Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Finished (E_Reader) - "Inferno" - Dan Brown

Finished "Inferno" by Dan Brown in a couple of days.  Like "The DaVinci Code", "Inferno" is certainly a page turner.
The basic plot is that there is a genius-criminal who intends to solve the world's key problems by killing half of the population.  The task is (of course) to figure out where and when the triggering event is supposed to occur and go out to stop it.

I found this book a little too much like my reviews of the "Maze Runner" books - too many miraculous escapes tend to stretch the believability.

I did like the overall plot, but it might not have been as compelling of the thousand year secret society plot underlying the "Da Vinci Code".

Friday, May 24, 2013

Finished (E-Reader) - "The Death Cure" and "The Kill Order" by James Dashner (Maze Runner Trilogy, + prequel)

As per the last post, I was reading the Maze Runner Trilogy (and the prequel "The Kill Order") by James Dashner.
Being a little too old for the series target market, I found the series OK, but didn't really "buy" the whole rationale for putting the teens in the maze in the first place.  Ignoring that, the series was OK to read, though there were lots of amazing recoveries from impossible situations ("Hey, there are 1000 guys with machetes and I have a spoon - luckily I hit the first guy on the head with the spoon and everyone else ran away....").
I actually might have liked "The Kill Order" best of the books.  It provides the background information giving some details of what happened prior to the 1st book in the series.  This, at least, seemed plausible - it is the "Maze" idea that leaves me a little cold.

The basic idea of the books is that there has been a solar event (flares) which baked much of the earth - the area between the Tropic of Cancer and The Tropic of Capricorn are scorching deserts.  Ice caps melted, coastal cities under water.   A new world body, seated in Alaska, is deciding what to do in this new Earth.  They decide that the world can't support all the people, so they unleash a virus which is intended to quickly kill targeted population centres.

However, either through flaws in the virus design, or mutation, the virus doesn't kill everyone quickly - some are naturally immune, and many experience a progressive dementia, devolving to a type of violent zombie-ism,  the main effect of which is that the virus spreads to pretty much the entire population.

The world body must figure out how to cure the plague (oddly, also called "the flare").  Their plan is to set up  experiments where they take immune teens (and some non-immune teens), erase their memories, and put them into a Maze patrolled by killer robots.  The maze changes daily and the pattern of change provides clues.

Presumably, through the process of solving the maze provides information to the neuroscientists about brain mapping that can be used to understand and cure the plague.  Unfortunately, the "successful" candidate must be sacrificed and undergo fatal brain surgery while conscious.

I didn't find the "solution" to fit the "problem" very well.  Though I can imagine that a new world government may decide to sacrifice some population for the good of the whole (though it would be a difficult choice) and unleashing a plague with unforeseen consequences, but I didn't buy the "Maze" as providing any reasonable "plague curing" information worth the trouble.

I might have liked the task better as a "Survivor" contest to mate the winners, or something, to repopulate the planet with the "best" candidates who carry immunity.  The complexity of the maze could have been varied to make sure that the attributes of the "winners" would be those that provide the best species survival opportunities.

I did like the idea of the "memory erasing" and partial memories returning, not being sure who your friends and enemies are, the solar flare causing the rapid climate change etc..  The maze idea was also fine, but didn't really fit (for me) into the world created.

Again, though, I'm not the target age for this book.  My daughter in the target age group loved the book.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Finished (E-Reader) - "Maze Runner" and "Scorch Trials" - James Dashner

Finished the first two books in the "Maze Runner" 4-book trilogy.

My daughter has a like of dystopian novels (e.g. Hunger Games, City of Ember series), "The Maze Runner" being the most recent she's read through.

I thought the books were OK.  Characters (all young teen boys) are trapped, with wiped memories, in a small settlement surrounded by a maze.  Every evening, the maze is patrolled by killer machines and the walls from the settlement to the maze are closed.

The inhabitants feel that there is a purpose in the maze, and have a crew of "maze runners" who explore the maze every day looking for exits or other clues to solving the mystery.  They map the maze, which changes every day, and look for patterns.

The first book starts with the main character, Thomas, being delivered into the maze, memory wiped, and his trying to figure out what is going on.  The second takes surviving characters and puts them (and a new group) into a more local context - apparently the world as it looks in the post-disaster phase (which seems to be linked to solar flares, making the equatorial region arid and very hot - not very compatible with human life).  Their task is to traverse a few hundred miles, in a given timeframe, and reach a particular safe zone, of course, facing danger, death and confusion along the way.

I didn't find the "Maze Runner" as compelling a story as "Hunger Games" nor "City of Ember", all of which deal with cultures and situations derived from a hazy disaster in the past.

I'll withhold my final opinion of the series pending the finishing of the remaining books, as the "whole story" of why these kids are being put through the trials has not been revealed, and may provide the overriding context that brings the story together.

At this point (2/3 of the way through the initial trilogy) I don't find the "back story" defined enough to really care about what the characters are doing, and it seems like random fantasy dangers being faced.  The "scientist" characters are shadowy and it is unclear whether or not they are evil, which, I presume, is the key revelation in the 3rd book, and the subsequent sequel.

Finished (Audiobook) - " On Intelligence" - Jeff Hawkins

Jeff Hawkins was a pioneer on the Palm Pilot, a device I have a fondness for, one of the first "smart" devices to handle sync'd contacts, apps and calendars.  Until Palm was crushed in the phone wars, Palm was the undisputed leader in this category.

Jeff Hawkins killer app was the Graffiti software that translated stylus writing on the Palm touch screen into computer-recognized text.  The big innovation was the alteration of a few block-letters to make the printing simple and clear enough for the communication to work effectively.  His insight was that the "computers should learn" philosophy was not perfect, and a more "learn together" concept would be a much faster solution to human-computer communication.

"On Intelligence" was Hawkins' attempt to re-define the "thinking computer" question using neurobiology.  Not a bad task, but I found the book relatively boring and difficult to listen to.

What I did like was the idea that the brain is primarily a relationship identification system, quite different than the linear types of information processing being deigned for computer intelligence.  This idea has merit, and helps explain (and Hawkins does a good job of doing so) how different brain areas can learn, or process, information in similar ways (e.g. reading, language, hearing all seem to access the same symbolic representations, regardless of the physical modality of the input).  Compare this to computers, where the modality is key at this point in technological history.