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Mac McAleer (London UK)
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Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory
Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory
by Patrick Wilcken
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

4.0 out of 5 stars An enjoyable biography, 24 July 2015
This is an enjoyable overview of the life of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, famous for his application of structuralism to anthropology. Lévi-Strauss was well-known in academic circles, but he was also well-known with the general public due to the publication of his accessible best-seller Tristes Tropiques and in France as a public intellectual. Tristes Tropiques chronicles, amongst other things, his early life, particularly his fieldwork with native-Americans in the Brazil of the 1930s.

This book gives an interesting background to the real events described in Tristes Tropiques and to the background and genesis of his later, more academic, works. It describes his time in Brazil, his escape to New York from Vichy France, his return to France after the Second World War, his difficult ascent up the French academic ladder and the development of his thinking. Lévi-Strauss was a private man and this book respects that, not delving too deeply into his private life. His structural approach to anthropology is discussed, but this book is not an introduction to structural anthropology.

His first major publication was Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté (The Elementary Structures of Kinship). Later came Le Totémisme aujourd’hiu (Totemism). This was intended to be the first part of a two-part work, but as the second part grew in size it became a separate book, La Pensée sauvage. When this was eventually translated into English as The Savage Mind great difficulties were encountered in representing the elegant, philosophical and playful language of the original French into an acceptable English equivalent. This was followed by the 4-part Mythologiques*. After the loose theorising of La Pensée sauvage, Lévi-Strauss tried to apply his ideas systematically in this new quartet, but instead he raised his writings to a new level of complexity. However, despite the complexity of his academic writings he also produced many short essays that were accessible and understandable to a wider circle of readers as well as TV and newspaper interviews. In the late sixties Lévi-Strauss became the global face of anthropology.

According to Lévi-Strauss, previous interpreters of myth had tried to ascribe specific meanings to each mythic element, which he considered a hopeless task. The interpretation lay in the relationships between the mythic elements. He continued to produce smaller books, known as the petites mythologies** but there was a feeling that his work was no longer ground-breaking. His work was influential, but no school of structural anthropology developed and his work became isolated. The world moved on as Lévi-Strauss moved towards his 100th birthday.

* The 4 parts of Mythologiques are:
Le Cru et le cuit (The Raw and the Cooked)
Du Miel aux cendres (From Honey to Ashes)
L’Origine de manières de table (The Origin of Table Manners)
L’Homme nu (The Naked Man)

** The petites mythologies:
La Voie des masques (The Way of the Masks)
La Potière jalouse (The Jealous Potter)
Histoire de lynx (The Story of Lynx)

Homer's the "Iliad and the "Odyssey": A Book That Shook the World (Books That Shook the World)
Homer's the "Iliad and the "Odyssey": A Book That Shook the World (Books That Shook the World)
by Alberto Manguel
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Meta-Homer, 14 July 2015
This is a "biography" of two books and a poet. The books are the two poems from the heroic age of the land now called Greece. The first book is the Iliad, about the war with Troy. The second is the Odyssey, about the long journey home of Ulysses from that war. The poet is Homer, who may have been real but is more likely to be an archetype of all the wandering bards of the heroic personified when the songs were first written down.

You do not have to have read the Iliad or the Odyssey to appreciate this book as it is about how these written works have been read, heard about, forgotten, rediscovered, interpreted and translated over the last two and a half thousand years. The writing is authoritative, accessible and rather fun. The text is divided into numerous short chapters.

The Chapters: This book has an Introduction followed by 22 chapters spread over 237 pages. Thus, although the chapters vary in length, they average at about 10 pages each. Throughout the book quotations from The Iliad and The Odyssey are from the translations by Robert Fagles. Chapter 1 is one of the longest at 15 pages. It is called "Summaries of the Books" and it gives a short paragraph on each of the 24 books of the Iliad and the 24 books of the Odyssey. Other chapters discuss such things as Virgil, who used Homer as a template for his Aeneid, Homer as Poetry and Dante, who was heavily influenced by both Virgil and Homer. The chapter entitled "Homer in Hell" discusses the god Hades' featureless world of the ghostly dead and compares it with later descriptions by Virgil, by Dante in his Inferno and by Milton in his Paradise Lost. Oher chapters include Homer and History and Homer as Everyman.

The full list of the chapters is: Introduction, Summaries of the Books; A Life of Homer?; Among the Philosophers; Virgil; Christian Homer; Other Homers; Dante; Homer in Hell; Greek versus Latin; Ancients versus Moderns; Homer as Poetry; Realms of Gold; Homer as Idea; The Eternal Feminine; Homer as Symbol; Homer as History; Madame Homer; Ulysses' Travels; Homer through the Looking-Glass; The Never-ending War; Everyman; Notes and Index.

This book is part of a series of “biographies” of “books that shook the world”, including The Wealth of Nations, Machiavelli, Clausewitz's On War, The Bible, Paine’s Rights of Man, Darwin's Origin of Species, Marx's Das Kapital and Plato's Republic.

Digital Gold: The Untold Story of Bitcoin
Digital Gold: The Untold Story of Bitcoin
by Nathaniel Popper
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.59

4.0 out of 5 stars Bitcoin Believers, 12 Jun. 2015
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This is the story of the origin and early development of the digital currency Bitcoin. The book starts from Bitcoin's public origin as a suggestion posted on the Internet in late 2008 and continues through to the last chapter for March 2014. No doubt future editions will update the story. The author, Nathaniel Popper, is a journalist on the New York Times. He has constructed a series of interlocking stories of the people who have played a part in Bitcoin's short history, together with background information. When he introduces technical descriptions (1), they are written to be understandable by non-technical readers. Both general and more technical readers can use this book as a history of Bitcoin. There is also a 6-page Technical Appendix followed by a 19-page Sources with extensive references.

Each chapter in the book has a date, giving its position in the Bitcoin timeline. The 9-page Introduction is the exception to this, starting several years later to give an indication of where the story is leading. It gives describes a private meeting arranged by a financier where the survivors of Bitcoin's early history mingle with potential investors from Silicon Valley and Wall Street.

Ideas about virtual currencies have been used in science fiction for many years (2). These ideas were taken up by Libertarians and Cypherpunks (3). Later, attempts were made to implement these ideas in the real world. These were always centralised systems and so far they have all failed (4).

Bitcoin was different. It is open source software designed as a peer-to-peer decentralised system. It uses advances in cryptography with public and private keys and a data structure called the blockchain used as a database of all transactions. Copies of the blockchain are held on all the participating computers, not in a central location. There is also a method called mining that allows computers on the network to try and solve mathematical problems. If they succeed they are rewarded with 50 Bitcoins. The system makes it more difficult to mine new Bitcoins as the number of Bitcoins increases and sets an overall limit of 21 million Bitcoins. This avoids the inflationary effects of government-controlled fiat currencies endlessly printing money. However, in the long-term it could leave Bitcoin open to deflation.

The original idea and the supporting software came from Satoshi Nakamoto, who does not exist. This was an Internet pseudonym. Satoshi owns many of the early Bitcoins but there is no record that they have ever been spent. Satoshi no longer communicates on the Internet and his/her/their real identity remains unknown. Ironically for a system designed to be decentralised, it was the creation of Bitcoin exchanges in its early days that allowed its use to grow. Inevitably some of these exchanges were badly set-up or badly run and collapsed (5). Notoriously, Bitcoins were also used as a currency on the Silk Road site, allowing a variety of criminal activities to flourish until the site was closed down by the law enforcement agencies. Bitcoin originated in the world of communications on the Internet but North America was its first geographical home followed by American ex-pats in Panama, Costa Rica and Japan. There was also interest in Europe, particularly in Finland, the UK and Slovenia. However, the most indicative early areas of interest were Argentina and China. Argentina has had a gruesome recent currency history. China is the Wild West for business, but it is also a one-party state.

THE BOOK has 355 pages divided into 31 chapters. Each chapter is numbered and has a date in the Bitcoin timeline. The first is dated January 10, 2009. The last is dated March 21, 2014. There is also a 9-page introduction, a 16-page Technical Appendix, a 19-page Sources (6) and a 12-page Index. There are no illustrations or diagrams.

(1) For a programmer's view see Mastering Bitcoin by Andreas M. Antonopoulos.
(2) The author mentions the 1999 novel Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson.
(3) At first I always misread this word as cyberpunks.
(4) For example, the Amsterdam-based DigiCash went bankrupt in 1998.
(5) For example, the Tokyo-based Mt. Gox went bankrupt in early 2014 taking $400 million worth of Bitcoins with it. The Bitcoins had been stolen by hackers. The administrator of the Bitomat exchange accidently deleted the file containing the private keys of 17,000 Bitcoins, making them unusable. The MyBitcoin site was a scam, stealing all the Bitcoins deposited with it.
(6) Sources are interviews by the author, emails sent to him or publicly available information from the Internet.

The Footnote: A Curious History
The Footnote: A Curious History
by Anthony Grafton
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars A history of source-criticism and source-citation (1), 1 Jun. 2015
This is not the book I expected. Having read the chapter on footnotes in Kevin Jackson's Invisible Forms (2), I was looking for a book on the history of footnotes. Instead what I got was a book on the use of footnotes in the writing of history. Despite this, I found this book fascinating, although it may be of more interest to historians and to students of historiography.

This book's scope is wider than the use of footnotes. It is concerned with the use of sources by historians and their documentation of this use. Classical historians may have epitomised the writings of others in the text but there was no tradition of referring in detail to their sources. Later, when manuscripts moved from scrolls to book form, they may have been glossed, commented upon and annotated, but these could be placed anywhere: above the text, in the margins or as footnotes. With the coming of the printed book decisions had to be made about annotation; was it required, and if so, where to put it. The fashion for footnotes arose in the late 17th and early 18th century, particularly for legal texts, philology and novels. This fashion then influenced the historians.

THE BOOK: As would be expected, the author makes full use of footnotes in this book. Most pages have at least one. They vary from short references to other books or articles to detailed references with quoted text in English or German, Latin or French. The non-English quotes are not always translated into English (3). It has 7 chapters and one Epilogue spread over 235 pages and a short 5-page Index. There is no Bibliography, Endnotes or Sources. The index is an index nominum of the names of writers mentioned.

Many writers are discussed, notably the thinker David Hume, the compiler Pierre Bayle and the historians Leopold von Ranke, Edward Gibbon, Jacques-August De Thou and Athanasius Kircher.

Ranke was an early 19th century German historian who not only thought it important to return to the primary sources, but also to compare these primary sources for their trustworthiness. Footnotes were not enough. "Only the right footnotes, not a random assembly of references, could enable a text to stand proud under critical scrutiny." (4).

Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is famous for its erudite and ironic footnotes. However, its first edition had all its annotations at the end of the book. David Hume was frustrated by having to continuously refer to the end for the references and wrote to their common publisher (5). The endnotes were moved to the foot of the pages in later editions. Strictly, Hume had only suggested moving the citations to the pages, not the full commentary, but the effect of the move was the creation of a double narrative of the main text and the footnotes. Later Gibbon expressed regret that he had disfigured his narrative with footnotes (6).

At the end of the 17th century Pierre Bayle produced a book that had little text and was mostly commentary. This was a dictionary of errors by other writers and was surprisingly popular (7). At about the same time Richard Simon produced two books analysing the texts of the Old and New Testaments. This was a dangerous undertaking and he used extensive footnotes as a defence against the many enemies of his writings (8).


(1) The title of this review is taken from page 182: "Gibbon and his colleagues could thus draw, for models of source-criticism and source-citation, on a tradition of secular scholarship that ran back to the renaissance and before."
(2) Kevin Jackson's "Invisible Forms" is a guide to para-texts and literary curiosities. Para-texts are such things as dedications, epigraphs, prefaces, footnotes, marginalia and indexes that surround the main text of most books. Literary curiosities mentioned include Isaac D'Israeli's Curiosities of Literature and the Oulipo movement in France where literature is turned into a game e.g. a novel moves from place to place in a single building following the moves of the knight in chess or Georges Perec's novel A Void where the letter "e" is never used.
(3) This book was also published in German as "Die tragischen Ursprünge der deutschen Fußnote" and in French as "Les Origenes tragiques de l'érudition: Une histoire de la note en bas de page".
(4) Page 45
(5) Pages 102 and 103. See also The Letters of David Hume ed J. Y. T. Greig (Oxford 1932) II 313. The letter is dated 8 April 1776. A decade earlier Hume had been criticised by Horace Walpole for his failure to include references in support of his statements in his The History of England.
(6) Edward Gibbon Memoirs of My Life
(7) Pierre Bayle Historical and Critical Dictionary "Dictionaire historique et critique" Rotterdam 1697.
(8) R. Simon: "Historie critique du Vieux Testament" Paris 1680; "Histoire critique du Nouveau Testament" 1689.

Selections GFA805 Solar Powered Battery Operated Ultrasonic Cat Repeller (Batteries Included)
Selections GFA805 Solar Powered Battery Operated Ultrasonic Cat Repeller (Batteries Included)
Offered by Garden Selections
Price: £12.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Seems OK but will it get enough sunshine in the Winter?, 18 May 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I have already bought a battery-operated ultrasonic cat-repeller for one end of the garden. I wanted to buy another one for the other end as the range of these devices is limited, but I decided to get one that was solar-powered so that I wouldn't have to occasionally replace the batteries.

This solar-powered device seems to work OK, but I was disconcerted to find that it comes with a separate USB cable. The double-sided instruction leafed, written in a form of near-English, that comes with the device (for the text of this leaflet see Comment) talks about initial charging and top-ups via this USB cable. Firstly, this is the sort of bother I was trying to avoid and secondly, not everyone has a USB connection for charging (computer, cell phone chargers, MP3, etc.). This makes me wonder how this device will work in the winter. Will the short overcast winter days generate enough sunshine to keep this solar powered device active or will it need topping up?

The device comes with the already mentioned USB cable and leaflet plus the "spike" for fixing it in the ground. It can also be fixed to a post or fence. The spike comes in two pieces that slot together forming not so much a spike as a wide, round-ended fitting to hold up the device. I used a spade to create a thin slit in the earth into which this stand could be pushed by hand. The leaflet warns not to try and hammer device into the ground.

The instruction leaflet lists the frequency settings available and which animals each setting deters. This advice is an improvement on my other battery-operated device where you have to guess what setting to use. It also says not to install this device in an area where babies or young children will be exposed to the ultrasonics, a fact I was not previously aware of.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 18, 2015 1:48 PM BST

Big Data, Little Data, No Data: Scholarship in the Networked World
Big Data, Little Data, No Data: Scholarship in the Networked World
by Christine L. Borgman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £22.95

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Descriptive metadata for scholars, 29 April 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This book is about the generation, use and re-use of data in an academic environment. I found it interesting, but verbose. As a non-academic I was always aware that I was not this book's target market. However I did find some of it stimulating and thought-provoking.

It is a readable account of data in all their forms, sources and usages (1), generated in the sciences, social sciences and the humanities. This book is aimed at scholars (2), but I think it would be useful to anyone who is responsible for data, giving them a wider perspective. This book is not a manual on the technical techniques of handling extra-large data sets that are becoming more common nor is it a discussion of where the emergence of these extra-large data sets will lead us.

The author's reason for writing this book can be found on page 14. It also provides a representative example of the writing style used throughout. This style avoids academic jargon, but is very inclusive: ".... data is a far more complex subject than suggested by the popular press or by policy pronouncements. It remains large and unwieldy, even when constrained to research and scholarship. Although the literature on research data is growing rapidly, each journal article, conference paper, white paper, report, and manifesto addresses but one part of the elephantine problem. This book is the first monograph to assess the whole elephant of data from social, technical, and policy perspectives, drawing on examples from across the academic disciplines. It picks up where the more general exploration of scholarship in the digital age left off (Borgman 2007), addressing the radical expansion of interest in data in the interim ...".

The author then defines "six provocations". These are intended to frame the book's "narrative" and provoke discussion. I expected these key points to be briefly named, but each was several sentences long and had a slippery definition. The last two, on knowledge Infrastructures, seemed to me to be describing the same thing. As far as I can tell, these provocations concerned: data re-use; data transfer by discipline and over time; differentiating data from academic writings; the consequences of open access; and knowledge infrastructures evolving over time.

The book has 287 pages of text, divided into three parts: Part I Data and Scholarship; Part II Case Studies in Data Scholarship; Part III Data Policy and Practice. As would be expected of a book aimed at academics it has extensive References (72 pages) and it is well-indexed (23 pages).

There are six case studies, two from the sciences, two from the social sciences and two from the humanities. Each case study is discussed within the same framework, consisting of: Size Matters; Sources and Processes; Knowledge Infrastructure; External Influences; and Conducting Research in the case study area. Conduction Research is divided into: Research Questions; Collecting Data; Analyzing Data; Publishing Findings; Curating, Sharing and Reusing Data. Thus using these examples the reader can compare and contrast their own area of study within the framework provided.

(1) I am trying to follow this book's consistent and correct use of the word data as a plural. However, I find it very hard to do. I have never come across the singular, datum, and the word data always seems to imply to me a data set, which is singular.

(2) The author uses the terms scholar, scholarship and research throughout, for which I read academic.

The First Four Georges
The First Four Georges
by John Harold Plumb
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars An old fashioned overview, 16 April 2015
This review is from: The First Four Georges (Hardcover)
This is a relatively short, readable and authoritative account of the first four King Georges. The author, J. H. Plumb, was a renowned Cambridge historian. First published in 1956, this is a type of book that it is difficult to find today. It is an overview and readers may find some topics mentioned but not explained. To some extent this is inevitable. The book can be used as a jumping-off point for more detailed study elsewhere.

These Georges span a hundred years of British history, a time when the country moved into the modern world. George I was the German one; George I's son George II was the less-well known one; George II's grandson George III was the mad one (or the tyrannical one if you are American); George III's son George IV was the fat one. The period covers Jacobite rebellions, war and peace, the development of trade and industry, the gain of Quebec and the loss of the American colonies, Walpole, Fox and Pitt. It stops just before the start of Parliamentary reform.

However, this is an extended biography of the George's rather than a general history of the period. It starts in 1714 when a Protestant German prince in his fifties became George I. He spoke German and French, but not English. He had divorced his unfaithful wife and placed her under house arrest in Germany until she died many years later. This cannot have helped his difficult relationship with his son, who succeed him as George II. J.H. Plumb says of George II "Like his father George was stupid but complicated." In keeping with family tradition George II feuded with his own son Frederick Price of Wales. George II outlived his son and it was his grandson who succeeded him at only twenty-two. Initially George III was immature, but he matured during his long reign (1760 to 1820). He also had a bad relationship with his son and heir, the future Regent when George III was incapacitated by madness and finally king as George IV. It was under George IV that the reputation of the monarchy reached its lowest point.

THE STYLE: The writing style is generally one of short, clear sentences. For example, discussing George I on page 41: "George had a healthy animal appetite for women. He preferred them fat and complacent. As he was a man of habit he grew attached to one or two of them, and amongst these Ehrengard Melusina von Schulenburg, afterwards Duchess of Kendal, came to be regarded as maîtresse en titre."

THE BOOK has 177 pages of text plus 12 black and white plates, mostly reproductions of paintings of the Georges or their wives, busts of them and their images on coins. The chapters are simply named: The Georgian Wold; George I; George II; George III and George IV. There is also a short bibliography and Index.

If this book was published today it would be twice the size but not with twice the detail and its chapters would follow the episodes of the television series it was written to accompany. If this is better, worse or just a different approach is for the reader to decide.

Offered by QBD Watches
Price: £5.25

5.0 out of 5 stars Well received, 13 April 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This was intended as a cheap and cheerful temporary replacement until the recipient could decide on a permanent new wrist watch. On arrival the watch was working and it was set to the correct time. I thought that it might be regarded as too functional and "unladylike", but apparently not. The strap, which I thought might be too large, fitted the recipient's wrist. The big hands and numbers are easy to see, which was appreciated. This watch was not cheap-looking but it was cheerful. Apart from special occasions, it may become the permanent wrist watch rather than the temporary replacement.

The Meaning of it All
The Meaning of it All
by Richard P Feynman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Not great, 9 April 2015
This review is from: The Meaning of it All (Paperback)
Most readers will be attracted to this small book by the name of Richard Feynman. They will be disappointed. This book was not published until 10 years after Richard Feynman's death. They waited because Richard Feynman himself did not want this book published. Richard Feynman gave a series of three lectures* in 1963. The lectures are transcribed from an audio recording and do not seem to have much editing. Thus they read strangely in places.

The lectures are reproduced in this book as: "The Uncertainty of Science" about the scientific method, "The Uncertainty of Values" about science and religion and "This Unscientific Age" containing miscellaneous observations. Richard Feynman was a Nobel laureate in Physics with a reputation as a great scientist, great communicator and a nice guy. These lecturers were aimed at a general public with little or no science background. They also show their age, being given in America in the middle of the Cold War. Although they were given in early 1963, the swinging sixties had not yet started and the feeling of the 1950s had not fully been left behind.

* These were the John Danz lectures given at the University of Washington, Seattle, in April 1963. The lecture series was originally called "A Scientist Looks at Society", which is a better title than that used for this book. Looking at the University of Washington Press website (see Comment), many of the John Danz lectures are listed as formerly or currently in print. This does not include these lectures by Richard Feynman.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 9, 2015 1:31 PM BST

Ireland and the English Crisis
Ireland and the English Crisis
by Tom Paulin
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Grub Street and the Academy, 1 April 2015
This is a collection of articles, mostly book reviews, by the Northern Ireland poet and academic Tom Paulin. They were first published in Encounter, London Review of Books, New Statesman, Poetry Review, Sunday Times, Times Literary Supplement and in other places. One was a talk given on BBC Radio 3. I found the title "Ireland & the English Crisis" misleading and there is no sub-title to clarify it. The articles are literary reviews about identity, mostly Irish identity but also of the English and others. Thus, for Ireland there are articles on: Conor Cruise O'Brien, Tom Moore, Louis MacNeice, Joyce, Yates, Carson and Paisley; for England there are articles on: Kingsley Amis, Auden, D.H. Lawrence; for the others there are articles on Henry James and Solzhenitsyn and a few pages on T.S. Elliot in the Introduction. All the articles are readable and some are very short. A few are notable: a polemic against Conor Cruise O'Brien; an account of the writings of Ian Paisley; an analysis of the destructive impact of modern critical fashions in the teaching of English. I personally liked the two articles on Joyce: "The British Presence in Ulysses" and "James Joyce: A Centenary Celebration". I also liked "The Writer Underground" which starts: "Journalists sometimes present Solzhenitsyn as a combination of Tolstoy and Sir Keith Joseph".

The 14 page Introduction does not mention any of the following 29 articles but provides the author's mind-set. It starts by giving the author's dislike of many modern literary theories. This complements his article "English Now" that is included in the book. The contemporary creative reader is a ". . . freewheeling nihilist with a taste for sociology and anthropology . . . ". This is not a compliment. He is suspicious of naïve deconstructuralism but sees merit in the deconstruction of "English literature" into components such as English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, American and Commonwealth. Thus the term English imposes a British identity on writers such as Joyce and Yates who were deeply hostile to such an identity. This discussion moves into a broader discussion of Northern Ireland, Ireland, England and Britain, of politics, identity, culture and literature.

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