Mar 07 2017

Women Writers

Over the past year or so I’ve been making an effort to read more books authored by people who aren’t white men. I suppose the trigger for this was my post on feminism in which I realised that women live quite different lives from me. I thought it would be interesting to find out more, and since I read a lot this seems a natural place to start.

My reading divides into three broad categories:

  • Fiction, quite often science fiction – I don’t tend to blog about this;
  • Technical books in the area of programming and machine learning;
  • Other non-fiction – mainly the history of science or industrial history;

These categories differ in the way that I select books to read and my reason for reading them. Fiction I tend to read in bed shortly before I go to sleep, whilst non-fiction I read earlier in the day (when I can take notes). Fiction I read entirely for entertainment whereas non-fiction I enjoy but I’m normally reading for some purpose.

Non-fiction I select from my interests, and recommendations on twitter. For example, I’m interested in James Clark Maxwell and the number of book-length biographies of Maxwell is approximately 2. Fiction I’ve tended to select from prize winning, recommendations by Amazon or similar or from habit.

It turns out switching to reading more women authors of fiction was pretty straightforward. Of the fiction I’ve read over the last couple of years, about 60% was written by women and 70% was written by women or men who were not white Westerners (I read the Cixin Liu trilogy and a couple of books by Ramez Naam, whose is Egyptian by birth).

Are these books by women different from those written by male authors? One obvious difference is the main protagonist is more often female, and themes around sexual ambiguity are more common. It feels like there is a bit more inner emotional life to characters, and their interactions with others. This is all subjective since I didn’t make these readings blind. Books like “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula le Guin and The Imperial Radche trilogy by Ann Leckie are amongst the best fiction I’ve read. 

In the past I would likely picked books by male authors because that is the sort of book I felt would interest me, I associated women authors with girly things in which a boy should not be involved. There’s a huge range of science fiction written by women so it was easy to change my habits.

Outside of fiction I have had more trouble. On the non-fiction side the fraction of women authors in the books I read is about 14%. This is a little odd since I can easily list several very good women authors in the area in which I read – Lisa Jardine, Andreas Wulf, Jenny Uglow, and Georgina Ferry. It seems likely this low proportion is in part driven by a lower proportion of books written by women in the areas in which I am interested. The proportion of women winners and short-listed authors in the Royal Society Science Book prize, going back to 1988, is about 8% (see the spreadsheet here). I struggle to discern a difference between these books, predominately on the history of science, written by men and women. More generally it seems like the role of women in the development of science is more widely recognised and written about than it was perhaps 30 years ago. Looking back at the authors I have enjoyed I see they have written other books that interest me, and the Royal Society Science Book list looks like a good source for more.

In technical books the proportion of women authors I have read is even lower, at 6%. This corresponds to one author so its something of an uncertain figure: that’s to say chance could have easily given me no female authors or twice the number. This seems to be approximately reflective of the proportion of technical books with women authors. Of the O’Reilly books in their “Python” section 6 of 46 authors were women (corresponding to 13%), for Manning 3 of 70 authors in their Software Engineering section are women (corresponding to 4.5%). It also seems to be roughly in line with the proportion of women contributors to Open Source projects on GitHub (at about 6%).

In my non-fiction and technical reading I felt I had no prior bias as to gender of the author, I selected based on my interests (primarily the history of science) or what I felt I needed to learn from the point of view of professional development. As a result I read a low proportional of women authors in these areas largely because there are a lower proportion of books authored by women.

You can see all the books I have read on my Goodreads profile, although the dates and sequences of reading go to pot in mid-2015.

Dec 29 2016

Review of the year: 2016

Another year passes and once more it is time to write the annual review of my blogging. I no longer have an hour and a half or so of commuting on the train everyday, so I thought my reading rate might have dropped. However, I see in the last year I have 21 book reviews on my blog as opposed to 22 last year. As usual my reading is split between technical books, the history of science and various odds and ends.

In terms of technical books, Pro Git by Scott Chacon and Ben Straub and Test-driven Development with Python by Harry J.W. Percival probably had the biggest impact on me in terms of the way I did my job. But Beautiful Javascript edited by Anton Kovalyov was the most thought provoking, it is an edited collection of the thoughts of a set of skilled Javascript developers. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren is an autobiography describing how it is to be a scientist, it is beautifully written. Maphead by Ken Jennings is about those obsessed with maps rather than science. Of the more directly science-related books I think The Invention of Science by David Wootton was the best in terms of provoking thought, it’s also very readable. The Invention covers the Scientific Revolution from 1500-1700 in terms of the language available to and used by its practitioners.

A second contender for the “sweeping overview” award goes to A New History of Life by Peter D. Ward and Joe Kirschvink which focuses particularly on the work over the last 20 years on the very earliest life on earth. I read some economic history in the form of The Honourable Company by John Keay (about the East India Company) and the more general The Company by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. I also read about the Romans, in the form of Mary Beard’s SPQR which is a history of ancient Rome, and Roman Chester by David J.P. Mason which is about my home city.

You can see all I’ve read on Goodreads. I don’t blog about my fiction reading, I think because for me blogging is mostly about reminding myself about facts and ideas I’ve read about and I struggle to see how I’d do that with fiction. Perhaps I should try. In fiction, I’ve been making some effort to read books not written by middle aged white men which has been rewarding.

This year’s holiday was to Benllech on the isle of Anglesey, an embarrassingly short drive from home – our holiday bungalow had leaflets describing attractions in our home city! We took in a number of castles, the beach on a daily basis and the Anglesey Sea Zoo. The photo at the top is from Amlwch which was once port to the Copper Mountain.

The year has been momentous politically with Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as leader of the Labour Party, the Leave vote in the EU referendum, David Cameron stepping down as Prime Minister and then leaving parliament, Theresa May taking over as Prime Minister and the election of Donald Trump as president in the US. I haven’t written much about all of these things. I wrote a blog post shortly before the EU referendum, putting out my reasons for voting Remain. I accidently wrote that I thought Leave would win – which was strangely prophetic. In the aftermath of the vote I was dazed and disturbed, much as I thought I would be. I half wrote many blog posts after the vote but the only one I published was on the unsuitability of Boris Johnson for pretty much anything, let alone the delicate role of Foreign Secretary.

Things are looking up a little for my party, the Liberal Democrats, who seem the only ones prepared to oppose the government over their Brexit “plans”, and the only ones prepared to vote against the “Snooper’s Charter”. We’re the only ones making significant gains in local elections and have made significant showings in Westminster by-elections, getting a 23.5% swing in Witney and winning Richmond Park with a 30.4% swing. The Labour party seems to be marching itself into the wilderness with considerable enthusiasm.

David Laws’ Coalition was my only political reading of the year.

I’ve written a couple of times on exercise related things: The Running Man on my newfound enthusiasm for running. Since writing I have a fancier running watch (a Garmin Forerunner 235), I read Bob Glover’s The Runner’s Handbook and decided I had to have a heart rate monitor. As it was I don’t pay a huge amount of attention to the heart rate monitor but it is nice that the GPS is ready to go by the time I reach the end of my walk up the drive rather than five minutes later. I also wrote about cycling to work in Ride, as others struggle to find parking at work I have a 12 space bike shed mostly to myself (particularly in the winter)!

I’ve been trying out Headspace recently which is an app for guided meditation, it seems helpful for the gloomy winter. I realise that some of the elements of meditation I used to get from our long walks in the country. 

Work has been fun, I have built something which is now being sold to customers, and I made something of an impact with my sequinned jacket and willingness to dance the night away at the office Christmas party. 

Jul 10 2016

Benllech

Benllech is on the north coast of Anglesey, about an hour and a half drive from our home in Chester. This is a bit embarrassing because it means our holiday home has tourists leaflets for excursions to our actual home!

We’re staying at Tinker’s Patch, a seventies bungalow in an estate just 5 minutes walk from Benllech Sands. It’s a very short drive from the main road with straightforward parking. We can see the sea from the living room window. Benllech is nondescript but has a good selection of mini-supermarkets and a rather good chip shop with a spectacular view over the bay. The Sands are great, at high water they just about disappear and at low tide a great expanse of sand is exposed. There are a smattering a rocky bits and at the top of the beach some nicely stratified limestone cliffs. We made a daily trip to the beach, every afternoon. As usual our intuition about when high and low tides occur turns out to be completely wrong, important at Benllech since at high tide the sea comes up to the sea wall and at low tide there is several hundred metres of beach.

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Day 1 – Saturday

Our first full day of holiday and we visit Anglesey Sea Zoo which overlooks the Menai Straits. It’s not huge but it has plenty to entertain a small child and the cakes in the coffee shop turn out to be pretty much the best of the week.

The mainland across the Menai Straits, south from the Sea Zoo

Day 2 – Sunday

Beaumaris is a rather fine village, with the castle on one edge. It is an odd sort of a thing, it was never finished and has an air of never having been lived in but there are a fair number of walls to walk along and activities for children.

Beaumaris Castle

In town, the Redboat Gelato icecream parlour is rather fine, we had a nice coffee whilst Thomas had a huge icecream. They offer exotic fare such as cinnamon and white pepper and pear and gorgonzola icecreams. We plan to go back one afternoon because Mrs SomeBeans and I did not consider icecream a morning food. The village has a smart nautical feel with the fine Victoria Terrace looking out over the Menai Straits (designed by Joseph Hansom, of cab fame).

Victoria Terrace, Beaumaris

Day 3 – Monday

We saw Plas Newydd as we arrived from the mainland, looking over the Menai Straits. There are forested grounds with a long frontage on the Straits and a house to explore. The house is the summer home of an old family.

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Day 4 – Tuesday

A trip to Copper Mountain and Amlwch, a little north of us on the island. Copper Mountain is a brightly coloured lunar landscape which was once home to much mining activity (and has been for thousands of years). I have never seen such brightly coloured rocks before (and I’ve been to Utah). At the top of the mountain is the shell of a windmill which was used in conjunction with a steam engine towards the end of the mine’s life.

Copper Mountain, Amlwch

Amlwch is just down the road from the Copper Mountain. We saw three museums in the space of 100 yards. The Sail Loft at the harbourside is a cafe downstairs and has a maritime museum upstairs. On the quay is a tiny geological museum. It turns out Anglesey has rocks from pretty much every geological period mashed together. Finally, there is the Copper Mountain Heritage Centre.

Amlwch

Day 5 – Wednesday

To Caernarfon to see the castle today. It’s the most impressive castle I’ve visited, very big with its structure largely intact. There’s a warren of passageways to follow and stairs to climb.

Caernarfon Castle

We didn’t manage to do all of it even in two sessions, broken by a coffee and cake on the Castle Square.

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Day 6 – Thursday

Anglesey Sea Zoo again, it’s rainy and the cloud is low. The ticket from our visit on Saturday gets us in for free. In the afternoon the sun breaks through and we have a last trip to the beach with obligatory icecream.

Mrs SomeBeans recreated the cuttlefish in playdoh:

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Mar 22 2016

Ride

Picture1A new job has brought me a new mode of transport for my daily commute. No longer do I spend an hour and a half on Merseyrail each day, instead I cycle across Chester (8 miles or 50 minutes a day). This isn’t a novelty to me, we lived in Cambridge for nearly 10 years and everybody cycles there. Although I passed my test many years ago, I don’t drive. So when it came to my new job cycling was the obvious way to work. Some people take the bus but for me that would mean one bus into the centre of town and one bus back out again – it’s quicker to cycle.

I’m a cycling commuter, rather than a dedicated cyclist who dons lycra and takes up a fancy road bike for the cycle to work. I wear a running top and cycling windproof but work shoes and trousers. The greatest innovation since my Cambridge days is the “transformer panniers” which convert from panniers to rucksack, ideal for day trips to London when I cycle to Chester’s main station. I treated myself to a new bike for the commute – a Rayleigh Loxley – cost equivalent to 3 months of Merseyrail travel to Liverpool.

I get wet surprisingly infrequently, I’ve flipped between shorts and rainproof trousers for rainy days. Winter rain on bare legs gives one an expensive-spa tingling sensation. I find waterproof trousers a bit clammy. Snow and ice haven’t been a problem this year. My dad was a life long cycling commuter, and recommended keeping a full change of clothes at to work in case of unexpected rain.

I try to be as visible as possible, my jacket is acid green – slightly short of full high viz, I have a high viz helmet cover, two sets of lights front and back and lights on my spokes. I considered going for the super-blingy spoke lights.

I’m well catered for at work, whilst car drivers are squeezed into a space which seems to be 25% too small, I have a bike shed pretty much to myself except for an occasional motorbike and at most two other bikes. Not only that my bike is guarded through the day by a steady stream of smokers! If I wanted I could have a shower.

Amongst my colleagues I’m viewed as something of a novelty, of the 100 or so people on site I’m the only one who cycles regularly and there are rarely as many as three bikes in the shed. A few people have asked about my ride, their main concern seems to be safety.

I’ve found optimising my route has taken a while. There’s a chunk of cycle route on the way out of Chester towards the Business Park, that bit’s fine. The route expires shortly before I reach my destination which is inconvenient, cycling three sides of the Business Park to get to my office seems excessive and it’s on dual carriageway with poor crossings – there is no cycle route. The piece of the road out of town which gets me fairly directly to my office is a bit narrow, as is the fragment of pavement that I’d need to traverse. A twisty path across the end of the Business Park is clearly not designed to cycle, and is unlit with an awkward gate at the end. A rather lovely looking route along Duke’s Drive is blocked at the Business Park end, this is a pity.

The rest of the route is more a case of finding the quietest roads, cycling through the town centre is not great – it’s cobbled, has a one way system and the pedestrians dodge backward and forward unpredictably. The pavements on the Grosvenor bridge are a bit too narrow, and the roadway is too. So you either menace pedestrians or have large vehicles itching to get past you.

It seems my cycling is more reliable than driving, two or three times in the last few months a large fraction of the people I work with have been held up by up to an hour by traffic.

The only thing I really miss about the train is the lost reading time.

(Click here for an Google Map of my route)

Mar 13 2016

The Running Man

forerunner10Over the last 8 months or so I’ve started running. Thomas has just turned four, and before he was born I used to go to the gym three times a week, this lapsed on Thomas’ arrival since life became so much busier. Long ago I used to run at school over middle distance, and I’m quite keen walker – so running isn’t an alien concept to me.

Feeling the need to lose a little bit of weight, I got nagged by the doctor about it whenever I visit, and also finding exercise good for my mental health, I got started. It’s telling that the first thing I did was get a GPS watch so I could record my running, I did this before buying a decent pair of trainers! This is just the right motivation for me: I can see where I’ve been on a map (tick) and I can collect data (tick)! As a consequence I ran a bit too enthusiastically to start off and wore myself out.

I got the Garmin Forerunner 10, this is a fairly basic GPS watch. It takes up to a couple of minutes to find location from GPS when you switch on. Then all I do is press go and run. It reports time and distance travelled in kilometers, and flashes up a lap time at the end of each mile. At the end of my run I upload the data to the Garmin Connect website where I can see where I’ve run on a map with timings and so forth, I get an animated winners cup when I break one of my records! It will do more complicated things but to be honest when I’m running I can’t be doing with fiddling around with a tiny display and the audible prompts it produces are pretty quiet.

Pain was any early problem, I had intense pain in my shins when I started running. This was fixed by buying some proper running shoes rather than simply using the Marks and Spencer’s trainers I’d fished out of the back of the cupboard. I got the new ones from Up and Running in Chester, who measured my gait on a treadmill with a video camera. It took a while before the pain subsided but now I sometimes get a rather atavistic feeling of being able to run for ever. This was how man won on the African savannah, he wasn’t a sprinter but he could keep going to the point his prey gave up, preferring to be eaten than run any further!

Collecting so much data, it’s obviously I must decorate this post with at least one chart. I didn’t aim for a big weight loss, I went from 85 Kg to 75kg. This means my belts all need an extra hole punching in them, and my waist has room to move in my trousers but I don’t need to replace my wardrobe. My general problem with losing more weight is that I see cake as a suitable reward to myself for losing weight, which is self-defeating. Mrs H rewards herself with sparkly nail varnish, I can’t say I’m not tempted to do the same. Below you see my weight loss over time, with a perceptible bump around Christmas wherein I converted Christmas cake efficiently to body mass.

weight

When I started running I was running for a bit then walking, running a bit more, walking. After about a month I was able to run for 5km without a break, I fairly regularly run 8km and once the weather and light has improved I may start doing a weekly 10km run, passing through Chester Zoo. I have some pleasant runs from my door, running along the Shropshire Union canal although in the depths of winter this became hazardous due to the dark, so I ran the suburban roads. It’s sad that my wife doesn’t feel safe to run along the canal at any time and the streets after dark.

You can see how my pace has quickened in the chart below showing my average time to run a mile. My increasing speed has tracked my loss in weight. I’ve been at a plateau for a while now. Interestingly, I started cycling 8 miles a day to and from work in November and this appears to have had no effect on my weight or speed.

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