Tag Archives: Reading2023

What if? 2

Following on from XKCD, “What if?,” and “How to” comes Randal Munroe’s “What if? 2.” It’s another collection of silly questions with scientific, humorous answers. Examples include “Could you eat a cloud?” and “How far could you see if you had an eye as big as the earth?”

It’s as simple as this: if you liked those books, you’ll like this one.

“Incineration of organic matter within it” is a bad feature for an umbrella.

If I have a criticism, it’s that it feels like it’s playing by numbers at this point. All the same ingredients are there. I did enjoy it — I genuinely laughed out loud at parts of it — but it’s not as fresh and original as, well, the original. Is this the fate of all sequels?

Atrocity Archive

I’m not sure that I can explain why it took me so long to read this Charlie Stross book. Some of the references to nineties computing tech dated it a little, but no more than Douglas Adams’ obsession with digital watches. The characters are pretty good, as is the writing. It strays into the mystical, magical world but there was always a logic underpinning the world. (The lack of “logic” in many fantasy books is one of the reasons I generally prefer sci-fi.)

In that sense, I don’t know what to conclude. I quite enjoyed it but the fact that it took me a year to read surely says something?

Jews don’t count

I’ll cut to the chase: David Baddiel’s book about anti-semitism and how it’s often treated as a second-class form of racism is very much a worthwhile read. I’m sure you can find more academic works, or with more detail, but even in this short text, he’s able to passionately and effectively makes his case.

I had a sneaking suspicion that I didn’t fully understand the subject, and it does a nice job of filling in those gaps. As he notes at one point, there are lots of oh yeah, I suppose so, never really thought about it like that moments.

In parts, it’s an uncomfortable read in the sense that it challenges your understanding of the world and likely suggests that you’ve been (inadvertently at least) antisemitic or accepting of the same in others.

If you can manage that level of self-reflection, it’s recommended.

How Westminster Works… and why it doesn’t

If there’s one good thing that has come out of the whole Brexit omnishambles, it’s that my understanding of how British politics works has dramatically increased. I don’t think it’s worth the cost, but understanding how laws are debated and passed is something that should be taught in schools, but isn’t.

Brexit taught me about Proroguing Parliament and the various readings of bills. I learned of the role that committees serve and the works that the Lords do. It made me do homework to find out what a “three line whip” is.

My piecemeal approach to understanding the whole was interesting, but delegating the hard work of structuring it into a cohesive whole was worth it. Thanks, Ian Dunt.

This isn’t a balanced, academic treatise. Rather, it’s pitched as how it doesn’t work with an epilogue suggesting solutions to the worst problems. The writing is energetic, angry even, but clear and structured. This energy is what keeps the book entertaining, in what could have been a dry subject matter.

If you’re familiar with his podcasting work, you might be disappointed by the lack of swearing. If so, make sure you read the acknowledgements. There’s no bad language, but the vignette with his dog is illuminating.

A Decade in Tory

“A Decade in Tory” by Russell Jones was a shorter book than I thought. Ordinarily that might be a bad thing, but the reason for my confusion in this case is that there are nearly five hundred pages of footnotes and fifty for the index. There are plenty of criticisms you could make, but you can’t argue that it’s not well researched or that the events are made up.

Because, honestly, if you hadn’t lived through some of the stories, read about them as they occurred, you might well think they were fictional.

If it’s not obvious from the title, the book documents the various Conservative led governments from 2010 to 2022. It lists all the little twists and turns that you vaguely remember but had tried to forget.

That could all be a bit tedious and dry, but Jones has a way with words. He’s not going to win any literary awards but his description of some politicians are hard to forget.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the precise physical intersection of a cursed oboe and the concept of gout.


He’s so devoid of personality that his official portrait is the curtains behind him.

You might be able to guess who this is.

She’s like a modern-day Cnut; and that’s not a typo, you just think it is.

It’s simply structured, easy to read and very self-aware.

It’s absolutely fine to scream occasionally while reading this book.

It’s not a classic. It’s not pretending to be unbiased. It won’t change anyone’s mind. In fact, you’ll likely know whether you’ll like it. Check out his feed on Twitter if you want a free preview.

It made Tory MPs feel very cross, and made everybody participating feel very cross, and it achieved absolutely nothing. A bit like this book.

If you’d forgotten how rotten the Torys have become, this book is a great reminder. But it’s important to keep some perspective and understand that politicians are not all the same. Many genuinely do get into politics to improve people’s lives and make the world better. I hope you voted for them in yesterday’s council elections, and not the bunch of Charlatans this book is about.

How Not To Be Wrong

“How not to be wrong: The art of changing your mind” is a follow-up to James O’Brien’s earlier book, “How to be right.” The idea this time is that he walks through a number of areas where he has been wrong in the past and has changed his mind.

It’s such a simple concept, but, as a society, we have difficulty doing exactly that. Politicians are criticised for doing the wrong thing and then again for doing a u-turn. Tribal loyalty means that people won’t change their minds if that would mean agreeing with “the enemy.” I’m not putting myself above this1, sadly, and neither does O’Brien.

He explores a wide range of subjects, from corporal punishment in schools, to stop and search, tattoos, fat-shaming and trans rights. For some subjects, he admits he was wrong, others we discover that it’s all a bit more complicated than that, and that, perhaps, anyone with absolute certainty is missing something. We’d be better off as a society if people were willing to say “I don’t know” more often.

The debates are a mixture of personal anecdotes and transcripts from guests on his radio show. It’s simply structured and competently written. His earnest, chummy, man-of-the-people vibe, also present in his earlier book, grated on me more this time for some reason. Overall I’d say that I like the idea of the book more than the execution.

Like his previous effort, it’s not a bad book but nor is it an essential read.

  1. “Fortunately,” the current government isn’t giving me much opportunity to reluctantly agree with them. ↩︎