Losing My Virginity – Richard Branson

I’m currently reading Losing My Virginity: The Autobiography by Richard Branson.

Branson is a bit of a hero of mine. He is probably Britain’s most well-known business man, and currently the world’s 245th richest man. He recently launched Virgin Galactic which is to offer commercial space flights to the edge of space. This adds to his business empire including flights, wine & cola, TV & broadband, music, health clubs and train service.

He attempted to buy the failed British bank Northern Rock, bid for the National Lottery and has, recently, even expressed interest in buying up London Gatwick airport which is being sold off by BAA. Branson is also well known for his attempts to cross the Atlantic Ocean in record breaking time and to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon.

It’s certainly a long book, weighing in at almost 600 pages. But Branson writes really well: his autobiography feels like reading a top class novel. The book tracks the growth of Virgin starting from Branson’s Student magazine, to the launch of Virgin as a mail-order record company, the launch of the Virgin Atlantic airline and the battles with British Airways all the way up to the present day.

This is a gripping read and it certainly left me with a lot of respect for Branson. A strongly recommended read. Parts of his book are also available as a podcast on his website.

Those more interested in business may also be interested in Branson’s brand new book, Business Stripped Bare.

What is the Most Efficient Language?

smile is universal
Creative Commons License photo: kalandrakas

In talking about efficiency, perhaps this post is the one to bring out the computer scientist in me. A question for all of you: of the world languages what language is the most efficient language?

Could it be English? The English language doesn’t have any government departments to deliberate over it and hence the language very quickly evolves and mutates. New words can be created without restriction which makes it possible to express new ideas. English is spoken by 1.8 billion people worldwide – that’s a lot of people. But local dialects of English could mean two English speakers in different countries won’t understand each another. It’s also a very difficult language to learn. Obviously these two things mean English is less efficient than it might initially appear to be!

Or could it be Esperanto? As a constructed international auxillary language, Esperanto is short, simple and elegant. There are no irregular forms of grammar. That might make it easy to learn and hence efficient but at the same time, very few people speak Esperanto: 2 million at the very most.

Or should it be Mandarin? With the most native speakers in the world, learning this language opens the doors to communicating with a huge amount of people.

Weaving the Web (Tim Berners-Lee)

I remember a few years ago receiving a copy of Weaving the Web by Tim Berners-Lee as a gift. Tim Berners-Lee is of course the inventor of the World Wide Web and is a real hero of mine. This is a fascinating book about the events which lead up to the invention of the web.

Tim Berners-Lee graduated in physics and created a programme called Enquire at CERN. The programme stored relationships between scientists at CERN, their projects and their contact details. In fact, it sounds very much like what wikis do today.

He discusses the launch of the first page on the web, the different protocols and the concept of URLs, the spread in popularity across the globe, early web browsers and the launch of the W3C web standards consortium.

In the last half of the book, he discusses what he saw as the future of the web: the social and eventually the semantic web. Although the book was written in 2000 at the height of the dotcom boom, it is interesting that this vision is only becoming realised today with the rapid explosion in social networking websites over the last year or so. The semantic web still looks like it’ll be a few years away but DBPedia might be one site to watch.

I was amused when I visited Switzerland a few years ago to see CERN advertising itself as the place where the World Wide Web was invented. No, never mind the physics. After reading the book, I found out that the people at CERN weren’t particularly enthusiastic about the web to begin with and I feel CERN may be slightly exaggerating their role in the development of the web.

Even though this book is reaching a decade old, it’s still a fantastic account of how the web came about. If you’re interested in the web as a whole and where it might go in the future, this is still one to read. I’m sure history students will be studying this text in 100 years time.

You can buy the book from Amazon.com (US) or Amazon.co.uk (UK).

The God Delusion

It’d probably be an understatement to describe The God Delusion as a controversial book. Written by Professor Richard Dawkins from Oxford University, the book describes itself as a "hard-hitting, impassioned rebuttal of religion of all types and does so in the lucid, witty and powerful language for which he is renowned".

It’s certainly not the type of book I’d normally have picked up; I received it at Christmas. I will say after reading it that I thought it was a fantastic book which I enjoyed a lot.

It certainly is a well argued systematic rebuttal of religion. Dawkins writes clearly and explores many of the topics he covers with jokes, examples and letters which he has received. Besides simply exploring the evidence about God, Dawkins argues that it is perfectly rational to be an atheist – that atheists can be good and happy people.

I think the main aim of this book is to change the minds of agnostics and pantheists (those who believe in God in the more metaphorical sense that Einstein does). If you consider yourself an atheist, you may find this book an interesting read. Dawkins also challenges religious people to read it as a test of faith, but that seems to have just sparked off somebody to write a book called The Dawkins Delusion, which in turn has been parodied by a Youtube Video.

Scientists and free-thinking philosophers will love this book which will explore not only God but issues such as morality and how we tell whether something is right or wrong. It could be considered a form of religious conversion but it’s possible to read the book critically and to make up your own mind. And  at the very least, it should inspire you to write a blog post or two about it.

The Book of Nothing

I’ve just completed The Book of Nothing by John D. Barrow, which as you may guess is a book about nothing. The book is really divided into two parts – the first describing the history of the number zero in maths and the second looking at nothing (the vacuum) in science.

The book looks at different numeral systems and the advent of the number zero. It took a surprisingly long amount of time for zero to appear – to have a digit which represents nothing.

The first half of the book goes into a lot of detail about how number systems evolved in different cultures – roman numerals, "modern day" arabic numerals, and numbers in different base systems (e.g. Mayans and base 60).  

There’s a lot of stuff to get you thinking. I particularly liked the Zeno paradox. It goes a bit like this:

There is a man and a turtle. The man walks at 400 metres per hour. The turtle walks at 40 meters per hour.

The turtle starts the race 400 meters in front of the man.

By the time, the man has travelled 400 metres, the turtle will have travelled 40 meters so will be 40 meters ahead.

The man travels another 40 metres, but by then the turtle is 4 meters ahead.

The man travels another 4 metres, but the turtle is 0.4 meters ahead.

And so on…

The man can therefore never overtake the tortoise.

The trick of this paradox is that we’re tending towards a certain point (444.44m) in increasingly small amounts. We can iterate the above statements an infinite number of times, each time the difference in length tending towards zero.

The second part of the book focuses on zero or nothing, in science. It talks about the vacuum and the ether in history, but goes on to discuss "vacuum energy" or dark energy, and how it can answer some of the fundamental questions about our universe.

This book combines a lot – mathematical history, religious philosophy and scientific theories. Barrow goes to quite a bit of length to try and show the beauty of zero and mathematics – there are quotations and poetry dotted all over the place. 

I personally found the first half of the book much more interesting than the second; the end of the book was quite technical and the book lost me a few chapters before the end. Which half of the book you enjoy will probably depend on your own area of interest, but this is certainly a book of two halves.

An enjoyable and interesting book.

Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman!

Book

I’m currently reading "Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!" written by the physicist Richard Feynman. Feynman was involved in the development of the nuclear bomb at Los Alamos and also did a load of other physics work which led him to earn the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965.

This book is really interesting and is a collection of anecdotes and personal experiences. It does read a little bit like an autobiography; it certainly isn’t technical or scientific, or for that matter, boring. 

According to Wikipedia:

It expounds upon his human side with a number of personal and mostly humorous anecdotes, detailing everything from his forays into hypnotism to his fascination with safe-cracking and his fondness for topless bars, as well as more serious topics such as the development of the atomic bomb and the death from tuberculosis of Feynman’s first wife, Arline Greenbaum. 

Notable stories in the book which come to mind include pranks he played on waitresses, how he managed to break into safes at Los Alamos and how he managed to fail a US Army test for psychiatric reasons.

Reading the book helps you appreciate how much of a genius the guy was. You pick up a bit of Feynman’s philosophy on understanding and persisting with solving problems. 

Recommended read!