Archive for November, 2008

Two Sports

Monday, November 24th, 2008

These two novels revolve around the central theme of sport; big wave surfing in the first novel, and cricket in New York in the second. Both are quirky novels but the authors show intimate familiarity with their sporting theme. Coincidentally, both novels feature brief affairs with women addicted to kinky and dangerous sexual practices.

Breath, Tim Winton, 2008

Surfing at Margaret River

Winton specializes in taking his readers into the world of life in Western Australia. Breath is a coming of age novel of a small town boy who turns his developed ability to hold his breath for long periods under water into an ability to successfully surf the big waves which may hold the fallen surfer underwater for a very long time. Our main character is 14 years old at the start of the novel who together with a slightly older crazy brave friend insinuate themselves into the local small wave surfing fraternity. Their skill brings them to the attention of a legendary aging Australian (at least 30) surfer, a big wave guru who decides to take on a couple of adoring disciples. We are introduced to the use of off shore navigation charts to locate areas likely to produce big waves, and to meteorology, used to predict where and when the really monumental waves will be breaking. One of the guru’s favorite sites is a mile off shore and you have to paddle in and out to surf it. Another is an impossibly isolated cove where the big waves are shared only with a 15 foot shark. This novel tells us a lot about the obsession with big wave surfing and the never ending search for the biggest wave anywhere in the world. The guru’s retired (at age 25) free style skier American wife (she injured her knee) has an inheritance which allows the couple to live and travel anywhere without worry about work. Enjoyable read.

Netherland, Joseph O’Neill, 2008

Cricket at Van Cortland Park

O’Neill was born in Ireland, raised in the Netherlands, and lives in New York, which tells us how he came up with this quirky story. The main character is a Dutch oil and gas analyst working for big investment houses. He moves to London where he meets his wife, a corporate lawyer, who dreams of living in New York. They move to New York in 1999, buy a Tribeca loft and have a son.

The events of 9/11 force them out their loft into the infamous Chelsea Hotel and the wife decides to return to safe old London, leaving the Dutch husband on his own in New York. He spots a cricket bat in the trunk of a taxi driven by a South Asian and discovers that cricket is alive and well in New York, at least among West Indians and South Asians. He digs out his old childhood bat and gear and joins a team from Staten Island, the only white cricket player in New York. Thus begins a lonely man’s odyssey into the immigrant underground world of New York cricket lovers.

Cricket remains unfathomable despite the author’s best efforts but we do learn that cricket is largely a ground game and the field matters. Although the New York area has a cricket history dating from the American Revolution, their are no regulation fields and the grounds in New York are so bad that cricket can only be played by hitting the ball into the air like baseball. Other than that, cricket is as impossible to understand for the American reader as always. Maybe you have to have played cricket as a child. Still an entertaining book.

Swan Song

Monday, November 17th, 2008

The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 2007.

Taleb wants us to know that we are genetically wired to organize information in our minds so that the information “makes sense” to us, that we can explain to ourselves what has happened in the past, to tell stories. Then a herd instinct selects those stories and explanations that become accepted by the largest number or are promoted by the “authorities or experts”. Unfortunately, those soothing stories and explanations arise only after the fact and only look backward. They often ignore or are based on incomplete information and are useless to help us operate into the future.

He gives the example of William Shirer, author of the definitive The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Shirer had previously published Berlin Diary: The Journal of a foreign correspondent, 1934-1941 in 1941. The journal was written in real time as events unfolded, and while no doubt edited for publication, clearly indicates that neither Shirer, nor any other European power had an understanding or appreciation for what was unfolding in Germany, nor any ability to anticipate any of Hitler’s moves. The definitive story could only be written long after the facts in 1960.

The past is the one thing we are not prisoners of. We can do with the past exactly what we wish. (From A to X A Story in Letters by John Berger)

Taleb’s central thesis is that the world abounds in highly improbable events that cannot be predicted. Taleb desperately wants to believe that to some extent they can at least be anticipated by the open minded empiricist.

Impish Black Swan

The title of the book comes from a centuries old assumption that all swans are white which was taken as an accepted fact or law until black swans were discovered in Australia. Taleb’s own black swans were the outbreak of a long war in historically peaceful Lebanon during his childhood, and the various economic crashes and downturns during his career as a wall street trader. He hopes that the enlightened observer/empiricist may be able to anticipate the unanticipated which he calls the search for the gray swan.

Maybe Taleb has uses the wrong metaphor with his black swan. John Le Carre’s novel A Most Wanted Man uses the Lipizzaner horse as the code name for a money laundering scheme because of the breed’s ability to turn from black to white as it ages. When faced with an unexpected black horse all we need to do is wait for the horse to turn white and all will be well.

Much of the book is a diatribe against the incorrect use of the Gaussian Bell Curve, particularly in the social sciences and most particularly in the economics of practitioners like Paul Samuelson, whose textbook Economics: An Introductory Analysis, first published in 1948, has been used as the fundamental introduction to economics for generations. The last edition was published in 2004. In the real world, the outliers, far from being ignorable as they are in the Bell Curve, can outweigh the whole curve altogether, as does a Bill Gates or Google.

He also insists on poking fun at the Nobel Laureates, particularly those in economics. He has a general dislike for experts and future forecasters who in study after study have been shown to be so wrong that advise from a taxi driver or even other primates is as accurate.

Bell Curve of SAT Scores

For Taleb, the Gaussian Bell Curve is best suited to betting in a casino, one the rare environments, where the laws of probability truly apply – so long as the gamblers are not whales willing to risk millions on a single bet, or card counters able to change the odds in their favor.

Taleb also takes on game theory models pioneered by John Nash, which have been used improperly by economists, corporations, and wall street actors to justify greed and selfish behavior as the best way to optimize the results for all players. Not so says Taleb but he doesn’t dwell on the subject.

Taleb favors Mandelbrot fractal distributions using the law of powers to be able to model systems with extreme outliers such as the uneven distribution of wealth where a Bill Gates can outweigh the wealth of wholes cities or countries of individuals; where a Google can be worth more then the rest of the internet players combined; and where a J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter) can single-handedly outsell all other books in print. These are unpredicted successes due largely to luck according to Taleb. Taleb hopes that the use of fractal models can turn these black swans into gray swans.

PBS NOVA recently featured the discovery of fractals in their Hunting the Hidden Dimension.

The above photo from the book illustrates how scale can be deceptive. Without the man in the picture, the image looks like a camera lens cap dropped on the ground.

The book is useful in helping us understand how little we can really know about our unpredictable lives and how little we should trust the experts. He asserts that the more we read and listen to the experts the less we will know about our world except perhaps in physics although even physics is increasingly entering the realm of uncertainty.

Less helpful is his advise on what we should do as free-will actors to navigate this unpredictable world successfully. Knowing that highly improbable events will continue to happen – even if our fractal models can deal mathematically with extreme outliers – still does not really help us to respond or act until the unlikely events actually unfold. The consequences of improbable events can vary enormously. A Microsoft, bad and buggy as their software may be, does not carry the same impact as a melting ice cap or a meteor strike or a new virulent virus, or even a mad terrorist.

Taleb points out that in the war on terror, acting from the “lessons” of an improbable event is rarely helpful – the event is already behind us and we should expect that the next event will be equally unlikely and unpredictable. Locking the cockpit doors on airlines is a proverbial case of closing the barn door after the horse has escaped. Yet our new President is as determined to go after Osama Bin Laden as his predecessors, even at the risk of war with Pakistan. We likely don’t even know who the next big terrorist is going to be, much less from where he/she will launch an attack, on what target, and using what weapon. Taleb says our intelligence (anticipating the future) is awful and there are no signs it will get any better. For a novelist’s take on the state of modern intelligence in dealing with Islamic extremists, again see John LeCarre’s A Most Wanted Man.

As a skeptic and iconoclast Taleb is at his best. Advising what we should do about our uncertain plight is less than satisfying. How can you model something, even with fractals, if you don’t know what, when, or how bad it will be. Whatever it is, it will be unexpected, and it will be big.

It’s like the Bob Dylan song says: “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones.”

Postscript: Taleb put in an appearance on Charlie Rose where he said about the current economic meltdown;

Never in the history of the world have we had a situation with so much complexity with so much ignorance at the top.

Irish Truth

Monday, November 10th, 2008

The Truth Commissioner, David Park, 2008

Belfast Peace Wall

Novel by talented writer largely unknown outside Ireland is unusual for detailing four protagonists.

Henry Stanfield is a lawyer specializing in international criminal justice (war crimes). His considerable reputation leads to his personal selection by the prime minister of Ireland to be the Truth Commissioner in the upcoming truth and reconciliation proceedings meant to bring some closure to the endless cycles of hatred, violence, and revenge that has crippled northern Ireland for so long. Henry and his team of young, able assistance heads to South Africa for training in the methods of the reconciliation process. A South African judge has been retained to hear the trials in which participants are guaranteed immunity from prosecution if they tell the truth. Henry is a widower with an estranged daughter who blames his serial infidelities for her mother’s early death of cancer.

Belfast Courthouse

Gilroy is a former high level official in the IRA with a lot of blood on his hands. In the new Ireland he has been appointed, ironically, minister for children and culture. He and his long time sidekick (consigliere) are paranoid in the extreme imagining every office and conference room they enter to be bugged and go to great measures to alter their routines and movements to throw off the assassins they assume follow them everywhere. As if the pressure to simply stay alive isn’t enough Gilroy’s youngest and favorite daughter is about to be married to a London based hated English accountant.

Toys for Romanian Orphans

Fenton is a former police officer with a reputation for aggressively pursuing the IRA. He often retained touts (stool pigeons) in his work. The new Ireland is trying to clean up the image of its police force and Fenton has been retired and pensioned off even though he is quite young. He and his wife put off having children because of the danger of his work and it is now too late. Fenton now does charity work, several times driving a van loaded with food, clothing, and toys, from Ireland to an orphanage in Romania.

Florida Lake DeForrest

Danny is hiding in the Florida lake district as an illegal alien and with an assumed name. He works in maintenance at an expensive private college. He has fallen in love with a colored woman, she is pregnant, and they plan to marry. He has never told the woman the truth about his past. We presume he has a history with the IRA.

The novel concerns the case of a 15 year old petty thief who was forced to tout for the police even though he had no way of obtaining useful information. The IRA discovered this, picked the boy up and he disappeared forever. The boy’s sister now works as assistant to Stanfield’s daughter who is teaching in Belfast. The sister and boy’s mother want to know what happened to the boy and to recover his body for burial. Stanfield’s daughter meets her father who hopes for a reconciliation and he promises to find the truth about the boy.

Stanfield’s assistance do their jobs and summons are issued by the court to compel attendance by the other three protagonists in this story. They even succeed in tracking Danny down in Florida. The Irish government, realizing how explosive this one case is, moves quickly to get the protagonists to coordinate their cover up stories. The government even has obtained photos of Stanfield in an expensive Belfast hotel with an Eastern European prostitute to force his cooperation.

Stanfield writes his letter of resignation to be submitted after the sham hearing on the boy’s case. What will happen? Will the four protagonists all play their role to sweep the case under the rug as the government wants? Entertaining but with insight into northern Ireland after the peace.

Namibia Odyssey

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, Peter Orner, 2006

Jewish American volunteer finds himself teaching school at a remote desert school in forgotten African country of Namibia in this marvelous first novel. More a collection of vignettes of the teachers, students, and other characters encountered in this school, a failed farm left to the catholic church and now converted by the government into a school for poor boys.

Namibia School

Mavala Shikongo, the title character is a former SWAPO (revolutionary) soldier, beautiful, tall, mysterious, the only single woman at the school, surrounded by bachelor priest and teachers. Other characters are Theofilus, the anonymous albino handyman who single-handedly keeps the school running, assuring water and electric generator, as well as caring for the goats, chickens, and cows on the farm; Antoinette, wife of a teacher, maternal, quiet, but the real force keeping the school running; teachers Vilho, Pohamba, Obadiah, Festus and his wife Dikeledi; the nameless principal and step brother of Mavala, locked in a power struggle with the mostly absent nameless priest over who controls the farm-school; neighboring auntie, and her whelps, who steals whatever they want from the teachers; Prinsloo and his wife, old time Boer farmers who raise and sell vegetables to the school.

Herero Woman

Ever present as characters are the desert and the drought, threatening the continued existence of the school and farm. Occasional characters are children refugees from the fighting in neighboring Angola, who walk 800 km to attend the school. They don’t want shelter or food, only the privilege of attending classes.

Namibia Dunes

A very gentle, very humane work exploring the everyday lives of unforgettable, forgotten characters.
Also by Orner Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives. See review at jtwine.