Thrills of Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

I am legend book

With  ‘The Last of Us‘ becoming everyone’s favorite live-action adaptation of a video game franchise, I fondly remember playing the game years ago along with related apocalyptic/zombie favorites like Resident Evil, Left4Dead etc. Trying to survive the hordes of the undead and boss fights after a long day of work was a trip back in the day ( and mostly less stressful than dealing with race conditions and deadlocks!) . Thanks to a full schedule (aka life), my gaming schedule has taken a backseat over the years (though with the arrival of the Steamdeck, this has seen an uptick recently).  28 Days Later rebooted the genre in the big screen and set the template for things to follow. TV Series like the Walking Dead (which I abandoned after 2 seasons once it became apparent that the story wasn’t really going anywhere), Black Summer, Kingdom etc had some good moments. However, post-apocalyptic fiction writing got me interested and playing those games and watching those series/movies in the first place. The genre is rich with amazing books and a lot of mediocre ones as well. The gloomy Seattle weather plays a perfect conduit to huddling up with desolate dystopian stories. Some of my favorites listed below and could be considered essential reading for this genre.

World War Z by Max Brooks – The “oral” history about an apocalyptic war with the undead that almost wiped out the human race as we know it. This reads almost like your favorite travel vlogger visiting various sites decimated by the undead. The book actually offers an interesting commentary of how governments could (mis)manage an event of catastrophic proportions while the world is amidst a meltdown. The movie was nothing great frankly and the book offered a much more interesting and sometimes humorous view of how a society could adapt against the zombie apocalypse.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy – One of the most hopeless, desolate, heart-breaking stories in the genre. I’ve read this one twice and its one of those books where the writing is alive and makes you plod till the end with the wretched protagonists despite the utter futility you already know that awaits in the end. A father and son trudging through a devastated wasteland trying to survive against a world that includes diseases, starvation, cannibals and more. Its a road to nowhere with only your humanity to treasure. The movie was one of the rare well-made book-to-TV adaptions and remained sincere to the book.

“Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” -Cormac McCarthy, The Road

The Stand by Stephen King – Not part of zombie genre but the 1000 page uncut version of the ultimate post-apocalyptic storyline by master of the macabre is essentially reading for this genre. The battle of good versus evil against a background of disease and complex human relationship finally ending with a showdown in Vegas. Nothing not to enjoy on this one. As a huge king fan, I’ve enjoyed most of his books during my teenage and adult life and this one left a big impression on me. This one is due a re-read.

I am legend – Richard Matheson – Post-apocalyptic vampire-like zombies against the last man on earth who locks his doors and prays for dawn every night. This was one of those books where the second read was more enjoyable than the first. The main characters search for purpose and the utter isolation is one of the more enjoyable aspects of this book. Its a lot different than the Will Smith movie where he slaps the zombies around and goes out in a blaze of glory ( in one of the endings at least).

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller – No zombies on this one but the narrator ( a pilot) and his friend protect their abandoned airport from human scavengers in a post-pandemic situation. Things pick up when the main character has enough and starts to search out for civilization. This one deals with friendship, loneliness, trust and the insignificance of mankind against the power of nature.

My reading list here:

Book Review – Machine Learning with PyTorch and Scikit-Learn

by Sebastian Raschka & Vahid Mirjalili

I primarily wanted to read this book due to the Pytorch section and pretty much flipped through the Scikit learn section while absorbing and practicing with the Pytorch section. So my review largely is based on chapter 13 and beyond. Apart from the Pytorch official documentation, there are not too many comprehensive sources that can serve as a good reference with practical examples for Pytorch in my view. This book aims to do that and pretty much hits the mark.

Ch 1-11 is a good refresher on SciKit -learn and sets up all the foundational knowledge you need for the more advanced concepts with Pytorch. I wish though the authors had different examples and not resorted to ubiquitous examples like MNIST ( like in chapter 11/ 13 etc) for explaining neural network concepts. While these are good for understanding foundational concepts, I find the really good books usually veer away from standard examples found online and get creative.

Chapter 12 provides an excellent foundation in Pytorch and a primer for building a NN model in Pytorch. The code examples are precise with the data sources clearly defined so I could follow along without any issues. I did not need a GPU/collab to run examples . Good to see the section on writing custom loss functions as those are useful practical skills to have.

Ch-14 which has us training a smile classifier to explain convolution neural networks is a useful example especially for tricks like data augmentation that can be applied to other usecases.

I skipped through the chapter on RNNs as transformers are the rage now ( Ch-16) and Pytorch already has everything implemented in its wrapper function for structures like LSTMs. Still , a lot of dense and useful material explaining the core concepts behind RNNs and some interesting text generation models using Categorical pytorch classes to draw random samples.

The chapter on Transformers is a must-read and will clear up a lot of foundational concepts. Another thing to mention is that the book has well depicted color figures that make some of the dense material more understandable. Contrasting the transformers approach to RNNs using concepts like attention mechanisms is clearly explained. More interestingly, the book dwells into building larger language models with unlabeled data such as BERT and BART. I plan to re-read this chapter to enhance my understanding of transformers and the modern libraries such as HuggingFace that they power.

The chapter of GANs was laborious with more MNIST examples and could have had a lot more practical examples.

Ch-18 on Graph Neural Network is a standout section in the book and provides useful code examples to build pytorch graphs to treat as datasets defining edges and nodes. For example, libraries like Torch Drug are mentioned that use pytorch Geometric framework for drug discovery. Spectral graph convolution layers, graph pooling layers, and
normalization layers for graphs are explained and I found this chapter to be a comprehensive summary that would save one hours of searching online for the fundamental concepts. GNNs definitely have a ton of interesting applications and a lot of recent papers with links are provided.

Ch-19 on reinforcement learning adds another dimension to the book which is largely focused on supervised and unsupervised learning in prior chapters. Dynamic programming to Monte Carlo to Temporal Difference methods are clearly articulated. The standard open AI gym examples are prescribed for implementing grids to specify actions and rewards. I thought this chapter was great explaining the theoretical concepts but the examples were all the standard Q-learning fare you would find online. Would have loved to see a more realistic example or pointers to apply to your own usecases.

All in all, I enjoyed the Pytorch examples and clearly explained concepts in this book and it would be a good Pytorch reference to add to your library.

Seven years

Seven years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer

The author along with his friend, the resourceful Peter Aufschnaiter, takes you on a journey of 1000s of miles over hostile territories at a time of limited resources during the mid 20th century.  The first part of the book deals with the author’s numerous escapes and hardships that were overshadowed by his tenacity to get to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa◊We’ll sync on this next week internally for any options.

.Seven years in Tibet the tale of Austrian Mountaineer Heinrich Harrer’s trek through Tibet and his relationship with the 14th Dalai Lama. The Tibetan culture described before the Chinese invasion points to a simplistic life driven by a feudalistic society. I found the read immersive and had to pause many times to reflect back to a time that people today can never experience. The captivating descriptions of monks being carried on palanquins in Lhasa and the resplendent Potala Palace which was the home of the Dalai Lama leave a lasting impression.

The Dalai Lama , forbidden to mingle with the locals, would gaze from the Potala’s roof at Lhasa street life through a telescope and found a willing companion in the author who eventually rose to become the tutor regaling the young boy with his worldy experience. There are vivid descriptions on Tibetan rituals and the rustic but charming Tibetan way of life before the proceedings were rudely interrupted in 1950 by Mao Zedong’s invading army. The Dalai Lama’s flight to India from a chasing army was marked by the consecration of every building he stayed in during the journey as a holy place. That amazing journey is documented here.

The story ends at the foothills of the himalayas where the Dalai Lama still resides at the upper reaches of North India’s Kangra Valley in Dharamsala.

Harrer seems to be one hell of a renaissance man being a mountaineer, teacher, gardener, architect, civil servant and photographer besides being the part of the team that made the first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland. More importantly, he captures the times with his simplistic writing and takes the reader on a breathtaking journey. I found my self riveted by the journey more than the destination.

“One of the best characteristics of the Tibetan people is their complete tolerance of other creeds. Their monastic theocracy has never sought the conversion of infidels.”

Heinrich Harrer