Tag Archives: nonfiction

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.




Dream Hoarders

Dream Hoarders (2017) by Richard V Reeves is an interesting book that looks at how it is not the top 1% that is driving inequality in the US but rather the top 20%. Reeves is a researcher at the Brooking Institute who is an ex-pat Englishman who went to Oxford, got a PhD and was chief strategist for Nick Clegg the UK Liberal Democrats leader when he was deputy Prime Minister of the UK. Reeves has since moved to the US and married and had kids.

The book points out how US incomes have changed and the rewards have primarily gone to the top 20% of households who go to good colleges, marry well and do well. Reeves suggests that by carefully caring for their offspring and hiring people like themselves this group has detached itself from the rest of US society. Reeves points out that intergenerational income mobility, a great measure of the inequality over the long term is now worse in the US than in the UK. The land of opportunity is in some ways no longer.

He makes the point that while many of these people are liberal and progressive in their views attempts to cut their tax breaks, including tax cuts for saving for college and tax cuts for housing have been stopped by this group themselves. He also suggests that making housing more affordable by allowing more density has led to protests in progressive cities like Seattle stopping the idea in it’s tracks to preserve high value housing for the current owners.

He suggests that better access to contraception, more home visits, improving teacher quality, funding college more fairly, fixing exclusionary zoning, cutting legacy admissions to college, opening up internships, reducing regressive tax breaks would help reduce this inequality. It’s not unreasonable. Oddly he doesn’t suggest something that would address the US’s staggering prison population, an issue that  heavily impacts low income US households.

For anyone interested in inequality this book is very much worth reading. It’s also pleasantly short.

On Writing

On Writing (2002) by Stephen King is the hugely successful author’s book on writing advice which also includes a brief autobiography. It was recommended to me by a guy I worked with who said that it also had insights into programming. It does. This is the second or third time I’ve read it and I’m sure I’ll read it again at some point.

King is very good at what he does and this book is no exception. King writes about how you have sit in a room and write, do it often and read widely to improve your writing. He says that with effort most writers can become at least competent.

As someone who toys with the idea of writing the book is an interesting look at what it really takes. King wrote short stories for years that he got published and then got his third full novel purchased and the book, Carrie, became a smash hit. But on the way he spent some years working in laundries and then eventually supporting he and his wife and their child by working as a teacher. It’s clear he had to make time to do what he wanted and he had to work at it.

The way he describes writing and then editing has a lot of merit to it. Making sure there is something there and then editing it down. The book also has quite a bit of general writing advice on what to avoid and how to improve dialogue and various other topics.

On Writing is a really interesting read for almost anyone. For anyone who even thinks about writing it would definitely be worth reading. But for anyone who does something in their spare time it’s also something to take in.


Hikikomori: Adolescence without end (1998) (2013 translation) by Tamaki Saitō is a fascinating book about the Japanese phenomenon of the hikikomori, young people withdraw into their parents house in adolescence or early adulthood and stay there for years, often not talking to anyone or just their family. Some have been doing this for a decade or more. The Japanese government estimates there are at least 700 000 Hikikomori in Japan.

Saitō is a psychiatrist who wrote this book after treating a number of Hikikomori and talking to fellow physicians and seeing the numbers increase. When it was published it caused a stir in Japan. It’s not a uniquely Japanese problem, Korea has something similar but with more of their Hikikomori playing games and being online. There are young recluses in the West but with weaker family bonds more people who do this sort of thing leave or are forced out of home. The Not in Education, Employment or Training or NEETs that the Blair government referred are similar. Also in the US the recent decline in the male participation rate looks similar. So world wide there are more adolescents and young adults dropping out in culturally specific ways.

Hikikomori are predominantly male, beyond 4/5 and stay at home. Some only communicate with their parents via written notes. Some are so extreme as to not leave their room to defecate or urinate. It’s pretty amazing. Some are also violent toward their family, particularly mothers suffering from them.

The book first looks at the prevalence of the condition and cases that Saitō has encountered. The comparison with other countries are also explored. The latter part of the book details Saitō’s treatment recommendations. It’s also worth noting that typically a few years, not decades are spent with the condition, but there are Hikikomori in their 30s. With treatment many Hikikomori have gone on to confront their issues and normalize their lives.

It’s an incredible phenomenon and the book gives a great introduction to it. The translation is good and it’s well worth a read for anyone who is interested in the manifestations of dropping out in different cultures.


The Gluten Lie

The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths about what you Eat (2015) by Alan Levinovitz is a study of various food myths and fad diets, where they come from, how they are propagated and how they tie into long standing beliefs that are quasi-religious.

Levinovitz is a professor who studies religion and his perspective on diet is really interesting.

The book starts by looking at how Celiacs disease and Gluten sensitivity were discovered, initially under-diagnosed and then substantially over-diagnosed and gluten demonized  by pushers of fad diets.

Then Levinovitz looks at fears over MSG, fat, salt and carbohydrates. He also happily points out that nutritional science is really hard and the conclusions are often a lot weaker than we’d like but that weak results are often pushed by well meaning people and charlatans to promote certain ideas.

The book also points out that religious diets had quite a bit in common with modern diets and that the belief that ‘you are what you eat’ hasn’t disappeared. The demonisation of fat in particular seems to have been driven partly by this belief.

Finally he makes up a fad diet of his own and goes on to point out the standard tricks that are used in these diets that he used to push it.

It’s a fun short read and well worth a look for anyone considering a diet or who is interested how on complex scientific questions people often look for simple answers and then adhere to their beliefs with a religious intensity.

The Man Who would be Queen

The Man Who Would be Queen: The Science of Gender – Bending and Transsexualism (2003) by Michael Bailey is a fascinating book that looks at sexuality and transgenderism from the scientific viewpoint. It’s a highly controversial book that has seen Bailey viciously targeted because many people don’t like the theories it puts forward for political reasons.

Bailey starts the book with the story of Danny, a boy who as a two year old liked to dress in women’s clothing and play with dolls. Bailey says that by looking at Danny’s behaviour he believes that he has a good idea of how Danny will turn out as an adult.

He then also talks about surgically altering children with ambiguous genitalia and attempting to make them into one gender or another. This frequently goes wrong and inflicts huge pain on the subjects. Bailey uses this to point out that gender and sexuality are very much driven by genetics.

Bailey goes on to look at how genetics influence homosexuality and the way twin studies and other studies have show how genetics again drives this. This part of the book also frequently says that ‘this group believes X, this other group believes not X and Y’ and overall I believe X or Y. It’s a really nice and honest way to write about unclear scientific issues and it’s great to see.

The book then shifts to transsexualism and Bailey puts forward the controversial idea that is attributed to Ray Blanchard that there are two types of transsexualism, homosexual transsexualism performed on very effeminate homosexuals who at a young age wish to become women in large part to attract men and what Bailey terms autogynephilic transsexuals who are heterosexual transsexuals who are aroused by having a female body and who love the female body.

Bailey puts forward considerable evidence for this theory including case studies and more work from Blanchard. It’s hard to dismiss and a really interesting idea.

The book is pleasantly short and is really fascinating. For anyone who wants to know what the controversy is about it’s definitely worth a read.