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Elections and Economics

Numbers to Deceive

The unexpected result of the recent British general election set me thinking about statistics, and polls, and how (un)reliable they are – and how people love to lie. I also wondered what Steven Levitt would make of some of the numbers.

For those who don’t already know, Steven Levitt is a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, and is best known for a rather unusual approach to his subject. His two books written in collaboration with Stephen Dubner, a New York journalist, became bestsellers during the last decade. It was but a short step from my deliberations on the election to my decision to revisit Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics, which I enjoyed tremendously on my first readings.


Freakonomics, published in 2005, introduces us to schoolteachers and Sumo wrestlers who cheat, to home-loving drug dealers and it poses some fascinating questions that seem to have little to do with economics:

Why aren’t there more criminals around?
Are swimming pools more dangerous than guns?
Can winners actually be losers, and vice versa?

To Levitt and Dubner, nothing is sacred. They compare the Ku Klux Klan to a group of estate agents. They study the unexpected consequences of America’s abortion laws. They explore the strange world of names and ask what it is that prompts parents to name their child Temptress, or Chastity, or Orangejello – or even Shithead!

‘… people love to complain, particularly about how terrible the modern world is compared with the past. They are nearly always wrong.’


Superfreakonomics, from 2009, returns to the underworld of crime to examine the truth about prostitutes and suicide bombers. The authors irreverently suggest that it’s more likely for a police officer to have sex with a prostitute than to arrest one. They investigate why it’s more dangerous to go to hospital with a minor ailment that with a serious one. They demonstrate how complex problems often have simple solutions, and how monkeys can learn to use money.

However irreverent he seems, Levitt has a serious message and his unorthodox approach to, and use of, statistics always makes you go off to think some more about the topic. And when you do, you realise that his economics is not so zany after all. His conclusions are based on real field work, some of it downright dangerous, yet he manages to find humour in the most precarious situations.

What has all this to do with the British election result? Probably very little, but I can easily imagine Steven Levitt asking:

Isn’t there something bizarre about a voting system that elects 56 MPs on 1.5 million votes for one party, but only 1 MP on 3.9 million votes for another?

Even if you don’t care about politics, Freakonomics  and its sequel are both excellent reads.



Welcome back, Lisbeth!

The Spider’s Web

I talk and write about books a lot, usually about books I have read. For this landmark post (it will be my 100th post on WordPress in my present incarnation), I’m going to talk about one I haven’t read. In fact, it hasn’t been published yet.

Rumours of a new ‘dragon tattoo’ novel began to circulate just over a year ago. Now it is actually going to happen.


Next August, Quercus Publishing will issue its fourth novel in English featuring Stieg Larssen’s creations Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist. Larsson, who sadly died of a heart attack in 2004, left behind sketch notes and plot ideas for more Salander adventures. Problems with his estate meant that we were to be deprived of a sequel to the original trilogy, for the time being at least.

Now it seems legal issues are resolved, however David Lagercrantz, who has written the new Millennium book, is to give us a completely original story, rather than relying on Larssen’s jottings. Translated from Swedish by George Golding as The Girl in the Spider’s Web, the storyline is a closely-guarded secret but apparently (according to Amazon) involves some threat to the United States, information acquired from ‘a young female super hacker’.


Now, I know nothing about Mr Lagercrantz – he is a journalist apparently – but as a fan of Lisbeth, the probability of another gripping read is too great to ignore. The UK list price of the book is £19.99 but Amazon is currently offering it for £9.00 if it’s ordered in advance. I surmise that high street bookstores too may eventually offer pre-publication deals.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz ISBN: 9780857059994




The Theory of Everything

Travelling to Infinity

by Jane Hawking

A few weeks ago, I went to see the award-winning James Marsh film, The Theory of Everything, with Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking and Felicity Jones as his wife, Jane.


I don’t know Stephen Hawking personally but have been an admirer of Hawking the scientist for a long time now.  The acting in the movie was superb and the storyline gave me a lot to think about. Often, film-makers mess with books so that the original work becomes unrecognisable, and I wondered, was it really like that? So I decided to read the book to find out. I was surprised to learn that Jane Hawking had first published her memoir in 1999, under the title Music to Move the Stars.


Stephen Hawking is such a well-known personality that he needs no introduction. Most people in the world will recognise his photograph and will know of his books and other publications, even if they haven’t read them. Struck down with motor neurone disease in his early twenties, confined to a wheelchair and, since 1985, deprived of the power of natural speech, Hawking has defied the odds to become one of the most important scientists and mathematicians of his generation (and probably of any other). But what about Jane, his first wife and mother of his three children?

‘ “Oh Jane! You are marrying into a mad, mad family!” ‘

The Theory of Everything, the movie, brilliant though it is, gives a very condensed – and even sanitised – version of the Hawkings’ life together. Travelling to Infinity paints an altogether different picture. Two remarkably intelligent and ambitious people are trapped by fate in what seems an ‘impossible marriage’, where the career and emotional needs of one are subordinated to the career and physical needs of the other. Here, we have in Jane’s own words how she fell in love and married a man whom she knew to have a terminal illness; how, putting aside her plans for an academic career of her own, she looked after Stephen’s medical needs (with apparently very limited help from the NHS), encouraged him in his work, travelled with him (despite a morbid fear of flying), and bore and brought up their children. These things she did for twenty-five years, living as an appendage in her husband’s shadow, losing her confidence and sense of worth, until the marriage was ripped apart by the intrusions of the press, film crews, a life lived in the public domain, accusations of disloyalty and an ever-present gaggle of nurses and other carers.

‘My spirit rebelled at the shallowness of so many of the people who had recently come into our lives. They had never come face to face with successions of multiple crises. They had never had to confront the overwhelming trauma of living in the face of death;’

The story begins in the early 1960s when Stephen, newly graduated from Oxford, invites Jane to a party. It takes us through their early years together, the diagnoses of Stephen’s illness, the trips to Europe and America, the countless awards and honours and the eventual publication of A Brief History of Time. It also gives us a glimpse of their most unusual family life as well as of the rigid and unfeeling world of academia. There is much name-dropping, not one feels with any attempt to impress but simply as a natural consequence of the circles in which the Hawkings move – Kip Thorne, Roger Penrose, Richard Feyman, and many more with which anyone interested in science will be familiar.

The Hawkings’ lives  are never normal, and Jane does not pretend that they are. One surmises that being the wife of a genius is bound to leave a woman isolated at times. Jane’s own academic interests, languages and mediaeval Spanish poetry, are poles apart from questions about the origins of the universe and from the scientific cadre in which Stephen moves. Awareness of crippling illlnesses like motor neurone disease and multiple sclerosis in 1960s to 1980s Britain was scant and health service provision inadequate. We are constantly being reminded that, although neither of the Hawkings come from poor families, the pressures to finance Stephen’s care are always severe. That the Hawking children have apparently found success in their chosen careers is in no small measure due to a mother who was prepared to sacrifice her own identity to ensure their lives were as ‘normal’ as they could possibly be.

Because it deals with real people, Jane Hawking’s writing is not without humour. But, as well as a memoir about devastating illness, about genius and success, about hope and despair, Travelling to Infinity  is above all a book about friendship and love. For, without love, how could this ‘impossible marriage’ have survived as long as it did? Without  friendship, how might the relationship between two immensely courageous people have survived the break-up and two divorces and remarriages that, to express in Jane’s final words:

‘In fact we are all just about to go on holiday together!’


Pun Of The Weak: The Speed Of Light


“Since light travels faster than sound, some people appear to be bright until you hear them speak.” – Albert Einstein

Says it all – no?

Originally posted on Mathemagical Site:


View original 20 more words

Gone to London to see the Queen!

The Heart of Midlothian

by Sir Walter Scott

‘On the day when the unhappy Porteous was expected to suffer the sentence of the law, the place of execution, extensive as it is, was crowded almost to suffocation.’

Edinburgh 1737: Captain John Porteous, King’s officer, is confined in the Tolbooth prison for firing on a crowd at a demonstration. Sentenced by the court to hang for his crime, he receives a royal pardon and is awaiting release when a vengeful crowd storm the prison, set fire to the outer door, drag Porteous out and lynch him. Taking advantage of their opportunity, several other prisoners flee the gaol. One who does not is Effie Deans, a young woman charged with child murder. Effie is quite innocent of any crime but Scots law being what it was, in the absence of testimony (and of the newborn infant) to the contrary, there is a presumption of guilt, and Effie too faces the death penalty.


Jeanie Deans, Effie’s sister and heroine of The Heart of Midlothian is required to give evidence. Unable to square the giving of false testimony with her conscience, even to save Effie’s life, she is unable to prevent a guilty verdict. Resolved however to save Effie at all costs, Jeanie embarks on a journey to London to beg the King and Queen for a pardon. She borrows money from Laird Dumbiedikes, one of her admirers, and with a letter of introduction to the Duke of Argyll from Reuben Butler, her “intended”, sets out from Edinburgh on foot. In Lincolnshire, she falls in with the villainous Meg Murdockson and her mentally disturbed daughter Madge, whom we learn are somehow involved in the mystery surrounding Effie and her child.

Jeanie is rescued from Madge’s clutches and, in what seems a remarkable coincidence, finds herself in the house of George Staunton, her sister’s seducer, the man hunted in Scotland, though under a different name, for leading the Porteous riot. With the help of Staunton’s father, she travels in greater comfort to London, where her case is taken up by Argyll and she gets to meet Queen Caroline (wife of George II). Her mission accomplished, Jeanie returns to Scotland under Argyll’s protection.

Jeanie’s marriage and new life with Butler, what happens to Staunton and Effie after her release. and the resolution to the mystery surrounding their missing child all take up the last quarter of the novel.

‘… the sermon pronounced on this occasion had the good fortune to please even the critical David Deans, though it was only an hour and a quarter long, which David termed a short allowance of spiritual provender.’

Walter Scott is not everyone’s cup of tea. He does “go on a bit.” He often meanders from his plotline into non-essential historical anecdote and diverts the modern reader with what seems too much like moral preaching. Whether he is truly preaching or simply entertaining us with his dry Scots wit is not always clear. Sometimes, I fear it is both. The Heart of Midlothian has undoubtedly an overt moral message, and we can take it or leave it as we choose.

Published in 1818, more than fifty years after the story ends, the novel deals with events – many of them true history – that happened before the author was born. However, Scott would have known and conversed with men and women to whom the Porteous riots were a childhood (perhaps even an adult) memory. He understood the rather bleak Presbyterian morality of the age and as a solicitor himself, he knew the law. And both Presbyterianism and law are important and essental elements in The Heart of Midlothian, as are the aforesaid rigid morality, rough justice and indomitable female courage. Jeanie Deans is in her own way as feisty a heroine as any in 21st century literature, more so perhaps as women in 1737 were not expected (or usually allowed) to behave in such a way.

A word of warning: The Heart of Midlothian is a slow read; about 90% of the dialogue (at a guess) is written in the old Scots language, reflecting both place and time of the setting. Without the glossary, some of it is unintelligible to a modern English reader (even to one like myself with a Scottish upbringing). But if we allow for that, and for Scott’s over-descriptive narrative, his diversions and his pseudo-preaching, the The Heart of Midlothian is a cracking good story and without doubt one of the author’s best.




The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse

The-Taxidermists-Daughter-Kate-Mosse“…. Connie lined up the scalpel and cut. At first, a gentle shifting, nothing more. Then the tip of the blade pierced the skin, and the point slipped in.”

Kate Mosse returns to her native Chichester for the setting of her new novel, The Taxidermist’s Daughter.

The year is 1912, a time of mackintoshes, umbrellas, hansom cabs and lots of cigarette smoke. Connie Gifford is twenty-two years old and suffers from retrograde amnesia as the result of an accident when she was twelve. Crowley Gifford, her father, has become a habitual drunkard after losing his museum of taxidermy following a court case, and they now live together in an isolated house in the village of Fishbourne, a mile or so from Chichester. At the beginning of the novel, Connie is in the village churchyard on St Mark’s Eve at the celebration of an ancient festival. She notices several men who are not villagers and who seem to be out of place at such a gathering. She also feels she is being watched by a mysterious woman in a blue woollen coat. And when a body turns up in the stream beside her home wearing the same coat, Connie is pitched into a tale of terrible wrong and macabre retribution. Her memories begin to return – memories of the accident, of being nursed back to health, and of a childhood friend called Cassie.

“I removed his heart first, red and still beating, still pumping. Watching it slow, stutter and die. Next his lungs and his stomach …”

Connie’s father has gone missing after a bout of heavy drinking and she teams up with Harry Woolston, a would-be artist, whose doctor father has also disappeared. As she gradually recollects snatches of her past, Connie begins to realise there is much more to the disappearances and to the death of the young woman than was at first apparent. Moreover, the events surrounding her accident were more sinister than her father always led her to believe.

The Taxidermist’s Daughter is not a novel for anyone with a weak stomach. It is a page-turner of a thriller which, for me, called to mind the title of another story – What Lies Beneath – in this case beneath the surface of a typical charming English village. Kate Mosse gives her story a gothic feel – a deserted cottage, lonely marshes, an ice house containing old secrets, and plenty of gore and death, human as well as animal. There is also a maleficent secret society and more than one character with a talent for cutting and stuffing. Mosse adds to the suspense by interspersing the narrative with quotations from an 1820 work on taxidermy. She also gives the floor to the murderer – yes, there is one (more than one in fact) – in the form of a diary, cunningly avoiding mention of his or her identity. To reveal more would risk spoiling the plot for new readers, so I shall stop there, except to mention that there is a nail-biting finish on a flooded marsh and wind-swepped sea wall in Sussex.

Suffice to say that birds play an important role. The Corvidae Club! Remember your schooldays, your English grammar lessons and all those collective nouns you were forced to recite: a colony of jackdaws; a tiding of magpies; a parliament of rooks; a MURDER of crows ……..

“Who killed Cock Robin?  I, said the Sparrow, with my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin!”

Kate Mosse admits in her acknowledgements that Fishbourne has never flooded and that the sea wall (not even built in 1912) has never given way. Some of the places featured in the novel do not exist, and there is no record of gruesome murders in the locality in 1912. Yet, after reading The Taxidermist’s Daughter with its dark, gothic atmosphere, one might almost believe that the events described really took place.

Going Dutch

The Miniaturist

by Jessie Burton


“The funeral is supposed to be a quiet affair, for the deceased had no friends. But words are water in Amsterdam, they flood your ears and set the rot, and the church’s east corner is crowded.”

My daughter gave me The Miniaturist as a Christmas present and when I began reading I had no idea what to expect. It is one of those novels which you struggle at the outset to place in any single category of fiction. Set in Amsterdam in 1686/7, it is certainly a historical novel. It is a mystery too, with hints of fantasy, but it also has the feel of literary fiction. Jessie Burton writes in the present tense, which does not always work and which some readers still consider experimental and affected, even arrogant.

It works here. The immediacy of the tense makes Amsterdam seem more wintry, its watery landscaspe bleaker, the contrast between rich and poor starker. The uncanny reflections of the real world in the tiny creations of the miniaturist, the dogma-driven prejudices of the masses, the horrors of seventeenth century justice and the occasional uncomfortable reminder of the inequality of the sexes all put the reader right in the centre of the action.

Petronella (Nella) Oortman arrives at the house of her rich merchant husband Johannes Brandt to be met by his sharp-tongued sister Marin. Johannes is away from home. The rest of the household comprises the maidservant Cornelia, the black African Otto and two dogs. Meantime, a large consignment of sugar belonging to Frans and Agnes Meermans sits unsold and deteriorating in Johannes’ warehouse.

When he does return from a foreign trip, Johannes is distant with his new wife. However, he presents her with a dolls house replica of his home which Nella immediately begins to fill with miniature furniture and figures. When the miniaturist sends pieces that she did not order, and continually does so, Nella  is at first annoyed then curious. There is something unnatural about the way in which the tiny figures are predictive of future events as if their creator had a crystal-ball view of the Brandts’ business and personal life.

A tiny spoiled loaf of sugar, representing the consignment that is beginning to rot in the warehouse; the tiny dog with a flack of blood on its head; the miniature of a woman with swollen belly; the replica of the English boy with a stab wound; the empty parakeet cage; are these accidental flaws, lucky guesses or products of some devilish foreknowledge? Nella has to find out, but the miniaturist remains hidden, unreachable behind the walls of the house in Kalverstraat ‘at the sign of the sun’.

“This is not a small baby … Nella thinks of the little cradle in the cabinet house and a shiver runs up her body. How did the miniaturist know about this?”

As the predictions of the miniaturist become more sinister, the household approaches a crisis, one that neither money – nor love – will be able to avert. And as we reach the climax of the plot, the question posed by the first two sentences of the prologue comes back to haunt us. Just whose funeral are we attending?

The Miniaturist is an unusual, suspenseful story of love and hate, of prejudice and injustice. The relationships are not always what they seem. And in the open ending, there is a crumb of hope that out of tragedy and loss may come something good and lasting. Burton knows how to use words to create atmosphere; she is good at surprises. I enjoyed the book and might read it again soon to pick up nuances of style and character missed on the first reading.


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