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Charles Brewer (Westcott, Surrey United Kingdom)

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And The Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe, Austerity and the Threat to Global Stability
And The Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe, Austerity and the Threat to Global Stability
by Yanis Varoufakis
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Must the Minotaur be killed or reformed?, 13 April 2016
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This is an outstanding analysis of the 'European Project' and an astonishing contrast to the other recent economics bestseller by the turgid Thomas Picketty. First, as a non-native English speaker, Varoufakis has no right to produce such clear, straightforward prose, this compares with Keynes or even Orwell at his best for sheer excellence of exposition and his anger is brilliantly expressed.

I share almost none of Varoufakis' political stance, tending much more to a small and limited state libertarian view, but have no difficulty in following and agreeing with the great majority of his analysis.

Essentially, his view is that the EU, as currently constituted is a democracy-free cartel created for the benefit of the Central European heavy manufacturing cartels, which the French have constantly sought to dominate adminstratively. The result is a technocratic dictatorship with no democratic legitimacy which sees adherence to badly thought out rules as the most important feature of its operation and is no only happy to pour suffering on countries which offend them, but actively to pursue it. (Hence the title)

He regards the "political elites" of Europe (for whom he has intellectual, political and personal distain - with excellent reason), as corrupted by power, easy money and the certainty that they cannot be removed from the sinecures no matter how useless they or their behaviour is.

Finally, and most tellingly, he makes a highly persuasive case that the entire working out of the euro crisis consisted of loading debt onto the innocent - the Greek, Irish and to a lesser degree Italian and Spanish taxpayers - in order to pay off the idiotic and bankrupt financial institutions of Germany and France. He further regards the Brussels - Berlin axis of making an example of Greece to show what they might do to any other country (most notably, France) if they fail to follow the bureaucracy's dictates.

The only part of his book I find unpersuasive it the proposal he has to reform the EU into a proper democratic federation, somewhat along the lines of the USA (I think). While there might be some benefits to this, it is rather like defending the Soviet Empire on the grounds that it might be transformed into something democratic, legitimate and popular. There is no indication whatsoever that the Brussels empire has even the slightest capacity for reform.

Better for the splendid Mr Varoufakis to accept the logic of his own anti-panegyric and actively seek the dissolution of this monstrous entity.

Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Christopher Butler
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Good book, rubbish subject - A national neurosis analysed, 29 Aug. 2015
Postmodenism is the movement which grew from France's military and social humiliations of 1870, 1916 and 1940 and seeks to bury those national disasters in pointless invention of words, obscurantism and by pretending that there is no "truth", but merely a succession of narratives of equal (zero) value. Only in art, where it has led to a series of interesting questions in aesthetics has it had any impact of interest; in music it led to a dreary and rapidly forgotten school, and in philosophy it essentially wandered off a cliff of solipsism and meaninglessness before it even got going.

Butler approaches the subject in what appears to me to be a pretty even handed manner, but recognises that (for example) Derrida was a rather ill-read commentator on the relationship between language and the world and that Wittgenstein had done an infinitely superior job. He also brings out the hilarious charlatanry which surrounds to entire movement which was exposed and destroyed by the brilliant Sokal and Bricmont article (in English this is called "Intellectual Impostures" and has a successor in "Beyond the hoax") by grossly misusing real scientific terms in a manner which exactly mirrors the proponents of this nonsense.

The attempts of postmodernists to deal with the empirically successful world of science are beneath contempt and it is a great puzzle as to why any of the proponents were kept in employment. Perhaps they really do think that quantum mechanics is 'just a narrative'.

Of course the real reason this stuff was popular in France was that since it was possible to say that all narratives are false and of equal value, the regular and humiliating military defeat and occupation by Germany in the 20th century didn't "really" happen.

But it did.

The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Helen Graham
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The Spanish Civil War: A Very Shallow Introduction, 14 Aug. 2015
The Spanish Civil war is a fascinating precursor to WWII where a basically primitive oligarchical/peasant society became the proxy battleground for two of the three major political groupings which fought on the much greater stage a few years later.

Orwell's heartbreaking Homage to Catalonia is the diary of what appears to have been the most decent thread in the war - the non Comintern left.

I came to this book influenced by Orwell's view of the wickedness of the Comintern and its allies, with a view of the Francoist side as a kind of primitive religious throwback of a creepy variety. However, by the end of this book, the author had convinced me that the Spanish were very lucky to have had Franco win rather than the other side.

The constant anachronism ("gender politics" indeed), the dreary "emoting" and the complete bias of the account indicated to me that there was a great deal being hidden and that this author was doing her level best to make sure it stayed that way. The curtain slipped once when she revealed that the Francoist army had lots of "African" (I guess Moroccan) troops and that the Republicans might once or twice have made the odd racist remark. Coming from this author, I suspect it was the full range of possible abuse no doubt decorated with the kind of propaganda which we commonly associate with Der Sturmer.

I found the progress of the war impossible to discern from this book, it jumps around in time and gives no indication of the actual military progress of the Francoists or how the Republic attempted either to defend itself or to defeat the Nationalists.

One of the most interesting external factors is the non-intervention of France and Britain. The author simply thinks it was bad that these countries did not intervene and provides no intelligent analysis that I could discern. Not liking something is not historical analysis. What I should very much like to have learned was what transpired between Spain - ie Franco - and Britain both during the civil war and more importantly during the World War. Franco (it was stated) wanted to resestablish its South American empire, and so it would seem logical that Franco should have assisted his civil war allies, Germany and Italy, in return for promised assistance for this. Had Spain been a belligerent, Gibraltar would have fallen, the Mediterranean would have been closed to Britain and the U-boats would have been significantly more effective. But we get none of this.

Instead we are supposed to think that a gay American fighting for the Republic proves that they were wonderful in every way (presumably that means that while Ernst Roehm was alive, the Nazis were just fine).

As for the last section which appears to consist of people digging up their grandparents and reburying them, surely a far more interesting set of questions surround the restoration of the Spanish monarchy which became the protector of democracy.

Frankly, the biased and partial content, the incoherent structure, the anachronistic (and inaccurate) attribution of modishly-PC attributes to events and the failure to address genuinely interesting questions make this the worst "Very Short Introduction"I have read.

R for Business Analytics
R for Business Analytics
by A Ohri
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £31.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A bit of a curate's egg, 28 Mar. 2015
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This is a good source for Analytics methods and data sources for someone reasonably experienced in R. It covers a wide range of standard analytical processes such as data manipulation, plotting, regression models, data mining and various clustering methods.

It also has an excellent set of external references which give access to data which can be (fairly) readily accessed.

However, there is a serious difficulty which is that code is often (but not always) printed in the same font as text and in the Appendices it becomes very difficult actually to read what is code and what is comment. I also have some suspicions that some of the code is Windows-specific but this is not pointed out in the text.

Overall a good book with some excellent material, but a better job of editing is required.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
by Ben Macintyre
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.99

26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A charming vile man, 9 Sept. 2014
I have read all of Ben Macintyre's books, and they just get better and better. However, in this one he has set not only an exceptional standard for narrative, but, in a way that was absent in the others, he has, I think, let his own standpoint show, which lends a special edge to the book.

I recently heard an interview with the biographer of a Pre-Norman, Anglo-Saxon monarch, and she said that because of the constant proximity to this character, she became something of an advocate of his reputation against others whose relative position was held in higher regard. She thus admitted to a somewhat personal relationship with the subject of her book.

Well Macintyre, I believe does the same. His chapters a a splendid mix of amusing story, surprising history, personal courage (by both British backed and KGB agents) and political interpretation , but, time after time, the objective and cheerful mask slips and reveals that Macintyre absolutely despises and loathes Philby. A sentiment that it is impossible not to share.

The amusing stories of Abwehr and SIS rivalry in Istanbul are retold as clever revelations, and even the post-Venlo rolling up of the British networks in Holland is presented objectively, as a "fortunes of war" disaster, but Philby's betrayal of the Catholic "resistance" in Germany to the KGB is retold, several times, with ill-disguised disgust.

Philby comes across as the lowest possible form of life, an intellectually inadequate Communist who would not defend his beliefs (perhaps because he realised how pathetic and inadequate they were, but hid from this in alcohol), who betrayed trust, friends and those whose lives depended on him for a third rate dictatorship and an intellectually moribund religion.

Macintyre seems to have brilliantly concocted an account where there is a strong impression that this washed up drunk wound up in Moscow with no friends, and not even the respect of the organisation which he dedicated his life to, and that MI6 may have successfully poisoned the waters even there. Finally, even his legendary charm turned to stinking curdled milk.

A splendid, haunting book.

On China
On China
by Henry Kissinger
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

5.0 out of 5 stars Splendid and enlightening, 28 May 2014
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This review is from: On China (Paperback)
This is an excellent history and analysis of political China from the point of view of someone who saw more of the inside of Chinese politics than any other outsider in the 20th century. Kissinger gives what I found a most informative description of the culture within which Chinese political matters occur. In particular he emphasizes the continuity of the history and the fact that with such a long and continuous historical record, the Chinese invariably have a past example to point to, and by which to interpret and analyse current events.

The description of the Nixon-Mao meetings is riveting with the characters of the two leaders - and their lieutenants - Lin Biao, Zhu Enlai, Deng Xioaping and of course Kissinger, interweaving, with strengths and weaknesses, and fears of an aggressive Soviet Union driving events in a manner which was entirely unexpected at the time, but which resulted in the avoidance of serious conflict.

Overall, a very very interesting, and very well written book.

Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age
Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age
by B. Jack Copeland
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.99

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent! Well written, full of explanation and history, 31 Mar. 2014
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Alan Turning may not have been that fortunate in life, but he has been outstandingly lucky in his biographers. Something like 20 years ago I read Andrew Hodges' work, and thought is a near-perfect example of the genre. It covered the astonishingly original work in maths, philosophy and even gadget invention side of Turing and also gave what I considered a well-balanced interpretation of him being a gay man in a general society where this was illegal and disliked, but also in a smaller, academic world where it was of no more particular note that the fact that he was clumsy.

Copeland has somehow managed to craft yet another biography which goes through material which didn't appear in detail in Hodges' book (almost certainly for security reasons - the story of the Tunny machines is both hilarious - were the Russians really that stupid, we know Amin was - and fascinating) and which gives yet another angle on this odd, clearly difficult man. Turning's astonishing inventiveness and ability to find radically new ways of looking at questions was stifled by the bureaucracy and stupidity of the post-War government - the ones who gave away jet technology to the Russians and, it seems, managed to destroy the British leads in virtually every technology that was going to matter in the next 50 years.

Copeland also reinterprets Turing's treatment as a criminal and manages - I hope accurately - to give the impression that Turing bore his disgraceful treatment with equanimity and that it left no serious scars (or indeed dimuinution of his finding men attractive).

He also leaves open the cause of Turing's death. Personally, I hope it was simply that it was simply another manifestation of his clumsiness.

The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes' Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from
The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes' Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from
by Sharon Bertsch Mcgrayne
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

5.0 out of 5 stars First class account of a revolution, 24 Jan. 2014
There appears to be a divergence in views of this book, but I have to say I am fully in the camp of those who consider it an excellent account. The title of the book is "The theory that would not die" and I, for one, would expect something with a title like that to be primarily a history and narrative of the ups and downs of an intellectual model and a narrative of the events in its life coupled with details of the various fights which have gone on round it.

And in this instance I think the author has succeeded admirably. She presents the major salient differences between Bayesian and frequentist statistical approaches, together with the incrementally increasing use of Bayesian analysis and why it took technology to make the Bayesian approach practicable. (Though as someone who spent hours just hand-calculating the standard deviation of few hundred cases the 70s I was not convinced that ANY real statistical analysis was possible before computers!)

If I wanted a technical introduction, there are plenty of texts, Kruschke's being my current preference (I like dogs!), but to see how and why the Bayesian revolution powers along I cannot think of a better book.

PS Between the first and current editions, the author added some straightforward but still enlightening examples. Despite only being a few pages in length, I think this was a first class addition and improved an already excellent book greatly.

All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945
All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945
by Max Hastings
Edition: Hardcover

39 of 51 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A disappointing plod, 21 Dec. 2011
I bought this book as a companion for an extended trip to the Middle East where I was going to be stuck in a series of hotels with little or nothing to distract me in the evenings.

I am afraid it was a great disappointment. Apart from Hasting's view that the British efforts were inferior to every other participant with the possible exception of Chiang Kai-Shek and that only the Russians actually opposed the Nazis, it is a slow moving, insight-lacking and largely incoherent O-level style serial narrative which leaves anyone who has ever read anything about World War II with no new understanding or insight. In breadth and detail, it is a backward step from Calvocoressi, Wint and Pritchard's `Total War', and in consideration of the major forces involved has none of the analytical substance of Evans, Erickson or Beevor.

Hasting's seems to think that the war was over as soon as Hitler invaded Russia a bit late in the year in 1941, and that the rest was just working out a few details.

Everything which did not deliver complete success (the North African campaign, the invasion of Italy, Operation Market Garden) is dismissed as so obviously flawed that only idiots could have thought it up, you get the impression that Hastings would have reported Cannae and Austerlitz as easy and uninspired wins had Hannibal or Napoleon happened to be of the wrong nationality (usually British, unless it was "unimportant", such as Wavell's campaigns in the Far East)

I ploughed my way through a mish-mash of personal letters (often very moving, but rarely relevant: that X wrote a letter to his wife before the battle in which he was killed does not actually tell us anything about the events going on, and while the letters in themselves are interesting, they could largely have been attributed to any of the soldier in any of the battles without any information being lost), and incomprehensible campaign descriptions where stuff just happens for no obvious reason other than that was what happened.

Hastings seems to have an almost Hegelian or Marxist view of the inevitability of the progress of the conflict and never asks the interesting questions.
- Why was the wicked and stupid anglophobe (and the analysis of this widespread phenomenon in the US military would have been interesting) Mark Clark wrong to capture Rome instead of pressing forward with the isolation of the German army? Was this not a crime which cost thousands of lives, could have shortened the war in western Europe and maybe even vindicated Churchill's `indirect' strategy?
- What were the political processes which caused the Nazi to develop ever more complex and ever less numerous weapons while the Allies went for huge quantities of basic materials. Why did the Americans who started with probably the worst fighting planes in the world, manage to overtake the Japanese, who began with some of the best but never advanced?
- Why did the Japanese, suicidally brave individually, have regular collective failures of nerve when it came to naval engagements?
- Why did securing the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt form a vital part of British strategy, could this be because access to the oilfields of Arabia would have overcome Hitler's great strategic weakness, commodities and fuel? Hastings dismissed the desert war as a badly fought irrelevance.

In summary, what we did not need was another book which traced the detailed sequence of events on various fronts, there are hundreds of those, mostly better. What Hastings, from the vantage point of 70 years of reflection and analysis could have done was to have given us a challenging, interesting and provocative series of reflections on the different campaigns. But he did not.

I gave the book away toward the end of my trip. Not recommended.
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 12, 2012 10:47 AM BST

ASUS K52F, 15.6" HD Laptop, Intel Core i3-350M, 320GB, 4GB, DVD Drive, Window 7 Home Premium 64 bit
ASUS K52F, 15.6" HD Laptop, Intel Core i3-350M, 320GB, 4GB, DVD Drive, Window 7 Home Premium 64 bit

1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The Trabant of computers, 19 Nov. 2010
The Trabant, for those who don't know, was what East Germany liked to describe as a car (OK, Auto), it had all the same things as a contemporary Mercedes - wheels, doors, a steering wheel, and engine and brakes, but they were all rubbish, made very badly of grossly inferior materials by people who couldn't care less. It performed very poorly, the doors were made of cotton and resin and it belched out smoke when it (occasionally) ran.

The Asus K52F is the Trabant of computers.

I bought my first home computer in the early 1980s and have had many since then. Laptops, desktops from IBM, Dell, Compaq, Sony, even Packard Bell and HP ... I've gone through most of them. Many have some minor eccentricities or things which could be improved. But this is the first one I have ever used where the experience just gets worse and worse.

I am not sure just what it is, but it seems as if every design decision was made by someone who sought to get it just a bit wrong.

The second worst keyboard I have ever had the misfortune to use was the Sinclair ZX-80, it had nasty little bubbles which you would press and hope a contact was made. But then at least they were fairly large and legible.

Asus has recreated the horrible experience of a keyboard which works most of the time, but is just about illegible in all but perfect conditions. That's not too bad for normal typing where you don't look at the keys, but wait until its special characters, delete PgDn etc, and you will almost certainly miss two times out of three. Why are the function keys a different size from the other keys? Why is the delete key about one-sixth of the size of the 'Cap Lock' (a hangover from manual typewriters which has no place on a modern keyboard).

The keyboard also manages the hideous combination of being at once bendy (it sags in the middle under even normal typing) and hard - there isn't a proper response to typing, it just feels horrible). This has meant that the quality of my typing (never great, but acceptable) has become truly awful and I spend much of my time correcting typos and other errors. It's just horrible.

Then there is the "screen" or "high-reflectivity mirror" as it is better described. Don't sit with a window behind you, or a light above you, or where there isn't a dark surface surrounding most of you, you will see the room beautifully reflected, but won't be able to read the screen. And if the light in front of you is strong, you will be able to see your own reflection in the glass.

It has an i3 processor, and 4GB of memory which I thought might make it go quite quickly. But actually it's not significantly faster than my old Dell with half of the memory and a single core processor, and has a tendency to go to la-la land for a while when running more than a couple of standard office or developer programs.

The USB ports on the left are so close that you will be pushed to find any two devices which can be inserted at the same time.

The mouse controls are another design-disaster horror. The pad is sunken, which is fine, but the sensitive area doesn't go to the edge of the sunken area. Why not, that's just stupid. And the single mouse button is hopelessly insensitive and to be assured of its operation requires a very strong thump from a middle finger and even then the responsiveness is sluggish, unreliable and without any reliable tactile feedback. My old Dell was much better in this respect.

I have bought computers by mail order for ages, even when I used to phone up and give the spec over the phone to some outfit in Oldham or Wolverhampton, but this awful computer has cured me of that. From now on, it's down to Tottenham Court Road to check out what you can't find out either from magazine reviews (they are consistently pretty good for this nasty machine) or looking at pictures or technical details.

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