Books

Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue by Ryan Holiday

The story of how Gawker was taken down by Hulk Hogan a few years ago developed a new twist when it turned out that Hogan was only able to actually do it because Peter Thiel, the billionaire tech investor who also support(ed) Donald Trump bankrolled him.

In “Conspiracy” Ryan Holiday is re-telling the story of this conspiracy. He seems to have spoken extensively with both Thiel and Nick Denton. The latter being the founder of Gawker and the one who had set the tonen of the publication.

Personally I admit that when I heard Gawker had last the lawsuit by Hogan and was basically bankrupt I was a bit delighted. I wasn’t a huge follower of Gawker but I was aware of the kind of stuff they were publishing. What fascinated me was how many people in the media tried to make it about freedom of the press.

In the book Holiday analyses both the nature of conspiracies as well as the the conspiracy that ended up bringing down Gawker. Interestingly enough though even in his summary in the end he leaves it open if the lawsuit, and the conspiracy behind it, was a net-good or -bad thing.

The greatest weakness for me in the book though is that Holiday has a tendency to meander. He takes long, winding detours through history and philosophy, including ample quoting of Machiavelli, to make his point. At times it seems he forgets that he is trying to write about a specific conspiracy.

Rating: 3.5/5

Extinction Cycle: Dark Age - Book 1 - Extinction Shadow by Nicholas SansburySmith & Anthony J. Melchiorri

I really greatly enjoyed the original seven books in the Extinction cycle series even though much like Marvel the whole Zombie thing was sort of had tired me out.

But this was a bit of a different approach. Instead of the “slouching death” it was more an action packed Michael Bay movie, with a stronger emphasis on a bit more of a scientific explanation. The books are pretty graphic at times, though much less so than other, similar, books or most modern slasher films.

The new book series is set eight years after the ending of the first cycle and…. Well, something has happened in the “badlands”. Humanity has been reduced to small islands of modern society with the rest of North America essentially given over to the Variants. They are back now, and the little bit of modern life that has survived is now challenged again.

This isn’t high literature. It’s a fast paced, action driven writing. Think a better Michael Bay movie in book form.

For what it is, I rate it:

Rating: 4.5/5

Safehold - Book 8 - Hell's Foundations Quiver by David Weber

This series really is still growing on me. It wasn’t what I had expected when I started reading it at first, after all going back to the end of the dark ages is usually not really SciFi scenery. But despite this, or maybe because I also like historical fiction, I continue to find myself getting drawn into the books.

The story in book 8 picks up right were it left off in the previous one left off with the war in full succession.

Over the course of the book Weber continues to “deep dive” into the technologies that get developed which I personally find one of the big appeals.

At the overall story ark we are seeming to come close to the end. The church seems to be close to financial ruin and the internal divisions are growing.

Rating: 4/5

This Is the Way the World Ends: How Droughts and Die-offs, Heat Waves and Hurricanes Are Converging on America by Jeff Nesbit

Not depressed yet? This book can change that rather quickly. Nesbit goes to great lengths to explain the changes we are already witnessing and how they will affect us. He takes his focus away from North America and Europe and also looks at the “forgotten” parts of the world. Countries like Indonesia or the Philippines that rarely factor into our world perception or news cycle.

The picture he paints is anything but pretty. Droughts, floods and heat-waves will all leave their make and cause massive relocation of people and the probable die off of thousands of species.

It is not a happy read, it’s not meant to be. But I think it is the read required for people to wake up to the realities.

In a way though, I admit it’s a bit of disaster porn. Will change your mind? You’re probably already of the opinion things will need to change, and the people who don’t probably won’t be convinced by yet another book.

So, in a way it is self-serving.

Rating: 4/5

Bottle of Lies - The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom by Katherine Eban

A few years ago I was prescribed a new medication. It seemed to do what it was supposed to do but I also started noticing some weird changes. My muscles seem to “glue together” and my blood values were starting to get out of whack.

It took me a good two yeas to figure out that it was the medication that did it. In none of the materials for the medication did it indicate any of these side effects.

But: It wasn’t the brand name. It was a generic. I opted for it because I presumed that a generic is the same as the brand. That’s after all what we were told and when it comes to “off brand” food it is usually very similar to the brand name.

Yet, as “Bottle of Lies” chronicles, this could be far from the truth. At the core it is the story about an Indian pharmaceutical company who cons the system for market share. From faked test results to outright falsifying data, they do whatever they can in order to get into the lucrative western markets. The health of their customers be damned. And in the US and Europe they were outright honest, the way they behave in other parts of the world is even more abusive.

The book makes clear though it isn’t just this one company, there is a systemic problem in the production and selling of pharmaceuticals.

If you ever had a negative response to a generic, you really should read that book. If you consider taking a generic, you should as well.

Rating: 5/5

The Empire's Corps - Book 15 - Cry Wolf by Christopher Nuttal

You would think a book series 15 books in would be running out of steam about now, and yet, the “Empire’s Corps” series continues to engage. It is probably in no small part because the series does what good SciFi does: It holds up a mirror to the present and projects it out into the distant future. I think in political circles one refers to this as “plausible deniability”.

Series Overview

As this is the first review I am writing on the series a quick overview. The series started out at the “fall of the human empire”. The series goes into great detail as to why this is happening and how it is being perceived by Marines that find themselves abandoned on a far away planet. This is more or less the first ark.

The story is framed by notes / book excerpts from a professor who was banished from Earth for “having the wrong opinions” and who in the new colonial world he lands in continues to write his analysis on how the empire fell.

In the second ark Nuttal takes us to individual stories and places throughout the Empire and how it is being experienced by the people there. Sometimes with lots of violence, other times quite despair.

The Review

If you want to give the book a subtitled it would be: “Fake News”. The theme of the book is the story of an individual journalist who finds himself uncovering some Government misbehaviour and fired the next day before the story he filed gets published.

By chance he gets a chance to work for “alternative media” and he finds himself playing a major role in an attempt to overthrow the Government.

You could call the book a bit naive but all the core story elements are there, the characters are more than just a cutout or archetype and the pace is relatively quick. Nuttal’s writing is similar to Dan Brown in that every chapter almost comes off as an episode of a TV Show.

This is not high literature, but it is entertaining and the theme and the world are interesting.

Rating: 4/5

Ark Royal - Book 14 - The Right of the Line by Christopher Nuttal

So what I said about the previous book by him that that many books in I should start getting bored? Well, as untrue as it is for the other series, Ark Royal is starting to get a bit long in the tooth.

We are more or less in the second story ark now but I find myself much less excited this time around than I was the first time. Part of the reason lies in that the focus of it is much more narrow. It’s more about the military life and once one crisis is over the next one is just around the corner.

The characters themselves start become interchangeably as they are being killed off to be replaced with a very similar character to take their place.

To be fair it is not all bad, there are still interesting moments, but at times there seems to be confusion as to what is more a driver, interpersonal drama or the overarching events.

I think Nuttal bridges this much better in “The Empire’s Corps” series than he does in Ark Royal.

Rating: 3/5

Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World by Clive Thompson

The Future is Code, or so you could think if you listen / talk to the media at the moment. Thompson’s book is…. A weird combination of things. On the one hand he retells the story of early coders, then veers off into the current “Brogrammer” problem and tries to finish with a statement that could either be: Everybody should learn to code” or “You should only code if you want to”. In between we get lessons on how women’s work is undervalued and how …. Well, not quite sure. He meanders a bit all over the place in the book.

I thought the historic retelling was interesting, the place code plays in the world as well and the discussion towards the end of the book as to what makes or not makes a good programmer was all enjoyable. It just seems at times the book doesn’t really know what the core messaging is.

Rating: 4/5

On Fire - The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal by Naomi Klein

Back in 1999 Naomi Klein released “No Logo” inspired / driven by “The Battle of Seattle” and a call against consumerism and branding. It kicked off a bunch of similar books / events and movements. Morgan Spurlocks “Supersize Me” being another example.

Now 20 years later Klein is writing on climate change and, I presume, hopes to spur a similar mass movement as her first book did.

“On Fire” though is not a book in the conventional sense, it is more a collection of her past decade of writing around climate, globalization and economics. It is an interesting summary of many arguments that often only get little air time.

If you are already “tuned in” there probably won’t be a whole lot new here for you. But if you want to get an overview over what is going on and what the arguments and concerns are, this book is definitely a recommendation.

Rating: 4/5

Kochland - The Secret History of Koch Industries and corporate power in America by Christopher Leonard

Most people who are following the US politics over the last decade or so will have heard of “the Kochs”. A rich family who runs a multibillion dollar business empire, mostly based around fossil fuels and heavy industry.

In “Kochland” Christopher Leonard tells the rise of the business, the internal fights in the family and the attempt by the Kochs to shape US politics and create a more “business friendly” environment.

Looking at comments on the book online it seems people in general fall into one of two camps:

  1. They love the ideas the Kochs represent and consider the book a hatchet job.
  2. People who despise the ideas the Kochs represent and find themselves affirmed in their believes.

Being a bit more on the outside I would say the book definitely does not paint a “nice picture” of the Kochs, especially if you do not believe in their libertarian worldview. But it is far from a hatchet job. The book is interestingly written, it showcases the people that worked side by side with the Kochs on various projects. Either with them or against them.

Rating: 4/5

Order of the Centurion - Book 3 - Stryker’s War by Josh Hayes

The Order of the Centurion series is a spinoff of the “Galaxy’s Edge” book series that I discovered last year and found myself enjoying. It’s fast paced, full of action and with characters that are a bit more than two dimensional.

In the world of “Galaxy’s Edge” the “Order of the Centurion” is an award given to exemplary soldiers. Often after death, think Victoria Cross as a contemporary example.

The series picks individuals, often minor characters in the main series, and delves deeper into their lives and how, in the end, they earned the Order of the Centurion.

“Stryker’s War” is the third book in the series and is just as fast driven as the other books in the series.

As a “standalone” book it isn’t really noteworthy or a must read. But if you enjoy the Galaxy’s Edge series, this spin-off and this book in the series are definitely worth it.

Rating: 4/5

Undying Mercenaries - Book 12 - Clone World by B. V. Larson

Well this was a pleasant surprise. Usually it takes Larson around six months between books, but this one dropped all of the sudden and continues the story at the same pace.

McGill gets a chance to finally go after his arch nemesis Claver and discovers along the way that for some mercenaries loyalty even to the home planet is somewhat optional.

Things end up getting really interesting when the Earth force finds itself in a battle between their old Masters and another old race that really does like Earths neck of the woods.

The scope of the series keeps expanding and we are left with the cliff hanger that apparently now full blown civil war is going on at the galactic core.

It’ll be interesting to see where the next few books take us.

Rating: 4/5

The Edge - Book 1 - Edge of the future by Andria Stone

This is an interesting concept, bad people steal potentially devastating weapon, individuals get thrown into it and try to prevent it.

Yet, for some reason this didn’t click with me. At the end I really didn’t care much about the characters or how it would end.

Rating: 3/5

TV

Another Life

So Netflix tries again having a crack at the SciFi thing and….. misses.

The show is a mishmash of a variety of other SciFi shows / movies all put together in what feels like a rather disjointed way. I get why so many people / reviewers do not really like it.

The problem really isn’t in the acting or the production design / shooting. Rather the story seems to not know what it wants to do until way too late and by the time the main antagonist shows up I had sort of tuned out.

Here’s a rather extended discussion on what the story problems are:

Rating: 1/5

Good Omens

I am always wary when they adopt a book into a movie or a TV show. Usually this goes one of two ways:

  1. They try to adopt the source material literally
  2. They “re-interpret” it in some way.
  3. They just steal the name.

The problem with the first version is that often the written word translates only half-assed onto the screen. It requires good writers and “visual” source material to really make that work.

The second version is usually the way to go, make it your own while retaining what makes the source material great. This is often the best way to go, but if there is a discrepancy between what the screen writer and the read consider “vital” it may end up as a disappointment.

The third one is essentially a bait and switch. Readers will never get anything out of the movie or show that they got from the book.

So where does “Good Omens” fall?

I would say in the second category. There are some departures from the book, but it is entertaining in it’s own right and it is not dancing on the books grave.

Especially Michael Sheen and David Tennant have a great chemistry together and it is fun to have them both on the screen at the same time.

It probably also helped that they decided to make it a mini series, so the risk of them watering the concept down in order to wring a few more seasons out of it was greatly diminished.

Rating: 4/5

Into the Dark (Anthology Series)

“Into the Dark” is an anthology series that ran for the last year. It consists of 12 90 minutes long horror movies with different themes.

I am not going to break out each individual entry here, but rather want to give a summary judgement on the (first?) season.

It’s good. It is nothing amazing, ideas and expectations aren’t really overturned. The writing is solid though and much better than what we saw for example with the 2019 “The Twilight Zone” earlier this year who had a lot of seriously atrocious writing.

If you do like horror movies, not the blood and gore type, this is an entertaining anthology series.

Rating: 3.5/5

Hold the Sunset (Season 1)

Oh boy. This was…. average. It is really too bad seeing how far John Cleese has fallen from his high-point with Python, Fawlty Towers and a Fish Called Wanda.

There just weren’t a whole lot of laughs in there. Maybe it is a generational thing, I am after all not in my 70s, but I think it just generally is…. Boring? There is nothing new here. There is no “bite” to the show at all.

To be brutal here: It’s as if Cleese and the writers called it in from a retirement home.

Rating: 2/5

Disenchantment (Season 2)

I did find myself enjoying the first season last year and was happy to see that the second season was finally released this month.

What’s there to say but: More of the same. It is still enjoyable and the characters are still fun. It is a little bit less crazy than the previous season, but overall much more even.

Greatly enjoyable.

Rating: 4.5/5

Preacher - Season 4

All good things have to come to an end. And so, this year, Preacher has ended.

It was a bit of a bittersweet last season, at times it felt a bit rushed, but the trademark craziness from the comic was still around.

God being an asshole? Absolutely. And in the end we still get a “happy ending” of sorts. Apocalypse avoided, though not for lack of trying.

A good ending for the show.

Rating: 4.5/5

Movies

Der Goldene Handschuh (2019)

This is an ugly movie. I do not mean this in the context of “a bad movie”. Quite the opposite it is a remarkably good movie.

What makes the movie ugly is firstly the theme, that of a serial killer. But more importantly that, as it isn’t a Hollywood movie, it does not have the “pretty ugliness” that is so common in US movies.

It is too bad that the movie will probably not see a wide release in most parts of the world.

Rating: 5/5

SpiderMan: Far From Home

Okay, I have to say it is probably me, not them. But I just generally didn’t find this too engaging on the whole. To my surprise earlier this year I found myself enjoying the first, Homecoming, and Animated Spiderman, but on this one… Dunno.

I think in a big way it may have been the moping over the rest of the MCU that puts me off a bit. I am not that invested in the MCU as a whole and the last few movies in that area didn’t do it for me already. So this was another one of those “meh” type of movies.

If you are into Superheros I think you find all the bits and pieces here that make it sing though. So ignore my rating on this one.

Rating: 3/5

Toy Story 4

Maybe I am growing up, but Toy Story 4 did not draw me in to the same degree as the first two movies did. Having said this though, it is impressive how far computer animation has come since the first movie. If you look at it now it really does look ugly by todays standard.

But maybe that’s also the reason why it worked. It didn’t try to be “real” and now with highly realistic rendering these movies come at times close to the uncanny valley.

I am sure sooner or later Disney will make a full live action version out of it. Just like they have done with their other classics.

Rating: 3/5

Supersize Me 2: Holy Chicken

Morgan Spurlock’s back and goes behind the scenes of fast food chicken by opening his own restaurant.

The odd thing about this is that all of this was apparently being shot back in 2016 but only now got released.

As far as a Spurlock movie goes it is well made and entertaining. It also shines a light on the practices of Americas (and Canadas) favourite protein: The chicken.

Rating: 4/5

Online Reads

The air conditioning trap: how cold air is heating the world

The warmer it gets, the more we use air conditioning. The more we use air conditioning, the warmer it gets. Is there any way out of this trap?

Fiasco: the inside story of the Brexit talks

The Northern Ireland economy office suggests that some 40,000 jobs would be at risk. London’s own no-deal planning, officials say, also assumes businesses would close. The British government has said it will allow goods to flow tariff-free from the Irish Republic. But that would mean Northern Irish farmers being thrown under the bus. Or as Declan Billington, a respected former chair of CBI Northern Ireland, puts it, “Not thrown under the bus. Thrown under the convoy of European lorries bringing tariff-free food into the UK via Northern Ireland, driving past the Northern Irish farms that have no export market in Ireland or Europe. Good luck with cross-border relations with that one.” Which is why you’ve got to wonder whether the Brexiteer’s clean-break unilateral free trade could ever work. Some officials think there is a good chance that Northern Irish farmers will try to barricade those roads—as one puts it, “tyres will soon be burning.”

https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/peter-foster-brexit-longread

Videos

The Nerd Crew: D23, Star Wars, D23, Disney+ and Streaming Services

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Panzer IV vs. Sherman

In this video we take a closer look at the Panzerkampfwagen IV Ausführung G and M4A1 Sherman in their Summer/Fall 1942 configurations.

3 Sausage Roll Recipes... but which is best? Quick vs Vegan vs Gourmet

Today, you’re in for an absolute treat! Sausage roll recipes compared. As well as the ULTIMATE version of this classic snack with homemade puff pastry, these VEGAN rolls will blow you away.

This channel is basically TopGear (Clarkson years) but with food.

Automated Chess - Losing to a Ghost

I remember a store near where I lived having something like this. They had it play against itself and it was fascinating to watch it play. Of course after a few weeks you saw scratches in the wood from all the pieces moving.

World of Batshit - #10: Size

Part 10 in a series examining some of the most ridiculous claims. In this part we look at a channel claiming that there's a conspiracy to lie about the size of pretty much everything.

Anti-shoutout to Uber-Cletus' House of Buttermilk Waffles and Batshit