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 Monday 14 November, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

What If? 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (What If?, #2)

Randall Munroe (2022)

A tour de force of creative scientific answers. It’s perhaps less enjoyable than the original What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions – but only because it is a sequel, and so lacks the novelty of the first. It’s still a rush, ranging from cosmology down to particle physics, with enough black holes to satisfy anyone. And I also learned about the Glass beach of Vladivostok, which is a place I’d never imagined existed and made the book worthwhile all on its own, just as Randall said it would.

5/5. Finished Monday 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.

New publishing setup and theme for the web site

New publishing setup and theme for the web site

I’ve moved to a slightly different set-up for publishing this site, as well as a new theme.

Read more…

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 Thursday 3 November, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)