books/2018

The Doomsday Machine, by Daniel Ellsberg

First half is a personal narrative of Ellsberg’s investigations into nuclear command and control and general war planning issues, particularly in the pre- and early ICBM period (when the Soviets has very few ICBMs, but many US leaders thought they had thousands), up to the Cuban missle crisis.

Second half is a history, starting before WW2, of how “strategic bombing” developed as the status quo of large scale warfare (at least by the USA and allies), cumulating in the normalization of strategic nuclear bombing infrastructure.

“Fire insurance executives, who were experts in averting the spread of fires (to keep rates down), proved inventive in advising how to reverse that process. American economists […] came to London air headquarters as experts in how an economy worked, how it hung together and what its nodes of interdependence or bottlenecks were, and thus how it could be dismanteled by bombing. This gradually merged with the unacknowledged quest of Bomber Command: how to destroy a city.” (p252)

“Sam, war is killing people. When you kill enough of them, the other guy quits” – Curtis LeMay

A Vast Machine

Didn’t entirely finish this book (it’s laid out in sections like a textbook); was mostily interested in the earlier history bits.

There’s a great annecdote about an early computational weather prediction researcher who had a vision for a giant spherical building full of human computers calculating away and passing messages to their neighbors. A central panopticon-like tower would shine red and blue lights at different section to emphasize whether they were falling behind or getting ahead of the group.

Shadow Libraries

Read the libgen history chapter, which was very interesting, but only skimmed the rest. An academic book, so really just a bunch of case study papers published in the same volume. Any sort of comparison or cohesion between parts would be really valuable

The libgen chapter complements John Backus’ 2018 essays about the history of P2P file sharing techniques well.

100 Years of Solitude

Maybe should have read ages ago, but particularly loved it now. I remember not liking mystical realism when reading in school, but there’s a dark ambiguity here that worked for me, particularly in the later chapters about the government massacre.

Control of Nature

John McPhee always delivers! It was great fun to travel to LA (and specifically Pasadena) just after reading the slide-control section.

The Mississipi river part paired well with both “The Wizard and the Prophet” and “Cadillac Desert” (see below). Haven’t finished the Iceland section.

The Wizard and the Prophet

This book takes a too-large question (whether humans can master nature using science and technology) and oversimplifies down to two historical figures: Borlaug (a techno-wizard) and Voght (an ecologic Cassandra). The structure is largely in two parts: the first half tells the unlikely backstories of the two, and the second half documents their decline in face of political reality.

The human stories in the first part stood up best for me; I don’t have too much patience for dichotomy, but the author lets their contemporaneous life stories do most of the heavy lifting. There’s no specific vision to be inspired by or new deep insight proposed here, but that’s fine as long as you aren’t expecting one.

The Perfect Machine

The long story of construction of the 200" Palomar telescope between 1928 and 1948 or so.

Some choice bits:

  • In the late stage of “figuring” (polishing to a parabola) the primary mirror, opticians would use just a swipe or two of their thumbs (with abrasive/resistive material) to “grind” the mirror. Similarly, touching the mirror with a finger for a few seconds is enough to locally heat and distort the glass.
  • The original control system for the dome shutters used a tiny model of the whole telescope inside the control panel, with limit switches that would control dome movement.
  • famously, when originally balanced and gears disengaged, a bottle of milk could be placed on the mount and that was sufficient torque that the whole thing would move. The fine adjustment equitorial drive was a fraction of a horsepower.
  • the lead optician who ground the disk, “Brownie”, work on grinding for more than 11 years (with a gap for WWII), and when complete “signed” by scratching his name into the central gap
  • a crazy fat solution was used to clean the mirror before aluminizing; burning/boiling this solution off removed any other (eg, human skin) oil or grease). I’m curious how they got the aluminum surface off without damaging the mirror, and also how the aluminization worked to get an even deposition layer; were there multiple heated points?

There are archival videos online from construction.

Kitchen Confidential

Gulped this down in a single Keflavik-SFO return flight; a friend was on the same flight and apparently I was so engrossed I didn’t even notice him. Boudain has become an almost universally beloved international food figure, which somehow made me suspicious and distrustful at first. And indeed, this book left me with the impression that he is, or at least was, not a fundamentally good person (and not just as an assumed persona), but in the end I buy his frank self-reflection act hook, line, and sinker.

I certainly came away with the impression that I now know more about restauranteering and what industrial cooking is like, though maybe I just had smoke blown up my ass.

The verison I read was some kind of special aniversery edition, which had sharpie-style commends scrawled in the margins, which was a gimick I liked better than the name-dropping appologetic epilog.

Cadillac Desert

Loved listening to the first chapters of this while driving back and forth across the Central Valley to hike in the Sierras; hat-tip to Logan. Replayed that experience with Lucy, including down Owens Valley via Mammoth Lakes, but by the time we got to I-5 the going was too dry for her.