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Posts Tagged ‘2012 Book Review’

I believe I learned about military science fiction on black and white TV long before I discovered it in books.  I think when that happens, a child assumes there is more there (in literature) than there actually is.   I remember watching the “Twilight Zone” and “One Step Beyond” as well as a host of cheap Saturday afternoon movies on TV which tied in my admiration for the military with the wonders of future science.  Of course, adolescent reading included “The Red Badge of Courage” and “All Quiet On the Western Front“, but these were traditional (historic) military stories, not SciFi.
Sometime in my mid-teens, the older sister of a friend turned me on to Robert Heinlein.  She had about a dozen of his novels, including “Starship Troopers“, which she loaned me.  Addicts really are the public-facing pushers of their particular addictions.  Prior to this, my only collections were baseball cards (long lost in the shrouds of history) and comic books (Marvel not DC).  Although my mother always tried to supply us with ample reading, the reality of our family finances dictated more trips to the public (or school) library than to the local bookstore.  Anyway, this began my love affair with collecting books…
As mentioned, my first recollection of reading military Sci-Fi was “Starship Troopers“.  After that, I think there was a close tie between the adventures of (Jerry Pournelle’s) John Christian Falkenberg and (David Drake’s) Alois Hammer.  Between them, they make up two of the great mercenary future history series: Falkenberg’s Legions and Hammer’s Slammers.  The former being infantry and the latter primarily about an armored regiment.  I have collected the novels of all three since then, but most of them went the same way as my baseball cards of youth – lost in my frequent moves from house to house and continent to continent.
Well, lo and behold, wandering around in my local Barnes & Nobel’s I found a collected works of Drake’s Hammer’s series: “The Complete Hammer’s Slammers, vol 1“, (2009©).  This is the first in a three volume series.  It consists of twenty-one (mostly) short stories about men in combat in the future.  There is a nod to SciFi in order to make the stories seem futuristic, but the stories are really about the people (men and women), not about the weapons.  Even the couple of short stories which try to focus on the weapons, really end up talking about individuals who use the weapons.  For my dime, this makes the stories universal.
Many war story novels almost seem to glorify war and combat.  This book does not.  You are left with the smells, tastes and feel of war and it is acrid, foul and gritty.  But, and this is a BIG but, combat is also primal, tempering and – occasionally – ennobling of individuals.  This is the contradiction of struggle and survival – some become savages and some become noble savages.  In fairness to those who have served in actual combat – and I have not – these are only my impressions as a reader of fiction novels and factual accounts of historical conflicts.  Obviously, “history” is written by the victors, so victory will almost always be written as ennobling for the “right” side and debasing for the losing side.
Of the stories in this book, three particularly touched me and I had to pause briefly in my reading to think about the story for a while.  Based on this need to “pause and think” alone, I rate this book as a highly recommended!
I know this has turned into a lengthy blog, but hang in there a bit longer…
The second part of today’s title refers to one of the best “Romance” movies (chick-flick), I’ve ever seen: “Bed of Roses” (1996).  The movie stars Christian Slater and Mary Stuart Masterson.  The basic plot is boy sees unknown girl crying and gives her flowers.  Girl and boy fall in love, but both have “issues”.  Boy and girl separate over issues.  Boy and girl get back together and live happily every after (we assume).
This is a fairy tale movie.  If you like fairy tales, (I DO), you’ll enjoy this movie (I did).  If you aren’t into fairly tales, you probably will find this movie trite and contrived.  In which case, all I can offer is: “Get over it.”
I really enjoyed this movie!  The first time I saw it, I was in Saudi Arabia, while my wife and family were back in Liverpool.  It was on cable and I must have watched it ten times the first month it came on.  Why?  Because if you’ve ever spent time alone and lonely, and then you meet someone you fall in love with, your greatest fear will be losing that someone.  At least that has almost always been among my greatest fears.  If you do lose that someone and are fortunate enough to find a second someone, you are faced with the decision to hide (wallow in your loss) or to love even more freely.  In this movie, Slater’s character decides on the latter course – and it makes all the difference in the world.  (Like I said, a fairy tale.)  I think the “loss” of my wife (albeit temporary), made the movie touch me and my fears all the more.
Anyway, the movie is softly shot and there are lots of beautiful flowers (and sentiment) – another plus in my book.  I believe at the time, Slater was an action-movie actor and this role was kind of out of character for him, but I liked him in the role.  I don’t really know anything about Masterson.  She’s attractive enough in this role, but she doesn’t strike me as someone the camera “just” loves.  I don’t recall her in much else and I don’t really know why, because she seems really good in this role.  I would like to also give a shout out to Pamela Adlon, who plays Masterson’s character’s best friend – Kim.  Again, this is an actress I’ve not seen much of, but she’s terrific in this supporting role.  Something about her scratchy voice is just really attractive/likeable.  That and her frumpy clothes choice (in the movie).
As I said, this is one of the best romantic movies I’ve ever seen – particularly of the modern era – highly recommended!!
If there is one bad thing about the DVD – there are no extra scenes.  The preview, which is included on the DVD, has a couple of scenes which didn’t make it into the final movie.  I would have liked to see them in special features.  Sadly, no dice…
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Last weekend I finished reading “Perfect Figures“, by Bunny Crumpacker (2007©).   This is a history story of how civilization developed numbers and thereby learned to count.  Obviously, there is a lot of supposition in here, because no one was really around writing the history of the “discovery” of “1” and “2” (and so on).  In any case, the book is a fairly good read and seems to make a lot of sense.
Essentially, our current numbers seem to have mostly evolved from other cultures and words used to express numerical concepts (values) and then over time were mispronounced until we arrived at today’s word (pronunciations) for the values.  What I found most interesting was the concept of “many”, as in, “1”, “2”, “3”, many…   Many seems to be the universal expression for more than we care to count at the present time.
Another interesting point was the documenting of a perception I’ve had for a number of years, but never really knew how to explain, that is, my inability to count past four to six items.  One number is more or less easy to count and remember.  So are two or three numbers.  But, when I get upwards of four numbers, I start to want to write them down or find some other way of assisting my memory.  According to the author, this is universal in our species and hence the cross line in to five by lines and the switch to “IV” for “4” in Roman numbers.  Four line (“IIII”) somehow starts to fool the human eye and five lines is “forget about it” (“IIIII”).  The interesting thing (for me) was that I had personalized this and thought it was only me.  I’d never heard anyone else complain about not being able to count by ones, so I assumed I was the only one with this problem.
Perfect Figures” is full of historical anecdotes and cultural references which made the book even more enjoyable for me as I enjoy glimpses into understanding other times, nations, cultures and languages.  I would like to give this book an unqualified “highly recommended” review, but for some reason I’m hesitant.  Although the book is fairly short (about 260 pages), it took a long time to read (almost a month).  I enjoyed reading most of it, but I never felt compelled to get back to it like I do most books I end up being totally “into”.  Normally, I’d have expected to pour through this book in a day or two.  But I didn’t.  The closest I can describe it to is like an old friend who you only want to visit with a half hour at a time.  You “feel” like you should spend the whole day with them, but in the end, you spend a half-hour and say, “No, I’m good.  See you in a couple of days…”
Be that as it may, I did enjoy the book and do highly recommend it to anyone interested in a lateral view of numbers and counting and an understanding how mankind “may” have learned to count.
Other Notes:
Just finishing my third day of vacation.  I’m planning to catch the new “Spiderman” movie and just relax.  I’ve spent the last four days working on my “Honey-Do” list.  I’ve finished the floor trim in the bedroom we just installed laminated bamboo in.  I’ve also helped a workman I hired for a couple of days take care of some other jobs: we removed a falling down metal shed from the backyard and hung a swinging gate on the side of the house (which used to be a solid fence.  He also did some ground levelling and removed an old wall heater from our hallway.  All in all, a VERY productive few days off!
Last but not least, my Giants have now won four straight series since the All-Star break and have the “hated” Los Angeles Dodgers coming up this weekend.  Go Orange and Black!!
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Today’s entry is about a book I read and a movie I watched a couple of weeks ago but haven’t gotten around to reviewing.  The book is: “A Mathematician’s Apology” by G. H. Hardy, 1940©.  The movie is: “Act of Valor“.
Hardy’s “Apology” is a quasi-autobiographic discussion of math, ideas and science.  Hardy has a self-deprecating style which almost reaches the point of false modesty.  During his lifetime, Hardy was considered one of the five most brilliant mathematicians in the world.  His love for his subject – math, not himself – is evident; as is his sense of loss when he realizes he is too old to continue productive work.  As difficult as this may be for some to believe (me for example), most cutting edge mathematics is done by those under 30 years of age.  In fact, it is almost parallel with the life of a world-class athlete – demonstrate early potential (pre-teens), exceed your peers at an early age (pre-20’s), make your mark (pre-30’s), then (if you’re lucky) find others you can mentor and teach (post-30’s).
But what happens when you don’t want to admit you don’t have it any move?  Does it make you bitter, or just sad?  Or maybe, a bit of both.  This seems to be the case with Hardy.  I found this book on the $2.00 rack at my local used-book store.  I opened it and read the last two paragraphs which have been previously quoted, see:  “Life’s Last Question” and “Something Of Value“.  As I don’t personally share Hardy’s value system for evaluating one’s life, it is difficult for me to appreciate the sadness his words seem to relate, but I have enough empathy for him to appreciate his sense of gradual dissolution and fade into the unknown (death).  And, it doesn’t hurt to be getting on in years myself.
The movie: “Act of Valor” is your basic heroic action flick.  It’s claim to fame is that it uses some real-life Navy SEALs in the actors roles.  It is very gung-ho and American patriotic.  If you are into that (and I am), it’s a good action movie with bad acting.  If you can’t get past the “Rah-Rah America”, you’ll have a hard time getting through the bad acting to wait for the next action.  The special effects are just okay.  I liked the movie, but I can easily see why a lot of folks will not.  I got the DVD on the cheap, but I’d say most will wait another couple of months for this to move to TV.  To be honest, I enjoyed “Battle: Los Angeles” a lot more.  Just as much “Rah-Rah”, but much better acting and special effects.  Of course, “B:LA” was SciFi, not “made-up” battling terrorists.  Like I said, wait for it (“AoV”) to come to TV.
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Sometimes it can be a real effort to keep up with some of the things I’m trying to get across on this site.  Generally, I’m just commenting about things I see happening in my life or around me.  I try to relate my observations, books I’ve read, movies (and TV) I’ve seen, poetry and music I’ve listened to (mostly what’s moved me).  Occasionally, I want to say something, but I’m waiting for something else to happen or for an idea to gel in my head.  Sometimes the thing is important, usually it’s trivial – but it ends up being a blog-blocker anyway.
 

A couple of weeks ago, I went to see the Avengers movie.  I held off on reviewing it because I wanted to see it a second time (this time in 3D), before I cast anything in stone (or as “stone” as a blog can be).  Anyway, I’ve not been able to get around to a second showing, so I’m just going to go ahead with my review of my initial sitting.  If you see only one comic book / super-hero movie this year, the Avengers should be it!!  
 

This movie has all the great things about a great action movie – heroes, believable villains, action / fights, special effects, reasonable story / plot, and a little romance and something hard to find in most movies – pacing.  But most of all this movie has two things:  it has humor sprinkled in liberally and it has the HULK!  Now if you’ve seen the other two Hulk movies, you’re probably saying, “yeah, right!”  Well, I am!  Downey (as Tony Stark / Ironman) carries the movie with wit and panache, Thor and Captain America provide the beefcake, and then the HULK shows up to steal the last 20 minutes.
 

Unfortunately for Batman and Spiderman, both to be released later this year – the bar now seems set impossibly high…  We’ll see.  Bottom line:  Highly recommended!!
 

Last night I completed “Weaving The Web” by Tim Berners-Lee (1999©).  Now, in case you’ve been living under a rock, TB-L is the man who invented the World Wide Web.  He also invented web servers and web browsers.  He came up with the ideas and then worked it out with a colleague (Robert Cailliau) and a student intern (Nicola Pellow).  This book is the story of what they did and how they did it.  It is a story of insight, foresight and individual effort to turn an idea into a grass-roots movement, into a world-wide phenomenon, into the World Wide Web we know today.  
 

The book is relatively easy to read and pretty lacking in computer mumbo-jumbo, but it is not read without some effort (or at least some prior understanding of web / computer history).  I found TB-L’s ideas about the future of the web (the “semantic web”) to be very interesting and, looking back, I wish he had spent more time explaining it more clearly.  As it is, I went on to Google and TED to get more information about it.  Having just skimmed the surface, it is obvious this is where the future of information retrieval is going.  My challenge (or the challenge for any IT professional) is getting up to speed and grasping more than just the theory behind it.  That will require hands-on experience though and other than using my own time, I don’t see how that will happen (at work).
 

Anyway, it’s nice to be able to look ahead and see where the world is going…
 

Bottom line: I highly recommend this book to anyone in technology and anyone who wants to be reasonably well paid in the next 20-30 years.

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Here’s two more books which fall under the general category of “Serendipity and Chaos“.  They are: “What The Dog Saw” (2009©) and “Linked” (2002©).

The first, “What The Dog Saw“, was written by Malcolm Gladwell.  Gladwell is science-popularizer style writer in the vein of Isaac Asimov.  Basically, he looks for interesting areas of science and then explains them to the general public.  This is the fourth book by Gladwell which I own and have read.  The others are: “The Tipping Point“, “Outliers” and “Blink“.  Those three books are single source texts.  This book is a compilation of a number of stories from his articles previously published in The New Yorker.

The book is divided into three sections and the articles (chapters) are meant to focus around the group headings, which are:  1) Obsessives, Pioneers, and Other Varieties of Minor Genius; 2) Theories, Predictions and Diagnoses; and, 3) Personality, Character and Intelligence.  Unfortunately, the group titles do not provide adequate descriptions of the individual articles.  It is enough to say, that each chapter is a mini-book in itself and Gladwell is a very good writer (at least his writing suits MY tastes).  I won’t describe the articles individually except to say the book title comes from the story about Cesar Milan, aka “The Dog Whisperer“.  Most reviews of Milan’s techniques describe what we humans see when he is training the animals.  This article poses the questions: “What does the dog see?” and directly related: “Is that what makes the technique work?”

Bottom line: like Gladwell’s other three books, this is Highly Recommended!!

The second book is: “Linked“, and was written by Albert-László Barabási.  In this book, the author attempts to explain the current state of network theory.  The first couple of chapters cover the history of network theory and then we are quickly shifted into “current” (circa 1990-2002) theory.  The author contends there are three basic types of networks – “centralized”, “decentralized”, and “distributed”.  The author goes on to explain why he feels distributed networks are emergent and how they exist in a broad range of settings, hardware, software, social, economic and biological.  He has an additional premise they are distributed because there are inherent fail-over mechanisms in them which support the network in ways the other two networks simply can’t reproduce.  Most significantly, from my point of view, he is the first person I’ve heard explain both the “rich-get-richer” and the “winner-takes-all” results of distributed networking concepts in economics.  Finally, the author provides an explanation of the concept of “power law” and how it acts in the context of networking – and he does it with a minimum of formulae and in plain English.  All in all, I found this book a fascinating read and highly recommend it.

Gladwell’s was a $2 clearance book from Half-Price Books and Barabási’s was a discounted (used) book purchased from my $50 Amazon birthday gift card.  The book cost more to ship than to buy!  Very good values, if I do say so myself!!

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This review is for the book: “Napalm & SillyPutty“, by George Carlin (2001©).   Way back when I was a youth, I heard the “Seven Words You Can’t Say On TV” and “The Hippy-Dippy Weather Man” skits, and I was hooked as a Carlin fan.  Carlin passed away a couple of years ago (2008) now, but he remains in my mind as a “definer” – a dictionary – of words, pre- and post-PC (politically correct).  Carlin was an atheist who railed against BIG (organized) religion and unwilling to trust government at any level. 
 

This book is NOT his best stuff.  Most of it seems to be re-hashes of things he said on TV or in magazine interviews.  Still, some of it is pretty funny.  George can make you laugh, he can make you cry and he could make me laugh until I cried.  Often imitated, and rarely equalled, we are unlikely to see his like again anytime soon.  RIP, George.
 

I got this book on clearance at Half-Price Books for $2.00 and it was worth that just to remind me of the old days.  If you can get it cheap or at a library (free), it’s worth reading.  Otherwise, just YouTube George Carlin and watch him do his thing.  You’ll probably get more out of it.  Sorry, George – weak recommendation…
 

 

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Today’s blog is a review of one book (“The Bed Of Procrustes“) and three movies (“Elektra“, “The Flight Of The Phoenix“, and “Kingdom Of Heaven“).  Book first…
The Bed Of Procrustes” is written by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2010©) and is subtitled: “Philosophical And Practical Aphorisms“.  Taleb is famous for his prior work titled: “The Black Swan“.  That book was about something – his observation / theory that we humans are not very good at analysing probabilities and therefore make poor decisions which can seriously impact our lives, society and planet.  Part of what made the book interesting was Taleb’s frequent digressions into sarcasm and one-liners about various things he sees in our world.  This book, (“The Bed“…) skips the main story and just lists the remarks as a series of one-liners.  Because I love this kind of humor, I highly recommend this book.  On the other hand, you can simply follow this blog for the next few years and you’ll still get a number of his funniest quotes.  (Just kidding!)  Seriously, buy the book.  While it may be true that you will be able to pick up a number of the quotes from my site (over time), it’s not the same as reading them in the author’s intended format, structure or pace.  My site should never be considered a primary source for information – particularly regarding quotes.  It is only a venue for me to repeat words which have passed through my own consciousness then pinballed around enough to make it to this site.
Elektra” is another of the comic-book based movies I collect.  The title character previously appeared in the “Daredevil” movie as the love interest for that movie’s title character.  In this movie, the main character is resurrected (she dies in “Daredevil“) in order to save and protect a young girl who is destined to save the world from evil.  Blah, blah, blah – okay, it’s a comic book movie.  Is the movie any good?  It’s not as bad as I expected, but it’s a fairly mediocre effort.  Are the special effects great?  So-so.  Is it worth it for the martial arts?  Not really, but they’re not bad either.  The upside?  It’s nice to see female superheros get their own platform.  They tend to be lower tier titles in the comic universe and that remains true in the cinema universe too, which I think is too bad.  It seems to me, there should be a great opportunity for a breakout smash which could change a career and create a new market for a franchise – much on the line of “Aliens” for Sigourney Weaver.  But, it’s not this movie. Overall rating – recommend.
The second movie is “The Flight Of The Phoenix“.  This is the original from 1965 starring Jimmy Stewart and Richard Attenborough.  This was one of the first “survival” movies I ever saw and it captured my imagination.  Growing up in San Francisco, I had no real concept of a desert or of real heat.  (Now that I’ve lived in Saudi Arabia for two years I understand real heat.)  As I said, the whole idea of “survival” was a revelation to me.  Anyway, I really enjoyed this film way back when and when it came out on DVD I picked it up, watched it and then put up on the shelf with my other “classics from growing up”.  A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon the re-make starring Dennis Quaide, so I picked it up (see my review: Edge, Class, Clash, And Flight) and enjoyed it enough it made me want to go back to compare / contrast it with the original.  What I found surprised me…  Despite the great actors in the original, I prefer the remake!
This is a surprise because I almost always prefer the original. In this case, it felt dated (which it is given it was made 40 years ago), but the dating is not the time period, but the cinematography which somehow seems – not as good.  The original also feels longer.  It is, but that’s not the same as feeling that way.  My complaints about the re-make remain – primarily the extra “excitement” added to the ending and which adds nothing to the story, and the other minor complaints too, but all in all, I do feel the re-make is more watchable than the original.  I only wish there were a way to substitute the actors.  Overall rating: this remains a classic for the actors and the genre – highly recommend.
The third movie is “Kingdom Of Heaven” starring Orlando Bloom.  In researching the movie for this review, I found out it is based on actual characters and events.  It is fictionalized in that the characters aren’t the ones who did the acts portrayed in their roles, but they did exist in that time period and location.  For some reason, I thought it was entirely fictional.  Anyway, I am now an Orlando Bloom fan.  I just like him.  He wasn’t great in this role, but he was believable as the evolving blacksmith to knight-crusader.  I’ve now seen Bloom in a number of roles – Pirates series, Rings series, and Troy – and I just like him.  He’s not just another pretty (male) face with a funny accent.
Okay, back to “Kingdom…“.  Basically, a “good-guy caught in a bad situation where your allies are actually the villains and your opponents may actually be ‘better’ people than you” movie.  These movies follow a basic premise and natural story line and this one touches all of the bases.  Good-guy flees home, meets up with zen master to receive training, heroic survival, meets future opponent and they become friends, meets bad-guys who are your allies, and so-on until the good-guy lives happily ever after.
Does the movie work?  Absolutely!  Why?  Because I’m here to see the battles and they’re realistic – certainly more so than “Lord Of The Rings” and “Pirates Of The Caribbean“.  (But I digress.)  The acting is good and for once there’s a movie about the middle ages where everyone is dirty and they stay that way for most of the movie.  You see, it’s the small things I look for in  a movie.  On a political note – it was nice to see the Muslims portrayed as the more civilized of the two conflicting armies.  What a change from the post-9/11 mantra.  I’m not sure there was as much peaceful co-existence in reality as portrayed in the movie, but it was interesting to see a little balance.  Overall rating: highly recommend.
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