Messy – Tim Harford

As one of the BBC’s top statistics correspondents, Harford is not the person I would expet to write a book subtitled “How to be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World”.  But this is not a book on tidying, but on how the human brain requires opportunity to be creative, new constraints to seek new solutions and move outside our comfort zones.

Now in the spirit of “forced improvisation”, a quote from a page picked at random:

As Bezos [of Amazon] liked to say during the crunches of 1998 and 1999, ‘If you are planning more than twenty minutes ahead in this environment, you are wasting your time.’ He was a man in a hurry. No wonder he created such an almighty mess.

This was from a chapter titled “Winning” and describes how some successful military and business tactics involve making “good enough” decisions so fast that your opponents are unable to react. This is also descibed as Trump’s tactic as getting inside his opponents’ OODA loop such that they are incapable of reacting before he has moved onto his next tactic.

Overall this is a fascinating look at how to keep yourself on your toes, and the benefits that can come from doing so. I’m still going to keep my tidy desk though!

Every Man in This Village is a Liar – Megan Stack

Stack is a green journalist when the Twin Towers fall. She just happens to be in Paris and well-placed to send to the Middle East and this is an opportunity she grasps to try and understand

We are then taken on her journey, as a woman reporter in the Middle East. She intertwines the wars, with the dangers she is in and the impact this has on her family, and her changing attitude to violence. She sees the people of Lebanon during the Israel-Lebanon war, not as Hesbolla insurgents but as the poor and trapped who are becoming radicalised by endless violence from Israel and an uncertain future.

She also is tied up in seeing people both as sources, and as people whose lives can be destroyed by talking to an American journalist. She sees hopes and dreams and ambitions. And how a bomb can tear all that away in an instant.

Ultimately she comes to the futility of it, how the circular nature of war means that all it ever begets is more chaos and war, and that the US is more deeply enmeshed that she knew, with tear gas cannisters “made in the USA” and an acute awareness that the bombs being dropped around her are funded by her own country.

This offers a powerful view of war, and is well-worth reading.

Minor note: the cover of this book jarred every time I picked it up. My mental image of Stack is of her being driven fast in sedan cars full of smoke. The cover is a horse and cart filled with people in traditional Islamic dress. If we must steer away from the true subject matter, at least keep it in the same tone as the book!

Knitting Rules – Stephanie Pearl-McPhee

I don’t add all my knitting pattern books to this blog, because they are hard to judge on similar merits to a ordinary book. Knitting Rules however is not a pattern book, but a book of advice and observations on knitting.

Not intended for the beginning knitter, it instead advocates moving on in knitting, having confidence in your work and taking the necessary steps to plan as you move to the next level of knitting. What makes this a book to read though is not the good advice, although it is packed full of this, but the humour within that advice. There were several moments when I laughed aloud. Sometimes from the joke, and sometimes from guilt that this applies to me as well.

On a hat that is not working:

“Look for a friend with a bigger head…

Is it possible – and I know this may seem a bit avant-garde – but is it possible that you have, in fact, not knit a hat?”

I am delighted to learn that Pearl-McPhee has a blog, which I am now following. Of course it would be better if I made progress on the shawl I’m knitting for a wedding this year, but I’ve done loads this week! Mostly making a Lego-holder for the little lad, but there’s months to go before the wedding yet!


Professor Stewart’s Casebook of Mathematical Mysteries – Ian Stewart

As a somewhat lapsed mathematician, I enjoy reading popular mathematics books. This series by Ian Stewart is a particular gem: a miscellany of mathematical facts connected by a parody of Sherlock Holmes.

The puzzles were all the right sort of difficulty for me to enjoy: I had to sit, think and occasionally doodle, but they were all solvable. However I remain sadly too aware of my limitations to think that I could possibly prove the ABC conjecture, or other unsolved issues that Stewart mentions as he brings modern mathematics into the mix.

If you are of a mathematical inclination, have a fondness for puzzle-solving and like Sherlock spin-offs, then this is a fun book with bits to learn.

Mapping the Roads – Mike Parker

It is a month for Mike Parker – this one was given to me as a Christmas present.

Mapping the Roads builds up a picture of the UK road network, from its beginings, as it has been mapped through history. Building up from prehistory, through how the Romans made their conquest of England firm through mapping their new roads, all the way into how the GPS is changing our relationship with maps and the road network we travel through.

Swampy gets a mention, as not only the relentless growth in roads is celebrated, but also the change in culture that led to that deceleration in road-building speed, and an acceptance that the “futuristic” urban motorways of the 1970s and 80s may not have been a positive development for communities.

The one downside of this was that I was aware that this was a book published by The AA. There is lots of detail on AA patrolmen, and as it moves into the modern era, the maps are either OS or AA. I understand that if they are supporting then there will be fewer copywrite headaches, but it made the book feel biased. Overall though, a good read which gives an interesting history.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – Carlo Rovelli

I failed both general relativity and quantum mechanics at university, although the few lectures I sat through in the physics department made much more sense than those in the maths department. Sadly it was the maths department that set my exam! So I enjoy reading about physics as long as I don’t have to memorise tensor calculus as part of it, and obviously picked this up as it is such a popular book on cutting edge physics.

It is very simply seven lessons in physics: each of which takes a well-known issue in modern physics and explains it in lay terms for everyone to understand. From my nemisis, general relativity to black holes and free will, the complexity is cut through a the basic principals explained. Of course if you think you understand some of these principals, you almost certainly don’t, but its nice to have a grasp of what is going on.

A collection of short essays, it comes in at 79 pages of content, so not a big commitment to anyone who wants to understand more of physics. And it is all clear and very well written/translated (from Italian).

The Wild Rover – Mike Parker

Unwell in bed earlier in the week I sent my (4 year old) son to fetch a book for me*. He was under  instruction to fetch the library book I am halfway through, but decided that looked boring, so instead chose a book with hills on the spine. This was one which had languished on the shelves for a while, but once I started it was fascinating.

We do a lot of walking, despite not being nearly old enough by Parker’s standards, and have often spent much of a walk speculating on the history of a path, looking for evidence and wondering how it would have been to have been obliged to walk those routes on a daily basis throughout the year.

Parker does get out in his boots and do an appropriate walk for just about every chapter, which range from the gloriously successful to absolute disaster. These walks tie the history to the current day, and make the book more about a project than simply an academic piece.

When Parker was discussing the history of access rights, and what the historic paths were, it was inspiring. However towards the end he did get steadily further into the recent history of the ramblers (Ramblers Associate as was) and government cuts. Whilst these will have a negative impact on footpath inspections and maintenance, it moves the book towards being a political statement.

I was also put off by the description that “… the path goes up and down like a whore’s drawers, through rickety steps…” There are other, better metaphors for up and down than language like that when it is out of place. I wouldn’t have objected to it so much had it been in the same section as the one on “Lovers’ Lanes”.

*his daddy was also home, but the 4yo wanted to reassure himself that I was ok. Once I’d had half his stuffed toy collection brought to me I decided to distract him into getting something I wanted.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami, read by Ray Porter

I am a casual runner, doing only 5km a couple of times a week. But I enjoy reading about running, especially thoughtful pieces where people challenge their own motivations and consider what motivates them, as well as just diet and training regime.

Murakami is a wonderful balance of introspective and motivated. He delves deeply into his past as he racks up the miles and plans for the impending marathon. He struggles occasionally, and remembers times when his running motivation abandoned him entirely. More than that, he reflecst on what running brings to his life, an an everyday and a long term basis.

It did however seem wrong to me to be listening to this in a noticable American accent. Even though Murakami spends nearly all his time in English-speaking countries in America, the accent made it harder for me to picture the narrator. The narrating was clear though, and well-executed, so I can’t really complain!

The Riddle of the Labyrinth – Margalit Fox

I delight in non-fiction about obscure subjects. This is a look at the story behind the decoding of linear b, a writing set on clay tablets over three millenia ago. This was a herculean task as the alphabet used and language were both unknown, so meaning had to discerned entirely form context.

This book opens with the discovery of the clay tablets containing the writing to later be known as linear b, then sets out their journey through the following decades, and that of the contemporary researchers who were driven to understand this writing, and spend hours working, often in scraps of spare time, to decode the script. From the possessive Evans, to Kober, a classicist who recorded every single word on a separate homemade index card, through to the amateur Ventris who finally extracted meaning  from the tablets.

There’s archeology, some light statistics and human lives all twisted together as we follow the methodologies and work that spanned decades. Fox spins all these together seamlessly, to produce a compelling book about a subject matter that could be expected to be dull or dry.

Who Gets What – And Why? Alvin E. Roth

This book received a good review in Mathematics Today, and I always like to read books by leading experts. In this case, Roth is a winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics for his work in market design: a leader in designing and implementing sorting algorithms for kidney donation, medical job applications and school place allocations.

He gives detail of how algorithms are developed, how they are applied and why they provide a stable solution, as well as the importance of the stability of this solution for that allocation to function well and prevent systems disintegrating and failing to serve the people within them well. Of course only systems that don’t “naturally” reach sensible stable solutions will attract the interest of a market designer.

I didn’t approach this book with an entirely open mind as to the motivations of the author though. Due to the current political drive to make everything into as free a market as possible, I am wary of economists applying market theories to parts of life where it does not intuitively apply. But Roth has the flexibility to talk about goodness of match for the purpose of his reason, not just financial value. But sometimes that viewpoint can be valuable, when we fall into the alternative universe of US healthcare…

If a hospital sends a non-directed donor, the NKR promises to end one of its chains at that hospital. That ensures that the hospital doesn’t “lose” a transplant by sharing its donor. Keep in mind that hospitals earn revenue on their transplants; they’re commercial enterprises as well as caregivers.

But oddities of US healthcare aside, this is a well-written book, giving an insight into how matching works when markets are designed. and the value of this to our institutions.