Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 Best Of Lists

Best fiction of the year:

* Invisible, by Paul Auster
* The Eighth Day, by Tom Avitable
* The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson
* Beat the Reaper, by Josh Bazell

Best non-fiction of the year:

* Always Looking Up, by Michael J. Fox
* The Use of Hand Woodworking Tools, by Leo McDonnell
* Woodworking Basics, by Peter Korn

The year-end numbers are in, and clearly I've been goofing off more than usual: only 92 books read, of which 51 were non-fiction and 41 fiction. This is a huge drop off from last year's numbers of 112 fiction and 39 non-fiction; I'm at merely 61% reading productivity this year!

Now of course I know it isn't a contest... but still, it is useful to look at comparisons over time periods. As you can see from the rather narrow topic of two of my best of the year non-fiction picks, I could claim to have spent much of my reading time in the shop... but I don't know that it would be an accurate explanation. Oh well, we can only look to 2010 to see which way this trend moves!

The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch

You can view Prof. Pausch's last lecture at CMU on the web; this is the accompanying book. He succeeded in keeping it from being maudlin, and in keeping it interesting.

You might wonder, what qualifies someone to write a book like this: just knowing that he's about to die of pancreatic cancer? But it turns out that by describing the things that worked for him, Prof. Pausch added value in this book. And, he was a pretty accomplished fellow.

The short list of takeaways: work hard, persistence counts, have integrity, work well with others, love your family.

My recommendation: thumbs up; worth reading.

The Concealed Handgun Manual, by Chris Bird

This is an excellent book. Even for folks not interested in carrying a concealed handgun, Mr. Bird touches on an obvious, yet not talked about phenomenon that dramatically affect the way we live: we are taught that being a victim is appropriate, acceptable behavior. We are taught to be sheep, and to not protect ourselves and our loved ones. And we are taught that if one does protect oneself, there will be hell to pay.

Does that seem over the top? It isn't really. Consider public schools: many have a zero tolerance policy on violence. If little Sally is attacked at school and appropriately fights back, she's in as much trouble as her attacker, at least as far as the school district is concerned.

These lessons, unfortunately, work well, with insidious consequences. Look at the Virginia Tech situation, where Seung Hui Cho murdered 30 people. All reports indicate that no one fought back -- even after it was clear that individuals were being murdered, that there was no negotiated agreement to be had. The Incident Review Panel pointed out that playing dead amid the carnage was a survival technique for some students. Frighteningly, the Panel didn't make any recommendation or comment about the opposite behavior: that students should be taught to fight back. In fact, the event was credited with the opposite outcome -- with reducing the ability of trained, law abiding citizens to defend themselves with weapons.

If the passengers on United Airlines flight 93 on September 11th, 2001 had been brought up in this politically correct, ultra-liberal, CYA - lawsuit avoidance mentality, thousands more innocents might have been killed by terrorists. Fortunately, Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett, Jeremy Glick, and Lou Nacke, took the heroic high road and defended if not themselves, at least their nation.

Notifying and waiting for the authorities is clearly the best course of action in any life threatening situation. Except for when it gets in the way of saving your life. If your assailant is about to kill or inflict severe bodily harm upon you, you should defend yourself. Otherwise, all the police will be able to do is investigate your murder after the fact.

The author attributes to Professor John Lott Jr that "... a woman who defends herself with a firearm is 2.5 times more likely to survive a violent confrontation with a criminal without serious injury than if she were not to resist at all... with anything other than a firearm, she is four times more likely to be hurt..."

As Mr. Bird writes, "US courts have consistently held than law-enforcement agencies have no duty to protect an individual citizen."

The question that bothers me is: why do so few politicians trust their law-abiding citizens, even those willing to be trained and tested, to carry guns for protection?

[An aside on the "law-abiding" part of this: based on the most recent data provided in Texas, licensed concealed handgun carry (CHL) holders accounted for 0.26% of the criminal convictions in the state. It would be nice for the number of convicted CHL holders to be zero, but problems with fewer than 0.05% of the licensed CHL holders is still pretty good.]

Mr. Bird's book is informational as well as thought provoking.

Leading Lean Software Development, by Mary & Tom Poppendieck

You could accuse me of some bias here: I'm a big fan of Mary & Tom's books, and Tom wrote the forward for my book. But I assure you, my fully objective opinion is that this is an excellent text.

It differs greatly from their prior work primarily in that LLSD takes more of a systems tone: in fact, the "software development" part of the title is too much of a constraint. I'd recommend this book to anyone responsible for delivering value to clients, in any industry.

Harrington on Hold'em, by Dan Harrington

This is an excellent book on no-limit, tournament style Hold' em poker. Probably this book will improve my game, and equally likely, I'll need to re-read it several times as I continue to play, to better understand nuances that weren't as obvious (to a beginner like me) the first time.

It is far better than other poker books I've read thus far.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Gift of Fear, by Gavin De Becker

The sub-title of this book is, "this book can save your life." I believe that to be true.

Some key points: trust your intuition, if a situation doesn't "feel" right, then it isn't right, and perhaps most important, don't hesitate to be rude to protect your space and your safety. On that last point, De Becker gives several examples of how appropriate it can be, especially for a woman in a potentially dangerous situation (e.g., an elevator, stair way, parking garage) to tell an unwanted male, "I don't want your help," and to even follow up with, "I said NO!" The point being, rudeness is preferable to many other outcomes.

Negatives about this book: there's quite a bit of discussion of celebrity stalking, about which I have no interest, and serial killers, for which, ditto my lack of interest. You can skim those parts and still get quite a lot out of this book.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

I liked the first section of this book best, as I learned (or confirmed) a lot about the place of corn in factory farming in the US.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

After the Echo, by Russ Clagett

This excellent little book was recommended to me by a firearms instructor. The instructor was right: it is a useful book for anyone who might imagine using justifiable deadly force to stop an assailant. It also gives valuable insight into the world of police snipers and the issues with which they must deal.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli

Imagine Strindberg on acid, writing (and drawing) a depressing graphic novel.

I found it pretentious and unappealing.

Then again, it's the sort of book around which my alma mater might build an upper level class.


Securing the City, by Christopher Dickey

This is an excellent and very readable view of New York City's efforts towards counter-terrorism. Dickey gives a historic perspective of terrorism in NY, describes the tensions between Federal agencies and the NYPD, and touches on the sometimes thin constitutional line between preventing a calamity and over-stepping the law.

An aside: why is it that everything I read paints the DHS, FBI and CIA as often bumbling, always in-fighting, bureaucracies that treasure individual political favor and control over what's best for the nation? I'm beginning to believe that it is true.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker, by James McManus

You'd think this would be a cool, interesting book.

You'd be wrong.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R. Crumb

This is rather an unusual work: the famous Crumb illustrated the first book of the Bible, stuck to the words (based on a couple of basic sources), with no subversion. After all, the actual text is odd enough: enough violence, drama, sexual intrigue, envy, pride, and duplicity to more than fill a few seasons of any prime time show, or more likely, telenovela. Well, I'd not read this in a long while, and the illustrations did help me through it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Invisible, by Paul Auster

This was a delightful surprise. The last book I chose from the New York Times' "100 notable books of 2009" gift list turned out not so well. But this one: all is forgiven, NY Times! Interesting, captivating even, and sometimes disturbing, it held my attention to the very last page.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

More Hold'em Wisdom, by Daniel Negreanu

This book of poker tips was far more interesting than Negreanu's prior text. I found the advice interesting, and I was only occasionally confused. (Unlike when I'm playing hold'em; then I'm often confused!)

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Venetian Judgment, by David Stone

This is a very enjoyable spy thriller. No Man Booker Prize for this sort of book, but just what the doctor ordered for spending a couple of hours in a waiting room.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford

In this entertaining book, Crawford positions building or repairing things as a noble alternative to - well, whatever it is that knowledge workers do.

There are several quotable nuggets: "... some diagnostic situations contain so many variables, and symptoms can be so under-determining of causes, that explicit analytical reasoning comes up short." [p27] That certainly describes many software problems.

Crawford suggests that one needn't abandon a virtual profession to work with one's hands, as he did, a PhD who operates a motorcycle repair shop. To that end: "So what advice should one give to a young person? If you have a natural bent for scholarship; if you are attracted to the most difficult books out of an urgent need, and can spare four years to devote yourself to them, go to college. ... But if this is not the case; if the thought of four more years sitting in a classroom makes your skin crawl, the good news is that you don't have to go through the motions and jump through the hoops for the sake of making a decent living. Even if you do go to college, learn a trade in the summers. You're likely to be less damanged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems or low-level 'creative.' To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable." [p53]

Crawford is no less critical of the self esteem movement: "The educational goal of self-esteem seems to habituate young people to work that lacks objective standards and revolves instead around group dynamics. ... The more children are praised, the more thy have a stake in maintaining the resulting image they have of themselves; children who are praised for being smart choose the easier alternative when given a new task. They become risk-averse and dependent on others." [p158]

And, "Children who enjoy drawing... some were rewarded for drawing ... whereas for others the issue of rewards was never raised. Weeks later, those who had been rewarded took less interest in drawing, and their drawings were judged to be lower in quality, whereas those who had not been rewarded continued to enjoy the activity and produced higher-quality drawings. The hypothesis is that the child begins to attribute his interest, which previously needed no justification, to the external reward, and this had the effect of reducing his intrinsic interest in it." [p194 - 195, referring to Lepper, Greene and Nisbett]

Does Crawford take an unfair, one sided view of things? You betcha. I suspect it is quite deliberate; he needs to push hard to compensate for thousands of business management articles.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Dark of the Moon, by John Sandford

This had been sitting in my truck's console for a very long time, as a back up book. Since I wanted to avoid a trip to Sam's this weekend, I opened it up -- and had a tough time putting it down. So now I need a new backup book, because I finished this one that very evening.

Interesting plot, interesting characters, well written.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hold'em Wisdom for all Players, by Daniel Negreanu

The notion of the book is to provide tips on improving performance at Texas Hold'em, presumably targeted to amateurs. For that it is perhaps okay, although the editor should have paid more attention: it uses jargon that the target audience may not follow.

It isn't that the advice seems bad -- to the contrary, it seems quite reasonable. The problem is, there's nothing unique about his advice: it is rather a compendium of generally good ideas, told in an easy to read, conversational fashion.

So not a bad book, just not a great book. But was it worth the brief reading time? Sure! I figure the more I learn on this topic the better a player I can be, and perhaps there's some important lesson that this book reinforced that I don't even realize yet.

Amateur Barbarians, by Robert Cohen

If this novel represents modern American literature, then I'm sorely out of the loop. As the jacket points out, Cohen was "...touted by The New York Times Book Review as the 'heir to Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.'" I should have quit right then.

It was, in fact, the New York Times that pointed me to this book, top of the "100 notable books of 2009" gift list.

The problem is, the main character, Teddy Hastings, bored me so much by his narcissistic whining that by the end of the first chapter I was irritated. Just a few more pages about the other main character, as the chapter title puts it, the "melancholy" Pierce, was enough to shut me down.

Not even the attempts at building suspense worked: why was Teddy briefly in jail, why did he take a sabbatical from his job, what's up with his weird relationship with is wife? Who cares. It just isn't interesting enough to find out.

This novel gets filed in my seldom-used category of "unread."

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sin in the Second City, by Karen Abbott

What a strange book! This is a biography, of sorts, of the Chicago madams Minna and Ada Everleigh. They were proprietors of a successful house of prostitution in the early 1900s. The author writes about their business and the surrounding politics of the time.

It wasn't really very interesting to me, but I admire the author's Schama -style invention of dialogue and event details to fill out a historical text.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

How Doctors Think, by Jerome Groopman

This was a disappointment: it was painful to read and it lacked useful and well organized information.

Why painful? The author makes his points through anecdotes which are invariably depressing. Attribution error leads to mis-diagnosis: the patient looks a certain way which distracts the physician from even considering other causes then the most obvious. This is similar to the mental prototypes that get in the way of complete diagnoses. Then there's diagnosis momentum, where a choice is made and rationalized even as conflicting data, e.g., test results, appear. People are ignored, erroneously diagnosed, put near death, all due to physician error.

The goal of Groopman's book might have been to help physicians do a better job. Hard to imagine this organization structure would do so; which busy doctor, seeing ever increasing numbers of patients under the scrutiny of insurance payer guidelines, would take the time for this?

The goal might have been to alert patients as to how to minimize if not eliminate such defects in their personal medical care. But there is no clear advice on what information to present, in what fashion, or what specific questions to ask, to reduce the risk of medical failure.

When the author, himself a physician, described years of failure in treating his own medical problem, complete with details of horrible malpractice by three out of four specialists he saw, I just about threw in the towel. My conclusion -- although it is not clear this was Groopman's goal -- is that if you have a medical problem outside the typical 75% of diagnoses, you're screwed. Might as well offer goat's bones to a mushroom scarfing shaman as have optimism in a US teaching hospital or their well-published specialists.

But I told you up front that this was painful to read...

Monday, November 16, 2009

Emergency, by Neil Strauss

The sub-title of this book is, "This book will save your life." Hard to imagine, unless you use it to swat a mosquito carrying a virus.

The good news is, this is a very fast read; I read it on a relatively short flight. The bad news is, it is as empty of meaning as a mediocre cheese danish. Said differently, I tried to list the things I'd learned from this book:
  1. This is where the list is supposed to go. You've seen the phrase, "this page intentionally left blank?" Well, this list intentionally left blank.
In fairness, there were a few pointers to interesting training firms, like Gunsite for shooting skills, and onPoint Tactical for urban evasion skills.

It probably would have made for a fascinating magazine article.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Secrets of a Modern Day Bounty Hunter, by Richard James

This is really not my cup of tea. But I know from personal experience how difficult it is to get a book publisher to help market one's work, and the author was standing in front of the HEB supermarket autographing copies for anyone who'd buy one... How could I say no to that?

As for the book? What do you expect when the only way to market it is at a supermarket on a Saturday morning?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Vanished, by Joseph Finder

I was excited to read this new novel because I really enjoyed the last book from this author. But what a disappointment! Convoluted, and not in a, "enjoyed the puzzling plot lines" kind of way at all. Boo.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Defector, by Daniel Silva

This is the ninth of Silva's novels featuring spy Gabriel Allon. It does not measure up to his previous writing: the "catch up" prose, to fill new readers in on essential plot development of earlier episodes seems bulky and redundant. The first half of the book, or more, read slowly.

Having said that, nine novels in, it is unlikely I'll pass on the next one. But you could pass on this one and miss little of importance.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hothouse Orchid, by Stuart Woods

This is the latest in a series by Mr. Woods featuring recurring characters. It was fast paced; Woods doesn't waste words. Yet, this gets a lower grade than his prior work because it reads like part one of a three part novel. Sure, it is good writing when the author gets the reader excited about buying his next book, but that's not the feel here. Instead, it just feels too brief, as though he was in too big a rush to get it done.

The bigger issue is a major failure in character development. Without giving away any secrets: a hero is attacked, yet has no reaction. None. Zilch. This is totally out of character. Woods needed to handle that situation far better than he did. And, since it is a recurring lead role, this is a glaring problem.

Still, for fans of the series, a positive recommendation. For those unfamiliar with the characters, start with Orchid Beach.

Rules of Vengeance, by Christopher Reich

This wasn't difficult to read, but it at times felt like a chore. I don't mind a story that stretches plausibility, and I don't mind plot complexity. But this just wasn't that good -- I'm not sure how else to convey my view. It was like airplane food.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Apostle, by Brad Thor

This could have been an acceptable action novel, of the "Navy Seal goes off the books into Afghanistan to save overly idealistic kidnapped physician at request of her rich mother who was influential in election of new US president" genre.

Oddly though, the author interspersed a parallel story of a completely unsympathetic, unethical Secret Service agent's efforts to bring down said president.

The verdict: for a long flight, in paperback, to be left behind, a C+. Otherwise, don't bother.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Eyes of the World, by Rob Palmer

This was a very interesting thriller. The plot was good and it kept my interest to the surprising ending. I recommend it.

The Gray Man, by Mark Greaney

This was a very enjoyable spy novel. A touch bloody, definitely stretches believability, but still kept my interest right to the end. Would also make for a good "B" movie; just right as a vehicle for the current generation Steven Seagal action star -- maybe Vin Diesel, or better yet, some new aspiring action hero.

Dictator's Ransom, by Richard Marcinko

I often load up on paperbacks when I'm facing long flights, and this week I prepared for the flight from London's Heathrow airport to New York's JFK. The idea is to leave the paperbacks behind, so a random stranger might enjoy them, and to lighten my load.

That's my excuse for this atrocity of a novel.

Probably leaving this one behind for others to read is needlessly cruel to strangers.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Predator Hunting, by Ron Spomer

I was curious about this topic (hey, I'm curious about lots of things!) and when I saw this at Half Price Books, figured, "why not?" It was pretty interesting. I'm not quite ready to start nailing coyotes, but at least I have some basic concepts.

(If you're wondering: the idea is to reduce the impact of varmints like coyotes, foxes and the like, as they kill cattle and chickens and generally annoy ranchers.)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Girl Who Played With Fire, by Stieg Larsson

I had very high expectations for this book, given how much I enjoyed Larsson's prior novel in the series. Simply put, this just wasn't as good.

I found the first third of the book slow moving, the second only a touch better. The last third seemed to move faster, although the ending became predictable.

Still, I'll read Larsson's third (and sadly final) novel when it is printed.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Cutting-edge Band Saw Tricks, by Kenneth Burton

This is an excellent reference. It has great illustrations, shows practical tips, and even includes a couple of projects.

Fragment, by Warren Fahy

It would have been easy to stop reading this after only a few dozen pages, that's how uninteresting the character development and writing are. But I kept going on this Jurassic Park riff (compared to which Fahy does not deserve comparison against Crichton's writing skill), and in the end I'd give it a C+. Surely there will be a sequel, and the author is no doubt shopping the script to Hollywood.... maybe the movie will be better than the original.

The Bandsaw Book, by Lonnie Bird

This was an okay introduction to the bandsaw, but not great. Perhaps it was just too introductory in nature, but for whatever reason, I don't recommend it.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Phil Gordon's Little Green Book, by Phil Gordon

I thought it might be useful to learn how to play Texas Hold-em poker, and this book got good reviews on Amazon. It was very interesting, although it is probably better for people who actually have experience or talent at the game than it was for me.

I found it a bit advanced, with some nuances that I didn't quite get, and analytics that I'm not quite prepared to address at this point. Still and all, seems worth the price.

I'll probably read another in this space; that will give me a better comparison point.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

First Family, by David Baldacci

You can rely on Mr. Baldacci for a solid mystery. This one includes recurring characters, bad guys who are good guys too, good guys who are very much bad guys, and only a little bit of sugar-coated plot devices. It is a winner in its genre.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sand Trapped, by John Gratton

When Rodney suggested that I write a "murder mystery that involves a software strategist, a mysterious tattooed girl and a golf club," I told him I have something pretty close on my to-read queue. This is it.

The main character is too slow to be a good strategist, the heroine is pierced but not tattooed, and there's a lot less golf involved than the title would have you think. This is a fast and amusing novel with an engaging plot.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Increment, by David Ignatius

This is a spy novel about a CIA agent done in close to a traditional British spy tone. It is complex, but interesting. On a flight, this would be a great book; sitting on the deck with a cool beverage it drops to average (there's more amusement against which it must compete).

Oddly the title (even though there's a brief inside-flap explanation of it) has very little to do with the story.

Breach of Trust, by DiAnn Mills

I should have given up on this book at page two, but kept at it out of stubbornness. The book wasn't that bad, other than the writing and the plot development.

Here's a sample; see for yourself if I'm overly critical:

"She scraped the grasshopers from her shoes and onto the curb. The pests were everywhere this time of year. Reminded her of a few gadflies she'd been forced to trust overseas. She'd swept the crusty hoppers off her porch at home and the entrance to the library as she'd done with the shadow makers of the past. But nothing could wipe the nightmares from her internal hard drive."


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Armor of God, by Paul Block & Robert Vaughan


I know, out of respect for anyone who goes to the trouble to read this blog, I ought to at least attempt a complete review. But really, "eh" just says it all.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Associate, by John Grisham

Now maybe it is just a sign of the sorts of books I've read lately: I really enjoyed "The Associate." I was totally surprised to see that Amazon reviewers dislike it so, with one-star ratings outnumbering five-stars by nearly a three-to-one ratio.

The biggest complaint: the ending seemed rushed, wasn't sufficiently developed.
Other complaints: poor character development, dull and boring.

I'm sticking with my initial assessment. This is a fine legal thriller.

Then again, compared to the fantastical Tanenbaum or the hero-as-vampire-slayer, my bar wasn't set all that high at this point.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Capture, by Robert K. Tanenbaum

Would you believe me if I said that the last book I read -- about vampire hunters -- was more credible than this one?

Tanenbaum's given up on character development: he spends pages explaining what his characters are thinking and why.

At least the plot is complex. And, as is so often my situation, I keep reading these books even though I know when I'm done that I've wasted my time.

This book was the equivalent of a mediocre cheese danish: not only was it not healthy eats, it didn't even taste good enough to be worth the calories.

And yes, I'll read Tanenbaum's next one anyways.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Skin Trade, by Laurell K. Hamilton

Let's cover the negatives first: the mediocre writing descends to abysmal in too much of the dialog, redundancies imply the lack of capable editing, and the plot -- well, this is about vampires and other supernatural beings.

On a positive note, it is the best written of Hamilton's books thus far.

And there you have my confession: I've actually read this tripe. Sigh. Hey, everyone's entitled to a vice or two.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Wealthy Barber, by David Chilton

I've continued my search for a good book on financial planning to recommend to my children; Chilton's book was recommended to me.

The conversational, parable style might work for some folks, but it didn't much amuse me. The key points, however, are solid.

I won't recommend this book, but will net it (and similar books) out in just the 655 words that follow:
  1. Pay yourself first by setting aside 10% of your income as automatic savings (i.e., payroll deduction or the like to remove any opportunity to treat it as discretionary funds). What to do with the money? Chilton likes dollar cost averaging to (low expense rate) money market funds; seems reasonable to me. (Consider Vanguard.)

  2. If you have dependents, have a will. This seems pretty obvious; if you're in Texas, I recommend Keith Gamel do the paperwork for you. (Once she passes the Texas bar next year, I'll recommend another attorney; no offense to Mr. Gamel.)

  3. Life insurance, maybe. If you don't have dependents, you don't need it. If you do have dependents, you only need it if you have debt, or if you want to provide for those dependents. If you want it, you only want term insurance -- anything a life insurance agent thinks is bad is probably good (i.e., if their compensation is minimized, your efficiency is probably maximized).

    Term life insurance is focused insurance - it doesn't help you save, it isn't an investment, it simply pays out on your demise. Check out professional organizations (e.g., ACM, IEEE, NRA) as well as established insurance firms for quotes. The amount: pay off your debts, provide for sufficient funds to accomplish your post-death wishes (e.g., significant other can pay their bills, offspring can attend college, dog can lounge in a silk covered pet bed, whatever), and don't forget the impact of inflation (i.e., you might want to slightly over-insure for that) nor the declining needs of your dependents (e.g., as kids age out, or the need for significant other to vacation on the Riveria declines as he/she finds a replacement loved one).

    If you lack debt, your finances' liquidity would cover the tax pain of your estate, or you just don't give a damn about what happens when you're dead, then save your money.

  4. Plan for retirement. In other words, in addition to the 10% you pay yourself first, add on an IRA (or Keogh), and a 401(k) or 403(b). This is easiest if you qualify for your investment (e.g., in an IRA) to be tax deductible as you make it (the earnings are tax deductible in any case). The investment structure: focus as usual on low expense investments, consider dollar cost averaging into financial instruments, devise an allocation that meets your requirements for sleep (e.g., more or less risky, realizing that the more the risk the more the return, within reasonable - don't fall for the Madoff ponzi scheme craziness - bounds).

  5. Home ownership - or not. Renting makes fine sense; home ownership is emotional. If your ownership expense (mortgage, taxes, maintenance) is roughly equal to what it would cost you to rent an equivalent property, you're probably in fine shape if you want to own. A home shouldn't be your primary investment asset.

  6. Avoid credit card debt; avoid debt. Don't pay credit card debt, which isn't to say, "be a deadbeat," but rather, pay off your credit card bill in full each month, never pay credit card interest ever, and if you can't handle that, cut up your credit cards.

    Credit card debt is undoubtedly the most expensive debt short of borrowing from a loan shark. Its only advantage is that the credit card firm won't break your legs if you don't pay. Either way, the interest will break your back.

    While on this theme, strive to avoid non-tax-deductible debt in general. It is costly. Think carefully about the difference between what you want and what you need; doing so will often allow you to save an amazing amount of money.
Chilton has one of his characters quote Syrus (p 59): "Many receive advice, few profit by it." The six steps above are great advice for my kids (and probably many others) and saves them reading several books; all they need to do is execute on it.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University, by Kevin Roose

My pointer to this was Jacobs, because Roose was his unpaid intern during the writing of that book. I enjoyed "The Unlikely Disciple" because the writing is solid and there was an element of suspense to see how Roose was affected at the end by his experience.

In short: Roose was a journalism major at Brown; took a semester's leave of absence to study at Jerry Fallwell's ultra-conservative, "bible is the literal word of God" college, Liberty University, specifically to write a book about his experience there. Here's how I net out Roose's experience of life at Liberty:
  1. Homophobia runs rampant.
  2. Normative behavior quite different from baseline; can't judge as good or bad.
  3. In objective argument, atheists overwhelmingly defeat professor in debate on religion, e.g., bible literalists have trouble defending bible contradictions. (See also Jacobs' book, or Dawkins'.)
  4. Dating is easier within structured behavioral boundaries.
  5. Anti-evolution arguments are indecipherable at best.
  6. The students are mostly likable people; taken independently of the behavior required by their religious beliefs (i.e., targeted hatred), they're great folks.
Roose picks up some of the beliefs - or at least habits - even a semester after leaving the school.

I was surprised. Shouldn't have been: heard of the Stockholm Syndrome? Maybe that's unfair: I just expected Roose to fulfill his role as "Godless liberal" and he ended up being open minded (to closed minded-ness? Be nice now Carl!) instead.

In any case, can't help but expect to read more of Roose's work - in magazines or books - and I look forward to it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Always Looking Up, by Michael J. Fox

I strongly recommend this book.

What should come next is my argument in support of the advice: what's great about this book? That's a tougher assignment than I'd expected. It isn't the best written book, nor most captivating page by page -- but as a whole, it just works.

Fox seems charismatic, humble; clearly a sweet guy. He has a mission and a passion for it (use stem cells to aggressively treat diseases, from Parkinson's to spinal cord injury to juvenile diabetes).

I like this quote a lot, after pointing out that people against stem cell research often identify themselves as pro-life: "... explain to those of us with debilitating diseases -- indeed, to all of us -- why it is more pro-life to throw away stem cells than to put them to work savings lives."

Pretty short at 276 pages and a fast read, I suggest you read this book.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Joint Book, by Terrie Noll

Woodworking joints, silly!

This is a very small, very useful reference book. It covers most wood joints, and promises to be very helpful.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Below Zero, by C. J. Box

This is a likable book, so I feel guilty assessing it as a solid C+. But that's what it is. Now this doesn't imply you shouldn't read it -- if you like a standard procedural, part of a longer series featuring recurring characters, and a quick, no introspection required kind of read, then this may be a perfect book.

There's the law man who goes against the mainstream to follow his ethical compass, the supportive senior official to provide air cover, the hunted criminal with a heart of gold who partners with our law man to do the right thing, the background family life of our hero, and an occasional piece of Wyoming scenery.

What could be bad?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World, by Salim T. S. Al-Hassani

This is a must-read book for anyone who teaches world history or is interested in it. Western education skips from the advances of Archimedes, in the 200's BCE, all the way to Gutenberg's press in the 1400's CE. Was all the world in the dark ages for 1,600 years -- or just Europe?

The answer: just Europe. While Europeans where burning people at the stake for inappropriate religious leanings, disdaining bathing and general hygiene, and wandering about in a stupor, the Islamic civilizations of Turkey and the middle-east were thriving.

Some examples: the camera, invented by Ibn al-Haitham, born 965. Surgical instruments, by Al-Zahrawi born 936, and a complete (and correct) model of blood circulation by Ibn Nafis, born 1210. Free healthcare in hospitals - with druggists, barbers, and physicians - existed in the 1100s, with health inspectors to assure standards.

Algebra, of course, is due to Al-Khwarizmi, born 780. Did you know that coffee dates to the 8th century, due to Khalid the goat hearder? The Arabic al-qahwa was served as coffee in Vienna's coffee houses in 1645.

Do you like your bath? The Islamic bath picked up from the Roman Tepidarium and Caldarium, and became an integral part of the culture, as cleanliness is linked to purity in the Quaran (e.g., 2:222). So warm baths were the norm in Islamic lands throughout the dark ages. Even in 1529, Sir John Treffy was opposed to bathing, writing, "many folke that hath bathed them in colde water have dyed." [Reference check: see "The old English herbals," Eleanour Rohde, 1922.] Smelly!

There are dozens more of well written examples in the book.

You get the idea that I'm a fan of this book. And horribly dismayed that in the West we largely manage to skip over the extraordinary advances that came from Islamic cultures.