Sunday, January 10, 2021

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

 A Promised Land by Barack Obama is a well-written book that covers a tremendous amount of ground. The book jacket includes mention of the reach and limits of presidential power, U.S. partisan politics, international diplomacy, the 2008 financial crisis, passage of the Affordable Care Act, and the raid that killed Bid Laden. The jacket then closes with how the book captures Obama’s conviction that democracy not a gift, but something founded on empathy and common understanding built together, day by day.

Obama notes how he wrote the first draft in longhand on legal pads. Related to this, it seems the work that went into his law degree likely helped shape his methodical approach to approaching problems by gathering information as well as honed his skills, first employed out of college as a lawyer and community organizer. He comes across as someone who is remarkable, but not someone that couldn’t be aspired to. He seems to care and put in the work, listening to viewpoints and trying to make the right decisions. He also mentions how the presidency a job, like those held by others, and our federal government a human enterprise. It was also interesting to read of how he describes Joe Biden, as someone decent, honest, loyal, and caring.

In writing about his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama covered the introduction of Sarah Palin as the Republican nomination for VP. He noted wondering if John McCain later regretted putting her on the ticket, helping further the political approach of criticism over understanding or knowledge, later morphing into the dangerous repudiation of truth and facts.

It's a good book and also includes mention of Obama's favorite photo from election night in 2008, a shot of people at the Lincoln Memorial listening on the radio to him give his speech at Grant Park in Chicago.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Walking Home by Lynn Schooler

Walking Home by Lynn Schooler is a compelling travelogue about the 2007 solo trek he took north from his hometown of Juneau, Alaska. He went via his single engine boat 170 miles from Juneau up to Lituya Bay and then by foot 60 miles up the wild and uninhabited coast towards Dry Bay and the Alsek River. 

Lituya Bay where Schooler first went is a fascinating area he notes as being treacherous to enter. Due to the tides, it can be like falling off a shelf as the water drops so precipitously between the open ocean and the Bay, and it’s easy to be thrown against a berm of rocks in the water. Schooler also writes about the 1958 8.3 magnitude earthquake in the region that triggered a rock slide at the end of Lituya Bay, causing a 1,720 foot high tsunami, the largest ever recorded. There were three boats in the Bay at the time of the tsunami, the Edrie piloted by Howard Ulrich with his son, the Sunmore with Orville and Mickey Wagner, and the Badger with Bill and Vivian Swanson. The Sunmore was lost and the other two boats made it. Schooler also tells the story of James Todd Huscroft, who arrived in Alaska in 1915 and several years later went to live in Lituya Bay as a hermit, welcoming visitors that would pass through in the summer months. Huscroft was sixty-four in 1936 when a 490-foot tsunami of unknown origin destroyed his garden, and he died three years later.

Leaving from Lituya Bay, Schooler trekked the coast over glacier rubble and river crossings requiring an inflatable boat he carried, enduring horrible weather rolling in from the Pacific, all with the knowledge that if he got hurt, there wasn’t a way to call for help. He went up past Cape Fairweather, crossed Grand Plateau Lake and then saw the first vestiges of where people had been somewhat recently, less than ten miles from Dry Bay, and decided to turn around for home. While walking back to Lituya Bay he came across a grizzly bear, spotting it standing perfectly still looking out to the ocean, behavior not normal for a grizzly, and then catching a scent of Schooler and walking walking at him, with almost a sideways gait. As it got within a few yards, it became clear that the bear had a deep cut over one eye, and stalked Schooler, who was told later by a biologist that the injured animal likely starving and had neurological damage. Schooler survived by making himself appearing large by raising his canopy up high and charged the bear, causing it to turn tail and run away. 

Along with the history of Lituya Bay, Schooler also writes about the Tlingit people that lived in the lands he traversed, and the book wraps up with him motoring the 170 miles back to Juneau, arriving the afternoon of the memorial for his friend Luisa Stoughton. It's an interesting travel story and well-told personal account.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Breath by James Nestor

Breath by James Nestor is an interesting book subtitled The New Science of a Lost Art. I came across Nestor from his book Free Divers and in this work he delves into the importance of breathing correctly, with his personal experience of how breathing incorrectly can impact health and how to do it better.

Breath through the nose - Nestor details the harm that came to his body from ten days of only mouth breathing, and then recovery after he switched to breathing in primarily through the nose. Problems stemming from mouth breathing include: sleep apnea, snoring, hypertension, cavities, periodontal disease, and bad breath. The book covers how many people have some form of breathing difficulty or resistance and focusing on breathing in through the nose can alleviate that. The nose cleans, heats, and moistens air for easier absorption. Nestor notes how forcing nose breathing at night can be accomplished by something as simple as a postage-sized piece of cloth medical tape over the center of the mouth.

Build lung capacity – Along with how we breath in air, the book covers the importance of building lung capacity, through both physical exercise and breathing exercises. A slow and full exhalation of air is important as we need to get stale air out, and big, heavy breaths deplete our bodies of carbon dioxide, something beneficial to us in balance with oxygen. Slower, longer breaths is noted as what should be done, with Nestor extolling the benefits of breathing in through the nose for 5.5 seconds and out (can be through the mouth) for 5.5 seconds, totaling up to 5.5 breaths a minute. Doing this as a daily breath practice is described as a sort meditation for people who don’t want to meditate, and something that can be developed into a breathing habit.

Breath less – Nestor covers how hypoventilation training, breathing less, something that's been done by world class athletes back to Czech running star Emil Zatopek in the 1950s. Exhaling very long breaths, trying to keep the lungs roughly half full, trains them to do more with less. Also, this helps maintain that balance of carbon dioxide to oxygen, and can be an effective thing to do for people suffering from respiratory diseases. 

Chew more – It’s detailed how in prehistoric times, people breathed better, in part because their brains were less developed so the sinus cavities more developed. Additionally, they subsisted on a raw diet that required much more chewing, which developed the jaw, allowing full breath. As people evolved, nasal congestion became more prevalent due to small sinuses, a lack of space through which to breathe. Nestor covers how something as simple as chewing gum (he notes the hard sugar-free gum Falim) can help develop the jaw. This along with breathing exercises can help alleviate nasal congestion and make breathing easier. 

Try advanced techniques – Nestor covers Breathing+ techniques like Tummo or over breathing, exhaling all your air out, then holding the breath, to jump-start how you breathe. 

There’s a number of interesting ideas in the book, with perhaps the most basic and effective that of breathing in (very importantly, through the nose) for 5.5 seconds and out 5.5 seconds, totaling up to 5.5 breaths a minute. 

Sunday, December 06, 2020

Pappyland by Wright Thompson

 Pappyland by Wright Thompson is an excellent book subtitled A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon, and the Things That Last. Thompson is a writer for ESPN whose work I've posted on many times and in the book he covers Julian Van Winkle III, maker of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. Along with writing about the person who would become his friend in Van Winkle, Thompson writes about his own life and family, with both men from the South, Thompson raised and living in Mississippi and Van Winkle in Kentucky. 

Thompson details how Van Winkle's grandfather started in whiskey in 1893 with a job at W.L. Weller & Sons distillery. He then made Old Fitzgerald whiskey at Stitzel-Weller and Van Winkle's father took over the company in 1964. The whiskey business went through a decline and the Van Winkle family sold Stitzel-Weller in 1972. 

The family didn't leave the business entirely, with mention of Julian Van Winkle III's friend Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey helping him keep things afloat. Thompson notes how a conglomerate that owned old barrels of Van Winkle whiskey didn't realize their value and sold to Van Winkle a large amount of what would turn into widely acclaimed bourbon. Buffalo Trace then reached out and formed a partnership to jointly make Pappy Van Winkle Private Reserve. It's also covered in the book how bourbon has to be made. The ingredients, or mash bill, have to be least 51% corn, and beyond this, most bourbon makers use rye or barley, but Van Winkle uses wheat.

As Thompson tells the story of Van Winkle and his friendship with him, he also writes personal narrative about his own life. He covers living in the South with all the connotations that carries, his father who he wrote about in the ESPN piece Holy Ground, and the pending birth of his daughter. The book is a powerful read about fine bourbon, place, family, meaning, and myth. Related to myth, one part of the book that struck me was about how in Van Winkle, Thompson writes of someone with a tremendous amount of mythology associated, but that doesn't let it consume him and overshadow living and enjoying life with those dear to him.

No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer

No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer is an interesting book co-written by the founder and CEO of Netflix along with the author of The Culture MapNo Rules Rules is about how Netflix looks to have top performance with a culture of what the authors describe as "freedom and responsibility." It's detailed in the book that this is to come from three concepts that enable and build on one another.

1. Build up talent density The idea put forth in the book is to not have adequate performers in the company, but only exceptional ones, or "stunning colleagues." Part of the principle behind this is less than stunning employees will bring down the performance and morale of the rest of the team, and result in most of the management time required. Trying to have this talent density comes from both how hiring is done and how employees are managed. If someone not performing exceptionally, they may be let go and the authors describe Netflix as like a professional sports team, always seeking to have the very best in any role. The "keeper test" is that a manager should consider if they would fight to keep an employee if that person said they got an offer to leave. If they wouldn't fight hard to keep them, that person should probably be replaced. Tying into this, it's written that employees on a regular basis should ask their managers how hard they would fight to keep them. Around compensation, it's noted that Netflix for any creative role seeks to pay top of personal market, if the market for someone increases dramatically, the objective is to increase their salary dramatically. People are encouraged to take calls from recruiters, find out what they're being offered, and report that information back to Netflix so that people don't leave because of money they're worth, but not getting at Netflix. Additionally, Netflix doesn't pay bonuses, rather pays higher salaries, in part because as the business changes, what should be the bonus criteria can change as well. 

2. Increase candor It's detailed how to help improve performance within this talent-dense workforce, there's a focus on having employees having a high level of candor with one another. The idea is for people to say what they really think (with positive intent) and give candid and actionable feedback to people, feedback that can help the recipient and help the company. This should be done not just during performance review cycles, but frequently and in-person. Also, feedback provided to someone should take into account any regional differences in how feedback best delivered. Additionally, it's covered that feedback should go upwards in the management hierarchy as well as down and laterally. People are described as hired for their opinions, and part of their job is to provide them. The concept of "open the books" is put forth, being transparent and letting people know all the details of what's going on, including potential job losses due to restructuring and profit and loss information about the company that can only be released externally at certain times. 

3. Remove controls The third large concept from the book, one that certainly requires a high level of talent density to work, is to remove controls on things including vacations, expenses, and approvals. It's covered that the goal is to instill in managers the notion of leading with context, not control. Set the context of what good behavior is and if done effectively, people will model that behavior. Around expenses, the guideline described is "act in Netflix's best interest." Make sure there's decision-making freedom, just as how people were hired for their opinions, they were hired for their decision-making ability. It's noted that Netflix runs on the "informed captain" concept, people who spend the time on something are the ones who make the decisions on it, with the company designed to be loosely rather than tightly coupled and not have everything run top-down.

These three principles of increase talent density, increase candor, and remove controls are of course easier said that done, and it's interesting reading in the book of how Netflix is said to go about the effort.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Endurance by Alfred Lansing

 Endurance by Alfred Lansing from 1959 is a compelling book on the twenty-eight man Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, led by Sir Ernest Shackleton. Much of the material was from diaries written during the trip as well as interviews Lansing did with some of the men and it's great detail on an incredible story.

The goal of the expedition was to cross the Antarctic continent from east to west and it set out for the Pole from South Georgia Island, east of the Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina, on board the Endurance in December 1914. The ship roughly a month into the expedition was locked in by ice in the Weddell Sea just outside the Antarctic Circle. Shackleton hoped that the ship would eventually break free and the Endurance and its crew drifted with the ice floes frozen around it. However, the ice began to crush the ship and the men abandoned ship in October 1915.

The crew took what provisions they could from the ship along with three small boats and drifted on the ice until April 1916. The ice pack they were on then began to break apart and the crew was forced onto the three boats and after several perilous days at sea landed on Elephant Island in the northern tip of Antarctica. 

Shackleton and several of his crew launched from Elephant Island April 24, 1916 for the 850-mile voyage back to South Georgia Island seeking rescue. The journey was exceedingly dangerous, both getting to the island and then safely landing on it, and they arrived on May 10, 522 days after leaving South Georgia. They then had to make a treacherous crossing over the top of the island, with Shackleton and two others walking into Stromness Whaling Station on May 21, 1916. The men there were familiar with the expedition and presumed all hands had been lost at sea, with it compelling reading in the book of Shackleton and his men walking from the center of South Georgia Island into the whaling encampment. The journey overland on South Georgia was the first recorded to have been done and Lansing notes that there wasn't another crossing of the island until almost 40 years later, and this done by expert climbers in proper gear.

Shackleton worked to secure a boat to return to Elephant Island to rescue the remaining crew and after several aborted attempts, picked them up on August 30, 1916. The book provides a great record of a remarkable battle to survive, with Shackleton and his men going from one almost impossible situation to another. 

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Eat a Peach by David Chang

 Eat a Peach by David Chang is a memoir from the chef and founder of Momfuku, now a series of restaurants on the east coast and in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Additionally, Chang wrote the cookbook Momofuku and has two Netflix series, Ugly Delicious, and Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner.

Eat a Peach is a very open and honest book and he starts with his Korean upbringing outside Washington D.C. and his relationship with his parents growing up. Later in the book he covers his battles with depression and experience with therapy and medication. He also notes that depression for him manifested as an addiction to work. He worked long hours and describes himself as someone who was a manic, difficult, and demanding person to work for. 

Chang details how he for a short period after college worked in a corporate job, and then went to culinary school after having worked in bars and restaurants while in college. Post-culinary school, he took a low-level restaurant job and worked hard for little money. He opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in a tiny space in New York in 2004 and hustled to keep it open. He next opened up Momofuku Ssam Bar and then Ko, a higher-end tasting menu restaurant. 

Later in the book there's mention of his friendships with Anthony Bourdain and Rene Redzepi, who has the restaurant Noma in Denmark, as well as Ferran and Albert Adria who ran elBulli in Spain. Eat a Peach is a solid read about someone who has been successful and has interesting life stories.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Creating Signature Stories by David Aaker

 Creating Signature Stories by David Aaker is a solid business book with the subtitle Strategic Messaging that Energizes, Persuades and Inspires and below are the chapters, with ideas that stood out to me from each. 

Chapter one - What is a signature story? Aaker early on in the book notes that it to show how to apply the power of storytelling to strategic messaging. He also highlights that a signature story is an intriguing, authentic, involving narrative that delivers or supports a strategic message. It should clarify or enhance: the brand vision, the customer relationship, the organization and its values, and the present and future business strategy.

Chapter two - Sets of signature stories It's good to have a few stories with the same strategic message. It gives breadth and depth to the core story and message.  

Chapter three - Signature stories create brand visibility and energy When a speaker says "let me tell start with a story," your attention focuses.

Chapter 4 - Signature stories persuade Signature stories affect behavior. 

Chapter 5 - Higher-purpose signature stories inspire A firm having a higher purpose also enables stories.

Chapter 6 - Signature-story audiences Signature stories are for employees along with customers.

Chapter 7 - Sourcing signature stories Signature stories have a hero or set of heroes. Those heroes among other possible subjects can include the brand, offerings, employees, founders, programs, or customers.

Chapter 8 - What makes a signature story strong? Signature stories have an intriguing and absorbing plot.

Chapter 9 - Your professional signature stories - understanding yourself Your personal story should include all the elements of a brand story.

Aaker's book has good content in it on a topic that's important for anyone with a business and a message.

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman is the fourth novel I've read from the Swedish writer, with the first two Beartown and Us Against You about a youth hockey team, and the third A Man Called Ove, which is to be released in 2022 as an English-language movie (it already was made into a Swedish film) starring Tom Hanks.

While Anxious People may not have been as compelling to me as Backman's prior books, I still found it be a nice story and enjoyable read. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath

The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath is a solid read subtitled Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact. The book focuses on defining moments, or events we remember, with those moments typically high in elevationinsightpride, or connection

The first story told is of a school instituting a Senior Signing Day, taking the idea of national signing day for athletes revealing their school choice and applying it to all seniors, with them announcing in front of the school and their families where they'll go to college. This annual event creates defining moments for both those announcing their college picks and younger students seeing their example. The authors write about how we remember particular moments for the peak memories they've provided, with one business example given that of the Magic Castle hotel in Los Angeles. They have a Popsicle Hotline phone by the pool that hotel guests can use to request a popsicle, which will be delivered to them by a white glove-wearing waiter. The flip side of providing great customer experience is providing a great employee experience and the Heath brothers write about the First Day Experience program for new hires at John Deere. 

While a high school senior announcing where they'll go to college or employee on their first day at a job are peak moments, pits can also be the source of key memories or experiences. Something that's bad can be engineered to be better, with the example given that of hospitals making MRI machines for kids something fun, treating it like a spaceship rather than a tube to lay very still in while the machine makes loud noises. It's detailed in the book that transitions should be marked, milestones commemorated, and pits filled. 

Elevation is written of as leading to defining moments. Peaks can be created if one conscious of them and it's cited that a way to create peaks is to break the script, provide an unexpected experience, with the example given of how the son of a hotel guest left behind a stuffed animal, and hotel workers prior to mailing the animal took pictures of it enjoying it's stay there at the hotel. This story is instructive as it provided a peak moment for the hotel guest and his family, but also likely for the hotel employees providing it. Next is insight, moments that deliver realizations and transformation. One way to deliver these to help people get them for themselves, let them "trip over the truth" and come to a sudden realization. Also leading to insight is the idea of "stretching for it," going on the basis that action leads to insight more often than insight leads to action. Examples are given of people enduring hard times or moments, just putting one foot in front of the other. Another story told in the book is of students more frequently submitting paper revisions if the instructor challenged them to, wrote a note saying they're capable of doing something even better than they've already submitted. It's also noted that in work settings, mentorship can come from high standards plus assurance. 

Additionally are moments of pride, something that can be created by companies when they recognize employees for their effort and work. What's important is that it's authentic, personal, and not programmatic. Also key to remember and recognize are milestones, those marker points on the path to achieving something. Achievement is often simply stringing together milestones reached. Pride often comes from someone completing something that took a moment of courage, tackling something difficult and coming out the other side. Moments of connection are when we deepen our relationships with others. Creating shared meaning or experiences, especially working together with others on something difficult. Deepening ties is another way to create connection, listening to what someone has to say. People want to know they're understood, validated, and their needs cared about. The story is told in the book of how important it is to be able to express "what matters to me." It's a good book about this power of defining moments and how you try to provide them for people by thinking in moments and focusing on elevation, insight, pride, and connection. 

Monday, October 19, 2020

Endurance by Scott Kelly

 Endurance by Scott Kelly is from the retired astronaut who spent a year on the International Space Station, returning to Earth March 2016. It's a solid book that largely alternates chapters between this voyage on the space station, his second long-duration visit there, and the events of his life that led up to it.

Scott's twin brother Mark is also a retired astronaut (and Arizona Senate candidate) and was interesting how the two of them didn't seem to have an exceptional childhood, other than their parents drank a lot so the two kids were often on their own to entertain themselves and wander wherever they wanted. When they were with their parents, there was often fighting or other drama due to the drinking. Scott did note how when he was eleven, his mom decided to become a police officer, just like his father, and how proud he was of her for going through the process to become one, especially passing the difficult physical fitness test. 

Scott wasn't a good student when he was young, but did find something he interested in, working as an EMT while still in high school. He graduated in the bottom half of his class and while in his freshman year of college at University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus happened across The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. He was captivated by the idea of doing something immensely difficult, risking your life for it, and surviving. After reading the book, Scott had a goal to become a Navy pilot, landing on aircraft carriers, and perhaps even an astronaut. 

In his second semester of school, Scott signed up for a precalculus course, something that was going to be very difficult for him, and after putting in the work, he understood the material, with a B-. Out of this he saw that with effort, he could learn something difficult, and later noted how he saw it was just as easy to try to excel at something as to just do something halfway. He then transferred to the State University of New York Maritime College, a small, military-oriented school in New York City. He found that he liked the military discipline, something lacking while growing up. He then did well there, something that he kept building on. 

As Scott progressed through college he knew he wanted to pilot the space shuttle, with it the most difficult craft to fly and he graduated from Maritime in 1987. Having signed up for five years of military service in exchange for an ROTC scholarship, he was assigned to flight school in Pensacola, Florida, continued to thrive and was assigned to fly jets. He progressed to serving as a test pilot and was accepted into the astronaut program in 1996, at the same time as Mark. He got his first shuttle assignment in 1999, going into space on Discovery in December and later serving as commander piloting the shuttle. He notes how he a pilot, not necessarily a scientist, but understands how important the science they do is. The shuttle program ended in 2011 and Scott spent a 159 day stint on the International Space Station in 2010-11. While he on this tour, Mark's wife Gabby Giffords was shot in Tucson, Arizona and Mark three months later flew as commander of Endeavour, its last mission before being retired, with her urging him to complete the assignment. 

The ISS has been inhabited non-stop since Nov 2000, and has been visited by more than two hundred people from sixteen nations. A standard long-duration visit there was five to six months, but a year-long mission was announced in November 2012, with Scott and Russian cosmonaut Misha Kornienko as the two people sent for this stretch in large part to see how the human body would respond to a year in space, something terribly important if we're ever going to send anyone to Mars. Scott and Misha left in 2015 and it was remarkable reading of just how much work had to be done while on board, both in science experiments and ongoing repairs to things breaking on ISS. There were so many systems that had to be fixed and problems solved while they there, it's difficult stuff, this space thing. Recounted in the book are the multiple 7+ hour spacewalks Scott did to do necessary repairs to the outside of the Space Station. During their year in space, Scott and Misha saw a total of thirteen other people come and go from the space station and it was interesting reading of the interactions with crew and the views they experienced, with him noting that of the Bahamas from space. 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

His Truth is Marching On by Jon Meacham

 His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope by Jon Meacham focuses on the impact Lewis, who died earlier this year, had up through the passage of the Civil Rights Act, with Meacham citing the passage of the Act that he helped bring about as one of the key events of the 20th Century.

Lewis began his activism with sit ins trying to integrate lunch counters in Nashville and then he and fellow Freedom Riders pushed for integrated interstate travel throughout the South. It was remarkable how steadfast he and his compatriots were in their commitment to non-violence in pursuit of their just cause. Lewis was arrested forty-five times over the course of his life, suffered a fractured skull and repeatedly beaten and tear-gassed. He simply kept going, resolute in his belief that the world could be a just place, and he was willing to sacrifice himself to help make it so.

The image on the cover of the book is from the Bloody Sunday March in 1965, at the beginning of a trek from Selma to Montgomery to protest the exclusion of African Americans from the voting booths, a violation of the 15th amendment. Lewis and other non-violent marchers were attacked at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama by police and hooligans, and images from it helped press President Lyndon Johnson to pass the Civil Rights Act, guaranteeing federal protection for things like voting rights. Just as Lewis was on the right side of history, people who opposed his efforts, like law enforcement officers Jim Clark and Bull Connor were on the wrong side; Lewis went to Congress, Clark went on to sell mobile homes.

Lewis was moved by love, not by hate. His was a belief in the beloved community, a concept spoken of by Martin Luther King, Jr. and described by Lewis as the Christian concept of the Kingdom of God on earth. It was truly noble sacrifice by the great man, giving of himself for a cause, and the epilogue of the book titled Against the Rulers of the Darkness and features an afterword by Lewis about what's happing in the country today.