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Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Books of the year: 2014
Here are my picks for the best books of 2014
, fiction and nonfiction. These aren't
the best books published this year, but rather the best I've read
last twelvemonth. The winner in both categories is barely distinguished from
the pack, and the runners up are all worthy of reading. Runners up appear
in alphabetical order by their author's surname.
Reading List: How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life
- Robinson, Peter.
How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life.
New York: Harper Perennial, 2003.
In 1982, the author, a recent graduate of Dartmouth College who had spent
two years studying at Oxford, then remained in England to write a novel,
re-assessed his career prospects and concluded that, based upon experience,
novelist did not rank high among them. He sent letters to everybody he
thought might provide him leads on job opportunities. Only William F.
Buckley replied, suggesting that Robinson contact his son, Christopher,
then chief speechwriter for Vice President George H. W. Bush, who might
know of some openings for speechwriters. Hoping at most for a few pointers,
the author flew to Washington to meet Buckley, who was planning to leave
the White House, creating a vacancy in the Vice President's speechwriting
shop. After a whirlwind of interviews, Robinson found himself, in his
mid-twenties, having never written a speech before in his life, at work
in the Old Executive Office Building, tasked with putting words into the
mouth of the Vice President of the United States.
After a year and a half writing for Bush, two of the President's speechwriters
quit at the same time. Forced to find replacements on short notice, the
head of the office recruited the author to write for Reagan: “He hired
me because I was already in the building.” From then through 1988,
he wrote speeches for Reagan, some momentous (Reagan's June 1987 speech
at the Brandenburg gate, where Robinson's phrase, “Mr. Gorbachev,
tear down this wall!”, uttered by Reagan against vehement objections
from the State Department and some of his senior advisers, was a pivotal
moment in the ending of the Cold War), but also many more for less
epochal events such as visits of Boy Scouts to the White House, ceremonies
honouring athletes, and the dozens of other circumstances where the President
was called upon to “say a few words”. And because the media were
quick to pounce on any misstatement by the President, even the most
routine remarks had to be meticulously fact-checked by a team of researchers.
For every grand turn of phrase in a high profile speech, there were many
moments spent staring at the blank screen of a word processor as the deadline
for some inconsequential event loomed ever closer and
wondering, “How am I supposed to get twenty minutes out of that?“.
But this is not just a book about the life of a White House speechwriter
(although there is plenty of insight to be had on that topic). Its
goal is to collect and transmit the wisdom that a young man, in his first
job, learned by observing Ronald Reagan masterfully doing the job to which
he had aspired since entering politics in the 1960s. Reagan was such a
straightforward and unaffected person that many underestimated him. For
example, compared to the hard-driving types toiling from dawn to dusk who
populate many White House positions, Reagan never seemed to work very hard.
He would rise at his accustomed hour, work for five to eight hours at his
presidential duties, exercise, have dinner, review papers, and get to bed on time. Some
interpreted this as his being lazy, but Robinson's fellow speechwriter, Clark
Judge, remarked “He never confuses inputs with output. …
Who cares how many hours a day a President puts in? It's what a
President accomplishes that matters.”
These are lessons aplenty here, all illustrated with anecdotes from the
Reagan White House: the distinction between luck and the results from persistence
in the face of adversity seen in retrospect; the unreasonable effectiveness and
inherent dignity of doing one's job, whatever it be, well; viewing life not
as background scenery but rather an arena in which one can act,
changing not just the outcome but the circumstances one encounters; the power
of words, especially those sincerely believed and founded in comprehensible,
time-proven concepts; scepticism toward the pronouncements of “experts”
whose oracle-like proclamations make sense only to other experts—if it
doesn't make sense to an intelligent person with some grounding in the basics,
it probably doesn't make sense period; the importance of marriage, and how the
Reagans complemented one another in facing the challenges and stress of the
office; the centrality of faith, tempered by a belief in free will and the
importance of the individual; how both true believers and pragmatists, despite
how often they despise one another, are both essential to actually getting things
done; and that what ultimately matters is what you make of whatever
situation in which you find yourself.
These are all profound lessons to take on board, especially in the drinking from
a firehose environment of the Executive Office of the President, and in one's
twenties. But this is not a dour self-help book: it is an insightful, beautifully
written, and often laugh-out-loud funny account of how these insights were
gleaned on the job, by observing Reagan at work and how he and his administration
got things done, often against fierce political and media opposition. This is one of those
books that I wish I could travel back in time and hand a copy to my twenty-year-old
self—it would have saved a great deal of time and anguish, even for a
person like me who has no interest whatsoever in politics. Fundamentally, it's
about getting things done, and that's universally applicable.
People matter. Individuals matter. Long before Ronald Reagan was a
radio broadcaster, actor, or politician, he worked summers as a lifeguard.
Between 1927 and 1932, he personally saved 77 people from drowning. “There
were seventy-seven people walking around northern Illinois who wouldn't have been there
if it hadn't been for Reagan—and Reagan knew it.” It is not just a
few exceptional people who change the world for the better, but all of those
who do their jobs and overcome the challenges with which life presents them.
Learning this can change anybody's life.
More recently, Mr. Robinson is the host of Uncommon Knowledge and co-founder of Ricochet.com.
Saturday, December 27, 2014
Tom Swift and His Submarine Boat updated, EPUB added
All 25 of the public domain Tom Swift novels have been posted in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library
collection. I am now returning to the earlier novels, upgrading them to use the more modern typography of those I've done in recent years. The fourth novel in the series, Tom Swift and His Submarine Boat
, has now been updated. Several typographical errors in the original edition have been corrected, and Unicode text entities are used for special characters such as single and double quotes and dashes.
An EPUB edition of this novel is now available which may be downloaded to compatible reader devices; the details of how to do this differ from device to device—please consult the documentation for your reader for details.
It's delightful to read a book which uses the word "filibuster" in its original sense: "to take part in a private military action in a foreign country" but somewhat disconcerting to encounter Brazilians speaking Spanish! The diving suits which allow full mobility on the abyssal plain two miles beneath the ocean surface remain as science-fictional as when this novel was written almost a century ago.
Wednesday, December 24, 2014
Reading List: Hidden Order
- Thor, Brad.
New York: Pocket Books, 2013.
This is the thirteenth in the author's
Harvath series, which began with
The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010).
Earlier novels have largely been in the mainstream of the “techno-thriller”
genre, featuring missions in exotic locations confronting shadowy adversaries
bent on inflicting great harm. The present book is a departure from this
formula, being largely set in the United States and involving institutions
considered pillars of the establishment such as the Federal Reserve
System and the Central Intelligence Agency.
A CIA operative “accidentally” runs into a senior intelligence
official of the Jordanian government in an airport lounge in Europe,
who passes her disturbing evidence that members of a now-disbanded CIA
team of which she was a member were involved in destabilising
governments now gripped with “Arab Spring” uprisings and
next may be setting their sights on Jordan.
Meanwhile, Scot Harvath, just returned from a harrowing mission on the high
seas, is taken by his employer, Reed Carlton, to discreetly meet a new client:
the Federal Reserve. The Carlton Group is struggling to recover from the devastating
blow it took in the previous novel,
Black List (August 2014), and its boss is
willing to take on unconventional missions and new clients, especially ones
“with a license to print their own money”. The chairman of the
Federal Reserve has recently and unexpectedly died and the five principal
candidates to replace him have all been kidnapped, almost simultaneously,
across the United States. These people start turning up dead, in
circumstances with symbolism dating back to the American revolution.
Investigation of the Jordanian allegations is shut down by the CIA hierarchy,
and has to be pursued through back channels, involving retired people who
know how the CIA really works. Evidence emerges of a black program that
created weapons of frightful potential which may have gone even blacker and
deeper under cover after being officially shut down.
Earlier Brad Thor novels were more along the “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
line of most thrillers. Here, the author looks below the surface of
highly dubious institutions (“The Federal Reserve is about as federal
as Federal Express”) and evil that flourishes in the dark,
especially when irrigated with abundant and unaccountable funds. Like
many Americans, Scot Harvath knew little about the Federal Reserve other
than it had something to do with money. Over the course of his investigations
he, and the reader, will learn many disturbing things about its dodgy history
and operations, all accurate as best I can determine.
The novel is as much police procedural as thriller, with Harvath teamed with
a no-nonsense Boston Police Department detective, processing crime scenes
and running down evidence. The story is set in an unspecified near future
(the Aerion Supersonic Business
Jet is in operation). All is eventually revealed in the end, with a
resolution in the final chapter devoutly to be wished, albeit highly unlikely
to occur in the cesspool of corruption which is real-world Washington. There
is less action and fancy gear than in most Harvath novels, but interesting
characters, an intricate mystery, and a good deal of information of which
many readers may not be aware.
A short prelude to this novel,
is available for free for the Kindle. It provides the background of
the mission in progress in which we first encounter Scot Harvath in
chapter 2 here. My guess is that this chapter was originally part
of the manuscript and was cut for reasons of length and because it
spent too much time on a matter peripheral to the main plot. It's
interesting to read before you pick up Hidden Order, but
if you skip it you'll miss nothing in the main story.
Saturday, December 13, 2014
Reading List: The Science of Interstellar
- Thorne, Kip.
The Science of Interstellar.
New York: W. W. Norton, 2014.
Christopher Nolan's 2014 film
was eagerly awaited by science fiction enthusiasts who,
having been sorely disappointed so many times by movies
that crossed the line into fantasy by making up entirely
implausible things to move the plot along, hoped that this
effort would live up to its promise of getting the science
(mostly) right and employing scientifically plausible
speculation where our present knowledge is incomplete.
The author of the present book is one of the most eminent
physicists working in the field of general relativity
(Einstein's theory of gravitation) and a pioneer in exploring
the exotic strong field regime of the theory, including
black holes, wormholes, and gravitational radiation.
Prof. Thorne was involved in the project which became
Interstellar from its inception, and worked
closely with the screenwriters, director, and visual effects
team to get the science right. Some of the scenes in the
movie, such as the visual appearance of orbiting a rotating
black hole, have never been rendered accurately before,
and are based upon original work by Thorne in computing light
paths through spacetime in its vicinity which will be published
as professional papers.
Here, the author recounts the often bumpy story of the movie's
genesis and progress over the years from his own, Hollywood-outsider,
perspective, how the development of the story presented him,
as technical advisor (he is credited as an executive producer),
with problem after problem in finding a physically plausible
solution, sometimes requiring him to do new physics. Then,
Thorne provides a popular account of the exotic physics on
which the story is based, including gravitational time dilation,
black holes, wormholes, and speculative extra dimensions and
scenarios stemming from string theory.
Then he “interprets” the events and visual images in
the film, explaining (where possible) how they could be
produced by known, plausible, or speculative physics. Of course,
this isn't always possible—in some cases the needs of
story-telling or the requirement not to completely baffle a
non-specialist with bewilderingly complicated and obscure
images had to take priority over scientific authenticity,
and when this is the case Thorne is forthright in admitting so.
Sections are labelled with icons identifying them as
“truth”: generally accepted by those working in
the field and often with experimental evidence,
“educated guess”: a plausible inference from
accepted physics, but without experimental evidence and
assuming existing laws of physics remain valid in
circumstances under which we've never tested them, and
“speculation”: wild and wooly stuff (for example
quantum gravity or the interior structure of a black hole)
which violates no known law of physics, but for which we have
no complete and consistent theory and no evidence whatsoever.
This is a clearly written and gorgeously illustrated book which,
for those who enjoyed the movie but weren't entirely clear
whence some of the stunning images they saw came, will
explain the science behind them. The cover of the book has a
“SPOILER ALERT” warning potential readers that
the ending and major plot details are given away in the text.
I will refrain from discussing them here so as not to
make this a spoiler in itself. I have not yet seen the movie, and
I expect when I do I will enjoy it more for having read
the book, since I'll know what to look for in some of the
visuals and be less likely to dismiss some of the apparently
outrageous occurrences by knowing that there is a physically
plausible (albeit extremely speculative and improbable) explanation
For the animations and blackboard images mentioned in the text,
the book directs you to a Web site which is so poorly designed
and difficult to navigate it took me ten minutes to find them on
the first visit. Here is a
the index cites page numbers in the print edition which are
useless since the electronic edition does not contain real
page numbers. There are a few typographical errors and
one factual howler:
is not “Saturn's closest moon”, and
was captured in Saturn orbit by a
propulsion burn, not a gravitational slingshot (this does not
affect the movie in any way: it's in background material).
Saturday, December 6, 2014
Reading List: A Troublesome Inheritance
- Wade, Nicholas.
A Troublesome Inheritance.
New York: Penguin Press, 2014.
Geographically isolated populations of a species (unable to interbreed
with others of their kind) will be subject to natural selection
based upon their environment. If that environment differs from that
of other members of the species, the isolated population will begin
to diverge genetically, as genetic endowments which favour survival
and more offspring are selected for. If the isolated population is
sufficiently small, the mechanism of
may cause a specific genetic variant to become almost universal
or absent in that population. If this process is repeated for a
sufficiently long time, isolated populations may diverge to such
a degree they can no longer interbreed, and therefore become
None of this is controversial when discussing other species, but
in some circles to suggest that these mechanisms apply to humans
is the deepest heresy. This well-researched book examines the
evidence, much from molecular biology which has become available
only in recent years, for the diversification of the human species
into distinct populations, or “races” if you like,
after its emergence from its birthplace in Africa. In this
book the author argues that human evolution has been
“recent, copious, and regional” and presents the
genetic evidence to support this view.
A few basic facts should be noted at the outset. All humans are
members of a single species, and all can interbreed. Humans, as
a species, have an extremely low genetic diversity compared to
most other animal species: this suggests that our ancestors went
through a genetic “bottleneck” where the population
was reduced to a very small number, causing the variation observed
in other species to be lost through genetic drift. You might
expect different human populations to carry different genes, but
this is not the case—all humans have essentially the same
set of genes. Variation among humans is mostly a result of
individuals carrying different
(variants) of a gene. For example, eye colour in humans is entirely
inherited: a baby's eye colour is determined completely by
the alleles of various genes inherited from the mother and father.
You might think that variation among human populations is then
a question of their carrying different alleles of genes, but that
too is an oversimplification. Human genetic variation is, in most
cases, a matter of the frequency of alleles among the
This means that almost any generalisation about the characteristics of
individual members of human populations with different evolutionary
histories is ungrounded in fact. The variation among individuals
within populations is generally much greater than that of populations
as a whole. Discrimination based upon an individual's genetic heritage
is not just abhorrent morally but scientifically unjustified.
Based upon these now well-established facts, some have argued that
“race does not exist” or is a “social construct”.
While this view may be motivated by a well-intentioned desire to
eliminate discrimination, it is increasingly at variance with
genetic evidence documenting the history of human populations.
Around 200,000 years ago, modern humans emerged in Africa. They spent
more than three quarters of their history in that continent, spreading
to different niches within it and developing a genetic diversity which
today is greater than that of all humans in the rest of the world.
Around 50,000 years before the present, by the genetic evidence,
a small band of hunter-gatherers left Africa for the lands to the
north. Then, some 30,000 years ago the descendants of these bands
who migrated to the east and west largely ceased to interbreed and
separated into what we now call the Caucasian and East Asian populations.
These have remained the main three groups within the human species.
Subsequent migrations and isolations have created other populations such
as Australian and American aborigines, but their differentiation
from the three main races is less distinct. Subsequent migrations,
conquest, and intermarriage have blurred the distinctions between
these groups, but the fact is that almost any child, shown a picture
of a person of European, African, or East Asian ancestry can almost always
effortlessly and correctly identify their area of origin. University
professors, not so much: it takes an intellectual to deny the
evidence of one's own eyes.
As these largely separated populations adapted to their new homes,
selection operated upon their genomes. In the ancestral human
population children lost the ability to digest lactose, the sugar
in milk, after being weaned from their mothers' milk. But in
populations which domesticated cattle and developed dairy
farming, parents who passed on an allele which
would allow their children to drink cow's milk their entire life would have more surviving
offspring and, in a remarkably short time on the evolutionary
scale, lifetime lactose tolerance became the norm in these areas.
Among populations which never raised cattle or used them only
for meat, lifetime lactose tolerance remains rare today.
Humans in Africa originally lived close to the equator and had
dark skin to protect them from the ultraviolet radiation of the
Sun. As human bands occupied northern latitudes in Europe
and Asia, dark skin would prevent them from being able to synthesise
sufficient Vitamin D from the wan, oblique sunlight of northern
winters. These populations were under selection pressure for alleles
of genes which gave them lighter skin, but interestingly Europeans and
East Asians developed completely different genetic means to lighten
their skin. The selection pressure was the same, but evolution
blundered into two distinct pathways to meet the need.
Can genetic heritage affect behaviour? There's evidence it can.
Humans carry a gene called
which breaks down neurotransmitters that affect the transmission
of signals within the brain. Experiments in animals have provided evidence that
under-production of MAO-A increases aggression and humans with lower levels of MAO-A are found to be more likely to commit violent crime. MAO-A production is regulated by a short
sequence of DNA adjacent to the gene: humans may have anywhere
from two to five copies of the promoter; the more you have, the
more the MAO-A, and hence the mellower you're likely to be. Well,
actually, people with three to five copies are indistinguishable,
but those with only two (2R) show higher rates of delinquency.
Among men of African ancestry, 5.5% carry the 2R variant, while
0.1% of Caucasian males and 0.00067% of East Asian men do. Make
of this what you will.
The author argues that just as the introduction of dairy farming
tilted the evolutionary landscape in favour of those bearing the
allele which allowed them to digest milk into adulthood, the
transition of tribal societies to cities, states, and empires
in Asia and Europe exerted a selection pressure upon the population
which favoured behavioural traits suited to living in such
societies. While a tribal society might benefit from producing
a substantial population of aggressive warriors, an empire has
little need of them: its armies are composed of soldiers,
courageous to be sure, who follow orders rather than charging
independently into battle. In such a society, the genetic traits which
are advantageous in a hunter-gatherer or tribal society will be
selected out, as those carrying them will, if not expelled or
put to death for misbehaviour, be unable to raise as large a
family in these settled societies.
Perhaps, what has been happening over the last five millennia
or so is a domestication of the human species.
Precisely as humans have bred animals to live with them
in close proximity, human societies have selected for
humans who are adapted to prosper within them. Those who
conform to the social hierarchy, work hard, come up with
new ideas but don't disrupt the social structure will have
more children and, over time, whatever genetic predispositions
there may be for these characteristics (which we don't know
today) will become increasingly common in the population.
It is intriguing that as humans settled into fixed communities,
their skeletons became less robust. This same process of
gracilisation is seen in domesticated animals compared to
their wild congeners. Certainly there have been as many
human generations since the emergence of these complex societies
as have sufficed to produce major adaptation in animal
species under selective breeding.
Far more speculative and controversial is whether this selection
process has been influenced by the nature of the cultures and societies
which create the selection pressure. East Asian societies
tend to be hierarchical, obedient to authority, and organised
on a large scale. European societies, by contrast, are
fractious, fissiparous, and prone to bottom-up insurgencies.
Is this in part the result of genetic predispositions which have
been selected for over millennnia in societies which work that
It is assumed by many right-thinking people that all that is needed
to bring liberty and prosperity to those regions of the world
which haven't yet benefited from them is to create the proper
institutions, educate the people, and bootstrap the infrastructure,
then stand back and watch them take off. Well, maybe—but the
history of colonialism, the
mission civilisatrice, and
various democracy projects and attempts at nation building
over the last two centuries may suggest it isn't that
simple. The population of the colonial, conquering, or
development-aid-giving power has the benefit of millennia of
domestication and adaptation to living in a settled society
with division of labour. Its adaptations for tribalism have
been largely bred out. Not so in many cases for the people they're there to
“help”. Withdraw the colonial administration or
occupation troops and before long tribalism will re-assert
itself because that's the society for which the people are
Suggesting things like this is anathema in academia or political
discourse. But look at the plain evidence of post-colonial
Africa and more recent attempts of nation-building, and couple
that with the emerging genetic evidence of variation in human
populations and connections to behaviour and you may find yourself
thinking forbidden thoughts. This book is an excellent starting
point to explore these difficult issues, with numerous citations
of recent scientific publications.