fighting the lack of good ideas

the secret fire by martin langfield

I had high hopes for Martin Langfield’s book, The Secret Fire when I purchased it several months ago. The cover headline reads, “the world is under threat… from a weapon launched in 1944”. Sounded good.

The back cover, likewise, sounded pretty good, too:

Sotheby’s, London, 1936

A paper by Sir Isaac Newton is sold at auction to a bookseller’s agent, and within minutes of leaving the auction house he is killed and the paper stolen. For the Nazis are desperate to get their hands on a Newton formula that will unleash the Secret Fire – a weapon beyond all imagining that can wipe their enemies off the face of the earth. And this document is the key … unless the French Resistance and SOE operatives also on its trail can stop them.

Good so far, no? Who doesn’t like some WWII conspiracy craziness? (Though why this “Newton formula” is a secret and not widely known after 300 years is up for intellectual consideration.)

New York, 2007. Katherine Reckliss learns her grandmother’s SOE radio has started picking up disturbing messages from occupied France, warning that a V1 containing the Secret Fire is being launched by the Nazis. Its target? Present day London.

Here I should have had my suspension of disbelief brought into question, but I bought the book anyway.

So begins the desperate race to halt the Secret Fire – both in 1940s Nazi-occupied France and modern-day London. The clock is ticking as history starts to re-write the future in a new and terrifying script …

Alright – so parallel universes can work. So can time travel. So can parallel universes talking to each other. (Anyone see the movie Frequency or The One?)

However, psychics, random “Enemies”, spirits from alternate worlds, and other aspects of the book of which I was not aware when I bought it have done this one in for me. I got a couple pages in, hoping it would improve, and it has not. So I am doing something very rare for me and throwing it out. I can’t recommend this to anyone, personally.

  • Quality of writing: 1/5
  • Entertainment value: 0/5
  • Story engagement: 0/5
  • Overall: 0/5


the cuckoo’s egg by cliff stoll

Several years ago, Cliff Stoll’s amazing, true-life account of espionage and system administration in the 1980s was recommended to me.

Mr Stoll started his professional life in astronomy, but, due to budget cuts at Lawrence Berkeley Lab, he moved into systems administration.

Interspersed through the book are both political commentaries (he was after all at Berkeley), and helpful hints for even non-techies. For example, the chocolate chip cookie recipe or the helpful note that you should NEVER use a microwave to dry-out your wet sneakers. Ever. It is just Bad News™.

The title, “The Cuckoo’s Egg”, is a  reference to how the cuckoo bird goes about raising her young: she doesn’t hatch her own eggs, but rather lays them in other birds’ nests, and lets them do all the work for her. (Sounds like another bird of Dr Seuss fame, but that will have to wait for another day.)

From start to finish, Cliff’s tale of spotting an accounting error (apparently in the Bad Old Days™, departments were billed based on how much computer time they used – a singularly silly approach to computing looked-at from the mindset of a person living and working in 2011), to tracking this phantom user who utilized exploits in common applications, to finding out that he not only wasn’t at Berkeley, he wasn’t from the west coast, nor, ultimately, even from this country, is a grand tour of  both computing history and old-fashioned detective work.

Along with Without Remorse, The Cuckoo’s Egg is a novel I have reread a couple times. It has also been on my standard list of books all techies should read for more than a decade. Even though the story happened a quarter century ago, it is still a thrilling read (ok, so the bit about dial-up access seems outlandishly dated, but that’s OK, too).

  • Quality of writing: 4/5
  • Entertainment value: 5/5
  • Historicity: 5/5
  • Overall: 4/5

the host by stephanie meyer

While I was living in Singapore, I read The Host by Stephanie Meyer (of Twilight fame). I had completed the Twilight series, and had, overall, enjoyed her writing style and was interested to see if she would be able to write a story that did not involve vampires, werewolves, and a bizarre romance between a human and her two love interests (the vampire, and the werewolf – in case you didn’t know).

Back to the point of this article 🙂

The premise of The Host is that an alien race has invaded Earth to overtake the dominant native race (ie humans), and infiltrate them so that a peaceful society can ensue. Yes, these peace-loving, non-violent creatures fight humans for control of the planet.

Our story follows one particular implantee, Wanderer, and her “host”, Melanie, and their co-journey of exploration and infiltration of remaining human-only enclaves (so that, ostensibly, the creatures can finish overtaking the violent humans and bring unending peace to the planet).

I was extremely impressed by Ms Meyer’s shift into a new genre (sci-fi romance instead of fantasy/horror romance). The quality of the story-telling, in my opinion, was very good – as was the scene creation. Much of the story happens in complete darkness, or at least in completely unvisitable locales (much of the story takes place in hidden caves in the desert).

Every time I read a story, I am generally thinking about who I would cast in the main roles. Hopefully it doesn’t cloud your reading too much if I suggest a casting call for the main character(s) (but if it would, don’t read below the bulleted list).

This was another novel I really enjoyed, and would recommend to just about anyone.

  • Quality of writing: 4/5
  • Entertainment value: 5/5
  • Story engagement: 4/5
  • Overall: 4/5

I’d cast Evangeline Lilly (of Lost (Kate Austin) fame) as Wanderer/Melanie.

outliers by malcolm gladwell

I have now read a few items by Malcolm Gladwell, but so far have liked Outliers most. The premise is Mr Gladwell’s research that if you hit ~10000 hours working on something, you become fabulous. That, and being born right after an age cutoff (say, 3 Jan when the age cutoff is 31 Dec) will give you a marked leg-up on your teammates/opponents (and duh! an almost-8-year-old will do better at most things than a just-7-year-old).

Oh – and parents have a strong influence on their children: if they encourage their children, they’re more likely to do well. And individual attitude/drive is important, too – if you want to do well, you’re more likely to.

Some would say that Mr Gladwell cherry-picked his subjects: but then again, who doesn’t when writing a book that wants to present a particular conclusion? I do wish he had put some counter-examples to his general thesis – if for no other reason than to show they are the exceptions, which proves the rule he tries to establish in the book.

Mr Gladwell is a noted journalist, and has articles published in a variety of well-known magazines and newspapers. His style is very accessible, and while he present new material and/or tries to make points, he doesn’t ever talk down to the reader: you feel like he’s bringing you on a journey of discovery, and you’re finding-out what he’s telling you as he is discovering it for himself.

  • Quality of writing: 4/5
  • Quality of content: 3.5/5
  • Entertainment value: 4/5
  • Educational value: 3/5
  • Reading comfort: 4/5
  • Overall: 3.5/5

without remorse by tom clancy

One of the [very] few novels I have ever reread is Without Remorse by Tom Clancy – and I’ve reread it several times: each time noticing something I hadn’t before, and each time reacting quite viscerally to how the book’s main character (I hesitate to call him a “hero”) goes about his desired objective.

If you’ve never read any of Tom Clancy’s novels, this is probably the best one to start on (and yes, I’m a little biased!)

Mr John Clark is introduced for the first time (by release date of the novels) in Clear and Present Danger – but Without Remorse goes back to the “founding” of Mr Clark. As the book opens, we are introduced to one John Terrence Kelly – a demolitions diver working to sink damaged oil rigs in the gulf after a hurricane during the height of the Vietnam war.

What transpires next sets-up the rest of Mr Clark’s career – his wife is tragically killed in a vehicle crash while he’s on a dive, and he “hermitizes” himself on the island they used to live on in the Chesapeake Bay. On a routine visit to Baltimore to buy food stuffs for his home, he picks-up a hitchhiker and ends-up falling in love with her. She’s had a mottled past, but is on the road to recovery – encouraged my John’s friendship and true interest in her. However, he gets a little too curious about where she’s “from”, and takes her back to the seedy part of Baltimore where she had been “working”. John’s overconfidence in his abilities (he’s been on a couple tours with the SEALs in Vietnam) proves to be mortally dangerous to his companion, Pam, and nearly costs him his life, too.

After a wild turn of events from what he thought was “safe” and “curious” brings Pam back to her former employers, and then costs her her life, John takes matters into his own hands, reverting to his training, and learns the new “jungle” he is now operating in no less dangerous than those around the world where “little yellow people in black pyjamas” are fighting against (and with) his compatriots.

John T Kelly (later John Clark) does what we all wish we could do when someone hurts someone we love: just like Dirty Harry did what we all wanted to when dealing with corruption and evil – but either think is wrong, or is too far “outside the rules”, so we don’t (or we believe in the system, no matter how flawed: and characters like Mr Clark give us hope that there are people who take care of what needs to be taken care of – whether it’s inside or outside the system).

The book cover describes the novel as a “tour de force” – and it most certainly is: hardly a page goes by without action, force, violence, and redemption. This is not a story for the weak-stomached, and not for the young: it is “adult” in nature – so be aware 🙂

I have unusually-high expectation, based on this being my favorite novel, but I just found out that this is being turned into a motion picture with a tentative 2011 release date: needless to say, I can’t wait!

  • Quality of writing: 5/5
  • Entertainment value: 5/5
  • Historicity: 4/5 (this takes place in and around the Vietnam war, and is plausible in its timings, and correctly cites many actual events during the story)
  • Overall: 4/5 (I suppose there could be some improvement – but I don’t know how)

the 4-hour body by tim ferriss

Upon the recommendation of my friend Steven, I picked-up a cheap copy of Tim FerrissThe 4-Hour Body.

My first observation is that Tim Ferriss is not one to necessarily edit his speech patterns for writing. While not rife with them, there are a fair number of vulgarities throughout the book – all of which seem to have not been removed/altered just because he could.

Second, and perhaps even more importantly, this is NOT a book for kids or teens: it is for adults who are not uncomfortable with “taboo” subjects – the subtitle is, “An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman”. Some of this material is presented in an “uncut” form, and potential readers would benefit from knowing this.

Thirdly, most of the material was developed from self-proclaimed “experiments” he ran on himself trying to improve certain aspects of his body, and many are either not cheap, sketchy, or outright pointless for the “normal” person.

He does go into pretty extravagant scientific/engineering detail on several aspects of what he did and why – some of which is downright entertaining to read about. Data appeals to geeks and nerds, so it’s definitely one of the reasons I like the book.

There is a lot of name dropping, product promotion, and apparently pointless/unrelated anecdotes shown throughout. There are also some interesting testimonials and observed data.

Nothing in the book is really earth-shattering or “new” (at least to me), but it was certainly combined in different ways than I had seen previously. The “slow-carb” diet he promotes is nothing new, just renamed and slightly more focused than other editions that have surfaced before: cut carbs (including fruit and especially fruit juice), add lean protein and veggies.

The chapters on improving strength and coordination all make sense: though his focus on the “MED” (minimum effective dose) goes counter to popular thinking, but after some review and thinking, it makes sense to not overwork yourself when trying to improve strength/balance/etc – no point in hurting yourself and making the process last longer than it needs to. Likewise, eating higher quality foods (less sugar/starch especially) goes along with semi-conventional wisdom surrounding general health.

Mr Ferriss also has the benefit of being pretty well-off financially (and has been for quite some time), so many of the things he discusses just “doing” are going to be beyond the vale for the “common man”. It’d be great to just go to Nicaragua for a couple weeks of tourism and then get bloodwork and MRIs taken cheaper than the US – but, quite frankly, I don’t have $7500 to do that: and especially not just for myself.

Overall I think this is a decent book – but by no means worth the cover price. Much/most of what is contained (excluding the anecdotes) is available from other sources, but not in a compilation like this one. Personally, I think Mr Ferriss’ prior book (The 4-Hour Work Week) was better as a book. If you can pick it up for at least half off the cover price (should be simple from Amazon or eBay), go for it. If not, go to the library 🙂

Oh – if nothing else comes of having read the book, adding cinnamon to my coffee is pretty good 🙂

  • Quality of writing: 3/5
  • Quality of content: varies chapter to chapter, and your interest level 2/5
  • Entertainment value: 4/5
  • Overall: 2.5/5

gideon’s spies by gordon thomas

Gideon’s Spies by Gordon Thomas claims to be “the secret history of the Mossad”.

From the myriad reviews on Amazon, I didn’t know whether to be expecting a massive work of historical fiction, or a insightful tour de force. After having nearly finished it, I don’t know if I have an opinion of whether it’s “inciteful” or “insightful”. Of course, this is supposed to be detailing backroom dealings, secretive organizations, and national intelligence operations: so there is likely a fair amount of ego building and some fanciful manufacturisms along the way.

It is written in a conversational, informative tone and is eminently readable. The “structure” reminds me of how some of the best professors I had in college spoke – the stories didn’t seem to happen in any particular order or for a reason, but by the end you can see how they all interlink to give the picture.

Several of the items in the book I can informally verify to be true having spoken to other first-hand sources on some of the topics. Whether the entire book is “true” or not, it is certainly worth reading for at least the perspective of Mr Thomas, and the sources he has interviewed.

As with any other claimed exposé, much of what is said needs to be taken with grains boulders of salt, but it is very well written overall. It starts with an account of folks surrounding Lady Diana’s death – Mossad agents, MI5, MI6, Dodi Fayed, etc etc. What this has to do with the rest of the book… I don’t know, but it was still an interesting take. Some would say this is to support conspiracy theorists and their beliefs that intelligence agencies are all-powerful, and that they will actively withhold information that could benefit their allies just because of personality clashes. Personally, while I think some of that happens, it can’t really be as wide-spread as some would claim, or some countries would have been removed from the gene pool.

My biggest complaint is that for a professional journalist, Mr Thomas CANNOT use the phrase “try to” properly – almost invariably he says “try and” instead! GAAAHHH!!

Should you read the book? I think it’s worthwhile, even if it turns out to be 90% fiction. If you approach it as a book in the strain of the Jack Ryan universe created by Tom Clancy, and it turns out to be true – cool. And if not, you at the very least had an entertaining time.

  • Quality of writing: 4/5
  • Quality of content: unknown, but I’d guess at least 3/5
  • Entertainment value: 4/5
  • Historicity: unknown, but between 2/5 and 4/5
  • Overall: 3/5