Six Days: How the 1967 War Shaped the Middle East

Jeremy Bowen (2003)

A rounded, balanced, and well-paced description of the lead-up, conduct, and aftermath of what was probably the most significant conflict between the end of the Second World War and the Second Gulf War.

Jeremy Bowen brings a journalist’s eye to his history, sprinkling the writing with interviews and comments from those who were there without getting distracted from the main flow of the narrative. Each day of the war gets a chapter — something that must surely be unique in military histories — with ample attention being given both to the military and civilian aspects of the conflict.

“America fell in love with its tough young friend,” Bowen comments, and while it’s not hard to see why, it’s hard not to be infuriated by the consequences. No-one comes out of the story well. The Israelis fail to capitalise on the size of their victory to use magnanimity to gain a lasting peace. The Arab countries lie to themselves in the run-up and then try to hide from the fall-out by blaming others. The US and Britain fail to push for a just resolution, when they could have demanded a similar outcome to that which followed the Suez crisis. I’d certainly recommend this as a one-volume overview of the medium-term causes of the Middle-East situation, as well as a warning from history for future conflicts.

5/5. Finished Thursday 3 July, 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Kursk: The Greatest Battle

Lloyd Clark (2011)

An excellent example of military history, this book deals with one of the most formative, but least known, battles of the Second World War, that raged for weeks around Kursk in Ukraine. Churchill said that, if Stalingrad was the end of the beginning, then Kursk marked the beginning of the end, and it’s easy to see why.

Clark wisely spend the first half of the book on prequel: the build-up to the battle, the progress of the war in Russia, and the rationale for the battle choices on both sides. He peppers the story with quotes, both from survivors’ accounts and from his own interviews — one of which results in two old soldiers from opposite sides coming together for coffee and reminiscences after a slightly tense start. He manages to cover the broad structure of the battle while being exceptionally vivid on the detail experienced by individual soldiers.

I have to say that books like this are the best argument I’ve ever seen for interactive e-books. The order of battle, the changing front lines, and the ebb and flow of battle would really benefit from some interactive mapping that could show the impact of topography alongside the text. Clark manages not to get too lost in the names of units and their movements, but it’s sometimes hard to keep them straight.

4/5. Finished Sunday 29 June, 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Laureation for Professor Dana Scott

I had the honour (and the great personal pleasure) of inviting the Vice-Chancellor to bestow an honorary degree upon Dana Scott, the inventor of some of the most influential ideas in computer science. Vice-Chancellor, I have the privilege to present Professor Dana Scott for the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa. Vice-Chancellor, colleagues, friends, ladies and gentlemen: For millennia, people have performed calculations, sometimes changing the way we live or understand the world. Many of these calculations have involved long, complicated sequences of actions — what we now refer to as algorithms. But it was only in the 1930s that researchers such as Alonzo Church, John von Neumann, Alan Turing, and others formally studied how we perform calculations, which rapidly opened-up the mechanisation of such operations and led to what we now know as computer science. What does it mean to describe a calculation? For Turing, it meant designing an ideal machine whose small set of simple operations could perform computation — an operational view of computing that allows machines to perform tasks previously thought to require humans. But we can also think of computation independent of mechanisation, where mathematics can be applied to studying computation, and a theory of computation becomes available for the study of mathematics, physics, and other disciplines. And when we take this view, we are making use of ideas that owe their modern existence to the work of Dana Scott. Scott was a PhD student of the logician Alonzo Church, whom I mentioned earlier. Working with the late Christopher Strachey at Oxford, Scott developed a theory of computation that allows calculations to be analysed, studied, and compared. Scott’s insight was to view computation as a steady increase in information. His development of the mathematical structures now known as Scott domains provided a way of precisely describing this progression. They in turn led directly to an approach for formally describing programs and programming languages — the Scott-Strachey approach to denotational semantics — and indirectly both to approaches to proving programs correct, and to the development of lazy functional programming languages that today form a major strand of computer science research: one to which St Andrews is proud to be making an on-going contribution. If asked, most computer scientists would agree that denotational semantics forms Scott’s most lasting contribution; they might marvel that, later this year, at the age of 81, he will be delivering a keynote lecture in Vienna at the main international conference on computational logic; and they would probably be able to tell you that he is a recipient of the Turing Award, often referred to as the “Nobel Prize for Computer Science”. However, Scott in fact won the Turing Award, jointly with Michael Rabin, for work on automata theory that predates his work on semantics. In other words, he won the highest accolade his discipline has to offer for work not generally considered to be his most significant. As you might imagine, this is a rather unusual occurrence: in fact, the only other example I can find in the entire history of science is the award of the Nobel Prize to Albert Einstein for work other than his theory of relativity. That’s not bad company to be keeping. When we think of computers, we often think of their visible manifestations: the internet, mobile phones, aircraft flight control systems, Angry Birds. But no matter how impressive, and how much they continue to change our lives for the better, these systems are possible only because of the foundational intellectual developments that let us reason about proofs, calculations, and computations, as well as simply carrying them out. Vice Chancellor, the work of Dana Scott grounded the discipline of computer science, not only in a specific piece of theory, but also in an approach and a mindset that changed how we think about computing and, through this, has had a profound influence across the whole of human endeavour. It is in recognition of these seminal contributions to science that I invite you to confer upon Professor Dana Scott the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa. Photo here. (Thanks to Al Dearle, Steve Linton, Lisa Dow, and Muffy Calder for comments that made this better than the first draft I did.)    

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

Edwin A. Abbott (1884)

A satire of Victorian society, this little book also manages to be a pretty good introduction to abstract higher geometry. Written from the perspective of an inhabitant of a two-dimensional universe, it features social descriptions, dream sequences into one dimension, a subsequent venture into three dimensions, and the narrator’s final coming to terms with his society’s inability to believe his insights.

The parallels with Gulliver’s Travels are obvious, and Abbott is a better scientist and mathematician than Swift but a less subtle satirist. Having said that, he manages to land some blows: the upper class aversion to “feeling” is probably my favourite, but his treatment of the women of Flatland and the need for (and impact of) wholesale social lying also bring a smile.

3/5. Finished Thursday 12 June, 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Scholarships available to study data science in Lancaster

The University of Lancaster has a new MSc programme starting in Data Science, with lots of full scholarships. The programme is a one-year MSc that allows specialisation in computing, statistics, or environmental science. More details here.