The Computers That Made Britain

Tim Danton

A detailed and well-researched explortion of 1980s home and school computers: the two were often the same. All the main players are here: Research Machines, Acorn, Sinclair, Amstrad, Atari, Commodore, as well as some of the lesser-known machines.

The interations between the companies are interesting, as are the beliefs and intentions of some of the individuals involved. The relationship between Acorn and Sinclair over the BBC Micro are well-known, and include a fist-fight in a Cambridge pub when Clive Sinclair thinks Chris Curry has been underhanded. But I learned a lot about how Sinclair, Alan Sugar, and several others never really believed in home computers, even as they were changing the face of Britain (and my own life). Sinclair in particular saw the future as being pocket TVs and electric cars – and so was strangely right, and radically ahead of his time.

It’s strange that so much innovation happened in Britain, at a time of de-industrialisation. In many ways the times were right. It’s possible to build an 8-bit computer and its operating system by hand, without enormous outlay in supporting technology – which isn’t in any way to belittle the innovation and talent involved. But later generations required more industry and investment that the British players simply couldn’t find, so the world moved on to IBM PCs and games consoles. I have to say I still miss the Acorns and Amstrads and Ataris I had, and it was great to see them celebrated in this book and learn more about how they came about.

5/5. Finished Wednesday 1 November, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Power of Geography: Ten Maps That Reveal the Future of Our World

Tim Marshall (2021)

A successor to Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics that attempts to do the same thing: to argue that geography constrains the pursuit of politics more than we might realise. It does this, although as a sequel it’s far less impactful than the original, and seems to spend too much time on the historical progression of the chosen countries and not enough on the ways these histories actually manifest the geographical constraints under which they’re constrained. Indeed, some of the countries’ geographies (such as Saudi Arabia’s) seem almost irrelevant compared to their geologies.

The inclusion of “space” as a country is interesting from a political perspective, and Marshall does manage to show that it has a “geography” of sorts – as Robert Heinlein is quoted as saying, once you’re in Earth orbit you’re halfway to anywhere, since getting up the gravity well is the major transport cost. I’m assuming this will be the subject of a later book.

2/5. Finished Friday 20 October, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Thinking In Systems: A Primer

Donella H. Meadows (2008)

An introduction to systems thinking for practitioners. This is a book that avoids all the mathematics of queues and games, while still drawing heavily on their influence and allowing those wanting to learn and apply systems thinking to gain an understanding of the main ideas.

There’s a huge need for more systems thinking. It boils down to understanding the way systems “flow”, with resources entering, being processed, and leaving. In doing so we find systems that can have several “steady” states, still operating at full capacity but not maintaining a regular and predictable behaviour. We also find that systems can switch very quickly from one stable state to another, perhaps less desirable, and it might not be as easy to get out of such a state as it was to get in to it: behavioural change can be difficult or impossible to reverse.

All these ideas have proper mathematical underpinnings. The great thing about this book is that it consumes and presents those underpinnings without ever actually referring to them. It treats systems theory as a machine that anyone can use: you might get more precise answers from a more scientific analysis, but eiven without this you can still apply the ideas intuitively to gain a better understanding of the world. I think it’s a distinctive addition to the literature on complex systems.

4/5. Finished Tuesday 12 September, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Hidden Hands: The Lives of Manuscripts and Their Makers

Mary Wellesley (2021)

Everyone associates mediæval manuscripts with monasteries and monks, but nuns had an enormous part to play as well, including in some of the best-known works. That’s the central observation of this extremely enjoyable book. It’s niche in the sense of really appealing to caligraphers and classicists, but it also serves to show (once again) that the Middle Ages (and before) were a socially richer period than we often imagine.

As well as Latin, we’re exposed to a lot of Old and Middle English, carefully translated and glossed to make the context comprehensible. I can imagine that experts might object to some of the modernisation, but for an non-specialist it was quite clarifying.

About the only negative point was that I suspect the book emerged from Mary Wellesley’s PhD thesis – and that sometimes shows in places where she feels the need to justify herself vaery carefully against the existing literature. None of that spoils the readability and insightfulness, though.

5/5. Finished Friday 1 September, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures

Merlin Sheldrake (2020)

I often avoid books like these, as I worry that they’ll focus on a single aspect of the environment and try too hard to make it all-consumingly special. This isn’t a book like that. Perhaps because it’s written by a scientist, it’s balanced and carefully supported. It covers all the parts of fungi you’d expect, in all their strangeness: we talk of things being “animal, vegetable, or mineral” and ignore the fourth possibility (although we should perhaps also include bacteria, archæa, and viruses too).

The “wood wide web” of communications between trees mediated by fungi gets an excellent treatment, both its mechanics and in terms of how evolution might have brought it about by allowing co-operation to complement individual competition (shades of Peter Kropotkin‘s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution). There’s also extensive consideration of the psychotropic effects of fungi and the chemicals they produce, both on humans (which can be pleasant) and insects (which can be far worse). And there is also the far-less-known ability of fungi to act as decontaminators to break down chemicals that are otherwise extremely difficult to deal with and lethal to most plants – and even more remarkably, that this ability seems to be amenable to being trained or at least steered in useful new directions.

I have to admire Sheldrake’s creativity and perseverance in studying fungi. They’re clearly a hard topic to research, not least because the fruiting bodies are only a visible clue to a far larger and more diffuse underground body that’s a challenge to detect, let alone sense or explore.

5/5. Finished Thursday 31 August, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)