Thomas P. Ogden

Book Notes, January to March 2018

  1. Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari — A wide-lens look at human history, particularly at biology and culture. One of the most interesting arguments is that the agricultural revolution promoted huge population growth, and was thus successful for the species, but made the lives of individual homo sapiens worse than when they had been hunter gatherers. The same claim may be made for the industrial revolution. Once such an upheaval has happened, there’s no way back.

  2. Rolling Blackouts by Sarah Gladden — Two youngish American journalists tour Turkey, Syria and Iraq, looking for stories. Glidden, the author and cartoonist of this graphic novel, tags along to document the trip. So does another friend, a former US marine who served in Iraq and has his own view on things. It’s poignant to read the stories of Iraqi families who found refuge in Syria, realising that in the time since this was written their lives have no doubt been in danger and turmoil all over again.

  3. Silence by Erling Kagge — Not a deep read, but reminded me that one of the great benefits of long distance running or walking is spending time in your own head.

  4. Everything and More by David Foster Wallace — A history of infinity, in particular the work of Georg Cantor. Wallace tries to cut down on the amount of repetition in mathematical writing with a lot of abbreviations, but I found this slowed down the reading rather than help. The book claims to be readable without some background in maths. As in the case of Penrose’s The Road to Reality I think even if that were true it would not be a fun read. If you’ve studied some mathematical foundations, I recommend.

  5. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson — I’ve long thought if I ever got into sci-fi, I’d get into it hard. This might be the book to do it. Saying that, the first two of the three parts are the ones I really enjoyed and they’re the ones that are set in the near future with some nice thinking about orbital mechanics. The third part, the real sci-fi bit, took a while for me to see the point of.

  6. Janesville by Amy Goldstein — The modern history of one industrial city in Wisconsin. Janesville was the home of the Parker pen company and had the oldest General Motors factory in the US until it closed in 2008. The book follows a few of the residents affected by the plant closure over the following five years. These characters make concrete the problems of deindustrialisation: how tough it to lose the job you thought would be for life, how tough it is to retrain, to commute huge distances or move when property prices plummet.

  7. 12 Rules for Life by Jordan B. Peterson — Like any self-help book, there’s some pretty obvious stuff here that could be useful. Useful to me maybe. “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping”, sure. Society is full of Pareto distributions, I don’t feel this is widely understood and Peterson pushes on the idea. Be ready for a lot of Old Testament. There’s a weird bit where his example of good parenting is his ability to pin down a two year old. Nice one.

  8. Daniels’ Running Formula by Jack Daniels — Training plans from 800m to marathon with useful details on physiology, nutrition and recovering from injuries. The latter became the most important chapter this time as I got crocked halfway through a marathon programme.

  9. October by China Miéville — A narrative look at the Russian Revolution between February and October 1917. There’s a lot of bureaucracy that is key to the story (so many committees) and it’s hard to make that interesting even for a storyteller like Miéville. His own politics must be considered, including admiration of Lenin, but he’s open about it.

  10. Aurora by Melanie Windridge — This is a combination of a travelogue around Canada, Iceland, Scotland, Sweden, Norway (northern parts of the world where the auroral oval can be seen) and a pop science explainer. Windridge is a plasma physicist and does the explaining well. I thought I roughly understood the mechanism: solar wind hits magnetosphere, solar wind particles excited. I was close but wrong.

    Here’s how I understand it after reading the book. Solar wind is plasma with a frozen-in magnetic field. The direction of the field can be pointing north or south as the sun spins and blasts out coronal mass ejections. When the solar wind hits the magnetosphere, the plasma is diverted around the Earth, and its frozen-in magnetic field is draped around the magnetosphere. There’s a clustering of field lines on the upstream (sun-side) of Earth, 60,000 km above the equator. If fields pointing in opposite directions are pushed close enough together, the field plasma can break down and the magnetic configuration can change: field lines break and reconnect. There’s tension in the plasma, and the reconnection catapults plasma particles away and down the field lines. Energy is transferred from the field to the particles as they are accelerated to high speed. The particles collide with the upper atmosphere and its the atmospheric particles that are excited. So the aurora happens at the bottom of the field lines.

    I also learnt which transitions cause the different colours of the aurora and why they’re banded by height. Greens and reds are both transitions of oxygen. The decay lifetime of the green excitation is around a second, the red excitation lifetime is about two minutes. If there’s a collision with another molecule before the excited molecule has time to decay, the energy will be lost as heat and there won’t be colour emission. So the green transition is more common than the red. Also the red aurora tends to appear above 200 km (where there are fewer molecules to bump into) and the green aurora are lower at around 150 km. Pink and purple colours are due to transitions of nitrogen that have much shorter decay times and can be seen below 100 km.

  11. A Small Town in Germany by John le Carré — I’ve been meaning to try a le Carré book for a while, and was immediately hooked on this one. Something between a spy novel and a mystery set in Bonn in the 60s.

  12. So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport — ‘Follow your passion’ is terrible advice.