Sunday, 17 July 2016

Superforecasting. By Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner

Superforecasting. The Art and Science of Prediction

Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner

Penguin Random House. First published 2015.

Philip Tetlock is a professor at the Wharton School of Management in USA. So right away we have an idea what the target audience is. I don't, I hope, fit the profile of a typical member of that audience, but all the same the book made interesting reading, even if the take-away lessons (a book of this sort is obviously built around such take-away lessons) were not particularly exciting. 

Tetlock and his collaborators ran a series of sociological experiments over a period of many years. They recruited thousands of volunteers from all walks and stations of life - well, not all; surely the uppermost and the very lowest branches of society would be vastly under-represented - and asked them to make predictions about all sorts of real-world events, such as the situation in West Asia, or the price of oil, or the possibility of conflict in Africa, or North Korea going nuclear, etc., etc. The events were tracked, and the predictions were matched against the actual outcomes. As far as I could make out from the book, the questions were formulated as binaries - yes or no. But the answers, especially in the later, more sophisticated rounds, had probabilities attached to them. The experimenters devised ways of rigorously and quantitatively evaluating the answers and could score each of the participants, on how well their predictions differed from random. They could thus identify some participants who did very well, over a period of time. They went back to these people, whom they dubbed 'superforecasters', studied their habits and came up with a list of common characteristics that could help anyone, so they say, make more meaningful predictions about anything at all. 

As would be expected in such a book, each rule is given a chapter to itself. One or two personal anecdotes, sometimes involving a superforecaster, introduces each chapter. Then the rule is stated and explained, with a great deal of padding. (After all, without the stories and the repetitive explanations, this would not be a book, only a rather extended review article in a scientific journal.) At the end of the book, authors helpfully summarize the take-away lessons, which I quote below.

1. 'Triage', i.e. work only on questions that you think are possible to answer.
2. 'Break seemingly impossible problems into tractable sub-problems'.
3. 'Strike the right balance between inside and outside views', i.e. those of experts in the field and those of complete lay-persons. Note the key word here is 'right', and each question will have its own 'right balance'.
4. 'Strike the right balance between under-reacting and over-reacting to evidence'.
5. 'Look for clashing causal forces at work for each problem'.
6. 'Strive to distinguish as many degrees of doubt as the problem permits, but no more'.
7. 'Strike the right balance between under- and overconfidence, between prudence and decisiveness'.
8. 'Look for errors behind your mistakes, but beware of rear-view mirror hindsight biases'.
9. 'Bring out the best in others and let others bring out the best in you'.
10. 'Master the error-balancing bicycle', i.e. practice predictions by using errors to correct just the right amount.
11. 'Don't treat commandments as commandments', i.e. know when to go beyond these rules.

These eleven rules or commandments are almost all of them pure management-speak. There is however some truth in them, and while following them is unlikely to dramatically improve one's personal or professional life, or one's finances, reading this book is not a bad way to spend a day or two. 

Sunday, 3 July 2016

A Partisan's Daughter. By Louis de Bernieres

A Partisan's Daughter

Louis de Bernieres

Vintage Books. First published 2008.

This is another very sweet book by de Bernieres. It is much simpler than his other novels such as 'Birds Without Wings'. The story is straightforward. It is London in the mid 1970s. Roza is the daughter of a Serbian partisan who fought against the Nazis alongside Marshall Tito. Chris is a boring, and bored, English middle class medical representative, making painfully self-conscious efforts to escape his dead-end home, inhabited by a stodgy wife whom he calls 'the great white loaf'. One day, in an uncharacteristically adventurous mood, he sees Roza on the road, thinks she is prostitute, and tries to pick her up. She turns down his offer, but allows him to take her home - a broken down apartment in a building marked for demolition. Here, over the next few weeks or months, during repeated visits by Chris, Roza narrates her story, from early teenage in a united Yugoslavia, just breaking up into its various tribal components, to the streets of London and her current position. 

Alternating in narration between Roza and Chris, the book describes how Roza learnt the first facts of life at her home and at the University, her first love, her first heartbreak, her flight over the border to Trieste, how she got a job as a cook and lover on a sailing boat, her illegal entry into England, her experiences as a hostess in London, and her current status as a reasonably well-off layabout. Chris falls in love with her, but is unable to take it forward. He figures she may also be in love with him, but is not sure. Finally, high on drink, he tries to make love to her, with disastrous consequences.

As I said, a very sweet book, but more novella than novel. The book is set in a large typeface allowing it to go to 280 pages. But even without these publishing tricks, even as a slim novelette, the book is very much worth reading, enjoyable, with the de Bernieres trademark of lovely flowing language and sweetness and light.      

Farthing. By Jo Walton


Jo Walton

TOR: Tom Doherty Associates. First published 2006.

Set in the background of a country sliding rapidly into fascism, the book is a murder mystery novel, and at the same time perceptive commentary on the present-day political situation around the world. It's  only grimmer now than it was a decade ago, when the book was published, and Walton's perceptions are now so much more relevant, in 'Modi-fied' India as much as in post-Brexit UK and in Trumpist USA. 'Farthing' is a country house in England, which, in this alternate history, is the seat and the name of the political faction which deposed Churchill and made peace with Germany just after Hitler had occupied France and the rest of Europe. The family party for that weekend at Farthing includes the man who conducted the negotiations with the Third Reich and signed the peace treaty. He is found dead in his bed, murdered, with dramatic marks indicating that it may have been a Jewish conspiracy to repay the man who betrayed them. Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate. In the manner of the classic detective novel, he calls in all the various inhabitants of the manor, one by one, and interviews them. Among them are the owner of the manor, his wife and daughters, and their husbands and lovers. One the husbands is the murdered man. And another is a Jew, who has married the youngest daughter. He is the first and obvious suspect. As the investigation proceeds, there are a couple of attempted murders, and suspicion is cast on each of the inhabitants, in turn. The final solution, when it comes, is satisfying, but the denouement is overtaken by political events, and the book ends on an uncertain and melancholy note.

The story is narrated by two voices. There is the attractive voice of Lucy Kahn, nee Lady Eversley, youngest daughter of Lord Eversley, who owns Farthing. Against family tradition and its politics, indeed against the wishes of all its members, she falls in love with, and marries, the Jew David Kahn. She and her husband are now only barely and grudgingly accepted by the family, and never admitted into the inner circles of confidence. Lucy fears that her innocent husband would be framed for the murder, something which would be all too easy, given the intense discrimination which that race faces in a Britain that has compromised with Hitler. The alternate chapters of the book, written by Lucy, are attractively breathless and deliberately bordering on the silly sometimes. The steel that lies beneath this fluffy exterior however is made apparent in her defense of her husband, especially in the final moments of the book. Altogether, Lucy is a charming character. The other chapters are in third person, mostly describing events from the point of view of Inspector Carmichael. These are straightforward, and most of the police procedures - the interviews, the collecting of clues, the follow-up investigation, the airing of theories - all these take place in these chapters.

The English aristocracy is described to be utterly corrupt and power mad. And the murder is mixed up with politics at the highest level. The men and women are shown to hop in and out of each other's beds almost at will. Lucy and David are exceptions, with their love genuine and strong. Lucy has her own code names for these couplings - 'bognor' for adultery; 'athenian' for a gay relationship; 'roman' for a straight relationship; and 'macedonian' for bisexual. There are other such amusing observations Lucy makes from time to time.

This is a wonderful book, much more than a murder mystery, and yet capable of satisfying on that level too. Walton ostensibly writes in the tradition of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, P.D.James and others of that ilk. But while all those writers, no matter how deep (PDJ) or shallow (AC) psychologically, were adoring in their descriptions of the British upper classes, Walton is like Le Carre, contemptuous of the aristocracy, and firmly left-of-centre.