Sunday, July 3, 2011

Bunch o' Book Reviews

It's been a while since I did a book review, but since I finished the P.E. exam and don't have any grad school (yet), I've been filling my time with book and depleted my "to read" pile.

Here are a whole bunch of quick reviews (with covers from Good Reads):

The Making of the Atomic Bomb
The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes.
Loved it. Exhaustive technical coverage of the making of the bomb. It teaches lots of physics and project management. I wish I had read this book when I was in college. Rhodes has a writing style I really like. I've picked up Dark Sun and The Twilight of the Bombs. I've read Twilight of the Bomb and that one covers more of the political side (although the part where the IAEA tracks down the pieces and parts of Iraq's nuclear program is fantastic). Nuclear Renewal is dated crap and is to be avoided.

Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans
Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans by James Gill.
Fantastic. A must-read to understand New Orleans history and why New Orleans society is structured the way it is. There was a speech in one of the last Treme episodes where the old plutocrat describes how each successive generation tried to keep the next one down ('until the Standard Oil men left for Houston').

One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander
One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander by Sandy Woodward.
The Falklands War was a surprisingly nasty little war that everyone has sort of forgotten about (partly because the US was incredibly embarrassed by it; the Reagan administration loved the staunchly anti-communist Junta and the Brits, of course were Robin to our Batman). Woodward gives a lot of credit to the 'Argies' ("We should have realized a country that made great Formula One drivers also made for great fighter pilots"). Had the Argentinians either waited for the British to scrap their carriers or waited for the assembled fleet to fall apart from rust and overdue boiler maintenance, they would have won.

Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945
Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945 by Leo Marks.
Candice read it and then got me to read it. It's all about SOE's operations and field ciphers. Note that you always hear about Bletchley Park's cryptography, but never allied codes (except for maybe the Navajo codetalkers); that's because the allied codes were crap. One of the German cryptographers wrote a book about "Operation North Pole." The book itself is a bit frustrating at first. There's a lot of discussion about the confusing nature of SOE's command hierarchy. Leo Marks doesn't really understand it (which is the point), but it slows the beginning down. A lot of reviewers also thought it was way too technical, but I thought that was the best part of the book (explaining WOK's and one-time-pads). A very sad ending as well.

The Control of Nature
The Control of Nature by John McPhee.
I firmly believe that all engineers should read 1 'engineering disaster'-type book per year. I thought that To Engineer Is Human would do it, but I hated the explanation of fatigue failure, so I gave up on the book and moved on. I found the Control of Nature thanks to XKCD and loved it. Like a combination of Rising Tide, Bayou Farewell, and Inviting Disaster. It covers 3 topics: the Atchafalaya/Old River Control Structure, volcanic eruptions in Iceland, and debris flow in Los Angeles. The only drawback was the analogies (5 million gallons per minute is like ______) droned on too many times and I didn't like some of them.

The Forgotten Soldier
The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer*.
A French/German kid from Alsace-Loraine enlists into the Grossdeuchland Division of the Wermacht. You rarely read histories of the losing army. This is another one Candice got me to read. This is, despite 50 years and the stumbling block of translation, one of the greatest war accounts ever written. Starkly anti-war. Almost the entire book is the long, slow retreat from Stalingrad. You'll be reading the book and you'll get to a part that really just reaches out and grabs you and shakes you. In one part of the book, he remarks how reading war accounts shouldn't be 'in the comfort of your own home, in a nice cozy chair, but instead in a field, cold, starving, tired, standing for hour after hour.'

UPDATE- More random thoughts.

On The Control of Nature: geologists must get pretty cocky around engineers. Geologists study mountain chains being worn down by erosion and here are the engineers proposing 'taming' a river.

On Silk and Cyanide: There's a great quote where Marks is visited by another cryptographer and they talk about political matters and then, as Marks writes, "He paid me the greatest compliment: he got technical." LOVE THAT QUOTE!

* There's a little controversy about Sajer. Some think the book is a forgery, but I don't find that view very credible, although Sajer admits that it's more of an emotional book than a strictly factual reference. Guy is apparently still alive in Paris.

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