Mini review: “The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu


I’m not a big reader of science fiction but I started to dabble more in the genre at the end of last year (2015) when I tackled some Larry Niven (see Ringworld, Tales of Known Space and Neutron Star).  Before that there was Ender’s Game and Hugh Howey’s Wool, but that’s about it.

I’m not even sure how I came about this book. The main attractions were that it was a Hugo prize winner and the fact that the writer was Chinese. I’d also heard that this was the first part of a trilogy and the second book was better than this one.  So my expectations were high but tempered.

This is a “first contact” story, ie contact – or at least communication – between humans and an alien race.  It is a hard science fiction story, but one that doesn’t read as science fiction for a large part of the book.  This may put off some sci-fi fans, but as the book goes on the story arc moves from history > technology > science > startling premise and ideas.

In fact the end of the book is astounding.  I will be reading the sequel (The Dark Forest) at some point.

Something to note in relation to the audiobook version: the translation of the book is good – at least it read well in English, dealing impressively with some big ideas at the end – but some elements of the early story did not make sense.  I switched to the (printed) book and found that there were a number of notes from the translator which explained some of the meaning behind certain words or phrases.   So as much as I like audiobooks this time I recommend reading the book itself, simply for the extra context that it brings.


Spare Cycles turns nine…




This lovingly crafted blog is celebrating its ninth birthday.   A beer (or nine) is cooling in the fridge to toast the reaching of a milestone.  Happy birthday!

• Spare Cycles: Spare Cycles turns eight…

• Spare Cycles: Spare Cycles turns seven…

• Spare Cycles: Spare Cycles turns six…

• Spare Cycles: Spare Cycles turns five…

• Spare Cycles: Spare Cycles turns four…

• Spare Cycles: Spare Cycles turns three…

Concert: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Etihad Stadium Manchester, 25 May 2016


I’d been waiting since the beginning of the year to see Bruce Springsteen in concert.  I kept an eye on his website and watched as he added extra shows in the US and then concerts in Portugal and Spain.  The UK had to be soon.

Too soon.

Of the four dates in the UK three were whilst I was out of the country, including the London gig at Wembley Stadium.  Damn.  I got the feeling that I was not meant to see this tour, but I really wanted to as The Boss is not getting any younger and I did not want to wait for the next time round when he would be pushing 70.

There was one solution, one show that I could make but it meant going to Manchester, some 200+ miles and 3+ hours on the train.

So I found a place on Airbnb that was within walking distance of the stadium and the journey (pilgrimage?) went without a hitch.  I was going to follow a map to get to the stadium but when I got to the main road it was simply a case of following the several thousand other fans walking in that direction.  The route from the main train station in Manchester (Piccadilly) to the Etihad stadium is an official route that is properly signposted, and I would recommend that people walk it if possible especially once I saw the situation after the concert with traffic jams and road closures.

The weather can go either way at the end of May and I was hoping that we were going to get a nice sunny, warm evening.  No chance.  Manchester was the only place in the country where it was raining and it kept it up all night.  It was soon forgotten once the band came onstage but it would have been good to just go in a t-shirt instead…

In the days before the concert I had been looking at the setlists for the recent shows and hoping he was not going to change too much – at a Bruce show you never know what you’re going to get but I liked the look of what he had been playing.  At the start of The River tour – in the US –  they were starting the concerts by playing the River double album in its entirety but by the time they got to Europe this was a thing of the past – we got a good number of the songs but broken up during the set.  I’m glad as it’s not my favourite Bruce album – I find it quite schizophrenic with its darker songs mixed with pretty simple rocking tunes.

The band had been playing a number of different first songs and we got Atlantic City – a good start.  Then they dropped Murder Incorporated.  This was going to be a good night.  A few more songs in and the rain eased up a bit.

And then things got a bit… festive.  This happened…

Looking out at the signs in the audience Bruce spotted a guy in a Father Christmas jacket with a sign saying “Santa Claus is Coming to Manchester”.  He was invited up on stage and soon the bells were ringing out, the band kicked in with “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and the crowd was loving it.  It was a bizarre but beautiful moment, a highlight of the evening.

Things did get more serious for a while.  Bruce got into a more sombre character to tackle a few songs.  They went for a different interpretation of I Wanna Marry You.  It’s always good to see artists try new angles but on this occasion it was turned into something rather tepid and flat.  Shame.  The situation was rescued by The River followed by an intimate, almost conversational Point Blank – quite an achievement to pull off in a stadium.

I had mixed feelings when they played Darlington County / Working on the Highway.  It was great to hear the songs but Bruce went down to the front of the crowd and disappeared from the stage for a long time. You could see him on the big screens but by the end of the second song I was feeling a bit left out just watching it on video.

All was forgiven when a little later they did this…

The Rising > Thunder Road > Backstreets > Born to Run > Glory Days > Dancing in the Dark > Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out > Shout > Bobby Jean

Holy shit.  The place was rocking, rolling, dancing, singing.  I’m struggling to describe it but the next day I saw a tweet that summed it up:

Over the next few days I looked at the setlists of the shows that came after.  They got a number of songs from the first album which would have been great to hear. Coventry got Seven Nights to Rock and Dublin / London got Jungleland thrown into that last mix. Drool. But I was very happy with the setlist we got at Manchester.

I’ve seen Springsteen four times now and this was the best show yet.  They played over 3 hours and never stopped.  Any doubts that he is getting too old are ridiculous.  He is in the shape of his life.

A fantastic night. A stunning, well humoured performance.  Book me in again if he comes back any time soon.

Setlist: The River Tour 2016 Manchester Etihad Stadium

The Guardian: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band review – the magic and madness go on

The Manchester Evening News: Review: Bruce Springsteen @ The Etihad Stadium

Sunday Express: Bruce Springsteen shows Manchester who’s The Boss on The River Tour first night

The Independent: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Etihad Stadium, review: Boss proves he is an enduring treasure

The Telegraph: ‘Bruce Springsteen is one of the last great showmen of his era’ – Etihad Stadium Manchester, review

The Financial Times: Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, Etihad Stadium, Manchester — ‘High-octane’

The Mirror: Bruce Springsteen’s energy is unbeatable with marathon live performance in Manchester


Mini review: “The Rise of the Robots” by Martin Ford (audiobook version)


The impact that exponential technological advance will have on the future of the economy really came into focus for me five years ago when I read “Race Against The Machine” and Martin Ford’s first book “The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future” in quick succession.  The two were both were very cheap, unprofessional looking e-books and the writing could be improved.  They were pedalling ideas that were outside of mainstream thinking.  People where just coming to terms with the bombshell that was the Great Recession.

Fast-forward to today and the ideas have come to the attention of the general public.  Back then we had a chess champion beaten by brute-force computing and IBM’s Watson beating humans at a quiz show. Now we have self driving cars, a Go champion beaten by a computer program using machine learning and dire warnings from important figures in science and technology warning of the risks of artificial intelligence to the future of the human race.

Also, in the meantime both books have had an upgrade and big improvements in quality.  “Race Against The Machine” became “The Second Machine Age” and “The Lights in the Tunnel” became “The Rise of the Robots”.

Although the message is largely the same as the earlier book, the author’s writing is much improved, the arguments are clear and supported with data, there is little repetition in subject matter and the book is kept short (350 pages / 10 hours).

This book won the prize for Best Business Book of the Year 2015 and it is easy to see why.  However, I do wonder – as this book has come to the attention of the business community – whether a large part of the book’s audience will actually take heed of what is being said especially in regard to the issues of  income inequality and productivity if large scale  automation is undertaken. They certainly cannot now say that they have not been warned.  Will business leaders believe that the message applies to others but not to themselves?

A note on the narration as I listened to the audiobook version: sometimes these business books end up being read by a default-American-voice which can sound very bland and unenthusiastic.   In the worst cases, this can actively detract from the content of the book (The Second Machine Age is a victim in this regard).  When I heard the voice of the narrator for this book I was initially concerned.  In the end Jeff Cummins does a good job, adding intonation and a relaxed tone which matches the style of the text.

In conclusion, this book should be read by everyone.  I would go as far as saying that the book is an addictive read (or listen).  If you have not thought about the subject before, it will really give you something to think about.  You may be persuaded at least that the author has a point or you may be convinced he is right.  He sounds right to me.













Daptone Records: modern classic soul


It started a while back with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.  Here was a band making modern music sound like classic soul.  It was good, but I wondered if it was too much of a niche.  Was it a pastiche, a sign of respect for the art, a blatant rip-off ?

Now I use a streaming music service I was able to explore a bit more.  Sharon Jones is on the Daptone record label, so I checked out their other talent.

I don’t listen to a lot of soul but I am seriously loving what I’m hearing.  I don’t care any more when the music was made – I’m discovering artist after artist who have me dancing round the house.  The kids hate it.

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings (with the James Hunter Six in tow) have got a show coming up nearby and I have a ticket.  The venue says “the queen of NYC Soul Sharon Jones will be playing an intimate and sweaty club show”.  I can’t wait…

Daptone Records

• Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings

The James Hunter Six

Charles Bradley

Saun and Starr

Mini review: “Trap for Cinderella” by Sebastien Japrisot


I was introduced to the author Sebastien Japrisot at school when I had to read his book L’été meurtrier (One Deadly Summer) in my French class.  I loved it, and it sure as hell beat L’étranger by Albert Camus.

Over the years I have collected a few more books by Japrisot on the basis that the plots of his crime stories always sound so cunning.  These days I still like the idea of reading the original French versions but when it comes down to it I just can’t bring myself to do it.  At some point I might appreciate the challenge but not … quite … yet.

 So when I was drawn towards Piège pour Cendrillon I turned instead to the English translation: Trap for Cinderella.  Here are some of the details from the back of the book:

One night on the French Riviera fire guts a house shared by two young girls.  There is only one survivor.  Her memory wiped blank and her fave desperately burned who can tell whether she is the mad-cap heiress or the companion, the victim or the cold-blooded murderer.

This story was written in the early 1960s, so forget any modern means of solving the problem…

I was hoping to be hugely impressed by this short (170 pages) story but it never quite happened even though the plot twists keep on coming and the end of the book is very satisfying.

I think that the problem is with the translation.  It starts off well but towards the end it starts to struggle.  I get the impression that Japrisot is crafting sentences in French that should be explained more fully in the English but that would not fit in with the tone of the rest of the book.  The translator has gone with the more literal meaning of the text and the result is unclear English.

Still, if you’re a crime fan looking for something different you could do a lot worse than this book.

Article: “The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce” by Tom Wolfe

noyce and moore

I came across this article whilst listening to an episode of the Esquire Classics podcast.  I had never heard of Robert Noyce so I located the article and was instantly enthralled. Noyce was the (joint) inventor of the integrated circuit (“microchip”) and one of the founders of Intel.  I’ve heard of Gordon Moore and Andy Grove so I’m not sure why Noyce is not mentioned along with his colleagues.  His invention changed the world yet his is not a household name.  Why?

The article is by Tom Wolfe (author of The Bonfire of the Vanities) and is from the December 1983 issue of Esquire magazine.  The full title of the piece adds “How the Sun Rose on the Silicon Valley”.

I’ve read a couple of Tom Wolfe’s books and I’m a fan of his writing style.  This style is evident here, particularly in the exquisite use of the exclamation mark!

It’s very interesting to look back at history (the 1950s – 1970s) from another point in history (1983).  What is clear is that many things that we see happening today in the technology field are not the modern-day innovations we think they are, such as:

• big breakthroughs that will underpin future revolutions

• extremely rich tech entrepreneurs

• company startup culture / working crazy hours / stock options etc

• businesses trying to remove the traditional management structure

This has been going on for over half a century at this point.

The biggest technological breakthrough I could think of was the internet, which is starting to underpin everything we do today.  It truly is / will be revolutionary.  But without the invention of the integrated circuit in 1959 there would be no internet.

The microchip allowed people to fly to the moon within a decade of its introduction.

Even the introduction to the article – published over 30 years ago – could have been written now:

America is today in the midst of a great technological revolution. With the advent of the silicon chip, information processing, communications, and the national economy have been strikingly altered. The new technology is changing how we live, how we work, how we think.

Today we hear about ARM chips, data science and mobile.  It is the same stuff as before – it’s just that the technology has evolved over time. People refine and combine technologies to create something new.  Noyce did the same, but he built upon the transistor and the vacuum tube.

The article benefits from having Tom Wolfe as the author – the piece rises above what could have been a dry history and a tangle of techno-babble.  The wit and wordplay shine as the author portrays the people and the scene…

… maybe he would drop in at the Wagon Wheel for a drink before he went home. Every year there was some place, the Wagon Wheel, Chez Yvonne, Rickey’s, the Roundhouse, where members of this esoteric fraternity, the young men and women of the semiconductor industry, would head after work to have a drink and gossip and brag and trade war stories about phase jitters, phantom circuits, bubble memories, pulse trains, bounceless contacts, burst modes, leapfrog tests, p-n junctions, sleeping-sickness modes, slow-death episodes, RAMs, NAKs, MOSes, PCMs, PROMs, PROM blowers, PROM burners, PROM blasters, and teramagnitudes, meaning multiples of a million millions. So then he wouldn’t get home until nine, and the baby was asleep, and dinner was cold, and the wife was frosted off, and he would stand there and cup his hands as if making an imaginary snowball and try to explain to her… while his mind trailed off to other matters, LSIs, VLSIs, alpha flux, de-rezzing, forward biases, parasitic signals, and that terasexy little cookie from Signetics he had met at the Wagon Wheel, who understood such things.

… and contrasts the business practices between the east and west coasts of America:

Nobody had ever seen a limousine and a chauffeur out there before. But that wasn’t what fixed the day in everybody’s memory. It was the fact that the driver stayed out there for almost eight hours, doing nothing. He stayed out there in his uniform, with his visored hat on, in the front seat of the limousine, all day, doing nothing but waiting for a man who was somewhere inside. John Carter was inside having a terrific chief executive officer’s time for himself. He took a tour of the plant, he held conferences, he looked at figures, he nodded with satisfaction, he beamed his urbane Fifty-seventh Street Biggie CEO charm. And the driver sat out there all day engaged in the task of supporting a visored cap with his head. People started leaving their workbenches and going to the front windows just to take a look at this phenomenon. It seemed that bizarre. Here was a serf who did nothing all day but wait outside a door in order to be at the service of the haunches of his master instantly, whenever those haunches and the paunch and the jowls might decide to reappear. It wasn’t merely that this little peek at the New York-style corporate high life was unusual out here in the brown hills of the Santa Clara Valley. It was that it seemed terribly wrong.

Articles are just not written like this any more. I absolutely recommend it – it is long but it is worth taking your time and reading.


• Article:  The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce

• The Esquire Classics podcast: The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce