The Odds Against Me

The Book of the Week is “The Odds Against Me” by John Scarne, published in 1966.

This is the autobiography of a man passionate about gambling. Starting in elementary school, he exhibited an incredible talent for calculating figures in his head. As a teenager, Scarne gravitated toward performing magic tricks, and gambling. He developed expertise at manipulating playing cards. His parents were less than thrilled, as they wanted him to choose a noble profession.

Eventually, Scarne made a career of assisting law enforcement with identifying rigged games in casinos. In his book, he described a sting operation against a croupier who was using a magnetized roulette ball, and other dishonest behind-the-scenes goings-on in games of chance.

Personal History

The Book of the Week is “Personal History” by Katharine Graham, published in 1997.

The autobiographer was born in June 1917. She grew up in a large, wealthy family, in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Mount Kisco (upstate New York). She attended private schools. At high school dances, “Of course, no boys were allowed so all the girls put on evening dresses and corsages and danced with each other.”

The autobiographer’s father, Eugene Meyer, a business tycoon, purchased the Washington Post in 1932. In 1942, she wed Phil Graham, and took his name. Over the next ten years or so, they had four children (a daughter and three sons) who survived to adulthood. In 1946, her husband was named publisher of the Post. In 1963, she experienced serious personal problems that led to her taking over the paper.

Two of the Post‘s journalists, the infamous Woodward and Bernstein, were the first to seize upon the story of the break-in at the Watergate Hotel (the 1972 campaign headquarters of the Democratic party) by Republican party operatives. Over the next few years, the paper proceeded to reveal the corruption present in the Nixon administration with regard to the president’s reelection and the start of the Vietnam War. The story was extremely complex. The paper was at once courageous and foolish for casting aspersions on the Federal government. For, the Washington Post Company owned television and radio stations, in addition to print publications. These media holdings found themselves the victims of retaliatory action when it came time for the FCC to renew their broadcast licenses.

Lawsuits were launched in connection with the scandals over whether news articles published by the Post, were revealing State secrets that would compromise the national security of the United States. Many people thought the government was simply trying cover up its own embarrassing conduct. As is now evident, the post-Nixon decades saw history repeat itself many times over both in terms of similar scandals and overzealous classification of documents.

There occurred a mid-1970’s debilitating four and a half month strike of the many unions on which the Post had become too dependent through lax management. Before disgruntled workers walked out, some sabotaged the printing presses and thereafter waged a campaign of telephone threats and physical violence on picket-line crossers. Graham got right down in the trenches, moonlighting alongside non-union executives to get the paper out. She also achieved several female “firsts” and provided various examples of how being female subjected her to treatment males would not have experienced.

The Post had its ups and downs through the years.  In early 1991, Graham handed down leadership of the Washington Post Company to one of her sons.

Into Thin Air

The Book of the Week is “Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster” by Jon Krakauer, published in 1999. This book tells the story of a group of people (naive tourists) in 1996 who had a burning desire to climb the world’s tallest mountain, yet were ill-prepared to do so. The guides they hired charged tens of thousands of dollars, but the guides were themselves inexperienced in dealing with the trip’s harsh conditions. Among other serious problems, there was a lack of: a) life-sustaining equipment due to poor planning, b) physical fitness and c) adaptation to the altitude among the participants. One thing led to another… Read the book to learn of the tragedy that ensued.

Ben & Jerry’s: The Inside Scoop

The Book of the Week is “Ben & Jerry’s: The Inside Scoop, How Two Real Guys Built A Business With A Social Conscience and A Sense of Humor” by Fred Lager published in 1995.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, a couple of childhood friends who had drifted apart, resumed their friendship in their late twenties. Their work lives were aimless at the time, so they decided to go into business together. They settled on selling ice cream, based on Ben’s life philosophy, “If it’s not fun, why do it?”

Ben and Jerry worked around the clock in the couple of years it took to create a business plan and convert a gas station in Burlington, Vermont to an ice cream store. The 1978 Grand Opening saw the giveaway of free ice cream cones to the public. This book– the owners’ first– describes the trials, tribulations and triumphs they experienced in getting the business up and running, and growing.

Leg the Spread

The Book of the Week is “Leg the Spread” by Cari Lynn, published in 2004.  The author interviewed several current and former commodities-futures traders, providing detailed descriptions of their days at the market in Chicago.

Some traders, employees of a broker-dealer, actually stood on the trading floor, yelling and waving paper from the time the market opened at 8am until mid-afternoon.  Others traded online.  They had good days and bad days.

One female who formerly made a large amount of money on the trading floor before becoming burnt out, had many bad days, both because the job itself was stressful, and because the vast majority of people around her– practically all men– were sexist.  In many cases, the way for a female to get ahead besides having super luck, quick math skills and keen intuition about human behavior, was to sleep with one’s (male) boss.

Read the book to get a comprehensive, entertaining picture of the American commodities-futures market in the mid-single-digit 2000’s.

God Is My Broker

The Book of the Week is “God Is My Broker” by Brother Ty, with Christopher Buckley and John Tierney.  It is a very funny satire.  The story starts with a man who made sufficient money on “Wall Street” to retire at a young age.  However, a mid-life crisis caused him to try the lifestyle of a Trappist Monk.

While swearing off material possessions at the monastery, “Brother Ty” still had the urge to gamble.  So he let a line of text in a religious tract dictate his course of action in the stock market.   The way Brother Ty interpreted the text turned out to be contrarian to most other traders’ advice and actions, but turned out to be extremely lucrative for him.

The humor of this book emerges when the monastery and the monastery’s abbot are revealed to be just as dishonest as Wall Street.   The monastery raised money through selling wine that was falsely advertised, and the abbot built himself an entertainment center with the ill-gotten gains. Read the book to vicariously experience the hilarity that ensues.

Silicon Snake Oil

The Book of the Week is “Silicon Snake Oil” by Clifford Stoll.  This prescient book (published in 1996) presents evidence that the use of technology in certain areas of our lives, such as in education, is not necessarily a cure-all.

Here is an excerpt describing what happened when the author’s machine was malfunctioning:  “…so I grovel before a technician or pay a long-distance fee to get lost in a thicket of automated help messages…”

Just a few problems in American schools include overcrowding, poor teaching, poor security and budget shortfalls.  “Computers address none of these problems.”  Just because technology might “make learning fun” does not mean students learn any better. It just makes curriculum suppliers richer.

This is a thought-provoking book.

Bad Attitude

The Book of the Week is “Bad Attitude; The Processed World Anthology.”  Edited by Chris Carlsson with Mark Leger, 1990.  This is a compilation of the late 1970’s magazine, “Processed World,” about early office computers.  It has many funny anecdotes, illustrations, comic strips and photos.  The caption of one photo (which really doesn’t require a photo) reads, “Sabotage… It’s as simple as pulling a plug…”