Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground

Walk the Lines coverWalk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground by Mark Mason

Full of great London trivia as you might expect, but also surprisingly deep philosophical insights into what makes the city (or indeed any city). I suppose walking over 400 miles gives you a lot of time to think about these things, and it shows. Also Bill Drummond makes a surprise appearance, which is never a bad thing.

★★★★★ 5/5 stars

Review: The Second World War

The Second World War was really bad because lots of people died. I give it 0 stars out of 5.

Oh, I’m actually meant to be saying what I thought of this book by Antony Beevor about The Second World War. Well, in that case, it was excellent.

We learnt about the war a bit in school, but only really in the course of studying in turn Nazi Germany and the Cold War, so some understanding of WW2 was important to both of these. And then like  probably every British person, there’s all the stuff I learned about through cultural osmosis (‘Dad’s Army’, Dunkirk, the Blitz). It’s safe to say my understanding of the war was mostly limited to Europe. So reading this was a great chance to fill the gaps in my knowledge and see the bigger picture.

And what a big, horrifying picture it was. The book opens with the almost unbelievable story of Yang Kyoungjong, a Korean conscripted to fight in the Japanese army. Then he was captured by the Soviets, and placed in a labour camp. When Germany invaded Russia, along with many other prisoners he was forced into the Red Army, to fight on the Eastern Front. There he was captured once again, this time by the Germans, who sent him to fight in France. Where, after D-Day, he was captured by Americans.

In some ways, Yang was incredibly lucky. A sadly recurring theme of the book is how often the various armies ignored the ‘laws of war’, either taking no prisoners or abjectly failing to look after those they had taken. Or worse: I knew that the Japanese treated their prisoners poorly, but had no idea before reading this book that they sometimes engaged in cannibalism of them (and this was systematic, not just a few isolated cases).

Yang’s story is also a reminder there are aspects of the war almost forgotten about by many, in that his story began with Japan fighting the Soviet Union. Although this conflict generally isn’t considered a part of WW2 proper, and in fact ended just as the fighting in Europe was getting underway, it had significant effects on the future course of the war. The fighting between Japan and China is also something I knew next to nothing about before this. But then again, I’m sure many Chinese people know very little if anything about the war in Europe. It wasn’t called a World war for nothing, and Beevor does a great job of covering all the disparate parts and stitching them together.

On a different scale, he is also adept at describing the personalities involved, and dissecting their often flawed decisions. It’s remarkable how much in turn the Russian forces, then the Germans, suffered from meddling by Stalin and Hitler respectively. When they managed to leave things to the generals, things usually went better, although this wasn’t by any means universal and there are plenty of blunders by lower level figures described. Even Churchill wasn’t immune, he seemed to be regularly coming up with completely impractical plans, which his military advisers usually managed to talk him out of.

This also means Beevor gives a lot of insight into the internal conflicts, both within a country’s forces, and with their allies. Often pride was a danger, with generals on the same side competing for the prestige of capturing a particular city. The British and Americans regularly clashed over how the war should proceed, and obviously the same but more so with the Russians. Then there’s the Chinese (riven by their own split between Communists and Nationalists), the various French factions. the Eastern European partisans… at times the term “Allies” seems overly simplistic. This becomes especially prominent towards the end of the war in Europe (a topic I’m still particularly interested in, because of how it leads into the Cold War and shapes the Europe of today). Beevor covers all this diplomacy just as well as he does the military campaigns.

There is one aspect of the war that I would have liked to read a bit more about: the science and technology. For example Ultra intelligence from the Allied cracking of Axis codes crops up several times as swinging a particular battle, or saving a crucial ship. But Beevor never really explains where it comes from. Similarly the war concludes with the atomic bombs used on Japan, and he goes into some detail on the decision to use these, but makes no mention of the vast efforts of the Manhattan Project which had led up to them being available. Just a minor quibble, and I understand these things may have been thought too tangential in an already very long book, but to me it seems they could have at least been fleshed out a little, given their crucial effects on the war.

Anyway, other than that minor point, I thought this was an excellent history of the war as a whole, and certainly more than filled the gaps in my knowledge. Now I have the urge to hunt out scores more books giving greater detail about individual parts of the war mentioned here, which seems like a good sign. I believe Beevor has written a few of those himself, and if they’re up to this standard I really look forward to reading them.

Review: The Professor and the Madman

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionarby Simon Winchester

The core of the book is the fascinating human story of Dr W.C. Minor, and how he made incalculable contributions to the first Oxford English Dictionary from his rather unusual dwelling: Broadmoor lunatic asylum. However the book also covers the wider history of dictionaries, and the OED in particular. All this is very well told by Winchester.

★★★★★ 5/5 stars

Review: Dear Undercover Economist

Dear Undercover Economist: Priceless Advice on Money, Work, Sex, Kids, and Life’s Other Challenges by Tim Harford.

Disappointing. I’m a fan of Tim Harford, having enjoyed the original Undercover Economist and Adapt, as well as being a regular “More or Less” listener. This format didn’t really seem to work though. The replies are too short to cover the economic concepts properly. Worse, the concepts often seem to have been shoehorned in. I realise that’s partly for humorous effect, but to be honest I found it to wear thin rather quickly.
There are a few genuinely funny and insightful replies. However I would recommend the original Undercover Economist book as far more informative.

★★☆☆☆ 2/5 stars

My favourite Android apps

Thought I’d write a quick blog on some of the Android apps I’ve found most useful. I haven’t included any of the built-in apps here – obviously Gmail, Google Calendar, Maps etc. are great but you don’t really need me to tell you that! Also I’ve not included any games, maybe will do another post for them later.
I’m using a Samsung Galaxy S II with Ice Cream Sandwich, but all these apps should work perfectly well on most phones. Most are free, a few are paid but I consider them all excellent value.
  • aTimer – A simple concept (multiple simultaneous countdown timers) fantastically executed. The interface design is both beautiful and easy to use, and it comes in really handy for cooking.
  • BeyondPod – I’d experimented with podcasts on my PC a bit in the past but never really got into them, probably due to the annoyances of iTunes. I’d fire it up occasionally, but most of the time just wanted to avoid it, so hardly kept up with those I did try.
    It was quite a while after getting my first smartphone that I thought “hmmm… this could be used for podcasts”. (It was possibly the BBC’s excellent “In Our Time” that finally got me into it.) As it turned out, it became basically the killer app for my phone, and BeyondPod is the slickest one I’ve tried by far. Keeping up with podcasts is so easy, variable playback speed and support for audiobooks just seal the deal.
  • Catch That Bus – Just an incredibly useful app for finding live UK bus times. Good use of maps, plus the ability to set stops as favourites and even create shortcuts for them on the homescreen is handy.
  • GTasks – Task list with the crucial ingredient: seamless integration with Google Tasks. Also supports multiple lists, and has some nice looking widgets.
  • Minimalistic Text – A widget that does what it says on the tin. Simple but endlessly customisable text widgets for time/date, battery, weather and other things. Particularly great combined with Tasker (see below) as it can use variables set by that, and with Widget Locker.
  • Pomodroido – A bit niche, but this is a simple and brilliant timer for the Pomodoro Technique (http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/)
  • Screen Filter – For when the minimum screen brightness is still too bright, this just lets you dim the screen even more. Saves burning your eyes at night.
  • Spotify (beta) – There was no way Spotify was going to be on the list originally. The previous version of their app a buggy piece of crap, arguably the worst app I’d tried on Android – especially so as I was paying a monthly fee for Spotify Premium largely for the ability to use it on mobile. Confusing interface, constant crashes, and an even more annoying bug – it would sometimes start playing tracks completely unprompted!
    But the new beta version (not in the market yet, you have to get it from their website, linked above) is an immense improvement. Hasn’t crashed once on me yet, plus the interface is beautiful and fits right in with Ice Cream Sandwich. Also the options for higher quality streaming are nice. There are some features missing (main one for me is last.fm scrobbling), but these are minor and promised to be coming soon.
  • Tasker – If you haven’t come across Tasker, it’s an amazingly powerful app for automating your phone. For example if I’m at home (connected to home wi-fi) and it’s late at night, Tasker will switch my phone to silent mode and dim the screen (using Screen Filter). When I leave the house it automatically switches off wi-fi, until I turn it on again. The only issue I have, is that I’m not using it to anywhere near its full potential. There’s a subreddit with some more great examples.
  • Twitter – Some people swear by alternative Twitter clients, and personally I love Tweetdeck on the PC. However the official Android app works great for me, and looks nice too.
  • Unified Remote (free, full) – It’s a remote control for your PC that works over a wifi connection. Or more accurately it’s several remotes, covering a wide variety of programs as well as basic mouse and keyboard control. The VLC remote is my personal favourite. The whole package is nicely done, and surprisingly easy to set up.
  • Widget Locker – By far the app I use the most, because it entirely replaces the lockscreen. And it doesn’t even need root. As the name suggests you can add widgets (looks great with Minimalistic Text), but you can also choose different unlocking styles. One fantastic feature is that some styles allow you multiple unlock options, for example mine is set up so that swiping right unlocks normally, but swiping left jumps straight to the camera. I think this is now a standard feature in Android 4, but Widget Locker meant I could get it beforehand and it’s more customizable.
  • Winamp – It took a while to find a music player on Android that I was really happy with, and Winamp was it. It hasn’t seen many updates recently, and it seems the competition has greatly improved since, but it still does everything I want, and does it excellently. Plus if you use Winamp on the desktop like I do – wireless syncing!
  • Yaaic – IRC client, which often comes in handy for work. Nothing particularly fancy, but does it well.

Review: Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This is supposedly a classic novella, or short novel. Well it certainly felt short on plot, yet reading it seemed to drag on forever.

I’ve never given up on a book partway through, but this time it was incredibly tempting. The narrator’s prose is tedious and nothing of consequence seems to happen for ages (perhaps because he is constantly travelling with a fixed goal, and only meets other characters briefly). Only the fact that it was short encouraged me to plough on.

Fortunately later on it did pick up a tad. Actually my favourite part was the meeting between Marlow and Kurtz’s fiancée, something of an epilogue to the actual story.

However I still can’t understand why it’s regarded as a classic. Kurtz, the driving force of the story, exists mainly through reputation and other characters extolling him, rather than any of his actions. “Mr. Kurtz was the best agent he had, an exceptional man…” “I was then rather excited at the prospect of meeting Kurtz very soon…” “I was cut to the quick at the idea of having lost the inestimable privilege of listening to the gifted Kurtz…” It’s as if Conrad had never heard of ‘show, don’t tell’. Then inevitably, finally meeting Kurtz seems like a huge anti-climax. Nor did I find the supposed anti-colonial themes compelling. Perhaps when it was written they were more shocking, but the fact that colonialism was not all sweetness and light hardly qualifies as a revelation these days.

Oh and by the end if Conrad title-dropped the words “heart” and “darkness” one more time I was quite ready to drop dead muttering “the horror! the horror!” myself.

Review: Masters of Doom

Masters of DoomMasters of Doom by David Kushner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have to say first of all, what a fantastic choice of topic! It’s amazing what an influence ID have had in computer games and beyond, and I was delighted to find a book like this had been written.

And very well written it is too. Kushner has researched his topic in incredible depth, as is made clear from the author’s notes at the back of the book including how many people he interviewed. More than that he strings all the disparate details into a compelling story. Clearly the author is a fan of the two Johns and the other people involved, but he doesn’t shy away from presenting their flaws.

My only quibble is that there could be more detail in places, especially on Carmack’s significant technical achievements.

Review: Starship Titanic

Starship TitanicStarship Titanic by Terry Jones

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had always thought this book was more of a close collaboration (à la Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens, one of my all-time favourites). However it turns out that Adams spent his time on the computer game of the same name, with Terry Jones writing this novel based on the setting pretty much on his own.

So it’s somewhat unfair to compare it with other works actually written by DNA. That’s fortunate, because it doesn’t stand up too well. There are a few great Adams-esque elements – the bomb springs to mind. But much of the book is taken up with unexpected raunchiness and dull relationships.

This would probably have been a 2 star review for the book, but it gets bumped up one because I listened to the audiobook version, recorded by Terry Jones himself. He does a great job with that at least, including some hilarious screaming!

Review: Notes from a Big Country

Notes from a Big Country by Bill Bryson.

I loved the other Bryson books I’ve read (A Short History… and Notes From a Small Island), so had high hopes for this one. To be honest I found it a little disappointing. There are still some hilarious moments (the first encounter of Bryson’s head with a football comes to mind), and witty observations. But I hadn’t realised this book was a compilation of newspaper columns, and they do become a bit formulaic after reading many of them. Still worthwhile, but I’d recommend Notes From a Small Island over this.

3/5 stars.