Nate Silver (who runs the NYT Political Polling site FiveThirtyEight) has a new book about the difficulties faced when trying to predict future events. The NYT has an excerpt – in this case, about weather forecasting.
Catering to the demands of viewers can mean intentionally running the risk of making forecasts less accurate. For many years, the Weather Channel avoided forecasting an exact 50 percent chance of rain, which might seem wishy-washy to consumers. Instead, it rounded up to 60 or down to 40. In what may be the worst-kept secret in the business, numerous commercial weather forecasts are also biased toward forecasting more precipitation than will actually occur. (In the business, this is known as the wet bias.) For years, when the Weather Channel said there was a 20 percent chance of rain, it actually rained only about 5 percent of the time.
The Weatherman Is Not a Moron [NYT]
Salman Rushdie has a new book out, focusing on the declaration of a fatwa on him by Ayatollah Khomeini.
The book is written in third person which is a little disconcerting. I found the details of his security and hiding far more interesting that that of the history of the book itself. The New Yorker has an excerpt.
“How does it feel,” she asked him, “to know that you have just been sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini?” It was a sunny Tuesday in London, but the question shut out the light. This is what he said, without really knowing what he was saying: “It doesn’t feel good.” This is what he thought: I’m a dead man
The Disappeared: How the fatwa changed a writer’s life. [The New Yorker]
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
A Clockwork Orange is set in an alternate England “sometime” in the future. The main character, Alex, is a teenager up to no good. His nights are filled with acts of gang violence and destruction. He is devoid of the moral compass that guides most of us. Eventually his luck with the authorities runs out and the rest of the book deals with the aftermath of his incarceration.
I found the first part of the book particularly taxing. Burgess, much like Orwell in 1984, invents his own slang language that is used throughout. I constantly found myself trying to decipher the word meanings based on the context which I didn’t really find very fun. I did eventually get the hang of it, though. The crimes that Alex and his gang commit are described in a no-nonsense way, without any emotion or feeling. It sometimes took me a while to realise that at certain points they just described killing someone. I haven’t seen the film but I can’t imagine that it would be possible to do a similar thing.
I didn’t really enjoy this that much. Even if we weren’t supposed to sympathise with Alex, I didn’t really take away any meaningful message about youth, violence, the criminal justice system or extreme psychology (did I cover everything?).
Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, the US has a new President. This book was written by Obama shortly after being voted in as the editor of the Harvard Law Review. It is more or less an autobiography tracking his first 30 years.
What is so refreshing about this book is that it was entirely written before Obama entered politics. This means it is often candid, revealing and ever so personal. I’d seriously doubt that any Presidential hopeful would write a book right now talking about their cocaine use, for instance.
Much of the book deals with Obama trying to trace his (often complicated) family – most of which live in Africa. Due to his family complications, a young Obama struggles to find ‘his place’ in the world but in particular, a sense of identity as he is neither truly white nor black.
One thing I wish he covered in more detail is the relationship with his wife, Michelle – especially considering the special family dynamic from which he came.
Still, quite a good book and not politically charged by any means.
When You Are Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris
Proof that the Daily Show sells books. I bought three of Sedaris’ books based on this five minute interview.
Sedaris’ books are collections of short essays; usually humorous, always quirky. The title of this book refers to the main essay, where Sedaris moves to Japan in order to quit smoking. Although I found his attempts to understand Japanese culture amusing, I find the whole concept a bit of a soft target seeing as their culture is so…well…foreign to Westerners (and already quite extensively made fun of).
The highlights of the book aren’t Sedaris’ own escapades but when he describes the colourful characters in his life. In particular, his bigoted neighbour in New York and his flatmate when he was a college drop-out are stand outs. Although this wasn’t quite as funny as I thought it would be, it was quite smirk-worthy and I’ll definitely be reading his other books (seeing as I bought them already).
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
This is the second of Orwell’s better known works. The other of course being Animal Farm, which I reviewed previously.
We follow Winston Smith, a public servant in a totalitarian regime. His job is to edit newspaper articles to reflect whichever ‘truth’ the Party wants told. As such, the ruling class can always be correct because the past can be modified to suit the present. Winston is just a small cog in a very large machine. Winston is growing weary of life in such a claustrophobic atmosphere and yearns for change, freedom – the whole kit and caboodle. A chance encounter with another Party member piques his curiosity and events follow on from there.
In contrast with Animal Farm, where animals are used to keep an arms length from the characters, 1984 is far more real. Some of the events can be quite confronting because Orwell relates characters whom we build up far greater sympathy for than is possible for a horse or a sheep. At a few points I had to question whether I should keep going. The other part I didn’t really enjoy was the large blocks of explanatory text about the history or philosophy of the 1984-world. Being able to weave these passages into the main story would have been far more engaging.
Read Animal Farm instead.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré
There is a sub-set of the people who watch Bond films. We all know ones. They’re the people who have no idea what’s going on. “Why did he kill that guy?” “I thought he was with him?” I’m pretty sure that’s an opening skit to a Seinfeld episode so I’ll leave it there.
These kinds of people shouldn’t read this book. If Bond stretches their brains that much then this book will puree them into a tasty mush. We follow a recently ‘retired’ British spy (Alec Leamas) at the height of the Cold War. In order to exact revenge on a spy that has eliminated several of his own agents, Leamas is convinced to embark on one more mission – to pretend to pretend to defect to the enemy. What ensues is an at times savage tale of double-crossing, mystery and intrigue. The book is beautifully paced but you have to pay attention to what is going on. Fragments dropped here and there play an important part in the telling of the story. The only part of the book I didn’t really like was the socialist debate between two of the main characters whilst driving at high speed through the streets of East Germany. I would have thought a more pertinent discussion would be “how are we going to stay alive” but obviously not.