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The System

James Ball Bloomsbury (2020)

Journalist James Ball was part of the award-winning team that covered US National Security Agency online surveillance for newspaper The Guardian. His incisive insider study on who owns the Internet draws on programmers, executives, whistle-blowers and academics to describe how the Internet’s leading companies — Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google — are “engines running along the railway lines set out by the internet’s very structure”. He argues that, like railways, the Internet must become subject to competition law for the good of society.

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George Dyson Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2020)

Philosopher Bertrand Russell supposedly asked: is the world a bucket of molasses or of sand? In other words, is nature analogue or digital — or both? This problem fascinates historian of technology George Dyson. His engaging, if digressive, meditation ponders how nature’s coding is digital for intergenerational instructions in DNA, but analogue, in brains and nervous systems, for real-time operations. “The next revolution”, he predicts, “will be the coalescence of programmable machines into systems beyond programmable control.”

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Roger Kneebone Viking (2020)

“The greater the expertise, the less you notice it,” writes Roger Kneebone in his vividly practical analysis. Once a consultant surgeon, then a family doctor, he is now a university researcher investigating what experts in diverse fields can learn from one another. He cites a riverbank walk with an angler friend, silently spotting a swarm of invisible fish from surface ripples, shadows, the sun’s glint and flies’ patterns. He worries that scientific expertise will diminish because student teaching is now too dependent on watching scientists online.

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A Natural History of Color

Rob DeSalle and Hans Bachor Pegasus (2020)

Mantis shrimp eyes probably contain 16 visual pigments, compared with 3 for humans. These allow the shrimp to communicate using dazzling reflected displays of polarized and other light. By contrast, avant-garde artist Neil Harbisson, born without colour vision, has an antenna implanted in his skull to let him ‘hear’ colours, even beyond the human visual spectrum. Biologist Rob DeSalle and physicist Hans Bachor illuminate many such fascinating facts in their study of colour, accompanying an American Museum of Natural History exhibition.

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Empire of the Black Sea

Duane W. Roller Oxford Univ. Press (2020)

Mithridates VI, last king of Pontos, ruled most of the Black Sea coast, clashed with the Roman empire and was defeated in 66 bc. Roman statesman Cicero called him “the greatest king since Alexander”. Classicist Duane Roller agrees, and notes that the famously polyglot Mithridates intensified his lifelong study of poison and antidotes before his suicide in 63 bc. But Roller resurrects much more than a single king in his pioneering history, the first ever English-language analysis of the entire Mithridates dynasty.