The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

James Gleick (2011)

A popular history of information, and of information theory and computing in particular.

Like Gleick’s other books, this book walks the fine line between too much science and too little depth. It avoids the maths entirely without ever abandoning the core insights that the maths provides. That’s something many scientists long to achieve, but seldom do: focusing on the concepts and treating the maths as a machine that’s only valuable once the concepts have been assimilated. Richard Feynman would have approved.

This book is strongest on Shannon and Babbage, two of the geniuses (along with Turing, von Neumann, and a few others) of the information age as it emerged over the course of a century from mathematics and engineering. The excursion into physicists’ treatment of information is less convincing (at least from my computer scientist’s perspective), not least because of the inevitable confusions thrown up by quantum information.

4/5. Finished Wednesday 1 March, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Curse of Bigness: How Corporate Giants Came to Rule the World

Tim Wu (2018)

A history of corporate interactions with government and customers: in particular, the rise and fall of idea of anti-monopoly and the different philosophies that underpin regulators in the US versus Europe. The feeling is one of … well, if not hopelessness, than of an inadequacy of democratic governance in the face of enormous corporate spending on lobbying and political influence to protect corporate greed and profit.

It’s perhaps unfortunate that I read this at the moment when the corporations identified as the major threats – the tech giants – were busily shedding staff and possibly collapsing to a shadow of their former (and intended future) selves. It demonstrates that what sometimes feels like inevitable and inexorable triumph is often just a phase: that the largest, most successful, corporations are often brought low sooner and more unexpectedly than anyone could have conceived in the times of their pomp.

3/5. Finished Sunday 26 February, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

More than the Sum of the Parts: Complexity in Physics and Beyond

Helmut Satz

A great introduction and overview of complex systems.

The definition of complex system is itself … well, not obvious. Sometimes complex feels like a synonym for not understood, but actually it’s more precise than that, referring to systems whose processes can exhibit macro-scale behaviour that isn’t simply the aggregation of the micro-scale behaviours of its components: the canonical example is that water freezes, but a single water molecule doesn’t. Another approach is to use the term to describe systems where chains of cause and effect are difficult to disentangle.

Whichever definition you prefer, this is a gentle but still very scientific introduction. There’s enough maths for it not to feel shallow, but little enough for it to be widely accessible even when dealing with concepts like entropy that are often a challenge to explain clearly. There’s a really good discussion of criticality and universality, as well as the irreversibility of phase transitions such as sand pile transitions. It’d be a good introduction for students.

4/5. Finished Sunday 5 February, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Dawn of Everything

David Graeber (2021)

A book with an amazign ambition: to re-visit and re-interpret the whole of political theory from a basis in modern anthropology and archaeology.

The authors have done a deep dive into not only modern archaeological evidence but also into the nearly-forgotten thinkers of the early Enlightenment. And they make some startling discoveries. Wehn we think of the Enlightenment, we think of something unique to a particular moment in European history when the rights of god and kings were being questioned for the first time. But many of the thinkers didn’t see it that was at all: they were responding to critiques of the European system by Native American observers, who – far from being overawed and impressed by modernity – were disgusted by the poverty and arbitrary violence they saw: so different to their own societies. This re-discovery leads to further re-considerations: of the linear flow of development, the occurrance of an agricultural revolution as a particular turning-point moment (and whether it persisted), the emergence (or not) of hierarchies and kings, all backed up evidentially from recent sources.

Graeber and Wengrow take issue with the narrative of inevitability in the route to modern civilisation. In part this is based on the observation that many “events”, such as the adoption of agriculture, weren’t “events” at all, but happened over a period of centuries, were unevenly adopted and frequently rolled-back. Their central theme is that it’s a mistake to think of early civilisations as blank canvases in which nothing political happened: that’s an assumption, and not one supported in any way by the physical or even the literary evidence.

They frame their ideas of liberty around three freedoms: freedom to move, freedom to disobey the orders of others, and freedom to re-imagine society. (The last is obviously very different and more abstract than the first two.) They contend that modern societies have become “stuck” without these freedoms as a matter of choice, not of historical inevitability.

It’s a persuasive narrative, impeded slightly by the very wealth of detail they marshall in its support. And there are some crious omissions: no consideration of anarchy or Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, and (more surprisingly) no reference to Isiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty, although his ideas are clearly part of their intellectual background. Still, this is an intensely political book that deserves a wide reading, if only to defeat the notion that we’ve somehow arrived at a civilisational peak from which there’s no sense in deviating.

4/5. Finished Sunday 5 February, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)


Lucy Kissick (2022)

It’s incredible to read a science fiction book that’s so informed by something as recent as the “New Horizons” mission to Pluto: a book that couldn’t have been written, or whose several key plot elements would have been different, if written fives years earlier. This is a political take on terraforming, focusing on the fact that all major movements are always problematic and opposed s they get started; but it’s also about capitalism, family dynamics, and the search for scientific fame that the author has (I imagine) experienced first-hand.

3/5. Finished Sunday 15 January, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)