Showing posts with label computers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label computers. Show all posts

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Internet Security by Nel Yorntov


Rating: WORTHY!

Subtitled “From Concept to Consumer” this officious-sounding title is actually aimed at children. This is in a simialr vein to the book I just reviewed, but it was written by someone who understands the actual meaning of 'pithy'.

According to the book, job opportunities in Internet security are rife, and kids would do well to consider this as a career opportunity. If that’s the case, then this book is well-written to interest children in the Internet, in security, and in what hackers get up to, and what opportunities to make a difference a young person has available.

Illustrated with lots of photographs and color, and replete with small digestible text sections, this book will give a good overview of things without weighing down young readers with copious technical stuff. It discusses the history and rise of the Internet, and how vulnerabilities which were never an issue in the very early days, have come now to be seen as sources of mischief, profit, and retaliation.

In this era of trillions of web pages and billions of individual Internet forays into a bewildering variety of areas and topics from surfers all over the world, a person could easily get lost or entranced, or deceived, so this book helps map things out and also serves as an important warning to young users as to how they can become used if they’re not careful.

I commend this as a worthy read.


Countdown to Zero Day by Kim Zetter


Rating: WARTY!

I came to this book via a TV documentary from Nova: Cyberwar Threat that I saw on Netflix. The author was one of those interviewed during the show and my library happened to have her book. I was pleased to be able to read it, but the author insisted on larding it up with excessive detail that wasn't necessary and got int eh way of the real story.

Her problem, I think, is that she's a journalist and journalists were traditionally taught to make stories human interest stories, so every time a new person was introduced, we got a potted biography and it was both irritating and boring to see this pop up every time a new name did. I quickly took to skipping these.

The book was also not quite linear. It kept bouncing back and forth, and was often repetitive, reiterating things which had already been fully-iterated. There was a lot in it to interest me and a lot that was good material, but you really have to dig through the fluff to get to it.

The book was some 400 pages and I really felt for the trees that had been sacrificed unnecessarily to the God of Excruciating Detail to produce this thing. I felt better about that knowing that the last reader had recycled this book back to me and I had in turn recycled it back to the library after my use, but still! It was too much detail. Far too much!>

I cannot commend this unless you're really anal about excessive detail, and enjoy wasting your time reading all this stuff instead of getting to the story you thought the book contained. I really do not like authors who insist you make your life revolve around their inability to edit themselves then when all you really want to do is read a good book.


Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Byte by Eric C Anderson


Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

From the blurb, this book looked like it would interest me, but I knew I was in trouble when I started in on it and it turned out to be first person voice, which is rarely a good choice. That said, I have read some first persons that I enjoyed. I didn't enjoy this one because the first person part narrated by "Roller" was so arrogant and snotty that it turned me off the person, which is hard to do given that she was female, African American, and wheelchair bound. Any one of those, all else being equal, would have interested me. All three together should have been a winner, but having your character insult the reader isn't a winning strategy.

This character was in some ways reminiscent of Odetta/Detta from the Stephen King trilogy that morphed into the endless Dark Tower series which I gave up on, but not as likeable (sarcasm!). You know Stephen King can't write a trilogy without it running to eight volumes. This Roller character couldn't put two sentences together without lecturing the reader on ancient computer history. And some of it was wrong. For example, Stuxnet wasn't given that name by the people who created it but by the people who were deconstructing it to try and discover what it did.

Nor is the British Parliament based "in that temple of democracy, Westminster Abbey." Westminster Abbey is a church, Parliament is in the Houses of Parliament. And "In 2008, when Obama spent $760,000 to win"? No, try $760 million! But anyone can screw up a fact here and there. Normally that wouldn't bother me so much, but the relentless ego of the narrator was annoying at best (especially when coupled with the misstatements). The author realized he had made a mistake when he chose the very limiting first person, and we see this as he resorts to third person to tell two other parts of the story, which made for a really clunky downshift every couple of chapters.

And for a story seemingly rooted in the latest and greatest in high tech hacking, and set in 2025 yet, I was quite surprised to read this:

I've been living here long enough to know bad news only gets dumped on Friday afternoon. Preferably about 5 p.m. Too late for the newspapers to update, and the camera boys are already locking in the nightly news. Yeah, you're right, CNN will carry the latest update, but who watches CNN on a Friday night?

Seriously? In 2025 no one is going to be reading newspapers, which have been in major decline for the last two decades and more, and with the younger generations tied almost exclusively to their smartphones, rightly or wrongly getting their news from social media, no one is going to watch CNN on any night.

I doubt many people are going to care much about newspapers in 2025, let alone plan their news releases around them. I doubt they do now. Nightly news viewership on TV has been falling precipitately and by 2025 it will be similarly irrelevant. This felt particularly clunky for a novel which was at its very core about Internet use (and abuse). The blindness to social media was a real suspension of disbelief breaker.

Those were not even the worst sins though. The worst sin is to be boring, and I made it fifty percent the way through this, growing ever more bored with the complete lack of anything exciting happening. You could barely see things moving, so glacial was the pace, and I lost all interest. I should have quit before fifty percent.

If the main character had been at all likeable, that might have made a difference. If there had been some real action in the third person parts of the story: things happening instead of it feeling like I was watching a chess game in which neither participant had any interest in competing much less completing, that might have made a difference, but as it was, I could not justify reading more of this when I didn't even like the main character, when I found myself much preferring the dark web hacker to the 'good guy' hacker, and found nothing to make me want to swipe to the next screen. I wish the author all the best, but I cannot recommend this one.


Friday, October 10, 2014

Savvy Cyber Kids at Home by Ben Halpert


Title: Savvy Cyber Kids at Home
Author: Ben Halpert
Publisher: Smith Publicity
Rating: WORTHY!


DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is reward aplenty!

The cyber savvy kids have a series of adventures (this is only one of them), all aimed at showing children that their life is far more enriched by pursing a variety of interests than ever it is by dedicatedly staring in entrancement at a video screen forever. It’s also healthier to move around often instead of adopting the inverse shape of a chair for several hours in a row.

This particular adventure features the two kids starting to wonder how they will go on with life after their video game time-limit is reached. Interacting with mom, they start making lists, one for indoor activities in case the weather is bad, and one for outdoors. They soon have a host of things they could do.

I loved this book for a number of reasons. The first is how presentable and engaging it is. It’s no-nonsense, straight-forward story telling, with attractive and colorful illustrations, and it’s also educational, which is always a big plus with me, children's books or not.

In addition to this, the family is draw in such a way that they could legitimately be any one of several races, which is always a good way to be inclusive. I love the way their mom is engaged (no word on what dad is up to!), which is a really important thing that's lost when kids depart to the video screen, and parents depart to whatever the heck it is with which they occupy themselves - perhaps even their own video screen.

None of that here. Mom is right there and interacting all the time with these two kids, talking with them, asking questions, sitting down with them, making suggestions, sharing in their worries and triumphs. Can't fault that at all. I did have a problem with the stereotyping of the girl as a princess in pink and the boy in blue as a superhero. I thought we'd grown out of that phase.

Other than that, I think this is a solid start to suggesting alternatives to video to your children, and to helping keep them safe and competently occupied. Be sure to visit the website at http://savvycyberkids.org/


Monday, June 23, 2014

The Virtual Life of Lexie Diamond by Victoria Foyt


Title: The Virtual Life of Lexie Diamond
Author: Victoria Foyt
Publisher: Harper
Rating: worthy

This is the story of a teenage computer-recluse, Alexia Aurora Diamond, whose mother dies and Lexie finds herself having to actually spend more time irl. This novel was really hard to get into: the author is spewing jargon almost randomly as though she feels a need to establish her geek chops, and it doesn’t work. First of all she simply doesn't know anything about computers (she probably wrote this novel on a typewriter), and secondly, it just makes it that much harder to get into the story. She uses the term "hard frame" when she means "main frame", she thinks 'bytes' are a measure of time when they're actually a measure of capacity, and she tosses in terms like CD-ROM when she means simply a CD. No one uses that term any more, because no one really thinks of CDs as memory, although the term is technically correct. Even in 2007 when this was written, CDs were on their way out.

The author mentions keeping her mother's 'power boost' which plugs into her motherboard, and this in turn speeds-up her surfing? That makes no sense. The flat limit of your surfing speed is the maximum capacity of your connection to the Internet, and that's it (Foyt says it’s a modem which was not likely in 2007, not in a well-off family like Lexie's). You can use compression algorithms to transmit more data at that same rate, but you cannot increase the base speed of your link unless you get a better hook-up, so this was misleading at best.

And why are all these YA novels about girls who are from well-off families? Yeah, once in a while we get one about a girl from an impoverished household, but those are usually about that same state of poverty. We almost never get one where a teen comes from a poor family, but the poverty isn't the focus of the novel. It's a bit snobbish, isn't it?

In terms of writing quality, and other than the geek spiel, the novel is written in a manner that's technically OK, but there's way too much tell as opposed to show. There's also an odd quirk or two here and there - a short-hand which many writers use but which seems really odd if you stop to think about it. For example, on page 13 the author writes, "Her father walked in her room…" when she really means "Her father walked into her room…". There's a difference. What she actually wrote means that her father was already in the room and was walking around inside - pacing while thinking, for example. The other phrasing means exactly what it says: he entered the room.

It's like writing that someone "came in through the door" when only SWAT teams and super heroes actually do that. Most people come in through the doorway. Of course, it's pedantic to spell it out every time, and it doesn’t necessarily fit the kind of story you're trying to tell if you spell it out, but it does seem odd when you stop and think. Since this blog is as much about writing as it is about reading, I think it’s important to point out that you need to know what it is that you're writing, and to be sure that what you want to say is what you do say, no matter how technically correct or incorrect your wording is. Only then can you be sure you’re saying it the right way for what you're trying to convey to your reader.

Foyt stuffs every trope she can dredge up from YA fiction into this novel: the socially disaffected, angst-y teen who considers herself to be a different species to everyone else, and who is missing at least one parent; the trope guy with hair falling into his eyes who is telegraphed from wa-ay off; the trope bitch glam-queen who is her mortal enemy; the trope of having the trope guy and his main squeeze accidentally end up in each other's arms, etc.

It’s truly sad that far too many YA authors can’t think-up more original and inventive characters and situations than these, but there are some saving graces here which kept me reading. The "enemy" seems to want to be a friend, so that's a bit different, and the novel does improve if you stay with it. We get less geek speak (although at the price of more new-age and philosophical stuff, which normally I would rail against, but in this case, it’s actually presented in a way that didn’t make me barf).

Lexie is definitely out there on the shaky edge, seeing her whole life in terms of computer components and Internet interaction, and she definitely has a large dollop of eastern religious philosophy, conspiracy theory, and even alien visitation about her, but the way she tries to rationalize life and fit it into her really quirky computer view of the world is actually quite amusing when it works. Unfortunately, and far too often, she doesn't come off as being the computer whiz she's supposed to be.

For example at one point towards the end of the novel, she's supposed to be teaching her new-found friend about computers in return for the make-over she just got, but the whole thing is so god-awfully clunky that it's embarrassing to read. It simply doesn't work, especially when she likens a hard drive to a brain. No! If you're going to compare computers and people (which doesn't really work), then at least go for the CPU as the brain. The hard drive is not a brain; it's really just memory, which is admittedly part of a brain function, but whereas a CPU can work fine without a hard drive, a hard drive isn't going anywhere without some sort of CPU directing it. The truth is that this whole comparison is wrong because the entire computer is like the hardware of the brain (the grey matter and white matter) and the computer's operating system is like the thoughts that run through it.

Lexie learns from a visiting police detective, who is investigating the accident which killed her mom (who was a practicing psychologist) that the crash was caused by the girlfriend of a man named John Simpson. She took his car, got drunk, drifted into Lexie's mom's lane and that's all she wrecked. This girlfriend killed herself afterwards in remorse, it would seem. I wondered what the odds were that John Simpson was Lexie's trusted (and sole) online "friend", but it soon began to look more like it's her trope "love" interest in disguise with whom she's interacting which was sad. It would have made for a much better novel if her online "love" had been the one who killed her mother.

Lexie's dad, who has been divorced from her mom for a year or so when her mom dies, is soon hanging out with Jane, a new woman in his life, and to whom Lexie takes an immediate and extreme dislike. Lexie imagines that she's in touch with her mom via the Mac computer that's her lifeline to what she views as reality. She's named it Ajna-Mac and feels she has a spiritual relationship with it. I'm surprised she doesn't name her bike "megacycle"... and store her memories in bank 'volts'.... She starts imagining her mother is communicating with her via the Mac, and sees her on the monitor screen, although when she tries to make a video of this visit, her video shows nothing out of the ordinary.

This virtual mom tells her that her death wasn't an accident, and she gives Lexie the password to her computer, where her patient files are kept. Lexie prints out a patient list and urges her dad to get the detective looking into it. Lexie also tells her dad that her mother left her a letter in their safety deposit box, which turns out to be true. Everything else is easily explained away as Lexie's delusions, but this envelope was a lot harder to dismiss!

Eventually, Lexie declines into thinking Jane killed her mom. So is she delusional? Is disaster heading her way? If so, what form will it take? Or is she right in some weird way? You'll have to read this to find out. Despite having multiple problems with this novel, I still found it a worthy read overall. Your bus speed may differ....


Sunday, January 12, 2014

Vaporware by Richard Dansky





Title: Vaporware
Author: Richard Dansky
Publisher: Journalstone
Rating: worthy

Vaporware is a great title for this novel even though it’s actually inaccurate in more ways than one. It’s the kind of title that makes you wish you’d thought it up first, although as one reviewer has already pointed out, Ghost in the Machine is more applicable, if rather more ho-hum. Personally, I would have preferred Blue Lightning! It's right there on the box! Vaporware is a term used to describe software which often arises as a result of a larger corporation wanting to, shall I say, close the window on a smaller outfit. The larger corp announces a product which is essentially the same thing as the cool new app from the start-up or the smaller business, and because everyone now thinks that the mega corp is going to include it free with their operating system, they don’t bother to buy the start-up's version, effectively killing their app. Meanwhile the megacorp never did intend on producing any version of the app, but they still slapped-down and shut-out the competition. Such is business.

This is the first Dansky I've read (and I suspect it’s his first novel), but my initial impressions were good. The novel is well-written - if you ignored some clunkers like the weird sentence at the bottom of p271: "The smell of hot lead drifted then past me as I waited." The story is interesting, so I had no problem continuing to read, and even rather resenting when I had to quit for one reason or another (work is such a killjoy isn’t it?!). Dansky is a game developer, and so the basic situation he's presenting here is that of a small game development company (Horseshoe) beholden to a much larger corporate money bag. The story is told through Ryan, the lead in the development team. It's also told in in first person PoV, which I normally detest, but for some reason it doesn’t seem distractingly obtrusive or weirdly unnatural here. I don’t know why that is. Ryan is one of the senior developers - indeed, this project was his to begin with. He came up with the idea. The funny thing is that I can’t help but see Ryan as a proxy for Dansky! But hey, write what you know, right? Maybe!

Horseshoe has a brand-new game called Blue Lightning which is almost ready for an alpha test release, which means, all being well, that it's not that far from being on sale. It’s your standard first person shooter, but it has a new game engine and some nifty tricks and treats to set it significantly above competitors. While the game is up and running (and playable) it also still needs a lot of final nudges and tweaks before it’s ready for release to the public. The big conflict point in this novel is that on the very day they send a presentation to the money bags for approval to proceed (and some fat corporate bucks to keep them in business) the corporate guy kills the project, and tells them he wants them to begin developing something else - some project named 'Salvador' which is conveniently owned in toto by the bigger corporation, which depresses and pisses-off everyone at Horseshoe. This project is a port (the game has already been developed, but they need a team to prepare it for a different games platform), so this feels like a big slap in the face to the team at Horseshoe.

That's business - or what passes for it in this day and age. The difference here is that the main character in the game seems to have something to say about it! Some really oddball things start happening to Ryan. The first of these was that there was what the developers thought was a brown-out (just a brief glitch in power), but when Ryan's computer came back up, it came up to a presentation of the project - which he didn’t even have on his desktop computer. This seems to be tied to the second odd thing, which is that the corporate presentation has been changed - made 'sexier' than the original one they had. No one owns-up to changing it; then it becomes moot as the project goes down the drain (as opposed to down the tubes where they wanted it to go!). But there's another mini-brown-out, and the next morning as Ryan drives to work and tries to play some music on his iPhone, he keeps getting music from the game, which he didn’t think he had on his phone! Curiouser and curiouser....

It’s worth noting that Ryan has some history - a troubled affair with a co-worker named Michelle (who is another member of Horseshoe's senior management), which still haunts him, her, and his boss Eric. His friend Leon, another senior employee at Horseshoe is aware of his affair (everyone is!) and also has designs on Michelle. His live-in companion, Sarah is another one who knows. She's nudging him gently for more commitment and she has...leverage. She's just been given a big promotion, and with her new job came more bucks, she offers Ryan a chance to quit his long-hours, and the stressful and demanding job, so he can spend his time working on his novel instead. He already has fifty thousand words down. Why he needs significantly more time on it is a bit of a mystery, but again this makes this novel seem much more autobiographical, doesn't it? Ryan is a game developer writing a novel, Dansky is a game developer who has published a novel.

Ryan is a moron if he doesn’t take up Sarah's offer both for more commitment and for writing. Hell if he doesn’t want to take her up on it, I will! lol! I’d love an opportunity like that. Why Ryan was even questioning this chance is a question in itself (and causes me to question his questionable judgment!), but my worst feeling at that point was that he wouldn’t be smart enough to commit and he would end up losing Sarah. He's an idiot. Girls like Sarah are rare and to be treasured, but it’s his life to ruin, right?! Maybe it won’t pan out like that.

On the down side - the very minor downside - I found it odd that in a cutting-edge game development company, they’re using a whiteboard instead of teleconferencing and an eboard. It's even odder that his partner Sarah calls him on his desk phone rather than his cell. Doesn’t he have a cell? This is brushed under the carpet with a mention of limited minutes on the phone. Honestly? Dansky also seems a bit amateurish in, at one point, specifying that Ryan's desktop computer has a 36" flat screen monitor. This is 2013 (in the novel world). Was anyone outside of third world countries still using cathode ray tubes as monitors?! This is also a cutting-edge game development business. Why wouldn’t they have 36" flat screens? But that’s not a killer, so other than it arresting my attention for a second it didn’t detract from the story.

What I did find rather more odd was that there is some seriously weird formatting in this printed novel starting on pages 51 - 53. There wasn't any before that. It appeared in the form of excessive blank vertical spacing between one character's comment and another character's reaction to it. It’s the kind of space you leave in a novel when you're switching scenes and don’t want to start a new chapter for it, or when you want to indicate that some amount of time has passed between one event and another, except that in this case, no scene was switched and no time had passed, so I can only ascribe it to bad editing or bad formatting. What it actually looks like is that the text was hard-formatted for one book format and then got printed in another without being corrected, so the pagination is off. It’s noticeable and a bit distracting, but it's not a killer.

When Ryan learns that one of the engineers is still working on the Blue Lightning project (I guess it never crosses their mind to archive the files and password-protect them so only senior staff can get in there!) and slacking off his day job, Leon, his lead engineering friend, sets up web cams in the place where Terry, the offending engineer works, and the two of them, along with Michelle, spy on him via the cams. They see Blue Lightning actually come out of the computer just like the novel's cover illustration shows. The funniest thing about this part is the web cams. They get destroyed, and Leon whines about the cost, but these are nothing more than cheap-ass low-res webcams which cost next to nothing. But now the Djin is out of the bottle and there's no tonic for it!

I don’t know if Dansky fully intended Ryan to be the complete jerk and loser that he is, or if he doesn't know how to write a character who merits sympathy, but I don’t like the guy at all (Ryan, not Dansky!). He's certainly the team leader in bad decision-making, and the star supervisor of stupid. He has a bit of a blow-up with Sarah, who is the most awesome character in this entire novel. She is only trying to prevent this jerk from self-destructing, but rather than wise-up, Ryan ends-up betraying Sarah and sleeping with Michelle one drunken evening - quite literally sleeping as well as the other thing. Sarah is ignorant of his behavior, and she's heart-rendingly conciliatory when they get together later the next afternoon. She thinks he fell asleep at the office again, and slept there overnight instead of in Michelle's bed. Why either Sarah or Michelle would want anything to do with this self-centered loser is a mystery because he doesn’t seem to have a damned thing to recommend him, and he's screwing both of them in every possible way. I guess some women have too much decency (or shamelessness in Michelle's case) and nowhere near enough skepticism, because the sad thing is that this kind of thing actually happens in real life, too!

The problem with all this is that this soap opera, along with the day-to-day details of the computer game-designing business, are really overshadowing the ghost in the machine story. Why? Did Dansky intend to write a soap opera with some sci-fi thrown in or did he just lose his focus? Does he not know why people might take a look at this novel? I have to ask because it doesn't read to me like the kind of novel which game players would be interested in - they're too busy playing games! And it's a bit too procedural and technical for the casual reader, although sci-fi enthusiasts might pick it up, but then they, too, are likely to be disappointed by the soap-opera aspects of it! It seems like a comic-book format might have suited this story better.

I don’t know. I've liked the story, and I've followed it without bitching too much as I read, but the novel loses a lot of credibility with me at this point because this phenomenon that they've witnessed is completely outside the box (literally!), and yet none of the three people who have now newly learned of it seem to be at all amazed, intrigued, freaked-out, or curious about it! They simply continue on with their petty social interactions as though nothing bizarre has happened. Not a single one of them immediately confronts the engineer who seems to be most directly involved with bringing Blue Lightning literally to life. Can you say, "Not credible"? Given how dumb Ryan and Michelle are, this actually isn’t surprising, but I would have expected an entirely different pattern of behavior from Leon. Eventually, four of the slackers involved in resurrecting Blue Lightning do get fired, but not the ring-leader, because they need him for the project! What?!

In conclusion, Vaporware was entertaining to me, but the ending was a disappointment. I guess it was in keeping with way this story was told, but it was a bit bizarre to say the least; however, since Ryan got exactly what he deserved, I guess I won't complain too much about that, and I'll rate this as a worthy read!


Monday, July 8, 2013

Semmant by Vadim Babenko





Title: Semmant
Author: Vadim Babenko
Publisher: Ergo Sum Publishing
Rating: WARTY!


DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration of any kind for this review. Since this is a new novel, this review is shorter so as not to rob the writer of their story, but even so, it will probably still be more detailed than you'll typically find elsewhere!

I could not get into this novel at all. I know Babenko is a seasoned and respected writer, but I wonder if that's because he's "foreign" rather than because he has anything worthy to tell. Whatever the explanation, his seasoning was written off as far as I'm concerned. The blurb fooled me into believing it was going to be something interesting about AIs and technology and the human condition, but I saw very little AI and technology, very little human condition, and a lot of somewhat abusive adolescent sexual fantasy, which puts this novel right in the same boat as The Prelude as far as I'm concerned. The only strong feeling I got from it was that it ought to have been titled 50 Shades of A(I).

After plowing through the overwhelmingly massive info-dump of the first five chapters, I had pretty much lost all interest and found myself skimming the remaining chapters, glancing them over, reading a paragraph here and there because that was all I could bring myself to do. This tale felt much more like it should have been a short-story rather than a novel, and the endless description of obsession with women, and the notable absence of decent conversation was really wearing. There was far too much telling, and no showing to speak of.

The story is of Bogdan Bogdanovich, who creates an AI he calls Semmant. I have no idea why this name was chosen when 'Pedant' would have served just as well for a title. I must have missed that bit. Semmant is designed to beat the financial markets and does so very well. How this translates into it learning of Bogdan's 'human condition' I have no idea, because once Semmant is created, we pretty much bid it farewell, and descend into Bogdan's juvenile, somewhat cruel, and very shallow sexual fantasies and obsessions with one woman or another, all of which depended very little on technology or intelligence, artificial or otherwise. I have no interest in Bogdan or his women. I don’t care about his spoiled-rotten life or how it all comes crashing down around him or where he ends up. I really don’t. I tried to, but I had any reason to care sucked right out of me by the juvenile sex-obsession. I could neither sympathize nor empathize, nor even understand what it was Bogdan thought he was after, nor why he couldn’t find it, so I can't rate this novel as at all worthy, not even a little bit.