Sunday, April 21, 2013

Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned The Tide in the Second World War

The title promises a bit more than this book delivers, somehow: I expected one of those books with a thesis along the lines of "the war was really one by X, Y, and Z".  But the author is much too fair-minded, analytical and circumspect to get carried away with anything like that, so he ends up pointing out a series of innovations that moved things along in the allies favor, but it ends up feeling a bit anticlimactic.

The book is quite thorough, and interesting, and does take a unique approach to WWII history in that it examines what technology enabled the allies to win.  Examples include radar small enough to be carried on board airplanes, and other anti-submarine systems, long range fighters, and the technology and, above all, organizational skills necessary to carry out amphibious landings both in Europe (operation Overlord), and in the Pacific theater.

Interestingly, he discounts, to some degree, the role of the code breakers, who have came out of obscurity in recent years.  He agrees that they were helpful, but perhaps not really decisive, compared to improved weapons systems that, for instance, actually sank German submarines.

If you've never read any history of this war, there are more comprehensive books, but I enjoyed the focus and detail on a specific aspect of it.  If you're not interested in the details of WWII, skip it.

When comparing this conflict to anything relatively recent, the amount of people who lost their lives is truly staggering and horrifying, and bears thinking about in the hopes that nothing like it ever happens again.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

The flaw with this book is that it's not going to be read by the people who ought to read it.  I thought it was well written, argued sensibly, and basically agree with almost everything that Carl Sagan writes.  But in a certain sense, many of the ideas and concepts were not new. 

Bits that did stand out include:

An excellent description of the broad open mindedness and skepticism that are both essential ingredients of good science.  You have to always be willing to consider new hypothesis, and to look at data in a new light.  But at the same time, you have to be ruthlessly skeptical in order to weed out ideas that don't work.  This isn't easy; scientists are human too and suffer from the same defects we all do.

On religion:  
This is one of the reasons that the organized religions do not inspire me with confidence. Which leaders of the major faiths acknowledge that their beliefs might be incomplete or erroneous and establish institutes to uncover possible doctrinal deficiencies?
 The theories scientists hold on any given day are less important than the methods behind science.  Theories can change depending on what's known at a given point in time from observations and experiments, but the relentless method of seeking the truth is what sets science apart: there is a method for sifting through the facts and arriving at what is the most promising theory, and those theories must change when new data arrives that contradicts them.

In any event, lots of sensible ideas about the importance of science to society, and a passionate defense of science as an institution of human progress.

The problem though, is that the book likely won't convince anyone.  If you're convinced that evolution is the work of the devil, logic and reason are not going to phase you.  If you're on board with the idea of science, you'll nod in appreciation, but not learn much that's new.  It'd make a fantastic book to give, say, high school students to read and discuss, but it's probably way too "controversial" for that.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Mongoliad: Book Three

And so, the saga draws to an end.  Mostly.  After three books, they don't quite wrap things up, leaving plenty of room for more writing.

To be blunt, I'd buy pretty much anything Neal Stephenson writes, and this book bears some of his imprint.  However, the fact that it's a collaboration does come through, as it feels a bit ... "paler", I guess I'd say than a pure Stephenson book.

There is also lots of fighting and fight scenes.  Lots and lots of them.  Generally, I'm ok with that - I like to read escapist fiction with heroes and villains clashing in battle, but after a while, even I started to get a bit weary of the very detailed descriptions of the swordplay.  With the swordplay and violence comes a lot of blood - if that makes you squeamish, this is probably not the series for you.

Generally, though, along with the previous installments of the series, it was a good read, and I'd recommend it as something fun and distracting, even though it's not up to the level of some of Stephenson's other writing.