Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Cleaning out Old News: Book Reviews

I feel like I might start blogging again, but there's too much old chaff rattling around inside my head for me to focus on a new idea. So I need to do a little housekeeping, dust off the boxes in the attic and clear out the cobwebs.

In other words, another excuse for another half-assed post. But I know you're used to it. If you complain, I'll just delete your comment anyways. And then apologize, assure you I still love you, and lay enough guilt on you to make you believe it was all your fault.

Onto the books:

Superfreakonomics was definitely worth a read, although I didn't like the structure as much as the first one. The sequel was less organized around themes, rambling instead from topic to topic. While some of the facts were definitely interesting, I'd read about many of them before. Without coherent themes to bring them together, some sections of the sequel dragged along ponderously in comparison to the original. However, there were two topics that fascinated me: child safety seats and (of course) global warming.

I've long suspected that child safety seats for children older than toddlers were over-regulated and largely useless. While I'd love to take intellectual credit for this, I suspect it's more a product of my proclivity to see useless over-regulation everywhere. But regardless, it's enlightening to discover not just that these seats are useless, but that we've introduced costly legislation and created a culture of worry without a single scientific study. When the authors looked for data about crashes involving children in seats vs. children wearing seatbelts, they didn't find contradictory or conflicting data, they instead found no data at all. Even more striking was the attitude they encountered when they wanted to run their own tests...crash test centers around the country were almost unanimously unwilling to allow them to rent, and employees there were reluctant to help. When they did find someone who would run the tests, they were forced to place security deposits on the crash dummies because the center was convinced that seat-belt crashes would destroy the dummies...without a single shred of evidence. Almost everything you believe about car seats for children over two, and everything our legislation is built upon...is essentially a media campaign waged by car-seat manufacturers and politicians looking for an angle with mommy voters. So even though the car seats had already been tossed from my car, several years before the law allows, the scientific justification to my preconceived counter-notions is welcome.

The global warming section was fascinating as well, and instead of the usual debunking of doomsayers, the authors found a group of inventors who have developed several possible technological solutions to cool the globe, for a fraction of the annual marketing budget of Al Gore's Global Warming Foundation. These inventors aren't your average crackpot, but respected geniuses who in many cases founded corporations and became fabulously wealthy as a result. In their 'retirement', they founded a company that seeks to solve worldwide problems through innovation. One of the simplest, most elegant, and completely natural solutions involves spraying ocean water ten feet into the air, where the salt spray can form the base of additional cloud cover over our oceans. The authors went to Al Gore with the solution, and unsurprisingly, he was unmoved, unconvinced, and utterly unwilling to try. When someone has forcefully and repeatedly predicted environmental armageddon, logically he should be open to cost-effective, environmentally neutral solutions. (If he believed in his dire picture of the future, he should be willing to try anything.) But of course, actually solving global warming wouldn't make Al Gore famous or (more) rich, when he can instead win Nobel Peace Prizes and make millions in consulting fees by playing Chicken Little.

The Big Short is about the recent financial crisis, and the minority of people who saw it coming. Not loud-talking permabears, but money managers who made large financial bets against the subprime mortgage market and turned huge profits doing it. I had planned to try to explain it all in a blog post, but truthfully the author does a much better job than I could. Chances are good I would forget something, use the wrong terminology, or accuse the wrong investment bank (although that's a really wide target.) But even a cynical guy like myself was stunned to read about the wanton disregard for law, ethics, responsibility, and common sense displayed by the criminals and ignoramuses who ruined our economy. Of course, they all got filthy rich in the process, with the punishment falling disproportionately on taxpayers, homeowners, and shareholders. I highly recommend reading this book while the magnitude and consequences of the financial crisis are still fresh in your mind. You will understand what happened, why it happened, and why it will happen again. Amazing read.

Best Served Cold is the new release from Joe Abercrombie, the fantasy writer I raved about after his debut First Law Trilogy. Sadly, he fails to live up to his own standard with this follow-up. The plot is maddeningly deliberate and unimaginative (mercenary is betrayed, swears revenge against the seven conspirators, and kills one at a time), and is hindered by a lack of complex and likable characters. None of the avenging group show more than a moment of morality, none develop emotional attachments to each other, and none display any qualities that I strongly identified with. This is a strange departure from his first trilogy, which was every bit as dark and bloody as this one, yet managed to develop compelling characters that were easy to root for (or against.) Although it was a lame read, I'm willing to give him another chance before I write him off as a one-hit wonder.

Finally, I just finished Take Your Eye Off The Ball: How To Watch Football By Knowing Where To Look. It's basically a guide for fans who want to know more about the preparation and strategy that go into building an NFL roster and creating a gameplan, and how to see those results coming together (or not) on a Sunday afternoon. It was informational, and at least moderately compelling because my wife has decided to read it as well. It wasn't quite the Bible I was hoping for - I would have preferred and even more in-depth look into blocking schemes, defensive line techniques, and gameplan development - but then again, I've been listening to the author for three years on Sirius NFL radio, so I found at least half the book repetitive. I also didn't care for the weird little Question/Answer blurbs with the author's picture that seemed to appear on every page, but overall it was a useful read. I'll be attempting to apply the knowledge when I watch the Eagles this season, and perhaps even blog about the results. I'd definitely recommend it, although not all of the content will be interesting to all fans.


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