Tag Archives: non-fiction

How to make a spaceship

How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race and the Birth of Private Space Flight (2016) by Julian Guthrie is all about the creation of the X-Prize, the groups that entered, the people involved and the group who won.

Peter Diamandis established Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) while studying molecular genetics at MIT. He then went to Harvard Medical School to get an MD but still pursed his space dreams. He paused his medical studies to get a Master’s in Aeronautics then finished his medical degree but then started to pursue his space dreams full time. In 1994 Diamandis started the X-Prize Foundation after reading The Spirit of St Louis. The X-Prize set up a prize of $10 M for the first company to make repeated journeys into space. He then spent years chasing funding and pushing the idea.

He met members of the Lindbergh family including Eric, the grandson of Charles Lindbergh who overcame early onset arthritis to reply his grandfather’s famous flight. This flight also helped foster interest and funding for the X-Prize.

Burt Rutan, the legendary aircraft designer and founder of Scaled Composites became interested in the prize and with funding from Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen started developing a craft.

Other competitors included John Carmack, the lead programmer for ID Software who created Doom & Quake and various competitors from the UK, Argentina and Romania.

It’s a good story, but the book doesn’t really hang together that well as narrative non-fiction. It’s about a third too long. There are also a few too many characters and the book meanders a bit.

Still, the fundamental story is interesting and it’s remarkable how Diamandis created a prize that really has helped kick start new efforts into space. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos were both attracted to the prize and it has helped them create their own space efforts. We still don’t quite have regular space tourism, but with SpaceX in particular it seems that new impetus has been given to new efforts into space and the X-Prize and SEDS seem to have really helped give this a push.


Extra Lives

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter (2010) by Tom Bissell is another book where a successful, serious writer and critic looks at video games.

Bissell faces the problem that other similar books such as Bit by Bit, How to talk About Videogames and other books like this face in that specific games are written about while the general and diverse nature of games is also addressed.

Bissell writes really well, he writes about what he found in Fallout 3, Resident Evil, Left for Dead, Gears of War, going to the DICE awards, Braid, Mass Effect, Far Cry and Grand Theft Auto (GTA). The chapter on GTA compares Bissell’s addiction to games to his sometime enthusiasm for Cocaine.There is also an interview with Peter Molyneaux and a discussion of Fable 2 in the book.

Bissell looks at how games tell stories, how the mechanics of the game often conflicts with stories and the power that games have to get people to play them. The book also has quite a few amusing quips.

Extra Lives does work as a book of serious game criticism. It’s fun to read and for anyone who enjoys reading the New Yorker and playing games it’s going to be a pretty solid, fairly amusing book.



Depopulation: An Investor’s Guide to Value in the Twenty-First Century (2015) by Phillip Auerswald and Joon Yun is a semi-interesting book about a really important topic that gets far less attention than it should.

There are many books that deal with AI and how it could possibly end all our jobs. However, there is zero data that this is actually happening. AI has made ads marginally better and can recognize snapshots on Facebook. Which is amazing, but the real impact has been fairly small. However, Japan is shrinking by about the population of Canberra every year and this is the only book I’ve seen on this trend.

Almost every single developed country has a birth rate below replacement. The only large group of countries with high birth rates are really poor countries in Africa and once they too become richer, say approaching 10K GDP at PPP per year which they are on track to do by mid-century it’s highly likely birth rates will fall there too.

This book looks at how birth rates are falling and then makes some suggestions as to where investment will be good. The author’s suggest companies with good returns rather than high growth prospects.

The book has some interesting statistics and is not terrible, but it does far less than can be done with a really interesting subject. Looking at Japan and the many places where populations are declining now, such as East Germany, deserves better treatment and should be more interesting.



Forewarned: A Skeptic’s Guide to Prediction (2017) by Paul Godwin looks at when predictions are likely to be good, when they are likely to be bad and how to make better predictions and forecasts.

The book covers similar material to other books like Tetlock’s Expert Political Opinion. There are also lots of references to the work of Kahneman and Tversky. Taleb is also referred to frequently.

There is a discussion of how scenario planning can be useful and how companies have used it successfully.

The book isn’t bad. If you’ve read lot of similar things much of the material will be familiar but there should be something new for most people in the book.

The Journey in Between

The Journey in Between: A Thru-Hiking Adventure on El Camino de Santiago (2010) by Keith Foskett describes walking the great French and Spanish walking trail.

As a veteran of long walks I’ve done the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian trail, well, I’ve read books about them anyway and Foskett’s book compares quite well with other books that focus on the trail and the people you meet rather than just the author’s issues.

If you’re into these kinds of books then this one holds up. It’s perhaps a bit thin on describing the churches and the history of El Camino but that can be obtained from other sources. It’s also an inspiration to people like myself who just read these books and wonder how they can one day wangle doing one of these walks.

The Bestseller Code

The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel (2016) by Jodie Archer and Matthew Lockers describes the application of Machine Learning (ML) Text Mining techniques to analysing the text of best selling and non-best selling books.

Various critics have attempted to extra the ‘seven stories’ or something similar at various times. They were limited, however, by being human and not being able to rapidly count words and do things like apply modern ML methods to hundreds of books to not only extract the themes and number of themes, but also the sentiment analysis and check on the language that was being used and find out if the authors had any words they used in odd ways or more frequently than normal. Today these things can be done. The authors also built a classifier that attempted to classify books as non-bestsellers and best-sellers. They say their classifier had 80% success rates. The book doesn’t give much more detail than that, presumably their papers do however.

They also say that their techniques when applied to some books such as Fifty Shades of Grey showed that their algorithm suggested it would be a best seller despite having graphic sex scenes that normally stop a book from being a bestseller.

What they say about the sentiment shifts in bestsellers, what sorts of words are used by the major characters and the number of themes in bestselling books is very interesting. It would presumably be useful to aspiring writers as well.

The book is definitely worth reading for anyone interested in what makes a bestseller and also for people who want to see what ML is now capable of doing in text analysis. It’s also worth noting that the authors say that their analysis led them to have a greater appreciation of the art of writing best sellers.



The Knowledge

The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch (2014) by Lewis Dartnell gives an overview of what the author thinks a small band of humans would need to rebuild society after a disaster that kills most of humanity.

The idea of what technological ideas and what would be needed to rebuild society is an interesting question. After an apocalypse what would be needed and how quickly could things be rebuilt? Dartnell goes through agriculture, food and clothing and then chemicals, metals and materials that would be needed to rapidly restart civilization.

The start of the book is definitely fascinating, working out how to get enough food to keep people going and then grow enough food is a huge problem. Then clothing and shelter would be critical, unless they were already there. Dartnell then gets into the chemicals, metals and other things that would be needed and how a small group of people could make them. However, it all becomes more of a science lesson in the core bits of technology that enable so many of us to live so well. This is where it falls down, if enough people survived then sure the knowledge of how to do things would make it through due to some of the millions of books around surviving and people starting to trade and specialize. This part of the book also becomes a bit dull.

Still, it’s an interesting read and would be well worth it for anyone contemplating writing apocalyptic fiction themselves.