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The Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day (Science of Discworld 4)
The Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day (Science of Discworld 4)

5.0 out of 5 stars Science wins, July 13, 2014
The Omnian sect refuses to accept that the world is a disc resting on the back of four elephants who in turn rest on the back of a space turtle. In spite of all evidence, they stick to their outdated belief that the world is round. While experimenting with high energy magic, the wizards of Unseen University have accidently created such a world in a magicless bubble, which they call Roundworld. The Omnians want Roundworld and they want the Wizards to cease all their sacrilegious activities.

Science, as the Science of Discworld series presents it, is a means for understanding the world around us. We live in a causal world where everything happens for a reason (Science of Discworld 1) but those causes are behind us. Science is predictive it the sense that causes have effects, it is not predictive in the sense that it will predict the future.

From Science's point of view, the world has no purpose. Paradoxically, we human beings love stories, in fact we absolutely need stories (Science of Discworld 2) or else we will never understand the raw data the universe bombards towards us. We call these stories "models" and we build models of the universe that are simple enough for us to understand but complex enough to predict how the universe works. Simpler models might be useful even when they are wrong. We say the sun rises and sets, even though we know the earth is spinning on its axis. We need myths and legends and we need Shakespeare to give some sort of spiritual meaning to our lives. From the power of narrative, we get the energy to study the world.

But Science does not confuse these myths and legends with reality. When we impose a purpose or a direction to what the universe is doing, we aren't doing science anymore, we are doing theology (The Science of Discworld 3). When we set on the universe a purpose outside itself, while accepting that we can only study the universe as it presents itself, we are giving up on the quest for understanding. Whenever a puzzle seems too difficult, we just have to tell ourselves "Ah well, there's a reason for that but we'll never understand it".

It's one thing for the Omnian to believe in things, but it's quite another for them to insist they can impose their view on Science. They believe, without evidence, in a higher purpose and therefore any study of the world must comply with that higher purpose. And while science needs stories to jump start itself, it absolutely requires that these stories match reality and not the other way around.

Because the study of the world bothers them, Omnians want us to stop studying the world. Musn't we fight this? This is a battle Science never wanted to fight but for humanity to move forward, it is one Science must win. The Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day brings the epic battle between Science and Superstition to its conclusion.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets
The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets
by Simon Singh
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.61
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4.0 out of 5 stars Homer's other Pi, and other ninja stealth teaching tools, July 12, 2014
This book is for people who know the Simpsons and don't know math. (Or it's for people who know math but don't know the Simpsons but I suspect the former group is larger than the latter.) As such it's a fun way to learn something about how beautiful and fun mathematics is.

Most people hate mathematics. Children tremble at the thought of fractions and then grow up into adults who think percentages can add up to a number greater than 100. Anything that gets people interested in math deserves our applause.

Singh gives us an inside look at how the Simpsons TV show is written. Many on the writing team are serious math geeks with Ph. Ds. They know their stuff and they insert in the TV show many odd references that are easy to miss. For instance a series of diagrams Homer draws on a blackboard imply that donuts and spheres are identical. Anyone with a bit of college math knows this is wrong, but Homer is drawing the donuts and he understands that to make it true, he must take a bite out of the donut to turn it into a sphere. Singh's book explains why this is interesting.

But do people want to bother learning why this is interesting? Those who do can read the book, and those who don't won't even notice since Homer's blackboard is visible only for a few moments. Enough for those in the know to think "Hey, what was that?" but not enough to bother the rest of the audience. And yet, the little in-joke is there if they ever change their mind.

Stealth math trumps rammed-downed-your-throat math...

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

Of Human Bondage (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics)
Of Human Bondage (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics)
by W. Somerset Maugham
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.56
188 used & new from $0.01

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An ordinary book for ordinary people, July 7, 2014
Whatever age you happen to be, if you are hit with despair at how meaningless, trite and ordinary your life is, then I urge you to get a grip on yourself and read this book. You need to learn how to live for yourself, and you need to do so without becoming selfish.

I can think of no other book that better celebrates the joy of plodding along. I can think of no other book that better celebrates the ordinary. Genius is its own reward but what about the 99.9% of us who have no talent or genius? The answer is in this book: forget talent, forget impossible ambitions, and find your passions in the joy of everyday life.

This is the hard reality: yes, we are special like every one else; but only a very few are truly special. We might work our fingers to the bone and suffer for our aims but what will be become of us? Read this central quote from the novel, and think about it.

"You have a certain manual dexterity. With hard work and perseverance there is no reason why you should not become a careful, not incompetent painter. You would find hundreds who painted worse than you, hundreds who painted as well. I see no talent in anything you have shown me. I see industry and intelligence. You will never be anything but mediocre."

This is heartless! But the man who said it, well, he paused and he painfully added this:

"But if you were to ask me my advice, I should say: take your courage in both hands and try your luck at something else. It sounds very hard, but let me tell you this: I would give all I have in the world if someone had given me that advice when I was your age and I had taken it. It is cruel to discover one's mediocrity only when it is too late. It does not improve the temper"

If you are a cashier in a grocery store or if you input data for a living, so what? Find joy in living, not in thinking you are somehow " talented" or "special".

One of things in life that makes me happy is once in a while writing these Amazon reviews. They are what they are and that is all that they are. (Please excuse my parody of Popeye.) They aren't what you'll find in The New Yorker or in any serious literary review. But I am OK with that.

Anyone who is down in the dumps about how "ordinary" their life is will get something out of this book. In extreme cases, it might even keep them alive. As trite and ordinary as this slightly insipid novel is, isn't that (paradoxically) extraordinary?

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City


1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inevitable a century ago, but could it happen today?, March 19, 2014
With this history of the years leading to World War I, Margaret MacMillan wants to convince readers that the Great War didn't have to happen, that there was nothing inevitable about the conflict, in short that leaders who had stepped back from the brink so often before could very well have stepped back from the chasm again in 1914.

She has a point. Who would have gone to war if they had understood the loss and suffering that actually occured? But despite the warning of the American Civil War, no leader had imagined what was in store. When war came, the watch word was « Back home by Christmas! ».

We all know Hindenburg and the Kaiser, Churchill and Lloyd George, and Bismarck before them. But MacMillan devotes most of her pages to other actors whose interactions and designs shaped the war many years before it actually happened.

For instance, we meet Alfred von Tirpitz who built the German Navy and thus began and arms race with the United Kingdom, one that the British Navy could not lose and one that Germany could not really afford.

We meet Alfred von Schlieffen who devised the two theater plan to allow Germany to fight on two fronts at once. After his death, the lack of ability of his successor, Helmut von Moltke, ensured that if Germany did declare war on one front, war would automatically happen on the another front as well.

Chapter after chapter, we meet diplomats and generals who approached problems piecemeal. Sometimes they were geniuses with no one of comparable talent to succeed them (Bismarck and Schlieffen come to mind) and sometimes they were ordinary people who approached a problem without thinking the consequences through (Tirpitz).

And in the end, over what? Over one assassination by a small group of nationalists in an obscure backwater of Europe? Of course not. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand did spark World War One but it lit a pyre that had been years in the building.

MacMillan insists the Great War could have been avoided but her work, to me, shows the exact opposite. If Europe was on brink of war so often that avoiding World War One would simply have been stepping back from the brink once more, doesn't that just show that had they stepped back, they would later have found themselves again on the brink? And so on and so forth...

No one seemed to ask what Europe was doing to find itself so often on the brink of war. And thus,the war was inevitable.

But what of today? Could another world war happen? The message I take from MacMillan's magnificent book is not that World War One could have been avoided, it is rather that World War Three can happen but that we can avoid it.

To do that, the first question we need to ask ourselves is why, today, the Great Powers of China, the European Union, Russia, and the United States so often take positions that risk escalating to a conflict.

Vincent Poirier, Québec City

Merdeka Rising: Part Two of Black Sun, Red Moon: A Novel of Java
Merdeka Rising: Part Two of Black Sun, Red Moon: A Novel of Java
Price: $5.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Satisfying conclusion, March 14, 2014
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
Merdeka Rising is the second part of Rory Marron's historical novel about the start of the uprising of Indonesia against her colonial masters.

The focal point of the story are the Japanese military. The plot and subplots all turn on them, as does the history of Indonesia. Before the Pacific War, Indonesia was a Dutch colony. White European masters brought industry to the islands and took the profits.

When war broke out, the Japanese took the islands from the Dutch for their natural resources, mainly rubber. They treated the Indonesians with more respect and promised to one day grant independence to Indonesia but, one assumes, within the constraints of the Japanese Empire.

But this is a novel, not a history textbook so Marron develops plots and fleshes out stories about people. We meet the Dutch women and children interned by the Japanese, and we meet the guards. We meet a skeletal British detachment and their Gurkha troops sent to keep law and order and to accept the surrender of the local Japanese military. We meet enraged Indonesian rebel youths willing to die to free Indonesia from their white masters.

Some Japanese, realizing that in twenty years Japan will need friends, side with the rebels. Other Japanese don't want the blood of Dutch women and children on their hands and accept the British request to aid them save Dutch internees under Indonesian attack.

The story rolls along at a good pace. Merdeka Rising spends more time with the Gurkhas and the British command than did Black Sun Red Moon, and it takes a while before the cliffhanger at the end of the first book are resolved.

So get both books at the same time! A great war novel about an interesting and unexpected development at the end of World War II.

Vincent Poirier, Québec City

La justice criminelle du roi au Canada au XVIIIe siecle: Tribunaux et officiers (Les Cahiers d'histoire de l'Universite Laval ; 22) (French Edition)
La justice criminelle du roi au Canada au XVIIIe siecle: Tribunaux et officiers (Les Cahiers d'histoire de l'Universite Laval ; 22) (French Edition)
by André Lachance
Edition: Unknown Binding

5.0 out of 5 stars A completely readable Ph. D. thesis, March 14, 2014
While searching the internet for archived documents concerning judicial torture in early Canada, I came across André Lachance's Ph.D. thesis in history in PDF format.

Lachance examines every recorded instance of the King's justice in New France (now the Canadian province of Quebec) between the years 1712 and 1748. In part 1 of the work, he describes the criminal systems: the laws in force in New France, the courts there, the judicial offices and the magistrates who filled them, what criteria they had to meet, what working conditions and emoluments they could expect, and so on.

Part 2 describes the judicial drama: what types of crime happen in New France, where and when crimes were more likely to occur, how trials were conducted, how the accused were interrogated, what punishments were metted out, and how sentences were executed.

Throughout the text, Lachance scrupulously keeps to documented facts, passing very little judgement as he writes. Once the reader is grounded in these facts, Lachance places them in their proper context. For example, take one form of judicial torture: the boot (the "brodequins" in French). During the interrogation, the accused has his legs crushed between solid wooden planks. The bones broke, the pain was excrutiating and sometimes victims were unable to ever walk again. Taken as a fact this is pure savagery, but the context gives the matter perspective.

The boot was applied only in what the times thought of as great crimes, and only after a great quantity of convincing evidence had been found. Even though French criminal law did not presume innocence, magistrates were loathe to punish anyone but the guilty. Finally, such interrogations weren't conducted as often as they were in France: magistrates coming to Canada often proved themselves more lenient and understanding than did their counterparts in France.

Certainly the boot was a cruel torture but the times, rather than the people, were cruel.

All this, concludes Lachance, yields a very rounded picture of what the people of New France felt and thought. Criminal justice in France was frequent, harsh, and swift. The same laws applied in Canada but magistrates did not apply them nearly strictly as French magistrates did in the home country.

Lachance's French prose is crystal clear and economical. This should not surprise fans of Marcel Trudel, as Trudel was Lachance's thesis advisor. All in all, an excellent and surprisingly engrossing account of our early days.

Vincent Poirier, Québec City

Applied Cryptography: Protocols, Algorithms, and Source Code in C
Applied Cryptography: Protocols, Algorithms, and Source Code in C
by Bruce Schneier
Edition: Paperback
Price: $36.24
115 used & new from $6.43

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Micro, not macro: a reference for protocols, cryptographic techniques, and algorithms but without the theory, February 16, 2014
If you've already been introduced to cryptography, Schneier's Applied Cryptography is an excellent reference to all the major protocols, techniques, and algorithms out there. Even though this second edition dates back to 1996, it's not out of date because many of the major algorithms are still good and still in use.

Schneier avoids theory (i.e. the macro) and concentrates on the three practical aspects of cryptography (i.e. the micro). Part one is a laundry list of all the major protocols (as of 1996), parrt two covers the major techniques (ditto), and part three describes algorithms.

What's the difference between a protocol and a technique? A protocol is a step-by-step description of a method by two or more parties exchange information in such a way as to keep the information secret from others and to prove the information does in fact come from whom the message claims as the sender. A protocol also ensures that information has not been modified during transmission. A cryptographic technique is the means by which a message is encrypted or authenticated or both.

Here's an example of a protocol:, Alice and Bob (it's always Alice and Bob, at least in English) agree to send encrypted messages to each other by sharing a secret key. Sometime later, Alice writes a message made up of 100 letters, she encodes it, mails it to Bob who decodes it.

But how did she encode the message? That is the technique.

She and Bob agreed that the key would be a shift cypher. A would be written as B, B as C, C as D, etc. "HELLO" becomes "IFMMP". If the message is intercepted by Malory (Alice and Bob are always the nice guys in these stories while Malory is always the malevolent spy) Malory will easily decrypt it without any trouble. A shift cypher is a bad technique.

Alice and Bob realize this and they decide to use a one-time pad (an OTP) instead. Each sheet in a pad is made up of 100 numbers between 1 and 26 (in this story anyway, because Alice and Bob want to exchange messages made up of 100 characters) and each of those numbers was generated randomly.

So now Alice writes her message, she shifts the first letter by the number of positions of the first number in on the pad, she then shifts the second letter of the message by the number of postions of the second number on the pad and so on. After one hundred characters, she throws away the sheet and destroys it.

Bob receives the message and he takes the first letter of the encrypted message and shifts it _back_ by the number of letters indicated by the first number on the pad, and so on. He also throws away the sheet after using it.

It turns out this is a perfect encryption technique and it is impossible to break. Why? Simply because the random numbers generated for the one-time pad have no patterns. That's what "random" means.(*) And because they have no patterns, any message encrypted message will not have a pattern either.

However my point is this: whether they use a shift cypher or whether they use a one-time pad to encode their message, Alice and Bob use the same _protocol_ in both examples.

1. Alice writes the message.
2. Alice encodes the message using an agreed-upon _technique_ (e.g. a shift cypher or a one time pad, or something else).
3. Alice sends the coded message.
4. Bob receives the coded message.
5. Bob decodes the message by reversing the technique Alice used.
6. Bob reads the decoded message.

Schneier's book is very useful, and it is still relevant, but it is of course incomplete because many new protocols have been devised since 1996. But after you've grounded yourself in a bit of theory, consider this the best second book of cryptography you can ever have, right after you've followed a class on the topic.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City, Canada

(*) Caveat: this is true only if the one-time-pad numbers are truly random. The random functions in most computers aren't really random. Computer generated random numbers are produced by deterministic methods and they contain patterns. These patterns can be broken by cryptographers. Beware! ;)

All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt
All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt
by John Taliaferro
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $22.44
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Informative but tedious, September 3, 2013
Imagine starting your career as one of Abraham Lincoln's personal secretaries, ending it as Secretary of State to Theodore Roosevelt, and along the way editing a newspaper, managing a large business enterprise, serving as the United States' ambassador to the United Kingdom and being close to Presidents Garfield and McKinley. That was the life of John Milton Hay.

Genuinely erudite, Hay co-wrote a magnificent ten volume biography of Lincoln with the president's other private secretary John Nicolay. He also penned a decent novel, though he wasn't as gifted a writer as his close friend Henry James. Hay's poems were well received at the time.

Hay spoke and wrote French with native proficiency. A popular socialite, Hay was sought out for his influence and opinion as well as for his personal company.

So why isn't this a better book?

We cannot fault author John Taliaferro's raw material, obviously, nor can we blame the author's thorough and complete research. Too complete maybe.

Hay's life is of interest to us for two reasons. First, he was with Abraham Lincoln day and night during the whole of the American Civil War. Second under Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt, Hay defined the style American diplomacy was to follow until at least the time of Henry Kissinger. In Teddy Roosevelt's motto of speaking softly and carrying a big stick, Hay was the soothing voice that reminded the world of Roosevelt's brute force.

The 35 year span from Lincoln's death to Theodore Roosevelt's presidency, while important, simply isn't as interesting as these two periods. I appreciate that the author faced a difficult literary problem: how does one take readers from 1865 to 1900 quickly but without giving them the impression that important events were skipped?

In giving an equal amount of importance to each year of Hay's rise, Taliaferro fails to find a good balance and we're left with an informative but slightly tedious story. Pruning a hundred pages or so and devoting a little less space to Hay's friendships, as important as they were, would have made this into a truly great biography.

Vincent Poirier, Montreal
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 5, 2013 4:05 PM PDT

Black Sun, Red Moon: A Novel of Java
Black Sun, Red Moon: A Novel of Java
Price: $5.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Role reversals, August 19, 2013
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
With "Black Sun, Red Moon" first time author Rory Marron gives us part one of a fascinating episode of World War II. While it is a work of fiction, Marron relates factual events little known among Western readers and pushes us out of our moral comfort zone.

The story takes place in Java as the Pacific war is ending and there's no question Japanese forces committed atrocities. They interned European civilians under harsh conditions, they pressured women for their military brothels often under threat of violence, and they began it all by launching an aggressive war of imperial expansion.

But at the same time, the Europeans interned by the Japanese were Dutch colonial masters and the Javanese had wanted them out. The Japanese were initially cheered by the revolutionaries and they promised to grant Indonesia its independence.

Perhaps the promise was less than sincere but some officers, particularly in the Imperial Navy, wanted to keep their word. In part because the Navy was more worldly and liberal than was the narrow minded nationalistic infantry, but mostly because Naval officers saw through the jingoism and recognized a simple fact: Japan had lost the war and it would need Asian friends in years to come.

And what of the Allies fighting for freedom and democracy against fascism? How could we justify returning Java to Dutch rule? What made our Western brand of colonialism any better than Japan's imperialism?

The novel follows four story lines. A young Javanese revolutionary fighting for his country's freedom, a burgeoning romance between a young Japanese officer and teenage Dutch internee, a Scottish soldier forced to stay and help put down Indonesian rebels with whom he sympathizes, and the Japanese and Javanese military and political elite as they figure out how the future of Java will develop.

Marron's fast paced style keeps us turning the pages as we want to find out what happens to all these people while at the same time he raises questions and issues that make us think deeply about our own values.

A great read and I can't wait for the conclusion in December.

Vincent Poirier, Montreal

The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation, Bilingual Edition
The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation, Bilingual Edition
by Dante Alighieri
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.89
334 used & new from $0.01

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Moral relativism, July 15, 2013
Taken purely at face value, Dante has a lot to answer for; next to him, Hannibal Lecter is a choir boy. There isn't much to defend a literal reading of the Inferno: it's sadistic, sick, and vicious. Men stuck head first into a pit with their feet burning as a punishment for buying a bishopric. Others have waste (the human kind) pouring out of their mouths for having pandered and flattered their way to success. False prophets have their heads twisted around and must walk backwards to see where they are going. Others are stuck in boiling pitch with devils and demons pushing them back in if they try to climb out.

Where is Christian love?

To be fair, the early fourteenth century was a pretty harsh place. Famines hit Europe at fairly regular intervals, as did the plague. Offended monarchs such as Philip the Fair in France and Edward Longshanks in England took perverse satisfaction in inflicting gruesome punishments on their enemies. It was under Edward's reign that hanging, drawing, and quartering became an English institution.

In fact, compared to what people did to each other in those days, Dante's punishments might seem tame if it weren't for the idea that what he imagined went on for ever and ever. No respite, no forgiveness, and no hope. "Lasciate ogne speranza..." So why has Dante stayed with us for seven hundred years? Perhaps it has to do with Dante's idea of what is right and wrong, his ideas of why this or that sin is worse than another.

What I find most interesting about Dante's Hell is how it is organized. Hell is made up of rings, going down as they go in. The outermost ring isn't a place of suffering at all, it's a place for virtuous pagans such as Aristotle and Virgil. As we travel down and inward, we get an idea of which sins are worse than others.

The virtuous pagans are guilty only of ignorance. The next circles house those damned for incontinence: they let their animal passions for sex and food rule their lives.

And here we come to a great division, the ring city of Dis, which divides the sins of the flesh from the sins of malice, starting with the sins of violence. One could argue that a sin of violence is one of passions, but Dante does not. The sins of malice find their beginning in violence and end in the deepest recesses: the sins of fraud and the sins of betrayal.

Betrayal for Dante is the worst of sins, perhaps because he lived in feudal times when society was based on allegiance to one's lord. Even in the Italian city states these feudal customs ruled politics.

Betrayal, like fraud, is a sin of willful malice. The sinner knows what he does is wrong but does it anyway for personal gain, and what's more the sin is premeditated. Sins of incontinence on the other hand have more to do with giving into our bodily appetites. There's no malice in eating too much, just weakness.

Vincent Poirier, Montreal

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