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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Summer musings

The new term is upon us and over the next few days another generation of children will be asked to write about what they did on their summer holidays. I thought I'd reflect upon some of the things I thought about on my summer holidays.

I devoured Naseem Nicholas Taleb's book, "The Black Swan" which really made me think. He takes a prolonged pop at historians, much of which is justified, given that it is easy to find patterns retrospectively if you are looking for them. Indeed the subtitle of his book could be, "post hoc ergo propter hoc", which as well as being the title of an excellent episode of the West Wing highlights the popular misconception that when one event follows another the latter is caused by the former (a new CEO is hired and the company stock price goes up = excellent CEO). More often than not there is no link and the latter event is mere accident.

I don't share his contempt for history because I don't think the purpose of history is one of finding causation or explaining why something happened. Although students who had to explain the origins of the first world war in their exams this year may be surprised at this. I think the discipline of history is in weighing evidence, trying to understand humans and deciding how much credibility to give to any particular account. The value is in asking why someone took this or that particular view of any event and this sits quite well with the empirical skepticism that Taleb encourages.

History is in a constant state of refurbishment. Note the contrasting comments by the Polish President and Russian Prime Minister at the recent events to commemorate the outbreak of the second world war also the disclosure of documents pertaining to the release of the Lockerbie bomber by the British and Libyan governments both appear to be attempts to rewrite history on the fly and then ask yourself is it possible that they are all correct? Although the content of what is said is interesting, it is often more interesting to ask why they might be saying this or that.

I enjoyed Christopher Brookmyre's latest book Pandaemonium which manages to contain the best explanantion of string theory that my simple mind has ever managed to hold, an examination of the role of faith and an understanding of teenage angst all within a comic thriller (who would have thought that possible?)

Thank you to those who commented on my blog about the lessons I learned from my late wife, Jelena. As I continue to reflect upon the time we spent together, I am sure I will learn more. I am learning the hard way but talking about the pain and loss clearly leads, albeit slowly, to healing.

And once again I was staggered by the capacity to learn of the young as I watched my daughter learn to swim in two weeks.

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