I Got A Name

The Book of the Week is “I Got A Name, The Jim Croce Story” by Ingrid Croce and Jimmy Rock, published in 2012. This is a career biography of the singer-songwriter Jim Croce.

In struggling to be his own man, Croce’s strengths and weaknesses emerged. In the early 1960’s, Croce rebelled against his parents in various ways. He broke free of his strict Catholic upbringing by converting to Judaism, marrying a Jew and pursuing a music career irrelevant to his Villanova University education in psychology and German.

He was able to stand up to his family but not the music company he chose to represent him and his wife. Although Croce had incredible talent and passion for composing and singing folk songs about working class people and love, the couple got swindled due to their phobia for dealing with attorneys. For years, Croce’s music made only his promoters wealthy. The couple stayed dirt poor even after there was widespread purchasing of his music.

In the late 1960’s, the Croces were pressured by the music company to go on concert tours at colleges. In the early 1970’s, Croce, without his wife, went on long, grueling road trips, during which he adopted the stereotyped rock-star lifestyle– taking drugs (not the hard ones, though) and philandering, but without the luxury accommodations and high pay.

Read the book to learn the full story (that ended tragically) of the suffering that Croce and his family endured in order for him to pursue his dream.

A Sea In Flames

The Book of the Week is “A Sea In Flames, The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout” by Carl Safina, published in 2011. This is a description of the disaster that spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico starting in late April 2010.

British Petroleum (BP)– the oil company– was the major party responsible for killing eleven workers and causing ongoing long-term emotional trauma and major financial hardships for thousands of people. BP’s poor safety record, and favoring money over human beings made it more of a scapegoat than the other parties involved– Halliburton, Transocean and other subcontractors that were providing equipment and services for deep exploratory drilling.

The accident’s aftermath was a cluster screw-up. Both plugging the oil leak and cleaning up the oil were uncharted territory, literally and figuratively. Previously, greedy politicians had been loath to regulate the oil industry because they needed the industry’s campaign contributions to win elections.

A month after the disaster, President Obama prohibited deep sea drilling for six more months. Even so, in June 2010, a federal judge nixed such legislation for economic reasons. It was clear that the government continued to woo the oil companies, at the expense of the victims. That judge cared more about the nation’s fiscal health than about people’s health and the environment.

The victims include not just humans, but civilization as a whole. This blogger contends that it does not matter that the victims are voters. They are easily psychologically manipulated. The oil mess has incalculable, ambiguous biological and environmental consequences. However, hard economic numbers win elections because money is more important to voters, too. Voters will readily believe a storm of economic misinformation, including the incorrect notion that clean fuels cost more than fossil fuels. Electoral mudslinging that asserts that the opposing candidate allowed serious health problems and scary ecological goings-on to occur, to which oil contamination might or might be attributable, do not win elections.

This is just one more depressing piece of writing that reminds us that we are all destroying our earth.

The Black Swan

The Book of the Week is “The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, published in 2010. In this book, the author explains his theory about rare, unexpected events, “Black Swans”– unexpected by those affected, because human traits and uncertain situations cause people to draw the wrong conclusions, formulate the wrong predictions, and make the wrong decisions. “Black Swan events are largely caused by people using measures way over their heads, instilling false confidence based on bogus results.” The author applies his ideas mostly to “experts” who manipulate the financial markets.

While Taleb makes some good points, this blogger suspects that very few readers of this book will come away fully understanding what a Black Swan is. Taleb tries to provide several examples; his illustrations are unclear as to why one event is a Black Swan and why another is not.

One example consists of five trading managers at a European-owned financial institution who wrote a five-year plan. Having neglected to consider all possible adverse future events, they were done in by “the Black Swan of the Russian financial default of 1998 and the accompanying meltdown of the values of Latin American debt markets.” Yet, Taleb writes that the 2008 financial crisis was not a Black Swan. He says such a cluster screw-up will happen again. A Black Swan is a negative or more rarely, a positive occurrence that in general, has never happened before.

One human trait people have is that they are reluctant to attribute events to randomness. But Taleb thinks randomness plays a part in all sorts of events, including long winning streaks of investors. He even generated a computer simulation showing how it would be impossible not to have money managers who beat the market year after year– he says they did so simply by luck alone. Another reason these investors are overrated is that people hear more often about winners rather than losers.

Taleb writes, “We want to be told stories, and there is nothing wrong with that– except that we should check more thoroughly whether the story provides consequential distortions of reality… Just consider that the newspapers try to get impeccable facts, but weave them into a narrative in such a way as to convey the impression of causality (and knowledge).”

The Fall of the House of Forbes

The Book of the Week is “The Fall of the House of Forbes” by Stewart Pinkerton, published in 2011.  This volume describes the changes that occurred at Forbes (a magazine publisher named after its founding family) in the post-Malcolm Forbes era.

Malcolm, a major shareholder of the company, spent extravagantly on a collection of mansions, art, and vehicles that traversed land, sea and air; not to mention business parties. He had managed the company until his mysterious death in 1991. Thereafter, his successors imposed frugality. Nevertheless, Forbes was unprepared for the new realities of the internet.

When the magazine was finally forced to restructure its operations by instituting massive layoffs and integrating print and Web, it had already been plagued for years by arrogant and petty editors, office politics, high turnover and numerous inefficiencies. While the magazine previously had a sterling reputation for meticulous fact-checking, it has jettisoned quality for dumbed-down content and Web traffic at any cost.

It is thought that the way to achieve profitability on the Web is to foster interactivity with readers.  The Huffington Post does so, but has yet to make any money. Furthermore, research has shown that people have much poorer focus and information retention when they are reading news on a backlit screen, than when reading news in print form.

Read the book to learn the history of the Forbes family, and the people and bad choices behind the collapse of this media empire.

Healing Hearts

The Book of the Week is “Healing Hearts” by Kathy E. Magliato, M.D., published in 2010. This is a personal account detailing one woman’s experiences trying to balance her medical training and career, with her family life.

She details various issues, including but not limited to: the long, rigorous road to becoming a full-fledged doctor in her specialty; the discrimination she faces in a male-dominated field; the job emergencies that cut into quality time with her family; and the healthcare crisis in the United States.

Magliato and her husband have a combined 43 years of education and training in medicine. She, in cardiac surgery; he, in liver transplants. She describes the hardships she faces when passionately attempting to save lives. She must ignore her own physical needs while standing for, say, fifteen hours in a row to help provide patients with a replacement heart, or veins or valves. She needs to hold particular medical instruments in place for many minutes without flinching, lest she harm the patient.

Magliato predicts a collapse of the American health care system. The reason is simply that health insurance companies do not pay what hospitals bill them; rather, they pay what they feel like paying. An insurance company might be billed $385,000 for heart surgery hospitalization, but it might pay the hospital only $54,000.

“…a hospital is ecstatic whenever it collects more than 10% of the bill. How can hospitals not only survive but be able to deliver state of the art care when their price is not met? They can only increase their quantity until the hospital is full. They can only cut their costs until the delivery of quality health care is jeopardized.”

Fateful Harvest

The Book of the Week is “Fateful Harvest” by Duff Wilson, published in 2002. Here is yet another book that describes one of the countless ways humans are destroying the earth and themselves.

Wilson, a journalist, revealed an environmental problem (and by natural extension, health hazard) perpetrated by large corporations on people in a small town in Washington State. It is unknown how many people elsewhere are affected, since it is extremely difficult to prove proximate cause when it comes to cancer in people who have had unmeasured exposure to countless carcinogens throughout their lives. The story was reminiscent of the book and movie “A Civil Action.” However, in Quincy, Washington, there has yet to be a class action suit.

In recent decades, companies have found a way to save millions of dollars disposing of toxic wastes they generate. In the 1990’s, they paid $50-$100 a ton to have fertilizer companies use those wastes in fertilizer, which was then sold to farmers. They would have paid $200 or $300 a ton to dump the wastes in a landfill instead. The fertilizer companies take advantage of a loophole in the law, which regulates “wastes,” not “products.” Fertilizer is a “product” even when it contains fly ash, contaminated phosphoric acid, beryllium, cadmium, chromium and other toxins from automakers, zinc smelters, copper recycling plants and steel mills.

Food becomes contaminated when grown in contaminated fertilizer. The farmers grow the potatoes, corn and beans, etc., sold to food processing plants that make and sell French fries and other edible products.

Read the book to learn how this serious environmental threat was discovered, and the various reasons why outspoken farmers, a horse breeder and the mayor, among other adversely affected Quincy residents, could not acquire sufficient power and influence to close the loophole in the law.

Coronary

The Book of the Week is “Coronary, A True Story of Medicine Gone Awry” by Stephen Klaidman, published in 2007. This book recounts what happens when people are afflicted by certain aspects of human nature:  greed, power-hunger and fear. It is a sensational story, the kind even tabloids could not fabricate.

In the 1990’s and single-digit 2000’s, there was a cardiac surgeon, one Dr. Moon, who exhibited the first two aspects in spades– instilling dire panic in impressionable patients, telling them that their clogged arteries could kill them at any second, and therefore, they had to be scheduled for triple or quadruple bypass surgery within the week. Those patients underwent the rigorous, dangerous, and worst of all– in the vast majority of cases– unnecessary procedure, taking weeks to recover, getting saddled with medical bills.

Dr. Moon loved the control he had over people, and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. His reputation was sterling, due to word-of-mouth and great public relations (people truly believed he saved their lives). The hospital where he committed his medical malpractice was one owned by the then-disreputable holding company, National Medical Enterprises (which later changed its name to Tenet Healthcare).

Wait, there’s more! There were other greedy parties involved in the story. Three people saw what was really happening, and found a way to capitalize on the situation. They brought a Qui Tam lawsuit against the doctor and his accomplices. This means they accused him of bilking Medicaid and Medicare out of big bucks by billing the federal government for unnecessary surgeries. They were expecting to reap a large reward for reporting the errant doctor.

Read the book to learn the sordid details and outcome of this extreme saga.

Birthright

The Book of the Week is “Birthright: Murder, Greed and Power in the U-Haul Family Dynasty” by Ronald J. Watkins, published in 1993. This is a cautionary tale about an American public corporation whose founder failed to take steps to secure control of his company. L.S. Shoen “lacked the heart to dilute the shares of his oldest children. If he had issued himself more shares, he could have guaranteed he would always have control or if he had modified the rules, only a supermajority of shareholders could have ousted him.”

The company’s stock situation aside, the story began after WWII, when Shoen started his truck rental business. The business proved successful until his children attained adulthood, at which time, he favored two of his sons, who drained the company’s resources on their expensive hobbies. This bad situation led to a legal dispute among family members over company ownership, that resulted in murder. The newspapers mockingly reported the court battles as a family fight among “the idle rich”, as the majority shareholders were publicly viewed as heirs to the family fortune.

One of the sons was suspected of perpetrating the said murder. This is an extreme story, because even when American family members are fighting over company ownership, they rarely stoop so low as to terrorize the rival camp by killing someone.

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.