Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Catalyst

The Insignia series feels like Ender's Game or Harry Potter or perhaps even Hunger Games. A young person is an outcast, but he has special talents. He goes off to a special school with all the best and brightest. He has conflicts there, but also finds some close friends. There are some adults that support him, but others that do not like him at all. He helps hatch a plan to save the world from a corrupt system ruled over by a crazed super villain. They live happily ever after. There is also a little falling in love. The boy realizes he really likes his "friend girl", but he has another girl that he loves.

In Catalyst, everything comes to its fairy tale ending. Before that, there is some mass destruction. The earth is nearly obliterated by a meteor, most of society's bigwigs are killed by their own mechanical security and the human race is "infected" with nanocontrollers that make them obey all laws and serve the CEO of the tech company. There is a long chunk of the story where the super villain "breaks" the hero. It seems to drag on forever. However, that probably helps to drive home the point of how painful this torture is. Alas, this torture ends up being what leads to the villain's downfall.

When I started the series, I did not want to put it down. However, the magic faded as I progressed through the books. The final ending felt artificial. (Society is totally upended and everyone is just suddenly peaceful?) There are some good parts in the process (including some "simulated" inebriation programs to "improve" bad dates.) There is also some character growth. However, it seems to happen in spurts. (Tom is away from his friends for less time than he has been with them. However, despite living through extreme situations, they seem to be just like they were before he left.) Blackburn learns that love is more powerful than revenge, but we still don't get an explanation for the murder of one of his students. Tom does learn that he cannot do everything by himself and that sometimes doing things you don't like can be helpful. And everybody lives happily ever after.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Vortex

Tom Raines has made it past the first stage of the super-human military training school. We get a better picture of the world dominated by corrupt corporate oligarchs. The government is merely a stooge in their pockets. Tom has pride and refuses to bow to these corrupt rulers. However, this limits his possibilities of advancement in his training program. He has a series of mishaps that seem to drag him further and further down. Only after talking with friends and introspecting does he realize that his pride and behavior are bringing him down. He must be willing to play along with the system in order to destroy it. At the same time, he learns that being too self-centered does not pay off either. One girl (Heather) wanted to be the face of the fighters. The current "face" (Elliot) wanted to leave the position and was eager to hand it to her. However, her attempts at bringing down others led to her losing that opportunity. Further attempts at blackmailing others led to her own demise. Elliot and Tom both learn from each other that giving a little can be beneficial.
The role of Blackburn remains complicated. He still seems to be a sympathetic character. However, just as the characters in the book seem to warming to him, he does things that make his character seem more diabolical. He does seem to have some of the kids best interest in mind - but only to the extent they help him bring down the oligarchs.
This book has the "middle" book feel. It transitions the characters from mere participants in a dystopian state to people that can actual make a difference. I have a sneaky suspicion that the next book will see them rise up against the oligarchs.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Insignia

Our hero is a delinquent who's only strength is excelling at virtual reality games. He uses this skill to earn some money off people in gambling parlors in order to get places for he and his father to stay. He is often in trouble for missing days at his virtual reform school. Outside, World War III is raging in a virtual world. Kids are used to control the vehicles virtually. (They have chips planted in their brains to assist - adults would not have the elasticity to accept the chips.) The world is dominated by corporate/government alliances. They use patent protection to extract money. One company had patents on genetically altered crops. As their crops had mingled with all naturally occurring crops, they asserted rights to all foodstuffs. Another had a chemical that became part of the water supply and thus asserted royalties on water. These corporates control the world, and manipulate the people and the governments to do their bidding. When people in he middle east didn't pay royalties, the company wiped them all out (thus ensuring "peace" in the middle east.)
Our hero gets invited to the special military school. He discovers this entails getting a chip implant. He has typical teenage encounters there and learns to work in the quasi-virtual world. They have "virtual workouts" where they appear to be chased by hoards of enemies. They also have "virtual battle rooms" where they take part in tactical actions. He makes friends, makes enemies and is attracted to girls. He has an extreme sense of loyalty to those he considers friends as well as a strong desire to seek revenge on those that cross him. (It does feel too extreme at times.) The instructor Blackburn draws the reader's sympathies, yet he is hated by the hero.
The first half of the book is a riveting read that I did not want to down. The book then made a few turns that caused me to lose interest. The end was fairly satisfying, but left the hero in a no so good light. At least he is trying.

My Tank is Fight

World War II lead to many great technological innovations. However, with all innovations, there are a string of failures along the way. My Tank is Fight covers the failures. The author uses a humor to describe many of the innovations that never saw the light of day (or that did appear but were never very useful.) For each invention, he provides the factual details of the process and the contraption itself. He then provides a possible history of what would have happened if the invention was actually produced and used on the battlefield. (Usually, this part ended with a catastrophic failure.) A lot of the inventions were "gigantic" or "combination" vehicles. A huge tank may seem great, but it would be very slow. A submarine/tank combo would go anywhere, but would be neither a good submarine nor a good tank. A ship made out of ice mixed with sawdust would be difficult to break, but would also consume a huge amount of resources to build. The book included the narrative with a reporter and the "combatants" from each of the major powers, with the story reaching its humorous end in the post script. If the German's had not spent so much effort in search of the super weapon, would they have won the war? (On the other hand, would they have not made the useful advances if they were not searching so hard for the "big win".) The important thing is to know when to fail fast. Luckily, we can enjoy the humorous story of some of these "failures" that lasted a little longer than they should have.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany

William Shirer was a journalist who lived in Germany during the rise of Hitler. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich covers the life of Hitler and his rise and eventual fall from power. It is extremely verbose, and spends a lot of time covering the early stages of the third Reich (the time when the author was present in Germany.) He inserts plenty of his own opinion in the work. The author seems to have an extremely negative few of Hitler, with an underlying message that he only came to power because of his Stormtrooper thugs. However, that does seem a bit too simplistic. (Were these thugs requiring everyone to buy Mein Kaumpf?) He is quick to demean all aspects of national socialism. (The Nazi "arts" were constantly demeaned.) The rise felt like it was excessively colored by the knowledge of the impending fall.

The "fall" part is more rushed. Much of the space is devoted to the cruelty of the nazi regime. The "science experiments" may have had some intention of finding ways to help German troops, but they were primarily just torture and executions. The torture and extermination of the Jews had no excuse other then that the German's thought they were the source of problems. Even slavs were treated as inferior, with education of these "brutes" seen as something bad.
The book has a strong journalistic feel. It delves into the sensationalist and the strong personality. The historical actions are covered, but not in as great detail as the characters. Hitler's petty attacks and grudges are presented as a reason for Germany's defeat. If he would not have devoted effort to quash Yugoslavia, the Soviet attack could have been carried out earlier, leading to a more likely German victory. If he wouldn't have pandered to his "alies" (or stabbed them in the back) he could have kept his small empire without further conflict. The many attempts to assassinate Hitler are also given plenty of coverage. What would have happened if they had succeeded?

Artemis Fowl

Artemis Fowl is a rich kid that works in the underworld to kidnap a fairy. And he is the "good guy" in the book. He and his loyal servant, Butler, use a fairy kidnapping to collect ransom in order to restore his family's fortune. Fowl is one smart kid who is hatching elaborate plans to reach his means. The setting is version of our world where fantasy creatures (such as trolls, fairies and leprechauns) also inhabit. Fowl is well studied and uses his knowledge to obtain greater knowledge from the fairies which enables him to carry out the plan. A few things don't go as he expected, but he is able to recover via some ad-libbing on his and Butler's part. He takes some big gambles with his life in order to finish out his plan (though they did get some help from the captured fairy in the process.) The book thrives on storytelling and characters, along with suspenseful plot sequences. I did, however, have some difficulty getting involved with the overall plot and purpose.

Disciplined Dreaming

Jazz musicians spend significant time learning the musical framework of jazz music. This framework then gives them opportunity to improvise - and even break some of the rules in the process. Some people are naturally more creative. However, about 80% of creativity is learned. Being in a "heads up" state allows people to get new ideas and be creative. Disciplined Dreaming provides a number of tools to help people be more creative. Often simply asking "why?" can help find new solutions. Fear of change can often be a huge creativity killer. These are all some of the bullet points in "disciplined dreaming." The book itself felt like a serious of points and anecdotes in order to facilitate directed creativity. Focussing creativity can help let the juices flow to find solutions in the area. However, care must be taken to not be too focussed. Most of the points in the book felt like things I had read elsewhere. (I guess the "creative" book was not too creative after all.)

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Fuzzy Mud

Fuzzy Mud intersperses the story of a few kids with that of senate hearings about a renewable "biolene" fuel. At first it is unclear how they two are related. However, the stories gradually converge. A girl and a boy always walk home together. The boy is usually picked on by a bully. One day they try to walk through the woods in hopes of avoiding the bully. However, the bully is there, and they attempt to attack him by throwing some fuzzy mud. This ends up causing quite the situation. The "mud" attacks the body and creates a significant rash. The girl tries to fight the rash, but it continues to grow. She is later scared when the bully does not return to school. She cares for him as a person, even after all the problems he has caused. She tries to help him get medical attention - even sacrificing her perfect attendance. Her moves did more than that, possibly even saving the human race from a great catastrophe. In the process, the kids grow and begin to understand each other better. We also get a cautionary tale of the dangers of bioengineering. The fuzzy mud was caused from a "miracle" fuel source. However, mutations can happen that can cause it to grow out of hand and became something harmful to humans. They were lucky that it was discovered before it spread to areas that would not contain it. What would have happen if it was not contained and was able to spread and mutate freely?

The False Prince

The False Prince is the tale of an orphan boy, Sage. He is often getting in to trouble at the orphanage and has mastered arts of escaping and pilfering. One day, a rich aristocrat (Conner) comes to purchase him for his purposes. Conner has a plan of molding him to be the lost prince Jaron. The prince was supposedly killed by pirates four years ago, but attempts to find the body have all failed, so there is still the possibility, however remote, that Jaron still exists. We later learn that the entire royal family (King, Queen and Jaron's older brother) have all died in castle and that there will need to be a new ruler appointed. Jaron would be the only royal in place - if he were found. Conner's plan is to train an orphan boy to pass as Jaron to serve as his puppet king. To this means, Conner has purchased 4 boys and began to train them. He is ruthless and even has one boy killed in front of the others to show the only way out is to win the "contest" to be the "puppet prince". Sage will have none of this, and tries to sneak out on his own. He ends up being returned and suffering punishment. He remains honorable, and keeps his word to others - even when it ends up being less beneficial to himself. He truly likes to help others, even as he has no respect for those that abuse their authority. The book takes a few unexpected turns and follows a path to a satisfying conclusion that is neither telegraphed in advanced nor too far out in left field. Through the process we see the true richness and complexity of Sage's character.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

The Rule of Three: Will to Survive

The Rule of Three series concludes with the lights turning on along the highway. I wonder how this could actually happen. Wouldn't the grid be significantly beat up in the process of the chaos that had ensued? I'd be interested in reading further exploration of the "reconnection" of society. What happens to old property? There was so much looting and mass chaos in the few months that it would be nearly impossible to make everyone whole gain. How many sections of society would just decide to live in their new structure rather than try to go back? What would become of money, companies, and all the structures of society?
The book doesn't explore any of the future. Instead, it focuses on the building up of a community and a coming of age of the main teenage characters. The youth become a more important part of the community and start to become primary decision makers in key areas. However, they also have to remember to support the people around them along with their own health. There is plenty of suspense and drama as they interact with other communities. (However, some seems a little manufactured. The writing makes it obvious that one encounter is friendly, while the characters are going paranoid over the the possible hostilities.) In the end, the torch is passed and the lights come back on.