Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

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Little Brother

June 10, 2008

Cory Doctorow is a talented writer and a world-renowned blogger. His work at Boing Boing marks him as a unique snowflake and I’ve generally enjoyed my experiences with his published works in the past. Little Brother, though, is a cut above. It’s a teen book, filled with all the stuff teenagers like: sex, flipping the bird at folks in authority, and a protagonist with a chip on his shoulder. It’s also a thinly veiled guidebook on how to maintain some degree of privacy in a not-too-distant future of invasive technologies and social mores.

Using almost entirely-real-world tech and just a bit of imagination, Doctorow summons up a tomorrow that’s eerily plausible. A terrorist attack in San Francisco drops the DHS onto the Bay like a ton of bricks. The normally freewheeling culture of the SF region becomes a locked-down zone of cameras, RFID tracking chips and constant police surveillance. What’s especially fascinating is that we get to see multiple sides of this story. To privacy loving individualists like the protagonist, it’s a living nightmare. To older folks, scared into silence by a repressive government and hazily looming threats, it’s not that bad. Doctorow doesn’t shirk away from the hard questions and the sometimes-harder answers required of the entirely-plausible situation he conjures up.

Despite my limited technical background, the tech elements of the book are some of the most engaging I’ve yet read. All should be very approachable for teens, but head-on deal with real inventions and their repercussions. The book details routing protocols on the internet, the uses and reasons behind RFID tracking, how email works, how to protect yourself from scammers and spammers, and even a shortform explanation of how crypto works. Think of it as “Cryptonomicon for kids”, an analogy Doctorow invites by referencing Stephenson’s book in his ‘thank you’ section. He also thanks Slashdot, a site I was working for during most of the time he was writing the book … so that’s pretty neat.

If you like the idea that people should read your email, think The Man deserves a good boxing about the ears once in a while, or have ever referred to the Department of Homeland Security as “Security Theatre”, you’ll probably dig this book. It’s relatively short, emminently readable, and well worth passing on to a teenager near you. Yeah, the protagonist and his girlfriend end up having sex – but it’s very specifically safe sex, and everything happens off-camera.

Little Brother offers strong, self-aware messages, a positive attitude about the future of technology, and a protagonist well worth emulating for any young man or woman still figuring out the early 21st century. Give it a shot.

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Crypto-nom-again

June 4, 2008

Today I finished reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon for what is, I believe, my fourth full time. It is my favorite book, and I think I’ve finally figured out why. Every time I read it I get something completely new out of it. Not just that thing you get when you reread a book and miss bits you skimmed the last time; completely new elements. Of course, the words are all the same. Unless someone did some jiggery-pokery with my Kindle copy, the text is identical to that of the tome sitting on my shelf. What’s different, then, is me. The last time I read the book was just after college, I’m sure. Both of the times before that had to have been *in* college, as it was released in 1999. So if you assume that I read it the first two times basically back-to-back, that’s 3-4 years between each reading of the book. In my life, at least, a lot has happened between those 3-4 years.

The first time I read it was in 99′, my sophmore year of college. I hated the class I was taking, enough for me to doubt my interest in programming and take up with network administration books in an independent study course the next year. The highlights were making better friends with folks like Messrs Feldman and Kiefel, Jon Mathison and Gabe Hicks. I played a lot of Half-Life, Baldur’s Gate, and System Shock 2, and watched more Discovery Channel that is really healthy. My takeaway from the book was how much I loved Stephenson’s prose, and respect for folks that understood business.

Today I wonder how I managed to understand most of the words in the book, let alone the context. The me of ten years ago was a blithering idiot about most of the stuff Stephenson talks about in that book. The elements that really struck me were how daft I must have been about travel – actually traveling, not just flying across the country – and long-term relationships. Aye yi yi.

I also have to admit to a shameful fact: Crypto is the first ‘for fun’ book I think I’ve finished since the trip to California in February. But it will very much not be the last. I’ve already started in on Corey Doctorow’s Little Brother, which you can read for free on the interwebs if you’d like.

I’m so … so very glad to be reading again. Words fail.

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Now Boarding

May 28, 2008

Travel always makes me philosophical. Truly, how can it not? You don’t know where you are until you’ve been somewhere else, right? Traveling today has been a balmy experience so far. I’m seated at gate A61 in the Detroit airport, a Greek sandwich of lamb, pita, and tomato digesting away somewhere south of my heart. People all around me are talking on their cells, eating (Bugles for one older gentleman, a “Rio-roll” for a young Chinese woman), and reading the newspaper.

Myself, on the other hand, I’ve been reading words arranged at great cost by the liquid-crystal display of my Kindle. Cryptonomicon is, as I’ve mentioned, my favorite book. Not just because it’s a good read, and I enjoy the characterizations, and the plot is damned interesting, but because it rearranges the way I think. That’s ultimately what knowledge is about, and I learn something new every time I read Stephenson’s work. Stephenson, and his kindred named Niven, Gibson, Heinlein, et al, remind me that I’ve grown up with a distinctly different way of looking at the world.

For me, the man across from me eating the Bugles isn’t just a guy sitting in a chair. He’s the result of millions of years of evolutionary progress. He’s reading a book published from a company with arms reaching across the globe. The paper the book is printed on came from locations across the globe, and the lenses in his glasses were honed through a process perfected only within the last hundred years. He, and every single other person in this airport, is badass in the most strict evolutionary sense. But generally speaking, folks don’t appreciate the depth and import of the things around them.

This is why I love science and – of course – science fiction. It forces your head down, hard, to stare at the little dots that make up newsprint. It jerks your head back, pulling at the roots of your hair, and demands that you understand the movements of heavenly bodies. I don’t say these things to be elitist, though I think I sort of am. Instead, I want to get across how much I love *understanding*; the feeling of peeling back the gristle and bone to get to the core of reality. The sense that you’ve understood even a fractional part of the whole of existance – be it Bugles, evolution, books, or just the contents of a Greek sandwich. It doesn’t happen often, but I think I’m going to enjoy this trip.

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Road Prep

May 27, 2008

Tomorrow I’m hitting the dusty trail – again – and traveling eastward. I’m actually pretty excited. I’m looking forward to what I’ll be doing at the other end (visiting a game studio), and I’ve got some decent tools to travel with. My Kindle will (of course) be making the trip with me. I hope to finish Cryptonomicon (I’m about halfway through) while I’m traveling, and I’ve got plenty more on the docket after that. Meanwhile, my new laptop showed up last week. It’s just a bottom-of-the-line Inspiron from Dell, nothing fancy. I did bump it up to 2 gigs of memory because I’m a giant RAM snob now, but otherwise very normal.

Frustratingly, I could find no option to use XP instead of Vista, so I’ve spent the last week or so beating the OS over the head until it understands what I want it to do. I also did some optimization on it, because Vista’s a giant resource hog. I found a pair of YouTube videos fairly helpful in this regard if you are in a similar place.

I’ve been experiencing something pretty interesting with Cryptonomicon. Now, I’ve said many times previous how much I love the book – and I still do. What’s interesting is how the few years since I’ve read it have actually put me more in tune with the book’s content. Everytime you reread a book you get something new out of it, but this time around it’s like a whole new book. And I’m reading it on my favorite superfluous technology device. It’s pretty fantastic all around.

So: tomorrow I head to the DC area to take a look at Warhammer Online. Coverage on Massively, of course, with commentary at MMOG Nation and (I expect) here as well.

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Reading Rekindled

May 16, 2008

Yesterday my Kindle arrived.

By the time you read this post I’ll already have done something like 7x the non-work reading I’ve done in the last year.

Once, reading sci-fi, fantasy, and non-fiction informative books was one of the greatest joys in my life. Since I started working for Slashdot, reading hundreds of thousands of words every day pretty effectively killed my interest in the written word as entertainment.

Getting out of Slashdot’s hose and the arrival of my Kindle has … well, I’ll be honest, I almost started crying yesterday afternoon when I realized I’d gone through two chapters of my first Kindle novel even without realizing it.

I’m going to keep talking about it as I use it … I plan on doing a lot of talking about a lot of things in the near future … but for the moment I’ll simply say that I love using this device. It meshes so completely with the way that I read, it’s almost scary.

Thanks to my Mom and Cameron Sorden for helping me back on this road.

What am I reading, you might ask? What else would I restart my reading life with?

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atheist. noun. a person who does not believe in God or deities.

March 17, 2007

I’ve been sick this week, and I’m not feeling much better today. I’ve taken it as an opportunity to relax a bit after last week’s hustle and bustle of GDC (undoubtedly the reason I’m sick in the first place). One of my relaxations has been the joy of reading; I don’t allow myself to sit down with a book anywhere near as often as I used to. My chosen reading material this week was one of my favorite Christmas presents: Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

To use a thoroughly non-scientific term, it was a transcendent experience reading through this book. I’ve been bouncing back and forth between agnostic and atheistic since I was about 15 or so; haven’t needed a deity in a long, long time. As such, I wasn’t converted by the book. My mind wasn’t changed in the slightest … though I do think I’m going to be fairly firmly in the atheist camp from now on. What was transcendent for me was the laying out, via the crude tool of the English language, the beauty of science and the joy that reason can bring about. I’ve experienced it before reading Dennet’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and of course Dawkins‘ seminal work The Selfish Gene.

What was special about this book was the presented contrast between the beauty of science and the shuttered ignorance of blind faith. Dawkins argues powerfully against the influence that religion has in the modern world (with obvious special attention paid to the nearly-theocratic underpinnings of American politics), and his arguments are all extremely compelling.

For me, though, it was simple comparsion that made me step back and marvel in appreciation. When you consider the infinitely interesting history of the universe, the extremely unlikely happenstance of our galaxy’s formation, the extraordinarily small chance of life emerging on our planet, the astronomically unlikely event of your birth … it’s all just so damn beautiful. Compare that with the petty workings of some creator deity and the unimaginative tales of humanity’s genesis that weigh down every major religion.

Religion, Dawkins makes clear, is nothing less than the clothing of the human mind in ignorance. By accepting things ‘on faith’ instead of seeking out truth via fact and experimentation, we blind ourselves to the possibilities of the world around us.

From the book, a quotation from J.B.S. Haldane:

The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well on the surface of a gas-covered planet going around a nuclear fireball ninety million miles away, and this is considered to be normal, is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.

Above and beyond that, the book’s thesis that religion is nothing more than a memetic parasite, preying on the minds of impressionable children and passed on by well-meaning parents is something that resonates very strongly with me. It’s given me a lot to think about, and ultimately it’s reminded me that there’s nothing to be ashamed of in looking for (and expecting) answers better than “because I say so”.

For better or worse, I know that I’ll be less adverse to keeping my personal opinions about the existence of some sort of higher power under my hat. To whit: I don’t believe in a god, and that’s perfectly okay.

I highly recommend the book to anyone grappling with their own problems reconciling faith and reason, and even more so with someone struggling with whether to be agnostic or atheistic. Good stuff.

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How Few Remain

November 28, 2006

Harry Turtledove is referred to as ‘The Master of Alternate History’. It would be more apt to say he’s the most prolific author in the subgenre of Sci-Fi known as Alternate History. The fact that’s he’s not a bad writer helps, and his historian background makes his ‘What If’ tales that much more enjoyable.

Alternate History, if you’ve never heard the term before, is the label applied to a specific type of science fiction. Instead of the future, the genre deals with the past; more accurately, it deals with the consequences of a past that never happened. How Few Remain is billed as ‘The Tale of the Second War Between the States’. That is to say, it deals with a war that happened a few decades after the Civil War in a North America that still saw the Stars and Bars flying over the southern half of the country.

Mr. Turtledove was well known in the 90s for his more ‘funky’ alternate history story The Guns of the South. That tale dealt with the introduction of uzis to the Confederate forces by time travelers. With their extra firepower, the Southerners were able to maintain their independence. In How Few Remain, Southern independence is maintained through a much more subtle twist of history. The capture of a set of orders from General Lee by the North’s General McClellan, which occurred in real life, was averted by a sharp-eyed soldier in Turtledove’s tale.

That one event led to a world which saw things very differently just a few decades later. Military victories by Lee and his men led to the formal recognition of the Confederacy by England and France, and forced the United States to do the same. When the story picks up at the start of the book, the election of a Republican to the White House (the party of Lincoln, you’ll recall) touches off another conflict between the north and south.

The story flits between several different points of view throughout the United and Confederate states. We follow General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson as he defends the northern part of Kentucky from an advance by the Northerners. Samuel Clemens finds himself the editor of a newspaper in San Francisco, under assault and blockade by British Troops. George Custer and Theodore Roosevelt spend some time dealing with each other and the Canadians in the northernmost reaches of the Montana Territory. A German attache tries to teach tactics to the wild-eyed military men of the North’s army. We experience the cruelty that African Americans felt in that time and place through the eyes of Frederick Douglass, and see what kind of man Lincoln could have become as he begins to argue for Socialist ways in the capitalist norht. And (most entertainingly) we follow the exploits of Jeb Stuart as he helps to reinforce and control two newly acquired Confederate territories – former Mexican states overrun by native inhabitants and brimming with angry Indians.

The only real frustration I have with Turtledove’s storytelling style here is the large cast of characters you have to keep straight over the course of the book. Each chapter will be broken out into a number of discrete sections, in which we’ll visit two or three of the protagonists in a row. It’s an incredibly epic way of telling a story, and makes for a very broad canvas on which to tell the tale. It’s also sometimes a bit confusing, requiring you to remember events not touched on in several dozens of pages.

It works, though, and works quite well. Lincoln’s tale, in particular, is an interesting intellectual exercise. His commentary about the role of the working man in relation to capitalists was extracted, by Turtledove, from actual statements he made during his administration. It’s fascinating to think what his role in the labour movement might have been if he had lived through his presidency.

Overall, the theme that I found most interesting was the more prevalent role that European powers have throughout the North American continent. There’s a lot of foreshadowing for future books in the series, but it’s more than a little unnerving to think of British troops attacking San Francisco, or French Canadians seizing portions of Maine. All this, plus places like Louisiana as hard-bitten battlegrounds makes for a very unique look at a time and place that most Americans take for granted.

I finished this book, and immediately dove into the next title in the series; this time I think I’m definitely going to finish them … by jingo.