Friday, December 31, 2010

equation of love and death

This film is all about coincidences. The scenarios are a little far-fetched; however, it all seems to work. The production quality is excellent and the acting well done.

The plot centers around a female taxi driver. She happens to pick up a few passengers, and eventually gets entagled in a drug bust and the location of her long lost fiance. (Ironically, one of the young passengers is also in similar circumstances, entangled in drug smuggling in a quest to find his girlfriend.)

It does get a little hokey, but it still works.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Woman Soccer Player #9

This film had a terrible rating on IMDB. However, with only a few votes, I gave it the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps I should have headed the ratings.

The DVD looks like it was simply transferred from a VHS tape. There is not much in the special feature department. And the language? Well, there are Chinese subtitles built in to the movie. You get them whether you want them or not. And the dialog is in Mandarin. (The DVD has a title and synopsis in English. However, there is no English to be found on the DVD.)

The movie seems to be about a woman that had a baby and plays on a woman's soccer team. The team members get stuck doing some fashion shows and things that don't go over well. They play some games. And then the DVD stopped working. Oh well, it didn't seem like much of a loss...

Friday, December 24, 2010

Knuffle Bunny Free: An Unexpected Diversion

Trixie and Knufflebunny go on a plane ride to Holland - but KnuffleBunny gets left behind on the airplane. Trixie is a little more grown up now and is able to deal with it. Amazingly, however, she finds Knufflebunny sitting in the airplane on her return trip. As a kid behind them is crying, she willingly gives the kid Knufflebunny - to keep.

As with the other two Knufflebunny books, this is drawn with a hybrid of black and white photographs and color drawings. It works brilliantly and makes for another visual wonder. (And like most Mo Willems books, there is a pigeon to be found lurking in the pages - along with Elephant and Piggie)

This story is funny and shows growth of characters. We even related to the "discovery" of Knnufflebunny. (I had once lost my glasses on a bus. Later we boarded a bus, and found the glasses sitting right there next the seat we were.)

The story provides an original twist on growing up, rather than simply rehashing the original Knufflebunny book. Sure, the bunny is lost again, but this time, Trixie has the power to control her experience and even use this experience to help others.

Devoted To You

Devoted to You is a cheesy (in a good way) Chinese romantic comedy. A girl in Beijing has a chance encounter with a boy on a bus. She is afraid to talk to him (though she constantly dreams of it.) She runs in to him in a couple of additional chance encounters, but only gets that he will be moving to Shanghai to take a job at a Computer firm.

Finally, she gets the courage to go out of her shell, move to Shanghai and hunt him down. She takes a job there, meets another guy, and through some chance encounter comes across the guy she is seeking and they live happily ever after. (Ok, not that far, they do finally share their first kiss as the movie ends.)

I loved the first part of the movie, but the end seemed to drag on. And the finale was just awful. She is built up to be with a guy that really loves her. Infatuation dude is shown to have foibles (and a real jerkwad for a girlfriend.) All could lead to a nice happy ending where she has grown out of her shell and gotten over her crush. Then, bang! She somehow ends up with the dude. Ughh!

The production quality of the film is mediocre. It is not great, but not a bad enough production to distract from the movie. It has a lot of "dream" cuts where we see her dream behavior before she wakes up in reality. (Like a real dream, we don't realize it is a dream until she wakes up.) We also have a continuing motif of her hiding in a bathroom to wallow in her misery.

The movie is bright fun and clean, making it more enjoyable than many Hollywood chic-flics, despite its lame ending.

Short memories in the NFL

In the 2007 season, Brett Favre led the Green Bay Packers within a game of the Super Bowl and was selected for the pro-bowl. After the season he announced his retirement and seemed to be going out in glory. (Only a possible trip to the super bowl could bring him back.)

Michael Vick on the other hand was in a legal and financial mess. He was suspended indefinitely without pay. He lost his endorsements, and he was facing charges of dogfighting. His football days seemed over.

My how things have changed since then. While Vick made a fool of himself before going to prison, he has shaped up his public persona since incarceration. He eased back in to the NFL with a relatively small contract. He accepted the backup role and gradually eased himself back to the NFL. He seemed contrite. When the starter was injured this season, Vick had a chance to shine. Since then he has been on fire, and mentioned as one of the top MVP candidates.

Favre on the other hand seemed to retire after every season. He came across as a snooty and vindictive in public, hurting his reputation among Packer fans. His performance had its positives, but also plenty of negatives. His reputation suffered a hit with allegations of inappropriate behavior.

Vick has used his performance to help rehabilitate his image, while Favre has gradually tarnished his. Vick has shown that one can actually recover from the "death penalty" of a prison sentence. (Though it seems ironic that while there have been plenty of personal crimes and even deaths linked to NFL players the strongest conviction is for dog fighting...) Will his positive image remain, or will he return to his crass behavior once it is overshadowed by his performance?

We'll see how short the memories really are in the NFL.

Ms. Mccaw Learns to Draw

Dudley has trouble in school. He often doodles instead of focusing on his work. He also gets teased by other kids for his "slowness". However, one teacher, Ms. Mccaw, takes the time to help him out. He thrives in her class.

She seems to know just about everything.

Then one day, she tries to draw a person's head from the side. She just can't do it. Dudley, feeling brave, decides to try to teach her. He dries a whole board full of faces, and the class as a happy 'ol time drawing.

The drawings are lively, and the kids seem to love to have this book read over and over.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

We Are In A Book

This is easily the funniest of the Elephant and Piggie series. (And just to make sure you don't forget, there are a few pages filled with He He Ha Ha's.) Elephant and Piggie realize that they are in a book and are being read. Similar to The Monster at the End of this Book, the characters interact with the reader. The drawings help to accentuate this "relationship" between the reader and characters.

The start also continues an inside joke started at the end of the book. This is one that will be rad over and over again, and require plenty of belly laughs.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

This was better than I remembered it. A girl goes exploring in an old house and discovers a wardrobe that leads to another world. The time moves at a different rate and she comes out shortly after entering (even though she was there for a while.) The other kids do not believe her. A boy stumbles in and encounters the evil "queen" who offers him magical Turkish delight. He craves it and wants more and more (along with promised kingship and glory.) When he returns, he tells the girl he was there, but then tells the others that she simply had an imagination. Eventually they all end up in Narnia, where the boy discovers that the "queen" is just trying to use him for her means. Eventually the lion dies for them, thereby reversing magic and saving everyone (including himself.)

The Christianity is obvious,(kids are daughters of eve or sons of Adam), yet subdued. (The evil queen comes from another parallel line of Adam.) The Lion is a pretty obvious Christ figure, complete with the sacrifice. However, the world is still a world of its own, unique from any biblical one.

One message seems to be to not give in to temptations to mess up your life in search of yummy food. (Hmmm, that is a tough one to follow.)

Magician's Nephew

Some kids associate with their Magician uncle. They see the witch and unlock the world of Narnia, and inadvertently bring the evil witch back to earth. Luckily, she seems to have no power here.

The story didn't seem all that bad, but I did have trouble getting in to it. It did have some pretty clear Christian metaphors. As the "creation" story for Narnia, it had many similarities to the biblical creation (complete with fruit.)

Fueling the Planet

Fueling the Planet provides a basic history of the means of providing fuel for human activities as well as the geological origins of the fuel. The tone is basic and easy to understand. He comes down and the pro-status quo, pro-environment side. His view is that by mandating better efficiency standards and moving most energy consumption to wind-generated electricity, we can solve the environmental issues. (Hmm - what about making changes that improve the quality of life and reduce energy consumption?).

Of interest, is the mention that the US is about evenly divided in energy use, with industry, transportation and home using about one third of the energy. China is presented as another end of the spectrum, with huge amounts of industry (and a greater reliance on coal.) He does present some of the pros and cons of many different types of energy and does a good job on bashing carbon sequestering and corn-ethanol (both from energy viewppoints.)

The course does not provide a great deal of new information, but it provides some interesting factoids. The author tries to be balanced, even though he does have some wacko ideas of his own.

Monday, December 06, 2010

BCS chaos scenario

What would have happened if a few close games went the other way? Or a few upsets didn't happen? Here is the "BCS chaos scenario". I've "reversed" some games that

South Carolina L Alabama, L Clemson; 7-5; Newton Dq'd, win SEC champ: 8-5
Oregon: L Cal, Stanford, Oregon State 9-3
Hawaii: Beat USC, Colorado : 12-1
Fresno: Beat Mississipi 9-3
Virginia Tech: Beat James Madison: 12-1
Wisconsin: L ASU, Wisconisn 9-3
Oregon State: W Washington, Washington State, UCLA, Oregon 9-3
Utah: W Notre Dame: 11-1
Ohio State: L Iowa, L Illinois 9-3
Arkansas: L Texas A&M, W Alabama, L Mississuppi 9-3
LSU: L Tennessee, Mississippi 8-4
Oklahoma: L Utah State, Air Force 8-4
Missouri: L San Diego State, W Texas Tech, L (Big 12 Champ. A&M) 10-3 
San Diego State: W BYU, Missouri 10-2
Alabama: W South Carolina 10-2, L Arkansas
Air Force: W Oklaoma 9-3
Teas A&M: W Arkansas, L FIU 9-3, W Big 12 champ (Missouri)
UCF: Win NC State, Kansas State 12-1
Oklahoma State L  Troy 9-3
Iowa: W Ohio State, Wisconsin, L Indiana 8-4
North illinois: W illinois, Miami (OH) 12-1
Pitt: L FIU, W UConn, L USF (6-6) [5-2]
West Virginia: L Louisville (8-4) [4-3]
UConn: L Pitt 7-5 [4-3]
Stanford: W Oregon 12-0
With the results, we end up with BCS results something like this. All the potential at-large teams are from non-BCS conferences. Boise State and TCU end up in the championship game. The Orange bowl figures 6-6 Pitt will travel well, so they pick them against Virginia Tech. The Sugar goes the service academy route. The Fiesta figures that Utah would travel well again. The whole BCS blows up in smoke, as they are stuck with a bunch of games they really didn't want. They finally cave and decide a playoff wouldn't be so bad after all - especially if they can use their stadiums for venues. Or maybe the presidents get mad and say enough is enough and return the bowls to their old New Years Day special reward.

1. TCU: 12-0 [BCS Champ]
2. Boise State 12-0 [BCS Championship]
3. Stanford: 11-1 [Rose]    
4. Michigan State: 11-1 [Rose]
5. Virginia Tech: 12-1 [Orange]
6. Hawaii: 12-1 
7. Utah: 11-1 [Fiesta]
8. UCF 12-1 
9. San Diego State: 10-2
10. Northern Illinois 12-1
11. Nevada: 11-2
12. Texas A&M 10-3 [Fiesta]
13. Air Force 9-3 [Sugar]
14. Fresno State 9-3
Oregon: 9-3 
Wisconsin: 9-3
Alabama: 9-3
Missouri 9-3
Nebraska 10-3
Florida State 10-3
Arkansas 9-3
West Virginia 9-3
Ohio State 9-3
Oklahoma State 9-3
Oregon State 8-4
Oklahoma 8-4
Mississippi State 8-4
LSU 8-4
Pitt 6-6 [Orange]
South Carolina 8-5 [Sugar]
Auburn 12-1 [ineligible]

Ok, this probably stretched credulity a little too far. (Teams like 'bama and Oregon would probably be ranked above some of these non-AQs.) However, getting TCU vs. Boise in the national Championship required nothing more than flipping an NCAA ruling and a few scores.
Auburn misses a field goal in the OT win vs. Clemson (and perhaps at Mississippi State also)
Boise doesn't miss a field goal in OT loss at Nevada
Cal scored a field goal vs. Oregon
Virginia Tech wasn't caught by surprise by James Madison
And for good measure, ASU didn't miss the extra point vs. Wisconsin

This would leave:
12-0 Boise State
12-0 TCU
12-1 Virginia Tech
11-1 Oregon
11-1 Auburn or (10-2)
11-1 Stanford
11-1 Ohio State
11-1 Michigan State

Its probably best to give Auburn two losses to make sure a 1 loss SEC team doesn't sneak in to the championship. It would be hard to justify sending any of the remaining one-lossers over undefeated Boise and TCU. (Ohio State has the biggest "name brand". But they also have the loss to one loss Michigan State - and a schedule strength comparable to Boise and TCU. Stanford had looked the best, but they have the loss to Oregon. Virginia Tech would be on the tear, with 12 wins since the season opening loss to Boise. However, who wants a rematch?

Just a few field goals away.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Thump, Quack , Moo: A Whacky Adventure

This is a rare derivative book that actually exceeds the original. Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type was a fun book. However, the many other books by the same authors were mere variations on the same theme.
Thump, Quack, Moo, however, tells a great original story. Here, the farmer is enlisting his animals to build a giant corn-field maze. All the animals help out - except for the mice who are taking a meteorology correspondence course. The Duck reluctantly decides to help out, but spends the nighttime hours subterfuging the Statue of Liberty maze. It finally reaches the climax as they go up in a hot air balloon to see the finished finished product.

We made the mistake of reading this as a final "bedtime" book. The kids could just not stop laughing. It is a great, funny book.

Pac-10 bowls

The Pac-10 only has 4 bowl-eligible teams. Only the Sun Belt has fewer bowl-eligible teams.

In spite of this the Pac-10 is one of the strongest conferences this season.

With 70 available bowl spots, you would imagine the top 70 teams would be playing. So, lets take a look at the top-70 teams that did not make the cut:

Top ranked nonbowl teams
22. USC (8-5)
24. ASU (6-6)
31. Oregon State (5-7)
34. California (5-7)
53. Texas (5-7)
58. Colorado (5-7)
59. UCLA (4-8)
62. Iowa State (5-7)

Hmm... The top 4 are all from the Pac-10. This list takes in every Pac-10 team save Washington State (and they are not that far down at #82). So why are the Pac-10 teams ranked so highly, but not in bowls?
USC was declared ineligible for something somebody may have done a long time ago. (They should have hired Auburn's Cam Newton case lawyers.)
ASU had 6 wins, but played two 1AA schools due to San Jose State dropping out at the last minute. It didn't matter that one of these schools was ranked higher than SJSU (and the other was not far behind). A rule is a rule. SJSU also dropped Stanford for the season. Luckily, Stanford did not have a 1AA scheduled and was able to fill the spot with Scramento State. (And it wouldn't have mattered anyway.) Who did SJSU play instead? Wisconsin and Alabama. If you have the money, you can buy your way to a "quality" victory.

Oregon State and California both had some tough non-conference road games (TCU and Boise for the Beavers and Nevada for California) Replace one of these top 15 teams with a more manageable team (say a middle of the pack SEC team?) and both would be bowling.

Another source of blame could be the 9-game conference schedule. Had Oregon State and Cal only had an 8 game schedule, they could have schedule an "easy win" non-conference game and voila, they would both be bowl eligible.

UCLA is a more difficult case. They managed just 4 victories for the season. However, it would not be a stretch to see them bowl eligible in another conference. They had a particularly brutal non-conference tour of Big-12 country with wins against Houston and Texas and a loss to Kansas State. Replace the K-State game with a 1AA school and drop a conference game and they, too, could be bowling. Alas, they are not in the SEC. At least they can take solace in knocking three teams (Houston, Texas and Oregon State) from bowl contention.

So there you have it, the Pac-10 just needs to emulate the SEC's scheduling practices (and hire their lawyers) and they could have 9 teams bowling.

Oregon State vs. Connecticut

Continuing the "using UConn to bash on the BCS" theme:

Oregon State finished 5-7. Their season is over. Revenue-wise, they should do ok. The Pac-10 has two teams in BCS bowls. However, they failed to fill the Sun Bowl spot. (The other two Pac-10 bowls would probably just cover the expenses of a team.)

Connecticut? They are 8-4, the Big East champs and are going to the BCS Fiesta bowl. A total of 6 BCS teams are going to various bowl games. With only an 8-way revenue split, Connecticut should be doing rather well.

Now, does UConn deserve a big game, while OSU stays home?

Not according to Sagarin rankings: UConn is #54, while Oregon State is #31.
Not according to similar opponents: OSU beat Louisville, while UConn was shut out.

So why is UConn bowling and not Oregon State?
You can blame the Pac-10.

Oregon and Stanford dominated the Pac-10. Even without them, you are still left with a strong conference with close parity.

Sagarin rankings of the conference teams:
Big East:  30,41,54,65,68,70,78,100
Pac10: 1,3,22,23,24,31,34,42,59,82

Both the Big East and Pac-10 have full round robin schedules. However, the Pac-10 has two additional teams, and thus two extra non-conference games. With Stanford and Oregon dominating at the top, that means two additional losses for each team.

If each Big East team had to lose to Stanford and Oregon, only two teams would be bowl eligible. Similarly, if each Pac-10 team could replace their Stanford/Oregon loses with "easy" games, then every Pac-10 team save Washington State would be bowl eligible.

In addition to the conference schedule, the Pac-10 also tends to hurt itself with hard non-conference scheduling. Oregon State was the poster child for this. Their easy non-conference game happened to be Big East member Louisville. For their other opponent, they got two top-10 teams on the road. Talk about fun!

Here are the comparisons of Sagarin rankings of all Oregon State and UConn opponents: (bold+ denotes a win)

OSU:  1,3,4,8,22+,23+,24+,34+,42 ,59 ,   ,68+,      ,82
UConn:                    30+,41+,48 ,65+,68 ,70+,73,78+,100,122+,159+,183+

OSU played 7 teams ranked higher than anyone UConn played (and won 3).
UConn played 4 teams ranked lower than anyone OSU played (and lost 1).
Hand Oregon's top four opponents to UConn in exchange for their bottom four and the Huskies could easily be 4-8 instead of 8-4.

Oregon State is a little baffling. They lost to all the top-10 teams (4) they played. However, they beat everyone between 20-40. (4) Then they lost 3 of 4 to teams ranked below 40.

UConn had a similarly odd performance. The beat their highest ranked team (#30), then went won,loss,won,loss,won,loss,won,loss between 41 and 100 before beating the three remaining teams rankings above 100.

Were OSU in the Big East, they would have had a high probability of securing a BCS bowl bid. Alas, they were in the Pac 10 and had a to stay home.

Connecticut vs. Temple

Connecticut and Temple both finished the regular season 8-4.
Both are located in the northeast.
Both have played football in the Big East (Connecticut 'replaced' Temple's football spot.)
Temple defeated Connecticut by two touchdowns.
Connecticut is going to an elite $18 million payout BCS bowl game.
Temple? They're staying home.
So, suppose the Big East divides revenue equally, and Connecticut splurges and spends $2 to "travel" to Arizona for the game. They get an extra month of practice time, a load of extra money and perks for their players and coaches, and then they get the $2 million extra for their program on top of that. Temple? Nada. The rich get richer.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Football as a sport...

Nevada beat Boise State at home. In the process they likely cost the school a hefty BCS paycheck and likely relegated themselves to a more lowly bowl.

Nice reward, eh?

A few years ago, LSU raised the poppycock about not losing a single game in regulation (they lost two in OT) to lobby their way in to the national championship game. This was the same year that Hawaii ended the season undefeated without a chance to play. LSU won the game, while Hawaii (after losing their coach) got stomped by Georgia. It seemed like vindication of the naysayers. However, what would have happened if it were the other way around?

The next season, Alabama lost the SEC championship game, and was then destroyed by undefeated Utah in a BCS game. This time the story was "letdown". Hmm... It seems the SEC always has a way to spin things their way.

Back to the WAC, Nevada likely ended the hopes of a BCS payday for the WAC. Boise and Nevada will likely rank far ahead of anyone from the Big East that might make a BCS game. They will likely be ahead of the ACC champion also. But their reward is a mediocre bowl. By winning, Nevada may have also won a trip to New Mexico instead of San Francisco. Whopee!

Yet they still played their heart out. And won. Now they can claim bragging rights with a victory over Boise and a tie in the conference standings. The cost? Only a few million for their program. C'est la vie.

The Time Traveler's Wife

The premise involves a man, Henry, who has crono-displacement disorder. This causes him to involuntarily slip from the present to points in the past or future. There tends to be some order to the places that he goes. (He often ends up in the same place at different times.) Though he has the free will to interact with the events in different time periods, the course of action is already set. Thus, his actions in the past can't change the future. They are in fact already part of the future that he is coming from.

This provides a solution to the 'past change' dilemma of time travel. It also provides a good set up for a love story. Henry and Claire each meet each other for the "first time" with one person knowing what the future has in store, while the other is oblivious. They also get to have a kid who travels around and has adventures with her dad, even after he is dead.

Unfortunately, the writing is very confused. The end strays heavily and drags on and on and on and on. The tone also bounces around from schmaltzy sentimentality to excessive vulgarity. The time travel approach leaves some plot points that seem to be only partially covered. It also suffers from a confused morality and scientific explanation. Perhaps the best part of the writing was the detailed descriptions of Chicago.

Friday, November 26, 2010

BCS dream come true

Alabama was a few touchdowns ahead of Auburn. Then they must have realized, "hey, if we win we might not have an SEC team in the title game." So, like the true southern gent, they keeled over and let Auburn have the game.

Oregon looked like they were having trouble at Arizona. But, hey, the Ducks don't really start to play until the second half anyway. (Notwithstanding the Cal episode - they must have got lost on the way to the stadium there.)

Things looked close, but the crisis was averted. Sure, Oregon isn't in the Big- conference, but at least they are BCS, undefeated, and most important, have gobs of money and fans.

In the late game, the BCS got another dream come true as Nevada defeated Boise. Luckily for BCS-land, Nevada had to travel to Hawaii this year and has a loss to their record. Two one-less WAC teams can enjoy their top-20 rankings and visits to exciting bowl games like the Kraft Fight Hunger bowl. No need to worry the BCS there.

Unfortunately, not all was well in BCS land. The Big East continued its string of ineptitude, leaving Connecticut in the driver's seat for the title. They just have to beat Cincinnati (who is a far cry from last year's team) and USF (who seems to end the season a few weeks before other teams.) Neither game will be easy, but both are possible. That will leave an 8-4 team (i.e. one that does not have enough wins to be an at large team) in the BCS game. Worse yet, they are from a relatively small market that doesn't care much about football. They do have good basketball fans, so there is some hope that they make it out there.

In the best scenario, UConn loses and West Virginia wins, leaving an 'acceptable' 9-3 West Virginia to play in a BCS bowl. But this is the Big East, so it wouldn't be too surprising to see them lose to Rutgers. This could allow Pitt, with a 7-5 record to make it. If Rutgers wins and Cincinnati manages to run the table, the Bearcats could actually share the Big East championship - at 6-6. (However, with this scenario, West Virginia would probably win the tiebreakers.)

Luckily, no one really cares about the Big East in BCS land. They will probably just be the filler for some good traveling at-large Big-10 team to pound.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

The science seems impressive, though the story gets tedious. The tone of the story felt more like Darwin than other Jules Verne adventure novels.

In this story, there are reports of a giant sea creature in the ocean. The narrator ends up on a ship that is going out to investigate. Through a series of events, he and two others end up being rescued by a the "creature" which turns out to be the ship "Nautalis". The captain of the ship, Nemo, has recused himself from society and lives now in the sea.

The narrator and his companions are now "prisoners" aboard the Nautilus. However, they are given freedom to explore, with their only main restriction that they are not permitted to leave the ship on their own. Through this they discover all of the great discoveries that Nemo has made, including submarine travel, undersea tunnels, electric ships, precious metal and mineral stores, strange animals and parts of the earth nobody has seen. Some of the science was ahead of its time, while other has been shown to be wrong.

In there voyages, they have a few adventures, including Nemo's attacks on some unknown enemy crews. However, the main conflict is against nature, rather than man. They have to fight giant sea creatures, escape from enclosing icebergs and endure horrid storms.

Eventually the narrator and his companions (the Narrator, Pierre Aronnax, his servant, Conseil, and the Canadian, Ned Land) escape the ship on a boat and live to tell their tale.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The New Frugality

Conservative, simplistic advice in consumer economics. It is well carried out with plenty of personal experiences. The underlying thesis is that the fall of the economy in the "great recession" has triggered a change in behavior and circumstances. The excessive consumption of the past cannot be continued and today people will be required to live within their means. He thus provides a number of tips for doing that.

The goal, however, is not to sacrifice the quality of life. Instead, "excess" should be siphoned off, while still spending generously (within one's means) on areas that provide value. Debt is generally to be avoided, but is appropriate in some cases. Renting a house is often very appropriate, especially when house values are high relative to rentals. Saving for retirement and other events is good. Credit cards can be good or bad depending on how they are used.

The author presents his "goals" in a fairly open manner, acknowledging that different people function in different ways.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

This Missng Golden Ticket

The selling point of this book is the "missing chapter" from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This is a humorous chapter about "spotty powder", a substance nearly identical to sugar, but which causes short term "spots" to appear on the body.

Unfortunately, this chapter is only a couple of pages long, so a lot had to be added to complete a book. The chapter also featured characters that did not make it in the the final cut of the book. Some of the book provide background on the book's creation and the "missing characters" that didn't make it in to the published book.

The main "theme" of the book, however, is Raold Dahl's year. Each month is given a brief chapter. In between these chapters are other bits, including Chocolate Factory trivia, tips on writing, and even candy recipes. The in-between chapters tends to be better than the actual "month" chapters. The book, however, is quite a jumble, jumping from serious to humorous. It is really only for the most dedicated Roald Dahl fan who must have everything.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

It Can't Happen Here

A Democrat politician builds up a base of support of a political operative and a radio pastor and his conservative organization. After assuming the presidency he uses the pastors now-militarized organization to help him assume fascist dictatorial powers. He institutes policies that appear on the surface to be beneficial to the common man. However, the prime beneficiaries tend to be the big businesses. The pastor is quickly incarcerated "for his safety" and a strict police state eventually results, with communication and transportation heavily restricted. An underground resistance movement gradually pops up.

The president has a big heart and thinks he is doing the best for the country. However, he is eventually deposed by his operative, who is later assassinated by someone else. After a string of assassinations, the country starts to return to some sense of normalcy.

The author is obviously trying to make a political statement against the gradual reduction of rights either by their outright restriction or by the granting of new rights. Even the best of intentions can lead towards the path of the downfall. Fascism can easily arise from seemingly left-leaning liberal policies. Unfortunately, the book does go a little too far over the top in the "fall" of the society, making the characters a little less believable than they could be.

Stranger In A Strange Land

A child conceived on an ill-fated mission to Mars is raised by Martians. As a young adult, he is chosen to return to earth on a reconnaissance mission. However, he doesn't know his true purpose, and ends up becoming a pawn in the goals of many nefarious characters. Due to his martian upbringing, he behaves differently, and seems to have many "supernatural" powers. Also, due to some legal precedents, he has enormous wealth and power. A journalist and a nurse "rescue" him from a hospital and team with a renaissance-man lawyer and his "harem". The "man from mars" eventually founds his own religion (which seems seems more in line with a hippie free-love movement) and is "martyred" by an upset public.

The book starts out as a fairly standard science fiction book, but then starts to get very tedious as he meanders around his Martian-influenced morality.

We'll Always Have Paris

A collection of Bradbury short stories. The stories tend to deal with middle age adults and social situations. Some have a distinct science fiction flavor (such as a "living" radio character or a space trip to mars), however, the focus is on the human reactions rather than the science. Almost all the stories end with some sort of minor twist. Nothing stood out as being really great.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Fourth Bear

Jasper Fforde writes with a zany brand of humor similar to the late Douglas Adams. In this book, we encounter a number of persons of dubious reality (PDRs). Luckily, the police have a nursery crimes division that helps solve crimes involving these characters. The lead character, Jack, is an officer of the nursery crimes division who happens to be a PDR himself. In the story, we get the gingerbread man as a genetically engineered master criminal, a "binary" space alien as a police force member, and all sorts of other bizarre characters. This book must have been a blast to write, and makes a great read.

The BCS conference beauty contest

In the Yahoo! Sports Blog Pollin' table, a list of the top 6 wins by each team is provided. The inclusion or exclusion of a team in the "quality list" is somewhat arbitrary. (3-6 Cincinnati, 4-6 Ole Miss and 5-5 BYU appear, but 7-4 Toledo doesn't make the cut. The criteria seems to be "BCS conference team or popular non-BCS team.) However aside from the criteria issue, it appears that the wins are built almost entirely of teams in the same conference.

TCU and Oklahoma are the only teams that get credited with 3 of their top 6 wins against non-conference opponents. (though Boise State's Toledo win would probably rank as 4th best if it were included.) Only 5 teams (Boise, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Arizona) include victories over top 25 out of conference teams.

So what does this tell us? Most top ranked teams get there by beating high-ranked conference opponents. These high ranked opponents are high-ranked because: 1) they have few losses in conference play and 2) they have victories over inferior teams out of conference.

How is the best way to carry this out? Well, the ACC, SEC and Big-12 have a pretty good model. 1) They have the "BCS" status that allows them to schedule money games against inferior opponents. Most teams will schedule three or four easy wins. 2) They have 12 teams in the conference, yet only play 8 conference games. This minimizes the internal conference carnage.

The Big-10 comes close to the model, with 8 conference games and an 11 team league.

The Big East plays a full round-robin schedule, but due to league size play only 7 conference games. In this case, the five non-conference games works against them. They lack the money, reputation (and quality) to play 5 sure-wins, and often end up with more competitive non-conference match-ups. The complete round-robin schedule also hurts.

Of the BCS conferences, the Pac-10 does the worst job of guaranteeing its BCS riches. The 9 round-robin conference schedule adds in additional conference losses. They also tend to schedule more competitive non-conference games. (Geography is a factor - the WAC and Mountain West are the nearest conferences, and happen to be the best of the non-BCS conferences.)

For the non-BCS conferences, scheduling is the big disadvantage. The lower teams in the conference often schedule body-bag games to bring in revenue, adding to conference loses. Due to poor conference perception, the top teams schedule more competitive games (and fewer "sure wins").

The ranking of each team, with the top nonconference wins (number proceeding is where it ranks in top 6 wins, number after is where the team ranks in top 25).
1) Auburn : 6. Clemson
2) Oregon : 0
3) TCU : 2. Baylor, 5. SMU, 6. Oregon State
4) Boise State: 1. Virginia Tech (16), 3. Oregon State
5) LSU : 4. West Virginia, 5. North Carolina
6) Stanford: 3. Notre Dame
7) Nebraska: 5. Washington
8) Oklahoma State: 0
9) Michigan State: 5. Notre Dame
10) Wisconsin: 3. Arizona State
11) Ohio State: 1. Miami (25)
12) Alabama: 4. Penn State
13) Missouri: 4. Illinois
14) Oklahoma: 1. Florida State (24), 2. Air Force, 6. Cincinnati
15) Arkansas: 2. Texas A&M (19)
16) Virginia Teach: 5. North Carolina
17) Nevada: 1. Cal
18) South Carolina: 0
19) Texas A&M: 0
20) USC: 0
21) Arizona: 1. Iowa (22)
22) Iowa: 0
23) NC State: 2. UCF, 5. Cincinnati
24) Florida State: 4. BYU
25) Miami: 3. Pitt

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Comparing the BCS humans to computers

It is intriguing to compare the difference between the computer and "human" scores in the BCS rankings. The computer scores are prohibited from including margin of victory in their score calculations. A commanding 30 point road win counts as much as a last-second hail-Mary for a one point home victory.

From that, we can compare the rankings of the top 9 teams. These all conveniently have the same rankings in both human polls used. They also have no agreement between computers and humans.

This season, Oregon and Boise have been dominating just about everyone they've played. Unfortunately, a lot of their opponents have had fairly mediocre records. Thus, it would make sense to see the humans give them a boost that they computers can't.
LSU and Auburn, on the other hand, have beat a number of highly-touted teams. However, many of their victories have been less than impressive. (LSU only beat a mediocre Tennessee team because the Volunteers had 13 men on the field for the final play.) It makes sense to see these teams docked by the humans.

TCU is a little more difficult to explain. They have played dominated a schedule of "ok" teams. The domination would seem to imply a preference in the human polls. However, the computers slightly favor them. This may be do to the poor performance against a poorly-perceived San Diego State team, coupled with Notre Dame's victory over Utah. (TCU's previous marquee win.) Though perhaps the computers get this right in spite of their limitations. San Diego State's previous two losses can be at least partially attributed to late-game blown calls. The 5-point loss to TCU was their biggest loss of the season. This week Baylor, Utah and Oregon State all loss, hurting the ranking with the computers. However, even last week, the humans had them lower than the computers.

Stanford is another odd case. They are 5th in the computers, yet 8th in the human polls. Most wins have been of the impressive-domination variety. They were also ahead for a good portion of their loss to #1 Oregon. They recently destroyed a ranked Arizona team. Their close victories were over a ranked USC team and against Arizona State in Tempe.

The Stanford rankings are especially baffling when compared to Wisconsin. The Badgers also had a narrow win over ASU (though that game was in Madison). They also squeaked out a victory over the ranked Iowa team. They have had a few blowout wins over mediocre teams. They also had a nice victory over a ranked Ohio State, and a loss to a one-loss Michigan State. The top of the resume seems fairly comparable to Stanford's. At the bottom, however, you have 1-win San Jose State, and 2 win UNLV, Minnesota, and FCS Austin Peay. Stanford has 2 win Washington State and Wake Forest, as well as 6-4 FCS Sacramento State at the bottom. The computers seem to have things right. You have to wonder why the pollsters love Wisconsin so much.

Ohio State also gets the Wisconsin treatment, with a human ranking much higher than the computer ranking. In this case the name is the big factor. After all, the are Ohio State.

The 'name recognition' of Ohio State may also be what gives Nebraska the lower computer ranking. That, and the fact that Texas has shown itself to be really, really bad. Nebraska seems to be pulling the anti-Cal, putting up its worst performances at home.

Team Harris Coaches Comp. SOS
1. Oregon (1) 1st 1st 2nd T-87th
2. Auburn (2) 2nd 2nd 1st 12th
3. TCU (3) 4th 4th T-3rd 55th
4. Boise St. (4) 3rd 3rd T-6th T-87th
5. LSU (5) 6th 6th T-3rd T-8th
6. Stanford (6) 8th 8th 5th T-65th
7. Wisconsin (7) 5th 5th 12th 75th
8. Nebraska (8) 9th 9th 8th T-57th
9. Ohio State (9) 7th 7th 13th T-70th

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Compass is a meandering story about a lot of people that have had something to do with the compass. Brits get the most attention here, with quality engineers as well as the politically connected getting their space. A long time ago, compasses were simple needles in water. Then things "advanced" to card-based compasses, only to come back to the floating needles. (I had not realized how inaccurate compasses could be - and that the variation tends to differ greatly based on location. )

The book seems to spend a lot of time on topics that had abundant information, with plenty of random attempts at wit and political bits. There is some interesting material in here, though it could use a good deal of editing to get down to a coherent book.

Great Train Robbery

This is the historical account of a Victorian-era heist of gold from a moving train. Most of the novel concerns the planning involved in carrying out the robbery. The actual robbery happens near the end (and is appropriately only a small part of the whole operation.) The final bit details the public reaction, along with the capture and escape of the robbers. (The final destination of gold and thieves is not known.)

Though based on true events, it is told in a highly engaging manner similar to Crichton's other thrillers. Instead of scientific details, we get details of mid 19th-century life and criminal activity. The criminals are portrayed sympathetically as smart, highly creative individuals engaged in a complicated plot.

The actual robbery required a number of preparatory actions: to open the safes on the train, the keys needed to be obtained. This required social activity to locate the keys, and even a jailbreak to get someone with the proper skills needed to help obtain and duplicate the keys. There were so many ways that the plot could have failed, it is a wonder that it totally succeeded.

Boise State - TCU rematch?

TCU beat Boise in the Poinsettia Bowl two years ago
Boise beat TCU in the Fiesta Bowl last year
Next year, they will be in the same conference, and have a chance to play each other during the regular season.
For this year, it would only make sense to have them play in the BCS championship game this year.
How far-fetched is it?
Not likely at the present, but still possible.
Oregon looks like the best team around now. They annihilated some mediocre teams in non-conference play. Then they continued on steamrolling some really good teams during conference play. However, they play in the PAC-10. It seems every year, the "great one" suffers some inscrutable loss.

Cal could be the trap. Cal has blown away opponents at home, but been destroyed on the road. Unfortunately, Oregon makes the trip to Berkeley. Fortunately for the Ducks, Cal may have "ended" its curse by barely squeaking by Washington State on the road.

Arizona is in Eugene on a Friday night after a week's rest. Seems like a sure-fire Duck win. But that could be just the cockiness that lets them fall in an unexplained loss. Arizona is also coming in after a week off, and is a ranked program. Oregon will be paying attention.

Oregon State is the final chance for failure. The Beavers have been struggling this year. However, they are another picture of inconsistent. During the non-conference schedule they lost to two top-5 outfits, and beat a decent Big East team. That all seemed fairly normal. However, in conference play, they've beat the 3rd, 5th, and 6th(Tied) schools. Then lost to the two other schools tied for 6th. It wouldn't be too surprising to see them beat Oregon.

As for Auburn, they get the benefit of the doubt by playing in the SEC. They have won some close games over some good teams. The game against Georgia doesn't seem too difficult. The rivalry game against Alabama, however, could be very dangerous. Then the SEC championship game, possibly against a streaking Florida could be another shot for a loss. However, the best shot may be the Newton affair. If he gets declared ineligible, the wins get vacated and Auburn is out of the picture.

Would a one-loss team squeak in? LSU is loved by the computers. However, the squeaker wins make them hard to justify. (They should have had a loss to Tennessee...) The games against Louisiana-Monroe and Mississippi wont do much to help the computer rankings, while Arkansas could be a trap game. They also wont have the bump of the SEC championship game (unless Auburn loses its next two or gets disqualifies.)

Nebraska has Kansas and Colorado coming up which will hurt the computer rankings. The mediocre schedule and the loss to Texas should keep them out. The Big-12 championship game may help, but the quality of opponent would diminish the benefit. (Texas is out. Oklahoma would have two loses. Oklahoma State has only one loss, but doesn't have the street cred of the big boys.) A one-loss Oklahoma State would end with victories over Oklahoma and Nebraska. However, they would also be hard to justify over a no-loss Boise or TCU.

In the Big-10, Wisconsin, Michigan State and the Iowa-Ohio State winner could each end with one loss. However, they end the season on a whimper and wouldn't see much of a move.

Stanford has looked good this season, though the loss to Oregon probably keeps them out. Utah's loss to TCU ended their BCS dreams.

Odds are probably about 50/50 that one non-AQ makes it to the championship, and not much lower that we see two. Maybe that is just what we need to end this ugly system. (But then, what will college football fans argue over?)

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Ubik takes place in a very futuristic 1992, where everything from doors to appliances demand coins to perform their action. The principle character are employees of a "prudence" organization that have the ability to counteract psychic powers. The owner, Glen Runciter, communicates with his wife who resides in "half life", a post-death state that allows the dead to still communicate with the living. (However, communications gradually cause the half-life to fade.)

One day a new recruit is brought in that has a special "anti-precog" capability that allows her to go to "change" the past. She along with some of Runciter's best employees go on a mission to Luna which ends up being a trap. They find their world mysteriously regressing backwards. They also find strange communications from their boss showing up in odd places. They blame the new girl for this problems. However, they eventually discover it is another half-lifer that is "eating them". Luckily, some half-lifers have come up with a counter-measure, Ubik.

Like Dick's Flow My Tears the Policman Said, Ubik has an odd approach to "personalized" time travel. In Ubik, it initially appears somebody is purposely regressing people in the past until they whither away. However, it is later revealed that almost the entire world was created in somebody's mind, and that time period just happened to be a convenient one for them to be in.

The novel continues to build up interesting twists on existence itself, and eventually ends with a quasi-biblical quote. The "half-life" world has strong forces of good and evil that are trying to steer people to their side. They give messages and hints of the best course of action, and even occasionally try to assist. However, the end result is dependent on the will and actions of the half-lifers themselves. They eventually gain the ability to distinguish the good from the bad, and use that to be able to continue their existence. (and meanwhile, they still continue their limited ability to communicate with the "real" living.)

Ubik also provides strong contrast between an overly commercial world of the future with the "half-life" world. Each have their own challenges, and at times, people are unsure where they belong.

Altogether, it is a good science fiction book that explores many different aspects of life of the 60s when it was written as well as humanity in general.

Judy Moody Goes to College

Judy Moody's third grade teacher is in Italy and she has a substitute she doesn't like. She zones out in math, so her parents hire a tutor. This tutor is a student at the local college, and Judy Moody is thrilled to be "going to college". She gets a great enthusiasm for math and enjoys the college "scene". She decides she wants to dress and talk like her tutor. She even attends an art class, and has her picture displayed at an art show at the University.

The book is a "sassy kids book", that seems to "try" to hard to be that way. College students are portrayed as valleywag peaceniks that go to a school that more closely resembles 60s Berkeley than any school today. It makes for some third grade humor but comes out with a message that poor performance will be rewarded.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

I was interested in this book after I saw it referenced in a couple of other books I read. Perhaps it would have been better to leave it that way. The author has some good ideas; however, his delivery could use a lot of work. I found myself dozing off every time I picked up the book. The author tends to be extremely wordy, and goes out of his way to make sure he doesn't miss any minute detail. (There is even a long postscript, where he apologizes and corrects some of the details he did miss.)

The core thesis is that scientific revolutions are generally evolutionary changes to an existing paradigm. "Normal" science involves solving small problems in a narrowly defined scientific paradigm. Occasionally questions arise within the paradigm. These can eventually lead to challenges to aspects of the existing paradigm. New solutions may "improve" on it until a revolution produces a new paradigm. Old practitioners are often reluctant to adapt, but eventually they do.

Scientists working within a paradigm tend to look with the eyes of the existing system. They tend to color their results by what they expect to see. (This observational bias is present in all aspects of life and has been elucidated with a number of different studies.) A new paradigm can appear very revolutionary because it unleashes many observations that would not have been noted (or even "observed") in the prior paradigm.

When textbooks are written, the historical evolution of science is given fairly short treatment, thus making science appear to be a more logical progression than it actually is. (And conversely making the revolutionary events appear more significant than they really are.)

The arguments in this book are very convincing. However, you have to wonder if they are colored by the scientific paradigm in which they were written.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Baking pitas and apple cake

We baked an "Apple Hill Cake" from the Los Altos Stake cookbook for Sunday yummy today. It was ok. We probably overcooked it a little. (A real rarity in our oven.) The frosting also seemed to be a little lacking in sugar (1 cup powdered sugar to 8 oz cream cheese + butter and lemon juice.) However, I didn't mind the 'extra-cheesy' version of the frosting.

The cake itself was 4 cups apples, along with some sugar, flour, eggs and oil and a lot of spices. I think I like butter better in cakes. Nuts would also have been helpful. There was a nice apple coffeecake recipe we tried before.

However, it was nice to use up some of our abundant apple crop. Now we are throwing away all sorts of apples with even the slightest blemish. First we tried to save them, give them away or make applesauce, but now they have caught up with us. Just wait. In a few months, we'll be buying apples. D'oh! Too bad the pomegranate crop looks to be coming in at three fruits this year.

For dinner, I also whipped up some hummus (and finished off the tahini in the process.) I did get to use some fresh ranpor lime and lemon juice. (And managed to break the lock that locks the food processor on to the blender base. Maybe its time we got a new food processor/blender.)

After cutting up some carrots and celery, I discovered we were out of other good vegetables to serve with the hummus. It sounded like a good time to try pita bread again.

I used the king author recipe. Just flour, yeast, salt, sugar and oil. Its one of the easier breads to make. Just kneed it together, let it rise for an hour, then roll it out. After sitting for a few minutes, it goes in a really hot oven for 5 minutes and - presto - pita.

The recipe actually called for 5 minutes plus 2 minutes, but they seemed to be done after five. Our oven running hot for two recipes in a row? This is unheard of. Perhaps its the hot day causing it to act that way.

I actually used white flour in the pita because, well, its yummy. I prefer cakes and cookies with whole wheat, but pita just seems to need the white stuff to have the yummy fluffy texture.

The kids ended up making pita faces using hummus to stick the veggies on the pita. Yummy!

Mormon Stories

Card's Mormon Stories provide a diversity of "religious" themes. Two of the stories are strongly rooted in contemporary Mormon culture and are cutting, inspirational views on moral themes. The other two are more general in nature, and are "religious" only in that they use Christian characters.

The "Mormon" Stories

Christmas and Helaman's House
The humble entrepreneur builds a huge house in a ritzy neighborhood. However, he feels somewhat empty. On Christmas Eve, one of her daughters invites over a young man who has recently returned from a mission to Colombia. This man eventually runs out because he can't stand the display of such wealth. Helaman then realizes that he can't stand it either, and with his family, decide to dedicate the house to serving the poor.

It is a nice uplifting story, but it did leave me wanting to read more about how this "dedication to the poor" turned out.

Worthy to Be One Of Us
Two empty-nesters do not remain empty for long as his father dies, resulting in his mother moving in with them. Then, at Thanksgiving, their son announces they have sold their home in anticipation of a March move, and plan on moving (with two kids and pregnant wife). The grandchildren are wild and crazy, and the daughter in law comes from barely-literate "white-trash" stock (while they are the "university professor" types. The wife discovers that the daughter-in-law and mother-in-law both feel inadequate because they feel their husbands have married beneath their social status. In the end, however, they realize that they both provide the "spiritual mooring" for their families, and can point to the strength of their children as a major accomplishment in their life.

This is another nice story showing that we should look at the positive in others, rather than worry about superficial "class" attributes.

The More General Stories

Two seniors were discussing another woman from their town. This woman was always praising her oldest child. However, he recently was executed due to his political involvement. They then discuss some of the unsavory events in his life and how he could have fit in if he didn't seem to be seeking trouble all the time.

Though it is never explicitly stated, it becomes obvious that this is the story of Christ in his home town. This is a nice quick story that cuts at the problems of gossip and the fact that even the most lauded characters can be portrayed in a negative light.

God Plays Fair Once Too Often
God and Lucifer run in to each other at a party and discuss a "bet" which they made. Lucifer gets to destroy the world if he can convince everyone that God's social communal sharing is evil, while rampant capitalism is good. As part of the deal, God has to shut off his omniscience for 150 years. Lucifer manages to get the Stalinism installed in this world under the name of communism. This system, while it takes the name of communism is actually an atheistic monopolistic system with most of the evils of capitalism and few of the benefits. After this system falls, capitalism is seen as the true force that can benefit the earth.

This story is primarily a political critique, positing that we must not overlook the deficiencies of capitalism. Just because the Stalinists failed so miserably in their pseudo-communism does not mean that all communist principles are bad (and capitalistic ones good.) An alternate view could be that the atheistic nature of the government was its true problem.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Oh, Stanford

I should have known. Once Stanford makes it to the top 10, they're destined to lose the next game. But, I still had my hopes up. Could they even challenge for the championship? But, no. They jumped up to a big lead over Oregon in the first half, and then...

They decided not to show up for the second half. Oh well. There is still a chance for a good season.

More baffling is what happened in the rankings. Oregon turned on the quack attack for a second half pounding of Stanford. Boise State pummeled lowly New Mexico State (Boise's backups outscore NMSU on their own.) From a schedule perspective, all of Boise's previous opponents also won. Ohio State struggled with mediocre Illinois. Alabama also managed an annihilation of Florida. So it seemed obvious, Alabama, Oregon and Boise were the top three. But no, for some reason, Ohio State stays second and Oregon passes Boise for third. Oh whatever. Polls are always annoying.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Food Rules

I like Michael Pollan's books. However, I can't seem to tell them apart - except for this one. This is a "sound bite" version of his popular Defense of Food book. He narrows food choices down to a set of around 60 short "rules", some with a couple additional paragraphs, others with nothing more than the rule.

They all describe general approaches to "natural" healthy eating. Some rules include "only eat deserts you make yourself", "don't buy food you see advertised on TV", "don't buy food that makes health claims" or "don't eat something that was served through a car window." The main message is similar to the "real" book: go back to natural food that can be "enjoyed", rather than processed food that is consumed. The message is good. The presentation is extremely brief. I guess its a good way to cash in on a popular book that happens to gel with the cultural zeitgeist.

Yazoo Queen

In the afterward, Card acknowledges that Yazoo Queen is "chapter 0" of Crystal City. He wasn't kidding. When I first read Crystal City, it seemed as if I'd some how missed a chapter with some earlier events. Well, here they are.

In this story, Alvin and Arthur Stewart are taking a riverboat down the Mississippi to Nueva Barcelona (New Orleans). On the boat, they run in to Jim Bowie (who is portrayed as an amiable thug.) They catch a poorly-built raft drifting out in the river and go to rescue it. The raft is piloted by Abraham Lincoln (portrayed as an honest buffoon that everyone just can't help to like.) After they get him back and tie the raft to the riverboat, a group of slaves use the raft to sneak off to their freedom.

This story is a fun read that has fun weaving historical figures and places in to a fantasy narrative. However, it is best read in the sequence of Alvin Maker books (before Crystal City).


The Hunger Games Recipe: Take a bit of Survivor (and reality in general), through in the original Star Wars trilogy add a touch of Lord of the Flies and Inspector Gadget. The overall plot is a close star wars clone. The "rebels" fight the empire (capital), they seem to get a victory in the first book. In the second the capital fights back and seems to be getting even stronger. Finally, the big fight comes in the third where, against all odds, the rebels manage to win.

Like the previous books, Mockingjay is a great page-turner that I had to plow through in one night. And like the others, I felt unsatisfied at the end.

Here she seems to try just a little too hard. She wasn't sure how to resolve the two-guys thing. So, she brings back a totally brainwashed Peeta and a Gale who gets overly bloodthirsty. Peeta works hard to overcome his brainwashing while Gale concocts massive killing machines (one of which happens to kill Katniss's sister.) Is there any doubt which boy Katniss will end up with?

And then there is the rebel leader, who gets portrayed more and more like a power-hungry villain. You could see what Katniss would do to her long before it happened.

The author was willing to suddenly kill of characters after she built up a lot of sympathy for them. I guess that makes it real. But, it also seems somewhat unsatisfying. She also seems to burn out on the narrative after a parachute explosion that injures Katniss. (Again, she's in the hospital. And again we miss a lot of narrative.) The explosion happens to kill her younger sister. The quest to save her sister was the reason she entered the games in the first place. I guess this shows that it was all for naught. Or perhaps her sister would have become the tool for the revolution instead - and more likely kept her head on.

The Hunger Games series ends as a jumbled escapist mess. It had some potential to make some great observations, but got sidetracked with some bad characters and gruesome action. Hollywood in book form.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Catching Fire

While Hunger Games could stand alone, Catching Fire is the second book in a trilogy. It relies heavily on events of the first book and leaves things in a huge mess at the end. Suddenly, the narrator realizes she has inadvertently helped to launch a revolution. She tries to do everything in her power to make things better. Alas, things just get worse.

The capital has a solution - start a hunger games just for previous champions. That will let these problem people exterminate themselves. Alas, for the capital, it just seems to make matters worse.

The storytelling here is even better than in the first book. The characters are also richer. We get a stronger impression that the capital people are the rich "playboys" and the enemies of society. Unfortunately, Katniss is still downright annoying. In some ways it is not her fault. She is being used by the revolutionaries to help advance their plot. (Though she is totally clueless.) Oh, and she has two guys that love her, though she simply uses them when it is to her advantage. It all makes for another escapist book that you can quickly read through.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games is set in a post-apocalyptic world consisting of a capital city and thirteen distracts. About 75 years before, there had been a big rebellion and the thirteenth district had been annihilated. The remaining districts were put in their place of servitude to the capital city. To help the districts remember their "place", they have an annual event called the "Hunger Games". In the event, a boy and a girl from each district (chosen at random) are brought together in a fight to the death. The winner is lauded, with their entire district receiving some of the spoils. The losers are, well, dead.

The world is a combination of reality TV and class-stratification gone totally amok. However, the book doesn't spend much time looking in to what would be an interesting civilization. Instead, the focus is on the narrator, Katniss.

As the narrative comes to the drawing for the female participant from her district, it seems certain that she will be called. However, she isn't. Instead, her younger sister is called. However, Katniss volunteers to take her place. We see how the initial part of the games turns to hero worship. She is assigned a stylist and a prep crew who help make her up for the games. She dines like a queen. Everything seems like a dream life - well, except for the part that you will likely be dead soon.

The male participant from her district has had a crush on her for years. (She discovers this on the live television announcement.) Eventually, they both go through the games, with some of their allies being killed, while they do their bit of killing themselves. The "gamemakers" make a rule change allowing a district 'couple' to win together. They then revoke it when they are the only ones left. They attempt to get around this by attempting a double suicide with the poison berries. The gamemakers don't want this, and quickly declare them both winners.

The Hunger Games seems to end clearly, with few open threads demanding a sequel. (Their 'defiance' and willingness to buck the tradition seems to be one route.)

The storytelling is top notch, making this book one that is difficult to put down. However, the story seems lacking. The characters are also ho-hum. The narrator, Katniss, could use a few good slaps to get her to stop being such a jerk. Her fellow district competitor evokes much more sympathy (as do other "enemies", such as "Fox Face") It seems like it was made for a summer tentpole movie - large cast of beautiful teens with the romance to draw in the girls, violence and techno-gadgetry to draw in the adults. Unfortunately, like most of the big summer movies, it entertains you while you are there and that's about it.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Grinning Man

The Grinning Man is set in the Alvin Maker universe of fantasy frontier America. In this world, supernatural "knacks" are common and the politics are a little different than what we learned in history.

In this story, Alvin Maker and his sidekick Arthur Stewart run in to Davey Crocket "grinning" down a bear. Crocket does not take too kindly to them invading his turf. However, Alvin uses his "maker" skills to bend his gun and chase him away. They later visit a town where they find themselves unwelcome due to word Crocket was spreading. Eventually a miller takes them in. However, they find he is cheating his customers. Alvin and Arthur begin to set things right as Davey returns now essentially as a servant to the bear. (Alvin had used his "making" skill to help cause that outcome.) Eventually the miller runs off as his corrupt ways were found the town is happy and the bear gets elected to congress (with Davey as his interpreter.)

The story is fairly light and a fun diversion in the Alvin Maker universe. It could probably stand alone outside, but many of the inside jokes would be missed. The ending (with the bear as an elected official) is a little over the top. All told, it makes a nice addition to one of Card's best series.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

A compulsive gambler checks opts for a mental hospital as an alternative to prison. Once there he tries to stir things up. He befriends the doctor, starts regular card games and takes a number of other bets. One of his big bets is that he can "break" the "big nurse" who has an iron hold on the ward. He pretty much succeeds. However, he looses his touch after he realizes that she controls his ability to leave. (Many of the other patients are there of their own free will.) He eventually organizes a fishing trip with the inmates, and gets some girls to come in with them before he planned his escape. Unfortunately, he got too drunk, eventually got in a fight, and had to undergo electro-shock therapy and a lobotomy before he was put out of his misery.

The story is told in the first person, from the point of view of a large Native American Indian who most people thought was deaf because he never talked. (Due to his perceived deafness, he was able to eavesdrop on many conversations others would not be permitted to listen.) His narration is a strong point of the novel. It allows it to drift back to some of his reminisces (about the injustice his father suffered as their land was taken) and thoughts, before returning to the main action of the story. Thus we get some fairly objective "first hand" commentary of the action as it takes place.

The book provides a somewhat tame view of the mental hospital. The residents have their mental issues and do some crazy things. However, things are not done purely for comedy's sake. The characters come across as real people who may do some funny things, but are simply trying to live their lives.

A Grief Observed

C.S. Lewis originally published anonymously these reflections on the death of his spouse. He finds his reaction is different now that he is feeling loss than it was before he experienced something first-hand. The reflections seem to be created shortly after his loss, and are rather raw. He comes across much 'insecure' and exposed than his other writings. Unfortunately, this is also one of his weaker works.

Till We Have Faces

It took a while to get in to this book. The first part had to do something with the tale of Psyche. The narrator completes clandestine martial training, and eventually uses it to challenge a nearby nemesis. This leads to her becoming a warrior queen. She has success in her kingdom. She also always wears her veil, thus adding to her mystique. She eventually discovers a small temple that tells the mythology of the people that she has known in her life. "What many people see is real, while what one person sees is a dream."

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

l8r, g8r

This book shows all that is bad with sequels.
While the first book had "readable" IM conversations, this one tries to be more "authentic", with a greater use of emoticons and abbreviations. There are also text messages that are integrated in the conversation (though they appear identical, aside from the "phone" icon.) However, there is still an attempt to weave the conversations in to a book narrative. Alas, this just makes things more tedious. It reads like a novel that was poorly "translated" in to IM.

Unfortunately, for this book, the poorly implemented style is the best thing going for it. The story itself is horrid. It primarily tells of three high school seniors and their senior-year relationships. In the first book, they were somewhat developed characters. Here, they are flat, with primary interests in debauchery and vengeance-seaking (what morals, eh?) Sure there are college applications, but they are primarily a tool to illicit fights. The book also tries to be "current" by dropping in pop-culture references, which, alas, already seem really dated. This is a book that is best skipped.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Prince

This is a no-holds barred "truthy" tome of what it takes to be a leader. Political correctness goes out the window as the focus is on what really needs to be done.

Most of the leadership points are illustrated by example (though with a book more than 5 centuries old, even the "recent" examples are now ancient history.) While some examples are of "pure" successes or failures, many also show leaders that did both good and bad things.

Depending on how a ruler comes to power, different things need to be done. Even rulers that come to power through evil stratagems have their own advice.

As for the advice, rulers are encouraged to maintain a small coterie of counselors who are encouraged to speak truthfully when asked. All other unrequested advice should be ignored. (Ironically, Machiavelli discourages flattery, but closes with his own flattery towards the Italian leaders in hopes of securing his personal position.) Leaders should also try to consolidate all "bad" in one single event, while parceling out the "good" piece by piece. Mercenaries should not be trusted, as they have no loyalty and would just as likely turn on you. Excess 'liberality' is even worse than stinginess as it leads to bankruptcy and higher taxes. However, liberality with other people's money is to be encouraged.

A politician who advocated the principles here would be duly castigated. However, successful leaders are likely following many of them.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Siddhartha is a tale of an Indian who finds his inner peace within nature itself. He spends almost all of his life in the quest for personal enlightenment. In the process, he suffers through many of the ups and downs of life. He becomes addicted to high stakes gambling as a result of trying to show that money has no value. He is such a caring, loving father that his son runs away (because he wanted more 'discipline') He spends time in pursuit of pleasure, while at other times eschewing it all. In the end, he finds much insight from the simple people. He decides that talk and thought are hindrances to his enlightenment as he finally reaches old age truly happy.

The book is fairly short and readable. The main message that Siddhartha has in the end is that the knowledge and enlightenment is best found when one is not looking for it. By looking, one puts on blinders that put the focus on certain things. By being open to everything around, the happiness can be found in what really exists.

Reflections on the Psalms

This is C.S. Lewis's acknowledged "lawman's" take on the Psalms. As in his other religious works, he apologizes for lacking the "learning" of religious scholars, before proceeding to show his deep study and learning in the field.

Much of the work discusses the differences between the Jewish worldview as expressed in the psalms and the modern Christian worldview in the new testament. The psalms present many of the great contrasts, with "loving" poems that seem the embodiment of Christian compassion, but that end with a death wish for enemies. Many bits of insight to the culture of the bible times are given to help put these in context.

This is not one of his best religious writings, but it is a quality work.

Dead Aid

Dead Aid has an interesting thesis. However, the writing seems to be a prosification of power point slides rather than an actual book. A bunch of ideas are jumbled together, showing problems with the current African aid regime and possible alternatives. However, there is little connection between the points. The early prefaces and introductions also give some of the best points.

A key point I got from this was that western-style aid is not helpful to Africa precisely because it seeks to benefit the liberal western institutions. Providing food from western farmers to Africa temporarily alleviates hunger. However, it also weakens local agriculture. Propping up African states because they adhere to the ideological line looks nice, but doesn't necessarily benefit the Africans. (It also can confuse matters. One day a strident anti-communist dictator is preferred. Later, democratic election is the "party line.") Aid institutions also have a tendency to be more concerned with giving aid than making sure it provides the desired benefits.

Chinese aid is seen as one of the bright spots because Chinese interests mesh better with African interests. China is interested primarily in natural resource extraction and manufacturing. They need good transportation infrastructure to access these, while they don't care about the country's political ideology or who builds the facilities. However, they do care that the facilities are properly built and able to function well for the long term use of Chinese and African businessmen.

Mediocre Kids' books

Nothing really happens in Good Night Walk. He walks around town and walks back. In Building, we do see the construction of a building. Unfortunately, the drawings don't mesh well with the story. In both, his drawings are more abstract doodles, while the content is fairly concrete. The contrast just doesn't work.

I've loved most Mo Willems book. They typically have a wit that appeals to adults and children, together with an interesting story and drawings. Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, unfortunately, falls flat. In the story, one Mole Rat likes to where clothes. Everyone teases him. Eventually they tell the Mole Rat patriarch. He decides he likes clothes, so a lot of Mole Rats start wearing clothes. That's about all there is to it. There are occasional sparks of potential humor in the drawings, but nothing that really interesting. Try something like Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale (Bccb Blue Ribbon Picture Book Awards (Awards)) instead.

Uptown is a simple trip through the New York's Harlem neighborhood. If you live in, or are really intrigued by Harlem, you may find it interesting. Otherwise, there is no story to it.

In A Perfect Name, some animals attempt to give their baby a name. That's about it.

some good kid's books

The "I love" books both follow a simple formula, with simple drawings and simple text covering a variety of different "vehicles"

The first book is the award winner, but the story in "London" is more original. The drawings are simple, with plenty of scenery from the "big city" (Paris or London) where they take place. The text also has a charming feel, with some "forced" rhymes that actually work.


Next is a "dark comedy" exposing some of the critical problems that genetic advances are giving our legal system. It has some of the "thriller" qualities of other Chrichton books, complete with the "this could be possible" scariness. However, it seems to be more of a comedy, with bad guys suffering strange fates (often of their own doing.)

The novel consists of a number of distinct "stories", with the common thread being that most people are involved to some extent with biological research. Everyone has their foibles (with marital fidelity being a common challenge.) The number of characters and stories does get overwhelming, though many of them do find their way together at the end.

Bounty hunters go chasing after a man's offspring for his "stolen cells". A "whistle blower" indicts his boss for "organ harvesting" he did. A 20-something drug addict, hunts down an anonymous sperm donor to extract restitution for "bad genes". A daughter is "protected" from her mother because she is using reproductive-related drugs. A ruthless biotech businessman who has become rich on gene patents dies because the gene related to his disease has not been studied due to a gene patent. And of course, there is a chimp-human hybrid that gets in trouble at a school and a fully senescent parrot that has serious French attitude. And those are just some of the characters involved.

It does bring about some serious concerns with the speed of technology and the slowness of the law to catch up. However, the vast number of characters and their depravity can make it difficult to follow.

College Football playoff

What are the impediments to a college football playoff?
Money and ingrained interests.

College Presidents talk about academics and season length, but we all know that is bogus. After all, in the past few years, the season has increased to 12 games and conferences are adding conference playoffs. Bowl games are also being pushed out well in to January - often after classes have started.

So what can we do to maximize revenue and keep the fans happy with a playoff?
Move some games to the "early" season, especially the cold weather bowls. Detroit in late August sounds a lot better than Detroit in late December. These could be showdowns between expected powerhouses this year. (They would be scheduled after the end of the last season.)
Institute a 16 team playoff. Every conference champion gets a nod, as well as some at large teams. This way, a team can still lose an early season "show down" and make it to the playoffs. There would also still be room in the early season for low-revenue teams to be scheduled as "cupcake paydays".

Start the playoffs a week after Thanksgiving. Play games every Saturday, take a week off for Christmas, and have the championship game on New Years Day.

As an alternative, use an eight team playoff with "mega conference champions getting seeds". (This assumes Pac-10, Big-10 and SEC expand to 16 teams, with Big-12 and WAC dissolving) The seeding of the "smaller" conference playoffs could be determined prior to the season based on past performance. (Thus, the best performing conference would play the worst performing one.) The championship games would be in "known" locations, making travel planning easy for teams.
ACC vs Sun Belt
Big East vs MAC
At Large
At Large

With this schedule, the two top teams would play 11 regular season games, 1 conference championship, and three playoff games for a total of 15 games. This is the same number of games typically played by bowl teams that play a conference championship and a road game at Hawaii.

One of the current regular season games could be transformed in to a "preseason" game. This would give the teams a chance to fill the stadium early in a "less stressful" environment. However, with each conference champion getting a guaranteed playoff spot, this could even be a "real" game without the negative repercussions.

Post season poll games can still be played by the non-playoff teams. (Early exiters from the playoffs may also get a chance at bowl games. These will still have the same impact on the championship as the do today.)

From a financial perspective, the 4 first round playoff games should be similar to the current non-championship BCS bowls. The championship game should be even more of a money maker than the BCS championship. The two semifinal games are pure gravy added on top. Many of the other bowls would still remain.

And finally preseason guarantee games. The early season "bowl" games could provide a heavy financial payout, and provide an opportunity for "last minute" scheduling of current big powers. With the playoffs and early season bowls, even a team stuck in a week conference could get some good games. A "minimum guarantee" based on stadium size or revenue could also be put in place to add some balance to one-off games. (Though without the BCS this is not as important as it was.)

In the end, we have all teams getting more revenue, most teams playing the same number of games, and much more exciting games during the regular season.