Category Archives: Mathematics

The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross

The Rhesus Chart by Charles StrossReview: The Rhesus Chart (Laundry Files Book 5) by Charles Stross (Ace, 2014)

Oh mama, sometimes there’s a perfect storm of books all landing at once, a cosmic alignment which compels all of your favourite authors to complete their latest offerings within days of each other. Right now is one such blue moon occasion. Right after discovering that Ben H. Winters had completed his Last Policeman trilogy I discover there’s a new Laundry Files novel available (the one I’m reviewing here), followed immediately by the latest in Richard Kadrey’s insanely fun Sandman Slim series and the concluding chapter of Jeff VanderMeer’s thoroughly unsettling Southern Reach trilogy. Not to mention Robin Sloan sneaking in a prequel to one of my favourite books of last year, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Happy is me. First up is Charlie Stross because, well, he’s just overall awesome and this may be the finest Laundry Files novel to date.

So, to bring you up to speed in case you’re unfamiliar with this particular universe, Bob Howard was just a lonely computing science geek pottering around with algorithms in his flat. Unbeknownst to Bob it turns out that maths just happens to hold the key to accessing other dimensions and inviting their many-toothed and -tentacled denizens for dinner in our neck of the woods. Having been saved from unleashing screaming terror on suburban England he is inducted into The Laundry, a beyond-top-secret government organisation tasked with protecting the realm from threats unknowable, unnameable and indescribable. Think MI5 meets HP Lovecraft.

Many (mis)adventures and near-death incidents later, Bob finds himself discreetly climbing the organisation’s ladder, secretly enlisted as the apprentice to the Eater Of Souls and attempting to maintain a steady relationship with his wife Mo, a one-woman supernatural heavy-weapons unit armed with a cursed violin. For all Bob’s dealings with terrors from beyond the imagination it is the laundry’s stultifying and suffocating bureaucratic culture which causes him most nightmares this time around. The powers that be have decided to encourage motivation and creativity through the time-honoured tradition of whip-cracking, forcing employees to devote and extra 10% of their time to personal projects, selected from a pre-approved list of course. Unfortunately Bob’s colleague Andy succeeds in summoning a rather large and peckish entity into his office, requiring the intervention of his boss Angleton (current Eater Of Souls) and very nearly causing a departmental collapse. This sets Bob off on his own course and before you know it there’s a pack of mathemagically-created vampires roaming London, pawns in a deadly game which will soon have The Laundry at its knees.

The Rhesus Chart, despite being the fifth full-length novel in the series, is an excellent jumping-off point for new readers. It seems Charlie wrote it with accessibility in mind, providing plenty backstory to established characters and concepts without ever coming across as dull or repetitive for seasoned fans. Not to get too spoilery but the plot leads to some dark places and the story ends with events which leave the series open to an almost fresh start and with the ever-approaching Case Nightmare Green as an increasingly palpable destination. If you don’t know what to expect already then you’re going to find nerdy references, horror, humour, fantasy, sci-fi and a healthy dose of well-read snark on display. Stross revels in his contempt for the excesses of the banking institutions which recently caused so much hardship for so many millions as well as his distaste for corporate and bureaucratic culture in general. The barbs he sends that way are always well-aimed, never excessive and invariably having you involuntarily chuckling on the bus as you read.

If you’re already familiar with The Laundry Files then you need to read The Rhesus Chart as soon as possible. The characters and settings are that bit more fleshed-out and you can feel that Charles Stross is much more comfortable in creating the stories. There’s just such a natural feel about the whole thing and everything feels more substantial. What started as a jokey ‘Lovecraft-meets-the-civil-service’ tale has matured into a genuinely accomplished series and this is without a doubt the cream of the crop. If you’re a newb and don’t fancy trawling through the four previous installments (although you should) then you can happily pick up here without feeling you’re missing out. Given the almost Empire Strikes Back feeling to the ending I hope to the Elder Gods that Charlie’s already writing number six.
(An addendum here. I would have copied and pasted some choice quotes from my legally purchased ebook version but I couldn’t because, well, Amazon are a pack of bastards. Evil bastards who hate consumers and content creators in equal measure. I use a Kobo ebook reader but their store is inevitably less well stocked and more pricey than their behemoth of a competitor. So I occasionally resort to Amazon for new titles. However, Amazon only want you to be able to read their releases on their own Kindle devices so they format them and seal them with DRM intended to make them as inaccessible and user-unfriendly as possible. No problem, I can use ebook management tool Calibre to strip the protection and reformat the titles, breaking the law in the process just to access the book I purchased (although don’t ‘own’ because under Amacunt’s T’s & C’s you only license content from them). Normally this proceeds without a hitch but on converting The Rhesus Chart to an epub it decided to interpret every line break as a page break. Every single one. Reading a 2,500 page book was not my plan. So I converted to a mobi instead and while it started fine it also inserted a few characters of random gibberish every page or so and rendered the last half of the book in italics – very distracting and for some reason preventing me from highlighting or annotating. It just so happens that Charlie delivered a couple of small anti-Amazon rants during the course of The Rhesus Chart, helping to make up my mind never to ever use Amazon again. I urge you to do the same. Support authors and support the future of digital reading and publishing by buying direct from the publisher when possible and from alternative outlets when not. End PSA.)

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Filed under Fantasy, Horror, Mathematics, Science Fiction, Supernatural

How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg

Review: How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg (Penguin, 2014)

How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg‘Mathematics as currently practiced is a delicate interplay between monastic contemplation and blowing stuff up with dynamite.’

Yep, Jordan Ellenberg sure is keen about his chosen field of study. The imagery described above, guaranteed to make any nerd tremble at the knees, is a perfect precis of his current release, How Not To Be Wrong: The Power Of Mathematical Thinking. The objective of the book is twofold. Firstly he’s addressing the age-worn question, posed in best whiny-student voice, “But what will I ever use algebra for after school?” Secondly it’s asking us to change our outsider view of mathematics, to see it not as a field entirely concerned with black and white, truth and falsity but as one which specialises in probabilities, the grey areas between right and wrong where politicians fear to tread.

How Not To Be Wrong takes a fairly comprehensive journey through modern maths, organised as a series of stops in fairly wide-ranging sub-fields which, despite our protestations to the contrary, impact our daily lives in ways we rarely imagine. For example, the topic which opens the book is a mixture of probability and expectation. Ellenberg piques our interest with a real-life puzzle posed to a team of boffins during WW2. Aircraft returning from missions were examined on landing and the bullet-holes in various parts of their bodies logged. The top brass were anxious to lose as few planes as possible and this meant providing armour but heavy metal plating on a lightweight aircraft means a trade-off in terms of speed and maneuverability. So, where to put the armour for maximum effect?

The data provided showed marked differences in which areas appeared to be bullet magnets. Typically the fuselage would contain several holes, the wings and cockpit slightly fewer and the engine block one or two if any. If you’re anything like the average thinker (and even most above-average thinkers) then you’d say it’s a no-brainer, you slap that armour on the fuselage to soak up some of the excess damage. And you’d be wrong. I’ll leave the reasoning behind the solution as a brain-teaser for you until you buy the book (unless you ask in the comments) but to understand it you might want to think about what we are not seeing in the bullet-hole data…

This is the key to How Not To Be Wrong’s success as a layman’s guide to what seems to be becoming an increasingly murky and ill-understood world. Ellenberg is simply one of the most gifted writers I’ve encountered when it comes to taking an easily-comprehended real world problem or situation and slowly peeling away the layers until we come to the revelatory maths underneath. Think Freakonomics but with fewer shoddy inferences and a lot more hard thinking behind the scenes, the kind of book that lets you coast by on a superficial read but will increase its rewards exponentially with every extra ounce of effort you impart.

That said, it’s not all rosy. I was jolted out of my mathematical revery once or twice by utterly inexplicable and entirely unnecessary attacks on atheism, characterising atheism’s recent rise in popularity as ‘two billion billion fighty books on the topic of “you should totally be a cool atheist like me”’, as if completely blind to the fact that pro-religious books in any store outnumber the freethinking ones by a factor of ten easily. Not to mention the proliferation of churches, temples, etc around the world, the lack on non-religious leaders, the fact that atheists are labeled as terrorists or even threatened with death sentences in some countries. Better stick to maths Mr Ellenberg, methinks you’re ill-prepared for other arenas as your unashamed admiration of Pascal’s Wager betrays.

However such minor blemishes certainly won’t affect the experience for the majority of readers. They’ll delight in attacks on our legal systems (‘The purpose of a court is not truth, but justice.’), sly asides on late-night pot sessions and the conspiracy theories they engender (‘It’s a very interesting mental state to be in. But it’s not conducive to making good inferences.’) and examinations of the truly insane status of wealth in our modern world (‘if you’re down a million bucks, it’s your problem; but if you’re down five billion bucks it’s the government’s problem’). How Not To Be Wrong is a true eye-opener of a book, one with a very real power to help you view the world from a different perspective. From the lofty peaks of mathematical awareness, and with a little practice and discipline on your part, you may well find your day-to-day errors in judgement, expectation and calculation diminishing noticeably if not entirely. And even if not you’ll certainly be hugely entertained along the way by a mostly amenable and charming host. That’s got to be worth a few hours of your reading time.

Find a copy of How Not To Be Wrong via Indiebound


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Filed under Critical Thinking, Mathematics