Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Books I Read In 2008

I spent a lot of time on a train this year, which for me translates into spending a lot of time reading. Here are the books that stuck in my head well enough that I remember something about them at the end of the year.


Mind Game, Baseball Prospectus

Actually, I just finished this one yesterday. It's a great book if you're a somewhat geeky sports fan. It covers the 2004 Red Sox season from start to finish, with a slant towards the underlying baseball analysis that drove many of the team's decisions. The story is a fantastic one (seriously, if you made this shit up you'd get laughed out of town, but it actually happened), and they do a good job of looking at the numbers behind the action. Well worth reading.

Now I Can Die In Peace, Bill Simmons

A collection (with extensive highly amusing footnotes) of Bill Simmons' Red Sox related articles. Quite amusing if you like his writing style, it's clearly written from a fan's point of view, not from a sports reporter's, which is both good and bad depending on what you're looking for.

Patriot Reign, Michael Holley

I started paying a little more attention to Football this year, and this was my first attempt to dip my toes in the water of Football writing. All in all it was ok, but not spectacular. I'm a huge fan of the author's general method (embedding himself within the team and observing what goes on), and I've enjoyed several other books that do largely the same thing (Moneyball and 3 Nights in August, for example), but in this case it didn't really do it for me. The subject matter was interesting, but I just don't think Michael Holley measures up to Michael Lewis or Buzz Bissenger as a writer.

Red Sox Rule, Michael Holley

Ironically, I didn't realize that this was written by the same guy who did Patriot Reign until I started making this list. It was once again some pretty decent subject matter (Terry Francona has had an interesting life), but the book fell a little short of my expectations. It felt like it left out or glossed over some of the most interesting parts of the story. For example, the details of Francona's interview with the Red Sox were extremely interesting, but there are a number of other places I would have liked to see similar depth (the 2004 and 2007 playoffs, for example) and it just wasn't there. Once again, the writing was serviceable, but nothing spectacular.

Baseball Between the Numbers, Baseball Prospectus

If you've got any interest in the application of statistics to baseball you should read this book. The baseball prospectus authors never cease to impress me, and this is clearly some of their finest work. Highly recommended.

Watching Baseball Smarter, Zack Hample

I think I would have enjoyed this book more if I'd read it earlier. It's a great introduction to the dizzying amount of baseball jargon that's out there, but by the time I'd read it I'd already picked up a lot of the information on my own. I'd definitely recommend it for someone who's just starting to get into baseball though.


Red State Blue State Rich State Poor State, Andrew Gelman

If you're the kind of person who was frantically reloading through the last few months of the 2008 elections, you'll probably love this book. It's a fascinating look at how red states got to be red, and blue states got to be blue, and lets be fair, on top of that it's got a kick ass title. Well worth reading.

Liar's Poker, Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis is a fantastic author, and this book, despite talking about events that happened 20 years ago is still extremely relevant today. Highly recommended to anyone who wants some insight into how Wall Street actually works.

Einstein Never Used Flashcards, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Diane Eyer

For someone like myself, who's never really known much about childhood development, this book was quite eye opening. I mean really, it's incredible how many things kids need to learn that adults take totally for granted, and this book gives a great overview of how the process works. Good stuff.


Bridge For Dummies, Eddie Kantar

As a rule, I hate the "For Dummies" series of books. I think the title alone helps to perpetuate the idea that it's ok to be dumb, which is exactly the wrong message to be sending. That said, I got this book from my wife as part of our plan for me to learn bridge as part of a present for her father. Her parents met playing bridge in college, and their family used to play together up until her brother moved down to DC and they were stuck with only three players. I was drafted as their fourth, and it turns out that I actually really enjoy the game.

Surprisingly enough, Bridge for Dummies is actually a pretty highly regarded introduction to the game of bridge. It helped me along quite a bit when I was getting started, although to be fair I probably should have spent more time going through it before we actually stuck me in a game. I finally did end up giving up on it though, but it was largely because of the form factor of the book, not any issue I had with the content. It was simply too large to carry around in my laptop bag, which meant it was impractical for reading on the train. That said though, the content is quite good, and if you want to learn to play bridge you could certainly do worse.

Bridge Basics 1: An Introduction, Audrey Grant
Bridge Basics 2: Competitive Bidding, Audrey Grant
Bridge Basics 3: Popular Conventions, Audrey Grant

These are the books I switched to when I gave up on Bridge For Dummies. They were definitely a step up, at least for me, but they're not perfect. First, the good points. The form factor is considerably more convenient, and they are in color, so the hearts and diamonds in the hand diagrams are actually red, which in my opinion makes them easier to read. The style of writing is also quite good. When teaching bridge it's easy to just lay down a series of rules that the player should follow (i.e. you've got 13 points and 5 spades, so you open the bidding at 1 spade), which may simplify the process of getting someone playing, but it doesn't do much as far as helping them understand why the rules they're following actually helping them to win. These books do a good job of splitting the difference between teaching you a fairly standard set of guidelines so you can actually play the game while ensuring that you've got at least some understanding of the theoretical principles that went into choosing those guidelines.

This isn't to say that the books aren't without their flaws. The bridge system (Grant Standard) they describe is a little different from modern Standard American, and while that isn't necessarily a bad thing (these are just conventions, after all, as long as you and your partner agree on them that's the important part), there are a few points where the differences stand out. The big one is the point counts Grant uses for dummy points. Basically everyone else uses 3/2/1 for void/singleton/doubleton scoring, while she uses 5/3/1. In that particular case I remain unconvinced that her way is better. To be fair, when you do encounter these sort of differences of opinion, there are usually footnotes that point it out, which is nice to see. Finally, the printing of "Popular Conventions" that I've got is FULL of typos. It really feels like it was pushed out the door without sufficient editing. If you're paying attention you can see what the author was getting at, but honestly, there's really no excuse for this may errors. I hope there's a second printing that fixes some of these, because the series really is quite good otherwise.

The Backwash Squeeze and other Improbable Feats, Edward McPherson

This book is different from the other bridge books I read this year. It's about the larger game of bridge (i.e. the people who play it and the various organizations who run the large tournaments), not the mechanics of the game. It's similar to Word Freak, which tackles the competitive Scrabble world, but with a game that has a much richer history behind it. I enjoyed it immensely, and I'd recommend the book even if you aren't interested in actually playing bridge, as the history of the game and the people who play it are quite fascinating. Interesting footnote, the Backwash Squeeze (a particular technique for winning a hand of bridge) never actually happens in the book, as far as I can remember.

Speculative Fiction

Anathem, Neal Stephenson

I'm a big fan of Stephenson's work, so as you might expect I was anxiously awaiting this book. It didn't disappoint. While it takes a little effort to get things moving, Stephenson spins quite the interesting story, filled with his usual array of interesting ideas on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from musical theory, the many worlds theory of quantum physics and how religion and science interact in society. As has been the case with Stephenson's past few books (Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle) it's long, but has an actual ending (unlike some of his earlier books), and if you've enjoyed any of Stephenson's past work I'd recommend picking this one up. If you haven't tried any of Stephenson's stuff yet, then what are you waiting for?

Old Man's War, John Scalzi
The Ghost Brigades, John Scalzi
The Last Colony, John Scalzi

I've been reading Scalzi's blog for some time now, but I hadn't gotten around to reading any of his books until a couple of months ago. All in all I enjoyed them, although you've got to go in with the proper expectations. They're quick sci-fi reads, lots of fun, a neat world with interesting characters, but nothing earth shattering. I definitely enjoyed them, and I'll probably pick up his new book (Zoe's Tale) once it hits paperback, but I wouldn't put him at the same level as say Stephenson.

Sundiver, David Brin

Oddly enough, I picked up this book because of a card game. The concept of "uplift", where an advanced species uses genetic engineering to grant sentience to another, less evolved, race plays a part in the Race for the Galaxy, a Sci-fi themed card game we play over lunch at work. This book is the first from the uplift universe, which appears to have spawned the concept. Lots of interesting ideas here, and I enjoyed the book quite a bit. The next two books in the series are currently sitting in my list of books to read, and I'm looking forward to them.

The Risen Empire, Scott Westerfeld
The Killing of Worlds, Scott Westerfeld

These two are actually two halfs of one longer story, just published in two separate books. I was incredibly impressed with Westerfeld's work, the world building he's done is fascinating, some of the best I've read in quite some time. I particularly like how his futuristic technology is relatively grounded in real science, with no unforseeable advances necessary to hold his universe together. Interstellar travel has real relativistic effects, and communication between the stars is handled by means of quantum entanglement effects. On top of the fascinating and realistic world is a great story, well worth the time to read. Unfortunately, this was the last adult oriented work Westerfeld did. After this he started writing for a young adult audience, where he's been incredibly successful. I wish him well there, but I can't help but wish he'd come back and write a few more books for an adult audience.

Little Brother, Cory Doctorow

This is Doctorow's first foray into young adult fiction, but I'd recommend it for adult readers as well. It's also noteable in that all of the technology mentioned in the book is pretty damn close to actual reality, if it doesn't actually exist right now there's at least no reason it couldn't if someone put some time into it. The story centers around a bunch of high school students with
hacker tendencies and their reaction to a terrorist attack on San Francisco and the resulting civil rights violations that come from the Department of Homeland Security's response. All in all it's incredibly realistic, and I'd say it should be required reading for any slightly
geeky high school student. Good stuff.