Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Drunkard's Walk, by Leonard Mlodinow

The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow

Many things we see as factual are in fact random. Mlodinow explores this illusion with humor and insight, making for a pleasant and informative read. One of the most interesting sections was the discussion of the law of small numbers and the exploration of executive success. “Executives’ winning years are attributed to their brilliance, explained retroactively through incisive hindsight.” Mlodinow believes this is nonsense, and supports this belief quite effectively. “We should expect, by chance alone, about 1 in 10 CEOs to have five winning or losing years in a row. What does this tell us? It is more reliable to judge people by analyzing their abilities than by glancing at the scoreboard.” My experiences with various CEOs makes me wish that this was a widely held opinion, because very few executives I’ve known have been what I’d consider successful.

What sets The Drunkard’s Walk above similar books is that not only does Mlodinow explore how we are fooled by random patterns, but how we fall prey to them. Because humans want to feel like we have control, we abhor randomness; this is why we often mistake luck for skill. Our need for being in command of ourselves allows us to find patterns where they often don’t exist. The discussion and analysis about how randomness rules our lives may seem that true fortune is more a factor of luck than skill. Mlodinow shows in more than one place, though, that this isn’t necessarily true. “Successful people in every field are almost universally members of a certain set — the set of people who don’t give up.” While ability clearly is a factor, “the cord that tethers ability to success is both loose and elastic.” In other words, there are talented people that fail, and mediocre people that succeed; but, mediocre people that give up easily are rarely successful. A solid conclusion to a solid book.

First Sentence:
I remember, as a teenager, watching the yellow flame of the Sabbath candles dancing randomly above the white paraffin cylinders that fueled them.

Shine On, by Mike Renfro

Shine On: 100 Years of Shiner Beer, by Mike Renfro

I love beer. My first Shiner Bock was opened shortly after moving to Austin in 1988 and I’ve never looked back. Dogfish Head, Victory, Rogue, and Stone craft some of my favorite offerings, but the little brewery in Shiner, Texas holds a special place in my world. After reading this photo-filled coffee table book, I see that I’m nowhere close to alone in that belief!

Shine On gives the corporate biography of the Spoetzl Brewery, founded in 1909. The story is actually quite interesting, giving a good overview of the industry in America as well as the details of this particular business. The number of times the brewery was on the verge of bankruptcy is surprising when looking at its success today; as the author says, “It’s a story that would ring of overdone fiction if it weren’t for the simple fact the whole damn thing’s true.” Today, Shiner Bock is seemingly everywhere; it is hard to imagine that it was nearly 1980 before it was actually brewed full-time.

The photographs that accompany the text are plentiful and include many sent in from loyal drinkers giving a friendly feel to the book which meshes well with the story being told. One of my favorites was of a Volkswagen Bug painted to resemble a bee; when Shiner introduced their hefeweisen (then called Shiner Honey Wheat) they built a “buzz” by sending these “bee-hicles” to local bars and encouraging people to try the new beer. A friend of mine and I dragged our families all over San Antonio chasing the slugbugs and getting free beer. That was a very fun night!

Rich details, colorful photographs, and fond memories make Shine On a refreshing read. It has a permanent place on our coffee table and brings a smile to my face each time I crack it open. If you enjoy Texas history and a good beer, open a cold one and spend an afternoon with this book.

First Sentence:
Just for grins, turn the air conditioning off for a few days.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Everlasting Man, by G.K. Chesterton

The Everlasting Man, by G.K. Chesterton

I am not a religious person, but usually enjoy books that challenge my beliefs (like Strobel’s The Case for Christ). The Everlasting Man, however, was hard to finish not only because it was an argument against evolution but because the writing was so difficult. The prose was dense and hard to parse; a typical sentence: “Doubtless those more antiquated men of antiquity who clung to their solitary statues and their single sacred names were regarded as superstitious savages benighted and left behind.” Or even worse, “All this indescribable thing that we call the Christmas atmosphere only hangs in the air as something like a lingering fragrance or fading vapour from the exultant explosion of that one hour in the Judean hills nearly two thousand years ago.”

Chesterton argues that if evolution was real, man wouldn’t be so unique in the world. While that is an interesting argument, there is so much truth in what we do know that I find it ludicrous to dismiss the entire theory. (I also find it interesting that virtually all opposition to evolution is from the religious community and not the scientific one.) Chesteron takes a similar approach to why Christianity is still going strong where other religions have died out, assuming that proves the Church is correct. Hinduism and Buddhism are both older, though, and it is hard to argue they are dying out. Interesting discussion points, but they ring false to me. Chesterton writes, “A history of cows in twelve volumes would not be very lively reading.” While that may be true, only the length of that bovine history makes it less appealing than The Everlasting Man.

First Sentence:
Far away in some strange constellation in skies infinitely remote, there is a small star, which astronomers may some day discover.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Lost Girls, by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie

Lost Girls, by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie

This controversial graphic novel examines the erotic lives of three ladies: Dorothy, Alice, and Wendy. As the women tell each other sexually explicit stories from their past, we come to recognize them as the lead characters from the Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan. The tales become wilder and wilder, starting with simple promiscuity and spinning into drug-fueled orgies and outright incest. Interestingly there are no consequences of any of these decadent actions; no pregnancies, no diseases, no apparent psychological trauma: clearly a fantasy.

While clearly pornography, the book is beautiful and can be appreciated on several levels. For example, a seemingly straightforward conversation between a married couple has an entirely different interpretation when the shadows they are causing are examined in the background. Elsewhere a journal entry is shared that is illustrated with both an opium-induced tryst and a depiction of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, with both sets of drawings make sense. In another place the seven deadly sins are juxtaposed with a lesbian seduction. Moore and Gebbie have clearly taken the term “graphic” in “graphic novel” to extremes here, with interesting results.

First Sentence:
Tell me a story.

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