Tomorrowland: Our Journey from Science Fiction to Science Fact
Tomorrowland: Our Journey from Science Fiction to Science Fact by Steven Kotler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Briefly, this was an interesting book and a fun read. But it still only gets 3 stars.

It’s fun to think about the future and the things that may be coming technologically to change our lives. That said, this book seemed to have a pretty narrow focus. A few specific examples, but not nearly enough and not reaching far enough into the future. It seems like the focus of Tomorrowland is on the next 5-10 years and not that much farther into the future.

For that reason, if you’re planning to read this book, I’d suggest you go ahead and read it now. In a few years it’s likely to be out of date.

The writing style was fine. There wasn’t an overt political agenda. It just overall lacked enough ideas of what’s going to change in the future with examples to back it up.

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The Fourth Transformation: How Augmented Reality and Artificial Intelligence Change Everything
The Fourth Transformation: How Augmented Reality and Artificial Intelligence Change Everything by Robert Scoble
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In brief, this book aims to educate business decision-makers regarding the likely disruptive change coming in the wake of VR (Virtual Reality), AR (Augmented Reality) and MR (Mixed Reality).

If you’re a deep computer geek (like me), this book isn’t likely to tell you anything you don’t already know, but that’s not its point. This one is geared to non-tech-heads who already have thriving businesses to warn them that change is coming. It is, I think, successful in making this clear.

Through the book, the author describes the technologies and their recent advances and differentiates VR, AR and MR. He discusses several of the major players in the industry. Then he goes over several of the current examples of how these technologies are already being used in a few select instances.

The book was clearly written in mid-2016 and given the rapid evolution of this field in the industry, I suspect it will be out of date by 2018. However, it is probably something almost every big-business CEO better read. Scoble does a good job of paralleling the potential disruption from the coming wave of VR/AR/MR technologies to that of the rise of the internet and how big an impact it has had on many industries.

He gives good examples of where the state of the current art is limited, but is prescient enough to know that things are going to change and change very quickly over the next couple of years. For this reason, business leaders at least need to be aware of the technology. From one standpoint, being aware of this could lead some businesses to leverage the technology into new products or capabilities in existing products or customer interactions. From another standpoint, it could be used to at least avoid forced obsolescence (look at the effect of the internet on retail in general and bookstores in particular, for instance).

Overall, it was a very quick read and I found it quite interesting.

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Review: The Dark Forest

JasonC —  February 15, 2017 — Leave a comment

The Dark Forest
The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very interesting and deep read with plenty of hard science and an interesting take on civilization on our planet and perhaps throughout the universe.

While a of people have been absolutely raving about this book, and I did enjoy it, I won’t say The Dark Forest is perfect. That said, it certainly covers very interesting material, with ideas that I’ve never seen mentioned anywhere else, which accounts for much of the interest in The Dark Forest. But it’s not an easy read (even in audiobook) as the characters are very difficult to connect with.

While this book is a direct sequel to The Three Body Problem, which was another fantastic book, the characters from the previous book aren’t really found here. The TriSolarans are on their way and Earth is trying to develop a defense. The problem is the sophons have locked down humanity’s ability to advance their level of basic science and are spying on everything the humans are doing to create a defense. Humanity’s response is to create the Wallfacer project – 4 humans are selected who are supposed to utilize deceit as the humans’ only advantage. Of the 4, the unlikeliest of the bunch, Luo Ji is the one the TriSolarans want dead. He is largely the focus of the book.

The problem is that I found the main protagonist to be impossible to connect with. As the events unfolded, that lack of connection. He’s moody, underachieving, and privileged. The other Wallfacers in ways are even worse.

The really interesting content in the book becomes clear in the last 1/4 of the book and involves the discussion of The Dark Forest – the idea that the galaxy/universe is full of hostile civilizations all competing for limited resources, all unable to trust one another and therefore inevitably to be in conflict. This proposes the ultimate answer to the Fermi Paradox – the reason we see no evidence of other life in the universe is that all other life is hiding. As soon as your civilization makes its presence known, another, more powerful civilization will come in to eliminate you.

Much of the book is used to set up analogies for this within human society just to illustrate this very point. But the big idea is truly fascinating and actually makes sense. It’s frightening. Ultimately, this is what makes the book worthwhile. It’s not easy to get through and I can’t say I truly enjoyed the story or the characters. But to get to the ideas, it’s worth the slog.

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Review: Teckla

JasonC —  February 8, 2017 — Leave a comment

Teckla
Teckla by Steven Brust
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My rating: 3.7

This is the 3rd book of the Vlad Taltos series and follows pretty closely after the second time-wise. For some reason, this is one of my least favorite Taltos books.

The story, without giving away too much of the entirety of the plot and/or spoilers involves Vlad caught in a tight spot, which is fairly typical. In this case, he’s stuck in the middle of a 2 way power struggle. Only in this case it’s not just from a professional standpoint – he’s stuck from a personal standpoint as well as his wife, Cawti has become involved on one side.

Of course, in typical Brustian style, Vlad gets stuck deeply in a jam and is able to figure out a plan that is ultimately still pretty satisfying from this reader’s standpoint (YMMV).

Spoilers follow:

No, really, read with caution if you don’t want to get to the heart of this one.

This book is, I think, supposed to be very introspective. Vlad is put in a place where Cawti and everyone else in the book is asking him to choose sides. Easterner vs Dragerean. Peasantry vs nobility. Love vs business. Family vs aspirations.

That’s all fine and it definitely comes through. The problem is that I don’t think Brust was successful at making me care. Cawti goes from being Vlad’s heart to someone who has essentially chosen revolution over Vlad. She has essentially gone through all the same decision-making process as Vlad and the end result is she didn’t choose Vlad. And she’s mad at him about it. And somehow as a reader, we’re supposed to be gut-wrenched about that? This is the thing that I find hardest to swallow. It’s a sucker punch, both to Vlad and the reader. The whole novel the tension and angst between those two just made me angry at her for putting him in that position. And so quickly. It speaks pretty poorly of how emotionally committed Cawti is to Vlad. Others may find this to be fantastically done, but I didn’t enjoy or get anything out of that.

The rest of the conflict issues made more sense. Vlad’s internal struggle between being an Easterner and his newly-learned preincarnation history makes sense. And his war with Herth and even with the Easterner organization. The way he handles all of that seems very true to character. As does his decision not to choose a side in the end.

Overall, it’s an essential story in the series. But not one of my favorites. Still a 3.7, which isn’t bad. Have to round up and give 4 stars, though.

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All the Birds in the Sky
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My rating: 3.8/5

This is an interesting and original story that falls into both the fantasy and science fiction genres, which is a bit unusual. Set mostly in the San Fransisco area, this book has a little bit of everything – geeky references, awkward teenage angst and “coming of age” story, futuristic tech references, magic (even with a wizarding school) and just a touch of romance. Whew, that’s a lot, especially for what feels like a pretty short book.

A few things to note (spoilers!):
1. This book has that “good feel.” I’m not sure how else to describe it, but you probably know what I mean. It is fun to read and you like the characters. And you want the characters and world to keep on going so you’re sad when it comes to an end.

2. Although a lot of books in this genre are good YA books, I don’t think this is one of them. There’s too much sex in it and it’s handled pretty flippantly. If that fits with your morals and you’re OK with your teenager reading that, so be it. But be informed. Also, it’s generally darker.

3. Not a real happy ending. In fact, it’s abrupt. Like the manuscript deadline hit and there was an all-nighter to get it finished.

Pros:
• Interesting characters where you get to see real character growth and that growth actually makes sense.
• Extremely interesting events and plot topic(s)
• Much better than average world-building (like I said, it’s a comfortable & fun place to be while you’re reading it)

Cons:
• The crux of the book is that both the tech side and magic side are worried that a great ecological disaster is coming. But this is just “assumed” to be the case without bringing the reader into this “understanding” through plot-building. It makes it feel like a hollow threat.
• There are a couple of “big battles” that are very momentous but essentially glossed over.
• The book essentially “builds” all the way to the end and then when you actually get there it ends pretty abruptly (as previously mentioned).

Overall, I enjoyed All the Birds in the Sky. But I think it would have been better as a 2 or 3 part series (300ish pages each).

Also, I “read” this as an audible unabridged audiobook. The narrator did a fantastic job bringing the book to life.

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@War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex
@War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex by Shane Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My Rating 4/5

This was a very interesting read. With the world embroiled in the drama of a new presidency and the recent election with accusations of Russian hackers influencing the election, this looked like a good topic to “read up” on. I plopped 3 books into my shopping cart (@War, CyberSpies, and Dark Territory) all of which were well reviewed and started with @War.

I’m going to keep this review pretty general: it was engaging and well written in an entertaining style. It primarily covers the U.S. military use of surveillance and hacking techniques starting with 9/11 and the war in Iraq. It follows a rough timeline from the Bush administration through the Obama administration and details several prominent military and political figures involved in policy and implementation of techniques. There is ample discussion of corporate security and involvement with the government and how this plays into the overall threat situation of which the average citizen mostly oblivious.

While I found this book to be quite interesting, and there are discussions of several individuals in the book (including Snowden and his effect on policy), the focus is very squarely on the use of our cyber forces in the recent past as well as the ongoing incursions and threats coming primarily from China and Russia. There is little detail regarding operations in the last 10 years, for understandable reasons, as this is a topic that is being held tightly under wraps for the most part by the government.

I have a very libertarian political view and I felt the author did a good job of keeping the political tone of the book extremely neutral, which is a rarity these days, especially considering he was pretty in depth with political appointees in both the Bush and Obama administrations. Kudos for that!

The book mostly whet my appetite for more information. It was a little surprising to read all that has been going on (essentially a cyber war between the U.S. and China and all major U.S. & multi-national corporations). Of course the only way this hits the news is when the media’s candidate gets hacked, revealing many unscrupulous deeds. Why they haven’t picked up on the depth and breadth of hacking and started calling more attention to this in general isn’t all that hard to figure out, but it’s still disappointing.

Take home: However safe and secure you feel like your online presence is, you’re most likely much less secure than you think. Also, you can be certain that the U.S. government is recording essentially everything we all do online. Yes, everything. This makes me want to look a lot harder at encryption strategies for my home network and personal computing systems. You’ll definitely want to pick this up if the topic intrigues you. But avoid it if you’re already overwhelmed with all the “threats” that are out there and would remain in a blissful state of ignorance. Either way, take your passwords and PC security more seriously!

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Equal Is Unfair: America's Misguided Fight Against Income Inequality
Equal Is Unfair: America’s Misguided Fight Against Income Inequality by Don Watkins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m giving this book a 4.5/5 rating. I think everyone out there who thinks wealthy people are the problem should read it, though they won’t.

Short summary: this book talks a bout the dangers of continuing on our current path. Look past the agenda of equalization and see the actual effects that has on our overall societal prosperity. Recognize that anything society or governments do to slow down economic expansion hurts the middle class and the poor disproportionately. This is not supposition or political point of view. It is economic fact and has been proven time and time again. This book calls out crony capitalism as the true enemy of economic freedom and cautions us from giving the government even more power.

I get a bit ranty past this point, so you might as well stop reading this review now. Thanks for your time :)

Capitalism is the most powerful force for economic equality that has ever been seen. This book shows how that works and why it works. While certain political parties will attack this thought as “failed trickle down economics,” the crazy thing is that there is no basis to the idea that trickle down economics is a failure. Time and time again prosperity economics has been proven to help everybody and equalize the playing field for everyone.

But, it’s an interesting world we live in today, here in America. For some reason the media has chosen sides and there is a huge shift in how things are presented compared to how it used to be (the 70′s and 80′s). One major effect of this is that there appears to be a war on success. If you are successful, that’s something to be ashamed of if you share the point of view of the general media. Only one side of the economic debate gets played (the Keynesian) and for that reason, many people think that makes all other economic models or points of view wrong.

But this is actually ridiculous. In many ways. Most importantly because the empiric data shows the Keynesian model is only effective for short periods of time and that the Chicago school or Austrian school economic models are much more accurate representations of how things actually work. Especially over time. But they have a disadvantage in that they don’t fit the agenda of pushing for larger government and more governmental power/control.

The real problem, as laid out well, is not capitalism, but Crony Capitalism. Where those who have tons of money and power use those resources to get special favors from their governments. And that is rampant in our system. But the answer isn’t to give the government more power. It’s to take that power away. Curtail lobbying jobs. Put in place term limits. Eliminate golden parachutes for senators who take campaign contributions from corporations and industries for years and then enact laws that please their masters. And when their constituents finally wise up and kick them out of office, they go to work for those industries lobbying the new senators for 7 figures annually.

That is the problem. This book does a good job at calling that out.

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Review: Yendi

JasonC —  December 27, 2016 — Leave a comment

Yendi
Yendi by Steven Brust
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first time I read this one, 20 or so years ago, I don’t think I truly realized how good a book this is. On second reading, it is absolutely fantastic. This book is also a reasonable choice for a starting point for the Vlad Taltos series of books as the events in the book actually occur chronologically prior to the first published book, Jhereg. (Personally, I’d say read Jhereg first, but they’re written in such a way that you can start almost anywhere and pick right up. There is a combination tome – The Book of Jhereg which collects the first three books by publishing order. Definitely go with that if you’re just getting started).

Yendi is a very early story in the Vlad Taltos series, covering several very momentous events that set the tone for events later in the series. In this novel, Vlad fights a territory war against a competing Jhereg named Laris. Both sides are supported by unseen patrons, and the events become bad enough that the Empress even notices and feels the need to intervene.

Along the way, Vlad is assassinated, meets his wife and uncovers a plot that spans hundreds of years and ultimately determines the Dragon heir to the empire.

As with all of the Vlad Taltos books, this is a fast-paced fun read. Brust writes with a very humorous style that I always find brings me several laugh out loud moments per book. While the book is quite action-packed, the backbone of the book is really a sleuthing tale wherein Vlad tries to figure out what is going on and then sets things up to try and win his war against Laris. As always, it’s a fun, engaging read and the details are what ends up making it. All of the usual characters are here – Morrolan, Aliera, Kragar. Cawti and Norathar also show up in dramatic fashion.

Definitely worth the read.

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Review: Jhereg

JasonC —  December 27, 2016 — Leave a comment

Jhereg
Jhereg by Steven Brust
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a fantastic book and I highly recommend it if you want a fun read that doesn’t constantly regurgitate the standard fantasy tropes.

The series is very well done and still continues to have solid additions. I originally read this book while I was in med school (borrowed it and a couple of the others in the series from a friend who recommended it) about 20 years ago. I’ve started re-reading the series recently and it’s standing up well to the re-read. It’s also useful because it’s helping me to recall some details I’ve long forgotten. Also, in the re-read, there are a TON of inside jokes that hit me harder now that I know the characters well.

This is the first book in the series and should be read first, in my opinion. It is NOT chronologically the first in the series. In fact, there’s a fair amount of chronological jumping in the series, so you might as well get used to that.

Jhereg introduces the reader to Vlad Taltos, who is the primary “protagonist” through all of these books. Vlad is an “Easterner” (an Earth-style human) living in the land of Dragaera amongst another humanoid species he calls “elves” and whom the author calls Dragaerans (they call themselves “humans.”) In Dragaeran society, there are 17 “houses” each with it’s own characteristics. Vlad’s father bought his way into the Jhereg, which is thought of as the house of criminals and is therefore a lower house. Dragaerans typically live hundreds to thousands of years, are 6.5 feet tall or taller and are typically thinly built.

Vlad himself runs a smallish territory in the town of Adrilanka. He also occasionally takes work as an assassin to supplement his income. He has some skill in the eastern arts of witchcraft along with Dragaeran sorcery. He also has some extremely powerful friends and acquaintances. It all makes for some interesting storylines throughout the series.

In this particular book, in addition to meeting the “cast” as it were, the main story involves a leader of house Jhereg hiring Vlad to assassinate another high-ranking member who has pulled a “fast one” on the house itself. As the story unfolds, you find out it’s deeper and then deeper still than anyone knew. As is pretty common with the series, most of Vlad’s time is spent trying to figure things out with frequent flurries of action along the way. There are twists, turns and surprises. I won’t spoil the surprises for you, but I will say it is a convoluted but enjoyable ride the whole way. A great deal of the fun in reading these books is getting to see how Vlad figures things out and how he figures out how to get out of his tight spots.

As a final comment: Steven Brust has built an excellent world in this series. It’s different, but exceptionally well thought-out. In addition to the Vlad Taltos books, there are several other books (6-7) that take place in the same world and focus on other characters who figure prominently through all of the series. Those are worthwhile reads as well. I’m continually surprised that Brust (and these books, in particular) isn’t a much more prominent/popular author amongst those who enjoy the genre. (If you have any insight as to the reason for this, I’d love to hear it. It is mind-boggling to me.)

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Review: NPCs

JasonC —  November 15, 2016 — Leave a comment

NPCs
NPCs by Drew Hayes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a fun romping adventure wit ha nice twist. If you ever enjoyed playing Dungeon’s & Dragons or anything similar for hours with your friends, you’ll “get” this book.

A group of players starts a new campaign that the GM has invested a lot of time and effort preparing for them. A campaign that is “a lot more realistic” than their previous ones. That means they have to pay attention to every little detail. Unfortunately, as many gamers have experienced, there are always those in a gaming group who only care about certain parts of the gaming experience (the fighting) or who are so busy trying to figure out how to short circuit the “experience” to get to the loot. So not long after setting the stage for the campaign, the whole party ends up dead due to an unfortunate side effect of some mushrooms they found along the way.

But the NPC’s (Non-Player Characters) in the campaign world are left to pick up the pieces when they find the bodies and realize this means the less-than-benevolent King may come to their town and destroy it because of these “lost adventurers.” So they have to take up the mantle and set off on an unexpected quest.

It’s a pretty fun read. I’m not going to say there’s anything exceptionally original about it, but it moves quickly, develops the characters and world, and definitely left a smile on my face after reading it. This is the first in a series, and I’ll definitely pick up the next one to see what happens next. That said, this is a pretty well-contained story in itself. More like reading The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe than The Fellowship of the Ring.

Similar reads:
Off to Be the Wizard (Scott Meyer) (the whole Magic 2.0 series, in fact)

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