Books I read in 2015 - an update


It's been about 8 months since I last posted, and also 2015 is now over, so it feels like a logical thing to finish with the list of books I have read last year. This update is going to be embarrassingly short, so I will compensate by elaborating a little more than usually:

  • Not Much of an Engineer by Stanley Hooker (clippings) - an autobiography of one of the Britain's top engineers and one of the few responsible for the success of the famous Merlin piston engine of war period and later jet engines.

    Apart from a lot of technical details, the book also includes some of the author's personal views on various social issues, which are somewhat brutal by today's standards. While almost any stance from 30-50ss would look quite right-wing today, in this case it is also amplified by the natural bias of Sir Stanley as an extremely talented and hard-working individual, who naturally assumes that if it was easy for him to escape some life traps, many should be just as able to do the same.

    The above is a minor topic in the book of course, so whether you can get behind that or not, about 90% of it is still about engines and the organisational structure of British aircraft engine manufacturers, so if you are into that, you certainly won't regret reading it.

  • The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark (clippings) - a little bit too long, but a detailed explanation of the events that, directly and indirectly, led Europe to the First World War. While offering a bigger picture (economic tendencies in the major states, their trade balances, treaties and loans), it also drills down to the biographies and personalities of some actors (kings, presidents and Saraevo conspirators).

    All of that was especially interesting to me as to someone who went to school in early post-Soviet Russia, where very little attention was paid to WWI which was always overshadowed in textbooks by the revolution of 1917.

    You might find it enjoyable as well if you don't mind long books and if you are not too disturbed by the unavoidable thoughts of how similar are the explained events to what is unfolding in Europe right now.

  • Vulcan Test Pilot: My Experiences in the Cockpit of a Cold War Icon by Tony Blackman (clippings) - since the last flying Avro Vulcan, an iconic Cold War era bomber, was retired in 2015, I decided to read a bit more about it. This book is written by one of its test pilots and would be interesting, I suspect, to aviation geeks only. What I was impressed with most was the technical impossibility for some crew memebers to bail out in too many dangerous situations (imagine their feeling when the pilots have already ejected! - and that actually happened), and also by the habit of one of the top test pilots to fly in his pinstripe suit instead of the pilot overalls.

  • Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden (clippings) - one of the best, if not the best of pop biology books I've read, it explains how quantum effects are necessary to understand the core biological processes such as photosynthesis. Of course in one way or another quantum effects are behind every observable effect, but in most cases you can safely get away without ever involving that in your calculations, so it is extremely exciting that in order to understand something very basic and essential to life on Earth, this needs to be considered.

    Not every connection explained there is currently 100% confirmed (e.g. the role in the sense of smell remains a strong theory), and at some point the authors get carried away and deviate from the topic into some shaky philosophy, but the most of the book is eye-opening and quite well written.

  • Britain for the British by Robert Blatchford (clippings) - an early Socialist manifesto by a prominent campaigner from the days when it was a fresh idea, written in a very simple language as it was intended for the masses. In particular, I enjoyed applying provided examples to the current situation to see what has changed beyond recognition and can no longer be evaluated following the same approach, and what remains exactly the same.

    It was also another reminder for me about how far away was Russian Bolshevism from the Western socialism. It is a pity too many modern left-wing politicians find inspiration in Chinese, Soviet or Venezuela atrocious regimes instead of in their own past, certainly not ideal but excellent in comparison.

  • Submission by Michel Houellebecq (clippings) - I found that scandalous novel much less Islamophobic than I expected from random reviews. Actually, there are very few negative statements, if any, it makes about Islamic society - it is rather pictured as a blind 'force of nature' filling out the volume made empty by 'degenerative West'. The protagonist is a typical anti-Western propaganda figure: a middle-aged single male working in a useless industry, incapable of a long-term relationship and at the same time obsessed with sex which he mostly gets through exploiting his position of power.

    I disagree with this message and Houellebecq's view of the modern European and Islamic societies, but he is a good writer and even though I was reading the translation, the language was good and the plot development was okay. What's more to expect from fiction.

  • How Meteors Hit the Ground by Geoffrey Higges (clippings) - another book only interesting to aviation geeks, this time a very short one. It is basically a list of the design flaws of Gloster Meteor aircraft, the first fighter jet that entered mass production (no, it wasn't a German one). It stayed in use after WW2 as well (not only in Britain), but even after a number of improvements Meteor remained a demanding machine to maintain and to control. E.g. in 1952 (the year the author served in his Meteor squadron) a Meteor pilot was killed every four days.

  • The Arrows of Time by Greg Egan - including this book in the list is cheating because I only started reading it in 2015 and am still only 25% through it. The last book in Orthogonal trilogy, it is to the first two books what they all together are to the rest of Greg Egan's books, and also what Greg Egan's books are to the rest of sci-fi. In other words, it is Greg Egan on steroids with even more science of his world involved which makes it quite difficult to understand. So far there has been very little literature but a plenty of alternative physics, and I suspect it is going to stay like this.

    I wrote about the previous (second) volume in my last post, so you can read it if you are interested.

This seems to be it for 2015. Have a good year, everyone.

Books I read in 2015


Apparently I have read 14 books so far this year. Below is very briefly what I think of each of them (in chronological order) along with a link to excerpts I highlighted during reading:

  • Homage To Catalonia by George Orwell (clippings) - superb, easily on the top of my list. Brilliantly written, genuinely exciting and educating, and feels very relevant to many modern conflicts in different parts of the world.

  • Knocking on Heaven's Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death by Katy Butler (clippings) - very similar to Being Mortal by Atul Gawande I wrote about before, but with less of medical details and more emotional, probably because it is written by a professional writer as opposed to a doctor. While the idea is the same, both books are worth a read in my opinion as they provide views from different angles.

  • The Roman Guide to Slave Management: A Treatise by Nobleman Marcus Sidonius Falx translated by Jerry Toner (clippings) - the title says it all. Interesting both from the cultural and historical perspectives. For instance, I wasn't aware of that major diffrences existed in the attitude to slaves and slavery between Ancient Rome and Greece, the former being way more progressive - if asked before reading this, I'd say the differences were minimal or that Rome was more oppressive.

  • On the Warrior's Path, Second Edition: Philosophy, Fighting, and Martial Arts Mythology by Daniele Bolelli (clippings) - a couple of interesting thoughts you can see in my clippings, but I doubt it was worth reading the whole book because of them.

  • Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud by Martin Gayford (clippings) - too much of Martin Gayford in this book, but still enough of Freud to be interesting to anyone who likes his art and wants to learn more about his personality as well.

  • Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (clippings) - someone on the Tube train was reading it and I decided to give it a go as well. Meh.

  • The Eternal Flame: Orthogonal Book Two by Greg Egan (clippings) - The Orthogonal series is probably the most Eganish of all Egan's books, which means I really struggle to name anything that comes close in science fiction. The closest is probably Flatland from 1884, I mean in terms of inventing your own consistent world and the society suited to live in it, but of course it is on a different scale. You will either hate or love The Orthogonal, but you can be pretty sure you haven't read anything like it before.

  • Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam by Andrew X Pham (clippings) - not bad, especially when you are an immigrant yourself so sometimes it hits too close to home, but there is a review implying that the author was exaggerating and making things up there.

  • Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body by Hugh Aldersey-Williams (clippings) - the first half of the book is better than the last when it switches more to organs' perception in culture (not that it was unexpected considering the title, but still).

  • Ghettoside: Investigating a Homicide Epidemic by Jill Leovy (clippings) - too belletristic with fewer facts and more spoon-fed opinions than I anticipated, but can be probably called eye-opening nevertheless.

  • England and Other Stories by Graham Swift - meh. A couple of good stories and then too many of mediocre and bad ones which are seemingly different only in characters' names employing the same twist again and again.

  • Works of Jeremy Bentham by Jeremy Bentham (clippings) - not a real book, more like letters and articles by Bentham which are very long and explain the same thing paragraph after paragraph. But reading through a plan of a prison (out of all things) written by a celebrated liberal thinker might be interesting.

  • The Gilded Gutter Life Of Francis Bacon: The Authorized Biography by Daniel Farson (clippings) - great reading and probably the best of 'authorised biographies' I have read. Definitely better than the book on sitting for Freud's portrait above, but I recomend to read them both as Freud and Bacon used to spend a lot of time together.

  • Internal Medicine: A Doctor's Stories by Terrence Holt (clippings) - another meh. Expected more after Gawande and Butler, but this is just House M.D. type of stuff with no particular idea to express. Not without some good passages (see in clippings), but overall not worth your time.

Raising a bilingual child - first decisions

language, parenting, books

Maria and I both share the same first language, so we have been considering the same strategy many immigrant couples adopt in our less than extraordinary situation. To speak our native Russian at home and then at some point to start teaching English to our son... but while appearing simple and logical, the latter part was never clear enough.

At which point are we supposed to start introducing the majority language? How to keep the balance between them two so that the child would still be able (and willing) to communicate in their heritage language, and at the same time not feeling held back by it?

A search on Amazon predictably revealed more than one title, but it was easy to decide between the top ones: it wasn't the first time a negative review helped me to make up my mind with less hesitation as 'too scientific' and 'too many facts' actually sounded like a positive feedback to me.

So today I have finished reading Raising a Bilingual Child by Barbara Zurer Pearson (my clippings, if you fancy just a quick digest, are here), and since it has provoked some thoughts I feel like I need to write them down.

My main discovery, of course, was that the 'natural' strategy I mentioned above isn’t the only solution we have to follow for the lack of any sensible alternatives. Minority language at home or simply mL@H, as it is called, is easy for parents given they both speak the same language, but poses some hurdles for the child.

The first one is what I was worrying about before, a shock caused by a sudden introduction of another language. While according to referred studies kids do well even if they first start in a relatively late age of seven, it is still an opportunity for an unwanted isolation of the child, if not for bullying. Less likely in a such a multicultural city as London, I guess, with about a third of its population born abroad, but still somewhat concerning.

The second potential problem is that once a child copes with the initial shock successfully, the second language tends to overshadow the first one, often to the point of it perceived as truly secondary in every aspect affecting relationships in the family, especially with members only proficient in the minority language (grandparents).

It isn't that we weren't aware of these risks - we even know the families experiencing the above problems in exactly the same way as predicted, but we used to consider that an unavoidable evil.

Turns out, it isn't the only possible way of the bilingual upbringing. mL@H's strategy closest competition is one parent, one language or OPOL which implies that parents speak to their child in different languages each providing a less steep learning curve and showing that two languages can co-exist from the very beginning, thus relieving the child from the problems typical for mL@H.

I used to think this is only suitable for mixed couples where parents speak different first languages - naturally, OPOL looks just as logical for them as mL@H does for immigrants of the same origin. That being true, apparently it is not the limit. Some of the numerous case studies the book is based on show that with enough dedication OPOL is quite possible even when language chosen by a parent isn't their first one, and even if it isn't perfect. Provided there is a majority language environment, kids do not pick up parent's mistakes and accent, and there are also various ways to get over the gaps in vocabulary:

Saunders’s books have practical advice on some problems that might be unique to the second-language speaker parent. For example, when Saunders and his children did not know a word they needed, they would agree on a paraphrase to use until they could check it out in a dictionary or with a native speaker. Then, if necessary, Saunders would use a conscious teaching strategy to correct the wrong word.

Another advantage of this method is that it boosts parent's own level by extending the number of possible contexts she or he is familiar with.

It is hard to tell for sure which out of these two approaches is more effective - in the long run, they're roughly the same:

The “batting average” for OPOL appears to be about 78%; 58 out of the 75 children were reported to be actively bilingual, if not trilingual. However, because more than half of those are zero to three years old, it’s too early to grant them “success.” Without the children under age four, the percentage drops to 63%.

Using the same logic, taking away the one child under four in the mL@H group, there appear to have been around five children who became at least bilingual of the eight mL@H families, or 62.5%.

The figures might not seem very representative (being used to big datasets at work, 'eight families' doesn't exactly work for me), but I probably trust them because of the a whole chapter the author has dedicated to problems of measuring bilingual kids' achievements against monolinguals (in brief, there are very few properly conducted researches, and the ones listed were picked out more or less carefully).

I personally don't feel comfortable with OPOL - I tried to talk to Anthony in English, but didn't succeed much so far. Since I have never done that before, I struggle to form parentese versions of words (which - something I also learned from this book - some researchers consider an evolutionary mechanism important for baby's development), but that is something I can clearly overcome with enough efforts put in. What is more important, it simply doesn't seem natural and distances me from the child. I understand this simply means my English needs to be improved and that is exactly what OPOL can help me with, but nevertheless it remains a major blocker of emotional nature for me.

Another sign OPOL should not be pursued by all means is that people who have experience with both strategies (say OPOL in childhood and then mL@H with their own kids) favour the latter more. Overall, it looks like we will end up with the same thing as if without any research, but it's good to know it is going to be an informed decision.

As to the 'scientific background' of the book that reviewer was unhappy about, I am not an expert, but I thought that LAD and Chomsky references in general appear a bit outdated for 2008 when the book was published. That doesn't undermine, however, an whopping number of relevant facts, real life case studies and explanations it provides.

Despite its Amazon description, this book won't really give you a clear step-by-step guide to raising a child fluent in at least two languages, but it will definitely supply you with enough of verified information to make your own decision or to understand what else exactly do you need to clarify before making up your mind. That's a time well spent.

P.S. It's a long shot, but if anyone who was facing the same question, made a decision and now regrets or is happy with it comes across this post, I'll appreciate a couple of words in support (or otherwise) of the chosen strategy. Thanks!

First post

boxing, books

As it is unexpectedly difficult to write anything longer than a tweet after reducing your online activity to such for a while, I might just start writing about books I'm reading and then see how it goes.

Luckily I started to read more since I switched a job last summer and my 15 minutes cycling commute turned into an hour on a train, that's one way. Ditching my smartphone for an aged e-ink Kindle also helped a lot. While I don't find its screen more comfortable for my eyes (it still is, but just not as much to justify the hassle of carrying and managing an extra device), the mere fact it cannot do anything beyond displaying a page to read means you cannot get distracted as easily, and that boosted my reading speed enormously - well, at least comparing to what I used to read while cycling, i.e. to zero.

So the book I finished recently was Battling Jack Turpin, which probaly is obscure enough judging by the fact I was the first reviewer on Amazon who didn't know Turpin personally or through a handshake. Thanks to the excellent I also started to publish clippings from the books I read, so here are the quotes from this one.

Call me lazy, but clippings themselves are enough to get the idea of what I liked and what the book is about. There are two bits, however, which impressed me most.

The first eye-opening fact was how remarkably poor post-war Britain was, at least comparing to the US. I've read about that before (and you can in, for example, Family Britain), but that's one more facet to it.

When Sugar Ray Robinson was fighting Randolph Turpin in 1951, he brought a fair crowd of entourage and a luxury car across the ocean to London with him:

All the razzle-dazzle of America came with Robinson. ‘Hollywood Come To Town,’ is what the papers said. It was like Britain was only in black and white, and America was in technicolour.

Randolph, on the other had, after winning the world title (and back in the days it used to mean more because there was only one champion in every weight category), to return to 'boxing booths' (fighting with whoever challenged him at the local market) to earn his living.

It isn't that he didn't get rich later, but reading about that in details juxtapositioned semi-unintentionally was still pretty striking.

Another discovery was reading about Turpin brothers carrying heavy tools around those boxing booths and carefully avoiding confrontation with their opponents' mates, should they be upset after their friend's defeat.

I’d got a big spanner in my jacket. I always carried it on the booths. I was only 9 st. and if some of those buggers come back for me after I’d knocked ’em out, I needed summat.

I mean, they actually were the best boxers in the world (Randolph) or England (Jack), never defeated on these booths, but they still didn't think that avoiding an unnecessary brawl or relying on something apart from their bare knuckles was overcautious, especially when facing two or more angry lads or if they were heavier.

That sort of puts things into perspective and is worth remembering when you come to a gym for a couple of times and get that less than deserved feeling you're a superman now.

So what can I say. If you either like boxing or are interested in 1940-1950s Britain, you probably won't regret reading this book.