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 Necessarily a little out of date, but very informative about the nature of the criminals using the Internet and the techniques they use to steal information that results in ‘real world’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 12 2011

“New Disposable, Medical Camera Is the Size of a Grain of Salt”

Published by under General

I think this is a cool invention, but it might just be ominous as well. A video camera with 250×250 pixel resolution so small it can be barely seen by the naked eye. Designed to do that dreaded medical procedure known as a colonoscopy!

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Apr 09 2011

Feel so sorry for them…..

Published by under General

Don’t you feel sorry for spies? All those computers making their job so difficult.

Russian spy agency complains about Gmail, Skype
BY Reuters
— 11:07 AM ET 04/08/2011

MOSCOW, April 8 (Reuters) – Russia’s domestic security service called for access to encrypted communication providers like Skype, Gmail and Hotmail on Friday, saying the uncontrolled use of such services could threaten national security.

As any technology a real issue as encrypted traffic can be good or bad, or both, depending on who is using it for what purpose, but a general banning would not prevent real bad guys from using strong digital encryption. Just prevent the vast majority of people from using it for appropriate purposes.

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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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Mar 01 2011

Feels Right

Published by under General

This decision “Supreme Court Says AT&T Not Exempt From FOIA” seems to me to have gone the right way. Corporations are not people. They get huge advantages by their potentially infinite “life” span. There should be compensating restrictions on their privileges and rights.

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Jan 19 2011

Least newsworthy award go to…..

Published by under General

Chihuahua survives owl attack in suburban Chicago
(01-18) 11:59 PST Crystal Lake, Ill. (AP) — An owl attack has left a 4-pound Chihuahua with a healthy fear of the dark. ….

What a waste of bits, ink, or time!

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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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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.

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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.

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Dec 30 2010

An Impressive Product

Published by under General

Intel has announced a new line of solid state “drives” in a very small form factor. The device are smaller than your finger nail (51 mm x 30 mm x 5 mm), weigh 10 grams, and store either 40 or 80 Gigabytes of data! (Their announcement is here.)
Undoubtedly only a step on path to even smaller and higher capacity, but impressive.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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