Review: City of Thieves

City of Thieves

Historical fiction and World War II are two subjects that I love reading about. Even better when they’re combined, in my opinion. I just finished City of Thieves by David Benioff and it’s one of my favorite books that I’ve read in awhile.

It follows the antics of two teenage Russian boys during the siege of Leningrad in the early 1940’s. After the boys are caught breaking the law and thrown in prison, they are given reprieve by a local military commander. Find a dozen eggs in 5 days and their lives will be spared.

From then on, both hilarity and catastrophe ensue. It’s full of (mis)adventure, humor, and even has some deep reflections on what it means to be alive. There were parts where I laughed out loud and other parts that nearly brought a tear to my eye.

For anyone who’s a fan of historical fiction, especially when set in World War II, I highly recommend this book. It’s great. And at 260 pages, you can get through it really quick.

Review: Zoo

Zoo
Zoo by James Patterson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Let me start off by saying that the premise of “Zoo” sounds like a very promising story. It’s a techno-thriller set in the present day and explores a mystery illness suddenly spreading around the world that is causing all sorts of mammals to inexplicably attack humans on sight (and smell). From domesticated pets to wild animals, we’ve suddenly become nature’s favorite snack.

In reality, this book should probably be named, “50 Shades of Prey.” The writing style leaves quite a bit to be desired. The story alternates between poorly written third person narratives describing various animals attacking humans and tortuous first-person accounts from a “scientist” named Oz — an arrogant manic drop-out with ADHD from Colombia University who you would probably find calling into Art Bell’s Coast to Coast each week. Oh, he also has an insane chimpanzee for a pet.

Anyway, the story opens with two lions from the LA Zoo attacking their keeper (whom they’ve been familiar with for years) and escaping into the urban jungle known as Los Angeles and generally wrecking some major havoc.

From there, we meet Oz, a self-proclaimed pioneer of a little-known theory called HAC — human-animal conflict. For roughly the last 10 or so years, he’s been tracking every instance of animal attacks on humans and is the only one who notices a disturbing trend: they’ve been increasing exponentially!

It probably doesn’t help that his main / preferred companion is a chimp and he is a chronic homebody. (Interestingly enough, he still manages to have a girlfriend or two in the book.) Coupled with his caustic attitude toward other scientists who looked down upon him (and the constant snarky quips and comments he shares throughout the book), I can’t think of a single reason why anyone would have a hard time believing him.

Anyway, all of this leads to an interesting thought experiment: What happens when rats, bats, dogs, and dolphins (all lead by a single chimpanzee) take over the world and potentially lead to the fall of human civilization as we know it, while our only savior is a crazy introvert who knew this was going to happen all along?

Let’s just say that I really wanted to like this book. The concept had a lot of potential. Sadly, I found myself wanting to get through this book just so I could get done with it and move onto the next thing on my reading list. The parts describing the animal attacks tried to emulate a Stephen King horror novel while the first-person accounts with Oz were just downright torture to read.

Fortunately for me (and probably for you too), it’s a relatively mindless and quick read. I struggled with whether to give this two stars or three stars. The entire story started to unravel and grow more ridiculous toward the end (kind of like this review). Ultimately, I decided to give it 2 stars.

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Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player One
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Part sci-fi, part fantasy, and part adventure, Ready Player One is a fun read for anyone who is nerdy, plays video games, and grew up in the 80’s (and loved it). Some parts simply feel as if you’re watching someone else play a video game (we know how boring that can be), but others are action packed and deep enough to make you think. Read on for the rest of the review!

Ready Player One is the first book written by Ernest Cline. Published in 2011, it takes a look at an American dystopia in the near future (the story takes place around 2040). It’s a strange America – an America where abject poverty is prevalent on every street corner, but everyone still has access to the Internet.

More specifically, they have access to a virtual world called OASIS, which has replaced the Internet. OASIS is a fusion of Second Life, The Matrix, Avatar, World of Warcraft, Tron, and a number of other video games and movies. It’s a world where people go to escape the tedium and toil of everyday life, buy goods (both real and virtual), meet new people, and even learn and study.

The story follows our hero, Wade Watts, an overweight, nerdy kid only 18-years of age and living inside a slum née trailer park in Oklahoma City. Socially awkward, he’s extraordinarily gifted with computers and feels most comfortable inside OASIS.

Ready Player One is told from Wade’s point of view. He begins the story by recounting where he was when he found out that James Halliday, the creator of OASIS, had passed away. Halliday was both reclusive and eccentric, and spent nearly his entire life creating, maintaining, and adding to OASIS. One can’t help but think of Steve Wozniak when Wade describes Halliday’s mannerisms. (We later find that Halliday had a ruthless and smart business partner throughout his life – it’s almost an interesting parable for Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.)

Halliday had no heirs for his massive fortune. Instead, he only left behind video instructions detailing what should be done with estate. All one had to do to inherit his riches was to find and complete a series of Easter Eggs that he had hidden throughout Oasis. That was it!

Wade continues the story, explaining that this was no easy task. Halliday had left behind no clues about where his Easter Eggs may have been hidden among the tens of thousands of worlds inside OASIS.

Wade, and the thousands of others hoping to solve Halliday’s puzzle, were known as “Gunters” (a portmanteau of “egg hunters”). They began to focus on every aspect of Halliday’s life, particularly the 1980’s – a period that Halliday was especially obsessed with during his life. From here, the book descends into a virtual tour of pop culture from the 80’s. Quotes from Monty Python, songs by Rush, and arcade games such as Pacman, Tempest, and more. For anyone reading who both grew up during the 80’s and considered themselves well versed in its culture and history, the book will provide a ton of enjoyment.

Along the way, Wade and his friends will encounter rival Gunters and evil corporations bent on gaining control of Halliday’s fortune (as well as control of OASIS). Some parts are cheesy (e.g., some of the fights and battles) and others are rather thought provoking (e.g., when Wade confesses that he’s falling in love with an avatar/player that he’s never met in person – it reminded me of the movie Catfish).

Many of the themes in the book – such as those related to virtual goods, the digital economy, and even net neutrality – are especially relevant to today’s connected world. While I don’t particularly agree with the author’s vision of the future, I definitely appreciate many of the underlying themes.

Overall, I found this book to be fairly enjoyable. Some parts were slow and longer than necessary, but Wade was always a class act throughout the story. So, do nice guys really finish last? Find out! 🙂

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My impressions of the Fuji FinePix X100

  This piece was originally posted on gdgt. Check it out, here.

Finepix x100 2bs3 460

Alright, I meant to post this awhile ago — here are my impressions of the Fuji FinePix X100 after using it for a week.

Pros

  • The viewfinder displays all sorts of awesome live data.
    Holy awesome, I don’t know why more camera manufacturers haven’t done this yet, but the X100’s viewfinder has a live histogram. For me, it’s totally key when trying to nail a photo. I absolutely love using histograms to try and get proper exposure. Plus, there’s all the usual information (aperture, exposure, ISO, grid view).

    Another cool aspect of the viewfinder is that it shows a rectangle that shows the actual field of view of the image that will be captured. This means you can see outside this area and use it for anticipation, planning, or lining up your shot. I love it.

  • The lens is fast! It’s a fixed 35mm lens with an f/2.0 maximum aperture. The bokeh at f/2.0 is nice. It’s super sharp when stopped down to around f/4.
  • Hybrid viewfinder: So, this camera does something kind of interesting. It has a regular old optical viewfinder, but it also comes with an electronic viewfinder as well that can be manually engaged (or automatically engaged when in macro mode) that shows what your camera sees directly from the viewfinder. Sadly, there are cons to this (see down below!).
  • Design: The design is awesome. I love that retro style, and the camera is comparable in size to most micro 4/3’s cameras. Except it has an APS-C sensor inside!
  • The camera sensor: It’s an APS-C sensor — this is the same type of sensor you’d find in most DSLRs. Micro 4/3’s cameras (which are all the rage right now, and roughly the same size at the X100) have a slightly smaller sensor.

Cons

  • I wear glasses now, so when I put the viewfinder up to my face, I can’t actually see all the information displayed in the viewfinder. I can see the field of view of the image, but that’s about it.
  • Focus = slow: Oh, man. I lost a number of shots while waiting for the lens to lock focus. It’s actually pretty slow! And this is a problem that I notice happens a lot in low light environments (which the camera should actually be really good at shooting in!).
  • Hybrid viewfinder: This camera does something particularly annoying every single time you take a photo using the optical viewfinder. After you take an image, the electronic viewfinder pops up and shows you the most recent image you took. There’s no way to turn this off. Are you in the middle of trying to capture a series of action shots? Too bad! “Snap — view photos for 1 – 2 seconds — snap! — view next photo for 1 – 2 seconds — snap! — oh, my God, just let me take photos and look at things later!”

    The other issue I have with this (and all electronic viewfinders in general) is the general poor quality and low resolution of the image you see.

  • Slow to try and setup for a shot: This might be my limited amount of time with the camera and inability to truly get used to it, but I found it a pain to try and setup the camera properly for shots as I walked around Austin and San Francisco with it. Changing lighting conditions (which normally don’t phase me, even on my DSLR), wrecked havoc on my ability to take photos. There’s not really an automatic mode (for better or for worse) — this camera is for really seasoned professionals who know their stuff (do you know your Sunny 16 rules? If so, you can probably be comfortable using this camera).

Review: The Book Thief

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

We picked this book for our most recent edition of book club and I was initially excited about it. Everyone I know has been raving about it and reviews on both Amazon and Goodreads have been very favorable. Besides, historical fiction set in World War II? Sweet, let’s do it!

quick. what do you see? a random piece of bold text that doesn’t make sense? does this seem confusing and out of context? me too. imagine seeing something like this over and over again…

I quickly found the narrator annoying, and his constant intrusion into the story was really distracting. The writing style left a lot to be desired as parts of the story seemed to start and stop at random, often with a bold sentence or two that was completely out of context. It felt like right as our train got underway and things would get interesting, the narrator would derail us. Sometimes it was a bold sentence, other times it was a list.

activities. these are things I could have been doing instead of reading this book.

1. Clipping my nails.

2. Reading a better story.

3. Give up reading books for Lent.

average. sorry, allow me to explain.

Maybe the abrupt writing style was there to try and make this story more compelling than it actually was. Between these random fits of starting and stopping, there is a distinctly average story. I never found myself really attached to any of the characters.

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A theatrical review: “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”

Originally posted on gdgt on February 10th, 2011.

Last night, we ventured across the bay to check out a play by Mike Daisey at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. It was a 120 minute one-man extemporaneous show about the history of Apple and a look at the people who build the gadgets that we love.

Judging by the title (and with recent events relating to Job’s recent health), you might think this is a show taking a deeper look into the life and times of Mr. Jobs. This would turn out to be an incorrect assumption. Daisey’s performance is an insightful, an often hilarious tale of the two Apples under Steve Jobs and John Scully. “Steve is not a micro-manager — he’s a fucking nano-manager!” Daisey switches between this and taking a serious look into what goes on behind the scenes at “all factories” in Shenzhen, China.

Daisey is the perfect epitome of an Apple fanboy, calling himself a devout follower of the Apple religion and perfectly describes what it’s like to own an Apple product. For those of us who are equally under the influence, it makes him easy to relate to. (That said, I don’t think you need to be a fan of Apple to enjoy this show.)

This sets up his story for a perfect transition from faithful believer, to wavering skeptic. “One day,” says Daisy, “I began to do something that all religions fear — I began to think.” Daisey goes on to explain that it all started because of a post he read on an Apple news site (Daisey says, “Have you ever noticed there’s no such thing as an Apple news site? The only thing they talk about are rumors.”). The post was about an owner of a new iPhone finding a series of pictures from the factory in the camera roll of their phone. A few of the images even showed factory workers in their cleanroom jumpsuits. This changed everything for Daisey. Until that point, he had never thought about the actual people who made his gadgets.

Side note: I think this may be the post that Daisey speaks of.

Daisey ends up traveling to Shenzhen, China and poses as an American businessman. He shares some of the things he saw; from factories with tens of thousands of people working on assembly lines in complete silence, to young teenagers who spoke to him about their work days (12, 14, or 16 hours).

Throughout the entire performance, Daisey is switching between the seriousness of what he saw in Shenzhen and his light hearted story of Apple’s history. In the mid-1990’s, Daisey explains, “Apple needed Jesus Fucking Christ to save them. So, they got the next best thing and brought Jobs back.”

If you’re a fan of gadgets and technology, I think you’d get a kick out of this show. It’s an interesting look into Apple and makes you consider the consequences of using the gadgets we love. Daisey explains that while it’s shameful nearly all companies turn a blind eye to this sort of behavior, the onus is on us as consumers to let these companies know we won’t stand for it.

Fortunately, Daisey’s humor and stories make the show quite entertaining, and you never really feel like you’re being lectured at. That said, I definitely felt bad about using my gadgets afterward (I arrived at the show carrying my bag containing a MBP, iPad, and iPhone — all of which were made in Shenzhen). You leave the theater with a heavy heart.

“The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” is performing at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre until February 27th, 2011. Ticket prices range anywhere from $45 – $75 dollars.

Show info: www.berkeleyrep.org­/index.asp

Quoted in the Gray Lady!

Imagine my surprise this weekend when reading this review of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” in the New York Times and seeing the following quote:

“I definitely felt bad about using my gadgets afterward,” Dave Schumaker wrote on the personal-technology site Gdgt.com, where he is community manager. “I arrived at the show carrying my bag containing a MBP [MacBook Pro], iPad and iPhone — all of which were made in Shenzhen.”

Not too shabby!

(And yes, I still feel bad about these gadgets. Man, oh, man. What a performance by Mike Daisey.)

Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alright, you may strip away my geek badge. When I started reading this book, I actually didn’t know this is what the movie “Blade Runner” was based on. As I started reading, there were many elements where I thought, “this sounds *really* familiar — too familiar!”

So, I did some further research, and what do you know!

Interestingly enough, I really enjoyed this book. Which surprises me, because I actually don’t enjoy the Blade Runner movie very much (strike two against my geek badge?).

Perhaps it was because the story in the book takes place in San Francisco, and it’s easy to relate, since I live here. The post-apocalyptic, dystopian theme also seems to tie in with various media I’ve been consuming recently (purely coincidental, I’m sure): Hunger Games, Book of Eli, Fallout 3, etc.

Anyway, the story takes place in the not too distant future, after a World War decimates much of planet Earth — forcing large parts of the population to emigrate to Mars. To incentivize people to leave Earth, settlers were given their own personal android servants (which were becoming disturbingly similar to humans).

For one reason or another, these androids would sometimes attempt to escape Mars and return to Earth. This is apparently a bad thing. So, various governments and agencies on Earth hired bounty hunters to specifically and discretely eliminate the unwelcome android immigrants.

The story follows the trails and tribulations of one bounty hunter in San Francisco, who is obsessed with the thought of owning a real animal (which is a status symbol in the not-too-distant future). Based on whether or not he kills an android, he gets a bounty, which he’s been saving up to eventually buy an animal.

It’s an entertaining read that examines the morality of creating and taking away artificial life forms, empathetic responses to various situations, and the philosophical debate of fate vs. free will.

It was a quick read (took about 2.5 days for me to get through), highly entertaining, and I definitely recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of science fiction. One thing: just, watch, out, for, Philip K. Dick’s, use, of, commas.

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Review: Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our DecisionsPredictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dan Ariely writes in a pretty simple and straightforward manner about how ridiculous we act when it comes to economic decisions. It’s full of many examples and experiments (you get the feeling that students at MIT are unwittingly subjected to sociology experiments every single day) on how people will act regarding certain conditions (e.g., giving away something free vs. something cheap, paying for labor from friends vs. giving gifts).

In the short time since I’ve read it, I’ve already thought about many of the habits I do every day — should I really be purchasing this coffee and bagel every day? And why do I do that in the first place.

Anyway, it’s a pretty enlightening read into why we humans make certain decisions and how we can try to change things for the better.

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