The Girl Who Fell to Earth

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.

Super Crunchers

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.

Law Man – Bonus Post

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.

The Astonishing Mr. Scripps

The Book of the Week is “The Astonishing Mr. Scripps” by Vance H. Trimble, published in 1992. This large volume documents the life, among other family members, of Edward Willis Scripps, born in June 1854, the 13th child of James and Julia Scripps. He became the head of the nation’s first newspaper chain by the end of the 19th century.

Prior to journalism, starting at twelve years of age, Scripps was required to assist his father at bookbinding, on the farm and at a sugar mill. He quit school at fifteen. In 1872, after dabbling in a few other ventures, at eighteen, he escaped a life of manual labor to help his 38-year old older brother in the print shop at the Detroit Tribune. The culture was such that journalists had to frequent a bar in order to get good assignments. There was peer pressure to drink.

About five years later, Scripps moved to Cleveland to start another newspaper there. He wanted to sell the paper on the streets, rather than through the customary routes with paperboys. “A newsboy could buy copies wholesale at the pressroom door for half a cent, thus earning fifty cents for each hundred sold.”

The composing room was where the ad and editorial departments had a conflict because advertising copy and news stories competed for space so the one that was typeset second got short shrift at deadline time. Scripps’ paper favored blue collar readers. Its rivals were read by wealthy, industrialist readers. Scripps supported trade unionism and opposed the capitalists. He tried to maximize revenue from subscribers rather than advertisers so he could write what he wanted; he thus didn’t have to print what advertisers told him to.

In 1880, Scripps started yet another newspaper in St. Louis– the Evening Chronicle. A competing paper, the Post Dispatch, was bribing the Chronicle carriers to transfer their route customers to the Post Dispatch. That same year, during the presidential election, the Chronicle’s circulation jumped to 13,000 and afterwards, fell back to 10,000.

In early 1881, when James Garfield was inaugurated U.S. President, Scripps wrote, “Hence we are writing the thing up from home [St. Louis], dating it from Washington and putting big headlines over it. Of course it is fraud, but there is no greater fraud than the doubt whether the country ever had a president with a title honestly acquired.”

The four newspapers were losing money, so in 1888, Scripps formed a “syndicate”– consolidated them– to achieve economies of scale and make them profitable. Nevertheless, he still imposed draconian, petty cost-cutting measures on his employees the following year, such as making reporters pay for work-related costs like transportation, pencils, business cards and promotional copies of the paper.

On the home front, Scripps’ wife had gotten pregnant seven times in twelve years. Four children lived to adulthood.

In 1904, Scripps knew it was a conflict to “… pollute its columns with noxious hucksterism. America’s press would never be truly free and honest until newspapers flatly refused to print any advertising matter at all.” Wealthy merchants could threaten to bankrupt a paper by not advertising. Scripps looked for a city where a paper could stay in business through circulation revenue alone. He thought the paper should be an instrument for fighting oppression and improving quality of life: “… better sanitation, better education, better and healthier and more moral amusements, better homes, better wages, better sermons in our churches, better accommodations on street cars.”

The two conditions required for success with an advertising-free paper are: it must be interesting and have prompt and dependable delivery. But for Scripps, the costs exceeded the profits because he had to pay printers, pressmen, reporters, circulators, rent, utilities, etc. This blogger believes that in the 21st century, many online publications have the aforementioned conditions; however, a third condition includes the fact that readers must be willing to pay for the product.

In 1915, Scripps invested in Max Eastman’s radical weekly “The Masses” – ironically named, because the weekly’s focus was not on the downtrodden, but America’s elite. Eastman’s 22 liberal contributors submitted articles for free. The paper still operated at a loss; circulation was stagnant. There is nothing new under the sun.

Scripps wanted his teenage son Bob to work, saying “I do not want to you to be a simple onlooker and student and critic of life…” Around 1913, Bob had an affair with the wife of his father’s business partner, just like in the movie “The Graduate” (1967). Only, Bob was under 18 years old. There is nothing new under the sun.

Unsurprisingly, Scripps was a cynic. He was “… convinced, rightly or wrongly, that altruism, which is almost universal, is still almost universally a minor motive in a man.”

Read the book to learn the history of the wire services, how the people at the Scripps newspapers coped with local political corruption, how they shaped policy in Washington, survived natural disasters and wars, company power struggles, and the consequences of the Scripps family’s alcoholism.

On the Firing Line

The Book of the Week is “On the Firing Line” by Gil Amelio with William L. Simon, published in 1998. In this informative book, Amelio chronicles his short tenure as Apple Computer’s CEO from early 1995 to mid 1997.

Some might say Amelio made a foolhardy decision to take on the challenge of turning Apple around, when he had a secure and promising future as the CEO of National Semiconductor, whose recovery he had spearheaded. Throughout the book, he discusses the series of difficulties he faced and admits his errors in judgment.

Amelio handed grist to his critics on a silver platter because he allowed his employees to talk to the media, which had a field day on many fronts. The media also played him for a fool.

There were numerous factors out of the CEO’s control that also gave him a tough time. His predecessor allowed extreme price cuts on Apple’s products, and the sales team was playing a short-sighted game– a vicious cycle every holiday season, whereby they would give deep last-minute discounts to retailers to move inventory, putting a better face than otherwise on the financial condition of the company, as its fiscal year started on October 1.

Amelio was distressed to find that the corporate culture was fragmented along departmental lines. The engineers worked on products the sales department had no intention of selling. “Apple never had an official statement of strategy – which inevitably means that every executive, and most managers, design their own versions. Everyone pursues their own goals, rowing frantically but each pulling in a different direction.” One reason was that managers knew the company was in dire financial straits and feared their projects were going to be cut.

Some thought Amelio desperate and a sellout for holding meetings with the enemy, Bill Gates, to propose making Apple products compatible with Microsoft products. Nonetheless, he was wary of Gates because Gates was unreasonably stingy in his negotiations.

With Amelio at the helm, performance of the desktop models improved tenfold but sales fell. He attributed this to the presence of a subjective element in people’s reaction to Apple “…irrelevant to product quality, and has … a lot to do with what they read in the newspapers and how comfortable they are with the state of the company.”

Read the book to learn: how Amelio was too trusting when he negotiated his employment contract; about the fronts on which he did make progress, and how he was done in by Steve Jobs.

The Impossible Rescue – Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed “The Impossible Rescue” by Martin W. Sandler, published in 2012.

This ebook describes the 1897 disaster in which eight whaling ships were hemmed in by mid-autumn ice for months when unexpectedly severe weather struck Point Barrow, Alaska. The total 265-member crews faced starvation, as they had insufficient food supplies for surviving more than a few months. They were subjected to darkness day and night, and temperatures tens of degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

The whalers’ volunteer-rescuers consisted of a few small parties of local natives and men from the United States who, at different intervals, coming from different directions, braved blizzards in trekking more than 1,500 miles overland with varying numbers of dogs, sleds, reindeer and hundreds of pounds in supplies. [It might be recalled that America purchased the territory of Alaska in 1867, and Alaska became a state in 1959.]

What the men did entailed life-threatening risks and extreme sacrifices. One of the groups was traveling with both dogs and reindeer simultaneously.  When sleds are pulled by both kinds of animals, “…the dogs follow their natural instincts to attack the deer.” Even keeping the dogs as far back from the deer as possible proved quite difficult.

Read the book to learn what happened to the rescuers and the rescued.