Where the Sidewalk Ends

Last night Mazie and I finished reading Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein. I really enjoyed reading each and every poem to Mazie, and she thought they were funny, goofy and good.

I distinctly remember reading Where the Sidewalk Ends when I was a kid. They were likely the first poems I read. I even remembered some of them. Mostly I remembered having the book and the cover of it.

We were reading the 30th Anniversary edition so I was at the youngest 9 when I read it. It was a real treat to read it to my daughter and hope that she has the same recollection when she reads it 30 years from now.

Hunger Games Trilogy

Tammy had read The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins a few months ago and really like it. I had just finished reading my book club pick Never Let Me Go and I had put the Hunger Games trilogy on my Kindle application. While on the bus into work I decided to start The Hunger Games. A couple of weeks later now and I’ve read them all.

I’m a slow reader, typically. Every once in a while a book will catch me and I can’t put it down. Into Thin Air was like that, as was The Omnivore’s Dillema. I read the entire Dune series in a few weeks one summer as well. The Hunger Games was like that. The first book introduces you to this less than ideal vision of the future. The story arc is easy but very fun and enjoyable. Recommended reading, particularly for a summer vacation.

My only critique of the book is the ending of the last one. I was left wanting more, something more interesting to happen. It wasn’t that it was bad, I just wanted more story.

Triumph of the City: Minneapolis

My book club is reading Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser, an economist at Harvard University. It has been an interesting read. I was a bit surprised to find Minneapolis with a short highlight on successful cities.

Many might also have written off Minneapolis, which lost 30 percent of its population between 1950 and 1980 and hardly seemed like a natural candidate for urban renaissance. The city’s winters make Boston seem balmy, and the advantages that once came from its riverside location became largely irrelevant after World War II. But Minneapolis, like Boston and New York, has come back. In 2009, per capita personal income in the Minneapolis metropolitan area was $45,750, making it the highest-earning metropolitan area in the Midwest and the twenty-fifth highest in the country.

The secret of the city’s success is education: 47.4 percent of the city’s adults have a college degree, and 37.5 percent of the Minneapolis area’s adults have a college degree, making it the seventh-best-educated metropolitan area with more than a million people in America. The Scandinavian Lutherans who originally settled the region brought with them a belief in learning, but most of all, Minneapolis’s highly educated population reflects its land-grant college, the University of Minnesota. The city’s most striking economic success stories have some link to that school.

Medtronic, which earns $14.6 billion in annual revenues and has thirty-eight thousand employees, was formed in 1949 when a graduate student in electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota partnered with his brother-in-law to make medical devices in a garage. The company’s early success reflected, in part, connections with people like Walt Lillehei, a University of Minnesota professor and a pioneer in open-heart surgery, who saw the need for a small, battery-powered pacemaker and turned to Medtronic to whip one up. Minneapolis’s megaretailer, Target, owes much of its success to Bob Ulrich, another University of Minnesota graduate, who helped create the chain’s blend of logistics and style. Target’s slightly more highbrow alternative to big-box competitors like Walmart and Kmart seems natural for the sophisticated Ulrich, a collector of African art who has spent a fortune endowing a Museum of Musical Instruments.

I didn’t realize Minneapolis ranked so high in education.

The Typographic Desk Reference

typography-desk-reference.jpgA couple of weeks ago I was reading one of my favorite typography websites, I Love Typography, and saw their article about Theodore Rosendorf’s The Typographic Desk Reference. I was intrigued right away.

In recent years I’ve become much more interested in typography. In fact, on my own website I always push for layouts that focus on typography over graphics. I’ve been practically giddy recently when discussing the potential of @font-face in web design with Garrick Van Buren (stay tuned to his Kernest project by the way). I’m not a student of type, as I’m not a student of art. However, that doesn’t keep me from admiring beautiful type and appreciating the subtle elegance of a great type.

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Winterdance

Winterdance-Cover.pngWhen I left for my dog sledding trip I decided that I would get into the spirit of things with a book for the trip. Wintergreen had listed Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod by Gary Paulsen as a suggested read, so I picked up a copy before I left town. The book was the perfect length of read for a few days in the woods with the dogs.

Winterdance is a really enjoyable read. The book is divided into two major sections as Paulsen prepares and trains for the Iditarod and the more than 1,100 miles of the race (Wikipedia has an excellent Iditarod reference to learn more). The book has several stories that make you laugh out loud when Paulsen discovers the power of the dogs. It was fun to read while on a dog sledding trip as I could truly understand the insanity of putting yourself on a bicycle behind a team of dogs. What was he thinking!

The second half of the book gives insight into this amazing race that I never really knew. It made me really want to learn more and definitely gave a deeper appreciation for the challenges of it. I’m making a note on my calendar now to remind when the 2009 Iditarod is (Sat. March 7th, 2009 if you don’t want to look yourself).

Reading this book and having the howl of the sled dogs fresh in my mind was really great. I’m a bit surprised it hasn’t been made into a movie. It would be a perfect movie plot with all the required ingredients. If you’re heading up into the snow, or better, on a dog sledding trip — I don’t think you could beat this book. Even without the snow, it’s a good read.

The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder

books.jpegA while back at one of my book club meetings John Riedl mentioned the author Tracy Kidder. I expressed my ignorance and he was dumbfounded. “You haven’t read Kidder? Soul of a New Machine? You have to read it.” His conviction was strong enough that I figured I needed to read it and rectify this horrific literary gap. I finished it today, and really enjoyed the book.

To start with, Soul of a New Machine is not a technical book. You do not need to know anything about computers to read this book. Also, this book was originally published in 1981. This is a time when “super-minis” were just coming out and the computer industry was jumping to 32-bit architectures. This is four years before the introduction of the first Macintosh computer. I would recommend this book to my technical friends for the same reason I would recommend Steven Levy‘s Hackers (1984), Cliff Stoll‘s The Cuckoo’s Egg (1990) or Out of the Inner Circle (1984). There is a great depth of history and culture in this book that is worthwhile and reminds us of the roots of our profession. We still see these roots playing out today in nearly all computer related industries. Thirty years ago it was displayed by wire-wrapping boards to make CPU’s, today it’s shown in mashups. The world of programming and computer engineering, despite what many might think, is filled with passion and creativity.

Soul of a New Machine chronicles the development of a new 32-bit computer from Data General called the Eagle (or the Data General Eclipse MV/8000). Kidder does an excellent job of telling a compelling story of how this machine comes to life and dives into the stories of the people that make it. He concludes that a computer isn’t just a machine, but represents the ideas and personalities of those that create it. He’s spot on.

Kidder illuminates the culture that has filled computer labs, computer science departments, technology, and now Internet startups for years. A born-desire to solve the unsolvable. The unstoppable desire to know how something works.

As I read Soul of a New Machine I could draw parallels to products that I had worked on in a variety of different roles. It was amusing to see that while almost all the tools have changed, so much of the “how” and the “why” has stayed the same.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Into-The-Wild-Cover.pngI finished Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer this evening. It was enjoyable to both start and finish this book during our stay at Glacier National Park. Reading that much is just one of the joys of not having any television or Internet access in our cabin. I was excited to read this book after having watched the movie version of Into the Wild. My friend Kent lent me his copy of the book and it’s already been passed on to Tammy to read before returning to Kent.

First off, this is a really enjoyable book and just like the other Krakauer book I’ve read, Into Thin Air, this is a real page turner. Even a slow reader like myself can’t help but finish it quickly, picking it up at every opportunity to see what happens next.

For a full review of the book or to dive into it’s topics, check out the Amazon reviews or just read it yourself. I think most people will enjoy it.

The whole story of Chris McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, really grabbed me. Kent and I talked about this at some length because he had the same reaction. His story is beyond interesting, and I find it impossible to think about his story without also reflecting on my own life. I think that there is something about the ferocity that Alex lived and dreamt that makes me, something.

That’s the thing about Alex’s story. On one hand, he’s incredibly selfish. His entire pursuit is so inwardly focused and causes a lot of pain for most anyone that got close to him. He goes completely off the deep end, and in the end loses his life foolishly. With some basic preparation and know how he probably would have survived his ordeal in the Alaskan Interior and nobody would have ever heard of Alexander Supertramp.

But even with those negatives, you feel a sense of admiration for the young man. A sense of pride. Or even a sense of shame for not having the courage or discipline to pursue something the way that he did, or even a fraction of the way that he did.

Have any of you read this book? I would be curious to know what you thought of it and what your reaction was. I think that Chris’ story is going to sit with me for a while.

Beautiful Evidence

I’m the newest member into a small book club that only counts tech geeks in its membership. The first book I read in the club was Edward Tufte‘s Beautiful Evidence.

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I was really excited to read this since I’ve been to Tufte’s lecture twice before but I will sheepishly admit that I hadn’t read any of his books. They look really good on the book shelf though! :-)

Beautiful Evidence had some really good moments, but it also had some not-so-good moments. All of the members of the book club had issues with the book. Those that have read his other books felt it wasn’t up to par with the others. I really liked the chapters on labeling and sparklines, but there were several parts that just seemed to ramble.

I’m not going to rag on the book. It wasn’t bad — I guess I just expected something more.

In Defense of Food – An Eater's Manifesto

In Defense Of Food CoverI just finished reading Michael Pollan‘s newest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. It is a well-written and well-researched book that dives into the Western diet and deconstructs it in three parts: The Age of Nutrionism, The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization, and Getting Over Nutritionism. I’ve heard this book referred to as the follow-on to his wildly popular The Omnivores Dilemma (which, in full disclosure I have not read, yet).

I found In Defense of Food particularly interesting in part because of my own view of food and how it has evolved. A decade ago I was completely clueless about food. If I was asked how many calories were in a cheeseburger I could have easily agreed with 100 or 4,000. I really had no idea. Then while focusing extensively on fitness and diet I started logging every bit of food that passed my lips. I was focused in a nearly obsessive manner (nearly? who am I kidding) on how many grams of various macronutrients I got and precisely how many calories I consumed. To put a point on it, I weighed my fruit on a gram scale before and after eating it to determine the precise intake. Yeah, that is obsessive.

This is not behavior that you can model forever and when I stopped doing it I learned that I hadn’t really learned how to eat, but instead had become a discipline of nutritionism. Nutritionism is not Pollan’s term, it was coined by Gyorgy Scrinis. The behavior and mindset that it describes though is the antithesis of the most basic suggestion on how to eat.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Those are the first seven words in Pollan’s book and admittedly you could stop reading there. The remaining 200 pages dive into the details of the Western diet and the issues with it. Pollan’s writing is interesting throughout and even the deeper dives into the roots of nutritionism are immensely interesting. He does a great job of highlighting for the reader just how much our food system has changed, and in most ways for the worse, in the last 70 years. This paragraph really hit me hard. I expected corn and high-fructose corn syrup to be the evil doer in this book, but the bases of nutritionism predates that trend.

Of all the changes to our food system that go under the heading “The Western Diet,” the shift from a food chain with green plants at it’s base to one based on seeds may be the most far reaching of all. Nutritional scientists focus on different nutrients — whether the problem with modern diets is too many refined carbohydrates, not enough good fats, too many bad fats, or a deficiency of any number of micronutrients or too many total calories. But at the root of all these biochemical changes is a single ecological change. For the shift from leaves to seeds affects much more than the levels of omega-3 and omega-6 in the body. It also helps account for the flood of refined carbohydrates in the modern diet and the drought of so many micronutrients and the surfeit of total calories. From leaves to seeds: It’s almost, if not quite, a Theory of Everything.

Throughout the book Pollan deals with the challenge of arguing nutritionism while not falling into the logic arguments it naturally suggests. I was happy to see him recognize this later in the book, and I thought it appropriate. After all, to have a book that suggests that you have to stop looking at food as grams of chemicals, and then just suggests that you start gardening would be incomplete and unhelpful.

The undertow of nutritionism is powerful, and more than once over the past few pages I’ve felt myself being dragged back under. You’ve no doubt noticed that much of the nutrition science I’ve presented here qualifies as reductionist science, focusing as it does on individual nutrients (such as certain fats or carbohydrates or antioxidants) rather than on whole foods or dietary patterns. Guilty. But using this sort of science to try to figure out what’s wrong with the Western diet is probably unavoidable. However imperfect, it’s the sharpest experiemental and explanatory tool we have. It also satisfies our hunger for a simple, one-nutrient explanation. Yet it’s one thing to entertain such explanations and quite another to mistake them for the whole truth or to let any one of them dictate the way you eat.

This is the heart of Pollan’s message. Stop thinking of food as a collection of micro- and macro-nutrients and instead think of it in the whole. This obsessive push to the one thing that will save us is destroying us.

Pollan doesn’t spare the establishment in his analysis. Early in the book he outlines legislation passed in 1938 under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act that required the word “immitation” appear on any food that was fake. I love the definition of this “…there are certain traditional foods that everyone knows, such as bread, milk and cheese, and that when consumers buy these foods, they shoudl get the foods they are expecting…” The sad thing is that nearly everything in the modern grocery store would have to be labeled immitation. The requirement was repealed shortly after enacted after protests from the food industry. Nobody apparently wanted to buy immitation spaghetti.

When corn oil and chips and sugary breakfast cereals can all boast being good for your heart, health claims have become hopelessly corrupt. The American Heart Association currently bestows (for a fee) its heart-healthy seal of approval on Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puffs, and Trix cereals, Yoo-hoo lite chocolate drink, and Healthy Choice’s Premium Caramel Swirl Ice Cream Sandwich — this at a time when scientists are coming to recognize that dietary sugar probably plays a more important role in heart disease than dietary fat. Meanwhile, the genuinely heart-healthy whole foods in the produce section, lacking financial and political clout of the packaged goods a few aisles over, are mute. But don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing valuable to say about health.

Pollan doesn’t leave it at just the food either, but the way in which we consume it. I was surprised by one of the statistics cited in the book, that 60% of McDonald’s revenue is made at the drive-through. A healthy meal is not consumed in your car. It may seem unachievable, but having a real family meal is a critical part of a healthy diet.

That one should feel the need to mount a defense of “the meal” is sad, but then I never would have thought “food” needed defending, either. Most readers will recall the benefits of eating meals without much prompting from me. It is at the dinner table that we socialize and civilize our children, teaching them manners and the art of conversation. At the dinner table parents can determine portion sizes, model eating and drinking behavior, and enforce social norms about greed and gluttony and waste. Shared meals are about much more than fueling bodies; they are uniquely human institutions where our species developed language and this thing we call culture. Do I need to go on?

Indeed he does not. In Defense of Food is a great read. If you question your approach to what you put on the table (or don’t put on the table), this is a good perspective on that challenge.

Moneyball

180px-moneyballsbn.jpgI just finished reading Moneyball. This book was recommended to me by a friend who really likes baseball and feels that it’s very odd that I don’t like baseball. You see, I love numbers. I love patterns. I love graphs. And according to Moneyball, baseball is all about numbers.

Moneyball was a really enjoyable book, and it succeeded in making me appreciate baseball a lot more and I will definitely enjoy the games even more. However, after reading it the main thing I was left with was how backwards the baseball establishment has been for so long. You mean that statistical analysis may help you determine how a player will perform? Wow. Stunning stuff.

The way Lewis writes this book makes it sound like there is a strict set of two camps. One that plays by look and feel, the other that plays by spreadsheets. I’m sure it’s not that simple, but it makes for a wonderful story and is very well written.

If you like numbers, and have much of any interest in baseball, you should take a read through Moneyball.