Archive for the 'Books' Category

Jan 11 2011

Google eBook Reader

Published by under Books,General

I don’t have a kindle or an iPad. I have read extended parts of text books and reference books online, but never before read a novel. Decided to try reading a novel and chose Google’s ebook reader for the Mac and for the iPhone. The book was a speculative fiction “Surface Detail” (see prior post) from their ebook store.
What I liked:

  • Easy availability at home or away. Always had the phone so I could ‘pickup the book’ anywhere without having had to plan it or to carry another thing.
  • Easy synchronization between laptop and phone. The applications took care of it.

What I didn’t like so well:

  • Weaker navigation than in a paper book. Harder (slower) to flip back pages to find a detail or look ahead to see how many more pages in this chapter. You can only see two page images at a time on the laptop and less than a ‘page’ on the iPhone.
  • On a computer, the presence of other applications is an invitation to distractions. Harder to get engrossed?
  • Smooth coordination between web and iPhone only works when logged in to google on web.
  • A noticeable transition time (measured in seconds) when switching between devices. Time for them to check the google site for synchronization information. Just picking up a book is quicker restart; but of course you have to have the book in hand.

Overall pretty satisfying but I’m not a convert to eBook readers. I’ll have to try a kindle or iPad sometime. I was positively surprised at how pleasant reading was on the iPhone’s small screen.

One response so far

Jan 11 2011

Surface Detail

Published by under Books

by Ian M. Banks.
This book is a continuation of Banks’ “Culture” series of space operas (see earlier reviews e.g. Look to Windward ). The story line is similar, but the setting and characters have changed. A mix of super intelligent entities which are self aware, fully conscious, and operate and build most everything are intermixed with broadly human like (‘trans-human’) characters. The human like beings populate the tale so that readers have some thing to relate to. The story includes some interesting ideas and descriptions of fantastic technologies a zillion light years beyond what is now possible.
‘Surface Detail’ weaves a few characters and tales together around rumination on what death and hell might be like in a world in which consciousness can be transferred and replanted in a new body. Some fun, but parts are a little tedious. It has a quite good description of a Hell consistent with commonplace pictures of fire and brimstone, but that runs on a bit long. However, the book’s hell is populated by ‘real’ souls but takes place within a computer recreation (simulation?).
One of the better characters in the book is a conscious warship that seems to love violence; just like a vicious soldier wanting a good little war.
One question not addressed is why the non biological intelligences would “spend” capabilities coddling the relatively stupid, weak, and delicate human beings! The machine intelligences take care of people in all the Culture books but what their motivation might be is never addressed. Why would machine (silicon?) based intelligences like to deal with and coddle biological beings?
Better than some of the recent books in this series, but not the best one.

No responses yet

Dec 16 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Published by under Books

by Stieg Larsson
This should be a widely recognized title as this book was “an international best seller” and was made into a somewhat popular movie (2009) which I have not seen. For the most part, this is a very good mystery. The story is set up very well in a believable manner and situation. The mystery is intriguing and develops well with a herd of interesting characters. The crux of the mystery is a very dark, violent and nasty crime, but the book doesn’t wallow in the details or description of the crime. Rather it focuses on the investigation and resolution as it should.
For about 500 pages, I was thinking I’d read and enjoy the next two books in the “Millennium Trilogy” which this book starts. But, then the girl with the tattoo became too good to be real, and the book ran on. After the main mystery was revealed and the crime ‘solved’ two additional ‘endings’ were tacked on and that didn’t work for me. They seemed unnecessary and anti-climactic. Too bad.
I’ve looked at the next two books but probably won’t read them.

No responses yet

Dec 08 2010

Zero History

Published by under Books

by William Gibson

This is the third book in a trilogy which is set more or less in the present among moneyed, young, brilliant and adventurous people. Most are involved in the worlds of entertainment, fashion, and advertising with a heavy overlay of technology. Overall a well crafted story that moved along with multiple strands but was not particularly satisfying except as an entertainment. At times it seemed a novel that wanted to be an action movie; 80 some short chapters jumping between threads, occasional bursts of racing around on motorcycles, chasing or being chased, and aggression (though no heavy violence as required in an action movie).
Much of the supporting material concerns the branding of products and the creation of want. Especially implicit rather than explicit marketing; underground brands. Lots of descriptions of real and a few imagined products and how they fit into lives and affect there users. Apple Computers get a lot of play, but there is not much imagining of potentially new and exotic technologies. Lots of ‘color’ commentary.
So a very mixed reaction; enjoyable, well told story but little intensity or substance.

PS. A good review in the Guardian (UK).

No responses yet

Nov 16 2010

Cutting For Stone

Published by under Books

by Abraham Verghese
I don’t remember where I heard of this excellent novel, but when I tried to get it from our library, I was about the 100th person on the library’s hold list. Eventually, my turn came and the book provided a story that was very different from what I more usually read. Written by an MD, about an extended ‘family’ of Indian MD’s, mainly surgeons, at a poor mission hospital in Ethiopia and to a lesser extent later at a poor urban hospital in the US. The plot flows along well with nicely written portraits of the various characters; mostly doctors. The beginning section seemed particularly strong with a vivid descriptions of an ocean voyage from India and of Addis Abba in the 1940 & 50s. As the story moves along, diseases and operations are described in some vivid detail and with some of the gore they must involve. Overall, the story is suffused with descriptions of and admiration for medicine, but that doesn’t interfere with the telling of an interesting tale.
Definitely recommended.

No responses yet

Nov 15 2010

The Untouchable

Published by under Books

by John Banville

A story written as if it were an autobiography of a highly placed, but recently ‘outed’ spy in the England. Clearly, a fictional life of the real Anthony Blunt who was the Queens Art historian and one of the ‘Cambridge Five’; a group of highly placed, Russian spies. The book portrays the background and cultural environment from which the spy evolved and how his life progressed. England and Ireland in from the 20s to the 40s is the main backdrop. Not much in the way of spy craft or intrigue, but interesting as a snapshot of a far away time and place as well as the manner in which a privileged person could come to ‘betray’ the source of his privilege and what he might have thought he was achieving. It was easy to think it was authoritative rather than an imagined autobiography.
An undercurrent portrays a gut based dislike for supposedly class unconscious and democratic US culture as one of the rationales for spying on behalf of the Russians. That logic is a bit hard to follow. Anyway, it was a very good read.

No responses yet

Nov 05 2010

River of Gods

Published by under Books

by Ian McDonald
A novel set in India which mixes Hindu religon and Hindu culture with a super intelligent system (“post human”, “trans human”, “post singularity”, or whatever) that interacts with a fairly interesting set of (human) characters. Unlike a lot of speculative fiction, this one focuses on the humans and doesn’t try to explain or even describe in any detail the super intelligent technology. It just is and its interactions with humans are all there is. The human characters were explored and made interesting (Like in a ‘real’ book :-).
For me, it was not a superb book, but was worth the time. For the first few hundred pages I occasionally considered stopping and I found it irritating off and on all the way to the end. Part of my problem was that it has a whole lot of references to Hindu mythology which didn’t mean much to me.
PS. I read this and Breakpoint (prior post) several months ago. Just took a while to get these comments done.

No responses yet

Nov 05 2010

Breakpoint

Published by under Books,Speculative

by Arthur A. Clarke

This book gets a mixed reaction from me. Clarke is an acknowledged government security expert with a lot of experience and knowledge who has written a story about his area of expertise. But, in many ways he tells a very simple and not very subtle story. Much of the time it reads like a listing of bad thing that could be done to a country by manipulating computers and the networks that connect them. Overall, it is clear cut bad vs. good with little to no gray aspects and cardboard cut out characters.
But, it is not a lousy book which should just be ignored. While it is very optimistic on technological progress it does introduce some of the issues related to advanced technology. Especially, “nano” technology and biological enhancement. It even touches lightly on the idea of the “trans-human” aspects of what those technologies might lead to. Issues raised include what improvements are acceptable and what’s the importance of the distinction between repairing and enhancing? Overall, Clarke seems to say that fixing is okay, but enhancing is not. Another issue is who will benefit: just those with money? In that case, the result is a likely increase in inequality as the rich get the enhanced capabilities (first) and then gaps only widen.
Worth reading. Especially if you are on a long airplane flight.

One response so far

Jun 15 2010

The True History of the Kelley Gang

Published by under Books

by Peter Carey
I am not a fan of historical fiction. My dislike for it probably comes from the mixing of ‘fact’ and fiction in a blend that I can not split apart (which is probably impossible as ‘fact’ is often not very solid). I’ve read some history in the past, but am not generally very knowledgeable. Despite that bias against historical tales, I enjoyed this book about a famous Australian outlaw of the 19th century.
The story is well told with a convincing sense of detail that paints a clear sense of the extent to which Irish in Australia were abused and persecuted by the ruling English and clear picture of the roughness of life at that time and place. Kelley was the son of an Irish convict sent to Australia who then grew up in poverty and with a chip on his shoulder. If this telling is to be believed, he was motivated by a sense of justified indignity and outrage at the way his family was treated. The truth is probably more complicated.
Worth a read.

No responses yet

May 02 2010

Staring at the Sun

Published by under Books,Speculative

by Julian Barnes

A “novel” that provides a story mainly as a basis for a ‘meditation’ on life and death. The main character is a British woman, Jean, born around 1920 who lives to be one hundred. Her life story is only sketched in as a basis for comments and observations about life and death and some mundane things along the way. Lots of it is about courage, fear, and about death and dying, but it is not at all a morbid book. A book of thoughts and explorations of ideas. Not an essay that argues for a position; it Just “talks” about things.
In addition to Jean, an uncle, a husband, an aviator who boarded with the family in WW II, and a son play roles in providing opportunities for observations. Events in the lives come in and out of the narrative in a way that seems very natural and smooth. Nicely written and interesting. As a bonus, if you choose to believe “Jean” at age 100, you’ll get definite answers to three BIG questions (No, not the meaning of life).
As an aside, the book was written in the early 1980’s and near the end it includes a dialog with a smart machine (TAT – for “The Absolute Truth”) that supposed to know everything, but doesn’t. No definite date associated but it would be somewhere about now. The characterization of the machine and interactions with it are very off: a green screen character based terminal. Missed widely on that one, but then the book is not at all about technology or prediction. Just about the human condition.

No responses yet

Apr 02 2010

Homer & Langley

Published by under Books

by E. L. Doctorow

This book of historical fiction is loosely based on the eccentric Collyer brother who lived and died in NYC in the early to mid 20th century. The basic idea for the story is the Collyer brothers, but Doctorow extends the time period and broadly imagines the lives of the brothers. His version is told by Homer who becomes blind as a young man and is supposedly typing the tale on a braille typewriter. Homer’s viewpoint and concerns are well developed and he seems quite real as a person. Langley is mainly present as an aid and instigator of external conflict.
This relatively short book tells a version that is part black comedy, and part tragedy. Doctorow uses the story to note and comment on some of the notable aspects of the 20th century: wars, atrocities, blackouts, Vietnam, hippies…. Interesting, but not great. Well written, probably not very interesting for anyone under the age of 40 or so.

No responses yet

Mar 17 2010

Re-enforcement

Published by under Books,General

As if to re-enforce the message of the book “Fatal System Error”, this article appeared in my news reader yesterday. Seems that some guys in St. Petersburg, Russia broke into some stock trading accounts and then used them to ‘kite’ a few thinly traded stocks and make a ‘killing’ off of the stocks’ price moves.
St. Petersburg was highlighted as the home of a lot of corruption and of RBN (Russian Business Network) which apparently hosts a lot of shady and probably criminal web servers and provides them access to the Internet. Don’t know if RBN was involved, but it seems likely.

No responses yet

Mar 15 2010

Fatal System Error

Published by under Books

by Joseph Menn

This book seems to be intended to get a reader concerned about crime involving the Internet and it probably will succeed at that task for most readers. Generally the crimes involved are not new, extortion, theft, but the involvement of the Internet introduces new characteristics and difficulties in finding and convicting the perpetrators.
The author is a reporter and the book reads like a very extended article built around the activities of two individuals who became involved in fighting Internet crime with some success. One an American entrepreneur and the other a British policeman. The story covers is some detail a number of related incidents and cases starting 6 to 8 years ago and general moves forward in time. In ends with some references to events in 2009. Along the way, there is a lot of criticism of some law enforcement agencies; especially the FBI.
The main pitch is to emphasize how difficult it is to prevent Internet based crimes due to the ability of criminals to cover their digital track and more importantly to blend into the relatively supportive Eastern European countries. Overall, the author makes the case that Russia in particular protects many of these criminals because of a combination of pervasive internal corruption and, more speculatively, because the perpetrators also serve Russian government agencies when asked.
The most attention is given to blackmail via ‘denial of service’ attacks (roughly preventing productive use of web sites by overwhelming them with trash traffic), but identity theft is also well covered.
The book provides a useful, non-technical description of the recent state of Internet crime with a useful description of the difficulties associated with international investigation and prosecution. A little dry.

No responses yet

Mar 06 2010

Restless

Published by under Books

by William Boyd

An excellent mystery with an embedded spy story that drives most of the mystery. A well written entertaining book. The main characters are a woman who was a very minor ‘spy’ for the UK in WW II and her daughter who is a single mother, graduate student, and teacher of English as a second language to adults. The intertwined stories are the mother’s history in 1939 to 1941 and the disclosure of that story to her daughter in 1976. The revelation of the mother’s past and prior identity is a total surprise and shock to the daughter. The book is organized as the overlapping telling of these two stories and they come together very nicely.
Very enjoyable.

No responses yet

Feb 24 2010

Bet Your Life

Published by under Books

by Richard Dooling

This was a nice little mystery story set in the insurance industry with a few references to the old movie “Double Indemnity”. The main characters in the story are investigators for a life insurance company. Three young investigators and their older generation boss are the main characters. One of investigators dies after being fired and spending the evening out with the other two investigators who then want to figure out if it was murder, suicide or an accidental drug overdose.
There is a small dose of computer hacking thrown into the plot, but the context is mainly provided by the ‘viatical’ industry which began to flourish when the aids epidemic arose. Briefly, a viatical settlement occurs when a terminally ill person sells their life insurance to a company for a fraction of its value after death; i.e. money now for them vs. more money later for some beneficiary. All legal but tempting to abuse, as it is in this story.
A nice little mystery in which the investigators need to be investigated.

No responses yet

« Prev - Next »