2011 in Books

29 12 2011

I should mention, these are books that I personally read in 2011, but were not necessarily published during 2011 (and indeed, a couple have been older texts).

It’s been a busy reading year for me. I was just thinking of all the things I read this year, and trying to separate out the ones I read recently but not this year.  I will do my best to list them out and make some brief comments, as much for myself as for readers of this blog.

In no particular order:

The Millennium series by Steig Larson

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

The Girl Who Played With Fire

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest

I was really taken in by these books – they were real page-turners.  I have a Kindle e-reader (which I love) and I read these three on the Kindle.

(I will say generally, as much as I love the Kindle, it does change the reading experience in a couple of important ways. Firstly, you lose the tactile and olfactory sensations of holding a book in your hands; secondly, although the Kindle tells you how far you’ve read through the book in terms of percent completion, it’s different than eyeballing how much progress you’ve made by looking at your bookmark.  Otherwise, I really love the Kindle – we have an older model, without the backlight.  It’s so cool to be able to have hundreds or thousands of books in such a small package.)

There’s not a lot to say about the Millennium series that others haven’t already said and that won’t give away critical plot elements, so I will instead say only that the books are surprising in their darkness and sexual nature, and that the first one is the best, and that the first book stands on its own as a self-contained work.

Riding Man by Mark Gardiner

(I’m not sure if this is primarily only available on the Kindle?)

The Isle of Man TT is one of the longest running motorcycle races of all time. It’s been happening every May-June since 1905, except during wartime.  The thing that makes it so special – and so deadly – is that it is a true road race, held on (temporarily closed) public roads over a 38 mile course.  Roads, as in old British roads, with trees, curbs (or kerbs, as they say), and stone walls.  No safety margin at all – in order to live, you need to not crash in many sections.

This book is about the journey of one man who grew up dreaming of racing the Isle of Man; he was a part-time motorcycle journalist and a full time PR creative director when he decided to quit his job and move to the Island,in order to learn the course (and its 200 + turns/corners).

While the book obviously appeals to riders, I think it would be an enjoyable read to anyone and I would recommend it as a well-written and fun to read book.

Stranger to the Ground by Richard Bach

As an amateur Cold War historian, I came across the book Stranger to the Ground, written by Richard Bach (most famous for his book Jonathan Livingston Seagull) somehow in connection with a bombing technique developed for nuclear bomb delivery, called an “over the shoulder toss” where the pilot flies really low on their way to the target, begins to execute a loop essentially directly over the target, and releases the bomb while in the upward part of the loop. They then fly away as fast as possible as the bomb travels upwards, and then comes sailing down, theoretically giving the pilot chance to clear the blast zone.

Stranger is a great existential commentary on man’s urge and will to fly, and on what it means to be a pilot. It is written is relatively simple style, and contains a lot of references and insight into the national mentality during the Cold War. Bach was a F-84F pilot with the New Jersey Air National Guard, stationed in France in the late 1950s.

The book is about flying, at night and in bad weather, in his F-84F from England to France, but it also includes a lot of side stories and philosophy.  I very much enjoyed reading this quick-reading book.

Flying American Combat Aircraft: The Cold War edited by Robin Higham

I saw this book on a shelf in the bookstore one day, in the military history area. It was right up my alley – a blend of history (Cold War history in particular!) and flying – good stuff.

Basically it’s broken into many chapters, one chapter per aircraft, that is an isolated account of flying the plane written by a pilot who flew that aircraft type.  Accordingly, some of the segments are well-written and entertaining.  Others are readable – you get the info and a sense of the aircraft.  But some are so badly written (and edited), rife with spelling, grammar and punctuation errors, that it is a little distracting.

Still, I hadn’t even heard of many of these planes before, and the good authors outweigh the bad. And there are a ton of pictures which is nice in this type of book.

Business Background Investigations by Cynthia Hetherington

I bought this book because I am genuinely interested in doing my job better. It turns out that my bosses are only interested in me doing my job faster, not better. Anyway, I bought this one and have been slowly working my way through it.

I found a lot of the information in the book to be useful, even if certain things were less than revolutionary for me.  There is a lot of information to digest and I must profess that I really haven’t employed many of her techniques for searching public records and the like.

I would say, this is among the worst-edited books I’ve ever read.  There are so many misspellings, grammatical errors and bad punctuation that it sort of boggles the mind; it is, after all, a trade book about business intelligence and due diligence, and I would expect much more attention to detail. I mean it is really bad from a technical perspective – it reads almost like a first draft. The content and tone are great, and I will continue to use it as a reference.

A Guide to Rock Art Sites: Southern California and Southern Nevada by David S. Whitley

I know that I haven’t written about it here yet, but one of my many interests is ancient rock art, particularly that of the American West (where I live and can visit).

Another book here on my list below (The Void, The Grid & The Sign) inspired me to go hunting for a petroglyph site that my family knew of, out in the Mojave desert in Southern California earlier this year. We found it and took many pictures, and I bought these two books on the subject.

I feel that this one, about the sites themselves, is based more on accepted knowledge and less on theory as to what the symbols mean. It tends to include more information that helps the reader to understand the context that the art is found in, which may help to divine its meaning (no one really knows how to interpret or “translate” the symbols – there is no Rosetta Stone for ancient American petroglyphs).

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A Field Guide to Rock Art Symbols of the Greater Southwest

I bought this book based on the strength of its reviews on Amazon, but I was a little disappointed when I got it.  There is a lot of subjective interpretation in this book.  I did not locate any of the symbols that we documented at the site we visited.

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The Ultimate Guide to U.S. Army Survival Skills, Tactics, and Techniques

OK, I should probably mention at this point that I am NOT a survivalist, I don’t have a small (or large) arsenal and a year’s worth of food and water squirreled away somewhere in the desert or mountains. However, I also saw this one in the bookstore and couldn’t resist.

I can’t claim to have “read” this book cover-to-cover. It’s really not that kind of book, it’s not a narrative. However, it has all kinds of information – helpful stuff like how to build a shelter out of available materials, how to start a fire, etc. It also contains less-useful stuff (hopefully, at least!) like how thick your walls have to be to stop a 7.62mm rifle bullet vs. a .50 caliber one.  There are also instructions for stalking a guard at an army base, and other crazy stuff.

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Passing Through: An Existential Journey Across America’s Outback, by Richard Menzies

I saw this amazing PBS documentary called Living in the Big Empty produced by one of the Nevada PBS stations. It focused primarily on two authors, Richard Menzies and William Fox, and their respective books.

Menzies’ book is the more accessible of the two, and is comprised of stories about some of the interesting people that he met during his time in the Great Basin. It also contains photographs that he took during his encounters with them.

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The Void, The Grid & The Sign

This was a great read, very abstract and cerebral. I must admit that I struggled with parts of this book.

Fox sort of explains mankind’s early attempts to define and map the Great Basin, an endorheic basin where all precipitation flows inward. He describes man’s failure to accurately scale ourselves within such a vast, open space.

It’s such an interesting book that it’s difficult to summarize or describe. He talks of Michael Heizer and his large-scale landscape installations, such as City in Nevada.

He also goes into a lot of the history of the exploration of the Great Basin, and weaves in a lot of discussion around the Native American rock art.

Overall this is a great book, one that taught me so much and that I will always remember, but a little difficult to read perhaps for some people.

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Deep Black: Space Espionage and National Security by William Burrows

A very interesting look at American and Soviet early space reconnaissance satellite programs. Very nerdy stuff, published in the mid-1980s, it explains the strategic importance not only of having good overhead intelligence gathering but also the interpretation of the information.

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Nasdaq: A History of the Market That Changed the World by Mark Ingebretsen

A book about the NASDAQ stock market. Frankly, very boring unless you are in the business. I can summarize the read-between-the-lines as: traders have been fleecing investors at every opportunity for decades.

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Flight of the Falcon by Robert Lindsey

A “part two” of sorts in the saga of convicted Soviet spy Christopher Boyce, detailing his daring escape from prison and his nearly year of freedom before he was caught days before his final escape to the then Soviet Union.  True story!

On the shelf still:

Century of Spies

Peterman Rides Again

The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged

A few books about physics, and a couple of Steven King’s newer ones.

It was a busy reading year!

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It’s The Recovery, Stupid

27 12 2011

This is a really interesting statistic.

If you judge the recent recession strictly by U.S. GDP, we have completely recovered from the downturn. In fact, we are back to where we were in 2007, prior to the recession.

From The Atlantic:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/12/the-most-important-graphs-of-2011/250240/

 

This is their explanation:

“The chart shows real GDP in the U.S. and the level of total civilian employment from 2002-2011. The total output of the U.S. economy in Q3 of this year finally increased to a level above the output in the fourth quarter of 2007, when the recession started (blue line). In other words, the U.S. economy has now made a complete recovery from the 2007-2009 recession. But the labor market is still struggling to recover. We have 6.6 million fewer jobs today in the U.S. than in December 2007 when the recession started (red line in chart), along with a 8.6% unemployment rate, and thus another “jobless recovery.” On the other hand, it’s remarkable that the U.S. economy is now able to produce more output than in 2007, but is doing so with 6.6 million fewer workers, as a result of significant gains in productivity brought about by the severe recession. Therefore, the chart helps to tell the story of two different sides of an economy in recovery: we’ve seen huge gains in productivity and a recovery in output, but at the same time we see a labor market struggling to recover, with the possibility that it will take many more years or even a decade to regain all of the millions of jobs lost during the recession.” – Mark J. Perry, Ph.D., visiting fellow, American Enterprise Institute

However, unfortunately this recovery has occurred without a similar recovery in terms of job gains. Instead, the U.S. economy is now producing the same as it was in 2007, but now with 6.6 MILLION fewer workers!

This means that companies have eliminated all excess positions, have improved productivity to the point that people are just flat working more and harder. I am sure that automation comes into play for some of these lost jobs, but not all –and I’d even bet, not most.

People – and employers – have adapted to doing more with less. The real question for 2012 is going to be, where will the economy grow to the point that some of these 6.6 million people can get back to work?





Say Hello Before You Say Goodbye

23 12 2011

Since I’m on a video kick this week, I thought I’d share another good one – Martin Solveig’s “Hello” – a truly funny video:





Foster The People – Album of the Year 2011

22 12 2011

I remember first hearing Pumped Up Kicks on the radio and thinking it was OK – it had a little bit of a “trendy” sound to me, but it grew on me especially after I listened carefully to the lyrics.

Then just before the album, Torches, was released, I heard an interview with Mark Foster on NPR and I thought maybe I’ll have to buy the album and check it out. I remember he described Pumped Up Kicks as “this dark song with a really light and airy melody” – I thought that was kind of cool. He went on to talk about how his parents encouraged him to move to “either New York or Los Angeles” to pursue a career in music. How good of them, and thank God because they produced one hell of an album.

We got to see them live over the summer, and I have to say I was completely blown away by their live performance. Their album is so produced-sounding that I doubted they would be able to put on a great show. Wrong!  Totally wrong – it in fact proved to be one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen, and believe me when I say that I’ve seen a few.

Here are several of my favorites.

Helena Beats (weird post-apocalyptic Mad Max take):

Pumped Up Kicks (the self-indulgent “aren’t we a cool band” video for their most famous song):

Call It What You Want (fun slightly bizarre artsy video):

Miss You (music only):





Grizzly Bear video

22 12 2011

If you were tuning in to watch a video of someone being eaten alive by a bear, you’ve come to the wrong place. However if you’d like to hear a pretty catchy tune and see a truly bizarre music video, press play below.

We saw these guys in concert a couple of years ago at The Hollywood Bowl (when we saw Phoenix, who were awesome), and they were OK. I love this song and eventually purchased the whole album – aside from one other track (“Cheerleader”), I was totally disappointed. 





Suck It

22 12 2011

Just some thoughts for certain bosses and coworkers, during this joyous holiday time:





Robert Edison Fulton, Jr. – Inventor and Adventurer

16 12 2011

In one of my typical research side-trips, I came across this fellow, Robert Fulton, Jr. I originally was going to post about his novel surface-to-air extraction system (below), but I quickly found that Fulton himself was quite an interesting guy; an adventurous type, he rode a motorcycle around the world based on a glib comment (from him) at a dinner party:

At a dinner party at his friends’ house, a young woman asked him if he would be sailing home soon.

He answered: “No, I am going around the world on a motorcycle.” Robert Fulton would say for the rest of his life that he had no idea why he said such a thing.

He rode a Douglas motorcycle, fitted with extra gas tanks, lots of luggage (for water and supplies), and “common automobile tires” to enable him to find spares and make repairs more easily abroad. He travelled from England through France, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Greece. Eventually he ended up in Damascus and rode through the Syrian desert to Baghdad.

He rode sixteen kilometers on the road out of Damascus. Then he saw a sign showing the way toward Baghdad. It was here that the road ended. In front of him was the great desert. Robert Fulton was alone for most of the trip. He worried about his motorcycle. If the engine failed, he could die of lack of water before anyone could find him. He could fall off and break a leg or arm. The severe heat could kill him. But the motorcycle did not fail him. He survived the fierce heat. He arrived safely in Baghdad.

(Quote courtesy of: http://www.voanews.com/learningenglish/home/a-23-2009-01-13-voa1-83141307.html )

He ended up going through Afghanistan, India, Vietnam, China, Malaysia and Japan, took a ship to San Francisco, and rode cross-country to New York. Now that’s quite a trip even today, with modern motorcycles and equipment (and support infrastructure along the way, modern roads, etc.). Imagine that kind of trip in 1932!

His grandfather was ran stagecoach passages through the Old West, in the post-Civil War days, which ended up becoming the Greyhound Bus Lines, later when his uncle took over the business.

He died in 2004 at age 95. Here’s a great interview the NY Times did with him in March of 2000.

Fulton surface-to-air recovery system –STARS

During the Cold War, the U.S. military and CIA decided they needed a way to retrieve people and cargo from the ground, using an airplane, without actually landing the aircraft. Basically, they anticipated a need to retrieve people (like spies) from the ground who are out of helicopter range (which can obviously remain airborne with no horizontal velocity, and don’t require an airstrip to land).

Beginning in the early 1950’s, Robert Fulton devised this extraction system – what was later termed STARS for Surface-to-Air Recovery System.

Basically, on the ground the person (or cargo) wears a harness, attached by a long rope to a weather balloon. The balloon is set adrift, and an airplane with a special rig on the nose, wings and cargo compartment flies into the rope (beneath the balloon), and snags the person or cargo on the ground. The person being lifted gets a “swift kick in the pants” as I read somewhere, as they become airborne and begin “flying” behind the aircraft, which then uses a winch to reel them in. Sounds terrifying if you ask me!

See it in action below.

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MC-130 pickup:

Cargo pickup:

It was even featured in a James Bond movie, Thunderball, at the end: