The Great Influenza

The Great Influenza by John M. Barry proved to be a difficult read for me under the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Normally I would have ground through it at a reasonable clip. Current events had me pressing forward on willpower alone. It is a good book but you cannot help but draw parallels between today and what happened during the 1918 pandemic. This makes it a depressing read.

Any ineptitude, greed, or cretinism that you see in the response of people to the pandemic today can be seen occurring more than a century ago as you read this book. Thankfully, the nightmare the people back then found themselves embroiled in, World War I, has no modern counterpart. In 1918 the press did not cover the public health disaster on their doorstep as it was thought to be bad for public morale during wartime. Today, if anything, the press will not shut up about every minor development as the pandemic continues. So much so that regular news consumption today must be psychologically corrosive.

What this book highlights is how much worse things could be. The progress the influenza outbreak of 1918 made is horrific when structured on the page. Families wiped out because every member was too weak to tend to anyone else. Hospitals collapsing under the strain of patients to whom no treatment could be given. Accounts of clinicians and nursing staff who refused to give up in the face of a tsunami of illness checking on who survived the night only to find beds filled with cadavers. Mass graves were required to deal with the volume of corpses to be disposed of. These corpses came from hospitals, private homes, and tenement buildings. They came from ice huts in Alaska. They came from everywhere.

This is not just a book about mass death it is also a book about heroic failure. We are introduced to several of the best and the brightest who redefined medical treatment in the United States. Then, financed by the limitless fortunes of industrial titans and robber barons, we watch them fail. The best and the brightest open a door to medicine as a science and not an act of barbarism where bloodletting was a curative treatment. They make great advances and crack difficult secrets but then nature slams the door shut on them.

Repeated throughout the book is the phrase “influenza, only influenza.” This is indicative of the confusion the scientific investigators had as they tried to figure out what was killing tens of millions of people around the world. Nature took an annoyance and weaponised it in a way that conservative estimates of the death toll from the 1918 pandemic are as low as 50 million and perhaps closer to 100 million dead. Not covered in the numbers are long-term disabilities the virus inflicted on the survivors.

In Paris while negotiating the World War I peace settlement president Woodrow Wilson was struck with influenza so quickly and its symptoms were so violent that the Secret Service were convinced it was an assassination attempt and he had been poisoned. Herbert Hoover is quoted as saying Wilson had a mind which was “incisive, quick to grasp essentials, unhesitating in conclusions, and most willing to take advice from men he trusted.” Hoover then went on to say that after the influenza he believed Wilson’s mind had lost “resiliency.” This lack of resiliency may have paved the way for the Second World War.

The result of the peace talks that took place while Wilson was stricken were that the United States yielded on everything of significance to the French with the result of putting Germany on the hook for economically crippling reparations and stripping it of land in Europe and overseas. The long-term effects of these pandemic viruses have not been noted and because you survive does not mean you are whole. Wilson’s health declined considerably soon after. How many millions of Influenza survivors declined in the same fashion? We do not know.

This is a book I would recommend to anyone. Though maybe a recommendation with more vigour after the world has put Covid in its rear-view mirror.

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My Best Friend's Exorcism

I suspected this was going to be light when I read the blurb on the back cover and looks were not deceiving. One chapter in, with the sunk cost fallacy at work, I charged forward into My Best Friend’s Exorcism hoping it might eventually throw some morbid humor into the mix of teen girls being nasty to one another. It never did. Which is a weakness as snide comments and horror alone cannot round out this flimsy story.

As a YA book it works and there are some paragraphs that will put a shiver down the spine of a younger reader. But it's not pitched as a YA book and there is not much going on here if you have seen more than one horror movie in your life. It is packaged as 80s nostalgia, the oppressive Reganism only working if you remember the Reagan years, with that type of relationship women only have with one another in literature and movies. Beyond that it’s a straight down the line demonic possession story.

With self-awareness the author drops references to The Exorcist into the dialogue, but it is The Exorcist with a pinch of 976-Evil and lot of Mean Girls. Just like the title says it this is a story of demonic possession and the exorcism of the Demon from a girl’s best friend. There is a geeky friendship in youth, a more sophisticated friendship as teens, and an exhausted friendship in the latter part of life.

I am not giving away anything by revealing they managed to yank the demonic presence out. What the Demon gets up to before the exorcism is evil, but this is a Netflix pitch between two covers so its evil with an eye on a small production budget.

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Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story

This is a brilliant story well told. In Eccentric Orbits a retiree goes to bankruptcy court and writes a personal check as a deposit on the Iridium satellite constellation. Cost of Iridium development to Motorola and its partners? $6 Billion+

The check was for $1.5 Million.

This happens in the latter half of the book but when I read it was a highpoint. It takes fortitude to put your own money in when no investor will. The retiree, Dan Colussy, was the former CEO of Pan Am. Colussy saw the potential of Iridium at the same time its creator, Motorola, was doing its utmost to decommission the constellation and burn the satellites up in the atmosphere. Iridium was Bob Galvin’s dream, Motorola would no longer sell technology to tele-communication operators, it would become the first global operator.

While Iridium was the father’s dream it was not his son’s. Upon his father’s retirement Chris Galvin ascended to the role of CEO to find Motorola’s cash cow mobile handset business under siege by Nokia. He reacted by attempting to refocus the company on the consumer market. Business units were shuttered or sold off and you know how that strategy turned out. Motorola as a US consumer electronics giant no longer exists.

While what remains of Moto is a shadow of what it once was, Iridium went from a launch day where no one made any satellite calls to having parts of its network in the sky hammered with calls as service people around the world call home for Mother’s Day.

The original Iridium constellation was a technological marvel designed by three of Motorola’s smartest weirdos, Bary Bertiger, Ray Leopold and Ken Peterson. It was put into orbit by a brilliant shitkicker, Dannie Stamp. How it was created and why it was a marvel is discussed in detail but the bulk of the book covers the battle to save the constellation from being burned up.

Colussy starts out alone and with no financial backing but finds allies in the Pentagon, the White House and in the intelligence community. Raising money is an ongoing problem but navigating obstacles becomes easier as he picks up compatriots.

A CIA spook shows up to his first Pentagon meeting and starts negotiating with the assembled uniforms on Colussy’s behalf. Then the spook starts showing up at other meetings with other people having not been told by Colussy about those meetings. Being smart enough not to gaze behind the curtain Colussy takes the hint and the spook is invited to officially join his team. Someone in an agency building somewhere decided Dan Colussy was the best option to keep Iridium flying. They sent him someone else to help make that happen.

There are many obstacles to Colussy's team gaining control of Iridium and a number of them come back again and again. Among the collection of existing satellite providers and bellicose telecommunication billionaires it is Motorola which emerges as the primary antagonist. Letting Iridium burn becomes the default corporate position, the company threatening to initiate the deorbit sequence regularly. Motorola becomes so unruly to deal with that the US government refuses to sign any contracts with the new Iridium if Motorola has any involvement with the new company.

Colussy and his patchwork team of investors do win the battle for Iridium and he saves the constellation from destruction. The reborn company goes through numerous CEOs until they find one that sticks. Eventually it becomes the going concern with a profitable future that Dan Colussy could see when he was retired and playing with a first generation handset at his house.

It was a hell of a journey to get there.

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Oathbringer. Book 3 of the Stormlight Archive

Brandon Sanderson writes 400 pages of story across a 1233 page book. I pulled this off the unread pile last week knowing that has been the case with the first two books in his Stormlight series and it continues in the third, Oathbringer.

This is planned to be a ten novel series and I’ll admit that in the middle of each one I start considering the opportunity cost of finishing the latest book and the series as a whole. That said the books do end strongly, he wants you to pick up the next one. When he is on Sanderson writes compelling action sequences but the intervals between those drag.

It’s a rich fantasy universe but you’re reading it as he’s fleshing it out and there’s much I don’t need to know. I don’t find the protagonists relatable, there is an anti-villain I do find relatable so anytime he’s lucid I know things are going to pick up.

As Sanderson is so prolific the next doorstopper instalment of this series is due in November. Will I read it? Yes. Will I ask myself why I’m still reading it before I hit the halfway point? Also yes.

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Samsung Rising

Another staycation day, another book. This book opens with exploding Galaxy 7s and Samsung’s paralysis, evasion, deception, and eventual recognition of a dangerous flaw in their flagship handset. Imperial rulers prefer to tell you what the truth is and Samsung’s opinion at the time of the burning handsets was that there was no issue. It was just the pro-Apple press stirring up trouble for them.

Imperial is accurate when describing the management of Samsung. In Samsung Rising the author does a good job of examining the political and dynastic intrigue of an organisation known locally as the Republic of Samsung. It's a Republic in name but a monarchy in operation. Corporatism is a cornerstone of South Korea, members of the leading chaebol (large family owned business conglomerates that dominate Korean industry) routinely finding themselves dragged through the courts only to have sentences commuted and pardons issued. The brand name corporations that they control being symbols of national pride to regular people.

South Korea’s economic success is a product of the chaebol working hand in glove with the government of the day. In Samsung’s case its start goes back to the company’s granite faced founder, Lee Byung-chul. Having lived through Japanese colonialism in Korea, B.C. took inspiration from the Japanese zaibatsu companies. The post-war economic miracle economies of Japan and Germany were South Korea’s template for industrial development. While everyone else was trying to copy the United States, B.C. ensured that Samsung would be a family controlled vertically integrated monopoly pervasive throughout South Korean life. He would import the best ideas from Japan and Germany, then make them Korean.

Betting big on semiconductors B.C. looked to rapidly scale Samsung Electronics. During the PC revolution of the 1980s Samsung Electronics looked like an also-ran but Steve Jobs showed up on its doorstep looking for memory chips for the Dynabook concept (A tablet computer). This was the beginning of the long and tortured relationship between Samsung and Apple that continues to this day. Samsung being both a key supplier for the iPhone and one of its most dangerous rivals with their Galaxy line of handsets.

The development of Samsung’s Galaxy forms the backbone of the book. Samsung's ongoing failure to grasp software development and the need of "The Tower", the brain of the Samsung octopus, to control every aspect from the top down being covered in detail. It is a compelling read. There is a horrific sequence halfway through Samsung Rising where the company’s US marketing team are summoned to South Korea for a Samsung global marketing meeting. The small, by Samsung standards, and unruly marketing team from Texas had been sticking it to Apple and carving out the Galaxy brand in the US as the defining line of Android handsets. They expected to be recognised for their work.

Recognised they were. The US team was asked to stand, and their Korean leadership told everyone in the room to clap for the US team as a sign of encouragement because they were the only group present that was failing the company. Every metric said otherwise with customer sentiment and sales of Galaxy handsets soaring in the US, but the message was clear. You do not shine brighter than the imperial court back at the South Korean HQ.

This was a good read about a company whose internal operation I knew nothing about. Samsung has stumbled badly during their last dynastic transition of power from father to son but it would be a mistake to underestimate them.

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I’m Thinking of Ending Things

The weather today has been abominable so I finished the latest staycation book much sooner than I had expected. The problem I am now faced with is that "I’m Thinking of Ending Things" is a psychological thriller/horror novel that is built on one twist. If I discuss the twist the book becomes pointless. Even an attempt to discuss it in a tangential way would cause the novel to diffuse into the air. So I will avoid it entirely. 

Like all good psychological thrillers the book begins by making you uncomfortable from the start. There is nothing gruesome here, things just feel distorted and that distortion is unsettling. You keep waiting for the floor to drop out from under the female protagonist and for things to start going wrong. You know it is coming and in a way she does too. It’s just a matter of when and how.

The majority of the book is focused on a girlfriend and boyfriend having conversations during a road trip to the farm of the boyfriend’s parents. It is dark and snowing, the cold outside the car is oppressive and the landscape at night time narrows to a point surrounding their vehicle. The conversations they have are intellectual, but he is a know-it-all and more than once I recoiled the way she does when their conversations take a negative turn.

As a reader we get extra contextual information, we are privy to the female protagonist’s internal monologue. She has been in this relationship for a number of weeks and she is not convinced it is going to work out. She is thinking of ending things. Were I in her position I would have already.

Looking at him as he is driving she considers his flaws. Flaws anyone would discover were they to make a life with another person. She wonders what it would be like to listen to the same person digest food for years to come. After sex she observes his body with detachment, noticing details that make him less attractive to her. The odds are good that this relationship is going nowhere.

Right now the realtionship is taking her to his parents farm and on the way we learn she has been keeping a secret from him. She's getting phone calls late at night, the caller only leaves messages. Not abusive messages but strange ones. The caller starts leaving her messages on the commute and the story most forward from there.

With any fiction book the bottom line of a review is if the juice was worth the squeeze? Was it worth the reading time spent? In this case I would say yes. I did not find the denouement to be revelatory but it was an uncomfortable story that was written in an engaging way. 

Would I sit down and read it again?

Probably not.

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Wildflower

Drew Barrymore is Harley Quinn if Harley Quinn decided she wanted two children and a house filled with pets. After the slog of yesterday's staycation book it was time to breeze through something and Barrymore’s memoir “Wildflower” proved to be a breezy and sometimes funny read.

Her high energy humor aside, there are sharp edges here. She recounts several asshole stunts that will make you cringe, they now make her cringe, but scattered in between these are examples of how different her situation was. Hollywood having thrown her away, there is a memory of her spying on people at the laundromat so she could learn how to wash and dry her clothes. Ruining them she drags the sodden bleach stained mess back to her dump of an apartment, where she was living alone on a diet of take-out meals and cigarettes. Despondent, she recognises that she is a school dropout who does not know how to do anything and for all intents and purposes her career as an actress is over. She was fourteen.

There is a sadness in that chapter that drives her forward in many of the others. She slowly and carefully rebuilds her shattered career, assembles a family of friends, starts reading voraciously and over achievement in cooking and domesticity becomes a driving ambition. I would not be surprised if bedsheets in the Barrymore house are changed three times a week and any meal that comes out of the microwave for dinner is seen as a personal affront.

There is an insight close to the halfway point that to me explains both why she wrote the book and why it is written in the anecdotal non-linear fashion that it is. Barrymore decided that more than anything she wanted to be appropriate. Having been a washed-up child actress; a teenager who ended up in rehab; and a tabloid fodder exhibitionist with a string of male and female lovers, all of that had to go if she wanted to take her life to the next point. Her vagabond father and incapable mother were not appropriate as people or parents, but she makes the choice that she will be.

The clothes stay on, the film roles become more wholesome and the behavior in public becomes more controlled. Her private life becomes private. This book and its presentation are an exercise in not shaming herself to her daughters while explaining the past to them. When they come asking questions they will get a detailed description of the lessons she has learned. With surface level descriptions of the situations she learned those lessons from.

The strategy here is to not let her children get away with any of the things she got away with. Believing she should never have been in those situations in the first place.

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Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts

Another staycation day, another book from the unread pile bites the dust. This time it was a deep dive into armed conflict resolution in Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts.

Jonathan Powell, chief of staff to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is one of the clearest thinkers on negotiation with armed groups that I’ve read. That said, his writing here is a slog to get through. The book is anecdote rich and upfront that negotiation is an art rather than a science but this could have been leaner and more readable if his insights were not buried deep inside the examples.

To Powell there is no conflict so insoluble that it cannot be unlocked through talking. He points out that Governments always talk to terrorists, even when they say they do not or will not. Negotiations resulting from these talks might fail, but any progress can be built on incrementally. A failure today, yesterday, and last year does not preclude success tomorrow or in five years.

It was negotiation that brought a peaceful end to the apartheid state of South Africa. Negotiation created a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland, it brought about the disbanding of ETA in Spain and FARC in Columbia. The road to these solutions only revealed itself when both sides, no matter how distasteful they found one another, talked in private.

Opening with a discussion of what we understand to be modern terrorism, with no pride do I mention he states it was developed by the Irish, it is Powell’s belief that the path to peaceful resolution always starts with private talks.

Over the course of the book he builds a convincing argument that this is the case, engaging with the counter arguments around never negotiating until terrorists are about to be annihilated. It is Powell’s assertion that time again a new terrorist threat emerges and it never reaches the point of collapse governments like to think it has. Security, military and technological solutions are deployed to combat the terrorists and while a lot of people die none of those solutions solve the problem. The terrorism mutates and carries on as the terrorist acts are the most visible symptom of another underlying set of problems.  

This book was published seven years ago but it is the author’s conclusion that to make progress on the dissolution any armed group, be their doctrine what the West would call rational or apocalyptic, you have to sit down with them. All terrorist groups begin with unreasonable demands, even the ones that state their ambition is to wipe out a competing ideology entirely. What matters in the end is the terrorists ability to park the extreme position and talk about on everything else around it. It is there the path forward to peace begins.

Overall, an interesting read but hard work to dig through.

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Sumner Redstone: The King of Content

My plans for the current staycation are to put a dent in the unread book pile. The first book out was timely since the subject died this week. 

Recently departed media mogul, Sumner Redstone, was an uncompromising man. The King of Content by Keach Hagey covers Sumner’s early life and business moves but has enough about his tumultuous personal life to be gossipy.

The advantage of the gossip is that this book reads better than a set of business cases, which it could have been as there are remarkable successes and crushing failures in the deals he made throughout his life. Covering Redstone’s early days, we find a mob connected father and a neurotic mother nurturing Sumner’s formidable intellect. This intellect was welded to a ruthless competitive streak and the combination of both proved to be explosive.

Powering him through the most prestigious school in Boston and into Harvard in short order Redstone breaks Japanese codes during World War II; becomes disillusioned with practising law; side-lines his brother to take over the family drive-in movie business; and then wages all-out war against other media companies.

Scooping up Viacom, MTV Networks and CBS Redstone consolidated several prestigious media assets under his control. Control being Redstone’s internal drive. Business associates and family members whom he cannot control are discarded. Sometimes with regret, but not too much regret. Redstone cries a lot as he’s sticking the knife into a family member or a long-time business associate, but he never cries for too long.

The arc of Redstone’s media empire follows the arc of his life. As he began to physically decline so did his investments. Mistakes were made. There was an obsession with videogame studio Midway and after investing $800 million in the beleaguered company it was sold for $100,000 and the investment written off when it was clear Midway could not be turned around by his team.

Viacom passed on acquiring Marvel, with whom their studio Paramount had the original distribution deal for the Marvel cinematic universe. That was a costly mistake when in subsequent years Paramount released box office bombs while Disney made billions from the Avengers.

The decline was not just financial. Redstone was a man of voracious sexual appetite and it is a matter of record that he left sexually explicit voicemails recounting a foursome he had the night before with the legendary Hollywood producer Robert Evans and two women. He would have been 90 at the time and a daily user of Viagra.

Throw in numerous inter-family power struggles for control of the fortune, an old man with a string of young gold-digging girlfriends, everyone getting slapped with lawsuits and you have an accurate synopsis of his final years.

Every good story needs a hero and in this story his daughter, Shari, has been cast in that role. She battles not only her father, his string of girlfriends and his sycophants but also the Board of Directors at Viacom and CBS. After all the bloodletting she stands victorious a top a pile of corpses and has as much control over the now merged ViacomCBS as her father ever had.

Sumner frequently stated that his ambition was to live forever and never carve up the Empire he had built. It strikes me that his daughter is much more pragmatic and for her corporation, ViacomCBS, to survive it will have to buy other companies or itself be sold to someone larger.

 Either way as in business and in life, control over others or yourself doesn’t last forever.

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