The Chancellor by Kati Marton

The biography is interesting both for what it says and for what it omits. It’s remarkably thin in terms of content or juicy gossip. Merkel developed deep habits of paranoia when she lived in East Germany, so much so that years later she refused to use text or email. Her inner circle was so intensely loyal that nobody spilled the beans for this book, and it’s not clear that there were any beans in the first place. A few facts do emerge: Merkel had immense stamina for diplomacy, for engaging in dialogue. Germany’s chancellor is the de facto leader of…

Genius Makers by Cade Metz

This book is about the renaissance of artificial intelligence (via neural networks) in the early 2000s. The bones of the technology were developed at Cornell University in the 1950s but due to a combination of skepticism in the field and lack of computing power, the idea of the neural network lay mostly dormant for the next 30 years. The man at the centre of the book is British-Canadian professor Geoffrey Hinton, who has spent most of his academic career at the University of Toronto and had conceded that he enjoys the epithet “The Godfather of AI”. The book opens with…

Shackleton, By Endurance We Conquer by Michael Smith

I recently read “The Last Viking”, a biography of Roald Amundsen, the first man to traverse the Northwest passage, the first to reach the North Pole by airship (and possibly at all) and the first to reach the South Pole. It opened my eyes to the heroic age of polar exploration, a time when people straddling the line between sane and insane attempted feats that defied death and often defied logic. Shackleton did not achieve any enduring heroic “firsts”, and for years his reputation played second fiddle to that of the famous Captain Scott. Shackleton is now regarded as one…

The Last Viking by Stephen R. Brown

This is a fine biography of Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian polar explorer (b. 1872) who won several trophies in the heroic age of polar exploration, including the famed race to the south Pole in 1912, the first to navigate the Northwest passage, and the first to cross the Arctic by air. Amundsen learned a great deal from some early failures. He and his brother undertook a skiing expedition in Norway’s North for no particular reason but to prove their bravado; the journey nearly killed them both. Amundsen quickly realized the folly of slapdash preparation and he seldom made the same…

The Cult of We: WeWork, Adam Neumann, and the Great Startup Delusion by Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell

Elizabeth Holmes was sentenced to 10 years in jail; Adam Neumann got a billion-dollar payday and has returned from the ashes to found a cryptocurrency startup. Both founders are liars; Holmes’ lies were dangerous, but of the two founders Neumann may have been more brazen. Theranos was a sham, but Bad Blood by Carreyrou describes it as a busy place where top-class scientists signed ironclad NDAs and strove to make Holmes’ lies come true in a toxic and stressful work environment. Neumann is 2000’s “hustle culture” personified: he is a hustler incarnate. The incredible thing about WeWork is that Neumann…

Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre

We’re all doomed, was my internal head-shaking reaction, when I read this very unsettling book. Ben Goldacre is a British physician with a wicked sense of humour. In Bad Pharma he takes aim at the unholy and uneasy alliance of pharma companies, regulatory bodies, journal editors and even physicians who conspire to sell drugs to patients. If the drugs are efficacious and safe, so much the better. If not: we have a pill for that. Goldacre credibly presents the strategies deployed to pass off good results as bad. The first eye-opening point for me was: why are drugs always compared…

Cold Rush: the astonishing true story of the new quest for the polar North by Martin Breum

In which history repeats itself! In 2007, Russia sent submarines to plant the Russian flag on the ocean floor underneath the North Pole. The statements initially released for external consumption pooh-poohed the notion that Russia has making a territorial claim, but internally the messaging was very different. Fast forward to 2021 and the closest human approximation to Orwell’s “Squealer” in Animal Farm, Sergey Lavrov, declared ““It has been absolutely clear for everyone for a long time that this is our territory.” China has also shown interest in the Arctic’s potential for mining and mineral resources despite having no obvious claim…