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Showing posts from August, 2014

The First 20 Minutes – Gretchen Reynolds ****

Anyone who knows the reviewer would raise an eyebrow about my reading a book on how to  exercise better, but this is subtitled ‘The surprising  science  of how we can exercise better, train smarter and live longer’. Gretchen Reynolds delivers an impressive balance between exploring scientific studies in the area of exercise and practical guidance for everyday folk. One problem with studies in health and fitness is that it isn’t always easy to tell the difference between a small subjective study with insufficient data to draw an significant conclusions and large studies that have been replicated and confirmed in their findings. It is also often quite difficult to distinguish pick out where the link between exercise and health is causal and where it is just correlated (i.e. statistically linked in some way, but the exercise didn’t actually cause the health benefits, because, say, people who do this exercise also tend to have a better lifestyle). Reynolds is reasonably good in this res

Introducing Particle Physics – Tom Whyntie & Oliver Pugh ***

I’ve long been a fan of the massive ‘Introducing’ series of graphic guides and even contributed one ( Introducing Infinity ) with the excellent Oliver Pugh. They provide an easy-to-digest overview of a topic, using pages that are dominated by illustrations that often remind me of Terry Gilliam’s work on Monty Python, combined with speech bubbles and small chunks of text to get the message across. Some work better than others and for me,  Introducing Particle Physics  was a mixed experience. I don’t doubt that Tom Whyntie had a huge challenge to face. Whole chunks of particle physics are, frankly rather dull, while other parts are amongst the most difficult to explain in all of physics. Really making symmetry breaking and the whole Higgs business comprehensible (rather than putting it across at the trite level the news correspondents managed) is very difficult, and I’m not sure that Whyntie manages it. I suspect as someone working in the field he is too close to it to really unders

Imagine That… The History of Technology Rewritten – Michael Sells ***

Asking the question ‘What if…?’ is a classic approach to creativity and original thinking. As Michael Sells shows, it is also a good way to explore a whole range of subjects, from technology in this book through to the likes of ‘Football Rewritten’ and ‘The History of Music Rewritten.’ What Sells does here is take a number of key events in the history of science and technology where a small change in situation could result in a major difference in outcome. So, we are invited, for instance, to consider what would have happened if Alexander Fleming had cleaned his petri dishes and penicillin was washed down the drain – or if Steve Jobs never visited Xerox PARC at Palo Alto and got the inspiration that would lead to the Mac. It’s a fascinating approach and Sells brings us ten scenarios including the transistor, Facebook, cats’ eyes (the ones in the road) and the totally wonderful ‘Newspaper Radio’, an idea from the end of the 1930s of broadcasting a facsimile newspaper bringing, as S

Reamde - Neal Stephenson (SF) ***

Like most people who have worked a lot with computers, I immediately saw the title of Neal Stephenson's book Reamde as a variant on 'Readme' - as indeed it is. I've really enjoyed his science fiction work like Cryptonomicon and Anathem before, and have even managed to overcome my loathing of extremely long books, as in these works Stephenson is not indulging in drivel, but really fills them with content. However, Reamde has left me with very mixed feelings. I loved the plot segment that the book's title refers to. Reamde is a virus that takes computers hostage, linked to a massive multiplayer online game called T'rain, which was created as a way of using the virtual coinage inside the game for far more than simply buying a new sword. If you are interested in computer gaming, the parts of the story that revolve around the game are brilliant - as is the twist of the virus resulting in an organised crime gang trying to track down its creator. However, this

Hal’s Legacy – David G. Stork (ed.) ***

For me,  2001  was the first (and still one of the only) science fiction films that comes close to being accurate in its science. And without doubt, the movie-stealing character (certainly the most emotionally ranging character) was the computer, HAL. This is an old book, dating back to the late 1990s, but still fascinating in the way that it uses the different aspects of HAL to look at how the real technologies have developed in comparison with the way they were envisaged in the 1960s film. It’s in the format of a series of articles by different authors. Amongst my favourites was the AI overview by Marvin Minsky, who was on set part of the time (and nearly killed by a flying spanner) and the discussion of HAL’s game of chess, reflecting on the way he plays chess like a person, rather than in the manner of a chess-playing computer like IBM’s Deep Blue. Inevitably it’s a bit dated in places – but surprisingly little, considering how computer technology has moved on since the late