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[techbooks] REVIEW: "Night Visions", Ronald Munson

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  • Rob Slade, doting grandpa of Ryan and Tr
    BKNTVSNS.RVW 990822 Night Visions , Ronald Munson, 1995, 0-451-18013-5, U$5.99/C$6.99 %A Ronald Munson %C 10 Alcorn Ave, Suite 300, Toronto, Ontario,
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 1, 1999
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      BKNTVSNS.RVW 990822

      "Night Visions", Ronald Munson, 1995, 0-451-18013-5, U$5.99/C$6.99
      %A Ronald Munson
      %C 10 Alcorn Ave, Suite 300, Toronto, Ontario, M4V 3B2
      %D 1995
      %G 0-451-18013-5
      %I Penguin/Signet/Roc
      %O U$5.99/C$6.99 416-925-2249 Fax: 416-925-0068 service@...
      %P 412 p.
      %T "Night Visions"

      Writers of fiction don't tend to be highly computer literate, so I
      have, in my time, read an awful lot of really bad stories using
      technology for plot devices. I don't think, however, that even
      completely formularized series books such as "Eye of the Storm" (cf.
      BKEYESTM.RVW) live down to the level of this one in terms of both
      abdication of any literary merit, and complete disregard of the
      realities of technical possibility.

      The characters strain credibility. There is the gorgeous and athletic
      heroine who wanted to be a biologist, reads scientific biographies for
      recreation, but became an actress to please her mother. (The biology
      lessons mustn't have gone very far since it takes her a while to
      figure out that she is in the animal research lab that she was told
      about a few chapters ago.) Our courageous psychiatrist is a former
      surgeon who sharpened his anatomical skills by playing jackstraws with
      autopsy knives (it's *amazing* how closely akin they are to throwing
      knives) and full body anatomical charts. Our evil super-genius hacker
      is also an electronic stalker and, just so that you know how vile he
      is, both a consumer and producer of necro-porn. (This "mastermind"
      tends to do little advance planning, and also seems to be about as
      stupid as two bags of rocks.) Inconsistencies in the behaviour of the
      villains are not a problem, since they are all, clinically speaking,
      bonkers. (Just to level the intellectual playing field, here, once
      our heroes have narrowed the number of baddies to one, and all the
      hostages are either safe or dead, do they walk out and leave the
      cleanup to the police? Nooooo!)

      Would you build a facility for treating VIPs with depression or panic
      disorders and have no windows in the building? No, I didn't think so.

      A policeman, on the basis of a rather tentative personal acquaintance,
      outfits a (somewhat disabled) civilian with weaponry of slightly
      questionable legality, and sends him off to do battle with the black
      hats. Alone. In the midst of a sizeable and quite public police
      operation.

      You expect me to believe that this building has VIP suites in one
      part, animal research in another, and only one door? So they truck
      the bags of Purina Rat Chow in (and the, umm, ... end products ...
      out) through the main foyer? Actually, while the labryinthian insides
      of the building are truly mind boggling, this business of the
      structure having only one door, crucial to the early part of the book,
      turns out to be very much not the case after all.

      A laser, especially a lab standard argon laser, is not a good weapon.
      Although you could probably give someone a nasty lump if you hit them
      with it.

      Standard cable run channelling is far too small for anyone, even an
      anorexic model or actress, to fit through. If you are moving feet
      first through a passage just barely big enough for your body to fit
      into, it isn't likely that too many cobwebs are going to be left after
      you pass by. And someone squirming their way through a duct of
      galvanized sheet metal is going to make one heck of a racket.

      Well, enough with the fairly easy problems with the book. Let's get
      on with the technical mistakes.

      The modems used in the book are all the old acoustic coupler type.
      It's been a very long time since I used them, but I can never recall
      anyone having to use talcum powder to get the cups to fit over
      handsets. One scene suggests that there is a difficulty with the
      acoustic coupler and a non-500 (the old standard rotary dial desk set)
      handset. This is partly why the later acoustic couplers used flatter
      pickups, and why portable computers now tend to use cellular modems.
      (Aside from the fact that acoustic couplers generally didn't go beyond
      the Bell 103 standard 300 bits per second.) (In this particular scene
      it is also hard to figure out where the phone comes from: eventually I
      decided that it must have been a car phone in the rental van.)

      The "hacking" scenes have just enough techie jargon to ensure that
      they make no sense at all.

      I can't recall precisely when the last BITNET nodes switched over, but
      I think it was before this book was written. In any case, BITNET was
      definitely not the same as Usenet. Also, a bang path was hardly a way
      to disguise the originating node. But that's OK, since turning off
      all the phones and truly spoofing the email address would leave the
      authorities with no way to reply to the gang.

      The "social engineering" described in the book is pathetic, and the
      "shoulder surfing" problematic.

      COMMTALK, as far as I can recall, is a text based terminal emulation
      program. I must have missed the transformation that got it Internet
      telephony and video capability. And I must admit that I was amazed at
      how well outfitted the police were, being able to transmit an Internet
      video signal from a regular crime scene.

      Everyone who connects to the Internet, regardless of computer,
      provider, or software, sees a countdown on their screen? I'll have to
      look up the RFC for UDMP (Universal Doomsday Message Protocol).

      The police would be able to shut down power to the building,
      regardless of the internal control. A research lab, or a medical
      facility, might have an internal backup power supply, but it would be
      limited.

      Filename extensions are used for customer identification rather than
      data types.

      CAD (Computer Aided Design, or probably Drafting, in this case) is
      done on a mainframe. While wasteful, in this day of high end
      workstations, this is barely possible. What probably isn't possible
      is accessing those files in a useful form without a specialized
      terminal. Also, CAD is used to find out precise details of the
      building, but in order to find another exit you just go for a stroll
      around the place. The idea of using CAD files for a virtual reality
      walkthrough is good, as is the idea of using gaming to impress facts
      into the mind, but the type of gaming actually used in the book is
      pretty much guaranteed to distract the user from learning
      architectural niceties.

      A computer controlling building security is readily accessible from an
      outside line.

      The programmed threat in the book is one that will take down the
      telephone network. There is a correct assessment of some network
      related problems, but saying that every net connected computer will
      crash is going a bit too far.

      A dewar flask full of liquid nitrogen produces enough mist, from
      boiling nitrogen and condensing water vapour, that you cannot see the
      liquid itself. It does not produce enough mist to fog a room. I
      wouldn't recommend swimming in it, but you can plunge portions of your
      body in liquid nitrogen for brief periods with no ill effects. (I've
      done it.) The specific heat of nitrogen is low enough that an
      enormous amount will boil away without seriously chilling tissue at
      body temperature. On the other hand, if you do freeze tissue solid,
      the nitrogen does not combine with oxygen in the tissues, and
      certainly doesn't explode.

      This is the kind of book that gives reviewers a reputation for never
      liking anything.

      copyright Robert M. Slade, 1999 BKNTVSNS.RVW 990822

      ====================== (quote inserted randomly by Pegasus Mailer)
      rslade@... rslade@... slade@... p1@...
      There are two kinds of people: those who finish what they start
      and so on ... - Robert Byrne
      http://victoria.tc.ca/techrev or http://sun.soci.niu.edu/~rslade
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