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Showing posts from November, 2018

Skyward: Claim the Stars (SF) - Brandon Sanderson ****

It's a publisher's dream to have a young adult novel that crosses over to an adult audience (do the words Harry Potter ring any bells?) I'd say that with a couple of small provisos, Brandon Sanderson's Skyward: Claim the Stars manages to do this, throwing in aspects of another mildly successful crossover from the movie world, Star Wars.

In many ways this is a classic, hard SF militaristic space novel. Some part of humanity is holed up on a rocky planet, surrounded by the remains of what may have been a Dyson sphere, under regular attack from aliens known as the Krell. (Forbidden Planet, anyone?) A brave bunch of starfighter pilots regularly launch to defend humanity from alien ships, some of which huge bombs that could mean the end of their civilisation if one gets through. And, in this setting, our central character, Spensa Nightshade, undergoes her training as a cadet starfighter pilot. She's the daughter of a disgraced pilot, once hero of the fleet, who apparentl…

Aliens – Jim Al-Khalili (ed.) ***

This book is a couple of years old now, but I found a heavily discounted copy in my local branch of The Works (other remaindered bookshops are available - Ed.). It’s the kind of ‘impulse-buy’ book The Works specialises in, with an eyecatching cover that’s as close to the Alien movie franchise as you can get without violating copyright, and a strapline –‘the truth is in here’ – that no X-Files fan will be able to resist. If you flip through the book (I mean literally flip through, holding it in your right hand and flicking the pages so you just see the margins whizzing past), you’re treated to a great little animation of an alien landing on Earth in a flying saucer, taking a quick selfie, and then heading off back into space.

When they get the book home, though, will buyers who snapped the book up in The Works be pleased with their purchase? That depends on their expectations, which the packaging does its best to befuddle right from the start. The cover is clearly targeted at the UFO/sc…

Mercury - William Sheehan ****

Driving to work one morning several years ago, I spotted a tiny white dot close to the rising sun. ‘That’s Venus,’ I said to myself. Almost immediately I saw another, much brighter dot a few degrees away. ‘No, that’s Venus – the first one must be, um ... Mercury.’ Even with a lifelong interest in astronomy, I always manage to forget Mercury.

With eight planets in the Solar System, one of them has to be the least interesting – and Mercury got the short straw. That’s a relative statement, though, and a diligent author could still dig up enough fascinating facts about that tiny dot by the Sun to fill a short book. William Sheehan has done a brilliant job of doing just that.

One of the reasons Mercury is so easy to forget is that it’s almost impossible to get a good view of it from Earth. Even after the invention of the telescope, which turned planets like Mars and Jupiter into explorable worlds, Mercury remained a mystery – and the subject of some pretty wild speculations. In 1686, for exa…

Factfulness - Hans Rosling *****

Without doubt a remarkable book. Hans Rosling (who died towards the end of writing Factfulness), aided by his son and daughter-in-law, tells the remarkable story of the gap between our appreciation of the state of the world and the reality.

Rosling, a doctor originally, illustrates some of the points he makes with personal experience, particularly examples where an incorrect assumption about facts he has made has led to potentially disastrous circumstances. But the core of the book makes use of a series of 12 multiple choice questions on the state of the world which, on the whole, we answer worse that choosing randomly - because almost universally we think the world is far worse than it really is.

Although Rosling claims not to be an optimist, making it clear that he isn't saying everything is rosy - there's still a lot to improve - the fact is that most of our ideas of, for example, how bad world poverty is, education of girls, size of families and far more reflects what the wo…

How Smart Machines Think - Sean Gerrish ****

While it will become apparent I think this book should have been titled 'How Dumb Machines Think', it was a remarkably enjoyable insight into how the well publicised AI successes - self-driving cars, image and face recognition, IBM's Jeopardy! playing Watson, along with game playing AIs in chess, Go and Atari and StarCraft, perform their dark arts.

There's no actual programming presented here, so no need for non-programmers to panic, though there is some quite detailed discussion of how the software architectures are structured and how the different components - for example neural networks - do their job, but it isn't anything too scary if you take it slowly.

One thing that comes across very strongly, despite the AI types' insistence that their programs are of general use, is how very specifically tailored programs like the AlphaGo software that beat champions at the game Go, and the Watson computer that won at the US TV quiz show Jeopardy! were - incredibly fine…

The Wolf Within - Bryan Sykes ****

There's always the whiff of snake oil in the air when a publisher puts the author's academic qualification on the front of a book. Yet Professor Bryan Sykes wears his laurels lightly - in fact I wish there had been a bit more detailed science content in what turned out to be a real curate's egg of a read.

You don't have to be a dog lover to find this book on the development of dogs from wolves interesting (in fact Sykes claims he isn't, though his wife is), but it certainly helps - and I am. Probably the most fascinating sections concentrate on wolves. We discover that real wolves are nothing like the merciless killing machines of legend - not that they don't kill, of course, but their behaviour is much more nuanced. Sykes describes a hypothetical but convincing scenario for wolves to first begin working with humans as collaborative hunters, each benefiting from the others' skills.

Sykes argues that the wolves' pack behaviour makes them ideally suited to …