Monday, May 27, 2013

Tennis Anyone?

No sport is more isolating than tennis. There are no teammates to rely on and no timeouts to halt your opponents momentum. You have no corner to retreat to and you are not allowed to consult with your coach during a match. It's just you and the person on the other side of the net. This is why so many tennis players go absolutely insane. Playing tennis in high school I would just live for the moment when I broke the person I was playing against. The minute they started slamming their racket on the ground in frustration and muttering to themselves I knew I had them. And nothing was worse when it happened to you.

Tennis is also a beautiful game to watch. I am fortunate enough to live near the Cincinnati ATP tournament so every year I get to watch the best players in the world. In the last three years I’ve seen Roger Federer vs. Mardi Fish, Novak Djokovic vs. Andy Murray, and Federer vs. Djokovic. It’s just amazing watching how good these guys are and you have to wonder how they became so skilled. The short answer is of course hours and hours and hours and hours of practice. Want to know the long answer? Here’s where to go.

Start with Some History:
I have two books that have "the Greatest Match Ever Played” in the title. The first, Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played by L. Jon Wertheim intersperses a description of the 2008 Wimbledon finals between Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer (considered by many to be the best players of all timeWith Federer the clear #1. Yes Nadal owns an advantage in their one on one battles, but here’s the statistic that is mind blowing. The record for most consecutive Grand Slam finals appearances is Federer with 10. Second place? Federer with 8. The next highest? Nadal with 5. Nadal is the greatest on clay, but Fed is still the GOAT.) with biographical information about the two men. But despite the greatness of Federer and Nadal, and what a great tennis match the 2008 Wimbledon finals was it pales in comparison to the key match of the 1937 Davis Cup match between Don Budge (USA) and Baron Gottfried von Cramm (Germany), set on the eve of WWII with implications far greater than tennis. Marshall Jon Fisher describes the stakes of this match in his wonderful book A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, A World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played. The book does a great job demonstrating how the events of the day affected the men on the court and gives you a great lesson about the early days of tennis.And leaves you wondering just how many Grand Slams Don Budge could had won if professionals could have competed in them. Perhaps he would be in the GOAT discussion. And what about Big Bill Tilden? Seriously Brian Phillips, write the Book of Tennis already!

Then get into a Player’s Head:
I have read a bunch of sports autobiographies and most are fairly average. They meander in clich├ęs and mainly seem designed to further the athlete’s brand. Not so with Andre Agassi’s Open. From his bad boy image is everything Brooke Shields loving early years to the physical specimen workman of his later career Agassi is a fascinating person. Agassi is candid and his memoirs are engrossing. It was amazing how much he hated tennis and it was almost painful to read how much tough losses impacted him. After reading this book you get a sense of how unfair it is that the losses are always remembered more vividly than the wins. Despite the career grand slam, 8 slam titles, and Olympic gold Agassi probably wakes up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat thinking about those matches with Sampras he let get away. The book conveys just how hard it is to become great at tennis, and just how cruel the sport of tennis can be.

Then improve your own game:
If you play tennis you will eventually find yourself on the court with someone who is just flat out better than you. They will be able to do things with a tennis racket that you can only dream of. Fortunately, this doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to lose. One of the best strategies to adopt in these situations is pushing: don’t try to hit winners, just minimize unforced errors, focus on hitting the ball back and try to extend the point. The idea is that hopefully, the guy you are playing against will get increasingly frustrated with how long the point is taking and will start taking more and more chances until he hits an unforced error. After repeating this process over and over sometimes you can get a player to snap and it’s game over. Obviously this won’t work against Roger Federer, but against that 4.5 player when you are a 3.5? It gives you a punchers chance. If you want a how-to guide for this strategy you can do no better than Brad Gilbert’s Winning Ugly: Mental Warfare in Tennis--Lessons from a Master. In Gilbert’s playing days he was a master of finding and exploiting his opponent’s weaknesses and it was under his tutelage that Andre Agassi reached his full potential. In the book Gilbert provides some great lessons on how you too can use strategy to bring down better players.

On Practice

An essay on the importance of practice, extraneous to the goal of this blog and yet its foundation, which the impatient may skip and the reflective might enjoy.This essay, the title of which pays homage to the title of Ch. 13 from Philip Wylie’s The Disappearance, was originally written as one of my many aborted attempts at starting my dissertation.

“Genius can appear anywhere, but the origins of Carlsen's talent are particularly mysterious.” Time Magazine

A 2010 article in Time Magazine profiled Magnus Carlsen, a Norwegian who at 18 became the youngest world No. 1 chess player in history. Carlsen, who became a grandmaster at 13, has been coached by Garry Kasparov who has stated of Carlsen’s play, “Before he is done, Carlsen will have changed our ancient game considerably.” As Kasparov is considered by many to be the greatest chess player of all time this is very high praise. According to Kasparov, Carlsen “has a natural feel for where to place the pieces”. Experts watching him play are often surprised by his selection of moves and only after the fact realize his choice was perfect. Even Carlsen himself has a difficult time describing his ability: “It’s hard to explain, sometimes a move just feels right”. The take away message from the Time's article is clear: Carlsen’s genius is an innate ability and the origin of his innovative and creative play will remain an unsolved mystery.

Recent research has attempted to shine a light into the black box of innovation and creativity. The majority of this research has focused on answering the question, “When are people most creative”? Jia (2009) for example. The research has spawned an impressive list of items that may promote creativity: mood, intrinsic/extrinsic rewards, regulatory focus, bodily cues, temporal distance, spatial distance, and even sexual imagery. Though quite an impressive list, a laundry list of potential factors does not improve our conceptual understanding of creativity. Throughout the course of a tournament, Carlsen’s mood, his focus on intrinsic/extrinsic rewards, and his temporal distance from the chessboard most likely vary, and though these variations may impact his performance to a certain extent, his creativity and innovation on the chessboard remain consistent. Rather than focus on when Carlsen is creative, research must focus on why Carlsen is creative to uncover the mystery.

By all accounts Kobe Bryant is one of the best basketball players on the planet; Bill Simmons, author of The Book of Basketball, states that if Kobe maintains his current pace he will end his career with five championship rings, 34,000 points (3rd all time), 10 first team all-NBAs, and would be the 3rd or 4th greatest player in the history of the league. Most people attribute his success to “god-given ability” and obviously it helps your NBA chances if you are 6’6. However, if size and athletic ability were all that mattered, as Chris Ballard puts it, Eddie Curry would be all-NBA and Derrick Coleman would be getting ready for his hall of fame induction ceremonyQuotes in this paragraph are from this Sports Illustrated article by Chris Ballard. The reason Kobe has been so successful is that he works harder off the court than anyone else. Every day he makes (not takes) 700 to 1,000 shots, in addition to 4 hours of weight trainings and conditioning. Kobe’s method is consistency; in his words, “You have a program, and a schedule, and you have to abide by that, religiously. You just stick to it, and it's the consistency that pays off.” Additionally at the end of each season, Kobe sits down with his coaches to break down the season and establish goals and a plan for improvement over the off-season. This past off season while the majority of his peers were relaxing on the beach or even focused on their training, Kobe was working with Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon to improve his post-up movesLeBron James made a trip to Olajuwon University two seasons ago and the results speak for themselves, adding yet another skill to his bag of tricks.

The old joke goes something like this:
A tourist is wandering around New York City and he is clearly lost. He walks up to a local and asks, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”. “Practice, Man, Practice” responds the local. If you want to be good at something you have to practice. The key to achieving mastery in a specific area is the amount of deliberate practice an individual performs Erickson (1993). Though it is easy to attribute Kobe’s success to his “god-given talent”, the amount of hours he has put in the gym are just as crucial if not more so to his success. Similarly, the genius and creativity Magnus Carlsen displays while playing chess are attributed to mysterious factors such as intuition or innate talent. However a closer look at Carlsen’s daily routine sheds light on the origin of his talent. Carlsen, Lehrer (2010)Yes that Lehrer. The self-plagiarizing, Bob-Dylan quote fabricating, lying while his hand was in the cookie jar former wunderkind who has only recently emerged from wherever he has been hiding. This essay was written several years before the scandal broke and I think the ideas are still good despite Lehrer's actions. writes, has taken advantage of something his predecessors like Kasparov didn't have, computer chess. He typically plays multiple games at once against sophisticated chess playing algorithms allowing him an unprecedented amount of deliberate practice. While previous generations of Chess players were limited by the the number and stamina of quality opponents they could find, Carlsen had played more games by the age of 13 than many grandmasters had their entire lives. Lehrer goes on to explain the how this practice allowed Carlsen to develop his famed intuition. All the games Carlsen has played allowed him the chance to make more mistakes than other players. Lehrer quotes Neils Bohr A quick Google search suggests Bohr did indeed make this statement. With Lehrer, you have to check.: an expert is, “a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” Carlsen has been able to make more mistakes, and learn from them, providing him with so much experience that he is able to utilize the knowledge he gained through deliberate practice at a level so automatic it appears intuitive.

Thus, deliberate practice is key when you want to improve a skill. This seems like an obvious point, and most people grasp this idea when you are discussing an activity like driving a car or solving math problems. However, there seems to be a block when we encounter someone like Carlsen. Carlsen must be an innate genius is often the default mode of thinking. Why is this? Obviously, if we place the reason on innate talent it lets us off the hook. If we had only been blessed with “god-given ability” we too could be a chess master or an NBA superstar. To consider the role that deliberate practice plays might place the blame to close to our own doorstep. As Erickson states, there is nothing fun about deliberate practice. In fact, the desire to practice, even though practice is not fun, is another characteristic that is important in the development of any skill:

“There’s a difference between loving basketball and liking basketball. There are only about 30 guys in the league who love it, who play year round. Allen Iverson loves to play when the lights come on. Kobe loves doing the shit before the lights comes on. This thing, this freakish compulsion, may be the hardest element of the game to quantify. There are no plus-minus stats to measure a player’s ruthlessness, his desire to beat his opponent so badly he’ll need therapy to recover.”From that Chris Ballard article. No I ain't hyperlinking it again. Scroll up!

Carlsen provides similar statements. When asked by Time magazine if he saw chess as a game or combat or a game of art Carlsen replied: “Combat. I am trying to beat the guy sitting across from me and trying to choose the moves that are most unpleasant for him and his style. Of course some really beautiful games feel like they are art, but that's not my goal.”

The will to succeed and win is so dominant in both Kobe and Carlsen that they are able to overcome the negatives associated with deliberate practice. In fact, both men continuously work on their skill through deliberate practice. Like Kobe seeking out Hakeem, Carlsen has began working with Kasparov. This perseverance and passion of long-term goals has been referred to as GritDuckworth (2007) and is the second key component of developing any skill, including creativity.

Thus both the amount of deliberate practice and the willingness to engage in practice are critical to skill development. However there is one additional critical factor: type of practice. Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots has won three Super Bowls and was a miracle play away from the first 19-0 season in NFL History. What separated Belichick’s Patriot teams from the rest of the NFL? According to Gasper (2008) the answer is situated practice. Gasper interviewed a former Patriot who described his first day of training camp under Belichick. The head coach created the following situation: it was late in the game, the Pats are down by a field goal and had the ball at their own 17 yard line with 1:21 left and zero timeouts. This was a recreation of the Patriots drive to win Super Bowl XXXVI. Belichick had his players practice these scenarios in training camp so they could make mistakes and learn from them so that by the time they needed to perform perfectly in the post-season they would be ready. Belichick understood that in addition to drills and conditioning, players needed to practice the skills they would need during games.

In order to design successful deliberate practice you have to understand the constraints of the task you are trying to practice for. Additionally, it is vital to understand that simply practicing the exact task is not enough. Edward Zagorski has spent the last thirty years teaching industrial design at the University of Illinois. After attempting to teach his students how to design he learned that it was more critical that he learned how to effectively teach students to design. He mentions how he once asked students to design a toy for a 5-12 year old child. The results, according to Zagorski, resulted in “push-pull, bland, and tired solutions”. The next time he asked the students to design a toy that would render a random decision. This resulted in much more creative designs. Hence, the nature of the task and the task's constraints are important to understand when designing deliberate practice to improve a skill. Zagorksi’s method focused on providing enough constraints to allow the student to focus, but not so many that they were constrained.

In conclusion, any skill can be improved through deliberate practice, as long as the individual is able to commit to a significant amount of deliberate practice and that deliberate practice has been tailored to hone the critical skills needed to succeed at the target task. I will be using this blog as a way to engage in deliberate practice to get better at writing about reading in a style that is hopefully witty, not too lengthy,Off to a great start there bucko! This entry is turning into a manifesto! and provides opportunities and encouragement for reader engagement. I hope you decide to stick around for the ride!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

So You Like The Hunger Games?

About a year ago I finally gave in to the hype and ended up reading The Hunger Games. Though the prose didn't blow me away, I thought the book was well plotted and entertaining. If you enjoyed The Hunger Games but aren’t sure what to read next, here are some suggestions based on some opinions you may have had after finishing the series.

I totally think Gogo Yubari would whip Katniss’ ass.

Me too. I mean she was thisclose to taking care of the bride in Kill Bill. The actress who plays Yubari, Chiaki Kuriyama, is in the film version of Battle Royale, a novel by Koushun Takami which is basically the earlier, more violent, Japanese version of The Hunger Games.

You know this whole forcing teenagers to kill each other is so distasteful. I wish they were volunteers or something.

Then you’ll want to read Stephen King’s The Long Walk, the gold standard in the teenagers fight to the death game show genre. One hundred volunteers start walking along the United States eastern seaboard at the Maine/Canada border. They have to maintain a pace of 4 miles per hour. If they fall under that mark they receive a warning (which can be reset to zero if they walk for another hour without falling below 4 mph). Once they receive 3 warnings if they fall under 4 mph again they are shot and killed. Once the long walk is started there are no breaks for sleeping, eating, or bathroom breaks... they keep walking until only one walker is left alive. The participants are not allowed to physically harm each other... but oh the mental gamesmanship is awesome. How this hasn’t been made into a film yet I have no idea.

I love all the blood and guts and even the forced participation is fun. But the age of the participants makes me feel bad.

No worries I’ve got you covered. In fact, you can stay right here with Stephen King with another story in The Bachman Books, The Running Man. Though the novel itself is fine, I highly recommend the movie, as you get not only Arnold Schwarzenegger but also former Family Feud host Richard Dawson egging on the bloodlust of the viewing audience. That blue haired freak in The Hunger Games couldn’t hold Dawson’s jockstrap.

You know I just don’t like the game show aspect. Can’t we just throw a bunch of kids into a desperate situation and see what they do by themselves? Surely they’ll all get along and build a new society right?

Well I suggest you take a trip back to sophomore year and check out Lord of the Flies by William Golding. In this novel a plane crash leaves a group of boys stranded on a deserted island without any supervision. Despite their English pedigree their attempt at creating a new civilization on the island slowly but surely descends into delicious chaos. Don’t worry about the symbolism bullshit crammed down your throat by your English teacher. Yes we get that the gradual destruction of Piggy’s glasses reflect the gradual disintegration of civilization amongst the boys. That ain’t what we're here for. On one side we’ve got Ralph and on another side we’ve got Jack. Let’s get it on! FEED THE BEAST!

I’m having a hard time visualizing all the blood and guts. Hunger Games would have been better with some illustrations. Give me some comic books!

Well there’s this obvious Hunger Games rip-off called Avengers Arena where Arcade, formerly a D-level bad guy, turns into a bad ass and kidnaps members of Avengers Academy, the Runaways, Braddock Academy, Darkhawk, etc. and forces them to fight to the death.

NOOOOOOOOOOOO! Those dingbats killed my favorite character!

Well then I have to recommend Strikeforce Morituri, a late 1980s Marvel comic book with the tagline: We Who Are About to Die!. The storyline revolved around an alien race known as the Horde that had invaded and basically conquered Earth. Humanity's only hope was the Morituri process, a process that would grant a person superpowers. However, the Morituri process also causes that person to die within a year (on average... a person could last longer or go quicker). Thus, one could gain the power to save humanity but at the cost of their own life. This lead to great stories as the heroes struggled with the fact that they were mortal and could literally die at anytime. The cast was constantly revolving due to the deaths and the creative team never failed at creating new and intriguing heroes, who gave their lives to fight the Horde.There are a TON of comics book storylines that follows The Hunger Games formula. Contest of Champions. Secret War. Almost anything that happens in the Mojoverse. The X-Force/New Warriors crossover called Child’s Play. Contest of Champions II. Marvel vs. DC. Planet Hulk. Inevitably Thor jobs.

Hunger Games had too many damn characters. Let’s get rid of the red shirts and get down to business. One dude hunting another dude. That’s what I want! And make it quick! I’ve got a short attention span and no time!

Then you have to check out this short story by Richard Connell called The Most Dangerous Game first published in 1924. A big game hunter by the name of Sanger Rainsford is shipwrecked on an island and soon finds that he himself is being hunted.

Ya know I really don’t even like reading and barely got through The Hunger Games. Any TV Shows?

Well in the ‘90s there was a TV show called Sliders, where a group of 4 people (a physics student, his professor, his girlfriend, and a musician) are stuck traveling (i.e. sliding) from dimension to dimension.Like Quantum Leap but different worlds instead of different times. For example, one of their earliest slides takes them to a dimension where the Soviet Union won the Cold War. In the first episode of the 3rd season the Sliders travel to a world where they find themselves competing in a televised game show where groups of teams try to make it to a sanctuary before other teams do. Along the way they face the dangers of the environment as well as the other teams trying to kill them.

Whoops, that was my bad. I meant any TV shows not starring the fat kid from Stand By Me.

Hey Jerry O’Connell is a stud muffin! You’ve gone too far! I’m out of here!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Wikipedia Hole

Yesterday I briefly alluded to falling into Wikipedia holes and I thought today I would describe the process visually.


Where do you end up when you fall into a Wikipedia hole? Is it even possible to stay on task when reading Wikipedia articles?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole

Once upon a time I was stuck in an airport without a book. This rarely happens to me. For example, while writing this entry I was stuck in an airport and had 3 books with meOut by Natsuo Kirino, Volume 5 of Grantland Quarterly, and 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill which for some reason I just can’t seem to finish.. But for some reason I had only brought one book along on the trip and I had finished it, so I headed to the airport bookstore. Luckily I was in a large airport and the bookstore had a fairly big selection including a bargain book table. After browsing for awhile an anthology called Wizards caught my eye. What a dorky title I thought. But then I noticed the book contained short stories by Orson Scott Card, who at the time was one of my favorite authorsWe've since had a messy breakup., as well as Neil Gaiman, who I had also enjoyed in the past. So for $5.99 I thought what the hell and bought it.

While I was reading the anthology I had one of those moments every reader loves. Something new hit me upside the head and made me say, “Wow”. I fell in love with a story called The Ruby Incomparable by Kage Baker. It was fantasy story of the daughter of an evil Master of the Mountain and a good Saint of the World. The description of the world was so lyrical and I really enjoyed the daughter’s coming of age story. Baker’s sense of humor also shone through and really hooked me. I immediately wanted more. Who was Kage Baker and what else had she written?

I turned to the Contributors section in the back and read something like the following: “Baker is best known for her Company series, in which immortal cyborgs are sent back through time to secure knowledge and treasures that would otherwise have been lost”. It was like someone put an arrow through my heartBig Hair!. I immediately hopped on Amazon and ordered the first book in the series, In the Garden of Iden, which arrived at my door the next day thanks to the wonders of Amazon Prime. I finished it very quickly while on another trip, this time in San Diego. I desperately wanted to read the 2nd book in the series but I was only going to be in San Diego for a few days. I drove to a used book store not really expecting to find it, but there it was Sky Coyote, sitting there on the shelf, the only Baker book in the store.

I powered through Sky Coyote and found myself reading the 3rd book in the series, Mendoza in Hollywood. The 3rd book is set in Hollywood in the 1800s, long before the movie industry came to town. However, the cyborgs know what the area will become in the future so they have a movie night every so often. Baker, in her infinite wisdom, spends an entire chapter with the cyborgs as they Mystery Science 3000 D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic film Intolerance. Perhaps best known for Birth of a NationWhich after watching you could see just how racist people were in 1915, even people like D.W. Griffith who didn’t think they were., Griffith’s Intolerance was a both a masterpiece and a disaster. After reading this chapter I had to see the film.

So all of a sudden I’m watching a 1916 silent film and it is completely blowing my mind. How in the world did Griffith make this film without CGI? There are literally thousands of extras and massive sets with walls hundreds of feet high. I was so amazed by the spectacle I needed to know more. I purchased D. W. Griffith's Intolerance: Its Genesis and Its Vision by William M. Drew and learned much about film including the cast, and how directors often worked with the same company of actors from film to film. The next thing you know I was reading books about Griffith actors and actresses such as Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me and Dark Lady of the Silents by Miriam Cooper.

And that’s the story of how I started with a $5.99 book about Wizards and ended up reading an autobiography of a silent film actress. I just always seem to fall down these rabbit holes in my reading life. One book has a brief mention of something that seems interesting and the next thing you know I’m reading an entire book about that other topic. It’s a very similar, albeit much slower process, than when I fall into a Wikipedia hole. Wikipedia hole: When you start off by looking up something work related like cognitive systems engineering and end up reading about shark attacks.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Authors as Musicians

Today we look at the musical equivalents for some famous authors.

Stephen King – Ozzy Osbourne: Born less than a year apart, the Master of Horror and the Prince of Darkness have led eerily similar lives. Both have overcome serious substance abuse problems. Both have considered retirement and then decided that retirement sucked. Both have had success in various incarnations (Ozzy with Black Sabbath and solo, King as himself and as Richard Bachman). And both continue to kickass in their mid 60s.

Dan Brown – Nickelback: I had a friend post the following message on facebook: “Hey I have two extra tickets to the Nickelback concert tonight. Anyone want them?” The first response was “No thanks, I’ll just go to hell when I die”.Which was subsequently liked by 15 people. Nickelback is just a band, as Chuck Klosterman points out, that is totally acceptable to reflexively hate. Dan Brown is the Nickelback of the literary world. He sells millions and millions of books, yet gets absolutely no respect. If you tell people Dan Brown is your favorite author you would get the exact same look as you would if you tell people Nickelback is your favorite band.

Gillian Flynn – Halestorm: In 2006 Halestorm released their first EP, in 2009 their first album, and in 2012 released their second album which won a Grammy for Best Heavy Metal/Hard Rock song. In 2007 Gillian Flynn released her first novel, her second in 2009, and in 2012 released Gone Girl which is going to win should have wonGone Girl lost in the Zombie Round to The Orphan Master's Son. Damn you Lev Grossman. The Morning News Tournament of Books. Here’s the lyrics to Halestorm’s I Miss the Misery:

I miss the bad things, The way you hate me, I miss the screaming, The way that you blame me! Miss the phone calls, When it's your fault, I miss the late nights, Don't miss you at all! I like the kick in the face, And the things you do to me! I love the way that it hurts! I don't miss you, I miss the misery!

Boy does that sound like Nick and Amy’s relationship in Gone Girl or what?

Orson Scott Card – Ted Nugent: Both achieved early success with big hits (Ender’s Game for OSC, Stranglehold and Cat Scratch Fever for the Nuge) which they have continued to milk. Both have recently gone completely overboard on a controversial political issue (OSC – gay marriage, Nugent – gun control). And both are completely washed up as artists.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Hidden Gems: Elementary Edition

Welcome to Hidden Gems, a new feature discussing some of the less famous stuff from well known authors. In this first edition we’ll start with an author I encountered very early on in my reading career: Bruce Coville.

Coville, the author of dozens of children and young adult books, is most well known for his My Teacher is an Alien series. I remember how creepy the cover of the first book was when I saw it in those scholastic reader catalogs we had in grade school. Coville’s tale of three children discovering that they must save the planet from an intergalactic counsel that doesn’t seem any redeeming qualities in barbaric humans is great, but despite being perhaps his most famous work, it just doesn’t hold a candle to the Nina TanlevenI mean cmon! What a great pun name! Nine Ten Eleven! series.

Over the course of the series’ three novels Nina and her friend Chris Gurley encounter ghosts and must determine why these ghosts are hanging around. The first two books, The Ghost in the Third Row and The Ghost Wore Gray are great, but the third book, The Ghost in the Big Brass Bed is incredible. In fact, I was paging through it while writing this entry and even though the plot details had remained hazy until I picked it up I got goosebumps the minute I read the name Cornelius Fletcher. Suddenly long forgotten neural pathways in my brain began firing and it all came back to me. I quickly flipped to the front where Nina and Chris first encounter Fletcher’s painting Early Harvest:

At first I thought it was just a pretty picture of a forest. Then I realized there were dead bodies scattered among the fallen leaves. After I spotted the first few, I couldn’t miss them. My eyes began picking out more and more, almost as if I were staring at one of those find-the-hidden object pictures. Some of the bodies were marked with terrible wounds. My head began to whirl. For a moment the painting seem to take me in. I could hear the moans of dying men, the deep thud of cannons in the distance. The air around me felt cold and wet. It was filled with the smell of fire and blood. I tried to look away. To my horror, I couldn’t move. The picture had trapped me and was forcing me to see things I didn’t want to know about.

This description, on page 22, was the passage that was responsible for the goosebumps I got from reading Fletcher’s name. I remember reading this as a kid and being immensely creeped out by the metal image this passage evoked. I’m so glad the book wasn’t illustrated because I know what I pictured in my mind was creepier than any painting could actually be. For the next 160 pages Coville keeps you on the edge of your seat as Nina and Chris unravel the history of Early Harvest, its artist Cornelius Fletcher, and how they relate to the crying ghost of a little girl who haunts the big brass bed. But I’m amazed that 20 years later one name, which I couldn’t even remember until I saw it, could bring back such a flood of memories. For that reason, for me, The Ghost in the Big Brass Bed is Coville’s masterpiece.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Reading Pathways: Steven Johnson

Admit it! There’s an entire section of the book store that might as well not even exist for you! Dostoevsky and Joyce might be intimidating but what really makes you sweat is the non-fiction section. I think this is due in part to how difficult it is to write nonfiction that appeals to a wide audience. But when people nail it (Jared Diamond, James Gleick, and Malcolm Gladwell to name a few) the results are wonderful, and Steven Johnson has been nailing it for the last 15 years.

One of Johnson’s greatest skills is his ability to explain scientific breakthroughs and new technologies by examining both their precursors and their future potential. For example, in Future Perfect Johnson has an excellent section on Kickstarter whose roots he traces to patronage systems and the establishment of government rewards to solve problems (such as the Longitude Prize). Johnson then discusses how ideas like Kickstarter could be used to address the disconnect people feel between paying taxes and the services the government provides. If people could allocate a portion of their taxes to a government program of their choice (like Kickstarter backers selecting which projects to back) they might feel better about paying them.

To help you make the leap from novels to Johnson’s nonfiction we’ll start with a book that is almost indistinguishable from a great thriller.

Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

We’re starting off with a bang as this book is a page turner on par with the best thrillers and mystery novels. Ghost Map details the 1854 cholera epidemic in London and is a fascinating example of the struggle between science and superstition. As the outbreak continues to spread and more and more people become afflicted, a doctor named John Snow develops a theory that cholera is a waterborne disease, contradicting the prevailing opinion of the time that cholera is caused by poison in the atmosphere. Using his knowledge of the area (the outbreak occurs in Snow's neighborhood) he locates the source of the epidemic, convinces the authorities of his theory, and changes the way the modern world investigates epidemics.

Now that you’ve read the case study you are ready for one of Johnson’s main themes: where do good ideas like Snow’s concept of disease come from and how can they be fostered?

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

Ever wanted to take a reading sabbatical but couldn’t find a way to justify it? Well, now thanks to Johnson you have science backing you up! Reading sabbaticals are just one of the many suggestions Johnson provides on how to cultivate creativity in this fascinating book that examines how innovation has occurred over history. Johnson dispels the myth of the lone scientist slaving in the laboratory and shows how networks of people and ideas are critical for innovation. The key “is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table”. After reading this you should have plenty of tricks up your sleeve.

Okay, you're back from your reading sabbatical where you did nothing but think deep thoughts for a week. So you sit down and start catching up on Game of Thrones and before you know it you’ve just wasted an entire Saturday morning. Wasted? Mr. Johnson would beg to disagree.

Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter

Do you feel guilty for spending too much time in front of the TV or trying to level up in Candy Crush? Worry no more! The idea of this book is that as TV shows and video games increase in complexity people are getting smarter! For example think about Gilligan’s Island. Each episode consisted of mostly one plot (here’s a new way for us to try and get off the island), had no more than seven or so one-dimensional characters to keep track of (no need for names, just stereotypes!), and at the end of each episode the status quo was mostly reset. Compare that to an episode of Lost or The Wire, which have upwards of 50 characters that matter and subplots upon subplots upon subplots. According to Johnson, having to keep track of all this complexity actually improves our mental capacity. So the next time you settle in for a Buffy the Vampire Slayer marathon, don’t worry about it! It’s good for you!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Back into the Myst

When I was growing up I would sequester myself off in the woods during the summer, burying my head in a book as I solved cases with Encyclopedia Brown and the Boxcar Children, wondered if maybe my teacher was an alien, and wished my school was as awesome as Wayside. In the winter time I would crawl into one of my parents' cars, trying to find a secluded and warm spot as I journeyed off to other worlds. And despite my love for the stories and worlds of Louis Sachar, Bruce Coville, Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Gertrude Chandler Warner, and Madeleine L'Engle, the world of Narnia was my favorite of all.

I don't remember when I first encountered The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, but I do remember how long and hard I searched for that magical wardrobe that would transport me to Narnia. My grandmother's house seemed the most likely place. After all, the Pevensie children found their magical wardrobe in the Old Professor's house. My grandmother's old farm house, with its many staircases and attics seemed just the place. I still remember the disappointment I felt when I pushed past dusty clothes in an upstairs closet only to find an old, but very solid wall.

I think this disappointed is the reason why I fell in love with the video game Myst. I might have never found the door to Narnia but the opening sequence of Myst might have been the next closest thing I could have experienced as a 13 year old kid. I still have the narration from that sequence memorized:

The moment I put my cursor on that book and fell into the story of Myst I was hooked. I spent the next few months exploring the worlds of Myst and trying to solve its mysteries. My favorite place on the island of Myst was the library and it was no surprise to me that most of the time when I returned from yet another world I found myself back in the library.

It was so exciting because unlike most booksThe notable exceptions being the choose your own adventure books, but those were mostly a linear path with short side paths ending in your untimely death. where I was simply a helpless spectator (DON’T TRUST HER EDMUND! THE TURKISH DELIGHTS ARE A LIE!) I was actually driving the story. My actions, my choices (should I trust Sirrus or Achenar?), and my ability to uncover the mystery were the story. I had finally made it to another world and I was playing a part in it. It. Was. Awesome. I remember how proud I felt when I had to explain a puzzle to one of my Dad’s work friends. And when after months of playing I finally realized the treachery of Sirrus and Achenar and freed Atrus? It was such a great feeling.

Many sequels followed as well as book tie-ins, but nothing quite captured that feeling I had the first time I clicked on Atrus’ Myst book, and finally, after all those years of searching, ended up in Narnia.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

After the Masterpiece

I recently watched an interview with former NBA player Charles Barkley on the eve of his 50th birthday Sir Charles at 50. One of the hardest things for Barkley was coming to terms with how getting old impacted his athletic performance. I think he summed up every athlete’s struggle with this when he said “What’s really happening is your ego is like let me have a good year then I can walk away. But you don’t have any more good years.” What really blows my mind is Barkley had to contemplate this at the age of 37. At 30 he was the MVP of the NBA; seven years later he was out of the game. Obviously athletes hit their peak performance when they are comparatively young. While most of us can expect to reach our peak performance (in terms of financial compensation) later in life, athletes hit their peak in their late 20s and early 30s. I’ve always thought it would suck having to go from being on top of the world at 30 to being retired at 37.

Authors on the other hand can often be productive throughout their lives. However, one of the challenges authors often face occurs when they write what many consider to be their best work early in their career. I often think of Stephen King, who published his first novel Carrie in 1974 and is still publishing new books almost 40 years later. I wonder what Stephen King thinks when lists ranking his books often put The Stand (published in 1978) or It (published in 1986) on ranks all 62 Stephen King Books. How would it feel to publish a new book almost every year for 35 years and always have to deal with comparisons to your 35 year old masterpiece? Maybe that’s why Harper Lee never wrote another novel. Perhaps she looked at the universal acclaim To Kill a Mockingbird received and thought, well no way in hell I can top this. Why bother? Better to leave then wanting more than leaving them disappointed.

I bet musicians can sympathize. How do they feel when after playing five of their greatest hits from 20 years ago an audible groan erupts from the crowd after they say, "Okay, time for some new stuff!". Perhaps it would be better to walk away on top. One of my favorite comic strip writers Bill Watterson did just that. At the age 37 Watterson walked away from Calvin and Hobbes and hasn’t released anything since. He explains it in this way:

"This isn't as hard to understand as people try to make it. By the end of ten years, I'd said pretty much everything I had come there to say. It's always better to leave the party early. If I had rolled along with the strip's popularity and repeated myself for another five, ten, or twenty years, the people now "grieving" for Calvin and Hobbes would be wishing me dead and cursing newspapers for running tedious, ancient strips like mine instead of acquiring fresher, livelier talent. And I'd be agreeing with them. I think some of the reason Calvin and Hobbes still finds an audience today is because I chose not to run the wheels off it. I've never regretted stopping when I did." 2010 Cleveland Plains Dealer Interview with Watterson

So what do you think? Is it better to retire on top or should you keep cranking out new stuff knowing full well that you’ll most likely never achieve the same heights you once did?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Pluto Got What It Deserved

This picture, taken by the Hubble telescope, is the best we have of Pluto until the New Horizons probe arrives in 2015.

My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas. In grade school I learned this mnemonic for remembering the nine planets in the solar system: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. If you didn’t pick it up at school you might have heard it in song form playing over the speakers at Chuck E Cheese. My first job was working at Chuck E. Cheese. In addition to hearing the planet song 500 times a day, I also danced the Macarena in a rat suit for $4.50 an hour. I lasted about five weeks. But something happened a few years ago to change this... in large part thanks to research by astronomer Mike Brown, Pluto was downgraded to a dwarf planet. When I heard about this I was sad and confused. How could Pluto no longer be a planet? What was next? Would the Pyramids no longer be considered an Ancient Wonder of the World? And how was it fair? How does indigo get to remain in the Roy G. Biv lineup but Pluto no longer gets to be a planet? I mean indigo doesn't even have a crayon in the rich kid 120 box of crayolasYes Yes indigo is there now. Evidently it was added in 2000 when someone noticed one of the 7 colors in the rainbow wasn't in the 120 color box. It wasn't there when I was a kid hot dammit! Boo indigo. Boo! Somebody sick Mike Brown on indigo! but Pluto gets kicked out of the planet club? So when I saw that Mike Brown had written a book called How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming I knew I had to read it. I was ready to disagree vehemently with this Mike Brown and trash him for offing poor Pluto.

And then within the first 30 pages I agreed 100% with him. Pluto had it coming. Did you know in the 1800s people decided there were 12 planets? It all happened when astronomers detected the largest asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. These objects were first classified as planets. It turns out they were just the largest objects in the asteroid belt. Similarly, it turns out Pluto is just one of the largest objects in the Kuiper belt, a bunch of objects orbiting the sun out past Neptune. Pluto just doesn't cut it as a planet, and so Brown teaches us a new hilarious (but not particularly accurate) mnemonic device: Mean Very Evil Men Just Shortened Up Nature.

Brown's description of his search for a new planet in the solar system was fascinating and definitely a page turner. I really do need to start looking at the night sky more and will be busting out the binoculars as soon as we get a new moon. I also enjoyed the discussion of how his personal family life impacted his professional life. His story of how his daughter thanked him after he turned the moon back on (it had gone behind a cloud) was very touching.

Monday, May 6, 2013

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Book Embosser

I am particular about my books. Actually, that is a pretty big understatement. I am VERY particular about my books. If you are the kind of person who bends the cover backward, leaves the book open and face-down, or dogears pages for bookmarks I don’t think we can be friends. In fact, I like my books to look like I haven’t actually read them. Every time I drop a book I gasp in horror, frantically searching and fretting over every spine crease or corner scuff. I am on a constant alert for wet surfaces, small children, and careless adultsSuch as my beautiful wife, a chronic destroyer of books..

I loathe lending books to people because I know that they do not value a book’s appearance like I do, but I love sharing books I think other people will love. To solve this conundrum, for certain books (like Ken Grimwood’s Replay), I have my own pristine copy and a lending copy (usually purchased in already poor condition from a used book store). I also cannot stand it when people write notes in books or highlight passages but I love taking notes. Instead of defacing my precious books, I keep paper with me while reading and take notes separately and tuck the notes into the book when I am finished reading.

And yet... I use a book embosser that stamps my name and initials into each book I read. It would seem that an embosser should horrify me. I think it sort of did when I received it many years ago as a birthday present. I know it certainly horrifies book collectors who are always searching for pristine 1st editions. I thought for sure I was going to end up just like them. I wanted a library filled with books in perfect condition. But then I came across this:

I remembered how excited I was as a kid when I got those labels. I think the minute I opened them I ran to The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, my favorite book at the time, and stuck the label in there as fast as possible. 15 years later seeing that label brought back a flood of great memories and it made me think about how cool it was when I would check out books from the library as a kid and see the names of other people who had also checked it out in the back. “Wow! Look at the cool older kid who read the same book as me!”.

So despite my obsession with keeping books in perfect condition I decided to emboss them anyways. It comes in handy when I’ve lent a book to a friend and they forget (“Hey isn’t that my book on your shelf over there” “No I don’t think so” “Oh really let’s look... well look at that!) or when I am trying to remember if I ever got around to reading a book or not (I always stamp them when I finish them). But really what it boils down to is I hope that some day, when I’m freshly dead in the ground, and my family has the arduous task of figuring out what to do with my thousands of books, I hope they keep a couple for themselves. And when they open up that book they’ll see ole Grandpa’s name in it and maybe (hopefully!) have some of their own memories kick in.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

On Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered1

Not to be confused with Books You Haven’t Read, Books You Needn’t Read, Books Made for Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong to the Category of Books Read Before Being Written, Books You Mean to Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, Books Too Expensive Now and You’ll Wait ‘Til They’re Remaindered, Books ditto When They Come Out in Paperback, Books You Can Borrow from Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too, Books You’ve Been Planning to Read for Ages, Books You’ve Been Hunting for Years Without Success, Books Dealing with Something You’re Working on at the Moment, Books You Want to Own So They’ll Be Handy Just in Case, Books You Could Put Aside Maybe to Read This Summer, Books You Need to Go with Other Books on Your Shelves, Books That Fill You with Sudden Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified, Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time to Re-read, or Books You’ve Always Pretended to Have Read and Now It’s Time to Sit Down and Really Read Them

Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler has a great description of the conflicting emotions a booklover feels when they walk into a bookstore (see footnote 1) which boils down to a simple depressing fact: so many books so little time. It boggles my mind that at some point in the not so distant past it was possible to have read every book ever published. Nowadays you probably couldn’t read all the books published in a single month. With almost infinite possibilities, I sometimes find it almost paralyzing trying to decide what book to read next. Should I finally read the classic I've been putting off or should I read the new bestseller everyone is raving about? What about the earlier work of an author whose third book was awesome? How can I decide when there are so many choices and my days are numbered?!?!?

I spend way too much time thinking about this problem. I’m 32 years old. All my grandparents died before they made it to 75 so I’ll be fighting genetics to make it past 80, but let’s be optimistic and assume I have another 50 years to read. In the last five years I’ve averaged about 36 books a year. That means I’ll probably only read 1800 more books in my life. That’s all I have left! I can’t just willy nilly read whatever book strikes my fancy can I? But I do. I read a review of thrillers on Book Riot recently and the next day Out by Natsuo Kirino arrived at my door. Is this really the best method for optimizing the 1800 books I have left? What if I never get to Middlemarch or Infinite Jest or Moby Dick or anything by Jane Austen, Vladimir Nabokov, Ernest Hemmingway, Salman Rushdie, or James Joyce?

Does it make sense to go deep on authors or should I just stay shallow and read the one masterpiece? I really loved David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, but if I had stopped there I never would have discovered the even better (in my opinion) number9dream. A Visit from the Goon Squad is one of my favorite novels but I’ve never read anything else by Egan. Should I? Looking back it seems like a waste to have read all those not even written by Tom Clancy Op Center novels in my youth. How do I avoid making similar mistakes in the future?

And what do I do about recommendations? I loved Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book, but I absolutely loathed In the Woods, by Tana French which Miller wholeheartedly recommended. I’m very happy I gave into the peer pressure to read the Harry Potter books but I wish I would have avoided The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Hunger Games. Should I finally give in to popular demand and read Ready Player One which many different people have recommended to me? I DON’T KNOW!

I can't even think about re-reading books. Whenever someone tells me they've read one book twenty different times I want to scream: "What? You re-read that book every year? YOU FOOL! Don’t you know you're dying? Your days are numbered!" I know some people hate variety. For example, I know a couple who fly to Florida every few months and immediately head to a Cracker Barrel. But I just don't get it. Why wouldn’t you try something different? What are you really going to get out of reading Angels and Demons for the 6th time?

Am I the only crazy person out there who thinks about this? How do you decide what book to read next? Do you re-read books? How should I allot my final 1800 books? Help!

Thursday, May 2, 2013


Recently I finished reading Natsuo Kirino’s OutIn this book a Japanese housewife strangles her no good abusive husband and enlists her co-workers to help her dispose of the body. Absolutely crazy and really disturbing hijinks ensue. and as I was putting it on the huge stack of books I don’t have bookcases for, I noticed Sebastian Junger’s WarA very good book about American Soldiers in Afghanistan, by the same guy responsible for the documentary Restrepo. sitting there. I did a triple take. Take a look:

Is that the exact same cover or what? This warranted further investigation. According to War’s jacket it was designed by someone or something named "Flag". Well that was informative. What the hell is Flag? Is it a company or a group of people? Is it a superstar of the book cover design industry who is so awesome they only need a single name moniker? Is Flag the Madonna or Ronaldo of book design? A Google search proved fruitless.

Out on the other hand was designed by a guy named John Gall. Gall has a blog, and a website. Just looking at the website you can tell that the guy loves half faces. So I have to wonder… is John Gall also Flag? Did Flag copy John Gall? Is this just a freaky coincidence? Regardless, Gall should add a sixth rule to his book cover design rules: When in doubt, go with the half face. Especially when you can make everyone feel dirty.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Gone Too Soon

I love the anticipation of a new book by a favorite author. For me, nothing is better than when you see that tweet, blog post, or e-mail that finally provides a release date for that new novel you’ve been craving. I love knowing that despite my impatience David Mitchell is out there, somewhere, working on his next novelOr his first opera.. In contrast, one of the worst feelings in the world is when you know that a beloved author will never release another book; bad enough when it’s because the author retires (Bill Watterson) or passes away at an advanced age (Ray Bradbury), but it’s the worst when an author dies young. Here are three authors whose work I love and who I wish were still here.

Joseph Garber

I first encountered Garber with the novel Vertical Run which to this day is probably the best thrillerYes, yes it appears my hypocrisy knows no bounds. I have ever read. The protagonist, Dave Elliot, shows up at the office on what appears to be a completely normal day, at least until his boss tries to kill him. When his boss fails, the next thing you know there’s a squad of trained killers locking down Dave’s building trying to finish the job. Luckily Dave’s former life as a member of Special Forces enables him to stay one step ahead of the bad guys as he tries to figure out why everyone is suddenly trying to kill him. The cover of my copy says “Soon to be a major motion picture”. I wish this were true because while reading I kept thinking what a great movie this book would make. I’ve read Garber’s other three books (Ransom Money, In a Perfect State, and Whirlwind) and they are good, if slightly less impressive than Vertical Run. Regardless, it is a tragically short back catalog as Garber died of a heart attack at age 61.

Ken Grimwood

Whenever someone asks me for a book recommendation I inevitably turn to Grimwood’s Replay. I’ve probably recommended this book to over 20 very diverse in their reading habits people and I’ve yet to hear back anything negative. The quickest way to explain the plot of Replay is to compare it to the movie Groundhog Day, except instead of living the same day over and over you get to live your life over and over. Jeff Winston is 43 when he suffers a heart attack and dies. He wakes up and he is 18 again, with all his memories from his previous life intact. Haven’t we all at some point wished we knew at 18 what we know now? So boy it is fun watching Jeff get this chance and seeing how he chooses to live each new life. Sadly, Grimwood himself died of a heart attack while supposedly working on a sequel to Replay. He has written five other novels of which I have read Breakthrough (which is also a great book if not as outstanding as Replay).

Kage Baker

Unlike Grimwood and Garber, Baker was a very prolific writer, with 15 or so novels in addition to many novellas and short stories. I absolutely love Baker’s The Company series, in which a group of people in the future develop immortal cyborgs and send them back in time to preserve valuable items that are lost (think of a plant that can cure cancer that became extinct in 1430 or one of Diego Velazquez’ paintings lost in a fire in 1734). The cyborgs facilitate the acquisition of these items through undercover interaction with the mortals. Baker’s fantasy series (starting with The Anvil of the World) is also great and though most people know her from The Company books I think The Anvil of the World stories are, if missing the same highs The Company Books hit, more consistent. Baker, with her description of the 1916 silent film IntoleranceWhat director D.W. Griffith was able to accomplish with 1916 technology is absolutely stunning. Seriously go check it out. Mendoza in Hollywood, is also responsible for getting me interested in the silent film era. Unfortunately Baker died of uterine cancer at the age of 57.

So what about you? What other authors have died too soon?