See MIPS Run - Dominic Sweetman

This book is effectively "All the grubby details of programming a RISC processor, MIPS edition". The usual computer science education will teach you about 5-stage RISC pipelines, TLBs and caches. There will probably be some discussion that interrupts exist. Maybe some hints about how you stick a maths coprocessor on the side. The actual reality... not so much, and that's where this book comes in.

It covers things from the angle of, well, if not how to write your own OS, at least how to bring up an embedded system using MIPS. Indeed, this is the first book I've read to care significantly about how endianness interacts with peripherals, and how such peripherals should be wired up to the bus when assumptions collide. It talks about the details of caches and TLBs, of interrupts and control registers, debugging and profiling (including EJTAG), floating-point and more. It digs into ABIs and position-independent code. It's pretty comprehensive, as one might expect at around 500 pages.

This is the second edition, "See MIPS Run Linux", from 2007. The depth of "Linux stuff" is not huge - more a few pointers on the architecture-specifics ofroughly how Linux runs on MIPS, and I felt that was a little underwhelming.

MIPS really is no longer flavour-of-the-month - everyone seems to love ARM or RISC-V now. I'm still fond of MIPS and its branch delay slots, having had a lot of fun reverse engineering the PlayStation ROM back in the day, and it's still soooo much more pleasant than x86. Is this book useful now? Maybe not directly, unless you're doing MIPS work, but there's a lot of transferable knowledge. The content is based around late '90s-early 2000s technology, and is largely fairly cleanly designed, having no need for x86 backwards-compatability. It still reaches the world of OOO superscalar and start of hyperthreading. As such, it's a good introduction to the patterns that still exist on the cutting edge processors of today, so it's a good grounding in the absense of equivalent material for more modern stuff (which I'm sure exists, but I've never found - an OS dev wiki is not a structured learning environment!).

Despite being aver 500 pages long, it's a fairly approachable read: The chapters are well-defined, and while there are boring reference-like parts they're fairly skippable, and the prose isn't too dull. Indeed, there are some fairly interesting opinions in there, perhaps most visible in the glossary. It's not the dryest book ever!

It is also a fairly specific book, with the focus on helping systems programmers program systems. It neither goes into deep hardware details, nor assumes strong software engineering/algorithmic programming, but instead concentrates on that border where someone has to boostrap the system, get it running code, and try to move from assembly to C as quickly as possible. It's for the person who has friends on the HW and embedded applications teams, and is bridging the gap.

Verdict? I liked it. In terms of modern relevance, I think it's hard to justify the time reading it, but as I said I have a soft spot for MIPS, and it provides a nice guided tour of the innermost software gubbins of a real, heavyweight architecture, even if it's not the one we're all using now. More fun than you might expect.

Posted 2022-01-01.

Bad Blood - John Carreyrou

This book is awesome! An ex-colleague recommended it, and I am so grateful. It's the story of Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes, and whatever you think about regular Silicon Valley, this is a tale from the goatee'd SV from a mirror universe.

Theranos were supposed be creating innovative blood tests, but the technology wasn't there, they hid the fact, and kept taking money and upping the company valuation until Holmes was a paper billionaire.

The story is excellent. From the start there are lots of horrible and/or foolish people, doing horrible and/or foolish things, and the whole thing looks really scammy. Later on there are reasonable people trapped in an insane machine, actually trying to develop the product, and you get the impression there was some attempt to deliver, but the book remains jaw-dropping throughout.

Perhaps the biggest question around Theranos is how far Silicon Valley's "fake it 'til you make it" attitude can go. Vapourware is a well-known thing, but at some level the vision needs to be practical and deliverable, and the leadership of Theranos had no interest in connecting to reality.

The red flags were beyond numerous, starting at the top with zero governance from the board. No-one on the board knew anything about blood science (SV's disdain for prior expertise is not always healthy!), and at no point did anyone actually hold Holmes to account - not that they could do much due to her control of the company. However, the figleaf of accountability was made impressive through high-profile figures like Henry Kissinger and Jim Mattis, who didn't ask tough questions and got shares for unwittingly putting their reputations on the line. Turns out a board should be made out of people who care and are active.

How did Holmes get these names on the board? Privilege and networking. This is shown in big and small ways throughout. For example it's mentioned in passing that when her brother was expelled from one school (hmmm), a family friend helped smooth his path into another, and they got their machines approved in Mexico because they knew someone who knew someone who fast-tracked the whole thing. The book is packed with stuff like this.

With those initial contacts, Holmes bootstrapped a bigger network. If these Great People are on-board, other people come in (no questions asked, as it's clearly legit!), ratcheting up the respectability until you find Rupert Murdoch investing many, many millions.

It's clear that Holmes was very charismatic, with a weirdly deep voice. She was a big fan of Steve Jobs, but whereas Steve's reality distortion field was able to inspire people to great things, Elizabeth used hers to just deny reality. That reality was very weird - she was incredibly young when she started the company, and the initial goal was a skin patch that would monitor and deliver drugs as needed. Once that was deemed infeasible, they moved to the idea of a tiny analysis device using just a few drops of blood from your finger, with microfluidics. That then turned into rather more conventional equipment, cobbled together.

At each stage, the "wouldn't it be nice if" moved a little closer to what's achievable, but no-one really questioned the gap between what cool technology it would be nice to have, and what was practical. After all, the existing companies in this space knew the limitations, yet Theranos investors seemed to think they could be wished away.

In short, Elizabeth Holmes was playing at running a Silicon Valley company by having an idea of a product it would be good to have, but nothing real behind it, nothing to deliver. The long, slow development cycle of medical equipment was well-known, but ignored.

Holmes's charisma made for a cult-like company, with an utterly atrocious corporate culture. You were either with them or against them. The slightest doubt converted friends to enemies, who were mercilessly burnt. Employee turnover was huge. The inability to doubt anything kept reality far away. The company was super-heavy on secrecy (another poor Steve Jobs impression?), keeping information silo'd and hiding the reality from employees. The positive spin on progress quickly descended into lies that became core to the corporate culture.

Despite all this secrecy, a family friend heard about the company, looked up their (publicly-available) patents, and created a bunch of landmine patents extending Theranos ideas in a way that made it hard for Theranos not to infringe, and then tried to take them for millions. Such nice people! Whatever Theranos's ideas of secrecy were, they were ill-founded. Indeed, there's no evidence that the competition that they thought were jealously spying on them actually cared.

Oh, and those patents? They were developed by an actual expert scientist in the area, but of course Holmes had to have her name on the patents despite not actually contributing to them.

Unsurprisingly, Holmes couldn't cook up this level of horror on her own. Sunny Balwani was president, COO and secret (obviously) boyfriend. He was horribly abusive to staff and seems like the poster child for bad management. His qualifications? Lucking out and minting it in the dot-com boom, and mistaking that for talent. This book will not give you the impression that SV is a just place.

So why would anyone partner with a company that kept missing its targets and only every delivered vapourware? The big names on the board and charismatic Holmes channeling Jobs seem to be enough to get them interested, but why did they not run away when no positive hard data or results were available over time? There were doubters at these companies, but they lost out largely due to FOMO. The fear that this stuff was real and if they walked away their competitors would use it to bury them was palpable, and it was used to discourage them from asking questions.

The ways in which Theranos tried to Silicon-Valley-ise blood science went beyond just trying to reinvent the field with no attention to history; they also tried the usual regulatory shenanigans. Moves that seemed distasteful in Uber were going to be downright dangerous in healthcare, and in the end their "if you're too sharp, you'll cut yourself" approach was what led to whistleblowing and regulatory intervention that shut them down. It's rare to find a book on innovation where the bureaucrats come across as the heroes!

The tail end of the book is where Carreyrou comes in, breaking the story in the Wall Street Journal. Holmes and co. try to shut the story down, claiming trade secrets are being revealed. By this point, it's difficult to tell if they're deliberately trying to keep a cap on their fraud, or if they're so deluded through their constant lies to themselves and others that they believe they're operating reasonably and people really are out to steal secrets!

A surprise to me was that Holmes asked Murdoch, who had invested huge amounts in Theranos, to kill the WSJ story - and he didn't! It's an utterly shocking story when Rupert Murdoch isn't the villain.

In the end, I can't help but feel that Theranos was before its time. Were this to happen now, I'm sure it could raise money through cryptocurrency coin offerings, or be supported as a meme stock. Rather than fleecing the ultra-rich, they could help bring fraud to the masses.

Anyway, I've gone on at length about Theranos, but what about the book? As I said, it's excellent. It's a fantastic story, and Carreyrou spins it masterfully, as someone who was deeply involved in the latter stages, and with a wealth of primary material at his disposal. I've really only skimmed the surface here, and I highly recommend you get it, read it, and let your jaw hit the floor.

Posted 2021-12-24.

Showstopper! - G. Pascal Zachary

Subtitled "The breakneck race to create Windows NT and the next generation at Microsoft", the idea is that this is The Soul of a New Machine, but for software. In practice, it's... something else. It's a bit of a horror story

While Kidder's TSoaNM had elements of stress to it, it reads like the entire development of NT was dysfunctional and destructive. The focus of all this is Dave Cutler, who comes across as pretty darn horrible as far as modern management theory goes. The designer of VMS, he came in to lead NT when his previous project got canned at DEC. He's a perfectionist, which is kinda useful in a kernel dev, but the only way he seems able to express this is through aggression and even violence. He got on well with Steve Ballmer, which for me somehow sits nicely with Ballmer later running MS into the ground.

Cutler sounds like he has the biggest ego possible, which might be helpful when he's mostly right, but there are great examples where he was myopic and his ego just got in the way. Coming from the world of minicomputers, he built another large-machine OS that was supposed to run on 386s when memory was really expensive. He didn't take this into account from the start, so a lot of work went in later on memory optimisation.

Cutler decided not to make the OS pageable, which certainly increased memory pressure. Towards the end of the project, Rick Rashid, developer of Mach, got involved, adding kernel pageability to NT. Cutler didn't like this, but instead added his own version of kernel paging to NT. Just. So. Much. Ego.

NT was a huge project for its day, but Cutler was clearly a bad leader for it. The core kernel is just a small fraction of the whole, and in some ways not the bit that customers actually care about - it's assumed and the actual features and Windows personality on top of the core and all the rest of it are the real product. This meant that the overall Windows NT team was hundreds of people, but Cutler only really felt they could go up to 25 people or so. This wouldn't be so bad, if he could be leading the core kernel team in a wider project, but Cutler isn't a team player, and has to be the lead. Which sucks if they can't scale.

With 25 people, team members could get enough contact with Cutler to get desensitised, or, well, couldn't actually hide. With a couple of hundred engineers, his macho, aggressive style would make people avoid him, and poor information flows are anathema to decent project management.

All this male-centric, macho posturing made for a toxic work environment in more than one way. The author does give space to the rare women working on NT and at MS, and for example their campaign to ban nudes from the office. Yeah, not a particularly inclusive place. I feel the author Has Opinions on the MS culture.

The thing is, I don't believe any of this Cutler-worship was necessary. NT was an OS rewrite with a Big Name. On the other side, Apple has switched core OS (MacOS classic to OS X), and gone from 68K to PPC to Intel to ARM, all without needing a big ego technical expert. Modern internet systems make NT look like a toy, and leading a 25-person team project is nothing when there are platforms with thousands of developers. Sure, Cutler may have been a technical expert, but a team player would have worked so much better - enabling better org scaling, getting away from a "bus factor" of 1, and just having a better design when multiple experts can work together.

History shows the leadership of NT was BS.

This is made all the more painful by the "death march" section, seeing how NT's development managed to destroy or mangle so many families and marriages.

The book offers some decent technical insights. One of the strengths was the focus on the build process. Keeping the pipeline of builds flowing was key to keeping up momentum. Dogfooding, while costly to developer productivity, also helped find bugs and bring in useful features. It's interesting to think how they could have been improved further. It sounds like the build process was very manual, with a cost of human misery, and it's interesting to think how that could be improved. Behind that (and perhaps explaining the pain), there were no forced code reviews of tests on code check-in, so it's easy to see how the build could break.

It seems Cutler's attitude was "just write correct code", but I think he appreciated the usefulness of the tests. I imagine it would have been useful to put more of the testing onus on the devs rather than testers, and push to a more unit-testing-like approach. This would be tough to do for a kernel, but, seriously, catching bugs early is super-valuable. Similarly, I wonder how they could have started dogfooding earlier, given it took a couple of years from the start of the project to being able to do so. If you compare with Linux, that feels like dogfood even from the earliest days.

In any case, this book is both a good reminder of how important good development tools are to efficient development, and of the huge strides we've made since the early '90s in this area. Powerful open source source control systems and CI/CD pipelines are awesome.

NT was designed to support multiple "personalities", and targeting the Windows API, rather than primarily OS/2 was a big twist that came late. I guess this means the joke that "WNT is VMS + 1" is just that, and not a Cutler trick.

I was surprised to see that NTFS was a late addition to NT. It looked like they were thinking of having NT run on FAT or the OS/2 filesystem for quite some time. Even then, NTFS was at risk of being cut for lack of time.

The world of graphics seemed pretty messy, being a thing that Cutler didn't understand, and seemed to have a power vacuum I'd like to attribute to Cutler messing everything up. ;) They spent a year developing a system only to chuck it out, and experimented with using C++ (in the late '80s/early '90s), only to have it bite them. Cutler did not like C++, sticking to C, which I found interesting as I'd heard of NT as being the exciting new OS written in C++. So there you go.

Towards the end Michael Abrash comes in and fixed the graphics performance. Yeah, the guy who did Quake. Zachary is complimentary about very few people in this book, but Abrash comes off really well. I get the impression that the guy's legendary status is worth it just for making things good in that environment!

The historical perspective the book offers as a contemporaneous account is also pretty fascinating. The mention of Allchin working on Cairo (where everything was componentised) was with it aimed to be the Next Big Thing, before it was canned. The early discussion of NT being cross platform as RISC would be the next big thing, had a dissenter who thought RISC was overblown... and they were right at a 20-year horizon!

The book dicusses NT as the last big new OS; ironically Linux was just getting going (and while it started as a reimplementation of a simple classical uni-processor Unix, it has become so much more since then). OS design has become much less of a black art, with whole wikis devoted to developing DIY OSes.

The retrospective addendum from 2008 is even more interesting. While it identifies how NT missed mobile and the internet, the author still thinks OSes are an uninteresting space. Systems programming is the bedrock of modern internet-scale systems, and Cloud computing has made new parts of OS design intersting. The retrospective downplays MS, yet MS is now back again, thanks to Azure. I always find it fun to read retrospectives and see what they miss when they're looking at what they previously missed.

The new MS has a reputation for being a rather kinder, gentler place - a de-Ballmered environment, and one that's dropped the Cutler-style confrontational egotistical attitudes. Looking back at the leadership style, Zachary justifies it as necessary to push the project forwards. I just don't buy it, as we've developed so many large-scale, complicated systems without that kind of rubbish. Focus on technical excellence does not mean treating people horribly. Hiring good people and treating them well... works, actually.

One of the things I think is interesting throughout all this is that I've had a very aggressive and perhaps slightly egotistical tech lead, way back when I started working (and, just like Cutler, he's technically extremely strong). I'm full Stockholm on this one, because he's still my friend. Partly I think he's changed over the years, but it's also something you can get away with in a small team where everyone can get used to the personas.

In a highly silo'd work environment where skill levels are highly variable, being competent and aggressive can get things done correctly across the silos, but it's far better to work somewhere with a better culture. Investment banks are not known for good tech culture! I also think that his approach would have been a disaster with a large team - he would always take a small high-calibre team over a large mediocre team, but I don't think it'd have worked if you ever wanted to assemble a large high-calibre team like they were going for with NT.

Hindsight is easy. It takes effort for me to remember how slow compiling even Linux 0.97 on a 486 with 4MB of RAM. Trying to build complex new systems with the hardware and software available at the time was a completely different challenge from what we do now, and the knowledge of modern best practices not available. It's hard to remember how different developing software to be released on disk was. Given that, the focus on the build process and dogfooding was excellent. Acting as an aggressive and egotistical diva was never acceptable.

Posted 2021-11-20.

Monstrous Regiment - Terry Pratchett

Another Discworld novel! This one preceeds the Moist Von Lipwig sequence that I've started, so I thought I'd get it in before going any further.

The main plot is about war. Terry doesn't like war, and he's dealt with it before in books like Jingo, from a slightly oblique angle. Despite war being horrible, he manages to make the plot not horrible, and the soldiers involved not horrible, even when they've had a whole career of killing people horribly. There's a feeling that war is just the inevitable result of the stupidity of humans (and dwarves and elves and trolls and the undead and...). This is helpful, as the war is just a setting for the real subject matter...

The book is really about sexism and gender roles, and what's deemed acceptable in society and how that can change. It's the story of a girl who pretends to be a boy to join the army and find her lost brother, which is something of a well-worn trope, but Pratchett instills it with new life and provides enough twist to it to keep it fresh.

It's nice to see some of the other characters back. William de Worde is now acting as a war correspondent, and Vimes is Ankh-Morpork's representative. It's not a Vimes novel, but he's not as opaque here as he is to de Worde or Von Lipwig. He's maybe a little Vetanari Junior here, wearily steering the fate of minor countries.

I don't want to go into the plot much, as it feels a little more spoiler-y than usual, but it's solidly enjoyable, and fits the mould for a late Pratchett. As with some of his other books on war the ending feels a little ambiguous, but it holds together well.

Posted 2021-10-14.

The Art of Rest - Claudia Hammond

For the first time in literally years I'm getting a decent amount of rest. I'm taking a bunch of time off from a rather stressful job on medical leave, and while the treatment has made rest pretty difficult, I feel I have successfully dredged up teenage memories of the technique and achieved rest. ;)

In some ways, therefore, this is a slightly odd book to get, but I always like to read a book on a subject when I attempt it - and hence my wife saw this and thought of me.

Claudia Hammond is a science writer and broadcaster, who's written a few popsci books and collaborated on "The Rest Test", a huge global survey, as part of a Wellcome Trust project. She should therefore be well placed to talk about rest.

As such, the overall structure is a little disappointing. She takes the top ten things people like to do to rest, based on The Rest Test survey, and writes a chapter on each. Each chapter is like a science Just A Minute, filling up a chapter's-worth of talking about that subject, albeit with a bunch more research than one usually sees in Just A Minute.

Despite that, a few things leap out, maybe obvious but worth repeating. A lot has been made of the important of sleep, but rest is important too. It's also quite distinct from sleep - often restful activities are quite stimulating - whether physically, with a walk or a run, or mentally, with an absorbing book. Short rests when working pay dividends. It seems to be important that rest is a change, and under our control - "meditating quietly" sounds restful, "sitting around waiting" does not. Claudia suggests we reframe unplanned pauses into opportunities for rest, but without control I don't think that's very plausible.

Being bored is not restful. Rest is often doing something, even if there's no strong aim in mind - Csikszentmihalyi's Flow happens in restful activities, too. Perhaps rest is best thought of as mental decompression. If you're very busy and time-constraint driven, rest is hard, as you can't really force yourself to rest efficiently.

She emphasises the point that we often feel guilty about rest - that we feel we should always be doing something. We should give ourselves the excuse to rest, since it's good for us and even good for work. Some forms of rest give a cover rationale for the activity (reading is an improving activity, exercise is good for us, etc.), but in the end we should recognise that some rest, whatever form actually works for us, is good.

Posted 2021-10-14.

A History of Western Philosophy - Bertrand Russell

I finished reading this maybe a month ago, towards the tail end of my last treatment, and took copious notes along the way, but only just finished the write-up now, having taken some time to recover from both the treatment, and reading this book!

Russell's History of Western Philosphy is quite the doorstop, at over 750 pages. I should have noticed that before ordering it, but I didn't, and here we are, and I'm not going to be defeated by it. :)

I bought it on a whim when Ian Dunt's How to be a Liberal mentioned how it had a short chapter rather critical of Rousseau. While looking back at my review of another book by Russell on philosophy, I apparently found it a little disappointing. However, Russell does take a structured and no-nonsense approach to philosophical questions that I find useful, so I bought this book.

My cheesy summary is that it's insightful and provocative, although rarely at the same time! There's a lot of decent analysis, but he gets less convincing when he pushes things. I enjoy the scientific tinge to his work - he tries to understand the philosophies honestly, understanding them in the context that they came from, but then evaluates them within the framework of our modern understanding. Some of the biggest messes of historical philosophy come from confusing things together, often in the form of word games leading to nonsensical conclusions. Russell has none of that, picking things apart with scalpel-like efficiency.

I skipped ahead to Rousseau, and Dunt was right, it's great. Russell's dry wit and liberal bias play out wonderfully with understated contempt. Returning to the rest of the book, it's split into three sections which I'll discuss in turn - Ancient Philosophy, Catholic Philosophy and Modern Philosophy.

Ancient Philosophy is broken down into the pre-Socratics, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and post-Aristotle. In terms of what "philosophy" is, and where it sits in relation to other subjects, it straddles the divide of science and religion. Philosophy is a subject that relies heavily on historical context (unlike, say, maths or physics, where you can understand an equation without knowing its history), which means that there is a fair chunk of history in the book. As an educated man of the early 20th century, Russell assumes at least basic Classical knowledge in the reader, but not so much that a modern ignoramus such as myself gets lost.

Reading about ancient Greek philosophy is enough to push you towards the strong end of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis! Many of the ideas and concepts feel quite alien. My first instinct is to go "Well, that's obviously wrong", and... yeah, I think many of their ideas are obviously wrong, but it also makes me question how many things I think are clear are also obviously wrong, except when blinkered by my mindset.

One of the most impactful ideas is that of pure rational thought. I think this comes in from a couple of angles. Philosophers were generally the well-to-do, who didn't need to work, and could thus spend their time in discussion and deep thought. Actually Doing Anything was not the done thing. From another angle, it was clear to philosphers that the senses could be deceived, and what they took away from this was that philosophy should thus come from pure rational thought (happily ignoring that their reasoning could be defective, and by being on the "inside" of their reasoning, this would be just as fatal as their senses being deceived, only with even less chance of spotting the problem). This lead to the ancient Greeks being crap at science. Why test anything when you could work out how the world works from first principles, and that's totally going to be flawless. *sigh*.

This is, of course, a huge oversimplification - with so many different philosophical schools evolving there's no uniform view, and much of their philosophy deals with subjects where science doesn't help, anyway.

The core of this section, as one might expect, is Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Socrates comes across as a remarkably sensible person whose bad luck is that they've had their work filtered through the reporting of Plato. Plato turns out to be arse. My lack of classical education means I didn't realise the topic of The Republic was "I'm a great big fascist Sparta fanboy". Oh well. Russell suggests Plato's effective arguing of bad ideas cast a long, long shadow over the centuries. Aristotle then falls back onto the relatively sensible side, tidying up a bunch of loose ends (this is not how you're supposed to write an essay on the history of philosophy).

Post-Aristotle, Russell is surprisingly kind to the Epicureans (Epicurus was a fan of simple pleasures, and his suggestion that nice stuff is nice is in contrast to the physical pain he suffered for much of his life), and surprisingly harsh on the Stoics. On the latter, he points out that if virtue is the greatest good, then the actual good effects are meaningless. There's no underlying kindness, and a despotic leader crushing a population isn't that bad, it's just one person failing to be virtuous. Oh, and that crushed population gets a chance to be virtuous in oppression. Russell argues it so much better than me, but it's a great insight into metrics and goals!

Catholic Philosophy covers roughly the "dark ages". I've read the occasional pop history claiming those centuries weren't really that bad, but Russell makes a good claim that this was a pretty weak period for philosophy - at least for Western philosophy, as Russell makes the point that this was a good period for the Muslims and Chinese.

During this time, philosophy plays second fiddle to theology, as the Church had a strong sway and dictated the acceptable conversation. Despite theoretically being a book on the history of philosophy, much of this section is a history of the Church, and not just its theology at that. There's a lot of discussion of the power struggles between civil power (represented by the Emperor) and the Church (the Pope). Indeed, there's also the struggle between the Popes and bishops over how much power is centralised.

Theology is also discussed, often in the context of orthodoxy and heresy (and how the line between them moves over time!). It's very strange to me how the pat answers of my childhood as to "What is Christianity?" were the results of very real and contentious power struggles, with many varied answers over time.

As befits a "The dark ages were dark" narrative, most of the action happens around the edges of the period - during the fall of Rome, and during the approach of the Renaissance. In the former section, we have Christianity absorbing Jewish background and Plato. St. Augustine looms large over this period. He was an excellent philospher, capturing the essence of Descarte's cogito centuries before Descarte, and having a decent theory of time.

On the other hand, Augustine's weight means that some of his ideas (e.g. around original sin and an arbitary "elect" who are saved) have cast a long and difficult shadow. Furthermore, the emphasis of a church/state split led to the brightest being pulled to the church, and the secular state suffering for poor leadership.

These were difficult times, with the decline of Rome, and the promise of a brighter life after death made Christianity very attractive. There's a fascinating, if somewhat cheeky, table comparing the "the oppressed will be saved" ideologies of Christianity and Marxism.

Moving on a little bit, Russell is a fan of Boethius, and dislikes St. Cyrus. Cyrus was viciously anti-Semitic and won arguments about heresy by literally shutting out those who disagreed before making decisions. As I said a little earlier, the way today's orthodoxy was constructed surprised me! In the end, though, it maintained the unity of the Church, even if the individual decisions now seem unexpectedly arbitrary. Russell demonstrates a pretty dry distaste for these supersitious and fanatical times.

I'm eliding an awful lot, and skipping a lot of characters, but the book zips through 600-1000AD, taking a brief pause to praise John the Scot from the 9th century, who comes across as a light in dark times. Finally we're on to the lead-up to the Renaissance - the end of the 11th century and the start of the Scholastics.

The section on the Scholastics takes a fair amount of time to get going, with a lot of background to be laid, and a fair amount of evolution happening before they really get going. The Scholastics lie within the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church, and they're pedantic, but also dialectic - they're willing to push the boundaries a bit, and as soon as they're accused of heresy they recant. They found a safe way to explore different ideas. In comparison with the mysticism of St. Bernard, they were driven by reason. They also started to build on Aristotle, rather than Plato. To my mind this is a good thing. Russell sees Platoism as a better natural fit for Christianity, but I think he sees the move to Aristotle as helping the evolution of thought away from an abstract ideal world to something with the possibility of science.

St. Thomas Aquinas really gets the Scholastic period going, arguing primarily by logic, and only then by revelation. He uses the argument that to convince a non-believer of Christianity, logic is needed, rather than revelation, and tries to work out which bits of Christianity can be reached by intellect, and which parts need scripture. This logic neatly sidesteps the idea that philosophy is bad and we should only follow scripture. As mentioned above, he follows Aristotle over Plato. His is a very God-focused philosphy, which makes me hanker for the breadth of Classical Greek philosophy, where topics would range over virtue and politics and the nature of matter.

Thomas Aquinas sounds like a big step forward for Catholic philosophy, but Russell makes the point that it's quite insincere - rather than starting with ideas and seeing where they take us, Thomas starts with the assumption that Christian orthodoxy is correct, and and attempts to use logic to argue towrads it.

Next up, Roger Bacon was a Franciscan monk (unlike Francis Bacon, who was not!) who was surprisingly rebellious. He was willing to learn things from the writings of those non-Christian Arabs, gently pushing the boundaries once more. He was empirical and semi-scientific, but doesn't really impress Russell.

On to William of Occam. Well known for his Razor, he did much more. He was quite political, with his views influencing Luther much later. He protected the Emperor with words as the Emperor protected him physically, at the expense of the Pope. He separated logic from science, meta-physics and religion, making it a separate abstract analysis, and does a decent analysis of the subject. Breaking out religion and logic and science, he sets the tone for those following him in providing a path to more secular philosopy. His view (nominalism?) is that universlas are simply a naming mechanism. While I think this is a little simplistic, it's a whole lot better than Plato's universals. You will not be surprised to hear that he's another one who prefers Aristotle.

Finally in this section, I was interested to see Wycliffe mentioned, whom my school was named after. Our school didn't talk about him much, except as this guy who translated the bible (see also Tyndale, who was a local lad). Getting a bit more background on him was interesting. But now we approach the Renaissance!

Modern Philosophy, the third section, is a bit of a gear change as the philosphy starts to become recognisable and a bit less like history. It's split into "Renaissance to Hume" and "Rousseau to the Present Day".

Renaissance Italian city states feel rather like Ankh-Morpork, especially the bits with the Medicis (unlikely to be just a coincidence, I guess!). The Renaissance had people going back to the classics, rediscovering Plato, forcing people to think and choose between the different philosophies.

Machiavelli is rather less shocking than people make him out to be - pretty much my opinion when I read The Prince long, long ago. It was just early realpolitik, described honestly. He separates ends and means, but the ends aren't unreasonable in themselves. He talks about the appearance of honesty and doing what the population will accept. I think this approach is no longer tenable, since it builds up a cynical and pessimistic population, destroying the foundations of liberal democracy. Russell points to Germany and Russia before WW2 as following the path of Machiavelli.

Russell deems the Reformation and Counter-Reformation philosophically barren, since they came with their own orthodoxies. On the other hand, they built space for philosohpical creativity by providing alternatives, rather than a single pathway. From there, we reach the 17th century, with the start of science and the modern world. For some reason, school history seemed to elide over this - we studied the Renaissance before, and the Industrial Revolution afterwards, but for us the 17th was the Black Death, the Great Fire of London and beheading the King. Reading about Galileo, he comes across as a Newtonian polymath, with so many accomplishments beyond his famous ones.

At this point in the book, I'm starting to appreciate the integration of theology and science into this "history of philoosphy", even though it seemed odd initially. Much of it is really about a history of modes of thought about the nature of the world. We start to see a more scientific philosophical outlook.

Francis Bacon started to favour induction over deduction (hurrah). My preconception of Hobbes is "nasty, brutish and short", Leviathan and royalism. Russell introduces him instead as an empricist with an anachronistic respect for mathemtics, far ahead of his contemporaries. Descartes is the founder of modern philosophy, a philosphy not tied to history.

Spinoza is dealt with kindly. He's a pantheist, and while his philosphy doesn't seem right to me, it's the first one that gives me a glimpse of a coherent world view that makes some sense and is interesting, even if the construction is pedantic. On the other hand, Russell gives Leibniz a lot of stick for failing to publish his most interesting philosophical ideas as they looked controversial. I reckon Russell is just bitter over the priority dispute with Newton, but I know he'd deny it.

Russell then talks about the origins of liberalism, perhaps to introduce Locke. He makes much of how the philosphy being written at the time both reflects and influences the zeitgeist. He also identifies Locke as being extremely pragmatic. Given the choice between taking a philosophical idea to its ludicrous conclusion and keeping to the obviously plausible, he'll stick with the obviously plausible, even if there's the occasional mild contradiction.

From a logician's point of view, this is horrible. In practice, this is more like science, where we have a bunch of ideas overlapping unevenly. It's hard to reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics, but that's ok as that's where we are now. I find this insight fascinating. A pure, crystalline philosphy is extremely attractive, but it's better to be approximately right than precisely wrong.

While Spinoza creates a philosophy I can relate to, Locke is the first for which parts seem believable. Perhaps it's Russell's sales pitch. He devotes 37 pages to Locke, and the rest of the book feels like "post-Locke philosophy". Russell views Locke as the founder of liberalism, which perhaps explains the emphasis.

Locke's pragmatism seems unremarkable until you see his followers - Berkeley arguing matter doesn't exist, Hume arguing causation doesn't. Flipping over to the Romantics, Rousseau gets amusingly short shrift, as an unpleasant man whose philosophy is the root cause of Russian communism and German fascism. This seems like a lot of blame for one person!

Many consider Kant the greatest modern philospher. Russell seems to disagree, and gives him 14 pages. Kant's idealism is a more subtle reaction to Locke than Rousseau. His concept of a priori knowledge is interesting to me - a mis-interpretation of what would now be formal maths. The constructions feel more complicated than what came before, harder to understand, but not really clearly better. It's more self-coherent, but not necessarily more correct. For example, Kant claims that while we can imagine empty space, we can't imagine no space. Russell and I disagree - Russell cannot imagine empty space, while I feel I can imagine no space!

Hegel is more difficult, but seems clearer in some ways than Kant. Everything is one, or, more usefully, things cannot be considered in isolation. Also, he came up with thesis-antithesis-synthesis, which I find to be a useful idea taken to unhelpful overuse (especially when combined with "the one"). The idea of "the one" seems to tie in with nationalism, while thesis-antithesis-synthesis produces some kind of historical inevitability, so the pair can be used to drive aggressive nationalism.

I can't tell if it's Hegel or Russell, or just the zeitgeist Hegel was operating in, but it feels like Kant's relatively neutral ideas get twisted in a destructive direction around here. While it's never really made explicit, Russell is setting out his agenda, albeit more subtly than when he gives Rousseau a kicking.

Independent of the link between idealism and German nationalism, to modern, scientifically-biased eyes, these complex holistic systems seem deeply suspicious. Much of the metaphysics are theories of how we think, superseded by neuroscience. "A priori knowledge" is really the thing we can build into formal logics. Hegel's obsession with oneness misses the fact that models that approximate reality are useful and powerful.

Russell has a great deal of contempt for Nietzsche, which is convenient as it saves me from having to generate my own.

He then moves on to the Utilitarians, who he treats very mildly, almost as a simple history without real criticism. This is very interesting, since Bentham built a very opinionated edifice (unlike Locke, not unwilling to restrict himself to the obviously reasonable), quite distinct from the status quo, and applied it to the world. Such bold approaches are going to have mistakes and flaws, yet mostly Bentham's schemes worked and improved society. Where he was wrong, he was safely wrong?

I'd not learnt much about Marx before - his historical inevitability stuff (directly derived from Hegel!) put me off as very obviously wrong. His materialist conception of history is interesting, and makes a reasonable criticism of historical philosophers.

As we approach the time of writing, the selection and analysis of philosophers becomes a bit more haphazard. Bergson comes across pseudosceince in the face of neuroscience and AI making the area more empirical. James and Dewey somewhat meh, and then the book peters out with Russell's philosophy of logical analysis, a somewhat disappointing end to such a long book!

The tail end of the book, approaching the modern age, gave me that sinking feeling I associate with philosophy, that I guess distance kept me away from with the earlier material. So many proud, complex structures with much depth, but flaws that run the whole way through them. The parts that seem valuable to me are those that are invariant under a range of assumptions - the common things that get thrown up through a variety of different models. These seem to me to have a lot more truth than complex and startling insights based on shaky foundations that are, well, probably wrong.

How do I feel about this book? It's very entertaining and readable, despite its length. The length is justified, as it's very dense - this is not filler and a poor editor. The amount of scholarship involved is stunning to cover so much detail over such a long period, especially when you consider that this is only one of Russell's many and varied projects.

It's 75 years old now, but in many ways still fresh. Published in 1946, it's a product of (the horror of) World War II, of modernism and liberalism, and all those values which I feel we should have more of right now, thank you very much. (Although I won't deny there are a few dated assumptions.) It's also a shame that it stops when it does. I'd love to know what Russell thinks of Popper, of Wittgenstein, of Sartre. Of course there are other writings on them, but I'd love to see them discussed in the framework of this book.

Posted 2021-10-10.

An Introduction to Amateur Radio - I. D. Poole

Last year, I got my Foundation License for amateur radio - a fun little thing to do during lockdown. Towards the end of last year, my father passed away, and he'd occasionally dabbled in radio, though AFAICT never more than a handheld scanner. This was one of his books, and I remembered it from the '90s, so I thought I'd read it.

This is a Bernard Babani book. These are iconic cheap technical books of the '80s and '90s, focusing mostly on radio, DIY synthesisers and introductory electronics, IIRC.

The series had many books by I.D. Poole, and R. A. Penfold, and this is one of that lot! They're pretty idiosyncratic little numbers, not being textbook-like, but rather slightly eclectic collections of Things To Know that were hard to come by in a pre-Internet age. There's some fairly well-structured introductory material, but also random Q codes and band plans and stuff. It gives you the gist of setting up a radio shack, without going into quite enough detail to feel confident to do so.

Things have moved on. While you can still do amateur radio the old-school way, there's a lot more digital now, both in terms of modern transceivers, and full-on Software Defined Radio kit. Between that and so much content being easily accessible - either as web pages or easily-findable-and-orderable in-depth books, this is now just a fascinating historical document, from the times when you'd make do with a funny little book from Tandy.

Posted 2021-09-26.

Diggers - Terry Pratchett

Diggers is something of a mid-trilogy book. It's The Empire Strikes Back for the Nomes. Interestingly, it appears the three books aren't chronological - it looks like this book ties up with the end of Wings (I'm guessing). The same themes appear in this book as in Truckers, although, well, it feels like not so much goes on.

Whereas Truckers dealt with how people react to change, Diggers is about what happens in a power vacuum, when tough times appear. To that degree, it's pretty optimistic, since the religious nutter who takes over doesn't actually get voted in, but just takes power for himself. Oh, and the problem of said nome is solved a little too quickly, and a little too pat for my liking. I guess it is a children's book after all.

I enjoyed it. Not as much as Truckers, but it's an adequate, if mildly aimless, sequel. Now I have to find out if we can locate our copy of Wings!

Posted 2021-09-15.

Truckers - Terry Pratchett

When things are a bit tough, some Pratchett can really lighten life up, but I didn't just want to burn through my remaining supply of Discworld novels. Then I saw this on the shelf (bought for the kids), and thought "aha!".

As I think I said elsewhere, my first Pratchett was Pyramids, so I came across the "for kids" books a bit later, but I must have first read this most of thirty years ago, back when they had the crazy Josh Kirby covers (which I initially found off-putting). I don't think I ever read Diggers or Wings, though!

Unsurprisingly, it's a short and easy read. The subjects covered are anything but, with sexism, religion and belief, death, the nature of knowledge, leadership and how people cope with change all thrown in there. And they're all splattered around the edge of an enjoyable story.

I have genuinely no idea how many of the above themes are expected to be actually recognised by the average child reader, and how many are just hoped to surreptitiously work their way into the brain and make them more thoughtful without realising it. :) I'm kind of surprised that people got so upset about Philip Pullman when there are subversive books like this going around. :p

Anyway, it's an enjoyable book, and stands alone pretty well, as well as the first entry in a trilogy. Now I get to read Diggers for the first time!

Posted 2021-09-13.

Going Postal - Terry Pratchett

I'd been reading a Discworld book with every round of treatment I was on, but had something of a pause when my treatment changed. The current treatment is getting me down a bit, so I decided to reward myself with another Pratchett. This is not the book I was expecting. It's better.

The old word play is still there - I laughed out loud when I finally twigged on a grocer's apostrophe joke - but it's the plot that surprised me.

I had been assuming it would be somehow a little like a history of the postal service, Discworld-ified. It's not! Of course, there's the social commentary you'd expect, but on a slightly different backbone. The key insight is that Ankh-Morpork is undergoing a renaissance. Just like the Watch being rebuilt after a long decline, the Postal Service is being reinvented, not invented!

In particular, Vetinari is revitalising it as a competitor to the clacks system (proto-telegraph/internet), that has been bought out by unscrupulous new owners who are driving it into the ground. I did not expect this book to be an allegory of over-promising tech startups and unscrupulous private equity! It's not subtle - the new head of the postal service is a literal reformed con-man!

There's a little magic in there, but it's much more on the vein of the Vimes books than, say, Rincewind. Speaking of Vimes, it's rather fun how in the books centered on him, he's got a lot of personality, but when viewed from the outside in non-Vimes books, he's something of a cipher. The internal and external views are very different!

As always, the book represents further tweaks to the standard structure. Historically the books have been rather chapter-less, this one has Victorian-Like chapter headings, which feels odd-yet-appropriate. The knowing retrospection of earlier books (Vetinari asking if the printing press in The Truth will open a hole to the Dungeon Dimensions) continues, with the comic-fantasy bar brawls at The Mended Drum turning into an actual team sport.

I'll admit I have some bias, working in tech, but I really enjoyed this book. You can tell Terry must have had a really bad time with an awful monopolistic ISP!

Posted 2021-09-07.

Ra - qntm

This was a bit of an unexpected one while I was looking up recent sci-fi. I was vaguely aware that a writer on SCP had published some of their work as a book - There is No Anti-Mimetics Division". I wasn't aware they'd written some other stuff, with pretty decent reviews. So, I bought Ra.

It's yet another magic as engineering/science/computing story, which, while a bit of a clicé, is also something I tend to enjoy. I very much enjoyed the start of the book. However, I could see a few traces of SCP-ness poking through - there were a number of places where it felt like a bunch of short stories bolted together, and obviously the ending couldn't be a straightforward victory!

If you like Charlie Stross, you'd probably like this. It has traces of both the Laundry series and Accelerando in it. Indeed, just like Accelerando, it goes exponential. If you want a twisty story, this will do it. Me? I was looking for some fun light reading. :)

In the end, I found it a really interesting book, but my initial enjoyment wore off as things moved on. It was neither a straightforward light read, nor deeply original/interesting. I can't really fault it, beyond saying it's not really to my taste.

Posted 2021-09-07.

All Systems Red (Murderbot diaries) - Martha Wells

I'm now 80% of the way through Russell's History of Western Philosophy, and could do with a change of pace for a while. I don't think I've read any sci-fi for a while, so here we go.

I'm not a great fan of the name "Murderbot diaries" for some reason, but I'd heard a fair amount of positive noise about the series, and it seemed pretty light, so I grabbed the first one in the series. It's light, it's fun. It feels very short, but it's hard to tell as I got the Kindle version, and... *checks*, yeah, it's apparently 160 pages in paperback form. Huh. That makes the series pretty pricey, per word.

Anyway, it's enjoyable enough. The setting is a bit nondescript, the story is pretty generic, the main character is quite fun. I'm happy enough to have spent half an evening reading it, and would happily read more, but it also brings home how much more there is in e.g. the Imperial Radch trilogy.

Posted 2021-08-26.

The Computers That Made Britain - Tim Danton

This book was mentioned by ex-PhDing-peer Rob Hague, and it looked up my street, so off I went and bought it. It's Raspberry Pi press, so there's a mild sub-text of how everything in the '80s led up to the wonderful Raspberry Pi. :)

The book is arranged by machine, in chronological order, which surprised me as to how early many things were - a number of 8-bit micros debuting in the '70s, and the origins of most 16-bit micros in the early '80s. For me, in deepest, darkest Gloucestershire, micros didn't arrive until the mid '80s, and 16-bit machines were a '90s thing.

The British focus is, I have to say, rather pleasant. While not all the computers are British, a decent number are. Those that aren't, are viewed through the lens of British public. Reading the various different stories, you can see patterns emerge. Britain was good at IP, not so hot at manufacturing. With the arrival of VLSI, slapping together an 8-bit micro was not too tricky, so while the chips were made in the US, we could put them on a PCB and in a box. The software side was somewhere the UK excelled, writing both the ROMs and the programs for these machines. This kickstarted UK software development, which we're still pretty good at.

The difficulties with the physical side and VLSI are emboddied in the Ferranti ULAs. Various UK companies went to Ferranti for their chip designs, and were disappointed, before ending up going to foreign companies to get them actually made. Having previously read The Spectrum ULA, it's interesting to see the Ferranti chips in the wider context.

I wrote "IP" rather than "software" earlier because the final chapter of the book talks about the Acorn Archimedes, and by extension ARM. It's fascinating to think of how something so successful managed to grow in the UK. I find it very hard to tell if the ability to produce this kind of success was intrinsic in the UK technology sector, or was mostly luck! Either way, a fantastic success story that, of course, set the scene for the Raspberry Pi.

I've been talking about what the book covers, not the book itself. I've been used to picture-heavy, content-light books being nostalgic for the computers of the '80s, and this is something of a refreshing change. One machine picture per chapter, and the rest is solid text. It's not deep or highly technical, but I learnt a fair amount about the computers I knew little about. Most of the computers are covered in much more depth in other books (or on the net), but this book makes no bones about it, including a clear list of references at the end of each chapter. It's not all based on secondary material, though - the author managed to get a number of interviews with key players in order to get the details right.

As such, this makes an excellent summary of the '80s machines of the UK, and a great starting point for learning more. It's well-researched, and good light reading for a techie who never thought about the business aspects of what went on with '80s micros.

Posted 2021-08-22.

The Truth - Terry Pratchett

Here we go again, maybe slightly earlier than expected: Another Discworld book.

Having worked through all the Vimes books, this is my foray into the industrial revolution books. It's time-travel back to somewhat earlier in the series, the novel that followed The Fifth Elephant. The plot is a bit less weavy than some of the others I've read recently, consisting of William de Worde creating the newspaper, and a plan to depose Vetinari featuring some suspiciously Kray-brothers-like characters.

The attempt to overthrow Vetinari feels a little cookie-cutter, not unlike the poisoning in Feet of Clay, or the dragon in Guards, Guards. Vetinari remains surprisingly passive and comes out ok, again. I guess it's his indirect approach, but generally... Vetinari feels less developed in this book than the Watch books. Similarly, Vimes has a rather different feel.

To be honest, I'm not sure if this is deliberate or not - I wouldn't put it past Pratchett. The Watch books take the view of Vimes, and his view of the Patrician. This book, from the point of view of William de Worde, see Vimes and the Patrician as an outsider might, and that puts a different spin on things. So maybe it's deliberate.

This is the first book to really focus on change happening. The improvement of the Watch has been the slow-burn, background change in the ways of Ankh-Morpork. The Clacks then sidled in, representing the introduction of the information economy, without being in the foreground. This book, finally, brings Change to the foreground, with moveable type replacing engraving (with the permission of the Patrician).

I find this extremely notable because earlier books raised the threat of beings from the Dungeon Dimensions appearing whenever earth-like technologies risked emerging. It's a pivotal moment, and the change in philosophy is significant. I think it represents Terry becoming confident enough with the world to let it evolve. The irony is clearly not lost on Pratchett - he has the Patrician turn up to question William de Worde about the magical risks of the press, specifically name-checking the events of Moving Pictures and Soul Music!

As usual, Terry uses the novel to put out a thesis on the book's theme: Here, it's much about the simultaneous power and banality of The News, the credulity of the public, and the somewhat liquid nature of "Truth" in the press. William de Worde is an enjoyable, if not particularly pleasant character, strongly driven by a sense of... something he's not entirely clear on, but he knows he's right. He makes a great Stereotypical Editor, and simultaneously has a powerful belief in telling the truth, and doing so in a way that stretches the truth right to its breaking point.

This book also introduces Otto von Chriek, a rather good vampire who also crops up from time to time later in the series. Lots of the regular characters get a look-in, and it does feel like a regular Discworld novel. However, it's a little... pedestrian. I felt the tension never really rises (and resolves), in the way that it does in a number of the others. I'm not sure why that is - perhaps Terry is still finding his feet in a world where change happens? Is this a weakness with the structure of the industrial revolution novels? It's not a problem with late Discworld books, since I didn't feel this was a problem with the later Watch novels. I guess I'll find out as I read the others.

When it comes down to it, mediocre Discworld is still good. I would also say this book is several notches above how I felt about e.g. Jingo - it just doesn't match books like Snuff. Onward to the industrial revolution!

Posted 2021-07-28.

Thud! - Terry Pratchett

This is the penultimate Vimes book, but the last one for me to read, due my admin error last time!

It's good. Not quite as good as Snuff, but good nonetheless.

While the Watch series tend to cover social issues, this one is really just "two species with thousands of years of emnity, and Vimes trying to avoid the whole thing boiling over".

There was actually a lot less character development than I expected from reading Snuff. I was expecting both Willikins and the Summoning Dark to be rather more developed, as an interpolation, but most of the development seems to have landed in Snuff, glossed over by a few years of time passing.

Some themes from The Fifth Elephant are expanded on. "Devices" are introduced - apparently super-advanced technology from the dawn of time - but not yet heavily used. Feels like the set-up for future stories. The Watch finally gets a vampire. The novel moves things forward a little, but not a huge amount.

To my frustration, the finale of the book moves the action from Ankh-Morpork to the countryside again. I think this pattern is used to deprive Vimes of the ability to just call in a couple of hundred guards, and make him a little more of the individual superhero, but I wish he didn't get called out of the city quite so often!

All in, it's pretty good. It's not Snuff, but neither is it Jingo. A fun read.

Posted 2021-07-22.

On Liberty - John Stuart Mill

After reading How to be a Liberal, I decided to go back to the original source material. J.S. Mill is pretty much the founder of liberalism, and people seem to love this book.

Not gonna lie, it was hard work. The language is what you'd expect from the mid-nineteenth century, with three-page paragraphs, and chapters that fill a third of the book. Sentences run on like a marathon, and take several attempts to parse correctly, while your brain gently strangles itself. Perhaps I should be trying to just immerse myself in the prose, but in my current state it was something of a battle.

Not all of the battle was with the wording, but also with the approach. The intent is to be a self-contained argument in favour of liberalism, including defenses against common counters. As such, you get to wade through a large number of answers to objections that you probably don't have, and can already see the flaws in.

I got the most value out of thinking of it in terms of an historical document. It covers no social issues, being the liberalism of rich white dudes wanting to do their thing. This is ok - this is still a step up from what went before! And, of course, Mill was in favour of equality of the sexes, even if his approach is laissez-faire. The examples are drawn from contemporary events now largely irrelevant. There's a strong Christian bias even as it pushes for freedom of religion, and even hints at maybe, possibly, not looking down too much on atheism. Knowledge of classical references is assumed.

In many ways, it reminds me of the Lions' book on early Unix. It provides excellent historical context, and helps us understand how we got to where we are today. It provides a simplified version of where we are now that can help (and sometimes hinder) understanding the current state of the world. In the end, though, its direct application to the world now is limited.

I'll now take a quick skim through the content, on a chapter-by-chapter basis....

After the introduction is a chapter on liberty of thought and discussion. Much of the chapter feels like an absolute argument in favour of free speech - Voltaire-style stuff. In light of what we've seen since, the questions of misinformation and hate speech come up. Hate speech is addressed in the next chapter - incitement to violence is not on. Misinformation is not discussed - how does a liberal society defend against those who deliberately undermine it? I guess this is only something you think about as you experience it.

The book moves on to "individuality", which is really more about extending that liberty to action. This does feel like a fight against the constraints of a Victorian society - I feel modern society is somewhat better at letting people be themselves, with a few raised eyebrows. It's also interesting to see China used as an example of uniformity, pre-revolution. Something so culturally strong that it persists well over 150 years later, after a revolution!

I wonder how Mill would approach contemporary issues. He seems to be against deliberately censuring those you disagree with, even if this is not illegal, and only applied at a social level. I feel he would be somewhat against "cancel culture", although he was not dealing with issues of equality and the more social aspects of liberalism as understood now.

There's some discussion of how variety is important in order to generate new ideas and innovate - and this variety includes variety in education level, wealth, etc. Effectively, Mill is arguing for inequality at this point. I feel this is well-refuted now: By giving opportunity to a wider set of people, they will have the ability to contribute and innovate in areas that they otherwise would not. The world is rich enough, and people varied enough, that offering everyone the same opportunities doesn't lead to uniformity, it leads to diversity as people specialise and follow their personal dreams. Equality, done correctly, does not lead to uniformity, but is liberating.

The following chapter is about the limits to society's authority over people. He defends Mormonism on a liberal basis, even if he's not a fan. He deems their polygamy acceptable, as long as people are able to leave Mormon society, so that they're freely choosing to partake in it or not, despite the obvious sexism involved. This seems a weakness. Despite spending much of the book talking about the legal and social aspects of limiting individuality, there's little acknowledgement that leaving a social group you've spent your entire life in, where all your family are, is not easy. Avoiding polygamy by giving up all you've ever known is not a reasonable trade - so is polygamy acceptable after all? In modern times, the question of FGM is a similar topic - so much social pressure means that even if it were optional in some societies, it may not be in practice. I don't think liberalism need accept things so loaded with social pressure.

Following up on the issue of disinformation, towards the end of the chapter is the idea that a liberal society that falls to barbarism is already weak, and that liberalism needs no defense against barbarism. The rise of fascism and communism in the early 20th century, and contemporary nationalism and disinformation hints that... maybe liberalism is almost permanently weak?! The idea that liberalism is naturally robust is... speculation, and poor speculation at that. Surely a politics that expresses little certainty, that encourages variety, and is fundamentally honest and optimistic, is a ripe target for disinformation and abuse, unless deliberately defended? Liberalism needs an immune system. It must not assist in its own disassembly.

Finally, there are some applications. They're an interesting insight into the contemporary issues of the mid-nineteenth century. A lot of Mill's opinion could be described as "go for it!". There's an assumption that people are good judges of risk, and can make rational decisions. This is... clearly not true. Classical liberalism is Unix. You asked for it, you got it. Sorry you lost everything (not sorry). I believe the modern liberal approach is safety catches. If someone, clearly and rationally-enough wants to do something stupid and dangerous that doesn't hurt others... I guess that's ok, but there should be a few hoops to jump through first.

In a similar vein, Mill thinks it's acceptable to sell poisons like arsenic, as long as a register is kept of sales, since there are non-murderous uses. I find this interesting because of the degree of externalities involved - being murdered is a huge constraint on your liberty, so limiting the supply of arsenic, even given the inconvenience on non-murderers, no longer seems like an unreasonable trade-off. I imagine Mill would have been in favour of US-style gun laws, despite them looking distinctly sub-optimal now, at least from this side of the Atlantic.

Mill also decides that people should not be able to sell themselves into slavery. They are not at liberty to give up their own liberty. I think a further implication is that suicide should not be legal - as this is another form of giving up one's liberty to act - but I find it most interesting that the subject is not raised. I don't know if this is because it's too tough for a mid-Victorian book to handle (after all, it tries to steer clear of atheism as much as possible), or just because Mill hasn't been thinking about these cases.

My suspicions lie with the former. There's a strange irony that a book that deals with being free to say whatever you like, in order to sell its own thesis, cannot itself be fully candid.

As I say, reading this was hard work. There were parts that were interesting and thought-provoking, but mostly because their simplicity revealed the complexity of the modern world. To some degree, I begrudge the time I spent reading it. Maybe I get to look a little more erudite for having done so? Probably not.

Posted 2021-07-13.

Snuff - Terry Pratchett

Another couple of weeks, another Vimes book. And darn it, I chose the wrong one. Thud! was next chronologically, but I didn't realise this until I was far away from my copy of Thud! and well into Snuff.

As such, it's quite the time jump. Sam Vines junior, who was born at the end of Night Watch is now six years old, and Willikins has developed hugely. Vimes is clearly the Patrician's right-hand man at this point. It feels like there are minor spoilers for Thud!, but it's also readable as a stand-alone book.

The Watch books allow Terry to be vocal on social issues, and that's not changing here. Upping the stakes as usual, here he takes on the Discworld's version of slavery! Not a light subject, but he handles it well nonetheless. In a slightly-surprising-to-me nod to the Round World, the slavery is tied up with tobacco, hence the (slightly overloaded, since there are hints of genocide) title.

So, I'm sad this is the last Watch book, because it's another great story. Once again, Vimes is taken out of the city, in order to give him space to grow. The whole Watch sequence has been a fantastic exercise in growing and changing a character, ending up with a powerful leader who has come from the ranks, deserves his success, and is still mindful of the magic of rank. It's another "how to do leadership" book.

When I look at this book, and look back to The Colour of Magic, it's fascinating to see how the focus and approach has changed. Which is not to say Pratchett would have necessarily been the best-selling success if he started out with night watch novels, but I think they capture more of him, and I'm glad he had the chance to write them.

It's strange the things you notice in these books. It's well over 100 pages in before Real Plot starts, but you don't care. Pratchett's writing at the per-page level is still wonderful. It was interesting to see Wee Mad Arthur retcon'd as a Nac Mac Feegle (I've still to read The Wee Free Men). Also, it was good to see Sybil as an active character in the plot, not just someone to worry over Vimes, but someone who, in comparison to Vimes's outspoken voice and immediate action, could step back, bite her tongue, and play the strategic move that makes all the difference. She's been portrayed as a force to be reckoned with, and it's nice to see her act that way.

It's really weird to be writing this having not read Thud!, but this does feel like a fitting end to the Night Watch series. It's clearly not the end to Vimes's career, but sadly the rest will never be documented!

Posted 2021-07-10.

How to be a Liberal - Ian Dunt

It's politics time! Expect the usual talking around the book, rather than of the book.

I joined the Liberal Democrats at the start of 2017, when it was clear that they were the only major party that wasn't unhinged, as well as conveniently having policies and a philosophy that seemed to roughly align with my view. I never really got into the details of it all, but now, having some time on my hands, I've been catching up.

Ian Dunt provided some entertaining, insightful and above all sweary analysis of UK politics during the recent grimness of Brexit, so given he wrote a book on Liberalism, it seemed a great place to start.

It turns out that it's reasonably hard going, given it's really a multi-hundred-year history of liberal thought. The historical parts have that history feeling to them, and the discussion of modern times are... quite depressing, frankly, once you lay bare the nationalism and damage to truth that has happened. And it's not short.

Having said that, I think it's the right approach - by discussing the historical evolution of liberal thought, you can incrementally build up from the simple idea that people should be pretty much free to do what they like as long as it's not getting in the way of others, through to modern social liberalism, in a way that seems fairly logical. And that depressing section at the end about recent history is also a decent call to arms.

It does feel somewhat like this is Dunt's personal thesis on liberalism - there must be enough source material to be able to pick and choose rather carefully, but the book should make you think about this, even if it doesn't raise it explicitly: It makes the point that a liberal should always have an element of doubt (if you know the answer for sure, dictating what others should be doing becomes easy!), and that the rational approach seeks refutations to held beliefs, not just confirmation. The book's pretty much saying "You should be reading other stuff", and handily has an extensive "further reading" section at the end.

Despite all that, it sell liberalism in a way that strongly appeals to me. The individualism inherent in liberalism is not "screw community, we're all doing our own thing", it's a way of saying the population is diverse, and "the will of the people" is illusory. Liberalism fights against the tyranny of the majority, and rejects "enemy of the people" and "elites vs. the common people" as manipulation, since real people are way more complicated.

To counter the threat of concentrated power, liberals build systems that have a balance of powers. So, when judges required the government get the consent of parliament to give notice of Brexit (classic balance of powers), and the newspaper headline "Enemies of the People" came up, that was textbook illiberal stuff. Which is a nice theoretical basis for why this was horrid Daily Mail BS.

This focus on individualism means that the Liberal Democrats are not a party to represent the working class or the rich, but are aimed at everyone who doesn't want to divide society into simple groups and support one of them. I'm on board with that.

While the book doesn't talk about libertarianism, which superficially has this overlap with liberalism around FREEDOM, etc., it's still helped me build an unfounded pet theory. American democracy was forked from European democracy before it had fully evolved, so it's got some weirdnesses (like guns and oppressing black people, at the very least). In a similar was, ideas of liberty got forked before they'd become well-developed in Europe, so they just end up with insane individualism and FREEDOM. I'm not sure it's true, but I like the idea.

Liberal history has also upset some of my pre-existing thoughts. I'd always taken the bloodiness of communist and fascist takeovers to be symptomatic of of the horrors of totalitarianism. However, the revolutions in England and France, attempting to bring us democracy, also had horrible terror and bloodshed. Does that mean democracy also is inherently violent?

The liberal answer is that the horrifying violence comes from the elimination of the "enemies of the state". Revolutions tend to assume a particular will of the people requires action to achieve, so generally end up getting rid of people, but the ongoing terror-or-not comes from whether this remains the steady state. A liberal democracy won't do that, while totalitarianism will. The English and French revolutions were democratic, but not properly liberal. Once you have the transition to a liberal government, there should not be the violence. It also implies that non-liberal democracy is... not a great government system.

Dunt also makes the case that liberalism clashes with identity politics. Identity politics largely focuses on groups of people identifying with that group (and working towards helping that group). This clashes with treating people like individuals - it implies that anyone in that category who doesn't believe in the majority opinion of the group is a traitor, and empowers people to speak as if they represent the group even if they have no specific qualification to do so.

I suspect that the more left-leaning liberals, having more sympathy with full-on Labour-style politics that emphasise class, have more sympathy for identity politics, but I do like the idea of being critical of it. I think it's a useful tool - it's hard to deny that most black people have strong and largely similar views on racism, based on personal experience, and that in discussing racism it makes sense to centre black voices - but we have to remember it's a simplifying model that should be handled with care.

A thing I rather like about liberalism (that again isn't talked about explicitly, but is implicit in the writing) is that it's an empirical approach. Backed by doubt, rationality and seeking counters to your arguments, liberalism has evolved over time as weaknesses have been found. Liberalism has moved from laissez-faire economics to Keynesian economics as it became clear that laissez-faire causes crashes, and Keynesianism digs you out of crashes (economic depressions are liberty limiting!). It's less a philosophical argument (sorry, Hayek), it's more about what actually works.

This is in contrast to e.g. Marx claiming that communism is an historical inevitability, which it really doesn't seem to be despite a bunch of people trying to accelerate the "inevitable". Liberals don't believe liberalism is inevitable, but that a rational, tolerant government promoting equality and freedom is continual hard work.

Given I mentioned Keynes I'm going to take a quick break to fan-boy. I've been a minor fan of Keynes since reading a few economics texts. However I've moved up a couple of notches given this quote about him from the book: "the sharpest and clearest that I have ever known. When I argued with him, I felt that I took my life in my hands, and I seldom emerged without feeling something of a fool". Who said this? Bertrand Russell! If he's making Bertrand Russell feel dumb... wow. Not sure what to say.

The discussion of post-war liberal period makes the politics of the last decade all the more horrifying. Dunt explains the EU and international free trade as liberal attempts to correct for fascism and communism, and dismantling and disregarding these things is a signal that we've forgotten the lessons from World War II. They're flawed institutions, but as liberalism became something like a background assumption, the flaws became more visible than the underlying intent, and people became grumpy with the institutions.

As mentioned earlier, recent history is pretty grim, with liberalism in decline and nationalism on the rise. Despite this book being published in 2020, you can see more and more nationalist rubbish by the day. The ongoing Conservative activity of union flags everywhere and pictures of the queen are a case in hand. Sure, Conservatives tend to like these things at the best of times, but it's no accident that they're being raised right now, when so much is a mess.

In the last few paragraphs of the book, there's a call to action. Liberalism has been too hands-off. It needs to drive change, it needs to make people's lives better. It needs to go beyond technocratically building institutions like the EU and WTO, to directly improve the lives of the poorest and most under-privileged, which would be both the best actual improvement in liberty for humankind, and provide a counter to the dangerous attractions of nationalism. I find the idea compelling.

Is the book any good? I think so. A little long and not authoritative, maybe, but if I had a friend whose politics I'd want to influence, I'd chuck them this book. If it doesn't convince them, then at least I get to hear their counter-arguments!

Posted 2021-07-04.

Night Watch - Terry Pratchett

Another Vimes book, and happily much more The Fifth Elephant than Jingo. Another story of Vimes travelling abroad, but this time it's the case that the past is a different country.

Vimes has levelled up impressively over the course of these books, to the point where he's a politician with memories of action. Despite Pratchett's inventiveness, "senior administrator" is a hard role to make an interesting story of. So, instead, this is a most interesting flashback story. But rather make a story about an early part of his career, the plot sends the Duke 30 years back in time, where he ends up as a Sergeant during one of Ankh-Morpork's revolutions. Except it is also a story about his early career, since a young Sam Vimes has just joined the force, and setting him on the right path in a corrupt watch is part of the older Vimes's missions.

At this point Vimes is just some kind of super-hero. From a lesser author this would be... tedious. It fits with the trope of the fantasy series where the protagonist levels up over multiple books and the books become increasingly awkward. In Pratchett's hands, it's still a good story. Vimes becomes a way for Terry to put forward a thesis on good leadership, at least as it comes in policing. Vimes's leadership is backed by working his way up from the bottom, from a good foundation. He has clearly developed hugely since Men at Arms, and his skills allow him to bring the watch house into shape in almost no time - with lots of senior people muttering (suspiciously) that he's clearly beyond Sergeant material.

One thing I instinctively didn't like is the filling in of Vetinari's backstory. We knew he was in the assassin's guild, but not much more about his past and how he ended up in power. It was shocking enough when I learnt his forename, and here a whole pile of history is laid out!

I see this pattern in a bunch of Discworld bits. History coalesces, becomes solid and part of the lore. Early on, they published the Discworld Mapp and Map of Ankh-Morpork, building retrospective continuity on the geography, and filling in the gaps. It feels like there's an ongoing project to do that with the characters. The risk is that building up this level of detail removes some of the feeling of openness to the world (if you don't know things, the unknown is much less well defined!), and can tie down future stories. However, this is balanced by the fact that the Discworld, and particularly Ankh-Morpork, are dynamic. Things change, so there's always something new.

In short, I think he got away with filling in more Vetinari backstory. It was interesting, even if I'd previously enjoyed the mystery.

Pitching it against The Fifth Elephant - I think that book has the edge, thanks to the unusual setting and less well-worn politics. Ankh-Morpork of 30 years ago is still Ankh-Morpork. But it's close, and great fun. Highly recommended.

Posted 2021-06-23.

Why Information Grows - César Hidalgo

I was talking about... I think how to scale teams and complicated systems, to an ex-colleague of mine, and they suggested I read Why Information Grows. So I did. It's... an interesting book.

In the end, the book is about how we build the complicated systems of our economy, through the lens of accumulating and managing information, based on the groundwork of information theory. It sits in the pop-sci/my pet economic theory cross-over space, if you can imagine such a thing. Before going any further, I find it a little pretentious, and somewhat less deep than it thinks it is. With that said, let's dive in a little further:

The start of the book is pop-sci - information theory, entropy and all that stuff. You can tell that they deliberately avoided putting any equations in, presumably to avoid denting the sales figures, since there are so many simple, quantitatively well-defined concepts that aren't elucidated. Entropy is left as magic, not p log p.

There is a gem in this section, though: The work of Prigogine, who explains why it is, if entropy is increasing, that we get bubbles or order, like our world. Out-of-equilibrium systems transiently generate order on the road to entropy. Given "entropy always increases" clashes with our everyday experience, I'm surprised that I had no idea about this work, and that it's not more well known.

After doing the pop-sci bit, he jumps to explaining the economy in terms of knowledge and know-how, the core of the economy as handling information. Physical objects are described as crystallized imagination, as if this is not a pretentious way to say we design things.

A knowledge-based view of the economy is very powerful. It allows you to distinguish between hard-to-produce goods like microelectronics and basic ore extraction in a way that traditional economics glosses over. There's also a certain amount of standing-on-the-shoulders-of-giants knowledge-building-on-knowledge stuff, rather undermined by their Hot Take on resource extraction. The traditional view is that taking resources to build things from poor countries is exploitation, César's view is that those minerals weren't valuable until scientists discovered their usefulness, and hence those countries are actually exploiting the scientists!

Apart from the very dodgy analysis of what exploitation is, I felt this section missed a bunch of tricks. No analysis was done of the resource curse in this framework. Knowledge/know-how is a form of capital, but since he's avoiding the "capital" framing, it's not compared with other forms of capital, so the relative importance of know-how embedded in manufacturing equipment as opposed to experts is never analysed.

Nor is the idea, which I think is very important, of the ease of manufacturing - ahem, crystalizing imagination - in all this. Making fine-featured microchips requires insanely complicated machines, of which there are only a few in the world, and of which the manufacture is itself a great engineering challenge. On the other hand, software, once written, can be copied without effort. There's a reason "software is eating the world". However, there's no discussion of all that.

So, while the author disparages economics for blurring economics for blurring all capital together, important structures in knowledge are blurred over. Oh well.

There's a nice chapter on "Amplifiers", discussing how, through specialisation, we can become experts, and the power that gives us - for example, a guitarist need not know how to make a guitar. I was disappointed that this chapter didn't talk about abstraction. In information systems like software and maths, abstraction is the tool to allow you to concentrate on a single area without having to think about the whole stack simultaneously. It's how we make complex things tractable. The amplifiers concept is abstraction in the world of goods, and not having the information concept of "abstraction" identified in the economic domain was disappointing.

The next step is to the idea that real-world know-how and knowledge is stored in people, and given a human's finite capacity, complicated systems need to store that across many people linked together. This fairly obvious idea is spun by calling the amount one person can know a "personbyte". It is then pointed out that interaction costs are substantial, which is of no surprise whatsoever to anyone who's worked in a large team. Much of the book focuses on the geographic ramifications of knowledge residing in physically co-located networks of people.

The step beyond that is to make the dubious claim that there's a similar limit on the size of a corporation, tied to Coase's theorem. This, I don't believe. There's no reason external interaction costs must be lower than internal interaction costs, at some scale. Personally, I believe the best reason for separate companies is economies of scale across multiple customers. A company that supplies products to multiple companies is going to achieve economies of scale not achievable to a company that only supplies a single customer, while a company supplying a single customer might as well just vertically integrate. Put another way, companies allow the customer graph to be a DAG.

The key point is that the best way to scale links is through abstraction. If I work with other people, the less I need to know about the inner workings of their world, the more people I can work with and the more I can concentrate on my own domain. Separating companies forces an abstraction, but good management can achieve that within a company, too. I can see within my workplace the combination of deliberate abstractions and deliberate network-building (with near and far links) as a way to create an extremely large but scalable company.

Many of these abstractions are effectively interfaces. The book identifies standards as a way of reducing the cost of links; these are interfaces. As a physicist rather than a computer scientist, he nevers says "interface".

The tail end of the chapter whines a bit about the inefficiency of US government contracting and the healthcare system, spending so much of the knowledge capacity in what is effectively link management (aka bureaucracy). For someone who is supposed to be looking at the big picture, this is a complete lack of Systems Thinking ("the purpose of a system is what it does"). As someone so focused on the production of crystallized imagination, he assumes the purpose of all organisations is to do that. It's convenient that many organisations align so well with doing that, and by cherry-picking the organisations, it's easy to pretend that's what they're all for. The "inefficient" organisations are only so if you mistake what they're trying to achieve.

In short, I found the whole "firmbyte" concept of firm size limitation and associated discussion pretty deeply disappointing.

The next section talks about the relationship between social networks and network-building and the role of trust in society. The idea of Silicon Valley winning out over the Boston tech centre due to more openness is a nice and concrete (if not terribly well-supported) example of how these personal network effects can affect the viability of a corporate ecosystem. Even more compelling are the stats on job-finding through social networks - networking is vital. It also demonstrates the challenges in building a diverse workforce, given the lack of diversity in many social networks.

For me, one of the big questions the book has failed to answer is "How vital is the human-held knowledge/know-how, relative to the physical capital?". I guess this is roughly akin to the traditional question of returns on capital vs. returns on labour, except the labour here is the expertise of knowledge workers, not the stereotyped manual labour. The book does give a great example of a network transport success, in the form of von Braun's team being transferred to the US post-WW2, but on the other hand they had access to almost unlimited resources. Physical resources had quite the hand in getting man to the moon!

By focusing so hard on knowledge and know-how, its place is lost in the wider picture, which is a shame, since I think the arguments for human knowledge/know-how being the most limiting factor in building advanced economic capacity are quite strong. Witness various governments' failed plans to build tech hubs by not understanding the human element and need for specific expertise - throwing money and failing. There are also myriad interesting examples to look at. Where do physical-equipment-light sectors like banking end up, compared to those that perform physical engineering (looking at you, Germany)? How did Shenzhen bootstrap itself to its current world-leading position? What do we see happening in internet-mediated communities, like open-source software? There's so much here, where empirical data would really help flesh out the ideas.

The latter part of the book does, finally, tie into traditional economics and theory of capital. This bit is actually quite good - it makes the case for not analysing the economy in aggregate, but breaking it out by specialisation, and analysing rare industries that encompass a high level of specialisation separately, which represent high-knowledge areas with increased economic value. By taking this more subtle approach to the economics of countries, more accurate growth modeling can be achieved. This whole chapter feels like Hidalgo's research papers have been simplified into book form, and compared to much of the rest of the book, this rigour works.

The end of the book compares companies and creatures, economies and ecosystems. The author notes that plants and animals are good at encapsulating all their knowledge/know-how for reproduction - for example, a tree is able to grow from a seed, in a way that companies cannot. On the other hand, a whole ecosystem is a set of flore and fauna in equilibrium, and represents a set-up that is hard to transfer, just as an economy is hard to build.

This analysis once again lacks systems thinking. The purpose of a rabbit is to make more rabbits. The purpose of a tennis ball factory is to make tennis balls. To make a tennis ball factory, you buy machines from other factories that in turn were assembled from components of other factories. The economy is a graph of resources that create other resources, while nature (modulo symbiotic relations like pollination etc.) is about things that directly produce copies of themselves. It is therefore zero surprise that our economy has no equivalent of the seed.

Looking at the length of this review, there's a fair old amount in this short book (180 pages before you hit the volumous and most grating acknowledgements section). Yet it feels incredibly shallow. The pop-sci section at the start both wastes an opportunity by avoiding grounding the concepts in maths, and is just plain unnecessary for the economics part of the book. The economics part spends a lot of time belabouring the obvious in pretentious terms, misses the opportunity for deeper thinking, and rarely ties the discussion to quantitative data, or even significant/compelling case studies. In the places where it does do so, mostly off the back of Hidalgo's published research, it's good. The downside is that this highlights the flaws in the rest of the book.

Going into the book, I was hoping for some insight into how to scale knowledge at the limits of human-managable complex systems where you're hitting the personbytes limits (*cough*, my team's job, *cough*), and I was disappointed that it didn't deliver there, but it also didn't deliver in so many other ways. Interesting, but a wasted opportunity.

Posted 2021-06-19.

The ABC Murders - Agatha Christie

I've never been into Agatha Christie. Growing up, the nearest I got was when my great aunt gave me Ngaio Marsh's "Colour Scheme", which I read and felt was a bit meh. Since then I've never been a great reader of crime fiction, although for some reason I did get through a giant Sherlock Holmes complete omnibus. I think in some senses that was less about the actual crime fiction, and more about what modern-day action stories looked like 120 years ago.

Anyone who's read a few of my book reviews will know that they're really more about me than the books. So, I'm just going to get side-tracked onto that great aunt of mine. She was lovely and really something of a character. Except, as someone under ten looking at a septegenarian, I never really saw that at the time. It was fascinating to learn more about her later. There you go. It's left me with a little sense of loss of not really getting to know her at the time, but also gratitude for knowing her enough that I can look back on the memories I do have, and fit them into a bigger picture.

Anyway, The ABC Murders. My previous exposure to Agatha Christie was a couple of screen versions of Murder on the Orient Express and glimpses of Suchet's Poirot. My son David had a speech exercise involving reading a passage of The ABC Murders, we got the book, he read it, I was casting around for something light to read, and here we are!

It sounds like a late Poirot - plenty of characters talking about how they're getting on. In the great tradition of these things, the mystery is documented by Poirot's sidekick, Hastings. Poirot acts like you'd expect Poirot to act, even if your knowledge of the character is basically cultural background radiation. The story itself is quite fun. Early on it telegraphs an obvious solution, and keeps hammering away at it, so you know a twist is coming. In the end, that twist is not surprising - while I didn't guess the exact murderer, I guessed the gist of it.

It's fun, enough. Does it encourage me to start reading the rest? Not really.

Posted 2021-06-17.

The Fifth Elephant - Terry Pratchett

I loved reading this book. It was the book Jingo should have been - international politics in a Discworld setting, with Vimes.

Unlike Jingo, almost all the action takes place abroad from Ankh-Morpork - this time in Uberwald, a land of werewolves, vampires, dwarves and some humans. There's political intrigue and a bit of detective work, and it all hangs together pretty well. I won't spoil the plot, but I enjoyed it immensely.

It's interesting to see Vimes as an element of Ankh-Morporkian cultural imperialism. People in Uberwald resent the drain of their folk to Ankh-Morpork, and how they break tradition there, and then Vimes turns up to the dwarves with a troll (who they're at war with) and a visibly female dwarf (going against millennia of tradition), and his attitude is simply "this is what we do in Ankh-Morpork, deal with it". Then he rails against the laws of Uberwald, whilst being there. Lucky he's a diplomat, I guess.

As with all Discworld novels, it's an askew take on the round world. The political goal is to ensure Ankh-Morpork gets a good deal on products from the dwarves' fat mines, which sounds ridiculous until you think of the wars we've had over oil.

I particularly enjoyed the introduction of the "clacks" in this book. By the start of this novel, telegraphy has sprung up. It's now just a thing they have, without too much fanfare, which is a pretty neat way of introducing a Big New Thing to the Discworld. It's also part of how Terry is changing the world. A generic fantasy world seems stuck in stasis. Indeed, many of the early Discworld books can be read in any order, there's little sense of the world progressing. Indeed, some of the books are like the Discworld's immune system rejecting alien concepts that push the world towards round world equivalence - e.g. Moving Pictures, Soul Music.

That changes with the Watch sequence. The Watch clearly evolves over a few books into a modern police force, and it feels like a catalyst to allow Terry to evolve the whole world, bringing in things like the clacks. And somehow this feels right. It is a world on the cusp of change. Just like our own world during the industrial revolution, there was a sudden change from a world that looked a bit like a fantasy novel without magic to our modern world. Bringing this to the Discworld is fascinating.

Posted 2021-06-07.

The Thursday Murder Club - Richard Osman

This book has been surprisingly popular. I'm sure having a famous author doesn't hurt its chances in that regard, but it's interesting to see what gets the visibility. I mean, it's a pretty fun book, but not exactly great literature. How did I come to read it? My son got it, my wife read it, and I was looking for something light to read while going through medical treatment. For that it worked very nicely.

It's very readable, and the plot is enjoyable. The titular club is a group of septe/octogenarians who are spending their time digging through old murder cases and trying to solve them... when some actual murders turn up in their retirement community. The characters are larger than life, with a particularly overblown narcissistic and vacant property developer. The writing style of the book is very chatty; while most of it is in the third person, the text tends to align with the current character. Reading it is a bit like being set about by a garrulous bunch of retirees.

It's not pure saccharine. The retirees are active not because they're in a Miss Marple world of immortal little old ladies, but because they're aware how close the nursing home is (metaphorically and physically), and are making the most of what they have - genteely raging against the dying of the light.

One advantage of setting a whodunnit in a retirement community is the amount of room you get for long-buried secrets and history. The book is very willing to chuck in twists and red herrings, and it pulls in a few historical murders too. The result is fun. Not particularly believable, not incredibly subtle, but fun.

Posted 2021-05-21.

Jingo - Terry Pratchett

When I last read Jingo, something like 20 years ago, I was unimpressed by it. As I started to re-read it, I didn't understand why, but by the end I did. It's muddled.

An island appears in the Circle Sea, claimed by both Ankh-Morpork and Klatch, threatining war. An assassination attempt is made on Klatch royalty in Ankh-Morpork, and Vimes needs to investigate this JFK-style crime. Political crime!

Except it then veers off over to Klatch, things get messy with thoughts on the police vs. soldiers, the nature of politics and war and crime and things, and then at the end the Patrician pops up as a deus ex machina to sort everything out. Fun threads get dropped, lots of the action doesn't actually seem to drive the story, and the resolutions were uninspiring.

It's still not a bad read - Pratchett knows how to keep a story spinning along - it just ended up feeling unsatisfactory. I can't remember if this was the last Discworld novel I read at the time, or just nearly the last one, but it didn't really inspire me to keep reading at the time. Returning to the series, I'll forgive this dud and keep going.

Posted 2021-05-13.

Feet of Clay - Terry Pratchett

Carrying on from Men at Arms, I feel this is a slightly more successful book. Once again, the Watch continues to expand, and many similar themes come up. The main plot is about The Golems, but there's the subplot of Vetinari's poisoning and positioning to install a monarch. The themes are around the golems, a bit more about monarchy, and another aspect of diversity.

The monarchy angle still feels overplayed to me. I can't decide if Vimes's role as anti-monarchist is inherited is amusing or overdone. The associated poisoning of Vetinari is enjoyably full of red herrings. The diversity sub-plot moves from including other races (trolls and dwarfs) to a dwarf that wants to be visibly female. There's so much of the Discworld that's a commentary on spherical-world happenings that I guess this is LGBTQ-equivalent, but I dunno.

The golem plot is perhaps the most interesting one to map to Earth politics. It's interesting to take a character from Jewish folklore - what are the Discworld equivalent of Jews? Stereotyping them onto a specific fantasy race seems like a really, really bad idea, and Pratchett doesn't do that. Golems are not created by a specific race. Phew. But what do these enslaved machines without free will actually represent? Maybe AI or something like that? By the time the story's done, they've been mapped onto the socialist working class, which I wasn't really expecting. Somewhat more oblique than I was expecting.

I last read Feet of Clay many, many years ago, and it didn't make much impression on me at the time. I'm surprised that, on re-reading it, I'd enjoyed it more than Men at Arms. To be followed by Jingo.

Posted 2021-05-07.