You Look Like a Thing and I Love You: How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It's Making the World a Weirder Place

Janelle Shane


It's a brave thing to try to make AI accessible. This is a valiant attempt that doesn't (in my opinion) carry it off.

The problem with any discussion of AI is in the language, the inevitable tendency that the work "intelligence" brings to anthropomorphise the software. AI doesn't get "confused", doesn't acquire "experience" – at least, not as these words suggest.

I think the biggest omission, however, is in what isn't said: that AI is built on the assumption that the future will be like the past. While there are ways to avoid this – known as "lifelong learning", which replace the initial training phase with an on-going re-learning from new examples – these remain in their infancy and haven't yet translated into practice. Until they do, AI techniques are very much at the mercy of both their training set and the rate of evolution of their inputs.

Finished on Wed, 17 Jun 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 2*/5*.

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World

Laura Spinney


One of the only overview accounts of the 1918 pandemic, now fiercely relevant in the era of covid-19. This is a book that combines a fairly deep dive into the science with more speculative looks at the effects the pandemic had on art, psychology, and the emergence of worldwide disease surveillance structures. Some of the speculations are just that, and not especially convincing – the increased number of births isn't necessarily a sign of increased "conception potential" because of w winnowing of the weaker individuals – but this is a minor complaint about a deeply researche, well-written, and timely work.

Finished on Sun, 07 Jun 2020 10:18:23 -0700.   Rating 4*/5*.

The Jennifer Morgue (Laundry Files, #2)

Charles Stross


Another romp through the idea of computational demonology. It avoids the cliche of the spy novel by ... making the notion of being a cliche into a plot device. As a homage to H.P. Lovecraft this entire series is hard to beat, full of knowing allusions handled deftly and with a touch of cyberpunk.

Finished on Sat, 30 May 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 5*/5*.

Travels with Herodotus

Ryszard Kapuściński


many fabulous anecdotes to a life spent in travel reportage, accompanies and complemented by the Travels of Herodotus. The conjunction doesn't sit quite comfortably for me: not enough Herodotus, and perhaps not sufficiently entangled into the autobiography, but still left me wanting to read the classic.

Finished on Tue, 26 May 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 3*/5*.

Now We Have Your Attention: Inside Britain’s Radical New Politics

Jack Shenker

A very timely exploration of the left-behind of British society and how they're coming to terms (or not) with late-stage capitalism. The actors range across the spectrum, as do the politics the various people embrace.

It's such a current book, written just before the Conservatives' crushing win in the 2019 general election, that it's hard to assess some of the observations. Momentum, the left-wing insurgency within Labour, had a hand in massively improving the party's showing in 2017, and Shenker clearly outlines their goals and strengths. But even with that, Labour didn't win – and went on to lose even more severely in 2019. Perhaps it will take time to assess whether Momentum's integration of party politics and activism can be properly harnessed to win power.

There's also what feels like a curious, sharp, turn in the last chapter to include more consideration of climate change and climate activism. It's closely argued and clearly very important, and that makes it surprising that it wasn't woven more tightly inot the rest of the argument.

Finished on Sun, 10 May 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4*/5*.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany

William L. Shirer


Undoubtedly still the definitive single-volume history of the period, still a classic in every sense.

Some parts of the narrative haven't aged well and show signs of the times when Shirer was writing in the late 50s; other parts have been exploded by new scholarship; and still others ignited controversies that still rage (for example Shirer's basing the roots of National Socialism in thew mainstream German philosophical tradition). But bearing all that in mind, it's easy to feel the immediacy of his connection with the events he describes. If that clouds his objectivity in some case it's worth it for the sense of place and time that this book provides, differently to all the other varied histories of the Third Reich.

Finished on Sat, 09 May 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 5*/5*.

Children of Time

Adrian Tchaikovsky


When you consider that half of this book is about a generation starship while the other half is written from the perspective of spiders, you get some idea of the breadth of ideas that have gone into it. The fact that it holds together is nothing short of remarkable, as is that it – without spoiling the plot – sets up for a "dark forest"-type ending that it then deftly avoids.

Finished on Tue, 28 Apr 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4*/5*.

Say Nothing: A True Story Of Murder and Memory In Northern Ireland

Patrick Radden Keefe


As good a narrative history of the Troubles as any you'll find. It skips the broad brush in favour of the effects on three groups of people: the children of Jean McConville, the best-known of the "disappeared"; the coterie around Gerry Adams and Dolours Price; and the authors and interviewers of the Boston College project that captured (and partially revealed) the activities of many of the protagonists on both sides of the divide.

From one perspective this is the right level. The terror campaign – Republican and Loyalist – has had a lot of exposure in terms of the events, but less in terms of the victims (and perpetrators). It's important to realise how many of those intimately involved came to regard "the struggle" as purposeless in retrospect, and to renounce the violence they had once embraced. Martin McGuinness is the best-known example of this, but there are surprisingly many more.

From another perspective, however, it's less satisfactory in that there's a lack of closure, a continuing lack of agreement about who did what, knew what, and decided what. It will probably need another twenty years before there's a consensus, and in the meantime this is the most illuminating exploration.

Finished on Fri, 03 Apr 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4*/5*.

Exactly: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

Simon Winchester


An engaging history of engineering through the the lens of ever-increasing precision. starting with more efficient steam engines and ending with spacecraft and microprocessors.

Until about two-thirds of the way through I had a criticism that the book focused on precision solely as a means to mass production the need to components that are exactly the same to facilitate easy replacement, as contrasted against craft-made items. I was contrasting this against one-off, hand-made, but nonetheless precise artefacts such as the turbulence experiment described by James Gleick in Chaos: Making a New Science: a tiny fluid chamber with embedded sensors, still regarded as one of the finest experiments ever crafted. But the discussions of watches more than remedied the omission.

The chapter on Japan as a contrast to the "cult" of precision feels a bit forced. Yes, the Japanese have a sensitivity (wabi sabi) for the imperfect in art while maintaining a reverence for high-precision machines – but so do other cultures and art forms, not least jazz and abstract impressionism, that render the contrast a bit superficial.

Finished on Sun, 29 Mar 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4*/5*.