Siri or SkyNet?

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As someone who works with computers every day (my job is as a software tester), AI is a topic that I’ve kept an eye on over the years. Initially, AI was an SF trope (HAL, SkyNet, Data on Star Trek TNG), but in recent years, there’s Siri and Alexa and all the other digital assistants.

But AI is also the algorithms that decide which Google results you see, or which posts appear at the top of your Facebook feed, but those are so invisible that no one thinks about it unless there’s a news story about conservatives complaining that Facebook filters them out of people’s news feeds. Also, AI often is filtering out applications to jobs, which is even more problematic. Last year, Amazon pulled their AI filters because it was filtering out women, since the training data for the AI was based on past discriminatory hiring. If your past involves hiring mostly white men, the AI is going to start filtering out non-whites and women.

This last is one of the things that leans into this new book about AI, the companies actively working on the code, both in North America and China, and where it is going.

The Big Nine, by Amy Webb, is divided into three distinct sections.

1) The companies (and governments) working on AI. Primarily, three companies in China and six companies in North America. Ms Webb goes into the history of their work and where they are heading.

2) Issues that need to be fixed in this development. This includes the mono-cultures within the companies (their employees mainly come from the same sorts of backgrounds and schools, with a lack of training outside of coding). She points out the problems with datasets built by people who don’t think of diversity, and the need for programmers to consider things outside of their schooling, like ethics for example. The results of this ranges from the innocuous (photo tagging AIs suggesting ‘gorilla’ for a photo of an African-American face) to the problematic (digital assistants that can’t understand accents). And in the future, will someone be saying, like Ian Malcom in Jurassic Park, ‘Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should’

3) In the third sections Ms Webb indulges in a thought experiment, presents three futures for AI that are ‘good’, ‘continuing on the same path’ and ‘negative’.

I will say, though, her ‘good’ scenario was to me ‘not as bad as it could be’. It was still a little unnerving as a vision of the future. But mind you, I am a software tester who doesn’t even have a cell phone, so take that for what it may be. It left me wanting to say ‘get off my lawn!’.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for letting me read this

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Real life can be more thrilling than a thriller…

41723165Well, it’s been a long summer, where I have been very flighty with my reading, and even more so with posting. I have been reading, however, so now it’s time to start posting reviews again. I read some fantastic books, and some pure fluff. Hey, summer is a great time for fluff.

Station Blackout by Charles A Casto is anything but fluff. In fact, a large part of it read more like a thriller. It follows what happened in the minutes, days and months after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant problems after the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.

The timing of this book is coincidental, but for people who were pulled into the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, Station Blackout is a great read for the people who wanted more after the miniseries was over. The book sucks you in, investing you in the men and women who worked at great danger to themselves to try an avoid a disaster even greater than what happened in Chernobyl.

And around the intense story of what happened is an examination of leadership and how it can help or hinder in a crisis. These parts include things that readers can incorporate into their own lives as needed. The author clearly knows what he is talking about.

My only complaint was that after the intensity of the start of the book, the end sort of dribbles away. Mind you, that is the way real crises go. All the adrenaline is at the start, but the cleanup goes on for years, as do the investigations.

Hopefully the nuclear industry has learned from the mistakes that were made, and hopefully the real heroes are still lauded in Japan.

Trump and Foreign Policy

40734925In the last couple of years, I’ve tortured myself with books about politics. Tortured through either books that look at things done well in the past, or looking at the current US president and the things he is doing completely wrong.

The Empty Throne, by Daadler & Lindsay, looks at foreign policy and the ways that Trump (and previous presidents to a lesser extent) have failed in that foreign policy. The Next Decade, by George Friedman, which I am just finishing, also looks at foreign policy and suggest goals for the upcoming decade (the book was written a decade ago, so he was talking about the 2010s). Somehow, I don’t think he took Trump into consideration

In both books, foreign policy is described in very pragmatic terms of playing other countries off of each other for the benefit of the US, not going for the idealistic goals of improving other countries and encouraging democracy around the world. The Empty throne then looks at Trump’s actions in relation to foreign policy, and especially his behaviour towards Russia and North Korea and Iran, as well as his hostility towards traditional allies, and Trump comes up looking very foolish, if not downright dangerous.

And the sad thing is, if the author was writing the book today, he would have even more material. He might even be able to double the length of the book.

I would definitely read a follow-up at the end of the Trump presidency, whether next year or in five years. No matter how tortuous it might be
Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for letting me read this

How to avoid Black Holes

40876750In Primordial Threat by MA Rothman it’s 2066, and scientists are just starting to realize that Earth is in terrible danger. A tiny black hole is heading into the solar system, and even if it doesn’t destroy the Earth straight up, it’s going to change conditions so drastically that it might as well have.

Burt Radcliffe is in charge of DefenseNet, an early warning set of satellites. In his attempt to figure out what Earth can do, he discovers that Dave Holmes, a brilliant scientist whose ideas are dismissed by most of the establishment scientific community, actually had an idea of what was coming long before everyone else, and maybe he is brilliant enough to find a solution. But he disappeared completely several years earlier.

Step one: Find Dave Holmes. Step two: Figure out if his solution will work. Step three: Figure out if his solution can actually be implemented in time.

While I found aspects of the science to be beyond belief (namely the possible solution), I did enjoy the book greatly. The side plot about a doomsday cult had me scratching my head, because I was never quite sure how they knew about this so far in advance that they could plant people in space missions that would have uncovered the danger earlier. The fact that they were determined to make sure that no solution is implemented and every will die was a little easier to accept, since people are crazy.

I wouldn’t call this book brilliant, but it was an enjoyable read, so much so that I have bought his medical SF thriller, Darwin’s Cipher, and I look forward to reading it.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for letting me read this

It’s 24 Hour Readathon Time!

For more information, check out http://www.24hourreadathon.com

Reading starts at 8am EST,. I never make it the full 24 hours, but it’s fun to see how much reading I can do, paper, ebook or audiobook.

10am and it’s two hours in. This is the perfect sort of day for fun adventure novels. I read Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt novels when I was younger (I loved the movie version of Raise the Titanic, but the less said about Sahara the better). Now I’ve developed a taste for the spinoff NUMA Files series. I’m reading Ghost Sip, the 12th in the series, and I’ve read 170 pages already. 3 more hours and I should be finished. I usually drop into short novels for these readathons, but this is a quick reading book. Later, I have a nonfiction book to finish, and those always take longer.

11am and my middle-aged eyes are asking for a break. So, after another 90 pages of ghost ship, Im flipping over to The Witches by Stacy Schiff. I’m already 5 hours into this one, so today is a good day to aim for the halfway mark.

2pm, and I have listened to 3:40 of The Witches. Stacy Schiff does a great job of telling the story with a slightly sarcastic tone. Now it’s time to go in hunt of food.

4:30pm… I went, I ate (and read another 20 pages of Gavriel D Rosenfeld’s The Fourth Reich (which I’m kind of hoping to finish this weekend). And then, on the way home, I ended up being pulled into a discussion about condo matters ahead of an upcoming information meeting. It’s going to be… interesting. Now that I’m inside, back to The Fourth Reich. (Note: in the 2.5 hours, there was one hour of reading. Like I said, non-fiction is slower reading.

6pm, and it has been ten hours. I read another 30 pages of The Fourth Reich, with 35 left to finish it. I plan to push through that before going back to Ghost Ship to finish it before I start to crash.

8pm and I have finally finished The Fourth Reich. Now it’s time to finish Ghost Ship, which will take 2 hours or so. At this point I am over 400 pages today, including the equivalent in the audiobook.

11pm and I think it’s time to crash out for the night. I finished Ghost Ship, read a little fan fiction, and started into In An Absent Dream, by Seanan Mcguire. I’m setting the alarm early enough to read at least one more hour in the morning before the 24 hours is up.

8am on Sunday, and it’s over. I listened to another hour of The Witches, and read a chapter of In An Absent Dream.

Roundup

Ghost Ship by Clive Cussler – 396 pages read, book finished

The Fourth Reich by Gavriel D Rosenfeld – 82 pages read, book finished

The Witches by Stacy Schiff- 4:45 hours listened to, equivalent of over 100 pages

In An Absent Dream by Seanan Mcguire – 36 pages read

Total, over 600 pages. I read more as a kid, but middle-aged eyes aren’t up to that anymore.

Frosted Lucky Charms…

35018892The third, and apparently final, part of the Librarians tie-in books came out after the series ended (and there was much mourning among the fans).

As you might guess from the title, The Librarians and the Pot of Gold by Greg Cox deals with… leprechauns, banshees and faerie changelings. Oh, and the Brotherhood of Serpents (and remember, St Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland).

The Brotherhood, in the time of St Patrick, used an infant to force a Leprechaun to hand over his pot of gold. The Librarian interferes, and the Leprechaun escapes with the baby, while the Brotherhood loses one of their people, and the gold as well.

In the present time, a group is trying to track down the Leprechaun again, still wanting his pot of gold. Or more to the point, they want to pot for nefarious purposes. The Librarians, while trying to stop this plot, are also pulled into the case of an Irish style pub being plagued by a Banshee. Gee, could these events be connected.

The fun thing about the tv show was just how tongue in cheek it was (stealing Santa’s sled? Why not?). Greg Cox does a great job of matching that tone in his spinoff books. I just hope that Tor books will continue with the books, even if the TV show is gone,

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for letting me read this

Summer reading in winter…

39971767Sometimes, reading a book can be the adventure you would like to go, if not for money or time or many other reasons.

Coves of Departure, by John Seibert Farnsworth, is more along the lines of the adventure that sounds cool, but hopefully wouldn’t be popular. Kayaking off the coast of Baja California to study delicate ecosystems. Travelling into the desert to observe buzzards. Things that sound intriguing, but it would be better for the environment that the average person didn’t do it. For that matter, I probably wouldn’t be able to handle the physical side of things.

Still, reading this book let me experience things second-hand, since Farnsworth definitely paints a vivid picture for the reader. I found myself sinking into the book, slowing down, as if I was reading it in a summer heat-wave instead of a cold winter. It also slowed me further as I took side-trips into the internet to look up the wildlife he describes

Very much recommended to anyone who loves reading about the environment. I look forward to seeing what the author does next.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for letting me read this

Don’t fall down *this* rabbit hole

40164340I’ve been reading Simon R Green’s books for about three decades now (seriously, I started with Blue Moon Rising, back in 1989). Trying to keep up with his output is almost impossible.

Lately, I’ve been sucked into two of his current series: the Ghost Finders series (which I think of a contemporary fantasy version of the TV show Scorpion) and the Ishmael Jones series (which leans more in the Cthulhu direction, with a touch of the British TV show The Avengers).

The most recent book in the Ishmael Jones series is Murder in the Dark, the sixth in the series. In this one, Ishmael and his partner Penny have been dispatched to an isolated country location where a mysterious hole to… someplace has been found. One of the scientists studying the hole has died under mysterious circumstances, and they are supposed to figure out who did it and why. Oh, and maybe whether the hole is a danger beyond the general location it already is in.

But once they get there, they end up stranded with no way out, and people are dying one by one. In order to figure out who the killer is, they first have to figure out the origin of the hole, and where it is a passage to. Oh, and how might it tie in to Ishmael’s distant past, which even he cannot remember

For a book that covers less than 24 hours, the tension builds nicely, and it starts to look like no one is going to survive. And as I am sucked along, I can’t wait to see what happens next for our investigators.

While you don’t have to read the entire series before tackling this book, I do recommend that you read the first book in the series, if only to get the origin of this partnership.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for letting me read this

Giant sharks! Yay!

40758773I’ve said in the past that I love a good disaster story, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I also love a good monster story. For example, the first Sharknado was a ton of fun, even if the follow-ups tried way too hard.

Michael Cole’s Thresher is also a shark story, but a much more fun (and almost believable) story. First off, go Google ‘thresher shark’ and check out just how freaky this shark is. Then picture one that ended up ingesting an experimental compound that increases its size and aggressive nature. Pretty scary.

Now, go to a small beach town where the grand sea festival is coming up. Take a big city hero cop who is trying to drink himself to death after a personal tragedy and his chief of police friend trying to save him from himself, mix in a rookie cop who has her own personal tragedies, a politician trying to make her reputation, a scientist trying to warn everyone, and top with a family of shark hunters brought in to stop the thresher shark before it can ruin the festival.

Yep, I’m sure everyone has a pretty good idea where this is going. I can see this as a movie on SyFy, no problem. It was a fun romp of a read, and I look forward to checking out some of his other sea monster books.

Ancient Woods and Modern Cities

36742955I did some googling, and was surprised to find out that Coldfall Wood is an actual ancient wood in London, England, covering 14 hectares. In this book, there are other ancient things there; ancient beings who do not like what humanity has done with the world. Beings that plan to turn things back to the way they used to be.

Coldfall Wood, by Steven Savile, is actually a sequel (the first book is called Glass Town), even though this fact is not exactly advertised on the cover, but while there was a learning curve to get the hang of who the characters were, the story was pretty much standalone.

Basically, an ancient king/goddess-consort takes advantage of a tear in reality caused by the events in the first book, and he wakes a number of his followers, placing them into the bodies of contemporary youths, all connected by an abusive foster home. This inadvertantly has the side effect of inflaming racial tensions. There are also a seres of young girls who drop into coma-like states, only to all wake up at the same time, all saying the same thing. Police find an old man alone in a house, with greenery shoved down his throat, but when the greenery is removed, he wakes up.

The story builds well, filling in details from the previous book without being overwhelming about it, and the dark atmosphere grows more and more intense. My only complaint was that while the ending was satisfactory, it didn’t quite live up to the tension that had been built. But it did leave me hitting Google, looking up elemnts of myth and geography that intrigued me, so I would call it a success.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for letting me read this

It’s Readathon Time!

It’s the 24 in 48 Readathon this weekend. I’m not going to do hourly updates, though. Instead, I’m going to update as I finish books.

7:40 am – Book one finished (I had less than 50 pages to go) was The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson, which was also a book for the Read Harder Challenge (a true crime book about a non violent crime) a fascinating read about salmon fly tiers, and the lengths they go to for exotic feathers.

1pm – along with a trip to the doctor’s to get the results of my shoulder ultrasound (no tears, so exercise and stretching until it gets better), drop off a library book and hit The Works for lunch. Along with all that, I finished Kingdom Of Needle and Bone, the new Subterranean Press novella from Mira Grant. Fabulous read, As usual from her.

6:30 pm – After a much needed nap, I finished I Met A Traveller In An Antique Lad, a Connie Willis novella, also from Subterranean Press. I also have been listening to a Clive Cussler audiobook and read a little fan fiction as a bit of junk food.

At bedtime last night, I’d read for 10:09. I’m halfway through a collection of short stories, and there was 4 hours left in an audiobook, for a total of the equivalent of 400 pages. I’ll definitely finish both today and I’ve got a couple more books waiting in the wings.

2:30 pm – Finished the audiobook of Sea of Greed by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown. Always fun in audiobook. I also finished The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories by Teresa Solana, translated from Catalan. Highly entertaining crime stories, full of black humour.

9:45 pm – I ended up not finishing anything else. My eyes are burning, so I went back to an audiobook that had been stopped for a library book, and listened to a couple of hours of that, around the family Sunday dinner.

In the end, I made it to 20:15. It’s looking like 20 hours is pretty much the max I can do in two days.

Who’ s afraid of the big bad gay

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A new year, and time to start catching up on reviews of last year’s reading.

Ike’s Mystery Man by Peter Shinkle is a very interesting combination of biography and history. On the whole, it is a biography of Robert Cutler, who was the first National Security Advisor.

He was also a gay man working in the government during the McCarthy era, when not only communists, but ‘sexual perverts’ were being hunted as security risks. It doesn’t appear that he went to great lengths to hide his sexuality, but he was never exposed. In fact, some powerful people seem to have deliberately shielded him.

So, while we learn a lot about the man’s life, through school and war and finally government work, as well as his infatuations with younger men, we also get a view of the changing view of government. For example, the book looks at the primary era of the CIA trying to change governments around the world in the US’s favour, even though the hindsight of now says that those regime changes rarely worked out well in the long run. We also get a first-hand view of how dangerous it was to be a gay man in government, although I get the feeling that he rarely was a lover of his paramours as much as a mentor. But while he never faced exposure, a number of the younger men in his circle of influence ended having to resign instead of being exposed.

The author is a relative of Robert Cutler, and had access to, among other things, a series of diaries that he gave to the young man who was the great love of his life, although the man in question had several regular lovers. Later in life, Cutler seemed to vacillate between great joy whenever they were together to intense depression when he didn’t get the reassurances he wanted that he was the focus of the life a man less than half his age.

All in all, it was a fabulous read about a part of recent history I knew little about. After all, few people think twice about gays in government anymore, but even in Canada, there was a long period of time when public servants could find themselves under investigation because someone made an accusation. In Canada, they were hooked up to a device called, I kid you not, the Fruit Machine in an attempt to determine homosexuality. Thankfully, the world, for the most part, has moved past that stage.