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Goodbye to All That

Goodbye to All That

Robert Graves


The autobiography of one of the four main English-language poets of the First World War (the others being Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Rupert Brooke) offers a fascinating insight into the first-hand experience of war – if a less fascinating insight into the poet's life.

Graves is clear about the trauma, dirt, terror, and suffering of the war. His description of a battle at Loos sums-up the mindlessness of the experience: waiting, anticipation, false starts, screwing-up courage only to be knocked back. It's hard to imagine anyone going through that and not being exhausted by the adrenaline. On the way he meets Sassoon, as well as Thomas Hardy, TE Lawrence, and various other figures of the literary times.

The rest of the book is less satisfying: his boyhood at Charterhouse perhaps prepared him for the capricious nature of war, in a way, while his later experiences at Oxford and elsewhere added little to my appreciation, apart from summoning-up a vague jealousy at some of his descriptions of intellectual society just after the War: it's hard to imagine many of the conversations he describes happening now, with their deep classical allusions and assumptions of erudition on all sides.

Least satisfying is that to autobiography of a poet reveals so little about his poetic frame of mind. Graves doesn't explore the what it means to be a poet, although he alludes to the "poetic tendency" often enough. It's a surprisingly unrevealing book at a personal level: perhaps less intimately revealing than his poetry itself, in fact, but worth reading for its historical context.

3/5. Finished 24 January 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

2015 CPHC/BCS Distinguished Dissertations competition

The 2015 CPHC/BCS Distinguished Dissertations competition is now open for submissions via the submissions site. Closing date Wednesday 1 April 2015. Further details can be found below and on the competition web page. The Council of Professors and Heads of Computing (CPHC), in conjunction with BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, annually selects for publication the best British PhD/DPhil dissertations in computer science. The scheme aims to make more visible the significant contribution made by the UK - in particular by post-graduate students - to computer science. Publication also serves to provide a model for future students. The selection panel on behalf of BCS/CPHC consists of experienced computer scientists, not more than one from any institution, each normally serving on the panel for three years. Any dissertation is eligible which is submitted for a doctorate in the British Isles in what is commonly understood as Computer Science. (Theses which are basically in some other discipline but which make use, even very extensive use, of computing will not be regarded as eligible.)  However, there is a limit of THREE dissertations per year per university, and one per research group within any university. To be considered, a dissertation should:

  • make a noteworthy contribution to the subject;
  • reach a high standard of exposition;
  • place its results clearly in the context of computer science as a whole; and
  • enable a computer scientist with significantly different interests to grasp its essentials.
It is reasonable to submit a thesis to the scheme if it has all of the above qualities in good measure, and if it is comparable in standard with the top 10% of dissertations in the subject. Long dissertations are not encouraged; if the main text is more than 80,000 words, there should be good justification. The dissertation should be submitted electronically (as a PDF file) by the author's examiners, or by the Head of Department with the examiner's advice. The submitted version of the dissertation must be the final version after any required corrections have been made. The competition period for the 2015 competition is for theses accepted from 1 January 2014 until the closing date of 1 April 2015. A dissertation cannot be submitted to the competition more than once. The dissertation should be accompanied by a written nomination comprising the following information:
  • a justification, of about 300 words, by one of the examiners -- preferably the external -- explaining the dissertation's claim to  distinction (against the criteria listed above);
  • the name of the primary supervisor and the research group within the university to which the student was primarily affiliated;
  • an assurance that within the competition period the examiners have recommended to the author's institution that the doctorate should be awarded;
  • the names and contact details of three suggested reviewers who are not in the same Department as the nominated thesis and who are independent of the supervision and examining of the thesis; and
  • an indication should be given if the dissertation is being considered for publication elsewhere.
The nominated reviewers must have confirmed that they are willing to provide a review. In addition the author's written agreement that their thesis may be considered for the Distinguished Dissertation competition should be emailed by the author to Submissions should be made on-line via The first author name submitted should be that of the thesis author; the individual submitting the nomination should list themselves as the second author. The title and abstract should be those of the thesis being nominated. The first file uploaded should be the 300 word nomination; the thesis document should be uploaded as an attachment. If any problems are experienced, or you have any questions, please email for assistance. The deadline for submission is 1 April 2015.

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Kai Bird


Hard to imagine a better scientific and political biography.

I had a rough understanding of Oppenheimer's story: his management of the Manhattan project, his victimisation during the McCarthy witchhunts, and his directorship of the Institute for Advanced Study. What I hadn't realised was his own scientific standing: his association with Born, Bathe, Dirac, Heisenberg, and others, and the fact that his own contributions rank alongside theirs, including his first formulation of the equations describing black holes. Despite not entering at all into the technicalities, the authors make clear how deeply embedded he was into the initial descriptions and elaborations of quantum mechanics.

The book is squally strong when dealing with the development of the bomb and with the aftermath, the lead-up to Oppenheimer's trial as a security risk brought about in part by his principled opposition to the development of the "Super", or hydrogen bomb. The treatment is well-balanced, making no attempt to hide the part Oppenheimer played in his own downfall (although still being somewhat at a loss to describe many elements of his behaviour).

The picture that emerges is of a profound scientist and humanist who was destroyed at least in part by his own fragilities and complexities: aspects of his character that undoubtedly helped in his greatness as we as leading to his downfall. That this element of Greek tragedy would have been deeply appreciated by Oppenheimer himself only adds to the sense of a contribution spoiled by the actions of men who failed to understand what drove him and what he could give.

5/5. Finished 01 January 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Black Death in London

The Black Death in London

Barney Sloane


A detailed examination of the Plague in London in 1349 and subsequently. Sloane finds a novel way to track the progress of the Black Death, using wills and ecclesiastical replacements to identify "hot spots" that can be tentatively projected out to the rest of the population. While being very careful to recognise the limits of this approach, he arrives at a mortality rate of around 45% of London's population.

One surprising snippet from the book is the surprisingly few children couples were having in the 14th century: not much higher than in modern times in Europe, in essence, whereas I'd expected something closer to rates in modern Africa.

The book has a good bibliography into modern Plague research, which (given I'm reading this for professional purposes as well as just for interest) will come in handy.

4/5. Finished 24 December 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die

The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die

Niall Ferguson


In a great fan of Niall Ferguson's writing and scholarship, but this isn't one of his better works. It's not that there's anything at all wrong with his central message that many of the institutions that have raised-up western civilisation are being undermined. The problem I have is the fatalism with which he presents these problems, and the notion that it is somehow pre-ordained by historical processes: a view that feels almost Marxist without the positive expected outcome.

I think this is a book that cries out for a longer treatment or a second volume, an analysis and comparison of other approaches to societal problems, or an analysis of the ways in which the tensions that Ferguson sees building up might be released, even if those comparisons and processes would inevitably end in disaster.

2/5. Finished 17 December 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)