Nation to Nation: Scotland’s Place in the World

Stephen Gethins (2021)

A former MP discusses Scotland’s now and future foreign policy.

(Full disclosure: Gethins is a Professor in Practice of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, where I also work.)

This is a detailed and wide-ranging work, exploring the past, present, and potential future of Scotland’s foreign policy “footprint”. It’s quick to point out that even sub-State actors have such a footprint, and show how the Scottish government is able to work with (and sometimes against) the wider UK government in liaison with other international players, and the tensions and missed opportunities that arise.

Gethins is SNP (as am I), and as such has a clear preference for an independent Scotland. He tries valiantly to consider the potential future without independence, and how Scotland might in that case contribute more effectively to the UK’s efforts. This doesn’t quite succeed as an approach, perhaps because Gethins can’t imagine that the UK can execute what would be needed to make such a future happen, for example as set out in How Britain Ends: English Nationalism and the Rebirth of Four Nations – and I have to say I agree with him on that. He quotes many influential Europeans (and others) who welcome Scotland’s policy stance, and would welcome independence were it to come, which is clearly set out to address some of the uncertainties that doomed the “indyref” of 2014. It does a good job of this, as well as of showing how much Scotland as a region has to offer in the foreign policy sphere, and how little is being made of it so far.

3/5. Finished Saturday 8 January, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Ten Days that Shook the World

John Reed (1919)

An eye-witness account of the Bolshevik takeover of the Russian Revolution. Perhaps too detailed for anything except reference, but fascinating as a counterpoint to the more accepted (and Bolshevik-defined) history of their rise as a steady, inevitable, unanimous undertaking by the people. Here there are disagreements, armed struggles, and dissent from within the workers’ Soviets and unions.

It’s also notable that there’s (as far as I can tell) exactly one mention of Stalin, as People’s Commissar for Nationalities, again underlining the degree of re-writing of history that took place later. Stalin is far from being a prominent individual, or even a serious leader in the early days of what became the Soviet Union, and his later ascendancy is entirely unheralded in his early actions.

3/5. Finished Saturday 1 January, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)


James Joyce (1914)

Short tales of turn-of-the-century Dublin, but capturing the essence of Ireland and urban life. The stories are loosely linked, with a main character in one appearing in a walk-on part in another (and some later do the same in Ulysses): but they stand alone in terms of style and subject matter. Joyce’s ability to look inside someone’s head is on full display, especially vivd when expressing their disappointments or fears at their own failings.

The strongest story (and the best-known) is certainly The dead, an exploration of alienation and social concern through the medium of a musical soirée rolling into a remembrance of a past love tied up with a husband’s jealousy and passion.

But Dublin itself is also a character, especially if one knows the streets and even the shops visited and alluded to – many of which remain intact a century later. It’s amazing that a set of stories focusing strongly on their human characters’ interactions can also evoke the city so strongly.

5/5. Finished Monday 27 December, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America

Beth Macy (2018)

A personal but very balanced history of how the opioid epidemic erupted in Appalachia, drawing heavily on the authors’ experiences in her home town of Roanoke, VA.

It’s a story that starts with drug company malfeasance, and I expected that to be the core of the story – but it’s really only the start, as the impact of available prescription painkillers triggers an avalanche of users switching to heroin and then to fentanyl, with each change of drug generating fresh overdoses. There’s a fascinating change in the dynamic between healthcare and law enforcement as the user population changes and the drugs invade more affluent areas, as well as being an indictment of America’s very disjointed and vey much for-profit healthcare system. Many of the treatments that are available are snarled in a culture-wars debate about the “rightness” different approaches, entirely divorced from the evidence. It’s also interesting (and somewhat terrifying) to understand exactly how many pathways there are to addiction, how many “gateway” drugs there can be, and how social pressures can prevent many people from seeking treatment even if it’s readily available. Very sobering.

5/5. Finished Thursday 23 December, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Talk at UK Systems on unit testing stochastic code

Last week I went to my first scientific meeting since February 2021 to talk about unit testing of stochastic code.

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