Christmas Traditions

We all have our Christmas traditions – the Santa stockings, the bad jokes over the Christmas meal, retelling embarrassing stories about a distant relative – but my favourite tradition is grabbing a book that I received as a present, and submerging myself in it for as long as it takes. Surfacing only to eat chocolate and ham (not necessarily in that order). Kate took a punt, and bought me the latest Neal Stephenson (I couldn’t get into his previous series) which I’ve spent most waking hours with since.


Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose meets Carl Sagan’s Contact

This is a long one. You’ve got to want it, and Stephenson doesn’t make it easy. He has created a whole new lingo for his futuristic world, a bit like Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, but admittedly does help a little by scattering dictionary entries throughout. There are also mini-essays at the end that you need to read in order to follow some of the plot. It is hard-core speculative fiction, with a particularly academic bent. If this is not your thing, I’m pretty sure you’ll be hating it before you even need to worry about its length. If you like sci-fi novels with big ideas, then keep reading..

The main characters belong to a cloistered order, and we get a feel for what monastic life might be like (I was reminded of The Name of the Rose). This is contrasted with the futuristic world outside the walls of their self-imposed prison, which gets a satirical treatment ironic for a sci-fi author. But, the sci-fi take on monastic life is pretty cool.

It takes about a third of the book before the plot picks up in pace, and we’ve got a mystery, some puzzling philosophy and characters that we care about. It takes about this long to get used to the lingo as well, so be prepared.

I already knew a lot of the philosophy, math and science that Stephenson draws upon in this book, and I really appreciated his explanations and clear analogies as provided by the characters. Part of the fun was in seeing how many different strands of knowledge could be pulled together to service the plot.

It’s probably 10% story and 90% academic discourse, but I liked it.

My rating: 4.0 stars

After I read the book, I also checked out the website of the Clock of the Long Now, which relates in a tiny way to the book, and is a pretty ambitious idea. Worth a look.

Bond Begins – The Sequel

I loved the new style Bond, so it was a given that I’d see the current one, at least to see if Daniel Craig could do it again. Luckily, we’d recently re-watched Casino Royale, so it made some modicum of sense…

Quantum of Solace

Fasted paced action flick with an English guy in it

Named after an obscure Ian Fleming short story, this film begins mere minutes after the previous film ends, and drops you right into the action. If you want to follow the plot, it’s best to be familiar with the earlier film, but if you don’t care about plot, then no fear – this film jumps from action sequence to action sequence with minimal explanatory dialogue. You get multiple chase scenes, fight scenes (apparently Daniel Craig got real bruises), beautiful people and sinister villains.

However, it’s not really a spy film. In fact, it hardly follows the James Bond formula at all – for example, there is no trip to the exotic weapons laboratory. Frankly, our Bond couldn’t have managed to fit it in, given all the chasing and fighting that he has to do. I suspect that, with a few tweaks, this could have been a Steven Seagal or Will Smith movie.

But Craig’s bond is more of that ilk than the “snooping around the lair” style hero, and there is plenty of edge-of-the-seat excitement to make it an enjoyable 1:45 hours.

My rating: 3.5 stars

Beware spyware

Two days ago, we realised our home laptop was infected with spyware. Whenever we did a Google web search, the results page titles would all be reasonable, but the actual websites returned were rubbish. The results would take you to pages full of advertising, rather than useful content. Clearly, something was very wrong.

We are running an up-to-date copy of the McAfee scanner, but it hadn’t picked up anything, and a full scan resulted in a verdict of all clear. Sorry, McAfee, you fail.

Yesterday, I downloaded Microsoft’s Windows Defender – software that is designed specifically to find this sort of thing. It didn’t find anything.

I also tried downloading Symantec’s Norton AntiBot (free for 15 day trial). It was worth the money I paid, i.e. nothing. AntiBot couldn’t find the spyware. At this point, three big guns – McAfee, Microsoft and Symantec – had completely failed.

The only other symptom with our infection was that, under Firefox, when the Google search results page was being returned, “Connecting to …” was briefly shown in the browser. Doing a search for that returned some results with titles suggesting that people at the CyberTechHelp forums had similar problems on their PCs.

The helpful support guys there recommended the free Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware software to fix it. A scan quickly found something named Trojan.Agent hiding in a fake sound driver in the c:\windows\ directory, which it then removed. Everything was back to normal!

You should never know if your anti-virus tool is any good. Ideally, you should never find yourself infected, so never find out if your tool has a weakness. Unfortunately, we did find our PC infected, so we did learn that our anti-virus tool was no good. The lesson for me is that the free tools can be superior to the big name, expensive tools. I won’t be renewing my McAfee subscription.

Positive news for property

This year there have been a few claims that house values will fall significantly, including this one from Christopher Hire (20% fall) or this report on Steve Keen (40% fall). Such a drop in property seems credible on face value as we’ve had significant drops in values on the share market – why would property be immune? Well, as was recently explained in The Australian, it’s really apples and oranges. And, in fact, it turns out that residential property prices have actually increased each of the last two months.

Okay, the increases are very slight, but even a slight increase is a somewhat different reality to a significant fall. I think rumours of the death of the housing market have been exaggerated…