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Right after reading Quantum Space, I picked up Quantum Void. The characters were so fresh in my mind that I went right from Book 1 to the sequel.

The reader is back with Daniel Rice, the White House science staffer who has become a national science celebrity due to his front-line dealings with Core, the alien cyborg technology we got to know in Quantum Space. With us also is Nala Pasquier, one of the world’s foremost particle physicists, and Marie Kendrick, the NASA scientist come alien technology specialist.

The book is divided into two main sections. First we follow four humans traveling to an alien planet 350 light years away and making first contact with the two alien intelligent species living there. To do that, they use space compression achieved by creating four-dimensional “bubbles” which, as a side effect, compress three-dimensional space. This technology makes space travel obsolete. “Beam me up, Scotty” has become reality.

The second part of the book deals with Nala and her colleague Thomas being involved in a major science accident at Fermilab. The two get “sucked” into a four-dimensional vortex and find themselves alive and well, kind of, on the “other side.” Now they have to figure out how to get back.

Quantum Void does a great job with its “first contact” with aliens story. Here are, for a change, truly alien aliens, and at least to me that makes the story seem real and plausible. I can overlook the unlikeliness that the aliens manage to give Marie a device that puts images into her brain. How did the aliens figure out how human brains work and how they could interface to them? It reminded me of Nelf Rings, a story with a similar alien artifact that does magic to human brains. But well, it’s science fiction, isn’t it?

I truly enjoyed the illustrations of what three-dimensional space would look like from the 4th dimension. There were some stretches that seemed a bit far-fetched, like pealing three-dimensional objects out of three-dimensional space, their primary way to get food and supplies when they needed it. But the writing of messages on three-dimensional objects using a pen from the 4th dimension was described brilliantly.

I realize, as I write this review, you must think I am nuts that I enjoy spending my time reading this crazy stuff. It sure sounds crazy when you read this review, doesn’t it, four-dimensional bagels and all.

But to this time-travel nut and 4th dimension connoisseur, it’s pure joy.

So I now wait for Quantum Time, Book 3 in the series. (I just realized I missed Book 0). Hurry up and write, Douglas.

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Three astronauts, two Russians and one American, are leaving the International Space Station in a Soyuz capsule. They spent months in orbit and all three are glad to be able to return home. All goes according to plan, until a minute or two after the capsule enters the top of the atmosphere, it vanishes. Ground based radar loses contact. To an observer, the contrail streaking across the Kazakhstan sky ends abruptly with a flash of light. Neither the Russian space agency nor NASA have any idea what happened.

Dr. Daniel Rice, one of the staffers to the White House science advisor, is called to investigate what might have happened. Fermilab, the facility in Illinois where quarks were discovered, seems to have the technology and scientists who might have insight into the phenomenon, so that’s where the investigation starts.

Daniel discovers a world of high-tech, quantum physics, and, most important of all, the 4th dimension. He is racing against the clock since he knows that the Soyuz capsule’s life support can’t keep three humans alive and breathing for much longer than a day. But government bureaucracy and corporate greed cause obstructions and challenges. In his quest to save three humans, he encounters a world way beyond his wildest expectations.

I like solid science fiction stories, where the science is big, the fiction is credible and plausible, and fantasy is kept to a minimum. The 4th dimension plays a huge, crucial role in the plot of Quantum Space.

I have been fascinated with the 4th dimension all my life. As a youth, I read about Hinton’s cubes in a quest to understand the 4th dimension, to comprehend it. I have collected and read a variety of books on the subject, from Abbott’s Flatland, all the way to artsy coffee table books like Fourfield. A tesseract is a four-dimensional cube. My readers with a mathematical or physical background will immediately know what a tesseract is and will have certainly marveled at what one would look like. Others that have not encountered this strange and wondrous object will probably have a hard time even understanding what it might be. I am of the first kind, and I have even written code, projecting a tesseract into three dimensions and projecting that onto a two-dimensional computer screen, in an effort to visualize it. I rotated the tesseract over its four different axes so it’s easier to visualize what such an object would look like. Since all graphics software renders only in three dimensions, I could not use off-the-shelf software and had to write my own transformation matrices implementing the 4th dimension to accomplish the task.

Why am I telling you all this in a book review? Because you have to have thought about the 4th dimension and you have to be fascinated with it to understand and appreciate the book. Douglas Phillips gets it and with Quantum Space he wrote the book that I have always wanted to read. He says on his website that he is writing the books he has wanted to read but didn’t find. What a great motivation!

Well, Douglas, you found a kindred spirit here, and I thoroughly enjoyed Quantum Space.

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Portal to the Forgotten: A time travel story

Tyler and Grace, a young couple in rural Arkansas, are out for a walk in the Ozarks, when Grace suddenly disappears into thin air on the trail right in front of Tyler. When Tyler tries to explain this to the authorities later he is arrested for suspected murder of his girlfriend.

Luke is Tyler’s cousin. His hobby is building primitive weapons, hunting with primitive weapons and tools, and playing survivalist in the woods of Arkansas. When he hears about Grace’s disappearance, the believes Tyler, and he goes on a quest to figure out what happened. On this way, a mystery woman who claims to be a writer, befriends him and they retrace the steps of Tyler and Grace.

Sure enough, there seems to be a “portal” in the woods. They traverse the portal and end up in “another dimension.” But they don’t have much time to reflect. Luke finds himself in a net, trapped like game in the woods by tribal savages.

Portal to the Forgotten is sold as a time travel story, and that’s how I stumbled upon it. But it really has little to do with time travel. The protagonists are simply tossed into a world that is completely different from their own, with seemingly no way back.

The author romanticizes his characters. Luke, for instance, happens to be a primitive hunter. He drives his pickup truck into the wilderness, parks the truck, walks away, sort of like they do in Naked and Afraid, and builds tools, hunts animals, and lives off the land. That’s his hobby. Supposedly he is REALLY good at that. Now what are the odds of such a person ending up jumping through a portal into a primitive prehistoric world, without any weapons or tools? Yes, the plot in this story is too contrived.

Luke is the perfect primitive hunter, better than any of the tribal adversaries. Moon turns out to be a one-man army – think of Rambo. Grace, a martial artist, is also a fighter in her own right. So the people stumbling into the “other dimension” are all super heroes with super hero skills.

The land where they end up is not quite the past, or perhaps the deep past, but a prehistoric world full of different tribes, some more advanced than others, but who all are killing each other. The world is so savage, that every time two human males of different tribes cross paths, one of them dies. Of course, our super hero crew always wins, and the savages fall like leaves. Still, a society where human males always kill each other on contact would not survive very long, but that seems to be the world they are thrown into. And let’s not forget, there is the obligatory Nazi named Karl who time traveled to the same world in an effort to steal ancient technology, kind of like in Indiana Jones. True to expectation, it’s the Nazi and his mission who makes everyone’s lives complicated.

Portal to the Forgotten is a somewhat clumsy story with an unlikely plot. It starts out interesting, but as it evolves, it gets boring. There is a lot of editing needed. Sometimes the author uses wrong words or poor grammar. The book could use some professional editing. There is a lot of exposition, where the author tells us what the protagonists are thinking. So we are constantly in the heads of the protagonists, and their thoughts are often just puerile.

For instance, at one point in the story, still back in the Ozarks, Moon had passed out drunk and naked and Luke had brought her into the cabin and put her into bed. So it’s established that Luke had seen Moon naked before.

But later, in savage land, there is the following passage:

“While you are whittling on that, I’m going to bathe.” She stood. “I trust you won’t look.” Luke immediately turned red. He hated himself for it. “That is so cute.” He turned redder and scraped harder and faster, wished she would just go bathe. He heard her behind him taking her clothes off. He was tempted to look, but he was too embarrassed to say anything, much less turn around.

Gschwend, John. Portal to the Forgotten: A time travel story (p. 55). UNKNOWN. Kindle Edition.

The passage continues for a while where Moon is all prissy about standing in front of the fire to dry off and making Luke close his eyes. So these two adult super heroes are stranded in a wild country and they are worried about seeing each other naked? The book is full of descriptions of such unlikely and inconsistent behavior, it makes the characters unreal and incongruent.

Portal to the Forgotten has too much crammed into the story that does not belong there or add to the plot. The science is babble-science. I like my science fiction to the SCIENCE fiction. The plot is contrived and the characters are just not very interesting.

There is a sequel, but I won’t read it.


 

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Pino Lella is a 17-year-old Italian boy living with his family in Milan in 1943 as World War II comes into its final chapter. To escape the draft of Italian boys into the Nazi’s war and face even odds of getting killed on the Russian front within months of deployments, Pino reluctantly volunteers and is assigned as a driver to a Nazi general. In this position he happens to be in a front-row seat to observe the war and the machinations of the Nazis behind the scenes. But along with the doubtful privilege of serving one of the top commanders comes the branding of being a traitor in the view of his Italian countrymen, friends and even family.

Beneath a Scarlett Sky is a novel, but it is dramatized around the true story of the real person Pino Lella and his actual experiences during the war.

Early on, Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler hit it off as two open fascists. When Hitler decided to wage war, he started an alliance with Mussolini and the Italy German pact was a powerful force early in the war. But Italy fell earlier, and Mussolini was captured, and then freed. He served as a puppet leader under the Germans in the latter years of the war. The Italian people were brutalized both by the Italian Fascists loyal to Mussolini, and the German occupation force that was in Italy presumably to “protect” the nation from the Allied Forces. In reality, the Germans looted Italy, both of its young men for the war effort, and later of its goods, food, manufacturing, and industrial output. As it was custom for the Nazis, Jews were rounded up and shipped to concentration camps or into forced labor. Any non-cooperating Italians were forced to perform slave labor duties until they died. The Germans called it Vernichtung durch Arbeit (destruction through labor).

Atrocities by the Germans abounded. Here is a passage describing how General Leyer, one of the central protagonists, separates a child from her mother – while he knew it was forever:

A few moments later, a woman pushed through the crowd, helping a pale, sweating little girl about nine years old.

“Tell her that I am going to save her daughter,” General Leyers said.

Pino balked a moment before translating.

The woman began to sob. “Thank you. Thank you.” “Tell her I will get the girl medical help and make sure she never comes to Platform Twenty-One again,” the general said. “But the girl must come alone.”

“What?” Pino said.

“Tell her,” Leyers said. “And there is no argument. Either her daughter is saved, or she is not, and I’ll find someone more agreeable.”

Pino didn’t know what to think, but told her.

The woman swallowed but said nothing.

The women around her said, “Save her. Do it!”

At last, the sick girl’s mother nodded, and Leyers said to the SS guards, “Take her to my car, and wait with her there.” The Nazis hesitated until Colonel Rauff shouted at them to comply. The girl, though weak and feverish, went hysterical when they took her from her mother’s arms. Her shrieks and cries could be heard throughout the station while Leyers ordered the rest of the people out of the boxcar. He walked in front of them, looking at each in turn before stopping in front of a girl in her late teens.

— Sullivan, Mark. Beneath a Scarlet Sky: A Novel (pp. 347-348). Lake Union Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Reading Beneath a Scarlet Sky helped me understand the nature of the war in Italy so much better than I ever knew. That is actually surprising, because I could have had much more insightful knowledge of what actually happened had I just sat down with my paternal grandfather when he was still alive. He died in 1985 at the age of 80. We don’t know much about his role in the war, but he was off with the Bundeswehr all through the war, and in the final years he was stationed in Italy. He never talked about his experiences with me, or with anyone as far as I know.

But he was there, he was one of the Nazis described in Beneath a Scarlet Sky.

Maybe that’s why he never talked about it.

 

 

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GQ published a list of 21 books you don’t have to read. It lists Huckleberry Finn twice, so I am only showing 20 below.

Two are on my list of books I have read twice, even. Those are highlighted in green.

 

I found it surprising and refreshing that I have actually read six of the books on this list (green and yellow) and tried to read another five (orange) but couldn’t finish them.

What I found most valuable about the GQ article itself is that it provides a rich list of alternative books to read instead – and thus my reading list has just been expanded tremendously.

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It was about 2011. Ross Ulbricht was a brilliant young American college student in Austin, Texas. His main area of interest and study was physics. He wanted to change the world. He tried to get accepted to the reality show Amazing Race with his sister but they didn’t make it onto the show. If they had been accepted, his life might have been completely different.

Ross was also a libertarian. One of his fundamental believes was that the government has no right to dictate what a person does with their body or what they put into it. For instance drugs, including illegal drugs.

That belief eventually gave him the idea to create a website called the Silk Road which turned into a highly successful bazar for buyers and sellers of drugs. Within a couple of years the site grew to serve the sale of over $1.2 billion in drugs, weapons, and even body parts and organs. Ross made tens of millions of dollars in commissions for himself.

In American Kingpin, the writer tells the story of how Ross got the idea, how the started the site modestly by selling magic mushrooms he grew in his own apartment, and how it eventually grew into a formidable criminal empire. The story is reminiscent of the rise of Walter White in Breaking Bad. The only difference is, Walter White is a fictional character. Ross Ulbricht is a real person, an all-American young man.

Does this person look like one of the most successful drug dealers of all time? Does this person look like someone who ordered people killed, Walter White-style?

While the reader observes his rise, he is also following the various branches of law enforcement that start closing in on him, one minor step at a time, until they eventually close the trap.

American Kingpin is a very readable book. Once I started I just kept turning the pages, almost like a thriller. I learned much about the dark web and how it works, and while I was following the hapless journey of Ross Ulbricht from innocent college student to drug dealer, I had to remind myself that this was a true story.

Of course, there is a website to Free Ross Ulbricht where you can learn much more about the Kingpin. People argue that his sentence was not fair. There are drug dealers in prison for life for having sold heroin and cocaine on the street. The “dirty” kind of drug dealing. Ross did it from behind a keyboard. Hmmm. People still died from his product.

You get to judge for your own as you read the book.

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Scotty, a nine-year-old boy, and his dog, can’t wait to run down to the beach upon arriving at their parents’ summer house on Nantucket. They are never seen again, until they mysteriously reappear 16 years later.

As we learn later, Scotty was abducted by a UFO. The aliens have a noble mission to save humanity from complete destruction due to a massive cosmic calamity, and abducting human children is part of that mission.

I was looking forward to a nice alien story, but I was disappointed. The aliens are called the Vallic and they are 97 percent energy. Viewed by a human they are simply faint blue outlines – of humanoid structure. I was disappointed because, like in so many science fiction books, here are aliens that are humans in costumes.  Not only are they humanoid, they have males and females, and the voices of the females are softer and they have – breasts. To top it off, they speak English. McGinnis is a creative author, with great ideas. Why couldn’t he have been a little more creative with the aliens?

The story employs some interesting concepts, but it was just too crude and simple for me. The author is actually a pretty good story teller, he moves the plot along, but there are too many of these “oh seriously?” moments sprinkled throughout, I never got fully immersed in the story. He kept reminding me that this was not real, with unbelievable fabrications (like aliens in human form who speak English), cardboard characters, caricatures of government officials, crazy magic-like science, and flat and boring protagonists. I was never immersed in the world he created.

I was going to blast the author for using the cutesy word “ginormous” a number of times. I really thought that was a made-up word. Before I complained, though, I looked it up, and sure enough, it’s in the dictionary, with its synonym humongous.

I stayed with it to the end, only to be disappointed that there was no resolution, no end. The book ended from one paragraph to the next, where the author tells us to wait for the next book in the series. I hate books with no ends, especially when I read one where I don’t know there won’t be an end because the author is planning a series all along. My bad.

Sorry, I won’t be reading the next one. After reading this whole book I am just not interested enough in finding out what happens next.

But I did learn that ginormous is an English word, not just slang.

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A Higher Loyalty – Truth, Lies, and Leadership

James Comey is probably the last person who ever thought he’d write an autobiography. But he did.

The book starts in his early childhood, when he was an outsider and a target of bullies. He tells his story eloquently and with very simple language. We follow him through his life and career in law enforcement. The name Trump doesn’t even come up until 75% through the book.

We come to understand that Comey is a man of strong principle and little ego, somebody who does what his conscience tells him, not what his ego demands. He is a person who is obsessed with always “doing the right thing.”

I learned that Comey first started out as a prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, under U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani, who had a reputation as a brilliant and aggressive young prosecutor who was set on eradicating the mafia in New York City. He eventually did just that, and Comey learned a lot from Giuliani.

Here is an excerpt:

There was something of an unwritten code about working in the office of Rudy Giuliani, as I suppose there is in most organizations. In his case, the message was that Rudy was the star at the top and the successes of the office flowed in his direction. You violated this code at your peril. Giuliani had extraordinary confidence, and as a young prosecutor I found his brash style exciting, which was part of what drew me to his office. I loved it that my boss was on magazine covers standing on the courthouse steps with his hands on his hips, as if he ruled the world. It fired me up.

Prosecutors almost never saw the great man in person, so I was especially pumped when he stopped by my office early in my career, shortly after I had been assigned to an investigation that touched a prominent New York figure who dressed in shiny tracksuits and sported a Nobel-sized medallion around his neck. The state of New York was investigating Al Sharpton for alleged embezzlement from his charity, and I was assigned to see if there was a federal angle to the case. I had never even seen Rudy on my floor, and now he was at my very door. He wanted me to know he was personally following the investigation and knew I would do a good job. My heart thumped with anxiety and excitement as he gave me this pep talk standing in the doorway. He was counting on me. He turned to leave, then stopped. “Oh, and I want the fucking medal,” he said, then walked away.

— Comey, James. A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership (pp. 19-20). Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.

I found it strange to hear from Comey how impressive Giuliani’s skills were early in his career. What happened to the man? Now, when I see him speak, I can’t think of anything but a senile, goofy, confused fool. Impressive once, but not anymore.

Comey tells his story of how he served under Bush and then Obama, and how, to his dismay, he was drawn into the controversial events just before the election of 2016, when Anthony Weiner’s laptop  turned up in the hands of the FBI, and they inexplicably stumbled upon more than a hundred thousand Clinton emails they could not possibly read in the ten days remaining before the election.

And then came Trump, and one strange encounter after the other more and more convinced Comey that Trump was unethical.

One day Trump was schmoozing up to Comey, and the next day, without even facing him in person, fired him remotely via television.

In A Higher Loyalty, Comey tells his story in sober language without fanfare. When Trump tweets about the book as a collection of lies, he proves to me that he hasn’t even read it.

I know when I trust somebody, when somebody is sincere with me. Trump is not sincere. His words don’t ring true. He body language is that of a liar. And his words are so easily disproven, I don’t even need to observe body language to know that he lies. Five seconds of googling usually brings the lies into the light of day.

With Comey, it’s the opposite. Go read his book and then tell me to my face that he “made it all up.” That will seem like nonsense to you. Comey is sincere, dedicated, and committed to this country and to the institutions of law enforcement he has dedicated his life to.

No wonder Trump attacks Comey.

The bully is terrified!

 

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Hearts in Atlantis is highly praised by the critics, some even called it King’s masterpiece. But I had a difficult time reading this 672 page tome.

Don’t get me wrong, King is a master storyteller, and his characters come alive very quickly. You can’t ever blame King for presenting cardboard characters.

As a matter of fact, in this book the characters are very Kingsean. It’s the structure of the book that just didn’t work for me.

Part 1 is titled 1960: Low Men in Yellow Coats and it’s the best part of the book. If Low Men in Yellow Coats had not been the first part, I would have stopped reading pretty quickly. It’s King through and through. The protagonist is Bobby Garfield, an 11 year old boy in a small town in Connecticut. He has two friends his age, Sully and Carol, and the three of them experience the mysteries of the adult world through their points of view, in true King spirit full of “monsters” and supernatural events.

Here is a sample of true King writing:

What if there were no grownups? Suppose the whole idea of grownups was an illusion? What if their money was really just playground marbles, their business deals no more than baseball-card trades, their wars only games of guns in the park? What if they were all still snotty-nosed kids inside their suits and dresses? Christ, that couldn’t be, could it? It was too horrible to think about.

—  (page 196)

I must admit, I have often thought about this. Inside I am still a snotty-nosed kid of age 11, going to Latin classes with Professor Illauer in Regensburg, trying to figure out what the world is about. My suit is fake, my money is only play money. The world is not real, and Stephen King has it figured out.

The story captivated me and kept me reading, until I got to Part 2, Hearts in Atlantis.

Part 2 shifts to a bunch of college kids who squander away their time in school playing, yes, Hearts. That’s all they do. King spends a tremendous amount of time describing the players and their lives, loves and passions, pretty much without any connection to Part 1, except Carol, Bobby’s girl friend from 1960, is there in college in 1966 and befriends one of the Hearts players.

Then comes Part 3, Blind Willie, where we follow a fake blind panhandler in New York City through a day of his life. The only connection to Part 1 is that Willie is one of the bullies that harmed Bobby and Carol in Part 1, and it shows what happened to him later in life.

Part 4 is about Vietnam and finally Part 5 is the wrap-up, if you can call it that.

The parts didn’t fit together for me, neither content-wise, nor in structure. For instance, Part 1 is narrated in the third person, past tense, where the story-teller describes Bobby and his friends, but focuses on the world from Bobby’s point of view. Third person, past tense, is the most basic and widely used approach in novels.

In Part 2, however, Pete, one of the Hearts players, tells the story in the first person.

In Part 3, King then switches to third person, present tense, only to switch back to third person, past tense in Part 4.

In Part 5, Bobby comes back as a late middle-aged man and visits his home town, third person, past tense.

If King weren’t such a good writer, this book would be a disastrous jumble of disconnected stories with no common thread.

Even after reading the whole book, I can’t quite tell you what it was actually about. I think it’s about Vietnam, the senseless war, and all senseless wars after that, but why did King bother with the elaborate setup and description of the Low Men in Yellow Coats and the enigmatic Ted Brautigan, who lived in the third floor apartment above Bobby and his mom? He could have left out the entire Part 1, and not lost a thing in the story. But then again, if it hadn’t been for Part 1, I would never have been able to work my way through the other parts. I kept wondering when Ted would come back.

Hearts in Atlantis is a challenging read, not one of Stephen King’s better ones, but still a truly great example of vivid story telling by a master.

This would be half a star, but King is so good, I give him an extra one.

 

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We have all heard about Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. He is a prominent philanthropist and American business icon. Today, in 2018, if you look him up, his net worth is listed at $30 billion. Phil Knight is one of the richest people in the country, even the world.

I just wrote a post about billionaires, and how I feel about them. This is very timely, and I suggest you read it before you move on here. Referenced within that post is yet another post about Vilifying Billionaires, which also has meaning in the context of this book review.

We have our preconceived ideas about billionaires and business icons. In this memoir of his life and the creation of Nike, Phil Knight tells his story in such a captivating manner that I felt like I was there with him in the early days. Shoe Dog is not about a shoe company, or a man creating a shoe company from scratch.

It’s about starting and growing a business, building the American dream. Everyone dreams of not working for “the man,” but being “the man.” Everyone dreams about starting a business, being one’s own boss, being independent, and of course, becoming wealthy in the process.

The bleak, frightening, brutal reality, however, is that 90% of all startups fail. Here are the main reasons why:

Fortune.com [click here for source]

I started a business over 25 years ago, and that business is still here, creating jobs, valuable services, and a livelihood for me. So I understood what Phil Knight went through when he started his shoe company in 1964.

There is something universal about a business: you have a payroll. It does not seem like a big thing when you start a business, but it hits you very, very quickly. Every two weeks you have to write paychecks for your employees, and then another set of checks for payroll taxes for the federal and state governments. In the 25 years I have been in business, there have been 650 payroll days. Every. Other. Friday. Payroll day comes, relentlessly. It comes even when your sales are down and you’re not making a profit. It comes when your biggest customer holds up a major payment. It comes after you had a major equipment breakdown and you needed additional cash to get it fixed. Payroll day comes, whether you have money in the bank, or not. And when you don’t have money in the bank, you have no choice but put some there. You first take all the money you have personally and put it there. You take cash advances on your credit cards. You borrow. And you have major, major stress. Every. Two. Weeks.

There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who are responsible for payroll, and those who are not. Phil Knight was responsible for payroll, and he did what he had to do to keep his company moving forward. Every step of the way, he knew that he was just one financial mishap away from total, catastrophic failure. When you run out of cash, you go out of business. See the chart above: 29% of businesses run out of cash.

And then there are problems. Problems with suppliers. Problems with the government and regulations. Problems with employees. Problems with product quality. Problems with market demand. The problems don’t care that you are stressing out over cash for payroll. Problems keep haunting you on Christmas Day or during Thanksgiving dinner. Problems keep you up at night.

Shoe Dog guides the reader through Phil Knight’s journey of creating Nike from scratch and growing it to a world-wide leader in athletic shoes. Anyone who ever even remotely thought about starting a business needs to read Shoe Dog.

After that, you come and tell me why Phil Knight didn’t “deserve” to be a billionaire.

Hey, go ahead! Start a shoe company. It’s easy, right?

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In the not too distant future, when there are still countries like China, Russia, Finland and the United States on Earth, humans have figured out how to build faster than light ships. The ships use the “bubble drive” which basically creates a bubble of hyperspace around the ship that moves forward taking with it all inside. Using the bubble drive, a ship can travel 30 light years in perhaps eight or nine months. With this technology, humans have started sending expeditions to other stars. There are outposts on planets with names like Xanadu, Mu and Atlantis.

In those places, people discovered artifacts of an ancient and very highly developed intelligent race, called the Nelf. The artifacts are estimated to be three to five million years old, are completely indestructible and resistant to human exploration by any means, including high energy weapons. By sheer coincidence, one mummy corpse of a Nelf is found, so humanity can form a picture. Nelf are about the size of a small elephant, with twelve legs. Eight legs are used for walking, spider-like, and four “in the front” are used like arms, each with four fingers.

By accident, humans found Nelf rings, which fit over a human arm above the elbow, and once there, cannot be removed. They eventually figure out that the rings are brain interfaces which open up immense powers through access to Nelf technology.

Nelf Rings is a long book, 750 pages, way too long. Typical for many science fiction novels, it jumps around to different locales and viewpoints, and it does that so much that I found it very hard to keep track of who is who, and what is happening where. There are many different smaller subplots with different characters that seem to have no connection with each other. Each subplot if fully of petty human intrigue that simply gets boring after a while.

The author repeats exposition, sometimes a number of times. For example, Nelf “doors” are activated by touching three points on a surface at the same time. Remember they have four arms. Humans can only do this by using two arms and one knee at the same time. Then a solid surface becomes “liquid” and actually pulls the user through to the other side. For an observer, this looks like the person is stepping into a solid wall. This process of discovery and going through such doors must be described in detail ten different times as the story shifts to different people. I understand that they are different people every time, but I am the reader, I already know how the doors work, so let’s get on with the story.

My estimate is that this book is twice as long as it would need to be to convey the same story. There are even entire subplots that get much attention, but in the end do not contribute to the story at all, other than be entertaining. One such story follows a ship on a mystery planet when somehow the women in the crews get distracted by an aroma they follow, which is so compelling that they actually lick the walls where a certain fungus or lichen grows. This makes them pass out, and when they come to, they are extremely horny. The author describes this as a form of testosterone saturation similar to what happens to adolescent human males, only worse. The subplot gets a surprising amount of coverage in the book, and eventually it fizzles out and we never hear from the all these horny women again. If a reader can figure out why this entire section was even there, I stand to be corrected. It went way over my head.

Another fixation this author seems to have is with female physical beauty. There are surgically enhanced females in this story, who are so perfect, that somehow every male that even comes near them goes stupid, loses his train of thought, or speech, and can’t keep his eyes of them. The author keeps describing them as stunning even in military fatigues or baggy clothes. This is recurring dozens of times in the story. It feels almost like the author is a teenage boy who just discovered girls.

There are numerous subplots that vaguely contribute to the “universe” the writer wanted to create, but overall they were not strong enough to convince me. Many faded out.

I found other structural problems with the book. There is no clear protagonist, no one person to follow and get used to. People come, become important figures for a few pages, and eventually they disappear. I never could identify with anyone, which makes for a dry and text-book-like read.

There was also no end I could discern. Nothing came together in the end, no conflict was resolved, no happily ever after characters rode off into the sunset. The major conflict, namely what would the powers that be on Earth do with the immense capabilities of Nelf technology, never really gets resolved.

It feels like the writer, after pounding out 750 pages, got tired of the book and wrapped it up in a few paragraphs deus-ex-machine style.

Spoiler Alert

We never meet Nelf. They appear to be a highly advanced race that left technology all over the galaxy and disappeared without a trace millions of years ago. We don’t find out anything about them, except what some of their technology can do, we don’t find out where they went, and we never meet one – which would have been cool.

Overall, Nelf Rings is an interesting science fiction speculation that never goes anywhere and that I’ll likely soon forget I ever read.

 

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A suicidal eccentric American billionaire industrialist accidentally crosses paths with a disembodied alien intelligence he calls Ell.  The two team up.

Through complex space/time machinations he is able to download his 70-year-old self into his 10-year-old body of his youth. Through a large portion of the book we accompany him reliving his life a second time around, trying to make changes to the way it went the first time.

He ends up inventing a time/space travel machine. Eventually he uploads his own identity into a machine and starts becoming a disembodied intelligence himself. Ah, eternal life!

For my taste, there was too much psychobabble about disembodied intelligence, but in the end, I enjoyed reading the book, it was quite well-written, and I must say that it’s required reading for anyone interested in the time travel genre.

Enjoy!

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About a year ago I read A Time Before Time, and I said it was the worst book I had ever read.

But Mission in Time is definitely worse. Usually I don’t rate books I don’t finish reading, just to be fair, but this one gets a zero, even though I didn’t get past 25% into the book. By that time, I could not stand it anymore.

A Time Before Time was a time travel book where an astronaut, due to an accident, ends up landing in the Wild West. Mission in Time is a time travel book where two astronauts, due to a malfunction, end up landing off the coast of Massachusetts in 1774. Do those two plots sound similar?

Mission in Time is really bad for other reasons than A Time Before Time, so it warrants discussion here.

The author places two 21st century astronauts into a credible setting just before the revolutionary war in Massachusetts. The story is about how a person with knowledge and experience of today would be able to modify the outcome of the historic events of those days. Since I didn’t read past 25%, I actually don’t know how it ends, and whether the two hapless astronauts ever make it back. I don’t really care enough about them to find out and keep reading.

There are actually a number of excellent and very entertaining time travel stories in which the protagonists end up in the 19th century. Examples are John A. Heldt’s books The Mine and The Show. There is also Hollie Van Horne’s Reflections of Toddsville. Another is Seldon Edwards’ The Little Book. And of course the classic Time and Again and From Time to Time by Jack Finney are probably some of the best in this genre. I gave both Finney books four stars. You should read them.

In all these time travel books we experience how the protagonists get along in the past and enjoy their journeys. How they actually get there, and back again, is not all that important. It just happens through some fictional mechanism, and we accept it.

In Mission in Time however, Richard Scott spends the first five chapters of the book coming up with a “scientific” process that gets the astronauts displaced in time. And that’s where the problem lies. The “scientific” way is so flawed, so obviously silly, it’s distracting and insulting to the reader’s intelligence.

The mission is to have the astronauts travel a couple of years into the future. To do that, they are sent on a spaceship away from earth, and the theory is that the closer to the speed of light they travel, the more they are displaced into the future. Any science fiction fan will know that time dilation theoretically makes that possible. As a ship approaches the speed of light, time slows down on the ship, and relative to the earth left behind, the occupants age more slowly. The “twin paradox” is described in many science fiction stories, and the result is that the travelers who come back have aged more slowly, so their counterparts on earth have aged faster and are therefore older. So yes, the concept to traveling some distance into the future is valid and somewhat plausible.

However, in their trip, something goes wrong with the ship, and eventually the ship exceeds the speed of light. They were taught that if that happened, they would travel to the past, but since it had never been done before, they would not know how far into the past. This travel into the past, requiring a spaceship traveling faster than light, is a concept totally unfounded in physics. The author makes that up to explain how the astronauts eventually end up in the past. He could have just come up with a magic wand that transported them Harry Potter-style, the story would have been five chapters shorter, and actually much better. The reader would not have been distracted by the weird physics.

This is how the author describes to outbound trip:

Once free of gravity and the atmosphere, the neutrino accelerator took over. At first the weak propulsion of the neutrinos was negligible, but in outer space there is no atmosphere, which means no resistance. As the neutrino emissions continued, the ship gradually increased speed. Each second it was going faster than the previous second. After awhile we were really moving. When we’d been in space for about four months (Earth time) we were moving at 90 percent of the speed of light. As I’ve already explained, that was supposed to take us approximately two years into the future by the time we had returned to Earth.

Scott, Richard. Mission in Time: An incredible time-travel journey (p. 26). Winter Island Press. Kindle Edition.

To accelerate from zero to approximately the speed of light at 1g (one gravity) takes approximately a year. This is pretty simple to calculate. To be at 90 percent of the speed of light after 4 months, they would have to have accelerated at about 3g constantly. He describes the little spacecraft they were in:

Our cabin was about seven feet across and 12 feet from front to back. We could leave our seats, but because we were in space we couldn’t even walk in those 12 feet inside the cabin. We could float and pull ourselves about, which we did a lot, but that relatively confining cabin often felt more like a prison cell than the inside of a vehicle that was taking us somewhere to an unknown destination.

Scott, Richard. Mission in Time: An incredible time-travel journey (p. 29). Winter Island Press. Kindle Edition.

It does not sound like there was acceleration going on, just floating. But here it get really interesting:

We were nearing the terminus ad quem and waiting for the side thrusters to go into action. We needed to come to almost a complete stop before the side thrusters were activated. Here’s what blew my mind as we neared that stopping point. At that spot in space we were approximately 1.4 light years from Earth. That’s 8.4 trillion miles. The human mind can’t deal with distances like that. We couldn’t see our Sun from where we were. Not with the naked eye anyway. To put things in perspective, after traveling 1.4 light years from home, we were still in our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

Scott, Richard. Mission in Time: An incredible time-travel journey (pp. 26-27). Winter Island Press. Kindle Edition.

There are so many things wrong here I can hardly list them all.

First, he says they need to come to a complete stop in order to turn around. That spot in space was at 1.4 light years from Earth. If it took them 4 months to accelerate to light speed at 3g, to slow down to a complete stop and turn around and go back to Earth will take another 4 months at 3g acceleration, before they are stopped relative to Earth and can start going back, accelerating again to light speed for 4 months and decelerating again. Reading the author’s explanation sounds like the ship just stopped and the magic side thrusters turned it around to go back.

Then he says they couldn’t see the Sun from where they were? Really? They were 1.4 light years out, that’s about a third of the way to Alpha Centauri. From that point in space, the sun would still be by far the brightest star in the sky. But then, in the section below he states they saw Alpha Centauri, the closest star to Earth, and it was the biggest of them all – even though then it was still 2.6 light years away.

As we neared the final third of our trip back to Earth of an earlier time, we came closer than humans have ever come to many of the stars that I had seen through telescopes when I was younger. Off in the distance we saw an amazingly bright 61 Cygni, which is 11 light years from Earth, but appeared huge to us from our position in space. Again we saw a huge-looking Sirius, the brightest star in the sky when you’re looking at it from Earth. Then we saw Alpha Centauri, the closest star to Earth. To us, it was the biggest of them all.

Scott, Richard. Mission in Time: An incredible time-travel journey (p. 29). Winter Island Press. Kindle Edition.

So 61 Cygni, 11 light years from Earth, was suddenly “huge” when they were 1.4 light years closer to it, that’s assuming 61 Cygni is anywhere near the direction of Alpha Centauri.

Enough! You get the idea.

The first five chapters of the book are full of nonsense like this that the author sounds like he is trying to pass off as physics. But it’s just that, nonsense. The author should have had the two men hit by lightning as they walked the streets of Boston on a summer night and transported them to 1774 that way. It would have been a much better story, and the author would have maintained some semblance of credibility.

And I would not have written the longest book review ever about one of the worst books I have ever not finished reading.

Zero Stars

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Long before Trump was a household name due to his reality TV show The Apprentice, I read at least part of his book The Art of the Deal, until I got tired of it. I always thought Trump was a phony. When he announced his run for the presidency a few years ago I thought it was a joke, a vanity project for a man full of himself. When he, against all odds, won the presidency, I was repulsed. I could not imagine that a boor like Trump could actually start acting like a dignified person, like a statesman, like a president. But he can’t be that stupid, I thought. Surely, he can keep his blabbering mouth shut, check his ego at the door, and start acting presidential.

Wrong.

Incompetence in leadership always eventually blows wide open, becomes obvious to everyone around, and destroys an organization from the inside out. Nobody wants to work for a dilettante, as the incompetence wears off, and makes for a very unsatisfying work experience of a daily basis. I expected that unless Trump cleaned up his act, the whole organization would start rotting from the inside out. A foul apple can look just fine on the outside for a long time, until it suddenly implodes, and the stench wafts out.

I expected that this would happen in the Trump White House, and judging from the number of firings and resignations, I think I was right.

If you ever wanted to be a fly on the wall in the White House, just read Fire and Fury. Wolff takes you right there in the middle of the action. There is no hype, no exaggeration. He just tells a story, goes from character to character, and reading it after hearing various anecdotes in the news throughout the last few years it just all makes sense.

Here is an excerpt, an email written by Gary Cohn, who is serving as the Director of the National Economic Council and chief economic advisor to Trump. He was formerly the president and chief operating officer of Goldman Sachs from 2006 to 2017:  

It’s worse than you can imagine. An idiot surrounded by clowns. Trump won’t read anything—not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers; nothing. He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored. And his staff is no better. Kushner is an entitled baby who knows nothing. Bannon is an arrogant prick who thinks he’s smarter than he is. Trump is less a person than a collection of terrible traits. No one will survive the first year but his family. I hate the work, but feel I need to stay because I’m the only person there with a clue what he’s doing. The reason so few jobs have been filled is that they only accept people who pass ridiculous purity tests, even for midlevel policy-making jobs where the people will never see the light of day. I am in a constant state of shock and horror.

— Wolff, Michael. Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (p. 186). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.

Trump is an ego-maniac, not a leader. That leaves those around him to constantly quarrel for power and influence, and it feels like a game of Survivor, where we listen to the players talk about how they are going to vote people out of the White House. It’s a reality show that is now running our country. What did we expect when we elected a reality show TV personality for president?

I am not surprised that Trump didn’t want this book to come out. He called it full of lies. Reading it, I do not get that impression at all. Yes, there might be some passages that are questionable, but only because he basically listens to what people tell him and reports it. The book is as accurate and reliable as the Trump White House staffers who were interviewed for it.

It’s a riveting story.

I was not surprised about anything I read. It just made sense.

We elected an unfit president. Tough.

Every American should read Fire and Fury.

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I am an artist, a painter, and you would think I’d have known more about the artist who created the two most famous paintings in history. Sadly, I knew pretty much only his name: Leonardo da Vinci.

The second most famous painting in history is The Last Supper. It is featured every year as the “grand finale” of the Laguna Beach Pageant of the Masters. And every year it is a new, powerful image.

Of course, the most famous painting in the world is the Mona Lisa. It is also the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, and the most parodied work of art in the world [Wikipedia]. It is also widely believed to be the most valuable painting in the world.

Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452. He was not just an artist, but an engineer, a scientist, an inventor, and a relentless researcher. He wrote thousands of pages of note books, filled with ideas, speculations, checklists, drawings, designs and drafts throughout his life. Through his writing, we know a lot about him, but on the other hand, a lot of mystery surrounds the man and his history.

Walter Isaacson, the author of the biographies of Steve Jobs and Einstein, guides us through the life of Leonardo da Vinci from birth to death. We see the artist grow from his humble beginnings as an illegitimate son of a Florence notary, to a true superstar of art who consorted with the most powerful people in the world at the beginning of the 16th century. Leonardo was at the peak of his game around the same time when Columbus first reached the New World. The world was very different then, and reading this biography, I learned a lot about the world in those years, and about the pursuit of art.

Now I feel like I know Leonardo da Vinci. I would like to visit him in his later years with a time machine and bring him back to my house. I’d have him ride in my Prius with some Mozart playing off my iPhone through the sound system. I’d show him how I could make a phone call from a moving car to the other side of the world. We’d go to the airport and I’d buy first class tickets to Washington, DC. I’d let him have the window seat and look out over the world from 36,000 feet. Once in DC, I’d take him to the National Gallery of Art and guide him to the Ginevra de’ Benci, the only original da Vinci located in the Americas and therefore the only da Vinci original I have ever seen with my own eyes. He would recognize his own greatness in the history of the western world.

And now I know I need to – as soon as I can manage it – go to the Louvre in Paris and see the Mona Lisa and all the other da Vinci originals there. I know there’ll be crowds of people. I know there’ll be lines. I know I won’t be able to get near the painting. But I know I’ll stand there and I’ll wonder who all has stood in front of that painting over the years, over the centuries and marveled about it. Did Vincent van Gogh ever go and see the Mona Lisa? Did Bob Dylan? Did Pablo Picasso? Did Frieda Kahlo? Did Henry Miller? Did Benjamin Franklin?

Maybe they all did, but someday not so far out, I will have gone – inspired by Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci.


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