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review 2017-07-26 08:42
Reshaping the environment to suit our needs
The Draining of the Fens: Projectors, Popular Politics, and State Building in Early Modern England (Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology) - Eric H. Ash

Today The Fens is largely a misnomer, as the region of East Anglia is a flat, dry land studded with farms. Yet a few centuries ago it was a name that referred to the marshland environment of the area, one often inundated with water from the sea or from the rivers that fed into it. While these conditions was hardly conducive for growing crops, the grasses that flourished in the wetlands were ideal for animal husbandry, which was practiced as far back as the Roman occupation. During the 17th century, however, a number of parties began a decades-long project to drain The Fens that turned it into the environment which we know it as today.

 

Eric Ash's book describes how this occurred. He traces the beginnings of the project to the 1570s, when environmental changes that worsened the flooding convinced some in the royal government of the need to intervene. Until then flood management was the responsibility of sewer commissioners, prominent locals who sat on boards that were empowered to maintain flood control measures but whose resources and remit were limited to maintaining existing conditions. Now, however, the crown began to consider ambitious projects designed to drain The Fens and convert the pasture land to more desirable farmland.

 

The inhabitants of the Fens quickly objected to the government's proposal. Ash spends a good part of his book describing the various challenges to the projectors, which included political pressure, legal challenges, and even violence against the "projectors" and their employees. While efforts by the crown to secure a consensus proved elusive, it was not until first James I and then Charles I took the throne that the state grew more aggressive in its approach. Nevertheless, one of the virtues of the area of the first major drainage project, the Hatfield Level, was that the crown controlled most of the land in the area, thus forestalling much of the opposition encountered elsewhere. Work on the even larger Great Level drainage began soon afterward, and while it was disrupted by the civil war that broke out in 1641, the work continued intermittently until it was complete by the 1670s.

 

Synthesizing political, social, technological, and environmental history, Ash's book provides an excellent account of the efforts to drain The Fens in the 16th and 17th centuries. From it emerges an account of greed, environmental change, government power, and local resistance that has echoes in some of the debates over public projects and environmental regulation in our own time. Perhaps the most salient point to emerge from the book is how the efforts by people to utilize and shape their environment have long reflected their views of their relationship to it. This is true even today, for while the ongoing effort to restore The Fens embodies a very different set of assumptions and goals, they share with the drainage projects of the 17th century the idea that it is our goals which should determine its condition, even if our objectives today have brought us full circle to embracing the wetlands role The Fens had served for so long in the past.

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review 2017-07-17 20:05
Turing's Imitation Game
Turing's Imitation Game: Conversations with the Unknown - Kevin Warwick,Huma Shah

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

That was an informative, albeit also controversial, read about Turing’s ‘Imitation Game’, focused on the game itself rather than on the man (who I like reading about in general, but here I was definitely more interested in his famous ‘test’, since I keep hearing about it, but never in much detail). It sheds light on Turing’s aim when devising the test, as well as on what he predicted, and that may or may not happen sooner than expected.

Several sections in the book are devoted to examples of studies and events during which the test took place, pitching human judges against both machines and other human beings, without the former knowing what or who the latter was. Actual, textual examples allow the reader to try and make their own judgment—and determining where the machines are is not so easy as it seems. I was accurate in my guesses except but once, I think, however I can see where judges were ‘fooled’, and why. At other times, I was surprised at the outcome, for instance quite a few human participants made ‘boring’ answers to conversations, which in turn prompted judges to believe they were talking to a machine—and conversely, some AIs were clearly programmed with a variety of lively potential responses. Eugene Goostman, especially, with its persona of a 13-year old Ukrainian boy whose English is only second language, has good potential (in that you can tell some of its/his answers are stilted, but not more than if it/he was an actual learner of ESOL).

The test as a whole posits several interesting questions and conundrums. Namely, the fact that it’s based on language, and that one may wonder whether being able to converse means one is gifted with ‘thought’. Another one is whether the test as it exists can really be used as a marker: aren’t the various chatbots/AIs out there simply well-programmed, but in no way indicative of whether they’ll be able to go further than that?

Also, I’m not sure I can agree with the 2014 ‘the Turing test has been passed’ result, as it seems to me the percentage is too low to warrant such a qualifier (if 90% of judges were fooled in believing they were conversing with a human, now that’d be something else... or am I aiming too high?), and it’s too early anyway for the current AIs to have been developed far enough (as fascinating as some of their conversations were, they still looked much more like complex chatbots than anything else—at least, to me).

Conclusion: 3.5 stars. I did learn quite a few things no matter what.

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review 2017-06-23 16:22
The Three-Body Problem, Liu Cixin (trans. Ken Liu)
The Three-Body Problem - Liu Cixin,Ken Liu

What would you do if the laws of physics, of the universe, turned out not to be laws at all? Imagine you're a scientist confronted with this realization. This is one of the more disturbing realities that characters must contend with in The Three-Body Problem, the first of a trilogy by Chinese author Liu Cixin.

 

The book does an excellent job of making the scale of the universe, from its immensity to its sub-atomic particularities, conceivable and real. One of the scientist characters has a gift that allows him to visualize numbers, and in a note the author reveals that he has a similar gift. The book is very intelligent and detailed in its explanation of science; I can't say I could follow it all, but I understood the larger picture and was fascinated by the minutiae.

 

The book begins in China's cultural revolution and fast forwards to the present, shifting perspectives from the scientist daughter of a persecuted university professor to a man working in nanotechnology. Most of the significant characters are scientists, with the exception of Da Shi, a corrupt, wily policeman who became my favorite character. The protagonist, Wang, learns of the deaths of prominent scientists and starts seeing strange things, such as a countdown that appears visible only to him. He is tasked with helping to investigate a shady scientific organization, which involves his playing a strange video game called Three-Body. Nothing is what it seems, and Wang falls down a rabbit hole (more like a black hole) that leads to knowledge of extra-terrestrial life.

 

This Chinese SF novel was something unique; I found its different style of storytelling often engaging, though sometimes odd. The translator explains in a note that there may be narrative techniques unfamiliar to Western readers, and I could sense them. For example, much is explained through pages of dialogue, and the narrative can feel interrupted by the video game chapters, as much as I enjoyed them. I struggled with the fact that, after a brief appearance earlier in the book, Wang's wife and child do not re-enter the narrative, not even Wang's thoughts. His thoughts themselves are often unknown--for a time I wasn't sure where he stood in the quiet war going on.

 

Nevertheless, I do look forward to reading the next book in the trilogy (after a break) and to seeing the movie adaptation.

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review 2017-06-04 17:14
Clock Zero: I'm not my social feed
Clock Zero: I'm not my social feed - Nawar Alsaadi

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

Quite an interesting story, with likeable characters—possibly a like goofy, too, but I was in the mood for that, and also, taking jabs at helpdesks/customer service? Count me in, I’ve been in that kind of jobs that for some time now, and we all need to find our fun somewhere, otherwise we’d just get bonkers.

Anyway. That was for the fun parts, enhanced with the way the narrator swipes at social media, the amount of time we spend checking Facebook and Twitter, and how it’s so easy to get lost in it. Not that I don’t like my little FB time, but I know what it feels like to turn your computer on at the end of the day and realise you’ve spent the past two hours going through clickbait crap when you could’ve been doing something else. (Like reading, and reviewing, and therefore catching up on your backlog of NetGalley books, so that you can then post your reviews on your blog and FB page and... Wait a second.)

There are less fun parts, too, closer to actual terrorism, with a plot meant to destroy cell towers, satellites, etc., through a virus uploaded on everybody’s smartphones. A revolution of sorts, to force people to look up from their phones and enjoy life again. Kind of extreme (I’m trying not to spend too much time on social media, but let’s be honest, if internet and networks in general are gone, I’m out of a job). One will like this idea or not. It’s probably a case of ‘doing the wrong things for the right reasons’. In the light of recent years and the growing amount of terrorist attacks, this commentary is not, well, enjoyable, yet one can also (unfortunately) relate to it while reading about it (my main Tube hub is closed today because of that, now let me tell you that’s one instance I was glad to hang on FB instead of being out socialising!).

Style: the writing is OK, some typos now and then (it was an ARC so hopefullyl those were corrected in the final version), and at first the narrator alluding to hashtags and emojis was a little confusing. Nothing too bad, though.

I’m torn about the twist in the end—can’t decide whether I like it, or would have preferred the story to end one chapter earlier. Still unsure as well if the book was meant to be totally satirical, and if I should get angry at it (I preferred to treat is as satire and fun, because I’m too lazy and it’s too hot outside to waste energy into such feelings).

Conclusion: Maybe not the best read you can find when it comes to taking jabs at social, yet enjoyable nonetheless.

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review 2017-05-30 15:50
Podcast #49 is up!
Technology in the Country House - Marilyn Palmer,Ian West

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Ian West about the book he coauthored with Marilyn Palmer on the use of new technologies in British and Irish country houses. Enjoy!

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