Friday, May 27, 2011

Book review: "Prisoner of Trebekistan" by Bob Harris

I happened to meet Bob Harris in 1999 in the airport. I recognized him from his appearances on the game show "Jeopardy" and introduced myself as a "Jeopardy" wannabe. It was a short conversation, but he was friendly and encouraging.

Fast forward a mere 12 years and as I'm going through a pile of books, there's Bob Harris staring out at me from the cover of "Prisoner of Trebekistan." "Hey," I think, "I should read this book."

Harris likes odd connections like this. He especially loves connecting seemingly disparate facts and trivia in winding trains of thought. One example in this book leads from Martin Luther King to Tom Cruise to Elvis Presley to the Chickasaw Indians. That may sound random, but it all makes sense with Harris explains it.

"Prisoner of Trebekistan" is part autobiography, part how-to manual for how to win on "Jeopardy," and part insider's look at the show. In a hyperfrenetic style, Harris mixes together tales of his personal and family life, descriptions of how he trained to become a Jeopardy champion and suspenseful blow-by-blow accounts of his games.

Trebekistan - I hope this is obvious - is named for Alex Trebek, host of "Jeopardy." (If it's NOT obvious, well, sorry, this may not be the book for you.) Harris spent many moments on stage with Trebek both during his original run on "Jeopardy" in 1997 and several following tournaments.

If you're a fan of Jeopardy, you'll likely love this book as I did. Some may grow tired of Harris' unending insecurity and search for approval, but his self-deprecating humor is fun and he's plainly a likeable guy.

Trebekistan, Harris wryly explains, is "a place of pure learning, where hard playful work can bring sudden shocks of unexpected perception. In Trebekistan, art and math and geography and science stop pretending to be separate subjects, and instead converge in a glorious riot. Every new detail creates two fresh curiosities, so you know less as you learn, and yet nothing seems unknowable."

In the book, Harris jumps rapidly between subjects, through time and place, to make connections or a joke. Somehow it works, and there's a point to it all. Harris reveals that his success on Jeopardy came through intense study that made peculiar connections between facts and trivia. To memorize the order of the presidents, for example, he did this:

No. 12: "Zachary Taylor. There is a Z in the word `dozen'."
No. 13: "Millard Fillmore. What an unlucky name. Completely unlovable."
No. 14: "Franklin Pierce. Valentine's Day (Feb. 14) means hearts pierced by arrows."

For those who do hope to appear on Jeopardy someday, Harris has some serious advice on strategy and how to master the "art of the buzzer." He also weaves in stories about his sister's battles with a mysterious disease, and his girlfriend's fight with cancer, all without getting maudlin.

I still haven't made it onto "Jeopardy" but Bob's book gives me inspiration that it may still be possible.


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Friday, May 20, 2011

Demolition begins at Whaley Park

Demolition began this week at Long Beach's Whaley Park. A tot play area, numerous trees and a half-court for basketball are being removed to make way for more parking (see "part of Whaley Park to be paved over" for details). Here are some before and current pictures:

The basketball half-court and picnic area on May 14
The same area on May 20
The tot lot on May 14

The tot lot, no more


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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Book review: "Miracle in the Andes"

In "Miracle in the Andes," author Nando Parrado offers an intensely personal account of the ordeal suffered by himself and others after the 1972 Andes plane crash made famous by the book and movie, "Alive."

The story of how 16 out of 45 people, most of them members of a Uruguayan rugby team, survived 72 days in the Andes in part because they ate the bodies of the dead, has been widely told. It was Parrado, more than any of the others, who saved them by pushing for, and then making, a seemingly impossible 10-day hike out of the mountains.

While "Alive" told the grim facts of the ordeal, "Miracle in the Andes" takes readers deeper into the trauma and fear experienced by the survivors. This was especially true for Parrado, whose mother died in the crash and whose sister died of her injuries shortly afterward.

"For me, those months in the mountains were days of heartbreak, horror and irretrievable loss," he writes.

After a slow start in which Parrado goes on for too long on his family's history (skim ahead), the book gains strength and draws the reader in. It's well-written, though I'm not sure how much credit goes to Parrado and how much to his co-writer, Vince Rause. Parrado seems reluctant to dwell too much on the cannibalism, but when he does he describes it simply as something they had to do to survive. Some in the group tried to justify their actions with religious reasons, but to Parrado the "meat" was simply nourishment.

Despite the engaging writing, I found myself frustrated by how poorly the survivors of the crash handled their dire situation. They seemed to think that a helicopter would magically show up and they'd be rescued. They did nothing to make their crash site more visible to rescue planes nor did they make any extra effort to signal search aircraft.

Parrado, who was unconscious for two days after the crash, was troubled when he awoke to see the attitude of the others. "It alarmed me that others were placing so much trust in the hope that we would be saved."

They took way too long to consider hiking out. By the time they did, they were seriously weakened by starvation, thin air, brutal winds and freezing temperatures. They gave up too easily on a possible escape route to the east, which may have been better than the western route they ultimately chose.

In fairness, the survivors were teenagers and young men with little to no experience in the mountains, no adult leadership and no survival training, so their missteps are understandable. It's just that in reading a story like this you want to root for characters who are doing all they can to help themselves, and it's frustrating when they don't.

Still, there are other reasons to engage with characters and in this book it's Parrado's sheer force of will and determination to get out of the mountains that is inspiring. He and his friend, Roberto Canessa, march over a mountain that would challenge professional climbers, and they do it with no specialized equipment. It is Parrado's and Canessa's hike out that is the true "miracle" in this story.

"It wasn't cleverness or courage or any kind of competence or savvy that saved us, it was nothing more than love, our love for each other, for our families, for the lives we wanted so desperately to live," Parrado writes.

Throughout the book, Parrado describes how the survivors debated and agonized over the religious meaning of their situation. Would God save them, or had God forgotten them? Is there a God at all?, some asked. Parrado has no answers to those questions, but has no doubt the plane crash changed his life.

"The Andes took so much from me," he writes, "but they also gave me the simple insight that has liberated me and illuminated my life: Death is real, and death is very near. ... I believe that life should be enjoyed, but my experiences have taught me that without the love of my family and my friends, all the trappings of worldly success would ring hollow."


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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Part of Whaley Park to be paved over

This is one of the trees that will be cut down
The City of Long Beach is preparing to remove 11 trees, a tot lot, a grass area and a basketball half-court at Whaley Park to put in more parking.

A new tot lot will be built in another part of the park. The basketball half-court area, popular with small children, will not be replaced.

Work may begin as early as Monday, May 16. Fencing has been placed around the work area, and a large digging machine is in the parking lot.

Fifty-one parking spaces will be added.

This area, with a basketball hoop and a wall for tennis practice, is popular with small children. It will be permanently removed.
This tot lot will be removed


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Friday, May 6, 2011

Restaurant review: Nibbler's, downtown Los Angeles

This restaurant, located near Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, was formerly a Denny's but recently got new ownership and a new name, Nibbler's. I never went there when it was Denny's but decided to give Nibbler's a try today for lunch.

Conclusion: Just OK.

Pros: The restaurant is clean and welcoming, and the staff friendly. The menu offers a wide selection of items, including omelets, sandwiches, soup and salads.

Cons: Poor service and prices that are too high for this sort of restaurant.

After I was seated, the waitress took a long time to return to take my order (I was starting to consider walking out). Later, after I had gotten my meal, I asked her for more syrup. She acknowledged my request, then disappeared and never brought the syrup (I snagged a bottle off an adjacent table).

I ordered the "Big Bang" combo of pancakes, eggs, sausage and bacon (much like Denny's Grand Slam). It was $3.95, a decent price, but virtually everything else on the menu was at least $8.  I figure a hamburger and fries at this kind of diner should be about $5.95, but here it was $7.95.

How was the food?  Just OK.


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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Movie review: "The Long Green Line"

"The Long Green Line" is a 2008 documentary about veteran cross country coach Joe Newton and his boys team at York High School in Elmhurst, Illinois.

Online reviews mostly rave about this film but I have to offer a slightly dissenting view. Yes, it's an enjoyable feel-good story of hard-working young athletes and the respected elder coach who leads them. The runners and the coach are likable and it's fun to root for them. But something is missing.

In this movie, we are told that Joe Newton is a great high school cross country coach. Indeed, he is seeking his 25th Illinois state cross country title. But what we don't see is WHY he is a great coach. We never see him, for instance, working with an athlete on his running form, discussing training methods (long runs versus sprints, for instance) or even advising a boy on race strategy. All he seems to do is read an inspirational quote at the beginning of each practice, and then leave the actual coaching to his assistants.

In fact, if I was to explain why Newton's teams are successful – based on what I saw in this documentary – I would say it's just a matter of sheer numbers. At the beginning of the season, Newton has his upperclassmen go around the school and recruit runners. They end up with something like 180 boys – a HUGE number for a cross country team (you only need seven!). When you start with that many runners some of them are bound to be good.

I suspect that those who know Joe Newton would say that I don't know the whole story – and that's exactly my point. The movie doesn't give us a complete picture. It assumes we will just accept that Joe Newton is a great coach without showing us how he does it.


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Sunday, May 1, 2011

My (short) visit to Barnes & Noble.

I've been know to gripe about the lack of service and long check-out lines in stores. So it's only fair for me to note my experience yesterday at the Barnes & Noble store in Long Beach's Marina Pacifica shopping center.

I went in looking for a particular book. Just inside the store, a friendly store employee greeted me. I asked him where I could find the book. He immediately led me there (it was only about 15 feet away) and handed me the book. I went to check out, and there was no one in line. I bought the book and left. It all took maybe three minutes and was pretty much the perfect shopping experience.


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