Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Eternity Road, by Jack McDevitt

Eternity Road, by Jack McDevitt

From alternate history to future history. This novel owes a lot to A Canticle for Leibowitz but doesn’t have the philosophical depth. Canticle tells of how an order of monks tries to keep alive history and technology after a nuclear holocaust. Eternity Road, on the other hand, is the quest of society to rediscover the history that is known to be lost. I loved the references to landmarks during the quest across the future United States, some that exist in our time (the Iron Pyramid) and some that don’t (the Richard Feynman Supercollider). The characters were too one-dimensional for me to really care when endangered or rewarded, but the slowly emerging story of what happened to our world kept me reading.

First Sentence:
It is a fond and universally held notion that only things of the spirit truly endure: love, sunsets, music, drama.

1634: The Galileo Affair, by Eric Flint and Andrew Dennis

1634: The Galileo Affair, by Eric Flint and Andrew Dennis

Like the previous entry, this book is just one of an ongoing collection. The Assiti Shards series is a progression of novels telling the story of a West Virginia mining community mysteriously transported back to Germany during the Thirty Years War. I’ve always enjoyed time travel epics and historical fiction, and this combination doesn’t disappoint. The initial entry in this series, 1632 (see the pattern here?), is so far still my favorite, but Flint does a good job of keeping the world interesting.

1634 is roughly the year during which Galileo and the Church had their famous clash. Flint posits what would have happened if 20th century dogma was introduced to the era. A little more soap-opera-y in places than I’d prefer (and thus a bit too long), but the authors clearly researched this epoch thoroughly. The characters and situations kept me visiting Wikipedia often to get some more background. While this may be a negative to some, it is one of the reasons I like histories, even fictional ones!

First Sentence:
The palace was over-heated, Mazarini thought.

The Dog From Hell, by Chris Bunch

The Dog From Hell, by Chris Bunch

This is the fourth chapter of the Star Risk series. None of these books will make you forget Isaac Asimov — if Asimov is Citizen Kane then Chris Bunch is Indiana Jones. I digress. Star Risk is the name of a mercenary organization in the far future. The dog from hell is a nod to Cerberus the mythological guard of Hades and the name of a competing group of mercenaries. The plot involves the clash of these two companies, a conflict which had been building through the previous three installments. You don’t have to have read the other three to enjoy this, but I think it will make it more fun. Great for an airplane, which coincidentally enough is where I read it!

First Sentence:
The castle loomed above them on the bluff, centuries-old stone, dank, brooding.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester

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

This is a biography of two men and a book: James Murray, W. C. Minor, and the Oxford English Dictionary. The Dictionary was the first project that set out to record every single word in the English language; the first edition took 70 years to complete, 414,825 words were defined, and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations were included. This isn’t the dictionary that sits on your desk! Murray was the third editor of this massive undertaking, but the one that made the project successful. Minor was the most prolific contributor, as well as a convicted murderer committed to an asylum. The tale of how this unlikely partnership came to be is fairly interesting, but it seemed much too long to me. I suppose it is appropriate for a story about a dictionary to be wordy, though! The author also makes liberal use of his thesaurus—words like trawl, portmanteau, and japanned appear on nearly each page. In most narratives this would come off as pretentious at best, but in this study of syntax it works.

At the close, the author presents some of his favorite words. I’ll take this opportunity to do the same! From

ob·strep·er·ous (b-strpr-s, b-) adj.

  1. Noisily and stubbornly defiant.
  2. Aggressively boisterous.

zy·mur·gy (zmûrjn.

The branch of chemistry that deals with fermentation processes, as in brewing.

jux·ta·pose (jkst-pztr.v.

To place side by side, especially for comparison or contrast.

ox·y·mo·ron (ks-môrn, -mr-) n.

A rhetorical figure in which incongruous or contradictory terms are combined, as in a deafening silence and a mournful optimist.

First Sentence:
In Victorian London, even in a place as louche and notoriously crime-ridden as Lambeth Marsh, the sound of gunshots was a rare event indeed.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The One Minute Manager, by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson

The One Minute Manager, by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson

I don’t like Spencer Johnson’s style. I didn’t care for Who Moved My Cheese? and I didn’t particularly like this one either. Both books make some good points, but the presentation is so childish I thought I was reading a book my kindergartener should read. I find a book so patronizing very difficult to take seriously.

A lot of the points he makes seem to be more common sense than anything else to me: set clear goals; reward good behavior; punish bad behavior, but don’t dwell on it. I know there are managers out there that don’t do this (boy, don’t I know it!), but it seems so obvious. We are often not the best judge of our own habits, but I like to think this is how I operate. Hopefully, my team feels empowered to call me on this when I’m not living up to my end of the deal!

First Sentence:
Once there was a bright young man who was looking for an effective manager.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

Easy to see why this is a classic. The story is compelling, well-written, and a fun read. The style is interesting: it is a series of diary entries and letters from the various protagonists, presented in chronological order. I’ve read other chronicle-style novels before, but not one where the entries were from a variety of different characters. Often the entries would overlap, providing multiple viewpoints for the same events. Very effective.

I was surprised that the Count himself was only directly on the stage for maybe a quarter of the novel. Considering he was the title character and one of the most famous fictional creations of all time, I expected a lot more of him. The absence wasn’t disappointing, though; in fact, it simply made him more mysterious and sinister. If written today there would be a complete back-story telling us how Dracula came to be and giving him some degree of sympathy; it simply isn’t needed though.

The story was enthralling, even knowing the basic plot from all the various movies and derivative works through the years. As with most reinterpretations, none of them have been completely accurate so there were still some surprises in these pages. While I knew what the ending would eventually be, the path to get there was still entertaining.

First Sentence:
Left Munich at 8.35 p.m. on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6.46, but train was an hour late.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, by Eric Schlosser

This was a fascinating book to read right after The E-Myth Revisited. That book preached that the franchise model is the best thing since sliced bread, and this one seems to believe that franchises are evil and are to blame for exacerbating many of America’s social ills. An interesting juxtaposition and it happened completely by accident!

Schlosser complains a lot about how the industry takes advantage of its employees. He seems especially upset about accepting federal funds for job training; he often claims that no training is actually supplied and so taking the money is tantamount to fraud. Once he does actually admit that training is provided: “[The fast food industry] often teaches basic job skills ... to people who can barely read. But the stance ... on issues involving employee training ... strongly suggests that its motives ... are hardly altruistic.” Who cares about the motives? The result is many people that can’t get a job anywhere else are provided a way of earning money and receiving actual job experience. Do any of these employees expect a gold watch after 50 years of flipping burgers? Of course not!

The author seems to take exception to the fact that McDonald’s allows its franchisees to set wages according to the local labor market, but has strict rules about the thickness of a pickle slice. Why he thinks wages for someone in New York City should match those of someone in Brownsville, Texas escapes me, although I do expect the same burger at any McDonald’s I visit so the pickle thing makes sense. Schlosser also seems offended that the corporations are anti-union. I personally believe that unions are anachronistic and cause more problems than they solve these days, but still found it surprising that he couldn’t see why a company wouldn’t want a union around.

Yet another diatribe was that the legal agreements that potential franchisees must sign are extremely limiting. The point that he seems to miss is that nobody is forcing these guys to do anything! When was the last time someone held you at gunpoint and said you had to open a McDonald’s... or else? Oh, and just so you know, parents need not accept any responsibility for the rising obesity rates in our youth; this can be blamed squarely on the fact that the fast food companies target their advertising directly at our kids. Whew!

Clearly the politics of this book greatly annoyed me. The descriptions of the history of the fast food industry were really well researched, though, and the tales of how flash-frozen food can be made to look and taste as we expect was admittedly disturbing. I was disappointed he concentrated so much on just McDonald’s; seeing how non-burger chains like Subway or KFC stacked up in the food preparation arena would have been really interesting. If his goal was to provoke thought he succeeded, but if his goal was to create political activist vegans (which honestly I don’t think it was) he failed miserably. Well worth my time, however.

First Sentence:
Carl N. Karcher is one of the fast food industry’s pioneers.

The E-Myth Revisited, by Michael E. Gerber

The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It, by Michael E. Gerber

The first theory of this book is that there are three warring personalities inside each businessman: the Entrepreneur, the Manager, and the Technician. The Entrepreneur is the dreamer, the one with all the ideas. The Manager is the pragmatic one, the planner. The Technician is the doer, the one that makes it all work. All three of these are inside every successful professional to some degree. Striking the proper balance between the three is the trick; too much Entrepreneur and business accomplishes nothing, too much Manager and the business doesn’t grow, and too much Technician and the business withers on the vine to due lack of attention. This makes a lot of sense to me; I see a lot of the last two types in me and not much of the first.

The second theory is that the franchise model is business plan that gives the highest chance for success. A business that is franchised needs repeatable, documented processes for virtually everything. With clear documentation, you can be assured that the job gets done regardless of who is doing it. Ideally, you try and remove all the skill from the job, replacing it with a system. Think of an assembly line; if all someone does all day is tighten the same bolt over and over again as it passes by on a conveyor belt, the position takes very little training and not much skill. Many people instinctively buy this argument when it comes to individual contributors, but Gerber holds that it applies to management as well. “You may think that the successful implementation of a management strategy is dependent on finding amazingly competent managers — people with finely honed “people skills,” with degrees from management schools, with highly sophisticated techniques for dealing with and developing their people. It isn’t. You don’t need such people. Nor can you afford them. In fact, they will be the bane of your existence.” I love this quote, especially the bit about management schools. Of course, my friends with MBA’s don’t exactly agree. :)

First Sentence:
The E-Myth is the myth of the entrepreneur.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Iron Sunrise, by Charles Stross

Iron Sunrise, by Charles Stross

I picked this up because I wanted something light to read on the plane. It had been a while since I’d read any hard science-fiction, and this looked interesting. About a quarter of the way in it became clear this wasn’t the first book in this universe (something not noted on the book jacket) but it was written well enough it didn’t matter.

While set in the far future, it had a noir feeling to me — instead of being set on a spaceship cruising between stars I could easily invoke the image of a train traveling in the dead of night, and the bad guys were thinly-disguised copies of Nazis. Even the names invoke images of the past: Frank the Nose, Martin Springfield and Rachel Mansour, and U. Franz Bergman.

A great speech comes towards the end by the lead rogue: “Everybody thinks they are doing the right thing, kid. All the time. It is about the only rule that explains how fucked-up this universe is. Nobody is a villain in their own head, are they? We all know we’re doing the right thing, which is why we’re in this mess.” I recently was in a discussion on the definition of evil; this sums it up well!

All-in-all, not a bad read.

First Sentence:
Just outside the expanding light cone of the present a star died, iron-bombed.

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