Head in the Cloud – William Poundstone

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What’s the point in knowing anything when facts are so easy to look up? In this new release from Oneworld Publications, William Poundstone sheds light on the importance of knowledge, even when Google is just a stone’s throw away.

It is often said that we are living in an information age. Gone are the days of trawling through text books and library archives to find the material to complete your latest homework assignment. The internet possesses all the information you could ever need – and then some. Pick up your smartphone or connect to your computer and you have a wealth of data available at your fingertips. But while it’s true that it is incredibly easy to look up facts on Google, it’s not so easy to remember any of them. Some have argued that having such a wealth of information available to us is making us stupid.

In his new book, ‘Head in the Cloud: The Power of Knowledge in the Age of Google’, William Poundstone turns this theory on its head. Being better connected doesn’t necessarily mean we are better informed and the internet is not making us stupid, he argues. Rather, it is making us less aware of what we do not know. We’re living, Poundstone believes, in the golden age of rational ignorance. People are more interested in the lives of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West than bothering to learn who painted the Mona Lisa and millennials use acronyms such as BTDTGTTAWIO (been there, done that, got the t-shirt and wore it out), but are unable to recall the single word uttered by the raven in Edgar Allen Poe’s famed poem.

So what does being well informed actually mean? Does it really matter?

Speak to any self-proclaimed gamer and you will likely tap into a wealth of information that’s missing from the mind of the average Joe. Perhaps you don’t have a clue what processor lurks within your PC, or how to overclock the latest Nvidia graphics card, and why would you? Unless gaming happens to feature high on your list of priorities, you’ll probably never need to know this random information.

Equally, some of you will have got through life just fine without ever having known the catchphrase of Poe’s raven. If someone was to ask you who invented Post-It notes, what year Tinder was developed, or what the fastest land mammal on earth is, you could retrieve the answer from the cloud within a fraction of a section of clicking ‘search’ on Google. This poses the question: ‘What’s the point of knowing anything when facts are so easy to look up?’

Interestingly, it turns out that the benefits of staying well-informed extend much further than being everyone’s go-to teammate in the monthly pub quiz. Poundstone reports results of internet surveys analysing the rate of public knowledge, with outcomes suggesting that better informed individuals are, on the whole, healthier, happier and quite significantly wealthier. Not only this, but factual knowledge is heavily correlated with personality traits, including political opinion. Did you know, for example, that those who are able to locate a country on a map are less likely to be in favour of invading it? This is just the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to ill-informed voters.

‘Head in the Cloud’ is hilarious, humbling and brutally honest, and will likely make you doubt yourself, and everyone around you. This book is not merely a declaration of the woes of an ill-informed public, it also serves to highlight the benefits of broadening your horizons, offering insight and advice on how to best use todays media to stay informed. If you take only one thing away from this book, let it be the knowledge that there is no such thing as irrelevant information and that you could probably benefit from a little more time spent with an atlas, encyclopaedia and Oxford English Dictionary.

This review was first published in print for E&T magazine

Fluke: The maths and myths of coincidences – Joseph Mazur

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Whether surprising, creepy, or downright weird, we all love to hear about coincidences, but just how usual are these seemingly uncanny events that so often creep into our daily lives? In this new release from Oneworld Publications Joseph Mazur aims to find out by delving into the mathematics behind coincidence.

Picture this: you are sitting in a café in Agios Nikolaos on the island of Crete when you hear a familiar laugh at a table nearby. You look over and lock eyes with your own brother. You had no idea he would be there, and he is just as surprised to see you. Of all the places in the entire world, what are the chances that you two have ended up in the same place, at the same time, seemingly unbeknownst to one another? It seems hugely unlikely, and yet this is exactly what happened to author – and coincidence enthusiast – Joseph Mazur, back in 1968. Uncanny isn’t it?

This story is just the kind of thing the average mind laps up with delight. Coincidences make magnificent stories, be it a crazy tale of pure luck that unfurled just because you happened to be in the right place at the right time, a thrilling near miss, or a series of hugely unfortunate events. Tell a crowd a story of coincidence and they will response with surprise and wonder. Yet far from being unusual, coincidences are actually fairly commonplace. In fact, even the finest coincidence can be explained as mathematically predictable.

Of course, coincidences are not solely of the ‘uncanny’ variety. On any given day, we encounter a stunning variety of factors that dictate the path our lives will follow, and a five second change in routine could see you meet the love of your life, or get crushed to death by a falling flowerpot. The ‘what ifs’ of life fill everyone’s existence, with even the most logical mind susceptible to obsessing over the smallest factor which could hold the key to changing the course of history. You could spend your life trying to understand coincidences that govern life, but as Mazur’s beloved Uncle Herman once put it: “Everything that happens just happens because everything in the world just happened.”

In Fluke: The maths and myths of coincidence, author Joseph Mazur attempts to demystify the mathematics that dictate coincidence, to show the reader that if there is any likelihood that something could happen, no matter how small, it is bound to happen to someone at some time. After all, in terms of population, the world is a really, somewhat inconceivably huge place.

Through a delightfully written collection of some of the seemingly strangest coincidences, we learn that it is possible for a person to win the lottery four times, fans of plum pudding move in similar circles, and, in the case of George Washington at least, dreams really do come true. Mazur combines stories of coincidence with practical mathematical methods of appraising the likelihood of events occurring, exploring the nature of coincidence frequency to explain why they happen, and more importantly, why we are still so surprised by them.

The key to understanding coincidences is in mathematics, but the author concedes that there could be an element of fate in any situation, some larger entity at work governing the coincidence that we encounter throughout our lives. After all, it sometimes feels good to believe that there is a grand plan governing that which we cannot explain, and no one wants to believe that the coming together of soulmates is dictated by maths. What’s more, when you write a book on coincidences, you notice more than ever, Mazur muses, after having accidentally vacuumed up page 2072 in his 2262 page dictionary. The very page he would later need to look up the word serendipity. Now what are the chances of that?

This review was first published on online for E&T magazine.

Only Planet – Ed Gillespie

I wouldn’t call myself a climate enthusiast – mainly because I find the term itself a bit troubling – but low-carbon energy and sustainability are high up my list of work-related interests. As I find myself creeping towards middle age, I am increasingly concerned by the world we may be preparing for future generations.

Gillespie’s talk didn’t offer any earth-shattering revelations, but it was humbling and thought-provoking, serving to highlight just how terrifyingly unknown our path really is. Our future on Earth, Gillespie said, is “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous” – no one can know what will happen to the world as temperatures increase. They are rising, though, despite what climate change denialists might say, and something needs to be done about it.

“Climate change will see a displacement of people that is going to be biblical.”

There are a whole host of factors contributing to changes taking place across the world, but rooted at the core of all of these is consumption. Analysis shows that consumer spending and GDP have almost doubled since 1970, while life satisfaction has stayed the same. We are, however, seeing a strange shift in spending habits in some cases, where people are encouraged to opt for low-carbon alternatives using the most bizarre and contradictory of methods. A perfect example is Tesco encouraging customers to buy low-energy lightbulbs in return for air miles – somewhat defies the point, don’t you think?

“Our approach to climate change is like turning up to an earthquake with a dustpan and brush.”

We are suffering, Gillespie proposed, from the so-called bystander effect, a strange situation where, when there are a lot of people involved in a particular problem, the average person just hopes that someone else will do something about it, rather than taking matters into their own hands. You’ve probably done it before – how much do you really think your own carbon footprint matters? It’s everyone’s problem, though, and it will take combined efforts to find a solution.

As an environmental entrepreneur, Gillespie has undoubtedly gone above and beyond what the average Joe could achieve in a lifetime. He founded sustainability firm Futerra and sits as a non-executive director for Zero Carbon Food. He is also a London Sustainable Development Commissioner, an investor in Foodtrade and has helped fund numerous eccentric and sustainable business models.

It’s a crazy amount of work, and no one is expecting everyone to commit their lives to combatting climate change, but the message is to do something, rather than waiting for someone else to do it. One of the easiest positive choices we can make in the fight against climate change is a choice to curb our own consumption. In fact, I think Gillespie’s most impressive feat, and indeed the one we can take the most inspiration from, is giving up flying.

In his talk at Savoy Place, Gillespie recounted what he saw as the hypocrisy in preaching climate change while still opting for the quick, easy method of travel that is flying. “I couldn’t justify it,” he said. “So I gave it up.”

Giving up flying doesn’t mean giving up travel, however.

In 2007, Gillespie embarked on an epic year-long round-the-world trip, opting for slow trains, cargo ships and body-filled buses over aviation. His first book, Only Planet, the story of this remarkable journey, was published by Wild Things Publishing in 2014.

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A round-the-world trip without planes – how does that work? Obviously, after listening to this enlightening talk, and vowing to do more to reduce my carbon footprint, I had to find out for myself.

The book begins at the end, with Gillespie and his girlfriend Fiona on the last leg of their trip, playing table tennis with Vadim, an ex-heavyweight Ukrainian boxer, and the steward of the Horncap, the cargo ship that was their refuge above the oily black waters of the Sargasso Sea. Amid anecdotes spouted from mouths of cargo-ship cruisers from the bar side, Gillespie recounts his reasons for setting out on his extraordinary journey: to experience the voyage itself, not just the destination.

Forsaking planes and their associated destructive carbon emissions, we’d set out to rediscover the joy of travelling though the world, not just over it. We’d wanted to experience the intimate transition of landscape, culture, people and language, soak up the sights sounds and smells of the journey and not just bunny-hop around the globe in an aluminium sausage.

Over the next 300 pages, the reader is taken all the way from the Bay of Biscay, to Puerto Limon in Costa Rica, experiencing culture, practices and locals far removed from the blinding white cliffs of Dover. Gillespie is feasted upon by bed-bugs in Prague, drinks fermented yaks’ milk in Mongolia, and receives the gift of a large pink sausage from a Chinese gentleman upon the waves of the Bohai sea. Border arrests and drug searches do little to impede the travel – with little to no onward plan, what’s wrong with a little communication with the locals? However intrusive it may be.

This isn’t just a book about travel, though. The central running theme is that of sustainability. Throughout the journey, Gillespie delves into the philosophy of often slow, low-carbon travel by reconnecting with the communities in the countries he travels through. In just over a year, Gillespie and Fiona covered more than 40,000 miles and passed through 31 countries. They discovered the impact of over-consumption in the furthest corners of the earth, from the effect of the new, harsh winters on the nomadic people in the deserts of Mongolia, to the over-fishing of tuna in the South China Sea.

At its heart a book where the often-conflicting worlds of sustainability and travel meet, Only Planet serves to do more than whet the appetite of the wannabe traveller or so-called climate enthusiast. Liberally illustrated with dramatic photography and awash with the most hilarious of first-person anecdotes, the book shows just how far removed we have become from the traditions of community and experience, swept away in a sea of over-consumption and instant gratification. A truly inspirational and riveting read – with the occasional spelling mistake it has to be said – this book will likely change the way you look at travel, from both an ecological and spiritual point of view.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine.

Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Our World – Greg Milner

GPS is changing the way we live our lives, with more people using satellite technology to find their way around, track daily workouts and even catch fictional creatures out in the wild. In this new publication from Granta, Greg Milner traces the history of GPS and uncovers how it came to conquer the world.

41gsabhQ9AL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgMost people reading this review will no doubt be doing so with their trusty mobile phone not too far away. Chances are that phone is also a smartphone equipped with Global Positioning System (GPS) capabilities. Your phone works like as a GPS receiver, communicating with a network of satellites that orbit the Earth at fixed points, transmitting signals that carry time codes and geographical data. These satellites make it possible for you to pinpoint your exact position, speed and time anywhere on the planet.

Of course, this is nothing new – GPS technology has been around for decades, so much so that, for many of us, using Google Maps is almost second nature. In fact, GPS is more far reaching than you might realise; your phone can not only help give you directions, it can also pick up data from nearby businesses. Ever walked past a shop and had Google ‘ask’ you to submit some information? This is GPS at play, used for somewhat questionable data mining. You might be surprised to learn just how many aspects of life involve elements of GPS. In his new book, ‘Pinpoint’, Greg Milner traces GPS’s extraordinary history and paints a startling picture of a world saturated by its use.

First developed in the 1950s as a bomb-guidance system and one of the pinnacle technologies of the Cold War, GPS was made available for public use in 1983 and is one of the world’s most widely used technologies. Indeed, GPS goes much further than navigation and catching digital creatures with Pokémon Go. Information from GPS satellites helps to anticipate changes in global weather systems, predicts earthquakes and hurricanes, locates natural gas and oil and is becoming increasingly popular in overseeing agricultural production – the list goes on.

However, Milner warns, while GPS has opened up a whole host of new information about our environment and created opportunities across every sector, there are questions involving its effect on human behaviour. As a population, we could be finding ourselves too reliant on GPS. Milner points to the startling new phenomenon of ‘death by GPS’ – people who have been killed by blindly following the instruction of satellite navigation systems. Even more concerning are the explanations given by those who experienced a close call with GPS. “It kept saying it would navigate us to a road,” a group of Japanese tourists in Australia explained, after driving their car into the ocean. Research has suggested that reliance on GPS could actually rearrange the grey matter in our heads.

Milner takes these concerns further and explores the potential issues with widespread GPS use, not just by individuals, but by whole societies. A single GPS timing flaw, he suggests, could bring down the electricity grid, take over electronic devices and cause havoc in the world financial system. Take into account that such ‘flaws’ could just as easily be malicious as accidental, and you have a whole new problem on your hands.

‘Pinpoint’ unearths with surprising detail the history of GPS as a technology, from its conception during the Cold War, up to its position at the forefront of technology today. Milner goes back to basics, tracing the ways in which humans have understood and navigated their own physical space throughout time, and applying the theories to the development of advanced technological systems. This book offers a striking anthropological analysis of how we, as humans, understand the world around us.

This review was first published on in print for E&T magazine

Mars: Making Contact – Rod Pyle

With Nasa’s new lander, InSight, due to launch in 2018, and the Mars 2020 Rover set to touch down just two years later, all eyes are on Mars. Rod Pyle traces the history of the Red Planet in this stunning new publication from Carlton Publishing Group.

519q2nj3sl-_sx258_bo1204203200_The universe can be a pretty lonely place. What are we but a pale blue dot, orbiting an insignificant star, in one of any number of solar systems, in an unquantifiable amount of galaxies that make up the universe? For generations humankind has hoped to one day discover life beyond our world, to finally know that we are not alone in the universe. Of all the planets in our solar system, there is one which will forever encapsulate the human desire to discover alien life, that dull red dot flickering in the distant night’s sky – Mars, our, not-so-identical, twin sister.

For millennia, Mars has held a special place in the human psyche, fascinating explorers enamoured by its dull red appearance and unusual celestial motions across the night sky. In the past, the relative closeness of the Mars to our own home seemed to hold the promise of hardy plants, animals equipped to handle long cold winters, and a whole new world of secrets and history. Over the years, however, we’ve come to learn quite a lot about our distant neighbour, and the truth is far from appealing.

Multiple flybys, orbiters and landers throughout the years have awarded us a deeper understanding of our sister planet, and opened our eyes to the truth of that which once lay just beyond our grasps. The first fleeting images of Mars, awarded by the success of the Mariner 4 flyby, revealed a hostile frozen desert – similar to Earth in terms of geology and physics, but cold, dry and lacking in any kind of atmosphere that would allow for the development of life.

Mars: Making Contact traces the history of Mars here on Earth, as the lonely red sphere in the night’s sky evolved from an otherworld entity, to a place, and as the secrets of Mars continue to unfold. Author Rod Pyle reveals the many human interactions that have occurred with our sister planet, and lays out the hope of more to come, as we move towards the first human mission to the hostile red sands of Mars.

This review was first published on online for E&T magazine

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

“In our hatred, we are like bees who must pay with their lives for the use of their stingers” ― Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen

“I hate the Führer,” she said. “I hate him.”

And Hans Hubermann?

What did he do?

What did he say?

Did he bend down and embrace his foster daughter, as he wanted to? Did he tell her that he was sorry for what was happening to her, to her mother, for what had happened to her brother?

Not exactly.

He clenched his eyes. Then opened them. He slapped Liesel Meminger squarely in the face.

“Don’t ever say that!” His voice was quiet, but sharp.

71h2sjik5al-_sl1380_This book just launched itself directly onto my list of favourite books of all time!

The Book Thief is narrated by Death – this is what first drew me towards it. The front cover depicts a young girl skipping hand in hand with the Grim Reaper – how could I not want to read this?

Despite my excitement I was less than enthused by the way the book began. The whole prologue had vaguely unnatural feel to it. I found it really difficult to get into and I worried that the whole book would continue in the same jarring, start-and-stop style. I knew I wouldn’t be able to force my way through the 500+ pages of text if Zusak didn’t grasp my attention soon.

Thankfully, my worries were in vain.

It was as though someone turned on a light, and I suddenly went from being vaguely uncomfortable to completely in my element. The rest of the book is written in a similar style, but whereas the prologue felt awkward and unnatural, the proceeding chapters click perfectly into place.

The book thief’s story begins in 1939 in Nazi Germany. Liesel Meminger is taken to Himmel Street in Molching, to the home of her new foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Her communist parents have been taken away to concentration camps, and her young brother did not survive the journey to their new home.  On her first night in Himmel Street as she lies in her new room, the bed reserved for her brother lying empty next to her, she is plagued by nightmares of her brother’s death, and awakes screaming in a cold sweat. Her foster father, ‘Papa’, comforts her, reading to her from The Gravedigger’s Handbook – Liesel’s first stolen text.

As political tensions in Germany increase, Hans is called upon to fulfil a promise he made years before, forcing him to harbour a deadly secret, and placing the family constant danger. Despite their fears, relationships in the family grow stronger and each night Hans continues to read with Liezel. As her book collection grows, Liesel recognises the power of the written word and slowly begins to write her own story.

Zusak’s style, while perhaps slightly jarring at first, is wonderfully unique. The story is separated into small chapters, each focusing on a very specific point in time, with death drawing out the relevance of each occurrence to the wider story. The text is broken up with pictures, handwritten notes, and regular snippets of background information in amongst the main tale: brief statistics, information on Stalingrad, small observances, and even a pamphlet made from the painted-over pages of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, are all slipped into the flow of the text.

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The presence of Death as a narrator is interesting, and works really well given the context of the book. Throughout the novel the shadow of loss hangs heavy over Nazi Germany and Death himself is a constant feature on every street corner. As a narrator, Death foretells of which characters are due to meet their demise. Zusak allows you to fall in love with characters you know are going to die. And no, this doesn’t ruin the ending, it adds to the overall tension which builds up over the course of the book. It is as though you are placed in the midst of the inhabitants of Himmel Street, knowing that war will claim some of those that you love. Waiting to find out when Death will strike is the real struggle.

The Book Thief is unique amongst WWII fiction as it tells the tale of war-torn Germany from a Nazi-child’s perspective. Liesel Meminger is a wonderfully-developed and complex character who is just beginning to form her own understanding of the world. She understands the importance of doing as she is told out in the street, of Heil Hitler-ing the lady in the sweet shop and attending Hitler Youth in a neatly pressed uniform. But inside, she conceals her own personal judgements and aspirations, harbouring thoughts that must not be spoken outside the walls of 33 Himmel Street.

The Book Thief is marketed as a book for young adults, but I struggle to see how anyone, whatever their age, could fail to enjoy it. If you are interested in WWII fiction, or, like me, in historical fiction in general, then this really is a must read.

“I want my kids to have the things in life that I never had when I was growing up. Things like beards and chest hair.” ― Jarod Kintz

I was terribly secretive and mysterious in my last post and said I had something in the pipeline for my next round of obscure poetry, which I’m sure you’re all eagerly anticipating. So I’m very sorry to have to tell you that it failed.

The one that got away was the N+7 method (if you don’t know what that is, look it up, I’m sick of the thought of it) and try as I might I could not I love it as much as I wanted to, in fact, I couldn’t love it at all.

So now I’m back to the drawing board 😦

It’s not all gloom and doom though. Today, despite starting off feeling less than literary, I was inspired, with the help of one or two others, by a truly exceptional sentence: ‘Governance enables the government to govern’ ― It just rolls off the tongue doesn’t it? 

It seems almost inevitable that such masterful words would feed ones creativity, here’s what we came up with:

Governance enables the governed to govern;
Spying enables the spider to spy.
There’s hardly room to groom succession;
Incumbents have virtually no room to try.

And that’s it, I’ve no method to share this time, just the words themselves.