Archive for the 'Books' Category

Feb 24 2010

Transition

Published by under Books

by Ian M. Banks

The book jacket calls this “An apocalyptic fable for terrible times”, and the introduction pins the timing to the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers. That seems like a god transition to focus on, but as it turns out, that time period doesn’t seem the least bit relevant to the story. While I like Banks’ writing, I didn’t like this book.
This story seems a hodge podge of ideas. It is based very loosely on the “Many Universe” interpretation of quantum mechanics, but only as a abused ploy for a lot of what is essentially magic. Some good bits of writing but the plot is just a battle between good guys and bad guys (both women), with too many miraculous capabilities used to resolve the plot.
The story is developed as an interweaving of episodes happening to the several main participants and this may be the best aspect of the story.
Not recommended.

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Dec 28 2009

Shriek: An Afterword

Published by under Books

by Jeff VanderMeer

This book tells an imaginary history of two imaginary people in an imaginary place which is not unusual for a novel, but these are more imaginary than most. One of the two is pretty normal, but the second becomes pretty unusual. Not speculative fiction, not science fiction, but a literally ‘fantastic’ story with a bit of a surreal feel; very clever and imaginative. The story of a brother and sister told through an “afterword” to a book that the brother wrote. The afterward is written by the sister with comments added by the brother who apparently reappeared after the sister somehow abandoned the afterward. The story is well written and plays out gradually and nicely as a meandering story, not a gripping page turner. Much is implied and little is explicit.
The setting is a world with a usual dose of conflicting governments and organizations and it includes one war (ended in a “festival”), but it is not a tale of large scale action. There are a few other characters in addition to the imaginary authors, but fungi and mysterious beings who live underground but intermingle with the people are the ambiguous focus. The fungi constitute some kind of sentient entity that is gradually taking over a city. Not really taking over explicitly, but that seems inevitable (nothing is explicit).
The brother is fascinated by the fungi, goes exploring underground, and through the course of the story is merging with the fungi (at least some of them live in and on him but he has some control over them). The overall feel of the book is a little like 2001 (the movie); a migration toward something unknown, but ‘bigger’ than normal reality. As if the fungi and people coexisted in the same space and only occasionally interacted.
An unusual aspect is there was almost no technology in the story. Casual mention of telephone, boat, and automobile. Most travel is by foot. The fungi, however, can make weapons out of fungi! Makes some sense when you read it. Weird and I can’t describe it at all well, but it was a pleasant imaginative read.

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Dec 12 2009

The Fight for America 2008

Published by under Books

by Dan Balz & Haynes Johnson

I am not anything like a “political junky” and don’t watch much TV. I actively avoid listening to politicians since they tend to talk too much and say too little. Politics is important, but I can’t stomach the pompous talk, the omissions, the distortions, and the half truths. So, I tend not to be the best informed on what politicians are saying or doing. But, I like to think I investigate enough to vote sensibly and I occasionally write or call an elected official.
With that point of view, it should no be a surprise that I don’t read much about politics, but I did really enjoyed this book. It was written by two journalists who worked on the recent primary and general elections, and they provide an interesting ‘journalistic history’ of the incredibly long and costly process that eventually led to Obama being elected president. Their story starts before the candidates declare and essentially ends with the general election.
There is a lot of name dropping and explanations of who did what when, but the overall impression is of an immensely arduous process. Serious candidates are followed around continuously and every word examined for real or imagined slights or gaffs. Most anyone would make some number of stupid or insulting to someone statements in the course of two years! The press which is always looking for a story or headline is very quixotic; sometimes making a big deal and sometime ignoring a particular depending on the mood and story of the moment. Getting elected President is an unbelievable grind. Not sure how anyone survives it. Though I suppose the story just skips the inevitable down time; as there must be some of it.
Overall, the battle for the Democratic nomination was more intense and interesting than the general elections. The authors left me with the conclusion that Obama beat Clinton because he had a better strategy for collecting delegates and he executed it better. Clinton, on the other hand was probably over confident and certainly over staffed with talented people who didn’t server her well. They fought and schemed, but that was partly her fault for not organizing them well (and Bill C. Inadvertently helped to stir the pot.).
The world of political operative, planners, and schemers seems to a small one. The people who work on campaigns seem to jump from candidate or campaign, and to a lesser degree form party to party as candidates join or abandon the contests and they all know one another, have fought one another and sometimes greatly dislike one another. A small but probably very influential industry.
One specific I have to mention. Edward Kennedy’s reported advice to Obama when discussing whether or not to run: “You can’t get elected with a voting record!!” so run now. If you’ve had to vote on tough issues or emotional issues, you’ll create too many people who won’t ever vote for you. That’s a sad but probably accurate observation and portends more off the wall new comers like Palin, Fiorina, Whitman, etc.; people who have made a name elsewhere.
All in all the book tells an interesting tale. Not always inspiring, but with some inspiring snippets of speeches (primarily by Obama but also McCain’s concession speech).

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Dec 02 2009

Jude the Obscure

Published by under Books,retro

by Thomas Hardy
This novel is over 100 years old, but was still a good ‘read’. A somewhat polemic novel that was quite critical of the contemporary late Victorian cultural institutions; especially scholastic and religious. It tells the tale of a doomed romance between two young cousins. Doomed by societal pressures around appropriate behavior; especially around marriage. Apparently, this novel was viewed as scandalous when it was written, and the negative reception it received convinced Hardy to stop writing novels!
Its criticism of religion, the scholastic world, and marriage have become very conventional:
– An English church more concerned about apparent form and obedience than religious beliefs.
– A scholastic world which is elitist and give too much precedence to the moneyed and powerful while ignoring ‘true’ learning.
– Marriage as a tyrannical relationship which kills ‘love’ more than encourages it; especially for women.
Overall, the story is a pretty dismal tale: a forced marriage, an impoverished youth who dreams of being a scholar, a loveless marriage, a doomed love that ends disastrously, and murder and suicide. Sounds depressing but mainly it wasn’t. It felt truthful though it was pretty easy to see where the story was heading. Keep in mind that this description doesn’t do the book justice, and if you want a better description of the story just google it.

PS. Rather than read this book, I listened to a Libravox.com recording of it. A first for me. The sound and quality of the readers were quite uneven, but it was a good way to ‘read’ the book given my post operation situation at the time. All the libravox recordings are free and in the public domain. A good thing to encourage.

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Oct 17 2009

A Most Wanted Person

Published by under Books

by John Le Carre

This is the first Le Carre book that I’ve read in a while. I loved his early books, but once the real Cold War ended he lost his most fitting subject and focus. This book uses his best playing field, Germany filled with western intelligence services, in a ‘war on terror’ setting (Boy, I hate the expression ‘war on terror’). The story is strong on painting a picture of the people at the lower levels of intelligence whereas the bosses are stereotypes. I enjoyed the first two thirds or so but then it began to peter out and get predictable.
Enjoyable read for me, but not highly recommended. If you’ve enjoyed his early books, you’ll probably enjoy this one.

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Aug 24 2009

Every Man Dies Alone

Published by under Books

by Hans Fallada

This novel was written in Germany soon after the end of WW II by an author who had stayed in Germany through the entire Nazi period. He suffered under the Nazis and to an extent cooperated with them as he “had to” to in order to survive. He died soon after the book was written and didn’t live to see it published, but he did know whereof he wrote and it shows.
To the story: Superficially, the story is depressing as life for ordinary people in Germany must have been. Shortages, constant surveillance of all by many, imprisonment or death if accused. Violence everywhere. The system corrupted almost everyone and those that dared to object or criticize were silenced. The tale revolves around two working class Germans who slide into resistance when there son is killed in the invasion of France. A personal rather than a ‘noble’ reason. Their resistance is simple and ineffectual; they leave postcards with seditious messages around Berlin. About half the book involves other characters and plots at the same time in the same city resulting in a more complete picture of life in that city. Almost all the tales end in death or incarceration for someone.
The Nazi period is now 50 to 70 years ago so the methods seem crude and brutal, but it is not hard to make the connection between life in Germany under Hitler and life under any other totalitarian regime. From reading this, it seems the annihilation of trust affects everyone everywhere. Everyone is suspicious of everyone else and hunkering down is the common (only?) survival strategy. With digital communications and databases, a more modern surveillance society would be more efficient and hence worse.
The book also contains an interesting summary of the life of Fallada and an introduction to the real couple whose story underlies this novel. This is an excellent book well worth reading. Somehow, it ends up being not really depressing. Realistic and much to be depressed about, but it is not a downer.

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Aug 01 2009

The Man Who Would be King

Published by under Books

“The First American in Afghanistan”
by Ben Macintyre

This is the story of an American from a Quaker family in Pennsylvania who went to sea to seek his fortune before marrying, was jilted by his fiancé while in India, and then set off into India to forget his love and follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great. A very hardy, adventurous, and lucky Quaker. He first served with the British as a doctor but then headed off into the border fiefdoms in North India and ultimately to Afghanistan where he, technically, became a king and opposed the British Raj. Josiah Harlan was a real person and his adventures were real as best the author can discern. He likely was the inspiration for Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King”.
The travels, scenes, and cultures he encounters seem very medieval. His travels and relationships were aided by the shock value a foreigner in Afghanistan had back in that era and the impact of, mostly military, European technology on the indigenous people of India and Afghanistan. He had entrée to ruler’s because of where he came from, but he made great advantage of the opportunities.
In many ways it is amazing how little the area seems to have changed since 1840 or so when he was traveling. Clan or tribe based loyalties still dominate society and relationships. Distrust of foreigners, many vendettas based on old insults and rivalries, and violence are still the rife. Brothers plot against brothers, usually half brothers due to polygamy. All males have and know how to use guns. Ambush and raid are a way of life.
As I was finishing this book, I happened to listen to an unusually frank sounding “Economist” interview with a Pakistani General in charge of their Frontier Force which is in charge of security in the Frontier, AKA Tribal, area of Pakistan. The Frontier Force is organized into Platoons which are all from the same tribe or geographical area. Recruits are easy to train since “everybody has and knows how to use a gun” (and some know grenade launchers and machine guns). Nothing has changed except the tools.
All in all a cautionary tale about Afghanistan: Fraught with incredibly complex ‘politics’ between and within tribes. They unite and stop fighting each other only when an outside power tries to control the place. As an epilogue on the death of the last King from Harlan’s period and killing of the President installed by the Russians in the 90’s makes clear, it is still a violent and brutal place. Like old days.
A very interesting and well told biography.

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Jul 11 2009

Dry Storeroom No. 1

Published by under Books,Speculative

by Richard Fortey
“The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum”

This is not an official history of the museum, but a tale written by one man who worked there for many years. His view of the place and its contents. The contents he describes cover all the possibilities; the buildings, the staff, the specimens, and some visitors and events. Organized by museum department, etymology, geology, etc., it describes the science and the people liberally laced with gossip and anecdotes.
Systematic classification is what natural history is all about and it seems to require obsessive, dedicated people to grasp and document all the details and differences of hoards of specimens. I could never do it, but it makes interesting reading.
This is a good book to leave laying around and to read a few pages at a time. Otherwise you can drown in or become bored by the sequence of short tales and classification details that make up the bulk of the book.

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Jun 01 2009

Absolute Friends

Published by under Books

by John Le Carre

I read all of Le Carre’s early books and enjoyed them tremendously; especially “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”. Then the old PBS version of Tinker with Alec Guiness was beautiful. After the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the cold war, he hit a bad spell for me with his non European based and post cold war contexts. I stopped in the middle of reading “Constant Gardener” as it seemed a forced and politically correct tale (Later, I did enjoy the movie version).
Absolute Friends was written immediately after Constant Gardener in the late 1990, but it relies on a Cold War context. I enjoyed reading it, but it failed to create a central mystery and lacked suspense or direction for long descriptive or polemic stretches. But, overall the writing is excellent and parts of it are gripping. The finale provides a very good case for paranoia and for conspiracy theorists.
Overall, it was not great, but not a regret either.

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May 20 2009

The Bin Ladens – An Arabian Family in the American Century

Published by under Books

by Steve Coll

A while ago, I listened to a podcast of a lecture given by the author of this book which was interesting enough to make me want to read it. Sure, that was the purpose of the lecture, and it worked. While reading, it soon became apparent that there are too many Bin Ladens for me to keep track of.
The patriarch of the family, Mohamed, had 53 children by a bunch of wives. As he was a scrupulous and devout Muslim so he had no more than 4 wives at a time, but women (really young girls) seem to be the way deals or alliances are confirmed in that culture. To keep within the acceptable limit of 4 wives, he had a number of short term wives some of whom provided him with children. As appropriate under his version of Islam, Mohamed took care of all his wifes and children even after he ‘divorced’ them. Osama was the only son of one such short term marriage. He and his mother were sort of transferred to a respectable employee who married the mother. They both continued to be included in the extended Bin Laden family; especially Osama. But, I’ve gotten ahead of myself.
The book is about the family and not just Osama though he eventually dominates the narrative. Mohammed and Abdullah Bin Laden where penniless young boys from Yemen who emigrated to Saudi Arabia soon after that Kingdom had been created by the Al Saud tribe. They were clever, worked hard, took on any project, and most of all, were successful in cultivating the king and his extended family. Both the Saudis and the Bin Ladens were beneficiaries of excellent timing; the start of major oil explorationb and development in the Arabian Peninsula.
In telling the family’s story, the book focuses on the three patriarchs plus Osama. Mohammed is the founder and initial focus. He worked the system and ingratiated himself with the Al Saud family by taking on construction projects as they attempted, and succeeded at, spending their new found oil wealth. He was an interesting mix of conservative Islam and modernity. Uneducated but clever and bright. A conservative Muslim who selectively sought out and adopted aspects of western technology. Especially, airplanes and construction technology.
When Mohamed died in a crash of one of his airplanes while traveling to a construction site, his son, Salem, became the patriarch. Salam was a western educated playboy with a love of flying and other high speed games. He roamed around the world with a ever changing bunch of mostly western friends, but he took his family role seriously and knew how to act like a responsible Saudi when necessary. He too died in an airplane crash but this time in an ultralight he was playing in Texas.
The patriarch role then fell to a brother Bakr who was an executive in the Ben Laden Organization which is their main holding company. Almost a bureaucrat by style and much less of a world traveler, he has kept their relationship to the royal family and their construction empire together and growing.
As described in this book, the family has quite a range of characters from very liberal and westernized to very parochial and conservatively Muslim. The family officially disowned Osama, the extreme right wing, and the author seems to believe that they really did cut him off from his money in the mid 90’s. Not just announced they did. But, Osama has friends in the family and among the Saudi population. The recruiting and development of Osama’s radical opinions and actions is outlined sufficiently.
There is a lot of detail in the book about the family and Saudi society. Not all of it flattering. Worth reading.
Incidentally, both the CIA and the FBI are panned for handling of research on Osama Bin Laden and his family before 9/11. Just didn’t do a decent analysis. They accepted false information on the Bin Ladens at face value without any real verification and then kept repeating it.

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May 17 2009

Espresso Shot

Published by under Books

by Cleo Coyle

The latest book in a series called the “Coffeehouse Mysteries” all of which have coffee related puns in the title and the key sleuth of which is a manager of a Manhattan coffeehouse called the Village Blend. As you’d expect, the ambiance provided for the story is coffee and food. Especially, Italian food and recipes for the dishes mentioned are provided at the back of the book.
I don’t read many mysteries so I can’t really compare this to other books but it was a quick fun read. A large number of possible suspects and motives were introduced, though it was disappointing that the criminal was a minor character who didn’t appear till 3/4 of the story was over. Good for an airplane trip or a day at the beach. I’d read another, but the library doesn’t have to have any of the earlier books. One called “French Pressed” seems to have bee the most successful.

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May 11 2009

Botnets

Published by under Books,General

The book “Daemon” described in my prior post is built around an imaginary ‘botnet’ set loose after its builder dies. That botnet is imaginary, as far as I know, but less capable botnets are very real and cause a lot of problems on the Internet and in the wider world. Botnets are the source of much of the spam, data theft, and disruptive attacks on legitimate web sites that seem to be a daily occurrence.
A botnet consists of a large number of Internet connected computers owned and operated by unsuspecting, normal, users that have been infected via email or via accessing a web site that injects malicious programs into the machine. These programs allow a remote controller of the botnet (a person using a computer somewhere) to tell the machines to send email, attempt to log on to a web site, or just take data from the machine and send it off over the internet to some place from which they retrieve it. The number of machines in a bot net can be huge; at least hundreds of thousands and probably in the millions. The BBC has a video of a simple use of a botnet to send spam. That activity by the BBC spawned its own controversy .
Recently, researchers at UCSD manage to get temporary control of a different botnet and analyzed the data that would be collected by the botnet’s controller. What they found makes interesting reading.

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May 07 2009

Daemon

Published by under Books

by Daniel Suarez

While in the middle of reading a couple of non-fiction books, I quickly read this action packed, contemporary Thriller. It is a fast paced story with an interesting context and some clever twists. A good airplane book and maybe more.
The book was written by a ‘software consultant’ turned author and the computer related context he provides is well grounded if significantly enhanced over current capabilities. Many of the computer network exploits that contribute to the story are grounded in fact, but carried out with over the top precision and scope (I believe!). On one level, it can be read as an almost comic book like ‘shoot em up’ (especially the penultimate battle and chase scene), but it can also be viewed as providing an ominous view of the future. A future in which most people are marginalized and caught in a world being fought over by big anonymous entities: big government, big corporations, and big ‘botnets’ (collections of computers controlled by someone who shouldn’t control them).
The bots form the idea which this story adds to an otherwise commone scenario. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but a, probably not really evil, genius creates a distributed set of programs (bots) that implement his desires after he dies. The genius has been responsible for creating extremely popular and realistic on-line games played by millions of people. These skills are then expanded into using those capabilities to enlist people to his cause and to attack the computers and institutions we depend on all the time. The game environment is used to communicate about and to coordinate actions in the real world. Real and virtual blend together. Focusing on the question of “what’s real” is the more serious way of reading the book.
My main objections to this story, is that the characters are too good to be true; too smart, too strong, too beautiful. This applies to the good and bad guys as well. Everything works according to somebody’s plan. Nothing is messy, nothing breaks. Everything works just right. No messy loose end or ‘noise’ interferes with plans and implementations. A common failing of speculative fiction.
The way the story ends, the author seems to be setting up at least a series of books; if not a movie or TV series. Another book (‘Freedom’) is in the works and promised for 2010.

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May 02 2009

Sanctuary?

Published by under Books

Sanctuary

Sanctuary


Love to walk around the city and I occasionally get surprised by what I see. This sidewalk message struck me as I was walking home from the gym. Nicely designed, two color, spray on stencil is appropriate for this city which likes to dress up.
Some truth in the message, but not a lot. There are a fair number of rich people in and around San Francisco, but we have a fair share of not rich immigrants, not rich 20 (and 30) somethings, not rich street people, not rich long time residents. The rich are, as they should be, a minority. A minority that the painter of this message apparently doesn’t want to have around.

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Mar 11 2009

“Click” and “The Numerati”

Published by under Books

Click by Bill Tancer
The Numerati by Stephen Baker

Computers enable data collection on a scale that was never possible before. In some case the data is accumulated just because it is possible and the data is ‘available’. Uses are eventually found for it. Once the data is collected, it is kept and may be used for unintended (unauthorized?) uses. Much but not all the data and its potential abuses involve the Internet. Privacy is diminished. These tow books are non technical and easily read book about how people are using computers to collect and analyze huge volumes of data for a variety of purpose.
Click has the narrower focus and only concerns itself with “click stream analysis”. Data on what web sites are accessed from what addresses is collected by ISP’s (the companies that provide internet connections) and then sold with a source identification but not a “individual user” identification. Trends, associations, and timing of the usage of various web sites can then be analyzed. The author works for a company that analyzes and sells such data mainly for marketing purposes. Questions like when is it best to advertise a product, what products should be advertised with which other products, etc. Lots of example. Many curiosities.
The Numerati covers a broader scope of data collection sources and ultimate uses. The Internet is not the only easy source of digital data: Public records, financial transactions, census data, voter registrations, etc. There are companies making money by digitizing and aggregating data so that it is easier for others to access.
The message here is privacy is eroding. ‘Click’ takes the attitude that it is all innocuous. Numerati seems to see more of the dark side. Yes, a lot of the data is “anonymous”, but only “sort of”. ISP’s can identify who is associated with a click stream, but they promise not to do that unless legally compelled. At the very least while you may not be identified by name, your behavior puts you in groups that are hit with ads, sent political propaganda, etc. Sometimes into very small groups!

Clicks don’t go away. Data or text posted on Internet don’t go away.

If you want an introduction to what can be done, Numberati is probably better since it is broader and less repetitive. Click is probably better if you are interested in uses in business; especially advertising.

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