Childhood’s End

Arthur C. Clarke (1953)

An entirely unexpected take on alien invasion. The aliens come, take over – and then allow humanity to proceed as its wants, without revealing themselves or really taking much control at all. Why? What are they hiding? And how is it that, when they do reveal themselves, they look so familiar?

The reasons are all thought out with the rigour and open-endedness you’d expect from Arthur C. Clarke. The very fact that he can build such a narrative is a testament to his abilities as a world-creator, with an ability to pose questions and then not answer them definitively without this spoiling the enjoyment of the story.

4/5. Finished Monday 13 June, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Electronic Brains: Stories from the Dawn of the Computer Age

Mike Hally (2005)

Some lesser-known tales from the early days of computing. It doesn’t provide any new aspects on the stories that are well-trodden, but does illuminate some corners that deserve more attention: the role that the Lyons company of cafes had in transitioning computing from scientific calculations into commercial applications, and the contributions of the Soviet Union to the development of different hardware techniques. (Most of the latter seemed to be carried out in Ukraine.)

4/5. Finished Friday 10 June, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Time on Rock: A Climber’s Route into the Mountains

Anna Fleming (2022)

A modern rock-climbing autobiography. The thing that struck me most (as an ex-climber) is how little the culture and terminology have changed in the nearly thirty years since I was active. The ethos and approach have remained very communal and collaborative, with less of the competitiveness one sees elsewhere.

There were some changes, though, notably taking a climbing holiday on a Greek island, which is something I couldn’t even have dreamed of, before the era of cheap flights and European holidays. It certainly made a change from the damp of gritstone and gabbro!

3/5. Finished Thursday 19 May, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

In Cold Blood

Truman Capote (1959)

Reportage about a gruesome quadruple murder followed from beginning to end. It’s a deservedly classic tale, a “non-fiction novel” (as Capote described it) where the basic plot is true but with the dialogue and details elaborated for the sake of story-telling.

I first read this book about thirty years ago, and my perceptions of it this time are rather different to back then. There was a basic question I didn’t then ask, but should have done: what is the position of the author in this?

Capote as a character is entirely absent from the book, as is Harper Lee, who accompanied and assisted him. It’s since been revealed that Capote was in fairly close contact with the perpetrators, and had to wait – with increasing frustration – until they were executed and he could finally close (and publish) the story. He presented himself and the story differently to them than it was in reality, and there’s a slightly ghoulish aspect to the way he needed them to die for literary effect as much as for anything else: the death row and execution scenes are some of the most powerful in the book, and it really wouldn’t work without that end to the character arcs.

5/5. Finished Wednesday 18 May, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Seven Games: A Human History

Oliver Roeder

Tagged as a biography of seven games: chess, draughts, go, scrabble, poker, bridge, and backgammon, both in their structure and social histories. The social parts are often the most intriguing, especially how some games, at some times, become almost proxies for a person’s character features – to the extent that without proficiency, it’s hard for someone to succeed.

The least satisfying aspect, for me as a computer scientist, was the emphasis on whether, when, and how well, computers can learn to play different games. There are some great stories about the lengths to which some individual programmers have gone to create game-playing programs, that it would be good to learn more about. But it’s easy to assign too much significance to a computer’s gaming abilities. These revolve around the structure of the game and the effort put in to understanding it. But they tell us very little about how people play the game. Taking go as the example I’m most familiar with, using a “deep” network to create AlphaGo makes its playing decisions entirely inscrutable. It provides no insight into either the game itself or the way humans play it so well, which are surely two of the most interesting scientific questions to explore. There’s a tendency to regard a game as “solved” once a computer can beat any expert human – an entirely arbitrary quality threshold, surely – without trying to understand how a human, with far different (and probably less) computing power, came to offer that threshold in the first place.

3/5. Finished Monday 2 May, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)