Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Astronomy Adventures and Vacations - Timothy Treadwell ****

If you’re into healthy outdoor pursuits (and I mean the Great Outdoors, not your backyard), you won’t have any trouble thinking of exciting ‘adventures and vacations’ to indulge in. But what if you’re a naturally sedentary science geek (like this reviewer)? If you’ve ever struggled for a reason to get yourself out of the house, this book could be just what you need.

The book’s title immediately conjures up a number of standard images – a luxury cruise to the southern hemisphere taking in the Milky Way and Magellanic Clouds, an excursion to the far north to view the Aurora Borealis, or that ‘once in a lifetime’ trip to some obscure part of the globe to witness a total solar eclipse. All those things are covered, of course, but so are a lot of less obvious – and significantly cheaper and easier – activities.

The book lists numerous space-related tourist attractions, from museums and NASA visitor centres to working observatories that are open to the public. There are also more historical sites than you might expect, ranging from Herschel’s house and Galileo’s tomb all the way back to Stonehenge and Meteor Crater in Arizona. Then there are the various regular trade shows and events you can go to – not just to ogle a load of high-end telescopes you can’t afford, but perhaps to get your photograph taken with an astronaut, or purchase a piece of meteorite.

The book doesn’t ignore genuine adventures, either – although sadly the best ones are going to cost you a four-to-five figure sum. You can book a trip to the ‘edge of space’ in a Soviet-era fighter plane, or a zero-gravity taster on board a Vomit Comet. Slightly cheaper is a personalised tour of the cosmonaut training centre in Star City, near Moscow – you can do that one, with all the frills (like trying on a real spacesuit), for less than a thousand euros.

When I first read the blurb for this book, I assumed it was written by a US-based author, so I was worried it might be too US-centric for my tastes. As it turns out, however, Timothy Treadwell is a fellow Brit, and he’s done a commendable job of catering to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. The result is probably 50/50 between the United States and the rest of the world – which I suspect (at the risk of stereotyping) is a more equitable balance than a US author would have managed. My home county of Somerset, for example, gets three mentions in the book – which is three more than I was expecting.

By its nature, this is more a work of reference than a book that’s meant to be read through from cover to cover (a point the author makes in his preface). That brings me on to my one real criticism of it. The chapters are arranged thematically, but the material within each chapter tends to be haphazard. Three consecutive paragraphs may relate to three completely different geographic locations. I would have welcomed a bit of help here – for example by giving the paragraphs inline headings, or by highlighting the place-names in bold type. Similarly, a geographical gazetteer (or even maps) at the end of the book would have been a useful addition.

Those minor quibbles aside, this is an impressively well-researched book on a fascinating and unique subject (and I almost forgot to mention – it’s lavishly illustrated, with colour photographs on virtually every page). Definitely recommended for anyone who’s interested in astronomy and looking for an excuse to get out and about!

Review by Andrew May

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Four Way Interview - Hector Levesque

Hector Levesque is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto. He worked in the area of knowledge representation and reasoning in artificial intelligence. He is the co-author of a graduate textbook and co-founder of a conference in this area. He received the Computers and Thought Award in 1985 near the start of his career, and the Research Excellence Award in 2013 near the end, both from IJCAI (the International Joint Conferences on Artificial Intelligence). His latest title is Common Sense, The Turing Test, and the Quest for Real AI.

Why computer science?

Computer science is not really the science of computers, but the science of computation, a certain kind of information processing, with only a marginal connection to electronics. (I prefer the term used in French and other languages, informatics, but it never really caught on in North America.) Information is somewhat like gravity: once you are made aware of it, you realize that it is everywhere. You certainly cannot have a Theory of Everything without a clear understanding of the role of information. 

Why this book?

AI is the part of computer science concerned with the use of information in the sort of intelligent behaviour exhibited by people. While there is an incredible amount of buzz (and money) surrounding AI technology these days, it is mostly concerned with what can be learned by training on massive amounts of data. My book makes the case that this is an overly narrow view of intelligence, that what people are able to do, and what early AI researchers first proposed to study, goes well beyond this.

What's next?

I have a technical monograph with Gerhard Lakemeyer published in 2000 by MIT Press on the logic of knowledge bases, that is, on the relationship between large-scale symbolic representations and abstract states of knowledge. We are working on a new edition that would incorporate some of what we have learned about knowledge and knowledge bases since then. 

What's exciting you at the moment?

For me, the most exciting work in AI these days, at least in the theoretical part of AI, concerns the general mathematical and computational integration of logical and probabilistic reasoning seen, for example, in the work of Vaishak Belle. It's pretty clear to all but diehards that both types of knowledge will be needed, but previous solutions have been somewhat ad hoc and required giving up something out of one or the other.

Finding Fibonacci - Keith Devlin ***

I was rather surprised by this book, but I shouldn't have been. It does exactly what it says on the tin. The subtitle is 'The quest to rediscover the forgotten mathematical genius who changed the world.' So I shouldn't really complain that the book is far more about the quest than about the mathematician Fibonacci and his work - but I was disappointed nonetheless.

In practice, I enjoyed the details of the search for Fibonacci pointers like street signs, as it's the kind of thing I've done myself as a science writer. But I think Keith Devlin suffered from a common problem with someone who gets to close to a subject. If, for example, you are a birdwatcher and have spent ages tracking down a lesser spotted grebe, you might assume that the rest of us are as interested as you are - but we really aren't. There was just too much detail on Devlin's attempts to track down early copies (there are no originals) of Fibonacci's work. And where there is a tiny little bit of drama, he blows it out of all proportion with overselling. Take this passage:
What I would learn from that visit was that the story of the Liber abbaci [Fibonacci's oddly titled book introducing the numbers] is a very human one, spanning many centuries, with an ending (assuming the translation into English is its ending) every bit as dramatic as any Hollywood scriptwriter could dream up.
It really isn't. It's engaging without doubt, but not exactly worthy of the dramatic lead up. It didn't help that the book opens with an introduction that sounds like it was written by Troy McClure from the Simpsons (the actor character who introduces himself along the lines of 'You may remember me from such educational films as...') - Devlin spends quite a while telling us he is quite famous as 'the math guy'. Okay. 

At its core, there's some good material here about the introduction of our current numerals from India via the Arabic world through the influence of Fibonacci's book, which resulted in a whole chain of 'how to' smaller books for practical use. I don't doubt Devlin's assertion that the introduction of these numbers was crucial to finance, trade and science, though I think he over-inflates the importance of Fibonacci as an individual. The number system would have arrived anyway - and though he certainly had a strong influence on its use, it's interesting that in some countries there was strong resistance, with records having to use numbers written out as words for several centuries.

In a way, the problem with this book is it's a bit like one of those 'Making of' TV shows you get when a blockbuster film comes out. There are a lot of tantalising mentions of things in Devlin's 'real' book on Fibonacci, where this title focusses very much on his adventures visiting libraries in Italy. There's also a lot of repetition - sometimes almost word for word between chapters - all in all, it would have made a really good magazine article, but I'm not sure it's a book I'd recommend unless you are particularly interested in the details of doing this kind of research.

ADDED: Thanks to Davide Castelvecchi from Nature for pointing out some oddities in the 'facts' presented in this book. You can see his review here.

Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 17 April 2017

Images from a Warming Planet - Ashley Cooper ****

I'm not a big fan of coffee table books - and this is certainly big and heavy enough to make a coffee table from if you attached legs (I certainly wouldn't fancy reading it in bed) - but Ashley Cooper's 495 photographs covering the impact of climate change, fossil fuel energy generation and renewables are absolutely stunning - crisp, large scale, extremely colourful and putting across a message that is sometimes hard to convey in words. Whether Cooper is showing oil refineries and damaged landscapes or homes battered by storms and decaying after drought, these are dramatic images.

In his foreword, Jonathon Porritt says 'do not allow the power of the images come between you and the people' - emphasising that it's not enough to record what's happening, but rather we should this kind of thing as a call to arms. My only concern here is that there's an awful lot of 'isn't this terrible' scenes and some nice images of the small scale 'good stuff' - but not enough suggestive of how we get from here to there. For example, there's a section on renewables which has a number of visually striking wind farms, but not much in the way of the more important solar farms - and no mention of the huge need to develop better storage (which often feels a bit too hard-tech to be truly green) because most renewables are not consistent in their output.

From a scientific viewpoint, I would have liked to have seen more restraint in the assumptions of causality. We are presented with the impact of storms, for example, as if they are definitively the result of climate change. Scientists would always temper the assertion, because there have always been devastating storms. We can say with a high probability that storms are more frequent as a result of climate change, but we can't say that a particular storm was caused by it. There's also an amusing little scientific contradiction on a page that comments about Iceland getting 30% of its energy from geothermal and also carries a picture of the Sun saying 'Ultimately all the Earth's energy comes from the Sun' - it certainly mostly does, but there are exceptions, notably nuclear (which only gets a passing dismissal later on) and geothermal.

So there may be rather too much of an 'isn't this terrible' message accompanied by over-simplistic solutions - but this shouldn't get in the way of these stunning images and the job I hope they can do in persuading some of the undecided on climate change. If the pictures get the message that we need to do something across to their viewership (somehow, readership doesn't work) and they then look elsewhere for those solutions, then at least the images are doing their job. And despite Mr Porritt's concerns, I don't think we should underplay the power of the photography. It's a great book visually and I'm delighted to have had a chance to get a good look at it.

The best place to get the book is the author's website:

Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Common Sense, The Turing Test and the Quest for Real AI - Hector Levesque *****

It was fascinating to read this book immediately after Ed Finn's What Algorithms Want. They are both by academics on aspects of artificial intelligence (AI) - but where reading Finn's book is like wading through intellectual treacle, this is a delight. It is short, to the point, beautifully clear and provides just as much in the way of insights without any of the mental anguish.

The topic here is the nature of artificial intelligence, why the current dominant approach of adaptive machine learning can never deliver true AI and what the potential consequences are of thinking that learning from big data is sufficient to truly act in a smart fashion.

As Hector Levesque points out, machine learning is great at handling everyday non-exceptional circumstances - but falls down horribly when having to deal with the 'long tail', where there won't be much past data to learn from. For example (my examples, not his), a self-driving car might cope wonderfully with typical traffic and roads, but get into a serious mess if a deer tries to cross the motorway in front of it, or should the car encounter Swindon's Magic Roundabout.

There is so much here to love. Although the book is compact (and rather expensive for its size), each chapter delivers excellent considerations. Apart from the different kinds of AI (I love that knowledge-based AI has the acronym of GOFAI for 'good old-fashioned AI'), this takes us into considerations of how the brain works, the difference between real and fake intelligence, learning and experience, symbols and symbol processing and far more. Just to give one small example of something that intrigued me, Levesque gives the example of a very simple computer program that generates quite a complex outcome. He then envisages taking the kind of approaches we use to try to understand human intelligence - both psychological and physiological - showing how doing the same thing with this far simpler computer equivalent would fail to uncover what was happening behind the outputs.

For too long, those of us who take an interest in AI have been told that the 'old-fashioned' knowledge-based approach was a dead end, while the modern adaptive machine learning approach, which is the way that, for instance, programs like Siri and Alexa appear to understand English, is the way forward. But as the self-driving car example showed above, anything providing true AI has to be reliable and predictable to be able to cope with odd and relatively unlikely circumstances - because while any individual unlikely occurrence will probably never happen, the chances are that something unlikely will come along. And when it does, it takes knowledge to select the most appropriate action.

Highly recommended.

Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 14 April 2017

What Algorithms Want - Ed Finn ****

The science fiction author Neal Stephenson comments on the cover of this book that it is 'highly enjoyable'. I suspect this is because in the opening of the book, Ed Finn repeatedly refers to Stephenson's impressive novel Snow Crash. If Stephenson actually found reading What Algorithms Want to be fun, he needs to get out more. I would, instead, describe it is extremely hard work to read - but it is hard work that is rewarded with some impressive insights. What Algorithms Want is both clever and able to cut away the glamour (in the old sense of the word) of the internet and the cyber world to reveal what's really going on beneath - as long as you can cope with the way that the book is written.

A Finn points out, most of us rely on algorithms, from Google’s search to Facebook’s timeline, not consciously considering that these aren’t just tools to help us, but processes that have their own (or their makers) intentions embodied in them. What’s more, there's really important material here about the insidious way the cyber world is driving us towards processes where the effort is not not concerned with a final product so much as the continuation of the system. However, there is also a fair amount of pretentious content that can be reminiscent of Sokal’s famous hoax - all too often, the sources Finn quotes seem to be using words from the IT world without entirely understanding them.

In terms of readability, What Algorithms Want suffers from same problem as the output of many of the university students I help with writing - ask them what their essay means and what they say is much clearer that what they've written. Finn is overly fond, for instance, of ‘fungible’ and ‘imbricate’, which are not words I'd really like to see outside of specialist publications.

Some of the specifics don't quite ring true. Finn talks about a modern equivalent of Asimov's fictional psychohistory, without covering the way that chaos theory makes it clear that an algorithmic representation of such a complex system could never produce useful predictions (any more than we can ever forecast the weather more than a few days into the future). Sometimes, Finn seems to be complaining about something that isn't a match to reality. So, for instance, he says 'you listen to a streaming music station that almost gets it right, telling yourself that these songs, not quite the right ones, are perfect for this moment because a magic algorithm selected them.' He absolutely misses the point. You don't do it because you think a magic algorithm produces perfection. You do it because you haven't time to spend an hour assembling the perfect playlist for the moment. It's a convenient compromise - and a far better match than listening to a random playlist off the radio.

This reflects a tendency to read too much into an example. For example, despite admitting that Netflix gave the makers of the series House of Cards carte blanche on content, Finn still identifies algorithmic aspects to the script. This comes out particularly when he comments at length on Fincher's idea of having Underwood address the audience direct, apparently not aware that this was one of the standout features of the (very non-algorithmic) original BBC series. Elsewhere, when talking about Uber, Finn says 'The company's opacity about pricing and the percentage of revenue shared with drivers makes it even more Iike an arbitrary video game' - but what conventional business does share this kind of information with its customers? Do you know the markup on products in your corner store, or what a McDonald's franchisee earns?

However, don't let these detailed complaints put you off. There is a huge amount to appreciate here, especially when Finn gets onto individual aspects of the impact of algorithms on our lives in the likes of Siri, Google and Netflix. And throughout there is much to challenge the reader, encouraging thought about technology we tend to take for granted. I just wish that it could have been written in a less obscure fashion.

Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 10 April 2017

The Reality Frame - Brian Clegg *****

I’ve read quite a few of Brian Clegg’s books, but this one’s outstanding. Relativity is a topic that many writers struggle to get across - Clegg does this brilliantly thanks to two tactics I’ve never seen before. First, he makes use of that most fundamental requirement for relativity, the frame of reference. It’s not just the title of the book that suggests frames of reference - this concept forms the backbone of his exploration of relativity. But then he goes totally mad and builds a universe from scratch!

This audacious approach enables us to see, piece by piece, that relativity is about far more than Einstein’s work - fascinating though that is. It’s not that he ignores special and general relativity. There’s even an appendix where he shows how it only takes a maths GCSE to follow the mathematics that make time dilation happen. (I'd like to see more of this kind of thing in popular science books.) But he goes far beyond Einstein's work. For example, in the final chapters he introduces life and creativity to his universe and shows the essential roles that relativity and frames of reference have to play in those cases. 

In bringing in creativity, Clegg gives the book a human focus, and this then builds to a chance to reassess humanity’s place in the universe. The book mentions Bronowski's classic The Ascent of Man, which is a brave parallel to draw, but there are some real parallels in a very different kind of book. I thought I knew the basics of relativity - yet despite never becoming over-technical, The Reality Frame really opened my eyes to a different way of looking at the universe. Clegg quotes my favourite physicist, Richard Feynman on the laws of nature - this is a chance to see those laws in a new light.

Review by Peet Morris
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.