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Algorithms to Live By (Review) PDF Print E-mail
Written by Administrator   
Sunday, 15 January 2017 00:00

h, yes, my misspent youth. There was some game on the Atari that my best friend and I used to play, a car driving game where you drove as fast as you could, avoiding all the slower traffic, the road obstacles, all that. And what made this "cool" (that is a very time-relevant statement, given the computer games of today) was that places between cities in the game looked different. And the interesting thing here - you tried to hit all the cities across the country in the shortest possible time. So my friend and I would play and play, trying to figure out what route (with their miles) was best.

Since he was in college at the time (I was already in the real world) I asked him to ask his professors the question - based on the miles between the cities, what was the best route?

Like, how hard could it be?

It turns out very hard. I was surprised to know that there wasn't just a program you could crank this through or an algorithm you could rely on. Nobody had really "solved" it. We never did find out our shortest possible route. But Algorithms to Live By could have helped.

Supposedly the concept of this book was to take known tricks computers use (such as routing packets, fetching data and sorting said) and apply it to the real world. So on the first part, the book is very interesting - listing all the troubles scientists have faced as data moved faster and faster. There were a number of things I took for granted (just as I took for granted the problem of shortest route (the Traveling Salesman problem)). Some of the solutions were interesting, as well as the statistics behind them. But keep that in mind - this is a programming/science/statistics book - even with the authors making an effort to keep it light and entertaining, it's still a slog to get through it.

The second point - the application to real life - this is where it gets a little dodgy. Sure, there are algorithms there that might help, for what are algorithms other than the ability to break down a problem into efficient chunks to solve. And yes, sometimes life can be like that, but sometimes it isn't. Shortest route isn't always best route. And some of the scenarios are a little strained. Most of the time, you will simply have to look at a situation, put into the mix all you know (or believe) and make your best guess. "Solving" a problem isn't always an outcome - the best you can usually hope for is to survive the consequences of a wrong choice.

But it is a good book. I liked it for the same reason I enjoyed a Wired article I'd read about trans-oceanic cables - I learned so much about an field I knew nothing about. Self-help is all fine and good, but facts are what we make most of our decisions on, and this book provides plenty of those. It's a good read, and I appreciate my friend sending it my way for my birthday.


p.s. Interesting thing - when I went to my site to get the address to link in my bookstore, the computer gave me an error - coudn't find the address "this time". I thought about what I'd read in this book and what that likley meant, that it tried and tried and for whatever reason, eventually gave up after the route it had chosen failed. of course, when I clicked again, either a new route had opened or the old route had resumed. But interesting....

Last Updated on Monday, 02 January 2017 14:00
The End (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 08 January 2017 00:00

urassic Publishing House is gone. I've talked about them at length HERE, of my relationship with them and all the fine novels I've read that they produced. And with their downfall comes The End, a collection of their best short stories.

It's a wonderful collection (what I've read so far, and I will be reviewing the stories as I proceed through them like chocolates in a box, one or two now and again, just making them last). I'll mention that the book itself is physically a superb effort, leather bound (or simulated such - I'm too uneducated to know the difference) but it looks nice. Comes in its own box-sleeve, too. And inside, it is stamped (like all the Jurassic short runs are stamped) with a personalized number. I've got number 49 out of 150, so there you go. And there are author signatures too, so this one's top shelf.

So, the stories. As I mentioned, more to come, but what I've read so far were wondrous!

We'll Always Be Here - a super scifi about two little girls, shadowy Pluto and darling Sharon, two "orphans" (you gotta read it to understand the quotes) stuck on a convent-asteroid in a wobbly solar orbit, the sole survivors of an onboard plague that wiped out everyone but themselves and a couple of freeze-brained Canadian girls. Earth is in ruins, there are only a small collective of survivors, but they've got a strange and desperate request to make of the girls.

Three Memories of Death - With my writing of Wenamon, I learned a lot about ancient Egypt. And this one was beautifully written, balanced and perfect. It is the story of the man who eventually becomes the head of the temple in Thebes, responsible for the perfection of mummification and a guarantee to the afterlife, and his ruler, the great lord Ramses, who he will eventually prepare. Just a perfect story, one that will haunt you.

Fealty to Apollo - A funny little alternative tale, one where NASA knows that PR is its most important mission. In this, they contact Hollywood for some actors to make that first moon landing, from a little known show by some Roddeberry guy.

    Shatner: This is one small step for a man, on giant leap for my career-

    Nimoy: I told them I should have gone first.

I'm not going to cover them all - there must be thirty to forty in their collection. But I'm going to note out the ones that really catch me over the next few weeks as I read this one in the background to all my other efforts.

Good luck on finding this one. Limited edition, I'm afraid!


Last Updated on Sunday, 08 January 2017 09:57
Raiders of the Universes (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 01 January 2017 00:00

h, the good old days. Everyone remembers cars being better, little towns being better, and life being better (actually, the cars were lead-sleds that would kill you at 35mph, the towns were superstitious collectives that people left as soon as they could, and life, overall, was shorter and (with exception to recent political events) stupider). But there you go.

In that light, we go back to the "golden age of science fiction" (via a 1932 edition of Astounding Tales) for Raiders of the Universes, a little short story. Taking place in the wondrous future of 3400 or so, the astronomer Phobar peeks through a telescope obsolete by our standards except for "Marcia's nullifier", which allows one to "see occurrences in the universe which had hitherto required the hundreds of years needed for light to cross the intervening space". When I first read that, I thought I'd have to get one of those for my own scope before realizing that it wouldn't make much of a difference for my viewing. Gimme something that cuts through clouds and I'd be happy.

Anyway, good Phobar spots a series of new suns blossoming in the direction of Hercules, in a straight line directed at Earth, a new one every twenty four hours. And here it comes.

Turns out it's some sort of rogue planet populated by intelligent creature of metal, each one hundred feet tall, who demand (through Phobar) that Earth mine critical ores and make them available, else it be destroyed. Phobar is transported aboard the ship to act as an ambassador, to carry back the creature's demands. To make its point, New York is destroyed. Poof.

Okay. Stop here.

First off, I hated these creatures. They should be so alien from us (metal based and older than, nearly and literally, dirt) that communication should be difficult. For them to gloat, to bark out "Puny Earthling" and all those old saws, is as out-of-date as a manual choke. Gloating assumes shared values of shame, humiliation and a sense of domination. Seems like an odd trait for aliens beyond, literally, time and space.

And why would aliens a hundred feet tall, with various tentacles and the like, control a massively sophisticated spaceship (or whatever it is - accelerating planetoid would be more like it) with a human-sized control panel with levers. Like, what, "Time to go forward!" Ratchetty-ratch. What? And yes, I know that in 1932 this seemed like high science but it sure felt dated now. Like maybe their controls should include a manual choke.

But worse - if you are going to gloat, don't explain to the human how mighty you are by showing how your simple control panel works, especially the lever that will shrink the space between all atoms to critical-mass distances, but only for those atoms from their original universe. And I thought there were irresponsible gun owners, but this?

Anyone see where this ends up?

And with the transport beam locked on Earth, he even got out alive.

What, did the aliens grow so bored of life and the simple pleasures of gloating at doomed races, they just set things up so they could all be killed? Death by astronomer?

Okay, so you've gotten my take on it. This one was so screwy (and my review so harsh) that I don't think anyone will rush out to read it. But if you do, it's on Gutenberg. Have fun with it.



Last Updated on Sunday, 01 January 2017 10:24
Salammbo (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 25 December 2016 00:00

arthage - I've written about its founding (Fire and Bronze) and some of its people (Early Retyrement). In one my my first unpublished novels (Oath to Carthage) I wrote about Hannibal and his war on Rome (and some dystopian time-grabbing future society). So yes, I've tried to write Punic for some time.

The thing is, I'm not sure I've gotten it right. See, in a way the Punic wars determined the culture that would become our world. You had the Romans (who won) who embraced the pragmatic, materialistic world that we recognize. They are who we spawned from, with our rules of laws and our scientific advances and our entire worldview. But the Carthaginians (who they fought tooth and nail across three wars) were something (I suspect) alien, a culture of ancient religion and mysticism, one with a ruling body of ancients, flashy generals, loose laws, and a strange menagerie of gods represented by a priestly class. When I write them, I sometimes think that I'm "Romanizing" them, not making them alien enough.

But Gustave Flaubert, writing in the late 1800's, he got it.

In Salammbo, we follow the affairs of the Carthaginian state as it reels back from its first Punic War, where they scrimmaged with Rome across the Isle of Sicily. Burdened with their defeat and heavy war Indemnity, they've withdrawn back to North Africa, with Hamilcar (their general, father of the young powerhouse Hannibal) in exile and the plains before Carthage filled with unpaid mercenaries. All I know from history about this was how the sell-swords assaulted Carthage and ran amok across the farmlands until Hamilcar returned and put paid to them. The details, I assumed, have been long lost. But Flaubert has imagined them to the grimiest, grittiest detail.

The story revolves around several characters - Hamilcar (and his son, whose future greatness he endeavors to protect). And then there is his daughter, Salammbo, beautiful and winsome and all that, a child of temples and priests and delicate swoonification. Against them stands the three great Mercenary figures - Matho, the huge black merc (who has glimpsed Salammbo and is fixated on her); Narr' Havas, the dashing Numidian prince with his waves of cavalry; and Spendius, former slave, crafty and shifty, the one who keeps the others on track, spurring the revolt on with an eye to being a virtual king himself.

The things Flaubert imagines are amazing. Of course, I know (and have seen) the Punic ports - those he covers in detail. How much of the other places he describes, the broad avenues, the temples, the people, I cannot verify. Still, they feel alien enough that they could be Carthage. It's not just togas and sandals and such - its a crazy metropolis in a crazy time of transition, with their gates pressed by mutineer barbarian mercenaries, the council and temples dicking around, of half-hearted military attempts and sieges and such, until finally Hamilcar is recalled, the last of Carthage's strengths are committed, with Matho looking at the city's great walls and pining for Salammbo (who, in turn, fears and lusts for him), of Spendius spooling out his devious plans and Narr' Havas playing both sides. Great book. Great history.

I really enjoyed it. Yes, it was windy as stories were at the turn of the last century. But the author held true with the thought of this alien culture. The battles are horrific, the deaths grisly and drawn out, and even a strange and unexpected twist in the final sentence. But yes, a good book. I'd have to thank some friends I have in Tunis for putting me onto this one.

You can get it all for free, right HERE, from Project Gutenberg!



Last Updated on Monday, 12 December 2016 09:16

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