Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil

Product info (from Goodreads):

We live in the age of the algorithm. Increasingly, the decisions that affect our lives—where we go to school, whether we get a car loan, how much we pay for health insurance—are being made not by humans, but by mathematical models. In theory, this should lead to greater fairness: Everyone is judged according to the same rules, and bias is eliminated. But as Cathy O’Neil reveals in this shocking book, the opposite is true. The models being used today are opaque, unregulated, and uncontestable, even when they’re wrong. Most troubling, they reinforce discrimination: If a poor student can’t get a loan because a lending model deems him too risky (by virtue of his race or neighborhood), he’s then cut off from the kind of education that could pull him out of poverty, and a vicious spiral ensues. Models are propping up the lucky and punishing the downtrodden, creating a “toxic cocktail for democracy.” Welcome to the dark side of Big Data.

My impressions:

It was a very informative, non-fiction book which taught me a lot. I really appreciate the fact that the author didn’t want to advertise her own professional knowlegde by inudating her readers with technical jargon and boasting of her own achievements. This book is clearly aimed at ordinary people, doing ordinary jobs, not big thinkers, IT nerds, or mathematicians. Some reviewers have criticized O’Neil for such a ‘simplistic’ approach but in my view it is rather a big asset. After all, if you are working in IT and dealing with (or even writing) algorithms which might act as weapons of math destruction, I presume you should be already aware of their noxious influence and you don’t need to read this position at all.

When it comes to my private opinion, I found just one fault: the fact that Cathy O’Neil was focusing almost all the time on problems you can encounter in the USA, whereas I feel WMD should concern people around the globe. Look at the reach of Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms.

Final verdict:

A very important book that highlights a lot of what’s been going on in America over the past 30 or 40 years and what’s wrong with Big Data. A must-read even if you are from Europe – believe me or not, Big Data will find you sooner or later so it’s better to be prepared.

Posted in book review, contemporary, non-fiction | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite by Jake Bernstein

Product info (from Goodreads):

A two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist takes us inside the world revealed by the Panama Papers, a landscape of illicit money, political corruption, and fraud on a global scale.

My impressions:

Do you think superwealthy people love paying taxes? Well, obviously they don’t. Taxes are for the poor. Even legal tax evasion is for them painfully inefficient so many millionaires and billionaires, big corporate companies too, are lured by such tax havens as Panama, the British Virgin Islands, Seychelles or Niue and such legal firms as Mossack Fonseca. For several thousand dollars, a paltry amount of money for the super-rich, they provided useful tools which allowed you to hide your assets from governments, journalists, tax collectors, partners, enemies and also wives, family, and friends – nifty, isn’t it? Moral flexibility was actually their selling point and they served anybody – arms dealers, bloody diamond traders, drug kingpins, ruthless dictators or your average banksters – as long as they were paid.

This would be an interesting book if it were fiction but it is a powerful book because it describes facts. Have you ever wondered where such big fish like Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin keep their money? In this book you’ll find a part of the answer. Don’t be afraid financial or legal jargon will inudate you – it’s really not that bad. By the way, have you heard about ICIJ? It’s the organization we have to thank for compiling most of the data from the hacks. They have a great website which I recommend you look in to and try your, say, alma mater or the name of your prime minister in the search bar.

Final verdict:

Secrecy World reads like a fast-paced thriller with a deeply reported and intricately woven narrative. I only hope the movie will be equally good – or even better.

Posted in book review, contemporary, crime, non-fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Brasyl by Ian McDonald

Product info (from Goodreads):

Three separate stories follow three main characters:

–Edson is a self-made talent impressario one step up from the slums in a near future São Paulo, a city of astonishing riches and poverty. A chance encounter draws Edson into the dangerous world of illegal quantum computing. Where can you run in a total surveillance society where every move, face, and centavo is constantly tracked?

–Marcelina is an ambitious Rio TV producer looking for that big reality TV hit to make her name for good. When her hot idea leads her on the track of a disgraced World Cup soccer goalkeeper, she becomes enmeshed in an ancient conspiracy that threatens not just her life, but her very soul.

–Father Luis is a Jesuit missionary sent into the maelstrom of 18th-century Brazil to locate and punish a rogue priest who has strayed beyond the articles of his faith and set up a vast empire in the hinterland. In the company of a French geographer and spy, what he finds in the backwaters of the Amazon tries both his faith and the nature of reality itself to the breaking point.

My impressions:

Brasyl is a story presented in three distinct strands of time – some of them are more captivating than the others but all of them are worth following because, ultimately, they make sense, click together, and so every piece of news matters. Yes, you’re reading me right, I am actually praising a time travel novel. The main action concerns Marcelina Hoffman; a coked-up, ambitious reality TV producer living in contemporary Brazil who is embarking upon a mad new project. She wants to find the disgraced goalie who lost Brazil the World Cup title half a century before. Marcelina grew up on me after a while but she wasn’t my favourite character to be honest. I liked Edson far better.

Edson is the hero of another strand, set in mid-21st century Sao Paulo. He is a young man who tries hard to make a carreer in a favela at a moment when the first quantum technologies are reaching the street. In the middle of his activity he finds the love of his life – and then loses her as quickly as he found her. What will take to make her return from the dead? Is it possible at all? Edson believes it is and then everything changes for him and his family… a gripping story but I don’t want to spoil you too badly so I won’t say anything else.

Finally there’s Father Luis, an Irish jesuit, who is also a fencing master. He was sent on his quest in the 18th century Amazonian forest in order to find another Jesuit who had erred, according to his superiors. I liked his story arc as well, it was the most dramatic of all, but I found it a bit too short. Yes, I wanted more of Father Luis but, unfortunately, three stories merged and he was lost for the reader in the space-time continuum. Pity.

Final verdict:

Easily the best book, sci-fi or otherwise, I’ve read this year. The summary on the jacket says, “Think Blade Runner in the tropics” but I think it’s completely wrong. It’s not Blade Runner, it’s more like Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle trilogy plus some quantuum physics. Delicious. I do recommed it to all readers who like original sci-fi stories with a strong Brazilian flavour.

Posted in adventure, alternate history, book review, contemporary, crime, fantasy, sci-fi | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Movie review: Serial (Bad) Weddings (2014) directed by Philippe de Chauveron

Product info (mainly from Wikipedia):

Claude Verneuil (Christian Clavier), a Gaullist notary, and his wife Marie (Chantal Lauby), a Catholic bourgeois from Chinon, are proud parents of four daughters: Isabelle, Odile, Ségolène, and Laure. The three eldest are already married. Unfortunately their husbands are of a different religion and a different ethnic origin – a Jew, an Arab, and a Chinese. The Verneuils of course pretend to accept their sons-in-law – it’s not Middle Ages, what other option is left? – but sometimes they have a hard time hiding their discomfort at the thought that there are so many people from outside the community in their family. Some neighbours call them even communists. That’s why they hope their youngest, Laure, a bright lawyer working for tv, will choose the right man: white, French, Catholic, more or less conservative, in short a son-in-law they could be proud of.

One day Laure announces she wants to marry Her fiance’s name is Charles, he is Catholic, he is French, but there is a catch: he comes from the Ivory Coast.  How will her parents react meeting Charles for the first time? How will his parents react he wants to marry a white woman?

My impressions:

This movie was a great hit in France but in other countries people’s reactions were mixed. The original title, in literal translation: “What Have We Done To Dear God?”, explains quite a lot. It is a movie about people who pretend they are open-minded, tolerant, and quite happy with their ‘colourful’ family and their daughters’ choices but deep down they regret every second spent in the company of their sons-in-law. Yes, they could be called crypto-racists but they weren’t the only ones – the sons-in-law showed their share of racism too. No political correctness included, no holds barred, every racist joke told loud and clear, even emphasized. I liked that attitude.

What I didn’t like were the characters. The daughters seemed to be like Barbie dolls – pretty, slim, tall, with just superficial differences but with no original features. The same could be said about their chosen ones – even though they came from different cultural backgrounds they were basically clones of themselves, tall, handsome, fit, well-educated, quite devoted to their white counterparts. I think it wasn’t such a great hardship to accept such people in any family, even the most conservative one.

Final verdict:

I quite enjoyed watching this movie and I recommend it to anybody tired by political correctness but I am not sure whether I would like to try the sequel. I fear it might be even more schematic, character-wise.

Posted in comedy drama, contemporary, movie review | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Illusion by Andrew Neiderman

Product info (from Goodreads):

Jillian Caldwell, late twenties, works for an advertising agency in New York. Ron Cutler, early thirties, comes to her for a promotional project for his upstate New York Department stores. A romance ensues. Shortly after Ron presents Jillian with an engagement ring, he disappears. Phone calls do no good. There is no number in his name and the department store knows only a John Cutler.

Jillian goes upstate to search for Ron and discovers Ron has been dead for five years. When she confronts John Cutler, Ron’s father, he finally confesses that his wife was unable to have children and he impregnated another woman, paying her to have his child. Jillian finds the woman and discovers more revolting facts. Will she be able to love the false Ron despide all the lies?

My impressions:

I can’t help myself – ny short review will be full of spoilers. In fact I am going to make it one big spoiler and I won’t even mask it. So if you are tempted by the blurb to read Illusion then go away immediately.

Illusion was inadvertently scary but the effect was close to riddiculous. The idea of falling in love with a man you hardly know seemed to be the sanest plot device around, especially when compared to an idea of a secret twin who wishes to emulate his dead brother so badly that he practically becomes his alter ego. In my humble opinion the false Ron (and his real name was Paul, let’s make everything as spoiler-ish as possible) was a prime candidate for a mental asylum. Still none of other characters perceived him like that: neither his mom, nor Jillian, nor John Cutler, his biological father. By the way how was it possible at all that he hired a woman to have his child and never even enquired about the pregnancy? Multiple or single – is it that hard to ask?

Final verdict:

If you want to read a really creepy romance this is a perfect book for you. It would be far better had the author planned it that way.

Posted in book review, contemporary, romance, thriller | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Movie review: Adventures of Aladdin (2019) directed by Glenn Campbell

Product info:

A new remake of an old fairy tale. With the help of a magical lamp, an impoverished young man transforms himself into a prince in order to win the heart of a beautiful princess.

My impressions:

This was bad, funny but bad nevertheless. First we got a feministic touch. Shazadi (Lucia Dimitra Xypteras), the only daughter of the dying Sultan of Baghdad, is going to inherit the throne. I mean she will be a She-Sultan. Or a Sultana. A female ruler in an arabic country. Vizier Maghreb (Daniel O’Reilly, obviously an Arab himself), her father’s most trusted advisor, is not exactly thrilled. After all he is a man so he should marry the girl and rule Baghdad, right? Wrong. Or rather not exactly right, it’s complicated, folks.

What’s so complicating? A troupe of acrobats come into town, the new sultan among them. He doesn’t know it yet but we know it immediately – he is the man to get the crown. Or rather a bejewelled turban. Only a real sultan has thick but regulated eyebrows, an even row of white teeth and a nice six-pack stomach. Only a real sultan can kick a basket full of fireworks into the sky as high as any cannon and then, as a second thought, he falls a thief with one lucky throw of an apple. Yes, an apple. Apples don’t grow in Baghdad, you say? Rubbish, they are everywhere, even in the Garden of Eden. Ask the Snake.

Let’s return to the movie, though. Vizier Maghreb, one of magnificently painted brows and a stylish, greyish, beard, is not impressed. Cunningly, he befriends Aladdin and invites him to the palace where he can continue his pleasant conversation with the future Sultana during a private audience If it sounds too good to be true, well, it is exactly so. Insdead of a sweet tete-a-tete with the girl of his dreams Aladdin is coerced to enter a cave and find a certain lamp which represents the royal power. The task is not easy. Our acrobat is attacked by bats. Yes, real bats, probably rabid. And then he has to cross a patch of fire using just a piece of line and his wits. And then many similar lamps appear out of thin air and he has to choose one. After a successful choice our hero finds out that it is easier to enter the cave than return to the ground, especially when you are attacked by your false ally Maghreb and pushed back in the last possible moment. Fortunately our hero has four stalwart friends who will follow him everywhere – after all he borrowed from them heavily- and then he cleans a certain lamp and a djinni (Lord KraVen) is released.

Well, I have to admit the djinni was my personal biggest disappointment. Almost at the very beginning he announced that, quote, ‘romance is his speciality’, unquote. Seriously, could the whole tale get more stupid? At that point I yawned. Then the djinni conjured a not especially lavish picnic spread out of thin air and I yawned for the second time. Our lovely band of friends entertained each other with a burping duel. I yawned again. They all befriended each other again because, well, the djinni used to be rather lonely. At that point I was almost tearing my mouth apart with one big yawn and switching the vid off. End of the story.

Final verdict:

Very young children who have zero knowledge of Aladdin or his adventures will most likely find this version entertaining but I am too jaded to enjoy such a trashy movie. A total failure.

This was bad, funny but bad nevertheless.

Posted in book into movie, fairy tale, fantasy, movie review | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Reviewing a classic: Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick

Product info (from Goodreads):

Jason Taverner woke up one morning to find himself completely unknown. The night before he had been the top-rated television star with millions of devoted watchers. The next day he was just an unidentified walking object, whose face nobody recognised, of whom no one had heard, and without the I.D. papers required in that near future.

When he finally found a man who would agree to counterfeiting such cards for him, that man turned out to be a police informer. And then Taverner found out not only what it was like to be a nobody but also to be hunted by the whole apparatus of society.

It was obvious that in some way Taverner had become the pea in in some sort of cosmic shell game – but how? And why?

My impressions:

Written in 1974 and set in the near future (at that time) of 1988, Philip K. Dick’s haunting dystopian novel addresses a range of existential, social and political themes: identity and loss of identity, celebrity and anonymity, control of individuals by quasi-dictatorship police forces, the influence of drugs on our perception of reality etc. First major twist (but not a spoiler): the main lead, Jason Taverner, is an AI-enhanced creature, known as the six, neither a pure human nor an android. The second major twist: Jason’s nightmarish journey is written in a style of a pulp fiction story but it also touches very serious, philosophical subjects. What’s more, the narration is neither especially coherent nor very captivating, with some plot holes and entire paragraphs which seem to be out of the place. Still a desire to understand the hows and whys of Jason’s mysterious loss of identity kept me reading. And yes, I completely agree that the title is weird and too long – but it’s a norm with Philip Dick. By the way, I suppose this book was the source for Cersei- Jaime pairing in the ASOIAF series.

Final verdict:

If you want to read a classic that raises many more questions than it answers and ends on a bleak tone here is your perfect position. Not the worst Philip Dick’s novel but also not my favourite – if you haven’t read anything by him, do not start with this one.

Posted in book review, classic, dystopia, grimdark, sci-fi | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Movie review: Red Sparrow (2018) directed by Francis Lawrence

Product info:

Dominica Egorova’s (Jennifer Lawrence) life turns upside down when, during a Bolshoi Theatre performance, she collides with her partner and breaks her leg. An accident or not, a prima balerina with a broken leg has to end her career. The problem is that Dominica also has to support her infirm mother whose care used to be financed by her employer, the Bolshoi Theatre.

Here comes her uncle, Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts, strangely reminding me of younger Putin), the deputy director of SVR. He approaches the girl with a proposition she cannot refuse – one private meeting with a Russian oligarch-cum-gangster in a posh Moscow hotel and she won’t have any financial worries anymore. Dominica is apprehensive but she agrees. During the meeting she is brutally raped and then she witnesses the execution of the gangster from really close quarters. Now, she has no choice – either she joins the elite Swallow School for Russian spies or she dies an SVR leaves no civilian eyewitnesses of their shenanigans.

Dominica has to fight for her freedom while pretending that she goes along with the scenario, prepared for her by the uncle who tasks her with finding out the identity of a double agent among Russian counterintelligence agents. Will she manage to break free?

My impressions:

I really liked the story of Dominica because it ringed true but I have to warn you – this movie is rather graphic. It was based on the 2013 novel of the same name by Jason Matthews and shows a nasty underbelly of spying trade – solitude, lack of trust, constant danger and stress, witnessing horrible crimes, lack of personal safety. It is a kind of dark side of James Bond movies which usually focus on sparks and glitter.

I also liked the fact that the main character had to find a way out of her tight corner completely on her own – forget about knights in shiny armour who woud come to her help on white motocycles. Also Charlotte Rampling as the Headmistress of the Sparrow School was really cool.

When it came to the plot itself, it wasn’t that bad but it did feature several holes difficult to patch or understand. I didn’t appreciate torture scenes at all – they were nasty, full stop. After the final showdown I felt a bit underwhelmed and bleak but still more satisfied than after any James Bond movie.

Final verdict:

If you ever toyed with an idea of becoming a spy, I guess after this movie you won’t be so sure. It is a sexist, brutal story of a woman forced to do dirty jobs for powerful men who treat her like a tool. Interesting but too bleak to be rewatched.

Posted in book into movie, book-film-show, contemporary thriller/horror, movie review, spy movie | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Kremlin’s Candidate (Red Sparrow Trilogy 03) by Jason Matthew

Product info (from Goodreads):

The novel opens with Russian president Vladimir Putin planning the covert assassination of a high-ranking US official with the intention of replacing him with a mole whom Russian intelligence has cultivated for more than fifteen years.

Catching wind of this plot, Dominika, Nate, and their CIA colleagues must unmask the traitor before he or she is able to reveal that Dominika has been spying for years on behalf of the CIA. Any leak, any misstep, will expose her as a CIA asset and result in a one-way trip to a Moscow execution cellar. Along the way, Matthews, a thirty-three-year veteran of the CIA and winner of the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, sets vivid, unforgettable scenes in Moscow; Washington, DC; Hong Kong; New York; the Sudan; and Turkey, and introduces two cold-blooded killers: Iosip Blokhin, a brilliant Spetsnaz military officer, and Grace Gao, ravishing Chinese spy, master of Kundalini yoga, and Beijing-trained seductress.

Ultimately, the lines of danger converge on the spectacular billion-dollar presidential palace on the Black Sea during a power weekend with Putin’s inner circle. Does Nate sacrifice himself to save Dominika? Does she forfeit herself to protect Nate? Do they go down together?

My impressions:

After watching Red Sparrow, a 2018 movie based on the first part of this series (my review is coming), I was eager to read the book. Still, just my luck – I managed to find the last novel, finishing the series. Undaunted, I started reading, eager to find out what happened to Dominika Yegorova, a Russian James Bond in skirt, and her American paramour.

Well. Of course I was thrilled by the fact that a male author created a female spy who didn’t have to be rescued by male counterparts. In fact, more often than not quite the opposite was true – in this book for example Dominika murders in cold blood three agents who jeopardize her and Nate’s mission and lives and let me tell you, she is not afraid to get dirty hands in the process. What’s more, even if Nate and Domi are in lurve very badly, they sometimes go to bed with other people. Maybe it wasn’t exactly nice but it sounded real, especially that their relationship consisted of two-three short, clandestine meetings a year.

Still it wasn’t enough for me, not nearly enough. The plot was immense, very convoluted, and the book seemed too long. What’s worse, the narration wasn’t smooth – some paragraphs were better, some definitely not as polished as they should be in the final installment of a series. The author quoted a lot of Russian and Polish words, often with awry grammar. The ending was neither here nor there – without spoiling anybody I might only say that primo: it was sad, secundo, it felt as if the author was fishing for a contract for the fourth book.

Final verdict:

A mixed bag of good and bad – still I would recommend this one to all fans of spy novels with female leads like Nikita.

Posted in book review, contemporary, crime, spy novel, thriller | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Movie review: Redbad (2018) directed by Noel Reine

Product info:

The 8th Century in Western Europe, a time of significant religious tension. When an army of Christian Franks approaches one tribe of pagan Frisians the bloodshed is inevitable. Redbad (Gijs Nabel) is caught right in the middle of the conflict and, before he can defend himself and his people, he has to answer many serious, even philosophical questions. Which religion is better, the old pagan belief or the new Christian God whose supporters seem to be as cruel as the heathens? It is a fact that the Christian Franks considered themselves more civilised but were as prone to a spot of torture or slaughter in battle as their pagan opponents. What side will he choose?

My impressions:

The topic of this movie was interesting but everything seemed to take too long as the whole movie lasts about three hours. I watched it for two hours. Some fighting scenes I simply skipped after a minute or two and I didn’t feel I missed anything important.

Still, the fact that Christianity was presented in this one from a very ugly angle I personally found refreshing. Don’t get me wrong – I am far from taking sides. I simply have watched too many films in which the word ‘pagan’ always equalled ‘baddie’. Here we are shown Christian psychopats who turn christening into waterboarding torture and gladly bless soldiers so they go and slaughter more ugly pagans, women and children among them, with more zeal. Still there was some balance because the heathens were hardly better – we see two scenes with human sacrifices (both of them survived but it was pure luck, nothing else, they were bound to die for their gods). Overall, if you are very serious about your religious beliefs it is definitely a movie you might find disturbing for more than one reason.

Still, my problems lay elsewhere. I had an impression the director of Redbad, like many others before him, put spectacle over historical accuracy. Those Frankish knights wearing chainmail armour were definitely out of place – we are speaking about 8th, not 11th or 12th century.  Also large stretches of the film were desaturated and I think they looked rather tedious and cheap than stylish. Anyway, most of what’s included in these sections could be cut. Finallly I didn’t appreciate some jumps in the narration which lacked logic – like the journey of Redbad from Denmark to his native Frisia. Oh, and the dialogues were anachronistic as well, with 8th century people talking often from the 21st century perspective.

Final verdict:

An obscure hero, an interesting story from a not exactly popular period of time – this movie had a lot of potential. And yet I wouldn’t rewatch it because it was too long and too bloody.

Posted in costume drama, historical, movie review | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments