Archive for the book reviews Category

Book Review: Hit Me

Danielle Gomes and Jay Bonansinga. Hit Me: Fighting the Las Vegas Mob by the Numbers. Guilford, Connecticut: Globe Pequot Press, 2013. 301 pages.

One of the most-asked questions for people who study Las Vegas history is “How did the mob get kicked out of the casino industry?” This book tells you a major part of that story from a man who was a key part of that process.

Full disclosure: I worked for Dennis Gomes in 1994/95 at the Trump Taj Mahal casino, though since I was a line employee and he was the property president, we didn’t interact much. I also gave the author, Danielle Gomes, some (free) research assistance with the book at UNLV.

HIT ME is a very personal story. Danielle based the book on her father’s notes, investigations, and recollections of his time as audit chief of the Nevada Gaming Control Board in the 1970s. These were crucial years, when the pressure to remove organized crime from the casino industry was building, yet many in the state preferred a “business as usual” policy. By the end of the decade, federal action, in particular the Strawman investigation, would do a great deal to banish the mob from the industry, and Gomes’ work at audit provides a glimpse into just how entrenched mob-related figures were at certain casinos and just how difficult it was for state investigators to pry them out.

The book’s most valuable quality, for me, is that it provides an insider’s look into the regulators-vs-mob struggle in a way that few other accounts have. Often you get the impression that the forces confronting the mob were brilliantly organized and had unlimited resources, but Gomes’s account of the GCB in those years seems anything but. Obviously, this is based on one man’s story, and those at other places in the organization may have something different to say (more on that later), but the inside look into one entrepreneurial division of the GCB provides a unique perspective. In some ways, Gomes and his crew seem more like a regulatory start-up—under-funded and constantly scrambling—than part of the oldest casino regulatory regime in the United States.

In the past few weeks, HIT ME has been in the news in Las Vegas. One of the figures mentioned in the book, a former governor, took issue with the impression given in the book that he was less than diligent in prosecuting those Gomes alleged to be associated with organized crime. That’s a reminder that this isn’t ancient history, and that, while everyone agrees that the industry is better off for having put its mob days behind it (well, expect for the people who think Las Vegas was better “when the mob ran the town”), this is still a very touchy subject.

The key to reading this book is to understanding it as the story of Dennis Gomes’s part in the fight against organized crime in Nevada gaming. You are seeing things through his eyes. I’ve been studying this stuff for a long time now, and I learned more than a few things reading HIT ME. Personally, I found the material on Jay Vandermark and several slot skimming investigations fascinating. It’s rare that a book like this handles the subject in so much detail, and Gomes really gives you a sense of just how ingenious the skimmers could be.

Overall, I found this an honest and gripping account of Gomes’s years with the audit division and his struggle to clean up Nevada casinos. Is this the last word on the topic? Likely not, and I’m sure there are many other people active in those years and later who could offer their own perspective on that time. For now, HIT ME has added a great deal of depth to our understanding of Nevada casino regulation in the 1970s. This is a book that anyone who is interested in Las Vegas casino history should read.

Go here to see Hit Me on Amazon.

Book Review: Wonderful Life with the Elements

Bunpei Yorifuji. Wonderful Life with the Elements: The Periodic Table Personified. San Francisco: No Starch Press, 2012. 206 pages.

Elements. Whether we like it or not, we’re all composed of them. And it’s not just us–the entire universe is composed of elements–71% of it’s hydrogen, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. And yet what do we (by whom I mean non-technical adults) really know (or, more accurately, really retain) about these precious building blocks of life?

Probably not much. If you’re anything like me, you remember that the natural elements start at hydrogen and run all the way through uranium (#92 on the periodic table) with man-made elements after that. You remember that the elements get heavier as their atomic numbers increase, and that there are too many of them to memorize for long. Quick: what’s the atomic number of tellurium? See what I mean? wonderful life with the elements

That’s why a book like Wonderful Life with the Elements is so valuable. Naturally, it can be useful in helping grade-school kids better understand the elements, but if you’re an adult, you might want to have a copy of this around the house for your own benefit.

There are two ways to look at the book: as a narrative and as a reference. Let’s tackle the narrative first. Yorifuji starts with a quick explanation of the periodic table, during which much of what you’ve forgotten since high school chemistry may come flooding back. The next section, “Elements in the Living Room,” discusses some of the most abundant elements (that’s where I got my universe = 71% hydrogen fact from). Again, it might be stuff that you once knew, but it’s a good refresher. The following section, “the Super Periodic Table of the Elements,” introduces Yorifuji’s simple schema for drawing the elements, which gives them hairstyles, beardstyles, body types, and clothing based on their properties. By the time you get well into the periodic table (the next section), you might be able to guess that yttrium has industrial uses simply because it’s wearing a suit.

Following the periodic table, there’s another section that focuses on elements in the human body. It’s not always going to be of the most immediate practical use, but it will probably make you feel a little smarter.

This is a fun, quirky book. Are you going to get more information simply by googling “bismuth” and then reading the Wikipedia page? Maybe. But the drawings, combined with the sometimes-obscure facts about each element, make this book worth it.

That’s not to say that it’s perfect. After lead (82), the elements appear two to a page, and after radium (88), they appear four to a page. I’d like to have seen one full page devoted to each element, and I don’t doubt that Yorifuji would be able to fill those pages.

All in all, recommended for those who are curious about the elements, or want an enjoyable refresher.

Book Review: Riding Rockets

Mike Mullane. Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut. New York, Scribner, 2006. 368 pages.

This is a book everyone who has any kind of interest in the history–and future–of manned space flight should read. For that matter, anyone who doesn’t have an interest in manned space flight should read it, too, so they have an idea of why it’s so important.

I was born after the Apollo program ended, and have vague memories of Skylab (mostly my dad assuring me that it wouldn’t land on us when it re-entered earth’s atmosphere in 1979). I remember hearing that, by the mid-1980s, we’d be sending shuttles into space every other week, and that space travel would be safe and commonplace. Of course, history told a different story.Riding Rockets

Since I started explaining the history of the space program to my four year-old (who is full of questions), I’ve been reading up on it as much as I can. When I learned about Mike Mullane’s book, I figured I’d give it a read and get a few new insights on the shuttle years.

Suffice it to say that Riding Rockets gave me much more than that. About one page in, I realized something: Mullane is a hell of a writer. You might think that, as one of the few human beings to have escaped earth’s gravity, he’d start his story with the sublime joy of watching a sunrise from space or seeing the earth speed by below him at 17,500 miles per hour. No. He starts the book naked, lying on a table at a NASA facility, giving himself an enema.

Too much information! you might think, but within a few paragraphs Mullane is able to explain exactly why it was so important to administer that enema, and along the way introduce the reader to the astronaut selection process without doing a data dump or being didactic. When a NASA psychologist asks him about his motivations for going into space, he gives the reader a detailed account of his early years–and tells us the simple, boring story that he told the psychologist–again, letting us understand his deception.

Once he gets into the selection and training of 1978 Astronaut Class (nicknamed TFNG, ostensibly “Thirty-Five New Guys), the book really takes off. He shares painfully honest details of the process, including the tension between him and the other military flyers and the civilian astronauts. He also isn’t shy about revealing a nearly dysfunctional management structure, singling out Chief Astronaut John Young and George Abbey, Flight Crew Operations Directorate chief, for keeping the astronauts in the dark about the flight assignment procedures.

Mullane was assigned as a mission specialist on STS 41-D, the first flight of Discovery, and gives a personal perspective on that mission, which included the program’s first launch pad abort. He also talks about his friendship with fellow TFNG Judy Resnick, who was killed in the Challenger disaster in January 1986.

Discussing the aftermath of the Challenger tragedy is where Mullane is at his most searing. He is forthright in blaming almost everyone at NASA for the disaster, including himself and the other astronauts, who almost uniformly let their desire to go into space outstrip safety concerns. The story of the disaster is a cautionary tale for any organization, and the insights Mullane adds convinces the reader that the disaster itself wasn’t a fluke–that it took so long for such a tragedy is. His first flight, for example, saw erosion of the O-rings and “blow-by,” which ultimately doomed Challenger, but none of the astronauts were told of the safety concerns. Similarly, one of his post-Challenger flights saw the orbiter struck by debris during its ascent–the same scenario that doomed Columbia in 2003.

What struck me most about the book was Mullane’s unflinching, often uncomfortable, honesty. Sometimes it’s humorous, as when talking about the culture clash between the “Arrested Development” military aviators and the liberal civilian “post doc” astronauts, but it’s usually quite personal, as when he candidly admits his owns failures as a husband and father. Reading this book, you understand why spaceflight is such a beguiling prospect, but you also appreciate, probably as never before, exactly how many sacrifices astronauts make.

Highly recommended.


Book Review: Ready Player One

Ernest Cline. Ready Player One. New York: Crown Publishers, 2012. 384 pages.

This is a hard novel to review. I’ve got to confess that I came very close to not making it more than a twenty pages into this book. It’s set in a dystopian future, with a disillusioned teenager as the protagonist. And that’s where the book hit a huge speedbump, for me at least, with the crapsack world just a little too…crappy and the whiny know-it-all teenager just a little too…whiny. I actually put the book down for a few months, not wanting to slog through anymore of the dismal dystopia and not wanting to listen to protagonist Wade Watts complain about how crappy everything was. (Though, to be fair, he had a point in-universe.)

I picked it up again a few months later, determined to give it another shot. I’m very glad I did. With the crapsack world of Ready Player One being so crappy, going online in the super-immersive OASIS system is a big pastime. And once Wade “stepped” into OASIS and became Parzival (his avatar’s name), things really picked up. Call it a case of the author doing his job too well, but reading about life outside of OASIS was a grind, while reading about the virtual reality/game environment was actually fun.

To sum up the plot, Wade is a gunter, an online “egg hunter” searching for the Easter egg hidden in Oasis by James Halliday, the tech genius who created the system. To find the egg, gunters need to know everything about everything geek, game, and pop-culture-related from the 1980s (though there’s stuff from the 1970s through the 2000s referenced). As someone born within a few years of the ficitional Halliday, and who grew up enjoying a lot of that game and geek culture, this book was tailor-made for me. Kind of. Nostlagia really is the cheapest kind of cheap pop, where the writer doesn’t have to work to give the reader an emotional connection, he just alludes to stuff that’s been rattling around in your brain for two or three decades. And you know what? It usually works.

Also, besides the nostalgia factor, there’s some great world-building (literally) inside OASIS. By the time Parzival had gotten really started on his quest (no spoilers here), I was hooked. By the time he was getting close to the midpoint, I was saying, “If Cline references Moon Patrol or Rastan, he gets a five-star review.” By the time I was finished, I said, “Aw hell, he’s earned his five stars anyway.”

What I ended up liking about Ready Player One was that it actually did something fun with all that nostalgia, and through Parzival showed the real joy that Halliday (and Cline) found in all of those games and TV shows. And, like Star Trek TNG: “Hollow Pursuits,” it’s look into how seductive virtual realities can be–the kicker is that, unlike the crapsack dystopia of Ready Player One, Star Trek is set in as pure a utopia as can be imagined (and TNG is the most utopian of all the treks). So be careful reading this book–you might not be able to put it down.

Book Review: The Dog Stars

Peter Heller. The Dog Stars: A Novel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. 336 pages.

You know post-apocalyptic fiction has come a long way when it goes from sci-fi and horror to literary fiction. The Dog Stars is, without a doubt, the most introspective piece of post-apocalyptic writing I’ve read yet. the dog stars

There’s not much plot–it’s mostly the protagonist, Hig, thinking–but it’s still a compelling read. I’m not sure there’s a lot more to be done plot-wise with the “end of the world as we know it but I feel fine” premise, anyway: You’ve got The Stand as an epic good vs evil battle, Earth Abides even before that as an anthropological/ecological perspective, and everything from zombies to hard sci-fi in between. So it’s interesting to see the post-apocalyptic genre go a little up-market (so to speak).

I thought that the writing style–no quotation marks, fragmented sentences–was a great editorial choice. I figure that someone in Hig’s situation is going to be mostly in their own head and no longer “socialized” (in the sense of living in society, not anything political), so it’s natural that he wouldn’t perceive a huge break from his interior monologue to speech. It made me feel disoriented, which I think is why the author was going for. Judging by his extensive portfolio of journalism and nonfiction, I’ve got no doubt he could have turned out something more traditional for his first novel; stylistically, I think he made the right choice here.

I personally hoped that the survivors would do a better job of forming groups, both for self-defense and for obvious benefits: the doctor’s better off if she can reach out to a mechanic for help with her generator, and the mechanic is, clearly, going to be a lot better off as well. But guess what? This wasn’t my book, and I respect what the author was doing here. I found some of the reviews where readers good hung up on the technical minutiae unnerving and funny at the same time: it doesn’t really matter to me which grade of gas will hold up better after ten years of sitting in a tank within the reality of Heller’s novel, since it’s fiction, not a survival guide. I also don’t obsess over how many MPH the Enterprise is doing at Warp 6, because I accept that it’s going to move at the speed of plot. So I wasn’t approaching The Dog Stars as a Lonely Planet guide for how to survive the end of civilization; I wanted to see where the author took the initial premise–the end of the world–and how he made it his own. the world he created wasn’t pretty, but he and Hig made me think quite a bit, which makes this a great novel.

Recommended if you want something a little different from the usual end of the world novel.


Book Review: The Fat Years

Chan Koonchung. Michael S. Duke, translator. The Fat Years. New York: Nan A. Talese, 2012. 336 pages.

This novel, written by a veteran Chinese journalist/writer, gives Westerners a glimpse of sorts into Chinese social psychology. Lots of people in the U.S. are fretting about the rise of China, and the possibility that the 21st century will be a “Chinese century.” There are fears about what this will mean for the American economy and our geo-political status. But it’s not all about us–we should also be thinking about what Chinese ascendancy will mean for the 1.2 billion (or so) people who call China home. This novel, I think, gives us a few insights.The Fat Years

First, I’d like to say that I really liked Michael S. Duke’s translation, as well as the endnotes that let curious readers better understand cultural and political references. Reading the book, you’re aware that the author isn’t writing in English–the idioms and constructions are just different enough to give you an idea that the ideas weren’t originally thought out in English (if that makes any sense at all to anyone but me). I could hear much of the dialog in a Chinese accent without, thank God, phonetic renderings of it.

The other thing that struck me about the novel was how easily it slips between straight narrative to quasi-essay musings on the rise of China. In most English-language books, this would look like completely ham-handed author filibuster, but it makes a ton of sense in context. The protagonist, a veteran Chinese journalist/writer, at one point talks about his familiarity with 19th century Russian literature, and having more or less neglected English literature. That made it all click: even though it’s written in Chinese, in many ways The Fat Years is a quintessentially Russian novel–you know, the ones where all the action stops for ten pages so a character can give a lengthy exposition of The Mission of Russia or something like that. These novels don’t have to be in Russian–Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged both culminate in these kinds of grand statements.

So on one level, the entire novel is a buildup to He Dongsheng’s explication of the Chinese Century, which is in and of itself a reason to read it. On the other, though, it’s a look at how the Chinese intellectual class itself views the rising position of China on the global stage and the growing self-confidence of the nation’s communist leadership structure. I’m sure it’s no spoiler to say that this isn’t necessarily good news for those with a soft spot for concepts like personal liberty and political freedom.

If you’re at all curious about what’s going on in China today (or at the very least one perspective on it), The Fat Years is a great book to read. If you’re looking for an action-filled spy thriller or something like that, you’re going to be disappointed, but if you want an insight into post-recession China, you’ll be very engaged.


Book Review: The Book of Business Awesome

Scott Stratten. The Book of Business Awesome: How Engaging Your Customers and Employees Can Make Your Business Thrive. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, 2012. 250 pages.

This is actually two books rolled into one, and issued with double covers: You can either start on the “Awesome” side or flip the book over and start on the “UnAwesome” side. The “Awesome” side features Stratten’s thoughts on how to market your business right; the “UnAwesome” side collected the amusing trainwrecks and failed attempts to go viral that show what happens when you market something the wrong way. Both are of value; it’s good that Stratten can explain, in simple, easy to follow language, not only what to do right, but why it’s the right way, and the negative examples of unawesomeness both let the reader feel a little bit smarter than some of the people behind the fails but also provide valuable object lessons. It’s one thing to pontificate to the reader about why your system works, but it’s infinitely more enjoyable to see what happens when it doesn’t work.Business Awesome

Stratten has a decidedly common-sense approach to marketing in the age of social media; he isn’t an advocate of jumping to the newest platform simply because it’s new, but he isn’t a Luddite. The best example of this is his look at QR codes. These are those little barcode-looking things that, when scanned with a mobile device, take you to a website. Stratten talks about the ridiculousness of putting a QR code a billboard, where, quite obviously, no one will be able to scan it with their phone, or in emails–those emails are often opened on a phone, which can’t (yet) scan itself. And, he warns, when using a QR code, you need to make sure the site the user is directed to is optimized for mobile. But he’s not totally anti-QR–Stratten’s paper and ink book is full of them, though in the ebook version they are replaced with simple links.

Some of the book is strictly for professionals–like the discussion of ROI, which will be dear to the heart of any marketer justifying a budget–but Stratten also helps the reader who isn’t involved in marketing by revealing some of the tricks that less-scrupulous marketers use and in general explaining how the gears in the PR/Marketing/Social Media black box turn. As such, this book is also of interest for those who just want some insight into how companies (and non-profits and individuals) market themselves.

Both the Awesome and UnAwesome sides of this book are written well, giving you enough “case study” material to prove the bigger point of the chapter without bogging the book down with padding masquerading as excessive detail. Despite being a quick read, this book(s) covers an incredible amount of material–and does it all justice. This should be required reading for anyone who does marketing, and, more importantly, anyone who supervises a marketer and/or controls their budget.

Book Review: Positive Intelligence

Shirzad Chamine. Positive Intelligence: Why Only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve Their True Potential. Austin, Texas: Greenleaf Books, 2012. 227 pages.

Positive Intelligence falls into an interesting intersection between self-help books and business strategy books. That’s certainly no accident; for most people, work is one the primary ways they express themselves. And, as we all know, our work is only as productive as our mindsets–and those of our co-workers–make it. So being a happier, more fulfilled person won’t just make you happier; it will make you a better leader and co-worker. Positive Intelligence

It’s no surprise, then, that Positive Intelligence author Shirzad Chamine is a master-trainer for executive coaches. While he spends some time talking about the psychology behind his PQ system, he spends much more time talking about it in personal terms. He’s not afraid to reveal that he became aware of the system’s Sage/Saboteur dichotomy thanks to a personal crisis triggered by an exercise he did as an MBA student at Stanford. Chamine’s personal approach is one of the book’s benefits; he’s not just describing the system to you, he explains why, using his own life as an example, he knows it works.

Does it work? Like any other self-help or strategy book, the answer depends more on the reader than on the author. Because this isn’t a book that one just reads passively; there are online evaluation tools to take an exercises to complete. Of course, just reading the book will give you a good perspective on Chamine’s system, but to really make it work, you need to put the effort into actually doing the work.

If you have the patience to commit to the system, it will likely help you. That may be because Chamine’s truly discovered the best way to maximize your potential, or it may be a Hawthorn effect of sorts: if you think more carefully about your thoughts and behavior for an extended period, you’re likely to start changing them for the better. If you do that for long enough, it will become second-nature.

So there’s definitely value to Positive Intelligence, and it’s likely that the book really will be able to help you–if you commit to it.

Book Review: The Nelson-Wolgast Fight and the San Francisco Boxing Scene, 1900-1914

Arne K. Lang.  The Nelson-Wolgast Fight and the San Francisco Boxing Scene, 1900-1914. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2012. 187 pages.

Boxing today is nothing like it was a century ago. On one hand, it was a nearly-outlaw sport–many states had restrictions against professional fights or outright bans on public bouts, while others tolerated them. Promoters frequently had to balance publicizing their cards and staying below the police’s radar.Nelson-Wolgast Fight

At the same time, boxing was incredibly popular. Thousands of spectators turned out for fights, which were often held outside major cities due to the ambiguous (at best) legal status of prizefighting. The demand was so great that railroads ran special trains to fight sites.

Arne Lang’s The Nelson-Wolgast Fight and the San Francisco Boxing Scene, 1900-1914 gives the reader a glimpse inside the Northern California and national fight game of a century ago, with a special focus on the eponymous bout, which featured champion “Battling” Nelson versus Ad Wolgast for the lightweight title.

Lang does more than recount the action or provide biographical sketches of the principals: he explores the fight’s milieu, looking at how boxing was presented in San Francisco, both before and after its catastrophic 1906 earthquake, and examining several of the personalities, both local and national, who gave boxing much of its flavor during these years. These personalities included boxers, fight promoters, and newspaper reporters, who did more than any other group to spread word of boxers on the rise.

Using a variety of sources, Lang is able to stitch together a rich tapestry around the Nelson-Wolgast bout. He doesn’t always take those sources at face value, and is able to compensate for their biases, exaggerations, and omissions.

Boxing in this period was in transition; the bare-knuckle era was over, but the sport itself was far from standardized. States had wildly varying limits on bout lengths, with some states only permitting four-round affairs and others allowing matches longer than 40 rounds. It’s a period that’s not often discussed today, much less appreciated, and Lang does a great job of bringing it to life.

This is a valuable book for those interested in sports and boxing history, as well as those interested in how mass-market fights (this one drew more than 15,000) were staged in an era of semi-prohibition. It’s a detailed look back at an age of sports that made up in excitement what it lacked in finesse.


Book Review: Tubes

Andrew Blum. Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. New York: Harper Collins, 2012. 304 pages.

I have a hunch that you know a thing or two about the Internet. After all, you’re reading this review on it, so at the very least you use it every one in a while.Tubes

But most of us who use the Internet daily work work and play really don’t know very much about how it works. Is it really a series of tubes, as Alaska senator Ted Stevens once described it. That remark provoked a round of guffaws, but tech writer Andrew Blum shows us in TUBES that it’s not really that far off the mark.

Blum’s curiosity was fired by a squirrel, of all things. After the tiny critter chewed through the wire that connected his Brooklyn home to the Internet, Blum started thinking of the Internet not as an ethereal entity that lives “in the cloud,” but as a real physical artifact. He then set off on a journey to learn exactly where “the Internet” lived.

That might seem like a quixotic quest, but it’s one that’s worth making. After all, the Internet has to be somewhere, right?

Blum starts out by looking at “The Map” of the networks that, connected together, form the Internet (trust me, he makes it sound much more impressive than I just did) and filling in the reader on a little bit of ‘net history. From there, he takes the reader to several network hubs, data centers, and places where the Internet is at its most physical. Weaving in just enough historical, economic, and cultural context to ground his field work, Blum is able, in the course of 300 pages, to give even a novice reader a very good idea of just what goes into making the Internet work.

For me, the most interesting parts of the book were those that delved into the larger impact the Internet’s physical form has had, particularly on local economies. Places like Ashburn, Virginia and The Dalles, Oregon have been transformed since becoming hotspots for network hubs and data centers, respectively. It’s proof that even though we think of the Internet as something that’s simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, it really does exist somewhere.

In short, this is a great book for those who are curious about the Internet. Blum has the gift of being a tech writer who can introduce some at-times high-concept and abstract ideas in a way that makes sense to the non-techie reader but isn’t dumbed down. You’ll have a better idea of how the Internet works after reading this, and you’ll start asking yourself some questions you never suspected you would.

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet