Monday, July 18, 2016

CyberSpies by Gordon Corera

Back in the “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” days, the spy game was about hidden messages and microdots that spies carried across borders at personal peril, hoping not to be intercepted at airports. Today spies sit in offices or at various Starbucks, staring at computer screens. They hack into sensitive servers, download files in seconds, and then send them on wild electronic routes across the global internet. Or they put spyware on computers and wait for the info to be emailed back to them. In CYBERSPIES by Gordon Corera, the history of spycraft is examined, with particular attention given to Russia, the UK, and China, but also the NSA and characters like Edward Snowden. It’s not just military secrets that are targeted. Cyber big business crime is viral, as global technology in the U.S. and elsewhere is targeted for attack. Narrator Gildart Jackson has a deep English voice with a commanding yet pleasant tone to it, perfect for listening in the car or on an iPhone or iPod where there might be background noise. You will learn many things you may not have gleaned even by reading the NY Times, and certainly not by watching network news. Such as the personality of the NSA director, how the Cold War evolution of spycraft has gone from hundreds of millions to hundreds of billions in cost in a new arms (technology) race, and how the Chinese have become the biggest users of the internet with the most spies (including state-friendly tech companies working 24/7 to acquire both business and military advantage via espionage.) Many countries, particularly non-democratic ones, limit the internet, blocking out entire sectors of news and information, even as they hack dissidents or regime critics. So besides being a means for people to obtain information, the internet is also a tool to suppress citizens and to attack neighbors. Reminds me of the Star Trek episode in which two civilizations war with each other via computer, and those “hit” electronically must report to disintegration stations. The consequences of spying and information theft likewise includes victims. Spock would have found the audiobook “fascinating,” before a raised eyebrow indicated that humans never seem to learn from war as the Vulcans did. (The audiobook is available on CD, Mp3-CD, and download, or digital rental for $6.95.) 

Thursday, July 14, 2016


Michio Kaku is one of the best interpreters of complex science to the layman. Unlike some others, he seems more reasoned and balanced in expressing opinions while keeping his own ego mostly out of the equation. His new book is PARALLEL WORLDS: A journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos. Read by Marc Vietor on audio, the audiobook is a history of physics mingled with (and to set up) discussions of multiverse theories. Kaku tells why scientists must have a theory of everything in order to aid progress of the species (away from extinction due to war & ignorance, which is a 50/50 tossup.) In describing M Theory as part of string theory, he is cautiously optimistic that the ultimate answer may be a formula scarcely more than an inch long. Einstein’s E=MC2 was one such revolutionary formula. “And it will not solve humanity’s problems overnight,” he says. “Scientists in the past have often underestimated the length of time for progress to occur.” Science moves by increments, after all. It is a slow building process, rejecting bad ideas in favor of better explanations. (2001: A Space Odyssey may end up being 2100 before we go to Jupiter on manned missions with AI in control.) Kaku makes analogies like John Glenn being made of solid gold, which is how much it costs to put an astronaut into space. Going to Mars is a favorite obsession for NASA and physicists like Neil deGrasse Tyson, to say nothing of fans who know little about the dangers and costs. Kaku suggests that such a mission would not return much in real cost/benefit, and that it might be better to wait until the technology improves far more than it has. As a civilization, we are near zero in ability to harness energy efficiently. On an actual scale, we would be .07. A level 1 civilization would be a million times more efficient. A level 2 a million times more than level 1, and a level 3 still a million times greater. In order for an advanced civilization to be here on Earth (in UFOs) they would need to be at least level 2.5. What would be the odds that we could fight them, as Hollywood would have you believe (given that aliens would even possess our ego flaws)? Insert LOL. Or as Arthur C. Clarke put it, “a sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic.” Kaku describes the eventual fate of the universe, what is needed to escape that fate, (if such a thing is possible,) and he references science fiction stories to illustrate concepts. (For example, check out this link for a story on carbon nanotubes used in creating a space elevator.) This all makes for an entertaining overview of current cosmology science, with greater complexity and depth than one finds on TV shows like NOVA. Science satellite data and upcoming new instruments, the nature of the Big Bang (“which wasn’t big and didn’t bang,”) inflationary proofs, plus philosophy and religion…nothing is off limits to this excellent production with Vietor (who has narrated SF in the past) at the helm. Within the next two decades we may know the ultimate secrets of dark energy and dark matter, and so Kaku is calling this the “golden age” of physics. A must hear. Michio Kaku is the Henry Semat Professor of theoretical physics at the CUNY Graduate Center, a leader in the field of theoretical physics, and cofounder of string field theory. He is the author of several widely acclaimed science books, including Parallel Worlds, Visions, Beyond Einstein, Hyperspace, and Physics of the Impossible—the basis for his Science Channel television show, Sci-Fi Science: Physics of the Impossible—and the host of two radio programs, Explorations and Science Fantastic.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

WILLNOT by James Sallis

WILLNOT by James Sallis is a unique new novel by the author of DRIVE (made into a movie starring Ryan Gosling, and also on audio:) “In the woods outside the town of Willnot, the remains of several people have suddenly been discovered, unnerving the community and unsettling Hale, the town’s all-purpose general practitioner, surgeon, and conscience. At the same time, Bobby Lowndes—a man being followed by the FBI—mysteriously reappears in his hometown at Hale’s door. Over the ensuing months, the daily dramas Hale faces as he tends to his town and to his partner, Richard, collide with the swerves and turns of life in Willnot. And when a gunshot aimed at Lowndes critically wounds Richard, Hale’s world is truly upended.” The thing that separates this novel from many with such plots is the tone and point of view, almost stream of conscious. It is philosophical, like Ian McEwan (whose “Enduring Love” is new to audio.) He doesn’t limit himself to the events of the novel, but ruminates and dreams about how he got where he is in such a way as to elevate the perspective. (McEwan also wrote “The Daydreamer.”) What makes it irresistible is narrator Kevin Kenerly, who was great in TO LIVE FOREVER. Kenerly imbues what he reads with a grandeur and significance that is not easily forgotten. Sallis has published more than a dozen novels; multiple collections of short stories, poems, and essays; the definitive biography of Chester Himes; several books of musicology; and a translation of Raymond Queneau’s novel Saint Glinglin. His works have been shortlisted for the Anthony, Nebula, Edgar, Shamus, and Gold Dagger awards. The film version of his novel Drive won the Best Director Award at the Cannes International Film Festival, and his Lew Griffin books are in development for film. He plays guitar, French horn, mandolin, fiddle, sitar, and Dobro, both solo and with the band Three-Legged Dog. AUDIOBOOK OF THE MONTH.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Drinking with Armed Democrats and Republicans

Gun control? That issue is hot. No matter what side you come down on, it would help to listen to the audiobook explaining the OTHER side. Having both sides, you can then better know how to vote or argue. No? Drink? You're going to need it because you're in for a very rough ride, otherwise. Narrator on DRINKING WITH THE DEMOCRATS by Mark Will-Weber is William Hughes, a professor of political science at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon. He received his doctorate in American politics from the University of California, Davis. He has done voice-over work for radio and film and is also an accomplished jazz guitarist. Organized by president, this fun audiobook is full of cocktail recipes, bar tips, and hysterical drinking anecdotes from all Democratic White House administrations. Which Southern man drank Snakebites? How did Jackie O. like her daiquiris? Drinking with the Democrats is the bar guide with a twist that all political buffs will enjoy. DRINKING WITH THE REPUBLICANS asks and answers questions like which president liked to mix whiskey, vodka, and orange juice? Who had a trick for hiding the labels of cheap wine? Narrator is Grover Gardner (a.k.a. Tom Parker), an award-winning voiceover artist with over eight hundred titles to his credit. Named one of the “Best Voices of the Century” and a Golden Voice by AudioFile magazine, he has won three prestigious Audie Awards, was chosen Narrator of the Year for 2005 by Publishers Weekly, and has earned more than thirty Earphones Awards.  

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

When it was first published over 20 years ago, Joe Haldeman's novel won the Hugo and Nebula awards and was chosen Best Novel in several countries. Today, it is hailed a classic of science fiction that foreshadowed many of the futuristic themes of the 1990s: bionics, sensory manipulation, and time distortion. William Mandella is a soldier in Earth's elite brigade. As the war against the Taurans sends him from galaxy to galaxy, he learns to use protective body shells and sophisticated weapons. He adapts to the cultures and terrains of distant outposts. But with each month in space, years are passing on Earth. Where will he call home when (and if) the Forever War ends? Narrator George Wilson's performance conveys all the imaginative technology and human drama of The Forever War. Set against a backdrop of vivid battle scenes, this absorbing work asks provocative questions about the very nature of war. Drawing on his own war experiences, Vietnam veteran Joe Haldeman creates stunning works of science fiction. Forever Peace is not a sequel to his previous award-winning work, The Forever War, but it deals with similarly provocative issues. When it was published, Forever Peace was chosen Best Book of the Year by Publishers Weekly. It also won the coveted Hugo Award. War in the 21st century is fought by "soldierboy" avatars operated remotely. This idea was incorporated by James Cameron in Avatar, and the novel was optioned by Ridley Scott for a movie. Remote-controlled mechanical monsters, they are run by human soldiers who hard-wire their brains together to form each unit. Julian is one of these dedicated soldiers, until he inadvertently kills a young boy. Now he struggles to understand how this has changed his mind. Forever Peace is a riveting portrayal of the effects of collective consciousness, and it offers some tantalizing revelations. Narrator George Wilson's skillful performance weaves together the elements of futuristic technology with the drama of a trained soldier reconciling basic human needs. Joe Haldeman is an American author of award-winning science fiction and nonfiction works and a part-time professor at MIT. He earned a BS degree in physics and astronomy, as well as an MFA in writing. Drafted into the military, he served in Vietnam as a combat engineer in 1968 and 1969, was severely wounded, and earned a Purple Heart. His experience in war and in returning to civilian life are themes he uses in much of his writing. He is the author of numerous novels and several series, including the Forever War series. His science fiction has earned many awards, including five Hugo Awards, five Nebula Awards, a John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, a Locus Award, three Rhysling Awards, a World Fantasy Award, and a James Tiptree, Jr. Award. Also, he was named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 2009, received the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement in 2010, and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2012. 

Saturday, July 2, 2016

CHAOS MONKEYS and Cholerics

Love in the Time of…Cholerics?

Are human beings sheep? A case can be made. We even share a nice percentage of the DNA of sheep. Even more with hogs. When we sleep we talk of counting sheep, though. Not pigs. Why? It rhymes. Sheep/sleep. Advertisers mostly treat us like sheep, too. Except for some selling fat burgers, in which case we are seen as hogs. Others employ jingles or cow bells to herd us into the direction of their corral, where we can be better counted and resold products we don’t need or wouldn’t buy if we weren’t sheep. Yes, even the major network news use these tactics now. If a few carrots don’t work, they use other cute animals with whom we may relate. “Coming right up, a cat video gone viral you can’t miss!”  
Flipping through channels today is like skating on a frozen lake around a thousand fishermen with poles over holes in the ice. This is a good analogy, by the way, because the words “skate” and “lake” and “poles” and “holes” rhyme. Also because it forces you to see the situation from the outside: you haven’t yet fallen into one of those holes, each being a slippery slope. If you now imagine being a sheared shivering sheep skating, you are getting close to visualizing a funny New Yorker cartoon. Or cover.
Speaking of covers, there’s an old saying, “Never judge a book by its cover.” But we do, anyway. Stats show that a great cover can increase sales by as much as 2000%. Used to be they published novels by Faulkner or Joyce or Hemingway in plain brown wrappers, so to speak. A title, a little flourished frame, and maybe just the suggestion of a design. Today there’s raised lettering, provocative imagery, wild unnaturally vivid reds and ultramarine, and upwards of a hundred blurbs recommending what could still be junk, just in case you happen to nibble at the lure but haven’t yet bitten. This is because the attention span of some sheep may be longer than a goldfish. Sadly, top writers must play along with these tricks or face decreased sales. So, on the one hoof, a snoutful of famous authors need to endlessly repeat their formulas while allowing co-authors to keep even more bestsellers (and their brand) forever visible, while in the other pen there’s the 99.9% reading help wanted ads.
Thanks to personalization filters, we sheep are fed back the same diet we always “preferred.” That word is in quotation marks because we only preferred it once, but then are force fed it forever instead of other tastes or ideas or viewpoints because filters are robots. Like the automatic gate that swings shut behind us, trapping us like a grain fed hog in a shallow pen. Which brings me to my final point: we, as sheep, are food on the hoof. Mutton. Or, in other cases, bacon. Because while we are consumers, we are also the consumed. Indeed, there’s some cannibalism going on here, too.

How so? Homo sapiens are animals too, at least according to scientists. Top of the food chain, perhaps, but as apex predators still animals fighting for survival. We are the only species on the planet that performs genocide on itself, as well. So we may not survive. “Flip a coin,” says Neil deGrasse Tyson, among others. Meanwhile, Stephen Hawking fears that a singularity of machine intelligence may make us obsolete, and extinct—if we don’t do it to ourselves first. True, cholera or other infectious diseases or superbugs may do it, but this is less likely than hotheaded leaders bickering or insulting one another, as that which started WWI. Ray Bradbury, many a writer’s mentor, including me, once repeated Einstein’s quote that WWIV will be fought with sticks and stones. Besides writing about burning books and the lost literacy and low attention spans associated with television, he also wrote a story called “A Piece of Wood” in which a soldier invents a device that turns metal weapons to dust, and after a demonstration—before the sergeant can end war forever—his commander busts a chair and runs after him with a wooden leg as a club, to kill him. Now, a choleric is a personality type which angers easily, is irascible, hot-headed. And, ironically, the word is derived from the medieval science and medicine word “choler,” associated with yellow bile, anger: the same word associated with the epidemic of cholera. See how it all fits together? Okay, maybe that’s illusion too. Supposedly the Dark Ages of ignorance, static culture, and viral memes of violence are over. But not if we just eat, sleep, repeat.  —Jonathan Lowe 

CHAOS MONKEYS by Antonio Garcia Martinez is an interesting (and surprising!) Silicon Valley biography from an insider to Facebook and Goldman Sachs. It is narrated by Dan John Miller.