Monthly ArchiveSeptember 2004

Fiction 21 Sep 2004 12:43

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

coverThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Mark Haddon

Very, very entertaining book. One of the best I’ve read this year.

The plot is very simple, though. It’s a mystery novel in which our hero, Christopher, tries to find out who killed Wellington, his neighbour’s dog. The catch: Christopher is 15-year-old autist boy, and the novel is told in the first person as if written by him (one of his teachers encourages him to write, and what we read is the result).

What we get is a vision of the world through Christopher’s eyes, and it’s very different from the way most of us see it. It’s a world with little or no place for emotions, and where the meanings of the actions and gestures of other people are as mysterious as the death of the dog. Christopher very quickly gains our sympathy, as his quest takes him to very unexpected results.

As an aside, it is common knowledge that many technology geeks seem to have mild cases of autism (or Asperger’s disease). And it’s quite remarkable that some of the things Christopher thinks and/or says would not seem out of place if they came from some people I know (myself included). Thus, this is a good book for IT managers who have to deal with us geeks.

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Fiction 20 Sep 2004 12:41


Greg Egan

As I mentioned previously, Greg Egan is a very imaginative writer. This book begins with a couple of scientists moving to a remote Indonesian island (with their two kids) to study a surprising new species of butterfly. This insect seems to have evolved radical changes, compared to all its relatives and, in fact, to most other living organisms. And it seems to have done it very quickly.

Prabir, our main character and the couple’s older son, names the island “Teranesia” (from the Greek, island of monsters). The name is not an allusion to the butterflies, but to the several fantastic monsters that, in his imagination, populate the island.

After they’ve spent a few years in the island, a tragedy ends their research and causes the kids to leave the place. Twenty years later, new species of other animals (such as cockatoos, frogs and other insects) begin to appear in south-east Asian markets, and stir the scientific community (at this point, completely unaware of the research done two decades earlier). Madhusree, Prabir’s younger sister, now a scientist herself, joins an expedition that heads to Indonesia to study these mutations. And Prabir feels compelled to go after her.

Apart from maybe the last five pages, this is a very good book. It’s “hard” sci-fi, but not as hard as other books Egan has written; perhaps biology is not entirely his field (he seems more comfortable talking about physics). I enjoyed the book, but thought that the ending was a bit of a let-down. Still, it’s entertaining, and if you liked any of his other books, you should enjoy this one as well.

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Fiction 17 Sep 2004 14:54


Robert Sawyer

The first Robert Sawyer book I read was “Calculating God”, about aliens who land in Toronto and ask for help from a local paleonthologist to search for signs of God in Earth’s fossils. It’s a book that keeps you glued to it, and I finished it in two days. After that, I was a fan.

“Hominids” is the first book in a trilogy, the “Neanderthal Parallax”. In this book, scientists from an alternative Earth, in a parallel universe, manage to open a portal to our Earth (by accident), and one of them is sucked through before it closes. The main difference between our world and theirs is that, in theirs, we (humans) are extinct; the dominant species are the neanderthals.

Neanderthals are probably our closest relative in the primate family, and we co-existed until some 30,000 years ago, when they went extinct (nobody knows why). It is believed that they were fairly intelligent (having a brain slightly larger than ours), and that is what the books builds on. In that alternative universe, the opposite happened (again, for no known reason) and they have a technological civilization, just like ours.

Well, not quite like ours. They never developed agriculture, thus they can’t support large populations, and the whole planet has less than 200 million “people”, living in small groups (of up to 30,000). They also don’t have domestic animals other than the dog (wolves were domesticated for hunting, but most other animals came as a result, directly or indirectly, of agriculture), and almost no diseases (due to limited contact with animals). And, socially, the differences are much larger, but hard to talk about without giving away much of the plot.

The visiting neanderthal, Ponter, quickly becomes both a celebrity and a target for wackos and religious nuts. He’s welcomed by a group of scientists, and well cared for; he also learns to communicate in English, mostly with the help of his “Companion”, a sort of very advanced PDA implanted in his arm. Meanwhile, his partner, still at home, is charged with his murder and threatened with severe punishment.

There is a very interesting conversation in the book between Ponter and one of the scientists regarding God and its role in human civilization and science; it’s very similar to parts of “Calculating God”, with the roles reversed (this time, the “alien” is the atheist).

As this first books paints a somewhat rose-coloured version of the neanderthal’s world, I suspect that in the next ones we will see more of its dark side. There were some hints of it towards the end of the story, mainly regarding its judicial system and social organization. I’ll certainly read them as soon as possible.

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Technical 14 Sep 2004 14:35

Secrets and Lies

coverSecrets and Lies
Bruce Schneier

A sobering book… the main message in it is that there is no technological solution for social problems (which is the main reason why spam is such a big problem, as well). Applied to security in digital networks, what it means is that there is no “perfect way” to secure a network – any network – using only technological means. And, in fact, there’s no way to perfectly secure anything using any means whatsoever.

Why bother trying, then? Well, you can secure things well enough for your needs, and against the threats you face. And herein lies the problem: what are your needs, and what threats do you need to consider? This is the main issue, and the one that is so often glossed over. There is no point in spending thousands of dollars in firewalls and other technological counter-measures if someone can just call any employee of yours and get a password and an explanation of how to get in. Just as it makes no sense to put a fortified steel door in your house if a burglar can just as well go inside through a window.

There are several metaphors like this one in the book, and several security analysis of real-world issues, most of then not at all related to computers (and some not so real, also; there is a very good analysis of the security flaws in Darth Vader’s Death Star, for example). Despite the very serious subject, and the very serious implications of what it tells, this is a very fun book to read; a page turner. Recommended to anyone with any kind of interest in security, criptography and related issues.

By the way, this book was written and released before the 2001 terrorist attacks in the USA, and since them Schneier has written a number of articles analysing the security measures taken by the US government (and other institutions). They’re written in the same style as the book, and provide a very well thought of analysis of real-world issues as seen by a security specialist. They can be read at Counterpane‘s website.

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Non-fiction 06 Sep 2004 12:23

Broca’s Brain

coverBroca’s Brain
Carl Sagan

Reading a Carl Sagan book is always refreshing, because he was an optimist. This was a scientist who truly believed in the power of science and of the scientific method, and had big hopes for the future of humanity because of the power of science. By the way, Sagan is probably responsible, at least in part, for my interest in science and astronomy; I still remember waking up early on Saturdays to watch “Cosmos” on TV, when it was broadcast in Brazil (in the early 1980s, I believe).

In this one can see the beginnings of another great book, “The Demon-Haunted World”, where Sagan tries to show how much more sense a rational view of the universe makes, and tries to dispel some of the myths that people pass around and believe in. There is some of this in “Broca’s Brain”, but not much.

Most of the book is dedicated to the future of science, and where it is leading us; special attention is given, of course, to astronomy and space exploration. Since the book was written in the late 1970s, much of what is there seems quaint and outdated, but much of it is surprisingly current. Sagan mentions, for example, research on sending automated rovers to explore the surface of Mars (and possibly other planets), something that was first achieved in 1996 (and again, spectacularly, earlier this year). The Galileo mission to Jupiter is also mentioned, as are his fears for its success (related to budget, not to science and engineering).

In general, it is a very good book. The one thing I didn’t like is the inordinate amount of space given to rebut the theories mentioned in a book called “Worlds in Collision”, by some guy named Velikovsy (or something similar). This guy claims, among other things, that the planet Venus is actually a comet that was ejected from Jupiter and, in the process of getting to its current orbit, grazed (literally) Mars and Earth more than once. And all this in historical times! He claims these events explain many of the biblical events described in Exodus. I honestly don’t think this kind of idea deserves any serious consideration, especially not in a book and by a scientist like Carl Sagan.

Other than that, this is a very enjoyable book, and written distinctly in Sagan’s style.

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