Book Review: The War at the Shore

Richard D. “Skip” Bronson with Andrew Meisler and A. M. Silver. The War at the Shore: Donald Trump, Steve Wynn, and the Epic War to Save Atlantic City. New York: Overland Press, 2012. 220 pages.

Many people are fascinated by the high-stakes world of casino development. Deals get announced that create thousands of jobs and bring in millions of dollars of revenue a month, or proposals to build casinos get tabled somewhere in the US every month or so. Skip Bronson, a real estate developer in his own right, worked alongside Steve Wynn for several years, first attempted to build a casino in Connecticut, then, as the title lets you know, battling Donald Trump for the right to do so in Atlantic City. In THE WAR AT THE SHORE, he takes the reader inside the Wynn war room and delivers several fascinating insights on how deals get done–and done away with.

In essence, this book looks at how Steve Wynn tried to build a Vegas-style mega-resort, which might have been called Le Jardin, on the H-Tract, where the Borgata is today. Donald Trump, Bally’s Arthur Goldberg, and others opposed him, both in the courts but also through less direct means, such as funding “community” opposition groups.

Bronson begins not at the beginning, but at a contentious community meeting in Atlantic City where he feared for his life. In general, Bronson doesn’t paint a flattering portrait of Atlantic City or its environs. Most residents are on the take or have their hands out, and he even complains about clams washing up on the beach in front of the South Cornwall Ave. house in Ventnor that he lived in part-time while chasing the deal. I’ve got some inside information here because I used to be a member of the Ventnor Beach Crew, the elite group of city employees charged with keeping the beach here, and I can say that dead clam stink, while it is an occasional problem, isn’t a chronic one, and it certainly shouldn’t spoil the pleasure of beachfront living just steps from the city’s only surfer’s beach and the storied Ventnor City Fishing Pier. While he singles out some locals for praise, particularly Mayor James Whelan, his overall sentiment seems to hover between disgust and contempt–which makes it easier to understand why things didn’t click with many in the community.

Community involvement was key to the Wynn/H-Tract deal because, as a condition for investing over a billion dollars, Wynn wanted improved access to the H-Tract. This involved building the thoroughfare now known as the Brigantine Connector, which indeed improved access to the Marina District, but whose construction demanded nine local residents sacrifice their homes (for which they’d receive twice “fair market value”). Clearly, it’s a difficult political position, and any hesitation on the part of locals was exacerbated by the full-court press Donald Trump, among others, employed, chiefly to stymie Wynn and prevent a potential rival.

Bronson does a great job of bringing to life the various characters he met and situations he found himself during the five years he tried to get Le Jardin built (1995-2000). He provides what I think is the best profile of Arthur Goldberg, former Bally’s/Park Place Entertainment CEO, in print today, and we even get to see the “Mirage Volcano” erupt a few times (even scarier, he says, is when Steve Wynn speaks with complete calm to those who’ve let him down).

I need to point out, though, that there are several errors in the book that pulled me out of the story. Some are relatively minor, like referring to Mickey Brown as the head of the “New Jersey Gaming Commission” (a body whose existence is a mystery to me), when he actually helmed the Division of Gaming Enforcement. Others reflect the fact that this book was apparently written a while ago: Foxwoods is labeled “the largest, most profitable casino in the world” (Venetian Macao has had that honor for five years now) and the book ends on a happy note with MGM MIRAGE about to build the $5 billion MGM Atlantic City on the land where Le Jardin once might have been. That project was announced in 2007, tabled in 2008, and killed in 2010 when MGM Resorts effectively surrendered its NJ gaming license rather than cut ties with Pansy Ho, its Macau partner. Ditto for the reference to Atlantic City as “America’s fastest-growing city.” It seems that much of this book was written five years ago and not strenuously revised before publication.

So it’s a good book, but it’s only as good as the recollections of the principals, and there are some areas where standard fact-checking and updating would have given the manuscript more immediacy.

The need for a current assessment is nowhere clearer than in the wrap up, in which Bronson says that, in the end, the War at the Shore ended in “a triumph for all involved.” Bronson got to say he’d turned a former dump into land valued at $400 million, Trump kept out a competitor, and Atlantic City got the Borgata.

I don’t think anything could be further from the truth. In fact, I’d argue that the War at the Shore might have been the beginning of the end for Atlantic City, and had ripple effects throughout the gaming industry that can’t be underestimated. Let’s imagine that Trump doesn’t try to block Wynn, and instead retaliated by selling Trump Plaza and putting the proceeds into renovating Trump Marina into something that could rival Wynn, or sold the Marina and the Plaza to turn the Taj into a true mega-resort. Park Place also doubled down on its properties, starting expansion programs like what Harrah’s did with Harrah’s and Aztar started with the Tropicana (under Dennis Gomes, incidentally). Wynn breaks ground on Le Jardin in 1996; it opens in 1999 as something like the Bellagio. This pushes back Beau Rivage a few years, and by 2000 Mirage Resorts is getting enough cash from its AC operation that its stock price is considerably higher: no MGM buyout. Circus Circus Enterprises opens “Mandalay East” in early 2000, and Boyd’s Borgata comes online soon after.

Under this scenario, Atlantic City now has as many as a half-dozen destination resorts and is able to do what the Strip did in the early 2000s. Maybe you’ve got a season of MTV’s Real World filmed at Borgata, or Ocean’s 12 is set in Atlantic City. There’s a real turnaround in public perception, and Atlantic City, now established as a true rival to Las Vegas, is able to weather “competition” from Pennsylvania slot parlors later in the decade.

Maybe MGM never acquires Mirage Resorts. After finishing Le Jardin, Wynn build Beau Rivage, then starts planning for Macau. MGM maybe picks up the Desert Inn (again) and develops CityCenter there. Whatever the impact on the rest of the industry, though, it’s hard to argue that Atlantic City is better off with the cards it was dealt thanks to Trump et al’s obstruction of the H-Tract’s development.

In any event, WAR AT THE SHORE is a great look inside why Wynn left Atlantic City the second time, and provides a good perspective in general on the political and deal-making (not design) side of casino development.


Book Review: Screenwriting Tips, You Hack

Xander Bennett. Screenwriting Tips, You Hack. 150 Practical Pointers for Becoming a Better Screenwriter. Amsterdam: Focal Press, 2012. 210 pages.

I’ve never written a screenplay, but I still believe that Xander Bennett’s Screenwriting Tips, You Hack, has made me a better writer. I’m not being facetious here; Bennett’s book has given me a much better appreciation for techniques of screenwriting and helped me ask questions about how I write my still-non-screenplay work.Screenwriting Tips

It makes sense that a guy who’s trained to write so that script readers keep reading has produced a book that will keep you turning the pages. I understand that Bennett also writes a screenwriting blog, but since I’m just now starting to get interested in screenwriting, I haven’t seen it. So I approached this book with no preconceptions, outside of wanting to learn a little more about how people write screenplays.

Bennett divided Screenwriting Tips into 18 chapters, each covering a different element of the screenplay: structure, dialog, character, and specific mistakes are a few examples. He writes it from a mercifully practical perspective; you can sense that he’s got a deep love for movies and TV, but he doesn’t waste your time talking about theories of screenwriting. Instead, he just tells you how to do it.

There are actually more than 150 tips here, which makes you feel like you got something for nothing. Great marketing. And each of the tips will actually help you sharpen your writing. True, it’s not going to write your screenplay for you, and yes, you’re probably already doing all of these things if you’re a master screenwriter. But if you’re buying a book on screenwriting tips, you’re clearly not a master screenwriter. Bennett doesn’t show you any shortcuts, but he makes sure that you stay on the right road. That, in and of itself, makes the book worth it.

If you want a concrete example, I’ll throw one out there: “Screenwriting Tip #120: Don’t sabotage your own pacing by cutting directly from tense scenes to boring ones.” If you’re writing a script for the first time, you might have a feeling that the pacing is off, but this tip will tell you exactly what the problem might be.

I’ve yet to write a screenplay so I can’t say that Screenwriting Tips helped me cross the finish line, but it’s already made me a more intelligent movie and TV viewer–I’m picking up on a lot of what he’s saying in what I’m watching. Highly recommended.

Book Review: No BS Social Media

Jason Falls and Erik Decker. No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing. Indianapolis: Que, 2012. 253 pages.

This book, with a word that you still can’t say on the radio in its title, is certainly trying to be provocative. Beneath the swagger, though, there’s an intelligent, well-conceived manifesto for why social media matters today and how to do it correctly. Continue reading “Book Review: No BS Social Media”

Book Review: Tackling Tumblr

Thord Daniel Hedengren. Tackling Tumblr: Web Publishing Made Simple. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2011. 258 pages.

When I got the chance to review a book about Tumblr, I figured I’d give it a shot. I’d heard about the web publishing platform and thought it might be a good fit for a project I’m working on. Tumblr, it turned out, was a lot less flexible than I’d hoped so my experiment with it lasted about three days (switched back to WordPress), but I got a book review out of the endeavor. Continue reading “Book Review: Tackling Tumblr”

Book Review: How to Keep Score in Business

Robert Follett. How to Keep Score in Business: Accounting and Financial Analysis for the Non-Accountant. Second Edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: FT Press, 2012. 168 pages.

Financial statements can be a riddle. Loaded down with numbers and sometimes-confusing terminology, they can obscure rather than illuminate if you don’t know how to read them. If you’ve got a degree in accounting, it’s a snap, of course, but not everyone who needs to do financial analysis has that degree–or has even taken a course in the subject. Robert Follett’s HOW TO KEEP SCORE IN BUSINESS isn’t the equivalent of an accounting degree, but it’s a short, readable guide that will make balance sheets, income statements, and other financial analyses comprehensible to the uninitiated.

Follett is a good teacher: he starts off by explaining what he’s going to do, then provides a chapter-length glossary that includes important terms. This part is important, because words on a balance sheet don’t necessarily mean the same as they do elsewhere. For example, we all understand what a “loss” is. If I put $20 into a video poker machine and play it until it’s gone, I’ve “lost” it–the money is gone at that moment, and it’s not coming back. On a balance sheet, however, a loss does not necessarily represent a reduction in cash during the accounting period covered. It might seem like a subtle distinction, but it’s an important one.

After the glossary, Follett spends two chapters explaining the balance sheet, which is really the crux of the book. Here’s where the reader has to get active: Follett has you create your own balance sheet instead of just reading about it. And here’s where readers who put more work into the book by actually doing so will end up getting more out of it. Then there are chapters on the income statement, various ways to calculate return on investment, changes in financial position, and the cash flow budget. At the end, Follett summarizes what he’s presented.

This is an excellent beginner’s guide that doubles as a continuing reference work. Both the glossary and the other chapters will get a lot of use as the reader returns to them when wading through actual financial statements. It’s easy to read and does a fine job of making those pages of numbers less intimidating. Highly recommended.

Book Review: Unquenchable

Natalie MacLean. Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines. New York: Perigree, 2011.

After reading UNQUENCHABLE, I can state three things with confidence about Natalie MacLean: 1) She likes to drink wine 2)She knows a great deal about it 3) She wants to share some of her experiences and perspectives with you to help you find bargain wines that don’t taste like they came out of a box.

That makes this book an enjoyable read. It’s joyfully subjective, with MacLean sharing her insights into both her visits to several wine-making regions and the taste of the wines. Her mission, simply put, “is to demystify wine price in relation to quality,” in other words, helping wine shopper pick out $15 wines that taste as good as $30 or $50 ones.

MacLean’s approach is best summed up by the label on a Renard Rose bottle that she shares; “The nose suggests smoky strawberries, raspberry cigars and blah, blah, blah…Isn’t wine indescribably fun? Just enjoy it!”

So we, the readers, get to tag along as MacLean enjoys visiting several locales that make good, inexpensive wines, including Australia, South Africa, Argentina, and even Canada. In each stop, she shares the history of the wine-making region and notes which varietal its best known for. She also visits several wineries, relating the stories of the winemakers, which are often interesting in their own right. Winemaking is a field that draws many colorful personalities, and MacLean has a knack for rendering them vividly.

This is a personal book, with MacLean proudly abandoning any claim at objectivity and instead sharing her reactions, which makes sense, since much of the charm of wine is intangible. By unabashedly giving us her own personal take on wine, MacLean does us a great service; we’re free to disagree with her, but at least we know where she’s coming from.

All in all, I learned a great deal from UNQUENCHABLE and had a good time doing it. Outside of pouring the wine for you, there’s not too much more you can ask from a wine guide than that.

Book Review: The Art of Roughhousing

Anthony DeBenedet and Lawrence J. Cohen. The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kind Needs It. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2010. 192 pages.

Parents get mixed messages about physicality and child-rearing. On one hand, they remember running around, pushing, and just plain having fun as kids. On the other, there’s an endless list of cautionary tales about everything that can go wrong if kids are taught to play too roughly, from severe (and not so severe) injuries to themselves to fears that they’ll hurt other kids, either physically or emotionally.

Yet physical play is important to developing children, and in THE ART OF ROUGHHOUSING the authors make a strong case for encouraging horseplay. The book is divided into seven chapters that follow a warning label and prefaces from each author. Yes, there is a warning label that reminds parents to be responsible. Which is important.

The first chapter marshals medical and academic literature touting the beneficial effects of physical play (and the potential deleterious effects of denying it to your child. With the theoretical base secured, the second chapter offers a practical introduction, with guidance on how to initiate and structure physical play and how to deal with the inevitable boo boos. It also gives a few introductory exercises. The next five chapters feature short introductory notes for a specific kind of roughhousing (“Flight,” “Games,” “Contact” are a few) and illustrated descriptions of exercises that one (or two, if a spotter is needed) parent can do with a child. Each exercise has a suggested age range, difficulty level, and essential skill that the exercise reinforces.

Even though the authors refer to what they’re advocating as “roughhousing,” it’s actually much more sophisticated than running around the pool hitting each other with floaties. They provide a detailed list of exercises that resemble those “taught” in play classes given by Gymboree and MyGym as well as anecdotal narrative support for their effectiveness.

Overall, it’s a fun book that may give you some ideas on how to have more fun playing with your kids. It will help you and them have a better time and may aid in their development. Sounds like a win-win to me. Recommended for parents looking to spice up their playtimes.

Book Review: A More Perfect Heaven

Dava Sobel. A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos. New York: Walker and Company, 2011. 288 pages.

We take much of our worldview for granted. Most of us, if asked to relate where the Earth is, would without blinking respond that it’s the third planet from the sun. Its daily rotation is responsible for sunrises and sunsets, and it revolves around the sun, more or less, in a year. It’s almost impossible to conceive of any other cosmology. A sun-centered model seems to answer every question we have about the relationship between the earth and its skies, and we’ve sent spacecraft to several planets in our solar system. The heliocentric hypothesis seems almost absurdly self-evident.

Yet it wasn’t always so. As science writer Dava Sobel reminds us in A MORE PERFECT HEAVEN, when Copernicus developed the heliocentric hypothesis in the 16th century (yes, Aristarchus had suggested it long before, but neither Copernicus nor most of the world knew this at the time), the idea that the earth moved seemed utterly ridiculous. After all, the sun rose and the sun set every day; the stars wheeled above the earth at night; and the planets, though no one could quite pin down their motions, definitely seemed to circle the stationary earth. Standing still, one had no sense of motion in any direction. Every shred of accepted evidence, every learned treatise–and the official doctrine of the Church–agreed: the fixed Earth was the center of the cosmos, and everything else wheeled around it.

Those of us who know Copernicus merely as a name in a textbook really can’t appreciate his incredible intellectual courage until we re-immerse ourselves in the world he inhabited–something that Sobel does masterfully. Using original source documents, she painstakingly recreates his life, as best can be done. She does a fine job of placing Copernicus at the center of a group of friends, rivals, and superiors, each of whom influenced his work. She also reminds us that, in addition to making his nocturnal observations, Copernicus had a regular day job as a church canon. In talking about his daily work she introduces what might be the crux of the Copernican story: the struggle between science and faith which for many intelligent scholars, Copernicus included, wasn’t much of a struggle. He himself reminded readers that “mathematics belong to mathematicians,” and that his heliocentric findings were wholly consonant with religious faith. As a man who lived his entire adult life in the Church, this is no small point.

The book is divided into three parts–and here is where it gets a bit revolutionary itself. The first third is a straight-forward scholar-writing-for-the-popular-market biography of Copernicus taking us up to the moment that young mathematician Rheticus traveled to Copernicus’s home in Frauenberg in search of the genius, reports of whose insights had been circulating for years. Rheticus and Copernicus’s former fellow canon Tiedemann Geise, now bishop of Kulm, were instrumental in convincing Copernicus to finish and publish his masterwork, “On the Revolutions,” which, using observed data as a guide, laid out the case for the heliocentric hypothesis.

Then, things take a sharp turn: the second third of the book is a two-act play Sobel wrote that dramatizes the weeks that Rheticus and Copernicus spent preparing “On the Revolutions.” It’s interesting to see the primary source material so faithfully reported in the first third brought to life as a drama, though some readers might find it difficult to become as immersed in the dialog as they had in the narrative. Having told that story, Sobel shifts back to straight historical narrative for the final third of the book, which discusses the publication of “On the Revolutions” and its centuries-long aftermath.

Sobel’s produced a work that brings to mind the cosmology of Tycho Brahe. Brahe knew the geocentric model did jibe with observational data but didn’t quite accept the leap to a sun-centered universe. Instead he created a mash-up of both systems, where the sun orbits the earth and everything else revolves around the run. In the same way, Sobel hasn’t completely abandoned traditional historical narrative here, but instead anchors her dramatic recasting of the life of Copernicus with that kind of narrative.

Even if reading a two-act play on the page isn’t your favored reading experience, the rich detail and meticulous attention to source material makes the other two-thirds of the book a joy to read. A MORE PERFECT HEAVEN is an excellent reminder of how science works (not by consensus and often in the face of what seems obviously true) and of the life of a truly revolutionary historical figure. Highly recommended.

Book Review: Signing Their Rights Away

Denise Kiernan and Joseph D’Agnese. Signing Their Rights Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the United States Constitution. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2011. 256 pages.

As one of the foundation documents of the American Republic, the Constitution is an object of respect bordering on reverence. For the past 222 years it’s formed the basis of the government of the United States. It has an aura of timelessness about it, as if it miraculously appeared as a gift from on high.

Yet the Constitution was written by mere mortals, sweltering in a Philadelphia summer. Many of them acknowledged that what they’d created was imperfect, but it was the best they could hope for. SIGNING THEIR RIGHTS AWAY gives contemporary readers some insight into the men who argued and compromised in 1787 and created the Constitution.

The book starts with a brief introduction that recaps the circumstances surrounding the Constitutional Convention and provides the backdrop for the rest of the book: a series of short portraits of the 39 men who signed the Constitution. Grouped by state, these brief (3-4 page) bios are informative and occasionally cheeky–more than a few signers were touched by scandal at one point or another.

It’s a challenge to find as much to say about Richard Dobbs Spaight as Benjamin Franklin, but the authors do a fine job of making each signer interesting. It’s not a narrative history of the Constitutional Convention, but SIGNING THEIR RIGHTS AWAY gives the reader, along the way, plenty of interesting details about the process to pique the reader’s interest and hopefully inspire more reading about this crucial point in American history.

All in all, SIGNING THEIR RIGHTS AWAY is a quick and thought-provoking read. It might not be the best cover-to-cover reading experience since it lacks a driving narrative, but its structure makes it ideal for reading in short bursts or as a handy reference.

Book Review: The Digital Mom Handbook

Audrey McClelland and Colleen Padilla. The Digital Mom Handbook: How to Blog, Vlog, Tweet, and Facebook Your Way to a dream Career at Home. New York: Harper Business, 2011. 256 pages.

I’m not a mom, but the idea of mommyblogging intrigues me. It seems like most infant and toddler commerce is sold primarily to women, assuming that fathers will have a negligible role in decision-making when it comes to buying products for their young kids. In addition, it’s indisputable that, when one parent stays home to take care of the kids, it’s almost always the mother who does so. Many of these women are educated, engaged, and taking a step back from careers, so they are ideally situated to appraise, comment on, and spread the word about products geared towards little kids.

Mommyblogging has, for many women, become a cottage industry. This makes sense, since you can do it from home, and you’re already immersed in mommydom, so it’s not like getting another B.A. in Sanskrit Literature at night. The authors of The Digital Mom Handbook both transitioned from careers to moms and, ultimately, mommybloggers, and in the book they offer a guide to how to, as the title says, secure a dream career at home.

The book provides both a window into the mommyblogosphere and offers a guide to how to get there. They stress that the first step is finding one’s passion, which involves a fair amount of soul-searching and contemplation. There are a lot of varieties of mommyblog–one could focus on product reviews, or cooking, or simply talking about the joys of wiping away spitup while hosting a play date. From there, the book gives specific guidance on how to actually get launched into the mommyblogosphere, then offers tips on marketing, networking, and balancing blogging with being a mom.

The authors also acknowledge that blogging itself is just one piece of they puzzle; they stress the role of Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook and talk extensively about the role of Twitter parties, for example, in providing networking opportunities.

In addition to the satisfaction one gets from sharing one’s viewpoint on Lansinoh nursing pads or “The Wonder Pets Save the Skunk,” mommybloggers can make some money through ads on their blogs and also can be invited to try new products. Prominent mommybloggers can even be hired as product spokesmoms and get be invited to exclusive events. So what starts as a hobby can, indeed, become a career.

If you’re interested in getting a start in mommyblogging, this is a good book to check out.