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 Future: A Very Short Introduction, by Jennifer M. Gidley

41724522An attempt to analyse and condense something which encompasses everything that is yet to come feels like an exercise in failure, and yet I hold in my hands a book which does just this. A wonderfully concise and brilliantly written book, The Future: A Very Short introduction by Jennifer M. Gidley takes a look at the future by travelling into the past – a literal oxymoron if ever there was one. To understand the future, says Gidley, we must look backwards, beginning with the emergence of theories of linear time in Ancient Greece. Within the book Gidley introduces the reader to the future as a concept, exploring prophecies and predictions from throughout history, discussing the potential for machine- vs human-centred futures and highlighting the reality that is ‘multiple futures’.  The future is inevitable, but our treatment of it doesn’t have to be; by exploring ‘the past of the future’ and its links with ‘present-day futures’, says Gidley, we are better prepared to create wiser futures for tomorrow.

This review was first published online for E&T Magazine 

Frankenstein: The First 200 Years by Christopher Frayling

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“If you could have been around on a single say in the historical past – which day would it have been?” This question, posed by a BBC reporter, and answered in truth by author Christopher Frayling, is the perfect frame within which to set this book. Given a choice, it is incredibly difficult to select a single moment in time. Scientists, artists, philosophers and critics will each have very different choices. History has so many possibilities, but for Frayling, the choice was simple.

The obvious answer, says Frayling, is not a day, but a night. A night filled with boredom and anguish, which ultimately lead to the creation of one of the greatest ghost stories ever told. It was a dreary evening in June 1816 when a young Mary Shelley (then Godwin) first sought to horrify her companions with a tale of science and technology gone insane, a tale that would go on to become one of the best known tales of horror ever written.

Just 18 months later on New Year’s Day 1818, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, complete with a preface by her husband Percy Shelley, was released into the world. The coming days, months, years, and now, centuries, would see this limited-edition fiction become one of the defining pillars of British culture. Frankenstein: The First 200 Years, a new and stunning hardbound production from Reel Art Press, celebrates the 200th birthday of literature’s greatest monster, by tracing its journey from fireside fiend to cultural celebrity.

The last two hundred years have seen Frankenstein’s creation break away from the paper-bound confines of the novel to stalk the stage and screens small and large, creeping into cartoons, comics and even cereal packets. The creature first snuck onto the big screen back in 1910, in a 16-and-a-half-minute ditty for the Thomas Edison Film Company, as a hideous beast with a misshapen body, twisted face and wild matted hair. Since this time, the costume changes have been many and various, occasionally adopting a somewhat ‘cuddly’ caricature afforded by the face of Herman Munster and modern-day Frankenweenie.

Within the pages of this stunning edition, the reader is taken on a journey through literary history, which includes new research on the novel’s origins, reprints of the earliest known manuscript of the creation scene, and a 90-page visual celebration of Frankenstein’s presence within popular culture.

Outside of obvious realms of literature and popular culture, Frankenstein’s exploits continue to roam – in a much less flattering light. If Mary Shelley’s novel held a message, it was surely a warning that manipulating that which you do not understand can only lead to devastation. Today, among newspaper pages constantly splashed with stories of the latest and greatest exploits in genetic engineering, nano-technology and artificial intelligence, Frankenstein’s monster often bares his ugly head.

The yellow-eyed, sallow-skinned being from Shelley’s novel, is indeed a far-cry away from any of the images we all recognise today – the bolt-necked beast made famous by Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 onscreen adaptation being the most obvious. It is somewhat telling, perhaps, that the creature itself cannot be controlled. Just as Victor Frankenstein failed to coerce his creation, Mary Shelley’s tale has proved itself to have a life of its own.

If given the chance to travel back in time, there’s no telling where you might go, but for those intrigued by what occurred on that fabled night back in 1816, the very least you should do is read this book. Frayling has created as close to a time machine as you might hope to get, revealing, not just the humble origins of history’s greatest monster, but a thoroughly fascinating breakdown of all his exploits since.

This review was first published online for E&T Magazine 

‘What to do when machines do everything’ by Malcolm Frank, Paul Roehrig and Ben Pring

There are plenty of predictions out there for what a future world filled with artificially intelligent machines might look like, from utopian visions of technological miracles and marvels, to dystopian predictions of man enslaved by robotics. In a world where such systems are becoming the norm, how do these visions relate to reality?

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Last week, I was struggling with a problem with my hard drive when a member of IT came over to help. He saw a book, ‘What to Do When Machines Do Everything’, lying on my desk and smiled. “What will we do?” he asked, “go on holiday!” I countered this argument quite quickly – “but you won’t have a job, how will you afford to go on holiday?” I asked. “When machines do everything, everything will be free,” he assured me.

It’s a nice thought, but perhaps a little optimistic.

Whatever your opinion on artificial intelligence and automated machinery, there is no doubt that these products and systems are now a reality. The last few years have seen many intelligent systems escape from the experimental cages of the past, outgrow industrial testing labs, and enter the world of work. For some, that’s exciting, for others terrifying, but for all, it’s inevitable. This new publication from Wiley, written by thought leaders from IT services company Cognizant, takes a closer look at the rise of intelligent machinery and robotics within the industrial sector, to analyse how such systems are revolutionising the world of work, and how businesses and industries can ensure they make the most of the situation.

As leaders of Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work, authors Malcolm Frank, Paul Roehrig and Ben Pring are well placed to discuss this subject. After three years of intense research, and no doubt a little bit of philosophical head-scratching, they have produced a book for thought leaders and business owners at all levels, which serves as an action plan for success in the new era of industrial production. This isn’t a look at what might happen in the next 25 years, they assure the reader, but rather an in-depth look at what will happen in the next five. It’s a book for those who want to make the most of the digital revolution, to help them to survive and thrive in a world where machines do everything.

According to the authors, we are living in a time of the ‘know-it-all’ business – brought on by systems of intelligence or ‘thinking machines’ – in which leaders and managers can and should have a continuous awareness of what is going on in the company’s operation. The primary means of the digital industrial revolution is data, a resource that is cheap to gather, cheap to distribute, infinite, unique, exponentially valuable, and as such far superior to those that came before. Data has the potential to transform workplaces and increase productivity, but must be handled carefully.

With this in mind, the authors encourage industry leaders to think practically. While it is OK to take inspiration from the Facebooks, Amazons, Netflixes and Googles of the world, it is important to remember the role of industry as fundamentally different from those companies born of the digital revolution. Complete digitalisation is an impossibility within industry, a sector which will always require processes, systems and factory floors. The key to success is in careful blending of digital and industrial.

Taken at face value, ‘What to Do When Machines do Everything’ is a helpful ‘how to’ guide to succeed in a world of automation, intelligent systems and robotics, which outlines what you should do, why, and what will happen if you don’t.

According to the authors, the good news, or perhaps bad news where my friendly IT technician is concerned, is that when machines do everything, there will still be plenty for us humble humans to do.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

 

‘To Pixar and Beyond: My Unlikely Journey with Steve Jobs to Make Entertainment History’ by Lawrence Levy

 

The feature films churned out by Hollywood studios today are a far cry from the pioneering motion pictures of the late 19th century. Technology is often highlighted as a key driver for innovation and in no sector is this more evident than in entertainment. Whether you want to look at improvements in video-capture devices, or changing film-editing processes and software capabilities, developments across film and entertainment are largely driven by developments in technology.

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The story related in ‘To Pixar and Beyond’ is a perfect example of the relationship between technology and innovation. While the majority of people will have heard of Pixar, and know of the company’s wide success in the film industry, few may be aware of its surprisingly humble origins. Written by Lawrence Levy, the former chief financial officer of Pixar, this book tells the tale of how a tiny, struggling start-up went on to revolutionise the animated film industry.

The story begins with Levy, a Harvard-trained lawyer and Silicon Valley executive, receiving an unexpected phone call from Apple founder Steve Jobs attempting to persuade him to join his latest venture, which at that point was on the verge of failure. This small, little-known software-development firm had begun creating computer-animated short films to advertise its work, and was now working towards creating the first ever computer animated feature film – a family-friendly adventure featuring toys that come to life. Levy recalls being struck by an odd mix of excitement and scepticism at hearing Pixar’s story, feelings that were all the more confused by a visit to the company’s dingy headquarters next to an oil refinery in Richmond Point, San Francisco.

Levy compares Pixar to the native Ohlone tribe, who roamed the land where Silicon Valley resides long before business took ownership of the area. Traditions capable of sustaining a tribe for thousands of years had been swept away by a wave of innovation. In the modern day, Levy says, those who can’t keep up with progress go the same way, becoming artefacts left behind. Outwardly Pixar had the appearance of a company that could be easily outstripped by its competitors, but among the rickety armchairs and stained ceiling tiles was a company that harboured a wealth of creative talent.

Of course, we know how the story pans out. There will be few people who have not heard of the first film to emerge from Pixar’s humble offices. In fact, ‘Toy Story’, as it came to be called, was not just successful, it went on to be the biggest film of 1995 – a feat virtually unheard of in the animated film world – and, at the time, became the third biggest grossing animated film of all time. A generation of millennials have now grown up alongside Toy Story’s beloved characters Buzz and Woody and will no doubt have shed a tear when the final film in the franchise was released in 2010.

Regardless of what you know about Pixar’s journey and subsequent success, though, Levy manages to make the story legitimately exciting. Joining the Pixar team was a huge decision, but this was really just the beginning. Once on board Levy and Jobs had a mountain to climb, in committing to transform Pixar into a company focused solely on animated feature films, and leaving behind the software sales and other piecemeal activites, which just barely kept the corporation afloat.

This book, like Pixar’s story, is truly remarkable. At times it reads like a novel, but informs like a documentary, advises like a self-help guide and inspires like any unexpected success story. Above all, the story is inspirational and should serve as encouragement for people wanting to innovate. Pixar’s story is rare, but not impossible. Innovation is out there, waiting to be discovered. As Levy says, creativity is a “dance on the precipice of failure”. There are no shortcuts, no formulas and no well-worn paths to victory, but the results speak for themselves.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

‘Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America’ by Michael Z Newman

A fascinating historical analysis of the emergence and development of video games in America.

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Retro video games have developed a real cult following over the years. In a time when on-screen graphics are frighteningly real, the simple, blocky pictures and monotonic themes speak of an era when consoles, and times, were simpler. Or were they?

Each time a Space Invaders remake is announced, there are more than a few people who insist on focusing on the negative side of our digital friends. In Atari Age, author Michael Z Newman looks at the impact of early video games on the American culture they grew from, as well as their effects, both positive and negative, on society. The history unveiled by Newman is remarkably complex – an evolution in content, design and public opinion.

The story begins in penny arcades, where leather-capped youths lined up for the likes of the fortune teller and peep show, before progressing swiftly along to the days of pinball’s reign. The emergence of video games and their eventual move into the American home, Newman says, was a process of evolution which began within the arcade.

While penny arcades and pinball soon fell by the wayside, video arcades gained popularity, evolving from a media seen as unreliable, due to their liability to break down and difficulty to fix, to one which inspired, excited and enthused American youths. Indeed, arcade games became such an important aspect of popular culture that, during the height of the game’s popularity, a single establishment in Piccadilly Circus is said to have had 10 Space Invaders machines all in a row and no doubt constantly in use.

To explain their popularity, Neman points to the adaptive nature of the video game. Unlike pinball, a video game gets harder as a player gets better, and thereby encourages greater investment. Indeed, the medium itself continued to adapt to the point where it soon outgrew arcades, a feat that pinball and penny slots never achieved, and made its home right in the heart of the American family. With the release of the Magnavox Odyssey and Pong and 1972, the family television became the new arcade.

As video games evolved, so too did public opinion. Whereas games seem to have developed almost naturally, changes in societal understanding have been far more complicated. The Magnavox Odyssey was originally seen as a device for turning the TV in a participatory experience, but this idea was quickly joined by fears that spending too much time playing games could be harmful. This is a swing we have continued to experience today, as games have evolved to be more ‘active’, but still bear the yoke of technological fear.

Using original marketing and advertising materials, Newman weaves an image of a two-way development of video games and public opinion. The book highlights the ever-changing face of media in the eyes of the American public, as it moved from an enjoyable medium, to something to fear, and back again. Newman’s technological timeline says as much about the society that video games emerged in as it does about power of the medium itself.

There is something nostalgic – or is it regretful – about this book, as though you are viewing the past through sepia-tinted glasses. The pages conjure up images of American families huddled round the comforting glow of the TV, or, perhaps the dusty grey screens editorialised in George Orwell’s 1984.

This is a book for those fascinated by sociological viewpoints of American society, but will likely sit well with fans of retro video games, if only for the novelty of 1970s gaming advertorial.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine