Friday, December 31, 2010

Sunset Park

Somehow I've become a big reader of Paul Auster. I think this is the fifth book of his I have read in two years (maybe fourth). Auster loads his fiction with a lot of fact. Sunset Park is a part of Brooklyn and is the primary setting for the story. Miles Heller leaves his father and stepmother in his early twenties after hearing a conversation between them about himself. Miles is racked with guilt because he (accidentally?) caused the death of his stepbrother years before and Miles has never been the same.

Miles wanders the country and ends up in Florida (by which time he is 28) where he runs into 17 year-old Pilar Sanchez in a park. They are both reading The Great Gatsby and the two begin a relationship. Pilar moves in with Miles but when Miles has a spat with Pilar's oldest sister, Miles returns to New York to evade possible legal difficulties.

Miles moves into an abandoned house in Sunset Park with an old friend of his and two other squatters. The novel jumps around between all the characters and the story is moved ahead with each different perspective.

All in all, there doesn't seem to be much plot. It's definitely more about the characters than any particular story. Auster's attention to factual detail is amazing. He references a movie from the 1940's and the characters in it (everything true that I can determine). He talks about ex-baseball players Herb Score, Mark Fidrych and Lucky Lohrke (all details factually correct (and who writes about Lucky Lohrke?)). It wouldn't surprise me if the house in which Heller and his friends reside actually exists. Also, despite Heller being involved with a minor, Heller doesn't come off as creepy.

Sunset Park is a good book but definitely not as good as other works of Auster's I've read.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Music of 2010

Didn't listen to a whole lot of new music this year. Came across a couple groups that were new (or new to me) that I liked:

Roosevelt Radio:

St. Vincent:

And a second by her since she carbonates my hormones in addition to making good music:

Went to a couple of awesome high-energy concerts (videos are from the concerts I attended (gotta love YouTube)).
Rupa and the April Fishes:

Straight No Chaser:

And finally, two albums which I had been anticipating:
Jimmy Eat World:


Monday, December 27, 2010

Bringing Down the House

Didn't intend on reading this again. I signed this out for my oldest son who has developed an interest in counting cards. It's such an easy and entertaining read, though, that I plowed through it again.

I'm a good father in that I encourage the understanding of mathematical "games of chance". Blackjack is a game in which the player can occasionally have an advantage over the house and have a positive profit expectancy (the others are poker, sports handicapping, horse racing and the stock market. Anything else is gambling and playing any of those without knowing what your edge is also is gambling). Trying to beat blackjack by counting cards solo, though, is a grind (as is trying to beat any of the above mentioned games). You have to play a lot, be patient for your edge to come, and then get your money in. Given that the edge in blackjack might be as little as two percent, ugh, just thinking about trying to make a living doing so is painful.

Bringing Down the House is a true story about a group of MIT students that formed a team of card counters in the 1990's and made a quite successful run on the casinos of the world. Ultimately, their success was their downfall as more and more casinos banned them from play when they discovered what they were doing. Casinos don't like losing and they treat card counters as cheaters even though they don't do anything to affect play. They just bet more when the likelihood of getting good hands is in their favor.

The team structure is what made the group successful. By having a handful of people counting cards at different tables and signaling a "Big Player" to join the table and place bets when the decks were advantageous, the team reduced some of the grind involved.

Like many such "success stories", timing is everything. One of the reasons the group was able to pull it off was because most of the players were Asian. The casinos weren't suspicious of young Asian players because you had such folks heading up tech companies in the 1990's during the tech boom. Casinos were seeing young Asians all the time. Likewise, one of the big solo card counters cited in the book was an African American who dressed and acted like a pimp/drug dealer. The biases of casino personnels led them to believe such a person could not be a card counter.

Another interesting aspect of the era which would be extremely difficult to overcome in 2010 is the transportation of money. The team would strap wads of cash under their clothes when they flew to Vegas. Carrying large sums of cash (tens of thousands) would be highly suspicious so they tried to hide it. In this era of heightened air travel paranoia, no one's getting by with that amount of cash on their bodies.

This book was made into a horrible movie starring Kevin Spacey called 21. VERY loosely based on the book. Don't watch it. Read the book. Mezrich writes plainly, keeps it exciting and moving along, and captures the story and characters well.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

AFC Playoff Picture

It drives me nuts that it is so difficult to find the different playoff scenarios for the NFL each year. ESPN has some stupid thing where you can see who makes the playoffs if all the home teams win all the remaining games but it doesn't spell out the scenarios.

Now, I don't really care about football. I am fascinated by the possibilities of playoffs, though. So here's how the AFC picture shakes out (I'm doing the AFC because of the local fan favorite Steelers):

#1 Seed: New England Patriots (14-2 or 13-3). All wrapped up.

#2 Seed: If Pittsburgh wins (12-4) or Pittsburgh and Baltimore lose (11-5), Pittsburgh is the #2 seed because Pittsburgh has the better divisional record and has a better conference record than Kansas City. If Baltimore (12-4) wins and Pittsburgh (11-5) loses, Baltimore is the #2 seed.

#3 Seed: If Kansas City wins (11-5) or Indianapolis (9-7) loses, the Chiefs are the #3 seed. If Indianapolis (10-6) wins and Kansas City (10-6) loses, the Colts are the #3 seed based on the Colts 19-9 win over the Chiefs on October 10th.

#4 Seed: If Indianapolis wins (10-6) and the Chiefs win (11-5), Indianapolis is the #4 seed. If Indianapolis wins (10-6) and the Chiefs lose (10-6), Kansas City is the #4 seed. If Jacksonville wins (9-7) and Indianapolis loses (9-7), the Jaguars are the #4 seed based on divisional record.

#5 Seed If Baltimore wins (12-4) and Pittsburgh loses (11-5) and the New York Jets lose (10-6), the Steelers are the #5 seed. If Baltimore (12-4) and the Jets (11-5) win and the Steelers (11-5) lose, the Jets are the #5 seed based on their 22-17 victory over the Steelers on December 19th.
If the Steelers win (12-4) or both the Steelers and Ravens lose (11-5), the Ravens are the #5 seed as the Jets result will not matter since Baltimore defeated them on September 13th.

#6 Seed The Jets are the #6 seed unless they and the Ravens win and the Steelers lose in which case the Steelers are the #6 seed.

See, that wasn't hard at all.

Super Sad True Love Story

Have you ever seen a trailer for books? They're sort of a new fangled thing and as such, the quality isn't what you would expect from a "trailer". Here's the trailer for Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story:

While entertaining, the trailer has just about zero to do with the book. I read Shteyngart's first novel, The Russian Debutante's Handbook, earlier this year and thought it was good, not great. My friend Jason read Shteyngart's second book, Absurdistan, and felt it, too, was a decent but unspectacular read.

I guess the third time is the charm because Super Sad True Love Story is fantastic. And while there is humor in it, the book is mostly dark.

The story is set primarily in New York in the not too distant future. The fact that it is not too distant is part of what makes the book so dark. In Shteyngart's future, everyone is attached to their äppärät, a smartphone type device that broadcasts personal details about the user. Furthermore, people use them constantly to rate others around them on their personality and, ahem, sexworthiness (a different term is used). The most important measure of a person, though, is their credit rating. This is partly because the United States has become completely indebted to other countries. The euro and the yuan have become the world currency standards. As to what people do for a living, the predominant jobs are Media and Retail.

SSTLS (we'll abbreviate) alternates between being told by two characters. One, Lenny Abramov, is a 39-year old, ugly Russian immigrant (typical of all of Shteyngart's stories) who works for a firm that is pitching immortality to High Net Worth Individuals. He actually keeps a diary (people complain to Lenny on a plane about the smell of a book he pulls out on a plane. Print readers of the future are treated much like smokers are nowadays) and the diary makes up the bulk of the book.

The other character, Eunice Park, is a smoking hot Korean woman in her early twenties who Lenny falls in love with when he is sent on sales calls in Europe. The feeling isn't exactly mutual but Eunice ends up moving in with Lenny. Her story is told through messages to her GlobalTeens account, an international online communication system which seems similar to Facebook.

All in all, it's quite the satire. The obsession with the electronic devices leads to live personal interaction with people being a novelty. Having a conversation with someone is to "verbal" them. Likewise, the detachment from live interaction has led to sex being rather emotionless. Onionskin jeans are popular clothing for women that are transparent pants, usually worn without underwear, to showcase a woman's body. This, of course, helps that sexworthiness rating.

On the political/financial front, Shteyngart's world is comprised of huge corporations formed by megamergers such as LandO’LakesGMFordCredit Bank. Many countries are owned by these companies. The U.S. has become a military state with the Secretary of State being the primary political official.

Then there is the company for which Lenny works. His boss, a 70 year old man who looks much younger through the processes his firm sells, is well-connected and when the United States collapses at the end of the story, his power (and lust for Eunice) becomes more apparent.

I don't know how much of a love story this is. It isn't true (yet). Not even sure it's sad. I did think the book was super, though, and definitely worth checking out.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

CSS3 for Web Designers

Huh, no link for this on Amazon which is maybe why it was so hard to find a copy to borrow anywhere.

You can buy the book here, though.

If I were a web designer, instead of someone who dabbles, I'd buy this book. It's a short read, detailing about a half dozen CSS3 tricks that can really make your web design snazzy. That's it, though.

It's a bit of a question how necessary such as a book is. Much of the ideas can be done in Javascript and since Windows Explorer is behind every other browser in supporting CSS3 (and thanks to the more than half of my readers who DON'T use Windows Explorer), there's no sense of urgency to utilize the techniques. The coding does seem cleaner, though, and with any luck, support for CSS3 will grow. I know I'm going to try and implement some of this stuff in a couple of web projects on which I'm working.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Book on the Bookshelf

Mark recommended this book to me a while back and I finally got around to reading it. It's a history of the bookshelf which isn't near as nerdy as it sounds. As a matter of fact, for someone who loves books as much as I do, it should be considered a required reading.

Petroski is an engineer who has written books on other "exciting" topics like bridges and pencils. The man knows how to research and he does a great job looking at the evolution of the storage of books and how storage is influenced by the end users, printing methodologies, and engineering. Petroski cites his book well and includes a multitude of illustrations, including many from hundreds of years ago. It is fascinating to see how books were used and stored over the years.

I found the early part of the book to be much more interesting than the latter, I guess in part because book usage was so much different pre-printing press and even into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Once the book hits modern day, I wasn't as captivated, which is why I'm giving the book one star.

Petroski concludes his book with an amusing little appendix that details 25 different ways to sort one's library on shelves.

If you love books, definitely read this book. But even if you have a passing interest, it's worth picking up.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

My son's new career

As most of you who read this know, I used to work as a statistician. Last night, my 11 year old son was rubbing a blanket on his head to generate electricity and then shocking his older brother, himself, whatever else would create a spark. After a few of these, he announced "I'm a statictician". Cracked me up.

Update: Get it? A STATICtician!

Delivering Happiness

It wasn't too long ago when I was struggling to find something to read. Now books are popping out of the woodwork and I have stacks that I'm trying to read. What tends to happen is that I read multiple books simultaneously. I'll have a book in the car for when I have to take the boowahs to rehearsals or practices, I'll have one in the bathroom for serious reading, keep one in the kitchen to read as I cook, another one downstairs for when the computers are not being used by me, one upstairs to read before bed or if I'm up early. You get the idea. When I'm not swimming in books, a single or couple of books might be read in multiple locales. Now, though.....

Thus, all the book reviews right now. I didn't even know about this book. A library patron returned it and I saw Tony Hseih's name as the author which automatically triggered as "Zappos CEO" in my brain. I like reading alternative business books and so I had to grab this as Zappos approach is definitely unusual.

Delivering Happiness is part biography, part business book, part inspirational. It is a very quick read and written in a very conversational tone. Hseih talks about his youth, how he always was an entrepreneur, and how his Asian parents and those of other kids in the neighborhood always pushed their children. Then there is Harvard, Oracle, and Hseih's first major business, LinkExchange. From there we go through the trials and tribulations of Zappos. Interspersed throughout are Hseih's thoughts on success and happiness.

Hseih refers to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, something I believe firmly in, and something which is expressed exquisitely in Chip Conley's business book, Peak. On the opposite end of my agreement with Hseih-spectrum, you have the anti-37Signals approach of running a business. Hseih is a firm believer in "it takes money to make money". I'm sure much of this stems from his success at the end of the dot-com boom where venture capitalists were throwing money at anything having to do with the internet. It was pretty clear that had Hseih not successfully cashed out LinkExchange for millions, Zappos would never have gotten off the ground. Hseih originally funded Zappos with his own venture capital firm, dumped the rest of the firms money into Zappos when it needed it, dumped all his assets and money into it, and still required outside funding. This flies in the face of the 37Signals create a business model that is profitable approach.

Hseih has had a good deal of luck in his life, as well as a lot of hard work. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this book if you're looking for inspiration in running a business. As a fun success story or as a primer on customer service, it's a pretty good read.

Monday, December 6, 2010


There has never been a book that I anticipated more than this one. I've been waiting to read this book for over two years. I read McCarthy's first novel, Remainder and loved, loved, loved it. It's among my twenty favorite books of all-time. From the instant I read the last page, I wanted to read more by McCarthy. There is no book like Remainder which probably explains why it took McCarthy seven years to find a publisher. I started looking and found that he was in the midst of writing C and so I began waiting for it. Meanwhile, another book of his was published overseas but not here. Then, finally, C came out.

Perhaps my anticipation did me in. C pales to McCarthy's first book but is still a nice piece of writing. The story is out there, not nearly as much as Remainder, but it's odd. As a matter of fact, I doubt it would be published had Remainder not been published previously.

The novel details the life of Serge Carrefax, a lad from rural England. The book begins in the late nineteenth century where Serge is a child growing up in a strange household. His mother runs a silk business, collecting silk from worms then dyeing and selling the output. The man of the house, thought by Serge to be his father, is an inventor who is involved with the telegraph and radio but whose primary occupation is the head of a school for the deaf.

Different portions of Serge's life are depicted in each section of the book. His childhood, which involves the suicide of his sister, makes up the first. He then goes to school, joins the military as a pilot, then post World War I becomes involved with establishing communication lines in Egypt.

Throughout, Serge is obsessed with messages and trying to link sound and radio waves to something more spiritual. This search of meaning seems to be the focus of the book. And just like signals can be crossed, muddled, or garbled, so to does this book often become. Communication struggles abound.

Some of this may be due to Serge. The book is written in the third-person and Serge comes across as a bit mechanical (which makes sense for someone trying to receive signals). His sister's death barely affects him. Despite being a smart guy, he never registers that his true father is his supposed father's friend. While he frequently has sex with various women, he only is ever willing to do so in a single position, one which seems to have nothing to do with the woman or his pleasure. Mostly he waits and observes.

Through it all, you never get a sense of what on earth the point of the story is. There's no climax to the story, no denouement. Which may be the point. I don't know.

When I read, I tend to read for entertainment and/or information. While I wasn't particularly entertained by C, it was impossible to disregard how well constructed it was, almost like drinking a high-end chardonnay when you're normally a red wine drinker. As a result, and maybe a little bit because of my enjoyment of Remainder, I am giving C one star.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Paleo Solution

What causes people to make changes in their lives? I think for many people, and for many changes, the changes are made for them. Losing a job or suffering an illness, for example. For the most part I think people are creatures of habit and we don't like a whole lot of change.

I don't honestly know whether I like change or not. It sure feels like I go through a lot of them and I do know I need to be making some. At the end of April, I will be turning the big 4-0. Right now, I weigh about 280 pounds. My lean weight is around 205 which means I'm running around at almost thirty percent body fat. The combination of age and weight isn't exactly healthy.

I've also been stressed out because of finances. Stress, age and weight....not a good combination. I really need to be doing something.

My problem is that the "to do" list is vast. I need new employment or at least need to approach the Amish Mafia about getting in on some of their activities (I kid, I just like the idea of an Amish Mafia). Need to exercise regularly (I exercise quite irregularly which is better than not at all). Need to eat better. Need to write some things. Involved on a high level with some organizations. Holidays coming. Then there's even more stuff that doesn't bear mentioning in this area.

Be that as it may, you have to start somewhere if you're ever going to make headway. I picked up this book because I've been a fan of Robb Wolf's and I believe he knows about which he speaks. If I hadn't been, though, I might have chalked this book up as being something along the lines of a Kevin Trudeau book. Wolf bashes the medical community, and while he has a long list of references in the back, he doesn't footnote his research, something I think is pretty necessary when you're trying to refute "common knowledge".

What common knowledge is Wolf refuting? Well, the gist of the Paleo Solution is that our bodies have not evolved to where much of what we eat is good for it. Wolf believes that we should eat more like our early, early, early, early ancestors; nuts, berries, vegetables, meat. Grains, sugars, dairy? Out. Drinking cow milk and eating grains are relatively new concepts for our body evolutionarily speaking.

Much of what Robb espouses is what is touted for those who suffer from celiac disease. Those who suffer from that cannot break down gluten and it causes all sorts of health problems as a result. It's not a stretch to apply the same principles to a "healthy" person.

I know that when I omit grains from my diet, I feel better. The thing is, they taste pretty darn good. Pizza, cookies, all that good stuff which isn't good for you at all - it's hard to want to drop those things (which is why I weight 280).

My 400th post on this blog was, erroneously, the previous post (Transfixed Ingress was right, round numbers aren't my thing). My intent for this post was supposed to go one way or another. Either I was going to launch into a thirty day Paleo diet and see what happened or I was going to stop this blog altogether and try to knock out some of my to do items. Well, I had a productive day and knocked out some things. I had a decent workout. I did not eat well. I continue to read (and I'm blogging my reviews for work as well so I might as well continue that here). So we'll hold off on a decision and carry on as normal until I deem otherwise.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Post tomorrow

I'm only putting something down here because of the niceties of round numbers. More tomorrow.