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Showing posts from January, 2021

Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars - Kate Greene ****

The easily-overlooked key words in the title of this book are 'Once Upon a Time'.  Because Kate Greene's memoir is doubly redolent of that fairytale opening that puts us in a world that is somewhat removed from reality. First, her book is concerned not (of course) with actually living on Mars, but spending four months in an environment that partially simulated what it would be like to be on Mars (but was actually on Hawaii). And secondly, although there is quite a lot about what happened on that experiment, this is not so much a book about exploring outer space as inner space: it's far more a narrative of how Greene feels the experience affected her than it is a conventional narrative. What it reminded me most of was something that seems (literally) worlds away from a space mission: Down in the Valley , the posthumous set of recollections by Laurie Lee of his early life in Slad, a Cotswolds village, in the 1920s. Lee's book (taken from recordings) is about life in a

Inscape (SF) - Louise Carey *****

I've never been a huge fan of dystopian novels or movies - life can be miserable enough without making us even more depressed - but there are exceptions, and Louise Carey's Inscape proved to be one of them.  Broadly, SF dystopias fall into two categories - bangs and whimpers. In a bang dystopia there is a big, sudden catastrophe, often a nuclear war, a biological disaster (think The Death of Grass ) or a touch of the aliens ( War of the Worlds, The Day of the Triffids and many more). By contrast, whimper dystopias involve creeping change, traditionally political ( 1984 ), but ever since Pohl and Kornbluth's classic  The Space Merchants , more likely to be the fault of corporates, which these days are usually a variation on the theme of today's IT giants. Interestingly, Inscape involves both types of dystopia - so there has been an apocalyptic collapse (not entirely explained), but post-collapse it's the tech corporations that have taken over, with the central cha


For some time we've been aware that not everyone loves Amazon, and so decided to experiment with offering a link to a site offering an independent bookshop as well. Back in November 2019 we started offering links to the UK bookseller Foyles. No one bought a book from them, so mid-2020 we switched to Hive. This also did not result in much interest, so we've now moved onto a third and better publicised option, , which is getting some positive response. As a result, for more recent reviews you will see a link to (just click the link under the icon). This will take you to a list of a handful of books reviewed around the same time, which will include the title you are interested in. You are still very welcome to use Amazon if you prefer, of course.

What is the Name of This Book? - Raymond Smullyan ***

This classic recreational mathematics title, based on logic problems (thanks to Tim Harford for the recommendation) dates back to 1978, though it feels as if it might have been written forty years earlier from the type of humour it features, a feeling enhanced by the publisher's decision to reprint it by scanning an old edition, rather than resetting it. There is some excellent material in here, some familiar, others still with a novel edge today. There are some basic challenges - for example we're looking at a picture and told 'Brothers and sisters have I none, but this man's son is my father's son' and asked whose picture it is, plus some catch-you-out puzzles such as asking in which country you'd bury the survivors of a plane that crashes right on the border of the US and Canada. But the meat and drink of the book is a whole slew of puzzles where we are required to deduce something from a set of logical statements. Many of these puzzles are based on varia

There is No Planet B - Mike Berners-Lee ****

Review updated for new edition   There's a real mix of material in this environmental guide from Mike Berners-Lee (let's get this out of the way: brother of the better-known Tim). Some of it presents scientific information in a superb fashion, really getting the point across, while other parts feel more like a personal blog post. Bill McKibben, the American environmentalist quoted on the cover, is certainly correct in describing this as a 'compendium', though when he calls the book 'massively entertaining', my immediate thought was 'Bill, you need to get out more.' What Berners-Lee sets out to do is to give us a more personalised picture of where we as the human species are environmentally - obviously climate change is the biggest factor here, but he covers much of the environmental gamut from feeding the world to environmental economics to sourcing energy and the bête noir du jour (thanks in no small part to David Attenborough) of the dreaded plast

Reset - Ronald Deibert ***

The subtitle underscores a topic of 'reclaiming the internet for civil society'. There is no doubt that the internet has given us huge benefits - never more obvious than during the COVID pandemic - but Ronald Deibert argues that it also presents huge dangers, both from the state being able to gather data on citizens and from corporations indulging in 'surveillance capitalism' - making money out of keeping track of us and our data. Both of these are certainly significant issues that need to be explored. The majority of the book gives a depressingly dark picture of an internet where we are constantly observed, while the last pages come up with a form of response - the reset of the title. Unlike the stark specifics of the description of the problem, the suggested solution is far more tenuous, coming down primarily to being more 'republican' (with a small r, not the policies of the US political party of the same name). I'll be honest, I found Reset hard going,

Human - Amanda Rees and Charlotte Sleigh ***

There's something of a tradition of books that treat Homo sapiens as they would another animal - in Human , Amanda Rees and Charlotte Sleigh are contributing to an 'animal series'. If done correctly, this is an effective conceit. The pocket sized book is glossy and well illustrated (though I found it quite hard to open without breaking the spine). It begins with a purely 'human as animal' introduction where we learn, for example that humans are categorised as of 'Least concern' on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List. From here we move onto a series of chapters on aspects of the human species, taking in the broad concepts of beast (what makes us different, if anything, from the other animals), hominin (the origin of our species), she (the place of women in society), god (not exactly surprisingly, religion), and alien (the position of the 'other', plus literal aliens) with a conclusion labelled 'Inhumanism', wh

Math Without Numbers - Milo Beckman *****

In some ways, this is the best book about pure mathematics for the general reader that I've ever seen.  At first sight, Milo Beckman's assertion that 'the only numbers in this book are the page numbers' seems like one of those testing limits some authors place on themselves, such as Roberto Trotter's interesting attempt to explain cosmology using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language, The Edge of the Sky . But in practice, Beckman's conceit is truly liberating. Dropping numbers enables him to present maths (I can't help but wince a bit at the 'math' in the title) in a far more comprehensible way. Counting and geometry may have been the historical origin of mathematics, but it has moved on. The book is divided into three primary sections - topology, analysis and algebra, plus a rather earnest dialogue on foundations of mathematics exploring the implications of Gödel's incompleteness theorems, and a closing section on modelling (

The Light Ages - Seb Falk ****

In this chunky title, Seb Falk sets out to prove very effectively that, certainly from the scientific viewpoint, the suggestion that medieval Europe spent a period of time in the 'dark ages' is misrepresentation. Historians, of course, dumped the 'dark ages' title some time ago, but it still lingers on in our imaginations. The backbone of Falk's book is the life and work of a fourteenth century English monk by the name of John Westwyk, who spent most of his adult life at St Alban's Abbey. Westwyk enters the story with a 1951 discovery of a manuscript on an astrolabe-like device, found in Cambridge: a manuscript that was first attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer. (If this seems bizarre, bear in mind that as well as Canterbury Tales and his other titles, Chaucer was the author of a beginners guide to using that versatile medieval astronomical tool, the astrolabe.) It turns out that Westwyk was the author of the manuscript, as well as a number of other astronomical con