Sunday, December 30, 2007

Leon Uris: Trinity (1976)

Right at the start, let me say it, and then you can read the review keeping this in mind. I simply loved the book. I have read it a few more times since the first time I read it, and one can't help but be moved by the book. Let me cross-relate something I read in a Tom Clancy (Patriot Games). Even though that book is about renegade Irish terrorists, there is some dialogue in the book about the origin of the 'troubles' and how a lot of this was mishandled due to British politics. And then I read Trinity soon after, and this book has done a great deal to explain the issues related to the Irish problem, especially the history.
To an outsider, the conflict in Northern Ireland seems strange, what with it being viewed as a battle between 2 Christian faiths. The source of the conflict and current issues seem hard to comprehend. This problem is further compounded by the fact that in the present, in Northern Ireland, the Protestant population is in a majority, and the Catholics are in a minority, an exact reversal of the population mix in Ireland, which is where the root of the problem originates. A conflict that seems so small to outsiders is actually many centuries old, reaching a peak with the conquest of the Catholic Irish king by the Protestant English kingdom in the 17th century, and the bitter conflicts after that.

Leon Uris: Trinity (1976)
The novel 'Trinity' is focused on a time period between the 1850's and the Irish uprising in 1916. The book is pretty long (over 700 pages), but is extremely gripping and almost forces you to try and read as much as you can over one sitting, and try and finish reading the book first, getting higher priority over other things that you may have to do. However, if you are of English origin and not of Irish origin, you might consider the novel somewhat biased since it presents the outlook from an Irish point of view, with the English not being portrayed in the most positive of light.
The book is the story of the intertwining lives of the Larkins (Catholic hill farmers from the fictional town of Ballyutogue in County Donegal), the Macleods (Protestant shipyard workers from Belfast), and the Hubbles (representatives of three centuries of Anglo-Irish aristocracy).
The novel describes in some depth how the cultural and religious differences between the Protestant and the Catholic communities are exploited so as to drive them further apart, to the extent that any inter-action between the 2 communities is severely prohibited. The depiction of the treatment of a Protestant girl by her own community women, who is involved with a Catholic boy is horrific.
The book moves towards a Irish movement against the English occupation, culminating in a plot against a fort occupied by the English. The book ends in a failure that is converted to a victory; however, the message of despair in the Irish problem is ever present.

The Fourth Protocol (1984)

Imagine the times; there was a widespread protest movement in Europe against the deployment of nuclear-armed missiles and against American bases having nuclear arms on them. In addition, there is still a great amount of tension between the Soviet Union and the US, and a new unknown Secretary-General (Gorbachev, but mostly unknown) has taken office. He is supposed to be young, and given the fact that he was able to move into the Secretary-General's office in such a rapid manner, extremely clever and cunning.
What Frederick Forsyth did in 'The Fourth Protocol' was to spin up these concepts along with spy-work and some believable nuclear terrorism into a thriller that was gripping till the end. You know that the good guys will prevail in the end, but till that time, things could go either way. The further positive was the inclusion of some real characters including Neil Kinnock, and Kim Philby.

The Fourth Protocol (1984)
There are many positives about this novel; it has a believable cast of events, the technology talked about seems possible, every treaty could have secret protocols (and the fourth protocol seems very logical) believable enough to be cast as the background of the novel. The novel was also made into a movie of the same name starring Michael Caine and Pierce Brosnan.
The novel is made on the concept of a new Soviet Secretary-General being ambitious enough to try to explore British popular disaffection with the placement of nuclear missiles on their country. The plan, called Operation Aurora calls for the smuggling of parts of a nuclear bomb onto British territory and then exploding this very near an American base. Such a move could push British dis-satisfaction away from the Conservative Government of Margaret Thatcher and towards a left party. And then the most amazing thing would happen. The hard left of the Labour party, consisting of Marxist-Leninists would take over the leadership of the Labour party and set in force a series of measures that would move Britain away from friendship with the Americans.
Why call the novel 'The Fourth Protocol' ? Well, because supposedly the 1968 Non-proliferation Treaty had a set of secret protocols, out of which the number 4 was about no nation secretly transporting a nuclear device onto the territory of another nation.
The novel starts with a robbery in which the thief also finds some secrets (defense secrets) and knows that here is some treason; and sends these onto the defense ministry. And thus starts a secret enquiry into the source of this espionage. Eventually the spy is found out and turned over. At the same time, there is a Soviet plan to explode a nuclear device near an American base so as to get Labour to win the elections and then to get the hard left to take over. As this plan starts to take effect, one of the bomb parts is found and an investigation is launched. And thus starts the thriller, with the match between the MI5 officer John Preston and the illegal Soviet agent Valeri Petrofsky (a spesnatz officer); the MI5 officer a step behind but fighting to find out what the plan is and to stop it. A great thriller.

The Search: An insight into the development of Google and search

This book "The Search: An insight into the development of Google and search" is probably one of the most important books highlighting the development of search as a business, focusing on the evolution of the idea and growth. You will get an inside view of how a company named Google became an icon, the undisputed market leader of search and the company feared by many others. You also get an idea of the future potential of the search market, and some trends of how the future of search could develop into.
Google is the main star of this book, and this focus on Google seems quite natural. There have been many search engines before Google such as Altavista that were popular, but the sheer simplicity and power of Google blew away all contenders, and it would be hard to talk about why search is such an interesting topic unless you focus on a company that made search so popular.

The Search: An insight into the development of Google and search
The author of the book, John Battelle, is well suited to write a book such as this. After all, when you get a person who has been intimately connected with some of the pioneering influential sites on the Internet arena such as 'Wired' magazine, 'The Industry Standard' magazine and is able to touch base with the heads of some of the leading people in this area - such as the founders of Google, founders of Yahoo, the chief brain behind the Altavista search, and the venture capitalists (who are as connected and important for technological developments as the entrepreneurs themselves). As a result, the book presents a great detail of the inside view on how search as a technology and business developed, how early pioneers such as Altavista and pioneered some of the technology, but were almost shoved aside when Google came into the picture.
There are some great number of stories in this book; one among them that always puzzled me was as to why Altavista, at one time the number one leader in the search space lost out so easily in the search game (the suits running the company failed to take advantage of the early lead). If you ever wondered as to how this company called Google came into being and what was the growth like, then this book has the answers. For people who were confused as to the difference between Google and Yahoo, you get a lot many answers in this book.
However, the book does not always go ga-ga over the Google Story, with a fair amount of criticism of the company also included. Thus you get to hear about the internal style of functioning of the company (with the 2 founders almost being portrayed as dictators), about how different the development/organizational model of Google is when compared with other software companies. For me, one important section was about the Google policy of 'Do no evil'. Even though the book has covered the ethical dilemmas of Google when matching this policy with the force exerted by the Chinese Government, it does not cover the disappointment that a lot of people felt when Google compromised and agreed to be a part of the China censorship effort (through its site).
Overall, this book will take you through the development of search in some detail, including the evolution of Google and to some extent of Yahoo, and some trends in future search technology development. Most of all, this book should enthuse you about what the single-minded dedication (and luck) of a group of inventors can take them. Read the book for some inspiration.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

Eye of the Needle was a novel that catapulted Ken Follett to instant fame. It was first published in 1978 with the title of 'Storm Island', and eventually became much more successful as 'Eye of the Needle'. It was the author's first major success and set him up to write many more successful novels based on a fast action track incorporating a spy thriller.
The novel takes a historical period (not too far back though - World War 2) and spins a story around that. The concept of a ice-cold anti-hero all out to break the secrecy of the allied effort getting felled by the courage of a lady with whom he has had an affair was very gripping. The story line is not very complex, but there is a fair amount of detail that holds the reader.

Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

During World War II, the allied forced had been pushed from Europe and needed to re-enter the continent in order to take on the Nazis militarily. There are not too many feasible invasion routes, with the Dover-Calais route being the shortest and hence the most likely. The allies had however decided to take the longer Normandy landing; the biggest question was about how to protect this information from the Germans and to get them to focus on the Calais entry point. This entire operation was called Operation Fortitude, and it involved setting up a massive fake army so that the Germans could be deceived from afar. However, if a spy on the ground looked, he would be able to determine that this entire operation was a fake.
And the novel is based on such a person. A skilled spy, called 'Die Nadel', who is ice-cold and can kill anybody if they get in his way, eventually finds out the extent of the fake army and has to reach his submarine pick-up in a remote corner of Britain, and also transmit his findings to the German high command.
And then he runs into this couple living on an isolated island. A young couple, but the husband got crippled in an accident and is now very bitter, with the bitterness causing their relations to drift apart. And into this comes the spy; the inevitable happens; he soon starts to have an affair with the wife (the entire scenario described in some detail). At the same time, Der Niedle is being hunted by the British military who have found out about him and will do anything to hunt him down and kill him.
So what happens ? Does the husband find out about him ? Will the cold spy be able to reveal his truth or will he be found ? What about the affair between the wife and him ? 'Eye of the needle' is a well paced thriller with some well sketched out characters.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Goal 2: It's not luck

For those who have read the book before this one 'The Goal', the book must have seemed like a breath of fresh air. Imagine a business novel written in the shape of a gripping novel, and seeking to present the objective (business concepts) in a way that does not put you to sleep - well, that was the way in which 'The Goal' was written. And here is the next book in the series. 'The Goal II - It's not chance' takes the story forward from the first book.
Is 'The Goal' required reading for 'The Goal II - It's not chance' ? No, you can read the second book without having to read the first book, but the 'The Goal' is good enough that you can read it on its own.

The Goal 2: It's not luck

The book is written in the same style as the first book. The story is gripping, giving touches of both personal and business examples, and keeps you reading. If compared with 'The Goal', the book seems a bit less gripping, but just a bit less. Overall, it is worth reading. I found that you learn most from the book if you re-read it again within a few days of reading it first, since you are able to grasp the power of the concepts more thoroughly.
So while 'The Goal' was all about using the Theory of Constraints and associated bottlenecks to the manufacturing arena and how best to build predictability and flexibility to production, 'The Goal 2: It's not luck' takes you to a higher level. The people involved are roughly the same. It's still Alex Rogo and his team (and his family) who are now all promoted out of the plant that they helped save and have important positions in the conglomerate.
The conglomerate is a diversified one, having a printing business, women's cosmetics, services and parts, auto products, etc. In this time and age, any expert would recommend that such a diversified group should consolidate; it gets more difficult to hold onto these when these diverse concerns are making losses and dragging down the conglomerate. It is quite logical that board members are pushing to sell them off, it is difficult for Alex Rogo to oppose these measures; the only thing he can do is to get them to be profitable so that either they earn enough to add value or they can be sold as a good profit making entity.
That is the quest of this book; how to use the Thinking Processes to turn around diverse companies - in fact, the idea is to show the strength of the Thinking Processes, which are used to examine conflicting logical arguments, incorporate customer needs and business environment and develop a workable solution that can help take a business from loss to profit, and also be used to solve personal problems ! It seems fairly logical, but there is a weakness as well - you need to get all the concepts and environmental points correct in order to do a good analysis.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Fifth Horseman: Immensly nerve-wracking

The Palestinian vs. Israel conflict is one that induces very strong reactions in the Middle East. Ever since Israel came into existence as a state in 1948, it is the dearest wish of the neighboring arab states (and many other Islamic states) that Israel be proved weaker than the other states. However, in every conflict, it is Israel that prevails, many times decimating the Arab armies very strongly. One by-product of this tension is that the US is seen as a massive power broker and the main supporter of Israel; if this support for Israel be taken away, it will be far weaker.
The book plays on this concept, taking a committed move by an Islamic leader (willing to sacrifice his people) into black-mailing the US into forcing Israel to roll back its settlements in the West Back. These settlements have always been controversial, since they have been seen as a move by Israel to annex as much of the post-1967 through settlements. Israel has far less support for these settlements.

The Fifth Horseman: Immensely nerve-wracking

Many decades of US and Soviet conflict happened under the banner of an unwritten document called MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). You kill me, I will kill you back, hence don't even try to think of starting a war with me. But what happens when you meet an enemy who is prepared to lose everything ? All existing logic goes away !
This book has a concept that is so chilling, if you realize that all this seems so realistic and could happen even more easily if you put pure dedicated terrorists in the picture. When you hear the words of 'dirty bomb' and nuclear terrorism, read this book. Even though book was written in the start of the 80's, it seems so real, and detail rich. The authors (Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre) normally write about historical events, and hence this book seems much of character. However, The Fifth Horseman caused them to do a lot of travel so as to get the research right, and then the details of the book were a suspense right till the end because of the controversial subject.
There is the New York Policeman, of Italian descent called Angelo Rocchia who is the hero of this book. But right now, the events are way beyond him. The White House has received a design supposedly of an atomic bomb, with a letter by Qaddafi (the Libyan dictator) wanting the US to evict Israel from the settlements in the West Bank. There is a great deal of skepticism, after all how could the Libyans have a nuclear bomb. But there is a design that seems fairly complex. And then there is the confirmation by the scientist that the design is not of an atomic bomb, but of something much more powerful and destructive, a thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb, capable of killing millions in New York city.
And then some more doubts when the demo bomb fails to go off on time, and then the reaction when the bomb does go off. Turns out that the Libyans did a clever job in modifying a design stolen from the French and with bomb material stolen under the cameras of a watching body. And then the Libyan leader had some dedicated Palestinians to hold the bomb in the US and if necessary, blow it up. They had the responsibility of keeping it hidden till the time came for the bomb to either be blown up or surrendered.
So, while the action is going on to silently hunt for the bomb without making the city aware that such a search is going on (to avoid panic), the discussion and dialogs happening in the book are very engrossing. There are essentially 3 sets of dialogs, with the discussion between the President and his advisors and cabinet, between the President and the Israeli Prime Minister (supposedly Menachem Begin), and between the President and the Israeli leader (this is one conflict that the President loses, when the Libyans discover that the President is lying). It was nice touch that the Libyans had the same machinery as the Americans, but were assumed so backward that nobody would suspect the Libyans of having a new machine that could make out whether you were telling the truth or lying by reading your eyes and patters inside.
All these discussions give a great idea of how the negotiations between nations are held, and the immense political backgrounds to such discussions. The book is an incredible thriller, and it is great reading. Even if Libya is now on the positive side, you can read the book as to how the art of nuclear blackmail and terrorism works, and how scary it can be.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Battle Cry (1953): By Leon Uris

Leon Uris wrote a number of books in his lifetime (1924 - 2003). Leon Uris fought in the Second World War in the United States Marine Corps, and his experience formed the basis of his first book, Battle Cry, released in 1953. The book chronicled the adventures of a group of young men who join the United States Marines after the Pearl Harbour attack, and take part in the fierce fighting with the Japanese in the Islands of the Pacific. Names such as Wake, Guadalcanal, etc were famous milestones in this fighting (these were also incidentally some of the places where Leon Uris had toured in).
And for a book written so far back (1953), there is a fair amount of representation of different cultures shown. Though the book skips over the African-American community, there are soldiers from Native Indian (Navajo), Italian-American, Swedish, Yankee, and other backgrounds. The narrating is done by a crusty old sergeant (with a lot of experience) called Mac. The whole group is led by a Colonel, Sam Huxley, who wants glory for his team.
The book is well-written, taking the story in more detail of the All-American boy, Danny Forester, and his urge to join the Marines and the effect this has on his personal life. These impacts are supposed to represent the problems faced by other soldiers, and the impact on their families who see young boys (barely out of their teens), young men, and family men going off to a war from whom many may never come back.
The book makes for some gripping reading, with their adventures in a war that is destined to take them to a place with fierce fighting between the Americans and the Japanese (not depicted in any great detail - just as fierce fighters who will fight to the end rather than commit suicide). The book starts with boot camp, with a hint of seriousness starting to emerge, and then becomes more serious as the narrative proceeds. Times where there is no actual fighting going show the life of the Marines at these forward and war zones, and is able to keep reader attention. But it is the scenes of battle that do not hesitate from actual gore and death, and there are members of the squad and friend who end up dead or very wounded.
The book shows the motive behind people heading to war, to fight for the country; and at the same time does not hesitate in showing the actual death and destruction that can emerge from such a battle. Read it if you can find it, it's a very good book.