Saturday, December 31, 2011

Book Review: The House of Wittgenstein

This is a review of The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War by Alexander Waugh.

This book traces the lives of four generations from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty-first. During this time: a great fortune was made in trade, real estate, and industry; a pianist lost his right arm but continued to perform at a world-class level of proficiency; a philosopher rose to international prominence; the family evaded Nazi persecution.

Some of the most interesting material for me concerns war time. For example, Paul was taken as a POW by the Russians during The Great War and was held at the krepostnaia katorga at Omsk. He was allowed to send letters home, but his letters do not describe the conditions for which the prison camp was infamous. Waugh notes that the Russians censored outbound letters and anyway many prisoners wanted to avoid worrying their families or felt shame for having been captured. Interestingly, the Austro-Hungarian Kriegsüberwachungsamt was censoring inbound mail:

Letters have been received lately from our prisoners of war in enemy countries. In some of these letters the writers describe life in captivity in a very favorable light. The spreading of such news among the troops and recruits is undesirable. The military censors are therefore to be instructed that such letters of our prisoners of war as may, by their contents, exercise an injurious influence are to be confiscated and not to be delivered to their addressees. [p. 75]

The Austro-Hungarian government funded the war by printing money and consequently there was severe inflation during the twenties; "by August 1922 paper money was virtually worthless as consumer prices rose to a level 14,000 times higher than they had been before the war" [p. 128]. Trade embargoes further hampered commerce with the result that 96% of Austrian children were malnourished [ibid]. For the Wittgensteins, this led to conflicts between siblings about philanthropic and investment decisions.

It is pretty interesting to see how the Wittgenstein's understanding of the Nazis developed during WWII. Initially they supported the Heimwehr austrofascists against the Nazis in opposition of Anschluss, socialism, "exaggerated racial theories," and "a semi-pagan German national religion". When the Germans invaded, the Wittgensteins were frustrated in their attempt to sell some art abroad and annoyed by the new administration's insistence that they fly the Nazi flag over their palais, but they did not fear for their personal safety until later. They seem to have underestimated the sincerity of Nazi leaders with respect to racial rhetoric. In fact, their immense wealth and political connections outside the Reich did save them from the concentration camps even as strategic and tactical disagreements irreparably inflamed tensions among siblings.

This extraordinary group of people during an extraordinary period of time makes for an engaging narrative. It is competently written and my impression is that it is well-researched, but I certainly read it with variable velocity and interest. I recommend this book to those who are interested in the economic and political history of early twentieth century Europe, and curious about seeing those events through the perspective of one prominent family.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Book Review: The Annotated Turing

This is a review of The Annotated Turing by Charles Petzold.

The heart of the book is Turing's On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem, segmented and the segments interleaved with commentary and corrections from Petzold and Turing's own erratum. It is prefaced with some background material that will be a good refresher or even introduction for non-mathematicians. The end of the book draws connections between Turing and his/our contemporaries who carried forward his work.

Before this, my exposure to the Church-Turing Thesis had always been indirect, via the later works of Kleene and others. It was interesting to see some of the differences in the original presentation of these ideas. For example, I didn't realize or remember that the Halting Problem was introduced by Martin Davis; Turing himself discussed mainly "circle-free" machines that would never halt. I also liked that Petzold gives a rounder portrait of Turing by the inclusion of material on Turing's personal history.

I believe this book would be accessible to readers with no prior cs background. Check it out if you are interested in either computer science or the philosophy of mathematics.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Book Review: The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

Robert Moses was smart and got things done. He showed extraordinary idealism in his early adulthood, and worked hard to apply his wealth, privilege, and considerable talents in hopes of making the world a better place. Over his lifetime, he mastered realpolitik and wielded considerable power; from his relatively modest nominal appointments, he dominated not only mayors of New York City but also the statehouse and in one conflict a sitting President of the United States. The legacy of his most effective decades using billions of dollars to remake the neighborhoods of New York City and establish the pattern of development for Long Island will persist for centuries, to the chagrin of many.

Fittingly, this is a monumental biography with 1162 pages of main matter and followed by 84 pages of notes and references. It is occasionally indulgent, but on the whole I think it was well-edited. Moses was deeply flawed and immensely capable and driven; it is interesting to learn about how he amassed, used, and lost influence over his lifetime.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Book Review: The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England

This is a book review of The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer.

History is more fun without the politics

Context is a vital consideration for historical interpretation, but ask a history student to summarize what he's learned and you'll likely hear exclusively about famous people and events. Some of these people were colorful characters, and many of the events make for good stories. But this book focuses on the complement of that history, highlighting the crucial but normally subordinated milieu of an age.

Mortimer's guidebook tells of the customs, etiquette, food, clothing, laws, and economic conditions in which the 14th century English lived their lives. The book is written in a light-hearted style; it's a very entertaining way to cure some of your misconceptions and enrich your understanding of the period. Recommended.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Book Review: The Ghost Map

This is a review of The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson.

Johnson's account of John Snow, Henry Whitehead, and other key figures in the story of a nineteenth century London cholera epidemic is an engaging narrative with insights about scientific investigation and persuasive argument. Starting with an orientation to London c. 1854, the heart of the book explains how a particularly perspicacious investigator developed and tested hypotheses to reach correct and influential conclusions. Along the way we see how somewhat different approaches led others to different outcomes. Of course, the process of scientific discovery remains relevant to us in the 21st century, as are many of the issues concerning urban design and public policy.

The Broad Street cholera epidemic of 1854 was in large part a consequence of urbanization with inadequate public works infrastructure, at a very early stage in the development of medical science and microbiology. Particularly in the last chapter, "Broad Street Revisited," Johnson discusses the relation between 1854 London and present-day first-world city planning. Citing Jane Jacobs and other contemporary sources, he discusses the architecture of cities, the role of government organizations such as the CDC, and even the War on Terror and nuclear non-proliferation. I think he overreached in this attempt to reinforce the continuing relevance of the Snow/Whitehead collaboration and to advocate for positions on tenuously connected modern issues.

Readers of Tufte's Visual Explanations will recognize this epidemic from several pages in that book (it was also mentioned in The Visual Display of Quantitative Information). While Tufte focuses on an analysis of Snow's compelling maps as designed artifacts, Johnson describes in detail the scientific inquiry that led to the development of those maps. Johnson also offers a short critique of Tufte's treatment. It is disappointing that after describing Snow's second-edition Voronoi-enhanced map (see also) as "Snow's most significant contribution to the field of disease mapping" and calling out Tufte on having overlooked it, Johnson omits the diagram from his own book.

The Ghost Map includes end notes, but the note numbers appear only in the notes and not in the text. The absence of a visual indication that more detail is available makes the end notes less likely to be used and made me less trusting about some of the author's assertions.

I have pointed out some weaknesses in The Ghost Map, but on the whole I think it was well worth reading. If you are interested in Snow's maps, the history of epidemiology, or the process of scientific inquiry, I heartily recommend this book.