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39. Quote O’Clock…

27 Sep
Since I have been on a book-reading splurge for the past month or so, (to make up for the single book I had time to read during the Olympics and Paralympics…), I have failed miserably to find time to turn that growing stack of read books into blog entries: therefore, in their place, I present you with a selection of favourite quotes and kind of mini-reviews from books read both this month and (mostly) not-so this month..
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Priceless,” Robert.K.Wittman
This true memoir of the man who founded the FBI’s fine art recovery department is interesting in parts, (mainly the parts dealing with the history of the artefacts being recovered), but is written like a bad buddy cop movie: ‘He is an FBI agent who doesn’t do law by the book…’ it might as well say.
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We only have to wait until page 11 to be told:
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“I had little left to prove, and a great deal to lose. I knew Donna and our three kids could feel the stress. We were all watching the calendar. In sixteen months, I’d be eligible for retirement with a full government pension…”
 
There is good advice for wannabe undercover cops everywhere:
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“When you work undercover, its always a good idea to greet an out-of-town target at the airport. A guy just getting off a plane is less likely to be carrying a weapon…”
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And some social commentary to be derived from my soon-to-be next home, Brazil, when Wittman teaches us during a case to recover stolen Norman Rockwell paintings in Rio de Janeira:
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“In Brazil, they expained, flight is considered as natural a right as freedom of speech. There’s no crime in Brazil for resisting arrest or fleeing prosecution…”
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Finally, some wonderful trivia behind the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911, stolen from the Louvre:
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“The Mona Lisa investigation took an awkward turn early on, when two radical modernists were wrongly detained under the theory that they’d stolen an icon of Old World art as some sort of artistic/political protest. One of the arrested radicals was a young artist named Pablo Picasso…”
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Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It,” Geoff Dyer
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Having discovered Geoff Dyer through other authors’ recommendations, and a magazine article or two, I started on of his essay compilations which is proving simultaneously incredibly serious, erudite and difficult to get through, so I was happy to sidetrack myself with something a little easier to get through. This was part travelogue, part art treatise, part philosophy, part any number of things which, it seems, is Dyer’s MO. Some quotes:
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On Asia: “If we were driving slowly people stopped what they were doing – even if they were doing nothing – and watched us pass…”
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On travel in Asia: “There were two boats, both full by the time we got to the dock – half an hour early, at six-thirty in the morning – but in Southeast Asia no form of transport is ever completely full, for course, and so we squeezed onto the roof with the other Westerners …”
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Linguistic tinkering: “I wished I’d been doing yoga for years – in fact I’d been wishing I’d been doing yoga for years for years…”
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Typical Dyerian thought-provoking wordplay: “Art Deco…means nice looking, or, more exactly, not as nice as it looks…”
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On Ancient Rome: “…the defining feature of antiquity was how uninteresting it was to read about…I am no stranger to boredom. I have been bored for much of my life, by many things but, equally, I have also been fantastically interested by many other things. Antiquity represented a weird synthesis – a kind of short circuit – of these two currents of my life: for the first time ever I was bored by what I was interested in…”
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On Detroit directions: “…I drove from the Institute of Arts to the Michigan Central Railroad Station, near where the old Tigers Stadium used to be (directions in Detroit have their own special tense: everything is where something used to be)…”
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And finally, both on travel, and on a sensation I sincerely hope I never experience: “…I had been feeling what I suspected might be the tug of middle age. It manifested itself as a diminution of everything by which I had previously set the greatest store (vitality, appetite for new things, new challenges) and an intensifying wish for the familiar…”
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The Drunkard’s Walk: how randomness rules our lives,” Leonard Mlodinow
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This book was a compilation of my favourite ‘Our brains are actually quite stupid…or are they amazingly smart?’ research and experiments on how the human mind works.

Beginning with a brief history of maths, statistics and probability down the ages, from Greek to roman to Arab to Enlightenment, Mlodinow proceeds to summarise some of the best examples of how statistics, logic and pure luck play a disproportionate rôle in our lives.
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It’s always to start with a joke, and so in the opening paragraph, we learn that:
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“…a few years ago a man won the Spanish national lottery with a ticket that ended in the number 48. Proud of his ‘accomplishment,’ he revealed the theory that brought him the riches. ‘I dreamed of the number seven for seven straight nights,’ he said, ‘and 7×7 is 48…'”
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Early on, we are treated to a novel representation of the famous ‘Ask Marilyn’ mathematical conundrum, where three boxes contain one good prize and two booby prizes. On being asked to choose one of the boxes at random, and then shown one of the other two contains a booby prize, the contestant/mathematician is asked whether they would like to change their choice. The correct answer, (a simple: ‘yes’ is the logical, but non-intuitive response), can be explored in more detail here, but I loved the fact that Mlodinow illustrated the puzzle by referring to one box holding a signed copy of a Darwin first edition, and the other two shop-soiled editions of a Dan Brown novel! Maths with a sense of humour!
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There was even a lengthy section to give encouragement to the unpublished masses like me:
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“John Grisham’s manuscript for ‘A Time To Kill’ was rejected by 26 publishers…Dr.Suess’s first children’s book, ‘And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street,’ was rejected by 27 publishers. And J.K.Rowling’s first Harry Potter manuscript was rejected by nine. There exists a vast gulf of randomness and uncertainty between the creation of a great novel and the presence of huge stacks of that novel at the front of thousands of retail outlets…”
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Some of the statistics were fascinating: who would have thought, (apart from statisticians and people like me that read books on statistics), that if you toss a coin 20,000 times and keep track of heads or tails:
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“…the most probable number of changes in the lead is zero, and it is 88 times more probable that one of the two will lead through all 20,000”!
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One for the linguists and mathematicians among us:
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“Which is greater, the number six-letter English words having an ‘n’ as their fifth letter or the number of six-letter English words ending in -ing?”
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Apparently, the instinct is to say ‘-ing’ words, because they come to mind more easily, but the answer is the fifth letter ‘n’ words by a distance.
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Some mathematical history: the ‘=’ sign was invented by Robert Recorde who:
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“inspired by geometry, remarked that no things could be more nearly alike than parallel lines and hence decided that such lines should denote equality.”

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Here’s a brain-twister that kept me confused for hours. Give it a go yourself:

“If a woman is pregnant with fraternal twins, what are the chances, given that one of the children is a girl that both children will be girls?”

Here’s a hint: the answer is (somehow) not 50/50!! (Once you’ve given it a go, or given it up, the answer can be found here).
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Want some more? This one has long been one of my favourite facts:
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“How many people must a group contain in order for there to be a better than even chance that two members of the group will share the same birthday?”
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Instinct insists around 180; statistics? They surprise with around just 23! (If you want to know why, just know that the odds of four people sharing a birthday aren’t 4/365, but 6/365, as there are six ways any two of them can share a birthday; five people is not 5/365 but 10/365, etc)
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One of my favourite sections was the story of an Australian syndicate who realised that the Virginia lottery was worth more in prize money than the cost of buying all of the tickets! Statistics ran up against physics, however, as they struggled to find enough people to physically buy the tickets in time, (and in enough different places to avoid raising suspicion), but they ended up winning, you’ll be pleased to hear.
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Fittingly in this time of lack of confidence in the world’s financial institutions, I thoroughly enjoyed the chapter on how the Bernoulli sequence explains how random fluctuations will lead to Fortune 500 CEO’s having good years and bad years which don’t reflect their skill at all.
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How important is it to feel in control of your life, and not believe in randomness?
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“A prior sense of helplessness and lack of control is linked to both stress and the onset of disease. In one study wild rats were suddenly deprived of all control over their environment. They soon stopped struggling to survive and died. In another study, in a group of subjects who were told they were going to take a battery of important tests, even the pointless power to control the order of those tests was found to reduce anxiety levels.”
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Having last year enjoyed the excellent ‘The Psychopath Test‘ by Jon Ronson, I was aware of, but always happy to read again about, the experiment where eight researchers went to a number of hospitals complaining that they heard voices: all but one were locked up in mental institutions. How was this possible? Thanks to the ‘confirmation bias,’ which lets us believe more easily things which confirm what we already believe. An example?
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“When one patient was observed writing in his diary, it was noted in the nursing record that: ‘Patient engages in writing behaviour’…”
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Sadly, Mlodinow doesn’t mention the follow-up experiment, where the hospitals were warned that more fakes would be coming, and the hospitals subsequently contacted the researcher to inform him who they had spotted…to which he replied that no fakes had, in fact, been sent!
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Posted by on September 27, 2012 in BOOKS

 

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