Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Book Club - August 2016

I managed to get a lot of reading done this month. Long hot summer days with nothing much to do I guess.

Kangaroo is the code name for a secret agent working for a very secret branch of the US government, sometime in the future. He was recruited because he has, what he describes as, a superpower. With his mind he can open up a gateway to someplace unknown. The scientists think it's a place in interstellar space. It's not a big opening, maybe a few feet across at most. But it's a good place to stash the various gadgets and tools he needs for his job. He's not a very good spy but his "pocket" is pretty useful. When his agency comes under the scrutiny of Congress, Kangaroo's boss sends him on a 30-dat luxury cruise to Mars to get him out of the way, and keep the pocket a secret. Written with good sci-fi flair and humor, this is a great debut novel by Chen. I'm looking forward to the sequel. One of a few books I've given 5 stars to on Amazon.

Klosterman (and no, the cover is not up-side-down) is a music and pop-culture critic who makes an occasional foray into science. In his latest book, he looks a some science topics (like gravity) and asks scientists the title question. He also delves into pop culture topics, like which musician of today will still be remembered in 200 years. Of course, he doesn't know the answers to any of these questions but tries to answer them anyway. His answer to which TV show will still be studied for clues about our time in hundreds of years is "Rosanne". And he makes a good case for it. Recommended.

The cover says "A Breen and Tozer Mystery" so clearly the latest in a series. Breen is a Detective Sargent with the London police and Tozer is his former partner and sometimes lover who has quit the force to help her parents run their small farm. It's set in 1969 (which I remember like it was 47 years ago) and is the third in the series. I was pretty impressed by the over all characterizations in the novel, and the story. I need to find the earlier books.

Kinsley is a political journalist. He's about 6 months older than me and since he's getting older, so am I. In 2002, Kinsley made public that he had Parkinson's disease, which he'd kept secret for some years. The book is more like a journal on how to deal with that disease but, he makes the claim that many of the symptoms of Parkinson's are similar to problems people face when they get older. It was an interesting read. He gets more political as the book goes on and the last chapter was a polemic on how to solve the problems with this country which I gave up on.

"The Good Earth" seems like the kind of classic book I should have read years ago. I'm still working through the annual best seller list from the past 100 years; this was the best seller in 1931 and 1932 and led to Buck winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. I managed to get a copy for my Kindle for only $2.99. It didn't sound like something I'd like, a story of a Chinese peasant farmer in the early 1900s but I loved it.

The latest (the 26th) in Sandford's Lucas Davenport novels. Sandford seemed to have lost interest in the series a few books ago but he (like his character in his job) seems to have pulled the series back into interest. In the last novel, Lucas ends up quitting his job with the state in Minnesota over a conflict in how he handled the case in the novel (which largely involved Lucas doing police work in several states other than Minnesota). In this book, his pal, the Minnesota governor, is running for president. It's early days and he knows he can't win the Democratic nomination but is trying to position himself as the leading candidate for VP. When the governor begins to fear that someone is targeting the leading Dem candidate (a woman, not really much like Hilary) he calls Lucas for help. Pretty satisfying and nicely sets up Davenport for his new career.

Heather Havrilesky writes the advice column "Dear Polly" for New York magazine. I never heard of her but the cover blurb sounded interesting. The letters are mainly from 20 and 30 something women (and a couple of men) who have problems that I don't remember having when I was that age, mainly because things have changed a lot in the past 40 years, but can still understand. Most of her advice is of the "Stop doing that thing to yourself" or "Stop letting that thing be done to you" variety with lots of profanity. Her former career as a TV critic has apparently given her a lot of insight into modern problems and she actually suggests many concrete actions to take. I've always liked reading advice columnists and this was pretty entertaining.

Here's another guy, about my age, giving advice. Barry is a few years older than me and, although all of his stuff is humorous, I've always thought his pieces on his family life entertaining and, frankly, made it easier to face anything coming up in my life that he'd already gone through.

The 19th Tomas Lynley book. Lynley is a an English lord and the last male heir of an old English family, and wealthy, but prefers the life and work of a policeman. He's an Inspector with Scotland Yard. Her books are always long (this one is close to 600 pages) but generally satisfying. She manages to pack a lot about the lives of her main characters (Lynley and his Detective Sargent Barbara Havers) in between the crime and its solving. You should read the 1 star reviews on Amazon. Six books ago, George had Lynley's recent wife, and long-time love of his life, brutally murdered in a random act of violence. Some of her readers have yet to forgive her.

It took me most of the month to get through this audio book. I liked it a lot but many people thought the ending made the whole book not worth reading. I disagree although I thought the ending was kind of pointless. This is a sequel, of sorts, to her previous book, which I finished earlier this year, called "Life After Life". That was the story of Beatrice Todd, born around 1910, who lives multiple lives. Every time she dies, her the story starts again, from birth. Although she doesn't remember her past lives, she retains something that helps her avoid what ever it was that killed her (like say a bombing during the London Blitz) and live a little longer. "A God In Ruins" is about her little brother Teddy, who goes on to be a bomber pilot in WWII. In many of Beatrice's lives, Teddy is killed, but this is apparently (and I say apparently, due to the ending) one of her lives where he beats the odds and survives the war. The book can be difficult, as the story is told from a number of view points, and not at all in a linear fashion. Teddy is a nice guy. His wife (and childhood sweetheart) dies young. Teddy has to deal with his only child, a daughter who can never forgive him for her mother's death, and two grandchildren, whom he struggles mightily to save them from his daughter's neglect.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Donruss Chrome!

The first Topps Chrome cards were 20 years ago, in 1996. I wonder if their patent (assuming they had one) has expired.

Of course this Panini product is not called Donruss Chrome, it's called Donruss Optic.

It has the exact look and feel of Topps Chrome. It's based on 2016 Donruss, which is a set I don't really like. I was sorry I bought this as soon as a pulled the first card from the pack. I'm glad I only bought one pack. The $9.99 for 16-cards price was another reason to only buy one.

They also have Refractor cards but they call them Holo cards.

They even have Purple Halo cards

Four of these come per pack.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Movie Review - Suicide Squad

I was warned but I went to see "Suicide Squad" anyway.

This is one of those movies that the critics hate and the fans love. The critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes is 26% while the fan rating is 71%.

I'm well aware that the world doesn't need yet another bad review of "Suicide Squad".  So I'll just keep this short. The first 2/3rds were kinda boring. The last 1/3rd was all bullets flying, shit blowing up, lightening bolts, and the film makers heavy handed attempts to rouse some sympathy for the psychopathic main characters.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Champion Eaters on Cards

I finally found a couple of blasters of 2016 Allen and Ginter. I'm probably not going to do an comprehensive posts on the product, but just some cards that are of special interest.

The world of competitive eating seems pretty odd to me, especially any video I've seen is pretty disgusting. It doesn't look so much like eating as shoving stuff into a garbage disposal. Anyway, this guy, whose 24, is studying nutrition when he's not shoveling food into his face. When you're a championship eater, apparently you don't specialize. By the way, his nickname is "Megatoad".

This wasn't the first time Allen and Ginter featured a hot dog eating champion. Back in 2008 they gave us this guy.

Since this card, Chestnut, also know as "Jaws", has one nine of the last ten Nathan's championships, only losing to Megatoad in 2015. He is quoted as saying ″I will not stop until I reach 70. This 'sport' isn't about eating. It's about drive and dedication, and at the end of the day hot dog eating challenges both my body and my mind.″ He's 33 years old. Wikipedia doesn't mention him having a real job. Can you make enough each year doing this to live on? Maybe he gets all his food for free.

OK, just one more.

Thomas is 49 years old and it's not clear from Wikipedia if she's still doing this. Her last listed championship contest was in 2013. What's amazing about here is she only weighs 98 pounds. One of her feats is eating 11 pounds of cheesecake in 9 minutes. Erp. She has 2 nicknames, "The Black Widow" and "The Leader of the Four Horsemen of the Esophagus"

Thursday, August 4, 2016

2016 Topps Allen & Ginter - Finally

So every blogger and her brother have already written about 2016 Topps Allen and Ginter. Well, here's my two cents.

First off, it took forever for the product to get here to my corner of SE Texas and all I finally found was one value pack. One. The pack advertised 14 cards but I only got 13, I guess because I got an auto card. That's right, I bought one lousy pack of Topps Allen and Ginter and got an auto. Go figure.

A and G doesn't change much from year, which is, I suppose part of it's charm. The three subtle changes this year were to 1) dial back the curlicues; 2) put fine lines in the background color sploch and 3) vary the color of the product name. All OK with me. I'm not going to bother to show the backs since these have not changed since 2006.

At first I though they were color matching to the team color but maybe not.

Well, maybe they are.

OK, they are not color matching. Why not?

If I'm going to pull only one Astro it might as well be Correa.

A rodeo cowboy. This guy once had his skull crushed by a horse. He spent three days in a coma but returned to competition after 8 months of rehab.

A couple of 5th round Yankees draft picks. Bird in 2011. Cotham in 2009.

This looks more like a Topps Gypsy Queen card.

There are 100 cards in this insert set so I suppose this is this year's card-in-every-pack set.

I'm going to skip the two mini cards. I'm seriously getting tired of mini cards. Here's the auto card.

Oh, yeah, Robert Raiola, the sports tax man. What? This guy is an accountant with a big accounting firm. According to his web page (no Wikipedia entry) "He provides business management services, tax planning and business consulting to high net worth individuals and their families in the sports and entertainment industries." The photo on the front comes right from his page. I imagine he's pulling down 7 figures easily.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Book Club - July 2016 Reading List

11 books this month. Too much free time? I've also, perhaps, padded the total with some comic books. But they were fat ones.

This book came out in 1985 and I probably should have read it before now. I read her new book a few weeks ago and started looking in her back catalog. "The Handmaid's Tale" supposes a future America where fundamentalist's have taken over. The Handmaid in question has been assigned to a Captain. It's never clear what this guy does for a living but for sure he's part of the ruling structure of Boston, where the story takes place. Her 'job' is to have a child by this Captain, because his wife is barren. Once a month, after a ceremony involving the whole household, he attempts to impregnate her. The population has decreased due to various ecological catastrophes and most women are barren. Since she has literally nothing else to do, she spends her time remembering her former life, with her husband, before the country went mad. If you're into dystopia stories this is a pretty well written one.

Are you a nerd? This book does two things, it traces the literary and filmed history of Batman from the first 1939 comic book to the rumors of the "Batman vs Superman" movie. He also takes up nerd culture, specifically as it relates to Batman starting from the first letter columns in Batman comics in the 1960, through fan magazines, fan conventions, early computer bulletin boards, to the Internet of today. It traces how these nerd voices, few at first, but increasing in number, have had an effect on the owners and producers of Batman material.

I've read and liked stuff by China Mieville before. I read a book of short stories by him earlier in the year which I thought were hit and miss. This book was a hard read. It takes place in a rural town in what appears to be some kind of post-apocalyptic America. It almost seems familiar but it is a society where electricity is scarce, food is scarce, where hoards of orphaned children roam the street, and where nobody really seems to be in charge. The story is mostly told in first person about a 10-year-old boy who believes that his father has murdered his mother. It's told apparently by the adult this boy will become, but Mieville changes the point of view, and the tense often to keep me confused. Even the title becomes confusing. I managed to finish it but it was a difficult read and I'm not sure it was worth the effort.

 Are you surprised that I picked up a few Batman comic books? These are the first two collected comics for the New 52 Batman series. I could explain what that means but I couldn't do it justice. If you really want to know, follow the link to Wikipedia for more information than you'll want to read. In this relaunch of Batman, it turns out that Gotham City has been controlled by a secret society called The Court of Owls. Not even Batman knew this. But when he finds out, all hell breaks out.

Now, this was completely different. The girl of the title is Constance Kopp, who was the first woman deputy sheriff in the US in about 1915. This is actually a real person who hardly anybody has ever heard of. Stewart relates the, mostly true, story of Constance and her two sisters as they try to right a wrong done to them by the racketeering owner of a local factory. Although you might think that Constance would be well known, or at least known, there isn't even a Wikipedia page for her. The only references readily available in the Internet are references to this book. It was a very enjoyable read and I highly recommend it.

For those who follow my book posts, you may remember that I'm following the lead of another blogger who has read every annual best seller published since 1913. "Green Light" was published in 1935. I haven't read every best seller since 1913 to 1935 but most. This is superficially about a surgeon who takes the blame for an error of another surgeon, his mentor, for the death of a patient on the operating table. But deeper than that, it's about a minister, who's believes that the story of history is the story of mankind constantly moving forward. He likens this journey to traveling on a great road with traffic lights. When the light is green everybody must surge forward. It's about the lost literal title I've ever read. This minister asserts influence (perhaps undue influence) on his closest followers, including the good doctor. There's also a complicated love story (between the good doctor and the dead patient's daughter) thrown in for good measure. I find that books from this 20-year period tend to be pretty wordy, with lots of long conversations, and long internal monologues, but mostly enjoyable.

I did this on audio book. You may remember the 1999 movie with Kevin Costner. I saw it but don't't remember much about it. One day, newspaper columnist Theresa, while on vacation to the beach finds, you guessed it, a bottle with a message in it. The message is from Garret to his dead wife. It brings Theresa to tears. If I had been reading the book, I probably would have given up there, but I'll listen to an audio book if the narrator has a pleasant voice and the story isn't completely terrible. Theresa's boss pretty much forces her to write a column on the letter. The response to the column reveals that there are at least two more letters out there. Theresa, who is a divorced mother of a 12-year-boy, is so love-starved that she has to go down to South Carolina to meet this Garret. She falls in love with him, he falls in love with her and the big problem with the book is she never tells him that she's read his letters. So here's a spoiler. He finds out about the letters and, you'll never guess, dumps her. But then he relents and realizes that he really loves Theresa, so he writes one last letter, puts it in a bottle and takes his sailboat out even though a storm is coming. And drowns.

25-year-old Timothy, who still goes by his high school nickname, Moth, is an alcoholic history major working on his doctorate. One day he finds his AA sponsor and Uncle Ed, dead in his office, apparently a suicide. After going on a 5-day bender, he finds the case closed, Ed's death ruled a suicide. Moth doesn't believe this and undertakes his own investigation. The only person he thinks he can trust is his former high school sweetheart, Andrea (who has the incredibly distracting nickname of Andy Candy, which the author calls her through out the book). She's got her own problems, having just had a abortion due to being date raped. They get some help from the prosecutor on the case, who herself is damaged, a cocaine user just barely hanging on to her job. Three damaged people trying to track down a stone cold killer. I've never read Katzenbach and really enjoyed this. Looking at some of hie other books there seems to be some common themes, notably, damaged people being menaced and overcoming their fears.

In order to explain artificial intelligence, Zarkadakis believes we have to understand how the human mind works and how our minds came to be. In order to do this he explores a lot of history. He takes us from the Lascaux prehistoric paintings to the movie "The Matrix"; from the Analytic Engine of Charles Babbage to Turing Machines; from Aristotelian logic, to modern computer logic circuits. This is about 3/2 of the book and very interesting. The last third he presents AI itself and how the approaches have changed over the years, and the current state of research. So what is his conclusion, is true AI possible? His definitive answer is probably.

I suppose that the Weldon book above has made me a bit Batman crazy. This is the first of 21 weekly comic books in the Batman Eternal series. There are 2 more just like this one in my reading pile. One of the things I learned from the Weldon book, is that comic books aren't really published for children anymore. Or maybe today's 10-year-olds are a lot more sophisticated then when I was a 10-year-old comic book reader. This was 468 pages of an extremely complicated story. There may not be anymore than a couple dozen words on a page, but you've got to follow the drawn panels as well, since I guess 2/3 of the story are carried by the art. The story is about former Gotham crime boss, The Roman, come back to town after 5 years to retake his criminal enterprise from The Penguin. That doesn't sound complicated but nearly every superhero and super villain associated with Gotham makes an appearance and there are at least 5, seemingly unrelated threads weaving through the thing.