Wednesday, March 31, 2021
Tuesday, March 30, 2021
Monday, March 29, 2021
Just Finished Reading: The Most Human Human – What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us About Being Alive by Brian Christian (FP: 2011) [271pp]
The Test existed, at least on paper, long before there were any contestants even theoretically capable of taking it. In 1950 mathematician and early computer scientist Alan Turing devised a way of determining if a machine was exhibiting intelligent behaviour. If it could communicate with others without them being aware that they were talking to a machine, rather than an actual flesh and blood person, then at least in theory it could be argued that the machine, computer or software programme exhibited recognisable intelligence. Essentially, in order to pass the Turing Test and win any prize on offer, the idea is to create a machine that can imitate human communication (hence calling it the ‘Imitation Game’) enough to fool a set of interrogators over a 20 minute period. The rules have varied over the years but, as yet anyway, the Turing Prize has yet to be won. But that’s only one aspect of what’s going on in Turing territory – as the author discovered.
The present Test has another aspect that I hadn’t known
about until picking up this fun and fascinating book. Apart from the prize
given to the Most Human Machine there is another given to the Most Human Human.
As part of the test the set of interrogators ‘interview’ both the machine competitors
as well as a few actual humans who’s remit is the act as human as possible. The
author, coming from a background in both computer science and philosophy, knew
that wasn’t anywhere near as easy as it sounds – so he decided to ‘train’ for
the event by speaking to experts in the field of language, communications, chess
programmes (including some world class players who are not amused at all at
being beaten by computer programmes on a regular basis – so much so that many
people the era of competitive chess is dead), video-game design, speed-dating,
criminal law, neurology and psychiatry. It was an interesting ride! I’ve always
had an interest in how we ‘read’ other people and especially how we can tell if
other people are being less than honest with us. How the brain does that and
how e-mail scammers try to circumvent that ability was just one of the avenues
the author explored to help him ensure victory for humankind.
We increasingly live in a machine world – a world built by machines and, increasingly, a world built for machines. Algorithms help us pick our next book, our next movie or next meal. Algorithms increasingly advise us on who should be our friends and what news we should listen to. They do this, at least in part, by parsing what they can understand as ‘human nature’ into a digital format that can be processed, manipulated and fed back to us. Ironically it could be argued that the Turing Test is becoming easier year on year, not just because computers are becoming more powerful or algorithms are becoming more sophisticated but because we humans are becoming more machine like in our thoughts, our actions and our communications. The author, rather brilliantly, decided to go the other way and to display everything that makes human communication and humanity itself so interesting, so nuanced and so much fun (and so frustrating and a complete pain in the ass at times!). Definitely a unique look at AI, future tech and the world we’ll all be inhabiting much sooner than many of us expect and a guidebook to keeping hold of our humanity as we get there. Recommended.
Sunday, March 28, 2021
Friday, March 26, 2021
Thursday, March 25, 2021
Just Finished Reading: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (FP: 2004) [518pp]
It was easy to be sceptical, at least at first. After all, no reasonable person could have believed him. When a clearly naked man, hiding in the undergrowth, asks you for some clothing and tells you he’s a time traveller how are you supposed to react? But she was polite and offered him a towel. Keeping her distance they exchanged pleasantries and then, with little warning, he vanished with a small ‘pop’. Now she simply questioned her sanity but she had made a promise and she’d keep it. She didn’t tell her family what had happened (who would believe her anyway?) and she put some of her father’s old clothes in a box in the bushes for when (or if?) he came back. Which he did – often. Despite the fact that the time traveller wouldn’t tell her much about the future (too dangerous he said) or about himself (ditto) she did pick up a few things along the way – like the fact that, in the future, they were married. More than a decade later Claire popped into a library to get some books for her thesis and there he was in the flesh (although fully clothed this time). Henry looked at her in bemusement. Whilst she had known him, seemingly, all of her life it was Henry’s first meeting in ‘real time’. Dating a time traveller wasn’t going to be easy, marrying and living with one was going to be more of an adventure than most people can handle but having a child with one was going to be hell – and that was only the start of it.
Looking back on it I think this was a quick impulse buy. I hadn’t seen the movie (still haven’t) so the only thing I can think of is that it looked ‘different’ and that I really liked time travel stories – which I do. So when I started it I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The blurb led me to expect something ‘original’ (which is good) and that it was an ‘old-fashioned love story’ which I’d probably disagree with – there was nothing ‘old-fashioned’ about this book. The main premise is, to say the least, odd. Henry is an involuntary time traveller. It’s a genetic defect that, under times of stress, result in him popping back (although sometimes, rarely, forward) in time. Sometimes it’s for minutes, other times for hours and occasionally for days at a time. Mostly he ends up in the same place but at different times, sometimes he goes somewhere completely new. Mostly when he comes back he’s just cold and hungry, other times he’s bloody and beaten from his encounters. But when he arrives at his destination he’s always naked. Nothing outside or alien to the body goes with him – even his teeth fillings (if he was stupid enough to have any) stay behind. Needless to say to survive such a lifestyle you need a particular mind-set and a particular skillset – from breaking and entering to mugging to being able to run (fast)!
I think the thing that most surprised me about this book was that, practically from the first page, it completely drags you into the narrative. The suspension of disbelief is totally complete. Although the idea of genetic defect time travel is, at least to me, nonsensical I just accepted it as part of the story and moved on. It’s one of the reasons I’ve decided to classify the book here as Fantasy rather than Sci-Fi (the blub just classifies it as ‘Fiction’) because the ‘science’ neither makes sense nor is particularly important. What is important is the story and the two main and several of the subsidiary characters. The main characters – Claire and Henry (the traveller) – are brilliantly drawn and I loved them both. They are complex, living breathing people who would be fascinating to know. I was deeply impressed with how they progressed through the novel, how they interacted with each other (it may not be an old-fashioned love story but it is a marvellous one) and how they coped (just in some cases) with the trials and tribulations of a very unusual relationship. Those of you prone to tears will need to keep a box of hankies nearby. This was one of those books that is literally difficult to put down but, at the same time, something you are desperate NOT to end. It was, in a word, brilliant and more than deserving for all the praise it received at the time. Most definitely one of the best books of the year and, therefore, mostly highly recommended. Apart from the inevitable emotionality contained within please note there is some sex (not particularly graphic), violence (ditto), drug use and swearing. There might also be the occasional glass of wine drunk and cigarette smoked – so be warned! Overall this will warm your heart (once the tears stop) and leave you a little misty-eyed and wistful for days afterwards.
New High Score (since records began 22nd October 2020)
Page count: 518pp [+48pp]
Sainsbury's Popular Fiction Award Best Novel
Arthur C. Clarke Award Best Book (nominee)
John W Campbell Memorial Award Best Novel (nominee)
The Richard and Judy Best Read of the Year Best Book (nominee)
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
Monday, March 22, 2021
Just Finished Reading: Bitter Freedom – Ireland in a Revolutionary World 1918-1923 by Maurice Walsh (FP: 2015) [432pp]
It was a promise and one that the Irish were determined to have paid in full. When the Government of Ireland Act was passed (also known as the Home Rule Act) in 1914 it was the first time that power had been devolved to any part of the UK and not a colonial territory. Unfortunately for the Irish, eager to have a substantial say in their own government the First World War intervened and the Act was put on hold for the duration. But the clock was ticking and, in 1918, the alarm went off – and alarm it was. When the British government dragged their feet, worried over the implications in the rest of the Empire and Dominions, the Irish protested and agitated for exactly what had been promised them – to no avail. The Irish were told to wait, as they had been waiting for centuries, until the ‘time was right’. But patience was at an end. Pamphlets, newspaper articles and even strikes were no longer enough. Civil disobedience, passive resistance and talks of outright rebellion circulated but still the British demurred. Part of the issue was the Irish predicted inability, through inexperience more than anything else, to govern themselves. The detractors had a point and the proto-Irish government privately conceded the point. In response a ‘shadow’ government was announced to the world and was, at least at first, viewed by most as little more than a joke. It wasn’t long through before people stopped laughing. Slowly the Irish politicians became more professional and more of the Irish State apparatus fell under their remit. The British courts were increasingly ignored with cases decided by local Irish magistrates, taxes were collected and used for Irish needs rather than to aid the British administration of Ireland. Slowly power shifted with or without British say so or their co-operation. In danger of being made irrelevant the British government struck back.
With an increased police presence and a growing use of British armed force the Irish were presented with a choice. They could submit and wait or they could fight. They chose to fight. Fully aware that they could not defeat the combined forces of the British Empire they decided to make Ireland ungovernable. The British, for their part, decided to use ‘any means necessary’ to enforce their rule. As can be imagined the result was chaos, suffering and death. As the fighting progressed, deepened and spread neither side could ‘lose face’ and retire from the combat. Attack begat reprisal, burning of villages begat attacks on isolated police stations, arrests and executions begat assassinations. It got bad, really bad. As the months and years dragged on and the dead piled up on both sides finally calmed heads prevailed. Both sides realised that they couldn’t go on like this. It was time to compromise – Ireland would have Home Rule but would still be part of the Empire and would still owe allegiance to the British monarch. Although this was a bitter pill it could be swallowed and sold to the long suffering population as a victory and as a major step on the path to full independence in the future. Despite arguments in the Irish ranks the deal was done and Ireland was finally free. But not, it seemed, free of conflict. A strong faction within the Irish administration wanted full independence now and not at some indeterminate point in the future and they were prepared to fight for it – even if they had to fight their own people to do so. After the briefest of pauses and after most British troops had left the country the Irish Civil War erupted on the streets of Dublin with the sound of artillery fire not heard there since 1916.It was interesting to see events that I’m reasonably familiar with embedded within the context of both global and imperial events of the era. After all the events of 1918-1923 took place during the Russian revolution and subsequent Civil War which resulted in a Bolshevik scare that drifted across Europe and even into the United States. This was also a time of unrest in India (the Amritsar Massacre took place in 1919) and agitation in both Canada and Australia for greater autonomy and it was the age of ‘Self-determinism’ and Wilson’s 14 points. Without setting the Irish situation within this framework some of the acts on both sides can seem almost inexplicable. Context is, as they say, everything and context is something we get in spades in this excellent work of history. Being of southern Irish descent I do find digging into that troubled countries history endlessly fascinating. Although my father didn’t talk much about his family’s history there – he left the country when he was 10 – I did come across some names, organisations (such as the hated ‘Black & Tans’) and events that he had mentioned over the years. That in itself was thought-provoking enough for me. Others without such a personal connection to the area will, I think, find it equally interesting to see what the Irish people had to go through to gain the things that many at that time and especially today take for granted – the ability to run their own affairs without reference to an alien authority. Definitely recommended for a whole host of reasons. Much more to come.
Sunday, March 21, 2021
OK – Just one more label (for now).
I’ve just finished a 60’s classic novel that was made into an equally classic movie in the 70’s then started reading an equally classic book/movie combo and thought: Just how many of the books I’ve reviewed here have been made into movies or TV shows. The answer: A LOT. So I was through my listings and added yet another category to my list stack. Rather nicely it also picked up a few books that languished under that almost unsearchable single category of ‘books’ so now they’re findable too. Presently holding @ 68 entries this will quickly increase as there are at least 2 more in my review pile and another 2 in my ‘read next’ pile. I guess I know where I’m getting a lot of my book ideas from! Oh, and the label? It’s: Book2Screen.
Friday, March 19, 2021
Thursday, March 18, 2021
Just Finished Reading: Odysseus – The Oath by Valerio Massimo Manfredi (FP: 2012) [357pp]
It was, when he thought about it, all his fault. Or maybe it was the gods playing a trick on him to show his friends and the rest of Greece that he wasn’t half as smart as they thought he was. Not that any of that made much difference now. It had all started, as these things often did, with a beautiful girl. Despite being just a girl, and not yet of marriageable age, she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. She was, without doubt, dangerous. Not only was she almost too painful to look at she knew full well the effect she had on men and would use that to get what she wanted. Odysseus knew full well that meant men would die, both for her and to possess her. Her very existence was a threat to the whole of Greece. If only he could think of a way to stop her attaining of marriageable status leading to an inevitable bloodbath. His idea, so he thought, was both elegant and brilliant. He would get her father to break tradition and allow Helen to choose her own husband and then force everyone, before the choice was made, to make an unbreakable oath to protect her and her husband come what may. As everyone would, naturally, think that they could (or even would) be the lucky one they each and every one pledged their sword to Helen – the most beautiful woman in the world…. And she chose – Menelaus. After the shock the celebration. Odysseus had averted a war and all was well with the world. No doubt the gods themselves laughed at the pride of mankind. When Helen was abducted and taken to Troy Odysseus was beside himself, appalled at the consequences of this thoughtless act. Menelaus wanted her back, of course, and now had an oath he could call on to gather the largest army to world had ever seen to back his claim. Meanwhile his brother Agamemmon saw an even bigger prize than Helen – the destruction and sacking of the richest city in the world. The Trojan War had begun…..
I think just about everyone knows the basic outline of the Trojan War – even if only from blockbuster films and TV series. In this interesting novel we have what ‘really’ happened from an historical rather than mythical standpoint. Naturally it covers the same ground but although the gods are talked about, invoked and even ‘seen’ in dreams and visions it is the story of men’s ambitions, men’s desire for immortality and ultimately men’s lusts for power, wealth and the possession of a beautiful woman. Of course knowing the broad outlines of the story meant that some of the tension of the tale was missing. We pretty much know who lives, who dies and the wars outcome from the start. What is interesting though are the details and working out how ‘history’ became legend and then became the myth we know. Of course with a story that has lasted this long and which has had such an impact on the western psyche there’s plenty of excitement to go around and the siege of Troy itself is well handled as are the fights between the opposing heroes. All very nicely done and I shall be looking forward to part 2 as Odysseus makes his way home – the long way round. Recommended.
Translated from the Italian by Christine Feddersen-Manfredi
Wednesday, March 17, 2021
Tuesday, March 16, 2021
Monday, March 15, 2021
Just Finished Reading: Les Parisiennes – How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940’s by Anne Sebba (FP: 2016) [387pp]
Even when war was declared there was no cause for alarm. Everyone knew it was coming and now, at last, it was here. Reserve troops were called up and moved to their frontline positions. The Maginot Line was occupied and all was in readiness. Then…… Nothing. No attacks, no gas, no bombs. What little panic there had been subsided and life went on as normal. Weeks passed and then weeks more. Then the Belgian border was crossed by German tanks and it started to feel real again. When the tanks crossed the French border things became very real indeed. Parisians had it seemed three options – Run, Hide or Wait. Those who could, or needed to like the Jewish refugees from previously overrun countries who knew what was coming, ran south or to the coastal ports looking for a way out. Some hid and hid valuables thinking that either the Germans would never reach Paris or would pass them by and the others – those who could not leave or chose to stay – waiting. They didn’t need to wait long.
When the first German troops marched through Paris its citizens looked on with a mixture of horror and disbelief. The country had been at war for a matter of months and invaded for a matter of weeks and their capital was already in the hands of the enemy. How long this would last, it now seemed, depended on the British and the remnants of French forces. But when the French capitulated and the British left in disarray Parisians knew that it would not be over soon. More decisions would need to be made – go on as before as much as possible, collaborate and make the best of things or resist. Once the shock had receded and the reality of the situation sunk in most people tried their best to get along despite the nightmare world they now lived in. Some, for a whole host of reasons – political or ideological sympathy, survival instincts, and financial opportunities – decided that the best thing to do was to co-operate with the invaders or, as most saw it, face facts. A minority decided that the only thing to do was resist in any way they could. At first such acts were amateurish, childish even – defacing posters, ignoring the enquiries of German soldiers, not dating them, refusing to shop in establishments who had put up ‘We Speak German’ signs in their windows. But things gradually became more violent as did the German responses. Again decisions had to be made – just how far are you willing to go to resist? Many women, especially pretty young girls who could flirt their way through roadblocks, became couriers moving messages between disparate groups and crossing the lines between Occupied France in the north and Vichy in the south. Others carried guns in prams coving by a young child or explosives sown into their long winter coats. But it was only after the invasion of Russia in 1941 that the many Communist underground cells began their operations against both German forces and the collaborators that supported them. Activity took another upward path with the operations of UK and US secret operatives again supported by resistance units and, sometimes, betrayed they those loyal to Vichy or ‘incentivised’ by the occupying forces.
As the war started to turn against the Axis powers and the liberation of France approached there were those who determined that justice would be served once the war was over. Dangerously they kept detailed diaries to ensure that those responsible for atrocities faced the consequences and that stolen articles could be traced and returned to their previous owners if they survived. It was important, if nothing else, to be able to witness what had happened during the Occupation to ensure that it would not be forgotten or, in many cases, forgiven.This is the story of the women who, through circumstance or choice, lived in Paris before, during and after the German Occupation in WW2. As with any group of people they come in all types – from rich to poor, Left and Right, collaborator and resistant, living and dead. There are those who were, later, considered to be heroes or traitors. Some were arrested, tried and (sometimes) executed. Some (mostly men it seemed) given medals are treated as heroes whilst women (who often didn’t actively take up arms but risked their lives daily anyway) where only honoured or even recognised much later. Not so oddly it was the women who had their heads shaved for literally ‘sleeping with the enemy’ whilst similar low level ‘offences’ by men went largely unremarked. Like all history this is a complex tapestry which the author handles very well. I did roll my eyes a few times with the author’s apparent fixation on fashion – apparently looking chic was an act of resistance itself! – but generally this was an interesting read which brought real women’s lives during a terrible time into focus. Definitely recommended for anyone interested in French history or the civilian experience in WW2.
Sunday, March 14, 2021
Saturday, March 13, 2021
Yet More Labels – But I Can Give Up any time….
I was going through my book list here and noticed a few of the older entries just had a single label – books – which naturally makes them hard to find unless you really want to scroll through over 1000 entries on the off chance. Therefore I’ve added a few additional labels (over on the right) to help with some of that. I think there’s probably ‘room’ for a few more to tidy up but that might be about it. Plus a few of the labels indicate some upcoming reading. So, they are:
Games – So far just a few on video games but I have more game related posts to come
Language – I LOVE language (through can only stumble through English with any confidence) and had a few books on the subject in the dreaded single ‘book’ category so created this label to herd them together. More to come there.
Race – Again there’s a handful of books around this subject buried deep in the lists so I brought them together. More to come on this subject too.
Friday, March 12, 2021
Thursday, March 11, 2021
Just Finished Reading: Turn the Ship Around! – A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders by L David Marquet (FP: 2012) [216pp]
A few years back my work had an ‘Innovation’ event and we were all “encouraged” to go along and be ‘inspired’. Having seen this sort of thing before (many times) and suspecting that a) it would a waste of my time and b) wouldn’t change anything anyway I intended to avoid it as much as I could. Walking back through one of the atria full of stands and video presentations I couldn’t help but notice one table with several piles of books on it. Magnets & iron filings come to mind…. So I found myself standing next to said table and chatting to the person running/guarding it. ‘Books’ I grunted, pointing. ‘Yes’ she said. ‘Take?’ I enquired’ ‘Yes’ she said. ‘Free if you share’. So I smiled and I took. Ironically, of course, it’s now been a year since I left work that I get around to reading the second book I picked up. So I’m ‘sharing it’ with you.
I’m one of those lucky people who, despite having been of ‘management’ level never actually had staff or subordinates to ‘manage’. I liked it that way. The stories I could tell about other people’s headaches with their staff members. I went out of my way to avoid such things and never regretted that decision once. So naturally I’d pick up a (admittedly free) book on Management to read. Surprisingly though this was actually rather good. The author was a young naval commander in the US submarine fleet and, consequently, full of ideas for improving things. As XO of a ‘boat’ he’d tried a few of these ideas out and had some mixed results. Itching to take things further he accepted what many might have seen as a poison chalice – taking command of the worst rated boat in the fleet and, in only 6 months, turn the ship around. Not giving too much away here he managed just that – but in a whole host of interesting ways outlined step by step in this slim volume.
The one theme that really jumped out at me and gave me more than one ironic smile or occasional belly laugh, was his discussion on ‘empowerment’. This was a favourite topic at work and ‘empowerment’ talk rippled through my ex-organisation on a regular basis. Naturally they didn’t mean actually giving people more power over what they did or how they structured their day. That, no doubt they thought, would lead to organisational chaos as people went off and did their own thing. What they (my ex-organisation) meant was giving people responsibility for failure. The author recognised this very failing in HIS organisation and addressed it by giving people actual power over what they did – as long as they hit their targets exactly HOW they did so was entirely up to them. Failures still happened but rather than simply apportioning blame and moving on they found out WHY something failed, fixed it, and then disseminated the fix to everyone who needed to know so they could avoid that particular failure. The submarine had become a truly learning organisation.
Even if you’re not the commander of a multi-million dollar submarine or even if you don’t work on one this is still an interesting and likely useful addition to any managers (or subordinates!) off-line reading/training regime. It’ll give you LOTS to think about and maybe, if they let you, try out in YOUR organisation. As interesting, different and thoughtful read. Recommended.