computers

Book review – Cataclysms: An Environmental History of Humanity

6-minute read

What is the price of humanity’s progress? The cover of this book, featuring a dusty landscape of tree stumps, leaves little to the imagination. In the eyes of French journalist and historian Laurent Testot it has been nothing short of cataclysmic. Originally published in French in 2017, The University of Chicago Press published the English translation at the tail-end of 2020.

Early on, Testot makes clear that environmental history as a discipline can take several forms: studying both the impact of humans on the environment, and of the environment on human affairs, as well as putting nature in a historical context. Testot does all of this in this ambitious book as he charts the exploits of Monkey – his metaphor for humanity – through seven revolutions and three million years.

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Book review – Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities

8-minute read

Growth as a process is ubiquitous. It is the hallmark of every living organism. It motivates much of what we as humans do, as often unspoken as it is outspoken. It is the narrative lens through which we examine societies and civilizations past and present. And it is the altar at which economists worship. You would think that nobody in their right mind would write a book that tries to encompass all of the above. Leave it to a deep thinker such as Vaclav Smil to prove to you otherwise.

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Book review – The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation

8-minute read

The robot apocalypse has become a well-worn trope that will elicit laughter more than concern. But there is a far more direct threat from artificial intelligence or AI: economic disruption. Technology can and has taken jobs away from humans. I first started taking this idea more seriously after watching CGP Grey’s short documentary Human Needs Not Apply. If you enjoyed that video, this book is the must-read follow-up. Economist and historian Carl Benedikt Frey provides a soundly argued and clearly written book on the history of technological revolutions and what lessons these hold for future job security.

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Book review – How to Predict Everything: The Formula Transforming What We Know About Life and the Universe

6-minute read

How do you predict something that has never happened before? That is the question heading this book. And as it so happens, there is an app formula for that. Purportedly a book about Bayes’s theorem, author William Poundstone quickly latches onto the doomsday argument and whizzes the reader through a mishmash of thought experiments and philosophical puzzles that try to answer the question how long humans will survive.

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Book review – More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources – And What Happens Next

8-minute read

More from Less makes the optimistic case that our impact on the planet is diminishing. We are past “peak stuff” and thanks to continued technological innovation our economy is dematerializing. That is to say, economic growth has become decoupled from resource consumption. Or, as the title puts it succinctly, we are getting more from less.

I was initially sceptical when I learned of this book. My outlook on the state of the world is not nearly as optimistic. So, from the blurb’s counterintuitive claim that “we’ve stumbled into an unexpected balance with nature”, to Steven Pinker’s triumphant endorsement that those who think we’re doomed by overpopulation and resource depletion are wrong – I was ready to go bananas on this book. But I would be a poor reviewer if I let my prejudices get the better of me.

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Book review – The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread – and Why They Stop

6-minute read

With the world in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, the questions posed by the subtitle of this book are on everyone’s mind. Associate Professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine Adam Kucharski here takes the reader through the inner workings of contagion. From violence and idea to financial crises and, of course, disease – some universal rules cut right across disciplines. So, is this the most topical book of the year? Well, yes and no.

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Book review – How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems

5-minute read

This book is dangerous. While reading it I missed metro stops, phone calls, and sleep. I also laughed. A lot. Webcomic creator and former NASA engineer Randall Munroe returns to book form for another instalment of zany humour and absurd ideas, this time providing absurd solutions to achieving everyday tasks and solving real-world problems. From fording a river by boiling it dry using a field of 300 million electric kettles, to using a swarm of butterflies to send large data files: the solutions are purposefully ludicrous. Nevertheless, this book falls back on logical principles, giving readers both a good laugh and a gentle introduction to science, engineering, and technology.

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Book review – End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World

6-minute read

If the end of the world is something that keeps you up at night you might want to skip this book. Some might snigger at the “rogue robots” in the book’s subtitle, but End Times is a serious look at so-called existential risks. Former foreign correspondent, reporter, and editor with TIME magazine Bryan Walsh takes an unflinching look at the various disasters that could wipe out humanity, the people whose jobs it is to seriously think through catastrophic threats, and how, if at all, we can prepare ourselves.

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Book review – Industry of Anonymity: Inside the Business of Cybercrime

6-minute read

I have written on this blog before that the Internet is not everything it is cracked up to be. Here I will add another string to that bow: crime. Spam, scams, malware, keyloggers, viruses, hacking, identity theft, distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, stolen credit card details… the list goes on. Just as its offline counterpart, cybercrime encompasses a diverse array of misdeeds. But where its victims, both personal and corporate, regularly make headlines, the perpetrators remain a mysterious bunch. Based on a huge number of interviews, sociologist Jonathan Lusthaus here provides a peek behind that veil of anonymity. Next to showing that cybercrime has become an industry like any other, he also explores the paradox at its heart: how did this growth happen in an environment of mistrust and anonymity?

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Book review – Rage Inside The Machine: The Prejudice of Algorithms, and How to Stop the Internet Making Bigots of Us All

7-minute read

There is an amusing and slightly acerbic acronym that has stuck with me from my days working at a computer helpdesk for an international oil firm: PICNIC. Short for “problem in chair, not in computer”, my colleagues used it as code whenever an employee rocked up at our helpdesk with a complaint or problem that was due to human clumsiness rather than malfunctioning hardware. “Did you check that the printer was plugged into the power socket?”

Nevertheless, says Artificial Intelligence (AI) researcher Robert Elliott Smith, our blind faith in computers and the algorithms that run them is misguided. Based on his 30 years experience working with AI, the aptly titled Rage Inside the Machine takes the reader on a historical tour of computing to show how today’s technology is both less amoral and more prejudiced than we give it credit for.

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