Monthly ArchiveJuly 2004



Fiction 25 Jul 2004 21:07

Schild’s Ladder

coverSchild’s Ladder
Greg Egan

Egan is one of the most imaginative SF authors out there nowadays. This book comes from the same branch as “Permutation City” and “Diaspora” (and, in fact, I believe those two are required reading before this one). In the future he depicts, humans are no longer flesh-and-bone creatures, but software, running on quantum processors that may or may not live inside actual bodies. The main implication of this is that humans become, in essence, immortal: even if a body and/or a processor gets destroyed, most people keep regular backups of their mind, and will simply lose a few hours worth of memory upon being restored. Death ceases being a problem, as does distance: to go to distant places, you simply transmit your mind by radio, and your body is recreated on arrival, to your specs. Sure, it may take centuries to get to far away places, but you will have time. And you also get several benefits, such as a self-healing body, helper software, other means of communication etc.

In this particular book, set some 20,000 years in the future, a physicist trying to understand better the quantum foundations of the universe accidentally creates a second universe, which begins to aggressively “digest” our own, becoming a sphere that grows at half the speed of light in each direction and forcing several worlds to be evacuated. Six hundred years later, the scientists are still trying to understand what happened, and are split in two factions: one wants to destroy the “novo-vacuum” as soon as possible and at all costs, and the other wants to study it, and will concede at most that its growth is contained, if possible. As new discoveries are made, the gap between the factions widens and starts threatening twenty millennia of peace among humans.

As in other books by Egan, this one is at least partially set in real scientific theories (namely, loop quantum gravity), and the “humans are software” part of the story is just a background against which the real events happen. However, this is probably the most exciting part of the story, as it is the means to reach the “great prize” of science: immortality. Of course, living as software, with the means to control how (or even if) you perceive and interact with the environment around you, raises big questions about the actual meaning of identity: if “you” can be backed-up, copied around, cloned and modified at will, then what exactly makes you “you”?

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Technical 23 Jul 2004 21:05

C# – Tips and Techniques

coverC# – Tips and Techniques
Charles Wright

I picked up this book looking for an introduction to C# directed at people who already know how to program. What I really wanted was something like “C# for C programmers”, but I couldn’t find anything like it. You see, I don’t need to be told about what is an object, how to do a “for” loop, what is the difference between “while() {}” and “do {} while()”, and so on; what I want is to know what makes C# different from the languages I already know. In this sense, I was not disappointed.

Truth be told, this book is more like “C# for VB (or VC++) programmers”, but there is enough in it to be learned from by a standard C programmer who never used Visual Studio. However, it is a very uneven book; some parts are very good, while other are repetitive and full of typos. There are several examples of inconsistent capitalization throughout the book (variable and/or function names printed differently in different paragraphs); nothing too serious, but just enough to be annoying. Also, the last few chapters are nothing more than rote demonstrations of how to do so-and-so using Visual Studio .NET. In fact, I skipped most of the last three chapters because I couldn’t stand being told where to click anymore.

The structure of the book leaves something to be desired, as well; the order of the chapters seems almost random. You will see new features of the language being used in examples with no explanation whatsoever, and a few chapters later you will read about them. You will read about “advanced features of C#” before reading about “foreach”. And so on.

It is not a terrible book, anyway, but you will need to “filter” what information is in it to separate it from the clutter of step-by-step instructions, repeated info and missing data. It is not, also, a C# reference: you will find no detailed description of any classes in this book. You will find, though, lots of pointers to the MSDN documentation that comes with Visual Studio. Used correctly, it may be a reasonably good book, especially if it is the only one around; it’s probably better than “Visual Studio for dummies”, anyway.

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Fiction 21 Jul 2004 07:20

Wiz Biz II – Cursed and Consulted

coverWiz Biz II – Cursed and Consulted
Rick Cook

The Wiz series is Harry Potter for computer geeks. And just as addictive as the kid wizard.

“Cursed and Consulted” is a collection with the second and third third and fourth books of the series, “Wizardry Cursed” and “Wizardry Consulted”. In the first book (“Wizard’s Bane”, later republished as “The Wiz Biz”), William Zumwalt, “The Wiz”, a Silicon Valley programmer, is kidnapped by wizards from another world, a parallel Earth where magic, not technology, is the dominating power. He is brought into that world by a powerful wizard to help the people who are fighting an evil group. Unfortunately, the wizard dies before telling anyone just how, exactly, a programmer will help in a magic battle.

As Wiz learns more about the world (while being helped by a local witch), he finds out that magic is very much like programming, and that he can write complex spells starting from very basic ones. This is something that no one else knows, as they all learned magic the “classic” way and do things from scratch every time. He goes on to write a “magic compiler” that allows him to become the most powerful magician around and, in the process, defeat the evil wizards and win the heart of the beautiful witch. To do that, however, he needs the help of a group of other Silicon Valley programmers, whom he hires for the project.

In this book, there are two stories: in the first one, two crackers from our world find out about the magic world and are brought there by some very powerful beings to try to conquer it for them; in the second, Wiz is kidnapped by a dragon and is put to work as a consultant for a small town that has a problem with, of course, dragons.

The beauty of the series is that, for computer geeks, programming the world is quite a good notion, and a good way of seeing the way magic works. One could think of Harry Potter as a hacker-in-training, and his spells as function calls (or calls to command-line utilities); that’s why he needs to be so careful with enunciation.

You more or less have to be a geek yourself to truly enjoy this book; you will miss a lot of the references if you are not (and even if you are, you may miss a few). But if you are, I can’t recommend it enough, especially if you are also a Harry Potter fan.

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Non-fiction 19 Jul 2004 23:07

The Forensic Science of C.S.I.

coverThe Forensic Science of C.S.I.
Katherine Ramsland

I find it odd that, among the several other books this author has written, you can see things such as “The Science of Vampires” and “Ghost: Investigating the Other Side”. This may explain a little why she is so quick to attribute “intuition” to supernatural causes in chapter 6 (“Science vs. Intuition”). But this is actually quite a good book, despite its small problems.

The book gives an overview of forensic and investigative methods used by C.S.I.s and detectives in their work, with a good level of detail and very good descriptions of procedures and equipments. To do this, she draws from examples taken from episodes of the TV series and from real-life crimes; there are several real examples throughout the book, and they make for a very interesting reading.

One problem with the book is that it repeatedly refers to C.S.I. episodes by their title, without so much as a description of the plot; if you are not a hard-core fan, you will not be able to pick what events are being referred to, and you may not understand certain passages of the book. And, even if you are a fan, you might still need to know the titles of the episodes, which are not generally shown on the broadcasts.

In any event, this is still a very entertaining book, and quite a good guide on what not to do if you’re planning a crime. If you don’t have a strong stomach, though, I would recommend skipping parts of chapter 2, especially the very graphic description of what happens to human bodies as they decompose; the rest of the book is not as gruesome.

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Fiction 12 Jul 2004 22:47

Airframe

coverAirframe
Michael Crichton

I think that it’s very clear, from this book, that Mr. Crichton doesn’t really like the press very much, especially TV. In fact, TV journalists are the real “villain” of this book.

The story is quite simple: a charter flight coming into the USA from Asia has an accident over the Pacific, and does an emergency landing in Los Angeles with several injured or dead passengers and crew members aboard. The books follows the investigation of what caused the incident, initially described as “severe turbulence” by the pilot, but clearly something else. The investigation is done by the manufacturer of the airplane (since it occurred over international waters, the FAA is not involved), which is, at the same time, trying to sell many planes of the same type to a Chinese airline. Because of this, the investigation has to be concluded within a week, and, well, some findings would be more useful than others.

It had been a while since I read a Crichton book, and I had forgotten what it feels like; it’s more or less like reading a movie. The pace is that of a movie, and so are the dialogues. Also, Crichton writes in a very “visual” way; after I read “Jurassic Park”, years ago, I mentioned to someone that the book is probably more visually-oriented than the movie. That is because you get to see lots of the “raw data” that the characters see: listings, graphs, computer screens etc. In a movie, that’s glossed over and, usually, very badly displayed. In this one there’s not much of that, but there is enough to give you a tasting.

Obviously, I don’t know how much of the background material mentioned in the book is real. Much of it looks plausible enough to be very real, though; one example is the reluctance of airplane manufacturers to blame airlines for accidents, even if this means that the manufacturer will take the heat for something the airline did. This is done because the airline is not just another party, but a “valued customer” who cannot be offended in any way. A happy airline will buy more planes.

The behaviour of TV journalists working on “exposé” reports also seems to be depicted in a plausible way, at least judging from what one sees in TV shows; complex information is hard to get across (and the public is not interested, anyway), so everything gets reduced to whatever will cause the most response from the audience. This is a point that Michael Moore does, as well, in “Bowling for Columbine”, and he provides several examples.

Worker unions also seem to be something Crichton is not very fond of; they are depicted as “mini-mobs”, with members not hesitating in using violence and sabotage to protect their interests, or what they see as their interests. Again, I don’t know if this is an accurate depiction or not.

In any case, a great Crichton book, worth reading if you’re a fan. On the other hand, if you are a fan, you probably already have.

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Fiction 05 Jul 2004 09:50

Everything’s Eventual

coverEverything’s Eventual
Stephen King

A great book of short stories by Stephen King. The book contains a mix of “hard-core” terror stories and more “psychological” ones. A few classical themes show up as well: the “buried alive” story, the “getting a ride from a dead guy” story, the “moving painting” story… but they are very nicely done, and always include some unexpected twist.

Also, this book includes “Riding the Bullet”, the short-story that was famously sold only online, a few years ago (supposedly with success); it’s a good chance to read the story in print, instead of on a computer’s screen (or, even worse, on a PDA).

King says in the book that his favourite story from this collection is “L.T.’s Theory of Pets”; it’s the story of the end of a failed marriage, and how pets fit into this event. I liked it a lot (it’s not your typical horror story up until very close to the end), but it’s not my favourite. I’m in fact torn between “Lunch at Gotham Café” (which is also, in a way, about a failed marriage) and “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is In French” (about a couple going to Florida for a second honeymoon, but also, deep down, about what hell is like).

In the end, it’s a typical collection of Stephen King short stories. Which is not bad at all; for fans (and I am one), it’s a great book; when you finish it, you kind of wish there were a few more stories there.

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