Deception Point

Deception Point

Rating: 3/4 (Engaging read)

NASA has discovered a meteorite in an Arctic glacier which has fossils of extraterrestrial life forms! That is the premise of the book Deception Point, the third book by Dan Brown. The protagonists in the story are Rachel, an intelligence expert for the NRO and Tolland, an oceanographer. Rachel’s dad is a Presidential candidate who is hellbent on winning the Presidency by bringing to light the recent inefficiencies and failures of NASA. Rachel is requested to visit the Arctic to confirm the details about the meteorite. Could such extraterrestrial lifeforms have formed the origin of life on Earth? What Rachel discovers there casts a big doubt on all this.

The book is a good read. It is far better than Brown’s Digital Fortress. Much like his other books, though the story might be quite lame, Brown keeps throwing interesting tidbits along the way that keeps the reader quite engaged.

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Digital Fortress

Digital Fortress

Rating: 3/4 (Pretty decent yarn)

I read the novel Digital Fortress over the rainy weekend. This is Dan Brown’s first fictional work. The story involves the ultra secret NSA and its cryptographic department. The NSA has built a computer with 3 million processors named TRANSLTR which can crack any ciphertext using brute force. But, it is one day challenged with a ciphertext that it cannot crack. The creator of the new encryption algorithm named Digital Fortress threatens to go public with this algorithm if the NSA does not reveal to the world that it has been snooping on the world’s information using TRANSLTR. Wait, there is more. There is a chance that some of USA’s biggest secrets will be revealed to the world.

Compared to the popular The Da Vinci Code, Digital Fortress is amateurish, especially the first half of the novel. The main protagonist is a female cryptographer who is in love and has a fabulous figure to boot! (I am not saying I have seen her, Dan Brown describes her like that. 😉 ) The book rests on cryptography, so the author tries to explain all the crypto jargon in layman terms. This read as quite funny to me in most of the cases. In parts of the book the EFF and the right to information also show up. Thankfully, by the the time I reached the second half, the book became a nail-biting page-turner with Brown throwing up twist after twist. Quite an enjoyable read.

Silicon Sky

Silicon Sky

Rating: 3/4 (Good read)

Silicon Sky authored by Gary Dorsey is a non-fiction book that follows the creation of the Orbcomm Low Earth Orbit (LEO) messaging satellite. The author stayed with the satellite team for 4 years from its inception to launch.

By 1991, David Thompson, CEO of Orbital Sciences Corporation had tasted success with his startup company’s Pegasus launch vehicles for commercial satellite launches. The company now aimed for a new frontier: a low cost satellite messaging system. They planned a constellation of 24 cheap LEO satellites named Orbcomm for this. During this period, competition is hotting up with Motorola raising literally billions of dollars for its mega 66 satellite constellation named Iridium.

The book follows the day-to-day travails of the Orbcomm team, consisting of mostly fresh graduates from university as they try to build the world’s first commercial messaging satellite. The project was planned to be completed in just 1.5 years, but drags on for a full 3 years. During this period, the team is pushed to the extreme by faulty parts, changing requirements and increasing weight of the hardware. Some of the parts that they fashion for the satellite turn out to be ingenious hardware and software hacks necessitated by the failings of the commercial parts at that time.

In the climactic chapter of the book, even after 2 initial satellite launches in April 1994, they fail to respond to the earth station. The team works with almost no sleep for 2 months before they find the problem and fix it, thus bringing back Orbital from the brink of economic collapse. The company later launches all its planned satellites in the constellation. OTOH their competitor Motorola is heavily delayed and even though it finally launches its satellites, it goes bankrupt on its Iridium satellite phone system, not realizing the emerging potential of GSM global roaming agreements.

Gary Dorsey stays so close to the Orbcomm team that sometimes it becomes unbelievable that the book is not fiction. The workings of the management and engineers are covered in microscopic detail. However, the book is boring in some parts since the writing is not interesting. Also, there are just too many team members who are followed up in detail and it gets hard remembering who does what when they all come together. This is a good read.

Trivia: OSX is the name of the custom operating system running inside the Orbcomm satellites.

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