Monday, September 06, 2021

Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui

Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui is a contemplative and interesting book that's noted to be an exploration of the world of swimming. The point is made that we must learn to live with water, it’s required for us to survive, and is all around us. Also, swimming can be a way to healing, health, and a community. 

Tsui details stories including someone's survival off the coast of Iceland, spending six hours in 28 degree Fahrenheit water and swimming three and a half miles to safety. Also, swimming in outdoor water is heavily written of, with likely health benefits from cold water swimming, and someone doing it is part of the elements. The Dolphin Club and South End Rowing Club in San Francisco are noted for their swimmers who go into the Bay, including one who swam 30 miles from the Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge, 17 hours through shark-infested waters.

It's also covered that people enjoy swimming more than many other forms of exercise and that swim lessons are an equalizer between people. No matter how powerful someone is, if they don’t know how to swim, they're the same as others from a lower stature or different culture. Additionally, swim teams can be a great combination of singular determination and being part of a collective. 

A couple of other things that stand out from the book are Japanese swimming martial arts, or Nihon eiho, and samurai swimmers from hundreds of year ago. Also, when you swim, you’re a part of a collective, and swimming in a body of water is a way of forging a connection with it, and with others who have swam there. 

Amazon Unbound by Brad Stone

Amazon Unbound by Brad Stone is subtitled Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire and follows up on The Everything Store by Stone from 2013. In Amazon Unbound, it notes that at the end of 2010, Amazon had 33,700 employees and a market capitalization of $80B, with the net worth for Bezos at $15.9B. Amazon as of early Sept 2021 has roughly 1,300,000 employees and a market cap around $1.6T, with Bezos' net worth some $200B. Amazon Unbound details this exponential growth, with below the chapters and primary topics...

Chapter one – on the building of the Echo

Chapter two – on early efforts to create Amazon grocery retail stores

Chapter three – on Amazon in India

Chapter four – on AWS and Amazon stock doubling in 2015 after previously hiding its profitability to keep competitors out

Chapter five – on Bezos and his ownership of the Washington Post, purchased in 2013 for $250M

Chapter six – on efforts in Hollywood and Prime video

Chapter seven – on the Amazon flywheel leading to growth, counterfeit goods, and unhappy merchants

Chapter eight – on efforts in grocery and the 2017 acquisition of Whole Foods

Chapter nine – on logistics and supply chain

Chapter ten – on selling ads in Amazon site search results

Chapter eleven – on Bezos' Blue Origin space startup, founded in 2000

Chapter twelve – on the relationship with and impact of Amazon on Seattle and other cities with its HQ2 bakeoff

Chapter thirteen – on the breakup of Bezos’ marriage, including extortion and potential Saudi hacking 

Chapter fourteen – on government investigation into potential monopolistic and anti-trust behavior by Amazon

Chapter fifteen – on the pandemic, including the Amazon firing of whistleblowers around worker safety

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Radical Candor by Kim Scott

Radical Candor by Kim Scott is a solid book with the subtitle Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. Scott notes that at the heart of being a good boss is having good relationships, ones built on radical candor. From this, a boss can provide guidance to produce better results and help employees achieve. 

It’s detailed that the role of a boss is to listen to their employees and to care personally about what they have to say. A boss should start by asking for feedback and criticism, not by giving it out, and understand what motivates each person. In 1:1 meetings, employees should set the agenda and a boss should be a partner, not an absentee manager or a micromanager, and from this, trust gets built.

Along with this foundation of trust, a boss should tell people clearly and directly when their work isn’t good enough. It’s not mean, it’s clear, and it should be provided in the moment and be about the actions, not the person. Also, everyone can be exceptional at something, it’s the role of the boss to help them find that thing. Scott as well details what she calls the get stuff done wheel: listen, clarify, debate, decide, persuade, execute, learn, listen again…

Listen – give the quiet ones a voice, create a culture of listening

Clarify – if someone doesn’t understand, the fault may be with the person making an unclear argument 

Debate – focus on ideas and not egos, create an obligation to dissent, be clear about when the debate will end

Decide – the decider should get facts, not opinions

Persuade – focus on the listener’s emotions, demonstrate your credibility, and show your work

Execute – don’t waste people’s time

Learn – be willing to course-correct

There’s a number of solid things by Scott in the book, both for a boss and for an employee of a boss.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

The Premonition by Michael Lewis

The Premonition by Michael Lewis is subtitled A Pandemic Story and covers some of the major players in U.S. pandemic response (or lack thereof) at a county, state, and federal (particularly the CDC) level. 

Lewis notes in the introduction that the United States has a bit more than 4% of the world’s population and as of Spring 2021, had a bit more than 20% of its COVID-19 deaths. In February 2021, The Lancet published a piece noted that if the COVID-19 death rate in the U.S. had tracked at the average of the other G7 nations, 180,000 of the then 450,000 dead would still be alive.

The book covers how decentralized the federal government is and yes, it got worse under Trump, but it wasn’t great to begin with. It’s remarkable how ineffectual the CDC is written of as being, and how many county health officers assume that the CDC will provide guidance and leadership. The CDC mentality was described as focused on taking no action they could be blamed for later. Lewis notes what a loss it is that many brilliant and capable people leave government work to be more well treated and respected in the private sector. 

It's covered how President George W. Bush in 2005 read the John Barry book The Great Influenza and demanded that a pandemic plan be created. Richard Hatchett and Carter Mecher were two people involved in the creation of the plan and what they wrote was that lives could be saved by taking measures before vaccines available. Additionally, a scientist named Bob Glass figured out along with his high-school-aged daughter how infectious disease transmission could be limited. One of the things that they espoused was school closings, especially giving how tightly confined kids were in school. 

Charity Dean is a former chief health officer for Santa Barbara County, and in that role, was struck by the power she had to combat communicable diseases and relentlessly tracked down potentially cataclysmic public health crises. California was noted as unusual with control held at the county health officer level, for most other states, it was the state health officer or governor. As we went in the pandemic, Dean was second in charge at the California Department of Public Health, with the person in charge for the state, Karen Smith, having no experience in communicable diseases and a see no evil, hear no evil approach. She in late February had a call with the 58 county health officers in California and said they on their own, same as Trump said to the states.

Hatchett, Mecher, Dean, Lisa Koonin and a handful of other people, some 5-10 in total, were in contact by early 2020 and all felt that a pandemic was coming, despite the statements from the CDC and White House. It’s described as being like the Mann Gulch fire, burning out of control, but people don’t realize it yet. From their calls and emails emerged actions cherry picked from by the actual government.

Lewis throughout the book writes of the things that should have been done that simply weren’t, and how we should have learned so that we prepared for a virus with the same level of communicability, but a greater potency and fatality rate.

Thursday, August 05, 2021

Atomic Habits by James Clear

Atomic Habits by James Clear is a solid book with the subtitle An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. It’s a fast read with lots of tangible steps to take and systems in it. 

Clear starts with the attention-grabbing story of getting hit square in the face with a baseball bat in high school, almost losing his life. He writes about the habits he started to build while in college, with habits defined as a routine or behavior that is performed regularly—and in many cases, automatically. Small habits that accumulate can make a big difference, working on the same principle as compound interest. Also, your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits, often without huge changes until eventually leading to exponential results. Goals are the results you want to achieve, and systems the more important processes that lead to those results. 

The book details how behavior change is about outcomes, processes, and identity, with the most impactful identity, being someone who does something or does things a certain way. For instance, “I’m not a smoker” rather than “I want to quit smoking.” Your habits are how you embody your identity. As you do something, you become that thing and the best way to change who you are is to change what you do. Clear notes that people should first decide the type of person they want to be, then prove it to themselves with small wins. Habits can change your beliefs about yourself and are mental shortcuts learned from experience. Clear notes that to build better habits, one should make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, and make it satisfying:

1. Make it obvious - The first step is to simply notice what your habits are. From there you can take actions. You can make a specific plan of steps to take that are to become a habit, and the more specific, the better. Make the habits you want right in front of you to implement. For instance, if you want to eat healthy, buy fruit and put it out on the table for you to grab from. 

2. Make it attractive - You can pair an action you want to do with an action you need to do. For instance, if you do ten 10 burpees, you can check your social media. A good way to build better habits is to join a group where your desired behavior is the normal behavior. 

3. Make it easy - Habits aren’t hard to form, they simply come from reps. You can set yourself up for success at forming habits by priming your environment so the habit easy to do. Remove the friction associated with good behaviors, increase the friction associated with bad behaviors. It’s ok to reduce your habits at first, to make them small. For instance, reading at night can begin with “read for two minutes.” Just show up, don’t worry about what happens next as in doing so repeatedly, your identity becomes that of someone who shows up. 

4. Make it satisfying - It’s good to create rewards for good behavior. For instance, using toothpaste that leaves your mouth feeling good. The brushing is what’s important, but the taste is what’s satisfying. A habit tracker is a simple way to feel good about what you’re doing. A good way to think about falling short on doing something is the law of two, it’s ok to miss something once, you don’t want to miss it twice. Don’t be too hard on yourself. 

Towards the end, Clear notes that the goldilocks rule states that people experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right at the edge of their current abilities. The greatest threat to success is not failure, but boredom. Anyone can work hard when they feel motivated, but you have to work through boredom. It’s the ability to keep going when work isn’t exciting that makes the difference. Habits + deliberate practice = mastery.

Sunday, August 01, 2021

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah is an engrossing novel that felt like it could be a nonfiction account. 

Hannah tells the story of Elsa Wolcott, who in 1920s Central Texas was pregnant and cast out by her parents, joining with what would turn out to be a abandoning husband and father in Rafe Martinelli and his saint-like parents Tony and Rose. 

By 1934, the Martinelli family farm was barely producing crops as drought and dust storms ravaged the land and created enormous poverty, along with health problems for Elsa's son Anthony. She takes he and his sister Loreda to California in search of a better life and is met there by the continued Great Depression and xenophobia against migrants from the Dust Bowl. The story that Hannah tells set in the San Joaquin Valley continues to be a captivating one as Elsa fights to keep her children sheltered and fed in a harsh and unforgiving environment stacked against migrant workers not in a position of power. 

It's an excellent book that provides a story that seems taken straight from history and shows one woman's fight for her family and the importance of caring about one another in the face of hardships. The tale that Hannah eloquently writes is of a time and events that should be remembered and she notes her website containing a suggested reading list about the Dust Bowl years and migrant experience in California.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

The Dip by Seth Godin

The Dip by Seth Godin is a short and solid book about the decisions we make to either stick with things or quit them. He makes the point that single-minded determination and a never say die attitude not always a good thing, it often is better to move on from something and focus energies elsewhere.

The idea of the dip as Godin describes it is the hard period of something, the long slog between starting and mastery. Almost everything has a dip. It’s supposed to be there and is in effect a barrier to entry that creates value. Also, Godin points out that many professions have superstars and then a bunch of also-rans. Second or third place isn't a terribly successful place to be. The goal really should be to be the best at something, even if it a small area, not to muddle your way to an ok level of competence. Pushing through the dip is a good thing, what you don't want to do is quit in the middle of the dip, when it's hard, but still worth it to succeed. 

It's noted that along with dips, there's also cul-de-sacs, spots where no matter how hard you try, things won't get better. Those are the dead ends that should be abandoned. Godin also points out that coping is a lousy alternative to quitting. All coping does is waste your time and misdirect your energy. If the best you can do is cope, you're better off walking away. Highlighted is that winners quit fast and often, and then beat the right dip for the right reasons. Quitting the things you don't care much about, are mediocre at, or aren’t going anywhere (a cul-de-sac) frees you up to push through the dips on the things that do matter. When you are ready to quit something, go for broke, be willing to ask for what you want, and willing to walk away. Going into new situations lets you reinvent yourself; you've left behind those who have branded or pigeonholed you.

The right idea isn't "never quit," the right idea is "never quit something worthwhile just because it's hard at that moment." Don't quit your strategies, quit your tactics, and remember that a particular job is tactic, not strategy. Getting through the dip is never quitting the big idea. "Quit the wrong stuff. Stick with the right stuff. Have the guts to do one or the other." 

How Lucky by Will Leitch

How Lucky by Will Leitch feels full of contradictions, with those combining together into a really good novel. 

It's about someone with SMA, or spinal muscular atrophy, a disease that typically has symptoms appear in early childhood and eventually leaves a person confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak. They're mentally sharp, but with a body that didn't sign up for the ride. It's described in the book as akin to Lou Gehrig's Disease, or ALS, but with it coming much earlier in life and having a much longer deterioration period. Also, SMA is a progressive disease, once a body part fails, that function is gone, and that's the way it's going to remain. 

Along with being about someone who has a debilitating disease, the book also is a nice story, one about someone living their life, the people who love them and they love in turn. The best people in the main character's life are those who don't feel sorry for him, but treat him like the real person he is.

Leitch set the book in his town of Athens, Georgia and noted writing it after his friends had a child with SMA. The story is a lot of  things, it's a mystery about an abduction, funny, and heartwarming, with the main character narrating "I have helped people, and I have people who have helped me."

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton

 Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton is a solid work of nonfiction about the expedition of the Belgica, which sailed in August 1897 from Belgium for Antarctica, attempting to reach the magnetic south pole. 

The ship was under the command of Adrien de Gerlache, from a distinguished Belgian family and in his early 30s when the expedition began. It was funded in part by a national subscription campaign, with some 2,500 Belgians contributing donations, and de Gerlache would have liked to have the ship have an entirely Belgian crew, but to fill the roughly twenty spots had to enlist many non-Belgians, including American Dr. Frederick Cook and Norwegian Roald Amundsen. de Gerlache was neither a good manager of the crew nor particularly good decision-maker, with many of his choices driven less by prudence and more by concern about how his Belgian benefactors and the press would look upon him in the future.

 A man was lost overboard on the way from South America to Antarctica and de Gerlache had assured those who signed up for the expedition that they would not winter in Antarctica. However, once they at the continent in early 1898, he made the choice to sail into the ice rather than abandon the quest to be the first to the magnetic south pole. de Gerlache knew that they would get stuck in the ice of the Bellingshausen Sea for the winter but concealed his intent from the crew. The sun went down in mid-May for close to seventy days of 24-hour darkness. de Gerlache during the Antarctic winter spent much of his time sequestered in his cabin with horrible headaches and one of the men had a weak heart and died during the arctic winter. The men started to suffer from scurvy, with their conditions then improving for those who would eat seal or penguin meat, but de Gerlache largely refused, sticking with the canned goods that he planned for and his backers paid for.

Crew members Cook and Amundsen became close during the expedition and were the two most hearty polar explorers, with each of them leading future expeditions and especially Amundsen becoming well-known for his accomplishments. As the crew moved into the Antarctic summer of October and November, one of the sailors began have his mental state deteriorate rapidly and it noted in the book that the second Christmas aboard the ship was a grim affair, with it becoming apparent that many of the men would not survive a second Antarctic winter and the food stores were being rapidly depleted. A plan was hatched to cut trenches in front of the ship, trying to create a waterway for the Belgica. Initial progress that was made was lost at the end of January when the ice pack shifted, but then on March 14, 1899 they broke out of the ice.

Upon their return to civilization, one man had lost his sanity while stuck in the ice and was committed to an asylum and another died after growing sick during the expedition. It would take de Gerlache a year to regain his health after the trip and Amundsen and Cook both embarked on other expeditions not long after the Begica’s return. Amundsen became an acclaimed polar explorer and Cook was as well for a time, until his exploits, specifically a claimed journey to the geographic north pole was called into question. Cook’s membership to the New York Explorer’s Club, of which he was president, was revoked and then then became an oil speculator and was convicted of fraud and sent to prison. Overall, it’s an interesting book with tales of danger, bravery, and horrific decisions. 

Saturday, July 03, 2021

A Knock at Midnight by Brittany Barnett

A Knock at Midnight by Brittany Barnett is a great book subtitled A Story of Hope, Justice, and Freedom. It’s a memoir about her growing up in central Texas, having a mother who went to jail for a drug offense, then becoming a lawyer advocating for the release of people serving life sentences without parole for drug offenses. 

Barnett grew up first in the small Texas towns of Fulbright and Bogata and was ten when she found her mother’s crack pipe in the house. She along with her sister Jazz went to live with their father and grandparents in nearby Campbell and it was difficult having a mother who was an on again, off again addict. Barnett when she started high school moved to Commerce to live with her other grandparents and get away from her mother’s addiction. She in college studied accounting, receiving a bachelors and then masters degree, with her mom unable to attend the graduation as she was in jail, sentenced to 8 years in prison for repeatedly failing drug tests while on probation for an arrest 6 years prior. Barnett notes how in her county growing up, blacks were 34 times more likely to be charged for marijuana possession than whites.

Barnett was a first-year law student at SMU, taking a class on the intersection of race and law, when she came across the case of Sharanda Jones, someone who had served ten years of a life sentence for a first-time drug offense. The environment under which Jones arrested was one with drug laws focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation, which is what sent Barnett’s mother to jail, and one with a racial bias. There was a sentencing disparity of 100 to 1 between crack and cocaine and prosecutors had enormous latitude to charge people with conspiracy to distribute drugs, a charge that required no physical evidence to prove. Additionally, mandatory minimum sentences were attached to many cases, effectively taking sentencing out of the hands of judges or juries. Prosecutors would also frequency focus on flipping defendants, even having higher-level dealers testify against lower-level dealers, and stacking charges or adding on 851 enhancements, bringing into sentencing past transgressions, no matter how small. 

When Jones was sent to prison on a conspiracy to distribute charge, she had been a low-level mover of drugs, was no longer involved, and entrapped by a friend looking to be an informant and get a lesser sentence. Jones was told by prosecutors she as well could get a lesser sentence if she flipped on her Dallas police officer friend, someone not involved at all with drugs. Jones didn’t testify against anyone else and after her lawyer told her she would likely go free, and worst case would have a five-year sentence; she was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, going to prison when her daughter eight years old. 

While still in law school, Barnett began advocating for Jones, and continued to do this pro bono work as she became a corporate lawyer in a large firm. She in the book details the dehumanizing conditions for inmates, including visitors having to ask for people by their prison number rather than name. While Barnett trying to get Jones released, mandatory sentencing guidelines were ruled unconstitutional, but not retroactively. Barnett then felt that the best path to release was clemency, something that could be granted by the President and noted in the book as being described by a fellow lawyer as “where justice meets mercy.” Barnett mentions a 2015 Washington Post story by Sam Horwitz on Jones and others serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, even though they would have received lesser sentences under current guidelines, and Jones was pardoned by President Obama, with release in 2016. Also noted in the book are others that Barnett would help get clemency, including Donel Clark, Alice Johnson, Corey Jacobs, and Chris Young  (with the judge that sentenced him, Kevin Sharp, having left his seat because he felt mandatory minimum sentences were wrong).

It’s a remarkable story from Barnett about a grave injustice. Also interesting was both how strong the writing in the book is (it seems many lawyers are often good writers) and how Barnett before she left corporate law combined her accounting degree and the tangible skill it gave her with the tangible skill from her law degree.

Friday, July 02, 2021

Freedom by Sebastian Junger

Freedom by Sebastian Junger is a short book with interesting ruminations on his roughly year-long walk up the East Coast of the U.S. He and several friends, including a conflict photographer and two Afghan War vets, walked around 400 miles, illegally traveling along on rail lines, many through small towns that were dying away, and the book covers well this time of him simply walking, moving forward with self-reliance.

Junger previously wrote Tribe, War, Fire, A Death in Belmont, and The Perfect Storm, with all of them good books and Freedom being particularly like the first three with it examining the history of something and Junger's thoughts on it. There's a lot about the people of America and government in it and the book covers how it important to remember what happened in the past. Junger writes that "the idea that we can enjoy the benefits of society while owing nothing in return is literally infantile. Only children owe nothing." It's a good book, with other quotes from it...

"In a deeply-free society, not only would leaders be barred from exploiting their position, they would also be expected to make the same sacrifices and accept the same punishments as everyone else." 

"An insurgency or political movement with leaders who refuse to suffer the same consequences as everyone else is probably doomed. Unfair hierarchies destroy motivation, and motivation is the one thing that underdogs must have more of than everyone else." 

"If democratic power-sharing is a potent form of freedom, accepting an election loss may be the ultimate demonstration of how free you want to be. History is littered with fascist leaders who have rigged elections and tortured or killed critics, but their regimes are remarkable short-lived, especially considering the obsession these men usually have with holding power. Many wind up dead or in prison, and almost none leave behind stable regimes."

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir is a novel from the writer of The Martian, and while I thought his latest was better than his book Artemis, it wasn't near the level of his bestselling and adapted into a hit movie first book.

Weir has a large amount of science writing in Project Hail Mary and I'm assuming that it was thought out well and as such deserves credit, but I would have liked to have seen events on Earth covered more thoroughly. Overall the novel struck me as just a fine read, neither terrible nor great.



Saturday, June 19, 2021

The Hero Code by William McRaven

The Hero Code by William McRaven is a solid and short book with the subtitle Lessons Learned From Lives Well Lived. McRaven is a retired U.S. Navy four-star admiral who wrote the excellent books Make Your Bed and Sea Stories and his latest has ten short life lessons with brief stories of people who personified each.

1. Courage - something that comes in all different forms of actions that confront fears: could be fighting enemies in battle, bullies in life, or demons within

2. Humility - the story of McRaven meeting Charlie Duke, who described himself as "an Air Force pilot," without noting he walked on the moon, one of only 12 who have 

3. Sacrifice - the story of Marine Ralph Johnson who in 1968 saved lives jumping on a grenade in Vietnam, and in 2018 had a Navy destroyer named after him

4. Integrity - mention of McRaven as a young lieutenant being told the importance of never lying or misrepresenting the truth, if caught doing that, trust will be forever lost

5. Compassion - the story of Gary Sinise, who played Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump, his support of wounded soldiers, and how even small acts of kindness create a society

6. Perseverance - the story of Dr. Jim Allison and his long battle to have a method of fighting cancer brought to market, saving thousands of lives, as well as Navy SEALs persevering through "one evolution at a time"

7. Duty - the story of Senator John McCain, someone who could have been released early from his Prisoner of War camp in Vietnam based on his four-star admiral father, but chose to stay with his fellow captives

8. Hope - the idea that tomorrow will be a better day, something that both is a way to look at things and an idea that we can work to impart to others

9. Humor - something that bonds us together, it's important to try to have a life filled with laughter, both for ourselves and to give to others 

10. Forgiveness - the Gandhi quote of "the weak can never forgive, forgiveness is the attribute of the strong" and stories from Afghanistan with how forgiving is letting go of one's burden and Charleston, South Carolina with how pardoning the unpardonable makes one not an accomplice to hatred and the victor, not the victim

Uncanny Valley: A Memoir by Anna Weiner

 Uncanny Valley by Anna Weiner is a memoir by a technology writer for The New Yorker who in her mid-twenties left a job in book publishing for one in tech, moving first to a New York-based startup and then one in San Francisco. It's an interesting look at a culture she portrays as centered around work and the ideas of growth, disruption, and scale along with absolutism, self-aggrandizing, and pseudo-intellectualism.

Weiner was 25 in 2013 when she left a role as an assistant at a small literary agency in Manhattan to take a 3-month trial job at an e-reader startup working with the three founders and an engineer. She then took a customer support job in San Francisco at a data analytics tech startup, where she employee number 20, and the 4th woman. 

She describes in the book how the job, and overall culture of tech in San Francisco, was all about confidence and a never-ending focus on work. People didn't really have outside lives, but they liked to talk about outside lives, how their work would change the world and how that work was about and created a philosophy of life, one with lots of "opportunities," "revenue," and "strategy." Everything was wrapped in the language of business. If you could spew philosophy wrapped in business, the ideas of stoicism, people as operations systems, or war analogies tied to company growth, all the better.

People claimed they craved authenticity, but it’s described by Weiner as craving an authenticity and community about them. The mantra was work and good faith, believing in the rightness of their own actions, with the phrase the CEO used being “Down for the Cause.” He was also noted as talking about things like "wanting more women in leadership roles," rather than actually putting them in leadership roles. Weiner also had male colleagues described to her as "strategic" and that she someone who "loved their customers." Also, when the data analytics company released a new feature about user website engagement, it was named Addiction.

Weiner then left to do support at a different company, a 200-employee open-source startup tech company with channels where people shared information online. Part of her new role was content moderator, with she and her team as the arbiters of what was acceptable on the platform, and four of them overseeing content from nine million users. People were in enormous positions of power, but everything was "trust the system." Weiner also notes that her high-paying job existed for, and on, the internet and left the open-source startup in 2018.

Saturday, June 05, 2021

Facing the Mountain by Daniel James Brown

Facing the Mountain by Daniel James Brown is an excellent book by the author of The Boys in the Boat, with his latest subtitled A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II. The book tells two stories—one of the Americans of Japanese ancestry who fought valiantly in the war, and one of the over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry living in the U.S. who were labeled as “enemy aliens” and forced into internment camps.

Many of the people detained were U.S. citizens, the Nisei who were born in the U.S. after their Issei parents immigrated to the county and started families and businesses, but not allowed to apply for U.S. citizenship. Brown writes of how after Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, racism against people of Japanese ancestry was rampant in America, with many calling for them to be detained. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing his military commanders to designate areas of the country from which “any and all persons may be excluded.” The exclusion zone area was all of California, the western halves of Washington and Oregon, and the southern part of Arizona, including Phoenix. Additionally, many people from Hawaii were removed to detention sites on the mainland and a curfew was established for all people of Japanese ancestry. This was regardless of whether people U.S. citizens, and something not done to anyone in the U.S. of German or Italian ancestry.

Brown dedicated the book to Kats Miho, Rudy Tokiwa, Fred Shiosaki, and Gordon Hirabayashi. Kats grew up on Maui where his parents owned and ran the Miho Hotel. Their father was detained after Pearl Harbor and sent to what would become an internment camp on the U.S. mainland. Rudy was from Salinas, CA where his family leased farmland and after the February 1942 order, the two young men and their families were all detained by the U.S. government. Fred was from Spokane, WA—outside the exclusion zone—where his parents owned and ran the Hillyard Laundry. Gordon was a student at the University of Washington in Seattle and was a conscientious objector, first to the curfew, then to registering for removal to an internment camp, or “assembly center” as it was described, and later to the signing of a loyalty oath, something required of people of Japanese ancestry, but not of other American citizens—which Kats, Rudy, Fred, and Gordon were. 

On February 1, 1943, Roosevelt signed a memo that said all Americans could serve in the military, enabling the Nisei, the second-generation American citizens of Japanese ancestry to join. Thousands did, many from internment camps where they were being detained by the American government, and those who did not volunteer later were subject to the draft. The American citizens of Japanese ancestry who joined the military made up the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-Japanese American fighting unit that trained in Mississippi. Initially there were huge divisions in it, with fighting between young men from Hawaii and those from the mainland of the U.S. Eventually they bonded together, in part because the troops from Hawaii were sent to visit internment camps and saw firsthand what the families of their mainland counterparts had to live in. While there, some of them were sent to Alabama to guard German POWs and found them living in better conditions than their own families being held in camps by the U.S. government.

Kats, Rudy, and Fred all were part of the 442nd, and in April 1944, the order came for them to ship to Europe. They left from Virginia boatyards on May 1 and after landing in Italy were soon in heavy combat. The 442nd then in September 1994 boarded ships for France and were sent into the Vosges, heavily forested mountains between France and Germany. In late October, they suffered heavy losses rescuing what become known as the Lost Battalion—two Texas units, the 141st and 143rd Infantry Regiments with more than 200 troops that had gotten trapped—near the French town of Bruyères. Later the 442nd was sent back to Italy, and broke through the Gothic Line, a German foothold across Italy. Germany surrendered in early May 1945, Japan in early August, and it's noted by Brown that the 442nd RCT was likely the most decorated military unit of its size and length of service in American history. Of the 16 million Americans who served in WWII, 473 received Medals of Honor, with 21 of those from the roughly 18,000 who served in the 442nd. This group that made up just over .11% of the U.S. military earned 4.4% of the Medals of Honor. 

When the men were back home, they again had to confront racism—despite being American war heroes—and had to help their families rebuild after homes and businesses lost when they forced into internment camps. As Brown tells the story of Kats, Rudy, Fred, and the others fighting, he also writes of Gordon and his bravery standing up for his constitutional rights that were being denied him as an American citizen. Gordon died in January 2012 and in May of that year was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig is a short and interesting novel by the British writer. It's a nice read about the choices we make—and how we have more choices than we think—with below from the book...

"'You need to realise something if you are ever to success at chess,' she said, as if Nora had nothing bigger to think about. 'And the thing you need to realise is this; the game is never over until it is over. It isn't over if there is a single pawn still on the board. If one side is down to a pawn and a king, and the other side has every player, there is still a game.'"



Saturday, May 29, 2021

The Nine by Gwen Strauss

The Nine by Gwen Strauss is a compelling and important book subtitled The True Story of a Band of Women Who Survived the Worst of Nazi Germany. The women were all in their twenties and resistance fighters arrested in France, many of them just prior to the liberation of Paris in 1944, tortured and sent to Germany. 

The book preserves the history of atrocities committed in the concentration camps, something that feels vital especially as few of the people who were there are still alive. Along with the stories of horrific treatment of the Jews and other prisoners, Strauss as the niece of one of the nine heroines also writes how they escaped from an end-of-war death march and tells the story of each woman: Hélène Podliasky, Suzanne Maudet (Zaza), Nicole Claraence, Madelon Verstijnen (Lon), Guillemette Daendels (Guigui), Renée Lebon Châtenay (Zinka), Joséphine Bordanava (Josée), Jacqueline Aubéry Du Boulley (Jacky), and Yvonne Le Guillou (Mena).

The majority of the nine women were arrested by French police and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany (with estimates of the death toll there ranging from 30,000 to 90,000 between 1939-1945), and then a labor camp in Leipzig. Between January and May 1945, Germany started to empty camps ahead of oncoming armies as saw they were going to lose the war and were trying to cover up evidence of their crimes against humanity. They increased executions and sent prisoners on death marches, sometimes towards other camps, sometimes just walking to their deaths. An estimated 250,000 of the 714,000 survivors in camps at the beginning on 1945 would die during forced evacuations between January and May.

The nine women were marched out of the labor camp on April 14, 1945, part of 5,000 women that were in the camp sent on the road. Several days later the nine slipped out of a column and hid in a ditch. They then started their journey trying to get back to France. As they worked their way through war-torn German villages, they at times said they were guest workers, refugees, or simply kept their story vague. They were helped by people along the way, some enthusiastically, some begrudgingly, and had multiple close calls, each of which they carried on through, never giving up. They had a map drawn for them that was on police letterhead and used that multiple times to pretend that they had approval to travel. They made it to the front line, April 21, forged the Mulde River going from stone to stone, and met American troops near Colditz. The women were given food and shelter and then went to a Red Cross refugee camp in Grimma in anticipation of going back to Paris. Hitler killed himself on April 30, Germany surrendered May 7, and seven of the women took a transport train to Paris May 16, with Hélène staying behind to work with the US Army and Jacky to help run a home for refugees.

It's amazing that the women survived as there were so many points, especially before their escape, they could have died. Strauss details the atrocities from the concentration camps, how the Germans created sports out of depravity and noted that when the Soviets liberated Auschwitz in January 1945, they found 800,000 women’s outfits and 14,000 pounds of human hair. Then after the women returned home, many people didn’t want to focus on the horrors of what the Germans did, rather on the brave male soldiers who won the war. Also, people didn’t understand what the prisoners in concentration camps went through, and many of the former prisoners dealt with health problems as a result of the camps, not to mention the psychological pain. As Strauss tells the life story of each of the women, she notes the intra-generational trauma suffered by many over the decades. It’s a powerful book, telling the stories of who the women were and what they did, and also the atrocities committed by the Germans, with the remembering of these stories bringing to mind for me the famous phrase “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Monday, May 17, 2021

The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell

The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell is a solid and short read first made as an audiobook and then turned into a hardcover. It expands on stories from his Revisionist History podcast and is described as a tale of persistence (with Gladwell noting his appreciation of obsessives), innovation, and the wages of war. 

Three primary characters detailed are U.S. Generals Curtis LeMay and Haywood Hansell as well as Carl Norden, inventor of the Norden bombsight. Hansell was the architect of precision bombing, using the Norden bombsight to surgically strike enemy choke points in an attempt to win wars with less loss of life. The story is told of WWII efforts to bomb German factories in the town of Schweinfurt that produced ball bearings, and the enormous casualties suffered by U.S. air forces, with Curtis LeMay commanding planes directed by Hansell.

LeMay took over for Hansell when he was relieved of command in the Pacific theater and took the opposite approach, employing morale bombing, with the intent of shortening the war by demoralizing the enemy. Bombing of Japan was only possible after U.S. forces took the Mariana Islands, some 1,500 miles from Tokyo, and developed the B-29 bomber, with a range of a bit over 3,000 miles.

In the first bombing runs with B-29s over Tokyo, they discovered the jet stream, with the winds making it impossible to accurately drop bombs from altitude. LeMay switched from the daylight raids favored by Hansell to low-altitude night bombing raids. LeMay also employed area bombing with napalm, and on March 9, 1945 Operation Meetinghouse had more than 300 B-29s drop napalm bombs that killed roughly 100,000 people, with everything burning for 16 square miles. This was followed by napalm bombing of many other Japanese cities and it was interesting reading of how this firebombing campaign, along of course with the dropping of the atomic bombs, played a huge role in Japan surrendering in August 1945.

Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World by Fareed Zakaria

Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World by Fareed Zakaria is a short book by the CNN host that contains some interesting sections and points, with those that stood out noted below:

Lesson four: Listen to the experts-and the people - The point is made that expert opinions matter, and also that people can take hard news if you give it to them directly.

Lesson seven: Inequality will get worse - The federal government should step in to help the people who need it most. People's lives can be stabilized with direct aid and massive infrastructure spending that both helps them and builds for the country.

Lesson nine: The world is becoming bipolar - It's crucially important to have at least a semblance of a relationship with China, as conflict between the U.S. and China would be disastrous. 




Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson is a great book that’s subtitled Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race

Isaacson writes about CRISPR, genetic engineering, and the fight against COVID-19, which the book was conceived of prior to, but features prominently in the introduction and the final section. All of this is covered well by Isaacson through the lens of the main character, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Jennifer Doudna. Early in the book there’s a story of her in the sixth grade reading The Double Helix by James Watson about his co-discovery of DNA. Doudna was fascinated by how science could be exciting and full of mystery and it led her to want to work in the field. She had to overcome skeptics who didn’t believe girls should aspire to a career in science and as a graduate student in chemistry, she focused on RNA, the molecule in a cell that copies instructions coded by DNA and uses them to build proteins. Her mapping out the structure of RNA was very akin to what Watson and Francis Crick did in discovering the double-helix structure of DNA in 1953. 

DNA is what contains genetic information in cells and Doudna and her collaborators in 2012 found that some bacteria developed clustered repeated sequences, or CRISPR, in their DNA. It was found that these sequences were an immune system that bacteria adapted when attacked by a new type of virus. Doudna and her team discovered that along with RNA, these sequences could be engineered to edit DNA. The way it works is: 1. A Cas9 protein joins with RNA and guides it to a DNA sequence, 2. The Cas9 cuts into the DNA, likely chopping out a gene, 3. A newly programmed piece of DNA with a preferred gene gets inserted where the cut was made. Watson found that the DNA holds genetic information, Doudna how to edit that by using RNA. 

Isaacson notes that figuring out when to edit our genes will be one of the most consequential questions of the twenty-first century. The first half of the twentieth century was based on the atom and creating a nuclear age, the second half on the bit and creating the information technology era, and now we’ve entered the life-science revolution centered around the gene. There's a difference between non-inheritable, or somatic, gene editing and gene editing that crosses the germline. In the non-inheritable version, you're changing a genome in someone, and in germline editing you're engineering a change that will be inherited by all future descendants.

CRISPR gene editing is now being used to treat sickle-cell anemia, cancers, and blindness, and last year Doudna and her team explored how CRISPR technology could detect the coronavirus, and hopefully in the future play a role in fending off future pandemic-causing viruses. The book starts by noting it as a way to potentially engineer inheritable edits in humans that would make our children, and all of our descendants, less vulnerable to virus infections like we’ve had with COVID-19. This sounds like a good thing, but there are very legitimate concerns about genetic engineering, or germline editing. There’s the treatment vs. enhancement question, or continuum conundrum. Fending off a pandemic is a worthwhile endeavor, as is perhaps eliminating maladies like Huntington’s disease, but what about other things ranging from HIV-susceptibility, to deafness, IQ, and height? Additionally, should you cross the germline to accomplish something that could be done another way? In 2018, a young Chinese scientist used CRISPR to edit embryos and remove a gene that produces a receptor for HIV, which led to the birth of twin girls and the world’s first designer babies. It was crossing a threshold; one the scientific community had held back from to that point, and in this case of trying to get children less likely to contract HIV later in life, there’s less drastic steps that could have been taken. Also, making this type of genetic engineering a choice that parents can readily make would have the impact of increasing inequities in society as well as likely limiting diversity and understanding of differences in people. 

There’s also interesting content in the book about competition in the field, both friendly and not so friendly, and about biological hackers, people doing for life sciences the same type of tinkering that was done with personal computing, putting power in the hands of the people. The last portion of the book is about the reaction to COVID-19 and Isaacson covers the collaboration when scientists responding to the pandemic. The genetic sequence of the virus was posted online by Chinese researchers on January 9, 2020. On Mar 13, Doudna convened a meeting of top doctors to figure out what they would work on, with many of the efforts around developing tests for the virus given the limited Federal response. Doudna’s lab did its first COVID tests, of Berkeley firefighters, on April 6. Also covered is how the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines injects a snippet of RNA rather than a weakened version of the virus; it’s a genetic vaccine that guides cells to produce components of the virus. This knowledge of RNA and what it could do helped the vaccines get produced in record time, and will also be helpful in responding to future viruses. 

Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre

The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre is an engrossing work of nonfiction subtitled The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War. It's about Soviet KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky who spied for the British government and the book reads like fiction it has such remarkable events written of.

Gordievsky came from a KGB family and in his early twenties was in Germany as the Berlin Wall started to be built and he disapproved of the crackdown on freedoms for citizens in East Germany. He then became a KGB spy, drawn not to the ideology of the Soviet system, which he felt could change for the better, but rather the allure and glamour of intelligence work. He started in the Soviet embassy in Denmark in 1966 and was part of 20 officials there, with 6 of them actual diplomats, and 14 working for either the KGB or GRU, Soviet military intelligence. Gordievsky worked with the patchy network of illegals in the country and was disgusted by the Soviets sending troops into Czechoslovakia in 1968. He began spying for MI6 based on this disillusionment with his government and it was interesting reading how much of the information that he gave to the British then had to be altered to conceal its source and parsed out slowly and in drips to the groups that would benefit from having it.

After his time in Denmark came to a planned end, Gordievsky was sent back to Moscow for three years and had no contact with MI6 but decided to learn English. He then was posted to the Soviet embassy in London and resumed passing along secrets to the British. One of the more astounding ones was that the KGB genuinely believed the United States would launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike, and that Soviet leadership thought the NATO war game ABLE ARCHER in 1983 was the start of WWIII. Information such as this, which was passed along to the United States with Gordievsky’s identity concealed from them, about Soviet paranoia helped lead to a slightly different approach from the West, and more of a thaw in relations. He also gave tips on how Margaret Thatcher should act at the 1984 funeral of Yuri Andropov, and later about how to best interact with new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. 

Gordievsky was close to becoming the rezident, or lead KGB officer in the London Station, but came under suspicion of being a spy for the West, likely from mention of a mole being made to the Soviets by U.S. Intelligence Agent Aldrich Ames. Gordievsky in 1985 was called back to Moscow for meetings and interrogated by the KGB as they knew there was a mole somewhere, quite possibly in London, but didn't know who it was. There was a lot of circumstantial evidence of his guilt, but no proof. The KGB interrogated Gordievsky and tried to get a confession from him, with perhaps him being saved by his vehement and angry denial of guilt. Even if the KGB was 99% certain he was a spy, they didn't want to get in trouble on the off chance that he turned out to be innocent. This same principle helped Gordievsky when he attempted to escape from Moscow, via operation Pimlico by the MI6 exfiltration team. He shook his KGB followers but they didn't want to report losing him, rather hoped they'd find him again and avoid getting in trouble. It was an amazing story of the effort by he and the British to try to get him to safety, capping off an engrossing book.

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates is a solid and detailed book with the subtitle The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need.

Gates covers the importance of reaching net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases. We emit 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere annually. The world's biggest emitters, the richest countries, need to get to net-zero emissions by 2050, and the rest of the world to follow. To get there, we have to be planning now. 

There's sections in the book about each of the activities that emissions come from: making things (31% of 51B tons), plugging in (27%), growing things (19%), getting around (16%), and keeping cool and warm (7%). Heavily written about is the Green Premium, the additional cost of something green. When the Green Premium becomes less, it's more likely the green item will be purchased. Government programs, policies, and incentives can help the most in areas where the Green Premium highest, to force it closer to zero. We need to electrify every process possible, and get that electricity from a power grid that's been decarbonized. 

Covered in the book as things that individuals can do are have an efficient A/C or furnace, or even better, use an electric heat pump (heat pumps are in 11% of American homes), eat less meat, drive an electric car, have a smart thermostat, sign up for a green pricing program with your electric utility, and reduce home emissions. These are all important by themselves, but also as demand signals to governments and companies. 

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Think Again by Adam Grant

Think Again by Adam Grant is a solid book with the subtitle The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know. Grant is an organizational psychologist who I've written on three prior books by and in this he writes about the need to rethink, to question individual, interpersonal, and collective beliefs and opinions. 

About individual rethinking, Grant notes that it not the changing of one's mind that's important, but the considering whether to change one's mind. With this type of scientific thinking, we refuse to let our ideas become ideologies. We embrace uncertainty and doubt, search for reasons why we might be wrong, and are happy to be wrong as we have learned something new. The opposite of this approach is to be arrogant, which keeps you blind to the things you could do differently. Grant also covers how an important thing is someone’s time horizon. Rather than wanting to be right at a given point, people should want to be right eventually. 

In terms of interpersonal rethinking, Grant covers persuasive listening, asking how someone formed an opinion rather than why they have that opinion and acknowledging common ground in disagreements. He notes how it’s good in a debate to show that you're trying to figure things out, and rather than approaching a debate with a straw man, poking holes in the weakest side of the other person's argument, people should perhaps start with a steel man, considering the strongest version of their argument. Psychologists have found that the person most likely to change your mind is you so often the best thing to do is get people to ask the question of how they feel about something. If you simply try to convince someone of something, them rejecting your argument will likely just make them most steadfast in theirs. Motivational interviewing is just that, a discussion with someone where they’re talking through their point of view and you’re listening to them. Great listeners are interested in making their audiences feel smart, and by listening, you're offering your attention. 

About collective rethinking, Grant covers group polarization reinforcing the stereotypes someone has. It’s ok to have caveats and contingencies to your opinions and the best work is often going to come not at first, but after multiple drafts and iterations. Additionally, he notes that we shouldn’t be asking kids “what they want to be when they grow up.” Jobs are not who people are, and it's better to ask what people like to do. Kids will be more excited about doing science than being scientists. Also, it’s good to have regular checkups with yourself to determine if you're in the right spot with your career or life and if what your spend your time on is the best use of that time. This will be force you to ask the question, and to prevent you from asking it too frequently.

Grant tells stories well in the book, starting off with smokejumpers in 1949 in Mann Gulch, Montana as a wildfire fast approached, and how being stuck in thinking vs. open to something new made all the difference.

Last Call by Elon Green

 Last Call by Elon Green chronicles the Last Call Killer who preyed on gay men in New York in the '80s and '90s and the book tells the story of the men who were killed and of violence against the gay community. 

Last Call starts in 1991 during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Gay people during this time were being targeted with violence, and police often responding with apathy. Many did not report crimes against them as they didn’t believe the system would protect them and they didn’t want to be outed. If someone was arrested and prosecuted for violence against gays, there was a common defense, going back to the '60s, of "gay panic." Defendants charged with murder or assault would claim that the shock of finding out someone gay drove them to temporary insanity. AIDS then increased anti-queer violence and in New York City, incidents of violence against gay people grew by 83% between 1985 and 1986. 

Amid this backdrop that he describes in Last Call, Green writes of a body being discovered in trash barrels off the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1991. The dead man was Peter Stickney Anderson of Philadelphia and he had been killed after visiting a gay piano bar, the Townhouse, in New York City. Then in 1992, the New Jersey State Police contacted Pennsylvania State Troopers after they found a body stuffed in garbage bags and put in a trash barrel by the side of the road. The dead man was Thomas Mulcahy of Sudbury, Massachusetts. He had been in New York on business and also visited the Townhouse. In 1993, two more bodies of gay men were found in garbage bags by the side of the road. Anthony Marrero was a sex worker in New York City who was found by a New Jersey road and Michael Sakara, a Manhattan resident who was a regular at the Five Oaks gay bar in New York was found in trash barrels outside the village of Haverstraw, New York. The gay community was angry that more not being done to solve these murders and a task force started with members of various police departments and then after no success was quietly disbanded. 

In 1999 the widow of Thomas Mulcahy retained a retired trooper to investigate the still unsolved murder of her husband and he and the widow contacted a member of the New Jersey State Police, Thomas Kuehn, who pledged to work on the cold case. In April of that year another New Jersey policeman watched a television show that noted a fingerprinting process called vacuum metal deposition, a way to lift hard to find prints off garbage bags. He told Kuehn about it, and Kuehn reached out to the Toronto Police Service as they had the technology to do this and said they would be willing to help. Kuehn and other members of a newly formed police task force sent to Toronto the garbage bags that Thomas Mulcahy and Michael Sakara were found in, and the evidence of the Mulcahy murder was in good condition, and prints lifted from the bags. Those prints were matched to Richard Rogers, a nurse living in Staten Island who in 1973 was arrested for the murder of his college roommate, Fred Spencer, and then acquitted. Then in 1988 he took someone home from a New York gay bar who accused Rogers of tying him up and drugging him, with Rogers in 1990 acquitted in court.

Rogers then was arrested after his prints found on the garbage bags and subsequent investigation into him and charged, tried, and convicted for the murders of Thomas Mulcahy and Anthony Marrero. He was not prosecuted for the murders of Peter Anderson and Michael Sakara, but evidence from their deaths was part of the trial and Rogers received two consecutive life terms. The book details the lives of the men and the gay community and how it treated and feels an important work.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Team of Teams by Stanley McChrystal

Team of Teams by Stanley McChrystal is a solid read subtitled New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World from the retired four-star U.S. General written with Dave Silverman, Chris Fussell, and Tantum Collins.

The book covers from when McChrystal in the Middle East in 2004 commanding the Joint Operations Task Force fighting Al Qaeda. Team of Teams notes early on how the Task Force had to evolve to match up with the terrorist group that was able to quickly shape shift as it lacked a standard hierarchy. McChrystal writes how the Task Force by 2008 transformed into a nimble and more effective organization, and his last assignment before his 2010 retirement from the military was as the four-star commander of all American and coalition forces in Afghanistan. 

The Task Force had to become more decentralized, with information freely shared and decisions able to be made quickly by many. McChrystal details how his forces had to take the characteristics of effective teams and then figure out how to create a team of teams, one with bonds between different teams. 

McChrystal details how something that had a large impact on creating this newly nimble organization where information shared freely was through the O&I, the Operations and Intelligence brief. He changed it from in 2003 being a small teleconference between a few different offices and bases to an important daily checkpoint and chance to share information. Investments were made in technology so it could be joined from around the globe and it given a strict schedule, occurring six days a week at 9:00AM EST and was never cancelled. The meeting acquired a daily rhythm, and McChrystal as the leader used it to model the behavior he wanted to see. To have people view the O&I as important, he had to demonstrate that he viewed it as important. He would always take the meeting in uniform against a plywood backdrop and writes in the book how he would stay focused, knowing that if he came across on camera as not engaged, that would signal to others they could do the same. Additionally, when someone would come onto the meeting to give an update, McChrystal would make a point of greeting people (often well below him in the hierarchy) by first name, and then thanking them after they finished and asking a question to reinforce that he was paying attention to their presentation. He avoided any type of sarcasm in the O&I, especially since it can be particularly damaging in a large meeting. 

A primary goal of the O&I was information sharing and by him sharing information with other teams that would join, it then led those teams to share. The meeting became the fusion of operations and intelligence that its name indicates and McChrystal writes that the positive consequences of liberal information sharing far outweighed the negatives. He also covers how they also had an embedding program, putting one person on a different team for six months, including taking field operators and putting them in intelligence roles, with those efforts leading to a more holistic understanding throughout the organization, people knowing what was going on. It was impossible for everyone to know everyone, but everyone needed to know someone on every team. Another term he used is shared consciousness, with it coming from strict, centralized forums for communication, extreme transparency, and the decentralization of managerial authority. Decision-making was pushed down the chain, no longer held at the top as once there shared consciousness throughout the org, decisions no longer need to be held for the top. The title of one of the later chapters of the book is Leading like a Gardener and McChrystal writes in it about that approach and fostering an environment for success. 

Also covered in Team of Teams is how systems need to be set up for adaptability, as what’s important is a structure, not a plan. You need to be able to adapt and not attached to procedure as procedures don't always work. He writes of commercial airline disasters caused in large part by pilots simply following procedure and not listening to other crew members. From these types of situations came Crew Resource Management in airline cockpits and McChrystal relates the positive stories of United Flight 232 in 1989 that had the plane's steering mechanism get destroyed in-flight and the crew working together to deal with the calamity and US Airways Flight 1549 that landed on the Hudson River in New York. Other stories in the book are about how Brigham and Women's Hospital treated victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and the SEAL snipers who saved Captain Phillips alongside the Maersk Alabama after the ship hijacked. It was a good book with compelling stories.

Saturday, March 06, 2021

A Shot in the Moonlight by Ben Montgomery

A Shot in the Moonlight by Ben Montgomery is an excellent book that recounts the story of George Dinning and has the subtitle How a Freed Slave and a Confederate Solider Fought for Justice in the Jim Crow South.

The book jacket notes how Dinning in 1897 became the first Black man in the South to beat a lynch mob in court. Dinning was from Southwestern Kentucky, near the Tennessee state line, and 10 years old in 1865 when slaves were declared to be free. The day was commemorated under the name The Eighth of August and the Ku Klux Klan then surfaced in December of that year. Dinning bought from his former slave owner David Dinning in 1877 the land on which he lived, paying off the debt by 1884. He built a house, had a farm, and raised a family. In January 1897 Dinning had 25 white men come to his house at night, wrongfully accuse him of stealing livestock and shooting at the house. Dinning returned fire and a white man in the group died. Dinning a day later turned himself into the Sheriff, and that day his wife and children were told by another mob of men to leave the property and it was then burned.

While Dinning was in custody, Kentucky Governor Bill Bradley was instrumental in keeping him alive. There was a long history of blacks being taken out of police custody and killed by white mobs so the Governor sent troops to Frankin to protect Dinning. Also, prior to his trial for murder, the Kentucky Senate passed an anti-lynching bill that was signed into law by the Governor. About halfway through the book, Montgomery introduces Colonel Bennett H. Young. He was a lawyer who was on the side of the South in the Civil War, robbing a bank in the town of St. Albans, Vermont to fund the war effort, and yet after it was over, he helped people of color. The jury in Dinning’s trial found him not guilty of murder, but guilty of manslaughter, and sentenced him to seven years in prison. Public sentiment was that he shouldn't have been found guilty of anything and should be pardoned by the Governor. Bennett Young sent a telegram to the Governor urging a pardon, and then Bradley issued one, freeing Dinning two weeks after the verdict. 

Dinning moved with his family to Jeffersonville, Indiana and Young represented him in a suit against the men who came to his house that first night as well as those who came back when it burned down. It was the first time a black man brought suit for damages against a white mob and in Louisville in May 1899, Dinning was awarded $50,000, to be paid by the six men deemed most liable. This case paved the way for others in the South, including another by Dinning that was settled. Dinning changed his last name to Denning and grew old in Jeffersonville along with his wife Mollie, children, and grandchildren. The book closes with a man named  Anthony Denning, in 2019 in Jeffersonville where he grew up. His great-grandmother Mollie Denning died in 1944 close the age of eighty-nine and great-grandfather George died in 1930. 

It's a well-detailed and I'm sure thoroughly researched book that gives a solid telling of important events. Also, I thought excellent the bookends to the story, with the end having this mention of how the family legacy carried on, and in the beginning, Montgomery writing about the Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, which features a walkway through and under 800 coffin-sized steel boxes, each containing the name of an American county and the names of those lynched there, some 4,400 people.

Intangibles by Joan Ryan

Intangibles by Joan Ryan is a solid book subtitled Unlocking the Science and Soul of Team Chemistry.

Ryan worked as a sports columnist in San Francisco and then as a media consultant with the Giants and the book centers around team chemistry in baseball. She makes the point that baseball would seem to be the sport where team chemistry the least important as the players are each completing tasks on their own, but there’s some fascinating stories she tells about team chemistry in the sport. Featured are the Giants of the late 1980s led by Roger Craig, with Mike Krukow, Dave Dravecky, Kevin Mitchell, and Will Clark, as well as later Giants teams with Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent.

In terms of the relationship with a coach, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts is quoted as saying that players want to know three things about someone: Does he care about me? Can I trust him? Can he make me better? These ideas also are applicable to relationships between players. Ryan writes extensively about the bond that comes from having the back of your teammates, a principle that applies to soliders in combat, of course on a much more important level. Also, players will be more likely to come together and have team chemistry if they feel they’re a part of something important or in something together.  Also noted is oxytocin, which is released from the brain when someone has good feelings about something, and that people need to feel trusted and valued to have a team working effectively. 

Ryan writes as well about different personality types on a team, and how there's different types both needed and that can work together effectively. The best for team chemistry are super-carriers, with baseball nomad Jonny Gomes cited as an example of someone who actively cared about his teammates. There's also super-disruptors, and it's interesting to read of how Ryan describes Giants superstar Barry Bonds as not one. He wasn’t a great teammate in the super-carrier sense, but he performed on the field and his fairly aloof behavior didn’t negatively impact the team. Jeff Kent is cited as his teammate who was the same way, they weren’t personable with each other or their other teammates, but they both wanted to win, produced individually, and had each other's back when needed. The worst is the complainer looking for recruits. The second worst is the malingerer, the person who always needs to rest or is mildly hurt, not sacrificing. Seven archetypes that Ryan notes are the sparkplug, the sage, the kid, the enforcer, the buddy, the warrior, and the jester. Also, Warriors star Steph Curry is mentioned the rare super-carrier who has all seven archetypes.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Icebound by Andrea Pitzer

 Icebound by Andrea Pitzer is subtitled Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World and tells the story of sixteenth-century Dutch explorer William Barents and sixteen other men who on Barents' third polar exploration, lost their ship off the frozen coast of Nova Zembla, in what's now known as the Barents Sea. They spent the winter stranded and then the following summer set our to return to civilization, not on their still-stuck-in-the-ice vessel, but two small boats that would have to navigate icy and often frozen waters. 

The first trip taken by Barents north from Amsterdam was in 1594, with subsequent journeys each of the next two years. The idea behind the voyages was to discover a northern trade route to China, one hopefully via the "open polar sea" that many believed at the top of the world. On Barents' first trip, the boat he was on sailed north from Amsterdam and followed the Norwegian coastline to Russia, reaching the island of Nova Zembla hundreds of miles above the Russian mainland and farther north than any ship had ever reached from Europe. This initial voyage gave optimism for sailing past Nova Zembla and continuing on to the Far East. The second trip was designed to actually make it to China and establish trade. They ran into ice and turned back, believing they simply needed to time their departure better. It's remarkable that the ice he encountered on the first two voyages didn't make Barents more inclined to think about or prepare for ice on the third. 

The fateful voyage left in May 1596, with Barents the navigator and Jacob van Heemskerck the captain. They first went to Spitsbergen Island before continuing on to Nova Zembla, going over top of the island, reaching the Kara Sea. The boat got pinned in the ice late August, and remained stuck there, with little in the way of provisions for a winter stay. The men started framing a cabin on Nova Zembla, contending with the elements, polar bears, a lack of food, and crucially, a lack of vitamin C to head off scurvy. They moved into the cabin in mid-October, suffering terribly and surviving from trapping foxes, which not only provided food but amounts of the vitamin C the men desperately needed. Over the winter they had no sunlight at all, save for a false sunlight in late January, which came as the result of something that came to be known as the Novaya Zemlya effect, an inversion layer in polar regions that causes the sunlight to bend and refract above the horizon the sun actually sits below. The sun finally came out in late April and after having several crewmembers die on Nova Zembla, the men left on two small boats in mid-June 1957, leaving their ship behind.

They went back over top of Nova Zembla, staying close to the shore and going down to Vaigach Island just off the coast of Russia and Barents, who was one of the older members of the voyage, died shortly after they started back. The crew had many harrowing episodes working their way through ice, often having to bring the boats up onto solid ground to avoid being crushed in the ice. They also had to deal with polar bears stalking them and in late July came across their first encounter with civilization, in the form of two ships with Russian sailors. The Russians gave them some food and then after they separated, the two boats came across the spoon-wart plant, high in vitamin C and a tremendous help in combating their rampant scurvy. It was still very rough going as they continued on, but they came across additional Russian sailors, trading gold coins they had for provisions. They sailed across 160 miles of open water, landing at Kanin Nos, then reached Kildin Island late August and were told that Dutch ships were at Kola (near Murmansk, Russia). There they reunited with someone who had set out with them on his own ship the prior year, and who brought the remaining crew back to Amsterdam, where they recounted their remarkable tale of survival.

Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline

Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline is a follow-up to his 2011 debut novel Ready Player One that became a best-seller and was adapted into a 2018 Steven Spielberg movie.

Ready Player Two picks up where the first book left off, and as this review notes, it "trades the fun and wish fulfillment of its predecessor for a fundamentally flawed, inconsistent quest towards the singularity." 



The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley

 The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley is a very detailed book originally published in 1964, one which I became interested in from mention of Malcolm X in the book King of the World on Muhammad Ali. 

Malcolm X's autobiography traces his life, starting in Lansing, Michigan to then, shortly after he became a teenager, hustling in Boston and later New York City. He went to jail for robbery in his early 20s, and while incarcerated, was introduced to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and his Nation of Islam. Malcolm X started writing letters daily to Muhammad and also read voraciously over his seven years in prison.

After his release, Malcolm X began recruiting to get people to join the Nation of Islam, helped establish new temples, and became a minister himself. He became well known as he proselytized for the words of Muhammad and the idea of blacks needing to separate from whites. Eventually there grew to be a resentment of Malcolm X, a belief by some that his speaking of the Nation of Islam and teachings of Muhammad was actually about himself, and eventually Muhammad cast Malcolm X out of the Nation. 

This led to him going through a transformation, one where statements by Malcolm X on race changed and he set aside his prior preaching about racial separation and began to speak of how whites and blacks could live together. The story of Malcolm X feels an incomplete one, as there likely much more he would had added on the subject of race relations had he not been murdered by Nation of Islam members loyal to Elijah Muhammad.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Road From Raqqa by Jordan Ritter Conn

The Road from Raqqa by Jordan Ritter Conn is a compelling book on Riyad and Bashar Al-Kasem, brothers born in Raqqa, Syria and who remained close as their paths diverged. Riyad moved to the United States, eventually opening a restaurant outside Nashville, and Bashar stayed behind and later fled his war-torn Raqqa.

As Riyad became an adult, he felt the need to leave Syria and its despot leader, President Hafez al-Assad. He got the opportunity to come to the United States and landed in Los Angeles in 1990. It was interesting reading of how kind many strangers were to him and he married several years later, then became a U.S. citizen in 1996. After September 11, 2001, he encountered more racism then when he first arrived in the U.S., and eventually he and his family moved to her hometown of Hendersonville just outside Nashville. Riyad opened a restaurant, Cafe Rakka, that was featured on an October 2010 episode of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, and remains open today.

Bashar visited Riyad in America, coming to California just prior to 9/11, and then was effectively forced out of the country and back to Raqqa after being arrested for a minor immigration violation. Trouble came to Syria starting with the Arab Spring in 2011, with people protesting the government of President Bashar al-Assad, son of Hafez al-Assad. The protests moved beyond people wanting freedom from al-Assad to a situation with various factions coming into the country and fighting for power. Raqqa in 2013 fell to rebels, with eventually ISIS, known as Daesh in Raqqa, taking control of the city. Bashar and his family lived in fear of Daesh in the daytime, and in fear of the bombs dropped on the city by U.S.-backed coalition forces at nighttime. In 2015, he and his family fled Syria, first to Turkey, then took the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea, eventually settling in Germany. Daesh was forced out of Raqqa by coalition troops in 2017, and the United Nations estimated 80% of the city uninhabitable. 

The book is a really good tale well-told, with it a sort of survival story about Riyad and Bashar, and also about immigration, war, refugees, and people's attitudes towards their fellow man, both in the U.S. and abroad.