Category Archives: Non-Fiction

The Unfinished Game – Keith Devlin

 

The Unfinished Game - Keith Devlin

The Unfinished Game – Keith Devlin

In my previous (before children) life I taught maths and I still like maths (learning it, tutoring it, etc.).

First, this book had an easy conversational style – you don’t have to be into maths to understand or enjoy it. It was about a series of letters written between Fermat and Pascal that lead to probability theory. It is hard for us to imagine a world without probability, but people thought it was impossible to predict future events (it was the will of god).

Blurb …

Before the mid-seventeenth century, scholars generally agreed that it was impossible to predict something by calculating mathematical outcomes. One simply could not put a numerical value on the likelihood that a particular event would occur. Even the outcome of something as simple as a dice roll or the likelihood of showers instead of sunshine was thought to lie in the realm of pure, unknowable chance.The issue remained intractable until Blaise Pascal wrote to Pierre de Fermat in 1654, outlining a solution to the ?unfinished game” problem: how do you divide the pot when players are forced to end a game of dice before someone has won? The idea turned out to be far more seminal than Pascal realized. From it, the two men developed the method known today as probability theory.

In The Unfinished Game, mathematician and NPR commentator Keith Devlin tells the story of this correspondence and its remarkable impact on the modern world: from insurance rates, to housing and job markets, to the safety of cars and planes, calculating probabilities allowed people, for the first time, to think rationally about how future events might unfold.

Mr (Dr?) Devlin presents a piece of the correspondence and then explains it – he does a great job of simplifying complicated ideas. I found this book fascinating. The different writing styles of Fermat and Pascal, the fact that Pascal struggled a bit with probability (that was quite reassuring).

More reviews …

http://engineering-maths-online.blogspot.com.au/2009/07/review-of-unfinished-game-by-keith.html

http://infrastructurewatch.blogspot.com.au/2009/01/book-review-unfinished-game-by-keith.html

 

 

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Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace – Kate Summerscale

I have read The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House  which made me keen to read Ms Summerscale’s next work. I checked out a large print version from the library and there wasn’t any images – were the images in the normal version? Anyway, this was quite a fascinating story. Did she commit adultery (I suspect so) or did she just write her fantasies in her journal? The time the story took places also adds to its appeal. Divorce is easier to obtain now than ever before, the pseudo science of phrenology and hydropathy (and what is uterine disease?)  plus the other famous people in the story (e.g. Charles Darwin).

Here is the blurb …

 Headstrong, high-spirited, and already widowed, Isabella Walker became Mrs. Henry Robinson at age 31 in 1844. Her first husband had died suddenly, leaving his estate to a son from a previous marriage, so she inherited nothing. A successful civil engineer, Henry moved them, by then with two sons, to Edinburgh’s elegant society in 1850. But Henry traveled often and was cold and remote when home, leaving Isabella to her fantasies.
No doubt thousands of Victorian women faced the same circumstances, but Isabella chose to record her innermost thoughts—and especially her infatuation with a married Dr. Edward Lane—in her diary. Over five years the entries mounted—passionate, sensual, suggestive. One fateful day in 1858 Henry chanced on the diary and, broaching its privacy, read Isabella’s intimate entries. Aghast at his wife’s perceived infidelity, Henry petitioned for divorce on the grounds of adultery. Until that year, divorce had been illegal in England, the marital bond being a cornerstone of English life. Their trial would be a cause celebre, threatening the foundations of Victorian society with the specter of “a new and disturbing figure: a middle class wife who was restless, unhappy, avid for arousal.” Her diary, read in court, was as explosive as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, just published in France but considered too scandalous to be translated into English until the 1880s.

 This book gives a snap shot of what life was like in educated circles in the 1840s, 50s and 60s. It is clear that a lot of research went into the novel, but it is easy to read and very entertaining. It is definitely worth reading if you like social history, women’s history or the victorian era.

More reviews …

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/may/13/mrs-robinsons-disgrace-summerscale-review

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/24/books/review/mrs-robinsons-disgrace-by-kate-summerscale.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

http://dovegreyreader.typepad.com/dovegreyreader_scribbles/2012/07/mrs-robinsons-disgrace-kate-summerscale.html

 

 

 

 

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The Pattern in the Carpet – Margaret Drabble

I read a review of this book somewhere (probably The Australian Review) and thought it sounded interesting and then I found a copy on sale at Borders – it was meant to be.

The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws is an original and brilliant work. Margaret Drabble weaves her own story into a history of games, in particular jigsaws, which have offered her and many others relief from melancholy and depression. Alongside curious facts and discoveries about jigsaw puzzles — did you know that the 1929 stock market crash was followed by a boom in puzzle sales? — Drabble introduces us to her beloved Auntie Phyl, and describes childhood visits to the house in Long Bennington on the Great North Road, their first trip to London together, the books they read, the jigsaws they completed. She offers penetrating sketches of her parents, her siblings, and her children; she shares her thoughts on the importance of childhood play, on art and writing, on aging and memory. And she does so with her customary intelligence, energy, and wit. This is a memoir like no other.

This was a lovely book to read – part memoir part jigsaw history. There were anecdotes  from her friends and acquaintances about their ‘jigsaw puzzling’. Drabble uses a chatty style – it is like you’re sitting at her table doing a puzzle together.

And yes, I did feel motivated to do a  jigsaw puzzle. I like the idea that it is always possible to complete the puzzle you just need time and a bit of discipline.

I liked this book so much I’ve moved on to The Witch of Exmoor.

Here are some more reviews …

http://acommonreader.org/review-the-pattern-in-the-carpet-margaret-drabble/

http://picklemethis.blogspot.com/2009/05/pattern-in-carpet-by-margaret-drabble.html 

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Coco Chanel The Legend and the Life – Justine Picardie


Firstly, this is a beautiful book. The pages are thick and the photographs and illustrations (by Karl Lagerfeld) are beautiful.

This was an accessible and easy to read biography. Each chapter covers a different phase/aspect of Chanel’s life. The information is well-grouped and draws attention to recurring patterns in her life that might have been missed in a more strictly chronological account.

I would definitely recommend this biography to any one interested in Chanel’s life.

More reviews …

http://dovegreyreader.typepad.com/dovegreyreader_scribbles/2010/10/dovegreyreader-asks-justinepicardie-about-coco-chanel.html

http://www.beautyandlace.com.au/bookgirl/coco-chanel-the-legend-and-the-life/

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Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell

I chose to read this book because I read about the necessity of 10 000 hours of practice to master something; music, computer programming etc, and I was intrigued.

Gladwell has a very accessible and entertaining style. Here is the blurb …

Why do some people achieve so much more than others? Can they lie so far out of the ordinary?

In his provocative and inspiring new book, Malcolm Gladwell looks at everyone from rockstars to professional athletes, software billionaires to scientific geniuses, to show that the story of success is far more surprising than we could ever have imagined. He reveals that it’s as much about where we’re from and what we do, as who we are – and no one, not even a genius, ever makes it alone.

In the first section of the book Gladwell looks at individual success – starting with professional sport. He noticed in the NHL that most players have birthdays in the first three months of the year. It turns out that the cut-off for junior hockey is the first of January. A child born on the first of January is in the same competition as one born on the thirty first of December. At the beginning years of hockey the January children will be a little bit bigger and a bit more mature. They will be picked for teams more often and get extra coaching and practice thus improving and going on to be picked for more specialist coaching, etc. Gladwell isn’t implying that the children born earlier in the year don’t have talent, they do, but they also have an added opportunity. This bonus opportunity is also used to explain software geniuses, scientists and extremely successful lawyers. However, it’s not only opportunity that makes the difference – these people also work hard. Ten thousand hours to be precise. Gladwell also looks at IQ and determines that IQ alone isn’t enough to determine success. You need to be ‘smart enough’, but after that it’s more to do with opportunity, personality and hard work.

The second section of the book is all about cultural legacy. Even though we may have moved countries patterns of behaviour set by our ancestors influence us today – sometimes in positive ways and sometimes not. There is an interesting section on the relationship between Captains and First Officers. First Officers from some cultures find it very difficult to tell the Captain they think he has made a mistake. They hint at the issue, but often the Captain simply ignores them. This reticence has lead to crashes. There are positive legacies as well. Descendants of the rice farmers of China value hard work (apparently being a rice farmer is very hard). Gladwell argues that the Asian tendency to be good at mathematics is in part due to their high work ethic – they work hard therefore they achieve success.

I found this book to be fascinating. I like to think that hard work and perseverance will be rewarded with success. If you’re interested in popular culture, human nature or education, then I think you would enjoy reading this book.

Here is more information ..

http://www.gladwell.com/outliers/index.html

http://blog.betterworldbooks.com/2009/03/02/book-review-outliers-by-malcom-gladwell/

http://readingforsanity.blogspot.com/2010/09/outliers-malcolm-gladwell.html

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Superfreakonomics – Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

superfreakonomics

This was one of my husband’s Christmas presents and I thought I would read it too.  I’ve never been particularly interested in economics – I studied it at school and that was enough. However, this book is fun and interesting almost makes me want to go back and study economics. Although it appears microeconomics rather than macroeconomics is the interesting stuff.

Here is the book description from Amazon …

The New York Times best-selling Freakonomicswas a worldwide sensation, selling over four million copies in thirty-five languages and changing the way we look at the world. Now, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner return with SuperFreakonomics,and fans and newcomers alike will find that the freakquel is even bolder, funnier, and more surprising than the first.

Four years in the making, SuperFreakonomics asks not only the tough questions, but the unexpected ones: What’s more dangerous, driving drunk or walking drunk? Why is chemotherapy prescribed so often if it’s so ineffective? Can a sex change boost your salary?

SuperFreakonomics challenges the way we think all over again, exploring the hidden side of everything with such questions as: 

  •  
    • How is a street prostitute like a department-store Santa?
    • Why are doctors so bad at washing their hands?
    • How much good do car seats do?
    • What’s the best way to catch a terrorist?
    • Did TV cause a rise in crime?
    • What do hurricanes, heart attacks, and highway deaths have in common?
    • Are people hard-wired for altruism or selfishness?
    • Can eating kangaroo save the planet?
    • Which adds more value: a pimp or a Realtor?

 

Levitt and Dubner mix smart thinking and great storytelling like no one else, whether investigating a solution to global warming or explaining why the price of oral sex has fallen so drastically. By examining how people respond to incentives, they show the world for what it really is – good, bad, ugly, and, in the final analysis, super freaky.

This is book is a fun read. The authors have a conversational style and they write about witty, interesting (and slightly bizarre) things.

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Howards End is on the Landing – Susan Hill

howardsendisonlanding

I picked this book up from here while looking for a Christmas present for my Sister in Law (I don’t think I did very well on the christmas present).

Early one autumn afternoon in pursuit of an elusive book on my shelves, I encountered dozens of others that I had never read, or forgotten I owned, or wanted to read for a second time. The discovery inspired me to embark on a year-long voyage through my books, forsaking new purchases in order to get to know my own collection again. A book which is left on a shelf for a decade is a dead thing, but it is also a chrysalis, packed with the potential to burst into new life. Wandering through her house that day, my eyes were opened to how much of that life was stored in my home, neglected for years. Howard’s End is on the Landing charts the journey as I revisit the conversations, libraries and bookshelves of the past that have informed a lifetime of reading and writing.

It’s written in a conversational style and Ms Hill has charming anecdotes about authors she has met. She writes about what was happening in her life when she read certain books and what she thinks of them (and the author’s technique and style). This is definitely a book for readers and it makes me want to take a journey through my own book shelves – I know there is a heap of books I haven’t read and others that I didn’t read properly the first time.

As an Australian and an Austen fan, I should be outraged (she dismisses both Canadian and Australian literature – how can anyone discard Margaret Atwood? and ‘doesn’t get’ Austen) but really it didn’t matter. It made me think about reading and being a reader and what they means.

http://bookbath.blogspot.com/2009/12/howards-end-is-on-landing-susan-hill.html

http://dovegreyreader.typepad.com/dovegreyreader_scribbles/2009/09/howards-end-is-on-the-landing-by-susan-hill.html

http://books-snob.blogspot.com/2009/10/howards-end-is-on-landing-by-susan-hill.html

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The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House – Kate Summerscale

mrwhicher

I haven’t read much True Crime. I’ve read Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation – which was fabulous. Helen Garner is brutally honest about herself and her motivations. She is very much part of the story she tells. Kate Summerscale doens’t intrude into the story at all. It is written in a lovely conversational tone – very matter of fact, but compelling reading none the less.

Here is what Bloomsbury had to say about it …

It is a summer’s night in 1860. In an elegant detached Georgian house in the village of Road, Wiltshire, all is quiet. Behind shuttered windows the Kent family lies sound asleep. At some point after midnight a dog barks.
The family wakes the next morning to a horrific discovery: an unimaginably gruesome murder has taken place in their home. The household reverberates with shock, not least because the guilty party is surely still among them. Jack Whicher of Scotland Yard, the most celebrated detective of his day, reaches Road Hill House a fortnight later. He faces an unenviable task: to solve a case in which the grieving family are the suspects.

The murder provokes national hysteria. The thought of what might be festering behind the closed doors of respectable middle-class homes – scheming servants, rebellious children, insanity, jealousy, loneliness and loathing – arouses fear and a kind of excitement. But when Whicher reaches his shocking conclusion there is uproar and bewilderment.

A true story that inspired a generation of writers such as Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle, this has all the hallmarks of the classic murder mystery – a body; a detective; a country house steeped in secrets. In The Suspicions of Mr Whicher Kate Summerscale untangles the facts behind this notorious case, bringing it back to vivid, extraordinary life.

This is an amazing story. You feel that it is somehow familiar, but that is just because so much detective fiction is based upon this case. I can almost imagine Miss Marple popping up with her knitting at some stage to solve it all neatly. It’s not neat though. Mr Whicher doesn’t even arrive on the scene until nearly two weeks after the crime. The local police seem incompetent (or maybe just inept) and then class enters the equation – how can a working class detective accuse a middle class young girl?
Anyway, I don’t won’t to ruin the story for anyone I’ll just say if you like crime fiction, true crime or social history, then you’ll enjoy reading this book.
Here are some other reviews …

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Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire – Amanda Foreman

I liked this book. Ms Foreman combines an easy reading style with scholarly research. If you are at all interested in 18th Century History, Social History, Political History, then you should definitely read this book.

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Under Pressure – Carl Honore

I’m a parent (if you didn’t know), so I read this book. It is great – a very easy read and it will make you feel better about your children spending hours playing in the sandpit or mixing all of their puzzle pieces up because the pieces are really lollies and they’re having a tea party.

It’s about that idea that as a parent you will be a complete failure if you don’t organise enough learning experiences for your child – music lessons, ballet, art, etc. The thing that I have taken away from this book is that ‘true talent will out’ and that a bit of free time is a wonderful thing (for both children and parents).

Next in the book pile Looking for Anne  of Green Gables: The Life and Times of LM Montgomery by Irene Gammel.

 

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