Saturday, July 04, 2020

The Impossible First by Colin O'Brady

The Impossible First by Colin O'Brady is an excellent book on his 2018 solo trek all the way across Antarctica.

The crossing had never before been done without assistance, and O'Brady raced against British explorer Captain Louis Rudd, also attempting to complete the 932 mile solo crossing. Each man skied while pulling a sled with close to two months of supplies and the book a remarkable tale from a dangerous and beautiful place.

Also in the book is writing about O'Brady's Explorer's Grand Slam expedition in 2016. He reached the summit of the highest mountain on each of the seven continents and trekked to both the North and South Pole in just over four months, the fastest time that anyone had ever done the seven summits, much less also the two poles. Additionally, O'Brady reached the highest point in all fifty US states in a record-breaking 21 days and he in The Impossible First writes a great book on his efforts.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Denali's Howl by Andy Hall

Denali's Howl by Andy Hall is on a June 1967 climbing disaster in Alaska that claimed the lives of seven people on Denali, the highest mountain in North America. The book written in 2014 is subtitled The Deadliest Climbing Disaster on America's Wildest Peak and Hall a journalist who at the time of the tragedy was living in Denali National Park, the five-year-old son of the park superintendent.

The seven who died were part of the Wilcox Expedition, a twelve man group cobbled together and led by Joe Wilcox. There were some shortfalls in teamwork between the men and poor decisions made in terms of gear brought, but the disaster caused more than anything else by a once in a lifetime blizzard. Four in the party went up to the summit one day and returned back down to the remaining eight. Then one person decided to descend without a summit bid, and the seven men who would perish headed up. There was only primitive weather forecasting available in 1967 and what the men faced was a confluence of meteorological events, described by Hall as one of the most violent storms ever recorded on the mountain. He recounts a 1997 storm that people barely survived, with that storm lasting twelve hours rather than the seven days of the 1967 storm, with winds likely half the strength of those 30 years earlier.

Hall provides interesting content about rescue operations on the mountain and the attempt to save the men, but the storm was bad that by the time rescue operations launched, the men almost certainly were dead. The five survivors barely made it down and a rescue party only found three bodies on the mountain, two of them fairly close together. The story that Hall tells was of a dangerous undertaking combined with a once in a lifetime storm.

Keep Going by Austin Kleon

Keep Going by Austin Kleon is noted as having been done because he needed to read it, a great reason to be sure, and the book subtitled 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad, with some ideas from it below:

1. Every day is Groundhog Day - You just have to control what you can, in the day that you're in. If you can establish a daily routine, all the better.

2. Build a bliss station - Disconnect yourself from the world for your own good. Airplane mode can be a way of life. Learn how to say no.

3. Forget the noun, do the verb - "Creative" is not a verb. Be willing to play in your creative work, it's ok to practice for practice's sake.

4. Make gifts - Let your work be your hobby, one of the easiest ways to hate something is to turn it into a job. If you put your work into the world, don't obsess on consumption numbers. Make stuff to give to people.

5. The ordinary + extra attention = the extraordinary - There's great things in the everyday world around us and great things we can do with them. Slow down and draw things out. Pay attention to what you pay attention to.

6. Slay the art monsters - Art is supposed to make our lives betters. This applies both to art we create and art we consume. If it's not beneficial, walk away.

7. You are allowed to change your mind - To change is to be alive. It's good to say "I don't know," and be kind. Think more of being like-hearted with others and less of being like-minded. Read old books, visit the past.

8. When in doubt, tidy up - Keep your tools tidy and your materials messy. Leave things better than you found them and do no harm. The writer David Sedaris picks up trash by the road, he estimates for 3-8 hours a day.

9. Demons hate fresh air - Get out and walk, be part of the world. Walking is good for physical, spiritual, and mental health. See the world rather than a screen.

10. Plant your garden - Think of the permanence of nature, and how like it, creativity has seasons. Live for the long haul and in hard times, remember that this too shall pass. Keep doing your verbs, whatever they may be.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham is an excellent book subtitled The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster. Written in 2019, it's about Reactor Number Four of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station exploding early in the morning of Sunday April 26, 1986 and the aftermath of that.

It's a remarkable level of detail from Higginbotham, covering events that as the book jacket notes, have been clouded from the beginning by secrecy, propaganda, and misinformation. The first reactor at Chernobyl came online in the mid-1970s and by 1986, there were four reactors built, with two more under construction and scheduled to come online in 1988. Construction and operation of the plant at Chernobyl was an ongoing process of dealing with unrealistic deadlines being passed down from leaders, planning agencies, and bureaucratic committees. What this led to was both often delayed safety tests and, even more critically, systems that demanded an extreme level of precision from operators just to function as they should. The water and graphite nuclear reactor design used in Chernobyl, and designed by the head of the Soviet Institute of Atomic Energy, was inherently less safe than that used in the West on Nuclear power plants. A major flaw in them was something called a positive void coefficient, making the reactors vulnerable to a runaway chain reaction in the even of a loss of coolant. The design of the reactor was such that triggering the shut-down actually had great potential to cause a meltdown. Additionally, the Soviet reactors had no containment dome like over reactors in the west, safety measures were often never passed along to the people who needed them, and accidents were to be regarded as state secrets.

The test being done on Reactor Number Four was to pilot it through a shutdown. There was definitely at least one human error made that night, but the system itself was the larger cause of the reactor being destabilized, leading to an explosion that completely destroyed the core of the reactor. What was left was a radioactive blaze of uranium fuel and graphite. For the better part of a day, it wasn't communicated that the reactor had been destroyed and that radiation was being released as people were afraid to deliver bad news or the destruction of the reactor was outside the realm of what they could accept. People weren't acknowledging that there even was an explosion, just saying there was an accident and it's being taken care of. Workers at the plant lived in the 50,000 person city of Priyat, a ten minute drive away and the order to evacuate the city was given at 10:00AM Sunday morning, with people receiving it at 1:10PM, a day and a half after the explosion. Around that time was when the first radiation cloud appeared over Denmark.

Initial efforts at stopping the release of radioactive contamination from the torn apart reactor, with fire still burning inside, had bags of sand and boron dropped from helicopters into the destroyed reactor. As the days went on after the explosion, there were two primary concerns, both having to do with the burning radioactive mass in the destroyed reactor, which combined with sand and boron had turned into a lava-like material burning its way down through the floor. If the mass came into contact with the water pools underneath the reactor, it could cause a steam explosion taking out the other three reactors, as Higginbotham writes generating "enough fallout into the atmosphere to render a large swath of Europe uninhabitable for a hundred years." And if that calamity was averted, there was also the possibility of the mass burning into the earth. This could have been cataclysmic if the mass got into the water tables, contaminating drinking water for millions.

To alleviate the first concern, someone had to go underneath the burning reactor and manually open the valves to pump out the water in the steam suppression pools, an extremely dangerous task that was completed successfully. The next concern was about the water tables. To alleviate this risk, they built a heat exchanger to cool the earth and stop the molten mass from continuing to melt through. This heat exchanger was never actually turned on, though, and what they eventually found was the reactor just burned itself out. All the efforts dropping sand and boron into the reactor were mostly pointless, but the lava did burn perilously close to getting through to the earth. The on the ground cleanup then involved people being drafted into service and serving as liquidators manually clearing debris, each working for a very short period of time to limit their exposure to radiation. Once this completed, a containment structure, or sarcophagus, was built around the destroyed reactor, completed seven months after the explosion. Due to the radioactive fallout, eventually every child from preschool to the seventh grade was temporarily evacuated out of Kiev, some 363,000 children, and there had to be a permanent resettlement of 116,000 people. 

After this came the scapegoating, the sending to prison of the director and others involved and who lived. Mention in the investigation was made of design defects, but then swept aside in favor of the more palatable operator error assignment of blame. While it true that the operators played a small role in causing the disaster, the main fault lay with the design of the plant, the need for perfection on the part of the operators, and the aggressive Soviet bureaucracy behind everything. Higginbotham in the book provides a meticulously reported look at the disaster, its causes, the reaction to it, and the people involved.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

King of the World by David Remnick

King of the World by David Remnick is a thorough book subtitled Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero. Written in 1998 by the longtime New Yorker editor, the book focuses on Ali's life up until the time that his title stripped and ability to box professionally taken away following his refusal of military service during Vietnam.

Ali was born Cassius Clay and grew up black middle class in Louisville, Kentucky. He was as a talker from a young age and his bicycle stolen when he twelve, leading to a kindly police officer who ran a local gym suggesting to Clay that he learn how to fight, and then training him. Clay was blessed with size and quickness, and also worked extremely hard at the craft of boxing. He never smoke, never drank, and just trained to build his body up. He talked about how good he was, how he would be champion of the world someday, and was by all accounts a nice kid, not a bully. He entered the main black high school in 1957 for the 10th grade, and wasn't a good student, but the principal liked him and sent him through, saying that he was going to be a great boxing champion. By the age of eighteen, Clay had an amateur record of 100 wins and 8 losses, and two national golden gloves championships.

Clay won a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics in Rome and then turned pro. Remnick in the book provides great detail about what a force of nature Clay was in his late teens and early twenties, both in terms of physical prowess and showmanship. Related to this, it was interesting reading about the influence sportswriters had in crafting narratives to the public, and most didn't like Clay due to his bombastic personality. When he was in high school, Clay had wanted to write a term paper on the Black Muslims and in his early twenties, he heard about Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam that he the leader of. Clay was a searcher, and in the Muslim religion he found something that resonated with him, and became close with one another Nation of Islam leader, Malcolm X.

Clay's first fight for the heavyweight title was against Sonny Liston in February 1964 and few expected Clay to win the fight, with Liston viewed by many as an unstoppable force. Clay defeated Liston and very shortly after confirmed that he had become a member of the Nation of Islam, also noting that Black Muslims wasn't a real thing, rather a word made up by the press. Once Clay won, Elijah Muhammad welcomed Clay into the fold, his fold. On March 6, Elijah Muhammad gave a radio address and said that Muhammad Ali would be the boxer's new name. Elijah Muhammad had begun to view Malcolm X as a rival for power within the Nation of Islam, speaking in favor a civil rights bill, and working with Martin Luther King, whom Elijah Muhammad wanted to not associate with. As a result, Malcolm X was cast out of the Nation, and Ali no longer talked with him.

The rematch between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston was to be in November 1964, but three days before the fight, Ali got a hernia, and the fight rescheduled for May 1965. Malcolm X was killed in February 1965 and Ali dominated Liston in the fight, knocking him out in the first round, leading to the famous photo of he standing over the fallen boxer. Later in the year Ali fought and defeated Floyd Patterson and three months after that began his battle with the US government over Vietnam. He was reclassified so that he could be drafted and said that he had no quarrel with the Vietcong. He started speaking out against the war and said that he wouldn't simply fight exhibitions for the government to satisfy his service requirement. In April 1967 he appeared at a US Armed Forces location where he had been summoned, and said that he was refusing draft orders as a minister of the religion of Islam. He was sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The Supreme Court would clear him in 1971, but he didn't box for three and a half years, and then regained the heavyweight championship in 1974 against George Forman in Kinshasa, Zaire. By the time of his final bouts in 1981 his neurological decline, eventually to become Parkinson's, had almost certainly begun already. Ali later in his life greatly regretted his casting aside of Malcolm X and died in 2016 at seventy-four.

The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday

The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday is a solid book about stoicism and the writing of Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121-180), Seneca, and others.

Holiday in the introduction notes that the book isn't a study of stoicism and the people who wrote about it, rather an attempt to "collect, understand, and publish their lessons and tricks." The hope is to show how to turn an obstacle into an advantage; overcoming obstacles is about perception (our attitude towards obstacles or problems), action (what we do about obstacles), and will (how we handle defeat or difficulty). There's good content from Holiday, with below each chapter in his book and what stood out from it:

Perception

The discipline of perspective - The goal is to see opportunity in difficulties. They're going to arise, so what becomes important is how we react.

Recognize your power - We can't always control what happens to us, but we can control how it affects our psyche and how it makes us feel. We're never completely powerless.

Steady your nerves - In situations that can overwhelm, grace, poise, and nerve are the most important characteristics someone can have as without them, other characteristics like talent can't be employed.

Control your emotions - Uncertainty and fear are relieved by training and logic. Through this, one can become in control of their emotions and not get rattled at the moments of greatest stress.

Practice objectivity - It's often better to observe obstacles, not also perceive them and  read into problems. Try to remove yourself from the equation in a situation, see it for what it is, not how you're impacted.

Alter your perspective - Look at problems from a new angle. Also, don't overstate the importance of problems, quoted is Richard Branson with "business opportunities are like buses; there's always another coming around."

Is it up to you? - Someone facing obstacles should be thinking of whether there's a chance at success. If there is, it may well be worth going after. Also, it's about focusing on things that can be changed, not what can't.

Live in the present moment - It's not worth the energy to spend thinking about whether things are fair or you're at a disadvantage. Remember also that a given time isn't your entire life, just a moment in it.

Think differently - Since our perceptions influence what can be done, it's often going to be best to simply be optimistic that something can be accomplished.

Finding the opportunity - When we control our emotions in looking at a problem, it enables the possibility of looking at the opportunity inside the obstacle, even if it's just seeing it as something to learn from.

Prepare to act - The worst thing to happen with a problem is to lose your head, then you have to deal with both the problem and your reaction to it.

Action

The discipline of action - When you're dealt a bad hand or suffer a misfortune, should run towards it, looking to take action and improve your lot. What's important is what you do after something bad happens.

Get moving - Take an opening and press forward, or get the bat off your shoulder and take a swing. if you've done something, great, do more. Stay moving, always. If you want momentum, get started so it can create.

Practice persistence - Keep trying, if something doesn't work, try something different. The answer to how to do something may be entirely unexpected. It's supposed to be hard. First attempts aren't expected to succeed.

Iterate - There's nothing wrong with failing, it's how we know what doesn't work. Stories of great success are often preceded by stories of epic failure as improvement can come from it.

Follow the process - Think about the task at hand. Excellence is just a matter of steps repeated. Things at first are hard, and then they're not. Things don't happen all at once and small steps are better than no steps.

Do your job, do it right - Along the way to success, we're all going to have some jobs we don't want to do, do it with pride anyways, everything we do matters. A job is only degrading if we give less to it than we're capable.

What's right is what works - We get things done, by just that, by getting them done. Don't get too caught up in what you or someone else thinks is the correct way to do things. Do the best you can with what you've got.

In praise of the flank attack - Unexpected approaches are often the best kind. Be creative, find workarounds, and tactics others might not have thought of.

Use obstacles against themselves - Sometimes restraint is the best action to take, have patience and let things settle. Passive resistance can in fact be incredibly active.

Channel your energy - Adversity can harden you. Or it can loosen you up and make you better if you let it. It's seeking the right balance of physical looseness and mental tightness.

Seize the offensive - Use negative events as triggers to get things done, push forward. Life favors the bold at time of decision points.

Prepare for none of it to work - Nothing can prevent us from trying. Problems are a chance for us to do our best. Be the type of person who gets things done.

Will

The discipline of the will - Will is taking on a onerous task without giving in to hopelessness, to be in great difficulty and tell oneself "this too shall pass." Strength in terrible times is when strength most needed.

Build your inner citadel - Nobody is born with a steel backbone, we have to forge it. We're going to be more successful toughening ourselves up than making the world easier. To be great at something takes practice.

Anticipation (thinking negatively) - Think in advance of what things can go wrong, that way you're not surprised by them, and you may even be prepared to deal with them. Know that things will go wrong.

The art of acquiescence - Be willing to accept, and not resent, a difficulty or shortcoming. You don't have to like something, but you can't let it control you. Things will do what they do sometimes, and we react from there.

Love everything that happens: amor fati - When bad things happen, they happen. We then should continue forward with unfailing cheer. We make the best of things.

Perseverance - It's not about what happens in the beginning, or the middle, it's continuing forward all the way through, to endure.

Something bigger than yourself - There's a bigger cause to life. It's not all about us. Whatever problem we're going through isn't really unfair, it just is what it is. Try to leave things a little better than before we started.

Meditate on your mortality - The things we think are so important, really aren't. If something is in our control, it's worth our energy. If something is out of our control, it's not worth our energy. Eventually we'll be gone.

Prepare to start again - Behind mountains are more mountains. There's always another challenge. Get used to it. Passing one obstacle means you're worthy of more.

The book has excellent wisdom to impart and in the preface, Holiday quotes what Aurelius wrote to himself...

"Our actions may be impeded... but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way."

All That You Leave Behind by Erin Lee Carr

All That You Leave Behind by Erin Lee Carr is a memoir by the filmmaker and daughter of  David Carr, the late New York Times media writer and author of The Night of the Gun, which I wrote about after his death in 2015.

Erin Lee Carr has directed documentaries for HBO, with Thought Crimes, At the Heart of Gold, and I Love You, Now Die as well as Drug Short, an episode of the Netflix series Dirty Money. She in this book shows herself to be an excellent writer and tells a very open tale of loss, grief, and making one's way in the world, including in the creative world that she and her father worked in.

It was a compelling book, and ended with "Things I learned from David Carr: a list":

Listen when you enter a room.
Don't buy into your myth.
Don't be the first one to talk, but if you do talk first, say something smart.
Speak and then stop; don't stutter or mumble; be strong in what you have to say.
You have to work the phones. Call people. Don't rely on emails.
Ask questions but ask the right questions.
Ask people what mistakes they've made so you can get their shortcuts.
Know when enough is enough.
Make eye contact with as many people as possible.
Don't be in shitty relationships because you are tired of being alone.
Be grateful for the things you have in this life. You are lucky.
Practice patience even though it's one of the hardest things to master.
Failure is a part of the process, maybe the most important part.
Alcohol is not a necessary component of life.
Street hotdogs are not your friend.
Remind yourself that nobody said this would be easy.
If more negative things come out of your mouth than positive, then Houston, we have a problem.
We contain multitudes.
Always love (see band: Nada Surf).
Have a dance move and don't be afraid to rock it.
Don't go home just because you are tired.
Don't take credit for work that is not yours. If your boss does this, take note.
Be generous with praise and be specific in that praise: "that line was killer."
Cats are terrible, they poop in your house.
Say what you mean and mean what you say.
Be defiant.
Do the next right thing.
Our dogs are us. Only cuter.
You are loved and you belong to me, the world, and yourself.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Legacy by James Kerr

Legacy by James Kerr is a solid book subtitled What the All Black Can Teach Us About the Business of Life. Kerr covers the importance of culture creation and leadership, inspired mainly by the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team, and the chapters and some of the ideas from them are noted below...

1. Character (Sweep the Sheds): Never be too big to do the small things that need to be done as successful leaders balance pride with humility.

2. Adapt (Go for the Gap): When you're on top of your game, change your game. Organizational decline is inevitable unless leaders prepare for change, and organizational leaders should work to create an adaptive culture.

3. Purpose (Play With Purpose): Leaders connect personal meaning to a higher purpose to create belief and a sense of direction. It's about people being able to connect their values and beliefs with those of the organization.

4. Responsibility (Be a leader, Not a Follower): Leaders create leaders by passing on to others responsibility and ownership, utilizing accountability and trust. Quoted from the chapter was Tom Peters with "leaders don't create followers, they create more leaders."

5. Learn (Create a Learning Environment): Excellence is a process of evolution, cumulative learning, and incremental improvement. If you create a learning environment, you set up the structure to realize marginal improvements, and those marginal improvements add up quickly to success.

6. Whãnau (No Dickheads): Do things for the good of the team, and one selfish mindset will infect a collective culture. Everyone must move forward in the same direction, and the members of the team must all be people on board with this concept.

7. Expectations (Aim For the Highest Cloud): Successful leaders have high internal benchmarks, they set their expectations at a lofty level and then try to exceed them. Quoted in this chapter is Ira Glass, host of This American Life, with "great stories happen to those who tell them."

8. Preparation (Train to Win, Practice Under Pressure): Training with intensity conditions the brain and body to perform under pressure, to let peak performance become automatic. Success comes from putting in the reps.

9. Pressure (Keep a Blue Head, Control Your Attention): A blue head is loose, expressive, and in the moment. Words or mantras can be used as anchors to reach the right state. Pilots use: aviate, navigate, communicate to remind themselves what order to do things in. First focus on flying the plane, then fly the plane in the right direction, then tell people where you're flying the plane.

10. Authenticity (Know Thyself, Keep It Real): Act the same in public as in private. The best leaders remain true to their deepest values, lead their lives, and others follow. High-performing teams promote a culture of honesty, authenticity, and safe conflict. If everyone on a team does exactly what they say they will do, clarity, certainty, productivity, and momentum are the results.

11. Sacrifice (Champions Do Extra): When we give our time to something, we're giving our lives to it, we should make it worthwhile.

12. Language (Invent Your Own language, Sing Your World Into Existence): Leaders are storytellers, and all great organizations are born from a compelling story. This central organizing thought helps people understand what they stand for and why.

13. Ritual (Ritualize to Actualize, Create a Culture): Rituals drive home culture, they reflect, remind, reinforce, and reignite the central story.

14. Whakapapa (Be a Good Ancestor, Plant Trees You'll Never See): Leave things in a better place than before you were there. The way we lead our own life is what makes us a leader.

15. Legacy: Write your legacy, this is your time.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Gridiron Genius by Michael Lombardi

Gridiron Genius by Michael Lombardi is an insightful book from the former NFL GM who started in 1984 as a scouting assistant for the San Francisco 49ers, with one of his primary duties to be Bill Walsh's driver.

The book is subtitled A Master Class in Building Teams and Winning at the Highest Level and Lombardi notes that he wrote it to go over football strategy and tactics, but even more so philosophy and theory that can be applied outside of the game. He covers that a successful coach a good leader, and there's interesting content on what he learned about leadership from Walsh as well as Bill Belichick. From the Patriots' coach, Lombardi notes the principles of always looking forward, especially after a decision made, combating complacency, preparation, and attention to detail.

Lombardi wrote how he learned from Walsh the importance of culture and that Walsh introduced him to the writing of management gurus Warren Bennis and Tom Peters. Also noted are Walsh's book The Score Takes Care of Itself, and the former 49ers coach's "Standard of Performance" leadership maxims:

1. Exhibit a ferocious and intelligently applied work ethic directed at continual improvement.
2. Demonstrate respect for each person in the organization.
3. Be deeply committed to learning and teaching.
4. Be fair.
5. Demonstrate character.
6. Honor the direct connection between details and improvement; relentlessly seek the latter.
7. Show self-control, especially under pressure.
8. Demonstrate and prize loyalty.
9. Use positive language and have a positive attitude.
10. Take pride in my effort as an entity separate from the result of that effort.
11. Be willing to go the extra distance for the organization.
12. Deal appropriately with victory and defeat, adulation and humiliation.
13. Promote internal communication that is both open and substantive.
14. Seek poise in myself and those I lead.
15. Put the team's welfare and priorities ahead of my own.
16. Maintain an ongoing level of concentration and focus that is abnormally high.
17. Make sacrifice and commitment the organization's trademark.

It's a good book and Lombardi closes with the principles he's learned and feels most important in any field:

Culture comes first
Press every edge all the time, because any edge may matter anytime
Systems over stars
Leadership in a long-term proposition
You're never done getting better

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

This is Chance by Jon Mooallem

This is Chance by Jon Mooallem is an interesting book about the 1964 Good Friday earthquake in Anchorage, AK, with focus on Genie Chance, a part-time local news reporter who valiantly served as the the focal point for reporting, coordination, and communication in the period right after the quake.

Chance had moved to Alaska from Texas with her husband and three children five years prior and was downtown on March 27 with her thirteen-year-old son when the quake struck at 5:36PM, lasting four and a half minutes. It had a magnitude of 9.2 on the Richter scale, the most powerful quake recorded at the time and still the second most powerful. Felt far outside of the Alaskan epicenter, it shook water in wells around the world and triggered a tsunami that killed eleven in Crescent City, OR.

Chance was near the Fourth Avenue Theatre headquarters of her KENI station when the quake struck and saw the devastation that occurred, taking down the year-old JCPenny department store and causing a large section of road to drop some ten feet. She then took her son back home, saw her family safe, and went back downtown and worked. Chance started broadcasting from a VHF shortwave radio while in the Public Safety Building, as she later said, talking pretty much constantly for the next thirty hours. The power was out, but KENI able to put out a radio broadcast and Fire and Police Chiefs turned down her offer for them to speak directly via the airwaves, rather they had her serve as the voice to the people.

She served as a hub of both recovery efforts and connection, letting people know when and here help needed, and giving notice of people that were safe. Additionally, phones were out in Anchorage, but the broadcast was going to Fairbanks, and people there communicating with the lower 48 to pass along word that the city did need help, but hadn't been completely destroyed. A big part of the book was also the tales of how just like Chance did, many people stepped up with kindness and heroism, getting things done. The latter third of Mooallem's effort covers some different territory, including a local production of the play Our Town, the remainder of Chance's life, and disaster experts who visited Anchorage in the aftermath of the quake and saw the brave and orderly behavior of people that they'd witness after disasters elsewhere.

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson was an excellent read about Winston Churchill and focuses on his opening year as U.K. Prime Minister. Hitler invaded Holland on Churchill's first day in office, May 10, 1940, and the Dunkirk evacuation ordered May 26.

The book provided a view into how Churchill during this crucial year both held the country together and convinced Franklin Roosevelt to offer much needed aid to the United Kingdom while it unclear if the United States would play a role in the war. Churchill had to manage a fine line with Roosevelt as well as the American public, showing that Britain needed help, but also that the aid wouldn’t be in vain and they could overcome the German bombing campaign. The first air raid on London was September 7, 1940 and last May 10, 1941, with that final attack killing 1,436 people. Over the course of this period, there was a stretch that bombing went on for 57 straight nights, and the Blitz killed some 45,000 British people, 29,000 in London.

Churchill was demanding of the people who worked for him, both in terms of hours required and mandating an economy of words in reports, people having brevity and getting directly to the point. He also understand gestures, having anti-aircraft guns positioned in London and firing skyward during raids. Even though the chance of doing damage were minimal, it showed Brits that they were fighting back. 1940 was a US Presidential election year and Roosevelt won reelection with his opponent Wendell Willkie in the months just prior to the election running as an isolationist. The Lend-Lease Act was proposed by Roosevelt in December 1940 and in early 1941, he sent the first of two emissaries to the U.K. to assess Churchill and the state of things against the Nazis. Churchill would later describe Harry Hopkins and then Averell Harriman as key allies in making his case to Roosevelt.

It’s detailed in the book how a reason the feared ground invasion of the U.K. never came was that Germany never took control of the air, with the British Air Force fighting back valiantly against the Luftwaffe headed by Hermann Goring. Germany then diverted attention to invading the Soviet Union, fighting the two-front war that Hitler had said shouldn’t be done, and in December 1941 Russia was getting bogged down with its Russia invasion, and then came Pearl Harbor on December 7. The US declared war on Japan the next day and on December 11, Germany declared war on the US. The war in Europe ended May 8, 1945, a week after Hitler committed suicide, and the two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in August 1945.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

10 Stories Great Leaders Tell by Paul Smith

10 Stories Great Leaders Tell by Paul Smith is a short book that covers well how to communicate a compelling message and he makes the point early on that it's more important what a story is than how it's told. A story is to be a narrative, and include a time, place, main character, goal, and obstacle to achieving that goal. Smith then provides ten types of stories, with examples of each:

1. Where we came from - a founding story: The story is told of Gary Erickson, living in the Bay Area in the late 1980s and running his own bakery. Erickson was a passionate bicyclist and in 1990 out for a long ride and eating poor tasting and hard to digest energy bars. At the top of Mount Hamilton east of San Jose he had eaten five of the six and was still hungry with 50 miles left to ride. From this, he got the idea to work in his bakery on a recipe for a healthy and tasty alternative, which led six months later to him forming CLIF Bar.

2. Why we can't stay here - a case-for-change story: Smith recounts the tale of a ten-year-old Gainesville, Florida boy diagnosed in 2013 with a rare form of kidney cancer. There were immunotherapy treatments available in clinical trials, but nothing approved for a child to take part in. Then in mid-2014 a new drug was approved for use and he got his first injection in October, over a year and a half after being diagnosed. The drug started working, but the boy died less than a month later. It wasn't that it not effective, it was that he started too late on the drug. Smith in the book writes of how a corporate client of his who produces lifesaving products that take a long time to get to market saw the story as a way to rally their company’s effort to get to market faster, it was putting a human face on the effort.

3. Where we're going - a vision story: Smith notes how "a vision is a picture of the future so compelling people want to go there with you." A particularly effective way to tell a vision story is through one person and describing what things are like for them after a vision has been realized. In the example Smith provides, it's of a sales forecaster who has the information people need, and how that impacts both the results and how she feels about providing them.

4. How we're going to get there - a strategy story: Just as in the vision story, Smith covers how a strategy story can be told as a future look back. The example given was of the manufacturer of a cold medicine detailing all the innovative things they "had done" to achieve a specific success metric, in this case passing competitors. Smith notes it can also be an "imagine if" story rather than future dated one.

5. What we believe - a corporate values story: Smith recounts a story of Sam Walton in a store of his about to meet with a fellow CEO, and having them wait while he was talking with a customer looking at ironing board covers. The fact that he did that conveys through a story how important customers were to Walton.

6. Who we serve - a customer story: Told is the story of a marketing manager meeting in house with a poor mother in Chennai, India, and how the story of this person and their relationship to the product so much more impactful than simply a listing of functions and features.

7. What we do for our customers - a sales story: To illustrate a sales story showing how customers can benefit from an offering, Smith writes of a company that puts on reverse auctions for buyers.

8. How we're different from our competitors - a marketing story: The story told is of a commercial cleaning company and how the effort they put into a new contract impacts the actual people who clean, through making their jobs both easier and more effective. A key part of this story is focusing on new customers and how their experience different than it was with the prior vendor.

9. Why I lead the way I do - a leadership-philosophy story: Smith recounts the story of a U.S. Army tank commander in a training exercise making a quick decision that was the wrong choice. Because the decision made quickly, others that he led learned from his mistake and it resulted in a successful effort in the exercise. Smith shows how this story more effective than simply saying people should make decisions quickly.

10. Why you should want to work here - a recruiting story: The story is told someone about to graduate with an MBA deciding between different corporate offers, including one from Proctor & Gamble. They talked to a recruiter who told them that people he placed there didn't later tell him that they worked with smarter people elsewhere, and that P&G promoted from within, so now as a new grad would be the time to be there. This type of story is more memorable than a listing of employee benefits.

Smith closes by noting that stories told should answer the following questions, preferably in this order:

1. Why should your audience listen? (hook)
2. Where and when did the story take place? (context)
3. Who is the main character and what did that person want? (context)
4. What was the problem or opportunity the main character ran into? (challenge)
5. What did he or she do about it? (conflict or struggle)
6. How did it turn out in the end? (resolution)
7. What did you learn from it? (lesson)
8. What did you think your audience should do now that they've heard it? (recommendation)

Becoming by Michelle Obama


Becoming by Michelle Obama was a compelling read from the former First Lady of the United States, with it containing a remarkable amount of detail about her childhood and the experiences that shaped her.

The book also covers well her time in the White House, including her advocacy for healthy food options and active lives for children, and provides a very thorough look at her life.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

The Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger

The Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger is a solid business book subtitled Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company.

Iger early on covers how after college he worked for a year as a weatherman and news reporter at a tiny cable TV station. Then he got hired at ABC as a studio supervisor on a daytime soap opera, with the job coming from a chance meeting his uncle had with an ABC manager. Iger has now worked at the company for 45 years, roughly half prior to the acquisition by Disney and half since. He's been CEO for 14 years, the 6th person to hold that office since the company founded by Walt in 1923.

Iger's next job after working on the soap opera was in sports, and he details how from working for Roone Arledge on Wide World of Sports, he learned about storytelling, using technology, and perfectionism. Also from this time is a story Iger tells about the importance of owning a mistake, something he notes later as an important principle, part of the aforementioned lessons learned to pass along.

Some of the most interesting content in the book is around how hard he worked to convince the board to give him the CEO job. He met with a political consultant who urged him to focus on only three priorities, any more is too many. The three that he pitched to the board were (1) the need to devote time and capital to the creation of high-quality branded content, (2) the need to embrace technology, both in content creation and distribution, and (3) the need to be truly global company.

 Right after becoming CEO, Iger worked to resurrect the relationship between Disney and Pixar, that had grown fractured due to former Disney CEO Michael Eisner and Pixar CEO Steve Jobs. Iger reached out to Jobs, developed a rapport with him, an openness to working together, and in his first Disney board meeting as CEO, suggested an acquisition of Pixar. This led to a purchase of the company for $7B in Disney stock, with Pixar creative heads Ed Catmull and John Lasseter also leading Disney Animation and Jobs becaming the largest shareholder in Disney. It was fascinating reading Iger surmising of how if Jobs, who he became close friends with, had lived longer they likely would have at least investigated combining Apple and Disney.

Iger also details the acquisitions of Marvel for $4B, LucasFilm for $4.05B, and then 21st Century Fox for $71B. Disney also acquired BAM Technologies, first paying $1B for a third of the company, and then acquiring the rest and using it to develop the Disney+ over the top, or OTT, service going directly to consumers. Overall, it was a solid book about someone who certainly seems a hard worker, waking daily at 4:15, and who also really good with the creative people who produce the content, recognizing their attachments to their work, backing them up when needed and even if it means release delays, having good work really matter.

Saturday, February 08, 2020

The Mastermind by Evan Ratliff

The Mastermind by Evan Ratliff is the nonfiction account of Paul Le Roux and his global enterprise he built that trafficked in illegally prescribed painkillers, hard drugs, and weapons.

Le Roux grew up in Zimbabwe and started out as computer programmer, writing code that would become the basis for True Crypt, a file encryption program used to preserve secrecy. He then started an online pharmacy operation, with hundreds of websites to order from and network of pharmacists and doctors shipping prescription painkillers worldwide with little medical oversight. Based out of the Philippines, Le Roux branched out into methamphetamines, cocaine, weapons and explosives, with an operation in Somalia and mercenaries who committed murders on command.

The U.S. government started investigating Le Roux in 2007, when DEA investigators looking into a pharmacy that appearing to be filling prescriptions illegally saw that the FedEx account it used was shipping orders from pharmacies all over the country, with some 57,000 orders filled over a three week period that year.

Le Roux was arrested in 2012, with the Department of Justice using him to "cooperate down," keeping his business afloat to try to nab his subordinates, perhaps in the hope that he would lead them to terrorist organizations, something that never materialized. Le Roux is currently awaiting sentencing and his tale is a remarkable one told in great detail by Ratliff.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk

Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk is a memoir subtitled Moments in My Writing Life after Which Everything Was Different. Palahniuk was a 1986 Journalism graduate from the University of Oregon and working full-time on the assembly line at Freightliner Trucks when his best known work, Fight Club, published in 1996.

Consider This is described within as a scrapbook of Palahniuk's writing life, including detail about his long-time writing workshop group and how the instructor Tom Spanbauer noted that "99% of what writing workshops do is give people permission to write." Spanbauer was also the source of the book's subtitle with his direction to "write about the moment after which everything is different."

Other advice from Consider This is to write in short, choppy sentences filled with active verbs. Palahniuk noted direction from a former mentor, Bob Maull, with "don't use a lot of commas. People hate sentences with lots of commas. Keep your sentences short. Readers like short sentences."

Also throughout the book were a series of illustrations and accompanying quotes:

"For a thing to endure, it must be made of either granite or words." - Robert Stone
"Action carries its own authority." - Thom Jones
"Language is not our first language." - Tom Spanbauer
"Readers love that shit." - Barry Hannah
"What dogs want is for no one to ever leave." - Amy Hempel
"No two people ever walk into the same room." - Katherine Dunn
"Great problems, not clever solutions make great fiction." - Ira Levin
"Never resolve a threat until you raise a larger one." - Ursula K. Guin
"You don't write to make friends." - Joy Williams
"If you can't be happy while washing dishes, you can't be happy." - Nora Ephron
"When you meet a reader, it's your turn to listen." - David Sedaris
"All workshops suck at some point." - Ken Kesey

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

The Ghosts of Eden Park by Karen Abbott

The Ghosts of Eden Park by Karen Abbott is a solid work of non-fiction subtitled The Bootleg King, the Women Who Pursued Him, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz-Age America and tells the story of George Remus, the aforementioned bootleg king and murderer of his wife Imogene.

It's noted that Prohibition allowed for liquor to be used for medicinal purposes, and Remus as a bootlegger would buy both distilleries and wholesale drug companies, bribe officials to obtain withdrawal permits to remove the whiskey, then hijack his own trucks and resell the liquor. By the summer of 1921, Remus owned 35% of all the liquor in the United States, with he and Imogene living in Cincinnati like royalty, throwing lavish parties including a New Year's Eve party that year which featured Remus giving $1,000 bills to each guest and a new car to every woman there.

Remus eventually is arrested for his crimes and while in prison, Imogene started an affair with Bureau of Investigation agent Franklin Dodge. The two of them siphoned off the family fortune and when Remus released from prison in April 1927, shortly after Imogene filed for divorce, he returned home to find the mansion emptied out.

Imogene almost certainly had attempted to enlist people to kill Remus and immediately prior to their divorce trial in October of that year, Remus shot and killed her. The remainder of the book is about the murder trial, with Remus defending himself based on plea of temporary insanity, and he often made huge scenes during the trial, wailing and sobbing uncontrollably. He was acquitted of the charge of murder, and then successfully argued that the insanity was in fact just temporary so neither went to prison for the murder nor was institutionalized. It was a compelling tale told well by Abbott and Remus as a character was written into the fictional HBO series Boardwalk Empire about whiskey running during Prohibition.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Longitude by Dava Sobel

Longitude by Dava Sobel is subtitled The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time and details the life of John Harrison and his clocks built between 1730 and 1770 that enabled sailors to determine their longitude and navigate more safely across the oceans.

The book notes how latitude and longitude originally plotted in A.D. 150 by the cartographer and astronomer Ptolemy, with latitude lines running the width of the globe and longitude lines from pole to pole. The parallel of latitude lines are based on the equator so fixed by nature, whereas meridian of longitude lines set from an arbitrary spot, for the past several hundred years Greenwich, England.

Sobel notes this difference in how the lines set made it so that sailors could fairly easily gauge their latitude by the sun and length of the day, enabling easy straight east to west travel or vice versa, but it was much more difficult to determine one's longitude.

The two ways to ascertain longitude at sea were via a lunar method, tracking against the stars, but this difficult to do effectively given cloudy nights and the amount of calculation required, and via keeping time aboard ship as well as the time at a separate place of known longitude. From this time difference, one could calculate the degrees traveled and know the location. The problem with this method was having a timepiece that worked as it should, with them rendered unreliable by changes in barometric pressure, temperature extremes, or simply rolling of the ship.

In response to this situation, English Parliament offered the Longitude Act of 1714, stipulating the award of a large monetary prize to anyone that could make possible the accurate determination of one's longitude while at sea. Sobel details how the aforementioned John Harrison accomplished this task via the timekeeping method, building over four decades five revolutionary chronometers, H-1 through H-5. Also noted in the book was how Harrison's had to contend with people who advocated for a lunar solution trying to thwart his superior effort.