Tag Archives: non-fiction


Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World (2007) by Dan Koeppel describes the importance, history and current problems of the banana. Like Salt, Cod and other books on a single commodity Koeppel manages to make the book an engaging read.

The current large, seedless bananas that we eat are fairly recent and also are fairly fragile. As they don’t have seeds and change rapidly they are highly susceptible to disease. The Cavendish, which today is the most common type is a replacement for the Gros Michel that was taken down by Panama disease. Today Cavendish plantations have been infected with it and other diseases.

The book looks at the importance, fragility and history of the banana. A lot of the book concerns the way large US companies ran the governments of central American countries for their own aims. It’s pretty dramatic.

Later chapters look at how scientists are trying to breed tougher and better bananas and the difficulty of doing so. The role of GM in making better bananas is also discussed.

It’s a really well done book on a subject that would seem at first glance to not be particularly interesting. It’s definitely worth a read.


Micromastery: Learn Small, Learn Fast and Find the Hidden Path to Happiness (2017) by Robert Twigger is a book that describes why you should learn small skills that appeal to you quickly and then improve on them.

The book has an interesting idea, namely that we often say we want to learn big, time consuming things that take ages to do but then never really undertake these things because they are often too hard and don’t provide rewards for our learning early enough. There is definitely something to it. Instead Twigger suggest learning small skills that are impressive and can be done more quickly and more easily and building on these skills. He suggests things like learning how to start a fire with two sticks, juggling four balls, telling a good children’s story and various other things.

He puts it forward as being a bit like punk, having an ethos of making your own things, which is really admirable.

However, the book definitely over reaches in suggesting learning these sorts of things is a great way to happiness or a panacea. It’s quite a good thing to do, better than watching TV, but the author oversells the idea.

Micromastery isn’t a bad book but it’s far from great either. It’s got some good suggestions and would have made a good essay.

Make it Stick

Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (2014) by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel is all about how to learn things, apparently pretty much everything, better.

The book looks at how when learning things people often try to reread and reread course material to learn things. This doesn’t work. Instead, they say you should learn, then self-quiz, retrieve things with further back spacing to check you still remember, interleave problems and areas, try to solve new questions without first knowing how, reflect, calibrate by checking how well you know things and use mnemonic devices.

Notably the book says that ‘learning styles’ has no solid, replicable basis.

For courses the book recommends that regular low stakes testing is used to remind students of material and that more tests lead to better recollection of the subject. It seems, however that also leads to more work for lecturers. The way they describe teaching to work best is the way it was in high school and in the early years of University for me, not the later ones. Perhaps students were expected to use such techniques on their own by then.

The learning here seems to be focused on subjects where remembering large numbers of things is key. It’s not quite so clear that it works as well for learning things that have more math in them. A Mind for Numbers might be a better book for that.

It’s interesting that the way the book describes the best way to learn seems to be the way that computer courses are tending to do. Lots of quizzes on material learnt earlier and interspacing older material. The language learning app Duolingo seems to operate exactly this way.

The book is quite good and seems to concur with other evidence based studies of learning that are around. It’s reasonably short and quite well written. It is a bit repetitive. Perhaps this is in order to embed the ideas best into the brain of a reader.


Fifty Years of Hurt

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

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.


One Device

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.


Blind Man’s Bluff

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.