Thursday, September 22, 2011

Book Review: The Tomorrow Project

Recently, I blogged about science fiction as a tool for forecasting future usages and the like. In that post, I mentioned The Tomorrow Project, a science fiction anthology curated by an Intel co-worker. The project enlisted several science fiction authors to look at what we are researching at Intel and draw from these for their stories.

The book is available for free in PDF form, or can be bought in carbon form here:The Tomorrow Project.

It's a short read and definitely worth getting. I didn't care much for the first story, which is more of a far-reaching sci-fi story. The other three however, are near-future sci-fi vignettes that are each *okay* as stories, but are great imaginative pictures of uses of near-future technology. Among those name-checked and addressed: Home automation, ubiquitous sensors, computer-driven automobiles, media/content creation and more.

I recommend checking it out.

The Tomorrow Project: Bestselling Authors Describe Daily Life in the Future

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Book Review: Liar's Poker

A few months back I reviewed Michael Lewis' The Big Short. Shortly thereafter, a few friends recommended his earlier work, Liar's Poker. I got around to reading it last week.

Liar's Poker was Lewis' literary debut, and tells the account of his time as a Wall street trader at Salomon Brothers, where he spent several years.

The book talks in detail about the hiring process, culture, and career path at the firm, and in the process paints an accurate picture of the dog-eat-dog harsh culture in these firms. It would strain credibility for me if I didn't have a good friend who worked at such a firm and who has shared countless stories that mirror Lewis' account. It then goes on to talk about the rise and fall of the firm during rushes around gold-rushes in the mortgage security and junk bond markets.

While not as detailed an account of the systemic flaws of modern day markets & market regulation as The Big Short was, it does go into enough detail in the style that Lewis has become famous for. Namely, taking complex and dry topics and making them engaging and digestible.

Where the book shines though, is in the portrayal of the personalities and the culture of trading firms. Characters given pseudonyms such as "The Opportunist" and "The Human Piranha" should give you an idea of why so many who work in this business don't last more than a few years.

Liar's Poker

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Book Review: Ready Player One

After having a number of friends recommend Ready Player One,  I bought the Kindle version and read it on my iPad & iPhone.

Through the first half of the book, I came *very* close to putting it down, and was ready to dismiss it as the worst book I'd read in several years. I persevered only because so many had recommended it, and the book did improve and redeem itself *somewhat* in the second half.

The basic premise of the story could be described as "a mix of Cory Doctorow's For The Win with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which Charlie is replaced by Richard Garriot". The story is set in a future in which the bulk of civilization spends its time immersed in the ultimate virtual world. The simulation's creator leaves his entire fortune to the gamer who can decipher the ultimate easter egg. Doing so pits nerdy gamers against evil corporations, in a race through countless 1980's entertainment based puzzles.

On the down side, the writing is at best cliche and predictable. At worst, it's like something a high school student would write. Excessive hyperbolic use of adverbs, shallow and predictable characters, and loose plot points abound. Painful to read, but again, the author gets a handle on it in the back half of the book. Also, the 1980's pop culture references are far too frequent and wedged in every corner of the story in ham-handed fashion. Worst of all, as a science fiction piece it is unimaginitive, and most of what's envisioned here is retread from Snowcrash or other classics. Futurists beware.

The latter half of the book improves a great deal, and the final race to the prize actually gets it to page-turner status.

I don't recommend it as strongly as I'd recommend Snow Crash, Halting State, or For the Win. Go pick those up if you haven't read them. They're a far better use of your time, IMHO.

Ready Player One

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Book Review: Havana Nocturne

I came across the audio book of Havana Nocturne while searching the local library for something else. I was intrigued by the synopsis on the back and ended up very happy I picked it up.

The book covers the rise and fall of the Havana mob; the group of American organized crime bosses that conceived of, established and grew a mecca of vice in Havana Cuba; then amassing a fortune from it only to watch it all collapse overnight during the Cuban revolution. The book is filled with a lot of interesting stories and some great characters, ranging from a variety of stereotypical mafioso, to Castro, to Batista whom he overthrew, to stripper Bubbles Darlene, who made a name for herself walking the havana streets in only a transparent raincoat.

Its hard to wrap one's head around the sheer chutzpah of the mob at it's peak. Feeling increasing heat under the eye of the US government, they took it upon themselves to take over a country and create an offshort mecha of vice - and succeeded in doing so.

The book is an entertaining read. A few interesting observations:
- Myer Lansky, "Financier of the Mob" and basically the book's main character, shows some excellent leadership qualities. (1) He's unflappable in front of of his partners and underlings. Even in the middle of the Cubans rioting post-revolution, he remains cool as a cucumber. (2) Despite being in the mob, he knew that peaceful reconciliation, even if more costly, was preferred to violence. (For a lesson applicable to today's business world, replaces 'violence' with 'litigation')
- The whole book is a example of what can happen if you underestimate the possibility of serious disruption to your business. Nothing is 'too big to fail'.
- Fidel Castro was a bad-ass. Say what you will about him once he got into power, but prior to that, doing things like throwing himself off of a boat in police custody and doing a 7 mile ocean swim to shore, well, pretty bad-ass.

Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution

Monday, September 5, 2011

Futurism, Forecasting & Fiction

Just after posting my review of Charles Stross' Rule 34, BoingBoing linked to this NYT piece on Sci-fi authors predicting the future, perhaps better than analysts or others. Among books name-checked in the article are Super Sad True Love Story (which I loved), and Ready Player One (currently reading, my review won't be good).

Not alone in recognizing the potential of these authors to predict our possible futures,Brian David Johnson, an Intel co-worker, has an interesting anthology out. The Tomorrow Project is an anthology of Sci-fi short fiction by leading authors (Ray Hammond, Douglas Rushkoff, Markus Heitz, and Scarlett Thomas), commissioned by Intel to speculate on the implications of certain technologies.

I haven't read it yet (on the to-read list after I'm done Ready Player One, and perhaps Stephenson's new book coming out in a couple weeks), but though it a good time to mention the project and link to it.

The Tomorrow Project is available as a free download here. There's a follow-on with a different set of authors in the works as well.

Book Review: The Republican Noise Machine

A well researched, though left-biased, detailed history of the right's efforts to subvert the media industry/engine. I found it depressing to read, in that I came away not feeling like there was a solution, other than perhaps to take an extremist left-leaning set of tactics that are equally dishonest. It feels like either way, the inevitable victim here is nuanced, intellectually-honest debate.

Though depressing, it's an interesting read and a good look at how the media can be used as a tool by a well organized force. This of course is nothing new:

“The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly - it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over” - Joseph Goebbels

The Republican Noise Machine : Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Book Review: Rule 34

After I reviewed Charles Stross' Halting State, I gave it a mediocre review for the story, but strong praise for the picture it painted of the possible futures of virtual worlds, augmented reality, and many other facets of gaming.

With Rule 34, Stross has improved his storytelling, while still having a keep eye for possibilities of technology in the not-so-distant future.

Like Halting State, Rule 34 follows an ill-equipped detective investigating a series of crimes and getting in over their head. Instead of a bank heist, this time it's a series of bizarre murders involving bizarre fetishes (thus the title, Rule 34, as explained in number 3 here). As detective stories go, it's not bad, and I think better than Halting State was. Be warned, for those that mind, that there are some racy bits, so not for the kiddies.

Again though, where Stross shines is on his take of the future of 3D printing, custom fabbing/making, DRM, Internet memes, with a good measure of the Big Brother police state (something pretty common amongst UK-based sci-fi writers these days it seems).

This is my favorite piece of fiction so far this year, after Super Sad True Love Story. New Neal Stephenson coming out in a couple weeks though, so we'll see if Stross gets bumped from the podium...

Book Review (x2): Richards' Life vs Clinton's My Life

A while back, I listened to Bill Clinton's My Life as an audio book while I also read Keith Richard's Life. I thought it might be funny to review them together, stating something like "what a difference an possessive pronoun makes". They turned out to be more similar than I'd thought. Both had their moments, but I wouldn't recommend either as strongly as they were recommended to me. As such I'll keep the reviews short.

The first thing you'll hear about Clinton's My Life is that it's huge, at over a thousand pages. My local library had two versions of the audio book, abridged vs unabridged. I highly recommend the abridged version, not just because of the length, but because it's read by Clinton himself, while the unabridged version is ready by someone else.

On the plus side, the main things that come across in Clinton's book are his genuine passion for public service and politics, as well as a portrait of a really hard-working and entrepreneurial Clinton during his youth and early career. There are some great stories about how he capitalized on opportunities thinking outside the box. There are also a few good anecdotes about hardball negotiations during his time in office. If you enjoy stories of this kind, or like hearing about the backroom mechanics of Washington, you may like this book, modulo the caveat I'll get to in a minute.

Richards' Life is, as you'd expect, a bit different. The positives are twofold. First, that Richards comes across as some who, even today but especially in his youth, has a passion for the blues. You really get the feeling that given the choice between the music and the success it brought, he'd rather be a pauper with a guitar than the alternative. Secondly, he comes across as someone who lives his life without a shred of compromise, doing exactly what he wants, when he wants. The result is, as you'd imagine, some pretty crazy stories. A bonus is that, perhaps as a result of the times in which the Rolling Stones enjoyed their success, the number of celebrity circles they intersected result in stories involving many household names of the era, from the Trudeaus to Andy Warhol.

There are a couple things both books have in common. The most positive being that both of them have deep passion for what they do. Unsurprising, as I'd argue this is a pre-requisite for success for anyone.

On the negative side though, there's another thing they have in common: Both authors are liars, telling their audiences, and themselves, a lie.

In Clinton's case, when he gets to the subject of the Lewinski affair, he feigns guilt, talks about it being a low point in his life, etc. Then he repeatedly jumps back to his defense used in his testimonial, and nit-picking fine points about how certain questions were asked, and how his answers here therefore truthful. It's like practiced his statements so much that he's started to believe them.

In Richards' case, his lies are two-fold. First, he's an addict, and though he's quit taking heroin, he still speaks to it like an addict does. 'I was always able to manage it', 'I always took it in moderation', 'It actually made me more productive' are examples of what he says in defense of a habit that he elsewhere admits would have killed him had he not stopped. Secondly, what he on one hand positions as being a free spirit and having an understanding about his dealings in his relationships with others, really comes off as his being a coward. In numerous places he talks about long-term relationships he had with women where rather than breaking up with a girl, he just stops coming home until she figure it out for herself. Sad really.

Both books have many interesting stories and points, but show that the authors have flaws they themselves don't see. Interesting, but not the top of my recommended reading list.