Reading - June 2015

The Code Book by Simon Singh (2000)
An interesting, accessible, well-written introduction to cryptography and related subjects. Its only drawback (at least in the edition I have) is that it is now out-of-date; it discusses the theoretical possibility of quantum cryptography, which now appears (incredibly) to be a reality.
Guitarist (July 2015 / Issue 395)
The Week (6 June 2015 / Issue 1025)
The Year Of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs (2007)
This charts the author's attempt to fulfill all the commands in the Old and New Testaments for a year - not just the obvious ten, but all the minor, obscure, ignored or just plain daft. In doing so, Jacobs isn't attempting to grind any particular axe. It would be easy to conduct this exercise as a way of showing up the ridiculousness of religious fundamentalists or literalists, but he never does, and indeed genuinely tries to understand those who do follow those paths. However, at the end, he reaches the only reasonable conclusion; anyone religious practices a form of "cafeteria religion", and to criticise someone else's choice is pointless.
The Week (13 June 2015 / Issue 1026)
Self Made Man by Norah Vincent (2006)
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely (2009)
All the various experiments Ariely and various colleagues have done to show that however logical we like to think we are, it doesn't take much to show we aren't. His main point is to try and inject some sense into market economics which (he says) is all based on the assumption that everyone acts rationally, and is summarised best in one paragraph (which I will have to paraphrase because I can't find it): we don't design roads with the assumption that everyone is always a perfect driver, so why design an economic system assuming that everyone is a perfect economist? Entertaining and thought-provoking.
The End Of Eternity by Isaac Asimov (1955)
Taken of the bookshelf for B to read, but ended up re-reading it myself. Great stuff, but inevitably dated in many respects; it's fascinating how rooted in their own time science fiction stories are, but that said it a lot easier to spot with sixty years perspective!
Jeeves And The Feudal Spirit by P.G. Wodehouse (1954)
Fantastically comic writing, of course, but even at the time this was written this must have been an anachronism. Maybe we should call it "out of time". A lovely little story to amuse.
The Week (20 June 2015 / Issue 1027)
The Week (27 June 2015 / Issue 1028)


Self Made Man

Norah Vincent

I first read this about five years along with another book - it served as an unintentional yin to the extreme yang of The Game by Neil Strauss, the notorious chronicle-slash-manual of the "art" of pick-up artists. I've often thought about it since, so I thought re-reading was worthwhile.

The book is like the equivalent of Watching The English but for (American) men - an inside view from an outsider. Norah Vincent spent a year disguised as "Ned", in largely exclusively male environments (including bowling leagues, strip clubs and a monastery) and also in mixed environments (for example, dating) as a man. She discusses and make contrasts between the way men behave amongst themselves and received women's wisdom about how and why men act; and between women's assumptions about men's motives and what she discovers to be their real motives.

Since Norah Vincent is a journalist, this is an account of her journey and resultant opinions rather than anything scientific (is the latter even possible in this context?), but nevertheless she reaches the only reasonable conclusion: whatever generalisations, simplifications and stereotypes women and men hold about each other are both right and wrong. Or, to put it another way, it's not that simple. Yes, the stereotypes exist for a reason. No, that's not the whole story. Duh.

The book struggles a bit with length, since the material doesn't quite stretch, but it would be too much for a Sunday supplement article. Still very interesting. Now if only someone would do it the other way round!