The Best Books I’ve Read in 2016

Stuff Matters

This is a short, enjoyable read on material science, explaining some basic properties of materials that are the building blocks of our modern world, such as cement, steel, plastic, and glass. I learned a few interesting things, such as the use of bacteria in concrete, to make it self-healing, and the existence of a wonderous type of material called Aerogel.

The Secret War

One of the central themes of Max Hasting’s book on espionage in the Second World War is the disparity between human intelligence—sending spies out into the field, or recruiting double agents—and signals intelligence—intercepting and decrypting enemy communication. All major powers invested significant resources in humint, but for a variety of reasons almost all of this effort was in vain.

The three big totalitarian belligerents’ intelligence agencies suffered pressure from the top to prefer fantasy to reality. Germany:

Before the June 1941 invasion of Russia, Gen. Georg Thomas of the WiRuAmt—the Wehrmacht’s economics department—produced estimates of Soviet weapons production which approached the reality, though still short of it, and argued that the loss of European Russia would not necessarily precipitate the collapse of Stalin’s industrial base. Hitler dismissed Thomas’s numbers out of hand, because he could not reconcile their magnitude with his contempt for all things Slavonic. Field-Marshal Wilhelm Keitel eventually instructed the WiRuAmt to stop submitting intelligence that might upset the Führer.


In Japan as in Nazi Germany, it had become an institutional precept that no intelligence assessment could be countenanced by policy-makers which ran contrary to a desired national course. Again and again between the 1930s and 1945, strategy was distorted to conform with the visceral inclinations and ambitions of commanders, rather than with realities, of which by far the most important were America’s economic superiority and Germany’s precarious strategic predicament.

And the Soviet Union, in particular before and in the earlier stages of the war:

Soviet intelligence officers feared for their lives, with good reason, if they told Stalin what he did not want to hear. He seemed to credit only reports that identified plots against himself or the state, at home and abroad. Where these did not exist, Russia’s most senior intelligence officers invented them. Stalin used the product of his codebreakers to some effect where and when this was available, but entered the greatest conflict in history almost blind through his own acts of will.

Stalin smartened up as the war went on, and spent much effort spying not only on his Axis enemies but also on his allies who, in turn, were wholly focused on the Axis, a fact the Soviets had difficulty believing:

The Russians had renewed contact with [a spy in London] nine months earlier, but his initial reports about life at Broadway earned their scorn. He asserted that the Soviet Union stood only tenth on MI6’s penetration target list, an incredible proposition to [Soviet intelligence], which was convinced that the existential purpose of the British secret service was to achieve the destruction of the Soviet Union. Russia’s leaders inhabited a society in which nobility of conduct was alien, indeed dangerous to the state. They were thus unable to credit the fact that for the war’s duration even the most impassioned anti-communists, including Churchill, had set aside their hostility to throw everything into the struggle against the Axis.

As a result of that Stalin had a huge advantage when negotiating with the other Allies:

The Russians’ default diplomatic posture towards the Western Allies of stone-faced indignation successfully concealed from Washington and London the fact that, at summit meetings, the Soviet delegation was fully informed in advance of intended British and American positions. Churchill especially, who often awaited apprehensively Stalin’s response to unwelcome surprises, especially about delays to D-Day, might have spared himself discomfort. The ‘surprises’ were nothing of the sort: the Soviet dictator merely brilliantly simulated amazement, then unleashed anger to order. It was impossible for Churchill and Roosevelt to play poker with the Kremlin, because Stalin knew their hands.

Aversion to truth was much less pronounced in the Western Allies’ hierarchies, but it did appear in some areas:

So fixated were senior RAF and USAAF officers with their determination to demonstrate that strategic air bombardment could win the war, that the history of the bomber commands’ intelligence departments shows an institutionalised commitment to fantasy, of a kind more usual in the German and Japanese high commands.

Humint for the Western Allies was ineffectual for other reasons, one of which being that they just weren’t very good at it:

Meanwhile two Dutch SOE agents were dropped under circumstances which suggested fantastic carelessness in Baker Street: both were issued with forged identity cards on which the royal arms of Holland were represented by two lions which both faced the same way, instead of addressing each other.

One aspect of intelligence the Americans were particularly successful at was economic analysis:

[…] R&A became fascinated by the possibilities of tabulating vehicle serial numbers to compute German production.

The book is full of incredible stories, like that of agent “Max”, a German “collaborator” invented by the Soviets to feed the Germans (mis)information. Max’s most important contribution was informing the Germans of the impending offensive “Mars”. All the information given to the Germans about Mars was correct. The purpose of telling them was to shift Wehrmacht troops away from Stalingrad, where an even bigger Soviet offensive loomed, of which the Germans knew nothing, eventually encircling their army there. The Mars offensive still went ahead and was repulsed by the prepared Germans, at the cost of 70,000 Soviet lives. Max, having correctly predicted Mars, continued to be trusted by Berlin until the end of the war.

Hastings also has much to say about signals intelligence, which, especially for the Western Allies, was spectacularly successful. He leaves the cryptographic theory to other authors (see, for example Simon Singh’s “The Code Book”, or Andrew Hodges’ “Alan Turing: The Enigma”[1]), and focuses instead on how it was exploited, and on the practical aspects of its acquisition. Many ciphers could not be broken automatically, but required secret codes which had to be obtained in the field, without the enemy’s knowledge, lest they changed them:

On 1 April, two Imperial Japanese Navy flying-boats were damaged in a tropical storm, en route from Palau to Davao. One of them carried Admiral Mineichi Koga, commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet. In the second was Vice-Admiral Shigeru Fukudome. When this plane ditched off Cebu island, Fukudome floundered ashore without his attaché case, containing Japanese codes and important strategy documents in plain language. Guerrillas on Cebu alerted the Americans, who got to the plane. A US submarine rushed the attaché case to the Australian Army’s intelligence department, where Fukudome’s codes and documents were photographed. Then the case was hastened back to the crash area for local people to hand over to the Japanese, claiming that they had chanced upon it. Fukudome himself eventually got home, to be forgiven and promoted. The Japanese navy never suspected that its haul of secrets had passed through American hands.

Once they could read the enemy’s dispatches, it was in their interest that they kept coming:

Signals intelligence became so central to the Allied war effort that from 1944 onwards the Americans became reluctant to bomb identified Japanese wireless communications centres, because their output seemed more useful to Allied military operations than to those of Nippon.

One of my favorite tidbits in the book is this, on the very unstereotypical treatment by the Nazis of prisoners:

The Wehrmacht’s ‘Guidelines for the interrogation of English prisoners of war’, dated Berlin, 16 April 1940, urged commanders whenever possible to use interrogators familiar with Britain and the British. ‘If cordially addressed,’ said the briefing note, ‘every Englishman will at once answer all questions entirely frankly.’

Doing Good Better

William MacAskill’s canonical book on Effective Altruism deals with the question of how to seriously, truly, improve the lives of other people (and animals).

A large part of the book is devoted to charities, which have historically been very bad at measuring how much good they actually do, or even whether their net impacts are positive at all. Effective Altruism tries to change that trend. GiveWell, for instance, evaluates charities’ impacts and gives recommendations. If you give money to charity, you should most definitely read this book. If you can’t be bothered, please just give your money to the Against Malaria Foundation.

MacAskill touches on many other topics, such as what kind of career you should choose if you want to do the most good, whether you should buy FairTrade, how terrible (or not) sweatshops are, and whether immigration is a good thing. The answers to most of these questions might surprise you.

The most stunning factoid I learned from this book, about the eradication of smallpox in 1973:

Suppose we’d achieved world peace in 1973. How many deaths would have been prevented? That timescale includes the killings of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, the Rwandan genocide, the two Congo wars, the 9/11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. If you add up all the wars, genocides, and terrorist acts that occurred since 1973, the death toll is a staggering twelve million. Prior to its eradication, smallpox killed 1.5 to 3 million people every year, so by preventing these deaths for over forty years, its eradication has effectively saved somewhere between 60 and 120 million lives. The eradication of smallpox is one success story from aid, saving five times as many lives as world peace would have done.

The Three Body Problem Trilogy

The trilogy by Cixin Liu is a science fiction story about contact with an alien civilization. It is as brilliant and full of wonderful ideas as it is frustrating and inscrutable. When I watch or read fiction I mostly enjoy stories about smart people solving difficult problems in smart ways. That’s why I can’t watch “The Walking Dead”, for instance, which devolves from “we’ll have to be really smart and work together to not get eaten by those zombies” to “whatever, let’s just kill each other instead”. That’s why “Captain America: Civil War” is a bad movie.

The most infuriating character is the unbearably sentimental protagonist of the third book, who on multiple occasions has to make decisions that determine the fate of humanity, and every single time she chooses the obviously wrong option. The most egregious instance is when she considers being a candidate for a position crucial to the deterrence of alien aggression. She gives three reasons for why she should be a candidate, all of them vacuous. The question of whether she is actually qualified does not enter her mind, which of course means that she isn’t. Alien aggression follows shortly thereafter.

Still, the books are brilliant and full of wonderful ideas.

Worst book I’ve read in 2016: Aurora

Kim Stanley Robinson’s book, on the other hand, is horribly frustrating while being neither brilliant nor full of wonderful ideas. A short summary of it is: everything sucks, so why bother?

A generation ship is sent to the star Tau Ceti, to colonize the moon Aurora there. Upon disembarkation the colonists discover a substance on the surface that kills them on direct, unprotected contact. Half the ship promptly decides they want to go back to Earth, the other faction wants to go on to find another suitable planet. Neither faction considers solving the problem, or contacting Earth to ask them to solve the problem. In fact, we only discover very late in the book, and almost as an aside, that the ship even has bidirectional communication with Earth. It doesn’t seem important. What help could the science of a ten billion strong civilization possibly provide, after all? The answer is cryogenics, finally developed, which the homeward-bound faction uses to survive their long trip back to Earth where, they learn, it sucks, too.

One of the revenants lays it all out in a speech at the end:

There are ecological, biological, sociological, and psychological problems that can never be solved to make this idea work.

  1. And please disregard the movie “The Imitation Game”, which is historically accurate inasmuch as people with the names of the movies’ protagonists did exist, and were involved in one way or another in code breaking. Hastings actually refers to the movie when he talks about Turing, saying it “offered a version of his experience at Bletchley Park that was a travesty of the reality: […]”  ↩