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tech, teaching, and books

Hellburner by C.J. Cherryh

A twisting labyrinth of politics and deception with the new weapons system, Hellburner, at the center of it all. In this story, we have the whole gang from Heavy Time reunited as they rally behind Dekker to pilot the new Hellburner spaceship. What they crew doesn't know is there is lots of behind the scenes jostling for power and money by the UDC, the Fleet, Earth Company (EC) and others. At times I felt like I was just on the edge of not knowing what's going on, but it was a tense, and gripping novel all the way through. In comparison to Heavy Time, there is more non-stop action and intrigue in Hellburner, but I really enjoyed the mundane details of asteroid mining, their time off on R2, and how the ASTEX (the company) works. These two books truly do work together.

In the novel, there is some chatter about the enemy, Cyteen, and their robot warriors. I shall have to keep reading more Cherryh novels to become more immersed in this world. I haven't been this hooked on a series since The Culture series by Iain M. Banks.

Rating: ★★★★★ Book #81 in my #ReadingChallenge2021 #CJCherry #CompanyWars #space #Scifi #Sciencefiction #military

An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination by Sheera Frankel and Cecilia Kang

Zuck: i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns Friend: what!? how'd you manage that one? Zuck: people just submitted it. Zuck: i don't know why Zuck: they “trust me” Zuck: dumb fucks

This will not be an objective review, I detest Facebook. I deleted my account 4 years ago. Facebook for me is the perfect example of all that is wrong with the internet. This is an important book though, that brings together the years from 2015-2020. If you've been following Facebook in the news, a lot of this won't be new to you, but this book does bring together all the elements of the story in a cohesive narrative. This book will be an important historical document to look back upon Facebook in the future.

Facebook's success “depends upon one-way-mirror operations engineered for our ignorance and wrapped in a fog of misdirection, euphemism and mendacity” – Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff

If you want to read more about Surveilance Capital which Facebook is very much a part of, read Zuboff's book – The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

The root of the disinformation problem, of course, lay in the technology. Facebook was designed to throw gas on the fire of any speech that invoked an emotion, even if it was hateful speech – its algorithms favored sensationalism. Whether a user clicked on a link because they were curious, horrified, or engaged was immaterial; the system saw that the post was being widely read and it promoted it more widely across users' Facebook pages.

Facebook and systems like it enable and reward the worst instincts in humans: violence, sarcasm, bullying, lust etc.

“It is time to break up Facebook,” – Hughes, a co founder of Facebook

Breaking up Facebook is an interesting concept, but the problem isn't Facebook but every internet service like it that sells your data to advertisers.

Even if the company undergoes a radical transformation in the coming years, that change is unlikely to come from within. The algorithm that serves as Facebook's beating heart is too powerful and too lucrative. And the platform is built upon a fundamental, possibly irreconcilable dichotomy: its purported mission to advance society by connecting people while also profiting off them. It is Facebook's dilemma and its ugly truth.

This quote is from the conclusion. I've read some reviews of this book and they were disappointed there were no solutions to the problem of Facebook. This isn't that type of book. This is a journalists look at Facebook behind the scenes of it's many, many missteps from 2015-2020. If you want to read more about how to fix the problem of Facebook, which is really just a symptom of surveillance capitalism, I would really recommend you read “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” by Shoshana Zuboff, and “Privacy is Power” by Carissa Véliz.

Also, #DeleteFacebook everybody. Stop feeding the beast.

PS Friendface works along the same lines as a cold or a terrible plague” [1 min video from the IT Crowd]

Rating: ★★★★ Book #79 in my #ReadingChallenge2021 #Facebook #FB #SheeraFrankel #CeciliaKang #business #politics #tech

Heavy Time by C.J. Cherryh

The Company Wars #4

“Cher. Death is. Pain’s life. And there’s, above all, sons of bitches.” – Meg Kady

This novel is about two asteroid miners in the belt who rescue a survivor from another mining vessel. The story in the foreground is about the miners and how they plan to set off for their next mission to collect ore and deal with this survivor from the wreck. The background story is about the politics of Earth (Earth Company) and ASTEX (MamaBitch) who controls the mining in the asteroid belt.

I really enjoyed this novel. Yes, it gets bogged down a times with lots of conversations about the characters feelings. It should've been editing down. It did really convey in a real way what it could actually like to be an asteroid miner, and what the politics of a mining colony in the asteroid belt could look like. She really gets down to details in what the crews do in the mining, and their off time (heavy time) in the mining station. Her grasp on computers is sometimes funny as I am now reading this in 2021 while this was written 20 years ago. Great world building though!

I don't know why I haven't heard of her before. This feels like the classic sci-fi written in the 70s & 80s. I am glad to have discovered her and now am endeavoring to read more of the series. Now, hers seems to be a bit of a tricky series for ordering (read below).

Note about the series from Wikipedia:

The Company Wars

According to the author, the novels in this universe, except Heavy Time and Hellburner (which were subsequently re-published in one volume as Devil to the Belt), can be read in any order. Those two books are chronologically the earliest in the series.

  • Downbelow Station (1981) – Hugo Award winner, Locus Award nominee, 1982
  • Merchanter's Luck (1982) (also published in the Alliance Space (2008) omnibus)
  • Rimrunners (1989) – Locus Award nominee, 1990
  • Heavy Time (1991)
  • Hellburner (1992) (Devil to the Belt (2000) – single-volume edition of Heavy Time and Hellburner)
  • Tripoint (1994)
  • Finity's End (1997) – Locus Award nominee, 1998

So it sounds like I did a good thing by picking up Heavy Time first. I really dig the hardcover cover. I now need to read Hellburner. One point others have made about Heavy Time is that there is a lot going on down on Earth but we only hear background chatter about it in this book. Apparently you find out more about those events in the 'first book', Downbelow Station.

All-in-all, this was a great book but got bogged down in the middle with too much minutia and superfluous dialogue.

Rating: ★★★★ Book #78 in my #ReadingChallenge2021 #asteroid #murder #space #CJCherryh #SciFi #ScienceFiction #CompanyWars

Metro 2034 by Dmitry Glukhovsky

(Metro #2)

It would be hard for any novel to live up to the chilling atmosphere, original premise, and breathtaking action of Metro 2033. This was a sequel to Metro 2033, but it was altogether a different type of novel where the only similarities are the setting and one character: Hunter.

Metro 2034 is a novel about Hunter and his quest to 'save' himself, and some others. Along the way he meets up with some different characters that sort of join him on this quest. All the characters are quite flat in this book. Hunter is a killing machine. There is Homer who is an old man who likes to reminisce in the past. There is a wholly forgettable girl who somehow falls in love with, or is obsessed with Hunter. There is also a musician that is a diversion in the story. Anyways, all these characters come together under Hunter to try to save some people in a certain station because they think something has gone wrong.

If you think about the actual action in the story, there isn't a whole lot. There are lots and lots of pages of Homer, the girl, and the musician talking about the meaning of life, and what their lives could've been outside of the metro, etc, etc. It gets old very fast. There was some of this sort of philosophical musing in the original, but just enough to be interesting, not enough to bore you.

I was disappointed with this novel more than anything. I read through it because I was still interested in the Metro world, but the plot of this book leaves much to be desired. I don't fault an author for pumping out novels to make money (a la Murderbot) but at least keep the quality consistent. I don't have any appetite to read anymore Metro novels after reading this dud.

Rating: ★★ Book #77 in my #ReadingChallenge2021 #PostApocalyptic #future #Scifi #ScienceFiction #metro #subway #underground #monsters #DmitryGlukhovsky

The General of the Dead Army by Ismail Kadare

“Death commands respect”

An Italian general and priest are sent to Albania to dig up, and repatriate their dead soldiers who were killed 20 years ago in WWII.

For such a simple 'premise' this book is tense, and dark all the way through. As others have said in reviews I have read, the ending isn't what I expected but still held the story together for me.

There are many conversations throughout the book between the general and the priest about war, death, and the Albanians. There are flashbacks to the generals time before leaving and the weight of the families' expectations to get back their 'boy'. There are journal entries of the soldiers that we are introduced to them as they are digging them up. The general and priest travel all over the country from little villages to mountain ravines standing watch, as their Albanian workmen dig up corpses for them, all under the watchful glare of the Albanian villagers. Are they inwardly joyful at watching their former enemies dig up their dead? Do they still hate them?

The general is an interesting character. He did not want this job. He is depressed by his task and wishes he could've led these troops into battle in Albania. He thinks maybe then there wouldn't be so many dead to collect.

“I have a whole army of dead men under my command now, he thought. Only instead of uniforms they are all wearing nylon bags. Blue bags with two white stripes and black edging, made to order by the firm of ‘Olympia.’ ”

The priest speaks Albanian. He tells the general about the Albanian psyche and their traditions. He doesn't speak that much. He also doesn't drink.

You can feel how tense things are, as the enemy, the Italians, are back in Albania digging up their dead. Is it possible to ever forgive some sins? This is a chilling tale about death, and war. The aftermath of war is sometimes more brutal and difficult than war itself. At least with a real war, it would be over quickly and you'd either be dead or victorious. This endless searching for unmarked graves in a far away country is a difficult mission. You wouldn't wish such a burdensome task on anyone. I feel exhausted and depressed just reading about it.

I have never been disappointed by a Kadare novel. They all find a way to sear themselves into your mind. After finishing the novel, I did some Wikipedia research on Albanian in WW2, and General Z, and was not surprised to find that this book won the Man Booker International Book prize in 2005.

Rating: ★★★★★ Book #76 in my #ReadingChallenge2021 #war #Albania #IsmailKadare #death

Fascism by Mark Neocleous

Small, clear and succinct book from the Open University Press: Concepts in Social Sciences about Fascism. It addresses a few very 'simple' questions: (1) What is the relationship between fascism, modernity, and capitalism? (2) What is the basis of the fascist attack on Marxism and liberalism? (3) Why is fascism inherently destructive?

I really enjoy books like this. Fascism is a term you hear a lot, but the meaning has gotten muddled and confused over the decades.

This is the sort of book I read, not understanding all parts perfectly, but I am thinking about it for weeks after. Reading this book felt like taking a 1 semester course in Political Science. I hope to find and read more of the books in this series.

Rating: ★★★★★ Book #75 in my #ReadingChallenge2021 #fascism #war #MarkNeocleous #PoliticalScience #politics #NonFiction

At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop

This is the Man Booker International 2021 Winner. I started and finished it last night in one sitting. I didn't realize it is only 145 pages long. This is translated from French.

The story is about Alfa Ndiaye, who is a soldier, from Senegal, in the French military during WW1. This novel captures the madness of trench warfare. The longing for home. The camaraderie of going to war with a 'brother'. The novel jumps back and forth from his different memories, from the trench, to his memories of Senegal, and what he did.

It's amazing what the author has been able to do in such a short book. He could've fluffed this up a lot to hit a 200-300 page book to please his publisher, but he kept it succinct. This book feels like being in the mind of a soldier when he's on his deathbed and thinking about the most intense period of his life, the war. All his regrets, and actions are laid bare without explanation or justification.

“Yes, I understood, God’s truth, that on the battlefield they wanted only fleeting madness. Madmen of rage, madmen of pain, furious madmen, but temporary ones. No continuous madmen. As soon as the fighting ends, we’re to file away our rage, our pain, and our fury. Pain is tolerated, we can bring our pain home on the condition that we keep it to ourselves. But rage and fury cannot be brought back to the trench. Before returning home, we must denude ourselves of rage and fury, we must strip ourselves of it, and if we don’t we are no longer playing the game of war. Madness, after the captain blows the whistle to retreat, is taboo.”

This novel is so short and moves from one thing to the next so quickly I would highly recommend you read this in one sitting.

The Man Booker International Prize has been hit and miss for me lately, but this one seems like a great novel. I am not sure why it has sub-3 star ratings on GoodReads, but I really enjoyed the journey it took me on.

Rating: ★★★★★ Book #73 in my #ReadingChallenge2021 #DavidDiop #WW1 #war #ManBookerIntl2021 #trench #Senegal #TranslatedFiction

Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky

Metro #1

Incredible sci-fi set in a post-apocalyptic world where the only humans to survive are those who were lucky enough to be caught in the Moscow subway system when the nukes came raining down. Humans survive on pork and mushrooms. Humans are under constant attack by 'monsters' from the surface that make incursions into the subway system. Are there any survivors outside of the Moscow Metro? We don't know.

The atmosphere is just great in this one. It's creepy, and you can feel the sense of claustrophobia when the main character walks from station to station. I am a very visual person, so I printed a Moscow subway map so I could follow where the characters were going. This isn't necessary, but I think it's cool to see where the real subway stations are. Sometimes when he describes some of the subway stations, I would hop on my phone and look at a picture of the real station. If you didn't know, Moscow has a very beautiful subway system so check it out!

I like the ideas that he plays with in this story. Will humans every work together? What cults take hold of people's imagination? Do we lose our humanity, or draw closer together?

The main plot is that Artyom has to deliver a message to a certain person in a certain station. Along the way he meets many different characters and sees all sorts of different governments in the different stations. He gets in lots of scrapes but miraculously, through fate, or the help of others, survives. Once he does deliver the message, the mission changes.

I was enthralled with this one from the beginning. This is the sort of book you need to curl up with in bed with the lights really low and read by yourself.

I have started reading the sequel Metro 2034. I don't have very high hopes for it, but it will be in the same world which I enjoyed so it shouldn't be that bad.

Rating: ★★★★★ Book #72 in my #ReadingChallenge2021 #DmitryGlukhovsky #PostApocalyptic #Moscow #Future #SciFi #ScienceFiction

The Parthenon by Mary Beard

I've never yet been disappointed by a Mary Beard book, and this book is no exception.

Beard takes us through not just the history of the Parthenon, its construction, use throughout the years, but also touches on the myths and stories associated with the building. Why is it famous? What have others said about in the past? and of course gets into the largest controversy in the past 250 years, the Elgin Marbles, which rightly ought to be called the Parthenon Marbles.

It was interesting reading about the times when the Parthenon was used as a church and as a mosque because the Byzantine time period has been glossed over when the new myth of the Greek state as being a continuation of ancient Greece was invented. I understand why it was done, but it's not good to forget your history.

This book has lots of illustrations, diagrams, and photos in it as well. I made a point to buy a paper copy of this book so I could enjoy these to the fullest.

As with all of Beard's books, she has a lovely Further Reading section at the back of the book which explains the sources she has used, and suggests other sources for those interested in learning more.

The cover of the edition I read was awful though. Beard looks like she's grimacing and not at all happy. I'm not sure if she chose that picture, or the publisher chose for her. Either way, it is the only detraction from a stellar book.

Rating: ★★★★★ Book #71 in my #ReadingChallenge2021 #MaryBeard #Parthenon #AncientGreece #History

Inversions by Iain M. Banks

(Culture #6)

There seem to be two lines of thinking about this book: one that this is not really a Culture book because of the absence of 'sci-fi' elements, while others say it's the best goddamned culture book because it's beauty is its subtlety.

I have read lots of reviews on GoodReads about this and think it's a great novel, but not my favourite Culture novel.

Description from the publisher: On a backward world with six moons, an alert spy reports on the doings of one Dr. Vosill, who has mysteriously become the personal physician to the king, despite being a foreigner and, even more unthinkably, a woman. Vosill has more enemies than she first realizes. But then she also has more remedies to hand than those who wish her ill can ever guess.

Elsewhere, in another palace across the mountains, a man named DeWar serves as chief bodyguard to the Protector General of Tassasen, a profession he describes as the business of “assassinating assassins.” DeWar, too, has his enemies, but his foes strike more swiftly, and his means of combating them are more direct.

None trust the doctor, while the bodyguard trusts no one, but what is the hidden commonality linking their disparate histories? Spiraling around a central core of mystery, deceit, love, and betrayal...”

There are lots of common themes in the two stories, and similarities between the two main characters. There are even love stories but they don't take the focus off of the deceit and betrayals in these different kingdoms.

“Truth, I have learned, differs for everybody. Just as no two people ever see a rainbow in exactly the same place – and yet both most certainly see it, while the person seemingly standing right underneath it does not see it at all – so truth is a question of where one stands, and the direction one is looking in at the time.”

After reading other reviews, it makes sense that the two main characters might actually be Culture agents tasked with keeping the two leaders alive, the King, and the Protector (hints in the Epilogue). The Culture does sometimes carefully intervene in worlds if they think it's in the best interest of the Culture.

I enjoyed this novel and couldn't put it down once I got near the end. It's a great ending that pulls all the elements together. I'll be thinking about this for a while to unravel the subtle story lines that Banks has put together here. This is certainly the most unique Culture I've read thus far. It has all the things I love in an Iain M. Banks story – dark humour, interesting dialogue, and compelling conflicts. This is a solid 5 star story, but don't come into it expecting it to be like the other Culture novels.

“You can draw the blinds in a brothel, but people still know what you’re doing.”

Rating: ★★★★★ Book #70 in my #ReadingChallenge2021 #Culture #IainMBanks #SciFi #ScienceFiction #Medieval