Recently Read Books: 2014

January 4th, 2015

burmas3Books I’ve read in 2014 (in rough chronological order)

1. Beyond Band of Brothers, by Major Richard Winters

Dick Winters is the archetype of the American Airborne infantryman in World War II’s European Theatre. This is his memoir, wherein he gets to give some personal explanation and embellishment of his story told so famously by Stephen Ambrose.

2. No Less than Victory, by Jeff Shaara

A workmanlike telling of the story of the Battle of the Bulge.

3. The Frugal Woodturner: Make and Modify all the Tools and Equipment You Need, by Ernie Conover

Self-taught son of a self-taught wood turner describes ingenious ways of doing things differently from everyone else.

4. Box Making, by Doug Stowe

I make far too few wooden boxes. This book will help me to make more of them.

5. The Verse by the Side of the Road, by Frank Rowsome, Jr.

A history of the Burma Shave sign. Author Rowsome tells the complete story of the innovative roadside advertising campaign along with the text of all 600 of the rhymes.

 Back in the first half of the 20th Century, as America was falling hopelessly in love with the motorcar, a Midwestern shaving-soap company initiated a successful and ground-breaking advertising campaign using small roadside signs. The signs often masqueraded as public safety messages warning drivers not to drink or get distracted behind the wheel, but just as often were simple product pitches. What distinguished the Burma Shave signs was that they were always in a series of small red signs posted in a row along the roadside in such a manner that they could be read in a sequence, with the last one giving the company’s name.

Some amusing rhymes include:




6. Foolproof Wood Finishing: For Those Who Love to Build and Hate to Finish Paperback, by Teri Masaschi 


7. USS Preble, by William Kaufman

A friend of mine—a fellow model railroad enthusiast—wrote and self-published this book, which is how I came to learn of its existence. It’s an interesting, fact-based novel about a naval officer and a warship in World War II. The book has issues, but is still fascinating.

8. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the The Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester

The OED was the original crowd-sourced project. Contributions were solicited from across Great Britain and one of the greatest contributors turned out to be a man imprisonedand rightly sofor murder. Winchester tells the fascinating story of the relationship between the embattled editor of the OED and the learned inmate. 

9. Hybrid Woodworking: Blending Power & Hand Tools for Quick, Quality Furniture, by Marc Spagnolo, The Wood Whisperer

Industrialization killed the craft of the wood worker in the Western world. Machines such as electric powered planers, jointers, drill presses, shapers, and table saws made the manual skills of the furniture maker obsolete. Over the years, the prices of these power tools dropped sufficiently to be affordable to the hobbyist, and the weekend woodworker was born. But then an interesting thing happened: not a few of these hobbyists began to discover the joy of working wood with those old hand tools that grandpa had used. A few more hobbyists began to make replicas of those old hand tools using modern manufacturing techniques, and the craft of hand wood working was reborn.

There are purists, who make fine furniture using only the hand tools that were in use a couple of hundred years ago. A larger group has emerged (and I’m one of them) who favor a hybrid approach: using power tools for the things they are best at, but using hand tools for the rest, simply because—outside of a production environment—they give better results just as fast and are far more pleasant and satisfying to use.

Marc Spagnolo is a talented young wood worker who embraced the hybrid solution simultaneously with embracing the Internet as a medium. He runs what he calls a guild on his Website. It is for members only (I’m one) and he publishes excellent quality videos on how to make things in your shop using the best of both hand and power tools. This book is a compilation of his techniques.

10. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, by Wendell Berry

This is a remarkable book by a remarkable author. It is a manifesto for improving our lives by improving the way we cultivate our food. As Berry tells it, we once were a nation of farmers, and that our agriculture was the source of our strength.

Remember how we learned about the great American expansion of the 1800s? When settlers headed West, fulfilling our Manifest Destiny, and brought agriculture, civilization, and prosperity to the American Heartland? Well, argues Berry, we’ve spent the second half of the 20th Century unraveling that effort. Those thousands of little farming towns are empty and bankrupt, those millions of farm houses standing like sentinels in quarter sections of verdant loam are now abandoned and unwanted. Those hundreds of American cities built on domestic agriculture are now broken and hollow specters of ruin.

Berry makes the indisputable point that culture is created by agriculture, and as a nation, we have destroyed agriculture, thus we have mortally wounded our own culture. I find his arguments clear and compelling. As America spirals into the abyss, where do you begin to set things right again? In the dirt. 

Yes, Berry’s arguments have some issues, as accepting them wholesale would force us to return to a patriarchal society, but he’s as correct as any other social critic I’ve read. When you consider that this was written in the 1960s, it seems to achieve prescience. 

11. Moonshine!: Recipes, Tall Tales, Drinking Songs, Historical Stuff, Knee-Slappers, How to Make It, How to Drink It, Pleasin’ the Law, Recoverin’ the Next Day, by Matthew Rowley

I’d love to make moonshine. The equipment is fairly simple and the process is thousands of years old. Basically, you can take any organic matter, like potatoes, corn, or wheat, crush it and boil it, then just let it ferment naturally. After a day or two you boil it and condense the resulting vapors into drinkable alcohol. Unfortunately, in the USA, it remains illegal, if only desultorily enforced. I have other hobbies that won’t get me into trouble.

12. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

I really like Stephenson. He is a creative original. However, he needs an editor. This book was too long. In this novel he constructs a world slightly different from our own, one where the religion is based on science, and the secular world has crazy beliefs about bearded men in the sky. Once you slog your way to the end, you find out that this notion of a parallel universe isn’t just an intriguing backdrop for a quest, but is an integral part of the story.

13. Sight Unseen, by Robert Goddard

I like Goddard’s books and I’ve read many of them over the years. He spins fascinating mysteries that are…unusual. They are meticulously plotted stories that often involve untangling events that occurred decades ago. While their structure tends to be similar from book to book, each one is interesting in its own right. This one dealt with a kidnapping that goes bad, and a witness is killed by the getaway car. Many years later, seemingly after all the evidence is washed away, a few interested parties emerge and solve the puzzle.

14. Measure Twice, Cut Once: Lessons from a Master Carpenter, by Norm Abram

Norm is a carpenter who makes furniture, and has a lot to offer in techniques, tools, and values. His television show, The New Yankee Workshop, is an excellent demonstration of his skills and approach. This book is less useful than watching him make things.

15. The Political Mind, by George Lakoff

Lakoff is a brilliant scientist who has done ground-breaking work in understanding linguistics and human cognition. In this fine book he turns the bright light of his intellect upon the puzzle of politics and particularly how conservatives seem to be able to frame their issues in a compelling way, and how progressives struggle to do so. This book will give you a greater understanding of how humans think, and why our political world is shaped the way it is.  

16. The Finishing School: Earning the Navy SEAL Trident, by Dick Couch

Dick Couch is a former Navy SEAL, so he knows what he’s talking about. This book is a follow-up to his earlier work on the the Navy SEAL program, “The Warrior Elite.” In this book, he focuses on the training the SEALs receive. It will leave you in awe of the skill, dedication, intelligence, strength, stamina, experience, and courage of these men.

17. Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese

An excellent novel about a gynecologist in Ethiopia, son of a Carmelite nun from India, and an enigmatic English surgeon. This is a masterful work by a skilled novelist. Highly recommended.

18. Blanket Chests: Outstanding Designs from 30 of the World’s Finest Furniture Makers, by Peter Turner and Word Works

So many things to build, so little time.

19. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

I first read this remarkable book in 1968 shortly after an acquaintance and his pal, upon learning that I had not read it, recited the dialog from Clevinger’s court-martial from memory. Throughout the remainder of the 60s and 70s, I read the book several times and it’s disturbing story strongly influenced this youthful reader.

Reading the book again after 30 years was still as enjoyable as before. Author Heller, wanting to show the irrationality of war, writes Catch22irrationally of war. His characters have become archetypes of state-approved, inexplicable, and terribly self-destructive behavior.

I find that I still don’t like or understand the ending. It still feels tacked on, inconclusive, and incongruous. I get the strong feeling that Heller never did understand what the bottom line of his novel really was, and so the ending was contrived. This doesn’t detract from the value of the book, though. 

20. Helen of Troy, by Margaret George

This was too boring for me to make much headway with. Abandoned.

21. Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst

Another excellent dark and moody spy novel from the master. I always enjoy Furst’s novels for their characters, situations, and moody environment even when they seem a little repetitive, as this one does.

22. Another River, Another Town: A Teenage Tank Gunner Comes of Age in Combat—1945, by John P. Irwin

A well-but-simply told, familiar story of a very young man growing up in the rigors of war. 

23. Sutton, by E. R. Mohringer

Hard to believe but this is Mohringer’s first work of fiction, he does such an excellent job. In order to tell the story of enigmatic bank robber, Willy Sutton, Mohringer invents an unusual literary device and, through his abundant skill, makes it work. This is a great and readable story, and whether or not you believe it all hinges on a single comment made by Sutton’s lover  late in the book. Very well done. 

24. Winter of the World, by Ken Follett

The second book of Follett’s great trilogy of the 20th Century. Over the years, Follett’s writing has become a caricature of Follett’s writing. I still like it, but literature it ain’t.

25. Why We Make Things, and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman, by Peter Korn

Korn is the founder of a woodworking school in New England. This is his memoir of his life and how he came to create his school and its undergirding philosophy.

26. The New Traditional Woodworker: From Tool Set to Skill Set to Mind Set, by Jim Tolpin

Many woodworking hobbyists are discovering the joy of working with hand tools and eschewing power tools completely. They get more intimate and appreciative of their tools and their materials, the shop is a quieter and more pleasant place to work, and there is no dangerous sawdust to avoid (hand tools produce chips; machine tools produce dust).

What’s more, when not burdened with the need to produce furniture in production quantities and free to build just one piece at a time, it turns out that using only hand tools isn’t appreciably slower. Power tools don’t make you better—arguably they make you worse—they just make you faster.

Tolpin is one of those converts to the new traditionalism and his book is a series of progressively more difficult exercises in woodworking that teach you the basics of using hand tools correctly, effectively, and satisfactorily.

27. Redshirts, by John Scalzi

Never having been a fan of the 60s TV show Star Trek, I worried that this book would be lost on me. Still, I didn’t quite live in a cave back then, so even I know that the cheesy TV show regularly killed off unimportant characters to convey danger or drama, and that those doomed actors—coincidentally or not—always seemed to be wearing red shirts in their fatal episode.

To his everlasting credit, author John Scalzi decided to write a serious science fiction novel about this amusing phenomenon, and succeeded in making it a) interesting, b) believable, and c) compelling to this non-Trekkie. 

28. The Year Without Pants, by Scott Berkun

Berkun spent about a year and a half working for a company, Automattic, for the specific purpose of writing this book about his experience. The company is unique in many ways, and Berkun’s motivation for the book was to describe the different approach the company has to many conventional corporate challenges.

Notably, Automattic, the company that created and maintains WordPress blogging software, is totally distributed with employees located all around the world. And not just a few employees, but all of its staff is widespread. There is no real “home office.”

While Berkun’s descriptions of how day to day work, hallway conversations, and formal meetings are conducted across thousands of miles and dozens of time zones is fascinating, he seems to be downplaying the reason why this particular company can do it successfully, and makes the implicit challenge for others to try it disingenuous. Automattic is an open source company. From the very beginning, its founder and all of its employees did they work voluntarily. Employees were selected from the ranks of people who had already demonstrated their commitment, skill, and dedication by contributing source code purely for the love of doing so. 

Still, it’s an important look at one way organizations of the future can be constructed, and well worth reading.

29. On Call in Hell: A Doctor’s Iraq War Story, by Richard Jadick

Fascinating story of a Doctor who decides—correctly—that bringing the medical aid station closer to the front line will save grievously wounded soldier’s lives. Of course, bringing the aid station closer to combat endangers the doctor, too. Jadick puts his theories into practice in Iraq, and this makes for a gripping memoir.

30. The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II, by Gregory A. Freeman

Now that just about everyone involved in World War II is dead, there is an enormous amount of really interesting stuff coming out of the shadows. This fascinating book is about a heroic mission that was never made public and almost didn’t happen because of some despicable political alliances made by people far from the battlefield.  

31. The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, by Alisa Smith and J.B.Mackinnon

A two-handed memoir of a young Canadian couple eating only locally grown food. This artful small book is the outcome of a blog about the year-long project.

32. Double Cross, by Ben McIntyre

Last year I read McIntyre’s superb book on the subterfuge surrounding the Allied invasion of Sicily in World War II. This book is McIntyre’s telling of the even larger effort at deceiving the Nazis about the D-Day invasion of Normandy. 

The book is a spellbinding and comprehensive look into the behavior of real spies, who are simultaneously more quotidian than those of Le Carré and more flamboyant than those of Ian Fleming. The truth is far stranger than any fiction.

33. Midnight in Europe, by Alan Furst

Alan Furst is back in the saddle with another impossible-to-put-down spy novel. I save my Furst books for long voyages or bouts with illness, when I know that I will have many consecutive hours to enjoy soaking in the moody ambiance of this great series of novels.

34. Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City, by Greg Grandin

This is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It is very well researched and contains no speculation, just documented facts, yet it reads like a novel.

In the late 1920s, tremendously successful entrepreneurial automobile maker Henry Ford was consolidating his empire on two fronts. Firstly, he pioneered vertical integration, whereby he owned his entire supply chain. He owned iron and coal mines, railroads, smelters, and steel factories to supply his automotive plants. He owned forests and lumber mills to supply wooden parts for his cars. His second area of innovation was social engineering, and while he had some notable successes, his overall record was pretty dismal. fordlandia

This fascinating book tells the story of his efforts at both vertical integration and social engineering through the lens of Ford’s attempt in 1927 to build a rubber plantation in the Amazon jungle of Brazil. The plantation included a model city, called Fordlandia.

The parallels to current efforts at social engineering by today’s captains of digital enterprise are abundant. The perspective of a century make it clear that the attempts by Bill Gates, Larry Page, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and other Henry Fords of today are just as doomed and ridiculous as those of a previous generation.

35. Going with the Grain: Making Chairs in the 21st Century, by Mike Abbott

Mike is an English “chair-bodger” who makes simple but incredibly stout chairs out of green wood, primarily ash. Inspiring.

36. Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner

I first read this ground-breaking dystopian science fiction novel shortly after it was first published in 1968. The innovative literary devices and the overall believability made a big impression on me. Re-reading it after 45 years is fascinating as forgotten characters and scenes come alive again. Remarkably, much of Brunner’s speculation about an overpopulated future has come true today.

37. Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, by Toby Hemenway

The bible of permaculture for the masses by a genuinely brilliant teacher.

38. Make a Windsor Chair, by Mike Dunbar

Exhaustive discussion of making the essential Anglo-American human-holding device.

39. Chairmaking and Design, by Jeff Miller

Interesting descriptions of various chair making processes.

Recently Read Books: 2013

March 9th, 2014

(roughly in the order I read them)



1. Fall of Giants, Ken Follett

I’ve always been a fan of Ken Follett. His recent plots are predictable and his characters stereotypical, but he still tells a gripping story. This is the first volume of his saga of the 20th Century. I enjoyed every word of it and look forward to the next two volumes in the series.

2. The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, by Christopher Schwarz

Schwarz is my favorite writer in the world of woodworkers. His writing is clear, his projects are interesting, and his curiosity is infectious. In this book he builds a tool chest in the same way that such chests were built 200 years ago, using mostly the same tools. There’s a lot of value in doing things the old way, and Schwarz makes this both understandable and accessible better than any other.

3. Pegasus Bridge June 6, 1944, by Stephen E. Ambrose

A great story of military heroism at the very dawn of D-Day in Normandy.

4. Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi

Scalzi is a great storyteller. His genre is science fiction. His work reminds me of Heinlein. In a very good way.

5. A Tale of Two Subs: An Untold Story of World War II, Two Sister Ships, and Extraordinary Heroism, by Jonathan J. McCullough

There is much insight to be gained by putting a microscope to an otherwise enormous endeavor. The author focuses tightly on the fates of two American submarines in the Pacific Theatre and reveals much about how that conflict played out. Well worth the read.

6. Driving over Lemons: An Optimist in Spain, by Chris Stewart

The author abandons city life to buy a run-down farm in the wilds of Andalusia, and here he tells about it. He’s like a Francis Mayes for Spain. I’ve already purchased the sequel.

7. Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

A very competent biography. Many of the nuances of the geek world pass by Isaacson unnoticed, but that’s normal. There’s lots of goodness here.

8. Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals, by Temple Grandin

Grandin is the famously autistic scientist, author, and advocate for humane treatment of animals, particularly those destined to be eaten by humans. This book appears to be a compendium of psychological animal care wisdom for the pet owner and rancher.

9. Three Stations, by Martin Cruz Smith

The latest in the series of Arkady Renko novels, this one is unremarkable. It could be that Renko is ready for retirement by Smith.

10. Notes from a Small Island, by Bill Bryson

Bryson, an American, after living in England for 20 years, moves back to the New World. As a parting gift, he circumnavigates England to take one last look at his foreign home, trying to wrap his head around what makes him love it so. Bryson’s writing is always very personal and very easy. What he calls out about England, both good and bad, will amuse you, as he intended.

11. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman

I read this book to fill a long-empty gap in my science fiction education. Originally published in 1974, when Vietnam was a still vibrant memory, this book is clearly making a statement about that conflict by describing an endless war between the stars far off in the future. The book is dated by too many tropes of the 60s and 70s and ultimately I would have to vote it off the island.

12. A Measureless Peril: America in the Fight for the Atlantic, the Longest Battle of World War II, by Richard Snow

This is an excellent, big picture look at the struggle for supremacy on the high seas. It’s all here, the U-boats, the baby flattops, and the code breaking. An excellent read.

13. Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon

This is an excellent book, but I’m not sure that I was able to appreciate it sufficiently. I think I’m too white and too suburban to really picture Chabon’s well-sculpted characters to a proper level of realism. It’s about the daily struggle between black and white, urban and suburban, rich and poor, digital and industrial, set in Oakland, California. This is one of those very few books that I wish some sensitive auteur would make into a movie. I would really like to look into the eyes of Archy and Nat.

14. A Walk In the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trial, by Bill Bryson

This is the chronicle of the author’s attempt to hike one of the longest wilderness trails in the world. It’s amusing, interesting, and educational by turns, but never scary or boring. As usual for Bryson, it’s a very personal look at the world. I first read it a few years ago, and reread it this time almost by accident, but it’s hard to put down even on a second read.

15. The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz: A True Story of World War II, By Denis Avey with Rob Broomby

This is a genuinely remarkable tale told with gusto by a larger than life character. Denis Avey joined up to fight as a very young man and found himself driving a Bren Carrier in North Africa. The story of his eventual wounding, capture, escape, shipwreck, recapture, and emprisonment is high drama that is too crazy not to be true. He becomes a prisoner of war at a Stalag adjacent to Auschwitz where he sees Jews being treated worse even than he is. Eventually, he risks instant death to swap places with a Jewish inmate to spend time inside the death camp. Avey’s tale of how his and the inmate’s lives are changed and interwoven is epic.

16. Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two, by Joseph Bruchac

Several books have been written about the Navajos code talkers. This one was written for young adults, so it is not surprising that it pays plenty of attention to how the young protagonist was treated as a boy on an Indian Reservation. Notably, his white instructors worked diligently to eradicate any last trace of his Native American heritage and culture, primarily his knowledge of the Navajo language. Speaking Navajo was grounds for severe discipline, and the young boys and girls were told that becoming assimilated and forgetting their native language was the only path to success in the world. Until, of course, war came along and the American Army needed some way to communicate via radio without letting the Japanese know what was being discussed.

17. The Accidental Taxonomist, by Heather Hedden

This one  went over my head, but if you are a taxonomist, knock yourself out.

18. UX for Lean Startups; Faster, Smarter User Experience Research and Design, by Laura Klein

Startups are great because you can do anything you want, including the impossible. Klein offers some good advice for how to insinuate the needs of users into the mix. Recommended.

19. Lean UX; Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience, by Jeff Gothelf with Josh Seiden

Lean is like art, in that it resides in the beholder’s eye. If you imagine lean as a tool for cutting expenses, you are a dinosaur. If you imagine lean as something that can be performed in a large company, you are a dreamer. If you imagine lean as a good blueprint for a tiny startup, then this book will benefit your thinking.

20. Microinteractions: Designing with Details, by Dan Saffer

Saffer is a journeyman designer with much of value to say about the craft. In this book he focuses on the tiny little details that make the difference between a product we love and one we despise. There’s a lot to learn here.

21. The Chairs are Where the People Go: How to Live, Work, and Play in the City, by Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti

This is one freaking strange book by an equally strange author. It’s a series of essays about, about, about stuff that’s…interesting. Your mileage may vary.

22. Evil By Design: Interaction Design to Lead Us Into Temptation, by Chris Nodder

I really like this book. Nodder looks at a very familiar subject, interaction design, from the point of view of how one would go about manipulating people to one’s advantage. Pretty much sounds like real life to me. Nodder spent years working with Donald Norman and has a lot of very interesting things to say about designing web experiences. Amusing, interesting, intriguing…what’s not to like?

23. The Feynmann Lectures on Physics, Volume 2, by Richard Feynmann

Now I know why I am not a physicist: the math is too difficult.

24. The Dock Manual; Designing, Building, Maintaining, by Max Burns

A paperback book about making small docks for pleasure boats or swimming.

25. The Ground Beneath Her Feet, by Salman Rushdie

This is an excellent novel by a world-class novelist. There’s lots of goodness in this book: big, round characters, sparkling word-play, fascinating plot twists, all wound up in allegory and innuendo. The protagonists, Vina Apsara and Ormus Cama, are Indian pop stars, and this is the story of their mythical and grand lives around the world.

Rushdie gives a full measure of world-girdling narrative, rich characterization, laced with subtle and not-too-subtle humor. His language is rich, literate allusions many, and reading for the sheer pleasure is here.

26. Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food, by Frederick Kaufman

There is something about the way this fellow writes that annoys me. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Time after time in this book he tells a story to set up a bold point, then neglects to make the point. Maybe he assumes that I’m so smart I will have already understood what he is trying to say, but I am not.

On the other hand, the points he almost makes are really good ones, and relevant to how we can fix our broken food chain.

27. Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

This is probably the most important book I’ve read all year. Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize, is one of the most significant scientists working today, particularly if you are in the digital business. All of the cool books on how we perceive, think, and construct mental models that we have enjoyed for the last 15 years (How the Mind Works, Predictably Irrational, Freakonomics, etc) is heavily based on the work of Kahneman and his late partner Tversky. This is an easy read and I highly recommend it.

28. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert A. Heinlein

It’s been so many years since I first read this as a youngster that I had forgotten the story. At its heart, the message is one found frequently in scifi: that a harsh environment trains people to be bold, desperate, and competent. I used to believe that.

29. Are You There Vodka, It’s me, Chelsea, by Chelsea Handler

A funny trifle of a book by a TV comedian. I didn’t read this for a long time because I thought it was a story of an alcoholic reforming.

30. The Big Book of Farmall Tractors, by Robert N. Pripps and Andrew Morland

The elegance and beauty of mid-century industrial modern.

31. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbary

I did not finish this book. I am not a 14-year-old girl.

32. Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith

The first Arkady Renko story is still the very best novel by Smith. It’s a gripping murder mystery set in Moscow during the Cold War. Don’t let this gem pass you by.

33. The March Up, Taking Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division, by Bing West and Ray L. Smith

A first person account of the Marines March on Baghdad by a couple of former Marines who know what they are talking about.

34. Ship Breaker, by Paulo Bacigalupi

Today, there are people who tear apart by hand giant ocean-going freighters and tankers for recycling on the shore of Southern India. Bacigalupi hypothesizes what it might be like after we’ve depleted our fossil fuels sufficiently for this to be occurring on the southern shore of the USA with American kids. As I’ve come to expect from this author, an excellent, engaging, thought-provoking book that is fun to read.

35. First Fruit: The Creation of the Flavr Savr Tomato and the Birth of Biotech Foods, by Belinda Martineau

The author of this book was a senior geneticist at Calgene, the company that created the first genetically modified food for direct sale to consumers. Calgene inverted the gene within the Flavr Savr tomato that would normally cause it to soften and rot. That made the tomato stay firmer longer, allowing it more time to travel and to sit on store shelves longer.

Ultimately, the book makes you realize just how deeply ignorant we are about genetically modified foods, and also how silly our cultural priorities are.

36. Operation Mincemeat, by Ben Macintyre

I would say this is my favorite book of the year.

When I was in my teens I read Ewen Montague’s fascinating first-person account of “The Man Who Never Was,” the story of one of the most successful spy exploits of World War II, masterminded by the author. After Montague’s recent death, accomplished spy author, Ben Macintyre, began to probe around looking to see if there was more to the tale. Montague’s son, amused, produced a footlocker filled with classified documents that had lain untouched for 60 years in the master spy’s possession, and these formed the core source material for a newly-informed telling of the saga.

Not only does this very well-written story reveal the remarkable secret that Montague believed he took to his grave, but Macintrye tells the entire story with a veracity that can be achieved only after all the participants are dead.

There is so much good to say about this book, but above all else are the incredible pocket biographies of each of the real-life characters who plays a role in this fabulous story. Most of them are spies, and Macintyre tells their stories in turn, and each one is more astounding and fascinating than the previous. These men, and a few women, lead lives that could only be true, because you would not believe it if it were fiction. Wild adventurers, awkward geniuses, novel-writing raconteurs, bold warriors, fortune-hunters, heroes, liars, cheats, scoundrels, and syphilitic troglodytes are all here for your entertainment.

37. Thank You, Jeeves, by P. G. Wodehouse

This is the first Jeeves story I’ve ever read, and evidently it was the first novel-length Jeeves tale that Wodehouse wrote. Bertie Wooster, the narrator, is a foolish foil for butler Jeeves’ calm resourcefulness. A little bit long in the tooth, but it had its moments.

Recently Read Books: 2012

January 3rd, 2013

(in no particular order)

1. The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore is a funny writer. He creates funny characters and has them do funny things. This novel is about a horny dinosaur who invades a California coastal town.

This is one of Moore’s earlier works, and it isn’t as polished as his later works, but it’s fun nevertheless. In one representative scene, the eponymous, aroused monster falls for a tanker truck as it idles in a parking lot. The tanker’s driver dies in the ensuing hijinx, which illustrates one of Moore’s more endearing traits as an author. Also in this book you will meet the delightful Kendra, Warrior Babe of the Outland, one of the author’s strange and wonderful characters. Kendra, along with the entire wacky, fictional town, reprise their roles in Moore’s “The Stupidest Angel.”

2. You Can Farm, by Joel Salatin

Salatin is a guru in the new agriculture movement. He is an energetic, outspoken enthusiast of locally grown, healthy, sustainable plants and animals. While he has written several quite readable books, he’s a farmer who writes, rather than a writer who farms. Ever since Michael Pollan made him famous in the book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Salatin has had a wide and growing audience. His approach to farming is so notable that he proselytizes his methods however he can. In this book he makes the case that you can actually make a living at farming without compromising sustainability.

3. The End of War, by David L. Robbins

This excellent book describes, in novel form, how the victors wrapped up the pursuit of Nazi Germany at the end of World War II. There was still a lot of blood remaining to be shed when the outcome of the war was clearly seen to be an allied victory, but the allies were not at all a unified front. The three main players, Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt all knew that their actions in 1945 would have lasting effect on the shape of Europe in the decades to come. All three came from wildly disparate backgrounds and brought equally disparate ideals to the bargaining table.

This novel has been called flawed because of its ambitious and problematic subject matter, but for devotees of the genre, it is revealing and fascinating.

4. Live and Let Die, by Ian Fleming

In the 1960s I was a big fan of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, and Live and Let Die was my favorite. It’s been well over 40 years since I’ve read it and it was fascinating to reread it as an adult.

Fleming’s novels were simple, formulaic, and improbable, yet they were mind-expanding to young mid-century readers like me. Fleming’s time as an OSS agent in World War II gave him and his creation a frisson of reality, and Bond’s worldliness and his success with women made him quite appealing to a twelve-year-old boy, and there’s a twelve-year-old boy in many of us.

Fleming’s Bond is grittier and more authentic than the cinematic Bond. Yet his knowledge and sophistication in all things, from gambling to booze to politics, is what makes him an appealing action hero. The Bond of the movies got that part right.

Fleming’s creation made the secret agent genre into a world-wide phenomenon. The sixties witnessed countless movies, TV shows, magazines, products, toys, and standup routines based on the idea of an ultra-sophisticated tough guy who could kill a man with a single blow of his hand, and who devastated the ladies with his cool. This was a meme to reckon with.

It wasn’t until John Le Carré introduced George Smiley a generation later that one could see the reality from which Bond sprang. Both are useful archetypes, one realistic and human, the other unrealistic and what we fantasize we might be.

5. The War of the Rats, by David L. Robbins

I read this excellent book about the battle of Stalingrad more than a decade ago and really enjoyed it. The horrific pitched battle between the Russians and the Germans inside the city of Stalingrad is told through the true story of a young Russian sniper. He is so successful at surreptitiously killing Germans that the Russian command makes him the head of new sniper school, and a hero in the newspapers. In response, the Germans dispatch their best sniper to kill the young Russian. What a great storyline!

Sometime after I first read the book, a movie loosely based on the book, called “Enemy at the Gates,” was released. It was also excellent, but the stories varied somewhat, and they began to muddle in my head. It was a pleasure to reread the novel again so I could tease apart the different interpretations.

6. Guide to Concrete: Masonry & Stucco Projects, by Phil Schmidt

A simple book, written to help the homeowner build patios and pathways.

7. Free-Range Chicken Gardens: How to Create Beautiful, Chicken-Friendly Yard, by Jessi Bloom

I can’t really believe I read this whole book cover to cover, but I did. It was similar to eating an entire bag of marshmallows: unsubstantial, yet somehow good at the time.

This book is aimed primarily at urban and suburban gardeners, and how to safely add chickens to the mix without forcing them to stay screened in a coop.

8. Republic Lost, Lawrence Lessig

Lawrence Lessig is a prodigious talent in the legal field. A youthful prodigy, he initially held conservative views, but in later years has a been a leading voice for reform, particularly in the area of intellectual property in the digital age.

In this book, he reveals his current thinking about how the influence of corporate money has destroyed our democratic process. The book is an intelligent call to arms for reform. I highly recommend it.

9. The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara

I have been an avid reader of military history since I was about six years old. Of the hundreds of books, fact and fiction, that I’ve read about war, this is the best one. I first read this telling of the battle of Gettysburg in 1976, when, to little fanfare, it appeared in paperback, even though it had won a Pulitzer Prize two years before. Author Michael Shaara died soon after its publication, and the book fell from sight until the release, in 1993, of the movie “Gettysburg,” whereupon the book was rereleased and finally began to garner the attention and accolades it deserved.

When an author writes nonfiction, he or she is restricted to telling the story using only documented facts. There’s a whole lot of history that isn’t documented, and often an adroit novelist can convey more of the truth of history than can be done with mere facts. That’s exactly what Shaara has done with the three days of Gettysburg in 1863. Weaving his narrative around a dozen or so of the leading players on both sides of the conflict, his smooth prose tells the story of men caught in the web of their own making, forced by circumstance into a decisive battle.

This is at least the fourth time I’ve read this fantastic book, and the first time I’ve listened to it as an audiobook. As expected, it remains engrossing, entertaining, educational, historical, and pure fun. Even though the events are well known, we see them unfold through the eyes of the players, and we are fascinated anew.

Nowhere will you find a better description of war and warriors than here. Shaara takes us inside the heads of Lee and Longstreet as they both fret over J.E.B. Stuart’s epic failure to enlighten the Confederate army. While tolerant Lee regards the lapse as that of an errant, prodigal son, Longstreet seethes in his desire to court-martial the joy-riding young cavalry officer.

On the Union side, Shaara paints the most detailed and loving portrait of an honest-to-god American hero, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlin, the intellectual Maine professor of rhetoric who has the tenacity and courage to hold the extreme left end of the Union army line on Little Round Top against wave after wave of Longstreet’s Texans.

In the light of the book’s renewed success, his son, Jeff Shaara, took up the authorial mantle and has written a fine series of sequels and prequels to The Killer Angels. I’ve read several of these and, while they are well worth reading, none of them touches the brilliance of the Father’s original masterpiece.

10. Eye of the Red Tsar: A Novel of Suspense, by Sam Eastland

A beach novel about a tough Russian who used to be the Tsar’s right hand man. Improbable story, fun read, forgettable.

11. The Brisket Book: A Love Story with Recipes, by Stephanie Pierson

A slightly tongue-in-cheek look at one of the most homely and unsung cuts of beef. Pierson has more to say about brisket than one might imagine can be said about this ultimate comfort food.

12. Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, by Lisa M. Hamilton

A series of prose portraits of rugged individuals who refuse to succumb to the economics and ethos of factory farming.

13. An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, by Tamar Adler

Adler’s book is a self-described homage to MFK Fisher, the iconoclastic foodie of the 1930s and 40s. Interesting agri-philosophy peppered with useful recipes and kitchen ideas.

14. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, by Clay Shirky

This book is fascinating. Clay Shirky is one of, if not the, smartest, most perceptive observers of the sociology of the post-industrial age. There is simply lots of meaty good stuff about people, culture, civilization, and human nature here, and how digital technology is facilitating remarkable social change.

Humans remain the same, but our behavior changes depending on the social and economic opportunities presented by our environment, and that environment is becoming dominated by digital digital tools and networking, so our behavior changes to match it.

15. Agincourt: A Novel, by Bernard Cornwell

I read this plot driven beach novel on the beach (actually, on the airplane on the way to the beach). Highly recommended as such, but don’t look for anything else. Cornwell’s work is historically accurate and interesting for that, but don’t look for literary sparkles here.

16. Fighter Pilot, by Robin Olds

A superb memoir of a legendary character. Robin Olds is an archetype of the Greatest Generation and of fighter pilots. An easy and enjoyable read that will make you proud to be alive.

17. Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-45, by Neill Lochery

An account of the fascinating role Lisbon played during World War II. As the capital of small, neutral Portugal, the city hosted spies of all countries and intrigue aplenty. The city’s mayor tiptoed on a razor’s edge playing Allied against Axis interests without provoking either to belligerence.

18. Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

I couldn’t finish this book. I could barely get started. It took the author page after page of stodgy, congested prose to say very little. The sheer weight of the volume deterred me from anything after the first tortured plot point, which was more like a plot continuum.

19. Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction, by Sue Townsend

I read this book with some consternation. It was too readable to abandon, yet too problematic to enjoy. The main problem it posed was that it is about the 99th book in a long series of “Adrian Mole” novels by author Townsend, beginning when the protagonist was 13 years old. It would certainly have been easier for me if I had read any of the 98 predecessors, but I am woefully ignorant of British pop culture and entered the fray unprepared. Oh well.

On the plus side, it is largely written in the epistolary style, which I find quaintly endearing.

20. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand

An unforgettable and beautifully written biography of Louis Zamperini, a track prodigy and Olympic runner who was shot down over the Pacific during World War II. The young airman’s ordeal in a plastic raft and as a Japanese prisoner of war will simultaneously tear your heart out and inspire you.

This is a superb book in every respect, telling a true story with painstaking verisimilitude and detail, along with the pacing, characterization, and balance of a fine novel. If you wonder why they’re called “The Greatest Generation,” this book will inform you as to the answer.

21. The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters, By Chip Kidd

A coming of age story of an innocent young man in art school, studying that new discipline, graphic arts. The protagonist finds himself under the influence of wanton women and maniacal art teachers. Is this autobiographical? Certainly not. Maybe.

22. They Eat Puppies, Don’t they?: A Novel, by Christopher Buckley

I’ve been a big fan of Christoper Buckley since reading his first novel, “Steaming to Bamboola” about a million years ago. His second book, “The White House Mess,” an amusingly titled political satire disguised as a story about the guy in charge of the President’s Kitchen, was a hit and established his literary direction. Since then, Buckley has been master of the genre of political-satire-by-infiltration; kind of the novelistic equivalent of Stephen Colbert’s TV personality. Usually he does a fine job, but not in this effort. I finished this send-up of US-China relations out of loyalty, but it really didn’t measure up to Buckley’s normal quality.

23. The Mind’s Eye, by Oliver Sacks

The engaging English psychologist writes once again about how trauma and disease gives us a glimpse into how the mind works. In this volume he relates the story of how he loses sight in one eye, and how that affects the way he sees and thinks.

24. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair

A heartbreaking story of immigrant life in America in the early days of the 20th Century. Sinclair makes a compelling case for implementation and reform of work laws, consumer product safety laws, political campaign laws, and a multitude of others. The conclusion he arrives at, apropos of the time, is socialism.

25. The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling

A classic collections of stories from England’s Victorian storyteller.

26. Food Rules, by Michael Pollan

Because America is relatively young collection of people from other cultures, no truly indigenous American cuisine has ever existed. Not only does what we eat have a multitude of origins, but this country was formed by hard working, unreflective pioneers with little time to enjoy the subtler pleasures of life. Consequently, refined eating and quality food have never played a significant role in this country.

A country without its own cuisine is a country adrift in the kitchen, and, as Pollan has written elsewhere, most Americans don’t have a clue about what to eat. In this slim volume, the author gives us a series of simple rules of thumb that we can use as a guide to good eating.

The foremost, and overarching, rule that Pollan arms us with is this excellent one:

Eat food, not too much, mostly leaves.

The first two words of this axiom are freighted with meaning, as Pollan has often pointed out, most of what Americans consume is not really “food” at all, but an edible, food-like substance made from highly processed corn.

27. That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo

Russo, one of my favorite novelists, let me down with this effort. Russo’s metier is crafting characters who carefully teeter between annoying and lovable. In this book, he lets his people err on the side of annoying. The protagonist’s parents, whose role in the narrative is to be the archetypes-of-annoying, are fascinating and interesting, but they needed to be balanced by characters more lovable.

28. Parrot and Olivier In America, by Peter Carey

I really enjoyed this excellent and amusing book. It’s a historical novel, a comedy, a satire, and a romp. Carey tells the story of two Europeans, a working class English rogue and a French Noble, on their 1831 trip to America together.

The novel is rich and complex, the characters improbably multifaceted, and their personalities and backgrounds impossibly different, yet they are thrust together to visit the New World. Hilarity, with a colossally bright wit and of an atmospheric scope, ensues. The book satirizes everything it touches, with a grace and color hard to find.

evidently this novel is a send-up of Alexis de Tocqueville and his famous account of his journey to America. I have never read that work but this novel kindles my interest. Do yourself a favor and read “Parrot and Olivier.” You’ll have lots of fun.

29. An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin

Martin’s novel is a small and personal tale of a ruthless and beautiful woman in the New York art scene.

30. Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories, by Simon Winchester

A detailed biography of the Atlantic Ocean. Very readable, very fascinating.

31. Summerland, by Michael Chabon

If you love elves and orcs and baseball, this is the book for you.

32. Story’s Guide to Raising Chickens, by Gail Damerow

The more I live with chickens, the more I like them. The more I like them, the more interesting it is to learn about them. “Story’s Guide” is the chicken rancher’s bible.

33. Fobbit, by David Abrams

A novel set in the rear echelons of the Iraqi combat zone. Not epic, but worth the read. Based on the author’s experience in Iraq.

34. The Myth of the Rational Market, by Justin Fox

This fascinating and readable book is exhaustively researched and clearly written. Justin Fox tells the story of an unbelievable yet remarkably durable meme: that movements of the stock market can somehow be predicted. The idea that the stock market is something other than a casino, that it is something more than just a wild gamble, that an intelligent person can rationally invest and consistently make a profit is impossible, yet our greed is so strong we conjure lies to tell ourselves otherwise, and this is the biography of those lies.

The intriguing tale of how an absurd idea can become widely accepted as true comes to life in the narrative, along with those economists and thinkers who fight back against the notion. The author is a scrupulous journalist, and he holds his point of view in check throughout, believing–correctly–that the sheer implausibility of the historical facts make his point better than could any editorial emphasis he might add.

In 2011, I attended an exclusive technology conference at a swanky resort in Phoenix, Arizona. During the lunch break I happened to sit across the table from a bright young man and we struck up a conversation. We couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds: He was an East Coast literary intellectual with Ivy League credentials, while I’m a Californian, ex-hippie, technology entrepreneur. We liked each other immediately. His name was Justin Fox, the author of this book.

Fox’s day job is the editorial director for the Harvard Business Review, and he writes about economics for Time magazine. He said he would send me a copy of his book and was gracious and thoughtful enough to remember to actually do so when he returned home. I sent him a copy of my book in return.

I’m a computer geek, and not a scholar of finance or investment or the men who dominate those fields, so I had no expectations of recognizing any of the players in the drama. However, as the book unfolded I was astonished to discover many names whose work I was already familiar with in the fields of computer science and cognitive psychology. These scientists and researchers played significant roles in the fields of finance and economics, including John von Neumann, Benoit Mandelbrot, Daniel Kahneman, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and Amos Tversky. What a fascinating surprise!

This is a great book and I highly recommend it. In particular, if you wonder how the financial establishment trashed the American economy in 2008, you will find the answer here.

35. Bossypants, by Tina Fey

This memoir of a TV comedienne is an amusing trifle.

36. I, Claudius, by Robert Graves

The 1934 book describes the reign of the Claudian Emperors of Rome, including their intrigues and excesses, some 2000 years ago. This is an interesting and worthwhile historical novel but I found the first person, memoir-style writing problematic. There was simply too much telling and not enough showing.

37. War Games: Inside the World of Twentieth Century War Reenactors, by Jenny Thompson

Most of us a familiar with Civil War reenactors. They teach us ancient history by showing us how the combatants lived and died in the compelling drama of simulated battle. There is another diverse group of reenactors, though, whose interest is in World War I and World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and even Iraq and Afghanistan. These reenactors tend to hide from the limelight, unlike their 19th Century counterparts, because many of the participants in the real events are still alive, as are the emotions surrounding the conflict. Author Thompson does a good, albeit leisurely, job of showing us the moral fuzziness in this emotional milieu.

38. Comrades and Chicken Ranchers: The Story of a California Jewish Community, by Kenneth L. Kann

This book is an oral biography of many of the Jewish immigrants who came to Petaluma California in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. It also interviews their children, grandchildren, friends, and a few neighbors and associates. It tells the story of an immigrant community that was at once utterly representative of the American melting pot while being just as utterly unique in the way that only a deeply ethnic minority can be.

Two years ago, my wife and I moved to Petaluma, so this is very relevant history for me. When I mention the book and the story of the Petaluma Jews to my new neighbors, they nod knowingly and give me additional fascinating tidbits. The Jews didn’t create the chicken ranching business in Petaluma, but they were prominent practitioners of it, and eggs and chickens were big business here in the years before, and just after, WWII.

39. Notes From a Small Island, by Bill Bryson

This book chronicles Bryson’s farewell tour of England after 20 years of residency there. He decided to take one last look at the island nation before returning to his native Iowa. Bryson is a good storyteller, always interesting, and at times he can be hilarious.

40. The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

The last book I read in 2012 might well be the best book of the year, and certainly one of the most fun. The novel, set in Thailand a hundred years or so in the future, when energy is scarce and disease wrought by genetically modified foods are plentiful, is a gripping story of intrigue and smoky atmosphere.

I am not a fan of deus ex machina fantasies like those of Tolkien and Rowling. I’m much more interested in the defensible extrapolation style of Heinlein and Asimov. Bacigalupi stays clearly within the lines of straight-up science fiction, and the backdrop of steamy Southeast Asia powered by spring engines is immensely satisfying.

The plot surprised me at every turn. Even the eponymous character of the windup girl didn’t make her appearance until chapter three, and then her essential purpose in the story wasn’t clear for several more chapters. The twists continued right up until the very end.

Bacigalupi’s prose is every bit as atmospheric as Alan Furst’s, easy to read yet richly layered. I highly recommend this book.

I’m a whiteboard elitist

August 23rd, 2012

I’m a whiteboard elitist. I do not consider any surface other than porcelain-on-steel to even be a whiteboard. I will not suffer dried-out dry erase markers in the room, or even half-dry ones. I toss them in the trash, with gusto. Melamine or showerboard fall into the category of cheap tools when used for marking. Whiteboards are dynamic, never static. Everything written on a whiteboard is considered volatile and subject to change or erasure at any time. If you want to save it, take a picture of it. “Save” magnets are devilspawn. Taping things to whiteboards is the moral equivalent of neck tattoos.

I believe that the most expensive thing in the workshop is cheap tools. Whiteboards are tools for thinking, and scrimping on whiteboards is ultimately self-destructive. Thinking is the most important thing we do, and we should have the best tools for doing it.

Books I have read in 2011

December 31st, 2011

Here are the books that I have read this past year in no particular order. Lots of fiction, lots of non-fiction, lots of new, lots of old, a few literary classics. It’s all good.

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat; Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals, by Hal Herzog

An unintentionally ambiguous political billboard in Petaluma got me thinking about the nature of being an omnivore. A friend recommended this book and it was as billed: a thought-provoking look at human’s relationships with animals.

Ambiguous Petaluma billboard

Ambiguous Petaluma billboard

The book doesn’t take a political stand, but its author is definitely against unnecessary cruelty to animals. His investigations bring him face to face with some annoying realities of how our society treats animals in reality and in our minds (and legislation). For example, the life and death of a fighting cock is far better than is the entire, tortured, miserable, pointless existence and painful, prolonged, disgusting death of the average Foster Farms broiler. Yet the cock fighting is illegal in most states, looked down upon most everywhere in the United States, and few people know or care about what happens to billions of pathetic chickens at factory farms across the land.

The Android’s Dream, by John Scalzi

A straight-up science fiction novel of the old school. It was reminiscent of the great days of scifi in the 60s and 70s. It had fun action, strong women, psychedelic sheep. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and you will, too. On the strength of this book, I bought another Scalzi title for next year.

Program or Be Programmed, by Douglas Rushkoff

This tiny volume demands your attention. The author makes the case that digital technology exerts a powerful force unlike any other creation of man. He argues, quite convincingly, that you will either master that force or be mastered by it. You should read this book.

Kavalier and Klay, by Michael Chabon

For a decade, I knew I really wanted to read this book, but sometimes life conspires to tantalize you. The feeling I had when I finally cracked this book open was, I’m sure, just like the feeling a wine aficionado has when opening a treasured vintage from a legendary year. What’s more, Chabon did not disappoint. The novel is one of those remarkable concoctions of big history, quirky vocations, fascinating people, and human pathos that nails the essence of a good novel.

The eponymous heroes of the book are comic book artists and the novel is set during and after World War II when comics boomed into American culture. Everything about this book is delightful, and Chabon is one of my favorite authors.

Rosa, by Jonathan Rabb

What is wrong with this book? It’s a historical novel set in Berlin in 1920 in the aftermath of the First World War. It is a bleak, atmospheric, portending murder mystery with historical figures woven into a story with fictional characters. This is all the stuff that I love in a novel, but for some reason every time I picked up the book I fell asleep. I never did finish it. Maybe I’ll try again next year.

Chocolate and Cheese, by Hank Shteamer

Ween is my favorite musical group. They sound a lot like the Beatles only with more cursing and a wicked sense of humor. Way back in junior high school, Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo formed the band named Ween, calling themselves the brothers Ween, Gene and Dean. Gene has a dreamy, psychedelic style, and Dean is a head-banging metal guitarist. Their union is remarkably delightful.

While their own sound is distinctive and appealing, they are genre fans, and love to play in other musicians’ styles. Their eclecticism isn’t satire, nor do they simply cover other artists’ work, but it’s genuine homage to talent without prejudice. The breadth of their taste is astonishing. You can hear authentic strains of legendary musicians from Pink Floyd to Jim Morrison, from Hank Williams to Prince, from Jimmy Buffett to Metallica, from the Grateful Dead to Roger Miller, from David Sanborn to The Pet Shop Boys.

Their music forms are all over the place, too. Listen for a while and you will hear classic rock and roll, airy jam anthems, heavy metal, children’s songs, sea shanties, call-and-response, eighteenth century English ballads, European techno, chewing gum pop, and country and western. It’s a cornucopia of delightful musical cross-reference.

Ween's Chocolate and Cheese album cover

Ween's Chocolate and Cheese album cover

This tiny book is about them, but in particular it is about one of their 16 albums and how it marked the fulcrum of the group’s career and music. In the beginning, their style was irreverent, loud, annoying, and appealed to the head-banger college set. They toured with a DAT playback unit as a rhythm section. Precocious, quirky, and talented, they signed a record contract with Elektra in 1992. Their first Elektra album, Pure Guava, was familiar stuff to their fans, but their second big-label album, Chocolate and Cheese, was a breathtaking departure from their roots. Gene and Dean recruited three real musicians to join them and dramatically improved the quality, depth, and scope of their music. They didn’t lose that humor and irreverence, but their songs acquired a professionalism and artistry that was entirely new and only hinted at by their early years. This book chronicles the process of maturing evidenced by the album.

This book is broken into three parts: before the album, after the album, and all about the album. It’s a fan’s book, written by a fan, and published as part of series for music fans, so this ain’t literature. If you listen to and love Ween (those two things mostly go together) then you will enjoy this book.

Fences, Gates, And Bridges: A Practical Manual (1892), by George A. Martin

The craft of building good fences hasn’t changed all that much in the last century. Dig deep, brace, prepare to rebuild. You need to build the right fence for the task at hand. Gates are interesting variations: some need to accommodate animals or vehicles, others are just for people. Some gates need to work under a load of snow.

Fences for Pasture and Garden, by Gail Damerow

Damerow’s contemporary take on fences is remarkable mainly for how similar it is to the Martin book written in 1892. About the only real difference is the section on electric fences.

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), by Tom Vanderbilt

I’m only part way through this book. Fascinating topic, but middling quality writing.

Spons on Carpentry and Joinery; A Manual for Handicraftsmen and Amateurs, by E & F N Spon

In the first decade of the twentieth century, the brothers Spons, book publishers in London, set out to document how craft was done. They described the tools and techniques of more than 30 crafts. In this reprint of the 1910 edition, the crafts of carpentry and joinery  are described in anachronistic detail. Very interesting history and filled with useful stuff if you like to do things the old way.

Atonement, by Ian McEwan

This is a fabulous novel. McEwan slowly and deliberately paints an indelible portrait of a family of appealing people. Briony, the dreamy fourteen year-old daughter lives in a world of fantasy and imagination. She misinterprets certain events on the family’s estate that she witnesses. Her insistence on her fabricated version alters the lives of all the other characters. How can she atone for her error?

Your Goats; A Kid’s Guide to Raising and Showing, by Gail Damerow

I thought a children’s guide to goats would be about my level. I was right. Damerow is the author of several definitive texts on animal husbandry and 4H projects.

Understanding Wood Finishing, by Bob Flexner

Wood finishing is without equal in its confusion and obfuscation. Products are numerous, mislabeled, and deliberately confounding. Into this chaos comes a man who thinks clearly, examines thoroughly, and writes plainly. This excellent book will be the single most useful book in any woodworker’s library, starting with mine. I now know and understand the differences between oil-based, oil-derived, and oil-free finishes, among many other things. If you work wood, get this book.

Getting the Most from Your Wood-Buying Bucks; Find, Cut, and Dry Your Own Lumber, by American Woodworker

Now that I own some acres in the country, I not only have a place to store and dry my own wood, but a source for trees, too. Next summer I hope to build my own wood drying, solar-powered kiln. This book showed me how to do that.

Spies of the Balkans, by Alan Furst

Even though several of Alan Furst’s novels are so similar that they are starting to blend together in my mind, he is still my favorite novelist. Nobody else has ever had such effortless mastery of the dark, Sword-of-Damocles world of Europe drifting into World War II. He writes of civilians, spies, soldiers and the women who love them in such atmospheric brilliance that you can smell the fog and souks and musty riverbanks that are his settings. In this latest novel he tells the story of a Greek policeman who tries to maintain his independence from the Nazis even though the Greek government has already capitulated without much of a fight.

The Bread Builders; Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens, by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott

When you dig into the ways bread was baked in pre-industrial times, you not only find that the recipes are different, but you find that the ovens were different, too. Similarly, when you explore the ways that pre-industrial ovens were built, you find that the bread dough was different, too. Daniel Wing was interested in handmade bread, and Alan Scott was interested in historical, wood-fired ovens. Their skills came together in a wonderful serendipity that has sparked a 30-year-long adventure in reconstructing the older, better ways of making bread. This book and the wisdom within it are their gift to us. Alan Scott passed away a few years ago, but his children carry on his work right here in my home town of Petaluma CA. My new favorite bakery, Della Fattoria, is in our little downtown, and has been baking bread the Wing/Scott way for many years. Their bread is simply indescribably delicious. I have always loved bread, and I thought I knew my way around a good loaf, but the great Weber Family bakers have opened my eyes (and my mouth and my wallet) to what really good bread is all about.

Chicken Coops: 45 Building Plans for Housing your Flock, by Judy Pangman

This book is a lame collection of sketches of chicken coops. Then again, if you need more than a sketch, you are missing the point. There are plenty of ideas here, some useful advice and, after reading it, you will go out and build your own chicken coop without ever looking at this book again.

The Self-Sufficient Life and How To Live It: The Complete Back-to-Basics Guide, by John Seymour

This book is a broad survey of how to live independently from outside sources. Seymour is gentle and realistic in his understanding of just how difficult and demanding a task that is, yet he is undaunted in his practical enthusiasm for trying.

DK books are always beautifully illustrated and produced and this is no exception. The illustrations and woodcuts are lovely, pastoral, and quite motivational. We’d all like our gardens, milking barns, and beehives to look like those in this book.

One of the delightful wood cuts from the book

By far the most interesting part of the text is Seymour’s concise descriptions of what to do with a modest amount of land. He starts by supposing you had just an urban back yard and suggests how it might best be used. Then he supposes you had a community garden and tells how it could be made to thrive. Next he tackles a one acre farm and finally a five acre farm. The latter two descriptions are about the clearest and most concise plans for independent living I have ever read.

He covers virtually everything you might need from transplanting seedlings to butchering a hog. It’s a coffee table book, so some of the finer points may be lacking, but the whole story is here.

My favorite passage in the book is his description of making compost. He says, “You can make the best compost in the world in 12 hours by putting vegetable matter through the guts of an animal. To make it any other way will take months, whatever you do.”

Made by hand; Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World, by Mark Frauenfelder

On the golf course, tennis court, or soccer pitch, you can clearly see the difference between players who took up the game as an adult versus those who played as a child. When a child learns a sport at a young age, the basics get into his mind and body at a level that simply cannot be achieved in adulthood. My brother-in-law says that the kid gets it in hardware while the adult is condemned to just getting it in software.

My late Father was a craftsman and he taught me a reverence for wood, metal, and the tools and skills needed to work them. As a child, I spent hours in the workshop as my Father taught me to use tools and make things. As an adult in the world of software, I let my manual skills atrophy until, in the last decade or so, I found myself craving the feel of physical craftsmanship again. I’m still very much an amateur but now I have a hobbyist workshop far better equipped for wood- and metalworking than my Father could have ever imagined, and in it I get to enjoy the act of making.

Mark Frauenfelder is a technical writer who shares my reverence for craftsmanship and for making things. In this book he describes his attempts to become more involved in the physical world in which he lives by mastering many manual skills. Mark, who is the editor of Make magazine, clearly likes and admires makers, but he is trying to learn as an adult.

Just like a childhood athlete, my tool handling skills are in my hardware. Even though I bumble and learn by trial and error, my trials are at a noticeably higher level than those of, say, Mark Frauenfelder, learning to make things as an adult.While I share his interest and enthusiasm, I marvel a little at his naivete as he tells of his adventures building chicken coops and musical instruments. It makes me realize how lucky I am.

The book is a revealing self-portrait of a man looking for something missing in his life and finding it in the simple act of making. Discovering the source of satisfaction came as a surprise to him, and in a much different way, it did to me, too.

Everything is Obvious; Once You Know the Answer, by Duncan J. Watts

This book is an enquiry into common sense. The author explores what it is, what we imagine it to be, and what it is not. Common sense tells us that common sense is simple and easy, but actually it’s complex and difficult to acquire. Common sense tells us that everyone has it, but actually commonality in common sense isn’t so common. This is another one of those books that show that what we think about ourselves as a species is generally wrong, and that’s a good thing.

Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens; Care, Feeding, Facilities, by Gail Damerow

This is the definitive guide to keeping chickens. It’s all in this classic book.

The Tipping Point; How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, by Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell just looks at things differently than the rest of us do. He sees patterns and implications that elude most of us, and he writes about them in easy, digestible prose. He has his critics, and one should read Gladwell with a grain of salt, but one should read Gladwell.

The Man Who Lied to His Laptop; What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships, by Clifford Nass

I love this book. Nass is one of those few scientists who excel at inventing experiments that reveal the workings of nature. What’s more, he plays in a sandbox that is largely untenanted by scientists, and until he arrives, the field is filled with rumor and falsehood. Here he aims his empirical guns on how humans feel about each other. It turns out that humans are strange, quirky, self-deluding, lovable goofballs. Don’t miss this book.

Spomenik, by Jan Kempenaers

This is a coffee table book of photographs of soviet era monuments in the former nation  of Czechoslovakia. Haunting images of a recently deceased cultural/architectural vision.

Tops: Making the Universal Toy, by Michael Cullen

I have made a couple of tops on the wood lathe, and I want to make some more. Haven’t yet, but this book will be my reference when I get around to it.

Woodturning Full Circle, by David Springett

Springett has developed a fascinating technique for turning simple shapes on the wood lathe, then cutting them and gluing them back together to form astonishing forms that appear to defy physics.

The Art of Segmented Wood Turning: A Step-by-Step Guide, by Malcolm Tibbetts

Conventional turning is somewhat wasteful of wood for the simple reason that bowls are hollow, and the center of the wood block is discarded as shavings. In terms of volume, the majority of the wood is wasted. Segmented wood turning is a technique that is far more conservative of wood because only the walls of the bowl are there to begin with.

Segmented bowls are turned from constructed assemblages of hardwood pieces carefully cut, fit and glued together. Not only does this method save rare and valuable wood, but it allows the turner to create bowls with remarkably beautiful mosaics of color and texture built right in.

Malcolm Tibbetts is the acknowledged master of segmented bowl turning, and this book is the bible of the craft. He has taken the techniques farther than any other practitioner and his bowls are breathtaking in their beauty and craftsmanship. His techniques are not hard to duplicate, but his work is remarkable because it is so imaginative and well executed.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain

A clever American is banged on the head and wakes up in medieval Britain. Twain uses this premise to skewer contemporary revisionist thinking about the honor and wisdom of chivalry. He accomplishes his mission.

The Chosen, by Chaim Potok

This classic novel is set in Brooklyn in the 1940s. Two boys, one the son of a Hassidic Rabbi, the other the son of a devout but more modern Zionist Jew, become friends and grow up. These two boys were anachronisms in the 40s, and today their religious devotion seems positively archaic to this secular California baby boomer. Fascinating nevertheless.

The Solar House: Passive Heating and Cooling, by Daniel D. Chiras

I bought this and skimmed it, only to realize that I had bought and skimmed this same book about five years ago. Nevertheless, it’s filled with really practical advice from a pioneer in passive solar residences.

Turning Boxes with Friction-Fitted Lids, by Bill Bowers

This Mahogany box with fitted lid was my first effort following the methods in this book.

This Mahogany box with fitted lid was my first effort following the methods in this book.

This simple little book gives simple instructions for making lidded boxes on a wood turning lathe. Following Bowers instructions, I was able to make a tight fitting lidded box on my first try. This is not a great book, but it’s a decent introduction to one technique that works.

Tauntons Complete Illustrated Guide to Turning, by Richard Raffan

An encyclopedic work composed mostly of articles taken from past issues of Fine Woodworking magazine, a publication with exceptionally high editorial standards.

The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck

This classic of American literature won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for its revealing portrait of a simple farmer in pre-revolution China. The protagonist, Wang Lung, isn’t a particularly religious or doctrinaire man, but he is as susceptible to self-delusion as any human, and in this novel he exhibits all of them.

If this book were published today I doubt that it would have the impact or success that it did 75 years ago. I suspect that its themes of individual rights, the woman’s role, economic predestination, and incipient revolution were all much newer and unexamined back then. Today, it seems that there are many contemporary books that treat these ideas more forcefully. So I admit to some presentism when I conclude that this book was…meh.

The Crossing: How George Washington Saved the American Revolution, by Jim Murphy

Everyone knows that George Washington was a great American Hero but few know why. By describing his famous crossing of the Delaware, this book shows why Washington deserves all the accolades heaped upon him. Even after 230 years, we can only marvel at the boldness, skill, and visionary leadership of the man.

Murphy sets up the story by describing the headlong flight of the Continental Army away from the British, and their mercenary allies, the Hessians. The Redcoats and the Germans trounce the Americans in battle after battle across New York and New Jersey. The decimated rebel army is forced to flee across the Delaware River, where they shiver in the cold awaiting certain destruction at the hands of the enemy.

It is at this lowest possible moment, when everything is stacked against  him, that Washington shows his courage and leadership. As the weather closes in, and his subordinates express doubt and scheme against him, Washington decides to attack! Depending on the performance of a few remarkable men, Washington takes just a portion of his tiny army and executes one of the most daring maneuvers in martial history. The attack is a remarkable success, and the hated Hessians are utterly surprised and routed. Never again do they threaten the Continentals in the same way. The Americans gain a sufficient morale boost from the battle to sustain them through several more years of war.

Dragon’s Gate, by Laurence Yep

A novel about a young Chinese man who emigrates to California in 1870 to work for the Central Pacific Railroad constructing the first transcontinental rail link. The writing is pedestrian, but the incidents are well-researched and based on historical fact.

David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

While a big part of this quasi-autobiographical novel is a coming-of-age story, it is a fine display of the novelist’s capabilities. When it was written, the novel was neither as well understood as it is today, nor was it as widely accepted. In this masterpiece, Dickens showed the world how it was properly done, and from the vantage point of 160 years later, his lessons are clear. His plotting, foreshadowing, and character growth are done with skill and finesse. While one can see the marks of the writer in the words, those marks exhibit bold confidence and a fine craftsmanship.

A friend of mine was shocked to learn that this was the first time I had ever read this classic novel, and well she might, as most American kids read it in junior high school, and English majors study it in college. Maybe I waited too long, but if I had read this book as a youngster, the Victorian-era camouflaging of sexual references would have made much of the story impenetrable to me. I suppose, too, that if I had read this in college, I would have been daunted by the sheer weight of an older English dialect and the convoluted story telling style. Even today, I would say that shorter would have been better.

Interestingly, it is clear to see just how much influence Dickens had on one of my favorite authors, Patrick O’Brian.

Jumped, Rita Williams-Garcia

Reading this novel was something of a culture shock for this straight, bald, suburban, white guy. Jumped deals with youthful violence at inner city schools, and describes a milieu unknown to me. After the initial shock I found myself fascinated by the setting and intrigued by the storytelling. It’s a very good book.

The story focuses on one day in the life of three high school girls. While never stated explicitly, the girls are either black, Latina, or some mixture. Although each of the three girls has a clear persona: the athlete, the coquette, and the princess, each of them is far more complex than just that, and each is grappling with all the drama of youth. When one girl inadvertently provokes the other into a physical fight, the third girl must decide whether to interfere, and her struggle is the fulcrum of the story.

Each girl is given her own, first person voice in alternating chapters. This allows the author to speak in the vernacular, and to illustrate the internal thoughts and motivations of each character. Reviewers say this book is for young adults, but I would rate it for any age.

Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer

Foer is a young author and this, his first novel, has launched him into fame as a great novelist. The protagonist travels to Ukraine to learn about his great grandmother, who resisted the Nazis in a small shtetl. The author threads a centuries-old story of Jewish-Ukrainian history, the World War II story of his great grandmother, the story of his own contemporary quest, with the hilarious commentary of his young Russian driver, who sounds uncannily like Dan Akroyd and Steve Martin being a Wild and Krazy Guy on Saturday Night Live. Foer makes it all work, and the novel is a keeper.

Good Faith, by Jane Smiley

This is the first Jane Smiley novel I’ve ever read, and it will certainly not be the last. She tells the story of an average man caught up in the effervescent excitement of the real estate boom of the 1980s. Smiley leisurely paints a compelling portrait of a man perplexed by a beguiling world.

Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin

Steve Martin is one of the most talented polymaths to ever grace an industry, let alone the world of entertainment. Among his many talents he’s also a great writer. In this slim autobiography he tells the story of his coming of age as a stand-up comedian, one of the toughest jobs in the world. It’s a compelling read, written with gentle humor and hard-won insight. Learning the origin of some of his most durable jokes and comic bits is voyeuristically fun, and like all autobiographies, what he leaves out tells as much as what he puts in.

Taking Woodstock; A True Story of a Riot, A Concert, and a Life, by Elliot Tiber with Tom Monte

This is a great story of a landmark event in our cultural history: the Woodstock Music Festival in upstate New York in the Summer of Love, 1969. Elliot Tiber was the local promoter who brokered the deal to host the concert at his friend Max Yasgur’s dairy farm. Elliot’s story is the story of Woodstock, but it is also the fulcrum of change for his entire life, as the events of 1969 were for so many of us Boomers. This is a well-written, fun to read glimpse into history and transformation.

Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire, by Victor Sebestyen

A very readable account of the collapse of the Soviet Union. After more than 60 years, the great experiment in communism came unraveled quickly. Here’s a good chronology of each state falling away from the Russian leadership, and how the Russian’s let them go. The story of Poland is fascinating, as is the role of American bankers in the failure. The most interesting parts are getting glimpses into those leaders most in denial, some right up to the moment they were killed by their former victims.

Pudd’nhead Wilson, by Mark Twain

Twain gets away with playing the kind of fictional tricks that have, in the last hundred years, become cliched, simply because he played them first. In this satirical novel, a light-skinned black slave woman exchanges her even-lighter-skinned black son for the privileged white boy she is charged with caring for. She raises her black son as the scion of the land- and slave-owning family, and raises the actual heir as her enslaved son. The protagonist is a universally underestimated lawyer who’s hobby of taking fingerprints allows the whole plot to unravel at the most inopportune time. Twain’s humor is always pretty broad, but it is genuinely American and it is always a useful glimpse into our racial past.

I, Tom Horn, by Will Henry

This is a fictional autobiography written by one of the most accomplished authors in the Western genre. Tom Horn was a famous cavalry scout during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. He was regarded as an effective manhunter in the wild West, but as the century drew to a close, commercial interests wanted the West to be less wild. Was Horn guilty of killing fourteen year old Willie Kickell or was he accused of the murder to salve increasingly civilized sensibilities? In the author’s earnest attempt to be fair to Horn’s memory, the novel is labored in parts, but overall it’s a good read.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

From a distance, this book looked to be so fatally puerile and cliched that I was almost too embarrassed to read it. I’m glad that I finally overcame my self-consciousness and read it anyway, as it turned out to be quite good, even if it was a tear-jerking chick book. The writing was excellent, the characters believable, and the plot well-paced. The book is about the black maids of middle class white women in the American South just on the cusp of the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.  It certainly has some problems, particularly that all the white characters–barring the protagonist–are either foolish or evil, while all the black characters–barring one abusive husband–are beatific in their patience and altruism. But fictional characters are often caricatures to tell a rousing story and in this case the author delivers.

The Golden Ocean, by Patrick O’Brian

Patrick O’Brian is justly famous for his 20 volume epic novel of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin during the Age of Fighting Sail. This book was O’Brian’s dry run, his test vehicle, his first draft, his testing of the waters. In the late eighteenth century, British Admiral George Anson sailed into the Pacific on an epic adventure hunting Spanish gold. O’Brian puts his fictional protagonist onto Anson’s very real ship to tell the story with the accuracy and veracity only available to the novelist. O’Brian was sufficiently pleased with the result that he created one of the finest series of novels ever written, placing them in the same genre.

Farewell, My Subaru: An Epic Adventure in Local Living, by Doug Fine

The author decides to reduce his carbon footprint on this planet by moving to the cutties of New Mexico and living off the land. I enjoyed his well-told and simple story. He challenges himself to live without his car and to reduce his consumption of wasteful goods. Endearingly, he refuses to abandon his taste for ice cream, so diary goats figure prominently in his story. This wasn’t just some stunt for a book, but a genuine life change for the author, and he continues to manage his rural homestead and tell about it on his website “Dispatches from the Funky Butte Ranch” (

The Constant Princess, by Philippa Gregory

This is an excellent historical novel about the life of Katherine of Aragon, the Princess of Spain, daughter of the King and Queen of Spain. She arrives in England knowing her destiny is to be the Queen of England, but her journey to the throne is a tortuous and fascinating one, eventually marrying King Henry VIII.

Captains Courageous, by Rudyard Kipling

Fifteen-year-old Harvey Cheyne falls overboard from a luxury liner and is rescued by a the crew of a Newfoundland fishing schooner. The spoiled young man learns about real life by joining the fishermen, at first against his will. A simple story told well.

Baudolino, Umberto Eco

A sort of Italian magic realism novel about life, thinly disguised as a physical journey taken by the title character. The humor of the first part of the book was warm-hearted and clever. In places, the narrative sparkles with brilliance. Later in the book, the author subjects Baudolino to ever more fanciful and allegorical adventures that didn’t really work for me.

Counting Heads, by David Marusek

This science fiction novel sounded good on the dust jacket, but it never really lived up to my expectations. The writing was weak in places, the plot was strained, and some of the characters were downright bizarre. It had some clever insights into what our future might contain, but the ensemble wasn’t really believable. Ultimately I would recommend it only to an enthusiast.

The Archer’s Tale, by Bernard Cornwell

Cornwell is a formulaic genre author, and this book is formulaic and generic. The writing is straightforward but not great, while the plot and characterization is contrived. The larger historical events that are the background to the plot are based on historical fact, and I enjoy such historical fiction. The story concerns an English archer in the Hundred Year’s War. Like so many other genre books, it trivializes the injustice and cruelty of medieval adventurism, but so do most entertainments. A beach book.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

What a great read! This is historical fiction at its best: intriguing, involving, fascinating, and informing. The eponymous character is a minor Dutch clerk stationed in an artificial city off the coast of Nagasaki at the end of the 18th century, when Japan was strictly interdicting all intercourse with the outside world. It’s a coming of age story for a nation rather than an individual, written by an author of remarkable power and vision.

When Thunder Rolled: An F-105 Pilot Over North Vietnam, by Ed Rasimus

An excellent personal memoir of air combat in the 1960s. Simple prose, elegantly written. Any warrior’s story is best when presented this way.

The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, by Eric Reis

This is a very important book and hopefully it will have a strong influence on how businesses are run. Many of the stories in it try to convince the reader that “lean” concepts can work inside a large organization. I am deeply skeptical of this assertion, but remain hopeful.

Folks, This Ain’t Normal, by Joel Salatin

Joel Salatin is a firebrand. He is a proselytiser for the benefits of farming in a human scale. He sees clearly that the industrialization of farming is an abysmal failure and he castigates it with thoroughness and expertise. But he is not a retrogressive, back-to-the-Earth hippie. To the contrary, he’s a man who appreciates modern science and has the wisdom to put it to use. He has pioneered a method of raising animals that mimics the way buffalo herds interacted with the great grass plains of North America before Europeans killed them all and plowed under the great grasses.

Salatin gained a national reputation when Michael Pollan wrote about him in his bestseller, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Salatin is a polarizing writer because he says what he thinks and he lives what he preaches. His teachings are a fulcrum for the new agriculture movement. Young farmers describe their beliefs with reference to what Salatin says. One of my neighbors quit her job in the city, bought a farm, and is raising meat and vegetables in open worship of his methods.

In this book, he takes a scattershot approach to describing how we have built a society that makes honest, high-quality, locally-sourced, healthy food extremely difficult to grow. His arguments are quite convincing and I finished the book ready to man the ramparts of the food revolution.

Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer

A few years ago, the successful young novelist, Jonathan Safran Foer, had his first child. He used this signal event as a rationale to investigate his on-again-off-again vegetarianism. He wanted to make a morally defensible decision about whether his son should eat meat. This book is the product of his investigation.

He says in the beginning that it is not a vegetarian polemic, but it is clearly, unequivocally a vegetarian polemic. Reading it from the omnivore’s perspective, it makes me want to wipe out factory farms, but it isn’t having much effect on my meat eating habits. Foer’s investigation of modern meat farming has a couple of big flaws. He confuses modern concentrated animal farming techniques with normalcy, and he anthropomorphizes animals to a fault. I am an advocate of humane farming and butchering, but cows are not people. The biggest flaw in his reasoning, though, is his failure to grasp that we live in a complex ecosystem of plants and animals, and animals play a vital role in the cycle of health of our farms and ourselves. In particular, large grass-eating herbivores, that is, cows, are an integral part of the creation and maintenance of healthy North American soil.

Foer’s most egregious error, though, is his failure to use his investigation as a lever to fix the ills of the food business. To me, political vegetarianism is a toothless protest. I find far greater appeal in Joel Salatin’s more realistic and morally honest approach to replacing factory farms with human-scale food providers.

The Algebraist, by Iain M. Banks

Engagingly complex science fiction novel. Banks supposes that life in the universe is widespread and species are widely variant in their physical makeup, but modestly compatible in attitude. The book seemed very old school, like straight out of the heyday of scifi in the 1960s. Unfortunately, the plot turned on a couple of points that I found hard to suspend my disbelief for. Worth reading, but flawed.

Where Men Win Glory, by Jon Krakauer

This is the story of Pat Tillman, the former football star US Army Ranger killed in Afghanistan. Krakauer is a great writer because he can transform a simple story into a morality tale for life. This book is no exception, and it has affected my opinion of the American adventure in the Mideast. Tillman is a man very like other Krakauer protagonists: an intelligent athlete who competes primarily with himself and his life story is fascinating and inspiring. Equally inspiring are the two women in his life, his wife and his mother. When Tillman was killed, his wife copes by forgetting, while his mother copes by doggedly assaulting the Army until they finally, reluctantly reveal the truth of his death, and give the author access to the facts that undergird this book.

The Secret Life of Compost: A Guide to Static-Pile Composting–Lawn, Garden, Feedlot, or Farm, by Malcolm Beck

This book has been called the “bible” of composting, and there is much to learn here if you want to convert just about anything into high quality soil. The last chapter is the best.

The “Have-More” Plan: “A Little Land–A Lot of Living”, by Ed and Carolyn Robinson

This is a brochure-sized, paper-bound booklet that extolls the virtues of abandoning your urban apartment and buying some acres in the country to live off of the land. It was originally published just after World War II, probably 1946, and it is filled with optimism and the ‘can-do’ attitude of America’s salad days. There is no irony in this book.

Hot for Words: Answers to All Your Burning Questions About Words and Their Meanings, by Marina Orlova

Ms. Orlova is one sexy babe of an etymologist, and she uses her looks to full advantage in this amusing little book. The author writes short essays on the origin of words, and each page is illustrated with a provocative picture of her in scanty clothes. Nothing hard core here, folks. It’s all as innocent as a 1950s pinup calendar. It’s a fun read and you will learn things about words and phrases that you never knew before.

Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, by Winifred Gallagher

A book about the importance of attention that is failing to hold my attention.

Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein

I first read this book in the mid sixties, a couple years after its first publication in 1961. I was already a big fan of Heinlein and science fiction. Over the years, I’ve probably read this book a dozen times, but it’s been at least 25 years since the last time. While all the details sound very dated, the story is still brilliant and brilliantly told. It’s a timeless tale of a Martian who comes to Earth and, in mastering Earthican society, reveals our foibles and contradictions.

Photo & Quote Blog

November 26th, 2011

I have started a new blog that you might want to visit. It is more personal than this one, and somewhat less cerebral. You can find it here. It has lots of big pictures with brief, thoughtful captions. The images are interspersed with pithy quotes. Most of the quotes are things I’ve said on Twitter, but a few come from other people and other places. Many of the pictures are taken on my new farm in Petaluma, California.

Lately I’ve been putting my software and business related posts up on the Cooper blog, called the Cooper Journal. Over the last few months I’ve posted quite a few essays and a few of them have attracted considerable attention. My esteemed colleagues at Cooper also post lots of brilliant stuff on the Journal that you will likely find interesting.

I’m not sure what will go on this blog, except that I’ve been working on my bibliography for 2011 which I will post very early in the new year. Creating this blog is what spurred me to begin making a summary of the books I’ve read during the year. I’ve come to really enjoy this annual recap. All of my life I’ve been a voracious reader but I’ve never kept records. This exercise has forced me to do a little detective work at the end of the year to remember all of the titles. A few of them surprise me: “Did I really read that one?”, while a few of them are unforgettable. I also find myself wanting to write more and longer reviews, so I need to edit more aggressively to keep them brief and pithy. Even so, I just checked, the current list is 15 pages long. Stay tuned.

Lean purifies process

June 20th, 2011

Lean purifies process.

Generally, when you purify a process it works better, so a business doctrine that removes excess tends to improve other processes.

“Lean startup” is the hot new thing for those seeking a silver bullet for success, particularly in software-based, web-hosted businesses.

Lean startup is all about doing more with less. Companies that practice lean startup methods stay very close to their customers, iterate rapidly, and are willing–nay, eager–to change their entire business direction. It’s called “pivoting,” and the word “pivot” has become a popular term of art in the startup set.

Lean is appealing because you can do it with very little money. In fact, it’s hard to do lean with money simply because there is little to spend it on.

In particular, there are no layers of management in a lean startup. There are no people whose personal goals are even slightly divergent from the company’s goals.

In lean startups, the “product owner” really is the product owner; it’s not just a job title. It’s impossible to over emphasize the benefits of having an actual owner present to make decisions for the design and development team.

Because lean startup values attentive, rapid response to intelligence, it lends itself extremely well to the principles of goal directed interaction design, agile programming, test-driven development, and continuous integration. It should come as no surprise that the strongest adherents of lean startup are the most dedicated adherents to those new design and development processes.

Interaction design and agile development, when not hindered by obsolete management structures and politically charged organizations, are remarkably powerful. They often seem to be almost magically effective on the rare occasions when they can work unfettered.

The critical things that make for success in any business are time and attention. When you have no money, time and attention is all that is left. Lean startup eliminates almost everything except patience and attentiveness, thus creating a pure, fetter-free zone where practitioners can work without the hindrance of hidden agendas.

Because of the process purification effect, design, development, testing, and deployment methods in a lean startup are extremely effective, and because they are so effective, they appear to be very efficient. This success is not lost on open-minded business people and entrepreneurs, and so the reputation of lean startup is burnished.

By creating a nurturing, supportive environment for the best practices of design and development, lean startup often gets the credit for their power and effectiveness. The challenge is to learn how to create an equally supportive environment inside a mature company.

The “One Last Run Syndrome”

April 30th, 2011

I call it the “One Last Run Syndrome”. It’s been a long, exhausting day, you’re in the groove, you’re tired, but you’re doing great, so you’re going for ONE LAST RUN skiing down the mountain. That is, of course, when you fall and break your leg in three places. This principle applies to all human endeavor, including wood turning.

The Feminine Side

February 28th, 2011

At the recent Interaction Eleven conference in Boulder CO, Cheryl Platz gave an excellent presentation on ways to encourage young girls to study science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in school. Cheryl’s talk highlighted the importance of this, as the number of young women so choosing has dropped dramatically since the early 1980s, and the field needs all of the bright contributors it can recruit, regardless of gender.

I agree wholeheartedly with Cheryl’s remarks, and I support her recommendations without reservation. There is indeed some sort of barrier that discourages young women from getting into the technical professions, and it is well worth tearing it down.

Computer Engineering Barbie

But something about the presentation bothered me. After listening awhile, I realized that I was feeling the “framing effect”, a well-known cognitive bias, wherein the way a question is worded affects the way people answer it. Cheryl’s insistence that girls could enjoy studying math and science sounds right to me, but the way her argument was framed seemed to blame the girls for the shortfall.

While I earnestly support the idea that more girls should study math and science, I believe that the problem instead belongs to employers, educators, and the institutions they lead. I believe that the STEM disciplines would have more success with young women if they developed a stronger feminine side.

Rather than simply “boys” versus “girls”, I prefer to think of personal inclinations in terms of one’s “feminine side” and “masculine side”. I believe that all men and all women possess both sides in varying degrees. I am proud of my strong feminine side, and I know many women whose strong masculine side makes them tough as nails.

What’s more, there are many men and boys who are more comfortable in the soft studies and who eschew the harder sciences. There are many young men who struggle with math, but who could make excellent contributions to the fields of software development, technical literature, interaction design, visual design, cognitive and behavioral studies, and other closely related fields (for example, that would describe me).

I believe that girls reject math and science not because they are too girly, but because the purveyors of STEM education are too manly, or more accurately, too pointless and boring from the feminine point of view.

There are very real differences between the sexes, and these appear at a young age in all children. There is a large and growing body of literature in the fields of evolutionary and cognitive psychology that prove and illustrate these different ways the sexes behave in similar situations.

Women are quite capable of high achievement in STEM subjects, but they are disinterested because their motivations are different. Platz asserted that while men are content to learn math or science for the subject’s own sake, women see those disciplines merely as a means for achieving broader human goals. Those goals are what motivate the feminine approach, and when the subjects are taught in isolation, they often lose interest.

What’s more, I don’t believe that the hard sciences discourage only girls; I believe that they also discourage those with a well-developed feminine personality.

This is admittedly a semantic quibble, but the framing effect is a very real thing, and the language we use powerfully influences our decisions. And when the feminine side is strongly influenced to stay away from science and technology, our entire society suffers. A solely masculine discipline is a weak and one-sided discipline.

One could make a strong argument that the feelings of frustration and failure people get from using technology were caused by our purely masculine approach to software design. Almost all of our digital artifacts are designed and built by men (and a few women with strong masculine sides) inside organizations led by the same, who learned their discipline from masculine teachers within masculine institutions using curricula and methods that embody strong masculine principles.

Bringing stronger feminine values and more feminine ways of thinking to science and technology will bring a larger, more human scale view to our disciplines. The feminine side approaches problems and group dynamics in a way that is very different from the masculine way. When some minor catastrophe occurs at work or play, I have seen groups of men standing around demanding “Who did this?” and “Who’s going to fix this?” When that same catastrophe occurs amid a group of women, they ask “Did I cause this?” and “What can I do to fix this?” This positive, supportive attitude of women transforms the whole sense of teamwork and accomplishment.

It’s certainly possible to go too far, as groups of only women can be as biased and problematic as groups of only men. By far, the strongest and most effective teams are the ones composed of both men and women, with strong masculine and feminine sides. The whole nature of the group changes for the better with mixed gender teams. When there are at least two members of each sex in a group, the dynamics improve dramatically. A recent study gives some empirical credence to my personal observations.

Unfortunately, almost the entire spectrum of education in computer and software subjects is taught in glacial isolation from any practical application that improves people’s lives. The masculine side says “Computers are great because they can do anything!” while the feminine side says “I’d be very interested in computers if you could just tell me one useful thing they can do!”

I believe that the greatest burden of responsibility for bringing women into STEM education lies with the academic establishment. Young girls know who they are and what they want just as clearly as young boys do. As Cheryl noted in her talk, women are capable and willing of engaging with technology if it gives them command of something relevant in their lives. When educators connect their disciplines to the larger world, girls will be the first to see it, value it, and join up.

Many practitioners today seek redemption in a deeper understanding of the technical tools we use to build software. But that is such a masculine interpretation of the problem. Rather, I believe that a more worthwhile wellspring lies in understanding how human beings think and behave and what motivates their actions. That is, if the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math were to develop a stronger feminine side we’d not only see a lot more girls entering our fields, but our fields would be much better for it.

HTML Smokestacks

February 1st, 2011

HTML is to our era as smoke-belching industrial stacks were to the 20th century.

HTML Smokestacks