Bringing Down the House

Ehh. Writing style of Mr. Mezrich leaves much to be desired. However, he was handed a story wrapped up with a bow on top, and didn’t ruin it. This non fiction story follows a group of MIT whiz kids on a tour of Vegas, Atlantic City, riverboat casinos, and details their team card counting. With spotters making minimum bets at tables and signalling the BPs (big players) in to the table when the count is favorable, the teams make millions on the blackjack table. They stagger through airport security with wads of cash (50k) strapped to their bodies then begin their transformation from geek to high rollers in the restroom. The basic strategy is a hi-lo system of assigning a +1 count to all cards from 2-6 and a -1 count of 10-A. The amount of cards gone from the shoe is also factored in to generate a true count. When the count is high, it’s time to drop big bets.

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Krakatoa

Superb, fantastic, excellent, thoroughly enjoyable! Winchester disappointed me slightly with his last book, The Map that Changed the World, but he has redeemed himself hugely with Krakatoa. As always, Winchester pays careful attention to the underpinnings of his story. Details range from the origination of plate tectonics (Alfred Wegener) and Winchester’s own Artic ash sample collecting to the unsung hero Alfred Russel Wallace coming up with the term ‘survial of the fittest’ and helping the procrastinator Charles Darwin find the missing pieces to his Origins of Species.
As one reviewer noted, Krakatoa lurks on the edges of most of the narrative, looming in the background as a constant presence. I actually read the whole book and several chapters delve deeply into the subject of Krakatoa and its explosion. The force from the August 27th, 1883 explosion caused two massive sea-waves (tsunamis) to overtake the surrounding coasts of Java and Sumatra, causing 35,000 casualties. Sound waves from the explosion travelled around the world seven times.
Krakatoa was the most explosive volcanic eruption in recorded time, and happened during a point in world history when news travelled fast (telegraph), so the global village was apprised of the eruption within days, if not hours of the event. So too, the dust/ash fallout of the explosion lingered in sunsets around the world for up to 3 years afterwards.
This book is a masterful production, with careful attention to evey pertinant detail. The construction and design of the book is equally delightful: the red lava of the hardcover not entirely covered by the 1/2 dustjacket with a depiction of Krakatoa from the September 1883 Harper’s Weekly. The drawings at the front of each chapter show Krakatoa in various stages, from dormant peaceful island with boats sailing by, to erupting fury, to a drawing of the missing island after it has blown itself up.
One of my favorite parts was the section on plate tectonics, detailing the creation of the Hawaiian Islands. Each island is a remnant of volcanic activity over the same hot spot, but the movement of the plate drifts each island away from the thermal vent, resulting in a chain of islands clearly depicting continental drift.

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Women About Town

I like to give the ladies a chance. However, Jacobs’ book turned out to be a fluffy quick beach read. Eye candy, of sorts. The characters of Iris and Lana were delightful, and 100 pages in I was enjoying the read. But when Iris, the model of a single, independent 40ish woman, ended the story hand in hand with the her perfect guy, my mind rejected this book.
Lana and Iris know OF each other, through their mutual friend Deena. They meet when Lana interviews Iris for Vanity Fair, detailing Iris’ showing of artistic nests. I’m not sure why the story couldn’t have ended with the two of them hanging out about town together. But what do I know.

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A Random Walk Down Wall Street

Great guide for novice investors/peeps who don’t know what to do with their slight and tiny nest egg. One thing that stands out is the idea that an IRA is good b/c all interest, capital gains earned with it is tax deductible until you take the money out of the IRA (at which time you might be in a lower tax bracket).
Solid stuff, easily understood advice (buy stocks you want to hold onto for awhile b/c the transaction cost of buying and selling can cut into your bottom line).

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The Group

This is the book McCarthy is famous for; however, Birds of America was tremendously better. I’m not finished, but this is my early (100 pages in) opinion.
(Later:) Now I am finished and I can declare with certainty that this book was much worse than expected. I’m sure it was quite daring for McCarthy to deal with topics such as rape, lesbians, divorce, etc. at the time. She seems a little too pleased with herself for this daring. Overlooking its flaws, the story was constructed solidly, detailing the deterioration of a group of college friends over an eight year period after graduation. Unfortunately, the solidity of the structure does not make up for the tedium of the subjects.
The story begins with Kay and Harald’s ill-fated wedding, and ends with Kay’s funeral. In between, Libbie succeeds in publishing, Priss has a baby and resents her hubby’s attitude toward her, Lakey lives in Europe and returns 8 years later with her wife, Maria. Norrine has an affair with Harald and is a miserable housekeeper. Dottie loses her heart (among other things) to an artist before finding refuge as the wife of a Western rancher. Blech, boring. Polly’s story was the more interesting, moving from love affair with married Gus to caring for her manic depressive father, to marrying a doctor in the hospital she worked in.

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Zen

Ugh. Don’t know why I thought this book would help me figure out what I want to do with my life, but it didn’t. One of the worst sorts of self-help books which don’t offer much beyond zen phrases and workbook exercises (never made it that far). This sat on my bedside table for over 2 months during which time I would force myself to read a few pages every couple of days. Hated it.

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Salt

An excellent history of salt beginning in early China and weaving through ancient Rome, Israel, US Civil War, US Revolutionary War, Italy, France, Sweden, Hawaii, Ghandi’s India, Liverpool, Bahamas, Poland, Salzburg, Avery Island, San Francisco. The story also touches on the Morton Salt Company buying up little saltworks and becoming the world’s largest salt company. “When it rains, it pours.” Salt is ubiquitous and often overlooked as an important facet of life. Animals (humans included) would die without salt.

Some fun facts about salt:

  • the word salary comes from the Latin salarius, of salt. Roman soldiers received salt as their pay.
  • olives were experimented with for centuries before it was found that soaking them in brine (salted water) made them edible
  • Avery Island (home of Tabasco sauce) sits on a salt dome
  • a Carlsbad, NM salt mine is being prepared to contain nuclear waste that will remain toxic for 240,000 more years
  • in the 1970’s, emergency oil reserves were stored in salt domes around the Gulf of Mexico
  • in the early 17th century, the Polish salt mine was used to entertain visitors: the walls, ceiling, floor, chandeliers and statues in the mine were all made from salt.
  • The World Health Organization & Unicef urged salt producers to add iodine to their salt to prevent goiter, a thyroid gland enlargement.
  • in 18th century England, anchovy sauce became known as ketchup, which derives its name from the Indonesian fish and soy sauce kecap ikan. Ketchup became a tomato sauce in the US, as tomatoes are native to America.
  • soy sauce originally was fish fermented in salt, or jiang. In China, soybeans were added to ferment with the fish and in time fish were dropped from the recipe, resulting in jiangyou, or soy sauce.

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