Saturday, December 31, 2011

Finished (E-Reader): "Locked On" - Tom Clancy

Tom Clancy delivers again with a page turner of the Jack Ryan (Sr. and Jr.) line of books.  A terrorist group has nukes, John Clark is on the run, Jack Jr. has a date, and Jack Sr. is on the road campaigning for the White House.

Very well written, though I seem to sense the politics of the right invading the series.  I consider myself centre-left and would support the Jack Ryan (Sr. ) candidate over the Kealty.

Anyway, a book very much worth reading.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christopher Hitchens - 13 April 1949 – 15 Dec 2011 - RI?

Given Hitchens open hostility toward religion, I'm unsure what type of post-partum existence he's undergoing.

He does now understand what we can only speculate on.

Finished (Audiobook): "Hitch-22: Some Confessions and Contradiction" - Christopher Hitchens

Hitch-22: Some Confessions and Contradiction is the autobiography of Christopher Hitchens, who died on December 15, 2011, during the period that I was listening to his book.

Hitchens lived an interesting life.  I've recently read his views on religion (he's not a fan), but have never read his other works, newspaper articles etc.

He spent most of his life "on the left", referring to himself as a socialist, though his actual view was increasing critical of the actual manifestations of socialism, particularly as many regimes are dictatorial, which would be the key complaint.  His views on all things seem well considered, thus, they are normally not very simple to isolate and label - I would hope all people, regardless of the direction of their views, adopt a similar style of actually thinking about and creating a nuanced opinion , not a knee-jerk one.

Hitchens primary enemy was not religion or political views per se, but as he terms it "stupidity".  He rallied against poorly thought out opinions on a range of issues, not all simply cast as "left" vs "right".  His support for the Bush (Jr.) war in Iraq certainly moved him out of mainstream "leftist" thinking and he gained support from the "right", which I'm sure his religious views killed or maimed.

His book is very open with aspects of his life that scream "1970's" where sexual experimentation and openness and heavy drinking were not seen negatively, as similar behaviour would be seen today.

I was unaware of how hostile, and bullying private English schools were, and how common homosexual relations were among folks who would not later remain homosexual, nor would they have, at any point, considered themselves to be anything other the heterosexual.

All in all, a very long audiobook, but it did maintain the listener's interest.

As a postscript to the book, there was a short interview with Christopher Hitchens, where he "backslides" a bit on his earlier criticisms of audiobooks.  His initial view was that reading is a commitment, and that it should be done with a physical book in hand, and a silent environment in which to partake.  As he is the actual reader of the book in audiobook format, he somewhat softened on that stance.  He was convinced to listen to some audiobooks, and gave a grudging acknowledgement of the format, but still expects that the listener is engaging fully in the exercise.  He would not have been approving of my listening, as it is 100% in the car, chopped and parsed not by the narrative, but by arrival at destination and/or presence of little ones in the car.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Finished (Audiobook) - "The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-Believer" - Christopher Hitchens

Having recently listened to "God is not Great" by Christopher Hitchens, "The Portable Atheist" speaks much the same message.  I found "God is not Great" to be more compelling, but that is likely because of the ordering.  As both books cover much of the same material, it is much stronger on first sight than on subsequent re-tellings.

Again, I'd recommend both, or either, to anybody who is firmly religious, or firmly non-religious - it would lack the strength to anybody hovering without strong convictions.  As with "God is not Great", Hitchens takes a very strong anti-religious, and anti-faith stance, considering both harmful to the species, and primarily a vehicle for power and control of some humans over other humans, with very little supporting the "higher" aspects.

If you feel strongly about religion, pro or con, the essays and arguments will be sure to stimulate dialogue, even if it is primarily internal dialogue.  Strongly religious folks should listen/read, just to understand problems with human organizations, and the potential to abuse power, even if they can't question the underlying faith they should be able to evaluate/criticize the human aspects and learn from human problems.

My biggest issue with religion is the mixing of religion and politics - this book should provide some of the necessary cautions, and support the distinction between the government and the church.  Everyone should imagine the most polar-opposite religion from themselves, and consider that group in a society-power position - only if you can consider living in that society should you persist in moving secular governments along your religious lines.  If not, consider the effect your proposed changes would have on other faiths/non-faiths and act accordingly.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Finished (E-Reader) - "The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood" - Jane Leavy

I knew of Mickey Mantle, mostly as a name - I don't recall any games, or him being an actual ballplayer during my lifetime (though, as a boy he would have).  I think of him like one of the past greats, particularly, past Yankee greats - Gehrig, Ruth, Mantle.

I guess I knew he was a drinker, as I suspect most of the historical ballplayers were (or they were staunch abolitionists), however, until reading "The Last Boy" by Jane Leavy, I didn't know either how great a ballplayer he was, the speculation of how much better he could have been (without early serious knee problems), and how badly and tragically he shortened his career and his life through alcohol abuse.

I was stunned at how openly he kept other women, both one-nighters and long term non-wife relationships, and how inattentive he was to his children.

However, it would be hard to design an icon like Mickey Mantle, because it wouldn't ring true - the life he lived was really larger than a real life, both the ups and down were extreme.

As a book, I really did enjoy the story, though the language was a little odd, and it was occasionally difficult to keep track of the characters, as many appeared for short times, or single recalled episodes.  It was a compelling read -  did want to hear how/if he reconciled with his family, did he find peace at the end?

The book shows some of what a ballplayer's life is about, and how the "lifestyle" of late nights, parties, drinking (and I assume in many cases harder drugs) come about when you have a large population of wealthy, young atheletes, away from home for extended trips, with a ready supply of "opportunities".  There is also insight into how a decent man can become estranged from his own family and lose the "fatherly" connnection, and most other family connections as well.

You come away from the book wanting to be Mick's friend - this was also a key reason he turned out the way he did - everyone (male or female) wanted to be a friend, drinking buddy, or more, of the Mick.  He had a lot more "friends" then he did strong, supportive influences.  You feel both amazed and amused at what he did, and how he did it, an also somewhat saddened by the peculiar loneliness that comes from never being alone.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Finished (Audiobook) - "God is not Great - How Religion Poisons Everything" - Christopher Hitchen

"Enjoy" is not really the word Hitchen's book "God is not Great - How Religion Poisons Everything" evokes.

I do believe that all strong believers in religion should read or listen to this book, because his criticisms are very strong, and very well researched.  I don't think he makes a case against "faith", though he may believe he has done so, and he speaks against faith.  However, his strongest arguments are against dogmatic religion, and point out severe problems with dogmatic thinking, particularly with respect to enforced dogma on others.

Since his thesis is a pro-atheistic one, or more aptly an anti-religion one, the examples are religion-based, and he plays no favourites (Judaism, Christianity and Islam all take the heat).  However, his examples could be exchanged for other dogmatic belief systems (totalitarian regimes of all kinds), without losing any steam.

It would be difficult for any person of strong religious belief to read Hitchen's book, but it is probably worth the pain, even if it is to understand "the other side".  I made a distinction between "faith" and "religion" purposefully, as I don't think it is really possible to attack, or even criticize "faith" per se, as it is internal and personal.  Religion is the outward expression of faith, even more so if it is following a tract common to others (e.g. organized, or identified religion).

Hitchens does acknowledge that there is a distinction between personal actions and those driven by following a doctrine, so there would probably be little argument from him that it is possible, even in the most dogmatic religion, for individuals to act in universally admired ways.  However, he is very clear when he perceives acts he deems inappropriate being done to those who either are too young to have a say (such as circumcision or even baptism to infants), or against the will of those at or beyond the age of reason (edicts of death for changing religion, wars over icons) which he deems to have been driven by religious doctrine.

As a contrast, Richard Dawkins, who also is becoming an "atheist preacher", comes across as much more offended when religion comes into contact with science and education.  Hitchens seems a whole notch more driven to demonize the entire practice of religion as an unnecessary evil.

Again, the book is harsh, but those of faith, and those with strong religious beliefs, should be aware of the arguments, and learn from them - there have been events in all religions' histories that even believers wish had gone otherwise.

With changes to media, and the growing movement of the U.S. to the religious right, it is worth reading criticisms of religion with an open mind, even to help understand why the founders of the U.S. wanted separation of church and state.  Imagine the critical reviews of actions of religion X (even if you discount the critical reviews of your favoured religion) being enacted by the state, and you, with your equally strong beliefs being marginalized/vilified/criminalized/tortured/killed and you get some idea of why separation is a good thing, even if your views would happen to place you on the "power" side of the arrangement in your particular area.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Finished (E-Reader) - "Steve Jobs" - Walter Isaacson

I really liked the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson.  I certainly knew of Jobs and Wozniak starting Apple in the garage story, but didn't realize to any depth the rise and fall and rise of Apple over time.  I knew Woz was the engineer brain behind Apple at the start, and always had an impression that Jobs milked Woz and took credit.  There certainly might have been an element of that at the start, but Jobs return to a failing Apple later in his career cemented his place as a visionary leader.

That being said, I was certainly surprised how awful he would have been to work for - very hot and cold, even to his closest confidants, public tirades were not unusual, and I would have had lots of trouble dealing with the hypocrisy of somebody publicly calling me an idiot, then coming back with my same ideas from their mouth as works of genius.

I was also surprised at the scope of Jobs' "reality distortion field" - he was able to get people to go to great lengths, far beyond what they deemed possible, just by ignoring the realities of engineering, planning etc. and setting goals and timelines on a more esoteric plane.  To some degree, I've seen that before, but his inability to handle social situations (including becoming a father) because they didn't match his self-image, shows that the distortion goes to a core of Jobs, it's not an artifact of his management style.  In fact, as a younger man, it was told repeatedly in stories from the time, that he was convinced that his healthy diet didn't allow his body to be malodorous, thus, he didn't need to shower very often (not true, according to the nostrils of others), which actually led him to be assigned to night shifts at Atari, and may have caused Apple to not be a product of Commodore (a big player at the time) as Jobs bare feet and odour caused him to be kicked out of a meeting at Commodore where he was presenting the Apple.

When it comes to design and form factor, Jobs shines.  It's difficult to imagine a non-iPod world, it's become such a standard piece of equipment, with the iPad and iPhone making similar world-altering impacts on hand-held phones and tabled devices.

I really like his product design concept - make something the world will want when they see it, not build to current ideas and standards.  The iPod was a significant step beyond what was available on the market - not an incremental market-research designed improvement to pick up a few market share points.  Even the price-points on Apple devices show the added value only Jobs could forsee - how can a several hundred dollar device (iPod) trounce the much cheaper alternatives in the marketplace already, which sold for less than half? and didn't require specialized software? and didn't care about piracy? and didn't force you to use the company store??  It certainly supports the idea that Jobs really had a revolutionary outlook.

I think it pays dividends to look at even the advertising, Apple Store design, and other aspects that might be somewhat of an afterthought for many businesses - here Jobs input shines.

The "Think Different" campaign perhaps summarizes Jobs outlook, and perhaps his image of himself.

Here is the campaign text from the original posters of the campaign (as found on Google :

Here's to the Crazy Ones.
The misfits.
The rebels.
The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes.
The ones who see things differently.
They're not fond of rules.
And they have no respect for the status quo.
You can quote them, disagree with them,
disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing that you can't do, is ignore them.
Because they change things.
They invent. They imagine. They heal.
They explore. They create. They inspire.
They push the human race forward.
Maybe they have to be crazy.
How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art?
Or, sit in silence and hear a song that hasn't been written?
Or, gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?
We make tools for these kinds of people.
While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.
Because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world,
are the ones who do.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Finished (E-Reader) - "I Beat The Odds: From Homelessness to The Blind Side and Beyond" - Michael Oher

After reading "the Blind Side" by Michael Lewis, I found "I Beat The Odds: From Homelessness to The Blind Side and Beyond" by Michael Oher, who is the football player on which the movie (and most of the book) "the Blind Side" was based.

I understand where Mr. Oher is coming from - a book or movie tends to take a fully-dimensional life and distil it down to 2 or 3 dimensions - much nuance is missed.  He feels that he was treated as an underperformer academically in both the movie and book, and feels that his performance is most likely explained not by personal characteristics ("smarts") but by situational ones (poor environment).  He is undoubtedly correct that the environment he grew up in is a substantial barrier to even a fraction of the success he's had.

However, his book ("I Beat the Odds") comes across as ignoring the freaky benefits he's had, and seems to put a lot of weight on his "drive" to get out of the ghetto.  I have trouble believing that that drive doesn't exist in a very large portion of the folks in these impoverished areas, but most don't manage to have 6'4" frames at a muscular 300+lbs., along with quickness and agility of a much smaller body.

Mr. Oher's early experience with schools don't support his "drive hypothesis" - he admittedly skipped school, often only attending for free lunch and sports practice.  If his success is due to innate drive, and his avenue of escape is "college to the pros", wouldn't that have been demonstrated by stellar attendance in high school to make the appropriate connections/skills to try his escape route?  Without extraordinary help from many folks, who provided home, food, clothing, and immense tutoring, along with entry in a school where his academic record would never reasonably have allowed entry, his "drive" would have been DOA.

I do find the "Blind Side" story incredible, and inspiring, both for the skills and drive of Mr. Oher and the generosity of the families he found peace and stability in.  However, if Mr. Oher ended up 6'0" and 200 lbs. I doubt his drive would have been enough for the career he ended up with, and the "Blind Side" would have been an entirely fictional story.

I will give credit to Mr. Oher for taking the 11th hour reprieve (e.g. working his tail off to upgrade his marks to allow for the High School to College escape route to be viable) and giving it all it was worth - at this point, I'll concede that 6'4" and 300lbs. had to take a back seat to drive and determination.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Finished (Paper Book) - "Dear John" - Nicholas Sparks

Dear John was a quick read.  The story wasn't bad, but I didn't get into it as much as my wife did.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Finished (E-Reader) - "The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game" - Michael Lewis

"Blind Side"might be the best book I've read in a long while.  I hadn't made the connection to the Sandra Bullock movie (probably due to the movie having such a cryptic name "The Blind Side":)  ).  I'm not a huge football fan, as I grew up a Detroit Lions fan and thus, football wasn't the most successful sport around during my life.  However, I had liked "Moneyball", so picked up "Blind Side".

I did learn some football, but I really learned about how difficult even truly talented folks have in overcoming barriers of poverty (race would be another barrier, but at least sports seems to have dealt with that issue).  The odds of Michael Oher actually making it into high school, let alone college and the NFL are truly staggering.  I found myself locked into reading this book and found it impossible to put down.

Most excellent.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Finished - 'I'd Rather We Got Casinos And Other Black Thoughts" - Larry Wilmore

Larry Wilmore's book is a good time.  "Why brothers don't see UFOs", "how the government can apologize for slavery" and his campaign to change "NAACP" from National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People" to "National Association for the Advancement of Chocolate People" are all brilliantly conceived and written, as is the funeral and trial of the "n" word.

"Zombie Spaceship Wasteland: A Book by Patton Oswalt" - Patton Oswalt

I was a little harsh on Patton Oswalt's book.  I actually enjoyed the last few chapters - these were stories of starting in comedy on the road.

Finished "Bossypants" - Tina Fey

Quite liked "Bossypants" by SNL and 30 Rock's Tina Fey.  Some behind-the-scenes discussions of how SNL works, long hours, dealing with hosts etc. along with the whole Sarah Palin impressions during the 2008 presidential campaign was worth the read.  The mutual respect among the 30 Rock crowd is nice as well - Tina Fey is very complimentary about Alec Baldwin, and in other interviews, there are very nice things to say about Ms. Fey.

A quick read - worth the trouble.

Finished (Paper Book) - "Moneyball" - Michael Lewis

I heard about Moneyball from the Brad Pitt movie, but I decided to read the book before seeing the movie.  The book is excellent - not often are stats nerds portrayed as being ground-breaking and innovative.  I'm not surprised that changes in computer power, which provide both data through the internet to massive numbers of increasingly computer sophisticated users would result in new ways to look at baseball, which has always been seen as a statistics-rich sport.

What I was surprised about, was the lack of willingness of "the system" to understand and learn from the innovations.  I had always assumed that each team would have a small department (either stand-alone, or attached to business or marketing) which would use statistical information to assist the teams.  I didn't necessarily expect each team to employ a Ph.D. in statistics/economics/psychology (though, if a team is looking, give me a call), but I did expect that there would be constant chatter about innovations, even if the ultimate decision would be to rely upon "older" or existing statistics.

I was also surprised at the relative lack of ability to accurately track and rate fielding objectively, and the difficulty in separating the pitching/hitting/error stats (was it a legitimate hit?  was it an error on a fielder? was it catchable?).  It seems that even post-moneyball, there is still areas of exploration and understanding in baseball, and even moreso in other sports (I can imagine innovations in both football and hockey, just by extrapolating from the baseball-moneyball experience).

Friday, October 14, 2011

Reading - Action Comics - DC "The New 52"

DC Comics announced a "re-start" of their comics, streamlining into a new set of 52 ongoing series.  I've read the first 2 issues of Action Comics (this title was where Superman first appeared in 1938).

The new Superman is interesting, kept most of the old costume, though updated (ie. no red underpants over his blue tights).  I like the tone of the new book - Superman is seen as an alien, and the military is interested in figuring out what he's about - they've hired Lex Luthor to investigate.  This seems more "realistic" in the sense that a substantially augmented person would likely be seen suspiciously, until they've established a history of "good deeds".  The story reads well and is compelling to return to monthly.

Compare this to the horrible job Marvel is doing to revitalize their lines.  Massive storylines that seem to damage rather than enhance, the characters and the universe they inhabit.  It appears that Marvel is more interested in destroying their links to the past to free up the creators to experiment, than they are to maintain a compelling character/universe that creates a long-term connection to characters.  DC seems to be creating such a universe, which bodes well.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Finished (Paper Book) - "Failure is Not an Option" - Gene Kranz

"Failure is not an Option" is an excellent book.  It covers the Mercury (one man), Gemini (2-man) and Apollo (3-man) missions from the late 1950's through the early 1970's.

This book, along with being a chronology and history of the manned space program, proved to be an excellent management strategy book, and a must-read for anyone who considers themselves to be a leader, or is in a position where they SHOULD be considering themselves as leaders.  In my experience, many "leaders" are micro-managers, who "lead" only for personal gratification.  Kranz's book shows what actual leadership is - identifying and training a good team, keeping responsibility and integrity in the forefront of all decisions, focus on the key issue(s) and problem(s) and working/training to make sure that there is full trust in the team when the going gets tough.  This means that "obedience" is not a characteristic of wording teams - they are expected to bring up alternatives, to question your decisions, to make sure that their input is heard and integrated.  At the end of the day the team decides what to do, and all members, as they are part of the process, believe in the outcome and stand behind decisions, not waste time, energy, focus and trust by second-guessing their teammates.

I remember the first moon mission, and the subsequent missions, though I was young enough to take it as a fact, but not realize how momentous it actually was ("didn't they go to the moon a while ago?  Why are they not showing my cartoons?").  Thus, the basics of the stories were known to me, what Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions did, and how they formed steps to the moon.  I'll admit that I wasn't born when Apollo 1 burned on the launchpad, and didn't really hear about Apollo 13 in any detail until the Tom Hanks movie.

What astounded me in the book, was how many critical issues and problems had to be dealt with on each mission - failure to solve the problems in real-time with primitive computing power would cause, at best, an abort, and at worst, catastrophic death of the astronauts and/or others if the event happened at launch or soon thereafter.  Switch problems, primitive computer coding and other $10 problems become critical when you can't run down to Canadian Tire or Radio Shack to pick up spare parts.  The ability of mission control to isolate, understand, and solve these problems with the world watching is incredible - that's why it is such a manual of leadership.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Finished (Audiobook) - "The House That Ruth Built: A New Stadium, the First Yankees Championship, and the Redemption of 1923" - Robert Weintraub

I liked "The House that Ruth Built" more than I expected.  I certainly underestimated the changes undergoing baseball in the early '20's, and didn't appreciate the effect of introducing a faster ball following the "Black Sox" scandal.

The primary antagonists in "The House that Ruth Built" were John McGraw, who was the purveyor of scientific baseball, grinding out bunts, sacrifices, base steals and strong defence, along with plays and pitches choreographed from the manager to make every run a work of art and effort.  Ruth exemplified the opposite - a single swing bringing in a run, or more.  McGraw considered Ruth to be animalistic and dangerous to the life of the game, the rest of the world considered Ruth a superman and larger than life in all aspects.

I hadn't known of this evolution before reading the book.  I also hadn't appreciated what it would have been like for the new Yankees to be sharing the Polo Grounds with the established, and high achieving, NY Giants.  McGraw, a part owner of the Giants actually accellerated the creation of "the Yankee Stadium" by greatly increasing the rent charged to the tenant Yankees.  However, he also put up roadblocks, by hamstringing the municipal processes necessary to build the stadium, using his close personal contacts and heritage.

I also hadn't realized how revolutionary Yankee Stadium was - the size of the enterprise, the speed of construction, the creation of multi-location food and beverage (though alcohol was prohibited at the time, a prime reason for the stadium was to be a captive audience for the owner's brewery), the thought that went into the ramps and access to seats.

The book contains lots of gritty stories of the time, which makes the odd, out of sequence story telling forgiveable.

Finished (Audiobook) - "Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power" - Robert Dallek

Richard Nixon was the first president I was aware of - he was elected for his first term when I was four, and his second when I was 8.  I remember hearing about Watergate on "In the News" a 30-second or 1 minute news brief played during cartoons on the weekend.  I was fully an "impeach the bum" at 8, but was very sad when he resigned (I remember watching the wave from the helicopter on his last day in the White House on Ford's inauguration day.  I later (when I was early 20's) read RN and a few of Nixon's other books ("Leaders" sticks with me, as he had met, in person, many influential world leaders, showing what his presidency could have been remembered for had events played differently).

"Nixon and Kissinger" provided me with a new perspective on Richard Nixon.  I had always assumed (probably because he maintained it through his post-presidency writings) that RN was able to keep the domestic Watergate investigation away from decisions on other events.  Using that as a lens, he did remarkable work by opening China and meeting with the Soviets.  however, "Nixon and Kissenger" puts on a different lens, where world-altering events were used as a distraction, a way to keep the president in power until Watergate blew over - a much less noble, and much scarier version of history.

I suppose it might be naive to think that it is possible to believe you are being constantly attacked, and be able to "turn it off" and focus on other things.  Clinton, apparently had that type of attention control, but lacked impulse control, derailing a historical potential of his administration.  I was also shocked by how inactive RN seemed by the end of 73 and into '74, with Kissinger taking on a much larger role that would be considered ethical or reasonable, given the structure of the US governmental system.

I'd still recommend RN, for Richard Nixon's perspective, add in "Leaders" to show "what might have been", along wtih "Nixon and Kissinger" to get a feel for what the "real-time" experience was like.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Finished (E-Reader) - "Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live" - Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller

Really liked "Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live" - Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller.  I was surprised that the book was virtually all quotes from cast members, writers, producers, guests etc.. It took a little time to get into the format, but it was well worth it.  

I had lost touch with the show during the early '80's and picked up again about 5 years later.  It's interesting to see what happened during those years, what well known faces were on the show when I wasn't watching.  I certainly remember the original cast, and many of the later casts, but don't remember Julia Louis-Dreyfus and that period, though, of course, I remember her from Seinfeld - also didn't know Larry David was involved in SNL.

Lorne Michaels comes across, probably as he'd like to, as an odd combination of genius and difficult parent.  

The logistics of the show are amazing - the still-running (at publication time) all nighter writing sessions on Tuesday to meet the read-through on Wednesday is legendary.  It's also nice to see how the long-termers evolved, and how the show became a mechanism for young stars to become stars. 

Monday, August 1, 2011

Finished (E-Reader) - "Gasping For Airtime: Two Years In the Trenches of Saturday Night Live" - Jay Mohr

I can't seem to get enough SNL books or stories.  I was 11 in 1975 when SNL went on the air - I remember much of the early shows in '75 and '76 and was an avid watcher into the '80's and picked up again in the late '90's.

I find the entire show fascinating - the late nights, the drive to put on an hour and a half of live TV every week, the topicality of the material, the discovery of new talent - all of it.

Jay Mohr's book shows what it was like for a couple of years in the 1993-1995 years of SNL.  This period is much lighter in the drugs than earlier cohorts, much of the long-timers are older and in a different stage of life.  It is very interesting that the culture of the show remains on a seeming drug-induced schedule  - writing tends to start in earnest at about 8pm for a run-through at 5pm on Wednesday.  Jay's experiences show the frustrations and difficulty of a new body coming into a long-standing show.

Though he is careful not to identify anyone as a cause, and doesn't think he was in any singled out, having sketches removed at the 11th hour, between the early Saturday evening show and the final live performance at 11:30, along with the difficulty in finding unique, humorous sketches to begin with on such an abbreviated timeline, and having both your writing and your acting lives on the line each week, is certainly an ongoing, humbling and frustrating lifestyle.  Jay's learning through these two years, and his fight with a panic disorder make for an interesting 2 year rollercoaster.

Finished (Paper Book) - "Black Like Me" - John Howard Griffin

As an occasional binger on "The Vinyl Cafe", I remember the Morley Book Club story where she refused to share her favourite books with the evil book club group.  One of the books she mentioned was "Black Like Me" - John Howard Griffin.

I had never read this book, but was intrigued.  I really did like it - it seems odd how commonplace segregation was in such a recent period (end of the '50's beginning of the '60's), and the book does a very good job of illustrating how much more difficult, frustrating and demeaning the split policies were - having separate washrooms doesn't sound too terrible, until you add in that there might be a "white" washroom in every building, and only one or two "black" washrooms in an entire town.

This book certainly does set the table for the unrest the U.S. felt in the mid to late '60's.  The world of the south portrayed in Griffin's book certainly sounds light-years away from the world I saw in the '70's - the ideas of equality certainly seemed "normal" and "universal" by my youth - it is shocking what 10 years does.

A very good read.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

(Audiobook) - Ted Talks

Found TED talks online which I will be listening to while driving (each are 20 minutes or so).  A wide variety of topics geared at a society-leader crowd - tend to be interesting, informative and motivating.  They tend to get leaders in industry, arts, culture to talk about relevant issues - by getting folks from widely different fields to talk provides very unique perspectives and linkages that would be seemingly impossible to collect in one location.

Go, look, listen, learn.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Gave up on "Assholes Finish First" - Tucker Max

This book sucks.  I have a pretty high tolerance for childishness and pranks, and have a pretty open sense of humour, but could only last about 1/4 of the way through this book.

Basically, as advertised, tasteless and not funny.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Finished (Audiobook) - "The Immortal Life of Henreitta Lacks" - Rebecca Skloot

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" - Rebecca Skloot proved to be a very interesting book.  Much more autobiographical in nature - dealing largely with the children of Henrietta Lacks and how poor and angry they are about the use of their mother's cells in biological research.

Henrietta Lacks was a real person - she died in the '50's in her '30s from cervical cancer.  Some of the cells taken during the testing proved to be culturable in a lab - something not common at that point.  The cells proved to be very easy to grow, so they became a de facto standard for research, as it was easy to grow and test these human cells.  Hela cells were part of the identification of a polio vaccine, and are widely used in understanding and leading toward cures for cancer.

By modern standards, Henrietta was not given an opportunity to choose whether or not to "participate" in research, nobody thought it worth mentioning, and her name had often been lost -Helen Lane was often used as the hela cell line originator.  As medical research is a multi-billion dollar enterprise, the family is quite upset that they've never received any money, though to them, others have directly made $$$ off Henrietta.  After the quest to understand, they became very interested in making their mother's contribution to science recognized.

The book covers the family history, up to 2010, and covers some science of biological research, and ends with discussion of medical ethics - do we really own our cells?  How should doners be recognized, if at all?  Can the science continue, if all donations, or surgical "waste" is going to be sold, or held up in negotiation for the slim chance that some profit might be made off that particular cell line?

All in all, a good book for a long commute.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Finished (E-Reader) - "Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base" - Annie Jacobsen

The Area 51 book was a decent read.  It talks about the large swath of area in Nevada used for military tests of various kinds.  As a secret, not-acknowledged base, it is a perfect location to feed whatever conspiracy theory one might have - including having it messes up with the Roswell New Mexico "UFO Crash" in the 1950's - apparently the aliens were brought to Area 51.

The parts of the book that are believable are the reports of various atomic bomb and radiation testing taking place after WWII as part of the nuclear arms buildup of the Cold War.  Similarly, the Oxcart, U2, SR-71 development and testing of hypersonic spy planes is similarly believable.

What is odd to figure, it is the story relayed regarding the Roswell NM UFO Crash.  The classic story is that a UFO crashed and alien bodies were taken by the military and both the technology and the bodies were moved to a secret base (Area 51).  Stories vary as to whether the aliens were alive, or even if there were any captured, but the basic government cover-up of alien artifacts remains consistent.

The story presented in this book is that the Soviet Union, in order to overload (or test an overload) to the U.S. military response system,  launched a saucer-like flying craft, which crashed in NM, forming the basis of the mystery.  To add to the confusion, Josef Mengele (yes, the Nazi doctor from Auschwitz) surgically altered children or midgets (stories vary) to look like aliens, and these were the pilots of the craft.  Thus, the U.S. military found the saucer and aliens, but were astounded to find Russian writing on the components.  Some of the "aliens" were comatose, not dead, at the time of the crash.  Various reports since that time that purport to have eyewitness sitings of aliens, alive or dead, at Area 51 are attributed to this incident.

Why Stalin went to this much trouble, or why Eisenhower didn't see the magnitude of the PR opportunity provided if Stalin operated and "launched' children at the U.S. is not very easy to understand.  If the technology of the saucer was somehow advanced (the Nazis in WWII had the Horton brothers working for them and they were working on non-traditional aircraft like saucers) - why would the, in effect, give it to the U.S.?  If it wasn't a good flying craft, how did it penetrate into New Mexico?  All in all, and even more unbelievable story than the "standard" one.

Otherwise, the history and transfer of Area 51 between the Manhatten Project, the CIA, Atomic Energy Commission and the Military, and some of the projects makes for good reading.

FInished (Paper Book) "Love the One You're With" - Emily Griffin

I read "Love the One You're With" by Emily Griffin.  It really didn't offer much - a story of a weak-willed woman who's married to one man and obsessing about her last significant relationship.  Not a lot of drama or pathos, never really felt that she was a character that was worth caring about.

I did actually stop reading this book for a period but felt compelled to finish it. Luckily it didn't take very long.  The file transfer to the Kindle kept changing apostrophes to "&pos" which was understandable, but was a bit of a pain to read.  I switched back to the paper version of the book from the Kindle version.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Finished (Comics) - Death of Spiderman - Ultimate Spiderman 153-160

I haven't read all of Ultimate Spider-Man, but have liked all that I read (same goes for the entire Ultimate Universe).  If you don't know, the Ultimate Universe is a set of heroes and comic books set up by Marvel Comics, using some of their well-known characters, but modernized and re-set as new characters in a current timeline (many of the original Marvel heroes, FF, Spider-Man, Avengers were originally created in the 1960's).

What made the Ultimate Universe work was that the characters retained much of the characteristics that made them familiar, but were free to re-write, borrow, or ignore what they liked from the "parent" universe - e.g. they could kill or keep Gwen Stacy, keep Peter unmarried, though going out with Mary Jane, make Aunt May a more interesting single-parent-type than a doddering heart-attack bomb.

Marvel, in general, seems to have lost it's way lately, the mainstream comics don't work well, the did some major revisions to characters so lost their older readers (mainstream Spiderman made a deal with the devil, Hulk has gone through more changes than can be followed, IronMan has had several different back stories, I'm not sure exactly what he is now).  The "Death of Spiderman" storyline in the Ultimate universe was a good story, and I liked the characterization of all the main players - "roommates" Iceman and Human Torch helping out, Mary Jane playing a role, Aunt May and Gwen being strong supporting roles.  I hope the "death" was a comic death, with recovery around the corner.  However, I can't trust the current Marvel honchos - they certainly could kill off Ultimate Spiderman because he differs from the new "Devil-deal" Spiderman they are having issues selling in the main universe, and want to kill off the competition.

It is a nice storyline, well written and drawn.  Hopefully there will be an issue 161 (or a re-boot to a new #1 - they like to do that).

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Reading (E-Reader) - "Against All Enemies" - Tom Clancy & Peter Telep

I'm a big Tom Clancy fan, at least for his mainstream Jack Ryan and assorted books - haven't read much of his other series ("Power Plays"...).

I started reading "Against All Enemies" two days ago and will likely finish tonight.  As with all Clancy novels, I really get into them and read them voraciously.

This one is mediocre, unfortunately.  The plot (a link between Mexican drug cartels and mid-east terrorists) is promising, but the story lacks some drama.  There certainly are enough "gun-play" scenes where the bullet missed high, low or to one side... and they killed off many "good guys", which is unusual.  However, unless the last 10% of the book changes the tone, the book lacked a defining moral, and does tend toward simplifying and stereotyping muslim characters.

Clancy is capable of much greater things.  Terrorism is based upon a lot of causes - poverty, lack of education, inter-generational grievances, politics,  religion, perceived lack of alternatives, alienation, and a large number of "nothing to lose" young males to convince to do "God's work". Clancy did a much better job on expressing the motivations and ambivalence among the senior drug-cartel folks (lack of options, corruption of government and police, pervasive influence of drug cartels into all aspects of life, unemployment), to avoid the simple "evil" label - this helped to make a case for policies of using one cartel vs another to kill the perceived greater problem and how hydra-like the solutions become (killing one cartel just empowers another).

It didn't seem like the same process was applied to the mid-eastern terrorists, though the same (or greater) complexities can certainly make for an excellent read, and illustrate why a "white hat - black hat" strategy is not necessarily a winning strategy, even if it plays well at home.

Finished (Paper Book) - "Fellowship of the Ring" - J. R. R. Tolkien

Decided a year or so ago to read "Lord of the Rings" with my son - read "the Hobbit" and now have finished "the Fellowship of the Ring".

These books are a terror to read aloud, and pronunciation is a pain as everyone has 11'dy-million names, homelands and destinations.

I have tried my best to have the kids read, or be read, books prior to watching movies.  With a chapter or two to go in "The Fellowship of the Ring" we did watch the movie and it was good.

As I'm committed, I will read the remaining two books in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, but caution others to avoid this project.  Audiobooks may suffice in place of reading aloud.

Finished (Paper Book) - "Throne of Fire" - Rick Riordan

"Throne of Fire" is the second book in the Kane series by Rick Riordan.  I read this to my son, and had great difficulty staying awake for each chapter.  After reading the Percy Jacksons (which I liked) and "The Lost Hero" where the same basic plot was attached to Greek gods instead of Roman (or the other way around), which I thought was clever, as they inhabited the same world as Percy Jackson's group.

However, a further parallel to Egyptian mythology might be too much for me to stay awake for in the Kane books.  To be fair, my son did like them.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Finished (Paper Book) - "The Alchemist" - Paulo Chelho

"The Alchemist" - Paulo Chelho is a very nice, quick read.  A story about a shepherd and his personal journey to follow his quest to the Pyramids of Egypt from Spain.  Along the way he discovers aspects of faith that drive him forward.  A very positive affirmation of life, with the basic idea being that our purpose is to follow our dreams - not let them be extinguished as we age and get attachments.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Finished (Audiobook) - "The 4% Universe" - Richard Panek

I liked the 4% universe, not that I have any great understanding of dark matter and energy, but for the history of a "pseudo-science" to "science" transition.  The field of Cosmology was, and could have stayed, about as scientific as astrology.

This book can form a necessary understanding of the scientific method, and how it can be used to understand difficult and distant problems (similar to social science and educational issues).  The core measures are interrelated (distance, time, brightness) so the "core" measures are subject to some debate, and constant reinforcement and checking of initial assumptions and hypotheses is crucial.

As concurrent evidence is the key ingredient, there is basically a 3-D ongoing interpretation of Science from first principals.  Could very easily have stayed in religious or "guess what" levels.

The politics and funding of science is also a continuing eye-opener - it's surprising anything gets done sometimes.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Finished (Audiobook) - "Perfectly Resonable Deviations from the Beaten Track" - Richard P. Feynman

"Perfectly Resonable Deviations from the Beaten Track" - Richard P. Feynman is the third Feynman book I've listened to ("Surely you're joking Mr. Feynman" and "What Do You Care What Other People Think" are the others).  This is a nice tie-in - it shows the source material for stories told in the other books, and reveals a nice side of Dr. Feynman - some letters are to significant figures in science, but many are to old students, members of the public, critics, etc.  

All correspondence was handled with a grace, humour and respect, even letters to those writers not displaying the same virtues.  The letters speak highly of Dr. Feynman as a thinker, scholar, and a man - no one was disparaged.

His rejection of societies that offer nothing more than exclusivity is refreshing, and his misgivings about the Nobel prize is nice to hear, and nice to see mentioned many times consistently over a long period.  It's nice to see someone who's invited to the exclusive events to have a little humility - to see the shallowness of some of the institutions, even while they are currying favour.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Finished (E-Reader & Paper Book) - "Water for Elephants" - Sara Gruen

"Water for Elephants" is a novel based partially in the present, where the narrator is an elderly man living in a nursing home.  He is thinking back on his younger days, mid-20's in age, early 1930's in time, where he left veterinary school and joined up with the circus during the depression.  Being a circus, the characters are interesting, and of course there are circus animals and freaks.

I found it interesting how the whole circus circuit worked - trains from town to town, setup and takedown in hours; how the animals were fed en route; the stratification of the circus folks (performers, managers, workers); the disposability of workers during the depression (e.g. being "red-lighted" - tossed off the train during the night).

The afterword talks of some historical resources from which some of the stories were derived - not a history lesson, but a story based in the reality of the times.  A very compelling read.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Finished (Audiobook) - "What Do You Care What Other People Think?" - Richard P. Feynman

I listened to the second of my Richard Feynman trilogy - "What Do You Care What Other People Think".  It has fewer stories than "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman" but it discusses the presidential committee to investigate the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster in quite a bit of depth, which is definitely worth the read.  At the time of the writing, the commission was fairly recent, and Dr. Feynman refers to the "Iran Contra" investigations briefly as a point of comparison.

The only point of departure I have from Dr. Feynman is that he discusses education and social science as something other than "science".  I think that is a true interpretation of the present situation, as both are complex systems and both have great difficulty doing the baseline experiments (e.g. you can't surgery kids into control and experimental groups and see what parts of the brain learn math by rote - you need to infer from tests; attention and motivation are key factors, which don't typically exist in physics or chemistry).

However, that being said, Dr. Feynman shows exactly the tenacity and usage of science on the Presidential committee, which is a model for social science and educational research - do the basic science wherever possible, maintain both positive and negative experimental results, learn and loop back to examine predicates and assumptions, replicate, strive to understand in the full sense, not narrow sense. The Shuttle disaster did allow for the application of basic engineering and scientific processes (e.g. materials for the O-rings, application of best practices in engineering for the testing of equipment, use of research methodology practices to support and define knowledge and decision making).

Monday, June 13, 2011

Finished (Audiobook) - "Surely You Must Be Joking Mr. Feynman" - Richard P. Feynman

I was given this book my my Master's Advisor when I started graduate school as an example of keeping up the curiosity needed to do high level research.

The book is a series of auto-biographical stories from the life of Richard Feynman, the Nobel prize winning physicist, known as a youngster on the Manhattan project, and most recently known as one of the key investigators of the Challenger Space Shuttle investigation in the late '80's a short while before his death.

I enjoyed the stories, and the smattering of science and problem solving that defined Dr. Feynman's life.  I must say that I was quite disappointed in the real experience of graduate school, as it seems to be missing the drama, and the broad based research of earlier eras of graduate studies.

I'd recommend this book highly for folks in, or planning, graduate studies - let's work to make the process more like Feynman's experience - it should help define a lifetime, not pad a prof's resume.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Finished (E-Reader): "United States V. Nixon: The Question of Executive Privilege" - Larry A. Van Meter

The "US v. Nixon" document was a very nice summary and discussion of the key issues of the Watergate scandal.  I was only 8 when the break-in occurred, and was 10 when Nixon resigned and remember pieces of the story.  The review is relatively short and points out the key constitutional issues under attack - the basic roles of the three branches of US government - judicial, congressional and executive.  At 10, I certainly hadn't realized the scope of the issues under investigation - e.g. who gets to set the limits of Executive power as outlined in the Constitution?  Can the president re-write the rules and use Executive privilege to cover any excesses?

The whole issue around assigning an independent investigative council raises questions - who gets to "police" the actions of the independent prosecutor?  Obviously in this particular instance, the President has a conflict.

What was actually refreshing about reading this article was how serious all branches were - in the legislature, both parties were taking the actions seriously, with the appropriate gravity.  Would that occur today, in the more divisive environment?  Does it even seem possible that the parties are further apart now than during Watergate?  I can't imagine any independent investigation of Bush Jr. being met with anything buy party-line, partisan responses (with a good dose of Fox "News" thrown in for good measure).  In this review, it seems that party affiliation took a back seat to actual governance - might be a less for politicians in both the U.S. and Canada - the role of governance seems to be distantly placed behind party politics.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Nearing the end of "The Informationist" - Taylor Stevens (E-reader)

I was interested in a quick diversion read - "The Informationist" fit the bill.  It is definitely a take-off on the Steig Larsson books - the key character is a woman who is very capable physically, and is an excellent researcher - sound familiar?

However, the Taylor Stevens version of Lisabeth, is a little to "super-hero"ish.  She sniper-kills army folks who've wronged her, she partially dodged a bullet and escaped from a "swim with the fishes" execution.  The rough upbringing that Lisabeth endured is nothing compared to the "knife fight, terrorist training rape-fest" that Vanessa lived through.

I'm finding the book a little predictable (I will update if my "theory" doesn't hold - did so far).  To be fair, if I read this without reading Steig Larsson's books, I might not have the Lisabeth-shadow over the reading.

Finished (Audiobook) -"Isaac Asimov's All-Time Favorite Science Fiction Stories"

These books (4 in all) form a nice commute series - each story is about 30-45 minutes or less, with a range of different individual stories.

"Captive Market" by Philip K. Dick is an interesting post-apocalypse story about a merchant selling to a colony trying to re-furbish a space ship and escape to Venus.  Nice parallel-universe feel to the story.

"Last of the Deliverers" by Poul Anderson investigates a possible future for the Capitalist-Communist ideologies if left to evolve over time with cheap, available power.

"World of a Thousand Colors" by Robert Silverberg is a future-based contest, where a world-wide selection of contestants every 5 years or so go off to another world, where they may win a fantastic prize - the catch?  Nobody knows where the planet is, or what the prize is, and anybody returning (probably non-winners) have their memories erased. "Ismael in Love" also by Robert Silverberg tells a tale of love from the perspective of a worker-dolphin hired to clean undersea water intakes.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Reading (Audiobook) - "Harperland: The Politics of Control" - Lawrence Martin

Enjoying is not he word for "Harperland: The Politics of Control" - Lawrence Martin.  Unfortunately, this book seems to support what I see and fear in the U.S. Republicans and their Canadian buddies, the Conservatives.

I'm a middle-of-the-spectrum, lying in the current Liberal party, somewhere on the border of where the PCs and the Liberals were in the '80s - "right wing" on the Liberal side, "left wing" on the older Conservatives.

I lived the last 12 years in Alberta, and was astounded at the political scene there.  The provincial Conservative party had done an excellent job of vilifying any party other than their own, and really only have to fear a split in their own party - no other party can reasonably ever catch them (and they've been in power since 1972).  The power of the PM's office and the PM himself shouldn't be surprising in Harper - this is the federal mirror of what happens everyday in Alberta - message control, top-down political influence (interference, depending upon your orientation).  The situation has been in place so long, some bureaucrats can't understand the politics/bureaucracy distinction anymore.

I don't particularly fear the stated ideas of the Conservative party - lower taxes, less waste, even some privatization might be OK in some circumstances.  What I fear, and what I saw in Alberta, and am seeing in Martin's book, is the "politics uber alles" mentality, the black-and-white viewpoints that drive everything to absurd extremes.

What I'd really like to see is the actual policies and ideas presented, with associated costs and benefits explained.  Why can the "right" call the "left" "tax and spend" when the "right" runs massive deficits?  Why aren't they called to explain how they are going to pay for tax decreases - what programs are going to be jettisoned or left to rot?

In Alberta, Premier Ralph Klein ran around the province and closed hospitals at smaller centres as a cost cutting measure - OK, I can accept that.  However, a few years later, he stood in the legislature and stated that "lack of beds" required a private health care system.  How can anyone get away with that?

My fear with Harper is similar - is the "big plan" for Conservatives to sell off Canadian assets, pull apart Health Care and other non-popular policies by driving the deficit up until they are unaffordable, leaving only unpopular options remaining?

The politics at all costs, and the inability to admit problems (and deal with them), all the while claiming to be open and accountable, is the problem I have with the right wing parties in both countries.  On some level, they realize that their "dream state" is not popular enough with the actual population - however, non-democratic practices is a dangerous path to tread.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Finished (Audiobook) -"Newton and the Counterfeiter" - Thomas Levenson

Newton and the Counterfeiter was interesting in the fact that the book was primarily about Newton's post-Principia life as a government bureaucrat.  However, most of the interesting aspects of the book come in the form of what constituted legal due process in the late 1600's, and the movement from silver and gold to a more modern currency.  How exactly was money counterfeited?  How do you move away from a "pound of gold" type monetary system to a paper currency (or non-gold/silver coinage) and make that system work?  Once you've moved over to currency, how does the larger economic system work (e.g. markets, exchange rates, inflation)?

Some of the confrontation between Newton and key counterfeiters sound remarkably cruel in the context of todays judicial system - death and torture were much rarer in modern pre-Bush Jr. times, so application of these methodologies, or even the threat therein, sound very extreme to today's ears (again, non-Bushie ears).  Similarly, trials seemed easily swayed by class differences or lack of experience of the main players on the defense or crown sides.

Some of the countermeasures against counterfeiting (e.g. the ridging of coins, or impressing text along the edge of coins to negate the scrapping off of any significant amount of silver or gold, modernized presses and assembly line production to make a more professional coinage) were interesting to read.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Finished [E-Reader) - "The Help" - Kathryn Stocket

Really liked "The Help" - good story about the maids in Jackson, Mississippi in the late 50's early 60's timeframe.  Compared to "Roots" or "the Book of Negros" this story is very light.  However, the lack of control, and the distant second class status of these women is astounding.  At best, they are probably treated like the best friend of your teenage child - loved, tolerated, but neither equal nor family, regardless of the length of time of relationship.

The "serial motherhood" of some of these women who specialize in the raising of younger children until approximately school age was eye-opening.  The abruptness that a close family-type relationship can change to a "fired employee" relationship, or a "non-entity" relationship or even a "criminal-enemy" relationship is amazing for the suddenness and the randomness.  Anyone (any white person) seems to be able to accuse "the help" of theft or other petty crime, and it's ballgame over, even if "the help" has been known to the family for decades.

The pseudo-auto-biographical nature of the story is done well, three individual perspectives provide a good investigation of he differing opinions and rationale(s) for behaviour.  The aura of violence is pervasive, to the point of being accepted as a reality to all characters.  The story doesn't particularly dwell on the violence, but the backdrop has JFK assassination, murder in the neighbourhood of a NAACP official, beating of the son of a perhipheral character in the story, and the real fear of the main characters of either severe ostracization (at best) or severe beating (more likely) if caught telling stories about their employers.

The story reads well, builds to an appropriate climax, and like all good books, seems to end too soon.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Finished (Paper Book) - "The Complete Essex County" - Jeff Lemire

"Essex County" drew my attention when I lived in Edmonton because Essex County, Ontario is where I was born and grew up - a piece of home.  As a graphic novel, the read is as fast as you want to go, but it's worth savouring some of the images and feelings.  The book consists of several storylines, all connected at some level, and the stories and flashbacks run from the early 1900's to the more-or-less present day, and in some cases cover 3 or so generations.

Each story is a nice look at rural country life in Essex County, farming, hockey, travelling nurse, gas-station owner, kid...

I really liked the stories, and even the very simple artwork - it worked well to tell the story and set the mood.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Reading (E-Reader) - "The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven" - Kevin Malarkey and Alex Malarkey

I found this book when looking for "Heaven is Real" (reviewed earlier).

"The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven" - Kevin Malarkey and Alex Malarkey is a much better read than "Heaven is Real" - the accident is severe (severe spinal injury in neck).
I do like the community involvement that stems from the involvement in the family at church.  I must say that I do find the attribution of all good things to God a little misleading - for example, they have massive costs (maybe $1 million) which they can't pay.  "God delivers" by having their bills covered by Medicaid (Medicare?).  Wouldn't it be better to attribute this good fortune to the government, particularly the democratic-party type government - given that the readers for this type of literature are most likely conservative-Christians, and they support (on average) the party that is looking to kill the very funding that "God provided" in this case?
Similarly, they find it excellent that God provided them with a home with bad plumbing, damaged their roof in a storm while they were dealing with the hospital, had a spiral staircase (not conducive to wheelchair access)....  All of these things were fixed through the good will of the community, through the church.  However, wouldn't it have been simpler for "God" to have them in a single-floor house to begin with?  Or maybe not paralyze their child???
I guess I find the community involvement to be very uplifting, but have trouble directing all of the "good" to God - doesn't some of the good-old free-will good deeds cover some (like the roof fix, the plumbing, ramp design....)?

Overall, however, I did find the story uplifting - the degree to which the community chipped-in and did everything reasonable, and much beyond reasonable to help this family is a great testament to the values of the community.

I appreciate the faith shown by the folks in a terrible, tragic situation - if faith in God, and faith in their religion made a tragic time more bearable - more power to them.  However, I guess I have trouble with the complete attribution of all things to God - it appears to me to be disingenuous to those earthly folks to gave deeply with skills, money and equipment.

Finished "Bossypants" - Tina Fey

Quite liked "Bossypants" by SNL and 30 Rock's Tina Fey.  Some behind-the-scenes discussions of how SNL works, long hours, dealing with hosts etc. along with the whole Sarah Palin impressions during the 2008 presidential campaign was worth the read.  The mutual respect among the 30 Rock crowd is nice as well - Tina Fey is very complimentary about Alec Baldwin, and in other interviews, there are very nice things to say about Ms. Fey.

A quick read - worth the trouble.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Finished (E-Reader) - "Heaven is For Real" - Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent

Found "Heaven is For Real" and read it in a couple of hours.  I must say, I was expecting an uplifting story, but what I found was a very formulaic advertisement for conservative Christian doctrine.  Everything experienced by the boy in the "true" story was exactly as outlined in juvenile descriptions of heaven - big chairs, colours, etc.
As the kid grew up in a pastor's family, it is not in the least surprising to me that his recollections fit the stories he would have heard over time.  Nothing he recalled or discussed seemed outside of what you could expect if a kid was given an opportunity to write a story about what it would be like to go to Heaven.

I'm amazed this is a best seller, and that there are three others just like it on the same list.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Finished (Audiobook) - "The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality" - Brian Greene

I liked the "Fabric of the Cosmos", again, along with other books referred to on this site, it is a walk through the oddity that is physical reality.   Many of the ideas reinforce other recent books, so nothing stands out particularly.  The book is well written, and covers the history of physical explanations of the universe (multi-verse) including the cutting edge string, M-theory and hologram explanations for reality, with universes bumping together creating additional universes...

"The Book of Negroes" - Lawrence Hill

I'd like to say I'm "enjoying" "The Book of Negroes", but enjoying a tragic story seems like odd phrasing.

I must say I feel somewhat guilty that the main character is not having "as bad" a life as I imagined when picking up the book.  I read "Roots" (Alex Haley) many years ago, and watch much, if not all, of the mini-series on TV as a young teen.  Much of the shock I'd expect to experience in "The Book of Negroes" is a little lessened by the intense shock I felt from "Roots".  I'm about 3/4 of the way through the book, and am very much entranced by the story and want to find out the ending, but am somewhat surprised not to be as shocked by the deplorable conditions on the slave ships (I was definitely disgusted and appalled the first time I experienced these recollections in "Roots"), and find my self awaiting more sorrow and agony, even though when I walk through what this woman has been through it is horrendous (abduction, watch both parents murdered, confinement in a hell ship, witness to rape/attempted rape/murder/beatings/whippings, experienced rape/attempted rape, abduction of children, being sold/bought/escape, mislead/lied to on a grand scale, loss of husband for decades long periods...) I doubt I'm even listing all horrible events.

I'd highly recommend the book, particularly if you haven't been pre-calloused by "Roots".

I'm guessing "Roots" retains a higher "horror-score" as I read the book, all made more real on the small screen.  I clearly remember the whipping of the Levar Burton character (Kunte Kinte), which comes across much more strongly in images than text (to be fair, I read the book years after the mini-series) - the severity and near-death of the whippings seems out of alignment with my reading-interpretation of the word (usually in the context of a "whipping" from a parent in more recent times).

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Started "Known and Unknown" - Donald Rumsfeld (Audiobook)

I must say, I like Donald Rumsfeld - along with Colin Powell, was one of a few voices in the George W. Whitehouse with any reality.

I'm only a few chapters into Mr. Rumsfeld's book.  His defence of Reagan was classic:  Reagan was characterized as a bit of an idiot, but had a nice manner and as an actor could protray a president well in public.  Rumsfeld did defend his president, vaguely pointed to the press as always portraying Republican presidents as dunces (I can understand his position if he worked for Reagan and followed up with George W. - not sure if he worked for George Sr. who I wouldn't classify as an idiot).  However, he provided a nice punch-line with "Now, Reagan wasn't a detail oriented manager.....".

I also find his opening chapter on known facts, unknown facts and the unknown unknown to be startling.  Not that the concept is even remotely complicated, but that for a party that portrays everything in stark black and white, that they really do have trouble when the world that doesn't fit into their viewpoint - I had hoped that the black-and-white speeches were only the simplest way to make points and make themselves the good guys and the opponents the evil guys, but I suspect they actually believe this.

When it comes to the real world, of course there are "unknown unknowns", a.k.a. "surprises".  In the real world, there is a greater than 0% chance that Queen Elizabeth has a nuclear missile aimed at the White House, or that Canada is trying to take over the U.S., or that Cuba is somehow a threat to the U.S. and the continued embargo is somehow warranted.  This is what makes the posturing of the Bush Jr. White House so problematic - particularly the post-Obama Cheney - he actually said that the policies of the Bush Jr. period made the U.S. safer and that any future attack would be proof of this thesis.  Think about this for a moment - he's actually hoping for an attack to justify the brinkmanship of the administration he was so influential in...and these are the guys who were in charge when 911 happened - can you imagine the same folks speaking/acting if Gore had been sitting when the planes crashed????

The reason the "left" wants seemingly intelligent presidents, and is less dogmatic in the campaign promises, is that they are aware that the world changes, that information comes to light and that it is not always the best thing to go on with your plan when your plan is now not in the best interests of the country due to changing circumstances.  The "left" wants someone in place who can adapt and make continued best decisions, the right (in current times) really seems to want to elect a figurehead who can carry out policies, regardless of changing circumstances.  Or as Karl Rove says "while you report on reality, we'll make a new reality".

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Finished (E-Reader) - "Mockingbird" - Suzanne Collins

"Mockingbird" finished the "Hunger Games" trilogy - a very nice series of books, fast read.  Central character is a younger teenage girl in post-apocalyptic U.S. (seems like).  The Hunger Games are a Survivor-type game, but the characters actually die - only one survivor is permitted.  Each region has two champions chosen at random, one male, one female, with the exception of the Capital region, which runs the games, and uses the annual event as a reminder of their win of the civil war.

The trilogy goes over several years, from the Games selection and completion in book 1, the follow-up games in book 2 and the post-2nd-games period in book 3.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Finished (Audiobook) - "The Hidden Reality" - Brian Greene

"The Hidden Reality" is a nice addition to my current physics streak.

Ran across some nicely explained phenomenon like:
- Truly infinite size of the universe means that there are only so many re-combinations of atoms in any given region, so by definition, there have to be "matched" regions of the universe, as infinity allows for the same combinations to exist by statistics alone.

- the surface area of a black hole contains the maximum amount of information possible in an area (can't remember exactly, but something like 1 bit per Plank lenght or squared Plank length).  This leads to a weird model of the universe where the contents of the universe can be considered holographic displays of the information contained on a distant "surface" region

- creation of new universes may be ongoing and relatively frequent - a few initial conditions may force expansion and creation. - white holes play a part.

- a nice chapter on whether or not we could tell if we were in a computer-simulated universe.  Short answer - no (they can always tweak our memories etc. if they want to) - longer answer - it might be difficult to maintain the illusion because of inherent rounding that would be required on fundamental parameters of the universe.  However, it may be that the universe itself is not continuous, and eventually there are specific discrete values that underly reality that are not rounded or estimated.

- a common theme is the non-centrality (no longer earth in centre of universe, no longer sun in centre of galaxy, galaxy of any particular importance of universe) that extends to the universe being one of a multi-verse, each multiverse being established on every possible combination of key variables (ratio of electrons to protons, e, mass of elementary particles...). Thus, the particular values we uncover are really not "meaningful", they just happen to be the values of one of many universes that would provide conditions that give rise to intelligent life.  This also provides a possibility of a universe that is made up of ultimate nothing (not even space, time, etc.) which really gets the guts moving problematically.

I must say that this is the first book that made me re-think the basic premise - maybe infinite doesn't mean "infinite", maybe the models are showing the absurdity of the underlying premises, as opposed to revealing heretofore un-imagined worlds and dimensions.  Perhaps the very consistency in the mathematical models of the universe show that it is a mathematical, not physical, model they are explaining.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Read (Comics) "FF#1" and "Fantastic Four 587-588"

At the end of Fantastic Four 587, Johnny Storm (the Human Torch) sacrificed himself to save his teammate and family.  588 was the followup and funeral.  Not generally a fan of "death" stories, as they generally are revised and thus are somewhat of a cheat.

FF#1 though, is a nice re-visioning of the Fantastic Four, with Spider-man taking the place of the Human Torch. At least the first issue seems to capture some of the feeling of the original - The Thing more brooding over the Torch's death is similar to The Thing that was formed during the original space mission.  Marvel has done a lot of damage to the Spider-man character over the last few years, it is nice to see him away from his home books, where we can ignore the "deal with the devil" and the "sorry, fans, that you bought the deal with the devil - boy are you dumb" followup and see the character a little more like the "real" one.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Finished (Audiobook) - "The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet" - Neil deGrasse Tyson

Liked this book - a "history" of the demotion of Pluto.  Lots of letters, arguments, poems, songs - it is interesting how much feeling goes into the classification of celestial objects.

It is nice to hear the types of discussion that go on in taxonomy - lists and labels aren't really scientific, the science underlies them, but the actual organization and definition can go many different ways - made for interesting read.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Finished (E-Reader) - "Catching Fire" - Suzanne Collins

Read the 2nd book in "the Hunger Games" trilogy.  The young folk are in trouble as they get chosen again to compete in the Hunger Games.  Rebellion is brewin'.

A good read, very fast - killed it in a day.  Looking forward to the third.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Finished (E-Reader) - "The Hunger Games" - Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games was recommended to me on a plane between DC and Detroit as I returned from a Florida Spring Training vacation.

A nice read - certainly similar in style, content, and age-of-reader to the "City of Ember" books (Jeanne DuPrau).  Strong mid-teen girl character, post-apocalyptic North American world space, electricity and food are relatively scarce outside of the capital region.  "Running Man" or "The Long Walk" (Stephen King as Richard Bachman") type game-show to the death scenario.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Finished "Boom!: Voices of the Sixties Personal Reflections on the '60s and Today" - Tom Brokaw (Audiobook)

Finally finished Tom Brokaw's book about the '60's.  A very interesting car audiobook.  Interviews and stories of key players in the '60s culture and what they are doing now, what they thought the big learning of the '60s was and whether or not that generation has lived up to the hype.

There was no definitive conclusion, but I'd say that by and large, most were unhappy with how things turned out.  Folks dedicated to ending the war seemed to lose their passion once they passed draft age, and many became supporters of the Iraq war.  In hindsight, much of the culture could probably be explained by size - there were lots of people in that cohort - most of their insights and issues seem pretty self-serving.  The hippie's who are now gazillionaires, the greed culture that followed (with the same physical bodies), the fact that they don't teach or treat their own children like they wanted to be treated in the '60s... all seem to indicate that selfish folks evolve and change to older selfish folks and their wants and needs reflect this.

It was interesting that one of the speakers (can't remember who) was saying that if the '60s spirit was still alive in the folks who are now in their 60s, they'd probably be supporting means-tested social security and variable age of social security coverage to reflect the wealth of some of that population (e.g. "I believe in social security, but am doing well enough to delay the start for myself and my family for another 3 or 4 years").

"Zombie Spaceship Wasteland: A Book by Patton Oswalt" - Patton Oswalt

I was a little harsh on Patton Oswalt's book.  I actually enjoyed the last few chapters - these were stories of starting in comedy on the road.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Recent lame books

"Zombie Spaceship Wasteland: A Book by Patton Oswalt" - Patton Oswalt is the third of three books I picked up having been familiar with the authors (all stand-up comics I've seen on TV).  This book is quite bad, as was Judah Freidlander, and Olivia Munn's books.

I'll likely finish, having completed 3/4 of the book, but wouldn't recommend any of these books.

Reading - "THE MOST HUMAN HUMAN What Talking With Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive" - Brian Christian

Picked up "The Most Human Human" by Brian Christian, sight unseen.  I've always been interested in the limits and current status of computer "intelligence", particularly in the wake of the Deep Blue defeat of Kasparov in chess, one of the supposedly final limits in computer thinking ability.

This book uses the Turing Test contest (annual challenge using human judges to adjudicate whether they are communicating with a real person or a computer in a text-based discussion) to delve into philosophy, problem solving and generally exploring what it means to have experience and be human.

Hits right on the mark for what I'm interested in exploring at this point in my life.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Still reading "Lord of the Rings"

Still at "Lord of the Rings", reading to my 9 year old son.  He may be in university when we finish - not the easiest book to read aloud.

Wired - November 2010

Found and read the November 2010 issue of Wired - perhaps the cleavage on the cover led it to be quickly and quietly filed away.

Nice issue - cover story about breast reconstruction options through the use of stem cells harvested from fat cells in the body of the patient.  Breasts are seen as a potential early use of the technology given to the relatively low risk of death in reconstruction when compared to hearts or other organs.  Recovery from mastectomy and lumpectomy with few side-effects, low post-surgical trauma/recovery (same day home) and positive 6 and 12 month follow ups are all good.  Long term fear of recurrence or incubation of potential cancer sites is a concern that can't be addressed given the short history of use.  Heart attack and other key potential uses mean that this is a tech to watch.

Nice article on the origin of the computer - a pre-ENIAC, much smaller, binary device that was completed before the start of the ENIAC project......Background on attempts to dethrone TicketMaster for ticket sales and distribution....

Finished (Audiobook) - "Shoeless Joe" - W.P. Kinsella

"Shoeless Joe" is a great read, and a great listen.  Very nice story, captured well in the movie "Field of Dreams". J.D. Salinger, real-life author of "Catcher in the Rye" is featured in the original, in place of the character played by James Earl Jones in the movie.

Definitely a great story to play during car trips - pretty family friendly (except perhaps the section where the main character and his twin brother, as teenagers, decide to see if there are any differences at all in their bodies, or the occassional references to lovemaking between the main character and his wife).

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Finished (E-Reader) - The 4 "City of Ember" Books (Jeanne DuPrau)

My daughter was reading "City of Embers" on the recommendation of her cousin, and really liked it.  For Christmas, she received the 3 remaining books in the series and asked me to read them as well.

I must say they were a pretty good read.  The basic storyline involves a city that has no natural light and relies upon stored food, and a hydroelectric power generation for survival.  As the inhabitants are not the first generation in this city, they are unaware of the details of how the city was formed, nor how the generator works, nor do they have any knowledge of what is outside of their city (a dark zone).

The books explore what happens to this city when the generator goes wonky and the supplies run low, some history of why the city was created, and followup of where the inhabitants end up after abandoning the city.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Finished (Audiobook) - "One More Day" - Mitch Albom

Listened (again) to 'One More Day' by Mitch Albom.  A very nice book - a fantasy book where a mid-life man is contemplating suicide, after his family life falls apart - he's been in one World Series as a younger man.

The book takes a biographical tour of events in life, and focused on the relationship he had with his mother.

I'd recommend it - a fast read, or listen, very much worth the effort.

Finished (E-reader) - "How to Beat Up Everybody" - Judah Friedlander

Not worth reading - better to pick up and read a page or so from time to time at the bookstore.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Finished (Audiobook) - "God is not Great" - Christopher Hitchens

I listened to "God is not Great" by Christopher Hitchens.  As I stated about Richard Dawkins books ("The Blind Watchmaker", "The Greatest Show on Earth" and "The God Delusion") and Stephen Hawking ("The Grand Design") I do appreciate the perspective that science and religion are distinctly separate, and rely upon different tenets (science is empirical - proof for even the most absurd conclusions must be treated using the same mechanisms and constraints; religion is faith based and ultimately rests upon an expert or body of experts that interpret events into a framework - no specific "event" can be used to disprove faith as it is not based upon scientific methods).

I found Dawkins arguments a little too strong - I'm happy with the Gould inspired separate worlds idea, but understand why he feels so strongly that in the current political environment (particularly the US) there is an activist element that is trying to undermine science directly from a religious standpoint (intelligent design) that is hypocritically using scientistic words to portray faith-based belief as scientific hypotheses.  As such, Dawkins feels the need to retaliate and show the hypocrisy for what it is.

I did  not, as such, find anything particularly problematic in Dawkins arguments - they basically outlined the scientific method, and did not find a need to place a pro-active God in the middle of events.  Hawking came to a similar conclusion from a physics standpoint - there is no need for an intervention in events once they are in play. Hawking's world "works" assuming that you have quantum mechanics and gravity - the universe will form given these conditions.

Hitchens has a much stronger viewpoint on the evils of religion, calling it child abuse in certain chapters, and argues that the basic idea of religion is dangerous as it undermines critical thinking.

From a religious perspective, I imagine Hitchens would be considered the most difficult to read - he allows the presence of a supernatural being the least room.  Dawkins also thinks religion is dangerous, but is less dogmatic in his arguments than Hitchens, and I suspect without the Intelligent Design crew at work, Dawkins probably would leave well enough alone.  Hawking is probably the easiest from a religious perspective - he argues that the universe doesn't need a god to have the processes function (e.g. no intervention required) but doesn't directly argue against religion (as both Dawkins and Hitchens have) nor does he say that God doesn't exist.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Finished (Audiobook) "The Black Hole War My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics" - Leonard Susskind

Finished "The Black Hole War My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics" -  Leonard Susskind.

I liked this book - I'm really interested in physics these days.  As with most books that are semi-biographical, there is a tendency for the author to look arrogant at some points.

The coverage of quantum mechanics, the quirks, sub-atomic particles etc. are well stated and worth listening to - quantum mechanics is odd enough that you need to hear from several sources.  The "battle" was a little less interesting - whether or not information is lost in black holes is interesting, but it didn't "read" as a battle - the entire picture is certainly interesting enough without the battle.

Finished "Suck It, Wonder Woman!: The Misadventures of a Hollywood Geek" - Olivia Munn

Read "Suck It, Wonder Woman!: The Misadventures of a Hollywood Geek" by Olivia Munn.

Some interesting and sad stories of childhood bigotry in Oklahoma, seedy stories from Hollywood, but all in all, not really worth the effort.

As with the Larry Wilmore book, I wanted to read Olivia's book due to her connection with "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart".  I really liked the Wilmore book, not so much this one.

It was relatively quick to read, though.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Finished - "The Prophet of Yonwood" - Jeanne Du Prau

"The Prophet of Yonwood" is book 3 of 4 of Jeanne DuPrau's "City of Embers" series.

This took a little to get into, though it is not a particularly long book.  The first two books dealt with the underground city (Ember) and the ultimate escape and merge with an aboveground city (Sparks) - characters carried over.

This book is a prequel to the first book, and eventually explains part of the rationale for the move underground.  As all characters are new, and the story has moved into current (or near-future) timeframe, it is quite different than the first two.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Finished - 'I'd Rather We Got Casinos And Other Black Thoughts" - Larry Wilmore

Larry Wilmore's book is a good time.  "Why brothers don't see UFOs", "how the government can apologize for slavery" and his campaign to change "NAACP" from National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People" to "National Association for the Advancement of Chocolate People" are all brilliantly conceived and written, as is the funeral and trial of the "n" word.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Finished - "The People of Sparks" - Jeanne DuPrau

Finished the second "City of Ember" book - "The People of Sparks".

A good follow-up on the Ember book.  The story takes place after the Emberites leave their underground city and find themselves in a sparsely populated surface world.  The only town close has roughly the same population as Ember.  The book focuses on the interactions between the surface and newly-surface dwellers in a society that is roughly at the "wild west" level of civilization - horse and buggy (though the buggies are often cars or trucks with the engine's removed).  The "event" that resulted in the loss of surface life seems to be a combination of war and plagues.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Reading (Comics) - Squadron Supreme (Marvel Comics)

Read the mid '80's Squadron Supreme "live" many years ago.  Fell into the mini-series "Supreme Power" when released by Marvel in the '00s.  Really liked it - didn't make the connection to "Squadron Supreme" until later series (which had to be titled "Squadron Supreme" or I might never have made the connection to the earlier incarnations).  (

Of course I read "Supreme Power" not as an origin for the Marvel characters, but a re-imagining of the Superman story - raising an alien kid with super powers.  As the '90s were a more realistic comic world than the '30s, the alien's adoptive parents weren't the kindly small town Kents, but male and female army officers given a long term assignment.  It was very interesting to see how a "Superman" would make short work of armed conflict (they had him remove the weapons from Iraqi soldiers in the first Gulf War).

Nighthawk (Batman) and Dr. Spectrum (Green Lantern) are also well portrayed characters, along with Hyperion (Superman).

I was very disappointed that the 2006 series ended on a cliff-hanger - the big confrontation with the villain - and it was never resolved - no additional issues.  If they exist, please publish them.

A nicely revived character set, short series (Supreme Power ran 18 issues, Squadron Supreme ran a 7 issue and 12 issue series, smaller 5-6 issue Nighthawk, Hyperion, Nighthawk vs. Hyperion and Dr. Spectrum series, along with an Ultimate Universe version (Ultimate Power).

All series are well done and worth the read.

Finishing "Electric Universe: The Shocking True Story of Electricity" by David Bodanis (Audiobook)

On the last few chapters of "Electric Universe:  The Shocking True Story of Electricity" by David Bodanis (  I can't say it grabbed me like some other books, but it was worth the read.

I learned that Thomas Edison was a bit of a prick.

I never thought about the early ideas of electrons running through wires "like water through a hose" metaphor, if accurate, would end up with piles of electrons sitting on one end of a telephone line, assuming one speaker is chattier than another.

Heard again about the tragic life of Alan Turing, and the poison apple.

Never really thought of what the term "semi-conductor" really meant/\.