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Posts about book-reviews

The Chessboard and the Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World

The Chessboard and the Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World

Anne-Marie Slaughter


A book on grand strategy and its application to less-grand challenges in a world dominated by networks.

The central thesis of this book is that the world of hierarchies and direct state-to-state diplomacy – the chessboard – is giving way to a much more nuanced world in which state and non-state actors interact and co-operate in far ore complex ways – the web. The network effects change everything, from the nature of power and how it's used to the nature of leadership and how one can actually get things done.

It's interesting to see the concepts of network science being applied to social and political science in a way that doesn't trivialise them. The applications range from analysis of interaction patterns to trying to engineer particular interactions such as improving information sharing.

There's an obvious comparison to The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks, with which Slaughter contrasts her work, she being a "Wilsonian" humanist versus Joshua Ramo's "Kissingerian" realist. Slaughter's view is that there is a need for more understanding of how small-scale interactions can happen – contrasting with Ramo's desire for aggressive "gatekeeping" of a US-led networked order. I can't help thinking that her view is more realistic and democratic.

4/5. Finished 27 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters

Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters

Serhii Plokhy

2022


A history of nuclear energy in six disasters: five civilian and one military.

Competition seems to lie at the heart of all the problems: a lack of willingness to share details of accidents and near-accidents, and an unwillingness to learn if this requires changes in procedure. Collaboration seems lacking even within organisations and with regulators, while governments treat these matters as merely part of larger strategic concerns (even when they threaten to overwhelm them). It's also clear that the commercial operation of nuclear power is impossible without state subsidy, and acquiring this opens-up possibilities from regulatory capture – weakening requirements to make them attainable within a fixed cost – to outright bribery.

The science and engineering also seem lacking. The Castle Bravo (and other) nuclear tests massively under-estimate the weapons' yields, and this seems to be more the case the larger the bomb (culminating in the apocalyptic Tsar Bomba, which isn't covered in this book as it somewhat miraculously wasn't actually an accident). But all the systems described make use of technology little changed since the 1930s: imagine if we were still driving cars from that era!

I find Plokhy's conclusions nuanced but weak. He decides that nuclear and renewable energy sources are both risky approaches to tackling climate change, but with completely different risk profiles: the former perhaps being too slow to start up and with huge accident risks; the latter relying on technologies as yet untested at the necessary scale. But in coming to his conclusion backing renewables and the phasing-out of nuclear stations (with which I entirely agree) he devotes exactly two sentences to the problem of nuclear waste and spent fuel, which should surely be one of the major deciding factors. It's a strange omission at the end of a book that revolves around radiation hazards.

3/5. Finished 21 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

We Are Bellingcat: Global Crime, Online Sleuths, and the Bold Future of News

We Are Bellingcat: Global Crime, Online Sleuths, and the Bold Future of News

Eliot Higgins

2021


The history of a still-evolving open-source intelligence collective.

Intelligence collection and analysis used to be limited to governments and a handful of companies. Not any longer: the tools are available on the open internet. Eliot Higgins realises that he can use them to investigate news stories, including the shooting-down of MH-17 over Ukraine. It's this investigation, in which he and his volunteer analysts manage to argue convincingly that the culprits were Russian-backed separatists using Russian anti-aircraft missiles, that really demonstrates how much information can now be found and cross-corollated. The result is for formation of Bellingcat, an amorphous group of international investigators organised in a way that closely resembles that of an open-source software project, where all that matters is an individuals' ability and willingness to share findings, and to have them challenged and possibly refuted in the search for the best explanations.

The book was written before the Russian attack on Ukraine, and so will demand a follow-up given Bellingcat's deep involvement in tracking the conflict and digging-into the details of individual incidents.

5/5. Finished 16 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Childhood's End

Childhood's End

Arthur C. Clarke

1953


An entirely unexpected take on alien invasion. The aliens come, take over – and then allow humanity to proceed as its wants, without revealing themselves or really taking much control at all. Why? What are they hiding? And how is it that, when they do reveal themselves, they look so familiar?

The reasons are all thought out with the rigour and open-endedness you'd expect from Arthur C. Clarke. The very fact that he can build such a narrative is a testament to his abilities as a world-creator, with an ability to pose questions and then not answer them definitively without this spoiling the enjoyment of the story.

4/5. Finished 16 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Spike: The Virus vs. The People - the Inside Story

Spike: The Virus vs. The People - the Inside Story

Jeremy Farrar

2021


I wonder if this book was too early: were we sufficiently out of the coronavirus pandemic to assess it and our healthcare systems' abilities to deal with it? Perhaps. But this is a good look at the early days from the perspective of the Wellcome Trust, one of the world's biggest medical charities.

4/5. Finished 16 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)