Thursday, February 28, 2019

Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy

In Good Vibrations, Beach Boys frontman Mike Love provides his biography and history of the Beach Boys. He comes from a working class family that sought the good life in California. His Grandfather did quite well with a sheet metal operation. His parents also had a love of music. He eventually teamed up with some cousins and friends to form a musical group. One of his cousins (Dennis) was an avid surfer, and they eventually decided on pop with a surfer theme. There timing ended up being perfect, because shortly thereafter, a surfer craze picked up, with Life magazine doing a big spread. This created a huge demand for their surfer-themed music. With this lucky break, they were able to jump start their career. Then, they worked hard, toured insistently and became very popular. Brian Wilson helped compose many of the songs and had a reputation as a troubled musical auteur, thus giving the band more cache. The band weathered ups and downs and eventually settled on business reality. Their classic hits were what people wanted to hear. They were also ahead of their time in lining up corporate sponsorships. They also received numerous breaks. They were able to stage numerous comeback due to their "positive" appeal. They were friends with Reagan and Bush, helping them to emerge better after hitting some political pressure.
The band also had many downs. Love admits he was a chronic womanizer. He would go in and out of marriages, producing many offspring from many different women. Drinking was his drug of choice. However, other bandmates were in to many harder drugs. He eventually explored transcendental meditation to clean up his act. Others had much more challenging expriences. One died due to medical issues. Another Beach Boy drowned while drunk. Their fortunes waxed and waned, in part due to mismanagement and outright fraud on the part of their representatives. (They admitted to not knowing much about what was going on.) The relationship with Brian was always a challenge. They produced great things together, but his mental issues and drug addiction created difficulties.) There were lawsuits against each other, against their record companies and management.
Loves story comes across well. He admits to making many mistakes. He calls out times when he felt he was wronged, but does not shove people under the bus. (Well, except for Charles Manson and Dennis's psychologist - but he does that more by admitting various public facts.) He comes across as the "business" side of the band, while Brian is the "art" side. Without the business, there would be no money for the art. Without the art, the business would not exist. He does defend himself, and provides a great history of the band.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019


Stephen Leeds has a mental condition that causes him to hallucinate many different people. These "aspects" have their own personality strengths and weaknesses. He knows they are not "real", yet he treats them as real. They must "travel" to meet him. He opens doors for them. He books space on airplanes for them. They must use a phone if they want to talk remotely. His aspects give him near super-human power. He can simply glance at a foreign language book and one of his aspects can know help him speak a foreign language. He uses this skill as part of a unique private investigator-like business that has made him a rich man. He also has many people eager to study him.
The audiobook contains three novellas: Legion, Legion, Skin Deep, Legion: Lies of the Beholder. The first few books are regular adventure story, while the last one starts to tear apart his special abilities. The books are an interesting exploration of possible benefits of extreme mental "differences". Rather than treat them as illnesses, treat them as different benefits.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age

Philanthropy has taken on an increasingly large role in society. The very rich use their wealth to help advance their agenda. This may help them overcome entrenched interests for the benefit of society. It also may allow them to put their interests above that of society. Campaign finance reform seeks to limit the amount of money people can contribute to individual candidates. However, there is no similar track to limit the amount that charities can spend to help influence the political process. Often this influence takes place through multiple channels, including "think tank" positioning as well as straightforward lobbying. Charitable contributions have become more dominated by the upper echelons of society. Not only can the rich "buy influence" through their charities, they also get a tax break for doing it. (Today with the increased standard deduction, the middle class is even less likely to get an explicit deduction for charitable contributions.
The author of Givers does too good of a job trying to stay balanced. He sees something wrong with the power of philanthropy, but provides examples of both "good" and "bad" across the political spectrum. Education is an interesting case in point. A $400 million donation to Harvard seems to be a case of the rich supporting the rich. However, this also helps supports basic research that would not otherwise be funded. This can benefit all of society in general. Wealthy backers have also helped push forward lawsuits against teacher tenure and first in first out. However, this was only needed because the teachers' union exerted too much influence in legislative policy. If the democratic system had worked properly in the first place educational needs would trump needs of the teacher union. (Professors need at least 3 times longer, and they are often involved with leading edge research that is controversial. Perhaps they need a test case of a tenured teacher spending time teaching really controversial topics.) There are many other cases in society where entrenched interests dictate policy to the detriment of society as a whole. The philanthropists with an interest can help contract these. We just need to be careful to get what we want. Michael Bloomberg lead a crusade to shut down coal plants. That seems like a no brainer that would help improve the environment for both mining and burning regions. However, are their ancillary costs that are being missed? What about charter schools? A lot of money is being pushed there, yet the results are mixed. Is this due to the population? Or perhaps the negativity from the entrenched interests? Or do they just not work? It takes time and money to really answer these questions.
There have also been many cases of "grass roots" organizations that receive most of their funding from single rich donors. This contrasts with past cases where individual memberships help fund organizations. Now, without a wealthy benefactor, it is hard to get your case across.
Donors also tend to focus on areas close to them. Hospitals that serve the wealthy get plenty of donations, while those in poorer neighborhoods are hard pressed for donations. The Ivy leagues have billion dollar endowments, while community colleges are lucky to have those in the millions. Liberal and conservative think tanks battle it out with each other.
A wealthy donor can also jump start research in an area of their pleasing. The Howard Hughes Institute is an example of an institution that gives researchers a greater freedom to focus on their work. Government sponsored funding often tends to focus on "safe" incremental work. Foundation funding, on the other hand can take the more risky approach.
One of the solutions the author proposes is to increase transparency so that we know who is the end provider of funds. However, he also mentions the advantages of anonymity when supporting controversial causes. (The NAACP in the civil rights era was a prime example.) There have been other proposals to identify certain types of charitable "benefit" organizations. However, that could be difficult to implement and open to all sorts of politics.
The rise of mega-philanthropy is most likely just another symptom of the rise of income inequality.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Red Badge of Courage

War is both glamorous and torturous. During times of hyped patriotism, people are super eager to fight for their cause. Then the reach the front lines and discover the horrid reality of war. They long for the wounds that give then the "red badge of courage", yet they still want to escape. Boys want to show that they are "men", capable of making their own decisions, yet don't know how to react when people let them go along. The book tries to paint a vivid picture of war. I had trouble following it. I was thinking it was talking about World War I. I guess the "rebs" should have given me a clue.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Einstein of Money

Benjamin Graham was patron saint of value investing. His book, The Intelligent Investor, still pops up on best seller lists, decades after he passed away. Other investors, such as Warren Buffett see him as a significant influence on their investing style. Graham's investing style puts the focus on long term value, regardless of short term market fluctuations. Depending on the dedication of the investor, they can employ screens to narrow down the the list of companies to consider. (Doing these screens were much more difficult a century ago when he started investing.)
Einstein of Money interleaves the story of Graham's life with details of his investing framework. The structure almost works. However, it is easy to get lost as it shifts gears. The writing style can also be very patronizing. The author revere's Graham, and is willing to brush aside his failures (especially with women and family.) He regularly talks about Graham's strong ethics, but does not spend much time in giving positive examples.
Graham was born into a fairly well-to-do Jewish family that had immigrated to the US. The temporary time in New York ended up becoming a permanent residence. The family was initially very well to do. However, they became impoverished as the family business failed and his father passed away. Ben learned to work and study hard and value money. He ended up attending Columbia on scholarship where he studied a multitude of subjects. He expected to go to law school, but ended up with a job on Wall Street. He had great success, eventually starting his own firm and weathering through the great depression. He eventually retired to California, where he taught a class at UCLA on investing. In his "spare time", he had many interests. He wrote plays, translated a book from Spanish, and proposed an economic alternative to the gold standard. He did have trouble keeping a marriage together, and was married multiple times, eventually living the waning days of his life with a mistress. He lived most of his life comfortably, and continued to influence many investors, including Warren Buffett whom he hoped would continue to work at his firm after her retired. Alas, the "Oracle of Omaha" decided he would much rather be back in Nebraska once Graham was retired.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Fifth Risk

Michael Lewis is not exactly a fan of the Trump administration. The Fifth Risk attacks the general incompetence of the Trump government. Trump threw away most of the planning that was done for transition to presidency. His people didn't even bother to visit the agencies they would be running until weeks after Trump won the presidencies. They also disregarded much of the hand over information that was prepared. Many of the people lacked the basic skills or competencies needed for their positions. It would be common for them to come in and only care about attempting to remove anyone that has an interest in Climate Change. Lewis' theorizes that Trump simply does not want to know what is going on in the government so that he can escape culpability for anything bad that happens. Since it is a democratic administration that is being replaced, he does tend to put a much more favorable spin on Democrats. They had been working hard to make the government more accessible and run better, only to have Trump come in with incompetence. Even the Bush administration was presented in a positive light. The Trump people, however, are often there just for their own personal gain, and had little clue as to what they were controlling.
The later part of the book focuses on weather prediction. While weather forecasting had previously been primarily guesswork, it has not become much more accurate. This is due to the large amounts of data that are collected as well as the many different models that can be run to produce the forecasts. The federal government sits on a vast treasure trove of data. Many private companies use this data in their commercial enterprises. Case in point is Accuweather, which uses National Weather Service Data as the primary input for its weather forecasting. The company does not want the government to make free forecasts easily available. It also fought against another comapny's bid to make the weather observation data more easily accessible. The boss of Accuweather was one of the people Trump nominated to help "run" the government.
The book ends with the story of a tornado that touched down in a rural town. Due in part to the Weather Service warning and key actions by the local emergency chief, most people survived. However, one widow lamented that the house destroyed both the barn and her house. She had hoped it wold just destroy the barn (due to the bad memories there.) Alas, the Trump administration's attempt to remove some of the "waste" in the government may have similar unintended consequences.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Operation Snow: How a Soviet Mole in FDR's White House Triggered Pearl Harbor

In Operation Snow, John Kostner postulates that Harry Dexter White was a Soviet sympathizer that used his influence in FDR's cabinet to trigger Pearl Harbor and the US entry into World War II. The book presents a riveting history of the lead up to Pearl Harbor and the final Allied victory and partitioning of Germany. He tries to read a conspiracy among communist "fellow travelers" to steer the US involvement in a way that will most benefit the Soviets. However, his narrative describes a number of strong personalities with different personal motives. White may or may not have been a communist mole. However, he alone could not have led the US to enter the war via Pearl Harbor. There were a number of other people that actively desired US entry into the war. They would sit on key bits of intelligence, while trying to steer foreign policy in a certain direction. There were also a number of players that simply did not understand the culture and politics of other countries and were expecting different outcomes.
The author also had a fairly pro-Japanese viewpoint. Japan had just wanted peace with Europe. They were originally set to meet with Germany and England. However, the minister thought Germany was sufficient, and thus ended up with the Axis. Japan was "forced" to bomb Pearl Harbor due to the very strict demands the American's were placing on them as part of negotiations. The author also believes the Japanese destruction in Nanking was just that of a few enlisted men taking undue advantage of the spoils of war and that the Chinese overstated things for their own benefit.
To the author's credit, he does present a fairly detailed account of the facts, even if they do contradict his primary thesis. The book is well written, even if it doesn't help win the reader over to the author's point of view.

Saturday, February 09, 2019

Has Anyone Seen the President?

In "Has Anyone Seen the President?" Michael Lewis details some experiences with the Trump administration. Trump holds grudges, and will not listen to anybody that has "wronged" him, even if they later apologize. (An example was given of a reporter that criticized Trump for removing the statue of a civil rights leader, only to apologize when he learned the statue was simply moved. Trump also does not care about the Democrats. In speaking, he attempts to solidify his base and win over the conservative media. In spite of his wealth and education, Trump speaks like a poor laborer. This helps him to relate to the lower classes, which helped him win the presidency. His presidency has defied many of the conventions of politics, which has continued to motivate his supporters, even as the world reacts in horror.

Friday, February 08, 2019

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a curious case of a short story that provided an interesting idea to "inspire" a movie. In the store, Benjamin Button is born an old man, and ages in reverse until he exits a young baby. In the story, his "physical" age matches his intellect and emotional age. He retains some memories and desires from his "past", but still behaves much as a 20 year old would when he looks to be 20. The movie adds a new twist, with his mind aging independently. Thus he looks to be an old man, but has the mind of a young child. This allows some interesting exploration that is not present in the original story. Both do present an interesting exploration of the impact of our "age" in our life and our choices. There are many expectations of people based on the age they look. People are also quick to judge and also quick to forget. The story is also, somewhat symptomatic of its time, highly male focussed. Though a mother does birth Benjamin, she is nowhere to be seen. His wife also is there just to be courted and then plays very little role (other than to be a person that is no longer attractive to him as he gets younger.)
The collection from Blackstone audio also included a few other Fitzgerald Short stories: The lost decade, Three hours between planes, The bridal party, Babylon revisited. These tended to focus on socialites and their experiences.

Tin Drum

Tin Drum is narrated by Oskar, a German drummer who is currently confined to a mental institution. He was born in the period after World War I, and lived through World War II and the postwar era. Had had grown up in Danzig, which was a free city in the interwar period and had a predominantly German population. (After World War 2, it became a part of Poland and now has a predominantly Polish population.) The narration regularly switches between first person and third person (even in the same sentence.) It is unclear whether many of the events actually happened, or were just a imagined. (After all, he is in a mental institution.) He seems to think the world has a great appreciation for him and his talents. In one episode, an entire club is "impressed" with his great dancing skills, though his "date" has been scared away. There are also numerous sexual encounters which seem to be more a product of a juvenile imagination gone out of hand, rather than real life. At one time, he is playing in an "onion bar". This curious institution serves up raw onions for the patrons to cut and start crying. This results in emotional sharing. However, his drumming end up being even more powerful emotional stimulants than the onions and he finds himself fired. As a narrator, he is just not all there, but he does tell an interesting story.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations

The top layer of "dirt" is what helps our civilizations survive. Many great empires have died after a thousand years due in part to their destruction of this topsoil. Darwin dedicated his final career work to the exploration of topsoil production and the important role that worms played in producing more soil. The early book spends a great deal of time discussing different civilizations and the impact they had on the topsoil. Soil degradation is viewed as a significant reason for the rise and fall of empires. As populations grow, irrigation and other large scale works are needed to help support overfarmed soils. This leads to creation of government structures. Further growth leads to farming of marginal lands and erosion. Vast empires are needed to provide food for the urban areas. Eventually, the degradation puts the society on the edge, and a small climatic change or weather anomaly can push the society over the edge. "Empire" food production can lead to events like the Irish Potato famine. Many people in Ireland starved due to the potato crop failure. Meanwhile, cattle were being exported from Ireland to England.
The author does a great job of making his point. He uses simple math to show that intensive agriculture results in a rate of soil erosion that limits most civilizations to primary lifespan of about 1000 years. Some can last longer if they are blessed with renewable soil (like the Nile River), or can extend their farming reach. However, without care to the soil, they will fall. Soil is a tricky resource because the benefits of conservation often don't occur until the following generation. It is very hard to get political buy in for the short term sacrifices needed for long term gain.
While the ideas in the book are good, the writing is not. The chapters are organized by topic, but they ramble on, jumping around from example to example somewhat haphazardly. The point could be made in a book a fraction of the size. The ideas are strong enough to encourage making it through the book in spite of the poor organization.