This is the blog of Ant Miller, senior research manager and dilettante geek at large at the BBC.
I wail moan and cuss about the challenges and fun to be found here.
These are my personal opinions, and not those of my employer. Or anyone else here for that matter.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Books read whilst lying on my bum waiting

I'm a terrible reader.  A disgustingly lackadaisical consumer of the written word- I skim, skip and subliminally abbreviate and summarise reams of text day in day out.  Yet I actually read, I mean properly read, wallow in words, slather my brain in sentences, very very rarely.  I honestly can't remember the last novel, or any long form book for that matter, that I read through, cover to cover, before July.  I have had excuses- too busy, books are heavy and I try and keep the weight of my backpack down, too tired, but there's been no such defence of late.  So I have read, and I have loved it.

The State We're In by Will Hutton (1996 edition)
I've long been a fan of Hutton, and caught him at a fascinating book signing in Cambridge perhaps nine years ago, when touring The World We're In.  Brilliant and engaging speaker and lucid writer though he may be, I have to confess I didn't have the stomach to dive into this book, an in depth analysis of Britain's social and economic structural malaise written in the dog days of the Major government.  It really was one those I thought I'd get around to eventually, and I'm glad I did, because at the dawn of another Tory fiasco it's salutary to be reminder just how wrong this bunch can get it, and to have the failed promises of the New Labour dream held up for review.
I hope the opposition front bench have taken the time to re-appraise this seminal work's impact- so many of them helped the author in the preparation of the work. Now is the perfect time to look back and see how this piercing insight and careful prescription for the way ahead was squandered, and how next time they'll need to do so much better.  He predicts the banking crisis perfectly by the way, and also warns against exactly the policy line taken by Brown with the bankers.  Reading this reminds me that Britain could have had a Jed Bartlett, instead of the lightweight Blair and belligerent Brown.

Surface Detail by Iain M Banks on Kindle
I do love a decent Culture book, and this is a decent culture book.  Not perhaps the shocking apogee of the genre ( Phlebas?), but better than the Algebraist (that somehow just didn't click) but with nicely rounded characters human and AI this had enough of a bouncing plot to keep me happy.  Part of me doesn't want to review in too much detail, because it did feel light in all honesty, in spite of the subject matter (hell itself, or rather the construction of artificial hells) and there have been more artfully crafted moral and philosophical dilemmas in this sequence of works.  What I will mention is the experience of reading on a Kindle- I bought one as a thank you to Rowan for all the help and support she has given me these past few months.  Somehow the fates conspired such that she had no time to use it, so I availed myself of its e-ink charms.
I found the experience to be mixed to be honest.  On the positive side it is very convenient.  Although the browsing experience is a bit clunky and somehow the online catalogue available feels limited compared to Amazon's own website, it is quick and easy to find stuff you want.  Getting books onto the device is very easy too. The screen is clear and easy on the eye, the navigation within the book is fine.  It's light, lasts forever on battery, and very convenient.
However, it's not perfect, and it certainly not 'delightful', which certainly some device manufacturers and online experience designers aim for.  It's a grim dark matte grey colour of the device body for one thing, with a gritty plasticy texture and some snaggy edges.  The buttons feel cheap and plasticy and stiff, the design of the 'forward' and 'back' controls feels compromised and cludged and un-natural, and on screen navigation is awkward. And though the screen itself is clear, and sharp and usable, the shades of dark charcoal text on dreary light grey background are very cold to the eye. Functional, effective and usable, but in no way delightful.
Worst of all though I don't now have a copy of the book on a shelf, well thumbed and creased at the best bits, to remind me of reading it and to colour the space around me.  Oh,and I couldn't read it in the bath because it's not waterproof and ok, books aren't either, but a book is cheaper than a Kindle.

The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester
I actually started on this one a few years ago and somehow put it down and then didn't pick it up.  Not bored with it, just lost track.  Lanchester's work has great variety- Mr Phillips and Fragrant Harbour are both great novels very different in style and subject, but this book is probably a standout.  I'm being very unfair, but it's rather like a crime caper featuring the arch offspring of Brian Sewell and the galloping gourmet.  A very upsettingly funny book.

Our Cosmic Habitat by Sir Martin Rees
I think Rowan bought this for me after we saw Sir Martin speak at Hay on Wye some years ago.  That was an interesting if necessarily light discussion of the challenges and insights of cosmology and astronomy, but in this work he introduces some truely mind bending ideas about the incredible circumstances of our place in the known universe.  I'm generally comfortable with a materialist atheistic view of us as fortunate pond scum on an unremarkable ball of rock in a quite corner of a thoroughly average galaxy in a completely ordinary corner of the universe, but Rees here makes clear how extraordinarily peculiar the substance of that universe really is.  This isn't to at all challenge the idea that nature is what it is, and we're just plopped down into it at all- there's certainly no logical train that goes from an unexpectedly anthropocentric universe to a universal conscious design or intelligent creator, because it's not anthopocentric.  However, it is profoundly unsettling to grapple with the undeniable conclusions of rigorous observations that make clear that you, me and everyone we know, and the whole world, the sun, the moon the planets and every star in the sky, are made of stuff, matter, that is on the great scheme of things, just fluff in the gearbox of the great forces that make the universe the way it is, was, and shall be.  The charm of this book is that Sir Martin makes this all crystal clear in such an overwhelmingly civilised and urbane way.  I shall be reading more of his stuff, I recommend you do too.

The Man Who Changed Everything by Basil Mahon
Maxwell has facinated me for years, ever since I saw the Maxwell building at the University of Salford.  "Why name a building after a brand of vile coffee?" I asked my grandfather.  This was long before I heard of Captain Bob you understand.  "Maxwell" I was told by my radar engineer Grandfather "was one of the cleverest men that ever lived, and he discovered how radio, electric and magnetic forces were related".  Electric principles always pushed the very limit of my intellect at school, not helped by a sequence of maths and physics teachers who were unable or unwilling to help me find my own mental model of what was occuring, so I continued to see Maxwell in awe, reinforced when reading such bon mots as Feynman's statement that From a long view of the history of mankind — seen from, say, ten thousand years from now, there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell's discovery of the laws of electrodynamics. The American Civil War will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison with this important scientific event of the same decade.
I like science biographies, and Mahon's book promised something else besides the biographical- as an engineer himself, Mahon would hopefully be able to give some sensible context to Maxwell's life and work, showing how the ideas related to earlier concepts, and fitted into an age of burgeoning scientific advance.  This isn't always the case- too often I find that historical biographies of great thinkers will tell a cracking story of their life, and even go into facinating detail about their relationships with other thinkers, but will leave one rather wondering what all the fuss was about and having no clear idea what the person did.  Lisa Jardine being a particularly strident example of this sort of work.  It's ok for architects and artists and politicians, but a scientist engineer or philosopher must be described in terms of their work by somebody prepared to grapple with the barest elements of that work.
In Mahon's work the fecundity and brilliance of Maxwell is made clear, as is his dependence upon and influence over a vast army of scientists and engineers across the world.  And even better, by exploring the development of Maxwell's ideas step by step, one is introduced to that most incredible of intellectual leaps, the full abstraction to mathematics of electrodynamics.  It's a desperately hard leap to take, and I can only assume some people are so equipped intellectually to 'take flight' into it naturally without a second though, but most will be left behind- floundering with the essential questions "but why? how? what does it mean?".  Mahon shows how Maxwell thought through to this eventual, stunning, powerful and revolutionary idea in difficult, but traceable steps.  This is like reading a great book with maps of how an unassailable peak was conquered, and has al the exhilaration attendant with such feats of exploration and adventure.  Another cracker.

Tomorrow I go under the knife, and rather than killing time, I shall be from then on striving to return to a level of health and fitness I have not attained for a decade or more.  Reading will once again have to be 'fitted in'.  Recommendations welcome.

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