Sunday, February 27, 2011

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Alex's Adventures in Numberland

Last time I looked Alex Bellos was The Guardian's correspondent in Brazil and his one published book was a wonderfully idiosyncratic and entertaining look at Brazilian football (or futebol as the Brazilians would say) which actually turned out to be a pretty good historical and sociological primer for the whole country. Read along with Peter Robb's A Death in Brazil there probably isn't much more that you need to know about this most intriguing (at least to me) country.

So, getting back to the point, I was mildly surprised to find out last year that he had written a book about mathematics called Alex's Adventures in Numberland. However, it turns out he has a degree in philosophy and mathematics (they didn't mention that in the blurb on the football book!) and a boundless enthusiasm for seeking out the quirky and fascinating amongst the numbers and equations.

Starting out with Munduruku people living deep in the Brazilian Amazon who still lead a hunter-gatherer existence and have no words for numbers greater than five. Mainly because, as Alex demonstrates, they don't have any need for them. And even these five numbers aren't a precise match for the quantities one to five translating more correctly into one, two, threeish, fourish and a handful. This leads into a fascinating discussion on how children learn to count and understand numbers. Studying young children and isolated indigenous peoples gives a fascinating insight into innate mathematical intuition compared against taught concepts. (The numerical equivalent of Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct.)

From there we move through number systems, numerology, Vedic mathematics, Pi, algebra, number games, the golden ratio, probability, statistics and on to infinity (the concept not the size of the book ...). He has a journalist's eye for an interesting story and the writing is always clear and intelligent, even when he gets into some fairly high level concepts. Pleasingly, the text is also accompanied by plenty of well-drawn diagrams, illustrations and photos which help with the explanations and let you see what mathematicians really look like. There are also plenty of equations, but what did you expect? It is about maths after all.

Along the way he tracks down some fascinating characters, some well known, most not. For example Wayne Gould, a retired judge from New Zealand who found a Sudoku book in a Tokyo bookshop and although he couldn't read any of the instructions he managed to work out how to solve the puzzle. He then spent six years writing a computer program to generate Sudokus and went on to sell the idea to newspapers in the USA and UK sparking a craze which now has over 100 million regular players. I had always presumed that Sudoku was an ancient Japanese puzzle which was just popularised recently in the West, but it turns out to have been invented by Maki Kaji, a Japanese puzzle-maker who refined a puzzle that he had seen in an American puzzle magazine which had in turn been created by Howard Garns, a retired architect from Indiana.

At 450 pages he covers a lot of ground, but it flys past and I was very sad to see it finish, although my head was hurting a bit by the end. By the last chapter we are up to non-Euclidean geometry, hyperbolic crochet, Georg Cantor's 'set theory' and the Hilbert Hotel. Luckily he also has an excellent blog where he updates some of the stories that appear in the book and any other interesting mathematics that he finds.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Borders, REDGroup and Australian bookselling

In November 2009 I started a post entitled Is Borders evil? so as you may guess the news that they had placed themselves into voluntary administration on Thursday didn't cause too much heartache around here. As a chain-bookshop ex-employee I do feel sorry for the shopfloor staff who now face irate customers with impossible demands and the likely loss of their jobs.

I came to the conclusion that they probably weren't inherently evil as much as incompetently nefarious, so I never did publish the post, but charging well above RRP on about 90% of your stock did seem like a strange strategy for a bookshop looking for customer loyalty and longevity. The half-empty shelves, poor stock selection and lack of key backlist titles over the last few years also seemed to point to some problems with management and strategy.

Around this time the government was also looking into the parallel importation laws and book pricing in general, so there was plenty of media coverage about the disparity between book prices in Australia and those in the USA and UK, but bizarrely there was no coverage anywhere about one of the major book retailing chains over-pricing the vast majority of their stock.

It wasn't always like that, however, when Borders first opened in Carlton in early 2003 it was a well stocked and pleasant spot to browse. I still never bought much there, but occasionally one of their discounted bestsellers like William Gibson's Pattern Recognition or something more esoteric not stocked elsewhere would persuade me to get the credit card out.

Unfortunately in 2007 the Borders US group started getting into difficulties and the UK and Asia Pacific parts of the business were put up for sale. The Australia/NZ side was bought in June 2008 by the REDGroup who are in turn owned by Pacific Equity Partners (PEP), a private equity firm who clearly weren't buying because of a love of literature. The REDGroup already owned the Angus and Robertson chain in Australia and the Whitcoulls chain in New Zealand, so it was fairly obvious that PEP thought they could merge Borders into the existing business, streamline back office functions, maximise profit and sell it on as soon as they could get a good price. (The financial background is explained well in an article in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald by Michael Evans.)

Straight away you could see the change in the shops: backlist wasn't replaced, shelves got empty, prices went up across the board and non-book products became more and more prominent. I am probably not the average book-buyer, but it wasn't long before I stopped buying anything from them and quickly realised that it wasn't even worth going in to the stores as it would just annoy me.

Not as annoyed, however, as I was when it was revealed soon after the announcement that Border's chairman Steven Cain had written to the government blaming them for the chain's failure because of the overseas internet shopping GST loophole and parallel importation laws. Sure, internet booksellers will have taken a some of Borders market, but the parallel importation laws have very little to do with the problems the REDGroup encountered. For their management to try to shift the blame from their failings to others over two issues which they were well aware of and should have had strategies for dealing with is pathetic in the extreme. It is also telling that Dymocks and other, smaller independent chains, like the ever excellent Readings, can survive in the current climate when they are dealing with exactly the same issues, albeit far more successfully.

Most of the articles about the collapse have made much of the impact of overseas online booksellers like Amazon and Book Depository (some even going so far as to predict that this is the beginning of the end for all shops!) who are undoubtably grabbing a bigger and bigger share of the market in Australia and many have pointed out that the widespread take-up of ebooks will squeeze the bricks-and-mortar bookshops further. Personally, I think that big and bland chains will struggle as more of their custom goes online, but am optimistic that smaller and more customer-focused shops should still be able to thrive. Their role will change slightly as all the bestsellers go digital, but provided they focus on the things that on-line and ebooks can't provide like author events, discussion groups and great customer service then I think they will be all right. Of course they may need a bit of help from the publishers in all of this, but that is another story which can wait for now.

There is bound to plenty more coverage over the coming weeks and the whole industry will be watching intently to see what happens. In the meantime, if you want to know more here are some of the best sources and stories:
John Birmingham – Borders' demise: why the book chains are doomed
Bookseller + Publisher blog – Things we keep repeating
Bookseller + Publisher blog – Round-up of stories on REDGroup entering voluntary administration
And my favourite, Ross Honeywill – How Mark Rubbo killed Borders books

Song for Sunday

The Delgados – No Danger

I can't help but feel vaguely cheated that I haven't seen this before. It isn't surprising that it didn't make it onto CD:UK, but surely there must have been other music shows on UK TV that would have shown something of such total and utter genius? I can highly recommend American Trilogy as well, which seems to feature the Banana Splits on a day trip to Manchester Velodrome.

Band/artist of the week: Mogwai
Song of the week: Mogwai – George Square Thatcher Death Party

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Song for Sunday

Mogwai – Rano Pano

Fantastic! I hope you are all getting excited about the new album Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will out a week on Monday. The perfect Valentine gift for the significant other in your life. Trust me ...

Band/artist of the week: Mogwai
Song of the week: On Volcano – Acceleration of Heartbeat

(Song of the week is also completely brilliant and you can download a copy completely free from here.)