Tuesday, February 26, 2013

I Beat the Odds

This book strikes the right balance of cockiness and humility. Michael Oher is a little upset with the way he was treated in the Blind Side movie. This is his attempt to "set the record straight" with his account of his upbringing. He starts from his earliest memories growing up in the projects and continues through the period covered by The Blind Side and goes on to his being drafted in the NFL. (Perhaps he will update it to include winning the super bowl.)

The period corresponding to that covered in the Blind Side seems to agree with the other book on the major points. I had only read the book, and did not seem to see any major discrepancies in the story told in both. However, his beef seems to be primarily with the movie. While it got most of the "big facts" right, it did portray him as being "stupider" than he really was.

In this book, Oher presents the thesis that he was lucky to beat the odds and rise out of the projects and foster care system to achieve something with his life. When you live in squalor, that is what you are used to. It is difficult to be motivated to achieve anything else. Oher had a mix of motivation and a few highly motivated people that helped him to rise out of the conditions. However, there are many more people that are still "stuck" there. He would like them to have some of the basic help that he had. While the movie displays some of the "final" help in being adopted by a rich family, there were many other people on the way that helped him. These include some motivated teachers, foster parents and coaches that were willing to help him to achieve his goals. In this book, Oher is open to praise these helpers by names. He also mentions the many others that were a negative influence. Other than his mother, these were all mentioned anonymously and not dwelled on.

The book is a quick read and presents a message of the "other side" from somebody that has truly lived there. From his perspective, what is most needed is caring people willing to set examples and guide. Programs and other plans to reduce poverty coming from those that have not lived there may appear nice, but true caring is more valuable.

Extra Virginity

After reading Extra Virginity, I had the urge to try some good, high-quality olive oil. But, I also got the feeling that a lot of what I have been eating is fake. Apparently, Italy is a hub of "fake" olive oil production, where a bunch of oil of different grades from all over Europe gets brought together and packed as "Italian Extra Virgin". (The Mafia must sense a market.) Los Angeles is also a hub of US fake olive oil production and packaging. While Europe and the US have standards, they are only loosely enforced.

Davis, California, however, has a lot of research and legitimate oil production. I guess that would be the place to go. On his website, truth in olive oil, he does list some good oils.

One interesting tidbit from the book is that people have been trained by marketeers to desire "poor" olive oil. High quality olive oil should have strong tastes, while old, "stale" oil lacks some of the strong flavors. Alas, marketeers have helped train us to prefer "smooth" tastes that represent poor olive oil.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

West and East: The War that Came Early

Ostensibly, this is an "alternative" history that contains a fictional account of World War II where the war starts earlier. However, you can hardly tell. The book focuses on the events of individual people. About the only clue you get that it is an alternate history is the mention that Paris wasn't captured by the Nazis. Ok, I'm pretty sure that they captured that early in the war.

As for the other events, it is mostly minor events that are mentioned. Denmark gets captured by the Nazis. Sweden remained nuetral. Hmmm... Well, I think something like that happened. But off hand, I'm not sure of the actual timing.

The story focuses on the people. And the characters here are not really worth focussing on. They all seem to be stereotypical caricatures of world war ii-era people as seen through modern eyes.

Rather than being an "alternative" history, this simply comes across as a "bad" history. It is as if a teacher gave students a brief outline of world war ii and told them to right a history. They might get a few facts right and a few wrong. And the characters would be shallow means of advancing the plot. After reading this, I think I've had enough of Turtledove.

Old Reviews

I've just updated the blog with a bunch of old book reviews that I had originally posted on Amazon. I wanted to keep the reviews all in one place so I could easily look up when I read certain books and see if I had read anything previously by a given author.  I'll probably add a few more book lists in the near future (though I can't seem to find the reviews for these.)

Monday, February 18, 2013

False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World

[November 2009] The book opens with late 2001. What if Argentina and United States had traded places? Over the course of less than a century, why did the trajectories of two countries differ so much? This immediately piqued my interest. The continued narrative was compelling, but not quite as riveting as I hoped. The remainder of the chapters fell in to a similar pattern. They started out with a punch, but then seemed to drop it to meander around some ho-hum economic history. The contents are all fairly well written and interesting, but not as good as would be expected from the initial 'hits'.

The Sugar Fix

[November 2009] If we all stopped eating fruit, the obesity problem would go away and we'd all be healthier. At least according to this author. He pins fructose (aka fruit sugar) as public enemy number one. He cites many studies to prove the evil of fructose. Some appear quite convincing. However, the few studies that I was familiar with actually came up with different conclusions than this book's author.
That being said, we probably do consume excessive amounts of 'high-fructose corn syrup' and other sweeteners, and some of the advice is probably worthwhile. However, don't throw the apples out with thhe twinkies.

The Much Too Promised Land

[November 2009] The author has been very involved in the Arab-Israeli peace process through the administration of various US presidents. He is able to tell a fairly non-partisan tale of the good and the bad of presidents from Nixon to Bush Jr. This detailed personal knowledge of the peace process players is also the book's downfall. There is too much information about the people, personal relationships and negotiating conditions. At times it drifts in to minutia of the author's experience that would be more appropriate in a personal memoir than in the general history it purports to be.

Chocolate War

[November 2009] Frank Muller did a great job performing this audiobook. Unfortunately, the story is filled with stereotyped caricatures. Most of the characters appear nothing more than one-dimensional, with the attempts to 'broaden' them oten falling flat. The end also seems somewhat forced on the story.

Go Green, Live Rich: 50 Simple Ways to Save the Earth and Get Rich Trying [

[November 2009] This book is nothing more than a string of factoids about "simple things" that can be done to save money and save the environment. Many are simplistic (don't buy fast food every day), while some tend to be inaccurate ('bulk bins' at grocery store have a tendency to be more expensive and still are 'packaged'.)
At times, the author seems like s shill for various companies and organizations. (Many of these seem to be worthwhile. However, there also seem to be many that are left out.
It is also baffling that they made this in to an audiobook. The 50 "simple ways" each have a bit of narrative, a number of factoids, and then a list of a bunch of web sites. Not the most compelling listening experience.

Alphabet Juice

[October 2009] The audiobook is performed quite well. However, the content is merely ho-hum. The author goes through the alphabet, meandering on word meanings, sounds and other random tidbits. A few bits are interesting. Some may be interesting to a certain audience. Others, are just plain boring. As a printed book, this would probably go over better as something sitting in the bathroom. Every section small word discussion stands on its own. However, even in print, the content is rather pedestrian, being neither very scholarly, nor very accessible to anyone but grammar nerds.

Mao: The Unknown Story

[October 2009] From the outset, it is clear that the authors' are not fond of Mao. He is cast in an extremely negative light as somebody who does just what is in his own best interest, with no respect for others, or even his own legacy. Many of his "accomplishments" are passed off as the works of others. (For example, the victory in the Chinese civil war is predominantly seen as a result of bad moves by the nationalists, often due to external factors.)
This overly negative view, however, does serve to paint a picture of Mao as a person, rather than the deity that arises in Maoist propaganda. Unlike fascists of his era, Mao was able to die in is sleep. Also, unlike other major communist countries, China's communist government still remains in place today. Thus, the balanced view of Mao still remains a great challenge. This book may swing the pendulum a little too far to the negative, but remains an important step in understanding an important historical figure.
In spite of the book's length, I did find it lacking in Mao's early history. He seemed to suddenly arrive in a key leadership position in the early communist party, seemingly without any strong qualifications. From the book, it is unclear why people would have such song support for a seemingly unqualified schemer.

The Arctic: A History

[October 2009] This book is a collection of names and dates with a few brief stories in between. Its not quite an 'encyclopedia' of the Arctic, but it gets close. At times it does start to wander in to compelling narratives, but then drops them and begins an unrelated topic. I also found myself consulting other reference works to get more details of some points in the book. In the end, I just started skipping whole chapters and looking for parts that seemed interesting.

War of the Worlds

[October 2009] The narration of this audiobook is properly paced and packed with enough emotion to keep it interesting, while not overbearing. The story is the classic H.G. Wells story of the martian attack. The understated power of the story dwarfs much of the over-the-top Science Fiction fare of today. The environmental message is also significant.

The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War

[October 2009] The book starts and ends with the duel between Senator Broderick and California Supreme Court Justice Terry. In between it tells stories from California history from before the gold rush to the civil war. The initial portion of the book focuses on the fairly well known history of early settler's, Sutter, and the stampede for gold. The most intriguing part here was the story of transportation to California and Vanderbilt's vindictiveness against those that wronged him.

The bulk of the book covers the movers and shakers in California at the time. These are the stories of men that left there home states in pursuit of greater political power in California. These stories are tied to the quest of politicians in Washington to balance the free and slave state needs. The story of the southern "Chivs" in California is especially interesting.

The many different threads all seem to tie in to the story of California. However, the story ends before the civil war, with the war only mentioned briefly in the epilogue. With the emphasis of the title I would expect a little more coverage at least up to the start of the war.

10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America

[October 2009] Instead of detailing the dates that we all learn in history class, this book describes some less well known days that were important turning points in the history of America. It is a companion to a History Channel documentary (that was produced by different historians.) The author was fairly balanced in his views, coloring the events as we see them today, but still keeping them in the context of the time they took place. Each event is well written and self-contained.

When Markets Collide: Investment Strategies for the Age of Global Economic Change

[October 2009] This book reads like three articles and a lot of filler: an article from an economics journal, another from a popular investment magazine and finally a foreign policy review article. Unfortunately, these three articles only fill about 1/10th the space, so a lot of repetition and filler is added to bring it to the full length. It does have a number of good points, but, in spite of the excessive verbiage, they seem to be poorly elaborated. The author seems to repeat, rather than elucidate.

It is also difficult to determine the audience the author is addressing - especially since he commonly refers to 'investors'. At times 'investors' seems to reference retail investors who buy index funds. At other times 'investors' are investment bankers managing large funds. Sometimes, I found myself midway through a section before realizing it was a different "investor" he was talking to. And just to confuse matters even more, we spends a good portion of the book addressing desired changes to national and international policy.

In spite of the very poor writing, there are some interesting ideas, especially as they relate to the changing economic landscape with the 'emergence' of emerging economies. Perhaps the author will choose to reduce the book to a few well-written articles.

Gangs of Chicago

[August 2003]I picked this book up initially in the Chicago history bookshelf. It was setting next to one titled "Gem of the Prairie" that seemed to cover similar content. I got this one, in part due to the recent "Gangs of New York" movie. I figured the movie was a hit, so they decided to produce a new sequel focussed on Chicago.

Well, I was part right.

Gangs of Chicago is a sequel to Gangs of New York. However, it was published over a half-century ago and originally titled "Gem of the Prairite" Regardless of the marketing, it is a great read. The detailed descriptions of street locations make it especially appealing. I enjoyed cruising around some of the areas described. Some entire street plans have been removed, while others have since been replace by housing projects or posh townhomes (there is no in between.) The book is very quick moving and entertaining.

Einstein: His Life And Universe

[October 2009] This book portrays Einstein as a human, with many foibles, without being condoning or condescending. Many of Einstein's great insights in theoretical physics are presented in an easy to understand manner - often using his own "thought experiments". He comes across as a brilliant physicist who had just the right personality to fit the role. He was just enough of a non-conformist 'ham' to grab the public's attention, while being normal enough to keep the attention. He comes across as a man totally dedicated to his ideas, regardless of whether they were popular.

The book provides balanced coverage of his entire life. The great discoveries while working in the patent office as well as his later pacifist and zionist leanings are all well covered. Some Einstein 'myths' are covered and convincingly debunked. Alas, the completeness also brings about one of the books faults. With personal and professional threads moving at different paces, the narrative often seems to jump around, with a seemingly dropped plot line picked up again a few chapters later.

Panama Fever: The Epic Story of One of the Greatest Human Achievements of All Time-- the Building of the Panama Canal

[September 2009] This book goes in to great detail on the 'prehistory' of the canal. The competing European and American plans and interests are well covered, as is the French canal building experience. The initial American experience (and the reptition of many French mistakes) is also well covered. Then in a few words, 5-10 years pass by and the canal is open and operating. It feels that the author ran out of time and sent the book out with only the executive summary of the last 10 chapters. Thus we know, in fairly strong detail what the French did that didn't work, but we know very little about the actual engineering behind the currently existing canal.

The part of the story that is complete also suffers from a disjointed narrative. At times the author inserts long excerpts from the journals of workers on the canal, but fails to convincingly connect them to the surrounding story. Various 'subplots', such as the plight of the West Indian workers, the Panamanian revolution and the medical efforts to eradicate mosquito-born diseases are interesting stories of there own. However, they seem to be artificially patched in to this work, rather than part of a complete narrative.

I also found the production of the audiobook to be less than stellar. The narrator occasionally tried to talk with 'accents' appropriate to the characters, though many of these felt half-hearted and annoying. (Thank goodness there were no attempts at French accents!)

Planet Google

[September 2009] If you want to know the origins of many of the Google features popular today, this is the book to read. If you are looking for a behind the scenes look at the people and personalities behind the company, this book is probably not for you. The author is clearly an outsider who knows a lot of the details of the company, but not much more than anybody who had dedicated time to studying it. There is very little intimacy with the Google founders or key players. However, the details of the different 'business ventures' of Google provide an effective 'behind the scenes' view of what Google was thinking when rolling out features like mail, and why it had to buy Youtube after being beat out in video.

Food Allergies: The Complete Guide to Understanding and Relieving Your Food Allergies

[July 2003] This book would make a great magazine article. Though it does contain some interesting information, the book seems to be written for somebody with the IQ of a donut. He starts by detailing all his education, and then continues to talk down to the reader. He also repeats himself without adding any detail. (Yes, we learn that he really likes corn on the cob!) The contents of the book could easily be boiled down to 10 pages without missing anything important. Also, don't expect to find much of anything concerning 'classic' food allergies here.
As a saving grace, there are a few nice charts and tables at the end to help pinpoint MSG content in fast foods and elsewhere.

The Fruit Hunters

[September 2009] My mouth watered for some of the delicious fruits the author described in this book. However, my mind quickly become bored with the disjointed narrative. This is not so much a book, but a collection of essays edited together to appear like a book. The author clearly had to go to great lengths to probe some of the 'rare' fruits of the world. In doing so, he uncovers many of the reasons we are deprived of tasting these (government, industrialization, commercialization, etc.)
At times I was wrapped up in an enthralling narrative. Then suddenly the book shifts gears to something totally different, with no connection to the previous text. Thus, I found myself reading a big chunk of the book at a time, then letting it gather dust for a while.

Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships by

[August 2009] The author posits that social intelligence is an important trait in our lives and often takes place in a level outside our general consciousness. He also attempts to distinguishing between "social intelligence" and "manipulative social control". While aspects of social intelligence can be used to manipulate, true social intelligence goes beyond that.

After describing the concept of "social intelligence" in the first part of the book, he goes on to detail many of the examples of where "social intelligence" can be used to achieve true games in individual relationships and society at large. Many of these arguments come across as "socialist" (which should not be surprising, given that they are based on "social" intelligence.)

He provides some scholarly base throughout the book, yet never comes across as being overly academic, making the book easily readable.

The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings, Book 1)

[August 2009] I must confess that I have never been a Tolkein fan. I have tolerated C.S. Lewis, but the Tolkein works never had much appeal (in spite of hearing many friends rave about The Hobbit.) Now that the Lord of the Rings series has became a mega movie blockbuster, I decided I should try to tackle the book. Alas, the book (and the movie) still do not have much appeal.

I found the book to be rather tedious. Some sections seemed to detail numerous characters that I could not keep them straight. I also became rather annoyed with the different 'accents' and 'songs' the narrator used in the recording. Perhaps for somebody that is already familiar with the story, this would be a nice way to go over it again. However, if you don't know it well, prepare to get lost.

Apparently, Tolkein may have once written in the preface to Lord of the Rings that "Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer." Now I just need to hunt down more of the works that Tolkein disliked.

The Wordy Shipmates

[August 2009]
I found the production of this audiobook very well done. The author read her text, with other 'actors' acting out individual quoted characters. It sounds more like a radio-play than a dry audiobook.

The story itself centered around John Winthrop, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, with other characters thrown in to fill int he story. At its core it is a history of early New England, primarily from the vintage point of those three characters. However the author intersperses her wit to make humorous observations about their society and our warped media-influenced understanding of them. At first I found this to be an extremely interesting, funny approach to early American history. However, I eventually found myself tiring of the approach.

A People's History of the United States

[August 2009] This provides a few anecdotes of "revolutionary" history of America. In the introduction, the author proclaims he is providing a history of the individual people, instead of the common focus of the important names and dates. However, the actual focus is on people involved in left wing causes (with the focus often an key players in these rolls.) While this does provide a good background of socialist causes, it is primarily a history of liberal students and the poor that associate with their causes. (He even attempts to show a more 'broad' support for an issue by saying that in addition to the college towns, San Francisco passed a similar anti-war resolution.) The goal is obviously an attempt to paint social revolutions as being more broadly representative of the people. However, this leaves out many other things that could be interesting. The first person approach used for much of the narrative also makes it feel more like propaganda than history.

The reading of the audiobook also has something to be desired. Matt Damon's delivery is fairly well done, but very slow. Howard Zinn's comments manage to be even slower. Make sure you can play it at faster than normal speed!

The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008

[August 2009] This well-written book provides a history of recent economic crises and delves in to the underlying reasons for economic problems. It is very well illustrated with examples from Latin America, Asia, as well as a "babysitting co-op". The discussion is fairly non-technical and makes the basic economic theory easily understandable by non economists. One argument that he brings out is that of the "self-fulfilling prophecy" When many people think something will happen in the economy, it is likely to happen - even if most fundamentals indicate otherwise. The example of the Asian economic crisis (and especially Japan) served as the basis for the original version of the book. In this update, they are used to help foreshadow and illustrate the current economic problems. The "new" discussion is well integrated, allowing the book to read like something that was written specifically to discuss current economic conditions.

Don't Know Much About Geography: Everything You Need to Know About the World but Never Learned

[August 2009] The basis of this book is an outline of general geographic terms. Each discussion is usually introduced with a some playful question that is then properly explained. After providing a brief answer, the author then tends to go off in some direction, adding facts and opinion related to that subject. Sometimes this discussion is merely an encyclopaedia-like enumeration of geographic features. At other times, he goes rambling off in tangentially related discussion (such as a long war discussion.) Nearly all discussions are filled with wit and opinion. Some of these discussion were quite enjoyable, while others are a mere waste of paper. The book is more than a decade old, so some discussion (especially is diversions into current events and politics) seem quite dated.

While there is a very lose narrative, each section is fairly independent, making it easy to read any given section. However, some of these independent sections seem to be a little too rambling to be used as a 'bathroom' book.

The book is certainly more enjoyable than a geography textbook, however it will take a lot longer to get through than a simple encyclopaedia article.

Trick or Treatment

[August 2009] Is alternative medicine bad? Well, the authors of this book certainly think so. And they have a strong belief that scientific reasoning will prove it is bad. Unfortunately, while they spend a lot of time explaining "science", they spend very little time using it to back up their arguments.

The book focuses on four alternative medicines: Homeopathy, Acupuncture, Chiropractors and herbal remedies. Homeopathy is viewed as purely bogus, while the others are seen as having some very limited value. Significant space is devoted to the history of each of these alternatives (as well as a history of modern scientific medicine.) These histories are easily the best part of the book. Their biggest fault is the writing style, which comes across as juvenile and condescending.

The analysis of alternative medicine is where the book really falls apart. A typical analysis will provide some anecdotes that appeared to show it worked. Those will be brushed off as "anecdotes", and then some studies showing success. Those will then be brushed of as "invalid" and a "metastudy" will then show that the "alternative" is of very little value. Finally anecdotes will be used to show that harm can occur when using the alternative remedy. Very little data is given to back up the statements given (not even a footnote with a paper citation!) Do the metastudies include studies by alternative medicine practitioners? Or are these studies filtered out in favor of studies by conventional doctors? How would a more conventional treatment stand up to similar scrutiny? (Is a study with a doctor performing "fake" acupuncture any more reliable than one with an acupuncturist performing "fake" surgery?) The over-reliance on anecdotes is also problematic, as it could just as easily be switched to provide negative anecdotes for conventional medicine, with positive ones for the alternatives.

It is obvious that the authors have a distaste for much of alternative medicine and have produced this book in an attempt to persuade a large audience of their belief. Unfortunately, by using the "snake oil" arguments that they claim to be fighting, they provide very little of value to the debate.

After reading it, I came away with much less respect for traditional "evidence-based" medicine. Is it really all that good if they have to do so much to twist the data to fit their model?

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Metaphysical Club

[August 2009] This book bounces from biography to biography before tying them all together as members of a "Metaphysical Club". It then spends a while explaining their philosophy, and then brings in a some additional related biographies. The pace is extremely fast, and I often found difficulty keeping track of all the characters and why they were important. The "metaphysical club" is used to tie everything together. However, the actual club is only discussed briefly. The book left me wanting more, and is perhaps is best as a quick introduction to 19th and early 20th century American philosophers (like the James')

The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East

[August 2009] The book continually berates the "politically correct" establishment that produces falsehoods on the middle east. But it turns out the "PC establishment" is nothing more than Michael Moore. It also attacks the middle eastern policy of nearly every US president other than Gerald Ford. (Carter and Bush the younger are given the most scathing treatment, apparently showing that the anti-PC venom is no respecter of parties.)

Once you get past the tone of attacks and victimhood, the book actually has a well defended argument in favor of a "forceful" middle east policy. From the American policy perspective, having a friendly despot (as in Saudi Arabia) is much preferable to having democracy. The author argues that the Muslim Middle East is governable only by force. The Saudi Arabian response to al qaeda is given as the ideal way to squash terrorists with force. For the US, it would be great to see the rest of the middle east ruled like Saudi Arabia.

He briefly discuss the importance of oil to the current situation in the middle east. Unfortunately, his argument here begins to unravel. The need for fertilizer is given as one of the main reasons that we will always need Arabian oil. (Thus, it follows from his argument that organic agriculture would be a great way to wipe out Islamic terrorism.) Saudi Arabia's restriction of rights and quick disposal of al qaeda is presented as a preferable response - however, the consequences of responding like this in western countries could be even worse than the threat of terrorism they attempt to fight. In the end, the policy of subjugating the people under an oppressive state in order to maximize oil extraction is about as sustainable is a large SUV.
An alternative viewpoint can be found in Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude.

What's So Great About America

[August 2009] This book was written after the September 11th attacks, but before the Iraq invasion. As such, I wasn't expecting much more than rah rah patriotism. I was presently surprised to find a good argument in favor of western civilization. He turns many of the objections to western (and American) culture into positives, pointing out that only a sufficiently open and advanced society would allow (and condone) such behavior. He similarly argues that the many different cultures add to the fabric of the country, but that most immigrants move because they prefer the western/American culture (not because they want to totally preserve their old culture.) The western position on slavery is also seen as a positive, as western society willingly gave up the institution (in spite of being encourage by Africans to maintain it.)

The author, though obviously quite conservative in outlook acknowledges that others don't share the views, and further argues that there ability to have differing views is a benefit to the culture.

Unfortunately, in his discussion of Islamic society and the "enemies" of America his knowledge and arguments come across as far less convincing. And I imagine, they would have even more problems if he had to defend the past few years debacle in Iraq.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

[August 2009] In 1491, the author provides a succinct summary of many of the different theories of the "Indian" history in pre-Columbian America. He often presents a scenario, followed with "or maybe it never happened", and then follows it up with another scenario. Within the book, he presents brief histories of many of the early inhabitants of the American continents, complete with their culture, origins and fall. The most recent scholarship is presented along with old "knowledge" about the groups. The narrative is well written and surprisingly cohesive, considering the broad topic. (Despite the title, it is not about '1491', but instead about the entire history of the non-European inhabitants of the Americas. The focus is primarily on pre-columbian times, but it also provides fairly detailed coverage of the 'interaction' with the early European inhabitants.)

One of the key points that is made is that the various "Indians" had many different advanced civilizations, and were it not for their susceptibility to European diseases they may still be the dominant inhabitants of the American continents. The historical "savage" view of Indians or the politically correct "noble environmentalist" views are all somewhat misleading. The early American inhabitants likely had plenty of good qualities as well as bad qualities, and were made up of very different groups with differing degrees of urbanization and "civilization". They also did much to change their environment to suit their needs.

In Pursuit of the Gene: From Darwin to DNA

[August 2009] I wanted to be interested in this book, but I kept finding myself putting it down, and only with much effort was I able to finish. The writing style is fairly accessible. However, the content seems to be a little too compressed. There are many players involved and many bits of biology to keep track of. The subtitle may also be better stated as "Darwin to DNA (exclusive)" The discussion of DNA is passed over quickly in a final epilogue.

The book approaches science through a very personal approach, putting forth much of the "behind the scenes" relationships and competition that took place to arrive at the better understanding of genetics. The story is built through the history of the intertwined relationships of many of the great biologists, starting with Darwin and going on to nearly the present day. The focus is on a few significant players, providing at times fairly detailed biographies of both personal and scientific life.

Unfortunately, it falls short in trying to do too much. With so many people covered, it became difficult to sort one from the other. The details of their discoveries also was jumbled and not explained in clear detail. For somebody with an existing knowledge of the key discoveries and discoverers, this book would likely provide enjoyable insights in to the background of the discoveries. However, as a human biography or an introduction to the origins of genetics, it falls flat.

Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Documented an Era and Defined a Generation

[August 2009] This is easily one of the most entertaining audiobooks I have listened to in a long time. The book is filled with quotes from the Simpson, and the narrator does great Simpson impersonations. The narrative has a seemingly endless number of anecdotes from Simpson's episodes (all referenced by episode number.) To a fan of the show, these references bring back fond memories. The book excels when it operates as a Simpsons fan companion.

Unfortunately, it falls flat when it tries to dig deeper. The arguments come across as those from a serious fan of the show trying to justify it's importance by placing it in external paradigms. Many of the arguments could easily be applied to just about any other aspect of pop culture. (The Fruit Loops Generation?) The insight that pop culture has become a strong identifying factor in a fragmenting society is interesting, but by no means original. The strange irony is that a corporate entity is needed to provide a unifying force for a youth culture rebelling against the corporatism of society. For a Simpsons fan like the author, Simpsons serves as that force, and the thesis of this book will apply. However, for others, including those that have a shared interest in the Simpsons and other things, the argument falls flat.

James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights

[July 2009] This book starts out slowly, then starts to get better as it goes on, all in a rather dry (but no too dry) scholarly, yet popular tone. It provides a fairly detailed biography of James Madison from the end of the constitutional convention until the ratification of the Bill of Rights. An alternate subtitle could have just as well been "Madison vs. Henry", for Patrick Henry is set up as James Madison's persistent foil. The actual title is somewhat of a misnomer, for the battle over the Bill of Rights is given coverage as a second (and smaller) act, after the initial act of ratification of the constitution. As with many historical accounts, this book suffers from the availability of sources. Some well documented debates are given detailed coverage, while others without much historical record are barely passed over. This creates an illusion (however unfair) of mistaken significance of one event over the other. Though the focus is on Madison, there is very little attention given to events outside the "constitutional period." By a corollary, the book gives the impression that Madison was almost single-handedly responsible for dreaming up the constitution and driving its ratification. Aside from these shortcomings, it remains an interest take on the trials that had to be surmounted to give rise to the birth of the United States.

The Outsiders

[July 2009]This is a classic "coming of age" tale of a boy who grows up on the "wrong side of town". Today, the "social groups" presented in the story 'socs' and 'greasers' are dated. However, they can easily be mapped to other competing groups that may exist today. The true strength of the story is the evolution of the relationship between the lead character and his "family". At times the events seem to be a little far-fetched, however, the strength of the character development helps to overshadow those.

The lead character lives in a bleak world, where kids come from broken home, not knowing a world where everyone doesn't smoke, drink and fight violently. In spite of (or because of ) this, the "kids" have strong relations with each other. Even growing in this world, the lead character is smart, ahead in school, and would appear to have a bright future. However, he appears convinced that he will grow up to just be like the 'losers' around him. The events in the book are strong enough to help convince him to re-examine his views. The evolution in the book is convincing, without excessively trying to prove points.

Don't Eat This Book

[July 2009] In this book, the author takes a very cynical view of the fast food industry (and especially McDonalds.) As could probably be guessed from the cover shot, the tone is very casual informal. The author reads the audiobook himself, and makes it much more entertaining than a typical dry book narration. The book itself is also organized in an almost magazine like manner, with sidebars and chapters that can just about be read alone.

My primary complaint is that there is very little original material. I had already seen the movie and read many of the authors that he quotes. Filter all that out, and the original material was down to a lot of cynicism and a few anecdotes - most relating to the production of the movie.

For somebody that has not read Fast Food Nation, Michael Pollan and the others referenced here, this book would be a great introduction to the underbelly of our fast food culture - and a good starting point for many other works. Otherwise, time is probably better spent watching his movie Super Size Me.

Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude

[July 2009] With a title like this, how can you expect anything unbiased? Alas, this is also its downfall.

One theme throughout this book is that the government has been blind to the many issues in the middle east that are readily evident to the author. While there may be a lot of truth to the arguments, the tone and one-sidedness make it difficult to trust.

The key argument he presents is that there are a number of mutual addictions that promulgate a dangerous situation in the middle east. The US is addicted to oil. Saudi royals are addicted to their money and playboy culture. Saudi citizens are addicted to the extreme welfare state (and thus have more time to be susceptible to extremists. In a brief aside he mentions that the Saudi Royals may have learned how to act by the American petrobusinesses that 'taught' them. And based on the accounts in this book, Saudi Arabia does seem to be run very similarly to a big business (with little in common with a country.)

The insights and accounts are quite appealing. The book itself, would benefit from a more balanced tone.

Of Paradise and Power

[July 2009]The principal thesis is that America and Europe have different world views, and thus cannot be expected to agree on foreign policy. His view is that America is the strongest military power, and thus tries to use this to its advantage. For Europe, there is less military power (and less desire for military power), thus there primary goal is for peace and social benefit. He also sees Europe as being able to afford the "peace" because of the great military power of the United States that will help maintain world order.

The arguments seem fairly sound, presenting a more balanced view of the neo-con argument. Since this book was written during the Iraq invasion, some of the arguments on currents are not very applicable. This is not all bad, since they often discuss the "reasons" for acting. These "legitimate" reasons are still valid today.

Perhaps the greatest weakness is the lack of attention played to countries outside of Europe and the US. Scant mention is given of Asia, even though they are amassing more power in the world today.


[July 2009]By focusing on the city of Jerusalem, the author manages to present the history of three religions and thousand of years of human development in a relatively brief narrative. The focus on the events on the city helps to present a clear understanding of the actions of the people, without distracting with too many distracting external details.

The narrative starts with the pre-Jewish occupants, and acknowledges that Jerusalem has always been somewhat off the beaten path. However, ever since it became a holy city to the Jews, it has had a degree of sacredness that made it attractive to Jews, Muslims and Christians.
For the past 1500 years, the western Christians are presented as the outside force most harmful to the peace in Jerusalem, with the Eastern Christians and Jews being most often victimized. The Muslims were often the rulers of the city, generally being the most peaceable of the overloads, though often even neglecting the city.

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

The title is somewhat of a misnomer as the "Mayflower" exits early in the book. Instead, it is a history of the Pilgrims, from England to Holland to New England, up until King Phillip's war. The narrative of the initial events leading to the voyage of the boat and the start of Plymouth colony are fairly well detailed in the book. Then the next 50 years are quickly passed, and the narrative switches to that of the war against the Indians (King Phillip's war). The war narrative is more difficult to follow, jumping from a number of different events, happening at different times in different places. Attention seems to be paid to players where more information is known (with Benjamin Church getting a lot of positive coverage).

This book would have perhaps been best split into two separate tomes. The initial book could cover the Pilgrims and their voyage to the new world, with a the second one focusing on the early "war on terror" against the native Americans. While together they do serve to dispel the "pilgrim myth", they each make more convincing narratives on their own.

Fast Food Nation

[July 2009 and earlier]
Fast Food Nation is a very well written book about the "bad side" of the food. The viewpoint is fairly objective, with a multitude of references, making it all the more powerful.

I, Robot

[July 2009] It's always fun reading "old" futurist books that talk about the present day. By today, they were expecting flying cars, interplanetary travel and impressive robots. However, robots still had vacuum tubes, and newspapers were read in paper form.
These provide some interesting chuckles in this book. However, despite the title, the book is primarily a comment on man and his post World War II prejudices. The fear of the 'unknown' in robots can be replaced by many other modern technological fears, or could even be viewed as a fear of "immigrants". The main thrust of the many stories, however, involve how to 'outwit' robots that have been programmed to obey certain rules.
The many "stories" contained in the book are seen through the reflection of a robot psychologist, and while having some threads keeping them together, all could stand as short stories on their own. They each give rise to many psychological and sociological questions and help make this an interesting read.

The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror

[July 2009] In this fast-paced work, Bernard Lewis presents a brief, balanced history of the evolution of current Islam states. His viewpoint is fairly objective, keeping away from dogmatic views on either side. The central point of his view is that there is that the demands of the fundamentalists can never be appeased. However, Islam itself is just as much in danger as the Western World. Previously, they could play one western power against another. However, today they have to spend more energy to 'attack' the dominant powers. As for Israel, he doesn't see peace there having a significant impact on the terrorist organizations. (It will just eliminate one of a litany of excuses.)

He is both critical and condoning of current western policies towards Muslim countries. The support of "bad" rulers does help the west deal with rulers they know. However, it allows the fire to be fueled among the public. Since they see a despised leader aligned with the west, the west also presents an easy target for the anger. On the other hand, democratic institutions quickly allow for radical parties to assume power, which can make relations more difficult (though may often lead to stronger opinions expressed internally.)

Briefly, he touches on the demographics of the Islamic world, being overwhelmingly young, poor, and not well educated.

For terrorists doctrine, he comes down in the middle. Jihad is clearly clearly a physical activity advocated in the Koran, with martyrs receiving a ticket to paradise. However, suicide is a great sin, thus suicide attackers would receive endless suffering.

The author narrates the audiobook himself, in a gentle, erudite fashion. The unabridged version is only 4 disks, and an excellent background of the current middle east conditions that does not confine itself to certain political views.


[July 2009] Simon Winchester has a talent for making a single event at the same time intimate and all encompassing, while imparting a good deal of scientific knowledge at the same time. In Krakatoa, he includes detailed history of the science behind the volcano (including the history of the scientists and the origin of plate tectonic theory.) He also provided the cultural and colonial history of Indonesia, thus providing a feel for the general environment in which the explosion occurred. And he filled in his personal tales, including scientific expeditions, embarrassing college blunders and a trip to Krakatoa. He even goes on to show how some loose threads connect the Volcano to aspects of militant Islam and decolonization.
The end result is an entertaining story that meanders around many aspects of the volcano that would not be in the 'encyclopedia entry', yet still have some degree of relevance to the story.
On the audiobook, the author narrates his own book in a pleasant manner that sound almost as if a friend is sharing a story of his learnings and adventures.

Return of Tarzan, Beasts of Tarzan, Son of Tarzan

[july 2009] Return of Tarzan is great escapist entertainment. Though it stands alone as a story, it is best to read after reading the first book (Tarzan of the Apes). The book reads like any entertaining summer movie, and has enough plot elements to fill at least a dozen films. Tarzan finds himself a french secret agent, an "Indiana Jones" gold hunter, an African King, and of course an "Ape Man". In all, he seems to posses just enough 'superhuman' ability and uncanny luck to get out of the most dire predicament.

The story is always quick paced, and exposes the early 20th century view of "Western European superiority" while at the same time being sympathetic to many of the "savages".

Beasts of Tarzan, the third Tarzan book, starts out with Tarzan settled in to English life. Of course, its not too long before he finds himself in the jungle again, this time accompanied by a motley crew of jungle animals. This book was not as good as the first two, though it was still quite entertaining. It also seemed to be a little shorter. The best image I remember from this is the thought of a boat with apes and a panther cruising through the water.

"Son of Tarzan" hardly has Tarzan in it at all. Instead it focuses on his boy as he grows from a tween to a married man - spending most of that time in the African jungle. This is a great book, and the "love story" between Korak and Meriem is touching, and is better developed the that between Tarzan and Jane in the initial books. The book does, however, seem to have some of the more violent moments. Perhaps my only complaint was that the book seemed to drag on a bit at the end. Two-thirds of the way through it becomes fairly clear what is going to happen, however, a number of plot twists are thrown in there, dragging out the novel.
What I also find interesting is that the novels seem to be filled with many elements that I've seen in movies that have come out well after the Tarzan books. It seems that the influence of the books has been well felt in hollywood (even if not in the Tarzan movies themselves.)
In the copy I have, page 208 end in the middle of a word, while 209 starts a new paragraph. The story seems to still flow properly, but I'm wondering what is missing from the "printers error"

Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale

[July 2009] In this story, the main characters are color drawings that inhabit a world of black and white photographs. The images alone would make this a great book. However, the story is also great too. It has entertained many young children (as well as their parents) in our house. It provides many avenues for expressive reading and exhibits all of Mo Willems' wit and style.

The World Without Us

[July 2009] The book starts with a scenario where humans are suddenly removed from the earth, and then details how "mankind's" world will revert back to nature. Basic descriptions of how a typical suburban house will gradually be subsumed by local vegetation give way to more detailed descriptions of places such as Manhattan and Houston. The author also takes us down to other places including a abandoned resort in Cyprus and a lost Mayan civilization. In parallel, he describes the 'past world' before humans, including details of how even the 'pre-civilation' humans made significant changes to the native environment.

The tails of the post-human state of nature are all interesting, though at times the author tends to dwell too much on areas that excite him. However, the biggest downfall of the book is the conclusion where he describes what we should "do about it" and brings out groups like the voluntary human extinction movement. While some of the conclusions and "plans" can be interesting, they move off the main thesis and are not as well supported as the core argument.

Myths Lies and Downright Stupidity

[June 2009] This book does a convincing job of exposing myths about 'policy issues'. He was also able to make clear fact-based arguments refuting other bits of conventional wisdom, arguing that businesses like regulation and republicans love to increase spending. Hearing a car dealer say that requiring car purchases to be made through car dealers in order to "preserve car dealers" is fairly convincing. Lawyers prohibiting anyone other than a lawyer to fill out forms is also in the similar vein. (Sure there probably are a few people protected from shysters - but in the end, it is protecting the well being of a few.) Arguments against the excesses of malpractice also work well, using a mix of anecdotes and statistics to show that they have gone too far.

When he gets into the scientific realm, however, he is much less convincing. He picks his arguments to make broad 'absolute' conclusions. When discussing global warming, for instance, he refutes the arguments of some scientific studies by citing other scientific studies. Simply choose different studies and the argument can be spun around. In some topics he chooses a single scientific study to bolster a point, while in another he refutes a point as being based only on a single study. And some arguments avoid studies altogether and rely on anecdotes.

In the end, it can best be viewed as a libertarian policy outline. The beliefs are set out, and appropriate arguments are given to bolster those beliefs. There is plenty of content to rile both conservatives and liberals. The delivery is fast paced and entertaining, even if there are holes in the reasoning.

Tao of Cow

[from June 2009] This book is a "Life's little instruction book" written from the perspective of cows. Each bit of instruction is illustrated with a picture of cows and a story relating the cows' activity to some useful trait for us humans.
The pictures are primarily from bygone rural society and on their own make a great book of photography. The text, on the other hand, has much to be desired. I was expecting something much more witty than the dry text it contained.

Jefferson's War

[from June 2009]
On the surface, the Tripolitan wars seem to be a close parallel to Bush's "War on Terror". Terrorist Arab 'quasi-states' are terrorizing the transportation sector. European appeasement of the terrorists provides nothing more than a brief respite. After one group serious wrongs America, the president sends a force to fight the terrorists. The initial public support starts to waver as the fighting drags on. However, with a final big show of force, Americans are able to "beat" one "warload" and leading the others to fall in line, providing a true peace that years of negotiations could not provide.
The detailed account of the Tripolitan war in this book helps to show the key differences under the surface. The Barbary pirates were operating in a well-established manner, adjacent to standard diplomacy. The prime goal was money rather than religion or ideology. The Tripolitan war was also drawn out primarily due to American bumbling (due to mistakes, incompetence, and lack of forces.)
This book, despite its subtitle, is an objective history of the Barbary wars, with little attempt to draw parallels to the present. It brings in clear understanding of the "shores of Tripoli" line of the Marine Hymn, and brings early Naval and Marine heroes in to their historical context. It makes clear that the United States of the time was an infant nation, still trying to find itself.
The narrative is pretty well done, though at times seems to jump around. Overall it is worth the read.


[from June 2009] This book, extolling an "open source" world, was based on unpublished proprietary research. That helps to sum up the fine line that it attempts to draw. Free open collaboration is helpful in the world. However, there is still a need to make money.
In the heyday of the web 2.0 bubble (say, early 2008), this book would appear to be on the forefront of great paradigm shifts. Now it appears to be almost as one of the late 90's author proclaiming a 'new economy' right before the dot com bubble burst.
To be fair, it is not so one-sided, and it does point out the limits of the "wiki workplace". However, those are buried deep below what would otherwise be a "workplace 2.0" religious tract.
The "collaborative workplace" case studies presented are quite interesting. However, the "theory" around them gets extremely repetitive and very slow moving. This is a book just begging for a good abridgment.


[From June 2009] I started by listening to the audiobook. In the intro to the audiobook, the author describes how he abridged the book by simply skipping whole chapters. He omitted Hong Kong, Bermuda, British West Indies and the Falklands. This of course, led me to the paperback to complete the missing chapters. I'm glad I read the extra chapters, but don't think I would have missed much if I hadn't. The Hong Kong chapter is the weakest, and the most irrelevant now that it has spent a decade in the PRC. The Bermuda chapter is a little better. The West Indies chapter has nuggets of interest, though would probably need some updating (such as a volcano on Montserrat). However, it quickly jumps from Island to Island so can be a little difficult to follow. The fact that he was in the Falklands as the war was breaking out makes that the most interesting of the omitted chapters in the audiobook.

As for the remainder of the audiobook, it is always nice when an author reads his own books, especially when he does it well like Simon Winchester. He has 'updated' it, primarily by reminding us that these exploits did take place a few decades ago. (I also found it useful to read the updated introduction after completing the book, helping to remind myself that these are 25 year old exploits.) The book reads as part travelogue, part history. The journey gets equal weight with the destination. I found myself with a strong interest in learning more about these places that had been nothing more than dots on the map.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

How the Mighty Fall

This is a business book that attempts to unify the behavior of a disparate businesses into a few "rules". The fall of a big business from greatness usually takes place as they go through these steps. The phases include Hubris, Undisciplined Growth, Denial of Risk, Grasping and Capitulation. The book uses anecdotes to describe various companies that have following into the trap.

I was intrigued by the stories of Ames Department Stores and Adressograph. These were a couple companies that I had never heard of before, but that once had dominant positions in their market. Competitors (Walmart and Pitney Bowes) are still thriving in the same markets, yet these earlier goliaths failed.

One of the key points the author had was that great companies often fail by overreaching. The companies introduce too many new products, strive for too much growth, all while their core market drifts away.

Some companies have drifted down the steps to extinction, only to revive themselves. Often it is a more humble leader rather than a superstar (IBM vs. HP) that helps them make it.

The conclusions seem to work out well with the sample size mentioned, but would they apply generally?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Door Into Summer

The Door Into Summer was written in 1957 and set in 1970 and 2000. As such, it provides an interesting view of how much was predicted "wrong". About the future. We don't have zero-gravity entertainment, self lighting cigarettes, or widespread robot servants. We also haven't licked the common cold or had a large "cold war" holocaust. However, we do have newspapers that can be read electronically on a tablet (alas, those were more 2010 than 2000.) Computer Aided Design was somewhat foreshadowed, though it was more advanced than what was predicted in the novel. Changes in retail, telecommunications and computers were all significantly underestimated.

The story centers around Dan, a genius engineer who builds all sorts of great household gadgets in 1970. Alas, he does not pay attention to business, and his partners manage to swindle him out of the company. He initial decides to undergo a 30 years "deep sleep" to escape the problems, but then changes his mind and decides to visit his old partners. Things go sour, and they decide to dispose of him in a different facility - causing him to lose most of his money. Down on his luck, he takes odd jobs, brushes up on engineering, and eventually goes back to the company he originally founded. He also discovers that some of the patents for a competitor were filed by him and that a professor in Denver knows something about time travel. He travels back to 1970, fixes things up, and then returns to a happier 2001, marrying the girl of his dreams and living happily ever after. The story is fun and fast moving. The time travel part, while key to the ultimate resolution is not the centerpiece of the novel. (Though it does spend some time trying to go through the paradoxes of time travel.)

Monday, February 11, 2013

Four Stories by Kafka

On his deathbead, Kafka implored his friend, Max Brod, to burn all of his incomplete manuscripts. Alas, he failed to do so, and thus preserved many of his unfinished novels. Unfortunately, the quality of these pales in comparison to his stories.

In this collection, all the stories were published or prepared for publication during Kafka's lifetime. They, like the Metamorphosis are well done, coherent works. The posthumous novels (The Castle, Amerika and The Trial) all have their moments, but are just not as good as his "completed" works.

The four stories in this collection have the Kafka touch of having a bit of "absurdity" in the realm of commonality.

"A Hunger Artist" tells the story of an artist that performs fasting feets. He is upset that he must stop after 40 days, but is resigned to his lot. Suddenly, the market for hunger artists dies off and he is relegated to a cage in the circus. He eventually completes a record fast, but nobody notices.

"A Report to a Academy" is told in the first person by an ape who "became human". He realized that by adopting man's vices he can be seen as a man and achieve greater freedom.

"A Country Doctor" is about a doctor who's horse dies. A groom appears in the pigsty with horses that bring him instantly to a boys house. There the people treat a doctor as a near-religious figure expecting him either to cause the boy to live or be killed himself. He escapes, but the horses are now in no hurry.

"A Little Woman" is the story of a relationship that may exist or may not.

A multitude of meanings could be read in to each of the stories. However, the beauty is that they can also be taken at face value as a fun, enjoyable story.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

A Visit from the Goon Squad

As I first started reading A Visit from the Goon Squad, I was confused. It started out being told from the perspective of one character, but then it seemed to be a different character in a different time. I finally realized that they really were different different characters having different experiences. The book is more a collection of intertwined short stories than a novel. It centers around a bunch of loser characters involved in the music and entertainment industry. Each story is told from a different perspective and a takes place in a different place in time. Each story has some relation to another story (though sometimes it can be to just a minor character). It can take some back and forth action to catch the relationships. Luckily, one reader has constructed a timeline of the main characters in the book.

Stylistically, the book is a marvel. Stories are told from first person or third person or even via a powerpoint. We get viewpoints for different characters in their different episodes. The stories are very senfeldian in nature. The characters waste away their life and grow old. Eventually, most characters find some contentment in their old age, often different than what they had expected. There is not much of an overall story arc. Some of the stories are disturbingly vulgar, while others are told from a young child's point of view. With a little more interesting content, this could have been great. As it is now, it is another case of style over substance.

Why Our Health Matters

src="http://ws.assoc-amazon.com/widgets/q?_encoding=UTF8&ASIN=B004KAB3U2&Format=_SL160_&ID=AsinImage&MarketPlace=US&ServiceVersion=20070822&WS=1&tag=jeremysdoma02-20" >The United States healthcare system is broken. Insurance companies rake in the money for simply abstracting the cost from the doctor-patient relationship. If you could buy futures on the cost of healthcare, you could easily rake in a fortune. Yet, by some measures, American healthcare ranks far below that of other industrialized nations. Why is that?

In Why our health matters, Dr. Weil argues that there is a lot of blame to go around, though big pharma is perhaps the single greatest factor. The drug companies spend huge amounts marketing their new wonder-drugs. Thus, the role of the doctor becomes primarily that of a drug subscriber participating in "disease management". The system is further hampered by a focus on "evidence-based medicine" that focuses on individual symptoms rather than the root cause. His solution is to advance "integrated medicine" in which doctors and patients have deep, long term relationships. Traditional medicine could still be used to treat acute symptoms, while lifestyle changes and alternative medicine may have a role in improving long-term health. Other policies must also be put in order. (Why is junk food so much cheaper than healthy food?)

The content and message of this book are extremely positive and well thought-out. However, finding somebody that fully carries them out is a challenge. Even Dr. Weil moonlights as a vitamin salesman. (Is there a real difference between taking a pill that his been determined to help a condition and a vitamin that has also used to help improve a condition?)

I see doctors as being a lot like the QA team in software development. They analyze the current state and make suggestions for improvement. However, it goes back to the actual software developers to implement the fixes. They do both "unit" tests of isolated bits of functionality and "system tests" of the entire software products. Developers are also supposed to run their software through unit tests before delivering to QA, though there are often items that slip. QA also runs through all previous test cases before certifying a new release to ensure that no "regression" bugs have appeared.

Our medical system is one in which doctors perform a standard set of unit tests on all human "software" and then prescribe the appropriate "bug fixes". The drugs are typically targeted towards a single symptom. As long as they don't have a strong negative impact on other areas when tested, they are deemed ok, regardless of the potential long term impact. Alas, this often disregards the entire function of human body. It also ends up assigning a one-size fits all system to everyone. It would be as if there were a few "software test" laboratories throughout the world. They may find a great test case and a potential solution for it. Local QA teams would run the standard "test suite". If they found a problem, they would ask the developers to implement the fix. It wouldn't matter if they were developing video games and the "fix" involved font sizes in Microsoft Word. It would still be a similar fix.

Alas, that is our medical system. We get more and more specialists working on specific obscure systems and conditions, but not enough focusing on improving health to make sure we don't reach those conditions. The tax program provides tax incentives for treating acute conditions, but not for preventing that condition from occurring in the first place. And then we have the health care "reform" which merely entrenches the current broken system. Crony capitalism at its best.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Bike and Fly

I've always wanted to ride my bike to the airport, park it there, catch a flight, and then return back home by bike. But I've never done it. I've biked to O'Hare and Midway in Chicago and to SJC and SFO. I've also taken the rental bike out to the Copenhagen airport (but I had to return to the downtown train station to return the bike.) The closest to a "real trip" was when I biked to the airport to pick up a bag I left on the plane.

Why haven't I ever done a bike and fly?

Many airports are bike accessible. In China and Japan, I've seen big bike racks near the airport. SFO has a page about biking to the airport, along with two week bike parking areas. SJC also has a bike/pedestrian page, though the crux of it is "we really didn't care about you when we remodeled the airport", but we have a couple racks available. That is really sad, because SJC was a great walking airport "back in the day". I once had a few hours to kill between an Amtrak train and a flight. Rather than take the light rail and sit around for a while, I did the first street walk. It was a pretty nice, easy walk. There is also a bike path that runs right through the airport. One time I ran in to some joggers in the airport terminal. There conversation was something like "well this is the airport. Uh, why did we come here?" That was also the time when you would walk off the plane in to the open skies of the tarmac before walking inside the terminal building. Since then, they have turned the road near the airport in to a freeway and built a big gleaming new terminal. But, they've also seen the dot com boom and the entire economic crash and the flight volumes at the airport plummet. But, I'm really digressing.

I've also left SFO on foot after arriving from one flight. (I only walked to the Millbrae train station. However, walking saved the huge cost of the short BART trip to the train station - and I ended up on the same Caltrain I would have been on had I taken BART. Much better to spend the time walking than waiting at a train station.)

I've also walked from the Las Vegas airport to a hotel on the strip. (There I had to watch out for the homeless guy.)

I've explored the area around Narita in Tokyo and LAX on foot during long layovers.

But, I still haven't done the bike trip.

In Chicago, I once purchased a folding bike for an attempt at doing the "carry the bike on the plane" trip. But the bike was junk and then came September 11th.... (I did carry a scooter on the plane.)

One day... One day... (I just hope the bike will be there when I return.)

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Between the Rivers: History of Ancient Mesopotamia Part 3

Between the Rivers covers some of the more "modern" periods in Mesopotamian history. We start around the time "famous" Babylonians (the guys who appear in the Bible) and we continue all the way up until the 2003 US capture of Baghdad. Its nearly 3000 years in 6 hours. However, the be fare, the last 1500 years are given a rather cursory coverage. At that time, Mesopotamia was not all that important. However, prior to them, we ha the Assyrians and Babylonians duking it out for supremacy. We had leaders that were clinging towards using the "hard-to-write" cuneiform, even though their scribes wanted to adopt an easier to use Aramaic. (The fact that the leader couldn't read or write didn't seem to make a difference.) Leaders would explore different methods of subjugating the conquered people. They may choose to install their own leader, use the existing leaders, or just exile everybody. If the vanquished crossed the victors, they could see their "nice" subjugation turn bad fast (see Jerusalem, fall of).

Babylon had some magnificently strong walls. Urbanization seemed to be going strong in the land between the rivers for millennia before they caught on in places like northern Europe. (What would have happened if the Vikings were transported back in time to Assyria or Babylonia?
Alexander the Great made his middle east appearance. He promptly got in trouble by seeing too Mesopotamian to the Greeks (and likely too Greek to the Mesopotamian) That was perhaps the beginning of the end of the unique culture. The later Muslim invasion pretty much finished it off. Now it became just a small part of the Ottoman empire until World War I. Then Iraq was formed, and archaeological history was stored in the national museum for a century. Then the US army came in and protected the oil ministry while the museum was looted.

an open letter to CUSD

Dear Cupertino Union School District,

I'd like to commend the behavior of the principal of Meyerholz school. She has done an exceptional job of enforcing district policies in order to further the CUSD mission. As we know, the district has a primary mission of maintaining property values.
Alas, many of the past principals of the school had become sidetracked and decided to focus on students and education instead. Unfortunately, this can provide a detrimental impact on fulfilling the primary mission. If teachers spend time caring and instructing students, then the families may feel they can have all their educational needs fulfilled at school. This could have significant negative impacts. It could draw less-qualified students into the school district, bringing down the test scores. It could also discourage parents from enrolling in sufficient after school and test-prep programs. The snowball effect would be catastrophic. Many small businesses providing "After-school" services could find themselves bankrupt. Teachers, on the other hand, would be expected to pick up the slack. They would be pressured to work more. The district could also be required to employ more teachers to provide for the additional students. While this may seem to help to provide more jobs, it will also have negative financial impact on the district.

The Meyerholz principal has done an exceptional job at discouraging families from "mooching" off of the free school service. The school restricts children from traveling home by themselves. This restriction makes it difficult for parents to send their students to school without sacrifice. The school day is also scheduled to maximize parental involvement. While younger children get out of school 30 minutes before older children, they are prohibited from playing or doing homework by themselves. Even when parents are present, physical activity is strictly prohibited. By limiting free play, the school helps support the many youth sports leagues and activity programs. It would be a shame if the school facilities were used for free play at the expense of hard-working entrepreneurs. The scheduling and after-school prohibitions discourage large families from enrolling in the school. If a parent has a large family with young children at home, they are pretty much required to employ somebody to watch the children at home or pick up the children at school, thus driving more money to the economy.

The principal has helped to ensure children don't fall victim to the many detrimental impacts of the playground. Free play could encourage children to be independent. It could encourage creativity. This could all be very dangerous. Children could also get a minor injury on the playground. By suffering an injury, they might be discourage from doing riskier things later in life. (Later in life, there is a higher likelihood of sever damage, thereby helping insurance, healthcare and other industries.) Also, by limiting play time and activities, physical activity is limited. They wont get in the habit of "free" exercise and will be on the proper path to obesity, thereby supporting the medical-industrial complex. And of course, if children are allowed to play freely, parents will not learn the proper paranoid helicopter behavior.

There was a brief scare when the school announced a "homework club" program. This could have potentially allowed the children in different grade levels to leave school at the same time. It could have also used school personnel provide academic assistance that should be provided by external parties. Luckily, the school implemented it in such a way to maximize benefit to the district. The funding was provided by parent organizations, thus it provided an extra "bonus" for certain teachers without added expense. The "club" groups were timed to be an hour. And as a great act of genius, the school required students to stay the complete hour. This prevented any people taking advantage of the program to allow their kids to get dismissed at the same time.

The principal has also done an exceptional job of taking credit for the awards that the school has garnered. The previous principal filled out all the paperwork to get the school honored as a "blue ribbon school" and a "California distinguished school". These awards help to attract smart, wealthy families to the school that are willing to spend the money to ensure the test scores remain high. This benevolent cycle weeds out the low-performing students who drive down the test scores. By attracting the best students and most dedicated parents, the school can count on high scores without wasting significant resources on education. Over the past few years, the API (Asian Percentage Index) has increased. The demand for the school has also increased. Now there are fewer "wasted" spots at the school. We do know it is horribly inefficient when teachers have fewer than the maximum number of students and it is great when a school can adequately fill them.

Placing the Chinese Immersion program at Meyerholz has also been a wise move. It attracts students from elsewhere in the district, thus alleviating pressure on expanding schools. It is also a significant distance from the two "reserve" schools in the district. If it were too close to these schools, then there might be temptation to open the school to reduce crowding. This could have had a negative impact in school income as rental revenues would decline. It could also hurt the many businesses that occupy the school sites. If the Chinese program were at Nimitz school, there may have been extreme pressure to reopen Serra school, thereby putting many fine businesses out on the street. Luckily, there are no schools near Meyerholz that could be re-opened, and the district can continue to support the modular classroom builders at their other school sites.

To succeed, the school system must be optimized to provide a positive day-care service for single-child families. This allows for a maximum number of households to be "involved" with minimal cost to the schools. While "standards" seem to require education at the schools, education should not be the focus. As long as parents make the commitment to enroll their kids in the proper test-prep programs the test scores and property values are high. The schools can then ask parents for more money to provide MacBooks and iPads. (It is vitally important that the district support Apple - even if it is one of the wealthiest companies in the world, it is based in Cupertino. Much better to spend money on Macbooks and iPads, even if chromebooks and androids could do just as well for a small fraction of the price.) While the school may have floundered previously, it has now been succeeding brilliantly, thanks in part to the current administration.

Saturday, February 02, 2013


I picked up a copy of Ulysses at the local library, not sure exactly what type of "version" it was. It turns out it was a BBC radio version of the book created a few decades ago. The performance is fairly good, though there are a couple episodes with actors talk at very different volumes. It became almost impossible to hear the quieter ones without cranking the volume (and then the louder ones were much too loud.)

The book is often near the top of people's best-of lists. However, it is long and hard to read. This seemed like a good introduction. After listening, however, I think I'll pass on the full book. It seems a clear case of style over substance. I did like the "idea" that he had. The juxtaposition of different styles may make it worth reading just to see how it all plays out on paper. However, the content is just not appealing. We have a day in a life of some Irishman. It resembles the voyage of Odysseus. I liked the way it was told. I just didn't care about any of the people or what they were doing.

Four Fish

I didn't realize how much of fish in the world is now "farmed". This book takes us through the history of 4 fish that find their way to our dinner table. Salmon is first. Atlantic salmon is almost entirely farmed these days. In the past, however, salmon were abundant. However, dams destroyed their breeding grounds, and overfishing eliminated many of the survivors. Hatcheries attempted to replace some of the lost, but that backfired due to putting the wrong fish in the wrong area. There are a lot of different types of salmon, and this diversity has helped them to survive. Alas, man's intervention was too much. Many salmon have now been domesticated for human use. The initial approach was a monoculture with much waste. (And it takes 3 pounds of fish to make one pound of salmon.) However, some polycultures are being develop that use other animals, such as seaweed and mussels to provide food and consume the waste products.

Sea bass have also been "domesticated", even though they seem to fail every criteria that would make for a good domesticated fish. But, they are popular, so they were used. The Bass taxonomy seems to be based on appearance and "edibility", with most of the edible fish classified together. Bass have usually been a high value "holiday" fish, thus there was incentive to produce them in captivity. Many genetic discoveries were needed to be able to do it.

Cod are the third fish. They were an "everyday" fish known for their abundance. Alas, over-fishing has lead to the collapse of their fishery also. Attempts have been made to raise them in an organic, environmentally friendly manner - however, the fish didn't taste good and were too expensive. (You don't market a big mac as a luxury item!)

Other fish have been attempted to be raised in captivity. Some, like the Asian sea-bass were well suited for it. There were also a multitude of freshwater fish that are used for farming. Many of these require very little effort to farm successfully. Some, such as talapia can spread rapidly, and are a concern for other fish species.

The fourth fish is Tuna. Tuna can be very large and have become popular for sushi. Alas, this has lead to massive over-fishing, and made life dangerous for them. Some attempts to counter this, such as "tuna ranching", simple harvest fish when they are young - doing nothing to help the eventual breeding stock.

The "domestication" of fish is a relatively recent trend. Alas, we still don't fully understand the consequences. Northern Hemisphere farmed salmon have hurt the wild salmon when they escape and bread. Southern hemisphere salmon don't have this problem. However, they create other environmental issues. Farmed fish consume less feed per pound of meat than land animals. However, the interaction with other "wild" fish can still have negative impacts on some of the last commonly "hunted" animals. Fish also tend to cross multiple boundaries making it difficult to reach a governmental consensus. (And you often get the "late to the game" countries complaining that they didn't get as much as the people that have wiped out the population.) In the case of some animals, like whales, the public perception has shifted so that they are viewed as "wildlife" rather than "meat". Can animals exist as both? (I see that with our pet chickens. Once we got them, our kids wont touch chicken meat. The chickens, however, have no problem eating chicken nuggets.)

What will the fate of wild fish be? Will they eventually be run out of existence, similar to other ancient terrestrial mammals? Or will they become domesticated to the extent that they are optimized for meat volume at the expense of well-being and nutrition? Or will we actually reach a healthy middle ground? We will see.