The Sea Wolves (2014) by Lars Brownworth is a fairly compact history of the Vikings. The book is broken into sections describing the viking raiders, the explorers, traders and how the viking lands were ruled.
The vikings were an incredible group of people who used their seafaring skills to mount a series of raids against much of coastal Europe. Their plunder was enormous. Surprisingly initially their weapons were fairly small but their hit and run tactics were very effective. The vikings were also staggeringly violent, slaughtering people who they defeated on a regular basis. They also captured and traded slaves. Eventually they improved their weapons, their tactics and began to conquer parts of the British Isles and France. Here they quickly took on many of the local customs. The exploration carried out by the vikings was also remarkable, culminating in their discovery of the Americas.
The vikings also traded extensively across Europe and carried their boats as far as the Middle East. It’s truly amazing. As well as this they established a number of states including what would eventually become the Russian state.
The book goes over a lot of ground pretty quickly and the pace makes it a breeze to read. It’s really a remarkable story and the impact that the vikings had on Europe as sea raiders is made very clear. Just as the Mongols had a huge effect on the history of Asia the vikings radically altered Europe.
Hear the Wind Sing (The Rat, #1) (1979) by Haruki Murakami is Murakami’s first novel that has only recently been re-released in English.
The book feels very much like other Murakami books. The style, the characters and many of the scenes are things that reappear in his later books. The book is sparse and short and doesn’t stay too long like some of his later works. But also by being short and sparse it feels like it lacks a bit of the depth of later books like Norwegian Wood.
Nonetheless, it’s a good short read and definitely worth a look for anyone who like Murakami and it wouldn’t be a bad introduction to see if you like his style.
The Inner Game of Tennis (1974) by W Timothy Gallway is a well written, insightful book on how to improve almost any activity.
Gallway posits the abstraction that there is an unconscious self, self 2 that performs physical actions while there is a conscious self, self 1 that is verbal and tells self 2 what to do and very often does more harm than good. Self 1 often makes self 2 tense up, focus on the wrong things and causes mistakes by being under confident or over confident.
Gallway describes how to quieten self 1 and observe self 2 and let self 2 work on improving and being as good as possible. He emphasises that focus and being in the zone are what really improve performance.
The book is simplistic, but it has a valuable lesson. Focus and try and observe but not criticise what you are doing and then improve. The book perhaps neglects the role of practice, but definitely makes good points. It’s also applicable to more than tennis. It’s a short and interesting read.
Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet (2012) by Andrew Blum looks at the physical manifestation of the internet, that is the cables, interconnects and data centres that create the internet. The history of the internet is also briefly examined.
Blum is a journalist who writes for Wired and the book has the style of a Wired article. Blum starts off with problems on his home connection connection and then starts looking at where the wires actually run and how the internet works.
Blum is a good writer and has a reasonably interesting subject. He makes good points about how we now take for granted an amazing technological creation that enables us to look at videos from any connected part of the planet. He points out how most of us have very little knowledge of how it all works.
The descriptions of the places and people where cables come to land and to connect are well done and quite engaging. The book could have been a bit better if there had been more of a technical description of what’s going on. After posing the question of what do people know about how the internet really works Blum seems to not be particularly interested in that aspect of it all.
Tubes isn’t a bad read. It reads like a good extended form of a Wired essay. It’s not a great book but if this kind of thing appeals it might be worth a look.
Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions (2016) by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths is a gem of a book that describes how computer science has attempted to solve problems that are like those we face in our lives. The book manages to combine interesting discussions of life problems and also has really good exposition of various algorithms.
The book looks at when to stop looking for new jobs or partners and how to choose, how to balance exploring and enjoying what we know, when to make things neater, how to use cashes, how to schedule things, how to use limited information and change our views well, when not to over think, when to use some randomness to find things and how to use networking and how to think about competitive elements in our lives.
The book is very well written and would interesting anyone who likes to think about how to go about their own life and anyone who is interested in how computers solve problems. It’s not a book that uses rhetoric to say what we should do, instead it’s a quite, very thoughtful book full of insight.
The Underachiever’s Manifesto: The Guide to Accomplishing Little and Feeling Great (2006) by Ray Bennett is an amusing and surprisingly wise take on self-help books.
Bennett extols the virtues of not trying to hard, not exercising hard and not expecting too much of yourself at work, at the gym and in live and instead making sure to relax and spend time with people who are important to you. The book manages this and makes you laugh which is always great.
Bennett is a doctor which does mean somehow he’s been achieving and he also finished this book which is well, an achievement. But even with these slight problems of not living down to the standards it still fun. The book nicely has some lists which patched in numbers and a cleverly half-done quiz. And as the book says, live life to minimum.
100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith (2013) by Sonia Arrison looks at how likely dramatically extended lifespans are and what their consequences would be. Arrison is founder and is connected with Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity University.
The idea of dramatically enhanced, or even indefinitely enhanced longevity is really interesting. It’s physically possible, it’s plausible and there is even a trend, that of increasing life span that makes it seem quite possible. Indeed, in 2000 leaving India and spending a day in Bangkok I met a man who was about 40 and firmly believed that he was not too old too see such change, provided he kept himself in really good shape.
Life expectancy has been rising for about 200 years but this has mainly been due to a reduction in child mortality and improvements in basic health. However recently various technologies are starting to promise a dramatic extension in longevity. The sequencing of human genome, AI and the increase in computing power and stem cell research are producing some incredible breakthroughs that may well lead to radical change. Growing replacement organs is going to happen, stem cell replacement and change of cells may well lead to huge change.
The book looks at this and has a lot of interesting information about these technologies, however the book makes the assumption that these changes will happen. It’s a big leap. While it may well happen it’s far from certain.
Beyond that the book looks at the social changes that extended longevity could produce. A lot of ground is covered and it’s fairly well done. Changes in work, finance and even religion are considered. Arrison is very optimistic about the consequences of extended lives and gives good arguments for this optimism. The chapter on religion is also good in that it is respectful of religion and points out that religious people would probably accommodate life extending technologies. The book also discusses people who think that extended longevity is immoral. Interestingly Arrison describes how many of the new technology rich are putting large amounts of money into longevity research. She also complains about how little government work is going into researching life extension
100 Plus is an interesting read, it makes a big assumption that lives will be dramatically extended. This isn’t completely unreasonable but it’s important to note that book isn’t about pondering how likely dramatic life extension is. The facts about the current changes in technology and the well thought through discussion of the consequences of life extension are well presented and most interesting to think about.