Biography

On Truman

I recently finished reading Truman by Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found to be insightful:

The influence of his teachers on his life, Harry later said, was second only to that of his mother, and when crediting a Tillie Brown or a Margaret Phelps for all they had done for him, he did so with the assumption that everybody of his generation had a Tillie Brown or Margaret Phelps in their background and could therefore understand how he felt.

More important and equally unexpected was the way in which he proved himself a leader. His first day in office he spoke to the point: We intend to operate the country government for the benefit of the taxpayers. While we were elected as Democrats, we were also elected as public servants. We will appoint all Democrats to jobs appointable but we are going to see that every man does a full day’s work for his pay. In other words we are going to conduct the county’s affairs as efficiently and economically as possible.

“Three things ruin a man ” Harry would tell a reporter long afterward. “Power, money, and women. “I never wanted power,” he said. “I never had any money, and the only woman in my life is up at the house right now.”

“It is a pity that Wall Street, with its ability to control all the wealth of the nation and to hire the best law brains in the country, has not produced some statesmen, some men who could see the dangers of bigness and of the concentration of the control of wealth. Instead of working to meet the situation, they are still employing the best law brains to serve greed and self-interest. People can stand only so much, and one of these days there will be a settlement…”

To the country, the Congress, the Washington bureaucracy, to hundreds of veteran New Dealers besides those who had gathered in the Cabinet Room, to much of the military high command, to millions of American men and women overseas, the news of Franklin Roosevelt’s death, followed by the realization that Harry Truman was President, struck like massive earth tremors in quick succession, the thought of Truman in the White House coming with the force of a shock wave. To many it was not just that the greatest of men had fallen, but that the least of men—or at any rate the least likely of men—had assumed his place.

“If we can put this tremendous machine of ours, which has made victory possible, to work for peace, we can look forward to the greatest age in the history of mankind. That is what we propose to do.”

The cost of winning the war had been $341 billion. Now $400 million was needed for Greece and Turkey. “This is a serious course upon which we embark,” Truman said at the finish, and the look on his face was serious indeed. “I would not recommend it except that the alternative is much more serious…If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world, and we shall surely endanger the welfare of this nation.”

The line between communism and democracy was clear: Communism is based on the belief that man is so weak and inadequate that he is unable to govern himself, and therefore requires the rule of strong masters.i Democracy is based on the conviction that man has the moral and intellectual capacity, as well as the inalienable right, to govern himself with reason and fairness. Communism subjects the individual to arrest without lawful cause. punishment without trial, and forced labor as the chattel of the state. It decrees what information he shall receive, what art he shall produce, what leaders he shall follow, and what thoughts he shall think. Democracy maintains that government is established for the benefit Democracy maintains that government is established for the benefit of the individual, and is charged with the responsibility of protecting the rights of the individual and his freedom in the exercise of those abilities…

“This is a Republic. The greatest in the history of the world. I want the country to continue as a Republic. Cincinnatus and Washington pointed the way. When Rome forgot Cincinnatus its downfall began. When we forget the examples of such men as Washington, Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson, all of whom could have had a continuation in the office, then we will start down the road to dictatorship and ruin. I know I could be elected again and continue to break the old precedent as it was broken by F.D.R It should not be done. That precedent should continue—not by Constitutional amendment but by custom based on the honor of the man in office. Therefore to reestablish that custom, although by a quibble I could say I have only had one term, I am not a candidate and will not accept the nomination for another term.”

But if the firing of MacArthur had taken a heavy toll politically, if Truman as President had been less than a master of persuasion, he had accomplished a very great deal and demonstrated extraordinary patience and strength of character in how he rode out the storm.

He was remembered as the first president to recommend Medicare, remembered for the courage of his stand on civil rights at the risk of his political fortunes. The whistle-stop campaign was recalled as one of the affirming moments in the history of the American political system.

On a closing note:

Ambitious by nature, he was never torn by ambition, never tried to appear as something he was not. He stood for common sense, common decency. He spoke the common tongue. As much as any president since Lincoln, he brought to the highest office the language and values of the common American people. He held to the old guidelines: work hard, do your best, speak the truth, assume no airs, trust in God, have no fear. Yet he was not and had never been a simple, ordinary man. The homely attributes, the Missouri wit, the warmth of his friendship, the genuineness of Harry Truman, however appealing, were outweighed by the larger qualities that made him a figure of world stature, both a great and good man, and a great American president.

A highly recommended read on Leadership and History.

 

 

On Common Sense on Mutual Funds

I recently finished reading Common Sense on Mutual Funds – New Imperatives for the Intelligent Investor – by John C. Bogle.

Below are key excerpts from this book that I found to be insightful:

Investing is an act of faith. We entrust our capital to corporate stewards in the faith—at least with the hope—that their efforts will generate high rates of return on our investments. When we purchase corporate America’s stocks and bonds, we are professing our faith that the long-term success of the U.S. economy and the nation’s financial markets will continue in the future.

To state the obvious, the long-term investor who pays least has the greatest opportunity to earn most of the real return provided by the stock market.

In my view, market timing and rapid turnover—both by and for mutual fund investors—betray both a lack of understanding of the economics of investing and an infatuation with the process of investing.

My guidelines also respect what I call the four dimensions of investing: (1) return, (2) risk, (3) cost, and (4) time. When you select your portfolio’s long-term allocation to stocks and bonds, you must make a decision about the real returns you can expect to earn and the risks to which your portfolio will be exposed. You must also consider the costs of investing that you will incur. Costs will tend to reduce your return and/or increase the risks you must take. Think of return, risk, and cost as the three spatial dimensions—the length, breadth, and width—of a cube. Then think of time as the temporal fourth dimension that interplays with each of the other three. For instance, if your time horizon is long, you can afford to take more risk than if your horizon is short, and vice versa.

Rule 1: Select Low-Cost Funds…Rule 2: Consider Carefully the Added Costs of Advice…Rule 3: Do Not Overrate Past Fund Performance…Rule 4: Use Past Performance to Determine Consistency and Risk…Rule 5: Beware of Stars…Rule 6: Beware of Asset Size…Rule 7: Don’t Own Too Many Funds…Rule 8: Buy Your Fund Portfolio—And Hold It.

No matter what fund style you seek, you should emphasize low-cost funds and eschew high-cost funds. And, for the best bet of all, you should consider indexing in whichever style category you want to include.

There are three major reasons why large size inhibits the achievement of superior returns: the universe of stocks available for a fund’s portfolio declines; transaction costs increase; and portfolio management becomes increasingly structured, group-oriented, and less reliant on savvy individuals.

Four principal problems are created by this overemphasis on marketing. First, it costs mutual fund shareholders a great deal of money— billions of dollars of extra fund expenses—which reduces the returns received by shareholders. Second, these large expenditures not only offer no countervailing benefit in terms of shareholder returns, but, to the extent they succeed in bringing additional assets into the funds, have a powerful tendency to further reduce fund returns. Third, mutual funds are too often hyped and hawked, and trusting investors may be imperiled by the risks assumed by, and deluded about the potential returns of, the funds. Lastly, and perhaps most significant of all, the distribution drive alters the relationship between investors and funds. Rather than being perceived as an owner oi the fund, the shareholder is perceived as a mere customer of the adviser.

On a closing note, on leadership:

To wrap up this litany, I put before you—both tentatively and humbly—a final attribute of leadership: courage. Sometimes, an enterprise has to dig down deep and have the courage of its convictions—to “press on,” regardless of adversity or scorn. Vanguard has been a truly contrarian firm in its mutual structure, in its drive for low costs and a fair shake for investors, in its conservative investment philosophy, in market index funds, and in shunning hot products, marketing gimmicks, and the carpet-bombing approach to advertising so abundantly evident elsewhere in this industry today. Sometimes, it takes a lot of courage to stay the course when fickle taste is in the saddle, but we have stood by our conviction: In the long run, when there is a gap between perception and reality, it is only a matter of time until reality carries the day.

A recommended read in the areas of investing and leadership.

On The Everything Store

I recently finished reading The Everything Store – Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon – by Brad Stone.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

There is so much stuff that has yet to he invented. There’s so much new that’s going to happen. People don’t have any idea yet how impactful the Internet is going to be and that this is still Day 1 in such a big way.

“If you want to get to the truth about what makes us different, it’s this,” Bezos says, veering into a familiar Jeffism: “We are genuinely customer-centric, we are genuinely long-term oriented and we genuinely like to invent. Most companies are not those things. They are focused on the competitor, rather than the customer. They want to work on things that will pay dividends in two or three years, and if they don’t work in two or three years they will move on to something else. And they prefer to be close-followers rather than inventors, because it’s safer. So if you want to capture the truth about Amazon, that is why we are different. Very few companies have all of those three elements.

So looking back on life’s important junctures was on Bezos’s mind when he came up with what he calls “the regret-minimization framework” to decide the next step to take at this juncture in his career.

We believe that a fundamental measure of our success will be the shareholder value we create over the long term. This value will be a direct result of our ability to extend and solidify our current market leadership position. The stronger our market leadership, the more powerful our economic model. Market leadership can translate direct! to higher revenue, higher profitability, greater capital velocity, and correspondingly stronger returns on invested capital. Our decisions have consistently reflected this focus. We first measure ourselves in terms of the metrics most indicative of our market leadership: customer and revenue growth, the degree to which our customers continue to purchase from us on a repeat basis, and the strength of our brand. We have invested and will continue to invest aggressively to expand and leverage our customer base, brand, and infrastructure as we move to establish an enduring franchise.

Jeff Bezos embodied the qualities Sam Walton wrote about. He was constitutionally unwilling to watch Amazon succumb to any kind of institutional torpor, and he generated a nonstop flood of ideas on how to improve the experience of the website, make it more compelling for customers, and keep it one step ahead of rivals.

Bezos was obsessed with the customer experience, and anyone who didn’t have the same single-minded focus or who he felt wasn’t demonstrating a capacity for thinking big bore the brunt of his considerable temper.

“My approach has always been that value trumps everything,” Sinegal continued. “The reason people are prepared to come to our strange places to shop is that we have value. We deliver on that value constantly. There are no annuities in this business.” A decade later and finally preparing to retire, Sinegal remembers that conversation well. “I think Jeff looked at it and thought that was something that would apply to his business as well,” he says.

“I understand what you’re saying, but you are completely wrong,’ he said. “Communication is a sign of dysfunction. It means people aren’t working together in a close, organic way. We should be trying to figure out a way for teams to communicate less with each other. not more.”

That was a typical interaction with Jeff. He had this unbelievable ability to be incredibly intelligent about things he had nothing to do with, and he was totally ruthless about communicating it.

If Amazon wanted to stimulate creativity among its developers, it shouldn’t try to guess what kind of services they might want; such guesses would be based on patterns of the past. Instead, it should be creating primitives—the building blocks of computing—and then getting out of the way. In other words, it needed to break its infrastructure down into the smallest, simplest atomic components and allow developers to freely access them with as much flexibility as possible.

‘Jeff does a couple of things better than anyone I’ve ever worked for,” Dalzell says. “He embraces the truth. A lot of people talk about the truth, but they don’t engage their decision-making around the best truth at the time. “The second thing is that he is not tethered by conventional thinking. What is amazing to me is that he is bound only by the laws of physics. He can’t change those. Everything else he views as open to discussion.”

On a closing note:

Amazon may be the most beguiling company that ever existed. and it is just getting started. It is both missionary and mercenary. and throughout the history of business and other human affairs, that has always been a potent combination. “We don’t have a single big advantage,” he once told an old adversary, publisher Tim O’Reilly, back when they were arguing over Amazon protecting its patented 1-Click ordering method from rivals like Barnes & Noble. “So we have to weave a rope of many small advantages.” Amazon is still weaving that rope. That is its future, to keep weaving and growing, manifesting the constitutional relentlessness of its founder and his vision. And it will continue to expand until either Jeff Bezos exits the scene or no one is left to stand in his way.

A recommended read in the areas of technology and corporate history.

On John Adams

I recently finished reading John Adams by David McCullough.

Below are key excerpts from this book that I found to be particularly insightful:

In truth, he was extremely proud of his descent from “a line of virtuous, independent New England farmers.” That virtue and independence were among the highest of mortal attainments, John Adams never doubted. The New England farmer was his own man who owned his own land, a freeholder, and thus the equal of anyone.

And liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people who have a right from the frame of their nature to knowledge, as their great Creator who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings and a desire to know. But besides this they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible divine right to the most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers.

If, by supporting the rights of mankind, and of invincible truth, I shall contribute to save from the agonies of death one unfortunate victim of tyranny, or of ignorance, equally fatal, his blessings and years of transport will be sufficient consolation to me for the contempt of all mankind.

The preservation of liberty depends upon the intellectual and moral character of the people. As long as knowledge and virtue are diffused generally among the body of a nation, it is impossible they should be enslaved.

Few Americans ever achieved so much of such value and consequence to their country in so little time. Above all, with his sense of urgency anc unrelenting drive, Adams made the Declaration of Independence happen when it did. Had it come later, the course of events could have gone very differently.

Years later, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Adams would describe the voyage on the Boston as symbolic of his whole life. The raging seas he has passed through, he seemed to be saying, were like the times they lived in, and he was at the mercy of the times no less than the seas. Possibly he saw, too, in the presence of John Quincy, how directly his determination to dare such seas affected his family and how much, with his devotion to the cause of America, he had put at risk beyond his own life. Besides, as he may also have seen, the voyage had demonstrated how better suited he was for action than for smooth sailing with little to do.

To Thomas Jefferson, Adams would one day write, “My friend, you and 1 have lived in serious times.” And of all the serious events of the exceedingly eventful eighteenth century, none compared to the arrival upon the world stage of the new, independent United States of America. Adams’s part in Holland and at Paris had been profound. As time would tell, the treaty that he, Franklin, and Jay had made was as advantageous to their country as any in history. It would be said they had won the greatest victory in the annals of American diplomacy.

The role of the executive Adams was emphatic. If there is one central truth to be collected from the history of all ages, it is this: that the people’s rights and liberties, and the democratical mixture in a constitution, can never be preserved without a Strong executive, or, in other words, without separating the executive from the legislative power. If the executive power, or any considerable part of it, is left in the hands of an aristocratical or democratical assembly, it will corrupt the legislature as necessarily as rust corrupts iron, or as arsenic poisons the human body; and when the legislature is corrupted, the people are undone.

The only way to keep us from setting up for ourselves is to disunite us,” young schoolmaster Adams had written in his percipient letter to Nathan Webb, and to Adams now, as to others, dissolution remained the greatest single threat to the American experiment. “The fate of this government,” he would write from New York to his former law clerk, William Tudor, “depends absolutely upon raising it above the state governments.’ The first line of the Constitution made the point, “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.’

‘o Adams the outcome was proof of how potent party spirit and party organization had become, and the most prominent was Burr’s campaign in New York. Washington, in his Farewell Address, had warned against disunion, permanent alliances with other nations, and “the baneful effects of the spirit of party.” Adams could rightly claim to have held to the ideals of union and neutrality, but his unrelenting independence—his desire to be a President above party—had cost him dearly.

In turbulent, dangerous times he had held to a remarkably steady course. He had shown that a strong defense and a desire for peace were not mutually exclusive, but compatible and greatly in the national interest.

In fundamental ways each proved consistently true to his nature they were in what they wrote as they had been through life. Jefferson was far more guarded and circumspect, better organized, dispassionate, more mannered, and refused ever to argue. Adams was warm, loquacious. more personal and opinionated, often humorous and willing to poke fun at himself. When Jefferson wrote of various self-appointed seers and mystics who had taken up his time as president, Adams claimed to have lad no problem with such people. “They all assumed the character of ambassadors extraordinary from the Almighty, but as I required miracles in proof of their credentials, and they did not perform any, I never gave public audience to any of them.”

I do not believe that Mr. Jefferson ever hated me. On the contrary, I believe he always liked me: but he detested Hamilton and my whole administration. Then he wished to be President of the United States, and I stood in his way. So he did everything that he could to pull me down. But if I should quarrel with him for that, I might quarrel with every man I have had anything to do with in life. This is human nature…. I forgive all my enemies and hope they may find mercy in Heaven. Mr. Jefferson and I have grown old and retired from public life. So we are upon our ancient terms of goodwill.

On a concluding note:

That John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had died on the same day. and that it was, of all days, the Fourth of July, could not be seen as a mere coincidence: it was a “visible and palpable” manifestation of “Divine favor,” wrote John Quincy in his diary that night, expressing what was felt and would be said again and again everywhere the news spread.

A highly recommended read in the areas of history and leadership.

 

 

 

On The Making of the President 1972

I recently finished reading The Making of the President 1972 – A narrative of American politics in action – by Theodore H. White.

Below are key excerpts from this book that I found to be particularly insightful:

He recognized best, and spoke most clearly, for how Americans chose to live at home in their neighborhoods-or, at the very least, he persuaded an astounding majority of Americans that he understood their emotions and needs better than his rival. With his victory, he believed in all sincerity that he had been given a mandate to reorganize the American government to make it more responsive to what the voters had shown they wanted. The after-fact that this genuine mandate might be denied him by Watergate, by the frightening way he had let his own appointees use his purposes to flout law—that is a story this book will inescapably, later, come to. But the book begins with how the people saw their leaders, and how the leaders saw then: people, in America in1972, when the and how;he leaders saw then: people, in America m 1972, when the postwar world was coming to an end—and how the people chose Richard Nixon.

Roosevelt had come of the patricians and rarely soiled himself with the nitty-gritty of mechanical politics. Roosevelt campaigned in another time, almost m another country. Large of vision, buoyant of spirit, steeped in history by family and blood, the lordly Roosevelt left it to his lieutenants to deal with the wards, the townships and regional power brokers, then pasted up his electoral votes, as he did the stamps his dealers brought him, in his album. It was quite clear always to Roosevelt what he was dealing with and what he had to do—and he did it easily.

The world of the 1960’s-which the liberals had dominated m America-was changing so rapidly that by the beginning of the 1970’s America—was changing so rapidly that by the beginning of the 1970’s change had created a climate of schizophrenia in liberal thinking, almost a civil war among thinkers who came of the same tradition. Always, since the time of Washington and Jefferson, three great permanent issues have dominated American politics-foreign policy; the clash of the races; and the managing of the economy. In the 1960’s, however, a liberal administration had accepted the war in Vietnam – and its unfurling had then split liberals from top to bottom. Liberals had championed the Black Revolution—and been unable to cope with its results. Liberals had masterminded the great boom of the 1960’s—and not foreseen its effect on manners and morals.

Well, Mr. Nixon liked Andrew Jackson—Jackson took on the banks. He liked Lincoln—Lincoln took on slavery and the cause of the Union. He liked Grover Cleveland—Cleveland took on the Congress, and restored the power of the Presidency which had been lost by Andrew Johnson. And Teddy Roosevelt—he had taken on the trusts and vested interests. And Wilson—Wilson took on the Senate and the isolationists. And Franklin Roosevelt. The common denominator, said the President, was that they accepted controversy and they made things move, they wanted progress. “There’s a role in life for men like McKinley, good men,” said the President. But he. Nixon, didn’t want to be like McKinley, nor like Eisenhower. He wanted to be a leader.

Statistics had once been a clearly marked area of scholarship, where economists, sociologists and planners held intellectual squatter’s rights. Now the numbers were a new staple of journalism. The Bloody Thursday figures fitted into the middle pages of the newspapers, as did the numbers on traffic, schools and tobacco use. But the high-impact figures —unemployment, prices, crime—were front-page news everywhere, as well as natural stories for the television evening news. Slowly, one tried to explore the numbers, for they had become the fashionable way for politicians to demonstrate a grip on reality. And one learned that there are real numbers and phony numbers.

Each decade in American life has a Sacred Issue to which all politicians must pay lip service. In the 1950’s, the Sacred Issue had been Defense and Anti-Communism. In the 1970’s, it seems certain that it will be the cause of Environment. In the 1960’s, however, the Sacred Issue was Education-and the Census of 1970, reporting on youth, Issue was Education—and the Census of 1970, reporting on youth, measured the mania for education which had swept American society in the previous decade.

One could best explain the nature of this struggle in 1972 by making an imaginary diagram of the American power structure at the tum of the century and comparing it to the American power structure as the postwar world came to its end. In 1900, as William McKinley prepared for his second term, the American power structure could be described in pure Leninese. At the pinnacle of power was Wall Street-finance. Wall Street centralized American national action—it decided where mines would be opened, railways built, what immigrant labor should be imported, what tech-railways built, what immigrant labor should be imported, what technology developed. it immigrant labor should be imported, what tech-discussion. At a second level was the Congress of the United States—doing the will of the great financiers, enacting the necessary laws, repelling the raiders of prairie discontent. On a third level was the series of largely undistinguished men who until 1900 had held the figurehead office of President of the United States for thirty years; their chief power, beyond the expression of patriotic piety, was to deploy a minuscule professional army and navy against Indians and Spaniards. The American clergy exercised some moral power, best expressed in such issues of national political importance as temperance. Behind came all the other power ingredients—a decorative Supreme Court, the early labor unions, the corrupt big-city machines, the universities. Then the proprietary press—for the press was then a proprietorship, something owned by businessmen for making money. By 1972 the power structure had entirely changed. The most important fall from power had happened to finance; businessmen might get fat, as they still did in 1972, by wheedling subsidies from national or state governments, but they were now a lobby that came hat-in-hand before a legislature and executive to whom once they had dictated. Labor, big labor, had risen to almost equal political power. The clergy had declined in power even more than big business. Congress, too, was a major loser in the power game—seventy years of domination by vigorous, aggressive Presidents had reduced its self-respect and, even more critically, the respect of the public. The Supreme Court had reached a peak of control over the national agenda m the 1960’s; but its power was beginning to fade again as the seventies began. Universities were among the big gainers in the power hierarchy—universities now were among the big gainers in the power hierarchy —universities now But the two greatest gainers in the reorganized power structure were the Executive President and his adversary press, or, as one should more properly phrase it in modem America, the “press-television complex.” Both tried to operate under what they considered traditional rules, but American life had made that impossible.

The story of Watergate was only one of a number of major stories in the election of 1972. As it unraveled, it was to become a story of 1973 and would fit better, someday when all was known, into a story of the use and abuse of power in a modem state. The elections of 1972 were determined, basically, by the record Richard Nixon had written in the understanding of his people—and his chief adversary was not in the understanding of his people—and his chief adversary was not understood and spoke for the people better than he did himself. On this immediate level of contest, Richard Nixon won. The people preferred Richard Nixon.

The Watergate affair is inexplicable m terms of older forms of corruption in American history, where men broke laws for private gain or privilege. The dynamics of its irrationality are compounded further by stupidity. The men involved were involved at a moment, in 1972, when history was moving their way. They were trying to speed it by any means. history was moving their way. They were trying to speed it by any means, that, as history may record, compounds their personal felonies with national tragedy. For it would be no less than national tragedy if men came to regard the election of 1972 as fraud; or attempted to reverse the verdict of the people at the polls on the technicalities of a burglary, in a spasm of morality approaching the hysterical.

The Democratic Party, which called itself the party of the future, had become, in their eyes, the party of the past. They turned instead to Richard Nixon, affirming the change of direction he declared he was giving to government—a restraint on the power and reach of the Federal state into daily life. However his use of the power of state may be defined in the months or years to come, use of the power ot state may be defined in me months or years to come, For this time, they preferred to live their own lives privately—unplagued by moralities, or war, or riots, or violence. In the alternation of the sequences of American history, in the cycle between poetry and pragmatism, in those generational shifts of mood characteristic of the adventure in democracy certainly the ideas of the minority who voted for McGovern would come into then: time again. Those ideas still stirred in the spirit of the nation. But until those ideas had new form, new shape, new perspective, the majority of Americans would not be called out to march in their cause. Such was their mandate in 1972.

An educative read on American history and politics.

On Writing

I recently finished reading On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft – by Stephen King.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found to be particularly insightful:

Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your  job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.

You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair—the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.

I am approaching the heart of this of this book with two theses, both simple. The first is that good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, gram mar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of your toolbox with the right instruments. The second is that while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.

Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work. Especially work. People love to read about work.

Do you do it for the money, honey? The answer is no. Don’t now and never did. Yes, I’ve made a great deal of dough from my fiction, but I never set a single word down on paper with the thought of being paid for it. I have done some work as favors for friends—logrolling is the slang term for it— but at the very worst, you’d have to call that a crude kind of barter. I have written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side—I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.

On a closing note:

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the | end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. Some of this book— perhaps too much—has been about how I learned to do it. Much of it has been about how you can do it better. The rest of it—and perhaps the best of it— is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.

A highly recommended read in the areas of writing and storytelling.

On The Rise Of Theodore Roosevelt

I recently finished reading The Rise Of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. As the title indicates this is a book that chronicles the early stages of Theodore Roosevelt from birth to his ascension to US Presidency.

Below are key excerpts from the book:

Politically, too, it has been a year of superlatives, many of them supplied, with characteristic immodesty, by the President himself. “No Congress in our time has done more good work,” he fondly told the fifty-ninth, having battered it into submission with the sheer volume of his social legislation. He calls its first session “the most substantial” in his experience of public affairs. Joseph G. Cannon, the Speaker of the House, agrees, with one reservation about the President’s methods. “Roosevelt’s all right,” says Cannon, “but he’s got no more use for the Constitution than a tomcat has for a marriage license.”

Roosevelt is used to such criticism. He has been hearing it all his life. “If a man has a very decided character, has a strongly accentuated career, it is normally the case of course that he makes ardent friends and bitter enemies.”‘Yet even impartial observers will admit there is a grain of truth in Twain’s assertions. The President certainly has an irrational love of battle. He ceaselessly praises the joys of righteous killing, most recently in his annual message to Congress: “A just war is in the long run far better for a man’s soul than the most prosperous peace.”

To say that Theodore Roosevelt made a vivid first impression upon his colleagues would hardly be an exaggeration. From the moment that he appeared in their midst, there was a chorus of incredulous and delighted comment. Memories of his entrance that night, transcribed many years later, vary as to time and place, but all share the common image of a young man bursting through a door and pausing for an instant while all eyes were upon him—an actor’s trick that quickly became habitual. This gave his audience time to absorb the full brilliancy of his Savile Row clothes and furnishings.

Like a child, said Isaac Hunt, the young Assemblyman took on new strength and new ideas. “He would leave Albany Friday afternoon, and he would come back Monday night, and you could see changes that had happened to him. Such a superabundance of animal life was hardly ever condensed in a human [being].

Although the World claimed, with possible truth, that New Yorkers were pleased to see Roosevelt go,few could deny that his record as Commissioner was impressive. “The service he has rendered to the city is second to that of none,” commented The New York Times, “and considering the conditions surrounding it, it is in our judgment unequaled.” He had proved that it was possible to enforce an unpopular law, and, by enforcing it, had taught the doctrine of respect for the law. He had given New York City its first honest election in living memory. In less than two years, Roosevelt had depoliticized and deethnicized the force, making it once more a neutral arm of government. He had broken its connections with the underworld, toughened the police-trial system, and largely eliminated corruption in the ranks. The attrition rate of venal officers had tripled during his presidency of the Board, while the hiring of new recruits had quadrupled—in spite of Roosevelt’s decisions to raise physical admission standards above those of the U.S. Army, lower the maximum-age requirement, and apply the rules of Civil Service Reform to written examinations. As a result, the average New York patrolman was now bigger, younger, and smarter. “He was also much more honest, since badges were no longer for sale. and more soldier-like (the military ideal having been a particular feature of the departing commissioner’s philosophy). Between May 1895 and April 1897, Roosevelt had added sixteen hundred such men to the force.

Well might he be happy. Theodore Roosevelt had cone home to find himself the most famous man in America—more famous even than Dewey, whose victory at Manila had been eclipsed (if temporarily) by the successive glories of Las Guasimas, San Juan, Santiago, and the round-robin which “brought our boys back home.” The news that the United States and Spain had just signed a peace initiative came as a crowning satisfaction. Intent as Roosevelt might be to parry questions about his gubernatorial ambitions—thereby strengthening rumors that he had already decided to run—his days as a soldier were numbered. It remained only to spend five days in quarantine, and a few weeks supervising the demobilization of his regiment, before returning to civilian life and claiming the superb inheritance he had earned in Cuba.

One of the first outsiders to congratulate Roosevelt was William McKinley, who sent a handwritten expression of unqualified good wishes…There comes a time in the life of a nation, as in the life of an individual, when it must face great responsibilities, whether it will or no. We have now reached that time. We cannot avoid facing the fact that we occupy a new place among the people of the world, and have entered upon a new career.. . . The guns of our warships in the tropic seas of the West and the remote East have awakened us to the knowledge of new duties. Our flag is a proud flag, and it stands for liberty and civilization. Where it has once floated, there must be no return to tyranny or savagery . . .

If not the first, Theodore Roosevelt was certainly one of the first politicians to act responsibly in view of the changing economics and class structure of late-nineteenth-century America. As such he deserves to be ranked only slightly behind Altgeld and Pingree and Jones. If his governorship, which lasted only two years (and was subject to enormous distractions in the second), was less spectacular than some, it was spectacular enough in terms of his own membership in the social and intellectual elite. One thinks of his early contempt for unions, for Henry George, for the unwashed Populists, for the rural supporters of William Jennings Bryan. Yet as Governor, Roosevelt had shown himself again and again willing to support labor against capital, and the plebeians in their struggle against his own class.

A highly recommended read in the area of politics. I look forward to reading the sequel, Theodore Rex.

On Mountains Beyond Mountains

I recently finished reading Mountains Beyond Mountains – The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure The World – by Pulitzer Prize winning author Tracy Kidder.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

Writing my article about Haiti, I came to share the pessimism of the soldiers I’d stayed with. “I think we should have left Haiti to itself,” one of Captain Carroll’s men had said to me. “Does it really matter who’s in power? They’re still gonna have the rich and :he poor and no one in between. T don’t know what we hope to accomplish. We’re still going to have a shitload of Haitians in boats wanting to go to America. But, I guess it’s best not even to try and figure it out.” The soldiers had come to Haiti and lifted a terror and restored a government, and then they’d left and the country was just about as poor and broken-down as when they had arrived. They had done their best, I thought. They were worldly and tough. They wouldn’t cry about things beyond their control.

Little sleep, no investment portfolio, no family around, no hot water. On an evening a few days after arriving in Cange, I wondered aloud what compensation he got for these various hardships. He told me, “If you’re making sacrifices, unless you’re automatically following some rule, it stands to reason that you’re trying to lessen some psychic discomfort. So, for example, if I took steps to be a doctor for those who don’t have medical care, it could be regarded as a sacrifice. but it could also be regarded as a way to deal with ambivalence.” He went on, and his voice changed a little. He didn’t bristle, but his tone had an edge: “I feel ambivalent about selling my services in a world where some can’t buy them. You can feel ambivalent about that, because you should feel ambivalent. Comma.”

And then of course it dawned on him that he knew plenty of Americans—he was one himself—^who held apparently contradictory beliefs, such as faith in both medicine and prayer. He felt, he said, as though he hung in the air before his patient, “suspended by her sympathy and bemusement.” The study was for him a command—to worry more about his patients’ material circumstances than about their beliefs.

He had a knack for aphorism. “Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing but medicine on a large scale.” “It is the curse of humanity that it learns to tolerate even the most horrible situations by habituation.” “Medical education does not exist to provide students with a wav of making a living, but to ensure the health of the community” “The physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor, and the social problems should largely be solved by them.” This last was Farmer’s favorite.

“For me to admire Cuban medicine is a given,” Farmer said. It was a poor country and made that way at least in part by the United States’ long embargo, yet when the Soviet Union had dissolved and Cuba had lost both its patron and most of its foreign trade, the regime had listened to the warnings of its epidemiologists and had actually increased expenditures on public health. By American standards Cuban doctors lacked equipment, and even by Cuban standards they were poorly paid, but they were generally well-trained, and Cuba had more of them per capita than any other country in the world—more than twice as many as the United States. Everyone, it appeared, had access to their services, and to procedures like open heart surgery. Indeed, according to a study by WHO, Cuba had the world’s most equitably distributed medicine. Moreover, Cuba seemed to have mostly abandoned its campaign to change the world by exporting troops. Now they were sending doctors instead, to dozens of poor countries. About five hundred Cuban doctors worked gratis in Haiti now—not very effectively. because they lacked equipment, but even as a gesture it meant a lot to Farmer.

He said patients came first, prisoners second, and students third, but this didn’t leave out much of humanity Every sick person seemed to be a potential patient of Farmer’s and every healthy person a potential student. In his mind, he was fighting all poverty all the time, an endeavor full of difficulties and inevitable failures. For him, the reward was inward clarity, and the price perpetual anger or, at best, discomfort with the world, not always on the surface but always there. Sensing with the world, not always on the surface but always there. Sensing this, I’d begun to be relieved of the shallower discomforts I sometimes felt in his company, that I’d felt keenly back in the airport in Cuba. Farmer wasn’t put on earth to make anyone feel comfortable, except for those lucky enough to be his patients, and for the moment I had become one of those.

Paul’s face grew serious: “I think whenever a people has enormous resources, it is easy for them to call themselves democratic. I think of myself more as a physician than as an American. Ludmilla and I, we belong to the nation of those who care for the sick. Americans are lazy democrats, and it is my belief, as someone who shares the same nationality as Ludmilla, I think that the rich can always call themselves democratic, but the sick people are not among the rich.” I thought he was done, but he was only pausing for the interpreter to catch up. “Look, I’m very proud to be an American. I have many opportunities because I’m American. I can travel freely throughout the world, I can start projects, but that’s called privilege, not democracy.”

Every patient is a sign. Every patient is a test.

A highly recommended read in the areas of human rights, healthcare and medicine.

On A Beautiful Mind

I recently finished reading A Beautiful Mind, a biography by Sylvia Nasar. As best stated by the author: “This is the story of John Forbes Nash. Ir. It is a story about the mystery of the human mind, in three acts: genius, madness, reawakening. ”

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

The young genius from Bluefield, West Virginia – handsome, arrogant, and highly eccentric — burst onto the mathematical scene in 1948. Over the next decade, a decade as notable for its supreme faith in human rationality as for its dark anxieties about mankind’s survival, Nash proved himself, in the words of the eminent geometer Mikhail Gromov, “the most remarkable mathematician of the second half of the century.” Games of strategy, economic rivalry, computer architecture. the shape of the universe, the geometry of imaginary spaces, the mystery of prime numbers —all engaged his wide-ranging imagination. His ideas were of the deep and wholly unanticipated kind that pushes scientific thinking in new directions.

Nash’s genius was of that mysterious variety more often associated with music and art than with the oldest of all sciences. It wasn’t merely that his mind worked faster, that his memory was more retentive,or that his power of concentration was greater. The flashes of intuition were non-rational. Like other great mathematical intuitionists —Georg Friedrich Bernhard Riemann. Jules Henri Poincare, Srinivasa Ramanujan — Nash saw the vision first. constructing the laborious proofs long afterward. But even after he’d try to explain some astonishing result, the actual route he had taken remained a mystery to others who tried to follow his reasoning. Donald Newman, a mathematician who knew Nash at MIT in the 1950s, used to say about him that “everyone else would climb a peak by looking for a path somewhere on the mountain. Nash would climb another mountain altogether and from that distant peak would shine a searchlight back onto the first peak.”

As was to become increasingly obvious over the months that followed, Princeton’s approach to its graduate students, with its combination of complete freedom and relentless pressure to produce, could not have been better suited to someone of Nash’s temperament and style as a mathematician, nor more happily designed to elicit the first real proofs of his genius. Nash’s great luck, if you want to call it luck, was that he came onto the mathematical scene at a time and to a place tailor-made for his particular needs. He came away with his independence, ambition, and originality intact, having been allowed to acquire a truly first-class training that was to serve him brilliantly.

Sometimes one person’s best choice is the same no matter what the others do. That is called a dominant strategy for that player. At other times, one player has a uniformly bad choice — a dominated strategy — in the sense that some other choice is best for him irrespective of what the others do. The search for equilibrium should begin by looking for dominant strategies and eliminating dominated ones. But these are special and relatively rare cases. In most games each player’s best choice does depend on what the others do, and one must turn to Nash’s construct. Nash defined equilibrium as a situation in which no player could improve his or her position by choosing an alternative available strategy, without implying that each person’s privately held best choice will lead to a collectively optimal result. He proved that for a certain very broad class of games of any number of players, at least one equilibrium exists —so long as one allows mixed strategies. But some games have many equilibria and others, relatively rare ones that fall outside the class he defined, may have none. Today, Nash’s concept of equilibrium from strategic games is one of the basic paradigms in social sciences and biology. It is largely the success of his vision that has been responsible for the acceptance of game theory as, in the words of The New Palgrave, “a powerful and elegant method of tackling a subject that had become increasingly baroque, much as Newtonian methods of celestial mechanics had displaced the primitive and increasingly ad-hoc methods of the ancients.”

All through the childhood, adolescence, and brilliant student career. Nash had seemed largely to live inside his own head, immune to the emotional forces that bind people together. His overriding interest was in patterns, not people. and his greatest need was making sense of the chaos within and without by employing, to the largest possible extent, the resources of his own powerful, fearless. fertile mind. His apparent lack of ordinary human needs was, if anything, a matter of pride and satisfaction to him, confirming his own uniqueness. He thought of himself as a rationalist, a free thinker, a sort of Spock of the starship Enterprise. But now, as he entered early adulthood, this unfettered persona was shown to be partly a fiction or at least partly superseded. In those first years at MIT, he discovered that he had some of the same wishes as others. The cerebral, playful, calculating, and episodic connections that had once sufficed no longer served. In five short years, between the ages of twenty-four and twenty-nine, Nash became emotionally involved with at least three other men. He acquired and then abandoned a secret mistress who bore his child. And he courted —or rather was courted by —a woman who became his wife.

Although Nash appeared unscathed, the arrest was a turning point in his life. Aloof, ambitious, coolly indifferent to others as he often appeared, Nash was by no means a true loner. Living in a tolerant ivory tower, he had been lulled into believing that he could do as he liked. Now he learned, in a particularly brutal fashion, that the emotional connections he sought threatened to destroy all else that he valued — his freedom, his career, his reputation, success on society’s terms. Contradictory imperatives can engender tremendous fear. And fear can be subtly destructive.

Nash’s lifelong quest for meaning, control, and recognition in the context of a continuing struggle, not just in society, but in the warring impulses of his paradoxical self, was now reduced to a caricature. Just as the over-concreteness of a dream is related to the intangible themes of waking life, Nash’s search for a piece of paper, a carte d’identite, mirrored his former pursuit of mathematical insights. Yet the gulf between the two recognizably related Nashes was as great as that between Kafka, the controlling creative genius, struggling between the demands of his self-chosen vocation and ordinary life, and K, a caricature of demands of his self-chosen vocation and ordinary life, and K, a caricature of Kafka, the helpless seeker of a piece of paper that will validate his existence. rights, and duties. Delusion is not just fantasy but compulsion. Survival, both of the self and the world, appears to be at stake. Where once he had ordered his thoughts and modulated them, he was now subject to their peremptory and insistent commands.

Nash’s remission did not come about as many people later assume because of some new treatment. “I emerged from irrational thinking,” he said in 1996, “ultimately, without medicine other than the natural hormonal changes of aging.” He described the process as one that involved both a growing awareness of the sterility of his delusional state and a growing capacity for rejecting delusional thought.

On a closing note:

Unlike a game of Hex, outcomes in real life aren’t predetermined by the first or even the fiftieth move. The extraordinary journey of this American genius, this man who surprises people, continues. The self-deprecating humor suggests greater self-awareness. The straight-from-the-heart talk with friends about sadness, pleasure. and attachment suggests a wider range of emotional experiences. The daily effort to give others their due, and to recognize their right to ask this of him, bespeaks a very different man from the often cold and arrogant youth. And the disjunction of thought and emotion that characterized Nash’s personality, not just when he was ill, but even before are much evident today. In deed, if not always in word, Nash has come to a life in which thought and emotion are more closely entwined, where getting and giving are central, and relationships are more symmetrical. He may be getting and giving are central, and relationships are more symmetrical. He may be less than he was intellectually, he may never achieve another breakthrough, but he has become a great deal more than he ever was— “a very fine person,” as Alicia put it once.

A highly recommended biography.

On Lenin’s Tomb

I recently finished reading the Pulitzer Prize winning book: Lenin’s Tomb – The Last Days of the Soviet Empire – by David Remnick.

Below are key excerpts from this masterpiece:

In the years after Stalin’s death, the state was an old tyrant slouched in the comer with cataracts and gallstones, his muscles gone slack. He The state was nearly senile, but still dangerous enough. He still kept the key to the border gate in his pocket and ruled every function of public life. Now and then he had fits and the world trembled.

When Brezhnev shoved Khrushchev out of power, the state M had the means to squash what little freedom it had allowed. The censors went through the libraries with razor blades and slashed from the bound copies of Novy Mir Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich…The regime would rather kill its brightest children than give way.

“It is perfectly obvious that the lack of the proper level of democratization of Soviet society was precisely what made possible both the cult of personality and the violations of the law, arbitrariness, and repressions of the thirties—to be blunt, real crimes based on the abuse of power. Many thousands of members of the Party and nonmembers were subjected to mass repressions. That, comrades, is the bitter truth. Serious damage was done to the cause of socialism and the authority of the Party, and we must speak bluntly about this. This is essential for the final and irreversible assertion of Lenin’s ideal of socialism. ‘The guilt of Stalin and those close to him before the Party and the people for the mass repressions and lawlessness that were permitted are immense and unforgivable…even now we still encounter attempts to ignore sensitive questions of our history, to hush them up, to pretend that nothing special questions of our history, to hush them up, to pretend that nothing special happened. We cannot agree with this, it would be a neglect of historical truth, disrespect for the memory of those who found themselves innocent victims of lawlessness and arbitrariness.”

But Gorbachev had not finished. There was a reason for his revelation. It tied out that he had saved his confession for traditional ends. “I’ve been told more than once that it is time to stop swearing allegiance to socialism,” he was saying now. “Why should I? Socialism is my deep conviction, and I will promote it as long as I can talk and work.” By late 1990, political opinion polls showed that only a minority of Soviet people—not more than 20 percent—still shared Gorbachev’s faith in the efficacy of socialism. But attempts to turn away from the “socialist choice” were inconceivable to Gorbachev—a betrayal, a “counterrevolution on the sly.”

But things had changed. The sharp ideological divisions within the Party had now become an open secret, an open struggle, and the trick was to get the support of powerful liberals within the structure. Three old friends—Yuri Afanasyev, Nikolai Shmelyov, and Yuri Karyakin—brought to the Nineteenth Special Party Conference, in June 1988, a petition demanding Karpinsky’s rehabilitation. With the help of his old acquaintances Aleksandr Yakovlev and Boris Pugo, the tactic worked. By the next year, Len Karpinsky was in the regular rotation as a columnist at Moscow News—a golden boy, he says, “of a certain age.”

The Communist Party apparatus was the most gigantic mafia the world has ever known. It guarded its monopoly on power with a sham consensus and constitution and backed it up with the force of the KGB and the Interior Ministry police. There were also handsome profits. The Party had so obviously socked away money abroad and sold off” national resources—including the country’s vast gold reserves—that just after the collapse of the August coup, the Party’s leading financial officer took a look into the future and threw himself off” a high balcony to his death.

But Gorbachev knew that he could not conduct a genuine investigation into the Partv’s corruption. First, the Party, of which he was the head, would sooner kill him than allow it. Second, even if he could carry out such an investigation, Gorbachev would be faced with the obvious embarrassment: the depths of the Party’s rot. Instead, taking a page from Andropov’s style manual, he made a grand symbolic gesture. Yuri Churbanov, Brezhnev’s son-in-law and a deputy chief of the Interior Ministry, was indicted and tried son-in-law and a deputy chief og the Interior Ministry, was indicted and tried for accepting more than $1 million in bribes while working in Uzbekistan…But just as he could never distance himself enough from a discredited ideology, Gorbachev’s inability to jettison the Party nomenklatura and his political debts to the KGB spoiled his reputation over time in the eyes of a people who had grown more and more aware of the corruption and deceit in their midst.

At first, the Kremlin had not seemed so threatened by the Baltic republics. They were, after all, a “special case,” minuscule states absorbed into the Soviet Union more than twenty years after the Bolshevik Revolution…But the Baltic example became the model not for the revitalization of the Union, but rather for its collapse. In the three years it took to win independence, the Baits were never violent, only stubborn. It was that very temperament—Sakharov’s calm confidence on a mass scale—that characterized their revolution. None of the other republics organized quite so well or thought with such precision and cool.

The idea that the individual was of absolute value appeared in Russia only in the nineteenth century via Western influences, but it was stunted because there was no civic society. This is why human rights was never an issue. The principle was set out very clearly by Metropolitan Illarion in the eleventh century in his ‘Sermon on Law and Grace,’ in which he makes clear that grace is higher than law; you see the same thing today in our great nationalists like Prokhanov—their version of grace is higher than the law. The law is somehow inhuman, abstract. The attempts to revise this principle were defeated. The Russian Revolution was a reaction of absolute simplification. Russia found its simplistic and fanatic response and conquered its support. What we are living through now is a breakthrough. We are leaving the Middle Ages.’

“When Mikhail Sergeyevich rejected the 500 Days program he was rejecting the last chance for a civilized transition to a new order,” Aleksandr Yakovlev told me. “It was probably his worst, most dangerous mistake, because what followed was nothing less than a war.”

And just as a change in consciousness in the people had led to this incredible resistance, one could not rule out that even the conspirators had evolved beyond their ancestors. They had the same Stalinist impulses, but not the core of cruelty, the willingness to flood the city in blood, call it a victory for socialism, and then go off” to a midnight screening of Happy Guys. They could pick up the pistol, but not always shoot it. They were bullies, and bullies could be called on their bluff”.

But without Yeltsin, Gorbachev might well have dallied more than he did, the radical democrats Gorbachev might never have found a single, strong leader, the coup might have succeeded. As much as they had come to despise each other, Gorbachev and Yeltsin were linked in history.

What he hopes for now, he said, was not a new empire, not the resuscitation of a great power, but simply the development of “a normal country.” It was time to join in that process. After a life that had reflected the agonies of the old regime—a communist youth, the war, prison, the camps, the battle with the Kremlin. forced exile—now, at the age of seventy-five, he was completing the circle. He had tickets to return home. “Even at the worst tunes. I knew I would be coming home.” he said. “It was crazy. No one believed it. But I knew I would come home to die in Russia.”

A highly recommended read in the areas of history and world politics.