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What are you reading - November 2006

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 03, 2006 2:24 pm    Post subject: What are you reading - November 2006 Reply with quote

Tom Ricks' Fiasco

This is an extremely good book focused on "Phase IV" of the Iraq Invasion, i.e. the post-regime change phase or the "reconstruction". It is largely focused on the military side rather than the forming of the new government there or the economic rebuilding. The economic side is covered in another book I'm about halfway through.

A fair amount of the book goes over items that have hit the news over the past three years, much of it from Risk himself as the Washington Post's leading military writer. This does an excellent job of pulling it all together, from planning going into the war on Phase IV, the mistakes in the Cobra II Plan (the actual invasion plan of Franks, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz) that impacted Phase IV, and the various leadership and military decisions since then that have gotten is to where we are now - that "near chaos" point on the powerpoint slide that slipped out of the Pentagon in the past few days. As a story that's been sprawling into print over those 3-4 years, it is very nice to have it pulled together in one place and see how various trip wires were crossed.

The book is often repetative. In part that's because similar mistakes get made over and over again. In part it's because a prior mistake is coming back to pay off poorly. But I'd admit that part of is the theme of the book (extremely poor planning to a negligent level) being hammered away on.

Ricks is far from a dove. He is one of the top military writers in the country, and is extremely nimble in digesting a difficult military concept (insurgency and counterinsurgency/anti-insergency warfare) into a form that the reader can grasp. He's very even handed in handing out sharp criticism and praise for various members of the military, and even those that get praise from him also have see Ricks give space for those who disagree.

Very highly recommended. In fact, I would recommend it *prior* to reading other books such as the Woodward books or the Blood Money book recent release on the economic side of the reconstruction (which I'm currently in the middle of). I'd also strong recommend reading it before the book "Cobra II" or reading Franks' book.


Last edited by jdw on Thu Dec 07, 2006 9:48 am; edited 1 time in total
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PostPosted: Fri Nov 03, 2006 5:48 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

The Mind of Bill James by Scott Gray

This came out earlier in the year and I'm not sure how I missed it.

It's part bio, part overview of his writings, and part look at his influence/impact and the reaction to him. As an overview, it tends to work. It does give one a taste of Bill, including some of the things that people don't care for in him. It quotes heavily from his works, sometimes to good effect, and at other times a longtime reader wishes some other example would have been used to make the point (or simply make the point where no example is given).

The aspects on his impact are mixed, to a degree scratching the surface. That's not to say Bill has had more impact than the book indicates. In fact, Gray both overstates and understates it at times. The scratching the surface comment relates to the fact that things slightly touched on probably could be delt with in more depth.

Resistance to change and resistance to rethinking what one holds to be true are touched on, but they really could have been mined much deeper. It is one of Bill's earliest, most consistent and core themes in his writing.

There was scant little on what I would call The Sons of Bill James, even though one (Rob Neyer) is quoted in the book in effective ways. "Sons" is a broad group. It includes former assistants turned writers like Rob, amd James fans turned writers like the BP crowd. In includes Jamesians who move into the front offices like a certain someone in Toronto. There also are fans who built up cottage industries that build on Bill's old "make information publically available" drive such as the Baseball-Reference and Retrosheet guys. Even moreso that are people who are a generation down from the Sons of Bill perhaps like Tangotiger who come at things from a different direction that Bill, don't always agree with him, and also don't feel beholden to him as a sacred cow as some of the rest of us longtime fans of Bill do. Both a look at these various types of "Sons", getting the work they do, their thoughts on Bill and influence from him, and also Bill's general throughts about his "kids" would have made for an intresting chapter or set of chapters.

Bill has been pretty mixed in his following of the newer generation of writers/researchers that sprang up after him. A large amount of space in the New Historical Abstract and in the Win Shares book were taken up talking about Pete Palmer and his ratings system. Reading various people at the time of the books releases, Bill's comments about Pete and Linear Weights was met with a big "shrug". The field had moved forward considerably in the post-abstract days, especially with the growth of the interent and the easier ability to share research and thinking. While I'm not always sold on the all of the methods that have popped up in the post-Abstract era, they are more relevant to discuss rather than LW which most had moved past. It was as if Bill was tunneled into his old arguments with Palmer on Methods, and was oblivious to where the field had moved.

There are two areas where Bill has shown some interest in the work of newer saberheads - pitch counts and DIPS. Gray's book does touch a fair amount on Bill's dislike of current pitch count theory. It does so without addressing the Baseball Prospectus crew, or even his own protege Rob Neyer being one of the most public bangers of the pitch count drum as it sunk firmly into the minds of Baseball People and not just statheads. To a degree the discussion on pitch counts is disappointing due to Gray's failure to tie it strongly into statheads being the ones to bang the drum, and that Bill thinks they are wrong.

In the other direction, there is no mention of the work of Varos, though Bill has been complimentary of him in his last several books.

But I would have suggested to the author that the discussion of those two items and the researchers/writers of them be a springboard to the discussion of the growth (in numbers) in the field, and Bill's distance from a large chunk of it.

Those are my primary criticisms of the book. It's an extremly quick read - not especially long, and it's either a page turner for a fan or a book with a lot of skim material in Bill's digressions of the topic of baseball. On the other hand, Gray does write that Bill had/has the ability to go on a digression in the middle of a baseball discussion and then in the end tie it into baseball. This is true, and it was one of the stronger features of his writing in the Abstracts and three in the Baseball Books series. Some of the digressions in this books are good in tying into baseball, or Bill himself. Others make you wish that Gray was more selective in the new material he used.

Choice of older material is often strong, and at those times misses opportunities. Some became almost mythic in the Bill James Canon such as the Enos Cabel comments and the Chuck Tanner Funeral Home, so it's nice to see a big chunk of the Enos comment quoted and a flavor of the Funeral Home flashed even if the title wasn't specifically named.

On the other side of the coin is the wish that Gray did a better job with quotes about James' wars with Elias and also the question of What Makes A Good Team On Astro Turf. The two came together in one of the better pieces James ever wrote that captured perfectly what it was that he did and what it was that Insiders did. The piece was a wicked beatdown of Elias, but in a fashion that was far less venomous that some other things he'd written. Instead he showed the clear difference between the camps with a small bit of humor, a strong bit of research, and a honest admission at the end that he didn't know the answer to the question at hand - What Makes A Good Team On Astro Turf. What he did know is that the theories on the topic that others rolled out, not just Elias but other writers, broadcasters and managers, simply was not supported by reality.

Gray didn't really quote any entire long piece of James' to give an idea of what it was that he did. That above anyone else would have been the one that would have shown it, and in a way that even those who don't like James would have to admit at the end that the process of asking questions about things that others hold as truths is a good thing in baseball and the rest of life.

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 05, 2006 5:07 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis

I finished this one a few days ago. It's the story of Michael Oher a black teenager from the Memphis ghetto, son of a drug-addicted mother and one of 13 siblings, who winds up attending an mostly white Evangelical Christian high school in the suburbs. Once there he's taken in and adopted by a rich white family. Oh, he's also 6-5, 340 and the best left tackle prospect since Orlando Pace. Concurrent with that story Lewis goes into how the left tackle position evolved from another anonymous offensive lineman into the second highest paid position after QB, and how this affects Oher's situation.

The parts describing the NFL's evolution are very Moneyball-ish (and very good), but don't expect Moneyball, part 2. It's more along the lines of Lewis' earlier book Coach, about his high school baseball coach. Blind Side is a very moving book, exploring issues of class and race and an extraordinary story.

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PostPosted: Thu Nov 30, 2006 12:05 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Sandman Book 2
Some Michael Shea short stories
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PostPosted: Thu Nov 30, 2006 1:20 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives, and Corporate Greed in Iraq by T. Christian Miller

Despite the title and the fact that Miller rights for the evil liberal Los Angeles Times, this isn't the National Enquirer of books on Iraq. It's a very strong addition to Fiasco above. Whereas that book focused on the military side of the post-invasion, this focus on the economic reconstruction side. It's far from over-the-top, and rather than filling one with a lot of laughs or anger, at this point it tends to make one sad over how poorly it's been handled and the amount of waste in lives and money.

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PostPosted: Thu Nov 30, 2006 2:41 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

March to the Sea

March to the Stars

We Few

These are Books 2-4 of the Empire of Man series by David Weber and John Ringo. First read on the 4th book, skim/re-read of the third book and re-read of the 2nd book.

Sci-Fi with a barbarian aliens twist and a ground based troop emphasis rather than naval in the stars. Ringo is a ground based writer by rep, while Weber's bigger hit is the naval slanted Honor Harrington series.

If you're looking for depth of characters, fantastic plotting, or great dialogue, this ain't the place to look.

The characters are standard issue, starting with the lead spoiled playboy prince who "grows up" over the course of the books to be a true heir to his violent, war-like House. You could predict the story arc for most of the main company of characters within the first or second glimpse of them in the first book. As is always the case in series, more characters get added to the main company as it moves along in books, and most of them are predictable as well.

The dialogue is clunking and basic, usually predictable as well. It's not quite reached the level of annoying crap that the later day Harrington books have devolved to, and I tend to credit a fair amount of that to Ringo. I haven't read his other books yet, but he's probably got his tried and true stock of Grunt Talk for his Marines here that's been in those others. It's basic stuff, but the grinning and joking of Weber's last five or so Harrington books isn't here much.

The plotting is entirely predictable. Prince and his Marine company bodyguards are crash-stranded on one of the backwater planets of their vast empire. There are various reasons why they're not instantly rescued, and why they can't call for help... standard ones that while predictable aren't exactly a negative of the book. So the basic expected plot of the Marines having to cross a rather large continent, fight off local alien barbs, cross a sea, and take a local space port to get their way off the planet chew up books 1-3. The Grunts are stuck with the spoiled Prince who they don't think much off for good reason, but a job is a job.

Of course over the books (and frankly not long into the first book), we start seeing that the Prince is a bit more than he looks or his rep would indicate. He has his family's warrior genes to a T... perhaps too much... in fact slowly but surley the family's entire alphabet of warrior genes. And of course the grunts and the Prince slowly (though frankly not that slow at all) respect for each other.

The first two books tended to break up into two central "missions" (for lack of a better word) in each book. Basically they run into two sets of barbarians and/or a city that needs to be dealt with and/or defended in each of the first three books. It doesn't always split so neatly, but that's pretty close. And we tend to get a Big Battle as the climax of those arcs. The fourth had just one, two-part Big Battle at the end. The first... I recall a huge battle at the end, and draw a blank on what they do before.

In between we get a little bit on local politics of the various alien cities who become allies (in contrast to the Barbs).

One of the negatives is that after a while, the Big Battles lose some of their impact. The Barb aliens (in contrast to their civilized city dweling brother aliens) are largely Red Shirts - there to get killed off (in the old Star Trek venecular), often in mass quantities. It's not a good thing when one of the big climaxes of a book falls flat.

On the other hand, one of the interesting things are the "problems" that Weber/Ringo introduce to keep the Marines from simply using their advanced technology to blow a path through the barbs who for the most part combine pre-middle ages technology with some bits and pieces of gunpowder/guns. So over the course of the first two books we see an advancement of "technology" and tactics on the planet as the Marines get their allies to contribute as much as they locally can be jumped. By the climax of the 2nd book, it's actually pretty interesting to watch how they take it too a massive barbarian hoard while the Marines' normal tech plays only a very limited roll (for by then decently plotted reasons). That climax also has probably the best mix of the growing (though at times dying) cast of good guys plus allies, along with one of the few through brief interesting heels who actually has a plan... that's a bit too advanced for his fellow Barb Clans.

Since some of the climaxes fall a bit flat, especially in Book 3, there are times where the series isn't always a page turner, nor a "I want to see what happens to them next" where you have to run out and get each new book. Hence the reason I'm only reading Book 4 now - it just came out in paperback.

Why is it moderately intersting?

Ground based military is an interesting contrast to the typical naval and political Sci-Fi that I read. They also have created a modestly interesting planet. The alien race is interesting, nicely varying in beliefs and practices from city to city. Though the characters are stock characters, there's just enough life (that you care about) in enough of them to pull you along. The ground strategy in some of the battles is well laid out and interesting. The walk through the changes in tech and strategy is often interesting.

The fourth book has them off planet and headed back to the center of the Empire - earth. There are reasons this isn't as easy as one would think.

I haven't re-read Book 1. I might after finishing 2 (yeah... going backwards). Book 2 comes off a better than I recall. The two Big Battles in it are well laid out. The planning and execution of them by the Marines and allies is interesting. The addition of characters from the alien ally side such as Rastar and his cousin Honal, the fast rising Krindi Fain and his slow witted follower Erkum Pol are possibly at their best in this book.

Book 3 comes off as I remember, and why I don't rush to get Book 4 in hardback.

Book 4 is considerably different from the first three. That's partial due to the change in setting off the planet, and partial due to the change in the make up of some of the characters. The heels here get a bit more developed, I suspect with a plan for the lead heel to anchor the heel side for the next few books.

If I would recommend anything, I'd say give 1 (March Up Country not listed above) and 2 (March to the Sea) a spin of you go in for this type of SciFi. Some clunky and predictable dialogue and plotting, but it has some pull. The series so far peaks with Book 2. If you really enjoy them as basic pulp SciFi, I'd go on and read the next two. They're a cut down, but Book 4 down the stretch has its moments.

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