What I’m reading: Dick Blackburn

Dick Blackburn “always has a book in his hand – he even reads while walking to and from his car and to and from meetings,” says his colleague Hugh O’Neill, who speculated that Blackburn’s recent trip to England gave him plane rides and train rides. “He is probably through half a floor of a major library.”

Book 1“Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom” by Patricia Jennings

If you know what mindfulness is, then you know that the notion of being “in the moment” has been applied to many aspects of personal and professional existence. Practicing mindfulness can make you more effective in both domains.

Jennings takes the notion of mindfulness and suggests ways in which the concept can be applied to the K-12 classroom. I was reading this to see if it might offer some ideas that my daughter, a fifth grade science teacher, could use with her students. Perhaps not surprisingly, there were also some ideas that I think I will use in my classes. The most important of her suggestions: Stop and take a deep breath before you plunge into some fraught situation with a student, colleague or spouse.

“A Dark Anatomy: A Mystery,” “Dark Waters” and “The Hidden Man” by Robin Blake

Recall some of the popular police procedurals you know from TV. Now imagine one set in the small English town of Preston in the 1740s. There is no forensic science as we know it and no police unit responsible for determining the cause of deaths in the town. Those efforts are left to Titus Cragg, a lawyer in Preston who also serves as the town’s coroner. When deaths occur in Preston, Cragg must determine the cause of the death – natural or not. He is assisted in these efforts by Luke Fidelis, a young doctor and friend.

In each volume, Blake provides stunning descriptions of daily town life in in that era – think historical fiction meets CSI. The unnatural deaths in each book lead Cragg on usual investigative trails. Means, motive and opportunity are still of primary interest to our investigators – but gathering those insights rests on the coroner’s wits and the good doctor’s eye for detail and his medical knowledge, rather than high-tech equipment. All the while, Cragg must be careful not to ruffle the feathers of the upper classes – some things never change.

I learned more about daily living in 18th century England by reading these books than I ever did reading the standard college history texts.

Book 3“Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman

I think this book has appeared on almost everyone’s list of best or most important books over the past few years. Kahneman, one of the fathers of behavioral decision making (along with Amos Tversky), takes the theoretical and empirical foundations of behavioral decision making and attempts to translate them for the lay reader.

He never writes down to the lay reader. “Thinking, Fast and Slow” is not a beach book by any means.  But what he has provided in this work has led countless other authors to try and popularize the same ideas in a somewhat more simplistic fashion. Kahneman did it first, and I think he did it best.

I find it hard to believe that I have read a book by a Noble Prize Winner in Economics – twice – and I plan on reading it again. Even if I know the decision-making mistakes that I am capable of making, too often I can’t help myself and I continue to make them. Perhaps with Kahneman’s help, I might eventually figure this out.

“The Sins of the Fathers,” “Time to Murder and Create” and “In the Midst of Death” by Lawrence Block

I have always been a fan of mysteries – of almost any type – but police/detective procedurals are particular favorites. Give me a new work by Jonathan Kellerman, Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reich or Linda Fairstein and I’ll get back to you in a couple of days.

A short while ago, a friend reminded me of the one of earliest and best authors in this genre: Lawrence Block. So I have begun reading (or maybe rereading – I can’t recall) Block’s nine-book series built around  Matt Scudder, an ex-cop turned not-quite private eye (he doesn’t like the paper work associated with being a registered PI).

Block’s books are short, not so sweet, but to the point. Written in the late 70s and early 80s, they bring back memories of a time when you needed a dime to make a phone call from a phone booth and information was most often gathered by wearing out shoe leather on the streets, not by a computer search. Today’s PI’s have it too easy. Block has an ear for the language of the New York streets. These are short reads that can be finished in a couple of short flights – but what memories they engender!

Book 2“Einstein: His Life and Universe” and “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution” by Walter Isaacson

I’m not usually a fan of biographies, but my wife and I were looking for an audio book to take with us on a lengthy drive and “Einstein” was available – and it was excellent.

Isaacson is a delightful storyteller, and his ability to put Einstein’s work in the context of his era was a pleasure to behold. He took some of Einstein’s most esoteric ideas and made then understandable – if not fully comprehensible – to the lay listener.

If you choose the audio book format, give yourself a lengthy trip. This is a substantial volume and our trip wasn’t quite long enough to listen to the whole work in the car. We ended up listening to the last two discs while sitting at home – not quite the same effect.

“Einstein” was such a wonderful find that when Isaacson finished “The Innovators” I decided to read, rather than listen to, this latest work. “The Innovators” came out shortly after his biography of Steve Jobs. This latest work is an engaging history of the computer and the Internet – from Ada Byron (the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron) in 1833 through Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, through Alan Turing’s efforts to build a universal computer to the efforts of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to make personal computers for us all, and to the development and democratization of the Internet.

Isaacson weaves a fascinating tale of how these various personalities – and many, many others – contributed to the digital revolution. He tells a delightful story that is accessible to all, not just to “geeks.”

In some instances, genius might be a sufficient condition for the development of groundbreaking ideas. But more often than not, collaboration will be necessary to insure the acceptance and implementation of these ideas.