Factfulness – Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think – Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund

Factfulness was written by a team of Swedish researchers at the Gapminder Foundation. Its aim is to use data to explain the world, and why most people have very skewed impressions about it. By asking targeted questions about infant mortality, education levels, disease, and so forth, the authors open up to discussions about what the world is really like, and where it is going. They also analyze and explain why our instincts often lead us in the wrong direction. A toolkit of sorts is laid out to help the reader be more “factful”.

The late Dr. Rosling first rose to fame with a Ted talk in which he challenged the preconceptions of the audience, using unambiguous and clear data presented in an engaging manner. His infectious enthusiastic manner shines through in the writing. The subject matter is ostensibly rather dry, but the authors make it fun, using interesting anecdotes from aid work around the world to raise questions. The chapters are short and punchy, ensuring the reader doesn’t lose interest.

A book which I would recommend to anyone, as everyone can use some Factfulness in their life.

Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX – Eric Berger

Given unprecedented access to the current and former employees of SpaceX, including Elon Musk, Mr. Berger of Ars Technica tells the story of the first years of SpaceX. The company was a maverick startup that few people in the industry took seriously. A team of scrappy engineers taking on seemingly impossible challenges, unhampered by the bureacratic trappings of established companies. If you needed something done, you did it. If you needed a piece of kit, you bought it. In classic Silicon Valley fashion, Elon Musk hired people he trusted to work hard and get things done, and then let them get on with it, supporting them as needed. Certainly, there were clashes, and setbacks, and mistakes, but the job did indeed get done, and how!

Even knowing much of the story beforehand, reading about the hardships of the early days was fascinating. Reading the words of those actually involved in working insane hours, overcoming monumental challenges, and suffering through long months far from home at the remote Pacific atoll of Kwajalein, makes the story come to life. I had no idea of exactly how tough conditions were, and how many hair-raising situations were dealt with. The fact that SpaceX survived those early years, and went on to become the industry leader it is today, is a testament to power of ideas, and how motivated people can make the seemingly impossible happen.

Sid Meier’s Memoir!: A Life in Computer Games – Sid Meier

Legendary computer game designer Sid Meier‘s memoir is a heartfelt love letter to a life in computer gaming. The designer of Civilization not details the trials of designing and publishing games through his multi-decade experience of the industry. More importantly, it delves deep into discussions on what is important for a game to be enjoyable. Thankfully, this is not a technical treatise delving deep into the programming. Instead, it focuses on the effects of game mechanics on the experience. Mr. Meier also widens the scope of the discussion, by sharing his thoughts on the nature of art in general.

The book is mostly chronological, with frequent flashbacks to various events of childhood and adolescence. Mr. Meier has a self-deprecating style which shows through here as it does in his games. His recipe for success seems deceptively simple. Figure out what people enjoy, and make games that are enjoyable. Several humorous anecdotes about player and playtester feedback illustrate his point.

Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? – Graham Allison

In this non-fiction treatise, Harvard international relations expert Dr. Allison analyses the brewing great power contest between the United States and China. He starts with the work of classical historian Thucydides, who argued that the Peloponnesian War in the 4th Century BC was an almost inevitable consequence of a rising power challenging the status quo embodied by a the dominating power at the time. Dr. Allison uses a variety of similar situations in history, including the lead up to World War One, as well as the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, to discuss the consequences of such conflicts, and how they can be avoided.

The book is a fascinating look into how powers may find war unavoidable, even though it is against their interests, if they do not take action to move beyond attempting to maintain the status quo. There is also an in-depth discussion about the fundamental differences between Chinese and Western culture, importantly including the concepts of governance. Unfortunately, these particularities and differences do not seem well understood in the West.

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions – Randall Munroe

What If? deals with the absurd questions that Mr. Munroe receives on a section of his website, which is primarily known for hosting his webcomic XKCD. Questions include what would happen to you if you started to rise at the rate of one foot per second and what would happen if the Moon disappeared.

While the questions themselves are absurd, Mr. Munroe works through the logic and maths in a serious way, which results in some surprising insights. His trademark irony and delightfully witty foodnotes make for a very enjoyable read.

This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor – Adam Kay

A no holds barred, brutally frank, bloody, tearful, joyous, and hilarious account of life as a junior doctor.

The events, described in short anecdotes, are often somewhat disturbing given how blindly we depend on and trust the medical profession (this very concept is also addressed and deconstructed), but I was nevertheless left impressed with the ethics and selflessness displayed even in difficult situations. While the book is uncompromisingly honest about the failings of the medical profession, it equally is a triumph; a heartfelt homage to those who toil endlessly to save and improve our lives. The understated wit is biting, and I found myself laughing out loud with some regularity. This is truly one of the funniest books that I have ever read. The descriptions of blood-spattered delivery room procedures often made me cringe, which made the laughter even more heartfelt. At the end, I felt drained of emotion, but I was smiling. Mr. Kay’s unrelenting optimism about humanity is charming, and contagious.

How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems – Randall Munroe

How-To tackles seemingly mundane problems like “how to dig a hole”, “how to cross a river”, or how to move house”, but takes them to absurd and hilarious extremes. For example, the moving house chapter includes a calculation of how far you could fly your house if you mounted jet engines to it.

Mr. Munroe is the author of the famous webcomic XKCD, and he brings his unique perspective to this very funny book. One key aspect which makes this book transcend mere humour is that the underlying science is basically sound. While it may not be possible to deploy a field of teakettles to boil a river in order to cross it (yes, that is one of the solutions considered), the consequences of the heating are calculated and described with as much accuracy as possible.

Worms to Catch – Guy Martin

Mr. Martin’s third memoir continues to detail his doubts and tribulations over whether he should continue road racing. While he ponders that question, he manages to break the world speed record on a Wall of Death, finish the grueling Tour Divide ultra-distance bicycle race, and as usual spanner some trucks.

If you enjoyed the previous books, you will like this one. Mr. Martin bares his soul to the reader in refreshingly frank way. He doesn’t try to make himself look better than he is, and he freely admits that he can re-evaluate opinions and even change his mind completely on things. As we all should when circumstances change, I suppose.

When You Dead, You Dead – Guy Martin

Lorry mechanic, motorcycle racer and speed demon Guy Martin writes about his most eventful year to date. Including discussions about his inner chimp, Brian, and whether he should continue to race motorcycles.

An entertaining and interesting read, just like the first book. Behind the aw-shucks exterior is an intelligent, passionate and driven man who is still discovering what it is that makes him tick.

At the Edge of Space: The X-15 Flight Program – Milton O. Thompson

The X-15 program ran from 1959 to 1968, with three aircraft exploring high altitude and high-speed flight. The research program contributed a wide range of scientific advances that were instrumental in the development of the Space Shuttle and fly by wire control technology, among other things. The work of flying the X-15 was dangerous and exacting, leading to the death of one pilot and involving numerous emergencies. It remains to this date by far the fastest and highest-flying winged aircraft in history.

Mr. Thompson’s account is matter-of-fact, with few embellishments. (The author does note that he is not a writer.) While it retains a certain flatness of style throughout, the book is nonetheless fascinating for the aviation buff. These men, including a young Neil Armstrong, were exploring the unknown fringes of the flight envelope in an unforgiving aircraft, frequently referred to in the book as “The Bull”. While sometimes the text veers into catalogues of flights with their respective purposes, it is peppered with interesting and funny anecdotes, as well as edge-of-your-seat accounts of in-flight emergencies.

Flying Upside Down – Duke Nukem

An extremely irreverent book about flying as a contract pilot in Mainland China. Everything from living conditions, to pay, to punitive schemes for minor infractions, to hair-raising transcripts of conversations with air traffic control, management, and first officers. The structure is loose, mainly made up of anecdotes and redacted emails from company officials.

The book is self-published and free to distribute. It is also full of grammatical and orthographic errors, with a structure that barely deserves the moniker. The tone is joking, sarcastic and exasperated, often to excess. The formatting goes from passable to awful. The content, though, is fascinating and horrifying in equal measure. The non-pilot would probably not find it very interesting, as it is full of jargon and addresses the unique aspects challenges of the profession.

How Apollo Flew to the Moon – W. David Wood

A technical overview of the Apollo program, from hardware to missions, set at a level suitable for the interested layman. The author wisely starts discussions from first principles, from a basic explanation of orbits to the intricacies of stellar navigation.

The book is extremely well researched and clearly written. Mr. Wood has sprinkled the text with actual radio chatter and interviews with the protagonists. This elevates the chapters from a dry, textbook style discussion into something far more real.

A must read for any space program enthusiast.

Forever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and Space – John W. Young with James R. Hansen

John Young was undoubtedly the most experienced astronaut of NASA’s early era, active from the days of Gemini, through Apollo and the Space Shuttle. He walked on the Moon, commanded the first test flight of the Space Shuttle and didn’t retire from NASA until he was seventy-four. He was legendary for his soft-spoken demeanour, coolness under pressure and later in his career, for not being afraid to speak truth to power on issues of mission risk.

His memoir is laid out in a straightforward chronological fashion, starting with early life and following him throughout his career in the Navy and at NASA. While he is most well known for his missions, his time as head of the Astronaut Office and then as a sort of senior and independent safety inspector within NASA, make up large parts of the narrative. There is also ample space dedicated to the Challenger and Columbia accidents, with extensive technical detail.

For any NASA and space buff, the memoir is interesting reading. However, it is a bit of a slog. The style is quite dry and self-effacing, much as the man himself. Descriptions of missions mostly chronicle events without poetic embellishments. This is in stark contrast with, for example, the memoirs of Gene Cernan, Gene Krantz and Mike Mullane, which in their different ways speak much more passionately about the subject matter. The book feels long-winded in many parts, with sections which are just listing various mission achievements, seemingly for completeness’ sake. The most readable bits are where Mr. Young manages to convey his considerable technical expertise to illustrate an issue concisely, such as when he discusses his testimony before the Rogers Commission, investigating Challenger.

I strongly felt that more decisive editing could have made this a more readable book, but then again, I also felt that Mr. Young’s particular voice came through loud and clear.

Tide of Battle – Michael Z. Williamson

Short story and essay collection. The fiction runs the gamut from entries in the author’s Freehold Universe, to Victorian fantasy, and a rather interesting novella set in an alternate Bronze Age, pitting sentient humanoid felines against mind-controlling dinosaur-like reptiles. The essays contain some amusing musings on rifle technology, as well as very inappropriate, and often hilarious, cocktail recipes.

While I don’t always agree with Mr. Williamson’s political views, even in his fiction, he offers insightful political and social commentary with a great deal of thought and research behind it. There is a short passage about how his views have developed in the two decades since he published Freehold. This passage provides tantalising glimpse of an interesting mind which does not deny the impact of new data.

Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA – Amy Shira Teitel

This is the story of how the American space program came to be. Starting with humble experiments in the early 20th century, continuing with the German rocketeers of the 30s and 40s, and developing into the advanced US military programs in the 50s.

Ms. Teitel is a space historian and producer of the popular YouTube channel Vintage Space, in which she presents short segments focusing on particular bits of space history. The subject matter of this book is fascinating, and not only because it is not as popular as the early NASA period from the formation of the agency to the end of the Apollo Program, which is documented and described in hundreds of books and documentaries. The story of the German rocketeers before and during World War II reads almost like a thriller.

Ms. Teitel lays out the subject matter clearly, mostly avoiding confusion by periodically reminding the reader of myriad programs and initiatives with repeated mentions of names. Given the very intricate events and relationships of the post-war US rocket launch initiatives, this is no small feat.  While clarity is achieved, a history should focus on bringing people and events to life. This one fails to really grip the reader and would probably not be very an interesting read to the non-enthusiast. A more in-depth focus on a changing society, or a deep dive into technology, or character analysis of particular figures and their motivations, would have made the whole thing more engaging and less bland. Put bluntly, the story told lacks the ability to provoke passion in the reader because there is little depth presented. Many parts read like an encyclopedia entry.

The prose could use some polish, perhaps with stricter editing. There is an overuse of “as well” and “also”. Too many sentences start with conjunctions, making for a sometimes jarring rhythm in the text. The decision to use purely US/Imperial units without conversions even in footnotes makes the text less accessible to readers from most of the world.

The subtitle is somewhat misleading. While the Soviet space program is frequently featured, there is no in-depth analysis of that side, and information on the adversary serves mostly as background to the US program.

Flying the Knife Edge: New Guinea Bush Pilot – Matt McLaughlin

Mr. McLaughlin started his aviation career in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, but washed out before completing his initial training. He then found work as a “bush pilot” in Papua New Guinea for a few years, notorious for some of the most dangerous flying conditions on Earth.

I have a soft spot for aviation memoirs, and I enjoyed this one more than most. Mr. McLaughlin writes with both sincerity and an entertaining dry wit. The humour starkly contrasts many of the events depicted, as in sections the book seems to be the chronicle of a succession of fatal crashes. Highly recommended for the aviation enthusiast, but perhaps not as quite as entertaining for those not enamoured with the field.

The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss – Jason Fung

Dr. Jason Fung is a specialist in Type 2 Diabetes and obesity. The Obesity Code goes back to first principles in order to explain why people become obese, and what they can do about it.

I liked the fact that almost every bold statement in the book, of which there are many, was thoroughly researched and supported by actual data. This is not a pop-science guide with only vague foundations that “seem to make sense”. If the data doesn’t fit, Dr. Fung examines why it doesn’t, and which hypothesis would actually fit. This is tome of solid science targeted at the layman.

What I found most interesting was how complex the mechanisms controlling weight gain and loss are. I had for a long time believed strongly that input vs. output was the only answer. It seems I was wrong, or at least only partially correct. It turns out that most perceived wisdom about weight is, if not incorrect, then at least incomplete, especially if individual factors are taken in isolation. And that is perhaps the key message. You cannot take a single reaction and single it out. A holistic approach is needed.

Now to do some testing on myself.

Elon Musk: Inventing the Future – Ashlee Vance

Elon Musk is looking more and more like the real life Tony Stark, minus the super-powered metal suit. Self-made billionaire, innovating industrialist, visionary and working hard to save the future of the human race. Mr. Vance’s biography draws on thousands of hours of interviews with Musk, his family, his friends, his colleagues and his peers. It takes the reader from Mr. Musk’s beginnings as an awkward wunderkind to the not so distant past of early 2015. Since then, SpaceX has gone from triumph to triumph with ever increasing ambition, and Tesla seems on the verge of following.

The biography gets up close and personal with Musk, declining to gloss over the man’s less pleasant character traits. By all accounts he can lack empathy and is not overly concerned with coddling people. His goals are overarching and he has little patience with people who get in his way.

Even before reading this book, I had noticed a disconnect between how normal people in industry try to analyse Musk and how he actually behaves. Musk’s goals are far more long term than building successful companies. His business empire is a means to an end, not the vehicle of his chosen legacy. It is somewhat baffling that he has repeatedly and clearly stated his goals (most notably removing dependency on fossil fuels and colonising Mars to ensure humanity’s long term survival) but most people either don’t take him seriously (he’s dead serious) or try to judge him as if he were a normal person (he isn’t).

As recently as yesterday, Mr. Musk outlined his refined vision for Mars colonisation. What was interesting is that the competition is now starting to pay attention, coming up with (rather staid) ideas of its own. Ten or fifteen years ago, Musk was a weird guy with weird ideas whom the establishment could ignore. Today, his continued success at delivering on his spectacular promises has already engendered deep shifts in the areas of energy production, the automotive industry and the space launch industry. The competition is imitating and scrambling to catch up, but this was Musk’s goal all along. He always knew that Tesla wouldn’t kill all the other car manufacturers. His goal was to make all cars electric, not to have them all branded Tesla.

For the reader who wants to delve deeper into the thinking behind Musk’s ideas, I highly recommend Wait But Why’s series of excellent in depth articles.

Ignition!: An informal history of liquid rocket propellants – John D. Clark

Ignition was written by one of the scientists working on rocket propellants from the 1940s to the 1970s. Back when there was a Cold War on, meaning missiles of various varieties, and a Space Race on, meaning rockets of various varieties.

The text stretched my high school chemistry to its breaking point, and then broke it. While I won’t pretend to understand much of the actual science, I was drawn in by Dr. Clark’s bone-dry prose and hilariously understated anecdotes, as well as his humourously cynical view of government research projects. When asked how to handle a certain unstable explosive compound, he writes “I recommend a good pair of running shoes”. The period described was a golden age for propellant research, and government agencies were throwing around silly money to projects with little or no chance of success, in the hope that something would stick. In that way it is very much a sideline commentary on a time where mankind went from Earthbound to Spacebound; a time when science and technology were the answer. Just a bit more research and we can crack just about anything.

S.P.Q.R: A History of Ancient Rome – Mary Beard

S.P.Q.R. charts the development of the Ancient Rome from the murkiest depths of its origin mythos to the grant of citizenship to all free men by the Emperor Caracalla in the year 212CE. Dr. Beard carefully parses fact from fiction, while deconstructing the Ancient Roman mythos still very much alive to this day.

Where this book shines is in its meticulous attention to evidence. While stories of what various Roman emperors and military heroes did are in wide circulation today, many are based on later writings which did not have access to primary sources. Certainly many historians from the Classical Era, whom are now viewed as reliable sources, seem to have tainted their writings to make a benefactor, or themselves, look better. Dr. Beard lays bare where there is only incomplete evidence, hints or plain myth. It is a fascinating book for the history buff, though I felt that the author’s style was perhaps a little too ironically British.

My Autobiography – Guy Martin

Guy Martin sees his profession as being a truck mechanic. On the side, he is a world-famous motorcycle racer, and a sometime TV presenter.  He is definitely something of a refreshing character among the divas of today’s media world.

This is his story, in his words.  Mr. Martin is almost brutally frank in his praise and criticism of people, including himself. he book makes you feel as if you’re having a cup of tea with the author while he is yammering away, stream of consciousness style. The man is seemingly not bothered by fame or by following a certain path in life. He simply wants to fix trucks, race motorbikes and take on any other project that tickles his fancy. The publicity around him seems to mostly make him uncomfortable. He comes from a humble background and has no interest in becoming more than a person who works hard and does things “proper”.

The Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America’s Race in Space – Eugene Cernan with Don Davis

On 14 December, 1973, Gene Cernan re-entered the Lunar Module Challenger after the third and final moonwalk of Apollo 17, the final Apollo Moon Mission. It was the culmination of a lifetime’s aspirations, first as a US Navy Pilot, then as an Astronaut. This is his story, told in his own words.

Mr. Cernan comes across as a straight talker with a rock-solid work ethic; a conservative in the traditional sense. When he wrote this memoir, he gave the impression of being long past any point where he needed to impress anyone.  His account is frank and does not mince words about anyone, including himself. While Cernan will never be remembered like Neil Armstrong, Apollo 17 had much more value from a scientific standpoint. It had the longest stay on the surface, the longest space walks, the longest distance traversed, the heaviest load of samples and the speed record for the lunar rover (unofficial).

A great book for any fan of the space race, or even flying in general.

In a sad coincidence, Mr. Cernan passed away on 16 January of this year, while I was in the middle of reading his book.

The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe – Thomas Levenson

TheHuntforVulcanIn the centuries following Sir Isaac Newton’s publication of the Law of Gravity, scientists equipped with increasingly advanced telescopes tried worked to explain anomalies in the orbital paths of planets. “Wobbles” in the orbit of Uranus led to the discovery of Neptune. Mercury also wobbles, and it was long thought that it was under the influence of a small undiscovered planet named Vulcan. This book traces the history of the search for Vulcan, and how Einstein’s Theory of Relativity finally “killed” the need for the little planet.

As history of astronomy and science, this short book is interesting. However it is not page-turning material, failing to really grip the reader.