qatsi: (urquhart)
Book Review: Kompromat, by Stanley Johnson
I hesitated over this one in the work book sale, as I wasn't sure I had the stomach for it, but in the end decided to "feel the fear and do it anyway". After all, it's a charity event, and this season's charity at work is Alzheimer's UK, so it's a good cause and no money goes to any member of the Johnson family.

In the introductory "Author's Note" it is stated that "Kompromat is, to use an old-fashioned term, An Entertainment". In other words, there is no pretence to higher literary ground. Spoilers )

Where the book does score, though, is on making you reflect on the "democratisation" of information via the Internet. Twenty years or more ago, there were a limited number of media outlets, and whilst they could provide a wide range of views and opinions, one could in general be fairly confident about the provenance of their information, and that factual errors would not go uncorrected. But when anyone can put out any story and watch it go viral from within an echo chamber to the wider world, it's inevitable that many people will exhibit confirmation bias. (I'm not suggesting that anyone is immune from confirmation bias, but I'd like to think people should in general be aware of the possibility of it and try to control for it.) Indeed, the current state of affairs seems to be that many people don't care about "truth" if what they are given fits their existing beliefs - including the closing down or drowning out of opposing points of view. The Internet is a genie that's out of the bottle, and it's not going back in. Ultimately, I suspect those who have chosen not to hear warnings about fake news will be the ones who suffer most as a result, but if fake news continues, then they will always have someone else to blame. In my darker moments, I think about that term in the Drake equation about the length of time a civilisation exists, and I wonder if opposing groups, discarding evidence and shouting their views at each other angrily without listening, is how it ends.
qatsi: (meades)
Book Review: Empire of Tea - The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World, by Markman Ellis, Richard Coulton and Matthew Mauger
It is, apparently, almost 10 years since I read Marman Ellis' The Coffee House, which is what prompted me to add this book to my wish list. It's taken some time for a paperback edition to emerge, and then the copy I received from an Amazon seller is labelled "for sale in the Indian subcontinent only". Oh well.

After a short introduction and a section on early records of tea-drinking in China and Japan (which differ significantly from each other), the book traces the story of tea in relation to Europe from about the mid seventeenth century, when trade with China began to include quantities of this exotic leaf. It's interesting that hot drinks were a novelty in Britain, and that tea, coffee and chocolate all arrived on our shores at approximately the same time.

Unlike coffee, the story of tea in Europe isn't particularly political, being considered a domestic delicacy for the well-to-do. For some time, many European nations were involved in the trade, including the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Britain; only rather later did the British become dominant. Interestingly, for a long time, the trade in green tea was more important, with black tea being a minor share of the cargo. The unseen (but fairly blatant) hand of the market pushed European traders to seek more and more tea, which over time had the effect of reducing prices and increasing the availability of tea to the middle classes. Debate abounds on the virtues and vices of tea-drinking. Taxation of tea results in smuggling from other European countries, and "the destruction of the tea at Boston". Eventually William Pitt the Younger abandoned the taxation of tea in favour of increasing window tax, arguing that the adjustment would not on average negatively impact on households correctly paying for tea. This had the effect of destroying the smugglers' market from the continent, and produced British dominance in the tea trade in China. However, an increasing one-way trade was problematic for the British economy, so an attempt was made to balance the trade by supplying opium from India to the Chinese. Unsurprisingly, the consequences of this aspect of the trade were not happy.

The East India Company also sought to grow tea on land governed by the British, in India, but although indivudal plant specimens were sporadically smuggled out of China the programme was without success. Eventually it was discovered that tea was already growing in the Assam region, but was not used locally as a drink. As the price of tea fell, it became a universal staple in British households.

The book concludes with twentieth-century developments: the invention of the tea bag, which led to the use of "dust" grade tea, otherwise unsuitable; the rise of the "tea house" such as Lyons; fruit infusions and iced tea (which, in canned or bottled form, is apparently the most commonly consumed tea in America).

Like the coffee book, this is a thorough work, but it does feel incomplete. Although there is some discussion about adulteration of tea, there's no mention of Earl Grey tea; likewise, there's no mention of the Cutty Sark, perhaps one of the most famous remnants of the height of the tea trade. For a popular work by British authors these seem curious omissions, but they don't detract from the book as it stands.
qatsi: (vila)
Book Review: A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman
I'm behind on book reviews. This had been on my to-read list for a while when it turned up in the work book sale; when I discovered Reading Film Theatre is showing the film adaptation this term, it was queue-jumped to discover whether I would want to go and see the film. I think I probably will.

spoilers )
qatsi: (meades)
Book Review: The Making of the British Landscape, by Nicholas Crane
Although I recalled being a little underwhelmed by Crane's biography of Mercator, I decided to give this one a go when I saw it in the work book sale. I'm pleased I did, because I found it quite well-matched to my expectations and also informative. Crane starts at the end of the last ice age; there's probably not much meaningful that can be said about "Britain" before that time. For some thousands of years after that, Britain was a peninsula attached to the European mainland by Doggerland. Hardy explorers were the first immigrants, moving north as the glaciers retreated. In parallel, Crane tracks the emergence of life in the Fertile Crescent, with the emergence of agriculture. It reinforces what a backwater Britain has been for most of recorded history.

Successive waves of migration brought technological developments across Europe and into Britain, with occasional evidence of structures remaining. Henges are something of an oddity, not much occurring elsewhere. Tin mining was probably the only innovation that was exported out of Britain. Solar fluctuations were a major hazard, causing little ice ages and depleting food supplies. About a third of the book is taken up with 8000 years of pre-Roman Britain.

The Romans did a lot of deforestation, but they were by no means the first. Britons were somewhat indifferent to Roman civilisation, and let it crumble (or made better use of the readily available stone) when they departed. Londinium was something of an exception, emerging without planning as a commercial centre with a bridge over the river and an adjacent port. Crane frequently uses archaic place names and reveals how they have mutated into modern ones. Angles and Saxons migrated into Britain, which declined, though outposts such as the Northumbria of Bede and Cuthbert were beacons of civilisation. The Viking period demanded more effective defence, and a return to urbanisation, sometimes too little too late. The Norman conquest overwhelmed Britain with European technology again, like the Romans had done, but there were still hazards such as plague that would cause abandonment of settlements from time to time.

The final third of the book focuses on the period from the seventeenth century to the present day, and although the Industrial Revolution occurred across the country, towards the end the book becomes increasingly London-centric. Britain again became an exporter of technology and the owner of an Empire; this period is now ending or has passed too, it seems. The book predates the Brexit Referendum, but it's not difficult to see from this book that history suggests a period of decline lies ahead.
qatsi: (gatherer)
Book Review: The Wangs vs The World, by Jade Chang
I had this on my to-read list when I found it in the work book sale, but it's taken time to get round to it. I found the first few chapters a bit tricky to get into, but after that, the book flowed quite well and entertainingly. Charles Wang is a self-made millionaire who has lived the American Dream, building a cosmetics supply chain empire since buying a plane ticket from Taiwan. But it's 2008, and he has overstretched himself: giving his home as security for a hubristic loan, the inevitable has happened, and he is bankrupted. This is the story of his trip from California across America, with his second wife Barbra, to collect youngest daughter Grace from boarding school (unpaid), son Andrew from college (car repossessed), and to arrive in upstate New York to visit his eldest daughter Saina (an artist who, by virtue of her age, has received millions from her father which may - or may not - be beyond reach of his creditors). Ultimately he is seeking to reclaim land in China which he believes was owned by his prestigious ancestors prior to the Communist revolution.

The book triggers mixed feelings for the characters: they're all lovingly dysfunctional in their own ways, the children never having had to struggle for anything and the reality slowly dawning on Grace in particular. Of course things don't go according to plan, and the family are taken down acerbically, notch by notch. The number of characters gives ample opportunity to focus on one character's perspective for a few chapters, then to switch to another. Interestingly, bankers do feature in Charles Wang's back-story, but they are hardly demonised: rather, they act prudently, initially refusing the loan, only accepting it reluctantly with the additional security of property, and later, as the business began to fail, they recommended restructuring to protect his assets - all of which heightens Charles' anger, as there is no-one else to blame. As for the book's title, do the Wangs win? Of course not - but although the book draws to a clear conclusion, it also leaves scope to reopen the story in sequel or spin-off form.
qatsi: (baker)
Book Review: Berlin - A Literary Guide for Travellers, by Paul Sullivan and Marcel Krueger
I picked this up last year in a work book sale. It's a fairly short tour through the districts of Berlin, blending history and architecture with literature and writing, both historical and contemporary. Unsurprisingly, the chapters I found most interesting were the areas of which I'm most familiar, either from visiting Berlin on holiday or from general history: Mitte, Alexanderplatz, Charlottenburg, Wannsee, and (almost) Potsdam (at least to the Glienicke Brücke). In particular, the chapter on Mitte devotes a lot of space to the Stadtschloss, currently under reconstruction following the demolition some years ago of the DDR Palast von der Republik that occupied its space. Being honest, the chapters on the seedier areas of Berlin don't give it much appeal, but it's interesting to note the cosmopolitan nature of the city, with its former heavy industrial areas having a long history as a transit zone for migrants, from early urbanisation through to the post-war Gästarbeiter. The book covers a range of writers, a few from earlier times but mostly twentieth century, including Alfred Döblin, Christopher Isherwood, Len Deighton and John le Carré.
qatsi: (baker)
Book Review: Reality is not what it seems - The Journey to Quantum Gravity, by Carlo Rovelli
This is a clever and interesting book, but if you struggled with A Brief History of Time, I don't think this book is for you. Rovelli's style is at points florid and pretentious, though this may be a feature of the translation. He first reviews the science of Ancient Greece, before proceeding through Newton and Einstein. After discussing quantum mechanics, it's on to the fundamental purpose of this book: how to resolve the approaches of general relativity and quantum mechanics in describing the universe. They are both experimentally verified to very high standards, yet are incompatible. Rovelli makes the argument (for me, not wholly convincingly) that time does not exist as a fundamental entity; like temperature, or "up" and "down", it is a property that emerges at a macroscopic layer.

There were some new discoveries for me in this book: Rovelli's explanation that spacetime is the field of gravity (rather than that the field of gravity permeates spacetime) is good, and goes beyond many popular science books which simply explain that gravity is "different" when it comes to unifying the fundamental forces. Yet, there is a missed opportunity here: the presented self-referential nature of spacetime and gravity ought to trigger the word "Gödel", but it doesn't, possibly because of a fear that would cause the end of physics, just as it might have been feared to cause the end of mathematics. One would also expect some mention of quantum entanglement, and this is also missing, although in the chapter on information the concept rears its head, unspoken, and again the opportunity is left untaken. Overall I am left with the feeling that this is a good and useful book, but that given its depth it nevertheless has some unexpected limitations.
qatsi: (dascoyne)
Book Review: The Geneva Trap, by Stella Rimington
Rounding up a backlog of reviews, I found this in the Mortimer station book swap - I was curious about the author, without any great expectations. As such it's been on my "to read" pile for a while, and I got through it in two or three days, aided by some time waiting for the Proms. This is several novels in to the series of the character Liz Carlyle, and concerns a Russian diplomat in Geneva who has information that a "Third Country" has infiltrated a top-secret US/UK encryption programme. The book is somewhere between the cerebral world of John Le Carré (with political machinations between MI5, MI6, and various international counterparts) and an action thriller (rapidly jumping between London, Geneva, Marseilles and elsewhere), which may go some way to explaining the variety of opinions I've seen on Goodreads in not entirely satisfying either of those positions. Some technical details bothered me: the lack of technical understanding among some of the managerial characters combined with their complacency is caricature, but sadly plausible. Call me old-fashioned, but if you require separation of two computer networks and you're serious about security, then you will have two physically separate networks; having only a logical separation and sharing the hardware is, well, asking for trouble. Weaving Carlyle's domestic life as a parallel strand worked quite well and gave some extra dimensions to the story. On the whole, I enjoyed it, although I'm not sure I would actively seek out other books in the series.
qatsi: (bach)
Book Review: Hallelujah Junction - Composing an American Life, by John Adams
I picked this up a while ago in a work book sale, but it sat on the shelves waiting for the right moment. I decided, with Adams' music featuring in the First Night of the Proms, that it was now time.

It makes for an interesting read. Adams traces his roots back to the dance hall Winnipesaukee Gardens, in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire, where his maternal grandparents had a troubled relationship; his parents ended up in modest circumstances and his childhood was comfortable but basic. From an early age he was interested in music and played the clarinet, showing enough talent to take lessons and eventually play orchestral parts. He also liked the idea of conducting in particular. Conventional classical music training in the eastern US in the mid twentieth-century was focused very much on twelve-tone serialism, which did not much appeal to Adams, who was steeped in jazz and interested in rock and roll as much as classical music. Despite offers of further tuition, he eventually decided to spread his wings (or at least, a rickety Volkswagen camper-van) and head west.

Through the seventies Adams made a career mostly as a conductor and concert organiser; a few of his own works, such as Shaker Loops and Harmonium started to make his reputation. He goes on to describe the collaboration with Peter Sellars and Alice Goodman that led to Nixon in China, which became one of his most successful works, and The Death of Klinghoffer, which has always been one of his most controversial. Later chapters in the book go into some depth, creatively and bureaucratically, as well as musically, on several works; Adams also ponders the creative process in general. He has an easy writing style, and acknowledges problematic works as well as success. The foreword to this edition notes the 2012 performance at the Proms of Nixon in China as one of his career highlights; I'm glad he thinks that, because, having been there myself, I agree.
qatsi: (meades)
Book Review: The Plagiarist in the Kitchen, by Jonathan Meades
When I saw this in the work book sale, I reached straight for it, no questions asked, as I knew it was already on my wish list.

Imagine, if you will, a cookbook written by Jonathan Meades. And there you have it, more or less. If you are unfamiliar with his TV programmes, the MeadesShrine YouTube channel is a good starting point, although these programmes are generally architecturally rather than gastronomically focused. An acquaintance once declaimed that Meades was best watched "with a glass of wine in one hand, and a dictionary in the other".

Meades did spend some years as a restaurant critic, and became morbidly obese for his efforts. The collection of recipes here is, for the most part, surprisingly practical, though several refer to unheard-of ingredients (many of them I believe to be cheeses) for which one might have to imagine more quotidian substitutions, and the elephant gratin is, on a detailed read of the ingredients, somewhat disappointing. Interspersed with anecdotes and musings on the question of whether anything in food is truly original, this is an audio book, albeit without an MP3. What did you expect?
qatsi: (urquhart)
Book Review: The Strange Death of Liberal England, by George Dangerfield
This had been on my to-read list for quite a while and the inconclusive aftermath of the [first] 2017 General Election seemed as good a time as any to pick it up, especially since there had been no rebirth of "Liberal England". (Not that increasing the Lib Dems' seats by 50% wasn't a good result - but it's still a fraction of the number in the 2010-2015 parliament).

Dangerfield identifies a prologue, and three main threads, in the politics of the period 1906-1914: firstly, he deals with the House of Lords, and its ubiquitous role in blocking Liberal policies from the House of Commons. Ultimately this behaviour resulted in the Parliament Act, but it's a situation that is still not fully resolved today. The three main issues are of Irish Home Rule, Women's Suffrage, and Industrial Relations. On Irish Home Rule, Dangerfield presents a curious picture in which the Tories seem to oppose change largely for the sake of opposing it; the Unionist position in Ulster is presented as extremist, and desirous of belonging to some fantasy Union that doesn't actually exist - a situation that hardly seems altered today with the DUP, given that I have never felt I have much in common with those who claim to represent Northern Ireland and its desire to remain part of the UK. On the question of suffrage, Dangerfield writes almost exclusively about the cult of personality surrounding Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. Their campaign is presented as violent and absurd; but the debate and progress (or rather, lack thereof) on the issue in Parliament is presented as equally absurd, and it becomes difficult to work out which came first. On industrial relations, the situation is just a mess, but unfortunately it is reminiscent in some ways of today, with extreme and ill-thought grass-roots positions undermining and replacing more moderate Union leadership, and a range of attitudes among employers, from enlightened through to abusive.

The cumulative effect of reading about these is to reveal how safe and orderly Britain is today, given that only the suffrage issue is incontrovertibly resolved (though, in Dangerfield's writing, the Suffragettes' campaign is the most consistently violent of the three); the polarised political situation on Brexit and its economic implications does bear some resemblance with the industrial issues of a century ago. Dangerfield doesn't actually synthesise how these threads caused the death of Liberal England, rather assuming the general atrophying political climate (which again, is surely echoed today) produces this outcome, but leaves the outbreak of World War I as his ending point. The choice of the word "England" in the title would make our contemporary sensitivities bristle, but Scotland barely gets a mention at all, and there's not much about Wales either.
qatsi: (penguin)
Book Review: The Word Detective - Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary, by John Simpson
One great thing about the work book sale is that you can try something different knowing that, even if it doesn't work out, it has cost very little; in many cases I suspect it's cheaper even than a secondhand charity bookshop. This one looked curious, but risky: it could be very dry. Fortunately, it has turned out to be very readable. It's part personal biography (John Simpson, not that John Simpson), part a biography of the OED itself. Simpson joined Oxford University Press in 1976 and worked his way up in the Dictionary department. Slowly the prospect of a Second Edition of the OED emerged - the first, having been completed in 1928 with an irregular series of supplements since. At the same time, technology was evolving, and Simpson sought the help of others and the budget to computerise the half million definitions contained on card indexes. It's not a political book but one can easily imagine the heated discussions that must have taken place; the impression conveyed is that OUP always did the right thing, but perhaps sometimes after exhausting some of the other options. The Second Edition combined the original with the supplements, and was available on CD-ROM as well as in print, but rapid advances pushed for a Third Edition, and an evolving online resource. Simpson brings the story to a personal conclusion with his retirement in 2013. The personal aspects of the biography are small, and focus mostly on his family life, including coping with a disabled daughter (he doesn't name any condition, but some of it sounds like severe autism). Scattered throughout, Simpson highlights words in the main text and chooses to divert into their etymology, history and current usage, which reveals his enthusiasm and helps to breathe life into his subject.
qatsi: (penguin)
Book Review: Nice Work (If You Can Get It), by Celia Imrie
I enjoyed the recent TV series Our Friend Victoria, at least as much as one can enjoy an extended obituary: there's something about Victoria Wood's work that leaves you feeling uplifted even if the subject itself isn't cheery. I get a similar feeling from Eric Coates' music. I'd seen publicity for this book somewhere, and when I saw the book in the work book sale it was an easy decision to give it a go. I was curious to see how Imrie would fare as an author, and also to see whether it had a similar vein to Wood, and it felt like appropriate holiday reading.

I enjoyed the book, and it did feel a bit like reading something by Wood; not in an imitative way, but just in the sense that they were part of a team that obviously shared some common ground (although I have the impression that Wood was the sole writer for her TV shows). This turns out to be number two in a series by Imrie, but there is no need to have read the previous volume as the characters and their situation are explained straight away. The book is set in Bellevue-sur-Mer, a small French town somewhere near Nice (hence the book's playful title) and Cannes. Our heroes are a set of British ex-pats, who have decided to set up a restaurant in the town, mostly for the purpose of keeping themselves occupied. The story follows their trials and tribulations, through French bureaucracy, Russian oligarchs, Sardinian Mafia, and the expats' own dysfunctional friends and family, including minor and major actresses descending for the Cannes Film Festival and behaving theatrically.

Two things make the book a bit tricky: there is a relatively large cast, and it's sometimes a bit difficult to remember who is who, and what their relationship is to the core of four people setting up the restaurant. Inevitably, from time to time I imagined the characters portrayed by the cast of Wood's shows, which was a little awkward, as Duncan Preston took all the male roles. The second thing is that sometimes the plot moves on a bit jerkily, with a paragraph or two summarising quite a large leap forwards. It is perhaps the sort of thing you wouldn't really notice in a film or TV programme, but it can feel a little clunky in print. But neither of these things prevented me from enjoying the book and confidently adding its predecessor to my to-read list.
qatsi: (dascoyne)
Book Review: The Secret Life of Ealing Studios, by Robert Sellers
The work book sale is a charity sale; but unlike browsing through a second-hand or charity bookshop, the books are completely unsorted (with the exception of children's books, and large-format volumes, which are filed to one side), so you have to look through everything. This provides scope for serendipity, such as this one, which I doubt I'd ever have discovered otherwise. The book covers the period from the late 1930s, when Michael Balcon took over, through to the late 1950s, when it was sold. It's very clear that Balcon was the controlling mind of the studio throughout; in the war years, he was determined to play his part in the domestic war effort, and after the war it was very much his view of Britain that was portrayed in Ealing's films.

The book aims to record personal experiences, so there are many first-hand interviews with people who worked in all sorts of back-stage roles. The picture that emerges from them could almost form the plot of an Ealing film itself: most (but not all) people felt there was a close family atmosphere (certainly "who you knew" was often a factor in getting through the door); there was a lack of rank in some aspects (but a clear class distinction in others), and general consensus with occasional artistic differences. In the era before health and safety there were near misses from time to time, which can be told quasi-comically now, but were no doubt sometimes more serious. Another theme that emerges from the book is the intransigence of trades unions at the time, doing what would be considered nowadays far more in the area of restrictive practices than could be justified by protecting their members' interests. Indeed, it's implied that Peter Sellers' observations of Ealing technicians while working on The Ladykillers was put to full use later in I'm All Right Jack.

After the war years and the comedic post-war heights of films such as Kind Hearts and Coronets and Passport to Pimlico, the studio slowly declined in the 1950s; to some extent this was probably due to its small scale operation, but also to Balcon's limited vision in being prepared to face the future. The site was sold to the BBC and the company was absorbed into MGM. However, after an uncertain period from the 1990s, it's good to note that the studio has survived into the twenty-first century.
qatsi: (wally)
Book Review: Elasticsearch in Action, by Radu Gheorghe, Matthew Lee Hinman, and Roy Russo
In a previous job I'd come across Solr, but these days, I'm told, Elasticsearch is where it's at, at least where I work now. Ultimately, both are built on top of Lucene; which does, actually, make you wonder whether that has any competitors.

This book was published in 2016, but one of its weaknesses is that it's very clearly somewhat out-of-date already, as it refers to the "latest" Elasticsearch being 1.5, with 2.0 in development. (There's been some creative arithmetic, but the current release is 5.x, and over that time there have been significant changes to some APIs.) Uncharacteristically for Manning, I did encounter a few badly worded sections, or examples or diagrams that didn't make sense or had incorrect values; cumulatively these things make me wonder whether the book suffered long delays and then finally got pushed out in a hurry without adequate proofing.

Hopefully the underlying principles remain much the same, with chapters on basic CRUD operations, index and analyzer configuration, search syntax, and relevance scoring. It is always against my intuition that many search queries are exact, when my expectation is for the results to have some degree of fuzziness; of course, in practice that's where the scoring comes in. There are also chapters on techniques for modelling parent-child relationships between documents, scaling, performance, and administrative tasks. Somewhat unfairly, several topics are relegated to appendices, including geo-search, hit highlighting, percolation (which was completely new to me but seems potentially very powerful, discovering which queries will match a given document) and completion/suggestion. It seems to me these are at least as, if not more important, than parent-child relationships and aggregation functions, but maybe that's just my use case.
qatsi: (bach)
Book Review: The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes
I picked this up straight away when I saw it in a recent work book sale, as I knew it was on my to-read list. The book takes three episodes in Shostakovich's life, probing the inner turmoil and unanswerable questions that must have been forming in his mind. The first episode is probably the most well known: following Stalin's critical review in Pravda, Muddle instead of Music, of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the composer fears that he is about to be deported to Siberia; to spare his wife and child disturbance in the middle of the night, he takes to staying on the landing by the lifts in his apartment block, reflecting on his life up to this point. Spoilers )

I haven't read any Julian Barnes before, so I can't comment on whether it is similar to his other works. While I don't think it's necessary, some prior knowledge of Shostakovich certainly helps. This is quite a short and easy (but not comfortable) read, but nonetheless profound.
qatsi: (lurcio)
Book Review: Release Your Inner Roman by Marcus Sidonius Falx, by Jerry Toner
This was a random selection from a work book sale a while ago; it's supposed to be a satirical take on self-help books, written from a Roman perspective. In fact, although the satire is there, it's not as laugh-out-loud as I'd expected, and it is perhaps surprising how much of Falx's advice doesn't seem outrageous or unreasonable today, though of course in some areas we have moved on quite a lot. It seems to me that Toner has successfully captured the rhetorical style of Roman writing, as it does read quite like the translation of a classical text. But the other thing Toner has done, which reduces the laughter but also adds an educational aspect to the book, is to provide a commentary at the end of each chapter on what the Romans thought on the subjects under discussion, and to give sources for those keen to investigate further.
qatsi: (gatherer)
Book Review: City of London - The History, by David Kynaston
This is something of a doorstop, but it is also the distillation of Kynaston's four-volume history, and therefore presumably represents the edited highlights. The book covers the period 1815-2001, and I think that is symptomatic of one of its Achilles heels, that it assumes quite a lot of the reader. The Royal Exchange dates from 1570, and Lloyd's of London and the Bank of England from the end of the seventeenth century, and there is only a cursory preamble in the first chapter of the book. Likewise, the terms accepting house, discounting house, and issuing house are introduced without explanation; the book could really do with a glossary.

Setting these misgivings to one side, the book focuses on the increasing financial aspect of the City of London, while also highlighting that, historically, it was also a mercantile and more broadly commercial area. The rise of the Barings and Rothschilds families in particular is noted, while the Stock Exchange contributes Railway mania, and a series of less successful institutions produced a number of banking crises in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. It's striking that the City has always been international in character (initially, offering and managing sovereign debt for other monarchies), and often criticised for it (as a distraction from providing a useful financing service for domestic industry). Private banking slowly gives way to joint-stock banking companies; the First World War deals the fatal blow that governs the next fifty years or so, a largely futile battle to reinstate and maintain the Gold standard. Labour nationalises the Bank of England in 1946; mergers, acquisitions, and asset-stripping become rampant in the 1960s and 1970s; the Stock Exchange slowly introduces new technology, only to discard it a few years later; and so on. The discussion of the "Big Bang" of the 1980s is interesting: it was forced upon the Stock Exchange as a deal to resolve a restrictive practices investigation in the early Thatcher years; indeed, one gets the impression that careers in the City were distinctly leisurely until relatively recently. The overall impression is that the City is apolitical, stridently demanding independence from political interference but rarely able to regulate itself effectively.
qatsi: (capaldi)
Book Review: Five Billion Years of Solitude - The Search for Life Among the Stars, by Lee Billings
I picked this up around a year ago at a work book sale. It turned out to be quite a patchy book. There is some interesting science in here, but Billings has chosen to make it more of a human-interest story, which doesn't work as well as it sounds it should, given the subject.

The first chapter starts off with a discussion about the Drake equation, and quite rapidly focuses on the longevity of a technical civilisation as the critical factor. The rest of the book weaves through the advances and discoveries of exoplanets in the past 20 years or so, and also terrestrial evolution, past, present and future geology and chemistry. Depressingly, the other rocky planets in our own solar system show that it is easy for such worlds not to be hospitable to advanced life. However, the book is also a story of planet-hunters, astrobiologists, space scientists, and dreamers; and where humans are involved, politics is not far away, with rival groups within the scientific community arguing over the validity of their techniques and which projects to spend money on, and the US government (the book is essentially US-focused) regularly reprioritising NASA and trimming its budget.

It's speculative that we would recognise signs of life (though we would recognise signs of life sufficiently similar to ourselves); it's speculative that we could detect such signs (though that is probably only a matter of time); and if we did, what then? Dubbing such a world "Earth 2.0" hints at our colonial ambitions, but surely such a world would be already taken. In the mean time, we need to take care of the only world known to support (allegedly) intelligent life.