The Games That Changed The Game by Ron Jaworski (Shane's book 40, 2011)

Ron Jaworski was an NFL quarterback for more than 15 years. He spent the bulk of his career with the Philadelphia Eagles and took them to their first Super Bowl. These days he is an analyst on Monday Night Football.

In this book, Jaworski looks at seven NFL games that he believes represent important moments in the tactical development of the sport. He gives the background to the coaches and players involved and then examines the film of the game to explain how the tactical innovation in question played out.The tactical to-and-fro of an NFL game is what makes the sport so absorbing for me and Jaworski captures it perfectly here. There is a narrative to an NFL game that isn't always apparent, even to seasoned observers, and this book does an excellent job of making those narratives clear.

Jaworski explains, for example, that coaches don't always pick plays because they expect to score with them, or even gain a lot of yards. He writes:

"An offense will run plays that you know aren't going to pick up much yardage, but you have to run them to set up another play for down the road. You run certain plays to see how the defense reacts. You show certain fomations to help a quarterback understand how defenders will line up against that formation."

It's here that Jaworski's experience as a quarterback becomes relevant. He has been on the field and played the game at the highest level. When he tells you what it's like to try to read a defense or to attempt to avoid a pass rush, you can trust that he knows what he's talking about.

Using a specific game to explain a tactical innovation is slightly forced because in almost every case the tactics under consideration did not suddenly appear, fully-formed, in one game. They were developed over a series of games - or even over years. However, the advantage of this approach is that makes very clear how the tactics work in practice.

Jaworski's play-by-play is frequently riveting. At times, he manages to create the excitement of watching the game itself. The only downside was that I wanted to watch the tape while I read his analysis. This can be done with enhanced ebooks and it's to be hoped that publishers will try to sort out the licensing deals to make that possible in future.

There are also lots of brilliant anecdotes in amid the description. Jaworski explains how Sid Gillman consulted a maths professor to work out geometrically where each receiver should be on the field so that the ball would be in the air for the same amount of time, whichever one the quarterback passed to.

There are some wonderful quotes too. Here's Jim Otto, the Oakland Raiders center:

"At the end of one run, Joe Greene cussed me out, then kicked me square in the testicles - and I've never forgotten that. I didn't think that was very nice."

Some of the tactical developments that Jaworski covers here were so significant that they changed the type of players that teams looked for. In some cases, they even resulted in rule changes by the league, because a new idea tipped the balance of the game too far towards the offense or defense.

Though Jaworski has two co-writers on this book, the writing and editing are often poor. There are exclamation marks all over the place, for example, which is irritating. And it's repetitive: occasionally you'll read a sentence that repeats, almost a word-for-word, one from a few pages earlier.

Though it would be nice to have better prose, that isn't the selling point of a book like this. It's all about the expertise and Jaworski has buckets of it. This is a book that will deepen your understanding of the game. An essential for every fan.

Super Crunchers by Ian Ayres (Shane's book 39, 2011)

This is one of those books that feels like a good, long magazine article that has been expanded beyond the range of the material. Other examples include The Long Tail, Freakonomics and anything by Malcolm Gladwell. Indeed, Gladwell is probably the apotheosis of the form: his books feel like over-extended articles; his articles feel like over-extended anectdotes. [amtap book:isbn=0719564654]

Ayres at least has an interesting story to tell. The rise in the practice of analysing large data sets is changing the way many areas of our lives work, from finance to medicine, shopping to wine criticism. These changes are profound and although they will help us to make better decisions, they will also make a lot of people uncomfortable, not least those who consider themselves experts.We meet a man who created a formula for predicting the quality of wine years before it became drinkable and a man who has developed a computer programme that takes a person's symptoms and generates a comprehensive list of possible illnesses.

What Ayres calls 'super crunching' works by taking a set of criteria - a list of symptoms, for example - and checking it against a massive data set, such as a list of known medical conditions, to generate results that would have been almost impossible to produce manually. Various statistical techniques, such as regression analysis, are used to determine which criteria are relevant to the required outcome and these can then be assembled into a formula.

Obviously, this is the same role performed by a doctor, who uses training and experience to assess symptoms and make a diagnosis. However, human beings a not perfect reasoning machines. We tend to overestimate the significance of coincidences, for example, and to assume that patterns we have seen before will repeat themselves.

Computers don't do that. They deliver results based purely on the data. Of course, that means they are only as good as the data they are given and the criteria by which they assess it. Ayres makes clear that determining the factors to measure is still a job for a skilled human, as is deciding how to act on the results.

For example, it's possible to determine the likelihood that a convicted criminal will re-offend. Does that mean it is reasonable not to release those who have a high likelihood of re-offending? Most people would say no. Since all we can determine is a likelihood, we would be keeping locked up some people who would not have re-offended and that would be unfair.

Nevertheless, Ayres shows how some are using the results of data analysis in ways that most of us would consider to be unfair. Retailers are increasingly realising that they can determine how much a shopper would be willing to pay. That means instead of offering everyone the same price, they will charge each customer as much as they can get away with. If you demonstrate that you don't mind paying high prices then you can expect to be charged accordingly. The only answer, Ayres says, is for consumers to educate themselves.

Ayres has lots of examples but over 272 pages his material wears thin and he ends up repeating himself. Once you understand the concepts at work here, it doesn't really require an entire chapter to detail how the concept applies to a different field.

Furthermore, Ayres's central concept is a little fuzzy. There is no precise definition of 'super crunching'. When does mere 'crunching' become 'super'? When the data set is of a certain size? When it's done by a computer? Ayres doesn't give a clear answer because there isn't one. The form of these kind of non-fiction books requires Ayres to act as if we have just passed a pivotal moment in history, when in fact these techniques have been progressing over many decades and will continue to do so.

Still, Ayres is very readable and the subject is fascinating. Those who enjoyed Freakonomics or who are intrigued by the idea that statistically analysis can uncover 'hidden truths' should give this a read.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and All About Steve by Fortune Magazine (Shane's books 36 and 38, 2011)

Originally planned for release next year, Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs was brought forward after the Apple founder and former CEO died in October. Isaacson interviewed Jobs more than 40 times in the last years of his life and spoke to Jobs's friends, former colleagues and to key figures at Apple. This kind of access to the man and his company is unprecendented, given that both are known for their secrecy. [amtap book:isbn=1408703742]

The result is a book that those with a casual interest in the technology world will find informative. However, technology experts, particularly those who follow Apple closely, will be disappointed. There are scattered technical errors and assertions by Isaacson that betray his lack of expertise but mostly the problem is that he hasn't really uncovered enough that is new.

Shortly after Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO of Apple, in August this year, Fortune magazine released a compilation of its articles about Jobs and Apple. I was halfway through it when Jobs's death was announced in early October.

The Fortune anthology, All About Steve, is a treasure trove. It covers Jobs's time with Apple in the 70s and 80s, his 'wilderness years' nurturing Pixar and NeXT, and his triumphant return to Apple. What's particularly fascinating is that, because these articles are presented as they were published at the time, it's possible to test their predictions against what actually happened. It's a vivid demonstration of just how often Jobs's visions of the future turned out to be correct.

If you read the Fortune anthology and Wired's more recent ebook, Steve Jobs: Revolutionary, you'll learn just as much about how Apple's products were developed as you would from reading Isaacson's book. Indeed, having read both shortly before reading Isaacson, I was struck by how much the biographer had drawn from them.

The Fortune articles offer lots of detail on the early years of Apple. The company, just making a name for itself, was less secretive then and as time has passed more people have told their story of working on the Apple Lisa, the Apple Mac and the company's other groundbreaking products.

Isaacson repeats a lot of the stories from those Fortune articles and others that Apple followers will already know from other books, blogs and websites. He offers lots of detail on areas that have already been widely covered elsewhere but as the book moves towards the present day, there are fewer details of life inside Apple.

Less has been published about Apple's more recent products - though Wired's iPhone article is excellent - and as a result Isaacson has less to offer. It really appears that, on the product side of things, Isaacson did not uncover much new information. It's not clear whether that's because he wasn't interested or wasn't able to get the answers.

What you do get from Isaacson is more detail on Jobs's private life and his personality. Asked why he consented to the book, Jobs told Isaacson: "I wanted my kids to know me." To this end, there is a lot about Jobs's childhood, particularly his relationship with his adoptive parents. We get lots of details of his faddish eating habits, his interest in meditation and occasional sections on his romantic life.

The man that emerges is fascinating but also hard to like. Jobs was controlling, manipulative and could be savagely cruel. Most bizarrely, he was prone to breaking down in tears when things didn't go his way. This continued well into his adult life; he even cried when he was told that the original iMac would have to have a CD tray, rather than his preferred option - a less intrusive CD slot.

Jonathan Ive, Apple's design chief and one of Jobs's closest colleagues, tells Isaacson:

"But there are times, I think honestly, when he's very frustrated, and his way to achieve catharsis is to hurt somebody. And I think he feels he has a liberty and a license to do that. The normal rules of social engagement, he feels, don't apply to him. Because of how very sensitive he is, he knows exactly how to efficiently and effectively hurt someone. And he does that."

And yet, time and time again Isaacson talks to former colleagues who say that working with Jobs was the best time in their career. His former girlfriends acknowledge that he could frequently be difficult and unreasonable and yet they speak fondly of him. Jobs's enormous charisma appears to have been enough to balance the unpleasant side of his personality.

Isaacson gives comprehensive coverage of the cancer that ultimately killed Jobs. At times it made for harrowing reading but Jobs's determination to continue his work despite the disease was admirable. The story Isaacson tells of Jobs in hospital, rejecting the oxygen mask he was being given and demanding to see alternatives, demonstrates just how obsessed the man was with perfection in design.

Given the time that Isaacson spends on Jobs's cancer it's noticeable that the book moves almost straight from his resignation as Apple CEO to his death. It seems clear that there wasn't time for Isaacson to write much about Jobs's last days before the book's release.

That sense of the book being rushed is apparent every now and again in the text. Names are mis-spelt, for example, and quotes are repeated in different chapters. Delaying the book might have given time to fix those mistakes and also would have allowed Isaacson to cover the tributes to Jobs, from family, friends and colleagues.

Overall, this isn't a bad book. Those starting with little knowledge of Apple will find most of what they need here. However, readers who know Apple - and I imagine they would be a significant audience for this book - will be letdown. Isaacson could, and should, have done better with this book.

Take Your Eye Off the Ball - Playbook Edition by Pat Kirwan (Shane's book 33, 2011)

I don't re-read books very often, as regular visitors to this site will know, but this is my second reading of Take Your Eye Off the Ball this year. Strictly speaking, it's somewhere between a re-reading and a new book, since this Playbook Edition updates the original with more than 50 pages of new material. [amtap book:isbn=1600786170]

The main changes are in updated examples from last season as well as new sections on this year's NFL Draft and an added chapter on the special teams game.

Other significant changes are to the packaging of the book. It has expanded margins, to facilitate annotation, and is now ring-bound to make it a little sturdier for repeated reference. There's also a DVD, which features Kirwan explaining many of the book's key concepts with the aid of a whiteboard and a marker. It's fascinating if you're an NFL fan but soporific if you're not.

As I wrote in my review in March, this is only for those who already understand the basics of American football. Kirwan assumes a degree of familiarity with the rules and terminology. For all those beyond the novice level, this is an extraordinary resource.

My understanding of the game increased after the first reading and so, as the start of the NFL season approached, I was keen to read it again. I wasn't disappointed: I got just as much out of a second reading. There is so much here, in fact, that I will probably read it again before the next season begins, just to reinforce what I've learned.

I recommend this to all NFL fans.

The Facts and Patrimony by Philip Roth (Shane's books 24 and 25, 2011)

These two books make up the other half of the Library of America volume collecting Roth's work between 1986 and 1991. While The Counterlife and Deception explored the boundary between fiction and fact from one side, these two books approach from the opposite direction. [amtap book:isbn=1598530305]

The Facts is Roth's autobiography and, despite its title, it's prefaced by a letter from the author to his character Nathan Zuckerman, asking for feedback. 'The Facts'? Yeah, nice try Roth.Roth takes us from his childhood up to the publication of Portnoy's Complaint, when he was in his mid-30s. The book covers his time at university, the start of his writing career and his failed first marriage. It ends with a brutal letter from Zuckerman that explains the book's flaws and criticises Roth's inability to turn his merciless author's gaze upon himself.

There are layers of metafictional meaning behind Zuckerman's criticism. Roth has often been criticised for mistreating those he knows by using them in his fiction. And he has used that criticism as further fuel for his fiction, particularly in the Zuckerman novels.

We're left with a number of questions: Is Roth pre-empting criticism by having Zuckerman demolish the book? Is Zuckerman right? Given that the book has been written for a fictional character, how much of it can we believe? Or is that the very question Roth wants us to ask, simply to throw us off the scent?

It doesn't matter how you answer those questions, or even whether you believe them to be relevant. That they are raised at all is enough.

For what it's worth, I think Zuckerman has a point. Roth does not treat his own life with the ruthlessness that he has brought to his characters. He is almost painfully honest about his relationship with his first wife and admits to feeling relieved when she died. However, he does not use her real name - though it is widely known - and Zuckerman criticises him for that too.

With the exception of the death of his wife, Roth's life was relatively unremarkable but he does his best with the material available. HIs writing is such a joy that it would be worth reading his thoughts on anything at all. I was disappointed when the book ended.

Patrimony is, it appears, an entirely factual account of the death of Roth's father from an inoperable brain tumour. Indeed, it's only the novel's subtitle - 'a true story' - that raises suspicions.

As you would expect, it's a very sad book but it's also warm, dignified and frequently funny. The highlight is a scene in which Roth's father brings a Holocaust survivor over to dinner so that Roth can take a look at his book and help to find a publisher.

Roth makes clear that he's uncomfortable about this in the first place but his discomfort turns to be bemusement when he finds that the book is not about the Holocaust but instead a pornographic account of the man's sexual exploits during the war.

As always, Roth's favourite themes - family, commitment and anti-Semitism form a significant part of this book, as they do in The Facts. The writing is exceptional throughout. Though The Facts is far from essential, I highly recommend Patrimony.