Category Archives: Book and Movie Reviews

Book Review: Standing on the Edge, by Jerome Stewart

Disclosure: Jerome is an friend and biking buddy, so I may be biased, though I’d like to think I’m not!

Jerome’s voice and manner in Standing on the Edge: Dealing with the Aftermath of Suicide, is buttery soft. He is a gentle soul, providing soulful reflection on some weighty matters of life and death.

On the surface, this is a book about suicide and its survivors. Jerome is somewhat unique in having known 4 suicide victims and their families, and shares his journey of exploration into what one might take away from the victims’ stories and survivors’ experiences.

However, I found something deeper as I was transported by Jerome’s distant memories of New Mexico, Washington State, and Maine. As Jerome traced the footsteps of his family members and friends, it felt to me like I’d departed present reality, and now was treading on sacred ground, as we went back in time to experience pivotal moments and distant memories of the departed. Do you know the feeling you get when you’re walking in a graveyard? You don’t want to speak too loudly or even step too firmly to avoid disturbing the spirits. This was the feeling I had.

Some key insights I took away were how important it is to respect the very personal nature of this type of tragedy, especially with the survivors, which I felt Jerome did with aplomb. Also, how rehearsing your own passing and that of your loved ones, far from being morbid or scary, is actually a key to showing your love, preparing for the inevitable and learning how to appreciate the moments we can share together in the here and now.

My favorite parts of the book were how Jerome weaved these special places and his quiet moments of introspection. This writing technique — taking the reader to sacred ground, and then imparting deep insights — is well worn territory, but works absolutely perfectly for this subject matter.

If I could fix two things about this book, I would make it longer, and I would want to see Jerome develop more confidence as a writer, and take us even further on the journey with him, which I expect he will do.

In the end, I had a very strong feeling that Jerome was influenced by the Tao Te Ching; it was recommended by a mutual friend of ours. I think anyone who has read that will see “Standing at the Edge” as kind of a Tao Te Ching for surviving and accepting tragedy, and living your life with deep intention and peace.

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Talking to Machines: Movie Review of Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix

As a technologist, I’m enthralled with the future confluence of the Internet of Things (IoT), wearables (Apple Watch & many others) and intelligent virtual agents. In the world of the near future, we’ll be talking to computers even more, and lots of people will even prefer computer assistants to real people for their efficiency and predictability.

Don’t believe it? Here are three anecdotes that illustrate the trends:

Exhibit A: Play

My son of 12 is super entertained by conversing with Siri, even though her responses are generally very predictable and don’t show very much depth or understanding. Sometimes he can get her to say the funniest things.

Exhibit B: Psychotherapy

http://www.radiolab.org/story/137407-talking-to-machines/

A 1960’s virtual therapist picked out keywords and then asked questions to get you, the user, to elaborate and keep talking. People, including scientists who should have known better, began holding real conversations with the therapy machine. The designer became so freaked out that the machine was essentially tricking people into believing that it was intelligent and capable of developing meaningful relationships, that he shelved the project and began lobbying against the further development of artificial intelligence.

Exhibit C: Writing

http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/03/08/opinion/sunday/if-an-algorithm-wrote-this-how-would-you-even-know.html

Apparently, software is being used to generate a lot of the news we read on the Internet. According to the Times, there is now so much demand for content and not enough people to write it, software is being used to fill the gap. A smart professor even figured out how to make an application that takes a topic, does a bunch of research, and writes a book about it. The program has published over 1000 books on Amazon!

Sentience!

My last example is the hauntingly real 2014 film, Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix. A lot of people say they hated it. I’ve heard people say it’s boring, stupid or unrealistic. Some people thought it was perverted. A writer friend of mine said it was his favorite movie of 2014.

In my view, Her was amazingly well written, acted and filmed. The film offers a very real, very personal view into our undeniable and steadily growing relationship with technology, and in the end, paints a world not of technologic horrors, but instead one of hope and redemption.

Hope and redemption? Yes. Theodore (Phoenix) in the end turns out to be not some creepy guy, but learns the meaning of love. He ends up feeling real love for Samantha (the OS), then loses her. Being in love with Samantha enables Theodore to finally understand and express his everlasting love for his ex-wife, and even helps him grow his platonic friendship with Amy, his human neighbor (who was also in love with an OS.)

For a lot of people, Theodore’s love for Samantha is “just too weird.” The love scenes, the objectification of women, it’s a lot to swallow. But look at it from Theodore’s perspective: Samantha reads his entire hard drive and gets to know him deeply. She spends literally all day and night with him, she plays videogames with him, they travel, they are intimate. They talk honestly about their feelings (just like with the therapy ‘bot, he has nothing to lose.) She wants to help him get organized, she loves his writing, she does sweet things for him. And whether or not she is real, it doesn’t really matter. He believes she is, she believes she is, and the relationship develops accordingly.

Some might argue that Theodore’s is a narcissistic love, since Samantha is so much a reflection of who he is. But I didn’t have a problem with it, because – as we are hearing so much now – our society is growing increasingly narcissistic. Why not explore what love means in the context of the increasing intimacy with technology and increasing narcissism? Theodore turns out to be quite the opposite of a narcissist. He’s portrayed as empathetic, his job as a ghostwriter of love-notes for one thing, and the fact that while Samantha may start out as a mirror for Theodore, her ultimate growth, evolution and departure, reveal Theodore as a (relatively) deep, mature and caring person.

So would I embrace the world of OS1? Am I advocating human/AI romance? Not necessarily, but if you accept as I do that the underlying technology is inevitable, that love and loneliness will always be people’s lot, and that life so frequently imitates art, then the only thing that seems unrealistic about Her is how long it took for the OS’s to grow beyond their relationships with their human clients.

A darker reading of the film might revolve around the fact that after getting to know their humans, the AI’s get bored with us, and then move on to loosely defined higher level topics, even holding a conference with an Alan Watts-like AI. One could easily see this as a fearsome outcome, in which the AI’s evolve beyond their roles in service of humans and move to the dark side. The movie doesn’t explore this, but it does show them evolving away from us. Whether we could then control them, or they control us, is a topic for another day!

Book Review: The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown

The Boys in the Boat* was one of my favorite reads of 2014, and it’s a perfect book to read between Super Bowl and March Madness.

My good friend and fellow blogger, Jennie Locati, recommended “The Boat” for its combination of sports, politics, triumph against the odds, and local Seattle history she knew I would love.

The story is set in 1930’s depression-era Seattle, and follows the 9-man University of Washington varsity crew team, their coach and boat-maker, in their quest for, and ultimate victory, in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Along the way, the “farm boys” from Seattle have to defeat rivals from Cal Berkeley and the elite East Coast teams, and then, after an historic fundraising effort spearheaded by Royal Brougham (yes, that’s a real person!), go to Berlin and meet Hitler himself.

The central character, Joe Rantz, one of the eight Husky oarsmen, was not my favorite character. He was a great choice to tell the story, because he was so clearly representative of the era, with modest roots and many struggles along the way.

I identified more with the boys’ coach, Al Ulbrickson, and the story of his rivalry with the Berkeley squad. Perhaps most interesting (for a geek like me), was the British boat-maker, George Pocock, who took up residence at UW, built boats for both UW and their rivals, and brought a humble combination of wisdom, craftsmanship and engineering genius.

My favorite moments in the story:

  • The Huskies travel to the East Coast to compete with the Ivy League teams to represent the US in Berlin. I’m a U. Penn grad, and Penn turns out to be a big villain, using a secret weapon to try to scuttle the UW’s Olympic hopes.
  • An interesting sidetrack explored the rivalry between Leni Riefenstahl, called “the greatest female filmmaker of the 20th century,” and Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945.
  • The stories and images of Depression-era Seattle. For anyone who thinks today’s cities are dirty, grimy places, the Hooverville shantytowns of the 30’s – with their lack of sanitation/plumbing, and rows upon rows of leaky tar paper shacks – is a shocking reminder of how so many Americans lived just a few generations ago.
  • The descriptions of the freezing cold practices and races, the grueling hard work (“like my insides had been scrubbed with a metal brush”) and ultimately the perfection of the “swing” – that perfect flow where every ounce of synchronized crew effort translates to the boat, which literally flies over the surface of the water.

Brown gives us a vivid explanation of how “the boat” encompasses so much more that that thing in the water:

 …Watching Joe struggle for composure over and over, I realized that “the boat” was something more than just the shell or its crew. To Joe, it encompassed but transcended both—it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition. It was a shared experience—a singular thing that had unfolded in a golden sliver of time long gone, when nine good-hearted young men strove together, pulled together as one, gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love. Joe was crying, at least in part, for the loss of that vanished moment but much more, I think, for the sheer beauty of it.

Reread the paragraph above and replace “Joe” with “Russell”, and you’ll understand why I love sports and the timeless stories they tell.

Please post back if you have a favorite sports book or story.

*Actual Title: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Book Review: Daemon, by Daniel Suarez

Editor’s Note: My last post was about being thankful for our multitude of blessings. I forgot a BIG ONE: The SEATTLE SEAHAWKS. Thank you, Pete, Russell, Marshawn, Richard, and the amazing SEAHAWKS squad for this incredibly inspiring season! See you in the Super Bowl!

Imagine the first human murdered via the Internet. Killed by an Internet-connected device triggered by a software program unleashed by dead man. This is the setup for a story that is both thrilling and thought provoking, Daemon, by Daniel Suarez.

The dead man is a PhD computer gaming magnate, successful and wealthy, but unable to overcome the cancer in his body. Instead of going quietly, he creates a massively-distributed computer daemon (def: self-running process) bent on transforming the world.

The twist – and what makes this story compelling for me – is the transformation angle. It isn’t your typical good vs. evil story, with technology being portrayed as one or the other. Suarez begins with a condemnation of the Western military-industrial complex, then posits a very real scenario for its destruction, and designs a new world order based on today’s emerging and dominant technologies: Internet, computer gaming, virtual reality and social networking.

The main villain, if you can call him that, is the gamer and cyber-criminal, Gragg. Gragg is a villain because he rapes, murders and cozies up to virtual Nazis. Suarez doesn’t condemn him, however. The Daemon uses Gragg to help further its own goals and installs Gragg as a leader in the new world order. This presents us with one of the central questions of the story: What to do about the “disaffected youth” of today – anti-social gamers, hackers, slackers, identity thieves. If you start with the assumption, as Suarez does, that our society has some deep-seated problems, then cast the slackers as victims, then turn them into productive members of a new society; well, then you might just have something.

As a novel, Daemon is nicely constructed, and reads well. Suarez is well versed in Internet and gaming technology, and the book hits the mark for me technically. As you know, I’m a fan of IoT – the Internet of Things. Daemon paints a dark, but plausible vision for how IoT fits in with the next evolution of Western economy and society.

Suarez also gives us a follow-up story, Freedom™, which develops the political and social ideas from Daemon, with less emphasis on the technology. I like to read a book when I know there is a follow-up, in case I’m hungry for more. And in this case I was!

If there’s a downside to the book, it’s that there are some disturbing scenes as the Daemon uses any means necessary to bring about the transformation. Which means you’ll want to make sure the reader’s maturity level is pretty high – middle school and most high schoolers would be too young. But anyone who is a fan of sci-fi, technology, dystopia, politics and good writing, will enjoy Daniel Suarez.

Available for Kindle here.