THE MILLI VANILLI CONDITION: Faking it, without much consequence, in the 21st century – #bookreview

 

 

The Milli Vanilli Condition

Essays on Culture in the New Millennium

Eduardo Espina

Arté Publico – paperback

 

“When we see Justin Bieber, we do not see a person. We see a haircut,” says Uruguayan poet and writer Eduardo Espina in this insightful and entertaining collection of 13 essays that delve into various aspects of pretending, faking, plagiarizing and even committing serial falsification of events, credentials or objects.

“The same [haircut] thing happens when we come across photographs of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, two of the best paid and most famous soccer players in the world. Or the unmistakable image of North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, whose haircut completely characterizes the isolated nation and its ideology, at least regarding its male population.”

With the right haircut, Espina contends, you can fake inclusion in, or affiliation with, a certain trend or movement in society and even get others to follow you.

The Milli Vanilli Condition gets its title from the infamous German pop duo that won a 1990 Grammy for “Best New Artist” and had it taken away a few months later after investigative reporter Charles Alan “Chuck” Phillips uncovered that the two singers merely had lip-synched their song. Other vocalists had recorded the lead tracks.

Eduardo Espina, author of numerous other books, now lives in College Station, Texas. With help from the book’s English translator, Travis Sorenson, Espina brings a refreshing South American and particularly Uruguayan perspective to his observations of modern-day life in the United States and elsewhere and the apparently fading consequences for pretending to be someone or something you are not.

Si Dunn

 

The Mob and the City: The Hidden History of How the Mafia Captured New York – #bookreview

The Mob and the City: The Hidden History of How the Mafia Captured New York

 

The Mob and the City

The Hidden History of How the Mafia Captured New York

C. Alexander Hortis

(Prometheus Books, Kindle, hardcover)

 

Forget The Godfather, its sequels and numerous other, famous “Mafia” movies. This excellent book cuts straight through the hype, fictions, and glamorizations to tell “the hidden history of how the street soldiers”–not the godfathers–“of the modern Mafia captured New York City during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.” And its author convincingly argues that “the key formative decade for the Mafia was actually the 1930s”–not “the Prohibition era of the 1920s” as numerous books and movies have had us believe. During the Great Depression-ravaged Thirties, the Sicilian mafiosi , the Cosa Nostra (“Our Thing”), rose to become New York’s top crime syndicate, with thousands of foot soldiers and associates eventually “entrenched throughout the economy, neighborhoods, and nightlife of New York.”

The Mob and the City is well-written and superbly researched. C. Alexander Hortis has dug deeply into available resources but also uncovered important new data sources, including previously secret files obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. Hortis presents a convincing case that there was (1) never really a “golden age of gangsters” in New York and (2) definitely not much honor among thieves. “The wiseguys,” he writes, “broke every one of their ‘rules,’ trafficked drugs almost from the beginning, became government informers, betrayed each other, lied, and cheated.” Hortis’s story of how New York City’s booming economy also offered the major crime syndicates “an embarrassment of riches” to exploit and plunder is fascinating and eye-opening reading.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beautiful LEGO – Photos and insights from some of the LEGO world’s top artists – #bookreview

Beautiful LEGO

Mike Doyle
(No Starch Press – paperback, Kindle)

Wow! That’s one of the best words to describe the snap-together works of art that can be created using LEGO plastic bricks. Mike Doyle’s excellent new LEGO art book offers some 400 color pictures of everything from a rotary-dial telephone to a Thanksgiving turkey, plus robots, space weapons and a magnificent, futuristic city, constructed by some of the world’s top artists in the LEGO building community. (LEGO®, incidentally, is a trademark of the LEGO Group.)

In his book, Doyle asks several of his fellow artists a key question–Why LEGO?–and gets an intriguing array of answers and insights to accompany the photographs of their creations. Doyle himself says: “It is a medium that offers instant gratification. No matter how large a project is, at the end of the day, I can look at the section I’ve built in its finished state. LEGO is a one-step process; there’s no gluey mess, sanding, or painting to worry about. I just build. This gives me the opportunity, after each session, to assess visually how the piece is working as a whole.”

His book’s eye-catching cover shows a six-foot-tall model titled “Contact,” a movie-like cityscape that took Doyle some 600 hours and 200,000 LEGO bricks to assemble.

Another artist, Arthur Gugick, explains how he constructs LEGO models of landmark buildings such as Big Ben, the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat and Notre Dame, after determining the proper scale for each structure. “It often depends upon the scale of a particular element,” he says. “The White House’s scale depended on the scale of the windows. Notre Dame’s scale depended on the scale of the buttresses.” Gugick sometimes has to resort to mathematics and even to writing software while creating his models. “The Roman Coliseum is an ellipse with a width-to-length ratio of 6:7. There is no formula for the circumference of an ellipse like there is for a circle,” he notes. “To find the circumference, I use the arc length formula from calculus. The Dome of the Rock,” he adds, “required a bit of trigonometry. To build the dome accurately, I wrote some software that easily allowed me to build any dome shape.”

Beautiful LEGO is, indeed, a beautiful book, one that will give fans of the plastic bricks many ideas for future projects–and no doubt a few bouts of artistic envy to accompany the inspirations.

Si Dunn

Lunch with Buddha – An entertaining, engrossing, thought-provoking American road-trip novel – #bookreview

Lunch with Buddha
Roland Merullo
(PFP/Ajar, Kindle, paperback)

To be honest, I was not really aware of Roland Merullo until his publisher contacted me offering a review copy of an enticingly titled new novel, Lunch with Buddha.

I could blame my “Who?” reaction on my intense focus toward reviewing technology books over the past two years. And I could blame it on empirical evidence that it’s really tough to sell works of fiction these days.

Indeed, several writers of novels and short story collections have told me they don’t get much publicity help from their publishers. Some also have declared they were taking up self-publishing so they could (a) get their books into print (or its digital equivalent), (b) keep more of their paltry earnings, and (c) try their hand at book promotion. Furthermore, I have data — very hard data — showing that virtually no one on Planet Earth has yet read my novel, Erwin’s Law, nor my experimental novella, Jump.

Thus, bottom line, I have not been paying very close attention to the world of fiction lately.

Immediately, I was impressed  (and jarred) to learn that (1) Roland Merullo’s seventh novel, Breakfast with Buddha, is now in its 14th printing; (2) Lunch with Buddha, published late last year, is his eleventh novel and already in its second printing; AND (3) Lunch with Buddha’s completion and publication was funded, at least in part, with significant Kickstarter contributions from Merullo fans.

Intriguingly, Roland Merullo turned down a six-figure advance from a major publishing house and chose a small, independent publisher to bring out his new book.

So he must be good, right?

He’s better than good, actually. Roland Merullo is one of the best, most entertaining writers I’ve encountered in a long time. Seldom am I hooked by a book’s first few paragraphs. But, in Lunch with Buddha, Merullo blends verbal calmness, clarity, wit and depth to create an engaging, absorbing story that flows smoothly from darkly humorous opening to meaningful end.

His new tale is a road-trip novel that covers an odd, yet very American, route: from Seattle to North Dakota, in a borrowed, battered pickup truck nicknamed “Uma.”

Otto Ringling, a New York editor of culinary books and recent widower, is taking the journey with reluctance, while searching for peace of mind and new meanings for his suddenly altered life.

His traveling companion on the drive is his sister’s former guru, “His Holiness” Volya Rinpoche, a Siberian “semi-Buddhist” who now is the sister’s husband and father of their young daughter, Shelsa. Volya still has many questions and misconceptions about life in these not-so-United States. But he also has an infectious spirit, an unshakable spirituality, and plenty of confidence that all will be well and work out in the end.

Otto, meanwhile, is just trying to get a renewed grip on existence. “One of the side effects of losing a spouse–at least for me–had been a peculiar inability to perform the most mundane tasks,” he says in the book, adding:

“Making plane and hotel reservations, shopping for food, setting out the trash on time–these duties, which ordinarily I would have completed with a practiced ease, now seemed as daunting as the learning of a Chinese dialect. I let things slide. For the first time in family history, bills were paid late. The dry cleaners had to call three times to remind me to pick up my shirts. My children could be harsh with me about these failings, but I took their casual criticisms like a battered old fighter takes punches. I would stand. I was determined to stand. I was determined to stay sane, and love them, and help them envision a new life after our old one had been ripped to pieces.”

While Otto and Volya drive across Washington state, Idaho, Montana, and into North Dakota, Otto’s sister, Cecelia, her young daughter Shelsa, and Otto’s children Anthony (20) and Natasha (22), are all riding Amtrak, taking a separate route. They’ve been to Whidbey Island, off the coast of Washington state, to witness Otto scattering his wife’s ashes. Now they are heading for Dickinson, North Dakota, where Celia and Volya live — in Otto’s view — “on the far side of some line that marked the boundary of ordinary American reality.”

Along the way, Otto and Volya have several humorous–and sometimes troubling–encounters with contemporary American culture and values. Otto, for example, tries to explain to Volya the meanings of some strange signs they see along the highway, such as “REPTILE ZOO AND EXPRESSO” and “EAT BIG FOOD.”

Otto and Volya also have debates over religion and spirituality as the widower seeks understandable meanings he can attach to life, death, and whatever lies beyond our mystery-shrouded finality. For example:

 “What is the goal?” I asked, trying to slip away from it. “What’s the whole point? Enlightenment? Eternal life? What?”

He patted me on the shoulder for the millionth time, and said, “You purify. You go and go. Life cuts you and you try and try and try and pretty soon–”

“You become beautiful.”

“Yes. Good.”

“But toward what are we going and going? What does the beauty look like?”

He shrugged almost helplessly, and for a moment I was gripped hard by the hand of doubt. He seemed only an ordinary man then, and I wanted more than that from him, more than cryptic answers and shrugs. A small inner voice suggested he’d been fooling us all these years, playing a role, maybe even working a scam.

“I can show you,” he said. “I can’t tell you.”

“All right. Please show me, then. I’m having a crisis of faith. I’m a little bit lost.”

He nodded sympathetically. “We find you,” he said. “Don’t worry too much….”

Lunch with Buddha has the same key characters as Roland Merullo’s best-selling Breakfast with Buddha. And a third book, aptly titled Dinner with Buddha, is said to be in the works.

Fortunately, Lunch is written so it can be picked up and immediately enjoyed by those who have not previously read Breakfast. Indeed, Lunch with Buddha will make many readers go back and devour Breakfast, then eagerly anticipate Dinner–and check out some of Roland Merullo’s other works of fiction and nonfiction while waiting for the next serving.

Geoffrey Chaucer and Jack Kerouac are the two names that  pop most quickly to mind when the debate topic is “classic road-trip novels.”  I move that we now add Roland Merullo to that short, but esteemed, list.

Si Dunn

Designing Games – A well-written, comprehensive guide to video game engineering – #bookreview


Designing Games
A Guide to Engineering Experiences
Tynan Sylvester
(O’Reilly – paperback, Kindle)

If you design video games, if you hope to become a game creator, or if you work for a company whose lifeblood is creating and maintaining successful video games, you need to read this excellent book.

 Tynan Sylvester provides a comprehensive overview of the design processes that are the heart of successful games. And he describes the day-to-day actions necessary to keep game projects on track to completion.

“A game can’t just generate any old string of events, because most events aren’t worth caring about,” Sylvester contends. He is a veteran designer who has worked on everything from independently produced games to big-studio blockbuster games. “For a game to hold attention, those events must provoke blood-pumping human emotion. When the generated events provoke pride, hilarity, awe, or terror, the game works.”

Unlike screenwriters, novelists, or choreographers, game designers do not focus on creating events, Sylvester explains. “Instead of authoring events,  we design mechanics [the rules for how a game works]. Those mechanics then generate events during play.”

In his view, “The hard part of game design is not physically implementing the game. It is inventing and refining knowledge about the design.” And successful game creation involves “inventing mechanics, fiction, art, and technology that interconnect into a powerful engine of experience.”

His 405-page book also shows why you should not try to spell out everything up front before beginning work on a new game. It is too easy to overplan, he emphasizes. But it is also easy to underplan. So you should aim for a process in the middle: iteration, “the practice of making short-range plans, implementing them, testing them, and repeating.” And that loop-like process is applied not just to the overall game. “We can iterate on a level, a tool, or an interface. On larger teams, there should be many different iteration loops running at the same time.”

According to news accounts emerging from the recent Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, much of the video game creation business is now gravitating toward independent developers and game companies with 10 or fewer employees. And the main focus within that movement is on creating games for tablet computers and smartphones–platforms with lower barriers to entry. But powerful new video game consoles are expected to appear soon, and they likely will drive the creation of new games, as well as upgrades for some successful existing games.

Whether you work alone, in a small shop, or on intercontinental game-development teams within big companies, you can learn important insights, processes, and skills from Tynan Sylvester’s Designing Games.  And if you are now in the process of trying to find a design job somewhere in the video game industry, you definitely need to read it.

Si Dunn

LEGO Bonanza — Stack ’em up: 3 hot new books for LEGO builders – #bookreview

No Starch Press recently has released three new books aimed at the world’s millions of LEGO™ builders:

  • The Unofficial LEGO™ Builder’s Guide, 2nd Edition
  • The LEGO™ Adventure Book, Vol. 1
  • The Unofficial LEGO™ Technic Builder’s Guide.

Here are short reviews of each.

The Unofficial LEGO™ Builder’s Guide, 2nd Edition
Allan Bedford
(No Starch,
paperbackKindle)

Allan Bedford’s popular how-to guide has been updated, and all photographs and illustrations are now in color.

The well-written 221-page book starts at the absolute beginner’s level, showing and explaining the various LEGO pieces, which range from “bricks” to “plates” to “slopes” to “tiles” and numerous others. From there, it shows the best ways to connect pieces for successful construction.  Then it delves into three different, progressively larger, sizes of LEGO constructions –minifig, miniland, and jumbo – before briefly going smaller, to microscale.

Bedford explains how to design and build structures and characters from LEGO elements and also shows how to put together several projects, including a train station, a space shuttle, a mosaic, a game board, and a sculpture of the Sphinx.

His book’s Appendix A offers a helpful “Brickopedia” that contains “a selection of more than 275 elements, from basic bricks, slopes, and plates, to specialized elements, arches, and even decorative elements.

The pieces included represent the most common and most reusable elements in the LEGO system,” Bedford notes. The parts’ specifications are given, and helpful notes are included, as well.

Appendix B, meanwhile, shows how to download and use design grids to plan complex LEGO projects before you build them.

The LEGO™ Adventure Book, Vol. 1
Megan Rothrock
(No Starch, hardback 
Kindle)

Megan Rothrock’s book is the debut volume in the new “The LEGO™ Adventure Book series” from No Starch Press.

Subtitled “Cars, Castles, Dinosaurs & More!”, Volume 1 presents excellent color photographs of nearly 200 intriguing models crafted by LEGO builders around the world. Ms. Rothrock’s 200-page book also features “brick-by-brick breakdowns” of 25 models that range from a medieval village to T. Rex and a British Railways steam engine.

The constructions are shown step by step in close-up, so even inexperienced builders can duplicate them. Some are simple, such as a small bridge “that can be added to any scene” in eight steps. And others are more involved, such as a mecha named “Counterblast” that is well-armed with big guns that requires more than 50 steps to complete.

Megan Rothrock is well-known in LEGO builder circles. She is a former set designer for the LEGO Group, and her models have been widely displayed, including at ComicCon and LEGO events in Europe. She is now a freelance toy designer in Denmark.

LEGO builders frequently claim that they can build models of “almost anything” with LEGO parts. With books such as The LEGO™ Adventure Book, Vol. 1 helping guide and train you, you definitely can learn to build lots of different types of models.

The Unofficial LEGO™ Technic Builder’s Guide
Paweł “Sariel” Kmieć
(No Starch, paperbackKindle)

The LEGO™ Technic system lets you build LEGO models that move. The system includes motors, gears, pneumatics, pulleys, linkages, and other devices designed for LEGO constructions. But working with Technic can be complex at times.

Fortunately, Paweł “Sariel” Kmieć has excellent credentials for showing and explaining how to construct Technic models and make them operate. He is described as “YouTube’s most popular LEGO Technic builder, a guest blogger for the official LEGO Technic blog, and a 2012 LEGO Ambassador.”

His 333-page book is packed with illustrations, photographs, explanations, and tips on everything from simple “pins” (which “keep bricks and beams together”) to wheeled suspension systems and using a subtractor to get better steering of a tracked LEGO vehicle that has two motors and is radio-controlled.

While most of the focus is on details of how to use specifics Technic parts, he also shows some amazing and inspiring powered models that he has built from LEGO pieces and LEGO Technic devices.

Whether you are new to Technic or an old hand, you likely will want to build many things that move, once you have this book. 

Si Dunn

Enterprise Games – How to build a better 21st-century business with game mechanics – #business #bookreview

Enterprise Games: Using Game Mechanics to Build a Better Business
Michael Hugos
(O’Reilly, paperbackKindle)

Can 21st-century games and gamers attack and destroy the top-down, assembly-line thinking that still keeps many businesses firmly rooted in the previous century?

 Michael Hugos’ compelling new book makes a solid case that they can. Game mechanics, he argues, can reshape how workers work, how organizations are managed, and how business goals get accomplished in today’s volatile global economy.

“Games and the associated technology we currently refer to as video games offer us more than just a diversion and escape from difficult times,” contends Hugos. “They offer us field-tested models to use for organizing companies and performing complex and creative tasks. They offer clear and compelling examples for how people can work together, build their careers, and earn a living in rapidly changing and unpredictable environments.”

Hugos, principal at the Center for Systems Innovation, offers his well-written views in a 199-page book “loosely divided into three parts.”

Part One focuses on “ideas and case studies to illustrate how games can provide operating models to follow for redesigning work.”

Part Two presents “a discussion of games and game mechanics that are relevant to the way work is done.” He includes “specific examples, pictures, and case studies to show how game techniques and technologies can be applied to the design of new business systems and workflows.”

Part Three “describes business and social impacts of combining technology from video games with in-house corporate systems, consumer technology, and cloud computing. The book concludes with a discussion about where this is all going and what it might mean for the future of work.”

During the coming months, Enterprise Games may spur many discussions and arguments at all levels of enterprise. And these may lead to some business-model reorganizations not only in Corporate America but elsewhere in the interconnected global economy.

For these changes to happen, however, many company leaders will have to stop thinking “top down” and learn to adapt “the four traits of a game…goal, rules, feedback system, and voluntary participation” to how they to structure and operate a business.

“We all have a sense of what a game is,” Hugos notes. But most of us also have been taught that “play” is not “work.” Enterprise Games shows how the two concepts can be brought together in ways that can make companies more competitive and more profitable in these uncertain times.

Si Dunn