Friday, March 29, 2024

Supercommunicators by Charles Duhigg

Supercommunicators by Charles Duhigg is an excellent book subtitled How to Unlock the Secret Language of Communication. Duhigg notes that the goal for conversations should be to have learning conversations, ones where we learn how the people around us see the world and they understand our perspectives. 

The prologue covers the idea of reciprocating in conversation, connecting by showing people that you're hearing what they're saying and sharing your own stories while you're asking people to share theirs. This matching principle in conversation means that you're doing equivalent things to what the person you're talking to is doing, becoming neurally aligned. If they're sharing, you're sharing. If they're either excited or restrained, you're the same. Also, looping for understanding is the technique of asking questions, summarizing what you heard, and asking if you got it right. There should be lots of questions asked, but more importantly, follow-up questions. Ones that don't have a straightforward answer, but rather ask how someone feels about something, or asks about something impactful to someone. 

Rules for learning conversations: 

1. Pay attention to what kind of conversation is occurring (what someone hopes to get from a conversation). 

2. Share your goals and ask what others are seeking. 

3. Ask about others' feelings, and share your own. 

4. Explore if identities are important to this discussion (keep in mind how important peoples' identities are to their world view). It's helpful to prepare for a conversation, think about or even write down what you want to discuss, what you hope to say, what you plan to ask.

Duhigg writes about connecting with others as having empathy and emotional intelligence. He details astronaut selection and how if someone isn't doing the things to connect, they likely could have a difficult time being successful on a long space mission in close quarters with others. The story is also told of The Big Bang Theory, and how the pilot reveals people trying to connect (by saying "hi"), but who don't know how. 

Three types of conversations: 

1. What's this really about (practical, are different things being discussed)? 

2. How do we feel (emotional, does someone feel controlled or do they feel understood)? 

3. Who are we (social, what's the world view of the person and how can that not be compromised)?

There's also interesting content about online communication and how it important to overemphasize politeness, underemphasize sarcasm, express more gratitude and hedges, and avoid criticism in public forums.

Duhigg closes with the need to invest in relationships, connect with more people, and avoid social isolation as it's an unhealthy thing. He notes that if he gets an email at charles@charlesduhigg.com, he'll respond and that "what's important is wanting to connect, wanting to understand someone, wanting to have a deep conversation, even if it is hard and scary, or when it would be so much easier to walk away." 

The Boys of Winter by Wayne Coffey

The Boys of Winter by Wayne Coffey was written in 2005 and subtitled The Untold Story of a Coach, a Dream, and the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team. Coffey intersperses a recounting of what happened in the game with backstory on head coach Herb Brooks, who died in 2003 at the age of 66, and many of the players.

It's fascinating how Brooks bonded players together against him, and Coffey notes that Brooks called his year coaching the team his loneliest in hockey. Even years later, it was hard for Brooks to connect with the players, twelve of whom played in the NHL. 

There were twenty players on the team and profiled in order in the book (along with Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov, U.S. goalie coach Warren Strelow, and 42-year-old Brooks) were Billy Baker, Buzz Schneider, Jack O'Callahan, Mark Johnson, Ken Morrow, John Harrington, Neal Broten, Eric Stobel, Steve Janaszak, Mark Pavelich, Steve Christoff, Jim Craig, Dave Christian, Mark Wells, Dave Silk, and Mike Eruzione. The end of the book covers that prior to the Olympics, none of the 1,780 players selected in the 17 years of the NHL draft had been an American high schooler, two years later, 47 of 252 players were.

Coffey notes how Brooks scheduled a pre-tournament game against the Soviets, who won 10-3, so that they would be over confident. In the Olympic matchup between the teams, Vladislav Tretiak, the star Soviet goalie, was pulled after giving up the tying goal at the very end of the first period. Shots on goal in the game were 39 to 16 in favor of the Soviets, with Jim Craig playing an outstanding game in goal and Mark Johnson and Mike Eruzione scoring a minute and a half apart midway through the third period of the 4-3 U.S. win. It was a solid read and interesting how the movie Miracle closely followed real-life as chronicled in the book. 

Sunday, February 25, 2024

The Women by Kristin Hannah

The Women by Kristin Hannah is a compelling novel about Frances "Frankie" McGrath, who served in the Army Nurse Corps in Vietnam. The first half of the book covers Frankie in Vietnam following the enlistment and death in combat of her brother Finley, and second half is about her life after returning from the war.

While in Vietnam, Frankie worked numerous MASCAL, or mass casualty, events at the same time that the American government was lying to people about how successful the war was. Hannah wrote that on a day the Stars and Stripes newspaper reported no American casualties, seven men died in Frankie’s operating theater. Also, she saw cases of South Vietnamese civilians being killed by American bombs and napalm. 

Returning home, she had strangers proclaim her a “baby killer,” people at the VA tell her that services weren’t for her as "women weren't in combat," friends from school say she was joking about having been in the war, and her father get revealed as having told friends while Frankie gone that she was studying in Florence. 

The book jacket notes how idealism and courage come under fire in this era and as a female veteran, Frankie had to face people telling her “there are no women in Vietnam.” This was particularly cruel because as Hannah notes, “remembrance matters.” The ending is well-written and shows that people can start anew, and help others do the same. Also, it's noted that “being proud is something people have for themselves, even if others don't say they should be.”

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Family Family by Laurie Frankel

Family Family by Laurie Frankel is a really good novel about actress India Allwood, her adopted children Fig and Jack, her two biological children that she placed for adoption, their birth fathers, and adopted parents, and their interconnected lives. 

The book covers how adoption stories aren’t all either horrifying ones of abused children or uplifting ones about overcoming abuse. They’re life stories about people, and those stories don’t always fit into the small boxes we might think they do. 

India Allwood is a compelling character, someone who worked tirelessly to succeed, would write plans on index cards, and rip them up and throw the confetti in the air to celebrate successes. 

Frankel notes of how India didn’t “give up her babies for adoption," she placed them with loving families, leading to wonderful outcomes. Along with India, the book is about Robbie, and Bex, and Camille, and Davis, and Lewis, and Andrew, and Drew. They’re all part of one another’s stories, making each other who they are.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is a lovely novel about the characters Vianne Mauriac and her sister Isabelle in occupied France during World War II. 

It's so important have books like this that keep alive the stories of German atrocities during the war, and Hannah does a great job telling of the heroic actions of the sisters, with a great conclusion to the book about the lasting impact of both women.


Saturday, January 27, 2024

Doppelganger by Naomi Klein

Doppelganger by Naomi Klein is a compelling nonfiction book subtitled A Trip into the Mirror World. Klein writes about herself and Naomi Wolf, someone she has been often mistaken for, and provides an interesting examination into our society and the extremist beliefs held by many. Klein and Wolf at one time were both writing about individual autonomy and corporate power, with Klein in 2007 publishing The Shock Doctrine about exploitation of large-scale events, and them being mistaken for one other seems understandable.

Wolf began to espouse more conspiracy theories prior to pandemic, and then with it, her statements became much more unhinged. Her anti-vax views went to the level of writing about "vaccine shedding," the idea that vaccinated people could infect the unvaccinated. She also put out videos like "Why Vaccine Passports Equal Slavery Forever" and became a regular guest on Steve Bannon's show. 

Where the book gets particularly interesting is in how Klein points out that Wolf takes ideas and questions that are legitimate and should be asked, but goes so far with them to make any discussion around the topics seem wrong or like binary opposites, basically the legitimate argument gets co-opted by the outlandish one, rendering it moot.

The extremist right argues against governmental controls, and does so in such a wild manner, that normal people can't argue against them also. Basically, government conspiracists take over the argument about government in general. Extremists talk about government spying on us and Liberals react with how crazy Extremists are, and lose the ability to make arguments about privacy from governmental incursion. 

Another example is criticism of the role Bill Gates had in COVID-19 policy and drug companies having patents on COVID vaccines when vaccine development was so heavily government subsidized becomes muted, lest that discussion be confused with people demonizing Gates and vaccines in general. Klein writes that legitimate debate functionally gets killed when you have situations that this, with about Wolf, her noting that it felt like Wolf took Klein's ideas and fed into a bonkers blender, with the  thought-puree then shared with Tucker Carlson. 

Klein raises the concept of diagonalism, or diagonal alliances, where different conspiracy theories or grievances all roll together, or at least align together. The term pipikism is also used, with it from writer Philip Roth and about the idea of inconsequentializing or trivializing things, with perhaps the most dangerous form of pipikism being the make-up possibility that perhaps the Nazis weren't so awful, and also invented idea that vaccine cards are sort of like Star of David that Jews were forced to wear. Equating vaccines with the attempted extermination of an entire race makes the extermination seem less of a big deal, a dangerous and horrifying slope to go down when the actions of Nazis are trivialized. There's a lot to the book that Klein writes. It starts with the idea of Wolf as her doppelganger, but then covers well so much more.

Sunday, December 31, 2023

Going Infinite by Michael Lewis

Going Infinite by Michael Lewis is a compelling book about Sam Bankman-Fried, the now-convicted founder of FTX and Alameda Research. Lewis first heard of him at the end of 2021, when Sam took FTX to $1B in revenue, up from $100M in 2020, and $20M in 2019. The book largely chronicles his rise, with the end covering his rapid fall. It felt like a satisfying conclusion was lacking, largely because it not clear where the money went. 

Lewis covers how Sam went to MIT and interned and then was hired at Jane Street Capital. It's a high-frequency trading firm and it was fascinating reading about the interview process there, one centered around probability and chance. It was to determine how someone operates in an environment of uncertainty, how do they go about making decisions? The questions were all mental math around odds, like what amount of money would someone trade for a possibility of a larger amount of money. It was testing someone's relationship to information. 

Lewis covers how these type of calculations fit Sam perfectly and his decisions involved an expected value calculation. He would at the spur of the moment change a plan based on a new calculation he made of how he wanted to spend his time. 

Sam loved things where there was only partial knowledge of a situation, and when he discovered crypto trading, he found it a perfect fit for him. Sam quit his job in 2017 to start Alameda Research as a crypto trading firm and by November 2018, Alameda Researched traded more than 5% of the total volume of crypto markets. He then founded FTX as a new company, a crypto exchange, and as this was occurring, Sam was living in Asia, and then moved to the Bahamas. In late October 2022, it all came crashing down, triggered by a crypto crisis. On November 11, FTX went into bankruptcy in the United States, as FTX should have been holding some $10B in customer deposits, but only had a fraction of that.

It's a shame that Sam flamed out given his donations to various causes, including fighting climate change and promoting democratic principles, including how he toyed with the idea of paying Donald Trump billions to not run again for President. The book closes with the bankruptcy efforts to try to figure out what happened with the money, before the trial of Sam, and it's an interesting read.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Gallop Toward the Sun by Peter Stark

Gallop Toward the Sun by Peter Stark is a solid book subtitled Tecumseh and William Henry Harrison's Struggle for the Destiny of a Nation. Stark tells the story of the Indian leader and his efforts to prevent the encroachment of white settlers onto Indian lands, in opposition to Harrison who was attempting to expand American lands further and further west.

Harrison was appointed governor of the Indiana Territory, some 260,000 square miles, in 1800, briefly serving under John Adams as President, followed by Thomas Jefferson, then James Madison. Jefferson relentlessly pursued land acquisition, and was in office for the Louisiana Purchase, where France under Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory for $15M, or half a billion acres at roughly three cents each. 

Harrison pushed to increase the U.S. footprint, wanting to get the Indiana Territory to 60,000 residents so it could get statehood, with he perhaps a Senator. James Madison became President in 1809 and wanted land acquisition done without conflict, but would rely on Harrison's promises of fairness in dealing with the tribes. Harrison would appease the White House with his statements, but then do whatever it took to get more land, getting tribes to sign agreements that harmed other tribes. 

Tecumseh was a Shawnee warrior and worked to bring together various tribes, attempting to unite them into an alliance against American expansion. There was first negotiations and then armed conflict between Americans and tribes led by Tecumseh. Eventually came the War of 1812 between the U.S. and Britain, with Harrison taking a military command and Tecumseh fighting on the side of the British in an effort to maintain Indian lands. Tecumseh was killed as he advanced on someone he believed to be Harrison, and the territory governor ultimately realized his goal of national office, becoming the (short-lived) ninth U.S. President.

The book is an interesting story of two opposing forces and Stark quotes historian Colin Calloway who described the contest between the leaders as "a war for America's heart and soul."

Thursday, December 07, 2023

Hidden Potential by Adam Grant

Hidden Potential by Adam Grant is an interesting book subtitled The Science of Achieving Greater Things and split into three sections, with three chapters in each:

Skills of Character - getting better at through character skills

Chapter 1: Creatures of Discomfort - embrace awkwardness and do things, don't be afraid of being embarrassed 

Chapter 2: Human Sponges - rather than asking for feedback, it's better to ask for advice on how to improve at something, asking what you can do better elicits more specific suggestions and input that can help you

Chapter 3: The Imperfectionists - it's not a perfect world, it's ok to make mistakes, or deal with things as they are and appreciate flaws, judge on your best moments, not your worst, ask multiple you trust people to score the work you do


Structures for Motivation - get the scaffolding to help you when you need it

Chapter 4: Transforming the Daily Grind - make practice fun, enjoy the time you spend on things, play at things, make a game out of drills

Chapter 5: Getting Unstuck - try different things, be willing to start over or go backwards in an effort, take a detour and spend time on something else to get unstuck or reach a goal

Chapter 6: Defying Gravity - work together to accomplish something, the tutor effect... be a teacher of something at the same time you're a student, encouraging others helps us find our own motivation, making progress can be about simply bouncing back and not quitting


Systems of Opportunity - open doors for people underrated or overlooked

Chapter 7: Every Child Gets Ahead - Finland's educational system has created a culture of opportunity that assumes everyone can excel, just some might need more personalized support

Chapter 8: Mining for Gold - the 2010 rescue of 33 men from a Chilean mine, with ideas of how to keep them alive and then get them to safety sourced from a wide spectrum of people, the best leaders have prosocial skills and are often the best listeners

Chapter 9: Diamonds in the Rough - astronaut Jose Hernandez and his path to getting accepted by NASA into the program, setting up people for success in interviews by helping them be comfortable and talk about their interests and passions


It's an excellent read and Grant in the epilogue tells about interviewing for admission to Harvard, getting in and then once there, turning down the remedial writing course that he was pointed to and getting an A in the regular course, which led to his interest in psychology and writing. Grant closes the book with "success is more than reaching our goals - it's living our values. There's no higher value than aspiring to be better tomorrow than we are today. There's no greater accomplishment than unleashing our hidden potential."

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Last Politician by Franklin Foer

The Last Politician by Franklin Foer is a really good book subtitled Inside Joe Biden's White House and the Struggle for America's Future. Foer provides great writing about Biden and his first two years as President.

The book starts with the inauguration, 14 days after the storming of the Capitol, and then passage of the American Rescue Plan stemming from the pandemic. After this is detailed production of the Covid vaccine and its rollout, something that had to have the plan created for it as the Trump Administration apparently didn’t have one. Also written about is the withdrawal from Afghanistan, an incredibly difficult task that was hit at the end by a suicide bomber, resulting in the loss of 13 American soldiers. 

Legislation that Biden fought successfully to have passed included the Inflation Reduction Act, a significant investment in alternative energy, and CHIPS Act and infrastructure bill investing in technology and manufacturing. Also during these two years was the backing of Ukraine with Russia’s invasion, while avoiding direct conflict between the U.S. and Russia, and management of the relationship with China. 

Foer shows himself to be a wordsmith in the book and writes of the tasks Biden faced in his first two years in office. He had up times and down times, with both his leadership propelling causes forward and gaffes holding them back, and in his first two years in office accomplished much for the country and beyond.

Saturday, November 04, 2023

Breathless by David Quammen

Breathless by David Quammen is a thorough work of nonfiction subtitled The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus. The book jacket notes that it "traces the journey of SARS-CoV-2 through the human population, as seen by the scientists who study its genome, its ever-changing nature, the much-argued question of its origin, and its capacity to kill us." 

Quammen provides a detailed investigation of Covid-19 through his interviews with close to 100 experts and while it can be a heavy read at times, it's a well-done book. He details where the argument for the virus being lab-made came from, and how the evidence shows that to be unlikely. 

It's fascinating reading of how scientists in late December started to hear about patients in Wuhan, most of them having connection to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, with an unknown cause of pneumonia. By January 19, 2020, the Wuhan CDC noted a case count of 198 and were calling the disease a novel-coronavirus-infected pneumonia. At this time, the virus had already spread beyond the country and the thing that scared scientists perhaps the most about the new virus was that people could have and transmit it without showing symptoms themselves. 

It was fascinating reading of the work that went into understanding the novel coronavirus and interesting information about how the virus spreads between both human and animal populations (with spillover occurring when it crosses between them). This makes the virus much more difficult to eradicate, and increases the mutations and variants that occur in it. Quammen notes that transmission to humans likely occurred in the market, from an animal source, and then spread from there with Wuhan a hub for travelers. He also covers how the Chinese government restricted access to information, likely both because restricting access to information is what they do, and from their experience with another coronavirus, SARS-CoV in 2003 that originated in China. Quammen also discusses the fallacy of herd immunity. especially with something that travels between humans and animals, and the rapid development of mRNA covid vaccines. Also noted is Dr. Peter Hotez and the effort to create non-mRNA vaccines, recombinant-protein methodology-built ones that are cheaper, more stable, and can be taken orally or as a nasal squirt.

The Midcoast by Adam White

 The Midcoast by Adam White is a novel set on the coast of Maine, with White telling a suspenseful story of families involved in drug running in a small community. There's some compelling writing about the choices people make and social classes and the juxtaposition between wealth and just getting by.


Why We Love Baseball by Joe Posnanski

Why We Love Baseball by Joe Posnanski is an entertaining book subtitled A History in 50 Moments. Posnanski covers the moments in baseball that stuck with him, ranging from the well-known moments of triumph to the simply interesting. It's noted in the introduction that there's actually 108 moments covered in the book and some of those that stood out are listed below:

- Five unlikely homers - including pitcher Bartolo Colon homering in 2016
- "There's no crying in baseball" from A League of Their Own
- The pine tar homer by George Brett in 1983 during a Royals-Yankees game
- The Bo throw by Bo Jackson vs. the Mariners in 1989
- A home run off Jose Canseco's head in 1993
- The Edgar Martinez double scoring Ken Griffrey Jr. for the Mariners against the Yankees in game 5 of the ALDS
- The 1947 embrace of Jackie Robinson by Pee Wee Reese (which may not have been an actual embrace, but likely still was a big moment)
- Joe Carter of the Blue Jays homering against Mitch Williams of the Phillies to win the 1993 World Series
- The bat flip by Jose Bautista in the 2015 Blue Jays-Rangers playoff game
- Vin Scully's call of the Sandy Koufax perfect game September 9, 1965
- One-handed pitcher Jim Abbott throws a no-hitter September 4, 1993
- Dee Strange-Gordon homers in September 2016, the first Marlins game after the death of Jose Fernandez
- Cal Ripken in 1995 passing Lou Gehrig's streak of 2,130 consecutive games played
- The last .400 season in 1941, with Ted Williams going into the final day at .3995 and then going 6-8 in the final day doubleheader, taking his average to .406
- Armando Galarraga throwing a near-perfect game in 2010, taken away by Jim Joyce blowing the call on what should have been the final out, and Galarraga graciously accepting his heartfelt apology
- David Ortiz in 2013 speaking to the crowd at Fenway Park after the Boston Marathon bombing and saying "this is our fucking city. And nobody's gonna dictate our freedom. Stay strong."
- Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers homering off Dennis Eckersley of the A's to win game one of the 1998 World Series, with Vin Scully simply saying "high fly ball into right field... she is GONE!"
- The speech by Jason Hayward during the 9th inning rain delay of the 2016 World Series 7th game between the Cubs and Indians, helping end the Cubs long run of failure