Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime

Val McDermid


An easy-to-read and broad-ranging exploration of forensics. The fact that McDermid is a crime fiction author clearly makes a difference, as she writes with the ease of someone used to making these ideas accessible. The book ranges over all aspects of forensic science, perhaps being strongest on the physical aspects like fingerprinting and DNA profiling. What comes out most strongly is the need for an holistic approach to investigation, the ways in which all the different aspects of a case – physical, psychological, and circumstantial – need to be fitted together to form a consistent scientific and criminal narrative.

Finished on Wed, 02 Dec 2015 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 4/5.

The First Salute

Barbara W. Tuchman


A broad and fast-moving account of the endgame in the American War of Independence.

I'm an enormous fan of Tuchman, but this is far from being her best work. She still has the same eye for detail, same same telling turn of phrase, but the narrative is a little confused and the timeline hard to follow. She deals with some of the same issues in The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, a much better book. I think the weakness in this book stems from her taking an explicitly American perspective ("our country", "our leaders") which is missing from her other work: while she remains as even-handed as ever, and is far from being an American jingoist, it strikes an awkward note.

Having said that, there is huge satisfaction is hearing about the naval side of the war, the decisive influence of sea power on victory, as well as the details of 18th century naval warfare and the various characters involved. I was unaware of the degree to which France – and especially the French navy – was involved directly in the war, to the extent of dramatically affecting and constraining possible British strategic moves. Tuchman describes their motivations with exquisite care, as well as those of the newly-independent Dutch, showing how American independence was only part of the larger game of European power politics.

Finished on Sat, 31 Oct 2015 11:47:19 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

The History Of The Runestaff (Panther Books)

Michael Moorcock


"Justice is not the Law; it is not Order, as human beings normally speak of it; it is Justice -- Equilibrium, the Correction of the Balance."

This is one of the classic "swords and sorcery" series, a model for many that followed. Full of irony and wonderfully drawn scenes that a reader can visualise despite their fundamental and well-crafted alien-ness. I first read this work over twenty years ago, and my older self still loves it.

The story follows the adventures of Dorian Hawkmoon and companions as they fight the Dark Empire of Granbretan (nice touch, that) in a far post-apocalypic future. And defeat it, of course, though not before most of them die: this is fantasy fiction, after all. The plot is quite simple, in the sense that final victory is never seriously in question and momentary difficulties are quickly overcome. But that's to quibble, and to ignore Moorcock's skill as a fantasy writer, his ability to create a world that's fundamentally still human despite its strange features and magical powers.

Finished on Sat, 10 Oct 2015 07:53:56 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Atul Gawande


An exploration of end-of-life care – something that's of interest to us all, of course, but very seldom addressed properly. And that's Gawande's essential point: people leave decisions about their last days until their last days, and so have a far worse time of it than perhaps they need to.

There's much more to this book that this, though. Gawande explores the different approaches to assisted living and hospice care, the ways in which focusing on social rather than medical aspects can lead to far better outcomes, and shares his own family's experiences with the difficulties that gradual illness can bring. (This is perhaps the greatest contribution of the book, and shows an enormous openness of spirit to share something so personal.) He demolishes the utopian visions of multi-generational living that sometimes cloud the debate, showing that this brings its own tensions: different to those of our more individualistic society, but certainly no less divisive. If nothing else, he shows that there is an alternative to medicalising old age, and that this is something we should all work towards in our own self-interest.

Finished on Sun, 27 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

PhD data science studentships available at Trinity College Dublin

There are five PhD posts on offer to work with the ADAPT Centre.

Benefits: Payment of tax-free stipend for 4 years.

In addition, payment of academic fees; fully for EU students and partially for non-EU students.

General enquires concerning this post can be addressed to

Initial deadline is October 7th 2015, but with each position remaining open until filled. This and other positions listed under vacancies at:

Research Topic

Increasingly in data-driven enterprises, organisations are having to cope with a wide variety of information sources and standards, leading to a lack of interoperability and increasing data integration costs. Resulting labour-intensive data integration practices are brittle in the face of accelerating innovation in data-driven applications and growing demand for agile data analytics. At the same time organisations must react to increasing public and legislative focus on privacy and data protection. Empowering users to control the information that flows around them in a privacy-sensitive and personalised manner also offers many challenges.

These 5 PhD positions will advance the state of the art in linked data, semantic web and personalisation technologies to explore new approaches to data integration that are self-managing (towards autonomic), and in addition explore new ways to deliver personalised multimodal information (towards a digital companion).

These posts are part of the new ADAPT Centre ( ADAPT has received €50 Million research funding from Industry and Science Foundation Ireland to support 120 researchers across 4 universities in Dublin. The ADAPT Centre’s mission is to produce world class research that delivers disruptive innovations for the digital media and intelligent content industry. These PhD positions will be supervised by a member of the following ADAPT Centre academics; Professor Vincent Wade, Professor Declan O’Sullivan, Professor Dave Lewis, Professor Owen Conlan and Dr Rob Brennan.

ADAPT is Ireland’s global centre of excellence for digital content and media innovation. Led by TCD, it combines the expertise of researchers at four universities (Trinity College Dublin, Dublin City University, University College Dublin, and Dublin Institute of Technology) with that of its industry partners to produce ground-breaking digital content innovation.

ADAPT brings together more than 120 researchers who collectively have won more than €100m in funding and have a strong track record of transferring world-leading research and innovations to more than 140 companies. With EURO 50M in new research funding from Science Foundation Ireland and industry, ADAPT is seeking talented individuals to join its growing research team. Our research and technologies will continue to help businesses in all sectors and drive back the frontiers of future Web engagement.

Why join ADAPT @ TCD

  • Work on hard, relevant problems in an interdisciplinary and exciting research environment. The ADAPT Centre combines expertise of researchers at Trinity College Dublin, Dublin City University, University College Dublin and Dublin Institute of Technology. It brings together more than 120 researchers who have collectively won more than €100M in competitive research funding and have an international track record of bridging research and innovations to more than 140 companies. With €50M in new research funding from SFI and industry, ADAPT research and technologies will help businesses in all sectors to manage, personalise and deliver digital content more effectively.
  • Work in a University where excellence of research is valued. Trinity College Dublin is Ireland’s premier University and is ranked in 71st position in the top 100 world universities by the QS World University Rankings 2014.
  • Work in a centre focussed on advancing your career. Whether you want to take an academic, industrial, or entrepreneurial career path, ADAPT prides itself in the support and mentoring that enables all its Students and early-stage researchers to reach their full potential. This year alone its postdoc-to-PI programme has helped three postdocs transition to be Principal Investigators on their own H2020 projects, while four others have recently won funding with ADAPT support to realise the commercialisation of their research through spin outs and licensing.


The successful candidate will have an excellent academic record (first class or II.1 primary degree) in Computer Science or a related discipline. Experience in Knowledge Engineering is a distinct advantage. The successful candidate will be highly motivated, with strong written and oral communication skills and a demonstrated proficiency in software development, with strong design and programming skills. They must be eager to work in and learn from multi-disciplinary and multi-organisation teams. They should have English language certification if English is not their first language, the requirement being: IELTS: 7.0+, TOEFL iBT: 100+, TOEFL pBT: 600+, CEF: C1+, or equivalent.

Application Procedure

For further information and informal contact, please refer to the PhD topic details. Please apply via email to, referencing this advert, and including:

  • A targeted cover letter (600-1000 words) expressing your suitability for a position
  • A complete CV

There will be an interview process; a successful candidate will then be invited to apply via the TCD graduate studies admission system.

The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned Peace for the First World War

Margaret MacMillan


A fine and detailed history of the period.

The First World War remains an enigma: how did the sustained period of peace that preceded it suddenly end so catastrophically? How did a relatively small triggering event become so magnified so quickly?

MacMillan explores the background of the politics and personalities with great care and thoroughness. She highlights several factors that are under-stressed in other histories, notably the broader impact of the Anglo-German naval race (by spoiling otheriwse improving relations between the countries) and the damaging impact of the Dreyfus Affair on the French army (by making a military career less attractive to ambitious individuals). She provides much deeper explorations of several events that are often mentioned only in passing, for example the Algeciras conference. She also spends great care on the different views of the same events as seen from opposite sides, and on the way that actions that one side saw as purely defensive appeared anything but from the standpoint of other countries.

But what really stands out is the fatalistic acceptance that many Europeans – both leaders and ordinary people – had for the concept of an impending war. That seems at odds with the prevailing peacefulness between the Great Powers, and certainly seems strange from a standpoint of modern public opinion: how could people accept the end of peace so easily, especially for a conflict that would be fought close to home for almost all of them? While it's possible to argue that people hadn't appreciated the impact that machine guns and barbed wire had on military dynamics (despite the evidence of American Civil War), that seems too technical an explanation for such a concerted act of folly.

One stylistic touch that I didn't like is the rather trite use of modern analogies. Comparing German statesmen appearing in military uniform with the behaviours of modern dictators doesn't seem to me to add much to the text, or to the understanding of the motivations involved. But that's a minor quibble about what is certainly a fine discussion of events that still fascinate more than a century later.

Finished on Wed, 09 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows

Richard Hytner


A book on how to shine from the shadows.

While most books on leadership concentrate on the leaders, and especially on how to become a more charismatic leader, this book takes the opposite tack: how to be a loyal supporter and an "invisible" leader even if you never take the top spot. As a dedicated introvert and fan of Niccolo Machiavelli, this is definitely a position I can understand.

Hytner divides leaders into A's and C's, where A's seek the limelight and C's seek to wield their influence more discreetly. He sprinkles his presentation with some great examples of modern-day partnerships and how they work. He explores the different supporting roles needed in organisations, and the things that the headline leader needs – both positive in the sense of providing advice and research, and negative in the sense of reining-in and keeping grounded – that can best be provided by someone comfortable in their anonymity. In that sense this is a book both for those wanting to be better C's, and for those A's who want to choose their consiglieri wisely.

One observation that I wasn't expecting was the idea of moving between the A and C role, that a C might aspire to move into the A position after a period of consolidation, or that an A might benefit from time spent out of the limelight as a C. Both these strike me as problematic for reasons of basic personality structure, but in any event they point to essential value of both the top jobs and their close supporters, and the need to manage both equally in a well-functioning organisation.

Finished on Sun, 30 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rebecca Skloot


Part scientific history, part social history, this is as much a book about modern American social exclusion as it is about one of the most important scientific breakthroughs of all time.

The science is nowhere near as well-known as it should be. The cancerous cells of a dying African-American woman became "HeLa", the first "immortal" cell line, and at a stroke revolutionise the study of diseases. Using just one of Skloot's several examples, HeLa allowed proper rigorous comparisons of different treatment regimes for the polio vaccine. Since then, HeLa has been at the centre of almost every major medical trial and breakthrough, and is still a critical component of education and research fifty years later.

HeLa was given away for free to researchers in an act of enormous generosity – and also, it has to be said, because it happened in an era before the major profit motive invaded medicine. But that is of no comfort to the descendants of Henrietta Lacks, the cells' original "donor". Not only are there serious questions of consent and the ethics of openly sharing material that can be used to identify and profile the likely medical histories of her descendants; they remain so poor that they live in situations almost unrecognisable as the 20th century Western world, dependent on charity because of lack of health insurance. Indeed, Skloot's descriptions of "Lackstown", where everyone is related and sharing a common lack of basic services, healthcare, or employment, is the most riveting part of the book. In many ways it evokes some of the Victorian reportage – People of the Abyss, The, for example – but without any ambition to bring about similar social change. The Lacks' conditions are described, deplored, and in some sense accepted in a way that's quietly troubling.

The last section of the book is also fascinating, reviewing the continuing history of consent as applied to tissue samples where rights of privacy and ownership collide with research goals and the public good. Skloot does a good job in showing how inherently complicated these issues are, and doesn't fall into the trap of taking simple sides.

Finished on Tue, 18 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

A Canticle for Leibowitz (St. Leibowitz, #1)

Walter M. Miller Jr.


Post-apocalyptic science fiction meets an historical analogy of the Middle Ages in an enjoyable, if a little disjointed, tale of what happens when the church once again becomes a repository of learning. The Order of Leibowitz transcribes the printed matter that's survived a nuclear exchange and the subsequent mass murder of any scientists, engineers, or intellectuals left. That included the Order's founder, a scientist driven the religion by his experiences.

The book episodically covers several centuries, starting with the experiences of a novice's discovery of an ancient fallout shelter that leads to Leibowitz' canonisation; through the later battles of small statelets fighting in the ruins alongside the recovery of scientific knowledge from the disjointed artefacts and texts; and culminating in the destruction of a later civilisation again unable to manage the existence of weapons of mass destruction but managing (this time) to send out emissaries to the stars.

The view Miller takes of the church is quite balanced, neither fully supportive nor dismissing it as archaic. And on balance it seems likely that the church and church forms would survive a holocaust of anything did: it's the only institution, along with the universities, to have survived continuously from the Middle Ages. The end result sees humanity unable to move beyond repeating history, learning little new science and no new ethical or social self-knowledge along the way. In this it's at least partly a product of its time (being first published in 1959), but the fact that the risks it explores remain equally valid today is itself enough to have it read more often.

Finished on Tue, 04 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 3/5.

Selfish Whining Monkeys: How we Ended Up Greedy, Narcissistic and Unhappy

Rod Liddle


Definitely a book that's passed through political correctness and come out the other side.

There seem to be a couple of issues drawing Rod Liddle's ire. The first is the narcissism of modern society, which he skewers mercilessly. The second is the emergence of a super-class of highly advantaged upper-middle-class families who are radically better able to access society's goods than others. Their advantages come from multiple sources – public schooling, living in better areas, social networks that can help access, and so forth – but also (Liddle claims) from a more surprising source: changes to the law that seem egalitarian but work to reinforce privilege.

Is super-class privilege now so entrenched as to be immovable? If you're looking for answers to this, or even some vague suggestions, you won't find them. But as a source of dinner-party factoids and telling phrases, this is a winner. People "who have had their struggles too" will definitely be part of my vocabulary from now on.

Finished on Mon, 13 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.