Cardano, The Gambling Scholar

Title:                      Cardano, The Gambling Scholar

Author:                 Øystein Ore

Ore, Øystein (1965). Cardano, The Gambling Scholar. New York: Dover Publications

LCCN:    65017670

Q143.C3 O7 1965


Date Posted:      December 11, 2014

Review by Francis R. Johnson.[1]

Gerolamo Cardano, or Jerome Cardan, has a place in most histories of science—especially in the histories of mathematics, although histories of medicine accord him well-merited notices. In the brief accounts, the author, with a keen eye for a lively story, gives over most of his limited space to reporting the dramatic controversy with Tartaglia over Cardano’s announcement in his Ars Magna (1545) of a method for solving cubic equations.

In this book Professor Ore’s main purpose, however, is to examine analytically and historically Cardano’s little treatise on games of chance, his Liber de Ludo Aleae, and upon the basis of that examination to establish its author’s right to a place of primary importance in this history of the theory of probability. The book includes, as an appendix, and English translation by Professor Sydney Henry Gould of Cardano’s Latin treatise, with annotations by Professor Ore. The merit of the volume, therefore, is not that of a new and definitive biography of Cardano; it presents no important new facts concerning his life, except in so far as its careful analysis of the ideas expounded in the Liber de Ludo Aleae reveals the originality and significance of its author’s thinking upon the problems of computing probability. Nevertheless, it provides the reader interested in the history of science with a lively, well-written account of the stormy dispute-ridden career of a versatile sixteenth-century scholar whose works and fame were known throughout Europe.

Many illustrations, based upon woodcuts in sixteenth-century books and photographs of contemporary paintings, add to the attractiveness of Professor Ore’s volume as does its excellent typography and design. But the original contributions to knowledge are found principally in Chapters 3 and 5. In the first Professor Ore reviews the frequently-told story of the controversy with Tartaglia. The accounts of both participants are preserved in their own works. For the historian of science, therefore, the problem is one of reconciling the opposing stories and arriving at an interpretation that will accord with the admitted facts and be just to both participants. Tartaglia, by the virulence of his accusations, illustrated the soundness of the military maxim that attack is the best defense by causing most later historians to recount the incident from his point of view, to the detriment of Cardano. Professor Ore, however, believes Cardano’s account is less biased; in fact, that is essentially true and justifies his actions. Both disputants agree that Cardano, having heard that Tartaglia had won in a public contest with Scipione de Ferro’s pupil Antonio Mario Fiore, by solving thirty equations proposed by Fiore of the type we would write as

a^3 + ax = b

approached Tartaglia about the year 1539 with a request that he make public the details of his method. Cardano wished to include it, with proper acknowledgement, in his forthcoming treatise on algebra. Tartaglia refused to allow its publication under any circumstances, maintaining that he intended to publish it himself, but told the secret to Cardano, after obliging the latter to swear a solemn oath that he would never publish it. Strictly speaking, Cardano violated his oath when he included the method of solving cubic equations in his Ars Magna in 1545. But his defense was (1) that Tartaglia after six years had not yet published, and (2) that in fact Tartaglia had been anticipated by Scipione del Ferro, who died in 1526, and among whose papers Cardano had found the supposed “secret” recorded. Considering that he was no longer bound by oath not to reveal a “secret” that had never been a secret, Cardano, in publishing the method in his Ars Magna, nevertheless gave full credit to del Ferro as the discoverer and to Tartaglia as the rediscoverer of the method. Answering repeated accusations of perfidy, Cardano was steadfast in his contention that it was the duty of a scientist to make public his discoveries rather than to conceal them indefinitely—that the welfare of society should take precedence over self-glorification. In maintaining this idea he aligns himself with countless other humanist scholars of the sixteenth century and characteristically supports his position by an allusion to a familiar and oft-paraphrased passage in Cicero’s De officiis about a man’s not being born for himself alone but for his friends, his native land, and for the whole human race. Professor Ore maintains that we Cardano with sincerity in his championship of this pervasive Renaissance concept and applaud his defense of freedom of scientific information rather than rally to the side of Tartaglia’s more selfish and less socially responsible attitude.

For the material presented in the chapter we have just discussed, the author records indebtedness to the researches of Italian historians of mathematics during the last four decades, especially those of Ettore Bortolotti. Chapter 5, however, entitled “The Science of Gambling,” is the core of the book. In it Professor Ore subjects Cardano’s treatise on games of chance to a close examination by an expert mathematician. He admits that certain sections of the Liber de Ludo Aleae are badly written and far from clear, but finds that to one who fully understands the subject the meaning emerges after patient and detailed analysis. Part of the difficulty derives from the fact, confessed by Cardano himself, that he wrote certain parts by merely jotting down brief notes from time to time as ideas occurred to him. Furthermore when he found that a previous idea proved to be erroneous he proceeded to add new thoughts without pausing to go back and correct his earlier statements. For example, he might write down three different solutions for the same problem, each time affirming it to be the correct procedure, but not until the third and last attempt arrive at the proper method.

His detailed examination of each statement in the Liber de Ludo Aleae Professor Ore found to be extremely rewarding, because in the end it enabled him to retrace Cardano’s thought and to correct the deprecatory statements which previous historians had made concerning the book, owing to their insufficient study of it and to their failure to grasp the meaning of some of Cardano’s assertions. He concludes that in the Liber de Ludo Aleae the chief principles underlying the mathematical calculation of probability were deduced and formulated more than a century before the correspondence between Pascal and Fermat in 1654, which is customarily considered as the discovery of the probability theory. The translation of the treatise printed as an appendix makes available to the reader the evidence for the high rating given to the originality of Cardano’s achievement.

Professor Ore’s book is an illustration of the important contributions to the history of science that come about when an able scientist starts with the assumption that his predecessors, though lacking some of his modern information, were his equals intellectually and then sets out to acquire the necessary linguistic and historical knowledge to understand one of their works. By so doing he is able to bridge the chasm caused by the changes in ideas and terminology that time has brought about and to penetrate to the true meaning of an early scientist’s words and thought. By detailed studies such as this the most permanent advances are made in establishing solid foundations for a sound history of science.

[1] Frances R. Johnson, Stanford University in Isis (1953).

The Director

Title:                      The Director

Author:                 David Ignatius

Ignatius, David (2014). The Director. New York: W.W. Norton & Company

LCCN:    2014005434

PS3559.G54 D57 2014


Date Posted:      December 11, 2014

Review by Joseph C. Goulden.[1]

About half-way through a first draft of this review, a sobering thought brought me up short: my criticisms of the underworld of on-line hackers and data thieves were apt to cost me retaliatory computer grief for years to come. So I shall take the coward’s way out. If you are among that band of technological bandits, and do not care for the way you are depicted, go after David Ignatius, who wrote the book, and not the guy reviewing it.

In a sense, The Director is even more frightening that the usual intelligence fare of Cold War nuclear sword-rattling or terror plots out of the Middle East. Persons who are regular readers of Ignatius’ commentary realize that he is perhaps the best-informed journalist writing today about intelligence and national security. Thus when he sounds a Klaxon alarm about the dangers of cyber-terrorism, he is not making things up. He is describing a clear and present danger.

Ignatius is a rare columnist who does hard reporting rather sitting in an office and sucking his thumb. He devotes the same energy and skills to his fiction, and several of his nine novels were based on actual events.

To set the stage for The Director, in a prologue Ignatius walks us through an annual hackers’ convention, DEF CON, held in a Las Vegas casino. This event really exists, and as Ignatius writes, “It was a school for mischief.” The multi-page program lists lectures: “Hacking Bluetooth connections on phone. Hacking RFID tags on cargo containers … Controlling automobiles remotely through their electronic systems…” And so on.

At the center of the chilling novel at hand is an idealistic high-tech businessman named Graham Weber, who is tapped to bring the Central Intelligence Agency out of slothful years of scandal and official misconduct.

But his very first days on the job, Weber is confronted with a more immediate problem. A young German man with a shaved head and scruffy clothes, ears adorned with metal studs—“a normal adult’s bad dream”—comes to the US consulate in Hamburg with a warning: Hackers have broken into CIA’s communications system. “Your messages can be read,” he tells a CIA officer. “They are not secret.” He gives her proof of the intrusion.

Thus Ignatius plunges into a high-tech thriller that is essentially a cram course in how to foul up a communications system (although I trust that some of the details are fuzzed enough to deter readers from creating chaos on their own). The crowning moment is the hacking of the Bank of International Settlement in Basel, Switzerland, which serves as a clearing house for the world banking system—and which is viewed by many moon-howlers as “a compendium of all the mistakes and conspiracies of the twentieth century,” as one hacker muses.

A fast rule of thriller-reviewing is not to reveal too much of the twists and turns of the plot, much less—heaven forbid—the outcome. Suffice to say that Ignatius gives us a detailed insider look at how CIA (and other agencies) try to counter electronic intruders, along with a search of villains that takes us all over Europe. Here a chief protagonist is a CIA computer security expert who proves to be not quite as advertised, but that is part of the story. Two of Ignatius’ main characters are female.

And, as Weber discovers, in addition to the electronic intrusion, there is a true scandal in the upper levels of the CIA, an account which seems loosely based on actual firing-level misconduct in the Agency hierarchy a few years back.

The Director is replete with Agency asides. Two officers talk about an operation running the risk of being an “CBI”—that is, a career ending incident. There is informed chatter about how diplomatic officers handles “walk-ins” who wish to speak to an intelligence person. He gives a brutal—and truthful—picture of how Agency insiders manhandle outsiders, such as a director with no intelligence experience. (Admiral Stansfield Turner, if he chose, could write a painful book on this subject.) Then there was New Hampshire politico-businessman Max Hugel, tapped by DCI William Casey to run clandestine services. Veterans in the directorate disposed of poor Hugel before he had time to learn the fastest route to his office. (As Weber discovers after becoming DCI, “shaking up the Agency” involves more than removing the statue of Donovan from the lobby of the Old Headquarters Building.)

Ignatius walks slightly shaky ground in quoting an old CIA history by longtime Agency historian Tom Troy, which deals with the tight World War Two cooperation between British intelligence and the US Office of Strategic Services. Indeed the alliance carried over to Cold War years, as witness CIA working closely with the British Secret Intelligence Service to overthrow a Red-leaning premier of Iraq. His suggestion is that the CIA remains the handmaiden of the Brits.

But the “special relationship” suffered a severing body blow in 1956 with the British-inspired Suez operation. The slow collapse of the British Empire also affected the balance of power. Nonetheless, any number of “old boys” from CIA’s founding generation have told me, “The Brits taught us everything we know; but by no means not everything that THEY know.” To be sure, ties remain tight, but by no means does Brit intelligence dictate to Langley.

After reading The Director, you likely will be more careful on how much you trust the Internet and your computer. But enjoy—and beware.

[1] Joseph C. Goulden, “The Latest Intelligence Books, Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies, 20, 3 (Spring/Summer 2014). Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books. A Chinese-language edition of his 1982 book, Ko rea: The Untold Story of the War, is being published in August by Beijing Xiron Books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, and other publications. Most of the reviews in the Intelligencer appeared in prior editions of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer [D.C. Bar Association] and are reprinted in the Intelligencer by permission of the author. Joe Goulden’s most recent book is The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak Into English (Dover Publications, 2012)

The Timetables of History

Title:                      The Timetables of History

Author:                  Bernard Grun

Grun, Bernard (1975). The Timetables of History: A Chronology of World Events. London: Thames and Hudson

LCCN:    76364586

D11 .G78 1975b


Date Posted:      December 10, 2014

This chronology is Based on W. Stein’s Kulturfahrplan.[1]

As a writer and teacher, this book has been very helpful for me, especially when looking at the chronology of the spying game. It helps make connections between different events in different parts of the world. It helps expand the study to a variety of interest areas. The book is also helpful when reading as I often look up the particular time span and find out what else was going on at that time. For example, the year I was born, 1938, was the year that the Church of England accfepteed the Theory of Evolution, the first jazz concert (Benny Goodman) was held at Carnegie Hall, The Battle of Taierzhuang took place, and Dutch writer Maurits Dekker sentenced to 50 days for “offending a friendly head of state” (Hitler). These connections make the reading so much more interesting and expansive. It is truly a handy reference book.

[1] Stein, Werner (1974). Kulturfahrplan: die wichtigsten Daten der Kulturgeschichte von Anbeginn bis 1973. München: F.A. Herbig. LCCN: 74349749

Dark Watch

Title:                      Dark Watch

Author:                  Clive Cussler

Cussler, Clive (2005) with Jack DuBrul. Dark Watch. New York: Berkley Books

LCCN:    2005052411

PS3553.U75 D37 2005


Date Posted:      December 8, 2014

Clive Cussler can spin a great tale. He can. But he doesn’t always succeed. To me his books become more and more produced by a machine than a writer.

I wanted to enjoy Golden Buddha when it first came out, but as another reviewer noted, with Juan Cabrillo and the endless cast of secondary characters that popped up on virtually every single page, I found myself less concerned with where the plot was going, and more on racking my memory for who this person was, and had they been introduced before, or are they brand new? I think any time a novel feels the need to place a directory at the beginning of the book to remind you of who is in the book, and it still doesn’t help, I think you have an idea of where everything is going to end up.

Nevertheless, Cussler is a fun read, and I enjoyed the first two Oregon Files novels more than I initially thought I would, but I must admit they were well below the usual entertainment I have come to expect from the typical Dirk Pitt novels or the NUMA Files stories. On the opposite side, I never heard of DuBrul but it seems he is becoming Cussler’s heir when and if he ever stopped writing full-time. Apparently, Cussler has semi-retired now that his son has taken over the Dirk Pitt series, and Paul Kemprecos does the bulk of the NUMA novels.

I’m glad to see Cussler making a move away from Craig Dirgo as a co-author and adding Du Brul to his stable of incredibly successful tales.

Is Dark Watch the best Oregon Files book to date? Perhaps. From the very first page Du Brul’s influence over this series is evident. As another reviewer noted, “if you want absolute reality, go read Clancy…however, if you are looking to spend several hours in the world of espionage cloaked in a world of tremendous adventure and quite literally dripping with action and quite a bit of humor, this book definitely fills the bill quite nicely.”

The introduction of a cast of thousands has been done away with. Certainly they all still exist, but the need to make every single one a major player in the storyline no longer dilutes the tale. Kudos to Du Brul for making this drastic and absolutely necessary change. It is no longer a Russian novel. One can now concentrate on the here and now and better follow everything going on. Once again, if you are looking for a novel which stretches your intellect or helps you come away feeling better about life in general, you may as well look elsewhere, but I enjoy a fun book now and again, especially one that is written with a great deal of talent.

Dark Watch is most assuredly one of those tales. If you have tried and gave up on the Oregon Files based on the previous two, I think you owe it to yourself to see how Cussler has in fact redeemed himself—or perhaps, see how Jack Du Brul has done it for him. Grand adventure well done.

Begun Reading: September 23, 2014

Date Finished: December 8, 2014