This Week’s Book Review – Ghost Galleon

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.... [Read More]

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This Week’s Book Review – Heavy Date over Germany

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.

Book Review

‘Heavy Date’ offers a look at war through a young man’s eyes

By MARK LARDAS... [Read More]

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Sensitivity Training at Amazon.com

Amazon logo with frownStarting in January 2001, I have maintained a list of every book I’ve read, and since the mid-2000s I have reviewed almost every book I’ve added.  There are currently more than 1200 books on the list.  In mid-2019, I began posting reviews, one almost every day, to book’s pages on Amazon.com.  Previously I had only occasionally posted my reviews there, mostly when I knew the author of the book or had reviewed a pre-publication manuscript.

As of January 2020, I have now posted a total of more than two hundred book reviews at Amazon and have noticed a curious phenomenon which may reveal how the responsible staff at Amazon view the world.  Ever now and then, when I’d post a review, it would show up in my profile with a subdued grey background with the legend, “review hidden by sensitivity filter”.  I had originally assumed (as do many reviewers, based upon my research into the issue) that this meant that, for whatever reason, my review had been hidden from public view for having stepped on some tripwire or other, but it’s actually more complicated and subtle than that.... [Read More]

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This Week’s Book Review – Freehold: Resistance

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.... [Read More]

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Saturday Night Science: The Simulation Hypothesis

“The Simulation Hypothesis” by Rizwan VirkBefore electronic computers had actually been built, Alan Turing mathematically proved a fundamental and profound property of them which has been exploited in innumerable ways as they developed and became central to many of our technologies and social interactions. A computer of sufficient complexity, which is, in fact, not very complex at all, can simulate any other computer or, in fact, any deterministic physical process whatsoever, as long as it is understood sufficiently to model in computer code and the system being modelled does not exceed the capacity of the computer—or the patience of the person running the simulation. Indeed, some of the first applications of computers were in modelling physical processes such as the flight of ballistic projectiles and the hydrodynamics of explosions. Today, computer modelling and simulation have become integral to the design process for everything from high-performance aircraft to toys, and many commonplace objects in the modern world could not have been designed without the aid of computer modelling. It certainly changed my life.

Almost as soon as there were computers, programmers realised that their ability to simulate, well…anything made them formidable engines for playing games. Computer gaming was originally mostly a furtive and disreputable activity, perpetrated by gnome-like programmers on the graveyard shift while the computer was idle, having finished the “serious” work paid for by unimaginative customers (who actually rose before the crack of noon!). But as the microelectronics revolution slashed the size and price of computers to something individuals could afford for their own use (or, according to the computer Puritans of the previous generations, abuse), computer gaming came into its own. Some modern computer games have production and promotion budgets larger than Hollywood movies, and their characters and story lines have entered the popular culture. As computer power has grown exponentially, games have progressed from tic-tac-toe, through text-based adventures, simple icon character video games, to realistic three dimensional simulated worlds in which the players explore a huge world, interact with other human players and non-player characters (endowed with their own rudimentary artificial intelligence) within the game, and in some games and simulated worlds, have the ability to extend the simulation by building their own objects with which others can interact. If your last experience with computer games was the Colossal Cave Adventure or Pac-Man, try a modern game or virtual world—you may be amazed.... [Read More]

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Book Review: The City of Illusions

“The City of Illusions” by Fenton WoodThis is the fourth short novel/novella (148 pages) in the author’s Yankee Republic series. I described the first, Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves, as “utterly charming”, and the second, Five Million Watts, “enchanting”. The third, The Tower of the Bear, takes Philo from the depths of the ocean to the Great Tree in the exotic West.

Here, the story continues as Philo reaches the Tree, meets its Guardian, “the largest, ugliest, and smelliest bear” he has ever seen, not to mention the most voluble and endowed with the wit of eternity, and explores the Tree, which holds gateways to other times and places, where Philo must confront a test which has defeated many heroes who have come this way before. Exploring the Tree, he learns of the distant past and future, of the Ancient Marauder and Viridios before the dawn of history, and of the War that changed the course of time.... [Read More]

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Books of the Year: 2019

Gnome carrying pile of booksHere are my picks for the best books of 2019, fiction and nonfiction. These aren’t the best books published this year, but rather the best I’ve read in the last twelve months. The winner in both categories is barely distinguished from the pack, and the runners up are all worthy of reading. Runners up appear in alphabetical order by their author’s surname. Each title is linked to my review of the book.
Continue reading “Books of the Year: 2019”

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Book Review: The Sword and the Shield

“The Sword and the Shield” by Christopher Andrew and Vasili MitrokhinVasili Mitrokhin joined the Soviet intelligence service as a foreign intelligence officer in 1948, at a time when the MGB (later to become the KGB) and the GRU were unified into a single service called the Committee of Information. By the time he was sent to his first posting abroad in 1952, the two services had split and Mitrokhin stayed with the MGB. Mitrokhin’s career began in the paranoia of the final days of Stalin’s regime, when foreign intelligence officers were sent on wild goose chases hunting down imagined Trotskyist and Zionist conspirators plotting against the regime. He later survived the turbulence after the death of Stalin and the execution of MGB head Lavrenti Beria, and the consolidation of power under his successors.

During the Khrushchev years, Mitrokhin became disenchanted with the regime, considering Khrushchev an uncultured barbarian whose banning of avant garde writers betrayed the tradition of Russian literature. He began to entertain dissident thoughts, not hoping for an overthrow of the Soviet regime but rather its reform by a new generation of leaders untainted by the legacy of Stalin. These thoughts were reinforced by the crushing of the reform-minded regime in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and his own observation of how his service, now called the KGB, manipulated the Soviet justice system to suppress dissent within the Soviet Union. He began to covertly listen to Western broadcasts and read samizdat publications by Soviet dissidents.... [Read More]

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This Week’s Book Review – Hot Spot of Invention

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.... [Read More]

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Short Story Review: “The Team”

“The Team” by Travis J. I. CorcoranTravis J. I. Corcoran’s Aristillus novels, The Powers of the Earth and Causes of Separation, are modern masterpieces of science fiction, with a libertarian/anarcho-capitalist core that surpasses Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in showing how free people can turn a wasteland into prosperity for all who seek liberty and defend itself against the envy and greed of those who would loot what they had created and put them back in chains.  The two novels in the series so far won the Prometheus Award for best novel in 2018 and 2019, the first self-published novels to win that award and the first back-to-back best novel winners in the four decades the prize has been awarded.  They are certain to make my Books of the Year list for 2019 when it appears in a week.

One of the many delights of the Aristillus saga are the Dogs, “uplifted” canines genetically-modified and capable of speech, intelligence at the human level and beyond, and their own priorities which don’t necessarily always align with those of humans.  They don’t have thumbs, but they make up for it with their formidable computer skills and cleverness.  But where did these Dogs (the capital “D” denotes the uplift) come from, and how and why did their closest human companion, John Hayes (who we know only as “John” in the novels), meet them and manage to spirit them away to the Moon?... [Read More]

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Book Review: Vandenberg Air Force Base

“Vandenberg Air Force Base” by Joseph T. Page, IIPrior to World War II, the sleepy rural part of the southern California coast between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo was best known as the location where, in September 1923, despite a lighthouse having been in operation at Arguello Point since 1901, the U.S. Navy suffered its worst peacetime disaster, when seven destroyers, travelling at 20 knots, ran aground at Honda Point, resulting in the loss of all seven ships and the deaths of 23 crewmembers. In the 1930s, following additional wrecks in the area, a lifeboat station was established in conjunction with the lighthouse.

During World War II, the Army acquired 92,000 acres (372 km²) in the area for a training base which was called Camp Cooke, after a cavalry general who served in the Civil War, in wars with Indian tribes, and in the Mexican-American War. The camp was used for training Army troops in a variety of weapons and in tank maneuvers. After the end of the war, the base was closed and placed on inactive status, but was re-opened after the outbreak of war in Korea to train tank crews. It was once again mothballed in 1953, and remained inactive until 1957, when 64,000 acres were transferred to the U.S. Air Force to establish a missile base on the West Coast, initially called Cooke Air Force Base, intended to train missile crews and also serve as the U.S.’s first operational intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) site. On October 4th, 1958, the base was renamed Vandenberg Air Force Base in honour of the late General Hoyt Vandenberg, former Air Force Chief of Staff and Director of Central Intelligence.... [Read More]

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Book Review: The Compleat Martian Invasion

“The Compleat Martian Invasion” by John TaloniA number of years have elapsed since the Martian Invasion chronicled by H.G. Wells in The War of the Worlds. The damage inflicted on the Earth was severe, and the protracted process of recovery, begun in the British Empire in the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign, now continues under Queen Louise, Victoria’s sixth child and eldest surviving heir after the catastrophe of the invasion. Just as Earth is beginning to return to normalcy, another crisis has emerged. John Bedford, who had retreated into an opium haze after the horrors of his last expedition, is summoned to Windsor Castle where Queen Louise shows him a photograph. “Those are puffs of gas on the Martian surface. The Martians are coming again, Mr. Bedford. And in far greater numbers.” Defeated the last time only due to their vulnerability to Earth’s microbes, there is every reason to expect that this time the Martians will have taken precautions against that threat to their plans for conquest.

Earth’s only hope to thwart the invasion before it reaches the surface and unleashes further devastation on its inhabitants is deploying weapons on platforms employing the anti-gravity material Cavorite, but the secret of manufacturing it rests with its creator, Cavor, who has been taken prisoner by the ant-like Selenites in the expedition from which Mr Bedford narrowly escaped, as chronicled in Mr Wells’s The First Men in the Moon. Now, Bedford must embark on a perilous attempt to recover the Cavorite sphere lost at the end of his last adventure and then join an expedition to the Moon to rescue Cavor from the caves of the Selenites.... [Read More]

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This Week’s Book Review – Falling Felines and Fundamental Physics

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.

Book Review

How falling cats, physics, science relate to one another

By MARK LARDAS... [Read More]

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Book Review: Three Laws Lethal

“Three Laws Lethal” by David WaltonIn the near future, autonomous vehicles, “autocars”, are available from a number of major automobile manufacturers. The self-driving capability, while not infallible, has been approved by regulatory authorities after having demonstrated that it is, on average, safer than the population of human drivers on the road and not subject to human frailties such as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, while tired, or distracted by others in the car or electronic gadgets. While self-driving remains a luxury feature with which a minority of cars on the road are equipped, regulators are confident that as it spreads more widely and improves over time, the highway accident rate will decline.

But placing an algorithm and sensors in command of a vehicle with a mass of more than a tonne hurtling down the road at 100 km per hour or faster is not just a formidable technical problem, it is one with serious and unavoidable moral implications. These come into stark focus when, in an incident on a highway near Seattle, an autocar swerves to avoid a tree crashing down on the highway, hitting and killing a motorcyclist in an adjacent lane of which the car’s sensors must have been aware. The car appears to have made a choice, valuing the lives of its passengers: a mother and her two children, over that of the motorcyclist. What really happened, and how the car decided what to do in that split-second, is opaque, because the software controlling it was, as all such software, proprietary and closed to independent inspection and audit by third parties. It’s one thing to acknowledge that self-driving vehicles are safer, as a whole, than those with humans behind the wheel, but entirely another to cede to them the moral agency of life and death on the highway. Should an autocar value the lives of its passengers over those of others? What if there were a sole passenger in the car and two on the motorcycle? And who is liable for the death of the motorcyclist: the auto manufacturer, the developers of the software, the owner of car, the driver who switched it into automatic mode, or the regulators who approved its use on public roads? The case was headed for court, and all would be watching the precedents it might establish.... [Read More]

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Book Review: How to Judge People by What they Look Like

“How to Judge People by what they Look Like” by Edward DuttonIn The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote,

People say sometimes that Beauty is only superficial. That may be so. But at least it is not as superficial as Thought. To me, Beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.... [Read More]

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