Category "Books"

December 16, 2007

Books of 2007

I like to read. In fact, most of my spare time is spent reading. These are the books I read in 2007. Some of them were published in 2007, but most of them are just books that I have been interested in reading for whatever reason.

Also, I don't buy books. All of these books were checked out from a library. I continually have a large hold list at the library, so books trickle in all the time. That is the way I roll.

These books are in order of which ones I enjoyed the most this year. On with the list!

  1. Old Man's War by John Scalzi
    Wow I enjoyed this book. It is about a future where we have colonized other planets, but we must protect ourselves from a lot of other sentient species who would rather that we were wiped from the universe. How do we do it? We build an army full of retired, old people with a lifetime of experience and nothing to lose. Of course, I am leaving some important details out, but that is basically it.

    I had a smile on my face the entire time I read this book. It is rare that I enjoy a book as much as I enjoyed this one. If you are at all into science fiction, especially science fiction that includes aliens and wars, then this book is hard to beat. Funny, thought provoking, and highly entertaining. Definitely my best book of the year.

  2. Peace Like A River by Leif Enger
    This one is a close second. Written by a Minnesotan and set in both Minnesota and North Dakota, this book tells the story of the Land family. Reuben Land, the 11 year narrator, tells the story of how the family is changed forever after his brother Davy shoots down two town bullies. While that provides the main backdrop for the story, it is Reuben's father, Jeremiah, that is the most compelling character. Jeremiah has literally been touched by God. He can perform miracles, and the last miracle he performs truly illustrates sacrifice, faith, and family love. The second to last chapter is so beautiful I had to read it twice. Oh be quick, my soul to answer Him; be jubilant, my feet!

    This book won numerous awards, and for good reason. It is lyrical, comforting, and thought provoking. I can't recommend it enough (although your potential appreciation of the book probably centers around your own open-mindedness to matters of faith).

  3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
    This one lived up to the hype. I read it very quickly. I was afraid that Rowling wouldn't be able to give a satisfactory ending, but I'm happy to say that the ending was very, very exciting. My only knock on this book is that it kind of drags in the beginning as Harry, Ron, and Hermione deal with being in hiding. Other than that, I thought it was great.
  4. The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig
    I wish I could write like this. This book was so well written I had to put it down sometimes just to marvel at the turn-of-phrase or sing-song quality of the prose. This book is about a family out in Montana that decides to hire a housekeeper from Minneapolis. Unbeknownst to them, though, is that she will also bring her brother, who quickly proves himself capable enough to become the teacher in the one-room schoolhouse in town. Sounds simple right? Ah, but the brother and sister have a secret.

    I really enjoyed the simple life described in this book. If you like books about Montana in 1910, you'll probably like this one.

  5. Jesus by Marcus Borg
  6. The Real Jesus by Luke Timothy Johnson
    I read both of these books back to back. It was based on my reading of these books that I wrote my Easter sermon.
  7. The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi
    Sequel to Old Man's War above. Not as good as that, but still really satisfying. John Scalzi is a great scifi writer.
  8. The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt
    I wrote a big piece about this book already. It was a pretty compelling book about what makes us happy, and how we can become happier.
  9. The Language of God by Francis Collins
    This is a wonderful book about the compatibility of religion and science written by the director of the Human Genome Project. Collins also makes a strong case for the compatibility of spirituality and evolution. He states that the study of biology is impossible without a firm understanding of the principles of Darwin's theory, and that God certainly isn't challenged by this given that He created the whole system. Collins is also a strong Christian and a large part of the book describes his transformation from atheism to faith. Collins makes it clear that being spiritual and recognizing the validity of science is not an either/or proposition. You can have both.
  10. Lost Fleet: Dauntless by Jack Campbell
    Black Jack Geary is a dead, larger than life hero whose legend the Alliance Fleet follows religiously. During a horrible defeat at the hands of the Syndics, the Alliance miraculously finds an old escape pod with the still alive body of Black Jack. They revive him and he eventually is asked to lead the fleet's retreat. This is a great book. It is a quick read, and Black Jack is flat out a stud of a leader.
  11. What is the What by Dave Eggers
    This book tells the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee living in Atlanta. Deng tells his whole story through the powerful writing of Eggers, and while this story is fictionalized in some parts, the trials and tribulations of the "Lost Boys" are believable and hard to stomach. Two things struck me when reading this book. The first is that African refugees in America don't want to be here. They would much rather be in their homes, the homes they grew up in, in Africa. They are sick of the complexities of our system, and they are sick of asking for help. They are thankful, but they wish they were back home.

    The second thing that struck me when reading this book is the death and destruction these people had to put up with, and the fervent prayers they offered to God to make it stop. It made me think about my own feeble prayers. I almost want to say to God, "Don't listen to me! There is a little boy in Africa being shot at that needs your help much, much more than me." Needless to say, it was a very powerful book.

  12. The Last Colony by John Scalzi
    Sequel of Old Man's War and Ghost Brigades. Again a great story.
  13. Lost Fleet: Fearless by Jack Campbell
    Sequel to Lost Fleet: Dauntless. Black Jack continues his retreat, but this time he has to deal with some insubordination and mutiny. But as you might imagine, Black Jack doesn't take too kindly to people questioning his authority.
  14. The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly
    This book is an adult fairy tale. A little dark, but very readable. It reminded me a little of Stardust by Neil Gaiman. Not the story but the flow, the feel, and the characters.
  15. King of the World by David Remnick
    This book is a biography of Muhammad Ali during his early career, 1960-1965. It covers Ali's larger than life persona, his conversion to Islam, and his refusal to go to Vietnam. I was born after Ali really made his mark on America, but I remember distinctly growing up how my dad would always light up when Ali was on TV or being discussed. Ali had a huge impact on America, and this book does a good job of describing why.
  16. Cinderella Man by Jeremy Schaap
    I saw this movie on TBS one night and decided to learn more about James J. Braddock and his improbable rise to become heavyweight champion of the world. It is definitely an interesting story of determinatin and perseverance.
  17. The Bright Spot by Robert Sydney
    This book is difficult to describe so I'm not even going to try, but it is by an author that I like a great deal: Dennis Danvers. I'm not sure why he uses a pen name here, but it kind of fits in with the main character in this book. I must say though, if you want to read any book by Danvers, it should be The Watch. That was a good read.
  18. Manhunt by James L. Swanson
    The story of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the massive manhunt that ensued. In a time before cellphones and surveillance cameras and rapid communication possibilities, it is a miracle we could find anybody. I've heard this book is going to be made into a movie.
  19. The Seeker by Jack McDevitt
    Decent scifi story about a lost colony being found thousands of years after it left Earth. I've read better.
  20. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
    Bryson decided to walk the entirety of the Appalachian trail and document his journey. But he didn't finish! He didn't even get close! He didn't even get 1/4 of the way. It was still entertaining, but a little bit of a letdown.
  21. His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik
    This book has a good premise. What if dragons were a part of the Napoleonic Wars? However, and I'm not sure if it was because this book was written by a woman, but all the characters, even the male dragons, are a bunch of emasculated pansies. Well, I may be overstating that a little bit, but I definitely had a different view of what the overall attitude of a dragon should be.
  22. The Android's Dream by John Scalzi
    I thought Scalzi could do no wrong after the Old Man's War trilogy, but this book was a little boring and difficult to finish. Besides the first chapter, which was probably a stand alone short story at one point, I would say skip this one.
  23. The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue
    Depressing. A book about changelings and stealing children. It looks like this book will serve as the premise of an Eastwood film called The Changeling starring Angelina Jolie coming in 2008, but unless I can be assured that this movie will have a happy ending I won't go see it.
  24. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
    If it hadn't been a sunny set of days when I read this relatively short book I may have hurt myself as I read it. Talk about depressing. Some people thought this book was the greatest thing since Gutenberg and movable type, but I found the book to be compelling in a rather horrible way. The fact that it had a somewhat optimistic ending didn't redeem it for me.
  25. 1776 by David McCoulough
    And the book I enjoyed least. It was an OK book, but I found the movements of both armies difficult to follow. It might have helped if the book was illustrated with maps (I believe there is a version of the book with maps now). Also, the focus on 1776 alone is a little limiting and requires McCoulough to describe everything about this year in excruciating detail. It just wasn't for me.

And that is the year 2007 in books. Music and movies are coming next!

Posted by snackeru at 7:33 PM | Comments (6) | Books

Category "Books"

June 28, 2007

On Happiness

Enough! Enough of the same old, same old. I want to be HAPPY!

I'm 34 years old. And I'm not sure if I am going through a mid-life crisis, but recently I have been reading books on happiness. I know it sounds strange, but it has actually made for some interesting reading. What is happiness? What are the best ways to achieve happiness? How do you know if you are happy?

I'd like to think I am a pretty content guy. I have a happy marriage and three fantastic kids. And I have a good job and I make a decent salary. I work at the University of Minnesota, the flagship institution of the state, and I have the opportunity to work on some pretty nifty stuff (for a librarian).

But how do I enhance that feeling of contentment? How can I do a better job of recognizing my good life? I'm also very interested in contentment vs. complacency. In other words, I definitely want to be happier, but I don't ever want to be complacent. How can I achieve this ever elusive nirvana?

So, I've been reading some books on happiness. One book I have enjoyed is The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt. Dr. Haidt is a professor at the University of Virginia, and his book looks at some common themes in philosophical and religious writings of the past and juxtaposes this ancient wisdom with current research.

The whole book is fascinating, but in particular I found the "Happiness Formula" to be wonderful in its elegant simplicity. The formula is written as such:

H = S + C + V

According to Haidt, Happiness (H) is heavily determined by our biological set point (S). This is the maximum level of happiness we are biologically (genetically) able to achieve. It seems all of us have a range of happiness that we slip and slide through during our lives, but there is a high point that as individuals we can get to. Some people's set point is higher than others, but most of us, again, spend our lives somewhere within a range determined by biology. As far as the rest of the formula goes, Dr. Haidt writes:

The level of happiness that you actually experience (H) is determined by your biological set point (S) plus the conditions of your life (C) plus the voluntary activities(V) you do. The challenge for positive psychology is to use the scientific method to find out exactly what kinds of C and V can push H up to the top of your potential range [as determined by S].

Good stuff. So, throughout the book Dr. Haidt makes some suggestions of things we can do to become happier. Here are a few:

Dr. Haidt also spends a large amount of the book discussing three important areas that usually have a great deal of influence over our happiness: the work we do, our relationships, and spirituality. In terms of the work we do, Dr. Haidt (and others) have found that a person's satisfaction with work usually has to do with how they define their job: as just a job, a career, or a calling. Obviously, people who have found their true calling are happier. If you love your job, or have "vital engagement" through it, you will feel that you are doing good for society and that you are doing your job well. If you've got a job where you feel this is true, hold on to it. You will probably be happier in the long run.

Dr. Haidt has also found that it is important to have some level of control at your job. If you make decisions, or determine your own work in some way, you will probably be happier than a person that just works on an assembly line doing the same thing over and over again (especially if that person is tightly controlled or monitored). It is called "occupational self direction" and almost any job can incorporate more of it. This can definitely lead to more job satisfaction.

In terms of relationships, Dr. Haidt criticizes Buddhism a little by recognizing that attachments, especially with other people, are where we find the bulk of our happiness. And sadness, this is certainly true, but the relationships we have with other people can greatly enrich our lives. He describes a fascinating study by Emile Durkheim who researched factors that affected European suicide rates in the late nineteenth century. Check this out:

No matter how he parsed the data, people who had fewer social constraints, bonds, and obligations were more likely to kill themselves. Durkheim looked at the "degree of integration of religious society" and found that Protestants, who live the least demanding religious lives at the time, had higher suicide rates than did Catholics; Jews, with the densest network of social and religious obligations, had the lowest. He examind the "degree of integration of domestic society" -- the family -- and found the same thing: People living alone were most likely to kill themselves; married people, less; married people with children, still less. Durkheim concluded that people need obligations and constraints to provide structure and meaning to their lives ... A hundred years of further studies have confirmed Durkheim's diagnosis. If you want to predict how happy someone is, or how long she will live (and if you are not allowed to ask about her genes or personality), you should find out about her social relationships."

Again, research has proven again and again that we are a highly social species, and that we need others to complete us. Many people create social relationships inside the home with family, and also through volunteering and activities like that outside the home. Volunteering in itself can create good, virtuous feelings in that a person is happy to make a contribution to society in some way, but the main benefit to the individual in terms of volunteering probably comes from the relationships created through the activity. And while this type of activity can be overdone and sometimes overwhelm, it is most definitely an important component of making yourself more happy. Good to know.

Finally, Dr. Haidt recognizes and extrapolates on the fact that religious people are happier than the non-religious. This has a lot to do with the relationships created through religious participation, but also because research suggests we are happier when see and strive for divinity in the human experience. Through religion and seeing the sacred in our lives we are "uplifted." In fact, Haidt describes this feeling as the emotion of "elevation" and it can occur when we are in church, or in nature, or listening to music, appreciating a painting, or seeing the majesty of the stars. Dr. Haidt describes this emotion wonderfully in a Christian context:

Growing up Jewish in a devoutly Christian country, I was frequently puzzled by references to Christ's love and love through Christ. Now that I understand elevation ... I think I'm beginning to get it. For many people, one of the pleasures of going to church is the experience of the collective elevation. People step out of their everyday profane existence, which offers only occasional opportunities for movement [within elevation], and come together with a community of like-hearted people who are also hoping to feel a "lift" from the stories about Christ, virtuous people in the Bible, saints, or exemplary members of their own community. When this happens, people find themselves overflowing with love, but it is not exactly the love that grows out of attachment relationships. That love has a specific object, and it runs to pain when the object is gone. This love has no specific object; it is agape. It feels like a love of all humankind, and because humans find it hard to believe that something comes from nothing, it seems natural to attribute the love to Christ, or to the Holy Spirit moving within one's own heart. Such experiences give direct and subjectively compelling evidence that God resides within each person. And once a person knows this 'truth,' the ethic of divinity becomes self-evident."

The remarkable thing about this passage is that Dr. Haidt makes it quite clear throughout the book that he considers himself to be an atheist. Yet, he recognizes the need for the divine in our lives. In fact, he argues that we can't escape it, and that even atheists have feelings of "elevation" on a regular basis. He writes, "If religious people are right in believing that religion is the source of their greatest happiness, then maybe the rest of us who are looking for happiness and meaning can learn something from them, whether or not we believe in God." Anyway, I found this honesty interesting and refreshing.

All in all, I found The Happiness Hypothesis to be very compelling. There are a lot of things we can do to make ourselves happier, many of them easy and some of them very hard. I guess a criticism I have of the book, though, is that it is a very affluent view of happiness. A person in the Darfur region of Sudan would probably find the book to be worthless since happiness in that area of the world starts with simple things like food and safety. But for a Minnesotan like me it was an eye-opening look into some of the things that seem obvious but I've never really thought about. In a summarizing statement, Dr. Haidt writes:

Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger. It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.

And probably happiness too. Anyway, check out the Happiness Hypothesis if you are interested in more.

Posted by snackeru at 7:35 AM | Comments (30) | Books

Category "Books"

April 4, 2007

Let us consider these books

Will Young tagged me a while back with these book related questions. I must admit, it took me a long time to put this list together because it was hard to answer these questions. They are tough. There are so many good books, it is really hard to pinpoint the most meaningful. Here is my best shot. Of course, I want to hear from you! What books would you put on your list?

1. One book that changed your life

enders.jpg The toughest question of them all (and I assume the Bible is not an acceptable answer). I gotta go with Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. Reading this book set off a life-long love of science fiction. I picked this book up on a whim thinking that the cover looked cool. Inside is a story so thought provoking and compelling that it absolutely blew me away. I have yet to read a science fiction book that has meant more to me. It is one of the few books I have no trouble recommending to everyone I meet. You will like this book. I don't care who you are. It will have an impact on you. Anyone disagree?

2. One book that you’ve read more than once

Short History I don't re-read books. In fact, I usually mock people that read books more than once. You mean to tell me that of the billions of books ever written, you couldn't find a new one to read? You had to re-read a book? That is pathetic. Having said that, A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson is one of the few books I have read more than once. I will concede sometimes a book is so magnificent or thought provoking you have to read it again. I have read this book twice, and I still could probably read it again. It is that good. It may even be Ender's Game good. A Short History of Nearly Everything is a history of scientific discovery. How do we know the things we know about? Fight the good fight against your own ignorance and pick up this book! Can I get an amen?

3. One book you would want on a desert island

shakespeare.jpg Who picked these questions? Man, this is a tough one. Again, I assume the Bible is off limits, but the book would have to be something like it. Spiritual, historical, meaningful, timeless, thought provoking, and hefty. Something I could go back to over and over again. I think the Complete Works of William Shakespeare would probably do the trick. Plus, when I go bat-guano crazy, me and my coconut buddies can put on a performance of Hamlet and seal the deal.

4. One book that made you laugh

confederacy.jpg You've probably heard of A Confederacy of Dunces, but you probably don't know the interesting story behind it. John Kennedy Toole tried to get this book published during his lifetime, but was unsuccessful. It is speculated that this caused him a great deal of depression which eventually led to Toole's suicide in 1969. His mother read the manuscript and liked the book so much that she sent it to the novelist Walker Percy begging him to read it. Reluctantly, Percy read it, loved it, got it published, and the book went on to win the 1981 Pulitzer Prize. Intrigued? You should be. The book is a great read. It is funny (hilarious actually), thoughtful, and very unique. It is also considered the classic novel of New Orleans and includes one of the most memorable characters in the history of fiction: Ignatius J. Reilly. I loved it. Intelligent humor is tough to pull off in fiction. This book nails it. Highly recommended.

5. One book that made you cry

dayinthelife.jpg I must have been in a contemplative mood the day I finished this book. But honest to goodness A Day in the Life: the Music and Artistry of the Beatlesby Mark Hertsgaard made me a little misty-eyed. I can still remember sitting in the Indiana University Main Library cafeteria and wiping away the tears as I considered the importance of this band and the circumstances that resulted in their demise. It is just a beautiful book. If you are a Beatles fan it is a must read. It gives proper coverage to both the music of the Beatles and the historical context around that music and caused by that music. If you are a fan of the Beatles, I don't think I can recommend any book higher than this one.

6. One book you wish had been written

OK, I take that back, this is the toughest question. A book I wish had been written? How about The Complete Guide to Understanding Your Wife and Her Varying Moods? That would be handy. On a more serious note, even though Ender's Game above stands alone, it is also the beginning of a 4 book series. The last book in the series, Children of the Mind sees the death of Ender, but it also ends before the Lusitania attack fleet reaches the planet. What the heck happens next? That is what I'd like to know.

7. One book you wish had never been written

Without a doubt, The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy. The most painful book I have ever read. Boring, Victorian, pretentious, confusing, and boring. I was forced to read this in high school and I think my love of book reading took a vicious hit because of it. I realize some people may like it, but not me. Blech.

8. One book you’re currently reading

ghostbrigades.jpg Well, I just finished The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi. That was a good book. A better book was his first: Old Man's War. That was without a doubt one of the best sci-fi books I have ever read. I seriously had a smile on my face the whole time. It is right up there with Ender's Game, Dune, The Mote in God's Eye, Calculating God, Pastwatch, etc ... and that is really saying something. I suggest you check it out.

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read

Oh man ... I've always wanted to read Catch 22. Never have. I'd also like to read Starship Troopers but the political and philosophical overtones have always turned me off. The Once and Future King I'd put up there too. That should keep me busy.

So, there you have it. Now I am supposed to tag at least six people, so I tag Cheesehead Craig, Freealonzo, Curt in Grand Forks, SBG, Jon Marthaler, and Jeff Thompson.

But six isn't enough. The rest of you (David Howe, STM if you are still around, Snyder, Derek, Tim_R, CTM, Drake33, The Tube, spycake, kevin in az, Jiminstpaul, barry, zooomx, DaveT, CJ, Vicki, Kaz, mullen, victor, MOJO, Jeff A, pragmatic_cynic, tato, Rational Actor, JBN, Ray, Jimmy Jack, Aaron, GK, mlb2131, Alex, AA, Waldo, Wing-nut, Moe, Boof, Stadiumshill, BP, Erik, RichP, BMac, phil, Ray, Mylometer, jlichty, Podunk, Tommy, bjhess, Casual Fan, John, charles, LarryH, Ray Kinsella, Moonlight Graham, Vince, and everyone else that I may have forgotten, including those of you that have never commented) I want to hear from you too! I'm always on the lookout for new books.

Until next time.

Posted by snackeru at 8:17 PM | Comments (38) | Books

Category "Books"

December 18, 2006

Books Read 2006

So many books, and not enough time. These are my favorite books of the year, in order. Please note that these books were not necessarily released in 2006, or even 2005. These are just the books that I felt compelled to read this year based on word of mouth, my knowledge of the author, the genre of the book, and increasingly the suggestions I get from LibraryThing. I would say, though, that most of these books were selected by looking at Listmania lists through Please also note that every one of these books was found in and checked out from a library. If you feel like reading one of these books based on my weak ramblings below, do yourself a favor, save yourself some money, and check it out from a library. Again, I am completely mystified as to why anyone buys books when your public (or college) library is loaded with good reading material. Mind boggling ...

On with the list!

  1. The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay
    By far my favorite book of the year. As the cover says, this is "The Classic Novel of South Africa" and all the images and stereotypes that phrase conjures up. It tells the story of Peekay, an English boy in Afrikaner South Africa. Peekay quickly learns that as an Englishman he is considered less than human which gives him a unique perspective on race relations in the country. The bulk of the book covers Peekay's boxing career and how it propels him into a position of respect among his classmates and the Africans he befriends. This book is really quite remarkable, it is easy to read, and it also has an oddly satisfying ending. If you pick one of these books to read, it should be this one. Also, don't watch the movie based on this book. It sucks.

  2. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
    You've probably heard of this book, but you probably don't know the interesting story behind it. John Kennedy Toole tried to get this book published during his lifetime, but was unsuccessful. It is speculated that this caused him a great deal of depression which eventually led to Toole's suicide in 1969. His mother read the manuscript and liked the book so much that she sent it to the novelist Walker Percy begging him to read it. Reluctantly, Percy read it, loved it, got it published, and the book went on to win the 1981 Pulitzer Prize. Intrigued? You should be. The book is a great read. It is funny (hilarious actually), thoughtful, and very unique. It is also considered the classic novel of New Orleans and includes one of the most memorable characters in the history of fiction: Ignatius J. Reilly. I loved it. Intelligent humor is tough to pull off in fiction. This book nails it.

  3. Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
    Easily the best science-fiction novel of the year. I'd be surprised if this didn't win a Hugo or a Nebula. What a great book. What if an unknown intelligence covered the earth with some kind of membrane that took the stars away? Not only that, what if that same membrane kept the earth in a much slower state, so that every minute that passed on earth was actually about 10,000 years in the rest of the universe? What would happen? As crazy as all this sounds, the book creates a fascinating story around these phenomenon complete with scientific inquiry, religious discussion, and end-of-the-world fanaticism. Wonderful all the way around.

  4. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
    Is life really that hard for the typical waitress, or door-to-door maid, or Wal-Mart employee? Yes, actually, it is. The author of this book gives up her life of relative luxury to work in these jobs and see if she can make enough to eat and have a place to live. Usually her efforts prove to be both funny and horribly sad as she meets some of the hardest workers with nothing to show for it you'll ever read about. Her stop in Minnesota is particularly revealing as she barely makes enough to live in the most squalid of hotel rooms. It definitely makes you thankful for what you have, and question the very system that seems to work so well for you and so poorly for others. Can't we do better? Quick and thought provoking read.

  5. The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
    Loved it and already wrote about it.

  6. A World Lit Only by Fire by William Manchester
    Fascinating book about the fall of the Dark Ages and the beginnings of the Renaissance, with special emphasis on 1) the depravity of the Catholic church during that time period, and 2) how that and other factors created the Reformation. The book ends with a very interesting description of the life and times of Magellan and his attempt to find a water route to India. Of course, his expedition actually resulted in the first successful rounding of the tip of South America and the first documented circumnavigation of the globe. Magellan's story juxtaposed with stories of heroes of the Reformation may seem like an odd combination, but Manchester makes it work in a very compelling work of summarizing scholarship. I give it two thumbs up.

  7. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
    This is a difficult book to describe. Owen Meany is a smallish boy with some sort of Messianic complex: he believes he is an instrument of God. Told through the voice of his childhood best friend, the story centers around the fateful day Owen kills his best friend's mom with a baseball. The rest of the story follows with discussions of faith and doubt until the end when Owen's purpose in life reveals itself. It is an amazing story, so dense that it is impossible to read in any kind of timely fashion. By the way, the movie based on the book, Simon Birch does not do this work justice in the least.

  8. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
    Guess what? Your knowledge of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire he created is completely lacking. Read this book and be enlightened. Genghis Khan was a military and political genius whose merciless campaigns and far-reaching empire we are still feeling the effects of today. Weatherford convincingly crushes Mongol stereotypes and creates a much more plausible picture of the Mongol people as truly ahead of their time. Weatherford is also a professor at Macalester College, so reading this book helps you support a local author (even if you check it out from a library).

  9. The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
    A cross between Flowers for Algernon and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, this book describes the life of an autistic adult and his option to take part in a new treatment that might cure him of his autism. The book focuses heavily on the trials and travails of autistic individuals and the prejudices they have to face on a daily basis, but it also describes some of the ways that autistic people can overcome and be productive members of society. The possible treatment is just a plot device for more of an essay on autism in general, but it does provide for a satisfying and interesting ending.

  10. Camouflage by Joe Haldeman
    A fast and fascinating read. A shape-shifting alien lands on earth and lives here for millions of years learning about the life on our planet. Meanwhile, another more sinister and in fact evil alien is also on the planet taking part in some of the most heinous acts in human history. Eventually these two aliens meet up. This is a critically acclaimed book, but I must admit a thought it was a little "fluffy." Again, though, it was a fast read that ultimately proved worth the time.

  11. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
    A book about vampires ... how could you go wrong with that? I learned a lot about the mythology of vampires, and it caused me to do some more research about just how Romanians feel about Dracula (they actually see him as a sort of national hero). But after reading this huge book, almost 700 pages, the final showdown lasts about a paragraph. I actually had to read it twice just to make sure I didn't miss anything. That was disappointing.

  12. Empire Falls by Richard Russo
    This book won the Pulitzer Prize, and there is no doubt that it is good, but I can't help but think as I read Russo books in general that I am re-reading Jon Hassler. Russo's Empire Falls is a lot like Hassler's Staggerford, and Russo's Straight Man is a lot like Hassler's Rookery Blues. I can't get past this.

  13. The Human Story by James C. Davis
    A good review of human history, but in the end I found this book to be a little too simple. That was probably the author's intention, though. What I found fascinating about the book was how the author could boil down huge events in human history, like WWII or the Russian Revolution, to just a few pages. It must have been very difficult to decide what details to keep in and what details to cut.

  14. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
    I've read a few of Gaiman's books, and Stardust is definitely my favorite. This book was like reading a comic book without the pictures, and that is not necessarily a good thing. Too strange for my tastes, but a good first effort from a man who is quickly turning into one of America's favorite authors.

  15. The Planets by Dava Sobel
    I was expecting another Longitude but I got a quick read on how each planet in our solar system was discovered. Some of the stories prove fascinating, while others are less than fascinating. Oh well.

  16. The Braided World by Kay Kenyon
    Space travel and alien cultures! I usually love books like this, but unfortunately I didn't find the story believable enough. And this is coming from the guy who loved the story about a membrane covering the earth and blocking out all the stars (see Spin above).

  17. Red Lightning by John Varley
    This book is the sequel to Red Thunder, a book I absolutely loved. If you want to read a great story about a private expedition to Mars, check out Red Thunder. The sequel, however, leaves much to be desired. It is disappointing and too preachy.

  18. Polaris by Jack McDevitt
    A science fiction mystery novel. The crew of the space ship Polaris disappear and no one can figure out where they went. Mix in a little discussion of lifetime longevity research and ... unfortunately this premise turns into only a so-so read.

  19. The X-President by Philip Baruth
    Boring. It is discovered that during Bill Clinton's presidency a decision is made that affects the course of American history for the worse. So, a top secret plan to travel back in time to reverse this decision is hatched. This book had potential ...

  20. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
    You would think a book about a book where the characters can actually come to life would be right up my alley. Unfortunately you've got to be at most 11 years old to fully appreciate it. Good for kids, so-so for adults.

  21. Air by Geoff Ryman
    Wow. This book would be ranked higher if not for it containing the strangest ending I read all year. If someone else read it and could explain it to me I would greatly appreciate it. Otherwise, this book can only be described as a disappointment.

  22. Seven Daughters of Eve by Bryan Sykes
    The worst book I read all year. You would think a book about mitochondrial DNA and its use to determine that all European ancestry can be traced back to 4 women would be pretty nifty. Nope. The book is laughably simplistic at times ... like it was written for children. Maybe it was. It just wasn't for me.

That's about it. The books I read in the order of how much I liked them. Stay tuned for my top albums of the year . See ya!

Posted by snackeru at 6:56 AM | Comments (7) | Books

Category "Books"

Category "Stadiums 2006"

May 8, 2006

When? and more

• The big question on everyone's mind is "When?" When will the Senate finally vote on the bill? I have heard either tomorrow afternoon or Wednesday. I am betting that it is Wednesday. And unfortunately for all of us, all we can do really is wait. Leaders in both major parties have all come out in favor of the Twins stadium. They have all said they'd like to see it "get done." We are all just waiting to see what "get done" actually means.

I heard Pawlenty on Sid's Sunday morning radio show, and apparently Dean Johnson was also on the show. This is what Sid had to say about the situation:

Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he is ready to go along with the stadium bills voted by the House for both the Twins and the Gophers. But the Republican is definitely against the seven-county tax for three stadiums -- including the Vikings -- that has been proposed by the Senate.

He has been in favor of a referendum for the Twins, but he said he will go along without one because he is convinced the Twins will leave if a stadium bill isn't passed this session. The governor is not in favor of the putting the Twins and Vikings bills together as proposed by the Senate. In fact, he said the Vikings bill needs a lot of work before it is ready for a vote by the Legislature.

Pawlenty is in complete conflict with Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, who wants a vote on a combined Vikings-Twins bill but promises to appoint stadium- friendly conferees if the House and Senate bills for all three stadiums don't agree and go to conference committees.

On Sunday, Johnson did everything but promise that the Twins and Gophers bills will be reality. And he is going to try to make it three stadiums with the Vikings.

Johnson said that in a poll taken of 2,000 of his voters, 71 percent are in favor of voting in favor of all three stadiums. Of course his area won't be taxed for either the Twins or Vikings stadiums.

Again, I feel good about this. I expect the DFL will screw around a little bit, but in the end 71 percent of Johnson's district are in favor of getting this done. If Dean Johnson goes home this June without a resolution to at least the Twins stadium fiasco, he will be in big trouble. He has got to know that. Famous last words, heh?

• Bad news of the week: Phil Krinkie lost the GOP nomination for the 6th Congressional District to Michelle Bachmann. And not only did he lose, he got crushed. Why is this bad? This means the Minnesota legislature, and Minnesotans in general, are stuck with him for eternity. Yes, eternity. It is that bad. Phil Krinkie's motto seems to be "Making Minnesota into the 3rd Dakota Today!"

physicssuper.gif So, last Friday I took some time to attend a Libraries' sponsored lecture entitled the "Physics of Superheroes" by James Kakalios, a U of M professor of physics. Dr. Kakalios uses superheroes and their daily crime-fighting ways to illustrate some of the more important concepts in physics. It was by far one of the more enlightening and entertaining lectures I have seen in a long, long time. Dr. Kakalios used Superman's leaping ability, the death of Gwen Stacey (Spiderman's early girlfriend), Magneto, Electro, and Mr. Atom to discuss physics in a very easy, and hilarious, way that even a simpleton like me could understand. Consider:

Dr. Kakalios opened up his presentation with Superman's leaping ability. In the early days, Superman could not actually fly. He could just jump really far thanks to his super-human strength. How did he get this super-human strength? Well, it was always assumed that his home planet of Krypton had a higher level of gravity which made Superman that much stronger here on Earth. And as you all know, Krypton blew up after Superman's father put him on a spaceship bound for Earth, but more on that later ...

Using various mathematical equations and scientific theories, Dr. Kakalios postulated that if Superman was to leap a 200 foot building he would need a velocity of 140 MPH. And using more equations and theories Dr. Kakalios came to the conclusion that Superman would need 6,000 lbs. of pressure (leaping ability) to reach that velocity. Futhermore, and taking into account the theory that Krypton has a higher gravity than Earth, in order for Superman to exert that kind of force, Krypton must have had a gravity 15 times that of Earth.

The trouble is, the only planets that have that kind of gravity are a great deal larger than Earth: the gas giants. So, how did Krypton have that kind of gravity? Dr. Kakalios further theorizes that Krypton must have had a netron star as its core. A neutron star core would only have to be about 600 meters across to exert this kind of gravity. Interestingly enough, a neutron star core would also account for the instability and eventual self destruction of the planet Krypton which forced Superman to flee in the first place.

As I said above, this was all presented to us in an entertaining and "matter of fact" way that had all of us just nodding our heads. "Yep, that must have been what happened..." And we were talking about Superman. Anyway, if I ever had to take a physics course, this would be the one.

By the way, The Physics of Superheroes is now a book available for purchase. I am definitely going to read it. I'll let you know what I think.

Posted by snackeru at 6:29 AM | Comments (21) | Books | Stadiums 2006

Category "Books"

April 3, 2006

Medieval book curse

I'm reading Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, a wonderful book about the power and majesty of the written word, especially in book form. One of the chapters begins with this actual curse for people who would steal books from a monastery in Spain:

For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying out for mercy, & let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails ... when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever.
from the monastery of San Pedro, Barcelona, Spain

Now that curse means business! More when I've got time ...

Posted by snackeru at 8:34 AM | Comments (2) | Books

Category "Books"

Category "Stuff I wonder about"

February 20, 2006

The Miracle of Life

comoconserve.jpg So, I went to the Como Conservatory today. After all this cold we've been having, it was nice to see things green and alive again. If you are feeling in the dumps and you are sick of winter, I must suggest going to the Como Conservatory to brighten your outlook on life. The smells, the freshness, the humidity ... it is all just wonderful.

Anyway, as I was walking through the Conservatory I was struck with the diversity of life in this relatively small, enclosed space. So many different types of trees, plants, and flowers, and as you walk through it you suddenly realize that the variety in the Como Conservatory is really just the tip of the iceberg. It is amazing to think about.

And to stay with the sci-fi theme, why is Earth the only place that we've found so far that has life, and furthermore why do we have life so abundantly? We don't have just a few bacterium struggling to survive on the tip of a comet, we have so many species of life we can't even name them all, and we are still discovering new ones. Again, life is amazing.

Again, these thoughts got me to thinking about Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything which coincidentally has a fascinating chapter on this miracle we call life. When you really think about it, the life we have on this planet and the immense variety should make your head explode with wonder. Especially when you consider how difficult it is to even create a simple protein:

Proteins are what you get when you string amino acids together, and we need a lot of them. No one really knows, but there may be as many as a million types of protein in the human body, and each one is a little miracle. By all the laws of probability proteins shouldn’t exist. To make a protein you need to assemble amino acids (which I am obliged by long tradition to refer to here as “the building blocks of life?) in a particular order, in much the same way that you assemble letters in a particular order to spell a word. The problem is that words in the amino acid alphabet are often exceedingly long. To spell collagen, the name of a common type of protein, you need to arrange eight letters in the right order. But to make collagen, you need to arrange 1,055 amino acids in precisely the right sequence. But—and here’s an obvious but crucial point—you don’t make it. It makes itself, spontaneously, without direction, and this is where the unlikelihoods come in.

The chances of a 1,055-sequence molecule like collagen spontaneously self-assembling are, frankly, nil. It just isn’t going to happen. To grasp what a long shot its existence is, visualize a standard Las Vegas slot machine but broadened greatly—to about ninety feet, to be precise—to accommodate 1,055 spinning wheels instead of the usual three or four, and with twenty symbols on each wheel (one for each common amino acid).1 How long would you have to pull the handle before all 1,055 symbols came up in the right order? Effectively forever. Even if you reduced the number of spinning wheels to two hundred, which is actually a more typical number of amino acids for a protein, the odds against all two hundred coming up in a prescribed sequence are 1 in 10260 (that is a 1 followed by 260 zeroes). That in itself is a larger number than all the atoms in the universe.

And this is just proteins. Think about when you connect them all up, stick DNA into the equation, and get plants, and animals, and all the other variety of life we have on this planet. How does your eyelash know to become an eyelash? How does a human embryo know to create a kidney or a pancreas? As Bryson suggests, we shouldn't even be here. How did this happen? Why did it happen?

Feel free to surmise your own reasons. I'm not here to get into an argument. I think we can all agree, though, that life on this planet is a miracle, plain and simple, regardless of how it happened. I choose to rejoice in it.

Posted by snackeru at 8:20 PM | Comments (7) | Books | Stuff I wonder about

Category "Books"

Category "Stuff I wonder about"

February 19, 2006

The Vastness of Space

So, I'm reading an interesting book right now called The Braided World by Kay Kenyon. It is kind of a sequel to her book Maximum Ice (which I enjoyed) so, I thought I would pick this one up too. The Braided World tells of a crew of humans traveling 30 light years to a distant planet with the hopes of finding some of humanity's lost genetic diversity. That is as far as I've gotten.

But what I'd like to write about today is that figure: 30 light years. 30 light years is the distance it takes for light (traveling at the speed of light) to travel if it traveld for 30 years. In other words, 30 light years is a long, long way off. Think about it: even if we had a space craft that could travel at the speed of light, it would have to be able to maintain that speed for 30 years to get to this fictional planet. Needless to say, with our existing technology we aren't anywhere near the ability to become interstellar space travelers anytime soon.

This got me to thinking about another book I've read that describes the vastness of space specifically in our own solar system. In the amazing A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson describes space like this (page 24):

Now the first thing you are likely to realize is that space is extremely well named and rather dismayingly uneventful. Our solar system may be the liveliest thing for trillions of miles, but all the visible stuff in it—the Sun, the planets and their moons, the billion or so tumbling rocks of the asteroid belt, comets, and other miscellaneous drifting detritus—fills less than a trillionth of the available space. You also quickly realize that none of the maps you have ever seen of the solar system were remotely drawn to scale. Most schoolroom charts show the planets coming one after the other at neighborly intervals—the outer giants actually cast shadows over each other in many illustrations—but this is a necessary deceit to get them all on the same piece of paper. Neptune in reality isn’t just a little bit beyond Jupiter, it’s way beyond Jupiter—five times farther from Jupiter than Jupiter is from us, so far out that it receives only 3 percent as much sunlight as Jupiter.

Such are the distances, in fact, that it isn’t possible, in any practical terms, to draw the solar system to scale. Even if you added lots of fold-out pages to your textbooks or used a really long sheet of poster paper, you wouldn’t come close. On a diagram of the solar system to scale, with Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea, Jupiter would be over a thousand feet away and Pluto would be a mile and a half distant (and about the size of a bacterium, so you wouldn’t be able to see it anyway). On the same scale, Proxima Centauri, our nearest star, would be almost ten thousand miles away. Even if you shrank down everything so that Jupiter was as small as the period at the end of this sentence, and Pluto was no bigger than a molecule, Pluto would still be over thirty-five feet away.

In other words, our solar system is absolutely huge compared to the distance we traveled on our last vacations. Bryson goes on to say that it is unlikely that any human will ever visit the edge of our solar system. It is just too far away. It is the reason why science fiction authors always describe space travel through special means like going through wormholes or black holes ... these theories, and theories yet devised, are probably our only hope of ever getting past Mars.

When I read books about humans traveling to distant planets to meet with an alien civilization I can't help but think about stuff like this. Space travel, using our existing technology, is woefully inadequate. Quite frankly, it is impossible. Thus ends another episode of "who gives a rat's butt theater." Stay tuned for more.

Posted by snackeru at 7:48 PM | Comments (3) | Books | Stuff I wonder about

Category "Books"

Category "Stadiums"

January 26, 2006

Nothing coherent, just more "dashed off tripe"

• I was watching the T-Wolves a little bit last night and I was just blown away by how bad they are. I mean YIKES! It is definitely "panic time" at the Target Center. KG must be beside himself with anger. McHale has seriously built a sub-.500 team.

• And speaking of KG, I don't know how many of you saw this, but a couple of weeks ago KG was asked about his time with Stephon Marbury when he started to talk about his own childhood. He had this to say:

"I was a gym rat, man," he said. "I loved hoops, and when I'm done with this game, I'm gonna hoop. You're going to catch me at the Minnetonka YMCA busting some of those old guys' butts. You think I'm [kidding], but I can't wait to get back on the blacktop."

That is why I love KG: honesty, loyalty, and the Minnetonka YMCA is the one I frequent! Man, I would love to get dunked on by KG! And if I ever scored on him ... wow, I would launch some serious trash talking. I hope KG sticks around.

• In case you missed this, Sen. Don Betzold, Senate author of the Vikings stadium bill in the illustrious Minnesota legislature, wrote an interesting piece discussing the problems with a referendum. His argument is that only allowing Anoka County residents, or Hennepin County residents, to vote on the fate of our favorite sports teams would be "too narrow to be fair." Betzold writes:

The referendum issue raises a basic question: Who should get to vote on it? It would seem that if it is a local sales tax, then the local citizens should vote. But that means that nearby citizens, also affected by the sales tax, cannot vote. Some of my constituents live in suburban Anoka County, and some live next door in suburban Ramsey County. In fact, the city of Spring Lake Park is in both counties, so the Anoka County Spring Lake Park voters could vote on a referendum but the Ramsey County Spring Lake Park voters could not.

It is true that a state law requires a referendum approving a local sales tax to fund a local project, such as a city convention center. However, referendums have not been required for projects that have broad regional or statewide significance, such as the Minneapolis Convention Center and the Metrodome.

It is an argument I happen to agree with. The Metrodome and the Convention Center were built without referendum and I don't think anyone would ever say that they were a mistake. They have proven to be cost effective and important pieces of our metropolitan infrastructure. Betzold also writes:

That raises other questions: Should the voters of one county decide the future of a statewide asset? Do the Twins fans who live in Anoka County want the Hennepin County voters to decide if their team stays in Minnesota? Will the legislators who represent the other 87 counties want only Anoka County voters to decide the future of the Vikings? If Anoka County were to drop its plan and a new Vikings stadium proposal were to be proposed in, say, Dakota County, would Vikings fans in Anoka County want the voters in the southern suburbs to decide this issue? Should the students at the university vote on the possible tuition increases to pay for a new Gophers stadium?

The Legislature can't send tough questions like these to the voters. We have to figure them out ourselves.

This raises two important points: 1) since these are statewide assets, it is a shame that only one county will pay for these stadiums in the first place, and 2) the legislature should definitely figure these issues out themselves. The more salient point is point number two. Do your jobs senators and representatives! We elected you to make informed decisions on controversial topics, not put your head in the sand and pass these decisions back to us. What are you good for then? If you don't want to do your jobs then I want to vote on everything. Referendums are a cop-out and an example of weak-minded legislators doing whatever it takes to keep their jobs.

Grow a backbone and make a decision, up or down. But don't pass it back to me.

• You'll note over on the right side a new section listing out all the books I've read so far in 2006. It is only three right now, but I hope to grow this list as the year progresses. That way, at the end of the year I won't have to wrack my brain trying to remember what books I've read in the last 12 months.

And just to let you know, Empire Falls was excellent. The Planets was a quick read, but not as good as I thought it would be. Camouflage was very good. It had not one, but two aliens in it and I am a sucker for alien books. The book is about two almost immortal aliens who live on Earth and interact with life here for thousands of years. One alien spends most of its time with humans and becomes quite a nasty fellow, while the other alien spends most of its time in the ocean, and only begins spending time with humans during the 20th Century. Meanwhile, in the not so distant future, a strange metallic artifact is found in a Pacific trench and scientists from all over try to figure out what it is. Could it have something to do with one of our aliens? Read Camouflage to find out. I enjoyed it.

• That's it for now. I'm back to liking clapping again. Yesterday it seemed kind of stupid, though. Sort of stupid like hitting a small white ball with a stick and racing around a diamond shaped playing field. Who came up with that?

Posted by snackeru at 8:28 AM | Comments (9) | Books | Stadiums

Category "Books"

Category "Gophers"

Category "Sports"

Category "Stadiums"

Category "Vikings"

January 3, 2006

Coaches and other random thoughts

• First of all let me say that I was happy that Zygi gave Tice the pink slip. It is time to put the Red McCombs years behind us and the best way to do that was to fire the Tice. McCombs only hired Tice, who had questionable head coaching credentials to begin with, because he could save some money. With the Wilfs now in charge, I think we are finally going to see some changes at Winter Park that make sense if the organization is really interested in winning a championship. And this may sound callous, but I hope all the assistant coaches under Tice get the pink slip too. Here is my list of who will probably be considered:

  1. Gregg Williams, defensive coordinator for the Redskins. It sounds like he is the top pick amongst the players.
  2. Ron Rivera, defensive coordinator for the Bears. I've heard a lot of talk about this guy being given a chance somewhere in the NFL to be a head coach. We'll see if it is the Vikings.
  3. Ted Cotrell, defensive coordinator for the Vikes. Say it ain't so. I want to fully clean house.
  4. Scott Linehan, offensive coordinator for the Dolphins. Again, his credentials aren't quite there yet, but Daunte sure would be happy. I expect the Vikings will give Linehan a shot.
  5. For the rest of the possible choices, check out this post from Mr. Cheer or Die, plus the comments.

And concerning Tice, let me just say that I think he is a top notch guy. One of his best qualities is how gracious he is in defeat, and he showed this quality off again by praising the Wilf family after he was fired. I will remember Tice, the person, fondly.

• I was also happy that the Gophers retained the services of Glen Mason. Letting Mason go would have meant rebuilding, again, for the Gophers. The Gophers cannot afford a "big name" coach to replace Mason, which would have meant hiring some kind of "no name." Retaining Mason means recruiting will continue (and Mason has done pretty well with this considering he has to recruit with the Metrodome), and it means continued respectability for Gopher football. I've said this before and I'll say it again, the Gophers will not win a Rose Bowl until they are playing on campus again. Mason is the right coach to bring them to this point.

• In case you missed it, Sid reports that this week will include a big meeting between T-Paw, the Twins, and Hennepin County concerning the shape of the latest (and greatest!) new stadium plan:

A meeting next week to include Twins officials, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat and maybe other commissioners will no doubt decide if the Hennepin County plan to build a new baseball park will be extended into next year or dropped.

At this point, it is apparent that nobody involved in the negotiations for the baseball stadium are convinced Pawlenty will stick his neck out in favor of building the stadium that not only will assure the Twins remain in the state, but result in million of dollars in labor contracts and building materials.

There is no assurance that the site in back of Target Center will be continue to be available if something constructive isn't done soon.

Count me in the group that doesn't believe Pawlenty will push to get this baseball stadium built.

Amen to that. There is no way that T-Paw sticks his neck out for this, not in a year when the Republicans will undoubtedly be fighting for their political lives. I'd like to think that Pawlenty will want to solve this problem, but right now he is in extreme politician mode as he tries to make everyone as happy as possible while really getting nothing accomplished. Meanwhile, stadiums get more and more expensive ...

• Just finished my first book of the year, Empire Falls by Richard Russo. This was a fantastic and very well written book, but I couldn't help but think that I've read it before. It was very similar in feel to Minnesota author Jon Hassler's Staggerford and Grand Opening. In fact, another Russo book I've read, Straight Man, was eerily similar to Rookery Blues by Jon Hassler. So, I dug around a bit to find out if anyone else has these same feelings, and I find that Russo is a big fan of Hassler. What does this mean for you? Probably nothing. But if you've read any Russo and you enjoyed it, I encourage you to pick up Hassler's books, especially Grand Opening.

Now I'm reading Planets by Dava Sobel. Pretty good so far, but nothing can top her writing in Longitude, the story of a clockmaker's attempts to solve the biggest maritime problem in the age of discovery.

That's about it. See you soon!

Posted by snackeru at 8:23 AM | Comments (8) | Books | Gophers | Sports | Stadiums | Vikings

Category "Books"

December 15, 2005

Best books read for 2005

The trouble with coming up with my favorite books read for the year 2005 is actually remembering what books I have read. I read between 20 - 30 books a year, but for the life of me I can't remember all of them. So, last night I spent about an hour sifting through every nook and cranny I could find that would jog my memory. I think, though, that the books I do remember should be considered my favorites of the year. I mean, if I can't remember a book it must not have been very good, right?

Like yesterday, these are my favorite books of the year; some of them came out in 2005 and some of them didn't. As always, if you have read any good books this year, let me know in the comments below. I am always on the lookout for a good read.

  1. Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
    Hands down the best of the year. I cried at the end. I'll admit it. I am not ashamed! I'm married with three kids! I've got nothing to prove to anyone! Anyway, this really is a beautiful book.
  2. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
    Man can Rowling write a good story. I love these crazy books. The finale should be spectacular.
  3. Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen
    Wow. This is the kind of book I wish I could write. Loewen brings out a side of history rarely seen in America and explains why it is important to teach it. Fascinating.
  4. Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis
    Short, sweet, and concise, this Pulitzer Prize winner is worth the read. I even wrote a review for it.
  5. Watership Down by Richard Adams
    If you haven't read this classic, it is definitely worth it. I definitely have a new appreciation for rabbits, and as a result of reading this book you all must now refer to me as Shane-rah.
  6. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
    Here is what I like about this book: it is so subtle. If Lindbergh had won the presidency in the 40s, would Jews really have been in trouble? This book makes it a very plausible scenario.
  7. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
    Every man should read Fight Club. It doesn't just remind you to think about your lot in life, in nails you in the head with a 2x4.
  8. Blink : The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell
    Fascinating book. Should we trust our first instinct more often? How can we tap into and hone our sub-conscious methods of making snap judgements? How often are they correct? Read this book to learn more.
  9. Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
    This book in on most peoples' top 10 list and deservedly so. Ever wonder what a sumo wrestler and a high school teacher have in common? Or why crack dealers still live with their moms? Or if African-American names hinder them from getting good jobs? Or why the crime rate dropped so drastically in the late 90s? Very interesting ideas in this book.
  10. God's Politics : Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It by Jim Wallis
    I can't say enough good things about this book. Not particularly liberal and definitely not conservative, Wallis examines what Jesus really tried to accomplish here on earth and presents a roadmap for social justice and peace in light of Christ's message. A wonderful piece of work.
  11. Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon
    The best description of what it is like to be autistic I have ever read. Puts Rainman to shame. Told from the perspective of an autistic boy trying to get to the bottom of a dog's supposed murder, this one is hard to put down.
  12. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
    Ever wonder what happened to all the Old World gods that no one believes in anymore? Well, they are still around and some of them are attempting to regain power. A little gruesome in sections, but also quite an imaginative story.
  13. Magic Street by Orson Scott Card
    I kid you not, this is a story about faries, specifically faries from Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night Dream and their dealings with African-American humans in a suburb of Los Angeles. I didn't think Card could pull it off, but he did.
  14. A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin
    I just finished this one and all I could think about was, "Where is Tyrion!?!?" Next year's A Dance With Dragons should be better.
  15. Omega by Jack McDevitt
    Fascinating story about first contact that kept you reading because you just knew something really cool would happen. Well, unfortunately nothing cool ever really did happen. Disappointing at the end. It did give me an idea for one of my better posts this year, though.
  16. Olympos by Dan Simmons
    Argh! After the wonder that was Ilium I expected so much more from this book. I mean, its a science fiction book about the Trojan War and Greek gods, tied in with a far-future earth where the humans are battling for their survival! So many unanswered questions...
  17. The Beach by Alex Garland
    Decent read, but a horrible movie. Sadly, my viewing of the movie even tainted what I thought of the book. Leonardo DiCaprio should be ashamed of himself.
  18. Hallowed Hunt by Lois McMaster Bujold
    Lois, please, more Miles Vorkosigan! Enough with this fantasy stuff. The Curse of Chalion was good, really good in fact, but I need to know what is happening with Miles! Please!

So, that's about it. Please let me know what your favorite books read in 2005 are! I'm going on vacation soon and I need something to read!

Posted by snackeru at 7:31 AM | Comments (15) | Books

Category "Books"

December 7, 2005

I can't believe what I'm reading

WARNING! Religious rant follows. You have been warned.

I don't know about you, but I am really, really excited to see the The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when it comes out this Friday. Well, I might not see it this Friday, but I'm pretty sure I'll see it in the theater. And since this movie is coming out soon we of course can read various reviews on what people think about the film adaptation of this beloved childrens' classic. Some reviews think it is good, some reviews think it is bad or mediocre, but most reviews discuss whether or not the movie sticks to the original story and it's overtly Christian message. Most feel it does a pretty good job of this, but at least one review I've read wishes it hadn't. And I am stunned with this.

A couple of days ago the Guardian published a piece of tripe called Narnia represents everything that is most hateful about religion. Obviously, this got my attention. A children's book represents everything that is most hateful about religion? So, I decided to take a look. The author begins by discussing how Disney is reaching out to Christian churches ala The Passion of the Christ in order to drum up business. I'm not sure what is wrong with this, in my mind that is just a smart thing to do. The author then goes on to discuss how this will backfire in Great Britain where a recent poll suggests that 43% of Britons don't know why they celebrate Easter. OK, fine. That isn't so much sad or tragic. That is just plain stupid.

But what really gets my goat about this article is the author's discussion of why exactly the Narnia books are so "hateful." Check out this masterpiece of a paragraph:

Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to? Poor child Edmund, to blame for everything, must bear the full weight of a guilt only Christians know how to inflict, with a twisted knife to the heart. ... So the resurrected Aslan gives Edmund a long, life-changing talking-to high up on the rocks out of our earshot. When the poor boy comes back down with the sacred lion's breath upon him he is transformed unrecognisably into a Stepford brother, well and truly purged.

Wait a minute. The central tenet of the Christian faith, the death and resurrection of Christ, is also its most "repugnant?" In order to take away the sins of the world Jesus laid down his life to save us all. This is repugnant? And I'm not asking you if you believe it or not, I'm asking you if you think it is repugnant. Well? When someone lays down his or her life for another we usually call that person a hero. And how does the author follow this up? What is her overwhelming comeback to the sacrifice of Jesus? "Did we ask him too?" Touche, madam! Touche! Gah! Whether you believe it or not, the gift is yours. Accept it or don't. That is called "free will." How is any of this "repugnant"?

In this paragraph the author also suggests that the guilt of Edmund is too much for a child to bear, and I'll agree that the burden of the death of Aslan would be hard to get over. Obviously, in this story the child Edmund represents Judas. But then she skirts over the more important point Lewis was trying to make concerning the grace of God. Aslan forgives Edmund! Aslan forgives the very person that betrayed him! What does this teach children, besides its religious message? How about the honor and beauty of forgiveness in general? Is this a bad message to teach our children? In viewing this scene, would your average child maybe think to him or herself, "Boy, my faults are nothing compared to getting Aslan killed, and yet Aslan still forgave him. Maybe I should be more understanding of my siblings and friends and try to forgive them when they wrong me." This might be too deep for a five year old, but the idea is still there. The author of this piece, I guess, would see this as repugnant and hateful.

The author goes on to write:

Over the years, others have had uneasy doubts about the Narnian brand of Christianity. Christ should surely be no lion (let alone with the orotund voice of Liam Neeson). He was the lamb, representing the meek of the earth, weak, poor and refusing to fight.

First of all, the Chronicles of Narnia are a story, an allegory, and they are not meant to be a complete mirror of the story of the New Testament. Lewis was also a big fan of fairy tales and other forms of mythology which he includes heavily in these stories. Secondly, the Lion in the Chronicles of Narnia did in fact humble himself, he did in fact become the "lamb" this article's author seems to crave, in laying down his life to save another. Again, I am just stunned with the stupidity of this article. Stunned but certainly not speechless.

The author ends her diatribe with this thought provoking sentiment:

Children are supposed to fall in love with the hypnotic Aslan, though he is not a character: he is pure, raw, awesome power. He is an emblem for everything an atheist objects to in religion. His divine presence is a way to avoid humans taking responsibility for everything here and now on earth, where no one is watching, no one is guiding, no one is judging and there is no other place yet to come.

Holy guacamole. It is just a children's novel with some magic, a couple of dilemmas to get through, a climax, and a hero. A powerful hero, to be sure, but I seriously doubt that anyone would suddenly come away from the book or the movie with the idea that we can now "avoid taking responsibility" in our daily lives. If that is your idea of Christianity then I can't help that, but it certainly isn't the idea the Chronicles of Narnia are trying to get across. Lewis often said that these stories were intended to introduce some aspects of Christianity to children. Quite frankly, they are just a very simple introduction. If this article's author would look past her own sterotypes of Christianity and actually look deeper than her shallow misunderstandings she would find a powerful hero that humbled himself, was born in a manger, lived a life as a carpenter first, then as a minister to the sick, poor, and helpless, teaching us all to love the Lord God with all our hearts, and love our neighbors as ourselves, before sacrificing himself for the sins of the world. Did we ask him to? No. But I don't really see how that is important.

Finally, it is very clear to me that this author dislikes the Chronicles of Narnia mainly because they are Christian. It reminds me of Christians who dislike Harry Potter books because they are about witches and wizards. If anything, this kind of article should be a powerful lesson for Christians that seek to ban books like Harry Potter because they don't agree with them. If this article's author can find so much "wrong" with one of our own classics, how far away are discussions to ban the Chronicles of Narnia? Freedom of speech, baby! It really is worth fighting for. Let's all keep in mind that these are childrens' books with heroes and villains, magic, guilt, redemption, sacrifice, and rip-roaring good stories. If you try to make them into something they are not, that is your own problem.

Posted by snackeru at 8:31 AM | Comments (19) | Books

Category "Books"

November 27, 2005


A couple of things to report: first of all, I won't be updating this here blog tomorrow (Monday) as the software that runs it (Movable Type) will be upgraded. So, don't expect much of anything.

Secondly, I didn't even watch the Vikings' game today, so I can't even speak intelligently about it. Believe me, it was not my choice to miss it; it was the choice of anti-football women at my church (including my wife) who decided to host a huge wing-ding called "Advent Workshop" at the same time as the game. Gah! It was very frustrating helping people put together little fluffy sheep ornaments made of yarn knowing that the Vikings were throughly handling the Browns. Needless to say I'll be staying up tonight to catch the Sports Wrap with Mike Tice.

So, instead of writing about that I will take a chance and write about a nifty book I chanced upon this weekend called Kokology: The Game of Self-Discovery. What an interesting book! It is not a novel like I normally read, or a self-help book. It is a book with a series of scenarios and questions that you play out, most likely with another person. Let me give you an example:

You are standing in front of a painting at an art museum, hands clasped behind your back as you try to take it in, when a total stranger comes up alongside you and says something to you.

Which of the following does the stranger say?

1. "Isn't that a beautiful picture?"
2. "What do you think of this painting?"
3. "Excuse me, do you have the time?"
4. "You know, I happen to be a painter myself."

Now, don't try to guess what the answer should be. Just go with your first instinct. It may tell you a little bit about yourself.

If you are ready to find out what your answer says about you, click the link below...

Ready for the "key"? Here it is:

When a stranger suddenly speaks to you there's always a momentary mix of apprehension and expectancy. In this imaginary scenario, the words the stranger spoke actually reflect how you might react in chance encounters and when meeting others. Your answer reveals what kind of impression you make when meeting someone for the first time.

1. "Isn't that a beautiful picture?"
Your friendly and positive nature creates a great first impression on almost everyone you meet. Your only concern should be that people may or may not take you seriously at first.

2. "What do you think of this painting?"
You're the type who likes to feel out the other person's temperament before committing to anything. People can sense that hesitancy, and it may color their reactions to you. You won't step on any toes with your cautious approach, but you may end up living on other people's terms.

3. "Excuse me, do you have the time?"
To have the world you seem like an alright sort, but to the other half you look a little strange. You create a first impression of living life at your own pace and maintaining an individuality that some would call eccentric. You don't place much value on what others may be thinking or feeling. For better or worse, therein lies the secret with you.

4. "You know, I happen to be a painter myself.
On first meeting someone you come across as a little bit nervous and overeager. Maybe you're trying too hard to be liked, but the harder you try, the worse impression you make. Don't worry so much about making people think you're great - they'll like you better if you just loosen up and relax.

Did this surprise you? It did me. I answered #2.

So, if you liked this one let me know. I'll try to put up another one tomorrow evening (after the software update).

Posted by snackeru at 8:02 PM | Comments (4) | Books

Category "Books"

Category "Boring vs. Interesting"

November 5, 2005

Boring vs. Interesting: Days 10-11

If you are here to read about Reggie Jackson's interest in the Twins and how that affects the stadium issue ... well I don't think it is worth writing about. This is probably the last we'll hear from Reggie as the Twins have made it clear that they are not for sale. So, forget about it.

Today, on this beautiful Saturday morning, I'm going to write yet another entry in my series to figure out if my life is boring vs. interesting. So far the tally is 7 interesting and 2 boring days. You'll note that after some user feedback I have changed one of my days to interesting. Here is a description of days 9 and 10.

Day 10: Den Meeting

On Thursday night I had a Cub Scout Den meeting at my house. As I've said before, I am the Den leader for my younger son's Tiger den. There are 9 boys in the den, so it can get a little crazy. For this Den meeting we worked on family scrap books and I was thrilled to see how excited the boys were to do this activity. They all brought some family pictures and for a good 20 minutes we all cut and paste pictures into little three-ring binders I bought for everyone. And, of course, I had some Star Wars and Spongebob stickers for everyone to spruce up their pages with. The boys were thrilled with that.

I also did a "fancy" demonstration of the importance of teeth brushing which I felt was especially timely given Thursday was just a few days after Halloween. At the beginning of the meeting I put a hard boiled egg into a glass of Pepsi. The boys thought that was hilarious. And I asked, "What do you think is going to happen?" One said the egg would explode, another said that the egg would float, and another said the egg would get dirty. I told them we would have to wait until the end of the meeting to find out.

At the end, I took the egg out and held it up to another hard-bolied egg. It was readily apparent that the egg in Pepsi for an hour was extremely dirty. So, I said, "How can we clean it off?" The boys all thoguht that water would easily clean off the egg so I got a bowl full of water and swished the egg around in it. Nope. Still dirty. So, then I said, "The only way this will get clean is if we brush it." I got out a tootbrush and a tube of toothpaste and I brushed the egg. They all thought that was quite funny. But it really got the point across.

So, I said to them, if you want clean teeth you can't just drink a glass of water, and you certainly can't drink a lot of pop. You've got to brush your teeth. Ha! They thought that was pretty cool. And I gotta say I was surprised with how well it worked. It was one of those activities that 20 years down the road they'll say to themselves, "You know, I don't remember much about being a Tiger scout, but I do remember Shane putting an egg into Pepsi and then brushing it like it was a tooth." That is kind of neat.

Interesting days: 8
Boring days: 2

Day 11: Maxin' and relaxin'

Last night I didn't do much of anything. And that is nice sometimes, just to vegitate a little bit. However, I didn't vegitate in front of a TV. I vegitated with a really good book. I started to read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Now usually it takes me one or two weeks to read a book, but The Kite Runner was so good, so interesting, I read it all in one night. I was reading it from about 7:00 to 12:30 because I just couldn't put it down. It isn't that action packed, but the characters, the setting, and the story were all fascinating. It is also written in a style where you can tell the author pain-stakingly chose every word for the utmost clarity and it reads almost perfectly. The Kite Runner gave me a new appreciation for Afghanistan and the heartbreak and turmoil that country has gone through, but it also demonstrates the overwhelming guilt we as humans can carry, and in this case how one person overcomes that pain.

The Kite Runner tells the story of Amir and Hassan, two boys living in Kubul. Amir is the son of a rich business man, and Hassan is the son of Amir's father's servant. Amir and Hassan grow up as best friends, but a certain horrible event shatters that friendship and sends Amir on a lifelong quest for redemption. About half way through the book, Amir and his father are forced to flee their home due to the Russian invasion. Most of the story happens in Afghanistan/Pakistan, but a lot of it also happens in America.

If you think this story is only about war and or civil/war you couldn't be further from the truth. This is a story about a wonderful culture and an area of the world I know very little about. It is also about the relationship between a father and a son, the heartbreaking relationship between two friends, and one man's efforts to make things right. "Come," one of the characters says to Amir later in his life, "There is a way to be good again."

Man! I don't mind saying I had tears in my eyes at the end of this one. What a phenomenal book. The one over-arching theme I can take away from this one is the importance of doing the right thing, even if it harms you in the process, and especially if it means taking care of the people around you, the people you love. The Kite Runner is a riveting and haunting story. I receommend it whole heartedly.

So, even though I just read a book, it was one of the best books I have read in a long time:

Interesting days: 9
Boring days: 2

Posted by snackeru at 10:09 AM | Comments (0) | Books | Boring vs. Interesting

Category "Books"

Category "Life"

Category "Stadiums"

September 16, 2005

No, I'm not dead...

I just haven't had much to say over the past couple of days. So, in honor of my lack of things to say I will now write a stream of consciousness type post of whatever pops into my head:

• The Green Day song "Jesus of Suburbia" off of American Idiot is approaching "Bohemian Rhapsody" status for me. What a phenomenal song. 9.5 minutes of pure musical genius.

• I just read the book Magic Street from Orson Scott Card. This is a very good book that reinterprets Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream by using the characters of Puck, Oberon, and Titania in a contemporary setting. Card is a master at re-examining old myths and beliefs and trying to glean the truth of them. Why did people believe in fairies so long ago? Is there an inkling of truth to these old beliefs? What would happen if fairies were still around today? I'm not sure this book answers all these questions, but they are the questions I have after reading it.

• Of course, if you want a really good book about fairies, do yourself a favor and read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Yikes, what a good book. And I know what you are thinking, "Fairies? I don't want to read a story about Tinker-bell." Ah, but there is a lot more to fairies than that. They were actually mischievous (nasty) creatures that most people tried to avoid.

• Vince and freealonzo bring up a couple of good points in the comments below concerning my favorite topic, stadiums in Minnesota. For one thing, McLaughlin's showing in the recent Minneapolis mayoral primary was not very good, and that in itself is a very good thing. McLaughlin is a Hennepin County commissioner and one of the 4 votes needed to hammer the Twins stadium through once the legislature approves it (ha!). If McLaughlin becomes mayor of Minneapolis there is no telling who will take his place and if he/she will still support the stadium initiative.

And you may not know this, but after the legislature approves the Twins stadium plan (ha!) the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners will vote again on whether or not to proceed with the plan. So, McLaughlin's vote is very important.

Secondly, the recent announcement that Best Buy will contribute $2.5 million to the Gopher's stadium drive is a very good piece of news. Of course, this adds even more pressure for Pawlenty to call a special session. The only bad thing about this announcement is that the legislature has to approve the Gopher's stadium bill before February for the Best Buy contribution to kick in. I wish they would have made it December like TCF's contribution.

And this little tidbit came out today, the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly at the U has come out against the Gopher's stadium plan since it calls for a $52 million contribution from students at the University. Luckily, the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly has about as much power as I do here at the University. In other words, their stance means nothing.

I see the chances for a special session still at 50%. Why? Why am I still so pessimistic? We are still dealing with the same old idiots in St. Paul, that's why. You know, the idiots that let the state shut down? So, le't try to keep it in perspective.

• Finally, I'm going to be on TV! I was asked to appear on the PBS/U of M show Tech Talk. The taping for the show was yesterday, and the show will be aired January 1 at 9:00 PM on channel 17 (in the TC area). Of course, the show is about blogs, a topic which people seem to think I am somewhat of an expert on.

Anyway, I am on the show for about 7 minutes and I talk about how to create a blog, how to get people to read your blog, how to search for blogs, and a little about blogging anonymity. Of course, now that I think back on the things I said I can't help but think I sound like a moron, "Me likey blogs! Blogs fun! Blogs funny word! Me say it over and over, blogs, blogs, blogs!" Gah! Oh well, if you'd like to take a peak at your's truly just tune into PBS on January 1. I guarantee a riveting performance that will rival the Gopher's appearance in the Rose Bowl (ha!).

• Nothing else pops into my head. More later...

Posted by snackeru at 9:03 AM | Comments (5) | Books | Life | Stadiums

Category "Books"

August 23, 2005

Founding Brothers

Founding Brothers
by Joseph Ellis
288 pg.

It's been a while since I've done a proper book review. My last book review was over a year ago for The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester. Great book. Truthfully, a book review takes a lot of time and thought, two things I haven't had much of ... well I guess for a year. Too many stadium related matters to write about. (ha!) Anyway, here is my review for Ellis's book Founding Brothers.

Founding Brothers is about American Revolution political figures, namely Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, John Adams, George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. The book concisely describes the early days of the American republic and how a series of remarkable events, or moments, defined what kind of nation America would turn into and how America would survive its turbulent beginning. The men (and one woman: Abigal Adams) the book focuses on were very close. They may not have been the best of friends, but they recognized each other as important political figures, yes, and also actors in what they somehow knew would be a drama that would be remembered for years to come. They somehow recognized their own importance, with some of them hamming it up for posterity and others truly epitomizing the grace with which we remember them.

The book is broken up into six chapters, all of which deal with a specific issue or moment that in hindsight can now be demonstrated to have been very important for the success of the Union. The chapers are:

"The Duel" -- I've described this chapter a little bit already, but it, of course, deals with the most famous pistol duel in the history of America between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The focus of this chapter is on how remarkable it is that this is the singular instance of politically based violence during the beginning of American statehood. What makes this unique is that other examples of revolutions in world history almost always result in the revolutionaries turning on themselves in an inevitable bloodbath. Obviously, the French Revolution comes immediately to mind.

"The Dinner" -- An interesting chapter discussing a crucial dinner party hosted by Thomas Jefferson where Alexander Hamilton and James Madison agreed to cut a deal that quite frankly may have saved the Union. To summarize, Hamilton wanted the federal government to assume all state debts from the Revolutionary War. It was his idea that this would strengthen the national government by making the states fiscally tied to it (the states would pay taxes back to the national government). His Federalist Party colleagues, those who wanted a strong national government, agreed with him. On the other side of the issue was James Madison, a Republican, who felt that a strong national government was against the very principles of the Revolution. Obviously, he was against the plan. As a compromise, Hamilton agreed to allow the nation's capital to be built on the Potomac River, as opposed to farther north, if Madison went along with his "assumption" plan. Madison conceded and the rest is history.

"The Silence" -- This chapter was one of the more troubling. Essentially, our founding fathers knew slavery was a big problem. But they also knew that doing the right thing, abolishing slavery, would tear this infant nation apart. This chapter details a debate within Congress where it was bascially decided that as a federal government we would remain silent on this issue until at least 1808. Of course, the battle lines of the Civil War were readily apparent in this debate as the South and its unecessary reliance on slave labor was stressed, while the North expressed their disgust with the institution. However, it was the North's seeming indifference to the plight of the slaves themselves that convinced them that silence on this issue for the time being was more prudent. Whoops. An interesting question could be raised: if our founding fathers had dealt with this issue back in 1787 would America be the country it is today, or would it be separate countries with their own distinct histories, one in the North and one in the South? I lean towards the latter scenario. There is no way the battered Continental Army could have kept this country together after the South started to secede, especially considering many of the soldiers came from Virginia.

"The Farewell" -- One of the most important documents in the history of the republic is Washington's Farewell address. First of all it set the precedent of a two term presidency and it clearly separated American government from a monarchy. This may seem obvious today, but Washington was so huge in his time that he very well could have let his power get to his head. Consider this statement from the author:

Throughout most of his life, Washington's physical vigor had been one of his most priceless assets. A notch below six feet four and slightly above two hundred pounds, he was a full head taller than his male contemporaries. (John Adams claimed that the reason Washington was invariably selected to lead every national effort was that he was always the tallest man in the room.) A detached description of his physical features would have made him sound like an ugly, misshaped oaf: pockmarked face, decayed teeth, oversized eye sockets, massive nose, heavy in the hips, gargantuan hands and feet. But somehow, when put together and set in motion, the full package conveyed sheer majesty. As one of his biographers put it, his body did not just occupy space; it seemed to organize the space around it. He dominated a room not just with his size, but with an almost electric presence. "He has so much martial dignity in his deportment, " observed [a contemporary], "that there is not a king in Europe but would look like a valet de chambre by his side."

The chapter goes on to list his military prowess, his almost uncanny ability to stay out of harm's way, the fact that he was hardly ever sick, etc. He was, and still is, our greatest American hero. If he had wanted, he could have been king.

The chapter also discusses other aspects of his Farewell Address, including his calls for national unity and neutrality in foreign wars. One should wonder what Washington would think of America today. Would he think this is exactly what he warned against? Or would he see the same kind of squabbles and political realities he saw in his own day? Of course, Washington's advice on neutrality has been used to oppose America entering armed conflicts for most of our history. Funny thing is it has hardly ever been heeded. Then again, Washington probably had no idea America would be the world power it is today.

The final two chapters, "The Collaborators" and the "The Friendship" really could stand on their own as an interesting treatise into the nature of political vs. normal friendships. The two chapters detail the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. The two were extremely close during the American Revolution and their dealings together in the Continental Congress. Adams was the fiery orator from the North who vociferously demanded independence from Britain. Jefferson was the quiet intellect from Virginia who, at least according to Adams, hardly ever said a word. However, in his leadership position Adams recommended that Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence, a decision that he would humorously come to regret.

Adams became the second president after narrowly defeating Jefferson. During that time, the person who came in second immediately became the vice president (a constitutional decision that thankfully has been ammended). Adams, a Federalist, offered Jefferson, a Republican, a big part in his new government. Adams felt strongly that his old friend Jefferson should be a part of his cabinet and all his decisions on the future of the country. Jefferson considered, but in the end declined and became, as vice president, the leader of the opposition to Adams's administration.

In fact, Jefferson became quite a thorn in Adams's side. At one point, Jefferson even hired a yellow journalist to dig up dirt on Adams and publish it, much to the dismay of his old friend. Adams was so angry that his close friend would do this to him that after some half-hearted attempts to patch things up, Jefferson and Adams would not talk with each other for years (1800 - 1812).

Ah, but when they did start talking again, boy did they ever talk. The Jefferson-Adams correspondence that began on Jan. 1 1812 is one of the most important set of documents we have concerning the early days of American government and political thought. And as I said above, Jefferson and Adams knew the importance of this correspondence as they poured almost everything they had into it. Unfortunately I can't find the exact number of letters each participant wrote, but I do know that Adams wrote almost 3 letters to every one letter of Jefferson.

The reasoning Ellis gives for this disparity is interesting. Adams was desperate to solidify his place in history. It literally pained him that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence because he knew that history would, as a result, remember Jefferson more than Adams. His views on this were remarkably prescient. Adams once wrote, "Was there ever a Coup de Theatre that had so great an effect as Jefferson's Penmanship of the Declaration of Independence."

The correspondence ends in an almost spooky way, with Adams and Jefferson's deaths. What is truly spooky, and quite possibly even more appropriate about their deaths, though, is that they died on the same day: July 4, 1826 and within hours of each other. Adams last words are purported to be "Thomas Jefferson still lives." Ellis points out, much to the likely dismay of Adams and other revolutionaries that may have played a bigger part in our independence, that sentiment is still true today.

So, that is Founding Brothers in a nutshell. A fascinating, and very conscise book, that discusses the early days of our great Republic. Check it out from your local public library if you are interested.

Posted by snackeru at 12:17 PM | Comments (15) | Books

Category "Books"

Category "Life"

Category "Sports"

August 12, 2005

Absolute randomness

• I'm reading a great book right now called Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis which discusses America's Founding Fathers and the impact they had on our fledgling republic. It is only 288 pages and it features short, illustrative chapters, vignettes really, concerning Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, etc. etc. Right now I'm reading an early chapter on "The Duel" between Burr and Hamilton and how, remarkably it represents the only example of political violence during the early days of our experiment in democracy. Anyway, an interesting portion of this chapter describes the rules for a duel (the code duello):

"Burr and Hamilton then met in the middle to receive their final instructions. Hamilton, again because he was the challenged party, had the choice of position. He selected upstream, or north, side, a poor choice because the morning sun and its reflection off the river would be in his face. The required ten paces between contestants put them at the extreme ends of the ledge. It was agreed that when both principals were ready, Pendleton would say, "Present"; then each man would be free to raise and fire his weapon. If one man fired before the other, the nonfirer's second would say, "One, two, three, fire." If he had not fired by the end of the count, he lost his turn. At that point, or if both parties had fired and missed, there would be a conference to decide if another round was required or if both sides agreed that the obligations of honor had been met."

Fascinating, huh? As you probably know, the rest of the story can be summarized with Burr mortally wounding Hamilton and Burr being ostracized from American life in general. Obviously, there is much more to this story than that. If you are interested I would recommend checking out Founding Brothers. Let me just close this little snippet by saying I am glad this method of resolving a dispute is now a thing of the past. Cheesehead Craig, sadly, would have alreay been killed by my deadly aim.

• Little known fact about me: I never use an alarm clock. Every morning I wake up whenever I decide I need to wake up. This is how it has always been for me. If I need to wake up at 6:00, I'll wake up at 6:00. If I need to wake up at 5:00, I'll wake up at 5:00. I don't know why, or how I developed this skill, but there you have it.

• I am absolutely fascinated by the ongoing saga of the Eagles vs. Terrell Owens. What a nightmare. On the one hand I love to see a possible stumbling block for the Vikings Super Bowl aspirations having these kinds of difficulties, but on the other hand a classy individual like Donovan McNabb does not deserve this. I agree with most other Eagles fans: T.O. must G.O. And did you catch what T.O. said about McNabb?

When Owens was asked if he could have success with McNabb, he was even more blunt, saying, "I don't think so and I'm just being honest."

Wow. Not only is T.O. a bad teammate, but he is just an idiot. Highly entertaining though.

• After reading stuff like this article about a Christian museum displaying dinosaurs and an intelligent design (ID) viewpoint and this hilarious open letter to the Kansas School Board I am this close to writing my own piece on this blog concerning ID and the theory of evolution. Of course it will deal with issues of religion, science, and history, but so far I have held back. I don't know why. Anyway, stay tuned for that (if you care).

• Well, I'll be going to the Vikings game tonight and I'll be sitting in the seats of Mr. Cheer or Die. Here is what the view from my old seats looked like. COD's seats, being on the first row, should provide me with a very interesting new perspective. I am looking forward to it. Thanks COD!

Posted by snackeru at 8:48 AM | Comments (1) | Books | Life | Sports

Category "Books"

July 27, 2005

Where have you been?

Sorry for the long absence everyone. There are only two words to describe my lack of posting: Harry Potter. Last night I finished Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and I must say that it met with my high expectations. I couldn't put it down. Every spare moment I have had over the last couple of days has been spent reading this book. So, now that I have finished, back to the grind of daily postings for the Greet Machine, I hope. Expect something around lunch.

Back to Harry Potter, though. My favorite book is still The Prisoner of Azkaban but this one is almost as good. Just a fantastic read. And without giving too much away, I don't thing everything is as cut and dry as Rowling would have us believe. The big death in Prince is HUGE, the betrayal is shocking, but I think we will see a return of the deceased in the next (and final) book in the series. Rowling has also done an excellent job of setting that book up. We know what Harry has to do and it sure looks like some daunting tasks. The final showdown with Voldemort should be a dandy.

If you've read the book(s) feel free to leave a comment below. If you haven't read them, what are you waiting for? Your public library has a bunch of copies, I'm sure, so do yourself a favor and check them out. You won't be disappointed. See you later...

Posted by snackeru at 8:28 AM | Comments (10) | Books

Category "Books"

Category "Life"

July 5, 2005

Food for thought

I'm reading a fascinating book right now called Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen. Throughout the book, Loewen decries the shoddy job American history textbooks are doing in not just teaching our students about the history of our country, but also enabling students to reach their own conclusions concerning how our past is affecting our present and future. I will be writing more about this later, but today I read this excerpt below which quite frankly blew me away in its brutal honesty.

If we consider that around the world humans owned ten times as many cars in 1990 as in 1950, no sane observer would predict that such a proportional increase could or should continue for another 40 years. Quantitatively, the average U.S. citizen consumes the same resources as ten average world citizens or twenty-five residents of India. Our continued economic development coexists in some tension with a corollary of the archetype of progress: the notion that America's cause is the cause of all humankind. Thus our economic leadership is very different than our political leadership. Politically, we can hope other nations will put in place our forms of democracy and respect for civil liberties. Economically, we can only hope other nations will never achieve our standard of living, for it they did, the earth would become a desert. Economically, we are the bane, not the hope of the world. Since the planet is finite, as we expand our economy we make it less likely that less developed nations can expand theirs.

I know this statement is in itself controversial, but what isn't controversial is how good we as Americans have it, and how much of the world's natural resources we use because of it. If everyone lived as good on average as we do, the earth would indeed become a desert. Or would it? Again, the author would have us see both sides of the issue and reach our own conclusions, but he makes this convincing argument: what harm is it if we strive towards a more sustainable model of economic growth and usage of our natural resources? If the doom and gloom prophets are right, then we have saved ourselves from destruction, but if they are wrong we have still made the earth a better place to live.

Posted by snackeru at 12:37 PM | Comments (2) | Books | Life

Category "Books"

Category "Lists"

June 27, 2005

Books I am excited to read

As you might imagine I use the library a lot. As a result I have a lot of books on hold. These are the books I am most excited to read that are in my hold list right now:

There you have it. If you know of any other books that you think I would enjoy based on this list or any of the other books I have read please let me know. I'm always on the lookout for a good read.

Posted by snackeru at 4:17 PM | Comments (5) | Books | Lists

Category "Books"

January 12, 2005

Books read since August 24, 2004

OK, enough about sports for just a little bit. I have to get this out of the way before it becomes even more impossible. One of the reasons I wanted to start a blog so long ago was to keep track of my reading. I used to do this through a site on another library server, but I gave that up when I started to keep track of the books I've read on this blog. However, the last time I wrote about the books I've read was back on August 26 so I've got some catching up to do. If you are interested, great, if not that's OK.

What follows are the books I've read since August 26, 2004 with a little blurb about them, and whether or not I enjoyed them:

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell
This was a fantastic book. One of the best books I've read in the past couple of years. Strange and Norell tells the story of two wizards in Englad that are trying to restore magic to its former glory. The book is written in a Victorian/Charles Dickens style so it is very dense. Everything is explained in excrutiating detail complete with footnotes that sometimes last for 2-3 pages. But every word was pure joy to read. Highly recommended.

Wisdom of Crowds
Another nifty book that goes against the age old addage that you shouldn't follow the crowd. In this book the author argues quite convincingly that large groups of people are almost always smarter as a whole in decisions than one or two so-called "experts." Fascinating anecdotes are sprinkled throuhgout the text making for a very short read. If you are a manager you should definitely check it out.

A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles
This is one of the few books that I have read twice. This was the second time I read it. I needed some background for my most recent Songs for a Desert Island in which I discussed "Strawberry Fields Forever." So, I read this book again. If you are at all interested in the Beatles, this is the book to start with. It is by far my favorite book on the Beatles, and I've read a lot of them.

This is a Christian science fiction book that I really wasn't expecting much out of, but in the end I really enjoyed it. It has one of the strangest beginnings to a book I've ever read. The reader is shuttled back and forth between alternate realities, one of which that is so confusing it made me stick with the book just to learn what was going on. So, it was nice to read something that unique for a change.

Circuit of Heaven
This book tells the story of a future where most of the Earth's residents have decided to upload themselves to a Matrix like reality called the "Bin" where they can live an eternal existence. The main protaganist of the story, Nemo, has decided not to enter the Bin, until he falls in love with someone already there. A stirring story of virtual romance with some profound questions of the nature of reality, Circuit of Heaven continues a string of great books from one of my new favorite authors, Dennis Danvers.

Book Nobody Read
You know, this book sounded a whole lot cooler than it actually was. The author, Owen Gingerich, decides he is going to track down all the first and second editions of Nicolas Copernicus's De Revolutionibus and look at the margin notes to try to figure out who read that particular copy and what they thought of it. The idea was that although De Revolutionibus greatly impacted the Renaissance and the Reformation, the author was under the impression that very few people read the book or understood it. For those of you that don't know, De Revolutionibus postulated that the Earth revolves around the sun. Anyway, the book was utterly boring. Only an archivist could truly appreciate it, from my standpoint.

End of Days
Sequel to the Circuit of Heaven above. Not as good as that book either, although it was still a page turner.

Time Travelers Wife
OK, I'll admit it. I cried at the end of this book. It was so touching I couldn't stop the tears from flowing. It wasn't The Notebook type tears (I cried like a baby at the end of that one) but it was enough that I had to get a tissue. The Time Travelers Wife is a unique bit of science fiction in that it certainly has time travel, but the science behind it is unimportant. The book deals with how it affects a relationship between a man and a woman, starting with when the woman is just a young girl. Very imaginative and well written. And of course, very touching. Right up there with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell for books I really enjoyed this last year.

The Elric Saga
Fantasy ... either it really works, or it doesn't. The Elric Saga tells the story of Elric of Melnibone, the albino ruler of that kingdom, and his trials and tribulations. Typical fantasy: tons of magic, an important quest, an evil arch nemesis, etc. etc. Once you've read A Game of Thrones and others in the Song of Ice and Fire series, other fantasy books just do not compare.

Anvil of Stars
Sequel to the Forge of God. In the Forge of God sinister aliens destroy the Earth and only a handful of humans escape with the help of the mysterious Benefactors. In the Anvil of Stars The Benefactors recruit child survivors to be the crew of a "Ship of the Law," a ship designed to seek out the planet destroyers and give them justice. Anvil of Stars is very similar to Ender's Game in that children are again used to seek revenge on an alien culture. And again, it takes a special kind of child to have what it takes to carry out that revenge. Overall a good book, but not nearly as good as Ender's Game. If you haven't read that one yet, do yourself a favor and do so.

American Gods
Wow. American Gods tells the story of Shadow, an ex con that gets out of prison just after his wife dies. Along the way back home he meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday who offers him a job. Shadow later learns that Wednesday is actually the old Norse god Odin, and all of his buddies are also old gods that were brought to America through immigration and slavery, but have all but been forgotten now. The book deals with how the gods are coping with being forgotten, and Wednesday's efforts to change all that and get some of his old glory back. This one took a while to get into, but in the end it was a very satisfying read. A little gruesome though. Sometimes gods demand sacrifice.

That's it for now. Hopefully I can keep up with this a little better in the new year.

Posted by snackeru at 4:36 PM | Comments (0) | Books

Category "Books"

August 26, 2004


You wouldn't think I read a lot of books based on how much I change the "What I'm reading now" section on this here blog's home page, but I actually read a fair amount. One of my goals with this blog is to keep a record of what I read so without further ado, here is what I've read recently in mini-review form:

The Engines of God
by McDevitt, Jack

I read this over while on vacation on Green Lake. The book centers around the work of space archaeologists and a mysterious alien civilization that has left huge statues around the galaxy. The closest statue, in our own solar system, is a statue of what the aliens actually look like, and they are frightening, reptile like creatures that obviously have a high level of intelligence (or they wouldn't be flying around the galaxy now would they?). So, the archaeologists in the book are both trying to figure out where these aliens are, and why they built such strange statues and monuments. Sounds intriguing, doesn't it? Unfortunately the book is somewhat boring and anti-climactic. It reminded me of the Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson. Lots of unrealized potential.

The Truth Machine
by Halperin, James L.

Ugh. Do not read this book unless you are a easily amused by small, shiny objects. A complete insult to my intelligence, this book centers around the invention of a "truth machine" that completely changes world government, peace, tranquility, blah, blah, blah. Totally unrealistic. The author also gets around his lack of ability to create plausible dialog by narrating the book as a computer. Yikes! Two weeks of my reading life down the tubes.

The Fouth World
by Danvers, Dennis.

Wow! Now this is my kind of book. This book is about a not to distant future where the Web completely controls people's lives. People don't even go outside or travel anymore since they can experience everything through the Web. Unfortunately there are still the "have-nots" and The Fourth World mainly takes place in Mexico and focuses on the plight of the poverty sticken lower class of that society and the Zapatistas. For those of you without knowledge of this group of people, the Zapatistas are a revolutionary group in Mexico seeking to overthrow the "corrupt" Mexican government in their area of Chiapas. Forgive me if I am making things too simplistic. Anyway, unabashedly leftist in his philosophy the author makes a convincing case for the Zapatistas and their plight. The ending features space stations and Mars and nanotechnology and all sorts of intrigue. Well written and hard to put down.

Get Up Off Your Knees
by Raewynne J. Whiteley, Beth Maynard

I've already talked about this book a little bit, but let me just say again what a wonderful, thought provoking read this was. Full of wonderful sermons on social justice, salvation, and grace I actually found myself reading and rereading some of the passages. Great stuff. One of the chapters began with this passage from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers which I will leave you with now. I was struck by its beauty:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, 'Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?' then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, 'If you will, you can become all flame.'

Posted by snackeru at 8:00 AM | Comments (0) | Books

Category "Books"

June 24, 2004

The Meaning of Everything

What I'm reading The Meaning of Everything
by Simon Winchester
260 pg.
Have you ever wondered what it is like to write a dictionary, or to actually define the words in a dictionary? If you think about it for even a little while you realize that it is a very difficult task. Just imagine writing a definition (and etymology!) for the word "at," or "set," or "aardvark." The Meaning of Everything takes the reader into the fascinating world of defining words through a dictionary, and not just any dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary. In 1857 Richard Trench, Dean of Westminster and Archbishop of Dublin, presented a paper to the Philological Society of London entitled "On Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries." In this paper Trench recommended that "there shoud be constructed now a wholly new dictionary that would give, in essence and in fact, the meaning of everything." It was his recommendation that a dictionary should be written that contained every word, both new and obsolete, ever used in the English language. 71 years, 12 volumes, and 414,825 words later (from A to Zyxt) this goal would finally be attained.

The first editor of "the Dictionary" was Herbert Coleridge who began work on the project in 1860. He was a sickly man who died a year later of "consumption" but not before setting up some of the original rules for the dictionary's creation. Coleridge's plan was to have volunteers from all over the world read books, newspapers, magazines, and send in possible words for inclusion to the dictionary to his office in the form of "quotation slips." He would then file these slips into a suite pigeon holes he had constructed: 54 holes to be exact with 260 inches of linear space. Coleridge thought that this would be sufficient to hold between 60,000 and 100,000 slips. He was purported to have remarked that when all the holes were filled editorial work (actually defining the words) on the dictionary would begin. Obviously he was a little off.

The next editor, Frederick Furnivall, plays a small part in the story and only because he is an oddly entertaining character who had a great deal of energy but in the end didn't really accomplish anything on the dictionary. Realizing that he was hopelessly bad at running the project, the Philological Society sought yet another editor, but this time hired the man who would actually write the lion's share of the dictionary, James A. Murray.

Murray was a stud, there is no getting around it. He worked tirelessly on the dictionary for 36 years, from 1879 to 1915, succumbing to prostate cancer probably after finishing the word twentieth. Can you imagine defining literally hundreds of thousands of words for 36 years? Just thinking about it makes me a little crazy. Upon receiving the job of editor Murray put up an ugly building in his backyard he called the Scriptorium. In it he built another suite of pigeon holes, this time numbering 1,029.

I can't properly imagine the enourmous amount of work that James Murray had to perform on a daily basis. First he had to sift through the scads of quotation slips he would receive on a daily basis. Then he would have to write letters (many, many letters) all by hand to try reach an expert about the meaning of a problematic word. Check out what he once said was a typical day of letter writing:

"I write to the Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew about the first record of the name of an exotic plant; to a quay side merchant in Newcastle about the Keels on the Tyne; to a Jesuit father on a point of Roman Catholic Divinity; to the Secretary of the Astronomical Society about the primum-mobile or the solar constant; to the Editor of The Times about a letter of the year 1620 containing the first mention of Punch [the beverage]; to a Weslyan minister about the itineracy; to Lord Tennyson to ask where he got the word balm-cricket and what he meant by it; to the Sporting News about a term in horse-racing..."

And he goes on for another half a page. That is a typical day! On top of this letter writing he actually defined words. Of course he didn't do all of this work alone. He had numerous assistants and sub-editors, and ample help from his family (he had 11 children!). One of the more humorous parts of the book describes some difficulty he had with the word black and a rather lacking assistant:
"Murray blamed much of the enormous difficulties involved in dealing with specific words - such as the 'terrible' word black, and its scores of derivatives, which took his best assistant, the Revd C.B. Mount, fully three months of non-stop work [three months!]. As if the lexicographic trials were not enough, there was always the 'intolerable trouble about assistants'. Murray said that he kept trying to recruit suitable people, but found in almost every case that after each had worked no more than a week, that he or she (usually he) was completely useless. One of them, despite having an Oxford MA, was found to be, in Murray's uncharacteristically dyspeptic report, 'an utter numbskull .. a most lack-a-daisical, graspless fellow, born to stare at existence.'"

"Born to stare at existence" ... I love that. Pretty much describes Packer fans, don't you think? Check out how he finally defined black:
"The proper word for a certain quality practically classed among colours, but consisting optically in the total absence of color, due to the absence or total absorption of light, as its opposite white arises from the reflection of all the rays of light."

Imagine defining words like this every day for 36 years. It would take me about a week to go absolutely stark-raving mad.

Murray died in 1915, but the dictionary wasn't completed until 1928, again 71 years after it was dreamed up. And, as I'm sure you know, the trouble with something like a dictionary is that it is never finished. Every year, the OED has to add new words to the English lexicon. Shortly after the OED was finished in 1928 a supplement came out, with four supplements being added from 1972 to 1986, all of which added over 50,000 more words. In 1989 the 2nd edition of the OED came out which combined all of these supplements and now includes 615,000 words (the bulk of which is still defined by Murray). This is still the print edition we find in libraries today (of course the online version is the most up to date). Work on the 3rd edition is ongoing and they hope to complete it sometime after 2010.

You would think that a book about the creation of a dictionary would be the cure for insomnia, but The Meaning of Everything is really a fascinating book. And I haven't done it any justice with my meager scribblings above. Go out and check it out from you local library and read it if you are interested. I'll be returning it to the U of M Libraries tomorrow!

Posted by snackeru at 7:34 AM | Comments (3) | Books

Category "Books"

June 1, 2004

Gates of Fire

What I'm reading Gates of Fire
by Steven Pressfield
386 pg.

I work on the second floor of Wilson Library at the University of Minnesota. Right outside my office space door are thousands of books covering all sorts of topics from history, to fiction, to science fiction. Needless to say, I spend a fair amount of time during my breaks and lunch time walking through "the stacks" for good books to read. It is one of the many perks of working at a library and I walk through the rows as much as I can. Anyway, while browsing the collection I happened across this book, Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield (Legend of Bagger Vance). Gates of Fire is an epic novel about the Spartans and their heroic stand during the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. During this battle a small number of Greek forces held a narrow pass called the "Hot Gates" for two days against the Persian advance until defeat looked inevitable. The Spartan king Leonidas told everyone to retreat save 300 Spartan warriors who valliantly held the pass for as long as they could, fighting with their bare hands and teeth to the bitter end, until everyone was killed. This stand allowed the safe retreat of the rest of the Greek army and is considered one of the more heroic moments in military history. Today an ancient monument still stands at the site, an unadorned stone with the inscription, "Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here obedient to their laws we lie."

As far as books go, this one was hard to put down. With epic novels it is always difficult to deduce how much liberty the author is taking with the actual story, but for me it didn't really matter. I loved the majesty and heroism of the Spartans. I lapped it all up and begged for more. What a fascinating people. Most of what we know about the Spartans is ... well .. pretty spartan, but what we do know demonstrates a very brave and courageous people who shunned art and literature in favor of war. Gates of Fire begins with this quote from the Greek historian Herodotus who wrote about the battle of Thermopylae:

"Although extraordinary valor was displayed by the entire corps of Spartans and Thespaians, yet bravest of all was declared the Spartan Dienekes. It is said that on the eve of battle, he was told by a native of Trachis that the Persian archers were so numerous that, when they fired their volleys, the mass of arrows blocked out the sun. Dienekes, however, undaunted by this prospect, remarked with a laugh, 'Good. Then we'll have our battle in the shade.'"

Dienekes features prominently in Gates of Fire but the story itself is mainly told from the viewpoint of Xeo, Dienekes' squire and the lone survivor of the battle. According to the book Xeo was saved by the royal surgeons of Xerxes, the Persian emperor, so that Xerxes could hear more about the Spartans and the secrets of their military prowess. Xeo begins with the story of his own childhood and eventually moves into the infamous training of Spartan boys as warriors. These sections were so unbelievable it prompted me to do a little research of my own on this training. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica (forgive the length):

"The Spartan government was founded on the principle that the life of every individual, from the moment of birth, belonged absolutely to the state. The elders of the city-state inspected the newborn infants and ordered the weak and unhealthy ones to be carried to a nearby chasm and left to die. By this practice Sparta hoped to ensure that only those who were physically fit would survive.

The children who were allowed to live were brought up under a severe discipline. At the age of 7, boys were removed from their parents' control and organized into small bands. The strongest and most courageous youths were made captains. The boys slept in dormitories on hard beds of rushes. They ate black broth and other coarse food. They wore the simplest and scantiest clothing. Unlike the boys of Athens, they spent little time learning music and literature. Instead they were drilled each day in gymnastics and military exercises. They were taught that retreat or surrender in battle was disgraceful. They learned to endure pain and hardship without complaint and to obey orders absolutely and without question.

They were allowed to feel the pinch of hunger and were encouraged to supplement their fare by pilfering food for themselves. This was not done to cultivate dishonesty but to develop shrewdness and enterprise. If they were caught, they were whipped for their awkwardness. It is said that a Spartan boy, who had stolen a young fox for his dinner, allowed the animal he had hidden under his cloak to gnaw out his vitals rather than betray his theft by crying out. Girls were educated in classes under a similar system, but with less rigor.

Discipline grew even more rigorous when the boys reached manhood. All male Spartan citizens between the ages of 20 and 60 served in the army and, though allowed to marry, they had to belong to a men's dining club and eat and sleep in the public barracks. They were forbidden to possess gold and silver, and their money consisted only of iron bars. War songs were their only music, and their literary education was slight. No luxury was allowed, even in the use of words. They spoke shortly and to the point�in the manner that has come to be called laconic, from Laconia, the district of which Sparta was a part. "

Fascinating isn't it? Really, the entire book Gates of Fire is a primer on Spartan culture and discipline. And if the book is even half true the Spartans were the biggest bunch of bad-asses that ever walked the Earth. Honesty, bravery, reverance, strength, speed, endurance, obedience, and leadership, it seems, were all traits of the Spartans. While Gates of Fire attempts to cover all aspects of Spartan life, the battle of Thermopylae is probably over 25% of the book, and it is a credit to the author that he found so many different ways to describe war and valor. In particular, Pressfield features Leonidas in a series of speeches to the remaining warriors who vowed to give up their lives to defend the pass:

"They will come, scholars perhaps, or travelers from beyond the sea, prompted by curiosity regarding the past or appetitie for knowledge of the ancients. They will peer out across our plain and probe among the stone and rubble of our nation. What will they learn of us? Their shovels will unearth neither brilliant palaces nor temples; their picks will prise forth no everlasting architecture or art. What will remain of the Spartans? Not monuments of marble or bronze, but this, what we do here today... Now eat a good breakfast, men. For we'll all be sharing dinner in hell."

If you found all the speeches and battle scences of Return of the King boring and anti-climactic then this is not the book for you. However, if you want something that is based on a true story and is really very awe inpspiring, then you might want to check this book out.

So, back to the stacks I go, looking for my next book. I hope it will be as good as Gates of Fire.

Posted by snackeru at 9:55 PM | Comments (1) | Books

Category "Books"

May 18, 2004

Need a book to read

If you are a regular reader of the Greet Machine, you'll notice that my "What I'm Reading" section to the right hasn't changed in quite a while. I actually finished The Tale of Despereaux about three weeks ago. If you want to know, it was a very good book. I actually love reading children's books. The Tale of Despereaux actually won the Newberry award for best children's book and is written by a Minneapolis author, Kate DiCamillo. I don't know if you've read a children's book for a while but they are usually well written and very easy to understand. In the case of The Tale of Despereaux the reader can immediately tell that every sentence has been expertly crafted, every word selected for the utmost clarity. It really is a joy to read something you know someone has worked so hard on. I am of the opinion that children's books must be one of the hardest kind of book to write, because really you've got to impress both the child and the parent or guardian that will ultimately purchase the book. That can be a tall order. Anyway, The Tale of Despereaux is a wonderful book. I recommend it whole heartedly. It is very thought provoking and should generate some good discussion between you and your child.

You'll also notice that the title of this post is "Need a book to read." I know it is probably odd for a librarian to ask for advice on what to read next, but I am doing just that. If you have read any good books lately please let me know, especially some of you readers that maybe have never commented before. We all read, and we've all read a good book at some point in our lives. Please let me know what you think are some really good books. To get the ball rolling, I'll list some books I've read recently that I've enjoyed:

So there you have it. I enjoy all types of books, but if it's fiction I really enjoy a good scifi novel. If you've got any suggestions, please let me know!

Posted by snackeru at 8:58 AM | Comments (6) | Books

Category "Books"

May 1, 2004

The Watch

The Watch The Watch by Dennis Danvers
Science Fiction
New York : Eos, c2002.
356 p

Lest anyone think that all I care about is stadiums, I thought it might be a good idea to start writing more about other topics. I read a fair amount of books so I hope to give some reviews of the books I read periodically on this blog. Most of the reviews will be for books I liked since I usually can't get through a book if I don't like it, and I only review books that I finish. Enough about that, though, and on to the book.

The Watch is one of the best and most imaginative books I've read in a while. It is the type of book I wish I could write. The book centers around the adventures of Peter Kropotkin, an actual figure in history known as the "Anarchist Prince" and a person who believed, well, that anarchy should be our preferred method of government (or lack of government as the case may be). Anarchy is usually thought of as utter chaos and as something that is somewhat evil, but Kropotkin actually believed that through anarchy private property and unequal incomes would be replaced by the free distribution of goods and services on an "as needed" basis. Kropotkin's masterpiece, Mutual Aid, actually demonstrates through a wide variety of proof that the animal world is dominated by a sense of cooperation rather than "survival of the fittest" and that humans are no exception. He argues that throughout history man has sought to help his fellow man in his own community more often than not whether it be primitive tribe, peasant village, or medieval commune and that this "mutual aid" has extended into the common era through trade unions, learned societies, the Red Cross and other like organizations. He argues that "(t)he trend of modern history ... was pointing back toward decentralized, nonpolitical, cooperative societies in which people could develop their creative faculties without interference from rulers, clerics, or soldiers." Essentially people can rule themselves in small groups more effectively than any large government. ( "Kropotkin, Peter Alekseyevich" Encyclopdia Britannica from Encyclopdia Britannica Online. )

Cool. That is what I love about books like this. I had never heard of Kropotkin, but through this book I now have a better understanding of anarchist principles and thought. Anyway, this book starts with the death of Kropotkin. On his death bed he is visited by a man from the future, Anchee, who offers him a chance to live as a young man in 1999 Richmond, Virginia. Kropotkin takes his offer and begins to live his 1999 life. The character of Kropotikin, as realized by the author, is one of the most fascinating characters I have ever read about. I absolutely loved him. His convictions, attitudes about life, interactions with other people, they were all priceless and provided ample food for thought. Kropotkin believes he is free to make his own choices in his new life but he soon finds out that his benefactor, Anchee, is subtly pulling the strings and moving Kropotkin along to some unknown fate. Kropotkin is very upset about this, but knowing there is little he can do about it he decides grudgingly to play along, giving Anchee an earful every time he sees him. Eventually Kropotkin finds out what Anchee has in store for him and must decide whether or not to live the life (really the dream) Anchee has provided for him or live a life where he is in complete control, even though that life may not be as pleasant or fulfilling.

This is merely my own weak understanding of the book. There was so much more to the story, with Kropotkin's own philosophies of social justice and prison reform taking center stage. What I got from it were these philosophies, plus some wonderful musings on the concepts of predestination and free will. Why do we tolerate the suffering of our neighbors? Why do we fret and point and wish the government could do more when the answer sometimes lies with the fact that we need to do more in our own communities? Why are we so lazy and selfish? Sadly I am no exception. Anyway, it was a great book. Pick it up if you want a little jolt of shame and a desire to do more.

Posted by snackeru at 10:23 PM | Comments (1) | Books

Category "Books"

April 24, 2004

Luther the Reformer

Luther Luther the Reformer
by James M. Kittelson
334 pages

Being a Lutheran myself, I felt it was high time that I learned more about the man whose name appears on the majority of churches in Minnesota. Martin Luther is a fascinating man whose ideas truly reformed the entire Christian church. Beliefs that we take for granted today, such as justification by faith and the amazing grace of God, Luther struggled to come to grips with given the stifling doctrine of the Catholic church of the time. Throughout his life as a monk, a professor, and later as the leader of the church in Germany, Luther shaped his philosophy as a reaction to the problems he saw with the faith of his day. Remarkably, Luther's central beliefs of the justification of faith and the grace of God are for the most part the same beliefs most Lutherans, and most Protestants in general, hold dear today. However, Luther also proved to be somewhat arrogrant, intractable, and inflexible when it came to many matters of faith, which was ironic given his stance towards the belief of his day in the infallability of the pope. If anyone disagreed with Luther concerning matters of faith, even if it was a close friend, Luther rarely hesitated to label that person a "tool of Satan." Read more of the review by clicking on the link below if you are interested!

Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben. Throughout his life Luther's father valued his son's education and ultimately wanted Luther to become a lawyer. Story has it, though, that Luther was traveling when he was caught in a violent storm. Fearing for his life Luther vowed to devote his life to God if he survived. Shortly thereafter, Luther told his father the news and entered an Augustinian monastery. While there Luther learned and practiced the faith of the day which held that people retained a small amount of faith after the fall, but that it had to be augmented by the sacraments and "good works" to ensure salvation. One of the sacraments in particular, confession of one's sins to a priest, began to trouble Luther a great deal. The act of confession caused Luther an inordinate amount of grief since as a monk his lack of sins forced him to look deep into every aspect of his life for wrongdoing. Through this process he became utterly depsondent and began to question whether he was doing enough of the Mass, enough of the sacraments, enough penance to guarantee his place in heaven. Luther also discovered a paradox of sorts in that the more that he focused on himself and his attempts to make himself right in the eyes of God, the more truly selfish he became and the further he moved away from the kingdom of heaven. As Kittelson writes, "Just when they thought they were being most spiritual, human beings sought themselves and their own advantage." Luther was beginning to realize there was nothing humans could do to please God enough to warrant salvation.

This would probably be enough to drive anyone over the edge, but especially a Catholic monk. However, it is at this point that Luther began to fully understand the wonder of God's grace. Through the letters of Paul, especially the letter to the Romans, Luther began to understand that man lives in a constant state of sin, and that there is nothing we can do about it. No amount of good deeds, no amount of sacraments would change this fact. The wonder of it is that God through his wisdom, righteousness, and grace forgives us our sins through our faith and our faith alone. This is an important concept: God's grace requires nothing but our faith and belief in Jesus. As Kittelson writes:

"Good deeds (in particualr, acts of love for one's neighbor) were part of this life, but neither they nor special spiritual exercises added anything to faith, which was created and constantly refreshed by the Word. Consequently, those who were truly faithful were not in a state of loving God, but rather of being loved by God. All they required was the Word."

Therefore Christians live in the faith of salvation, the hope of eternal life, and the love of God. It is a journey that is always beginning and never reaching its goal ("I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" by U2 comes to mind) since, according to Luther, faith takes daily dilligence. However, it makes much more sense than performing an infinite number of good works with no guarantee of the grace of God. Luther said, "The law says 'Do this!' and it is never done. Grace says, 'Believe in this man!' and immediately everything is done." All we have to do is believe in Jesus and we are guaranteed salvation.

Needless to say, this idea of "justification through faith" as it became to be called was revolutionary. It would also get Luther into a fair amount of trouble. At this time the church in Rome was building St. Peter and needed extra funds to make this happen. The pope sent out salesmen of sorts to sell indulgences among the populace to raise the needed money. Indulgences could be purchased by the laity to shorten the amount of time a deceased relative had to stay in purgatory (only souls free from sin could enter heaven which made purgatory necessary to cleanse those souls). Johann Tetzel, the most famous of the indulgence salesmen, is often quoted as saying, "Once a coin into the coffer clings, a sould from purgatory heavenward springs!" Eventually, Tetzel made his way to Germany, and the rest as they say, is history. Given his new understanding of justification by faith, Luther dilligently wrote his arguments concerning the sale of indulgences and tacked them on the door of the Wittenberg church as the "95 Theses." Again, according to Luther there was no amount of money, no amount of good works, that could guarantee our place in heaven, let alone that of a relative. Faith and faith alone is all that matters.

This quickly snowballed and Luther was forced to defend himself to the church leadership of the time. Not only was Luther questioning the sale of indulgences, but ultimately he was questioning the infallability of the pope himself, who had declared the sale and purchase of indulgences to be both godly and necessary. As you might imagine, this could get a guy burned at the stake! However, Luther skillfully defended himself at public debates and through many, many published works until eventually he was declared an outlaw by the church and the Holy Roman Empire. Thankfully, the German princes where he lived at the time protected him until his death.

That is the first half of the book. And it is fascinating. The second half, however, painted a somewhat different picture of Luther and has me convinced that he would be seriously ticked off at most of the churches that bear his name today. For one thing, Luther believed passionately in transubstantiation, or the miracle of the bread and wine turning into the body and blood of Christ. If you did not agree with him you were a "tool of Satan." Luther also did not believe in the free will of man, at least in the way it was taught during the time (for more info on this see this web page). If you disagreed with him you were a "tool of Satan." According to Kittelson Luther was a master name caller and would have a coarse nickname ready for anyone who disputed his teachings or, in his mind, did anything to detract from the gospel. In fact, Luther had little mercy for anyone who rejected the gospel as he saw it. Unfortunately this included the Jews of the area who were told to leave, sometimes based on Luther's own teachings and publications. On top of all of this, however, Luther kept his utmost vindictiveness for the pope. Luther had a very special dislike for the pope.

This did not happen suddenly, but over the course of the second half of his life Luther began to despise the papacy and all it stood for. Of course, the papacy reciprocated this dislike back at Luther. Later in his life Luther was said to have remarked at the table, "It is enough. I have worked myself to death. For one person, I have done enough. I'll go lie down in the sand and sleep now. It is over for me, except for just an occasional little whack at the pope." And whack he did. In 1545 he wrote Against the Papacy at Rome, Founded by the Devil in which Luther referred to the pope as:

"... the head of the damned church of the very worst knaves on earth; vicar of the devil; an enemy of God; an opponent of Christ; and a destroyer of the church of Christ; a teacher of all lies, blasphemy, and idolatries; an archthief of the church and robber of the keys ... a murderer of kings and inciter of all sorts of bloodshed; a brothel-keeper above all brothel-keepers and all lewdness, including what cannot be named; an antichrist; a man of sin and a child of perdition; a genuine werewolf."

Luther died in 1546. During his life he did more to shake up the church and ultimately reform it than any man since St. Paul. I've often joked with my in-laws, who are Catholic, that Luther should be canonized by the church due to the good he did for it, although the church certainly didn't think it was very good at the time. He certainly had his faults, especially his belief in the infallability of his own teachings and his lack of mercy towards the Jews. But more than any other man of his time, his teachings form the basis for our beliefs today concerning the grace of God and justification by faith alone. His own sins, however, certainly demonstrate his belief in the sinfulness of man and the necessity of God's grace on a daily basis.

So, that is Luther: the Reformer as I saw it. It was a great book and one I would recommend whole heartedly. It is concise, well written, and easy to understand. Check it out from your local public library today

Posted by snackeru at 10:22 PM | Comments (0) | Books

Category "Books"

April 21, 2004

Broken Windows

One of the best books I've read in a long time has been The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. In this book Gladwell argues that social epidemics, like the sudden popularity of a local restaurant or a dramatic decrease in crime for a city, are usually caused by little things or occurences that build up until they reach the "tipping point." Gladwell uses all sorts of examples from the midnight ride of Paul Revere to Sesame Street to the anti-smoking campaign for teenagers to demonstrate how little things can indeed make a big difference.

His best example, however, centered around crime in New York City. In the 80s, NYC was riddled with crime. Gladwell tells the story of Bernard Goetz, the Subway Vigilante, and how he ruthlessly gunned down 4 men who he says tried to rob him on the subway in 1984. People in New York were sick of the crime and living in fear, and Gladwell uses the story of Goetz to illustrate that things were particularly bad on the subway. Gladwell writes:

"Every one of the 6,000 cars on the Transit Authority fleet, with the exception of the Midtown shuttle, was covered with graffiti. In winter, the cars were cold; in summer, there was no air conditioning. Fare-beating was so commonplace that the Transit Authority lost $150 million annually. From 15,000 to 20,000 felonies were committed on the trains every year."

And yet suddenly towards the late 80s and early 90s, crime in NYC dropped dramatically on the subways. You may think this was due to a massive police crackdown on violent crime, or the arrests of some big name criminals. Of course, it was much simpler than this: NYC decided to start keeping the subways free of graffiti and the police started focusing on stopping fare jumping. The local transit authority began reclaiming subway cars by fixing them up and painting over all the graffiti. Gladwell tells the humorous story of how graffiti artists would spend days painting a subway car only to painfully watch the car immediately be whitewashed. And once a car was reclaimed the transit authority never let it get any graffiti on it again. The chief of the transit police got in on the act by arresting fare jumpers instead of focusing on felonies. These seemingly little acts had a remarkable effect because they signaled a sense of caring rather than apathy. Since would be criminals could see that someone cared about the environment around them, they were less likely to commit a crime. This is what is known as the "Broken Windows" theory. Gladwell writes:

Broken Windows was the brainchild of the criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. Wilson and Kelling argued that crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes.

Amazing in its simplicity, isn't it? And it is equally amazing how one can use the "Broken Windows" theory in every day life. Take my house and family, for example. As is typical, my kids' rooms are a complete mess most of the time. Clothes on the floor, beds unmade, homework scattered everywhere. When I look at this of course I cringe, but it forces me to look at my own habits. How does my own room look? Do we keep the entire house as clean as it should be? What kind of message am I unknowingly sending to my own kids about the standards of home cleanliness? Needless to say, I could do better.

I also see examples of the "broken windows" theory on college campuses. I have spent time at 4 colleges throughout my undergraduate, graduate, and work life. Before I read The Tipping Point I have always thought that you could tell how much pride students have in their respective college by the amount of graffiti you find in bathroom stalls on campus. I know, it sounds silly, but the "broken windows" theory has convinced me I am on to something. Take for instance my first college, Concordia College in Moorhead, MN. Not a speck of graffiti anywhere, from what I remember. Alumni from Concordia College also are very proud of their college. It is almost sickening, to tell you the truth. CC alumni are some of the only people you will see wear their college rings! I then transferred to Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD (love will make you do crazy things) and found that the bathrooms there were covered with graffiti. Not surprisingly, to me at least, I also found more of a sense of apathy on campus there.

How about the mighty U of M then? This place is so big that it is difficult to take a completely accurate measurement, but so far I've been impressed. I spend most of my time in Wilson Library and the bathrooms here are clean. You may see some graffiti every now and again, but it is quickly washed away. I also think students here have a lot of pride in their school. Now, I realize you can't totally rank school pride on bathroom cleanliness, but it is certainly one of those little things that can help a person make a measurement.

How about you and your alma mater? What do you remember about the cleanliness of the public facilities? Do you think it had a impact on your school pride and/or apathy?

Posted by snackeru at 4:47 PM | Comments (2) | Books

Category "Books"

April 15, 2004

A Short History of Nearly Everything

What I'm reading A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
New York : Broadway Books, 2003.
544 pg.

I've already commented on this book before, but now that I've finished with it, I've got to give a proper review for it. What a great book. Right now all 55 copies of this book are on hold at the Hennepin County Public Library which is a testament to what a popular book this is. The title A Short History of Nearly Everything is actually a rather poor title for the book since it is really a short history of scientific discovery. Bryson has this to say in the introduction concerning why he wrote the book:

"I didn't know what a proton was, or a protein, didn't know a quark from a quasar, didn't understand how geologists could look at a layer of rock on a canyon wall and tell you how old it was, didn't know anything really. I became gripped by a quite, unwonted urge to know a little about these matters and to understand how people figured them out."

And that is what he has done, he has taken everything from the beginning of the universe to the advent of man and tried to explain it all in a way that you and I can understand. And he's done a find job of it. I can't really do the book justice in this little piece since it really touches upon everything. Did you know that Yellowstone National Park is actually one huge volcano? Or that Manson, Iowa is actually the site of a huge asteroid impact that would dwarf the Grand Canyon if millions of years of passing ice sheets hadn't smoothed it over? Or how about this:

"[Y]our mattress is home to perhaps two million microscopic mites, which come out in the wee hours to sup on your sebaceous oils and feast on all those lovely, crunchy flakes of skin that you shed as you doze and toss. Your pillow alone may be home to forty thousand of them...Indeed, if your pillow is six years old - which is apparently about the average age for a pillow - it has been estimated that one-tenth of its weight will be make up of 'sloughed skin, living mites, dead mites, and mite dung.'"

Isn't that awesome? This book is full of stuff like this. It was fascinating, disgusting, awe inspiring, and just plain fun. This book covers the solar system, cells, taxonomy, Einstein, dinosaurs, asteroids, Java Man, DNA, and much, much more. Do yourself a favor and check it out from your local public library.

Posted by snackeru at 10:20 PM | Comments (0) | Books

Category "Books"

April 13, 2004

The Elegant Universe: an excerpt

I'm reading a pretty cool book right now called The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, and I must say it is a mind bender. In this book Mr. Greene tries to explain a relatively new theory called "string theory" which may, or may not, be the famed Theory of Everything that Einstein spent the last 35 years of his life trying to figure out. I'm not very far into the book, but in the beginning Greene spends a fair amount of time trying to explain the theories that string theory is trying to add upon. One of those is Einstein's special theory of relativity (not to be confused with the general theory of relativity). This is the theory that science fiction writers love. It is where we get the idea that someone travelling at the speed of light will come back younger than the people he left behind. It is so mind boggling, as Green says "Special relativity is not in our bones -- we do not feel it."

It is very difficult to understand how speed of motion can affect time since we never really move that fast. However, that doesn't mean that time isn't affected. Take this example from the book:

"To get a sense of the scales involved, imagine the year is 1970 and big, fast cars are in. Slim ... goes with his brother Jim to the local drag strip to give [a new Trans Am] the kind of test drive forbidden by the dealer. After revving up the car, Slim streaks down the the mile-long strip at 120 miles per hour while Jim stands on the sideline and times him. Wanting an independent confirmation, Slim also uses a stopwatch to determine how long it takes his new car to traverse the track. Prior to Einstein's work, no one would have questioned that if both Slim and Jim have properly functioning stopwatches, each will measure the identical elapsed time. But according to special relativity, while Jim will measure an elapsed time of 30 seconds, Slim's stopwatch will record an elapsed time of 29.99999999999952 seconds -- a tiny bit less."

Holy guacamole! That boggles the mind! But it doesn't stop there, special relativity contends that speed will also affect measurements of length. If Slim was to travel at 580 million miles an hour (about 87% the speed of light) "the mathematics of special relativity predicts that Jim would measure the length of the car to be about eight feet, which is substantially different from Slim's measurement [of 16 feet, since his measurement will be relative to the fact that he is also traveling 580 million miles an hour].

So, how is that for a good morning for ya? Like I said, I am only a couple of chapters in, and I don't feel very confident that string theory will make any more sense to me than special relativity. You can never stop learning though. I will continue to claw my way out of the abyss of ignorance.

Posted by snackeru at 10:14 PM | Comments (0) | Books

Category "Books"

April 8, 2004

Ilium by Dan Simmons

by Dan Simmons
Science Fiction
576 pages

I know it is probably sacrilege to say this, but I did not like Simmons' Hyperion. Almost everyone who reads science fiction has read Hyperion at some point, and almost everyone loves it. I did not like it. For this reason I have hesitated to pick up Simmons' other books. But no longer. I thouroughly enjoyed Ilium. In fact, I found it difficult to put down.

Ilium tells three stories. One is of a future earth where the inhabitants live like the eloi of The Time Machine, oblivious to the dangers that await them. They dream of becoming a "post-human" which is a future race of man that left Earth for the stars many years ago. That story was OK. Another story is about a group of robot/organic like creatures that have been sent from the moons of Jupiter to investigate (and possibly destroy) whatever is producing dangerous levels of quantum flux coming from the planet Mars. That story is OK. The rest of the book is filled with the story of Homer's Iliad, only it is told in from a science fiction point of view, and it is very cool.

Thomas Hockenberry is a "scholic," or a scholar specializing in Homer's famous book that has been raised from the dead by the gods residing on Olympos Mons on Mars. I know what you are thinking, just stay with me. The gods are the same gods we all learned about in school: Apollo, Athena, Ares, Aphrodite, and of course Zeus, plus a myriad of others. The gods teleport back and forth from Troy (or Ilium) to Olympos Mons to influence the Trojan War and report to Zeus on how it is progressing. Hockenberry also reports on the battle, and how closely it stays true to Homer's telling, but he reports to a Muse. One day the Muse tells him that Aphrodite wants to see him. This is highly unusual. Aphrodite tells him that she wants him to kill Athena, and she gives him a bunch of fancy tools to allow him to spy on her and actual perform the dirty deed. One is a QT device which allows him to teleport himself anywhere in space and time, and another is Hades Helmet, which will make him invisible to both humans and gods (except Aprhodite). As you might imagine, Hockenberry decides early on to start using these tools for his own purposes, and the story of the Iliad drastically changes as a result. And it is so very cool how it changes.

The three stories come together at the end. But again, the story of the gods and heroes takes center stage. Just who are these "gods?" Are the same gods we read about in college? Or are they the post humans who left Earth to settle somewhere else? And are the heroes the same heroes we all know and love? Achilles is there, as is Hector, and Diomedes, and Odysseus. But are they the same as Homer wrote about so many years ago? Or is this a parallel universe of some sort? The reader never really finds out for sure, but there will be a sequel (Olympos) and let me tell you after reading this you will want to read it. I wish I could tell you what Achilles says to Zeus at the end! My jaw dropped to the floor. But I don't want to ruin it for you!

Read Ilium if you want to read an alternative version of the Iliad. I will warn you, though, that the book almost crosses the line into goofy science fiction that is difficult to follow, but whenever the reader returns to the story of the plains of Ilium, the book is very difficult to put down. Can't wait for Olympos!

Posted by snackeru at 10:19 PM | Comments (0) | Books

Category "Books"

March 31, 2004

Life of Pi

Life of Pi Life of Pi
by Yann Martel
354 pages

Let me start by saying you must read this book. It is a rare occurence that I can honestly say everyone will enjoy a book, but in this case I can. Life of Pi is such a joy to read, such a burst of creativity and imagination, such a well written story I am still stunned by how good it was. I never re-read stories but I am sure down the road I will pick up this novel again. It is defintely the kind of book that a person could learn something new from no matter how many times it is read. This is due not only to the great story, but also the symbolism behind the story. It is a work of high literature that is sure to be read by generations to come.

The book is about a 16 year old Indian boy named Pi Patel. Pi grows up as the son of a zookeeper, and as a result knows a great deal about animals of all kinds. All this animal knowledge comes into play later in the book, but Pi's childhood also gives us a glimpse into the overall theme of the book. As a child Pi decides to become a practicing Christian, a practicing Muslim, and a practicing Hindu all at the same time. One day all of his different faiths come crashing together when his priest, imam, and pandit all converge on him at once. After much arguing Pi is asked to choose one faith, since it is impossible to truly practice all three at the same time. Pi responds, "I just want to love God." This satisfies Pi's father and they all go out for ice cream.

This scence is quite symbolic of religious life in general. Faith and belief are hard work and it is impossible not to doubt what you believe in. For Pi, it is so hard that to cover all of his bases he decides to practice three of the largest faiths at once. This satisfies his doubts and gives him peace. Am I saying it is possible or even better to practice three faiths at once? Of course not, but wouldn't it be nice to be able to erase the doubt that pesters all of us? Don't you just want to be so sure about it all sometimes and then just go out for some ice cream?

The second (and larger) part of the book deals with Pi as the lone survivor of a shipwreck at sea. Due to some policitical instability, his family decides to leave India to move to Canada. They also decide to bring many of the zoo animals with them in order to sell them to zoos in North America. Along the way the ship sinks and Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a spotted hyena, and a Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Eventually all that remain are Pi and the tiger, and Pi is forced to either tame Richard Parker or become tiger food. What follows is a story so fascinating, so miraculous, so full of life that the reader can scarcely put the book down. And that is amazing considering the story is about survival on a lifeboat. You would think it would be all about how hot they are, how hungry they are, how thristy they are, but there is so much more.

While on the lifeboat Pi's faith wavers. If your own faith wavers just in your normal everyday life, imagine what would happen to it if you were stuck in the middle of the Pacific on a lifeboat with a man eating tiger. This would be dishertening to say the least. Martel writes:

At such moments I tried to elevate myself. I would touch the turban I had made with the remnants of my shirt and I would say aloud, "THIS IS GOD'S HAT!"

I would pat my pants and say aloud, "THIS IS GOD'S ATTIRE!"

I would point to Richard Parker and say aloud, "THIS IS GOD'S CAT!"

I would point to the lifeboat and say aloud, "THIS IS GOD'S ARK!"

I would spread my hands wide and say aloud, "THESE ARE GOD'S WIDE ACRES!"

I would point at the sky and say aloud, "THIS IS GOD'S EAR!"

... But God's hat was always unravelling. God's pants were falling apart. God's cat was a constant danger. God's ark was a jail. God's wide acres were slowly killing me. God's ear didn't seem to be listening.

I won't even attempt to write about what should be plainly obvious to all.

Eventually the story becomes so fanciful that the reader can barely believe it. Towards the end of the novel Pi talks about an island he and Richard Parker stumble upon full of algae, trees, and meerkats. You can't help but ask, "Is this real? Or is it an hallucination?" Martel fills the story with such fine detail, such interesting imagery, such a convincing story that you can't help but believe. You want desperately to believe. But still your doubt lingers. Yann Martel! You crafty devil! In the end we as readers are asked what kind of story we would rather have, the magnificent or the mundane? The fact that we choose the magnificent is the essence of faith. The story is so good, detailed, awe inspiring, and complete it has to be true.

I'm no philosopher, and I apologize for my weak ramblings above, but I like to have something to think about every now and again. The Life of Pi is something I will be thinking about for a long time. Someone read it so I can discuss it with you!

Posted by snackeru at 12:00 PM | Comments (70) | Books

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