Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Clash of Kings

A Clash of Kings is the second installment in 'A Song of Ice and Fire' by George R. R. Martin.  Like the first book, I listened to this one as an audiobook while working in the lab.  The reading by British actor Roy Dotrice is really top notch!

The book picks up where the last volume ended.  We are once again embroiled in the great wars that rage in the land of Westeros.  No fewer than four kings are struggling for control of the Seven Kingdoms:  Robb Stark (son of Eddard and King of the North), Joffrey Lannister (bastard son of Robert the Usurper), Stannis Baratheon (enthralled brother of Robert the Usurper) and Renly Baratheon (Stannis' younger brother).  As in the first novel, the point of view changes between figures surrounding the men vying for power.

The book concludes with a climactic battle at King's Landing for control of the Iron Throne.  I kept thinking that finally the devious Lannisters were going to get what was coming to them, but the 'wildfire' defenses put in place by Tyrion Lannister (and the forces marshaled by his father Tywin) are too much for Stannis Baratheon to overcome.  In the end, the Lannisters retain control of the throne, though Tyrion Lannister lies on the verge of death from a mortal wound suffered during the battle.

The other major plot point is the attempt by Theon Greyjoy to insert himself into the picture by capturing Winterfell, the bastion of the Stark family.  The main host of Starks left in the North (most of the Stark knights and bannermen are fighting in the South) converge on the castle to reclaim it and give Greyjoy his due justice.  At the last moment they are tricked by House Bolton and decimated.  These would-be saviors of Greyjoy betray him in the end and raze Winterfell to the ground.  I'm not really sure where this thread of plot will lead.

I find that Tyrion Lannister is a rather likeable character.  He seems to be the only one in the Lannister bunch that has any sort of moral compass.  Now that his father has shown up, I fear that the more overbearing members of his family are going to marginalize him.  I'm hoping that this sort of treatment will remove his blinders, and he will finally realize that he is fighting for the side of wrong.  Perhaps in the next book he will come over to join the Starks?  I'm probably asking too much.

I'm definitely enjoying the series.  As I said in my review of the first novel, it is definitely a fresh take on a rather tired fantasy genre.  I'm looking forward to immediately starting the third installment, A Storm of Swords.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

This 2007 novel caught my attention by winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best science fiction novel of the year (among several other awards it has garnished).  I've long been trying to read every Hugo award-winning novel--finishing this brings my percentage of total winners read to 70% (40 out of 57 total, not including the retro Hugos).  Winning both awards is high praise for TYPU, so I went into it with great anticipation.

The book did not disappoint.  The novel is really only science fiction by virtue of the fact that it is set in an alternate future (my dad would argue strongly that this alone does not fit his purists' definition of scifi...but I digress).  In Chabon's timeline, Israel is crushed shortly after its inception, leading to a mass emigration of Jews to the Alaska Territory in the United States.  Alaska has been opened up to Jewish immigration by an act of Congress on the recommendation of the Slattery Report of 1940, a "real-life" proposal by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. Thus, the city of Sitka has become home to a large Jewish community, making it a metropolis of many millions of people.

It is here where we encounter Meyer Landsman, an alcoholic, down-on-his-luck homicide detective in the Sitka police department.  He is investigating a murder that happened in his place of residence, a fleabag motel too cheap to afford a neon sign.  His victim has been shot in the back of the head while studying a chess problem in a book by Seigbert Tarrasch.  How is that for a classic hard-boiled detective story opening?

The plot follows the various threads of Landsman's investigation that lead from an old chess club frequented by Landsman's father to a meeting with Sitka's most powerful crime boss.  Along the way, we meet a colorful cast of Sitka residents whose characterization is just fantastic.  I don't want to give any of the plot away, but it culminates with a very personal experience for Meyer Landsman.

The novel is extremely well written with an amazing realization of the alternate-Sitka world.  The whole novel just drips with atmosphere.  It is one of those uncommon books that makes you wonder how an author can create something so complete without having actually experienced it himself.  I highly recommend.

Monday, November 23, 2009

IBM and the Holocaust

I was extremely excited to come across this book as it involves a couple of topics in which I'm extremely interested--early computing and World War 2--with a good dash of conspiracy thrown in.  So interested, in fact, that it zoomed right to the top of my reading pile...I actually went bookless for two days waiting for it to arrive in the mail.  My wife can tell you that this is an unprecedented turn of events!

Edwin Black does a magnificent job detailing the role that the technology controlled by International Business Machines played in accelerating the pace of the Holocaust.  In the introduction to the book, Black unequivocally states so as the reader does not make a mistake:  the Holocaust would have still happened without IBM's involvement.  However, without the automation supplied by IBM, the process would have been vastly less efficient.  Case in point: the stark contrast between the high percentage of Jews eliminated in Holland (which had an established IBM presence and expertise in automated census counting) and the much lower rate in France (where the market for automated census equipment was fragmented and not well developed).

To make an extremely complex story short, IBM controlled the world's leading technology for tabulation and subsequent sorting of populations, the Hollerith machine.  These machines functioned by reading special punch cards representing digital data, and had been used in the early part of the century to automate census counts in the United States and several European countries.  Despite clear indications that this technology was being used for nefarious purposes by the Nazi party in Germany (and later in conquered territories), IBM, through its German subsidiary, Dehomag, funneled machines and the paper necessary to run them into the Reich.  Throughout the 1930s and into the war, the president of IBM, Thomas J. Watson (who incidentally is often hailed as a hero of American business), formulated a deliberate policy to maintain plausible deniability for his firm's actions that aided the enemy in both its war effort and its campaign to effect the Final Solution to the Jewish problem.

One gripe:  I would have liked the account to have had a more technical discussion of how Hollerith machines used.  I understand on a basic level how alphabetizing and sequential sorting based on categories could be applied to counting people.  However, how these operations might be applied to something as complicated as cargo scheduling and maintaining a train transportation network were not clear to me.

Reading the book has given me a new perspective on the power of a census.  The information (in many cases) voluntarily given to the Nazis by many Jews spelled their own doom throughout the Reich.  The next time I'm filling out a form asking for seemingly unimportant personal details I might give pause to consider how the information might be used.

I went into this book not knowing how I would react.  Isn't the job of a multinational corporation such as IBM to make money?  I would suggest that the answer is "yes" but there is a moral line that should not be crossed to do so.  Black's account proves that IBM didn't just step over the line but kept on walking and didn't look back.  One example:  IBM sent technicians into concentration camps to service the Hollerith machines that were clacking away sorting Jews to the gas chamber.  It is a story of greed gone unchecked--there is no doubt in my mind that IBM, and particularly Thomas J. Watson, has blood on their hands.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Long Walk

I saw my latest read when I was browsing PBS for books. It sounded quite interesting, and I was able to pick up a paperback book that contained four novels written by Stephen King under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman.

Early in his career, King's publisher was concerned that he would oversaturate the market if he published more than one or two books a year. Thus, King convinced his publisher to release these novels straight to paperback as a way of increasing his publication number without diluting the King "brand" (see Wikipedia for more info). It was also an experiment on King's part to determine if his success had been due to luck or his skill as a writer (a question that he says remains open to discussion in his introduction entitled "Why I Was Bachman").

'The Long Walk' has a compelling premise: In a near-future America controlled by a dictator ("The Major"), a yearly race is held where 100 boys must walk for as long as possible. If someone falls below the speed of 4 miles per hour, he is tagged with a warning. Warnings are removed after an hour, but if four warnings are accrued, the unfortunate contestant is "ticketed." Ticketing results in immediate elimination from the Walk in the form of a fatal gunshot by the squad of guards constantly monitoring the race. The winner of the Walk wins the "Prize" which is described as anything the person wants for the rest of their life.

The novel follows Ray Garraty, a 16-year-old boy, who quickly forms a loose association with a number of other boys. As the Walk progresses, we learn bits and pieces about each boys' circumstances and motivations. Why each boy decided to participate in the Long Walk is a thread that runs throughout the story.  Much of the hopelessness of the novel stems from the fact that while a few of the boys had concrete reasons for paricipating, for most it seemed to be a decision without much thought. This leaves them with the realization that their lives are being spent for no good purpose.

I found the story to be quite tense, and the first few ticketings really jolted me. But like the walkers, these incidents became more and more mundane as the Walk wore on. Overall, the circumstances and ideas presented in the novel were more than a little disturbing to me, but I can definitely recommend this tense, tight thriller.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Man Called Intrepid

This fascinating book describes the birth and early years of Allied secret operations during World War 2.  The narrative centers around one man, William Stephenson (or INTREPID if you prefer his codename), a Canadian man of many (and considerable) talents who held the ear of both Churchill and Roosevelt.  Stephenson had an amazing ability to apply his substantial intellect to the merger of science and business during peacetime. When it became apparent during the 1930s that war would soon come to Britain, he transitioned his efforts away from business to preparing covert operations for the Allies.  His many contacts and relationships from around the world were a perfect cover for the people, products necessary for such an undertaking.

All sorts of capers against the backdrop of WW2 are recounted in A Man Called Intrepid.  There was the plot to destroy the Nazi-controlled Norsk Hydro plant in Norway to cut off Germany's supply of heavy water that might be used to develop atomic weapons.  There was the tale of the huge intelligence apparatus set up in Bermuda to monitor all incoming mail ships for the presence of Nazi correspondence (such as film microdots hidden in the periods of sentences!).  There was the story of the "famed Hungarian astrologer" who toured the world predicting Hitler's doom but was actually a hired hand of the BSC and OSS.  Documents were forged on typewriters that were constructed to have flaws identical to those seen in stolen papers originating from particular Nazi offices.  The list goes on and on...

I was struck by how every detail of an operation was meticulously carried out, down to "collecting" (voluntarily or otherwise) authentic European clothing and personal articles from overseas travelers entering America for use by agents working undercover.

The book does an excellent job recounting the political feeling in the United States in the years leading up to our entry in the war.  For instance, I had no idea that Roosevelt was forced to walk such a fine line in America with regards to his policy toward aid to Britain.  He was constantly under assault from isolationists as a war monger and even had to put up with pro-Nazi elements in the US government (note that the majority of these people did not support Nazi policies per se but were deluding themselves as to the scope of Hitler's plan).

Overall, an extremely interesting book that tells many of the stories not found in histories of conventional warfare.  I recommend it!

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Game of Thrones

I've taken to listening to long fantasy epics while working in lab on the microscope--it is a great way to maintain a high entertainment level while actually getting work done!

I attempted to read a paper copy of A Game of Thrones a while back (at least I know I read the beginning) and, as I recalled, didn't find it extremely compelling.  I now suspect that was because I didn't get fully into the plot and was bogged down by the large number of characters and place names in the novel.  I think that the audiobook helped in this respect as the excellent narration (by Roy Doltrice) gave each character their own voice qualities such that it was easier to tell them apart.

The novel centers around House Stark, the family that has ruled the North for thousands of years from their seat at Winterfell castle.  War is once again upon the land during the weak rule of the once strong King Robert Barratheon.  Following his death, different factions in the land are playing at "the game of thrones" to consolidate their own power in the Seven Kingdoms.

Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different major character (most of them from House Stark).  This type of narrative is particularly effective and moves the pace of the action along nicely--I was rarely left hanging wondering what was happening to one character during one of these shifts in narrative.

I definitely tend to more Tolkein-like fantasy with magic, different races, etc.  A Game of Thrones definitely did not follow many of these conventions, instead tending to mimic the customs and culture of medieval Europe.  There has been little mention of races other than humans and no magic in the conventional sense.  It is definitely a different take on a fantasy setting (dare I say refreshing?), distancing itself from the more formulaic world/settings of the Wheel of TimeThe Sword of Truth, etc.

The novel opens with a curious incident in the far North, beyond the Wall, where a party of rangers is attacked by a strange humanoid creature (what can only be one of the 'Others').  This somewhat mythical race (maybe human, maybe not) is referred to throughout the book but we never get another solid look at them.  I hope that this plot line is expanded upon in subsequent installments of the series (there are apparently 7 books planned, of which there are currently 4 published).

Monday, October 19, 2009

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician

The end of the Roman Republic was shaped by the actions of men such as the Gracchi, Marius, Sulla, Cicero, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Octavian...even more "minor" figures (e.g. Cato the Younger, Clodius) added their own brand of outrageousness to the events of the day.  It strikes me that there have been very few times in history where the lives of so many larger-than-life personages have intersected one another during a relatively short period.

My most recent read was a biography of one of Rome's most influential figures during the first century BC, Marcus Tullius Cicero.  While the story centers around Cicero, Everitt's book is also a great introduction to the events and personalities that eventually led to the fall of the Roman Republic.  The book is clearly written with a relatively vigorous pace that does not dwell on any one event in too much detail.  While attention is also given to Cicero's contributions to philosophy and oration, the majority of the account centers around Cicero's struggle to save the Republic he so dearly loved.

I didn't know that Cicero was actually offered a place in the Triumvirate of Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey.  I wonder what might have happened if he had set aside his misgivings about going against the Roman constitution and chosen to join his colleagues in their unofficial power-sharing scheme.  Cicero is a rather unique Roman politician in that he had little military experience--nor did he have any desire to lead an army.  As a result, Caesar and Pompey would certainly still have dominated the alliance from the head of their armies.  But from this position, might have Cicero brokered a more stable solution to the problems that developed out of Caesar's assassination?  Perhaps, at the very least, he might have curried enough favor with Mark Antony and Octavian to avoid the proscription that claimed his life the following year.

It is actually quite amazing that the Roman Republic lasted as long as it did once it slipped the tracks when Sulla marched on Rome (87 BC).  It is hard to conceive today of a political system that relied almost solely on personal accomplishments/relationships/decisions to steer a vast central government.  This kind of system almost begs for an ambitious person (or a whole series of ambitious people) to exploit it.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Reality Dysfunction: Expansion

Hmmm...there's honestly not much to say about this book other than it continues the story in the first book.  My previous complaints about Emergence carry through this volume as well.  I guess the main problem is I can't really tell what the author building up to (surely it must be something if there are two other parts to the Night's Dawn trilogy).  Sure, everybody is going to band together and defeat the Reality Dysfunction but I have absolutely no inkling, not even a speck, of how that might be done.  I don't really even know what the nature of the Reality Dysfuction is and I haven't been given many tantalizing clues that make me want to read more to find out.

I will say that we did get a couple of interesting, although brief, glimpses of the Laymil xenocs in Expansion through the sensory data stored in the artifact recovered by Joshua Calvert.  Going into this series expecting something akin to David Brin's Uplift novels was clearly a silly assumption on my part.

Overall, I'm torn about whether I want to invest the time to read more of the series.  I did PBS the next volume, but I've put it on the back burner as I currently have a 3 foot pile of other books that I'd rather read first.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Duma Key

I finished listening to the audiobook of Stephen King's novel Duma Key this morning on the way into work and all I can say is WOW!  As my wife will tell you, I've developed into quite the Stephen King fanboy over the past several years since reading the Dark Tower series.  What can I say other than that the man has a genius talent for writing?  I think that Duma Key is right up there with the best of his novels that I've read to date (not nearly all of them, btw).

Edgar Freemantle is horribly injured in an accident on a job site, losing his right arm and damaging the speech center of his brain.  After his marriage falls apart, he moves to Duma Key off the Florida sun coast to convalesce on the advice of his therapi.  He discovers an innate artistic ability and begins to sketch, and later paint, scenes that are unnaturally realistic.  He soon discovers that his works of art come with the ability to affect the real world.  Through his friendship with a fellow named Wireman, Freemantle comes to know Elizabeth Eastlake who grew up on the island and experienced a similar phenomenon early in her life.  As events proceed it becomes clear that the same ancient evil that used Eastlake in the 1920's has plans for Freemantle in the present day.  The novel culminates with a confrontation of this ancient evil in a furiously-paced conclusion to the book.

King's description of the Duma Key environs are rich and evoking.  I particularly enjoyed the wisdom of Jerome Wireman that pervades the prose (my favorite Wireman-ism:  "Do the day...and let the day do you.")  Being a huge fan of H.P. Lovecraft, I can almost describe Duma Key as a modern-day take on the Cthulhu Mythos (with Perse playing the part of an Ancient One).

Of course, reading any King book, I always look for references to the Dark Tower, and I did manage to find a few in Duma Key.  Hey, maybe one might even have been on purpose?  First, one of Freemantle's paintings depicts roses growing up through the shell bed that lies underneath his house on the Key.  Roses are often used by King to denote sacred spots that are safe from evil.  Freemantle's artistic talent immediately recalled that of Patrick Danville (whose life is saved in King's Insomnia) who used his power to ultimately allow Roland to enter the Dark Tower.  Finally, the color red is used throughout the book to denote anger or evil.  A red haze would come over Freemantle's vision when he lost control of his anger, Perse's cloak as she stands on the bow of her ship is red, etc.  Perhaps the Crimson King was somehow influencing events in this world?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Reality Dysfunction: Emergence

I recently finished the first book in Peter F. Hamilton's Night's Dawn series.  I had heard that the book was a sweeping epic that was comparable to Dan Simmon's Hyperion books and, thus, went into it with high hopes.  Overall, I think it was a good read but definitely  not in the same vein as Hyperion--more action-oriented and less literary for sure.

The book follows several individuals from different cultures around the Confederation as they become involved in a civilizaiton-changing event.  On the colony world of Lalonde, a mysterious force has been unleashed that is seemingly able to possess humans and turn them into indestructible zombie-like beings.  Artifacts from a mysterious alien culture hint that they have encountered such a force just before a catastrophic event ended their civilization.  At this point, I'm extremely unclear what this force actually is...some kind of energy has been alluded to, but I'm hoping that it will become clear in subsequent books.  The rest of the technology (spaceships, neural interfaces, weaponry, etc.) are well thought out, so I'm looking forward to a slick 'hard science' explanation for the 'Reality Dysfunction' as well.  

A couple of complaints:  1) The treatment of the extant alien species ('xenocs' in the book) is rather limited.  I would have liked more descriptions of their culture, language, customs, etc.  An individual from one xenoc species is involved in extracting information from the alien relic that is central to the plot so perhaps it (he, she?) will play a larger role later on.  2) The parts of the book where the Reality Dysfunction runs amok on Lalonde are a bit too much like a pulpy horror novel.  For me, the most compelling parts of the novel are those that take place away from this action.

Just a warning:  'Emergence' is only the first part of the complete Reality Dysfunction book.  I would have expected the editors to divide the two parts of the whole work into halves that make a little more sense.  'Emergence' really just stops at the last page with no sort of conclusion or climax in the action--I felt a serious lack of accomplishment when I finished reading.  This can be forgiven since both books were released around the same time.  I would have been seriously upset had I bought the first half and not been able to immediately jump into the second.  

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Inauguration Day

I'm hoping to turn this blog into a gathering place for the many and varied things I find myself looking at between doing experiments here in lab.  A major focus will be on my current (and past) reading...hence the name.  I also hope to include items of interest in gaming, history, science, and various other things that I stumble across.