The Hidden Persuaders

Vance Packard (1957)

The classic exposé of advertising. In many ways this book remains fresh, perhaps because of the popularity of Mad Men in bringing 50’s advertising culture back to prominence. In others, it hasn’t aged well and is clearly a product of its time. If you can get back the casual sexism and references to tobacco’s “cancer scare”, however, it’s still a great read.

I found it impossible to read this book without thinking of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, another exploration of how to affect people’s behaviour “for their own good”. It’s hard to decide which is more insidious. While advertising has undoubtedly had long-term effects on our behaviour in the half-century since Packard wrote, it’s also true that many of the techniques being espoused are now so obvious that they’ve ceased to be effective: I sometimes wonder whether advertising now almost has to be ironic just to get past people’s media filters. As a thoughtful introduction from a time just starting to show the complexities of the modern world, though, this book is hard to beat.

3/5. Finished Friday 24 April, 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

A Brief History of the Great Moghuls

Bamber Gascoigne (1971)

An excellent brief history of India’s most dramatic rulers.

Two elements really stand out. The first is the Gascoigne is an excellent art historian, able to put the architecture of the Moghuls into perspective and sometimes rejecting the conventional readings of the various buildings. Secondly, he highlights some of the facets of “harem culture” that seem incomprehensible to modern readers, the influence of sequestered wives, favourites, and concubines on their emperors.

Actually there’s a third element worth noting. Perhaps cleaving to the “brief” part of the title, Gascoigne leaves off his history halfway through what would conventionally be regarded as the lifespan of the Moghuls, stopping with the death of Aurangzeb. He covers the lives of six great Moghuls and relegates the final eleven to an epilogue, considering that their influence and grandeur waned so fast that they cannot stand next to their great forbears. This certainly demonstrates enviable confidence from an author, but it’s impossible not to agree that Gascoigne’s brevity keeps the drama and excitement of the earlier history intact and vibrant.

4/5. Finished Saturday 18 April, 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity

Prue Shaw (2014)

There aren’t many books or poems that need (or deserve) another book to explain them, but Dante’s Commedia is one, and this is an excellent guide.

Reading Dante isn’t the usual guide book, though. Instead of following the structure of the poem, it picks out a few themes (love, power, the use of language) and traces them through the complete hierarchy of hell, purgatory, and heaven. Along the way it provides a vital guide to the social and political context of 14th century Italy and some sights in Florence to see and relate to Dante’s time. Linking to one of my other great loves, it’s also full of illuminated letters and images used in the various editions of Commedia (although sady not in colour). For someone like me who reads Dante in translation, it both highlights the effects that only come through in the original, and acts as a spur to learn Italian if for no other reason than to enjoy Dante more.

One other thing that I think I should note is the physicality of the book itself. It’s beautifully presented, with deckle-edged (unevenly torn) pages, and typeset very sympathetically. Altogether a delight to read, although often quite intense.

5/5. Finished Saturday 11 April, 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

PhD studentships in St Andrews

The School of Computer Science has a number of fully-funded PhD scholarships available. I’d be interested in hearing from anyone interested in working on complex systems, complex networks, sensor networks, or situation recognition. You can find more details about what I’m interested in here. I’m particularly interested in people wanting to cross disciplines somewhat, into applications in environmental science, medicine, or the digital humanities. The full advertisement is here. Deadline for applications 31 March 2015.

Shackleton’s Whisky: The Extraordinary Story of an Heroic Explorer and Twenty-five Cases of Unique MacKinlay’s Old Scotch

Neville Peat (2012)

Two biographies for the price of one! – of an heroic adventurer and a classic whisky.

The book is in two parts. The first is the history of Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition of 1907. Peat manages to convey the emptiness of the Antarctic and the struggles and successes of the expedition. He does an excellent job of combining the adventure, the science, and the hardship that the away team underwent – and indeed those that happened on the long trip from England to Antarctica via New Zealand.

The second part is the story of the whisky’s temporary recovery back to the distillery to be tasted, tested, and re-created by blending modern whiskies. Anyone with any interest in whisky will find this fascinating, both the processes involved and the taste of the resulting dram. The very idea that it’s possible to re-create an old Scotch so faithfully is quite remarkable, and I’m very tempted by a bottle.

The link between the two parts is a little tenuous in places, not least because Shackleton, as a teetotaller, studiously avoided talking about the drinking habits of the expedition in his books, so Peat is reduced to pointing out what isn’t mentioned. That’s hardly his fault, and it’s a limitation that doesn’t really reduce the pace of the story or the centrality that century-old whisky has for Antarctic exploration’s human side.

4/5. Finished Monday 9 March, 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)