Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe's Deep Establishment

Yanis Varoufakis

2017


An emotionally charged but very readable personal account of the third stage of the Greek financial crisis, as told by one of the protagonists.

It's important to bear in mind that this is autobiography, not history, and as such can be excused for being polemical in Varoufakis' defence. It's detailed and complex in its political overtones, but the core argument is very simple: the Greek financial crisis long ago ceased to be about economics and became a morality play in which the Greek state is forced to accept increasingly steep remedies that aren't in any way intended to bring about a recovery, or even to recover monies already loaned.

One can't treat the account as history, since so many of the exchanges are uncorroborated. Moreover, Varoufakis reduces his entire account of the run-up to very small sections – almost single sentences – where he admits that the Greek state had massively mismanaged its own economy. It's acceptable for him to do so, both because he's telling the story of his own involvement in events and because, quite frankly, the details are irrelevant to him as an economist. He sees a state that's incapable of repaying its loans and expects capitalism to work as it should – by imposing the losses on those foolish enough to make the loans. When the opposite happens, and the lenders (European banks) are bailed-out at the expense of the Greek citizenry and European taxpayer, he's almost at a loss to deal with the fact that the economics have become an irrelevance.

His account is eerily consistent with those dealing with the Irish "bailout" (which was, similarly, no such thing – not of the state receiving it, anyway). It will remain for future historians to weigh the different accounts in the balance, and this book will be one of their main sources.

Finished on Thu, 24 Aug 2017 10:21:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Yuval Noah Harari

2011


A balanced and thoughtful history of humanity.

This is a wide-ranging book that often comes at familiar questions from different perspectives. Are humans causing rapid species extinctions in modern times? – yes, but it happened before as we spread into new regions and the local megafauna "coincidentally" disappeared. Have agriculture and science reduced human suffering? – yes, but at an enormous cost in animal suffering. And so on in a cascade of provocations that constantly raise questions and force judgements on the reader.

I think one can disagree somewhat with the trajectory of the arguments while agreeing with all the details. Harari maintains throughout that the ideas and philosophies we embrace today are just as transient and laking in foundation as any others. The transience is certainly true, of course, but I think one can be slightly more optimistic about the large-scale direction, and not be totally consumed by relativism.

The final two pages are perhaps the most insightful: "Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?" The only conclusion In think we can draw from this book is that we're going to be as gods, like it or not, and we'd better start deciding what we want to do with those powers: "what do we want to want", in another of the author's very insightful phrases.

Finished on Sun, 20 Aug 2017 06:32:34 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

The Stars Are Legion

Kameron Hurley

2017


Space opera in a very different form. For a start, there are literally no men in the cast (universe). Secondly, the location and context of the story – giant world-sized spaceships closely orbiting a star and fighting amongst themselves – isn't explained or in any way inferable. Reality never becomes clear, but that works really well to set this story apart and let the author's quite astounding imagination run free without constraints.

Finished on Mon, 17 Jul 2017 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

Reality is Not What it Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity

Carlo Rovelli

2014


A description of the weird world of quantum theory by someone who is both an expert in the field and a gifted communicator. It's notoriously hard to explain quantum ideas, and Rovelli is wise and experienced enough not to try to make facile analogies that confuse rather than simplify.

The only reason for not giving the book five stars is that Rovelli occasionally can't resist the temptation to throw in formulae, even though almost none of the readers will appreciate them (and I include myself in that). Even physicists would struggle unless they happened to be expert in exactly the right areas, and it weakens the presentation in my opinion – and is also completely unnecessary, given the lightness of his prose.

I think the place this book most shines, though, is the last chapter on the nature of scientific enquiry. It's text that could stand alone:

Science is sometimes criticised for pretending to explain everything,
for thinking that it has an answer to every question. It's a curious
accusation. As every researcher working in every laboratory throughout
the world knows, doing science means coming up hard against the limits
of your ignorance on a daily basis – the innumerable things that you
don't know and can't do. This is quite different from claiming to know
everything. We don't know what particles we might see next year at
CERN, or what our next telescopes will reveal, or which equations
truly describe the world; we don't know how to solve the equations we
have, and sometimes we don't understand what they signify; we don't
know if the beautiful theory on which we are working is right. We
don't know what there is beyond the Big Bang; we don't know how a
storm works, or a bacterium, or an eye – or the cells in our own
bodies, or our thought processes. A scientist is someone who lives
immersed in the awareness of our deep ignorance, in direct contact
with our own innumerable limits, with the limits of our understanding.


...and so on, and I'm very tempted to quote it at great length. It's text that should be read by everyone and widely disseminated amongst those who mistrust or denigrate science and expertise.

Finished on Wed, 12 Jul 2017 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception

George A. Akerlof

2015


If markets provide the good people want, then they can also provide goods that people don't or shouldn't want – and get them to buy them through psychological or other pressure points. That's an unexceptionable thesis, and perhaps it takes the skills of a Nobel-prize-winning economist to really bring it to life. Akerlof and Shiller do a great job of arguing that an economic equilibrium must almost necessarily be paralleled by a "phishing equilibrium" in which all prejudices and weaknesses find service. They're particularly strong at showing how local ideas of choice don't always integrate into globally good solutions (or even locally ones, over a longer timescale). It's an important contribution to education to be able to argue both for markets and against their pathologies, without succumbing to the fundamentalism of either side.

Finished on Mon, 03 Jul 2017 13:16:26 -0700.   Rating 3/5.

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer

Sarah Bakewell

2010


Michel de Montaigne is a discursive writer who struggles to follow the thread of an argument, so it's appropriate to find a biography that's similar: and I mean this as a compliment. Bakewell takes an impossible task -- distilling Montaigne's life and thought and relationships -- and presents them as a collection of partial answers to his core question of "how one should live". Along the way she manages to draw out many of the seductive points in Montaigne's style without getting too lost in the flurry of contradictions that he presents.

I don't actually think this book is quite as successful as her work on existentialism, At the existentialist cafe, but it's still an excellent biography that makes we want to re-visit the Essays.

Finished on Thu, 29 Jun 2017 13:22:09 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel

2014


A well-crafted post-apocalyptic tale of how civilisation would collapse promptly in the face of a major epidemic. This is very much in the path of A Canticle for Leibowitz, albeit set in the immediate rather than far future. There are also shades of Robert Heinlein's novella ""If this goes on" as religion re-emerges in a particularly malign form.

The best scene, in my opinion, is the almost banal account of how a group of people behave when stranded in a rural airport, dealing with the sudden realisation that civilisation isn't coming back, help isn't coming, and they'll have to fend for themselves.

Finished on Tue, 30 May 2017 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

2 Lecturer/Senior Lecturer positions at St Andrews

We're looking to recruit new academics as part of a large on-going expansion of our academic staff. We wish to appoint two new Lecturers/Senior Lecturers (depending on experience) to join our vibrant teaching and research community that is ranked amongst the top venues for Computer Science education and research worldwide.

The successful candidate will be expected to have a range of interests, to be active in research publication that strengthens or complements those in the School and to be capable of teaching the subject to undergraduate and taught postgraduate students who come to us with a wide range of backgrounds.

Excellent teaching skills and an interest in promoting knowledge exchange are essential. You should also have some familiarity with grant-seeking processes in relation to research councils and other sources.

More details are available on the university vacancies page. Informal enquiries can be directed to Professor Steve Linton (hos-cs@st-andrews.ac.uk) or Dr Dharini Balasubramaniam (dot-cs@st-andrews.ac.uk).

Strangers Drowning: Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremity

Larissa MacFarquhar

2015


This is an excellent study of people who make unusual, sometimes (to some people) inexplicable, life choices. The individuals described have all made choices to serve humanity, and so so in many diverse ways: as doctors in the Indian tribal regions, as activists in volatile South American countries, as organ donors to strangers, and so on. These are choices that have been made by many over the centuries, and are only inexplicable if one assumes that people always seek to maximise their own comfort. The stories in this collection sit out on the end of a spectrum that includes teachers, nurses, care workers, and other who find meaning in jobs that satisfy them without necessarily enriching them.

What this book isn't is about, therefore, is "moral extremity", as the sub-title would suggest. There are few moral choices on show, although there are plenty of personal ethical decisions being made. The author makes a valiant effort to pull the psychological forces at play together, but in the end isn't able to identify what "makes" a do-gooder: there are too many paths and too many gradations of doing good to even make a proper definition of when generosity shades over into something more – and that is itself a moving target, as shown by the excellent discussion on the evolution of how doctors in particular have thought about living transplant donors as time has gone on.

Finished on Fri, 26 May 2017 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

PhD position in proximal sensing available at UCD Dublin

A PhD position is available at UCD, my old employer, int he area of location sensing.

Ph.D. Studentship Available

Proximal Sensing University College Dublin, Ireland

A Ph.D. studentship is now available in the School of Computer Science, University College Dublin, Ireland. The objective of the Ph.D. research project is to develop transformative algorithms for proximal sensing in outdoor environments using active and passive technologies, including LIDAR, imaging, and UWB radar. The research intersects the fields of image processing, digital signal processing, and machine learning.

The project is part of a larger research programme, CONSUS, which brings together the Schools of Computer Science, Agriculture and Food Science at UCD and Origin Enterprises Plc. The programme is focused on the development of novel precision agriculture techniques for enhanced crop production. CONSUS is jointly funded by Science Foundation Ireland and Origin Enterprises Plc.

The successful candidate will have obtained, or will expect to obtain, a 1st class or 2.1 honours B.Sc. or B.Eng. degree in computer science, electronic engineering, or a related discipline. The successful candidate will have the ability to work both independently and as part of a multi-disciplinary team. The successful candidate will have excellent problem solving and communications skills, as well as an on-going commitment to research. A M.Sc. or M.Eng. degree or commercial experience in a relevant area is an advantage. Prior knowledge of the research topics associated with the project is an advantage.

The Ph.D. position is funded for 4 years. Funding includes payment of a tax-free student stipend plus SFI fees contribution. The starting date for the position is September 2017 or as soon as possible thereafter.

A full CV giving details of courses completed, marks obtained, relevant experience, and the names of two referees should be sent to:

Assoc. Prof. Chris Bleakley School of Computer Science University College Dublin Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.

Telephone +35317162915 Email chris.bleakley@ucd.ie Web http://goo.gl/bP7qWw