Category Archives: Books


Cryptocurrency, The Future of Money, Paul Vigna & Micheal J. Casey

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I found this a useful book to read, though a lot of it is names mainly of people working in the USA. For example, you read, page 246, Gavin Andresen opened the door to his threadbare office, located in a nondescript building above a Dunkin’ Donuts in the college town of Amherst, Massachusetts. There must be a name for this kind of writing. However, don’t let that put you off reading the book as it has many fascinating insights.

The book uses bitcoin, created by Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008/9 (the name may be a pseudonym, no one knows who the real person is), as its main focus. The aim was to provide a trusted system that is not centrally controlled based on blockchain cryptography. The appeal initially is to the libertarian, keep government out of the way, people. The system is given a simple explanation though not enough to satisfy the mathematically inclined. I am working on such an intermediate explanation but it is trickier than I thought at first.

One insight is the power of the open-source coding community. After a vulnerability in the bitcoin system allowed the theft of a lot of bitcoins, especially from one exchange, Mt. Gox, that ended bankrupt, that same Andresen and the small informal team who manage the updates of the core code had to resolve the problem: But something positive had emerged as well. … in the end the open-source set up served bitcoin’s software well … legions of talented coders in the community contributed thoughts and coding solutions, and they stress-tested the core team’s work.

A second insight is how important cryptocurrency could become for those excluded from the traditional banking system. Because there is no central back account, and the blockchain can be accessed through an app on a smart phone, and the transaction costs are minimal compared to traditional banking, many poor people could store value and transact business who had no chance before. The book starts with Afghan women signed up to a venture who have, in principle, control of their own bitcoin account.

A third insight is that the underlying technology, blockchain, can be used to provide a trusted store without a central authority for many other things such as property deeds and contracts. Big institutions are already exploiting that.

The book has a good index and notes that reference original material for those who want to know more detail.


My Music, My Drinking & Me
A novel by Caroline J Sinclair

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This is a delightful attempt to create the memoirs of Jean Sibelius. The author says she has lived in Finland and researched the letters and diaries of Sibelius as well as work by others on Sibelius in order to create something that Sibelius might have written himself had he the inclination to do so (in a way he did in his diaries). The facts are there, as well as an appendix that gives micro-biographies of the children of Sibelius and his wife Aino. In 240 pages one gets a good overview of the life and its struggles. The facts are a framework on which to weave the emotional state of Sibelius at various times of his life, and of course this is invention that goes beyond what a standard biography would do. I had not realised that Sibelius was so feckless with drink and debt problems that he left others to deal with; he seems very selfish in places as when he leaves his wife to deal with a child who it seems will die, though in the end recovers. My image of him was formed from the music and the photos of him in later life looking ferocious and stolid; I always imagined a rock of a man. I am curious about the suggestion that he did not want his Finnish music to become Finnish-Nationalism music. One difficulty in reading is that the memoir switches from what Sibelius was thinking to conversations in which Sibelius stammers and pauses, so not really a memoir. Yet, it is a gripping read that makes one want to know more about the life.


BrainChains: Discover your brain, to unleash its full potential in a hyperconnected, multitasking world – by Theo Compernolle

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Brain Chains are habits that keep our minds and talents locked up so that we do not think deeply or creatively.

This book of over 500 pages I found repetitive and sometimes tiresome but I kept reading. However, it did change the way I spend my day; maybe the repetition was needed for that.
There is a very neat simplification of brain function: reflex brain, reflecting brain, and archiving brain.

The reflex brain takes over when there is an emergency or when we use deeply learned skills, it does not work things out.

The reflecting brain is the conscious working and learning and evaluating function but cannot think about more than one thing at a time.

The archiving brain takes over when the reflecting brain is unoccupied, as during sleep, to store and tie together newly learned information and integrate that with what is already known.

The main point of the book is that we cannot reflect on multiple things at the same time, we can switch tasks but there is a big loss of time and accuracy in too much task switching. Also, we need down-time otherwise stuff does not get archived and integrated, so the time spent taking in ideas is wasted.

The main concern is that in the current electronically networked world we are too easily tempted to multitask ourselves into inefficiency by wrong use of the gadgets and services. We can seem to be very busy and important but our achievements are trivial with mistakes.

The big example in the book is using a mobile phone while driving. Theo rightly says this is dangerous and wrong. I have always thought the same and never use a phone as driver of a moving car, but while at the desk I had fallen into bad ways.

It is not that I did not know that I was wasting time checking emails too often and wandering into reading articles but I needed a big reminder of how stupid this is. This book did it for me; I confirm that I now get more useful things done with less stress and more spare time.

Another useful tip he mentions, which I knew anyway but never really used, is to plan the main jobs for a day the evening before. We all have lists but they can be overwhelming if looked at in the morning; one then agonizes and oscillates over which task to start on. So I look at my list the previous evening and choose three items that I then write on paper to rest on my desk. I have to decide within 10 minutes so no time to agonize. Next day I start on the first one. Of course there will be interruptions and other urgent things that come up but after dealing with any such one drops back to the small list. Some items on the list may take days and need to be broken into day sized pieces so that there is an end point each day.

I recommend reading this book.

Harry’s Last Stand

Harry Smith was 91 when he published this book. Born in 1923 he lived in poverty in the Yorkshire towns of Barnsley and Bradford. He experienced an older sister dying of tuberculosis and his father dying of destitution after a mining accident left him unable to get another job. He joined the RAF during WWII and experienced the security of a job, the camaraderie of working us others to achieve something important whilst seeing the horror of warfare. He  notes how he hated all Germans when he arrived in Holland and saw the starving children who reminded him of his own childhood destitution, but turned from that hatred when he arrived in Germany and again saw  starving children. At a time when it was forbidden to fraternize with the enemy he had a secret relationship with a German woman he met amid the destruction of Hamburg whom he later married when that became legal again in 1946. All the details of his early life give us insight into what a country is like without ‘society’. He witnessed the transformation brought about by the welfare state created by the Labour government post 1945 with the National Health Service and workers’ rights and unemployment support.

Harry emphasizes that people today cannot know what it is like without this real big-society state-organized mutual support. He despairs that the current government is in the process of taking this down. He makes a plea that, like him, people argue for keeping it and vote for keeping it. This is not against change, but for change to help the majority.

I found the book inspiring.


The Energy of Nations

Jeremy Leggett has three threads in this book [ISBN 978-0-415-85782-2]: Peak oil, global warming and unregulated capitalism.
The text swaps from giving an overview of the development of understanding of of the three threads (that will be familiar to anyone who is concerned about climate change and our casino economics) and records of meetings he has attended with government and business leaders where climate change has been marginalized and the issue of peak oil denied.

Jeremy is geologist turned solar entrepreneur, and is a big proponent of solar power. Although I agree that we should invest in solar power and passive insulation & cooling, I am a proponent of nuclear power that he is against. Although solar photovoltaic panels seem benign (though see Solar projects placed along ‘Pacific Flyway’ major migration paths are burning wings of birds) storage may have big environmental problems.

Jeremy’s view is that there will be an oil crash that will then focus thought onto renewable energy technologies. That means a lot of suffering first.


The comments on meetings are his recollection and were not transcribed from recordings, but do follow the pattern of those we experience ourselves or read about from other commentators.

Here are a few quotes from the book:

page 114. “As we file out of Number Ten, it strikes me that watching Cameron and Osborne in action has been like reviewing a certain kind of undergraduate project. I saw many of these in my days as an academic. Bright and enthusiastic students, usually from public schools, who are good at talking, but who haven’t really done much preparation work at all.” [Meeting in November 2010]

page 213. ” … a study by a team from Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley demonstrates that wind, water and solar technologies could provide 100% of the world’s energy as soon as 2030. This could be done, crucially, without mobilising any one technology any faster than technologies have already been mobilised historically”

page 214. “What is the cost of re-engineering the global energy system to low- or zero-carbon?  The first point to make is that the cost is going to be viewed through different lenses after the oil crash.  … As for energy efficiency, and its ability to force-amplify renewables and renewable fuels, the guru of that discipline Amory Lovins and his Rocky Mountain Institute team were arguing compellingly that it was cheaper to save a barrel of oil than to produce it as long ago as 2004 ”

It’s sad that we can’t get on with it now. We could start immediately with building regulations for passive housing and training builders and installers, which would give worthwhile jobs for people throughout the country and the payback would start immediately in terms of lower costs, more comfort and diminishing reliance of imports for energy (not forgetting a skilled and happier workforce).


Elephant thoughts

I read recently Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff.

The book was published in 2004 and is a collection of articles and talks. I found the analysis of political ‘right’ and ‘left’ valuable, though he is focused on US politics. He thinks it stems from models of the family. There are two extremes. One is the family where the father is the head and others are subservient to him, in which he uses punishment to make good people out of bad people – this is the right. The other is the nurturing family where both parents are of equal status and nurture their children to become nurturing parents themselves – the left. He accepts these are two extremes and that there is a continuum and all of us will use both models at some time. He says that people vote on values even when that is against self interest. The right have been honing a story based on their model for decades. He wants the left to develop a story based on their model to provide an alternative, which is what he calls reframing. I have felt this myself for a long time – we need a new story on which to build a vision of our common future.

I then read this article where I found Lakoff misunderstood. My comment to the article is below.

Royal Mail: the rhetoric of privatisation. How to reframe the political language of austerityand sell-offs

This article misunderstands the point Lakoff makes. Lakoff would say that using a phrase ‘casino economy’ is a mistake because it keeps the argument in the casino/austerity ball game. Reframing means changing the basis on which judgements are made. Change the debate to one about fairness, such as that those building houses (the workers) or those growing food (the farm workers) cannot afford to buy a place to live or good food to eat. Public property is being sold so that we have to rent it back forever; it’s like indentured labour.

Then I looked at the source of the above article and had the same response.

Framing the economy: the austerity story

George Lakoff says that once you have a frame facts that don’t fit are ignored. The current story of the economy is the stern father model who applies austerity medicine. If you try to present an alternative view of the economy that view will fail. We have to create a new valid story on a different frame, and I think fairness is a good frame for the nurturing parents model.

Natural Life and Natural Death, not Life or Death

I found the Mortality statistics in England and Wales a wonderful insight on how we view death. On the chart every death has a cause, some labelled disease (almost). There are a few Unknown causes and a slight hint in the use of the word Senility, but that death might be natural is not part of the classification. We would be immortal if only we could get rid of disease. I am not criticizing these statistics they are important in deciding priorities in health care.

A more realistic view comes in a book The Emperor Of All Maladies: A Biography Of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I have not read the book yet though I will do so soon, However, there is a summary in an article by the author Cancer: The new normal?. He is presenting cancer as something not to be conquered (because maybe that is not possible due to the very processes that keep us alive) but something that we can live with if we focus on medications that limit or postpone the damage that cancer does. This reminds me of a similar suggestion about malaria that we might be able to make it a less malign disease and live with it.

One of the most beautiful books I have read in the past few years is Final Exam, A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality, by Pauline W. Chen. In the book she shows how in our aversion to acknowledging our mortality we fail people in that last period of life when body systems fail. I will extend my comments after reading Mukherjee’s book.

A remarkable and inspiring person

Clara Schumann was my pianist heroine for many years. Now I have another: Alice Herz-Sommer. At the time of writing this she is aged 107. I read the biography because I came across a video Holocaust survivor Alice Herz Sommer playing piano and then searched for more information.

There are several valuable things to learn from Alice. The most immediate for me was the dedication to keyboard practise. I have always fancied being able to give a good rendering of the Chopin Studies but have always muddled along because I did not put in the time; for now I have faith that if I do the work I will get to something competent and my target is one year – at which point I will try to avoid feeling I have wasted a lot of my lifetime in doing things half-way.

The next crucial lesson is to shun bitterness and bad feeling about people and the past; this must include oneself as many self-help books say.

My criticism of the biography is that I assume it was written from her reminiscences but tends to read like a docu-drama where many conversations are made up to set a tone. I would have preferred Alice’s own notes. Although not without some interest because I hope that they reflect Alice’s emotional view of the Chopin Studies the digressions on each of the studies should really have been an appendix. Finally, the latter part of Alice’s life was rushed through with most focus on the bad years during and immediately after the German occupation of Prague.

Whetever, it must be a great privilege to know Alice Herz-Sommer.

Beautiful, informative novels

I have been reading novels by Tracy Chevalier after a recommendation from a friend who lent me the first I read.

The first novel I read was Girl with Pearl Earring. I have always admired the paintings of Vermeer so this setting for the story suited me. What I liked most about the work was the lack of a plot in the sense that many modern novels have a bullet-like plot-thread. Tracy allows one to look around and come to know the characters as though they are people you might meet rather than means to show how clever the author is. Towards the end Tracy clearly felt the need for closure and a small plot emerges that allows her to wind up the story.

The second book I read was Remarkable Creatures. I would make the same comments as above, but also add the shame I felt for not knowing about Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. The names of the male palaeontologists of the time were familiar to me. Thanks to Tracy I not only got some biography from the novel but also read more about them thanks to Google.

Fear not radiation

Radiation and Reason, Wade Allison, 2009

In summary this book presents evidence to show that there is no known harm to us for radiation levels that do not exceed 100 millisieverts per month, with a cautious life-time limit (for now, maybe it could be higher) of 5,000 millisieverts. The International Commission for Radiological Protection limit is 1 millisievert per year so the argument is that this is about 1000 times too restrictive.

The Sievert is an attempt to give a unit to effects of radiation in living tissue. Although other units have to be used in particular situations for precision, the book is not concerned with fine detail and everything is assessed via the millisievert.

Cornwall in the UK has background radiation at 8 millisieverts per year, and that is as high as anywhere in the country. Cancer radiation treatment is 1000 to 10,000 millisieverts in a session, though this is meant to be targeted on the tumour with geometry to minimize radiation in healthy tissue. Numbers such as these present the arena for the discussions in the book.

The aim of the presentation is to suggest that safety limits could be relaxed a thousand fold, thereby making fission nuclear power stations cheaper; they must be structurally robust with multiple fail-safe mechanisms, but they do not need to be so radiologically protective. Especially decommissioning should be much easier and cheaper and not the huge bogeyman that it is currently made to be.

Prof Allison is not doing this to win favour with the nuclear industry but because, like me and others, he is concerned for the human future because of global warming. We have to take a balanced view of risks.

There are good simple discussions of radioactive decay, atomic weapons and nuclear power reactors, and the biological effects of radiation. Even so the book is not for the innumerate or those lacking any scientific background. I would hope that it might be read by policy makers and their advisors. I notice that he is the publisher of the book so I hope he has persuaded the publisher to send a few copies to UK MPs and European MEPs.

The most pertinent discussion is on biological effects of radiation. He points out that the no-safe-dose idea is totally wrong – there is a threshold at which irreversible damage occurs and below that cell repair mechanisms deal with any damage. In fact in morbidity studies people with exposure to radiation lower than the limit he suggests seem to live longer: a little radiation may be a good thing. He makes a good analogy with sunbathing (page 34): too much sun bathing causes damage to skin and sometimes skin cancer, but too little exposure leads to lack of Vitamin D. The demolition of the Linear No-Threshold and Collective Dose models is excellent. There is analysis of Japanese survivors of the atomic bombs of 1945 with the amazing statistic that those who survived to 1950 had only a 4 in 1000 chance of dying of radiation induced cancer.

There is an excellent contrast made between current fossil fuels and nuclear fuel. Fossil fuels put CO2 into the air where it dilutes and distributes globally as well as toxic substances that are then buried but never lose their toxicity. The nuclear waste from a power station after reprocessing is much smaller in volume by a factor of about a million, and any radiation dangers decrease with time; these are volumes we can cope with.

Although he does not point it out explicitly, when people mention long half-life they often miss that this means low activity, the high activity nuclear products have short half-life (maybe years) so if we wait a reasonable time they make themselves safe. 

Page 108 has a table of deaths from various disasters in which the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island reactor accidents are at the low end counting for about 50 and zero deaths. My own favourite comparison (not in this table) is with traffic accident deaths that are in the range 40,000 to 50,000 per year in the EU: a Hiroshima and Nagasaki every two years.

There is a good discussion of the differences between nuclear refinement for power stations versus weapons, though this may not be as easy a political issue as the discussion suggests. Compare Nuclear arms will soon proliferate. So here’s a plan to scrap them all.

I found the suggestion on page 159 that people should be given devices to enable them to ‘see’ radiation levels a bit naive as I suspect that interpretation of what we have not evolved to see takes expertise. Just consider how people are assessing their sense of global warming from experience. I think that better general science education is the key.

I have never myself had a problem with the technology of nuclear power, but I thought that the costs probably made it non-viable. This book attempts to address the cost issue but we need some new careful estimates of costs given the proposed relaxation of safety limits that the book does not provide. David Mackay, Sustainable Energy – without the hot air, provides some rough guides for this.

I await a review of the book by someone with expertise in radiobiology to see what weakness there is in the argument.

Finally I agree totally with the comments on page 194 about specialization. Although each of us may have some specialty we need to have the big picture of how the specialties connect up and be able to see where we are being led.

My minor quibbles:
That the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a military and political success (page 5) I think is still debateable. I think the statement was meant to contrast with the lasting suspicion of nuclear power he mentions ever after those events but feels a bit gung-ho.

For anyone who cannot work it out for themselves the graph on page 121 comparing chronic and repeated doses of radiation would not help. I found it confusing at first.

Another odd slip for an otherwise good simple description of the physics of fusion and fission is on page 134 where it says that the neutron being uncharged can enter straight through the coulomb barrier: rather, for the uncharged neutron, there is no coulomb barrier.

On page 133 there is a dismissive footnote on cold fusion that says “predictably, its hopes have not been realised.” I admit that when I first heard about it 1989 I felt it impossible that it could work; now I am not so sure and I certainly don’t think it is predictable that it does not. The footnote just above this one mentions quantum tunnelling so there is clearly a non-zero probability that cold fusion will happen, a minute probability in free space but maybe much greater in some material lattice. I still think it unlikely, but I would not want to be totally dismissive.