Three books

A Mexican politician is in trouble after flunking a question on “three books that have left a mark on your life”. It is not actually as straight forward a question as it seems. How many people feel that particular books have made a mark on their lives? And can you narrow things down to 3?

I had a quick think and picking the first 2 was easy. Coming up with a 3rd took me a few more minutes. It’s a good thing I wasn’t put on the spot in a live interview. Anyway, my three are:

  • The History of the WorldJ.M. Roberts – I read this one around 1990. As well as being a fascinating tour of where we came from, it really opened my eyes to how the world works. And in its social history elements probably did more than anything else to make me an atheist. I am re-reading the most recent version (5th edition, published last June) on my Kindle at the moment, and discovering new things in it all the time. That isn’t surprising of course when a book covers so much ground.
  • Guns, Germs and Steel – Jared Diamond. I picked this book up in Dallas airport on the way to Chile in 2001. If the History of the World talks about how European civilization went out to conquer the world, GG&S is why it happened that way and why Africans or Americans didn’t come to subdue the “Old World”. More people really should read this book, if just to see how small thing, like pigs, wheat, and chickens made the world the way it is.
  • Demon Haunted World – Carl Sagan. This one was the last of the three I decided on. I am not 100% sure where or when I picked up this one originally. I think I was working in Nenagh and got it in Limerick around 1997/1998. I had always been of a curious but skeptical nature (my mother can tell you stories). But this book opened my eyes to the simplicity and beauty of the scientific method. I got to see how it isn’t as much a tool for finding answers, as for checking which ones are good, and which ones are bad. The book also helps explain why so many people believe in nonsense – often it’s because they know no better. It introduced me to the joy of being a skeptic – of being able to look at the world with unclouded eyes, appreciating the real beauty rather than some made up nonsense, usually being peddled by someone with an agenda to push, or a product to sell.

Now not all of these are readily re-readable, and they may not be the best for covering their subject matter. But each one profoundly change my mindset and opened my eyes. And if they didn’t change my mind directly they have led me to other books that have made me who I am today.

Aren’t books great that way?

The Gun – the story of the AK-47

I just finished reading C.J. Chivers’ The Gun – The story of the AK-47. The Gun - CJ Chivers. The book is history, not a gun primer. Chivers spends little time discussion the variants of the AK, how it works (some diagrams would have been helpful) or comparisons with other guns apart from the US M16. Instead he charts a history of where the AK came from, and how it became the symbol it is today. It’s well researched, and despite occasionally jumping around topics is well written.

He starts with Gatling’s first manually operated gun which was followed by Hiram Maxim’s fully automatic one, the first real “machine gun”. Maxim happily sold guns, plans and manufacturing rights to all the powers before 1914. Unfortunately most of them didn’t realise what they had, and they hadn’t much updated tactics which dated from the Napoleonic era.

It’s not like they wouldn’t have known any better. There had been several battles, in colonial Africa and the Russo-Japanese war which had shown how effective machine guns could be. Huge formations of natives were cut down when taking on western Armies in pitched battles in the open. The similarity between a spear waving Zulu and a bayonet wielding Tommy seems to have evaded many first world war Generals.

The middle of the book focuses on the development of the AK-47 and it’s famous inventor, Mikhail Kalashnikov. Chivers admits a combination of Soviet secrecy, Kalashnikov’s unreliability (he has told different versions of the story in at least 4 different biographies) and the passage of time means the full story of the world’s most common small arm will never really be known. He is pretty clear the legend of the sole genius overlooks the contributions of many others.

Chivers does take a chapter to look at how the US responded to the AK47 with their M16. He is scathing about how a rushed process, greed, lies from salesmen and a cover-up created a gun that wasn’t ready when it was given to soldiers fighting in Vietnam. And as a result a lot of them died when it failed in action.

The final third of the book describes how the AK47 became the icon that it is. A central plank of Soviet military standardisation, it was shipped all around the world. Simple and reliable, some of the ones being used in Afghanistan today came from the original production runs in the early 1950′s! The fact that the gun was supplied to insurgents like the Viet Cong, who then went up against ill-equipped US troops meant that in 100 years there was a flip. Now the peasants and hicks were the ones equipped with equal or greater fire power than the western nation. That made the AK a leveller.

The huge numbers produced and handed out means that it has ended up in the hands of criminals, terrorists, and dubious “liberation” movements. A problem became a catastrophe when the Soviet union collapsed. Vast stocks of guns held for a war in Europe ended up sold across the globe, stoking conflict throughout the developing world. An average cost in an arms bazaar today is about $200. The UN estimates small arms (of which the AK is the most common with over 100m of the 600m in existence) killed most of the people in 46 of the 49 wars fought since 1990. There have been over 4m dead, and 90% of those were civilians.

To bring it down to human terms Chivers tells the story of one man, Karzan Mahmoud, a Kurdish body guard maimed and nearly killed by an AK. Mahmoud asked how can Kalashnikov live with himself knowing what he has created, and the horrors it has lead to. In his book Chivers answers that question, and tells that Kalashnikov himself says:

“The constructor is not the owner of the weapon-it is the state… they spread the weapon not because I wanted them to… I made it to protect the Motherland, then it… began to walk on its own in directions that I did not want”

Kalashnikov says he sleeps soundly.

P.S. I wanted to add links to to videos from The Lord of War. But YouTube or the film makers won’t allow them to be embedded. So instead:

My perfect gadget?

I had a tweet about a device I want, but can’t have earlier today:

I want a tablet computer with 3G connection pen input sunlight viewable screen and week long battery life for less than €300

I thought I should expand on that a bit. I have a desktop PC at home, a laptop for work, a netbook for the sitting room, and an android phone. That is probably too many gadgets already. But each fits nicely in it’s niche. I do travel a lot though, and I spend my time on trams, planes, buses and waiting in terminals reading magazines and books. It isn’t practical to haul the laptop out for email, rss, twitter, or casual web surfing so I use the phone, but the screen is a bit small for comfort. So I would want a device that functions as an e-reader, can view and respond to email, and has a web browser. But it has to be bigger than a phone, and less bulky than a laptop, and it has to have built in 3G as who wants a dongle, or to be tied to WiFi islands?

Why a tablet, and what size of one? At my desk I have my laptop. There is no argument that the keyboard is the fastest and most efficient way to enter data. But I also have a Wacom Bamboo Pen and Touch tablet (250mm x 175mm). That is invaluable for making notes when I have one hand on the phone, for annotating Power Point slides, and for sketching out diagrams. Rather than paper, I use it for all my notes together with software that allows me to search my scrawls electronically. I started using it about 3 months ago and you would have a fight to take it off me now. The only place it isn’t used is in meetings. There the bulk of the laptop acts as a barrier between you and others, it looks odd, and carrying two devices is not convenient. Instead I have a Paperblanks notebook that is 130mm by 230mm, about the size of a DVD case. Important stuff gets transcribed into the laptop via the tablet after the meeting.

A proper tablet PC would merge the two functions of being a full computer with the option of pen input, but that isn’t an option that work offers me. And the size and bulk would still be a bit of a nuisance to haul out on a tram. Instead I would want something about the size and weight of my Paperblanks notebook (or the Wacom tablet), and would weigh less than 500g. It needs to have pen input, as that is the best way to enter data one handed. One handed typing just isn’t a runner, and I stopped writing with my fingers when I was in infants. Software wise it should automatically sync my handwritten notes on my main machine.

The other key features, are a screen that is really visible without difficulty in bright daylight, so no the iPad will not cut it. And it needs to have a stonking battery life. If I am away somewhere for a couple of weeks I don’t want to worry about charging it if I am taking things easy on wireless usage. My ideal price point for such a magical device is about €300, as it is meant to be a supplement to all my other gadgets.

Does it exist? Of course not. But maybe in 5 years it will. The problem then is what do you do if you don’t have the ideal device? What sort of compromises should you be willing to make. After my post today I did some checking on the Amazon Kindle or the Sony Reader Touch. Depending on the version and how I got it (*cough* direct from the US without paying tax) they would be between €100 and €200. The Kindle lets say ticks a lot of the boxes, being right on size, battery life, weight, screen readability and it would even offer some of the web functionality I want, but…

It isn’t in colour, and it certainly doesn’t do pen input. The latter is a real mystery. I helped launch pen input tablet PCs for Microsoft 10 years ago. The technology has been there for a decade in high end devices, and in the likes of the Palm and Sony Ericsson phones at the middle and low too. But in the rush to launch tablets and iPad wannabes no one is going for the killer function of the pen! The other big problem with the eReaders is the whole DRM mess. Whenever I meet a person raving about eReaders I have a run a little conversation with them which usually goes like this:

SK: So read anything good recently?
eReader Supporter: Yeah, I just finished such_and_such.
SK: Oh right, I heard that is good. Could you lend it to me?
eReader Supporter: ehhhh

Books by their nature, tradition, and purpose are to be shared. But the DRM restrictions applied to them means the “rights” getting protected are not those of the purchasers and readers. My worry is that by giving my money to the likes of Amazon or Sony for these devices I am effectively backing their strategies.

Now I have seen there is software like Calibre for scraping files and making them into ebooks (perfect for the Irish Times or The Economist), and there is even a eBook lending library in Dublin. But if I buy a shelf of real books they remain mine even if I drop my eReader under a bus or the company that sold it to me goes bust, and I can lend them or resell them legally. Not so with ebooks and that is a major restriction to buying them.

You might have noticed I didn’t whinge about the price of ebooks. That’s because I read this good article from Charlie Stross on the industry.

For now, I need to go away and have a think. Is 2nd best good enough?

Funnily enough on the tram home, as I was thinking about all of this I noticed the guy opposite me was reading from an Amazon Kindle. If I was the supersititious, fate believing kind I would have said it was a sign. I just thought it was an amusing coincidence :)

Financial Crisis reality TV shows I would like to see

If our national broadcaster (that’s RTÉ and not ORF, I haven’t gone totally native) is looking for some really good TV ideas related to the current crisis I could sell them these two. Both are sort of reality TV, and should be cheap to produce.

  • The People’s Budget – Select 20 or so random punters for 2 programs. In the first program, brief them on the current Irish financial situation, and economic best practices. Let them make the decision on how best to proceed, via tax increases, spending cuts, or financial stimulus (if someone can give us the money). Let them ask questions of independent economists (i.e. probably not too many Irish ones), and then let them come up with a high level plan. Any plan will involve cutbacks, so for the second program have them briefed on where the government spends its money today. Let these members of the public decide what to prioritise, and what to cut. Let’s see what the public will pick when they have to make the decisions.
  • The Trial of Fianna Fail for Treason: Televise a mock trial over a couple of evenings where the Fianna Fail party is put on trial for treason after causing the loss of Irish sovereignty. Have the prosecution and defense case argues by to senior counsels with full proper legal teams. And let a real jury of 12 members of the public decide the verdict. This one was inspired by a post from Jason O’Mahony on banning Fianna Fail.

I am sure these would make riveting TV, with massive viewerships. Unfortunately RTÉ are not known for their giant political cojones, and as they showed with the “Greatest Irishman“, they have nack for screwing up the ideas they do run with.

Vienna photos

I have been pretty poor at taking photos, and telling stories about our new home city. I was on my own at the weekend. So after spending Saturday with an Italian geologist crawling through a forest near the Czech border while getting shot at by Austrians, I headed out with the camera in the fine sunshine on Sunday to walk the Ring. These are the photos.
[nggallery id=11]

War in Space!

Nice article on the physics of space battles, possible real ones that is, and not the silly stuff you see in the likes of Star Wars. It’s a little long, but interesting.

Personally I like my Sci-Fi to fall in between Space Opera, and Hard SF.

New quote

Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved to write a book

Edward Gibbon

Flowers for Kim – art in North Korea

A few weeks ago brother and I went to “Flowers for Kim” an exhibition of North Korean paintings and architecture. This is the first time such an exhibit has been held, and it is a little controversial. There was a noticeable security presence, with ropes keeping people back from any portraits of the two Kims.

Flowers for Kim.

Flowers for Kim, National Gallery Pyongyang.

Art in North Korea is very tightly controlled. Artists learn in a state school, and are vetted for ideological orthodoxy before they are allowed produce material. For the most part their work is commissioned by the state as well. There is no room for spontaneous creativity.

The picture of North Korea that you get from the exhibition is of a society where they must be putting Prozac in the water supply as EVERYONE smiles all the time. It’s such a happy place I don’t know why I found it so creepy. There wasn’t much overt propaganda in the pictures, but there were plenty of less than subtle images, like happy school children walking in front of a ruined American tank after the Korean war, or happy office workers going to assist a public project of reinforcing a river embankment on a Friday. Some were less subtle like the one of the nasty Japanese “scoundrel” violently attacking a young Korean girl for wearing her national costume. The artist depicted the Japanese man in pretty much the same way US WW2 propaganda posters did, with milk bottle glasses and bucked teeth.

There was one representative of the North Korean embassy there, he also smiled all the time as befits a member of their happy race. He was handing out photocopied sheets giving explanatory notes for the paintings. It was interesting to read the “official” take on the paintings.

Concern for the dear leader

“Leader, you are near at the forefront” Chosonhwa-painting, National Gallery Pyongyang.

As the official word has it (verbatim):

The painting depicts President Kim Il Sung, who came to the forefront to visit the Korean People’s Army soldiers during the Korean war (1950-1953), thus revealing his lofty characters and bold heart, as well as the strong desire of the Koreans for the safety of their leader.

A young girl soldier is wholeheartedly asking the supreme commander not to go further on, saying, “Leader, you are near at the forefront”. She was very much worried for his safety. Notwithstanding her request, however, the supreme commander is going to the forefront, answering that he came to the forefront to see the brave KPA soldiers and they are waiting for him. The depiction of the girl soldier gives a true expression of the entire Korean army and people who sincerely desire the safety of their leader.

The painter tried to express the severity of the war through the surrounding hills and the muddy, ragged road to the front, as well as the confidence in the future victory in the war thru the bright smile of Kim Il Sung.

No mention of a nation of racist dwarfs there then so.