Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World

William Davies

2018


How did we end up where we are, with a seemingly unstoppable rejection of reasoned argument in favour of blatantly false – if somewhat reassuring – fantasy positions served up by charlatans? Davies presents a very convincing case, and some prescriptions for the future, that should be read by anyone who considers themselves to live in the world of objective reality – and especially those tasked with explaining that reality.

The essence of Davies' position boils down to the idea that there's been a change in the nature and purpose of information: that it has gone from being used as a way of understanding a shared reality to instead operating on that reality, with the significance of this change being that the latter requires neither global agreement on a set of facts nor any real persistence in time. It's perfectly possible to discover, act upon, and profit from something that them disappears without a trace, and this changes both what it means to be a fact and how these (perhaps purported) facts are presented: it doesn't matter if something is later falsified, since the purpose was not to state a permanent position but to achieve a timely objective.

Davies backs this proposition up with a deep-dive into military history, philosophy, and the emergence of the commercial internet: this is definitely a book fore the widely-ranging mind. His prescriptions are troubling to those of us who work in science: that we need to shed our public scruples and engage politically, not giving up the search for the objective but making sure that we use it to act on the world. In that sense he's supportive of events like the "March for Science" that were opposed by many scientists as a corruption of objectivity – and I have toi say that that's not something I wanted to hear, but that I find rather compelling.

Finished on Fri, 05 Jul 2019 06:16:34 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

New Moon (Luna #1)

Ian McDonald

2015


What would living on the moon be like? How would the inhabitants relate to those left on earth? What would be the economics? The sociology?

There's more than a touch of Robert Heinlein's masterpiece The Moon is a Harsh Mistress here, updated for the twenty-first century. McDonald has the moon evolving an clan-based oligarchy that resembles fourteenth century Italy, but with some amazingly clever nods to the science and engineering needed to actually build a viable lunar civilisation, as well as for their social implications.

Finished on Fri, 05 Jul 2019 06:06:01 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

Daniel Ellsberg

2017


Definitely lives up to its billing, with massive amounts of detail and close reasoning – too much, in fact, and this weakens arguments that it's meant to strengthen. But still as powerful an argument for disarmament as you'll ever encounter.

Finished on Thu, 06 Jun 2019 02:58:16 -0700.   Rating 2/5.

Educated

Tara Westover

2018


A study of the effects of education as both liberating and disconnecting.

The family that the author describes is both harrowingly dysfunctional and strangely close-knit, which goes a long way to explaining how hard she found to draw herself away from it. She followed a charmed academic trajectory that many academics would kill for – Brigham Young University, then a scholarship and PhD from Cambridge, then a fellowship at Harvard – and I think it's a fair question as to whether she'd've been able to break away had she had a less exceptional start.

The overriding themes are easy to see, revolving around a desire (indeed, a need) for male relatives to control female behaviour. There are plenty of echoes of works like Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, but one thing that's distinctive about Westover's experience is that the fundamentalist position that her family adopts doesn't go far back: even her grandparents disagree with it, and it seems to be as much a product of her father's mental illness and mother's subservience as anything inherent in a strongly religious tradition. It's definitely one of the most challenging personal backgrounds I know of to have been successfully overcome.

Finished on Wed, 29 May 2019 09:20:46 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past, #1)

Liu Cixin

2006


Quite an astonishing book, combining science fiction with social commentary and Chinese history in a seamless and rather stunning way.

This book has some really quite visionary passages, drawing deeply on cultural history and the farther reaches of mathematical physics. It also has some resonances from the SF classics, especially (and perhaps surprisingly) The Forever War, with its central problem of how to fight a war in the face of travel times long enough to render your weaponry obsolete? Liu's solution is brilliant: find a way to stall your enemy's scientific progress, using both scientific and social weapons, with the latter also having eerie resonances in modern social-media commentaries. An excellent and thought-provoking start to a trilogy.

Finished on Thu, 16 May 2019 10:17:47 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

The Devil's Disciples

Anthony Read

2003


A history of Nazi Germany from the different perspective of the first tier of Hitler's followers, mainly focussing on Goebbels, Goering, and Himmler. That's actually a slight limitation, in that there are huge contributions from other, second-tier Nazis that remain to be explored, and that might have made this book even more distinctive. But it still manages to put a lot of detail into the personal lives and deeds of its chosen subjects which are often missed in more "standard" histories, and this sheds a lot of light onto many of their motivations and key decisions. A very useful addition to the literature.

Finished on Mon, 13 May 2019 09:24:02 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Manchester's Ship Canal: Th Big Ditch

Cyril J. Wood

2005


A detailed history of the Manchester Ship Canal, lavishly illustrated from across the years.

I grew up alongside the canal, and there's plenty here I didn't know. It would have been better to have more depth in a lot of places, especially in terms of construction techniques and the history of some of the areas such as Old Quay docks in Runcorn and Dock Office in Manchester. (The latter had a mainframe computer for running the payroll, I remember.) It's a great reminder of the ways in which these huge industrial projects shaped the North-West, and I share the author's happiness that the canal system is gradually being restored and put back to work.

Finished on Sun, 28 Apr 2019 10:14:51 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams

Matthew Walker

2017


An enthusiastic paean to sleep and all it can do for us, from the perspective of a sleep scientist. If there was ever any doubt of the benefits of sleep – and the damage done by denying oneself or others of it – then this is it.

It's a refreshingly un-preachy book, presenting both the latest science and some prescriptions for those who find sleep difficult. Along the way there are some side-swipes at those to claim to do well on only four hours a night (the science clearly says otherwise), as well as at the educational system for forcing early hours onto teenage brains working to a different rhythm. While I suspect the situation is better in the UK and Europe than in the US, there still seems to be a good argument for changes in timetabling even at university level to accommodate the physiological limitations of younger students,

Finished on Sun, 28 Apr 2019 10:10:56 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Earth Abides

George R. Stewart

1949


One of the earliest examples of post-apocalyptic science fiction. It's awash with ideas and thoughtful analysis of the challenges that might face a remnant of humanity living in the wreckage of a disaster – even one that, in this case, didn't involve a war.

It's not a book that's aged well, though. Stewart isn't a natural fiction writer, and his characters never become anything more than two-dimensional stereotypes both in terms of their reactions and their relationships. In that sense it's inferior to, for example, A Canticle for Leibowitz or Damnation Alley, but enjoyable nonetheless.

Finished on Wed, 10 Apr 2019 04:05:59 -0700.   Rating 2/5.