Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Old Coast Road from Boston to Plymouth by Agnes Edwards Rothery




Why I Read It: Some backyard history; I cover the same region for a magazine.

Summary: From Beacon Hill to Plymouth Rock by automobile in 1920; one very opinionated woman's thoughts.

My Thoughts: Well, I have never been so insulted by a 95-year-old book in my life.

But it's all relative, of course. Taking time, place and economic class into perspective, it was inevitable. And in reality it was only one comment, which made me laugh out loud with a "Hey, what's up with that?!" In discussing the changes to the Boston neighborhoods in the first two decades of the twentieth century, the author comments that the North End hadn't fared as well as others, inhabited then as they were by the "sons of Abraham and the Italians."

I'd like to think that we have moved past such things, so I'll give Ms. Rothery a pass on this one. Quite frankly, it's her sort of ridiculous frankness that makes the book so interesting. For instance, she has no problem telling us that the history of one of the towns on the road from Boston to Plymouth, Weymouth, is painfully boring. She felt that the first few years of Morton and Merrymount were the pinnacle of Weymouth history, that the next few centuries were drab. If only she could see the town now, after a naval air station has come and gone. Boring is hardly the word.

She also points to the old Plymouth records she had access to, and makes a case that the people of the 1920s were less lecherous, generally higher brow than even the Pilgrims. She describes the old portico over Plymouth Rock as horrid (it would be replaced within two years of publication of the book, so maybe she had a point).

While most of the book is hyperbole built off solid history lessons, one sentence she used caused me to think vividly. Imagine Plymouth Harbor, she pleaded, with naught but a small shallop in it. I couldn't. The Plymouth waterfront bustles all throughout the year - people, cars, boats, birds - and thus she stumped me. I couldn't fathom what it must have meant for the Pilgrims to watch the Mayflower disappear over the horizon.

In the end, the book was a lesson in historiography as well as anything else. There's no special depth to it as a history book, but it reads as at least a primer on the history of the South Shore towns, and makes for a fun trip down a familiar road, for me, at least.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard by John Branch


Why I Read It: Hockey is in my blood.

Summary: The life of an enforcer in the NHL; how he got there from small town roots, and what finally brought him down.

My Thoughts: I can never look at professional hockey, a sport I love, the same way again.

I knew it when I was a kid. I wasn't smart enough to say it, but I knew it. I was sitting in the stands of a hockey game in Montreal, watching the Bruins and Canadiens, as a pre-teen. A man doing a survey stuck a microphone in my face and asked about fighting in hockey. I said "It's part of the game, it's always been there, always will be." But then, moments later, when I really thought about it, I reflected on the recent Olympic games. It boasted the best hockey I had ever seen - and by that age, it was a considerable amount - and there was no fighting. Yet there, down on the ice, Jay Miller and Lyndon Byers were squaring off with John Kordic and Steve Fletcher, and the place was going nuts.

Now that I've read this book, I'm done with fighting in hockey.

There's a simple common sense notion to it all. They're fighting! How stupid is that? We let them square off and pummel each other, often just because that's what those particular players excel at. They can't score, they can't pass, heck, some of them can't even skate that well (yes, I'm speaking relatively; they did make it to the NHL, after all). In no other team sport do we stand by and let two athletes punch the hell out of each other until one is knocked to the surface. It's just plain dumb.

And what comes of it? Derek Boogaard had wounds on his hands that reopened repeatedly. His nasal passages had been crushed so many times trainers sat on his chest and tried to wrestle his nose back into position. Shoulders, knees, back, all ached. And the head...that's where it completely unravels for me.

We're in the concussion age. We - apparently everybody but the NHL - take it seriously when a head injury occurs. Yes, if someone gets dinged on the ice and shows obvious signs of a potential concussion, he's removed from the game, most of the time temporarily. But what about the guy who gets in a fight and has his face punched repeatedly by a 250-pound man? Five minutes in the penalty box, back on the ice as soon as he can be. Gotta be tough. Can't let them see you wince, otherwise you might lose your job.

Derek suffered one hell of a concussion during his last fight, never returning to a game. He took pills, from wherever he could get them, and as a pro athlete, he had no problem obtaining them by the hundreds: sleep aids, pain killers, narcotics. He got them from team doctors and he got them from dealers. He ultimately killed himself with them.

The author paints a picture of a man-child who never fully matured, a two-time rehab failure who couldn't get past denial. His size pushed him to places he never should have gone; he wasn't talented enough to be a top level pro hockey player. But in his day and time, in his moment, enforcers were called for, and roster spots were opened up to men like him instead of goal scorers and playmakers. We're still in that age, and many of the men he bloodied his own knuckles against are still playing, being paid millions of dollars to give each other concussions, robbing each other - and their families - of the future.

The Boogaards did a wonderful thing by donating Derek's brain to the Sports Legacy Institute for study, furthering the knowledge of CTE and its effects. Had Derek lived, with the condition his brain was in, he would have suffered from dementia in the 30s. Hopefully his case pushes us out of this dark age of hockey.

Hockey, at its best, is a beautiful sport. I can't even begin to describe the feeling I get watching a well executed breakout melding into an odd-man rush culminating in a scoring opportunity. And the finality of that moment, whether it comes as a jaw-dropping save or a netted puck, is equally as exquisite. Yet, we stop it all to allow two men grab each other's shirts and pound the hell out of each other. What a waste - of a good game, and otherwise good human lives.

I hope Derek rests in peace, and I hope his family finds it, too. And I hope that someday, very soon, the NHL figures a way out of this barbaric idiocy. We see the fists fly, we see the momentum change, and we think it's all good. We don't see the dark side, until we read books like this one.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Life in a Medieval Village by Joseph and Frances Gies


Why I Read It: Aside from latent Anglophilia, one of my earliest passions centered on medieval history.

Summary: A snapshot view of the village of Elton, Huntingdonshire, England in the Middle Ages, representative of the village system as it stood at that time.

My Thoughts: The Gies just had a way of simplifying the history of the Middle Ages for broad public consumption through their light, easy-flowing writing style. But I think there is a hidden secret to their success.

They are among the greatest medievalists to ever work in the field, the irony being that they lived in Michigan (which has become a hotbed of medieval studies in the United States). The time period they study in this book, the 11th to 14th centuries or so, represented "pre-history" in the United States, as ugly a term as there ever was. But in England it was decades, then centuries after the invasion of William the Conqueror. New forms of governance were coming to light, the first steps on the road to modern types of government. The open field village was one of those steps.

That said, enter the sauciness.

Many of the documents available to medievalists studying small communities like Elton consist of court records, in whatever form the "courts" were in those days. Little about daily life was recorded - do you like to journal about your laundry? and if so, have you sent a copy to the local historical society? - so much of what we know about the norms of medieval life are drawn from records of the abnormalities. Murder, rape, theft, drunkenness, hamsoken (assaulting someone in their own home), all of these items were recorded in sometimes lecherous detail. And it makes for great reading.

This book centers on one representative village, and is almost a screenplay unto itself. The first houses are built, the roads laid out, the church constructed. Harvest fairs are held, taxes are paid, livestock are stolen, crops rotated. The community gathers at hallmote ("hall meeting") and decides what's best for the village, knowing that the lord always has final say. Births, marriages, deaths race past until that fateful day when the Black Plague strikes the countryside. There are not enough people left to harvest the fields. The mills fall to pieces, with no one to repair them. The village we came to know and love is all but lost, to arise again and become today's community. Wooden buildings fall, hardier stone-based structures rise. The main road that ran through town became today's B671; Middle Street ran west to the manor house of the lord.

One of the most intriguing notions I gained from this book is the possibilities of aerial archaeology, using photography from planes to locate ancient villages, like that at Wharram Percy. With Google Maps and Google Earth, we have greater resources at our own fingertips to do this at any time we like. The Gies wrote this book in 1990, after 21 years of other work in the field, and did not have access to such technologies at the time. But it's a race against development, as our bulging population continues its inexorable march to the decimation of the countryside.

Their overarching premise that the village system was unique in history is well-stated. One can hardly imagine living under the system as it was, but then, we weren't there then. It might have seemed as natural as small-town life feels to us today.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Baseball Economist by J.C. Bradbury


Why I Read It: Bought it at the MIT Press bookstore; and I'm still looking for a baseball book I don't like.

Summary: Looking deeply between the numbers at baseball, finding true value, missed opportunities, etc.

My Thoughts: I've always been one of those people who has thought that sabermatricians are doing a lot to tear down the fun of baseball, much like fantasy football players have done to that sport. But I haven't stood outside of my front door and yelled at them all to get off my lawn or anything like that; far from it. In fact, I'm a stat geek. I've always just thought that there's room for a basic, pure love of the game that should not be forsaken. There's nothing like the anticipation of a long fly ball edging its way toward the fence, then the exuberance that erupts when it crosses that line. The immediate reaction should be "YEAH!" and not, "Well, that's going to do wonders for his OPS."

But I do think that once we step outside the stadium and reduce major league baseball players to heaps of numbers (which we do), there is a lot of fascinating information therein. And, true to the title, the author does expose some, like why Bartolo Colon never should have won his Cy Young Award and why Derrek Lee was stiffed out of an MVP.

The author digs into many long-term nagging questions about baseball, some of which bring up questions of my own. For example, the author goes into pretty fine detail about the advantages and disadvantages of left and right-handedness behind the plate, debunking the old notion, for instance, that left-handed-throwing catchers can't throw runners out trying to steal third base. Steals of third happen so rarely, and generally are not worth the gamble anyway, that having a left-handed catcher would hardly influence a game, or a season. He mentions that right-handed catchers have no problem throwing to first, but fails to mention that nobody ever tries to steal first. The timing is different when you're just trying to pick somebody off. But there are more issues to be raised.

First, when a catcher attempts to throw out a runner stealing a base, he is in his stance to catch the ball for quick release well before the pitch arrives. Whether he's righty or lefty, the mechanics are the same, and the results should be the same.

The problem arises with the handedness of the batter. The major leagues have a preponderance of right-handed hitters. When a runner steals second and a right-handed catcher jumps up to throw, most of the time the batter at the plate is right-handed, meaning that the catcher has a clear path to throw the ball. For a left-handed catcher, most of the time the batter is in the way. That, to me, would be a hindrance. And the fact is that when baseball was young, there were very few left-handers in general. One writer, Bugs Baer, wrote in 1923 about the lack of left-handed catchers, saying that this was in fact the reason, that before they were so policed, batters would make hell for a left-handed catcher trying to throw to second.

The author brings up a Bill James quote at the end of the chapter, in which James states that since there are so few left-handed throwing major leaguers, teams should prize the best arms, which they do, by not using them as catchers, but instead as pitchers. But there's more to pitching than just a live arm. Without control and accuracy, a 95 mph fastball is for naught.

So, in the end, as far as the left-handed catcher question goes, I am just not convinced, at least by this argument.

As for other topics: The author dedicates a chapter to the big market vs. small market question (does a large population guarantee success?), and in the end states that the belief in the idea is misleading. Yes, a large fanbase can have an effect (i.e., New York, population 18 million, should outplay Kansas City, ten times smaller, as the former can afford to pay for better talent), but that other factors are involved outside of money. True. But he misses one. "The bigger problem appears to be inept management of a few clubs that happen to be smaller market teams." Doesn't it stand to reason that if a team can't afford to pay top notch baseball talent, that it also can't afford to pay top notch managerial, administration and baseball operations personnel as well? Can't "inept management" fall right back under the small market blues?

One question I'd really like answered is sudden regional variability. Why does the NFC South go south? Why does the Western Conference dominate the NBA right now? Is it just pure coincidence that all of the teams in one NHL division can, for lack of a better word, suck at the same time? Do teams generally attempt to build their rosters to defeat their nearest neighbors, just to "get in the tournament" and worry about the big prizes at the end later?

I think I could go on and on, but will stop here.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Birds of Pandemonium by Michele Raffin


Why I Read It: Free copy sent to the nature center at which I work; the front desk staff thought I would be the one who would give it the best review.

Summary: A woman finds and cares for an injured dove and discovers her passion.

My Thoughts: Oh, the obsession. It's an amazing thing that birds do to us. The sheer number of species in the world has driven birders to the very ends of the earth in search of glimpses of each and every one. Although this book uses a number in the 9000s, other estimates suggest 11,000 or more species may be out there.

In this case, it's birds brought home that have done the damage. It's incredible that the author has kept her marriage; I've seen and read about more than one that has died on the vine in the face of an avian obsession. Michele started small, and didn't heed the advice of other breeders. Before she knew it, she had aviary after aviary filled with injured, abandoned and otherwise down-on-their-luck birds, from parrots to pigeons to parakeets. The common link? Exotic and/or endangered. My diagnosis? An overexercised nurturing instinct.

But Michele did the right thing (in my opinion, of course) and turned her passion for breeding, raising and rescuing birds into a nonprofit organization. Why not? She always had a mission, so why not legitimize it with 501(c)(3) status? The work she was already doing can now be supported by grants, and by the work of volunteers.

The question for me whenever I read about an exoctics rescue system is why? The United States has plenty of species of birds that are declining or disappearing. Golden-winged Warblers, quite common forty years ago in my home state of Massachusetts, are all but gone. In ten years of birding, I've never seen one. Bachman's Warblers may be gone as well, the last one seen in Virginia possibly in the 1960s. Red Knots, shorebirds that once flew in huge numbers up and down the East Coast, are nearly as rare as those Golden-wings, destroyed by our greed for horseshoe crabs as a bait source; the Knots ate their eggs as sustenance for their migrations. Don't they all deserve a home?

But, reading this book, it struck me. When I think in terms of "native" species, I think the U.S., but in fact, at this point in world history, as we sit in the middle of the sixth great extinction of life on earth, "native" means much more. The birds of Pandemonium, from the Green-naped Pheasant-pigeons to the Lady Ross' Turacos (one pictured on the cover of the book), are native to our planet. Everything else has gone global these days, why shouldn't conservation?

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh





Why I Read It: Interesting intersection of my passions.

Summary: The true meaning of The Simpsons is finally revealed.

My Thoughts: I think I'm geekier than even I have ever thought.

Now, I'm no mathemagician (probably the only math joke that the author overlooked researching math references in the history of The Simpsons TV series), but I do enjoy me a good formula  or two. I love big spreadsheets, I dig charts, I seek trends. There's nothing about math in its many, many forms that I don't like.

I think, perhaps, that's why I have always loved The Simpsons.

It turns out that though there have been books written about The Simpsons and philosophy, theology and more, the true meaning lies in its mathematical constructs. And this is no joke. Many of the writers over the years have held PhDs in math-related fields. They've worked hard to drop math jokes into the episodes, sometimes knowing they were way over the heads of the general viewing public.

Simon Singh's book is one that provides us with that next layer of understanding, almost the behind-the-scenes peek, of how math is inserted into the show. It gives us a few of those freeze frame moments, when we say, "Wait a minute - that equation that just flew by Homer as he was walking in the dreaded 3rd dimension - was it random and meaningless, or was there something to it?" Usually, there was purpose behind it.

The book slides through The Simpsons and right into Matt Groening's other master television creation, Futurama, which, being based in the distant future, is depicted as a world in which math and science are king, but will that be the case, with today's learning trends? I guess that's a debate for another blog. But there's a reason why Madison Cube Garden is such a cool and funny reference. Only geeks like the writers of the show would take the "square" in Madison Square Garden as the literal shape, and figure out what the next geometric configuration should be.

So whether it's Lisa practicing sabremetrics, Home spouting theorems while wearing Henry Kissinger's glasses, or Futurama dropping BASIC language into background scenery, the math you see is not only real, it's going deeper than you think. Grab a seat, cut yourself a slice of pi, and enjoy this fantastical mathematical journey!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Undisputed: How to Become the World Champion in 1,372 Easy Steps by Chris Jericho



Why I Read It: Hulk Hogan won the WWF championship when I was 12. 'Nuff said. Hulkamania, once caught, is hard to shake.

Summary: Chris Jericho's journey to the WWE, out of it and back again, paralleling his life as a rock star, a burgeoning TV star and actor, and, most importantly, a family man.

My Thoughts: If there's one thing Jericho wants me to do in this review it's to use his new word "froot," a flexible term that can mean anything in any situation, but he's not going to get it. I refuse to use it.

The more I read abut the wrestling industry, the more I want to read about it. Jericho takes the peek inside the world of the pro wrestler one step deeper than I've ever been, talking about match construction, storyline writing, etc. I truly appreciated (both in this book and his first, A Lion's Tale, available in airport book stores everywhere) his brutally honest style.

Perhaps most importantly, Jericho did not even consider shying away from the most controversial of topics, the still-mysterious death of his friend and wrestler Chris Benoit. He has no problem defending Benoit, even to Benoit's children, when the rest of the world has labeled him a monster. Yes, his life ended in a monstrous way, but the rest of his life was not lived that way, Jericho argues. Jericho could have kept quiet or, worse yet, jumped on the bandwagon with everyone else, but his fierce independence and his belief in the rest of the truths of his friend's life would not let him.

The rest of the book is written with outrageously humorous takes on the events of his life. He is, if nothing else, both an egomaniac and humble. Many times both sides of his world meet and at those times he learns. He understands that he has been lucky to live the life he has, but also that it wouldn't have happened without his remarkable drive to succeed. Whether fronting Fozzy or challenging HHH for the world title, Jericho has given it his all.

Long live Y2J and all he has given to the professional wrestling business. I hope that he gives the same energy to his young family, and suspect he does.

Fine. I'll say it. This was one of the frootest books I've ever read.