The Weather Machine: How We See Into the Future

Andrew Blum

2019


Weather forecasting is one of the triumphs of modern technology – and especially computing technology. This book stretches across the technology stack, from the sensors that are collecting the raw data (and how they evolved from earlier systems) all the way to the modelling and processing of that data into usable forecasts, with some very interesting diversions into the sociology and politics of global weather forecasting, and how the rise of privately-owned data streams may improve the lives of many but disadvantage some of the areas of the world most in need of better forecasting as the climate warms.

But Blum manages to do all this without ever really getting to grips with the technology or the science, and that's rather disappointing. It's made worse by side-references to some ideas that could have formed the basis for discussion, for example Edward Witten's discovery of the chaotic dynamics of weather which is what drives a lot of model design. To me that suggests reading this book alongside Chaos: Making a New Science, where the science is more central and the technology therefore more understandable.

Finished on Sat, 12 Oct 2019 06:18:13 -0700.   Rating 3/5.

Underland

Robert Macfarlane

2019


A lyrical exploration of underground, in all sorts of senses, from potholing in England to trekking across a barren Norwegian island in search of palaeolithic rock art. It's an amazing journey to be taken on.

And the writing is quite amazing in many places. I've never been a caver (I used to be a rock climber), but the claustrophobia of some of the caving exploits made me squirm and get almost panicky even though I was sitting out in the sunshine. The description of the Paris necropolis and the way it's now a centre for an alternative nightlife is almost beyond belief, and Macfarlane's descriptions of artic villages and treacherous mountains are equally vivd and engrossing. This is one of the few books that really draws the reader in, like standing alongside the author in his adventures. Not to be missed.

Finished on Sat, 12 Oct 2019 06:12:13 -0700.   Rating 5*/5*.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey

Robert Macfarlane

2019


A lyrical exploration of underground, in all sorts of senses, from potholing in England to trekking across a barren Norwegian island in search of palaeolithic rock art. It's an amazing journey to be taken on.

And the writing is quite amazing in many places. I've never been a caver (I used to be a rock climber), but the claustrophobia of some of the caving exploits made me squirm and get almost panicky even though I was sitting out in the sunshine. The description of the Paris necropolis and the way it's now a centre for an alternative nightlife is almost beyond belief, and Macfarlane's descriptions of artic villages and treacherous mountains are equally vivd and engrossing. This is one of the few books that really draws the reader in, like standing alongside the author in his adventures. Not to be missed.

Finished on Sat, 12 Oct 2019 06:12:13 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

Sherlock Holmes and the Lady in Black

June Thomson

2015


The premise of this book is that Sherlock Holmes, now retired to the coast, is still applying his mind to the mysteries he finds in his vicinity. The problem is that the "mystery" isn't actually all that mysterious, or gripping, or in any way exciting, which means there's never any real sense of Holmes engaging with anything of importance. While I think Thomson captures Holmes and Watson quite well, there's a lot of be desired in terms of plot.

Finished on Sat, 12 Oct 2019 06:06:56 -0700.   Rating 2/5.

How To

Randall Munroe

2019


What happens when the writer of xkcd puts his mind to common everyday tasks? Hilarity, of course.... and as usual, a lot of fascinating physics.

I would place this in the middle of Munroe's two books. It's far better, funnier, and grown-up that Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, but less fresh than What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. For all that it's still laugh-out-loud funny, grounded in solid physics (albeit in absurd ways), and manages somehow to change the way you might actually look at problems in the future.

Finished on Sat, 12 Oct 2019 06:04:19 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The difference and why it matters

Richard P. Rumelt

2011


Definitely a classic text on the subject, and coming from a slightly broader angle than many other approaches. In common with other authors, Rumelt bases his strategy around identifying the challenges being faced; in contrast, instead of then moving straight into the realm of actions, he considers the values at work so that any actions are consonant with them. But perhaps the most revealing facet of this book is the coverage it gives to bad strategy, the confusions that arise when one mistakes a mission statement (or indeed a set of values) for a strategy, where the former are not executable and not targeted at any particular challenge. Should be required reading for anyone in a leadership role.

Finished on Sat, 12 Oct 2019 05:57:35 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Riddle And The Knight

Giles Milton

1996


It's surprising to read a book that goes into the detailed history of a book that I haven't read, but not to worry...

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville is a mediaeval travelogue unlike any other. It starts off well enough, as a guide-cum-memoir of a trip to the Holy Land in the mid 14th century. But then it continues, with the protagonist travelling to India, Java, China, and beyond, meeting and describing – in the same reasonable voice as previously – a range of people and creatures straight out of a mediaeval bestiary. The question has always been: what's going on? Is the whole thing a fraud? An elaborate satire? A prank? That these questions exist for what was, at one time, the single most-read book in the English language is a huge challenge.

Milton doesn't exactly nail the solution: that's probably impossible after all this time. But he does do some heroic research both in the archive and in the real world. In the former, he traces many of the original sources from which Mandeville (if indeed this is the author: even his identity is disputed and mysterious) derived some of his stories, and shows how he elaborated them far beyond what any mere copyist would do. In the latter he find confirmation for elements in the Travels that have been perplexing, including (for example) verifying that Mandeville's descriptions of certain statues in Constantinople, while now wrong, were correct for the dates he claimed to be there. Some of the most dramatic scenes occur in St Catherine's monastery in Sinai, difficult to reach even now, where Milton searches through Crusader graffiti looking for a Mandeville coat of arms, as well as viewing manuscripts that have remained untouched for over a thousand years.

Altogether this is literary history of the highest order. While it remains tantalisingly un-definitive, it adds extra layers to the reading of the Travels, which is at the top of my holiday reading list.

Finished on Tue, 20 Aug 2019 11:05:47 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics

Tim Marshall

2015


A concise discussion of geopolitics, by someone in a position to understand. Marshall brings years of political commentary to bear on how governments see, and respond, to geography – both their own and those of their potential rivals.

It's purely about the effects of geography on States' behaviours, which sometimes lends the book an almost nineteenth-century feel. There's no discussion of the possibly conflicting attitudes of large national and multinational companies, whose activities might be difficult for governments to steer. I suspect Marshall views States as still to dominant actors without actually saying such – and he may well be right, in the sense that the credible threat of force can trump other approaches. The arguments are quite compelling, and show how the forces that affect grand strategy haven't fundamentally changed since the days of the Great Game and earlier.

Finished on Mon, 05 Aug 2019 08:34:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Lotharingia: A Personal History of Europe's Lost Country

Simon Winder

2019


Lotharingia, the part of Europe lying between what are now the agreed cores of France and Germany, the part of the continent that doesn't readily fit into the national character of either country. This is a very small-scale history, full of anecdotes and insights as to the connections between the various actors and events that have criss-crossed this area. I read it shortly after reading The Shortest History of Germany, to which I think it makes a very agreeable companion and contrast while picking out a lot of the same themes, especially the difference between the eastern-oriented, Prussian and Hohenzollern Germany and the western-oriented Rhineland.

It's personal history, though, which means that the author's life breaks into the narrative quite intrusively. I've only given the book four stars because of this writing style, which detracted (for me) from the otherwise excellent research and observations.

Finished on Fri, 26 Jul 2019 05:04:28 -0700.   Rating 4/5.