaining any necessary maths carefully and without equations, and spices his stories up by writing about the often eccentric mathematicians and scientists with whom he has worked, from the father of Cybernetics who became so obsessed with a particular graph that he promoted it even after he had discovered that the evidence for it had been mistaken to the Nobel-prize winning physicist who now studies telepathy. I loved the story about when he was having a meal with Alan Alda, the instantly recognizable MASH star, in the MIT canteen and a young student came up and asked them whether he was Professor Strogatz because he just had to say how much he loved his book. They were talking about fads and tipping points and Strogatz mentions that the latest fads in science are all c-words: cybernetics, catastrophe theory, chaos and complexity. He thinks sync is behind them all!

This book is so well written that I understood about Bose-Einstein condensates, quantum tunnelling and strange attractors. That is impressive.

But I also learned about sleep and insomnia and phase changes and tipping points and fads and raster plots and incoherence and small world networks and cascades and brain waves and epilepsy and pendulums and power grids and Zhabotinsky soup and the Josephson Effect and SQUIDs and rioting and foot and mouth.


Other great books in this area include:

  • Six degrees about small world networks by Duncan Watts who worked with 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

Very readable and very important. September 2015; 289 pages

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

"Paper Towns" by John Green

This is a teen novel set in the US. The hero, Q, is in his last year of high school. One night his next door neighbour, Margo Roth Spiegelman, whom he adores from afar, takes him for a whirlwind all-nighter of revenge on her boyfriend who is cheating with her best friend. The next day she has disappeared. Q, with his nerdy friends Radar, obsessed with editing Onmictionary, and Ben, obsessed with losing his virginity, have to solve the clues that Margo has left to find her, or her dead body.

This book has an unusual structure. After a prologue of a few pages when 9-year-olds Q and Margo find a dead guy in the local park, there are 13 pages of setting the scene and introducing the characters during a day at school followed by the revenge night which continues for about 60 pages. We are now a quarter of the way through the book and we have been having fun, even though very little has actually happened. Then Margo disappears although no one really worries about that for another 15 pages. Then the clue hunt starts and goes on for another 36 pages before a clue is found which can move the narrative on and we are now nearly half way through. But the last clue points to a deserted minimall at Q is convinced that all the clues are a way of Margo telling him where to find her dead body after she has committed suicide and so the three friends break into the derelict minimall. At this point I was so excited I had to keep my eyes firmly on the left hand page because I wanted but dreaded what might be written on the right hand page. This was as exciting as the middle of the brilliant Room and again it was more or less bang in the centre of the book. But then we enter a phase where nothing much happens again. We have a very funny bit where Ben gets very drunk at the prom party and Q goes off him a bit but they plan to go to graduation naked underneath their gowns.  But the flatness extends for nearly a quarter of the book before Q finds the vital clue and he and his mates have to drive for twenty four hours in a camper van. The road trip is brilliant. There are some very funny moments and some moments of tension but there is very little contribution to the actual plot. Then comes the final ten per cent of the book which brings the bitter end.

So much for the plot. In many ways it was a stop start sort of book. There was enough to keep me going when the momentum flagged slightly. But it was episodic. The night of revenge did not seem to link up particularly well with 'Where's Margo' theme and the wonderful road trip was, in many ways, a separate event.

The characterisation was neatly done. They were introduced quickly and given more depth as and when they needed it. They had interesting story curves although they were rather dropped at the end of the book when they had served their usefulness.

There was plenty of humour. The way that it alternated with the tension was very clever. The three nerds, Q, Radar and Ben, laughed and joked like three really good mates, even though Q seemed to be the permanent outsider. There are some brilliant wisecracks:

  • "It's a penis," Margo said, "in the same sense that Rhode Island is a state: it may have an illustrious history but is sure isn't big."
  • When his therapist parents give Q a key for a new car and he goes outside and finds that it is a minivan just like his mum's and he is so disappointed that he thinks 'these people specialise in the analysis and understanding of the human psyche.'
  • After Q and Radar have restrained Ben who has attacked someone who called his girlfriend a bitch, Ben shouts: "I have a lot of anger right now! I was enjoying punching the guy! I want to go back to punching him!"

And there were moments when the images were wonderful: Radar, naked underneath his graduation gown, persuades Q to buy him a tee shirt in a fuel stop on the road trip. There are two problems with this: L means extra extra large in this state (Georgia) and it has a confederate flag on the front. Radar is black.

Flicking through it again I find that there are so many funny moments. When Ben has just kissed his girlfriend and asks Q for advice as to whether he did it right, Q tells him that "The human tongue is like wasabi: it's very powerful and should be used sparingly." He then discovers that Ben's girlfriend is standing behind him. She tells him that "Ben's tongue is like sunscreen ... It's good for your health and should be applied liberally." Wow. And wow and wow and wow.

This is a very funny comic novel with some very exciting moments and some tragic teenage angst. A great read.

September 2015; 306 pages

Another teen fiction book by the brilliant John Green is The Fault in Our Stars
You might also enjoy teen fiction The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chobsky

Monday, 21 September 2015

"The Search for the Niger" by Christopher LLoyd

In the golden age of African exploration, the British Victorian explorers wanted to find the source of the Nile. On the other hand they knew where the Niger started, but where did it go? This book tells the horrendous story of the explorers who died to try to discover that answer.

The biggest cause of death was malaria. They knew about cinchona bark, they had made quinine, but few realised that it could be effective against malaria. They never understood that malaria was carried by mosquitoes (they believed the miasmatic theory, that diseases came from decaying atmosphere, hence mal aria) so they never protected themselves against them. Then there was dysentery and all of the other diseases endemic to the area including bilharzia, guinea worm and yellow fever. If they survived disease they were likely to fall prey to the militant Muslim slave traders who preyed on the Negroes, destabilising the sub-Saharan region so that it was a patchwork of warring tribes where lawlessness and anarchy meant banditry and death. The mortality of Europeans on the West African coast at the end of the 1700s was estimated at 70% per year! That's about 30 times worse than the trenches in the First World War. Those who returned often found the financial promises that had been made to them were worthless; only those who published best-selling books prospered (usually until they went back and died). Why did they do it?

Mostly because they were either mad or desperate and so driven that inevitably joint expeditions fell apart!

From the government's point of view the aim was to encourage trade (mostly in palm oil, essential for lubricating the new steam engines) and to discourage the newly illegal slave trade. They did not want the hassle and expense of colonies.

In the end they discovered that the Niger travels north-east past Timbuktu (a fabled city, tremendously disappointing when it was found to be a largish town of single storey mud huts), to to edge of the Sahara. It then makes a sudden turn south east  and eventually flows south into the Bight of Biafra which is on the underhang bit of Africa. It does not meet the Nile (this was proved when someone pointed out that its source wasn't high enough to provide the potential energy needed for the river to cross Africa). It does not drain into Lake Chad (an incredibly shallow freshwater lake with no river draining it) not evaporate in the Sahara. It skirts the mountains of Kong which were thought to be much bigger than they are and an impenetrable barrier.

This is an old-fashioned history. We learn about the greats of West African exploration: Mungo Park, Hugh Clapperton, Richard and John Lander, Macgregor Laird, Dr Barth and Dr Baikie. I'd only ever even heard of Mungo Park and even then I didn't know what he did. These are, of course, all Europeans (and predominantly Scots). The black people, often called negroes, are depicted in traditional stereotypes of ignorance, in thrall to "ju-ju" and "witchdoctors". The Muslims are mostly fanatical, blood thirsty, slave traders. There is an awful sentence on page 149 which refers to "the psychological antipathy of the African male towards manual labour". It was published in 1973; one would have hoped that publishers and their editors at that stage would have been able to avoid such relentlessly negative categorical depictions of human beings.

Questions that it left in my mind:

  • Why did they do it? Why did they do it? Why did they do it? Why did they do it? 
  • How lucky were they to be able to hang on to the notes for their journals through attack, captivity, illness, walking miles through deserts, near starvation, shipwreck ...?
  • How did they send letters (which they did regularly) to the coast? How did the postmen get through when they often couldn't? (Presumably this is evidence, as if it were needed, that the servants were better travellers than the masters.)

I did discover that the name Niger is not linked to the Latin word for black, as I had assumed, but to the African word n'ger-n-gereo which simply means Great River.

Readable although somewhat episodic; it does little more than describe the tribulations of explorer after explorer without asking the big questions about this important part of the world.

September 2015; 208 pages

Saturday, 19 September 2015

"Sexus" by Henry Miller

This is a heavily autobiographical account of Miller's life in 1920s New York. He works for the Cosmococcic (sometimes Cosmodemonic) Telegraph Company as Employment Manager but he is always broke and always borrowing money off his friends to fund his low-life adventures. The book starts with him meeting Mara (later Mona); before ten pages are out they are fucking in the back of a taxicab. From then on, Miller rambles on about his hatred of the Company who employ him (goodness knows why they keep him on), his longing to be a writer, and the meaning of life whilst visiting his friends (artists, doctors, musicians etc) and having sex with his wife, his wife's friend, his new girlfriend, the girlfriends of his friends and almost anyone else he seems to meet. These encounters are described in frank detail and are as casual as could be. He is a stunning lover: he is clearly able to make a woman orgasm as soon as he penetrates her, she orgasms time and time again, he has multiple orgasms, he never gets anyone pregnant (except that the wife has "the child"), and he never contracts an STI (although his penis does get some spore spots but the doctor gives him a clean bill of health and he puts it down to having had sex with a menstruating woman).

Maybe he was a great lover. Apparently he had an affair with Anais Nin (who wrote Delta of Venus); later his wife did too. But most of the descriptions seem a little unlikely, superhuman.

In short, I found it a difficult book to read. It is little more than rambling self-indulgence interrupted by pornography. It reminded me of Jack Kerouac's On the Road (which was written before Sexus although after Miller's earlier works) but I found the energy of Kerouac carried his stream of consciousness along a lot better than Miller's; Kerouac also seems to use fewer characters and to have more structure. Sexus needs editing, trimming, structuring.

There are some delightful moments. I loved the description of the elevated train as a "ride across the rooftops" giving a romantic feel to what must have been rather urban and decaying. There is a brilliant description of a woman as "Her passport was in order but her luggage excited suspicion". But much of it was boring.

September 2015; 463 pages

Sunday, 13 September 2015

"The Hut Six Story" by Gordon Welchman

A memoir by one of the key mathematicians who worked on cracking the Enigma code at Bletchley Park.

This explanations of the cryptanalysis is by and large too difficult for me and I suspect that my understanding of maths is significantly higher than the average reader. The history is mostly (and avowedly) written from memory; very little research has been done (or could have been done given that this book was written while Enigma was still top secret). The prose style is pedestrian: my heart sank when he explained that there had been ten steps in his thinking and he would now proceed to explain them one by one. There are times when, like most memoirs, his concern is with ensuring his own place in history and there are therefore moments when he self-indulgently takes issue with authors having an alternative point of view.

Having just watched a television programme about Mr Welchman and his Enigma success on the BBC I had some idea of what he had been doing. He was instrumental in what is now called Traffic Analysis (though he suggests that he was not the prime mover here, nor was it the most important aspect of his work) in which the German military machine was tracked by knowing which radio operator was broadcasting from where and at what times, regardless of the content of the message. Because much of the radio broadcasts contained routine parts (the full military title of the commander sending the message and of whoever was to receive it, often a weather report, often a comment saying something along the lines of 'nothing to report') 'cribs' could be constructed in which cryptanalysts would scour a coded message for such routine parts and try to deduce the key from that.  I learned that every Enigma message contained an unencrypted part and that part of this explained the key settings that the individual Enigma operator was using; since at the start this 'indicator' was given twice it provided an 'in' for the cryptanalysts (although I couldn't understand the explanation for this).

One gets quite a clear picture of Mr Welchman. During the war he often had a chauffeur driven car and he lived in a mediaeval priory. One guesses that he was quite posh before he became a Cambridge fellow!

So there was a lot of interest in this for the specialist but I struggled with the style. One day someone will be able to explain Enigma to me but this book certainly came nowhere near doing that.

September 2015; 249 pages

A better (but still not perfect) explanation of Enigma is given by Alan Turing: the Enigma by Andrew Hodges

Friday, 11 September 2015

"John Macnab" by John Buchan

I don't think I have ever read a book about poaching before and certainly not about a poaching practical joke. A barrister, a banker and a cabinet minister decide to go to Scotland and poach deer and salmon but before each crime they will warn the landowner of their intention. Thus they hope to cure their boredom.

Weird plot. But Buchan is brilliant at describing the joy of hunting (and being hunted) in a cold, wet and foggy highland landscape. He is brilliant at capturing the native tongue of the gillies and gamekeepers. He has the joyous character of tinkler orphan Fish Benjie and the feisty Janet Raden. There is a moment of high comedy when Archie, the prospective Tory MP for the area, has stage fright making his maiden speech and can only repeat (twice) the words of the chairman who welcomed him to the stage.

There are, of course, terrible un-PC moments. The posh people and the poor people might as well inhabit different universes. Posh people, who have a natural air of command, expect to hoodwink and terrify the poor. If they dress like them, their clothes are unmentionable and appalling. But a hot bath and a stiff whisky at the end of the day and a glorious dinner cooked by a poor person makes it all better. At the end of the book an ex-soldier, down on his luck ("The Gov'ment don't seem to care what 'appens to us poor Gawd-forgotten devils, sir.") has had his leg broken by the cabinet minister who, to his credit, is awfully sorry, especially realising that such an injury might destroy the man's source of income. But in the epilogue, Buchan has forgotten all about this man, concentrating only on the upper classes.

Buit Buchan was not entirely without redemption. The prospective Tory MP's doctrine is one of "Challenge.; of no privilege without responsibility, of only one right of man - the right to do his duty; of all power and property held on sufferance. ... What was Bolshevism but a challenge, perhaps a much-needed challenge, to make certain of the faith that was in a man? He had no patience with the timorous and whining rich. No law could protect them unless they made themselves worth protecting. ... So soon as a cause feared inquiry and the light of day, that cause was doomed." It is an interesting position. Is this still what the Tories believe?

This is the first appearance in fiction that I have encountered of the tremendously famous then and unheard of now Italian poet d'Annunzio about whom Lucy Hughes-Hallett wrote her brilliant biography entitled The Pike.

A remarkable book. It made me want to tramp the hills of Scotland in the fog and the rain (and then go home to a roaring fire and a groaning table). A brilliant evocation of landscape.

September 2015; 248 pages

Other books by Buchan reviewed in this blog:

  • The Three Hostages starring Richard Hannay which is rather silly but very readable (and ends with a wonderful chase in the Scottish hills).
  • Huntingtower which is also set in Scotland and stars an urchin quite like Fish Benji; another silly plot but a wonderful presentation of the way highland Scots talk and live.
  • Witch Wood, probably Buchan's best book, set in seventeenth century Scotland which yet again gives us a fantastic feel for the Scottish speech and the landscape, though this is rather more in the lowlands.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

"Phineas Redux" by Anthony Trollope

This is the fourth of the Palliser series of novels which has already included:

The fifth book, The Prime Minister, is also on this blog as is the final book, The Duke's Children in which the Duke finds it difficult to apply his political principles to his own family when his children threaten to make non-ducal marriages.

In some ways Phineas Redux is the most exciting of the books. At its heart is a murder trial. Trollope issues a spoiler almost as soon as the crime is committed by declaring who is innocent and who is guilty; by doing this he forfeits a great deal of possible dramatic tension. But he did that in The Eustace Diamonds as well. When it comes to the question of who Phineas Finn, handsome MP, will marry, Trollope draws this out as far as he can; it isn't settled until chapter 79 out of 80. Trollope can do tension but he only seems to be interested in who will marry whom.

And in fox hunting. He loves fox hunting. Every book so far has had a fox hunting scene. Perhaps it is the only real opportunity for his characters to escape the stuffy drawing rooms and the strictly controlled speech in favour of wildness and excitement. But Newgate Prison is a pretty uncontrolled environment too (although the cell in this case is carpeted with bed, chairs and two tables, books and writing materials, and plenty of good food; what it was to be rich and on remand.

Trollope also continues to show his casual anti-semitism in his appalling treatment of Mr Emilius, a man who seems to have no saving grace whatsoever. At least he seemed nice in The Eustace Diamonds. Trollope's other weakness is in the relentless defence of a class system in which the affairs of idle young gentlemen whose private income makes them go into debt with tradesmen and who can't marry because they are too poor (but much richer than the servants) are so much more interesting than anything a lower class person might do.

But is this book any good?

It is, of course, a soap opera and like any soap opera it is more believable when you have met the characters elsewhere. Trollope has some very believable characters and his women in particular are superb: Lady Glencora is a magnificently spoilt little rich girl become manipulative society hostess whose very house is named Matching in honour of her dating agency work; Madame Max is much more mysterious but still a nicely rounded character. I enjoyed Adelaide Palliser, a forthright young girl, who is courted by the smitten but dreadful Ned Spooner and puts him down brilliantly. And Plantagent Palliser is a wonderful dry stick of a cabinet minister. But Phineas annoyed me: he had such scruples and allowed his emotions to blow him that way and this; he didn't deserve a happy ending.

But the crucial test is whether this book kept me reading. Again there are passages I skipped and Trollope would have benefited from some severe pruning. There were sections, especially at the start, when things were a little slow and the gentle comedy was all that was available to help. The actual murder does not take place until the second volume, over half way through the book. After that the book fairly zips along, despite the spoilers, until the end when it takes a little while to wrap up. So good characters, mostly good dialogue and a plot that is good in parts. Worth a read.

September 2015; 569 pages

Friday, 4 September 2015

"The Three Hostages" by John Buchan

This is the fourth Richard Hannay adventure in the series which started with the much better known The Thirty-Nine Steps. Following becoming a General and a Sir in the Great War, Hannay has retired to the countryside with his wife and young son. But a mysterious criminal gang has kidnapped three people linked to the highest echelons of British society and the baffled authorities appeal to Hannay to find the abductees. All that he has to go on is six lines of poetry which his local doctor can help to interpret. Sure enough, the poetry leads him to where each hostage is hidden and to the master criminal himself who, despite his outward respectability as an MP (how times have changed there!), on first meeting Hannay hypnotises him. But Hannay is able to resist the mesmeric influence and though he continues to act as if he is the puppet and slave of the master, he is slowly able to unravel the crime.

It is well written even though the plot, as outlined above, is a monstrous load of rubbish. It is very much of its time in that it plays to all the prejudices of the Empire-loving Brit: it is racist and anti-Jewish. Working people are good eggs when they are in their place and Hannay's wife is a strong character without whom he could not have freed all the hostages. But the plot, and there is no getting away from the plot in what is, after all, meant to be a thriller, has no tension in it, is almost completely black and white, and revolves around the most audacious set of circumstances.

September 2015; 255 pages

If you like Buchan read Huntingtower which is so much better. Even if you thought you didn't like Buchan, try Witch Wood which is actually well-written with real characters.