Category Archives: Books

Updated Links

I’ve updated the links to add a new section for reference websites that aren’t updated in the same way blogs are.  All of the new sites listed under “Reference” I would highly recommend, but for different reasons.

Basketball-reference.com is the best way to get basketball stats hands-down. If you are at all into sports data, this site has data on games, teams, players, and coaches for college and professional levels going back decades. It even has more advanced stats, pace-adjusted, whatever you could want for free.

Learn Liberty, Libertarianism.org, and the Library of Economics and Liberty are awesome libertarian/economic websites. Libertarianism.org (run by the Cato Institute) is the best site for introductory essays discussing libertarianism and classical liberalism, and Learn Liberty (run by IHS) is similar but with an emphasis on videos.  The Library of Economics and Liberty has tons of publications from classical liberal thinkers going back centuries.

Steve Gibson’s Sci-Fi Book Guide is a list of science fiction novels compiled by computer security expert Steve Gibson (whose Podcast is in my blog list).  It’s different from your normal sci-fi book list and I’ve enjoyed his recommendations so far. I plan on having a more in depth blog on sci-fi novels soon.

Things Every CS Major Should Know is a way too long of a list of things that I don’t know, but an excellent guide for self education for anyone interested in computers and coding.  Professor Might’s blog is awesome but is often more technical than I need, so I don’t have it in my blog list.

I’d also like to highlight one relatively new addition to my blog links: Slate Star Codex. Scott Alexander, the author of this blog, is the most impressive writer I’ve seen in a blogger.  He writes volumes, and has an emphasis on rationality and rhetoric.  He’s also libertarian leaning, but I would describe his position as rational, libertarian-leaning political skeptic. I would highly recommend his blog.

The Diamond Age

Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel The Diamond Age is a fascinating story which provides a lot of relevant discussion about the conflicts between east-Asian and western values, especially in education and social issues.  Additionally vital to book is the advanced technological setting, a future of eartch future revolutionized by nanotechnology.  In fact, for much of the book, the exploration of this nanotechnological future was at least as interesting as the plot.

Use of this book for discussion purposes qualifies as Fair Use. Click for link.

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A Song of Ice and Fire: Books 1 and 2

I started A Song of Ice and Fire series this year, since the Game of Thrones TV series has reached fever pitch among my neighbors and friends.  For those who do not know, A Song of Ice and Fire is the original name of the series of novels by George R. R. Martin (what is it with fantasy authors and two Rs as their Middle names?).  For my overall one sentence review, I would say these books are excellent, highly complex, dark, realistic, and unique in their take on the fantasy genre.

Source: Wikipedia, click for link. Cover art by Stephen Youll. Use of this book cover for purposes of discussion qualifies as fair use.

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Stranger in a Strange Land

Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is one of the most famous American novels written in the 20th century.  When I started to read it, I had no idea what to expect.  I guessed that Stranger would be about space exploration and other worlds, in the vein of Star Wars, Firefly, or even the Enderverse.  What I found instead was something completely different.

Stranger is indeed science fiction, and does concern extraterrestrial concepts vital to the plot, but it is far more introspective to the human race than anything I was prepared for. It concerns Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised on Mars and brought to Earth, and his struggle to understand the foreign species around him.

One of the reasons I was first interested in this book was because it won  a Prometheus Award, given out by the Libertarian Futurist Society. Their website, while not containing impressive HTML nonetheless holds a great deal of recognition for libertarian literature. Part of Stranger is indeed about how easily an individual can be crushed by either government, religion, or simply society generally.  Indeed, several of the novels protagonists are as ruggedly individualistic as any human could be, and almost all of the enemies in the book arise from when collective action overtakes individual freedom, whether that collectivism stems from the terrestrial state, the extraterrestrial Martians, or the blind servants of the supernatural.

However, the book certainly has its flaws.  While political events and societal observations are masterfully crafted, they are interspersed with jarringly 1950s gender roles that immediately break the illusion of a futuristic society.  That’s not to say the book or Heinlein are anti-feminist; women certainly can hold power in the novel, but it is clearly restricted to a mid-century mindset, something I cannot fault Heinlein for, as he did not pick the age in which he lived.

Overall though, the book is an excellent adventure, entertaining and thought provoking.  I would certainly recommend reading it, but it is not someone first approaching the science fiction genre.  Something like Ender’s Game definitely comes first when starting to explore sci-fi, and after that I’d recommend Dune.  Then perhaps take a dive into the more intense science fiction of Stranger.

Homeland

This week I finished reading Homeland by Cory Doctorowauthor and co-editor of Boing Boing.  My immediate reason for reading it was an assignment from my CS seminar class about the internet and technology in society, but I had been meaning to read Little Brother for some time.  Homeland is the sequel to Little Brother, and while I was not familiar with the storyline, the book is a pretty easy read so I jumped right in. Doctorow wrote both Little Brother and Homeland for young adults to be both accessible and educational about technology and civil liberties.  Doctorow is somewhat of an anti-copyright activist and thus the books, like all of his work can be obtained for free from his website, but if you enjoy them, I urge you to buy them as well and support his work.

Homeland undertakes a great deal in a small space and is fairly successful.  Doctorow pursues various themes in his book, while seeking to explain a complex and technical world to an unfamiliar audience, all of which occurs only for the backdrop of a riveting storyline that must keep the reader’s attention.  Having not read the previous story of which Homeland is a sequel to, many of the events and background was not familiar to me, yet it was consistently well-explained. Furthermore, the intense technical nature of many of the plot devices were adequately covered so that the audience not only knew what was occurring, but inevitably learned a great deal about privacy, cryptography, and information security in the process. This  translated into pushing many of the themes of the book, notably that technology can be a force for both good and evil, and if prying eyes want to know what you’re doing, you can’t always stop them.  But Homeland also gives some insight into the hacker culture and catalogs many of the tools that government dissidents can use to hide their activities like secure linux distros, Tor, and VPNs.  And it does all this while maintaining a fascinating plot and interesting characters.

However, it is isn’t perfect. Doctorow’s politics are not particularly subtle, and with the exception of a few anonymous hackers, the vast majority of the characters are pretty starkly divided into “good guy hacktivists” and “bad guy enforcers”.  In some sense, this is due to the limitations of the genre with Homeland aimed at the young adult audience where the appeal of the fighting-the-man scenarios is an excellent plot device.  But it also detracts from the overall message;Homeland paints an incredible story of why civil liberties must be so carefully guarded and how destructive life can become when they are gone–but the story itself might feel too forced to fit that message.

Of course, I would emphasize that while some of the technology itself might not be realistic (although in a couple years that won’t be true anymore), almost every important point in the book has already happened. With the passage of the 2012 NDAAauthorizing the president to detain indefinitely any US citizen suspected of being involved in terrorist activities, the use of water boarding by the US government, and the well-documented use of defense contractors, much of the more unbelievable actions the government took in Homeland have already occurred in real life. Thus, Doctorow’s book offers a sobering outlook on the technologically advanced world we live in, and a powerful message about where the abuses of unbridled authority can lead.  I would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in cyber security, technology and politics, or anyone who simply wants to know more about the dark world of hackers, crypto, and anonymity.