Red Letter Day

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

My favorite (and least favorite) reads of the year so far

There's still two full months left in 2009, but it's never too early to start work on "best of" lists, in this case, for books. I read a lot. A lot. Probably too much. I should watch more TV. Maybe start drinking more. Try that crystal meth I've heard so much good stuff about. But, until then, here are the books that have touched me the most during 2009, so far.

First are the ten new books I enjoyed reading the most in the past year. I am not going to say these are the "best" books of the year, merely my best books. You'll notices a theme. I like speculative fiction, science, history, and cultural studies. You will not find this year's best romance novel here.

So, in random order...

The Greatest Show on Earth" by Richard Dawkins
A masterpiece, and one of the finest examples of quality, thoughtful, intellectual popular science writing I have ever read. If it were merely a thorough overview of evolutionary theory, it would be brilliant just on that alone, but Dawkins also manages to convey a beautiful sense of how science is done, as well as conveying his thoughts with a subtle wit and good humor lacking in his other, more strident books. If you love science, you need to read this book.

Ark by Stephen Baxter
"Ark" is the second book in Baxter's duology of planetary extinction from a massive flood. Baxter is known for his "hard science fiction" and "Ark" doesn't disappoint on that level, but what makes this book something special is the human element, as well as the sense of crushing, overwhelming loss, seasoned with the tiniest bit of hope that keeps moving as inexorably as the flood waters. "Ark" can be read as a standalone, but the prequel, "Flood" is nearly as good, so read it first.

Lost To the West by Lars Brownworth
"Lost To the West" is what popular history is supposed to be. It is enlightening, and sheds light on a subject that few people - even those of us who like to think we know something about history - really understand other then as a dim caricature. I am referring to the Byzantine Empire, and Brownworth covers a millenium of history gloriously, with a full pageant of heroes, villains, emperors and patriarchs, with a good overview of the cultural and religious aspects of the empire as well. By necessity, he glosses over a lot of territory (literally and figuratively) but this is a general survey, and was a pleasure to read.

The Illustrious Dead by Stephan Talty
Speaking of great popular history, "The Illustrious Dead" manages to find a fresh look at a subject that has been trampled to death....Napoleon's invasion of Russia. What makes Talty's book unique is his focus on medical detective work, and the role of disease in crushing Napoleon's ambitions. An excellent mix of science and history, told in a lively fashion. This was probably my favorite history book of the year so far.

Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson
If I had to choose a "best book of 2009" this would be it. This book is so many things at once: a speculative look at America after our technological civilization is done away with by peak oil, a mediation on the role of history and the preservation (and loss of) knowledge, a rousing military buddy adventure story, a wry comedic social commentary a la Mark Twain, and simply a damn good read. "Julian Comstock" is an amazingly deft, thoughtful story, which will really make you think. I deeply identified with the characters and the deft nuance of the writing, and, yeah, I laughed out loud a few times as well. This book is a triumph.

Fragment by William Fahey
"Fragment" is an old-fashioned scientific horror novel, kind of like Jurassic Park remixed and kicked up a notch. Of all the book I read in 2009, it is the most likely to be turned into a movie, and reading it, it feels almost cinematic. Although the book offers plenty of fascinating speculation, and lots of strange and hungry animals, there's also enough scientific exposition to make this book several levels more enjoyable then a mere gore-fest like "The Ruins" (which many have compared to this). A fun, smart action read.

Idiot America by Charles Pierce
Sarcastic, smart, bitter, yet hopeful. I'd like to think that describes some of me, but even if it doesn't it certainly describes Charles Pierce, who lays bare the genius and depravity of America. This is not just some Michael Moore-ish rant, but rather a thoughtful and bitingly funny celebration of the American crank, ranging from radio shock jocks to Creation Science museum curators. Pierce explores the fauna and flora of American idiocy with a deft hand, and a firm grasp on the saddle (which is itself on top of a dinosaur at the creation museum).

Why Shit Happens by Peter Bentley
You make up in the morning late because your alarm doesn't go off. Your toast falls on the floor, a bird craps on you as you walk outside, your car breaks down on the way to work, and your pen explodes in your packet. And this is all before 9 AM. Using as his hook a litany of minor disasters that we have all dealt with at one time or another, Bentley explores the science and technology of our daily lives, and how it affects us in ways both bug and small. This is a delightful little book.

Drood by Dan Simmons
I normally do not read 900+ page novels about Charles Dickens, but I loved Simmons' incredible Arctic horror story "The Terror" so I gave "Drood" a try (it didn't hurt that it was 40% off!) I am very glad I did. "Drood" is gripping psychological horror story, told through the drug-addled memory of one of Dickens' closes friends and biggest rivals. "Drood" is meticulously researched, and by itself, the depiction of day-to-day life in Victorian England is fascinating. Throw in a healthy dollop of genuinely frightening gothic horror, and you have a book which kept me up a few nights.

Angles and Ages by Adam Gopnik
This year marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of two giants: Darwin and Lincoln. Gopnik uses these two intellects to synthesize a tour de force essay on the cultural changes ushered in to the world by these two men, and how they affected our views of man's role in nature, and the governments role in societies.

Continuing on in a similar vein, here are my nine favorite books I have read this year that were not published in 2009(i.e. previously published). Mostly, these are paperback or remainder editions of books published last year or a few years before, that I have only gotten around to reading now.

The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English by Henry Hitchings
There are a lot of books covering the history of English, and Hitchings' book is one of the best. He focuses on words and vocabulary, and how it has developed over time. It is a joy to read for a word-lover, with a focus on the words themselves and less on the theory of language.

Physics for Future Presidents by Richard Muller
Muller's writing feels like being in a class by one of those memorable college professors that everyone loves. He makes the complex science behind our public policy choices easy to understand...and interesting to boot. Focusing on physics and chemistry, Muller covers the science behind the headlines in the fields of climate changes, nuclear weapons, and energy. I really learned a lot reading this book. I hope Obama read it too!

Chances Are: Adventures in Probability by Michael and Ellen Kaplan
A history and overview of the nature of probability and chance, written for non-math majors. Each chapter covers a different aspect of the field...gambling, insurance, medical research, and so on. Given the importance that numbers play in our lives, this book ought to be read by a lot more people.

In Search of Time: The Science of a Curious Dimension by Dan Falk
A great mind-fuck, this book covers the strange nature of time. What does it mean, when did it start, and how will it end? Falk explains the basic stuff (relativity, and so forth) in a clear and easy to understand manner, and then delves into the really fascinating aspects of how we perceive time, and even covers time travel. A fun, fascinating book.

Glasshouse by Charles Stross
"Glasshouse" is a superb science fiction novel about a group of 28th century researchers, living in a post-human "accelerated" future who are running an experiment to simulate life in the 20th century. Seeing their attempts, it gives me much greater appreciation for the archeologists of our day trying to understand life 1000 years ago. "Glasshouse" is much more then a simple meditation on historic research. There's a heroic gender-bending protagonist, an evil conspiracy and thoughtful science fictional adventure. A great, thoughtful, fun novel.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
"The Hunger Games" is a novel aimed at teenaged readers, but is certainly enjoyable for adults as well. It is the story of a protagonist in the distant future who must participate in a gladiatorial game put on by an oppressive government, a la "The Running Man." I don't think it is quite as good as the similarly targeted "City of Ember" but in the burgeoning field of post-apocalyptic teenage literature, "The Hunger Games" is a very enjoyable entry.

Dark Side of the Moon by Gerard Degroot
I read this book after enjoying the nostalgia of the 40th anniversary of the moon landing. Although I am firmly on the side of manned space exploration, I found Degroot's book a very good "contrarian" history of the space program and some of the flawed assumptions behind it. In addition to being a great history of the program, Degroot has a wry sense of humor and covers many things that were left out of the papers, including self-pleasuring space monkeys and on the more serious side, some of the technical and human issues that were pushed under the rug during development.

Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson
The amazing "Julian Comstock" (see above) made me check out Robert Charles Wilson's earlier books, and of them, the best was "Blind Lake," the tale of a research base where humans observe (but cannot interact with) a distant alien species via a type of quantum viewer. Things are not as simple as they seem, and a series of strange events follow. This book took a little while to get going, but once it got rolling, it was great.

City of Thieves by David Benioff
FInally, non-science fiction fiction! "City of Thieves" is an old-fashioned adventure story set in Leningrad during the German siege, about two young men who must brave the elements -- human and nature -- to retrieve food for a Russian general. Memorable encounters with Nazis, civilians, and even a gang of cannibals make for a memorable and touching story of friendship and survival.

Finally, we have a list of the four books that disappointed me the most this year. Strangely enough, none of these books was bad in any way, they just let me down, and could have been so much better. These books were enticing enough to separate me from my money, but once I sat down and read them, well...

Inside of a Dog Alexandra Horowitz
A love dog books, especially ones which promise to be scientifically valid but also recognize that we love dogs because they are our pets. This book looked promising, but it just didn't seem to deliver. The science was rather weak, and the book seems to focus more on the philosophical experience of what it might be like to be a dog. I enjoyed the book, but it wasn't nearly as good as it could have been.

Heart of the Assasin by Robert Ferrigno
I really like the first two books in this trilogy about a shattered America ruled by and Islamic theocracy with a rump Christian theocracy in the south. Although its premise was unlikely, the author conveyed a fairly nuanced look at these two different countries and what they might actually be like. It helped that he had compelling, likable characters going on exciting adventures through an Alice in the Looking Glass world which was recognizable yet alien. That was the first two book. This final book of the trilogy just went over the edge, with silly science fiction flourishes, throwaway characters added, and numerous points from the first two books just ignored in favor of a contrived plots involving (really) a piece of the True Cross. A perfectly adequate read, and still fun, but nothing like the first two.

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
The first two thirds of the book were entertaining, but the last hundred pages were awful. A real let down compared with his previous two books. I am not one of those snobs who hates Dan Brown. I really liked "Da Vinci Code", and I enjoy suspending disbelief to simply take in the cinematic aspect of the books, but "Lost Symbol" just petered out.

1848: The Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport
I bought this thinking it was a popular history of the pivotal year of revolution in Europe. There's a great story to be told here, but it is not told in this book. Leaden prose falls like a heavy hand upon every page, and reading this felt like a college textbook. The history was accurate and well-done, but the book was, well, boring. And it shouldn't have been.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

iPhone Hacks book review

iPhone Hacks
by David Jurick and Adam and Damien Stolarz
O'Reilly, 459 pages, $34.99

Book cover

The iPhone is an amazing portable computer. It features capabilities that twenty years ago would have been something out of the pages of science fiction. Instant communications access with anyone in the world, the ability to seamlessly access the corpus of human knowledge that is the Internet, and of course, an ability to be entertained by music, video and games limited only by your imagination.


The iPhone, as shipped by Apple, is a wonderful device for 95% of its users. But Apple locks iPhone users into a gilded cage. The cage is sumptuously decorated, but it is still a jail cell. You are limited to using your iPhone in ways Apple approves of. "The man" (or Steve Jobs) decides what applications you can run and what capabilities your phone has. Like a bridled horse, the iPhone is docile, but unleashed, it could do so much more!

To really set the iPhone free, you need to "hack" it. Once you do this, your phone becomes the powerful computer it is meant to be, and you can run much more diverse software, giving your phone new abilities, like being able to record videos, customize the user interface, emulate popular video game consoles, and send and receive multimedia messages. You can even give your phone the ability to act as a wi-fi "access point" to the internet for your laptop, and unlock the phone to use on other carriers.

"iPhone Hacks" by David Jurick and Adam and Damien Stolarz is your guide into this brave new world. The authors act as friendly guide into the world of iPhone customization. This book is not meant for beginners; the authors assume both some technical computer knowledge and a curious nature. Some of the software-based "hacks" can be done by any experienced user, but other hacks require programming and even hardware "breadboard" skills, such as handiness with a soldering iron.

The authors first explains some of the basics of the iPhone operating system, including its history, the phone's boot process, and how the file system is put together, which is an excellent overview, before they head into the basics of "jailbreaking," which is the process where you use some simple software tools to open your phone's operating system up to customization.

I should note that many of the hacks in this book require the jailbreaking process, which, contrary to its name, is neither illegal nor very difficult. There are several hacks which do not require jailbreaking, however, these are more in the vein of "power user tips" rather then true hacks. It is worth noting that Apple will not provide warranty services to jailbroken phones - luckily, if anything goes wrong, it is very easy to "restore" your phone to pristine condition before seeking warranty service.

The actual hacks are divided into various sections by theme. The first two thirds of the book is all software-focused, and as such accessible to those without programming or hardware hacking skills. For example, there are sections on using the phone as a multimedia devices, sections on enhancing the camera and video recording functions, as well as sections on topics such as SMS messaging, gaming, and user interface customization. Any of these sections can be accessed in an ad-hoc manner; there is no need to go in order after the initial chapter on the jailbreak process itself. Simple pick the topic you are interested in and dive in. It is easy to browse the book to get an idea of what the iPhone can do, and all of the chapters are very clearly explained, with excellent use of screenshots and supplementary information to guide you in the process.

The final third of the book covers both application programming, and actual hardware hacking, including how to disassemble and reassemble your phone. Many of the hacks in this section are very entertaining to read about (and fairly useless in a practical sense), especially since it would take someone way braver then me to actually crack open my phone's case! The programming section is a useful introduction to both the official Apple-provided way to program for the iPhone as well as the unofficial ways to get access to private APIs and methods which can be used to program applications that could never make it into the App Store.

More controversially, "iPhone Hacks" also describes the process to "unlock" your iPhone (this is different then "jailbreaking") so you can use it on a carrier other then AT&T. This information is presented fairly and accurately, with both the risks and rewards clearly outlined for those users who may need to use an iPhone on another carrier. The book also describes how to activate tethering, where you can use your iPhone as an internet access point for your laptop. This may violate your contract with your carrier, but the book doesn't moralize here; it simply describes the "hack" and leaves the decision as to how to use the information up to you, the reader, which is as it should be.

Overall, this is an amazing book, clearly and thoroughly describing the dozens of ways you can truly make your iPhone your own. It manages to cover challenging information fairly and accurately in a manner that will appeal to any adventurous, curious and technically-minded reader. Even if you never plan to do anything other then the tamest "hacks" to your iPhone, browsing this book will teach you a lot about your phone as a computer, and leave you stimulated and fascinated.

Rating: 5 out of 5 DogCows
Plusses: A through and interesting book on how to expand the iPhone's universe
Minuses: None

This review was cross-posted at the Lawrence Apple Users Group web page.


Thursday, December 25, 2008

Review of John Birmingham's "Without Warning"

Without Warning by John Birmingham

"Without Warning" is a science fiction/military fiction hybrid in the "kicking over anthills" school of thought (see also "Dies the Fire" by S.M. Stirling), where the author make some enormous change to the world and then lets things plays out as they may. It is not strictly alternate history, although some may categorize it as such. The premise is very simple: an energy field of unknown origin wipes out all life - and makes impenetrable - the majority of North America. In one fell swoop, the United States is no more. What happens to the rest of the world, including the remnants of the USA (mostly the military, ex-pats, and citizens of Hawaii, Alaska, and Seattle, which are outside the field)?

The book follows several groups of people as they make their way in this new world, including portions of the military, an ex-war reporter working for the BBC, the Seattle city engineer, a group of opportunistic pirates (almost, but not quite, with hearts of gold, of course!) and other various dramatis personae from around the world. Most fiction of this type doesn't deal with the in-depth motives of the players or deep character development, preferring to focus on the nitty-gritty of "what happens" and of course, action sequences. Rest assured, there is plenty of both -- excellent scenes of military activity, fighting, and general "weapons and warfare" goodness, but also a nice attention to some of the wider geo-political consequences of the excision of America from the globe (including the internal political struggles in what is left of the USA).

In short, everything goes to hell (what else did you expect) but the specific descriptions and vignettes of various disasters, such as the descent into madness in Acapulco, the initial "day after" in Paris, and a horrifying series of events in the Middle East right out of some "end of days" preacher's fantasy should give pause to nearly any reader, and certainly had me alternating between deep thought and plain old chills.

This is a damn good book, and anyone who enjoys military science fiction ought to enjoy it. There wasn't much I didn't like, although I would have liked perhaps a little more description of the wave itself, and its actual causes and effects, beyond a few early glimpses. This isn't a deal-killer by a long shot, the book isn't about the energy wave itself, except as a plot device -- the story is what happens to the rest of the world (and I suspect the wave itself will get further attention in future books in the series).

"Without Warning" is highly recommended.


Friday, September 19, 2008

Books I have read lately

Here are some brief reviews of books I have read recently:

The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God
by Jonathan Kirsch
A fascinating history of the inquisition and how it presaged the 20th century's atrocities. Very strong on the history, weaker in the author's attempt to tie the inquisition to present-day events

Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology through History
by Alfred W. Crosby
The anthropological history of humankind's development of projectile technology from the earliest stones to ballistic missiles. A unique mix of history and biology.

The Diamond of Darkhold: The Fourth Book of Ember (Books of Ember) and The Books of Ember
by Jeanne DuPrau
A post-apocalyptic series for younger readers about the world after a massive war; excellent characterization and plot, and truly a pleasure to read

13 Things That Don't Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time
by Michael Brooks
A good survey of thirteen current mysteries in the world of science, from physics to biology to evolution. Very sharp and smart.

Plague War
by Jeff Carlson
The second book in a two-book (so far) series on life on Earth after a nanobot plague. Some good action, but overall very confusing and uneven.

The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition
by James Howard Kunstler
An top-notch survey of the social and cultural trajectories of a dozen of the world's great cities, and how the choices they have made in development have affected their quality of life. Intelligent and with a wry sense of humor.

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says about Us)
by Tom Vanderbilt
One of the best of the recent spate of books on mundane topics, in this case traffic engineering. The author's deft hands turn this topic into a fascinating study of human social behavior and will make anyone who drives think of things in an entirely different way.

The Man with the Iron Heart
by Harry Turtledove
The king of alt-history turns in a solid, workmanlike effort featuring the trademark Turtledove storytelling style; based on the fascinating premise of what would have happened if German had engaged in guerilla warfare after WWII, with obvious parallels to our Iraq situation.

Empires of Trust: How Rome Built--and America Is Building--a New World
by Thomas F. Madden
The author focuses on the overlooked Roman republican period, comparing the rise of Rome with the rise of America in the social and political arenas. A nice change of pace from the usual comparisons of the two cultures based on the Imperial period.

The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge
by Jamie James
A pleasantly entertaining biography of a renowned herpetologist and his tragic death. Good creepy descriptions of serpent natural history mixed with occasionally dramatic events.

The Valley-Westside War (Crosstime Traffic)
by Harry Turtledove
Another entry in Turtledove's juvenile series; this one is a pedestrian tale of life in LA a hundred plus years after a nuclear war. Mildly entertaining, but one of the weakest of the bunch so far.

Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped
by Tony Perrottet
A light, trivial and entertaining look at the sexual foibles of world history. Excellent cocktail-party fodder, but this is an appetizer, not a meal.

Beyond Fear
by Bruce Schneier
Unique insider's perspective into the world of security and defense. Truly fascinating, and useful for everyone from individual citizens to security professionals.

Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America
by Eric Jay Dolin
An amazing historic tale of some 300 years of American maritime history. The author does a fine job mixing the gruesome with the mundane, while covering the social, technological, and political history of whaling, including a real insight into the lives of average whale-men and their families.

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why
by Amanda Ripley
A look at the psychological and physiological aspects of human behavior when disaster strikes. The author is very good at bringing out the dramatic events of disasters while showing a touch for human interest and psychology while also sharing practical examples that might help future survivors.

Sideways In Crime
by Lou Anders
A decent anthology of alt-history and crime mash-up stories. Like most books of this type, there are good stories mixed with the mediocre.

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior
by Ori Brafman
A fun, light pop-psychology tome about the hidden influencers on our behaviors. The book is quite short, but very engagingly written with enough nuggets of interest to hold the readers attention.

A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age
by William Manchester
Really three books in one; a fascinating section on the medieval mind that really gives a feel of what it would be like to live back then, a middle section which contains a solid, workmanlike history of the Reformation, and finally, a completely tacked-on, although still interesting story of Magellan. Each could stand alone as a short book, but together they feel artificially joined.

The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God
by David J. Linden
An overview of brain science, with good coverage of how the brain works and how various aspects of the brain may have evolved. Overall an amazingly complete survey in such a short book.

The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America
by Maury Klein
A book on the economic and industrial history of electric power in America. Contrary to the title, steam power is only about 1/5 of the overall book, and there is almost no coverage of the science or technology, with almost all the focus on the economics and marketing of power. The title is misleading; as a technology book, it is very bad, as an economic history of electricity, it is very good.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008


I just purchased a book called Against the Machine, which is a short book-length essay with a very negative view towards the effect of the Internet on our culture.

Needless to say, I bought the book using Amazon.

Speaking of books, I just finished a very good work of fiction, a book by Dan Simmons called The Terror which is sort of a combination of historic fiction and horror with a touch of the fantastic and mythic. It concerns the lost British Franklin expedition of the 1840s which tried to find the Northwest Passage and ended up getting stuck in the polar ice for years on end. The Terror is amazing in the breadth it covers, everything from British naval life to Inuit (Eskimo) mythology, but at its heart it is a story of survival in brutal conditions and a story of transcendence and redemption in the face of unimaginable horror. It is long (over 700 pages) but is well worth the effort.