Review: Cryptonomicon

JasonC —  October 18, 2016 — Leave a comment

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow, what an enjoyable read!

Neal Stephenson is one of those authors that until a couple of years ago had been notable because I had several of his books on my “to read” list (and on my shelves) who always seemed to get high praise, but for one reason or another, other books always kept leaping ahead of those. Now having read 4 of his books in the last 3 years (Snowcrash, The Diamond Age, Seveneves, and now Cryptonomicon), I think I’m going to have to read through everything he puts out. I think the main reason for my previous hesitation is the length of some of his works – he likes to publish thick books. Sometimes that’s what I’m looking for, sometimes not. Also, he jumps genres and themes like no other author I’ve previously read.

Anyway, as for Cryptonomicon, here are a few things you should know:
1. This is not in any way, shape, or form a science fiction novel.
2. It isn’t related to anything in the horror genre, either (in case you’re thinking it is due to the Necronomicon, which is totally unrelated).
3. It IS historical speculative fiction with action and adventure
4. If you don’t know anything about code-breaking, you will learn a lot. If you do, you’ll have great fun with this one.

If you have a geeky background (like me), this book will likely hit your groove early and keep you happy for the entirety.

The construction of the book is interesting. There are essentially 2 timelines, one set in the WW2 era (late 30′s to mid 40′s) and one set in the “modern” era (2000-ish). The characters are wildly different, but through their efforts in the war, they intermingle around Bobby Shaftoe (early era) who seems to be the glue that ultimately binds them together. Lawrence Waterhouse is the “other” main character in the early era and you might also consider him the center of the whole story. He is the lead American cryptographer helping break codes to turn the tide of the war.

In the “modern era” story, the primary character is Randy Waterhouse, grandson of Lawrence mentioned above. Both eras have intriguing stories that ultimately come together in the modern era and weave it all together.

Along the way, you meet Historical figures such as Alan Turing and Douglas MacArthur. Travel around the world several times (with particular attention to the Philippines and Bletchley Park in Britain). Both eras have an interesting connection with cryptography, with Lawrence being a key contributor to the Cryptonomicon (a tome of Allied knowledge of code systems and code-breaking) and Randy working with a company focused on using cryptography to protect data and ultimately trying to establish an international data crypt storage facility/bank.

Other characters in the book flesh it out very well and really make the story about the people behind the events that they all seem to be caught up in and yet are out of their control. Bobby Shaftoe is an almost Forrest Gump type character who always seems to find himself in the middle of things, yet his single-minded determination and positive attitude take him extremely far. Goto Dengo is a Japanese officer who Shaftoe befriends early, before America is brought into the war with Pearl Harbor. Enoch Root is a somewhat mysterious figure who is a former member of the clergy who saves Shaftoe’s life and ends up traveling with him on most of his adventures and yet also works with Lawrence Waterhouse and even makes it into the modern era storyline intact.

If the topic of cryptography seems intimidating to you, or boring, don’t let that sway you from picking this up for a read. While there is some technical jargon, the whole book has much more of an adventure feel to it. The pace is pretty fast-paced and moves you right along from beginning to end. That said, if you have some interest in computers or crypto, then I suspect that will just add to your enjoyment.

Did I find any negatives to the book? There was some language, which I tend to find unnecessary, but others seem to think adds to the “grittiness” or authenticity of a book that is often about conversations between soldiers. There is some sex and sexual references that might be off-putting to some, but at the end of the day don’t add up to any kind of deal-breaker. It might make it more appropriate for college-age readers, but some of the technical discussions would probably attract adult readers more than teenagers anyway.

I listened to the audiobook version and it weighed in at a hefty 42 hours and 53 minutes, but I enjoyed it immensely. As things wrapped up in the end, I really didn’t want it to end at all. To me, that’s a sign of a truly good book. Great world-building. Personable characters who change and grow. And a fantastic plot. All told, this is simply a fantastic book.

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The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rating: 3.5 stars

For whatever reason, when I was a teenager, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books were always books that I had on my “to read” list but it’s only now that I’ve actually gotten around to reading them. There must have been a lot of talk amongst my friends about them. 25+ years later, I’m finding these pretty enjoyable light reading.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe takes up immediately after the end of Hitchhiker’s Guide and involves the same main characters. They’re on a galactic road trip, essentially caught up in the whirlwind of Zaphod’s drama wherein he is trying to figure out a personal mystery that lead to him stealing a spacecraft in the first book. Along the way, you get to know a very little more about the characters, see some pretty interesting planets, and almost get to watch the end of the universe.

Honestly, the most impactful thing about this book is all of the cultural references that I had seen previously, but never knew the origin. Much of those are found in other science fiction (movies, etc) but also randomly in other places. There is some always-fun British humor, of course. Dry wit and sarcasm galore.

Overall, the story didn’t go much of anywhere. The character development is pretty glacially slow. Towards the end there was some ironic time travel (for some reason, I find that I loathe time travel stories and elements… not sure why). Thankfully, it was a pretty short book and a “quick” read. I have all 5 books in a Kindle collection, but this one made me wonder if I’ll get through them. Maybe I’ll save it for when I’m needing some sarcastic dry wit or British humor. I’m still glad I’ve read the book, though.

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The Industries of the Future
The Industries of the Future by Alec J. Ross
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rating: 4 stars

What I liked about this book: Generally good writing style that allowed it to flow. Interesting take on the concepts of globalization and how it will effect the choices our children will have to make in regards to their education and future jobs. Good examples of the effects of globalization with interesting people, places and situations coming into the new economy.

What was not so great: This book is very much an “overview” and almost seems more targeted towards non-Americans with a very hopeful tone for certain regions and political regimes (which is great, just that I am not that target audience). There was a fair amount of political pushing toward traditional American Democrat agendas. It wasn’t so heavy-handed as to be offensive, though.

As a man in my mid-forties now (sigh), there has been profound change in the world over my adulthood in a way that really alters my outlook for the children of Gen-X’ers such as myself. If you watch the news, it’s almost always portrayed as a bleak future with little hope for our children. This is a huge change from when I grew up – there seemed no end to the optimism about our future and the never-ending opportunities that were before us. Work hard and the world would be your oyster. Now, it seems kids are wary of the world and the opportunities seem few and far between. Not only that, but you can work harder and somebody in India will still be available to work twice as hard at half the price.

So, going into this book, my thought was there is still opportunity out there. It is likely just harder to find. And best to ignore the media on what your future is likely to be like. But where is that opportunity for America’s youth? Where should I be pointing my kids’ efforts and how can I help guide and prepare them so they can realize the opportunities that are out there?

In many ways, The Industries of the Future ties in with The World Is Flat (and Hot, Flat and Crowded) by Thomas Friedman. In summary, for those of us here, we are best served by avoiding traditional old-school jobs and careers that put a premium on doing one thing well. Work to be broad in your knowledge and skill set. Learn languages. Look for opportunities to combine your specific knowledge with new technology and possibly even emerging markets. Be quick on your toes and expect change.

Overall, I found this to be a thought-provoking and well-reasoned book. Interesting examples of technologic change and how it has effected certain regions and industries are found throughout the book and are fairly engaging. Definitely worth the read if you are a young person or have young people in your life that you will be influencing.

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3D Printing – Intro.

JasonC —  September 29, 2015 — Leave a comment


About 4-5 years ago, I started hearing about 3D Printing and I thought at the time that it was an interesting, but maybe a little gimmicky an idea. The first mention I remember of it was of a guy (student?) who made a 3D Printer in the desert using solar magnification (check it out) which could make things out of sand. Seemed pretty cool, but impractical. Then I heard about some companies who were prototyping toys with 3D printers. That made sense. Shortly thereafter, I heard about projects where you could get the plans and make your own, then kits became available, then you could buy a pre-built model.

For the longest time the idea grew on me, but whenever I would read about them, one thing was clear: prepare to spend more time tinkering with the 3D printer than actually making anything. That was kind of a bummer. As the past few years have passed, more companies have been born with different models of printers. Most people have heard of MakerBot, which was one of the earliest companies selling kits and pre-built models. At some point, I decided I was definitely going to make the jump, but there were so many options and every model seems to have serious pros and serious cons. There are $500 models and some that go all the way up to $3500+ (in the consumer line, I’m sure you can go to 6-figures easily in the pro lines) Reading reviews online didn’t help a whole lot because every model has good and bad reviews. When I changed jobs in February, I earmarkeda budget of $2500 from my signing bonus for it.

Once our house sold and we got moved in to our new place in Chattanooga (still a work-in-progress), I was ready. I decided on the Ultimaker 2 printer due to it’s quality and speed of printing, size of the printing area, and ease of use as reported by and consistently used by several YouTube folks I follow. Check out @Barnacules and his YouTube videos, Tested’s YouTube Review, and just do a search for Ultimaker on YouTube or Google). It was right at the $2500 budget mark. The other candidates were the Lulzbot Taz 5 (used by James Bruton extensively) and the MendelMax. I ruled out MakerBot’s products due to common failure issues, lack of multi-material support, and numerous bad reviews (pretty much nothing BUT bad reviews, really). 

I didn’t end up buying the Ultimaker. 

Something came up. Actually 2 things:

Printrbot Plus

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Review: Ready Player One

JasonC —  September 7, 2014 — 1 Comment

Ready Player One
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First off, I’d just like to say that I could kick myself right now.

Why? Because this book started showing up on my “to-read” and suggested books lists in various places like Shelfari, Goodreads, and Amazon about 2 years ago. Maybe longer. I actually bought it over a year ago with a credit in Audible (unabridged and read by Will Wheaton, yes that Will Wheaton. And I started listening to it/reading it about a week and a half ago.

WOW! I’ve just completed this and I feel that near-gut-punch feeling of having finished a GREAT book. One with no sequel. If you’re a reader, you’ll know what I mean by saying “it feels like I’ve lost a close friend.” This book is instantly in my top 10 of all time and probably in my top 5.

RPO is set in a dystopian 2044 where the real world is ravaged by poverty, food shortages and economic collapse. But most people don’t care because they spend the majority of their “lives” in The OASIS, which is a virtual reality universe. Because of the instability of the economies of the real world, the credits of the OASIS are actually more valuable than those in the real world.

Into this milieu is dropped our protagonist (Wade Watts, essentially a high-school senior) who is a self-proclaimed gunter. The creator of the OASIS has died and left his vast fortune as the prize for the first person to find the ultimate game Easter Egg in the OASIS. Millions of people spend their lives as egg-hunters (hunters) trying to find that egg. Wade has very little in the real world, but he has a good friend “H” and a much-better-than-average grasp of the knowledge needed to find the Egg.

The twist is that the creator, James Halliday, was obsessed with 80′s culture and geeky pastimes. Video games like Pac Man, Zork, and the like, awesome 80′s music and movies. You name it and it’s probably references in Ready Player One.

Through an incredible set of discoveries and adventure, Wade makes new friends, falls in love, nearly calls it quits, nearly gets killed (several times) and takes us, the readers along for an incredibly fun, fast-paced ride into the future AND the past.

If you’re a geek of the 80s (like me), jump in the way-back machine and pick up this book immediately. Just do it. Don’t waste your time waiting. This is a FANTASTIC book.

And if you enjoy audiobooks, I highly recommend the audiobook. Will Wheaton’s performance is fantastic. There’s nothing distracting about it whatsoever. He’s simply the perfect choice for narrating this one.

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So I was watching YouTube videos and I came across this one where the guy was talking about his personal philosophy and this concept really stuck with me: AnythingWorthDoing

When you first say it out loud “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly” it just feels “off.” But then when you think about it, it makes so much sense! How many people NEVER strive for greatness for fear of failure? How many try something once and give up because the results aren’t PERFECT the first time? 

I think it happens all the time. Probably the majority of people who read this have “settled” in life because they didn’t even try. Or maybe they tried, but didn’t push through to the point where they actually get good at it. 

In one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books (I think it is Outliers), he talks about the 10,000-hour rule. 10,000 hours! That’s essentially 10 years of 50 hour/week (or more) solid working at something before you get to the “expert” level! 

So if you love doing something, it shouldn’t matter how good you are to start out. What matters is that you do it. Stick with it. Overcome and outlast! Because 10 years down the road is where you really see the benefit of sticking with it. 

Are YOU doing what is truly worth doing?

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants
David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Anytime I see a Malcolm Gladwell book, it immediately goes on my “to read” list. The way he breaks down the topics he covers maximizes the interesting possibilities and puts it together in a way that, if you try just a little bit, just might expand your life. With a title like “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants,” how could this book not be an absolutely interesting read?

Yet again, Gladwell delivers the goods. This is a fantastic book! Definitely worth the read.

The titular conflict between David and Goliath gets the book started and will probably surprise you with his take on the battle. Right away Gladwell strips the issue to its basic components and shows how this may not have been such an unfair fight after all! Or, perhaps it was unfair in the opposite direction from what you’d think! It is a lot more interesting than a lot of people might think, and more eye-opening.

Besides David & Goliath, Gladwell talks about the Blitzkreig bombings of London and how they actually STRENGTHENED the will of the British people (especially Londoners) and how “near misses” effect individuals and groups. This segues into the 1960′s Civil Rights Movement which is amazingly interesting and revealing. These sections actually revealed to me how “near misses” have affected my development.

He also spends quite a bit of time discussing dyslexia and business, giving great personal examples of how setbacks in an individual’s life, under the right circumstances for that person can actually provide just enough push to make them exceptional in other ways to not only compensate, but excel in life and/or business.

Overall, this book was fantastic. I highly recommend it to pretty much any reader.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook and the narrator was fantastic (it was Malcolm Gladwell himself and he does a good job with narration, which isn’t always true of other authors).

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I’m just a tiny bit ashamed to say: “I’m a gamer.” I enjoy playing video games from time to time. By no means would anyone call me a hard-core gamer, but when the “Next Generation” of consoles were announced, I was pretty excited.

For the past 5 years or so I’ve been gaming on the Playstation 3, and before that I had a Playstation 2. Over the years, my preferred games have changed (from NCAA football & the Need For Speed series on the PS2 to the Call of Duty franchise on the PS3 (which I’ve only really been playing for the last 3 years). On the PS3, I was late to the party, buying it mainly after having so many frustrations with other Blu-Ray players and continuously hearing the PS3 was the best Blu-Ray player out there. The last 5 years have proven that to be true. It’s an awesome BR player. But it’s also an awesome gaming machine.

Despite that, I really considered changing platforms to the Xbox with the new generation (PS4/Xbox One). It just seems like more people I know who are gamers play on the Xbox.

Then the initial releases hit and Microsoft TOTALLY botched it. Butchered it, really.

Playstation 4 Box

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How Do You Kill 11 Million People? Why The Truth Matters More Than You Think
How Do You Kill 11 Million People? Why The Truth Matters More Than You Think by Andy Andrews
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First off, this is absolutely a fantastic book and should be required reading for everyone in any country which holds elections.

Second, it’s all of about 65 pages, so you can probably finish it in an hour or two.

If you are among the vast majority of Americans who are disenfranchised by our government (at pretty much every level), no matter which side of the political debate you stand upon, this book is a must-read.

And it’s a call to action.
To sum it up in a sentence, How Do You Kill 11 Million People is a book about political leadership and the importance of character and true honesty in our leaders.

The racy title is an attention-grabber, but is the primary example used in the book that should get you thinking… how did the people of Germany allow the extermination of 6 million Jews and 5 million other people in concentration camps? And how did those people go to those camps without a fight?

They were lied to.
By their country’s leadership.

And the other Germans knew it was happening. And they allowed it. They allowed themselves to be lied to and believed the lie even though they KNEW it was a lie.

This book doesn’t point out a single thing currently going on in America. It doesn’t mention one political party or the other. It doesn’t say what the government should be doing or shouldn’t. What it points out very clearly is that America has a recent history of electing officials (at every level of government) who tell the people what they want to hear (whatever they think will get them elected) and then once they get in office, they refuse to do the hard things that are actually best for the country. They are more likely to vote for something that will get their backers special privilege. Or won’t upset their “party” or a subset of their constituency for fear of losing re-election.

In short, they forget they are working for We the People, instead of us for them.

Character and honesty should be the number 1 & 2 features we look for in a candidate. And it is our civic duty to call out those elected officials when they operate in any way that is not for the good of the people. Or when they deceive us.

If we do NOT call them out, that is exactly how atrocities like Germany, Somalia, Chechnya and so many other mass murders occur. When the people elect deceivers and then fail to hold them in check, that is exactly how that happens. It’s not just a Hitler who does it. It’s the people who allow it to happen.

And America, despite our great history, is no more immune to this possibility today and in the future than Germany was in the 1930′s.

Share it with everyone you know.

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Life Overload

Are you over-scheduled? Over-committed? Over-programmed? I know for sure that I am. In fact, I’m one of the worst offenders of piling on more things to my “to-do” list and feeling like I’ve only had a good day if I’ve accomplished something significant.

But you know what?

It’s not really meant to be that way. I think we all do better when we have regular periods of “Down time.”

Further, continuing to “pile on” to your schedule will quickly lead to problems in almost every area of your life.

So what do we do about it?

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