John Adams

This is a long audio book, abridged it’s still close to 10 hours. But it’s certainly a great listen and it’s a small amount of time to spend when you consider the impact this man had on the United States of America. He was one of the chief architects of the Declaration of Independence and was integral in obtaining its passage by the Continental Congress. He became a foreign policy expert after the Revolutionary War and built advantageous relationships with France and Great Britain. He was elected our second president (after serving as Washington’s veep) and used some textbook diplomacy to avert a war with France when the relationship turned sour near the turn of the century.

I’ve consumed a few books about the birth of our nation. I listened to 1776 in 2006 and read a Ben Franklin book in 2007. They dwell on the same time period and I think it’s useful to consume them all for the differing perspectives. To round things out I think I need to read a Jefferson book and an Alexander Hamilton book. Those are a couple of key figures who clashed with Adams and I feel the need for their perspective. But first, I’m watching the John Adams miniseries because Gail got it for me as a Valentine’s Day gift.

However, the interesting facts about this time period are only a portion of why this book is so interesting. What makes it shine are two things; (1) the descriptions of Adam’s personal relationships and (2) the exploration of his personality and character.

The most important relationship he had was with his wife. We’ve heard the stories about how important Abigail was in his life and the book bears this out. McCullough quotes many of their letters and leaves little doubt as to this fact. You cannot tell the story of John Adams without telling Abigail’s story also. They spent years and years apart but their relationship was strong throughout. And despite being apart, Adam’s relied on Abigail for input into all aspects of his life and work.

The consistency of Adam’s relationship with Abigail was in stark contrast to Adams’ relationship with Jefferson. To call it a roller coaster would be an understatement. They went from being amicable partners in writing and passing the Declaration of Independence, to agreeing to disagree on slavery, to best friends during their foreign service in France, and to bitter enemies during Adams’ presidency. But finally, after they had left public service, the made amends and started a long and fruitful relationship, mostly in the form of letters to each other.

This relationship lasted until the day they died, which was on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Is that unbelievable or what? They both died on the same day, within hours of each other, on the 4th of July, fifty years after the Declaration of Independence was signed. They were meant to see the day, I guess. Justice, since they were both so integral to its content.

Besides Jefferson, Adams clashed with many during his presidency. I don’t completely understand the parties at that point and I think a reading of a Jefferson book and Hamilton book will be enlightening. Adams was a Federalist but he clashed with Alexander Hamilton, so I think they basically broke up the party. McCullough identifies the other party as Republicans (Jefferson), but these weren’t today’s Republicans. I think the unabridged version may have had more on this. I need to do some more research.

In the end, McCullough paints a picture of an honorable man.

Adams decried slavery just about until the day he died. He would often try and engage Jefferson on this issue but Jefferson would have none of it. Abigail was also outspoken against slavery and racism of any sort. Abigail had run-ins with the local school about this very issue and persevered.

Adams loved books. He had a huge library, a massive library. He added comments in all of the margins. McCullough says, and I’m paraphrasing so this is not a direct quote, “that he sometimes wrote as much in the margins as was written by the author.” I know how he felt, I can relate. Books are so great that you want do more than just read them. You want to interact with them. You want to be closer to them. What do you do? You talk about them, write about them, notate them, live them. Which brings me to a point about audiobooks. I wish I could just page back and reread this passage, but I can’t, it’s too much of a hassle even with iTunes. Now with the Kindle I could, that would be cool.

I like Adams a lot. He wrote, read, ate, partied, visited, and rode horses into his later years and lived to be 90. He did not die a rich man, but neither a poor man. He seemed to be the type of caring, conscientious, and principled, independent thinker that this country needed to get off on the right foot back in those tumultuous times.


Stuff White People Like

I’m pretty much just a white, Euro-mutt. I guess I have a little Greek blood in me, and certainly some German, and also some English and Belgian; but I don’t identify with any of those cultures. I really don’t have any ethnic underpinning. I’m just a white person, basically, and I always figured that I blended in to the American melting pot enough that the quirks of my existence went unnoticed by the rest of society. And certainly, I never expected those very same quirks to be exposed as part of my racial make-up.

But earlier this year, someone brought to my attention the fact that white guys, strangely enough, seem to be the only people wearing shorts with a sweatshirt during those cold days in the shoulder seasons. You know those days; it’s about 50 degrees and you can get away with shorts, but you have to wear long sleeves on top and maybe even a vest because different parts of your body have different tolerances to the cold. Right? You with me? Who doesn’t do that? I mean, it’s just more comfortable wearing shorts despite the cold, isn’t it?

Well, evidently not. This strange clothing regimen seems to be part of stuff white people like and serves to further define my race. Oh, you think I’m crazy, well check out #86 of stuff white people like. There are studies, and there may be empirical evidence. This Lander fellow has done exhaustive research on white people and engages in an ongoing dialogue on the web and in print to document the white race and the unique tastes of millions.

And it’s absolutely hilarious!

I have a warped, dark sense of humor and I understand that this humor is not for everybody. So no, I don’t blame you Mr. White Person if you don’t like it. However, if your dislike is rooted in the fact that you squirm when Lander makes fun of certain shallow and intolerable traits that you exhibit, that probably means you’re just a little too insecure for me. Let me tick off some of the ones that I found pretty hilarious.

Have you ever met that white dude that always tells you that “Guinness just tastes better in a pub in Irelend.” Listen, I drink Guinness, it’s my beer of choice. But I’ve never been to Ireland and I’ve never consumed it in a “real Irish pub.” I’m not lying, about twenty @s#holes over the last few decades have said those very words to me while I’m drinking a Guinness. “Oh Steffen,” they say, “if you think that’s good, you need to go to Ireland to really taste Guinness.” The next time someone says that to me, I’m going to tell them to shut the f&^% up. Hey, I’m insecure, no doubt about it. The fact that some of my best Guinness experiences involve a can, a couch, and college football, makes me feel inferior to those world travelers who’ve been lucky enough to sip the fine beer in Ireland. Hey European traveler, you win, you are a better white person than me.

And what about that whole thing about making you feel bad about NOT going outside? Why do white people do that. I remember my mom saying “hey kids, stop playing Space Invaders and go outside, it’s beautiful out.” To this day, I can’t sit around all day on Saturday watching college football without feeling a huge sense of guilt. Dammit, I’m outside all the time; I play lots of golf and I walk freakin’ everywhere. I’m done feeling guilty about assuming the horizontal position all day on Saturday during September through November. This has been exposed as one of those destructive cultural traits of my race and I’m not going to let it lead me down the road to therapy.

I’m guessing that in Lander’s white continuum, I’m about a middle-of-the-pack white guy. According to him, at one end of the spectrum are people like Eminem and Bruce Willis, who have very few traits generally associated with white people. At the other end of the spectrum, you have the ultra white people like Sean Penn and Ira Glass, who probably read the Sunday New York Times every week, drink a lot of FAIR TRADE coffee, and shop at farmer’s markets. I don’t engage in those, but I do have a Mac, I like hummus, I wear a fair amount of outdoor performance clothes, and I’ve been promising to learn Spanish for years. So yeah, there’s no mistaking the fact, I’m white, but you may have to ask some detailed questions to figure out if I’m the “wrong kind of white person” (someone who, for example, feels that their gym teacher was their favorite high school teacher).

I guarantee that Lander will rip something that you cherish. He won’t just rip it, he will expose it, analyze it, throw it on the ground, spit on it, then walk away; and you will have no recourse. He has no mercy. You go through stages during Landers’ satirical trashing.

  1. First you’re angry that someone could make fun of something that you hold so dear.
  2. Then, you feel like an ass because he starts making sense and you actually start to understand the hypocrisy that he is exposing.
  3. Finally, you see the humor in it all, and you laugh. In fact, you may even change your behavior a little.

This is a great book for the audio format. It’s brainless and the narrator has a great, deadpan, documentary-style delivery. I laugh a lot when I think about it and I think it’s really creative stuff.


Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer

Let me bounce a few things off of you. Columbia is an Ivy League school, right? The New York Times sports page is about the size of the Chicago Tribune book section, correct? And New York City is in the northeastern United States, huh? So, are you thinking college football yet? I figured not. So it’s somewhat odd that the author, Warren St. John, is such a college football junkie. He writes for the NYT, he lives in NYC, and he went to CU.

But don’t worry; he comes on strong with the college football cred. Check this out, he once made a three-hour phone call to his parents during college. He didn’t say much to them during the call, he just had them set the receiver next to the radio so he could listen to the Alabama vs Auburn game. This was in the early 80’s, before big TV contracts and ESPNU. It was also during the time of $0.25/minute long distance calls (New York to Birmingham). Nutty.

That sets the scene for St. John’s study of sports fandom. If you think this phone incident is a little over the top, then just imagine what his college mates at Columbia thought. They had never seen anyone quite like him. To St. John, this didn’t make sense. He couldn’t believe that all of his fellow students, who had so much in common with him, didn’t share his same love for college football.

This haunts him well into his adult years. So what’s a guy to do? How about revisiting the fandom of your youth and trying to figure out how a completely normal human can lose all sense of rationality on fall Saturdays? In fact, maybe hitching a ride with one of those crazy, RV owning, crimson clad, ‘Bama fans on every Saturday during the 1999 season would do. But, you wouldn’t actually go to the level of buying your own RV and queuing up every Saturday for a spot in the RV lot? Would you?

Well, St. John would. And did! And what ensues is hilarious, disturbing, touching, and enlightening.

Hilarious is saying “Roll Tide” every time you meet a fellow Alabama fan. Hilarious is missing your daughter’s wedding because she had the audacity to plan it during the Tennessee game, then telling everybody in Alabama about it on the 11 PM news. Hilarious is vomiting before the game because you’re so nervous, just to watch.

Disturbing is racism and hypocrisy within the fan base. Disturbing is being afraid for your physical safety because you pull for the other team or disagree with the fan base. Disturbing is fans with guns.

Touching is bonding with fellow humans through the small thread of this common interest. Touching is realizing that a Saturday on The Grove at Ole Miss is so beautiful and special, that it doesn’t matter who wins. Touching is noticing that the things that made you happy as a kid, still make you happy as an adult.

Enlightening is finding out that I may not be so weird after all. Enlightening is knowing that it’s okay not to be dejected after a loss because everybody deals with disappointment a little differently.

This was a great audio book experience. Fun, not too intense, about a topic that really interests me (so I don’t have to think about it that much), and read by the author.

St. John is still a huge Alabama fan and it appears that he stays in contact with a few people that he met during this season of RVing. For example, he bought two tickets to a Yankee’s game from John Ed, the Tuscaloosa ticket broker. He also went to a game the next year with the Bice’s (spelling?), the people who generously invited him on his first RV trip to start this project off.

St. John seems like an approachable, likable, interested sports fan. I could see hanging with him, despite the fact that he still relishes in one of the Alabama victories over Notre Dame (I think it was the 1985 drubbing).



Truman’s presidency occurred during times of immense global unrest and he was forced to make a few of the most pivotal decisions in US history. These decisions certainly affected the standing and prosperity of the US during his lifetime, but they also had reverberations that would affect the political and economic make-up of Asia and Europe for decades to come.

It’s been a while since I’ve listened to a book. But listening to this one really has me juiced for some more because it was really good. McCullough takes you through the expanse of Truman’s life, beginning with his humble beginnings on the Missouri countryside and detailing the significant events of his life through his death in 1972. Here is a quick timeline:

  • 1884-Born, Lamar, Missouri
  • 1914-Member of artillery brigade, World War I, mostly France
  • 1934-Elected to Senate (D, Missouri)
  • 1944-FDR re-elected to presidency with Truman as his VP
  • 1945-Truman becomes president upon FDR’s death (April)
  • 1945-Authorized use of the atomic bomb in Japan (August)
  • 1946-Threatened to take presidential control of the railroads and draft railway workers if they did not end their strike, effectively settling the strike but alienating labor
  • 1947-Develops Truman Doctrine (policy of containment) and appoints George Marshall as his secretary of state (who subsequently developed the Marshall Plan to assist in rebuilding Europe)
  • 1950-In second term as president, urged U.N. to intervene in Korea and authorized deployment of US troops to Korea under General MacArthur
  • 1951-Ceased aggression in Korea and fired MacArthur from his command in Korea and Japan
  • 1952-Lost New Hampshire primary and cancels re-election campaign
  • 1972-Dies the day after Christmas

These were the highlights in the abridged version I listened to. There was evidently not enough time to talk about the Berlin Airlift, Israel, civil rights, the Fair Deal, the Red Scare, or Vietnam.

I love McCullough’s delivery on the audio book version. He reads it like a grandfather telling a story. He doesn’t use much voice inflection but you can tell he cares deeply about the topic. It’s comforting to listen to his silvery voice and smooth delivery.

There were some chilling moments in Truman’s presidency. Shortly after dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, he said these words in his address to the nation.

…we are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. We shall destroy their docks, their factories, and their communications. Let there be no mistake, we shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war. If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a reign of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth.

That’s heavy stuff. Often McCullough would mix in real audio, but not for the above. I’m sure it’s on tape, I wonder if someone would not let him use it or if he thought it would be too horrifying to hear it from Truman himself. The book goes into a fairly lengthy discussion on the aftermath. There is some real audio after the second bomb on Nagasaki from Truman where he tells Japanese civilians to leave the cities because he was going to destroy everything in them. Sobering stuff.

Truman never went to college, but he was worldly, well read, and very grounded. I think this is why he was careful in selecting his advisers and why he deflected a lot of the credit for victories to others but took responsibility for failures. Perhaps his most famous appointment was making George Marshall the Secretary of State in 1947. Marshall engineered the aptly named Marshall Plan to assist in the post-war rebuilding of Europe and to help stop communist aggression. It has it’s detractors, but for the most part it is viewed by historians as an unmitigated success.

Truman’s most famous public brawl was with General MacArthur. MacArthur wanted to continue north of the 38th parallel in Korea because he did not feel that the Russians or Chinese would intervene on the North’s behalf. MacArthur said this in public, which was particularly discouraging to the Truman administration. Truman disagreed, and when Truman relieved him of duty there was a public outcry of massive proportions. MacArthur went on an unprecedented “victory” tour of the US when he got back from Korea and made speeches espousing his ideas for the war and where he thought Truman got it wrong. Truman basically ignored this and eventually the country came around to ignoring MacArthur also. Finally, MacArthur made his “old soldiers just fade away” speech and the public battle between the two giants of US history faded away also.

Truman ended up living out a his life after the presidency in a state of unending wonderment and joy. You may not agree with every decision that he made, but I would say he honored the office of the Presidency.



This book starts with a speech by King George made around September 1775 (once again, I listened to it, so it’s tough to flip back and check facts, but I will give you the gist) . Effectively, King George questioned the sanity of a bunch rebels campaigning for freedom when they had it so good. I mean, how could you not like being under the thumb of one of wealthiest and most powerful nations on the face of the earth? The rebels, he figured, would soon understand how good they had it and basically surrender. He did not go as far as to say that his troops would be “greeted as liberators,” but he definitely called out the resolve of the rebels.

The first part of the book centers on the effective blockade of Boston by George Washington’s army. The blockade started in the middle of 1775 and as it dragged into winter, commander-in-chief George Washington started to get impatient. He continually pushed for a frontal attack on Boston but the war council decided it was not the best idea. After all, the city would probably burn and the loss of human life would be huge. Then, in early 1776, copies of King George’s speech circulated among the rebels and ended up being great bulletin board material, which started to fire up the rebels to kick some redcoat ass.

Also at this point (early January), General Knox arrived with guns from Fort Ticonderoga. This set into motion the incredible occupation of Dorchester Heights (overlooking Boston) by the rebels. With the rebels on Dorchester Heights, the British had little chance of surviving a frontal attack, so they piled into their boats and left town.

As expected, the British headed for New York City, but Washington and his men were there first. It was different from Boston though because the advantage was on the side of the British. Mostly because the British brought in reinforcements, including the Hessians. Also, the British commanded the sea, with most of their fleet set up in the waters around New York.

A strategic stalemate lasted well into the summer of 1776, until August, when the British began coming ashore on Long Island. Washington and his men crossed the river and occupied Brooklyn in effort to keep the British out of New York. This did not last long and Washington and his crew slipped back to New York and eventually retreated back to Philadelphia. Now, with the British in control of New York City and numbers on the British side, things were looking pretty bleak for the rebels. They were holed up in Philly, with a pack of Hessian soldiers on the other side of the river, and on the brink of losing thousands of soldiers when their commissions were up in the fall.

But, the rebels had a few things going for them. First, the British made some poor battleground decisions. They should have been more aggressive on Long Island and crushed the rebels before they had a chance to retreat. And effectively calling a unilateral halt to fighting on the onset of winter in December 1776 was just downright stupid. But most importantly, one George Washington led the rebels, and he was a pretty gutsy guy. Washington made a rousing speech to convince many soldiers to extend their commission and planned one of the most audacious offensives in the history of the fightin’ man.

On Christmas Day, 1776, Washington marched his men to the Delaware River during a nasty rain/sleet/snowstorm. They hopped into flat bottom boats and negotiated the river despite the brutal cold, the dark of night, the wicked wind, and the jagged chunks of ice floating in the river. Once over the river, they walked through the night, and by the next morning they were queued up about a half-mile outside of Trenton, New Jersey, which was occupied by a few thousand Hessians. In the driving storm, they attacked with overwhelming force and took Trenton in less than an hour. The victory was so lopsided that the rebels did not even have a casualty of war. The only rebel deaths were two men that died from the cold during the walk over.

Trenton and the night crossing of the Delaware was the turning point of the war. This ended the year of 1776 but the war went on. Around 25,000 Americans would end up dying before the fighting ended and I think it would be like the early 1780’s before the British actually called it quits. I don’t want to blow it out of proportion, but one could make a case that our freedom today would not be if Washington did not choose to pursue that offensive during the holiday season of 1776. How appropriate as a lead-in to this holiday season. I may just have to reflect a little on this and I will definitely consume more David McCullough books.


Devil in the White City

I love Chicago. I just can’t imagine living anyplace else actually. I love the lake, the downtown, the size, the options for entertainment (including golf), the change of seasons…just about everything about it. It’s just a great, all-around city and one person that I have to thank is the world famous architect and city planner Daniel Burnham. If you read (or listen to) the Devil in the White City, you will understand why.

It is the story of a period in Chicago that runs from about 1890 to 1895. The backdrop is provided by the Columbian Exposition, which took place in Jackson Park from May to October in 1893. The story revolves around two men, Burnham, the leader of the Exposition, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who thrived in the Englewood neighborhood at the time of the Exposition.

Let’s talk about Burnham first. The dude was friggin’ intense. All Chicagoans – no, let me rephrase – all Americans should be thankful that he poured himself into architecture and city planning. The Columbian Exposition, while fraught with tragedy, certainly achieved great things. It put Chicago on the map and started the city on a path to greatness, it provided the impetus for countless innovations and social movements, and it entertained and educated the world. Plus, it made money, despite the fact the country was mired in a recession at the time. After reading this book, it’s not surprising that Burnham coined the phrase, “Make no small plans.”

As a Chicagoan (albeit transplanted), I am embarrassed that it took me this long to get through this book. So many important things happened in the time period that this book covers that I think it is a must read for anyone interested in the history of Chicago. Burnham, Sullivan, Adler, Root, the Rookery, Englewood, Jackson Park, Lake Michigan, the Windy City…it’s all there. Great stuff.

However, for all of the greatness exhibited by Burnham et al; there was pure, abject evil, to a level even more extreme, exhibited right down the street from Burnham. This H.H. Holmes guy was a sick, sinister mother #$%@*^ and makes Gacy look like a candy-ass. Enough said, its actually uncomfortable talking about it.

This is like two distinct books. One part feels like a history book and the other part feels like a James Patterson novel. Either way, it is a lot of good stuff and if you are a Chicagoan, you do yourself a grave injustice if you don’t give it a whirl.



This is a one-sitting book, or should I say, a one-workout audio book. Michael Lewis, the author of Liar’s Poker and Moneyball, went to a private high school in New Orleans called Newman. It is, in fact, the same high school that Peyton Manning and Rusty Staub went to. The baseball coach at Newman is a tough guy named Coach Fitz and he has been around forever; this is a story about him.

Lewis played baseball at Newman and has crafted a story that is part memoir and part life-lesson. It worked for me. He tells of his experience with Coach Fitz and how deep and profound Coach Fitz’s influence on his life was. Lewis got the itch to tell this story when he heard about a movement to raise money for a new gym at Newman dedicated to Coach Fitz. This was especially interesting because at the same time, there was a movement to get Coach Fitz removed by many parents of the kids on his baseball team because he was just “to tough on them.”

As you can guess, there is plenty of commentary about how kids these days are lazy and too privileged to ever succeed at anything. “Oh, the kids are so soft these days…what’s gonna happen to our society?” I think that’s a load of bull and it gets old fast, but you have to get past it, because you will be rewarded with some keen insights into how sports, especially high school sports, can positively shape your life.

I’m a sports fan and have always been an avid participant in many sports, fitness, and gaming pursuits. They are a big part of my life and besides satisfying a need for physical exertion and regular competition, they serve as the basis for most of my social outlets. Despite this, I have never really had a coach or sports figure that affected me like Coach Fitz. In fact, I haven’t had any mentors, personally or professionally, that I can pinpoint as affecting a life change or a special, self-confidence boost. What I have had is a wife, two parents, three siblings, and a pack of other family that have a cared about all aspects of my life since 8/23/66, when Dr. Cosiano slapped my ass and handed me to my mother.

What Michael Lewis got from his coach, I was (and am) able to get by waking up and taking a seat at the kitchen table. Lewis’ story reaffirmed this, and I thank him.


Guns, Germs, and Steel

At one point in his life, Jared Diamond was a biologist in New Guinea studying birds. This was about the early 70’s, I think. (With audio books it’s difficult to verify the details because you can’t just leaf through the pages or refer to the index, so I apologize if I get the details wrong.) Okay, it was the early 70’s and he was having a conversation with this local politician in New Guinea, named Yali. Yali asked a question of Diamond that went something like this, why do you people (white, Euro-types) have all of this advanced technology and we don’t? What is the cause of this disparity? Well, Diamond sets out to explain the answer.

Diamond begins by walking you through the evolution of people, beginning at about 7 million BC. He gets you to about 11,000 BC before he really starts making comparisons between different peoples and continents. He concentrates first on the rise of food producing societies and their subsequent displacement of people engaged solely in hunting and gathering. This domestication of plants and animals for food allows a society to progress much faster because members can spend less time looking for food and more time reading, writing, studying, and creating complex, hierarchical political systems.

Once he establishes the import of domesticating plants and animals, he explains how the east-west orientation of Eurasia was much more amenable to rapid adoption of farming across the continent than the north-south orientation of Africa and the Americas. He illustrates this by pointing out, for example, that it took much longer for corn to find its way from Mexico to the United States than it did for certain cereals from the Fertile Crescent to spread much longer distances across Eurasia.

He concludes:

That faster spread of Eurasian agriculture, compared with that of Native American and sub-Saharan African agriculture, played a roll, as the next part of this book will show, in the more rapid diffusion of Eurasian writing, metallurgy, technology, and empires. To bring up all those differences isn’t to claim that widely distributed crops are admirable or that they testify to the superior ingenuity of early Eurasian farmers. They reflect instead the orientation of Eurasia’s axis compared with that of the Americas or Africa; around those axes turned the fortunes of history.

With only about two hours left, I expected the pace to pick up a bit if he was going to bring me back around to answering Yali’s question. And it does.

His next topic is germs, which also helped domesticated, well-organized, Eurasian societies to displace others. Germs, you see, thrive in domesticated animals like cattle and sheep. Eurasian societies lived near, and sometimes with, these animals for years. After numerous plagues, they developed resistance to many of the diseases in these animals. So, when Spanish conquistadors landed on the shores of Mexico and effectively destroyed a society of millions of Aztecs, it was less so the fierceness and intelligence with which the Spanish fought and more so the fact that the Aztecs were not resistant to the smallpox that the Spanish brought with them.

He goes through the details of three more topics and explains how they affected the rise and fall of different societies. They are, in order of presentation:

  1. The advent and cultivation of writing
  2. The rise of technology
  3. The development of complex political systems

It was really some fascinating audio. He made a complicated, controversial, and potentially boring topic very captivating. I turned it off feeling that I know more about the world. The last chapter in the audio book is 8 minutes and 35 seconds worth of summary that really ties it all together.

Here is how he sums it up:

The striking differences between the long-term histories of peoples of the different continents have been due not to innate differences in the people themselves, but to differences in their environments.

The most important differences in the environments, per Diamond, are as follows:

  1. The differences in starting material for domestication of plants and animals.
  2. The differences in rates of diffusion of certain developments across societies within continents.
  3. Inter-hemispheric diffusion of certain developments.
  4. Continental differences in area and population size.

Great stuff. Read it or listen to it and you will get more detail than you can consume on how each of the four differences resulted in widely disparate societies.


The Devil’s Teeth

There’s a cluster of islands in the Pacific, only about 30 miles from San Francisco, that happens to be an annual gathering place for great white sharks. This rocky outcrop of islands is called the Farallones, and if you want to study sharks, these islands have no equal. There isn’t another place on the globe where you can see so many sharks in their natural habitat.

Now, there are a few curveballs for the average shark watcher. First, the sharks only show up from about September through November. Second, access to the islands is severely restricted by the government. And finally, it’s a particularly inhospitable place beset with nasty weather and a cliff-like shoreline that makes getting on the islands from a boat very difficult.

However, this did not stop Susan Casey from becoming obsessed with the Farallones. She was sitting at home one night and caught a BBC special about the two scientists that were performing groundbreaking shark research on the islands. She was hooked immediately and began scheming to get to the Farallones to be close to these awesome creatures.

Let me tell you a little about Susan Casey. She’s a writer, lives in Manhattan, and spent much of her life as a competitive swimmer. She likes REI outdoor gear, Gucci heels, and Patagonia capilene underwear – size small. Hey, that’s what she said.

She starts out getting a one day pass to the islands. She likes it so much that she pushes and finagles a couple of longer stays on the islands. She befriends Peter and Scott, the ultra-cool scientists that are superstars in the shark world, who willingly assist her in her efforts to spend even more time near the sharks of the Farallones. After the government steps in to mediate a nasty feud between the researchers and some tour operators, access to the islands gets even more restrictive. But the scientists and Susan concoct a plan to stay on a borrowed yacht off the coast of the Farallones since she is expressly forbidden from setting foot on the islands. Ah, not a good idea. It’s about this time that Casey ceases to be the athletic, attractive, writer-adventurer and turns into a whiny outsider that really starts who may start to grate on your nerves.

So yes, I eventually became disinterested in the trials and travails of Susan Casey. But, there’s still a lot of great stuff in this book. The shark lore and history of the islands is fascinating. These creatures, especially the great whites, captivated me throughout. Casey does a great job of vividly describing the people and scenery, and these descriptions give this story some heart and soul.


Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Whoa, this five hour plus audio book absolutely consumed me during a 48 hour period from noon on Feb 9 to noon on Feb 11. Anytime I could squeeze in a little car time or iPod time, I did so. Everything was about my main man Aron Ralston.

I’m sure you’ve heard the story. Man goes canyoneering alone in Utah. Man gets arm stuck under rock. Man had not told anybody where he was going. Man was immobile for 5 days and nearly dies of dehydration. Man breaks ulna and radius and frees himself by cutting through soft tissue of forearm. Man gets home safely and has interview with Tom Brokaw.

This is an amazing story. It works well as an audio book because it’s Ralston himself doing the reading. It’s equal parts re-enactment, memoir, and narration. He starts the book re-enacting his mountain bike trip to the trailhead before his hike into the Utah canyons near Moab. At certain points he breaks from the re-enactment and recalls parts of his life story or adds some detail that explains how he got to this point. Then, in the second half of the book, he narrates the story of his friends and family organizing his rescue. The story bounces back and forth between these perspectives and it never ceased to hold my rapt attention.

During the re-enactment, not only does he explain what he did for just about every minute of his ordeal, but he delves deeply into the thoughts and reflections he had during this time. It’s a little strange that he recalls this level of detail and that his thoughts were so rational and organized. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising though. He is extremely intelligent. He took pictures and video with his free hand, which I am sure he used to jog his memory. Additionally, he is passionate about his outdoor pursuits and very introspective. Therefore, I choose to believe every last detail of the story. Not just because I trust the guy, but also because this story got huge media coverage. We know how the media likes to tear down our heroes (and rightfully so), so we would know by now if these were lies. Man, am I being a little guarded or what after this James Frey vs Oprah ordeal?

I could not stop listening. Usually I only listen to audio books in my car during my commute. But this one flowed over into the weekend and I listened as I worked out and did laundry. Maybe I was so involved because I feel like I have a connection with Ralston. I too once fancied myself an outdoor athlete. Of course, I was a little more fancy and a little less athlete, but I still had a Camelback hydration system like Ralston. Those days have come and gone and I have since sold the Camelback, the waterproof tent, and the sleeping bag rated for subzero temps. However, I still read Backpacker magazine occasionally and I harbor dreams of hiking the Appalachian trail with my wife when we retire (at least parts of it…if there’s a JW Marriott near the trail for my wife…so she can go to the spa).

Ralston is a pretty cool guy. He loves mountain climbing, margaritas, and rock and roll. At age 27, he quit his job at Intel as an engineer and became a mountain guide. He just followed his true calling and it appears to have worked out well for him. It seems like he is well grounded, has a loving family, and has many great friends. He has a good sense of humor also. At one point, while he is contemplating cutting his arm off, he says something like, “hacking off a limb, like living east of the Rocky Mountains, is something I never thought I would do.”

Even if you don’t have an outdoorsy bone in your body, you will love this book. It’s an un-freaking-believable story of survival and perseverance.