February 2024 reading update
- Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
- Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams
- Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
- Making Books by Simon Goode
- Artemis by Andy Weir
- Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
Time for a mid-month (ish) update on my reading. I’ve been on a sci-fi jag for a few weeks, taking a break from the non-fiction political type book that I often lean towards. I like to vary my reading and some sci-fi in the grey months of January and February is welcome.
It’s not too challenging to see how Old Man’s War is regarded as a classic - on Amazon UK it has nearly 25,000 reviews at an average of 4.4. You really don’t need me to tell you how good it is, but I will anyway. It’s one of those books that you slip into without any effort and, before you know it, you are absolutely immersed in the world. Perhaps the best quote is from Cory Doctorow: “Gripping and surpassingly original. It’s Starship Troopers without the lectures. It’s The Forever War with better sex. It’s funny, it’s sad, and it’s true.” Genius quote, fabulous book.
Similarly, I picked up on Project Hail Mary from the absolutely staggering number of reviews - on Amazon UK it has nearly 114,000. Not every book works well as an audiobook and I do try to pick carefully for that reason. I did listen to this one and it is hard to imagine a book better suited to the medium.
For the rest of the month, I’m going to read the next one by Scalzi in the Old Man’s War series then I am going to re-read some Cal Newport°. His new book, Slow Productivity, is published on the 7th March (in the UK) and I want to re-visit some of his earlier work before then.
The Anti-Magnus Magnusson books
This is the section devoted to books that I have started and not managed to finish.° This is often down to me, it’s just the wrong book at the wrong time. Sometimes, stylistically, it doesn’t suit. As I’ve got older, I’ve become much more willing to give up on books, and not go back, but I will return to these three.
So far this month I’ve had three books that I have struggled to finish. More accurately, I’ve started but not managed to continue…
17 February 2024
- I am about 100 pages into Vernon Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep and I’ve had to put it down. It gets fantastic reviews but somehow I just can’t quite engage with it. This is one where I will try again.
- Justice for Animals by Martha C. Nussbaum. I really want to read this and I planned to read the updated version of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation after it. Nussbaum has a number of academic tics in her writing. She does that thing where academics tell you what they are going to say, say a single thing if you are lucky, and then tell you what they’ve said. It also seems to be a feature of American non-fiction. It makes for some extraordinarily tedious prose and makes my teeth itch.
- Pharmanomics: How Big Pharma Destroys Global Health by Nick Dearden. I will certainly read this but, to be honest, it was making me too angry and I needed some escapist reading. Right book, wrong time.
Some recent writing
I’m just making a quick note of some recent writing.
I published a new post on the Antidotum Substack which reported on a recent paper on urine drug testing in people who use drugs.
I’ve also had some new posts about colourblindness on my 1 in 12 Substack. Those are:
In the February 2024 issue of the BJGP my Editor’s Briefing:
2 February 2024
Writing about colour blindness
I have been putting together a few scribblings on colourblindness. I am now going to collate these on a Substack - you can find it at https://1in12.substack.com so slope along there and check out the first few posts.
Or sign up directly below.
31 January 2024
January 2024 reading list
- Finding Your Comic Genius by Adam Bloom
- Dead in the Water: Murder and Fraud in the World’s Most Secretive Industry by Matthew Campbell and Kit Chellel
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
- The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams
- Life, the Universe and Everything by Douglas Adams
- So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish by Douglas Adams
- The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
A couple of quite different books to kick off the new year. Adam Bloom’s book is a fascinating insight into the mechanics and practice of stand-up comedy while Dead in the Water offers a revealing glimpse into another morally flexible global industry.
No prizes for noting I then went on a Douglas Adams spree. As you might guess given my vintage I have read these books before but it has been more years than I dare even try to remember. I have to admit I started them on a whim. At the University, we have to get new posts through the Vacancy Oversight Group (VOG). It’s not always the most straightforward of processes. It is not, as far as I know, staffed by Vogons.°
“They are one of the most unpleasant races in the Galaxy. Not actually evil, but bad-tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous.”
It made me laugh though. And, rather happily, I went and enjoyed Douglas Adams’ wonderful books again. That, in turn, brought me to some more science fiction. After making a pratt of myself in a meeting where I managed to half remember the title of Liu’s book, I decided to give it the read it merited. (Actually I should say, ‘two-thirds’ remembered as I called it the two-body problem. Muppet.)
I am also now in the process of reading Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir°. I am halfway through the audiobook and it is superb in that format.
30 January 2024
Monthly Reading List
December 2023 reading list
Book of the month - brutal but brilliant
The final list:
- Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World by John Vaillant
- Hiking with Nietzsche: Becoming Who You Are by John Kaag
- Subvert! A philosophical guide for the 21st century scientist by Dan Cleather
- How Big Things Get Done: The Surprising Factors Behind Every Successful Project, from Home Renovations to Space Exploration by Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner
- A Brief History of Earth by Andrew H. Knoll
- Make A Zine by Joe Biel with Bill Brent
- Stolen Sharpie Revolution by Alex Wrekk
- Interstellar by Avi Loeb
- Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May
- The Way of the Hermit: My 40 years in the Scottish wilderness by Ken Smith with Will Millard
- The Great Post Office Scandal: The Story of the Fight to Expose a Multimillion Pound IT Disaster Which Put Innocent People in Jail by Nick Wallis
What? You’ve not read Fire Weather yet? It came out in May and I’m annoyed I left it so long - crack on. Hiking with Nietzsche is also excellent and certainly if I was going to dive into Nietzsche then it is, arguably, an essential primer. In fact, it largely persuaded me that there was no need to do that but I can make do with Kaag.
I thought Subvert! by Dan Cleather was tremendous. It wasn’t exactly what I expected and it was broader and more expansive, roaming across the role of science and society. How Big Things Get Done may have the longest subtitle of any book I have seen for a while but also comes highly recommended. Anyone embarking on any large project will benefit. Interstellar should probably come with an asterisk. I got half-way through and skimmed. There is a 2-star review A great story badly told° on Amazon that summarises a lot of my views on it. Loeb has been described as an “excellent motivational speaker for the importance of science”° but personally I found Dan Cleather far more compelling.
Wintering is a lovely book and although it is short it still felt a little stretched in its later parts. It’s beautifully written and I’m very happy to recommend. The Way of the Hermit is great too though I am some reservations about the underlying message. Finally, I made a big effort to finish The Great Post Office Scandal this year, just the day before the ITV drama aired°, and it was entirely worth it. I will post some further notes soon but it could easily be book of the month as well.
That brings me to 103 books for the year.
31 December 2023
Monthly Reading List
November 2023 reading list
- Follow the Money: How Much Does Britain Cost? by Paul Johnson
- Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing by Matthew Perry
- Politics on the Edge: A Memoir from Within by Rory Stewart
- Be Useful: Seven Tools for Life by Arnold Schwarzenegger
- A Heart That Works by Rob Delaney
- The Xmas Files: The Philosophy of Christmas by Stephen Law
- How to Resist Amazon and Why by Danny Caine
- Free For All: Why The NHS Is Worth Saving by Gavin Francis
- The Known Unknowns: The Unsolved Mysteries of the Cosmos by Lawrence M. Krauss
- Nightwalking: Four Journeys Into Britain After Dark by John Lewis-Stempel
- A Death in the Family (My Struggle) by Karl Ove Knausgaard
- I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy
- How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton
- The God Desire by David Baddiel
Lots to love here. Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing is obviously poignant given Perry’s death and Delaney’s A Heart That Works did, of course, reduce me to tears on multiple occasions. There is nothing earth-shattering in Schwarzenegger’s self-help effort but it is enjoyable enough. It is easy to see what Politics on the Edge has done so well and Stewart is very likeable and self-aware - though, even then, I was left with a perpetual discomfort as his privilege seeps out continually.
I had coffee with a friend recently and he mentioned Knausgaard. (I looked up how to pronounce it.°) I had vaguely heard of him - slightly embarrassingly when he is described by one source as “one of the 21st century’s greatest literary sensations”. Ahem. I read the first book in his series of autobiographical novels. I’ll certainly be getting along to the next one soon.
25 November 2023
Monthly Reading List
October 2023 reading list
21 October 2023
Monthly Reading List
- Code of Conduct: Why We Need to Fix Parliament and How To Do It
- The Race That Changed The World: The Inside Story of UTMB by Doug Mayer
- We Can’t Run Away From This by Damian Hall
- The Future of Geography by Tim Marshall
- Shattered Nation: Inequality and the Geography of A Failing State by Danny Dorling
September 2023 reading list
30 August 2023
Monthly Reading List
- The Way of the Runner by Adharanand Finn
- Free and Equal by Daniel Chandler
- Debt by David Graeber
- The Internet Con by Cory Doctorow
August 2023 reading list
29 August 2023
Monthly Reading List
- Regenesis by George Monbiot
- Storyworthy by Matt Dicks
- Hiroshima by John Hersey
- Against Intellectual Property by N. Stephan Kinsella
- What Gandhi Says by Norman G. Finkelstein
- Midlife by Kieran Setiya
- Show Me the Bodies by Peter Apps
July 2023 reading list
31 July 2023
Monthly Reading List
- The Long View by Richard Fisher
- Iron Maiden Running Free by Garry Bushell and Ross Halfin
- ChatGPT for Creative Non-Fiction by Nova Leigh (+2 other books by same author on fiction/prompts)
- What Does This Button Do? by Bruce Dickinson
- The Spy Who Came in from the Bin by Christopher Shevlin
- Fluent in 3 Months by Benny Lewis
- Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner
- Ultra-Processed People by Chris Van Tulleken
New Antidotum post has landed
Please check out my Antidotum Substack where there is a new post: Vol 8 Opioid deaths and hospital admissions°
My biggest challenge with this one was keeping it down to 1500 words. It raises so many potential areas where we could be developing treatment services for people who use drugs. And, if you want to subscribe you can do so here:
4 July 2023
June 2023 reading list
30 June 2023
Monthly Reading List
- Politics: A Survivor’s Guide: How to Stay Engaged without Getting Enraged by Rafael Behr
- Lawfare by Geoffrey Robertson
- Abolish the Monarchy by Graham Smith
- Written by Bec Evans and Chris Smith
- Exploratory Writing by Alison Jones
- Writing Landscape by Linda Cracknell
- What We Fear Most by Dr Ben Cave
- A Philosophy of Loneliness by Lars Svendsen
- What Is ChatGPT Doing… and Why Does It Work? by Stephen Wolfram
Taking the longer view
I don’t normally write about books until I have finished them but I wanted to raise an interesting concept in The Long View: Why We Need to Transform How the World Sees Time by Richard Fisher.
I’m only about a quarter of the way through and he has raised the notion of the Buxton Index. This is defined as the length of time (in years) over which the entity, be it a company, other institution, or individual makes their plans.
So a politician may be thinking over a 5-year electoral cycle but corporations who report quarterly may be very focused on short-term results. Some of the commentary on the Buxton Index is about recognising it as a potential source of tension between organisations — when the Buxton Index is significantly different it could result in disputes and disharmony. There is an argument, that Fisher is in the process of developing, that we are now far too short term in our thinking.
It has made me consider a little on how short-term/long-term the organisations I know and work with are in their thinking. It’s worth some reflection.
24 June 2023
This book is relatively brief and that, in itself, is commendable. Too often books have to be stretched out to the standard length of 80-100,000 words regardless of whether the content merits it. Publishers demand books of a certain length and it’s a pleasure to read books, such as this one, concisely written and just as long as they need to be and no more. It makes the message all the more powerful.
Journalism is a broad church but most of us would wholeheartedly welcome the work that goes into the best kind of investigative journalism. It is deeply threatened by people with much to hide and plenty of money to pursue that desire. As Robertson notes:
The function of investigative journalism is to report, analyse and comment on such matters, and on the beneficiaries, without let or hindrance. By providing the powerful with weapons to obstruct such examinations, British law reduces the availability of news that is worthy of reporting, precisely because it opens people’s eyes to what is happening in their country or their community. For that reason, speech should be accounted the first of our freedoms and have in our laws a presumption in its favour.
It is difficult to come up with any reasonable justification for the UK’s law around libel but this book goes beyond that. It lays to waste the notion that the UK is a model state when it comes to free speech.
So, contrary to the boasts of politicians such as Mr Raab, the United Kingdom has a wretched history and tradition when it comes to free speech. That is because of laws and procedures that for the most part remain in force.
Robertson unpicks the web of legislation and its unintended consequences before suggesting the reform needed at many levels.
23 June 2023
I need to write a few catch up notes on recent books. Behr’s book on politics is excellent reading and he interleaves his experience with a brutal MI with great skill. He is particularly good on nationalism and populism and identity.
The political scientist Benedict Anderson described nations as ‘imagined communities’, which is to say their existence — real enough in the minds of those who feel they belong in one — is a narrative construct. It is a myth that people tell themselves, assembled from bits of common economic interest, shared religion, ethnicity and remembered history. The myths stick and evolve into identities when they have sufficient resonance with a critical mass of people.
The book warrants a re-read for sure. He covers a lot of ground and with keen insight. I also liked the thoughts on running at the end as well. He captures it rather well:
There is a technique to distance running that I had not known before. You need to check for hazards at your feet, but mostly keep your head up and your shoulders back, unclench your fists. Look out, look up. That is how I keep things in perspective, especially when the anger rises and I need to think my way through it, to run through it, until I have reached the other side and found my way home.
It’s a fine description and, of course, reads beautifully as a metaphor for engaging with politics. On the more literal running level it is also good advice and, as I’ve said before, it is important to learn how to run. We all think we know how and I don’t want to over-complicate something as natural as running. Yet, it is possible to do it better and enjoy it more as a result.
22 June 2023
Back from the Cape Wrath Ultra
Sandwood Bay on the final day.
I should note that I am back from the Cape Wrath Ultra. It was an absolutely epic experience. Spending over a week in a bubble with like-minded people concentrating on doing one thing was very special. And I went better than I could have possibly hoped - I far exceeded my (low!) expectations. It was superbly organised by Ourea Events and the whole ethos in the camp and on the trail was very special.
Full results here: https://www.capewrathultra.com/2023-results
6 June 2023
May 2023 reading list
- Sludge by Cass R. Sunstein
- People Hacker by Jenny Radcliffe
- Swearing Is Good For You by Emma Byrne
- Becoming by Michelle Obama
- Ravenous by Henry Dimbleby
- Closer To The Edge by Leo Houlding
A quiet month of reading - a lot of time was taken with the Cape Wrath Ultra. I listened to Closer To The Edge on the drive up and back to Scotland and it was a good choice for some inspiration. Dimbleby (of Leon restaurant fame) is also excellent in Ravenous and I have a couple of other books about food supply/culture and agriculture in the UK that I’ll follow up with.
One thing I noticed when I was away in Scotland was just how few sheep there were. I suspect that’s because you can’t throw a stick around Cumbria without hitting about three of the woolly monsters. I’ve been conditioned to expect sheep to be dotting every rural landscape. Admittedly, the Cape Wrath UItra does cover some very wild ground but, still, it was noticeable.
31 May 2023
Monthly Reading List
April 2023 reading list
Just finished 😀
- A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton
- Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
- Everest the Cruel Way by Joe Tasker
- No Easy Way by Mick Fowler
- The Trolley Problem by Thomas Cathcart
- Marx: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Singer
- Unlawful Killings by Wendy Joseph
- Psychovertical by Andy Kirkpatrick
- Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Sharif
And, yes, I did read War and Peace. Not all this month but I did, finally, finish it.
30 April 2023
Monthly Reading List
Substack have now released their social media feature - Notes. Seemed worth a microblog here too.
My first post on Notes. So, I shall use it to highlight an essay on harm reduction and drug consumption rooms that I wrote for the New Humanist. It is currently available on their website. (And, of course, in the usual places like WHSmith - but don’t let the bastards upsell you any chocolate 😀)
11 April 2023
Revisiting The Cruel Way
In my younger years I was a keen climber. I wouldn’t say I was obsessed with it, that’s too strong, but climbing, and especially winter climbing and mountaineering, is not the kind of activity it is easy to dabble in. It tends to be all in.
I fed my interest by reading many of the classic books of the era. One of the most satisfying aspects of climbing and mountaineering (and especially the armchair variety) is that it has a rich and varied literature. I was living in West Sussex, so not a lot of climbing to be add there, and as a teenager I spent much time trawling the shelves of Haywards Heath library and working through the hardback volumes. I loved the stories and the cast became well known to me: Bonington, Haston, Boardman, Renshaw, Tasker, Patey, Whillans, and Doug Scott to name just a few.
I think it is time to revisit some of them and Joe Tasker’s Everest the Cruel Way is an unsparing description of a winter attempt on Everest in 1980-81. I had the audiobook and it makes a good companion for longer fell runs. Yesterday, I ended up on a much longer, harder run in the pouring rain, as I felt too embarrassed to turn back while listening to the brutal conditions of climbing on Everest’s West Face in winter conditions.
11 April 2023
It was one of the best games of the season today with Liverpool hosting Arsenal. Martin Tyler on Sky Sports commented at the start of the match that Arsenal were wearing grey socks to help people who were colour blind.
Sadly, it was of very limited help and viewing was a frustrating experience.
Imagine watching a football match where the two teams wear the same colours and the only way to tell them apart is via their socks… it was verging on unwatchable for those of us who are red-green colour blind.
9 April 2023
Finishing War and Peace
I’ve not got a long history of trying to read War and Peace but I do have a recollection that I tried to read it when I was 18. I was in Nepal at the time and I am fairly certain that I dragged the full paperback copy around the Annapurna circuit, including over the 5400m Thorung La in some stormy weather. I was wearing Doc Martens and a pair of cheap sportsocks on my hands as mittens. That’s another story though.
I don’t remember getting very far into it at all.
This time, I started reading it at the beginning of 2022 and I was following The Big Read° Substack. Each week, you read seven chapters or so, and the author of the Substack, Jeremy Anderberg, would provide a summary and some comment. It’s a great way to get through it, adds some useful context, and adds a lot of value to the experience.
I fell off the Substack wagon last summer when I was about two-thirds of the way through the 600,000 words or so. I binged it this Easter weekend and carved off the remaining 200,000.
I read the Penguin translation by Anthony Briggs. This came out in 2005 and is incredibly accessible. (My original trip to Nepal was in 1991 so it sure as hell wasn’t that one I dragged around the Himalaya.) The chapters of War and Peace are short and the sheer readability of Briggs’ translation should banish any concern you’ll be wading through turgid prose. There are, handily, about 360 chapters in the book so set yourself the entirely manageable target of one a day and you’ll get there.
8 April 2023
Smart notes vs second brain
I read Building a Second Brain as I stumbled on it before doing a session on PKMs - personal knowledge management systems - for the BJGP Research Conference. It starts off encouragingly but quickly descends into absurdist levels of detail and convoluted systems. I do think there are important reasons to develop one’s own PKM but one of the whole points of PKMs is that they have to work for you. It’s the ‘P’ bit…
Forte has some good ideas but they quickly run out and the need to sell a whole system has trumped everything. My advice is to stick with Sönke Ahrens’ How To Take Smart Notes.
5 April 2023
My second read of A Little History of Philosophy (well, listen, as it is an audiobook) by Nigel Warburton and it was a fine companion for a long drive to the south of England. Recommended.
4 April 2023
March 2023 reading list
“Don’t jump to conclusions. Crawl to them, on your hands and knees, slowing checking every step of the way.”
- The Blazing World by Jonathan Healey
- Long Story Short by Margot Leitman
- This Mortal Coil by Andrew Doig
- The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre
- How to Think Like a Philosopher by Julian Baggini
- Unnatural Causes by Richard Shepherd
- What Does It All Mean by Thomas Nagel
- Philosophy: The Basics by Nigel Warburton
- Justice by Michael J. Sandel
My recommendation of the month is Baggini’s How to Think Like a Philosopher. I’m reading several general philosophy primers and this is the new one from a quite remarkably prolific author.
31 March 2023
Monthly Reading List