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Heikki Hietala (Klaukkala, Finland)

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5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic, eerily beautiful, and fulfilling, 21 Aug 2013
George Dyson has succeeded in what is an almost impossible task. He has delivered a book on the dawn of computing, without a moment of boring technobabble, but full of personal recollections of the fantastic people who built the early computers.

What we have today is nothing but the realization of the dreams of people such as John von Neumann, Alan Turing, Stan Ulam, and a wide cast of others who all feature in this book. The dreams were not realistic in the time of the Enigma and the Colossus and the Maniac, due to reasons of materials technology and some vital missing parts such as the transistor. But the ideas are all there, right up to hyperlinked documents and an universal network across the entire globe.

It is not an easy read; you have to bear in mind many details as you go along, otherwise the magic will be lost. But if you read this book with thought and time, you will be breathless by the time you finish it. You will be amazed at the immeasurable intelligence of von Neumann and Alan Turing, and the way engineers were able to take whatever they had and build machines that could simulate the atom bomb going off - never mind if it took 40 days to finish, their machine did billions of computations and not faltered once. Impressive in the extreme!

We all have read about the bombes and the Colossi at Bletchley Park, and how ENIAC came along to spawn MANIAC and JOHNNIAC and a host of other computers. What is interesting is how these machines are projections of the human mind, and how personal features and different mathematical styles were brought together by World War 2 in the race for the ultimate weapon. It is also interesting to see how these fathers of the digital age saw such a wide variety of applications for the computer; it was not just for bombs, but for weather solutions and financial theories as well. Even the Monte Carlo

What finally blew me away was Dyson's projections into the future from here. He maintains the Internet is a self-replicating automaton, a gigantic Turing machine, well on its way to fulfilling Turing's dream of the Universal Machine. He points out minute details that are actually of great importance, such as the fact that email is not sent anywhere, instead a copy of the message is made at the destination, and this is an example of replication. None less interesting are the archaic ways to store data in memory, and the distinction between code and data. That division occurred quite early on, and it was just that division which enabled computers to become universal. It is almost impossible to understand how someone can use a pool filled with mercury to store data, but you can, if you are an early computer engineer.

To list the anecdotes of great personalities that are included in this wonderful book would be superfluous. You have to read it to see how John von Neumann catalyzed the entire top echelon of physicist and mathematicians to design the early computers, and how far the human mind is capable of reaching when it is free to range. Von Neumann is the central character by default in this book, but you will make lots of use of the Cast of Characters which is provided at the start of the book.

In a nutshell, I have not found a better book on the early days of computing - and this one takes you into the future too. Read it.

Spies In The Sky: The Secret Battle for Aerial Intelligence during World War II
Spies In The Sky: The Secret Battle for Aerial Intelligence during World War II
by Taylor Downing
Edition: Paperback
Price: 14.50

4.0 out of 5 stars Well written and satisfying, 24 July 2013
Photographic reconnaissance came of age during World War 2. First effectively used during the Great War (photographs of battlefields were used to discover enemy positions and plan for offensive manoeuvers) it was only in the 1930s that the technology provided military planners with the requisite tools for real, far-reaching results.

Spies In The Sky, entertainingly written by Taylor Downing, charts the development of the men and machines that served so well in WW2 and had a significant effect on the battle to defeat the Third Reich. The book is focused on the British effort. This is only fair since the Germans really did not develop photo reconnaissance at all and the Americans were largely happy to watch over the shoulder of the British in this regard.

The chronological record of photo reconnaissance and photo interpretation first sheds light on Sidney Cotton's maverick enterprises in the field of PR. His privately-funded photo equipment and aircraft, as well as his talent in developing the flight and photo techniques necessary, yielded very good results but his headstrong character, and unwillingness to let the military have a say on how PR should be done, led to his being separated from the Air Ministry. Still, he took some of the very last images from Germany just prior to the outbreak of the war and, without his work, PR would not have been as advanced as it was when the war finally erupted.

A large portion of the book is devoted to the unique PI centre of RAF Medmenham and with very good reason. A handful of very talented men and women were installed at the mock-Tudor mansion of Medmenham with a view on the Thames and ample space. That space soon ran out as the process of PI was refined as a three-stage interpretation sequence of images with each stage providing vital output for war planners. With the war in full swing millions of images arrived at Medmenham to be checked and acted upon within a couple of hours of being exposed over enemy territory. The same expansion into hastily-built huts that happened at the code-breaking centre of Bletchley Park occurred at Medmenham too and, at the end of the war, the mansion was surrounded by a rambling collection of buildings housing thousands of people hard at work.

On the technology side the use of the Wild A5 Stereo Plotter and other tools to identify military targets and new weapon development are very well recounted in SITS. It is revelatory to see how skilled operators were able to recognise tiny objects in the images, sometimes shot from 30,000 feet, and provide a coherent description of what the object might be. The hunt for, and identification of, the V1 and V2 launch sites is a case in point (albeit one told many times elsewhere). The dedication of the men and women who spent the war at Medmenham, staring at stereo photos for hours on end, is readily identifiable in the book, and the reader gains an admiration for them.

And, of course, the aircrew too. The men who flew unarmed but highly-tuned Spitfires and Mosquitos into enemy airspace to gain a strip of photos of some part of the landscape were skilled and brave beyond belief. There are heart-rending stories of how PR pilots decided to turn around to make another pass over an important target even as enemy fighters were closing in and how a Mosquito PR op almost went wrong when a Messerschmitt 262 appeared out of nowhere and robbed the Mossie of its only asset - superior speed. Teamwork between the pilot and the navigator saved themselves, the aircraft and the film but the tale of the fight brings you to the edge of your seat.

The book also discusses the organisational problems faced by the PR and PI communities. As is so often the case, no one wanted the PR and PI people when they were still forming the operational readiness they wanted to have but as soon as they delivered success after success everyone wanted a share of the glory. Medmenham was many times threatened with division into Bomber Command PI, Fighter Command PI and American PI sections but the leaders of the base stood firm and resisted all such idiotic turf war initiatives. This enabled Medmenham to keep on processing millions of images through the three-stage identification process and deliver identification results that affected the war throughout its course.

Personal accounts and stories of notable personalities are included in just the right proportion to the big picture which makes this a very enjoyable book to read. Familiar names such a Tony Hill, the low-level oblique image wizard pilot, and Constance Babington Smith (herself an author on PI) and many others are all given credit for their selfless dedication and courage. Anecdotes of funny incidents in the PI community liven up the narrative, which, naturally, is a little grim in the early days of the war.

I have no hesitation in recommending this book to any WW2 aficionado who wants a balanced background book on this often overlooked, but absolutely vital, part of the war effort.

Spitfire Women of World War II
Spitfire Women of World War II
by Giles Whittell
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.24

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Tribute to the unsung but gutsy heroines, 30 Nov 2012
War is a bad thing by definition, but it does create unusual circumstances in which unusual things can happen.

When Britain prepared for and then joined WW2, it had enough pilots to fight the war but not enough pilots to ferry aircraft to the squadrons. Hence the ATA (Air Tansport Auxiliary) was founded, and soon it was seen that more pilots would be needed for it than were readily available.

This crack was forcefully hammered wide open by Pauline Gower in the UK and Jackie Cochran in the US, and women entered the ATA. Originally they were allowed to fly docile aircraft such as the Avro Anson, but bit by bit Gower managed to grow the stable of airplanes her pilots were allowed to fly. Soon she had pilots taking to the skies in Hurricanes and Spitfires, and eventually gargantuan Lancasters and B-24 Liberators.

This book brings us delightful stories of such classic aviation heroines as Diana Barnato Walker, who flew a Tempest when it shed its air scoop and much of the lower part of the plane with it. The squadron officer who was to receive the plane chided her for delivering just half of the plane. There's Maureen Dunlop, who exited a Barracuda just as the reporters from Picture Post took her picture (see [...] for that great shot) and who flew many a hazardous delivery. And of course, Ms Duhalde, known as Chile for her native land, who promised to knock a Polish woman pilot's teeth off for jumping the landing pattern.

These ladies delivered thousands of airplanes but also died in the rapidly changing British weather, when they were surprised by a cloud, or flew into mountainsides when they became lost. The balance between a successful delivery and a fiery death in a crash is well told in this book. What is also well told is the incredible callousness of the all-male military aviation establishment, which refused to give the women pilots even rudimentary instrument flight training, which resulted in many deaths directly attributable to loss of spatial awareness.

The author has done a good job in presenting the big picture, but it could be structured better. Now we often are led from one situation into another which has no other connection to the grand narrative than the person we started with, and that makes it a little hard to follow the action. Also, in the Kindle edition, quotes were not indicated: many times you'd start reading a fist person narrative right after a third person viewpoint and it takes some time to figure out who is talking.

Nevertheless, these minor quibbles aside, these ladies deserved this book and all publicity they could possibly get. Now in their nineties, some of them still remember the ATA days as the best of their lives, and after reading this book, you will understand why.

Alternative Dimension
Alternative Dimension

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A clever and very interesting take on virtuality, 17 Oct 2012
Bill Kirton's book, Alternative Dimension, is a very interesting take on life in virtual reality.

At this time, Second Life comes closest to supplying a true virtual life experience, but Kirton goes better with his Alternative Dimension (AD for short). Created by a programmer extraordinaire, Joe Lorimer, it includes many more sensory mechanisms than current ones have, and this makes for a much more immersive user experience. And this is all about user experience, because when you get into this alternative dimension, logging on gains a whole new meaning. Users lead a true alternate life in AD, complete with social structures, complex relationships, and not-exactly-true appearances of both men and things.

The plot revolves around the interaction of avatars in this virtual world, but due to the technologies used, the avatars create a true society, albeit one crossing time and space in cyberspace. Kirton's skill as storyteller is manifested in the way his tight prose flows, and the twists and turns are logical but often very surprising. He also manages to give food for thought on the idea of a virtual reality itself - is it something we should aspire to, or is it something that we should really beware? The way I read this book suggests that VR or AD in this case is a Pandora's Box, and once opened, virtual life can be hard to manage. Your mileage may vary, however.

I also liked the humor injected in this book, and the sometimes absurdly comical events that take place in AD's world, twisted by default.

Marie: An Inspector Monde Tale of Strange and Terrible Adventures (The Inspector Monde Tales)
Marie: An Inspector Monde Tale of Strange and Terrible Adventures (The Inspector Monde Tales)

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mr Booth has a unique touch, 14 April 2012
I've come to appreciate a good suspense story when I come upon one, and John Booth writes them as good as they come. In this story, there is no escape from the dark and terrifying conclusion. I am struggling as a writer to find the correct pace and rate of disclosure, but John Booth has that nailed perfectly: the reader is taken on a suspense ride that will always have one more surprise behind the next corner.

Highly commended.

The Fear Index
The Fear Index
by Robert Harris
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 15.04

14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not what I was hoping for, 9 Feb 2012
This review is from: The Fear Index (Hardcover)
I am a big, big fan of Robert Harris. I found his book Enigma when my interest in the code breaking of Bletchley Park in WW2 was at its peak; that mix of fact and fiction blew me away and it remains his best book in my mind. On a par with it there is Fatherland, the alternative history classic, and almost level, Pompeii. Archangel is also not to be missed.

So, when I started The Fear Index, I was positively titillated with anticipation - a new Harris is always good news.

Within 50 pages, my enthusiasm was dampened somewhat, and after 150 pages, I was downright disappointed. This tale of a brilliant physicist who leaves CERN to write the best algorithmic investment system ever seen was just not what I have always liked best in Harris.

In my mind, Harris shines when he tells the tale of the single man, cast in a role by chance and personal talent, conquering insurmountable odds. Tom Jericho in Enigma, Xavier March in Fatherland, and Fluke Kelso in Archangel have all been set in a situation where only their personal integrity and hard work will win the day.

Not so in The Fear Index. Harris writes well as always, but the picture he draws of Alex Hoffmann has none of the usual charm of a Harris hero. Hoffmann is arrogant, talented, and definitely the man for the job, but his almost autistic lack of interaction doesn't endear him to the reader. Alex's relationship with his artist wife Gabrielle is superficial and uninteresting, even if the culmination point of that relationship in the art gallery raises eyebrows in the best tradition of Harris' books.

Another thing that worried me much was that Harris ventures into Clancyist methods of adding technobabble to add excitement. I was especially disappointed with the small things that he's always done really well: risking that I will be called a muppet by some people, I'll say that CPUs do not hum - transformers do, and there are no files in a computer's registry. Such small items become more and more evident towards the end of the book.

And the crucial element of any book of this type, namely suspension of disbelief, just didn't go far enough. I will not disclose the plot, but at 2/3 of the book it fell flat for me and I read the rest merely to see what happens, not on the edge of the seat enjoying every moment of it.

I will repeat that he writes just as well as ever (with a few somewhat tired similes, a first for me in his books), and to some people, especially in the world of finance, this may be more interesting than to the average lay person, but my expectations were not met, and I will remain in wait for his next book to see if he goes back to creating a truly interesting character in a complex and dangerous situation.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 14, 2013 8:46 AM BST

Price: 3.08

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tour de force if anything - great book, 18 Nov 2011
This review is from: Quintessence. (Kindle Edition)
I knew what to expect, because I had seen an early draft of this book when it was on HarperCollins' website Authonomy. I remember feeling ambivalent about it; I could tell there was much going for it, but also things that bothered me.

Now I have read the entire book in its final form, called Quintessence, and Andrew Meek has put together a really strong debut novel.

Alexander Staalman, physicist, husband, grieving man, an altogether human character, takes us on a tour of mental breakdown, quantum physics, cosmology, and the deepest questions possible: what is this thing called Life, and how can we, conglomerations of atoms consisting of mainly void space, be able to think about it?

The eminent plus points of the book are (in no particular order) depth, honesty, force, intellect, inquisitiveness and beauty.

By depth I mean the way Meek has invested countless hours and massive effort to write a book that manages bind together quantum physics and cosmology, as well as everything that walls in between these two extremes. Staalman ponders believably and interestingly how it can be possible for humans to think - it's just electric current flowing between synapses that are mere atoms in close proximity. And is thinking real? If someone has a thought, is that thought real? Is anything actually and verifiably real?

Honesty is apparent in Staalman's anguished quest to set right a horrible injustice rendered on his beloved wife, Millie. The guilt he experiences over the pain he caused her is rendered in such detail that the reader is wishing to absolve him all the time, but the need for Staalman to correct past deeds, which is of course not possible in our concept of time, forces him to think about time in terms of non-linearity. This is where the book gets to be somewhat challenging, but the author invests sufficient time and space to illustrate his ideas, and all becomes clear at some point.

The force of the book is in the mental breakdowns Stallman experiences. I have often wondered what it must be like to have one of these, and after reading this book I can safely say I wish such events happening to no one. Meek writes with such terrifying clarity of what it's like to feel sanity slip away that the text actually had me shivering more than once.

Intellectually this is one of the most challenging books I've read in a while. Sure, I am a longtime fan of Carl Sagan and cosmology, and I have read all the reports on quantum teleport and how Schrödinger's Cat must be doing these days, but man... this book gets you going really. Meek binds together thought experiments and real-life science so effortlessly that I found myself checking Wikipedia every five pages. I have nothing but admiration for his capability of bringing all of this together.

Inquisitiveness is a natural part of this book. We all wonder about life from time to time and then check to see what's on the telly tonight, but Andrew Meek sets the table for a full feast of questions. How can it be that when he thinks, then writes, then sets to type, uploads the book, and as I download it, I get to see what he thought? But surely all is just electric charges between our synapses! There can't be anything more than electric signals - or is there?

And the beauty... there is beauty in this book. It's in the way electrons spin around the nucleus, and how these atoms self-assemble into molecules, substances, cognitive humans, solar systems and ultimately galaxies. All is from the same source, and yet, nothing is alike to another substance. Alexander's and Millie's love story is hauntingly beautiful too, and even if this seems weird to say, I'll say there's beauty in Alexander's madness.

If you like your books thought-provoking, interesting, fact-laden to the hilt, this is for you. On the other hand, if you are up for an easy read, pass this one by. I definitely hope you will be of the former kind and give this book a serious attempt.

If I may nitpick, I would say this book would benefit from one more run-down by an experiences editor. There's a smidgen too much of stuff in it, and some typo issues. None of this is critical; it is much more important to just read the book.

HarperCollins, are you paying attention?

Cold Hillside
Cold Hillside
Price: 1.92

5.0 out of 5 stars Cold Hillside will keep you reading, 6 Oct 2011
This review is from: Cold Hillside (Kindle Edition)
Martin Cooper's Cold Hillside is one of the books that keeps you focused until the very end.

Cooper spins the tale of two brothers in Southern England, one a dealer of all kinds of items, and the other a folk musician. Their lives separate as most sibling lives do, but they keep in touch. Giles dies in a road accident, forcing Simon to take stock of his inheritance. This peoves a daunting task as more and more irregularities appear, and eventually the book evolves into a full-fledged crime novel on focused on Giles' role in illegal immigration.

Many books today are such thrillers, but rarely have I come across one as readable as this. Martin Cooper is a master in showing us what happens, and his fully developed characters act believably, even if the magnitude of the immigration crime soon daunts them. His prose is immaculate, creative, and very enjoyable to read.

I was impressed in his way of walking the reader and the soaked, wretched illegal immigrant women up from the seaside and into their hellish life as prostitutes. It takes a gifted narrator to make that trip in a credible and interesting way, and he succeeds eminently.

I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone interested in well-written surprise crime novels.

The Iron Admiral: Conspiracy
The Iron Admiral: Conspiracy

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book for fans of space and love, 22 Sep 2011
Greta van der Rol's The Iron Admiral - Conspiracy is the first Scifi book I have liked in the past ten years.

I've read Scifi since I was a kid. Lem, Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke and Bradbury filled my teen years too and well into adulthood, but then I found myself falling off the genre. For example, everyone touted Ender's Game as something that everyone should read, but I dropped it halfway through. Since then I have taken up Scifi with lukewarm results.

Now, however, I picked up Greta van der Rol's The Iron Admiral. I found the same elements in it that I used to like so much in the past: a solid, interesting plotline, good writing, and the most important thing: the Science in Science Fiction delivered so well that it simply doesn't attack the reader. There are the shift-space-capable battle cruisers, stun guns and alien species, but as in the best of the genre books, they simply exist and are not elaborated upon, let alone explained to death. I especially liked the portable hyperspace gate - when can we buy them?

I have read van der Rol's excellent debut To Die a Dry Death, in which her voice was clear and lucid already, but I am happy to see development even in this department. The way she carries the story and its multitude of characters is very readable and it is easy to follow the convoluted storyline. Allysha and Saahren come across as very human characters, complete with little quirks and habits. I have never met a live ptorix, but I am willing to take van der Rol's portrayal of them as a species with their own agenda (and tentacles).

I am willing to recommend this book to any fan of the genre, and even to fans of just romance: you should check how romance can bloom while an interspecies war looms in the future.

Swedish for Beginners- a novel (contemporary fiction set in Sweden)
Swedish for Beginners- a novel (contemporary fiction set in Sweden)
Price: 2.56

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Charming book from Scandinavia for a change, 20 July 2011
Scandinavian books are hot at the moment. If you go for twisted thrillers, darker-than-dark novels of crime,you're in your heaven right now.

However, there's another kind of Scandinavian literature you should look at. It's that one heralded by Susanne O'Leary, whose crisply written, definitely feminine books have taken the e-publishing by storm of late.

Swedish for beginners is the best one to start when you want to get to know her books. The story of Maud in search of her past, and that of her family's, will fill you with a longing to see the places for yourself. Susanne's writing is fluent and eloquent, and the twists of the story will keep you entertained up until the very end.

My personal favorite is the delightful way the story of Maud and Lukas unfolds. It takes a very good author to disclose just the right amount of information and know what to witthold until later, and Susanne O'Leary does that without fail. You will be saddened, amazed, and gladdened by the way it all plays out.

If you like your books well written, entertaining, thought-provoking, this is for you, but don't buy it if you are into bleak underworld stories. This is not one of them.

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