The Fear Index

Although the IBM computer, Watson, made humorous mistakes when competing with two humans on the television show Jeopardy, Watson still won the game.  In Robert Harris’ mystery thriller, The Fear Index, the stakes are higher, and who has the real intelligence is questionable.

Dr. Alan Hoffmann has traded up from his job as a physicist working on creating artificial intelligence to organize the data from the Large Hadron Collider to owning a hedge fund company that uses algorithms based on fear to predict market values that “thrive on panic.”  It was a good move; he is now worth billions.

Hoffmann’s story opens with a burglary at his entry-proof mansion, and accelerates quickly into a nightmare of alienating his wife, losing control of his company, and perhaps his mind.  As he faces each new fear, he frantically tries to uncover if he has been the mad man behind them, or if the computer program he created is the mastermind.

“Fear of the intruder in the night. Fear of assault and violation. Fear of illness. Fear of madness. Fear of loneliness. Fear of being trapped in a burning building…”

The recent financial crisis across the world markets becomes an important character, with Harris referencing real events.  But more than the compelling thrill of the action, Harris offers a cautionary commentary on the role of corporations and the evolution of computers –  turning over decision-making to the “cloud” could be dangerous.

The action is fast and furious; I read the book in one sitting.

Final Jeopardy Answer

The game show Jeopardy gave a nod to Poetry Month yesterday with its final Jeopardy question:

Who said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation?”

Answer: Robert Frost

In his 1931 essay “Education by Poetry” – delivered at Amherst College – Frost wrote:

Then there is a literary belief.  Every time a poem is written, every time a short story is written, it is written not by cunning, but by belief.  The beauty, the something, the little charm of the thing to be, is more felt than known.

Rather than dissecting a poem, Frost would have you find its meaning in yourself.

William Wordsworth’s birthday was yesterday (April 7th).  Here’s one of his shorter poems – what does it mean to you?  It reminds me that Earth Day is coming.

The World Is Too Much With Us

The world is too much with us: late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

 

Liu’s book includes Wordsworth’s poems about nature, among them “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud” and “It’s a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free” – with illustrated scenes by James Muir to complement the poetry.


Jeopardy Answer

Nothing like a game show to keep you up to speed on facts and trivia.    A Jeopardy answer for a dead Irish American Pulitzer prize winner was Frank McCourt.     He died?     I missed that…
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/20/books/20mccourt.html

Seems like yesterday that Ed Bradley was interviewing him on 60 Minutes – now on DVD.

I never could get my head around Angela’s Ashes, even if it did win a Pulitzer – just too sad to bear.

I did like touring Ireland – does that count?