A Canticle for Leibowitz (St. Leibowitz, #1)

Walter M. Miller Jr. (1959)

Post-apocalyptic science fiction meets an historical analogy of the Middle Ages in an enjoyable, if a little disjointed, tale of what happens when the church once again becomes a repository of learning. The Order of Leibowitz transcribes the printed matter that’s survived a nuclear exchange and the subsequent mass murder of any scientists, engineers, or intellectuals left. That included the Order’s founder, a scientist driven the religion by his experiences.

The book episodically covers several centuries, starting with the experiences of a novice’s discovery of an ancient fallout shelter that leads to Leibowitz’ canonisation; through the later battles of small statelets fighting in the ruins alongside the recovery of scientific knowledge from the disjointed artefacts and texts; and culminating in the destruction of a later civilisation again unable to manage the existence of weapons of mass destruction but managing (this time) to send out emissaries to the stars.

The view Miller takes of the church is quite balanced, neither fully supportive nor dismissing it as archaic. And on balance it seems likely that the church and church forms would survive a holocaust of anything did: it’s the only institution, along with the universities, to have survived continuously from the Middle Ages. The end result sees humanity unable to move beyond repeating history, learning little new science and no new ethical or social self-knowledge along the way. In this it’s at least partly a product of its time (being first published in 1959), but the fact that the risks it explores remain equally valid today is itself enough to have it read more often.

3/5. Finished Tuesday 4 August, 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Selfish Whining Monkeys

Rod Liddle (2014)

Definitely a book that’s passed through political correctness and come out the other side.

There seem to be a couple of issues drawing Rod Liddle’s ire. The first is the narcissism of modern society, which he skewers mercilessly. The second is the emergence of a super-class of highly advantaged upper-middle-class families who are radically better able to access society’s goods than others. Their advantages come from multiple sources – public schooling, living in better areas, social networks that can help access, and so forth – but also (Liddle claims) from a more surprising source: changes to the law that seem egalitarian but work to reinforce privilege.

Is super-class privilege now so entrenched as to be immovable? If you’re looking for answers to this, or even some vague suggestions, you won’t find them. But as a source of dinner-party factoids and telling phrases, this is a winner. People “who have had their struggles too” will definitely be part of my vocabulary from now on.

4/5. Finished Monday 13 July, 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)


Robert Mason (1983)

A raw and largely uncensored account of the life of a “slick” (troop-carrying) helicopter pilot’s life in Vietnam. It’s a great mix of war story, flight training manual, memoir, and anti-war polemic, gradually shifting between these various facets as time goes on.

Mason doesn’t glamorise the war or his own part in it; nor does he gloss over details that must have been uncomfortable to write (and for his family and friends to read). What comes through strongly is heroism on a small scale and pointlessness on a large scale: repeatedly and bravely storming the same pieces of territory as the “strategy” of attrition wears down both sides. In between are some wonderful flight scenes and descriptions of helicopter tactics that will fascinate any technically-inclined reader.

The epilogue covering his return from Vietnam is poignant and revealing of the challenges that many veterans faced as they tried (and often failed) to re-integrate themselves. It’s an inconvenient truth that many societies — and the UK is no better than the US in this — fail to deal with their troops well once they’re out of the field, no matter how much they applauded them while the war was on.

4/5. Finished Sunday 5 July, 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

How computer science can help keep you healthy

Well, it has to be good for something People sometimes aren’t aware just how much computers influence their lives. They’ve used the internet and mobile phones, seen computer-generated imagery in cinemas, and perhaps realised how much date is being sensed around them. But there are enormous applications for computers in science, arts, and medicine. Earlier today I did an introductory lecture on using computers to study disease epidemics:

Com­pu­ta­tional epi­demi­ology is the use of math­em­at­ical and com­pu­ta­tional tech­niques to model how dis­eases spread. This is import­ant for answer­ing a num­ber of ques­tions. How infec­tious are dif­fer­ent dis­eases? Why are dif­fer­ent pop­u­la­tions affected dif­fer­ently? How do dif­fer­ent treat­ment regimes work? Is quar­ant­ine effect­ive? We can address these sorts of ques­tions using a range of dif­fer­ent tech­niques, ran­ging from dif­fer­en­tial equa­tions (cal­cu­lus) for simple cases through to com­plex net­works and high-performance sim­u­la­tion for com­plex case — and pos­sibly even mod­el­ling real dis­eases in real-world geo­graph­ies in real time. This lec­ture is an inter­act­ive intro­duc­tion to these ideas. We’ll explore how dis­eases spread; con­duct an exper­i­ment where we infect each other (kind of); and then see how dif­fer­ent aspects of com­puter sci­ence help us to explore dis­eases and their treatment.
The slides and other material are available here. I’ve included the slides, and an animation of a simulated epidemic running through a population of people. I’ve also included an IPython notebook describing some of the mathematics needed and containing all the code I used to generate the graphs and animation from the talk, which might be handy for anyone wanting to explore this area more thoroughly.

1913: The World Before the Great War

Charles Emmerson (2013)

A rounded tour of the horizons of the year before the Great War.

Emmerson structures his history around the great cities of the world: London, New York, Paris, St Petersburg, and Berlin, all obviously, but also Mexico City, Durban. Winnipeg, Melbourne, Detroit, and others. He uses them as nuclei around which to describe the core events and factors driving the populations. That they are universally unaware of the catastrophe that is bearing down on them only reinforces the strange nature of the Great War, that its origins seem to defy credible explanation.

It’s impossible to read this book without being reminded of The Proud Tower : A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914, Barbara Tuchman’s portrait of Europe in the same period. And if Emmerson lack something of Tuchman’s elegance, it’s only a matter of degree: he has the same eye for anecdote, the same beautiful turns of phrase. He also favours wider-ranging sociology over Tuchman’s considerations of art and politics. IN many ways to two books make useful companion pieces.

The overriding impression for a modern reader is the almost universal acceptance of racist and sexist foundations for societies, extending both to the rulers and to the ruled. Gandhi fights for the rights of Indians in South Africa without concerning himself about the rights of Africans; Irish Nationalists struggle for independence but deplore votes for women. The ability to rationalise clearly hasn’t changed over the years.

4/5. Finished Saturday 27 June, 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)