Friday, September 30, 2011

Wired, by Douglas E. Richards

This is a very strong book, sold on Kindle at an absurd 79 cents.   It has quite a bit going for it:  a very interesting plot, plenty of suspense, and a back story that will have you thinking:  what would be the consequences of extraordinary intelligence, and of immortality, on society?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Sensei, by John Donohue

This novel is written well and builds a strong sense of interest in the main character, Connor Burke -- a history professor and martial arts enthusiast.   It introduces Connor's family, particularly his brother Mick, a detective with the NYPD.

There are many dojo scenes but the writing is thoughtful and measured; this is not a rough caricature of the genre.

At the moment, this is available for free formatted for the Amazon Kindle.   A crazy approach to marketing, I hope that it works for Mr. Donohue.   For myself, I plan to read more of his books featuring these characters; I expect the next one will be "Kage:  the Shadow." Kage: The Shadow

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Run, by Blake Crouch

This apocalyptic novel is almost fantastic.   The story is gripping, some of the gory scenes are readable with minimal cringing, the character development is excellent.

The only barrier to this book making my top ten list is the sudden acceleration at the ending.   A few more pages there, a bit more texture would have made it perfect.

As is, this is a terrific novel.   It is borderline horror, borderline sci-fi.  Said differently, it is horrible yet imaginable.  Maybe that's what makes it captivating.

The Detachment, by Barry Eisler

Again a novel featuring a recurring character, in this case John Rain:  spy, assassin.   Mr. Eisler blends a deep and well thought out cynicism about American politics with an interesting - even captivating - story line.   There's plenty of bloodshed and an equal amount of skepticism about everything the government tells us, but not once (unlike say Brad Thor's work) does it sound preachy or inappropriate to the novel.

The Informationist: A Vanessa Michael Munroe Novel, by Taylor Stevens

This is a quasi- private detective novel, a thriller that features a woman who inevitably will draw references to Steig Larsson's works.   From the Amazon reviews it seems one either loves it or hates it.   I'm in the likes it a lot category.   It was interesting, different from the norm, and kept my attention through the end.

Buried Secrets, by Joseph Finder

This is the latest entry in Mr. Finder's books featuring Nick Heller.   This is a private detective novel, true to the genre.  Nick Heller is the private eye who, in this novel, solves a kidnapping case for an old friend.

It is very well written, well paced, interesting and kept me going right to the end.    Recommended.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Portrait of a Spy, by Daniel Silva

This is the most recent in Mr. Silva's series of spy novels featuring the hero, Gabriel Allon, a sometimes art restorer and sometimes agent in the service of the State of Israel.    It is quite a good read, one of the best in the series, with credible situations and many references to current affairs in the mid-east.

I recommend it as an enjoyable novel in this genre.

The only problem, and it is not very pronounced in this book but promises to become a more noticeable issue over time, is the aging hero.   Mr. Silva shares the dilemma with many other successful franchise authors:  those who have built a career of many years, even decades, on the exploits of a wonderful hero.  At some point the dashing hero grows up.   The 60 year old spy isn't going to do things the same way as the 35 year old ubermensch.   I hope that Mr. Silva addresses this in an interesting fashion -- as opposed to pretending that time stands still for his hero.   I look forward to his next novels to find out the answer.

The Speech: A Historic Filibuster on Corporate Greed and the Decline of Our Middle Class, by Bernie Sanders

Senator Sanders (Vermont) delivered an eight hour speech to the Senate on December 10th, 2010.   A vote was coming up on a tax agreement.   Senator Sanders was very much in opposition, more on why in a moment.   He ended up publishing his speech as this book.

The book itself is considerably redundant, as the Senator points out in his introduction, because he wanted to ensure that folks who'd intermittently tune in to listen to him would get the key points.    It is still very readable.   In fact, being a speech aimed at the US Senate, it features clear speaking and is a very fast read.

So what was the reason for Senator Sanders' consternation?   I'll quote some statistics from his book which he asserts come from credible US government sources.   First though, what was in the bill that was so objectionable?   It was these items and that they are funded by increasing the already high deficit:   (a) Income tax breaks for the top two percent of US tax payers;  (b) continuation of the 15% tax on capital gains and dividends;  (c) continuation of the $10 million exemption on estate tax for couples and limit of 35% on the tax itself.   And a few other items.

What bugs the Senator?   Through President Bush's eight years in office the wealthiest 400 Americans increased their wealth by more than $380 billion.   Nearly a billion each.   So why give them more tax breaks?  "I would say to my colleagues in the Senate, we do not have to worry about these guys.  They are doing just fine.  They do not need an extension of tax breaks."   Also that, "President Bush gave our $700 billion in tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans.  Where was the offset?  There was none.  He gave them tax breaks.  That is it.  It adds to the national debt."

Also that in 2009 Exxon Mobil made $19 billion but paid no federal income taxes.   That "Bank of America got a huge payout from the American taxpayer, paying their executives all kinds of fancy, huge compensation packages -- got a refund check from the IRS according to their SEC filings."

And to juxtapose this with the notion that "Oh, my word, in order to deal with our deficit, we are going to have to cut back on Medicare and Medicaid and education."

That you can't have jobs without an educated work force.  But we have "...more people in jail than China and more people in jail than any other country.  So what we end up doing, which seems to be not terribly bright, is spending perhaps $50,000 a year keeping people in jail because they dropped out of school.  They never found a job.  They got hooked on drugs or whatever.  We pay to put them in jail rather than investing in childcare, in education, in sustaining their families."

On this notion, the Senator points out the elimination of the Pell grant (which makes a big difference in helping folks fund college) as a major league counter productive move.   Given that this is done in order to pay for the revenue hit on the tax breaks.   "... the few thousand people in this country--or few tens of thousands, I don't know how many who make more than $1 million a year--are not going to lift this country out of a recession.  It is going to be the middle class.  And if we don't help them get ahead, if we don't help them get training, this recession will go on for a long time."

Senator Sanders also points to what seems a break in common sense, when firms like GE are focused on outsourcing as much as they possibly can to China, costing thousands of US jobs, yet get a $16 billion bail out from US taxpayers.   His implication: they can outsource if they want, but then why coming whining to American taxpayers; why didn't they get a bailout from China?

There was a bit of singling out of specific business leaders whose firms received taxpayer funded bailouts.   "Jamie Dimon... [JP Morgan Chase] ... got a $29 billion bailout from the Federal Reserve, will receive a $1.1 million tax break.  Trust me, Jamie Dimon, the head of JP Morgan Chase is doing just fine.  Vikram Pandit, the CEO of Citigroup, the bank that got a $50 billion bailout, would received $785,000 in tax breaks.  Ken Lewis, the former CEO of Bank of America-- ...$45 billion bailout... would receive a $713,000 tax break. ...The CEO of Morgan Stanley, John Mack ... $10 billion bailout, would receive a $926,000 a year tax break."

He contrasts this to his failure, earlier in December 2010, to get the Senate to approve a one-time payment of $250 to seniors on Social Security and disabled vets.   "People making $14,000, $15,000 a year desperately need a little bit of help.  We couldn't get one Republican vote.  But when it comes to the CEO of a major bank who is already a multimillionaire--we are talking $6 million, $7 million, $8 million a year in tax breaks--that is not what we should be doing as a nation."


Saturday, September 17, 2011

New Blog for Woodworking Books

I posted this to my Google+ account today because it is the nexus of my social networking with other woodworkers.

"Since December 2007 I've been blogging about every book I've read at "Books I've Read" -- but the eclectic variety of my reading choices makes it difficult to isolate woodworking related entries.

My new blog is called simply "Books on Working Wood" and can be found at

To prime the pump, I revisited all of my general book blog's entries on woodworking and edited them into "Books on Working Wood," keeping the original dates of those entries.

The wood books blog mirrors the progression of my interests about woodworking. One side effect is that the older the post, the more likely the book is targeted at novices. (After all, today I'm at least an intermediate novice!)

Books that I once thought were a brilliant introduction I might today see as missing depth or real content. But at the time they may have provided important illumination for my journey. 

I've tried to make my views on each book quite clear with a simple hit or miss designation.

If you're interested in books about woodworking, please take a look -- and please comment with your views on the books I've read. Probably that's best to do as a comment on the specific post. Also, it would be great to see folks suggest books I've not read, right here on Google+ -- presumably others will benefit."

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Adrenaline, by Jeff Abbott

This terrific spy / action novel introduces a couple of characters who I anticipate will be the heros of a series of follow-on books from Mr Abbott.   I'll be certain to buy them.

This book:  deception, a CIA agent who plunges into a search for the wife who betrayed him, plenty of nasty bad guys who tend to get their just deserts.   Any more would give away too much.  

If you like the genre, then my guess is that you'll really enjoy this book.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Woodwright's Guide, by Roy Underhill

I had high expectations for this book.  Famous for his PBS show, The Woodwright's Shop, Roy Underhill is the master of traditional American wood working techniques.   The notion is this book is "working wood with wedge & edge" -- in other words from cutting the tree to working the wood into a piece of furniture.

So what went wrong?   Most of the material is interesting, especially the early sections that cover skills that are foreign to my experience -- such as felling trees.   But there's no material on the different cuts of wood (e.g., radial, quarter sawn).

Things go downhill fast.   The good news:  Mr Underhill covers each successive tool in the progression to finished product.  The bad news:  the illustrations are terrible line drawings.    Contrast this to the wonderful photographs in Jim Tolpin's books.

The descriptions are of varied quality; many are cursory.   The section on how to use a framing square to set angles was completely incomprehensible to me -- and I'm not afraid of math.   It felt as though Mr Underhill could check off the list, "yep, I gave some info on how to do that one, what's next" as opposed to fully explaining things.

I did take some good out of this book -- primarily the names for tools that I'd never before fully understood, like the beetle, devil, or travisher.

All in all though, I'm not about to bother with another of this author's books; still like the TV show though, and I might check out his school if I find myself in North Carolina.

The New Traditional Woodworker, by Jim Tolpin

This is a delightful book about the notion of working wood, not machining it.  In other words, minimizing the use of power tools so as to have more fun building with wood.   Half the book describes hand woodworking tools, importantly within the context of how Mr Tolpin's shop is set up.  So there's a feeling of reality and relevance.   Even for someone with a bit of experience, this section is interesting reading.

The other half of the book describes in detail how to build several woodworking jigs -- appliances that make it easier to work effectively and efficiently.   If only every author of a woodworking projects book would be as thorough, complete and clear in their explanation as Mr Tolpin is!  I am eager to build some of his jigs.

Everything about this book was fun.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Island of the Sequined Love Nun, by Christopher Moore

The title of this novel should clue you in to the notion that the author's a goof ball, the plot is wacky, the characters bizarre, and the goings on supernatural.    All in all, great fun!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Gun Seller, by Hugh Laurie

This is a very good book made better by the surprise of how good it is.   (The author is a television actor and I was appropriately cautious about my expectations for his novel.)

It was a bit of a rough start, the hero inelegantly demonstrating his snarky personality in the first chapter or two.   But it all came together soon after, with a compelling plot and fun dialog.

Bravo.  Mr Laurie is quite accomplished.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Becoming Your Own Therapist, by Lama Yeshe

I've commented on other of Lama Yeshe's books, so rather than repeat links here, I'll simply point to the blog post for the previous book of his that I've read.

This collection of lectures is not, for me, as strong as his others.   But it is still enlightening, in that it positions much of the discussion about gaining personal insight through meditation and self awareness in the context of mental health.

Lama Yeshe also makes several comments about religion, positing that Buddhism is not a religion.  This excerpt gives you a sense of his thinking:

"When we study Buddhism, we are studying ourselves, the nature of our own minds.  Instead of focusing on some supreme being, Buddhism emphasizes more practical matters, such as how to lead our lives, how to integrate our minds and how to keep our everyday lives peaceful and healthy.  In other words, Buddhism always accentuates experiential knowledge-wisdom rather than some dogmatic view.  In fact, we don't even consider Buddhism to be a religion in the usual sense of the term.  From the lamas' point of view, Buddhist teachings are more in the realm of philosophy, science or psychology."

A New Culture of Learning, by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown

Here's the fast path to losing all credibility:  find yourself quoted as saying "Brilliant.  Insightful.  Revolutionary." about this book.   As Marcia Conner did.   Now I don't care about what else Ms Conner wrote or did or does or will do, because she has no credibility.

This book isn't brilliant.   It certainly isn't insightful.  And revolutionary?  Please.

Here it is in a nutshell:    there is a type of collaborative learning that is helpful to students.   If you work together on a project, you might learn from each other, be motivated to do independent research.   Technology facilitates this.   Especially multi player online games.

So this is new news, that teams working together can learn from each other and generate valuable insights?

Perhaps there is a nuance of this book that I've missed; one so extraordinary as to make all the difference.  But I wouldn't bet on it.

The Present, by Spencer Johnson

Perhaps because I'm both experienced (hmm, is that a euphemism for old?) and by nature cynical, I tend to cast a doubtful eye on business books told in parable form -- as this one is.   But, because it was a gift from someone I respect, I read it.

The good news, and bad, is the simplicity of the message:   live in the present, learn from your past (but don't dwell on it), prepare for your future (but don't obsess over it).   Well, it sounds better in the book.

If you can get past the style of presentation and the simplicity of the message, it is actually quite good advice.

I couldn't help but draw a parallel to one of Buddhism's eightfold paths to full actualization:  right mindfulness, or attentiveness to the present.

Bottom line:  I would carefully recommend this book.  Carefully meaning not to cynics (and they wouldn't read it anyway) but certainly to folks starting out in their careers.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Starting Strength (2nd Edition), by Mark Rippetoe & Lon Kilgore

This is an excellent and credible introduction to high quality barbell training.   The authors explain why weight machines are a poor choice (in brief, because they isolate muscles whose use in real life is not in isolation). They explain a core set of weight training exercises in great detail, particularly the squat, chest press, and dead lift, along with ancillary exercises (such as pull ups and chin ups).

Unfortunately for me though, I don't expect to get much practical benefit from this at the gym.   I'm not very adapt at proprioception nor am I a visual learner of physical topics, so in spite of the detailed explanations and great photos and diagrams, I'd be uncomfortable doing many of the exercises (the dead lift for example) without coaching.   Meanwhile, the authors imply one ought be cynical about the quality of coaching available at most gyms.   So what to do:  give a prospective weight trainer a copy of the book and see if that helps?

On China, by Henry Kissinger

Rarely have I turned the last page of a book and, without any conscious thought say, "phenomenal."  That was my reaction to Dr Kissinger*'s recently published broad and insightful text on China.

At 530 pages this book may look intimidating, but the writing is clear, captivating and compelling, and although it may take a few days to read, this is hardly a dense or unfriendly text.

Dr Kissinger takes us through 40 years of US diplomatic history with China.  But this is not just about the history (fascinating as it is); understanding the background that led China to its current status is extremely useful as a going forward exercise.

I recommend this book without reservation to anyone who does or anticipates doing business with China, to anyone who wants to understand the pre-eminent diplomatic focus that faces the next generation or two of Americans, and to anyone who believes it is important to learn from history.

To that last point:  in his introductory chapter, "The Singularity of China," Dr Kissinger provides the cultural context with which to consider interactions with the Chinese.  In so doing, he also points out a glaring flaw in American foreign relations, one that continues to unnecessarily take a toll on our military and our economy.   (It is important to point out that I'm connecting these dots; the author didn't and there's no indication it was his intent.)   It is this:  when we think about interactions with other governments, we use chess as the metaphor.  "[chess] is about total victory.  The purpose of the game is checkmate, to put the opposing king into a position where he cannot move without being destroyed."

In contrast, "China's most enduring game" is wei qi, approximately pronounced way chee.  "The wei qi player seeks relative advantage.  ... wei qi generates strategic flexibility."   Dr Kissinger relates this thinking to Sun Tzu's guidance on strategy:  "A successful commander waits before charging headlong into battle.  ... a doctrine less of territorial conquest than of psychological dominance..."

Consider this in the context of the continued US presence in both Iraq and Afganistan.

Back to China.   A more direct issue is the conflict between America's belief it has the moral imperative to tell other nations (and thus cultures) how to run their sovereign nations, and China's irreducible commitment, born of its history of interaction with British and other colonial interests in the past couple of hundred years, to not be bullied by other nations.    As Dr Kissinger paints it, an unfortunate event such as Tienamen Square (where in 1989 protesters were forcibly, i.e., violently removed, and more importantly, in view of the cameras of the world press) is viewed by the Chinese government as only that:  an unfortunate event.   In the eyes of the US, it is viewed as a fundamental failure of human rights.

As a consequence, Americans tend to engage in social re-engineering diplomacy, trying to tie trade agreements to changes in China's internal structure.   China's view is to simply reject meddling in their domestic affairs as meddling, and to point out that the US doesn't have its own house in order with regard to human rights.

So if you were a Chinese government official, you'd observe the unprovoked US invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan (especially now that we know the weapons of mass destruction story was untrue) and translate Congress' hard line oratory as a literal risk of war.   Consider Liu Mingfu's "China Dream:  the great power thinking and strategic positioning of China in the post-American age," just briefly referenced by Dr Kissinger.    Colonel Liu (as I understand it) suggests that war can be avoided if the US can stifle its hegemonic aspirations.   (One must rely on English language analysis of Liu's writing, see perhaps Cheng Li's "China in the Year 2020: three political scenarios," at the Brookings Institute, or Christopher Hughes' "In Case You Missed It:  China dream," in The China Beat.)

To China, appearances matter, and events as simple as President Obama meeting with the Dali Lama can be viewed as attempted interference with China's domestic policy.

To put this into context, imagine a group in the US, proposing that a part of the country secede from the Union.   How would President Lincoln have interpreted a cheerful meeting in Beijing between Jefferson Davis and the Chinese head of state?   Yes, I know:  the Dali Lama is the very image of pacifism, and recently retired from his role as the head of Tibet to focus entirely on his religious leadership role.  But to the Chinese government, the parallels may be considerable.

My only complaint about this book is that the epilogue seemed too brief and too imprecise:  Dr Kissinger imagines a "Pacific community" (for example, see Lee Kwan Yew's comments) but doesn't clearly articulate the implications, including national self-interest values (to the US).  

All in all though, a small complaint about an extraordinary work from one of the finest minds of American diplomacy in action.

*Many readers may be unfamiliar with Dr Kissinger; please click on the reference link.  In short, Kissinger escaped Germany to the US where he served in the Army, got his PhD at Harvard, and in 1973 became Richard Nixon's Secretary of State.  He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.