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Best Books of 2019 – Chapter 1

Happy New Year!  Continuing with the tradition I started several years ago, I thought I would begin the New Year by posting around New Year’s Day my favorite books that I read from the prior year.

And again this year I started out January with a book backlog!  In the last few weeks of December 2018, I came across a number of BookBub bargains that sounded interesting and snapped up a total of six.

Added to these six, I received four physical books as Christmas presents giving me ten to chose from for my first books to read in the New Year.

My reading year began in earnest after all the New Year’s Day college football games were over and during the year, I read a total 55 books, 28 fiction and 27 non-fiction, not more than my record number of 58 in 2017, but still a respectable average of about a book a week.

The very first book I read that also made my “best of” list was Jason Ryan’s Race to Hawaii:  The 1927 Dole Air Derby and the Thrilling First Flights That Opened the Pacific, a Christmas gift from my daughter and son-in-law.  In our modern world with super fast jet airplanes loaded with untold navigational technology, we don’t think twice about climbing aboard a plane and flying for hours over vast bodies of open ocean ultimately arriving at our desired destination.  But yet in 1927, Lindbergh had just demonstrated that it could be done solo flying non-stop 3,600 miles from New York to Paris.

This book tells of another significant accomplishment that was unfamiliar to me, the enthralling and exciting story about the first attempts to fly non-stop from San Francisco to Hawaii.  While the relatively shorter 2,400-mile jaunt might seem less arduous than Lindbergh’s, what made this route so challenging was that it would be entirely flown over open water.  The Pacific Ocean covers 30% of the world’s surface and is larger than all land masses combined.  And half way from North America, to Asia, is the tiny pinpoint-sized Hawaiian Islands.  Getting there successfully would be like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.  Any error in navigation by just a fraction of a degree would cause the pilot to miss the islands by hundreds of miles.

To encourage aviators to attempt this feat, the Hawaiian “Pineapple King” (yes that Dole) offered a $25,000 prize for the first to make it.  Without giving up how the story ends, a number of aviators that you will get to know took up the challenge with varying degrees of success.  If you enjoyed reading about Lindbergh’s flight, one of my best books from 2018, you will enjoy this story as well.  And after reading it, you will have a whole new appreciation for the modern air service we enjoy today.

The very next book I read in 2019 also made my “best of” list, another Christmas gift from my daughter and son-in-law.  I must admit that eight-man rowing is a sport I don’t recall having ever seen before but after reading this book by Daniel James Brown, The Boys in the Boat:  Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, I wished I had been there in 1936 to revel in the excitement.  A deviation from the normal airplane-themed books they had given me in the past, this one, other than in Berlin, was set almost exclusively in and around Seattle and on campus of the University of Washington where my son-in-law is now on faculty.

Having visited my daughter’s family in Seattle numerous times, it was easy to visualize the locations described in the book.  But beyond just the familiar Seattle images, this book tells an incredible story of hard work, perseverance, and accomplishment for a group of nine boys who came from nothing.  I now know their story, along with their coaches and scull builder, are legendary in the sport having all been inducted into halls of fame.

The crew and their coach had to overcome enumerable challenges to accomplish the unbelievable.  In each and every race that Brown relays in exquisite detail, I found my heart racing and my fingers flipping the pages almost as fast as their oar strokes as I silently cheered them on to victory.  And for the entire last chapter, which covers the gold medal race, my heart never stopped racing.

In spite of knowing the eventual outcome, I was still amazed at how masterfully Brown drew me in painting an epic story in words that sucked me in from beginning to end.   Brown also interwove the German perspective of preparing for the games and the propaganda that only later would be revealed following the discoveries of the Third Reich’s true pre-war and war-time atrocities.  After sadly turning the last page of the book, I can honestly say that even if you have never even heard of this sport, you will be an avid fan by the time you finish this book.

Anyone who has read a number of my book blog posts knows, possibly with painful clarity, that I love to read books about cars.  But this book, Autonomy:  The Quest to Build the Driverless Car—And How It Will Reshape Our World by Lawrence D. Burns (with Christopher Shulgan) was quite different from the ones I have read in the past.  The title caught my eye on my daily BookBub choices and reading a quick blurb about it convinced me to give it a read.  I am glad I did.

For someone like me who loves cars and loves to drive sporty cars, the concept of a driverless car is anathema to our very spirit.  But after reading this book, I can envision in my lifetime that it may well come to pass on a fairly large scale.  Because what I didn’t know is that over the past 12 years, it has already been happening, in fact was done mostly in secret for years without a single accident.  Just think what impact on-demand ride services like Uber and Lyft have already made as an alternative to car ownership, a concept quite foreign initially but definitely mainstream now and one that could factor in to this transformation.

When I first saw the cute little Google car, two questions immediately popped in my mind.  The first was that is not a car is it?  (It turns out it is not in our current paradigm of a car—it is a personal mobility pod.)  The second question was what did Google have to do with producing a car?  To answer the second question first, the connection I never grasped was that the tremendous effort Google undertook to create their “Street View” dovetailed very nicely—with the aid of Artificial Intelligence (AI) computer technology, some cool hardware, and some super-bright Silicon Valley programmers—into the software and hardware that allowed autonomous driving.  Their Street View project had already digitally mapped all the roads in the US.  All they needed was a car.

The answer to the first question for many of us is no that is not a car because the auto industry has taught us (in their best interests) what a car is and has single-mindedly produced it for the past 130 years.  And that is exactly the approach the auto industry took when first approached about collaborating on such a monumental shift in thinking.  Auto manufacturers viewed their product as a car but in broader terms what they sell is personal mobility.  One of my favorite quotes against this autonomous idea espoused by auto executives was along the lines of “It will never happen because lots of people love to drive cars” to which the reply was “And yes lots of people used to love to ride horses too.”

So, if you are interested in learning what the future impact could be for that car in your driveway that surprisingly sits unused on average, 95% of the time or what the advantage in cost reduction and saving human life due to elimination of car accidents could be, you should read this book!

To be continued…

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