Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Winds of War by Herman Wouk ****

The great mystery on World War II is how so many missed seeing Hitler as a serious threat. In Herman Wouk's great historical novel The Winds of War, we see this most human blindness through the eyes of a German General (Roon), an American Navy family (Henrys), and a Jewish family living in Europe (Jastrows). Each within the context of their society explains the actions of Nazi Germany to minimize the threat to the status quo and the importance of the breaking news.

The Winds of War starts with the 1940 invasion of Poland and ends with the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. At each turn these characters explain events in a way to maintain their own group's integrity and perspective. General Roon admires the prosperity Hilter has brought to Germany. The Henrys comfort themselves with the great distances that separate the US from Europe. And finally, the Jastrows take the historical perspective of how the Jew have survived in Europe over the centuries.

I don't know what was more frustrating: when the embassy staff in Moscow ignored reports of genocide because the reports might be British propaganda to force the US into the war or because they feared the American public would oppose fighting Hilter if the goal was to protect Jews. In either case well-meaning and knowledgeable officials did nothing.

With its narrow focus on 1940-41 and US decision to support the Allies, The Winds of War provides a rich view of the people and the politics that lead the US into World War II. This is historical fiction are its best.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A History of Private Life II by Philippe Aries et al ****

I'm looking for a new house in southern California where wood-burning fireplaces are outlawed because of air quality concerns. Yet most houses boast at least one fireplace. What ancient instinct requires an open flame in the great room, formerly called living room or family room or den? The answer can be found in History of Private Life, Volume II: Revelations of the Medieval World by Philippe Aries et al.

I personally find the history of private life fascinating. These chronicles ignore the kings and tyrants, politicians and generals, scientists and explorers. The private life historians research the day-to-day life. A couple of good examples are: A Book for Today: Ho for California edited by Sandra L Myers and the excellent Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times.

The current volume (spanning 1100-1500) explores the changing balance between private and public power, the emergence of the individual, and the use of private space. The final topic sheds light on the archaic fireplace in my new house.

We don't have to go back to the cave and the fire to ward of beast to understand this anomaly. Back in the middle ages, taxes were based on hearths; that is how important the fireplace was. The hearths were the very definition of a home. Even the poorest peasant hovel had a hearth, but the noble homes had several. When one moved up the economic and status ladder more rooms were heated as fireplaces moved beyond the kitchen to halls (living/dining rooms) and chambers (bedrooms). Thus, to show your success in the world your house needed more fireplaces on the inside and more chimneys on the outside.

As we all aspire to be lords of manors, we want that fireplace to differentiate our hearth from the lesser folk who can not afford one. Thus, the fireplace is a status symbol from 500 years ago.

This fascinating book is full of many other details from medieval life. Any excellent source for fantasy writers and anyone else interested in what life was really like long ago.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Quants by Scott Patterson ****

What caused our recent financial difficulties? Greed? Stupidity? Wall Street? The Government? The Quants by Wall Street Journal reporter Scott Patterson places the blame squarely on PhD Mathematicians. PhD Mathematicians!

There have been other theories about the causes of our economics woes, equally convincing, but this is particularly interesting for its emphasis on mathematics and mathematicians.

I found two points surprising. First, how did the financial powers put trillions (12 zeros!) of dollars in the hand of mathematicians? Second, how did the mathematicians make a mistake when the flaw in their models was published almost 50 years ago by none other than Benoit Mandelbroit. Don't be too concerned if you've never heard of Mandelbroit, ALL the mathematicians certainly had.

Do you think you might be able to understand when fooled all these PhD mathematicians? Certainly you can! Consider the distributions of sequences of heads and tails from flipping a coin. Most often the sequence is HTHTHT, but rarely you might see HHHHHH or if you kept flipping for a very long time you might see 100 heads in a row. This is called a Normal Distribution and this is the distribution all these PhD mathematicians used to model the financial system. The important characteristic of this distribution is: if you flip the coin one more time, nothing much can change over all.

Mandelbroit discovered another distribution than looks a lot like the Normal Distribution, except things like 100 heads in a row are more common. This distribution is not like flipping coins, but more like asking people their annual earnings or net worth. Imagine we walk down the street in Seattle and asking people how much money they have. After thousands of people we might find the average to be $200,000. After a thousand more, it might still be close to the same number. As opposed to the coin flipping where one more flip can make little difference, if this case, if the next person we meet is Bill Gates, the average will jump to over $10,000,000. This process is most certainly not a Normal Distribution, and more closely models financial systems.

Certainly a big OOPS.

The story is fascinating for anyone with an interest in numbers and dollars.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

One Day at a Time by Danielle Steel ****

One Day at a Time by Danielle Steel is a character driven story with a minimum of description. In Florence they visited The Uffizi Gallery and ate at a restaurant recommended by the hotel. None of the lengthly and flowery descriptions I'd expect in a romance. The sex is similarly terse and only mentioned at the few appropriate occasions. I found both of these attribute pleasant.

One Day at a Time follows Colette Barrington aka Coco, her 11-year senior, lesbian, pregnant sister Jane, and her 62-year-old mother Florence who has a 38-year-old boyfriend. The characters, their lives and interactions keep the story moving along.

Two small writerly things interrupted my enjoyment. First, while not written from an omniscient POV, the POV changed erratically whenever the author felt like jumping into one character's head or another's. This occasionally happened mid-paragraph and I found it jarring.

The other thing was Coco's love interest. It was Hugh Grant's movie persona! I suppose if you need to write a lot of books to keep your millions of fans happy, you need to take inspiration from anyplace. Still it seemed a bit lazy to me.

A pleasant summer read.