The Sermon on the Fall of Rome – Jérôme Ferrari

This month’s serious fiction for serious people, The Sermon on the Fall of Rome is the story of man, or a bar, or a family. Drawing parallels to Saint Augustine’s sermon, it looks at Marcel’s life from the perspective of the end, where old memories run together, and living grandchildren have a much closer impact than long-deceased parents.

A look at mortality, of empires and businesses as well as the obvious mortality of Marcel himself and the slow disintegration of memories of people as everyone who knew them gradually passes on.

I managed not to hold the back cover comparison of this to One Hundred Years of Solitude against it, and definitely liked The Sermon much better than the dull One Hundred Years. The translation reads well, with references that I recognise, which is an art I can respect, although I’m now tempted to read it in the original French.

Pop Goes the Weasel – Albert Jack

A month or so back, I was reading a thread on Ravelry, where I discovered that a weasel as referred to in the rhyme, and in thread work, is not a small mammal, but a tool for the winding of spun thread. The mental image of each syllable being a turn of the weasel, until it “pops”, whilst managing children and watching a busy household was compelling. I was therefore delighted to find a book titled Pop Goes the Weasel providing theories, or longer stories, explaining the meanings of nursery rhymes.

By DTParker1000 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
There are fascinating narratives provided for each of the rhymes in this book, linking into (mostly English) history, and discussing how in a preliterate world, where the authorities handed out harsh punishments to those who were subordinate, passing on news through nonsense rhymes was used for communication. I’m not sure to what extent this was true – how many people would have really known that the “Three blind mice” were the Oxford Martyrs, burned at the stake by Mary I??

Although I did read it with a small bucket of salt to hand, it was an interesting look at less savory parts of English history, as well as details of everyday life that are not clear from the rhymes alone.

What If? – Randall Munroe

I’ve followed xkcd for years, and love Randall’s other projects. In What If? he tackles hypothetical questions with Science!

The majority of the questions are handled in much greater detail than usual, looking at cutting edge research and extrapolating it well-beyond existing usage, to an extent that only the IgNobel prizewinners can hope to match. And even when evidence doesn’t exist, he just acknowledges the current data limits…

If anyone puts a steak in a hypersonic wind tunnel to get better data on this, please, send me the video.

This is a book of a whole heap of ideas that made me think about what I really know about how the world behaves. When do our internal classical mechanical understandings of the way the physics behaves break down, and what replaces them? It bridges that gap elegantly, in small steps from “this is what happens in classic mechanics” to “the whole world is broken”.

I laughed may times at outrageous claims, or at questions that Randall identified as making no sense at all. And I think I learnt a few things.

So You Want to Be a Wizard – Diane Duane

Nita is a stereotypical YA heroine. Chased by bullies, she seeks sanctuary in the library (because what else would appeal to bookworms). But there she finds a book to change her life, amongst the career advice she finds “So You Want to Be a Wizard“.

Of course, it is simply that book that enables her to change her life. To move into a previously unseen world where magic is real and there is a steady battle against evil entropy and death. It is a pleasingly modern urban fantasy world, where the settings are merely a step sideways from the world we know.

Its a well-paced book, ramping the tension up effectively to a satisfying end. Despite this, it leaves things sufficiently open to allow the series to continue. My only quibble is that I don’t like characters instantly becoming super-powered. Some development time and time for mistakes and weakness is good, especially for a book which is part of a longer series.

I’ll pick up the next and see how it goes…

Among Others – Jo Walton

This is the first of Walton’s work that I’ve read – picked from the library as I didn’t want to commit to a new series, and just wanted a stand-along fantasy novel. It is in a style that at first it would be possible to miss it being fantasy, if it wasn’t for the unicorn sticker on the spine.Among Others

I found Mori to be a compelling heroine, working out her own morals for magic and coping with the after-effects of a traumatic event. She has to deal with dramatic family changes, and a new boarding school. She manages all this through science fiction books. I did find some of the reading information a little tedious, I don’t want to deal with this much name-dropping.

Then we get onto the fairies. And the magic. She has had it all her life, and still does the “kid” things to make magic happen and change her life. But in the background is the shadow of what her mother did. Entirely shadow for much of the novel, with hints of horror, but thankfully the veils are lifted on this, and we understand what has shaped Mori.

Trigger Warning – Neil Gaiman

I have been dipping in and out of this little selection of well-crafted nightmares for a couple of months. They are all an exploration of the things that lurk in the edge of the psyche, the things that hide in the dark and the myths that might just come to life.

Mostly new material, this is fairytales grown up and given teeth. And there is the obligatory “what happened next” for a character in one of Gaiman’s best loved books: Shadow is still walking the earth. A couple echo through the imagination once the book is closed, and it is possible to see why authors love this form, which allows so much freedom.

The Crying Tree – Naseem Rakha

The Crying Tree was the sort of book I felt compelled to finish, driven on by a need to pull together all the pieces and see how they could be satisfactorily resolved. However the best thing I can say about Rakha is that she tried hard to do this, but it still fell short.

Of course, any book in which is centred around a murdered character is going to struggle to reach resolution: fundamentally the boy who was murdered on page one is going to still be murdered at the end. With desperately unlikable living characters, who seem to be mostly flaws with few saving graces (aside from Bliss), this was an unsatisfying read. The main plot “twist” was visible from quite some time before, and whilst believable, made the whole plot fall apart even faster, and me dislike the parents even more.

Straight to the charity shop for this one.

Lady Susan – Jane Austen

Penguin Classics should be sold at all railway stations, and this one came from Birmingham New Street Foyles. Just the right length for my return journey home and saved me from the bestseller list or a magazine.Lady Susan

Lady Susan is a wonderful anti-heroine. Defying social conventions, she is making her own way in the world and choosing her husband her own way. I love that she does find her own way, in spite of being so far from the ideal of Regency womanhood.

It is a classic epistolary novel, with the whole book (except for the conclusion) told in the form of letters between and from the main characters, the majority of which are of course ladies with time on their hands to exchange details of other people’s lives. So of course my quote is from a letter between two of the men…

I have at this moment recieved your Letter, which has given me more astonishment than I ever felt before.

But of course to reveal what gives such astonishment would remove all the fun. It remains only to say that Austen’s wit shines through and this is well-worth reading.

Eta: What do you know, I’ve read this before!

Humans Need Not Apply – Jerry Kaplan

I’d started reading Humans Need Not Apply on NetGallery, but ran out of time before it was due back, so ordered myself a paper copy. It is a fascinating perspective on what Artificial Intelligence (AI) will mean at the individual level. This is not only the “you won’t have to drive your car” but also “your job can almost certainly be automated”.

Consider a robotic housepainter. It’s easy to imagine a humanoid form climbing ladders and swinging a brush alongside its mortal coworkers. But it’s more likely to appear (for instance) as a squadron of flying drones, each outfitted with a spray nozzle and trailing a bag of paint.

That is just an example of the sort of thought experiment that Kaplan uses to illustrate this world, where humans become less necessary every day, but then how we would change to cope with this world, and find our place in it. He explores the moral implications of creating and owning AIs, and how their legal status could change over time. As a long-time reader of science-fiction, I find this speculation fascinating. including the Questionable Content (usually safe for work, despite name) webcomic, which has rights for AI as a major theme.

I’d also read this straight from a book on how to efficiently externalise effort, and another on the moral implications of new tech. It made for an interesting combination.


Bad maths time…

The chance that someone random will click on an ad for a golf vacation may be one in ten thousand, but if you are male, it may increase to one in a thousand…

Kaplan let himself down badly here – as Levitin remarked, very few people understand Bayes’ Theorem

Start by taking the original 10,000 people. One of these will click on the ad.

Assume no woman would, and that women are (more or less) 50% of the population.

There are now 5,000 men, one of whom will click on the ad, i.e a one in five thousand chance, and Kaplan has lost 4,000 men. The two statements in the quoted sentence are not logically compatible.


I’m also not convinced by the statement (on self-driving cars) that…

Traffic jams will be a quaint memory of more primitive times.

As the main problem here is not lack of coordination but simply capacity. Unless the swarm is programmed to not enter congested areas, in which case the problem will not be traffic jams, but holding pens.