Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Black Swan. By Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Black Swan 
The Impact of the Highly Improbable
 Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2007)
 Penguin Books (2008)

  A pretentious book about extreme events, their impact on economic trading, and how to take care (or even advantage) of them when indulging in such activity. Basically Taleb's advice boils down to: 'Invest small amounts in a large number of highly risky ventures and large amounts in a few not so risky ventures' with the corollary that 'be careful on how you define "safe" and "risky" - take into consideration that many phenomena do not follow Gaussian distributions'.  But to get this rather simple, reasonable and probably self-evident message across Taleb firstly spews venom at a whole lot of economists and philosophers, about whom I have only the faintest knowledge, so the only point that gets across is 'Taleb is the greatest'. Secondly he drops names left right and centre, again  to prove the above point. Thirdly he unnecessarily defines new terms for concepts and ideas (e.g. mediocristan and extremistan) that could have been much easier described by accepted terminology.  Finally the book is too long, with a lot of side-tracks, none of which are properly followed up. It has a breathless style, too common in such popular science books, is mono-maniacal, and given to wide statements with almost no supporting evidence. But I'd like to quote the following.

'If you are a researcher, you will have to publish inconsequential articles in "prestigious" publications so that others say hello to you once in a while when you run into them at conferences' -Chapter 7, section 'Peer Cruelty'. 

Slay Ride. By Dick Francis

 Slay Ride 
 Dick Francis (1973)
 Published by Fawcett Crest (paperback) 1987
     Not the best of his books. An investigator from the English Jockey club goes to Norway to investigate the disappearance of an English jockey riding part time in Norway. Does not have any of Francis's trademark set scenes of incredible violence. I picked up this book cheap along with a Ross Macdonald and John D. Macdonald for a total of about 150 rupees at a second hand book exhibition in Anna Nagar - more about the other books as I read them.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Swoop. By P.G. Wodehouse

The Swoop! or How Clarence saved England.

P.G. Wodehouse

First published 1909

Project Gutenberg Ebook #7050

    Another early Wodehouse. Another farcical tale of how England was invaded by 9 foreign nations simultaneously (including Germans, Russians, Chinese, Arabs, Moors....). Comical, but severely reinforcing sterotypes, i.e. stereotypes of the early 1900s, presumably. Clarence is a Boy Scout who saves England by inducing a jealous quarrel between the Russian leader and the German leader, both of whom become performers on the music hall stage after completing  the conquest, and together driving off the other invaders. It seems PGW was also taking a swipe at the entertainment industry of that time.   

Monday, 18 October 2010

William Tell Told Again. By P.G. Wodehouse

William Tell Told Again

P.G. Wodehouse

First published 1904

Project Gutenberg E-book #7298

A story for children, about William Tell, in a slightly farcical tone. It starts off with 'Once upon a time, more years ago than anybody can remember, before the first hotel had been built or the first Englishman had taken a photograph of Mont Blanc and brought it home to be pasted in an album and shown after tea to his envious friends, Switzerland belonged to the Emperor of Austria....', and continues in the same tone. An interesting example of early PGW, much better than 'Not George Washington'.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

The Pirate Queen. By Diana Norman

The Pirate Queen

Diana Norman

Published in 1991 by Headline Book Publishing PLC.

A 'historical romance', it follows the life and the rather complex and wildly varying adventures of Barbary Clampett, an Irish child, first in castle tower prison in Ireland, and then growing up alone in Elizabethan London, then at Elizabeth's court, then back to Ireland to meet her grandmother, who is the pirate queen of the title, then back to Elizabeth's court, etc. etc. Set against the attempted colonisation of Ireland by England and the rebellions arising therefrom, there are a lot of historical characters and events that are woven into the novel, as also brief descriptions of presumably actual historical events, such as battles, massacres, famines and the like. Some of the descriptions of the murders and the massacres, by Englishmen, English armies, Irish rebels, Irish people, Irish clans, etc. have a strong resonance not only with some contemporary events (Rwanda, the 2002 Gujarat massacres...) but also with what I read in the 'The Last Mughal', esp. since the English are involved, again. However there is too much detail, and I had to skip through the book to sustain my interest. I think it is not meant for serious reading but is more like a Georgette Heyer novel or a Mills and Boon romance.

Not George Washington - An Autobiographical Novel. By P.G. Wodehouse and Herbert Westbrook

Not George Washington - an autobiographical novel

P.G. Wodehouse and Herbert Westbrook

Project Gutenberg E-book #7230 released 2005

First published in 1907

The story is pretty bad - about a writer who becomes successful after plenty of initial failures. The only potentially comic aspect is that he falls in love with Margaret when he's still struggling, out of love with her and in love with Eve when he is successful, and to get out of his engagement to Margaret, tries to hide his success, but then has to declare it, and then runs into some trouble before going back to Margaret. The handling though is pretty bad, and the story is not just not funny, but positively boring, with a hero you cannot sympathize with at any stage, nor actually hate - you only feel a mild and bored dislike. I suspect the story idea is that of PGW originally, but later expanded full length by Westbrook, apparently his co-author. The writing seems to be mostly PGW, but there are not enough 'nifties' to be entirely his. Only of historical relevance to the true PGW fan.

There was an article in last week's Hindu magazine about Raymond Chandler. Considering both he and PGW are from Dulwich college, is it just a coincidence that both have a wonderful set of similies, though used in different contexts? Considering this: Raymond Chandler 'She was the kind of girl who could make a Bishop kick a hole in a picture window'. PGW 'She had an eye that could split oaks at twenty paces'.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Multiple Facets of My Madurai. By Manohar Devadoss

Multiple facets of my Madurai

Manohar Devadoss

Published in 2007 by EastWest, an imprint of Westland Limited

This book was gifted to me by Usha, Krishnaswamy and Amudhan. A coffee table memoir by Manohar Devadoss, consisting of nearly 70 pen-and-ink drawings, supplemented by text written by him, describing either the circumstances under which the drawings were made, or the history of the building, or the technical aspects of the drawing, and so on. It is an excellent collection, a truly 'heritage' work. The drawings are fabulous, even without considering that Devadoss was/is nearly blind when he made them. The street scenes remind me of Madurai maama's house as I remember it in the 60's and 70's. A book worth preserving.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Death at the Excelsior. By P.G. Wodehouse

Death at the Excelsior

P.G. Wodehouse

Project Gutenberg E-Book #8176. Released 2005.

This is a selection of seven early Wodehouse short stories assembled for Project Gutenberg. The stories and their publications years are: Death at the Excelsior [1914]; Misunderstood [1910]; The best sauce [1911]; Jeeves and the chump Cyril [1918]; Jeeves in the springtime [1921]; Concealed art [1915]; The test case [1915]. The stories are unremarkable. The two Jeeves stories have been included in other collections and I have read them before, but not the others. Of these the first, Death at the Excelsior, is apparently PGW's attempt at writing a detective story - it fails. Variations of the others occur in other collections of his early stories such as 'The man with two left feet'. The stories are interesting because they show the development of his distinct style over 10 years - from vapid and dull stories from 1910 to 1915 to the two marvellous Jeeves stories (not the best though) in 1918 and 1921. But even the early stories have a general turn of phrase that is nice to read and the occasional 'nifty'. The last two stories ('Concealed art' and 'The test case') are about Reggie Pepper, a kind of early Wooster, indeed a weak imitation of him, and without Jeeves.