Archive for the 'Books' Category

Aug 07 2016

Olympics Not Broadcast!?

Published by under Books

Amazingly, the Olympics are not on broadcast TV. One way or another you have to pay NBC to see any of it. I remember being enthralled with the olympics on broadcast TV 48 years ago. I believe that year was the beginning of the growth into the current spectacle. Times change.

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May 26 2016

Sad but true…

Published by under Books

The software industry in the U.S. has settled down to the “Big Three” all doing pretty much the same things. Copying each other and competing on ornamental details. Just like the automakers used to do. In a way, sad, but seems inevitable that industries follow similar trajectories from dynamic, innovative, fragmented to same old, same old in different (watch band) colors and with different size ‘fender fins’ (for those old enough to remember the fins).

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Sep 20 2015

Fortune Cookie

Published by under Books

‘Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.’

Daniel Kahneman’s ‘fortune cookie maxim’ (a.k.a the focusing illusion):

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Jan 04 2014

Technology?

Published by under Books

“Technology is only technology to people born before it was invented.”

Alan Kay

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Jul 15 2011

The Emperor of All Maladies – A Biography of Cancer

Published by under Books

By Siddhartha Mukherjee
The subtitle of this very popular book from the fall of 2010 is an accurate description of its contents, and if the ‘hold queue’ at the SF public library is a good indication, it is still very popular. It seems that a lot of people are interested in either a better understanding of cancer or just appearing to have read the book.
The author who is an oncologist chronologically traces human understanding of cancer and the corresponding treatments from earliest reports in antiquity to the latest knowledge based on a partial understanding of the key role played by changes to genes. Chapters are organized around important steps in diagnosing, treating, and understanding cancers, and often focus on the key individuals or groups. Most of the book deals with the 20 th. century and its ‘War On Cancer’ period.
Overall, it was a very informative book, but it did get a bit tedious and slow in the middle chapters which dealt with a period of limited knowledge, failed treatments, and the selling of the “War on Cancer”. The earlier historical material and the later genetics based improvement in understanding of the variety of cancers and their causes were more engrossing.
Cancer is a category of diseases with many sometimes subtle and sometimes complex distinctions which can be critical to the success of potential treatments. Currently, some types of cancer or some subtypes of specific cancers can be treated and controlled with a high degree of success. Others varieties and forms remain mostly deadly. All cancers seem to be caused by mutations in normally benign human genetic processes. One or more genetic mutations occur to enable uncontrolled cell division and in some cases migration around the body(metastasis). Many of the key genes involved in enabling cancerous growth have been identified and in some cases their identification has led to effective treatments.
The book’s stories often follow a common form: understand the anatomy of the disease, then the function of parts of that anatomy, and finally use that understanding to develop a treatment. Seems like progress almost has to follow such a path, but serendipity and the doggedness of specific individuals were also needed to make progress. While there must have been many equally fanatical and self assured researchers who failed and possibly hurt patients in the attempt, such stories are not told here.
Overall, the message is that cancer is a malfunctioning of normal live giving processes. Not an external agent (even the types which involve transmission by viruses). Progress has been made but cancer is subtle, robust, varied, and by no means on the way out.

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Jul 12 2011

Joker One

Published by under Books

by Donovan Campbell

This is an attempt to describe what war in Iraq was like for one newly appointed infantry lieutenant and his platoon of Marines during the insurgency in Ramadi in 2004. A very evocative description of what war in that place at that time was like for one group of men who fought it. I can’t say anything about how accurate it is, but feels truthful and makes clear the meaning of the ‘fog of war’, the chaos, and the insanity of it all via a retelling of day to day events. Horrible stuff happens to you or your friends, but the group continues attempting to complete its assigned missions; whether or not they seem to make sense.
The over riding importance of supporting your buddies and accomplishing your assigned mission is repeatedly driven home. That’s what you are there for and that it is all it is about! “Ours is not to reason why. Ours is but to do and die”. Not mine, but ours: the squads and the platoon.
Not pleasant or fun but worth reading.

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Jul 05 2011

Ebocloud, A Novel About The Social Singularity

Published by under Books,Speculative

by Rick Moss

This little ebook was originally published on smashbooks.com in electronic form which is how I read it. Subsequently, it was taken up and published as a paper back. A new publishing model.
The story is about people involved with a “Facebook on a lot of steroids” social network which is called the ebocloud. Affinity groups derived from the ebocloud come to replace the groups that members formerly related to in the ‘real world’. The cyber world (ebocloud) takes over which is the ‘social singularity’ of the subtitle! Before the book ends, the ebocloud’s capabilities are taken much beyond what I perceive as ever possible. Somewhat interesting speculation, but too unrealistic and superficial for my taste.
Overlaid on the description of ebocloud’s world and speculation about social networks is an apparent murder attempt ultimately resolved by identifying a mad genius behind ebocloud who is running amok. That genius is conveniently killed to allow the different good genius to continue his wonderful social network.
I was curious to see what this book was about and now I know; a simple sketchy story with a little interesting speculation. Not much atmosphere or depth.

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Jun 09 2011

Zero Day

Published by under Books

by Mark Russinovich
I’ll call this a techno-detective story as it has a dose of violence and mystery to complement its main cybercrime story. Somewhat similar to Arthur Clarke’s “Breakpoint” but more clearly tied to the here and now risks of a terrorist attack on current Internet based technologies. Russinovich is an expert on the internals of the Windows operating system and is now a senior technical person at Microsoft whereas Clarke is security policy expert. This is more realistic and is the better book of the two.
The plot is pretty straight forward and in the beginning seems like window dressing for some very readable information on internet crime and some techniques used to gain illicit access to computer systems. After a while, the story line does get going and becomes a light entertaining story. While there is a lot of accurate information related to computer malware in the book, it doesn’t get in the way of the story.
Russia and Russian criminals play a significant part in the story and this book paints a picture of Russia which is similar to the decay and corruption portrayed in Snowdrops which I recently read.

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Jun 04 2011

Sum – Forty Tales from the After Life

Published by under Books,Speculative

by David Eagleman
This is a very short book of about 40 pages but since I read an electronic version it consisted of 107 screens. The subtitle is a exactly what you get: forty short imaginings of what comes after death. Mostly imaginative and clever ideas sketched out quickly. The author is a neuroscientist and that shows through in a few of the scenarios. The book can easily be read in an hour or two, but probably better to read it one scenario at a time (which I didn’t do).
This was the first digital book that I ‘checked out’ of our library, and reading it was hindered by “Digital Rights Management” controls (AKA DRM). DRM required using a particular application from Adobe to read the book and that application was ‘stale’ and old looking with clunky page transitions and without the ability to scroll even scroll through a whole scenario (about a page if on paper). The DRM paranoia prevents copying any text anywhere

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May 20 2011

Spirit and Flesh – Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church

Published by under Books

by James M Ault Jr.

A fascinating, readable, and worth reading study of the community that coalesced around a Fundamentalist Christian Church in Worcester Ma. during the mid 1980’s. This book is even handed and goes a long way toward making such fundamentalist Christian groups understandable to outsiders by describing the ways it is beneficial to its members. The field work behind this book is now pretty old and may be out of date but I’d guess the insights are still relevant.
The author gets involved with the church as part of a post-doctoral sociology study. At the time, He was a non-religious former Christian who begins to attend and eventually participates, to an extent, in the church’s activities. From the beginning, he makes it clear to the pastor and church members that he studying the group and despite their fears of being misrepresented he achieved an exceptional degree of trust with them to the extent that he is allowed to make a reality based documentary that was shown as a ‘special’ (“Born Again”) on PBS.
In many ways, this congregation resembles a clan or very extended family group in earlier or less modern and cosmopolitan societies. A group with close, family like emotional ties that tries to provide mutual help, guidance and internal discipline. While it contains several significant family groupings, this group is self constituted and treats the King James version of the bible as the sole basis for its structure and rules. That bible is the source of “all” advice and guidance. However, it is essentially an oral society without written rules, regulations or agreements. Written documents, other than the bible, are generally not important. The King James version of the bible is considered to be the true ‘word of God’ despite the fact that it was put together from various authors over centuries since “The holy spirit guided the writing process so the result is true”.
Being an oral society, history is forgotten quickly. Current beliefs and interpretations of the bible are absolutely true, but those beliefs do evolve and change based on implicit consensus. While the King James bible is the only source of evidence and guidance, that book contains enough sometimes contradictory passages that the selection of passages to focus on provides for flexibility and the evolution (if that word is allowed!) of opinions and behavior. You pick your bible verses to make your point. Differing references are somehow sorted out and contradicting texts ignored as the group reaches a consensus.
Officially, both the church and families are organized hierarchically with males as the designated leaders. However, it both the church and in families the power of the leader is far from absolute. The pastor can be fired or members can demonstrate dissatisfaction by withholding contributions or by splitting the group to form another church if consensus building doesn’t get their desired result. Despite the official male dominance, women were often the real power brokers in the church and others in the group recognized their unofficial roles.
This book describes a snapshot of what the fundamental groups are all about. It goes a long way toward explicating the attraction of independent fundamentalist churches in the US; community and mutual support in an individualistic society. It does not address or explain the glitzy and often fraudulent TV empire variety of Christian churches. Compared to the group described, the “TV ministries” seem to be a cancerous aberration.
Worth reading.

PS. Many longer reviews and essays related to this book can be found on the web.

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May 14 2011

Snowdrops

Published by under Books

by A. D. Miller

This small novel is a well written but demoralizing tale of life in post communist Russia. It is in the form of a confessional diary being written for his fiancee by a British lawyer who had worked for several years in Moscow during one of the recent periods of western “investment” in Russia. He worked on arrangements for large commercial loans and became a victim of both personal and professional disasters. The disasters involve scams that he half knows are occurring, but he still willingly goes along with them since he is ‘enjoying’ his life. Russian society is portrayed as brutal, corrupted and corrupting.
The author was formerly a journalist for the Economist magazine in Moscow, and the story is presumably an accurate portrayal of the aspects of life in Moscow which he observed. The picture drawn of Russia and the Russians is not a pretty one as it focuses on the con artists, pervasive graft, easy murder, and a general feeling of oppression accepted with the ‘stronger’ preying on the weaker.

Crime, business, politics, spookery – the usual Russian merry-go-round.

A well told story, but not fun to read.

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May 06 2011

Kingpin

Published by under Books

by Kevin Poulsen

This is a non-fiction story of serious Internet oriented crime. Necessarily a little out of date, but very informative about the nature of the criminals using the Internet and the techniques they use to steal information that results in ‘real world’ thefts. The story was written by Wired magazine’s cyber security editor and is centered around one now convicted credit card information thief named Max Butler.
The book started a little slow, but once it got into the characters involved in the ‘carder’ subculture and the techniques they use, my interest picked up. Carders include a complete supply chain from thieves who steal credit card details through middlemen who sell that information to others who make fake cards which are used to purchase generally expensive merchandise which is then turned into cash. There are many variations on how to steal information and how to turn fake cards into cash, but getting and transferring the hard cash is often the hard point at which criminals can be identified and, sometimes, caught. Both the criminal and law enforcement sides of the story are told.
Worth reading is you want to get a sense for what goes on under the surface in internet and store front retail commerce. Contrary to what you might expect, most of the card information that is stolen is stolen from retail merchants doing business out of store fronts rather than via internet transactions though the internet enables the theft of that information from the merchants.

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May 03 2011

Calories!?

Published by under Books

We had a dinner at the Black Bear Diner in Paradise California a few days ago. The desert menu included a “Bear Claw” pastry which proudly claimed to contain 2,430 calories!

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Apr 04 2011

The Blind Assassin

Published by under Books

by Margaret Atwood

An excellently told story of a family in Canada in the early to mid 20th century. The family starts out modestly rich and the industrial ‘Barons’ of a small town in eastern Canada, but the family’s fortunes then decline with the depression. The book is narrated by one of two sisters and evolves into her describing the writing of a book for her estranged granddaughter’s benefit. The identity of the narrator and other characters in the tale is kept obscure early in the story. At the outset, it seems like several stories, but they all come together.

In a sense, not much happens and what does happen is often not described in any real detail. The two sisters’ stories are told against the backdrop of the depression, labor agitation, and finally WW II. The story line evolve smoothly and with small surprises that make sense when revealed. Lots of pronouns make for ambiguity as the several plot lines are developed and come together. Very nicely told story. Involving but not a page turner.

eReader note:
I read this over a period of about a month on Kindle for Mac and for iPhone which was handy but otherwise not exciting. Could read it in snatches as time allowed. The Kindle apps worked but were not noticeably better or worse than the Google reader I had previously tried.

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Jan 18 2011

Borderland: Journey through the History of Ukraine

Published by under Books

by Anna Reid

I knew almost nothing about the Ukraine, but had a slight interest since my maternal grandparents reportedly emigrated to the US from there about a century ago. When I read or heard a short piece on this book, I decided to pick reserve it at the library. Its title is apt in that it is a journalistic mixture of relatively current (1990s) travel based observation of the Ukraine and accounts of historical periods and events. The book positions the Ukraine as a fought over frontier land for over a millenium. Over that time, its people have been pushed this way and that and often massacred in huge numbers with Stalin’s starving of the countryside possibly the worst.
This history begins with the settlements created by the Rus (vikings) who ventured down rivers to trade with and raid on the Muslim empires to the south of the Ukraine, Subsequently, the territory was split up and fought over in various ways by many neighboring empires; Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, Turkish, Viking, Lithuanian and Polish. Geographically, the Ukraine is similar to the midwest: huge expanses of fertile land originally seen as ‘seas of grass’ which were turned into farm land when sufficient social stability was achieved.
The book offers some lovely examples of capriciousness of history and how seemingly small, local decisions entrain major consequences.
+ An early Rus king chose Christianity over Islam when he decided he needed a ‘modern’ religion for his kingdom. He went looking, but his fondness for wine and pork led to Christianity (or so the story goes). Whatever the reason the choice set the border between Christian Europe and Islamic areas to the east and south which persists even today.
+ A major cossack revolution against the poles ultimately lead to a union with Muskovy. The revolution grew out of an attempt by a local cossack chieftain to redress a personal feud with a Polish neighbor. The Polish rulers wouldn’t redress his grievance and the dispute escalated to a revolt which failed after some successes, and that failure pushed the cossack’s faction into a treaty with Muskovy from which a long and close association with Russia developed.
The book is now a little out of date, but it does go through Chernobyl (a very sloppy test gone badly awry) and the break up of the Soviet Union. All in all it paints an intriguing picture of a country that hasn’t been independent for so long that the people who live there are technically independent but don’t really believe it. Some want to join Russia, some want western Europe, but for both groups the economy is a shambles.

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