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Over the Labor Day Weekend, I finished reading the 14th novel in the “Dresden Files” series: “Cold Days“, written by Jim Butcher (2012©).  Now, obviously if you’ve read fourteen books in a series, you’re either getting paid to read them or you “really” enjoy them.  In this case, I enjoy them!
This novel is another in the installment of a good man (in this case a wizard with magic powers – Harry Dresden) with a small band of friends (humans, a werewolf, a vampire, and another wizard) using his powers to save the world (or at least most of the Mid-west of the North American continent).  Dresden lives in modern day Chicago.  All of these books follow a simple formula: hero meets a bad guy the hero cannot possibly defeat, hero somehow survives the encounter, hero muddles through some other bad situations while finding out what’s going on, hero defeats bad guy and in the process finds out more about himself and the over-arching storyline of the series.  (Spoiler Alert: the series is supposed to go on for twenty volumes, so there’s six more to go.  The titles come out approximately one per year and are available in hard bound, paper back and e-read at roughly the same time so the format is whatever you prefer.)
My son James is the person who turned me on to this series.  I noticed he was getting “into” a lot of books about witchcraft and magic, so I asked him what was up.  He started telling me about this series of books he was reading and he was enjoying them so much he was branching out into other areas – folklore, myths, horror stories, etc.  He’s now read Stoker (“Dracula”), Shelly (“Frankenstein”), Dante (“Inferno”), and many other classics  (Homer, etc…).  Although, I’ve never really been “into” this kind of literature (the combination of fantasy with mythology), I asked if I could borrow a couple to see what’s what.  This was about 2005, or so.  The first couple were [sic: was] fascinating because I knew nothing about either the folklore or mythology, nor much about wizardry (as opposed to “sleight-of-hand” magic).  While I still don’t know much “in-depth” about folklore or mythology, I now know a great deal more than I used to.
In my case, I don’t believe reading one title series provides a breadth of knowledge about a genre, merely a taste / sampling.  Also, from my limited exposure, myths are frequently modified to fit the story, so reading any single title series does not necessarily accurately relate a specific myth.   (This was particularly true in the “Percy Jackson” Greek mythology / fantasy series.)
You might ask, “Well, if the books all follow a formula, what’s keeping your interest?”  To tell, the truth, they did start to wear on me after about the sixth or seventh volume, but I took a break and returned to the remaining books with renewed energy.  I found two main interests: the characters (main and supporting, good and evil) are growing with each volume and the over arching storyline is starting to come together (or at least to come out to the main character).  And what do we learn / know?  It’s not our abilities which define us, it is our choices as to what we do with those abilities.  And the story arc?  There is always a struggle between “absolute” evil / chaos and “our” rational and slowly progressing world of understanding.  Both of these are, of course, “Harry Potter” and “Star Wars” themes, and both themes are mentioned in the series.  Well, the Star Wars is.  The Harry Potter theme isn’t directly mentioned, but they (the two story themes) are so closely related they might as well be.  Dresden’s first name: “Harry”.  Duh!!
Anyway, this volume is a fast read like all of the others, and I recommend the series to anyone interested in the Sci-Fi / horror / fantasy genre.  I think they are easily digestible in three to four volumes at a time, then take a week break before starting back.  As I am writing this, I am reminded of the “binge” watching I do (on some holidays) of some TV series.  I think there must be a qualitative AND quantitative threshold to binging (that’s “binge – ing”) between viewing and reading.  At least for me there is…  I can do a whole day, 18+ hours of TV watching and I can certainly do the same for reading.  But many of these books are over 450 pages, which, to me, means several days after work, plus a weekend day (usually).  That level of sustained reading isn’t possible when you have a “real” life pulling you in multiple directions.  That’s why I advise tearing through a couple and then taking a break, then back at it.  Having said this, it’s one thing to watch the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy in one day or watch all six of the Star Wars movies AND another thing again to watch all 170+ episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  The first two are “only” a solid day.  ST:TNG would be good fifteen (15) ten (10) hour days!!   That’s some serious viewing!!
I will close by cautioning that although these books are entertaining and the good guy wins out in the end, they are NOT suitable for children or pre-teens or even “queasy” young adults as they are graphic in the depiction of violence.
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On This Day In:
2012 How Did We Get Here?
2011 Labor Day Weekend Mishmash
More, More, More
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For the last two years, about this time, I make my Super Bowl predictions.  I try to pick the winner, predict the score and explain why.  So far, I’m zero(0) for two(2) on my picks.  However, I’m not so easily deterred that I won’t try again.
 

Now, in the interest of full disclosure I will have to admit that I am a lifetime San Francisco Forty Niners fan.  This means my “normal” sense of objective reasoning will have to be set aside for this posting.
 

I believe the 49ers will easily win the Super Bowl to the tune of something like 34 to 13.  That’s correct!  We will score four touchdowns and two field goals and they will score one touchdown and two field goals.
 

The 49ers met the Baltimore Ravens last season on Thanksgiving night and they defeated us 16 to 6.  They scored one touchdown and three field goals to our (only) two field goals.  The difference in the game was nine(9!) sacks of our quarterback (Alex Smith).  This was very much a defensive battle and Ray Lewis, the Ravens middle linebacker did not play due to injury.  This year, neither team has as good a defense as they had last year.  I personally think the age (and related slowness) of the Ravens linebackers will prove to be their downfall.  The Ravens other great linebacker (Suggs) has been slowed by injury this year and is not his pass rushing best any more.  Not to take too much credit from the Ravens that night, the fact is the game was played on a short week (for both teams) but we had to spend a day travelling to Baltimore.  I honestly feel it they had had to come to us OR if the game was on a normal Sunday, we would have prevailed.
 

On the other side, our new quarterback (Kaepernick) is much more athletic than our quarterback from last year (Smith).  Kaepernick is also a much better deep thrower than Smith.  I believe Kaepernick will open with runs to draw the Raven linebackers close, then throw to Vernon Davis (our tight end) in mid-range, and then go over the top (and center) to Randy Moss.  With the Ravens thinking center and deep, Kaepernick will switch to shorter routes (in and outside) to Michael Crabtree.  With the Ravens dropping back to protect the pass, the 49ers will interweave the ground pounding of Frank Gore.
 

The Ravens offense is a mirror of the 49ers, but not as good.  Flacco is a good deep thrower, but we have a better pass rush than they’ve seen in a while.  Pitta is a large target as a tight end, but he is not as fast as V. Davis and our linebackers are better pass defenders than the Raven’s are.  Reed is their best pass defender, but he has lost a step.
 

So, this will be a VERY physical game, but the 49ers should win handily…
 

Book Review:
About a month ago, I picked up: “The Genius” by David Harris (2008©).  The sub-title is: “How Bill Walsh Reinvented Football and Created an NFL Dynasty“. 
 

To be honest, I was expecting another “puff-piece” about how great and good Bill Walsh was.  (Walsh passed away 30 July 2007.)  The reality is (was) that he was not a particularly nice man – even if he was a great head coach.  Walsh is made to seem almost bi-polar and manically depressive in this book.  I don’t question this impression.  I just wonder that twenty years after the fact, so much of this is “new” to me.  I bought this book expecting to “re-live” some of the good-old days.  The book is a very fast read (which I didn’t expect) and was perfect to squeeze in in-between our winning the NFC Conference Championship and going on to the Super Bowl.
 

If you are looking for a book to advise you how to build a winning football (or sports) program, this one won’t be of much use.  If you’re looking for an in-depth explanation of the “West Coast Offense”, sorry, still no joy here.  If you’re looking for how to evaluate college players for drafting to create a winning team, nope.  How to create a game plan or manage an actual game, nope and nope again.
 

So why is this book “good”?  (I highly recommend it!)
 

Because it reminds of what must be sacrificed in order to reach the top (of any profession) and stay there.  It is a cautionary tale of an intelligent, forward looking and forward thinking man who could not separate sports losses from personal failures and suffered terribly / emotionally for it.
 

Although I enjoyed every Walsh (49er) victory, I also found his personnel actions disloyal and sometimes despicable.  This was true “back in the day” (when they were happening) and more so as I read this book.  That’s not to say Walsh wasn’t doing these things for the good of the team.  It’s just I found them morally objectionable.
 

It seems, for the last chapters, that Walsh, after his own retirement, made a concerted effort to try to befriend the players he treated so badly during their careers.  I’m happy he was able to convince them there was nothing personal in his intent while he was coaching.  It is stated that many former players came to have great affection for him, even a sense of love.  I think this a “common” response among people who feel someone tried to get the very best out of them – even more than the person themself felt they had to offer.
 

It’s a shame that a “truer” genius could not have found a way to be both a great coach and a better person at the same time.
 

In conclusion – Go Niners!!  Beat the Ravens!!

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I “discovered” Kurt Vonnegut Jr. when I was going through my first Science-Fiction reading phase back in high school (way back in the late 60’s early 70’s).   I read a couple of his novels and really enjoyed them, so whenever I would stumble upon one of his books on a store shelf, I’d pick it up for my “library”.
 

I bought “Welcome to the Monkey House” (1968©) back in my Army days and have carried it around the world with me ever since.  Last summer (2011 that is), I took it along with me for its second trip to Liverpool, determined to read it.  I didn’t, but I read another Vonnegut (Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons), and it rekindled my interest so I set “Welcome” on my nightstand, hoping I’d get around to it sooner rather than later.  I guess since I bought it 40 years ago, reading it after another year and a bit is “sooner” rather than later…
 

Anyway, the book is absolutely terrific!!
 

It is a series of 25 short stories from Vonnegut’s early writing (50’s and 60’s).  A few are Sci-Fi related, but all are really about humanity.  Almost every story has a “twist” at the end which, for me, was unpredictable.  Okay, maybe not “unpredictable” as by the fourth or fifth you KNOW there will be a twist so you’re left trying to anticipate it, but most still surprised me.  Some will make you almost cry, some will make you almost laugh out loud, but all will make you feel better about yourself (and maybe even humanity).
 

The book is a very fast read.  The stories average 12 pages, so you can complete one and put the book down for a while as you wind your way through your day.  I had training in San Francisco during the week, so I read the first five or six stories on the BART  travelling to and from and then finished the book yesterday while home in bed with my kidney stones flaring up.  Very highly recommended!!!
 

Oh, in case you’re wondering how I know when I bought this book, when I was in the Army they used to make us write our names and the last four digits of our social security number in the book as it was a personal belonging which they would ship home in the event they had to ship you home too…

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Many years ago, I used to watch an interview show called: “The Dick Cavett Show“.  The host (Dick Cavett) was an intellectual who interviewed a wide variety of people.  If you saw the movie “Forrest Gump“, Dick Cavett was the guy interviewing John Lennon and Forrest Gump and implied this is where John came up with the idea for the lyrics to the song “Imagine“.
Anyway, in the show I was watching, Cavett was interviewing a couple of Cowboy poets.  Now, I never imagined there were such folks, but they read a few of their poems and I remember being very impressed.  I remember thinking, “If I ever get a chance to pick up one of their books, I will.”
Well, decades have gone by and I’d not found any (nor had I seriously looked), but about six weeks ago I had a dream in which the memory of the interview re-played.  As it rarely happens that I remember my dreams, I thought it amusing to have had this particular dream.  The following afternoon, I had to go to the bank which is immediately across the street from the used book store I frequent (Half-Price Books), so I thought I’d take a quick gander at the $2.00 closeouts.  Lo and behold, I found “Cowboy Poetry: A Gathering“, (1985©) edited by Hal Cannon.  As a firm believer in serendipity, I bought the book.
Some of the poems are intended to be humorous, some serious; but all have a “stuff of life” simpleness about them.  Friends, drinking, being alone, feeling loneliness (which is different), danger, and mainly freedom.  The freedom which comes from a sense of being part of the cycle of earth and nature and just getting “it” done – whatever “it” happens to be that day.
If you want to understand the “Western” mentality of Cowboys in America, this kind of work is a very good place to start.
It’s not Shakespeare or Nashville, but very much Chris LeDoux.  Recommended reading.
PS: if you’re not familiar with the works of Chris LeDoux, just YouTube his name.  Unfortunately, he has passed away, but his music remains…
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A couple of years ago, I got bit by the jogging bug to try to get back into a little shape.  I actually jogged 55 miles the week of my 55th birthday – which for me was quite an accomplishment.  Anyway, to go along with the jogging, I bought a bunch of books about running.  (No, I was not running, but even old men can dream about lost youth.)  Because (as Popeye would say) “I yam wat I yam”, I first Googled the 10 best running books of all time and “PRE – The Story of America’s Greatest Running Legend, Steve Prefontaine” was on the list.  So, I put the book in my temporary storage so I would be on the lookout for it at my local used bookstore.  I found it, picked it up, and promptly shelved it for later.
 

And there it sat…
 

I got injured and have had other health issues which have kept me from my slow jogs, and without the jogs, the motivation to keep reading running books just wasn’t there anymore.
 

For whatever reason, on Wednesday I picked it off the shelf and started reading.  “PRE” was written by Tom Jordan (1997©, 2nd edition) and is a very typical biography about a very good athlete who died in a car accident at the age of 24.  In running terms, that is really just at the start of becoming a “full-strength” man.  Runners can start running early – as children – but they don’t have the body mass / physical strength acquired from about the ages of 25 through 30 to be their personal optimal level.  So, Prefontaine passed away before he really had a chance to be a “GREAT” winner as well as a great running prodigy.  He had raced in the 1972 Olympics, but didn’t do well.  Although not favored to win in the 1976 Olympics, it seems certain he would have done well and maybe even medalled.  He was definitely America’s best runner at more than a mile and up to 10K for about 5 years.
 

To make a long story short, Prefontaine flipped his car and wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.  He might have survived, but instead he was crushed by the car.
 

The book is a series of short anecdotes and quotes from folks who knew Prefontaine.  Unfortunately, not many did; and those who did, said they did not know him well.  The book, therefore, lacks a central story-teller to bring life to the person.  We are left with just his records, the quotes of those he ran against, and the quotes of the fans/observers he inspired.  The book, like the central character left me with a sense of unfulfilled promise.  Yes, his life was cut short, but what story we had was also unexplained and perhaps unexplainable.
 

It’s a good enough read, but it’s not likely to be one of the 10 best books about running I’ll ever read.  So, what’s the bottom line?  This is a recommend because it’s short, a fast read, and Steve Prefontaine seems like he was an interesting subject to have a bio about.  The flip side is there is no “Aha” moment when you crest the top of the hill and get the magnificent view (understanding) of the valley spread out before you.  Instead, there is an early nightfall and darkness just before you reach the crest.  Disappointment for what might have been…
 

The reason for the long intro/preface to this blog is because when I finished the book, I was looking at the photos of the accident site which shows the rock face the car rolled into.  The date on the rock is 30 May 1975.  The day I began reading the book – 30 May 2012.  Life is full of coincidences.  Yesterday (31 May), after finishing the book, I went out for an early evening jog – my first in months and months due to my kidney and gall stone issues.  I didn’t go far and I didn’t go fast, but it felt good to be out there in the heat and the air, simply putting one foot in front of the other. 
 

Rest In Peace, Pre… 
 

To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the Gift.”  —  Steve Prefontaine
 

 
 

 

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Sometimes it can be a real effort to keep up with some of the things I’m trying to get across on this site.  Generally, I’m just commenting about things I see happening in my life or around me.  I try to relate my observations, books I’ve read, movies (and TV) I’ve seen, poetry and music I’ve listened to (mostly what’s moved me).  Occasionally, I want to say something, but I’m waiting for something else to happen or for an idea to gel in my head.  Sometimes the thing is important, usually it’s trivial – but it ends up being a blog-blocker anyway.
 

A couple of weeks ago, I went to see the Avengers movie.  I held off on reviewing it because I wanted to see it a second time (this time in 3D), before I cast anything in stone (or as “stone” as a blog can be).  Anyway, I’ve not been able to get around to a second showing, so I’m just going to go ahead with my review of my initial sitting.  If you see only one comic book / super-hero movie this year, the Avengers should be it!!  
 

This movie has all the great things about a great action movie – heroes, believable villains, action / fights, special effects, reasonable story / plot, and a little romance and something hard to find in most movies – pacing.  But most of all this movie has two things:  it has humor sprinkled in liberally and it has the HULK!  Now if you’ve seen the other two Hulk movies, you’re probably saying, “yeah, right!”  Well, I am!  Downey (as Tony Stark / Ironman) carries the movie with wit and panache, Thor and Captain America provide the beefcake, and then the HULK shows up to steal the last 20 minutes.
 

Unfortunately for Batman and Spiderman, both to be released later this year – the bar now seems set impossibly high…  We’ll see.  Bottom line:  Highly recommended!!
 

Last night I completed “Weaving The Web” by Tim Berners-Lee (1999©).  Now, in case you’ve been living under a rock, TB-L is the man who invented the World Wide Web.  He also invented web servers and web browsers.  He came up with the ideas and then worked it out with a colleague (Robert Cailliau) and a student intern (Nicola Pellow).  This book is the story of what they did and how they did it.  It is a story of insight, foresight and individual effort to turn an idea into a grass-roots movement, into a world-wide phenomenon, into the World Wide Web we know today.  
 

The book is relatively easy to read and pretty lacking in computer mumbo-jumbo, but it is not read without some effort (or at least some prior understanding of web / computer history).  I found TB-L’s ideas about the future of the web (the “semantic web”) to be very interesting and, looking back, I wish he had spent more time explaining it more clearly.  As it is, I went on to Google and TED to get more information about it.  Having just skimmed the surface, it is obvious this is where the future of information retrieval is going.  My challenge (or the challenge for any IT professional) is getting up to speed and grasping more than just the theory behind it.  That will require hands-on experience though and other than using my own time, I don’t see how that will happen (at work).
 

Anyway, it’s nice to be able to look ahead and see where the world is going…
 

Bottom line: I highly recommend this book to anyone in technology and anyone who wants to be reasonably well paid in the next 20-30 years.

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Here’s two more books which fall under the general category of “Serendipity and Chaos“.  They are: “What The Dog Saw” (2009©) and “Linked” (2002©).

The first, “What The Dog Saw“, was written by Malcolm Gladwell.  Gladwell is science-popularizer style writer in the vein of Isaac Asimov.  Basically, he looks for interesting areas of science and then explains them to the general public.  This is the fourth book by Gladwell which I own and have read.  The others are: “The Tipping Point“, “Outliers” and “Blink“.  Those three books are single source texts.  This book is a compilation of a number of stories from his articles previously published in The New Yorker.

The book is divided into three sections and the articles (chapters) are meant to focus around the group headings, which are:  1) Obsessives, Pioneers, and Other Varieties of Minor Genius; 2) Theories, Predictions and Diagnoses; and, 3) Personality, Character and Intelligence.  Unfortunately, the group titles do not provide adequate descriptions of the individual articles.  It is enough to say, that each chapter is a mini-book in itself and Gladwell is a very good writer (at least his writing suits MY tastes).  I won’t describe the articles individually except to say the book title comes from the story about Cesar Milan, aka “The Dog Whisperer“.  Most reviews of Milan’s techniques describe what we humans see when he is training the animals.  This article poses the questions: “What does the dog see?” and directly related: “Is that what makes the technique work?”

Bottom line: like Gladwell’s other three books, this is Highly Recommended!!

The second book is: “Linked“, and was written by Albert-László Barabási.  In this book, the author attempts to explain the current state of network theory.  The first couple of chapters cover the history of network theory and then we are quickly shifted into “current” (circa 1990-2002) theory.  The author contends there are three basic types of networks – “centralized”, “decentralized”, and “distributed”.  The author goes on to explain why he feels distributed networks are emergent and how they exist in a broad range of settings, hardware, software, social, economic and biological.  He has an additional premise they are distributed because there are inherent fail-over mechanisms in them which support the network in ways the other two networks simply can’t reproduce.  Most significantly, from my point of view, he is the first person I’ve heard explain both the “rich-get-richer” and the “winner-takes-all” results of distributed networking concepts in economics.  Finally, the author provides an explanation of the concept of “power law” and how it acts in the context of networking – and he does it with a minimum of formulae and in plain English.  All in all, I found this book a fascinating read and highly recommend it.

Gladwell’s was a $2 clearance book from Half-Price Books and Barabási’s was a discounted (used) book purchased from my $50 Amazon birthday gift card.  The book cost more to ship than to buy!  Very good values, if I do say so myself!!

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