Thursday, December 31, 2009

Lookback at a 2005 New Year's resolution



Years ago I was in New York City and was in a church where I stumbled across this. I really hope Sadie managed to keep his/her resolution.

2010 and this blog

Well, assuming you don't read this in an RSS feed, you can tell I already changed the appearance of this blog. I hate the basic blogger templates and really liked the storm cloud image this person had. I didn't like some of the other aspects of the layout so I changed it up to suit my likings.

Beyond the appearance, though, I am expecting some things to be different about this blog in 2010. I see myself being involved with baseball cards more. I will have links up to my burgeoning Adam Dunn and Mat Latos collections. I'm hoping to reignite my Expos project, I hope to rekindle the Group of 79 Project. I think I may even try and collect the 2008 Upper Deck X set. My plans are to attend my first card show in twenty years this Saturday. So, yeah, I think there'll be more baseball cards.

I cannot imagine there will be as many books. One book every four days is a lot for me and I don't think I could keep that pace up again. I'm going to see if I can find my older reading lists and put links up to them. I might try and review some more books in my baseball library.

Beyond that, we'll have to see. My life is topsy-turvy as I still am underemployed, still in grad school, still financially strapped (yet unwisely spend what little I do have on baseball stuff (books and cards)). Mostly I'm trying to figure out what I want to spend the rest of my life doing, whether I can make money doing so, if not, figuring out how I want to make money, and maybe most of all, hoping my Princess Charming and I can lead a life of happiness together. Add in my usual failed efforts at losing weight, my successful, albeit sporadic, attempts at becoming stronger and fitter, and the lifelong battle against dysthymia, and I have quite a full plate without trying to figure out what this space will be.

But this is fun, I've been connecting with more people in the baseball card world, my friends like to respond to my posts in the comments or in e-mails. There'll be something here, just don't know what.

I hope you have a great 2010!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Final book review of 2009

This is it, the final book review of 2009. I read 92 books this year, easily the most I have read in a single year (working in a library will help in that regard). Historically I average about sixty books a year.

Right now I am on a foreign author kick. I'm in the midst of a book by an Australian. I have an Australian, a Dutch and a German book lined up to be read next and Per Petterson, the author of Out Stealing Horses, is Norwegian. Elegance of the Hedgehog is French. I'm not sure about Shakespeare. I think he was from Detroit.

If the book I'm currently reading and Petterson's book are indicative of what I can expect from writers from other countries, I may stop reading things by Americans. I really liked Out Stealing Horses. The book is told by an old Norwegian man who has bought himself a place out in the countryside after his wife and sister have passed away. He leads a very spartan existence and is glad to live a life alone after all these years. When he meets a neighbor who was a brother of a friend of his during his childhood, he begins to reminiscence about his past. The chapters alternate between present time and him flashing back to when he was fifteen.

As a young lad, he spent a summer with his father, helping him fell timber in an effort to raise money. They lived and worked in a rural area on the border of Norway and Sweden where his father had acquired a place during World War II. The narrator, Trond, discovers that his father helped people escape from the Germans during World War II and also ran off with his neighbor's wife, for whom his father still has feelings, during a botched escape.

During that summer there are a number of tragedies. An accidental death. The running off of Trond's friend because of his involvement in the death. A severe injury. The discoveries about Trond's father, who, at the end of the summer, does not return with Trond to his mother. A lot of twists and turns that tarnish Trond's enjoyable summer with his father.

There is a lot of sadness and resentment that ultimately is resolved with an unexpected event in Trond's life. It's a nice story that moves quite well which deals a lot with relationships. What surprised me the most about it, and something I really liked, was that there was a ruggedness to the writing. The story largely takes place outdoors and while Trond appreciates and describes the pleasantness of the surroundings, he is also equally appreciative of the harshness of it.

When you read a book, you can sometimes get a sense of the physical characteristics of the writer. Michael Chabon to me looks like he writes. He is an intellectual, a bit of a pretty boy, froo-froo writer. Stephen King, like his books, creeps you out when you see him. Per Petterson may be the first writer of whom I would expect, based on his writing, to feel callouses if I shook his hand (well, maybe Joseph Monninger). I may be in the trees with this theory but regardless, Petterson's style is a pleasant change from much of what I have read.

I'm not entirely sure why I don't feel like rating this book two stars. Lack of a plot, maybe. A little too much thinking to make connections. But it is certainly close. Give it a try.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

I've always wanted to read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Way back in my senior year of high school, our English teacher had us randomly draw a book about which we had to then write a report and present it to the class. I drew The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Great book. One of my favorites I read in English class. If memory serves, Jon Mooney drew R&G are Dead. When he presented it, it sounded so good I vowed to read it someday. Twenty years later I finally got around to it.

Before I did, though, I wanted to re-familiarize myself with R&G. For those who don't know or remember, they are two of Hamlet's childhood friends from William Shakespeare's Hamlet but are also spies for Hamlet's uncle, Claudius. They are sent to take Hamlet to England and bearing a letter that states that Hamlet is to be killed. Hamlet discovers this, shakes the duo and they are killed.

I get ahead of myself. So I read Hamlet first. I have not read Shakespeare since college. Having done so I have come to the conclusion that the educational system ruins Shakespeare by forcing it onto young people when they have no prayer of understanding it. Sure, you have some unbalanced teens who enjoy and comprehend Shakespeare in high school. These are the ones who grow up to become English majors. For the vast majority, we struggle through the language, struggle through the era, struggle through themes too adult for us and, being teens, are filled with angst because of it.

I really enjoyed Hamlet this time around. If you haven't read it and are legally able to drink, do so. I cannot really write anything about it that hasn't already been written so I'm not going to expand beyond my description of R&G's involvement above. If you are still in your teens, you'll probably be forced to read it anyway but shouldn't.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a play written in the 1960's by Tom Stoppard where R&G are the main characters. The play is very entertaining, despite its focus on free will and existentialism. R&G are confused about why they exist and what it is they are supposed to be doing. They stumble about, the other characters are as confused about the pair as they are about themselves, and ultimately, as in Hamlet, they die. Excerpts of Hamlet are interspersed throughout the play and all the characters, of course, are from Hamlet. It's a really interesting take and much more accessible than Shakespeare himself. I recommend reading the pair.

I'm going to throw my review of Graham Greene's The Tenth Man on the end here. As always, I loved Greene's writing. I didn't much care for the story or characters. A group of thirty prisoners during World War II are told by the Germans that three of them (one in ten) must die as retribution for attacks by the resistance in town. Lots are drawn and three men are selected. The one, a wealthy French lawyer, offers his entire wealth and estate to anyone who will switch positions with him. A man takes him up on it, papers are drawn up, and the wealth of the lawyer is transferred to the other man's sister and mother.

Years later, the Frenchman returns to his estate and meets with the sister and mother. The mother is under the impression that the wealth came from her son who has become successful off somewhere else. The sister knows the truth and is filled with venom because of the whole series of events. The Frenchman, realizing the hatred the sister has for the Frenchman, pretends to be another prisoner who knew her brother and gains employment as a servant. Another man turns up who claims to be the Frenchman. There are some twists and turns. Nothing satisfying happens. The end.

Lots of lying, lots of hate, death, no happiness for anyone. Just a pretty depressing book.

I'll have one more review before the end of the year as I am in the midst of the longest book I have read this year and will likely not finish it by Thursday.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

"Christmas music" retrospective

It's Christmas Eve when I'm writing this and I'm feeling a little melancholy. Listening to some tunes and reflecting on ghosts of Christmas past. Thought I'd share some songs from albums I received as gifts from Christmases in the past. Not comprehensive, and with my memory, not remotely achievable. Just a sampling.

First, Christmas of 1987. Two memorable and influential albums:




1993:



Christmas, 1997:


2001:


2003, seems like everyone got me music:






2005:


Of course, now with digital music, the tangible album is heading towards being a thing of Christmas pasts. Just as long as books don't go that way.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The potential 8-way 8-8 record NFL playoff tie

I don't follow football. I check the scores on Sunday, usually around 3:55 PM, just to see who is winning. I root in a general manner for the Pennsylvania teams. Might get a little more interested around playoff time but really I couldn't care too much.

I AM excited about the potential of eight AFC teams finishing with an 8-8 record and the tiebreaker procedure to determine who makes the playoffs.

You currently have the Broncos and Ravens at 8-6, the Jets, Dolphins, Steelers, Jaguars and Texans at 7-7 and the Titans at 7-8. Here's how it has to go down:

1. The Broncos and Ravens must lose their next two and the Titans win their last one to finish 8-8.
2. The Ravens would lose to Pittsburgh tomorrow which means Pittsburgh would then have to lose their last game to finish 8-8.
3. That last game Pittsburgh would have to lose would be at the hands of the Dolphins. Therefore, that means the Dolphins must beat the Texans tomorrow.
4. The Texans loss tomorrow would require them to beat the Patriots the final week of the season.

There are six of the eight teams with the needed outcomes being very clear. The Jets and the Jaguars would have to split their final two games to each finish 8-8.

The NFL playoff rules require multi-team Wild Card scenarios to be determined by first determining which of the teams would be the top in their division using the division tie-breaking procedures.

The Dolphins would be ranked the top team in the East by virtue of defeating the Jets both times they met.

The Ravens would get the edge over the Steelers in the North. The Steelers victory would give them a split with the Ravens but the Ravens would end the season with a 3-3 division record compared to the Steelers 2-4.

The South gets tricky. The Titans, Jaguars and Texans would be ranked first according to their record among themselves. The Jaguars beat Houston twice and split with Tennessee. Tennessee also split with Houston. The Jaguars 3-1 record makes them the South representative.

The Broncos would be the sole 8-8 team from the West.

So we're down to the Dolphins, Ravens, Jaguars and Broncos for the two Wild Card spots. No team beat the other three so it goes to conference record. Dolphins would be 6-6. Ravens would be 6-6. Jaguars would be 7-5 and the Broncos would be 6-6. Therefore, the Jaguars become the 5th seed in the playoffs.

Things get even wackier now. The tie-breaker goes to record against common opponents with a minimum of four games. All three remaining teams played the Colts, Chargers, Patriots and Steelers in a total of five games. The Dolphins only mustered one victory, beating the Patriots. The Ravens and Broncos would each end 2-3 against those opponents. So the Dolphins are out.

Since the Broncos defeated the Ravens on November 1, the Broncos would then get the nod based on head-to-head record giving them the final seed in the AFC.

Looking at the 8-8 scenario makes things a lot clearer overall. For instance, the Steelers have to win both of their games and have the Ravens lose both or else the Ravens will get the nod on conference record. Likewise, based on the season sweep, the Jets need to win more games than the Dolphins over the last two. The Titans can only make the playoffs if the Jaguars AND the Texans get swept AND they win.

Although it would mean the Steelers would be out, it would be an awful lot of fun to see so many team finish at .500 and two of them make the playoffs.

Update:Decided to take a look and see what the Steelers chances are if they do finish 9-7. In their own division, I already mentioned that the Ravens have to lose both of their games for the Steelers to be in. Even if the Bengals lost their last two to also finish 9-7, the fact that they were undefeated in the division would give them the division title and force the Steelers into the Wild Card pool.

Since the Steelers would need two wins, their victory over the Dolphins would prevent Miami from finishing 9-7. The other teams that could end up 9-7 are the Patriots, Jets, Jaguars, Texans and Broncos. The Patriots and Jets split their matchup but the Patriots have the better division record meaning the Jets would be the Wild Card contender and the Pats would have the division title.

I'm not going to go through all the rigamarole but things are pretty bleak for the Steelers even if they do win their last two and the Ravens lose both. If the Steelers and one other team, even Baltimore, finish 9-7, Pittsburgh is in good shape. They would be the fifth seed, even, if Denver is the only other 9-7 team. In a multi-team setting, though, Pittsburgh loses out in all the scenarios and so does not make the playoffs if two or more of those other four teams (or Baltimore) finish 9-7. Bad news, indeed.

Elegance of the Hedgehog

Oh, my, word, I loved this book. So why did I give it one star? Because it is heavily, heavily, flawed and could probably use a re-read to fully appreciate it.

I picked out The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery for our library to purchase which probably assures that I will be the only one to read it. Which is truly a shame. This is a translated French novel that is supposed to be about a precocious 12-year old girl, a wealthy Japanese man, and the concierge of the apartment building in which they live. You know I like books about precocious kids so it shouldn't be a surprise that I liked this.

This book was a surprise to me given that I expected there to be much interaction between the three. Instead, the book focuses on the concierge. This woman is an extremely intelligent person who, for some reason, chooses to hide her intellect from her upscale residents and rather plays the part of the uneducated, can't do anything else with her life, servant. The 61 chapters are told from her point of view and focus on her philosophies of life, status and intellect.

Interspersed within these chapters are 23 journal entries (hey, cool, 23 and 61 are prime) from the little girl which focus on her philosophies of life, status and intellect.

The first 129 pages are solitary musings by these pair, no Japanese man in sight. It at times as excruciating because it isn't going anywhere. The little girl is suicidal as she is unappreciated and unloved and cannot seem to find anything in life worth living for. The concierge isn't much better, choosing to lead a life mostly of concealed solitude, her only friend being a Portugese cleaning woman in the building. There is a lot of wailing and gnashing by the two that begins to wear you down.

Then there's also the pretentiousness of the pair. Oh my, we're so smart and no one appreciates us. That gets irritating. For the first part of the book, though, what bothered me the most was the vocabulary and lack of editing. The book is translated into English which can always cause problems but there are a bunch of omitted, extra or misspelled words. Just way too many. Because of this, I came to question the translation early on, like when the concierge uses the word autodidact three times in a single paragraph. I don't think I've ever used the word autodidact three times in my life, despite largely being an autodidact. Wait, did I just use autodidact three times, no, now four, in a paragraph? Dang it! It felt like one of those instances when you're a kid and someone learned a new word and feels the need to use it all the time to demonstrate that they learned this big word. Which would have been fine for the 12 year old but not the concierge.

Likewise, I was bothered when the concierge described a dog as being "lubricious" and then two pages later, in a journal entry, the little girl calls the same dog "lubricious". I'm no Michael Chabon and my vocabulary is decidedly limited but come on, a 12 year old pulling that one out. Because of the closeness in the book I got the feeling that it was one of those situations where the author used two slightly different words that don't quite translate well into English and the translator went with that word instead of, oh, slippery. I tended to believe this theory to be correct because of all the other editing problems.

But then everything changed. One of the residents dies and, for the first time in forever, there is no family member to take over the apartment and so it is sold to a Japanese man. To say that everything changes in an understatement.

The last 200 pages of this book are incredible. There are turns of phrases that made me weep. Just beautiful, insightful, hopeful, thoughtful words perfectly placed in the story. The relationships and thoughts of the two heroines change but it's not over the top. Then the ending is so sad and so full of hope. Two extremely minor characters from the first part of the book, so minor you don't ever think about them, return and add immensely to the story. For the first third of the book I couldn't stop thinking of where the book fit among my least favorite books. For the last part, I couldn't figure out where it fit among my favorites.

The last part is so good, it actually got me analyzing the first part. Was the repetition of words intentional, as if to reaffirm the monotony of the lives of the two females? Did the story have to go that long before the Japanese man makes his appearance so that the impact is more appreciated? I mean, really....can an author really write some of the most exquisite prose I've ever read in the same book where I found myself thinking about not even trying to finish it (and I did. I think if I hadn't selected it for the library, I probably would not have completed it).

Definitely, definitely read this book. Tough it out in the early part. It's worth it in the end.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Bad ideas in music

Just because I didn't want you to inflict these upon your friends and loved ones (much like when my friend KB and I bought Transfixed Ingress a bunch of cassette tapes from a 4 for $5 bin at a music store (back when cassettes were still the main media music came on and they ran close to $10 a piece)) as gag gifts, I've been holding off on this until today. For your holiday enjoyment, here are a couple pieces of music that should never have been created.

First, I could see Axl Rose mellowing out a bit in his old age. Doesn't he look mellow in this picture?


Imagine this relaxed version of Axl chillin' with Slash. Maybe they've been drinking herbal tea and meditating. And Axl turns to Slash and says, "Hey, Slash, what do you say we go down in the basement and start playing the xylophone and vibraphone?". And Slash goes, "Yeah, man" and they start jamming.

Can't you see the two of them playing away, turning at one another and grinning, letting loose from all the sex and drugs that plagued Guns 'N' Roses and just getting back to their roots, enjoying the music for the music sake? No, me neither.

Then you have the reverse, a Swedish pop group, someone that could have been the next Abba maybe, but decided to go a more alternative route:


I don't know which I need to do first; stop my ears from bleeding or clean up the vomit.

But let's end with a dandy Christmas song. Wham! meets TRON.


Happy holidays!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

My first group break (and the lackluster results)


After my first trade with Thorzul, it only seemed right that I take part in my first group break with him. He had bought some boxes from the 1990's and I thought it might be a chance for me to get some Expos for my on-hold card project with them. Taking Expos cards in a group break isn't really a smart move ever, which I should have realized.

Alas, my $5.50 netted me a dozen cards, almost all of which were Marquis Grissom and F.P. Santangelo. The ones that weren't were sort of goofy cards with big heads. Well, it was fun, even if the value wasn't there (which was my own fault anyway). I'll certainly take part in another one (and likely take the Expos again (this is the problem with not having a team for which to root)).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Dollar Tree Baseball Card Challenge

Way back before Thanksgiving, the guy at badwax.com wrote about the Dollar Tree Challenge. The challenge was to go to a Dollar Tree, which has begun selling old packs, and try and complete a set. Now, I don't have the money to be buying that much, but I was at the Dollar Tree to buy some wrapping paper and figured I'd grab some packs and see if there was anything of interest.

Bought nine packs and these were my favorites from each pack:



I bought three packs of the much maligned 2008 Upper Deck X and I really wish I had spent all nine bucks on them. I think the set is great. I like the style. I like the diecuts. I like the inserts. The cards I selected were a Tim Lincecum die cut, a Joe Mauer Xponential and a Cole Hamels base card. Found some cheap boxes on eBay tonight and I may try and build this set I like it so much. Go figure.

Picked up two packs of 2008 Upper Deck First Edition Update. Boring. Picked Wily Mo Pena and Matt Morris. I like Wily and you have to love Morris in the Pirates uni. What a fantastic pickup that was for the Bucs. Sixteen starts with a 7.04 ERA. Awesome.

Then came the inexplicable packs. I grabbed three packs of Major League Soccer cards. They seemed like they had the most potential for getting something cool like an autograph or some such nonsense. Got a Young Guns insert. I was actually familiar with Chris Seitz because he played at the University of Maryland and then there is Marvell Wynne. He makes me feel old. Back in the day, when I was still a fan of teams and not players, I rooted for the Pirates and I enjoyed cheering on Marvell's Dad, Marvell Sr., when he was with the Pirates. I would have been just entering my teens then. And now his son is a professional soccer player. Ugh.

Lastly, I grabbed a pack of Donruss Americana. You know a pack is lousy when DANIEL Baldwin is the highlight. Stephen or Alec would have been awesome. Daniel? This was easily the worst pack of cards I ever bought in my life and I bought Mork and Mindy cards.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Leveraging the new media

Wrapped up a couple of books on using the internet to monetize your passion. I thought that the two were very similar which is why I'm posting both simultaneously.

The first was Mitch Joel's Six Pixels of Separation. Joel runs a marketing firm called Twist Image and is considered a digital marketing expert. Much of his book talks about how the internet and social media have brought us closer together. He then discusses how you can use these tools to leverage your business or personal brand. It's a good primer on the topic and is interesting because of the look at the growth in this media.

The other book, Crush It, is by Gary Vaynerchuk, who operates winelibrary.com. Vaynerchuk took a local liquor store and grew it into a much expanded business, again using social media. This book is much thinner and has more of a "self-help", you can do it!, type of feel. Vaynerchuk posts his e-mail address in the book at least a half dozen times but at the end talks about how he can hardly keep up with his e-mail and that it can take months to reply. As for usefulness, I probably like this one better than Six Pixels because Vaynerchuk does outline a plan, discusses a multitude of tools including several of which I was not familiar, and he is less repetitive. Joel could have cut down his book by a bit and not lost any of the message. Vaynerchuk's book is a lithe 142 pages.

I thought it was funny, though, when I came across these books, that my first experience with Vaynerchuk was when he had a guest spot on Jake and Amir. How he is in that video seems to be how he is in the book. And there's a little of the content as well.

I thought both books were pretty interesting, even though they were similar and I'm sure there are dozens more like it. I also thought the differences between the praise blurbs on the back were insightful. Vaynerchuk has Tim Ferriss, Tony Hsieh, and Tony Robbins (plus two guys I don't know). Joel has Chris Anderson, Daniel Pink, Seth Godin, Craig Newmark and Dan Ariely. That sums it up. Vaynerchuk has the Hoorah guys and Joel has more of the scholarly (or at least writer) types.

Update:Since I've written this, I've become obsessed with Vaynerchuk. I checked out his websites and he isn't all hype. He knows his stuff, works hard, is tremendously entertaining and there is nothing in his book that he has not implemented himself. He has definitely inspired me and I re-acquired his book for reference and upgraded it to one star. I think timing has played a part in his success but I think following his lead is doable for anybody willing to put forth the effort.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Frank Frisch, the Fordham Flash


Somehow I got away from taking a look at the books in my baseball library. Two months since the last one! Sheesh.

The book that was randomly selected is J. Roy Stockton's book Frank Frisch, the Fordham Flash. Besides being a great tongue twister, it's also the only book-length (auto)biography on the Hall of Famer.

Frisch was an infielder for the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Giants. In part due to his talent and in part due to his timing, he is the only non-Yankee to have appeared in eight World Series. John McGraw's astute eye for talent led him to signing the young Frisch out of Fordham. In 1921, his third season with the Giants, Frisch became a starter and the Giants won their first of four straight National League pennants and two straight World Series.

Frisch had a falling out with McGraw and, before the 1927 season, McGraw traded Frisch and Jimmy Ring to the St. Louis Cardinals for Rogers Hornsby. Led by Frisch and Sunny Jim Bottomley, the Cardinals took the NL pennant in 1928, 1930 and 1931, winning the World Series in 1931. Frisch became player/manager in 1933 and led "The Gashouse Gang" to a World Championship in 1934. After retiring as a player, he managed the Pirates in the 1940's and the Cubs in the 1950's with little success.

I'd love to see a guy perform like Frisch in the majors today. A lifetime .316 hitter, he stole over 400 bases but my favorite numbers about him were his walks and strikeouts. 728 walks, 272 strikeouts. He struck out 20 or more times in a season just twice. That's six games for Mark Reynolds.

Stockton, the author, was a St. Louis sportswriter, and as can be expected, treats Frisch with kid gloves in this book. Even still, as the only book on this Hall of Famer, it's definitely worthwhile to have. It is also somewhat accessible if you don't want to buy a copy. A check on Worldcat shows almost eighty libraries still holding it despite it being published in 1962.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

I'm a modern day Steve McQueen


You probably heard that the northeastern part of the United States got hammered with a snowstorm yesterday. Well, we did. I don't know what the "official" snow totals were for our area. A nearby town had 24 inches and we were in excess of 20. Hard to tell because wind gusts created some really deep areas. I was certainly going to be "The Cooler King".

I live in a small town and it is a town requirement that sidewalks be cleared of snow within 24 hours. My house is right on the street and so there is nowhere to put the snow when you shovel it. I have a small patch of "front yard" but that is it. I'm clever, though.

Yes, I filled my wheelbarrow with snow, took it to the backyard where I had much more room and dumped it. To do that, I first had to create a path to take the wheelbarrow.

I shoveled a path between my house and the one neighbors. Around this time, the theme song from The Great Escape (which is playing right now) entered my head. Shovel five loads of snow into the wheelbarrow, wheel it to the back, then dump it. I tried to trick the guards by hiding the snow in my pants and then shaking it out the pant legs but it was cold and there were no guards so I quickly put an end to that. Here's the pile early on:


I was fortunate in that a neighbor who owns a business (I'm right on the "business district" of this town) decided to snowplow a path for everybody.

So it was just a matter of connecting Tunnel A to Tunnel B before freedom was mine:

Oops, the escape vehicle is buried!

I tried to enlist help by bribing a tourist with cigarettes and chocolate but he wasn't having any of that. So it was up to me. I got into it. My town is named after a French town that bordered Germany and was once under control by the Germans so that played well into this theme. I might have gotten a little carried away when I called the ex-mayor, who lives two doors down from me, "Kommandant". OK, this paragraph is largely untrue.
Two hours later, I took a break (I did my neighbors walk and porch, too, since they are away).


Just imagine what I could have done at Stalag 13.

Update:I almost forgot. THIS is why I love indoor rowing so much. Because it develops the full body, especially the core, which enables me to shovel snow with ease? No, don't be silly, although it does do that. Indoor rowing for long distances is mind-numbing monotony, perfect preparation for when you're digging tunnels from prison or shoveling snow.

Stupid achievement about which I'm way too excited




I got hooked on Hedgehog Launch 2 a couple of months ago, maxed out at three days to Mars, stopped playing it when my Windows/Firefox updates made my computer a mess, and started playing a game a day a couple of weeks ago. Well, no more. Perfection has been achieved. A one day launch to Mars might be possible with Powerball winning luck. Even this took a tremendous amount of luck on day 1 to earn almost four grand.

If we can put a hedgehog on Mars in two days, we can accomplish anything.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Two books by Paul Auster

Decided to combine two posts I had written previously in an effort to catch up with my reviews before the end of the year:

Post 1: The Book of Illusions

My mind is clearing up. Semester is just about over (and will be long over by the time I post this), I've working out again, feel like I'm on an upswing and my focus is better enabling me to sit down and enjoy reading again.

My library got Paul Auster's new book in which reminded me that I always wanted to read him. His new book didn't grab me but I grabbed The Book of Illusions and it looked good.

It was.

The narrator, David Zimmer, is a college professor. His wife and sons die in an airplane crash which leaves him depressed and despondent. One night, while lying around in a drunken stupor watching television, he comes across a clip of an old silent movie by Hector Mann. It makes him laugh, something he hasn't done in ages, and he is inspired to find out more about Mann.

Zimmer delves into Mann's twelve movies and his life and discovers that Mann just vanished from the face of the earth in 1929. Zimmer writes a book analyzing the movies and has it published.

He then receives a letter from someone claiming to be Mann's wife inviting him to New Mexico to visit Mann. Zimmer exchanges a couple of letters with the woman but is dubious. Then one winter night a woman shows up at Zimmer's house with a gun, forcing him to accompany her to New Mexico.

Finding something obscure and wanting to write about it as a means of overcoming depression? Boy, I can't associate with that. No way (sarcastic voice). Beyond that, though, there are so many stories and complexities involved which made me like it. A central premise of the story is the question over what is real and not. If something exists, especially for a brief time, and then it is removed from existence and no one knew about it, was it real or illusion?

I thought the ending was really sad which is why I'm not rating it two stars. Not Alison McGhee sad, but far from a happy ending. Zimmer claims his life was good but also that the book in my hands would be published only after his death and the amount of time passing between the story told in the book and publication of said book is somewhat uncertain. Did his life really turn out OK? For how long?

I enjoyed Auster's writing immensely. Crisp, concise. Story moved along constantly. Terrific book and I will be reading more by him in the future.

Post 2: Travels in the Scriptorium

Was visiting a neighboring library and decided to see what they had by Paul Auster since I enjoyed The Book of Illusions. They had a slim tome entitled Travels in the Scriptorium. The dustjacket is very odd, with a white horse in what looks to be a room of an institution of some sort, a nightstand, a bed, and a desk.

The book begins with an old man in a room almost identical to the one depicted on the dustjacket. He is confused and cannot remember much. There are a bunch of photographs and a manuscript on the desk in his room. Through a parade of visitors, we find that the old man apparently headed some sort of covert organization that resulted in many tragedies to his operatives. Despite that, his operatives are loyal to him and are the ones that come to care for him.

The manuscript is a fragment of a tale of governmental deceit and at the end of the novel the old man discovers another text on his desk by the same person which is more disturbing.

Both books I've read by Auster are sort of "meta" fiction, stories (or movies in the case of Book of Illusions) within stories within stories. They also seem to be about the process and reasons for creating art.

This book, which is very thin and a quick read, to me reads as a rumination on how "alive" characters are to an author. There's really no plot. In that regard, I didn't care for it. I also didn't care for Auster's going into detail on bodily functions. Perhaps it was designed to make the old man seem more flawed and human. I don't know. I continue to like Auster's writing style, though, and his books are definitely different. Thus, another one star rating.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Group of 79 project - Mack Jones


I don't think too many people know about the career of Mack Jones and it's a bit of a shame. Jones was a very talented outfielder in the 1960's who was maligned by injuries (he never played a full schedule of games in the majors) but was remembered most for two seasons in particular.

Jones was signed by the Milwaukee Braves in 1958 and assigned to Salinas of the Class C California League. He progressed rapidly and reached the major leagues at age 22 after back-to-back seasons at AAA Louisville where he hit over .300 with double digits in home runs. He could not crack Milwaukee's outfield, though, and split the 1962 and 1963 seasons between the Braves and AAA.

Inexplicably, the Braves never brought Jones up in 1964. The result was his first memorable season. Playing for Syracuse, Jones almost won the league triple crown, hitting .317 with 39 home runs and 102 runs batted in. His average was second in the league to Sandy Valdespino. Jones led the league in homers, triples (18), runs batted in, runs (109), total bases (336), slugging percentage (.630) and stolen base percentage (86.7). Despite only playing this one season in Syracuse, it was enough for Jones to be inducted into Syracuse's Hall of Fame. It would also be Jones' last season in the minors.

The Braves dealt incumbent centerfielder Lee Maye a few weeks into the 1965 season and made Jones the starting centerfielder. He hit 31 home runs for the season, one fewer than his future Hall of Fame teammates Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron hit that year. Six Braves hit 20 or more home runs that season, the first team to accomplish such a feat. A shoulder injury limited Jones to 118 games in 1966 but he still posted an OPS+ of 118 (his lowest during the six year span from 1965-1970).

After another strong season in 1967, the Braves dealt him to the Cincinnati Reds with Jay Ritchie and Jim Beauchamp for Deron Johnson. Injuries hampered him again in 1968 and he was left unprotected in the expansion draft for the Seattle Pilots and Montreal Expos. The Expos made Jones their second pick in the expansion draft and he took the field in 1970 as their first leftfielder.

His 1969 season is his second most memorable. Jones hit 22 home runs and became a fan favorite in Montreal where they named the leftfield bleachers at Jarry Park "Jonesville" in his honor. He also became the first Expo to hit a grand slam.

Jones started slow in 1970 but recovered to have a solid season. The same could not be said in 1971. Jones lost his starting role. He hit two home runs in a game on May 9th but could only muster three extra base hits after that. The Expos released him on July 8th ending his career.

Jones returned home to Atlanta where he met Esther Levon in 1976. They married in 1982 and had two children. Jones developed stomach cancer and passed away in 2004.

Although Jones was a quiet individual, he was a memorable player to fans in at least two cities. I'm glad to give him some exposure, limited it might be, through this project.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The most aggravating decent book I've ever read

Weeks ago someone dropped off a book at our library for one of the other branches. Entitled The Horseshoe Curve: Sabotage and Subversion in the Railroad City, I immediately went "OOOH!!!". I was born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, right near the Horseshoe Curve and my great aunt and uncle worked at the gift shop there when I was a wee lad. We always got goofy trinkets that lasted for a couple of days before they got broken. And despite only living there for three years, I still have family in the area. The fact it was about the Horseshoe Curve appealed to me but then adding sabotage and subversion? Oh yeah!

The book is supposed to be about Hitler's plan to cripple America during World War II by sabotaging key industrial areas on the east coast; the Horseshoe Curve, Alcoa aluminum plants in Tennessee, New York and Illinois, hydroelectric plants in New York and Tennessee, the water supply of New York City, and a handful of others. It is also supposed to be about the FBI searching the homes of hundreds of Altoonans thought to be "alien enemies". Exciting!

Then my inner skeptic kicked in. "Why have I never heard anything about this before"? "Why is this 400 page book written by a professor being published by Seven Oaks Press in Holidaysburg instead of a university press"? "Repeat question two given that the front cover states the author is also the author of the 'bestselling Juniata, River of Sorrows'"? "Why would enough people buy a book on the Juniata River to make it a bestseller"?

Oh, Inner Skeptic, you never fail me. Why don't I listen to you more? When you dive a little more into the background of the author, Dennis McIlnay, you find that Juniata is a regional bestseller. Region is unspecified as is how the bestselling criteria was established. My guess is that Juniata was the bestselling debut book written by Dennis McIlnay.

The rest of my skeptical questions? Well, the book starts off really good. We join the story already in progress as one of two teams of four German saboteurs is landing off the coast of Long Island via submarine. The other team is landing in Florida. As I mentioned, Hitler has sent them to blows some things up. So who are these saboteurs? Crack SS troops, trained to conduct mayhem? A secret elite Gestapo team? Some guys the Germans picked because they had spent time in America? If you chose the last option, you'd be right. That was the main criteria. Granted, the guy left in charge of this operation was also part of the group plotting to assassinate Hitler. Maybe that should have been a tipoff to Hitler. "You sent a cook, an optician, a butler and a bicycle mechanic to blow up the Horseshoe Curve?"

Most of the saboteurs weren't even in Germany because they wanted to be. One was fleeing his pregnant girlfriend in the States. Another one had been in prison. Doomed to fail doesn't even begin to describe this venture. Well, maybe it does. Because as soon as the saboteurs land, the one starts leaving his gear all along the beach so that they are discovered and another runs to the FBI several days later to let them know about the plan.

The first hundred pages covers the failed plan. McIlnay writes with an absurd amount of extraneous detail, like describing the seventy-three sets of items FBI agents find in boxes once the saboteurs are grabbed. Or going into the background of every person mentioned in the book. After the capture of the saboteurs, McIlnay then goes into fifty pages discussing the trials of the saboteurs (most of whom are executed). 150 pages is a short book in and of itself and much of it wasn't necessary. So now the remaining 200 or so pages (there's about fifty pages of notes and index) will be about the FBI raids, right?

Ha, ha. Yeah, right. In fourteen pages, McIlnay talks about an article in the Altoona Mirror from 1942 that mentions the FBI raids. He then goes on to say that he can find no other proof that the raids happened. Even with the Freedom of Information Act, there are no conclusive government records. No one in Altoona seems to remember them. No other mention was made in the press. Sorry. Nothing to write about.

Well then what is the rest of the book about? What isn't it about? We get a huge section on the career of J. Edgar Hoover. We get many pages on life in interment camps in the United States. We get details of lives of people in these camps even though they have nothing to do with Altoona, the Horseshoe Curve, or anything other than McIlany found some info about them. That brings us to page 240. 120 pages to go. What will McIlany write about now? How about the birth of railroads in England. Pertinent, no? McIlany feels the need to discuss the history of railroading and everyone involved in it to introduce everyone to the last couple chapters on the Horseshoe Curve itself. Most of the remainder of the book is about the politics of the Pennsylvania Railroad during the 1800's. Nothing to do with World War II. Nothing to do with Altoona or the Horseshoe Curve. When McIlany does get to the Horseshoe Curve, does he talk about the role it served in World War II? Of course not. He talks more about it today, even mentioning that the Altoona Curve minor league baseball team, named for the Horseshoe Curve, won Baseball America's Bob Freitas Award. And this has what to do with the sabotage efforts?

You know what, though? Despite the total lack of a coherent structure, it was a fun book to read. I learned a lot about numerous things. I enjoyed learning about J. Edgar Thomson (the other J. Edgar), who was a huge player in the railroad business that I will probably track down a book written about him that McIlnay cited frequently. But cow holy, this could have used an editor. Random things just pop up at the end of paragraphs. McIlnay will be talking about railroads and then end a paragraph saying that such and such a person had been married. So what? It has nothing to do with anything. If you want to talk about the personal life of that person, find out a little more and make a paragraph or two out of it. Don't just throw out minutiae because you have it and need to squeeze it in.

Also, the man does not know how to conclude anything. If this were a novel I'd have thrown it across the room because there is nothing approaching a satisfying conclusion. I think it comes from him wanting to stuff everything he can into the book. When you have no direction, it's really tough to know when you've reached the end.

I think it's funny that this is one of the longest reviews I've written but this was quite a book. It covers so much about so many things, I'm not sure who I would recommend this to. Aggravating, but decent.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Better than a school closing

My youngest is really getting out of hand. When you were a kid and it snowed, you looked forward to a school closing so you could play outside with your friends, right (apologies to my Southern, Australian and Saharan readers who have no idea to what I'm referring)? Not my youngest. He roots for the two-hour delay. You have to make up school cancellations later in the year so what's the advantage of that? He just wants to miss school.

That would be all well and good but this leads him to hoping for rather specific weather conditions and creating situations I've never heard of that could potentially cause two-hour delays. For instance, we received a LOT of rain yesterday. In his mind, this led to the potential of the roads icing over overnight and leading to the two-hour delay. Not changing over to snow, not flooding, but icy roads. Because icy roads would be the most likely cause of two-hour delays in his mind (and he's probably right).

When he woke up this morning and it was 38 outside, he was greatly perturbed. He hasn't yet come up with a scenario in that situation which could lead to a delay. Just a matter of time.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Movies? Me?

Until the last couple of weeks, I had probably watched five movies all year long. I'm not a big movie guy and not having a television, I don't have the opportunity (fortunately) of getting sucked into a 74th viewing of the Shawshank Redemption. But we all need a little escape every now and then and so I grabbed some movies from my local libraries.

My initial plan was to unwind a bit during the Thanksgiving holiday. School was closed the week of Thanksgiving so I had no assignments due and then the week following would be the final week of the semester. I thought the Thanskgiving weekend would be a nice warmup and then this past week, the beginning of my first extended break since September, would get rid of the last vestiges of school angst. Good plan.

So good, I couldn't wait for it to start. I watched my first movie the weekend before Thanksgiving. Thank You For Smoking is about a tobacco lobbyist and his quest to increase smoking in the face of governmental regulations/health concerns. He is divorced with a young son and he takes the kid with him, trying to be a role model while making decisions that aren't necessarily moral. I really enjoyed this. Aaron Eckhart nails the part of the lobbyist. The movie is a riot. Rob Lowe is a quirky Hollywood exec who adds satire to the satire. Just a wonderfully entertaining film. One of my favorites in a long time. I told people after I watched this, if more movies were like this, I'd watch more of them.


Thanksgiving weekend brought another movie. Dead Again was mentioned somewhere at some point by Keith Law. I'm not sure how I missed this movie before because Campbell Scott has a bit part in it and I thought I saw all his movies from the 1990's (Big Night, Impostors, Spanish Prisoner, Singles, Dying Young, Roger Dodger, Love Letter. I probably did miss more than one but I really enjoyed Campbell Scott in the nineties). This was a fun movie. Emma Thompson and Ken Branagh play dual rules. A composer supposedly murders his musician wife in the 1940's. The husband is put to death for the murder. Decades later, the spirits of both infest an artist and a private detective who look just like the dead couple. A hypnotist is brought in to uncover the truth and a neat twist in the end makes it very interesting. I enjoyed this movie a lot. But it had Campbell Scott so of course it was good.

School ended and I went a with a pair of movies I've seen before. I re-watch movies. Can't help it. Unlike books, where I think there are zillions of gems out there I'll never get to, I feel like I'm more likely to hit a clunker than a winner with new movies. So I went with State and Main and The Saint. Again, favorites at play. I really enjoy David Mamet films, especially the dialogue. It may have been The Spanish Prisoner that launched my liking for Campbell Scott. I don't think it was but it could have been. Love that film but it is not a good film for multiple viewings.

Returning to State and Main, the movie is about a group of movie-making Hollywooders that invade a small town to make their movie and all the difficulties of the two cultures colliding. Again, fun movie, bit of a satire, great dialogue. Bunch of name actors - Alec Baldwin, Sarah Jessica Parker, Julia Stiles, Philip Seymour Hoffman. I definitely recommend it. One of the more approachable Mamet films.

I've always loved The Saint. Part of me looks upon it as a sequel to Real Genius which naturally gives it appeal. Val Kilmer goes from collegiate whiz kid to international super thief. Why not? Have to use your brilliance somehow. The female lead is Elisabeth Shue, who, if you're being warped in the mind like me and associating yourself with the movie Real Genius, then making the leap to associating yourself with The Saint, is definitely a fine choice of a woman with whom to have a relationship in your make-believe fantasyland.

In reality, though, the movie is a bit more cheesy than I remembered. I've mentioned before that I have the soundtrack and associated music to this movie so it's always great to watch for the tunes. Even if most of the songs from the associated music disc get played for four seconds as background music. So I enjoyed it but I think in terms of overall quality, I would have to rank this movie fourth of the four I mentioned.

Speaking of music and hot women, I watched a fifth movie without really intending to do so. Someone returned a movie to our library from one of the other branches. A French movie entitled The Page Turner. Music related movie? Sign me up.

The movie starts with this young girl, Melanie, who is an excellent pianist. She goes to a very important audition where one of the judges is a famous pianist. While the girl is auditioning, a woman barges in and asks for an autograph of the judge. The judge obliges, adoring the adulation and ignoring the performance in front of her. This rattles the little girl who flubs the rest of her audition. She goes home and never plays piano again.

Fast forward ten years. The little girl is now in her twenties and, to me, is incredibly attractive (the actress is Deborah Francois). Then again, I have unconventional tastes in women (other celebrity crushes: Felicia Day, Claire Forlani) so take it with a grain of salt and yes, she is in her twenties and is an actress so yeah, it's not too hard for her to be looking good, but still. Ignoring the aesthetics for a moment....the woman is applying for a position as an administrative worker for a law firm. She gets the job, does well even though she seems rather anti-social and a bit odd. But you're wondering, "What the heck is she doing at a law firm"? One of the lawyers finds himself in need of someone to watch his son while he travels. He asks one of the other admins if her daughter would do it. She cannot. The "heroine" of the movie says she will do it. It will require her living at his house. No prob.

She gets out to the house and we find that his wife is a professional pianist who is a bit emotionally unstable because of a car accident she was in a couple years before. She's around the home all day but because of her fragility someone else really needs to be there to care for the son and make meals, etc. and since Melanie has been such a good worker, surely she will do a fine job as well. Any guesses who the pianist is? That's right, the judge from ten years before who ruined Melanie's potential playing career.

Melanie bides her time and ingratiates herself with the pianist. The pianist discovers that Melanie can read music and has Melanie become her page turner. The pianist plays in a trio that is to be performing for a radio program that is very important. Would Melanie help? But of course. The concert comes, the pianist trusts Melanie, and.....

The concert is a success. Melanie becomes more and more important to the pianist and there is another performance. But nothing is as expected. The ending is quite surprising and is so out in leftfield that you're left thinking "Really? That's the plan she worked on for the last decade?". Definitely a cool film with an ending you don't expect. And at 83 minutes, good length. Also, great soundtrack with a Shostakovich trio among other nice pieces. Don't hear those too often.

Five good movies out of five. ALMOST makes me want to watch some more. Frankly, though, I'm at my limit. I think it would be hard for me to try and watch any more right now. Unless.....it would be fun to watch Impostors again. Hmmmmm.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Group of 79 project - Jim King


Man, that Adam Dunn trade reignited my interest in baseball cards. I'm going to start sending out more autograph requests in the near future but need to get caught up on this project.

Jim King joined the Vernon Dusters of the Class D Longhorn League in 1950. Despite being seventeen years old, and likely the youngest player in the league, he hit .302, slugged .480 and finished third in the league with 46 doubles. The St. Louis Cardinals were intrigued by his performance and acquired him from Vernon.

King played Class C ball the next two seasons with late season promotions to higher levels both years. He struggled against the faster company but at age 20 finally put it together at the Class A level. In his second season at Omaha, in 1954, King finished 9th in the league in batting with a .314 average and was second in the league in total bases.

The Chicago Cubs claimed King from the Cardinals in the Rule 5 draft. He spent the next two seasons playing the corner outfielder positions for the Cubbies where his performance was unspectacular. The Cardinals reacquired him by trading two players for him before the 1957 season but he spent most of the season in the minors. The Giants then dealt for him but mid-season gave him to Toronto of the International League.

Despite King's terrific start as a professional, his early to mid-twenties saw him struggle more than he had success. In 1960, the Cleveland Indians acquired his rights but kept him in Toronto. At age 27, King recaptured his earlier level of performance. King was named the International League MVP as he hit .289 with 24 home runs and helped lead the Maple Leafs to an International League Championship. His .878 OPS led the league.

This would be the last time King would see the minor leagues. The expansion Washington Senators took him as one of six players from the Indians. He would then spend the next seven seasons as an outfielder in Washington, playing often but never establishing himself as a regular outfielder. On May 26, 1954, King became the only Senator (in this incarnation and before they relocated to Texas) to hit for the cycle. The triple in that game was the only one he hit in 1964.

King was dealt twice during the 1967 season, first to Chicago, then to Cleveland. At the conclusion of the 1967 season, King was released and his professional career ended.

Thanks to Mr. King for signing a card for me.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

99 Coffins

I mentioned previously that I had come up with a goofy way of selecting books to read. I don't think I'm going to follow through with it too much. I got it in my head that I would read books that contain a number in the title and would try to read books containing numbers from 1 to 100. I started with David Wellington's 99 Coffins.

With Halloween being recent and the whole Twilight/New Moon saga that has gripped our youth, I've been in a bit of a vampire mood myself and was looking for a vampire book. I came across this one which gave me the number idea.

As I approached the ending of the book, I tried to figure out why I was finishing it. It was a lousy book. First, the author took immense liberties with the "traditional" vampire. The vampires have mouths like sharks, not regular mouths with fangs. They age like everything else in the universe. An older vampire, typically exemplary of a powerful vampire, is weak in this story. Perhaps worst of all, the humans in the story don't really think it is too out of the ordinary that vampires exist. It's sort of like having a grizzly bear loose. Rare, very troublesome, but not something that would cause you to freak out.

Second, the author isn't really a good writer. Perhaps it is because I appreciated his lack of ability that I continued reading it. Sort of like how we root for the David Ecksteins of the world. I think part of me was saying "Good for you, David, that you enjoy writing enough to put this out (his fifth book) and that you got someone to publish it even though it is crap".

The main character, a lesbian Pennsylvania state trooper named Laura Caxton, is recruited by her mentor (from Wellington's first book), a longtime vampire hunter who was ravaged by vamps in the first book, to investigate the possibility of some vampire skeletons that were found in an archeological dig in Gettysburg, PA. Caxton goes out and, sure, enough, 100 coffins are found, one of which is empty and smashed, the other 99 which contain vampire bones but no hearts (In Wellington's universe, hearts are to vampires like batteries are to flashlights). Soon it is discovered that the smashed coffin is the result of a living vampire who is in search of the vampire hunter because he is in possession of the vampire who created the vampire who smashed the coffin.

Why does the vampire hunter run around the countryside with an old vampire? Because the courts refuse to let him destroy it. Of course. And why does this unearthed vamp want to destroy her? We never find out. He just says that she had to be destroyed. OK.

Turns out that these unearthed vampires were made by this other vampire back in the Civil War Era. Those Damn Yanks got it in their head that an army of vampires would be pretty effective against the Rebs. They were to be unleashed at Gettysburg but when Lee's forces were turned away, the guy in charge of the vampire army decided to keep them buried for safe keeping. The tide of the war changed, the army was never needed, and they stayed there until the dig that unearthed them.

What made this book crummy, outside of the lack of traditional vampires and the inexplicable plot? The structure was a bit irritating. 99 chapters, the odd ones take place in present day with Caxton, the even ones are correspondence or other written artifacts from those involved with the Civil War vampire. The last chapters indicate that the mind behind the vamp army was going to destroy these documents. Then why am I reading them?

There was very little difference in tone between the current day chapters and the older ones. Some 1800's lingo here and there is the sole effort to make them differ. The author is trite and predictable and repetitive. Caxton's blood ran cold so many times, I thought she was a lizard. Wellington describes Caxton's actions frequently as "following proper police procedure". But she and the hunter are dummies and cannot see the plot unfold as easily as I did. I guess it's the fear that caused them to not think clearly.

All in all, a lot of crap. Not as bad as Time Traveler's Wife or New England White. Probably not as bad as Museum Guard even. But still a pretty crummy book.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

My first Adam Dunn purchase #1/5



After my big trade with Thorzul I had to get about expanding my Adam Dunn collection. I figure what better way to get going than with a card numbered to five copies? So now I have two Adam Dunn cards (I'm sure I have some more but I have to go through the cards I have. I probably have as many as six!). Pretty nice card and it has part patch and part jersey. I like it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Reading a cookbook

Reading a cookbook from cover to cover usually isn't something that strikes me as something I want to do. Michael Ruhlman's Ratio, however, is different from any other cookbook. It is Ruhlman's explanations on how a large number of things can be made in the kitchen based on following simple ratios (by weight). For example, if you want to make a vinaigrette it's three parts oil to one of vinegar. Simple, huh? If you want to add herbs to it, you can, but the basic ratio is 3:1. Remember that ratio and you don't need to ever look it up in a cookbook.

Ratio is filled with tons of things like that. Unfortunately, most of the recipes aren't all that good for you. Lots of doughs and cakes and pastry recipes. Lots of sauces. But if you moderate yourself, it is pretty fascinating all the neat things that can be done with these simple ratios.

The other caveat to the book is that there are a lot of exceptions to the rules. Ruhlman will start off explaining a ratio and then talk about how ideally, you probably want to tinker with it. So even once you learn the ratio, you might not actually want to use it which is a bit annoying but then again, part of cooking is creativity and you should probably be tinkering with the ratio on your own.

Ultimately, I liked the book a lot and have used it considerably. It was almost worth the cost just to be able to make single serving pancakes. My youngest son is the only one in the household that likes pancakes and it used to be a pain to have to whip up a large bowl of batter for one or two cakes and then refrigerate the rest. No more. Also, Ruhlman is a really good writer and makes the act of mixing things together interesting. I probably learned more about cooking from this book than any other source I can think of.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Why you should juggle

Jason Kottke had a link to this article on why you should juggle. I couldn't agree more. Juggling is one of those things that I feel has contributed immensely to my physical and emotional capabilities and, to a lesser extent, my intellectual.

I learned to juggle when I was in ninth grade. I was in a self-taught mathematics class and a number of us flew through the material and wrapped up all the required stuff with weeks left in the school year leaving us with an hour of free time every day.

The father of one of my classmates was a professional clown and my classmate taught me how to juggle, first by juggling beanbags off of walls. I still maintain that this is the absolute best way to learn how to juggle. I don't quite know why but it is much easier, and those I have taught to juggle agree, to get the rhythm by first doing it off a wall.

Since that time, I juggle frequently. Pretty much whenever I find myself with a trop of objects. I'm not that good and cannot handle more than three but it is a lot of fun. It alleviates boredom. I don't know how often I have waited for a ride or to meet with someone running late and I grab three rocks or pinecones or something and juggle. I used to keep a bag of baseball equipment in my trunk so I could juggle (not only three balls but the always challenging bat, glove and ball).

Where it has helped me the most, though, is improving and encouraging further improvement in the symmetry of my body. Juggling requires using both hands. I used to be predominantly left-handed. As I juggled throughout the years, my coordination developed in my right-hand. When I played baseball, I switch-hit (albeit poorly). I extended that to golfing, hockey, and racquet sports (especially ping pong, where I enjoyed whooping on my friend Eric with my "weak" hand). I write all right with my right-hand.

From there I started messing around with my feet, too. Then once I got into martial arts, my ambidexterity really took off. Many people think my dominant leg is my left even though I'm "naturally" right-legged. I've reached the point where I don't really have a side of my body that is dominant.

Granted, it has been a lot of work in a lot of different ways that has enable me to achieve this but there is no way I would have even begun down this path had it not been for juggling.

As for the emotional and intellectual side, as I said, it alleviates boredom. There is probably something to the whole hand-eye thing, too, and the brain but I don't know that I feel like juggling has benefited me in that area as much as the physical side.

Definitely take the time to learn. It's fun and it's good for you.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

My first internet baseball card trade - with the legendary Thorzul

I've mentioned before that I read two baseball card blogs regularly: Cardboard Junkie and Thorzul Will Rule. These two pretty much rekindled my interest in trading cards although the baseball card companies themselves have done a lot to counter the effect.

Nonetheless, when Thorzul announced his annual "Trade Me Anything" event, I had to do it. Here are the cards he sent me:




I've toyed with the idea of being a player collector, despite the ridiculous number of cards produced, and limited print runs for many of these cards but figured what the heck, why not start another collection? Dunn, being my favorite current player, seemed like a good bet and I really like the propaganda card. Latos could potentially be a good pitcher and I thought he might be another decent guy to collect if the Dunn cards seemed too overwhelming.

So what did I send Thorzul? Well, you can see for yourself. Not having much in recent cards, I thought I would provide him with some older cards he needed. Turns out I read the wrong list. Alas. Nonetheless, he seemed to like what I sent.

If you're reading this and have Adam Dunn or Mat Latos cards with which you would be willing to part, let me know. As you can see from what I sent Thorzul, newer cards aren't my forte but I have a lot of unusual things and older cards.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Super Freakonomics, not that impressed

I immensely enjoyed Stephen Dunbar and Steven Levitt's book Freakonomics when it came out, have enjoyed reading articles of theirs elsewhere and was looking forward to Superfreakonomics. Reading it, I was disappointed.

First, the pair have established themselves. They don't need to try and draw attention to themselves. Yet the chapter titles are written as if they are trying to get Digg hits. I forget the exact wording of the first chapter title but it is something like "How prostitutes are like mall Santas". The chapter is largely about prostitution and may be the only chapter similar in style to the original book. But the answer comes way late in the chapter and is a bit of an iffy connection. They cite a study of Chicago prostitutes and find that in one area of Chicago, the prostitutes only really operate on the 4th of July weekend. That area contains a large park and many families have reunions there which apparently result in fellows getting bored (and horny) and looking for action. So, at least in this case, prostitutes are like Santas in that they are seasonal. Lame, right?

Which brings me to the second issue with the book. With the exception of the first chapter, the rest of the chapters read like connected blog posts. It felt like Dunbar and Levitt just tried to cram a whole bunch of research studies into the book that were loosely connected and then threw chapter headings on like groupings. Some of the studies I know I have read before and I'm not that into any of the fields discussed. Unlike Freakonomics, which had a lot of original, somewhat obscure research that made you think and maybe wanting to learn more, the sequel felt like I was reading old news and it left me lukewarm.

Of course, you can't read a review of the book without seeing the discussion on the fifth chapter involving global warming. Unlike other denizens of the internet, I didn't have issues with it. If you're interested in the discussion, just Google the book. Having studied environmental and energy policy years ago, I enjoyed their alternative solutions to the global warming issue (and the possibility that there is no issue) and wish that more people would be open to solutions rather than just stomp around morally outraged.

To me, this is a fun book. There's not enough deep exploration of any given topic to make me feel like having this as a book is an improvement over just taking snippets of the chapters and turning them into blog posts. Sort of like they already do.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Deluxe Transitive Vampire

I'm always looking for different ways to discover interesting books to read. On top of that, I'm in a bit of a reading rut (and going through my old blogs and journals over the years suggests I have some sort of Thanksgiving Seasonal Affective Reading Disorder). I haven't been able to figure out what appeals to me, in part because I'm focused on the end of the semester and all that good stuff. So I've been looking for suggestions and coming up with some goofy ideas (you'll see in future posts).

Ze Frank asked readers of his website for reading suggestions. I offered up Toby Barlow's Sharp Teeth and took a gander at the list myself. After reading the list (and I'm not linking to it for your sake), my first thought was "Wow, Ze has a lot of fans who are taking AP English". I think at least half the books on the list I read when I was in high school. Most of the others I have seen on high school reading lists here. Folks, there is better literature out there than Of Mice and Men.

Despite my observation, I was intrigued enough by a couple appearances on the list of a book entitled, The Deluxe Transitive Vampire. I should have realized I was on the money with my perception of Ze's fan base. This book, if it has a target audience, is the high school student learning about English. It's a nice primer on sentence construction, nouns, verbs, adverbs and all that jazz. it is illustrated with a bunch of gothic pictures from other texts, often cobbled together to form goofy scenarios.

The reason I say "If it has a target audience" is because the book reminded me of a business law professor I once had. This professor enjoyed (WAY too much) illustrating cases using characters from Beatrix Potter stories. "Let's say Jemimah Puddle Duck has sued Peter Cottontail for breach of contract...". He would go on and on and you could see him getting lost in the story. It felt like he was telling the stories to entertain himself rather than teach us.

I felt the same way with this book. The pictures, but especially the examples, on the surface seem designed to appeal to the younger folks. But after a while you think the author was doing it for the kicks and heck if anyone ever reads it.

Examples of examples?
The way you're wearing those pajamas is bound to give the sandman pause.
The barber who found the nose in his croissant never did get along with his wife.
We waltzed Lisztlessly.
This wildebeest is swifter than that jellyfish on wheels.
That cat who's checking out the back room says he's here on a divine mission.

And so on and so on. They are charming at first, then quirky, then irritating.

If you have a high school student that is struggling with getting the whole language thing down pat, or even a junior high student who is an aspiring writer, this might be a worthwhile book to pick up. For the vast majority of folk, I don't see it being of any value as a tool or entertainment.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Modern fiction time

Hey, I'm catching up with my reviews! It helps in that I have been so overwhelmed with school and life that I've been in a bit of a down mood that has left me unable to both identify what I want to read and focus on what it is I'm reading when I do finally pick something out. So there hasn't been much to add to the list. The semester is about to come to an end, though, which will help my mood and focus immensely. Cow holy, this has been a tough semester.

Enough with the whining. On to the reviews.

I've wanted to read Bret Easton Ellis and when I was in one of my "What do I want to read next?" moods, I came across Lunar Park, the only one of his books we have in our library. Much more recent than his "classics", it is a novel about him. I'm not one for horror novels but man, this was SPOOKY and good. Ellis is haunted by Patrick Bateman, the main character in American Psycho, who, according to the novel, is really based on his father so it is his father who is haunting him. There are also evil stuffed animal spirits. And a double.

The thing is, Ellis takes a lot of drugs and consumes a good deal of alcohol. We don't know what is real and what is imagined. Which is interesting because since Ellis is the author and narrator, we also don't know what parts of the book are real and what are imagined.

Great book. Almost two star worthy but in the end I opted for a single star. I'm not sure how good it would be for someone who had no idea who Ellis is or why his self-importance in the book is so important. I may be wrong on this, though, and this might be a two-star. Or maybe I'm imagining writing this post and I haven't even read the book.

The Weekend by Peter Cameron came about because I realized as much as I love City of Your Final Destination, I've not read much else by Cameron. Remedied. This was about as meaningless and plotless a book as I have ever encountered and it was fantastic. The book is about character conflict. There is a couple, John and Marian, living in a country house in upstate New York. They are two pretty boring people. They are friends with Lyle, who decides to come visit them and bring his lover of a week, Robert. No big deal, right? The thing is, Lyle is visiting on the one-year anniversary of the death of Tony, Lyle's former lover and John's half-brother. And John and Marian's house is where Tony died. Awkward. Add in a strange Italian woman who is sort of a neighbor and the book just becomes more awkward. Yet it's really good. Despite there not being a plot, it ends in a satisfying manner. The dialogue, typical of Cameron, is fantastic. The people, despite lacking much in the way of redeeming qualities, aren't bad either. Just sort of troubled. It was a different book (for me, anyway) and I recommend it for the entertainment value.

Lastly came An Invisible Sign of My Own. I enjoyed this so much I shot an e-mail off to the author, Aimee Bender, an English professor out in California, letting her know how much I enjoyed it. I didn't realize until after I read it that she is part of the same writing group as David Glen Gold, author of one of my favorite books Carter Beats the Devil and Alice Sebold, Gold's wife, and author of The Lovely Bones. Sort of bodes well when you're hanging with a pair like that.

I loved the shade of blue on the dustjacket. That's what made me pick it. It stood out. Then I read the epigraph, a quote from the mathematician Wim Klein, which read "Numbers are friends for me, more or less. It doesn't mean the same to you, does it--3,844? For you it's just a three and an eight and a four and a four. But I say, "Hi! 62 squared."". Awesome.

The story is about a 20 year old woman named Mona who, despite lacking any sort of education or background to suggest she is capable of doing so, is asked to teach elementary school math, mostly because she is a math whiz. Mona's got problems. Her mother pretty much kicked her out of the house. Her father has been suffering from some mysterious ailment for years. Mona quits anything she ever gets good at. She eats soap to become sick to avoid having sex with guys she likes. When she's out of sorts, which is quite often, she knocks on wood to comfort herself, sometimes for hours on end. She turns out being a decent teacher, though, at least for a period of time.

Everything gets really crazy as Mona begins to believe that numbers are causing the deaths of people in town. She then finds that the numbers are at least somewhat connected to a neighbor who then vanishes. And one of Mona's second grade students gets a little crazy with an ax in class and ends up in the hospital. All works out well in the end.

Writing this review reminded me of just how much goes on in this book. Mona's constant quirks/mental problems keep the book moving as Bender does a good job of making the reader as on edge as Mona is. When the ending works out well, because you're so in tune with Mona, it feels good. But I think most people will have to work hard to suspend their disbelief with everything going on. Because it's a little too out there, I have limited my rating to one star. If you're as off-center as I am, though, you'll probably really like it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Generous Man

I'm always trying to find ways to identify books I might like to read. My tastes tend to run counter to the masses so looking at best-seller lists and the such isn't going to do me much good. It's not always the case, particularly with some non-fiction (Gladwell for example. I will also be reviewing Superfreakonomics in the near future.) but you're not going to find me reading Nora Roberts or James Patterson.

How to find books, then? I came up with the idea of finding books represented by the same agent who represents Jeffrey Moore. He wrote two excellent novels, Prisoner in a Red Rose Chain and Memory Artists. I figured if his agent likes his work enough to represent him, that person may like things I do.

Turns out Moore is represented by a big agency in England that represents primarily European writers. Doesn't bode well when I'm trying to find something my library has (we don't carry too many books written in French). But lo and behold, The Generous Man, written by the Dane Tor Norretranders, was translated into English and the library had it. So I read it.

It was a pretty interesting book. Mostly it talks about how being generous signifies to potential mates that we are superior because we can afford to handicap ourselves by giving something to someone else. The book examines this concept sociologically, developmentally, evolutionarily, psychologically, to the point where it started to just become tiresome to me. The parallels to the principles that Neil Strauss outlines in his book about pickup artists, The Game, is almost uncanny. Peacocking, for example, is discussed (a peacock feather is even on the cover of the book). Being as the epigraph to the book is a quote from artist Jens Jorgen Thorsen that states "I paint to get pussy", it's not a stretch to make the connection.

If you're into psychology or sociology or evolution and those aspects as they apply to getting laid, this is recommended. If you want to learn about attracting women in a more entertaining fashion, check out Strauss. If you're just looking for a good read, well, there's a big list of books to your left. Find one on there.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Wondering what to get me for Christmas?

There is some nifty stuff in this auction catalog, particularly this game worn Frank Chance jersey.

Without a doubt, though, the most awesomest item listed is this. It sure would look good under the ole Christmas tree, let me tell you.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A trio of older fiction

In recent weeks I've knocked out some older fiction. Two came off Keith Law's always trusty KLAW 100. The other was by old favorite Christopher Morley. How old are they? The oldest is Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time. Lermontov wrote that in 1839. The copy I read was translated by Vladimir Nabokov. I knew I couldn't go wrong there. Nabokov's fluency in Russian and English is such that I knew he captured the story well. There were lots of footnotes where Nabokov explained where he might have gone with one word over another and he also voices some criticism about the simplicity of Lermontov's writing.

The story is about a solder named Pechorin who is really a nihilist. He doesn't quite care enough to be labeled amoral but he really does not consider others much when acting. The story is told in an interesting manner in that Pechorin is described in three points of views, including his own. The narrative style and the making of the "hero" being not very heroic sets this book apart. Lermontov does not describe people well which is sort of odd in a sense. Otherwise, the descriptions are good. Once again, another solid choice by Keith Law (this book will likely fall off his revised list this winter as it is at #100).

The other Law recommendation was G.H. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday. Published in 1908, this is sort of an early spy thriller. It is very surreal, however. The main character, a poet named Gabriel Syme is recruited by Scotland Yard to try and stop an anarchist movement. He gets in a heated discussion with another poet who takes him to an underground anarchists meeting where Syme finagles his own election to the council of anarchists. Each member of the seven man council is named after a day of the week with Syme being Thursday. Sunday is the leader of the council and is a terrifying individual who invokes fear in everybody. Syme tries to thwart a plot by the group but discovers along the way that all the other members of the council are also undercover agents.

Crazy book but good. The anarchists aren't quite what you would expect nowadays and the "evil" is sort of the caliber of an A-Team episode. Nothing really terrible ever happens. There's definitely a lot of religious undertones to it which drives me nuts simply because I hate trying to derive meaning from novels. But again, definitely a good book.

The last, and most recent, of the trio is Morley's Parnassus on Wheels. Written in 1917, this is a cute, charming, funny story about a bold woman, Helen McGill, who buys a traveling bookstore. McGill, approaching age 40, cares for her older brother who is an author and lover of books. The brother travels a lot and doesn't do much around the farm when he is around and relies on McGill for quite a lot. The Parnassus comes to her home and McGill buys the bookstore in part for adventure and in part to prevent her brother from possibly doing so. The story is about her adventures traveling around the countryside selling books. A lot of the charm comes from the era. A woman conducting business! Traveling around the countryside alone! Abandoning her duties as a housewife! Egads!

You can actually listen to this book if you are illiterate like my good friend Transfixed Ingress. You can also read it online for free through Project Gutenberg.

Actually, all three books can be found on Project Gutenberg as can an audio version of The Man Who Was Thursday. Damn technology. Making books useless. Grrrr.....I will never get used to reading online. Can't do it.