Monday, November 17, 2014

Book Review #117 - Insanely Simple by Ken Segall

Book 41 of 52
Page count 213

I'd have to say that this book is a good read.  However ...

The author spends a lot of time beating you over the head with his Simple Stick; constantly repeating the idea that Simplicity Is Very Important.

The book is also a bit of a gushing love letter to Steve Jobs.  Man, the author loved Steve.

Okay, enough basing the book.  There were many insights into Steve Jobs and Apple that I found very interesting.  The best take-away from the book is: Keep It Simple and Stick To Your Guns.

I most enjoyed the many comparisons between Apple and IBM, Dell and Intel.  Apple is a unique entity in the business world.  It will be interesting to see if they can survive without Jobs in the picture.

Unfortunately I found the book a bit preachy.  I only skimmed the conclusion because I really, really wanted it to end.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Book Review #116 - Black Code by Ronald J. Deibert

Book 40 of 52
Page count - 312

The author tackles a very large and very complex subject here.  On-line security means something different depending on who you are addressing.  Individuals may not want to use their credit cards on dodgy websites; national leaders may want to protect military secrets; criminals may be looking for ways to exploit vulnerabilities.

Since the world is largely migrating to the internet the subject of security needs to be studied very seriously.  We are living in the cave-man days of the internet and it's very important to remember that and to understand just how vulnerable things really are.

Black Code is a scary book.

My blood was chilled after reading Chapter 3 about big data and how all these cherished free services (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) are just sucking up so much information about us, individually.  What we choose to share on-line can go further than we know;  upload a picture and all the meta data goes up with it.  This includes the date the photo was taken, the GPS information, the type of device used to take the picture.  Facial recognition software can work to identify everyone in the photo ... and on it goes.

It's not just what were posting but many mobile apps are also uploading our contact lists, our movements in and out of cell towers and WiFi hotspots. 

It truly feels like an invasion of my privacy when my whole day can be reconstructed from where my phone has been and how I've used it.

The book continues to expand on the subject by moving into the world of governments, hackers, military espionage, organized crime and oppression.

The subject is so large I found myself starting to gloss over what I was reading.  But I believe it to be a very important book if you are interested in the subject.  What it will do is change how you look at what you are doing with your cell phone or computer.  It will also point you in directions for further reading.

Here are some websites I visited after reading this book.

The Citizen Lab

Canada Centre for Global Security Studies

National Cyber Security Awareness Month. 

Ronald J. Deibert

Paperback cover

Monday, November 3, 2014

Book Review #115 - The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

Book 39 of 52
Page count - 352

It is hard to review a book which has an iconic movie attached to it.  It is the wonderfully interesting story of the Original 7 astronauts and the race to send Americans into space.

That said the movie practically used the book as a script.  Next to nothing was left out.  What the book highlighted greatly was the attitudes of the government to the program but, more importantly, the attitudes of "career" military test pilots and this new rocket-propelled civilian agency.

What was most interesting was how the pecking order of the Original 7, and test pilots in general, was fiercely fought over.  Everything rides on being first.  It drives every decision pilots make and effects their wives and families in the process.  Climbing to the top of the pyramid and trying to stay up there is what motivates these incredible people every single day.

The competition between the astronauts was wonderfully paralleled by also following the career of the man who, arguably, started it all; Chuck Yager.  Yager was the first to break the sound barrier but kept his career on the track of fixed-winged aircraft.  He was at the very top of the pyramid and kept on fighting to stay there for as long as he could.

Chuck Yager and the Bell X-1
Ultimately the story focuses on the original Mercury astronauts but the author never forgets the larger picture.  He kept his eyes on the Russians, the president, the military, the scientists and the doctors who played large roles in this adventure.

The whole thing was wonderful.

Read it.  Watch the movie.  Be inspired and reassured that humans can do wonderful, wonderful things when we want to. 

Project Mercury mission patch

Mercury 3 Alan Shepard's mission patch

Alan Shepard inside Freedom 7

Movie poster

Tom Wolfe

Monday, October 27, 2014

Book Review #114 - Red Moon Rising by Matthew Brzezinski

Book 38 of 52
Audio book - 9 discs

A previous book I reviewed called Command and Control showed just how paranoid the Americans were during the Cold War.  The story of the space race is closely tied to the creation of ICBMs and the days of nuclear proliferation.  As a matter of fact, the space race and the missions to the moon may not have happened had the Soviets not been having technical difficulties with a heat shield.

With the Americans constantly testing Soviet air pace with bombers and U2 over-flights they felt pressured to develop a capable missile.  The flight of Sputnik was a project promoted and engineered by a single man, Russia's Chief Designer, Sergei Korolev, who believed that satellites would be very valuable.  Since there had been no satellites to date, neither the Americans nor the Soviets could imagine the usefulness of one.

But Sputnik did go up and it changed the world.

Sputnik 1
 Before the race to the moon there was the race to orbit and before the race to orbit there was the race to perfect missiles.  This is the story of how missile technology almost accidentally created an industry that, it could be imagined, that has made our world a better place.

The book follows both sides of the missile race, concentrating on the Soviet side, we discover that they were not nearly so advanced as the United States declared.  Money, politics and pride were all very important factors on both sides of the race.

The story sheds light on yet another facet of the Cold War and I found it fascinating.  The book does not stop at the Sputnik 1 launch but continues well past Sputnik 2 and on to the successful launch of Explorer 1.

Explorer 1

An interesting point to know is variants of the R-7 are still in operation today transporting material and crews to the International Space Station.

Matthew Brzezinski

Monday, October 20, 2014

Book Review #113 - The World America Made by Robert Kagan

Book 37 of 52
Page count - 140

What would the world look like if America were to reduce its role as a global leader in order to focus all its energies on solving its problems at home?

Is America really in decline?

These are the two fundamental questions this brief book tries to answer.

Of course, the answer is - it's complicated.  However, Kagan does a nice job of putting the United States current role in historical context which shines a bright light at how fleeting power structures are in human history and how unique the current order is.

I felt the author's look at what our modern world could look like if the United States were to reduce it's influence to be balanced and well thought out.

I found myself stopping my reading simply to think about some of his observations.

Well worth reading.

Robert Kagan

Monday, October 13, 2014

Book Review #112 - No Place to Hide, Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Serveillance State by Glenn Greenwald

Book 36 of 52
Page count - 253

The last book I read that scared me was Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm.  This one scared me more because it's happening to all of us.

Here is presented the account, from the journalist who broke the story, of domestic spying by the NSA, of how Edward Snowden blew the whistle and made public this illegal activity.

The first part of the book described how Snowden approached the author to help him reveal the domestic surveillance taking place.  The second part looked more closely at the documents themselves while the third looks at how living in a surveillance society effects the behavior and attitudes of the population.  The last part of the books looks at how journalism in the US has changed over the past decades and just how it's independence has eroded.

It is a chilling story that should make anyone who reads it look at the nightly news and general main stream reporting with a cautious eye.  Everything revealed in the book was previously embedded in my subconscious but it took reading it on the page to make me notice just how journalism favours the government.  We seldom see the rogue journalist chasing corruption.  Instead journalists are threatened personally and the owners of media corporations are coerced to sit on news items, sometimes for months at a time, or prevented from reporting outright.

Anytime you read a book like this you have to take a cautious approach so as not to get sucked in completely by the author.  It's an important part of reporting but it is also a one-sided read.  That said, what is truly important here,  is the fact that these things ARE taking place.  The NSA is gobbling up nearly all communications data on everyone.  The government of the USA is funding and using all this information.  Anything we do online, including reading this review, is tracked and recorded.  Independent journalism is under great threat; there are only a few truly independent reporters left in the world.

But you can't let these revelations scare you into curling up in a ball and giving up on the Internet.  It is also important to know that since the revelations of Snowden have been made public the tide is showing sign of turning.  We live in a period of time that will eventually pass; it is always difficult to have perspective when we are in the middle of things. 

What you will come away with is a new awareness of everything you say and do on-line.  Every time you post on Facebook or do a Google search you will think of what you read in this book.  Maybe it will stop you or maybe it will awaken a need to get a different view of things from sources that are defying the pressure to conform.

Very interesting reading.

You may also be interested in a current article of Snowden from Wired magazine.

August 2014 issue of Wired Magazine - Edward Snowden

For some independent journalism try The Intercept website in which Greenwald is a contributor.

Glenn Greenwald

Monday, October 6, 2014

Book Review #111 - Ocean Titans by Daniel Sekulich

Book 35 of 52
Page count - 242

This book was published in 2006 and looks at modern commercial shipping.  The twist here is in the sub title; Journeys In Search Of The Soul Of A Ship.  Most times a ship is humanized first by giving it a name and then by referring to it as "she."  Emotional connections are often formed with vehicles, from bicycles to cars, planes and ships, even spacecrafts; they take us from one place and, hopefully, safely deliver is to another.

Sekulich begins his journey where it all ends; the ship-breaking yards of Alang, India, where we find him searching for clues about the last crew of the tanker SS Sag River.  He wanders the vessel looking through the various areas finding small, personal items left aboard by its last inhabitants.  It's really is quite a sad scene but from it we are shown the wonderful and largely invisible world of commercial shipping.

Just about everything we own has spent some time aboard a ship, transported from a factory to a dock, a rail car and or a truck and delivered to a store to be purchased by us.  It's a system that is vital to our economies and yet we only hear about them when disasters happen.

The author takes us around the world searching and experiencing the impact a ship has on people.  We start at the design phase to the fascinating world of ship building; from the first cut of steel to sea trials.  We get an understanding of the ship owners, the captains, the engineers who keep the vessels running and to the deck hands.  We also learn about the sea itself and how people cope with the weeks and months of isolation.  Finally we see the last days of a ship; from being beached to being taken apart by the folks who's lives depend on recycling these gigantic machines.  We are also treated  to a glimmer of life in the creation of something new from the scrapped, forgotten and yet wonderful boats.

From the title I expected a romantic view of the subject and I was not disappointed.  It was also a well researched and interesting subject, I can't recommend it enthusiastically enough. It was a charming, understanding, respectful and hopeful read.  I've come away with a well rounded understanding of this nearly invisible, world-spanning industry.  Through it all the book is deeply infused with humanity; it would have been easy to get lost in the numbers and the technicality of it, but the author never lost sight of the fact that it is people that make the whole damn thing work.


Daniel Sekulich
You can find his blog HERE.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Book Review #110 - Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Seize The Fire by Michael A.Martin

Book 34 of 52
Page count - 488

This is the second book in the Typon Pact series and centers it's story around Will Riker and his ship the Titan.

After the affairs described in Destiny, races that felt they were forced to participate in the Federation actions against the Borg formed their own alliance.  Members of the pact are; the Romulans, the Tzenkethi, the Breen, the Gorn and the Tholians.

These are all races the Federation has had troubles with in the past so it's a bit ominous that they would all group together in a rival alliance.  So now the world of Star Trek is poised to endure a period of Cold War much like the United States and the USSR.  This could make for some interesting story telling.

Unlike the previous series, the Destiny trilogy, these books do not follow a single narrative, at least not yet.  The first two books truly stand alone and serve to more fully explore each of the member races.  In this book we take a look at the Gorn Hegemony where they have suffered a terrible natural disaster.  A critical hatchery world is destroyed and they are now looking for a candidate to terraform to replace it.  The trouble starts when they choose a planet that is inhabited by intelligent pre-warp beings.

Riker and the Titan must get involved to save the inhabitants of this world.

We learn more about the Gorn society and  how delicately it is held together.

All in all it was a good story in that understanding the Gorn is the primary thing I've come away with.  The book itself could have been cut by 150 pages without hurting the plot one bit.  The amount of repetition is astounding, you'd think this was a collection of serialized stories, not a novel.  Plus, again, "sigh", aliens, (I hate these guys) - so much ink is wasted on describing all the funky aliens working on Titan that I was ready to pull my hair out. 

This book was only okay.  It was such a slog to get through that it has made me want to take a break from the world of Star Trek.

Interestingly, this recent period of exclusively reading Star Trek stories has awakened some real world interests in me.  While reading this fiction I've been buying many non-fiction books that the stories have inspired me to learn more about.  I've got dozens of books about the history of space flight, engineering, shipping, espionage and exploration all inspired to be purchased from reading Star Trek.

Because Star Trek books are so closely related to each other I've come away with a desire to read some history.  I could have gone on a quest to learn the history of Star Trek by buying all the old books and filling in the blanks but, instead, I want to learn more about the real history and current events of the world I'm living in.  I'll be returning to Star Trek from time to time but I don't see myself reading them exlusively as I have been for the past while.

I'll still be choosing books that I feel I can fit into my book a week challenge.  Once the 52nd book is read I'll be free to tackle some of the larger books out there.

Michael A Martin

Monday, September 22, 2014

Book Review #109 - Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Zero Sum Game by David Mack

Book 33 of 52
Page count - 336

This is the first book (of 8) in the second major mini-series in the Star Trek novels.

After the Destiny trilogy some of the less-than-friendly races, who fought against the Borg, have split away from the Federation to form their own coalition known as the Typhon Pact; much like the Cold War after World War 2.

The Breen and the Romulans work together, in a covert attack, to steal the Slipstream Warp technology from the Federation.  Section 31 recruits Julian Bashir and Ezri Dax to mount their own counter-op to recover the stolen data and to destroy the prototype ship the Breen are building.

I just love spy stories and this one was a boat-load of fun even though there were some moments where I thought some of the circumstances were a bit ridiculous.  Bashir and his estranged love Sarina Douglas are dropped into Breen society with the monumental task of having to infiltrate a top-secret shipyard.

The Breen are a super-secretive society where individual identity is kept hidden by the wearing of uniforms and helmets.  The underlying reasoning is quite interesting; without clues to race or gender Breen society can work on the notion of egalitarian decision making.  It also makes for a very secretive and rule-based culture.

The Breen
The Federation knows next to nothing about the Breen and it is left to Bashir and Douglas to figure out the language, social interactions and  geography in order to complete the mission.  I felt this was too much to expect the reader to believe; considering the Breen are super-secretive among themselves, imagine how monumental a task it is for aliens posing as natives to overcome being detected in the street never mind trying to infiltrate a military base.

Some of the action sequences fall into the James Bond level of silly, pulpy, over-the-top, death-defying improbability that I found myself laughing instead of holding my breath in excitement.  I also found it less than believable when the characters are instantly experts in alien languages, computer interfaces, piloting alien crafts and withstanding torture.  I mean really?  Where are their capes?

So, yes it was fun but one of the things I like about Star Trek is the believability of it all.  It's a fine line between the probable and just making shit up to make the story work.  It is also very difficult to continually up the stakes form one adventure to the next.  So I find myself forgiving David Mack for taking certain leaps and look on this story as a whole which was a fun popcorn movie of a book.  I especially liked the Breen society and I hope we get to see more of it in future books.

I've already started reading the next book in the series so don't let my Luke-warm review deter you from reading it.  If you approach it like a Bond movie you'll be in a good place to enjoy yourself.

David Mack
Here is a pretty cool promotion poster.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Book Review #108 - Star Trek: Destiny: Lost Souls by David Mack

Book 32 of 52
Page count -283


The Federation is only moments away from complete destruction.  Billions have died and billions more are about to.

With the help of Captain Erika Hernandez, Will Riker and the crew of the Titan return to the Azure Nebula only to find that they are well behind enemy lines.  The war looks to be lost while the remnants of the Federation are preparing to meet their fate. The Borg press on with their plan to destroy it.

There are often glimmers of hope in the battle however most gains the Federation makes are soon lost, leaving only desperate plans.  What comes as a surprise is which characters rise to the challenge and which take unfamiliar roles of support rather then leadership.  I found that very refreshing.

We are also treated to a wonderful origin story that becomes the key to everything.

I cannot express how happy I am that this series has come along.  From this trilogy all the characters we know from the Star Trek universe are set free from the shackles of CBS and Paramount Pictures.  The authors are no longer constrained by what might transpire in future movies or TV episodes, since they are over and there is no chance of further installments.  The 23rd century now only lives in the novels and it is in very capable hands.

If you've come this far you will read the last book in the series; you don't need me to encourage you.  Resistance to Star Trek: Destiny is futile.

Omnibus edition cover art.
David Mack

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Interphase Book 2 - by Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore, a short story review.

Original cover.
In part one the Captain and his a way team are stranded on the Defiant, inside the spacial anomaly, while the Tholians execute a surprise attack on the da Vinci.

This becomes a two-perspective story switching from the actions of the away team trying to free the ship from the anomaly and the crew of the da Vinci coping with the attack while being led by an inexperienced officer.

Through the action the authors keep injecting moments of humor that serve to break the tension for the reader and the characters in the story.  This kind of self-deprecating interaction is easily achieved among people with exceptional abilities and strikes a note of realism that I very much enjoyed.

I'm not sure if David Mack has read these stories although I feel he must have.  There is a scene at the end of the story that was lifted and inserted into the end of Star Trek: Destiny.  I do know that these three authors have worked extensively together so I'm pretty sure this kind of thing is more a tip of the hat then a lift.  It's a form of compliment among authors.

In any case this story was very satisfying and I recommend anything written by Ward and/or Dilmore.

Dayton Ward (Captain) and Kevin Dilmore (Navigation)
Cover of the omnibus collection