The Girl Who Fell to Earth

March 16th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “The Girl to Fell to Earth” by Sophia Al-Maria, published in 2012. This is the autobiography of a member of Generation Y of mixed parentage. Her father was a Bedouin from Qatar; her mother, from the United States.

Al-Maria’s childhood began in America but her father’s job in the oil industry took him back to Qatar. She, her mother and younger sister then followed him. However, there occurred a serious rift in her parents’ relationship, due to the nature of his culture.

Read the book to see how the author learned to deal with switching between the two very different cultures while feeling a sense of belonging to both.

Bonus Post

March 12th, 2014

This blogger read the book, “Yossarian Slept Here” by Erica Heller, published in 2011. This is the author’s autobiography. She is the daughter of a one-hit wonder novelist, whose book “Catch-22″ is now fading in the public’s memory. Heller herself admits she still has yet to actually read the book.

The meaning of the phrase “catch-22″ is still well-known– an ironic situation; for example: an inexperienced new graduate who is seeking employment cannot obtain it because employment is the only way to obtain experience, but obtaining employment requires experience.

Heller’s life is typical for her generation of a particular population segment– coming of age in the New York of the early 1960′s in an Upper West Side family which was financially comfortably well off. They dined out frequently, vacationed in Europe and in the Hamptons, and she attended a private school. For an unexplained reason, she fails almost entirely to acknolwedge her younger brother’s existence. She also mentions the religion with which she identifies (Jewish) only in passing– perhaps because her having a Jewish last name creates instant bias. The topic areas Heller turns to again and again, however, are: the building in which her family resides, the famous people her father knew, and her active involvement in her parents’ lives and how they emotionally manipulated her.

Read the book to learn about the rifts in the relationships among and between Heller, her mother and father, and the serious illnesses suffered by each of them through the years, coping with their “catch-22″ contradictions.

Super Crunchers

March 3rd, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Super Crunchers” by Ian Ayres, published in 2007. This is a book about how projections based on vast quantities of numerical data in various areas of life are spurring innovations and controversy.

Improvements have been made in health, education, welfare, politics, marketing and other aspects of the day-to-day existence of humans because technological advances have greatly facilitated large volumes of number-crunching; however, not without heated debates.

People who are “experts” in specific disciplines whose projections can be quantified, are being obsolesced by machines that make predictions better than they can. For instance, software has been created to project the duration of celebrity marriages. Such duration has been found to have an inverse relationship with Google web traffic. Horror.

When this ebook was published, Farecast.com (Now Bing Travel), a company known for its online airfare search engine– processed its information with a five-terabyte database– “… fifty billion prices that it purchased from ITA Software, a company that sells price data to travel agents, websites, and computer reservation services.” The sheer amount of data minimizes bias. Such “randomization” lets researchers “… run the equivalent of a controlled test without having to laboriously match up and control for dozens or hundreds of potentially confounding variables.”

A hue and cry was heard at teaching hospitals when internet users acquired the ability to diagnose themselves by Googling their symptoms. Around the same time, software was created by medical professionals concerned about the high percentage of misdiagnoses. Such software allowed medical-school students to make diagnoses with the use of a statistical algorithm in a database of diseases, syndromes, disorders, symptoms, causes, drug side effects, clinical findings, lab results and patient histories. The data consisted of “…word patterns in journal articles that were most likely to be associated with each disease.” The computer was more accurate than the medical school professors.

One profession in which jobs are not threatened by large-scale data processing, is psychoanalysis. It’s inferential and subjective– hard to quantify. In financial services, ego and feelings interfere with securities trading and the granting of loans. But computer programs’ regression equations are completely impartial. So they do better than humans at making predictions that make money. Even when a combination of a human and a machine are used to determine whether to grant parole to convicts (based on the probability they’ll go back to committing crimes after being released from prison), the machine alone makes better decisions in a larger percentage of cases.

Read the book to learn why number-crunching software is: inappropriate for making major one-time decisions; making some teachers into robots; good at predicting Supreme Court decisions; sometimes poorly understood by healthcare professionals; raising privacy concerns, and much more.

Bonus Post

February 25th, 2014

“The Big Rich” by Bryan Burrough, published in 2009, is a long ebook that details the lives and times of the four Texas families who became extremely wealthy Americans from the oil business in the first half of the twentieth century. “They… became the country’s first shirt-sleeve billionaires… accumulated every toy of their age…” including lavish residences, private jets, boats, fancy cars and politicians (when they got into politics).

The editing of this book is a bit sloppy in spots. Nevertheless, according to this book, oil was first discovered in Texas in a well that was later named Spindletop in Beaumont, around 1901. The abundant quantity of oil found there caused a price drop that prompted a conversion from coal to oil among railroads and steamship companies. Suddenly, thousands of people sought to get rich quickly from oil, similar to the way people wanted in on the California Gold Rush. The nineteen teens saw a proliferation of automobiles requiring oil.

Read the book to learn all the details about the people, places, politics and peripheral issues (such as professional sports) associated with the oil industry in Texas over the next ten decades.

Milosevic, Portrait of a Tyrant

February 24th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Milosevic, Portrait of a Tyrant” by Dusko Doder and Louise Branson, published in 1999. This lengthy volume contains the history of the six Slav Republics– Montenegro, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia– from WWII through the late 1990′s, and the biography of a fascist, supremacist, genocidal terrorist– Slobodan Milosevic. His wife, Mira chimed in at specific moments. They had the usual traits of all tyrannical couples– extreme narcissism, hubris syndrome, refusal to face reality and vengefulness. You can see where this is going, if you’ve read your history.”Western leaders were loath to get involved in the Yugoslav mess.” They got involved insofar as to reap economic benefits and public relations kudos for negotiating peace plans.

Milosevic was born in August 1941 in suburban Belgrade, the capital of both Serbia and Yugoslavia. His parents, at different times, died via suicide. During his decade-long reign, he was an undiplomatic megalomanaical micromanager, pursuing his goals through conspiracy, deception and force. He demanded mindless loyalty, discarding those who worked for him when their assignments were done. There was high turnover among his staff.

After the Communist Marshal Josip Broz Tito, leader of Yugoslavia died in 1980, Milosevic stepped into the power vacuum. Tito had tried to foster the unity of different ethnic groups. To keep the peace, he allowed them to freely practice their religions. Serb nationalists didn’t like that. They wanted to be dominant.

In the early 1980′s, Milosevic was appointed Communist Chief of Belgrade by his friend, whose family was party-entrenched into the 1980′s. Then in January 1986, he was promoted to Communist party chief of Serbia. His friend became president of Serbia. Milosevic was largely responsible for installing his cronies to strictly enforce Marxism.

Different ethnic groups hated each other. For instance, the Albanians were sworn enemies of the Serbians and the Turks. Milosevic deviously was able to convince each side that he agreed with them. He used a divide and conquer strategy in addressing them, sowing seeds of hatred among them. He would eventually betray his aforementioned friend. Since he didn’t control the army or the police, all he could do was spread propaganda and incite crowds.

Milosevic had the newspaper Politika secretly launch propaganda attacks on his political enemies. He also secured the support of military and party chiefs. Only two groups opposed his usurping of power: the Communist Albanians and his wife’s father’s old-line Communist politicians. Milosevic’s wife disowned her father for that. His secret enemies also included ethnic Albanians, Bosnians, Muslims and Croats. He pushed for Serb nationalism, regardless of whether different ethnic groups supported Communism.

By the fall of 1989, Milosevic had seized political control of Kosovo and a part of Serbia with a high Hungarian population, and Montenegro too. In 1990, he rigged the presidential election for himself, with 53 parties as candidates for Parliament, most run by his operatives.

In spring 1991, there was serious opposition to Milosevic’s desire to take over all of Yugoslavia. In March, he and the dictator of Croatia met secretly to plan how to carve it up. In June 1991, he had no objection to Slovenia’s secession from Yugoslavia because it had virtually no Serb citizens. Croatia, also mostly Catholic, followed suit with its own secession. The Serb dictator had previously been able to eliminate democratic leaders through arrests, intimidation or corruption. Both he and the Croatian dictator incited violence and hatred against the peoples of other Balkan territories.

The Bosnian leader knew his nation was doomed because he saw how ruthless the Serb and Croat dictators were. Bosnia was 44% Muslim, 31% Serb and 17% Croat. By summer 1991, the Serbs were warring against the Croatians. It was mostly independent military groups and not the Yugoslav army. The Serb men who had been drafted didn’t even want to fight. Men were forced to fight against their will. “The regime vigorously suppressed all news about malcontents and desertions. There were political killings of dissenters by the police and paramilitary members.” 

A rumor had it that there were 83 different armed groups in Bosnia, some mercenaries, in the secret pay of Milosevic. A group would go to a village and do ethnic cleansing of Muslims. The Croatian army did this too, demolishing mosques in Bosnia. The Serb dictator denied the existence of the paramilitary groups. There was lots of looting. He was careful to act as though he delegated authority for people on his staff so it would appear that he had less power than he actually had. He left no paper trail.

In autumn of 1991, Milosevic insisted that the nationalists and not the republics were the legitimate constituent units of the Yugoslav Federation. In January 1992, the Bosnian Serbs proclaimed their own republic, separating themselves from the rest of Bosnia. The different territories voted on whether to go to war. The lands Milosevic had under his thumb voted yes: Serbia, Montenegro, Vojvodina and Kosovo. Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia voted no.

In spring 1992, the United States finally intervened by extending diplomatic recognition (recognizing a country as a sovereignty (independent nation)) to the Muslim government in Sarajevo in Bosnia. The Saudi Arabians had pushed the Americans to do so.

By summer 1992, villages were on fire; Muslims fled. There were detention camps. The Serbs were like Nazis. There had been torture and executions. Student protesters blamed Milosevic for the Siege of Sarajevo. In November 1994, a show-trial was held to judge war criminals. Milosevic’s government controlled the media. The idea of a Greater Serbia was dead in the face of diplomatic recognition of Croatia and Bosnia by the United States, Germany and other European nations. Disaffected nationals held secret meetings planning to overthrow the Serbian dictator. There was palace intrigue.

In late May 1992, the UN imposed a total economic embargo against Yugoslavia. Milosevic used the sanctions as an excuse to say the Serbs were a victim of worldwide conspiracy. From 1991 to January 1993, the Yugoslav citizen’s average monthly salary fell 97%. In a scheme of appearing to be conciliatory, Milosevic got an American business leader of Slavic origin appointed as prime minister. Against the Serb dictator’s secret wishes, the new prime minister wanted to democratize, Westernize and unite Yugoslavia, give it capitalism, and recognize the different nations’ sovereignties. But he knew he had to remove Milosevic from office first.

Prime Minister Milan Panic proposed that Milosevic resign and take a job as a drug company executive in California. Panic got high praise from Yugoslavians. The Serb dictator was hated. Even the media criticized Milosevic. However, the U.S. State Department did not support Panic because the UN sanctions were a delicate matter that the U.S. said needed to be discussed through the UN. Panic wanted the sanctions lifted. The U.S. didn’t want to get involved in the war in Bosnia. Panic pressured Milosevic to resign but he refused. “Panic was in charge of the federal police and secret police but Milosevic controlled the Serb police.”

In October 1992 the Serb police took over the building of the federal police. Panic, fearing civil war, attempted to get the conflict resolved through political rather than military means. His cowardliness prompted the American government to throw its support behind Milosevic. A little later, Panic was a candidate in the Yugoslav presidential election. He lost because Milosevic rigged the election. Shocking.

The Serb dictator’s wife Mira wrote libelous columns in the newspaper. In summer 1994, desperate to hold onto his power, Milosevic attacked the Bosnian Serbs in a propaganda campaign; he had used them to acquire his power just five years earlier.

By 1995, the Serb economy had recovered from a steep currency devaluation of the dinar and its conversion to the Deutschmark imposed in 1993 by Milosevic. The dictator’s wife had welcomed large financial contributions from the newly rich, corrupt businessmen who manipulated the closed Yugoslav market. The state-run media made her book on economics a best seller in 1994. In 1995, she was elected to Russia’s Academy of Sciences. This was as much of a joke as Yasser Arafat’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Read the book to learn what happened in the rest of the 1990′s. Or this blogger could just tell you: more of same. And a boatload of refugees.

Bonus Post

February 19th, 2014

This blogger skimmed the book “Law Man” by Shon Hopwood published in 2012. In this personal account, Hopwood details his actions as a bank robber, and their consequences, complete with the romantic subplot.

In May 1999, the author was permanently placed in prison in Peoria. He felt relief because “Mostly I wanted my hard time to begin so it would start to end.” He told the reader of the term “chester”– short for “child molester.” Luckily, early on, Hopwood found an inmate who became his mentor, who taught him how to fashion a wooden-handled steel rod; the best weapon in the prison– which housed a metal fabrication plant. “… you can run it straight through a man’s liver. But what’s better is a lot of friends.”

More than three quarters of the prisoners were wannabe rap stars. Hopwood wrote, “You must have a job in prison; it’s not supposed to be a vacation, after all.” Postage stamps were the major means of exchange. Whenever the post office raised the price of stamps, the prison economy was disrupted.

On one occasion there was a gang brawl in the exercise yard involving attempted murder, resulting in a four-day lockdown of the entire prison. “In a world of attention-craving narcissists, lockdowns border on cruel and unusual punishment.”

Read the book to learn how the author was responsible for a change in a major legal ruling, an occurrence whose odds were akin to winning the lottery.

Work is My Play

February 9th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Work Is My Play” by Wallace E. Johnson, published in 1973.  This is the career memoir of a lifelong workaholic.

The author discusses his passion for doing business. In the 1950′s, he co-founded Holiday Inn on the concept of offering an affordable place for families to stay while they were on a road trip, with accommodations and dining that were superior to those of Howard Johnson’s (no relation to the author), the only other option at the time.

The author fondly describes the opportunistic personality of one of his business partners with a memorable anecdote. The partner grabbed his wife before she had finished her lunchtime pie (she was used to that) in order to punctually attend a government auction of land parcels in an undeveloped area. He then proceeded to win the bid on every single parcel because he knew real estate prices would rise in the long term.

Read the book to learn how the author had fun working nonstop and making lots of money.