The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (2014) by Claire North is a clever, highly enjoyable book. The premise is that the author is repeatedly reborn with memories of how he has lived his life. There is also a plot which is quite good. The book is well written, the premise fun and the plot adequate. The ending of the book is a little anti-climactic but overall the book is really a tremendous read and is highly recommended.
Fifty Years of Hurt: The Story of England and Why We Never Stop Believing (2016) by Henry Winter looks at why the English national football team have underperformed by talking to a number of ex-footballers and coaches about why England have a worse record than Spain, Italy, France or Germany.
Why England don’t perform as expected is a bit of a mystery. People often point to the longer English season with no winter break and England’s failures on penalties in repeated tournaments. Also tactical and technical issues are assessed. The combination appears to be fairly devastating.
Winter talks to Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer, Michael Owen, Ian Wright and so many other people in the book that it does make for a pretty fascinating book for anyone familiar with English football. However, it is a bit long and does get repetitive.
It should be pointed out by the book, but isn’t that England’s record until Spain and France won World Cups and Euros was actually in the middle of the pack of large European countries and until 2010 had a better record than Spain. Indeed, if England could take penalties at World Cups they could well have two wins. England has the worst record of penalties in World Cups, having played three and lost three. It’s worth noting, however, that France’s record is 50/50 and Italy have played 4 and lost 3.
It should also be said that international football is really hard. Really only Germany and Brazil, the largest country in Western Europe and the largest country in South America that have really strong records. Only Italy and Uruguay have records that transcend their size. And even with Germany and Italy it’s worth noting that Italy hasn’t won the Euros in almost 50 years and Germany hasn’t in 20.
There is also some hope at the end of the book as the more recent success of the England youth team are discussed. There is also some hope in terms of fixing things that are not working. Germany lost a penalty shootout in 1976 and then got organised and have not lost one since.
For anyone interested in football and anyone who is interested in England it’s well worth a read. A bit more context and comparison with other countries and an acknowledgement that football is really hard to do well in might have helped, but the interviews and discussion are genuinely interesting.
Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy (2017) by Tim Harford is a history of fifty very important technologies that have had a huge impact on the modern economy. It’s a bit like James Burke’s superb TV shows Connections and the Day the Universe changed but for the loyal listener set. Chapters from the book were first put into a podcast series that is also very interesting and well done.
Harford was a professional economist before becoming a writer for the Financial Times and then a presenter on BBC radio. He’s written a number of books on economics and has now written this one looking at a range of technologies. He hasn’t tried to pick the most important items, like the wheel, or light, because so many other people have looked at them. Instead it’s an inspired list of varying items and the tales behind them.
The items include : The Plough, Barbed Wire, Robots, The Welfare State, Infant Formula, TV Dinners, The Pill, Video Games, Market Research, Air Conditioning, Department Stores, The Dynamo, The Shipping Container, The Barcode, Tradable Debt and the Tally Stick, The Billy Bookcase, The Elevator, Cuneiform, Public Key Cryptography, Double-Entry Bookkeeping and the Light Bulb. They vary considerably.
Each chapter is very interesting on its own and the whole is even greater than the sum of the parts. The chapters are also quite short and so the book can be read in nice short chunks if desired. Each chapter has extensive references as well so anyone who wants to go into more depth can easily go off and read books about the inventions.
It’s really a great read and something that is really informative. Even if you have listened to the podcasts you’ll also find more in the book. It’s definitely one of Harford’s best books and for anybody at all interested in technology or the impacts of technology it’s highly recommended.
The Entrepreneurial State (2013) by Marianna Mazzucato looks at how the state is, according to Mazzucato, entrepreneurial in its development of science and technology.
The first thing about the book is that it abuses the word ‘Entrepreneur’. Mazzucato tries to put forward the idea that the state, by financing research is being ‘Entrepreneurial’. But it’s not really. The financial risk for the state itself isn’t that great. The financial risk for the people who allocate the funding is also small.
The book does make the case well that a lot of technology had much of the initial development paid for by the state. The book looks at the IPhone extensively and points out that microprocessors, the internet, touchscreens and the GPS in the device were all built for the US government. She then implies that Apple and other technology companies and VC firms just took the money and should pay more of it in tax. The book downplays the difficulty of performing this kind of integration and ignores the many companies who tried and failed to build a successful smartphone prior to the IPhone.
There is a very interesting review of the book in The Guardian that points out the problems with her general thesis.
The book then puts forward the idea that the government is the key entity that needs to shape clean energy by being entrepreneurial, but also in taking the upside and more of the profit. She jumps from pointing out that the state created various technologies used by Google and Apple and pharmaceutical companies to saying that it can just shape the market to prefer her favored energy choices. It’s not a strong argument. The US government did invest in IT, but there was no design of a market for computers, software and smartphones. That simply evolved.
Mazzucato makes the point that Apple doesn’t pay their ‘fair share’ of tax by pointing out that they use tax shelters to minimize the tax they pay. She doesn’t mention the raw figure of how much tax big US IT companies pay. Even with various tricks to reduce their tax they still pay billions and their employees, in jobs created by these companies also pay a great deal of tax.
The Entrepreneurial State makes the case that well that state spending on R&D has paid off in many instances. The claims it makes that the state should obtain more of the profits and benefits and shape markets is not well made.
One Device (2017) by Brian Merchant is a history of the IPhone for the tenth anniversary of the device. It looks at how the phone was developed, parts of the global supply chain that produce the device and the impact it’s had. Merchant has managed to write a book that is more than just a hagiography for Apple fans.
One of the big problems for a book like this is actually talking to the people who were really involved in the creation of the device. Most companies like to keep things quiet and get people to sign NDAs and not until long after will people really talk. On top of this Apple is a company with more secrecy than most. In this book Merchant seems to have managed to get quite a few people to talk and be what appears to be honest. There are some frank exchanges where some of the original team talk about the cost to their personal life and marriages of the work involved.
The book goes to Chilean mines, a Foxconn plant and a recycling center for electronics in China. He also gets an IPhone broken down to see exactly what it’s made of. Merchant also goes to ARM and talks to the transsexual engineer who was one of the original ARM designers.
There is also an interesting part on one of the first Smart phones that was tried, an IBM device from the early 1990s. There is not much of a mention of the Nokia Communicators prior to the IPhone. There is some mention of the first phone to get email working well on a phone, the Blackberry, which was common in business circles prior to the arrival of the IPhone. There are also a few mentions of WAP the unsuccessful attempt prior to the IPhone to get the internet working on a portable device.
For anyone interesting in technology ‘One Device’ is well worth a read. It’s well written and quite informative. It’s not the complete history of the emergence of the internet on portable devices but it is a very readable, informative and interesting book about the creation of a significant technological device.
Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins (2017) by Garry Kasparov and Mig Greengard is a book that looks at how machines eclipsed people in playing chess and what this means for humanity.
Kasparov is one of the greatest chess grand masters of all time and the last human to be the best chess player on the planet. In 1997 Deep Blue defeated him taking the crown for an activity that was once seen as the epitome of human intelligence.
The book looks at how computers play chess, how they were initially fairly week and how in the late 1980s they began to become as good as the best human chess players and finally beat them.
The story of the actual game shows that Kasparov believes, it appears with good reason, that his loss to IBM’s Deep Blue involved quite a bit of unfair play. The machine was allowed access to his back catalogue and was quite possibly altered during the game. However, he also makes it clear that if he had won that game he would have lost within a few years. Computers had become too good.
Kasparov goes on to reflect on how this has changed chess, how modern grand masters use computers very differently and how the combination of humans and chess computers is, for the moment, better than just computers on their own. He also reflects on how this doesn’t mean that the singularity is near and the book has a great quote from Andrew Ng, the Machine Learning expert from Stanford, Baidu and Google who says that worrying about super-intelligent computers is like worrying about overcrowding on Mars.
The book is very interesting in parts but also quite dull in parts. You’d really have to be a great chess aficionado and someone who is interested in what a smart, informed person has to say about AI to really appreciate it all. And even then you’d probably find it sags in the middle. However it certainly contains insights from someone with a unique perspective on chess and AI.
Bling Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage (2000) by Sherry Sontag, Christopher Drew and Annette Lawrence Dew tells some of the story of the remarkable role played by US submarines in the Cold War.
The book starts by describing the changes of submarines after WWII with diesel boats that would remain underwater most of the time to nuclear powered boats that could remain underwater for long periods of time.
The book then gets into some of the exploits of the nuclear powered spying vessels that managed to find downed Soviet boats, find lost US nuclear weapons and to tap Soviet military undersea cables. It’s all pretty remarkable.
The book is a bit over the top though, every second US captain is a swarthy confront superiors type. There is little real detail about how quiet the boats are, from non US submariners I’ve heard that diesel boats are often quieter than nuclear boats, but nowhere is this sort of discussion in the book. Also if you’re not an American the jingoism is a little wearing. It’s also suggested that the US was following most Soviet missile boats, this doesn’t seem to be accurate, the Soviets seemed to have a fairly potent second strike ballistic missile submarine capability. The book itself has a ‘record’ trail. Presumably if these trails were rarely that long there was a lot of time when Soviet boats did do the same thing as US boomers.
For anyone interested in entertaining historical military tales the book has a lot going for it, as reflective history it’s far weaker. Still, it’s enjoyable and surely does provide some accurate information about the remarkable tale of submarines in the Cold War.