Love and Math: a review

Dansk: Matematikeren Edward Frenkel under et f...
Dansk: Matematikeren Edward Frenkel under et foredrag om geometrisering af sporformler på University of California, Berkeley, 16. september 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I started reading this book by Edward Frenkel (Amazon link here) I became so engrossed in it on my morning commute that I missed my Tube stop – and the next one. I got an insight into life in the Soviet Union on the cusp of perestroika from a contemporary (if somewhat higher achieving student), including into how academic (and anti-scientific in the sense that some were desperate to discredit Einstein) anti-Semitism was on the increase from the 1970s onwards, as well as a new take on group theory in geometry and an introduction to braids.

It really was great – the main text skated over the maths while the footnotes explained it in some detail. Not all of it was perfect – the attempt to explain symmetry at the start left me confused about something I thought I understood – but it seemed to all hit the right note.

But it seems my Leicester Square moment was the pinnacle. Even by the time I had retreated back to Holborn I was starting to struggle as the maths just went off the deep end and the explanations offered no quarter.

It’s a pity, because I do think that just some small additional efforts to explain what some of the concepts meant could have gone a long way – for instance we just get Riemann surfaces dumped on us as though they were something different from manifolds (I am sure they are, but a little more effort at explaining why would have helped). While at the end we get a long, and dry, description of branes and A-models and B-models which we are told are potentially important in quantum physics, but we never quite are told why they are important.

My overall impression was the maths has run away with the science a bit – but I am not really in any position to judge.

This could have been a great book, but unless you really are well read on your complex topologies then I’d have to warn you to stay clear.

A horror story with a happy ending (hopefully)

An LGM-25C Titan intercontinental ballistic mi...
An LGM-25C Titan intercontinental ballistic missile in silo, ready to launch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Command and Control is not a piece of light reading – in any sense. But it is an absolutely essential book.


It tells the story of the United States’s nuclear weapons programme from the Manhattan Project to the present day, with an emphasis on safety management (with the story of a particular accident in a Titan II missile silo in 1980 foregrounded).


Finishing it you are left wondering why you are there at all – because it is surely more by luck than design that civilisation has managed to survive in the nuclear age – particularly through the forty-five years of the Cold War when, more or less, fundamentally unsafe weapons were handed out willy-nilly to military personnel who were not even vetted for mental illness.


We read of how politicians – Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Carter – all tried (to various degrees – Eisenhower comes off worst as fundamentally weak man) to get some sort of grip on the nuclear colossus and all essentially capitulated to a military more interested in ensuring their weapons would work when needed, than they were safe when not.


The good news is that the book has a relatively happy ending: in that the end of the Cold War and the persistent efforts of a few scientists and engineers, deep within the US nuclear weapons programme, eventually led to safety being given a greater priority. The chance of an accidental nuclear war is probably less now than it has ever been – but the chance is not zero.


The book, per force, does not give us much insight into the Soviet (or Chinese, or indeed French, British, Indian, Israeli or Pakistani) nuclear programme – was it safer because state control was so much more strict (the fear of Bonapartism), or more dangerous because the Soviets were always running to catch up? The book suggests both at different points.


It’s brilliantly written too – so if you want a bit of chill to match the summer sun in your holiday reading I do recommend it.



Unicorns and the Juche

The authorities in North Korea have “reconfirmed” the discovery of a Unicorn lair, reports the Guardian.

Happily they were aided by the fact that someone carved the words “unicorn lair” into the rock outside the animals’ home.

Given the nature of the state we can only assume that the latest Kim to head the world’s first and last (though Cubans might disagree) Stalinist hereditary monarchy is a strong believer in the existence of unicorns. Much in the same way that the Soviet authorities promoted Lysenkoism because it was a pet theory of Josef Stalin and Nikita Khruschev despite most Soviet geneticists – or those who survived – knowing it to be garbage. (This presents another opportunity to recommend Red Plenty).

Read this book!

The best book I have read (so far) this year is, without doubt, “Red Plenty”. Better even than the Booker winning “Wolf Hall” (which is not to say that Wolf Hall is anything other than good) or its sequel “Bring Up the Bodies”.

Cover of "Backroom Boys: The Secret Retur...
Cover via Amazon

Red Plenty tells the story of the scientists and engineers who struggled to make the Soviet Union work and deliver on its promises of human happiness after the bitter, bloody years of Stalinism. It’s not a novel with a happy ending, though it is one that rises above the simpler tropes of anti-communism, but never without explaining how Stalinism created a brutalised, gangsterised state.

But this blog is not about that novel – even if I think you should all read it – but about another of the author, Francis Spufford‘s, books – “Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin”.

This work is not a novel, but a series of extended pieces of reportage on the (sort-of) fall and (sort-of) rise of British engineering over the forty years prior to its publication in 2003. The story is told through the vehicles of the British rocket programme, Concorde, the computer game Elite, the rise and rise of Vodafone, the Human Genome Project and the failure of the Beagle 2 Mars lander.

It’s an intensely political book – though the politics are hard to pin down: though its plain Spufford is no big fan of the privatisation of science, he’s also an admirer, it seems, of those who pull themselves up by their engineering bootstraps.

And it’s a book about business, but not a business book. For a start there is none of the usual masters-of-the-universe garbage, even when describing those businesses, such as Vodafone, which have made their investors billions. Instead the focus is almost always on the science: how to burn hydrogen peroxide, how much stress testing a Concorde airframe requires, how to write 6502 assembler, how to map a radio signal, how to sequence DNA and how to land your package on Mars.

If any of these things remotely interest you then you should get out and buy a copy. It is, of course, slightly out of date in one or two places. Or rather, it’s now a bit dated. But not in a way that seriously detracts from the pleasure of reading it.

As you might expect, the piece that fascinated me most was the description of the birth of Elite. Here Spufford captures the spirit of age – when it was really possible to write a piece of software in your bedroom that would make you a millionaire (or close to one anyway). I cannot claim to have been as good a coder as David Braben and Ian Bell who created Elite, but I dare say I and a few thousand others were not far off it, at least for a time.

Like them I knew I was writing things nobody else had done before – my proudest creations were a football game and a version of Conway’s “Game of Life” – both written in raw Z80 machine code (I had no assembler so wrote down the assembly mnemonics and then converted that into base 10 for POKE-ing into the computer) and designed to fit into 1K of space. But I guess I got interested in other things – politics probably – and so gave up.

The first two pieces (on rocketry and Concorde) were originally published as self-contained piece of journalism and shows signs of having been retro-fitted to the book, or at least to its subtitle, but that’s not a serious critcism.

Not even on Wikipedia…

If you are old enough, like me, to remember the Cold War before the days of glasnost and perestroika, you will also recall that one of the strategic weaknesses of the Soviet Union was that it was forced to steal and copy advanced western technologies, seemingly unable to invent them itself.

In many cases that was plainly true – spies stole the secrets of the Manhattan Project to give Stalin his atomic bomb (though Soviet scientists devised H-bomb mechanisms independently).

But in the case of computing, the decision to copy the west was a deliberate and conscious one, taken despite real skill and specialism existing inside the Soviet Union. A while back I wrote about how Soviet computer scientists appeared to be some years ahead of the west in the study of certain algorithms that are important for operating system management. In hardware it was not that the Soviets had a lead – but the first electronic computer on continental Europe was build in the Soviet Union and was based on independent research – but they certainly had real know-how. What killed that was a decision by the Soviet leadership to copy out-of-date IBM machines instead of continuing with their own research and development.

All this is recounted, in novelised form, in the brilliant Red Plenty. The book highlights the role of  Sergey Alekseevich Lebedev, the Ukrainian known as “the Soviet Turing“. Like Turing, Lebedev was taken from his work (as an electrical/electronic engineer rather than a mathematician) by the war and played an important role in Soviet tank design. Afterwards he returned to his studies with a vengeance and by the mid-fifties he was building some of the world’s fastest and, arguably, the best engineered, computer systems  – the so-called MESM (a Russian acronym for “Small Electronic Calculating Machine”.)

Yet today he does not even appear to rate an entry in Wikipedia.

The Soviet computer industry was not just killed by poor decisions at the top, but by the nature of the Soviet system. Without a market there was no drive to standardise or commoditise computer systems and so individual Soviet computers were impressive but the “industry” as a whole was a mess. Hopes that computers could revolutionise Soviet society also fell flat as the centralised planning system ran out of steam. Switching to copying IBM seemed like a way of getting a standardised system off the shelf, but it was a blow from which Soviet computing never recovered.

Why you cannot always trust social media: a practical example

Portrait of Nikita S. Khrushchev
Portrait of Nikita S. Khrushchev (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reading more about the excellent Red Plenty – I came across this discussion on the US blog “Crooked Timber”.

There are some very odd contributions there – one commentator in particular, Louis Proyect, waxes on and on and in ignorance of the book’s real content (he has not read it, he says), about its flaws… ignore that and read a copy, it’s brilliant.

But the discussion also contains something worse than the at-length views of a loud-mouthed know-it-all –  a link to an page for ‘Khrushchev Lied: The Evidence That Every “Revelation” of Stalin’s (and Beria’s) Crimes in Nikita Khrushchev’s Infamous “Secret Speech” to the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on February 25, 1956, is Provably False’.

My interest here is not in the likely psychotic state of the author (I am assuming that Grover Furr did not write such a ludicrous book as a way of making fun of Stalinists) – but that on it has 6 five star reviews – the first of which has been found “helpful by 26 out of 29 readers” (it was out of 28 before I got there), and all of which are rated positively.

In other words a cult of Stalin freaks, people who lust for the GuLags and Nazi-Soviet pacts, revel in anti-Semitism and mass deportations, famine and slaughter, have been able to fix up the Amazon social media recommendation system without many people spotting what they were up to.

So … (a) remember this when you next rely on nothing but a social media recommendation to make a purchase and (b) go there and vote these reviews as unhelpful. That is the least any of us can do to honour the many millions of victims of Stalinism.

Comrades, let’s optimise!

Cover of US edition of Red PlentyOne thing has occupied my free time more than anything else these last few days – Francis Spufford‘s marvellous work of history and imagination, Red Plenty.

The book is a marvel in joining linear programming, economics, mathematics, cybernetics, computing, chemistry, textiles, politics, sociology, popular music, genetics and history all in one long fabric. The book is not quite a novel but nor is it history, the author himself calls it a “fairy tale”.

The ground on which it works is the Soviet Union between Stalin’s death in 1953 and what might be considered as the cementing in of what was later called the “era of stagnation” in 1970. The main characters are the scientists and engineers who saw, in that time, a new hope for the USSR in Khrushchev‘s claims that “this generation will know communism” – with a 1980 deadline – and who was willing to indulge their hopes of a rational, mathematical reshaping of the Soviet system.

Novelisations of actual events and the actions of real and fictional people are interwoven with passages of historical and scientific commentary and the effect is that we can sympathise with the hopes and dreams of the scientists but also know that they are destined for heart-breaking (for many at least) failure as the essential gangsterised and cynical nature of the state created by Stalin crushes their hopes which, in any case, were always naive at best.

But along the way we get to understand why the Soviet Union excelled at maths (and to a lesser extent computing science) – as it was both free of the pollutant of Marxism-Leninism but also valued by the Marxist-Leninists – scared the west with epic economic growth in the 1950s and so failed its citizens economically – nobody lost their job or reputation by failing the consumer, but if you failed to deliver a capital good you risked both.

We also get a portrait of a society that is much more granulated than the simple riffs of anti-communism would let us believe.

At the top we see Khrushchev was a fool who had done many evil things but he also hoped to make amends, Brezhnev and Kosygin the champions of a new wave of repression and stultification but also men frightened by how earlier reforms led to massacres and desperate not to see that return.

But most of all we see the scientists and their hopes get ground down. They all begin as believers and have only three choices in the end: to rebel and lose every physical thing, to compromise and lose hope or to opt out of the real world and chose only science.

The bitterness of their defeat, and that of all those who hoped for a better world after Stalin, is summed up in the words of a (real) song, sung in the book by Alexander Galich, a writer of popular songs turned underground critic and, after the shock of the public performance, recounted here, of his satirical works, exile.

We’ve called ourselves adults for ages

We don’t try to pretend we’re still young

We’ve given up digging for treasure

Far away in the storybook sun.

(As a companion work I’d also recommend Khrushchev: The Man and His Era)