Category Archives: Books

The Music of the Primes by Marcus du Sautoy

The Music of the Primes by Marcus du Sautoy is an interesting look at the history of mathematical discoveries surrounding the prime numbers. It’s a tough topic though, and the author’s attempts to make it more palatable to non-mathematicians sometimes backfire.
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Wildwood by Roger Deakin

Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin is a highly individual book, unique even. Ostensibly about various types of trees and their wood, it combines natural history, diary and travelogue, and is written with passion, enthusiasm and personal flourishes which make it impossible not to like it.
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He Died with his Eyes Open, by Derek Raymond

He Died with His Eyes Open (Factory 1) is a stunning, shocking novel which manages to transcend the genre of crime fiction in a similar way that, for example, James Ellroy and Raymond Chandler do. I rate Raymond above either Ellroy or Chandler though: his books, like the very best of literature, hold the reader’s attention throughout but continue to provoke thoughts and questions long after you have finished reading.
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Clean Code by Robert C Martin et al

Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship, by “uncle” Bob Martin & his associates, is a great book, and one which any developer will learn a great deal from. In most respects, it is a five-star book, but… the title is misleading. By rights it should be called “Clean Java Code”.
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Intellectuals Like Us

Re-reading The Engineer of Human Souls by Josef Skvorecky (marvellous book), I came across this passage in a letter to the protagonist:

At that time you were interested in palaeontology and you had discovered the hypothesis of someone called Dollo – I think you called it overspecialization. It dealt with the mystery of extinction. Dollo, as far as I can recall, claimed you could paradoxically explain the dying out of some species by a too successful struggle for the sur­vival of the fittest. It seems that some animals underwent a rapid development of certain anatomical features that seemed at first to give them an advantage: herbivorous reptiles grew to such a size that smaller carnivores could not harm them. The sabre-toothed tigers developed huge tusks which could pierce even the skin of a dinotherium. But sometimes things go awry and the development of advanta­geous features doesn’t cease at the point of greatest advantage. The brontosaurus keeps on growing, the sabre-toothed tiger’s tusks get longer. This growth continues ad absurdum until, according to Dollo, “there appear animals which are no longer adapted to survival, and these die out.” The four-metre sabre-tooth’s tusks curl round and close its jaws so that in the end it can only feed on mice. The brontosaurus reaches gigantic proportions and its brain, which is the same size as a cat’s, can no longer manage the huge body; another brain develops in the pelvic region, but the two never manage to get coordi­nated and the brontosauri die out as a result of anatomical schizo­phrenia.

Thus far Dollo. You, ever the cynic, applied this to mankind. In the struggle for survival man’s brain has grown, giving him an undisputed advantage, but once again this growth has not stopped at the point of maximum advantage. His rational abilities have grown, while his emotional and volitional capacities have remained unchanged. Thanks to this hypertrophy of the rational part of the brain, reality has become more and more complicated, leading to increasingly irresolv­able conflicts of the reason with the emotions and the will, in turn pro­ducing individuals incapable of action – which can only be the product of the instrumental, not the reflective intelligence. Such individuals are no longer able to deal with life. Their numbers are increasing. Today there are already whole classes, or more precisely, whole strata of them. And when this overspecialization overtakes all mankind, Homo sapiens will die out.

I know you didn’t mean it entirely seriously, Dan, but perhaps you happened on the trail of a disease that Marx and Engels were clearly aware of too. Fortunately all of mankind hasn’t yet been afflicted -only intellectuals like us.


I’ve written here before (perhaps a tad obsessively) about my love for author David Mitchell. It’s been a while since I read anything by him – in fact, it’s been very slightly over a year. I know this because I polished off most of his last book, Black Swan Green, in one sitting while I was acting as a polling clerk at last year’s May local elections.

So when I saw that David Mitchell’s had written a new short story, Dénouement, for last weekend’s Guardian Review I felt a moment of excitement. Then I stopped myself. Perhaps I’m slipping into hero-worship. Perhaps this would be just a so-so short story, but perhaps my cognitive dissonance would have me persuading myself that I like it. It was thus with some hesitation that I began reading, fearing the worst.

I needn’t have worried. The story used a plot-twist that’s probably as old as fiction itself, but managed to make it feel fresh. Above all, it created an indescribable feeling inside of heartstrings pulled, vertebrae tingled, emotions set to vibrate at simultaneously happy, sad, longing and incredulous wavelengths. It was unmistakably David Mitchell’s writing.

I’m not quite sure how he works his tricks, and I’m loathe to over-analyse his writing (or even to re-read his books) in case the wonder is shattered, but whatever it is he does, he does it so well. If only I’d read the paper on Saturday, when it came out, I’d have jumped straight in the car and pootled off to Hay to hear him talk and perhaps even congratulate him in person.