The Harbor by E. Poole and A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe

Thursday, February 14, 2013

I recently read of a television program in which senior managers go and work undercover in entry-level positions within their same company.  They deep fry the chicken, sweep the floors or work on the production line.  It is often the case they become overwhelmed by the touching stories of their new colleagues and when returning to their Vitra Executive Throne, are quick to dole out bonuses for these people or scholarships for their children.

The Harbor written in 1915 told a fictional account about the New York Harbor.  It captures a period when two distinct ideologies were projecting their visions upon this heart of commerce.  Capital versus Labor.  The capitalistic world was made up of  the great industrialists who saw the harbor and what it meant in an economic sense for the city, its businesses and people.  In no way were their visions of the harbor's transformation malicious ones.  They were simply abstract, taking  the Harbor itself to be the living, pulsating organism instead of the people who were actually giving it this life.  The men working the docks or shoveling coal in the ships were not considered as not to complicate this constructed view.

The managers of the TV series who pay low wages and approve limited benefits to the employees do so for a similar reason.  It is the corporation that is once again the organism to keep alive through profitability not those toiling within it.  A business or an entire macroeconomy is nothing more than the people it comprises.  And all of these people have stories to tell.  It is ironic how these managers will grant bonuses to people who emotionally impact them at a personal level while refusing increased wages or health benefits to the entire workforce.

A Man in Full is a wonderful story about what leadership means to five men who are all linked together by a series of events.  The protagonist, Charlie Crocker, is an immensely wealthy developer who has over extended himself in his latest venture.  He now risks bankruptcy and is required to take certain actions in order to repay his outstanding loans.  In the same nature as our Undercover Bosses he agrees to layoff 15% of his work force as opposed to selling his quail plantation and private jet.  He justifies keeping the ranch and plane in order to avoid having to let go the staff of twenty or the pilot and personal flight attendant.  In one scene the butler at the quail plantation is brought out by Charlie during a dinner party and embarrassingly forced to describe the countless kind gestures extolled on him and his family by Cap'n Charlie.  In order to preserve these tokens of his charitable gestures he will sweep away hundreds of other workers whose personal stories he does not know - yet.

All of this changes when he is brought into contact by one of the laid-off employees whose job it was to work in a warehouse freezer for eight hours loading frozen meat.  It is through this young gentleman that Charlie is reminded how "the only real possession you'll ever have is your character...Everything else is temporary and worthless in the long run, including your body".

Returning to The Harbor, the young journalist, Billy, is born near the rough and tumble docks but drifts away due to his studies, travels and later on by the success of his own career.  He begins to write profile pieces on the great industrialists in the United States during that time.  He is captivated by their success, world view, and overall good nature.  His work is appreciated because people are fascinated by successful people.  Yet again, the same theme returns.  To write about these men means ignoring the labor who are directly impacted by their grandeur.

He knows as well he cannot stay away from the Harbor forever.  Its presence is too strong and the connections to him too many.  Billy's childhood friend, Kramer, has returned to the Harbor.  He is there as an organizer of strikes and wants Billy to write about the Harbor through his eyes.  It is a conflicting choice since he knows to write about it means losing the readership and access to the establishment.

The books greatest strength is in how it separates so distinctly these two worlds.  It is a wonderful insight into the portrayals of socialism in the twentieth-century.  There are many paralleles to be drawn with society today.  I have not read the biography of Steve Jobs by Isaacson but I would venture to guess there is little talk of the Foxconn facilities used to churn out the hundreds of millions of iPhones.  A book about our modern day industrialist visionary would not read the same if the author had seen the bedrooms where people sleep eight to a room without windows.  Nor will a book or article on Foxconn ever reach the same number of readers.  We want stories of individual success, leadership and personal struggle.  The somber saga of the masses is something we can do without.

"These people in their leisurely way talked of literature and music, of sculpture and painting and travel abroad, as their fathers and even grandfathers had done - in times when the rest of the country, like one colossal harbor, changing, heaving, seething, had had time for only the crudest things, for railroads, mining camps, belching mills, vast herds of cattle and droves of sheep, for the frontier towns my mother had loathed, for a Civil War, for a Tweed Ring, for the Knights of Labor, a Haymarket riot, for the astounding growth of cities, slums, corporations and trusts, in this deep turbulent onward rush, this peopling of a continent."


Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Thursday, June 21, 2012

I compare the impact of this book to being introduced to someone in the neighborhood you have never met before. Upon having met them you become convinced thereafter that you spot them often. Is it just because I know her that I see her all the time? Thinking, Fast and Slow received a lot of acclaim in 2011 for successfully bringing to non-academics the lifetime of work of Daniel Kahneman in the areas of psychology and behavioral economics. Business writers, journalists and bloggers have already fully embraced it and I have come across references to it in a half dozen other articles over the last two months. Stranger yet, I have read several articles where the author was referencing terms such as anchoring, framing or priming that were discussed in this book. They did not directly reference him but I could not help but believe they were applying aspects of his study to their own subject matter. Is it just because I know these terms now that I recognize Kahneman behind them? The subjects addressed in the book are not new and have been around for decades since Mr. Kahneman and his scholastic partner, Amos Tversky, were passing Sundays together crafting various puzzles to be tested in psychological experiments.

The personal impact of this book was twofold. The first was a feeling of selfish frustration. It is one of those books you wish was published for your eyes only. With so much fascinating content in the area of judgment I found myself wanting to be in sole possession of it, like a secret you want to prevent from getting out. The second effect was the desire to read it again. It is not a difficult text but to truly grasp the concepts requires a second read. While reading it I was often eager to share one of the groundbreaking experiments mentioned in the book only to find myself having trouble deciding where to begin. To truly synthesize the text requires a second review of the material.

The central thesis is that the brain is comprised of two modes of thinking; System 1 and System 2.  Both of which impact humans in how they apply judgment. System 1 operates automatically and quickly - thus the impulsive instinct of the brain. System 2 is the slow, calculated and concentrated thought process. The main premise lies here. We attribute decision making to be done in a conscious, well-thought out manner when in reality we are often not aware that System 1 is really acting in its place. The issue with System 1 is that it is prone to countless, non-rational biases which often impede correct judgment.

The first section of the book introduces what remains the main theme throughout - how previous events, impressions, patterns or emotions affect non-related choices. The System 1 mode of thinking acting in its impulsive manner will quickly and subconsciously rely on the non-related past at the moment of the decision. These inaccurate decisions can also be greatly impacted by how information is presented. The Framing effect - the presentation of identical information in different manners impacts judgment ; The Priming effect - increased sensitivity to past stimuli effect future beliefs; Storytelling - the impact on beliefs, and later judgment, that can be made based on the quality of the story told.

The second section begins to branch out by examining the types of decisions likely to be impacted. He also brings in more real life examples in the areas of finance, project planning and making estimates. He introduces how our ability to properly make estimates is affected by non-related numbers presented prior to the estimate (The Anchoring effect). He brings in another anecdote from when he was planning to write a book with several academics. Their planning was driven almost completely by best-case scenarios of each person. No one considered looking into base cases of other similar type projects and the time required to complete them. In numerous situations like this we ignore or grossly underweight the statistical base case and instead rely on personal experience or very small sample size.

The final section looks more towards judgment within a very human context. He does so by making a clear distinction between two "selves". The "remembering self" and the "experiencing self". How people remember events varies drastically from how they experienced them at the moment they were actually happening. As it should be clear by now, people tend to overweigh recent or specific events when judging how happy they are intrinsically. Our response to pain is no different. When recalling pain we underweight the duration as well as the average pain levels and instead base our judgment of pain on its level when it terminated. In one of the most memorable quotes he describes the two selves in relation to vacationing, an excellent example of the two selves of happiness:

"Tourism is about helping people construct stories and collect memories. The frenetic picture taking of many tourists suggests that storing memories is often an important goal, which shapes both the plans for vacation and the experience of it. The photographer does not view the scene as a moment to be savored but as a future memory to be constructed"

In the end, it is the System 1 which leads to many of the errors humans make in decision making. It is what has received the focus of many of the engaging experiments conducted by Kahneman over the years. However, it is also the system that has allowed humans to survive on earth. We need to active on impulsiveness at times like when we are being chased by a lion. We also need System 1 to survive in today's consumer driven world. You would not be able to make it out of the cereal aisle if System 1 was not guiding you. It recalls back to a story I heard of someone who was in an accident and lost the ability to make System 1-like decisions. He essentially could not function. The success of the book is how it brings to light these errors in judgment. It is up to us to spot them in our own life and apply System 2 when it is needed.


Endurance by Alfred Lansing

Monday, May 21, 2012

It is hard not to wrap your blankets a bit tighter around yourself when reading about the incredible voyage of Ernest Shackleton and his crew in 1914.  The title of this book, and name of the ship, captures in one word what it took for the twenty eight members of this Antarctic-bound vessel to survive over 400 days stranded, for the majority of the time, on large pieces of floating ice.  

The original intent of the trip was to traverse Antarctica, arriving with the Endurance on one side of the continent.  From there the crew would have crossed the land mass on dog sleds where upon completion a second ship would have been awaiting them.  They never made it to Antarctica but were instead trapped by a pack of ice which brought the journey to halt and continued to slowly crush the ship itself.  They were forced to abandon the ship and remain on the ice until being able to set sail on smaller boats to the nearest land mass 850 miles away.  What ensues is nothing less than incredible. 

Boredom and wetness.  To overcome these two feats were to me there most incredible accomplishment.  When I find myself without an umbrella or enough bedding at night, I will only have to say "Endurance".

The perseverance of the crew warrants praise as does the leadership ability of their captain.  Leadership provides order when without it chaos would exist.   What continued to emerge throughout was how the men remained positive and loyal to their captain in a place where no laws, rules, or codes really existed any longer.

From Shackelton, I learned the following about being an effect leader (at least when stranded on a floe of ice):

1.  Know the weak traits of those in your organization and have measures in place to prevent them from diffusing further.

2.  Manage moral.  Without it you can not face adversity in a group.

3.  Scrutanize your decisions but once they are made do not second guess yourself - at least not publicly.

4.  A dominating presence is not a prerequisite for a leader.    


The Day of Battle by Rick Atkinson

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944

It was not my intention to inaugurate my return with a book review on World War II.  However, it happened to be the first book I finished among the four I am currently juggling and I could not wait any longer to get back to writing.

There are two aspects of World War II I find particularly fascinating.  The first is how so much continues to be written about it.   Atkinson's book is the second in a dense trilogy he has composed over the last ten years.  Is there new material coming to light that was not known before?  Atkinson makes good use of many of the U.S. commanders' personal diaries.  However, I do not believe that these diaries were not available or referenced before.

Instead, the main reason is because there continues to be a large audience of readers interested in this subject.  World War II remains one of the greatest representations of U.S. supremacy and it therefore appeals to a broad readership who find great satisfaction and pride in its outcome.

I brought this argument up to a friend of mine who studies U.S. history.  What he described to me about the U.S. historical narrative proved very interesting.  Roughly speaking, the historical academics divide into two camps.  One is based on a cohesive, all-encompassing narrative that justifiably  declares all groups in society have a right to have "their" history shared.  These include includes the more marginalized in American history including women, Native Americans, and immigrants.  The historian, Howard Zinn, comes to mind as the flag bearer for this camp.

The second camp holds the belief of a history based on victory and success.  How can a country establish hegemony if it reflects too much on its occasional failures?  It is better to glorify its greatness in continual forms of declaration than wallow over a few mistakes made throughout its past.  A solidly constructed history based on achievement will withstand the tests of time.  

The second aspect of World War II I find intriguing is the role geography played throughout its course.  I am particularly drawn to Italian topography.  It is hard to not be fascinated by the battle of Cassino when you have looked up at its daunting rock face where the famous monastery sits.  The battles waged in the difficult Italian Apennines mountains, including Cassino, receive particular attention in this book.  Too many lives were lost in a terrain strikingly different than the softer images of the Italian land that generally would come to mind.

Another conclusion drawn from what is a thoroughly well-written and researched text, is the role logistics and military scale played in shifting the war in favor of the allies.  Other popular works such as Band of Brothers, often describe the more exciting and heroic individual battles fought by the infantry.  Their prominence makes it easy to forget how war may even be more about boring, efficient supply chains than anything else.  As Atkinson describes, the level of production of munitions, trucks, and airplanes by the U.S. come 1944 began to greatly surpass the German manufacturing machine.

The decision to invade Italy still remains a controversial one.  The Allied losses were significant in its campaigns to push up from Sicily to Rome.  And they did so based on a strategy whose foundation was set on the idea that any attack in Italy would shift German troops and resources away from France thus making the invasion at Normandy a less challenging feet.   A dear price to pay.


Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner

New, Unpublished Material!  Back in 2010 I hit the wall, losing the ability to write new book reviews.  Then family matters took a big portion of my time - and still do.  However, the desire to write has returned and am I am happy to start things off by publishing this incomplete post I started to write two years ago but never finished.  I hope you enjoy it.  It is good to be back.

Subtitle: The History of the CIA

It was the right time in my life to read a book about the history of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The impression I had conjured up of the agency was still strongly based on the wild fascinations of my youth - one part Mission Impossible, one part gifted linguists, a touch of the Berlin Wall and deep KGB penetration as the garnish. Not the definition to carry me into this new decade at hand especially considering how this ongoing belief somehow prevented me from developing an updated opinion that took into account the blunders and deficiencies of the organization I was coming across in both history texts and current journalism. 

It is not my intention to base my opinions of the CIA on one book. There are always two sides to the story. However, it is fair to say that The Legacy of Ashes gives a solid starting point to begin the formation of one's opinion. It is a book whose every statement can be supported by documentation. The Notes section alone is 172 pages long. It is not a page turner packed with gripping stories of espionage. It is actually rather dry and the author, a NY Times journalist with years of experience covering the CIA, makes no intention for it to be anything but. It is an important piece of American history needing to be written in order to raise the curtains and open the windows of a shadowy organization. It does not bode well for the reputation of the CIA.

The CIA was born out of the intelligence arm of the military, the OSS, used during World War II. After the war's end, Harry Truman turned to them to provide information regarding the intentions of the Soviet Union. It was meant to provide almost newspaper-like details to foreign affairs which the president could refer to when needing to make decisions on foreign policy. Along the way it morphed into an entity consuming vast amounts of resources to promote democracy over the contaminating communist forms of government which were developing throughout the world. Instead of infiltrating the the communist parties in places like Greece, Italy, small Latin American countries and later Indonesia and Vietnam with agents capable of providing valuable intelligence, they used other, simpler and less-effective tactics. It was surprising to see how the majority of their efforts were concentrated on the financing of radio stations, newspapers, and democratic parties who they deemed capable of promoting democracy. Though this "push" form of marketing democracy may have promoted itself as superior to communism, it did little in providing intelligence.

The book continually sites examples where the CIA, with its thousands of agents scattered throughout the globe, time after time failed to foresee significant events that would happen in the specific countries they were suppose to be monitoring. Often these small, satellite countries with upcoming communist leaders such as Honduras or Vietnam received a disproportional amount of attention, and none the less saw events occur that the CIA was unprepared for.  On the other hand, the one country which required the most precise intelligence, the Soviet Union, proved to be a place they knew so little about. Their information was consistently inaccurate.

"The CIA would come in and paint the most scary picture possible about what the Soviets would do to us. They had charts on the wall, they had figures, and their conclusion was that in 10 years, the United States would be behind the Soviet Union in military capability, in economic growth. It was a scary presentation. The facts are they were 180 degress wrong. These were the best people we had, the CIA's so called experts," said former President Gerald Ford who sat on the secret budget committee for CIA funding in the 1960's.


Nexus by Mark Buchanan

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Subtitle: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Science of Networks

I am fascinated by networks. Certainly the social networking websites currently available are revealing in a less abstract manner how far our connections are really spread. The most rewarding aspect of joining these sites was the initial 30 minutes after having signed-up when you were quickly reconnected with ex-colleagues and long-forgotten high school acquaintances. From there it is mostly downhill and I am still amazed by those who find so many non-commercial ways to occupy their time posting, tweeting and chatting away.

I spend little time on these sites and am becoming more and more skeptical that they will be able to retain their entertainment value (and massive subscriber growth) before being besieged by individuals and companies trying to push their products and services on you. A recent interview from a Pepsi marketing manager I unfortunately saw on CNN should give a clear indication of what is to come. Pepsi's desire to have a "conversation" with its customers does not bode well to those who find a large aspect of Facebook's appeal to be the limited advertisements pasted on its pages.

However, I do confess to having a soft spot for LinkedIn. It has focused on the business community from day and is now evolving into a profitable company with a clear business model. By being a site catering to business users, it is somehow more justified to find ways to drive revenue - a luxury not necessarily granted to Facebook.

LinkedIn is so great because it allows the users to really see the reach of their networks. By using the "people" search function on the site, I discover to have contacts in Madagascar, Saudi Arabia and Suriname and all of them are only one contact removed from me - meaning that they are connected to someone in my own 170-person network. 20 years ago these same networks existed but it was just much harder to visibly construct them.

The premise of Nexus is that there is scientific evidence demonstrating how the network that links the six billion of us is not completely random in nature but actually has a certain structural configuration. The author then demonstrates how such network structures are not just relevant for human acquaintanceship.

Buchanan introduces the argument by referring to a fascinating experiment conducted by the psychologist, Stanley Milgram in the 1960s. I was familiar with Milgram for the famous test that bears his name yet was unaware he was also credited what came to be know the "six-degrees of separation".

In the Six-Degrees test, Milgram mailed at random letters to people living in Omaha, Nebraska and asked them to forward the letter to a stockbroker friend of his in Boston. He provided no address for the stockbroker but instead asked them to send it to someone who they believed to be "socially closer" to him than they were. Most of the letters made it to his friend as each subsequent recipient forwarded the letter to the next person applying the same request. The most surprising aspect was that it did not take hundreds of mailings but six.

It was then the work of two other academics, Watts and Strogatz, who when further studying Milgram's test, found these six-degree connections to be neither orderly nor random but somewhere in between. These patterns took on an even greater significance when they started examining other types of networks such as electric power grids, human brain cells or the world wide web only to discover clear similarities in all of them.

Before returning to the book, let's look at an example given by one of my professors, Dr. Karen Stephenson, during my graduate studies that should help in understanding how these networks are patterned:

Think of the organization you work in. Most likely it has some type of hierarchical structure of management. Yet by looking at this pyramid, does it really show how the organization is networked together? It is true that the person at the top holds a lot of decision making power but it is certainly bound to be the case that individuals scattered throughout the ranks wield a disproportional amount of network power. These linchpins are the types of people you go to for questions, information or advice and most certainly others turn to them as well.

If every person in the organization drew lines to each person they contacted throughout the day for a question or advice and then all of these drawing were compiled together, you would see a web-like structure emerge. In this web certain people would be crucial "hubs" as they would appear as being connected to a lot of other people as well. Interestingly enough, it is probably the people towards the top of the pyramid who have the fewest connections to others in the organization.

This type of network formation exists in all the communities we interact with on a daily basis. Yet how is it that we are connected in such a short number of steps to people on the other side of the globe if we interact only with our local communities? It is by people acting as "bridges" to other groups far beyond the ones we are involved with at a local level. The exchange student you still keep in touch a couple times a year via email serves as a bridge to her entire network of friends and family back home. Lose connection with her and this whole world (even if you are in no way actively apart of it) disappears.

As stated earlier, this network layout applies to other areas of science as well. One of the more vivid examples is the development of the world wide web. Internet pages are being developed randomly and frequently. However if you look at the links between all of the billions of web pages, you find once again Internet pages acting as "hubs" and a certain order to the random development. What it also means based on the study that examined the network of the web is that even as another billion webpages are added, the number of clicks required to navigate will not change by more than one or two clicks.

These "small world networks" thus make information, electricity or gossip travel much faster than a world without them.


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