Books of 2015

My target this year was to read 50 books. I didn’t quite make it and finished with 23 books completed. I have a number of books still on “Currently Reading” shelf on GoodReads as well as a few paper backs lying around the flat. Still, I read some wonderful books this year, and a couple of disappointing ones as well.

Best Book read in 2015

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple
A history of the British invasion of Afghanistan in the mid 19th century. William Dalrymple consulted Afghan, Indian and British sources to write a haunting, powerful book that provides context to the contemporary British and American foreign policy in Afghanistan.

Science Fiction

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu
An excellent English translation of the second book in the best selling “Three Body Problem” series by Chinese science fiction writer Cixin Liu. The Dark Forest has a compelling plot, and provides a unique take on the Fermi paradox.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – Wonderful, poetic, post-apocalyptic fiction exploring love, loss and Shakespeare. My review here.

Non Fiction

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Col. Chris Hadfield
A charming and inspirational memoir by Canadian astronaut and Youtube sensation Col. Chris Hadfield.

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande – A moving meditation on life and death.

Disappointments

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
A beautifully written yet confused and bloated book by one of my favourite writers.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
Bullet and blood strewn set pieces do not help a weak plot in this dystopian novel written by the author of the excellent The Windup Girl. My review here.

Honorable Mentions

The Peripheral by William Gibson – Presents a look at a dystopian future enlivened by a clever plot and some precise writing.

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie – Satisfying conclusion to the Imperial Radch trilogy.

 

Review: The Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless FutureRise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rise of the Robots (RoR) was voted as the Financial Time’s Business Book of the Year* for 2015.

I found the book to be a disappointment. RoR goes over well trodden territory around automation, the shift of from a labour driven economy to a capital driven economy and the impending collapse of the consumption due to the shrinking middle class. Mr. Ford also provides a brief tour of the issues around the emergence of general purpose Artificial Intelligence** and nano technology. The book concludes with an argument for a universal, work appropriate basic income scheme and a discussion around the system of incentives that would make such a scheme work.

The book provides anecdotal commentary around the decimation of white collar jobs and the emergence of machine learning. It covers well trod territory on the failures of MOOCs and how a degree from a University may no longer guarantee a prosperous middle class life.

RoR comes across as a lament for the golden post-war age of increasing prosperity, high levels of employment and with the middle classes having a secure financial future. Mr. Ford mentions on a number of occasions that we are reverting to a feudal system with a small percentage of the population controlling access to capital and the majority of us becoming sharecroppers in a digital economy. I agree with this bleak prognosis but do not find Mr. Ford’s solution of a increasing consumption via a universal basic income satisfactory.

I found RoR to be a sharp, succinct read with extensive foot notes and references. There are few mentions in the book of the sort of challenges facing countries like India that are not wealthy and where a basic income would be difficult to implement. India, like China before it, has staked it’s economic future on creating millions of jobs through manufacturing and services. If these jobs are not to materialise due to the “Rise of the Robots”, what options remain open? Regrettably, Mr. Ford does not offer much in the way of insight here.

I would recommend RoR as a primer on the type of issues that developed nations will face in the coming decades but find Mr. Ford’s arguments for a solution unconvincing and his exploration on the deeper issues around ethics around general purpose AI unsatisfactory.

Notes:
* FT Business Book of the Year: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/45ea0f60-8d…

** Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence provides a detailed exploration around the issues behind the emergence of General Purpose AI: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2…

View all my reviews

Aftershocks

The worse thing about the last two weeks has been the aftershocks.  Day after day, the floor sometimes shakes or maybe vibrates a little.  The odd creaks, and there we are, looking nervously at each other wondering if this is just an aftershock, a small earthquake or “the big one”.  At times, I am not longer sure if the earth is moving or if I am just sitting here imagining things.

We are told to expect aftershocks for the next few months.  Since the earthquake on the 11th of March, there have been hundreds of aftershocks.  Most people have alarms on their phone that are linked to the earthquake alert system.  At times, the trading floor is full of phones beeping, chirping, vibrating and trilling phones.  Everybody cranes their neck, and looks at the big TVs suspended over our desks.  All programming is interrupted with a big map of Japan and the location of the epicenter of the incoming quake.

In most cases, it would be too far or too weak to be a cause for concern.  But sometimes, the epicenter would be Chiba, or Saitama or another neighboring prefecture.  Then we wait.  After a few minutes, everybody gets back to work.  Maybe with a sigh of relief, or a little defiant giggle.  Truth be told, my nerves are shot.

Propaganda in the age of Wikileaks

Gloria Origgi, in Edge 335 states that we are leaving the information age behind and are entering a reputation age. She posits that one of the reasons for the influence Wikileaks wields in current political and social discourse is due to powerful, and reputed media organisations like the New York Times and The Guardian acting as conduits for it’s revelations.  We trust the contents of the Wikileaks secrets because of our implicit trust of these formidable media organisations.  We believe the revelations because we believe in the integrity of the Guardian or the Times.

When a reputed newspaper breaks a story, we assume that the sources have been vetted, and that the editors have double checked the allegations / revelations before publishing them.  Wikileaks, however, presents an interesting dilemma.  The contents of the leaks were uploaded by someone (presumably PFC Bradley Manning) within the US military establishment.   The behaviour of the US government (and other governments) subsequently offer some reassurance that these diplomatic cables did come from within their organisations.  Not surprisingly, “Cablegate” has become perhaps the media event of the year (or even the decade).  Hordes of commentators have descended on the Guardian website venting their spleen about the evils of the US government, and the hypocrisy of US foreign policy.

I can’t help but be a little cynical about this hoopla.  Yes, clearly some of the contents of leaks may jeopardise national (or indeed international) security.  However, I wonder how easy it would be for a government, or any other organisation to manipulate public opinion via a channel like Wikileaks.  Could Wikileaks itself be used as tool for government (or indeed corporate propaganda)?  Would it be easier for the US government to sell overt support of a South Korean invasion of North Korea given the cables published on the topic?  Would it be easier for the state department to withdraw a diplomat / intelligence agent from a tricky situation abroad now that he has been “outed” and him disappearing would look very bad for the host nation?

Yes, this is tinfoil hat territory.  I just want to convey that we should think twice before taking the contents of the Cablegate memos at face value.  Even if the leak was unintended (as it appears), it could be quite easy for a motivated organisation (government etc.) to move quickly and use it as another avenue for propaganda.

Echo Chamber

Does anybody even remember the term “Information Superhighway” any more?  Do you remember a pre-global warming, pre-divorce, skinny Al Gore and his dubious claims on inventing the Internet?  We were told about having the world’s knowledge at our finger tips. The Internet would free information and provide the most egalitarian way to get to knowledge previously limited to inhabitants of ivory towers.  But what happened?  The story of the last ten years unfolds almost like a moralistic tale. Like Midas and his golden touch or like the Genie from Arabian nights and their granting of life wishes that destroy lives.

We don’t learn any more.  We bookmark.  We don’t read any more, we skim.  We don’t discuss any more, we forward links to points, and another set of links to counter points, followed by links for the conclusion.  When we do decide to comment, it is a comment made in character, stereotypical.

We all live in an echo chamber of our stereotype.  Our voices bounce off the walls, and are magnified by those of our peers, also of our stereotype.  These voices then pour out of the mouth of the chamber and as an atonal roar that clashes with those coming out of other chambers.  We are here, shouting at one another, but not bothering to understand why or what we are shouting for.  We like shouting because it is what we do, our slogans are what define us.

Saving the American Job

Contemplating a proposal by veteran Silicon Valley leader and former CEO of Intel to help create jobs in emerging industries in the US.

I read this editorial early last month when it was published on the Bloomberg opinion pages.  It was by Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel.  It is a thought provoking, if somewhat incendiary piece.

Mr. Grove argues that the move of manufacturing jobs to low cost locations, especially in Asia, have resulted in the loss of “scaling skills”,  i.e. the ability to move from a startup to an established, market leading industry.  He worries that this will lead to a terminal disadvantage for US industries when it comes to emerging or green industries (like advanced batteries).  He suggests the US imposing a tariff on all goods that have been manufactured off-shore.  The revenue should be earmarked for supporting industries that will create jobs in the US in strategic industries.

To read such comments coming from a man whose company has benefited immensely by offshoring, and by exploiting new markets (and lower wages) abroad is shocking.  It goes to show the existential angst the current economic conditions are causing.  Slapping import tariffs on all good manufactured abroad is starting a trade war, and is naked protectionism.  None of the The US’s key trading partners would take take kindly to such a move.

What could be the possible implications of such a move?

  • It would cause a jump in the prices of imported goods.  Politically, this would be a risky move.  While people in the US have been agitating to “Take America Back”, it is difficult to see them taking a sudden jump in prices at Walmart without a murmur.
  • Lets say they go ahead, and after a couple of decades these new industries do take off.  With unilateral import tariffs, unless the goods made in the US have a huge advantage in quality or cost, there is nothing stopping competing products being created in other countries that could also have invested in new industries around the same time.
  • With the ability now to send huge amounts of data instantaneously anonymously, it would be almost impossible to protect US intellectual property abroad.  By imposing unilateral tariffs, the US would also lose political leverage, making it difficult to try and enforce US patent law abroad.
  • As the industry manufacturing our hypothetical future commodity grow, they would come up against limits of domestic consumption.  To continue growing, they would have to find markets abroad.  There are guaranteed to be retaliatory tariffs imposed on US exports.  So who will pay for these US jobs?

What Mr. Grove seems to be suggesting is a form of Mercantilism.  What was a dominant economic theory of the 18th century might not work in a world that offers a much more level playing field.

Please find Mr. Grove’s original article here on Bloomberg.

Less money, more problems..

That seems to be  Dileep Premchandran’s hypothesis in his latest entry on the Guardian Cricket website.   It should not be surprising that an eighteen year old from a deprived background falls for a couple of thousand pounds.  The most interesting comparison on the lack of money in Pakistani cricket compared to their IPL playing, bling-blinging counterparts across the Punjab border was this:

Little has changed. The £4,000 cheque Mohammad Amir received for being Pakistan’s player of the series was three times the monthly retainer he gets from the PCB. It is just over half what Ishant Sharma, India’s most exciting bowling prospect when he signed for the Kolkata Knight Riders in 2008, received for every ball he bowled in the Indian Premier League.

It probably is all down to Cricket’s most unpopular (ex) commissioner, a certain Mr. Modi.  If he hadn’t gone after the ICL, all guns blazing, there might still have been a viable way for up and coming Pakistani players to make some money, and not get distracted by shady “fixers” hanging around the hotel room.