Tag Archives: Nonfiction

The definitive study of Scientology, by a Pulitzer-winning journalist

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A review of Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright

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Introducing his controversial subject, Lawrence Wright reports that the Church of Scientology claims membership of 12 million, an assertion that has to be regarded as flimflammery. By contrast, “[a] survey of American religious affiliations compiled in the Statistical Abstract of the United States estimates that only 25,000 Americans actually call themselves Scientologists. That’s less than half the number identifying themselves as Rastafarians.”

Why, then, is Scientology such an object of fascination, not only to the American public but across much of Europe as well?

Obviously, the public’s unending worship of celebrity is a partial explanation, and Wright goes to the heart of this matter by devoting a large portion of Going Clear to the stories of Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and others who pass as luminaries in Hollywood today. Throughout its 60-year history, the Church of Scientology has focused laser-like on public personalities that would help it gain wider public attention and recruit new members. Wright’s intensive treatment of the Oscar-winning scriptwriter and director Paul Haggis — a member of the church for 35 years — clearly illuminates this fixation on stars and stardom.

But celebrity alone can’t explain the enduring interest in what is, at best, a minor fringe religion, and a particularly kooky one at that. The church apparently possesses a multi-billion-dollar real estate portfolio, with properties scattered across the globe, and the organization generates annual revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars. David Miscavige, who has been the undisputed leader of Scientology for a quarter-century and calls the shots at every turn, is thus for all intents and purposes a billionaire. Judging from what it costs the church to feed him and his wife, he lives like one, too.

Even so, what fascinates many of us about Scientology are not the halo of celebrity or the Church’s wealth. To me, at any rate, it’s the profound mystery how the Church could have survived so long despite the massive human rights abuses committed by its leaders for more than half a century. Among these are the frequent resort to physical abuse; involuntary confinement, sometimes for years on end; blackmail based on information revealed in Scientology’s equivalent of confession; child labor; and forced abortions when members of the Church’s equivalent of the priesthood, the Sea Org, become pregnant against Church policy. Though widely reported and documented in innumerable interviews and articles, these abuses are routinely denied by the Church — which tends to respond not with simple statements but, typically, with lawsuits. Scientology’s litigiousness is legendary.

The religion’s theology is equally mysterious. Leaked documents and reports by former Scientologists have revealed a litany of incomprehensible and preposterous tales that form the core of the church’s beliefs. The Founder, L. Ron Hubbard, was one of the most prolific writers of all time — Wright reports he is credited with having written more than 1,000 books — and was best known for his science fiction novels and stories. The theology of Scientology revolves around Hubbard’s claim that the universe is trillions of years old (not 13 billion, as scientists assert), and that the roots of humanity’s unhappiness lie in an incident 75 million years ago in the Galactic Federation. There, the evil overlord Xenu and his co-conspirators (mainly psychiatrists) “fed false information to the population to draw them into centers where Xenu’s troops could destroy them. ‘One of the mechanisms they used was to tell them to come in for an income-tax investigation,’ Hubbard related. ‘So in they went, and the troops started slaughtering them.'”

How nutty is that?

The simple truth is that L. Ron Hubbard was what I can only regard as a raving lunatic. A man who worked for years as his medical officer noted his “‘Paranoid personality. Delusions of grandeur. Pathological lying.'” All these traits are easy to see in Wright’s narrative, which reveals other disagreeable aspects of Hubbard’s behavior as well. He spent the last five years of his life in seclusion. “Fleeing subpoenas from three grand juries, and pursued by forty-eight lawsuits, all naming the founder, Hubbard slipped away from public view on Valentine’s Day, 1980.” And Hubbard’s successor, David Miscavige, though a very different person, clearly shares the Founder’s paranoia as well as his tendency to strike out violently at those around him. Hubbard was known to batter his first two wives, and Miscavige, a bodybuilder, has been frequently reported as beating his followers when displeased — hundreds of them, all told. For example, “Gale Irwin says she confronted him, and Miscavige knocked her to the ground with a flying tackle.” Later, Wright reports,  a Scientology executive “spoke up about the violence [and] was beaten by two of Miscavige’s assistants and made to mop the bathroom floor with his tongue.”

This leads to the greatest mystery of all: why does no one complain? Oh, there are many former Scientologists who talk freely about all these matters, but literally thousands of others who continue to participate in the Church (by enrolling in courses that cost them tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years). Wright finds the explanation in a simple core belief: “Scientologists are trained to believe that whatever happens to them is somehow their fault . . . The possibility that the leader of the church might be irrational or even insane was so taboo that no one could even think it, much less voice it aloud.” Wright elaborates: “Belief in the irrational is one definition of faith, but it is also true that clinging to absurd or disputed doctrines binds a community of faith together and defines a barrier to the outside world.” This is what Wright terms “the prison of belief.” It’s a terrifying concept that conjures up memories of the self-deluding Germans who followed Hitler.

One of the most publicized incidents in the history of Scientology was the announcement by the Internal Revenue Service in 1993 that it had restored the church’s tax-exemption (which had been removed in 1967). The reason for this IRS action, though undisclosed, was that Miscavige’s church had filed a total of some 2,500 lawsuits against the IRS and assigned private detectives to dig up embarrassing information about the private lives of many top IRS officials. In the face of this assault, which went on for years, consuming inordinate amounts of the government’s limited resources, the IRS caved when Miscavige agreed to drop all the lawsuits and remove the private investigators.

Wright makes it clear that the popular understanding of the IRS case — that the Church of Scientology wasn’t really a church — is in error. IRS staff had never been able to fashion a definition of religion that would exclude Scientology. After all, many, perhaps all other religions also make claims that non-believers find preposterous. I’m certain you and I could name at least a few.

Going Clear seals Lawrence Wright’s place as one of the preeminent nonfiction writers of our time. Just seven years ago his masterful book about Al Qaeda, The Looming Tower, won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. If anything, Going Clear represents an even greater accomplishment, putting to shame previous efforts to tell the story of Scientology. (I reviewed Inside Scientology not long ago.) Wright is a staff writer for The New Yorker.

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If you own stock, invest in companies, or are starting a new business, read this book!

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A review of The Shareholder Value Myth: How Putting Shareholders First Harms Investors, Corporations, and the Public, by Lynn Stout

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If you so much as skim the business pages in a newspaper, there’s little doubt you’ve heard it said or seen it written that corporate officers and directors are required by law to maximize shareholder value and that they’re subject to lawsuits if their decisions favor any other stakeholder such as employees, customers, or suppliers over profit. The well-entrenched view that shareholders are paramount is widely regarded as the cornerstone of contemporary business law — and it’s flatly untrue.

In The Shareholder Value Myth, business law professor Lynn Stout proves this point, citing chapter and verse in court decisions going back more than a century. “So long as a board can claim its members honestly believe that what they’re doing is best for ‘the corporation in the long run,’ courts will not interfere with a disinterested board’s decisions — even decisions that reduce share price today.” Having laid the legal groundwork, Stout then proceeds to explain how this mistaken view of shareholder primacy is bad for business.

“Put bluntly,” she writes, “conventional shareholder value thinking is a mistake for most firms — and a big mistake at that. Shareholder value thinking causes corporate managers to focus myopically on short-term earnings reports at the expense of  long-term performance; discourages investment and innovation; harms employees, customers, and communities; and causes companies to indulge in reckless, sociopathic, and socially irresponsible behaviors.” Among the examples Stout cites is the Gulf oil spill, caused by excessive cost-cutting on the part of BP. “In trying to save $1 million a day by skimping on safety procedures at the Macondo well, BP cost its shareholders alone a hundred thousand times more, nearly $100 billion.” Q.E.D.

Stout deftly demonstrates that this irrational focus on shareholder value has been harmful in other ways as well. For example, “[b]etween 1997 and 2008, the number of companies listed on U.S. exchanges declined from 8,823 to only 5,401.” Of several factors that help explain this trend, shareholder primacy clearly stands out. Smart people know that there’s more to success in business than a rising stock price.

The origin of this misguided notion lies in the thinking of the so-called Chicago School of free-market economists best known through the work of the late Nobel Prize-winner Milton Friedman. Friedman had written a book in the 1960s that highlighted the idea, but it was his essay in 1970 in the New York Times Magazine that gained wide attention. There, he “argued that because shareholders ‘own’ the corporation, the only ‘social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.'” Stout argues that “shareholders do not, and cannot, own corporations . . . Corporations are independent legal entities that own themselves, just as human beings own themselves.” Shareholders merely own shares of stock that constitute a contract with the corporation to receive certain financial benefits.

They’re not in charge of the show, either. Some lawyers and economists writing after Friedman contended that  shareholders appoint the directors as their agents. This too, Stout contends, is mistaken. She devotes two chapters to prove that this description of shareholders as principals “mischaracterizes the actual legal and economic relationships among shareholders, directors, and executives in public companies . . . Moreover,” Stout writes, this assumes “that shareholders’ interests [are] purely financial,” when in fact shareholders may have any one of a great many different reasons for buying and holding shares in a company.

A fair portion of The Shareholder Value Myth is focused on analyzing the impact of several popular measures promoted by shareholder advocates, the SEC, and Congress over the past two decades: “de-staggering” boards, so that all directors may be removed at once; giving shareholders the right to circulate proxies to all other shareholders on issues of interest; and equity-based compensation. Ask yourself: How often have shareholders removed the entire membership of a corporate board with a single vote? And how often have shareholders of a public company — other than corporate raiders or hedge funds — successfully obtained proxies to overturn a corporate board policy? You can guess the answer to those questions. But the very worst impact of these efforts to strengthen the shareholders’ hand has come from the popularity of equity-based compensation. “In 1991, just before Congress amended the tax code to encourage stock performance-based pay, the average CEO of a large public company received compensation approximately 140 times that of the average employee. By 2003, the ratio was approximately 500 times.” That policy isn’t the only factor to account for this dramatic rise in the ratio, but it’s certainly a major one. And it only seems to work on the upside. How many times have you read about board decisions to lower a CEO’s pay in proportion to the decline in its stock price the past year? You probably know the answer to that one, too. 

The Shareholder Value Myth is an important contribution to a growing body of thought that seeks to re-conceive the role of the corporation in a more expansive manner commensurate with its growing importance in contemporary society.

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Two wrenching views of the U.S. military at war, Part 2: Afghanistan

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A review of The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor, by Jake Tapper

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This is the second of two reviews of recent books that deal with the U.S. military at war. In a previous post, I reviewed Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, by Nick Turse, which presents a dramatically different perspective on the subject by documenting the widespread atrocities committed by American troops four decades earlier.  

Christians are urged to “hate the sin, love the sinner.” Difficult as that may be to believe in many circumstances, the distinction between action and actor seems to be the only way to reconcile honor and support for American troops at war with the horrific acts they so often commit overseas. One recent book, award-winning journalist Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves, fastens our attention on the numberless atrocities carried out by the U.S. military in Vietnam directly as a result of policies handed down from the top (the White House and Joint Chiefs of Staff). Turse shows how the military’s racist emphasis on the “body count” led directly and inevitably to the routine and indiscriminate murder of civilians throughout Vietnam. Rank-and-file soldiers (“grunts,” non-coms, lieutenants, captains, majors, light colonels) had little choice but to either participate in the slaughter or stand silently by. Doubtless, some enjoyed the opportunities for cruelty, but the overwhelming majority assuredly did not. Because for all intents and purposes the atrocities weren’t their “fault,” we could still honor and support them no matter how much we despised their heedless leaders.

Writing from a totally different perspective — from the ground up rather than top down — Jake Tapper relates the story in The Outpost of the men (and very occasionally, the women) who cycled in and out of an isolated combat installation in northeastern Afghanistan from 2006 to 2009. As in Kill Anything That Moves, we find soldiers in the field up to the rank of lieutenant colonel captives of policies set at much higher levels. They frequently display outstanding courage and suffer the deprivations of life in a harsh and hostile environment largely in silence, victims of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld’s deliberate decision to under-resource American forces in Afghanistan from the moment they invaded the country. However, the fatal decisions that sealed the fate of so many of the troops on the ground at what came to be named Combat Outpost Keating were a colonel’s decision to site the installation at what one visiting officer called the worst base location he’d ever seen and Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s insistence that the post not be closed until after he was reelected.

The story told in The Outpost relates the history of the Afghanistan war writ small. At its creation, Combat Outpost Keating was the northernmost U.S. installation in the country’s northeast, the first in the province of Nuristan, a historically and linguistically distinct enclave with a reputation for fierce hostility toward all outsiders. It was placed in an exceedingly vulnerable location in a valley, surrounded on three sides by steep mountains, against the advice of virtually every officer who viewed the site from the air. The colonel in command of U.S. forces in that region insisted on placing it there anyway, since it had easy access to a road that could be used to supply it, saving precious airborne resources. However, in short order it became clear that the road was both indefensible, because every convoy was ambushed by insurgents, and impassable by any vehicles with a wide wheelbase (such as Humvees). Only when one heroic officer was killed trying to prove to his superiors just how treacherous the road really was did the Army stop attempting to supply the outpost by truck. Nonetheless, the outpost itself remained where it was instead of being moved high up into the mountains (as the troops on the ground kept requesting), because no commanding officer wanted to cede territory on his watch. And the number of troops assigned there, which was inadequate to begin with, was gradually reduced because of the scarcity of military resources. Eventually, when a new unit came onto the base, a brilliant junior officer implemented the counterinsurgency policy associated with General Petraeus, managing to bring attacks on his troops to a halt for more than half a year. Then he was replaced by a soldier who was critical of the policy, reversed course, and saw his hostility to the local people returned in spades. Finally, orders came down to abandon the outpost, but spies among the Afghan soldiers living there reported the preparations to the Taliban. In short order, days before the planned evacuation date, several hundred mujahideen surrounded the 53 Americans, fought their way into the outpost, and succeeded in killing seven of them and wounding eleven. Only one of the Afghan soldiers chose to fight; all the others either fled or hid. The Taliban was only driven back by the heroism of the defenders — and the extravagant use of airpower, including Apache attack helicopters, A-10 warthogs, F-15 fighter jets, and even a B-1 bomber dropping 2,000-pound bombs. After a decent interval, the outpost was abandoned and bombed to smithereens by American planes.

Think about the broad strokes in that picture. Doesn’t it resemble the history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan as a whole?

Clearly, Jake Tapper wrote The Outpost to honor the brave soldiers who were assigned there. He cites the name and rank of virtually every soldier whose actions are part of the four-year story — and there appear to be hundreds of them. For the major actors on the ground, chiefly sergeants, lieutenants, and captains, with a smattering of low-ranking non-coms, Tapper features extensive biographical information, sometimes including interviews with spouses. These soldiers rise fully formed from the pages of the book — real people, with self-doubts and passions and convictions all their own.

Tapper’s effort to convey a fully three-dimensional portrait of the soldiers at Combat Outpost Keating is both the book’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Reading this book seems to convey about as accurate a picture of what life is like on the front line of the Afghanistan war as words might convey. The weakness lies in the use of so many individual names. In the course of the four years the outpost existed, four different units cycled in and out, each bringing its own cast of dozens of characters. It becomes tedious to follow all the individual stories because there is so much coming and going. To some degree, it’s easier to follow a few of the Afghan leaders in the nearby villages, because they generally stay where they are.

Tapper is a former White House correspondent for ABC News and is now an anchor and chief Washington correspondent for CNN.

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Updating McLuhan: How the Internet and the human brain can reinforce each other

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A review of Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks, by Tiffany Shlain

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Taking up where Marshall McLuhan left off and bringing his thinking into the 21st Century, Tiffany Shlain explores an extended metaphor in this tiny e-book published as an Amazon Single. She characterizes the Internet as “an extension of our brains — an extension of us,” just as McLuhan saw the book as an extension of the eye and electric circuity as an extension of the central nervous system. In fact, Shlain’s metaphor stands up to greater scrutiny than McLuhan’s. She makes a powerful case.

The similarities between the human brain and the Internet have been pointed out before, of course. However, Shlain delves deeply into contemporary neurological science, recent studies in childhood development, and the emergent properties of the Internet. She delivers up a convincing argument that we humans can vastly expand the scope of our understanding and insight by broadening the reach of digital media and engaging an ever-greater portion of humanity in taking advantage of the World Wide Web as a mechanism to share our ideas. Today, only about one-third of humanity — about 2.4 billion people — have access to the Internet. Shlain posits a near future when everyone who wishes may get online and share any thought with anyone else on the planet. By making judicious choices of what we share and what we read or experience online, we can literally reshape our brains.

This surprising claim is borne out by science, as Shlain reports. The human brain at birth is effectively a blank slate, composed of about 100 billion neurons, “the same number an adult brain has — but most of the connections between all those neurons aren’t there yet.” And it’s the connections that determine how we sense the world around us and how behave in response. The first 2,000 days of life — about five years — are critical, because during that time a child’s experiences determine which connections are made, which are strengthened, and which are left by the wayside. However, the process of reshaping the brain doesn’t end at age 5. Throughout our lives, the connections among the neurons in our brains continue to grow, shrink, and shift, the result of all we learn and experience and do as the years go by.

Already, digital “[t]echnology is rewiring the human brain” just as earlier technologies such as the book profoundly changed the ways we think and behave. For example, according to a California neuroscientist whose work Shlain cites, “social networking produces a burst of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for bonding, empathy, trust, and generosity.”

Hence, Shlain writes, “If we’re at the metaphoric first 2,000 days of life for the Internet, then right now is when we need to pay close and careful attention to developing its brain.” With a trillion webpages now online, about 10 times the number of neurons in the human brain, the capacity for new insight by increasing the connections among them is already vast. “Both a young brain and our young, global Internet brain are in highly creative, experimental, innovative states of rapid development — just waiting to make connections.”

Our job is to ensure that the right choices are made to nurture empathy, creativity, and sharing behavior in both. In raising children, this means minimizing the activation of stress hormones in the early years, since “prolonged activation . . . can actually reduce neural connections in important areas of the brain — such as those dedicated to learning and reasoning — while increasing neural connections in the parts of the brain dedicated to fear and aggression.” In managing digital media, we need to ensure that the Internet remains open, so that limitless connections are possible. This means rejecting attempts by corporations and rebelling against those by governments to establish control over the Internet.

Tiffany Shlain has written a thought-provoking little book, entirely worthy of the TED label that promises “ideas worth spreading.” A winner of numerous awards, Shlain is an innovative Bay Area filmmaker who founded the Webby Awards a decade and a half ago and is now pioneering in “crowd-filmmaking.”

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From the ashes of the Holocaust, a gift of lessons for living

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A review of Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl

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“Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning.” This is the conclusion that a young Viennese psychiatrist, Viktor E. Frankl, reached in the course of more than three years in a succession of four Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. The book he wrote in the space of nine days in 1946, originally under another title, morphed over the years into the thin volume known around the world today as Man’s Search for Meaning. It has sold more than 12 million copies and been translated into 24 languages, serving as a source of inspiration and solace for millions of people. Man’s Search for Meaning is frequently cited as one of the most important books of the 20th Century.

Frankl’s almost matter-of-fact description of his years in concentration camps is profoundly moving, the more so because it’s a fiercely personal document and makes no attempt to relate the familiar statistics now surrounding the topic or to place the Nazi phenomenon in historic perspective. Frankl writes simply about how he personally managed to remain hopeful in the face of staggering brutality, including the murder of his young wife at Bergen-Belsen and the death of numberless friends and colleagues. As Frankl relates, their deaths came not only at the hands of SS guards but also, at least equally, as the result of sadistic behavior by the “Capos,” prisoners themselves raised to positions of authority and privilege by the Nazis. The effect of reading this material is searing. Here, God is truly in the details.

However, Frankl’s story about life in the concentration camps is only one of several parts in Man’s Search for MeaningThe edition I read included five pieces written over more than half a century by three different authors: a foreword by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, an Afterword by William J. Winslade, and three articles by Frankl. The first of these three, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp,” has received the most attention from non-professionals. The second, “Logotherapy in a Nutshell,” is Frankl’s brief summary of the principles and procedures of logotherapy, the “third school” of Viennese psychiatry that Frankl created — an approach that’s often termed “existential psychiatry.” (Somehow, Carl Jung seems to have gotten lost in the numbering system — perhaps because he was Swiss, not Viennese.) Frankl also wrote a “Postscript 1984” bearing the title, “The Case for a Tragic Optimism.” And all this writing fits comfortably into a remarkably thin little volume. 

Intellectually, Frankl’s abbreviated introduction to logotherapy for the layperson, was the most intriguing part of the book. The term itself is derived from the much-used Greek word, logos, which has been applied to all manner of pursuits in philosophy, rhetoric, and religion. Frankl took it to mean something like “meaning.” He rejected the determinism of Freudian and Adlerian psychiatry, insisting that neither approach was useful in treating more than a minority of psychological problems. In his own practice and that of the students under his supervision in a series of top Viennese hospitals, Frankl found that many psychological problems could be easily cured by one or a few conversations between the patient and the logotherapist. Logotherapy involved no years-long sojourns on the analyst’s couch. (In fact, patients sat in chairs.) He cites many cases of ingrained phobic and compulsive behavior that he and his disciples cured by somehow convincing patients not to worry about their behavior. A lifelong stutterer, for example, was cured when he was persuaded to enter conversations unconcerned about stuttering — and the cure was lasting. A fellow physician transcended his depression over the loss of his wife in a single, short conversation with Frankl. The essential truth of logotherapy is as Frankl discovered in the camps: so long as we maintain a powerful commitment to some life goal outside our present circumstances, we can get through practically any privation.

Man’s Search for Meaning should be in everyone’s library. The lessons Viktor Frankl teaches can be applied to challenges in any culture and all walks of life.

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Understand how Netflix, Wall Street, and economists use (and misuse) statistics

 

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A review of Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data, by Charles Whelan

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In the unfolding Age of Big Data, no one who hopes to understand the way the world works can afford to be ignorant of statistical methods. Not a day goes by that statistical analysis isn’t behind some front-page story — in politics, sports, business, or even entertainment. The statistical concepts of probability, sampling,  and statistical validity, once considered obscure and of interest only to geeks wearing pocket protectors, are now indispensable tools for the active citizen to grasp. Writing in a breezy and intimate style, with humor and lots asides to the reader, Charles Whelan attempts to unpack these concepts and explain them in English with a minimal use of advanced math, and he succeeds . . . up to a point.

Naked Statistics was published just four months after Nate Silver’s best-selling book, The Signal and the Noise, which covers much the same ground in a very different way. (I reviewed that book here.) Whelan focuses on the nitty-gritty of statistical methodology, delving into such topics as how samples are chosen, what’s meant by terms such as correlation, standard deviation, and regression analysis, and how to determine whether the results of a test are statistically valid. However, he doesn’t lose sight of practical questions, unpacking such seemingly puzzling statements as “the average income in America is not equal to the income of the average American” and spotlighting the difference between precision and accuracy. Silver instead explains how statistical methods are applied in a wide range of activities, from baseball and basketball to Wall Street. Whelan includes lots of formulas laden with Greek letters, though, conveniently, they’re confined for the most part to Appendixes that follow many of the book’s chapters and can be skipped by a non-technical reader. (I ignored them.) Silver’s book is refreshingly devoid of Greek letters.

As Whelan makes clear, perhaps unintentionally, statistics is a forbiddingly technical field. Truth to tell, if you really want to understand statistical methodology and how it can be applied, you need a fair grounding in mathematics and a tolerance for terminology that doesn’t appear in everyday English. In fact, you probably need to take the same sort of graduate school courses Whelan took years ago. This is heady stuff!

All in all, for a run-of-the-mill mathematical illiterate such as me, Nate Silver did a much better job getting across the significance of statistics and how its methods are applied to strip away the complexities of today’s often baffling, data-driven world.

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Pentagon waste and fraud, and who’s really responsible for them

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A review of The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America, by Robert Scheer

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Books about current affairs, especially those by journalists, rarely keep their edge once the headlines they address have vanished from the news. A 2008 book by former Berkeley activist Robert Scheer’s is a notable exception. Scheer wrote five years ago about the spectacular buildup of the U.S. military machine following 9/11, and his report transcends the facts and circumstances of the story. The Pornography of Power delivers insight into what should be one of the issues that most preoccupies concerned Americans: the seemingly unassailable position of the military-industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower warned us about more than half a century ago.

Over the eight years George W. Bush inhabited the White House, the U.S. military budget more than doubled, from about $300 billion to just under $700 billion. (In reporting these figures, the Office of Management and Budget notes that they exclude expenditures for the Departments of Homeland Security and Veterans’ Affairs. Clearly, they also exclude funds for the CIA, which runs its own military operations, as well as interest on the debt incurred to finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

You might be tempted to think that these gargantuan increases are understandable, given the expansion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — but you would be wrong. In fact, a huge proportion of the money spent on the military in the first decade of the 21st Century was not to support troops in the field or provide them with the weapons and protection they required. It was to finance the development and acquisition of new, high-tech weapons systems that could never be deployed in an asymmetric war against terrorists or insurgents.

The central insight of The Pornography of Power is that the waste and fraud in the military budget isn’t hidden in the cracks of obscure documents — it’s right out front in multi-billion-dollar expenditures for unnecessary new weapons. How do we know these weapons are unnecessary? Because the military brass told us so — and Congress simply forced the Pentagon to develop (or continue developing and producing) them, anyway. As Scheer reports, Congress voted hundreds of billions of dollars to develop and produce big-ticket weapons systems such as nuclear attack submarines and the trouble-plagued F-35 “joint strike fighter,” often on the basis of absurd arguments that they were needed to defend us against Al Qaeda.

The occasional glaring example of fraud complicates this picture of Pentagon waste, but simple, straightforward corruption (cushy corporate jobs for a cooperative Pentagon bureaucrat, for example) is a minor factor. The real problem are the politicians — liberal Democrats like Barbara Boxer as well as the usual suspects on the Republican right — who fearfully back spending money on these boondoggles because they expect blowback from constituents if they don’t. And if we can’t count on Senators and Representatives who champion cuts in the military budget out of the other side of their mouths, then what hope is there to eliminate the waste?

Despite the occasional jarring reminder that Scheer is writing about events several years in the past, and some circumstances that have changed during the last five years, The Pornography of Power remains relevant reading today. You can count on one thing above all from Bob Scheer: straight talk.

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Roman generals, barbarians, and a compulsive historian to tell the tale


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A review of The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, by Peter Heather

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Remember having to memorize all those dates when you were back in school? 1066, 1776, and all that? Right? So, what epochal events do you associate with the years 376, 405, 410, and 476? Give up? No, I’m not going to give you the answers. If you really want them, you can immerse yourself in the pages of Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire. By the time you’re finished — assuming you have the stomach to get through the whole ordeal — you’ll know not only what significance those dates hold but also the names of godknowshowmany inconsequential Roman emperors, generals, and barbarian kings. Frankly, I can’t believe I read the whole thing.

Here, dates and battles and names aside, is the message that British historian Peter Heather was attempting to get across:

  • Gibbon got it all wrong. The Roman Empire didn’t fall because of its internal weaknesses.
  • What actually happened, according to the latest findings by archaeologists and historians, is that the barbarians ganged up on the Romans. 

OK, it was a little more complicated than that. Around the middle of the 4th Century, the Huns — those nomadic horsemen from the Central Asian steppes — began pushing westward. They didn’t get as far as the Roman frontier, but their relentless drive pushed hordes of Germanic tribes (the original barbarians, from the Roman perspective) further west, and the Germani began crowding the borders that Rome had so carefully kept sparsely populated. In fact, about 100,000 of them actually managed to cross into Roman territory in the Balkans — and that started the ball rolling. They had permission from the Eastern Roman Emperor in Constantinople — you remember, of course, that the Empire was then divided in two? — but the hapless fellow later had occasion to regret the decision, because the Germani started raising all manner of hell very shortly. (For good reason, too. The Roman generals and provincial officials assigned to their settlement took them to the cleaners.)

Later, when the Huns, eventually under the gifted leadership of Attila, moved all the way westward toward the Romans’ Rhine frontier in what is now Germany, the Germanic tribes living there decided the time was convenient to actually invade Roman territory, namely Gaul (now France), Spain, and later North Africa. Though Roman generals began hiring Huns as mercenaries to help them fight the other barbarians, and they actually had some success from time to time, it was a losing battle. Soon enough, Germanic armies managed to sack Rome, not once but twice within the space of a half-dozen years. For several more decades, the Romans tried to pretend nothing had happened while the territory under their control steadily shrank. After all, Rome had ruled the world (well, the Mediterranean, anyway) for nearly half a Millennium, so how could it possibly all end? Eventually, though, before the end of the 5th Century, all the last of the Western Emperors had left was Italy. Being able to read the writing on the wall, he turned out the lamps in Rome and retired to his summer villa.

Why did all this happen? Peter Heather says it was the Romans’ own fault. Their unnecessarily harsh imperial policies drove the Germani to attack them. I would add that Rome had simply bitten off more than it could chew. The Empire had overreached.

Now, why couldn’t he just have said that?

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Heads up: My new book will be in stores Sept. 9

My co-author, Paul Polak, and I are now putting the final touches on the manuscript, and it’s got months of design and production ahead. But the new book will be published this year by Berrett-Koehler, the San Francisco firm that brought out an earlier book of mine, Values-Driven Business: How to Change the World, Make Money, and Have Fun (co-authored with Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s fame). The official publication date for the new book is Sept. 9.

Its title is The Business Solution to Poverty: Designing Products and Services for Three Billion New Customers.

It’s premature to tell you much about the book, but I thought you might like to know a little about my co-author, Dr. Paul Polak.

Paul Polak is widely regarded as the father of market-centered approaches to development. He started harnessing the energy of the marketplace 30 years ago when IDE, the organization he founded, sold one-and-a-half million treadle pumps to small farmers in Bangladesh, increasing their net income by more than $150 million a year. Over the past 30 years, he has had long conversations with more than 3,000 small farmers who live on less than $1 a day and walked with them through their fields. IDE has now enabled 20 million of the world’s poorest people to move out of poverty by selling them radically affordable irrigation tools made available through thousands of small village manufacturers, dealers, and well drillers, and opening smallholder access to markets where they could sell their crops at a profit.

Paul’s earlier book, Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail, has been widely used as a basic text on practical solutions to rural poverty. He is the founder and CEO of Windhorse International and co-founder and board chairman of Spring Health India, for-profit companies with the mission of bringing safe drinking water to 100 million poor rural customers in the world. Paul is the prime mover for creating and implementing the four social impact multinationals in this book, each designed to transform the lives of 100 million $2/day customers and generate annual sales of $10 billion.

Prior to founding Windhorse, in 2008 Paul established D-Rev, a nonprofit that seeks “to create a design revolution by enlisting the best designers in the world to develop products and ideas that will benefit the 90 percent of the people on earth who are poor, in order to help them earn their way out of poverty. Paul’s vision inspired Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt travelling exhibit, “Design for the Other 90 percent.” He was named by The Atlantic as one of the world’s 27 “Brave Thinkers” along with Steve Jobs and Barack Obama. He has also received the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year award and the Scientific American “Top 50” award for agricultural policy.

Paul graduated from medical school in 1958, worked for 23 years as a psychiatrist, creating innovative models of community treatment, and at various points in his career also worked as a farmer and a hands-on investor in oil and gas, real estate, and equipment leasing. He and his wife Agnes have been happily married for 53 years, and have three grown daughters. At the age of 79, he still puts in an 80-hour work week and loves what he does.

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New proof how J. Edgar Hoover and Ronald Reagan stirred up violence in 1960s Berkeley


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A review of Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, by Seth Rosenfeld

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

We’ve known for some time that the FBI and Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial administration were involved in the sometimes-violent conflicts that roiled Berkeley in the 60s. What we didn’t know — or, at least, what I didn’t know — was that J. Edgar Hoover and Ronald Reagan were personally and directly engaged not just in monitoring but in managing the secret government campaigns that helped raise the temperature to the boiling point again and again. Seth Rosenfeld’s exhaustively researched recent book, Subversives, documents this story in often minute detail yet manages to keep it eminently readable.

Anyone who lived through those times as a sentient adult will surely remember some of the seminal events: the protest against the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1960, lodged in memory through the iconic footage of students being fire-hosed down the steps of San Francisco City Hall; the 1964 Free Speech Movement that pushed the University of California at Berkeley into the forefront of student protest, brought Mario Savio to prominence, and began to change public attitudes about the police; the 1965 Vietnam Day Teach-In that fastened students’ attention on the escalating U.S. war in Vietnam and initiated the public’s disillusionment with the U.S. government; and the violent clash over People’s Park in 1969, which led to the death of young James Rector and confirmed in so many minds the view that law enforcement officials were out of control.

Subversives breaks new ground in several ways because of Rosenfeld’s dogged, three-decade pursuit of classified government files that cast new light on the events themselves as well as the major players whose decisions drove them. The author keeps the story from getting out of hand by maintaining a tight focus on Hoover, Reagan, Savio, and UC Berkeley President Clark Kerr.

In Subversives, Rosenfeld relates the roles (hitherto largely undocumented) of J. Edgar Hoover and Ronald Reagan in these familiar events, demonstrating the ruthlessness with which both men pursued “Communists” and their lack of respect for the truth. We see Hoover aggressively pushing his agents to seek out embarrassing personal details — largely rumors — about Mario Savio, Clark Kerr, and their collaborators, illegally passing the information along to Right Wing publications, and later citing it as documented truth in reports to the President and to the public. We see Reagan eagerly seeking out the FBI to inform on his rivals in Hollywood and secretly naming names behind closed doors with HUAC, destroying the careers of talented actors, directors, and writers because he disagreed with their political beliefs. From a vantage-point of half a century, both men appear to be thoroughly unscrupulous and careless about the sometimes tragic consequences of the action they directed from their privileged positions.

Seth Rosenfeld, a winner of the coveted George Polk Award and now a staff member of the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting, was previously an investigative reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle.

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