Goodbye to All That

Robert Graves


The autobiography of one of the four main English-language poets of the First World War (the others being Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Rupert Brooke) offers a fascinating insight into the first-hand experience of war – if a less fascinating insight into the poet's life.

Graves is clear about the trauma, dirt, terror, and suffering of the war. His description of a battle at Loos sums-up the mindlessness of the experience: waiting, anticipation, false starts, screwing-up courage only to be knocked back. It's hard to imagine anyone going through that and not being exhausted by the adrenaline. On the way he meets Sassoon, as well as Thomas Hardy, TE Lawrence, and various other figures of the literary times.

The rest of the book is less satisfying: his boyhood at Charterhouse perhaps prepared him for the capricious nature of war, in a way, while his later experiences at Oxford and elsewhere added little to my appreciation, apart from summoning-up a vague jealousy at some of his descriptions of intellectual society just after the War: it's hard to imagine many of the conversations he describes happening now, with their deep classical allusions and assumptions of erudition on all sides.

Least satisfying is that to autobiography of a poet reveals so little about his poetic frame of mind. Graves doesn't explore the what it means to be a poet, although he alludes to the "poetic tendency" often enough. It's a surprisingly unrevealing book at a personal level: perhaps less intimately revealing than his poetry itself, in fact, but worth reading for its historical context.

Finished on Sat, 24 Jan 2015 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 3/5.

2015 CPHC/BCS Distinguished Dissertations competition

The 2015 CPHC/BCS Distinguished Dissertations competition is now open for submissions via the submissions site. Closing date Wednesday 1 April 2015. Further details can be found below and on the competition web page.

The Council of Professors and Heads of Computing (CPHC), in conjunction with BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, annually selects for publication the best British PhD/DPhil dissertations in computer science.

The scheme aims to make more visible the significant contribution made by the UK - in particular by post-graduate students - to computer science. Publication also serves to provide a model for future students. The selection panel on behalf of BCS/CPHC consists of experienced computer scientists, not more than one from any institution, each normally serving on the panel for three years.

Any dissertation is eligible which is submitted for a doctorate in the British Isles in what is commonly understood as Computer Science. (Theses which are basically in some other discipline but which make use, even very extensive use, of computing will not be regarded as eligible.)  However, there is a limit of THREE dissertations per year per university, and one per research group within any university.

To be considered, a dissertation should:

  • make a noteworthy contribution to the subject;
  • reach a high standard of exposition;
  • place its results clearly in the context of computer science as a whole; and
  • enable a computer scientist with significantly different interests to grasp its essentials.
It is reasonable to submit a thesis to the scheme if it has all of the above qualities in good measure, and if it is comparable in standard with the top 10% of dissertations in the subject. Long dissertations are not encouraged; if the main text is more than 80,000 words, there should be good justification.

The dissertation should be submitted electronically (as a PDF file) by the author's examiners, or by the Head of Department with the examiner's advice. The submitted version of the dissertation must be the final version after any required corrections have been made. The competition period for the 2015 competition is for theses accepted from 1 January 2014 until the closing date of 1 April 2015. A dissertation cannot be submitted to the competition more than once.

The dissertation should be accompanied by a written nomination comprising the following information:

  • a justification, of about 300 words, by one of the examiners -- preferably the external -- explaining the dissertation's claim to  distinction (against the criteria listed above);
  • the name of the primary supervisor and the research group within the university to which the student was primarily affiliated;
  • an assurance that within the competition period the examiners have recommended to the author's institution that the doctorate should be awarded;
  • the names and contact details of three suggested reviewers who are not in the same Department as the nominated thesis and who are independent of the supervision and examining of the thesis; and
  • an indication should be given if the dissertation is being considered for publication elsewhere.

The nominated reviewers must have confirmed that they are willing to provide a review. In addition the author's written agreement that their thesis may be considered for the Distinguished Dissertation competition should be emailed by the author to

Submissions should be made on-line via

The first author name submitted should be that of the thesis author; the individual submitting the nomination should list themselves as the second author. The title and abstract should be those of the thesis being nominated. The first file uploaded should be the 300 word nomination; the thesis document should be uploaded as an attachment.

If any problems are experienced, or you have any questions, please email for assistance.

The deadline for submission is 1 April 2015.

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Kai Bird


Hard to imagine a better scientific and political biography.

I had a rough understanding of Oppenheimer's story: his management of the Manhattan project, his victimisation during the McCarthy witchhunts, and his directorship of the Institute for Advanced Study. What I hadn't realised was his own scientific standing: his association with Born, Bathe, Dirac, Heisenberg, and others, and the fact that his own contributions rank alongside theirs, including his first formulation of the equations describing black holes. Despite not entering at all into the technicalities, the authors make clear how deeply embedded he was into the initial descriptions and elaborations of quantum mechanics.

The book is squally strong when dealing with the development of the bomb and with the aftermath, the lead-up to Oppenheimer's trial as a security risk brought about in part by his principled opposition to the development of the "Super", or hydrogen bomb. The treatment is well-balanced, making no attempt to hide the part Oppenheimer played in his own downfall (although still being somewhat at a loss to describe many elements of his behaviour).

The picture that emerges is of a profound scientist and humanist who was destroyed at least in part by his own fragilities and complexities: aspects of his character that undoubtedly helped in his greatness as we as leading to his downfall. That this element of Greek tragedy would have been deeply appreciated by Oppenheimer himself only adds to the sense of a contribution spoiled by the actions of men who failed to understand what drove him and what he could give.

Finished on Thu, 01 Jan 2015 08:51:23 -0800.   Rating 5/5.

The Black Death in London

Barney Sloane


A detailed examination of the Plague in London in 1349 and subsequently. Sloane finds a novel way to track the progress of the Black Death, using wills and ecclesiastical replacements to identify "hot spots" that can be tentatively projected out to the rest of the population. While being very careful to recognise the limits of this approach, he arrives at a mortality rate of around 45% of London's population.

One surprising snippet from the book is the surprisingly few children couples were having in the 14th century: not much higher than in modern times in Europe, in essence, whereas I'd expected something closer to rates in modern Africa.

The book has a good bibliography into modern Plague research, which (given I'm reading this for professional purposes as well as just for interest) will come in handy.

Finished on Wed, 24 Dec 2014 05:24:27 -0800.   Rating 4/5.

The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die

Niall Ferguson


In a great fan of Niall Ferguson's writing and scholarship, but this isn't one of his better works. It's not that there's anything at all wrong with his central message that many of the institutions that have raised-up western civilisation are being undermined. The problem I have is the fatalism with which he presents these problems, and the notion that it is somehow pre-ordained by historical processes: a view that feels almost Marxist without the positive expected outcome.

I think this is a book that cries out for a longer treatment or a second volume, an analysis and comparison of other approaches to societal problems, or an analysis of the ways in which the tensions that Ferguson sees building up might be released, even if those comparisons and processes would inevitably end in disaster.

Finished on Wed, 17 Dec 2014 02:48:01 -0800.   Rating 2/5.

Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential

John Neffinger


An essay masquerading as a book.

Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed it. It's just that the point it's making – that the way we project ourselves involves a mixture of strength and warmth, which are two concepts that sit uneasily together and make it hard to make the impressions we seek to make ‐ could have been stated in a longform essay rather than a book. Instead we're treated to the same concepts applied to different personal-development challenges in ways that don't really seem to contribute anything to the message.

Finished on Wed, 17 Dec 2014 02:44:13 -0800.   Rating 2/5.

Travels in West Africa

Mary Henrietta Kingsley


A great insight into a period now long in the past. Mary Kingsley was clearly ahead of her time, not only in her independent travel but also in her perceptions of indigenous cultures in Africa and the coastal islands. But she was also distinctly of her time in the casual assumptions of sex and race that at times get rather wearing. The sensation is somewhat like reading a Rider Haggard novel: the same sense that the author means well and is impressed by the cultures being described while at the same time feeling they're both intrinsically inferior and unbridgeably different.

Finished on Thu, 04 Dec 2014 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 3/5.

King Leopold's Ghost

Adam Hochschild


A searing indictment of colonialism and a history of a forgotten, murderous episode.

The Congo remains the only empire in history to have been created solely by the efforts of a single man, Leopold II, King of the Belgians -- and not by Belgium itself. This book reveals just how nauseous the whole regime was, and covers the efforts that led to its being gradually (all too slowly) dismantled. Leopold himself takes centre stage, with his ally Henry Morton Stanley cutting a rather sorry figure. But it is E.D. Morel, responsible along with Roger Casement, Hezekiah Shanu, William Sheppard for the first explicit campaign for human rights in history, who appear as the heroes who cleverly played international opinion.

Hochschild is right to point out the shame that we have few first-hand records of truly African origin: even the campaigners often felt it unwise (or unnecessary) to record and transmit the voices of the victims in whose names they worked. And the campaign stayed within the bounds of the intellectual landscape of the time, with its core beliefs in the need to educate and civilise the "native" populations. Hochschild is also right, I suspect, to see strength and sense in this position, arguing that a more radical approach to the rights of Africans, even if believed, would had doomed the campaign to failure on the fringes. He also doesn't make the mistake of blaming all of Africa's current problems on the legacy of colonialism, accepting the complex additions and the troubling similarities between pre- and post-colonial rule.

Nonetheless, around ten million people died during Leopold's tenure over the Congo, and this is something that deserves to be far better known.

Finished on Sat, 08 Nov 2014 09:44:01 -0800.   Rating 5/5.

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

Randall Munroe


One of the best science books of all time.

Really? Well, yes, actually. It's exactly what you'd expect from the writer of xkcd : hilariously funny, critically insightful, and quite awesomely clever. And within this rubric, Randall Monroe introduces some serious scientific method and shows how to apply theory to practice. It really doesn't matter that the practice is absurd: in fact it helps, by making the problems engaging in a way that real life (and, more importantly, exam questions) all too often fail to be.

I was sold on the book from the first question (Q: "What would happen if the earth and all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning but the atmosphere retained its velocity?" A: "Nearly everyone would die. Then things would get interesting."), but that's only the start. Monroe manages to explain DNA inheritance through the medium of Dungeons & Dragons character tables, the core problems in rocketry (fuel has weight), and the unexpected dangers of parsnips (they can cause delayed-action chemical burns).

This is a book to be read by every computer scientist, physicist, and mathematician, and other scientist; by everyone who's ever aspired to be one of the above; and by everyone who may encounter a small child asking questions. That about cover it.

(And if you have access to a hypersonic wind tunnel, I'll bring the steak and a video camera.)

Finished on Sun, 02 Nov 2014 10:34:17 -0800.   Rating 5/5.

I Am a Strange Loop

Douglas R. Hofstadter


Douglas Hofstadter (always referred to parenthetically as "author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid"), returns to the subject of consciousness and identity for a book that has the feel of a swan song. Part philosophical treatise and part autobiography, he explores how the feeling of "I-ness" emerge from physical processes that underlie the brain. As with GEB, he still has a telling line in analogies and discourses that really light-up hi explanations.

I'm somewhat at a loss to try to sum up a book like this, but here goes:

Animal minds have evolved to filter the huge volume of sense data that they receive from their environments and distil it a smaller range of concepts. Humans are unusual in that their concept maps can be indefinitely extended as new concepts are discovered and linked together. Uniquely (or, perhaps, almost uniquely), humans have been able to develop concepts referring to concept formation itself, thereby having their conceptual system feed-back to explore and influence its own processes. It is this "strange loop" – the ability to perceive, influence, and conceptualise the ability to perceive , influence, and conceptualise – that gives rise to the "I", the feeling that there is an observer observing the processes of thought as well as the world "outside". It's a pattern emerging from a symbolic representational system that's sufficiently complex to represent itself symbolically.

This being Hofstadter, he relates these ideas back to Gödel's use of self-description within the number system to argue that such hierarchies of meaning and manipulation are commonplace, and indeed inevitable in systems that are sufficiently representationally rich. It's an unusual argument for a philosopher of mind to be able to make. But he scores some telling points: my favourite is when he examines the concepts firing in the reader's mind when he mentions reading a Jane Austin novel, and shows that several parallel interpretations and contexts can be activated simultaneously. It's a strange concept to have a writer write directly about what's happening inside your (the reader's) head as you read their words!

This further being Hofstadter, he explores the consequences of his models thoroughly, of of which is the notion that one person's strange loop can live inside another's mind, albeit at a greatly reduced resolution. He runs-down and makes more scientific the common notion that the dead live on in our memories: literally true, at low resolution, in Hofstadter's formulation. (Frank Herbert's The Dosadi Experiment sprang to my mind immediately.) He uses to explain funeral rituals, and to explore the sense that one speaks (and thinks) differently when talking to different people, because parts of your model of them become activated by their presence, making it literally the case that different symbols are being used in discussing the same concepts with different people, even without their direct input.

All in all, an interesting read and one that will hopefully inspire neuroscientists and psychologists to the same extent that GEB spoke to mathematicians and computer scientists.

Finished on Fri, 24 Oct 2014 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.