We Know All About You: The Story of Surveillance in Britain and America

Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones (2017)

An interesting review of surveillance, especially good on the history of private investigators as strikebreakers and blacklisters, both in the US (the Pinkertons) but also in the UK, which is a far less well-known story.

3/5. Finished Saturday 11 November, 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment

Yanis Varoufakis (2017)

An emotionally charged but very readable personal account of the third stage of the Greek financial crisis, as told by one of the protagonists.

It’s important to bear in mind that this is autobiography, not history, and as such can be excused for being polemical in Varoufakis’ defence. It’s detailed and complex in its political overtones, but the core argument is very simple: the Greek financial crisis long ago ceased to be about economics and became a morality play in which the Greek state is forced to accept increasingly steep remedies that aren’t in any way intended to bring about a recovery, or even to recover monies already loaned.

One can’t treat the account as history, since so many of the exchanges are uncorroborated. Moreover, Varoufakis reduces his entire account of the run-up to very small sections – almost single sentences – where he admits that the Greek state had massively mismanaged its own economy. It’s acceptable for him to do so, both because he’s telling the story of his own involvement in events and because, quite frankly, the details are irrelevant to him as an economist. He sees a state that’s incapable of repaying its loans and expects capitalism to work as it should – by imposing the losses on those foolish enough to make the loans. When the opposite happens, and the lenders (European banks) are bailed-out at the expense of the Greek citizenry and European taxpayer, he’s almost at a loss to deal with the fact that the economics have become an irrelevance.

His account is eerily consistent with those dealing with the Irish “bailout” (which was, similarly, no such thing – not of the state receiving it, anyway). It will remain for future historians to weigh the different accounts in the balance, and this book will be one of their main sources.

4/5. Finished Thursday 24 August, 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Yuval Noah Harari (2011)

A balanced and thoughtful history of humanity.

This is a wide-ranging book that often comes at familiar questions from different perspectives. Are humans causing rapid species extinctions in modern times? – yes, but it happened before as we spread into new regions and the local megafauna “coincidentally” disappeared. Have agriculture and science reduced human suffering? – yes, but at an enormous cost in animal suffering. And so on in a cascade of provocations that constantly raise questions and force judgements on the reader.

I think one can disagree somewhat with the trajectory of the arguments while agreeing with all the details. Harari maintains throughout that the ideas and philosophies we embrace today are just as transient and laking in foundation as any others. The transience is certainly true, of course, but I think one can be slightly more optimistic about the large-scale direction, and not be totally consumed by relativism.

The final two pages are perhaps the most insightful: “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?” The only conclusion In think we can draw from this book is that we’re going to be as gods, like it or not, and we’d better start deciding what we want to do with those powers: “what do we want to want”, in another of the author’s very insightful phrases.

5/5. Finished Sunday 20 August, 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Stars Are Legion

Kameron Hurley (2017)

Space opera in a very different form. For a start, there are literally no men in the cast (universe). Secondly, the location and context of the story – giant world-sized spaceships closely orbiting a star and fighting amongst themselves – isn’t explained or in any way inferable. Reality never becomes clear, but that works really well to set this story apart and let the author’s quite astounding imagination run free without constraints.

5/5. Finished Monday 17 July, 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Reality is Not What it Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity

Carlo Rovelli (2014)

A description of the weird world of quantum theory by someone who is both an expert in the field and a gifted communicator. It’s notoriously hard to explain quantum ideas, and Rovelli is wise and experienced enough not to try to make facile analogies that confuse rather than simplify.

The only reason for not giving the book five stars is that Rovelli occasionally can’t resist the temptation to throw in formulae, even though almost none of the readers will appreciate them (and I include myself in that). Even physicists would struggle unless they happened to be expert in exactly the right areas, and it weakens the presentation in my opinion – and is also completely unnecessary, given the lightness of his prose.

I think the place this book most shines, though, is the last chapter on the nature of scientific enquiry. It’s text that could stand alone:

Science is sometimes criticised for pretending to explain everything,
for thinking that it has an answer to every question. It’s a curious
accusation. As every researcher working in every laboratory throughout
the world knows, doing science means coming up hard against the limits
of your ignorance on a daily basis – the innumerable things that you
don’t know and can’t do. This is quite different from claiming to know
everything. We don’t know what particles we might see next year at
CERN, or what our next telescopes will reveal, or which equations
truly describe the world; we don’t know how to solve the equations we
have, and sometimes we don’t understand what they signify; we don’t
know if the beautiful theory on which we are working is right. We
don’t know what there is beyond the Big Bang; we don’t know how a
storm works, or a bacterium, or an eye – or the cells in our own
bodies, or our thought processes. A scientist is someone who lives
immersed in the awareness of our deep ignorance, in direct contact
with our own innumerable limits, with the limits of our understanding.

…and so on, and I’m very tempted to quote it at great length. It’s text that should be read by everyone and widely disseminated amongst those who mistrust or denigrate science and expertise.

4/5. Finished Wednesday 12 July, 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)