Diary of a Young Naturalist

Dara McAnulty (2020)

An insightful and moving reflection, as much about a young man’s struggles with autism as about the environment. But it also indirectly highlights the strengths of introversion and autism, the ability to perceive the important things and to identify mistakes and charletainry wherever they appear.

3/5. Finished Saturday 4 September, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Invasive Aliens: The Plants and Animals from Over There That Are Over Here

Dan Eatherley

The story of plants and animals invading the UK, mainly (though not entirely) with human intervention. Full of anecdotes and strange twists as species interact.

It’s hard to say whether the overall impact of invasive species is positive or negative. It’s remarkable that many species that invade other countries do better there than they did at home, which is a positive for global biodiversity in a sense. I also hadn’t realised how deliberate a lot of introductions were, and how two-way they went between Europe and the “New World”.

3/5. Finished Wednesday 1 September, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World’s First Digital Weapon

Kim Zetter (2014)

A technical whodunit of the first order, rendered surprisingly readable without losing the scientific details.

This is probably as close we we’ll ever get to the true story of Stuxnet. It opened up a whole new era of state (and non-state) competition, as well as exposing for all to see the intertwining of military and civilian concerns. What does it mean when a government finds a vulnurability in a computer system that might affect companies worldwide – and then exploits it as an attack vector rather than warning the software vendors and users to secure their systems? How should private security firms behave when they realise that they’ve found what is effectively collateral digital damage in civilian systems from the poor targeting of a weapon aimed at the institutions of another state?

Every computer scientist will find something of interest here, as well as pointers to things they’ll want to dig into more deeply. (In my case, how to reverse-engineer a compiled piece of software that’s been written using a non-standard language or compiler.) The wider social concerns are also fascinating, and will be a staple of ethics classes in the years to come.

4/5. Finished Wednesday 25 August, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

How Britain Ends: English Nationalism and the Rebirth of Four Nations

Gavin Esler (2021)

An analysis of the state in which the UK finds itself, with some policy prescriptions as to how to address the issues without breaking-up the state.

If only the UK were a properly federal state! Many other countries have similar tensions, but have proper constitutional structures in place to balance them (and to adjust those structures over time). The UK, by contrast, relies on the “good chap” theory of governance by which role-holders’ actions are supposedly limited by their reverence for the norms and conventions of office. If people gain power who don’t respect these limits, there are no checks and balances to prevent their misbehaviour. The “unwritten constitution” seems like it should be flexible and able to juggle competing interests, but turns out to be rigid in the hands of those determined to force a chosen outcome.

Esler correctly identifies “the vow” as emblematic of the problems. This was a public undertaking, given by the leaders of all main all-UK political parties before the last Scottish independence referendum, to move towards greater devolution if independence was rejected (which it was). But the vow was jettisoned in the light of the changing circumstances that led to the EU referendum, leaving Scotland bound to the UK and not to the EU: exactly the situation that the independence vote sought to avoid.

Esler is a Unionist, and sees a constitutional convention and federalisation as the way to save the Union. It’s an opinion many have shared, but that many no longer do. His prescriptions strike me as logical, sensible – and unachievable given the history, politics, and individuals in play at the moment. And perhaps not even desirable given those constraints.

5/5. Finished Monday 16 August, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Orkney: A Special Place

Richard Clubley

A collection of anecdotes about life in Orkney, from an outsider who’s decided it’s the place for him. A little too glowing to be taken entirely at face value, but nonetheless full of human and historical detail.

2/5. Finished Tuesday 10 August, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)