Saturday, April 28, 2007

Arthur C Clarke: How the World Was One

I'll be honest. I really liked this book (non-fiction) by Arthur C Clarke. It talks about the history of modern communications, and I am very interested in reading about such topics, especially if the book is well written and provides good information.
This book starts out way in the past, from a time of around 150 years in the past. The telegraph had been invented and people were starting to figure out how to use the telegraph to communicate between continents separated by vast oceans. The only way that this seemed possible was to lay long cables on the ocean floor. There were people who were ready to volunteer lots of time and effort in order to try and execute these contracts. However, laying cables on the ocean floor is not easy. You need to have an idea of the terrain underwater, to figure out how to repair if things went bad. In addition, there was another practical difficulty in finding ships that could carry these huge quantities of heavy cables. But this was the start of modern communications.
The book then moves onto the development of telephony, about using the ionosphere to bounce off radio waves, and the steps involved in the development of the radio. Then the book moves onto the idea for which Clarke is famous; the placing of satellites in geosynchronous orbit so that they always seem overhead, and which forms the basis for modern communications.
The last part of the book talks about his predictions for the future. Given that this book was written in 1992, it is good to check about what are the things that came true, and the things that he missed.
The best part of the book is that it does not read like a dreary telling of history, but is written in a gripping way, and keeps interests alive.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Richard Bach: The Bridge across forever

This is a book that can be called a romance book. However, for all those readers who have had a chance to read some book by Richard Bach, calling a book just a romance book is an under-statement of the highest degree.
What does Richard Bach write about ? Difficult to describe. He writes about the human soul, about human destiny, about moving forward and backward in one's own life, about trying to be in control of one's own life, about magical encounters in life; but I knew that it is difficult to describe. It is the fluidity of his flow that captures the reader's attention. Fans of Richard Bach treasure his writings, and feel the fluidity of the flow of his work. One of his bestknown and most famous works is 'Jonathan Livingston Seagull', but I will write about that book at another time.
The Bridge across Forever is at its base a love story between a man with varied experiences (ex-US Air Force, known writer) who is a strict individualist fighting his own battles (including preventing Hollywoood from perverting his novels when making movies based on these novels), and his love affair and eventual marriage with Leslie Parrish, a movie actress who slowly comes close to him. How they come closer, have their ups and downs (including when the IRS bankrupts Richard Bach and he loses all his books), and eventually become life companions.
Somehow this book has touched a special chord, and this may not be something that too many people feel, but I can read this book again and again. You can read about the author at Wikipedia.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Book: Code Name Ginger

For those who remember the times of the IT craze around the beginning of this century, there were a flurry of reports wildly talking about something called 'Ginger'. By a prolific inventer called Dean Kamen, who had invented varied other things in the past such as the AutoSyringe, the first insulin pump, and an all-terrain wheelchair known as the iBot. Read more about Dean Kamen over here. He has won numerous awards, and made himself a fair amount of money through his inventions.
Back to Ginger, while not revealed to the public, it got an immense amount of publicity, its true character being debated in numerous articles. Praise from Steve Jobs (Apple), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), and venture caplitalist John Doerr added to the praise and curiosity regarding what Ginger was all about. Possible speculation included a device for time travel, teleportation, hovercraft, jet-pack, etc. In the end when the device was reported as another glorified 'scooter', alebit more technical, there was a massive sense of let-down. However, the device, now known as the Segway, is still a technical marvel. The usage of gyroscopes and technical wizardy has almost made this a mind-reading human transportation device.
The book tries to explain the phenomenon in more detail from an insider view, taking us through the development of the idea to the development of the device. It includes the conception of the idea, the meetings and frenzied development and modifications in the device, the discussions with venture capitalists (including know-how about how the venture capital process works), the dependency on an individual to drive the company that he founded. One interesting thing that came out in the book was how Dean refused to give any of his employees any stock, thus no stake in the profits of the company.
The book does go into a lot of detail, so there is a chance of people getting bored (I wasn't). And towards the end, the book meanders into more about the author of the book getting booted out of the project, and hence the perspective slightly changes, and bitterness towards the eviction starts to show. However, I consider the book a must-read.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Book Review: "Of Power and Right"

So here I was browsing through a bookstore when I saw that they had a section for books on discount. Now I am always a sucker for good books at reduced prices, so off I went. There was this book lying there with a black cover that seemed to be about the US Supreme Court. Now I have always been interested in legal histories and constitutional law, and so I picked the book up. I have never regretted the move.
The book is called "Of Power and Right: Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, and America's Constitutional Revolution" by Howard Ball and Philip J Cooper (1992).
I am not a citizen of the US, nor am I affected by the laws governing the US, so why am I writing a review of the book?
The book presents an epic view of the US legal and social society through the goings-on in the US Supreme Court from the time of the New Deal to the removal of the race-segregation laws, and to the emergence of cases dealing with the rights of the state (government) vs. the rights of the individual. There are essentially 2 streams of thoughts about the power of the judicial system: Judges need to respect that the legislature is the expression of the will of the people and not try their own interpretation, vs. the interpretation that the role of a judge is to hold the constitution supreme and effectively use this as the benchmark for determining the validity of a law.
Justice Hugo Black was a believer in the first thesis (power), while justice William Douglas believed in the second one (right). The book details their initial career before their movement into the Supreme Court, and then really comes into its own. The interactions between the Justices, between the executive and the Justices, and the process (including persuasion and disagreements) used by the Supreme Court to come out with a judgement is all brought out in great detail, and helps to provide a high level of understanding. The cases dealing with the internment of the American citizens of Japanese descent during the second world war, the military tribunals dealing with German spies caught on American land, and specifically the most famous case of the racial segregation era (Brown vs. Board of Education) are all brought out in great detail in this book.
For a layman, the legal and judicial system is wrapped up in mystery when it comes to its intricacies. This book will go a long way in helping people understand how the judicial system works, and how the opinions of Justices drive the US Supreme Court.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Book: Dick Francis: Rat Race

One book that I have liked a lot is a book by Dick Francis called 'Rat Race'. Now Dick Francis is an odd bird. He writes almost solely on horse-racing, but he writes good stuff. He was a champion jockey in the 50's, and has written a number of books ever since.
One of the books of his that I really like is called 'Rat Race' (written in 1971). It is not a very complicated plot, but does involve horse racing to some degree (although tangentially). It is about a small-time divorced pilot who is not doing so well in life. He is almost perpetually broke, has to pay regular alimony to his wife, and works for a small charter airline where the owner wants to keep him down. He meets all kind of passengers on the way, many of whom look down on him.
With this background, the story starts escalating. One day when carrying a group to a race-track including a famous jockey, he senses danger and lands, only to see the plane explode a few minutes later. He starts investigating, even when dealing with the repurcussions of this explosion. He meets the family of the famous jockey, and gets romantically interested in his sister, and the sister feels the same. This part of the story is really an excellent sub-plot. The other sister of the jockey is terminally ill, and the way that the family is dealing with the upcoming loss and the resulting grief is an inspired piece of writing. One cannot but help feeling impressed with their courage and ability to handle grief.
The novel moves towards the investigation coming to a peak, with some inspired detective work from the pilot. In addition, the way that the love story between these two moves along with the plot is interesting. The last few pages is when the story climaxes. It is a good read.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Book: Asimov's 'End of Eternity'

This is a very interesting book, the first time I read this book (a fairly small novel), the concept struck me as pretty awesome. After I returned the book from where I had borrowed it, I just had to go and buy it (off eBay).
Isaac Asimov is very famous for his science fiction novels, and very famous for his Foundation and Robot series. This is a novel that has not somehow become that famous, and the story can be a bit complex.
Enough description about the book, here is a brief synopsis of the book:
In the future, mankind has learnt how to do time travel. With time travel comes the responsibility of making sure that changes made by the nature of time travel are controlled (for example, nobody should be able to go back earlier in time and make changes that have a colossal impact). So an entire organization is setup called the 'Eternity' which control the time changes allowed. This organizations exists across the centuries and only they control the movement in time up and down. When it is seen that a major war is about to break out or other similar disaster, the 'Eternals' calculate what is the basic minimum change required in an earlier time period so as to avert the disaster and go and make the change, thus preventing a disaster from happening.
The premise of the novel is that such changes prevent the natural development of humankind of innovation and technological growth (as an example, a prototype of a spacecraft goes disastrously wrong and the option is to remove this development from earlier in time). It may be cruel, but humans develop through adversity and through mistakes, and if these are removed, development also reduces. In the end, humankind never manages to move out of the home planet because the development of fast space travel never happens.
The novel moves to a place where there is a single person who can make Eternity continue or disappear, and he has to consider all these above facts before making the decision.