Saturday, May 26, 2018

Book Review: The Square and the Tower

The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, From the Freemasons to Facebook
Niall Ferguson
History, politics

I've liked some of Ferguson's previous books, particularly The Ascent of Money, but The Square and the Tower is too long for its content. The first portion, describing some of the basics of network theory, is interesting but largely disconnected from the remainder. Said remainder consists of sweepingly vague statements, interspersed among a plethora of fairly unremarkable examples, delivered in orotund (read: pompous) prose. Also, Ferguson wastes chapters delivering long, thunderous denunciations of things that everybody is already against. (Apparently Stalinism and Islamic terrorism are both Bad Things. Who knew?)

A title like this begs for a strong theoretical spine. What we get is a monologue to the effect that there are networks, and there are hierarchies, and here are some examples of each. At 592 pages, that's a lot of book for a very unremarkable observation.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Book Review: The Perfectionists

The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World
Simon Winchester
Science, engineering, history

This is one of Simon Winchester's better books, all the more so because he takes a really original  perspective on Modernity and How It Got That Way. On the one hand, The Perfectionists is chock-full of intriguing facts about everything from jet engines to camera lenses. On the other hand, it's also a paean to a bunch of extraordinary characters. And on the other other hand, it's well-tied together by its theme.

Precision is one of those things, like rust, that's so incredibly important that nobody thinks about it. That is: it's so important that we've had to get very, very sophisticated at it--so sophisticated that it's largely invisible. A couple hundred years ago, James Watt found that he needed a then-unheard-of level of precision to make his steam engines work . . . whereupon divers other actors discovered that such precision let them do, or almost do, amazing things . . . which led to a need for more precision . . . which led, ultimately, to things like Moore's Law . . . which led to people in third-world countries throwing away two-year-old cell phones with enough processing power to launch a space-shuttle because they're too old and slow.

Thought-provoking, no? And the writing is good, too: lively, vivid, and readable. Winchester is not at his best when he tries to be profound--there's a chapter on Japan, as an alleged conundrum, that's basically one big mistake--but for telling details he's one of the best.

Winchester got to visit one of the most precise things in the solar system, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, which shows up in a lot more detail in Ripples in Spacetime. For other good books about important stuff that nobody thinks about, see Rose George's The Big Necessity and Mark Levinson's The Box.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Book Review: The Miracle of Dunkirk

The Miracle of Dunkirk: The True Story of Operation Dynamo
Walter Lord

Walter Lord was one of the greatest narrative historians of the 20th century. The Miracle of Dunkirk isn't up there with his best work (such as A Night to Remember, Day of Infamy, and especially Incredible Victory), but it's still pretty good. It has the trademark Lord style: beautifully readable, extensively researched, and absolutely packed with vivid first-person detail. It doesn't quite cohere into a single overarching narrative--there are so many viewpoints that the book takes on a fractured, impressionistic quality. In an odd way, though, that's appropriate to the subject matter. In a battle nobody had planned for, a national emergency that seemingly arose from nowhere in the course of a few days, there could be no coordinating genius and no overall architecture of salvation . . . only a series of improvisations, enough of which somehow worked.

This would be a good book to read if you saw last year's rather peculiar movie Dunkirk and wanted to actually, you know, learn something.

If music is your thing, do not miss James Keelaghan's song "Fires of Calais".

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Book Review: Salem Witch Judge

Salem Witch Judge: The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall
Eve LaPlante
Biography, history

Samuel Sewall was the only one of the Salem judges to publicly repent. An image of the event is now in the Massachusetts State House:
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It's a significant turning point: an insider, a member of the governing class, acknowledging not just his own personal failure, but the failure of the institutions of authority. So much for the divine right of anybody in particular. To think of it another way: Samuel Sewall was born in 1652, when people who knew William Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth were still alive. When he came to New England as a boy, a few of the original Pilgrims were still around. When he died in 1730, Samuel Adams was eight and Benjamin Franklin already 24 years old. His life bridged two different worlds: the world of witches and devils and kings who could cure scrofula with their magic touch, and the world of Jefferson and the Enlightenment and all men being created equal.

LaPlante's biography, it must be said, doesn't really delve into those larger meanings. It's a nice, readable write-up based on Sewall's own extensive diaries, rather like the better class of Wikipedia article done up to book length. It's at its strongest when it recreates the extraordinary physical and mental worlds of late-17th-century New England. It's at its weakest when LaPlante resorts to wholesale quotations from other authors (a venial sin that's hardly unique to her). I was especially intrigued by the period hymns sprinkled through the pages, but unfortunately I don't read enough music to really get the feel of the pieces.

LaPlante also argues that Sewall's repentance moved him towards a kind of pre-Enlightenment position vis-a-vis women, slaves, and Indians. Based on the writings of his that she includes, that's a little generous. However, Sewall--though his understanding of the world is stunningly alien--seems to have been a pretty decent fellow, overall, so I'll give him and LaPlante the benefit of the doubt.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Book Review: Head On

Head On
John Scalzi
Science fiction

This is the sequel to Lock In. If you liked that, you should read this. If you haven't read Lock In but like John Scalzi, go ahead and read it. (There's actually a spoiler for Lock In buried in this one.)

Does that sound kinda . . . tepid? I enjoyed reading this book--I bought it in hardcover the day it came out, and buzzed through it in an afternoon--but it's not a major work even within the Scalzi oeuvre. The chief problems are:
  1. It's overly complex for no particular reason. (At a certain point in the exposition, I felt little Xes forming in my eyes.)
  2. More importantly, it doesn't really take advantage of the world that Scalzi sets up. The initial idea is great--a sport that appeals to Americans because it's even more violent than football. The plot that develops, however, could be set in any professional sports league. With no more than cosmetic changes, you could turn it into a novel about present-day soccer, or basketball, or water polo, or whatever.
  3. The last quarter of the novel reads like a rush job. It's almost pure dialog, to the exclusion of plot or character development. It's good dialog, but John Scalzi's dialog resembles itself to a remarkable degree, and it gets repetitive.
  4. A major plot point is pretty obvious from early on. It's not as major as similar case in Lock In, where . . . SPOILER FOR LOCK IN COMING AT YOU . . . the whole plot is built around the gimmick of YES HERE IS THE SPOILER "the solution would be obvious if only X were technically possible, only we know that X isn't technically possible, only it turns out that it is." But there's a certain amount of waiting around for the other shoe to drop.
So, a book for fans. Nothing wrong with that. Only, if you're not a fan, this won't convert you.

Here's an insightful take from my much-missed pal "B.S." For what it's worth, I didn't read it until after I'd composed the above.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Book Review: Dark State

Dark State
Charles Stross
Science fiction

This is the sequel to Empire Games. If you liked that, you'll like this. I did, and I did.

Mind you, the quarrel that I had with Empire Games is in full force here. (Mild spoiler ahead.) We have two governments who have nothing in particular to fight over, and who have no reason whatsoever not to acknowledge each other, dancing around creating artificial peril--instead of, oh, say, sending a few high-level bureaucrats to have a summit or something. If either side sent the other a note saying "Hi. We don't want a nuclear war. We hope you don't, either", this book would be about a quarter of its length. The excellent pacing is there to hide that fact.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Book Review: The Great Quake

The Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet
Henry Fountain
Geology, biography

The 1906 San Francisco quake gets all the press, but the 1964 Alaska quake was bigger. How much bigger? Oh, about 90x as powerful, in terms of total energy released. The human cost was limited only by the limited population in the area. As it was, the entire city of Valdez was flattened, abandoned, and rebuilt from the ground up--four miles inland, on bedrock.

Not only that, the Alaska quake came at a crucial point in the development of geoscience. The theory of (what's now called) plate tectonics had been floating around since the 1920s; in the 1960s it was beginning to gain currency. Evidence from the Alaska earthquake provided crucial support.

Those are the two threads that Henry Fountain builds The Great Quake around. It's a nice piece of work. Fountain very sensibly chooses one primary viewpoint character for each thread--geologist George Plafker and schoolteacher Kris Madsen--with other characters weaving their ways into and out of the story. The result is one part human tragedy, one part scientific detective story.

Both parts are good, too (which doesn't always happen with this sort of book). The picture of the sheer unstoppable devastation caused by the quake is particularly vivid. Streets ripple and crack. Slabs of concrete shear off the sides of buildings. A ship, 441.5 feet long, rocks in the waves so that its brass propellor appears above the houses. Tsunamis reach, in some cases, hundreds of feet above the water line. On the scientific side, too, Fountain has chosen a very appealing main character to follow: a working-class Brooklyn kid, who fell in love with geology almost by accident (and who's still alive, at the time of this typing).

The Great Quake is a good science book for non-scientists. It's also a good sociology book for non-sociologists, and a good piece of human-interest reportage to boot. It's well worth your time.

The inevitable John McPhee has to be mentioned here, once again, both for his books about geology (collectively known as Annals of the Former World) and for his book about Alaska, Coming Into the Country. Simon Winchester's A Crack in the Edge of the World is a good account of the San Francisco also-ran.