Category: P – Political


Thank You for Being Late; An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration by Thomas L. Friedman

April 5th, 2017 — 10:23pm

Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration by Thomas L. Friedman

This by far is one of the most interesting, enlightening, and engrossing books that I have read in a long time and I really thought I have been reading some pretty good books.

Thomas Friedman has been a reporter, New York Times columnist and author who has been awarded Pulitzer Prize three times for his work. He has the uncanny ability to describe and provide insight into our modern society and where we are going from a historical, political, scientific, and humanistic viewpoint. He draws his experience and insight from his decades of reporting in the Middle East, Washington, DC, growing up in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, having met world renowned people in all walks of life including a parking lot attendant who he met who also writes a blog read in 30 different countries.

I know that the world in which my grandchildren are growing up is vastly different than my childhood experiences but Friedman with a simple explanation demonstrates how different it really is especially driven by technology. He cites “Moore’s Law” which is “the observation at the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years” (which reflects the accelerating scientific advancements in the world). Friedman then asks the reader to imagine the magnitude of change by visualizing a chessboard and putting the grain of sand on the one square and then doubling the amount of sand on each of the successive squares (64 in total on a chessboard). I googled the amount of sand that would be on the last box. It would be 18,446,744,073,709,551,600 grains of sand. It is this projection which illustrates how much scientific advancement is available to neutralize the statistics that show potential climate change, famine, unemployment, population growth, etc. etc.

Friedman wades into so many problems that our changing world is facing but emerges with an optimistic view that we can adapt as Mother Nature has been adapting since the birth of our planet (with the help of Moore’s Law). He concludes his book by turning inward and trying to understand himself and the community from where he came. He reviews his years growing up and reviews some recent visits to time visiting St. Louis Park, Minnesota which is a small suburban town where he attended public school and Hebrew school. He examines the values he extracted from his childhood experiences and also optimistically observes how this town is changing today with the new generation of immigrants but yet adapting and solving problems the way he hopes the rest of the country and the world will adapt. While he briefly mentioned his own parents and how they influenced him, I believe he underestimates the impact of the nuclear family and early childhood experiences.

Despite the above, this is not a simple homey book. Friedman deals with most subjects in great depth. He not only shares his own opinion but he cites statistics and conversations with wide variety of experts in every aspect of the subject matter. He reviews statistical trends, history, and in-depth discussions with many people. The hard copy version of this book is a solid 496 pages. You will come away from reading this book invigorated, knowledgeable and perhaps some of Friedman’s optimism will rub off on you.

1 comment » | E- Economic, HI - History, P - Political

Just Mercy -A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

February 20th, 2017 — 2:56pm

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

I must admit that when I started this book, I was not in favor of the death penalty, mainly because I felt there might be some isolated cases where someone might be executed when they were innocent and actually did not commit premeditated murder. Now after having read this eye-opening excellent book. I am strongly against the death penalty for many reasons. I have a much more enlightened view of the criminal justice system in the United States and the tremendous injustices brought about by mass incarceration particularly in the south, to blacks and also to children who are often tried and sentenced as if they were grown adults. I had no idea of the miscarriages of justice that occur in this country.

The person I have to thank for this new valuable insight is the author of this book, Bryan Stevenson. Through his writing, I learned how as a Harvard law student, he volunteered to assist a small group working in Alabama to appeal death sentences of of prisoners on death row. His interest in this work led him to devote his career to working in this area and ultimately founding the Equal Justice Institute in Alabama. He has won relief for dozens of condemned prisoners, argued five times before the Supreme Court and won national acclaim for his work challenging bias against the poor and people of color. He has received numerous awards, including the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant.

In this book, Stevenson allows the reader to understand in great detail how in many cases, clearly innocent people were railroaded through the criminal justice system to a guilty and death penalty sentence. Improper jury selection, failure of defense lawyers to bring in witnesses or important exculpatory evidence, prosecutors who hid important evidence from the defense and judges making improper rulings were just some of the factors which put innocent people on death row. There also were numerous examples of people being sentenced to death in prison (meaning a life sentence) often for non-homicidal crimes. There also was a description of the treatment of children to the same fate. Many of these teenage kids, sometimes 13 years old, were clearly innocent or were only peripherally involved in a non-homicidal crime but nevertheless were sentenced to death in prison via a life sentence. The predominance of these injustices occurred in southern states mainly to blacks which revealed this phenomenon as an extension of slavery in this country. Speaking of slavery, I could not believe the forced coercion that occurred in many prisons which was clearly cruel and unfair. Any failure of these prisoners to participate in such activities which might be picking cotton or operating sometimes dangerous machinery for long hours could lead to very uncomfortable solitary confinement as well as beatings and other violent attacks.

It is one thing to discuss all this issues with statistics and general statements which were then documented. In fact, seven and a half percent of this book was made up of documented lawyer-like references or citations to substantiate the terrible injustices described. However, it is even more effective when the author goes into great detail describing the history of real people whose lives are destroyed by unfair imprisonment and horrendous treatment. Mr. Stevenson’s personal interaction with many of these prisoners brings them to life in the pages of this book and makes a need to improve our justice system all the more imperative. It is also easy to empathize with his feelings not only for the innocent unfairly treated adults and children, but even those who were guilty of crimes and may deserve some punishment but also deserve our mercy.

Comment » | AM - Autobiography or Memoir, O - Other - Specify, P - Political

Dark Money by Jane Meyer

May 7th, 2016 — 12:16pm

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 5.48.04 PMDark Money: The Hidden History of Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right By Jane Mayer

Jane Mayer is an award winning investigative reporter who writes for the New Yorker Magazine.

This book is long and somewhat repetitious but it presents a clear undeniable exposition that shows how our free democratic government, founded on checks and balances is being corrupted by a small group of very wealthy individuals. Multi-millions, if not billions of dollars are being used, often secretly, often with the pretense of tax-free donations, all which are funneled to individuals and organizations with the main purpose of supporting the interest of the super wealthy people who control these funds. This is a clear evasion of existing tax laws with the goal of lowering tax rates for billionaires and multi-millionaires, who often believe they should be paying lower tax rates than the middle class. There also is a campaign to change government regulations to favor their business holdings.

The undisputed leaders of this calculated, spending of “dark money” are brothers, David and Charles Koch, two of the richest men in the world who continue to expand their wealth through their massive holdings in fossil fuel and chemical industries. They lead a group of extremely wealthy men including Richard Mellon Scaife, heir to the Mellon Banking and gulf oil fortune, the Coors family who founded Amway, John Owen and his family also from the chemical industry and many others. It is not surprising that this group also denies and disputes the established scientific reality of climate change and the threatened dangers to our planet. This well-documented book, with extensive references and bibliography exposes the nefarious actions and manipulations of the relatively small group of very rich people who have a radical conservative agenda.

The Citizens United ruling by the United States Supreme Court, allowed the Koch brothers and other ultra conservatives to make unlimited contributions to independent expenditures. This meant that these groups could support political action committees that were officially not tied to particular candidates in any way. The Citizens United, Supreme Court decision also allowed that there could be unlimited spending for candidates, as long as the candidate was not involved with how the money was spent. This ruling sent a message to the wealthy and their political operatives that when it came to raising and spending money for political candidates, they could act with impunity. Soon, hundreds of millions of dollars from Koch and his wealthy colleagues were flowing to support their favorite candidates. This opened the floodgates for all special interest groups, mainly from the ultra right, including foreign corporations, to spend money without limit in the US elections. The details, including names, secret deals, etc. are all documented throughout this book.

A further example of how this group of wealthy conservatives scammed and manipulated government elections throughout the country is how they use the federal law pertaining to the IRS tax code known as 501(c)(4). This regulation allows tax-free donations to organizations that are exempt from paying federal taxes if they are listed as a civic group or are operating exclusively for the promotion of social welfare or they are a local association of employees with limited membership. These organizations are allowed to engage in unlimited lobbying as long as it pertains to the organization’s mission. Sometimes, the organization would be set up as a charity and it would be able to receive tax-free donations. Other times, when the donations were not deductable, the donors would write them off as business expenses. Many of these organizations received the funds under the guise of having honorable, civic concerns but actually closer examination showed that many of them were non-existent as a functioning organization but were rather just a post office box run by a few individuals well-connected to the Koch brothers and their friends who would furnish huge amounts of money through these organizations in support of political candidates in state elections and in the House of Representative, who were pledged to advocate for the needs of their donors.

One of the really eye-opening subjects covered in this book is the description and documentation of how conservative donors have tried to influence and gain control of higher education in America. The seminal event, which precipitated and motivated these actions, was the famous show of “Black Power” during an uprising at Cornell University in April 1964. As some of you may recall or may have read about, 80 black students marched out of the student union with their clenched fist held high in the Black Power salute and several of them were brandishing guns. The pressure brought on university officials because of this action led to the acceleration and planning to establish undergraduate black studies programs at Cornell and then subsequently at other universities. In response to these actions and in order to counter them, one of the wealthy billionaires, John Owen set up a mechanism to begin to funnel funds to various universities throughout the country, often hiding the exact source of the money. Funds went to universities to establish think tanks, special studies departments, endowed professorships, all geared to the ultra conservative agenda. Part of their goal was to establish courses in universities that would teach conservative economic theories, lecture students about the “climate change myth”, teach theories and write books that expounded lowering taxes for the rich and reducing financial support for the poor. All of these one-sided ideas would have caused benefit for donors of these huge funds. This was a secret agenda and millions and millions of dollars were brought into universities throughout the United States. This movement, plus the pouring of money into the election process began to allow conservatives to develop an increasingly large constituency, which gained strength in the state government and also allowed the ultra right to gain seats in the House of Representatives of the US Congress. The subsequent Republican congress limited President Obama’s ability to develop his agenda and is now also expected to play a major role in the 2016 election.

This book review has just touched upon a few of the highlights or should I say low points of what is documented in Jane Mayer’s book. It is ongoing and actually is quite depressing. However, it is really very important that every American citizen should be aware of the corruption of our political system with the behind the scenes, hidden history of secret deals with dark money.

 

 

Comment » | E- Economic, P - Political

A Common Struggle: A personal Journey through the Past and Future Mental Illness and Addiction by Patrick J. Kennedy and Stephen Fried

December 9th, 2015 — 11:56pm

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 6.27.58 PMA Common Struggle: A personal Journey through the Past and Future Mental Illness and Addiction   By: Patrick J. Kennedy and Stephen Fried

This is a story, told in the first person of Patrick J. Kennedy. It is really two stories presented to us simultaneously. It is about Patrick Kennedy, son of Edward Kennedy and nephew of JFK and Bobby Kennedy. He has been a US congressman from Rhode Island for eight terms and was one of the staunch advocates for parity legislation, for mental illness, and addiction. Yet at the same time that he was leading the fight in the United States Congress to bring about these major changes in our healthcare system, he himself was secretly battling mental illness and addiction.

An important part of his personal story was a discussion of alcoholism in his family. Not only was the author an alcoholic but his brother, mother, and father, Ted Kennedy also struggled with this condition. It is significant that all of them except his father ultimately recognized their problem and entered various programs to help themselves. His mother battled alcoholism for a prolonged period of time and yet her condition was not recognized by family members despite the fact that they knew about several hospitalizations and treatment programs that she had undergone.

One of the most revealing insights about his father that he revealed in this book is how Ted Kennedy was traumatized by the tragic death of his three brothers, JFK, Bobby Kennedy, and his oldest brother, Joe Jr., who was killed in World War II. An additional major trauma for Ted Kennedy was the death of the young woman in Chappaquiddick, an incident well covered by the press.

It was not a simple pathway for the author to recognize his own problems. Even after a period of therapy with Psychiatrist Peter Kramer, author of the well known book (Listening to Prozac). Kennedy felt this treatment was helpful but did not eliminate his addiction problem or allow full acceptance of his bipolar condition. He vividly described how he would convince himself that he didn’t have any problems if he didn’t drink in public or take “illegal” drugs.

Patrick Kennedy served in the Rhode Island legislature and was elected as the youngest member of the US Congress in 2004 during a period that his addiction and mental illness was hidden from the public. It was also pretty much hidden from himself.

His colleagues in the US Congress ultimately became aware of his attempts to hide his drinking problem. Kennedy describes an important event for him when in 1996, Minority Leader, Dick Gephardt, offered him the prestigious chairmanship of the Congressional Campaign Committee on the condition that he stop drinking. This made him realize how he was denying that he had a problem that was known to others.

It wasn’t until 2005 that he publicly admitted that he was suffering from a mood disorder that was being treated by a psychiatrist. While his own struggle continued, he became more effective in his advocacy in the US Congress. One misconception he believed had to be clarified concerned Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign against drugs. He felt that this missed the main point that addiction is not something you can simply say no to, just as you can’t say no to cancer. It is a disease and by implying you can just say no stigmatized people who have the genetic propensity to have this disease.

As much as the story of Kennedy’s recognition of his own illness of addiction and mental disease and how he battled it is quite enlightening, the battle for a definitive bill in the US Congress is just as revealing.The events leading up to the 2008 Wellstone and Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act are quite interesting and complicated. They are also quite personal to Patrick Kennedy. It took place at the time that he was relapsing to alcohol and painkillers and also was having an exacerbation of his bipolar condition. While Patrick Kennedy was one of the leading champions in the House of Representatives for this legislation, his father, Ted Kennedy, was a major supporter of this bill in the US Senate. This was also at a time that the senior Kennedy was dying of a brain tumor. Compromises had to be made in the bill and the Senate was reluctant for the legislation to be as comprehensive in various aspects and details of the bill as was wanted by the House of Representatives. There also was a question how the legislation would deal with the new surge of mental health problems occurring in soldiers returning from the war. There was a concern that it should cover PTSD as well as addiction in the returning servicemen. Patrick Kennedy described the dramatic moment that his dying father came to the senate floor to vote for the final version of the bill to the applause of the US Senate.

Even with the passage of this extraordinary legislation, the battle for adequate parity for healthcare support was far from over. The proof and the success of this landmark bill would depend on the implementation by the federal and state governments and certain local rulings are expected to eventually reach the Supreme Court. The 2016 presidential race can certainly also be expected to impact the success of implementation of this legislation. As of this writing, it appears that the Republican candidates may be reluctant to support the implementation of this legislation and provide funding for new programs.

Patrick Kennedy decided to leave the United States Congress in 2010. Since departing from Congress, he has continued to be a leading advocate to bring about implementation of the 2008 legislation for mental illness and addiction. In this regard, among many other things, he has worked with two important organizations in which he plays very active roles. The Kennedy Forum (kennedyforum.org) gathers experts in mental health and addiction and holds important conferences that they hope will ensure implementation of the 2008 legislation. They are also committed to promoting a translation of neuroscience into the preventative and treatment interventions for mental health and addiction. The second organization in which Patrick Kennedy is involved is One Mind (onemind.org), which is dedicated to the promotion and support of “brain health” and creating a fast track for treatment. Their current focus is on new approaches to treat and cure PTSD but they look forward to applying solutions for all brain disease including depression, Parkinsons, ALS, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and addictions.

Patrick Kennedy does not bemoan problems. He is clearly a man not only with a vision but with plans and solutions. He concluded his book with a scorecard of how we should rate our public officials who have the opportunity to pass legislation and make changes. Also at the end of the book, he had a section for people who are dealing with their own mental illness and addiction. He tells them not to be alone in this struggle and how important it is to get treatment. Finally, sandwiched in this book was a series of photographs of many well known members of his family. It brought back many memories to this reader of the great accomplishments of many members of the Kennedy family and of the tragic events that they experienced.

It should be noted that at the time that Patrick Kennedy wrote this book, he was three and a half years sober. He has shown that he is a very accomplished and insightful man. I believe we are going to hear a great deal about him in his advocacy. He has provided in this book a valuable historical account of the reasons to fight for the proper care of mental illness and addiction. I am sure he has a bright future and many people will benefit by his skills and his passion.

Comment » | AM - Autobiography or Memoir, MHP - Mental Health/Psychiatry, P - Political

Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide by Michael B. Oren

September 18th, 2015 — 11:03pm

Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli DivideScreen Shot 2015-09-18 at 5.56.52 PM

By: Michael B. Oren

The author is the former Ambassador from Israel to the United States who served 2009-2013 and currently is a member of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament.

Oren’s journey to this position as Israel’s representative to the United States and the man who was one of the key advisers to Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began when he was growing up in a Jewish family in West Orange, New Jersey. He was bullied then as a child and experienced antisemitism at a young age. At the age of 15, in 1970, Oren visited Israel with a Zionist group where he met Yitzhak Rabin in an encounter which he describes as a life changing event.

He went on to complete college at Columbia and received a master’s degree. He then immigrated to Israel in 1979. He came back to the United States to get a PhD at Princeton. He was married in 1982 to an American woman who also made Aliyah. They went on to have three children.

Oren’s commitment to Israel was more than an intellectual and emotional one. He joined the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) and served as a paratrooper in the 1982 war and saw serious combat. He then worked with the underground in the Soviet Union and was arrested by the KGB. During the Persian Gulf War he was the Israeli liaison to the United States Sixth Fleet. In the 1980s and 1990s, he taught at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at the university in Tel Aviv. He served in various positions in the Israeli government, and in 2006, was a visiting professor at Harvard and at Yale.

Oren has written numerous articles and a few important books including New York Times listed best selling books titled Faith and Fantasy, the history of America’s involvement in the Middle East and Six Days of War, an historical account of the Six Day War. He also wrote two novels.

So in 2009, when Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister appointmented Oren as Ambassador, he was already a seasoned government advisor as well as a respected historian. He considered himself a dual citizen of Israel and the United States. If fact, he described a very painful moment when he had to give up his US citizenship in order to become Israeli Ambassador to the United States. He vividly described his emotions seeing his passport voided.

Mr. Oren obviously must have kept a very complete diary as he goes on to document his life for the next four years in great detail. The reader has the feeling that the author is reliving the experience moment to moment, telephone call to cellphone call, car ride to plane ride, and so many very personal meetings. He essentially takes the reader up to the door of the Oval Office in the White House as he steps back to sit with the other most senior advisers as President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu hold their personal meetings. There are so many stories of this four-year period which essentially chronicles the delicate situation in the Middle East and the interaction between Israel and the United States.

I came away from this book feeling that Oren was a very loyal Israeli who still loves America. I thought that despite at times his critical view of some of the actions of the United States, he sincerely believed that his first country would always have Israel’s back.

As Oren currently serves in the Knesset, it would not surprise me if he did not someday move up and become part of the top leadership in Israel. This could lead to another important book to allow historians and people like us to gain further insight into the relationship between these two great allies.

 

 

Comment » | AM - Autobiography or Memoir, HI - History, P - Political

My Promised Land by Ari Shavit

December 22nd, 2014 — 4:50pm

My Promised Land by Ari ShavitScreen Shot 2014-12-21 at 1.34.42 PM

If you have any familiarity with the politics of the Middle East and the establishment of the state of Israel you know it is a very complicated story. Ari Shavit is an Israeli who cares deeply about the future of his beloved homeland. He has written what appears to me to be a definitive comprehensive book about the history of modern Israel. In the course of writing this book, he has done extensive research and has interviewed hundreds of people, many who have been key players in the amazing story of Israel. Shavit is a well-established journalist who personally knows many of these people. Others agreed to meet with him apparently because of his good reputation. I am not in a position to judge if he has all his facts straight and if he has given a balanced view. I can only say that it appears that he has tried to understand and present numerous points of view, This has to be a painful book to anyone who has an affinity for Israel and what this country has meant to so many people.

Naturally, Shavit covers the story of the European Jews who escaped annihilation from the Holocaust and how many of them with literally the shirts on their back built kibbutzim, moshavim, new cities, orange groves and so much more. The transformation from scorched dessert into fertile farms while on the surface is a magical story but is one of tremendous work and dedication. Similarly the development of Tel Aviv into one of the great cities of the world seems like a fairy tale but in reality reflects the courage and the personality of the people who came to Israel.

The spirit and the work ethic of the people who made up the Zionist movement is not the only story of Israel. There is also a narrative of continued bloodshed, conflicts, ethical dilemmas and an uncertainty about the future. The 1948 declaration of a State of Israel by the United Nations was followed by an attack by the surrounding Arab countries, which is a well known important piece of history. As are the 1967 War and the 1973 Yom Kipper War. The details and the meanings behind these wars are discussed in great detail in this book. Shavit doesn’t stop there; he examines and discusses the displaced natives of Palestine and other parts of Israel where many Arabs have lost their homes. While many Arabs do live in harmony in what is now Israel, it clear that many live for the day that they can regain what they feel is rightfully their land. Then there is the situation of the Jewish settlements on the Palestine west bank. On one hand, this is viewed as undermining the one just possibility for a two state solution that might lead to long lasting peace. On the other hand, there is also the point of view of the settlers which they present as a moral and deep seated justification for what they are doing.

There is the story of the Sephardic Jews in Israel, many of whom have felt greatly discriminated against. As with each issue the author brings to life the point of view of the protagonists by not only reviewing factual historical events but also by telling compelling personal stories of the people involved.

Perhaps one of the most important subplots of the story of Israel is a secret chapter that cannot be officially told. On the other hand it is well known and documented by Shavit. In this case he does this by using mostly non-Israeli and certainly non-official sources. This is the fascinating tale but certainly true story of the development of the city of Dimona, which is where Israel mobilized it’s human resources, with some help from France, to develop nuclear weapons. While this unacknowledged fact is stated with great certainty, Israel has never overtly used this as a threat but it nevertheless has been essential for the survival of Israel.

If Dimona were the big secret that I heard about before reading this book, the discussion of the magnitude of threat to Israel from Iran was something that I never fully appreciated. The author in his meticulous style reviews the response of Israel to each step that Iran has made to develop their own nuclear weapon capacity. This includes a daring secret air attack by Israel in 1981 which demolished Iran’s nuclear plants, which were on the verge of producing weapon grade nuclear material. This leads us to the present and one of the major dilemmas that Israel faces today. Once again Iran, a country that has sworn to destroy Israel, is approaching the ability of developing nuclear weapons.

I hope I have made the point that Ari Shavit has written an amazing book that has vividly described in depth so many of the historical events that have allowed Israel to develop and flourish, as well as the issues that question Israel’s viability to survive in the future as it exists today.

Comment » | HI - History, P - Political

Power Concedes Nothing by Connie RIce

July 20th, 2014 — 12:58am

Power Concedes Nothing: One Woman’s Quest for Social Justice in American, from the Courtroom to the Kill Zones by Connie RiceScreen Shot 2014-07-19 at 6.40.49 PM

I seldom go around telling certain people that they must read a particular book. I did find myself dong just that in regard to this book. If you have been interested in the battle for social justice, especially in regard to Los Angeles, you will definitely find this book quite fascinating.

Connie Rice (who by the way is a distant cousin of former Secretary of State Condolezza Rice) grew up as the daughter of Air Force officer who was the great grandson of a slave and a mother who was a high school teacher who happened to be the great granddaughter of a slave owner. Her family moved several times before she completed high school. Her parents valued education and she also was quite bright and ended up attending college at Radcliff/Harvard and then going to N.Y.U. Law School. After clerking for some important judges, she could have worked in a prestigious law firm and have a very respectable corporate or white-collar law career. She certainly went on to achieve an extremely respectable career but she chose to do it confronting civil rights and gang violence. The journey that she has taken, the fights that she has undertaken, the forces that she has confronted, the allies that she has worked with and the accomplishments that she has achieved thus far in her still vibrant career are remarkable and are chronicled in this memoir.

Early in her career, she became a part of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (known as the LDF). It was originally pioneered by Thurgood Marshall, before he became the first black Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. I thought I knew something about justice, particularly how capital punishment, was unfairly administered in the U.S. “I didn’t know jack.” The inside stories Ms. Rice reveals in this fight for justice, were eye opening. However, this phase of her career was tame compared to what was to come next when circumstances brought her out to the West Coast to open the Los Angeles branch of the LDF.

Ms. Rice became squarely involved in the battles for social justice in Los Anglees. She takes us through the Rodney King incident where a black construction worker was stopped by the police and  beaten for no cause. Subsequently there were riots in Los Angeles when the police involved in these beatings were exonerated by a trial, which had been moved to Simi Valley, which was a known area where many police families live. Ms. Rice was in many subsequent legal cases where she sued the police and represented victims of police violence. She also tells about the almost impossible to describe gang violence that existed in certain areas of Los Angeles that became known as the “kill zones.” She was known as the “ lady lawyer” as she was introduced to gang activities by a few former gang member who were trying (with mostly futile attempts) to make changes and were trusted within the gangs. Ms. Rice captures the horrible circumstances inside the gangs where there existed a culture dominated by frequent murder of opposing gang members. Two vignettes that she told will illustrate how bad things were and how vividly she was able to describe them.

#1 A teenage boy was approached by the leader of one gang and asked to become a gang member The boy stated that that his family didn’t want him to join and he was involved in schoolwork. After he politely declined a second time, he was asked to view a DVD. In it was shown his younger sister being brutally raped by gang members. He was then told if he didn’t join the gang, his sister would be raped again and murdered. He joined the gang.

#2 A ten-year-old boy was introduced to Ms. Rice by some gang members. She asked the child how he was involved in the gang. He proudly told her that he “shoots people.” When the gang wanted to murder someone, they lured this person to a street where the young boy was unobtrusively stationed. He pulled out the gun that he was trained to use and shot the victim and ran way.

These were just two of the many stories of how the gangs had taken away the lives of young people in more than one way.

The murder rate in Los Angeles was very high and the philosophy of the Los Angeles Police Department at this time was to “contain” the violence rather than try to eliminate it. There was also a certain amount of violence and corruption coming from the police department itself. Connie Rice was one of the soldiers in the battle to change this situation. She used her legal skills as well as her interpersonal ability to begin a sea change that is still going on in Los Angeles. She worked side by side with gang members, gang interventionists, enlightened members of the police department, politicians and other dedicated lawyers. She told of her experience with people from the gangs to others in the trenches with her. She names names, good and bad, from Mayors, police officers and attorneys. Among others, she developed a close alliance with Police Chief Bratton and up and coming Charlie Beck who subsequently became Police Chief when Bratton retired. One of the heroes of the book was Harry Bellafonte and it wasn’t for his singing. Rather it was for the emotional support he played as a father figure for many gang members as well as for his financial support for various programs. Ms. Rice has been an ongoing witness and a participant to bringing about changes in the kill zones that actually significantly reduced the murder rate there. She documented how each murder that did not occur saved close to a million dollars for society as well as the human savings.

Ms. Rice feels that the battle is not over yet. She champions the ideology of Martin Luther King who predicted that significant change wouldn’t occur until there was a “ radical restructuring of society itself and revolution of values.” If you care about the changes that have occurred in Los Angeles in the past few decades and those that need to occur in the future, I suggest that you should read this book.

 

 

 

Comment » | AM - Autobiography or Memoir, P - Political

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis

April 6th, 2014 — 10:03pm

Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 8.53.24 PMFlash Boys by Michael Lewis- This book is causing both great interest and high emotion on Wall Street since its recent release. The author, Michael Lewis, has great credentials as a reliable reporter, which he has demonstrated in several important books including best sellers Moneyball and Liar’s Poker. This book mesmerized me but to be perfectly honest, most of the time I did not understand what the author was talking about especially when he was explaining the exact details of how electronic trading really works. Apparently, according to the author, most of the traders on Wall Street also really don’t know what goes on behind the computer screen. However, that is exactly what this book is all about.

Early in the book the reader learns that millions of dollars are being spent to lay a black tube filled with fiberglass cable from Chicago to New Jersey and to make it as straight as possible. This will allow electronic signals that carry information between brokerage houses and the various stock exchanges to flow as fast as possible. One of the goals of this project is to let the people who sign up to use it be faster than all the other guys who don’t use it. However, that is not the whole story. We also learn that some brokerage firms spend lots of money to move their computer servers closer to the main stock exchange buildings in New York and New Jersey in order to shorten the travel time of the electronic messages. We are talking about increasing their speed by thousandths of a second, faster than the blink of an eye. With or without new cable there are all sorts or tricks or techniques to manipulate the speed and timing of the electronic impulses, which convey information involved in buying and selling stock. Certainly, speed really counts but things are even more complicated. Stock traders who do a lot of trades called High Frequency Traders (HFT) have special computer programs that have tricky computer maneuvers. For example, if they have a 10,000-share order they will send out a signal for an order of 100 shares. This allows the computer to figure out the current selling price and then the computer in blinding fast speed sends the rest of the order to various other exchanges and ends up making purchases a fraction of a cent better than if they didn’t have this super speed ability. It gets even more complicated as there are all sorts of commissions and bonuses per share that depend where and when the sale is made. Oh, also there are “dark pools” which are locations in cyberspace where various brokerage firms will make trades from their own clients without routing orders to the various exchanges. This saves money but doesn’t necessarily get the best price for the customers. There are 13 public stock exchanges (NY Stock Exchange, American Stock Exchange, NASDEQ and 10 more) plus 45 dark pools.

If this were just a book about computer programing and the ins and outs of the market, I would have given up on it early on. There also is a human side of this story, which is about some of the so called computer geeks that work designing these systems and making them work, as well as some of the higher ups who run the various brokerage and stock exchanges. It should be noted that many of these people earn hundreds of thousands of dollars per year and some make a few million dollars per year and those at the very top make much more. There are some heroes in this book. One in particular will be mentioned. His name is Brad Katsayama. He and a few colleagues figured out that super speed trading gives certain brokers an unfair advantage. Initially they designed a program to make the information from a trade arrive evenly at the same speed. (Needless to say this is a simplified explanation). They believed that this made for fairer business transactions. Then after many machinations they brought together a team that was dedicated to build their own stock exchange. The purpose would be to run super speed trading that would give no special advantage and no one would get special bonuses or commissions for tricky manipulations in how a block of stock was transacted in their stock exchange, which is named IEX (Investors Exchange). There were some very exciting moments as they built the exchange and waited with baited breath on the opening day to see if it would work and attract what they believed would be fair minded traders. Spoiler Alert! Goldman Sacks led the way and ultimately other firms would follow and IEX became a successful endeavor.

Lest you think that Goldman sacks is presented as one of the heroes of this book, there is a very scary situation described in the book where a man
by the name of Sergey Aleynkove is harshly sentenced to 8 years in jail for “stealing” computer code from them. He was one of those geeks who appeared to be more interested in the intricacies of the electronic trading than getting around the laws and regulations. The explanation for what he did that was shown to us was that while at Goldman Sachs he sent himself emails of the code he was working on which he kept when he left the firm. Most of what he used was open code that meant that it was available to anyone for free on the Internet and the rest of it wasn’t really usable outside of Goldman Sacks. Nevertheless they pressed charges and he was convicted. We are led to believe this is about the paranoid atmosphere when the secret world of electronic trading is being exposed.

The impression that Michael Lewis leaves us with this book is that stock market trading is mostly rigged and there is manipulation, skimming and deception. While there has been a genuine growth from which most investors profit in the long run, the everyday details are dark and dirty. They are also very difficult to understand. They are embedded in the nano second impulses that flash back and forth in the hands of the people who run our financial markets.

Comment » | E- Economic, P - Political

Havana Nocturne by T.J. English

April 2nd, 2014 — 8:09pm

Havana Nocturne by T.J. EnglishScreen Shot 2014-04-01 at 11.10.58 PMI thought that I was a little familiar with the history Cuba. I knew that Spain won its freedom from Spain in the Spanish American War. I knew that during the reign of the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista the United States and large U.S. corporations had a good deal and made lots of money from Cuba.  I was aware in 1959 Fidel Castro and his revolutionary army basically took over the country, nationalized US companies and threw out the Americans as well as many wealthy Cubans. They established a more or less socialistic economy as Batista escaped in exile. I also had a vague awareness that prior to the revolution Havana was a very exciting city with lots of nightclubs run largely by gangsters similar to stories I heard about Las Vegas. 

     This book written by an American journalist T. J. English fills in the details about Batista, Castro and especially the very personal story of the mafia, the mob or the gangsters who in a very deliberate manner conquered the economy of this country and ruled it’s jeweled city of Havana for almost seven years. I am ashamed to admit that prior to reading this book, I had considered that there must have been some redeeming value in Batista, if the U. S. including Presidents Eisenhower and JFK had strongly supported him However, after learning about the suitcases of money that were delivered to Batista in exchange for letting the gangsters take over Havana, I was quite surprised and disappointed.

The Cuban revolution is only a small part of this story that is told in great details (with much documentation and cross referencing in the appendix at the end of the book as if that were really needed.) This book chronicles the life of gangsters, Charles Lucky Luciano and most of all Meyer Lansky. There are fascinating behind the scenes details of historical events that most of us would never have known. We learn that Lucky Luciano might have lived most of his adult life in prison if there was not a deal made with the United States Navy who had a need to catch Nazi sabatours who were operating on the NY and Brooklyn docks where Luciano had the ability to ferret out their identities. This earned him an out of jail ticket and deportation to Italy from where he then traveled to Cuba.

On the other hand, the descriptions of the life and successful business doings of Mr. Lanksy would have to be of interest, and perhaps envy of every Harvard Business School graduate although we would hope they not follow in his unscrupulous side. Lansky knew how to involve his business associates with a piece of the action so for the most part they would be content with hardly a necessary mob hit (although there were certainly a few of them described in the book). In fact, there were the inside details of some of the biggest gangster hits of all time including the notorious Albert Anastasia

The life styles and personalities of several mobsters are describes in detail as there was a quite a large number of them who came to Cuba to seek their fortunes. Particularly prominent along with Luciano and Lanksy was Santos Trafficante Jr. who in addition to having his hooks in Havana controlled activities in Tampa, Florida. Their backgrounds, personalities and relationships with each other are all dissected. For the most part their motive was clear, money-lots of it. They saw Cuba, as a fertile field for exploiting. Havana was an immensely attractive playground for he rich as well as the wannabee rich, all who were drawn to this glamorous city. There also was an account of Frank Sinatra’s acquaintance with the mob and there even was a story about something like an orgy in which a young US Senator JFK was a participant.

English’s writing style is relatively straightforward. The references are in the back of the book but the sequences of events and cast of characters were clearly rolled out as was the various nefarious schemes. At times English would throw in a colorful metaphor such as. “ Throughout the month of December, the island seethed like a bitch with a low grade fever.” Perhaps the only thing that was not clear to me is why the influence of the exiled Cubans mostly concentrated in Florida, to this day continues to prevent the US from lifting the Cuban embargo and developing a reasonable relationship with the Cuban people. Now that Castro himself is in his waning days and island itself as we observed during a recent trip is experimenting with various forms of capitalism, it may be a short time before that occurs. It will be interesting to see when that happens if the mob will creep back into Havana in the dead of night.

 

 

Comment » | HI - History, P - Political

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Rossevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin

February 11th, 2014 — 1:09am

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism- by Doris Kearns Goodwinimages I always thought that I was fairly well educated in American history but now after encountering this magnificent book I realize how little I knew about two great American presidents, Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Doris Kearns Goodwin, more recently known for Team of Rivals about the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, chose with good reason to couple Roosevelt and Taft in this massive writing project. My electronic reader had about 4870 pages (this will vary with the size of the screen and font) and Amazon showed the hard cover version having 910 pages including the index. In fact by my count almost 15% of the book were footnotes and the index, which is keeping with the scholarly approach of Ms. Goodwin. This does not mean that this is a slow or dry read. To the contrary, the reader is drawn into the lives of these fascinating men and the time period in which they were making American history. I had to remind myself that I was not reading a novel. Quite early in the book Ms. Kearns has chosen to demonstrate that these two men had become very good friends and in fact Roosevelt was of prime importance in allowing Taft to follow him as President after his two terms. But shortly after Taft became President, there occurred a rift between the two that essentially at one point made them bitter enemies. The book exams each of their lives and follows their trajectories. This is done by alternating chapters that shows in depth the various stages of their lives. In the course of seeing their individual assents to the top, we learn they became friends, colleagues and the nature of the extremely close relationship that developed. Ultimately we also were able to follow the lives of these two men and their careers, which is the story of the progressive movement in the United States. It also tells the amazing story of Sam McClure and the muckraker journalists. In a world where there was no mass media, no radio, television or Internet; a magazine by the name of McClure’s Magazine was extremely popular. The magazine evolved from the leading literary magazine to one that provided extensive investigations and in-depth exposes, which led to political and social changes in the regulation by the government of several monopolistic industries. Some of the respected authors and journalists who wrote for McClure include Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. When McClure moved to important political issues his authors included Ida Tarbell who told the story behind John Rockefeller and the Standard Oil monopoly, Ray Baker who wrote about the Right to Work and the terrible treatment of those who attempted to organize labor and Lincoln Steffens who was best known for his writing about political corruption. There was also a discussion about the well known muckraker Upton Sinclair whose novel The Jungle told of the horrors of the meatpacking industry. It is most striking how these writers not only had great impact on the public but also how receptive Teddy Roosevelt was to meet them in person and learn first hand of their investigations. This all led to the major reforms that were started by Roosevelt and carried forth by Taft and how Congress was pressured to respond with the needed legislation. In order to appreciate the depth and insight that Doris Kearns Goodwin was able to achieve about these two Presidents and the events of the day, you have to understand the sources, which she used. As would be expected, there are numerous quotes from the newspapers of that time which followed the contemporary political events and personalities. The personal method for communication was letter writing. A great deal of the personal and official correspondence of these figures has been preserved. There also are available to historians and writers, the diaries of many of them as well as those of people close to them which often reflect the details of events as well as the emotional tone, which occurred in various interactions. Eventually many of the key players wrote autobiographies and others wrote biographies about them. Kearns and her fact gathering team pieced things together so the book read like a well-written novel I imagine that different readers will come away with varied impressions, particularly about these two U.S Presidents. It does seem that I now know more about them than I do about many important people in the news today and probably more than I do about many everyday people with whom I interact. As much as I admire Teddy Roosevelt and appreciate his accomplishments and determination to do what he believed was right for this country (and was subsequently proven to be correct), I also appreciate his shortcomings. He became a national hero when he led, the Rough Riders into Cuba to needlessly risk his life and others which was more likely a personal ego trip. His break with his very close friend William Howard Taft was clearly his doing because he felt slighted for clearly insignificant reasons. Even his formation of the ill-fated Bull Moose Party which cost Taft the chance to serve a second term seemed to be another ego trip. On the other hand, Taft came across to be a very sincere person who not only cared about the people he served but had the ability to feel empathy for the individuals in his life including Roosevelt. It is ironic that Taft who would have chosen being Chief Justice of the Supreme Court over being president, which he probably never really wanted to be, never-the-less accomplished so much in his one term as president and then fortuitously had a chance to serve as Chief Justice in his later years. These are just a few samplings of the type of insights you may get as you read about these men and the history of their times.

Comment » | B - Biography, HI - History, P - Political

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