Category Archives: Non-fiction

Physics of the Impossible – Michio Kaku

physics of the impossible - michio kakuThis week, I finished Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible. We all love a little escapism now and then. Whole genres are built on things like time travel and parallel universes and extraterrestrials, but deep down, we know that none of that stuff could really happen. No matter how open-minded we think we are, there’s a little part of us that adjusts his monocle and scoffs “impossible”.

When I’m trying to decide whether or not something is possible, the first question I ask myself is “does this obey the laws of physics?”. Just last weekend, I asked myself the same question when I looked at the stack of clothes that needed to be ironed. The laws of physics govern matter and energy and, since a few creases didn’t matter to me, I couldn’t find the energy to iron anything.

No? My girlfriend didn’t buy that one either….

We’re living in a world of matter and energy, so if you want to know how possible something is you need to ask a physicist. Physicists have this reputation for being beige, betweeded misfits – a reputation that Michio Kaku sheds like an electron off of a positive ion. See! Terrible jokes like that have been sucking the fun out of physics for decades!

hoverboard-back-to-the-futureThe book tackles all of the big, important questions in science: Could you really build a death star? Are aliens watching you at night? Will they ever make a goddamn hoverboard?! Kaku’s answers to questions like these are easy to understand, fun to read and initially surprising.

I say ‘initially’ because after a while, you realise that all of these questions have the same answer: Yes, it’s possible, but probably not in this galaxy, or even this dimension and definitely not for coal-burning savages like us.

Kaku frames the book around the Kardashev Scale, a way to demonstrate how advanced a civilisation is based on the amount of energy they can make use of. The scale includes Type I, Type II and Type III civilisations. The bad news is that humans haven’t even attained Type I status. To do that we’d need to harness nuclear fusion, cultivate antimatter or build a giant solar panel in space.

If you think that’s mad, a Type II civilisation could wrap a whole star up in solar panels, and a Type III civilisation could do it to all the stars if they really put their minds to it.

Part one covers class I impossibilities, or things that can theoretically be achieved by Type I civilisations. This covers all kinds of madness from force fields to telepathy to robots. Kaku then rolls up his sleeves to tackle class II impossibilities like time travel, before going completely over the top in Part III with subjects like precognition.

Wrong flask, dipshit!

“No, Jesse! You’re sciencing all wrong!”

I’m definitely not what you’d call a scientist, but this book made complete sense to me, 90% of the time. I didn’t just understand what I was reading – I was quite often blown away with how profound it was. At one point, he suggests that intelligent beings like us (well, maybe not us) might be the microscopic agents of universal evolution.

I think that’s what that part meant anyway…

An actual physicist might read this book and think it’s over-simplified wish-wash designed as entertainment for the non-physicist masses. Well, I’m just an idiot in no position to judge how accurate his theories are and, as a member of the non-physicist masses, I can give it a big stamp of approval.

The only downside to Physics of the Impossible is that it was published in 2008 – and a whole lot of science has happened since then. Even if it’s not exactly current, you should definitely give it a go. Take it with you on the daily commute – you’ll be thoroughly amazed and you’ll look a bit smarter.

North Korea Undercover – John Sweeney – a review

north korea undercover john sweeneyNorth Korea is probably the most secretive state in the world. They have good reason to be too – they have an appalling human rights record and a strict policy of hatred and mistrust for anyone who isn’t North Korea.

It’s no surprise then that the country had become a magnet for investigative reporters, cultural voyeurs and dictatorship ghouls – and John Sweeney can tick at least a couple of those boxes.

In his career, John Sweeney has uncovered the grim secrets of a number of modern dictatorships and rogue states, from Ceaușescu’s Romania to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. His intrepid reporting aside, he’s probably best known for losing his rag with a scientologist. If you haven’t seen the footage, he proudly displays the video on the home page of his website.

So synonymous is he with unrestrained rage that his Twitter handle is @johnsweeneyroar. If you can’t laugh at yourself, right?

John’s penchant for mockery extends to his subject matter as well as his own unabashed fury. I’ve read quite a few books about North Korea, from the heartfelt accounts of defectors in Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, to the exhaustive fact-sheet that is Victor Cha’s The Impossible State. In North Korea Undercover, John Sweeney approaches the country with his fists out and his teeth bared. His mission is to demystify and expose the regime for the self-serving totalitarian slave-state that it is.

Nowhere can you find the fearful reverence for the Kim dynasty. Instead John substitutes the names of Kim Jong Il for ‘Bad Elvis’, and Kim Jong Un for ‘Fat Boy Kim’. In North Korea you can get thrown in the gulag because your grandfather might have forgotten to dust his Kim Il Sung portrait in 1975. Were Sweeney to return to Pyongyang, I’m sure his bitter irreverence would earn him a special torture all of his own.

Not that we’d ever hear about it though – North Korea is a black hole into which many people have simply disappeared. We can’t be sure of their exact fates but from what we know, the lucky ones have been allowed to live in Pyongyang as curious capitalist zoo exhibits. The less fortunate have more than likely been forced to sit alone in cold cells for years, with only the occasional beating to break the monotony and the odd bowl of grass soup to prolong their starvation.

north korea undercover john sweeneyIf you haven’t read anything about North Korea yet, I would recommend North Korea Undercover as an excellent starting point. Sweeney gives a concise account of the country’s history, making sure to insult the Kims at every opportunity. Many reporters might prefer a more unbiased method, but given the circumstances, I think Sweeney’s approach is wholly justified and, if anything, it’s refreshing.

Too many people have tip-toed around the issue with guarded diplomacy. I found North Korea Undercover all the more enjoyable simply because Sweeney tries to send up the regime whilst expressing a very real anger and frustration at the cost of human suffering.

This suffering continues today and because of Fat Boy Kim’s nuclear threat, there isn’t a damn thing anyone can do about it except hope that the regime is toppled from within. Such is the stranglehold on liberty however, we needn’t hold our breath.

Naples ’44 – Norman Lewis – A Review

Naples '44 - Norman LewisThe other day, I found a first edition hardback of Norman Lewis’ Naples ’44 for £2 in a charity shop. I thought I’d write a wee review just so I’d have an excuse to tell everyone.

I first read this book when I was in Naples earlier in the year and of all the Neapolitan books I read, I think this is the one I enjoyed the most.

Norman Lewis served as an intelligence officer during the war and during this time he kept a diary. Naples ’44 begins as Lewis and his unit land on a beach in Paestum, just south of Salerno. After a pretty hectic game of cat and mouse with the enemy, he eventually reaches his destination and finds a city in extreme poverty. The descriptions evoke images of a war-beaten people shivering in empty rooms as they try to think of something else to sell.

The Neapolitan people were (and still are) a very closed community surviving on their own wiles and placing as little trust in the authorities as possible. Since time immemorial the ownership of Naples has been in constant flux and the ‘ordinary people’ have always been subject to whatever ills the ruling classes could dream up, be they Spaniard, Bourbon or Fascist. It’s for this reason that the common folk always turn inwards in times of crisis.

One can hardly think of a more difficult state of affairs for an intelligence officer to find themselves in. One of his main duties is to uncover information relating to black-market trading – a task made impossible by the simple fact that the citizens rely on these goods to survive. Being Naples, there’s also a tendency to keep quiet for fear of accidentally incriminating the Camorra and inviting certain death.

Lewis doesn’t spend the whole time chasing fruitless leads and we can see several friendships blossoming between himself and some of the locals. It’s a pity that his stay happens to coincide with a war because there is one aspect of Neapolitan culture that is glaringly absent – they have very little food to go around. Of course they make the best of a bad situation and at one point they resort to feasting on the attractions of the local aquarium.

Among the many treasures in this book is the description of an occurrence for which the area is synonymous but that few have witnessed. Norman Lewis becomes one of the privileged few to have seen the last eruption of the Vesuvius and he illustrates the awe and panic brilliantly.

Lewis’ tone is wry and witty throughout and he observes his situation from a typically British angle. The book is now published by Eland who take time and effort to make their books beautiful. At £10.99 it might be more expensive than your average paperback but for the story alone, it’s definitely money well spent.

Foodie Tuesday: A Delicious Life – New Food Entrepreneurs

9783899554670Check this out! I’ve always had this fantasy (you’ve probably had it yourself) where I open a little pop-up restaurant in, say, Paris and change my life in a range of exciting ways. Sounds like a dream, like something other people do – but you might be surprised at the variety of dreams that have become prosperous businesses.

If you’re a lover of food and an admirer of these “other people”, then have a wee look at A Delicious Life. Published by Gestalten, this book is a bona fide catalogue of lives you’ll wish you were living.

It’s amazing.

The book charts the successes of different businesses across the world and I’m not just talking about eateries. We have, for example, Arvid Häusser, a top-drawer designer who has invented the most beautiful, porcelain coffee machine you’ve ever seen. Or there’s Put A Egg On It – a biannual food magazine from Brooklyn full of features, tips and personal stories all printed on green paper.

This is a book about food and the people who love it.

I’ve noticed quite a demand for books such as these in recent years. I put it down to enterprises such as Rachel Khoo and The Pizza Pilgrims. In one case, we have the gorgeous Rachel, who ran a teeny-tiny restaurant from her pokey little flat in Paris, followed inevitably by the book and TV show combo. Then we have the Pizza Pilgrims who scaled down a Neapolitan business model to fit inside a Piaggio Ape and made a mint on the streets of London. You can see their TV show or buy their book at your convenience.

An idea – that’s all you need.

I don’t want to spoil the whole experience for you but, by all means, check out Lick Me I’m Delicious, the brainchild of Charlie Harry Francis. When you see his steampunk mobile nitro ice cream buggy, you’ll start wondering where the line is drawn between fantasy and reality.

But the entry that really blew my mind into a fine, pink mist was Wohlfarth Schokolade. Christophe Wohlfarth creates things from chocolate that are so mad you’ll just accuse me of taking drugs. You can buy, and I’m not making this up, a record that you can take home and play on your standard turntable…but it’s made of chocolate! That’s music you can eat! If the world of food hasn’t gone completely off the hinges then I don’t know what’s going on.

So there you are, buy it for yourself, a friend, you ma and see what’s been fizzing around in my head like popping brain-candy. Or just get your local bookseller to remove the cellophane and you can have a cheeky, non-committal browse on your lunch break. You might even be inspired to start your own exciting new food business.

Jon Ronson: a love story

las-jrRead Jon Ronson.

That’s my infallible advice for the day.

For those who don’t know, Jon Ronson is an investigative journalist with a penchant for the weirder side of life. We’ve all fallen a little bit in love with him here at the bookshop.

My personal infatuation began last year when I received a proof copy of The Psychopath Test. It sat on my bookshelf for weeks before I decided to give it a go. I was hooked from the start.

The eponymous test is a questionnaire of sorts called the Hare Psychopathy Checklist used by professional mind-wizards to categorise potential misfits. The book deals mainly with the trouble of defining psychopaths and Ronson’s tireless quest for answers puts him in contact with some of the strangest, most frightening characters in print.

The theme of mental health appears to a large extent in most of his work. In the book, Them: Adventures With Extremists, Jon tackles the murky world of conspiracy theorists – those who believe that there is, somewhere, a hidden elite controlling the masses in all manner of nefarious ways. Here, he talks to white supremacists about their rebranding strategy, to David Icke about extra-dimensional lizard-people and to the Rev. Ian Paisley about the so-secret-it’s-obvious Papist plot for global domination.

Thanks to Hollywood, Ronson is probably best known for his book, The Men Who Stare at Goats. This book follows the fates of certain top secret U.S. Military projects created to harness the powers of the unknown. The title refers to a project in which U.S. ‘psychic’ soldiers stared at goats attempting to stop their hearts with the power of the mind.

His latest book, Lost at Sea, is a collection of various articles from the past few years. Here, you’ll find everything from behind-the-scenes mysticism at Deal or No Deal to the dark workings of targeted advertising to UFO hunting with Robbie Williams. I’ve been dipping into it regularly over the last couple of months, taking it slowly to prolong the joy. I’m not sure if ‘joy’ is the most appropriate word – last night I read an article about the shocking number of people who disappear from cruise ships and the evident cover-ups that result.

Because Jon Ronson focusses on the more wacky side of darkness, his books are very funny. In the time-honoured British tradition of self-deprecation, he paints himself as the weedy, middle-class outsider desperately struggling to understand what makes people believe the things they do.  At times, however, we are reminded that the characters are in fact real people with real problems and not just sideshows to be exploited.

So if you’re drawn by curiosity to the darkest, most morbid side of life, do give Jon Ronson’s books a go. When you’ve run out of things to read, pop over to jonronson.com and check out his Radio 4 series, Jon Ronson On… All seven series are available to download for free so be sure and snap them up before someone changes their mind. I like to listen to them when I’m ironing but how you chose to enjoy them is entirely up to you.