October 2008 Archives
Actually managed to finish a couple of books recently, which is remarkable.
I really enjoyed Escape from Amsterdam by Barrie Sherwood. The publisher says:
Aozora---idle university student, future crooked bureaucrat, fresh broken heart---has been playing too much mah-jongg and now finds himself deep in debt. When Auntie Okane dies and leaves him and his sister Mai a priceless inheritance, he thinks his problems are solved. But they’re only just beginning.
Mai’s disappeared, taken hostage by a notorious yakuza gang. Aozora can’t collect the cash without her and his loan sharks are becoming impatient. So begins a fast-paced adventure that takes him to the deep south of Japan and the surreal environs of a Dutch theme park called Amsterdam. It sounds like a holiday, but Aozora is about to enter the real world. . . .
Featuring the Japanese mob, motorcycle gangs, a phony princess, topiary dinosaurs, high-tech love dolls, and a selection of Japanese manga, Escape from Amsterdam is playful, offbeat, and thrilling. It paints a surprising portrait of contemporary Japan that few Westerners have seen and introduces a strikingly original and inventive writer.
Yup, interestingly enough, there's a real amusement park in Japan with a Dutch theme and it describes Aozora's attempt to get his sister free from the clutches of the yakuza and back to his home town so she can sign a will and he can get money to pay off loan sharks. Told in the first person, the book adds an interesting multimedia touch by including scattered pictures and a few drawings. Aozora is a bit of a loser and Gen X whiner, but you can sense a solid core behind his wandering. Add in a few funny scenes and you have a pretty good, easy read.
Second up was A Few Seconds Of Panic by Stefan Fatsis, which tells the George Plimpton like story of a sportswriter trying out for an NFL team as a place kicker. Here's the synopsis:
Drawing on rare access to an NFL team's players, coaches and facilities, the author of The New York Times bestseller Word Freak trains to become a professional-caliber placekicker. As he sharpens his skills, he gains surprising insight into the daunting challenges - physical, psychological, and intellectual - that pro athletes must master. ... he infiltrates a strikingly different subculture - pro football. After more than a year spent working out with a strength coach and polishing his craft with a gurulike kicking coach, Fatsis molded his fortyish body into one that could stand up - barely - to the rigors of NFL training. And over three months in 2006, he became a Denver Bronco. He trained with the team and lived with the players. Not since George Plimpton's stint as a Detroit Lion more than forty years ago has a writer tunneled so deeply into the NFL. While Fatsis honed his mind and drove his body past exhaustion, he communed with every classic athletic type - the affable alpha male, the overpaid brat, the youthful phenom, the savvy veteran - and a welter of bracingly atypical players as well: a fullback who invokes Aristotle, a quarterback who embraces yoga, a tight end who takes creative writing classes in the off-season. Fatsis also witnessed the hidden machinery of a top-flight football franchise, from the God-is-in-the-details strategizing of legendary coach Mike Shanahan to the icy calculation with which the front office makes or breaks careers.
A solid book with good insights into the NFL mind, it did drag on a bit. There were technical discussions of the art of kicking that just weren't that interesting. It also got a little tiring hearing the players complain about how tough the life of an athlete is and how demeaning it can be. But given that even the training camp salaries are pretty good and a spot on the roster earns, at a minimum, what would take many of us years to earn, it seems like they can be a little divorced from reality. Especially the players who come at it with a serious attitude and just don't seem to understand just how lucky they are. But if you are at all interested in football, this is as close as most of us will every come to playing in an NFL game, even if the NFL stuffed shirts wouldn't even let Fatsis kick in an exhibition game. They didn't want to make a "mockery" of the exhibition season - HA! says a season ticket holder forced to pay list price for 2 warmup games!
Thanks to the kindness of @GrandCentralPub, I got a review copy of Malcolm Gladwell's upcoming book, Outliers. So far, a typical Gladwell winner, telling the hidden story behind successful people, whereby your culture, family and timing have as much or more to do with being "successful" than even your innate abilities. To warm you up, here's a review I wrote of his previous book, Blink, which was just amazing, scary and eye opening:
Blink : this book made for some truly fascinating reading. It dragged in a few spots, where Gladwell went on too long with some particular example, but perceptive insights into how we "thin slice", or make snap judgments, abounded. Here's just a few examples:
- Vic Braden, the famous tennis pro, could tell with astounding accuracy when a player was about to double fault. During one match, he was correct 16 out of 17 times, as he was able to pick up tiny clues he couldn't later even articulate.
- A pretty scary section on how the brain can be "primed". In one study, researchers would give users lists of words and ask them to make sentence fragments. By using particular kinds of words, people would act accordingly. For instance:
After being asked to make 4 word sentences out of a long list of similarly scrambled words, you would actually walk back down a hallway slower than you walked in, because these words all bring out "old" feelings! A similar study was done using "polite" and "rude" words, and the subjects were asked to walked down a hallway and talk to another person. This second person was involved in a discussion with someone who wouldn't stop talking. The "rude" primed people would interrupt after less than 5 minutes, but the "polite" primed people never interrupted!
- In another study, one group was asked to take 5 minuets beforehand and think about what it would be like to be a professor and to jot down their thoughts, while another was to think about soccer hooligans. The "professor" group answered 55.6% of Trivial Pursuit questions correctly, while the "soccer hooligan" group only got 42.6%.
- In a truly scary study, using black college students and questions from the GRE, one group was asked to identify their race on a pretest question, while another was not. Test scores for the ones asked about their race were cut in half, due to being primed with the negative stereotypes associated with African Americans! Yowza.
- The book opened with an interesting study involving two decks of cards, a blue and a red one. Each card turned over either wins you alot of money or loses money; only the decks are rigged and the red one is a losing deck while the blue one is a winning one. Most people would begin to notice the difference after about 50 cards and be certain by about 80 cards. But most amazingly, if the body's response was measured (like sweat glands), the unconscious mind begins worrying after only ten cards.
- Researchers hung two ropes down from the ceiling and asked groups of people to figure out how to grab onto both of them, as they weren't long enough to reach easily. Most figured out three ways (move one rope closer and tie it to something, use another rope or cord tied to one to pull it closer, and to stretch as far as possible holding onto one rope and use a pole or something to grab the other). But a fourth method, to start swinging one until it swings out far enough to grab when holding the other, occurred to very few until the researcher would casually brush a rope, causing it to begin a slight swing. Suddenly, most people would come up with the fourth solution. Most surprisingly though, none of them would later say that seeing it swing caused them to think of the answer, preferring instead to say that it just popped into their heads. Funny how we can deceive ourselves!
- In another racially charged study, selecting words for two competing lists tells us alot about how our minds are subtly conditioned by society. You can even take this test yourself here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/. It is called an Implicit Association Test.
- I was amazed to find out that only 14.5% of American males are my height (an even six feet) or taller. I was even more amazed that nearly 60% of the Fortune 500 CEOs are 6' or taller. And while less than 4% of the population is 6'2" or taller, nearly 1/3 of the CEOs were! One study came to the conclusion that each 1" in height was worth $789 in extra annual salary.
So yeah, this was a pretty interesting book. There were a couple of long passages about military exercises and facial muscles that I found a bit tedious, but definitely an eye-opener. So next time before you take a test, think smart thoughts!
Some very special folks want you to vote Obama this election:
- Went to RPI on an Air Force ROTC scholarship. It's a pretty sweet deal - full room, board and books plus a small monthly stipend, just for wearing a uniform and going to a 2 hour "class" once a week. Oh, plus promising a few years afterwards too.
- But I never did graduate college. Dropped out midway through my sophomore year. The academics were just too tough for a kid from a tiny (graduating class of 60) school in the backwoods of New Hampshire. I never learned any study skills and believe you me, you need them at RPI. Follow up evening classes at both Harvard and Northeastern never went anywhere.
- I'm a huge boardgame collector. Don't have time to play them any more, but I have over 500 boardgames, mostly wargames, with a concentration of games covering the African Campaign of World War Two. In fact, I believe I have every wargame ever published on the subject.
- Me and horses just don't get along. In fact, I have always believed that horses are too big to be that stupid. I've been stomped on, stalked (ask me about getting trapped on top of an old car by a couple of crazy horses some day), and snapped at by horses. I have had to rescue my dog from getting crushed by a horse, had to rescue horses from their own stupidity, etc. It is my worst fear that one of my girls will catch the horse bug.
- Someday I'll write a book. I don't have the time or energy to do it these days, but if I could ever take a six month sabbatical, I would start my detective series. Maybe some day I'll "publish" some of my short stories here.
- I won a Best Actor award. In my tiny high school, one of the highlights of the year was (is?) the one act play competition. Each class put on a one act play and various awards are voted on. In my junior year, we swept the awards with some wacky comedy (always good for competitions). I played the lead role and got to do plenty of physical comedy. Other plays I acted in were the Diary of Anne Frank and The Tell Tale Heart. Braces in college put the kibosh on my acting career.
The rules to play are easy …
- Link to the person who tagged you.
- Post the rules on the blog.
- Write six random things about yourself.
- Tag six people at the end of your post.
- Let each person know they have been tagged.
- Let the tagger know when your entry is up.
Fresh over the email transom:
As a senior citizen was driving down the freeway, his cell phone rang.
Answering, he heard his wife's voice urgently warning him, "Herman, I just heard on the news that there''s a car going the wrong way on Route 280. Please be careful!"
"It's not just one car," said Herman, "It's hundreds of them!"
Sending this e-card to a few folks I know who bailed on the Red Sox last night. I have to admit to turning it off the big TV downstairs and getting ready for bed. When I turned on the bedroom TV, Papi had just hit his home run and things got interesting from there. Unfortunately, I cannot yell and scream when I am upstairs, so I had to contain my exclamations, but DAMN that was a great game!
Fresh over the email transom comes this joke:
I was depressed last night, so I called Lifeline
Got a freakin' call center in Pakistan.
I told them I was suicidal.
They got all excited and asked if I could drive a truck.
Very good news - you can recover your Muxtape listing (not the music) at "http://www.muxtape.com/remembers/your-username-here". That's good, because I was using it as a sort of notebook for my favorite songs of 2008. Here's what I had as of Aug. 18:
- Sam Phillips — Can't Come Down
- Union Jack — Water Drums
- Amy Winehouse — Rehab
- Savath & Savalas — Ya Verdad
- El Perro Del Mar — Jubilee
- Robyn — Konichiwa Bitches (alt version)
- Laura Veirs and Saltbreakers — To the Country
- Johnny Cash — The Man Who Couldn't Cry
- Gorillaz — O Green World
- Goldfrapp — A&E
- Faces — Ooh La La
- Anna Ternheim — China Girl
There's been some new songs that should go on this list. Paper Planes by M.I.A., Ampersand by Amanda Palmer, and last but not least, Take Your Mama by Scissor Sisters (probably my #1). Now where do I keep track of these?
I haven't been completely out of the movie watching loop, although there hasn't been much. Here's what I've watched over the past couple of weeks:
Doomsday, a BluRay movie, was a pretty reasonable, fast playing, end of the world viral outbreak movie. A quick acting virus that pretty instantly kills those infected strikes Scotland, so the British authorities move to cordon off the entire country. They end up building a huge wall and forgetting about the place. But when the virus shows up again in London, and it looks like there were survivors after all in Scotland, a small team, lead by a Scottish survivor herself, are sent to investigate.
They come across a very "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" kind of place, ruled by Sol (played with over the top manic energy by Craig Conway). Much mayhem ensues, as the small group, led by Maj. Eden Sinclair, Scottish survivor and borderline psychopath herself. Rhona Mitra, who looks like a new female action hero, shows enough swagger to carry off this very macho part.
While sufficiently action packed, and looking and sounding wonderful in BluRay, it wasn't really all that compelling. If beheadings are your thing, then this is your movie, as I lost track of the number of chopped off heads. A pretty star studded cast includes Bob Hoskins and Malcolm McDowell anchors the movie with sufficient gravitas, but I never really cared about any of the characters and Sinclair's revenge motive was rang strangely hollow. But worth a viewing if you're into a nice violent, apocalyptic show.
On the other end of the action scale was the heartfelt indie, Wilby Wonderful. Featuring a great cast including Sandra Oh, Maury Chaykin and Ellen Page, Wilby Wonderful tells the story of a tumultuous 24 hours in a small Canadian town on an island. The stories of a dozen or so characters are interwoven as secrets are unearthed, lives are forever altered and affairs grind to a halt. A nice little movie, perhaps a little too earnest but with some light touches, it reminded me of one of my favorite movies, The Station Agent, in the way it told its story. Not quite to that high level, but still a highly recommended, quiet little film.
Me and the girls watched The Kid, Charlie Chaplin's first "full length" movie. It clocks in at only a little more than an hour, but still far longer than his previous comedic shorts. The Kid tells the story of an abandoned child that The Tramp ends up raising. The Kid, played by a very young Jackie Coogan, who Chaplin discovered at a vaudeville show he was playing in, helps out The Tramp with his small swindles, like throwing a rock to break a window that the Tramp replaces. But he gets sick and then the Authorities try to take him away but alls well that ends well.
The girls really enjoyed this silent movie, recorded from TMC's "Silent Sunday Night", which I found heartening. I think they enjoyed filling in the blanks between the story cards and it was a good story too. The Roku box has some early Keaton movies that I think I'll try on them next.
I finished The Last Colony by John Scalzi. This is the third and presumably final book in the Old Man's War series. I read the first one and found it enjoyable if not very deep. Ditto with Colony - perfectly readable, with nothing memorable really. I finished it, which says something these days, but I probably won't bother with other books in the set, like Zoe's Tale and Ghost Brigades. But if you enjoyed any of them, you would almost certainly enjoy The Last Colony.
The Last Colony tells the story of John Perry and his wife Jane Sagan (a quasi clone of his first wife) and their attempts to settle a new world with a colony ship. The problem? The Conclave, a loose union of worlds allied against their Colonial Union, has declared any further expansion grounds for destruction. So Perry and Sagan have to negotiate both internal and external forces to keep everyone alive.
One thing I thought odd while reading it was realizing just how well I "know" Scalzi. I don't have any published authors as close friends, but I have been reading his Whatever blog for years and it is one of the 20 or so that I keep up with every day. Sometimes acerbic, sometimes annoying, but always entertaining, he is pretty open on his blog and so you feel like you know him. And I found that fact vaguely disconcerting for some reason. Maybe I was trying too hard to apply what I "know" about him to the characters or the writing. Just odd.
The next book I read was Seasons in Hell: With Billy Martin, White Herzog and "The Worst Baseball Team in History" - the 1973-1975 Texas Rangers by reporter Mike Shropshire, who covered the team during those stirring years. This is one funny book, with plenty of inside anecdotes and wild stories of baseball players, owners and reporters. He is as hard and honest on himself as he is on any player, but some of the descriptions just crack me up:
"This team is two players away from being a contender - Sandy Koufax and Babe Ruth." - Whitey Herzog
"Defensively, these guys are really substandard, but with our pitching, it really doesn't matter." - Whitey Herzog
Typical was [Whitey's] recollection of a road trip with the Yankees when general manager George Weiss got on an elevator and encountered relief pitcher Ryne Duren, a lover of the grape, barely able to stand. According to Herzog, Weiss stiffened and said, "Drunk again." To which Duren grinned a crooked grin, slapped Weiss on the back and said, "Oh yeah? Me too."
Plenty of stories of drugs, drinking and women, although according to Shropshire, the players were mostly too busy doing the other two to have as much time for the third as generally thought. A really run read of another time, in another place.