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Posts about book-reviews (old posts, page 65)

Exactly: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

Exactly: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

Simon Winchester

2018


An engaging history of engineering through the the lens of ever-increasing precision. starting with more efficient steam engines and ending with spacecraft and microprocessors.

Until about two-thirds of the way through I had a criticism that the book focused on precision solely as a means to mass production the need to components that are exactly the same to facilitate easy replacement, as contrasted against craft-made items. I was contrasting this against one-off, hand-made, but nonetheless precise artefacts such as the turbulence experiment described by James Gleick in Chaos: Making a New Science: a tiny fluid chamber with embedded sensors, still regarded as one of the finest experiments ever crafted. But the discussions of watches more than remedied the omission.

The chapter on Japan as a contrast to the "cult" of precision feels a bit forced. Yes, the Japanese have a sensitivity (wabi sabi) for the imperfect in art while maintaining a reverence for high-precision machines – but so do other cultures and art forms, not least jazz and abstract impressionism, that render the contrast a bit superficial.

4/5. Finished 29 March 2020.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

Michael Pollan

2018


Almost enough to make one want to try them, this is a fine description of the history, biochemistry, and cultural significance of psychedelics. It walks a fine line between the materialistic and the spiritual: what do psychedelic trips signify, are they "just" drug experiences or do they connect with something else?

It's a book that's worth reading for any of its component parts. The history sheds light both on the counterculture of the 60's and on the genesis and evolution of moral panics of the sort that resulted in LSD being proscribed. The biochemistry does its best to reflect the latest scientific thinking, but also shows how much of neuroscience is still tied up with speculative and metaphorical models of what's happening in the brain. And the personal history of the author's own trips – carefully supervised and with plenty of trepidation on his part – go some way to showing how influential and persistent the effects of the drugs can be.

The book could do with some better copy-editing: it's repetitive in places. But well worth a read.

4/5. Finished 23 February 2020.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Atrocity Archives (Laundry Files, #1)

The Atrocity Archives (Laundry Files, #1)

Charles Stross

2004


What happens when it turns out the HP Lovecraft was right, and that the monsters from without can be summoned and (to some extent) controlled by a perfectly rational experimental science? That's the premise of this book, the first of the "Laundry files" series, that combines horror, science fiction, comedy, and an exploration of the social hierarchies and deep plotting that turn up in civil service institutions.

5/5. Finished 12 February 2020.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli in his World

Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli in his World

Erica Benner

2017


A different interpretation of Machiavelli than the common one, viewing him as a republican rather than as a supporter and facilitator of tyrants. It's an attractive and quite compelling thesis, and surprisingly (to me, anyway) one that was common amongst early readers of The prince before his reputation changed in later centuries.

5/5. Finished 10 February 2020.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)