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.