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.


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.


Trains and Lovers – Alexander McCall Smith

I haven’t been blogging much lately as I haven’t felt much like reading due to pressures of work etc. So on my way through the library today I picked up an Alexander McCall Smith I haven’t read before. It was apparently just what the whole house needed, as everyone has conveniently napped or gone to bed early so I could read it all in one afternoon/evening. Just what I needed rather than the stop-start of 10 pages here or there that I have been doing lately. I used to love reading novels like that, just picking one up or buying one on the way home from work, and barely putting it down again until it was finished. This is not however good for insomnia.

“I’ll tell you,” he said

Trains and Lovers is not the sort of book that can’t be put down however. It just a quiet meandering through the lives of four strangers, as they open up, or not, to the people they happen to be sharing a table with on the way from Edinburgh to London. There are links through the railway, metaphors on what this journey is part of and just an unburdening.

This may partly appeal to me because I am one of those people who will talk to strangers on trains. On occasions I’ve found I’m closer to those strangers in terms of common links than might be expected. Then there is of course also the railway theme. I’m a bit of a train spotter, and hoped for more of a description of that train, even if I have a mental image of what it must surely be.

But above all it is an Alexander McCall Smith book, in which nothing terrible can happen, the language flows smoothly and there are just enough hints of intellectualism to make the pleasure of such a light book less guilty.

How do you get out of a reading slump?


Extra library books: Railway Atlas and How to Read the Landscape

In addition to the long-form Blind Giant, I got out a couple of flick-through reference type books last time I was at the library.

Firstly was a Railway Atlas: Then and Now. This has lovely side-by-side maps showing the railway network in 1923 and 2012, where lines have been removed, what they have been replaced with (such as roads, bike lanes, light rail etc). It is a fascinating historical reference, although I’m not sure I need to buy it right now I feel more informed for having flicked through.

The second was a pocket book on How to Read the Landscape which explains the geography behind distinct landscapes and how they were created. This meant that when walking at the weekend I could recognise and understand a hanging valley for the first time.Hanging Valley Waterfall

Train Songs edited by Sean O’Brien and Don Paterson

In some ways I’m not keen on assorted poetry compilations, however well-edited they tend to “jump” between poems. However when I saw a collection called Train Songs on the shelf in the library then its definitely worth flicking through.

Train SongsWhilst it suffers from the usual compilation jerkiness, there are some real gems in this collection. I particularly like Wordsworth’s rant On The Projected Kendal to Windermere Railway. The irony of the number of Wordsworth-inspired tourists that travel up this railway is particularly amusing.

An understanding of railway history helps with understanding The Slow Train and why:

No more will I go to Blandford Forum and Mortiehow,
On the slow train from Midsummer Norton and Mumby Row,
No churns, no porter,
No car on a seat
At Chorlton-cum-Hardy and Chester-le-Street
We won’t be meeting again on the slow train.

There is a lot of romanticising about the age of steam, and meetings of travellers, and other ways in which trains thread there way into culture.

The Maintenance of Headway – Magnus Mills

The Mainenance of Headway is possibly the only novel ever written about the intricacies of the timing of buses. Its a nice light read, examining how the interaction between drivers and inspectors drove each other’s behaviour and exerted power on each other.

Possibly wouldn’t appeal as much to someone who isn’t into transport, but definitely lightened my day and a definite contrast to A Song Of Ice and Fire. Lightened both figuratively and literally.