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Archive for December, 2015

End of the Year Post 2015

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 31, 2015

I wrote this blog post quite early this morning and didn’t post it. I wasn’t sure about it. Since then, I’ve reread it twice and have had second thoughts about posting it. I usually post an End of Year post on the last day of the year, but this one is too depressing, too negative. I don’t think I want to be a downer for my readers. Nonetheless, I’ve decided to post it after all, although I’m not sure it’s a great idea. It does, however, describe my year, which is my intent. If you’re not interested in reading a depressing or negative post, feel free to skip this one. No hard feelings. If you’re interested at all, feel free to read it though. Hopefully 2016 will be better for me/us and hopefully all of you will have a good 2016. Happy New Year!

 

On the last day of each year, I write a year in review post. Here are the links to the 2014 Year in Review blog post and the 2012 End of the Year blog post. I had a lot going on in both years. If you read them, you’ll note I had some health problems, particularly last year. Well, I’m about to write an abbreviated post for 2015. It’s abbreviated because this year was largely a personal disaster due to hideous, nightmarish health and pain problems and I/we didn’t really get to do very much at all.

In January, my mother celebrated her 85th birthday. Although she’s had a couple of bad falls this year with broken bones, she still is relatively good health and living alone in a condo in Knoxville, TN.

In February, I developed severe back pain to accompany my head and facial pain, out of the blue. It took time, but over the course of the year, I sought treatment from my orthopedist and a rheumatologist, as well as physical therapists. It seems I have spinal stenosis, degenerative disk disease, massive osteo-arthritis throughout my entire body, and a broken tailbone. They’re recommending surgery to remove my tailbone, probable spinal fusion surgery, and down the road, two hip replacement surgeries. My pain has been at about a 9.6 out of 10 level every day this year and virtually no pain medication helps.

About the same time, my head pain increased and got worse. My Trigeminal Neuralgia was joined by at least one, perhaps two, other types of head pain, which I have been trying to have diagnosed and treated all year, with little help. My two types of head and facial pain have been at a 9.6 out of 10 level every day, virtually all day all year long with virtually no relief from any pain medication. Any pain medication that used to be helpful is no longer useful. I now have three new diagnoses for additional types of head pain disorders, all three of which can be extremely painful, one of which is supposed to be the most painful condition known to mankind. I don’t know. My wife and I are convinced there’s another undiagnosed condition that has yet to be treated, since I’m responding to no treatment.

Since this spring, my longtime insomnia has worsened. I am averaging about three hours of sleep a night and am now, in fact, waking up and getting up between 11 PM and 12:30 AM. It sounds insane, but it’s true. That means I go to bed early, but I still get only two to three hours of sleep. I also can no longer successfully nap. I started falling asleep at red lights while out driving, and in chairs sitting up, and at doctor’s offices, and at church dinners, and my wife and I suspect I may have narcolepsy so I have an appointment with my sleep doctor in a few weeks to discuss this.

During the spring, somehow I was able to get to some of the concerts I was able to buy tickets for 2014 Christmas for my wife. Because of my health problems, we unfortunately had to blow some off and waste that money, but we did get to see Lewis Black, Weird Al Yankovic, The Who (which was awesome), and Barry Manilow, which was pretty much the highlight of my wife’s life. We blew tickets to Chicago and a Pittsburgh Penguins game. Oh well. We had good times.

In April, we celebrated our second wedding anniversary. It was pretty low key. It feels like we’ve been together for so much longer than that. We have a wonderful relationship and I’m very lucky to have Gretchen for a wife and best friend. April is also Gretchen’s birthday and so that was pleasant, although she’s not thrilled about getting older. I keep telling her she looks and acts infinitely younger than she is, looks at least 10 years younger than other women her age. I think she knows that intellectually, but still is annoyed with aging. I think she’s still sexy as hell. She always will be.

In July, I started going to a new neurologist who I didn’t like personally very much, but who, to his credit, did try some new things. He’s an egomaniac, but then many doctors are, I suppose. He’s given me a couple of Botox injection treatments so far and has tried a number of new medications on me, none of which have helped, but at least he’s trying.

Also, in July my head pain got even worse, if possible. Since I’m up 21 hours a day on average, it became 21 hours of pain a day, every day, without break. At a near 10 out of 10 scale, which combined with my back pain made life nearly unendurable. I applied to get into Vanderbilt’s Neurology Headache Clinic, which has a good reputation, thinking that after nearly six years of treatment in Chattanooga and only getting worse, I need to go elsewhere if I’m going to get better. July was also the second anniversary of my father’s death. It was a sad occasion.

I had my birthday in September. I suppose it was low key, as I remember nothing about it. This fall has been largely a blur, due to my pain status. I’ve been super focused, while also at the same time, largely oblivious. If that makes any sense. I particularly enjoy September and October because of sports. You have college football, the NFL, baseball, hockey just starting, college basketball just around the corner. It’s pretty awesome. I enjoyed watching my Pirates make the playoffs for the third straight year, watching my Tennessee Vols have a frustrating but ultimately successful 8-4 bowl year and my UCLA team have a winning bowl year, my Steelers have a injury-plagued year in which they still have a minor chance of making the playoffs and the hockey season, in which we paid for a year of NHL Gamecenter Live, in which you can watch any game you want – not on national TV – live for a one time set price. So I get to watch my Penguins quite often. If only they were playing up to their expectations and potential. It’s been disappointing so far. Of course, the UT Lady Vols are doing well so far, but they’ve had so many injuries, they’ve only been able to dress seven players lately, so it’s only a matter of time until they start losing many games and the men’s Vols basketball team has a great new coach, but not much talent while my Long Beach State team is having a rough year getting beat up by major teams like Duke.

In October, I finally got to go to Vandy. I was instructed to bring my medical records, so I spent two weeks and hundreds of my own dollars getting them, Gretchen took a vacation day, we drove six hours two ways, went to Nashville and met with a doctor who didn’t even want to look at my records, said they weren’t important, didn’t want to discuss my background with me, spent perhaps 15-20 minutes with me, prescribed a useless migraine medication for me, said I needed Botox immediately (so they scheduled me for three and a half months away) and, when Gretchen asked if we couldn’t just get this done in Chattanooga, reacted angrily and said it had to be done there. We left pretty ticked off at what waste of time and effort that was. I haven’t canceled my next appointment there yet, but I will. There’s no point in going. Meanwhile, my mom has stepped up to the plate and said she’ll pay for me to go anywhere to help get me fixed, cured, whatever. So, I’ve been researching Mayo, Johns Hopkins, the Cleveland Clinic, UCLA, etc. So far, Johns Hopkins would be convenient because that’s where Gretchen’s family lives, but Mayo seems most impressive by far. I’m not going to pursue it just yet though. Want to exhaust things here in town first.

In November, we traveled to Maryland to visit Gretchen’s parents, sons, and friends. It was a difficult trip for me health wise, but she had been wanting to go for months and we hadn’t been up there for a year and a half, so it was time. And we had a good time over Thanksgiving. It was good to see everyone. We also celebrated our one year anniversary of getting our kitten, Ace, who has become Gretchen’s baby. He’s now about 16 months old, and Henry just turned 10 years old, which is unreal because I can remember when he was just a month old, but they get along much better now and Ace is calming down a little bit finally. But just a little bit. Ace is also the most social, codependent cat I’ve ever seen in my whole life! He needs to be with people like nothing I’ve ever seen. He needs to be held. When we went to Maryland, we hired petsitters to come to the house twice a day to help mostly Ace. Henry is pretty independent and I’ve left him by himself for a good three days or so, but Ace couldn’t take even one day, I’m sure. It’s kind of sad. Cute, but sad. Nonetheless, we love them both and they add to our lives tremendously.

This month, we celebrated our five year anniversary of when we started dating. That’s always an exciting occasion for us and fun to remember. We also had a very subdued Christmas, which was somewhat anticlimactic. My pain was so severe and I was on so much pain medication, it was virtually impossible for me to function at all. My mother drove down from Knoxville to be with us on Christmas day and we exchanged a few gifts, nothing like last year. We couldn’t put up our tree this year like we’ve done in the past because of Ace. He goes wild. We put up a mini-tree we bought, with some lights and ornaments. That was destroyed the first night. We put up an old ceramic tree with plastic lights I’ve had for decades, but Gretchen thought better of it, so she got a little wooden tree with a string of lights and that was our tree. We didn’t even put presents out until the night before because Ace would destroy them. We try to control him, but we really can’t.

One year-long note. Early this year I was forced to drop my Obamacare and start using my Medicare I got last year when I went on disability. I had no idea how that would change my life. It’s been a nightmare. Medicare Part D is a freaking nightmare from hell! With Obamacare and BCBS, my monthly medical bills came to roughly $400 a month. With Medicare, I was quickly paying up to as much as $2,800 a month in medical bills, almost all of it prescriptions. One of my prescriptions alone had a co-pay of $800! That’s fucking insane! That total is more than double my disability check. How the hell am I supposed to pay for that? And I have no choice. As long as I’m on disability – and there’s no way I can work – I have to be on Medicare and as long as I’m on Medicare, I’m stuck paying thousands a month for medical/prescription bills. It’s unfair and cruel and I resent it like hell. It’s practically ruined my life even more. Thanks for the added stress, government. Thanks for practically bankrupting me. Appreciate it.

Well, I guess that’s about it for 2015. It was truly a horrible year. Probably worse than 2011, perhaps. I don’t know that 2016 will be any better, but I’m hoping it will be because we intend to aggressively pursue medical treatments for my back and head and solutions and ways to diminish and end my pain. I don’t know if that’s possible or reasonable, but dammit, we’ve got to try. My wife, meanwhile, has her good job, although without insurance, and Obamacare just doubled her premium, so we can no longer afford it, so that’s just great. So she’s actually thinking about looking for a new job next year, which would mean leaving her nice, cushy job that’s so great otherwise. Pity. I hope anyone reading this has a pleasant New Year and a wonderful 2016. Cheers!

 

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A Review of The Doublecross Program

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 31, 2015

The Doublecross Program (Star Risk, #3)The Doublecross Program by Chris Bunch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was somewhat disappointed with this book and that surprised me. I really like Chris Bunch and I really liked the first two books of this Star Risk, Ltd. series, so when this one seemed to be sub-standard, it was a real surprise and, as I said, a disappointment. Basically, M’chel Riss and the Star Risk, Ltd. mercenary team are hired by one planetary system to train and lead its armed forces against a neighboring planetary system, only to double cross them and go to the other system for the same deal. And back again. And so on. It’s an entire book of double crossing. And it doesn’t really endear the group to me, I’ve got to say. I mean, I know they’re mercenaries, but still, have some ethics in how you do business. If you have a contract, do your damn job! I thought better of these people.

The thing that makes Chris Bunch books good is not only are they action packed military sci fi novels, but they’ve got intrigue, and plenty of it. There’s a mystery and it’s a good one. And there are plot twists and you wonder how the heck the protagonists of his series’ are going to escape whatever predicament they’re in. That was the case in the first two books of this series, as well as all of the Last Legion books. Not so with this book. It’s plenty action packed. A lot of tension, I suppose. Perhaps. Maybe not. I mean, you know your heroes probably aren’t going to be killed off, so really, how much tension is there? So, in this case, the book seems to be mostly a straight ahead military action novel. No real intrigue, no real mystery. No wondering who did what, who’s going to do what. No real wondering how they’re going to escape, other than how they’re going to either end this war or get away from it, which is frankly anti-climactic and when it does “end,” it is anti-climactic. And for once, they actually don’t conclude their job, technically. It’s a fairly dissatisfying ending to a dissatisfying book. I’ll be starting the fourth book in the series in a little while. I have hopes that it will be an improvement and will return the series to its normal status of excellence. Because this is not typical Chris Bunch. If you’re reading this series, I guess you might want to read this, but it’s not essential. I don’t think you’ll be missing a lot by not reading it. And frankly, if you’re not reading the series, I see little point in reading it, although it can be read as a stand alone book. Whatever the case, not recommended, sadly.

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A Review of Orr: My Story

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 30, 2015

Orr: My StoryOrr: My Story by Bobby Orr
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Well, this book was a massively huge disappointment! For years, I had heard about how great Bobby Orr was, one of the greatest hockey players of all time. Some even said the greatest. He was a little before my time, so I never got to see him play and I know virtually nothing about him, other than he played for Boston and is in the Hall of Fame. So, I put this book on my Amazon Wish List and my wife got it for me for Christmas. Imagine my surprise when I opened it to find him writing that he wasn’t going to write about his career (basically) in terms of stats, honors, awards, anything. He says that’s all in the record books, that’s all in the history books, it’s all there. Well … yeah, that’s why I wanted to read this damn book, asshole! To learn about why you were apparently the best player of all time, the best defenseman of all time, the best scoring defenseman of all time, the youngest player ever inducted into the Hall of Fame. I wanted to learn about the Hart Trophies, the Norris Trophies, the Stanley Cups. I wanted to know something about you and your career. Is that so bad? Is that so unusual? Shouldn’t you be the damn source for this?

But noooooooo! Not Orr. He doesn’t like to talk about individual honors. He could care less about them. Says they’re really team honors and even more than that, a reflection on everyone who’s ever influenced that person, such as their pee wee coaches, etc. Yep. Okay.

In this book, he devotes an entire chapter to his parents and his upbringing about the time he was eight years old in a small town in Ontario, Canada. There’s really nothing special about them. They didn’t really do anything special for him. They didn’t even attend many of his games. Frankly, I don’t know how they influenced him at all. I have no idea why he even wrote this useless chapter.

Other chapters are about his pee wee playing years with his buddies in elementary school, about what a poor student he was (seems most good hockey players were for some reason), about how he essentially dropped out of school at age 14 to play hockey, about how he signed his first hockey contract at age 14 with the help of his parents, about how he played in the juniors for four years and then made the Bruins at age 18. He writes next to nothing about his rookie year, except to describe his first goal, the team had the worst record in hockey, and oh yeah, he won the rookie of the year award. No big deal, right? Nothing else. It’s like it never happened. He writes more about his roommates.

The next chapters are about continuing seasons and how the Bruins improve. He has injuries, but the Bruins finally win the Stanley Cup. At least he mentions that. During this time, he must have been doing something somewhere to merit inclusion in the Hall of Fame at age 31 since his career was so incredibly short, but nowhere does he mention how many points he scored or what awards he won or anything relevant at all. Nothing. Why the bloody hell read this shithole excuse for a hockey autobiography? Well, I’m not finishing it. I’m halfway through and I’ve had enough. If I wanted to read about his views on parenting, I’d have Googled that and looked for a book on that topic. Instead, I wanted a book on the HOCKEY PLAYER Bobby Orr, you know, someone who played hockey, apparently quite well. It doesn’t exist in this book. What a damn waste. I’m embarrassed and ashamed that my poor wife wasted her money on this pile of crap. I hope I can get a decent amount for it at the used bookstore when I sell it to them. This is without a doubt, the WORST sports biography I have EVER read! Most definitely not recommended, ever.

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Annual WordPress Report

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 30, 2015

Here are my 2015 WordPress blog statistics. Some interesting things. Thanks to all of you who have visited my site and who have commented as well. I hope to see you in 2016!

https://hankrules2011.wordpress.com/2015/annual-report/

 

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A Review of The Watchman

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 29, 2015

The Watchman: The Twisted Life and Crimes of Serial Hacker Kevin PoulsenThe Watchman: The Twisted Life and Crimes of Serial Hacker Kevin Poulsen by Jonathan Littman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve long heard about Kevin Poulsen, but didn’t know as much about him as I did about another early hacker, Kevin Mitnick, and I wanted to learn more, so this book was great. And it just so happened that it was by one of my favorite technology nonfiction authors, Jonathan Littman, who also wrote a book on Mitnick that is also quite good. Mitnick may be more infamous, but Poulsen was possibly better. It’s debatable, but regardless, Poulsen was one of the early old school hackers to take complete control of the phone system and change the way America and law enforcement looked at hackers.

Poulsen started out, like so many of the early ones, phone phreaking in his early teens and graduated into hacking. He early on learned the innards of Pac Bell, first by dumpster diving, then by social engineering, then by phreaking. By his late teens, he probably knew more about the phone system than any non-phone employee in the world, and more than many phone employees themselves. Unfortunately, he of course, got into legal trouble and had to get a “real” job, so ironically, he got a job with SRI, a major defense contractor, where he got a security clearance and worked with top secret military information. Also, ironically, his young boss was another (former) phreaker who started to encourage Kevin to resume phreaking and hacking and together they started engaging in criminal activity, going to Pac Bell switching centers and picking locks and breaking in, stealing manuals, passwords, souvenirs, phones, accessories, switches, and everything else. Kevin eventually got COSMOS manuals, which gave him total access to everything in Pac Bell’s systems, so that he could create new phone lines, new switches, could wiretap anyone he wanted from anywhere, could place calls from dozens or hundreds of untraceable locations, etc. He broken into TRW to scam credit reports, the DVM, the FBI, Pac Bell Security, etc. His buddy Ron, who’d already been busted for hacking/phreaking, grudgingly helped him at times. However, he started spending so much time at night out doing criminal activity that he was neglecting his really important defense job, that they fired him. However, he landed at Sun Microsystems, which would have been really cool if he could have stayed there. Except he got arrested. And released on bail. And went from Northern California to L.A. There, he and Ron met a strange so-called hacker named Eric Heinz, among many other names (Justin Peterson was another). He figures prominently in the Mitnick book. He was an older hacker who looked and acted like a celebrity rocker, hanging out in Hollywood clubs, driving a Porsche, having sex with different girls, usually strippers, every night, recording the acts, usually bondage, and he was a violent criminal – who also knew how to hack, to a certain degree. He wasn’t as good as Kevin, but he wanted to learn and he was eager to help Kevin, so they formed an uneasy partnership and off they went breaking into Pac Bell switches at night. By this point, Kevin was so brazen that he made himself Pac Bell IDs, uniforms, stole a Pac Bell van, drove to their headquarters in LA, walked in, knowing he was wanted, signed himself in, walked to the Security department after hours, broke in, and made copies of all of the memos and documents about him and his partners, hundreds of pages, and walked back out. When the Pac Bell security personnel finally tracked him down with the police and the FBI some time later, they were shocked at finding their own “secure” documents in his place. He also found out who they were wiretapping and wiretapped them back.

Here’s something he did that was a little sleazy. He had always justified his actions as simply innocent old school hacking, harming no one, searching for information and knowledge. However, at some point, he became aware of a group of 50 dead phone lines and voicemail boxes attached to LA escort Yellow Page ads. He went into COSMOS, snagged all the lines for himself, making them untraceable, set up the mailboxes, found a pimp/partner who had the girls, set up an escort ring, and became an digital pimp. He never saw the girls or the pimp. He just liked the challenge and I guess he made a few bucks from it too. However, what he’s most famous for is fixing, not once, but twice two radio station call in competitions with the DJ, Rick Dees, where they were giving away a $50,000 Porsche. He and Ron rented a seedy office, got eight phones, set up eight phone lines attached to the radio station, ran them into his phones, and when the three songs were played in order and the phones started ringing, at some point, the callers all got busy signals and Kevin and Ron were the “right” callers and won their cars. They also won other deals, like $10,000 in cash and trips to Hawaii. Another biggie is when Kevin was featured on the TV show, Unsolved Mysteries, at the request of the FBI. While it was being aired, all 30 phone lines to the show went down for the duration of the show while the FBI sat there and fumed. They knew what had happened and who had done it.

Eventually Kevin and Eric had a bit of a falling out and Eric got especially careless. Kevin was cocky and got a little careless himself. Arrest. He was facing two federal indictments in northern and southern California, one of which would have netted him 100+ years in prison, the other of which would have given him 37 years in prison. The headlines were brutal. The charges were insane. Espionage. Breaking into military computers. Military networks. The implication that he had been wiretapping the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco. Not proven. Classified military documents. Well, he has security clearances and that was part of his job. Idiot prosecutors and FBI were too stupid and too eager to send him to prison for life to actually look at what he had actually done or not done. When it was all said and done, most of the charges were dropped, virtually all of the serious charges, and he served about five years in prison. This was in the early 1990s, even though his hacking career began back in the very early 1980s. I don’t know what happened to him between when he got out of prison and now, but I do know that now he’s a respected security “expert” and journalist. He’s an editor for Wired Magazine and recently wrote a book called Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground, which I read just a month or two ago. It was well written and quite interesting. So obviously, he’s come a long way and more power to him. He had a lot of growing and maturing to do and he seriously had to pay his debt to society. It appears he has.

For me, this book is probably worthy of five stars, but I’m not certain if it’s outstanding enough to actually merit five stars. It’s a tough call. It’s at least a four star book. It’s interesting, well written, detailed, tension filled, easy to understand (for the most part), and well documented. And I don’t really know how it could have been improved. So to be honest, even though I’m not certain it’s a five star book, I don’t see how I can’t give it five stars. I just don’t see how it could have been better. It was an excellent book. So, five stars and recommended if you like to read histories of old school hackers and hacking.

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A Review of The Infinite Battle

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 26, 2015

The Infinite BattleThe Infinite Battle by David Bischoff
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I couldn’t finish it. I couldn’t even ever get into it. It just seemed a little too forced, a little too ’80s, a little too Battlestar Gallactica, a little too dorky to me. It’s like the author was trying too hard to be sci fi cool and didn’t quite pull it off. He should have eased off the transmission just a touch.

The book had potential. When her beloved super scientist brother Cal Shemzak is abducted by the mysterious Jaxdron aliens, with whom humanity has been at war for some five or more years now, super cyborg agent, blip ship pilot, feisty Laura Shemzak talks her way onto a very top secret spaceship for the purpose of finding him. Only to to be attacked and boarded by pirates while on the way to that ship. She attacks the pirates, holds one hostage, demands the pirate captain take her where she wants to go, and is pretty much laughed at. The captain, one charismatic yet annoying as hell Tars Northern, in charge of the Starbow, a pretty awesome ship, and his bizarre crew of humans, aliens, and robot pirates/mercenaries, may or may not help her.

Okay. I can partially buy that, I guess. But since the pirates were just taking freight off Laura’s ship, why couldn’t she have stayed on that ship and continued to her destination to pick up her super ship to go off in search of her brother? Why hijack a group of ultra-dangerous pirates and ask them to take you to another location just cause you need a quick ride? That seemed odd. And Cal. His character seemed a little too stereotypically one dimensional for my liking. Immature, naive, brilliant, no real depth, coward. Pretty unlikable. And their society of “Friends.” Haven’t we seen such cultures portrayed relentlessly in sci fi books and movies throughout the decades over and over again until it’s become quite tiring? Something a little more original might have been preferable. And frankly, the incest thing threw me just a bit. Trust me, I’m no prude and God knows I’ve read enough Heinlein (and even de Sade) to have seen the worst, but many male sci fi writers are freaking perverts, I’ve discovered over the years, and to write of these siblings’ love as though it were proper and good and balanced and healthy and as though society was the sick entity for looking down on them for their incestuous relationship… Well, that’s just a little bit too much for me to swallow. I can handle a little taboo to some degree, but to be so ho hum about it strikes me as odd. Finally, Laura. She was a super agent for the Federation. She could go anywhere, do anything. She had the training, the hardwiring, the cybernetics. And yet she could go off at a moment’s notice. Wouldn’t you have thought they would have done personality profiles on their agents and psychological testings? Wouldn’t you have thought they would have “conditioned” their top agents they’ve invested millions or more in to ensure they wouldn’t fly off the handle and go rogue? To see Laura go nuts when she learns of her brother’s capture and insistence upon personally going off into alien territory to rescue him without aid is incomprehensible.

Frankly, not much about this book makes much sense. Laura constantly takes stupid risks, is a reactionary, usually for no good reason, seems nearly as immature as her brother, and neither protagonist seems particularly likable to me, at least not enough to finish the book. I’ve read the 10 Goodreads reviews and was surprised to see several positive things said in the four and five star reviews, but noted the book as a whole as a sub-3.5 rating. That’s probably being generous, in my opinion. If handled well by a decent author, this book had the potential to be okay, I think. Not great, but okay. But it wasn’t. And as a result, I think it’s largely a waste of time. Not recommended.

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A Review of Prelude to Foundation

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 23, 2015

Prelude to Foundation (Foundation: Prequel, #1)Prelude to Foundation by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the prequel to the infamous Asimov Foundation series, actually the sixth book written decades after the original trilogy was written. If you’re read any of my reviews of the original trilogy, you’ll remember that I wasn’t impressed. I couldn’t even finish the second one, it was so bad. The writing was horrible, the character development nonexistent, the plot development no better, the dialogue laughable. However, when I read the fourth Foundation book published around 1982, I was much impressed. He had come a long way, although his writing could still use some improvement. At least he had learned how to use transitions. His next book, the final book in the series, irritated me with its characters’ constant nonstop sniping and bitching at each other, so I didn’t finish it and gave it a poor review, although for all I know it could have turned out to be a decent book. I just hated the characters too much to finish it. So it was with some trepidation that I started reading this one.

Prelude to Foundation, the first prequel but actual sixth book in the series to be published, was published in 1988, late in Asimov’s career. His writing, again, was much improved over his earlier work, but it still could have been better. Nonetheless, I was very taken with this book. I thought it had a much better plot than I expected it to, a lot of action, more than expected, a shocking amount of sexuality, which is very un-Asimov-like, a direct tie-in with his robot series, which I enjoyed, and a marvelous finish to a rather tension filled ending. Frankly, I had a hard time putting it down.

The book follows the early career of the young mathematician, Hari Seldon, elder hero of the original Foundation trilogy and creator of the science of psychohistory, which can very nearly foretell the history of society and culture. In this book, he is always on the Galactic Empire’s capital planet/city of Trantor, home to 40 billion people and 800 domed sectors, where he gives a paper at a mathematics conference which garners a lot of attention and from which he is the next day brought to the emperor’s own quarters, and asked to use his psychohistory to help determine the fate of the empire. He tries to explain that it’s theoretical, not practical, that it would take decades, a lifetime, maybe longer, to mathematically prove what he has theoretically proved. He is thrown out in disgrace, later attacked by thugs, defends himself with a new friend named Chetter Hummin, who claims to be a journalist, and who tells him the Empire and the man behind the emperor, Eto Demerzel, is after him. He must flee.

Hummin takes him halfway across the planet, charging Hari with furthering the research and discovery of psychohistory because the empire is crumbling and decaying, and gets him a job as a professor at a university, where he meets a history professor named Dors Vernabili. Hummin tasks Dors with being Hari’s personal protector and she takes it seriously. But one unforeseen accident occurs with Hari coming close to dying, and Hummin arrives and takes them across the planet once again to a backwards sector which is really, really strange. There, hair is forbidden. They’re forced to wear skin caps and even cover their eyebrows, wear robes identifying them by gender, and no woman can talk to a man unspoken to. It’s a very patriarchal society. However, Hari discovers they maintain an ancient history of some sort, dating back over 20,000 years to the original planet of man’s founding. Determined to get the details of this, he continues his quest. At great peril. They discover the first world was probably called Aurora (from the robot series) and featured a lot of humanoid machines called robots, which no one had ever heard of. They begin to suspect the main temple has one somewhere and Hari vows to break in and interview it to learn about mankind’s history to help formulate his psychohistory. Well, they break in, find a broken down metallic robot that doesn’t look humanoid, are caught and are sentenced to death. Just at that moment, Hummin appears and talks their way out of it and takes them to another sector, another poor sector, where he rents them a room with a typical family, leaving them to just survive. Not knowing what to do, they travel around, hear rumors that an old fortune teller in a really bad part of town tells tales of an original planet and vow to go see her. But there are knife fights there, so Dors buys two and they go. They meet a dirty street urchin who takes them to this old woman, who tells them about a place called Earth and about a robot called Day-ee and a man called Bay-ee (both references to the robot series), and they don’t learn much more, so they leave. And are attacked by 10 armed men. Dors takes the leader on with her knives and seriously wounds him while Hari uses martial arts techniques to knock a couple of them around. They escape, but the wife of their rented room is ticked at them and barely lets them back in. The next day, there’s a near riot outside of the house while they go back into the bad area to meet with a local leader. While there, a soldier appears and wants to take them with him. They assume it’s Hummin’s doing, so they go willingly, but it soon appears they are going to the dreaded sector of Wye, where the mayor has been trying to take over the empire for some time now and where they have a major army and where Hummin has been telling them to avoid like crazy. And there they are! They meet, not the ancient mayor, but his younger daughter, who has taken over mayoral duties and who, naturally, wants to use Hari and his psychohistory for her own personal gains. They hope Hummin will come once again to rescue them, but he doesn’t. One morning, however, they are awoken to gunfire and find Wye has been invaded by Imperial troops and that the original mayor has ceded control over to the Emperor. They expect to see Hummin magically show up, but to their surprise, Demerzel appears. And all is explained. And is it a HELL of an ending!!! What a freaking great ending! I actually found it touching, I kid you not. I did not expect that. I expected Imperial involvement, but not that. And Dors. There were hints, but it was never fully explained. We were just left to speculate and perhaps that’s for the best.

One complaint though. The dialogue in this book, as in virtually every Asimov book, is atrocious! Simply horrible. Dors talks about her “gown.” A man they’re staying with unexpectedly just happens to have pairs of “underpants and foot socks” for each of them. The dialogue is overly formal and stilted, wooden and academic. Far too 1940s US and certainly not believable for 20,000 years in the future. Hell, no one talks like that now! It’s ridiculous! Hell, all I can figure is it’s the dialogue of Ivy League PhD ubergeek scientists who don’t know how to converse or interrelate in any way and this is how he has his characters talk, even when they’re talking about sex or something casual like that. It’s silly. I read some passages to my non-sci fi reading wife and she laughed her ass off. Said it was horrible. And it is. It’s an embarrassment. He may have had the reputation, he may have been a good idea man, he may have been able to construct future worlds, but he couldn’t spin a decent conversation to save his life. He had no idea how to do so. It’s rather sad. I would have hated talking to him. I suppose it would have been a fairly silent conversation. Again, in this book, people say things like, “Mistress Vernabili”
and Master Seldon,” in everyday conversation. Crap like that. Isn’t that just a little over the top formal? Oh well. It’s a darn good book. It’s a five star book that I’m knocking down to four stars because the dialogue is so incredibly bad. I desperately want to give it five stars, especially after such an outstanding ending, but I just can’t justify that. The grammatical and literary technical difficulties are too great to ignore. Nonetheless, strongly recommended.

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A Review of Fatal System Error

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 22, 2015

Fatal System Error: The Hunt for the New Crime Lords Who are Bringing Down the InternetFatal System Error: The Hunt for the New Crime Lords Who are Bringing Down the Internet by Joseph Menn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fatal System Error is an absolutely scary as shit, totally frightening book about today’s hackers and their ties to the Russian mob and how billions of US dollars in terms of identity theft and credit card fraud make their way to the Russian Mafia through this new breed of hacker. The author is a technology journalist who is a decent writer and the book could have been good, and at times, is, but it has some major flaws as well. First through, Menn, the author, traces the lives and paths of new cybercrime fighters in America and Britain, Barrett Lyon and Andy Crocker, as they develop ways to defend against hacker attacks and ultimately carry the battle to them. What they find out and how they did it is shocking.

Lyon, a young California computer geek helped a friend’s company stop something called a DDOS attack (denial-of-service) in the early 2000s. This was fairly new and some hackers had figured out they could start using their computers and other people’s computers in what later became known as bots and botnets to flood a person or company’s single server with data requests, thus bringing it down and bringing it offline. They initially started doing this to offshore gambling sites, where there was majorly big money to be made, and they demanded “ransoms” of some $5,000, $10,000, $20,0000, and as time went by, as much as $200,000, payable in hours, or else these sites would be shut down on a big game day and these betting sites would lose many millions of dollars. One of these major gambling sites heard about what Lyon had done and hired him to quickly defeat a DDOS attack against its company, which Lyon did. The thing I don’t really understand, since this became Lyon’s thing and since the author made such a big deal about this for about half the book and made such a big deal about Lyon’s computer genius, is that it seems to me that Lyon merely obtained and later bought large server farms to build up bandwidth and capacity to defeat the DDOS attacks – and it worked. But that’s not genius! Anyone could figure that out! That’s just brute force defense. There’s no brilliant coding. There’s not even any brilliant networking. No virus traps, no Trojans, no sniffers, nothing. Just server farms. Okay, whatever. He started his own company, with the backing of a number of these gambling companies he was now working for, all offshore, and which he rather stupidly and naively didn’t realize were themselves criminals, er, US mobsters. So, he started his own business with mob money. At some point, he rats them out, loses his business, somehow survives, starts a new business, and discovers that the world of hacking has passed him by, as DDOS is a thing of the past and he has to catch up if he’s going to sell his security skills. Lyon at some point started tracking hackers though various networks, finding that many of them were Russian punks, just teens. As part of this investigation, he came into contact with an English policeman named Andy Crocker, who was doing the same sort of investigation, but on an official basis for his government. Simultaneously, though acting independently, the two began to move in on the “bad” guys, watching as they transitioned from basic hacking to DDOS ransom schemes, then to identify theft and credit card fraud, and finally to government-sponsored cyber attacks on other governments and multinational corporations.

Andy Crocker was a British policeman, former military, now working a national task force dedicated to eliminating Internet crime. As noted, he came across Lyon while researching these hackers who were also hitting British gambling companies. He traced them, like Lyon, to Russia and other Eastern European countries, such as Kazakhstan, Latvia, and Estonia. Like Lyon, he was able to trace the originators of some of these DDOS attacks to actual hackers and found out some of their true identities and locations. He actually traveled to Russia to begin a cooperative effort with the FSB and MVD to locate, arrest, and prosecute these Russian hackers. And although it took great effort and a hell of a long time, they got three of the prominent ones, all young kids who had done a hell of a lot of damage and were responsible for millions of dollars of theft and destruction. But they obviously weren’t the only ones, by far. There were thousands of others and these were low level hackers. They wanted to go after bigger ones. And to their dismay, they found they couldn’t. One they tried to get was the son of the province’s police chief and he was untouchable. The biggest, someone called King Arthur, who was allegedly making a million a day, was unknown and unreachable and was a god in the hacking world. They eventually found his country and he was also untouchable. Andy was told by everyone that no one could go after him. That no one could arrest him, sorry. Someone big was looking out for him. Crocker came to the conclusion that either the Russian mob and or, and more likely, the Russian government was using and protecting the big Russian hackers. It was depressing. In fact, after Crocker returned to England, the Russian prosecutor of these hackers who was so gung ho about prosecuting more Russian hackers was found murdered!

Another depressing thing was just how deeply into Russian society this world of hacking and cybercrime runs. Apparently, St. Petersburg is a monster crime haven. Apparently there’s a mob organization so big and so powerful and so feared that they brazenly run ads advertising their services and skills openly and offer a home to over 100 big league hackers, carders, virus makers, botnet owners, scammers, spammers, crackers, etc. It’s called the Russian Business Network (RBN), and although it’s theoretically merely a network provider, it’s widely thought to be a government-sponsored, mob controlled crime syndicate that is extremely violent, horrendously violent, and very dangerous. And there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it. It’s completely protected. It seems that virtually everything seriously big, bad, and evil goes through the RBN. No one can penetrate it. It’s a god.

The book goes on to assert that the battle against hackers and cybercrime has essentially been lost. That those who argue that real-time, live use of credit cards is riskier than online use are insane and dead wrong (which is interesting, cause I just read a carding book by uberhacker and now-Wired editor Kevin Poulsen stating this very assertion the author’s denying). That over 30% of America’s credit card numbers, as well as Social Security card numbers and other forms of ID, are in the hands of the Russian mobsters. This book was written in 2010. I imagine if this was true then, it’s probably worse now. It’s depressing as hell. Still, the two times I’ve been victimized by credit card fraud and theft, it’s not been online; it’s been live use theft.

The thing that really irritated me about this book, though, was that the author relied virtually exclusively on these two “experts” (one of whom I question is actually even a real expert) to write the book. Shouldn’t he have sought out sources from CERT, the much maligned (in this book) FBI, Secret Service, FBS (since he went there), big name hackers (go to the source), white hat hackers, other security professionals, etc.? Why rely on two people who may have had five years of varying degrees of success in the mid-2000s, neither of which I’ve ever heard of, and I’ve heard of many major security professionals, when there are so many sources to choose from? It seems short sighted and it seems like you’re limiting your book and your readers’ educations and experiences. I don’t like it. But that’s what he chose to do, so that’s what I have to live with. Still, I dislike it so much, and I dislike the fact that he focuses so damn much of the book on one figure who focuses almost exclusively on a hacking technique (DDOS) that went out of style even before the mid-2000s, that I’m knocking the book down from four stars max to three max. This could and should have been a much better and broader book and it wasn’t. I think the author did the reader a grave disservice. Not a great book with unusual sources, but slightly recommended if you want to wake up sweating in the middle of the night.

I found a number of interesting reviews, one of which impressed me so much, that I’m going to print it here without the author’s knowledge or permissions, but while giving him full credit and hoping he approves. I think he makes some excellent points about the book and they’re worth reading.

Joe White rated it did not like it · review of another edition
Shelves: on-shelf, techread

One star

Thank goodness for Goodreads reviews and bookswap. Reading the prior reviews I had low expectations for this book, and through swap I only wasted money on the postage.
The book can almost be divided into 3 segments. The author seems to only have interviewed two main participants against internet crime, and came away with an incomplete and incoherent understanding of any details of the problem. He almost attributes all the evil on the internet as having a denial of service as the source. Even during the second part of the book, which included the topic of identity theft, he was attributing most of the theft activity to DDoS. I think he just like to bring up the acronym.
Some of the problems I had with the book :

1. There were 90 pages attributed to crimes of US mafia figures, in which the dollar amounts of each occurrence were laboriously spelled out like a Bob Cratchet accountant listing personal losses and moaning about the inability of the FBI to pursue the Gumbas and delegate justice. Literary style could have been extended to a two-page spreadsheet report detailing the who, how, and how much figures. This segment of the book generated the feeling of watching a Godfather marathon movie session, and I felt really diverged from the intent of discussing internet crime in terms of how the internet is the enabling tool. I already suspected that mules carry money, people get killed, and identities are just handles to hide behind.

2. The swashbuckling crime fighting DDoS buster had a girlfriend to whom a few pages were wasted on. Since she was irrelevant to the overall topic, she could have been mentioned once for background, and not introduced as what might have become a significant character (but never did).

3. The mechanics of defeating a DDos attack were never detailed. The server farm set up in Phoenix had the bandwidth and number of servers to defeat an attack, but there were no details provided as to why it was specifically set up in Phoenix, what its components were, and how a direct attack defense was managed.

4. Because the author seemed obsessed with DDoS, he mentioned bots and botnets at least once on every 3rd page. He never described a bot to the laymen. He never made it clear whether a bot could consist of a virtual machine created for a purpose, or whether it had to be an independent 3rd party box belonging to an unsuspecting bystander. The author never fully explained the mechanics of a trojan horse implant, and didn’t clarify the difference between a virus and trojan horse. He also never explained what can be done at the individual user level to fend off trojans and viruses, except in a short subject dealing with phishing emails generated by spam during — DDoS attacks. He never clarified that DDoS isn’t necessary for phishing, and neither are bots.

5. Only once was it mentioned that one group switched to Macs because they seemed less susceptible to attack. He mentioned at least twice that you can’t sue Microsoft for providing a faulty OS combined with a poorly updated integrated browser, because purchasing a machine with Windows provides only a license to use the software and provides no firm sale transaction in which a person owns the software running on the hardware that they do own. He did mention the Microsoft monopoly on the OS, but failed to mention that Microsoft was prosecuted in conjunction with monopolistic powers only related to installation of a browser. It was never mentioned that Microsoft to this day controls hardware vendor access to Windows, and if the hardware companies dare install anything else but Windows or MS products, they will be heavily penalized in regard to being able to install Windows. If anyone says the Dell sells Linux, I must say that I’ve only ever been able to find minimal hardware boxes in the very basic desktop configuration, and in selecting one of those choices, there is a radio selection button for the OS that would full form advance to a Windows selection. Phone inquiries were even worse at the individual customer level. Only institutional server customers could purchase equipment with Linux pre-installed. Same story at all vendors except Lenovo, and then only through individual providers.

6. The author in the last 50 pages provides a conglomerated synopsis of headline events and trends regarding contemporary internet warfare across national borders. China is mentioned as a war opponent in cyberhacking, but it is never mentioned that China manufactures a significant volume of the circuitry used in electronics and could very easily, using the subversion techniques described by R.J. Pineiro, hide logic bombs and covert data skimmers within circuit boards and components. This could happen to Apple and all the phone manufacturers, so that their equipment could be subverted despite the installed software. Of course the title of the book was “the hunt for the internet crime lords”, so hardware subversion might have been beyond the scope.

7. Since the title was the “hunt for the New Crime Lords who are bringing down the internet”, some credit must be given to the author for remaining in the hunt venue, and not providing the extraneous technical details that readers might be led to expect by the book-cover blurb adulations such as “A fascinating high-tech whodunit”. The high tech here would be synonymous to an interstate highway providing speeders the ability to go faster.

8. The middle segment dealing with a physical legal pursuit presence in Russia, was in my opinion the redeeming revelation of the book. Life in Russia has never been painted as a Disneyland experience, but the adverse conditions both politically and physically presented here, really underscored the futility of pursuit of Soviet area bad guys in their home territory.

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A Review of The Robots of Dawn

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 21, 2015

The Robots of Dawn (Robot, #3)The Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed this third book in the Isaac Asimov robot trilogy (which I believe turned into four books…) and thought it was the best one. It follows the paths of Earth investigator Elijah Bailey and his Spacer robot sidekick R Daneel Olivaw as they attempt to solve the “murder” of a humaniform robot similar to Daneel on the planet Aurora. In the first book, The Caves of Steel, the two met and solved a murder mystery in New York City on Earth. In this futuristic Earth, a fearful population lives in huge domed cities underground and never goes outside. In the second book, The Naked Sun, Elijah is forced to face his fears and is told to leave Earth to solve a murder that occurred on a Spacer planet called Solaria where the sparse population has developed a weird type of disgust for their fellow humans. They refuse to touch other humans and mostly only interact with their numerous robots. When Elijah returns to Earth, he’s come to think that colonizing other planets is the only way that the human race on Earth can survive the future. He’s been changed by his experience.

In this book, The Robots of Dawn, Daneel’s humaniform robot companion has been “murdered” by someone, yet the only suspect is the most famous roboticist in the galaxy, Dr. Falstolfe, who freely admits he’s the only person in the galaxy with the necessary skills to be able to disable a positronic humaniform robot of that type, of which he is also the creator, yet at the same time he strongly claims he’s innocent. If Elijah and Daneel can’t prove him innocent, it will have terrible consequences for Elijah’s career and for Earth’s ability to attempt to colonize the galaxy. Daneel is also in danger, as he is the last remaining humaniform robot and it seems he is wanted. It’s a huge mystery and as Baley interviews various suspects and other people, it seems completely unsolvable, or at least everything points to Falstolfe, so there seems little hope for Baley and Earth’s futures.

Two important characters in the book are ex-Solarian woman, Gladia, now living on Aurora and with whom Elijah has a bit of a “thing,” even though he’s married and has no intention of cheating or leaving his wife, etc. He still allows himself to fantasize every now and then, remembering their time together when he was solving the murder on Solaria. The other major character is another robot named Giskard, who doesn’t appear to be as advanced as Daneel, but for whom appearances may be deceiving. Frankly, this is one of the most difficult mysteries I’ve ever seen any character solve and I had no idea how Baley was going to do it. The ultimate solution came as a bit of a shock to me and took me completely by surprise, as the apparent solution was a bit, just that – apparent, but there was a second, hidden, solution that was the brilliant shocker and which made this book most excellent.

However, I do have a complaint and in fairness to this book, it’s more about the author than it is about this book alone. Over the past year or two, in reading a lot of Asimov, I’ve come to realize that while he can come up with good ideas and write good mysteries, he’s a crappy writer and can’t write dialogue to save his life. In fact, he’s the worst dialogue writer of any author I’ve ever read! He’s freaking horrible!!! It’s so stilted and formal, so unauthentic, so academic and dry. In this book, somewhat surprisingly, there’s a lot of talk about sex, particularly between Elijah and Gladia and some of it occurs after an odd and surreal intimated sex scene and the dialogue is so 1950s wooden, formal crap that it’s just downright silly. No one talks like that. And this is supposed to be many thousands of years in the future! I read some of the sentences and paragraphs to my wife, who doesn’t read science fiction but who does read a lot, and she burst out laughing, stating that was the worst crap she had ever heard. And it is. My God, Asimov is a hack! In fact, he’s easily one of the worst sci fi “writers” in terms of actual writing ability of anyone I’ve ever read. In my reviews of his various Foundation books, I’ve often said it would have helped if he had taken some college level creative writing classes because he showed little evidence of basic skills, such as use of transitions, plot development, character development, and obviously his use of dialogue is such a joke as to make his books laughable – if these particular mysteries weren’t so intriguing. So, I really want to knock this book’s rating down a few stars, even though I think it’s a five star story. I mean, the story itself is brilliant, one of the best mysteries I’ve ever encountered. But the actual writing is so typically Asimov-bad, I’ve got to knock it down at least one star to four stars, with apologies. Nonetheless, it’s a darn good book and strongly recommended.

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A Review of Homefall

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 18, 2015

Homefall (The Last Legion, #4)Homefall by Chris Bunch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Homefall was a great book and I am sad to have finished it because, since it was the fourth and final book in the Last Legion series, and a really great series that I have seriously enjoyed is now over. It’s a real pity. This book was quite different from the three preceding it in that the Legion is no longer having to defend Cumbre from attackers and rebels. Instead, Garvin and Njangu and the rest decide to finally go looking for the Confederation, the giant mystery hanging around the neck of each book. They’re part of the Confederation’s military machine, sent to Cumbre for duty, when all contact with the Confederation ended and no one has heard from or of it for a decade. No one knows what has happened. It seems to have literally disintegrated. Garvin decides to get a group together and disguise themselves as a circus troop going from system to system until they finally reach the home system of Centrum, hoping to find out the cause of the mystery and, if the Confederation is indeed dead, perhaps to jump start it back to life. Why a circus? Garvin comes from a long line of circus performers and in a dangerous universe, what better way to travel than as nonthreatening entertainers?

They get a massive ship, load it with a zillion weapons and a number of specialized fighters, about 150 soldiers, and then they go to a real circus planet to hire real circus people and animals. Which they do. And they practice. And then they hit the road, er skies. And the shit hits the fan. Every world the come to is freaking insane! Everyone tries to kill each other and kill them. There are insane plots, treacheries, dictators, paramilitary groups and private armies, with everyone enjoying watching the circus perform until they realize they can either make use of them and their equipment, etc., or until they realize they just want to kill them. In either case, the Legion comes under attack, has to fight back, and escapes, usually just barely. There’s one system that’s particularly evil and insane and I wasn’t sure at all how they were going to escape that particular trap. But they did. And found the home system. And what they found was not what they hoped for.

Since the first three books were about their wars with the rebels, the aliens, and their planetary neighbors and since they no longer had any enemies nearby, I thought this would be more of a political book, but I was wrong. This book was about the journey and it was all intrigue and action. Serious tension too. Very well written, great plot. My only complaint is the ending. The final chapter is a mere two pages, with them arriving back home and splitting up, going their separate ways. I was a little shocked, because there had been romances and relationships, bonds that were established, futures to be groomed, and it was all shot to hell in two pages. No one rode off into the sunset with the girl. Hell, the two best buds didn’t even end up going off together to do their own thing. Even they split up and went their separate ways, in the space of a few paragraphs, and that seemed really unlike their characters. Really unbelievable. I found the final chapter really hard to swallow and thought about downgrading the rating a star, but I enjoyed the book and the series so much overall, that I’m still giving it five stars. This book, unlike the previous two, could possibly be read as a stand alone book, but I would start with the first one and read the series in order. I think readers would get much more out of that. Best series ever? No. Really damn good? Damn straight! Definitely recommended.

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