Book review

The Last Man

by Mary Shelley

The Last Man

This is a difficult book to review, because it’s very much a book of its time, reflecting the social mores, the power hierarchies (both social and domestic) of the early 19th century. It was written by Mary Shelley, and published in 1826.

Ten years earlier, Mary Wollstonecraft had written “Frankenstein”, born out of a competition between herself, Percy Shelley (her lover, and future husband) and their friend Lord Byron, as to who could write the best horror story. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was an instant hit, and has remained famous ever since.

“The Last Man”, however, was severely suppressed at the time, and only emerged from obscurity in the 1960s. It is likely the first dystopian science fiction novel ever written, set in the very late 21st century, but in a society and with technology barely advanced beyond the early 19th century. (Almost the only advanced technology is the occasional use of aerial blimps as a means of rapid transportation.) It is set as a prophecy, recovered from the Sibylline caves near Athens, and purports to be the first-hand account by Lionel Verney, born in poverty to a fallen nobleman, and befriended by Adrian, Earl of Windsor,. Adrian’s father had been a friend of Verney’s late father, and sets out to educate and settle him into the upper classes of the time.

The whole book is, I think even by the standards of its time, written in hugely romantic language, with flowing and flowery sentences at every turn, no opportunity missed to use five words and an extended metaphor where two words would have done. Here’s an example, when the hero meets his future wife:

“Her tall slim figure bent gracefully as a poplar to the breezy west, and her gait, goddess-like, was as that of a winged angel new alit from heaven’s high floor; the pearly fairness of her complexion was stained by a pure suffusion; her voice resembled the low, subdued tenor of a flute.”

The first third of the book recounts Verney’s adoption into society, his growing friendship with Adrian’s sister Idris, and a little of the politics of the Republican England of the book’s setting. We meet Verney’s younger sister, Perdita, and see her fall in love with Lord Raymond, the political rival of Adrian. Raymond was also courting Adrian’s sister, Idris: he’s a deeply dashing hero, had a sparkling career fighting as a volunteer in the Greek army in his youth, and he’s clearly based somewhat on Lord Byron. Perdita marries Raymond, which leaves Lionel clear to woo, and in due course marry, Idrs. Meanwhile Lord Raymond seeks to be elected Lord Protector of England, in competition with Adrian. After a great debate, Raymond wins, and sets about producing great public works.

The setting for the whole book is a future England, recently turned a Republic, and there’s quite a lot about the politics:

“England had been the scene of momentous struggles, during my early boyhood. In the year 2073, the last of its kings, the ancient friend of my father, had abdicated in compliance with the gentle force of the remonstrances of his subjects, and a republic was instituted.”

Lord Raymond, through his offices as Lord Protector, meets Evadne, a fallen Greek princess, who was his lover in his youth. He becomes emotionally entangled with her, and although their relationship probably doesn’t cross the line into physical, when Perdita finds out about it, he feels he must resign as Lord Protector, leave England, and return to Greece. Raymond is portrayed in this decision as taking the honourable path (in yet more clouds of adjectives):

“Genius, devotion, and courage; the adornments of his mind, and the energies of his soul, all exerted to their uttermost stretch, could not roll back one hair’s breadth the wheel of time’s chariot; that which had been was written with the adamantine pen of reality, on the everlasting volume of the past; nor could agony and tears suffice to wash out one iota from the act fulfilled.”

In the second third of the book, Verney goes to Greece to seek out his sister’s husband, and talk some sense into him. Perdita and her daughter, Clara, persuade him to take them along as part of the mission. Lionel himself gets caught up in the war that Raymond is now prosecuting against the Turks, which eventually leads to Raymond as the general, besieging the remnants of the Turkish army in Constantinople.

Now the whole course of the book begins to turn, for there are rumours of plague in Constantinople. The siege is won, but Raymond’s forces refuse to enter the city. Raymond enters alone, finds the city almost deserted, but is killed in an explosion. Verney recovers the body, and lays him to rest near Athens. In true romantic fashion, Perdita throws herself upon the tomb of her husband, and refuses to leave. Fearing for her life, Lionel drugs her, and brings her back to England by steamship. When Perdita awakes on the ship, she throws herself into the sea and drowns.

Plague follows Lionel and Clara back to England, and the scene is set for the last act. Slowly at first, and then with increasing rapidity, the plague kills. First the remote towns, then the cities. Lionel and Adrian, together with Clara, attempt to sit it out in Windsor Castle, taking in waifs and strays and helping out where they can.

“We had many foreign friends whom we eagerly sought out, and relieved from dreadful penury. Our Castle became an asylum for the unhappy. A little population occupied its halls.”

Adrian meanwhile finds himself more and more involved in leading the last remaining English people, and eventually leads the fifteen hundred or so who they can gather together on a voyage to the Continent, to escape the increasingly desolate English climate.

As they progress down France, various mishaps befall them. There is a mad religious sect in Paris, more deaths by plague, and more desolation. By the time they get to Switzerland, where they plan to spend the summer, they number fewer than a hundred. By the start of the next year, there are only a handful left. Eventually, it’s down to Adrian, Lionel, Clara (Adrian’s niece, daughter of Perdita), and Evelyn, Lionel’s son. It’s now the year 2099, and these are likely the last four humans left alive. Evelyn catches typhus, and succumbs: the last three set off by boat from Venice, planning to return to Greece, to visit Raymond’s tomb, but a storm breaks up their boat, and Adrian and Clara drown.

In many ways, I found the last twenty pages or so the most affecting of the whole book. Lionel is alone – The Last Man. He contemplates his fate, wanders around Italy, and settles in the hills above Rome, with a sheep dog that he found.

“Every new impression of the hard-cut reality on my soul brought with it a fresh pang, telling me the yet unstudied lesson, that neither change of place nor time could bring alleviation to my misery, but that, as I now was, I must continue, day after day, month after month, year after year, while I lived.

At the very end, Lionel Verney sets off by boat down the Tiber, planning to roam along the coast of the Mediterranean, until he finds another human companion, or dies alone:

“Thus around the shores of deserted earth, while the sun is high, and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirits of the dead, and the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold the tiny bark, freighted with Verney–the LAST MAN.”

Three and a half stars, rounded down to three for the difficulties that I, a puny modern reader, had with ploughing through some of the wordier passages.

Book review

The Travelling Cat Chronicles

by Hiro Arikawa, Philip Gabriel

The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa

I love cats – right now, we only have three cats in the household, and are considering whether that’s enough. So there’s nothing wrong (and a lot right) about a book that’s largely told from the point of view of a cat. But somehow I wasn’t feeling it for this book. It was too short for me to really engage with, and too shallow while alluding to depth, and the main (human) character was improbably flawless, and the main (cat) character didn’t really work for me. It redeemed itself somewhat in the last couple of chapters, but overall I had high expectations of a Haruki Murakami quirkiness, and it didn’t come off for me.

Three stars, because it wasn’t bad, but I was still a little disappointed.

Book review

Statistical Consequences of Fat Tails: Real World Preasymptotics, Epistemology, and Applications

by Nassim Nicholas Taleb


I’ve just started reading this, and wanted to say TYPOS before I forgot. Not that I could forget, there’s one every couple of pages. Which is annoying, as there is clearly good stuff in here, from which this detracts – those formulae that I can’t quite follow through, is that a typo, an error by the author, or just me being dim? Hmm… I shall report more as I get further in…

Right, we’ve finished it now. Taleb is certainly opinionated – very opinionated about other people and their views, at times, and personally I felt this rather detracted from the writing. Keep it for the Twitter wars, mate, really.

The book is a compilation of a number of papers, some of them quite technical, about the subject matter. Throughout, I ran into the issue mentioned in the first paragraph – typos are rife, and quite disturbing in the middle of formulae or proofs.

Much of what Taleb says, however, is important, even if he does rather aim at getting in his retribution first against his perceived opposition. He’s quite right, fundamentally, about the difference between probability and reality: in the real world, there are no probabilities – things happen, or they don’t. Probability expresses our uncertainty, not a real-world property of objects (perhaps quantum mechanics aside – although by some interpretations, this is just as true there, too). So we need to be very very careful when we apply simple to manipulate theorems of probability (such as the Gaussian distribution) to real-world problems, especially when we are making high-impact decisions based on the result of those manipulations. Examples abound, but the most dramatic is perhaps the Value at Risk (VaR) calculations that were supposed to keep our financial institutions “safe” during market turbulence, and which so spectacularly failed to do so in the 2008 financial crisis.

Tough for me to review this book usefully. I’m pretty mathematically smart, but I still couldn’t follow all of the arguments. I’m sure others with more of the appropriate background could do so, but in this case I’m not sure it went far enough. Replacing VaR by Extreme Value Theory is all very well to talk about in principle, but you’re going to need a lot more detail to make it practical, for example.

Three stars, in the end, for the sound argument, counterbalanced by TYPOS and unnecessary sarcasm from the author.

Book review

The Road to Farringale

by Charlotte E. English

We live in the 21st century, we don’t have flying cars, so can’t we at least have magic? Maybe it’s that sort of desire that has produced such a wave of “contemporary magic” books in the last decade or two. Or maybe we’ve all read too much Harry Potter, I’m not sure. Either way, this is a nice example of the genre: there’s magic, it’s out there, but it’s been fading for hundreds of years, and now us ordinary people can’t see it – and those who can, like Cordelia “Ves” Vesper, the hero of this book, seem to have a whale of a time with it.

Here, we follow Ves as she works with her new partner, Jay, to discover what’s ailing the troll communities of Britain, many of whom seem to be turning in on themselves in a rather alarming way. We’re in book 1 of a series here, so there is some development of the characters, with Ves receiving most of the spotlight, and Jay less so. I liked the setting, too, with the ancient manor house where their organisation is headquartered also playing a significant role. The writing flowed smoothly, but I did feel a little short-changed when the whole thing wrapped up in about 120 pages, all a little too neatly, and with perhaps not enough time for me to get properly engaged with the world.

Still, lots of enjoy here, so three stars for some engaging writing and interesting segments.

Book review

The Case Against Reality

How Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes

by Donald D. Hoffman

The Case Against Reality by Donald D. Hoffman

There’s a lot to like in Donald Hoffman’s book. He carefully marshals a number of strands of experimental and mathematical evidence to lend weight to his claim that, ultimately, it is extremely implausible that our experience of reality in any way corresponds to how reality actually is. This is a very bold claim, and I found the thought experiment of thinking this through to be very interesting, even if ultimately I was unconvinced by the core argument.

Hoffman has spent his professional career thinking about this problem, and he’s build a very interesting view based upon it. He doesn’t deny the existence of a shared “consensual” reality – that you see what looks to you like a chair and a table, and I see the same. Instead, he denies that the chair and table exist in anything like the form we think they exist in – as three dimensional medium-sized objects. Indeed, he denies they exist at all when we’re not looking at them. Instead, our perception of them causes them to appear in our “user interface” for the world.

One of his most powerful metaphors is this “interface theory of perception”. This says that our experience of reality is rather like the graphical user interface of a computer: the rectangular object on the screen which we click on to open a file isn’t, actually, anything at all like the file really is in the computer – where it exists as a series of variations in charge or magnetic field on a solid state or spinning disk, and what looks like a file opening on the desktop is actually the cumulative action of millions of transistor state changes.

To convince us that what we think of as the world really is not at all what we think it is, Hoffman brings in a number of pieces of evidence. He spends a fair amount of time on our visual system. Here he brings together a number of visual illusions to show quite the depth of processing – with a corresponding opportunity for errors – that happens between photons striking our retina, and our perception of a chair, or a colour, or a beautiful person. This is entirely convincing to me: it’s clear that a vast amount of detail of what we might perceive is both hidden from us, and also filled in by informed guesswork by various networks in our brain.

Hoffman also points to modern physics, where quantum mechanics really does tell us some apparently strange things are happening out there. Photons from distant galaxies, millions of years in transit to us, apparently have their entire history affected by actions we take now. I feel there are other stories that we might tell about all this – from Everett’s multi-world hypothesis on upwards. Hoffman doesn’t dwell on these, but instead uses them as another explosion under our foundational belief that the world is what it looks like.

Hoffman also has some mathematics behind all of this. He has a model of consciousness – as a set of Markovian kernels (basically, things that choose amongst outcomes with different probabilities). And he also has what he calls the “Fitness Beats Truth” theorem. In this he pits mathematical creatures which prefer “fitness” against those which prefer “truth”. Given such a construction, in the framework of the game theory he uses, it’s no wonder that the creatures which prefer fitness tend to out-compete those which prefer truth: he defines fitness as the most important thing in his framework, so of course such creatures win. For me, this doesn’t really answer the question of why, in the real world, fitness wouldn’t more or less track truth. Isn’t a creature which depends on features of the landscape as they actually exist – i.e., a creature for whom fitness broadly corresponds to the state of the world – out-evolve a creature whose fitness was ultimately a fantasy? That’s why we haven’t all become addicted to the chemicals in the world which give us the most pleasure – because ultimately, fitness needs to track back to useful features of the world, rather than the ecstasy of a drug.

Despite my reservations, I did enjoy the book, and the arguments I had with it. I’d give it three and a half stars, rounded down to three for fighting too many paper tigers, rather than steel-man arguments against his position.

Book review

Group Theory and Physics

by Shlomo Sternberg

Group Theory and Physics by Shlomo Sternberg

In this book Professor Sternberg of Harvard University takes a fairly detailed look at the deep links between mathematical group theory and the underpinnings of much of modern physics. It’s heavy going in many parts, requiring at least an undergraduate degree in mathematics (one containing lots of group theory) to even vaguely follow it. If you can at least follow along (and I was very much reduced to skimming the deeper technical material), then you’ll find beauty, and deep truth. Eugene Wigner talked about the “unreasonable effectiveness” of mathematics in explaining the physical world, and that’s what you will find herein.

In Chapter 1, Prof. Sternberg introduces key ideas like the action of a group on a set, and uses them to classify the finite subgroups of O(3), the orthogonal group of order 3 (i.e. the group of ways in which you can transform things in three dimensions such that distances between things are preserved). There is an immediate physical application in crystallography, and Prof. Sternberg takes us through this, introducing me at least to some marvelously-named crystals and compounds (iodosuccinimide, diaboleite, or wulfenite, anyone?)

Chapter 2 introduces representation theory for finite groups, which is a way of representing abstract objects as matrices, with the operations on those objects as equivalent to things like matrix multiplication. Using these techniques, you can produce character tables, which are a simple two-dimensional table that can capture much of the deep structure of a particular group. This material is set up for use in the following chapters.

Chapter 3 starts to build on this, first with a simple physical model of molecules as point masses connected by springs, and then adding in some quantum mechanics. This allows us to look at the ways in which such model molecules would “resonate” in vibration, which in turn leads to direct physical applications in spectrography. (Appendix F contains an interesting, detailed, and entirely non-technical review of how spectography evolved through the 19th century – one of the highlights of the book, for me.) This leads to a discussion of the symmetries of space-time, and out of this emerges a very natural representation of the fundamental properties of subatomic particles. Finally we come to Wigner’s truly remarkable 1951 paper in which he identifies these subatomic particles “as” the irreducible representations of the group. By doing this, Wigner was able to lay out a model that has directed particle physics for at least the last 60 years – he earned the Nobel Prize for Physics for this in 1963, and subsequent modifications of his work by Gell-Mann and others have lead to further Nobel Prize level discoveries.

It’s worth pausing on this point: here we have a use of the most abstract parts of mathematics, out of which directly flows deep and powerful results about the universe in which we live. It’s not that we can (say) simply model a molecule as a bunch of weights joined by springs: the types and properties of the most fundamental things we know about in the world spring directly from this abstract mathematics. It’s truly a remarkable, and very beautiful, thing.

Chapter 4 continues the journey, moving on to compact groups. From this we get models which apply directly to the hydrogen spectrum, models of atomic nuclei, and the group underlying the periodic table. Again, we see the powerful linkages back to Wigner’s work on the Poincare group.

Chapter 5 moves on to quarks, and the predictions of and subsequent discoveries of the elements of quantum chromodynamics. Because this book was written in the early 1990s, it doesn’t include any discussion of grand unified models or sypersymmetric models like string theory or quantum gravity, which is a shame, as once again we see the mathematical and group theoretical underpinnings.

There is much to like about this book, and I enjoyed the journey. However, I spotted a number of annoying typographical errors, and I very much fear that if I’d been able to follow some of the denser passages, my journey would have been made harder by further typos. The index is also weak, and I was often reduced to paging back and fro to find what a particular notation or definition was. I also felt that since this book set out to link group theory and physics, I was often not at all certain what the point of a particular mathematical section was – a brief up-front discussion of the motivation would have been very helpful to me. The fact that it ends in the mid-1990s also means it doesn’t cover a lot of recent, equally interesting, work in theoretical physics.

Finally, to be honest, a lot of the book was somewhat beyond me: the author says “a course in multivariate calculus and linear algebra, together with an elementary physics course, should suffice”. It’s been a few years since I took my courses in these subjects, but I have very good retention of them, and they in no way adequately prepared me for some of the long technical passages!

Three stars for me – quite possibly more for you, if you’re further along the maths curve than I started.

Book review

The Daily Stoic

366 Meditations for Clarity, Effectiveness, and Serenity

by Ryan Holiday

The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday

There’s been a huge revival in the Greek and Roman philosophy of Stoicism in the past few years, and this book is a good example of what it yields. It’s a series of daily quotations from the great Stoic philosophers such as Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus. Each quotation is accompanied by a paragraph or two of discussion, underlining the key points. It’s well done, with readable and un-stuffy new translations of the originals, and the presentation is good.

I read this book at the average pace of the one meditation a day for which it was written, although I must admit I would sometimes loose track for a week or ten days, and then do some catching up. If one can hold a thought in one’s head, and follow through on it for the day, it’s hard to see the day not being the better for it. There’s a reason why these observations have lasted nearly two thousand years.

My qualms, such as I have them, are I suppose based on an underlying niggle of disquiet. Look at the philosophers quoted: Marcus Aurelius – very successful general, somewhat reluctant but well-regarded emperor; or Seneca – senator, playwright, adviser to the emperor Nero. These are powerful men, at the top of whatever power hierarchy was going. Is this a philosophy for the rich and powerful, enabling them to keep what they have with a clear conscious, thinking they could give it all up if they had to (although, mostly, they don’t…)? And all the while lecturing us that we, too, should be content with what we have? Sometimes it seems that way: on June 23rd we have Marcus Aurelius telling us:

You could enjoy this very moment all the things you are praying to reach by taking the long way around – if you’d stop depriving yourself of them

Epictetus, to be fair, was born a slave, and grew up crippled (and Seneca was exiled, and eventually forced to take his own life when accused of plotting against Nero). Although none of Epictetus’ writings survive directly, we do have several volumes of his discourses from his pupil, including a “best of…” compilation known as the Enchiridion. It is this work that perhaps is most responsible for the modern revival of Stoicism: James Stockdale, the vice presidential candidate of Ross Perot, was shot down in the Vietnam War and spent seven and a half years in captivity, which included torture and four years of solitary confinement. He had read the Enchiridion at college, and credits it with enabling him to survive this horrific ordeal in his book Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior. There are a good few Epictetus quotes in The Daily Stoic; for January 19th, for example, we have Epictetus saying:

A podium and a prison is each a place, one high and the other low, but in either place your freedom of choice can be maintained if you so wish

Focus on what is in your control, as opposed to what is not. Good advice, however and wherever you are living.

In the end, it is to Epictetus’ quotations that I was perhaps most drawn. And he won’t care that I rounded my 3 1/2 star view of this book down to 3 stars, for the disquiet. “Not things, but opinions about things, trouble men”, he once wrote. Enough said.

Book review

Sum: Forty tales from the afterlives

by David Eagleman

Sum by David Eagleman

This is a book of 40 short chapters, just a few pages each, each one an alternative story of what might happen after we die. In one, it turns out we are actually God’s organs, how she feels and knows and interacts with the world; in another, you find the afterlife is terribly bureaucratic and we have to queue for everything, because God put us in charge when he found himself increasingly overwhelmed by his creation.

So some of the stories are rather clever – my favourite is that we are organic supercomputers, created by small, slow, creatures to answer the big questions of life – only they are too dim to understand our responses to their questions. Others are neat enough, but left no imprint on me.

Overall, it’s a nicely done short book, with a very interesting idea and some definite bright spots: three and a half stars, rounded down to three as in the end I’m not sure enough of the stories stuck with me, in the end.

Book review

Dungeon Born

by Dakota Krout

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This is a book in the “LitRPG” genre, which for those of us who spent their adolescence with a bunch of other social misfits, surrounded by character charts, multi-sided dice, and rule books for various role-playing games (RPGs), will seem somewhat familiar. In this case, it’s the story of a dungeon, and how it grows up. For it turns out that dungeons, in this world at least, grow from small crystal cores, which slowly gain more abilities to shape the earth and stone around them, and to imbue with life increasingly powerful creatures (rarely friendly) to populate their underworld passages. Add in some adventurers (including one by the name of Dale, who sort-of accidentally owns the land on which this dungeon is growing), and an interesting set of physical laws for the universe, based on the accretion of various “essences” into your soul to increase your powers, and off you go!

I hadn’t met this literary genre until I picked up this book, and it was quite fun, I must say. The plot was straightforward, driven by the dungeon slowly levelling up, and Dale also levelling up and learning about the world of adventuring. The writing was straightforward, if not very nuanced, with some of the moral lessons necessary for Dale to mature being imparted to Dale in very much a “tell, not show” kind of a way. So if I were to be snobby, I’d say this wasn’t a sophisticated book, but all in all, it was entirely enjoyable, and kept me engaged throughout. I probably won’t be reading the follow-on books simply because this isn’t perhaps my favoured style of book, and I have only a limited number of books I can fit in, but but that’s just a personal thing, and others will love this, I know.

Book review


by Erling Kagge

This was a short, interesting, exploration of the way we can find quiet in our lives, and the value of doing so. It takes the form of 33 very brief chapters, each only a few pages long, looking at silence from a different perspective. Nicely done, and the physical book itself is a beautiful publication, complete with beautiful photography and art of wild empty spaces. Three and a half stars, rounded down to three as I couldn’t feel it warranted four.