Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Book Reviews

Two posts in one day! Woo!

I've started several posts offline, because there are quite a few things that I'd like to write about, but once I get the opportunity, I lose the drive. Part of that is that, most of the time, the opportunity occurs when I'm just home from work, at which point my brain usually shuts off in response to the day. At least, until the rest of my family gets in, at which point the opportunity for concentrated effort, regardless of mental state, pretty much goes out the window.

So, what have I wanted to talk about? Well, I've finished several books since I last posted; There's a big post about Upton Sinclair's OIL! floating in the draft folder, so I'll skip that for now. I completed Charles Stross's Halting State on the recommendation of Coralius, and I have to say that I'm impressed. The book is one hell of a window on near-future technology, with a solid mystery plotline and some great twists. I'd call it a must for fans of tech, mystery, or espionage. I completed two by Richard Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out and Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman. The first is the more scholarly tome of the two, although it deals with little hard science. It's more of a collection of short works or speeches, including his minority report on the Challenger disater, the most technical item of the bunch. Mostly, it turns out to be a book on how to really think about things; not in a dogmatic way, but in a critical and detailed way. It shows some of what made him a legend as both a scientist and a character. The latter book is much more off the cuff, and focuses more on the character of Feynman, as it is really a sort of autobiography that skips over most of the "boring science stuff". Instead, it focuses on his early career as a youthful tinkerer, safecracking, meeting people, travels, playing drums, womanizing, learning to create art, testifying on behalf of a strip club operator, scoring a ballet, and everything else that made Feynman like the crazy uncle of modern science; he was never sure where he was going, but he'd be damned if it wasn't going to be fun when he got there. I highly recommend both books, but if you have to read only one Feynman work, make it Joking. If it doesn't convince you that there's something worth reading in his other work, then nothing will.

On top of these books, I finally finished last year's (maybe the year before, even?) birthday Present from Aradia and Coralius: Konstantin Nossov's Ancient And Medieval Siege Weapons. This is basically a scholarly text disguised as a coffee table book. Nossov is a master of his field, which is ancient warfare, weapons, and fortifications. He takes the reader from the earliest recorded fortifications and weapons used to breach them (unmortared walls of clay brick and long spears, respectively) through early cannon and firearms and sophisticated seige tactics for both aggressor and defender. The only things not included in this richly documented and lavishly illustrated book are the blueprints for each weapon, although there's more than enough detail to figure it out if you wished. Nossov's passion for history and his subject matter is clear, as is his attention to distinguishing fact from theory and even outright fabrication (as ancient historians writing 300 years after the fact are prone to doing). A great read for anyone interested in the subject matter.

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