Wizards of Oz

"Life is fraughtless ... when you're thoughtless."



Nearly 25 years ago, as a freshman college student balancing a science major with the obligatory credits in the Humanities, my English 101 professor introduced me to the concept of “verisimilitude”: the likeness or resemblance of a creative writing effort to reality. While this was a difficult feat for me in my writing assignments, it is something that Luke Larson has effortlessly achieved in his first novel, Senator’s Son.

Luke was a journalism major at a rival PAC-10 school, courtesy of an NROTC scholarship to the University of Arizona, and as a junior officer in the U.S. Marine Corps served two tours in Iraq (both in al Anbar province – first in 2005 during the election of the Iraqi Transitional Government that was to draft a permanent constitution, and again in 2007 during the Iraqi national referendum and the start of General Petraeus’s “Surge”).

Senator’s Son wastes no time hurling the reader into the breech. Written in a tempo prestissimo style, this rapid-fire novel gives you a no-holds-barred perspective of modern counterinsurgency from multiple perspectives: the families at home with a dissociated populace; the wounded warriors battling the demons of recovery, opiate pain-killer addictions and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; the careerist bureaucrats that infiltrate every large organization; and most importantly the junior officers and non-commissioned officers who must make up for “higher’s” planning inadequacies and strategic myopia. Larson’s use of a 2047 scenario in the southwest Pacific, with a lone Senator holding the deciding vote on whether or not to commit U.S. military power abroad, helps to reinforce the strategic consequences our actions today can have on future generations.

Set in 2007 Ar Ramadi, a city of nearly a half-million that serves as the provincial capital of al Anbar province just west of Baghdad, Senator’s Son is the story of the platoons of GOLF Company. GOLF is a Marine company (part of a Marine battalion tied to an Army brigade) responsible for sweeping missions in south Ramadi in the days prior to the 2007 Iraqi national referendum (and a few months prior to “The Surge”). Their early ventures from the “Snake Pit” (a heavily fortified Marine firm base) poignantly demonstrate the complexities of contemporary warfare.

The force protection concerns are palpable – one can almost smell the raw sewage flowing through the ruined streets of a dying city, and feel the peering eyes of snipers tracking you in their sights. Every piece of litter is a potential Improvised Explosive Device, and every sound a threat. And like Mayor Giuliani’s “Broken Windows” theory in late 1990s New York City, the reluctant shift from a hardened, up-armored patrol mindset to one of cooperative engagement with a foreign culture underscores the essence of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine now codified in FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5: Counterinsurgency.

Like real life, there are few “happy endings” in this book. Each platoon commander in GOLF has his own strengths and fallibilities: from steadfast Bama’s bravery and bigotries to the maverick Greg’s ingenuity and independence. And each must face his own demons in the prose that Larson deftly weaves.

At a minimum, Senator’s Son is a brilliant primer on leadership: how to learn which rules are worth breaking, the importance of adaptability when there are no black-or-white situations but only gray, and the primacy of relationships.

But it is also a tribute to those who answer a call to serve – whether they serve in their own communities as volunteers, or have the privilege of wearing the Eagle-Globe-and-Anchor of a Marine (like my grandfather, a mortarman with CHARLIE-1-6 in Guadalcanal and Tarawa, and my grandmother, a clerk-typist at Hunters Point-San Francisco who met my grandfather after his malaria washed him out of the Fleet Marine Force). Senator’s Son is a testament to the resilience of those who carry the burden of personal sacrifice with such humility that we can take our own freedom for granted.

This book is a “must read” for anyone who cares about the greater world beyond our neighborhood – and the role that power (be it the “hard” power of weaponry and kinetic energy, or the “soft” power of relationships) can play in shaping the world for better or for worse.

(cross-posted at Antilibrary and Zenpundit)

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GPS Reviews

Just before Christmas, we cashed in "reward points" on a credit card we were about to cancel. Among the items ordered were two Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation units.

Not knowing any better, nor investing any significant amount of time on comparative analysis before placing the order, I decided to get one TomTom (the XL 340-S) and one Garmin (the nüvi 255). Though the TomTom retails for nearly $100 more than the Garmin, both were roughly the same amount of "reward points". Had I known then what I know now, I would have gotten two TomToms -- it's a far superior unit in nearly every way.

The Good:

Both the TomTom and the Garmin offer 2D (top-down map) and 3D (rolling terrain) views. Both units have similar mounting equipment, and both have the same USB interface as the Motorola Blackberry (i.e., we have lots of cables and power cords to accommodate these units). Both have "Favorites" options along with user-selected icons for common destinations, a top-menu selection when going "Home" (but, curiously, not one for going to work), and both offer voice prompts for upcoming maneuvers -- though the TomTom has a greater variety of voices to choose from.

For the economically-minded-to-the-last-cent, the Garmin has a "Trip Total" feature that tracks total mileage, time stopped, and fuel cost based on user-entered data such as average price per gallon and fuel economy of your car. I suspect the fee-based monthly update service also includes a "cheap gas finder" feature, but we did not invest in any such recurring costs.

The TomTom, due to its wider 4.3" screen, shows much more data on the basic display -- including ETA to destination, slack time (if you entered a desired arrival time), as well as a countdown timer showing time remaining to destination. It also has a much stronger antenna, quickly picking up signal indoors where the Garmin won't.

The TomTom provides advance notice of upcoming maneuvers, including the turn after the next if there is less than a quarter-mile between turns. It also gives lane-specific information when driving on Interstates, showing which lanes will continue to your destination, and which will divert you to Abilene.

The Bad:

Both provide a digital (on-screen) keyboard for data entry, but the Garmin's is awkwardly given in alphabetical order -- while the TomTom gives a QWERTY keyboard-style interface.

Also, the Garmin will go into a reboot cycle when the source power is turned on (e.g., when starting your car) -- regardless of whether or not the system was powered up. The TomTom, when off, stays off if you turn on your car. When using a different power cable (e.g., my Blackberry's USB cable plugged into a USB-to-12V-cigarette-lighter-adapter), the Garmin enters a 55-second long boot cycle -- a major inconvenience if power is interrupted in any way while in transit.

The TomTom comes with a basic map pre-loaded, but without many "Points of Interest" available. The full map update is a 2GB (yes, GIGAbyte -- or 2,000 Megabyte) download -- so be sure you have high-speed Internet and a couple hours to let it churn. The Garmin also has a 2GB download required for its map update, but the basic load out of the box is ready for navigation.

The Ugly:

Nothing "ugly" observed so far on the TomTom. But the Garmin (even with a map update) is still lacking many local destinations -- even some more than a year old. (Case in point: entering "Buffalo Wild Wings" on my Garmin showed the nearest destination more than 40 miles away in Denver, even though there is one just five miles from our house.)

That's where the TomTom really trumps the Garmin. The TomTom menu screens (of which there are just two, thanks to the larger screen, compared to three for the Garmin) include a "Map Corrections" option -- and the ability to download map corrections made by others. Given the fees charged by these companies for map updates (you get one bundled when you purchase, and the TomTom offers unlimited downloads during the first 60 days), this feature alone is worth choosing the TomTom over the Garmin.

The Verdict:

Hands down, the TomTom is a far superior device. My theory is that Garmin, the first name in GPS units, has taken the same lackadaisical tact that Palm did in the smart-phone market: resting on its laurels, content with its massive market share, it has been overtaken by the upstart Dutch company that went public in 2005 and whose revenues have grown more than 200-fold since 2002.

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Review: tdaxp's Revolutionary Strategies

Überblogger and 'blogfriend Dan Abbott (of tdaxp) has published his first book: Revolutionary Strategies in Early Christianity: 4th Generation Warfare (4GW) Against the Roman Empire, and the Counterinsurgency (COIN) Campaign to Save It. It's on sale now on Amazon.

Dan, a doctoral candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a co-contributing colleague of mine at Dreaming 5GW, is a dutiful student of the late Col. John Boyd's ideas regarding conflict, decision making and leadership. He introduced this book on his 'blog earlier this month.

Dan has done a remarkable job applying contemporary theories of warfare and network science to the early Christian / late Roman era. The most notable strength in Revolutionary Strategies is his inventive correlation of the defensive strategies employed by Caiaphas (the chief antagonist of Jesus’s ministries) to those of Diocletian (the late-3rd century Roman emperor who ordered the most severe persecution of the Christian faithful). Accompanying this analysis is a very cogent application of the theories of Boyd (Penetrate - Isolate - Subvert - Reorient - Reharmonize, or PISRR), with modern examples like Vichy France that match the dynamics in the early Christian church.

Both Caiaphas and Diocletian sought to preserve the status quo. For Caiaphas, appeasing Rome was his primary objective: a rogue rabbi who preached of other-worldly gifts would have reflected poorly upon him and his hierarchy. Diocletian clearly understood the management complexities of so vast an empire, and seemed to adeptly address many of the most-pressing ills that plagued the Empire (poor civic participation, an army spread thin on the borders with little to no interior defenses) despite his rampant cronyism (particularly in the establishment of the Tetrarchy). But for the first 18 years of his reign Diocletian was unconcerned about the "Christian threat" – and if it not for Galerius would likely have never ordered the Great Persecution.

Most significantly, Dan’s book opens several new fronts on the debate over the nature of insurgency – and counterinsurgency. For instance, is the ex post facto presumption of “co-option” by the splinter Jewish sect that has become the Christian church practical? Or, rather, was the Christian faith “culturally appropriated” by the Roman empire upon Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the early 4th century? While Dan asserts the former through the hypernetworking of the Apostle Paul, I believe this is a topic worthy of broader study. For instance, was Paul (née Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee) savvy enough to realize that his peers in Jewish leadership were attracting the ire of Rome? Did Paul’s ministries throughout the Mediterranean seek to increase the rift between Jerusalem and the splinter sect of Christian faithful? And were the Gospels written in a manner to give Rome (and particularly Pilate) a “pass” in the crucifixion of Jesus? (Note that three of the four Gospels were published immediately prior to the First Jewish-Roman War and the subsequent destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.)

Dan also provides another benchmark in the evolving theory of the “generations of war”, to wit his development of a taxonomy to differentiate between the various generational constructs. Though I disagree with his assertions that the “0th” (zeroth) generation connotes a form of “total war” and that 3rd generation warfare connotes “better minds”, Dan brings value by identifying possible relationships across the xGW generations and inviting further dialogue.

This is perhaps the greatest utility of Revolutionary Strategies: proffering novel ideas in order to provoke debate. Just as the spiritual values of the Romans were initially at odds with the splinter Jewish sect we now call Christians, the different cognitive approaches of Islam and Christianity – one society favoring creativity and innovation, the other cherishing rote memorization – will have similar consequences for our own unfolding century.

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[Moblog] Speed Racer

Hmmm... Immediate reaction (at 0230 after the midnight screening of Speed Racer) is that the Wachowski Brothers -- of Matrix fame -- have started to emulate Stanley Kubrick in their artistry.

F/X, as expected, were extraordinary. And the "campiness" factor was preserved (though the panning head-shot scene transitions got tiresome after the 57th time). At 138 minutes, there were some way-too-lengthy "character development" scenes that could have been pared down.

All in all, a fun movie that was true to the spirit of Tatsuo's original animated series. Some of my first memories are of watching Speed Racer at my Grandpa's house with my cousins. The Wachowskis did those memories proud.

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REVIEW: Taleb's "Black Swan"

After resting comfortably in my "anti-library" for many weeks, I recently plucked The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb from my dusty nightstand. Since I was embarking on cross-continental flights (albeit with kids), I was looking forward to punctuating the drink-and-peanut monotony of Southwest Airlines (an airline woefully unequipped for flights longer than 90 minutes) with Taleb's insights.

Since my days as a civilian employee of the U.S. Navy, where I evolved from an aspiring systems engineer to a "Science Advisor" to a manager leading the "Red Team" at U.S. Joint Forces Command J9, I have been fascinated with the prospect of "adversarial surprise". Like most analytical efforts under the loose employ of the Pentagon (which has roughly one government civilian employee [tail] for every two active duty soldiers/sailors/airmen/Marines [tooth]), this was a cottage industry.

Taleb's insights echo many of our observations in the Joint Experimentation program, particularly regarding the hubris of intellectualism. His skepticism of inductive logic, his emphasis on the importance of context in perceiving information, and his lionization of Doktor Prof. Sir Karl Raimund Popper (whom I had the pleasure of driving from leland stanfurd junior u. to Cal some 20 years ago in my Nissan Sentra) as well as Henri Poincaré are worthy of note.

However, his self-referential anecdotes are reminiscent of a Tolstoy novel, and his clear disdain for planning (née prediction) creates a scotoma that pulls him into the same abyss of solipsism that consumed David Hume.

The depth of his criticisms can be summarized quite succinctly as:
Don't use quantitative methods for qualitative questions.
Nature is benign, so we can ascribe a comfortable level of determinism to our observations. New data, often obtained through technological innovation, requires modification of obsolete theories (e.g., the Ptolemaic model of the universe to the Copernican; Newton's Laws of Motion to Einstein's Special Relativity; etc.). Key to our understanding (though Taleb would probably insist we understand nothing) is the selection of appropriate parameters -- and to not get too enamored with your own theories, especially if it involves any vestige of "free will".

Fallible? You betcha! Yes, we are inclined to fool ourselves. Yes, we try to cram too many variables into our formulae in some vain hope that we'll "get it right". And yes, our institutions -- particularly financial ones -- tend to reward the wrong kinds of behavior (q.v. Prof. Clay Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma, in which Clay digs into corporate failures vice successes, finding that Wall Street rewards bad behavior). But Taleb's diatribe against the folly of "epistemic arrogance" has created another confirmation bias that only casually addresses the issue of scale when considering complex topics.

I understand that I am straying far from the "anchor" of many blogfriends (John Robb, Art Hutchinson, General of the Hordes Subadei, ARHerring, zenpundit, Chet Richards) who have offered glowing praise for The Black Swan. Perhaps it's my naïveté (or perhaps that I'm a product of the California public school system), but I honestly don't see our civilization marching toward "Extremistan". Quite the opposite: While our awareness of remote events has increased, and our networks have grown exponentially, I believe that the diffuse topology of our networks actually dampens the impact of an extreme event.

Consider the "Butterfly Effect". Do you really think a butterfly flapping its wings in Jakarta is going to eventually cause a hurricane in New York City? Or do you think the minor perturbation is absorbed locally without cascading into some kind of resonance? Yes, there are examples that illustrate the dire consequences of unplanned resonance. Taleb (who waffles at the end of his book as half hyperskeptic, half intransigently certain) abandons the Gaussian bell curve, yet -- with only a single mention of Albert-László Barabási -- firmly embraces Power Law scale invariance as normative.

Despite Taleb's too-casual treatment of scale, I think he would agree with George E.P. Box's statement (c. 1987) that "...[A]ll models are wrong, but some are useful." Abandoning our dogmatic devotion to certainty is essential in any creative, innovative enterprise -- and can reveal hidden opportunities, and hidden abilities.

This requires that we reexamine how we define "success". In my adopted hometown of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the best Calutron operators (the electromagnets that separated Uranium isotopes for the LITTLE BOY bomb at Y-12 during the Manhattan Project) were not the scientists from Berkeley who designed them, but seamstresses with no scientific training. And how many Americans would consider Tommy Franks or Norman Schwarzkopf as the most successful U.S. commanders in the Mid-East? What about Tony Zinni (who didn't win a major theater war, but may have demonstrated even greater skill by avoiding one)?

While many of us point to 9/11 as a "Black Swan", I can say unequivocally that it had a far less dramatic effect on my life than Continental Flight 196 on March 6th, 1993. Could I have predicted when or how I would meet the woman that would be the mother of my children? Of course not.... But was I open to the possibility, and adaptive enough (when jabbed in the ribs by Helen from Purchasing to move up one row on that flight) to take advantage of this blessing?

That may be the best value of Taleb's Black Swan: to jar us out of our collective comfort zones, to remind us how ignorant we truly are, and to encourage us to "Be Prepared!" Good advice, regardless of whether you live in Mediocristan or Extremistan.

Update: Überblogger Zenpundit has graciously linked this review -- and will have his own review posted this weekend. (Thx Zen!)

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Osinga Roundtable: Boyd's Evolution

In an October 1939 radio broadcast, Winston Churchill described the Soviet Union as “… a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” The same can be said of the late Colonel John Boyd, whose prowess as a fighter pilot and whose lectures on the relationship between energy and maneuverability revolutionized the U.S. Air Force – but who published no books. Rather, his legacy was left in a stack of acetate vu-graphs (thankfully digitized by Chet Richards) and reams of personal papers. For his studious review of the latter, distilling the mind of Boyd into book form, Col/Dr Frans P.B. Osinga deserves our gratitude. He has played Clausewitz to Boyd’s Napoleon.

In Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd, Osinga presents us with a fascinating “deep dive” into the evolution of a brilliant thinker – a thinker who devoted his life to applied learning and teaching. Though it is unfortunate that Boyd did not see fit to publish his theories in book form (unsurprising given his professional environment far from the Ivory Towers of academe), it is evident from his 1,500+ presentations that he rigorously developed and willingly shared his ideas. Boyd’s stamina (both mental and physical) to lecture for more than a dozen hours at a time is testament to his devotion and his determination to succeed.

Osinga nicely complements the work of Boyd biographers (most notably Coram, Hammond and Richards) by dedicating the preponderance of his 300+ pages to how Boyd’s thinking evolved – describing his intellectual influences from the expected (Sun Tzu, Clausewitz) to the unexpected (Popper, Kuhn, Polanyi). Particular attention is given to the influence of classical physicists (Newton) as well as quantum theorists and mathematicians (Heisenberg, Gödel).

Boyd embodied the now-popular notion of the “Medici Effect”, a horizontal thinker who integrated perspectives across multiple, seemingly-divergent disciplines into a cohesive whole. His insights have proven applicable to a wide array of topics, and foretold of the emerging science of complexity theory (though I dislike Osinga’s use of the composite term “chaoplexity”, which undermines the distinction between “chaotic” – i.e., non-linear and seemingly random – and “complex” – i.e., a large number of interrelated properties or parameters). Given the swagger of the fighter pilot who bested the “best” in air-to-air combat in forty seconds or less, there is no doubt that Boyd – were he alive today – would be a prolific ‘blogger, and a Chicago Boyz contributor whose inputs would outweigh all of our Roundtable writings combined.

While many associate Boyd solely with the “OODA Loop”, he has given us far more than just a lexicon – just as Tom Barnett’s work is far more than simply “Core - Gap” and “Leviathan - SysAdmin”. Regardless of one’s willingness to accept his ideas, the sheer effort Boyd invested in his research – and Osinga’s effort in compiling the salient points for us – is an invaluable tool in anyone’s intellectual toolbox.

The motto of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration is Litera Scripta Manet: “The written word endures.” It is ironic that intellectuals tend to revere the commentator more so than the subject on whom they write: Herodotus over Leonidas, Thucydides over Pericles, Clausewitz over Napoleon. If history is consistent, then in a hundred years the name Osinga may be equally associated with the name of Boyd.

Update: Crossposted at Chicago Boyz.

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Go, Speed Racer, Go!

While taking the kids to see a movie today, I was very pleasantly surprised to see a trailer for my all-time favorite cartoon, Speed Racer.

Set for release May 9th, 2008, this cartoon-to-live-action-film is being produced by The Wachowski Brothers of The Matrix fame.

The first trailer shows a compelling mix of technology and imagery, in true Wachowski fashion. And it (so far) looks true to the 'toon, complete with Trixie (Christina Ricci) providing overhead intel, Spritle (Paulie Litt) and Chim Chim stowing away in the Mach 5's trunk, and the enigmatic Racer X (Matthew Fox) silently watching over Speed.

The only drawback? Susan Sarandon is cast as Mom Racer...

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Review: John Kao's Innovation Nation

Ten years after Prof. Clayton Christensen’s groundbreaking book The Innovators’ Dilemma defined the relationship between “sustaining” and “disruptive” innovation, Dr. John Kao has come out with a Paul Revere-esque “call to arms” for America. The subtitle of Innovation Nation (“How America is Losing Its Innovation Edge, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do to Get It Back”) is intended to be a wake-up call to our cultural complacency regarding emergent threats in the world – not just transnational terrorists, but market threats that are eroding the long-term viability of our economy. Since my truck’s personalized license plate is a play on the word “Innovate”, and my own work experience has shown me firsthand our propensity for “outsourcing” the intellectual heavy lifting, I find John’s warning both apt and very timely.

John Kao is a true 21st century “Renaissance Man”. He is a doctor of medicine (holding an M.D. from Yale as well as a Ph.D. in Psychiatry), an entrepreneur (with an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and 14 years on its faculty teaching “innovation”), who has also been engaged in film making (he was a production executive for 1989 hit sex, lies and videotape and Executive Producer for 1992’s Mr. Baseball), and is an accomplished jazz pianist (spending a teenage summer in L.A. recording with Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention).

John is perhaps the world’s foremost “innovation advocate”, and a mentor to many Fortune 500 corporations, government agencies (both U.S. and abroad) and international organizations. I have been fortunate to have known John for several years, since then-Major General Jim Dubik (as Director of the Joint Experimentation Directorate at U.S. Joint Forces Command) sent me to San Francisco to check out the guy who wrote a tiny (5cm x 10cm) “innovation manifesto” – tiny because it’s “for very busy people”. Those two-and-a-half hours Kao’s office in the San Francisco Film Centre at The Presidio – an office once occupied by Robin Williams – is perhaps the most inspiring rap session I’ve ever experienced.

He is also a man with a true “long view” – a vision not just for our immediate future, but for this and the next century. In Innovation Nation, Kao describes the evolution of “innovation models” – from individual achievement to today’s “version 4.0” that rapidly adapts best practices across a globally diffuse environment of open architectures and collaboration. America is the “incumbent”, but also seemingly blind to the challenges posed by emergent innovation powers like Singapore, Denmark and Finland.

The book continues with an honest critique of America’s education system, comparing and contrasting our response (in terms of funding, curriculum development, teacher training, school construction, etc.) to Sputnik and President Kennedy’s famous challenge at Rice University in 1962 to today’s sagging U.S. aptitude test scores and lackluster performance in math and science. John compares the high barriers to entry (both literally and figuratively) of our nation’s immigration system to that in global innovation hot spots, along with the perils they bring.

The closing chapters of his book make it “real” by offering prescriptions – from the micro (building personal “dream spaces”) to the macro (crafting a “National Innovation Agenda” and empowered policy-making entities). Although some historical anecdotes are slightly dated (e.g., a reference to Thomas Friedman’s quote that two nations with a McDonalds have never gone to war – the Balkans being the notable exception), the positive aspects of Globalization hold true. And like any prescriptive work that is future-focused, it is here that he is taking the biggest gamble – and will undoubtedly be derided for offering specific solutions that may not stand the test of time. But like the esteemed professor at Harvard Business School who told him everything “useful” about innovation has already been written in the literature, John will take it all in good measure – and continue to be a strident champion for the grease in the gears of entrepreneurialism. I encourage anyone that is serious about cultivating an ethos of innovation in their organizations to study the insights of Innovation Nation.

Addendum: Last night (Oct. 4th) John was featured on The Colbert Report, which used the 50th anniversary of Sputnik to examine the competitive landscape of innovation today. You can see it here:

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Review: The Kite Runner

I recently finished reading Khaled Hosseini's widely-acclaimed first novel, The Kite Runner.

Hosseini, a native of Kabul, Afghanistan whose family fled in the wake of the Soviet invasion in 1979, is a physician living in the San Francisco Bay Area. In his first novel, he delivers poignant metaphors and striking prose that borders on the artistic.

The Kite Runner is the story of a boy who longs for his father's approval -- and whose choices create consequences for all around him. The story tells of ambition, regret, loyalty and an unquenchable aspiration for redemption.

While Afghanistan is clearly the backdrop, the protagonist hails from the affluent side of Kabul -- where his father owned a business, drove a Mustang and lived in a two-story house. Don't expect to gain a deeper appreciation for the "real" Afghanistan -- a sentiment echoed by a character from Peshawar later in the book who berates the protagonist as not being anything close to mujaheddin.

But do expect an emotional roller-coaster, where even someone from a place that few Americans could find on a globe before 9/11 shares the same dreams -- and battles the same demons -- as so many of us.

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