Showing posts with label Hi-tech. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hi-tech. Show all posts

Friday, November 2, 2018

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Rating: WARTY!

This was an audiobook I picked up after seeing the movie of the same name based on this book, and which starred Emma Watson and Tom Hanks. The movie was rather improbable, but close enough to reality to be entertaining. The book, read by Dion Graham, was less than thrilling. It was far too wordy. People often claim the movie isn't as good as the novel for a given story, but I frequently find the opposite: that the novel is sometimes too rambling and the movie script writers have seen this and cut through the author's self-indulgent crap to create a much better story that flows and moves, and doesn't get lost in itself.

This getting lost was the problem here as the author went rambling on and on about things which contributed nothing to the story and which failed to move it, which in turn failed to move me. I DNF'd this in short order. You might argue that if I'd picked this up before the movie, I might have enjoyed it better and disliked the movie, but I really don't think so. A boring novel is objectively a boring novel, and the proof of that pudding lies in the fact that even though I listened this quite recently, I can barely remember any of it now. It made that little of an impression on me. Consequently my advice is to skip this novel and watch the movie instead.

It's not a great movie and I doubt I'll want to watch it again, but watching it once graphically illustrates the dangers of putting too much personal information out there. The Circle is both the book title and the name of the social media organization that this young woman, Mae Holland, believes is a career high. It's quite clearly F-book - a forum that lets members put out endless personal crap for the world to see, whether it wants to see it or not.

This business of publicizing oneself, which I've never bought into, is taken to extremes here, with The Circle being more of a cult than anything else, and with the advent of this miniature camera system, called See-Change, which can be stuck anywhere, and which transmits sound and picture by some unspecified means (using an unspecified energy source!) in real time to your device would have some positive benefits, but it's also rife for abuse and no one seems to call that out.

The movie diverts from the novel in some places while following it in others, and I think it's to the good that it diverts. I liked the representation of the Annie character in the movie better than the novel, and Mae was a jerk in the novel from what I could tell - not so in the movie, but since I DNF'd this I can't comment more on it than what's here. That said, I didn't like what I heard and cannot commend this based on my experience of it.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

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.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Helmet of Horror by Viktor Pelevin

Rating: WARTY!

Having listened to, and enjoyed, The Sacred Book of the Werewolf by this same author, I turned to this short story and was severely disappointed, It was trite, boring, poorly read by a cast, and tedious. I have now been turned off looking for anything else by this author.

While I appreciated this unusual take on the myth of Theseus, where people are locked in rooms and have access to the outside only via computer screen and a device which translates their spoken words into texts on screen that others in a 'chat room' can see (call it 'Theseus and the Monitor'), it was simply uninteresting.

These people were able to talk and see their speech and see responses in real time on screen, but the system X'd out any personal details they gave. Their screen names were preassigned and seemed to make no sense, but the story wasn't remotely engaging. I had no interest in their Internet or in any of the characters, and I simply didn't care who they were, why they were there, or what would happen to them. The parts were so poorly read that I gave up on it despite it being so short, because life is also short! Far too short to waste on something which doesn't grab and hold you from the off. I can't recommend this based on the half to two-thirds that I struggled to get through.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Future War by Robert H Latiff

Rating: WARTY!

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

I have to say right up front that I was disappointed in this. It seemed disorganized and rushed, and the text was so dense that it was hard to read, while at the same time so lacking in any breath that it felt like I was skimming the text even as I read every word!

I know this may sound strange coming from a fanatic like me who is always railing on authors and publishers to consider how many trees are being killed-off when setting up the formatting of their books, but I never expected to be advocating for a book to use more space than it did! This one went too far in compacting the text. The lines were so closely-spaced that it was hard to read, and then there was the usual 'academic-style' one-inch margin around the text! It felt so contradictory that it actually amused me. Smaller margins and slightly more widely-spaced text would have made it more appealing and a lot easier on the eye.

Even so, the way the book was put together was not appealing to me at all. Subtitled "Preparing for the New Global Battlefield," I felt it was so rushed and so shallow that it left me with very little useful information about how things might really be whether actually on a battlefield or in cyberspace. There are parts that were eye-opening and interesting, but the majority of this felt more like a largely-speculative work, rather than something which derived its prognostications from existing technology and predictable future directions.

On top of all this, the coverage of any one topic was so cursory that it really didn't get covered at all. One of the organizational problems was that there was very little in the way of hierarchical structure to the text, or by way of labeling subsections to make reading easier and to serve clarity. Consequently, it felt more like a stream-of-consciousness approach, and this didn't serve the subject matter well at all. The book was paradoxically only a step or two away from an outline list, yet nowhere did it actually have an outline list to make comprehension easier either in regard to what you had just read or were about to read in the upcoming chapter.

This book is very short and is a fast read, and if you want the vague 'ten-thousand foot' view or the whirlwind tour of future battlefield trends and technology, then this will give you a start, but it was really lacking far too much in depth and detail for me. It left me notably dissatisfied, and I cannot recommend it.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Game by Terry Scott

Rating: WARTY!

Today I have three sorry reviews - sorry that I started reading the book in the first place! I read only a few chapters of each and was so disappointed that I DNF'd. Some idiots argue that you can't review a book when you haven't read it all, but they're morons. Yes, you can reject a book if it's garbage.

There's no law that says you have to waste your life gamely plodding through a book that isn't thrilling you, and even if there were such a dumb law I would resolutely break it at every opportunity. Life's way-the-hell too short and books are way too many, to squander your hours on stories that don't grab you from the off - or worse, stories that do interest you, but that let you down badly with poor writing choices, stereotypes, trope, and cliché.

Fine, they say, then at least keep it to yourself. You don't have to post what you claim is a review of a book you didn't read all the way through. Bullshit! If the book is lousy from the start, you have a duty to warn others of it! And so to this one, which was not well-written. It felt a bit amateur, like fan fiction, and it was telegraphed from the start that there would be your trope guy and girl love story which is tedious, pathetic in execution most of the time, and way overdone.

The story is one of those absurd dystopian novels of a dysfunctional society which could never actually happen in real life. In this case it's a world focused on video games. This is how kids get their education: through living a series of lives in a virtual reality world, each "life" taking only a few weeks, during which time the contestant is completely immersed in the world. Of course, the poorer kids have to go to public school, while the successful contestants can win fortunes from viewers and sponsors, and re-enter the game many times, emerging at age eighteen with a fortune.

I learned all of this from a tedious and massive info-dump which occupied the entire first chapter. It was a slog to get through, and so I was not inclined to cut the author any more breaks at that point, and when I learned this is really just a mis-named "reality" TV show where the reality is all manufactured and totally fake, and that a successful girl who fouled-out of the system was going to get her chance to go back in, and this girl is living on the streets collecting scrap metal and being bullied?? At that point my trope meter exploded and I ditched the novel.

It was totally unrealistic. People like this girl celebrity would, in reality, have been snapped-up as a commentator or adviser or at the very least made a fortune from doing the talk shows, writing a book, and getting paid a small fortune for tabloid interviews. She would never have ended up on the street - at least not so quickly.

The story made no sense and gave me the impression it was being written from a playbook rather than from the heart - and heart set in the real world rather than a ridiculous Nickleodeon world. The problem with this fiction was that it was too fictional, and so it was really a non-starter for me. It didn't help that the author quite evidently doesn't know the difference between 'benefactor' and 'beneficiary' which did not bode well for reading on. I ditched it and I don't recommend it.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sword Art Online: Aincrad by Reki Kawahara

Rating: WORTHY!

Sword Art Online: Aincrad, known in Japanese as Sōdo Āto Onrain, which I find hilarious, is a novel which has spawned several sequels and an anime as well as the inevitable video games. I checked out the anime which is available on Netflix (as of this writing) and it wasn't watchable. I can't stand those giant, mournful eyes, and the pointy noses and chins. They look creepy to me, and it's particularly obnoxious when they have physical interactions of an intimate nature because it's like seeing children have sex. No. Just no!

Worse, the thing was subtitled and that's a no for me. Video - as defined by its very name - is a visual art, and you can't focus on that if your eyes are almost one hundred percent glued to the bottom tenth of the image trying to understand what they're saying. Not that there's much action in these minimally animated anime shows. Anime is entirely the wrong name for it; it should be called minime! But if I want to watch it, I don't want to read it at the same time! Duhh! Get a clue movie makers! If I want to read it, I'll get the book, which is what I did in this case.

Dubbed versions are also sometimes laughable because they have these middle-grade kids speaking with gruff adult voices which is beyond ridiculous, and sometimes the female voices are so spastic they make you want to tear your ears off. Suffice to say I don't watch a heck of a lot of anime!

But back to our book in progress: set in 2022, with the trope of new technology available to totally immerse gamers in virtual reality, sixteen-year-old Kazuto Kirigaya, whose game name is "Kirito", is anxious to try out this new game: Sword Art Online, of which he was a beta tester. He, along with ten thousand other players (all in Japan) is shocked to discover that once the game begins, no one cannot log out.

All of the players have been trapped by psycho game developer Akihiko Kayaba, and the sad thing is even by the end of the novel we're never given any real reason (not even a 'reason' as seen by Kayaba) why this is being done. The only way to get out is to fight your way past super monsters to the one hundredth floor. Anyone who tries to exit by means of having someone remove their telemetry head cage, will have their brain zapped by microwaves. One more thing: if you die in the game, you die in real life.

Players find they have no choice. Some hunker down and do nothing, while others form guilds to try and make their way to the top. One groups forms a huge army. Some players, such as Kirito, go it alone. Time passes and the gamers progress floor by floor. Progress isn't achieved by anything like skill or intelligence - except skill in sword-fighting, but this is what the gaming world has reduced us to: conflict and bravado.

Just like the real world, we could render the virtual worlds into anything we want, but the males in power in both these worlds have decided that testosterone rules: the real world, the gaming world, and the comic book world, and all that's important is stealing and racing cars, fighting with swords, or fighting with guns. This is the world macho men have created for us all.

Large chunks of time are bypassed in this book in the space of a sentence as the novel progresses, and suddenly we've been gaming for two years, although who is keeping track of that isn't mentioned. Maybe it's the game itself, but since they're in a virtual reality, that reality could be lying to them with each passing minute! No one considers this.

There are one or two interludes, during which Kirito meets and partners with a guild member named Asuna Yuuki, the first name of which is pretty much 'anus' backwards, unfortunately. That said, the relationship between the two, while a bit on the precipitous side, isn't too badly done, and given the stress they're under, perhaps isn't even too quick. The end was a bit abrupt and unlikely. No one who has been confined to a hospital bed essentially in a coma for two years, not even with the best and most attentive care, which few of these many thousands of gamers will have had, is going to get out of bed and start walking around five minutes after waking up!

But, despite the weaknesses, I liked the story quite a lot. I consider it a worthy read, and I was thinking I might read volume two just out of curiosity, but then I discovered that volume two consists of Kirito going back into the game (a slightly different game) to rescue Asuna, who is trapped in it! What? How is she trapped in a different game? This is my problem with series - they are by definition derivative and unimaginative, and while some authors can make a go of them, most just make a goo of them. Clearly this author can't hack it, because he's simply telling the first story over again! Except that this time it's worse, because Asuna is a maiden in distress. I'm sorry, but no! You don't get to make her a victim like this and have the guy come in and rescue her like St George saving the maiden from the dragon (exactly like that!), so further reading in this series is definitely out for me.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Count Zero by William Gibson

Rating: WARTY!

This was another audiobook. I'd read and enjoyed Neuromancer a long time ago, and Gibson followed-up with this sequel, the second in his so-called 'sprawl trilogy' but even though I also read this one, I could not remember what happened in it! That ought to have warned me right there. This one started out well enough, but after the first ten percent or so, it devolved into the most tedious rambling imaginable, and I couldn't stand to listening to it any more.

I found myself phasing it out of my consciousness, and focusing on other things instead. Since I typically only listen to audiobooks when driving, I'm used to focusing on other things, namely traffic, but I always come back to the book - it's always there on the periphery even if I'm focused on some traffic situation, but in this case it disappeared and I didn't miss it! It was minutes later that I recalled I was supposed to be listening to it, which is a sure sign the author has lost me as an audience and it's time to return this to the library and let someone else suffer through it!

The sequel to this, and the closing volume of the trilogy is Mona Lisa Overdrive, which is an awesome name for a novel - as good as Neuromancer, so I will give that a try if the library has it. Again, I've read it before, but I barely remember it, so I'm not optimistic about liking that after this experience.

Gibson's problem is that his books now seem awfully dated. They're set in a high-tech future, but now have the same quaintness that those 'predictive' books of the nineteen-fifties had: so optimistic about technology, but so wrong about how it came to be and how it's been applied. Gibson's future is relentlessly negative, which hasn't come to be and most likely will not, unless climate changed brings us down badly. He thought we'd be getting our news by fax instead of through cell phones! His future hasn't heard of personal communication devices or anything like the world wide web.

He has medical science making huge leaps in body repair and enhancement, which is slowly coming to pass, but while he futuristically has people jacking into 'cyberspace' directly, instead of interfacing through keyboards and monitors, he has them completely unprotected against viruses and worms. This isn't credible. Neither is it credible that anyone would put their brain at risk like that unless they were nuts to begin with. On the other side of the coin, he does see corporate globalization as being troublesome, but I think Melissa Scott does a better job of visualizing the future in her Trouble and Her Friends than Gibson does in anything he's written (that I've read).

The story began interestingly enough with a mercenary by the name of Turner, being blown-up and rebuilt. He's recuperating with a fine girlfriend, but he doesn't realize she's been paid to nursemaid him until Conroy shows up. An old colleague, Conroy wants Turner's help in extracting a member of one global corporation and delivering him to work for a rival company. Meanwhile, the standard Gibson style hacker, Bobby Newmark, the Count Zero of the title, almost dies when trying out some new software. He's saved by the daughter of the man who Turner and Conroy are trying to extract. Her name is Angie Mitchell, and she has the ability to "jack in" to cyberspace without a jack.

As you can see, Gibson's work has heavily influenced what came afterwards, notably, the Matrix trilogy of movies, and the Thirteenth Floor movie which got very little traction, but which is a favorite of mine. The problem with him, for me, is that he's pretty much remained static, with his one-hit wonder, Neuromancer, the only thing to have honestly impressed me of all he's written, and a large part of that was Molly Millions, aka Sally Shears, who makes only the briefest of appearances in this middle volume before playing a larger role in the finale.

I can't recommend this one, though.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Last Firewall by William Hertling

Rating: WORTHY!

This was an interesting novel with some similarities to Brian Falkner's Brain Jack which I reviewed positively in January 2017. Like that novel, it's set in a future where neural implants allow people to access the Internet without a computer in front of them. They can also hook-up directly with others who have implants for everything from business meetings to sexual liaisons.

In this story, there are robots and AIs galore and there is also, predictably, an anti-AI movement which is, predictably knowing humans, becoming violent and polarized. Instead of intelligently addressing the issues, the mob is going after the two young men, Leon and Mike, who have done most to design safety into the systems, but these systems are also policed and designed by the AIs themselves. There;s even at one point a battle bot named Helena, about which I couldn't help but wonder if it was named in honor of the assassin clone in the TV show Orphan Black!

The AIs are now several generations advanced, and the most recent models are considerably smarter than humans. There are flies in this electronic ointment though. Leon and Mike are informed that there have been a significant number of deaths which may or may not be accidental, wherein the victim's brain has overloaded with data and those affected have died. In addition to this, one of the main characters, named Cat, who was an early implant adopter, has found she can control the implants of others.

This shouldn't be possible, but Cat got her experimental implant as a young child, much younger than people typically get them now, and something in her connection works differently. She is unable to have neural net sex like other people are, but she is able to control things which other people cannot. Naturally, she keeps this ability as secret as she can, and initially uses it in a very limited manner, but later she finds herself forced to not only explore, but also to push the envelope of her abilities.

Because AIs and robots do all the work, there is a huge amount of idle time. The author, perhaps wisely, doesn't go into any details as to how this economy is supposed to work, but because of the productivity of the AIs and the robots, we're told, everyone gets a free living. There seems to me to be a flaw in that economy somewhere, but I can't immediately put my finger on it! That aside, in this world, most people simply idle away their days playing games, or watching vids in their brain, or having sex. They can increase their subsistence level income not by doing a job of work, but by pursuing higher education, which is what Cat is doing - or was doing before she had to go on the run for accidentally killing some guys who were beating up on a little sentient robot.

So in this world, no one works, which makes it completely odd later when Cat meets a guy and assesses him as a construction worker, or a robot mechanic. If no one works, how would he be a worker? This part made no sense. Neither did it make sense that she would immediately want to take him to bed. Yes, there can be non-contact sex, but she can't indulge in it. Yet she picks up a complete stranger at a bar for physical sex, and when he tells her he wants to tie her up, she says bring it on? Sorry but no!

He's not talking about virtual tying-up, and there's not a word written here about venereal disease. Perhaps it's perfectly safe in a world which has health nanites (a word which Microsoft Moron wants to turn into 'nannies' LOL!), but not a word is written about that, so in the way this is presented, Cat is depicted as a complete moron. At this point she plummeted from being quite high in my esteem! I can't help but wonder if a female author might have written this differently, but given the shamefully lousy state of YA "literature" these days, maybe she would not.

Fortunately, Cat redeemed herself later in other ways, but this one spot left a sour taste. However, overall the story was very well done - descriptive, but not overly so, revealing, but without info-dumping, entertaining, realistic with its context, and compelling. I had some issues with it and did not appreciate the part at the end where it inexplicably slipped into first person voice. I also had an issue with how the AIs were depicted: essentially they were just like humans which, given what the author had told us, made no sense at all!

Also the author makes the same mistake we see in The Matrix movie and other stories where people "upload" their consciousness onto a network. This is Sole Copy Syndrome or SCS, where a writer seems to think that there can only be one copy, and if a person uploads their consciousness into a system, then it can't also simultaneously reside in their mind! Bullshit! Does the author also think their novel, when they're working on it on the screen, doesn't also exist on the hard drive? Do they think there can be only one copy of the novel so if I'm reading it, then no one else can be reading it because it's been uploaded to my phone? I'm sorry but this is thoughtlessly ignorant.

However, overall, I did like this story and found it to be compelling reading, so with the above caveats in mind, I'm rating it as a worthy read. That said, I will not be pursing this series. I had thought this author might be worth following, but there was a "sneak preview" (so called) of the next volume in the series, and Helena had been so neutered that it was pathetic. The story was far too cute and domesticated to be remotely appealing to me! It felt more like a family sit-com version of the story than an actual sequel. This is why I'm not a fan of series unless they're exceptionally well-done, and they so rarely are. You have my word that I will never write one (unless it's a children's series!). This one volume, though, was worthy!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Brain Jack by Brian Falkner

Rating: WORTHY!

Set in a rather less than ideal near future, this middle-grade to young adult work of fiction depicts the arrival of 'neuro' headsets which link a person's brain directly into the Internet purportedly enhancing usability and virtual reality significantly. Neuros are new, but catching on fast. The question is, how safe are they? This story reminded me a little bit of other books on this kind of topic, such as The Adolescence of P-1 by Thomas J Ryan, and also a little bit of This Perfect Day by Ira Levin.

Our main character, Sam Wilson, is of course a hacker who, like Dade Murphy in the movie Hackers, got into trouble for hacking computer systems. Unlike Zero Cool though, Sam actually gets hired by the government to work for them on cyber security. I like the way the author has Sam lured in via a trick so the government powers which are interested in him can be sure he really does have the right skills for the job. He finds himself working for an elite group of hackers who are the first line of defense when it comes to cyber security in the US.

Things take a turn for the disastrous when hackers start trying to probe nuclear power stations, and then the security team itself is attacked in a way somewhat reminiscent of the movie Surrogates which itself was taken from the comic books series, The Surrogates. Soon it becomes clear that something powerful and very nearly omniscient (rather like the computer in the movie Eagle Eye!) can track what they're doing and zero in on them almost before they know what they're doing themselves. Is this an elite group of hackers? Is it some super computer? What's behind it? I thought that what was behind it was inventive if a bit improbable and I really enjoyed the way this story panned out. I recommend it.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Back To The Future: Untold Tales and Alternate Timelines by Bob Gale, John Barber, Erik Burnham

Rating: WORTHY!

This is a graphic novel, created by Bob Gale, John Barber, Erik Burnham. Gale co-wrote the Back to the Future movie (and the two sequels) with director Robert Zemeckis, and he also produced the movies. Barber is a webcomic writer and artist with whom I am not familiar. Erik Burnham is a writer who's been associated with Ghostbusters and TMNT comic book, including this one that I favorably reviewed back in February 2015, even though I am not a TMNT fan.

This collaboration worked well. The book is filled with issues one through five of the individual comics, offering a handful of short stories linked by a narration from Doc as he modifies the steam engine which he will convert into another time-travel machine. We get to see how Marty and Doc first met, how Doc became involved in the Manhattan Project, how Marty had to deal with yet another school bully in his own school when he was younger, how his parents came very close to breaking up after Marty had gone back to the future, and so on.

The dialog is just like the movie, and Doc Brown and Marty come off exactly like they did in the movie. The artwork is excellent and very colorful. The stories are entertaining, funny and well done, and the overall graphic novel is wonderful. I recommend this one.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Kris Longknife: Deserter by Mike Shepherd aka Mike Moscoe

Rating: WORTHY!

This author has a series of (as of this writing) fourteen novels with titles just like these - the main character's name, along with a single dramatic word which usually doesn't apply until late in the novel, and is never as bad as it seems. it's a series which, to read and enjoy, you need to turn off certain analytical parts of your brain, and take a very large grain of salt, and if you're willing to do that, you can enjoy some pretty good mindless entertainment from these.

In volume one Kris didn't become a mutineer until the last three dozen or so pages, and even then it was to prevent an illegal war being fomented by her captain. In this volume, she's on a week's leave, but is trapped on a planet by a quarantine and a communications blackout, so she isn't really deserting. She also gets an entourage and becomes a princess. How that works is a bit of a mystery. I guess the author didn't think an heroic naval lieutenant was quite special enough to write about.

Kristine Anne Longknife is the descendant of aged war heroes who are still alive because about four hundred years from now there will be longevity treatments (which probably explains why humanity has been forced to farm itself out to some six hundred planets, which are, of course, at odds with each other and forming shifting alliances). One of her 'grampas', named Ray, is promoted to king. I have no idea how that's supposed to work or why anyone in this society in this universe would do that, except of course to make Kris a princess and give her even more powers and privileges than she already has, being the trust-funded daughter of massive wealth.

It was in order to get out from under this yoke, so we're told, that she joined the navy, but nowhere did she ever eschew her money or family privilege, so her motives are rather suspect if not downright hypocritical. That said, however, the stories do make for a fast, fun read. I think the author set out to write movies in book form, evidently hoping that Hollywood would take notice, because that's how this series reads, and in this volume he even goes so far as to parody himself by having his characters remark, on more than one occasion, as to what would be happening if this were a movie. Chances are that you're either going to like this or hate it. I tend to pass over the annoying bits (such as the overly smart movie style wise-cracking in which the team indulges itself) without paying much attention, and slide right on by to the more entertaining pieces, which are common enough for me to be able to enjoy these volumes despite issues.

In this particular one, Kris gets a 'body servant' (named Abby) added to her entourage inexplicably by her mother! Please note that none of this seems intended to make any real sense. Prior to this, her only regular companion was her bodyguard, named predictably (and irritatingly) Jack, who is all but perfect. Fortunately, he does very little except pose and talk tough. He's not really there to guard her body, but for Kris to have someone to lust after secretly, and flirt with openly. While I flatly refuse to read any more novels which have name the lead character 'Jack', I do make occasional exceptions when there's a Jack who isn't the main character.

Abby has some sort of a secret agent background which is revealed later in the series, although it's obvious something oddball is going on pretty much as soon as she shows up. Jack doesn't follow Kris on her navy duties, but when she's off duty and at home. In this volume, her best friend Tommy, a weird amalgam of Chinese and Irish, who is actually neither in practice and who seems to be there solely in the role of maiden in distress, disappears and it's evident he's been kidnapped. It's also evident that this is a trap set up to get Kris, so naturally she goes anyway, and gets trapped when the planet is quarantined for Ebola(!) and the entire off-planet communications network breaks down so the planet is also isolated in that regard. The weird thing is that not a single spacecraft shows up to try and find out why this planet suddenly went dead! Despite how important Kris is, not a single person comes after her from her home planet, which is nonsensical.

Kris and her team rescue Tommy and hook up with Tommy's blossoming love interest, Penny. Kris gets to expose her bodily acreage (as she does in every volume) and blow things up, while fighting back against the bad guy and condescending the poor folks who live there. It's not great story-telling by any means, but it is entertaining if you don't take it seriously.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Takedown by Tsutomu Shimomura with John Markoff

Title: Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of Kevin Mitnick, America's Most Wanted Computer Outlaw - By the Man Who Did It
Author: Tsutomu Shimomura with John Markoff
Publisher: Hyperion
Rating: WORTHY!

This rather un-originally titled book (I'm talking about the 'Takedown' part of it, not the mouthful that follows) is Shimomura's account (as told by John Markoff) of the tracking and eventual arrest of hacker Kevin Mitnick, but since Shimomura is an astrophysicist, used maybe to writing scientific papers and technical reports rather than popular books, how much of this is his writing and how much is journalist John Markoff's is anyone's guess.

Either way, I have to say I wasn't impressed by the writing quality, which had way too much extraneous detail for me and I'm guessing, for your average reader, including unimportant details of Shimomura's day-to-day living, his surroundings, and his travels and personal issues. If the bulk of this had been excluded, the book would have wasted fewer trees, been tighter, and made for a lot better read. When we're hot on the trail of a very elusive hacker, I don't want to keep being interrupted with the minutiae of the tracker's itinerary and interactions with his girlfriend, I really don't!

That said, it's a fun read (I skipped the boring parts) as well as being both interesting and educational, although very dated now. I doubt that anything here (other than persistence and social engineering!) would be of much use to potential hackers in 2015.

Note that according to wikipedia, author Jonathan Littman and Mitnick himself have made allegations of questionable ethics, suspect legality, and journalistic impropriety against Markoff and Shimomura. Given that Mitnick has spent some significant time in trouble with the law and has served time for his illegal activities and poor ethical considerations, I'd take his complaints - especially the legality ones! - with a very large grain of salt, but the fact that Littman makes the same kind of arguments lends the issue more authenticity. I haven't read anything by Mitnick or Littman, so I can't comment further on this or on what kind of arguments they might have made to support their contentions.

This story is antique by computer standards, but it's nonetheless very engrossing (if you can get by the fluff) for anyone who has an interest in hacking and computer security, and how computers are breached and how those who breach them are tracked and brought to book. On that basis, I recommend this book. I also recommend the movie of the same name which tells this same story more briefly and somewhat more fictionalized, but is nonetheless a decent movie.

Confessions of Teenage Hackers by Dan Verton

Title: Confessions of Teenage Hackers
Author: Dan Verton
Publisher: McGraw-Hill
Rating: WORTHY!

This non-fiction book covers a host of teen hackers from the mid nineties to the turn of the century. As such it's seriously out of date now, but still a worthy read for me. I would have liked to have learned more about how these young teens did what they did, but while for me, this book skimped a little bit on that side of things, favoring hacker bios (that's biographies, not basic input output system!) instead, it did cover their exploits to an extent and was a fascinating read.

If network administrators would only do their job and stay current with security patches, and if network users would create decent passwords and never share any information with people who don't need to know, the hacker's calling would have fallen on far more deaf network ears than it has, but that doesn't excuse OS developers - who are far more interested in adding bells and whistles than ever they are in adding security - from putting out cruddy, hole-filled operating systems. Microsoft, I'm looking at you....

Having said that, it's also important to note that not all hackers are truly evil. These days, people try to differentiate the hacker - someone who is simply curious about the inner workings of systems and doesn't intend harm, or someone who believes in real freedom of information - from a cracker: someone whose intentions are far from benign from the outset, and who see systems as so many scalps to collect. While some of the hackers discussed here harmed systems, others actually left information behind, explaining to the administrator how they got in and which holes needed to be closed on that network!

Other hackers brought systems to a slow but sure halt with DDOS (distributed denial of service) attacks - hitting the network with so many trivial requests that it had no time to respond to legitimate ones. Mafiaboy, for example, brought down networks like Amazon, CNN, Dell, ebay, etrade, and Yahoo, amongst others.

Hacking has tended to fascinate far more boys than girls, but girls have been a part of the scene since it started. The only one mentioned here is Starla Pureheart, aka Anna Moore, who at fifteen in 2001, won the CyberEthical survivor contest at that year's DefCon.

Hackers covered in this volume include: Cowhead2000, Dawgyg, Explotion, FonE_TonE, Genocide, HD Moore, Joe Magee, Kr0nograffik, Noid, Pr0methius, RaFa, and Willie Gonzalez, as well as hacking groups such as Genocide2600, Legion of Doom, Masters of Deception, and World of Hell. Many more are mentioned in passing.

The focus and dedication of the hackers to their craft is truly stunning, and the extreme young age of some of these people when they started is scary. I recommend this book if you're at all interested in how hackers do what they do and what their backgrounds and motivations are.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Tin Men by Christopher Golden

Title: Tin Men
Author: Christopher Golden
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Rating: WORTHY!

Not to be confused with the movie of the same name or with a score of novels of the same name, this story with a rather unoriginal and un-inventive title is about a soldier named Danny Kelso who is at the end of his tether with the relationship he's in with Nora, but he can't think about that right now because he has to get to work. Work in Danny's case is driving a robot soldier.

Set in the near future, Danny lives in Germany, but is fighting in Syria. When an EMP hits his robot, he finds himself trapped inside it. How this works - how it was even allowed to work is never explained, and that, in a tin shell, is the biggest problem with this novel. It requires far too much faith and trust without giving a thing in return. It requires your disbelief to be suspended so high and for so long that it chokes the life out of it.

The novel started out okay, but it seems a little odd that Danny was concerned about being late. He clocks in on time, and then has breakfast - something the soldiers are allowed to do - but his sergeant is immediately on his case for being late? This made no sense to me. Other than that, the story moved speedily towards the action.

This underlying idea borrows heavily from the movie Avatar and from the movie The Matrix, and from the movie Surrogates, and from the movie Robocop, but it makes none of the contextual sense that those movies make. These soldiers are not 'dressed up as robots' to look like the local natives, who are human. They're not in their cocoons so some machine race can suck up their emitted energy. They're not so attired out of vanity or playfulness or because of a money-grubbing corporation.

Instead they're merely remote soldiers, enhanced by the strength, speed and power of robotics, and the only reason offered for this is to save soldiers' lives, yet even that is a flawed premise as we shall see. These soldiers are not remotely piloting the robots - so at least that flaw is bypassed, but their consciousness is downloaded into the robot. This makes zero sense, casebook it means that their real bodies, in Germany, are now essentially vegetables, and if anything goes wrong, a soldiers' consciousness is trapped inside the robot and when it dies, they die. How is this an improvement over what they had?!

Why anyone would design a system like this is a complete mystery, but this trope is the same one we saw in The Matrix and many other such stories and it's fatally flawed because no rationale whatsoever is given for why your mind is gone from your body or even how it's gone. You know, even if you delete something from your computer hard drive, it's actually still there. You have to physically overwrite that section of the drive with something else before it's erased. So why would copying your mind to a robot erase your mind?

When you have photos in your cloud and you send one to a friend or family member, the original photo isn't erased. It remains in the cloud, What you send is a copy and it doesn't matter if you send one or you send one to every one of the seven billion people on Earth, you still have that original. So where is the precedent for voiding the mind of a human being? There is none. It makes no sense.

Quite the contrary, it would make far more sense to copy the mind and have the same person inhabiting a whole platoon of these robots, working in perfect coordination and for a fraction of the cost of hiring and training a whole bunch of soldiers. Naturally you want a variety of soldiers so people think out of the box, but you don't need the million person army the US currently has (counting the National guard and the reserve). You just need a core of excellent soldiers and a host of mechanics and fabricators. The problem then, though, is that without this old trope, an author is screwed for the drama, so this is why we're so frequently asked to just leap right over this huge pothole and hope we land in irises and daffodils, and not the muddy depths of another pothole.

When I checked some of the reviews for this novel I noticed that one reviewer had downgraded it purely for the bad language on the first page, but there really wasn't any bad language on the first page! There was one four-letter word, and not even the worst four-letter word, and that was it. The deal here, though, is that this is a novel about the military in combat. You don't get military in combat with no bad language! If you get a story like that, with soldiers saying things like "Rats!" and "Curses" then you know this story is not at all realistic! Although it would be hilarious!

If I might digress for a minute and talk about language, a crucial part of writing, I have to say that this whole thing about bad language is amusing to me because it's patently ridiculous from the ground up. Think about it. As a society, we English speakers have chosen to designate some words as "Very Naughty Indeed" (VNI). Speakers of other languages have made similar rules and regulations, but their rules are nonsensical to us because their designated words, which are appalling in their own language, are meaningless to us.

This hasn't stopped us, however! We have all of us agreed that they're "Very Naughty Indeed", and none of us really ought to be saying any of these VNI words. They're not just cuss words either. We've agreed to include some racist words and even words that insult relatives, such as "Yo' mama". We mustn't say these words, we've agreed, and we must pretend to be shocked when people use them. In fact, we've become so adept at this pretense that many people don't even need to pretend - they're genuinely shocked at hearing them.

Curiously, most of these words are related to sex organs or sexual functions, and to be good and upright citizens we mustn't ever say them and we must appear appalled when we hear them. We all agreed on this! How crazy is that? How ridiculous are we that we make up these conventions? How crazy is it that some words, even amongst the shocking ones, are more shocking than others, and some people will take offense at one and not at another?"

Oh I'm going to be hurt by that racist word, because I have a prior agreement with you, the person who is abusing me, that if you use a little six letter word to try and hurt me, I promise to you in return that I will be genuinely hurt. This is the pact made between a racist and their intended victim: that the one will say the word and the other agrees to be wounded by it!

The truly weird thing here is that these apparent antagonists are really on the same team. They're working together in this. They're playing from the same play-book. These enemies are partners! How utterly absurd is that? The only rational response to the use of such words isn't hatred or outrage or cowardice. It's to laugh - a good belly laugh at this patently ridiculous convention to which we all subscribe, whereby I agree completely to let you hurt me by using a VNI word.

Parts of this novel bothered me. The idea that only the US can save the rest of the world and that when global warming somehow turned the world into an apocalyptic wasteland, the US was the only nation willing and able to step up - the US which is the one doing a lion's share of the polluting, guzzling a lion's share of the resources, burning oil like it will never run out.

Another thing was the genderism. Even while writing a story presenting women as equals including, commendably, a handicapped woman, we still got this: "Early twenties, black, lovely in the awkward never-going-to-realize-I'm beautiful sort of way that some women had." Change 'beautiful' to 'handsome' and 'women' to 'men' and read it again. Does it sound weird? It shouldn't, but it probably does, because you never see writers write like that about men. Even female authors write like that about women though. I was rather expecting some jingo-ism, military bravado, and genderism in a story like this, I'm sorry to say, but even so it's still off-putting to read, in 2015, that a woman really isn't of any value unless she's beautiful. Otherwise why mention it? And what difference does it make that she's black?

When Kelso 'downloads' into his bot, he discovers that one of the others from the previous shift has painted a target on his chest. It seems that discipline is seriously lacking here. The bots pair off and start patrolling Damascus. Why the US is there at all is a mystery given the trouble Syria has had and the US stayed clear - at least in terms of ground deployment, but here we are. Nor do I get what resource is in Syria that needs protecting. People, yes, but the US has never been as big on protecting lives as it has on protecting non-human resources. What happened to the Syrian government such as it was? What happened to the Syrian army that the US now has free reign in this nation? None of this is explained.

It's actually when the pilots got into the bots that we started seeing some inconsistencies. First we're told that the bots have no identification markings (other than what jokers have painted on them), to insure that no enemy can identify the leaders. This makes sound military sense. Then they have Kate, one of the pilots or drivers, saluting the sergeant, thereby identifying him as the leader. This makes no sense. No one in their right mind salutes in deployment conditions for precisely that reason - so the enemy doesn't know who is in charge and are not presented an easy and perhaps critical target. But the readily identifiable markings on each robot clearly define who is who.

There's very little information given about how the download works. In a scene pretty much taken directly from the remake of Robocop, when the drivers 'wake up' inside the bots, they're evidently standing in the street where anyone who knew the shift change could have simply destroyed them before they got their new pilots! Not smart. Robots patroling a Middle East nation is how the movie began.

The robots evidently blink, too. I have no idea why they would make them blink. Also, their eyes light up! Why do they always do this? We no longer believe as the ancient Greeks (or someone) did that your eyes emit rays which allow you to see, yet they always do this with robots! These bots can also arch their eyebrows and narrow their eyes. Seriously? Why? They gave the robots eyebrows? This made no sense at all. It made as little sense as the US having this technology when it's perfectly clear at this point that the leaders in robot technology are the Japanese. What was it which made the US magically leap ahead in only a decade or so? How come no other nation has anything like this?

There's another problem, too. The bots are obviously electronic. We get no information about what protection they have from electrical overloads, yet every one of them is fully functioning after a pulse strong enough to take out satellites! Despite this, each one of them has a fatal weakness - a weak spot between two joins that no one - unaccountably - seems to be able to fix. None of this makes any sense! What, they don't have any spare patches of depleted uranium to weld over the weak spot? They can't slip a Kevlar vest over them to hide it and protect it?

We meet Alexa Day who is the daughter of the US ambassador to Syria. Her father has invited her to join him in Syria. This took me right of the realm of credibility - that is unless her father doesn't care about her and actually wants to get her killed. This is a war zone in a country where people quite literally hate the US - even more so now, we're told, yet dad invites his teen daughter to visit?

The thing which bugged me most about this story however was that these soldiers do not in any way act like soldiers. They take forever to respond to what's obviously a potential threat. When they do, they stand around in the open all in a bunch, none of them taking up defensive positions. When they're attacked by some guy they can see with a rocket launcher, not a one of them fires back. This allows the rocket man to destroy one of the bots. This is sheer incompetence!

When the EMP hits, instead of taking the fight to their enemy, they stand around gabbing about EMP pulses and whether the satellite uplink is out instead of taking out the guy with the rocket launcher. Only belatedly do they think they ought to be engaging the enemy. This is not how a soldier behaves. I don't care if they feel secure inside the bots.

It was completely unrealistic, and their support was non-existent. We have drones of all kinds flying today. Ten years from now there are none? They send bots up in a helicopter to do aerial surveillance? They have no EMP protection plan? The bots survived an EMP pulse powerful enough to knock out satellites in space?! It simply wasn't realistic.

It wasn't realistic either in that it pretty much assumed that no-one had ever heard of EMP much less done any testing of susceptibility to, or reinforcing of systems against, it, and this is simply not true. Solar flares, and even lightning generate EMP, and airplanes fly through lightning and are stuck by it fairly routinely without crashing from the sky. Critical systems, especially military ones, are routinely tested against EMP pulses emitted from a device called a Marx generator, but you would need a large number of very large devices such as these operating from orbit to affect anyone, and they would have to emit a pulse of sufficient magnitude to overcome the weakening effects of inverse-square law. And how would these ever be put into space without the US or other nations noticing?

I read about a third of this before I gave up, unable to keep the growing weight of my disbelief from coming crashing down. Maybe the pulse will knock your socks off. It didn't affect mine, which are evidently Faraday safe!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Wizzywig by Ed Piskor

Title: Wizzywig
Author: Ed Piskor
Publisher: Top Shelf Comix
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 often enough reward aplenty!

This one had me at the cover. Now I'm pissed off that I didn't think of that first! This graphic novel follows closely the real life of Kevin Mitnick, here naming him Kevin Phenicle. I have no idea where that came from unless it's somehow a reference ot Phenic acid. Maybe it's pure invention. The novel tells the story of his initial hacking attempts (the LA transit system, believe it or not, to get free rides!) of his being bullied, and of his subsequent initiation into phone phreaking (the first real form of hacking). All of this takes place at an early age, and is prep school for his alter forays into computer hacking. His best asset was what's known as "social engineering" - finding out secrets from people just by being friendly and sociable towards them. Mitnick excelled at this.

At the time of his arrest in 1995, a pursuit documented in Tsutomu_Shimomura's Takedown (1996, Hyperion Books, which I recommend reading in tandem with Mitnick's side of the story) Mitnick was the most-wanted hacker in the USA. The events have been made into a movie known as "Track Down", which as of this writing I have not seen. The hacker quarterly, 2600 produced a documentary titled Freedom Downtime in response to the movie There has been considerable controversy over these events, and Mitnick's resultant arrest and trial and imprisonment. Mitnick has written his own book (one of many since he was released from jail) about these events including some serious criticism of the story related in Takedown. As of this writing I have not read Mitnick's book. Mitnick now runs his own computer security consulting business.

This graphic novel is done in black and white line drawings, which are skillfully executed but very basic. Dialog is sparse. Contrary to popular media stories of hacking, especially those in film, this novel tells it much more like it really is. The most successful hacks (until those which have been in the news recently, such as the stuxnet business in Iran) weren't done in Mitnick's era by someone using advanced hacking software, but by tried and proven methods of dumpster-diving (finding vital passwords and log on information from discarded business materials), and from social engineering (befriending or becoming an acquaintance of someone on the inside, and using information garnered from interactions with them to derive passwords and network navigation information.

I recommend this graphic novel. It's a really interesting piece of history and it makes a fine tale, well-told.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Silence of Six by EC Myers

Title: The Silence of Six
Author: EC Myers
Publisher: Adaptive Books
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 often reward aplenty!

I was really impressed with this novel from the start and found myself quickly drawn-in and really wanting to swipe the screens. It’s an object lesson in how to write a story which pulls people in and keeps 'em hooked. It has some ups and downs, but overall, I rate it a very worthy read.

Maxwell is a high-school student who attends a presidential debate which is being held at his school. As it's winding up, at the end of question-time, someone hacks into the screen being used on stage; a young person wearing a mask appears, and asks the two presidential candidates, "What is the silence of six and what are you going to do about it?" before shooting himself. Max is acutely disturbed as he sees that this is his hacker friend Evan. Max has been out of hacking for a year or so, but Evan never left, and he has some secrets of which Max is unaware. As the students are filing out of the auditorium, their laptops, pads and phones are confiscated 'for reasons of national security'.

Max suddenly realizes that there's more going on here than simply a joke hack or a suicide. He returns to his hacker roots, logging into a secret forum which he hasn’t accessed for a year. The names he sees are familiar, but they're suspicious of him. One of them - Doublethink - opens a private side-channel and requests a meeting in person. Max decides it’s time for a face-to-face, but already there are dark SUVs following him, so he decides to go on the run.

This novel is really well-written. It has intrigue and danger, it has smart computer talk, and it sounds realistic from the off. Doublethink is particularly intriguing, but I can't tell you any more without ruining the surprises the author has in store. Max has some narrow escapes, makes new friends, meets fascinating and dangerous characters, all the while circling around the clues and hints that Evan has evidently left for him. And also Max carries the guilty burden of the fact that Evan had reached out to him several times recently and Max had been too busy, preoccupied or otherwise distracted to connect with him again.

There were some weaknesses in the story. The main one is one we always find in this kind of story: there are points where Max has enough information at his disposal that he could have gone online with it, thereby at least taking some of the pressure off himself. There's no good reason offered to explain why he doesn’t do this. Later an explanation is offered, but I'm not convinced that it was a good one! Also at one point Max says "…looking for whomever was using the computer…" No one speaks like that. Writers write like that, and it’s like an itch when you don’t use the correct grammatical form, but it’s entirely wrong to have people speak like that when almost no-one - especially not kids - actually does.

So, not perfect, but a short, fast, and very entertaining read which I recommend.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

WWW: Watch by Robert J Sawyer

Title: WWW: Watch
Author: Robert J Sawyer
Publisher: Audible
Rating: WARTY!

Read by Jessica Almasy, AC Fellner, Jennifer Van Dyck, and Marc Vietor.

Once again I came into a trilogy in progress at some point later than the first novel without even realizing it! Take note that there is absolutely nothing whatsoever on the cover to indicate that this is part of a series. This volume is book two. The book blurb for book one begins like this: "Caitlin Decter is young, pretty, feisty, a genius at math, and blind". Note that her two most important traits according to the priority of this list is that she's young and pretty. Smarts comes fourth, right before blind. If I'd read that first, I never would have picked up any one of this trilogy.

It was the audio book of this novel that I "read", and it featured several readers, but they didn't really do a very good job. Indeed, the one reading for Webmind became truly annoying after a while. Webmind is the Internet-born entity around which this trilogy is centered. In this middle volume, a government agency - which is of course evil since all government is inevitably evil, don't you know? - has discovered Webmind and decides to eradicate it because it's viewed as a threat.

The human protagonist is Caitlin Decter, and during the course of the first novel she gets a prototype implant which gives her vision in one of her eyes. Why only one? I don't know - maybe that's explained in the first novel. The problem (or blessing) is that this implant not only lets her see, but also lets her see the actual structure of the Internet in diagrammatic form. How this works exactly isn't explained, at least not in this volume.

I started out really liking this story, but I became quickly disillusioned with it and then annoyed, at which point I quit listening. Some of it was truly dumb, other parts not really credible. Some of it was interesting and well-done, but Sawyer has a habit of lecturing his readers and this was really annoying.

The representation of Webmind was a disaster because its thought processes and "personality" did not follow from its origins. It arose spontaneously from the complexity of the Internet so we're told, but for something which supposedly arose that way, it's really stupid about how the Internet works!

One ridiculous proposition was that it could not see see images, for example, and it has to use Caitlin's eye to see things. This makes no sense. First of all, images on the Internet are stored in common file formats, and the information on how those formats work is also on the Internet. We're told that Webmind has absorbed wikipedia, therefore it must know how the files are organized, so why can it not translate them?

How does it 'see" through Caitlin's eye? The information from Caitlin's vision has to be translated into a data stream just like image files are translated into ones and zeroes on the Internet, so how is it that Webmind can "see" the one but not the other? it made no sense.

Another real annoyance was deciding that Webmind was male. What? I'm sorry but, what? Why would it have to have a gender? It wasn't even Webmind's idea to masculines itself - it was Caitlin's! Why? Because this juvenile has so much experience of life? Because no woman could take that kind of responsibility to be the superhero: WEBMIND! CONTROLLER OF THE INTERNET~!!!!!? Seriously? I'll bet Webmind is white, too. I mean, why not? If we have to have a completely asexual entity forcibly given a gender, then why not have a totally colorless entity made white? And mature, too, but not old, for goodness sakes. Never old.

Once this novel dissolved into endless rambling and boring diversions, I found no point in continuing it. There was nothing happening anyway. It could have been really really good, but it was so badly done that I cannot recommend it. A much better version of this story is told in an old novel titled Adolescence Of P-1 by Thomas F. Ryan, who does a far better job than does Sawyer in telling a story of an Internet entity.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg

Title: How Google Works
Author: Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg
Publisher: Hachette Book Group
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 the author. 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 only reason I'm rating this book positively is that I want as many people as possible to read it - not for what's overtly written, but for the corporate subtext, for the hypocrisy, and for the sheer gall of it.

I skipped the foreword, the introduction, whatever. If the writer doesn't think it's worth putting in chapter one, then this reviewer doesn't think it's worth reading. I went right to chapter one - which isn't identified as such, but seemed a likely candidate (maybe the book needs a good search engine?!).

There I was treated to a story which seemed to me to completely undermine the entire philosophy espoused in the rest of the book: Google co-founder Larry Page was sitting in his office trying out search terms to see what the Google ad generator came up with, and the ads really didn't apply to the search terms, thereby failing epically.

The conceit promoted by the writers in this book is that Page didn't call a meeting because Google has a different culture. He didn't sit around jawing about it. Instead, he used the stealth method to guilt people into fixing it. He wasted paper printing out the ads, highlighted the problems he found, and stuck them on the break-area bulletin board. By Monday, a handful of people working through the weekend had come-up with the first steps towards a solution. Meanwhile Page was home taking the weekend off. I know all about that corporate culture.

But contrast this with co-author Schmidt's statement in an interview here:

In the book, we mention the women we work with who have a terrible burden, if you will, of working in a start-up: it's intense, but then they also have the majority of the family duties, typically. Somehow, they're able to get through it with help and so forth. We observe in the book that, for example, they'll go quiet for a few hours while they're busy taking care of the family or whatever it is they're doing, and then they emerge at 11 o'clock at night, working hard to make sure that their responsibilities are taken care of.

Seriously? How is that corporate culture in any way, shape, or form better than what we find in every other business? The authors proclaim that this (Larry Page posting problems on the bulletin board for someone else to fix) was a huge success story, but it's actually a story of a failure - at least initially. It means that when the coding was put in place to achieve this objective to begin with, it was never properly tested - yet the product was turned out into the market-place.

Later we get the other side of this coin when the authors try to claim that it needs to be done right, not put out wrong to win market share and then incrementally fixed, which is the Microsoft corporate method. Lack of detail in following up this problem also suggests that this initial failure (and the reason underlying it) was never addressed - at least not according to what I read in this book. The authors seem to have a blind spot, conflating 'culture' with 'indentured servitude', and seem unaware that they're promoting what they perceive as successes and largely glossing over how they generated and fixed, or got past, failures. They seem not to grasp that the right culture will spontaneously arise when employees are treated like people instead of pack mules. You can't force it into place by posting print-outs on bulletin boards and then enjoying your weekend while other work their tails off for you.

David Packard may well have said (as the authors assert) that companies exist to do something worthwhile and make a contribution to society, but the bottom line for very nearly every corporation in the civilized world is the bottom line and that's tied to keeping shareholder or ownership happy. It's that simple. It doesn't mean they can't be decent places to work, but it does mean that profit will override decency every time, and this is an inescapable fact, because those companies which don't follow this rule go out of business.

It's funny that the authors contrast Packard's statement with one made by Lehman brothers - and then mention that the latter went out of business as if a poorly worded mission statement was completely to blame. Hewlett-Packard is still in business, but it's hardly an exemplar of stellar corporate conduct as the 2006 spy scandal showed.

The authors launch into a series of items claiming that these are what helps Google work better: crowded, messy conditions, rich, free snack rooms, and cafeterias with gourmet food (no word on healthy food, just on gourmet). While this might well work at Google, and Apple, and similar places, such conceits do not work in manufacturing because messy workplaces are dangerous workplaces, and companies which run on razor-thin margins simply cannot afford to splurge on luxuries even if they would love to.

Indeed, Google's culture flies in the face of very successful Japanese corporations who operate on precisely the opposite principles: ones built around cleanliness and orderliness. The authors indirectly admit this when they later praise Toyota, one of these very corporations! It's just downright insulting to imply, as these authors do on page 44, that if you can't cope with messiness, you're just stupid.

I found it interesting also on page 44 to read of Google's expanding product line, where every product was advertising! Not one of the things mentioned had to do with information storage and retrieval (unless you count advertising as such!). There's an interesting review of this book in Britain's The Guardian newspaper where Steven Poole points out a discrepancy between Google's 1996 The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine paper and their current tight focus on advertising. Google becomes an ad agency!

Of course it's easy to criticize. One reviewer took Google to task for having 70% of the corporation male, and 61% of it white, but that same reviewer never compared Google with other, similar, corporations. Is Google doing evil because other businesses have much more equitable percentages in those areas, or is it merely not doing good because it's on par with others? Maybe it's ahead of others and therefore while these statistics rather blow, Google isn't exactly the worst place to work? The reviewer is silent.

OTOH, it's easy to criticize when there's a lot to criticize. The author's comments on page 39 made me wonder why Google isn't based in Texas, where the 'work ethic' they espouse seems to fit precisely. They actually say that the best cultures invite people to be overworked - but in a good way!! Seriously? They don't say a word about how this "culture" responds when people need time off, or what checks and balances they have in place to prevent a culture of routinely overworking your employees (but in a good way) from getting out of hand.

I think it's wonderful that Google has confidence in overworking people and trusting that these people will know best how to squeeze in a hour or two of quality family time before the go back to slaving over a hot computer at midnight - probably barefoot and in the kitchen, close by the coffee machine, too. Then, when they're caught up on their work from eleven to one, they can no doubt grab a few hours of sleep before they get back into the office at six am. What a joyful work group that would be. This from the same authors who decried working from home because it doesn't work: people need to be able to reach over the wall of their tiny, messy cube and tap their colleague on the shoulder.

No wonder Google is happy to give their employees (oh sorry, are they called associates to make it more palatable?) 20% of their work week for their own projects. If they're already putting in sixty-six hours, including weekends - to meet the corporation's bottom line, what does Google lose by allowing the other sixteen hours of their overwork to go to waste - especially if it turns into a project that can net them even more cash to go towards their annual half trillion (or so) revenues (and for which the employee receives no bonus).

Yes, it's fine for working moms to be literally forced to work at home because they're forced to own this overwork they've been required to take on. I can't help but wonder why Schmidt and Rosenberg can espouse this about spouses without offering even a glimmer of a question about why it is that women are the ones bearing this burden instead of sharing it equally with men. Do they care? Or are they so far up the pay and benefits hierarchy that their own spouse doesn't actually need to work?

I mentioned earlier that a reviewer had remarked that Google's 'associates' (or whatever they're euphemistically termed without changing reality at all) are 70% male, but the reviewer never mentioned how pay compares between genders and interestingly, neither do the authors of this book. For all I know, Google is sterling in this regard, and better than comparable employers, but having seen the details of their "culture", I have to confess that I have my doubts.

The authors talk about employee day trips/team-building exercises like they're cheap and every company can afford them. Wrong. When the margins are slim, these things don't happen. When the economy downturns, these things are the first things to go. The bottom line rules and it always will, or the company goes bust. It's called capitalism.

On page 56, the authors discuss examples of corporations where senior employees have been observed doing "menial" tasks, such as picking up some errant trash they may have seen in the hallway, or wiping down a counter. Rightly or wrongly, do rest assured that this is the exception, not the rule, regardless of how it may be perceived by employees, but contrast this with Larry Page's behavior described in the opening paragraphs of this book: he perceives a problem, notifies no-one, sticks some printed pages on the bulletin board and goes home for the weekend. That's egalitarian? I have to mention how impressed I am: never in the field of human endeavor have so many contradictions been packed into so few many pages by so few!

The authors relate a story about Kevin Systrom. He had no degree in computer science and so was refused the chance to go into Google's Associate Product Manager program. Subsequently he left Google and founded Instagram. Google lost him through short-sightedness, and the authors admit this, but they also talk proudly about hiring the best computer scientists straight out of school - forget about experienced people, forget about gifted amateurs, go for young, inexperienced turkey cocks with degrees and hope they'll produce something innovative and magical! Hypocritical much?

I found it interesting that the authors quote Eric Schmidt's Novell experience such a lot since Novell went into a huge decline post 1995, and was eventually bought up by the Attachmate group. Of this, wikipedia says, Analysts commented that the primary reason for Novell's demise was linked to its channel strategy and mismanagement of channel partners under Eric Schmidt's leadership. Schmidt also worked at Sun, which declined from a 140 billion dollar industry to a seven billion dollar one by the time Oracle bought it up. I'm not sure how much of a recommendation that is for a business model.

Moreover, you won't find a word in here about Steve Jobs going ballistic at Schmidt over what he called "bait and switch" whereby Google came up with their own phone, and then changed it so that it looked very similar to Apple's iPhone. You'll have to read Steven Levy's In the Plex to get details of that. You can read a bit about it here. You can read more about it in Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs. You won't hear about it from Schmidt.

Here are some enlightening quotes all from a few pages:

We've both worked with young moms who go completely dark for a few hours in the evening. Then, around nine, the emails and chats start coming..." (culture means 'always on'!)
...if you're working your butt off without deriving any enjoyment, something's probably wrong." (not definitely, only probably!) (page 50)
Everyone's fun when they're dancing to Billy Idol and swigging an Anchor Steam." - page 50
(seriously? What age range does this company hire?)
...core beliefs: excellence in everything they do, superior customer service, and respect for the individual. - page 54
(if you have to spell these out, there's something wrong with your culture! I've noticed that that last one rapidly goes out the window when the corporation is having a - what's the pc term for it? Oh yes, Force reduction.
As Eric was leaving, an assistant brought Mark [Zuckerberg]'s dinner and placed it by his computer. There was no doubt where his commitment lay. - page 56
(to indentured servitude and chained to your work?)
...which translates from Hebrew as "Follow me". Anyone who aspires to lead a smart creatives needs to adopt this attitude. - page 56
(that everyone else is sheep? What happened to "smart creatives"?)
...the company's "Don't be evil" mantra..." - page 56
(why would a corporation which hires the best people it can, even need that as a mantra? One reviewer pointed out that there appears to be a discrepancy between this so-called 'mantra' and Google's activities in Europe where it is under repeated scrutiny from government overseers. The authors appear to admit that by recounting a meeting where an engineer had to quote this mantra because the corporation was ready to plow ahead with an advertising revenue scheme. Apparently no one had bothered to chant the mantra while thinking it up, and even when it was brought up by the engineer, it was still the subject of a "...long, sometimes contentious discussion..."! Apparently one person's evil is another one's stock-in-trade.
"...we won't presume to tell you how to create a business plan. But we can tell you with 100% certainty that if you have one, it is wrong." - page 58

In short I highly recommend this exercise in foot-in-mouth acrobatics. It's better than watching the clowns at the circus.