Tag Archives: nonfiction

Skin in the Game

Skin in the Game : The Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life (2018) by Nassim Taleb is Taleb’s latest book in what he calls his Incerto trilogy. Many people cannot stand Taleb. His style, his anger, his digressions and his contempt for much of academia put many people off. But he has some good things to say and without doubt the concept of Black Swans and Fat Tail risks has been propagated primarily by him. I personally like Taleb and generally enjoy what he has to say.

In this book Taleb emphasises that people can happily advise others about what to do often without having done it themselves and without suffering loss if others take their advice and fail. They have no skin in the game. Taleb contrasts this to people who have been in an industry, say trading, where personally wrecking things is a real danger. Bad trades like Nic Leeson’s have destroyed companies.

The book is tough going, particularly the early parts. Taleb has taken personally that he hasn’t gained real insider status and that many academics don’t like him. He believes they have failed to appreciate him. He goes after lots of people and personally criticises them. I almost gave up on the book. But it got better, I learnt some things and there are real insights in the book for people who persist. He views on religion are really interesting. The probability points he makes are also well worth considering.

For anyone who hasn’t read Taleb but has come across his ideas this book isn’t a good place to start. The Black Swan is better. For people who like him like myself the book is worthwhile, but be aware there is a lot of rehashing of his older works.


With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (199) by Eugene B Sledge is an incredible memoir of fighting in the US Marines in the Pacific in World War II in some of the bloodiest battles of the war.

Eugene Sledge was the son of a doctor and was in college and could have become an officer but instead became an enlisted Marine and was in a mortar crew. After the war he went on to become a Professor of Biology.

The book describes the incredible trials and bloody nature of the war where Sledge was. The graphic and matter of fact nature of the startling events is really something. The Japanese changed their tactics from Banzai Charges to defense in depth as they retreated across the islands. The fighting was brutal.

The book is engrossing.

The Catastrophe Signal

The Catastrophe Signal (2017) by Bernie Lewin is an interesting, but sometimes hard going history of atmospheric climate panels and conferences. The book goes through the panels, research and various investigations that leads up to the International Panel on Climate Change IPCC becoming the dominant greenhouse gas adjudicating panel that provides scientific justification for attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It covers the research into the effects of the Supersonic Transport (SST) on the Ozone layer, to people worried about global cooling in the 1970s to the Ozone Hole Research and panels in the 1980s and later the IPCC. It’s really very interesting, the political justification for much of the research and the early reactions of bodies like the WMO to this kind of research is fascinating. It would be rare to find anyone today who is even aware of the worry about global climate of the SST.

It is also remarkable to read about how action on Ozone was taken before there really was a scientific consensus on the effects. Again, it’s also remarkable to find that much of this action was supported strongly by conservative governments around the world.

The  book is more of a valuable serious history than an entertaining read, it is, quite frankly due to the scholarly nature a bit arduous in parts. But it is also rewarding. It becomes clear that activists have driven the process for negotiations and consensus repeatedly. In different cases the outcomes have been very different. On the SST and global cooling effectively nothing happened, on Ozone steps were taken and then scientific justification was found.



Soccermatics: Mathematic Adventures in the Beautiful Game (2016) by David Sumpter is a fine read that looks at how math can be used to explain and improve football. Sumpter is a professor of Applied Math in Sweden who does quite a lot of research helping football teams.

The book looks are how graphs can be used to look at team passing. There is a very well named chapter ‘How Slime Mould Built Barcelona’. There is a section on betting markets and strategies that can be used with them. The book also has a section on how statisticians and mathematicians are being employed now by football teams.

The book is well written and has good explanations of the math involved. For anyone interested in the use of math in sport or in football the book is well worth a read.

Nobody Wants to Read your Sh*t

Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t: Why That Is And What You Can Do About It (2016) by Steven Pressfield is an entertaining short book for writers and wannabe writers about realising what the title says and writing something that people do really want to read.

Pressfield uses his experience writing in advertising, writing novels and screenplays to give his insights into what works. He writes about how useful it was to be in advertising where people really don’t want to read what you write and also getting insight into what works in screenplays and how it can help novels.

It’s a fun short read and isn’t a waste of time for anyone who writes or thinks about writing.

The Cold War

The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction (2003) by Robert McMahon is a good short introduction to the Cold War.

The book goes through the historical events of the Cold War in a solid and straightforward manner. It’s also well written.

The book does exactly what it sets out to do and does it well.

The Friendly Orange Glow

The Friendly Orange Glow : The Untold Story of the PLATO system and the dawn of cyberculture (2017) by Brian Dear is a fascinating but wildly too long account of the PLATO interactive, networked computer system developed at the University of Illinois.

PLATO was clearly an incredibly advanced system that had high speed interactive graphics and networking. It was started as a system that was intended to greatly enhance teaching by providing individually paced lessons for students. PLATO got many people to use the system in highly surprising that included early networked games, bulletin boards and networked chat. PLATO also had a plasma screen and critical research on plasma and flat panel displays was done for it.

The system was commercialised by CDC but largely failed to gain traction. PLATO also almost became the basis for the system at Xerox PARC. The system is also interesting because it was an important, revolutionary system that wasn’t developed in the US Northeast or on the Pacific.

Dear himself first used the system in 1979 and went on to have a great career founding several companies and working at a number of significant technology firms.

It’s an incredible bit of largely unknown history. The book could have been fantastic but due to the author’s desire to get too much in and the lack of an editor who didn’t weed the book down it’s a real slog. It is a great resource for historians though.

There is an excellent interview with the author on the also excellent ‘Internet History Podcast’. If you’re at all interested in the topic that would be a great place to start. This is also where I found the book.

PLATO was started in the 1960s and initially used the ILLIAC as the mainframe behind before migrating onto more powerful machines. It was led by Daniel Alpert, a physicist who made the inspired decision of hiring Don Bitzer, another physicist to be the technical lead. Bitzer made the team very informal and allowed anyone who could show they could contribute to contribute remarkably including high school students as well.

By the 1970s the system could support thousands of users and the labs at the university were fairly open and games and other social things were created that were hugely successful. Remarkably Bitzer allowed this use and cleverly used it to stress test and improve the machine. It had much of what is now on the internet 25 years before it was widely used in other places and 10-15 years before Unix based systems caught up.

Dear has a huge section on all the contributors and game programmers that he could track down. He also includes biographies for many of them. It’s quite amazing, but also pretty tiring.

The book is fascinating for people interested in the history of technology and it’s surprising for anyone who is familiar with what is usually presented as the main history of technology from mainframes to Unix to PCs. The PLATO system has clearly been dramatically overlooked and this book does a lot to correct that. It is, however, also far too long. One way to deal with it is to really speed read through any sections that the reader doesn’t find interesting. But if a third to a half of the book had been cut it would have been much better. Still, Dear deserves enormous credit for compiling and writing the book.