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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

A Brief History of Humankind

As the subtitle states, the book is a brief history of the human race. The Israeli author has a Ph.D. in history and lectures at the Hewbrew University in Jerusalem. He tells the story of humanity from a scientific and cultural viewpoint. The material was originally published in 2011 and updated in 2014. Some of the references to current events, like global warming for instance, are therefore already quite outdated, but the impact of that is very minor.

Unlike what we think of history books, Sapiens is a page-turner. The author’s viewpoint sometimes shocks and surprises us. Humans are apes that managed to become the apex predator of the planet.

Being scientifically oriented myself, and keenly interested in history to boot, there was not much material in Sapiens that I didn’t already know in a broad sense, but the level of detail and the sharp, keen observations that the author supplies made it very valuable.

I learned a lot about our history, and there are many subjects the author addressed that resulted in my taking notes for further study and reading. For me, it all makes sense, but I can see that for a Christian or a Muslim, or a technologist, some of the conclusions of the author may be surprising or even disturbing and shocking.

Many sapiens eat pork:

Pigs are among the most intelligent and inquisitive of mammals, second perhaps only to the great apes. Yet industrialised pig farms routinely confine nursing sows inside such small crates that they are literally unable to turn around (not to mention walk or forage). The sows are kept in these crates day and night for four weeks after giving birth. Their offspring are then taken away to be fattened up and the sows are impregnated with the next litter of piglets.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens (p. 342). Harper. Kindle Edition.

I read the book cover to cover, and I learned – mostly that I know very little. My rating key for books states: “Must read. Inspiring. Classic. Want to read again. I learned profound lessons. Just beautiful. I cried.” Obviously, I rate a book with four stars when it changes me in some way.

After reading Sapiens, I will never think about many topics quite the same again. I can’t “unread” this book. I read it, and now:

  • Christianity, Islam and all the other religions will never quite look the same to me.
  • I always believed animals are not different in kind from humans in any way. Animals feel, hope, love, lust, fear and mourn, just like we do.
  • We are destroying ourselves and our planet, and all the creatures on it (or most of them).
  • Our current Republican government is corrupt, criminal and repugnant.
  • Our species does not appear fit to survive.
  • We are at the cusp of turning into something quite different entirely. I call it the ultra-sapiens, in great contrast to divine. The ultra-sapiens will look at us sapiens like we sapiens look at ants. Get out the Raid and wipe them off the countertop.
  • We could do so much good, be so much better, but we don’t have the maturity to pull it off.

Sapiens changed the way I think, and I suspect it would change your way of thinking, too.

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When Trisha’s father passed away in 2004, he left her his library. Over the years, she kept only the most precious pieces. In her den, on a prominent shelf, is the fifteen book set of the Complete Works of Charles Dickens, by the Kelmscott Society Publishers, New York. The volumes are not dated, but I found through online research that they were published in 1904.

The books are now brittle, some of the spines have crumbled, and I don’t think any of the books themselves would survive a reading. They would disintegrate from being handled.

But precious they are, on that shelf, to remind her of her father, who himself must have acquired them when they were already old.

I have never read any Dickens, but it gives me comfort to know the complete works are in our house.

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Just as I was finished reading Where the Crawdads Sing, as I was transitioning back to Sapiens, I received an email from my friend Wolfgang recommending The Red Badge of Courage. How could I resist?

Within minutes I had downloaded the book and started reading. I recognized the first few pages and concluded that I must have read it before, many years ago, and forgotten all about it.

Not so. I now realize that I had started reading it – after all, it’s a classic – but put it aside after the first session, never to pick it up again. In my days of  reading hardcopy books that was quite possible. Once a book went down below the top five on the reading stack, there was a real chance that it never came to light again, ever. And so it must have been with The Red Badge of Courage.

It tells the story of “The Youth” as the author refers to him, a farm boy named Henry Fleming who enlists in the Union Army during the American Civil War, against his mother’s advice, as many a boy was wont to do when peer pressure was applied. He goes to war with gusto, only to realize that war is weeks and weeks of boredom, interrupted by occasional hours of terror and fright during battles. In the Civil War, men lined up shoulder to shoulder in rows, facing the enemy, who also lined up. Then they shot salvos at each other, which randomly thinned out the respective lines. Reloading took much time, getting ready for the next salvo. The human soldier was completely expendable. I don’t know how I would handle such a situation, and I am grateful that I never in my life had to. But the youth was terrified and ran away in shame. Eventually he found his way back to his regiment, and through successive engagements found his courage, and eventually became a hero to himself and his comrades. The title “the red badge of courage” comes from a red blood stain from a battle injury.

Stephen Crane wrote the book decades after the war and published it in 1893. He never experienced war firsthand himself, so his descriptions all came from what others told him. Notable also is that Crane died of tuberculosis in Germany in a sanatorium in the Black Forest in 1900 at the young age of 28. The Red Badge of Courage was his most acclaimed novel. It is a short book that you can read in a few hours, and many readers find it boring and challenging to read. All of the dialog is in southern farmer dialect, heavy with apostrophes and difficult to read. Here is an example:

But the tall soldier continued to beg in a lowly way. He now hung babelike to the youth’s arm. His eyes rolled in the wildness of his terror. “I was allus a good friend t’ yeh, wa’n’t I, Henry? I ’ve allus been a pretty good feller, ain’t I? An’ it ain’t much t’ ask, is it? Jest t’ pull me along outer th’ road? I ’d do it fer you, wouldn’t I, Henry?” He paused in piteous anxiety to await his friend’s reply.

— Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage (AmazonClassics Edition) (p. 67).

This is difficult for us Americans to read. I wonder how Wolfgang fared, being a native German reader? But then again, he told me he read War and Peace in Russian, so this must be a walk in the park in comparison.

I stuck with it and finished the book. I am not much of a “classics” guy, and The Red Badge of Courage, while an impressive little story, didn’t touch me all that much. I felt like I was reading it as a result of a class assignment, which, in a way, it was. I finished it, and in my subjective rating it gets two stars.

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It’s 1952 in the marshland in coastal North Carolina. Kya is six years old and the youngest of five siblings. They live in a shack in the swamp. Pa is a loser and a drunk, and he abuses and beats Ma and the kids. One day Ma just walks away and never comes back. One by one the older siblings also drift away. Pa sticks around for another four years, but is gone sometimes four or more days in a row, who knows where. Then one day, when Kya is about ten, Pa does not come back. She is completely abandoned and forced to raise herself and survive. Kya grows up as a feral child, known as the Marsh Girl, a mystery to the towns people.

Where the Crawdads Sing is the debut novel of Delia Owens, a zoologist and non-fiction writer. She is now 70 years old and this is her first novel. I found the work truly amazing for a first novel. I just finished reading a truly bad novel, which I rated as zero stars. From the first page of reading Crawdads I was drawn in and captivated by the excellent descriptions, the suspense, the story, and the characters. Where the Crawdads Sing is one of the best novels I have read in a long time. It is a unique story about a set of characters we would not come across in our normal daily lives. It draws us into that life and environment until we become part of it. We feel the pain, the abandonment, the loneliness, and the longing of Kya as she grows up into a remarkable woman.

The book has all the elements needed: a strong story, unique characters, good and evil, suspense, challenge, pain, and an abundance of natural beauty all around with excellent descriptions.

When I was done with the book I went to the Amazon reviews and checked out out some of the 1-star ones, the people who didn’t like the book. Many thought it was unrealistic or unbelievable. Some, who were familiar with the North Carolina coast land said that the descriptions of the geography were not accurate. Some said that there are no crawdads in salt water marshes. Some said that the dialect used by the locals seemed somehow “wrong” or stilted or inconsistent. All those flaws may be real and factual, but none of them bothered me as I read the book.

I remember reading and feeling deep emotions all throughout, I shed quite a few quiet tears behind my glasses from time to time, and I truly enjoyed every minute of it. At the end, I didn’t want the story to be over.

It may have its flaws, it may be unrealistic, it may not be true to the local details, but it was a powerful book that left a strong imprint on me, one I will remember for a long time.

This is a book that deserves four stars from me.

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A Reddit user has posted a list of science fiction books that he considers his top 15 list. You can click on he link to see the details. My daughter, who knows I read a lot of science fiction, sent me the list. She suggested I open a post and say that I have spent the last 50 years reading nothing but science fiction, and here is my list….

A cursory glance revealed that I have a completely opposite view on some of his books, specially the first two, and I agree with many of them. I made a list of the books below, showing my ratings (zero to four stars) if I have reviewed the books, and commenting on those I have read but did not review. Note, I have “only” reviewed every book I have read since 2007, so there are about 40 years of reading where I only have vague memories of the results, and there is not enough time to read them all over again just to do a review. Ah, so little time!

  1. The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell)My rating 1.5 stars – This book is generally highly rated, but from my review you can tell I had serious issues with it.
  2. Hyperion Series (Dan Simmons) – My rating 2.0 stars – Just a lukewarm book, and I definitely didn’t want to read the next in the series.
  3. The Stand (Steven King) – Not reviewed, but read twice, and with more than 1,000 pages, that’s a feat – I have not reviewed The Stand because I read it long ago. It’s not a science fiction book, but it’s one of my top 10 of all time. I think King wrote a masterpiece with The Stand.
  4. I, Robot (Isaac Asimov) – I have not read these books.
  5. Dune (Frank Herbert) – I have not read the Dune series. I know they are classics, everyone says they are great, but I can’t read them. I cannot get into them.
  6. The Forge of God (Greg Bear) – I have read this book and remember nothing about it. I like Greg Bear books a lot, but I won’t spend the time to read this one again. Probably a good recommendation.
  7. The Forever War (Joe Haldeman)My rating 3.0 stars – I have actually read this book twice in the last eight years. I liked it a lot. I enjoy most of Haldeman’s writing.
  8. Not Alone (Craig Falconer) – I have not read this book, but this recommendation makes me think I should. Getting it onto my list.
  9. The Sirens of Titan (Kurt Vonnegut) – I have not read this book either, but I have now put it on my list.
  10. Nightfall (Isaac Asimov + Robert Silverberg) – I have not read this book, but looks promising.
  11. Old Man’s War (John Scalzi)My rating 3.0 stars – Great read, recommend highly.
  12. Childhood’s End (Arthur C. Clarke) – I read this decades ago and I remember it’s a good book, but that’s all.
  13. Spin (Robert Charles Wilson) – I have not read this book.
  14. Starship Troopers (Robert Heinlein) – I read this book when I was a teenager. I remember I liked it. There is a horrible movie made after this book, which does not do it justice.
  15. Footfall (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle) – I read Footfall a long time ago. It plays in my home area of Southern California, and I knew many of the locations. It’s an epic, and I would be rating it highly if I were reviewing it now.

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In 2012, Peter is a retiree in Snohomish, Washington. He buys an old house and starts fixing it up, when he notices something odd about his shed. One night Peter sees lights out there and when he goes to investigate, he meets Henry, the old man who sold him the house. Henry let’s Peter in on the secret: The shed is a time portal. You set your mind to “when” in time you want to go, and walk through it, and there you are. Simple as that. And thus we have a time travel story.

Peter loses no time exploring the Snohomish of his youth in the summer of 1958. He crosses over almost daily, gets an apartment, buys a car, and establishes an identity there. During a return trip to 2012, his granddaughter Emily notices something weird and soon Peter comes to the conclusion he has to confess. Emily is let in on the secret. Since Emily is only 15 and a minor, they also include Emily’s mom.

For reasons that I can’t fathom, other than making a story, they decide that Emily will take a quarter of high school in the fall of 1958. They make preparations and put the plan in motion. But there is a school bully and he is one “bad hombre” to use the author’s word.

This book is really bad for a lot of reasons, so bad that it is worth pointing it out. There are about 50 reviews with high ratings on Amazon and I just don’t understand how that can be. Half of them seem to be by Snohomish residents who obviously like to read about their cafes, streets and businesses. There is a nostalgic element. But why is this book so bad? I will list the main reasons:

Grammar and Spelling:

The book it littered with grammar and spelling errors, so many I didn’t count them. Here is an example – red highlights are mine.

As we ate, she asked, “Why did I remembered what happened and the other kids didn’t?” I explained, “We kept our memories by returning though the portal. To the other kids, it was like rewinding a tape and recording over it.

There are two major grammar oversights in one paragraph. This might be acceptable to some readers, but to me it’s an insult. I paid $3 for this book. I now have a list of bookmarks of all the grammar and spelling errors that annoyed me enough to mark them. Did anyone at all, including the author, ever read this book before publishing it? Apparently not. But they expect the public to pay for this.

Juvenile Writing:

The book is full of clichés and trite expressions. When the author didn’t know how to describe something, he resorted to some colloquialism. It felt cheap.

Bad Writing in General:

The author does not know how to make a dialog work. There is some dialog, like in the example above, but it’s stilted at best. Since he can’t write dialog, he uses exposition throughout and indirect dialog. For instance, on the same page as the above excerpt:

I gave her a hug and told her I was proud of her and that I loved her. She began sobbing and turned and buried her head in my shoulder as she hugged me back.

Pretty much all the talking in this book is done this way. The narrator says what he said, rather than saying it. Sometimes that works, but this entire book is written that way. None of it is real. The entire book tells us what happened, rather than showing us what happened.

Filler Descriptions:

The book is stuffed with unnecessary descriptions, of what the characters are wearing every day and what they are eating:

She ran to the entrance in her new, knee-length, gray wool skirt that Dorothy had made for her a few days earlier. She had on white bobby socks, her saddle shoes, her white Jansen sweater, a light blue jacket, and a bright blue scarf around her neck. I watched as she ran to the door. It made me tear up a bit when I realized how much she looked like her grandmother had when I’d first met Linda at WSU.

Ok, you get a picture of what Emily looked like that day, but the author does it in every appearance. It does nothing to move to the plot along, just fills pages with words. He does the same thing with food. Every time they eat, and they do a lot of eating in this book, he describes the menu in detail:

As I entered the kitchen, I gave her a hug around the shoulders and asked if I could help. She gave me the chore of setting the table while she finished with the rest of breakfast. It was a wonderful breakfast of fried eggs, hash browns, bacon, toast, and orange juice.

There is nothing special about the breakfast. But why list it? Why talk about every item they eat every time with every meal? If it does not contribute to the story, it should not be there. My estimate is  that the whole book could be condensed to about 50 pages if the author just left out all the filler stuff that has no need of being there. Here is another example:

Dorothy had prepared a great meal. The dinner started with a wonderful salad of lettuce, nuts, raisins, tomatoes, fresh peas, croutons, and blue cheese dressing. The main course was sirloin steaks and baked potatoes—the ones left from the bag I’d purchased at Safeway the day before. They were dressed with sour cream, whipped butter, and bacon bits. Dessert was fresh apple pie à la mode. Dorothy told the kids that she and I had driven all the way to the Monroe Farmers Market to get the apples. They all enjoyed the meal immensely.

This is the author’s attempt to make it seem real, kind of like Stephen King does when he describes details. But he picks the wrong boring details at the wrong times in the story to provide color. The fact that dessert was fresh apple pie à la mode just isn’t advancing the plot. And we don’t need to know all the ingredients of the salad. Really!

Nonsense Plot:

This is supposed to be a time travel adventure, and while there was room for it to be just that, the author missed the chance. It’s basically a nostalgic story in 1958 to pander to Snohomish residents and their memories. He could have just written a period piece. The protagonists didn’t need to step through a portal in a shed from another time to do any of the stuff they did. They could have just lived there and the story would have mostly been the same. The time travel pieces of the plot were very minor, unimaginative and in some cases nonsensical. This was not a time travel book.

In Summary:

I don’t like to blast a book with negative criticism, but in this case it’s necessary. The author clearly didn’t bother to have an editor read the book even once before he started selling it. Why didn’t he ask one of his friends who wrote a Five-Star Amazon review to give him a list of grammar fixes? He could have done that in an hour. This shows me that the author really does not care about the quality of the book, but he does expect us in the reading public to pay money for the privilege.

I read all the way through, because that’s my policy. Some books I just can’t read all the way through. When that happens I don’t give myself the right to actually rate them. I just state that I couldn’t keep going. This book was short enough that I kept with it, even though I suspected it wasn’t going to get any better.

So here goes:

 

 

This is zero stars, by the way. The real stars are gold covered. See some of my other reviews.

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Lynne said she’d been on the phone one day last summer (also with her door open), “I heard the cat munching his catfood, and out of the corner of my eye saw a black and white shape at the dish… then thought, up-oh, the cat’s upstairs… I turned around to look and, of course, you guessed it, it was a skunk, the absolute nightmare scenario of living in the country. I slowly moved toward it, telling it to leave, please. It just looked me in the eye and, with its paw, scraped the cat’s dish closer to itself! I decided to do nothing and wait. Do you know how slowly skunks eat? Finally, when the skunk was finished, it calmly walked out the door.”

— The Pocket Lint Chronicles, Barbara Carlson, page 148

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Mike Noonan is a successful novelist in his early forties in Maine. When his wife Jo suddenly and somewhat inexplicably dies in the prime of her life, Mike goes into crisis. Writer’s block keeps him from working. To get a break, he decides to move into their vacation home in the south of Maine.

Surrounded by small town life, the starts to see improvement right away. But then he meets Maddie, a woman in her early twenties, a widow, with a three-year-old daughter named Ki. Mike quickly falls in love with the little girl, and in lust with her mother.

He finds out that the tech billionaire named Max Devore, who has a house in town, is the grandfather of Ki, and he is trying to wrest custody from Maddie. As Mike starts helping the young mother fight back, he encounters that he does not live alone in his house.

There appear to be ghosts.

Stephen King is a master storyteller. Bag of Bones is a thick book of 529 pages. It drew me in and kept reading, despite the fact that large portions of the narrative are about Mike’s dreams. Stephen King writes a lot about dreams in many of his books. The Stand is full of dreams. Dreams of King books are always nightmares, and he describes them explicitly and in detail.

I can’t stand reading about dreams. They may move the story along or embellish it, but I always lose interest when I have to read about somebody’s dream, and I start turning the pages quickly to get through them. The violent ghosts, the killed children, the dark secrets of the town that everyone hides from the strange intruders like Mike, all get jumbled together into a plot line that probably works, is meticulously sketched out in Stephen King’s notes, but sorry – I got lost quickly and it went downhill from there.

King is a master storyteller, and I kept reading because I just enjoy his skills. But other than that, this book is just a Bag of Bones.

 

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I always enjoy when I can relate to the location where a novel takes place, or when I can visit such a location. I have experienced this several times in recent years.

One was when I read the novel Full Measure by T. Jefferson Parker. The story plays in Fallbrook, California, a town where I lived for almost 20 years of my life and raised my children. I knew many of the locations in the novel, including the streets, parks and some of the stores and businesses referenced.

The other was the book The Crazyladies of Pearl Street by Trevanian. This played in Albany, New York early in the last century. In 2013, when I read that book, I made regular trips to Albany on business and I actually went to see the locations and the actual address on Pearl Street where the protagonist lived. I took pictures of the empty lot that is there now.

Reading a novel and retracing the locations of the protagonists gives the story a special meaning and the feeling of the story sinks in much deeper than it would by just reading the book.

And so it happened with Stoner. I had never heard of the book, or the author for that matter. Then, last Sunday morning while waiting for a flight at the Admirals Club at the Dallas / Ft. Worth airport I received a text from a friend, a member of an informal “book club” is was “accidentally” pulled into, that the next book we were going to read was Stoner. Stoner – what – I texted back. What author? John Williams was the response, and two minutes later I had the book downloaded on my phone ready to read when I got on my flight. I stopped reading The Greatest Story Ever Told to squeeze in Stoner first.

In the next few hours reading into the book I found out that the entire story plays in Columbia, Missouri, most at or around the University of Missouri. William Stoner was born in 1891 on a Missouri farm. He grew up working with his father on their land. His parents had done nothing in all their lives but work the farm. They wanted a better life for their son, so they sent him off to college to study agriculture. The father’s hope was that after four years, the son would come back with a better bag of tricks and make the farming more profitable and rewarding. However, Stoner fell in love with English and literature, and unbeknownst to his parents, switched his major and eventually went through graduate school, got his doctorate and started teaching literature at the university. And that was Stoner’s life – except – things didn’t go so well for him.

His worst mistake and the one causing many other misfortunes that befell him later was that he married a truly awful woman. Edith caught the eye of the young instructor at a party and he was smitten by her beauty. Even though she showed no interest in him, he courted her and eventually proposed marriage. She accepted. And within a month of being married Stoner knew his marriage was a failure. Edith was the epitome of the worst possible woman ever to be married to. She was a loveless, self-absorbed, vindictive, morose and frigid person who obviously loathed Stoner. Why she married him we never figured out. But Stoner was a good man, with character, conviction, honor and a tendency for brutally hard work and commitment. So he dealt with his marriage. He spent pretty much his entire life sleeping on the couch in his living room. It was truly painful to witness.

Stoner lived to support his wife and their only daughter, Grace, who also grew up screwed up due to the terrible situation of her parents. He only found real love once in an affair with a young instructor at the university. Besides stolen hours in her apartment when they could manage it, they only got to spend 10 days together on a vacation, which was the single true happy time in both their lives.

Stoner is a remarkable book. It’s a story about nothing, and it’s a story about everything, about life, hard work, and academic life in an American university in the first half of the 20th century. It’s depressing to read and it made me think about my own life and my own decisions.

And here is the funny part: Remember I was at the airport when I bought the book. Guess where I was flying later that week?

Columbia, Missouri.

When I landed I was 86% through the book. So rather than going to the hotel from the airport, I got into my rental car and drove into town and spent a bit of time around the University of Missouri, just checking out where Old Stoner was supposedly teaching his courses all those years ago, and getting a sense of the locations. Of course, the college described in the book in 1910 is no longer. Now it’s a sprawling campus with many modern buildings from the 1970s vintage and thousands of students milling about. I did see some old buildings like those described in the novel, and most of those are now fraternity houses. like this one:

It was truly thrilling. I was on my way to Columbia, Missouri when I received the message to read a novel that plays entirely in Columbia, Missouri. I just finished it now, writing this review while I am still here, ready to leave in the morning.

I recommend you read Stoner by John Williams. I for one am richer having done so.

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Tesla has changed the landscape of the automotive industry. Musk, through sheer vision and will, made that happen. Other people certainly could also have done it, but it would have taken longer. The large automotive firms, like Toyota, Daimler-Benz, BMW, GM, Ford, Nissan, all could have started the revolution, but they didn’t. Just like Checker Cabs could have become the Uber, but didn’t. It takes vision and grit to make a revolution happen. Musk had both, the started something unique, he started something big. In the the end, Tesla might not succeed, but the movement will certainly survive and there will be electric vehicles everywhere.

In Insane Mode, McKenzie guides us through that revolution and gives us the back story. He also shares some of his own thoughts and vision on just what an impactful revolution the electrification of automobiles actually brings, and how much it will change the way we live, work and play.

Insane Mode will change the way you think about electric vehicles. If you have an enterprising mind, it will make you ponder where you might apply your own ingenuity in the tremendous opportunities the near future offers.

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During a dinner out with another couple some time ago we two men talked about “computers” as many of us are wont to do from time to time. Then, a few days later, I received Hackers in an Amazon box. Thanks, Glenn, I really enjoyed this book!

In Hackers, Steven Levy tells the story of the computer revolution starting at the beginning, when a few computer programmers at MIT started thinking about programming different from the establishment, including the academic community and, of course, business. At the time, “business” was pretty much only IBM. Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) just started and provided its revolutionary minicomputer, the PDP, to select universities.

That started it all in the Sixties, and the rest, as we so say, is history.

In this book we get to know some of the pioneers we who became household names, like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, but there are dozens of others who contributed just as much but whose names did not become as famous.

When I was 14 years old and a schoolboy in Germany in 1970, I bought a book about computers, studied it, and started drawing logic diagrams, cobbled together logic gates to perform the basic arithmetic calculations on notepads. To test them, I used a transformer from my slotcar track, bought little lightbulbs and sockets to represent binary memory registers, toggle switches to enter binary data into the system, and wired the various gates using tiny wires and Molex connectors. Yes, I was 14, and I was designing computers.

School and life took me away, and it would be another 10 years before I entered the computer field. By then, the classic hacker revolution was over, and the industry had already worked itself into a pattern of exponential growth. Reading Hackers now brings me back to my youth and how it all started for me. Becoming an expert programmer and eventually starting a software company has consumed my professional life. By choosing a career in a field that fascinated me since my youth, I have never really worked a day in my life. I always just got paid for doing what I would have been doing anyway. But I started out as a hacker and I could relate to all these other hackers.

Any computer aficionado on any level will enjoy reading Steven Levy’s Hackers. It’s a guide through the decades of what we call the computer revolution, focusing mostly on the first two or three decades that started it all.

 

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I picked up this coffee table book recently:

The book is filled with pictures of Obama interacting with people, some famous, like the picture below, others just babies, children, etc.

With every picture, there is a quote from a speech. Here is an example:

I am president, I am not king. I can’t do these things just by myself.

— Interview with Univision, October 25, 2010

Obama is graceful, he has integrity, and there isn’t a single scandal or any type that I can think of that arose in his eight years in office. During the Obama years, it was never about Obama. It was about the country he served.

I do miss him.

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April May (yes, that’s the name) is a twenty-three-year-old girl just out of college trying to find herself, her life, and her career in New York City of today. Running around the city on 29th Street at three a.m., she finds an “absolutely remarkable” statue – a ten-foot-tall robot-like transformer wearing samurai armor on the sidewalk in front of a Chipotle.

She calls her friend Andy and they make a video together in the middle of the night and by the next day April is a YouTube sensation.

They name the robot Carl, and they quickly learn that there are 64 more identical Carls in all the major cities around the world. They appear to be made out of a material that is “impossible” and nothing can move or damage them.

April quickly figures that the Carls are alien in origin, and she proceeds as if this was “first contact” with an alien race.

Without planning for it, April is quickly world-famous as one of the most recognizable personality on social media, becoming the human face of the Carls and whatever their purpose is.

Hank Green, the author, is a YouTube star, and he brings the world of social media to the reader. Not everyone is a young social media expert, and this story illustrates somewhat how the world of social media works. It’s a very readable book, and I turned the pages quickly and somewhat enjoyed the story.

It does become more and more “unlikely” as it progresses, and the ending is outright hokey, setting it up for a sequel, like any good YouTube video would. The characters are pretty shallow and the dialog is often awkward. The plot does not make much sense, and the central conflict between good and evil appears very contrived.

Reading this book will give you ideas about social media, but it won’t do anything else of value or inspiration.

I definitely don’t need to read the next book when it comes out. April May was not a well-enough defined character for me to care about any further. The story has fizzled out.

 

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In the year 2019, scientists at the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico searching for extraterrestrial signals, finally succeed. They identify signals from the star Alpha Centauri that are unmistakably artificial. Through clever trials the scientists conclude that the signals are music. Mankind has found another intelligent and technological species.

Alpha Centauri is 4.3 lightyears away, the closest star to our own. A close-knit clique of friends in Arecibo, led by Jesuit priests, decide to launch a human mission in a spaceship to Alpha Centauri. The Jesuits want to meet those other “children of God.”

They build a makeshift spaceship using an asteroid and mining equipment and technology that is capable to accelerate to about 90% of the speed of light within a year, making the trip from Earth to Alpha Centauri take about 17 years, including acceleration, deceleration and mid-cruise coasting. However, due to time dilation at relativistic speeds, the crew only experiences eight months of travel. The idea is that they can go to meet the aliens, spend a few years there, and come back, and be five years older, while of course the time on Earth would have advanced almost 40 years by the time they came back.

Eight people go on the journey, four of which are Jesuit priests, the Father Superior also being the captain and pilot. The other four are the young astronomer who found the signal, a young female scientist and a doctor/engineer married couple in their sixties.

They reach their destination, find two coexisting species of aliens, and start communicating with them. Through a series of misunderstandings and accidents, most of the crew perish over the period of a few years, and only the protagonist, Emilio Sandoz, a young priest, eventually returns to Earth in 2060. He is severely injured, seriously distraught and psychologically damaged.

Now the Jesuits want to know that happened.

I read this book as it was recommended to me as a good science fiction book with a focus on philosophy and morality. I welcomed the tip since I love first contact novels, particularly when they are coupled with relativistic space travel concepts. The Sparrow promised to be all that.

I was also intrigued since I had speculated myself about traveling to Alpha Centauri, and what that distance would mean:

If the sun were the size of a red blood cell, which is about seven micrometers in diameter, then the distance to Alpha Centauri would be about 219 meters. That’s a little bit more than the length of two football fields. Ok, let’s picture that. The sun is an invisible speck the size of a red blood cell with the solar system the size of a tangerine. The nearest star and its planets  would be more than two football fields away. Just imagine the massive amount of empty space in all directions, left, right, forward, back, up down of empty space. 

See the entire post here for reference.

The Sparrow edition on my Kindle is 518 pages long. It was first published in 1996. So 2019, the start of the journey, was in the distant future, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program was still in its early stages. No significant exoplanets had yet been found. It was a bit odd to read this book for the first time now, in 2018, when 2019 is just a few weeks in the future.

While this book has earned a lot of awards and acclaim, and gets great reviews, I found it very hard to read and extremely disappointing overall.

All the Jesuit philosophy packed into the story just took up space and bored me. Pages and pages of Emilio dealing with his own celibacy vows while he was lusting for the only eligible young female on the crew didn’t add to the plot in any way, and simply didn’t interest me. This book could have been condensed to about 200 pages, would not have lost any impact, and it would have been a better book.

In der Kürze liegt die Würze.

And then there were the aliens. Two conveniently humanoid species, one evolved from a herd animal, to become the worker and slave race, the other evolved from a carnivore and predator species, both adapted to each other to look like humans with tails. Also, conveniently, they talked human-like languages that the humans could learn quickly, and their social behaviors and customs were like those of exotic human populations, not aliens.

The book’s structure made it difficult to read. There are two leapfrogging lines, one telling the discovery, the journey out, and the stay of the humans with the aliens, starting in 2019. The other starts in 2060, when Emilio returns and follows the enquiry into what happened.

Through this, the reader already knows that the journey does not end well, and the whole book is about finding out what exactly happened. But the narration is so poor and inconsistent, I found it hard to follow. Sometimes it seemed like the protagonist was talking and telling the story, other times the writer used lots of exposition to tell the story. It was always inconsistent and jarring when the switch happened from one mode to the other.

Endless pages about the “philosophy” and “morality” as some readers praised it just seemed like psychobabble to me. The book’s description calls it “deep philosophical inquiry.”  I felt like the author wanted to lecture me with her worldview, which I didn’t care about, and she packaged it into a pseudo science fiction book to make it interesting to me.

It didn’t work.

Reading The Sparrow was work. I finished only because I try to finish every book I start. I am glad I am done. And I will NOT read the sequel, titled Children of God.

 

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Moondust came out in 2006 when Andrew Smith had set out to interview the twelve men who had walked on the moon. At the time, there were only nine alive. Three had already passed away.

Smith has an easy-to-read, colloquial style, and he weaves background stories about the astronauts in with the core interviews and tries to get answers to the most fundamental question we all have: What was it like to be on the moon?

We learn trivia about the intense competition in the early astronaut corps, and what their families went through during those years. We also get to know the men themselves, from the taciturn and almost reclusive Neil Armstrong to the gregarious and visionary Buzz Aldrin, and all the other astronauts that followed them on their journey.

Smith juxtaposes the moon landing over his own life as a boy in Orinda, California, and what he remembers happened to him on that historic day.

Moondust is at times a bit hard to follow. Its structure and the jumps back and forth and from one astronaut to the other sometimes left me guessing and mildly confused, but I was able to get past that. The tidbits of information, the insight, and the obvious awe the author has for the adventure of the 1960s came through and made it a worthwhile read.

Sadly, as I write this, of the twelve men who walked on the moon, only four are alive anymore. That includes  88-year-old Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11), 85-year-old David Scott (Apollo 15), 82-year-old Charlie Duke (Apollo 16) and 82-year-old Harrison Schmitt (Apollo 17).

In addition to the missions that landed on the moon, there were a total of nine Apollo missions that left earth orbit and went to orbit the moon: Apollo 8, Apollo 10 and Apollo 13.

The total number of men who left earth orbit is 24 and 12 of those are still alive today.

Only 12 people are with us today in the history of mankind who have seen the earth as a pale blue marble in the black of space, and only four of those have walked on a body other than the earth. All of them are now well into their eighties or older.

I was a 12-year-old boy when I watched the first moon landing. I was sure I would be traveling to the moon as a tourist and spending time in a moon hotel by the time my retirement age came around. I was dreaming big, and I was inspired.

Yet, at this time, humanity has not sent anyone to the moon in over 46 years. The United States does not even have the capability to launch humans into space, not even to low-earth orbit. The only two nations that can do that now are Russia and China. The lack of vision and engagement by our people and our government has starved us out of adventures we took for granted 50 years ago.

Moondust by Andrew Smith made me marvel about all this and it fired up my imagination.

 

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