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Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro


This is a very accessible piece of literary fiction that describes the experiences of a group of adults growing up in a near-future distopia -- I won't say why it's distopian as this comes out gradually over time. There are clear parallels with Brave New World and The Handmaid's Tale: the closest parallel I know of the movie The Beach, which would offer a more direct and less literary approach.

3/5. Finished 13 October 2013.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Scratch: visual programming for Arduino

For some people, traditional programming is daunting. This needn't be the case, and there are several more visual programming studios available -- one of which has now come to the Arduino.

Scratch is a long-running programme from MIT that lets non-programmers -- and especially kids -- get started writing complex programs. It comes from the family of languages that include Squeak and Etoys, all intended to demystify programming and computers.

Scratch has now come to Arduino by way of S4a, that lets people develop sketches using a very visual approach:

A Scratch program

It's hard to describe exactly how this sort of visual programming works, and it's definitely not suitable for all tasks: typically it's better for exploratory and experimental, "play" approaches rather than more detailed and complex processes. But it'll be great to see whether this is appropriate for many of the applications the Arduino finds a home in -- and even more so to explore it for what we're trying to do here at Citizen Sensing.

Why Britain is at War

Why Britain is at War

Harold Nicolson


I find books like this fascinating: history written during the events we always treat as happening together. This little book was written as a propaganda piece during the "Phony War" of 1939, to explain to the British people why the war was happening. The author had been a bit-player in the negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the Great War and, as with the work of William Shirer, this the writing an immediacy that it might otherwise lack -- perhaps at the cost of historical perspective. Still, it makes me want to read Peacemaking, 1919, Nicolson's memoir of the treaty-making (assuming I can find a copy).

Nicolson's observations are acute, and his description of the history of the run-up to the Second World War feels quite modern. It's interesting to see that it was possible, at that time, to make the same assessments of events as we make now. He's also gentle on Neville Chamberlain -- more so than those who followed Churchill's rather harsher model were in the immediate aftermath of the war -- and again this makes him feel more like a modern writer.

4/5. Finished 05 October 2013.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West

Dee Brown


The history of Manifest Destiny written from the perspective of its victims.

This isn't an easy read. The central characters are all doomed from the start by their weakness and lack of understanding of what is motivating their other side. However, what comes through clearly is both the nobility of the Native Americans in the face of their own destruction, but also the cruelty and capriciousness that led the new settlers to misunderstand their motivations and desires.

Stronger than this, though, is the Victorian hypocrisy of the settlers and weakness of the US government during the period. As soon as there's any value perceived in Indian lands, treaties are torn up and "re-negotiated" to their detriment. These depredations are all accompanied by the most suffocating cant about what's good for the tribes, or how much value they'll obtain for giving up their "worthless" land. This is what makes the story resonate, for me. It's not that the Native Americans were dispossessed of their lands: that's normal practice in an invasion and, while possibly deplorable, is at least commonplace in history. What isn't common is to assert, apparently sincerely on some people's parts, that the dispossession is happening for the good of, or to the benefit of, the dispossessed. It shows the settlers as unable to conceive of the Indians as partners with whom one treats seriously -- never mind as equals -- and provides a fig leaf behind which to hide their direct or indirect destruction.

The government also comes through as weak, in the power of vested interests and cabals of plotters, and unable to enforce its decisions over space or time. The people on the ground almost always have a different perception -- sometimes better, sometimes worse -- of the situation, but the lack of control means that these perceptions are of no use in improving in the long term how the Native Americans are treated. Perhaps this was inevitable at the time: reading in our own time, however, it's hard to think of the federal government being so helpless against the States or even its own agents.

I think the question of whether it was even conceivable that Indians and settlers could have lived together peacefully remains largely unanswered and subject to too many imponderables: if the Indians had been left enough reservations, if the central government could have prevented settlements from encroaching, if the railroads could have gone through without conflict, then perhaps. The fact that none of these approaches were ever tried with any seriousness does no credit to those involved either locally or nationally.

5/5. Finished 05 October 2013.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements

Sam Kean


A romp through the lesser-known facts of the periodic table. I think anyone with even a basic interest in science would find this book entertaining and at times fascinating. It has a broad spread that includes scientific facts, the processes of discovery, biography and human rivalry -- often in the same paragraph.

I can't say I like the author's style, though: it's too "bouncy", too frantic to entertain, and the content is sufficiently absorbing not to need such a treatment. That's purely a personal preference, of course, and another reader might find it exhilarating.

3/5. Finished 05 October 2013.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)