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Review: The Hot Zone by Richard Preston



by sjhoward

This is the 2,275th post. It was published at 12:30 on Wednesday, 1st October 2014.

With a little help from my friends, this post will also appear on Medium, Goodreads, Amazon and some other places too, shortly after publication here. Recycling is good for the environment, right?

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I publish a book review every other Wednesday. You can browse all previous reviews here.

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The Hot Zone by Richard Preston is a book which has been on my ‘to read’ list for years. But, in the light of the recent outbreak, I thought the time to dive in has come.

The book describes an outbreak of Ebola, which occurred in the late 1980s in Washington, DC, a mere stone’s throw from the White House. The outbreak initially spread among imported monkeys and (I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler) then to a small number of humans. The narrative follows the medical, public health, and scientific teams involved in controlling and tackling the outbreak; describing not just their actions, but also their thoughts, feelings, fears, and reflections.

Preston converts this tale into a page-turning thriller. Much of the content isn’t typical thriller material, but Preston does a sterling job of explaining complex scientific concepts and processes in simple (yet accurate) terms; this is quite an achievement. Preston lends his eloquence to horrifying descriptions of Ebola-related deaths, which, I suspect, some readers might find hard to stomach. He also adds heaps of drama and tension that might reflect the atmosphere of a group of experts grappling with an outbreak of a deadly virus.

However, Preston does tend to lean toward the more extreme end of the physical and emotional range. He certainly has a talent for sensationalism. It is important to consider this book for what it is: a mass-market paperback thriller based on real events, not a level-headed factual report.

This book should appeal to many audiences: those with a passing interest in public health and infectious diseases; those with an interest in how major incidents and outbreaks are coordinated and handled; and those who enjoy a horrifying, suspenseful, and thrilling tale of a race against time.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I admire the considerable skill of the author in creating a page-turner that stays true to the facts of the case, and in deftly explaining complex scientific concepts. Yet, I don’t think this is a book that I’ll ever re-read; once is enough. Still, I would absolutely recommend it.


The Hot Zone is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.

Weekend read: The science of slot-machine gambling



by sjhoward

This is the 2,274th post. It was published at 11:19 on Friday, 26th September 2014.

I recommend an article I've read and enjoyed every Friday afternoon. You can browse all previous selections here.

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My recommended read for this weekend is an interview with Natasha Dow Schüll, an MIT cultural antropologist, about slot machines (and casinos more generally). The interview was conducted by Brad Plummer of Vox.

slot machine

As is often Vox‘s style, both the interview and a written-up story based on it are on the same page. I’ve linked directly to the interview itself, as I found that more interesting – but, of course, your mileage may vary.

As an aside: the article says that manufactures often ‘smooth’ the gameplay by making payouts less volatile, while maintaining the payout rate. Apparently, this is legal, as it doesn’t count as changing the ‘odds’. This seems to imply that, in the States at least, odds are regulated in terms of pay-out rate. This seems an intriguingly dumb interpretation of statistics, which has no regard to the player’s own experience. Can it possibly be true?

Why I won’t subscribe to Kindle Unlimited



by sjhoward

This is the 2,273rd post. It was published at 09:47 on Thursday, 25th September 2014.

If you fancy reading this same post in a slightly different format, it's also available on Medium.

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Amazon has just launched Kindle Unlimited in the UK. I read a lot of books – but won’t be subscribing. Here’s why.

Man reading book surrounded by falling letters

Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited in the UK a few hours ago. Kindle Unlimited, which has been available in the States since July, allows subscribers to pay a monthly fee (£7.99) to access 650,000 eBooks and an unspecified number of audiobooks without further payment.

I read a lot of books, mainly on a Kindle. I dread to think how much I spend each month on books, but it is most certainly more than £7.99. So, when Kindle Unlimited launched in the US, I was pining for a UK launch. This came up in a conversation over a drink with a non-techy friend: “What, like a library?” she asked, as I described the service.

The question was as barbed as it was sarcastic, and it struck a nerve. Some sliver of my Council Tax already funds the ability for me to borrow from an enormous collection of physical books, eBooks and audiobooks via my local library. It is vaguely absurd to pay a second time to access a more limited library.

So I set myself a challenge: ditch the Kindle and start using the library.

The first barrier was to discover that I don’t own an eReader compatible with the formats available from my library. But this wasn’t really a problem: I chose to read eBooks mainly because they are cheap, available ‘over the air’, and take up no space in my house. Library books are almost as good: they’re free, take up no space in my house, and are available to collect from the library.

My local library, in common with others, has a great click-and-collect service: I request a book online; they dig it out from whichever library branch or store it is in, whack it on a ‘collection’ shelf near the door in the most convenient branch for me, and notify me that it’s ready to collect. I can then pop into the library during my commute and swap books using a self-service machine. It takes less than sixty seconds from entering the library to exiting.

Of course, not all books feature in the library’s stock. Rather than have the library source these from elsewhere, I’ve bought my own copies; the joy of reading physical books from the library has convinced me to buy paperbacks. So much for saving shelf-space.

The last ten books I’ve read would have cost, in total, £66.89 in Kindle format. Only two of them appear to be among the 650,000-book Kindle Unlimited selection. All but two were within my library’s selection: I paid £9.09 for one of these two in paperback, and borrowed the other by post from the BMA library. Hence, I saved £57.80: an 86% discount.

And so (tl;dr): Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited package made me re-evaluate how much I spent on books. It made me realise the value of my local library, and has lead to me using Amazon far less, and saving myself a small fortune in the process.

Over on Google+ at 08:29 on Friday, 19th September 2014...

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Weekend read: Wanting to be normal



by sjhoward

This is the 2,271st post. It was published at 08:11 on Friday, 19th September 2014.

I recommend an article I've read and enjoyed every Friday afternoon. You can browse all previous selections here.

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» Weekend Reads
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I don't often go for medical publications for my weekend recommended read, but this is worth it – Tania Glyde's piece on being normal, published this week in The Lancet Psychiatry.

If you were expecting something Scottish… There's been a lot of good stuff written, but I've read so much about it this week (and will no doubt read more in the week to come following the "no" vote) that I wanted to pick something different. I'm not at all bitter at having lost a long-standing bet…! 

Wanting to be normal. By – Tania Glyde

Weekend read: The worst day of my life is now New York’s hottest tourist attraction



by sjhoward

This is the 2,270th post. It was published at 12:30 on Friday, 12th September 2014.

I recommend an article I've read and enjoyed every Friday afternoon. You can browse all previous selections here.

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Yesterday was the 13th anniversary of the ‘9/11′ terrorist attacks on the United States. It is a day which I remember well. I recently found myself re-watching Jon Stewart’s extraordinary monologue on the first Daily Show after 9/11, and felt those same chills as I did thirteen years ago.

Earlier this year, the 9/11 Memorial Museum opened in New York. Steve Kandell, whose sister was killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center, had pre-opening admission to the Museum. His thoughtful BuzzFeed article reflecting on the content of the museum, and his reaction to it, seems a fitting article to post for this weekend.

Over on Google+ at 19:41 on Monday, 8th September 2014...

This post will also be appearing on Twitter and Facebook, if it hasn't already.

Posts like these are auto-imported, so accept my apologies if they don't look quite as pretty as you'd usually expect.

Help me be less ignorant: Why do tech journos always talk negatively handling different mobile screen sizes for apps (as though devs hate doing it), while simultaneously giving very positive portrayal of responsive web design (as though devs love doing it)? Aren't they basically the same problem in different formats? Do app building tools make it more difficult to be responsive than it is on the web?

Weekend read: Of mozzarella sticks and marathons



by sjhoward

This is the 2,268th post. It was published at 18:45 on Friday, 5th September 2014.

I recommend an article I've read and enjoyed every Friday afternoon. You can browse all previous selections here.

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My recommend read for this weekend is – horror of horrors – a Gawker article. Caity Weaver's article documenting her "feat" of eating 32 mozzarella sticks in the course of a little more than 12 hours is a great bit of funny writing. The level of tension and disgust may be out of all proportion to the action being described, but that only serves to heighten the humour.

What if I told you that mozzarella sticks never had to end? That for $10, you could eat for free (for $10) for the rest of your natural life? That there exists a spot in the space-time continuum in which it is always Friday? That there are free refills on all Slushes™ excluding Red Bull® branded items?http://gawker.com/endless-appetizers-mark-beginning-of-our-collective-n-1601076939

Over on Google+ at 21:50 on Wednesday, 3rd September 2014...

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Posts like these are auto-imported, so accept my apologies if they don't look quite as pretty as you'd usually expect.

Weekend read: Apocalyptic shopping malls



by sjhoward

This is the 2,266th post. It was published at 10:07 on Friday, 29th August 2014.

I recommend an article I've read and enjoyed every Friday afternoon. You can browse all previous selections here.

This post was filed under:
» Google+ posts
» Weekend Reads

My recommended read for this weekend is really more of a recommended 'gawp' than something to read… but I like to do that sometimes.

It's a photo article from Slate, written by Jordan G Tiecher and feautring the photography of Seph Lawless. It features a number of arresting photographs of abandoned US shopping malls, taken from Seph's latest book. The photos that wonderful artistic haunting post-apocalyptic quality of urban exploration.

I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

Photographer Seph Lawless had been traveling the country photographing a variety of “abandoned and broken” buildings for his book, Autopsy of America, when he came across two buildings from his past: Rolling Acres Mall in Akron, Ohio and Randall Park Mall in North Randall, Ohio. Growing up in nearby Cleveland, Lawless spent lots of…

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