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.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

The Book of the Week is “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey, published in 1990.  The author tells readers how to improve their social skills to achieve their goals. He illustrates his points with anecdotes on parenting in his own large family. One phrase in the book that stuck in this blogger’s mind is, “Use your resources and initiative.”

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.

In the Classroom – Bonus Post

Former teacher Mark Gerson, in his book “In the Classroom” published in 1997, presents two revelatory concepts about education.

The first is about how teachers should not try to identify with their students. They should not try to be their friends by forcing themselves to develop interests in common with their students. “Students want their teachers to be the men and women they want to become, not one of the kids.”

The second concept involves the misguided notion that celebrity role-models who lecture kids on living a clean life– practicing safe sex, avoiding drugs, being a good citizen, etc.– will succeed in changing their behaviors. They will not succeed. Inner-city kids will live clean lives only when they are surrounded by people they know personally who do so daily, and when there is love shared among them.

“Just as absurd as the role model example is the notion advanced by Helen Straka of the United States Department of Education in defending her agency’s $14 billion budget: ‘By having a Department of Education you’re saying the kids are number one, and there’s someone in Washington who’s their friend, who’s pulling for them.” This was news to Gerson, as no students he knew, knew there even WAS an Education Department. Better friends for the students would include teachers and parents who taught the value of discipline and hard work.

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.

The Red Parts

The Book of the Week is “The Red Parts” by Maggie Nelson, published in 2007. In this eloquently written book, the author writes about the murder of her aunt, that occurred years before she herself was born. New DNA evidence prompted law enforcement to re-open its investigation of the cold case. The crime had been committed around the same time as other murders committed by a serial killer at the University of Michigan, where her aunt was a student. The author attended the case’s later court proceedings in connection therewith, and reports on the outcome. She also provides autobiographical details about her family members and their quirky irreverence, and herself and her own relationships.

The Emperor of All Maladies

The Book of the Week is “The Emperor of All Maladies, A Biography of Cancer” by Siddharta Mukherjee, published in 2010. Through this tome, the author, an attending cancer physician, researcher and assistant professor of medicine, discusses the history of cancer– how it came to be named, treated and researched through the centuries, and how it develops on the cellular level. He also talks about how cancer statistics can be manipulated to give people the impression that the illness is more common than it really is (to scare people into getting tested and treated), or– that treatment (including drugs and surgery) is more effective than it really is.

In ancient times, cancer was rare because lifespans were short. Several other diseases (tuberculosis, dropsy, cholera, smallpox, leprosy, plague or pneumonia) killed people before cancer would. More prevalent cancer testing has also made cancer a more common culprit in the cause of death, rather than, say, the labels, “abcess” or “infection.”

In modern times, specific factors, (like smoking and changes in public hygiene and diet) have increased the incidence of some kinds of cancer, and reduced the incidence of others.

The author points out the difficulties in determining whether detecting cancer early, helps save lives. Some cancers are quick-killing and others are slow-growing. If someone is diagnosed with an early stage of quick-killing cancer. whose treatment is rigorous and unsuccessful, is that a better situation than one in which someone has the quick-killing kind without knowing it, but goes about blissfully living his life, and dies quickly once he is diagnosed? Perhaps the former person lived six months longer, but given his lack of enjoyment of life after diagnosis, he might as well have died sooner.

The  author also writes regarding testing, “Using survival as an end point for a screening test is flawed because early detection pushes the clock of diagnosis backward.” Say we have the hypothetical scenario of cancer patients A and B. They both developed the exact same kind of quick-killing cancer at the same time. Say patient A’s illness was diagnosed in 1985 and she died in 1990. Patient B’s illness was diagnosed in 1989 and she died in 1990. But since doctors diagnosed A’s cancer earlier, it seems, falsely, that she lived longer and that the screening test was beneficial.

In 1976, a highly regarded mammography study was done on 42,000 women in Malmo, Sweden. The results showed that a significant number of women 55 years and older benefited from breast cancer screening– the lives of one fifth of them were presumably saved than otherwise. “In younger women, in contrast, screening with mammography showed no detectable benefit.” Many additional studies thereafter reinforced this conclusion by 2002: “In aggregate, over the course of fifteen years, mammography had resulted in 20-30 percent reductions in breast cancer mortality for women aged fifty-five to seventy. But for women below fifty-five, the benefit was barely discernible.”

Mukherjee also describes a moral issue that can arise when it comes to the testing of cancer drugs. A company was reluctant to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to do further testing on what appeared to be a promising new drug for a rare kind of leukemia that might (or might not) benefit only thousands of people. Thousands is considered a small number, compared to millions of individuals whom a drug might help in the long run. The company could spend the same amount of money helping millions. Patients for whom all other treatments had failed, aggressively pushed to be included in the drug trial, arguing it could save their lives. The company did eventually agree to test the drug, but on a small scale. The drug was wildly successful in its first decade for those few who were treated with it. However, a few years later, cancer cells had become resistant to the drug. A next-generation drug had to be developed to continue to keep those patients alive.

The author tries to explain why, even with all the resources currently poured into research for a cancer cure and improving treatment, many cases are still fatal even in industrialized countries. Nevertheless, he points out– there are pitifully few resources being thrown into prevention. I suspect it is just not as lucrative as research and treatment.