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Secret War: The Story of SOE

Secret War: The Story of SOE

Nigel West

1993


The sub-title is more accurate than the title. This isn't an official history – but it reads like one, being much ore concerned with who ran which sections, the committees and organograms of SOE than with the actual secret war it prosecuted so well.

Some of the in-fighting described is inevitable, such as the tensions between SOE and MI6. An intelligence service needs quiet; a sabotage service is devoted to exactly the opposite, and so tends to disrupt intelligence-gathering by attracting the attentions of counter-intelligence services. This explains, but doesn't excuse, the hostility and machinations of MI6, which created a bureaucratic war weakening the abilities of both services to fight the actual war. It's an interesting case study in how hard it is to create organisations, even when involved in an existential fight.

2/5. Finished 14 November 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

TIL: Stroke order of Chinese surnames

TIL: Stroke order of Chinese surnames

Sometimes we publish papers with authors in alphabetical order; sometimes we use an order based on contribution, typically the main author (often the most junior) first followed by the lesser contributors and culminating in the most senior author, who might not have made many concrete contributions to the writing. Personally I'm a firm believer in the second style.

But I always wondered: how does one list authors in alphabetical order for languages like Chinese that are non-alphabetic? I had the opportunity to ask a couple of Chinese colleagues.

While Chinese doesn't have an alphabetical order, it can use a stroke order: some surnames require more strokes than others, often significantly more (four versus eleven, in the case of the two colleagues who explained this to me). So one can list authors in order of the increasing numbers of strokes needed to write their surnames. That's really clever, and no more or less arbitrary in terms of author appearance than the alphabetic approach.

The Painful Truth: The New Science of Our Aches, Agonies and Afflictions

The Painful Truth: The New Science of Our Aches, Agonies and Afflictions

Monty Lyman

2021


A book about pain, and why it isn't what we think.

The conventional wisdom is that pain is caused by damage, but it's more subtle than that. Pain is a signal that can be triggered by damage, but can also be caused in response to less physical causes such as fear and a memory of past damage – and can be suppressed by activity or positive thinking, at least to a degree. This is awkward ground, as Lyman recognises: it's close to saying that "it's all in the mind", which is both literally true and deeply offensive to those suffering persistent pain. But it also offers hope that enormously dangerous pharmaceuticals can – sometimes – be replaced or complemented with cognitive therapies that might be effective.

Everyone has had the experience of being deeply engaged in some activity, incurring damage, and not noticing until afterwards. Soldiers frequently report it: they also sometimes feel significantly less pain from their injuries than civilians, because an injury that takes you off the battlefield makes you safer than you were. The signals get mixed, and the pain felt changes accordingly.

There's much to like in this book, not least a very thorough treatment of placebos. It does sometimes get lost in reporting yet another clinical trial, or yet another insight into neurochemistry. It sometimes feels a little too long and too well-referenced for a popular science take on the issues.

3/5. Finished 03 November 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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.)