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review 2018-06-16 21:11
I Still Dream
I Still Dream - James Smythe

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

Although I didn’t adore this book, I found it to be an interesting take on artificial intelligence; on what contributes to developing an AI; on the trials and errors involved, and on how the best intentions can be tainted by poor execution, like what happens with SCION. Because, to paraphrase what Laura says about it in the novel, if you teach a child to fight and retaliate, what does it teach them about life and how to react to whatever comes their way?

The story had its ebb and flow, sometimes a little too slow to my liking, but always intriguing. I usually don’t mind when a story jumps from one time period to another, and/or doesn’t always rely on the same narrator, as long as I can follow it. And here, I didn’t have any trouble following, even when the first person narrator didn’t introduce themselves at first (like what happens with Charlie or Cesar). This approach lets the author play with more than just Laura’s take on both Organon and SCION—which was good, since it’s easily apparent that Organon is built upon all that Laura poured into it, and having only Laura’s POV would have felt, to me, slightly… constricting?

My opinion about the plot remains mixed, though, in that the novel seems to hover between being character-driven and being story-driven, while not fully achieving either. I liked the take on developing artificial intelligence—I don’t know much about coding, and I wouldn’t know how to even start about something so huge, and it felt plausible to me. On the other hand, I kept thinking that I wanted the character development part to go a little further than it did, because I felt that there remained some invisible barrier between me and the characters.

This said, I still got to see enough about Laura and the beings (whether the people or the AIs) surrounding her to get a fairly good idea of the characters, too, and of their struggles through life, especially when it came to dementia and similar memory- and recognition-related troubles. So, I definitely wouldn’t say either that the book was a failure in that regard.

Perhaps the one part that really disappointed me was the last chapter, which dragged on making the same point several times. I think it would’ve been more powerful had it been much shorter.

Nevertheless, I would still recommend the book, for the way it puts AI creation and destruction in parallel with the growing up and the decaying of human minds. (Also, listening to ‘Cloudbusting’ while reading it doesn’t hurt.)

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review 2018-05-07 19:44
Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future
Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future - Ashlee Vance

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

An interesting read for me, considering I never went in depth into what Musk has accomplished (to be fair, I came to this book because I find Tesla cars sexy and thought ‘well, why not read this, at least I’ll know more about the man’).

I’m kind of sitting on the fence about this book. I liked learning about how Musk’s companies came to be, the problems encountered along the way, how things were at times one inch from just failing, but worked out in the end, out of both luck and determination. In a way, it’s a positive ‘lesson’: that sometimes things fail, but it shouldn’t prevent you from fighting for them and taking risks, because they just may succeed as well.

I also appreciated that the author interviewed other people, employees, ex-employees, friends, ex-partners, etc., and that he made them part of the whole: people without whom Tesla Motors or SpaceX wOuld’ve never been able to take off, engineers and mechanics and designers whose role was absolutely not negligible. Since a large part of the book was focused on these companies, acknowledging more than just one actor was a good thing to do.

I would’ve d liked it to go more in depth about how exactly things worked out, when it comes to the science/engineering part. Elon Musk seems like he knows his stuff, too, and has learnt over the years what he didn’t know and made him shoot for impossible deadlines at first (now I guess they’re just improbable, hah), and… I don’t know, I expected something more detailed in that regard. Maybe less of the business aspect, and more about the engineering the way Elon Musk himself goes about it?

Also, for a biography, I think it didn’t go to the bottom of things either when it comes to the man, and lacks a certain detachment. Musk doesn’t come off as a very empathetic person, to say the least, and while objectively I understand his drive, humanely the way he treats his employees is, well, not great at all. So I would’ve been interested in seeing more reflecting about this: coming from him, but also coming from the biographer. There -is- something wrong in the way all these visionary projects have come to be, and it was pretty much glossed over. (In short, was the harshness really needed, does innovation has to come to such a price, and would things have tanked with just a bit more empathy?)

This was instructive, and I kind of liked it, so 3 stars… But while I know more about Tesla Motors, SolarCity and SpaceX, I don’t feel like I know -that- much more about Musk himself now.

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review 2018-04-07 08:09
Girl Code: Gaming, Going Viral, and Getting It Done
Girl Code: Gaming, Going Viral, and Getting It Done - Andrea Gonzales,Sophie Houser

That was a pretty interesting read, and an encouraging one, in a world where encouraging girls to go into technical careers is still not such a given (yes, even in 2018).

Also, bonus points for introduction to Python at the end, with a few examples of short, easy programs you can try. The only coding I've done so far was with Scratch, and I'm not very familiar with Python apart from a short foray with Ren'Py, but this basic syntax was very easy to get. I like that the authors chose something 'simple': I believe it won't look discouraging to someone who knows nothing to coding.

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review 2018-03-11 19:31
Break Out
Break Out: How the Apple II Launched the PC Gaming Revolution - David Craddock

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

I never owned an Apple II, but my family did have a Commodore 64 when I was a kid, and I do have a soft spot for the history and evolution of computing (and computers) in general, and I was glad to read this book, for it reminded me of a lot of things. The Apple II, after all, was part of that series of personal computers on which a lot of developers cut their teeth, at a time when one still needed to dive into programming, at least a little, if one wanted to fully exploit their machine. (I’ve forgotten most of it now, and was never really good at it anyway since I was 7 and couldn’t understand English at the time… but I also tried my hand at BASIC to code a few simple games, thanks to a library book that may or may not have been David Ahl’s “101 BASIC Computer Games”, I can’t remember anymore now.)

In other words, due to a lot of these developers coding not only for the Apple II, and/or to their games being ported to other machines, C64 included, I was familiar with a lot of the games and software mentioned in Craddock’s book. Even though, 1980s and personal computer culture of the time oblige, most of what we owned was most likely pirated, as we happily copied games from each others to cassettes and 5 ¼ floppy disks on which we punched a second hole (instant double capacity! Just add water!).

A-hem. I guess the geek in me is just happy and excited at this trip down memory lane. And at discovering the genesis behind those early games which I also played, sometimes without even knowing what they were about. (So yes, I did save POWs with “Choplifter!”, and I haunted the supermarket’s PC aisle in 1992 or so in the hopes of playing “Prince of Persia”. And I had tons of fun with Brøderbund’s “The Print Shop”, which I was still using in the mid-90s to make some silly fanzine of mine. And even though that game wasn’t mentioned in the book, I was remembered of “Shadowfax”, which I played on C64, and some 30 years later, I’m finally aware that I was actually playing Gandalf dodging & shooting Nazgûls. One is never too old to learn!)

This book may be worth more to people who owned and Apple II and/or played the games it describes, but even for those who never owned that computer and games, I think it holds value anyway as a work retracing a period of history that is still close enough, and shaped the world of personal computing as we know it today. It’s also worth it, I believe, for anyone who’s interested in discovering how games (but not only) were developed at the time, using methods and planning that probably wouldn’t work anymore. All things considered, without those developers learning the ropes by copying existing games before ‘graduating’ to their own, so to speak, something that wouldn’t be possible anymore either now owing to said software’s complexity, maybe the software industry of today would be very different. And, last but not least, quite a few of our most popular post-2000 games owe a lot, in terms of gaming design, to the ones originally developed for the Apple II.

My main criticism about “Break Out” would be the quality of the pictures included on its pages. However, I got a PDF ARC to review, not a printed version, and I assumed from the beginning that compression was at fault here, and that the printed book won’t exhibit this fault. So it’s not real criticism.

Conclusion: If you’re interested in the history of computers and/or games; in reliving a period you knew as a gamer child or teenager; and/or in seeing, through examples and interviews, how developing went at that time: get this book.

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review 2018-01-14 20:23
Listening In: Cybersecurity in an Insecure Age
Listening In: Cybersecurity in an Insecure Age - Susan Landau

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

An interesting foray into encryption and privacy, especially when considering the point of view of authorities who may need to access data on devices seized upon arrests.

The author makes a case for strengthened encryption, and I feel this makes more sense than the contrary. The book is positioned around the main controversy of including backdoors to allow police and intelligence services to access a device, so that when they need to do it during an investigation, to apprehend a perp or to follow the trail of other people potentially involved, they could do so easily; whereas strong encryption would make it difficult or impossible. However, as has been discussed during actual investigations (an example given in the book involves Apple), there’d be no guarantees that in-built backdoors would be used only by authorities: if they’re here, sooner or later someone with ill intentions is bound to find them and use them, too.

This ties into a general concern about how we have evolved into a digital age, and have to envision security from this perspective. Here also, while not going into deep technical details, the book explains the principles underlying this new brand of security; how this or that method works; the pros and cons of going towards more encryption or less encryption; what other solutions have already been tested, especially in military environments; how cyber-attacks can disrupt governmental operations in many different ways, such as what happened with Estonia and Georgia, and even the 2016 US elections. All very current and hot issues that deserve to be pointed at and examined, because whatever solutions get implemented, if they create less security and impinge on civilian privacy as well, they’re not going to be useful for very long (if ever).

Also interesting, even though it’s not the main focus, is the concept of encryption methods needing to be made public in order to be really efficient: the more people have a chance of poking at them, testing them, and finding faults, the more these methods can be revised and strengthened.

Conclusion: Not a very technical book, but that’s precisely why it makes a good introduction to such matters: easy to understand, while highlighting major concerns that not only deal with national security, but with our own (and with our privacy) as well.

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