Mini-Reviews 2022

Last year is well in the rearview mirror by now, but I wanted to compile some of my notes from books I read (and a movie) in 2022 while they're still somewhat in my mind. I did a similar post last year and thought it worked pretty well. Maybe you'll find something that sounds intriguing below; maybe I'll want to refer back to some of the material below in future posts.

Each book has a separate section below. This overall post is lengthy, but most of the sections are fairly succinct and can stand alone. Which is not to say that there aren't some common threads. There are a couple of books about physics, a couple of Russian novels, and more.

These are not all the books I read in 2022. There were a number of novels I read and enjoyed, but didn't think the reviews would fit in this post. There are also several books that have already featured in previous posts:

The Theoretical Minimum

The Theoretical Minimum: What You Need to Know to Start Doing Physics by Leonard Susskind is a physics book that covers classical mechanics (so a refresher in that sense) but with math tools I hadn't learned before. It went over things I had heard about but not learned the details of, like the Principle of Least Action, Lagrangians, and Hamiltonians. Now, calculus can be hard to follow from reading alone, so I watched some videos also. The combination of reading and watching was effective for learning some of these concepts.

In this section, I'll start with some excerpts that stood out to me from reading Susskind's book, then share some additional notes on the concepts he covers that are a mix of what I learned from his book and what I learned from videos that it sparked me to look up and watch.

The Theoretical Minimum begins with generalities about dynamical laws. They must be deterministic and reversible. But note that even in deterministic models, perfect predictability is impossible due to the interaction of resolving power of measurements and sensitive dependence on initial conditions (i.e. chaos). It moves on to phase space, where you have coordinates of position and momentum in as many physical dimensions as are needed for the problem (so a total of 6 axes for a particle that can move unconstrained in 3 dimensions; in other words a single particle needs (x,y,z) components of both position and velocity/momentum).  Another concept discussed early on is an energy "landscape", where force always pushes down a potential energy gradient.

The core of the book introduces Lagrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics. The Lagrangian (L) is the difference between kinetic (T) and potential energy (V),
L = T - V. The integral of the Lagrangian is known as the "Action", so the so-called Principle of Least/Stationary Action is about minimizing this quantity. Doing so will define a trajectory through phase space (i.e. it will relate position and momentum and how they can change in concert) for the system in question. The solution to this minimization problem can be found using the Euler-Lagrange equations, as described here (see the end of this subsection for the actual equations):

In fact, the equations become differential equations that tell the system how to move from one instant to the next. Thus the particle does not have to have supernatural powers to test out all future trajectories—at least no more so than it needs to follow Newton’s equations of motion.  
At each stage along the trajectory, the particle has only to minimize the action between a point in time and a neighboring point in time. The principle of least action just becomes a differential equation at each instant that determines the immediate future.  
The motion of the system is described by a trajectory, or orbit, through an N-dimensional space. For an even better description we can add time, thinking of the orbit as a path through N + 1 dimensions. The starting point of the trajectory is the set of points xi(t0), and the endpoint is another set of points xi(t1). The orbit through the (N + 1)-dimensional space is described by giving all the coordinates as functions of time xi(t).  

If I understand correctly, the big advantages of the Lagrangian approach compared to analyzing the forces (which is how I was taught mechanics) are that it generalizes more easily to a wide variety of systems and that it allows for picking semi-arbitrary coordinates that define key features of the system. The selection of coordinates is covered in this explanation Susskind gives of the calculation method:

The Lagrangian method is much easier. There is a more or less mechanical procedure for doing it. The steps are the following: 1.​Choose some coordinates that uniquely specify the configuration of the components. You can choose them however you like—just make sure that you have just enough to determine the configuration—and keep them as simple as possible. In the double pendulum example, you need two coordinates. I will choose the first one to be the angle of the first pendulum from the vertical. Call it θ. Next, I have a choice. Should I choose the second angle (the angle of the second rod) also to be measured from the vertical, or should I measure it relative to the angle of the first rod? The answer is that it does not matter. One choice may make the equations a little simpler, but either will get you to the answer. I will choose the angle α to be measured relative to the first rod rather than to the vertical. 2.​Work out the total kinetic energy. In this case it is the kinetic energy of the two bobs. The easiest way to do this is to refer temporarily to Cartesian coordinates x, y. Let x1, y1 refer to the first bob and x2, y2 to the second bob. Here are some relations among the angles θ, α and x, y:  ...  
Work out the Euler-Lagrange equations for each degree of freedom. 4.​For later purposes, work out the conjugate momenta for each coordinate,​ ...  

(The conjugate momentum is the partial derivative of the Langrangian with respect to the generalized velocity (i.e. linear or angular or possibly some other analogue depending on how you selected the coordinates for the system) and the equations will be later in this section).

Another useful concept related to the Lagrangian is Symmetries; in this context a Symmetry is "an active coordinate transformation that does not change the value of the Lagrangian". Every Symmetry is related to and implies a conservation law. For example, energy conservation is related to symmetry across a shift in time (i.e. picking a different t=0 for your coordinate system doesn't change the overall analysis).  

The Hamiltonian (H) is closely related to the Lagrangian and is a measure of total energy, kinetic + potential: H = T + V. An important difference when it comes to applying it is that it results in first-order differential equations (albeit twice as many) while the Euler-Lagrange equations are second-order. The Hamiltonian approach works great when you want to keep the differential equations as differential equations rather than integrating them to a single trajectory as a function of time:

If at any time you know the exact values of all the coordinates and momenta, and you know the form of the Hamiltonian, Hamilton’s equations will tell you the corresponding quantities an infinitesimal time later. By a process of successive updating, you can determine a trajectory through phase space.  
By contrast, the Hamiltonian equations are each first-order. This somehow means that two first-order equations are equivalent to one second-order equation.  

The Hamiltonian approach can thus be used to map out phase space—at any combination of position and momentum, how will these quantities change moving forward in time? Visualizing things in phase space can allow for a big picture view of the system:

We usually “think” in configuration space. The harmonic oscillator is a system that moves back and forth along a single axis. But it is also an excellent starting point for getting used to “thinking” in phase space. Phase space (for the oscillator ) is two-dimensional. It is easy to see that the trajectories of the oscillator in phase space are concentric circles about the origin. The argument is very simple. Go back to the expression for the Hamiltonian, Eq. (15). The Hamiltonian, being the energy, is conserved. It follows that q2 + p2 is constant with time. In other words, the distance from the origin of phase space is constant, and the phase point moves on a circle of fixed radius.

You can think of phase space as containing "contours" of constant energy. Susskind also suggests thinking of it as being filled with an imaginary fluid:

Focusing on a particular initial condition and following it along its specific trajectory through phase space are very natural things to do in classical mechanics. But there is also a bigger picture that emphasizes the entire collection of trajectories. The bigger picture involves visualizing all possible starting points and all possible trajectories. Instead of putting your pencil down at a point in phase space and then following a single trajectory, try to do something more ambitious. Imagine you had an infinite number of pencils and used them to fill phase space uniformly with dots (by uniformly, I mean that the density of dots in the q, p space is everywhere the same). Think of the dots as particles that make up a fictitious phase-space-filling fluid. Then let each dot move according to the Hamiltonian equations of motion, so that the fluid endlessly flows through the phase space.

Thinking of phase space as fluid-filled makes it natural to analyze with math that's often seen in fluid dynamics. The del operator (∇) and the div, grad, and curl operations it is used in come up frequently in the latter part of The Theoretical Minimum. And this is where I'm going to start using some mathematical notation in this review, and also referencing a few videos I watched to increase my understanding of what I was reading about. First of all, here are the links to a few videos I found very helpful in understanding this topic:

And here are some of the equations and related notes from a mix of these videos and Susskind's book:

  • It can be helpful to consider analogies about if the vector field for one physical phenomenon represented another (e.g. reimagining magnetism as a fluid flow)
  • The del operator (∇) is a vector of partial derivatives along each corresponding axis of its components ([∂/∂x   ∂/∂y   ∂/∂z]).
  • Divergence operates on a vector field, giving a scalar field; it is the dot product of ∇ with a vector field (i.e. div F = ∇ • F)
  • Divergence represents sources (positive) and sinks (negative)
  • Divergence is zero for incompressible fluids; phase space is a incompressible fluid
  • Energy is conserved = the Hamiltonian is constant = contours in phase space are closed
  • Curl operates on a vector field giving a vector field; it is the cross product of ∇ with a vector field (i.e. curl F = ∇ ✖ F)
  • Curl is positive for counterclockwise rotation
  • Gradient operates on a scalar field giving a vector field; it is ∇ applied to a scalar field (i.e. grad f = ∇f = [∂f/∂x   ∂f/∂y   ∂f/∂z])
  • Gradient shows the direction and rate of greatest change at each point
  • As a reminder about dot and cross products, the former is the sum of the products of the corresponding components of each vector and the latter is the determinant of a matrix whose first row is [i j k] and next two rows are the components of the two vectors being multiplied (when taking a determinant, add up diagonals from left to right (top to bottom) and subtract right to left diagonals). The dot product is commutative but the cross product is not.
  • The curl of a gradient is zero and the divergence of curl is zero
  • The Euler-Lagrange equations are: d/dt(∂L/∂) = ∂L/∂x for each component of x and (the components of x are the arbitrarily-selected coordinates for the problem and are their derivatives with respect to time. The overall equation is that the derivative with respect to time of the partial derivative of the Lagrangian with respect to generalized velocity equals the partial derivative of the Lagrangian with respect to generalized position. Note that q is often used in notation in place of x.
  • x and are independent when taking the derivative.
  • The conjugate momentum, p is the (∂L/∂) term.
  • Hamiltonian equations: = ∂H/∂p and = - ∂H/∂x. For all components of x and p and their time derivatives. These can be used as differential equations (no need to integrate them) to determine a flow field (contours of constant energy) in phase space.
  • Lagrangian works well when there is constant energy and a constrained path (pendulums seem to be a common example) whereas the Hamiltonian works well when you want to use the differential equations directly.

Day of the Oprichnik

Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin was recommended by Bruno Maçães in Dawn of Eurasia. It's a Russian novel from 2011—actually it seems that is when it was translated into English, and in fact it was originally written half a decade earlier, which makes some of the details kind of eerie. The most valuable thing about this novel, in my opinion, are some of the details of the setting and the fact that a Russian author found them plausible enough for near-future sci-fi (which, to be fair, is not a super high bar for plausibility) almost twenty years ago. It is not an enjoyable novel, or one that I would necessarily recommend. It is written as a day in the life* of a very unpleasant man working for a very unpleasant organization. Some of the violence and sexual content I found gratuitous, especially the ending. But as I said, the setting is the most interesting part, so that's what I'll focus on in this review.

*A rather ordinary day, as an illustrative example. This is the same format as the other Russian novel I discuss below. Apparently Sorokin really doesn't like Solzhenitsyn, but nonetheless went with a similar narrative structure.

The Oprichnina was apparently a real organization under Ivan the Terrible, a sort of secret police / internal espionage. Their symbols were a dog's head to sniff out treachery/disloyalty and a broom to sweep it away. In Day of the Oprichnik, Russia has a Tsar again and he has reconstituted the Oprichnina. They mount brooms and severed dogs' heads on their luxury cars as they drive around because they're the sort of secret police who are meant to be seen. Instilling terror via extra-judicial executions with significant ritual or performative aspects is a big part of what they do. The need to use terror to keep the population, especially the nobility, in line is because the Russia of this novel is a paranoid country that has cut itself off from the rest of the world.

This scene from early in the novel when the main character is watching the morning news drops several clues about the setting:

Sipping tea with raspberries, I watch the news: departmental clerks and district councils in the North Caucasus section of the Southern Wall have been stealing again. The Far Eastern Pipeline will remain closed until petition from the Japanese. The Chinese are enlarging their settlements in Krasnoyarsk and Novosibirsk. The trial of the moneychangers from the Urals’ Treasury continues. The Tatars are building a smart palace in honor of His Majesty’s anniversary. Those featherbrains from the Healer’s Academy are completing work on the aging gene. The Muromsk psaltery players will give two concerts in our Whitestone Kremlin. Count Trifon Bagrationovich Golitsyn beat his young wife. In January there will be no flogging on Sennaya Square in St. Petrograd. The ruble’s up another half-kopeck against the yuan.

Russia has literally walled itself off from most of the rest of the world (although is dependent on a rising China). Oil and gas pipelines are regularly used as tools of geopolitical leverage. Profanity is banned and corporal punishment is meted out for a variety of infractions.

The goings-on with walls and pipelines are not seen directly, but are effectively illustrated by having the main character meet with other censors to review a stage play in Moscow about them:

In the middle of the stage is the Third Western Pipeline. The very one that’s caused so much hullabaloo the last year and a half, so much trouble and concern. The pipeline stretches across the stage, through Russian forest and field; sparkling in the dim light, it arrives at the Western Wall. There it passes through a flow-regulating valve marked closed, dives into the wall, and moves farther westward. Our border guard stands there with an automatic ray gun, looking through binoculars toward the other side.

There is also a part where the main character compares a drug-induced high to the feeling "like you’ve been at a resort in our sunny Crimea." Note that Crimea was very much a part of Ukraine at the time this was written. I don't get the impression that the author is in favour of this, but an expansionist yet extremely isolationist and paranoid country is the picture he chooses to paint of a near-future Russia.

Another feature of the setting is that China's efforts to build a new Silk Road (一带一路) have come to fruition:

each time I see it—it takes my breath away. The Road! It’s an amazing thing. It runs from Guangzhou across China, then winds its way across Kazakhstan, enters through the gates in our Southern Wall, and then traverses the breadth of Mother Russia to Brest. From there—straight to Paris. The Guangzhou–Paris Road. Since the manufacturing of all necessary goods flowed over to Great China bit by bit, they built this Road to connect China to Europe. It’s got ten lanes, and four tracks underground for high-speed trains. Heavy trailers crawl along the road with their goods 24/7, and the silvery trains whistle. It’s a real feast for the eyes. We drive closer. The Road is surrounded by three layers of security, protecting it from saboteurs and lamebrained cyberpunks

The main theme of Day of the Oprichnik is that the main character and his comrades are corrupt and engaging in all the vices they punish others for.

Powers and Thrones

Powers And Thrones: A New History Of The Middle Ages by Dan Jones is a good overview of a large swath of European history (and some bordering regions). Because it is an overview, it is hard to summarize—it is necessarily more broad and less detailed than, say, Lotharingia. Reading it in 2022, the part about a pandemic (i.e. the Black Death) and the social disruptions it wrought stood out so that's what I'll focus on in this mini-review. However, that part was only a chapter or two out of the whole book.

The scope of Powers and Thrones is basically the Middle Ages in Europe, bookended from one sack of Rome (410) to another (1527). Geographically it spreads out more than most histories of medieval Europe, considering also the Arab World and the Mongols (primarily at their points of interaction with Europe, but providing a decent amount of background leading up to that).

One of the five 500+ pages books I'm trying to read this year (a goal I've alluded to before) is City of God. So I'll share Dan Jones' description to whet your appetite (going on the assumption that I'll eventually get around to writing a post based on reading it):

In north Africa St Augustine took Alaric’s sack as the inspiration for a number of sermons, which formed the basis for his monumental City of God, a work that poured scorn on Rome’s ancient pretensions to eternal empire and argued instead that the only true everlasting kingdom was to be found in heaven.

The chapters of Powers and Thrones mostly deal with specific themes or trends, arranged roughly in chronological order (although there is unavoidable overlap). These themes/trends include: Monasticism (Cluny and then Citeaux spreading their reforms), Knights, Castles, Early Universities, Rise of merchants and the middle class, etc. As I mentioned above, in this review I'll focus on the part about the Black Death and its aftermath. For this, I'll mostly let Dan Jones' words speak for themselves:

Human catastrophes are almost always the result of a delicate interplay between societies and their environments, and at the turn of the fourteenth century, the west was primed for a shock.  
The Black Death was not just a reaper’s scythe: it was also a new broom. It swept hard across the fourteenth century. And after the sweeping, things would never look the same again.  
The lot of these people usually hovered somewhere just above terrible, and there were inevitably moments during the Middle Ages when groups of the dispossessed perceived this to be the fault of their leaders rather than just the way of the world. As a result, from time to time ordinary folk banded together to express their anger and try to effect change.  
These uprisings were not, for the most part, co-ordinated or even directly connected. However, they showed just how brittle public order had become as the fourteenth century drew to a close, and the inhabitants of a world transformed clashed over what it ought to look like.  
AS MODERN READERS KNOW, REBELLIONS STILL happen in bursts sometimes: the so-called Arab Spring of 2011, during which populations across Muslim states in north Africa and the Middle East rose up, is one recent example; if we look a little further back we may think of the upheavals of 1848 or the great revolutions of the late eighteenth century, which remade France, America and Haiti. The frenzy of popular and populist rebellion that gripped Europe between 1378 and 1382 deserves to be thought of in this category: as a revolutionary ‘moment’, in which many people in many places at roughly the same time all sought to change their circumstances by taking to the streets, reacting to different local provocations and crying liberty in different languages, but nevertheless connected to one another thematically and historically.  
Thanks to the Black Death, Europe’s population had undergone a long-term adjustment which would last for centuries. As a result, the relationship between landlords and peasants, and city-leaders and workers, could never return to earlier medieval norms. As urban economies continued to develop, cash was confirmed as the key currency of social obligation. In realms like England, serfdom had all but disappeared by the early fifteenth century. Soldiers were almost exclusively mustered on the promise of fixed, salaried contracts, rather than obligation laid on them by liege homage.

In summary, famine and plague in the 14th century led to a lot of rebellions and eventual social changes.

Finally, this line about conflict arising from a proliferation of new channels of communication/information had a ring of relevance to it:

... trusting in the fact that the authorities’ desire to censor the printing press was not at all matched by their ability to control the flow of information.

Einstein's Fridge

Einstein's Fridge: How the Difference Between Hot and Cold Explains the Universe by Paul Sen basically retreads the history of thermodynamics, explaining a lot of the science along the way. It is written at a more popular level than The Theoretical Minimum, and doesn't get into calculations as much. (Although I looked up some equations in conjunction with reading this book, I don't think they really fit in this mini-review).

The history of thermodynamics is very interesting, and Paul Sen tells it well. I knew of figures like Carnot, Thomson / Lord Kelvin, and Joule but definitely learned some new things about their lives and research from reading this book; Helmholtz, Noether, and Landauer I didn't know much at all about before reading.

Carnot was a French engineer active in the first part of the 19th century. His contribution to the science of thermodynamics was that getting useful energy out of heat requires a temperature difference:

Carnot was wrong to believe in caloric theory, but it did lead to his first insight. A body of water, no matter how vast, will not produce motive power unless it can flow downhill. So, too, even a prodigious quantity of heat will not create motive power if there’s no temperature difference it can “flow down.”

Throughout the rest of the 19th century, research in this new field continued. A landmark development was Joule's experiments on the mechanical equivalent of heat, demonstrating that it could be equated to other forms of energy. A breakthrough came when Clausius achieved a synthesis between Carnot's work and Joule's:  

No record survives of the colloquium at which Clausius spoke on energy conservation. But to prepare, he pored over the works of Helmholtz, Carnot, Thomson, and Joule and was finally able to solve the problem that had baffled his predecessors—how to reconcile the idea that heat might be a form of energy that can be converted into other forms, with Carnot’s view that heat must flow from hot to cold to create work. Clausius’s solution? Both views are right. Heat can be both created and destroyed, and it must flow from hot to cold for work to be created.

Another important synthesis in the field of thermodynamics involved two scales—the macro and the micro:

A few years earlier, William Thomson had provided a definition of temperature at the macroscopic scale as a measure of the ability of heat to do work. Maxwell had now given temperature a definition at the microscopic scale in terms of the movements of tiny molecules

The micro-scale view leads in to statistical thermodynamics (analyzing the number of possible states; "time's arrow" is entangled with movement towards more probable arrangements). In this section of the book, I also appreciated the biographical details Sen shared about James Maxwell's life, such as the way his wife was a keen partner in his experiments.

I liked this quote about refrigeration because it ties a few themes from the book—and a few principles from thermodynamics—together.  

Refrigeration is the most obviously thermodynamic of all human inventions, and the most defiant of the universal tendency for entropy to increase. These devices force heat to pass from a cold interior to a warm exterior, which is in the opposite direction to the one in which heat flows spontaneously. The purpose of this is to create a space where the relentless increase of entropy is slowed down. Although ostensibly a refrigerator is a cool box, that’s a means to an end. Its ultimate purpose is to slow down decay and putrefaction, which are both examples of entropy increasing. Think of a refrigerator as a device inside which time slows down.

Also related to time (and my mention above of "time's arrow" in relation to statistical thermodynamics) and entropy, I thought this observation from Boltzmann was profound:

Boltzmann had claimed that the increasing entropy of the universe is a result of its moving from less to more likely configurations. This explanation only works, conceded Boltzmann, if you assume that the universe started off in a very statistically unlikely low-entropy state.

It is easy to forget in light of his more famous achievements, but Einstein did a lot of research in thermodynamics.

This mention of symmetry (and how it relates to conservation laws) was easier to follow/understand because I had already read The Theoretical Minimum:

In other words, for time translation symmetry to exist in the laws of mechanics, something must be conserved. That something is what we call energy. Noether’s theorem goes far beyond energy conservation. It shows that whenever equations contain a symmetry, some quantity must be conserved. For example, the laws of mechanics do not regard one location in space as being more special than any other. Billiard balls follow these laws irrespective of where in the universe they are. This means the laws of mechanics have a spatial symmetry as well as a temporal one. For this to happen, a quantity called momentum is conserved.

Einstein's Fridge had some good discussion on Claude Shannon and applying thermodynamics to information. It also covers the Landauer limit, where physics constrains the handling of information (processing information necessarily dissipates heat, specifically when something needs to be erased):  

The scientist Rolf Landauer captured this idea with the phrase “information is physical.” All forms of information require a change in the physical universe. Written words require marks to be made on a physical medium of some kind. But even a spoken word requires the movement of vocal cords, which make air molecules vibrate. Similarly, a thought requires electrochemical changes in the neurons in our brains.
As physical systems decay, so does any information they carry. Imagine writing your name in the sand on a beach. This act arranges the sand particles into an unlikely, low-entropy configuration, a pattern that has meaning. When a wave arrives, that meaning is lost as the sand particles become jumbled and are rearranged into more likely but less meaningful configurations—a high-entropy state.

The book culminates by getting in to black holes, where many topics (entropy, information, etc.) come together. Synthesizing research by Bekenstein and Hawking, the surface area of a black hole's event horizon is a measure of its entropy.

Bonus content for this section: a blog post about the Carnot cycle and the patent for the namesake fridge by Einstein (and Szilard). Someday I think it would be fun to try to build a working model.


Cræft: An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts by Alexander Langlands was one of the most enjoyable books I read last year and probably the one I'd soonest turn into a full post on its own if time permitted. The author has done a bunch of experimental archaeology of traditional British Isles trades and handicrafts—both as a hobby and professionally, including for a series of BBC documentaries.

The crafts that Alexander Langlands covers in Cræft range from beekeeping (including making skep hives from scratch) to haymaking to thatching to lime burning, and many more. It is not primarily a how-to book—although it does contain pretty decent (they'd benefit from sketches in a few places) instructions for many tasks—but rather conveys his thoughts about the meaning behind making. Near the beginning of the book he shares an anecdote about starting to cut his grass with a scythe:

And while the job had probably taken me a fraction longer than with a strimmer, I’d enjoyed listening to the sound of the birds while I worked.

Around the same time (although I think I'd gotten the idea before reading this book) I got a sickle for keeping the thin strip of grass/weeds along my driveway trimmed, so I could relate to this. When I posted about it on Facebook, someone suggested tongue-in-cheek that I get a hammer to go with my sickle; I replied,

I have a hammer, and a lot of other hand tools. The next one I’d like to acquire and try is a hand drill / bit brace. It’s interesting to me how the emblematic associations of hand tools has changed. They used to represent, per your allusion, peasant strength and virtue; now, a choice of hand tools over power tools is more likely to denote an artisan or hobbyist than a labourer—someone for whom the process or craft is as important as the volume of output.  

(I'd also like a mattock after reading this book).

These thoughts were definitely inspired by reading Cræft. A podcast episode I listened to at some point in the past year also got me thinking along these lines: we use our tools to shape our world, but at the same time the tools we choose to use shape us. And I think this recent post I wrote is also relevant here.

Early in the book, Alexander Langlands spends some time discussing Aelfred the Great, who was a very accomplished king. Not only was he a defender of the realm and a promoter of education, but he personally translated some works into the English of his day:

In the strategies of translation that Alfred adopts for Boethius’s Consolations of Philosophy, he unites the concepts of learning and virtue with making by using cræft in his translation for the Latin of all three. For Alfred, the labour and work associated with making and doing was comparable to the spiritual strivings of philosophy.  

Something that came up as a theme over and over was that managing the landscape for the supply of your raw materials is a crucial part of traditional trades/crafts. There is a lot of work upstream of actually starting at making something. Whether for thatching or for making wattle hurdles or for numerous other crafts, you need a supply of stalks or vines or branches with the right characteristics. You need them plentiful, and you need them nearby. Achieving this often draws on techniques like coppicing (or pollarding); in fact, he explicitly says that, "the craft of hurdle making technically begins with the planting out and year-on-year management of coppice woodlands". Here is a big-picture view Langlands gives of this interplay:

For a period of nearly ten years, on one hand I was immersed in crafts, and on the other, landscapes. And I began to understand the reciprocity between them. Crafts, through their need for raw materials, created patterns in the landscape, while landscapes determined the nature and character of the craft life. In a neat circle, crafted objects also helped shape the landscape.

He has strong opinions on landscapes, and a section or two in Cræft covers how they can be divided up with the construction and maintenance of drystone walls and hedges:

To control the land, to subdue its tendency to return to the wild, it needed to be stock-proofed in order that crops could be protected, but also so that the gluttonous attentions of herded cattle and sheep could be concentrated on particular areas, grazing and manuring them in preparation for future arable cycles. ...  
On an aesthetic level, the character of landscapes once defined by their stock-proofing barriers is steadily being eroded. The drystone walls of the Peak District, the hedgebanks of the Devon fieldscape and the sweeping hedgerows of the chalkland arable are all giving way to this homogeneous – and lifeless – means of demarcating space.  

I can certainly appreciate his dislike for the aesthetics of the new way (barbed wire) of stockproofing and demarcating, but from other things I've read, I feel the need to point out that being able to do so with less effort does add value (similar points probably apply to many traditional trades/crafts)—less investment to delineate property rights and it frees up labour for the non-agricultural economy.

His extensive personal experience really shows in his discussion of thatching. In this example from the Hebrides, the sequence of different materials used in different layers is revealing of changing economic conditions:

The sequence at Locheport provides an excellent example of how a craft should never be considered in isolation from its immediate surroundings, and that the resourcing of a craft is almost as important as the end product’s functioning value. What works in one part of the world might not be the chosen method in another because wider social and economic factors take precedence over technical superiority. I saw this most vividly during the course of undertaking my first thatch.

The discussion of thatching made me think of a point from Harvesting the Biosphere about how modern varieties of wheat have undergone breeding to make them shorter (to maximize the edible portion of the crop); this leaves less residual straw, which isn't a problem now, but in the past the straw was far from a waste product and found numerous uses.

The author is delightfully eccentric. It comes across in many places in the book, such as his desire to make a cover to keep his firewood dry in the old-fashioned way:

As is often the case with my experimental historical crafts addiction, one extremely long and arduous task leads to another extremely long and arduous task. But the thought of replacing the ragged plastic tarpaulin that covered my woodpile with an authentic roof covering was too much of a lure. I got there in the end.

The subject/title of one chapter was "Fire and Earth" (major Dwarf Fortress vibes, there):

As I explained to the other delegates what it was he did – iron smelting, brickmaking, tile firing, charcoal making and lime burning – it was Colin himself who most aptly summed up this part of his curriculum vitae: ‘It’s fire and earth, Alex, fire and earth.’ ...
There’s the full range of metalworking industries of copper, iron, tin and lead, and a whole cycle of processes including smelting, forging and casting that broadly fit into this category: basically, mineral ores extracted from the ground and subjected to fire. Glass manufacture, likewise, can be seen as a fire and earth technology. There are the brick and tile making industries too. These all involve digging up materials, moulding them and subjecting them to intense heat such that their chemical composition is permanently altered. In this sense, they are similar to the ancient craft of pottery – the fabrication from clay of a rich variety of vessel forms to support domestic and commercial economies the world over. In pottery alone the variation is remarkable, ranging from the mundane and everyday to the deluxe and prestigious. Yet, in the spectrum of fire and earth technologies, if the finest ceramic vessels sit at one end, it’s lime burning, the most basic and crudest of processes, that sits at the other.

One act of experimental archaeology they do in this chapter is lime burning in an old kiln: 20 tonnes of coal + 10 tonnes of limestone to produce 5 tonnes of quicklime (used for mortar, plaster, etc).

The final "craft" that I'll discuss in this mini-review—the book has plenty more and I hope I've whetted your appetite—is ship-building. I found it interesting how he related it to basket-making (especially for clinker construction as opposed to carvel-style) since I had a chance to see craftsmen building replica Viking boats at a museum in Denmark (more experimental archaeology):

Most important is the adherence to the golden rule of working with the wood, capitalising on the inherent strength of timber split along the line of the grain. It’s this modest principle that connects my humble trug with the great Viking longship; the cræft of gaining maximum strength from minimum thickness, of taking a single piece of material that on its own might not be of remarkable robustness but when laid – either longitudinally or in a weave – against itself, creates something of astounding strength, lightness and beauty. There is a quiet humility to these qualities in the trug and the spale basket, but for the Viking longship, built like a giant basket, it had no internal frame to weigh it down, and as a consequence could not only travel in the shallowest of rivers, penetrating deep into the heart of enemy territory, but could also roll with the punches of the open sea.  


The single movie I'll cover in this post is the Indian blockbuster RRR. As much as the film itself, I find the meta-story about the shifting global entertainment market notable. Hollywood has seemed for some time to be running out of creativity, just rehashing the same franchises—what's good isn't new and what's new isn't good (although as I'm writing this I just watched Oppenheimer, which is a welcome departure from these trends and that I may include in next year's mini-reviews). So I'm happy to see them get some competition. Parts of East Asia (especially Korea) are developing into entertainment powerhouses that are starting to compete with US shows and movies, but an advantage that India has is that there's a huge domestic pool of people who speak English. Balaji Srinivasan has pointed out that "Indians will soon become the plurality of English speakers on the internet"; this could be an earthquake on the media landscape (and none too soon). Of course, RRR was a very multi-lingual film (some lines are in English but the main dialogue was actually recorded and released in multiple Indian languages), but it demonstrated an ability to appeal to global audiences and to use the talents of an international pool of actors and actresses.

As for the movie itself, RRR was a typical Indian action movie*, albeit a notably successful one (grossing $150 million worldwide). It has action, patriotism, and bromance, all dialed up to 11 (see this famous scene for a taste). There's nothing subtle about the plot*, and the CGI is obvious enough to be distracting in some places. It's lots of fun as long as you don't take it too seriously. What is worth taking seriously, in my opinion, is the way that it shows that Bollywood and Tollywood can increasingly give Hollywood a run for its money.

*Here are some other recommendations of Indian movies if you liked RRR:
  • Bahubaali (an epic 2-part piece of historical fiction), Sooryavanshi (cop action), Main Hoon Na (an undercover officer at an exclusive boarding school) for over the top action
  • Or for more cerebral and understated dramas I've enjoyed Raat Akeli Hai, Article 15, Badla, Wazir, Raees.

Ivan Denisovich

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn about life in a Soviet prison camp. It is a short novel, but it is set in the span of a single day so it doesn't feel rushed in spite of that (I calculated that each page should average something like 6 minutes of real time). It is an ordinary day, neither the best nor worst that the main character would experience in the camp; the novel was intended to show ordinary citizens what these camps were like.

The main character, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, is a prisoner in his own country because he was briefly a prisoner outside of it. Stalin's paranoia was such that returned or escaped POWs during the Second World War were assumed to have been flipped by the enemy so rather than being given medals they were sent to the camps.

This book was allowed to be published in the USSR. This is because under Khrushchev, there was an effort to blame all of the oppression of the 1930s and 40s on Stalin's personality cult, instead of admitting they were an intrinsic feature of the Communist system. The Khrushchev years saw their own oppression (both the start of the construction of the Berlin Wall and the repression of the Hungarian uprising occurred during this period) but there was a brief thaw where folks like Solzhenitsyn were able to speak out.

The literary format is very effective. Focusing on a single day—and not a day with some grand happenings, just a mundane winter work day—gives space for plenty of description and really gets inside the perspective of the prisoners. There are the physical deprivations: hunger from scant rations, cold from working outside in a Siberian winter (in fact, the work helped keep them warm, it was standing still in ranks in the cold while the guards took count when the cold really bit). Even more than that, Solzhenitsyn makes readers feel how prisoners' horizons narrowed down to the most petty and immediate concerns. Rather than solidarity, they felt locked in competition with each other. Even little wins such as gathering small sticks to add to the meager coal used to heat their barracks didn't have much left over after the guards took their cut; if anyone ever got a care package from family, not only were there bribes to be paid to guards, but prisoners higher in the pecking order would be owed a share. They were left with so little margin or reserve that two weeks in solitary confinement on reduced rations was expected to be enough of a blow to a man's health to be likely to kill him. Far more than looking forward to getting released at the end of one's sentence, scoring an extra bread roll or a bit of tobacco somehow became one's over-riding objective.

It is a very memorable and compelling novel in the way that it conveys how the prisoners' goals narrow down to only their next bowl of soup. There are favours and bribes to be traded for every little thing (to the guards, but also among prisoners) and a constant vying with the guards for how little work they could get away with doing:

Shukhov quickly finished the job [of mopping the duty room]. There's work and work. It's like the two ends of a stick. If you're working for human beings, then do a real job of it, but if you work for dopes, then you just go through the motions. Otherwise they'd all have kicked the bucket long ago. That was for sure.

Honestly, it doesn't sound like it was much better for the guards than it was for the prisoners, as the seriousness with which they counted prisoners going out on work details shows:

The men meant more to a guard than gold. If there was one man missing on the other side of the wire, he'd soon be taking his place.

I thought the matter of firewood was a neat example of even communists understanding economic incentives when they have to:

It was the same game every day. Before the signal to knock off the men picked up scraps of wood, sticks, and broken laths and tied them with a piece of rag or worn-out rope to take back to camp. First they frisked you for it by the guardroom coming out--either the work supervisor or a foreman. If one of them was standing there they told you to throw it on the ground (they'd already sent millions of rubles up the chimney and they thought they could make up for it with these splinters of wood).  
But what the prisoners figured was if every man from every gang brought just one little piece back with him, it'd be that much warmer in the barracks. Because the orderlies only brought in ten pounds of coal dust for each stove and you didn't get much warmth from that. So what they did was break these pieces up or saw them short as they could and stick them under their coats. To get past the work-supervisor.  
The escort guards never told you to throw this firewood down out here on the site. They needed firewood too, but they couldn't carry it themselves. For one thing, they weren't supposed to in uniform, and for another, they were holding their tommy guns with both hands to shoot at the prisoners if they had to. But once they got them back to camp it was a different story and they gave the order: "Row Such-and-Such to Row Such-and-Such, drop your wood here!" But they had a heart. They had to leave some for the warders and even some for the prisoners or there'd be none at all for anybody.  
So what happened was that every prisoner carried wood every day but you never knew if you'd get it through or when they'd take it away from you.  

The way they kept control was by keeping the prisoners at one another's throats via collective punishment and insufficient resources (e.g. by organizing prisoners into work gangs to facilitate collective punishment/reward/pressure such as extra or less rations for the group):

Who is the prisoner's worst enemy? The guy next to him. If they didn't fight each other, it'd be another story....

However, there was a paradoxical sense in which there was more freedom in the camps than anywhere else in the USSR:

Somebody in the room was yelling: "You think that old bastard in Moscow with the mustache is going to have mercy on you? He wouldn't give a damn about his own brother, never mind slobs like you!"  
The great thing about a penal camp was you had a hell of a lot of freedom. Back in Ust-Izhma if you said they couldn't get matches "outside" they put you in the can and slapped on another ten years. But here you could yell your head off about anything you liked and the squealers didn't even bother to tell on you. The security fellows couldn't care less.  

Shukhov was at first in a camp in Komi (a region West of the Urals), rather than Siberia; but then he got moved to a "special" camp. His fellow prisoners included men from Estonia, Latvia, and Ukraine—probably part of the reason mistrust for Russia endures in those countries.

Overall, I really recommend this novel—and it doesn't take long to read anyway. It is quite evocative. I also think understanding some of what the Russian people went through in the 20th century sheds a bit of light on their mindset today.

While reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, I also got thinking of another quote from the author (who was writing it from his own experience in the prison camp system):

And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?... The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin's thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If...if...We didn't love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation.... We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.

I believe that non-violent resistance is more morally admirable, but it's hard to decry Solzhenitsyn for his vehemence here coming out of his own experience of the Gulag camps. And, in point of fact, his actual actions were to endure the camps, write and speak against them (and also against censorship) in his own country as long as he was able, then finally to raise awareness of this oppression once he was in exile in the West.