Diary of a Void (****)
Shibata is the only female employee in her workplace and also the newest. She quickly realizes that she is expected to do all those things none of her male colleagues are expected to do, like clearing and washing the dirty coffee mugs from a meeting room. One day, she suddenly announced that she could not do all that since she was pregnant, as it made her nauseous.
Suddenly, everything changed for her as she started enjoying all the privileges of being a pregnant employee. Other people picked up her dirty jobs. She could leave work early to attend pregnancy classes. She maintained a public diary of her pregnancy and formed acquaintances with other pregnant women. Gradually, what was a big lie became part of her reality. Of course, there was no baby, and she returned to her old job after a year of maternity leave.
What is most wonderful and refreshing is how Shibata treats this lie so amorally. There is never any hint of guilt, and by not being guilty, she mocks the prevalent societal attitudes we hold toward the noble act of bringing a baby into this world. Whenever any character shows reverence and sympathy towards her state, she mocks it simply by not being guilty about the lie.
Beyond the main story, we also see the sense of desolation of a single woman in contemporary Japanese society. It reminded me of the characters in many of Mieko Kawakami's recent novels. This is a remarkable debut novel, with much more to expect from this writer.
Energy and Civilization: A History (****)
Our rate of energy consumption is closely correlated with our civilization. It started low when we hunted and foraged for food. With agriculture, it increased and continued to increase with each new innovation. In the last few centuries, once we learned to use coal and petroleum, the rates have skyrocketed, and as a side effect gave us global warming. This is a book that does an excellent accounting of this journey.
It is not a juicy book. In fact, it is as dry as it gets, full of numbers and calculations. But it is a juicy book for people like me who like thinking in terms of numbers. The author effectively connects our entire history in terms of energy use, and it is a fascinating story. Don't expect any emotions from the author, though. He avoids it like a plague, except when characters like Stalin or Mao get into the story. That's the only time he could not hide his prickly emotions.
The Myth of Artificial Intelligence: Why Computers Can’t Think the Way We Do (***)
Larson, Erik J.
It says something about a field when a book written just about two years ago already feels dated. This book was published in early 2021, about a year before OpenAI stole the limelight by opening up its Large Language Model, ChatGPT, to the general public. However, that very event makes this book so much more relevant today.
Undoubtedly, the performance of the new crop of LLMs is surprising and spectacular, and it makes us believe that we are so much closer to General Artificial Intelligence, one that can mimic human thinking in every respect. At least, that is the general sentiment in the popular imagination. This book reminds us why such thinking is incorrect and dangerously misleading. We often tend to project a technology linearly, thinking if it made this much progress in the last five years, where will it be in another ten? That reasoning is as faulty as extrapolating the speed of an airplane after watching the progress during the first twenty years of flight. This book reminds us that neural nets have fundamental limitations, and this is not the path toward general intelligence.
However, the author did not foresee some of the amazing things this technology could achieve. For example, he did not see that a deep-learning model could become a flawless and natural speaker of the English language, and the recent LLMs have achieved that status. He also could not imagine that this technology would pass many of the intelligence tests that were proposed to extend the famous Turing test. I would love to hear what he has to say about these achievements.
In his zeal to prove the inadequacy of the inductive approach, he suggested some examples which are weak. He used the famous paradox raised by Bertrand Russel. A turkey raised on a farm gets fed every morning, and based on inductive thinking, it starts to believe that it will live forever, being fed by its keeper. But then, instead of being fed on a Christmas morning, it gets slaughtered. Russel and this author use it to illustrate the weakness of inductive reasoning. However, I don't believe that is a fair judgment of intelligence because most humans in a similar situation would reach similar conclusions based on their past history. Deductive and inductive reasoning is what we use most of the time, and we use abductive reasoning when we must. In fact, the success of recent LLMs shows that a complex inductive model can approximate some rudimentary abductive reasoning.
The author also claims that we have made no progress toward a suitable model of the human mind. While it is true that we have a very long way to go, there are a few promising proposals today, and one of them may lead towards a theory of human thinking. Therefore, unlike this author, I am not as skeptical about the emergence of truly intelligent machines in the near future. I do agree with him that statistical deep-learning models alone will not take us there. That is, adding more machine power will not make these machines truly intelligent, even though they may emulate many intelligent behaviors to a large extent.
Language Families of the World (*****)
I think one of the most universal interests we all share is an interest in our own body. A close second could be our language. Anyone more than monolingual often wonders about the similarities and dissimilarities between the languages we know. If you are one of those people, I bet you will find this audio lecture incredibly interesting. The lecturers take you on a riveting world tour of all of our language families with fascinating audio examples. However, if you imagine it will be a dry academic lecture, then you will be pleasantly surprised by the wit and humor of Professor McWhorter. I strongly recommend this lecture series to everyone.
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (*****)
Bird, Kai *
Anyone can guess why I chose to read this book and why now. I started it a little before I saw the film, and my intention was to read it first. However, then I realized that by the time I finished it, the film could be gone from the theaters. I was wrong again. I watched it more than two weeks ago, and I just finished reading it, but the film's box office has anything but cooled down.
The film, as you can imagine, is a condensed version of the book. After all, it is impossible to cover all the details of a 700 page, fact-filled book. Therefore, reading the book first would have been helpful to fully comprehend the film, but they were independently enjoyable, though that is not the adjective I wanted to use, experiences.
The power of this book is in laying out all the facts that can be known about this moment in history and all the characters that played any role, without necessarily interpreting it for the reader. Most of the moral interpretation is left up to us. It makes us realize that people are far more complex than we would like to see. There is not a single character in the book that has a clean, linear character. Throughout the story, we encounter these complex characters being thrown into history's one of the biggest moral dilemmas. There is no simple right or wrong position. It also constantly reminded me that right and wrong in history is a time-based notion. Our moral positions today are most likely to change over time. Therefore, it is extremely hard to judge historical characters without considering the times they lived in. Looking back, almost anyone who ever lived may seem morally guilty.
A great read!
AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future (*)
Lee, Kai-Fu *
I had a lot of expectations when I picked this book, but ultimately it was deeply disappointing. The only positive thing about it is its innovative mixing of short fictional narratives with non-fiction prose. But beyond that, it was mostly rather poor. The ten short stories were mediocre at best. The narratives around these stories come from an AI expert, justifying the vision of AI in the year 2041. Telling the future when things are changing so rapidly is risky business. So, no one expects the writer to get it right. But his visions are naive, over-simplistic, and absurdly optimistic, to a point where continuing to read it was a chore. I finished it only so that I can feel confident about my opinion of it.
The Climate of History in a Planetary Age
It is an extremely thought-provoking book, but I generally avoid commenting about books written by close friends. Dipesh is too close to me, personally, for me to be objective.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (*****)
It had the same magical impact as Tom Sawyer, and I didn't regret reading it again. That was a time when slavery was the norm, and the author portrayed the cruelty and absurdity of it through the adventures of two boys. It is a light-hearted tale, told with great wit and humor, but through it all, we get a clear picture of that world, far more poignant than a serious narrative.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (*****)
I first read Tom Sawyer when I was thirteen, growing up in Calcutta. I remember I loved it then, but I have very little recollection of why. The only section of the book I remembered was where Tom and Becky, his classmate and heartthrob, got lost in an elaborate cave system. I remember my feeling of envy that this young couple could have their time alone when my reality was to grow up in a place where personal space was unheard of.
As I said many times before, I generally avoid rereading any book I loved as a child, and the second reading is most often disappointing and tends to erase the beautiful memory of reading it earlier. I prefer to preserve my pleasant memories. But now and then, I break my own rule and take the risk of rereading. This time I was not disappointed.
Reading it now, when I am a little more familiar with the place (Missouri, next to the Mississippi River, a place I have visited many times), though less so with the time (1840s), it felt both very remote and close at the same time. It made me wonder what kind of magic could make this place and time relatable to a boy growing up in a congested city halfway around the world. What is this universality that cuts across cultures and time?
The physical world of Tom Sawyer has little in common with the world of my childhood or the world I live in today, but the desires, dreams, aspirations, fears, and fantasies of little boys are probably fundamentally the same. The genius of this book is to capture that so brilliantly that it remains relevant even today. If you have not read this book before or haven't read it since childhood, give it another try. You will not regret it; it may even take you back to your younger days.
The Death of Ivan Ilych (*****)
This short novel once again reminded me why I love Russian literature. It does not have the wide canvas of many of my favorite Russian novels. It neither covers a large number of characters nor a broad span of time. Instead, it is about one individual's death as he struggles against his decline and battles unbearable pain. This death does not surprise us, the readers, as it is foretold in the very first chapter. However, Ivan himself does not know it. It gradually dawn on him, and he struggles and starts questioning why and what is the meaning of it all.
That is where Tolstoy reaches his readers. Our own mortality is the most surprising realization that happens to us, if it happens at all. Yet, we should know it all along. All this is because mortality goes against our need to believe that lives are meaningful. It makes us ask the same questions about our lives. It prepares us for our own mortality and purpose.
All the Lovers in the Night (****)
This is the second book by Mieko Kawakami that I read, and each time I was surprised and delighted by the tone of these novels. Not much happens in her novels, and that is what attracts me most. In this book, she once again picks a protagonist with no distinguishing characteristics other than her ordinariness. She is a person you would normally overlook in a crowd as she blends in with the fuzzy background of any cityscape. Yet, she slowly exposes an inner life that is at once bland and remarkable. The readers are allowed to gradually take a peek into her monotonous life and slowly get interested in it. I cannot think of too many books that is simultaneously uneventful and unputdownable.