Me of Little Faith (Lewis Black)

[Me of Little Faith (Lewis Black)]My experience with Lewis Black is primarily from his Back in Black segments on “The Daily Show” and a couple of his stand up albums. These performances are typified by yelling righteous indignation at the right and the hypocrisy of the system, and this (audio)book certainly featured some of that with the likes of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Jimmy Swaggart getting the brunt of the bashing. What I did not expect was such a detailed description of his spiritual journey to a very nuanced faith. I would not have pegged him for someone who would spend so much time searching for and dissecting a belief structure that works for him. Instead I figured he was either an atheist or disinterested agnostic. He lost most of this new found respect for his complexity by spending a chapter describing how he came to believe the predictive abilities of a psychic, but I guess you’ll have that with drama majors.

An extra bonus was learning that Black and Mark Linn-Baker of Cousin Larry Appleton fame put on a show together while they were in the graduate drama program at Yale. They even performed the show for the audiobook. It turned out to be terribly unfunny, but to learn something of the history of Mark Linn-Baker was priceless.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (Michael Chabon)

[The Yiddish Policemen's Union (Michael Chabon)]I don’t know what it was about the AC Transit, but I loved reading on that bus. Twenty minutes, twice a day, it just worked. CTA should have been even better with the hour commute twice each day. Whether it was the excessive noise or the multiple transfers I could never regain that rhythm. Instead CTA became the haven of the podcast. Now commuting primarily by car, reading isn’t even an option, replaced by podcasts and the phone and A’s baseball. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union was my first attempt at getting back into literature, via the auto friendly audiobook. Not War and Peace I admit, but let’s see if I can test the waters with Michael Chabon. I was shocked at how much my mind wandered for the first several chapters in a way that doesn’t happen when listening to hour long podcasts, but does happen with the book in my hands. Does my brain just know it’s a book and react by wandering? I guess it’s only a data set of one, so it’s best to not draw any substantial conclusions. After a few chapters, I was a more captivated audience. Maybe that just corresponded with the plot accelerating. Or maybe I became more interested in the protagonist Landsman than the alternate history premise that an Alaskan island served as the de facto Jewish state after the failure of Israel. In any case, YPU stands right up with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay as Chabon’s best. YPU is much more even start to finish, where, after starting very strong, Kav & Clay becomes depressing and weird in the second half of the novel. There is sort of a twist mid-way through YPU, but it more alters Landsman’s motivation than the story arc. At the conclusion, there are big unanswered questions, but Chabon manages to close it down without tacking on an extra 200 pages to resolve them.

Taking down the JK Rowling empire

Warning possible spoilers ahead!

Just so we’re on the same page, Voldemort is going around killing people and eventually tries to kill Harry Potter. He’s thwarted in this pursuit, because his mother gives her life to save him.

So am I to believe that Harry is the first child that Voldemort tries to murder? Wouldn’t any parent make the same sacrifice? And for that matter, nobody sacrificed themselves for anyone else in all of these battles? Sorry, but I just don’t buy it JK.

Otherwise, I think the series is great.

Thanks to NoShame for proofreading this post…

The Cuckoo’s Egg (Cliff Stoll)

[The Cuckoo's Egg (Cliff Stoll)] It took about a hundred pages, but this turned into a pretty good book. That’s about when the action picked up, but also when I figured out that this was a true story. It’s quite strange to read a book from the mid-1980’s in the eWorld of 2007. The author spends a significant amount of words extolling the virtues of email, the internet, and 1200 baud modems. One theme is timeless though. Government agencies pass the buck and don’t communicate. Not surprisingly, it’s the same agencies that should have been communicating and taking responsibility for the attacks on 9/11 and pre-war intelligence.

The Wisdom of Crowds (James Surowiecki)

[The Wisdom of Crowds (James Surowiecki)] This is not an easy premise to buy into, judging by who the president is and what’s played on the radio. What it boils down to however is sample size. Even if it’s from the world’s leading expert, the judgment from a single person is at a disadvantage compared to the collected opinion of many. Surowiecki is a financial journalist, so he spends much of the book discussing the repercussions on markets and the best way to run a company. Google has innovatively applied this principle to the design of their search engine.

Of course, this has implications in politics and government as well. I immediately thought of the differences in how the Lincoln and Bush cabinets were constructed. Lincoln chose people that did not agree with him, i.e., people that thought independently of him. Bush surrounded himself with people that agree with him and suppresses independent thought. One of these presidents was successful in his war; one hasn’t been. Hillary Clinton has said that she will follow the Lincoln model. Whether she is given the opportunity or keeps this promise remains to be seen, but I hope that our next leader considers the wisdom of crowds.

Surowiecki appeared on WNYC’s RadioLab in 2005.

Naked Pictures of Famous People (Jon Stewart)

[Naked Pictures of Famous People (Jon Stewart)] Does anyone remember the pre-Daily Show Jon Stewart? I don’t remember much about him, except that MTv kept giving him shows. They weren’t funny. I didn’t think anything he said was funny. When Stewart replaced Craig Kilborn on The Daily Show, I actually thought it was a step down for Comedy Central (if that’s possible). He’s has since redeemed himself with bits such as this and become a huge star. Unfortunately, this collection of short stories was published in 1999, so it’s more of the MTv days and less of the Comedy Central days. It’s full of irreverence for the likes of Martha Stewart and Bill Gates, which I appreciate, but it’s just not that funny.

The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)

[The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)] The Kite Runner is the five-tool player of books; it does a lot of things well. But, as with many five-tool players in baseball, it has no truly outstanding points. The plot is good, but a tad formulaic. The theme of redemption has been done better elsewhere. I hoped this would be sort of an Afghan analog of Reading Lolita in Tehran, but even though Afghanistan is the initial setting and the culture is referred to frequently, I don’t feel like I learned that much. If you don’t expect miracles, or if you need something to read on a plane, then it’ll serve you well.

The Tipping Point (Malcolm Gladwell)

[The Tipping Point (Malcolm Gladwell)] The Tipping Point evolved from an explanation of word-of-mouth into a study on epidemic theory on social trends. Like Gladwell’s other book, Blink, the chapters are layed out as a series of personal anecdotes and sociological or psychological experiments which support the chapter’s hypothesis. Highlights include the fall and rise of Hush Puppies and the rise, fall of Airwalks (no relation), development of Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues, and the innovative corporate architecture of the Gore Corporation. It’s not quite as entertaining a read as Blink, but being structured around the concepts of connectors, mavens, and salesmen, the thesis of the book is much more apparent.

Gladwell’s blog

Eyeing the Flash (Peter Fenton)

[Eyeing the Flash (Peter Fenton)]I really thought this would be a great book. The subtitle is “The Education of a Carnival Con-Artist.” That sounded like a sure fire winner to me, but it just didn’t work. The first half of the book is about how the author doesn’t respect his father and thus ends up with the carnival. The second half is about he is trying to rise through the ranks of the carnival games from the lowest level childrens games to the big money makers, which have no possible way to win. I don’t know why I thought the story of a guy ripping off innocent Michiganders would be interesting. I’ve never been conned into playing a carnival game, but I feel like he conned me into reading this book.

The World Is Flat (Thomas Friedman)

[The World Is Flat (Thomas Friedman)]So prior to The World Is Flat, I read Collapse. The conclusion to that book was that that if China and India consume resources at the rate of Americans, the world is going to descend into an apocalyptic state of war, famine, and turmoil. After finishing The World Is Flat, I’m convinced this is inevitable. Oh, it might come faster because Mexico could join that group of emerging countries. I think this should be the #1 issue of the 2008 election, but nobody that decides the outcome of elections (i.e. Ohio and Florida) is paying attention.

This is not the easiest book to read, and Friedman spends too much time expounding the virtues of globalization (and there are many). But while I don’t think he devotes enough time to offering solutions, he does address the threat of terrorism by Middle Eastern extremists. He also chides President Bush for his failure to inspire America to become independent of oil, suggesting a national program for scientists to develop reliable renewable energy sources. There’s good stuff in there, but the overall sense isn’t quite right.

One more thing. Did you know that there are some McDonald’s drive-thrus that are answered by Indian call centers? Yeah, that blew my mind too.

Friedman’s official site and wikipedia entry