Monday, May 7, 2012

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, April 2012

Mini-reviews of books I read last month: two fiction and two non-fiction.

1. "Civilisation: The West and the Rest" by Niall Ferguson

Written by Niall Ferguson, a Scottish-born Harvard history professor,
this is an ambitious attempt to explain why Western civilisation has
been dominant for the past five hundred years.  Obviously, a lot of
what is written is open for debate, and any broad analysis of history
can help but be both selective and subjective.  Over the years several
historians have written overviews of civilisation before (e.g. Kenneth

Ferguson argues that there are "six identifiably novel complexes of
institutions and associated ideas and behaviours".  He calls them the
West's "killer apps": competition, science, property rights, medicine,
the consumer society, and the work ethic.  He argues that "it was not
just Western superiority that led to the conquest and colonization of
so much of the rest of the world; it was also the fortuitous weakness
of the West’s rivals".  He also asks, in light of the Global Financial
Crisis and the rise of China as an economic superpower, if we are
witnessing the decline of the West's latest golden age.

This a very readable overview of the past five centuries.  While you
could argue with the generalisations and interpretation of events,
the author makes an interesting case.  The mixed ratings on Amazon
reflect the at times divisive and contentious nature of some of the
views presented.  In the preface, the author says that his motivation
was in response to the lamentable and politically-correct nature of
history education, as he sees it.

A six-part TV series is based on the book, and is currently screening
on SBS Australia:

The author recently wrote a timely book on the history of finance called
"The Ascent of Money", which was also made into a TV series.

2. "Embassytown" by China Miéville

This is the latest "New Weird" novel by award-winning British author,
China Miéville.  Avice lives in a colony called "Embassytown" on the
planet Ariekei, out in deep space.  Humans and the native race of
insectoids, called the Hosts, have developed a symbiotic culture over
many years.  This is quite an achievement given the vast differences
between them.  For example, the Hosts have a language that requires
two mouths, each speaking different words simultaneously.  In order to
communicate effectively, the humans have genetically engineered clones/
twins that speak the language as an "Ambassador" pair.  Another
complication is that the Hosts' language is entirely literal.  There is
no concept of symbolism, and no facility to tell lies.  The delicate
social and political balance on Ariekei is upset when a new ambassador
arrives, and literally intoxicates the Hosts when the ambassador pair
speaks to them.

There are many interesting ideas in this novel.  Some are weird takes
on traditional sci-fi concepts, such as hyperspace travel, alien
civilisations, colonisation, biotechnology and terraforming.  But these
mostly just set the scene.  The novel is basically an exploration of
language, and the idea that language influences thought (part of
linguistic relativity).  The plot is an excuse to explore this idea,
with political intrigue and an inevitable clash of civilisations as
the climax.

Arguably there are too many ideas here, and not enough space is given
to explore them properly.  Normally I don't like thick novels, but some
of these ideas could've benefitted from more elaboration, or left out
altogether.  The reader's job is complicated further by time differences
and made-up words, which need to be determined from the context.  This
is standard fare for science fiction, but even seasoned sci-fi readers
could struggle.

Overall, an interesting novel.  It's been nominated for several awards,
though I wouldn't recommended to people new to sci-fi.  Unless you're
particularly interested in the underlying premise that language shapes
thought, or like reading about new and strange things.  Instead, I'd
recommend "The City & the City" by the same author, which is more
satisfying and easier to follow.

If time is short and you want to hear what other people have to say
about the novel, check out this episode of The Incomparable Book Club

3. "Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying" by Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl is mostly known for his children's books, such as "Charlie
and the Chocolate Factory" and "Fantastic Mr Fox".  But he also wrote
books for adults.  This is a collection of ten short stories based on
his experiences as an RAF fighter pilot in North Africa and southern
Europe during World War II.  As such, they are quite different in tone
and much darker than his more famous works.

In this collection we get a pilot's eye view of life in the air force
in wartime.  He rather de-glamourises life as a fighter pilot.  There's
a lot of anxious waiting, boredom, and the looming hand of fate.
Several stories have unexpected twists.  My favourites are "An African
Story" and "Beware of the Dog".

4. "Beautiful Code: Leading Programmers Explain How They Think"
   edited by Andy Oram and Greg Wilson

This is a collection of over thirty essays and case studies about
software, written by a professionals in the field.  Each chapter
presents and discusses "the most beautiful piece of code" the author
has seen.  As such, the book is probably aimed at people working in or
familiar with the software development process.  A broad cross-section
of programming languages is presented, but usually it isn't essential
that the reader knows the intricacies of each language to understand
what's going on.

In some cases, authors saw beauty in the fine detail of the language
statements themselves, while others were more concerned with the overall
architecture and structure of the program.  Various problem domains are
covered, including text processing, project management, genetics,
mathematics, operating systems and accessibility.  I generally found the
chapters on "big picture" issues more interesting, largely because they
didn't place the emphasis on the specifics of the individual languages

Overall, I found this book a bit patchy.  This was in part due to each
chapter being written by a different author.  The nature of the problem
being solved and the language used also had a bearing.  Beauty is
subjective after all.  My favourite chapters include: "Treating Code As
an Essay" (by the inventor of Ruby), "When a Button Is All That Connects
You to the World" (which discusses a program that had the one line spec:
'Professor Stephen Hawking can only press one button'), "Code in Motion"
(based on "The Seven Pillars of Pretty Code") and "Writing Programs for
'The Book'" (where the task was to determine programmatically if three
points all lie on the same straight line).