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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in btripp_books' LiveJournal:

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Wednesday, December 21st, 2022
10:18 pm
Howdy ...
After many years of not reading (the details of this strange condition, a side-effect of running my own publishing company, can be found in the early entries here), I got back into the habit around 2002, and in February 2004 began to post (in my main LiveJournal) little reviews of books as I read them.

In November 2005, I discovered LibraryThing and began to log in my extensive library. As there is a "review" section for every book listed there, it occurred to me that linking back to my book review posts might be a useful thing to do.

However, I didn't want to "blur the lines" dividing what I primarily use LiveJournal for and what I see LibraryThing being. As such, I started this new journal, just for my book reviews, and have copied over all the book review posts from my main journal to this new one.

- - -

Oh, hey ... would you be interested in hard-copy versions of these reviews? I had so many people suggest to me over the years that I should "do books" of them, that I finally pulled the trigger on the concept. There are currently three volumes available, 2015, 2014, and 2013, with more to come as I can triage the hours (these take a remarkably long time to get ready for print). Eventually there will be annual collections going back to 2004 ... click here to check them out!




Still under development:   BTRIPP's Reviews - Alphabetical by Author


          {EDIT}          By the way...

EVERYTHING ON THIS SITE (http://btripp-books.livejournal.com/ and all subsidiary pages)
IS COPYRIGHT © 2007-2016 BY BRENDAN TRIPP.

Due to recent developments at LibraryThing.com relating to users' book reviews, I felt a need to make a formal statement of copyright claim.


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Sunday, April 24th, 2016
11:30 pm
Glad THAT'S over with ...
I bought this book used a very long time ago, perhaps a decade, perhaps longer, and it's sat there on various to-be-read shelves, in to-be-read boxes, and amid to-be-read stacks of books, somehow untouchable. Why? It's freak'n 750 pages long, like 3 normal books. Plus, it's math, and as much as I like physics, I'm always hesitant to delve into too much math because my mental processing does not lend itself to the necessary discipline (or even bondage … waka, waka, waka). However, this was a “big deal” among circles I was at least in contact with (although it didn't come out until I was past college). Much as I held Lombard for years as an example of a suburban wasteland (eventually finding myself having to spend 2.5 hours each way on public transit commutes to a writing job out there for a period of time), this was something of a bête noire in terms of a “mountain too high to climb” reading project – a commitment that would no doubt totally screw up my reading patterns.

And it was.

I started reading Douglas R. Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid at the beginning of January, and by mid-April, I wasn't quite half-way done. However, earlier this week I went on a journey that, over a 35-hour period, had me on a bus for 18 hours and hanging out waiting for a bus for another 8 hours, time that I largely devoted to trying to knock this beast down. I did not succeed in finishing it on my trip, but got close enough that I was able triage out enough “in between” times this week to get it read.

I wish I could say it was worth it, but I found this quite frustrating, on a number of levels. First of all, and this is (obviously) “on me”, I have never “gotten” music aside from as a listener, no matter how many attempts I've made, the whole “music theory” stuff just flies by me … and, as one would guess from the title, music (aka the “Bach” parts here) is about a third of the basis of the book. I am also (and, no doubt, relatedly) not particularly good with “pure logic”, something that the mathematician Hofstadter seems to think is a delightful game that all of his readers would love to play with … and invites said readers to “work out” various extremely vague (to me) structures and puzzles in bizarre (again, to me) codings (see pic at right for an example). What's worse is that the author tends to define his system of symbols once and then apparently assumes that “you've got it” and will go back to using it hundreds of pages later without any “catching us up” on it, even as little as “name checking” abbreviations like TNT when they crop up a book length past when they're initially defined (that's Typographic Number Theory, if you were wondering).

The book rotates between three different types of presentation. The most identifying one of these, and no doubt what got the book its fame, is what is referenced in a sub-sub-title added by its publisher: A Metaphorical Fugue on Minds and Machines in the Spirit of Lewis Carroll … discussions between various characters, beginning with Achilles and a Tortoise, with added others such as a Crab, a Sloth, and ultimately up to Hofstadter himself. As anybody who reads my reviews regularly will realize, I “have issues” with “teaching stories”, and these aren't even necessary (although being about a third of the book) features, having more the character of trying to present the material in a “cute” way that allowed the author to mess about with framing the logical questions being discussed in the other sections in a “Lewis Carroll” inspired format. Across the course of the book I tended to find these parts irritating rather than illuminating, but I am willing to cede the point that “your mileage may vary” on this, and that it could well be a “it's me” rather than “it's the book” here.

The other two “types” are where the author is going through the various symbolic systems (he has several, most of which are “cutesy” in that they're structured to reflect, as initials, to other elements in the material), which generally made no sense to me at all (and, again, this is likely due to my disconnect with that sort of symbolic thinking). And, finally, the parts where he's actually EXPLAINING what the book's about … like a regular book on a subject. Frankly, were the book just this latter material, I would have probably quite liked the book … which might have been only 350 pages or so of lucid prose. But, noooooo.

That “core conceptual arc” would have been fascinating, as it addresses a lot of intriguing issues on logic, consciousness, and artificial intelligence, but it's so munged up with the other stuff that it's rather difficult to follow. I'll try to pull out some of the more cogent bits here to give a sense of where this goes.

First of all, there's this Gödel guy … Kurt Gödel was a German mathematician whose “discovery involves the translation of an ancient paradox in philosophy into mathematical terms. That paradox is the so-called Epimenides paradox which is at its base the statement “This statement is false.”. This is, perhaps, the least convoluted part of it. Hofstadter goes on to say:

The Epimenides paradox is a one-step Strange Loop … but how {sic} does it have to do with mathematics? That is what Gödel discovered. His idea was to use mathematical reasoning in exploring mathematical reasoning itself. The notion of making mathematics “introspective” proved to be enormously powerful, and perhaps its richest implication was the one Gödel found: Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem. What the Theorem states and how it is proved are two different things. We shall discuss both in quite some detail in this book. …

Gödel's Theorem appears as Proposition VI in his 1931 paper “On Formally Undecidable Propositions in Principia Mathematica and Related Systems I.” …
here is a paraphrase …
All consistent axiomatic formulations of number theory include undecidable propositions.
The author refers to that last line as “the pearl” and goes on for several hundred pages exploring it, in the various approaches detailed above.

Of course, none of this is particularly straight-forward … the concepts, based on Gödel's mathematics, get dragged through the complex recursive musical structures of Bach's multi-voiced fugues, etc. (sometimes in excruciating detail), as well as being cast in reflections of Escher's convoluted graphics (which the characters in the dialog parts spend a good deal of time popping in and out of – acting out aspects of the mathematics in doing so), and getting the “Lewis Carroll” treatment at every hand, which seemed to more muddy the waters than anything. There are some truly fascinating bits here, like the discussion on translation, looking at approaches taken to convert Dostoevsky to English, or Jabberwocky into French and German … or how viruses use DNA to attack cells … but these tend to stand out because they're self-contained and not bounced around between conceptual frames!

One of the topics examined across the book is consciousness in humans and the possibilities of Artificial Intelligence. Obviously a book that came out in 1979 has a whole different perspective on computers than a reader approaching the information in 2016. At the time of its writing, the first models of the Apple, Atari, Commodore, TRS-80, etc. were out, but most of what is discussed here is far more primitive. On one hand, this is probably a good thing, as it keeps the discussion largely in the theoretical/mathematical side, but it's somewhat painful to read, when you realize that the capabilities of machines back then were so minimal that it's hard to even frame a comparison to current tech.

Needless to say, there's so much stuff going on in here, that it's a challenge to even try to summarize in a couple of thousand words. I was somewhat surprised that this eventually rolled around to something of an existential essay by the end of the book. There was a particularly cogent section called “Strange Loops as the Crux of Consciousness” that I think is worth taking a look at here:

      My belief is that the explanations of “emergent” phenomena in our brains – for instance, ideas, hopes, images, analogies, and finally consciousness and free will – are based on a kind of Strange Loop, an interaction between levels in which the top level reaches back down towards the bottom level and influences it, while at the same time being itself determined by the bottom level. In other words, a self-reinforcing “resonance” between different levels … The self comes into being at the moment it has the power to reflect itself.

      In order to deal with the full richness of the brain/mind system we will have to be able to slip between levels comfortably. Moreover, we will have to admit various types of “causality”: ways in which an event at one level of description can “cause” events at other levels to happen. Sometimes event A will be said to “cause” event B simply for the reason that the one is a translation, on another level of description, of the other. Sometimes “cause” will have its usual meaning: physical causality. Both types of causality – and perhaps some more – will have to be admitted in any examination of mind, for we will have to admit causes that propagate both upwards and downwards in the Tangled Hierarchy of mentality, just as in the Central Dogmap.
Oh, that last thing there … it's typical of a lot of stuff happening in the book, Hofstadter takes Crick's “Central Dogma of Molecular Biology”, spins out his own “version”of it as a “Central Dogma of Mathematical Logic”, and “maps” them against each other as the “Central Dogmap” … and, trust me, that's not the “worst” of the groaners that are in here – he weaves puns through the core structures of a lot of the key concepts here that, honestly, don't add anything to the coherence of the presentation (perhaps, as a college professor, the author had gotten into the habit of putting this sort of stuff into class materials to keep his students involved).

Again, I would have both enjoyed and gotten more out Gödel, Escher, Bach had it been cut down to the expository parts, with maybe some sub-sections dealing with the math/logic behind the assorted theoretical concepts involved. However, it's a “classic” in its own way (Amazon has it listed as the #1 best-seller in the “Artificial Intelligence and Semantics” category, for whatever that's worth), and I'm glad to have gotten it moved from the to-be-read limbo into the proverbial rear-view mirror. If you feel like you want to take up the challenge that this book represents, it can be had in various formats … used copies of the 1979 and 1989 editions are available, and the 1999 edition is still in print. Oddly, the used copies of the older editions (this may be a “text book” thing happening) aren't particularly cheap, and you'd only be saving a bit (with shipping) vs. the nearly half-off pricing of the new book.


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Saturday, April 23rd, 2016
3:36 pm
Going up against the "Democrat-Media Complex" ...
I have let a number of books linger in the to-be-read piles due to being certain that reading them, in the current political climate, would only get me very, very angry. However, after letting it sit there for a couple of years (after having found the hardcover at the dollar store), I finally got into Andrew Brietbart's Righteous Indignation: Excuse Me While I Save the World! … and I was right, it got me pissed off. First of all, I'm pissed off that he's no longer around, and I'm pissed off that I can't help but think his death (just hours before he was supposed to release a damning video about the current POTUS during the 2012 election cycle) was not from “natural causes”.

One of the most frustrating parts of reading this is that I would have loved to have worked for the man, and having that no longer be an option is depressing. This book came out just a year before Breitbart's death, so it really is something of a summation of his life. However, he was, obviously, not coming to this in that sense, but in an attempt to re-define the right-left battlefield:

      The left does not win its battles in debate. It doesn't have to. In the twenty-first century, media is everything. The left wins because it controls the narrative. The narrative is controlled by the media. The left is the media. Narrative is everything.
      I call it the Democrat-Media Complex – and I am at war to gain back control of the American narrative.
The autobiographical parts are interesting … he grew up in Los Angeles, surrounded by limousine liberals, and never really questioning that world view (although not being of the “limousine” crowd). He went to college at Tulane, down in New Orleans, selected because it was a notorious party school that still had a reputation for being a quality college, in a town that did debauchery like no other. There he essentially majored in "drugs, drinking, & gambling", barely making it through … only managing to get his diploma by throwing himself on the mercy of a professor (in a class that he was clearly going to fail) who saw fit to give him a C-, allowing him to graduate with a paltry 2.0 GPA. He returned to L.A. and started out with a job as a waiter (serving college pals who were now in med or law school), eventually moving into a “gopher” job in the movie biz (which, inexplicably led to an offer to be a producer in some B-grade film project).

He had, however, started to have some glimmerings of a conservative awakening … the Clarence Thomas hearings had been so blatantly unfairly stacked against the judge, that he started questioning the whole Leftist narrative. This, added to his job running around L.A. in a car (where he began to listen to AM talk radio), started to shift the needle to the right. His future father-in-law (TV's Orson Bean) also helped in this, suggesting that he give Rush Limbaugh a listen …

I was convinced to the core of my being that Rush Limbaugh was a Nazi, anti-black, anti-Jewish, and anti-all things decent. …

I turned on KFI 640 AM to listen to evil personified from 9 a.m. to noon. … One hour turned into three. One listening session into a week's worth. And, next thing I knew, I was starting to doubt my preprogrammed self. …

Most important, though, Limbaugh … created a vivid mental picture of the architecture of a world that I resided in but couldn't see completely: the Democrat-Media Complex. Embedded in Limbaugh's analysis of politics was always a tandem discussion on the media. Each segment relentlessly pointed to the collusion between the media and the Democratic Party.
Breitbart decided that he just couldn't keep working in the movie biz, and was desperately searching for something else … an old high-school friend told him (in the remarkably early year of 1992) “I've seen your future and it's the Internet.” - the eight words that Breitbart credits with changing his life. It took him until 1994 to really get himself established on line (I beat him to it by about a decade, but, hey), at which point he says he was “reborn” …

The Internet in those days was a free-for-all libertarian haven. I saw, even at the very beginning, that this was a new medium born of unwieldy individualism, of people who so desperately wanted to communicate with the world outside of the Democrat-Media Complex (whether they were aware of that construct or not), that they sought each other out in this technological wilderness. I recognized that for the Internet to exist, and for people to have such a massive desire to get on it, there had to be a driving force – and that driving force was the suffocating ubiquity of the Complex. Here was a place where freedom of speech truly existed, where you could say anything, think anything, be anything. It was no wonder that the first adopters of the Internet were the outcasts of the Complex, libertarians and conservatives.
One of the voices he discovered out on the 'net was Matt Drudge, who he found to be “fascinating, unique, and worldly, while also being oddly uncynical”, with that latter feature being what got to him:

With the Drudge Report and the Internet, I thought, Here, at least, is something that takes itself seriously. I was gaining nourishment from something outside of humor and cynicism; I'd found that reading about big issues and listening to other people's thinking about conservative ideas and morality and societal standards was actually fulfilling.
It was Drudge who introduced Breitbart to Arianna Huffington, who was looking to create “media-driven websites”, and hired him as her “Director of Research” … giving him access to LexisNexis (Ann Coulter's favorite tool). This brings the tale up to the point of the hearings regarding Paula Jones' lawsuit against Bill Clinton … the author was still somewhat willing to believe in the media at that point:

{reflecting on the Clarence Thomas hearings} I knew that if they were going to hold Thomas to that standard, they had to hold Clinton to that standard as well.
      The Clinton hearings became, to me, the living embodiment of the Democrat-Media Complex – and the inherent biases of the media were multiplied when cable news came of age during this era. With an enormous dedication of resources, the Complex went to work spinning Bill Clinton out of peril.
      Watching
{Clinton} get away with sexual harassment … was the emblematic example of the media double standard, where a liberal could get away with anything as long as he toed the politically correct line. … He could get away with it because he was a liberal, and because liberals wanted him to get away with it. I wanted Clinton to pay, and I wanted his enablers to pay – I wanted to see them held to the standard that they had created to destroy their enemies.
Needless to say, nothing has changed with “the Complex” in the intervening years, as they've been all “see no evil” with the execrable Obama regime, and are totally in the bag for Hillery. It's one of the saddest things about this book – as we no longer have the author around to expose the vileness of the media and their leftist masters.

At this point, the book goes a tour of breaking stories, through the Clinton regime, into the Bush years, and on to the first term of the current administration. Breitbart is one of the few people I've ever seen who wrote about “W” in terms that I've held for a long time … the biggest problem with the Bush years was that he bent over backwards to work with the Democrats, and, like in the story of The Scorpion & The Frog, that's a no-win proposition. It's amazing how one can't publicly say any bad about the current administration, given what Bush was besieged with for eight years. Leftist hypocrisy has no limit.

One of Breitbart's biggest “coups” was the creation of the Huffington Post in 2005 …

... The greatest victory for the right with regard to the site is that for years, conservatives argued that the New York Times, the most important journalistic entity in the United States, was radically left of center. And for years, the left denied it. But the Huffington Post was different – it was openly and loudly and radically leftist. When you read the Huffington Post, you knew there was a collective mind-set, a group-think. And the great irony was that if you looked at the front page of the Huffington Post on any given day and matched it with the front page of the New York Times, they were virtually identical. If you tested the philosophical DNA of the Huffington Post and the philosophical DNA of the New York Times, it was obvious to anyone that they were identical twins. They were fighting the same battles, and the bylines at both places were of people who went to the same schools, married the same kind of people, and voted the same way.
      They were all part of the same incestuous, elitist orgy. They were all part of the power structure of Hollywood, Washington, and New York. They were all from the same group of people who made tons of money, vacationed in the nicest places, flew first class – or private, and then dictated to the rest of America how to live “sustainable” lives. …
What follows is both fascinating and horrific … as the author takes a look at what enabled “the Complex” to get as massive and influential as it has become. He looks past the present-day funding by George Soros and back into the doctrinal underpinnings, back to Marx, “the Frankfurt School”, and others whose “mission was to dismantle American society by using diversity and 'multiculturalism' as crowbars with which to pry the structure apart, piece by piece”, and how these people managed to infiltrate the universities, the government, and especially the media. Here too is Obama's philosophical godfather Saul Alinsky … whose approaches Breitbart looks at closely. Frankly, Breitbart admires Alinsky on a strategic/tactical level, and goes into a good deal of detail on the “how” … noting that “Every successful … {leftist} movement in the United States since the 1960s has used Frankfurt School ideology and Alinsky rules.”. What is amazing is that he's able to take this and spin out a “pragmatic primer” for libertarian/conservative action, with a 13-point plan for countering “the Complex” with their own tactics. Brilliant … and such a shame that we don't have this man still fighting in the trenches for “the righteous cause”.

Obviously, I'm a libertarian, and so Breitbart is “preaching to the choir” when it comes to me … there is nearly nothing in Righteous Indignation that I'm not in full agreement with or at least in visceral resonance with. Of course, if you're a devotee of “the Complex”, your reactions to this will no doubt be quite different. This is one of those books that I wish that everybody would read, but I know those of a Leftist bent will reject it out of hand … which is too bad, as they most of all need to hear this side of things.

While I found the hardcover of this at the dollar store a couple of years ago, it is still in print, in a paperback edition, which you should be able to connect with at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor. The on-line new/used guys, however, have new copies of the hardcover for under a buck, and “very good” used copies of the paperback for as little as a penny (plus shipping). If what I've presented above sounds at all interesting to you … go get a copy!


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Tuesday, April 12th, 2016
11:17 am
Banking on your unconscious mind ...
About ten years ago I took a hypnosis training course via the Hypnosis Motivation Institute (https://hypnosis.edu), which was very interesting, and in which I did very well (I guess my voice is pretty great for “inductions”), but I never got any traction with figuring out what to do with it (if I was any good at “selling myself”, I'd have a freak'n job), so it's another of those zillion things that I've studied but never got to apply. Back then I was picking up various materials that they had available, and one of these was Success is Not an Accident: The Mental Bank Concept by HMI founder John G. Kappas, Ph.D., along with its companion wire-bound “ledger”. As these were not part of the coursework, they sat on the “other desk” in my office, and sat there, and sat there … until I picked up the book a week or so back.

Frankly, I had never even seriously looked at this when I got it, and only had the vaguest idea of what it was about. What it is is a system that Dr. Kappas developed for his clients to allow them to work on themselves, programming the subconscious as “a goal machine”, which “represents the culmination of 47 years' experience in the field of subconscious and behavioral re-programming”. I also hate to admit it, but by the time I was finished reading the book, I was still at a loss about what I was supposed to do to put it into action. Fortunately, in the ten years since I picked this up, materials that at one point were purchase/subscription only are now available (posted by the organization) on YouTube. I would highly recommend watching this video to get the instructions laid out for using the Mental Bank (the video is 2 hours long, and the how-to stuff only comes in half-way through). While I really hate to depend on “ancillary materials” outside of the book I'm reviewing to make sense of the book, in this case I'm really recommending that. Heck, if one watched the video first and then read the book, it might make more sense all the way around!

Before I get into the book's content, I can't help (wearing my editor/publisher hat) but to bring up a bizarre “feature” of the book (at least in the printing that I have). In standard book lay-out there are names for the two facing pages, recto and verso (which mean “front” and “back”), with recto being on the right and verso on the left, and, nearly universally, the odd page numbers are on the recto. While the Foreword and Introduction have standard numbering, Chapters 1-7 have the odd numbers on the verso, only to return to standard numbering from Chapter 8 through the end of the book. As a “book guy” this drove me nuts, with the feeling I was in some mirror-reality reading experience. There's a great lyric by Peter Murphy about dealing with esoteric stuff: “Look for what seems out of place.”, and this is close enough to those realms that I kept wondering what the message was of having the book set up like this … not believing (in my editor hat) that this, if not intentional, hadn't been noticed (and thereby corrected) before ink hit paper. At this point I'm guessing that it's simply an “inexplicable error”, but it was a page-by-page distraction to me for 150+ pages of this 250-ish page book!

The Mental Bank Concept (or System in the video) is a way to “reprogram” your subconscious to change your “life script”. Now, if one is looking into a book like this, it is very likely due to being unhappy with some aspect of one's life, be that financial, relationships, health, whatever. However, one of the keystones of this approach is the extremely counter-intuitive insistence that each and every one of us is a success:

No matter how down-and-out you may feel, you have succeeded in carrying out your current life script. You were programmed by your past, and success in any endeavor means carrying out your subconscious plans. You have done this well. The only problem is that your subconscious script is not the pattern you want for your present and future. Thus, it is time to change that script so you will have the accomplishments you desire.
Admittedly, this is a fairly substantial leap of faith to take, but it is based on a half-century of hypnosis therapy, and it seems to work for a lot of people. This is also very regimented, and one is constantly encouraged to follow the steps exactly as presented. Now, I am one of the worst people as far as “doing things my way” (because, hey, I'm “the smartest kid in the room” and all that), but having read through this, I'm seeing how the “doing it as written” thing is probably a real good idea. Also, this requires a whole lot of discipline, as, for it to work, you have to do the process (which is generally said to take 5 minutes) every night at bedtime.

Back in my “drinking days”, that would have been a problem, but it's set up that way to get the information into your head just in time for the early phases of sleep. As woo-woo as a lot of this may seem, it does appear that there is some quite solid “brain science” involved in how this is structured. There is also a gauge as to what “type of suggestibility” is primarily active in the individual. Dr. Kappas defines two types, “emotionally suggestible” (responding to inferred suggestions) and “physically suggestible” (responding to literal suggestions), with the two types subconsciously accepting quite different modes of suggestion – so it's obviously very useful to know what your “type” is when coming up with the affirmations that are part of the process. There is a questionnaire and chart to determine which is your dominant mode. The following example is almost ridiculous (I'm assuming it arises from dealing with people in hypnotic states, not in general conversation), but it points to the differences:

If you ask an extreme literal person and an extreme inferred person the following question: “Would you tell me your name?”, the extreme literal person will say “Yes” while the person accepting inferences will give you his or her name.
To come back to the “life script” concept, the book has a number of examples of how various of Dr. Kappas' clients had gotten into patterns that were limiting. One example is a guy whose father earned what was, in the 60's, a very solid income (say $25,000) and that number got stuck in his head as “what success was”. However, decades later, that dollar amount wasn't an income that he could survive at, yet his subconscious programming somehow kept sabotaging any of his conscious efforts to get better pay. This can also work in reverse, with programming to “not be anything like” one's parents … in any case, most of the information in the subconscious “filter” is set from about ages 8-13 … dooming most people to lives dictated by their childhood experiences.

I suppose that a lot of people whose problems are not financial (wanting to find a life partner, wanting to lose weight, etc.), may have issues with the way the Mental Bank is set up, but, through a lot of trial-and-error, it was determined to use symbolic language to influence the subconscious, in this case the symbol $ and numbers. The way the program works is to fill out an old-style bookkeeping-like ledger with dollar values, and keep a running balance. I got totally confused with this (I'm horrible with financial stuff), until I watched the above-noted video. What you do is come up with your real-life income (or an equivalent if you're not currently pulling a salary), multiply by one factor for your Mental Bank income, come up with an hourly rate, and an over-all target (I've not started using this … was waiting to get through this review first … so these are still a bit hazy to me). Once you have your hourly rate, you make a list of tasks for which you are going to “pay yourself” (for instance, writing reviews would be something I'd have on my list), and at the end of the day, total up everything you'd done that was on the list, and come up with your daily “pay”. Oddly, any real-world income that had come your way is deducted from that total before it gets rolled into the daily balance.

One of the things that I have had most “resistance” to here is the insistence that all the writing involved in these daily ledgers (and the “contract” you write when you get started) needs to be in cursive longhand. Since I learned to type (back in 10th grade or so), I have maybe filled up two pages of cursive writing in the intervening decades … so the argument that this is a “direct route” into one's subconscious seems to be somewhat iffy to me, as I'm going to have to re-learn how to write in script to work this!

I suppose the key part of how the Mental Bank program functions is that the subconscious doesn't make a distinction between real income, and symbolic income, so that it just sees that it's getting rewarded for doing the tasks you have set up as things you're getting “paid” for. This is very much along the lines of research done for NLP and similar approaches, where the mind doesn't differentiate between things visualized and things actually rehearsed. Plus, putting this into play just before going to sleep, sets it up for the most suggestible times for the brain … which is augmented by daily affirmations – again, written out long-hand on the ledger every night – which is why that test for suggestibility style is important.

Although there are stories in the book about the Mental Bank producing some remarkable turn-arounds for numerous clients, in the video George Kappas (John's son, who now runs the HMI), describes the process as “dropping pebbles in a bucket of water”, where each pebble makes no noticeable difference, but over time there's no water left in the bucket. This is paralleled by one all-caps paragraph in the book which says: “Remember: changing your mental script after having it serve as a guide all your life is a big change!”.

As those who have read a lot of my reviews will no doubt recall, I am quite hesitant to actually do the stuff in most of the books I read – my being more interested in the concept or information than taking the time and effort to delve into something that I'm not particularly convinced will be of use. However, this is one that I'm planning to actually implement. While the “broad strokes” of the Mental Bank Concept sound pretty goofy in the “newage sewage” mode, looking at it in the details, and reflecting on similar mind research I've read, makes me think this has solid possibilities and could well be worth the 5-minutes per night (and re-learning how to write in cursive) it involves.

If you want to get a copy of Success is Not an Accident you should probably head over to the HMI site, which has the book available, new, at full cover price. Oddly, the on-line guys don't have it as a regular purchase, and the new/used guys have it for huge mark-ups, twenty bucks or more above what HMI is charging! Again, this is a bit odd, but I'm going to be “working the program”, so I guess that's a solid recommendation for the book … but if you're interested, I'd say you should probably check out the video first.


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Monday, April 11th, 2016
9:38 am
A blast from the past ...
I know that somebody highly recommended this book to me, but I have no clue who that might have been. I suspect it may have been somebody at one of the Transamerica meetings (where I've had other “business philosophy” titles enthusiastically suggested that I should read). In any case, I took the advice and picked up a copy of Robert J. Kriegel's If it Ain't Broke...Break It!: And Other Unconventional Wisdom for a Changing Business World from the Amazon new/used guys (hey, hard to argue with copies for 1¢).

I hate to say it, but the most notable thing about this is that it's quite old (from 1991 – heck, I was still a PR exec back then), and yet, except for the particulars (O.J. Simpson as a sport celebrity, Arthur Anderson as an innovating company, etc.) this doesn't feel overly dated … which no doubt speaks to the tone/approach of the book. As opposed to many marketing (or certainly technology/internet) books, this isn't full of “groaners”, but it does have a bit of a sense of coming from a different world … one, for example, without the web (Mosaic, the earliest WWW browser, wasn't released until 1993!), and where moving functions onto a computer is a highlighted achievement.

In the Introduction, Kriegel says:

      The one thing we can count on as we approach the twenty-first century is the certainty that rip-roaring change will challenge our understanding and shake up the basic foundations of the world around us, in every area. Whatever we do, and wherever we do it, everything – workstyles, economic conditions, technology, corporate structures, global communications, lifestyles, environmental responsibilities – everything is changing at a dizzying rate.
… which was certainly borne out by the past quarter century, albeit in ways that he probably had no inkling of at the date this was written.

However, the sense of on-coming change sets up the context for the (on the surface) somewhat counter-intuitive title, in the realization that trying to “keep things as they are” is almost certainly going to result in being passed by … so looking for ways to “break” things (as they've always been done) looks to be a promising strategy.

There are a couple of odd usages in here, one of which I'd like to address … “firehosing” … when I use the term “firehose”, it's typically in the sense of a massive amount of information coming fast and hard, like water out of a firehose … here the author uses it in different sense: “In an attempt to cling to the familiar and stay on safe ground {the would-be innovator}'s boss responded like a fireman hosing down a fire. He effectively “firehosed” her, dousing her ideas, enthusiasm, and spirit.” This usage comes up all through the book, and is related to the idea of having passion, or “a fire in the heart”. He goes on to frame this as:

      Firehosing is a common way we undermine or dismiss the daring strategy, the new idea, and even the simplest suggestion for improvement. What's worse, though, is how often we firehose our own dreams and creative ideas without knowing it.
The basic feel of the book (and probably why it's aged as well as it has) is very “coachy”, which makes sense as the author is a former athlete and coach for Olympic competitors, and is more about one's motivations than the specifics of the implementations. This is not, however, much of a workbook (which I take it the author does have for the various courses and corporate events he mentions doing), although there are the occasional fill-in-the-blank sections, and lists of questions and attributes.

Speaking of lists, this covers a lot of thematic ground over its 21 chapters, making a discussion of the whole somewhat challenging, so I think this is one of those instances where indulging in a list of chapter headings might well impart a sense of the “arc” better than my trying for some sort of summation:

1.   Surf's Up! … Embrace the Unexpected
2.   Put Fire in Your Heart
3.   Stoke It … Don't Soak It
4.   Dreams Are Goals with Wings
5.   Try Easy
6.   Always Mess with Success
7.   Playing It Safe … Is Dangerous!
8.   Don't Compete … Change the Game
9.   Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers
10. Think Like a Beginner
11. Strange Bedfellows Make Great Partners
12. Take Risks … Not Chances
13. Fear Tells Lies … Break the Cycle
14. Mistakes Are a Good Investment
15. Failure Is a Good Place to Start
16. Plan on Changing Your Plans
17. Play Your Own Best Game
18. Don't Look Where You Don't Want to Go
19. Like It? Log It!
20. Joy Pays Off
21. Breaking Out
Needless to say, you can pretty much tell “where he's going” with the various chapters. Again, this works best when it's in the “general” rather than in the particular (aside from now-gone corporations he lauds here, there are quite a few “highly innovative” products, companies, and systems which I've never heard of, so the odds are pretty good they were something shiny that caught his eye at the time, but never actually made it). Of course, far older books have had on-going popularity (Napoleon Hill's “Think And Grow Rich” comes to mind), largely on being about process rather than specific situations, so it's in good company there.

One of the workshop exercises he outlines is that for determining one's own “sacred cows”, and he reports that (from over 10,000 participants), more than 90% reported spending more time doing things they disliked than those they liked, with the latter being predictably more productive activities:

      In almost every instance, doing the things you like – the challenging tasks, the creative work, the people work – is much more directly related to the bottom line of the organization than the paperwork.
... which he expands on, noting that this (paperwork) typically: “has more to do with mistrust, control, and monitoring than with motivating, innovating, and producing”.

One of the most useful/applicable bits here is the part about “The Fear Cycle”, which has five “links”:

Link I: Imagined Consequences
Link II: Fear Distorts Perception
Link III: The Physical Response
Link IV: Freeze or Frenzy
Link V: Worse Expectations Fulfilled
The most typical example of this would be in public speaking or doing an important presentation, although the same cycle can be traced out in almost any stress-inducing situation. Kriegel suggests that the cycle can be broken at any of these links, and charts out methods to address the fear at each (such as making a “worry list” and thinking through actions to take if any of the worse-case scenarios do manifest).

There were some interesting quotables in the “Mistakes” chapter, including quoting from an early Apple exec that “success does not breed success. It is failure which breeds success.”, which the author expands on with:

Mistakes help you to rethink, reconceptualize, and restrategize. The result of “going back to the drawing board” is usually substantially better than the original idea.
Another figure he throws out is good to recall … “the average millionaire entrepreneur has gone bankrupt 3.75 times.” (which brings to mind the mindless criticism of Trump's assorted failed ventures, as if only an – impossible – 100% success record is legitimizing!). There's also a number of stories here that talk of world-class winners who hardly started that way … including a trio of multiple Super Bowl champion head coaches who also manged to have worst-ever first-season records in NFL history.

As anybody who knows me in real life will attest, I have always had a lot of distrust of “plans” (even before I read about the Gurdjieff/Ouspensky “shock points”), and so I had a certain affinity for his “changing plans” section here. Kriegel notes (and I suspect he might be underestimating the effect):

      As unpredictable and uncontrollable as things are today, there are three things you can in fact count on. I call these the “triple double.” You can assume that anything new will invariably take twice as long, cost twice as much and involve twice as much work as you thought!

      Because of the triple double, one of the most difficult phases of any new project or venture is in the middle. This is where the unexpected has wreaked havoc on carefully developed plans. …

      Nowadays, uncertainty and surprise are normal. You can assume that is reality. You can also assume that the unexpected can't be controlled. What you can control, however, is your attitude towards the unexpected. ...
In the “Play Your Own Best Game” he has both one of the most useful parts of the book, and one of the things that most aggravated me. I'm a “confirmed generalist”, and the author foreshadows the irritating “ninja/rockstar/one-trick-pony” employment world by decades in insisting one needs to “be great at one thing”, which is just swell if you're a tennis prodigy who's been doing endless hours on the court since you still had your baby teeth, but it's an intellectual death for anybody with any breadth. Just sayin'. The beneficial thing here is a pretty handy “strength assessment”, which leads into a bit on “designing your own game”. Here's another point where the age of the book is telling … he's writing from a time when companies couldn't fill the slots they were wanting to hire for (leaving lots of employment options), as opposed to today when long stretches of involuntary unemployment are increasingly the norm. I suppose he also semi-predicts the “work for yourself (because nobody is hiring)” reality by sketching out this:

      It is more critical than ever to work in an area in which you are utilizing your strengths and natural skills. You'll not only be more productive and creative, but you will also enjoy what you are doing more, which will further increase your effectiveness.
Again, I suspect the “joy” section here is long past us in the current economy, where it is frequently impossible to get work with things one is skilled in, let alone something one likes … but he talks of a study of 1,500 people, where 83 percent were in jobs they chose for making money, and 17 percent were in jobs they loved. At the end of 20 years, 101 of the 1,500 had become millionaires, and all but one had come out of the much-smaller-sample “love the work” group. Interesting, but depressing at the same time (although I'm sure he's accuse me of being a “firehoser” for saying that)!

Anyway, I found If it Ain't Broke...Break It! a decent read, if not the “essential” book it had been pitched to me as. It covers a lot of ground, is light in tone, and full of enough interesting tidbits to keep the reader engaged, and is remarkably “evergreen” considering its vintage. I think it would have been better with more “workbook” aspects, but I guess that's what the author's ultimately selling, so he's not wanting to give it away. It appears like this might still be in print, but (as noted up top) you can get a “very good” used copy for as little as a penny (plus shipping) were you interested in taking this particular time-tunnel journey.


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Sunday, April 10th, 2016
10:53 am
A writing class with Mr. King ...
As I nearly exclusively read non-fiction books, I rarely have that experience (which appears to be fairly common among novel readers) of hitting a book that “I couldn't put down”, but this one has been about as close to that in at least my most recent several years of reading, with my having blown through it in only a day or so. This is also “an outlier” in that I have no idea how it got into my hands. I have no recall or ordering it, or buying it in any store … it was just there one day, and I was asking my daughters if it was something they'd be assigned (one could hope) from school. No clue.

So, I approached Steven King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft with a touch of trepidation (moderated by looking it up on Amazon and seeing massive numbers of 5-star ratings for it). While I'm certainly familiar with Stephen King, I don't believe I've actually read anything by him (given the whole "no fiction" thing, plus my only being minimally tolerant of horror/suspense), while having seen parts (I don't do movies much either) of a few films based on his books.

This book is a bit of an “odd duck”, the first third of it is pretty much an autobiographical essay in 38 parts, from his birth in 1947, up till 1981, which is pretty coldly honest about how much his life had “gone off the tracks” into substance abuse. Being a recovering alcoholic myself, I found the following having a certain resonance:

The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time. The four twentieth-century writers whose work is most responsible for it are probably Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and the poet Dylan Thomas. They are the writers who largely formed our vision of an existential English-speaking wasteland where people have been cut off from one another and live in an atmosphere of emotional strangulation and despair. These concepts are very familiar to most alcoholics; the common reaction to them is amusement. … Hemingway and Fitzgerald didn't drink because they were creative, alienated, or morally weak. They drank because it's what alkies are wired up to do. Creative people probably do run a greater risk of alcoholism and addiction than those in some other jobs, but so what? We all look pretty much the same when we're puking in the gutter.
King notes that he never stopped writing, but regrets not being able to recall the creative process of books like Cujo, about which he says: “I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page.”

The middle half of the book is the “meat” of it (at least in terms of it being a book about writing), broken into three sections: a very brief piece called “What Writing Is”, a somewhat larger section called “Toolbox”, and then the “On Writing” part. In the first of these, he argues that writing is telepathy, and he suggests that the reader has an ideal “receiving place”, as he has his preferred “transmitting place”, and notes that neither time nor distance are problems, as we can still read the thoughts of Dickens, Shakespeare, and even Herodotus when we pick up their books. King suggests a scenario with a red table cloth on which is a cage, in which is a rabbit, on which, in blue ink, is marked the numeral 8 (which I immediately was wondering if it were actually an infinity symbol – but King doesn't address that). He notes that everybody will see this in their mind slightly differently, the nature of the table, the color and material of the cloth, the type of cage, etc. He adds:

This is what we're looking at, and we all see it. I didn't tell you, you didn't ask me. I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We're not even in the same year together, let alone the same room … except we are together. We're close.
We're having a meeting of the minds.
… We've engaged in an act of telepathy.
So, there you know, that's what writing is (at least to Mr. Stephen King).

The “toolbox” section starts off with just that, a toolbox that had belonged to his carpenter grandfather, and had been hand-made by him. The story involves the author helping his uncle do some repairs, involving said toolbox. He spins this into an analogy:

I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle to carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.
… You'll find you have most of the tools you need already, but I advise you to look at each one again as you load it into your box. Try to see each one new, remind yourself of its function, and if some are rusty (as they may be if you haven't done this seriously in awhile), clean them off.
He lists various things that should go into the different parts of the toolbox (he's envisioning a multi-level box with lots of drawers, etc.). He puts vocabulary and grammar on the top shelf (and even suggests a resource for the latter, Warriner's English Grammar and Composition - something I've added to my Amazon wishlist), before getting into details. He talks about active and passive verbs (try to minimize the latter), and warns against adverbs. He says “I'm convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.” and that without the fear you “can safely energize your prose with active verbs” and using basic “he/she said” attributes for dialog.

The next layer down in the toolbox is all that stuff in Strunk & White's Elements of Style (you do already have a copy of that sitting on the shelf somewhere, right?), plus an awareness of sentence and paragraph usage. King suggests: “In expository prose, paragraphs can (and should) be neat and utilitarian. … In fiction, the paragraph is less structured – it's the beat instead of the actual melody.” and “{The paragraph} is a marvelous and flexible instrument … You must learn to use it well if you are to write well. What this means is lots of practice; you have to learn the beat.”. This brings me to one slight quibble about the book … it really is about writing fiction. Of course, this is the author's niche, it's what he's done all his life … but there were points where I sort of glazed over as I really don't have that much interest in fiction, and he delves deep down a bunch of rabbit holes in pursuit of what seemed to me to be minutia about that side of things.

This brings us to the actual “On Writing” section. In one paragraph the author pretty much lays out what his intents for the project are:

      I am approaching the heart of this book with two theses, both simple. The first is that good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of your toolbox with the right instruments. The second is that while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.
King starts the first part of this with another declaration:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.
One of the “technical” questions he addresses is what is “a lot” for writing … he visits a story about James Joyce sometimes only managing seven words in a day, and notes others who spewed out reams of copy. As most of my reviews these days are clocking in at this level, I was very pleased to read that King's own output is pretty manageable: “I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That's 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book ...”, now, I have no idea how he's measuring pages but 2,000 words in my wordprocessor runs to just 4 pages (the review I wrote just before this one was about 2,200 words), so I'm guessing he's doing editorial mark-up friendly (and magazine submission compliant) multi-line spacing, and there's no accounting for margins (as any highschool student who's submitted a paper with 1.5-2” margins will attest). Anyway, King writes in the morning, up to, and sometimes through, lunch. He has some definite ideas about writing environment as well … “most of us do our best in a place of our own. … it really needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut.” … he goes on quite a bit about “closed door” and public spaces for writing.

He launches into a lot of pages with examples of writing from his catalog, from other famous writers, and some less-famous, and gives opinions, suggestions, and dictates based on these, from writing whatever you want “as long as you tell the truth” to dissuading you from plotting (which brought to mind a counter-example of the stories of Frank Herbert's environment in which he penned the Dune books, which had everything graphically laid out exactly as he was going to write them). King equates books to fossils: “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer's job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.” and says, in relation to characters, that his job is “to watch what happens and then write it down”. Sort of re-visiting the “telepathy” idea, he adds: “Description begins in the writer's imagination, but should finish in the reader's.”, and suggests a self-hypnosis like approach to putting oneself into an environment (his example is the Palm Too restaurant in NYC), and experiencing that in all one's senses – impressions that can then be translated to the page.

He spends a good chunk of the section talking about dialog, again in both his and others' works … which is probably where I tuned out a bit … but then ends up discussing symbolism. He notes: “It's that ability to summarize and encapsulate that makes symbolism so interesting, useful, and – when used well – arresting.”, but suggests that it's not something one should go into the writing with, but an element that can be polished in subsequent work-overs. He also sort of dismissed “theme”, saying that the writer spends all his time with the trees, and it's frequently left to others to go on about the forest, although he notes that it's another element that can productively influence one's second draft.

Speaking of which, he says that his books typically have “two drafts and a polish”, with the polish in the wordprocessor era coming to be closer to a third draft. He does point out that this is just his method, and compares that to Kurt Vonnegut's who “rewrote each page of his novels until he got them exactly the way he wanted them”, and when he was done with the book, it was ready for print. He also suggests when that first “door closed” draft is done, one should “let your book rest”, which he thinks should be a minimum of six weeks. Once that period of time is over, you can pick it up with fresh eyes, making the editorial re-working much easier. Once that set of edits is over, you can move to the “open door” part, where you're sharing the manuscript with significant others, trusted friends, and associates whose opinions of your writing you trust. Getting this sort of feedback can be a godsend, as frequently these others have whole libraries of more in-depth information on topics that you were writing about, and whose feedback can save you from deeply embarrassing factual gaffes (examples of which from his writing are of an appealingly voyeuristic interest).

He also offers up some “industry” stuff, like “Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%” … a note he'd been given on a rejection slip when he was in highschool, that he still uses as a guide today. He goes into research, how to effectively craft and inject “backstory”, and some war stories about the business, with publishers, agents, and the coming and going of magazines.

The book follows with a second autobiographical piece, which follows his near-fatal accident in 1999, which happened to be right in the midst of his writing the first version of this book. He was off on his daily walk up in the backwoods of Maine, when, on the section of his usual route that took him along an actual road, he got hit by a van, and was very badly injured (one of his lower legs was “broken in at least nine places” and the report of the accident indicated that he was very lucky to have survived – a bit to the left or right and he'd probably not made it). This section is only peripherally about writing, except in how it helped his recovery:

I didn't want to get back to work. … Yet at the same time I felt I'd reached one of those crossroads moments when you're all out of choices. And I had been in terrible situations before which the writing had helped me get over – had helped me forget myself for at least a little while.
This section is followed by a couple of “Furthermore” parts, the first being quite interesting from a writer's perspective, as it's “showing us his work”, where he reproduces the first draft of a part of a story (4+ pages worth), and then displays his editorial mark-up on a double-spaced copy of the same text (he evidently works from paper with pen for making these changes), and then walks the reader through the “why” of all the edits … fascinating. The next two sections are lists of books that he's found appealing and/or useful, one that was in the original On Writing in 2000, and an additional (covering stuff he'd read between the two versions) list put together for the “Tenth Anniversary Editon”, featuring nearly two hundred titles between them (of which I've read only about half a dozen, and those mainly due to having been an English major back in the day).

My snarking about this being fiction-centric aside, it is quite an excellent book, and should certainly be “in the toolbox” of any writer. It's approachable both as a biographical work, a historical work (as far as the trade of fiction author goes, at least), and a workshop on writing with one of the most successful writers of our time. This is still very much in print (in hardcover, trade paperback, mass-market paperback, audio book, e-book, heck, it might be in braille for all I know), so should be reasonably easy to find it in the surviving brick-and-mortar book stores, but you can score a “very good” copy of the mass-market paperback for as little as a penny (plus shipping) through the new/used guys, so it's definitely something you should go get if you have any interest in the craft of writing.


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Saturday, April 9th, 2016
11:47 am
Turning threats into opportunities ...
I'm not exactly sure how Adrian J. Slywotzky's The Upside: The 7 Strategies for Turning Big Threats into Growth Breakthroughs got into my to-be-read piles, however, it has been hanging around for years, and I suspect that it was one of the titles I got in a big splurge a long time ago on a BN.com clearance sale. I'm also not quite sure why this suggested itself to get into my active reading list, except, perhaps, that it had been sitting around for so long, and I wasn't particularly inspired by anything else more recent.

This is, as one might guess from the title/sub-title, another of those “business philosophy” books, which I seem to have gotten an inexplicable taste for (after a lifetime of never reading any business books … I belive my first came a decade ago). While I found this an interesting read, and quite engaging, I only ended up with two bookmarks in it, and those within the last 10% of the book … which means that I'm going to be doing some “tap dancing” here walking through the book to find specifics to address.

I rather liked how the author launches into the theme of the book by going into military history for an example somewhat analogous to the type of “big threat” situation that would be later expressed in a business setting. Here, the story is of Union Civil War Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, in command of the 20th Maine Regiment, that was holding the hill Little Round Top against focused attacks by a much larger Confederate force during the battle of Gettysburg. His troops, reduced by about 1/3rd down to a mere 200, were out of ammunition, and were unlikely to survive another charge by the enemy. Chamberlain positioned a unit of sharpshooters (who, apparently, still had ammo), along a stone wall on the flank, and had his men prepare a bayonet attack. The sharpshooters surprised the Rebel troops with fire from an unexpected direction, and the 20th Maine's charge down the hill resulted in the Confederates retreating in panic. The Union troops ended up taking more prisoners than they had remaining men, and the exchange (and holding the hill), was credited as a key element to the Union winning at Gettysburg.

How is this a lesson? Well, another commander might have just defended the hill, but Chamberlain opted to make a desperate “out of the box” (if you will) counter-attack, resulting in what had to have been a surprising success. Much of the business stories in the book look at situations of companies taking actions against major threats in dynamically similar veins.

The author frames these threats to one's business as “strategic risks”, which differs from the following:

Traditional risk management focuses on three categories of risk that are widely understood: hazard risks (fire, flood, earthquake), financial risks (bad loans, currency and interest rate swings), and operating risks (the computer system goes down, the supply chain gets interrupted, an employee steals). Most companies have risk managers who specialize in handling these kinds of risk.
However, strategic risks target “one or more of the crucial elements in the design of your business model”. The author lists “seven major kinds of strategic risk your business can prepare for”:

1. Your big initiative fails.
2. Your customers leave you.
3. Your industry reaches a fork in the road.
4. A seemingly unbeatable competitor arrives.
5. Your brand loses power.
6. Your industry becomes a no-profit zone.
7. Your company stops growing.
These provide a framework for the stories detailed in most of the book. There are numerous interesting charts in here, but they don't seem to be a specific approach, but just a display template for the info … there is also an odd stylistic approach to “handicapping” the odds of a project's success as these cases are being considered – where there is, in the body of the text, small boxes with a bolded percentage number, reflecting what the chances of the thing is question working out were at various points (if I'm recalling correctly, in the examples given these only went up, if in small increments – say, 15% to 18%). Obviously, these are subjective numbers, and have the benefit of retrospect, given that most (if not all) of the discussed products were great successes.

One thing I found somewhat distracting is that the author tends to jump around … leaving one story to get into another, then switching back to the earlier one. This is likely to be that way to allow dealing with the same sorts of risks in different points in different products/companies, but it led to a bit linearity to the telling than had he stayed with one case study all the way through. Speaking of these, the first two are the Toyota Prius, and the Apple iPod. There are numerous steps in the development which are identified (such as the strategy of “creating excess options” by Toyota, which started with twenty engine designs … and this step boosted the odds from 17% to 20% … or Apple's licensing the player technology from another company that boosted their odds of success by a similar 3%). Slywotzky tracks the Prius up to 90% odds of success, and then flips over to discuss the Mars Pathfinder, and its fast/cheap model.

The book shifts from development to customer relations, and takes a look at Coach handbags, and a Japanese chain of music/video/book stores (that have since expanded into “lifestyle” product lines) called Tsutaya. In both of these cases the focus of growth was on amassing proprietary customer information, with their approaches conducting 10x the “conventional model” of customer interviews and marketing experiments. As both those companies are in the B2C zone, the author also adds in a B2B company, Johnson Controls, which went from making frames for car seats, to the entire automotive interiors, introducing the video entertainment system, etc., based on what the data showed the customers wanted.

The “fork in the road” risk brings up “synthetic histories” and “double betting” … and interesting example of the former is a description of what might well have happened to Microsoft had Bill Gates reacted differently to the report of some managers who had gone on a recruiting trip to Cornell in 1994 … which involved some of the first on-line systems – that the students were enthusiastically using. Gates, in the midst of launching W95, could have (as in the story here) brushed this aside, and Mosaic/Netscape could have ruled the world in a couple of years, but instead he recognized the risk to his product implicit in the Internet, and instituted a crash-development program resulting in Internet Explorer. A similar story is told of IBM … which in the first half of the last century was the main source of (mechanical) calculators and related machines. The son of the CEO, Tom Watson, Jr., saw the emerging computers (from Sperry-Univac) as a serious threat, and convinced upper management to invest in computer development as well … this was the “double-betting”, as both the calculator and computer lines were being worked on, and by the mid-60's IBM was dominating the latter business just as they had the former in previous decades. A number of other “horse races” are detailed in this, Blockbuster vs. Netflix, Motorola vs. Nokia, Lotus vs. Borland and WordPerfect, etc. The author identifies blocks to “double betting”, which are failure to face reality, misplaced strategic logic (to avoid “cannibalizing” one's flagship products, it frequently ends up that everybody but the “threatened firm” will invest in a new technology), and fear of spending (although one must “double bet” carefully).

The risk of a “unique competitor” is first framed in the basketball battles between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, which involves some fascinating analysis of the game, and Russell's quote: “Wilt played vertical, I played horizontal. I got to his favorite spot first … so that he'd have to shoot from an angle he didn't like.” This then spins into the Wal-Mart vs. Target story, focusing on Bob Ulrich, who went from a merchandising trainee at Target to CEO of its (then) parent company (Dayton Hudson, since sucked up by Macy's, like so many others). His strategy (among several) was to find “name” designers who were in a slump, such as Isaac Mizrahi, Mossimo Giannulli, and numerous others, and sign them for exclusive product designs … that had to follow a “3H” – Head/Handbag/Heart – philosophy … helping to also drive the “non-overlap” dictate that means that only 30-40% of products in a Target could be found (cheaper) at the local Wal-Mart.

There are some chastening data points in the chapter on “brand erosion” (especially for those of us who have been around a lot of decades), with once-dominant companies that are either gone or shadows of their former selves. Two companies which are specifically looked are Sony and Ford, which lost significant brand value in the period from 2000-2006 (27% and 69% respectively), and a table with the declining results of a bunch of other “household names”. This is countered with a look at Samsung, which, in that same period, more than tripled its brand value … here another detailed look with those percentage boxes interspersed. There is an interesting table here on “brand risk”, with 10 “types of failure”, a definition of each, and an example of a company that stumbled due to that particular issue.

The “no-profit zone” largely deals with competition and collaboration … with examples like Steve Jobs convincing the music industry, which was in full battle mode against Napster, etc., to embrace the iPod's proprietary format, and the iTunes marketplace, and the various European manufacturers who came together to create Airbus and compete with the major American aircraft manufacturers. Slywotzky also offers up a “synthetic history” of what might have happened had the assorted players in the auto industry come together ala the players in Airbus, in the mid-90's. In this fantasy, costs have plummeted, fuel consumption has dipped, and emerging economies are producing vehicles that are able to be sold for just a few thousand dollars.

In the “company stops growing” risk, there's another interesting chart here, tracking growth moves, and companies that made these work, as well as stories of a number (oddly, mainly European) companies that responded to stagnating growth with an array of approaches. There's also a piece about Proctor & Gamble's sudden decline in 1999 (their stock lost 50% of its value in one quarter), and how they fought their way back by 2004. Part of this was a new direction that asked “Are there things that professionals do for consumers that consumers could do for themselves?”, which not only resulted in products such as Crest Whitestrips, but also a focus on “consumer anthropology”, a research approach that P&G was dedicating as much as $200 million in 2006.

At the end of each chapter there are questions for companies to ask themselves to assess their level of risk in the various areas, and in the last chapter it looks at “reversing risk” and providing a number of tools to help one get there. These fall in these six main categories:

1. Identify and assess your risks.
2. Quantify your risks.
3. Develop risk mitigation action plans.
4. Identify the potential upside.
5. Map and prioritize your risks.
6. Adjust your capital decisions.
These include things like a “Risk Exposure Map”, a “Risk Profile Worksheet”, the “Strategic Risk Spectrum”, etc. There's a lot of “coaching” here as well, like looking at how companies are often structured to ignore risks, from “killing the messenger” who brings up bad news (like in the Microsoft “synthetic history”), overvaluing confidentiality, and “siloing” information. Slywotzky defines “three disciplines that can help management teams get consistently better at managing their portfolio risks:” 1. knowing the true odds, 2. seeing the earliest warning signals, and 3. constantly comparing risk profiles. He provides quite a lot of material about each of these, with numerous example tables, and a worksheet for #3 to compare one's company with a key competitor. One thing that I suspect would be very useful for a lot of companies would be the last part of the book, which outlines, over several pages, a half-day workshop to use the various tools in the book to determine one's “strategic risk and upside profile”.

Needless to say, The Upside is not a “general reader” or “all and sundry” book, although it's an interesting enough read, with a lot of fascinating info. It's also getting a bit “vintage” at this point, having come out in 2007, so there are sectionss which seem like real old news from today's standpoint. However, it is still in print in the hardcover (so it certainly must have its audience!), and the on-line big boys are offering it at 49% off of cover. It is available from the new/used guys too, with “very good” copies that can be had for the ever-popular price of 1¢ (plus shipping). If this sounds like something you'd find of interest, you should certainly have no excuse to not pick up a copy.


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Tuesday, March 29th, 2016
3:00 pm
More like 53 skills in 11 groupings ...
It's a funny thing. This is the third of Dave Kerpen's books that I've reviewed, and they've all come into my hands as prizes for “live Tweeting” during one of his presentations! I got Likeable Business and Likeable Social Media at a talk he was giving at one of the old “Big Frontier” events, and got his brand-new The Art of People: 11 Simple People Skills That Will Get You Everything You Want for the volume of Tweets I was generating during a recent webinar he was doing. I don't know if Kerpen gives out so many promo copies that this isn't unusual in terms of his book distribution, but it really sort of stands out in my acquisition stream (it could be like that – in Jay Baer's recent book he writes about Kerpen's policy for one-star review he gets on Amazon to apologize and “offers to refund money spent, plus money for the pain and suffering of having read the book”!).

This is a bit of a strange duck, however … with its structure being one of its strong points … if sort of masking its avowed intent as expressed in the subtitle 11 Simple People Skills That Will Get You Everything You Want (there I go again, having problems with a subtitle). I was about half-way through the book when I began to wonder when we were going to learn about these 11 “skills” … having not really registered that the book was set up in 11 sections (each having 4-6 small – the book's only 250 or so pages long – chapters looking at particular “skills” … I guess going with “53 Simple People Skills” would have had less shelf appeal in sounding somewhat overwhelming).

To give you an idea of the arc of the book, here are the titles for those 11 sections:

1. Understanding Yourself and Understanding People
2. Meeting the Right People
3. Reading People
4. Connecting with People
5. Influencing People
6. Changing People's Minds
7. Teaching People
8. Leading People
9. Resolving Conflict with People
10. Inspiring People
11. Keeping People Happy
Needless to say, while those are broad-stroke “skills”, they're not very specific (or actionable), so there's the 53 individual topics to deal with. Each of these run 3-4 pages, and conclude with a “FAST” (First Action Steps to Take) section, with three or four suggestions for taking action on the specific topic. This structure makes what could have been a bit of a brow-beating something more like a simple walk-though of bite-size ideas.

Now, I'm really going to try to not “go negative” here, but there were several points where I was seriously questioning what he was doing in some of the sections … from trotting out some long-since-debunked “saws” popular with “personal development” speakers (like the “93 percent of communication is non-verbal” meme, which I was able to find – in a couple of minutes on my phone while reading in the park – that the primary researcher of the study Kerpen cites here had very specifically noted was taken grossly out of context and was not generalizable beyond the extremely narrow scope of the study … why doesn't anybody ever check these things?), to starting the book with a section dismissing the Myers-Briggs categories in favor of the “Enneagram” model (which is, of course, submitted in its watered-down “newspaper horoscope” later-day form popular with corporate trainers, rather than the complete system propagated by Gurdgieff and Ouspensky with essential complexities such as “shock points”, etc.). What I found especially confusing was that from starting the book with this salvo (and dedicating 12 pages to an appendix for an assessment you can do to find “your enneagram type”) this never came up again … making me wonder if the author had a business relationship with, or at least owed a big favor to, the guy whose organization is promoted as a resource for enneagram info!

The other thing that one might find unexpected in a book purporting to impart skills, is that this is largely structured as a series of personal stories illustrating how the author encountered, learned from, overcame, etc., things related to the various individual “skills” (the 53 specific ones) … making this less of a “manual” and more of a tale of “how Dave learned about this stuff” (and how he'd suggest you work on these). While this certainly makes The Art of People a more breezy read, it also makes it a whole less direct than it might have been (and you know how little I connect with “teaching stories”).

These gripes aside, there is quite a lot of very good material in here, some of it I found immediately of use (despite being an Enneagram Type 5: “Striving to be Detached” – meaning that my main “people skill” is trying to avoid having to deal with 'em!). One of these came in a very early chapter titled “How to Understand Someone Better Than You Do Your Friends (in Just Three Minutes)”, which talks about a conference where the speaker was attempting to do just that for the audience. He gave, in sequence, three questions for each to pose to somebody next to them, with a minute each to get both responses. As I tend to have a hard time caring what's important to other people, I found this fascinating. The questions were:

“What is the most exciting thing you're working on right now?”,
“If you had enough money to retire and then some, what would you be doing?”, and
“What is your favorite charity organization to support and why?”
What is probably most telling about this is Kerpen's note that:

Although Steven and I exchanged a few emails after the event, it's been over two years since that first and only conversation I had with him. But here's the really interesting thing: It's been over two years, yet I still recall with ease the content of that conversation. I still know more about Steven after three minutes over two years ago than I do about most of my casual friends from high school, college, and work.
He goes on to suggest a list of 10 questions, and in the FAST section recommends picking 3 of them and using them as ice breakers at one's next social setting … I just might take him up on the suggestion.

I found the next chapter, “Be Interested Instead of Interesting” of use as well (as I do tend to “bloviate”, in O'Reilly's terminology), this is condensed into a bullet point (or, in the book, a free-standing quote on its own page) as “The secret to getting people to adore you is to shut up and listen.”, even to the point of deflecting courtesy questions from the other person and making it “their turn” to speak again. This is followed up in subsequent chapter with:

Listen to understand, authentically try to connect deeply with people, help them feel less lonely, and you will find yourself far more able to influence them.
… in which Kerpen stresses the “authenticity” part (which, sadly, brings my cynical mind the classic quote of Jean Giraudoux: “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made.”). These concepts come up later in the context of the aforementioned non-verbal communication (not 93%, but a useful thing to keep in mind), and in concepts like “mirroring” (where you parrot back wordings used by the person you're speaking with in terms like “I hear you saying”, and similar). On this latter point the author says:

      People in general don't want advice even when they ask for it. They just want to feel heard. As you practice and get good at mirroring, you will help people feel heard, and they will love you for it. Focus on really emphasizing the “feeling words” you hear as well; mirroring feelings is much more valuable than mirroring thoughts.
Again, there is a LOT of interesting items in here, including “validation”, “simple keys to networking” (develop a “signature style” – Kerpen has owned 29 pairs of orange shoes, making him stand out in pretty much any crowd), how to “help people come up with your idea”, acting with confidence, making “the ask” (it's amazing how often the actual “ask” doesn't happen), build teams of advisors and accountability coaches, using the phenomena of “mirror neurons” to do what are essentially Jedi Mind Tricks on audiences (project what you want to have them mirror), using LinkedIn to connect with people you might not be otherwise able to (and using it to introduce other people to folks you think they should know), and even “Be Unoriginal”. This last one leads into the second appendix, where Kerpen presents fourteen pages of quotes, and a link to a site he's set up with even more … which he recommends using in talks, meetings, and even social media postings, which he justifies with:

There truly is very little original thought left out there, so why shouldn't we take advantage of the brilliant minds of the past and borrow the words they used to convey ideas and inspire others?
One other thing he suggests that I had some resonance with was the suggestion to start sending out actual, physical, thank-you cards. He starts this chapter talking about a “barely legible” card he'd gotten from the CEO of a big company that he'd interviewed for a previous book, and how great it made him feel (which makes me feel better about getting cards out, as I've got a chicken-scratch which looks like some bizarre crossing of Klingon and Linear B). This also dove-tails with a bit from Robert B. Cialdini's Influence where a car salesman created a huge business by sending out thousands of cards a month to his contact list. I'm additionally reminded of a story from my youth, when my Mom's friend, Bishop Montgomery (who I was amazed to Google is still alive, albeit in his mid-90's) was always so prompt with thank-you cards that my Mom jokingly accused him of mailing them on the way to the dinner/event they were about.

Anyway, I found The Art of People useful, if not as focused as its subtitle would suggest (it really is “11 broad categories” in which the 53 could-be-called skills are collected), and it has a good deal to do with the author's life experiences. There was stuff that “raised my hackles”, stuff I found exciting, and a lot of stuff that I just didn't connect with at all (hey, according to the book's companion site, I'm a “People Rookie” who “may just not like other people very much”, so there's that!).

At this writing, the book's been officially out for under two weeks, so is likely to be all over the brick-and-mortar stores handing this sort of thing … and, of course, the on-line behemoths have it, with discounts of a bit more than a third off of cover price. I'm sort of on the fence on this one, there's elements I liked, parts I didn't, but generally found it something I'm glad to have read. Given that a lot of my resistance to this is likely based in me being a curmudgeonly misanthrope of a non–“people person”, I suspect that others … who find the dominant fauna on our planet more engaging that I do … will find this more agreeable as well!


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Saturday, March 26th, 2016
8:20 pm
A different side ...
As regular readers of this space know, I find a lot of quite interesting books at dollar stores, the rather random nature of what shows up where in that channel lending a signature serendipity to my to-be-read piles. One thing I have discovered is that there is no systematic distribution of individual titles (i.e., four copies to every store in a particular area), with some books only being at one location, and a different “mix” in different regions. Because of this, I always look forward to checking out the Dollar Trees when I'm out of town, and a week or so back I was attending a demo at my elder daughter's college, and made a point to check out the one near our hotel. I found a couple of promising titles there, one of them being Love Is the Cure: On Life, Loss, and the End of AIDS by famed rock & roll legend Elton John.

I was a big fan of the author in the 70's, certainly from 1971's Madman Across The Water (which still is one of our “road trip” CDs), and was thrilled to get so see him a few years back, when I was trying to shift gears to a bartending career (I was working temp at a big event Allstate was doing down in Millennium Park, where he was the headliner). I had, however, sort of drifted away musically over the past couple of decades, so hadn't been “following” him much, and by the time this book picks up (in 1985), he was pretty much off my radar, aside, of course, for the mega-hits (like cuts from The Lion King) that were hard to avoid.

The book starts with the author flipping through a magazine in a doctor's office, and seeing an article about Ryan White, an Indiana teen who had hemophilia, and had contracted HIV via a clotting agent used to treat his disease. Reading this article set John on a trajectory that led to both his sobriety and the founding of the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

This is an intensely personal tale, but it is, ultimately, more a missive from the head of the EJAF than strictly being an autobiographical piece. On one level, John is nearly perfectly positioned to tell the story of HIV/AIDS, as he was in the thick of the “gay community” in the years that it was being ravaged by the disease. At several points, he mentions that it's pretty much a miracle that he didn't get AIDS, as so many of his friends (he cites some really atrocious body counts), succumbed to it. He also got to see (as he attempted to help Ryan White, and other victims around the country) how spotty the care was, when there was any, and this sparked him to want to do something.

However, before he could be effective helping others, he needed to get his act together. A couple of months after Ryan's funeral, John had something of an intervention with his boyfriend at the time, which resulted in him finally deciding that he needed to get help. At this point he was dealing with a wide array of addictive behaviors, involving cocaine, alcohol, food, and sex. He notes:

What made matters harder was that there were even few rehab facilities that were willing to treat multiple problems at once. Dual diagnosis was discouraged, for reasons I still do not agree with. Most treatment centers expected you to go to one facility to be treated for your eating disorder before you went to another for your drug addiction, and then yet another for alcoholism. That wasn't acceptable to me. I felt very strongly at the time (and I still do) that all of my problems had the same root cause, and that I couldn't treat one without treating them all. Luckily, we found a place in Chicago that would take me in and treat all my addictions at once … Six weeks after I entered the program {in July}, I was released. It was September 1990. I returned to London ...
I was fascinated by the parallels, as I went into a sobriety program in July of 1985 (in Chicago), and got out six weeks later … and, like John, have been “clean and sober” since.

A few months after his release he relocated to Atlanta, and was involved with assisting HIV service groups there, but in the fall of 1992 Elizabeth Taylor asked him to participate in a HIV/AIDS fundraiser that her foundation was doing at Madison Square Garden in NYC, and this inspired him to start up his own foundation, specifically focused on AIDS. One of the primary elements contributing to the success of the EJAF was from the realization:

… very early on, we made a key decision: our job would be to raise the money, and we would build partnerships to get it into the right hands. With the help of experts on our board … this is how we would proceed.
      We did an extensive search and were lucky – extraordinarily lucky – to find the National Community AIDS Partnership. … What
{was} understood in those early years was essential: with so many separate organizations providing their own services to their own regions, we needed something that would help us respond to the crisis in a truly coordinated and strategic way. …
      The goal of the partnership wasn't just to collect money and distribute it; it was to mobilize social service organizations that already existed, that already had infrastructure, and to turn their attention to HIV/AIDS.
John, his associates, and media friends were called upon to help encourage congress to accelerate both assistance to those effected by the disease, but also to the core research looking for a cure. Aside from the main foundation in the US, John also opened up a sister operation in the UK, which is responsible not only for programs there, but around the world. As horrific as the situation was in America, where AIDS patients were frequently shunned and made pariahs, the stories the author relates about the situation in Africa are remarkable in their savagery:

In 2009, South Africa's Medical Research Council conducted a study surveying the extent of the rape crisis {largely driving the HIV/AIDS epidemic there}. Researchers found that one-quarter of the men interviewed admitted to raping someone. Another study found that more than 60 percent of boys over the age of eleven believed that “sex is a male's natural entitlement and forcing a girl to have sex does not constitute a rape nor an act of violence.”
      If a society doesn't think there's anything wrong with rape, then anybody who speaks out against it will be stigmatized. One rape survivor in South Africa told the international relief organization Médecins Sans Frontières, “People laugh at me and say, 'Oh, you will get HIV/AIDS now.' These are my neighbors and people who live around me. They don't seem to think the men that raped me did anything wrong.”
To at least attempt to address this systematic cultural depravity, the EJAF along with Médecins Sans Frontières and a number of local organizations, have started a 24/7 acute care and support center in outskirts of Cape Town. He also discusses issues in Thailand, programs in the Ukraine, projects in Haiti, and in America's deep south (portions of which seem to be indistinguishable from Third World hell-holes). While the Clinton's organization has been involved in HIV programs, it was G.W. Bush whose administration actually pushed through serious governmental involvement in the AIDS crisis, announcing, in his 2003 State of the Union address, the initiative known as PEPFAR – the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. This initially was slated to devote $15 billion from 2003 to 2008, and was renewed in 2008 at nearly triple that, $48 billion. Needless to say, this was a shock to John (and probably most of the AIDS community) and he eventually had a chance to talk with Bush when Elton John was awarded the lifetime achievement Kennedy Center Honors in 2004, he says:

I remember having the greatest conversation with him. He was warm, charming, and very complimentary, not only about my music but also about the work of my foundation. He knew all about what we were doing, and he was endlessly knowledgeable about HIV/AIDS as well.
John is considerably less charitable with the Catholic Church, and specifically Pope John Paul II, and (to a slightly lesser extent) Pope Benedict XVI, both of whom issued official proclamations claiming that condoms are ineffective at preventing the spread of AIDS – dooming thousands to horrible deaths in Africa and Latin America.

One of the most interesting things discussed here is how preventable AIDS is. John compares it to various other diseases:

Consider the difference between AIDS and cancer. If you were able to treat everybody with cancer on the planet, if you could give everyone the best, most cutting-edge treatment possible, other people would still get cancer. And, sadly, a lot of those who received treatment would still die. … But, at this point, if all AIDS research were to suddenly stop, if we were never able to make another discovery in our understanding of the HIV virus, we could still beat it. We could save the life of nearly every HIV-positive person and prevent all future infections. … In 2011, researchers funded by the U.S. Government made a miraculous discovery: people living with HIV who receive treatment are up to 96 percent less likely to pass on the virus to a sexual partner. In other words, current treatments are so effective that they reduce the presence of the HIV virus in an infected person's body to almost nil. … That means treatment is also prevention.
John follows this up with a look at what it would take to get there … dollar by dollar. “We know how to end AIDS, and we know what it would cost: an additional $5 to $7 billion each year from now until 2020, and not very much more than we're spending today beyond that.” To put that number in context, he trots out some interesting figures … Americans spend $16.9 billion on chocolate per year, in the first quarter of 2012 Apple made profits of $13 billion, and “a handful of Wall Street banks” in 2010 paid out a whopping $20.8 billion in bonuses to employees and executives. He also does some math voodoo to compare the US national budget to something that one could wrap one's mind around … if the budget had $3,700 in the checking account, would you spare $5 to $7 “to save millions upon millions of lives”? Or, put another way, for “a rounding error in the federal budget – the United States could single-handedly end AIDS”.

Love Is The Cure (I'm sure Robert Smith would agree … had to get that in here somewhere) is still in print, but having hit the dollar stores, the on-line after-market has “like new” used copies for as little as a penny (plus shipping). Elton John has done a masterful job at pleading his case (again, this is largely a thesis by him as head of the EJAF), while providing enough “inside story” on his amazing life to keep it “juicier” than a book from a NGO would likely be. It initially came out in 2012, so is fading a bit on the “today's headlines” side of things, but as a history of AIDS, and what has been done to battle it, and what could be done to battle it, it stands pretty solidly on its own.

This is one that I pretty much would recommend “to all and sundry”, as it's a topic that everybody should at least be conversant with, and given that it can be found for a minimal investment (although regular sales go to support EJAF, if you don't mind shelling out a few more bucks), you should consider picking up a copy.


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Friday, March 18th, 2016
2:38 pm
"... Messing With My Mind!"
In the reading that I do, I will frequently come across books referenced in other books, which are variously praised and recommended. I have, unfortunately, developed a fairly cynical view of “highly recommended” books, because, frankly, so many of them are “meh” at best. This one is an exception to that rule … Robert B. Cialdini's much-lauded Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion is a truly exceptional book, and I'm very pleased to have made the effort (OMG – I paid retail … or at least Amazon's discounted version thereof) to get it.

I think the power of this book comes from the combination of efforts that Dr. Cialdini put into researching it, not only in the classic college laboratory setting with student volunteers, but also going out in the field, with his becoming a participant observer:

… Participant observation is a research approach in which the researcher becomes a spy of sorts. With disguised identity and intent, the investigator infiltrates the setting of interest and becomes a full-fledged participant in the group to be studied. So when I wanted to learn about the compliance tactics of encyclopedia (or vacuum-cleaner, or portrait-photography, or dance-lesson) sales organizations, I would answer a newspaper ad for sales trainees and have them teach me their methods. Using similar but not identical approaches, I was able to penetrate advertising, public-relations, and fund-raising agencies to examine their techniques. Much of the evidence presented in this book, then, comes from my experience posing as a compliance professional, or aspiring professional, in a large variety of organizations dedicated to getting us to say yes.
      One aspect of what I learned in this three-year period of participant observation was most instructive. Although there are thousands of different tactics that compliance practitioners employ to produce yes, the majority fall within six basic categories. Each of these categories is governed by a fundamental psychological principle that directs human behavior and, in so doing, gives the tactics their power. This book is organized around these six principles, one to a chapter. The principles – consistency, reciprocation, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity – are each discussed in terms of their function in society and in terms of how their enormous force can be commissioned by a compliance professional who deftly incorporates them into requests for purchases, donations, concessions, votes, assent, etc.
What he found in his research is both fascinating and scary. I have a very low tolerance to “being manipulated”, so I was being quite reactive to a lot of the stories in here … on one hand hating those applying these techniques, and on the other hand being amazed that so many people are thoughtlessly taken in by them. These range from the mild (the quote by the character "Face" from the old The A-Team TV show comes to mind: “That's not even a real smile. It's just a bunch of teeth messing with my mind!”), to the truly horrific (the classic Milgram Study, and similar).

One of the things that I really liked, structurally, in the book was the inclusion of a “How To Say No” section in each chapter – allowing the reader to walk away from each technique with a framework for not being influenced by it (or not as much as one might be), and a “Reader Report” which features a story sent in by somebody on one side or another of the influence game illustrating the principle at hand in that chapter. These both provide a pattern in the information, but also shift the frame a bit, leading to a more nuanced view of these techniques in action. Another thing I found quite endearing was the author's “catch phrase”, as it were, of Click, whirr!, indicating where “Click, and the appropriate tape is activated; whirr and out rolls the standard sequence of behaviors.” … except for when it's not the appropriate reaction – the initial instance of this was dealing with turkeys (who acted maternally to anything making the “cheep cheep” call of baby turkeys – even if the sound was coming from a stuffed predator that would have been viciously attacked otherwise), or robins (who would territorially defend against anything with red breast feathers, but ignore perfect replicas of competitors without that one triggering element), but Cialdini generalizes that out to any pre-programmed behaviors … including ones we exhibit: “there are many situations in which human behavior does not work in a mechanical, tape-activated way, what is astonishing is how often it does”.

The book is chock-full of amazing cases … things that one would think couldn't possibly be real, but there's solid research on these. An example is (in the “consistency” chapter) how agreeing to a small step will prime you for a major step later … in this study, experimenters had gone through suburban neighborhoods asking people to take a small (3”square) sign saying “be a safe driver”, and nearly everybody did. Two weeks later, other experimenters came through both the original neighborhoods and a set of “control” neighborhoods that hadn't been asked to take the small sign. These were now requesting to put a very large, unattractive “drive carefully” sign in the subjects' front lawns. As one might expect, in the control group, most – 83% – said no, but in the group that had previously taken the tiny sign, an amazing 76% agreed to let the billboard be installed in front of their homes! It appears that simply acceding to the minor request changed the view these people had of themselves into something that “consistency” forced them to also agree to the later unreasonable request. The author warns:

… be very careful about agreeing to trivial requests. Such an agreement can not only increase our compliance with very similar, much large requests, it can also make us more willing to perform a variety of larger favors that are only remotely connected to the little one we did earlier. It's this second, general kind of influence concealed within small commitments that scares me. … It scares me enough that I am rarely willing to sign a petition anymore, even for a position I support. Such an action has the potential to influence not only my future behavior but also my self-image in ways I may not want. And once a person's self-image is altered, all sorts of subtle advantages become available to someone who wants to exploit that new image.
He goes on to discuss, in detail, Chinese-run POW camps in the Korean War. There were constant pressures to make concessions (writing essays to win a piece of fruit or a few cigarettes) that would then provide the basis of further expansions on themes the Communists wanted expressed, moving in tiny increments from one self-image to a new one that could be exploited for propaganda, etc. Similarly he notes how Amway tries to have its reps get the customer to fill out the order form … leading them to be more convinced that they wanted what they were ordering.

One of the useful things in the “social proof” chapter is spun out of the studies around the notorious Kitty Genovese murder, where dozens of witnesses saw the (long drawn out) attack, but no one did anything, even calling the police … each assuming “somebody else” was helping. The author recommends, if one is in an emergency situation, singling out one person in the environment and specifically asking for help … this breaks through the “pluralistic ignorance effect” and spurs individuals into action. Cialdini describes an accident he had been in, where, just like in the research, nobody was stopping to help … he realized what was happening and directly addressed drivers cruising by to call the police, etc. Also in this chapter there is one of the hardest-to-believe studies … the pattern of suicides that follow stories of suicides in the media – which apparently trigger additional suicides: “within two months after every front-page suicide story, an average of fifty-eight more people than usual killed themselves” – a pretty shocking statistic, which is made creepier by the analysis that the follow-up suicides were predictably among people similar in age, sex, race, etc., to the initial death … and really disturbingly: “the average number of people killed in a fatal crash of a commercial airliner is more than three times greater if the crash happened one week after a front-page suicide story than if it happened one week before”! The author finds this sufficient horrific that he notes:

Evidently, the principle of social proof is so wide-ranging and powerful that its domain extends to the fundamental decision for life or death. … A glance at the graphs documenting the undeniable increase in traffic and air fatalities following publicized suicides, especially those involving murder, is enough to cause concern for one's safety.
He goes on to note that homicides have similar patterns of increase following news of killings (like those don't happen on a daily basis in places like Chicago!), and he then takes an extensive look at the mass suicides in Guyana, and how Jim Jones was able to control the People's Temple faithful to the extent that they'd kill themselves at his command.

In the “liking” chapter, there are all sorts of things in play, attractiveness, similarity, and even blatantly insincere compliments. One study of Canadian federal elections found that attractive candidates got 2.5x the votes of unattractive candidates … although, when surveyed, three quarters of the voters outright denied this happening, with only 14% even being open to the possibility. Lots of salesmen do “cold reads” for any clues of attitudes and interests of their prey … and fabricate stories that correspond to those as a way of connecting. I guess the guy in a recent commercial for a shaving system is dead on, where he's in a waiting area for a job interview with a bunch of other candidates, and notices that the portraits of the company's leadership all feature bald/shaved heads … he bolts out, gets shaving gear, and comes back as the only one among the hopefuls that now looks like the company's guy. As far as compliments, “Positive comments produced just as much liking for the flatterer when they were untrue as when they were true.”, and “this was the case even though the men fully realized that the flatterer stood to gain from their liking him” … giving support to the strategy of one featured car salesman who sent out 13,000 cards to his contact list every month with the simple message “I like you!” on seasonably-themed cards. Also in this chapter are looks at integration failures, good cop / bad cop interrogation dynamics, and how TV weather people get blamed (and sometimes attacked) for the weather.

Aside from the Milgram material in the “authority” section, there are some factors looked at that also give one pause … like how an actor who has played a doctor on TV can be effectively used to push products with his “medical” expertise (Robert Young / “Marcus Welby” for Sanka for example), or how clothes/cars/accessories can stand in for actual achievement. Another tactic familiar to everyone is the “scarcity” approach, from on-going “going out of business” sales (there was one luggage shop on Michigan Avenue here which had been “going out of business” for at least a decade before the building was eventually torn down), to the holiday toy scam of creating a demand that goes unfilled at the end of the year, only to be made widely available (“but you promised!”) a month or so later (although that latter story is actually in the “consistency” chapter).

Obviously, there is a whole lot in Influence, and I've only been able to skim through some of the highlights here. This is such an eye-opener that it's definitely one of those “all and sundry” recommendations … you need to read this!

It's currently available in both paperback and ebook editions, and I suspect that you'd be able to find this at most bigger brick-and-mortar book stores. The on-line big boys, however, have it for a whopping 44% off at this writing, making it as cheap to get that way as picking up a used copy (plus shipping). Again, this is well worth your time, and is even something that I wish they'd make required reading in the schools.


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Thursday, March 17th, 2016
12:19 pm
Getting visible ...
Soooo … I hate it when I sit down to write a review and discover that I'd put in exactly zero little bookmarks to lead me back to choice bits in the text … and I just discovered that this is one of those cases. I'm rather confused by this, as the lack of bookmarks is frequently the effect of my not productively interfacing with the book, yet I had found this one engaging, entertaining, and reasonably informative … but, obviously, never felt moved to stick a marker in there. Odd.

Anyway, I'd run into some mention of David Avrin's It's Not Who You Know, It's Who Knows YOU! A Practical Business Guide to Raising Your Profits By Raising Your Profile somewhere on-line (I don't recall where, but I do remember trying to track down his publisher – unsuccessfully – to request a review copy … they've not got much of an on-line presence, and are “coincidentally” located in the same small Colorado town as the author, so I'm guessing this was, essentially, self-published). I ended up looking over on Amazon and was able to score a very good copy of the the hardcover (signed, even!) from the new/used vendors for well under a buck (plus shipping).

The author presents himself as “The Visibility Coach” (http://visibilitycoach.com), with a focus on marketing and strategic branding. The format of the book is a lot of 1-3 page topics (70, if my count is right), grouped in three main sections: Your Brand, Creating Awareness, and The Pitch … each closing with a “The Visibility Coach says:” banner with some pithy comment on the preceding section (with every one of these including his logo, which I found irritating in its incessant repeating, yet forgivable in the context of a “personal branding” screed).

What I found especially confusing in my not having marked anything here is the realization that I've already used references to material in other contexts! One would think that I'd have targeted those for later use – guess I was breezing through this too fast to “stop and mark the proses” {sorry about that}. Of course, in my defense, a large collection of individual bits, loosely assembled into a few thematic sections, doesn't build much of a narrative arc … so a lot of the “good bits” just flew by, and I was into the next part before realizing that the last one was choice.

This leaves me in a position to do some “cherry picking” via a scan-through of the text … not ideal, but hey. I guess I'll start with the above-noted bit that I already used. I was posting in my main blog about the re-release of one of my old poetry collections, and was contemplating the market (or lack thereof) for all my emo navel-gazing. This refers to Avrin's piece on what he calls the “Sesame Street Strategy”, which starts out talking about the career decline of Donny Osmond, moves into the disastrous mid-stream moves of Maxim magazine (when they sought to change with their initial readers, rather than target a particular “self-replicating market”), and eventually ends up on Sesame Street:

      In fact, if you have a self-replicating market, you can often continue to offer products and services to each new batch of customers that comes along. I call this the Sesame Street Strategy. How is it that Sesame Street has stayed on the air for more than 40 years? Because every year there is a new crop of five-year-old children (gleaned from the ranks of last year's four-year-olds) hungry for learning and entertainment. Companies … {addressing this market} … continue to grow and thrive because kids inexplicably seem to keep being born and growing up – needing to learn stuff. Who knew?
The author uses this to pose the question if your business has to keep changing to chase after your existing customers, or if you have a new batch of target customers coming in the door as your previous ones move on.

Of course, the topic of “visibility” keeps coming up, in slightly different contexts. In the wonderfully titled “Schtick Out” piece Avrin notes:

      To become top-of-mind, you need to craft or highlight something about yourself, your message, or your business that is readily and easily identifiable with you – and only you. When you hear someone say, “Yah, it's been done,” it's usually not a very subtle reminder that there is nothing special in copying someone else. So here's the question: What do you do, that only you do?
He lists a number of examples, from the chocolate chip cookies featured at Doubletree Hotels, to the political snark of Ann Coulter. About half the book later, he revisits this with a personal example, which, while approaching obnoxious on one level, is also brilliant for the reasons he details in “See and Be Seen”:

      Some years back, I was attending a conference with my colleagues at the National Speakers Association and having fun zipping around the convention hotel on a Segway scooter. The Segway was brand new at the time and caused a lot of buzz. As I rounded a corner, I passed a woman who said, “Hey, I remember you!” “That's the point!” I said with a smile as I zoomed past.
      For a time, the Segway was my schtick. I used to bring it along as my signature at conferences and conventions around the world. It was a great way to meet far more people than I normally would at such a large event. …
      More important, I always knew that I could call any of the hundreds or even thousands of fellow attendees in the weeks that followed and say, “I was the guy on the Segway.” People would instantly recall who I was and the conversation was a breeze from there. If I'm going to call myself the Visibility Coach, I better be visible!
      My question for you then is: “What are you doing to be noticed and remembered by your prospects?” …
      What are you doing to be seen and remembered? How are you ensuring your top-of-mind status with your clients and prospects?
He does note that most folks don't need to “find some hokey stunt to draw attention to yourself”, but suggests that most could find “a distinctive hook or activity that dovetails nicely into who you are or what you do”.

This isn't just “philosophies” of visibility, however, as there are several sections with direct coaching and practical advice. I especially found the “Good TV” part of interest, as “doing media” can be such a disaster if it's not handled well. This part was especially useful:

      Here's the key to a good media interview: Most reporters don't know the subject nearly as well as the guest. So when a reporter asks you something, answer it briefly and transition into what you really went there to talk about. You can expertly move past the often irrelevant or less important question by simply employing transitional phrases. ...
{he gives several examples}
      Then go on to say what you came there to say, and do it with passion, regardless of the questions asked. If the reporter has something else in mind, don't worry – they'll jump in. Get on the edge of your seat and advocate for your position, organization, product, or crusade, and do it as if you only have one minute to make your case (because that's likely all you do have), and keep talking!
He goes on to point out that answering the questions is not what makes “good TV” – it's presenting a coherent message in a passionate, engaging way.

This “updated version” of It's Not Who You Know, It's Who Knows YOU! has only been out a couple of years, but appears to be out of print (the author's site points over to Amazon, and they only have the ebook version, plus copies through the new/used aftermarket vendors), so will be unlikely to be on the shelves of your local bookstore. If I had one general caveat to pass along about this, it would be that it's more for businesses than individuals, although, obviously from the examples given above, much of the material is applicable to both. I found much of this very useful … and you might too.


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Monday, March 14th, 2016
3:00 pm
This stuff has been kicking around a lot longer than you think ...
I frequently have mentioned the little book marks (real little, they typically are about 1/8”x1/2” – torn from a register receipt that I'd “prepped” by folding to the needed length) that I put in my books while reading. Most of these are to highlight pages where interesting stuff is happening to regurgitate in these reviews, but others are for my own reference, often to other books. When “the system is working as it should”, I'll note the book being referenced, look it up on Amazon, and either pick up a copy if I'm feeling so inclined, or drop it into a wishlist until I can get a used copy for cheap. Well, this is one of those “other books”. At this point I'm not sure what book I read about this book in (it's been a while since I've read this sort of woo-woo stuff), but it was evidently in one of those “Law of Attraction” things, which referred back to some foundational predecessors of The Secret, etc. This was a bit of a “pig in a poke”, as a 1¢ used copy … and I ended up with a 1969-vintage mass-market paperback edition (there are evidently far more recent ones out there) of Claude M. Bristol's 1948 The Magic of Believing.

I suppose it's easy to think that the whole “attraction” racket is new, but as Mitch Horowitz outlined in his One Simple Idea, and to a certain extent in Occult America, there have been variations of this stuff floating around for ages … so it shouldn't be particularly surprising to have this sort of material dating back to the end of WW2 (when this was composed).

Of course, because it dates from that long ago, there's a LOT of stuff in here which is “different planet” oriented (a world before cell phones, before computers, heck, before TV). It also is yet another reminder of how fleeting fame can be (as anciently noted by Marcus Aurelius), as many of the “celebrities” the author name-checks in here have not maintained name recognition down the decades, leaving the modern reader at a loss for the context that the author, 70-some years ago, assumes these names carry with them.

One of the stark “different world” aspects here is how the author, a “hard-headed journalist” who started his writing career as a correspondent for the Army's Stars and Stripes in World War One (and ended up as an investment banker), was a very public advocate for this “believing” stuff. One of the sub-themes here is how the author was expecting the whole spiritual aspect to life becoming a major scientific area. When he was writing this was back when J.B. Rhine was running a Parapsychology lab at Duke university, and many other major institutions had similar programs. It's interesting that advances made in physics in the wake of the WW2 nuclear program seems to have totally shifted the balance to the physical/easily-measurable sciences and away from the “mystical”, pretty much burying the sort of thing that The Magic of Believing is dealing with for many decades. An example of this is here:

      However, great investigators and thinkers of the world, including many famous scientists, are in the open today, freely discussing the subject and giving the results of their experiments. The late Charles P. Steinmetz, famous engineer of the General Electric Company, shortly before his death declared: “The most important advance in the next fifty years will be in the realm of the spiritual – dealing with the spirit – thought.” Dr. Robert Gault, while professor of Psychology at Northwestern University, was credited with the statement: “We are at the threshold of our knowledge of the latent psychic powers of man.”
Again, the author does not seem to be any sort of “flake”, just a standard hard-boiled businessman of his time, yet he's totally into this “newage” type of approach … using it as a tool the way that his current corporate-world descendants might implement TQM, Agile, or Six Sigma. This doesn't make the “sound” of his pronouncements any less odd in that context, as, while what he says in the book could have been penned yesterday by some totally off-the-deep-end “believer”, this is an established investment banker/journalist coming up with passages like:

      However, most of the sustained and continuing manifestations come as result of belief. It is through this belief with its strange power that miracles happen and that peculiar phenomena occur for which there appears to be no known explanation. I refer now to deep-seated belief – a firm and positive conviction that goes through every fiber of your being – when you believe it “heart and soul,” as the saying goes. Call it a phase of emotion, a spiritual force, a type of electrical vibration – anything you please, but that's the force that brings outstanding results, sets the law of attraction ino operation, and enables sustained thought to correlate with its object. This belief changes the tempo of the mind or thought-frequency, and, like a huge magnet, draws the subconscious forces into play, changing your whole aura and affecting everything about you – and often people and objects at great distances. It brings into your individual sphere of life results that are sometimes startling – often results you never dreamed possible.
One of the interesting features here is that this isn't just “philosophy” - the author charts out specific exercises as well. One of which is “the mirror technique” … which I wish Bristol had written out as a side-bar or something (did they even do “sidebars” back in 1948? I'd think they'd have been challenging to typeset before computers), as he sort of rolls through various examples of using it. In short, it's looking at yourself in the mirror, and:

... look into the very depths of your eyes, tell yourself that you are going to get what you want – name it aloud so you can see your lips move and you can hear the words uttered. … You can augment this by writing with soap on the face of the mirror any slogans or key words you wish, so long as they are the key to what you have previously visualized and want to see in reality.
He recommends that if you're an executive or sales manager, and want to “put more push into your entire organization”, you should teach your employees this technique and “see that they use it”. He goes on from this to discuss “the power of the eyes”, and “that if you act the part you will become that part”, with using the mirror to “rehearse” that act.

I would typically do this earlier in a review, but I think a chapter listing could be useful to get the gist of what's in here:
  1. How I came to Tap the Power of Belief

  2. Mind-Stuff Experiments

  3. What the Subconscious Is

  4. Suggestion Is Power

  5. The Art of Mental Pictures

  6. The Mirror Technique for Releasing the Subconscious

  7. How to Project Your Thoughts

  8. Woman and the Science of Belief

  9. Belief Makes Things Happen
In the “project your thoughts” chapter, he goes into detail on telepathy, including several pages reproducing an article by Dr. Rhine in full. Needless to say, from the perspective of a “physics dominated” culture – where (even in business) “if you can't measure it, it doesn't exist” – it sounds very strange having this sort of material coming from the likes of Mr. Bristol. Somewhat similarly, the chapter on how women can use these techniques (!) sounds bizarre from a modern perspective … although the author is writing from a post- “Rosie the Riveter” renaissance of women in the workforce, the tenor here is that most women wouldn't consider that they could use these mental exercises, and need to be told that they can! Like the old Virginia Slims cigarette tag line put it … things have “come a long way”.

Anyway, The Magic of Believing is an interesting read, and I'm guessing that some of the exercises that Bristol recommends are likely to be reasonably effective. While I picked this up used, you can also find on-line versions for free download … and a more recent pressing of the mass-market paperback I got appears to still be in print – so you could even get it new. If you're interested in “The Secret” and related “law of attraction” stuff, you should probably pick this up, as it's no doubt among the “source documents” for those things.


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Sunday, March 13th, 2016
11:25 pm
Too much of a good thing?
This is another of those “Early Reviewer” books from LibraryThing.com … which has recently been connecting me with a number of books in related areas. Unfortunately, a lot of these have only been so-so (well, let me drop the caveat in here that most of the books that I end up getting through LTER aren't exactly items that I went looking for, but clicked on them on the monthly request list because they “sounded interesting enough”, so going in on these I'm rarely in a “can't wait to read it” mode, and not particularly predisposed to an enthusiastic reaction). While this was, indeed, interesting enough it also only netted three of my little bookmarks, meaning that there wasn't a whole lot “jumping off the page” for me to reference. Of course, this is a somewhat unfair way to preface my review of Dr. H. Gilbert Welch's Less Medicine, More Health: 7 Assumptions That Drive Too Much Medical Care.

Those of you who follow these reviews over on my main blog will realize, I've been through a lot of “medical care” over the last half year or so, and thereby the material here should be pretty much “on target” for me … but somehow this wasn't necessarily the case. The author is a medical doctor who is both a professor at the School of Medicine at Dartmouth, and an internist with the V.A. (most of his stories in the book come from that work). His main area of research has been in the area of cancer screening, and has published books about that, as well as a controversial study in 2012 that indicated that the wide-spread use of mammography was having no appreciable effect of breast cancer death rates. This book essentially is an expansion of the focus of his previous titles, Overdiagnosed and Should I Get Tested For Cancer?, moving into general cultural assumptions about medical care.

Since I don't have a lot of bookmarks here to build a narrative with, I think it might be useful to just run through what these “7 Assumptions” are, and then go into some detail on those:

Assumption #1: All Risks Can Be Lowered
Assumption #2: It's Always Better To Fix The Problem
Assumption #3: Sooner Is Always Better
Assumption #4: It Never Hurts To Get More Information
Assumption #5: Action Is Always Better Than Inaction
Assumption #6: Newer Is Always Better
Assumption #7: It's All About Avoiding Death
Now, presented with that list of propositions, I suspect that most folks would be in agreement all the way down the list … which is, I assume, why Welch wrote this book, as, point-for-point, he presents arguments against each. He actually pairs a “disturbing truth” with each assumption in the chapter headings, and these go:

D.T. #1: Risks can't always be lowered – and trying creates risks of its own.
D.T. #2: Trying to eliminate a problem can be more dangerous than managing one.
D.T. #3: Early diagnosis can needlessly turn people into patients.
D.T. #4: Data overload can scare patients and distract your doctor from what's important.
D.T. #5: Action is not reliably the “right” choice.
D.T. #6: New interventions are typically not well tested and often being judged ineffective (even harmful).
D.T. #7: A fixation on preventing death diminishes life.
All of my little bookmarks are from the middle of the book – in Assumptions #2-4 – so I'm going to let those “disturbing truths” stand on their own as an indication of what's covered in the other chapters, and zoom in to the bits that caught my fancy while reading this.

The most memorable part of this for me was from the third chapter … where Welch splits different types of cancer out into different “critters” … each with a different progression. I was trying to figure a way of communicating this to you briefly, but I'm going to have to break down and type out a few paragraphs to get you what's the essence of this (sorry about that!):

      Let's start with the benefit of cancer screening. It's an important benefit: avoiding a cancer death. At the same time, it's equally important to acknowledge that screening doesn't avoid most cancer deaths. People who are regularly screened still can die from the cancer being screened for. Every randomized trial of screening has shown this. It's not the patient's fault. It's not the doctor's fault. It's not the screening test's fault. Instead it reflects the dynamics of cancer.
      When I was in medical school, I was taught that anything labeled “cancer” would inexorably progress. Once a cell had the DNA derangement of cancer, it was only a matter of time until the cancer spread throughout the body. And it was only a matter of time until it killed the patient.
      But we now recognize the world of cancer is much more diverse. At one extreme, autopsies have shown that many of us have small cancers that never bother us during life – particularly cancers of the prostate, breast, and thyroid gland. At the other extreme, screening programs have shown that early cancer detection doesn't help everyone; many go on to die from cancer despite early detection. These observations bring us to a new conceptual model of cancer – and to turtles, rabbits, and birds.
      It's a barnyard pen of cancers. The goal is not to let any of the animals escape the pen to become deadly. But the turtles aren't going anywhere anyway. They are the indolent, nonlethal cancers. The rabbits are ready to hop out at any time. They are the potentially lethal cancers, cancers that might be stopped by early treatment. Then there are the birds. Quite simply: they are already gone. They are the most aggressive cancers, the ones that have already spread by the time they are detectable, the ones that are beyond cure.
      Screening can only help with the rabbits. The turtles don't need help; the birds can't be helped. The turtles create the problem of overdiagnosis …, the birds create the problem of limited benefit.
The author goes into a lot of data about these various groups, but one particularly caught my eye – it was a 30-year study of 50,000 patients looking at a specific cancer. Half these subjects were systematically screened for this cancer, and half were not. At the end of 30 years, most had died. Of the screened group, 2% died of the cancer, while the non-screened group had a 3% death rate of that cancer – a 33% reduction. That's great, right? Well, it depends. The mortality rate for both groups was “exactly the same” year-in-year-out, with the rate at the end of 30 years being 71% in both groups – “Screening didn't help people live longer. Not even a little bit.” … pretty sobering if one's hoping that having that test is going to improve your longevity.

The next thing I want to bring to your attention is from the second chapter … the one about “fixing the problem”. Welch backgrounds this with a discussion about the “two broad categories of medical research” evidence-based (randomized trials), and observational. He notes that EBR has been mocked by some, inviting researchers such as Welch to review the effectiveness of parachutes by using randomized controlled trials. He counters this with a look at how, indeed, some trials are not ideal, including:

One of the pharmaceutical industry's favorite strategies is to study the effect of a drug on the few patients who have severe disease, find some benefit, and then hope that doctors extrapolate the benefit to many patients with a less severe forms of the disease. It's a cleaver strategy: it's like testing parachutes on the few people who jump out of airplanes and then selling them as protection against falls to the many people who walk downstairs. Severely ill patients always stand to benefit more from intervention than those who are less severely ill … Yet the harms of intervention are roughly equivalent in the two groups. So the net effect of intervention regularly looks better in the severely ill.
The last thing I have marked to bring up is from the information chapter, which has a central story regarding a critique of the opening of an “Information Age” exhibit at the Smithsonian, that Welsh had kept handy for decades:

      Data, information, useful knowledge, wisdom … that's a good vocabulary. Good enough for me to keep the article around for a quarter century. I might tweak the definitions a bit for clinical medicine. Data would be the measure of lung impedence. They would only become information if they reliably told us about the likelihood that the patient would develop a clinical problem (shortness of breath) – a problem that might lead to a hospitalization. The information would become useful knowledge only if we had a course of action that reliably lowered that likelihood. Wisdom requires balancing the benefits and harms of that action – and knowing how the patient values the carious outcomes – to arrive at a decision about what to do.
      Just because you have data doesn't mean you have information. Having information doesn't mean you have useful knowledge. And wisdom – well, that's a whole new ball game.

      The central question of this chapter is whether obtaining more clinical data on individuals with medial problems reliably leads to useful knowledge. The short answer is: no. The natural follow-up question is whether there is any reason – other than cost – not to obtain more clinical data. The short answer is: yes. More clinical data not only can create anxiety for patients, they can also initiate cascades that lead to unneeded medical care.
While the author is, obviously, “flying in the face of” the “common knowledge” about medicine, he's hardly “against it” like the anti-vaxxers and other neo-Luddites out there … but he is saying it's become way too easy for even basic medical care to cascade into complicated, intrusive, expensive, and potentially unneeded care. And, of course, the way our (U.S.) medical system is set up – nobody gets paid for letting a condition simply “run its course” as the body heals itself (or doesn't), so there are systemic financial pressures to act on things that might have better outcomes with inaction.

There is a lot of info in Less Medicine, More Health, with the author describing numerous studies, etc. supporting his assorted points. And, as noted above, he's not averse to admitting the other side has supporting material as well, so it's a much more “balanced” look than one might expect for something going so jarringly against the “assumptions” of modern medical care. He personalizes this with a lot of stories from his own clinical work (mainly in the V.A.), illustrating points with what had happened to various patients he'd encountered. The book, however, doesn't have much of a “story arc”, as it is a detailed look into these relatively thorny issues, so it's hardly “a beach read” (for most folks, at least), but given the universal applicability of medical care, this might have some interest even to the fiction readers out there.

This is brand new (just hitting the shelves a week or so back at this writing), so it should be at least available via your local brick-and-mortar book vendor, but the on-line big boys have it at about 20% off of cover, and, oddly, some of the new/used guys have it new for about half off (plus shipping). While interesting, and applicable to everybody still breathing, I don't think I can call this an “all and sundry” recommendation, as you really have to be into this stuff to get the most out of reading it.


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Sunday, February 21st, 2016
12:19 pm
A certain glow ...
As I have previously noted, I rely on the dollar store for an on-going injection of serendipity in my to-be-read piles, connecting me with interesting titles that I might not otherwise have considered. However, every now and again, I'll hit something there which is clearly “something that I'd have picked up anyway”, and this is an example of this later group. Craig Nelson's The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era is the sort of thing I'd have snagged to increase my knowledge in a particular area, and so it's a “win” getting it for a buck!

While interesting and informative, this is also a bit of an odd book … tracing an arc from the early days of discovery of radioactive elements straight on through the Fukushima disaster … which means this is a relatively new title (it came out not quite two years ago at this point). The author is a publishing industry pro, with a number of notable books to his credit. This might explain one of the things I found uncomfortable here … in many reviews I've wished that somebody had applied a firmer editorial hand to a book … here, I get the feeling that a lot of opinions of the author have been relegated to something like a snide comment hiding in a cough. Although the book only has a few places where an “anti-nuclear” vibe rises to the surface, I get the feeling that this might have had a prior iteration that verged into a bit of polemic that got scrubbed from the final version. Again, this is just the sense I got in reading through this, but it makes me wonder if the book as it stands is how it was initially envisioned by the author.

Also, for a science book, this is remarkably well written, with nearly poetic descriptions of everything from an individual's facial hair to the environs of an improvised laboratory. While evidently extraordinarily well researched, it presents a tale of discovery which is engaging in the telling, rarely drifting off into dry regurgitation of historical factoids. The book is in four sections, essentially pre-WW2, WW2, the Cold War, and civilian Nuclear.

It begins with a chapter centering on the Curies and how the first concepts on radioactive materials were developed. However, the story isn't just a lab-bench journal, but looks at the personal background of Marie Curie, from when she was a governess of a Polish family, whose son wished to, but was forbade to marry her … hardly the standard Science textbook material. However, lest you think this veers too much into biographies of the main players, it is counter-balanced with fascinating items like the route that Uranium-238 takes to end up as Lead-206. I have been back-and-forth on whether I should block-quote that whole piece for you here, but it's fifteen steps, with various isotopes of Uranium, Thorium, Protactinium, Radium, Radon, Polonium, Bismuth, and Lead, involved … including their half lifes, ranging from U-238's 4.5 billion year half life to Po-214's minuscule 0.164 microsecond half life (and on to stable Pb-206) … which seemed a bit excessive.

The next chapter looks at Enrico Fermi, who Carl Sagan noted (after rattling off 16 specifics) “It's hard to think of another physicist of the twentieth century who's had so many things named after him.”, and like the Curies, there is a lot of background material here as well. The “gathering storm” in Europe is a major factor in the first part of the book, and one of the stories about Fermi was how he and his family arranged things to depart from mainland Europe (to England then to the U.S.) directly following his trip to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize in 1938. Others were not so lucky to get out early. The next chapter shifts the focus to Budapest, with Leo Szilard, Otto Han, and Lise Meitner, the latter ending up needing to be all but “abducted” by Niels Bohr to get her safely to Copenhagen.

The second section of the book is several chapters detailing the war-time development of atomic science, featuring familiar names such as Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Ernest Lawrence, and John von Neumann, and perhaps less-known names such as Colonel Leslie Groves, who was the military's main contact with the scientists … first looking at the events leading up to the breakthrough sustained reaction under University of Chicago's Stagg Field, December 2, 1942, then the “Manhattan Project” leading to the development of atomic bombs our at Los Alamos, New Mexico. One of the sub-themes in this part was the infiltration of Soviet spies, especially physicist Klaus Fuchs, in the very heart of the U.S. atomic program. One interesting side note here is the suggestion that the only reason Fuchs had the access he had was that Teller was unwilling to work on some of his assigned projects, and Fuchs was brought in to supplement him. This may have saved the U.S.S.R. a decade or more in their development of nuclear weapons.

One point raised here was that the U.S. did what Germany failed to do … one of the physicists suggested that the Nazis were unlikely to succeed with atomic science because they kept most of the scientists in separate locations, where all the top players in the Allied program were in isolation off in Los Alamos. Also, it's noted that the U.S. spent billions on developing multiple approaches to obtaining advanced radioactive materials, with major research centers in several locations … essentially trying every option rather than picking one … which also led to being able to provide key ingredients to the bombs when it got to that point.

Another thing the author notes is that the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, while certainly horrific, far less so than the fire bomb attack on Tokyo several months before, in which over 100,000 Japanese died. In terms of attacking targets, Hiroshima and Nagasaki could have been destroyed by similar fire bomb attacks. This sets up one of the books “subtle” messages, that nuclear weapons are not particularly practical, and that the entire atomic arms race was more a psychological conflict that a military one.

The next section is all about the Cold War, and how both sides kept ratcheting up the stakes. Actually, it turns out that, at least early on, the Soviets had a very minimal atomic arsenal. They were aware that we were running spy flights over their territory, so kept most of their missiles on flatbed trucks that could be re-located to look like there were a lot more of them than was actually the case! However, there was a lot of paranoia on both sides of the conflict, and where the U.S. had about 400 atomic bombs in 1950 (realistically enough to destroy the Soviet Union), by 1955 that number was up to 2,280 (which turns out to be 20x what the USSR had at that time), and by 1967 the U.S. nuclear arsenal was up to a staggering 32,500 weapons.

The madness (as ironically spelled out as actual acronyms MAD – Mutual Assured Destruction and NUTS – Nuclear Utilization Target Selection) evident in that spiral of expansion, is paralleled with things, only coming to light now, that are almost comic, if they weren't so serious … a remarkable example detailed here deals with the “secret unlock codes”, which in numerous movies and TV shows were closely guarded parts of the nuclear launch sequence, which, in reality, were set to “00000000” – with an item on the launch checklist being “ensure that no digits other than zero had inadvertently been dialed into the panel”! The author also paints the famed RAND Corporation think-tank (founded by Air Force Generals Hap Arnold and Curtis LeMay) as something out of Dr. Strangelove (which he also credits with being closer to the reality of how things were in the 50's and 60's than anybody wants to admit) with items like:

In 1961, RAND created the Single Integrated Operational Plan or SIOP-62, a revision of Massive Retaliation/Sunday Punch, as it would release the whole of the American nuclear arsenal if the country was provoked. One billion people would eventually die from fire and radiation, with 285 million in the ellipsoidal target from China to Eastern Europe perishing in the initial blast.
All of this almost came into play in 1962, with the U.S. and the Soviets coming close to realizing MAD.

The final section of the book is primarily about nuclear power – or, more precisely, nuclear power disasters (Nelson is seemingly no fan of even the concept of nuclear power), with chapters on Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, with an odd look at Regan's “Star Wars” in the middle of that (in which the author notes:

Today America continues to spend $55 billion a year on atomic weapons that have never and will never be used. Cutting this arsenal in half would save $80 billion over the next ten years, and even then the Pentagon would have fourteen times as many warheads as the nearest competitor, China.)
The stories of the three well-known nuclear disasters are pretty bizarre, largely in how much they're based on serious human stupidity (one gets the feeling from this that Homer Simpson is a fairly accurate representative of the industry), and have some deeply disturbing parts to them. One factoid that really stood out was this: “Chernobyl was merely the fourteenth most lethal nuclear accident in USSR history, with the other thirteen kept classified until the empire fell.”. Whuh? It appears that we only know about Chernobyl because it spread a cloud of radiation across all of Europe … but there were thirteen worse accidents? That's not a nice thing to think about.

Needless to say, a book that starts with the first discoveries of radiating materials, and ends up with the near-evacuation of Tokyo (because nobody checked local fishing lore about the historical certainty of tsunamis where they built the nuclear power plant), is not a simple read, but, as noted above, the writing is engaging, the information quite illuminating, and one comes out of it feeling as though one has actually learned something. I am glad that The Age of Radiance did not end up floating off into polemics against all things nuclear, although by the end, you can sort of tell that the author “is against it” (he summarily dismisses the safe, small, and recycling GenIV reactors – despite that India is in full development mode on these). If this sounds like something you'd like to get, it's available – still in print in hardcover, paperback, and ebook versions – plus the new/used guys have “very good” copies of the hardcover for as little as 1¢ (plus $3.99 shipping). I've not seen any more copies at the dollar store since I picked this up (last November), so you've probably missed the $1 deal … but I'm glad I got this, and you'd probably be happy with it as well.


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Saturday, February 20th, 2016
12:53 pm
Customer Service, new style ...
As readers keeping score on this stuff will know, I've reviewed a couple of Jay Baer's books before (here and here), so when I got wind of his new one, Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers, I shot off a note to the good folks at Portfolio/Penguin and requested a review copy. This is interesting in that it's a very narrow-focus book – as you might guess, about customer service – based on a research project that Jay had initiated with Edison Research, which Tom Webster (of that firm) notes in his Foreword as being based on two questions:

• How has the proliferation of social media, review sites, and other online fora changed consumer expectations of what “good customer service” really means?
• When interactions between brands and humans are played out on a public stage, how must brands “perform” in order to satisfy not only the customer but the customer's audience?
Frankly, the answers to these ended up going in a direction that Jay had not expected, with the results boiling down to two closely linked realities: “Answering complaints increases customer advocacy across all customer service channels. … Conversely, not answering complaints decreases customer advocacy across all customer service channels.”, which then leads to “The Hug Your Haters success equation”: Answer every complaint, in every channel, every time. Simple, right? Well, off the bat he notes “It takes cultural alignment, resource allocation, speed, a thick skin, and an unwavering belief that complaints are an opportunity.”

The study involved was not huge, but was large enough to be “a statistically valid cross-section of ages, incomes, racial makeups, and technology aptitudes”, I note this because the material in the book tends to circle back to the same set of example companies, ones that I suspect were the topic of the response research. These range from small operations to major internationals, so there's certainly a range of scope involved (one gal, from a 13-unit pizza chain handling all the interactions, vs. whole departments in big companies).

I also kept finding bits to stick bookmarks in for here (a dozen or more), so a lot of this may be quoting from the text. This also has a lot of humor involved, and I found myself literally “laughing out loud” at a few of them (and I was “live tweeting” parts of this as I was reading). One of these was the story about Dave Kerpen (another author I've reviewed previously), who personally responds to every one-star review he gets on Amazon, apologizes, and “offers to refund money spent, plus money for the pain and suffering of having read the book” – as a reader of a lot of books, I've certainly encountered reads that would have qualified for the extra refund!

One of the key points as to why this book is important is that, for many companies, “a 5 percent increase in customer retention can boost profits by 25 to 85 percent”, and while most organizations have a pretty good grasp on how much acquiring new customers costs, few have a solid idea of how many are becoming disaffected and ending up as ex-customers. In a move similar to Kerpen's strategy, the gal from the pizza chain regularly provides gift certificates to individuals leaving complaints on sites like Yelp. This is elaborated here:

So few companies hug their haters today that those that make this commitment are almost automatically differentiated and noteworthy when compared to their competitors. … In today's world, meaningful differences between businesses are rarely rooted in price or product, but instead in customer experience.
“Haters” are defined in two main categories, “offstage haters” who complain in private, and “onstage haters” who complain in public, with the former connecting via email and phone (and possibly letter), with the latter utilizing social media, review sites, etc. (another “LOL” moment came in the suggestion involving something of a “complaint cafe” which would feature old-style desk phones that would provide one, “trembling with aggrieved frustration, the nearly extinct sensation of slamming a real handset into its cradle”). There's an age trend here, with older consumers tending to use “offstage” approaches. Interestingly, the more tech one has the more likely one is going to be a “frequent complainer” – 84% of which have a smartphone, and 94% have a Facebook account (and 43% use it daily). Of course, this raises the somewhat existential issue of what is a “complaint” … something that one is going to take the time to craft an e-mail complaint about might be a lot more serious than a bit of snark tossed off on Twitter.

Another concept introduced here is the “Hatrix” (which I noted could be construed as a “Matrix” knock-off, good performances in hockey, or some more-hostile relative of Harry Potter character Bellatrix … depending on how you wanted to pronounce it), an infographic of which is supposedly available for download on the book's companion site (http://HugYourHaters.com), although I wasn't able to find it there. This deals primarily with response time and expectation on different channels … where nearly 90% of complaints aired via email or phone expected a response, only around 50% of on-line complainers expected a response, however of those who did, nearly 40% expected that response within 60 minutes … versus the 63% of responses that come within 24 hours. There's a ton of data that's been teased out of these surveys, way too varied to even touch on here, but I guess all that's laid out in that infographic.

An additional idea that's put forth here is that “customer service is a spectator sport” … as all those “on-stage” complaints are out in public, and your company's response is being seen by way more than the individual making the complaint. One of the dangers in this game is the big “meh” category, those customers, ex-customers, or potential customers who don't care enough to get involved, but are interested enough to pay attention to how you're treating the ones who are complaining. This is complicated because of costs involved:

      Handling a customer interaction in social media costs less than one dollar, on average, compared to two and a half to five dollars for an e-mail interaction, and more than six dollars to provide telephone customer service.
      Every time a customer wants to interact with your business and selects an onstage channel instead of an offstage channel, the stakes are raised because the interaction is public. That's the challenge. But if you save five dollars every time a customer chooses to interact publicly, isn't it worth it to handle your business out I the open?
Again, Hug Your Haters is chock full of stories about good and bad (and really bad) customer service … but, generally speaking, each needs a lot more backstory than makes sense to include in this review. However, there was another “LOL” moment here that is related to one of these stories, so I'll sketch it out to you. In this instance, a florist provided really crappy product for a special event. The recipient complained with a detailed (albeit not hostile) email, to which the florist responded a rather curt “Don't ever contact us again.”, and when the customer escalated all this info up into social media channels, the florist began making threatening phone calls. The author notes: “Yes, you should answer customer complaints, but, for the record, stalking customers and threatening them with bodily harm is not part of the Hug Your Haters success formula.” (!) This is part of the “5 Obstacles” section which provides ways of looking at one's corporate culture and customer service team to make sure things work smoothly (and not counter-productively). Another “wake up” factoid that's provided here is that business spends WAY more on “getting customers” than “keeping customers”, with $500 billion spent globally on marketing, versus only $9 billion on customer service. Often companies think they're doing “customer service” but are actually doing “marketing research” … the author notes a post-stay survey by a hotel in Las Vegas (which he got into trying to complain about something), which involved 50+ pages of questions, with only a comment field at the very end to actually complain

Now, regular readers of these reviews will know that I'm not a big fan of mnemonic acronyms, but Jay introduces a couple here, one for dealing with offstage haters, and one for onstage haters. First there is “HOURS” for the offstage haters, which is derived from “Be Human, Use One Channel, Unify Your Data, and Resolve the Issue with Speed”, then, for the onstage haters, “FEARS” which comes from Find All Mentions, Display Empathy, Answer Publicly, Reply Only Once, Switch Channels”. I'm not sure these would help me remember this, but “your mileage may vary”. He has a chapter based on each of these, with more details involved.

Finally, there's a thing in the Afterword that I thought I'd pass along … it's the “three most important things” the author learned while writing the book (and, again, the results of the research went off in a completely different direction than he'd anticipated when starting the project):
  1. Customer service is more complicated that ever, but the formula for success is knowable and achievable.
  2. Interacting with your customers, especially when they're upset, is 100 percent worth the effort.
  3. You need to answer every complaint, in every channel, every time.
I really appreciate books that do what Jay does in the appendix – putting in an “executive summary” of the book, hitting the high points in just 6-7 pages. It's always nice to be able to go back to something for a “refresher” and not have to start at the front!

As noted, Hug Your Haters is (at this writing) still not released (although it's only got about two weeks to go), so you can either go to the online big boys and pre-order it, or order it directly from the companion web site, where you'll get “bonuses” to sweeten the deal. I really enjoyed this book for the stories, for the humor, and for the fascinating info … if you have any interest in business (or human behavior), you'll probably get a lot out of it too.


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Sunday, January 31st, 2016
1:25 pm
But wait, there's more ...
Well, this is a bit of an unusual case, a LTER – LibraryThing,com “Early Review” program – book that is actually early enough that I've gotten it read and am cranking out the review well in advance of its official release date (mid-March). The book, too, is a bit unusual, being co-authored by an MBA coach and a doctor who's the head of research in “integrative medicine” at a university hospital, writing about spiritual stuff. Actually, by the end of the book it's not as odd a mix (I'll hold off on that commentary until further into this) as it would seem up front, but, still …

Andrew Newberg, MD and Mark Robert Waldman's How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation is evidently a follow-up to their How God Changes Your Brain, and it appears that they're both (they collaborated on several titles, but have a number of others separately) big into the “biology of belief” (or various similar spins on that concept). Frankly, I'm very glad I hadn't looked into their publishing history before I read the book, because it probably would have put me off of this from the start (as their titles sound awfully “preachy”). However, it goes a long way to explaining the vague disconnect that I was having with the book (which is notably not “preachy”, although it goes to great lengths to be “inclusive” of various – especially the major monotheisms – traditions). Needless to say, I would have preferred this to been a “non-religious” look at the topic, and felt the authors weren't really trying to “go there” … but I guess that's just me.

That gripe out of the way, I ended up with way more little bookmarks than usual in this … meaning that I found a lot of notable points. The book is somewhat anchored in the authors' personal stories, with bits like “As I reflected on the problem of how my own brain – my own mind – was trying to find truth, I found myself becoming more contemplative.”. They make a distinction between “small e” enlightenment, and “big E” Enlightenment, and these weave back and forth through the book, and everything is structured in a “Spectrum of Human Awareness”, which goes Level 1 – Instinctual, Level 2 – Habitual, Level 3 – Intentional, Level 4 – Creative, Level 5 – Self-Reflective, and Level 6 – Transformational, which moves from “biological awareness” to “everyday consciousness” to “spiritual awareness”, with levels 2-4 being where we find ourselves most of time.

Despite my kvetching above, the authors do have a chapter “Enlightenment Without God”, so they address the issue, but it still seems like a bit of a stretch for the authors. They note:

Since our main purpose in writing this book is to show the neurological evidence that personal transformation is available to everyone, we want to address Enlightenment through the eyes of a disbeliever.
      The past decade has seen a dramatic rise in atheism, and religious affiliation is at its lowest point in American history. In fact, over forty-six million Americans publicly declare themselves nonreligious. That's 20 percent of the adult population, with nearly a 60 percent drop-out rate for those who are younger than 30.
Interestingly, most of what's presented in this chapter are quotes from interviews with an array of “non-religious” interviewees, which then pivots into discussing drugs. I think a pro-religious bias hangs over this chapter particularly, as though the authors can't really connect with a non-religious world view, and imply that atheists need psychedelics to have enlightenment experiences!

The book is split into three sections, “The Roots of Enlightenment”, “The Paths Towards Enlightenment”, and “Moving Toward Enlightenment” with chapters covering various subjects from “What Enlightenment Feels Like” to “Channeling Supernatural Entities” (yeah, I know). As you can tell from that last bit, they poke around in a lot of neighborhoods which many might not consider particularly “enlightenment” oriented. However, they keep the neuroscience end of things up, and generally will happily hook anybody (Pentecostals speaking in tongues, mediums talking to the dead, Buddhist monks adept at meditation, Sufis doing dhikr,etc.) up to a brain scan. Here's their description of the process:

      We devised an experiment using single photo emission computed tomography (SPECT) to measure different regions of the brain. When certain areas become more active, there is increased blood flow, and if that occurs in the frontal lobe, for instance, your decision-making skills make increase. If it occurs in the parietal lobe, your conscious awareness of yourself may increase. If it occurs in the amygdala, you might feel suddenly fearful, and if it occurs in the thalamus, we believe that the event you are experiencing will feel more real and intense.
      To do a SPECT scan we start by placing a small intravenous catheter in your arm. Then when you are performing a particular activity – {such as} entering a trance state – we inject a small amount of a radioactive tracer that quickly travels to the most active areas of your brain. These tracers are generally considered quite harmless since the several nanograms of material are so small. Importantly, once the tracer gets to the active part of the brain, it stays there. So after you've completed the activity (for example, prayer or psychography) we want to measure … we'll take you down the hall to our SPECT camera and literally take a picture of what your brain was doing at that moment.
One of the things I found slightly irritating here is how they sort of dismiss some practices, while getting all enthusiastic about others. While they are very positive about a number of religious forms (discussed in detail – along with commentary on what is happening in the brains of the practitioners), they do note:

      Evidence suggests that no matter what you think Enlightenment might be, the actual experience is usually very different from anything you could imagine. At some level you must be willing to accept whatever the experience brings. In most religions, this is referred to as surrender, or giving your will over to some higher authority or power. This requires faith, perseverance, and devotion.
      But giving up old beliefs involves risk. So religion poses a double bind: traditions demand that you adhere to the specific tenets of the organization, but Enlightenment involves transcending them. This partly explains why new religions typically are established by people who felt enlightened by their spiritual endeavors, and it also explains why the orthodoxy will persecute them. And when your beliefs are transformed, it appears to be neurologically impossible to return to the old ones.
They go into various elements about “belief”, and this bit stood out:

      Our brains do not like ambiguity – a cognitive function called “uncertainty bias” … regulated by the same frontal and parietal regions that are involved in Enlightenment experiences. In other words, when you decrease your frontal lobe activity … your sense of certainty decreases. This makes it easier for the brain to engage in belief-changing activities. But when the brain activity returns to normal after the experience, it reestablishes the sense of certainty of your new, enlightened beliefs in a powerful way.
I don't know why, but I found the last section of the book, which attempts to walk the reader through practices for attaining “enlightenment”, somewhat bizarre … additionally, this is in fairly direct opposition to their statement: “Enlightenment isn't a practice, it's an emergent experience that can be triggered when the brain transitions from one stage of consciousness to the next.” They have set up a framework for the reader to experiment with various approaches (from reciting a particular prayer, or chanting a specific phrase, to staring at a blank piece of paper, and others) which has five steps: Desire, Prepare, Engage, Surrender, and Reflect. The way they frame these, however, sounds awfully “cultish” to me, such as “you must genuinely desire insight and change” and “you must completely surrender and immerse yourself in the ritual experience”. Perhaps it's my “deep agnosticism” and distrust of religions that makes this part as uncomfortable as it was for me, but much of the material in this last part of the book had me asking “what's a neuroscientist doing telling me to intone Arabic phrases while swaying back and forth?”.

This brings me back to a point in the opening paragraph above. As I've noted in other reviews, I really feel used when I get to the end of a book to find it's been, on some level, a long-form promo for a service by the author. And, in what I thought was going to be a “companion website” with additional information, there it was – a pitch for an “information product” on 5 CDs – which claims to be “based on a new model of human consciousness that Consolidates Over 31,000 Studies ...” and “shows you how to tap into progressively higher states of brain activity and awareness where problems are easier to solve and goals are easier to reach”. Talk about an “aha!” moment. At least it's “reasonably priced” compared to a lot of stuff in that market.

As noted, How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain doesn't come out for a while … so if this all sounds like something you want to get into, you're going to have to wait a couple of months. Needless to say, I was deeply ambivalent on this book, with it repeatedly veering into zones where I'm thinking it's campaigning for the Templeton Prize*, to the whole “shill for the program” bit. This, of course, being set against the very interesting science involved. However, I'll freely admit that these sorts of things bug me far more than most people, so you might be all gung-ho for this and end up spending your afternoons happily chanting allah-hu on the way to shifting the relative activity of assorted brain regions.


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Saturday, January 30th, 2016
10:52 pm
Thinking yourself well ...
This is another of those “Early Reviewer” books from LibraryThing.com … and it seems that, after years of reviewing there, I've gotten into a relationship with the LTER “almighty algorithm”, where if I request a science book, the odds are pretty good that I'm going to get that one sent to me. This came out as part of the November batch, so if I had gotten around to reading it right away, I would have actually been “early”, as this just came out a couple a weeks ago (not necessarily a “feature” in the LTER program, which frequently gets books as something of an afterthought from the publishers, sometimes considerably later than their release date).

Anyway, Jo Marchant's Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body is a look at how, as exemplified in a wide number of research studies, the mind affects the body – often in ways that are quite counter-intuitive. Part of this is the by-now familiar issue with placebos. It's a major irritation (embarrassment?) for the pharmaceutical industry that absolutely neutral placebo pills in double-blind studies will perform as well as, or in many cases better than the drugs being tested. This is where the book starts off.

It is amazing what's in the literature about this … I'm cherry-picking three examples to describe here .. first, there was one kid with severe autism that, almost inexplicably, got notably better following a procedure involving running a tube down to his stomach. The doctors tried to sort out all the possible factors, and eventually identified a hormone the kid had been given that was designed to increase digestive enzymes. The child's parents were begging the doctors to keep giving the kid the hormone, which they did for a few doses, but then stopped as it was an “off label” use. However, by this time word of the “results” had spread through the whole autism community, and hundreds of families were clamoring for access to the prescription. Eventually a strict double-blind test was set up, with half the patients getting the hormone and half getting a saline shot. What this showed was that there was no difference in improvement between the two … however, both showed a 30% improvement on the autism test scale. Another illustration here was an Italian researcher who has set up a lab high up in the Alps, where he's testing effects of altitude sickness … here subjects are asked to exercise while their blood, etc. is being monitored. The division here is then between a group that's given oxygen, and another that's just breathing air through a mask. The group that only thought they were getting oxygen showed similar changes in prostaglandin levels and vasodilation … although (obviously) the actual oxygen levels in their bloodstream stayed the same. Most remarkable, though, is the material on fake surgeries, where subjects either got an actual procedure or a detailed “play acting” of one. The procedure was “vertebroplasty, which injects medical cement into the fractured bone to strengthen it” (in the spine) and the researchers had 131 patients at 11 medical centers, with the patients aware that they had only a 50/50 chance of getting the actual procedure. What was amazing here is that, even with surgery there was no significant difference between the results of the two groups – both sets of patients reported in follow-ups having their pain reduced by almost half. The story focuses on one lady, who was nearly crippled from a fall, who walked out of the hospital after the sham procedure, reported feeling vastly better, and resumed her previous activities (including golf!) afterwards.

The author then goes into a chapter on Pavlovian-style conditioning, which shows that the mind (& body) can be “tricked” into responding (because of other external cues) as though actual medications were being used. One patient ended up having her dosage effectively halved over the course of a year by utilizing cod liver oil and rose perfume as accompaniments to her actual drugs, which led her immune system to act like it was getting the drugs even when she was just being exposed to the taste/scent cues. As bizarre as this sounds, it's not really all that much different from having one's mouth water at the thought of biting into a lemon, or having one's gut go all acrophobic when seeing a vertiginous video scene.

Another fascinating bit here was in studies of exercise and fatigue … looking for a way to improve the performance of athletes … one set of researchers noted:

Obviously, there is a physical limit to what the body can achieve. But rather than responding directly to tired muscles … the brain acts in advance of this limit, making us feel tired and forcing us to stop exercising well before any peripheral signs of damage occur. In other words, fatigue isn't a physical event, but a sensation or emotion, invented by the brain to prevent catastrophic harm.
One area that Marchant looks into is that of pain management … she paints some really gruesome pictures of the work needed for burn victims (many wounded soldiers), and how toxic the drugs can be. She points out:

... the U.S. … makes up less than 5% of the global population but consumes 80% of the world's supply of opioid prescription drugs. By 2012 15,000 Americans were dying each year from prescription pill overdoses, more than from heroin and cocaine combined.
… with the CDC calling painkiller addiction “the worst drug epidemic in U.S. History”. As an alternative to the painkiller drugs, several centers are using Virtual Reality systems which cut pain scores by 35%, and can reduce pain ratings as much as 40% on top of patients drug doses. Needless to say, I found this interesting as my last full-time job was working with a “metaverse developer”, creating projects in Second Life. The author says “there is relatively little research interest in non-pharmacological methods to help people deal with pain”, and cites a Stanford researcher's view

... that part of the reason for the lack of enthusiasm is economic. Pain relief is a billion-dollar market, and drug companies have no incentive to fund trials that would reduce patient's dependence on their products … And neither have medical insurers, because if medical costs come down, so do their profits … “there's no intervening industry that has the interest in pushing {non-pharmacological methods}
She notes that this might be about to change, with the acquisition by Facebook of Oculus, whose “Rift” provides Virtual Reality immersion for somewhere around $350 rather than the $90,000 that some of the hospital systems run.

There is a lot of stuff in here … mindfulness, biofeedback, even an extensive look at Lourdes … however, at the end she veers into areas that she holds don't have any effect, Reiki, Homeopathy, “aura cleansing”, faith healing, all of which she notes score no better than placebo results (of course, those are enough for many). However, those “touchy-feely” approaches might be appreciated just because they are high-contact:

a health science researcher at the Mayo Clinic … wants to help doctors take account of how patients feel, instead of relying solely on physical tests. That's tough to do in a rushed appointment. “In modern medicine doctors usually only have one-to-three minutes of any given clinical visit with a patient that are unaccounted for ...”
Yet, she further notes that only 0.2% of the $30 billion NIH budget goes to testing mind-body therapies. This is in relation to these rather horrific data points (pardon the large quote):

      But the main threats facing us now are not acute infection, easily cured with a pill, but chronic, stress-related conditions for which drugs are not nearly as effective. We've seen that in many cases, painkillers and antidepressants may not work much better than placebo. The top ten highest grossing drugs in the U.S. help only between 1 in 25 and 1 in 4 of the people who take them; statins may benefit as few as 1 in 50.
      Meanwhile, medical interventions are causing harm that dwarfs any damage done by alternative treatments. In 2015, an analysis of psychiatric drug trials published in the British Medical Journal concluded that these drugs are responsible for more than half a million deaths in the Western world each year, in return for minimal benefits. Meanwhile, medical errors in hospital are estimated to cause more than 400,000 deaths per year in the U.S. alone – making it the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer – with another 4-6 million cases of serious harm.
Again, I've really only been able to skim the surface of the material that's in Cure, and while not all of it is as gripping as the bits highlighted above, it's an real eye-opener.

As noted, at this writing this has been out less than two weeks, so it should certainly be available at your local bookstore (if you still have a local bookstore) … otherwise, the on-line guys have it at a substantial (40% off of cover) discount. The book has both strengths and weaknesses largely based on the wide array of specific topics addressed … it's a bit of a firehose of info, without much of it really having a resolved state when the author moves on to the next thing, and I don't think she is able to weave the multiple threads into a whole. It is a font of fascinating stuff that's happening out there, and if you're interested in this sort of thing, you may well want to check it out.


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Friday, January 29th, 2016
11:55 pm
Long ago ...
Sometimes books have a very brief trip from store shelf to the to-be-reviewed pile, and this is one of them … my having just run into it at the dollar store a scant ten days ago. I guess what pushed Lawrence Schiller's Marilyn & Me: A Photographer's Memories through my reading pipeline was that it was small, short, and not a particularly taxing subject (compared to some of the other stuff I've been reading of late), so it offered something easy and distracting. What more can you ask for a buck?

Frankly, this is a very brief look into the past … it's scarcely over a hundred pages, it's a small-format book, and has many pages (17?) of photographs, mostly from shoots described in the book. The author, still extant, is turning 80 this year, and he's evidently working on putting out “memories” of points in his career while he can still connect with them. He notes that he doesn't have “notes” from back then (1960-62), so this is from his recall from a half a century on. This leads to a less detailed telling, but one with an almost dream-like arc.

The book starts out in 1960 when the author was a 23-year-old photographer … but hardly a novice, having done considerable work for various of the top magazines at the time. He had been assigned by Look to photograph Marilyn Monroe on the set of a film she was doing, and was being shown around the studio by one of their publicists when he first met Marilyn. At this point, she was already in her mid-30's and seemed amused to be working with a press photographer so much younger than her, being both playful and open with Schiller.

One of the things that he recalls was the “business” side of Marilyn … she, for instance, insisted on being able to approve all shots, and could be very picky about what she thought was OK, too much muscle tone in a leg, the wrong angle on the hair, the eyes not being just right, and it would get a red X on the proof sheet. Oh, yes … and this was back in the real film days – Schiller carried multiple cameras around with him, loaded with both color and B&W film, which he personally took back to his darkroom to process and print. So there were delays involved, ones that he tried to minimize by getting the contact sheets (kids: that's where the strips of film were shot directly onto the photo paper, creating 8x10's with many small images on them) done as soon as possible, and back to Marilyn.

He did notice, however, that Marilyn, even using a pro magnifier, was rejecting shots because she really couldn't see the details … he eventually printed enlarged versions on large sheets, and found that she was rejecting far fewer images.

Another thing about that side of her that he returns to a number of times is her insecurity, if not anger, about being paid as little as she was compared to other actresses. She even insisted, on one set of images, that the magazines could only use them if they had nothing about Elizabeth Taylor in the issue.

One film that he was on set for involved a scene where Marilyn was swimming nude in a pool, and one of the places Schiller was looking to sell the more revealing images was Playboy (with Marilyn's approval). He has a record of his correspondence with Hugh Hefner, some of which is reproduced here – offering a fascinating window into the dynamics of the early days of that magazine (Hef had a great idea for a front and back cover shoot, which never got done).

Much of Marilyn & Me is like that, a look at what seems like a long-ago era, with vignettes of the movie studios (and assorted actors, and ancillary staff), the photographers of the time (he teamed up with some for a couple of projects here – back in the days of film, exclusivity drove up the price of images significantly), and Los Angeles of the era.

Schiller was there right at the end … he had swung by Marilyn's house soon after Fox had re-started Something's Got To Give, and he was going to drop off some prints to her, and see if what her publicist had said on the phone to him (about how the Playboy deal was off) was true (Marilyn said that “she wasn't authorized to make that call”). That was Saturday morning, the next day she was dead.

As noted above, there are a number of photographs in this, as you would expect, but far fewer than one might anticipate. Most, naturally, are of Marilyn, but there's one of the author, a few of Marilyn with co-stars on set, a couple “newsy” ones following her death (including a very poignant one of Joe DiMaggio and his son), and the cover of Life that he scored with a portrait shot for a memorial issue. It's hardly a “photo book”, but it has just enough of those images to give a visual counterpart to the narrative.

Again, I found Marilyn & Me less than two weeks ago at the dollar store, so it might well still be kicking around those channels at this point. It's still in print (in a very nice deckle-edge hardcover and an ebook edition), so might be out there in the brick & mortar stores. The on-line big boys have it, of course, at a bit of a discount, and there are some copies via the new/used vendors as well (but, oddly, not in the penny-plus-shipping range yet). Having been a child of the 60's, a lot of the ambient detail of this book was quite nostalgic (especially the old-style photography stuff) … it certainly is an interesting look into a world that one is familiar with, on the surface, but one that wasn't easy to access. The author had that access, and opens up that world to the reader.


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Saturday, January 9th, 2016
8:52 pm
Now, how did THAT happen?
Well, this was an interesting way to start off the new year. As regular readers know, I have read nearly no fiction over the past couple 12-15 years (I can think of maybe 4 titles out of over 700+ books read in that span), and, generally speaking, don't even look at a book if it says “a novel” on the cover. So, I was totally blind-sided by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross' The Rapture of the Nerds: A tale of the singularity, posthumanity, and awkward social situations, which I recently picked up at the dollar store. There was nothing in the sub-title that made me think this was fiction (although, in reflection, I suppose “awkward social situations” would be a somewhat touchy thing for a non-fiction book), and I had no idea that Doctorow was a scifi author (I was familiar with him as a blogger and tech writer, a voice of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and advocate for “open source” software and Creative Commons licensing). So, I launched into this thinking it was going to be somewhat similar to my recently-reviewed Our Grandchildren Redesigned, with a somewhat different spin (encompassing those “awkward social situations”). But, no. Not that certain aspects of related futurisms aren't thickly woven through the book, but it's a story and very much in the Douglas Adams / Terry Pratchett mold (I have no idea if this is Doctorow's regular mode, but I was frequently reminded of those authors when reading this – even when they weren't being directly referenced).

I must admit, part of me wanted to stop reading with that “ooh, ick - cooties!” reaction (fiction is, after all, something of a Jedi Mind Trick to get you infected with the author's fantasies, and I hate being manipulated like that), but I figured (as it was a pretty quick read – I'm amazed how much the pages fly by in fiction as opposed to the stuff I usually read) that since it was not an uninteresting read (I walked away with at least one “that's a fascinating concept” data point), I'd press on.

Unfortunately, as I've noted before, I have very little experience in reviewing fiction … most of the habits I've built up in non-fiction would no doubt be decried as “spoilers”, so please, if this is an issue for you (and I know from reading the boards over on LibraryThing, there are a LOT of people who get their panties in a wad over the most minimal details being revealed about a novel), just stop reading here and skip down to the end of the review.

Of course, one of those habits is sticking in little slips of paper as bookmarks to get me back to particularly interesting concepts, nice turns of phrase, or significant bits of exposition to flesh out my review. I did manage to stick three of these in here, one early on for a notable rant that I found amusing: “Jesus Buddha humping the corpse of Oliver Cromwell ...” – amusing, if not particularly enlightening in this context. As I noted above, there was at least one blatant nod to Douglas Adams here: “Hyperspace bypasses, Vogon poetry, the heat death of the universe: none of these things feature in the extraordinary situation now pertaining to the end of the world ...”, and I've probably missed numerous other shout-outs (oh, there are Dalek references and Ayn Rand as well). One thing that I'm quite familiar with is the virtual world of Second Life (where I worked in my last full-time job), and there is “Your Second Life” in the book, one quote relating to this that I found hilarious was this snippet: “Architectural hubris is cheap as air in the cloud.” (given that in the waning days of my tenure in SL, I built this Speer-like bit of “architectural hubris”, and I can only imagine what would be possible given near-infinite computing power!

Anyway, to the story outline … the main character is Huw Jones, a Welsh fellow (initially) who is stubbornly clinging on to a “reality-based” lifestyle in an age when significant chunks of the race (including his parents) have “uploaded themselves into the cloud” (something discussed in that book I linked to above) and are living in a virtual reality based on planetary matter reduced to “computronium”, which is formed into Dyson spheres. Here's a chunk of descriptive text:

      The cloud – the diffuse swarm of solar-powered nano-computers hat the singularity built from the bones of the inner solar system (Earth aside) – consists of quadrillions of chunks of raw quantum computing power, each of them powerful enough to run a shard in which thousands of human-scale minds can thrive (or a handful of superhuman ones). Entire small moons and planets were consumed back in the day …
      From the outside, from a terrestrial embodied point of view, the cloud looks like a single entity, a monolithic slab of smartmatter thinking with the the mysterious and esoteric thoughts of an uploaded syncitium of futurist minds, disembodied think-states floating in an abstract neurological void.
      But on the inside, the cloud consists of a myriad of shards separated by light-speed communications links, the homes of hordes of bickering beings who cling to their own individuality as tightly as any mud-grubbing neophobe. ...
Huw is such a “neophobe” that he lives without electricity, and spends much of his time hand-making ceramics. However, he ends up going to a party at an acquaintance's place, and everything goes to heck. He wakes up and finds he's acquired a glowing bio-hazard tattoo (an official warning device), which he has to keep hidden, as he's been called to jury duty in a court in North Africa where extreme technologies are considered – his voice nominally being needed as a neophobe.

Now, while the story unfolds in a reasonably straight line, much of the detail is quite convoluted. Despite Huw's lifestyle, even those who have not “uploaded” have a lot of options, including changing their sexes seemingly on a whim, so a character “Bonnie”, goes from female to male to female to male throughout the book, and Huw spends much of this in a female form. It appears that the whole pretense of the trial is a sham, set up to get Huw in the presence of a particular entity, which manifests as a whistle-like thing that hops down Huw's throat. This is an “ambassador” of some galactic super cloud entity, which has inexplicably chosen him (her?) as the representative of the various manifestations of humanity.

Oh, on the way to the final trial, Huw is captured by some strange Fundy cult in the American south, interfaces with a very odd counter-cult, and gets exposed to a massive ant culture … all on the way to having his/her awareness uploaded against his/her will into the cloud (which he previously described, in the case of his parents, as their “suicide” as the physical brain, etc. gets dematerialized in the process of uploading its encoded information).

Once uploaded he is set into a training phase, and has two years of “subjective time” to learn how to operate in the cloud. Huw – the central one – uses this time to re-create his home in Wales and throw pots. However, there are hundreds of thousands of other “instances”, with the version 639,219 being her main opponent in parts of the book (referred to as the number, as Huw refuses to call her “Huw”) - one who had actually spent those two years learning to be an expert in life in the cloud. Oh, and most of the jurors get a teapot with a genie inside it … Huw's genie is a major factor in helping (sort of) Huw in his/her struggles with 639,219.

Eventually, Huw is set to be tested by the Authority – the galactic entity:

“It calls itself the Authority. It claims it represents a hive-intelligence merged from about 216 intelligent species from the oldest part of the galaxy. It claims that there were once about four orders of magnitude more such species, but the rest were wiped out in vicious, galactic resource wars that only ended with the merger of the remaining combatants into a single entity. Now it patrols the galaxy to ensure that any species that attempt transcendence are fit to join it. If it finds a species wanting, pfft! It takes care of them before they get to be a problem”.
Or, in a later discussion:

It's not about integrating Earth into the cloud, or about some stupid squabble over aesthetics: if the galactic federation finds us Guilty of Being a Potential Nuisance, we don't get a second chance.
Huw's cloud-based Mother is a character who becomes significant once he's uploaded, but his Dad (or a projection of something like his Dad) ends up being the foil (judge?) with whom he has to work a “world building kit”, the results of which will tell the Authority whether or not humanity makes the cut. Huw thinks he's still finishing things up when his Dad says “The objective of the exercise was to procure a representative sample of moves, played by a proficient emissary, and we've now delivered that.”, to which Huw rather desperately responds: “You mean that was it?” … and his Dad explains:

“Son, do you know how long you were in there?” His dad raises an eyebrow. “You spent nearly a million subjective days shoving around sims, and so did the other billion instances of you that came through the door. If a trillion subjective years isn't enough for –”
Leading up to the (rather anti-climactic, given all the chaos preceding it) revelation that Huw/humanity passed the test. Some loose ends get tied up, a lot of others are left hanging, and the book just sort of ends.

OK, safe to come back in if you were waiting for the spoilers to stop.

As I mentioned, I got The Rapture of the Nerds (in the hardcover edition) at the dollar store less than a month ago, so copies might well still be bouncing around that channel. It is still in print in a paperback (and ebook) edition, and at least one web site seems to have the entire book online (thanks to Doctorow's very liberal view of copyright). Used copies of this are available via the on-line new/used vendors for as little a 1¢ (plus shipping) for a “very good” copy.

I must admit that parts of this messed with my mind in a very Philip K. Dick way, so, while I found it an enjoyable read, I also found it somewhat disturbing, but I just don't “do fiction” these days, and I'm pretty sure somebody used to hosting other people's fantasies on their brain systems wouldn't have the same reactions. As it reminded me of the works of a number of authors I quite liked in my fiction-reading past, I guess I'm pretty safe in recommending it, especially as it's quite reasonably available.


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Thursday, December 31st, 2015
7:31 pm
More like "when stuff went wrong" with America ...
This is a really awesome book, one of the best scores from the Dollar Store in quite a while (although, admittedly, I bought it almost two years prior to getting around to reading it). Larry Schweikart's Seven Events That Made America America: And Proved That the Founding Fathers Were Right All Along is a great read, and way more engaging than what I'd assumed when letting it linger in my to-be-read piles for as long as I did.

I suppose I should, perhaps, offer up one caveat here: it you're of the left/liberal persuasion, you'll probably not be happy with this, because the author is working from the other side of the fence, and a lot of stuff that you might think is “progress(ive)”, is what he (and I) consider the destruction of America. This is not, however, a political rant, but an vivid and informative look at various historical “events” (a term that's sort of broadly used here) that changed the course of our country's history to assorted extents (some of this is more about tone or tenor of the culture, or directions on policy, etc.).

The book starts with fairly “old news”, looking back to the time of Martin Van Buren … and a cast of characters that include such currency-enshrined folks as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton … in an era when the entire Federal budget was a mere $10,000,000.00! The initial chapter is nominally about the birth of “big government”, but some of the more fascinating bits are about electoral politics, starting with:

At the time, it wasn't necessary for individual politicians to resist “big government” because the system the Founders had established fought against it in myriad ways on its own. One important restriction came in the requirement that most voters still had to own property, hence they were reluctant to suffer high taxes or accept burdensome regulations. Property requirements also ensured high voter turnout because voters had a stake in the system.
While it's hard to advocate for a return to suffrage being limited to “landed white males” (despite how appealing that might be to those of us who are “landed white males”), one has to admit the system was originally set up to make sure there was a level of “ownership” (and responsibility) amongst the electorate that has not been seen in a long time.

One of the most intriguing parts here is, in the wake of Van Buren's establishment of the “Jacksonian Democrats” party, and the counter-establishment of the Whigs (both, arguably, established to avoid an outright national debate on slavery - “on the assumption that principles were for sale”), the creation of a matrix of political corruption still with us today (helllloooo Chicago):

The structure of the new party … employed a division of national, state, county, district, ward, and precinct division of the electorate, assigning to each level a partisan director charged with getting out the vote. Electoral success was then rewarded with promotion, in which ward captains became district directors, and so on, until all possible job holders in the party organization were appointed to paid government positions … the across-the-board process of handing out positions to custom collectors, sheriffs, county clerks, and hundreds of other plum political jobs. Since the total number of government jobs remained small, however, the bureaucracy grew slowly – a few thousand new jobs per every state and general election – concealing the corrosive dynamic at work.
I was further surprised to find how long-standing the corruption of the news media has been. I thought the current monolithic Leftist slant of the MSM was a poison of recent vintage, however:

... at the time “newspapers” emerged as a driving force in American political life, they had almost nothing to do with objective news. To the contrary, they deliberately slanted every report and openly advertised their partisan purposes through their names. Partisanship was their primary raison d'etre. Editors viewed readers as voters who needed to be guided to appropriate views, then mobilized to vote. {One paper} flatly condemned neutrality as an absence of principles, and overall, editors increasing discarded news in favor of propoganda.
Sounds like they're talking about CNBC! Anyway, the effort to keep slavery out of debate failed, and this moves into the second chapter, dealing with the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court, which helped to push the new (anti-slavery) Republican party to the forefront (quickly replacing the Whigs), and resulting in the Civil War. This chapter is fascinating in its legal analysis (and “following the money”), but without much to directly quote, aside from the comment “What is clear is that the Founders did not favor a supremely powerful, activist judiciary.”, and goes on to describe numerous instances where the courts have created massively bad results from their decisions.

The next chapter deals with the devastating flood that hit Johnstown, PA in 1899, killing 2,200 people and displacing 27,000 … and focuses on the differences of how local, non-governmental, help is vastly more efficient than when government gets involved. In the case of the Johnstown flood, the chairman of the local NCR – National Cash Register – company almost single-handedly took control of the situation in the initial hours and early days, and threw all the resources at his disposal at helping remediate the situation well in advance of when the government (the local government proved useless) could respond. This goes on to look at how government involvement kept (over-) reaching into more and more areas, from the New Deal programs and on into the nightmares of FEMA inadequacies on up through the response to Hurricane Katrina and the total debacle of New Orleans.

The fourth event is covered in the chapter “Ike Has A Heart Attack, Triggering Dietary Nannyism” which looks at governmental meddling into what we eat, and other health issues … frequently based more on political concerns (like the vile stuff being pushed by the current FLOTUS), and not so much on anywhere near solid science. Eisenhower's supposed heart attack (there seems to be some doubt even about that) launched a spiral of “we must do something” lunacy among the political and media classes … and resulted in the on-going war on meat consumption and cholesterol – which is looking more and more like a misguided crusade.

It is true that coronary cases seemed to increase dramatically between 1940 and 1970 – but this was entirely because other diseases were being conquered and thus were not as rampant. A quarter of all men died of coronary disease in 1910, for example, and another quarter died from infections, parasites, flu, pneumonia, bronchitis, or tuberculosis, virtually all of which were eliminated or greatly suppressed by 1970. Cancer, meanwhile, went from eighth on the list to number two, and the rate of heart disease “doubled”. Simply put, modern medicine had conquered so many diseases over the previous century that people lived long enough to encounter (and die from) new or rare diseases. Cancer and heart disease, which took longer to manifest themselves than, say, smallpox, became the leading killers. … Even the World Health Organization acknowledged that “much of the apparent increase in [heart disease] mortality may simply be due to improvements in the quality of certification and more accurate diagnoses ...
Heart disease was only the first salvo, as nearly every political faction has its own “food fetish” (remember when Chicago banned foie gras?) and year after year more and more idiotic regulations are put in place to salve some social activist's personal pet peeve in the area of food … devolving into the current politics-trumping-reality morass of the climate crusaders (a topic the author gets into a good bit in here as well).

Tom Paine once said, “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression.” In the decades after Eisenhower's heart attack, intrusions on economic liberty were common … but perhaps the most insidious threat of all was the erosion of freedom in the name of “a person's own good.” At the very time that some well-meaning, but myopic, Americans sought to limit everyone's freedoms – to choose what to eat, what to drink, even what to drive – under the auspices of “helping” them become “healthier,” Paine would have screamed “Someone guard them from oppression!” Edmund Burke seemed to have the government's diet police and global warming in mind when he wrote in 1784, “The people never give up their liberties but under some delusion.”
Chapter 5 is primarily about rock and roll and the fall of Communism in Europe. The author is a former rock drummer (his band Rampage was an opening act for Steppenwolf and numerous other groups back in the day), and his enthusiasm for the subject is evident in this (aided by his access to many rock luminaries for background interviews). However, it is also about how big government has muscled into arenas that the Founders never intended:

Rock and roll's contribution to the collapse of communism provides one more piece of evidence that the human soul longs for freedom in all areas. It was a principle the Founders understood when they limited government's ability to intrude on arts, speech, and business. … Overall, though, the Founders were cautious in their support for government aid to any sort of art or entertainment, aware that with money came strings, and with strings, political agendas. With a few exceptions, they favored keeping government out of human affairs wherever possible.
The sixth chapter deals with an “event” in as much as it pivots on the bombing of the Marines barracks in Beirut in 1983, but it's a much more convoluted look at the descent of the Middle East into a destabilized mess in the wake of WW2 (and the colonial powers ceding control to local factions), how Reagan got coerced into getting the U.S. involved in the region, and how the current wave of radicalized Islam arose, spread, and performed terrorist attacks that the mainstream media for decades insistently white-washed as “criminal acts” and not “acts of war” and/or terrorism. This is dense, though informative, and ends with a question:

What would George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson make of militant Islam ...? It's difficult to say … In the case of the Barbary pirates, however, whose actions did constitute the terrorism of the day, Jefferson's response was quick, substantial, and sharp. He sent the entire U.S. Navy to crush all the Barbary States, not just Tripoli (the only one to declare war on the United States).
Finally, the book looks at the media, with the “event” being the election of the current POTUS (and associated "thrills up the leg"), who benefited from nearly start-to-finish support from the MSM. Here Schweikart returns to his previous looks at the historical context of the American press. This is fascinating, but it largely serves to provide context for a look at how one-sided “news” has become:

When those influencing others' political choices were members of the media, a significant in-breeding started to develop. Contrary to the notion that the elites were always “conservative,” in journalism the predominance of the peer group ensured that primarily liberal views would triumph. … Journalism's homogeneity went beyond a commonly shared view among reporters about gaining, and extending, the authority of the news media. Rather than diversifying, media elites homogenized even further. From 1964 to 1976, the percentage voting for the Democratic candidate in national elections never fell below 81 percent.
The author goes into a lot of research into how the Left/liberal candidate or story regularly received 5x or so “positive” stories.

Increasingly, all “news” credibility disappeared. Major newspapers and especially television “news” programs had become entirely propagandistic … Nor did the news organizations seem concerned about losing their audience and readers, because … “the mainstream media's audience is the mainstream media.” Reporters {write} for each other, to impress each other, to generate prestige points at cocktail parties and social affairs, and, of course, for access to the levers of government when that government was in Democratic hands.
Further …

The protections that the Founders put in the Constitution for freedom of speech were meant to specifically ensure freedom of political dissent by the press – but what happens if the press, for its own purposes, refuses to serve as a check on government? In their well-deserved focus on protecting political speech, the Founders never addressed the possibility that the Fourth Estate would find itself in bed with government itself.
Needless to say, Seven Events That Made America America is wide ranging in its subject matter, but is presented in a very readable style, and is extensively supported by significant end notes. This is definitely one of those books that I wish everybody would read.

As noted, I got this at the dollar store almost two years ago (so it's pretty much certainly off of those shelves by now), but it is still in print (in a paperback edition), so should be easy enough to find or order. You can also get copies from the new/used guys for as little as 1¢ (plus shipping) for a “like new” copy of the hardcover or a new copy of the paperback. Again, this is an “all and sundry” recommendation from me … it's a great read and throws a cold hard light on some of horrible things that have been trying to make America less like the America we deserve.


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