2020/12/29

The Most Annual Book Post Yet

 For the fourth year in a row, here are the best books that I've read this year. As usual, I'm listing them in alphabetical order, not ranking them.

  1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
    I'm trying to catch up on a few classics each year. There are three of them that made my list this year, including this one. It is the first Tolstoy book that I've read, and it was amazing. Despite being very long (about 900 pages) and having a huge cast of characters, Tolstoy make the themes that he covers vibrant and interesting. 
  2. A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C.A. Fletcher
    Extremely appropriate for the year, this post-apocalyptic novel sees most of the population of the world killed off by a plague. The few survivors have trouble producing female children, which further limits the population. Dogs have the this same problem, so when a young adolescent boy's dog is stolen, he sets out after the thief.
  3. Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne
    The Comanche tribe ruled a huge empire in the south-west of the US, and repeatedly defeated all enemies they faced, including the Spanish, Mexicans and the Americans, until finally the invention of repeating rifles turned the tide. Incredibly fierce warriors and quite possibly the best horsemen ever, the Comanches ruled their territory with an iron hand. Because their nomadic lifestyle made having children difficult, they frequently captured young children from outside the tribe and adopted them. One such young white girl from Texas became the mother of Quanah, the last of the great Comanche leaders.  
  4. Humble Pi: A Comedy of Math Errors by Matt Parker
    Matt Parker is a YouTube educator/entertainer who discusses mathematical issues. This book looks at some of the most disasterous (and frequenly amusing) mistakes that have ever happened with math, such as the unit conversion problem that destroyed a NASA Mars probe.
  5. IQ by Joe Ide
    Isiah Quintabe, the hero of IQ (and several other books in this series) is basically Sherlock Homes transplanted to modern day inner-city Los Angeles. Ide, a cousin of Francis Fukiyama, grew up in South Central LA, and uses his knowledge of this environment to craft a memorable hero, a brilliant young man who uses his wits to solve crimes that the police cannot or will not take on.
  6. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
    The second classic on the list, I really loved this much more than I would have thought. The story of the March sisters becoming young adults during the era of the US Civil War is well known. 
  7. The Naturalist by Andrew Mayne
    The first of a four book series (so far), The Naturalist is about naive scientist Theo Cray, who uses his scientific training to reveal the existance of a serial killer, becoming an unwilling investigator after a former student of his is murdered. Lots of interesting scientific details throughout the book.
  8. Sense and Sensability by Jane Austen
    The third Austen book I've read, and by far my favorite. The two eldest Dashwood sisters navigate the troubled waters of romance. Beautifully written, with lots of interesting details about the time period. Austen was a genius at observing and detailing human behavior.
  9. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
    The two Sisters brothers are hired killers in the Old West, and they've been given an assignment to kill a prospector during the California Gold Rush. The story is told via narration by one of the brothers, and is beautifully done. If you have ever read True Grit, this is the only book that I've read that is in its class for developing the character of the narrator via the story.
  10. The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois and 
  11. Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington
    I chose to read these two books for this year after the George Floyd/Black Lives Matter protests. Du Bois and Washington were the two towering civil figures of the post-Reconstruction era in the US, and frequent rivals, as they had differeing visions of how to improve the lot of blacks in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Washington's book is an autobiography that details his work, including founding the Tuskeegee Institute, to uplift his people via education and training. Du Bois's book is a collection of essays that he wrote for various publications and details his vision for government intervention and his disagreements with Washington's plans and actions. 
  12. War Lord by Bernard Cornwell
    The 13th and final book in the Saxon series that began with The Last Kingdom in 2004, War Lord see the completion of the unification of England under the rule of Alfred the Great's grandson, Aethelstan. The entire series is well worth reading, as it covers the entire life of the fictional character Uhtred of Bebbanburg, who is captured and adopted by the pagan Danes when they invade Northumbria, but who ends up fighting for the Christian Saxons under Alfred, then his children and finally Aethelstan. Cornwell, who is also the author of the Sharpe series, is a master at military historical fiction.

2020/01/14

The Even More Annual Book Post

For the third straight year, here are the 10 best books that I read last year. The list is in alphabetical order.

  1. The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman
    I've been trying to catch up on some older sci-fi that I missed when I was younger and read more. Haldeman is the author of the classic "Forever War", which is quite often cited as the best war novel, period, sci-fi or not. This one is a lot less serious, but still interesting and fun. A grad student accidentally invents a time-machine that only goes forward and the amount of time that it jumps forward increases each time he uses it.
  2. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
    An examination of why it seems that college age students in the West are incapable of handling dissent and seem to take offense at everything. Haidt, the author of the great "The Righteous Mind" (which if you haven't read, stop reading this and go get that done now), is a college professor, and so has seen this first hand, while Lukianoff was the founder of FIRE, a group that fights for free speech rights on campus. An excellent and balanced look into how we got into this situation and several great proposed solutions.
  3. Don't Panic: Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by by Neil Gaiman, et al
    Just what it says on the tin. If you loved The Hitchhiker's Guide, you will probably love this too. 
  4. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
    A novel about a lonely and damaged young woman who doesn't really know how damaged she is or how to deal with the situation, but who, against her will, develops a couple of friendships that help her begin to right her ship. There were a lot of things about this to like. I especially liked that the novel avoided the usual sort of cheap romantic solutions and that the resolution isn't a cheap or easy thing.
  5. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
    A non-fiction look at the plight of poor rural whites in America as they face addiction, joblessness and family breakdown. Vance grew up in this environment before he left to go to college, and he uses his family to demonstrate the troubles that this group is facing. Though the book is apolitical and was written and published prior to the 2016 election, it does give hints of why this group might have been willing to take a chance on a non-politician who seemed to be the only one who cared about them.
  6. The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell
    I first read this more than 10 years ago. It is a fictional retelling of the Danish invasion of what would become England and how Alfred the Great was able to begin to push the invaders back. Cornwell has now written several other books in this series (all of which I've read as well), and it has been made into a TV series, but this book still the best of the lot. It's told through the point of view of a young Saxon warrior who was raised by and is sympathetic to the Danes, but who is fated to fight for the Saxons.
  7. The Library Book by Susan Orlean
    This book tells the story of the fire at the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986 that destroyed and damaged over a million books, as well as discussion the history of libraries and the LA Public Library system, the effort to repair many of the damaged books, and the importance of libraries in our lives.
  8. Lost and Found by Orson Scott Card
    The hero of this story has a unique power which has caused him to become an outcast in school, as fellow students and authorities misunderstand him. He becomes the at-first unwilling friend of another high school outcast, who encourages him to learn more about his power and others like himself. And then he is compelled to use it to try to help rescue his friend from danger. 
  9. Thank You, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
    The fifth book in the tales of the upper class dim-bulb Bertie Wooster and his brilliant valet Jeeves. The Jeeves and Wooster novels are delightfully funny and I'm working my way through all of them at the rate of a couple a year. 
  10. World without End by Ken Follett
    A sequel to the brilliant "Pillars of the Earth", set two centuries after the building of the cathedral in Kingsbury. The story once again focuses on a builder who struggles to make the town better against the forces of ignorance and stupidity. 
I didn't read any terrible books this year. I one I most disliked was Wuthering Heights. I've been trying to read several classics that I either didn't read or didn't take seriously or understand when I was in school, and most of the ones I've read this year have been good to very good (namely Frankenstein, Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Hunger, The Plague, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). But this one is not. It's long, depressing, not much happens, and everyone in the novel is terrible. I don't understand how this one is a classic. However, your mileage may vary.

2019/04/01

A Bleak Future

I know some people. Some time back, they formed an organization. While this group isn't perfect, it does some important things that no other group does as well.
Anyway, this organization has gotten itself into a bit of debt problem.
Right now, there are about 33 people in the group, and the organization has debts of about $2.2 million. The group keeps pretty good records and are remarkably open, so they happen to know that, collectively, they earn about $1.96 million per year.
Their budget for the current year is to spend about $400,000 on various projects. Unfortunately, they are only going to collect about $318,000 in dues from their members. Pretty clearly something is going to have to be done to resolve this.
Last week, some of the leaders of the group suggested that perhaps some of the spending could be cut back a bit. As I understand it, it went something like this:
"Take a look at this $1.76 that we spend on this charity. I'm not saying that it isn't a good charity; it is. It does great work. But we are $2.2 million in debt and will add another $70,000+ this year, so this seems like something we should look at. This cut is only 0.0004% of the current budget."
Unfortunately, the membership of the group did not react... how can I put this... rationally to this suggestion.
I worry about the long-term future for this group.

2019/01/08

The Increasingly Annual Book Post

Continuing the tradition that began 11 years ago and then took a decade off before continuing last year, here are the 10 best books that I read for the first time last year. They are in alphabetical order, not ranked 1 to 10.


  1. Infinite by Jeremy Robinson
    A science fiction story that begins with an intriguing premise and then takes a direction that I didn't see coming. One of the more original books I've read in a while.
  2. A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
    I've long loved Hornby's books, so I was quite glad to come across one I hadn't read yet. A great story of a mismatched collection of characters who meet up when they plan to commit suicide. Full of great character moments and realizations.
  3. The Mountain Between Us by Charles Martin
    This seems like a simple survival story, and it is a very well executed one. But even more, it is a love story, not in the stupid Hollywood/romance novel sort of way, but in a much deeper and meaningful way. Also about honor and choices that one has to live with. I haven't seen the movie that was made from the book because I'm frankly afraid of what Hollywood might have done with this story.
  4. Norwood by Charles Portis
    Portis wrote True Grit (which is great as well), and this book, set in the 1950s, has his same ear for dialog that made that book so humorous.
  5. The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English by Lynne Murphy
    Murphy is an American linguist who has been living and working in the UK for several years now, and is an expert in the similarities and differences in the various types of English. This book is a great in-depth look at the relationship between US and UK English. She examines the history and the way that the people of the two countries feel about their English and the other.
  6. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester
    I actually read two great books by Winchester this year, this one and Krakatoa. It was hard to limit him to one spot on this list, as both were great.
  7. The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell
    I'd heard a bit about this one in college, but never got around to reading it until now. I really missed out. Orwell is of course a great writer, but here he turns his pen to reporting on the living conditions of miners and other working poor in the North of England between the wars. Tons of fascinating details about exactly how they lived, how much things cost and how they struggled. Orwell was deeply sympathetic to them, but at the same time was clear-eyed about their faults as well as their virtues.
  8. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
    Another book I had heard much about but never read. A funny satire of the news business that seems just as fresh today as when it was written.
  9. A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas
    What if Sherlock Holmes was a woman? That is the premise of this book, and Thomas pulls it off brilliantly. One could quibble that the view of Victorian England borders on a caricature, and that the mystery part of the novel is not as strong as it could be, and you'd be right. But Thomas's Charlotte Holmes is just so completely what a female Holmes would have been, while remaining faithful to the Holmes of the canon that you have to forgive the weak points.
  10. Very Good Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
    This is the third Jeeves and Wooster book I've read, and they are all great. 
As a bonus, here are the worst books I read:

  1. Bloody Confused!: A Clueless American Sportswriter Seeks Solace in English Soccer by Chuck Culpepper.
    I should like this. Like Culpepper, I'm an American who has fallen in love with English football. But Culpepper is determined to make himself unlikable, insulting anyone who still likes American sports or disagrees with him about anything. There is a definite element of "Converts make the most obnoxious members" going on here. It would be interesting to see if perhaps Culpepper has moderated his passion now, especially since his chosen team, Portsmouth, has been relegated twice since the book was written.
  2. Upright Beasts by Michel Lincoln
    A collection of short stories that range from the passable to the bizarre to the dreadful, mostly the latter.
  3. The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman
    This book starts off so promising, as it details the lives of a couple who tend a lonely lighthouse off the coast of Australia shortly after World War I. I love books that tell about people who don't get noticed but who make our lives possible. And then, the couple in the book steal a baby. Yet the book expects us to continue to feel sympathetic to them.


2018/09/27

Feral Cat Lounging Poolside


A History of the World in 6 Glasses

A History of the World in 6 GlassesA History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting and fun look at world history through six drinks: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-cola, and how each drink impacted and reflect the era in which it was the dominant beverage. Lots of great tidbits about each drink, like:

*how the earliest civilizations used beer as basically liquid bread
*how many of the traditions we have for sharing drinks together go back thousands of years to the beginnings of the earliest civilizations
*how the Chinese tried valiantly to protect the secret of growing tea and how it came to spread around the world

A great read for anyone who loves history but who is interested in a new perspective instead of the usually examination of individuals, events or ideologies.

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Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine

Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American CuisineEight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Part cookbook, part history, and part travelogue, this is an interesting look at how different flavors have influence American food from before the founding of the country to the present. As the title states, Lohman examines how eight different items (black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and sriracha) came to be used and influence the foods that Americans love. She uses historical and modern recipes, from Martha Washington's Black Pepper Cookies to Thai omelets with sriracha, to demonstrate how the flavors have been used and so the reader can try them out themselves, if so inclined. She describes her visits to places where the spices are grown, describes the ebbs and flows of the public's taste for these items and delves into the science behind questions like "does MSG cause headaches?"

The book works better as a print book than an audio book, if you are trying to decide on a format. If you want to try the recipes, you'd rather have them printed out, I'm sure, and if you don't, then it isn't terribly interesting listening to someone read a recipe (and there are a good many recipes in the book).

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"How can we negotiate with a state that wants to kill us?"

While the US is having its current drama about events that may or may not have happened at a high school party 30+ years ago, an actual important drama is brewing and being ignored.

“We’re accumulating risk in the Middle East by not getting at Iran’s proliferation,” [Brian Hook, the State Department's special representative for Iran] said. “There is something brazen about this missile behaviour, they’re not even hiding it. This sort of escalation is deeply concerning..."

"The Iranians have to decide are they a nation state or a revolution,” [The Saudi foreign minister] said, underlining that Iran had diverted virtually all its additional revenues from the removal of sanctions into its regional agenda, including support for the Houthi rebellion.

“If a missile is launched at Saudi Arabia and UAE what will be reaction be and how will we be defended?” said UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba.

Maybe we could ask if the government can spend a few minutes considering this when they get done with their he-said, she-said partisan argument?

UAE ambassador asks how allies will defend country from Iran's missiles

Fake Brakes

The National has a report about a conference about counterfeit goods being sold, including dangerous auto parts: Brake pads 'made of grass' among the counterfeit car parts putting UAE drivers at risk.

The story is suitably informing and scary, but I wanted to see a picture of these brake pads, which unfortunately isn't provided in the story. In trying to find a photo elsewhere, I discovered what might be an even more interesting fact: There is a website dedicated to the automotive brake industry, The Brake Report. And, what might be the best part, according to their about page, they are the "leading digital platform dedicated to the global automotive and commercial vehicle brake segments", which seems to imply that there are multiple digital platforms dedicated to the global automotive and commercial vehicle brake segments.

Truly, we live in an age of wonders.