Friday, March 29, 2013

Infinite Progress, by Byron Reese

Byron Reese's new book, Inifinite Progress: How the Internet and Technology Will End Ignorance, Disease, Poverty, Hunger, and War, may sound like a Quixotic fantasy, but it turns out to be an informative, well-argued breath of fresh air.  Yes, he's optimistic, and yes, he's probably read a lot of sci-fi and watched a lot of Star Trek, but his arguments and forecasts are solidly based on historical trends and reasonable extensions of current technology.

I love the optimism.  So many visions of the future are bleak and apocalyptic, whether from Al Gore or from Hollywood.  Reese prefers to look at the reality of where we have come as a planet over the last few centuries, especially since the advent of the internet.  Reese's strongest argument is for the end of ignorance.  He envisions "a world where everyone everywhere will be able to go through life making wise decisions based on near-perfect information. . . . The internet will become a repository and a set of applications for storing the sum total of all life experiences of all people on Earth.  It will be the collective memory and experience of the planet."

The "digital echo" we leave on this next level of internet interaction will be used to improve public health.  With people linked in, our diet, level of exercise, travel, environment, and more will be recorded and analyzed so that medical researchers will be able to access huge amounts of data all at once, targeting and addressing the causes of disease to a greater degree than ever.  Similarly, nanotechnology and inexpensive computer monitoring and robotic tools will lead to agriculture that can be more efficient and produce better quality food precisely targeted to market demand.

It will be easy for readers to scoff at Reese for his optimism.  Sure, it's hard to imagine that food will be virtually free in the future, and that disease and poverty will be historical artifacts. But Reese has history on his side.  He reminds us that as recently as a century or two ago, even kings did not live as well as poor people in the U.S.  Air conditioning, fresh food from around the world, the ability to speak to someone thousands of miles away, and on and on.  With the acceleration of technology, we cannot even imagine what life will be like in a decade or two, much less 100 or 200 years.

Infinite Progress is chock full of great ideas, both Reese's ideas as well as his compilation of the great ideas which have transformed the way we live.  His premise can be summarized as this: Look at what our forebears have done without the internet, and imagine what will happen as the rate of technological advancement increases and the internet continues to become more expansive and inclusive of life.  If Norman Bourlag can save billions of lives with his Green Revolution, using only manual planting and trash bags, what can modern agricultural researchers do?  If even the poorest in the developed world have plenty to eat now, what might we accomplish with the application of more efficient production and distribution of food made possible by computerization and robotics?  If vaccinations for rabies and yellow fever and polio can virtually eliminate those diseases with what now looks like primitive medical practices, what can modern medicine do with new technology and data from everyone's digital echo?

I, for one, can't wait to see the world Reese envisions.  It may not happen in my lifetime, but the trends he is talking about seem to be decades away, at most, not in some distant time.  Be encouraged, embrace the future.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Feed, by M.T. Anderson

What a refreshing, fabulous find!  I randomly picked this audiobook at the library, and was not disappointed in the least.  My biggest surprise was to see that this was first published over a decade ago!  M.T. Anderson's future/now world in Feed is closer than most of us would like to think.

Anderson has the talent reserved for a few sci-fi writers to make a story all about technology, without making the mistake of distracting the reader with all the technology.  The "feed" is integrated into the brains of virtually everyone; iphones and Google glasses are old hat.  Everywhere you go you have access not only to targeted ads, but to the collective knowledge of the world, instantly, and integrated into your brain.  Is that really so far fetched?  We read of brain-to-brain interfaces being tested in rats on different continents (Thanks to Kerry Nietz for that link.)  Develop that idea, with WiFi, location detection, smartphone apps, and phone service all rolled into one, and you have the feed.

Besides the Feed itself, Anderson integrates a huge variety of technological and societal trends that make his future world fully believable.  Hotels on the moon?  Underground cities?  Environmental degradation?  You've seen it before, but Anderson wraps it up in a neat, highly readable package.

The story is just compelling enough to maintain the focus on the characters and away from the forward-looking setting.  Suffice it to say that young people of the future will have it rough, as fashion changes come faster and faster.  (That hair style is so this morning!)  Will corporations and advertising really dominate life to this extent in the future?  (Wait, don't they dominate life now?)  Is the Feed only a tool to subject the user to outside control?  And what happens when a rebellious girl attempts to thwart the influence of the Feed?  Interesting questions made more interesting by Anderson's storytelling, capturing the teen voice of the future.

By the way, I recommend the audio version.  It works much better with my Feed.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Ghost Runner, by Bill Jones

There are runners, and there are people obsessed with running, and then there are the runners who go way beyond what any other runner can and will do.  I am not sure I have ever read of anyone as committed to running as John Tarrant, and who gave up so much for the sport.  In The Ghost Runner: The Epic Journey of the Man They Couldn't Stop, Bill Jones tells Tarrant's story, a tragic tale of a guy whose way to short life had way too much frustration and loss for one runner to bear.

Well, maybe that's overstating the case.  But read The Ghost Runner and you'll see what I'm talking about.  After being sent away to a grim boarding school during WW2, and losing his mother shortly after the war, the teenage Tarrant took up, among other things, boxing.  He had decent athleticism and enjoyed modest success.  In less than two year, "he'd fought just eight times, pocketing a grand total of seventeen pounds."  His "informal recompense fell way short of the costs Tarrant was incurring" traveling by bus to a nearby town to train.  "It was pocket money and nothing more. . . . John's boxing had already cost him far more than he'd ever earned from it."

Later, as John began running, he revealed that "professional" boxing career when asked whether he had ever competed professionally in athletics.  Honest to a fault, Tarrant dutifully revealed his compensation.  Thus began a decades-long battle against amateur athletic officials.  A world-class runner, Tarrant dreamed of the Olympics.  He ran in races around England, but, prohibited from entering due to his "professional" status, he arrived in disguise, throwing off his coat and hat and jumping into the fray just as the race began.  Race officials tried to chase him down, but Tarrant was too fast (and in at least one case, Tarrant's brother Victor aggressively drove officials away, nearly running them down with his motorcycle).
No number for the ghost runner, and no official recognition, even when he won.

Determined to win, thinking that, even when race officials and results refuse to acknowledge his presence, they can't ignore him if he crosses the line first, Tarrant trained constantly.  He ran to work, ran at lunch, ran after work, ran monster runs on the weekends.  He eventually began to enter longer races, setting world records in the 40 mile and 100 mile distances.  The Comrades ultramarathon in South Africa became his obsession, leading to him living there for months at a time in order to train and enter the race.

British authorities eventually gave him status to race officially in the U.K., but international racing was out.  He ghost ran Comrades, a race in New York, and countless races in England and South Africa.  His faithful wife was a running widow, allowing him room to train continually, use their limited money and time to travel to races, and even to live abroad to pursue his dream of winning Comrades.  (I feel bad leaving for the day to run a race; I can't imagine leaving for a year.)

His life was marked by frustration.  His battle with the amateur athletics authorities went on and on.  Some of his fellow runners and friends said he talked of nothing else, and talked about it a lot.  He would have loved nothing more than to run for his country in international races, but he never could, officially.  He battled stomach problems that crippled him, knocking him out of several races (yet he would win races and set course records sometimes, in spite of his having to take breaks to drop his pants in the bushes beside the course!).  And after four attempts, he never did win Comrades.

Yet the man did love to run.  His drive and commitment simply to run are inspiring.  I would love to run like Tarrant: In the hilly countryside around his home, "there were days when he never even felt tired, when he felt he could run forever, never happier than when climbing steeply, . . . his thoughts a whir of self-imposed times and challenges, the landscape a succession of gateposts, junctions, and landmarks which he reached faster, and with less effort, every time he wrenched on his pumps and braved the hilly air."

Jones captures Tarrant's joy and frustration in The Ghost Runner.  He doesn't dwell on conclusions about Tarrant's treatment by athletic officials; the reader can clearly see that Tarrant's cause was just, his treatment was deplorable, and times quickly changed.  Tarrant died in 1975 at the tragically young age of 42.  With a few short years, the farce of amateurism had ended.  What a shame that Tarrant did not live to see it.  On many levels, Jones inspires awe and admiration for a great runner and a great man.

(A personal note on my reading: This book took me a very long time to read.  I don't think the prose was that stilted, although at times I thought Jones could have shortened the story.  I think the main problem was that, for some reason, the version on my Kindle was in pdf form, so the print was tiny.  A full page of text would be centered on the screen in a space smaller than a business card.  I hope that issue is fixed in the full version of the book; my version was an electronic advance copy.)

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Friday, March 22, 2013

For the Win, by Cory Doctorow

In spite of my disappointment with his recent collaboration with Charles Stross (see my review of The Rapture of the Nerds), Cory Doctorow remains a favorite author of mine.  His vision of the near future and the realistic projection of technological trends is brilliant and unequaled.  In his 2010 book For the Win, Doctorow explores the world of online gaming and the workers who toil away in the gold-farming sweat shops.  If you are like me (before I read For the Win), that last sentence makes no sense.  So for non-gamers like me, FTW is an education.

There are, in real life, these games that involve players from all over the world (massively multiplayer online role-playing games, or MMORPGs), playing against each other independently and in teams, using an online economy for buying and trading rewards, weapons, etc.  Thus there is a market for in-game objects, and an industry of professional gamers who play for the sole purpose of obtaining said objects to sell to other gamers.  Many of those gamers work for wages in computer sweat shops.
Gamers at a sweat shop in China.
With me so far?  Like I said, this is a world I have never experienced.  Doctorow tells the story of some of these gamers who lead a labor revolt, melding real-world and online-world tactics, to gain better working conditions and rights as workers.  The result is quite interesting and believable.  He draws on the history of labor movements from the industrial revolution forward, drawing direct connections to the era of internet labor.  The sidebars on economics, labor movements, multi-level marketing, and the like do interrupt the flow of the story, but are thought-provoking and draw FTW into the realm of the polemical novel.  (This will please some and turn away many, but I think it's interesting that Doctorow seems to have a larger agenda than to simply tell an interesting story.)

Besides the message of FTW, the story is well-told.  Spanning several continents and developing characters from several cultures, Doctorow puts it all together, not letting the reader get bogged down with the interlocking story lines.  All in all, FTW is a fun novel with a good story, but has a social message worth thinking about as well.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Mars Attacks Volume 1: Attack from Space, by John Layman and John McCrea

Remember the movie Mars Attacks from the 1990s?  This new comic from Layman and McCrae captures the same over-the-top humor, with the same Martians, but in completely new stories.  After repeatedly being attacked by humans on exploratory visits to Earth, the Martians have had enough and are set on revenge and nothing short of the collapse of human civilization.  By breeding giant insects, assassinating world leaders, and wreaking general chaos and destruction, the Martians look to be well on their way to their ultimate victory.  Little do they know that humans have more pluck and desire to survive.  This volume ends with hints at a resistance movement among the humans.

This isn't brilliant writing or brilliant comic book art.  It's fun, humorous, violent sci-fi, in the tradition of the movie and the genre spoofed by the movie.  So grab your popcorn, set aside your literary and art criticism hat, and enjoy the ride.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Raising Cubby, by John Elder Robison

John Elder Robison's new book Raising Cubby: A Father and Son's Adventures with Asperger's, Trains, Tractors, and High Explosives, is really two books on one. One thing it is not, is a manual for parents who have a child on the autism spectrum.

The first book, as the title suggests, is a collection of vignettes of Robison's adventures with his son, Cubby. Any parent will appreciate the lengths to which Robison went to enjoy his son, to offer him a variety of experiences, and to help him explore his interests. Since both father and son have Asperger's. their adventures are perhaps a bit more quirky than many of ours. I especially liked their practice of buying small amounts of stock in companies, then showing up at a work site to request a tour of "their" property. They were aided by the fact that they arrived in a pristine, vintage Rolls Royce, bought cheap and carefully restored by Robison. When someone shows up in a Rolls, says he's a share holder, and requests a tour, people can be pretty accommodating.

His stories are amusing, but it sometimes felt as if I were reading someone's blog which, while it may be interesting to close friend and family, and as a means of chronicling events for Cubby's later perusal, got a bit tiresome for me. I will say that although this is not a manual for parenting children with Asperger's, I can imagine that many parents will be nodding in recognition as they read about Cubby's obsessive behaviors, social skills, and difficulties at school.

The second part of the book deals with Cubby's obsession with explosives, and the legal trouble he got into as a result. As a teen, Cubby took a deep interest in chemistry. He studied voraciously and became an expert (an expert at his trial he had a level of knowledge equivalent to a PhD candidate in chemistry), especially with explosive compounds. He was always safe and not destructive, but local police got wind of his work and overreacted. The DA thought she had a great career-building case and pursued Cubby as if he were a 9/11 bomber.

This part of the book serves as a cautionary tale of the damage caused by an overreaching government. Even though Cubby was fully cooperative and truthful with investigators, and his lab in his mother's basement was safe and legal, the police still treated the house like it was an al Qaeda bomb factory, trashing it and then sending his mom a bill. Then even though the police found nothing for which to arrest Cubby, the DA pressed charges, costing Cubby's family thousands of dollars in legal fees and months and months of stress. At one point Robison says Cubby is interested in libertarian politics. After the experience he had with the legal system, I can't blame him!

One early theme that stood out to me, and that many parents of children with special needs can relate to, is the Robison's struggles with the school system.  In the dedication, Robison notes that Cubby's mother "grabbed hold of the school system, shook hard, and made them accommodate our kid."  I love that description.  The same could be said of my wife!  Later he talks about attempting to get special services for their hard-to-classify son.  "Public schools have a legal obligation to make education accessible to kids who are impaired or have learning disabilities.  The two things they don't have an obligation to remediate are 'dumb' and 'stubborn,' so that's what they wanted him to be."  So true.

Robison is a gifted writer whose style and content captures the Asperger's-tinged perspective and attitude of both father and son.  Readers, especially those with a family member on the spectrum will enjoy getting to know the Robison family.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Signs, Wonders, and a Baptist Preacher, by Chad Norris

I grew up in a strong, traditional Southern Baptist church.  Like most Baptists, we rarely talked about the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit.  I used to joke that the reason the music minister would sometimes have us sing the first, second, and fourth verses of a hymn is that the third person of the trinity was barred from our services.  In college I attended a Southern Baptist church which practiced healing, prophecy, and tongues, and it rocked my religious world, opening my Christian life up to a dimension I had not experienced before.

Chad Norris, like me, grew up in a traditional Southern Baptist church, became a Southern Baptist pastor, and began to experience the power of the Holy Spirit in ways that challenged what he thought he knew about Christian theology and practice.  In his refreshing book, Signs, Wonders, and a Baptist Preacher: How Jesus Flipped My World Upside Down, Norris tells his story.

Norris asks the provocative question, Why do churches in America so rarely practice the three things Jesus did while he was here: "he preached the Kingdom, healed the sick and cast demons out of people." We are quite comfortable without the supernatural. Sure, Jesus has been misrepresented by many in the church whose flashy and sometimes deceptive ministries exploit the gospel rather than preach it, but that doesn't change the fact of who Jesus is. As we walk in intimacy with Jesus, we can share experiences with him, including the supernatural gifts. Chad concludes that "If my life is not supernatural to some degree, then it is superficial to a great degree."

This is not a book of theology. Chad doesn't tackle the cessation argument or set out to prove anything. Instead, he relates his experiences and invites the reader to a deeper relationship with Jesus. Reading his book gave me a thirst for a renewed life of intimacy with Jesus, a fresh friendship with him. Norris reminds us that "it is amazing what happens web we act in faith and try to hear" God's voice. God loves us--and likes us--and wants us to enjoy friendship with him.

Jack Deere, who is teaching pastor at my church, wrote the foreword to Norris's book and played a role in his formation in experiencing the supernatural, as he has for many other pastors and lay people. Chad's book can do what Jack's book Surprised by the Power of the Spirit has done for so many: introduce them to the third person of the trinity and invite them into a more intimate friendship with God.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Something to Prove, by Rob Skead, illustrated by Floyd Cooper

In 1936, two of the greatest baseball players ever to play the game faced off in an exhibition baseball game.  Baseball was different then, in many ways.  It would be more than a decade until Jackie Robinson would be the first black player in the major leagues, but people who followed baseball knew that Satchel Paige was the greatest pitcher around.  So when scouts wanted to see how good the hot prospect Joe DiMaggio was, they arranged a meeting between the two.

In Rob Skead's new book Something to Prove: The Great Satchel Paige vs. Rookie Joe DiMaggio, beautifully illustrated by Floyd Cooper, the game comes alive with an inning by inning account of this great showdown.  Both men had something to prove, Paige, that he was good enough to pitch to major leaguers, and DiMaggio, that he was good enough to hit against a great pitcher (he went 1 for 4, barely!).

This game is probably a familiar bit of history to baseball buffs, but it was new to me.  Your budding baseball fan will enjoy this great story from a not-so-great era of a great game.  It brings to mind the what-ifs of baseball--What if blacks and whites had played together from the start?  What if Paige had spent his early career pitching against the great white major league batters rather than pitching in the Negro Leagues?  DiMaggio attested that Paige would have done well; he said Paige was "the best and fastest pitcher I've ever faced."

The major leaguers had trouble hitting Paige's "bat dodger," "trouble ball," and "whipsey dipsey do"

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Pantalones, TX: Don't Chicken Out

Yehudi Mercado works in film and animation with a slacker comedy Texas twist.  His new graphic novel Pantalones, TX: Don't Chicken Out is goofy, silly, strange, and a whole lot of fun.

Chico Bustamante, a go-kart riding rebel kid in Pantalones, Texas, gets under the skin of sherrif/mayor/judge/school principal/chicken shack owner Cornwallis.  On his quest to become a Texas legend, Chico relies on his friends and his faithful dog Baby T.  Maybe he'll ride a giant chicken, or maybe he'll challenge the chicken to a race.  And maybe he'll become a legend in the end.

This is probably unlike anything you've read before.  In attitude, it reminded me a bit of Bart Simpson's antics, at the same time more absurd and friendlier than the Simpsons.  (Texas is the Friendship State, after all.)  Pantalones, TX is appropriate for all ages, in terms of language and content, but some the humor might go over the heads of younger readers.  I liked it.

Yes, that's Chico at his bar mitzvah, with the rabbi in a grass skirt.What else would he wear?

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary review copy!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Sudden Glory, by Sharon Jaynes

I am fully aware that I am not Sharon Jaynes's target audience.  Most of her books have the words "woman," "women," or "mom" in the title, and the tagline on her ministry's web site is "Equipping women to live fully and free."  But I saw her newest book offered by Waterbrook/Multnomah and figured it would transcend gender.  A Sudden Glory: God's Lavish Response to Your Ache for Something More does seem to be focused on a female audience, but I still enjoyed it and was encouraged and challenged.

Recalling C.S. Lewis, whom Jaynes quotes frequently, A Sudden Glory addresses the question of that longing Christians have for more intimacy with God and awareness of his presence.  Jaynes has learned to live in an awareness of God's constant presence and companionship.  The more we focus what we do in everyday life on enjoying God, the more he will reveal himself in "sudden glories," ways that we otherwise would overlook.

I especially enjoyed her chapter on gratitude.  Jaynes points out that Paul wrote, "I have learned how to be content . . .," as if contentment or gratitude is a language to be learned.  From the womb we are naturally self-centered and self-absorbed, but "we can learn God's love language of gratitude . . . . We can speak words of gratitude that remove our blinders so we can see glimpses of His glory every day. As we discover and practice the beautiful language of gratitude, our native tongue of self-focused dissatisfaction begins to fade."  That's a language I need to become more fluent in.

Jaynes has a companionable tone and a passion for knowing God.  It's easy to see why she has a vibrant conference ministry.  Even though she occasionally addresses the reader as sister, and sometimes uses illustrations which speak primarily to her female audience, there's plenty here for a man to hear.  Man or woman, a higher level of sensitivity to God's is a worthy goal that A Sudden Glory can help to bring closer to reality.

For more about Sharon, go to

Thanks to Waterbrook/Multnomah for the complimentary review copy!