The last Sherlock Holmes novel. Well, half of it is a Sherlock Holmes novel, anyway; the other half is the story of a Pinkerton detective and a sinister secret society in the eastern Pennsylvania coal mining district. (Apparently inspired by the real life Pinkerton operative James McParland. In real life it's not so clear that the Pinkerton organization and the mine owners were in the right.) It's not quite fair to say that the Holmes part is just a framing device, it's more extensive than that, but it's something close.
I wonder to what extent this odd structure meant that Doyle was getting bored with Holmes and wanted to write something different, but knew that the Sherlock Holmes stories were too popular to give up.
The Sherlock Holmes stories were published over a period of four decades, between 1887 and 1927, and you can see the technology changing as you read them. The Return of Sherlock Holmes was published in 1905, and bicycles feature prominently in three of the stories — understandably enough for stories written just a few years after the Bicycle Craze of the late 90s.
Even more topical is the last story, “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” which was clearly inspired by the Kruger telegram. The erratic foreign monarch whose impulsive letter might have destabilized Europe and caused a disastrous war isn't named in the story, but I imagine few readers at the time had any doubt about who it was.
I think this is my favorite of the Sherlock Holmes stories.
Wait, didn't I read this book before? Well, sort of. It's still an O'Reilly Early Release book, so it's still minimally edited and incomplete, just a little less incomplete than it was before. This time I read the Seventh Early Release, dated 2016-11-21. There have been a number of changes since the draft I read earlier this year, partly as the book is getting more complete and more polished, partly as the Rust language itself has evolved.
One of the new parts: chapter 13, on iterators, is now written. Rust iterators are basically in the Java/Python style of iterators (i.e. objects that produce values when you repeatedly call next), as opposed to STL-style iterators. In STL terms they're the moral equivalent of input iterators. And since the Rust library doesn't have STL-style iterators, it also doesn't have the STL notion of decoupling algorithms from data structures with iterators as mediation. The Rust standard library does have some of the basic algorithms I'm used to, but scattered in a number of places: some of them appear as methods in the iterator trait (which makes them more generic than that sounds: it means they're defined for arbitrary iterators, including user-defined ones), some, like ones related to sorting and binary search, appear as methods on ranges, which gives them a very different feel, and some, like intersection and difference, appear as methods of more specialized traits or types. I don't know where something like merge would go if the Rust standard library had it.
Pretty obviously the STL itself couldn't be written in Rust without some big changes, since the whole point of STL-style iterators (at least forward iterators and above) is that they're a generalization of pointers, that they're handles pointing into some range and that two iterators can point into the same range; one of the main points of Rust is to do away with that notion, and make it impossible to have two mutable pointers that point to the same thing. That's a pretty fundamental incompatibility. I still wonder, though, if something in the same spirit as the STL could be written, something that makes it possible to write algorithms abstracted from the data structures they operate on.
I continue to find Rust interesting, and I plan to follow its evolution. I'm glad someone is attempting to design a language that supports abstraction and and safety without loss of efficiency. I'm also thinking more about Rust's (deliberate) limitations, though. The chapter on containers makes the observation that none of the containers in Rust's standard library can be written in safe Rust; they all require the unsafe escape hatch, which this book doesn't even cover. And again, that makes sense. How can you write a doubly linked list unless you have nodes with references to each other? That, too, is something that Rust's strict lifetime system deliberately prevents. If I were trying to write something real in Rust, would I find that I only needed to use the escape hatch once in a blue moon, or would I constantly find myself struggling to see how to express myself in safe Rust, failing, and constantly reaching for the escape hatch? No way to tell without trying, but I'm worried if you need to use esoteric and discouraged language features for something as pedestrian as a doubly linked list.
Which ends with “The Final Problem.” If you watch Sherlock you might think of Moriarty as Holmes's constant arch-nemesis, but in fact Moriarty was introduced and killed off in the course of a single short story.
I think it's basically the sort of thing you'd find on his blog. Not a how-to guide, not particularly snobbish, mostly pretty funny. It's partly about the author's own enthusiasm for cycling and his own very subjective take on various cycling subcultures, partly about encouraging the reader to share his enthusiasm or at least to check it out.
I did learn one fun fact: the era of the penny-farthing was surprisingly brief. The penny-farthing bike was invented in the late 1870s and became obsolete by the late 80s with the invention of basically the modern bike, the “safety bicycle” with equal sized wheels, a chain drive, and pneumatic tires.
In which Squirrel Girl (secret identity: Doreen Green, second year CS undergrad) attempts Internet dating. The best date was with Sentinel #X-42903-22, a giant purple robot programmed to hate and fear mutants, and that one was pretty bad. The others were worse, even before Mole Man showed up.
A memoir of the author's career as a geo-biologist. (I would have guessed a botanist from the book, but her PhD is in “Soil Science” and her web site says that her lab “focuses on living and fossil organisms, and how they are chemically linked to the global environment … both in the Human environment, and through Geologic Time”, and a lot of what she does sounds to me more like chemistry than anything else.) It's a very personal story, partly about the author's life as a scientist (and specifically as a female scientist), including the grubby parts, and partly about the science itself. I did learn something about plants from it.
I overlapped with Jahren at UC Berkeley. We were grad students in different departments, and I don't think we ever met, but we probably had friends in common.
A monograph summarizing the state of the field of differential privacy, written by the originator of the field and one of her frequent collaborators. It's fairly technical, but it doesn't assume any prior expertise with differential privacy specifically.
The most important thing to realize about differential privacy is that it's a definition, not a mechanism or an algorithm or a technique. We assume we have some dataset and want to compute something about it — the number of users in some category, for example. The intuition is if the computation respects privacy then the result shouldn't change enough to notice if we add or remove a single record, hence the “differential” part. Or more formally: we restrict ourselves to randomized computations, since exact answers always let us learn something about individuals, and we define a computation M to be ε-differentially private if, for any possible set of results S, P[M(x) ∈ S] ≤ eεP[M(x') ∈ S] whenever x and x' are datasets that differ by a single row. There's also a generalization, (ε,δ)-differential privacy, that makes weaker guarantees; I don't yet have a good intuition for how to think about the differences betwen (ε,δ)-differential privacy and (ε,0)-differential privacy.
The reason this definition is important is that it captures at least some of our intuitions about what it means to release a value computed from a dataset that doesn't compromise the privacy of anyone whose data is included, and it has the important property that postprocessing a differentially private computation or combining the result with auxiliary information doesn't change the fact that it's differentially private, and it turns out that at least some of the questions we would like to ask about datasets can be answered in ways that satisfy differential privacy without giving up too much accuracy, for example by adding an appropriate amount of Laplacian or Gaussian noise.
Differential privacy is an active research field, and it's connected to a lot of other research areas. There's a chapter on differentially private machine learning, but even in other chapters there are similarities between some of the techniques of differential privacy and machine learning. Perhaps this shouldn't be surprising; if you squint appropriately, both machine learning and privacy are about generalization. One of the sections I found most interesting, which unfortunately was brief, was the definition of ε-computationally differential privacy, which weakens differential privacy to allow (roughly) a computation where the presence or absence of a single record doesn't change the result in a way that can be exploited in polynomial time. I have the impression that there hasn't been much work on that concept yet, and I'm not sure that anyone knows whether the difference between ε-computationally differential privacy and ordinary ε-differential privacy is important.
Collecting issue 1–5 of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (2015B), plus Howard the Duck #5 for the crossover story. In this run we learn, among other things, about an important skill that Squirrel Girl has and Doctor Doom doesn't.
“Since you only program Doombots in your own ‘Doomsembly language,’ you never learned any real programming languages. You never tried to learn from others, because you were so sure you were smarter.
“The great ‘genius’ Doctor Doom, and he doesn't even know C++.”
It's a George Smiley novel, but it's not a spy novel; just like the title suggests, it's a murder mystery.
An original graphic novel, as opposed to a collection of comics.
This book collects the eight issues of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (2015) plus a few of the older comics that she appears in, including the 1991 Marvel Super-Heroes vol. 2 #8 where she first appears, where she teams up with Iron Man and defeats Doctor Doom.
The year 1915 was fated to be disastrous to the cause of the Allies and to the whole world. By the mistakes of this year the opportunity was lost of confining the conflagration within limits which though enormous were not uncontrolled. Thereafter the fire roared on till it burnt itself out. Thereafter events passed very largely outside the scope of conscious choice. Governments and individuals conformed to the rhythm of the tragedy, and swayed and staggered forward in helpless violence, slaughtering and squandering on ever-increasing scales, till injuries were wrought to the structure of human society which a century will not efface, and which may conceivably prove fatal to the present civilization.
Arguably overblown, and certainly self-serving. (This is the second volume of Churchill's War memoirs, and the one that focuses on Gallipoli.) Also largely correct.
“In a striking costume like Mephistopheles, I might quite easily pull off something pretty impressive. Colour does make a difference. Look at newts. During the courting season the male newt is brilliantly coloured. It helps him a lot.”
“But you aren't a male newt.”
“I wish I were. Do you know how a male newt proposes, Bertie? He just stands in front of the female newt vibrating his tail and bending his body in a semi-circle. I could do that on my head. No, you wouldn't find me grousing if I were a male newt.”
“But if you were a male newt, Madeline Bassett wouldn't look at you. Not with the eye of love, I mean.”
“She would, if she were a female newt.”
“But she isn't a female newt.”
“No, but suppose she was.”
“Well, if she was, you wouldn't be in love with her.”
“Yes, I would, if I were a male newt.”
A slight throbbing about the temples told me that this discussion had reached saturation point.
When you binge-read these stories you notice patterns. One of them is a lot of the stories would be cut short if the characters had asked themselves: how do I know that this person I've never seen before is who he claims to be, or even just who I assume him to be?
Part of the “Diving Universe,” i.e. a book set in the same world as Diving Into The Wreck and its sequels, but not part of the main timeline. It's probably set thousands of years earlier, although the connection is weak enough that it's hard to say for sure. It's basically a police procedural.
I was thinking of this book anyway: Janet and I are having our wills and trusts drawn up, and naturally that makes me think of murder mysteries that hinge on strange and unforeseen consequences of some complicated provision in a will drawn up decades earlier. Then I was reminded of this book again for a completely different reason: after I'd finished The Berlin Stories I learned the surprising fact that Sarah Caudwell was Sally Bowles's daughter. (Or if you insist on the slightly more pedestrian version: Sarah Cockburn, Caudwell's real name, was the daughter of Jean Ross, the real-life woman whom Isherwood based Sally Bowles on.)
The Berlin Stories is a collection of Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939), itself a collection of stories originally published in the late 30s. The two volumes first appeared together with this title in 1945.
The Berlin Stories is one of the iconic gay novels of the 20th century, and the edition I read includes a forward by Armistead Maupin. It's best known for the theatrical adaptations it inspired, I Am a Camera and Cabaret. Whether as a book or a play or a musical or a movie, it's a loosely linked set of stories set in the last days of the Weimar Republic.
A space opera, apparently the first of a series, but with some of the flavor of a fantasy. The exotic military technologies of the Hexarchate, an interstellar empire, are all based on their High Calendar; calendrical mathematics is the underpinning of the empire, and calendrical heresy is the most serious threat. I'm looking forward to the sequels when they're published.
Stephen Baxter's blurb is about right: “Starship Troopers meets Apocalypse Now — and they've put Kurtz in charge.”
Yes, it is a race. The competitors include, among others: Queen Titania; Hushnow, the Ancient and Demented Raven Lord; Queen Mab; Curdleblood, the Dastard of Darkness; Thrum, the Rex Tyrannosaur; Pinecrack, the Moose-Khan; the Headmistress; the First Stone; and of course September.
“In three days' time, which will be Thursday, for those of you who lived before calendars became sentient, let all who wish to rule Fairyland gather at the Ghostloom Gate on the north side of the city. Thursday shall be known far and wide as the day of the Cantankerous Derby! All hopefuls, thoroughbreds, long shots, cheaters, townies, speed demons, and dark horses shall commence a Wondrous Race, beginning in Pandemonium, and ending at Runnymede Square in the ancient city of Mummery! The winner shall receive the Crown, the Sceptre, and a nice blue ribbon with #1 written on it. All are eligible! Ravished, Stumbled, Changelings, Fairies, Gnomes, Rocks, and Trees! Participation comprises a binding contract to accept the results of the race. Sandwiches and coffee will be provided!”
The Trisolaran Crisis began in The Three-Body Problem and ended in The Dark Forest with the Doomsday Battle and the discovery of the Dark Forest and the beginning of the Deterrence Era. Death's End, the last book of the trilogy, begins with a preface that seems to be written from outside time, then with another prologue set in Constantinople in 1453, then introduces most of its main character in the early Crisis Era, then continues on to what happens after the Deterrence Era ends. Long after.
If you've already read The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest, you probably already know you want to read this. If you haven't read them, you should.
She definitely wasn't the monster of Donizetti's opera or popular legend. There's no reason to believe she ever poisoned anybody, or murdered anyone any other way. Plenty of people around her were murdered, yes, including her second husband and one of her brothers, but not by her.
A more difficult question is whether she was consequential. Her first two marriages were all about the political alliances of her father, Pope Alexander VI. She did have real political power in the second half of her short life (she died in 1519, at age 39, after a difficult pregnancy) as Duchess of Ferrara, and she helped her husband guide Ferrara, then a powerful sovereign state, through a difficult period of the Italian wars, and she seems to have been a competent and trusted ruler. Still, I don't think anyone can say she shaped the politics of Renaissance Italy, and one would be hard pressed to point to her lasting legacy. It's her brother Cesare (a.k.a. Duc de Valentinois, a.k.a. il Valentino) who gets star treatment from Machiavelli, not her.
Lucrezia's story is interesting. Unfortunately, I didn't really like this biography. Its strength is that it's very grounded in the primary source material, not the lurid legends of later centuries; when you read a description of some particular event you never have any doubt exactly where it came from. There are extensive quotations from letters and other contemporary documents, including those of Lucrezia herself. Alas, that strength is also a weakness. It seemed to me as if the author was too eager to make sure readers knew how much time she'd spent in the archives and how well she had mastered the primary sources. There were just too many cases where the author provided a ton of minute detail, not because the event being described was inherently important to Lucrezia's life, or because the details supported a point the author was making, or because they were a big part of the story, but just because they were there, because that aspect of the documentation happened to survive. The overall story tended to get lost.
Sequel to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, and The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two. Not the same sort of title as the first three! And as the title hints, there are other differences too. But right near the beginning of the book, in the second chapter, we're already warned to expect something different from a fourth book.
Fours are a funny business. No one ever gets four wishes from a genie in a great brass coffeepot. Nobody demands that you perform four tasks to be done in order to win the heart of a rhinoceros, or accepts four gifts from the suspiciously overeager witch at the bottom of a well. A joke repeated three times is a satisfaction, four tires the patience and the jaw. I have never heard hide nor hair of the fourth blind mouse, nor what the fourth little pig might have found left over to build his house with when his brothers had done. The fourth wish, the fourth gift, the fourth mouse—they live outside of stories, outside the rules. Anything might happen to that poor white-eyed creature nosing in the dark. She might find herself crowned Queen of the Kingdom of Drywall and rule with an iron paw. One simply cannot know what to expect. Not even me—and I know quite a lot of things concerning stories, as well as the care and keeping of royal mice.
Sequel to The Fifth Season, which just won the 2016 Hugo. The Fifth Season is structurally complicated: for most of that book it's unclear who the characters are, or why they do some of the most important things they do, or what the different interleaved stories have to do with each other. The Obelisk Gate has a simpler structure for the most part: we basically know who the characters are, and there are only two main stories, and there aren't very many really puzzling questions of motivation. The two atrocities at the beginning of The Fifth Season — a man who causes such destruction that it might be the end of civilization or even extinction of humanity; a different man who beats his own toddler son to death — both become clearer in this book. It's also a little clearer what kind of world the characters live in. Maybe it's the far future of our world; there's certainly ancient technology in this book, and maybe some of that technology is “sufficiently advanced.”
Site Reliability Engineers (SREs) are the people who run Google's production services. It's a genuine engineering position that entails software development, not just operations. Site Reliability Engineering, coauthored by a vast number of Google SREs (many of whom I know), is a manifesto about what Site Reliability Engineering is all about and why it matters, including how SRE teams work and are managed. It's also a detailed explanation of how Google builds and runs reliable systems at scale.
I knew abstractly that Google is being less secretive about internal systems than before but it's still astonishing to see all of these things collected in one place: Stubby, Borg, Task Master and Workflow, Borgmon and Monarch and Viceroy, Chubby, Escalator and Outalator, GSLB, how to manage SLOs and error budgets,… Even if you work at Google, you'll probably still learn a lot from this book about how Google works. Recommended if you have any professional interest in large scale services.
The third and last book of Kristin Lavransdatter. The first book of Kristin Lavransdatter begins with Kristin's birth and naturally the last book ends with her death. (In Nidaros, in 1349.) In The Cross we see the further consequences of the decisions that Kristin made early in the first book, and, as the title suggests, they are not entirely happy. Also as the title suggests, she eventually has other concerns by the end of her life.
Spoiler: it can.
The last book of the “Small Change” or “Still Life with Fascists” trilogy, sequel to Farthing and Ha'penny. It's an alternate history set in a world where the Hess Mission was successful and Britain made a separate peace and eventually acquired its own version of fascism.
Half a Crown begins in 1960 just after the Reich has won its twenty years war against the Soviet Union. There is to be a peace conference in London to divide up the remains, and perhaps the Duke of Windsor, the former Edward VIII, is trying to make trouble. The head of Britain's equivalent of the Gestapo (more of a decent person than you'd expect given that job description) is handling security arrangements. The other viewpoint character is his ward, a debutante whose biggest concern is what she'll wear for her presentation to the Queen; she wouldn't seem like someone who would become involved in great events, but it's an unsettled time when unexpected things might happen.
The third book of the Thessaly trilogy. The first book, The Just City, is about an attempt (by the goddess Athene) to create a working model of the city that Plato described in the Republic, with founding citizens from all times and with 22nd century robots instead of slaves. The second book, The Philosopher Kings, continues the story as competing views emerge about what way of life is truly Platonic and about whether Plato's vision is even desirable or just, and ends with what can only be described as a deus ex machina.
The ending of The Philosopher Kings made it clear that the last book would go off in a completely new direction, as indeed it does, but I still hadn't expected quite the directions that this book goes off in. There are spaceships and aliens, as one would expect, and also stranger things. And there are FTL starships, but when you're already in a story with time traveling gods, what's a little more causality violation between friends? In this book we don't have causality as a principle that imposes logical structure on the universe, but we do have Fate and Necessity.
The second book of Kristin Lavransdatter, a trilogy of novels written in the early 20th century and set in early 14th century Norway. In the first book, The Wreath, Kristin succeeds in getting the husband she wanted, at some cost. In this book we get to see how it worked out for her. Not entirely disastrously, and her husband didn't fail her in the way that one might have guessed, and the fault wasn't entirely his. Both he and Kristin are interestingly flawed.
Norwegians would undoubtedly have recognized some of the names from history and have known what to expect of some of the political machinations given that the king is Magnus VII. I was sometimes a little lost.
The Thirty-Nine Steps — the book, not the Hitchcock movie — is set in the summer of 1914 and is about a sinister German plot to steal the secret plans for the naval defense of Britain. Greenmantle is the lesser known sequel, written and set in 1916. Richard Hannay, now a major fighting on the Western Front, is called in to deal with another sinister German plot, this one an attempt to start a jihad against the British Empire.
It didn't surprise me that the book was somewhat racist by today's standards. It also didn't surprise me that it was reasonably respectful of Islam; British imperialists may not have understood Islam, but they admired it. What did surprise me was the book's sympathetic portrayal of Germans, even including the kaiser himself. They're the enemy, but by and large good people, and even the two villains are admirable in some ways.
The first volume of Churchill's WWI memoirs. It's partly a history of the overall diplomatic and military events, including, for example, a chapter on the Battle of the Marne, but it's mostly a record of Churchill's own experiences as First Lord of the Admiralty. It deservedly gets quoted a lot, since it's a primary source and Churchill was a gifted writer, but it also has to be taken with a grain of salt. One agenda behind this book was Churchill arguing that he wasn't responsible for disasters like the Battle of Coronel, the fall of Antwerp, the escape of the Goeben to Constantinople, and the Gallipoli campaign.
Or Kransen in the original Norwegian. It's the first book of Kristin Lavransdatter, a trilogy of historical novels set in the 14th century. Kristin Lavransdatter is Undset's best known work, and the primary basis for her 1928 Nobel prize.
A Laundry novel, but not a Bob Howard or Dominique O'Brien novel. The main character is Alex the Vampire, first seen in The Rhesus Chart. “Alex hasn't been a vampire for very long, and he isn't very good at it yet. But at least he's still alive — if that's the right word for his condition — unlike several other members of his brood.”
A love story, an apocalyptic story, a story about the conflict between magic and science. Also a very funny book, one that includes, among other things, two-second time machines, the Nameless Order of Assassins, and a cat who observes that birds are “like toys with meat inside.” And perhaps we can also learn the answer to the question: is a tree red?
A police procedural murder mystery set a few decades in the future, in a world where Haden's Syndrome has left millions locked in: conscious but completely paralyzed. New assistive technologies, implanted neural networks and telepresence robots and Integrators and virtual worlds, allow Hadens, including the book's main character, to function and participate in society. They also enable completely new kinds of crime.
The subtitle is A Melodrama of Manners, and that's a good description: graceful surfaces concealing more complicated implications, delicate maneuvering with complicated rules where what's unsaid is usually more important than what's said, love affairs and political alliances and blurry combinations of the two. And swords. And especially since this is Pride Weekend, I also ought to mention that the most important romance in this book is between two men.
This was Ellen's first novel, and it's still her best known. I've read it several times. The copy I have now is the second edition, which includes an author's afterword and three short stories set in the same imagined and unnamed city and featuring some of the same characters: “The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death,” “Red-Cloak,” and “The Death of the Duke.”
Let the fairy tale begin on a winters' morning, then, with one drop of blood new-fallen on the ivory snow: a drop as bright as a clear-cut ruby, red as the single spot of claret on the lace cuff. And it therefore follows that evil lurks behind each broken window, scheming malice and enchantment; while behind the latched shutters the good are sleeping their just sleeps at this early hour in Riverside. Soon they will arise to go about their business; and one, maybe, will be as lovely as the day, armed, as are the good, for a predestined triumph…
But there is no one behind the broken windows; only eddies of snow drift across bare floorboards. The owners of the coats of arms have long since abandoned all claims to the houses they crest, and moved up to the Hill, where they can look down on all the city. No king rules them any more, for good or ill. From the Hill, Riverside is a tiny splotch between two riverbanks, an unsavory quarter in a prosperous city. The people who live there now like to think of themselves as evil, but they're really no worse than anyone else. And already this morning more than one drop of blood has been shed.
Steven Weinberg is a professional physicist, one of the best (he's done important work in cosmology, and he shared the Nobel Prize for his work on what's now called the Standard Model of elementary particle theory, a.k.a. SU(3)xSU(2)xU(1) or the Weinberg-Glashow-Salam model), and an amateur historian of science. He's taught a few courses on the subject, and it's at least implicit in a few of his other books.
Weinberg knows enough about history to know what “the Whig interpretation of history” means and to know that it's not usually taken to be a flattering description, but nevertheless argues that it's an appropriate way to write about the development of science (pointing out that the person who coined that phrase, Herbert Butterfield, didn't hesitate to judge the past by the standards of the present when writing about the history of science) and that it's an especially useful perspective starting with the Scientific Revolution, when we start seeing something that looks like modern science to a modern scientist like Weinberg. It's a fairly convincing argument; if you're trying to explain why one point of view largely replaced another, surely you shouldn't neglect correspondence with actual physical reality. Not every history needs to be written with that point of view, but some should be. That's especially true if the author understands the science well enough to explain what some scholar from an earlier era was trying to do, what their argument meant in quantitative terms using notation that's understandable today, and why their approach worked, to the extent that it did.
If you've studied science of any kind then you'll undoubtedly know some of this story, since a class on any technical field usually includes at least a little bit on how our present understanding developed. You probably won't know all of the story, though, in part because those introductions we all get are always radically simplified for pedagogical purposes. One thing I learned that was new to me, for example, was that the Ptolemaic model of the universe was not universally accepted in the pre-Copernican era — far from it. Aristotle had a quite different model, also geocentric but different in many other ways, and there was serious argument between the two up through Galileo's day. What's even more interesting is that everyone agreed that Ptolemy's model agreed better with observational data, but that didn't stop a lot of people from preferring Aristotle's model anyway. For many scholars quantitative agreement with observed data wasn't the only criterion by which to evaluate a model, and not necessarily even the most valued. A model was also judged by the extent to which it could be arrived at deductively from a priori justification, the extent to which it embodied moral or teleological description, the extent to which it explained essence rather than merely appearance. Part of this story is about how we arrived at our present understanding of the world and part of it is about a change in the idea of what, in broad terms, an explanation of the world should look like.
The last book of Farrell's Empire trilogy, this one about the last days of the British empire in Singapore.
“The best that one could say of the situation, as Ehrendorf saw it, was that one catastrophe (unprepared defences at Jitra) more or less cancelled out the other catastrophe (failure to secure the road through the mountains) because, after all, you could only lose Jitra to the enemy once and it was immaterial whether you did so by unprepared defences, or loss of a road behind you, or most generously of all, by both at once. Although, mused Ehrendorf, if it were possible to lose Jitra twice, these guys would certainly stand a good chance of doing so. All the same, they were treating him very hospitably and someone in their outfit clearly knew how to make a good cup of tea.”
Not the real Mars that we know through probes and robots, or the simulated Mars of the Mars Desert Research Station that David Levine participated in, or even the imagined early 20th century Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Robert Heinlein, although it owes something to those latter. This is an imagined early 19th century Mars that never was. It's 1812 and the wooden ships of the Honorable Mars Company sail the great interplanetary winds, and the Napoleonic Wars are fought in the skies as well as on land and at sea, and the English colonists with their khoresh-wood plantations and native servants make sure their little society on Mars is still decently English. It's partly a comedy of manners and partly an adventure story, and also a bit of steampunk without steam, and it's a lot of fun.
I'm not at all sure how to describe this book. It's strange and memorable, and I imagine I'll come back to it. It's set in the 25th century, in a world that seems alien to us but where there at least seems to be some path from our world. It's also a philosophical novel, and a very talky one, an entry in the great conversation of the Enlightenment; it's also distanced in a number of ways, some obvious from the beginning, like the deliberately archaic 18th century style, others not. It has interesting things to say about gender. I find myself wondering if the world could work as described, but perhaps that's also something the characters in it wonder about; there are reasons, again hinted at from early in the book, to think that it's about a time of instability and transition where an old order is breaking down. If the narrator is to believed (but are they?), it's at least partly a story of the supernatural.
A global history of 1916 is of course largely a global history of the War. It was an eventful year. High points, so to speak, include the Allied evacuation of Gallipoli; the two most iconic battles of the Western Front, the First Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Verdun; the beginning of the Salonika Front; the Brusilov Offensive; the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire; the central Asian Kyrgyz revolt against the Russian Empire; the Easter Rising in Ireland; the Battle of Jutland; the Sykes-Picot Agreement; the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo (also the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth); the murder of Grigori Rasputin.
A novel of Holy Wood. It's also one of the earlier Discworld books and introduces a number of recurring characters, including Archchancellor Ridcully, the Bursar, Gaspode, and Ponder Stibbons.
Nalo Hopkinson is one of the guests of honor at this year's WisCon. This is her first novel, and also the first book of hers that I've read. It's simultaneously Canadian and Afro-Caribbean, and it's a mixture of the science fictional, set in a ruined Toronto in the near future, and the fantastic.
(The title comes from a traditional song, which has of course been going through my head while I was reading the book. I know the tune from experiencing Nalo singing it and leading the ring game at a con a few years ago.)
“It's hard to get up there, harder than the stairs down into the basement. It takes longer; you must climb out a window and shimmy up the chimney and pull yourself over by your fingernails without breaking the gutters. Gravity is involved, and unbreakable spells concerning escape velocity. After all, anyone can go down into the cellar if they are not afraid of the dark. Any tale you care to tell calls for a quick trip to the underworld to bring up another bag of flour and a working knowledge of your darker nature. The surface of the world is like a great black net; any moment you could fall through and fall deep. But for every underworld there is an overworld, an upper world just as strange as the lower, just as bright as its cousin is brooding. The snow that falls in one splashes down as rain in the other — and brightness is not less perilous than shadow. An Italian poet got himself a ticket good for both shows once and came back to tell us all about it, which shows excellent manners.”
It's a big world, so somewhere in the world there's probably a version control system more complicated than Git. I hope I never encounter it.
I think this is Butler's best known book, largely because it's the one that's read by people outside the science fiction community. And indeed Butler herself described it as “grim fantasy,” not science fiction. It's a book about slavery, using time travel as a device to see it from a fresh perspective and through modern eyes: a contemporary African-American woman is transported to the early 19th century, with no explanation and no control. Her perspective partly distances her from the lives of the other people on the plantation, but only partly; her relationships with them are complicated, and, as the very first page of the prologue makes clear, she is certainly not protected from the violence of slavery and does not return whole.
Butler deserved all the honors she received, including the PEN lifetime achievement award and the MacArthur fellowship, and Kindred deserves to be as well known as it is. Not always easy to read, of course. Butler was very good at not flinching from what she was writing about.
This is one of the O'Reilly Early Release books, meaning that it's unedited, the diagrams are hand drawn, and it's incomplete. (About half complete, judging by page count and chapter count.) Of course, the Rust language is also still in a pretty rough state. I think this will be a good book when it's finished; I'm going to keep paying attention to Rust as it evolves, and I'll read the whole Programming Rust book when it's done. Probably what I ought to do in the mean time is look at some real Rust code, like the standard library implementation, and figure out how you write something like a red-black tree in this language.
“First” in the sense of primus inter pares, that is, not in the sense of earliest. “The First Man in Rome was not the best man; he was the first among other men who were his equals in rank and opportunity. And to be the First Man in Rome was something far better than kingship, autocracy, despotism, call it what you would. The First Man in Rome held on to that title by sheer pre-eminence, perpetually aware that his world was stuffed with others eager to supplant him — others who could supplant him, legally and bloodlessly, by producing a superior brand of pre-eminence. To be the First Man in Rome was more than being consul; consuls came and went at the rate of two a year. Where as the centuries of the Roman Republic passed, only the smallest handful of men would come to be hailed as the First Man in Rome.”
The First Man in Rome is set toward the end of the Republican era, from the year when Marcus Minucius Rufus and Spurius Postumius Albinus were consul (110 BCE) to the year when Gaius Marius and Lucius Valerius Flaccus were consul (100 BCE). It's one of those historical novels where most of the characters are real people, mostly very famous people. The two main characters are Gaius Marius, who served as consul an unprecedented seven times and was sometimes called “the third founder of Rome,” and the young Lucius Cornelius Sulla, later consul and dictator. It also comes with an extremely extensive glossary, almost a hundred pages long, that includes some long entries where the author explains her decisions — how she chose to translate or not translate some terms, and which characters and events she invented based on what evidence or guesswork.
This is the first in a series of seven books set during the end of the Republic. I don't know why I'd never heard of them before; it's not as if McCullough is an obscure writer. I'll have to read the rest.
A police procedural set in Scotland some time in the mid to late 21st century, after the end of the Faith Wars, the Second Civil War in the US, the dissolution of the UK, and the worldwide Great Rejection of religion.
Edith Wharton is best known nowadays for two books, Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence, but she was quite a prolific writer. Project Gutenberg has 55 of her books; some of them are duplicates and translations, but that's roughly the right number.
The Marne, published 1918, is her War book. It isn't largely about the First Battle of the Marne, which happens offstage early in the book. It's mostly about a privileged American teenager, probably from roughly Wharton's own social background, wishing he could find a way to help France.
Fourth book in the Olympians series of graphic novels, and largely about the story of Hades and Persephone.
Discussion question from the back of the book: “Hades is in love with Kore, so he kidnaps her and takes her to the Underworld. Is this an appropriate way to let someone know you like them? How could he have done it differently?”
The third Dortmunder book, in which the gang gets the idea of using a novel (the third book in a series about a somewhat less unlucky gang of crooks) as the template for a kidnapping. What could possibly go wrong?
There are some rough edges to Rust and even more rough edges to the documentation. It's a promising language, though, and it has a lot of interesting ideas. It attempts the difficult task of providing abstractions that can be used without loss of performance, which is something very few other languages even try to do. C++ does, but most other languages force you to choose between abstraction and efficient code, or don't even give you the choice. Rust additionally tries to provide zero-cost safety.
Some of the ideas in Rust that I found the most interesting: adding lifetime to the type system, thus making it possible to write programs that are provably free of dangling pointer bugs without runtime overhead; immutability and move semantics by default; ownership and borrowing; sum types and pattern matching; a unified treatement of parametric polymorphism and subtype polymorphism via “traits”, which can be used both in constrained genericity (like C++ concepts or Haskell type classes) and as type-erasing interfaces like in Java or Go.
I haven't tried writing anything but small test programs in Rust, so I don't know what using it for anything real would be like in practice. The language is still in its early stages, in any case, and both the language and the book might look different if I look at them again in six months. Whether or not Rust gets mainstream adoption, I hope people will pay attention to it and that its ideas will influence future work.
The latest Vorkosigan novel. (Cordelia Vorkosigan in this case.) It takes place about 25 years after the events of The Vor Game, in which Admiral Jole was a barely-mentioned young lieutenant, and that's not too far from the real-world chronology: The Vor Game was published in 1990.
Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682) was a physician and essayist. The edition I read, published by NYRB Classics, is a collection of his two most famous works, Religio Medici (i.e. the religion of a doctor), an essay about his religious beliefs, and Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall, inspired by the discovery of ancient funerary urns near Browne's home in Norfolk.
So why does one read something like this? Not so much because of the ostensible subject of either essay, but partly because of the weird digressions and reflections, the erudition, the odd connections that nobody else would make, and partly because of Browne's use of language. He was a great stylist, and a great innovator. You might think it's difficult to understand Browne because he wrote in old 17th century English, but actually it's difficult to understand Browne because he wrote in his own idiolect that was atypical of his age, far more Latinate. Some of the words he coined, like “hallucination” and “literary,” are now familiar.
“Now since these dead bones have already out-lasted the living ones of Methuselah, and in a yard under ground, and thin walls of clay, out-worn all the strong and specious buildings above it; and quietly rested under the drums and tramplings of three conquests; What Prince can promise such diuturnity unto his Reliques, or might not gladly say, Sic ego componi versus in ossa velim. Time which antiquates Antiquities, and hath an art to make dust of all things, hath yet spared these minor Monuments.”
Book of Honor for Potlatch 25. Constellation Games is a story about first contact (we're the primitive contactees) and video game reviews, told mostly in the form of blog posts and emails and tweets.
See the author's web site for bonus stories, commentary, and an archive of the fictional characters' Twitter stream from when the story was being serialized.
No, it's not a book about global warming and its threat to Antarctic wildlife. It's a business book by a “leadership and change guru,” the Who Moved My Cheese? for the next generation.
One of the early Vorkosigan books. I reread it in preparation for the latest book in the series.
The subtitle does a good job of summarizing what the book is about, including the surprising parts. First, the “handful of scientists” of the subtitle really were scientists. Mostly physicists who had worked on nuclear weaponry or closely related areas, not people with expertise in the fields under discussion, and mostly no longer doing original research, but still people with genuine scientific credentials. Second, it really was the same people, the same handful of names, who show up in all of these case studies, starting with the attempt to obscure the dangers of smoking in the 1970s. This of course explains why these people weren't experts in the relevant fields: nobody in the world is simultaneously an expert in epidemiology, oncology, pesticides, ecology, and climate and atmospheric science. Third, the connections were quite clear to the people involved; as Philip Morris's Director of Communications wrote in a confidential memo in 1993, with regard to second-hand smoke (which the tobacco industry called ETS), “The credibility of EPA is defeatable, but not on the basis of ETS alone. It must be part of a larger mosaic that concentrates all of EPA's enemies against it at one time.”
Essentially, this book is the story of industries (starting with the tobacco industry in the 1960s) exploiting a bug in the way American journalism works: “The industry had realized that you could create the impression of controversy simply by asking questions, even if you actually knew the answers and they didn't help your case,” and journalists respond to the perception of controversy in predictable ways.
A humorous kid's science fiction novel about alien invasion and the dispossession of the conquered savages (us). My ten year old daughter liked it, and so did I. Look for the five pages of nothing but “Meow.”
There's a movie adaptation, Home, with more or less the same characters but a very different plot. It's pretty fun too.
A large part of the book is about the labors of Heracles, and that's what the subtitle refers to: the name comes from Hera and Kleos, i.e. the Glory of Hera. I hadn't known that.
An anthology of 21 stories originally published on Tor.com. Some of them are very good: this anthology includes three Nebula nominees, and at least a couple stories that I plan to nominate for the Hugo.
All of the stories on Tor.com are free, and you can download Some of the Best from Tor.com 2015 as a free ebook. If you're at all interested in science fiction and fantasy, you should.
Second book in the Olympians series of graphic novels. Discussion question from the back of the book: “In the story of Arachne, Athena deals with her anger at Arachne by turning her into a spider. Is this a good way to deal with conflict? Are there better animals to turn Arachne into?”
Paolo Bacigalupi won a Hugo a few years back for his first novel, The Windup Girl. The Water Knife is his most recent novel, and I think his second non-YA novel, and it's the first thing of his that I've read. I ought to read more.
The Water Knife is set some time in the relatively near future, maybe a few decades from now, when the aquifers in the western United States have all been drained dry, climate change has turned the Colorado River into even more of a trickle than it is now, and the water wars of the Southwest have become more literal. I'm sure California must be pretty hard hit in a future like that (the present-day reality in the Central Valley is already scary enough after a few years of drought), but to the characters in a dying Phoenix, especially to the desperate refugees from Texas living in camps run by UNHCR and Chinese and MSF aid workers and trying to somehow get across the closed borders, California is partly a menace and partly an impossible dream.
The plot is noirish, in some ways reminiscent of Chinatown, except that nobody in this book ever has any doubt that what's at stake in all the scheming is water. Most of the characters in this book, including the titular water knife, i.e. an enforcer for Las Vegas's powerful water boss, have read Cadillac Desert and point to the fact that the disaster was entirely obvious at least as far back as the mid 20th century. Reminds me that I haven't reread Cadillac Desert recently.
Or Twilight Robbery in the original British title. Either way it's the sequel to Fly By Night, the further adventures of Mosca Mye, Eponymous Clent, and Saracen the goose. I've enjoyed all of Hardinge's books that I've read so far; her inventiveness is astonishing.
First book in the Olympians series, a series of graphic novels about Greek mythology. Each focuses on a particular god and they're also roughly in chronological order, which is especially appropriate for the first book since much of it is about Chronos.
Winner of the 1973 Booker Prize, and second book in Farrell's Empire trilogy — trilogy in the sense of three books that are thematically related, that is, as opposed to a story split into three volumes. The first book is Troubles, set in Ireland in 1919, while The Siege of Krishnapur is set in India in 1857, in what Britain used to call the Sepoy Mutiny.
The edition I read comes with an introduction by Pankaj Mishra. I learned from his introduction that in Victorian times there was a whole subgenre of “mutiny novels,” generally romances. The Siege of Krishnapur is a postcolonial take on the mutiny novel. Like Troubles it's a very funny book and that's a big part of the point. The British characters (there are no Indian characters of any importance) are in the grip of one ludicrous ideology or another, whether the 19th century certainties about rationalism and progress and a mission to spread civilization, or romanticism, or Christian religious fanaticism, and they don't know a thing about the continent they think they rule. The main tone is irony.
“SPQR” is an ancient initialism for Senatus PopulusQue Romanus, The Senate and the People of Rome. SPQR, the book, is a sweeping book of about a thousand years of Roman history. The author is an eminent classicist who teaches at Cambridge. She's written more than a dozen books, but all her previous ones seem to be on specialized topics for fellow scholars. This is her first book with this kind of breadth.
“Ancient Rome is important,” Beard begins, and I agree with her. This book isn't mainly about the many aspects of our world today that come from Ancient Rome, although that's occasionally explicit and it's more often implicit in the ways that the ancient controversies and concerns still seem relevant. It's also not a retread of Gibbon; it's not about how or whether Rome fell. It's more in the spirit of the ancient historian Polybius, whom Beard quotes: “Who could be so indifferent or so idle that they did not want to find out how, and under what kind of political organisation, almost the whole of the inhabited world was conquered and fell under the sole power of the Romans in less than fifty-three years, something previously unparalleled?”
Starting and ending points are always arbitrary. Beard chose to go from the (mythical) founding of the city by Romulus and Remus in 753 BCE through the emperor Caracella's grant of citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire in 212 CE. One of the real strengths of this book is Beard's clarity about what is and isn't known, how we know what we do, to what extent we should be skeptical of things we think we know and should look below the surface for alternative explanations. This is most obvious in the period covering the first few hundred years, when we have little but myths and oral traditions recorded by ancient writers; obviously we can't take them at face value (even many of the ancients were skeptical of Romulus and Remus's birth to a virgin priestess, and debated what it meant that the city began with the murder of a brother and mass rape), but she explores how the content and debate over the myths illustrated the way ancient Rome saw its own history. She points out an instance where a single word on a mostly indecipherable inscription in early Latin changed our understanding of this distant past — RECEI, meaning that the ancient historians were right and there really was a time when pre-Republican Rome was ruled by kings. She explains the painstaking scholarship that allowed us to reconstruct the Twelve Tables, the earliest version of Roman law.
Even in better documented times, times where there is so much surviving literature that no one person could possibly read it all in a lifetime, much is more mysterious or poorly understood or problematic than it seems. We know how Cicero portrayed Catiline and how Caesar portrayed Pompey, but not the reverse. We know very little of the lives of the vast majority of the empire. We know when Hadrian's Wall was built, but not why. (You might think the answer is obvious, as I did; it's not.) How seriously should we take the stories of the individual emperors, for example of Nero as monster? There are at least some indications that Nero wasn't universally hated; perhaps the more important part of the story is the way in which the imperial system maintained continuity for a couple centuries and may not have depended very much on the emperor himself.
I find ancient Rome fascinating, and I've been a fan of Beard's writing for some time (I read her blog regularly, and her articles in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere), so it's unsurprising that I liked this book a lot and learned a lot from it. Even if you're not an enthusiast, I can't think of a better introduction.
The further depredations of the Nome King.
A relatively recent children's book, but somewhat old fashioned in spirit: the adventures of four sisters, ages 4 through 12, on their family summer vacation. The characters read some of the same books that the readers probably do, including C. S. Lewis and Edward Eager. The Penderwicks is one of my daughter's favorite books these days, so she wanted me to read it too.
“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrown upon them.”
There are things I like about Go and things I don't (the same is also true of every other language I've used), but it's definitely useful for some tasks. If you want to learn Go, this book is a good resource.
The authors generalize “phishing,” treating the usual definition as a metaphor. They mean “getting people to do things that are in the interest of the phisherman, but not in the interest of the target … dropping an artificial lure into the water and sitting and waiting as wary fish swim by, make an error, and get caught.” The basic argument is that deception and predation aren't incidental to economics but pervasive. We should usually expect a “phishing equilibrium”: whenever anyone has a weakness (which everyone does), we can expect that competitive pressures will lead to an exploit.
“Let's start with the end of the world, why don't we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.”
First book of a fantasy trilogy. The second book, The Obelisk Gate, is coming out later this year.