Book Notes, 2019
Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks — The third of the Culture novels, a gift from Anna.
Zakalwe, in all the human societies we have ever reviewed, in every age and every state, there has seldom if ever been a shortage of eager young males prepared to kill and die to preserve the security, comfort and prejudices of their elders, and what you call heroism is just an expression of this simple fact; there is never a scarcity of idiots.
The Godfather by Mario Puzo — Late night reading holding a newborn.
So Don Corleone himself was not angry. He had long ago learned that society imposes insults that must be borne, comforted by the knowledge that in this world there comes a time when the most humble of men, if he keeps his eyes open, can take his revenge on the most powerful.
Shoe Dog by Phil Knight — For a brand as big as Nike, you’d think the founder would be a household name. Knight describes himself as introverted, just a bit obsessed with running shoes. He was a decent track runner at college, coached by Bill Bowerman. After backpacking around the world he had an idea for a business. He’d seen Japanese-made cameras take over the market from German brands in the US and thought he could do the same for running shoes to beat the giants of Adidas and Puma.
Every runner knows this. You run and run, mile after mile, and you never quite know why. You tell yourself that you’re running toward some goal, chasing some rush, but really you run because the alternative, stopping, scares you to death.
It was Bowerman who came up with the first innovation, using a kitchen waffle iron to make an outer sole with better grip.
Uncommon People by David Hepworth — A history of the rock star from Little Richard to Kurt Cobain.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson
I’ll be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara — The story of McNamara’s amateur (in the best sense of the word) quest to find the identity of the Golden State Killer.
Beyond Weird by Philip Ball — An outstanding work I recommend to anyone who wants an understanding of quantum physics without mathematical language. In fact Ball contests the claim I would make, that you can only really grok quantum physics by understanding the equations and solving problems.
Some physicists might be tempted to argue precisely the opposite: that the maths is the most fundamental description. They might say this basically because the maths makes perfect sense whereas the words don’t quite. But that would be to make a semantic error: equations purportedy about physical reality are, without interpretation, just marks on paper. We can’t hide behand equations with that ‘not quite’ — not if we truly want to derive meaning. Feynman knew this.
Ball covers the important topics — superposition and entanglement, interpretations, measurement, the EPR paradox, computing and cryptography — without hyperbole or the ‘alien world’ silliness you find in other popular descriptions. He writes about decoherence, a topic important to my own research, in a way that has changed the way I talk and even think about it.
It’s often suggested that quantum states such as superpositions are delicate and fragile. Put them in a noisy environment (the story goes) and all that jiggling and shaking by the surroundings destroys these frail quantum states, collapsing wavefunctions and shattering superpositions. But this isn’t quite right. Indeed, why should quantum states be fragile if, as I’ve suggested, quantum mechanics supplies the most fundamental description of the universe? What kind of laws are these, if they give up the ghost so easily? The truth is they don’t. Quantum superpositions of states aren’t fragile. On the contrary, they are highly contagious and apt to spread out rapidly. And that is what seems to destroy them.
This book presents the reframing of quantum physics as not about the behaviour of very small objects, but the study of what is and is not knowable, and how different knowns are related.
Increasingly, it looks more logical to frame quantum mechanics as a set of rules about information: what is and isn’t permissible when it comes to sharing, copying, transmitting and reading it. What distinguishes the quantum world of entanglement and non-locality from the everyday world where such things can’t be found is a kind of information-sharing between quantum systems that allows us to find out about one of them by looking at the other. Non-locality is a baffling concept when we think in terms of particles with certain properties located in space, but is perhaps less so when we think of what it means to have knowledge of a quantum system. Quantum non-locality is the escape clause that rescues quantum mechanics from the ‘paradox’ Einstein perceived in entanglement — specifically that it appeared to violate special relativity.
Non-locality lets influences seem to propagate across space instantaneously while forbidding us from actually sending any meaningful information (indeed, from sending anything at all) that fast. Our intuitive notions of causality — this dictating that — are salvaged, but only by taking a somewhat broader view of what cause and effect may mean. Einstein’s ‘spooky action at a distance’ vanishes once we think not in terms of pseudo-classical particles interacting via forces but in terms of where in a quantum system information can reside and how it can be probed and correlated.
Last Days of the Concorde by Samme Chittum — When I get to bore my son with stories of the primitive technology of my childhood, there’ll be a couple of things I’ll be able to talk about that might actually impress him. There was a spaceship called the Shuttle that would land and launch again. And there was a plane called Concorde that you could take from London to New York in 3½ hours, travelling faster than the speed of sound.
This book is two things: a biography of an incredible machine, and a fascinating, detailed look at the investigation of the fatal crash outside Paris on July 25, 2000 that was the beginning of the end for that machine.
It is not unreasonable to look upon the Concorde as a miracle. Who would have predicted that the combination of two governments, two airframe companies, two engine companies — each with different cultures, languages and units of measurement — would have produced a technical achievement the size of the Concorde?
The aerodynamic calculations made by Johanna Weber and Dietrich Küchemann were groundbreaking before modern computational fluid dynamics.
Concorde had an exemplary safety record. The investigation led by the Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses determined that a piece of metal had dropped onto the runway from an earlier takeoff and wasn’t spotted. That piece of metal burst a tyre as Concorde ran over it. A strip of the burst type ruptured a fuel tank and exposed wiring on the gear. The spark lit a vaporised stream of kerosene to start a huge fire. The first the cockpit knew of that fire was over the radio from the air traffic controller at CDG, ‘You have flames behind you’. The distinct shape of Concorde required for supersonic flight required huge initial engine power to get the plane off the ground. Failure of the two left engines left the pilots with no chance of getting enough thrust to take off and potentially get the plane up to a speed that might put out the fire.
Erebus by Michael Palin — A history of HMS Erebus, a former warship that found its calling in some incredible Antarctic and Arctic expeditions.
Fever by Sonia Shah — A history of malaria and malarial science.
A Short History of England by Simon Jenkins — The early parts I found interesting, on the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that emerged after the Romans had had enough: Mercia, Northumbria, Æthelfrith, Æthelstan and Alfred, the venerable Bede, the Vikings and the Danelaw. Once it got into medieval England, told as a soap opera of king after tyranical king, I got a bit bored. Good again on the struggle between royal power and consent through Parliament, and in the quick run through of the last century.
Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport — I took Newport’s advice on taking a ‘digital declutter’:
Put aside a thirty-day period during which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life. During this thirty-day break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviors that you find satisfying and meaningful. At the end of the break, reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it so as to maximize this value.
I mostly stuck to the plan, and it did make me more deliberate on my use of social media and daily news but of course I’ve gotten lazy. Maybe I should try it again.
Newport describes the general idea of the book, ‘digital minimalism’, like this:
A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.
I strongly agree with the idea but enjoyed this book less than his others, partly because it felt a bit strung out. Maybe it could just have been a long blogpost. A habit that works for me is to tell myself the phone is an outdoors computer and put it on a charger out of reach when I’m at home or at work.
Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks — I’m working through the Culture novels in an odd order, this one was indirectly recommended by my friend Lawrence. I enjoyed the idea of the vast artifical ring planet, Masaq, and the plot gets really absorbing towards the end.
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond — where typical histories of human civilisations look at what happened in countries or cities over short periods in the time since the invention of writing, this book considers trends over whole continents since the last ice age 13,000 years ago. At that point every person on Earth lived in a band of hunter-gatherers using stone tools. By 1500 AD, Australia, most of the Americas and some of sub-Saharan Africa were still hunter-gatherers using stone tools while European and Asian societies had governments, writing, iron tools and standing armies. Why? Diamond rejects any racist assumption of superiority in intelligence or culture, and looks at environmental differences between continents. First, there was the availability of animals and plants to domesticate:
If one defines ‘big’ as ‘weighing over 100 pounds’, then only 14 such species were domesticated before the twentieth century. Of those Ancient Fourteen, 9 became important livestock for people in only limited areas of the globe: the Arabian camel, Bactrian camel, llama/alpaca, donkey, reindeer, water buffalo, yak, banteng, and gaur. Only 5 species became widespread and important around the world. Those Major Five of mammal domestication are the cow, sheep, goat, pig, and horse.
Where were these domesticable animals?
Eurasian peoples happened to inherit many more species of domesticable large wild mammalian herbivores than did peoples of the other continents. That outcome, with all of its momentous advantages for Eurasian societies, stemmed from three basic facts of mammalian geography, history, and biology. First, Eurasia, befitting its large area and ecological diversity, started out with the most candidates. Second, Australia and the Americas, but not Eurasia or Africa, lost most of their candidates in a massive wave of late-Pleistocene extinctions – possibly because the mammals of the former continents had the misfortune to be first exposed to humans suddenly and late in our evolutionary history, when our hunting skills were already highly developed.
Other environmental differences considered relate to the location and shape of continents themselves. The latitudinal axis of Eurasia made the spread of farming technologies easier than the longitudinal axes of Africa and the Americas, with their big differences in climate from top to bottom. Isolation by sea (Australia) or internal barrier (mountain ranges, desert, jungle) also inhibited progress.
It seems the book is controversial to some historians because it neglects autonomy of societies and perhaps excuses European conquest and colonialism. I think it is just painting broader strokes. My favourite fact from the book:
New Guinea has by far the highest concentration of languages in the world: 1,000 out of the world’s 6,000 languages, crammed into an area only slightly larger than that of Texas, and divided into dozens of language families and isolated languages as different from each other as English is from Chinese.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré — I enjoyed The Spy Who Came in from the Cold more but a great read. That’s the first five of the Smiley books, I think I’ll carry on with them next year.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee — Some novels can be the best kind of history book, and this is one. It tells the story of Koreans in Japan through the twentieth century in the generations of one family. We start in 1910 in a fishing village in a Korea under new Japanese occupation. From there we are led through World War II, the Cold War, the Korean War and end up in financial Tokyo in the 80s. Among the well-written characters the always working, always suffering women of the family — Yanjing, Kyunhee and most of all Sunja — stick in the mind.
There was consolation: The people you loved, they were always there with you, she had learned. Sometimes, she could be in front of a train kiosk or the window of a bookstore, and she could feel Noa’s small hand when he was a boy, and she would close her eyes and think of his sweet, grassy smell and remember that he had always tried his best. At those moments, it was good to be alone to hold on to him.
What does home mean when you are born in Japan but refused citizenship, kept as a permanent outsider and looked down on by society? When your ancestors left a unified Korea that no longer exists for you to ‘return’ to?
Etsuko had failed in this important way — she had not taught her children to hope, to believe in the perhaps-absurd possibility that they might win. Pachinko was a foolish game, but life was not.
Cribsheet by Emily Oster — An economist’s data-driven guide to parenthood.
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe — The story of the US Navy’s great postwar test pilots including Chuck Yeager, first to break the sound barrier, and then the Project Mercury pilots including John Glenn and Alan Shepard. What was the right stuff?
As to just what this ineffable quality was… well, it obviously involved bravery. But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life. The idea seemed to be that any fool could do that, if that was all that was required, just as any fool could throw away his life in the process. No, the idea here (in the all-enclosing fraternity) seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment — and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite — and, ultimately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God.
The top pilots initially swerved the new space programme. They saw the job of sitting in a capsule on top of a rocket — basically a human guinea pig — as not befitting men of the right stuff. They wanted to pilot.
Nobody in his right mind would hang his hide out over the edge for ten or fifteen years and ascend the pyramid and finally reach the dome of the world, Edwards… only to end up like that: a lab rabbit curled up motionless in a capsule with his little heart pitter-patting and a wire up the kazoo.
Yeager is a great character.
Yeager was standing erect with his parachute rolled up and his helmet in the crook of his arm, right out of the manual, and staring at them quite levelly out of what was left of his face, as if they had had an appointment and he was on time.
The Mercury programme of course then led into Apollo.
Three weeks before, after Gagarin’s flight, when Kennedy had summoned Webb and Dryden to the White House, the President had been in a funk. He was convinced that the entire world was judging the United States and his leadership in terms of the space race with the Soviets. He was muttering, ‘If somebody can just tell me how to catch up. Let’s find somebody — anybody… There’s nothing more important.’ He kept saying, ‘We’ve got to catch up.’ Catching up became an obsession. Finally, Dryden told him that it looked hopeless to try to catch up with the mighty Integral in anything that involved flights in earth orbit. The one possibility was to start a program to put a man on the moon within the next ten years. It would require a crash effort on the scale of the Manhattan Project of the Second World War and would cost anywhere from twenty to forty billion dollars. Kennedy found the figure appalling.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry gets a shoutout, the original right stuff.
The good Saint-Ex! And he was not the only one. He was merely the one who put it into words most beautifully and anointed himself before the altar of the right stuff.
Zonal Marking by Michael Cox — According to Cox’s thesis, modern football did actually start in 1992. I read his history of the Premier League, The Mixer, last year on jury duty. This is his overview of European football and how its centre of gravity has moved every few years: from Holland to Italy in the 90s, onto to France and Portugal in the 00s, then to Spain and Germany. It all comes together now in England, the Mixer.
Ask A Footballer by James Milner — I’m spending a lot of nights having to stay awake holding a baby who can’t sleep. Milner is interesting for a footballer, and there’s lots of insider takes on the current LFC.
How to be a Footballer by Peter Crouch — More football. I’m tired, OK. Really tired.
Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett — More late night reading. Thought I’d try some nostalgia re-reading a Discworld book, the second one about the City Watch as I read Guards! Guards! not long ago. Just what I needed, a balm.
Soul Music by Terry Pratchett — I don’t remember reading this as a teenager, even though the Death series was probably my favourite after the Watch books. The young musician Imp Y Celyn from Llamedos comes to Ankh-Morpork to find his fame making Music With Rocks In.
Wolf Nation by Brenda Peterson — A history of the wild wolf in the United States and a look at attempts to bring back populations in the wild.
The Cold War by Robert J. McMahon — Research for playing Twilight Struggle.