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.

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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.

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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.

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Oct 30 2010

This news bothers me (More than it should?).

Published by under General

For some reason a couple of news articles about a new Chinese ‘super computer’ bother me a lot. I suppose it seem to be an real ominous sign amidst a lot of words about China’s recent progress. And, a real event in an area that is important for the future of us and them. Here are a couple of articles: First a pre-announcement from the Wall Street Journal (subscription may be required), and an article on the announcement from Information Week.
I suppose it is inevitable given the seeming preponderance of Non U.S. nationals in U.S. science and engineering programs.

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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.

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May 23 2010

Biggest Mouse I Ever Heard About

Published by under retro

A neat idea implemented big in 1972. You needed a big desk to use it.

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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.

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Apr 17 2010

More on iPad Badness

Published by under General,Speculative

There is another very interesting analysis or better a critique of the iPad’s role on one of the technical book publisher O’Reilly’s blogs. It explains how the iPad can be, and seems intended to be, used to constrain and charge for materials presently available for ‘free’. An attractively packaged content distribution channel rather than a device that opens new opportunities or delivers new capabilities.
Inadvertently, a recent NPR show “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” had a funny bit that emphasized this point. They called a person with some joke questions about the iPad but the person they happened to call owned and “loved” an iPad. When asked what she could do with it that she couldn’t do before, the answer was … “Nothing”! But, she loved it.
I think I’ll skip the iPad. It would probably be useful, even nice, for very old people who don’t want to deal with the complexity of a more flexible device (computer), but just read email and maybe a few web site; an up-to-date webTV. I’ll get to that point soon enough, but I’ll pass for now!

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Apr 12 2010

Pot or Kettle: Which is blacker?

Published by under General

Apple and Adobe have been fighting over control of web and mobile applications development tools and last week Apple made changes to their developers license that precludes use of a major feature in a forthcoming Adobe product. The following quote is from a Wall Street Journal article on the web this morning:

“An Apple spokeswoman said that Apple embraces standard technologies and that “Adobe’s Flash is closed and proprietary.”

Seems to me that both Adobe and Apple try very hard to establish closed monopoly environments which they can control and get rich on. Apple’s claim to “embrace standard technologies” excludes standards that they do not set or effectively control, but the wording suggests they support “open” standards. Their license change is certainly anti-competitive and in line with their own “closed and proprietary” approach.
Update: For a more detailed analysis of Apple’s PR, take a look at this ars technica article.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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