Make Magic! Do Good!

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Dallas Clayton launched his writing/illustrating career with An Awesome Book! Now he is back with a bigger and more awesome book: Make Magic! Do Good! His new book is a collection of poems and illustrations.

An Awesome Book was a single poem joyfully illustrated by Clayton. Make Magic! Do Good! is full of dozens of his children’s poems with a single illustration. This turns out to be a great way for my kids to pick which poems they want to hear. As a I flip through the book they get drawn to the illustrations that most captures their mood.

My kids favorites: “Real Live Dragon”, “Robots”, and “The Unicorn Glade.” My favorite was “Xavier Xing Xu.” [He] was terribly blue/ that the number of/ x-fronted words was so few.

As with his previous series of Awesome books, each of these poems overflow with joy and optimism. They bring a smile to my face. The book is best summed up by the book jacket summary:

I wrote this book to remind you that
you’re magic.
You’re reading this.
You right now.
You here and you there.
You’re something special,
and I hope that someday
you get a chance
to make your own book
or paint your own picture
or build your own rocket ship
or find your own kind of happiness
and that you get a chance
to share it with the rest of us
just like I got a chance
to share my happiness
with you.

I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of the book from the publisher.

This first appeared in Wired.com’s GeekDad

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Show Time – A Tale of Reality Horror

Show Time takes place at some point in the near future, with the participants willingly subjecting themselves to a media portrayal of their jeopardy. The network drops seven contestants on a desolate island in the middle of Lake Superior with some necessities and minimal food.  According to one of the agreements surrounding the games “it is recognized that entertainment involving genuine risks to real people is fundamentally necessary to the smooth functioning of a civilized society…” The broadcast network  promises the contestants $400,000 each if they can endure.

The island is wired with cameras and microphones. In the air, flying drones and satellites add in more coverage so everything the contestants do and say is available to broadcast worldwide. Edited shows are broadcast, but dedicated viewers and pay for more detailed access.

An obvious analogy is the Hunger Games trilogy, which I found disappointing. A publisher’s offer of a review copy of Show Time as a survival reality novel caught my attention.

These are adults, with interesting back stories and motivations. That was one of my criticisms of the Hunger Games. I thought the trilogy would have been more interesting if the main protagonists were adults instead of teenagers. I think Show Time shows that to be true.

However, Show Time lacks the action of Hunger Games. The seven contestants are placed on the island to kill each other. They are there to slowly starve, perhaps to death. A long, boring death.

The book also lacks much insight to the larger culture of the show’s viewership. We are left to assume that it’s a natural progression of today’s reality television, mixed in with some government help, to create a modern bread and circus. I’m hard-pressed to believe that watching people hunt small game, pick berries, and chew on moss would make good television for 7 months. At least Survivor mixes in some contests for its participants.

Eden on the Charles

If you’ve ever lived in Boston, Michael Rawson’s Eden on the Charles  is a great book to help understand how Boston developed in the 19th Century. You may know the basic transformation of Boston from a small ithsmus surrounded by shallow flats to the larger bustling city of today. For a book labeling a city as Eden, it’s mostly about conflict. Conflict between the classes and conflict between different visions of the city. It uses those conflicts to highlight five developments in the city.

The first conflict is over the use of the Boston Common. In the early days of the city it was a common pasture. As the city grew, the common became a spot for recreation. That transformation increased as the affluent residents began calling Beacon Hill home. The conflict arose between those looking to keep agriculture in the city and those who wanted more recreation in the city (and didn’t enjoy dodging cow patties).

The second conflict was over potable water. For centuries, residents were able to supply water through wells in the city. By the middle of the 19th century, wells became inadequate. The conflict was between those who thought water should be delivered by the government or by private parties. By this time in the city’s history there were a few companies privately supplying water. Once the decision fell in favor of the government, the conflict was over how to pay for it. On one side was a movement to have it paid through general tax revenue. On the other was those who wanted it paid through a usage charge. Anyone who has paid a water bill knows how this was finally resolved.

The third conflict was over the suburbs. Boston offered water, streetlights, and police protection. The outlying communities ( West Roxbury and Brookline in particular) offered a rural lifestyle, allowing you to escape from the frenzy of the city. While residents enjoyed the idyllic lifestyle in the more rural communities, they also enjoyed the peace that came from good roads, streetlights, and clean water supplied by the city. Ultimately, West Roxbury failed to deliver the services wanted by the residents and they agreed to be annexed by Boston. Brookline did a better job implementing resident services and managed to avoid the lure of annexation.

The fourth conflict discussed in the book was over filling the harbor. Throughout its history Boston has slowly grown as landowners began filling in the flats that surrounded the isthmus. By the middle of the 19th century mariners became concerned that the harbor’s shipping lanes were getting filled with debris. The conflict ended up being one that turned on scientific reasoning and political will. Little was understood about the hydrological forces taking place in the harbor that made it such a good harbor for that time period.

The last topic had the least conflict. Everyone wanted to preserve some wilderness in the outlying regions of the city. The biggest targets were Blue Hills, Lynn Woods, and Middlesex Fells.

This is a serious book. It was a finalist in  for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for History. It’s well written. At times, it’s breezy and easy to read. At other times, it slogs through the topics.

If you have an interest in the history of Boston or enjoying reading about the environmental history you will find lots of good reading in  Eden on the Charles. If you don’t have those interests… Well that’s probably not you because they would have stopped reading well before this point in this essay.

 

The Power of Habit and How to Hack It

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We are creatures of habit. We may like to think that our daily actions result from deliberation and willpower. But mostly they are the products of our unconscious habits. The same is true for our kids. Most of what they do is based on habit.

One of the keys to success in life is instilling good habits. Habits are about organic efficiency. They do not distinguish between what is good for you and what is bad for you. Does that leave us out of control? Or can we hack our habits by exploiting the habit-forming routine?

Charles Duhigg, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, presents an exploration of this subject in his latest book: The Power of Habit. Duhigg has loaded the book with information on how habit patterns work in the brain and suggestions on how to change them. Biologists have investigated the habit-formation aspect of the brain, but it’s the marketers who have pushed the envelope. They realize that creating habits means products moving off the shelf. That’s where retailers can really get their hooks in you and your kids.

One of the anecdotes in the book is the controversial story of how Target can identify when a customer is pregnant and then focus related advertising on the soon-to-be mother. Target realized that lucrative baby supply purchasing habits are already formed by the time the baby arrives so the retailer wanted to change habits before the baby came. The sooner customers started coming to Target for their baby needs, the better. Target figured out to hack habits.

Or take the background story on the crafting of Febreze, the odor eliminating spray, as an example of how our habits drive us to buy products. Procter & Gamble came up with a powerful product. One test subject was a park ranger who regularly had to wrangle wayward skunks. Her clothes, her car, and her home all stunk of skunk. Febreze changed her life. Less odoriferous customers loved the product, but ended up rarely using it.

Then the marketing scientists focused on the habits of cleaning. Febreze was scent-free. A person would spray it, but the application wouldn’t produce a sensory trigger to create a habit from using it. They added a fresh scent and advertised it for use as the final step in cleaning. “No one craves scentlessness. On the other hand, lots of people crave a nice smell after they’ve spent thirty minutes cleaning.” The addition of scent turned Febreeze from a smart product into a billion dollar product.

The Power of Habit is divided into three parts. The first focuses on individuals and how habits shape lives. Duhigg includes stories on how habits can be broken, reset, and persist. You can be trapped by a predictable cycle: you feel tired in the afternoon, you head out to Dunkin’ Donuts, and then you get the reward from the sugar and caffeine and feel much better. Marketers reinforce these routines by fiddling with the Pavlovian rewards.

The second part looks at the habits of organizations. Duhigg argues that managers can change entire firms by changing habits. The book’s third part looks at the habits of societies. Duhigg argues that some of the greatest social reformations have in part been produced by rewiring social habits. He links the pressure of weak ties and social norms with habit.

Not all habits are good habits — you probably feel trapped by your bad habits. Duhigg argues that you can also escape from the trap of the routines that trigger bad habits. Alcoholics Anonymous has proved so successful in part because it replaces one routine (drinking to feel better) with another (going to meetings and talking about your addiction to feel better). You re-wire your mind to appreciate and seek out the new routine.

That all sounds interesting, but can reading The Power of Habit help your life or help you better control improve your kids? Yes. I’m rethinking some of my approaches (and own personal behaviors). The book is filled with techniques to help focus on habits and how to change habits. “Once you break a habit into components, you can fiddle with the gears.” To change a habit, you need to keep the old cue and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine. The hard part is discovering the cue and reward.

Some habits are keystone habits that appear to trigger other good habits. Studies show that families who eat together seem to raise children with better homework skills and higher grades. Making your bed each morning is correlated with better productivity. It’s not that these keystone habits themselves cause the the other good habits. They just seem to help the other habits to form.

If you’re interested in more of the research, the book’s notes go on for 50 pages citing hundreds of primary sources and research papers. The book is full of interesting ideas and based on an impressive collection of research. But it does a great job of balancing intellectual seriousness with practical advice. Even better, it’s written in a lively style, making it easy to read and digest. (The book was on my to-read list before the publisher sent me a review copy.)

 

This story first appeared in Wired.com’s GeekDad.

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The Big Roads

I admit that I have a fascination with infrastructure. It seems so natural that I could jump in my car in Boston and be in Florida 24 hours later. I’m already forgetting the snarls and confusion in Boston during the Big Dig and the new harbor tunnel.

At the dawn of the automobile age, cross-country travel was virtually impossible for the average person. Actually, travelling outside the city was not much easier.

The Big Roads traces the development of the modern interstate through the eyes of some of the key architects of highway travel. Mostly that falls on the shoulders of Thomas Harris MacDonald and his protege, Frank Turner. They lead the efforts at the federal level to develop the big roads.

The book also debunks some myths of the interstate. Most prominently, it discredits Eisenhower with its creation. Sure he signed the law, but the system was already far along in design before that happened. Swift points out that Eisenhower was an advocate solely for rural interstates that did not come into the city itself.

The other aspect of the book is the portrayal of some of the bad things highway designers did to the urban core. Baltimore is the central story point as the design for getting interstates through the city destroyed neighborhoods, but rallied citizens to find a better solution.

I don’t think the book was entirely successful in focusing the narrative on the key people involved. Most of the central characters are career government bureaucrats and they come across as the grey, generic paper-pushers you would expect.

If you are interested in how our highway system came to be, you will find the book fascinating.

Cartel Tells Scary Stories About the Mexican Drug Cartels

Sylvia Longmire worked as a senior intelligence analyst for the California state fusion center and the California Emergency Management Agency’s Situational Awareness Unit, focusing almost exclusively on Mexican drug trafficking organizations and southwest border violence issues. For the last six years, she has regularly lectured on terrorism in Latin America at the Air Force Special Operations School’s Dynamics of International Terrorism course. She has packaged some of her knowledge on the US-Mexico drug war in Cartel.

When the publisher offered me a copy of the book to review, it caught my eye because of last year’s travel warnings about violence in Mexico. From news reports, it seemed that the violence around the drug wars had spilled over into previously safe tourist areas. Longmire theorizes that the Mexican cartels are behaving more like the Colombian cartels and combining traditional criminal activity with insurgency against the government, military, and law enforcement.

The big insight I picked up from the book is the US contributions to the Drug War. There is the obvious contribution of cash from the purchasers of the drugs. The other big contribution is guns. Lots and lots of guns. The easiest source of weaponry for the Mexican cartels is at the lax gun shops in the southwestern United States. At one end you have the very strict gun sale laws in California. At the other, you have the gun-friendly state of Texas, with a limited background checks, no waiting periods, and no license requirement. There is little inspection on the way south into Mexico to stop the flow of guns.

Longmire paints a bleak picture for the future of Mexico. Even the current enforcement by Mexican president Felipe Calderon seem to have mere displaced the violence into other areas of Mexico. This week’s Economist put together a great infographic showing the huge number of murders and the changes in murder rates throughout Mexico.

It’s probably not fair to Longmire that I read Cartel after just finishing Michael Lewis’s Boomerang. Lewis is master of weaving his thesis around characters to create a coherent narrative. Longmire’s narrative reads more like a collection of blog posts. What I found lacking was detail on the major cartels themselves. Longmire provides only a little insight to the people behind them and their history.

If you have even a passing interest on Mexican violence, Cartel is worth a few hours of your time.

Sex on the Moon

Ben Mezrich is back. His latest is “the amazing story behind the most audacious heist in history.” A NASA coop student stole a safe full of moon rocks and tried to sell them. After pilfering the lunar samples, he placed one under his bed sheets and …. Well…. I guess you can figure out where the name of the book came from.

The book is fun and sprightly. We saw what a gifted director can do with one of Merich’s books. David Fincher turned The Accidental Billionaires into the Oscar-worthy The Social NetworkBringing Down the House became the mediocre 21.

Sex on the Moon reads more like a screenplay. I expect we will see some version of it the theaters with a “based on a true story” label.

What the book misses is what motivated Thad Roberts to engage in theft. There is an interesting dynamic there and an even more interesting tale of human vice. But Mezrich doesn’t bother to dive that deep into the research to find this. That would just slow down the flow of the story.

The publisher sent me a copy of the book to review.

Where Men Win Glory

I sat down to watch The Tillman Story after Netflix gave it high marks as a recommendation. It was a blistering story about the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s death by friendly fire in Afghanistan.

“In war, truth is the first casualty.” – Aeschylus

I wanted to learn some more and remembered that Jon Krakauer had written Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman. Tillman was the starting free safety for the Arizona Cardinals when he decided to enlist in the army. Although he didn’t want the attention, he was transformed into an icon of 9-11 patriotism. A legend, foregoing millions to serve his country. Neither the movie nor this book squarely address why Tillman decided to enlist. It seems clear that it was very personal decision, only truly know by Mr. Tillman and his wife.

What the movie failed to portray was Tillmana person. That was the focus of the book. What I didn’t realize was the intellectual prowess of Tillman. He is portrayed not as a meathead jock who wants to shoot things. He comes across as thoughtful and introspective.

Besides the portrayal of Tillman as a person, Krakauer spends large chunks of the book setting the background on other key players. There is great background on history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan going back to the Soviet invasion. Many of the weapons used against US soldiers likely came from U.S. funding of the Mujahideen during their battle against the Soviets. Then there is the rise of Osama bin Laden and his desire to draw the Unites States into Afghanistan. There were plenty of missed opportunities during the Clinton administration to counter the rise of bin Laden. Perhaps he was distracted by the Lewinsky scandal?

With the bloodshed in Iraq and Afghanistan, along came propaganda to support the war effort. The prelude to the Tillman incident was the Jessica Lynch incident. She was initially portrayed as a hero, firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition, fighting to death and taking multiple gunshot wounds and stab wounds. Later, a Special Operations force swept in and rescued her from torture and abuse by her captors.

Unfortunately, the truth is that she sustained her wounds when her Humvee crashed into another truck in her convoy. She never fired a single shot because her gun jammed. During her stay in Saddam Hussein General Hospital she was treated as any other patient. The doctors were the ones who told US forces that Lynch was in the hospital. When the huge Special Operations force arrived at the hospital, they met no significant resistance.

Tillman played a very minor role in the Lynch “rescue.” But the propaganda success of the Lynch incident played a big role in what happened after Tillman was killed by friendly fire thirteen months later.

Tillman’s enlistment generated good headlines for the war effort. The military leaders and the White House assumed that painting his death as the saga of a fallen hero would create a media frenzy. Tillman was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and promoted to corporal for his bravery in the combat that took his life.

A commanding officer assured Tillman’s brother that whoever was responsible would pay dearly. “This would turn out to be the first in a long string of broken promises and self-serving lies proffered to the Tillman family by commissioned officers of the U.S. Army.”

Having read Into Thin Air and Into the Wild, I expected some solid writing. Krakauer has proven he can craft a true story into a page-turner of a book, bringing depth to the participants and providing insights to their motivation. He delivers again.

Where Men Win Glory is worth your reading time.

It’s All About the Bike

It’s July, so that means there will be lots of cycling at the Cornelius estate. These days there is much less time spent on the saddle and much more time spent on the couch, watching the Tour de France.

To get ready for the race, I just finished reading It’s All About the Bike by Robert Penn. The title is a clear stab at Lance Armstrong’s It’s Not About the Bike. But the book is not making a counter-argument, it’s merely a story about Penn’s bike. He was looking to build a custom-made bicycle and, through that process, provide some insight about bicycles, their history, and how they’re made.

Penn is not looking to have the lightest or the fastest bike. He calls those obsessed riders “weight weenies.” The lightest bike is important if your job is getting up a big mountain very fast. Penn is looking for an heirloom bike, custom for him, that will last for decades.

The starting point is a custom frame, meticulously measured and fit to him by Brian Rourke Cycles. Add on a classic drivetrain, a Record groupset from Camagnolo. That powers the wheels hand-built by Gravy using a Royce hub and Continental Grand Prix 4000S tires. Penn will change directions using  Cinelli Ram handlebar attached to the bike with a headseat by Chris King that feeds into a Columbus Carve fork. His backside will rest on the Team Pro Saddle from Brooks.

The Bike

Penn clearly ends up with a beautiful bike and tells a good story along the way. His affection for cycling overflows from the rather short story. I wish he wrote more in the book. It seems that there are lots of untold stories about how he chose the components he did and more ways he could integrate the history of cycling.

If you like bikes, you’ll like this book.

(The publisher provided me a copy of this book to review.)

Book Review: One Was a Soldier

At the Millers Kill Community Center, five veterans gather to work on adjusting to life after returning home from the overseas deployment. Reverend Clare Fergusson has returned from Iraq with a head full of bad memories and a drug and alcohol problem. Dr. George Stillman suffered a head wound and is trying to convince himself that it won;t affect his practice. Officer Eric McCrea has bottled up all of his rage from his stint as a guard at prison camp and his failure at anger management is affecting his life as a cop, and as a father. The young Will Ellis is looking for some reason to keep on living after losing both legs to an IED. The doomed Tally McNabb has brought home a secret. To this motley crew, add Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne who just wants Clare to marry him.

That’s the set up for Julia Spencer-Fleming‘s latest book, One Was a Soldier. It sounded interesting enough to read, so I picked it up from the stack that the publisher made available. I enjoy a good mystery.

This was an unusual mystery. The crime does not happen until nearly the midpoint of the book. There is much more focus on the the problems of returning home, the burden of guilt, and the burden war. That means there is plenty of rich character development and intrigue to keep you interested before it turns into a mystery.

Since I do quite a bit of reading on the train during my daily commute, I spent some extra time in South Station squeezing in the end of a chapter in the morning and nearly missing my stop a few times in the afternoon. Not wanting to put a book down is a sure sign of a good book.

The characters are richly drawn and intriguing. They have apparently been around for a while. This is the seventh book that has put Chief Cal Alstyne and Reverend Fergusson together. I haven’t read any of the prior books and it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story. There seemed to be some obvious references to the prior books. You’ll notice them, but it doesn’t detract from this one.

If One Was a Soldier sounds interesting, you can read an excerpt online. You will have to wait until April 12 for it to go on sale.

Must be Expert Riders – Tales of the Pony Express

Legend tells us that this help wanted ad appeared in a California newspaper in 1860:

Wanted.
Young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18.
Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily.
Orphans preferred.

The tales of the Pony Express are legendary. It turns out that there are more legends than truth. Most of that is largely because of Buffalo Bill Cody. His traveling show of the wild west was a huge international attraction and spread the legend and grew the legend of the Pony Express. Christopher Corbett brings this all together in his book, Orphans Preferred.

Mrs. Doug is from St. Joseph, Missouri, the eastern starting point of the Pony Express route. The rider would mount in front of the Patee House, then charge downhill to a ferry that would take him across the Missouri River and head out to Salt Lake City and on to Sacramento, traveling almost 2,000 miles. In 1860, the Missouri River marked the beginning of the West and the end of American civilization. The railroads and telegraphs ended here.

I find the Pony Express is a great example of the evolution of communication, especially in the current explosion of web-based communications. There is plenty of hype and legend about the evolution of LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and others. The legend is bigger than reality in these money-losing ventures. Perhaps if the Pony Express founders had venture capital money and IPOs they would have turned out differently. Instead, the experiment lasted only 18 months and lost hundreds of thousands of 1860 dollars.

On October 24, 1861, the president of the Overland Telegraph Company sent a two sentence message across a wire from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., telling President Abraham Lincoln that the telegraph has been completed. Two days later, the Pony Express went out of business.

For that short period of time, the Pony Express brought California ten to twelve days closer to the rest of the civilized world.

Falling Sideways – Autumn in Copenhagen

Thomas E. Kennedy paints a satirical picture of the people affected by a downsizing at a Copenhagen company. Martin Kampman is the hard-edged CEO of the Tank, Frederick Breathwaite is the down-sized manager and Harald Jaeger was promoted but has deep troubles with his romantic life. Kennedy adds in some family members and few other characters. Each tells their part of the story.

I usually don’t enjoy books with multiple protagonists. It works if they have distinctive voices or if they are giving different viewpoints on the underlying story. I found Kennedy to be mildly successful in using each character. They really don’t begin taking form until the second half of the book.

The real star of the Falling Sideways is the city of Copenhagen. Kennedy has spent most of the last three decades living there. The story is thick with the experience of living in his adopted city.

The publisher was nice enough to send me an advance copy of the book to read and review. It came through GoodReads First Reads program.

Although I enjoyed the book, I found it lacking. It’s supposed to be a satire, but I didn’t find much satire. There is not much of a story. It’s about how the characters interact. I was hooked into continue reading to find out what happens to them when a vocational obstacle falls in front of them. I was hoping for a payoff.

My 2010 in Books

One of my goals for 2010 was to read a book a week. For the calendar-challenged, that meant 52 books for 2010. I was happy to hit my target in October and ended up with 61 books for the year.

Even with all of that reading, the list of books I want to read has not gotten any shorter. Actually, it’s gotten longer. The more I read, the more I want to read and the more attention I pay to new books being published.

The Kindle

I picked up a Kindle this year and managed to read seven books on it. I’m ambivalent about it. It fits nicely in your hand and makes it easy to read a book with one hand.

But the Kindle lacks the substance, feel and permanency of a paper book. I find it inferior. I expect to pay less for a Kindle book than I would for a hardcover book. I found instances where the Kindle edition cost more than the hardcover.

I originally bought the Kindle in anticipation of our canceled trip to Belgium. I definitely understand the advantage of a Kindle holding lots of books and how that could be better than traveling with a thick stack of books.

I do like the immediacy of the Kindle. I can find the book I want, buy it and start reading it minutes. That is a big timesaver.

GoodReads versus LibraryThing

My continuing quest for a way to track the books I read and the books I own continues. [See Catalog your Books Online.] I have been using LibraryThing for several years and it contains nearly all of the books in my library. I have also been using GoodReads concurrently to track my library.

I found that LibraryThing did a better job organizing my books and GoodReads had better tools to interact with fellow readers. I was ready to jettison GoodReads because very few people I knew were using it. Then I found that several people at work use GoodReads. So the social side of the site started adding some value.

I’m still adding the books I own and the books I read in both platforms.

My Books

From looking at the list, you would have a hard time seeing much in the way of themes in my reading.

I read the Percy Jackson book series to The Boy, so those five books ended up on the list. I also read the first three Harry Potter books to him. He seemed to lose interest in Book 4 so we are stalled in completing that series. I thought these books had enough substance, so I included them in the list. There were lots of other books we read together that I thought did not have enough substance to include on the list.

I also jumped into the Walking Dead graphic novels so those five books made it on the list. They contain fewer words and more images than your typical book but they have incredible depth, interesting themes and complex story lines. Plus, I like zombie literature.

Fifteen of the 61 were given to me by publishers in anticipation of a review. Those were a mixed bag. Some were really good and some were really bad.

The Books I Read in 2010

Title Author Date Finished Rating
Makers Cory Doctorow Jan 4, 2010 ***
Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust Chris Brogan Jan 7, 2010 ***
Wake Up Dead: A Thriller Roger Smith Jan 11, 2010 ****
The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1) Rick Riordan Jan 15, 2010 *****
Planets X and Pluto William Graves Hoyt Jan 17, 2010 **
Crossing The Gates Of Alaska Dave Metz Jan 23, 2010 **
Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities Frank Jacobs Jan 26, 2010 ***
The Sea of Monsters (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 2) Rick Riordan Jan 29, 2010 *****
Sonic Boom: Globalization at Mach Speed Gregg Easterbrook Jan 30, 2010 *****
Escape from the Deep: A Legendary Submarine and Her Courageous Crew Alex Kershaw Feb 3, 2010 ***
In Fed We Trust: Ben Bernanke’s War on the Great Panic David Wessel Feb 10, 2010 ****
The Titan’s Curse (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 3) Rick Riordan Feb 13, 2010 *****
Collect All 21! Memoirs of a Star Wars Geek – The First 30 Years John Booth Feb 15, 2010
The Battle of the Labyrinth (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 4) Rick Riordan Feb 28, 2010 *****
Shades of Grey: A Novel Jasper Fforde Mar 2, 2010 *****
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto Michael Pollan Mar 12, 2010 *****
The Last Olympian (Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Book 5) Rick Riordan Mar 12, 2010 *****
Face of Betrayal (A Triple Threat Novel) Lis Wiehl Mar 16, 2010 **
The Informant: A True Story Kurt Eichenwald Mar 30, 2010 ****
Eye of the Red Tsar: A Novel of Suspense Sam Eastland Apr 3, 2010 ****
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine Michael Lewis Apr 7, 2010 *****
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Book 1) J.K. Rowling Apr 12, 2010 *****
The Strangler William Landay Apr 22, 2010 ****
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland Lewis Carroll Apr 29, 2010 ****
Sleepless: A Novel Charlie Huston Apr 30, 2010 *****
Money for Nothing: How the Failure of Corporate Boards Is Ruining American Business and Costing Us Trillions John Gillespie May 13, 2010 ***

No Sleep till Wonderland: A Novel Paul Tremblay May 16, 2010 ***
The Girl who Played with Fire Stieg Larsson May 21, 2010 ****
The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right Atul Gawande May 27, 2010 *****
Mixed Blood: A Thriller Roger Smith May 29, 2010 ****
Warning the Witness: A Guide to Internal Investiations and the Attorney-Client Privilege David Z. Seide Jun 3, 2010 ****
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest Stieg Larsson Jun 10, 2010 **
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Book 2) J.K. Rowling Jun 12, 2010 *****
Seaworthy: A Swordboat Captain Returns to the Sea Linda Greenlaw Jun 17, 2010 ***
Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom: How Online Social Networking Will Transform Your Life, Work and World Matthew Fraser Jun 25, 2010 *
WAR Sebastian Junger Jul 2, 2010 *****
Boston Noir Dennis Lehane Jul 7, 2010 ***
World Without End Ken Follett Jul 19, 2010 *****
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Book 3) J.K. Rowling Jul 29, 2010 *****
Accidents in North American Mountaineering 2010 Jed Williamson Aug 4, 2010 *****
The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World Niall Ferguson Aug 16, 2010 ****
The Walking Dead, Book 1 (Bk. 1) Robert Kirkman Aug 27, 2010 *****
Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn Larry D. Rosen Ph.D. Aug 30, 2010 ***
The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean Susan Casey Sep 5, 2010 ****
The Walking Dead, Book 2 Robert Kirkman Sep 5, 2010 *****
The Walking Dead, Book 3 Robert Kirkman Sep 6, 2010 *****
The Walking Dead, Book 4 Robert Kirkman Sep 7, 2010 *****
The Walking Dead Book 5 Robert Kirkman Sep 9, 2010 *****
Gilded: How Newport Became America’s Richest Resort Deborah Davis Sep 18, 2010 **
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Jane Austen Sep 29, 2010 **
Miles Away… Worlds Apart Alan Sakowitz Oct 9, 2010 ****
The Little League That Could: A History of the American Football League Ken Rappoport Oct 19, 2010 ****
The Hunger Games: Book 1 Suzanne Collins Oct 29, 2010 ***
Impact Douglas Preston Oct 31, 2010 ****
Ten Hours Until Dawn: The True Story of Heroism and Tragedy Aboard the Can Do Michael Tougias Nov 13, 2010 ***
The US Private Equity Fund Compliance Guide Charles Lerner Nov 23, 2010 ****
Memories of the Future, Vol. 1 Wil Wheaton Nov 30, 2010 ****
America Bowl: 44 Presidents vs. 44 Super Bowls in the ultimate matchup! Don Steinberg Dec 7, 2010 ****
Cleopatra: A Life Stacy Schiff Dec 10, 2010 *****
The Familiars Adam Jay Epstein Dec 28, 2010 ***
The Good Son: A Novel Michael Gruber Dec 30, 2010 ****

44 Presidents versus 44 Super Bowls

In 2010, an historic collision of timelines happened in Southern Florida. Super Bowl XLIV was taking place in Joe Robbie Stadium Pro Player Park Pro Player Stadium Dolphin Stadium Land Shark Stadium Sun Life Stadium while the 44th president was sitting in the White House watching the game. The line of presidents started in 1789 with George Washington. The line of Super Bowls started in 1967 with a battle between the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs.

Don Steinberg saw this collision coming and decided to have these two American institutions battle each in America Bowl. He mashed together the relative quality of each president with the relative quality of each Super Bowl. The result is odd mix of American history, sports history, presidential trivia and football trivia, as odd as the original inspiration.

As a kid, Steinberg had little plastic statues of the presidents. Since he was a boy, he of course pitted them in battles against one another, turning them into fighting action figures. He was destined to be a political science major in college. From there he found his true passion as a sports writer.

Steinberg finally found a way to combine his passions. “It’s the most fun you can have learning about America’s presidents and Super Bowls without having to read two separate books.”

I won’t give away the ending, but you can guess the one-sided start. It took a few years for the Super Bowl contests to become great games. Super Bowl III was a tremendous battle just before the merger of AFL and the NFL, pitting the Colts against the brash Jets. Unfortunately for the that football contest, it is lined up against Thomas Jefferson. The top of the presidential order is unstoppable: Washington, Adams and Jefferson.

I think the book is targeted to younger readers, filled with snazzy quips and graphics. Each contest is squeezed concisely into two pages. I was hoping to have more details on the games and the presidents.  (But I’m not a young reader.) I had fun with it.

Memories of the Future

If you’re a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation or Wil Wheaton, then you will enjoy reading Memories of the Future. Wheaton provides his take on the first half of the first season of the television series. Wheaton played Wesley Crusher on the show, so he brings the viewpoint of a fan of the show and an actor on the show.

When Star Trek: The Next Generation first launched, geeks like me were abuzz at the new series. Especially since Gene Rodenberry, who had created the original series, was heavily involved. This was re-booting a franchise before Hollywood called it re-booting.

It’s a bit hard to be a fan of the series and be a fan of Wneaton’s role. Wesley Crusher was the Jar-Jar Binks of Star Trek. (From Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory)

Why was Wesley Crusher on board? I suspect the producers wanted a teen on board so that teenage fans would have someone to relate to. I would guess they also wanted a pretty face to attract teenage girls to the show.

Wheaton is the hardest on himself. The book is not a tell-all. It’s written with true affection for his fellow actors. Clearly, he is a fan of the show. However, Wheaton is hard on the writers, directors and producers of the show.

Each chapter in Memories of the Future is dedicated to an episode. Wheaton gives a snarky and hilarious synopsis of the show, full of anecdotes and geeky references. He doles out some technobabble, some behind the scenes memories and a bottom line evaluation of the episode.

The show ended up being great, but these first episodes were really rough. Picard, Riker and Worf ended up being great characters in the Star Trek franchise. Wesley Crusher? Not so much.

The True Story of Heroism and Tragedy Aboard the Can Do

I was school-age when the Blizzard of ’78 unleashed its fury on New England. It was an historically powerful storm, bringing hurricane force winds and three feet of snow. The blizzard raged for a day and half when it stalled off the coast.

For most kids this was a wonderful time. Our street was unplowed for a week until a front end loader finally managed to clear the snow. School was closed for weeks. Huge drifts of snow made for great sledding.

But for many, the Blizzard brought destruction and death. Michael Tougias tells one of those stories in Ten Hours Until Dawn.

The most devastation from the Blizzard fell on the coast. The high winds and length of the storm lead to huge waves and violent seas. The tanker Global Hope was trying to ride out the storm under anchor in Salem Sound. The ship’s anchor started dragging, the ship began floundering on the shoals and the captain sent out a mayday.

The ninety-five foot Coast Guard cutter Cape George from Boston and the 210 foot Decisive from Provincetown fired up their engines and made way to the incident. Closer by, the Coast Guard sent a forty-one foot utility boat and a forty-four foot motor lifeboat from Gloucester Harbor. They set out into violent waters churned by the blizzard. The two smaller boats took a beating as soon as they passed the breakwater in Gloucester Harbor.

Also hearing the call was Frank Quirk. He sat back waiting for the Coast Guard to do their job. Using his forty-nine foot Can Do, Quirk delivered pilots to incoming cargo ships. He was also a diver and had participated in rescue attempts. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the coastal waters.

When the smaller boats got in trouble, Quirk fired up the engines and gathered a few friends. They headed out into the beast of storm slamming against the New England coast.

The obvious comparison for this book is Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm. Both books involved boats that left Gloucester Harbor and got caught in the teeth of a vicious storm. Junger crafted a story around the issues confronting swordfisherman, but had little information about what actually happened. The Andrea Gail and her crew were never heard from again.

Ten Hours Until Dawn recreates the Can Do‘s battle with storm. Tougias had copies of radio transmissions to help him structure the story. He was also able to interview the participants and spectators to the events that took place in Salem Sound during the Blizzard of ’78. It’s a compelling story.

Book Review: Impact

You can tell by looking the cover of Impact that a meteoroid strikes off the coast of Maine. Except it’s not a meteoroid and there is a corresponding crater on the other side of the planet in the mountains of Cambodia. Something strange has just happened and the world is in peril.

The heroine is a college drop-out who studied astronomy living back home with her lobsterman father. The hero is a super-spy contracted to investigate the crater in Cambodia. They eventually come together and try to save the world.

It was an intriguing page turner, even though I found elements a bit frustrating.

But I had an even more frustrating experience when I bought the book.

<Rant>

One of the most controversial things about the Kindle is pricing. If you’re traveling and want to bring a few books to read, then the Kindle is fantastic (except having to shut it off when the plane is landing and taking off). Otherwise, it’s an inferior product.

I agree with this quote about books from Free by Chris Anderson (Editor of Wired magazine and GeekDad Editor Emeritus):

“For all their cost disadvantages, dead trees smeared into sheets still have excellent battery life, screen resolution, and portability, to say nothing about looking lovely on shelves.”

I was confronted with conundrum of paying $12.99 for the inferior Kindle edition of Impact or $10.14 for a new hardcover from Amazon. Sure, you need to add in shipping costs to the price. (Or I could wait for a bigger order and save the shipping costs.)

At a minimum, you need to get a cost savings on the Kindle edition to amortize the cost of the Kindle device.

</Rant>

I became interested in the book after reading Alan Cheuse’e review of Sci-Fi Novels to Keep You Awake at Night. I had already read the other book in the review, Sleepless, and really enjoyed that.

I found the characters to be a bit too dimensional. I expected that and can accept that in a thriller. The main story is really unique, but offset by some plot elements that are cliched and expected.

Even with its flaws, I stayed up late a few nights in a row because I was enjoying the story and wanted to see where it went.

Stories About the AFL in The Little League That Could

My house is a football house, but mostly an AFC football house. I’m a long time Patriots fan and Mrs. Doug bleeds KC Chiefs red. With a little knowledge of football history you would know that the AFC is comprised mostly of the teams from the upstart American Football League that played its games in the 1960s.

Ken Rappoport weaves stories told by the players, owners, and coaches from the days of the American Football League in The Little League That Could: A History of the American Football League

It all began when Lamar Hunt watched the 1958 NFL title game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts. He believed that football was the best sport for television and that it would become big because of television.

He wanted in.

He tried convincing the NFL to grant him an expansion franchise. He tried buying the Cardinals (then located in Chicago). Neither route to NFL ownership worked.

Unable to get in, he decided to start his own league. He first teamed up with Bud Adams who he had met while Adams was also trying, unsuccessfully, to buy the Cardinals. The other big money owner was Barron Hilton, scion of the hotel family (and eventually grandfather to Paris). Those three brought along five other franchises, including the underfunded Billy Sullivan and my beloved Boston Patriots.

I was expecting the book to be an encyclopedia retelling of the history of the AFL. It’s not. It’s told by the participants in the league. I had the feeling that I was sitting in a bar with these great personalities telling me their stories of glory from the American Football League. Rappoport does a great job capturing those stories and weaving them together into a coherent narrative.

The AFL survived the battle with the NFL because it was putting good football on the field and on television. They were successfully recruiting players away and driving up the cost of player contracts. The NFL underestimated the AFL and let quality players go to the little league, assuming it would collapse and the players would come back to the NFL. After initially underestimating the AFL, the NFL owners gave up the battle and agreed to merge the leagues.

The book is a great combination of the business side of the game and the playing side of the game. There are some great stories in the book. If you’re a football fan or a sports history buff you will enjoy reading this book.

The publisher was kind enough to send me a copy of the book to review. If you buy the book by clicking through this review, my local PTO gets a kickback from Amazon.

Splashing Around With The Wave

Mix together the scientific exploration of wave theory, climate change, maritime disaster, and surfing. Layer it solid story-telling and great prose. Add a dash of big wave surfer Laird Hamilton. On second thought, add a big cupful of Mr. Hamilton. The result is Susan Casey’s The Wave: In the Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean.

For centuries, mariners have told tales of gargantuan waves. Until recently scientists dis­missed these stories as exaggerations. Waves that high would seem to violate the laws of physics. In February 2000, the British research vessel, Discovery was trapped in maelstrom and battered by mammoth waves in the North Sea. They managed to survive and came back with scientific proof that 100+ foot waves are out there.

Unfortunately, most sailors who encounter these beasts are in no position to measure them accurately and their boats are unlikely to survive them.

As scientists try to understand them, big wave surfers are trying to ride the ones that make it to shore. The focus of the book is the tribe of surfers looking for big perfect waves. As the waves get that big, its not just about riding the waves, but surviving their incredible power. Laird Hamilton is the star of this crew and the surfing stories revolve around him.

The world’s oceans absorb the vast majority of the heat added to the climate system. After all, oceans cover most of the Earth’s surface. More heat, means more energy and bigger waves. The hundred-year wave height in the Pacific Northwest measured 33 feet in 1996. Now, it’s 46 feet; maybe even higher.

Ms. Casey paints an interesting juxtaposition between the mariners looking to weather reports to avoid big waves and the surfers looking to find the waves. Scientists try to understand the intricate complexities of wave systems and the surfers who can feel them. In the end, playing in the waves sounds a lot more fun than leaning over a laptop trying to understand them.

The publisher was nice enough to send me a preview a copy. If you have an interest in oceans, waves, or surfing, The Wave would be a great book for you to read.

The Wave comes ashore and goes on sale September 14.

Book review:The Ascent of Money

Niall Ferguson had the unfortunate luck of writing The Ascent of Money just before the unveiling of the 2008’s Great Panic. At the time he finished writing the book in May 2008, only $318 billion of write-downs had been acknowledged.

I was interested in the book because of its focus on the development of our financial institutions. If we want to understand the present and hope to have some insight to the future, then we need to understand the past.

Ferguson does a great job of shedding light on the origins of finance. If you have an interest in finance, then you need to understand the history of finance. The Ascent of Money is worth the time spent reading it.

Read more of my take on this book over at Compliance Building: The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World