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Bernard Smith (Somewhere, Europe)

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The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington
The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington
by Jennet Conant
Edition: Hardcover

3.0 out of 5 stars The irregulars - an irregular read, 27 May 2010
I had only ever heard of Roald Dahl as a writer of odd children's stories, and I have actually not read any of his books. So I was a bit surprised to be loaned a book written by Jennet Conant entitled "The Irregulars," which mentioned Dahl also as a British spy in wartime Washington.
It would appear that Dahl was a injured R.A.F. pilot who was sent off to Washington to (kind of) spy on Britain's most important ally.
I am not a fan of this type of book and I certainly don't intend to try to describe in detail every chapter. For those readers who are interested, Dahl is linked with people such as William Stephenson, NoŽl Coward, Ian Fleming, David Ogilvy, Ivar Bryce, Charles Edward Marsh, Eleanor Roosevelt, and many others.
It would appear that London ran a quite complete and complex operation in the US with the objective to get them to enter the war - naturally on our side. The main character of this book, Roald Dahl, made friends with important men and slept with useful women in order to help this effort. The author inundates us with the details of Dahl's life during this time, to the point where I think it might actually do a disservice to the overall plot. And, I think rightly, the author clearly asks the question about who is actually using whom, and suggests that in many cases the American "targets" appear not to be complete dupes in this undercover operation. So the spy team and Dahl's work looks to have been useful, and might even have had an impact on the later part of the war (even if they were not able to warn London about the prompt cancellation of lend-lease).
The style of writing is fluid and easy to read, even if at times I got lost in the detail and could not work out what the main message was. I suppose the author has also managed to create an image of what Washington might have been like at that time. But it is perhaps on this issue that I have my greatest regret. The book does not create the kind of atmosphere you would expect in a good spy novel, yet it does not include the kind factual and detail descriptions that you would expect from a top class historical overview.
I freely admit that the other reviewers on Amazon all make valid points in their analyses, and they score the book higher. For example, the writing is a bit "puffed-out" and yes the author is candid about Dahl's character defects. The comment about them being more lobbyists than real spy's is also valid. The book does focus more on the social and personal lives of the Dahl and his friends, which I actually found rather boring and pointless at times. I would also have liked their actions to be more clearly linked with what was actually happening at that time and to see how they influenced the outcome of the war - perhaps too much to expect!
So at the end of the day this is a well written book that has it merits, but I personally found it all less than compelling.

Fool's Gold: How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global Markets and Unleashed a Catastrophe
Fool's Gold: How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global Markets and Unleashed a Catastrophe
by Gillian Tett
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book and a very good read, 19 Nov. 2009
Gillian Tett is an assistant editor of the Financial Times and oversees the global coverage of the financial markets. So we can assume that she has a reasonably insight into the way financial markets work, a good nose for a story, and a certain skill with words. This book is evidence of the fact that she possesses all three qualities.
She follows the story of the recent bank meltdown by following the team in the investment bank J.P.Morgan. The initial chapters (part 1 entitled Innovation) lay a solid foundation in understanding the origin of derivatives. I found it a bit "slow", but still necessary background to parts 2 and 3. Part 2 - entitled Perversion - watches as the basic idea of derivatives is adopted by all the other banks, and in many cases "highjacked" to make increasingly complex products designed (at least initially) to re-package and distribute risk. Part 3 - entitled Disaster - described the fact that all the products had (still have?) a "common failure mode", an underlying correlation that simply put meant that risk was not in fact being distributed. Tett manages to take this complex situation and make it both understandable and interesting to the layman. She focuses more on the people working in the banking system, rather than simply creating a chronology of events. However I would have liked more facts and figures to support the overall story.
As an outsider what shocked me in this story was the fragility of all the models, and shortsightedness of both those developing them as tools and those blindly using them without understanding their limits. I have never had a high opinion of the intellectual capabilities of investment bankers, and this book amply supports my statement. However, even more shocking was the way both the banks ignored good practice and the regulators failed to do their job. Financial innovation is inevitable and good, but clearly banks were shortsighted and driven often by amoral greed. Regulators simply did not do the job we pay them for (and I include government as the ultimate regulator).
Overall, easy to read and an excellent description of the recent crisis.

Cosmic Imagery: Key Images in the History of Science
Cosmic Imagery: Key Images in the History of Science
by John D. Barrow
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.50

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Truely cosmic in scope, 9 Oct. 2009
John D.Barrow is a Cambridge cosmologist whom I had not heard off, but unlike other reviewers I was not expecting a coffee table book, rather a decent attempt to put key scientific images in context. This the author does remarkably well. The book is 600 pages of image and commentary printed on quality paper, and well worth the modest asking price. There are 89 stories, each linked to a key image, and all divided up into 4 parts: Stars in Your Eyes (e.g. Astronomy), Spatial Prejudice (e.g. drawings and designs), Painting by Numbers (e.g. Mathematics) and Mind over Matter (e.g. Earth and Society). I was expecting some nice photographically rich images, and a bit of commentary, but what I got was an understandable but expert discussion centred on a particular image or picture. Many of which are not at all photographic masterpieces, but rather real life scientific drawings, diagrams or photographs. I can't put my finger on whats missing, but I got the impression that astronomy and the stars got a good lot of coverage, and that possibly some other less visual attractive domains were left by the wayside - but it is only an impression, and one that certainly did not affect my pleasure in reading nightly 3-4 of the stories. Despite my comment the coverage is absolutely astounding.
I loved the quote about our bodies being created in the stars and that we are living on Earth today thanks to its magnetic field. And my favorites were some of the early drawings of Smith, Meyer and Vesalius, the calculation and visualisation of chains and spans, and the photographs of bubble chamber tracks.
I had seen many of the images but the author always managed to create a compelling context, and in many cases add something interesting to the mix. Other images were new to me, and again the author managed to describe their origin, story and context is a very informative and accessible way. This book will certainly go on my shelves and I am sure it will be re-read several times over the coming years. As a plus it is an excellent and reasonably priced gift.

The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing
The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing
by Richard Dawkins
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.16

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A quasi-homage to Darwin, 9 Oct. 2009
Richard Dawkins needs no introduction as a academic and populist writer in the field of evolutionary biology. However, in this book he dons his hat as Chair of the Public Understanding of Science. The book is a personal selection of extracts and short pieces of the worlds best 20th century scientists, from Einstein to Primo Levi, through Turing and Crick. Part I looks as "What Scientists Study", Part II "Who Scientists Are", Part III "What Scientists Think", and the book closes with Part IV "What Scientists Delight In". Let me say immediately that this is an excellent compilation and good value for money. However I do feel that Dawkins has biased somewhat the compilation to the life sciences - perhaps justifiably you could call this book a quasi-homage to Darwin. Like every compilation you always feel as if some topics were overlooked or at least played down - can it be that no one has written intelligently about modern computer chips, superconductivity, or drug development and trials?
On the other hand we learn much about "The Mysterious Universe" from James Jeans, the power of numbers in "Just Sex Numbers" from Martin Rees, "Mankind Evolving" from Theodosius Dobzhansky, the "Genome" from Matt Ridley, "Theoretical Biology" from Sydney Brenner (a really great piece of writing), the many contributions of Peter Medawar to zoology and medical science, the "Seven Wonders" of Lewis Thomas (from new bacteria to the human species), the wonderful "Periodic Table" of Primo Levi, and the great last entry by Carl Sagan called "Pale Blue Dot" about how small Earth is in the cosmos.
The articles are all short, accessible in the their scope, and all easy to read. I found it an excellent bed-side book, and now finished it will certainly take its place on my shelves. I don't really see it as a reference book, but I do think that it will probably prove just as enjoyable to read a second time in a couple of years.

A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century
A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century
by John Burrow
Edition: Hardcover

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not a history book, but a history of many histories, 22 Sept. 2009
This is not in itself a history book, but a book about history (or histories as the author prefers to call them). Burrow's is a retired academic, and it is said that he has ventured a bit outside his usual domain to write a history about how people wrote about history over the past 2,500 years.
I am not a particular fan of histories about precise periods or so-called famous people, but I do like books that try to paint a big picture - and this book truly tries to do just that.
The author has limited himself to Western historians (Europe and North America), and to those who wrote in English (or available in translation). I've seen a comment suggesting that ignoring Confucius or belittling Montesquieu weakens the overall objective of the book - possibly, but every book has to set limits to its coverage, and this book certainly covers an enormous amount of ground.
The first third of the book is dedicated to historians from ancient Greece and Rome (Herodotus and Thucydides), and clearly Burrow's is in his element. He claims that they set the standard against which historians must be measured (a focus on big political issues of public consequence, great deeds often in war, lessons of statecraft, and aiming at truth through first person experience). His text is lucid, easy to read, and dare I say it, for a history book positively interesting.
The second part of the book focuses on the humanist antiquarian (often living in considerable comfort) and their focus on the evolution of society through solid well documented research and the study of archaeological remains. Again this makes for an enjoyable read, but perhaps lacks the witty comments found in the early chapters.
The later part of the book runs rather rapidly (some would say hurried) through the Enlightenment and emergence of the modern professional historian, with his reliance on proof through trusted documentation, and his interest in the social and economic history of civil society.
Some reviewers have more or less aggressively claimed that the author has ignored one or other masterpiece or great writer. I don't think that it is possible to be really comprehensive in writing a book intended for the non-specialist reader. The author did not hide his anglo-focus, I accepted it on face value, and it leaves space for others to try to better his work.
No matter how you look at this book the result makes for an interesting and enjoyable read (even if at times the style is a little bit academic and possibly old fashioned - but for a history book this simply lends more charm to the text). You feel that the author has really read every last one of the many, many texts referenced in his book, and has re-drafted and re-drafted his proses to make it just right. As I said above, I found the latter part of the book a bit rushed, but this certainly did not detract significantly from my pleasure, and I turned the last page convinced that I will search out more regularly similar texts on the history of history.

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire
Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire
by Judith Herrin
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A surprisngly good read, 10 Sept. 2009
Judith Herrin is an academic in medieval history and in particular Byzantine studies. She has participated in exhibitions and radio BBC programmes on the topic. In this book she sets out to describe a medieval civilization that is poorly understood in todays Western society. And at the same time she aims to kill the over use of the word "byzantine" as a sign of excessive and intricately involved administration, or worse still "a devious and unusually surreptitious manner of operation". On both counts she succeeds admirably.
The book is some 336 pages long, but the writing style is light and easy to read and the chapters and content well laid out.
I suppose the key message running throughout the book is that whilst the "western" Roman empire had collapsed by the 5th century, the "eastern" Roman empire continued to expand and flourish through to the 12th century, and survived in one form or another though to the 15th century. The author claims that Byzantium stopped an early Muslim conquest of Rome and of Europe. She makes a very convincing argument for saying that Europe today exists largely thanks to Byzantium (and all they got in return was to be sacked during the 4th Crusade).
The book is structured more or less along a timeline, but with additional interesting chapters on such things as icons, Greek Fire, eunuchs, and Venice and the fork. Throughout the book the author mixes history with a stream of factlets about the power of eunuchs, civil wars, scheming families and the blinding of rivals, powerful women, and religion woven into every aspect of society. And in addition she has a nice turn of phrase with Rome being about "bread and circuses" and Christianity selling "soup and salvation", or painting as the "Bibles of the illiterate", and I particularly liked the idea that history is the line of least resistance through time.
I found the last chapters on the final fall of Byzantium to the Turks a bit confused and rushed, but the author does succeed in describing the ups and downs of a true civilization. Worth reading even for those who don't like history (like me.)

MacBook Pro 15" 2.4GHz/2GB/250GB/GeForce 9600M GT/SuperDrive
MacBook Pro 15" 2.4GHz/2GB/250GB/GeForce 9600M GT/SuperDrive

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Expensive, but worth the move from a PowerBook, 21 Jun. 2009
I've recently acquired a new MacBook Pro 15" to replace my "old" PowerBook 17". I converted to the Mac some 4 years ago, and went straight for a 17" PowerBook. It served me well, but recently it started to cause me some problems, so what to do?
Firstly, I am happy with OS X and the overall Mac package, so it was "just" a question of which Mac! Secondly, I still required a good portable, but perhaps one that was a little smaller and a little lighter. The 15" seemed a good compromise concerning performance, screen size, and price. Although I must say my impression is that it is still over priced as compared to good quality PC machines. Thirdly, this MacBook Pro appears to run OS X efficiently, as compared to my old PowerBook that appeared to run slower and started to crash occasionally.
So lets move on to my first impressions. Its impressive. The build quality has clearly improved, and I like the power-on switch, the power connector with its extra long cable, and above all the unibody shell that is really solid and closes tightly (the PowerBook does not close really tightly). I'm a little bit less convinced with the new track pad, since it tends to stick occasionally. However the idea is valid and I'm certain that it will turn out to be a successful evolution. The screen is really impressive, and certainly makes up for moving from 17" to 15". Set-up was easy, even it it took me sometime to get everything re-installed and set-up. And iLife 09 is certainly a good evolution, and it took over all my work from the old PowerBook. The MacBook also generates far less heat during charging, and the battery lasts much longer than with the old PowerBook. So, so far so good. Clearly it will depend upon how well it survived the next few years, but at least today it merits 5-stars.

P.S. I've now completely checked out and cleaned up my old PowerBook and its again working perfectly, so I'm hoping to get a good price for it.

The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Around Your Head
The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Around Your Head
by Raymond Tallis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A focus on our heads, and not our brains, 21 Jun. 2009
Raymond Tallis knows a lot about the brain and more generally our heads, since he was until recently Professor of Genetic Medicine and remains still today a poet and respected philosopher.
With this book he intended to take us on a trip around our own heads. Not the brain, but the head and it ability to blush, kiss, cry and giggle. The head that also produces tears, ear wax and sounds.
Chapters range from the role of air in breathing and talking, and then on to eating, kissing, and occasionally thinking. So the author has taken on quite a task, but does he succeed?
Firstly, the style of writing is quite informal and non-technical. The book is easy to read and the contents interesting and well discussed. Secondly, we learn lots of interesting details about our own heads. For example we need air to speak, but we are also able to communicate mood, attitude, warning and greeting through our expressions. The author quotes the German philosopher Lichtenberg as saying that the face is the most interesting surface on earth! Just think about the expressiveness of a simple wink. We also learn that our saliva is chemically different depending on its origin - perhaps because of fear or simply hunger. And we are told about the total strangeness and absurdity of smoking.
Thirdly, the author quite rightly underlines how we are identified by our heads, yet it has little to do with our sense of identity. But at times I was left with the feeling that the author felt that the brain was so complex as not to be understandable by science, e.g. "the head is the subject of a near-infinity of facts - more facts that the head could contain".
So this book is not about neuro-philosophy or neuro-biology (or any other neuro-thing) and the brain is not the star of this book. Yet our heads offer plenty of scope for a truly interesting read. I learned that there is a lot more to our heads than is immediately apparent. Although I was often surprised reading this book, yet I will admit that I rarely learned something radically new.

The Great Wine Swindle
The Great Wine Swindle
by Malcolm Gluck
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Nice ideas - but worth a book on them?, 21 Jun. 2009
This review is from: The Great Wine Swindle (Hardcover)
Malcolm Gluck certainly has a good track record. He wrote the wine column for the Guardian until 2004, and already in 1991 compiled his first guide Superplonk on supermarket wines. He presented his own program on the BBC , and now still writes and consults on wine and the wine trade.
With this book he intended to cut through the hype and tell us about why we should accept the Tetrapak and the screwcap, and watch out for crooks. The book is clearly written to shock, surprise and entertain. And chapter headings tell it all with "Wine Cheats", "Crooked Wines", The Curse of the Cork", and "Restaurant Wine Rip-Offs". So does he deliver of his own hype?
Well, firstly the book is easy to read, entertaining and sometimes quite interesting. Second, the author is almost certainly right about a lot of things - the problems with corks, and the ease with which scams and cons can be perpetrated. But, like many other reviewers I found his constant and repetitive attacks on almost everyone a bit boring. Thirdly I was a bit shocked to see the prices mentioned in the Notes - who can afford to drink wine costing 3 figures? I'm told Malcolm Gluck is well appreciated in the UK as a wine writer. Well this time he did not quite make the grade! To conclude, some good points that could have best been written as 2-3 articles, but not really worth a book.

Something's Gotta Give [DVD] [2003]
Something's Gotta Give [DVD] [2003]
Dvd ~ Jack Nicholson
Offered by best_value_entertainment
Price: £4.82

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great evenings entertainment, 30 Mar. 2009
Here we have a nice romantic comedy - but a good one. The star couple is Jack Nicholson (a big businessman with a liking for girls under-30, so basically playing the Nicholson we know and love) and Diane Keaton (a great looking playwright). The extras include Keanu Reeves and few other younger actors - important because this is all about unexpectedly finding love in late middle age.
I won't go into the details, but this is a great home video choice. This is romantic, fun, a little bit over the top, and basically a good evenings entertainment. Initially I though of 4-stars, but in the end gave it a 5 out 5.

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