Monthly Reads – October 2017

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

[The Three Laws of Robotics: Issac Asimov]

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I’ve finally read I, Robot! And none too soon, as I’ve been breezing ahead with my Open University material, and I’m now several weeks ahead in my TM129 studies.

I have to say, the way the book is structured is completely different to what I was expecting, having only ever seen the movie. I’d read that it was laid out in a series of short stories, but I didn’t realise the stories had no real bearing on the movie of the same name.

In reality, the book revolves around an unknown interviewer, and his questioning of Dr. Susan Calvin, a robopsychologist at US Robots. She relates, through these short stories, the evolution of robots and robotics through the mid 21st Century. Simultaneously, the actual writer of the stories, Isaac Asimov, explores his three laws of robotics, and how they interplay with each other in unusual situations, or if their precedent with respect to each other is changed.

Still, despite the stories being completely different to the movie, I found I, Robot to be very interesting, and in places gripping. It gives the reader an idea of what the future of human and robotic/artificial intelligence (AI) interactions could be like, with family companions, superintelligent robots, mind-reading robots, anti-robot laws, and humanity-controlling ‘machines’ being considered through its chapters.

The narrative does come across as a bit aged in places, with characters smoking in buildings, and robots saying “golly”, but even so, Asimov’s view of the AI of the future is pretty believable. However, in reality, we’re a long way off in terms of the types of AI Asimov conjures up in his book. For example, Google’s AI is apparently no smarter than a 6-year-old. Further, there’s unlikely to be a ‘positronic brain’ in the offing anytime soon, to help speed up AI advancement. So, despite the AI scare stories that have been thrown about of late, we’re not heading towards a robot uprising anytime soon.

As well as I, Robot, I read my monthly Essential X-Men magazine, and a Garfield book I had to tag on to an Amazon order to get free posting. But with I, Robot finished, it’s back to my Kindle backlog of free fantasy novels. I’ve started on Pax of Wildly Women, by V.C. Bestor, so stay tuned for its review in November’s Monthly Reads post.

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Choosing a New Path at the OU

Recently, I was mooching about the Open University’s revamped study pages, when I stumbled across a widget that lets you plan out your future module choices. This got me thinking more in-depth about what path I wanted to follow.

monitor-1307227_1280As I’ve said before, I’m doing an Open Degree, which gives me plenty of flexibility, but I’ve chosen to follow, more or less, the Computer Science route, but with the two Creative Writing modules thrown in. But the question was, what Computer Science route? The OU provides lots of different ICT modules. Some big (60 points), like the now dearly departed My Digital Life (TU100) was, and others small (30 points), like Technologies in Practice (TM129) is. Luckily I had a vague notion of what I was interested in, namely web page design, and as it happens, the OU has a path for that.

For the Open Degree, the OU helpfully provides lots of different study plans based on possible routes of interest, as (and speaking from experience) choosing what to do when given free module reign can be fairly daunting and confusing. I happened to have a bit more of a direction in mind, as I wanted to make a bespoke degree that would help me with web communications, but I still wasn’t sure what modules to do. However, one of the routes created by the OU happens to be Web Development…

This route provides an insight into the internet technologies required to design and create web, cloud and mobile applications and services together with an appreciation of both technical and business perspectives. [OU website]

Stumbling across this has made me completely rethink what I was going to study in the second year. I had planned on doing Communication and Information Technologies (TM255), which (while it contains the word communications) focuses more on data sharing, wireless networks, online collaboration and the like, which, if I’m honest, wasn’t really the path I wanted to take. But thanks to the route map, I’ve shifted focus, and plan to do two half-modules in its place, namely Object-Oriented Java Programming (M250) and Web Technologies (TT284). This, in turn, led me to think about my third-year modules, and given that some of the modules I want to take will be ending during my duration of study, I had to plan carefully what I wanted to take and when.

Subsequently, I made a thing…..

Year/ Term Course no. Course title Size Oct – year May/June -year
1b TM129 Technologies in practice 30 2017 2018
L185 English for academic purposes online 30 2017 2018
2a TT284 Web technologies 30 2018 2019
M250 Object-oriented Java programming 30 2018 2019
2b A215 Creative writing 60 2019 2020
3a A363 Advanced creative writing 60 2020 2021
3b TM356 or TM352 Interaction design and the user experience 30 2021 2022
Web, mobile and cloud technologies 30 2021 2022
TM470 The computing and IT project 30 2021/2* 2022/3*

*I May have to wait until I complete the previous IT module, or I may be able to start it at the same time

I’m undecided between TM356 and TM352, but I should have a better idea of things once I’ve done the second year modules. TM356 has an exam as part of its marking process, and I don’t do well in exams. Being able to do coursework, and having time to consider my answers, is way better for me. Conversely, TM356 ends in a project, which is a bit impractical, seeing as my final module is also a project. Which means, if I do the modules simultaneously, I’ll be having to work on two projects simultaneously (unless I can do the same project for both). It’s a lot to think about, but thankfully I have a few years to go before I have to make a hard and fast decision.

Plus, during the holiday between the first and second year, I can do a free Java course to prep myself.

Actually, doing all this has got me quite excited for my future studies. Knowing what I want to study, and when it’s coming up, has got me quite invigorated. Kinda makes me sad it takes so long to complete a module, and then wait for the next to start.

Brollies Up: It’s Kingsman Time

Thanks to my mate’s chocolate addiction, I was able to nab a couple of free cinema tickets through Sweet Sundays. So, of course, I had to use them to go and see Kingsman: The Golden Circle.

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I have to say, the critics have been unduly…well…critical. The film was a hoot and a half, and I certainly didn’t notice its over two hours run time. Ok, it wasn’t as good as the first, but then what sequel ever is? Still, it definitely doesn’t deserve the mauling it’s gotten from the pole-up-their-backsides-critics. Apparently, there’s going to be a third film, rounding off the trilogy, and I’m so up for that. Also, the film had over an hour’s footage cut from it, so I’ve got my fingers crossed for an extended director’s cut. Yep, I would happily sit through four hours of Kingsman, so the film couldn’t have been that bad. I sat through over two hours of Transformers: Age of Extinction, after which I vowed never to do that again, and I haven’t. The Last Knight be damned!

I have to say, up until Kingsman, I don’t think I’ve actually seen Colin Firth in a movie. The films he’s usually in aren’t really my thing, namely period dramas, or chick-flicks. So having seen him in the two films has made me realise what a great actor he is, especially in the sequel. He has the ability, with barely a change in expression, to go from someone who looks like a fragile, doddery old man, to an avenging kick-ass hero. It’s oh so subtle, but oh so obvious.

Also, how have I never heard of Pedro Pascal before? I mean Agent Whiskey…DA!-AMN! Now I get the whole women crushing on cowboys thing [insert crude jokes about whips and being lassoed here]. Anyway, getting back on track, not to be too spoilery, but his character deserved way better.

In conclusion: Go see this movie! It has action from the very start (with Matthew Vaughn’s slickly choreographed fight scenes taking centre stage as per usual), humour, unnecessarily attractive cowboys, and Elton John. If you haven’t seen the original, see that first. It’s bloody hysterical (if you can get past Samuel L. Jackson’s annoying lisp), and will set things up nicely.

Lastly…. Damn you “Take Me Home, Country Roads”! Damn you to hell!

Monthly Reads – September 2017

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So September was a bit of a cleanup month literary-wise. As much as I wanted to get stuck into I Robot, I had one book to finish, one I started reading several months ago, but put on hiatus to read other things; namely Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. As I wasn’t needing the I Robot text until the second half of my robotics block, I figured I had time to finish off Harry Potter.

I’ve read all the Harry Potter novels before, but had begun re-reading them in the light of knowledge that having read them all before brings (i.e., being able to pick up on foreshadowing events and other little titbits). They’re standing the test of time, but dear gods I regularly want to give Harry a slap. He’s rather self-absorbed, and extremely slow on the uptake. Definitely not Ravenclaw material!

I think the reason I put this book down for so long is that I knew what was coming, i.e. the senseless death of Cedric (no spoiler alert! If you haven’t read the books or seen the movies yet it’s your fault for living under a stone!). It breaks my heart that a good-hearted Hufflepuff should meet his end like that. Thank you JK for the brutal feels! Still, I cracked on…. My chapter reading getting decidedly slower as I neared the inevitable betrayal. But I persevered and reached the end. But for now, I think I’ll leave the Order of the Phoenix for a while. I haven’t the strength to deal with Umbridge just yet.

Still, with The Goblet of Fire done and dusted, I can start cracking on (finally!) with I Robot.

Winning

I really should enter competitions more, after all, as the old saying goes: you gotta be in it to win it! Last year I won an Open University student union pencil case during freshers week. This year, I won some bespoke vegan ‘food supplements’ after a last-minute entry to a give away that I happened to see on the Vegan Society‘s web page.

I haven’t started using the supplements yet, as I still have a pot of multivitamins to finish, but once they’re done I’ll start on the new stuff. However, my initial thoughts on these vitamins aren’t exactly positive.

The box is rather funky, with the London skyline doodle running around the edge. The contents are ARTEFACT‘s ‘Concept I Immunity & Vitality’, with each capsule containing Vitamin D2 and B12, and extracts of Maca and Goji Berry. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not adverse to vitamin pills. As I said earlier, I take a daily multivitamin, and actually, the reason I take a multivitamin (as opposed to just an iron or calcium supplement), is to also boost my B12 and D intake.  For vegans, getting enough B12 can be an issue, and as I’m an indoorsy, computer person, my D levels are also probably lacking, so I take a multivitamin to cover all my bases.

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It’s when you get to talking about other supplements that I get a bit reticent, in this case, the added Goji and Maca. Goji berries are supposed to be a ‘superfood’, and are touted as having the ability to improve immunity, cardiovascular disease and life expectancy; aid well-being, brain activity and digestion; and help prevent cancer. However, all these claims are lacking some serious scientific evidence. Maca is claimed to improve libido and fertility, increase your mood and energy levels, help learning and memory, and reduce menopausal symptoms. But again, the scientific evidence to support these claims is extremely minimal and wholly questionable.

Moreover, as a scientist, I’m rather averse to pseudo-scientific claims and meaningless jargon and ho-boy! does the blurb to these pills have that in spades.

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The main ingredients are maca and goji; both emerged as resistant, powerful, and sublime in an adaptation process from their respective regional growth conditions. [ARTEFACT]

Sublime? Really?

…Leaning upon goji’s protective and stabilizing nature as the baseline (e.g., through antioxidants, immunomodulation, antidiabetic, and cardiovascular protective activities as well as anti-aging in folkloric texts) lies the potent and versatile maca as an agent to further improve lifestyle dynamics (mental and physical health) such as sexuality (e.g., libido, reduced menstrual discomforts, fertility in folkloric hearsay), cognitive capacity (e.g., concentration, alertness, memory), and resilience (e.g., immune-booster and strength). [ARTEFACT]

They’re literally saying that some of what they’re claiming this stuff can do is based off unsupported tales, including the setting of the baseline (whatever the hell that baseline is supposed to be). Meanwhile, the other stuff they’re claiming has pretty much no scientific back up. Honestly, I could feel myself getting stupider as I read this, which kinda went against what these pills are allegedly supposed to achieve.

I checked on Amazon as to how much a pot of these “”””lifestyle improving”””” pills cost. £32.32!!!! That’s some extremely expensive waffle right there.

Anyway, I’ll post an update down the road once I’ve taken them for any length of time.

Semester Two at the OU

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So my materials for my next Open University modules have finally arrived, and considering I’m doing two modules this semester, I’m really rather gutted with what turned up, or rather, the lack of what turned up.

Now, the modules are half what TU100 My Digital Life was, i.e. TU100 was a 60 point module, whereas these two are 30 points apiece, but still. With TU100 I got lots of books, plus the senseboard. With L185 English for Academic Purposes Online, I got a single resources book of test text. All the rest of the module is online, and not even in epub form, which is a bit naff.

TM129 Technologies in Practice has given me marginally more, and with the long-awaited I Robot novel I received a Windows Networking Essentials textbook, and a DVD of James May’s Big Ideas: Man-Machine. But I’m rather peeved that I get no textbooks on robotics, as that was the main topic that made me pick the module, but at least I can download all the online material as epubs for easier reading and future reference. Also, the DVD is a bit of a cop-out. Not because the subject matter is crap (I watched it the other night and quite enjoyed it), but because my mate has exactly the same video, as part of a box set that he got from The Works (a cheapo UK arts/crafts/bookstore), which meant it probably cost him less than a fiver, meaning the single DVD likely only cost him a quid or two.

I get that the OU can keep their fees low by producing less printed material, but like I said, I find it rather disappointing. However, I should count myself lucky. As I live in Wales, my university fees are a third what they would be if I lived in England, so I can only imagine how hard-done-by my fellow English students may be feeling.

Anyway, despondence aside, I have decided to crack on. The term doesn’t officially start until October 7th, but as all the material is live on the website, I figured I may as well get ahead. Especially as I’m having to juggle two modules, and you never know what’s around the corner disruption-wise. That and I couldn’t wait to learn about robots!

Monthly Reads – August 2017

Bit of a late posting for this one as the last book I read took me into September….

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August kicked off with me reading the novella Social Engineer (Brody Taylor Thrillers #1). I got it free for signing up to the author’s (Ian Sutherland) newsletter, mainly because, as an ICT student and social media fan, I was intrigued by the premise of the book, and who doesn’t love a freebie?

As a novella, it’s a short read, but that being said, it was a very good read. My reading of it happened to coincide nicely with the section in my Open University studies covering online security, and several times I nodded in understanding at the narrative.

The Novella is a pre-cursor to the main Brody Taylor Thrillers series, and introduces the main hero/protagonist; white hat hacker Brody Taylor, who uses a combination of hacking and social engineering to gain entry to companies as a means to ‘pentest*’ them. Ian Sutherland (himself an IT man) name drops the likes of Facebook and LinkedIn, and how important information can be gleaned from them for nefarious (or in the case of Brody, slightly more honourable) purposes. There are certainly some ideas included in the story to bear in mind next time you’re casually making those holiday snapshots public!

Overall, I found the story to be well written, enjoyable, and there was a good twist in it that I didn’t see coming. As an introductory novella, it’s certainly done its job, and I’m seriously considering reading the rest of the series in the future.

*”Penetration testing (also called pen testing) is the practice of testing a computer system, network or Web application to find vulnerabilities that an attacker could exploit.” [Definition via WhatIs.com]

Although I had my eye on some other cyberpunk novels, I decided to save some cash this month. Also, allegedly, I get a copy of I Robot with my Open University module on robotics, so I have that to look forward to in September. In the intervening time, I decided to work through my Kindle backlog and read some of the free fantasy books I’d downloaded onto my old 3G.

17696116Using a random number generator gave me Bubba and the Beast (Maven’s Fractured Fairy Tales, #2). I had not read the first book. Turns out, this was even shorter than Social Engineer, and I polished it off in two nights. To be honest, it wasn’t that great. The story basically revolved around a disgraced fairy having to find a troll a boyfriend. The writing was chaotic, I had a hard time following the narrative at times, and it ended rather abruptly. I will not be bothering to read any more of the series.

17406473Next up, the Fates gave me Earthchild, by Allie Bates. This was a full-length novel, and it kept me occupied for the rest of the month and then some. It was fair to say that I didn’t know what I was about to read (again, I had downloaded years ago when it had been free). What I found myself reading was akin to a novel-length wet dream whose every other sentence seemed to focus on hyped-up sexuality and eroticism, specifically with a focus on the two main characters. There was some plot in there, something to do with Scotland, missing lairds, and castles, but the rest was pretty much erotica, and TBH a little bit rapey at times. That being said, it was an ok read, and it kept me gripped enough to finish it, but I’ll be glad when I get my copy of I Robot.