Posts Tagged ‘Technology’

The Circle by Dave Eggers

September 24, 2014

Mae Holland couldn’t believe her luck. Her college roommate and best friend Annie, a Stanford MBA who had been recruited everywhere, but chose to work at The Circle, had gotten Mae a job there. Only two years out of college, and Mae has health insurance, her own apartment, and a Real Job with the hottest, highest-tech company in the world. From her very first day, she is nearly dumbfounded by the incredible techno-games, toys, and tools she sees. Everyone Mae meets is working on “something world-rocking or life-changing or fifty years ahead of anyone else.”

Annie shows her a portrait of the Three Wise Men, founders of the company. Ty, the first Wise Man, looks about 25, wears ordinary glasses and a huge hoodie, and seems to be tuned into some distant frequency. Cleverly, before The Circle’s IPO, Ty hired the other two Wise Men, serious business managers, and The Circle took off.

Annie has risen fast and high in The Circle, and is now part of the Gang of Forty, the 40 most crucial minds in the company. Mae feels incredibly grateful that Annie is her mentor, and vows to repay her. Annie assures Mae that she’ll climb fast out of Customer Experience. So Mae puts her head down and focuses on absorbing everything, dedicating herself to the company and its goals. She learns that Ty was the developer of the Unified Operating System, which has brought together everything online: your social media profiles, your payment systems, all your passwords, your email accounts, user names, preferences, every last tool and manifestation of your interests. He called it TruYou.

Mae does well, and incorporates herself into The Circle. But she starts to see a stranger lurking around campus, and starts to suspect it’s Ty. Why is he so secretive? Meanwhile, Mae wants to find to find her long-lost boyfriend. Mercer has intentionally withdrawn from technology, and has emphatically cut ties with her. Despite his deliberate rejection, in a public display of the efficiency of The Circle’s integrated tools, she hunts him down.

Does privacy exist today? Can it? Should it? If these questions intrigue you, read The Circle.

Btw, did you know that Google finally has acquired Skybox, a company whose small, cheap satellites collect daily photos and videos of the Earth? In June, the Wall Street Journal published aerial Skybox images of February protests in Kiev, Ukraine.

If you like this book by Dave Eggers, you may also enjoy Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, or Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.

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Radiation: What It Is, What You Need to Know By Robert Peter Gale and Eric Lax

January 27, 2014

I have friend who is died of cancer. He was 46 years old, married and  the father of a teenage boy. A few years ago he was getting violently ill. His doctors told him the cancer had spread throughout his body, his stomach, his lungs, his throat. When I found out my friend was sick,  a mutual friend of ours set up a time that the three of us could just hang out and chat. He told me the radiation therapy made him feel bad for days and then he would feel better for a few days. This triggered a memory in my mind of something I had read recently about the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. Apparently the radiation from the accident has spread from Japan to California and it is a deadly force that all life forms must reckon with. I wondered: “How could the same process that is extending, albeit briefly, my friends life also be a ghoulish unstoppable menace?”

Radiation: What It Is, What You Need to Know has, in very simple terms, helped me understand this conundrum. Turns out we are radioactive beings living on a radioactive planet in a radioactive galaxy. The authors clearly give you the facts and debunk myths about this often misunderstood energetic process. Radiation is in the most mundane of everyday encounters. Tanning salons produce an enormous amount of radiation, an amount that actually rivals the sun, which is essentially a giant ball of radiation. Dr. Gale’s poetic metaphor for cigarette smoking is: “intentionally inhaling a small nuclear weapon into your lungs.” Now that I know more about radiation and understand, in a small way, how it helped my friend, the arbitrary cruelty of fate seems somehow less so.

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Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow

October 14, 2013

I picked up my first Cory Doctorow book after hearing him speak as a part of a Science Fiction and Fantasy author panel at the American Library Association several years ago, and was intrigued by the way he blended his politics and beliefs into a fictional landscape.

Canadian-born Doctorow (coeditor of the popular weblog boingboing.net) is heavily involved in promoting liberal copyright laws and open source software, and these themes play prominently in his writing.

Pirate Cinema, published in 2012, follows 16 year old Trent McCauley who runs away from home after the shame of illegally downloading too many videos and having his family’s internet access revoked for a year. Set in a dystopian near-future England, in a world that revolves around online connectivity, this devastates his parents, who require the web for their livelihoods, and his younger sister, who can’t keep up her grades (her ticket out of small town England) without the world at her fingertips.

On his own in London, penniless and hungry, Trent learns the ways of the street. Connecting with an underground community of like-minded youngsters, Trent masters the ins and outs of apartment squatting, dumpster diving, stealing electricity, and making a new life for himself. Working with his new found friends, Trent begins to understand the politics behind the Draconian copyright laws that are being passed by Parliament, and leads a cloak and dagger scheme to change the world for the better.

Although Doctorow’s works are generally classified as teen fiction based on the ages of his characters, his writing style and themes are sophisticated and nuanced. Others that I’ve enjoyed include Little Brother (which spent seven weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List) and For the Win.

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Steve Jobs : A Biography By Walter Isaacson

July 24, 2013

bookcover.phpWalter Isaacson writes clear, precise, readable biographies and this is no exception. He presents Steve Jobs warts and all, as Jobs requested him to do. Jobs and Isaacson had been acquainted for some years when Jobs approached him about writing his biography. Isaacson interviewed a wide array of people for this book—family, friends, business associates, board members, former employees and of course, Bill Gates, Jobs’s nemesis.

You may not like Steve Jobs as a human being when you finish, but you will understand how his genius and perfectionism turned Apple into a behemoth and the company at the forefront of the computer, digital music, and the digital world in general. Steve Jobs knew how to create products that people did yet not know they wanted and to tie in products to each other such as ITunes driving sales of the IPod, applications driving the sale of IPhones, etc.. Jobs also used his gifts to make Pixar the successful company that it is.

Isaacson covers all the significant business ventures of Jobs’s career and the scorched earth policies he followed in business and personal relationships.

I found this to be a fascinating examination of a brilliant, yet flawed man. Jobs’s relationships with his family, girlfriends, children, wife and others reveal a narcissistic personality that had little empathy for most others. His relationship with his adoptive parents, his biological sister and his choice to refuse to connect with his biological father and the effects of these people and events on his personality reveal a great deal about the man.

Jobs remained a visionary to the very end of his life, his last project the design of the building that would permanently house Apple.

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The Idea Factory by John Gertner

November 9, 2012

In John Gertner’s wonderful The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, he mentions a comment made by Bill Baker: “…all of human experience can be expressed in binary digital terms”.  As far back as the 1950’s, or so the story goes, there were several scientists, truly brilliant minds, who were working on what we call cell phones. They also worked on and invented many more gadgets that currently shape our world. This book is the story of how all of this happened. The tome is quite fascinating and written at a caffeine injected speed. Many stories or biographies could be written with this book as an original source of inspiration. Gertner tells us that these are the people who invented our present.

But this reader was left with the question: is all of this a good thing? To be sure, all of the technology that we currently live with has certainly made many things in our lives more convenient, but I am not convinced it has made them wholly better. I realize that I am not a young man anymore, and that it could very well be true that I am an old fuddy-duddy. However, it is strange to see groups of people sitting together not conversing but staring at their smartphones. Manners seem to have also disappeared with the ubiquity of these devices. Alas, I am beginning to obscure the lines between observation and judgment.

Read The Idea Factory if you have any nascent interest in science, technology, ingenuity, industry, and people with vision. I left this volume with a little bit of hope. I felt that if people can create and reconstruct reality just out of sheer will and imagination, then surely we can solve the seemingly overwhelming problems of our own time. Maybe people in the future will look back at what we do, the way we look at Bell Laboratories, and become inspired, not discouraged, maybe not.

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Fixing Climate: What Past Climate Changes Reveal About the Current Threat—and How to Counter It By Wallace Broecker and Robert Kunzig

April 19, 2012

This book is amazing – startling, terrifying, and yet, reassuring.  A unique combination to be sure, but those are the phrases that come to mind when I think back about this book.  One of the authors, Wallace Broecker, may sound familiar as the scientist who developed the “conveyor belt” system that explains the circulation of water throughout the world’s oceans.  He started measuring carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere back in the 1950’s, a time when few people gave any thought to the idea that rising emissions of CO2 could have any effect on us and our world.  This early start and subsequent expertise has made him one of the leading researchers in the field.

The amount of science covered in this book is phenomenal.   One of the things that really caught my attention is that during the last ice age we experienced a short period of about 10 to 12 years where the earth heated up rapidly and came out of the ice age only to plunge right back into the ice age again.  Scientists have no clue as to why this happened and what the implications of this event might be for us today.  Another thing that really stuck with me is that about 40% of our increased CO2 output is being absorbed by the oceans.   The problem is that this absorption is acidifying our oceans and threatening the way water circulates through them, thereby threatening the best climate stabilizer we have.

The authors believe there is no way we will be able to eliminate our addiction to carbon based fuels quickly enough to stop the ensuing climate problems that increasing levels of CO2 cause.  Just as my spirit was sinking in despair at this news, they gave me hope for our future.  Technology now exists to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, but questions remain about where to store it once it’s been removed.  The good news is that they are close to having this system worked out and we have reason to believe that we can return to a cooler world.

Science based books are not typically page-turners, but this one truly is.  Give it a try and I think you’ll enjoy it.

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The Hunter by John Lescroart

April 5, 2012

Wyatt Hunt is trying to  add personnel to his private investigating business when he receives a strange text message: ‘How did your mother die?’ … And so starts John Lescroart’s latest thriller. Wyatt is totally fascinated by the text since he knows little about his birth parents, Kevin & Margaret Carson. He was adopted by the Hunt family when he was 6 and he has buried whatever memories he had before the age of 6.

The texts continue and although Wyatt gets some help from his friend Callie at AT&T, he can’t pinpoint the location of the texter. With the help of his staff, Tamara & Mickey Dade and Ivan Orloff, he hopes to start to fill in some pieces of this mystery. He also can count on Kevin Juhle of the San Francisco homicide division to give him some help. Checking Catholic Children’s welfare of San Francisco leads him to one, Father Bernard. The Father is thrilled to finally meet Wyatt and gives him a letter he has been saving for 40 years! It is a letter from Wyatt’s father, Kevin, in which he tells him how much he loves him and that he had nothing to do with Margaret’s murder.

Wyatt realizes that the texter is scared to be identified because the murderer must still be alive and he also realizes that his father may also be alive. Now it is up to Wyatt & friends to solve a 40 year old murder and maybe meet his birth father. But without identifying the texter, the task will be very difficult. Yet each additional text both provides him with a clue and prods him to not give up. For Wyatt there are so many unanswered questions. And suddenly memories buried for 40 years are struggling to come to the surface.

This may be one of John Lescroart’s finest thrillers. You won’t put this book down until you too get some answers. Wyatt will use all the modern appurtenances of the era we live in to aid in his search. But from the beginning, he realizes that the identity of the ‘texter’ is crucial to his investigation!

And don’t worry about having to catch up with a series, as this one is a stand alone novel.

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Micro by Michael Crichton and Richard Preston

March 21, 2012

Best-selling author Michael Crichton passed away a few years ago, although his newest novel was released at the end of 2011. It was finished posthumously by Richard Preston, best known for his nonfiction books, such as The Hot Zone. Fun fact: Richard Preston is the brother of thriller writer Douglas Preston, whose novels (co-written with Lincoln Child) are often compared to those of Michael Crichton.

For those familiar with Crichton’s novels, do yourself a favor and pick this up. You’ll be glad you did, because it reads like vintage Crichton: it’s fast, fun, and makes the future happen now. I’ll admit that I was a bit disillusioned by State of Fear, in which Crichton seemed to come down against the idea of global climate change, which is quite different than the views expressed of nature’s vanishing beauty in his memoir, Travels. But in Micro, as Richard Preston puts it, “he was writing at the top of his game.” Crichton is known for taking a small scientific or technological fact or discovery and building a whole pulse-pounding, page-turning story around it.

Graduate students in Cambridge, Massachusetts, each studying a different field of science, are being recruited by Vincent Drake, the charismatic founder of NaniGen MicroTechnologies. The students will be flown to Hawaii just for the chance to tour the facility and see some of the technology that will, as Drake says, “define the limits of discovery for the first half of the twenty-first century.” Peter Jansen, one of the students, happens to be the brother of Eric, one of NaniGen’s executives. Just before the students are to depart for Hawaii Peter receives a text from Eric that reads “Don’t come.” Peter and his friends make the journey anyway, and are stunned to learn that Eric is missing and presumed dead after an accident on his boat.  Peter believes that Drake is involved with his brother’s disappearance and when he tries to publicly confront him with some evidence, all seven students are also made to “disappear.” Sort of.

The heart of NaniGen’s breakthroughs is the ability to shrink objects and people to less than an inch in size. The students are then dumped in the rainforest jungle where they must fight to survive against all beetles, wasps and other insects, plus birds and the natural elements as their size works against them at every turn.

Sure, it may sound like Honey I Shrunk the Kids meets Jurassic Park, but for a Science Fiction lover the story and action kept me turning pages and wishing my lunch break were longer. I also couldn’t tell how much, or which parts, of the book were Crichton’s and which were Preston’s.

For a thrilling ride through the micro-verse, find and request this book in our catalog.

The Future of Us by Jay Asher

February 8, 2012

Did you ever read that Ray Bradbury short story, A Sound of Thunder? It was assigned reading for my 10th or 11th grade English class, and has always stuck with me. The basic premise is that, in a world set in the near future, a time machine allows people to take guided tours of the past. A hunter on a safari to track and kill a Tyrannosaurus Rex accidentally falls from the levitating path that he has been told to stick to, crushing a butterfly beneath his boot. This one small change in the past snowballs, and when the hunter returns to his own time subtle changes can be seen everywhere.

Jay Asher’s young adult novel The Future of Us is like a more modern-day version of Bradbury’s 1952 story. Fast-forward to 1996 when Emma receives a free AOL CD-ROM (doesn’t that sound so dated?) and tries it out on her brand new computer. Once she’s logged in, a strange blue icon appears connecting Emma to a cluttered and confusing website called Facebook where someone with her own name and hometown is posting information about herself. (As you may know, Facebook didn’t debut until 2004, some 8 years later.)

Emma and her friend Josh slowly figure out how to navigate the website, and realize that the Emma and Josh on Facebook are surely their future selves. Or perhaps just versions of them? The two high-schoolers begin to make small changes to their lives based on what they see of their futures, changes that then effect the future being reflected back at them.

While officially a young adult novel, this is an interesting read for adults as well. I zoomed through it in a couple of nights and enjoyed thinking about the possibility of time travel through the web.

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The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

May 26, 2011

Although it has only been around for a decade or so, the World Wide Web has already lived up to its name.  It would appear that we are all caught in it.  It is hard now to imagine what we would do without such things as email, online shopping, Facebook, and Google.

In this short time, author Nicholas Carr argues, our brains have changed to meet the demands of this new kind of thinking, writing, and reading.  Just as people’s minds changed when other pervasive inventions took hold—discoveries such as the clock, the map, the book, and the typewriter—so our minds have changed in the digital age.

He begins his argument with a very thorough and interesting analysis of what scientists now understand about the plasticity of the brain.  Whereas we once thought of the brain as “hardwired,” we now understand that the actual cells and neural pathways of the brain change depending on the type of activities we engage in.

For example, cab drivers have very highly developed regions in the hippocampus of the brain—the area associated with spatial memory.  Once they begin to make use of global positioning systems, they quickly lose their prodigious abilities. “Use it or lose it” is truly the brain’s motto.

So what are we losing (and/or gaining) as we train ourselves to sort through the vast amount of information so easily accessible on the Web?  Using data from many different studies, Carr demonstrates that our knowledge is broadening but growing more shallow.  In fact, our ability to read deeply and think deeply is compromised by the “technology of distraction” offered by the Web.  While some cognitive functions have improved, such as the ability to sort and scan quickly, studies show that the more we use the Internet, the harder it becomes to follow a long, reasoned argument or a complicated story line.

Carr himself admits that he had to essentially sequester himself from the many distractions of his RSS reader, Twitter account, instant messaging, etc., in order to concentrate long enough to write this book.  He says he has noticed that his brain seems much more than before to need constant novelty, and he has trouble concentrating for more than short periods.

What shall we do?  Carr does not suggest that we throw our computers out the window.  However, he says, we should be aware of what is happening and think about ways to mitigate it.  For example, studies show that time spent in nature help calm and focus the mind.  A quiet mind predisposes us not only to the wisdom that comes from deep thinking, but to empathy, compassion, and other states of mind that are distinctly human.  Maybe we should turn off our computers, take a walk in the park, and think about it!

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