Robert Mason


A raw and largely uncensored account of the life of a "slick" (troop-carrying) helicopter pilot's life in Vietnam. It's a great mix of war story, flight training manual, memoir, and anti-war polemic, gradually shifting between these various facets as time goes on.

Mason doesn't glamorise the war or his own part in it; nor does he gloss over details that must have been uncomfortable to write (and for his family and friends to read). What comes through strongly is heroism on a small scale and pointlessness on a large scale: repeatedly and bravely storming the same pieces of territory as the "strategy" of attrition wears down both sides. In between are some wonderful flight scenes and descriptions of helicopter tactics that will fascinate any technically-inclined reader.

The epilogue covering his return from Vietnam is poignant and revealing of the challenges that many veterans faced as they tried (and often failed) to re-integrate themselves. It's an inconvenient truth that many societies -- and the UK is no better than the US in this -- fail to deal with their troops well once they're out of the field, no matter how much they applauded them while the war was on.

Finished on Sun, 05 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

How computer science can help keep you healthy

Well, it has to be good for something...

People sometimes aren't aware just how much computers influence their lives. They've used the internet and mobile phones, seen computer-generated imagery in cinemas, and perhaps realised how much date is being sensed around them. But there are enormous applications for computers in science, arts, and medicine.

Earlier today I did an introductory lecture on using computers to study disease epidemics:

Com­pu­ta­tional epi­demi­ology is the use of math­em­at­ical and com­pu­ta­tional tech­niques to model how dis­eases spread. This is import­ant for answer­ing a num­ber of ques­tions. How infec­tious are dif­fer­ent dis­eases? Why are dif­fer­ent pop­u­la­tions affected dif­fer­ently? How do dif­fer­ent treat­ment regimes work? Is quar­ant­ine effect­ive? We can address these sorts of ques­tions using a range of dif­fer­ent tech­niques, ran­ging from dif­fer­en­tial equa­tions (cal­cu­lus) for simple cases through to com­plex net­works and high-performance sim­u­la­tion for com­plex case — and pos­sibly even mod­el­ling real dis­eases in real-world geo­graph­ies in real time.

This lec­ture is an inter­act­ive intro­duc­tion to these ideas. We’ll explore how dis­eases spread; con­duct an exper­i­ment where we infect each other (kind of); and then see how dif­fer­ent aspects of com­puter sci­ence help us to explore dis­eases and their treatment.

The slides and other material are available here. I've included the slides, and an animation of a simulated epidemic running through a population of people. I've also included an IPython notebook describing some of the mathematics needed and containing all the code I used to generate the graphs and animation from the talk, which might be handy for anyone wanting to explore this area more thoroughly.

1913: The World Before the Great War

Charles Emmerson


A rounded tour of the horizons of the year before the Great War.

Emmerson structures his history around the great cities of the world: London, New York, Paris, St Petersburg, and Berlin, all obviously, but also Mexico City, Durban. Winnipeg, Melbourne, Detroit, and others. He uses them as nuclei around which to describe the core events and factors driving the populations. That they are universally unaware of the catastrophe that is bearing down on them only reinforces the strange nature of the Great War, that its origins seem to defy credible explanation.

It's impossible to read this book without being reminded of The Proud Tower : A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914, Barbara Tuchman's portrait of Europe in the same period. And if Emmerson lack something of Tuchman's elegance, it's only a matter of degree: he has the same eye for anecdote, the same beautiful turns of phrase. He also favours wider-ranging sociology over Tuchman's considerations of art and politics. IN many ways to two books make useful companion pieces.

The overriding impression for a modern reader is the almost universal acceptance of racist and sexist foundations for societies, extending both to the rulers and to the ruled. Gandhi fights for the rights of Indians in South Africa without concerning himself about the rights of Africans; Irish Nationalists struggle for independence but deplore votes for women. The ability to rationalise clearly hasn't changed over the years.

Finished on Sat, 27 Jun 2015 08:12:32 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

CfP: Spatial and Collective Awareness workshop at SASO'15

The first workshop on Spatial Awareness is being held in Boston in September as part of the SASO conference.

First International Workshop on Spatial and COllective PErvasive Computing Systems (SCOPES) Workshop

Co-located with IEEE SASO 2015, located at MIT, Cambridge, USA

September 21, 2015


This workshop aims at combining three distinct, yet closely related areas of research, which will likely together play a major role in producing the key technical results needed to develop large-scale adaptive distributed systems of future networked scenarios.

  • Spatial computing: Spatial computing systems are systems of individual entities, typically situated in a physical environment, in which the “functional goals” of the system are generally defined in terms of the system's spatial structure. Typically, such systems are developed following a self-organisation approach, making spatial patterns arise by emergence.
  • Collective adaptive systems: Collective computing systems are systems of tightly entangled components, achieving an overall goal through widespread cooperation, typically relying on self-adaptation techniques and collective/social intelligence.
  • Pervasive computing: Pervasive computing systems and the “Internet of Things” deal with current and emerging scenarios in which humans, sensors, mobile, and embedded devices engage in complex interactions in a shared environment.

The goal of this workshop is to foster the creation of general-purpose solutions for supporting the development of these kinds of systems, particularly as regards generalizable techniques and architectures. Topics of interest include:

  • Foundational models of spatially embedded collective systems, exhibiting resilience, robustness and scalability properties as required by emerging pervasive computing scenarios.
  • Tools and tool-chains targeting large-scale situated systems: programming or specification languages, compilers and proof-checking techniques, simulators, tools for property verification, libraries and APIs, supporting platforms, whole infrastructures.
  • Innovative methods and techniques for system development, including design patterns, software methodologies, best practices, and practical experience reports.
  • Applications contexts and scenarios of general interest to foster the identification of new problems and solutions, taking inspiration from cyber-physical systems, the Internet of things, sensor networks, smart-cities, etc.

Paper submission

Papers should present original work and be no longer than 6 pages in the standard IEEE two-column format. All manuscripts should be submitted in PDF form through the submissions system for SCOPES at EasyChair. Papers will be peer reviewed on the basis of originality, readability, relevance to themes, soundness, and overall quality. Workshop proceedings will be published on IEEE Xplore in parallel with the main conference proceedings. Post-proceedings publication in a journal is planned. Questions should be addressed to

Important Dates

Workshop paper submission: July 11, 2015 Notification of accepted papers: July 31, 2015 Camera-ready paper deadline: August 10, 2015 Workshop at SASO: September 21, 2015


  • Dr. Jacob Beal (Raytheon BBN Technologies, USA)
  • Prof. Jane Hillson (University of Edinburgh, UK)
  • Dr. Mirko Viroli (University of Bologna, Italy)

Program Committee

  • Ezio Bartocci, TU Wien, Austria
  • Spring Berman, Arizona State University, USA
  • Luca Bortolussi, University of Trieste, Italy
  • Sven Brueckner, Axon Connected LLC, USA
  • Siobhan Clarke, Trinity College Dublin, IE
  • Daniel Coore, University of the West Indies
  • Jamaica Ferruccio Damiani, Università di Torino, Italy
  • Rocco De Nicola, IMT - Institute for Advanced Studies Lucca, Italy
  • Giovanna Di Marzo Serugendo, University of Geneve, Switzerland
  • Ada Diaconescu, Telecom ParisTech, CNRS LTCI, France
  • Simon Dobson, University of St Andrews, UK
  • Matt Duckham, University of Melbourne, Australia
  • Stefan Dulman, CWI, Netherlands
  • Schahram Dustdar, TU Wien, Austria
  • Eva Kühn, Vienna University of Technology, Austria
  • Mieke Massink, CNR-ISTI, Italy
  • Mirco Musolesi, University College London UK
  • Silvia Nittel, University of Maine, USA
  • Antoine Spicher, LACL University Paris Est Creteil, France
  • Katia Sycara, Carnegie Mellon University, USA
  • Christof Teuscher, Portland State University, USA
  • Martin Wirsing, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet Muenchen, Germany
  • Franco Zambonelli, University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy

Death in Florence: The Medici, Savonarola and the Battle for the Soul of Man

Paul Strathern


A well-paced and diverse account of a critical piece of European political and intellectual history.

The subject of the book is the clash of ideas between modernism and fundamentalism, as respectively represented by Lorenzo de' Medici and Girolamo Savonarola. Florence and Italy more widely provide a stage set with a range of characters, both those intent on their own betterment and those devoted to higher causes. The book manages to navigate a path between the ideas in play and the sometimes squalid and violent means with which these ends were pursued.

There are enormous ironies in these ends, too. Savonarola was a fundamentalist who wanted to introduce more democratic forms, and which gave rise to many modern ideas of governance – but abhorred the freedoms that such democratic ideas brought with them. Lorenzo kept tight political control but allowed great freedoms to the citizens, whilst being unable to distinguish between what was good for Florence and what was good for the Medici – and recalled Savonarola to Florence to be both a moral force and an ornament to the city's greatness, laying the foundations for the end of Medici rule.

As in his other book on Mediaeval Italy, The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior: The Intersecting Lives of Da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Borgia and the World They Shaped, Strathern shows an well-balanced sense of character and an ability to juggle a range of sources of variable trustworthiness. He also has a keen eye for anecdotes: my two favourites are the shock that the arrival of French armies trained in full-on Northern European warfare caused for Italian armies used to a far more civilised form of warfare in which few people er actually got killed; and how the phrase esperimento del fuoco (trial by fire) gave rise to the word "experiment", a trial to which some facet of the world was subjected. He deftly manages the difficult task of making clear the bewildering changes of political alliances that were characteristic of Italian politics of the period. And he sets the clash of ideas into the broader context of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and both Luther's debt to Savonarola and the fact that Savonarola would have hated all Luther stood for: another paradox in a complex man.

It's easy to see the parallels with the modern world and the struggle between democracy and fundamentalist religion, but Strathern is too goo a historian to avoid the complexities that history beings to this comparison. Savonarola the fundamentalist was also Savonarola the democrat; Lorenzo the autocrat was also a committed and in many ways conservative religious figure. The modern concepts and dualities don't translate back to the fifteenth century, much as many might like them to, and this book is an important guide to the ways in which ideas mutate over time.

Finished on Sat, 30 May 2015 10:29:56 -0700.   Rating 5/5.




Not a charming man.

I'm a Smiths fan, which at some level makes me a Morrissey fan ipso facto. And some of the poetic writing in this book is sublime, full of insight and inspiration. But the person looking out of the pages is the most ungracious, self-indulgent version of himself it's possible to imagine. From the mean streets of Manchester, through the roller-coaster ride of the Smiths, and then to court and a solo career, few people emerge unscathed, thanked, or even broadly acknowledged as helpers or influences.

I grew up not far away from Morrissey, in space and time, and I recognise a lot of his criticisms of Northern England in the 70's and 80's: he and I actually met once on the streets of Gorton in the mid 80's. But there's something compellingly surreal about his self-image as a tortured and mis-understood artist whose project is repeatedly sabotaged. None of the Smiths' records seem to be mixed to his tastes, although he was there and exercised at least a measure of control; no interviews went well, although they were more co-ordinated than spontaneous. He seems to see his solo career as a zenith, although I suspect most of his fans are waiting more or less impatiently for Smiths riffs and flashes of past insights. And I think he may know that at some level: there are lines from Smiths lyrics thrown in at strategic points of the story, as jewels for those in the know.

Finished on Fri, 22 May 2015 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 2/5.

German Secret Weapons of the Second World War: The Missiles, Rockets, Weapons and New Technology of the Third Reich

Ian V. Hogg


A somewhat-more-technical-than-expected look at Nazi secret weapons programmes. Having said that, it does give some surprising insights into topics that most people (and definitely me) won't have thought of before, like different designs for fuses. I suspect most people will find the chapter on the V-weapons the most interesting, but for me it was run to a close second my the chapter on artillery, which ranges from rail guns for attacking fixed fortification, through long-range bombardment cannons, to taper-bore light anti-tank weapons. Not exactly light reading, but informative about topics most histories treat as unimportant.

Finished on Sat, 09 May 2015 07:46:37 -0700.   Rating 3/5.

The Dreyfus Affair: The Story of the Most Infamous Miscarriage of Justice in French History

Piers Paul Read


An excellent telling of one of the strangest, most influential, and least remembered judicial-political scandals of the 19th century. Read deftly navigates the twists and turns of "The Affair", as it became known, with its cast of shady characters, officers, politicians, forgers, and spies.

It's an anti-Semitism that comes across most shockingly, letters-to-the-editor type abuses of Jews that would be unsurprising in a history of Nazi Germany but are unexpectedly vehement in a history of France. It serves as a reminder that anti-Semitism was a force across the continent in the early years of the 20th century, and Read traces many of the effects that it had on the conduct of both World Wars. Altogether a fascinating read.

Finished on Wed, 29 Apr 2015 14:28:54 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

The Hidden Persuaders

Vance Packard


The classic exposé of advertising. In many ways this book remains fresh, perhaps because of the popularity of Mad Men in bringing 50's advertising culture back to prominence. In others, it hasn't aged well and is clearly a product of its time. If you can get back the casual sexism and references to tobacco's "cancer scare", however, it's still a great read.

I found it impossible to read this book without thinking of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, another exploration of how to affect people's behaviour "for their own good". It's hard to decide which is more insidious. While advertising has undoubtedly had long-term effects on our behaviour in the half-century since Packard wrote, it's also true that many of the techniques being espoused are now so obvious that they've ceased to be effective: I sometimes wonder whether advertising now almost has to be ironic just to get past people's media filters. As a thoughtful introduction from a time just starting to show the complexities of the modern world, though, this book is hard to beat.

Finished on Fri, 24 Apr 2015 14:17:09 -0700.   Rating 3/5.

A Brief History of the Great Moghuls

Bamber Gascoigne


An excellent brief history of India's most dramatic rulers.

Two elements really stand out. The first is the Gascoigne is an excellent art historian, able to put the architecture of the Moghuls into perspective and sometimes rejecting the conventional readings of the various buildings. Secondly, he highlights some of the facets of "harem culture" that seem incomprehensible to modern readers, the influence of sequestered wives, favourites, and concubines on their emperors.

Actually there's a third element worth noting. Perhaps cleaving to the "brief" part of the title, Gascoigne leaves off his history halfway through what would conventionally be regarded as the lifespan of the Moghuls, stopping with the death of Aurangzeb. He covers the lives of six great Moghuls and relegates the final eleven to an epilogue, considering that their influence and grandeur waned so fast that they cannot stand next to their great forbears. This certainly demonstrates enviable confidence from an author, but it's impossible not to agree that Gascoigne's brevity keeps the drama and excitement of the earlier history intact and vibrant.

Finished on Sat, 18 Apr 2015 11:05:55 -0700.   Rating 4/5.