Monday, December 31, 2018

Rising Out of Hatred by Eli Saslow

Rising Out of Hatred by Eli Saslow was a good book about Derek Black, godson of David Duke and son of Don Black, founder of the site Stormfront, the largest racist community on the Internet and one that Derek contributed to starting when he a youth and was expected to one day take the leadership of.

The book is subtitled The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist and details the gradual transformation of Derek that began in his first year as a student at New College of Florida, a liberal four-year university. Derek arrived on campus with his views about and against blacks, Jews, and other minorities unknown to to his classmates and for a time, lived a sort of double life, spewing racism online and via a radio show while also befriending a diverse group of people. After having his beliefs and activities outed on campus while studying in Europe for a semester, Derek returned and was largely ostracized at New College, but then reached out to by some, invited by an Orthodox Jew classmate to attend his weekly Shabbat dinner, and developing a close friendship with a woman who helped change his views, through both her challenging his beliefs and he seeing how they made her feel.

Derek prior to and when he first arrived at New College talked and wrote a great deal about the the concept of anti-privilege for whites, how they under attack and fighting for basic rights as a minority group. He gradually went from being a White Supremacist, who felt whites better than others, to a White Nationalist, who felt races should be kept separate and whites needed protection, to someone who both abandoned his prior notion of whites under attack and saw the damage forcing people apart would cause. Derek after graduation from New College and prior to starting graduate school in Michigan wrote a letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center repudiating his prior views, leading to his family basically disowning him. Additionally, he wrote several opinion pieces for the New York Times, warning about the dangers Trump bringing in and the story that Saslow tells of Black is a really profound one well told.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Thirst by Scott Harrison

Thirst by Scott Harrison was from the founder of charity: water and the book jacket notes that the nonprofit over the past eleven years has funded some 28,000 water projects via contributions from over a million donors.

The book notes how when Harrison four years-old, his mother was exposed to carbon monoxide poisoning from their house, impacting greatly her immune system for decades to follow. It was fascinating reading on how debilitating her illness was, how easily it would get triggered, and the lengths people would have to go to in order to spend time with her as she had to be kept away from toxins. Also compelling was reading on the effort Harrison's father put in to try to help his wife improve.

Harrison details how he in his early 20's worked as a New York City nightclub promoter, living a fairly wild lifestyle, and then reached a point of reconnecting with the religious faith his parents tried to instill in him and wanting to start anew. He landed a year-long volunteer gig as a photographer with Mercy Ships, an organization that that worked in Africa providing free health care, particularly in the area of dental work and surgeries on the eyes or to repair facial abnormalities like clefts or disfiguring palates. During Harrison's time there, he was exposed to the problem that is a lack to clean water, with people he met educating him about how many of the problems faced by people in Africa can be traced back to this shortage. After his time on the Mercy Ships boat ended, he returned to New York and starting hosting fundraisers for the organization and then started a new charity focused on clean water.

The portion of the book about charity: water covers things like the three pillars of the group... the 100% donation model, with organizational overhead paid by a fairly small group of donors known as The Well so that every dollar from other charitable contributions goes directly to water projects, how donations made are tied to specific projects and people told what they're giving to, and that the branding around donations is designed to inspire people rather than try to make them feel guilty. Also detailed is the story of Rachel Beckwith, someone who for her ninth birthday asked her friends to donate to clean water rather than getting her presents and shortly after died in a car accident. Her pastor in Seattle asked Harrison to reopen her giving campaign, with it first getting donations through the church congregation, and then complete strangers as the story went national, leading to the campaign raising in Rachel's name over $1.2M from some 31,000 donations.

It's a good and inspiring book and noted at the end, along with information about The Spring, charity: water's monthly giving program, is mention of using the code 'together' from the website to learn more.

Friday, December 07, 2018

The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton

The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton was a great book subtitled How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row, with Hinton released after spending nearly thirty years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

Hinton in 1985 was clocked in at work while a robbery committed elsewhere, and arrested after someone who had an ax to grind implicated him in that crime. Prosecutors then decided that the robbery similar to two unsolved murders and charged him with those crimes as well, with his state-appointed attorney providing scant defense, after complaining to Hinton about how little money he received from the state of Alabama for that representation. What comes through from the the story of Hinton's time on Death Row was how there's humanity possible in anything, how you respond to people is a choice. Fifty-four people were executed in his jail while he there and Hinton very much helped his fellow inmates, through the book club he formed as well as the simple act of acknowledging them, either during dark nights or by banging on the bars during executions, so someone would know they not alone, regardless of guilt or innocence.

The forward of the book was written by Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who represents Death Row inmates and fights to abolish the death penalty, with it noted in the book both that we don't have the right to decide who should die, and people can be wrongly convicted, often due to poor representation as a result of not having money available for their defense, just like in Hinton's case. Hinton cites at the end that one out of every ten on Death Row are innocent, and Stevenson noted in a 2005 newspaper editorial that since 1975, there have been thirty-four executions and seven exonerations of Death Row prisoners, close to a one in five rate. Stevenson and Hinton met in 1999, with the state courts agreeing with the arguments of prosecutors and continually denying all appeals made on Hinton's behalf. Stevenson and Hinton then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court and asked them to review whether adequate defense representation had been provided. The Court unanimously ruled in 2014 that that it had not been adequate and sent the case back to lower courts for review, with those courts agreeing with the Supreme Court and saying the case would have to be retried in Alabama. After first accusing Stevenson of stealing evidence that couldn't be found, the state declined to prosecute and dropping all charges, leading to Hinton's April 2015 release from prison.

The book is about a lot things, the horrible justice system in Alabama, the work of Bryan Stevenson, Hinton's attitude towards life and helping others, the support he received from Stevenson and his childhood friend who came to see him at virtually every visiting day over the thirty years, and the notion that people "shouldn't get used to injustice." Just as much as these other things, though, the book about this idea of whether the courts should be able to sentence people to death, with the closing of the book that "the death penalty is broken, and you are either part of the death squad or banging on the bars. Choose."

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Quiet by Susan Cain

Quiet by Susan Cain was a solid book subtitled The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.

Cain covers how extroverts are held up as the way someone supposed to be, but that gives short shrift to what introverts, as a sizable portion of the population, contribute and the skills an introvert posses can be ones that an extrovert might likely not have, ones around listening, not being rattled, and being able to focus.

Its noted in the book how introverts can speak publicly, and will typically be most successful doing so on things that are important to them, and that we shouldn't build our workplaces and homes simply around extroverts. For an extroverted parent of an introverted child, care should be taken to both understand that the child different than themselves and to help in planning for interactions and big social encounters. The book is a bit slow at times, but has interesting ideas to it.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

The Library Book by Susan Orlean was a thorough and interesting look at something that at first blush may not seem to lend itself to a compelling narrative, however she very much succeeds with the effort. Orlean centers the book around the Los Angeles Central Library and a devastating fire that swept through it in 1986 and also covers what libraries have been through history, what they are today, and what they mean to her.

About the fire, which burned for seven hours, with more than one million books burned or damaged and almost every firefighter in Los Angeles called to fight it, Orlean wrote an amazing description, as if she was there and narrating it, of how the fire reached a point where it had exactly enough air available to consume everything in its reach, and burned in a colorless or pale blue hue. Additionally, she covered the investigation into the cause of the fire, with people focusing in on a particular suspect in the compelling serial liar and attention seeker Harry Peak.

Orlean also wrote heavily on the history of both the Los Angeles Central Library and libraries in general and their import in the world, with how in war or with a tyrannical regime, destroying books a way to show people you can take from them. About libraries today, she wrote of them as something that provides in addition to books, access to pictures, music, maps, classes, and services for the community, including a place to go for the homeless, which makes their presence there and reaction to them important. Additionally, Orlean writes well about librarians, many of whom love the places and are second-generation library workers.

The book includes a fair amount of compelling first-person writing, with Orlean writing on taking her son to the library, just as her mother took her, and how she chose to write the book to help preserve that memory of her. She then wrote of memories and the permanence of books and words, noting that in Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned, and how if some of that metaphorical library can be shared, it takes on a life of it's own. With The Library Book, Orlean serves as a wordsmith crafting great narrative and provides a deep-dive homage for people who like books, libraries, community, and interesting stories of the everyday.

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou is about the now shut down medical startup Theranos and the book an interesting look at gross mismanagement and deception, as well as the impact of the right people vouching for something.

The company was run by Elizabeth Holmes, with her starting by getting a $1M investment from famed venture capitalist Tim Draper, the father of a childhood friend, and by the end of 2004 having raised nearly $6M. Holmes cultivated a network of esteemed advisers, with the Board of Directors including Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, current Secretary of Defense George Mattis, and venture capitalist Board Chairman Don Lucas. Many of the Board members were fellows at the Hoover Institute on the Stanford campus and Holmes managed to make herself a sort of granddaughter figure to some, even while she set up the Board so that she had all the voting rights and few checks on her decisions.

Many of the Board members having a military background helped perpetuate the myth that Theranos used in the U.S. Armed Forces and a later-joining Board member was high-profile lawyer David Boies, whose firm would relentlessly attack anyone in the Theranos cross-hairs, often former employees that they wanted to ensure said nothing negative about the company. The main charge that Boies, Holmes, and Sunny Balwani, her boyfriend she brought into Theranos as an executive, fought against was that the technology didn't work. The Theranos offering was a device that would prick a drop of blood and and from that limited amount, run tests that otherwise would have to be done via much larger needles. However, what they purported to be able to do had been attempted many times and it was simply impossible to have so many different blood tests run from a tiny amount of blood. The result of this was test results from Theranos were often inaccurate and this type of hyperbole around capabilities not unheard of from a startup, but with it involving medicine, the stakes definitely were raised and there potential for people being either over-treated or under-treated as a result of the tests. Additionally, Holmes and Balwani created a horrific work culture, with constant firings and fear throughout the organization as well as groups working in silos and not knowing what was going on in areas that impacted them. The two of them would coordinate the deceiving of potential customers and partners when doing demonstrations of their technology, helping lead to Theranos being in some forty Walgreens locations in Arizona and at its highest point, the company was valued at over $9B, putting Holmes' net worth on paper at some $4.5B.

Things started to come undone when a doctor who wrote a medical blog was contacted about the company behaving wrongly, and he then reached out to Carreyrou at the Wall Street Journal who began to investigate. This led to Carreyrou contacting, along with other former employees, Tyler Schultz, the grandson of Board Member George Schultz, who sided with Holmes and didn't believe his grandson's statements about wrongdoing. While the company was being researched by the WSJ, it received $125M in funding from Rupert Murdoch, and Holmes attempted to get him to put a stop to the story in the works from the Murdoch-owned paper. Murdoch demurred to intervene, and then after the scandal hit, sold his shares back to Theranos for $1 to get the tax write-off to offset other earnings of his. The first article on the company by Carreyrou was published in late 2015 and by early 2017, the company's value $0 and Holmes and Balwani indicted on federal wire fraud charges in June 2018.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

On Desperate Ground by Hampton Sides

On Desperate Ground by Hampton Sides was an excellent book about U.S. Marines in the Korean War being surrounded in the mountains by a much larger force of Chinese troops and fighting their way back to safety.

Sides details how in 1950, General Douglas MacArthur, Commander of all U.S. and U.N. troops in the Far East, had the Marines make a push across the 38th parallel separating North and South Korea, with the goal of going all the way to the Yalu River separating North Korea from China. MacArthur's belief was that Chinese wouldn't enter into the war and the hubris on the part of he and his Chief of Staff, Major General Ned Almond, resulted in a force led by some twenty-thousand men of the First Marine Division commanded by General Oliver Prince North being flanked by what was likely several hundred thousand Chinese soldiers.

Much of the fighting in the mountains took place in sub-zero temperatures around the Chosin Reservoir, with a single 100 mile road there from the coast, and the Chinese trapping the Marines in the mountains, letting them progress up the road and then blowing bridges behind them. It was a remarkable escape, aided heavily by the Marines building an airstrip in the mountains at Hagaru, replacing a blown-out bridge to safety by flying in and dropping multi-thousand pound bridge pieces, the rescuing of men from the frozen-over reservoir, and by a battalion of 450 Marines who went overland to come to the aid of a company of Marines, Fox Company, who would have otherwise almost certainly have been all killed or captured. The tales of individual heroism was compelling reading, with those featured in the book along with General North including Sergeant Robert Kennemore, Lieutenant John Yancey, Private Hector Cafferata, Private Jack Chapman, Lieutenant Chew-Een Lee, Navy pilots Ensign Jesse Brown and Lieutenant Thomas Hudner, Private Ed Reeves, and Lieutenant Colonel John Partridge, who oversaw the building of both the bridge and airstrip.

The book in the beginning makes mention of Sun Tzu's notion that there are nine different kinds of battle, and that "the final and most distressing type is a situation in which one's army can be saved from destruction only by fighting without delay, a situation that Sun Tzu calls 'on desperate ground,'" and after the war, causality numbers stated by the Pentagon had the battle at and around the reservoir pegged at some 750 Marines killed, with 3,000 wounded and 200 missing, and the Chinese forces having an estimated 30,000 killed and 12,500 wounded. Overall, it was noted that 33,000 Americans died fighting in the Korean War, 180,000 Chinese troops, and 2.5M Korean citizens, and Sides in the book tells the story of this particular battle via a combination of deep reporting and narrative tales of individual heroism in the face of close to insurmountable odds.

The Dinosaur Artist by Paige Williams

The Dinosaur Artist by Paige Williams has the subtitle Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth's Ultimate Trophy and tells the story of Eric Prokopi, described in the book jacket as "a thirty-eight-year-old Floridian, whose singular obsession with fossils generated a thriving business hunting, preparing, and selling specimens."

Along with finding fossils in the United States, Prokopi went to Mongolia and arranged for bones to be sent from there, which is what led to the auction of a reconstructed dinosaur and arrest of the book's subject.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin was a very solid book on the formative experiences and leadership through difficult times provided by four great Presidents... Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson.

Goodwin's previous books included ones on each of the four men and she constructed this one with three main sections, and chapters within on each man. The first section is on their early years, second on the dramatic reversals and challenges faced leading up to the Presidency, and third contained a case study for each on how they led while in the White House, with the following some of the things from all three sections of the book that stood out in relation to each person...

Abraham Lincoln grew up incredibly poor, but was a voracious reader and learner. He suffered a blow to his reputation while in his early thirties, feeling that he had failed to fulfill pledges made in getting elected to the Illinois legislature. From this place of depression, which he dealt with at recurring times, he rebuilt his life through his law practice, then reentered politics and became President in 1861 at fifty-two years old. The country was in turmoil at the time, with southern states passing resolutions to succeed from the Union and Lincoln led in a very methodical and patient way (with one example how he would write a letter to someone expressing anger with them, then put it in a drawer and never deliver it), but was very principled to his beliefs on the wrong of slavery. The case study from Goodwin is about his Emancipation Proclamation executive order freeing slaves in the states rebelling against the Union and she illustrates how Lincoln's leadership very much a combination of transactional and transformational approaches, both getting some people what they needed in exchange for support and inspiring others.

Theodore Roosevelt came from a respected and at least fairly well off family, but like Lincoln, worked hard and read voraciously. He entered public office in his twenties and then suffered the tragedy of having his mother and young wife die on the same day. From this grief, Roosevelt went out west, worked on a ranch he acquired and lifted himself from depression. Roosevelt then returned east and took whatever government jobs availed themselves to him, working at and learning from each. His aphorisms in the roles were to: hit the ground running, ask questions by wandering around, determine the basic problems and hit them head on, stick to your guns, and then know when it's time to get out. He served in various roles and then became President at forty-two when McKinley shot in 1901. The case study that Goodwin details is how Roosevelt dealt with the coal strike, something that greatly affected the nation and he set a precedent by getting involved in this dispute between labor and management. Like Lincoln, he paid great attention to timing and was methodical, but acted when needed, with his success in the conflict leading to what became known as the Square Deal, progressive reform around the relationship between management and labor.

Franklin D. Roosevelt had a very healthy childhood, but then had his father suffer a debilitating heart attack when he was eight years old. Franklin became a politician and in 1921 was struck by polio and paralyzed, which he reacted to with both a zeal and positive attitude, working hard to recover and have a joy in living. He went through a seven-year convalescence, running the Warm Spring rehabilitation center that helped many others along with himself, and then returned to public service, taking pretty much any job, even if it seemed below his station, figuring that he'd learn something there. He became Governor of New York around the time the Great Depression was starting and was elected as President in 1933 as the country becoming paralyzed, with people not working and banks failing. Goodwin details the Hundred Days, his reforms and striking of a balance between realism and optimism. He had the maxim to above all, try anything, and if it didn't work to change and do something new, and experimented with different social programs, shutting down the banks at a federal level and then reopened them when each deemed ready. Additionally, he had a great temperament, which came through in his fireside radio addresses to the nation, and his efforts in pulling the country out of the Depression helped set the stage for what was needed with the onset of WWII.

Lyndon Johnson early on showed a great deal of empathy for the poor, serving at a young age as principal of a school in an impoverished Texas community, and when he entered politics, was a consummate politician, hard driving and quick decision making, but who suffered failure when losing an election to the Senate that he was sure would be his. He over time regained his footing, won a seat in 1948, and was exceptional at working one on one with people and cajoling his way into the things he wanted. While in office, Johnson suffered a heart attack, almost died, and then reinvigorated himself, but with his quest for power around wanting to really accomplish something. He committed himself to the battle for civil rights and became Vice President under John F. Kennedy. After assuming the Presidency, Johnson focused on getting passed what Kennedy had begun and his strengths were very much suited to the work needed to get bills through the Senate, with the case study in the book detailing the masterful work Johnson did first getting tax cuts done, then civil rights, and other remarkable bills passed during the the 89th Congress.

Goodwin details well how each of the four men met great challenges with ambition and resilience, showing authentic leadership during times the country greatly needed it.

Indianapolis by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic

Indianapolis by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic was an excellent book subtitled The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man.

Vincent and Vladic tell well the remarkable story of the ship and it's men, with the Indianapolis the flagship of the Pacific fleet and just prior to the sinking, having gone from San Francisco across the Pacific with the core of the atomic bomb that would drop on Hiroshima. The heavy cruiser was then sunk on July 30, 1945 by a Japanese submarine, with some 300 people going down with the ship, nearly 900 making it into the water alive, and 316 surviving until rescue.

The book came out of interviews with 107 survivors and eyewitnesses, with those rescued spending some four days in the water, covered in oil, with sharks attacking, and people going delirious. The authors detail an amazing rescue, both the sheer happenstance that led to people being sighted and then the planes and boats that went to them. An American bomber was flying overhead on routine patrol, with people in it spotting an oil slick thought to be from a Japanese sub, and then following it and seeing in the water the hundreds of American sailors from a ship not even reported as missing. That identification was mid-day August 2nd, and around 5PM that night a plane piloted by Lieutenant Adrian Marks made an extremely dangerous and against regulations open-sea landing to make the first rescues.

Additionally, Commander Graham Claytor of the destroyer USS Cecil J Doyle heard of the hundreds of men in the water and prior to receiving any orders from command, rerouted his ship and pushed it to the limits speeding to the rescue. Then at 10:42PM, about an hour prior to arriving to the many sailors not aboard the now floating rescue plane, Claytor went against all naval regulations and ordered his searchlight pointed at the sky, so that people would know help was coming... something that survivors then in the water later noted as important to their survival. There were countless tales of heroism around the rescue, including Petty Officer William Van Wilpe repeatedly jumping into the waters and dragging people aboard and the final rescue of survivors, including Indianapolis Captain Charles McVay III, occurred August 3rd, with news of the Indy sinking released by the military two weeks later, on the same day Japan's surrender announced and the war over.

Incredibly, McVay was subsequently court-martialed, with he the only captain of a sunken ship from the war to have this occur to him and charges against McVay were for things like not zigzagging, even though his orders fairly standard practice, and little time was allowed for his just-appointed defense to gather evidence. It very much seemed like the captain was set up to take the blame for the mistakes of others that helped lead to the sinking, as well as then extended time prior to rescue efforts. There was no escort provided for the thousand-person ship, nor information passed along to the Indianapolis about Japanese submarine activity in the area of the sinking and after it went down, multiple people took a "not my responsibility" attitude towards the whereabouts of the ship as it was supposedly sailing from one region of operational responsibility to another, all the while at the bottom of the ocean with hundreds of sailors continuing to perish in the water.

The book wraps up with detail around the decades-later exoneration of the now deceased Captain McVay, with efforts around this led by many of the aging surviving sailors as well as William Toti, captain of the submarine USS Indianapolis, an 11 year-old who learned about the ship, sympathetic members of Congress, and even Japanese sub commander Mochitsura Hashimoto who sunk the Indianapolis. The ship remained lost at sea until discovery in 2017 by a team financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Vincent and Vladic do a very effective job of telling the story of it, the men on board, and those who came to their rescue and defense.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Factfulness by Hans Rosling

Factfulness by Hans Rosling was an excellent book with the subtitle Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.

Rosling died from cancer in 2017 and the book finished after his death and written with his two longtime collaborators, son Ola Rosling and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Ronnlund. The couple created Trendanalyzer, the bubble-chart company acquired by Google and the three of them founded the Gapminder Foundation.

Factfulness makes the case that things really are better now than in the past and as Rosling knew he had terminal cancer during the writing process, he noted in the jacket for it that "this book is my last battle in my lifelong mission to fight devastating ignorance. Previously I armed myself with huge data sets, eye-opening software, an energetic lecturing style, and a Swedish bayonet for sword-swallowing. It wasn't enough, but I hope this book will be."

At the very beginning of Factfulness are 13 questions that Rosling in talks would pose to people about the state of the world, with those questions around topics like poverty, education, life expectancy, where people live, access to electricity, vaccination rates, and population growth. In response to those queries, people would consistently overstate the negative and miss out on improvements or the positive, with the book detailing out ten reasons why that's the case...

1. The Gap Instinct - Most societies are much more in the middle-class than people think, and there's really no longer the same clear delineation between developed and developing world, otherwise known as us and them.

2. The Negativity Instinct - We remember bad events and circumstances more vividly than gradual good improvements and things can be both bad and better at the same time, it's not binary.

3. The Straight Line Instinct - Things don't usually follow straight line growth, because something is currently increasing at a certain percentage, it doesn't mean it's going to continue at the same rate.

4. The Fear Instinct - When we're afraid, we don't think rationally, decisions should be made when calm and frightening and dangerous aren't always the same things.

5. The Size Instinct - We often are subject to the urgent vs. important concept... limited to the things we see right in front of ourselves, which makes it harder to allocate resources and attention. Additionally, the best way to understand a number is often to divide it by something, for instance there's pollution generated by a country, and then pollution generated by a country divided by the number of citizens. Also, beware of lonely numbers, when you see a number, it should be compared to another to get a good conclusion about it.

6. The Generalization Instinct - Assumptions can be that people's life differences are driven by religion, culture, or location, but really it's income that drives any differences in lives across the world.

7. The Destiny Instinct - This is assuming that things simply are as they are. However, incomes rise in areas and change occurs. Slow change is still change and there can be both bad and better at the same time.

8. The Single Perspective Instinct - We find simple ideas attractive and experts and activists are predisposed towards their ideas, it's part of who they are, a worldview takes precedence.

9. The Blame Instinct - It's easy to look for simply assigned blame (like deciding who at fault when refugees drowning between Africa and Europe), but we should look for causes, not villains, and systems, not heroes.

10. The Urgency Instinct - Things are rarely so urgent that something has to be done immediately, should slow down and consider the data and consequences of an action as fear plus urgency is a bad combination.

Rosling is known in part for his TED talks, with them having more than thirty-five million views, and he, Ola, and Anna provided in Factfulness an excellent data-driven world view, one that Bill Gates noted as "one of the most important books I've ever read, an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world."

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield was a solid book about creating things, with the fundamental idea being that you just do the work, it's about being a pro.

Pressfield writes of how being a pro is to metaphorically carry your lunch pail and show up each day to put in work. You start at a certain time and go, you don't worry about inspiration and you don't get caught up in worrying about producing something great on a given day. The pro has learned that success comes as a by-product of work, the amateur has delusions of grandeur. If you're a pro, you're doing it because it's important to you, and a pro does things because they're part of who they is.

 The book also covers the idea of resistance, how we're naturally inclined to invoke resistance rather than executing towards a worthwhile goal that helps oneself or helps others, whether it be it an artistic or business venture, a diet or health regimen, education or a program of spiritual enhancement, or a principled stand. Resistance is fed by our fear and being a pro is how you fight it.

Another idea that stood out from the book is that a pro considers what they do to be as a corporation, with the work they produce in effect being "for services of." This also let's someone separate their work from themselves a bit, the work is for the corporation, it's not who they are, and producing that work is magical or mysterious, it's simply decision and implementation.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win by Jo Piazza

Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win by Jo Piazza was a fairly interesting novel about a successful female tech executive who leaves the San Francisco Bay Area and returns with her husband and two young children to her small Pennsylvania town as part of a run for Senate.

The book is heavily about the idea of being a female in politics, how the hurdles they have to clear to win office can be so much higher than their male counterparts, and well told by Piazza with a richly written main character in Charlotte Walsh navigating through the challenges she faces and choices she makes.

Tip of the Iceberg by Mark Adams

Tip of the Iceberg by Mark Adams was a excellent travelogue book with the subtitle My 3,000-Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier, which provides any enjoyable retracing of an 1899 expedition led by railroad magnate Edward Harriman, historian C. Hart Merriam, and John Muir.

Adams in the book alternated between chapters on the original voyage and his own and at first traveled on the Alaska Marine Highway System of ferries, beginning in Bellingham, WA and then up through Southeast Alaska, with stops including Ketchikan, Wrangell, Juneau, Whittier, Skagway, Haines, Sitka, and Gustavus, with that a jumping off point to Glacier Bay, in which Adams went on a vividly described overnight kayaking trip.

Also fascinating from this portion of the book was description of Lituya Bay, a fjord seven miles long, two miles wide, with sides that rise more than 6,000 feet, and which had an earthquake/landslide-triggered 1,700 foot high tsunami sweep through in in 1958, killing several, but also leaving a few survivors who recounted the experience.

After journeying through Southeast Alaska, Adams went to Kodiak, and made a subsequent stop in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in Katmai National Park, an area formed out of a 1912 eruption of Mount Katmai that went on for three days, ejecting 30 times the volume of the 1980 Mount St. Helens blast. He concluded the trip by going through the Aleutian Islands, bypassing the portion of the Harriman expedition where they went across to Siberia and stayed for two hours, and then flew to Nome and also visited Shishmaref, a village just north of there gravely threatened by climate change.

The book was an entertaining and interesting one, with the original expedition providing both a blueprint and historical context for the modern-day adventures described.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Soul of America by Jon Meacham

The Soul of America by Jon Meacham was a solid book subtitled The Battle for Our Better Angels.

With the idea for the book out of the current divisiveness in the country, with the flames of it fanned out of the White House, Meacham chronicles various periods of American history and tells the story of how we've been before in periods of strife and ugliness, and made it through. Some of the battles fought for good that are noted in the book are against people after the Civil War who wanted to make it as if the South had won, the influence of the Ku Klux Klan at the turn of the 20th Century, isolationists prior to WWII, McCarthyism after, and segregation after that.

The leaders who helped America through these tough periods are highlighted, from Lincoln, to Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, the Kennedys, and Lyndon Johnson, with below some of the quotes that stood out from the book...

"Surely in the light of history, it is more intelligent to to hope rather than to fear, to try rather than to not try." - Eleanor Roosevelt

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." - Martin Luther King Jr.

"You have to appeal to people’s best instincts, not their worst ones," and, especially fitting today, "the people have often made mistakes, but given time and the facts, they will make the corrections." - Harry Truman

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman was the debut novel from Backman, and an enjoyable one to read that felt like a series of small stories well told about a cantankerous Swede, the need to be useful to others, and being loved by them.

Published in 2014, with a Swedish movie adaptation in 2015, and forthcoming Tom Hanks movie slated for 2019, the book is a just a nice story of life.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Educated by Tara Westover

Educated by Tara Westover was a compelling autobiography about growing up in the mountains of Idaho, in a family ruled by a patriarch who preached of the evils of government and espoused a life lived off the grid, and then going off to college BYU, with subsequent study at Cambridge and Harvard.

Westover was the youngest of seven children, and like her closest in age brothers and sisters never attended school growing up or went the doctor. Throughout her youth, the dangers that Westover's father exposed his family to were remarkable, including his rash decisions and how he owned a junkyard and would scavenge it for scrap metal that could be sold, bringing his children into the exceedingly dangerous business, made even more so by the methods he forced his children to use in scrapping the materials.

Westover's mother was a midwife and herbalist, treating all injuries with plants, including those of her father who almost died when she away at school, with her mother's herbs getting the credit and her business expanding, strengthening her father’s grip on those around him as people began working for them.

Westover also had a violent and domineering older brother and her father's unwillingness to do anything to protect those around him was a sort of tipping point between she and her parents, leading as she wrote in the book blurb, to a choice between loyalty to self and loyalty to family. Westover's story and success is remarkable and very much appears to be in spite of her circumstances and showed that however she got to it, it’s her life, not that of others and what others want you to be or try to make you into. As is noted by Westover in the book, "who writes history? I do."

Us Against You by Fredrik Backman

Us Against You by Fredrik Backman follows up on his excellent novel Beartown and continues the tale of a small Swedish town, it's youth hockey team, and the people who play on it and whose lives are influenced by it, with the main high school-aged characters Maya, Ana, Benji, Amat, Bobo, and Vidar.

Just as in Beartown, Backman provides memorable and lyrical writing, including the following...

The section with Vidar's tough older brother Teemu going into elementary school-aged Alicia’s hardscrabble house and saying that her hockey gear would be paid for by the Pack for as long as she wanted to play, and she wouldn’t be hurt anymore.

How a character was said to "die the same way they lived, instantly" and the reaction to grief, with "Kira hands him the brush without a word. He washes, she dries."

About the support of Amat by others from his neighborhood, The Hollow, "he had no team. So they gave him an army."

About the Pack's support of Ana, "a section of the audience stands up, as if on command. They don’t shout out, but they’re wearing black jackets, and they all put one hand very briefly on their hearts when she looks at them. 'Who are they?', the ref asks in surprise. 'Those are my brothers and sisters. They stand tall if I stand tall.'"

Ana saying to Benji, "Don’t let the bastards see you cry."

The book's final sentence of "it’s a simple game if you strip away all the crap surrounding it and just keep the things that made us love it in the first place. Everybody gets a stick. Two nets. Two teams. Us against you."

Thursday, July 05, 2018

The Man Who Caught the Storm by Brantley Hargrove

The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras by Brantley Hargrove was a solid book about someone devoted to a pursuit, with that pursuit eventually killing him as Samaras, his adult son Paul Samaras, and fellow chaser Carl Young died in a May 2013 tornado near El Reno, Ok.

Hargrove wrote early on of how the elder Samaras a self-taught electronics whiz kid who then became fascinated by extreme weather and especially tornadoes. Samaras was married with three young kids at home when he started out as a volunteer storm spotter after enrolling in a 40 hour meteorology course.

He got started on his eventual path when someone who had sensors for measuring seismic pressure on the ground in a tornado wanted his help getting the sensors in front of a twister. Samaras then began building his own probes to measure conditions like temperature, pressure, and humidity as a tornado would pass over as the idea was to understand the conditions to predict better when one would form so more advance warning could be given to the public.

As Samaras built his probes and chased tornadoes for the purpose of placing them in front of their path, he became a main character featured on Storm Chasers, which ran for three seasons on The Discovery Channel. It was dangerous work that Samaras did, but interesting reading about someone completely into something that served a greater purpose, and Hargrove wrote a thorough account of Samaras and his life.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

Beartown by Fredrik Backman is a novel set in a downtrodden town in rural Sweden that's described as "a hockey town" and Backman tells in the book an engrossing story of the things that occur in it.

The main characters are the high school-age Maya, Ana, Benji, Amat, and Kevin, along with adults Peter and Kira and the writing from Backman really lyrical with dramatic kickers delivered, including...

"Sport can only give us a few isolated moments of transcendence, but what the hell else is life made of?"

"You can’t live in this town, Maya, you can only survive it."

"This town doesn't always know the difference between right and wrong, but we know the difference between good and evil."

The story from Backman is a great one about hockey, the hold it can have on people, and the either horrible or heroic actions of the adults and youth in Beartown.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Calypso by David Sedaris

Calypso by David Sedaris was a highly entertaining book with stories, which as he says are “true enough,” about his life, that of his sisters, aging father, longtime partner Hugh, and time spent at their beach house in the Carolinas.

The book is a fast read and thoughtful and humorous one that brings to mind the ideas of time with family, looking for things with meaning, and importance of trying to be happy.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson was an interesting book with the subtitle Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century. Johnson tells the story of Edwin Rist, who, as a twenty-year-old studying at London’s Royal Academy of Music, burglarized an outpost of the British Museum of Natural History in the city of Tring, stealing hundreds of bird skins, with some collected by the famed adventurer and contemporary of Charles Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace.

Johnson tells well the story of how Rist stole the bird skins for their feathers, with them used in elaborate fly-fishing ties, done not for use on the river, but for the art of making the same flies as from the Victorian fly-tying era. The actual crime is completed and Rist arrested around halfway through the book, with the rest of it about the ramifications of the crime for Rist, and how others in the fly-tying community appeared to be at least somewhat, if not very complicit in the crime based on what happened with the feathers after the theft.

Johnson as the author has an interesting backstory as he wrote of suffering from mental scars out of working in Iraq helping coordinate the reconstruction of Fallujah for USAID and then founded the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Refugees, trying to get them out of the region and to safety in the US. When he then learned of the Rist heist and began digging into it, he seemed to have been taken down a similar rabbit-hold of obsession as those he wrote about in the book. In Johnson's case, though, he was attempting to figure out what happened to all of the stolen bird skins and valuable feathers, which are from protected species such as Birds of Paradise and not supposed to be sold, but available on eBay and traded within the fly-tying community.

It was interesting reading of Johnson researching, using the Internet Wayback Machine to peruse long since deleted website entries offering feathers for sale and trying, often in vain, to get people to really care about the crime and it's consequences. The book was very much a deep-dive into something held dear by a small community, and in this was quite compelling.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink was an interesting book about how timing plays a key role in how events turn out, with just a few of the examples provided in the book being that bad decisions are often made in the afternoons when someone tired and the quality of medical care someone receives driven in part by when in a doctor’s shift care is provided.

It's covered that in this trough period, there's a basic decline in vigilance that occurs and being aware of this potential dip can then lead to combating it. Some ways to do that are through checklists or restorative breaks, either quick or extended, with them most effective if someone completely detached from the tasks at hand. Pink as well mentions the benefit of naps, ideally around 15-20 minutes long, and with coffee just prior as it takes about 25 minutes for coffee to kick in.

Also noted is how people driven by biological clocks, with many at their best early in the day, a group known as larks, but some better later, a group referred to as owls. This assignation can also shift over time, as people tend to become owls when they hit puberty, something that negatively impacts them as many high schools start too early in the day, and then they become less owly in their mid-20s.

Towards the later part of the book, Pink covers two other interesting concepts with first beginnings, middles, and endings... the ideas of starting right, starting again, and remembering poignancy at the end of something, and then the idea of syncing to others, doing things in a group such as singing in a chorus, exercising together, or doing improv-related activities.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara was a solid book, with McNamara  chronicling her search for the Golden State Killer, a name she came up with for someone also known as the East Area Rapist and Original Night Stalker.

The crimes began in the mid-1970s in Sacramento, with 50 assaults from 1976-1979, and later included assaults and murders committed along the 680 corridor around San Ramon and Danville and in Southern California into the mid-1980s.

McNamara died prior to completing the book, with it finished due to efforts by her late husband Patton Oswalt as well as people she collaborated with in efforts to track down the killer. It's written towards the end of the book how advances in DNA technology could find him, and ultimately that's what occurred with investigators coming up with a listing of potential familial DNA matches and then tracing the branches of the family tree and arresting Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. in April 2018. McNamara wrote a compelling tale of searching for justice and at a minimum, her efforts helped bring attention to the cold case that eventually was solved.

Monday, April 30, 2018

North Toward Home by Willie Morris

North Toward Home by Willie Morris was a memoir from the southern writer who died in 1999 at the age of 64 and the book split into three parts, with the first about his youth in Yazoo City, Mississippi, second his time in school at the University of Texas, and third on living in New York City for work.

The section about his life growing up in small-town Mississippi stood out as particularly interesting and very much had what the journalist Wright Thompson described as a great description of place provided by Morris. The Yazoo City Experience was compelling to read about and featured things such high school football, American legion baseball, playing the trumpet at military funerals, and listening to baseball broadcasts before others in town and then pretending to guess the events.

Morris in the later sections of the book wrote about politics in Texas, including it's unseemly underbelly, and then the casual indifference to suffering that he saw while living in New York City. He then returned to the South, and was living in Jackson, Mississippi, some half an hour north of Yazoo City, at the time of his death.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

City of Thieves by David Benioff

City of Thieves by David Benioff was an entertaining novel from someone best known for being the co-creator of Game of Thrones and the book set in 1942 Leningrad, a city under siege by the Germans, with a population struggling desperately to survive.

It was a solid read and an interesting construct Benioff used was to begin things in present-day America, with someone being told by his grandfather the personal story of what happened many decades ago while a young man in Russia.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi was an excellent and profound book by the late neurosurgeon who died from cancer in March 2015 and is survived by his wife and their young daughter.

Kalanithi grew up in a family that heavily valued education and after they moved from the Northeast to Kingman, Arizona, his mother got a college prep reading list for her children and Kalanithi at ten read the book 1984, then others such as The Count of Monte Cristo, Robinson Crusoe, The Last of the Mohicans, and Don Quixote, developing a love of literature. He attended Stanford, completing degrees in Human Biology and English Literature, and went through Medical School at Yale.

Kalanithi decided to practice neurosurgery and the book shows his interest in the counseling of a patient or loved one of a patient through horrific decisions and times, almost a pastoral role in relation to medicine. While he was about to embark on the next phase of his career, Kalanithi was diagnosed with terminal cancer and in the book he notes how he returned to performing surgery, with him writing “even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.”

Kalanithi and his wife Lucy decided after the diagnosis to have a child and his cancer began to resist the medications he was on some five month's after his daughter Cady born, with Kalanithi then dying three months later. The book is great reading... profound, sad, uplifting, and a well-crafted account by someone who knew that his time was short, didn't know exactly how short it would be and fought to extend his life. Kalanithi in relation to the times right after his diagnosis, quotes writer Samuel Beckett with “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Bobby Kennedy by Chris Matthews

Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit was a solid book by Chris Matthews on the United States Senator and Attorney General under his brother John F. Kennedy and who was assassinated in 1968, eighty days after announcing his run for the presidency, and five years after JFK killed in Dallas.

Matthews hosts Hardball on MSNBC and chronicles well Kennedy's life, skill at getting things done and concern for those less fortunate. It's noted how after the assassination, Kennedy's body was carried from New York to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington via train, with an estimated one million people, few well-off as Matthews put it, lining the tracks to pay their respects.

Kennedy's early political work was on behalf of his brother, starting with him serving as JFK's campaign manager in a Senate race, and continuing up to the November 1963 shooting of the President in Dallas. In their work together, Bobby was often the driving force behind things, and while Attorney General in the White House, Bobby's morals and being on the right side of history was evident, with the two of them starting what would later get signed as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

After the death of his brother, Kennedy won election to the Senate in 1964, and felt compelled to run for President in 1968 due to both his opposition to the Vietnam War and view of civil rights and the under-represented. Kennedy's speech in Indianapolis the night of Martin Luther King's death is pointed to as an example of his humanity and moral compass and a fundamental idea that he put forth in his all too short presidential campaign was the important ideal that America is great, and should also be good.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke

Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke was a good book from the retired poker player, author, corporate speaker and consultant. The subtitle is Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts and Duke notes that it’s about separating decision quality from outcome quality, if the outcome bad, it doesn’t mean it was a bad decision if made based on expected probabilities and the probabilities favored making it.

Covered in the book is how there's different facets to probabilistic decision-making, it's ok to be unsure of an outcome, to say something will happen 30% of the time and have it occur, or to say you're 30% confident something will occur and it does, doesn’t mean someone is wrong. Additionally, probabilistic decision-making looks at expected pay values (return times likelihood of success) in deciding on a course of action or choice, and very much tries to avoid thinking in absolutes.

Duke writes about beliefs that they're formed by (A) hearing something, (B) believing it, and then (C) maybe later deciding if it was true. The opposite of this approach is truth seeking, something that's difficult to do, often involves looking at dissenting viewpoints, and can be done with the help of others, in essence a support group around not buying into fallback ideas of simple good or bad luck, with insufficient weight put on the importance of decision making. In relation to discussions with others, Duke brings up the idea of saying things following an "and" rather than "but" statement and in relation to the self when making decisions, people should think about the future-tense version of themselves rather than simply the present-tense.

It was interesting reading provided by Duke and she highlights how there’s two things that determine how our lives turn out: the quality of our decisions and luck, and the key is recognizing the difference between the two.

All-American Murder by James Patterson,‎ Alex Abramovich,‎ and Mike Harvkey

All-American Murder by James Patterson,‎ Alex Abramovich,‎ and Mike Harvkey was a work of non-fiction on Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriot convicted for murder and who took his own life while in prison.

Patterson is one of the few mega best-selling authors writing today and this as with many of his other books was co-written with others, and tells the story of someone who came from a splintered home life growing up, took in with a bad crowd and made a series of horrific decisions into his adulthood while a wealthy and famous NFL player, with it coming out after his death that Hernandez suffered from brain injury.

The book doesn't feel to be terrifically written and come across as a fairly straightforward recounting of events and more than anything else, is just a shame of a tale.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Practice Perfect by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi

Practice Perfect by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi was a bit of a weighty read at times, but a good book with really solid material in it. The three authors are all educators and subtitle of their book is 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better, with some of the key things that stuck with me noted below...

Concepts around practice
- Practice makes permanent, basically the building of muscle memory, and if practice not done properly, the incorrect way to do something can become ingrained.
- Practice shouldn’t be about scrimmaging or simple repetition of a general activity, it should be made up of drills focused on skill mastery.

Planning of practice
- Practice needs to be planned well to be well executed and there should be a specific objective to practice, not just a purpose.
- There should be systems to help enable effective practices, like signals to bring people to order and names for drills.
- Oftentimes there’s too many things practiced, the most important steps should be simplified and practiced; when successfully executed, complexity can be added.
- Once there's great proficiency at the simple tasks, it enables creativity to come through as energy doesn't have to be expended on the simple.

During practice
- Feedback is an integral and standard part of practice, not simply a critique when something done wrong.
- Specific feedback is key, and should come right at the moment something done.
- Someone should practice applying feedback immediately after getting it.
- Should praise the work that people have put into something so they know results are connected to work.
- Modeling is incredibly important, along with description of what’s going on, people don’t know until they know.
- Should model skinny parts, don’t try to cover too much, just as with practice.
- Remember that people won’t usually say they don’t get something.
- Video can be extremely helpful, both someone watching video of their own practice, and in viewing videos of practice conducted by people in that field.

The Great Halifax Explosion by John U. Bacon

The Great Halifax Explosion by John U. Bacon was an interesting historical read on the December 16, 1917 calamity in Halifax, Nova Scotia that killed 2,000, wounded another 9,000, and left 25,000 homeless as the result of the most powerful man-made explosion until Hiroshima decades later.

Bacon tells the story of The Mont-Blanc freighter in New York getting packed full of explosives to be used in WWI, then heading to Halifax before the planned trip across the Atlantic and colliding in the harbor with another ship, the Imo.

It was interesting reading of the choices people made, going towards disaster or fleeing it, with the crew of The Mont-Blanc abandoning in the harbor their burning ship, knowing it would explode, but not warning people, juxtaposed with the story of train dispatcher Vincent Coleman seeing the burning ammunition ship and telling co-workers to flee, while staying to send a telegram warning away an incoming train.

Noted in the book was that the explosion 83 million times more powerful than a gun being fired, with subsequent ground waves causing shaking 110 miles away, followed by even more destructive air waves, or shock waves, gas bubbles racing outwards destroying things in it's path. The explosion killed roughly 1,600 people instantly, and in it's aftermath, people and communities rushed to assist, with one outcome of the disaster the strengthening of ties between the United States and Canada, with specific mention made in the book of Boston's contributions and how there's every year a Christmas tree delivered from Nova Scotia to Massachusetts in thanks, a tradition from shortly after the explosion that restarted in 1976 and has occurred annually since.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Books from 2017

The 35 books that I finished in 2017 covered a wide variety of areas and while it's of course an imperfect science to group them, below are the categories that the books felt to belong within, along with the count:

Fiction - 4
Memoir - 4
Sports - 3
History (recent as well as past and both biography and otherwise) - 11
Self-Improvement (a very broad definition and including both memoir and otherwise)  - 13

In terms of favorites, below are the ones that were the most memorable for me, whether due to the writing, the topic, or both... with the hyperlinks for each to my writeup on the book:

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Paul and Me by A.E. Hotchner
Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

10% Happier by Dan Harris
Anything You Want by Derek Sivers
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson
Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss
Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg
The Power Paradox by Dacher Keltner 

In going a step further in picking favorites, the ones that stood out the most to me were the three noted in the memoir category above. Each featured solid writing, with Shoe Dog written along with Knight by one of my favorite authors, J.R. Moehinger, and Lab Girl as well as Paul and Me telling stories that both inspired and brought a smile to my face. Additionally, these last two had the cache of being by people I hadn't heard of and felt to be in the hidden gem category, especially Lab Girl by a geobiologist about her life and work.