Friday, February 29, 2008

From Crib to Kindergarten: The Essential Child Safety Guide
(Dorothy A. Drago, 208pp)
Useful, as it presents a description of the range of risks that children face without inducing hysteria.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley
(Richard Schwartz, 244pp)
Quaint, but hardly riveting. I skimmed this but didn't find the old eccentrics to hold a candle to current Berkeley nuts.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Getting Things Done
(David Allen, 7:13)
As soon as this came out as an unabridged audiobook, I decided to mainline it. And although listening to Getting Things Done is not the same as actually getting things done, I was pumped enough to actually build my own filing system this time round. Next time I listen, I'll tickle up 31 + 12 month folders.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Death in Venice
(Thomas Mann, 3 hours)
Because this story was assigned in high school, I was blocked from fully appreciating it before now. The new translation (by Joachim Neugroschel) flowed with supple ease.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Black Swan
(Nassim Taleb, 12 CDs)
I could not bring myself to read Taleb's first book, Fooled by Randomness, even though I was quite sympathetic to its thesis. His writing style is incredibly irksome and arrogantly self-congratulatory -- his tone should be compared to the voice of Quasimodo, it is so ugly to behold. The current book is slightly less sophomoric, even though its jabs at economists, the French, academics fatigue. The worst part of the book are flaccid chunks of fictionalized projection, inventing idealized characters with less depth than Ayn Rand bestowed upon her giants. Notwithstanding all these superficial flaws, the idea that we can't normalize the future, that the most important facts are proverbial black swans (rare, unexpected, and hugely impactful). The author vociferates, repeating his theme (not really distinct from his earlier book), but still manages to toss out points worth considering. E.g., for all the risk management theorists hired by the MGM Mirage Vegas casino, the actual exposure they underwent was almost entirely due to items outside their models. Hundreds of millions of dollars was invested on gambling theory and high-tech surveillance, but the real losses were true black swans: the tiger that attacked its trainer Roy cost the casino $100 million. An owner broke the laws to pay his kidnapped daughter's ransom. "The dollar value of these Black Swans, the off-model hits and potential hits, swamp the on-model risks by a factor of close to 1,000-to-one."

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty
(Julia Flynn Siler, 15 CDs)
This story of intra-family conflict, repeated anew across 3 generations has the quality of a Greek tragedy, since the reader fully expects to see the problems again, and then again. Robert Mondavi comes out as a charismatic personality, who triggered the first family fight by neglecting to share the limelight with his younger brother. Exiled from Krug, he started a high end vineyard in the mid-1960s, and worked to transform America's attitude about wine. His own sons ended up dueling in very much the same way. Ultimately, the family was forced to sell their vineyard in order for the grand father, Robert, to honor the philanthropic bequests he'd signed up to make. In discussing California's cuisine, the author mistakenly claims that Chez Panisse began in 1969 (it was actually 1971).

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression
(Amity Shlaes, 15;30)
I found the writing pretty uneven, with clotted sentences, poor choice of detail, overly specific in directions that never take off. This is a history chock-a-block with personalities, and that is indeed the best value here. Ms. Shlaes hates FDR so much, that in a novel twist, she lumps Hoover in with FDR as a meddler. She celebrates Calvin Coolidge as a do-nothing president, and also reveres Andrew Mellon and Bill W. (the private person who founded AA). Her critique of FDR does highlight the 1930s enthusiasm for collectivism that would shock people today: Rex Tugwell, one of the brain trust, actually established a quasi-kibbutz in Casa Grande AZ. Even more surprising, the NRA insisted upon standardization that made it impossible for a kosher butchery to function, and the tale of the Schechter brothers' fight all the way to the Supreme Court is quite fascinating. Benjamin Friedman's review in the NYRB, FDR & the Depression: The Big Debate (preview only online), demonstrates that Shlaes' reading of the macroeconomics is unreliable: every drop in the Dow is read by her as proof that business/capital got scared, and every up movement reads as a deliberate celebration of FDR's retreat from his New Dealing ways. Even more telling, Friedman points out that the actual boost in productivity in the 1930's was perhaps the greatest of any decade within the 20th century, although that involved labor-saving substitutions that kept unemployment high. So, her economics can't be trusted, but the tales she tells often highlight novel or neglected aspects of the traditional story.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Heal your headache : the 1-2-3 program for taking charge of your pain
(David Buchholz, 224pp)
This book claims that almost all forms of headaches (except cluster headaches) are migraines, including hangovers. A lot of emphasis on diet, without explicit experimental support, but more along the lines of a doctor's clinical experience. His program advises people to quit all forms of: #1 - caffeine; #2 - MSG; #3 - Chocolate; #4 - A strange melange of other items, such as raspberries and Nutrasweet (aspartame). His evidence for some items comes in the following form: "when I see texturized vegetable protein, it makes me very nervous." Since he is the chief Migraine guy at Johns Hopkins, he can't be completely clueless. I am sufficiently persuaded that I'm going to ratchet down my aspartame intake, monitor MSG, and measure how much chocolate I take in.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

No One Belongs Here More Than You: Stories
(Miranda July, 224pp)
16 quirky stories-- after reading a couple, I thought I'd discerned the pattern, but I ended up wanting to read them all. "This Person" is a personal favorite of mine, and it's possible to hear Miranda July read it at the NYPL podcast.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The Complete Peanuts 1950-1952
(Charles M. Schulz, 320pp)
Fantagraphics resurrects the very first Charlie Brown -- and appropriately, in the very first comic, the punchline is, "How I hate him!" Lucy and Schroeder were little babies, rather than perennial first graders, at the start, and Linus couldn't speak. Snoopy looked quite different. I always had a big chip on my shoulder about the boy as perfect loser. The tiny bio at the end, which foreshadowed the major work written by the same author recently, does sketch in outline how impossible it was for Schulz to be happy.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

(Ian Ayres, 7;34)
An ode to regression. Notwithstanding, it's quite interesting, ranging over a number of instances where regression produces the best bet. One area I'd never heard about was "direct instruction," where teachers follow scripts to step through the lessons. A little searching reveals that SRA, which I used in 4th grade.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life
(Steve Martin, 7 hours)
Though never a fan of his comedy (or films), I was intrigued enough to read SM's story. I admire his craftsmanship, and wanted to hear how he connected his comedy to his art collecting and undergrad philosophy studies. The book is single-mindedly focused on his comedy, with only glancing mentions of either art or philosophy. He grew up in a pressure cooker family, where little was expressed overtly. His real childhood began in Disneyland, and later, as a performer at Knott's Berry Farm. When he did Saturday Night Live, he invited Dan Akroyd to go shopping at Saks...
The Man Who Loved Children
(Christina Stead, punted one hour into the 20)
I believe this is a NYRB undiscovered masterpiece, but I had paged through it once, and didn't like it. Today, I tried to go from the start, and here are my objections: 1- The father's incestuous flirtation with the daughter is untenable in today's puritan age; 2- The author lacks courage in her transcription of family baby talk/slang, since she inserts redundant translations immediately following the terms; 3- Heavy handed 'irony' deployed by having the father praise a story for ending well, with all the characters managing somehow to love one another, when it's clearly set out as a naked and overt contrast with the machinery of this novel, where it seems everyone hates everyone else, and all end worse off. There is something rancid about the perspective, the dislike of the characters' lives, that explains quite easily why few can bring themselves to read this book.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews
(Donald Barthelme, edited by Kim Herzinger, intro from John Barth)
DB's searching and intense intelligence. They also reveal the shift in his understanding of fiction, from a very Beckettian take that each story or novel exists as an object in the world, to the later, more experienced sense that a fundamental aspect of the writer is the practice of exploring the world of sentences about characters, without knowing what will come next. The essays are mostly minor: advertising reviews from the early 1960s (more significant when one realizes that his wife at the time, Helen Moore Barthelme, was in advertising), thoughtful pamphlets about specific art shows in the 1980s, and the pieces that were once published in the New Yorker as Talk of the Town. The interviews at the end are extremely rewarding, esp the very long KPFA trialog, where DB shows his sparkling humor, as well as revealing at moments a glint from the steely anger that underlies his sharp discriminating sensibilities.

Friday, February 01, 2008

The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World
(Alan Greenspan, 20 hours)
Instead of an opaque (or self-congratulatory) autobiography, Greenspan demonstrates what the world looks like from his perspective: abstract, very data-driven, with an intense attention to the dynamics of markets. I enjoyed the entire survey of the universe. He admits to being duped by the Bush administration, which had promised to curtail tax cuts if the budget began to ran over. He states baldly that the Iraq war was all about oil. He comes across as a technician, and this explains his weakness for Ayn Rand, since she was a charismatic leader who could conceive of a big picture for deploying his technical skills.