The Courage of Strangers

The Book of the Week is “The Courage of Strangers” by Jeri Laber, published in 2002. This autobiography describes the making of a passionate human rights activist.

The author grew up in privileged surroundings in New York City, in the Sunnyside section of Queens, and Jamaica Estates when the wealthy suburban enclave was in its infancy. This was because her Russian father was a multi-skilled home builder with his own business. On the family’s newly-constructed home: “Back in 1936, it was a technological wonder, with central air-conditioning, a built-in room-to-room intercom system, garage doors that opened automatically, and, buried under the steep cobblestone driveway, wires that heated up to melt the snow.”

In the early 1950’s, Laber wanted to study Russian in graduate school, but her father objected partly because it was the McCarthy Era, and because he felt over-education would hurt her chances for marriage. She defied him. In 1954, she got the opportunity to visit Moscow with three other students. Their tour guides tightly restricted their activities, allowing them to visit only tourist sites, and Moscow State University. She recorded her impressions of the people she met, including, “They have replaced God with Lenin and Stalin…These people are healthy and happy, as long as they conform.”

Excuse the cliche, but “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” At that time, there was the “Military-Industrial Complex.” Now there is the “Military-Corporate Complex.” However, world annihilation via nuclear war was the biggest fear in the 1950’s. The continuing increase in global oppression via telecommunications and other underhanded means is the biggest fear in the early 2000’s.

The author was an eyewitness to the different speeds at which different countries threw off their communist yoke, as she visited various countries behind the Iron Curtain in turn. She writes that people in the former Soviet Union had lived under communism for decades longer than their Eastern bloc counterparts. The older ones residing in the latter had known a better quality of life prior to Soviet takeover. “They looked around them and saw corrupt, repressive governments, failing economies, contaminated water, polluted air, alcoholism, and apathy.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Read the book to learn of Laber’s career adventures in Eastern Europe, her checkered love life, the difference she made at meetings with top Soviet leaders and others by speaking out against injustice, and Eastern Europe’s radical political and social changes in the 1990’s.

The Snowden Files

The Book of the Week is “The Snowden Files:  The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man” by Luke Harding, published in 2014. This ebook eloquently describes how Edward Snowden became a whistleblower, and the immediate consequences of his actions.

President Barack Obama vowed to curtail intrusive collection of personal data from and on the American people during 2008. A set of policies passed after 9/11, the Patriot Act, originally allowed certain kinds of spying. The goal was to root out terrorists. Instead of curbing the program, Obama authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) of the United States government to become an all-out global spying operation. By 2009, it was collecting metadata from millions of American and English citizens, as well as numerous global government officials, through phone records and email. It teamed up with GCHQ, the United Kingdom’s governmental branch that handles intelligence, and later, elicited customer data from the major U.S. tech companies Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft. The NSA and GCHQ “…secretly attached intercepts to the undersea fibre-optic cables that ringed the world.”

However admirable the intentions of government officials might be– thinking they are seeking out evil and preventing incidents of terrorism, their actions are misguided. They might contend that there have been no terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11, so therefore, the program is working. This erroneous reasoning is like the stupid joke: A man is sitting outside on a city street waving around an odd contraption. Someone walks by and asks him what it is. The man tells them it’s an elephant repellent. He is asked how he knows it’s working. He says, “It must be working. Do you see any elephants around here?”

This blogger believes that the privacy violations– arguably unconstitutional– are a secondary reason why the nature of the NSA’s actions are so dangerous. One major aspect that makes the spying so dangerous is that comprehensive searches can be done on electronic-records literally at the speed of light.

Excuse the cliche, but “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Abuse of power is inevitable. For instance, there have been incidents involving the TSA. Throughout history, only bad publicity generated by whistleblowers who have made serious sacrifices– their livelihoods and/or their lives– has stemmed the tide of the evildoing. The same is true with this NSA/GCHQ situation. This ebook likened the spying to the East German Stasi prior to the fall of Communism. This blogger thinks eventually, absent a whistleblower, there would have emerged an individual with the mentality of Stalin or the late U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. Fortunately, Snowden found a way to act on the conviction of his beliefs in a mature, if illegal, way. He communicated with the right individuals at The Guardian, “… the third largest newspaper website in the world.”

A minor side effect of the collection of massive amounts of data, even if only a fraction of it is looked at– is that mistakes of honest ineptitude will be made. Lives have been greatly inconvenienced at best, due to the erroneous data in credit records, and those whose names have been mistakenly placed on a “no-fly” list, among various other cluster screw-ups of record-keeping entities.

Read the book to learn of the different media cultures in the U.S. and U.K., and the details of this suspenseful saga.

In the Name of Profit – Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “In the Name of Profit” by multiple co-authors, originally published in 1972. This depressing set of anecdotes on corporate greed simply reminds the reader that there is nothing new under the sun.

One theme is that through the 1950’s and 1960’s, big manufacturers such as Goodrich and General Motors had constructive knowledge that the products they sold were defective. Purchasers had bad experiences, and were seriously injured or were killed by those products. The companies’ attorneys and their employees rationalized that “‘planned obsolescence” meant progress. “But the meaning is clear: ‘Go cheapen the product so we can make more money.” In the case of drug company Richardson-Merrell, the product wasn’t cheapened, but rather, serious side effects were downplayed or hushed up and the results of FDA pre-approval testing were fabricated. Unsurprisingly, the company and its subsidiaries hired top-dollar attorneys skilled at helping businesses weasel out of legal trouble.

Another topic covered was Napalm, whose evolution began at Guadalcanal during WWII. “The Napalm fire bomb was deliberately designed as an indiscriminate terror weapon for mass destruction and death among civilians.” When people in Vietnam were harmed, Dow Chemical’s legal defense was bolstered by the fact that it had received orders by the U.S. Government to make the controversial product.

This ebook also discussed stock manipulation and corporate takeover. SEC laws were shown to be very lax in the 1950’s and 1960’s, as one particular perpetrator did jail time for various securities violations, but after his release, went right back to his old tricks. One Herbert Korholz repeatedly gamed the system with acquisitions. President of the Susquehanna corporation, he was able to bribe directors and officers in taking over another company with a secret tender offer of a share price higher than what was to be offered to the general share-owning public. “Profit-making firms can cut their taxes magnificently by merging with big losers…” One Maurice Schy, an attorney, attempted to make the government aware of Korholz’s unethical, unlawful and disgusting behavior, by filing lawsuits through the years, to no avail. Government officials were mired in conflicts of interest (favorable to Korholz’s interest) and ruled against Schy every time except one; a ruling was pending as this book was being released in 1972. Schy had finally gotten a possible break only because there was another case brought by another party against Korholz’s companies’ illegal activities.

In sum, we human beings are a mixed bag of evolutionary traits; altruism and greed among them. On many occasions, greed wins out, and we never seem to learn from those past occasions.

Confessions of a Surgeon

The Book of the Week is “Confessions of a Surgeon” by Paul A. Ruggieri, M.D., published in 2012.

These days in the United States, with the landscape changing for the worse in some ways in the medical community, all sorts of factors threaten the progression of the livelihood of a surgeon; namely– bad luck, lawsuits, increasing stress and diminishing financial returns. The author details those factors in the context of patient cases he has seen.

The conventional saying about a surgeon’s career is that the first decade is spent learning how to operate; the next, learning when to operate, and the next, learning when not to operate.

With the rapid advancement in imaging technology of late, more and more patients are accidentally learning that they have certain medical conditions. Such incidental findings generate extra worries and expenses, especially if the conditions are life-threatening. The word “cancer” on a medical report automatically stokes a surgeon’s fear of being accused of medical malpractice. The surgeon feels compelled to order more tests for legal protection and containment of medical malpractice insurance costs (which rise even in cases where the surgeon is exonerated) even when there is only a tiny likelihood of malignancy. Yes, the author writes, there are plenty of greedy surgeons who order more tests (or perform unnecessary surgery) just to make more money.

The author is in private practice at a hospital, so he gets all his business through referrals from other medical professionals or patients. Therefore, he is under pressure to “play well with others” in his community, lest he lose business.

“Surgeons frequently have conversations with body parts or organs they are trying to remove. They also have conversations with themselves. It’s a way to blow off steam while your mind scrambled to deal with the unexpected.”

Read the book to learn more about the trials, tribulations and triumphs of people who perform medical operations for a living.

Chasing Chaos

The Book of the Week is “Chasing Chaos:  My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid” by Jessica Alexander, published in 2013. This is the career memoir of an aid worker who found her calling in helping refugees of war, natural disasters and anti-government uprisings.

She interviewed the victims, wrote reports on their living conditions, pushed paper, attended meetings and held meetings, among other bureaucratic tasks– doing two-month to seven-month stints in The Sudan, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Haiti. “The martyr complex permeated my psyche, and although I desperately needed a break, I felt negligent when I left.”

In Darfur, the author learned of the pitiful situation in education by visiting a “school,” which consisted of a tent, a blackboard, benches and prayer mats. Teachers who had been working without a salary for two months told her that the ratios: of children to teachers was one hundred and fifty to one; children to notebooks was three to one, and children to lesson books was eight to one.

Alexander recounted a bizarre scene in which airport security left a lot to be desired. “The security men were looking at a blank screen. And the metal detector? It wasn’t plugged in. The airport had no power. But they put on a good show anyway…”

In recent years, Hollywood celebrities’ jumping on the international-charity bandwagon has meant a tremendous boost in the flow of money to various humanitarian causes. People have thus acquired the misguided notion that throwing money at the problems in Third-World countries, or a week-long visit to them during spring break to shovel some dirt in an attempt to rebuild, or donating old clothes to their hapless citizens, is actually what they need or want.

Read the book to learn:

why the author became frustrated and felt powerless when she was stateside again, working at the corporate office of a non-governmental organization (NGO; non-profit humanitarian aid group);

how the media do their part to raise awareness of suffering in the world;

and her course of action when she was forced to choose between her career and her life’s romantic subplot (i.e., settling down in a stable lifestyle as a member of a community).

The Why Axis – Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “The Why Axis” by Uri Gneezy and John A. List, published in 2013. The co-authors discuss their experiments in behavioral economics– the decisions and actions people make and take when they must allocate limited resources in their professional and personal lives.

The authors concluded from their research that gender-related competitiveness is learned– taught by society, rather than inherited. They write that many studies have also shown that when men appoint a leader, they choose someone who resembles them.

Read the book to learn about other interesting findings, such as the risk factors for teenagers’ getting shot, the fastest way to: meet fundraising goals; modify behavior in marketing products; and increase factory-worker productivity by using incentives, punishment or a combination of both.

The Education of a Coach

The Book of the Week is “The Education of a Coach” by David Halberstam, published in 2005. This ebook describes the career of Bill Belichick, eventual head coach of two different professional American football teams from the 1990’s into the 2000’s. His excellence at analyzing films of players in action was instrumental in assembling winning teams and Super Bowl victories.

Job security is poor for coaching positions in college sports departments and in professional sports. There are many factors out of the control of the personnel, and networking is crucial for obtaining the next job, often in a different city. A newly installed athletic director could fire the head coach, and the assistant coaches would have to leave with him. Players could get injured or the team owner could interfere with the coaching of the team. Egos are big and the system for how players are chosen for professional football teams has changed over the decades.

Read the book to learn how Belichick rose to the top and why he ran into trouble in Cleveland but achieved tremendous success in New England.

Fake

The Book of the Week is “Fake” by Kenneth Walton, published in 2006. This book’s author tells a suspenseful story about his 2003 eBay activities that were deemed a crime.

A friend who was well-versed in the business, sparked Walton’s passion for hunting for paintings at antique shops, thrift stores and flea markets, and reselling those paintings at a profit on the online auction site. However, as Walton honed his entrepreneurial skills, he got greedy and began to collude with his friend, using deception to make more money.

Read the book to learn of what happened when Walton found himself in serious trouble, and how he realized he could make money honestly through a different pursuit for which he had natural ability, and for which he developed a passion.