Book review – UNSONG by Scott Alexander

Rating: ★★★★☆

Blimey, where to begin. It might be best to start with a summary of the book (if that’s even possible). It’s an epic that spans the mid-1900s to the present day, incorporating plenty of references to very recent events and people. At its heart, the machinery of heaven is broken and the world is teetering between being one of science that obeys the laws of physics, and one of magic where the divine light of God is allowing all sorts of supernatural actions and events to unfold. Hell is battling to take over the earth, angels are falling, powerful magic (Names) that would protect and aid humans have been snapped up by gigantic corporations and their ownership is enforced by the terrifying government organisations UNSONG, society is fracturing, and heroes are falling as the titanic struggle between good and evil rips the fabric of the world apart even further. In the midst of this a few ordinary people – the protagonist, his love interest, her cousin, and so forth – discover an especially powerful Name that could change the course of history, and inadvertently catch the attention of UNSONG, Hell, and others besides. Continue reading

Book review – Ways of Seeing by John Berger

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

“Oil paintings often depict things.”

No shit Sherlock.

Okay, so I know it’s easy to take potshots at art criticism, the same way it’s easy to sneer at the descriptions that go with wine tasting or to laugh at the people who run downhill after truckles of cheese and break many bones via entirely avoidable high-speed rotational falls, but this book though… oh my god… this book… Continue reading

How to be a (recreational) forensic linguist

Yesterday (5 September 2018) the New York Times printed an op-ed by an anonymous source, entitled, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration. [I work for the president but like-minded colleagues and I have vowed to thwart parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.]” Allegedly penned by a senior official in the Trump administration, possibly from within the White House itself, the piece outlines aspects of Trump’s behaviour in fairly unflattering terms, and describes some of the internal resistance being staged against him on a day-to-day basis.

Interestingly, rather than discredit the author’s proximity, the response from Trump a few hours later was to encourage the author to resign. This rather lent credibility to the piece’s authenticity and arguably made it even more damaging than it would have otherwise been had Trump simply laughed it off as a wild story by some fabulist that had never been within a mile of him. The result was that, overnight, a whole slew of people suddenly became forensic linguists specialising in authorship attribution. It’s been fun to watch and I’ve written this simple “how to be a forensic linguist” guide in response to the scramble to identify the author. Continue reading

Worker, she twote: are the Amazombies real people, or is it all a PR stunt?

Over the past few days, TechCrunch, The Guardian, and others have been writing with some amusement about the inexplicable and rather silly little army of Amazon bot-drones that have sprung up on Twitter. Assuming they don’t get deleted in a fit of embarrassment, you should be able to find those accounts here. The questions that sprang up across various media sources ranged from, “Is this elaborate counter-marketing?” to “Are these people really… real?”

That latter question naturally caught my full attention, so I decided to spend my Saturday afternoon addressing two research questions:

  • Are these tweets really being sent by a bunch of unique people?
  • Or are these all synthetic identities that are the work of a PR company employee or two?

Continue reading

Book review – Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – A Novel by Robin Sloane

Rating: ★★★★☆


In so many respects, this book was written for exactly me. It has references to (elementary) coding, software, and tech corporations I know about (Hadoop, Ruby, Apple, Amazon, Google, etc.), it is set in a bookstore filled with mysterious ancient texts, it features a shadowy cult, the characters are largely nerds after my own heart, and best of all, the surface premise of the whole plot is a cryptographic puzzle in the form of an historic, gigantic book that is thoroughly encrypted in some way. The ancient cult has been attempting to decrypt this book for centuries and in modern times is funding its ongoing efforts and overheads via patent suits. The whole plot revolves around the central character amassing the people, resources, and information necessary to crack the code. Continue reading

Book review – A Short History of Rudeness: Manners, Morals, and Misbehaviours in Modern America by Mark Caldwell

Rating: ★★★☆☆

This was a book that, for a fleeting moment, I was going to give five stars, and then, for a while, four stars, until finally it managed to drag me down to regretfully awarding it barely three. Purely speculatively, it feels as though the whole book springs from the excitement and interest of the first chapter, which starts with outlining Colonel Mann’s Town Topics and the remarkable blackmail and extortion racket that it fronted. This affords a fascinating double-edged example of using the most scurrilous and immoral methods to enforce rectitude and morality amongst the supposedly superior classes, and I half wonder if this intriguing little history inspired the idea of writing more on the subject, but once this ace is played – and it is played almost at the very start – the rest of the hand is rather less winning. Continue reading