The Core Dump

The Core Dump is the personal blog of Nic Lindh, a Swedish-American pixel-pusher living in Phoenix, Arizona.

[By Nic Lindh on Monday, 15 February 2016]

Book roundup, part 21

This installment features grimdark fantasy, peppy astronauts and the Roman Empire. Includes SPQR, And On That Bombshell, The Code Book, Schiit Happened, Beyond Redemption, The Severed Streets, The Martian and Veiled.


SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard ★★★★☆

SPQR covers the first thousand years of Roman history, from the mythology-shrouded founding of an inconsequential village to the world-spanning empire it became. SPQR (titled for Senatus Populus Que Romanus, ‘The Senate and People of Rome’) is authoritative and clinical, going to great lengths to separate what we can know about the Roman Empire and the myths and projections that have crept in to our understanding of this distant past.

If you’re interested in the classical past at all, SPQR needs to be on your reading list. It is somewhat marred by the author’s caution—sometimes it feels more like learning about what we don’t know than what we do know, and sections feel bloodless.

But it’s nevertheless a masterful work that above all raises your curiosity about the people who inhabited those times. It’s frustrating there’s so much we just can’t know.

SPQR does an excellent job of answering one of my main questions about the Roman Empire: How did they do it? How did the Romans manage to control such a large portion of the known world?

One reason was they asked very little of the conquered:

There was one obligation that the Romans imposed on all those who came under their control: namely, to provide troops for the Roman armies. In fact, for most of those who were defeated by Rome and forced, or welcomed, into some form of ‘alliance’, the only long-term obligation seems to have been the provision and upkeep of soldiers. […] It was an imposition that conveniently demonstrated Roman dominance while requiring few Roman administrative structures or spare manpower to manage. The troops that the allies contributed were raised, equipped and in part commanded by the locals. Taxation in any other form would have been much more labour-intensive for the Romans; direct control of those they had defeated would have been even more so.

Impressively, they used very few resources to control their empire:

A reasonable estimate is that across the empire at any one time there were fewer than 200 elite Roman administrators, plus maybe a few thousand slaves of the emperor, who had been sent out from the imperial centre to govern an empire of more than 50 million people.

Enlisting and co-opting local elites, making Roman goals their goals, were also a huge part of how the empire worked:

The rebellions that we know about were not the work of high-principled, or narrow-minded, nationalists. Getting rid of the Romans was never the same as an independence movement in the modern sense. […] They were usually led by the provincial aristocracy and were a sign that the relationship of collusion between the local elites and the Roman authorities had broken down.

If you’re at all interested in classical history, SPQR deserves to be on your reading list.

And On That Bombshell, by Richard Porter ★★★★☆

Behind the scenes of Top Gear and with much the same feeling as the show. If you’re a Top Gear fan, you’ll enjoy And On That Bombshell.

Just don’t expect any deep secrets to be revealed.

It’s flavor, that’s all it is and all it has to be. Worth reading for fans of the show.

The Code Book, by Simon Singh ★★★★☆

The Code Book is an engaging and breezy read on the history and evolution of cryptography from Caesar’s cipher to quantum computing with plenty of discussion of the connection between war, politics and encryption.

Above all, the book is full of so many incredibly smart people, including of course the great Alan Turing.

The end of the book spends some time on a good discussion of the pros and cons of wide-spread encryption. Here’s a taste:

Law enforcers fear that the Internet coupled with cryptography will help criminals to communicate and coordinate their efforts, and they are particularly concerned about the so-called Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse—drug dealers, organized crime, terrorists and pedophiles—the groups who will benefit most from encryption.

The proencryption case is based on the belief that privacy is a fundamental human right, as recognized by Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

If you’re a member of society today you should understand encryption and how it affects you, and you should read The Code Book.

Schiit Happened, by Jason Stoddard ★★★★☆

Schiit is a personal audio company started in 2010 that makes amplifiers and Digital to Analog Converters (DACs) for the midrange headphone audiophile market. And yes, their name is pronounced how you think, and no, it’s not German—it is self-consciously tongue-in-cheek.

Schiit Happened is the story of how the company came to be and the things they have learned along the way. It’s written in an irreverent and somewhat edgy tone you will either find a refreshing change from other business books or hipster-annoying, but beneath the tone is a great tale with good lessons for anybody interested in either starting a company or just finding out what goes on behind the scenes in a startup.

And it’s a plain fun read with some hard-earned business gems of wisdom about starting a company like this:

If you’re only interested in business intelligence, you won’t have to read any further than the next seven bullet points:

  1. Shooting to be the next billion-dollar mass-market company is insane—you might as well buy lottery tickets.
  1. Niche is where it’s at—specifically a niche where people can get in fistfights over the color of a knob.
  1. Pick a niche you know and love, and do something nobody else can do—“me-too” never works.
  1. Be memorable—this isn’t about getting everyone to like you, this is about getting some people to love you.
  1. Go direct—distribution is a poisonous remnant of 19th-century economics in a disintermediated world.
  1. Run from both conventional marketing wisdom and the social media mavens—both of them are geared towards the mass market with eight-digit ad budgets and multiple decades to build a brand.
  1. Don’t think this’ll be easy—this is hard work, but you’ll also be having a whole lot of fun if you’re doing it right!

Note that the book referenced here is an edited and polished version of a series of forum posts, and it’s interesting to compare and contrast the raw originals from the edited versions in the book. Hint: Everybody can use an editor.


Beyond Redemption, by Michael R. Fletcher ★★★★☆

This, this is the most grimdark of grimdark, a novel where the gods have gone insane and broken the world by making some people, known as Geisteskranken (German for insane) able to manifest their delusions. Belief is reality. And the insane are not exactly imagining puppies and rainbows.

As a bonus and in a genius move, most (perhaps all—my German isn’t good enough to tell) terms and names are in German, which instantly cranks up the metal factor. The main protagonists are Bedeckt (covered), an old, scarred warrior, Wichtig (important) whose goal in life is to be the world’s greatest swordsman, Stehlen (stealing), a kleptomaniac, and Morgen (morning), a boy who will die to become a god.

Yup, it’s that kind of novel.

Reading Beyond Redemption is like hearing a Black Sabbath riff going on and on, and I mean that in a positive way. If you’re ready for some seriously grim reading, this should be on your list.

It’s always great when an artist totally commits to a vision, and Fletcher is all in on this particular insanity.

The Severed Streets, by Paul Cornell ★★★☆☆

Very good follow-up to the excellent London Falling, which takes gritty urban fantasy to a much darker place than it usually goes. The conceit of the series is that some mostly out of central casting hard-boiled cops gain the ability to see the magic side of London and have to deal with incorporating that knowledge into their work while trying to figure out the new rules and maintain their sanity.

The Severed Streets will be a hard novel to read without London Falling under your belt, so obviously start there, and if you like London Falling, this is a good sequel, even though it feels a bit tentative, like Cornell isn’t exactly sure where to go now. But it’s still worth your time.

One thing that did take me out of the novel a bit was the use of author Neil Gaiman as a minor character, and I’m still not sure how I feel about that. But, quibbles. If you want your urban fantasy dark and gritty, this series is where it’s at.

The Martian, by Andy Weir ★★★★☆

A lot of people said The Martian was a great read and they were all correct. The idea is that an astronaut is left for dead on Mars when the rest of his crew are forced to evacuate in a storm and he has to figure out how to survive. That’s the story.

Weir turns that premise into a charming, tight page turner with an immensely likable main character. Even if you’ve seen the movie, The Martian is worth your time.

Veiled, by Benedict Jacka ★★★☆☆

Continues the Alex Verus urban fantasy series which began with Fated in competent fashion, but it does feel like it’s starting to run out of gas. There’s lots of action, but little forward progression in the overlying story arc and not much in the way of character development. I’m hoping this is just a temporary slump and that the next one will be better. Fingers crossed.

Nevertheless, if you’re a fan of the series—and it is a damn good urban fantasy series—Veiled is a given read.

Note: The links are Amazon affiliate links. If you purchase through them I get a tiny kickback, which motivates me to keep writing these reviews. It’s appreciated.

You have thoughts? Send me an email!