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Well-Rounded Reading

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I have been working with a Tokyo business consultant to market a product in Japan. It is a machine tool invented by an American engineer that has great promise for Japanese sales. The Japanese are great innovators and this product will help them create new automotive and other manufactured items.

However, the consultant has his own team, two members with whom I have been interacting, and the engineer is working with others as well. This means that it can take time for some of these professionals to come up with necessary feedback on some question or another.

Naturally, I continue doing my own translation work, but nevertheless there are times when there is nothing to do. At those times, I pick up a book to read. I can fill up empty time with useful reading.

In general, I read about a book a week. This is regardless of how long or short it is. Some are easier to read than others, but it still does not take so much time that it knocks me off my schedule of a book a week. From time to time in the past I have reviewed books here on the website, but those have almost invariably been related to Japan. But I have a much wider range of interests. What follows are the books I have just read over the past three weeks.

First was a novel:

"Saturday"

By Ian McEwan

Doubleday, New York, 2005

I do not read a lot of novels. Fiction is not all that interesting to me, although in the past I read a great deal of it. (Especially Russian literature. I think that "Crime and Punishment" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky is the finest novel ever written and I have read it several times over the years. I have also read several other of his works, such as "The Brothers Karamazov." "Dead Souls" by Nicolas Gogol is another book that I treasure.) However, over the years I have read many of McEwan’s novels and have always enjoyed them. They often have a twist at the end involving an unexpected tragedy that is heartbreaking, although it can also be magical and touching. Regardless of that, he is a gifted writer with a wonderful imagination.

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In "Saturday," McEwan describes the hours that make up that single day in the life of a London neurosurgeon. He wakes up early in the morning, the middle of the night, really, and witnesses what seems to be an aircraft falling to earth. Could this be an omen? Whatever might have happened, the day was off to an unusual start and it just continues that way. Nothing happens that is outlandish or could not conceivably happen in real life, but the pace never flags.

Along the way, McEwan weaves into the story realistic details of the routine of a brain surgeon. It is fascinating, but not so technical as to become tiresome. The overall feeling one gets after finishing the book is one of enjoyment of the reading experience while appreciating the author’s respecting the reader’s intelligence.

During the negotiations with the Japanese consultant, I was told that his sources were interested in artificial intelligence. This is a buzz word in the world of venture capital today, so I was inclined to ignore the remark. However, I also felt that it would not hurt for me to pick up a new book on the subject to see if there were any recent developments that were interesting. Here is the work that I found:

"Artificial Intelligence: The Quest for the Ultimate Thinking Machine"

By Richard Urwin

Sirius Publishing, London, 2017

I have read much material over the years on the subject of artificial intelligence, as most educated people have. As a professional Japanese interpreter/translator I have also been exposed to more kinds of computers and software programs than most people have. I will touch up this in more detail when I review the next book which deals with related matters. For now, it is enough to say that Urwin’s book is a straightforward recap of developments in computer technology as applied to synthesized learning.

Consequently, there is much space given to Alan Turing, the "Turing Test" and other landmarks in the evolution of the science. I suppose this is to be expected, but there is little new there. Thankfully, Urwin rapidly goes over this ground. At the same time, he sprinkles the text with new events that cast light upon this history, such as Garry Kasparov’s loss to Deep Blue in 1997. (And yet, it irks me that Kasparov is characterized as the "reigning grandmaster." This is an ignorant statement. Kasparov was the reigning World Chess Champion. He earned that title after years of strenuous competition, and his accomplishment should be properly acknowledged if it highlighted as an indication of human intelligence.)

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Robots and medical implants that repair physical defects are examined as showing the promise of advances in the future. But what is most striking is how slowly this technology is perfected. It is tantalizing to envision theoretical possibilities, but all too often problem are only slowly overcome.

Another interesting perspective that Urwin offers is the comparison of natural or animal behavior with programmed computer activity. For instance, ants work together to accomplish complex goal, even though none of the sole creatures is working as the result of a focused intellect. There is much food for thought along these lines throughout the book.

What does all of this mean? Urwin limits his speculation. On the other hand, the final book under review here is filled with opinions and guesses.

"Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology"

By Ellen Ullman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2017

The author of this book is a computer programmer who was involved with the revolution in coding from the beginning. She experienced all the ups and downs of that era, when advances in the hardware often made software that she and programmers were writing obsolete. I have a great deal of sympathy when reading the tales that she tells because I had to learn all sorts of different programs when I went to clients’ office to do translation work for them. First there was WordStar, then WordPerfect and finally Microsoft Word won out and replaced all of the programs. But not before I also had to learn MultiMate and DisplayWrite (the IBM word processing program) and several even more obscure programs. And I had to learn them in both English and Japanese! And then there were all the spreadsheet programs!

But here is an excerpt from the book. It is the opening of the chapter entitled, "Close to the Mainframe":

In 1981, I decided I could not be a real programmer until I had experience on a mainframe computer. This was a completely abstract idea: I had no idea how to program a mainframe computer.

A headhunter got me an interview with a national retailing chain. I was not exactly what they were looking for, he said. I had no experience on a mainframe; they wanted someone who had worked specifically on an IBM/370 running MVS SPF JES2 with CICS. (What?) And I had never written code in the language they were using, COBOL. My being a woman didn’t help. The headhunter’s success at getting me in the door must have been due to his relentless salesmanship, motivated by the fact that, if I got hired and stayed a year, the company would pay him 20 percent of my first year’s salary.

This gives an idea of what is so attractive about this book: it is written in a down-to-earth manner covering an abstruse subject in an everyman style. Ullman uses her native intellect to optimum effect, even though she often feels lost in her work.

But more than even that are the intriguing thoughts that she has about the technology and the population’s attempts to deal with it. And she has her own suggestions about what to do:

I dare to imagine the general public learning how to write code. I do not mean that knowledge of programming should be elevated to the ranks of the other subjects that form basic literacy: languages, literature, history, psychology, sociology, economics, the basics of science and mathematics. I mean it the other way around. What I hope is that those with knowledge of the humanities will break into the closed society where code gets written: invade it.

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Ullman goes out of her way to emphasize this point. She reminds the reader that two thirds of humanity on this planet do not have any access to computers at all, and have decisions made by others that affect their lives.

And the code that surrounds us is closed to public view: opaque, inescapable.

What, then, are we to do? By "we," I mean the privileged one third. What are we to do when the great mass of humanity is ensnared within algorithms, and a bare percentage of human beings on earth has any idea of what a computer program actually is.

Sober thoughts. The book concludes with some gloomy ideas that left me slightly depressed. But the work has so many wonderful insights and amusing incidents about dealing with technology that I must recommend it without qualifications.

Those who wish to comment on the opinions expressed here may send their thoughts to info@GoWizardry.com. The most interesting responses will be addressed in future postings.

Robert J. Terry

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