Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood ****

Have you been searching for a dystopian novel? The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood might be just what you are looking for. I constantly felt like I was reading an update of 1984.
Stan and Charmaine are a couple that imagines having free agency, but in reality, has no concept of the many levels of deceit that control the world they are trapped in. As I read this book, I felt like I was back in high school as lost as the protagonists trying to differentiate fictional reality from fictional deceit. In the end, like the protagonists, it seems the game was rigged and I had no way to win.

An interesting note is that this best selling author inserts her protest against e-books.
[In a discussion of sex robots]
"I don't think they'll ever replace the living and breathing," says Gary.
"They said that about e-books," says Kevin, "You can't stop progress."
The major departure from 1984 is the obsession with sex. The author has made sex central to the story. What kind of sex? Implied and discussed sex. There is lots of discussion of sex that happened, will happen, might happen, is thought to happen. Sex gossip. This again reminds me of high school.
Sex in the movies used to be so much more sexy than it became after you could actually have sex in the movies.
Since this is science fiction, married sex, adulterous sex, blackmail sex, abusive sex, and so on is augmented with robot sex and brain manipulation sex.

If you are yearning for an update of 1984 with lots of sex talk, this is the book for you. Enjoy it.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Machines of Loving Grace by John Markoff ****

Machines of Loving Grace by John Markoff is an admiring history of Silicon Valley and artificial intelligence. As with many writers who have visited The Valley, he has been entranced by the mythology of the companies and hagiography of the people.

As someone who was there, and knew and worked with many of the technology saints, I have a more jaded view of the events, but regardless how much I enjoyed the trip down memory lane.

In addition to worshipful anecdotes of the last sixty years, the author explores an interesting tension between two schools of technology developers. The first is artificial intelligence (AI) with the goal of computers that replace humans. The other is intelligence augmentation (IA) which keeps humans in the loops, but just strives to make them more efficient and effective.

An example of AI is a driverless car, while IA is cruise control, anti-lock brakes, and collision avoidance systems. The is an example of how the IA path has had all the successes, while the AI proponents proudly say that their research has driven the IA successes.

The organization of the book is a collection of mini-histories. The result can be a bit jarring as the timeline is repeated between chapters, and sometimes within chapters. Many of the important actors appear repeatedly. Like Silicon Valley itself, little is in perspective; every product, company, scientists, and entrepreneur is as important as the next.

For the purpose of this book, the pinnacle of technology is Siri. After reading this frenetic history, one is left with the secure feeling that in a few years Siri will be forgotten and we will all be on to the the next thing. I recommend this book for anyone who has worked in Silicon Valley and wants to bask in the glory one more time.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Bare Bones by Kathy Reichs ****

Kathy Reichs published a number of novels about Temperance Brennan before the successful TV series Bones, based on these novels, premiered in 2005.

Bare Bones by Kathy Reichs was the sixth in the series. While I imagine many people came to the TV show after reading the novels, I watched ten seasons of the TV series before reading one of the novels. While the books are well written, I was disappointed.

First, on the TV show, Temperance Brennan is a unique, intelligent woman, while in the book she is much like so many other investigators. Her special skills as a forensic anthropologist play less of a role in an entire novel than in any single TV show. Second, the TV show had an ensemble of interesting characters, while the novel had mostly stock secondary characters.

This is clearly a case where the expanse of over 200 episodes allowed for more character development than the more restricted tableau of a handful of novels.

As a technology aside, this book, published in 2003, shows how much technology has changed. On a single page, the 2003 novel mentions AOL, photographic film, and payphones, all of which are pretty much gone.

If you are coming to this book after being a fan of the TV show, be prepared to be disappointed by the limited range of the book. While the TV show felt like something special, the books though well-written, but ordinary mysteries.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Eyewitness Blues by Tim Baker *****

In a mixture of Carl Hiaasen, Deborah Brown, Sue Grafton, and Janet Evanovich, Tom Baker spins a yarn of innocents and gangsters bumbling through life.

Eyewitness Blues by Tim Baker is the well written adventure of Martin Aquino. Martin is one of those optimistic fools who comes up with crazy ideas like expecting witness protection to turn his life around, but when his plan fails, he ends up in Florida from Rhode Island anyway. An excellent example of the voyage being more important than the destination.

 I finished it in a couple of days... Goes down like warm apple pie and homemade ice cream.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Time and Again by Deborah Heal *****

Time and Again by Deborah Heal is YA historical fiction with a twist. The book intertwines two threads. The contemporary thread is the story of Abby on a summer tutoring job for tween Merridith, and the historical thread is about Charlotte who manages a stop on the underground railroad secreting escaped slaves through Illinois to Chicago while the men in the family are fighting the Civil War.

The trick to the combination of these two story lines, is a magical computer that allows Abby and Merri to "time surf" back in history and observes Charlotte's life. The author nicely balances the two plot lines so they are both engaging. More importantly, enough happens and is resolved so that when book 1 ends in the middle of both narratives, the reader still can feel satisfied with the story thus far.

Civil War period history is nicely woven into Charlotte's story so that the pedagogical content does not detract. Highly recommended for young readers, especially during a year where American history is covered.