Friday, August 30, 2013

baby steps

I just listened to a Science and Creativity podcast by Studio 360; the episode is called "Becoming the Bionic Man." Producer Jonathan Mitchell talks to MIT professor Hugh Herr about his new prosthetic lower limb program that he has also spun off into a company called BIOM.*

Herr is a double amputee himself, and using his own prostheses he is able to return to the sport that first cost him his limbs: climbing. "I was actually able to climb at a more advanced level, with artificial limbs, than I'd ever achieved, before the accident, with biological limbs." Dr. Herr is obviously a talented and driven scientist, but he doesn't see prosthetic limbs as the ultimate solution for amputees, he sees them as the ultimate solution.

This field is called biomechatronics, and its come a long way from hooks and peg legs. The Studio 360 piece is chock full of Dr. Herr's dreams for the future, and some of those dreams aren't too far away from the Singularity idea that others are touting. "We're rebuilding humans, from the ground up," says Herr.  "The artificial part of my body is actually a blank palette for which to create."

Herr is also looking forward to the future of bionics: connecting the limbs to the brain. Maybe even sensory feedback. You know...touch. steve austin style, baby. And what's beyond that? There's plenty of room for speculation, but Herr and his team have some ideas:

"The next step is to say, well, maybe we shouldn't be cell- and tissue-centric, maybe we shouldn't view our biological hand as the end-all. Maybe that bionic hand is also okay, and acceptable. And perhaps beyond that, when we experience the biological hand being stiff in the morning, and maybe even being painful and arthritic, maybe that bionic hand over there may actually be attractive." Yeah, that's right. Grandma may get sick of not being able to lift a pan off the stove, or  have trouble getting up the stairs. Just pop down to the media lab for an upgrade, Grandma! jus' chop them ol' limbs off granma, and get you some new ones!

But it may not just be for the old, infirm, or those with birth defects. Herr adds, "People with quote, normal minds and bodies, will volunteer, I predict, to use these technology, to go beyond what nature intended."

Dr. Herr says that he gets limb upgrades every few years, and its no big deal; He doesn't weep or feel a loss of any kind, but speculates that this may not always be true. "I can imagine that when my bionic limbs are more intimate with my biology... when my nervous system is completely interfaced with the bionic limb. I can imagine that I will have a deeper relationship--emotional relationship--with the synthetic part of my body."

Jonathan Mitchell then adds, as a closer, "And maybe one day, our machines will be so good, that we'll love them, as though we grew them ourselves."

I told you: robot love. < go ahead. click. its a good one.

* BIOM was formally called iWalk, but I guess that name wore off. Click on the BIOM link above. There are some cool videos of the limbs in action. The ankles are amazing.

And yeah, that's Luke Skywalker up there. Who should I have used? Anakin? Pfff

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

poison throne

The Poison Throne is the first in a trilogy (The Moorehawke Trilogy) by Celine Kiernan. I bought it for my daughter, who may or may not have read it, but she didn't go out and get the second and third books that I'm aware of, so it must not have done big things for her in any case. It didn't do BIG things for me either, but it was entertaining. And its refreshing to read about a strong female character who has emotions, but still has a job and is self-reliant, even as a teen. This is a fantasy story what takes place in ye olden tymes. With a twist.

The majority of this first volume seems to be a setting of the scenery, an introduction to the characters, as well as an understanding of who means what to whom, and who, you know... doesn't. The rest is all just a big ol' mystery, right down to the title of the book. poison? what poison. where's the poison at? did someone leave it in the metaphor cabinet? This is not one of those first volumes that you can read on its own and then get to the others whenever; this book doesn't stand on its own, there is too much left to happen, and I just got the 'Tune in Next Week' message at the end. So I'll tune in and read the others, but I'll read something else first.

The story centers on Wynter Moorehawke who is trained to be a carpenter, and is quite advanced in her trade, altho still a protege to her master and father. Wynter and her father return from a long stay away from their kingdom, only to find that their kingdom isn't the same as they left it. Inner castle politics, infighting and family battles rage beneath the surface, but the Moorehawkes learn very little about the reasons behind the unrest, try as they might throughout the story.

There are secret passages, talking cats, and sneaking ghosts about the old castle. Plenty to keep the interest of one who likes an old timey story, set deep in the fantasy fiction camp. We'll see where this one goes.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

tombs of atuan

The Tombs of Atuan is the second volumes in Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle. I read the first about a year ago, so I had forgotten some of the subtleties in the earlier book, but was reminded of what I needed to know as I read. I found this book in the young adult section of my library, and I guess that's about right; its one of those books meant for younger people that can still be a fun read for adults. Its an entertaining story but not a whole lot of meat to it.

The story centers on a young girl, said to be the reincarnated high priestess of an obscure, and so-old-as-to-nearly-be-forgotten religion, based somewhere on the outskirts of Earthsea. The young girl tells her story as she learns her way around the crumbling temples and grounds, striving with members of a newer, yet well established religion based on the godking. The young priestess slowly learns that it isn't all about the purity of religious belief, its also about power, influence, dominance and control... and, you know, human sacrifice and blood rites.

Into this remote and removed little town wanders a young wizard, looking for an ancient artifact, and her world, so untouched by time and the outside world for so long, reels under the seemingly minor upset caused by this visitor. Its fun and fast paced, and made me want to read the next one, but not so much that when I discovered my library didn't have it, I ran out to buy it; I just moved on to the next thing.

Friday, August 23, 2013


Trinity is a 2012 graphic history of the first atomic bomb, written and illustrated by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm. Fetter-Vorm takes his title from the code name of the test grounds for the Manhattan Project.

The book traces the history of atomic discovery from Marie Curie through its various developments and breakthroughs to a terrific graphic representation of both nuclear fission and the principals of nuclear chain reaction.

The meat of the story begins in the 1930s with the realization  that this new found understanding of atomic energy could be weaponized. By the end of the 30s and the beginnings of World War II, concern escalates and the US begins to secretly look into atomic weapons. After Pearl Harbor, the US decided to be the first to build the first atomic weapon.

The story is fast moving and compelling. The images supplement the narrative so that the text and dialog need only be the bare minimum, and according to an author's note at the end, cribbed directly from the written record wherever possible.

The science, the politics, the engineering, the international struggles, the fear, and the horror of what might happen and ultimately did happen are all described--and illustrated--in a simple, gray-scale manner.

The book ends on the Cold War arms race and world wide implications of living in the nuclear age. The afterword is a simple yet grim reminder that nuclear particles remain with us for millennia as an unseen reminder of what we did, and what we continue to do.

Read--and look at--this book.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

icarus agenda

I've read a few books by Robert Ludlum but not a lot of them. The Icarus Agenda is a little dated but holds up pretty well. I didn't love this book but it was pretty good.

The beginning was a little wonky, as was the end. In fact the whole thing was a little screwy in its construction. Our man Evan needs a little juice, a little je ne sais quoi, in order for him to be taken seriously, further on in the novel. Many writers would bang out a prelude or something, just to give us the flavor. A litte tasty-taste of our man's bad-assery. Elude to some adventure so we could see that Evan's not a puss. Not Ludlum tho. Ludlum writes a story within a story. The prelude is book in itself. It's like 150 pages. Then I'm like, so that happened... and we pick up Evan chillin' back at the ranch a year or so later until something from his past comes to bite him in the ass.

Can you guess what it is?

Ya, so, Evan's back at it. Drawn back in to be the reluctant hero and save everyone and everything he loves. Which includes... America.

The last part of the story is one final escapade. It needs doing, but contrary to the first operation and certainly the second, this mission wraps up in one or two chapters. Certainly as complex an objective  as the first one, but Evan bangs it out in about 20 pages and is home for dinner and a glass of Canadian whiskey by 7:30 and all is right with the world.

Maybe Ludlum originally intended to write a trilogy similar to the Bourne franchise but his editors didn't think it had the legs so he consolidated into one volume. That's what it feels like anyway.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

stone monkey

I almost forgot about this book. I guess that's not a great way to start a book review. I've read a bunch of Jeffrey Deaver's stuff, and its usually pretty good. I got turned on to his stuff by my wife who has bought a bunch of it. Deaver is probably best know for his Lincoln Rhyme character, and a couple of his stories have been turned into movies. The Bone Collector is probably the only one folks will remember.

Lincoln Rhyme, Amelia Sachs, and company have human smuggling to deal with in this adventure, but it doesn't get too far before human smuggling turns into murder.
And then its murder, murder, murder, from there on out.

Lincoln Rhyme is an interesting character, and so is Amelia Sachs. What I think might improve the series is playing down the other characters that seem to hang around the Rhyme-Sachs team. None of them really has a chance to develop, so they should be cut out and the focus placed more on the duo and their relationship. I understand that reality is probably closer to a larger task force, but I don't think everyone of them needs to be a minor character, with backstories, relationships and the whole bit. Its too many threads to follow that don't really lead anywhere.

The Stone Monkey was amusing, but a little slow overall. I'm not sure it added much to the overall storyline of Rhyme and Sachs.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

venetian judgement

This the last book I read in Italy, and I finished it when I got home. I bought this in the same store in Italy, which seemed to have British imports, but who knows, maybe they're American. The cover on the last one I read didn't seem to match the cover shown on my local (American) book buying sites.*

The Venetian Judgement is also a spy novel which takes places partially in Italy. Venice as you can imagine from the title. This one is written by David Stone, a pen name in the author blurb it actually says 'cover name' for a very mysterious type of guy who has lived in "North America, South America and Southeast Asia". Yeah. Very mysterious. I guess I hope he doesn't get killed for writing this novel?

Anyways, this writer, whatever his or her name is, but lets call him David Stone, DOES seem to know his stuff. The military and intelligence backgrounds (also eluded to in the blurb) seems to show in the writing. The Venetian Judgement centers around a character named Micah Dalton, sometimes know as the Crocodile. Stone has 4 novels out, each featuring Dalton. I think this is the third one so Dalton has some history, which is eluded to in this story. In this story, Dalton is introduced as a CIA 'cleaner' which I take to mean, a guy who comes in after the nasty bits are done by others, to clean up, but it may be that he doesn't just take out the trash, he may have a hand in its production. I guess I need to read more spy novels Stone's grasp of the lingo certainly seems solid, but it did leave me wondering in a few places.

I was again pleased with the Italian connection and delighted to have found a very entertaining read for the end of my vacation and the flight home. I'll also keep my eyes open for any more David Stone novel I happen to see.

* Yeah, the cover on Amazon doesn't match the cover of the book I bought in this case either.

Monday, August 5, 2013


So I ran out of books in Italy, and went to buy one at the store in Sulmona that sells books in English. The selection was limited, and the titles seemed to be from the UK. I ended up going back to buy a second title, which I finished just after I got home. I'll write about that one next. This one is by Daniel Silva, titled The Defector. Its an adventure including a recurring Silva character named Gabriel Allon, an Israeli secret service agent whose cover is an art restorer working for the pope and living in Umbria, Italy--a connection to my vacation that I enjoyed. As I read, I got the feeling that this one follows hard on the heels of another book, which after a quick look turns out to be Moscow Rules. If you're interested in reading the Gabriel Allon books in order, check it out here.

Gabriel Allon isn't fooling around. He takes what he does seriously, and personally. And if actually gets personal, he takes it to the next level. Allon is an interesting character. I can't say that I've never read of a character like him, because he has a lot of the same traits we often see in super spy types. He seems to be put together a little differently. We don't see a lot of super spies that both refuse promotions and have committed personal relationships. We also don't see a lot of super spies with the education and training to be fine art restorers and have the stomach for extreme prejudice 'wet work'.

This story finds Allon taken away from the life it seems like he'd rather be living to help out someone he helped in the past: a defector whose got himself in a bind. As one can imagine, things quickly escalate until until the proverbial pucky hits the fan. The Defector is fast, grim, brutal, tense, well plotted and sometimes tricksy. This is the first Daniel Silva book I recall reading, and based on this I may look around for some of his other stuff.

One more book on the Italian trip to go, then I've got some more bookmarks to share!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

windup girl

The third book I read in Italy was The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. This looks like Bacigalupi's first novel...  NOPE, some checking has dispelled that misunderstanding, he's got a few novels out--a few since this came out and a few before--he also has a number of short stories, which look like they make take place in this Windup Girl universe, which is why this story seems to have some nice backstory elements to it. The shorts stories are collected in a volume called Pump Six and Other Stories.

Bacigalupi's Windup Girl universe is an imagined dystopian future Earth, after some horrendous man-made events have flooded the oceans, starved the population, used up the remaining fossil fuels, ruined the world economy, and reduced what's left of functioning governments to pockets of ultra-protectionist tyrannies. The streets are dotted with technological advancements in genetic engineering and energy harvesting, along with a return to manpower, draft animals, and a crushing class system. This dichotomy provides a really interesting backdrop for Bacigalupi's story-telling, and his characters are seamlessly woven into this world he's created. The writing, and the storyline are very thoughtful; a mix of soft and hard sci fi.

The Windup Girl is a series of interwoven subplots that knit into a story of one such future city-state in Asia. There is mystery, love and romance, action, intrigue, big business, conspiracy, illegal genetic tampering, rebirth, industrial espionage, class warfare, nation building... the list goes on. This story is packed, but it all works. With all of the topics touched on, this is a story of people. Bacigalupi has developed a complex plotline, and some pretty cool tech, but the tale is really driven by how his characters react to the events around them.

Nice job. Read this book.