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    Geoffrey Gordon

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    The Return of the Russian Leviathan

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Apr 22, 2020 @ 07:56 PM

    Our discussion of Sergei Medvedev’s book about Russia was interesting and timely.  The book itself is an indictment of the leadership and culture in modern Russia. We began our discussion talking about what Medvedev‘s objective was in writing the book. Some believed it was a chronicling of the Russian mindset, and Bill, the writer among us, said it felt like a series of newspaper articles organized into the format the author chose. Some optimists among us felt that change may be coming to Russia from the people, and the influence of external forces on Russian society, but the history, and literature from Russia, sadly suggests otherwise.

    The book is organized into four separate sections: War for Space, War for Symbols, War for the Body, and War for Memory . It helps to understand each of these to appreciate the breath of the current damage, and as context for our discussion.

    In the War for Space, the author talks about territory, including the ecological disasters occurring in Arctic oil fields, and Russia’s revanchist approach to empire rebuilding, most notoriously the annexation of the Crimea three weeks after the Sochi Olympics, and of course preceded by forays into South Ossetia and Chechnya.

    The War for Symbols runs through many familiar Russian symbols. The first is Red Square, RS2a beautiful but barren place; built not for people to enjoy but designed to exude power. Another symbol is Kutusovsky Boulevard which runs parallel to traffic-jammed streets into Moscow, an open boulevard reserved for the rich and powerful.  High-speed accidents occur frequently but more importantly, its exclusive use highlights that the powerful live differently.  Threats from outside or from inside are other symbols: threats are used to justify allocation of state resources (instead of improving roads, for example).   Another, Thugs: the 2016 football championships in France witnessed Russian fans beating up English fans in the streets.  Even President Putin, while officially denouncing these acts, quipped “How did 200 Russian football fans best up 2000 English fans?“ symbolizing the virility of Russians over the weakness of the English.  Tanks, which began their decline in World War II, but still paraded in Red Square.   The thing about many of these symbols: they're empty, false facades; it's no coincidence that a Potemkin Village was Russian.

    The War for the Body represents the final frontier of the state taking everything from its people, including their bodies. Russia’s intolerance for the disabled, persecution of homosexuals, and broad cultural disparagement of women is part of the War for the Body. Half of Russian women have been raped or successfully fought off rape attempts.  Juxtaposed to the Russian control of the body is Western tolerance.   From this section we had numerous and deep discussions about complexity management: the development of human capital in a complex society thrives on accepting differences; this is expressly protected under the law here in the United States and in Western Europe: race, religion, sexual orientation.  Russia’s intolerance is reminiscent of Arabian exclusion of women from the labor force, and suppression of ideas under China’s current model, preventing it from entering the fast developing, always innovating world economy.   More on the legal structure protecting diversity, and property, later.

    The War for Memories begin with the expression that nothing is more unpredictable than Russia’s past.  History is a tool for the authorities, not something to explore past transgressions or failures to improve understanding, to improve the future. The role of Stalin is particularly troublesome for Russians, unlike post World War II Germany, which struggled for decades to reconcile its history with a brighter future.

    The status of leaders and events throughout Russia’s history rise and fall with the times. Putin himself said that one of the greatest disasters of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union.  While Breznev has maintained a good reputation as the steady uncle, many Russian leaders have been purged from the collective memory.   Except Stalin; too big, too Russian; love him or hate him, and privately, not openly.

    Jeff had suggested that many of the problems in Russia today have parallels in the United States. Others rejected this idea, suggesting that some are universal human traits - abuse of power, falsehoods to gain advantage,but the bad that we do as Americans is supersized in Russia.

    Medvedev makes it clear that Vladimir Putin drives the narrative in Russia today, so it’s worth pausing to examine his ascension.  Putin was a street thug in Lenningrad (St. Petersburg) who joined the secret police, rising quickly to head of FSB under Yeltsin.   From there his rise in power as prime minister was accompanied by oligarchs stealing, and on occasion developing, state assets in the post-Yeltsin era.  The Russian GDP grew 170% in Putin‘s first 10 years in office.   Putin consolidated his power over the oligarchs as narrated in a previous book we’ve read, Bill Browder’s Red Notice.  The Sochi Olympics represented the pinnacle of Putin’s ascension in many ways; showing off a beautiful venue, center of the world stage, with Russian athletes excelling.  Then everything came apart: the post-games doping scandal, disclosure of massive theft of state assets by the well-connected; all this followed closely by the annexation of Crimea. This began a reversal of fortunes, a slide that continues unabated.  Sanctions assured that development of Crimea with Siemens electrical generators would not happen without German engineers, and of course continuation of the hated Magnitsky Act and further sanctions.  

    The question we pondered was, was Putin driving so much of what is happening in Russia or is Putin just another Russian ruler in a winner take all game?  One can make strong arguments either way.  The danger tthe world?  He's a racketeer, with missiles.

    Russia’s well known xenophobia is a controlling mechanism of the state, another Symbol used to garner state resources, and keep people at home.  Russia’s isolation is partially self imposed, and partially imposed upon by foreign reactions to its revanchist nature. The Magnitsky act, isolating oligarchs from world capital markets is an effective mechanism for pressure at the top. Who pays the price? Russia’s many orphans, among others. 

    A few years ago the state decided it would be a good idea to burn all the foreign imported cheese in Russia.  Cheese is an interesting topic in discussing Russia.  Russia can’t make good cheese because good cheese takes time.  In a society where there is no predictability to the future, it makes no sense to develop something that may take months or even years to prepare.  We learned in Bill Browder’s book Red Notice that the Russian system is a kleptocracy from top to bottom. During the post Gorbachev early Yeltsin year’s Browder made money investing in Russia.  But in a society where stealing from your neighbor creates higher social status, you cannot invest if you don’t know that you can keep the fruits of your labor tomorrow.

    Our discussions drifted back again to the advantages of the United States and western Europe approach of rule of law with a coequal judiciary.  In Russia there is no redress for abuse of power. Power over another, whether it be physical, financial, or otherwise seems to be core to the Russian psyche.  The winners in today’s global market are those who understand accommodation, acceptance of differences, collaboration, and problem-solving. Russia is a bully.  And they’ll steal your stuff, if only for status.  Who would want to interact with such creeps?

    One important factor not discussed in the book but timely for our discussion is the price of oil. Russia needs oil at approximately $70 a barrel and $100 bbl in the Arctic to finance the state and all its machinations. As a country with no human capital able to compete in a global economy, the collapse of oil prices portends more suffering in Russia than has been chronicled in this book. This prompted a re-examination of the question of whether the Russian people are ready for a measure of freedom, human dignity, and dispersion of power.  Here the book offers some guidance: for Russia’s future don’t look to politicians or sociologists. Look to Russian literature.  What a depressing thought.

    We discussed the future of Russia after 2024 when Putin’s current term ends.  He will be about 70 years old.  A recent article in Politico.eu suggested that Putin will install another puppet to allow him to act as chairman of the state, continuing to pull the strings, but not actively drive. The collapse in oil markets, and the current inability of Russians to compete in international markets, and now the spread of Coronavirus in Russia, all suggest a darker future; we even compared them to the miserable state of North Korea. Time will tell but Medvedev seems to suggest that Russia is not ready for the rest of the world.  It never has been.

     

    Our NEXT book:

    Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Jan 22, 2020 @ 07:29 AM

     

    This book was the story of the emergence of electricity in America, centered around the three most important characters in its nascent development: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse and Nicola Tesla. These three, different in personality, world view, approach to science, and in so many other ways, brought America, and the world, electrical power. Everyone loved the book.

    Early in the story, Christmas at J.P. Morgan’s home in lower Manhattan, people marveled at a home so beautifully lit. Imagine, not having to get home before the sun went down. The night would soon emerge as a social time. Electricity would usher in change in so many ways most people couldn’t begin to imagine.

    While the book was about electricity, it was really about these three men. Edison brought us an improved telegraph, talking phonograph, and the incandescent light bulb. Edison was always out front promoting his latest invention, living on the leading edge of his discoveries. Edison incited people to try his inventions, either for lower cost (lighting less costly and less dangerous than natural gas), or for novelty (the talking phonograph). His method of discovery was broad: try anything and everything until something useful or profitable emerged. He was always highly leveraged, thus at the mercy of business partners and financiers, but fully engaged employing these financiers to promote his latest innovation (including Morgan).

    George Westinghouse was more the engineer, understanding intricacies of real world applications and always thirsty for new ideas on accomplishing complex scientific riddles.   Dinners at his mansion with top engineers, retiring from dinner to solve problems, was normal for Westinghouse.   Westinghouse and Edison waged war through legal defense and attack application of their respective patents. Edison remains the American inventor with the most patents: 1,093. Westinghouse had over 300.

    Finally, Nicola Tesla, the brilliant theorist, envisioned applications of electricity decades ahead of his time. He was the pure scientist, never taking time or effort to monetize his perspicacity in the field. His extravagant lifestyle comforted him throughout life, living at the finest hotel in town, eating the finest food prepared by the finest chefs, never needing to understand business. His work ethic and persistence worked well in America, soon capturing the attention of Edison, then Westinghouse. A Serbian immigrant began with static electricity and posited to transmitting into the sky - wireless distribution. Tesla’s building with all his research and study in inventions and papers was tragically consumed in a fire one evening; who knows what was in those thoughts. (Wireless transmission is now available, in small, local applications). Tesla, who arguably contributed more pure science to the race, held 111 patents and died poor.

    The battle between Direct Current (Edison’s approach) and Alternating Current (Westinghouse’s approach) was epic.  Bill questioned what if Edison got the Columbian World’s Fair contract? Or his patent wars prevailed? Would DC be delivered today by decentralized local power stations? Would electricity ever even have made it to so many in rural areas? Today, - equal access to the electrical grid is hugely regulated, as a utility, exactly to bring this marvel to all Americans, urban and rural. Furthermore, today’s power structure is decentralizing, in a broad shift from macro regional power generation to localized micro generation such as rooftop solar and windmills. We generally agreed that AC prevailed on its merits in that nascent period: long distance transmission for one, and Tesla’s greater contribution, efficient motors more impactful. Lighting was one thing; powering machines to do the work humans had done, that was the future.

    Edison knew how much was at stake, and focused his public relations attack on the dangers of alternating current. At 60 cycles per minute, a human can be electrocuted at very low voltage. The workers killed by handling AC wires was only minor news. But what about Capital Punishment as a marketing tool? The discussion of the development of the Electric Chair confirmed every objection society has today about “Old Sparky”. Cruel and unusual indeed.

    The decade or two when this great battle was raging for the future of American power also witnessed the emergence of engineering as the critical connection between science and business.   The chapter on developing the Niagara power plant was another testament to engineering. Today, Buffalo is dealing with the externalities left behind after the factories left, evident at Love Canal. And yet, they’re back: Today data centers are populating Buffalo for cheap power and lots of cold water for cooling server farms.

    Finally, a discussion of bringing electricity to the country, and to the world, can’t ignore the role played by the financial barons of the late 19th century, J.P. Morgan in particular. Here was a single man who, in the absence of a Federal Reserve, could literally save the country from financial collapse; ...for a price. Morgan’s (and others’) opportunism, foresight, and raw power, brought us electricity (and before that, railroads). The excesses also brought the country Teddy Roosevelt’s Trust busting at the turn of the century. Enough was enough said the people.

    Would the progress have happened as quickly if not for these three central titans? Geoff argued “No”: Competition drove these men; they fully understood the impact electricity would on humankind. Michael Farrady had no other scientists as brilliant as he, earlier in the century; suppose he had had Westinghouse and Edison to drive him and Morgan to finance him? Their plans for developing useful applications and for financing the build-out drove them in an ever swifter race.

    Before we conclude, we have to acknowledge that we gained a deeper understanding of how electricity works.  Here's a primer:

    Name

    Water analogy

    Measured in

    Comments

    Voltage

    Pressure, head

    Volts

    High voltage AC not dangerous

    Current

    Flow rate

    Amps

    Ever touched a 100 amp bus?

    Resistance

    Pipe / hose diameter

    Ohms

    Conductors: Copper, gold wire

    Power

    How fast it’s coming out of the pipe

    Watts

    Power = Voltage X Current

    Ohms Law

    Current =   Voltage  /   Resistance (amps)

     

    Other asides from our discussion:

    A new movie The Current War, covers this story. It was a Harvey Weinstein movie so was delayed.  But see a trailer and other details on Westinghouse's website.

    Devil in the White City (linked below) is a novel based on the true story of a mass murderer lurking in Chicago as the World’s Fair was being constructed and attended.   For a ground view of Chicago, including Frederick Law Olmstead’s landscapes, Edison’s and Westinghouse’s battles, and another familiar name which is revealed within the book’s later pages, read the book.  It's a page turner.

    Our Next book, to be reviewed April 29th

    Tags: electric, electricity

    The Emperor of All Maladies - a study of cancer

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Oct 30, 2019 @ 09:45 AM

     

    This book is a biography of cancer, the history of its treatments, and the incredible people who dedicated their lives to understanding and fighting the disease.  The book was a difficult read for many of us, both because of the necessary science new to many of us, and the parade of anecdotes about cancer, its victims, and the herculean efforts to understand it.   Bill found it easy and fluid, as did a scientist friend of mine. 

    Appropriately, Rob began our discussion by asking about Sidney Farber.  Farber was a driven man, giving up all else in his life in the focused pursuit of understanding cancer.  We were struck by how many people in the pantheon of cancer research were like Farber: highly focused, intelligent, giving up so much of their own personal lives to understand. A good start for our discussion, as the book eventually reveals he was one of many heroes. 

    Emperor of all Maladies 2Farber operated out of the basement of Children’s Hospital, with limited funds, and scant assistance in his early days.  The financial cost of developing drugs is staggering,  Farber was doing work before a financial return was even conceived.  Our discussion turned to Mary Lasker and her incredible private fund raising machine, which ended up benefiting Farber’s research, and trials.   

    One of Farber’s contribution to the science was use of anti-folates.  Using chemicals to treat biological conditions, cancer, was new.  So new that in 1950, half the drugs in use had not been invented in 1940.  But chemotherapy (chemo – chemicals) more fully articulated by Ehrlich, with chemistry interwoven into biology is a mainstay of cancer treatment today.

    Others, too many to list fairly, include Freireich and Frei, yin and yang, brought together by Gordon Zubrod in 1950s; they showed that working together could work when united by purpose to understand.   Bradford Hill, English statistician, demonstrated that randomized trials could create some order out of the chaotic previous cancer studies.  One of the reasons leukemia (cancer of the blood) was one of the first cancers with effective treatments is in the very nature of blood: cancer concentration can be measured.

    Another hurdle was getting past prior practices and the chaotic nature of research.  Radical surgery developed by Halstead in the late 1800’s continued until the late 1960’s when better statistical analysis demonstrated that excising organs and musculature was not achieving any meaningful extension of life.  Once accepted in the treatment, it had continued for 70 years, demonstrably fed by egos and misplaced science.

    Cancer is the perfect machine: figures out how to survive, mutates to keep surviving.  Difficulties understanding the causes were first; absence of understanding causes, cures were nearly impossible, except for accidental discoveries.   An early breakthrough began with chickens and Peyton Rous: Rous studied chicken sarcoma in the 1920’s.  He learned that transplanting a tumor from one chicken to another would transfer the cancer to the recipient chicken.  He began filtering the cancer tight down to the cellular level; and the cancer kept transferring.  The cancer was somehow happening within the cells, at a molecular level.  But DNA and RNA had not yet been sequenced.  This insight into cause was initially a mystery.

    Cancer is primarily a genetic disease.  We all know today that some families have higher chance of cancer in subsequent generations than others.  But exogenous factors contribute as well.  Many examples were discovered as early as the 19th and early 20th century: Chimney sweeps got testicular cancer, tobacco causes lung cancer.  Where the book examined cytotoxins and genetics reiews of ras, myc, neu and oncogenes, the non-scientists struggled.  Our discussions stayed out of the science, and trended along the human effects.    
    To that end, we invited Dan, a friend whose Caring Bridge updates kept many of us in daily touch with him as he endured chemotherapy and radiation last fall, to tell his story.   Dan is blessed by a generally healthy family, but noticed a lump in his throat about a year ago.  His primary physician had him but see an ear, nose throat specialist in spite of a negative blood test.  The day following the Ear Nose Throat visit, he was in Mass General for further tests. While there one day, he ran into an old Norwell acquaintance who has suffered for years with cancer; he said, ‘Go to Dana Farber’.  The patient focus there is different from the scientific focus at MGH.  First is their team approach: the first visit was with an oncologist, a surgeon, and a radiologist.  This group took a month for treatment protocols, not because they’re busy, but because of the complexity of determining the best treatment: physicists model the radiation, in two blind analyses, then bring to the physician team; this all took a month.  The result? Chemotherapy every Monday, radiation every day, seven weeks.   Surgery was out, too close to the voice box. By the end of the treatments, Dan was barely able to eat, unable to work, weak and in pain.  Incredibly, Dan joined a back-country ski tour in the Dolomites three months after his treatment concluded.    6 months later, Dan is cancer-free, and already, the protocol for his cancer has shortened, and what was Stage 4 is now considered Stage1.  Such is today’s progression.

    His cancer arose from earlier HPV, and is characterized by predictable behavior, not fast moving.  The same cancer that arises from smoking or drinking is harder to treat: faster to mutate, faster to react to drugs.  This was a personal example of the different forms cancer takes, in this case highlighting the difference between exogenous factors and genetics.  Rick had a similar story within his family: removing highly at-risk organs that can be removed can be a life extender.

    Dan’s insight also brought us to his experience with the people: the broad spectrum of where people are in life, how we react to treatment, how the disease affects our existence.  And as poignantly, how do the care givers do it?

    Today, cancer research is funded from three sources:  Rob said he sees a lot of companies trying to make progress in cancer, where financial incentives, in the face of financial risk, can be enormous.  Another is our tax dollars: in 2018 the National Cancer Institutes spent $6 Billion.  And then there is the academic and privately funded research.  The Jimmy Fund - started with Boston Braves, then resurgent with Ted Williams and the Red Sox – has been a mainstay of research benefiting cancer patients.   

    The return of “Jimmy” from New Sweden, Maine, as an old man, lifetime cancer survivor, was one of the fine loops that author Siddhartha Mukherjee added for his humanity angle.  Carla Reed appeared from page 1 sporadically throughout the book to remind readers of the humanity of this emperor of all maladies

    Emperor of all Maladies

    .

    As understanding the causes of cancer developed, so have the protocols.  The classic example we’ve all

     lived through is the connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.  Many of us watched our parents give up smoking.  Most of us have never smoked.  The Surgeon General’s warning was a single manifestation of the public’s rejection of tobacco companies’ assurances.  Similar public mobilizations in medicine have followed the efforts of Mary Lasker: AIDS. Ice-bucket challenge, heart disease.   The public is now often on board.

    How lucky are we to live near Boston?  The recent recognition of William Kaelin Jr as Nobel Prize winner in Physiology (Medicine) for his insight into oxygen deprivation affects kidney and other cancers, will help Dana Farber attract money and talent.  And while people from around the world travel to Boston, we should pause to complain about the traffic.  Just ask Dan
    .

    Our Next book: Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse: the Race to Electrify the World

     

     

    Tags: breast cancer, cancer risk, American Cancer Society

    Bad Blood - The story of Theranos

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Jul 17, 2019 @ 07:15 AM

    The Bonnie Lea Book Club met to discuss the story of Theranos, a Silicon Valley darling which had attracted over $900 million in investment capital, running for over 15 years, based on lies, deceit, employee abuse and legal intimidation.  Its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, became a billionaire, until the author, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, began unraveling the lies and exposing the company for what it was.   It is a study in human nature, business, start-ups, a little science, as well as deception, abuse, and power.  This book had it all.  And will be a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence.

    Elizabeth Holmes 2014 (Wikipedia.jpg


    Theranos was founded in 2003 by Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes; over 15 years, she was the pitchman for a dream that everyone wanted to believe: a simple easy way for ordinary people to discern what ailed them: a finger prick blood test that could be done at your local pharmacy.  To her credit Holmes assembled an impressive group of investors, a board that included Henry Kissinger, Howard Shultz, David Boies and General James Mattis, and investors that included a who’s who of Silicon Valley.  But we concluded that she was simply a sociopath who sold a dream, causing pain and damage to innumerable investors, employees, and patients. 

    The writing had the pace and feel of a news story (John Carreyou writes for the Wall Street Journal), not a novel, so the first half of the book read as a chronicle, mostly of the people who worked at Theranos.  Because of the high turnover and interesting people working at Theranos, there were too many names to remember.  Most of us found the first few chapters tedious.

    About halfway through the book, the author began a chapter using the noun “I”.  Immediately, the book got better. Carreyou’s version became a personal story, not a report.

    Jeff recommended this book, so started our discussion with: “How early in the story was Elizabeth ‘faking it’?”   Did she begin lying right away, or only after interest in her vision had real attracted money, and progress on delivering the promises was challenged?  Geoff argued that given her father’s time at Enron, her family’s history of great wealth and its generational evaporation, that honesty and integrity were never part of Ms Holmes makeup.  She lied the moment people began buying into her vision.

    Holmes was an exceptionally good liar.  Her vision had a high moral ground: a true force of “good”.  Several of us had watched the HBO documentary on the subject; watching the interviews, her capacity to lie seamlessly, with conviction, was extraordinary.

    We discussed the culpability of the Board.  It appeared to have served only an advisory capacity, to give the company credence; they gave her validity, but failed in oversight.  Interestingly, she held full voting control, so could fire Board members that did not suit her.  Furthermore, Board members were men with great achievements... in disciplines other than science or medicine.  Though at one point, the Board conspired to fire her for a variety of corporate infractions; but she made a plea to stay as Chief Executive, and they folded.  We’d all like to have been at that meeting. 

    In a private company setting, oversight of financial practices, review of major contracts, understanding of the underlying science, is more limited than in public companies.  Interestingly, Board members were not qualified in the science of what Theranos was doing; but rather, were men of substance in different fields, evidently taken by Holmes’ personality and presence.   And then there’s the generational factor: old guys taken by her charm and looks and the beautiful vision.

    The discussion of the board prompted the additional question, Could a guy have pulled it off?  We agreed NO, the whole premise of Theranos was a dream come true for the board and the big investors: high morality around the concept, a woman entrepreneur in a man’s field, a self-made billionaire.  The story need all those elements to reach the level Theranos did.

    But there were so many questions, all evident to Monday morning quarterbacks.  How do we count the red flags?

    Poor project management. Why didn’t any employee recognize the poor project management?  Theranos attracted incredibly qualified people from many successful businesses.  Jeff offered an example of a phone aggregation scheme which approached his firm years ago based on a new and compelling cost saving angle.  Part of their due diligence was, ‘show us the contracts with the carriers’ before we commit.  Delays and excuses were common: ‘It’s still in legal review’ being the stock answer.  It took Jeff’s company 18 months to discover there was nothing behind the promises; Theranos lasted 15 years.

    Employee management was characterized by all the wrong practices for successful businesses: silos between departments, oppressive oversight, often by Elizabeth’s boyfriend Sonny (a truly despicable character), high turnover, and heavy handed post-employment legal intimidation.  Even employees posting anonymously to GlassDoor, an employer rating site, were harassed for bad reviews.   The life and death (by suicide) of scientist Ian Gibbons was among the most tragic human events I've read in non-fiction.

    Rick posed an insightful business strategy question:  Why didn’t Theranos build on early little victories to gain time for continued improvement and development?  Holmes’ commitment to her vision was admirable from a certain perspective, but science and physics prevented many core aspirations from coming true.  Some visions defied laws or thermodynamics or physics.  Perhaps for the dream train to keep running, the impossible dream had to remain alive.  

    Juxtaposed to the high minded vision is the overall morality displayed: so many people suffered. $900 million taken from investors, employees working in a toxic environment characterized by lies and intimidation, and customers, patients  and doctors who relied on blood tests to make health decisions.  Rob asked, Could a fraud of this magnitude happen again?  While there are many bad actors in business, and capitalism attracts its fair share of these, today's oversight and business transparency should prevent a repeat.  But that's what we said after Ponzi, and Madoff.  Only time will tell.

    Elizabeth Holmes’ trial begins next summer.  We asked, What’s the appropriate sentence?  We agreed her transgressions cross so many lines: securities, employment practices, health care, regulatory.  We began with thoughts of a minimum 5-10 years sentence, real time, would be a start.  Some argued the damage done deserve way more than just 5-10.  Will the Holmes charm get her a lighter sentence?

    We discussed some of the legal elements.  Legal was big.  Of the $700 - $900 million that Theranos raised, some $300,000,000 was consumed in legal expenses.  One third of a company’s budget was spent to quell the truth!  Super lawyer David Boies is revealed to be almost as despicable a character as Sunny Balwani, Holmes’ paramour and company hatchet man.  We asked, can an NDA be enforced if either party is violating or compelling the counter-party to violate a criminal law?   Maybe maybe not, but the threat of a lawsuit that will bankrupt an employee will prevent employees from talking.  Legal intimidation at its worst.

    One interesting side story was that of Richard Fuisz, former family friend who for reasons motivated purely by personal malice, tried to sabotage Theranos when it appeared to be a real company.  Fuisz was just another character in the parade of dirt bags the Holmes family hung out with, but also succumbed to the legal onslaught by Theranos’ high priced legal team.   In the end, however, he was able to connect the author with Theranos’ former medical director, giving the investigation a boost.

    Beyond the incredible lies and intimidation and legal muscle, how did Holmes keep this together for 15 years?   For one, she played the gaps in regulations exceptionally well.  FDA oversight? They always seemed to provide enough reason to avoid oversight.   Everybody wanted this to work.  Everyone wanted to believe in the dream.

    But at the center was Elizabeth Holmes.  When giving demonstrations of the ‘Edison’ black box that was tasked with performing multiple analyses from a single fingerstick blood sample and it failed, she redirected the conversation to the customer, but didn’t go back to engineering and say fix it!  She knew it couldn’t be fixed.

    A doctor friend of Rob’s pointed out that Elizabeth never took the Hippocratic oath, nor understood ‘patient first’.  She was neither a health care professional, nor biochemist, nor engineer.  She was a fake.  And an unusually good liar.

    Were there any winners?  Yes, a few.

    Tyler Shultz, former employee, grandson of George Shultz, and early whistleblower, is now succeeding in a business with micro fingerstick tests.  While the tests cannot do 200+ different tests, it can do several, enough to build a successful company around.  Shultz and his parents were the epitome of integrity.

    Erika Cheung was a young 22 year old biologist who was one of the early whistleblowers.

    The blogger from the Midwest, - a nobody from nowhere who gave the author John Carreyrou enough science and a contact to get the story started.  Dams get broke by a little leak.  He knew something about the science was suspicious, and made connections  for the story finally to come to light.

    There have been some comparisons of Holmes to Steve Jobs: our conclusion, aside from the black turtlenecks, he had the goods, she was a sociopath. 

     

    Our next book is The Emperor of All Maladies, a study of Cancer

     

    Tags: Business, business ethics

    Educated A memoir

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Thu, Apr 18, 2019 @ 05:00 PM

    Mal had recommended our book selection for April, so he began our discussion with the question, ‘What’s the allure?’ Why is this book so popular? The writing was good, it’s a good story, but beyond that, why a best-seller?

    Geoff suggested that one attraction is its insight into a kind of world that few readers knew existed. Bill countered that out West, you get to know people like that, those hill people who come down into town on occasion, for festivals or races, but then return to their country to live. It’s not so unfamiliar in the rural west. Or in New Hampshire, or Maine come to think about it.

    This also gave insight into the effects of myopic views toward the world around us, a condition common in America today with ideological views bending reality to fit an ideological perspective. We agreed generally that personal experiences are a better foundation for developing ideas for life: in the words of Marvin Gaye, believe only half of what you see, and none of what you hear (earlier popularized by Edgar Allen Poe). Along that same theme, Pete added that much of today’s nationalist and religious conflict around the world arises from this myopic thinking.

    The book is also a testament to how religion can play a powerful role in ideological re-ordering, though the author made a pointed warning not to conflate LDS / Mormonism with the dysfunction within her family. Agreed: Don’t conflate bad behavior with religion. Bad people will cloak themselves in religion to deflect or conceal their true color or their objectives. The mental health (bi-polar father and similarly mentally deranged brother) contributed plenty to fill that role; it wasn’t the religion.

    The fundamentalist survivalist theme (Ruby Ridge) also provided a look into paranoia influenced action, in this case preparation for an attack by the government. We are all products of our own environments. We are all victims of our own biases. Same trailer, different park.

    Next, we explored the question, how much of this story is really true? Bill, a writer by profession pointed out that the book shifted effortlessly and elegantly from plain spoken language to insightful conceptual reflection. This had the feel of a teamwork editor approach; the technique is incredibly difficult for a single person to do. A few of us countered, unless you have a 150+ IQ.

    Adding to the question of accuracy were the descriptions of events: some described down to minute detail; others described with footnotes indicating alternative possible scenarios. But her description of the mountain before her leaving it, and her changing perspectives as she was exposed to BYU, to Cambridge, to Harvard, and her return to the Mountain (The Princess), was literary excellence. The irony that her PhD thesis was about the impact of historians getting to write history was not lost on us with Tara’s writing her story here.

    We discussed the family, asking questions about many of the characters. We agreed that her mother was the most sympathetic character, though she was also complicit in the family’s dysfunction through her passivity. Her ability to take charge of her homeopathic salves business when father was recuperating from his immolation was impressive; her passivity upon his taking control when he became healthy was predictable but sad.

    Family dysfunction clearly began with father, how he treated all the kids like mere tools. Clearly a smart man, his detachment from any concern for safety manifested itself in repeated life threatening injuries, including his son’s and his own self-immolation. How about operating the metal cutting machine? Not a job for a human to be around. That said, the father taught self-sufficiency, fortitude, hard work to the whole family, values that are liberating in themselves.

    On the topic of mental health, we asked, Why did she go to the father first on that topic? Her bother (Sean) demonstrated plenty of mental health issues, though she never seemed to suggest his sickness, beyond descriptions of his behavior.

    On reflection of the story, we asked, is Tara still scarred as a person? She seems to continue to seek acceptance from her father and brother. Her final letter to her father might have been cathartic to her in this struggle. Her own reflection included that you have to forgive your family to forgive yourself.

    The part of the book where she received a grant was poignant and illuminating: once unshackled from debt and financial pressure, she became liberated to focus on her studies, her Education. Her freedom from debt was liberating, as it is with so many people.

    We pondered, is ‘Educated’ the best title? It could have been Emancipated, Liberated, Aware, or a number of other titles. For the author, educated is actually all of these. As she wrote, “Positive liberty - the ability to take control of your own mind.” And “Emancipate yourself from intellectual slavery.” Powerful thoughts, especially today, in America’s politically splintered myopic world.

    Overall, we found the book to be a great reference point for our discussion into life, into ideas, and into family dynamics.

    Our next book is Bad Blood – the story of Theranos, one of Silicon Valley’s greatest con jobs

    Tags: Educated

    The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Jan 16, 2019 @ 08:11 AM

    The Bonnie Lea Book Club tackled a book about the world’s most influential religion, examining how it grew as an offshoot out of a minor ancient sect based in the far eastern reaches of the Roman Empire (Judaism) into the foundation of the West’s religion and philosophy for the next two millennia.

    The author, Ehrman credits Christianity with overturning a culture of dominance, spreading an ethic of love and service in which everyone is equal before God. I agree and believe Judeo-Christian morality was the philosophical underpinning for America’s founding documents and subsequent European democratic development, while Mal rejected that high level of influence. How the religion became so successful, and how it replaced the existing order, particularly in its first three centuries, was the focus of the book.

    In summary, the book examines three concepts: first, the existing pagan belief system was vulnerable to Christian spiritual and social arguments; second, its messengers, most influential, Paul; and finally the influence of Roman emperors, most consequentially Emperor Constantine.

    The members of our book club had the broadest overall spectrum of reviews that we’ve had in several books. Mal did not like the writing, clarity or organization at all, and couldn’t finish it; Bill thought it was Ehrman’s best of three he’s read, and excellent. Most of us agreed that the organization and logic was disjointed; the writing dense at times, and Rob commented that for a relatively short book (less than 300 pages), too many topics were redundant and repetitive. And yet the insight into pre-Christian paganism, the appeal of Christianity to the masses, its inexorable growth, one convert at a time, and the Roman leadership structure made for interesting historical insight.

    To be clear, for a highly respected New Testament scholar, Ehrman’s analysis was remarkably devoid of any theological depth or modern aspects of faith; this was a historical sociological study. To its credit, it provided a thorough examination of pre-Christian paganism that was the established philosophy of the day, where magic, mystery and a pantheon of gods brought answers to the difficult questions of why things happened. Paganism did not have a name; that is our retroactive label. It simply was.

    Ehrman refers to the Bible frequently, so a brief overview of its organization and authors may provide some perspective. The first part of the Bible, the Old Testament, is the Jewish ‘bible’ before Jesus. It is here that Jewish law, including the Ten Commandments (first in Exodus) and rejecting certain foods (pork), are introduced. The New Testament begins with the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, written decades after his death by those authors about Jesus and his acts, words and teachings. Acts of the Apostles follows the Gospels, introducing us to Saul of Tarsus, an educated Jew (Pharisee) who dramatically converts to Christianity after leaving Jerusalem and on the road to Damascus, faced with a blinding light, and hearing a voice (from Jesus) asking “Why do you persecute Me?” Paul wrote the majority of the rest of the New Testament (Letters of Paul) to the new churches he systematically established throughout the eastern Mediterranean to Rome.

    The book began and ended with Constantine, the Roman emperor who converted to Christianity upon his march into Rome to unseat the previous emperor, and arguably the most influential character in Christianity’s rise. His mother was a Christian and his father a henotheist (believing in one top god, in his case the Sun God, Sol Invictus). But above that, he was an astute survivor, and a successful emperor of Rome for thirty years. He oversaw the congregation of bishops in Nicea, resulting in the Nicene Creed, still recited today in Roman Catholic and Episcopalian churches, and which outlines the church’s core doctrines.  In addition he settled and developed Constantinople, (today’s Istanbul), on the Bosporus, easily defended and strategically located, where the Eastern Church was seated for over a thousand years until the Ottomans conquered the City in the 1400s.

    Another of Constantine’s signature edicts was the Edict of Milan, which established for the first time a governmental principle of freedom of religious belief under the law.

    The question of whether the inexorable growth of Christianity would have continued as swiftly without Constantine’s support tilted to no, it couldn’t have.  His support also had the effect of permitting Christianity to influence the educated, economic military and political policy makers,  While the trajectory would probably continue to rise, its ascendancy as the dominant religion of Europe and the Mediterranean was greatly influence by this Emperor.  Ever the astute leader, he may simply have decided to ride this religious wave to hold together an increasingly broad and disparate empire. The emperor waited until shortly before his death to be baptized (though this was not an uncommon practice at the time to ensure entry into heaven). 

    Julian, a few emperor’s later, re-instituted the persecution of Christians; but he lasted less than two years (killed by Persians in battle). We also surmised whether a thirty year survival of Julian might have changed history.

    Paul, formerly Saul, described above, was the great marketer. We discussed whether Paul’s interpretation of Christianity as we know it would have been approved by Jesus. James’ own words give us insight: he would NOT have, due primarily to Jesus’ intent to have his message become a natural extension of Judaism, rather than a religion most appealing to Gentiles or pagans.  The appeal to pagans might have been Paul’s greatest success. While we know Jesus said that Gentiles could accept the Jewish God, it was clearly Paul who took this message and spread it to the densely populated cities along the Mediterranean, chronicled in the books of the New Testament. 

    The message had remarkable consistency (marketers take note).    The main attractions were:

    • This God was bigger and better than the pagan gods;
    • the Jewish concept an ethical foundation; developed further where sinning could be washed away by this God, through Jesus;
    • immortality, heaven, was the eternal joy and reward for conversion, while hell was eternal torture, a concept too many were familiar with.
    • The message of Love thy Neighbor, Help the Poor, and establishment of communities of faith created social benefits

    These simple messages provide an attraction, and conversion seemed most effectively to be a one-way door.   Pax Romana also had created stability and fertile ground for a merchant class not solely concerned with survival to the next day, but time to contemplate bigger issues of the spirit.  Converts and their offspring rarely returned to paganism.

    Chuck’s notes were outstanding and made for a well organized discussions.

     Here's a link to the book

     

    Our next book is Educated by Tara Westover

     

    Tags: Christianity, book review, review

    Without Precedent - the Story of John Marshall

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Fri, Oct 26, 2018 @ 10:46 PM

    Without Precedent, by Joel Richard Paul, was the story of Chief Justice John Marshall, our country's most influential and most prolific Chief Justice's in the nation's history. Over 34 years Chief Justice Marshall oversaw 1129 decisions, of which over 1000 were unanimous, with 547 authored opinions. While Marshall was not perfect, his commitment to Washington's and Hamilton's vision and execution of Federalism for the young nation's first four decades was remarkable and extraordinary. Most importantly, he established the Judicial branch a a near co-equal to the legislative and executive branches.

    Unlike many of the other founding fathers, Marshall's upbringing was not among the elite class of large plantation owners and lawyers, such as his cousin, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson grew up in privilege on a plantation with 500 slaves, while Marshall came of age as the oldest of 14, scraping out a living on the edge of the wilderness on his father’s farm. His childhood taught him resilience and humanity, and his experience in the Revolution, at Valley Forge with Washington, Hamilton and Stuben, taught him the real suffering of war.

     

    Marshall was a quick learner, however, getting a law degree and demonstrating leadership and  skills in compromise and collaboration. His sharp mind got him noticed by the elites in the young republic. His simple hardscrabble upbringing did not limit his opportunities, and ultimately contributed to his legendary contributions to American jurisprudence.

    The book seemed to be broken into three parts: Marshall’s early life including his service during the Revolution, the time in France negotiating terms of peace for his new country, and finally the Supreme Court years. In France, (with too many pages dedicated according to Doug), he was exposed to both government corruption and runaway ideologies. These seem to have influenced his ideas of how an effective judiciary could limit flawed humans from establishing autocratic rule. For me, the most memorable part of the time in France was the overt demands for a bribe from France’s foreign minister, Talleyrand, before commencing in negotiations between nations.  For others, the descriptions of revolutionary Paris and the collapse of due process under the law, under the guise of ‘equality’ was equally remarkable.

    Thomas Jefferson was relentlessly criticized throughout the book. Part of this view is historical: the closer we look at Jefferson, the more elitist and detached, and flawed, he appears. Juxtaposed to his cousin, Marshall ended up being Jefferson’s greatest nemesis during his presidency.  Some examples: Marshall had a close business and personal relationship with his slave, all his life. Jefferson had Sally Hemmings. Marshall lived simply, and left substantial landholdings to his family, while Jefferson always lived in and died, deeply in debt.

    We expected the court cases to be long and arduous; but were pleasantly surprised. The descriptions leading up to the decisions were well organized and clearly described, and the relevance of the decisions to affected parties at the time, as well as to the development of legal thought, including establishing precedence, for the young nation was outstanding.  Every case made sense.

    The first case described of course, was Marbury vs Madison, the first case they discuss in law school. The relevance of this case was the establishment of the Judiciary as an equal to the Executive branch. Madison (he defendant - and Jefferson's Secretary of State) didn’t even appear at the hearing, so little was thought of the controversy at the time. The Constitution barely mentions the Supreme Court, and nothing in it says the Court can stop the legislature.  Marshall established these standards through his brilliant early opinions. This particular case (MvM) established Marshall’s credentials as a force on the national scene – against his cousin, President Jefferson.

    We delved into the disparity of concepts of equality within the Declaration of Independence (authored by Jefferson) versus what actually made it into the Constitution (written mostly by James Madison). The Declaration spoke about all men being equal by God, while the Constitution held that slaves were valued at 3/5ths of a freeman; and women and non-property owner men had no vote, no representation. The Constitution was eventually amended to grant voting rights to non-property owners, and 100 years later to women,   Marshall laid the foundation well ahead of his time, through contract resolution and three Indian cases, where he ruled that Indian Nations were in fact entities qualified to execute contracts, thus effectively placing them on equal footing as white landowners,.

    We talked about how Federalism vs States Rights affects us today. Doug talked about how the energy sector - its bifurcation is one result of different states’ policies toward energy. Today securities and aviation are nationally regulated, while energy (and insurance and many other industries) is regulated by states. States’ rights issues were potentially limiting to the economic growth of the nation in the early 1800’s; the establishment of Congress’ authority over ‘interstate commerce’ stopped monopolistic state standards in transportation in particular, opening up the eastern seaboard to the rest of the continent. Marshall knew enough about international trade to know that different regulations by states would hamper the country's economic vitality, and its trajectory.  He was not about to protect monopolistic interests under the law.

    We disagreed over the role of the judiciary in solving social issues, a reflection of the Kavanaugh hearings. Should the court serve as England’s House of Lords, deciding social issues? We disagreed.  London's Supreme Court does not overrule laws as they do here.  Washington warned against parties (factions) in government, and parties are often influenced by social influences.  

    Chuck remarked that the current stable of justices, exclusively from Harvard Law or Yale Law today, does not play well in the heartland, really anything between Route 5 and the Acela Corridor. If Trump had found someone from UT or other qualified institution for the Kennedy vacancy, the disgraceful hearings in September might have taken a different tone.

    We asked and revisited the question, Did the founding fathers have any idea of the enduring influence of the institutions they built?  I argued they did. They had a continent to populate and develop, and they knew (and often wrote of) the importance of getting it right after the Articles of Confederation. Getting it right rested in a document and a national commitment to remain a country of laws, of liberty, and most importantly of limiting the natural aggregation of power by people or groups of people.  Marshall’s consequence was a judiciary which can stop the legislative and executive branches both form incurring on the people’s freedom.  Without a strong judiciary, we’d’ve become an autocracy, a true dictatorship of the majority.  Or worse, a human controlled autocracy more common on the world today, as through history.

    Marshall’s ability to bring parties of opposing views together was as remarkable as his mind. How many decisions were made over a bottle of claret in a boardinghouse, where the justices lived in the early days? Imagine the arguments they had, the projection of consequences, the collaboration over the best interests of a new country. They knew.

    Overall, we agrees this book was one of the best to read to understand the fragility of the men, and indeed fragility of the structure of our republic. John Marshall was a quiet giant among giants, and his influence in the strength and dynamism of our country that we know today cannot be overstated.

    Next book
    Bart Ehrman – The Triumph of Christianity

     

     

     

     

    Tags: legal

    12 Rules of Life - by Jordan Peterson

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Jul 18, 2018 @ 06:50 AM

    Our discussion of Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life - an Antidote to Chaos began with criticism of his verbose prose and slightly scattered style, contrasted with appreciation for the jewels of wisdom about exploring and developing lives of meaning.  On balance we all felt it was well worth the effort.   A summary of our book club's meeting necessarily leaves out the depth and breadth of the content, but this brief list of chapter highlights and comments gets us started.  Overall, this book prompted some of the deepest personal  discussions we’ve had as a group in a while.  Highly recommended.

    1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back 

    We all heard this from our parents and grandparents (a recurring theme to many of the rules), but agreed that when you act the part, you can BE the part.   Bill reminded us that in competitive sprinting, form and structure are critical. As in life.  This chapter's dive into the brain chemistry of the lobster, and human, drove home the point that some of our deepest traits are hardwired into our Being.

    1. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping 

    As they tell you on the airplane, look after yourself first, so you can look after and help others, better.  His example that many people look after their dogs better than themselves was a good springboard into this chapter.  A corollary, recognize, to avoid, self-destructive behavior. 

    1. Make friends with people who want the best for you 

    This chapter was unique in that it was all formed in Peterson's own personal experiences, unlike others  where he draws from philosophers, clinical research, and religious traditions.  Said otherwise, if you had a  friend whom you would not recommend as a friend for your brother, sister, or other loved one, why do you have that person as a friend? 

    1. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today. 

    Success can be measured in so many ways today, because there are so many games being played across the fields of life. Some are measured by their nature: sports and business, for example.  When viewed from the Long View, small steps, in the right direction, add up over time.   But comparing yourself to others is too often a dark and unproductive path.

    1. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.

    Most of us liked this chapter and we all like our kids.  For a group of guys, several with grandchildren, we talked about the state of college bound students today.  College and university resources dedicated to psychology and socialization (and coddling) dwarf those from our ‘sink or swim’ generation.  Too many college kids today have the emotional IQ of 2-year olds and that's a shame.

    1. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world 

    We can't know other people's dances. In the words of the great philosopher Thumper, if you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all.

    1. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient). 

    This chapter delved into evil, whose roots are in expedience.  Just make things better; you don't have to make them perfect.  In the words of Mrs. Raymond, ‘There is little value in things easily attained.’   Evil is so far worse than tragedy; the differentiation is foundational to life. 

    1. Tell the truth – or, at least, don't lie. 

    The most dangerous lies are those we make to ourselves, justifying empty lives steeped in ideologies, detached from human interaction or reality.  Little lies enable big lies, and big lies by ideologues led to over a hundred million innocents murdered in the 20th century.

    1. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't 

    Rick and Geoff talked about Emotional Intelligence, and its effectiveness within organizations today.  EQ (as distinct from IQ) allows us to listen and understand: ‘he who speaks first loses (control over the direction of the conversation.)’   Several of us have found emotional intelligence training in business to be equally valuable in life.

    1. Be precise in your speech 

    And be especially careful what you tell yourself. The world is simple only when it is predictable. When things go wrong is when chaos rules.  These rules are the antidote to Chaos.

    1. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.

    This  chapter admonished the general public for closing skateboard parks, but Peterson rejects that, asking why would we discourage such dedication to improving at something.  For me personally, this moved the dial on what others, younger people in particular, do to fill their time, to improve. 

    1. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street 

    We don't understand other people's struggles, so don't assume their motives are any less pure than our own.  Even if you prefer dogs.  This rule covered pain and tragedy, so central to humanity. Do unto to others as you would have them do unto you. 

    We discovered from several reviews that this book has come under criticism for its matter-of-fact discussion of the difference between sexes, hierarchies, and a focus on the individual.   While some of these criticisms may have merit, Peterson's overall message to look after yourself first, seems to be good advice.  We all liked this book.  

     Here's a link to the book:

    The book prompted a discussion on Emotional Intelligence, a topic embraced by several of us, and widely employed in business today.  This book includes an overview and a self assessment test as part of the price.   Worth it.

      Our next book about Justice John Marshall will help us to understand Justice Kavanaugh better

     

    Tags: 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson, Rules for Life

    Rogue Heroes - the story of the SAS, the first 'special forces"

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Apr 18, 2018 @ 05:25 PM

    Rogue Heroes is the non-fiction historical accounting of the development of the world’s first “special forces”, the British SAS (Special Air Services), conceived and developed in the African theatre in World War II, subsequently used effectively in France, Italy and Germany in a variety of tactical needs to securee the Allied victory.    
    Chuck led our discussion, and began with some of the characters.  He began with the initial force behind the birth of the SAS, David Stirling.  This aristocratic soldier hadn’t accomplished much in his life until the war.  He was openly contemptuous of mid-level military leaders as he considered different ways of achieving bigger strategic goals.  His aristocratic upbringing helped him make connections to high command from the outset, as the stodgy military command he challenged was still stuck in the Great War.   Many obstacles stood in the way of getting up and running, not least of which was the legacy British sense that this was not the proper way to fight a war.  But the bucking authority theme ran throughout the book: two examples much later in the book were when senior officers disobeyed direct commands to stand down: one “accidentally fell out of a plane" (to join his team on the ground), and another told high Command that he didn’t get the order to stand down until the mission had been underway.  This tendency to think independently and find solutions irrespective of higher military authority became part of the special forces ethos that endures today.   

    Paddy Mayne was the other force behind the development of the SAS, and couldn’t be more different from David Stirling.   An Irish rugby player, prone to extreme violence when drinking, and ready to kill people under any circumstances.  Initially he and Stirling competed for control and influence within the SAS, but soon developed a working relationship recognizing each other’s strengths and differences.   About halfway into the book Stirling was taken prisoner and Paddy Mayne became the defacto sole leader of the SAS.

    The development of Paddy Mayne reflected the development of many of the soldiers serving in the SAS, veering from asset destruction to assassination. Morality blurs in war.  Early in the war, destruction was the goal; by the end, killing was indiscriminate.  War changes people.   Not that Mayne began as a tender character; author Ben MacIntyre commented that Paddy Mayne had so many demons he could populate his own Hell.

    The blurry line between murder and a fair fight was highlighted on several occasions.  We discussed the relative breadth of field tactics that SEALS have compared to other military units.  Chuck cited a New York Times article questioning the accountability of these special forces in the field often unrestrained by rules-of-engagement.  Geoff argued that the purpose of these forces is as psychological as tactical.  Canoeing became the topic of debate between Geoff and Rob.

    The brutality of the men in these SAS forces was always underlying their efforts, but the war changed  in the move from Africa to Europe. Even in Africa, the early objective was to destroy materiel, but tactics employed by Germans (Hitler’s Commando Rule: shoot all operators behind the lines), mass killings, civilian killings changed the behavior of Allied forces in Europe dramatically.

    The book had so many characters identified by so many stories, our discussions often went from character to character, with some of the crazy events highlighting the men involved.  In this case, the series of short stories kept us all captivated.

    On the other hand, the death of so many characters was an insight into the destruction in war, a far cry from movies and history written by the survivors.  Unlike a novel, so many characters play a major role in one operation, then killed in the next. 

    We talked another moral question, that of injured soldier Seymour, left behind to be captured by advancing Germans.  He was abandoned by his buddies, so he's feeling betrayed.  His story after the war did not add up, and many asked whether he was one of the sources of so much intelligence on the entire SAS operation including leaders, tactics, supply sources, and on and on.  How much can one ask of a man held captive, subject to torture?

    Other characters we discussed were: the captured officer who had dinner with the German general, who told him, we can't guarantee your safety once these (SS) guys take you. Knowing you're going to be shot sharpens the mind: they escaped.

    In the desert, Sadler was the navigator, trained in celestial navigation, taking the team dozes of miles from an oasis to an airport.  Incredible talent on display.

    We talked about how today's special forces are similar, and how   they are different. They are similar in training intensity and high fall-out rate; physical and psychological fortitude; and the breadth of operational latitude.  The breadth in operational latitude prompted the discussion of how much is too much, reviewed earlier.  What is fair in war?  

    The differences are the assets dedicated to supporting these warriors.

    The impact on the men who go into special forces is life changing.  Even the survivors of operations become different people because of what they are asked to do.  And their impact, psychologically and militarily, remains over-sized to their footprint.

    On a topic that we could only discuss because we have warriors out in the world allowing us to live a life of freedom and independence in an otherwise dangerous world, we will discuss the 12 Rules of Life, by Jordan Peterson.

     

     

     

    Machine Platform Crowd

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Tue, Jan 23, 2018 @ 10:46 PM

    The Bonnie Lea Book Club convened to discuss a book on the social and economic revolution happening today, entitled Machine Platform Crowd. The book begins with examples of the Triple Revolution, a quick synopsis of three major trends that the book focuses on: computing power, including deep learning, self-learning "Machines"; Platforms, where new business ideas can be tested and shaped, giving us the largest transportation company in the world (Uber), with no vehicles, the largest hospitality company, Airbnb, with no properties, and the largest content creator in the world that doesn't create any content (Facebook); and finally the crowd, small market microcosms, inspiring businesses exactly what products consumers want, ss well as solve problems too big or complicated for individuals operating independently.

    The writing was OK, but the volume of information and examples cited made reading tedious in large chunks. Further, while excellent in technology, was less insightful in matters of business.  That said, we are all glad we read it for the insight into the trends affecting our economy and our society.

    Computers have only recently emerged from a marginal role in business, keeping track of money, information transmission, and data storage, into a more central role in decision making today. Instant recall and deep thinking analysis of ever greater amounts of data means machine decisions eclipse many traditional human roles.  In many businesses, the only humans that matter are the customers. This is the second machine age.  It's bigger than the first.

    One of the distinctions of this confluence of deep learning machines and platforms is between bits of data and atoms. When information (bits) is the product, platforms can distribute to customers as perfect products, for free, and instantly.  Music is one example: there is no marginal additional cost to distribute a song to another listener.      Free, perfect and instant is difficult to compete with.  And this ‘free, perfect and instant’ is changing the economic applications of supply and demand with lower and lower prices bringing more new buyers into a  market.   

    An example of what the crowd can create, consider Linux, an open-source operating system, meaning its source code is freely available, and anyone can make changes to make it more stable and effective. Microsoft and Apple hold their source code close.  Today Linux powers over 1.5 billion Android phones, and is the most professional operating system in the world. The crowd brings a diversity of thought, experience and insight that no panel of experts can offer. Crowd solutions work best when open and self-regulating: good solutions progress, bad ideas die.  One of the contributors to Uber's and Airbnb's success is that both buyer and sellers of service can rate each other.  These solutions can exceed the performance or insight of the "core", the experts - the HiPPOs (Highest Paid Person in the Office).  

    Platforms will not cannibalize everything, and in some cases simply add demand that hadn't existed: Airbnb's offer of homes and interaction with hosts, for example.  However, disruption to all industries with information assymetries will still be widespread.

    Decentralization and fast powerful computing enable Bitcoin, an open, decentralized currency. Because ledgers exist in blocks, showing where each bitcoin has been spent, the chain of previous ledgers provides the entire history of bitcoins spent.  However, digital currencies may not survive national governments interests (China) or ownership by a block of more than 50% (who could decide who keeps their currency).

    We talked a lot about the disruption expected in employment: millions will be displaced. New jobs will be created as others are made. The question is the transition, the re-tooling.  Digitization puts pressure especially at the lower end of wage earners.  We know that wages as a percentage of GDP are shrinking; capital is taking an ever larger share of GDP.  This trend is sure to accelerate.  While the book doesn't delve into the social implications of this pattern, the conclusion is easy to draw: bad for the lower half of today's wage spectrum; possibly bad for the lower 90% in a few years. 

    Doug and Rob both talked about the effect of block chains on the internet of things; including whether processing power can keep up with the volume of data.  Both agreed that the open nature of block chains will have tremendous impact on financial transactions, as they can eliminate the risk of fraud, and can follow every transaction to the nano-grids.

    Our conversation eventually turned to when machines eclipse human creativity, and then, the Skynet concept, the Rise of the Machines, a new Alpha on planet earth.  Bill argued that human creativity, with every nuance from personal experiences, will never be eclipsed by machines. Can a machine hold two different opinions on a single subject?  Not today. Not yet?  

    The social benefits of lower prices will continue to benefit workers at the lower end of the wage spectrum. But what will these folks do when the jobs they’ve trained for don’t exist?

    The book talked about the future of platform development, and the continued disintermediation of the knowledge vendor.  The internet has already disrupted travel, finance, and many other industries.  Platforms thrive where asymmetrical information exists, accelerating the disintermediation process.  Are future platforms only for the FANGs?  - the digital giants: Facebook, Apple, Netflix and Google. Is economic growth limited to the FANGs with their head start on the aggregation of data?  The immediate solution is to provide the services along with the human element.  It may be a barbell effect: OK for the very large, already ahead, and OK for the small, who can leverage the powers of this second machine age without the legacy ballast.  Time will tell, but recognizing the landscape is one requirement.

    Overall, the book was a wake-up call on this new economic age we're entering into.  Worth the read. 

     

     

     

    Our next book:

        

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