Big Data: A Very Short Introduction, by Dawn E. Holmes

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A very short introduction to a very big subject, Big Data: A Very Short Introduction by Dawn E. Holmes is arguably the most topical of this book series. Big data is everywhere, and not just in the sense that it is constantly being gathered and amalgamated to carry out all manner of market-based and statistical analysis – it is also an immensely overused buzzword, present everywhere from the daily news to popular culture, and all points between. This very short introduction is perfect for anyone who is a little bit baffled by the very concept of big data. Holmes introduces the subject in a format that is both concise and manageable, drawing on the fields of statistics, probability and computer science to illustrate the power of big data in everyday life, the associated security risks of such information falling into the wrong hands, and the issues surrounding the use of big data by companies and businesses today.

This review was first published online for E&T Magazine

Projects: A Very Short Introduction, by Andrew Davies

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In this Very Short Introduction Andrew Davies delves into the world of projects. It may sound like a dry subject, but the history of projects is nothing short of fascinating – and a very long history it is too. By definition, a project is any sort of collaborative mission planned to achieve a particular aim, a temporary measure with a limited lifespan. Throughout history mankind has used projects to reform and transform the natural world, creating innovative spaces for people to work, live and play. Throughout the course of this very short introduction Davies references some of the greatest projects of all time, including examples such as the Erie Canal and the Apollo Moon landing, to highlight how different projects are managed and organised to cope with the changing conditions and immense uncertainties unveiled within any form of breakthrough innovation. Moving forward, Davies presents his own ideas for how future projects can be organised to best address the challenges of modern post-industrial societies. If you are considering a career in project management or are already involved in one or more projects and want to know how to improve the system then let this book become your bible. Projects: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Davies offers a veritable goldmine of insights, anecdotes and analysis of the very basics of project management, showing how it is done, and advising on how it can be done better.

This review was first published online for E&T Magazine 

The Return of the Young Prince – A.G. Roemmers

A few months ago I came into work to see a news story left on my desk. It was inconspicuous, a small sheet of thin paper roughly torn out of a little pamphlet, and it told me they The Little Prince was coming back. The little golden-haired boy whose story opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking had touched another author enough to be brought back to life.

Then, one evening this October as the weather was just starting to turn, I was walking out from South Kensington tube station when I passed small, independent book shop, lit up against the coming dark with the most wonderful display of hardback books – he had arrived.

28957290Those of you who have read my blog a lot might know of my love affair with The Little Prince. I love French translations, and this one was so wonderfully magical and childish that it took me back to innocent place in the very far reaches on my memory. The golden-haired boy of Exupery’s tale holds a firm spot in my heart, and the idea of seeing him again filled me with so much joy.

I approached the book with a certain amount of caution, aware that it could so easily fall short of my rather high expectations – The Little Prince is a rather hard act to follow. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t have a few reservations while I was reading the book – there were the invariable comparisons to the original – but while I found it difficult at first after some time I realised that the book needed to be different. After all the original book is not just the story of The Little Prince himself, it is the story of the Aviator – that is, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – and how his life was touched by The Little Prince. In the same way, The Return of the Young Prince is a tale of how The Little Prince touched A.G. Roemmers.

“I think this planet would be a lovely place if everyone on it greeted each other with a smile when they met”

In The Return of the Young Prince, a solo driver, setting out on an expedition across the mystical land of Patagonia, finds a young, starving teenager asleep at the side of the road – none other than The Little Prince, now grown, who has returned to earth in search of his friend the Aviator. The pair embark upon a journey of a lifetime, the man with a destination in mind, and The Young Prince, as he is now known, hoping that along the way he will find what he is looking for. The Young Prince and the driver speak, they are philosophical, quizzical, educational and at times humorous, the conversations passing between the pair serving to highlight, as in the original, the wonderful difference between the adult and juvenile brain, and that there are things in life that you cannot put a price on.

“I can tell you with certainty that your friend gave you the loveliest sheep in the world – the one that you imagined in your fantasy, the only one you could look after and that could go with you to your little planet. Didn’t you enjoy his company as you watched the sunsets? Didn’t you go to him in the night so that he wouldn’t feel alone and that you too wouldn’t feel so alone? Didn’t you think that he belong to you because you had tames him and that you belonged to him? There’s no doubt that he was more real, more alive, than the one you saw in the photograph, because that one was just a sheep, whereas the one inside the box was your sheep.”

There is so much I could say about this book, so many anecdotes I would love to pick apart and ponder over the hidden metaphors and morals. There are so many messages one could take from the story, though, that it would be unfair of me to do so and to taint your own experience of the book. Assuming of course that you are willing to give the book the time of day – I thoroughly recommend it.

It’s important to approach the book with an open mind. Do I prefer it to the original? Of course not. It’s a very different book, but while it changes some of the themes of the original, it does not detract from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s work. This is a book which speaks of how The Little Prince touched the life of the author, a man who has dedicated years of his life into researching and studying Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The book does not try to pick up where Antoine de Saint-Exupéry left off. Rather, just like The Little Prince, it serves as a tale told by a man whose life was changed by his encounter with the golden-haired child of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s past.

 

The Power – Naomi Alderman

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Equality, prosperity and power are just some of the aims of feminists past and present – but what would a world controlled by women actually look like? In her fourth novel, author Naomi Alderman inverts traditional gender roles to create a world where women quite literally hold all the power and men tremble at their feet.

Love it or hate it, utopian and dystopian fiction has a lot to say about how people live their lives and the desires, dreams and fears that lurk under the covers of society. Dystopic works throughout the 20th century have explored totalitarian states, brainwashing, societal complacency and overpopulation. They reflect societal fears of a future in which too much power has been lost to the state, through the wonderful world of science fiction.

This genre suits feminist complaints by questioning the conventional exercise of power between the sexes, often delving into frustrations of women in a patriarchal society. Previous works explored the prospect of women-led civilisations in which gender roles are reversed or worlds where women live alone, having somehow discovered the secret to asexual reproduction.

There is a reason you don’t get many all-male utopias, but I’ve often wondered why there aren’t more novels that explore what a world would be like where women not only ruled, but ruled with power. So many science-fiction novels strived to illuminate societal inequality through exaggeration and role reversal, or the creation of purer, softer societies where women rule each other with soft hands, but I have yet to come across a book which inverts the status to devastating effect.

‘The Power’ is just such a novel.

Naomi Alderman’s latest novel is a manuscript written 5,000 years in the future, documenting the rising power of a female elite. The story begins with the ‘Day of the Girls’, when teenage girls across the world wake with a strange new power. It starts as a subtle throbbing sensation between the collarbones and crackles across the skin, filling the air with electrostatic discharge and the smell of rain and rotten fruit, before emerging as a spark of light from the tips of the fingers.

What would the world look like if men were afraid of women rather than women being frightened of men?

A slight warning, while not fully divulged in this review, the book contains one or two themes that some readers might find disturbing.

Through the guise of a fictional future researcher, Alderman follows the stories of four characters and how they are affected as the world begins to change. We meet Roxy, a tough, foul-mouthed daughter of a London crime lord who is out to seek revenge; Allie, a dual-heritage girl from Jacksonville who, having suffered unspeakable abuse at the hands of her foster father, rebrands herself as charismatic faith-leader Mother Eve; Margot, the aspiring New England Governor along with her confused daughter Jocelyn; and Tunde, a plucky Nigerian journalist who strives to uncover the ugly truth behind the rising female power.

‘Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women – with babies to protect from harm – have had to become aggressive and violent.’

A few videos emerge across social media platforms showing girls seemingly electrocuting men with their hands. The initial reaction is one of disbelief, but as more and more begin to appear, society is forced to attempt to address this strange new phenomenon. As childish tussles give way to deadly brawls and schools are forced to begin gender segregation, the very fabric of society unravels and young women are recruited to fight a bitter battle between the sexes that ravages Eastern Europe.

In Alderman’s present, electricity is no longer a thing of convenience, but a power to be held within the hands of women, to throw off the shackles of oppression. The future, however, is anything but bright, and all thoughts of equality are thrown to the wind. Ideas of a softer, more maternal society give way to hordes of women who rule with iron fists, as men are assigned their place on the bottom rungs of the ladder, forced into submission as slaves to the female race.

The storyline is complex and multi-layered, presenting a future where women have forgotten the male-dominated times of the past – the systems overthrown within the main body of text – and men are thought to be the fairer sex. This book is so much more than the latest attempt at a feminist dystopia. It is refreshing and insightful, combining a gripping storyline alongside an interesting analysis of societal ideas about equality and fairness within gender roles.

This review was first published on online for E&T magazine.

Head in the Cloud – William Poundstone

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What’s the point in knowing anything when facts are so easy to look up? In this new release from Oneworld Publications, William Poundstone sheds light on the importance of knowledge, even when Google is just a stone’s throw away.

It is often said that we are living in an information age. Gone are the days of trawling through text books and library archives to find the material to complete your latest homework assignment. The internet possesses all the information you could ever need – and then some. Pick up your smartphone or connect to your computer and you have a wealth of data available at your fingertips. But while it’s true that it is incredibly easy to look up facts on Google, it’s not so easy to remember any of them. Some have argued that having such a wealth of information available to us is making us stupid.

In his new book, ‘Head in the Cloud: The Power of Knowledge in the Age of Google’, William Poundstone turns this theory on its head. Being better connected doesn’t necessarily mean we are better informed and the internet is not making us stupid, he argues. Rather, it is making us less aware of what we do not know. We’re living, Poundstone believes, in the golden age of rational ignorance. People are more interested in the lives of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West than bothering to learn who painted the Mona Lisa and millennials use acronyms such as BTDTGTTAWIO (been there, done that, got the t-shirt and wore it out), but are unable to recall the single word uttered by the raven in Edgar Allen Poe’s famed poem.

So what does being well informed actually mean? Does it really matter?

Speak to any self-proclaimed gamer and you will likely tap into a wealth of information that’s missing from the mind of the average Joe. Perhaps you don’t have a clue what processor lurks within your PC, or how to overclock the latest Nvidia graphics card, and why would you? Unless gaming happens to feature high on your list of priorities, you’ll probably never need to know this random information.

Equally, some of you will have got through life just fine without ever having known the catchphrase of Poe’s raven. If someone was to ask you who invented Post-It notes, what year Tinder was developed, or what the fastest land mammal on earth is, you could retrieve the answer from the cloud within a fraction of a section of clicking ‘search’ on Google. This poses the question: ‘What’s the point of knowing anything when facts are so easy to look up?’

Interestingly, it turns out that the benefits of staying well-informed extend much further than being everyone’s go-to teammate in the monthly pub quiz. Poundstone reports results of internet surveys analysing the rate of public knowledge, with outcomes suggesting that better informed individuals are, on the whole, healthier, happier and quite significantly wealthier. Not only this, but factual knowledge is heavily correlated with personality traits, including political opinion. Did you know, for example, that those who are able to locate a country on a map are less likely to be in favour of invading it? This is just the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to ill-informed voters.

‘Head in the Cloud’ is hilarious, humbling and brutally honest, and will likely make you doubt yourself, and everyone around you. This book is not merely a declaration of the woes of an ill-informed public, it also serves to highlight the benefits of broadening your horizons, offering insight and advice on how to best use todays media to stay informed. If you take only one thing away from this book, let it be the knowledge that there is no such thing as irrelevant information and that you could probably benefit from a little more time spent with an atlas, encyclopaedia and Oxford English Dictionary.

This review was first published in print for E&T magazine

Fluke: The maths and myths of coincidences – Joseph Mazur

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Whether surprising, creepy, or downright weird, we all love to hear about coincidences, but just how usual are these seemingly uncanny events that so often creep into our daily lives? In this new release from Oneworld Publications Joseph Mazur aims to find out by delving into the mathematics behind coincidence.

Picture this: you are sitting in a café in Agios Nikolaos on the island of Crete when you hear a familiar laugh at a table nearby. You look over and lock eyes with your own brother. You had no idea he would be there, and he is just as surprised to see you. Of all the places in the entire world, what are the chances that you two have ended up in the same place, at the same time, seemingly unbeknownst to one another? It seems hugely unlikely, and yet this is exactly what happened to author – and coincidence enthusiast – Joseph Mazur, back in 1968. Uncanny isn’t it?

This story is just the kind of thing the average mind laps up with delight. Coincidences make magnificent stories, be it a crazy tale of pure luck that unfurled just because you happened to be in the right place at the right time, a thrilling near miss, or a series of hugely unfortunate events. Tell a crowd a story of coincidence and they will response with surprise and wonder. Yet far from being unusual, coincidences are actually fairly commonplace. In fact, even the finest coincidence can be explained as mathematically predictable.

Of course, coincidences are not solely of the ‘uncanny’ variety. On any given day, we encounter a stunning variety of factors that dictate the path our lives will follow, and a five second change in routine could see you meet the love of your life, or get crushed to death by a falling flowerpot. The ‘what ifs’ of life fill everyone’s existence, with even the most logical mind susceptible to obsessing over the smallest factor which could hold the key to changing the course of history. You could spend your life trying to understand coincidences that govern life, but as Mazur’s beloved Uncle Herman once put it: “Everything that happens just happens because everything in the world just happened.”

In Fluke: The maths and myths of coincidence, author Joseph Mazur attempts to demystify the mathematics that dictate coincidence, to show the reader that if there is any likelihood that something could happen, no matter how small, it is bound to happen to someone at some time. After all, in terms of population, the world is a really, somewhat inconceivably huge place.

Through a delightfully written collection of some of the seemingly strangest coincidences, we learn that it is possible for a person to win the lottery four times, fans of plum pudding move in similar circles, and, in the case of George Washington at least, dreams really do come true. Mazur combines stories of coincidence with practical mathematical methods of appraising the likelihood of events occurring, exploring the nature of coincidence frequency to explain why they happen, and more importantly, why we are still so surprised by them.

The key to understanding coincidences is in mathematics, but the author concedes that there could be an element of fate in any situation, some larger entity at work governing the coincidence that we encounter throughout our lives. After all, it sometimes feels good to believe that there is a grand plan governing that which we cannot explain, and no one wants to believe that the coming together of soulmates is dictated by maths. What’s more, when you write a book on coincidences, you notice more than ever, Mazur muses, after having accidentally vacuumed up page 2072 in his 2262 page dictionary. The very page he would later need to look up the word serendipity. Now what are the chances of that?

This review was first published on online for E&T magazine.

Only Planet – Ed Gillespie

I wouldn’t call myself a climate enthusiast – mainly because I find the term itself a bit troubling – but low-carbon energy and sustainability are high up my list of work-related interests. As I find myself creeping towards middle age, I am increasingly concerned by the world we may be preparing for future generations.

Gillespie’s talk didn’t offer any earth-shattering revelations, but it was humbling and thought-provoking, serving to highlight just how terrifyingly unknown our path really is. Our future on Earth, Gillespie said, is “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous” – no one can know what will happen to the world as temperatures increase. They are rising, though, despite what climate change denialists might say, and something needs to be done about it.

“Climate change will see a displacement of people that is going to be biblical.”

There are a whole host of factors contributing to changes taking place across the world, but rooted at the core of all of these is consumption. Analysis shows that consumer spending and GDP have almost doubled since 1970, while life satisfaction has stayed the same. We are, however, seeing a strange shift in spending habits in some cases, where people are encouraged to opt for low-carbon alternatives using the most bizarre and contradictory of methods. A perfect example is Tesco encouraging customers to buy low-energy lightbulbs in return for air miles – somewhat defies the point, don’t you think?

“Our approach to climate change is like turning up to an earthquake with a dustpan and brush.”

We are suffering, Gillespie proposed, from the so-called bystander effect, a strange situation where, when there are a lot of people involved in a particular problem, the average person just hopes that someone else will do something about it, rather than taking matters into their own hands. You’ve probably done it before – how much do you really think your own carbon footprint matters? It’s everyone’s problem, though, and it will take combined efforts to find a solution.

As an environmental entrepreneur, Gillespie has undoubtedly gone above and beyond what the average Joe could achieve in a lifetime. He founded sustainability firm Futerra and sits as a non-executive director for Zero Carbon Food. He is also a London Sustainable Development Commissioner, an investor in Foodtrade and has helped fund numerous eccentric and sustainable business models.

It’s a crazy amount of work, and no one is expecting everyone to commit their lives to combatting climate change, but the message is to do something, rather than waiting for someone else to do it. One of the easiest positive choices we can make in the fight against climate change is a choice to curb our own consumption. In fact, I think Gillespie’s most impressive feat, and indeed the one we can take the most inspiration from, is giving up flying.

In his talk at Savoy Place, Gillespie recounted what he saw as the hypocrisy in preaching climate change while still opting for the quick, easy method of travel that is flying. “I couldn’t justify it,” he said. “So I gave it up.”

Giving up flying doesn’t mean giving up travel, however.

In 2007, Gillespie embarked on an epic year-long round-the-world trip, opting for slow trains, cargo ships and body-filled buses over aviation. His first book, Only Planet, the story of this remarkable journey, was published by Wild Things Publishing in 2014.

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A round-the-world trip without planes – how does that work? Obviously, after listening to this enlightening talk, and vowing to do more to reduce my carbon footprint, I had to find out for myself.

The book begins at the end, with Gillespie and his girlfriend Fiona on the last leg of their trip, playing table tennis with Vadim, an ex-heavyweight Ukrainian boxer, and the steward of the Horncap, the cargo ship that was their refuge above the oily black waters of the Sargasso Sea. Amid anecdotes spouted from mouths of cargo-ship cruisers from the bar side, Gillespie recounts his reasons for setting out on his extraordinary journey: to experience the voyage itself, not just the destination.

Forsaking planes and their associated destructive carbon emissions, we’d set out to rediscover the joy of travelling though the world, not just over it. We’d wanted to experience the intimate transition of landscape, culture, people and language, soak up the sights sounds and smells of the journey and not just bunny-hop around the globe in an aluminium sausage.

Over the next 300 pages, the reader is taken all the way from the Bay of Biscay, to Puerto Limon in Costa Rica, experiencing culture, practices and locals far removed from the blinding white cliffs of Dover. Gillespie is feasted upon by bed-bugs in Prague, drinks fermented yaks’ milk in Mongolia, and receives the gift of a large pink sausage from a Chinese gentleman upon the waves of the Bohai sea. Border arrests and drug searches do little to impede the travel – with little to no onward plan, what’s wrong with a little communication with the locals? However intrusive it may be.

This isn’t just a book about travel, though. The central running theme is that of sustainability. Throughout the journey, Gillespie delves into the philosophy of often slow, low-carbon travel by reconnecting with the communities in the countries he travels through. In just over a year, Gillespie and Fiona covered more than 40,000 miles and passed through 31 countries. They discovered the impact of over-consumption in the furthest corners of the earth, from the effect of the new, harsh winters on the nomadic people in the deserts of Mongolia, to the over-fishing of tuna in the South China Sea.

At its heart a book where the often-conflicting worlds of sustainability and travel meet, Only Planet serves to do more than whet the appetite of the wannabe traveller or so-called climate enthusiast. Liberally illustrated with dramatic photography and awash with the most hilarious of first-person anecdotes, the book shows just how far removed we have become from the traditions of community and experience, swept away in a sea of over-consumption and instant gratification. A truly inspirational and riveting read – with the occasional spelling mistake it has to be said – this book will likely change the way you look at travel, from both an ecological and spiritual point of view.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine.