Bad Boy Ballmer

The Book of the Week is “Bad Boy Ballmer, the Man Who Rules Microsoft” by Frederic Alan Maxwell, published in 2002. This ebook recounts the history of Microsoft and the career of its co-founder, Steve Ballmer.

Ballmer grew up in Birmingham, Michigan, which was a community comprised of “intense and well-funded academic, athletic, and social competition, and a high level of parental expectation, involvement, and support.” Ballmer’s father decided he was going to attend Harvard College. Fortunately, his superb academic record proved sufficient for acceptance. There, he met Bill Gates. They struck up a friendship and started Microsoft in the spring of 1975.

In the early 1980’s, under Ballmer’s and Gates’ auspices, the company created applications software that worked best on its own operating systems. This was one of many of Microsoft’s monopolistic practices that prompted government investigations and many lawsuits against it. Legally, financially and politically astute, Microsoft successfully defended itself for well over a decade, and employed unlawful dirty tricks in taking swipes at IBM, Sun Microsystems, Netscape and many other companies that made competing products. The whole time, Microsoft arrogantly denied it was a monopoly.

In the summer of 1998, Ballmer was named president of the company, which was still dogged by accusations of illegal business practices. The corporate culture had changed for the worse, and employee turnover rose. In order to boost morale, Ballmer “scheduled one-on-one interviews with the top hundred of Microsoft’s now thirty-five thousand employees, asking them what they thought was wrong with the company and how it could change.”

Ballmer told the press that his $180 billion company was overvalued. Shortly thereafter, on September 23, 1999, Microsoft’s NASDAQ stock price plummeted. Shareholders in the Seattle area alone suffered collective losses of $11 billion, or over “$3,000 for every man, woman, child and dog.” Other tech stocks fell precipitously as well. It was thought that Ballmer’s remark was a deliberate strategy to financially debilitate Microsoft’s rivals, which lacked the resources his company did.

Performance of Microsoft employees was reviewed every six months, on a 5-point scale. Managers competed for the privilege of supervising employees awarded high scores. However, the system had an inherent unfairness in that some managers gave 3’s for 4.5-level work, because they were supposed to rank their subordinates pursuant to the normal curve.

Read the book to learn more about how Ballmer’s personality and actions shaped Microsoft for over a quarter of a century.

Destiny of the Republic

The Book of the Week is “Destiny of the Republic” by Candice Millard, published in 2011.

In 1880, James A. Garfield was a humble soul. He, like Abraham Lincoln, did not traverse the country making speeches because stumping was “considered undignified for a presidential candidate.”

Garfield actually did not want to become the 20th president of the United States, but he was elected anyway. He was inaugurated in 1881, in March– the month in which presidents took the oath of office until 1933– when transportation to Washington, D.C. had been sufficiently improved.

At the time, the Secret Service sought to eliminate counterfeit money, not provide security for the president. He had no bodyguards. It was thought there was no way to prevent a determined public from harming him. So he did not worry about assassination.

On orders from God, a deranged man named Charles Guiteau shot Garfield in a train station. While Garfield lay on the extremely unsanitary floor, a doctor “inserted an unsterilized finger into the wound in his back, causing a small hemorrhage…” and a big infection.

If the president had been shot only fifteen years later, he would have been X-rayed and would have undergone antiseptic surgery. However, at the time, the American medical community was still resistant to accepting Lister’s theories on antisepsis, and instead exhibited arrogant, distrustful behavior.

Read the book to learn the destiny of the United States at this fateful turn of events.

Louis D. Brandeis, A Life

The Book of the Week is “Louis D. Brandeis, A Life” by Melvin I. Urofsky, published in 2009. This is the lengthy biography of an attorney and Supreme Court Justice.

The youngest of three siblings, Brandeis grew up in Louisville, KY in the 1850’s and 1860’s, and graduated from Harvard Law School.

Prior to the early 20th century, Brandeis felt that his job as an attorney was to help develop a fair solution for all parties involved in a dispute. He felt he was a mediator and moralist, rather than an attorney being paid to favorably act on behalf of and give legal advice to only his client. This mentality led Brandeis to engage in a few conflicts of interest in dealing with his firm’s clients.  For instance, he represented a corporate client in litigation in which a third party was represented by his firm.

Despite becoming embroiled in a few episodes of hypocrisy, Brandeis fought against corrupt, monopolistic practices of various large American institutions. He felt obligated to do what he considered public service, pro bono. Fortunately, his income as a law partner allowed this.

In the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, there were three big insurance companies that wielded an amount of power similar to that of big-name brokerages in the early 2000’s. The outsized ego and greed of the insurance executives, too, led them to manipulate the government, commit accounting irregularities, and abuse their power and the public’s trust. Brandeis took them on, exposing what he thought was their moral depravity. He then found a way for the public to avoid adding to the profits of the evil insurance corporations by initiating the sale of affordable life insurance through savings banks.

Brandeis was nominated a Supreme Court Justice by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. “When confronted with the first Jew named to the Supreme Court, and in a time of growing nativism, clearly those who ‘feared foreigners’ would oppose the appointment.” Brandeis had to endure four stressful months of hearings and background checking before he was appointed.

Around 1920, Brandeis became active in the Zionist movement. He controversially defined the movement as one in which oppressed Jews could receive financial assistance to improve their lot through settling in Palestine. Since the persecuted Jews who had found a haven in the United States had become successful in their adopted country, they did not need to go to Palestine to build a homeland there. But they were urged to help their fellow Jews who were worse off than themselves, to do so. Other people in the movement felt Brandeis did not truly understand the mentality of the oppressed Jewish immigrants, who viewed Palestine as a place they could freely practice their religion.

During the 1930’s, when Great Britain realized that Arabs greatly outnumbered Jews, and that there was so much oil in the Middle East, she changed her political position on Zionism as mentioned in the Balfour Declaration. She found the Jews argumentative, and wanted Palestine to be “an Arab-dominated region under English tutelage.”

Brandeis favored a workday shorter than twelve or fourteen hours, in order to give unionized American workers time to fulfill their civic responsibilities to get involved in local politics and “as parents and members of their communities.”

As a Supreme Court Justice, Brandeis left an influential legacy in that he had a “… great impact not only on jurisdictional matters but on commercial law, antitrust, administrative law, utility regulation, federalism, and individual liberties.”

Until the Sea Shall Free Them

The Book of the Week is “Until the Sea Shall Free them” by Robert Frump, published in 2001.

This wordy, repetitive, yet suspenseful book tells the detailed story of the February 1983 shipwreck of the Marine Electric, among many other briefly described maritime catastrophes. The scurvy old 605-foot bulk carrier transported coal in the North Atlantic Ocean from Boston, MA to Norfolk, VA.

The investigation of what happened conducted by the Marine Board– a panel of industry officials– was subject to the vagaries of the maritime legal system. Safety inspections of ships were performed by the U.S. Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping. The National Transportation Safety Board was yet another regulatory body of maritime matters.

The Marine Board generated reports on shipping accidents. In rare cases, its recommendations might include Justice Department investigation and prosecution of a shipping company executive, or a review of the license of a ship’s captain; the latter, for criminal law violation, like for negligence in putting men’s lives at risk for failure to follow safety procedures.

A ship’s officers were usually blamed for disasters because ship owners and builders had a friendly relationship with the federal government. Political contributions helped elect candidates who turned a blind eye to regulating safety in marine commerce.

The ship’s top officers were under tremendous pressure to go on a voyage despite safety violations. Whistle-blowing behavior might get them fired. There was always the threat that a rival union would be awarded their current shipping contract. Some men waited more than a year before they could be assigned their next job on a ship.

For years, disasters were waiting to happen, due to the “rationalization, denial, greed and stubbornness” in connection with repairing and mantaining of decades-old ships. In the mid-1970’s, more than one fifth of all deaths from shipping accidents were due to structural failures of the vessels.

Heartbreakingly, during a winter storm at sea, some crew members die when they are so close to surviving. The lifeboats are buffeted about by rough waves and dashed on rocks or into a seawall, or men who lack protective clothing and proper safety equipment, fall into the freezing water while trying to board a rescue boat.

As in many other industries, shipping is one in which the big companies care more about money than seeking to reduce dangerous conditions. Despite poor safety records and the expenses of lawsuits and damage to their reputations, the large players stayed in business through the decades of the twentieth century. On the flip side, in accidents, numerous greedy seamen abused a lenient system that awarded them big bucks in personal injury cases.

Read the book to learn the fates of the parties associated with the Marine Electric after its fall from grace.

Justice Brennan, Liberal Champion

The Book of the Week is “Justice Brennan, Liberal Champion” by Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel, published in 2010. As can be surmised from the title, this book is about Supreme Court Justice William Brennan’s life and liberalism.

When Brennan was first appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower in the mid 1950’s, the United States Supreme Court was ruling on cases dealing with integration, Communism and censorship of pornography. “Brennan and his allies on the Court were being attacked by the mid 1960’s for encouraging racial mixing, coddling Communists and trying to drive God out of public life.”

The Court turned very conservative after Richard Nixon was elected president. Conservative politicians secretly investigated liberals for any conflicts of interest, or worse sins, to force the liberal justices off the Court. Brennan quit all teaching and lecturing to eliminate all of his own conflicts of interest and divested himself of real estate interests and stock. No other liberal justices took such precautions.

Although principled, legally obedient and even supportive of several women’s rights issues, ironically, Brennan refused to hire females as clerks in his own chambers. It was only after an aide wrote to him in strong language in the early 1970’s– that sooner or later, someone would sue a Supreme Court Justice alleging gender discrimination in clerk selection. Besides, Brennan would want his own daughter to be hired, if she were in a position to apply.

The Court stayed conservative for the rest of Brennan’s tenure. Read the book to learn the impact Brennan made on the Court nevertheless.

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.

Here Comes Trouble

The Book of the Week is “Here Comes Trouble” by Michael Moore, published in 2011. This is a collection of stories from the life of a passionate political activist. The author has used various ways to inform the public of injustices, including running a newspaper, producing a TV show and movies, and writing books and articles.

At the end of Moore’s freshman year at a Catholic seminary, he was asked not to return. It was an academically challenging environment, but he was a good student. He committed no serious infractions.

However, Moore was a frequent questioner of authority, as he had been from a very young age. He grew up in a generation of Americans whose early childhood was still innocent, having been born in the mid-1950’s.  He asked his religious instructors pointed questions such as “Why don’t we let women be priests?” and “Do you think Jesus would send soldiers to Vietnam if he were here right now?” and “In the Bible, there’s no mention of Jesus from age twelve to age thirty. Where do you think he went?”

Moore had changed his mind about becoming a priest, anyway. Read the book to find out about some of the more entertaining episodes in his life, religious and otherwise.

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.

If This Be Treason

The Book of the Week is “If This Be Treason: Your Sons Tell Their Own Stories of Why They Won’t Fight For Their Country” by Franklin Stevens, published in 1970. This book is about American men who received draft notices, but were against the Vietnam War. The threat of being sent to fight in a war in which they didn’t believe took a terrible psychological toll on these men and their families– who were neither wealthy nor influential enough to keep them out of it. They explain not only why they were against the war, but how they kept out of it.

The men implemented all sorts of strategies for at least temporarily rendering themselves ineligible to fight on physical or psychological grounds:  consuming an excessive number of salt pills, increasing one’s weight to 250 lbs or more, reducing one’s weight to 105 lbs or less, eating soap to get an ulcer, cutting off a limb, faking a condition such as:  insanity, transvestitism or homosexuality; or claiming one was a sleepwalker. Some other ways to stay away from the military were:  qualifying for a deferment by getting one’s wife pregnant or staying in school, enrolling and paying tuition at a school where one did not actually have to attend classes, or becoming a teacher or other government worker.

Some men found out about a draft-resisters’ organization located (ironically) in the United Nations area in New York City, where they learned how they could flee to Canada.

Other men were sent to jail for refusing to fight.

Some men applied for conscientious objector status, claiming they should be exempted from military service because they believed participating in a situation in which people might die at their hands, was wrong. “A conscientious objector had a better chance of being acquitted for draft dodging by a jury because every case of offenses against the draft law that demands a jury trial adds a burden to the judicial system and thus increases pressure against the draft and the war.” Unfortunately, it took a very long time before sufficient pressure forced the United States to pull out of the war in disgrace.

Some readers might consider this subject matter controversial and disturbing, but as long as history repeats itself, this subject merits discussion.

The Case of Joe Hill

The Book of the Week is “The Case of Joe Hill” by Philip S. Foner, published in 1965.  This is the story of the grave injustice perpetrated against Joseph Hillstrom (“Joe Hill” was the American-English translation).

In the early 1900’s, American managers of industry had politicians on their side and violent opposition to unions was commonplace. In 1914, the Swedish-American was wrongly accused of murder, and because he was a member of a vilified socialist labor organization, “International Workers of the World,” local authority figures (and possibly the Mormon Church) in Utah– where his trial was held– conspired to convict him.

He was a well-known, prolific writer of socialist songs. Despite the legal funds and political support from solidarity-minded labor groups around the world (support that included an urgent appeal to President Woodrow Wilson), the trial ended badly for him.

This account is reminiscent of the book, “Big Trouble” by J. Anthony Lukas, published in 1997, a 1905 case in which two union activists were wrongly accused of murder and denied due process, too.