My Favourite Books I Read in 2016

I tend to have at least two books on the go at any one time: one fiction, one non-fiction. I read fiction when I go to bed, since I read somewhere that fiction encourages present-state attention, which makes you feel sleepy. It works for me. I generally read non-fiction (or, more often, Pocket articles) when I’m commuting.

My Goodreads Year in Review tells me I read 33 books last year. These are the highlights.

The best book I read was John Higgs’ Stranger Than We Can Imagine, an attempt to explain the 20th century through philosophy, art and science, rather than geopolitics. I wrote a post about it which you can read if you want more detail; but if you’re willing to take my word, it comes with a strong recommendation from me.

The Inevitable, by Wired founder Kevin Kelly, looks at technologies which will shape the near future. Not specific implementations, but more general trends: sharing, remixing, tracking, etc. If you keep up to date on tech trends some of this can seem like it’s just reinforcing what you already know; even so there are enough interesting points of view and insights to make this a good and compelling read.

Time Travel, by James Gleick, is an exhaustive (and occasionally exhausting) exploration of its subject in fiction, philosophy, and physics. I didn’t enjoy it as much as his previous book, The Information, but it’s still worth your time.

Andrew Hosken’s Empire of Fear is a history and investigation of the so-called Islamic State (as the BBC put it). It really helped me better understand the complicated situation in the Middle East, and the shameful decisions by foreign powers that made it all happen.

You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life (You Are Raoul Moat), by Andrew Hankinson, is a semi-fictionalised first-person account (it uses real dialog, social services documents, and police reports) of the last days of the man hunted by police in 2010. Phenomenal true-crime writing.

In comics, Steffen Kverneland’s Munch is both an incredible biography of the Norwegian artist and his relationship with the author August Strindberg, and a fourth-wall-breaking story of how the book was written. And that barely scratches the surface. It apparently took seven years to create, and that’s apparent in the breadth and detail.

Mary Wept Over The Feet of Jesus, by Chester Brown, retells (with copious footnotes and reference) Bible stories that feature prostitutes. It’s part of the author’s ongoing attempts to contextualise and justify his own use of paid sex, and is quite fascinating.

The novel I enjoyed most was Don Winslow’s The Cartel, a story of the drug wars in South and Central Americas (and sequel to The Power of the Dog). It’s a robust thriller that only occasionally slips into cliche.

Finally, Beast, by Paul Kingsnorth, and Pig Iron, by Benjamin Myers, are very different stories but both are first-person, and use the language of the narrator, and their landscape and environment, to create a feeling of deep immersion. Both authors are poets, which shows.

I’ve got three books on the go right now which didn’t quite make it into this roundup, and another ten in my to-read list. Exciting and daunting.

My Favourite Books I Read in 2015

Many people have made a New Year’s resolution to read more. I won’t. I already read a lot. According to my Goodreads list, I read 24 books last year (and that’s on top of all the articles published across the web). I can’t possibly review all of them, but these were my highlights of 2015.

By far the best book, because it blew my mind, was Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It’s more a history of culture and society than it is ‘hard’ history, but is filled with revelatory ways of looking at our species and beliefs. It contains so many highlights that I’ve started to blog a review in multiple parts. I’ve already bought a copy for a friend, and would recommend you get one too.

Another book that had a huge impact on me was Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, a look at mob justice on social media, its historical context, and its implications, all told in the author’s humorously understated way. If I were Facebook or Twitter (I’m not) I would strike a deal to get a copy of this to every user.

Warren Ellis’ Cunning Plans is a short collection of transcripts from talks given by the author at various conferences in the past few years. What Ellis is good at is finding connections; many of these pieces tie together technology and British folklore, things that you wouldn’t necessarily think were related.

Another short book I enjoyed greatly was Clay Shirky’s Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiaomi, and The Chinese Dream. A look at China through the lens of its growing smartphone industry, using the manufacturer Xiaomi as a case study. Full of fascinating cultural insight, especially with regards to the sheer scale of the Chinese market.

In comics, I hugely admired Richard McGuire’s Here. It’s an experimental piece, where your field of view remains fixed on the same point in space but travels through different times, with themes playing themselves out through the ages inside different panels of the comic.

Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying is a collection of short slice of life stories, each in a different art and storytelling style. What the author excels at is portraying complex emotion in a very minimal, understated way.

My favourite novel I read this year was Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. The plot involves a man sent as a missionary to a recently discovered alien race, but its also about distance and longing and the things we leave behind. It also features a wonderful trick where each chapter’s title is the last sentence of that chapter, but subverted from your presumption by the time you get to it.

I’ve already got a further ten books to read or in progress. Time to get on with them.

Blogging The Highlights: Sapiens [Part One]

Earlier this year I read Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It is, without a doubt, one of the most amazing, eye-opening, mind-expanding books I’ve ever read. I’ve wanted for some time to write a review of it, but have been slightly daunted by the thought of trying to do it justice. Even using quotes from the book to illustrate the themes, as I’ve done before, faces me with a problem: I’ve highlighted so many passages, even editing them to a manageable length would be a job in itself.

But I can prevaricate no longer, so I’m going to attempt a loose review, based around quotes from the book, broken into multiple posts. I’ll theme them loosely around happiness, consumerism, and the agricultural revolution; and, in this first part, around fictions.

Sapiens is a book about humankind, but not a hard history; it’s about culture, about the systems we’ve evolved to create this amazing, powerful, terrifying global race. Above all, it’s about fictions: the stories that we all choose to believe in that define and make possible society and its achievements.

Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals. Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions.

As time has passed, these fictions have taken on more importance:

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.

These fictions extend even to our laws and rights; biologically speaking, we are not all born equal:

If we do not believe in the Christian myths about God, creation and souls, what does it mean that all people are ‘equal’? Evolution is based on difference, not on equality.

However, we choose to believe in natural equality because it promotes stability and social order:

We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.

Belief is what enables fictions, and fictions enable orders:

An imagined order can be maintained only if large segments of the population – and in particular large segments of the elite and the security forces – truly believe in it. Christianity would not have lasted 2,000 years if the majority of bishops and priests failed to believe in Christ. The modern economic system would not have lasted a single day if the majority of investors and bankers failed to believe in capitalism.

The fictions shared between groups of people are passed on through legends: myths and stories, laws and rules. People in different societies created different legends.

Myths and fictions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. They thereby created artificial instincts that enabled millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called ‘culture’.

Aside: I saw Scott Berkun sum this up with a neat formula: culture = some ideas > other ideas. But back to Harari. He says that what drives culture is the contradictions of society: for example, trying to reconcile personal freedom with the desire for everyone to be equal.

The modern world fails to square liberty with equality. But this is no defect. Such contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture. In fact, they are culture’s engines, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species.

To propagate culture we had to make it possible to store memories beyond our genes; this could be in simple shared ideas passed down through generations:

Human teenagers have no genes for football. They can nevertheless play the game with complete strangers because they have all learned an identical set of ideas about football. These ideas are entirely imaginary, but if everyone shares them, we can all play the game.

The problem with imaginary ideas is that you need to actively enforce them:

Hives can be very complex social structures, containing many different kinds of workers, such as harvesters, nurses and cleaners. But so far researchers have failed to locate lawyer bees. Bees don’t need lawyers, because there is no danger that they might forget or violate the hive constitution.

But written laws and constitutions have had an impact on us:

The most important impact of script on human history is precisely this: it has gradually changed the way humans think and view the world. Free association and holistic thought have given way to compartmentalisation and bureaucracy.

This is why the study of history, and books like Sapiens, are so vital:

We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.

As I said at the start, I’m going to write a few more posts about Sapiens—but honestly, just save yourself the trouble of reading them and buy a copy of the book instead. I highly doubt that you’ll regret it.

Blogging the Highlights: Alex Through the Looking Glass

Another in the occasional series of blog posts about the highlights I make in books I read. This time it’s Alex Bellos’ Alex Through The Looking Glass (called The Grapes of Math in the US), a look at the hidden patterns in mathematics, and mathematical patterns in life. There’s some quite complex maths in it and I found it quite tough going at times, but there are also many fascinating facts and stories.

Another clever menu strategy is to show the prices immediately after the description of each dish, rather than listing them in a column, since listing prices facilitates price comparison.

I find these little psychological manipulations endlessly interesting. It’s about the concept of bounded rationality, how we think we make rational decisions but are in fact constantly manipulated.

Benford argued that the phenomenon must be evidence of a universal law, which  he called the Law of Anomalous Numbers. The coinage didn’t catch on. His name, however, did. The phenomenon is known as Benford’s law.

Benford’s Law is a law of frequency of digits in many data sets, and has been used reliably to detect falsified data in accounting, science, economics and more. It’s quite fascinating.

In other words, well-connected nodes become even better connected. The rich get richer. The famous get more famous. The node with the most links has the highest chance of getting new links, and the more links it gets the more attractive it becomes.

Networks – whether that’s hyperlinked pages on the Web or followers on Twitter – tend to follow power laws and grow in very predictable ways.

More recently it has been argued that 360 was chosen because six equilateral triangles fit snugly within a circle, as shown below, and that each of these angles was divided into 60  as demanded by sexagesimal fractions.

Why do circles have 360 degrees? It could be because the Babylonians counted in sixties rather than tens. Ancient origins of everyday concepts fascinate me.

In the second century BCE the Greeks appropriated Babylonian fractions, which have been in use ever since. The degree was traditionally divided into sixty smaller units,  each a pars minuta prima, or first minute part, which were then divided into sixty smaller units, each a pars minuta secunda, or second minute part. From the translation of these  Latin phrases we get the words minute and second, our units of time, which are the most prominent modern relics of the ancient practice of counting in groups of sixty.


[Tycho] Brahe was a flamboyant aristocrat. He wore a prosthetic gold and silver nose, after a cousin sliced the original one off in a duel about a mathematical formula.

Actually they exhumed the astronomer in 2010 and found out that his nose was probably brass.

… Christopher Wren, a young English astronomy professor…

I had no idea Wren was an astronomer before an architect. Seems to have been a very common profession.

To keep his position as professor of mathematics at the Collège de France, the  country’s most prestigious seat of learning, [Gilles Personne de Roberval] had to provide the best answer to a problem announced publicly every three years.

He set the problems himself, but still this is a great test of suitability for a role.

[John] Whitney could adjust the speed and size of the sinusoids electronically, giving him much more control and eliminating the effects of damping. The patterns he produced were dazzling and  became some of the most iconic images in the history of mathematical art. They were famously used in the title sequence and posters for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 movie Vertigo.

The first computer-generated art used in a Hollywood feature film, in 1958.

It was not long, however, before engineers were using catenaries. Before the computer age the quickest way to make one was to hang a chain, trace out the curve, build a model  using a rigid material and stand it upside down.

Catenaries are a curve where the tension is so perfectly distributed that it makes an arch which needs no brace or buttresses. Gaudí used them extensively in designing the Colònia Güell.

Underlying the whimsy, however, is a whole field of incredibly useful theory, called ‘optimal stopping’, or the maths of when is the best time  to stop.

There really is scientific theory around the best time to take a particular action.

Since [1976] about 200 looping roller-coasters have been built around the world, all of them using Stengel’s principle.

Werner Stengel invented the first looping roller-coaster, when he used a clothoid instead of a circle for the loops.

The term for a word that only appears once in a text is hapax legomenon.

There’s a word for everything (and a Wikipedia page).