Thursday, December 30, 2021

The Boys by Ron Howard and Clint Howard

The Boys by Ron Howard and Clint Howard is a solid autobiography from the successful Hollywood actors (and director in Ron's case). It's a good story of them growing up, with their parents help all along the way.

Things got started when their actor father Rance took 3 1/2 year old Ronny with him to see a casting director in New York City in 1957 and left word that he had a son who was a fine actor. Ronny got a part out of that and then in 1958, the family moved to Los Angeles at the suggestion of Rance's agent who said parts more plentiful there. 

Rance was getting scattered work, but Ronny regularly got acting jobs, as he says, almost every part he auditioned for. Ronny and later Clint were tutored by Rance who taught them to prepare for auditions and parts as professionals, not requiring excessive retakes and focusing on getting the emotions of the role right. Additionally, their father always spoke to them very matter of factly, explaining to them the adult behavior they often witnessed on sets. 

Ronny landed in 1960 a regular role as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show and Clint as a child had a starring role in the series Gentle Ben and went on to act in many Star Trek shows and other vehicles. Ronny later played the role of Richie Cunningham on Happy Days and had a large part in the 1973 movie American Graffiti from George Lucas. He then went on to make movies, with his first real job as a director on the movie Grand Theft Auto when he twenty-three.

The book is an interesting and nice story about brothers growing up with lives very different than most, being show-business kids starring in hugely popular TV shows and having to navigate public school and comments from classmates. There were other problems to contend with, including Clint's drug addiction, but the family remained close and supportive. Ron also notes how much later he was an executive producer on and offscreen narrator for the show Arrested Development, and in the final season, there's an episode where Ron, his wife Cheryl, their four kids, and Ron and Clint's dad appears.

Friday, December 24, 2021

The Comfort Book by Matt Haig

The Comfort Book by Matt Haig is a nice read made up of short vignettes, with below from some of them:

A thing my dad said once when we were lost in a forest - If we keep going in a straight line, we'll get out of here. 

It's okay - It's okay to be broken. It's okay to like what you like. It's okay to be who you are.

Power - Our perspective is our world, and our external circumstances don't need to change in order for our perspective to change.

To remember during the bad days - It won't last. You have felt other things. You will feel other things.

One beautiful thing - Experience one beautiful thing a day. Just give yourself one simple reminder that the world is full of wonders.

Rain - You don't have to be positive. You don't have to feel guilty about fear or sadness or anger. You don't stop the rain by telling it to stop. It never rains forever. The storm may knock you off your feet. You will stand again.

Experience - We are not what we experience. If we stand in a hurricane, it doesn't matter how violent or terrifying the hurricane is, the hurricane is not us. The weather outside and inside us is never permanent.

Ferris Bueller and the meaning of life - This is a movie about Cameron. He is the emotional center of the film and makes the most significant transformation.

Growth - We grow through hard times. Growth is change. When everything is easy, we have no reason to change.

Clarity - You are here. And that is enough.

Realization - I used to worry about fitting in until I realized the reason I didn't fit in was because I didn't want to.

Aim to be you - If you aim to be something you are not, you will always fail. Aim to be you. 

Forgiveness - Forgiving other people is great practice for forgiving yourself when the time comes.

On Animals by Susan Orlean

On Animals by Susan Orlean is a solid book by the author of The Library Book, The Orchid Thief, and Rin Tin Tin among other nonfiction works. On Animals features various animal stories, with Orlean both as a third-party observer and first-party participant, and she notes "all of these creatures serve a purpose, even if that purpose is to have no real purpose other than to give a warm, wonderful, unpredictable texture to my life every day." 

Orlean provides compelling writing on both domesticated and wild or working animals, with some of the chapters that stood out noted below:

The It Bird - on raising chickens and how popular it's become

The Lady and the Tigers - including how there's more tigers in captivity than the wild

Little Wing - on homing pigeons and both that it's unclear how they navigate their way home, and if their owners move, they'll fly back to their original home if not enclosed

Where's Willy? - about Keiko, the orca star of the movie Free Willy, and the effort to release him to the wild, something never previously done with a captive killer whale

Lion Whisperer - about Kevin Richardson and his lions, also covers how little of the African wild is actually wild and the horror of lion hunting and negative effects of lion cub petting businesses

The Perfect Beast - on pandas and how unique they are

Lost dog - on the story of one couple's effort to find theirs

Farmville - on Orlean's life with animals and her moving from the New York countryside to Los Angeles

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Travels with George by Nathaniel Philbrick

Travels with George by Nathaniel Philbrick is a solid book subtitled In Search of Washington and His Legacy. Philbrick writes a first-person account of traveling with his wife and their dog on the same journeys that Washington took starting less than six months after his presidential inauguration in 1789.

Washington felt a great deal of pressure and consternation about being President and wanted to get out and be with the people of the fledgling country. He stayed in tavern houses and wanted to try to bring together Federalists who embraced the new constitution and Anti-Federalists who distrusted a strong central government. Washington started with a month-long tour of New England and the following year did a three-month-long circuit that took him to the South, covering thirteen states in total. 

It was interesting reading about Washington and his attempts to bring the country together, as well his attitudes and actions around slavery. There was also compelling mention of Washington's horrible teeth, and how wealthy people used to buy healthy teeth from others and implant them, replacing their rotted out teeth. 

The book is a good historical travelogue up and down the east coast, with Philbrick writing of his own life and interacting with people who would tell their stories of Washington and his actions. 

Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Greatest Beer Run Ever by John "Chick" Donohue and J.T. Molloy

The Greatest Beer Run Ever by John "Chick" Donohue and J.T. Molloy is a remarkable nonfiction tale subtitled A Memoir of Friendship, Loyalty, and War. Donahue writes how he was 26 years old in his neighborhood New York bar in 1967 when he decided to take several cases of beer to Vietnam and deliver cans from home to local boys fighting there. 

The book is a rollicking story of Donahue's time in Vietnam, finding some of the people he set out to track down, and keeping himself alive while in a war zone. It's not necessarily great writing, but it is entertaining reading about someone who set off on a crazy plan and then had wild and dangerous adventures. He was in Saigon, slated to leave for home when the Tet offensive was launched, with the Vietcong briefly taking over the U.S. embassy and personnel airlifted off the roof. 

Donahue expected he'd only be in Vietnam three days, but was there for four months and a movie based on the book and starring Zac Efron, Russell Crowe, and Bill Murray began filming in fall 2021.

The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit by John Petrocelli

The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit by John Petrocelli is an interesting book that examines the type of information that's presented by people who don't really care if it's true or not. 

Petrocelli is a professor of Psychology at Wake Forest University and he writes of how bullshit is a disregard of genuine evidence or established knowledge. Maybe a statement is true, maybe it's not, it doesn't really matter to the person making it, nor does it matter to them whether the result of these bullshit statements is harmless or dangerous. A bullshitter move is to refute fact and say that research is needed.

Also in the book is the idea of truth-default bias. People have at least a passive presumption that others are being truthful, so when an idea is heard, that idea is afforded the benefit of the doubt, even if it's blatantly false. Another concept is the ease at which someone remembers something determines how true that thing feels. People remember anecdotes more than they remember actual studies with hard data behind them, and when is something is in the mind, it takes effort to purge it. 

Petrocelli covers that the way to combat bullshit is to have an attitude of skepticism and a practice of questioning, utilizing critical and scientific thinking skills. We need to compel bullshit artists to prove their thoughts and theories, asking them to clarify their claims. Give people a chance to correct themselves and if they don't, treat bullshit like lies, not like harmless statements that we write off as just things certain people say.

Monday, October 04, 2021

The Deepest South of All by Richard Grant

The Deepest South of All by Richard Grant is an interesting work of nonfiction about Natchez, Mississippi. The book is noted to be part history and part travelogue and details a very different world than most people know.

Natchez is a town of ~15,000 on the Mississippi River across from Louisiana and is described as more like New Orleans than the rest of Mississippi and a city conflicted about whether it should be celebrating its past or breaking free from it. Natchez elected with 91% of the vote a gay black man for mayor, yet prominent white families dress up in elaborate hoopskirts and confederate uniforms for celebrations of the Old South. The book jacket notes that Natchez once had more millionaires per capita than anywhere in America, with much of that wealth built on cotton slavery, and the town and surrounding area contain the greatest concentration of antebellum homes in the American South. Women from two competing garden clubs ever year host Pilgrimage, where they put on hoopskirts and receive, or welcome visitors into their homes and ply them with tales of confederate days. Additionally, the Tableaux is an annual pageant that started in 1932 and features celebration of the good old days. 

Grant portrays a town where most people, even those hosting events like this, aren’t racist, but don’t want to let go of celebrating a past which clearly was racist. The description from a quote is that they love their history, but their own self-serving mythological version of that history. It’s such an interesting conflict between people respecting history as it actually was and those wanting to keep up the parts of the past they like, such as the pretty buildings, while also trying to have tourism money keep flowing into the town.

Also in the book are the stories of Prince Ibrahima from Futa Jalon (what is now Guinea) and his enslavement in Natchez and his late in life effort to return to his homeland, the failing public schools, the famous thriller writer Greg Iles who lives in town, and the Santa Claus Parade that features men getting drunk and driving around behind police escorts and giving out Christmas presents and dinners to the poor.

Saturday, October 02, 2021

High Conflict by Amanda Ripley

High Conflict by Amanda Ripley is a good book subtitled Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out. Ripley wrote The Smartest Kids in the World and this latest one examines conflict that devolves into an us vs. them paradigm (often leading to everyone being worse off), what causes high conflict, and how to escape it. 

The first story she covers is that of Gary Friedman, a conflict mediator, author, and former trial lawyer who ran for and won a seat on the Community Services District Board of Directors in his small town of Muir Beach, CA and then wound up in high conflict. Additionally, Ripley writes of a former gang leader in Chicago who would have killed to avenge a death not actually caused by what he thought, Columbia financially supporting people who forsake conflict with the government of the country and lay down their weapons, and the interactions between groups of conservative Michigan corrections officers and liberal Manhattan Jews.

Some of the terms that Ripley notes as important in examining whether a given situation is one of high conflict as opposed to healthy conflict are confirmation bias (interpreting new information as confirmation of one’s preexisting beliefs), looping for understanding (actively listening by reflecting back to someone what they seem to have said and checking to see if that summary was correct), and saturation point (that point in a conflict where the losses seem heavier than the gains and there’s opportunity for change).

In the appendix, Ripley notes that some of characteristics of healthy conflict vs. high conflict: 

Humility, fluidity, complexity, novelty, passion, curiosity, and questions.

Certainty, rigidity, simplicity, predictability, righteousness, assumption, and advocacy.

Friday, October 01, 2021

Hit Makers by Derek Thompson

Hit Makers by Derek Thompson is a solid book subtitled The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. It was published in 2017 and Thompson notes that he wrote a book about hits, those products and ideas that achieve extraordinary popularity and commercial success in pop culture and media. There's a focus on the secret to making things that people like in culture and why some things fail while similar things become hits.

Thompson notes that people like things that are familiar but presented in an original way, or the marrying of the old and new. People gravitate to the theory of MAYA (most advanced, yet acceptable); otherwise stated, people are attracted to the new, yet resistant to the unfamiliar. This is why people often compare companies to other better-known ones, with phrases like “Uber for…” A huge commercial success example of this idea of new, but still familiar was the movie Star Wars, something popular in part because it was written by George Lucas as a space western, alluding to stories people had seen from the past. Around the idea of myth-making, Thompson refers to the PBS show The Power of Myth on Joseph Campbell and his writing. Also in reference to the success of Star Wars is how Lucas wrote it for a 10-year-old boy, with that an example of how the biggest hits are often created for the smallest audiences, it’s good to have a tightly defined target.

Another example of a hit that Thompson covers is that of Fifty Shades of Grey, a book written as Twilight Fan fiction with the main character Edward reimagined as a corporate tycoon. Additionally, Thompson notes that repeated exposure is also a huge factor, you see something more frequently and as it becomes familiar, it rises in your esteem. This correlates to the notion that we like things we generally agree with, which of course can lead to harmful like-mindedness. 

Also of interest from Hit Makers is Thompson’s mention of various rhetorical devices in writing: epistrophe, anaphora, tricolon, epizeuxis, diacope, antithesis, parallelism, and what Thompson notes as the king of speech-making tricks, antimetabole. When Jon Favreau wrote for President Obama, he kept in mind that speeches are like songs, they require hooks, choruses, and clear structures, as well as repetition. 

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Why Fish Don't Exist by Lulu Miller

Why Fish Don't Exist by Lulu Miller is an interesting and profound work of nonfiction subtitled A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life. Miller chronicles the life of David Starr Jordan, the first President of Stanford University, and a renowned taxonomist. 

Jordan embraced classifying fish, with Miller noting that he credited with discovering nearly a fifth of the fish known to humans in his day. It was fascinating reading of how Jordan suffered multiple personal calamities, and after each tended to plunge deeper into his work, in essence trying to bring order to chaos. For instance, after his collections were destroyed by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, he immediately set out rebuilding. Miller writes of how that Jordan’s ability to carry forward also came with a lack of doubt his beliefs, something that at first seems positive, but can become a grave negative. Jordan (whose name is many places at Stanford) believed strongly in the principle of eugenics, or breeding out imperfections from humanity with atrocities like forced sterilization. Also, Miller writes of how Jordan quite possibly had the namesake of the university, Jane Stanford, killed by strychnine poisoning.

The title of the book came from how in the 1980s, many taxonomists began to say that they didn’t believe there is a simple classification called fish, there’s too much variety in what we might consider fish, and too many of them are like what we wouldn’t consider fish. This changed view is interesting to consider juxtaposed with Jordan's lack of doubt in how he went about his life and work.

The book jacket notes that it part biography, part memoir, and part scientific adventure, and Miller writes of how as she researched Jordan and his efforts to establish order from chaos, she was attempting to do the same in hers. I enjoy books that have this sort of duality in them, with the writer examining someone else’s life while also looking at their own and Miller at the end of the book noted that what she found was a life that matters to her, and that the chaos that she faced, and Jordan spent his life combating, can also bring good things. 

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.