Still looking for something to read by the pool? Here’s my list of books I read so far during 2015

July 27, 2015 Leave a comment

Sci_fi_BooksIt’s that time of year again where most people try to have a few nice days or weeks away from the humdrum of work and home responsibilities. Or if you’re from Belgium, just to get away from the horrible weather…

And if you need a bit of inspiration for which books to take, maybe my reading list of the past 6 month can help you. Caveat, it’s mostly fantasy, science fiction and related stuff.

  1. The Peripheral – William Gibson (5/5) – Every time William Gibson has gifted us with a book it’s been a treat, and The Peripheral is not different. A departure from his previous 3 books, this one is not set in his Hubertus Bigend universe, but it is a clear return to science fiction set in the future – 2 futures even. In the beginning it’s a bit hard going as Gibson freely uses made-up words to describe all kinds of things in his future, without bothering to explain what they are. The story itself is elegant, his writing electric and raw. What more do you want from a Gibson novel.
  2. The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age – Stanislaw Lem (3/5) – The book is a collection of somewhat linked short stories, the link being the fact that they’re all about the same characters, the ‘constructors’ Trurl and Klapaucius. Usually not a big fan of short stories, I liked most of these, and even though it’s a 50 years old collection of stories about robotics and computers, it didn’t feel dated. Mainly because the stories are supposed to be allegories and fables. The language used in the translation is just wildly imaginative, and makes me wonder about the original Polish. Probably not the best book to read first from Lem…
  3. Revival – Stephen King (5/5) – Somewhat of a coming of age novel (which King is so good at), spanning 5 decades. It starts with a very personal and down to earth tragedy that sets into motion a chain of events culminating in something world shattering. As is repeated throughout the book “something happened”, but I’m not going to spoil it in any way. King once again created characters that take you by the hand on their incredible journey, and, in my humble opinion, this time the end also surely delivers.
  4. Declare – Tim Powers (3/5) – A WWII/Cold War thriller rolled into a supernatural story and based around the mysterious events from the real life of communist traitor and double agent Kim Philby. The novel is obviously painstakingly researched with love for the real places and events it incorporates, that much is clear from the level of detail and lyrical prose describing them. Despite all this love and the fact that it is well written, I couldn’t help but feel like it was a serious chore getting through the 500+ pages. The first 300 pages or so everything goes really slowly as the big story is set up, but even after that too often do you get bombarded with elaborate background info or detailed minutia, probably for no other reason than that Powers researched it and kind of wanted to show off. I really liked the story and the twist he had to put on certain real life events to make them fit into the story, but it was hard work getting to the end.
  5. Bête – Adam Roberts (4/5) – A man is about to kill a cow, but that cow turns around and asks to be spared, even offers to take some kind of Turing test to prove its intelligence. The story starts when the animal right movement injects domestic animals with artificial intelligences in a bid to have animals gain equal rights as humans. Through an interesting story it asks questions such as what is an animal that can talk and where does its intelligence end and its machine intelligence begin? If this doesn’t make you want to read the novel, then it’s simply not for you. The story loses some steam towards the end, but at a mere 320 pages, the book never drags.
  6. Kill City Blues (Sandman Slim #5) – Richard Kadrey (3/5) – I like series as long as they don’t become too formulaic and are able to deliver something new. This series has been a great series overall, with this one as the weak point for me up to now. The threat level has been ramping up with every new installment, and I understand this one to be a sort of setup before going to the next level. The silence before the storm really hits so to speak. The thin plot, the rather cliché setting in this book (an abandoned mega-mall in LA infested with supernatural creatures) and the new characters just didn’t do it for me, and the way of handling the action and the dialogue started to feel a tad by the numbers. Plus it takes about half of the page count before the story finally gets underway.
  7. Mr Mercedes – Stephen King (3/5) – Let’s just say that opinions are divided on this one. This is a straight-up thriller, and after reading Joyland last year I had pretty high expectations. It details the fight between a retired cop and the deranged killer who managed to get away. It’s true there are several plot points in this novel that range from farfetched to pretty implausible, but if you can go along just for the ride, King manages to keep the battle between the 2 characters interesting until the very end. What I really liked was that King gave you the story from both sides, something not done too often before, and for that alone it’s a worthwhile read.
  8. Decline and Fall – Evelyn Waugh (4/5) – Published in 1928, the short novel is a merciless social satire on the upper crust of British society at the time. I’ve read comments, likening it to Monty Python sketches, and I can only concur. This is laugh out loud stuff that slows down and becomes somewhat more serious towards the end. Just don’t read if you believe the world should be PC…
  9. The Whispering Swarm (Sanctuary of the White Friars #1 – Michael Moorcock (2/5) – It’s been a while since Moorcock wrote anything that peaked my interest. So, imagine my enthusiasm when I, rather by accident, stumbled on this book, promising to be part 1 in a new trilogy. Part autobiography, part fictional and at first glance with some strong ties to his Multiverse this was going to be good… Unfortunately it turned out to be mostly boring. The mix of fact & fiction is intriguing, but everything is just too long-winded, repetitive, dry and frankly somewhat self-aggrandizing.

Anything you would recommend to me?

Categories: Thomas Verschueren

The rise of the Smart Machines

March 31, 2015 Leave a comment

Combine real-time analytics, context-awareness, self-learning algorithms and natural interfaces in devices and machines, and you end up with Smart Machines, capable of performing complex tasks and getting better at them as they go along, even rivaling or in many cases surpassing their human counterparts.

If you believe this to be a “futurist fantasy”, you have plenty of company, as about 60% of CEOs called it just that in a recent Gartner CEOs Survey .

And on a related track, respected scientists and entrepreneurs such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have publicly come out to warn us against the potential dangers of developing AIs.

Gartner research however firmly believes in the widespread and deep business impact that smart machines will have through 2020. Smart Machines will be one of the most technological & social disruptors to come, but the speed at which they will find adoption needs to be put in perspective, as this is one disruptive innovation where many groups will come together against it, doing their best to slow down or completely stop its use. Labor unions, citizens and consumers will protest against Smart Machines, citing safety and unemployment as their main grievances, and in doing so they will exert force on governments to strictly regulate these Smart Machines and their use.

403696-smart-machine-evolution-brant-gartner-2013

“We certainly will not approach a state of mass unemployment at any time in the near future,” said Mr. Brant, research director at Gartner. “What is also certain, however, is that many new combinations of technology — from intelligent software agents, expert systems and virtual reality assistants to software systems embedded in smart products and revolutionary new forms of robotics — will emerge and have great impacts in this decade. We won’t need to develop a full-functioning artificial brain by 2020 for smart machines to have radically changed our business models, workforce, cost structure and competitiveness.”

When market adoption becomes a shark fin instead of a bell curve

February 9, 2015 Leave a comment

In 1962, Everett Rogers wrote a book – or maybe better, the book – on the technology adoption life cycle, “Diffusion of Innovations”. Over the years it has seen tweaks or slight adaptations, but overall it remained valid.

product life cycle adoption

product life cycle adoption model

Until recently that is.

In 2014 Downes and Nunes, 2 Accenture researchers, published “Big Bang Disruption” and tried to explain how the life cycle has drastically changed.

big bang disruption life cycle

big bang disruption life cycle

The original 5 segments of Rogers have been reduced to only 2: trial users and then all the rest.

On top of that the life cycle itself has been sped up, whereby there is an almost vertical ramp up, but an equally drastic drop. This shark fin model with its many small bumps, symbolizes the time needed for innovators to get it collectively wrong several times before getting it dramatically right.

Those mantras you have been hearing the past few years, such as “fail forwards” or “fail fast and fail cheap” are what drives this model, creating those small bumps, until someone gets it right, and things take off like a rocket.

You could best compare it to the launch of a new social network; either it takes off almost overnight, or it will sputter along for a while and then die in silence.

This new reality makes it extremely hard for both companies and their marketers to create and plan viable strategies about launching products and services.

In the book “Big Bang Disruption”, the 2 authors try to set out 12 rules for surviving and even being successful in this era of the shark fin life cycle.

I’m doubtful this model will remain in place for the next 50 years, like Everett Rogers’ model did, but it does succeed in explaining and structuring the elevated degree of entropy we are currently experiencing.

Wishing you a brilliant and stylish end to 2014

December 22, 2014 Leave a comment

Usually I Photoshop a cartoon version of myself in front of the Claridge’s christmas tree, but this year you get wishes from the real deal, on both counts :-)

Happy2015

Need something to read for those approaching winter evenings? Here’s my 2nd list of (mostly) Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books I read during 2014

November 4, 2014 Leave a comment

Sci_fi_BooksAlright, with fall finally on the way, here’s my list of books I read so far in the 2nd half of 2014. I admit, the list is somewhat shorter than usual, but looking back on the past few months, I’ve really had lots of other stuff competing for my free time, so I guess reading books kinda lost out a bit. Still, it’s never about the quantity, right? Unfortunately, the quality was also a bit lacking in this batch…

  1. Unseen Academicals (Discworld novel #37) – Terry Pratchett (3/5) – Have we really already had 37 of those? That’s quite an achievement. This time it’s about the Ankh-Morporkian take on football, supporters, hooligans, and even WAGs via a detour by the fashion & modelling industry. Long gone for me are the laugh out loud moments, and although it’s all still very clever and enjoyable, it’s really become a formula that is hard to hide. So, even though I’m giving it an acceptable 3 out of 5, I will be just as happy never to read another Discworld novel again. Sorry Terry, I’m afraid this is where I finally get off this very long, and overall brilliant train.
  2. Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea – Adam Roberts (3/5) – Although some have, in my opinion at least, dismissed it a bit too quickly as a re-imagining of the classic Jules Verne story “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”, it of course is strongly connected to that book. I will not give much more than that obvious statement. Not because the book hinges on some kind of wonderful twist, but mainly because it is quite an odd story, that although relatively short manages to pack in quite a lot of stuff. For me it fell a bit short, maybe due to it’s shortness versus the scope it still tries to tackle, but mostly because, I could never really get to like any of the characters, so also never really cared deeply about what was happening to them.
  3. The Resus Chart (Laundry Files #5) – Charles Stross (4/5) – I really thought for about 30 or 40 pages that Charles Stross had jumped the shark with the Laundry Files series. I genuinely sat there reading while groaning and rolling eyes, almost ready to quit the book. And then the story made a delicious twist, restoring my belief in Mr. Stross. I’m really looking forward to number 6!
  4. The Burning Dark – Adam Christopher (3/5) – I was under the impression this was going to be a hard sci-fi horror story. And for the first big part it does deliver a great, intriguing story with great atmosphere. Then it goes off the rails and becomes something completely different. Like if you would make a mash-up of Alien and Aliens, with the former making up the first 2/3rds of the story, and then ending with a great shoot-up from the latter. Except it’s with ghosts and creepy other dimensional creatures…
  5. The City – Stella Gemmel (2/5) – Maybe the name rings a bell, as Stella Gemmel is the widow of the lamented fantasy writer David Gemmel. In her first novel she manages to create a very elaborate story, linking many diverse characters and trying to build a world. The story is ok; an ancient, reclusive, yet apparently immortal emperor rules The City. For many centuries he has waged a war with all his neighbors, creating a brutal martial society full of haves and have-nots. When some think they have a plan to finally end the war and create a better life for the oppressed citizens, an old general, thought to be long dead, becomes entangled in a web of intrigue. Sounds good, I admit, but unfortunately for Stella Gemmel, I never cared for any of the characters or the world she created. It was like reading a boring historical essay, filled with anecdotes devoid of any emotion. It was at times a chore to keep reading, and in all honesty the reveal at the end, was not really worth it.

Anything you would recommend to me?

Categories: Books Tags:

Ello, is it me you’re looking for?

September 30, 2014 Leave a comment

ElloAround the same time Facebook cranks up its insistence on using real names, and announces is has launched its Atlas advertising service, enabling it to better track 1.3 billion users’ web browsing activity across different devices (even offline), a new social network, Ello, bursts on the scene. What seems to set it apart from other social networks is its rather charming mission statement:

Your social network is owned by advertisers.

Every post you share, every friend you make and every link you follow is tracked, recorded and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold.

We believe there is a better way. We believe in audacity. We believe in beauty, simplicity and transparency. We believe that the people who make things and the people who use them should be in partnership.

We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce and manipulate — but a place to connect, create and celebrate life.

You are not a product.

It will remain to be seen how fast it can scale to a sustainable number of users in order to have any chance of gaining any kind of foothold. And also, the question of who or what is actually behind the project and how it will be funded going forward is currently also the subject of some speculation, as it turns out they do have VC backing, and critical voices are asking if, under those circumstances, it is plausible they will be able to remain true to their mission statement.

Something that I’m wondering however, is what needs to happen for people to abandon Facebook? If it isn’t obvious that Facebook does not care one iota about privacy and only seeks to monetize its users’ data, I don’t know what is. But I guess Facebook, for many, has become such a big and normal part of everyday life, it’s become pretty hard to abandon it. After all, Facebook is where you find out what’s going on with friends and family, where you get invited to parties, where you store and share photos.

I’m sure Facebook won’t last forever, but what will finally trigger its end? Will it be whether users latched on to something else (like Ello), or because, at some point, people decided they finally had enough and didn’t want to be sold anymore? But for it to be the latter reason, I really wonder how much further Facebook first has to push it…?

Need something to read for the holidays? Here’s my list of (mostly) Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books I read during 2014

July 8, 2014 Leave a comment

Summer is here.

Well in theory at least, because looking outside where it currently is about 14° Celsius and pouring with rain, you could be forgiven for having your thoughts turn to blankets and hot coco…

But, maybe you still have some holidays to come at more sunny destinations, and you’re wondering what to pack to read besides the pool… Maybe my reading list of the past 6 month can help you.

  1. The Neon Court (Matthew Swift #3) – Kate Griffin (3/5) – Book 3 in this series brings not really anything new, so read if you read the previous 2 and liked them. After this book I’ll still read book 4, but unless something new is done to the series and the characters, this series is starting to feel like it has run its course and has now settled into the “oh-no-another-big-monster-is-here-to-destroy-London” modus. I’m sure there’s plenty of people for whom that is a-ok, not for me.
  2. The Republic of Thieves (Gentlemen Bastard #3) – Scott Lynch (4/5) – The very long awaited part 3 in this series. The guy can surely create an immersive mood, and this book still brings plenty of new things to the world and the characters to maintain interest. My biggest gripe with the series is that Scott Lynch killed quite a few characters in the first book, and now seems to have had second thoughts about that, resulting in very long flashbacks telling parallel stories from when those characters were still alive… Those stories lack tension as you know the characters are safe from any harm, and they do kinda drag down the tempo for the current time story.
  3. Devil Said Bang (Sandman Slim #4) – Richard Kadrey (4/5) – Like I said for some of the books above, I like series as long as they don’t become too formulaic and are able to deliver something new. This series has been a great series overall, and I’m still curious to see where it goes after this one.
  4. Locke & Key (Trade paperback editions vol. 1 – 6) – Joe Hill (5/5) – Against the backdrop of a recent family drama, a mother and her kids move in with her brother-in-law in Keyhouse, an old mansion in Lovecraft, Massachusetts. There they get entangled in an ancient supernatural plot. For me it pressed all the right buttons, from the artwork to the characters, the little stories, as well as the overarching one of course. Really highly recommended.
  5. The Shining – Stephen King (5/5) – With the publication of Doctor Sleep, I came to the sudden realization I never actually read The Shining. Of course I have seen the Kubrick movie as well as the miniseries produced by Stephen King himself, but I didn’t want to base my expectations of the following to this iconic book on derivative versions, so I just had to first read it. I can now better appreciate why King doesn’t agree with the changes Kubrick made in his movie adaptation – I’m convinced those objections are more of a personal nature than artistic, and have everything to do with his recovery from alcoholism. Anyway, this book is a masterpiece, both from a story & character view as well as from a mastery of language point of view. Should have read this sooner, glad I still finally did.
  6. Doctor Sleep – Stephen King (4/5) – As a King novel I could have easily given this 5 out of 5 marks, because the story is great: Dan Torrance, years after The Shining, now a recovering alcoholic like his dad, works as a caregiver in a hospice and uses his diminished powers to ease the dying of the patients, until he meets a young girl with phenomenally strong powers and gets involved in a life and death fight with a “vampiric” gang of creatures traveling the US in RVs, feeding on the lifeforce of people with the Shining… The development of the Dan Torrance character is perfect and believable, but as a following to The Shining, it’s the lesser of the 2. I’m sure King could easily have written this story without it being a sequel. Still, recommended.
  7. The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack (Burton & Swinburne #1)  – Mark Hodder (3/5) – Part of the current explosion of Steampunk books, so if you’re into that, you might want to read this. The first half of the book is quite interesting as the world is built and explained. The introduction of the main characters is also done in an interesting way, but when the story is supposed to get really going, I had the feeling it got stuck in endless repetition (the book deals with time travel, so even though it was on purpose, it got tedious) . Someone should start realizing that truly a lot of books could benefit from a tough editor!
  8. Wool – Hugh Howey (3/5) – Hailed as a new hero who started out self-publishing this book and got instant fame and a multiple book deal. The story is alright, but it’s all a bit too see-through and way too black and white in its moralizing. It’s a cool concept, but hardly a harsh dystopian future story, for that it feels way too much like a fantasy allegory.
  9. By Light Alone – Adam Roberts (3/5) – What would happen if famine could be a thing of the past, simply by getting a treatment that turns your hair into a source of food capable of sustaining you through a form of photosynthesis? Apparently the uber-wealthy would shave off their hair and fill their days with eating, while the poor would lay around, growing their hair trying to get as much energy as possible. Underneath it all lays a serious comment on our current society of inequality. While that notion is interesting in itself the story has a hard time bringing it alive.
  10. Joyland – Stephen King (5/5) – Waw, the discovery of 2014 for me. Set in the 1970s it follows a student on his summer job at an amusement park where he gets confronted with the legacy of a vicious murder and the fate of a dying child. It’s a cross between a whodunit and a coming-of-age story. It was warm, emotional, exciting with a fragile and sad ending. If you like stories like Stand by Me, this is surely for you.
  11. Annihilation (Southern Reach Trilogy #1) – Jeff VanderMeer (3/5) – This 3 part series has had all kinds of descriptions and comparisons thrown at it, ranging from being likened to “Lost” to being called Lovecraftian. I guess it’s all true, but that doesn’t necessarily make it great. Still, it’s packed in a short enough book so that it never has the chance to become tedious. Color me curious enough to read number 2 soon.

Anything you would recommend to me?

Categories: Books, Thomas Verschueren Tags:
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