Book Reviews (2019) by Joseph M. Sherlock
'Breaking And Entering: The Extraordinary Story of a Hacker Called Alien' by Jeremy N. Smith
This may be one of my shortest book reviews. The only extraordinary thing about this book is the use of the word Extraordinary in the title. The book takes 289 pages to tell the story of Elizabeth (aka - Alien), who was a risk-taking MIT student and hacker, an employee of a White Hat hacking firm and, after she was fired, started her own cybersecurity business. It was mostly a dull read for me. Portions of her story were credibility-stretching, including some of the strategic mistakes she repeatedly made in her own business.
Verdict: Skip it. When I read that most of the reviews on Amazon were quite positive, I wondered if she hacked the site. (posted 7/18/19, permalink)
'The Hell Of Good Intentions: America's Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy' by Stephen M. Walt
Anyone remember the 1972 Life cereal commercial, featuring Mikey, who "hates everything"? I think Mikey grew up to become Stephen Walt because he hates everything, too. Walt begins by reviewing diplomatic mistakes of the past, particularly those of the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations. The author discusses The Blob, the diplomatic and foreign affairs division of The Swamp, and how various think tanks and foundations play a large role in American foreign policy.
He blames the United States' foreign policy disasters of the last 30 years on "liberal hegemony," an effort to remake the world in America's image by creating democracy where there has been none. Such thinking has led to the invasion of Iraq, failed efforts in Afghanistan, and misguided excursions in Somalia, Yemen, Libya (let's not forget Benghazi) and Syria.
Donald Trump has tried to change things but the author seems to despise Trump and gives him little credit for foreign affairs, even though President Trump got some NATO members to increase their promised funding commitments, became the first President to meet with Kim Jong Un (after four wasted years of six-party talks during the Bush administration), decimated ISIS (after Obama's infamous 'red line' accomplished nothing) and negotiated new trade agreements with many nations. The author calls Trump's policies and actions "haphazard" and "inept." Amazingly, Walt says that Trump's Syria policy is no different from Obama's; he seems to be an apologist for President Obama's disastrous policies in the Middle East (epic fails in Egypt and Libya, as well as that $1.7 billion bribe paid to Iran for the release of four sailors).
Walt wrote that Trump's America First policy is off-putting to allies. Really? What allies would that be? Certainly not Japan and South Korea - they are happy about the president's North Korea activities. Certainly not Israel; Trump is the most pro-Israel president in a long time. In February 2019, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party erected giant billboards around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem showing Donald Trump and Netanyahu shaking hands, indicating the degree of Trump's popularity among Israeli voters.
I suspect Mr. Walt means Western Europe, who have dodged their commitments when it suits them and sometimes act like sunny-day friends. Maybe those allies should shut up and step up. We won't know whether Trump's various foreign policies will be successful until the end of his administration but, two years in, things are looking pretty good.
Walt dismissed National Economic Council chair Larry Kudlow as a "conservative TV pundit with a checkered past." Mr. Kudlow has had a distinguished career; he was associate OMB director for economics and planning during Ronald Reagan's administration. He has an impressive resume which covers work in the public and private sector. Larry has authored several books.
Walt's proposed solution is called Offshore Balancing - meaning situational foreign policy, dictated by whatever is most crucial at the moment. That sounded haphazard to me but as I read along it seemed as if much of what was being proposed mirrored Trump's current positions. Walt has subheadings such as 'Emphasize Patriotism', 'Respect The Military' and 'No More Uncle Sucker'. That sounds like stuff lifted from Donald Trump's playbook.
Verdict: Don't bother. While the author offers some very good insights in the book, his political bias and Trump-hatred overwhelms a promising book. (posted 7/16/19, permalink)
'The Automobile And American Life, 2d ed.' by John Heitmann
This 7x10 paperback (238 pages, plus notes, bibliography and index) relates the story of how automobiles fundamentally transformed the way people lived shopped, worshipped, socialized as well as the country's infrastructure. The book contains 47 b&w photos.
Heitmann has filled the book with interesting statistics; here are three that caught my eye:
• By 1925, 65.5% of American bought cars on credit.
• The author pointed out that the change from open touring cars to closed car bodies happened during the 1920s. In 1919, 90% of all cars were open; by 1927, 65% were closed.
• In 1981, light trucks (pickups, SUVs and the like), "represented just 19% of the American market." By 2003, "they totaled more than 54% of what was once thought of as 'car makes'."
The book begins with the first autos - impractical curiosities - and proceeds quickly to early 20th century cars - playthings for the rich. Then came Henry Ford's low-priced Model T which put America on wheels. By 1927, a new Model T could be had for as little as $260. At its peak popularity, 1.25 million Model Ts were sold annually.
The author proceeds through the Roaring 20s, the 1930s Depression which killed off many auto makes The post-World War II-era of prosperity and auto style, the effect of the Interstate Highway system, the gas crisis of the 1970s, the growth of SUVs beginning in the 1990s and the resurgence and implications of electric vehicles in the 21st Century.
There are many ways to tell such a broad story. The author has chosen to do so dispassionately. He used statistics to make major points, which made it educational for me. When author Heitmann wandered into less quantifiable social/cultural implications (such as the relationship between cars and music and the effect of the car on religious practices), I sometimes disagreed with his viewpoints. Not that he's spouting falsehoods - it simply means that my experiences and observations are different, perhaps based on the circumstances of my upbringing versus his. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and learned much from it.
Verdict: Recommended. An excellent starting point for anyone interested in the interaction of cars and culture over the last 120 years. (Review copy provided by McFarland & Company, Inc.) (posted 7/10/19, permalink)
'Game Of Thorns: The Inside Story of Hillary Clinton's Failed Campaign and Donald Trump's Winning Strategy' by Doug Wead
I've already read and reviewed several accounts of the 2016 election campaign but this book was recommended to me, so I decided to give it a try. I found it to be an easy read and somewhat informative. The author provides multiple reasons why Hillary lost, including that she was crooked and a liar, she was anti-Catholic and - by extension - anti-Christian, anti-Rust Belt and anti-Heartland. Everybody had figured out by 2016 that the Clintons were crooks and the e-mail scandal and the 'deplorable' comment became the tipping points for Hillary. In my view, people just didn't like her.
I did learn some new things - about why Ben Carson's poll numbers dropped so quickly and learned quite a bit about the Trump family history. I enjoyed the book until the last 50 pages or so, when it seemed to rush headlong to a weak finish. I felt that the book needed a post-game analysis focused on why/how Trump won.
Verdict: Recommended. A decent read although there are better books out there including 'The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics' by Salena Zito and Brad Todd, 'Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign' by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes and 'The Making Of The President 2016: How Donald Trump Orchestrated a Revolution' by Roger Stone. (posted 7/3/19, permalink)
'Ask the Man Who Owns One: An Illustrated History of Packard Advertising' by Arthur Einstein
Don't be fooled by the title. This is not just a bunch of reprinted ads with a bit of commentary. Rather, it is a well-presented history of the Packard marque, told in part through its advertising. Arthur W. Einstein, Jr. is an auto enthusiast and advertising executive and does an excellent job making Packard's history interesting.
This 7x10 paperback has 248 pages with additional pages of appendices, notes, bibliography and index. There are 117 b&w photos (mostly reprints of newspaper and magazine advertisements) with a 16 color photos in the center of the book. The book focuses on the business and the marketing of Packard from its inception to its demise. Don't expect to find tables of model specifications - if you want to find the rear axle ratio of the 1924 Twin-Six, you'll have to look elsewhere. I consider myself reasonably knowledgeable about the Packard marque, having previously written about it and of Packard's competitors, having published 'A Brief History of Luxury Cars' online. Despite this, I learned several things from this book. For example:
• In the 1920s and early '30s, 60% of Packard sales were to people who already owned a Packard. Such buyer loyalty is nowhere to be found today.
• "As the luxury-car market shrank, Packard production figures also fell." Sales declined over 80% in a four year period, according to some sources.
• In the mid-1930s, ex-Chevrolet sales executive William Packer, a brash fellow encouraged installment selling of Packard automobiles, "in which only one-third of Packard's business (against two-thirds of the industry's) has up to now been done."
• Prior to World War II, Packard had a strong international presence. With 280 dealers in 95 countries, by 1937 foreign sales "accounted for 8% of Packard's dollar sales."
Packard quickly became the most well-known of premium auto brands. The first Packard automobile was produced in 1899. From the very beginning, Packard featured innovations, including the modern steering wheel. The marque developed a following among wealthy purchasers both in the United States and abroad. Early in the 20th century, a Packard cost four times the price of an Oldsmobile Runabout. The iconic Packard slogan, 'Ask the Man Who Owns One', was first used in a Packard ad in October 1901.
In 1916, Packard sold 10,645 vehicles. In the 1920s, Packard exported more cars than any other in its price class. In 1927, Packard sold over 36,000 cars; the following year, over 50,000 were sold. By the end of the 1920s, Packard was outselling every other luxury car in the world.
During the Depression, surviving luxury car manufacturers lived on because they became less luxurious. The Depression of the 1930s, which didn't really end until the pre-war military build-up of 1940, changed the way wealthy Americans lived. Conspicuous consumption became muted. Household staffs were reduced - fewer gardeners, chauffeurs, maids and other servants. Cars were often piloted by owners themselves.
The first three years of the Great Depression slashed the number of U.S. automakers almost in half. Packard began introducing less-expensive versions of its offerings, including the very successful Packard 120, introduced in 1935. Cadillac promoted its LaSalle brand while Lincoln, introduced the Zephyr line in 1936. The Packard 120 saved Packard in the same way that the Zephyr saved the Lincoln brand. In 1935, the firm introduced the lower-cost 120 models; sales jumped to almost 32,000 vehicles. Packard introduced the Six, a 6-cylinder version of the 120, in 1937 and saw sales soar to over 122,000 cars that year. These lower-priced Packards looked very much like their large brothers.
Some critics have claimed that the introduction of the mid-priced 120 was the death knell for Packard. The author and I both believe this is nonsense. Edsel Ford said of the big and expensive Lincoln K-Series, which was discontinued after the 1939 model year, "We didn't stop building them; people stopped buying them." The era of big chauffeur-driven custom-bodied automobiles was over. Without the mid-priced Packards, the company would have gone out of business.
After World War II, all auto manufacturers could sell everything they could produce because pent-up consumer demand was so great. Almost everyone offered slightly warmed-over 1942 models for sale immediately after the war. Typically, conversion times from war production to passenger auto production and availability of raw materials and components dictated factories' outputs. Auto supply never really matched demand until 1950 or so.
In the luxury car market, Cadillac introduced an all-new body in 1948. In 1949, Cadillac offered the new and desirable two-door pillarless hardtop, the Coupe de Ville, and the first overhead-valve V8 engine in the luxury field. Lincoln introduced an all-new body in 1949 but was powered by a flathead V8, a modified Ford truck engine, until 1952 when it introduced an overhead-valve V8 motor. Packard stuck with its pre-war L-head straight eight - an obsolete design which wasn't discontinued until 1955 when Packard finally offered a modern, overhead-valve V8 engine. In mid-1948, Packard simply updated the prewar Clipper model, giving it a more bulbous look. These models were known as Bathtub Packards because they reminded people of upside-down bathtubs. Writing in Mechanix Illustrated, road test guru Tom McCahill referred to the newly designed Packard as "a goat" and "a dowager in a Queen Mary hat." Still, demand for any car was high in those days and Packard sold 92,000 vehicles for 1948 and 116,000 of its 1949 models. And the Fashion Academy of New York named the Bathtub Packard its Fashion Car of the Year. In 1951, Packard finally rebodied its line of cars - a pleasantly modern but undistinguished design.
One would expect that the lack of a modern powerplant combined with styling misfires would have sunk Packard. These shortcomings didn't seem to bother Packard's loyal cadre of aging customers in the early 1950s. What killed Packard was a near-decade of mismanagement and it caused a dramatic sales slide beginning in 1954. The author traced Packard's demise to two chief executives: George T. Christopher and his successor James J. Nance.
Christopher, a production whiz who modernized Packard's plant in the 1930s, was a tight-fisted president and refused to spend money on much-needed styling and engineering updates. He also ignored quality-control problems with incoming components, causing a drop in quality and reliability which angered customers and dealers.
Packard president Nance, a former Hotpoint appliance man - described as having "a wildly-exaggerated notion of his skills as an automotive leader," made several critical mistakes. He decided to produce more components in-house. This led to production problems, which reduced the supply of finished vehicles to dealers. He rejected a merger with Nash, then a relatively healthy auto company, in favor of a merger with Studebaker, a disaster of a car firm. Studebaker was losing money, although Packard's management failed to discover, during its due diligence, that the financial disclosures presented by Studebaker were essentially fraudulent.
The 1954 acquisition of Studebaker and resultant cash problems forced Packard to delay the introduction of its all-new models for a year, leaving 1954 as a year of stale Packard offerings - compared with Cadillac, which sported an all-new body for 1954 and an even more-powerful V8 than before - 230 horsepower. That year, Packard's longer-wheelbase Cavalier model had a 185 horsepower motor. Entry-level Clipper models were powered by engines with as little as 150 hp.
After the last 1954 Packard rolled off the line, the company relocated to a new assembly plant, which caused production difficulties and raised additional quality issues. The big changes in design of the all-new, good-looking '55 Packard exacerbated problems. Dealers were becoming fed up with Packard and begun deserting the firm, especially when the all-new 1955 models were fraught with quality, reliability and supply problems. In early 1955, there were 4,000 Studebaker-Packard dealers; by early 1956 there were only 3,000 remaining.
In July 1956, desperate for cash, Studebaker-Packard was effectively taken over by aircraft manufacturer Curtis-Wright. Nance left Studebaker Packard in 1956 when the company was on the verge of insolvency and, ironically, was soon named vice-president of Ford's new division in charge of producing Edsels.
The planned 1957 Packard models were scrapped, replaced by a smaller, Studebaker-based Clipper model. That was effectively the end of Packard, although models were offered for the 1958 model year. Only 2,622 '58 "Packardbakers" found buyers, while Cadillac sold 121,778 1958 examples.
'Ask the Man Who Owns One’ offers much insight into the success and downfall of the Packard marque. The author's research included several first-hand interviews with the people who worked with or for Packard.
Verdict: Highly recommended. One of the best books about Packard I've read. (Review copy provided by McFarland & Company, Inc.) (posted 6/27/19, permalink)
'Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth' by Sarah Smarsh
Early in the book, the author discussed the famous July 1979 Jimmy Carter Oval Office speech when he scolded Americans for having a bad attitude and excessive expectations. "This is not a message of happiness or reassurance. But it is the truth and it is a warning," said Mr. Carter dourly.
Sarah Smarsh hadn't been born yet but opined that he spoke to people like her family who had it tough. I remember that speech quite differently. Of course, I was alive and almost 36 years old at the time. As a small business owner, I remember coming home from work exhausted after a 10-plus-hour, hot-as-hell, July 1979 day at my then-struggling manufacturing business, arriving just in time for the 6:00 pm Pacific time Oval Office lecture from a stern-faced Jimmy Carter - the one where he told us that everything was our fault (including the infamous 'Misery Index' - the sum of inflation rate and unemployment rate) because we had a Bad Attitude. At that moment, I became a Conservative. And Ronald Reagan subsequently got my vote. Ms. Smarsh doesn't have much time for President Reagan; she considers him and his Republican cohorts as the problem, rather than the solution.
President Reagan's pro-business, anti-tax attitudes probably saved my small company; we grew rapidly in sales (and profits) as the economy recovered. And hired a lot more people. I remember one of my liberal employees carping about Reagan in 1986 or thereabouts. I pointed out that, when she was hired two years previously, the wages from her prior job had been 70% less than she was presently making. She could, in no small part, thank Reagan's supply-side economics for the boost in our business and in her paycheck. Did she want to turn back time - put Jimmy back in the White House and go back to her minimum wage job elsewhere under the high-unemployment Carter administration? Her 'reply' was stony silence and a petulant glare. Some people never seem to get it. Sarah Smarsh seems to be her soulmate.
The author's story of her family plods along as generations marry young (at 16 or 17) and badly into unstable households and sometimes abusive relationships. Her family seems to be perpetually "broke" but somehow have money for cigarettes, booze, Lincolns and Corvettes. She points the finger at Republicans, government bureaucrats, big unfeeling corporations and steely-eyed bankers for her family's problems when she should be blaming their poor decisions. Part of the book is conversational, as this childless author talks to an imaginary daughter named August. I found this literary device to be quite off-putting.
There are two main reasons that American children are poor: Their parents don't work much and fathers are absent from the home. In good economic times or bad, the typical poor family with children is supported by only 800 hours of work during a year: That amounts to 16 hours of work per week. If work in each family were raised to 2,000 hours per year - the equivalent of one adult working 40 hours per week throughout the year - nearly 75% of poor children would be lifted out of official poverty.
Father absence is indeed a major cause of child poverty. Nearly two-thirds of poor children reside in single-parent homes; each year, an additional 1.5 million children are born out of wedlock. Former Clinton advisor William Galston wrote, "You need only do three things in this country to avoid poverty - finish high school, marry before having a child, and marry after the age of 20. Only 8% of the families who do this are poor; 79% of those who fail to do this are poor."
The author eventually pulled herself out of poverty (good for her) but still blames society for her family's ills. She offers no real solutions because she never properly identifies the causes of her family's problems.
Verdict: Skip this dull, whiny tale. Nothing to learn here. (posted 6/19/19, permalink)
'Mini: 60 Years' by Giles Chapman
Introduced in the Spring of 1959, the original Mini (sold as the Austin Se7en and the Morris Mini-Minor) was an exercise in clever packaging and minimalist design. It had sliding windows, and external door hinges to increase useable storage space and was powered by a small four-cylinder engine mounted transversely to save room and coupled to a front-wheel drive transaxle. Wheels were tiny (10 inches) to increase interior space. The car seated four passengers in relative comfort but rode on an 84-inch wheelbase and was only 120 inches long - more than three feet shorter than a VW Beetle.
The Mini came about because of the fuel shortages caused by the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis. There was fear and uncertainty about the cost and availability of fuel in Europe and the development of the Mini was a response - a small passenger vehicle which was more fuel-efficient than present offerings. Sales of the first-generation Mini were quite successful; between 1959 and 1967, 1.19 million were sold. 429,000 revised models found buyers between 1967-70. Mini production peaked in 1971. By 2000, when the 'old' Mini was retired, over 5.3 million had been sold worldwide.
The author does an excellent job explaining the phenomenon of the Mini - the original as well as the 21st Century version. Giles Chapman is a well-known, UK-based motoring writer, journalist and interviewer. He is considered a leading authority on automobiles and I've read his articles in several car buff magazines. Author of 40 books, Chapman knows how to infuse industry details and statistics with a dose of excitement; this Mini book is very readable and engaging.
The original Mini was never particularly popular in America - viewed by many as too small a car and having a weak dealer network. The 850 cc-engined car was also quite slow with 0-60 times of 33 seconds (compared with 21 seconds for the 40 horsepower VW Beetle) and struggled to cruise at freeway speeds for long periods. Beetles of the period could cruise at 70 mph all day. During my college years (1961-65), I saw a lot of foreign small cars in Villanova's big parking lot: dozens of Volkswagen Beetles, of course, some MGs, Fiats, Triumphs, a Nash Metropolitan, even a Citroen 2CV, but not a single Mini. Yes, Hollywood car buffs Steve McQueen and James Garner owned Minis but as novelties rather than daily transportation. The Mini was withdrawn from the American market because it could not meet the 1968 U.S. safety regulations.
Nevertheless, I placed the original Mini on my list of Most Significant Cars, noting that it "popularized front-wheel drive and set the standard for small car packaging. Every FWD American subcompact of the 1980s owes a great debt to Alec Issigonis" - the man who designed the Mini.
In Britain and elsewhere, the old Mini soldiered on until it was discontinued in Spring 2000. That's amazing when one considers that the brand was serially victimized by the execrable, long-running soap opera known as British Leyland. Manufacturing methods were not updated, engineering development was minimal and quality problems plagued the marque during BL's tenure. By 1990, Mini production had fallen to 46,000 vehicles - one-sixth of its 1971 peak. Almost 25% of late 1980s/early 1990s production went to Japan, where the car had acquired cult-like status.
The New Mini - launched in mid-2001 - by owner BMW (the firm acquired Mini in 1994) was a hit worldwide, including the U.S. That was surprising, since the first Mini had such a small following in America. But the new car was larger, more powerful and had distinctive contemporary/retro styling. My car buddy Ray Lukas and I saw our first new Mini - probably a press car - in late January, 2002 while driving down Santa Monica Boulevard during our Great California Adventure. The Mini wasn't in American dealer showrooms until mid-March of that year, so it was a lucky sighting. In April 2002, Ray was invited to a dealer unveiling party in Harrisburg, PA and told that, in addition to mandatory dealer installed options such as paint and upholstery protection, fog lamps, etc., the car carried a mandatory dealer gouge of $5,000 over sticker price, indicating the great demand for the new Mini in the U.S.
When first introduced, Mini was a gotta-have, one body-style, two-door car with long waiting lists. As the backlog of orders diminished, new variants of the Mini were offered (convertible, Clubman, Countryman, etc.) to extend the line and help increase sales. By 2018, Mini U.S. sales had fallen to 43,464 vehicles. In 2019, the Mini still sells decently in the U.S. - just under 3,000 vehicles per month - almost quadruple the rate of the Fiat brand and double the rate of the soon-to-be discontinued VW Beetle.
This 169-page (plus author bio, credits and index) book contains a plethora of period photographs and many interesting sidebars describing oddball variations of the car including a stretch-limo Mini with hot tub. It thoroughly covers the development and various design proposals for the 21st century Mini and explains how the car has evolved since then.
Verdict: Highly recommended. A must-have for any Mini enthusiast or admirer of the marque. (Review copy provided by Motorbooks) (posted 6/13/19, permalink)
'Trumponomics: Inside the America First Plan to Revive Our Economy' by Stephen Moore and Arthur B. Laffler
If you watch Fox Business, Stephen Moore is a familiar face. Formerly of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, he looks like Steve Martin's younger, egghead brother. Art Laffler, of Laffler Curve fame, was a member of President Reagan's Economic Policy Advisory Board. Both men have served as advisers to Donald Trump, starting in 2016.
Candidate Trump promised a substantial and a transformative change in economic policy - much needed after eight years of Barack Obama's anti-business, anti-growth agenda. The authors discuss how they, along with Larry Kudlow - who wrote the preface for this book, helped influence and refine Trump's ideas and proposals. All are currently members of the Trump Advisory Council and continue to meet with the President regularly. In the book, they offer an insider look at how this president's economic policies are formulated and refined.
One example is how the Trump Administration has eased the crippling over-regulation of mall banks. Obama's Dodd-Frank bill, described by the authors as one of "the cruelest ironies of the financial regulation bill of 2009," caused many smaller financial institutions to disappear, making those "too big to fail" banks even bigger: "The top five largest banks now control 44% of U.S. banking assets."
Throughout his very public life, Donald Trump's behavior has been brash and combative but, to most of those who know him a bit, he is seen as likable and charismatic. During his campaign, many noted economic experts claimed that his policies would wreck the U.S. economy, causing another Great Recession. They scoffed at his belief that he could get the GDP above 3%. On November 9, 2016, Paul Krugman - the diminutive doomsayer and Nobel Prize-winning economist from the New York Times - predicted that the stock market would never recover from Donald Trump's victory. "We are very probably looking at a global recession, with no end in sight. I suppose we could get lucky somehow. But on economics, as on everything else, a terrible thing has just happened." Two years into the Trump Presidency, things are going quite well, Paul. Unemployment is below 4%, the GDP has topped 3% on several occasions, a NAFTA replacement awaits Congressional approval, the stock market has soared and, while other major economies are slumping, America is chugging right along. These positive changes have occurred despite the fact that we live under the most partisan, polarized (and possibly most-corrupt) U.S. government I've ever observed in my lifetime.
The last words in this book are from a Wall Street Journal editorial: "The only good thing about Donald Trump is all his policies." That's faint praise … but praise nevertheless. President Trump is delivering on his promise to make America great again.
Verdict: Highly recommended. This fact-filled, very readable book is written so that non-economists can easily comprehend the policies discussed and the economic theories behind them. (posted 6/5/19, permalink)
'Charles Clifton of Pierce-Arrow: A Sure Hand and a Fine Automobile' by Roger J. Sherman
Now almost forgotten except by diehard antique auto enthusiasts, Pierce-Arrow was once a well-engineered, very desirable luxury auto marque. Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company was a bicycle company which began offering passenger automobiles, then trucks and, later, buses. In 1909, President William Howard Taft ordered two Pierce-Arrow automobiles to be used for state occasions. In 1914, Pierce-Arrow adopted its most distinctive styling hallmark when its headlights were moved from a traditional placement at the radiator's sides, into flared housings on the front fenders. For several years, the company could not keep up with sales demand.
|This 1916 Pierce-Arrow 38-C Series 4 Brougham Limousine has a six-cylinder, 415 cubic-inch engine which made 38 horsepower. Like many Pierce-Arrows of the period, this one features nickel trim.
The firm grew steadily and was quite profitable until the post-World War I depression, when it struggled. In 1921, Pierce-Arrow lost $4.4 million. During the Roaring Twenties, the firm had a mix of good years and bad years but lost money in 1927, when the luxury car market softened. In 1928, Studebaker gained control of the Buffalo-based firm. That's the same year that Charles Clifton died.
Charles Clifton is considered an automotive pioneer. In 1897, he became secretary and treasurer for the George N. Pierce Company. He remained the treasurer after a 1909 reorganization which saw the formation of the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company. In 1916, Colonel Clifton became president of Pierce-Arrow and, in 1919, he was named chairman of its board of directors. Apart from his duties with Pierce-Arrow, Colonel Clifton served as president of National Automobile Chamber of Commerce from its beginning in 1913 until 1927.
Clifton played an important role in the early years of the company but his influence waned after 1919 when new management was brought in and began replacing key employees. The 1920s were a crucial time for Pierce-Arrow and the company failed to step up and innovate as it had in the past. The lack of a broader automotive product line, a large factory which was underutilized, failure to innovate in style and engineering, and a unfocused marketing strategy caused Pierce-Arrow to stagnate and, eventually, die. The last Pierce-Arrow was produced in 1938.
By the end of the 1920s, competitor Packard had become the dominant luxury marque and outsold every other luxury car in the world.
This 274-page (plus notes & index) softcover, 7-inch x 10-inch book has 95 b&w photos and covers Pierce Arrow from its inception until the death of Charles Clifton. Clearly a great deal of research was done by author Sherman, editor of The Arrow, the quarterly magazine of the Pierce-Arrow Society, and a member of the Antique Automobile Club of America. The problem is that there is a dearth of personal information about Clifton, so it is difficult to flesh out a portrayal of the man. Unlike Henry Ford, Walter P. Chrysler or Harley Earl, Clifton was not a larger-than-life character. He quietly worked behind the scenes and, as a manager, delegated engineering tasks and developments to his staff.
Verdict: Recommended: The book offers an interesting glimpse into the early days of motor cars, detailing things such as the Selden Patent fight and is, therefore, of interest to auto enthusiasts seeking knowledge about the dawn of the American automobile age. For Pierce-Arrow enthusiasts, it is a must-read book with information not readily found elsewhere. (Review copy supplied by McFarland) (posted 5/30/19, permalink)
'Dare To Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.' by Brené Brown
There's good money in motivational business books. If successful, they lead to workshops and other side gigs as well as additional books. Brené Brown has figured this out and is the author of several, although this is the first one I've read. Here's a summary: To lead, stay curious, ask the right questions and take ownership of stuff, good and bad. Unfortunately, it took Ms. Brown 272 pages (plus acknowledgements, notes and index) to impart this sage advice.
Much time is spent discussing interactions with other employees. Everything sounded very much like 'I'm OK, You're OK', the 1969 transactional analysis self-help classic, by Thomas Anthony Harris. Of course, Brené has updated it with new, pop-culture whiz-bang buzzwords, such as Daring to Lean Into your team to Rumble and Living into Our Values. Or something like that.
Self-help books are nothing new. Dale Carnegie wrote 'How to Win Friends and Influence People' in 1936. And, Carnegie's self-help course has been around for over a century. Zig Ziglar's 'See You at the Top' was first published in 1975.
For me, 'Dare To Lead' didn't bring anything new to the table. It lacked conclusive recommendations. The author repeatedly made reference to her research, but none of the data are shared in this book. Early in the book, Brené implied that - as a speaker - you should not tailor your presentation to your audience. As someone who did a lot of speaking during my business career, I strongly disagree.
Verdict: Feel-good fluff for a new generation. (posted 5/22/19, permalink)
'The Apollo Missions: In The Astronauts' Own Words' by Rod Pyle
Almost 50 years ago (July 20, 1969), the Apollo 11 spaceflight put a man on the moon. Neil Armstrong's first step onto the lunar surface was broadcast on live TV to a worldwide audience. He described the event as "one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." Putting men on the moon fulfilled President Kennedy's 1961 goal: "… before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth."
Recently, Christopher Jacobs wrote, "Sure, the impending 50th anniversary of man's first footsteps on another world represents an epic moment in human achievement. But from a more practical perspective, events that transpired a century prior to the 1969 Apollo 11 mission likely had a bigger impact on America as we know it." He is referring to the transcontinental railroad.
But, unlike railroads, the reasons for going to the moon were not commercial - they were an exercise in patriotism and scientific achievement - and were the ultimate prize of the 'space race' with the USSR, which had put the first satellite in orbit in October 1957. The late Charles Krauthammer wrote, "America was shaken out of its technological lethargy by a beeping 180-pound aluminum ball orbiting overhead." The U.S. quickly followed up with Project Apollo. Its first mission ended in tragedy when three astronauts burned to death in its capsule's pure-oxygen atmosphere during a prelaunch test in 1967. But progress continued and, a little more than two years later, humans were exploring the moon on foot.
The Apollo story is very well told in this book. Author Rod Pyle is a consultant for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and has written extensively about the history of space exploration. This 181-page book (plus appendix, glossary and index) presents a detailed overview of the program and has over 100 photographs (mostly color). Even though I followed the program as an interested adult engineer, I had forgotten many details. This fine book brought them back to me and I really enjoyed seeing the many images of the crude-looking landing module, the moon surface photos and the lunar rover.
The moon landing will always be remembered as a significant event in the history of humankind. It was our first visit to another world. This book relates the amazing story quite well.
Verdict: Highly recommended. (Review copy supplied by Carlton Publishing Group) (posted 5/16/19, permalink)
'My Girls: A Lifetime with Carrie and Debbie' by Todd Fisher
This work is part-biography and part tribute by author Todd Fisher, brother of actress/writer Carrie Fisher and son of movie legend Debbie Reynolds. Her two children are a result of Debbie's first marriage to '50s singer and all-around-scumbag Eddie Fisher. Fisher didn't help his popularity by divorcing 'America's sweetheart' Debbie Reynolds (scandalous in the 1950s) and running off with town pump Elizabeth Taylor who later publicly dumped Eddie for Richard Burton.
Eddie was married a total of five times. As for Debbie, she married three times, all to scoundrels - a couple of whom took most of her money. There's a lot of messy stories about losing money on potential deals in the book. At one point, I wanted to travel back in time, whack the trio on back of their glamorous heads and yell, "Hey! Wise up!"
The book is sometimes hilarious, sometimes sad (particularly Carrie Fisher's drug use and mental illness) and sometimes boring (mostly about Todd's various business ventures). Todd met up with Mama Cass the night before she died and conversed with John Belush the night before he died. Man, if I ever bump into Todd Fisher, I'm walking away quickly.
We are presented with a celebrity family living high (in both a spendthrift and substance abuse sense), messily (many marriages, affairs and divorces) and seemingly drowning in debt. Yet they remain a family, help out - each in their own way - and have numerous Kodak Moments which are strangely touching. I enjoyed the book. I learned much about the Reynolds family and was entertained by the insider gossip and various machinations in the entertainment biz.
Verdict: An easy, palette-cleansing read, requiring little participation, thought or analysis on the part of the reader. Had some nice photos, too. (posted 5/8/19, permalink)
'Why We Fight: Defeating America's Enemies - With No Apologies' by Sebastian Gorka
Dr. Sebastian Gorka is the well-known military and intelligence analyst, former deputy assistant to President Trump and oft-seen pundit on FoxNews. His distinctive voice - British with a dab of Eastern European, Gorka could easily play a Bond villain - combined with a no-nonsense manner caused Greg Gutfeld to develop a humorous GPS parody commercial which featured the Gorka Positioning System, which doled out crisp driving directions along with blunt, stern life advice.
Television makes everyone seem the same height. Until I looked at the photo section of the book, I had no idea how tall Dr. Gorka is - he towers over Donald Trump. He must be 6-4 or 6-5. I had no idea that his dad was a prisoner of war and that his parents had to flee to Great Britain from Hungary after the failed anti-Soviet uprising. Gorka certainly knows about evil regimes; he learned all about it growing up.
This book was full of interesting information and well-considered arguments for Gorka's various positions. Gorka points out that most wars - increasingly so - are irregular wars, battles without rules or uniforms. It is critical to win the important ones because they determine our future.
The book is divided into five basic chapters, plus four stories about American heroes. Then there are chapters to fill out the book, including books to read and media to watch. As well as the transcript of a radio interview. While some of these were interesting to read, I felt their real purpose was to stretch out the number of pages - 201 plus notes and index.
Verdict: Recommended because it was informative and interesting. I wish the book had less page-padding. (posted 5/2/19, permalink)
'The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created' by Jane Leavy
The phrase Bigger Than Life is overused and much abused but it certainly applies to Babe Ruth. Six-foot two inches tall, in an era when the average fellow was about eight inches shorter, with giant, meaty hands, powerful arms, a large head and facial features so big, they seemed cartoonish, The Babe stood out in a crowd. In baseball, he swung the heaviest bat, broke baseball records and made the most money. His appetite - for food, cigars, drink, fun and women - was gargantuan.
The book covers his 1927 post-season Barnstorming of America, with flashbacks and flashforwards to provide a story of The Babe's life. It is an unusual technique but effective. It also paints a picture of America during the Roaring Twenties, showing Ruth's impact on society and the financial impact Ruth and his agent Christy Walsh had on professional sports.
Verdict: Recommended - a swell book. You don't need to be a baseball fanatic to enjoy it. (posted 4/24/19, permalink)
'Militant Normals: How Regular Americans Are Rebelling Against the Elite to Reclaim Our Democracy' by Kurt Schlichter
The author divides America into two types: Normals - people who live in places like Fontana, CA, fought for their country and now have trouble finding work because illegal immigrants will work for peanuts - and Elites - well-connected, properly-educated liberals who eat vegan, drive Priuses and are ashamed of their white privilege. It is a political variant of the ol' Morlocks and Eloi story but with Donald Trump cast as leader of the now-militant Morlocks.
Once he completes his biography of each type, Schlichter begins an inflammatory rant which carries on - with much repetition - throughout the entire book. The author offers dumbed-down arguments made far better by the likes of Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham. Schlichter's fans claim that he is the master of snark but either of the aforementioned ladies could teach Kurt a thing or two.
Verdict: I wanted to like this book. I generally agree with the premise of it. But Schlichter's work is irritating and boring. (posted 4/18/19, permalink)
'Jesus Is Risen: Paul and the Holy Church' by David Limbaugh
This book is an account of Christianity's early years, covering the period before 70 AD. In 320 pages (plus extensive notes and index), Limbaugh focuses on the ravels and travails of the Apostle Paul. Saint Paul was a key figure who expanded the church beyond a small circle of believers in and around Jerusalem to include many cities in the Mediterranean, including Rome. The story of Paul's conversion from a persecutor and killer of Christians to an evangelist, Apostle, powerful healer and miracle worker was quite educational. I continue to learn much from David Limbaugh's books despite having 20 years of Catholic education.
The book is sometimes tedious but so was Paul. In fact, reading the book changed my opinion of this Apostle. His letters always seemed to be self-justifying, argumentative and filled with woe-is-me, mixed with criticism and boasting. Limbaugh put the epistles in context; I now realize that Paul was often defending himself against various detractors, false prophets and addressing conflicts within the ranks of communities such as the Corinthians.
It is amazing to me that, through the work of a small number of dedicated followers, Christianity grew from a small cult to a formidable religion. The charisma of men such as Paul must have been unrivaled.
Verdict: A great read for any Christian. This is a practical, in-depth, scriptural journey. (posted 4/10/19, permalink)
'The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life' by David Quammen
This is a book about recent discoveries in molecular biology that can change our understanding of evolution and life's history. Unfortunately, the book couldn't keep my interest and I quit after 100 pages. This book promised exciting new ideas about "a radical history of life" contains so much filler that it made me want to take a nap. I dunno, maybe it was just me.
Verdict: As they say on pill bottles: "May cause drowsiness." (posted 4/4/19, permalink)
'The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture' by Heather MacDonald
This is a short book - 247 pages (plus notes and index) - which is well-organized and thoroughly researched. Nevertheless, I found it to be a difficult read, not because of any shortcomings on the author's part but because to read what is happening in American institutions is dispiriting.
Academia as well as the workplace has been infiltrated by the grievance industry - race-baiters, tyrannical ultra-feminists, jackbooted gender Nazis and professional victims. Students graduate and enter the working world with the belief that identity politics and prejudicial oppression are the American norm. Liberal agendas are force-fed to the naive and the ignorant by schools and other institutions.
The most minor of non-PC offenses is met with protests louder than a gang of howler monkeys that have been set on fire. Undoubtedly, you've seen some of these campus monkeys on the news.
Heather MacDonald exposes the abuses and calls for a return to open-mindedness of spirit and expression and the realization that we have much in common with our fellow humans and much of the so-called differences are manufactured by the Diversity Industry.
Verdict: Recommended. (posted 3/27/19, permalink)
'The Point Of It All: A Lifetime of Great Loves and Endeavors' by Charles Krauthammer
This is the final book from the author, who died in 2018 at age 68 after a battle with cancer of the small intestine. It is a collection of his writings, many from his Washington Post opinion columns. Most chapters are short - three pages are so - but are, as one would expect, intelligent, erudite and full of Charles' dry wit. Subjects range from the personal, to the political and to the philosophical. Readers may often want to put the book aside and ruminate on the ideas conveyed in Charles' deep, thought-provoking musings. I enjoyed his earlier book, 'Things That Matter' from 2013.
I particularly liked his essay on Sputnik, the first satellite. Launched by the Russians in October 1957, Charles wrote that "America was shaken out of its technological lethargy by a beeping 180-pound aluminum ball orbiting overhead." At the time, I was a high-school freshman. Sputnik's path eventually passed over our house; I remember standing in the driveway trying to see it. I saw something but it might have been an airplane. Prior to October 4th, school guidance counselors told students, "If you're planning to take science or engineering in college, you should study German." A week later it was "maybe Russian." The problem was, there was a dearth of Russian language teachers, so - for the science-minded, it remained Deutsch sprechen.
No matter, the Russians had launched its satellite using the brute force of giant rockets. The U.S. responded four months later with Explorer I launched from a less-powerful but more technically-elegant rocket design. Thanks, Wernher von Braun (American aerospace pioneering engineer and former Nazi rocket scientist); now I know why I needed to learn German. Ja wohl.
Charles Krauthammer had a flair for getting to the heart of things. The diversity of topics covered in the book demonstrates of his personal curiosity about a myriad of topics. This is an enjoyable and poignant read.
Verdict: Highly recommended. (posted 3/21/19, permalink)
'Life After Google: The Fall of Big Data and the Rise of the Blockchain Economy' by George Gilder
Early in my business career, I had to give detailed technical presentations. Anytime I sensed that my audience wasn't understanding the subject, I'd stop, take a deep breath and say, "Now look, here's what all this REALLY means to YOU and here's how it's going to help you be more successful in your business." And I'd proceed to provide simplified, relevant context.
George Gilder failed to tell me what the information in his book means to me. And how it is going to improve my life. Google now offers free search capabilities for users and makes money from targeted advertising. Gilder writes that's all coming to an end. But he fails to explain what will replace Google and how that will happen. Instead, he lapses into discussions about fringe projects and seemingly unconnected start-ups. He also gets into highly technical discussions about Bitcoin and blockchain and, at one point, gives numerous reasons why Bitcoin is stable much like gold. I hope those suckers who lost 70+% of their money on Bitcoin in 2018 take comfort in George's currency prognostications.
Verdict: Skip it. Too random, incomprehensible and pointless for me. Much like his last book. (posted 3/13/19, permalink)
'The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself' by Sean Carroll
As a high school senior, I took a tour of Villanova University's Engineering Department. I remember asking some smart-ass question about religion and the college senior conducting the tour, replying, "God is everywhere. You can see God in an electron if you want." It was a memorable quote.
In this 433-page crapfest of pseudo-scientific philosophy, the author (who seems to be afraid of calling himself an atheist - he's a "naturalist"), begins by pointing out that "Core Theory immediately excludes the survival of the soul after death." I'm surprised he uses the word 'soul'. He is a materialist, so why admit that sounds exist? The soul cannot be measured scientifically. It is dimensionless and has neither weight, nor electrons.
Carroll also wrote about the difficulty of constructing "meaning and values in a cosmos without transcendent purpose." Pity about that but there is a market for Dr. Carroll's book. Since 1980, the number of Americans who believe in God has decreased by half and the number who pray has declined five-fold.
The author joined a select club: Russian mathematician Andrey Markov, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and astronomer Carl Sagan were extremely smart and were unbelievers. Technical prophet and economist George Gilder wrote that "materialist superstition keeps the entire Google generation from understanding mind and creation. Consciousness depends on faith - the ability to act without full knowledge and thus the ability to surprise and be surprised. … Creation is an entropic product of a higher consciousness … God."
Science is always changing. The Core Theory, Higgs boson particle and other scientific 'givens' will be disputed/replaced as new discoveries are revealed. Faith is a constant. Pray, live a good life and help others. If you do, your soul will survive bodily death, continuing in the possession of an endless conscious existence with God in Heaven. Yes, there is a soul and I believe it is eternal.
An agnostic friend once asked me, "How can you be sure there's an afterlife?" I told him that I'm not sure. But, there's no downside to being a Believer. I mean, if it turns out that I'm wrong and there's Nothing - if everything just Fades to Black, it's not like a ghostly Nelson Muntz is going to appear and mockingly guffaw, "Haw Haw."
That said, any time someone tries to mix religion and science (as is awkwardly done in this book), controversy emerges, folks take sides and things usually end up with either people being locked up in the Vatican basement or in the box at the Scopes Monkey Trial. As Judge Roy Snyder decreed in a 1997 episode of 'The Simpsons'), "As for science vs. religion, I'm issuing a restraining order. Religion must stay 500 yards from Science at all times." Good idea.
Verdict: A waste of time. (posted 3/7/19, permalink)
'Rising Star, Setting Sun: Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and the Presidential Transition that Changed America' by John T. Shaw
Foreigners I've met are often amazed at America's system of peaceful presidential transition, despite what they see as angry, rancorous politics.
Author Shaw's 244-page work details the ten-week changeover from outgoing Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower to incoming Democrat John F. Kennedy. While these two men were of different generations and backgrounds (plain-spoken, career Army man Ike versus privileged, East Coast preppie JFK), their politics were remarkably similar. Eisenhower was a centrist Republican (disdainful of conservative Barry Goldwater); Kennedy a centrist Democrat (he probably would have considered all of today's Democrats far-left liberals).
The book offered lots of details and anecdotes. It rekindled many memories for me. 1960 was the first Presidential election I followed. It was my political awakening during high school; the campaign, personalities and issues were much discussed amongst my friends. I watched the Kennedy-Nixon debates on television and, on election night, sat in front of the set with a piece of graph paper, plotting the returns as they came in and trying to extrapolate and project a winner.
Verdict: Recommended. Readers may also enjoy '1960 - LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon: The Epic Campaign That Forged Three Presidencies' by David Pietrusza and ’Eisenhower - The White House Years' by Jim Newton. (posted 2/27/19, permalink)
'Railroading & The Automobile Industry' by Jeff Wilson
PLS, shorthand for Pack, Load and Ship, is a line-item on the financial statements of almost all manufacturers and many distributors. It refers to the actual expense of packaging products, loading them onto a delivery conveyance and the cost of shipping or delivering them. PLS adds nothing of value to the product or consumer's conception of the product and reduction of PLS expense is an ongoing quest for smart manufacturers. Doing so will either add to their profit or allow them to improve the actual product in some way to make it better or more competitive.
PLS varies greatly, depending on what business you're in. At Rohm and Haas Co. in the 1970s, injection-molding grade, bulk pelted Plexiglas - mostly sold in 300-pound fiberboard drums or 1200-pound cardboard totes mounted on wood pallets - averaged 3%. At my plastics display company - where customer orders were smaller and always varied: "Gimme three dozen of this and six of that and sixteen of the other thing." - our PLS averaged around 10% for products shipped in cardboard cartons partially-filled with protective foam peanuts.
This book is all about PLS as it relates to inbound auto components or outbound finished vehicles at automobile assembly plants. This 96-page, large format (8.2" x 10.8") paperback book contains about 200 photographs (a mix of b&w and color) and tells the history of rail shipping automobiles and component parts.
In the early days of the automobile, most were shipped in boxcars, in fully-assembled form or in knock-down semi-finished kits for dealers to finish. In 1920, railroads carried 70% of all new cars. In 1932, the Evans Autorack permitted boxcars to hold four cars using a hoist system to elevate automobiles. By the 1940s, improved roads and more powerful trucks, which could carry more cars, made over-the-road delivery more competitive. In 1946, only 40% of new cars were shipped by rail. The largest rail carriers were the New York Central and its subsidiary, Michigan Central Railroad.
|The first shipment of new 1946 Hudsons left the Detroit plant in September, 1945 and were loaded into New York Central Railroad boxcars. An Evans-style autorack can be seen lifting a Hudson to provide extra space.
Railroads were slow to respond to the competitive challenge of over-the-road trucking. Railroads were often tardy in delivering cars to end terminals, especially if multiple railroads were involved, and had inefficient and inadequate shipment tracking systems. By 1958, only 8% of new cars shipped by rail. The railroads responded by developing special bi- and tried-level open rack freight cars to carry automobiles. Faced with vandalism issues, these cars were modified with side panels. Eventually, fully-enclosed 89-foot cars were developed to protect the merchandise and carry it in a cost-effective manner. By 1969, 52% of new cars travelled by rail.
Today, there are about 50,000 auto carriers - most are fully-enclosed - used by railroads carrying 1.5 million carloads of finished vehicles annually. Generally, rail shipment is more cost-effective than truck shipment when distances of 350 miles or more are involved.
The author is quite knowledgeable and much else is covered in the book, including rail-traffic management, in-plant railroading (mostly switching, shifting and shuttling) shipping of components, the effect of just-in-time inventory management on rail freight service. At many plants, boxcars are brought inside and stationed at concrete platforms for component unloading near the actual assembly point. I've seen this set-up in operation at Ford's Chicago assembly plant as well as at several GM component manufacturing plants.
Verdict: Recommended. I found this book most informative and interesting as well. Both car guys and train guys will find much to enjoy. (Review copy provided by Kalmbach Publishing Company) (posted 2/21/19, permalink)
'Borrowed Time: Two Centuries of Booms, Busts, and Bailouts at Citi' by James Freeman and Vern McKinley
Founded in 1812 as City Bank of New York, it was renamed Citibank in 1976 by CEO Walter Wriston. It is now known as Citigroup. This 308-page book (plus notes and index) documents the fact that Citi was no stranger to bailouts of various types over its life. Financier John Jacob Astor rescued it in the 19th century. Citi seemed to get in trouble every 20 years or so. Over time, connections between government and Citi became closer and the government eventually became its enabler and bailout buddy.
The book contains an interesting story about Donald Trump, who was a large customer of Citi. In 1991, when The Donald was having lotsa financial woes with his casino operations, his dad, Fred Trump, bought $3.5 million in chips from the troubled Trump Castle and held them - as a first-in-line creditor, ahead of all banks, until Donald could get his financial house in order. Fred had cashed in all his chips by mid-1994 after his son was out of the woods. Citi breathed a sigh of relief.
As I read the book, I began to think of Citi as the Chrysler of Banking. In 2017, I wrote, "Over the past 40 years, Chrysler has been on the brink of disaster more times than sweet Nell has been tied up on railroad tracks." Chrysler was rescued in 2009, as was Citi. The new entity Chrysler-Fiat received $8 billion in government loans as seed capital. But Citigroup received a lot more - $517.3 billion in U.S. government support. The authors quote the Wall Street Journal from February 2009: "Former federal officials have dubbed Citigroup the "Death Star," comparing the bank's threat to the financial system with the planet-destroying super weapon in the 'Star Wars' movies."
Citi became the poster child for everything that was wrong with the U.S. banking system in 2006. And most of what was wrong involved bad loans, mostly home-loan related. When the Fed cut interest rates to 1% in 2003, it created an enormous credit bubble. Leverage-based strategies became so lucrative that many financial market players jumped to leverage up the most leveraged asset on Main Street housing.
Banks that should have known better made huge loans to people who had insufficient verified income, assets or collateral to purchase houses. These institutions were later shocked to learn these folks would not repay their obligations. Well, duh!
Crap mortgage loans were combined and bundled into cleverly decorated packages but - let's face it - they were still sacks of crap. These foil-wrapped stench bombs were marketed by investment houses as fixed income 'investments' which offered better returns than certificates of deposit. I've heard that many were sold to foreign buyers when the dollar was down: "Just think how much you'll make when the dollar goes back up!" Yes, think of it as a large, diversified container of feces with possible upside potential.
Hugely misguided government intervention made things worse, eventually causing a global recession. In June 2010, Sheila Bair, chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and who is oft quoted in this book, remarked, "The financial crisis was triggered by a reckless departure from tried and true, common-sense loan underwriting practices." If the mortgage finance industry hadn't been forced to abandon traditional underwriting standards on behalf of a government-imposed affordable housing policy, the mortgage meltdown and resulting financial crisis would not have occurred. In 1989, only 1 in 230 homebuyers bought a house with a down payment of 3% or less. In 2003, the ratio was 1 in 7. By 2007, it was 1 in 3.
For many years (30 that I know of), there was a rule in the real estate business: You can't buy a house priced at more than 2.5 times your annual income. Sometimes, if you had a really secure job, exceptionally good credit and/or a larger-than-normal down payment, lending institutions would go to 3.0. This changed in the late 1990s. The magic ratio grew every year, peaking at 5.0 nationally, an unbelievable number.
California was vulnerable to foreclosures because the median value of owner-occupied housing in 2007 was 8.3 times the median family income, while the 2007 national average was only 3.2 times higher than median family income. California had only 10% of the nation's housing units but it had 34% of foreclosures in 2008. Almost 90% of all troubled mortgages and foreclosures were concentrated in California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona.
5.0? 8.3?! No wonder the housing market crashed. And caused the banking system to collapse.
Citi and other too-big-to-fail institutions soon got their bailouts. No one - from crooked bankers, clueless Fed overseers, corrupt Congress critters who were enablers and participants, execs at Fannie Mae et al - went to jail. Lots of smaller banks closed though, including the Bank of Clark County - because they were deemed Too Small To Save - a phrase I learned from this book.
Verdict: Highly recommended. An interesting and eye-opening read and a worthy companion to 'Panic: The Betrayal of Capitalism' by Wall Street and Washington' by Andrew Redleaf and Richard Vigilante. (posted 2/13/19, permalink)
'Leadership In Turbulent Times' by Doris Kearns Goodwin
This book profiles four presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson. Ms. Goodwin is a well-known LBJ apologist (she worked for him) and much of this book is recycled from her other works. Sadly, the book lacks much insight into leadership and how it is acquired.
Goodwin failed to make the case that these four presidents were great leaders. LBJ may have been a good arm-twister in the Senate but he was one of the worst presidents of the 20th Century. His conduct of the Vietnam War was a disaster and lead to his downfall. His Great Society programs created a vast, permanent welfare-dependent underclass. Despite the author's claims of his civil rights legislation (which probably would have been enacted sometime in the 1960s, regardless of who was president), LBJ was an overt racist: Robert Parker, LBJ's long-suffering manservant, said, "He especially liked to call me 'nigger', in front of Southerners and racists like Richard Russell (Senator, D-GA)." Johnson told Parker he'd never be called by his Christian name: "Let me tell you one thing, nigger, as long as you are black (and) you're gonna be black till the day you die, no one's gonna call you by your goddamn name ... you're just a piece of furniture."
As for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, it is fair to say that his advance preparation for World War II was somewhat prescient but his handling of the Depression was a motley collection of failed liberal, nanny-state schemes, including the draconian National Recovery Administration.
The material on Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln is already familiar to casual readers of history.
In researching the author, I was surprised to learn that she had consulted with novelist Steven King on the political aspects of his execrable book, '11/22/63'.
Verdict: Nothing new to learn from this 370-page paperweight. (posted 2/7/19, permalink)
'Every Man A King: A Short, Colorful History of American Populists' by Chris Stirewalt
If you watch FoxNews, you've probably seen politics editor Chris Stirewalt, the chubby guy with the soft, West Virginia drawl and the wry sense of humor.
In his book, Chris presents a selection of well-known American populists, although I felt that some of his choices were forced. I've always considered Pat Buchanan as a nationalist conservative campaigning loudly against a gaggle of globalists, rather than a populist.
Chris' humorous quips play better on television than in print, although the man does spin some good yarns. I could do without the oblique reference to Qzymandias, preferring the more-common name of Ramesses II, the Egyptian pharaoh. As well as to what folks "would say in Greenup," a small town of 1,200 or so souls in far eastern Kentucky. These two items alone produced dangerously high readings on my Obscure References Meter - values just above Ramesh Ponnuru.
One particular yarn really stuck with me: "It has been said that the secret to success in politics is like being the baton major at the head of a marching band. You're not really leading the parade, you just happen to be in front of it … The secret for any successful populist is to swing the baton like you mean it but never forget that the parade will go on without you." Well said, sir.
Verdict: Mildly recommended. A breezy, fast-paced, 190-page book but be aware, if this book was 100 pages longer, I would have written, "Skip it." (posted 2/1/19, permalink)
'Flight: The Evolution of Aviation' by Stephen Woolford and Carl Warner
Coffee table books can be chancy; some are just thrown together without much thought to flow of narrative or accuracy of content. Measuring roughly 10x12 inches, 'Flight' certainly qualifies as a coffee table book in size and has an attractive period photo of a Boeing 747 jet on the cover. Not to worry though, there's good stuff inside. The book is well-illustrated with about 180 color and b&w photos. The authors are knowledgeable experts; both are associates of the Imperial War Museum in England.
The book begins with early fight attempts, including hot air balloons, and quickly moves to the pioneer flight of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. During WW!I, airplanes moved from the novelty phase to useful tools of battle. Aircraft development continued postwar, passenger planes became more common and the Second World War demonstrated the vital role of aircraft in winning in both the European and Pacific Theaters. One of the things I learned from the book was that the proliferation of military airfields across the civilized world during WWII allowed for easy conversion to municipal airports in the postwar period. This made for further popularization of commercial travel by air.
While jet-engined planes first appeared in the 1950s, there were still plenty of prop planes around when I began flying commercially in the late 1960s. I remember traveling from Chicago to Evansville, Indiana on a DC-6, a propeller-driven, four-engine relic which Douglas quit making in 1958. As we came in for a landing, I was shocked to see that one of the engines had died. Business associate and seat companion J. Franklin Moore, a more-experienced flyer who was a generation older than me, casually remarked, "Don't worry, Joe. There's still three more left." During a layover in Cleveland, I watched an ancient twin-prop DC-3 start up. One of its engines backfired and was soon engulfed in flames. A ground crew member ambled over with a fire extinguisher and put out the left engine fire. The pilot successfully restarted the engine and headed to the main takeoff runway without further incident.
It's hard to believe but it has been just over 50 years since the debuts of the 747 and the supersonic Concorde. After extensive flight testing, the Boeing 747 entered commercial service in early 1970; the Concorde in 1976. I still remember my first flight in a 747 in 1972 on a flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles. The plane dwarfed other passenger aircraft of the day.
The book also covers the Space Race as well as super-jumbo jets such as the Airbus A-380. Dedicated air historians won't find much in-depth drilling-down and shouldn't expect a lot of detail in a 155-page (plus notes and index) book with 30,000 words of text. But, for the casual reader such as myself, 'Flight' made for an entertaining, picture-filled read.
Verdict: Recommended. (Review copy provided by Carlton Publishing.) (posted 1/28/19, permalink)
'Ship Of Fools: How a Selfish Ruling Class Is Bringing America to the Brink of Revolution' by Tucker Carlson
In 241 pages, Tucker Carlson exposes self-serving politicians and special interest groups. The jacket flap proclaims that the book is "the story of the new American elites, a group whose power and wealth has grown beyond imagination even as the rest of the country has withered. The people who run America now barely interact with it. They fly on their own planes, ski on their own mountains, watch sporting events from the stands in skyboxes. They have total contempt for you." That's an honest description of the contents.
The book is informative and fast-paced. It revealed some swamp stories I hadn't heard before. The one criticism I have is that, while Tucker enumerates the many problems caused by the political elite, his book doesn't offer solutions.
Verdict: Recommended. (posted 1/24/19, permalink)
'Ford Model T Coast to Coast: A Slow Drive Across A Fast Country' by Tom Cotter
Before the Model T came along , automobiles were mere playthings for the rich. Henry Ford's T didn't just put America on wheels, it put the world on wheels. The Model T was the first truly affordable car for the working man. Initially priced at $850 in 1908, the price dropped to $390 by 1914 due to production efficiencies. By 1927, a new Model T could be had for as little as $260. At its peak popularity, 1.25 million Model Ts were sold each year.
The Model T was effectively the first global car. By 1918, Ford's American market share was an astonishing 49%, while 40% of the cars on British roads were Ts. By 1921, the Model T commanded 60% of the new car market around the world. Over 15 million Model T Fords were eventually produced.
Auto scribe/engineer/philosopher L. J. K. Straight wrote, "So profound was the effect of the Model T Ford on America, so much did it change the nature of the nation … its art, its music, its social structure …, that Henry Ford, who was responsible for it all, must be seen as the most effective revolutionary." In 'Cannery Row', John Steinbeck wrote, "Someone should write an erudite essay on the moral, physical and esthetic effect of the Model T Ford on the American nation. Two generations of Americans knew more about the Ford ... planetary systems of gears than the solar system of stars." The Model T is on my list of '10 Cars That Changed Everything'.
The T also put the brakes on the proliferation of horsecrap. In his book, 'The Good Old Days, They Were Terrible', Otto Bettmann wrote of "streets caked with animal waste", noting that there were over three million horses in American cities at the turn of the Century, each producing 20-25 pounds of manure per day. During dry spells, the pounding of hooves refined the manure to dust which blew "from the pavement as a sharp, piercing powder to cover our clothes, ruin our furniture and blow up our nostrils."
Then there were the flies. Disease-carrying flies. And the smell. New York City of the period was described by a visitor as a "nasal disaster."
Bettmann noted that the 15,000 horses of Rochester NY produced enough manure in 1900 to cover an acre of ground with a layer 175 feet high. This steadily increasing production caused more pessimistic observers of the period to predict that American cities would disappear like Pompeii - but not under ashes.
Unfortunately, the Ford Model Ts time came and went. Henry Ford failed to realize this and had to play catch-up with the Model A successor. By the 1920s, the 20 horsepower Model T was underpowered and its simple planetary transmission and lack of adequate braking system rendered it unsuitable for modern roads. In the late 1980s, I belonged to a local historic auto club. When we did tours, members with stock Model Ts couldn't bring their flivvers along, because they couldn't keep up with traffic, even on a 50 mph road.
This book documents a cross-country trip along the Lincoln Highway in a modified Model T Ford. Yes, it did have the planetary transmission, but the engine had an Rajo overhead-valve conversion kit and other modifications which doubled the horsepower and allowed the car to cruise at speeds of 55 mph or so. This T, dubbed Something Special, had been modified as a speedster - a fenderless two-seat roadster with a chopped top and modern four-wheel hydraulic brakes.
The book is a diary of this driving adventure, mixed in with Lincoln Highway history, tales of local people and the small towns in which they live, the limitations of the 90+ year-old vehicle, nostalgic musings, visits to car museums and interesting historic sights along the way.
There are lots of pictures and sidebars to entertain in this 220-page book and it all makes for an easy read.
I had one problem with the book; the author has written about other cross-country trips before. After selling his company in 2000, Tom Cotter bought himself a 289 Cobra and drove across the United States with his writer pal Peter Egan. And wrote about it. Later, Tom authored 'Barn Find Road Trip' and 'Route 66 Barn Found Road Trip'. I didn't know this until he mentioned it in 'Coast to Coast'. Somehow, this knowledge took some of the magic out of the story. Imagine a traveling magician, telling his audience, "Hey, if you thought that was good, you shoulda seen the trick I did in Cleveland last week."
In 1978, my family and I drove from New Jersey to Oregon. We made many stops along the way, visiting friends and taking our kids to local attractions and points of interest. Both of them kept scrapbooks of that journey and still remember it with fondness. We've never done another cross-country driving trip; that first one couldn't be topped. That's just my opinion.
Verdict: Recommended. 'Coast To Coast' is eminently readable and the stories will make you feel you're along for the ride. While auto enthusiasts will find the book of particular interest, you don't have do be a gearhead or old Ford lover to enjoy it. (Review copy supplied by Motorbooks.) (posted 1/18/19, permalink)
'None Of My Business: P.J. Explains Money, Banking, Debt, Equity, Assets, Liabilities, and Why He's Not Rich and Neither Are You' by P.J. O'Rourke
This book is allegedly about banking and finance but is in reality a collection of O'Rourke's essays which are kinda, sort-of related to the subject at hand. This 244-page mini-tome was very disjointed, lacking flow between chapters.
Many years ago, Mr. O'Rourke wrote brilliantly-witty books on a variety of subjects. At his best, P.J. O'Rourke is a thoughtful Hunter S. Thompson, with considerably lower systemic drug levels. His trademark rapier wit was often seen on various on-air cable news gigs.
Entropy - the enemy of all of us aging geezers - is clearly at work here, although Mr. O'Rourke is three years younger than me. His last offering, 'How The Hell Did This Happen: The Election Of 2016', was particularly awful, full of Never-Trump vitriol.
This book is not as bad, although it is mostly devoid of even a laugh or a chuckle. I did enjoy his comparison of 'The Jetsons' versus what the future actually turned out to be. His musings about The Future offer the same cautions and warning about predictions about which I have previously written. O'Rourke also mused about Eloi and Morlocks, from H. G. Wells' 1895 novel 'The Time Machine', noting that most Trump voters were Morlocks. He meant that as an insult but I believe that it's mostly true.
I've been a Morlock - the worker class that keeps the economy going - during much of my life. I remember my days at the R&H Plastics Engineering Lab, when I worked in the processing group. We kept our fingernails dirty dealing with manufacturing solutions. I used to refer to the lab's Design and Testing Groups as Eloi because they had cleaner fingernails and were granted the leisure of dealing with more esoteric and theoretical subjects. Most of my fellow engineers had no idea what I was talking about because, like most engineers, they had a minimal literary exposure and had no idea who H.G. Wells was.
Several years later, I owned my own business and, in the early years, spent a lot of time running machinery to fulfill customer orders - sweat equity, I suppose.
Back to the book … it is unfortunate that it was so poorly-composed and lacking in humor. In early chapters, O'Rourke's anti-Trump shots were inferential; toward the end of the book they were out in the open and quite obvious. I guess P.J. just couldn't help himself.
Verdict: Not much to see (or learn) here. (posted 1/14/19, permalink)
'Jaguar XK: A Celebration of Jaguar's 1950s Classic' by Nigel Thorley
Since its founding in the 1920s, Jaguar has always offered sporting cars. Yes, saloons were produced for gentlemen who required extra doors or wealthy, portly lads who couldn't fit in a sports car, but Jaguar's flagship was always a sports car. When the Jaguar XK120 burst on the automotive scene at the 1948 London Motor Show, the British sports car stunned the public. Its swoopy lines were quite a contrast with other British two-seaters - as well as older Jags - and made all of them look stodgy and ancient by comparison.
The original Jaguar XK was to be a four-cylinder car called the XK100. Thankfully, that idea was scrapped. The 1948 Jaguar XK120 was powered by a new overhead-cam six-cylinder engine used by Jaguar until 1992. The XK 120 was wickedly fast for its time.
The XK120 became a big hit in the U.S., after the British government reduced the value of the pound by 30% against the dollar in September 1949. By 1952, Jaguar was exporting 96% of its annual output, much of it to the U.S. The XK series became the car of movie stars, wealthy enthusiasts and sporting, trust-fund cads. Its sleek body, tuned chassis and powerful engine made everyone want one. Or want to copy one. The XK120 was GM's 'bogey' for the 1953 Corvette, although the Chevy missed the target by a country mile. If there hadn't been a Jag XK120, there probably would have never been a Corvette of any kind. Or a two-seat Thunderbird, either.
Despite being far pricier than Volkswagen or MG, in the U.S., Jaguar was the third best-selling imported car in 1955. Not only were the XK series great cars but, as the author points out, the company was smart enough to establish a solid distribution system in America early on. In the book, Mr. Thorley provides tables comparing Jaguar with its "rivals," listing cars such as the AC Ace, Frazer Nash, Sunbeam Alpine, Jensen Interceptor and Bristol 403. These cars were either unknown or sold in relatively small quantities in the U.S. because they had limited distribution and support. In early postwar Britain, exports were a key to rebuilding the country's treasury. Auto exports, especially MG and Jaguar, played an important role in restoring the country's economy.
I still have a silver-colored XK150 catalog obtained at the 1960 Philadelphia Auto Show. The 150 was introduced in mid-1957 and was the evolutionary successor to the 120 and 140 models. It's the only catalog I've kept from that show because I was so taken with the exotic lines of that Jaguar. In 1998, I finally bought a Jag and thoroughly enjoyed owning it. I think everyone should have a Jaguar at least once in their lives.
Author Nigel Thorley is a true Jaguar expert - he's owned 70 of them and is co-founder of the Jaguar Enthusiasts' Club. This high-quality, informative book, printed on heavy glossy stock, is full of facts, stories from factory, race track tales and contains many gorgeous photos.
Verdict: Highly recommended for all auto enthusiasts, not just Jaguar fans. The author stressed the importance of the XK legacy, noting that "the range played a vital role in developing Jaguar's export business, proving its reputation for quality, longevity and performance in competition." (Review copy provided by Veloce Publishing.) (posted 1/10/19, permalink)
'The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World' by Simon Winchester
This 352-page book (plus acknowledgements, bibliography and index) traces the development of precision manufacturing from the very imprecise pre-Industrial Age to the digital world of the 21st Century. This is a not-very-technical work, although there are some interesting historical stories within its covers. And parts of the book are fascinating, such as the development of Johansson blocks (aka: gauge blocks), something I'm familiar with because they were used by the precision tool shop at the lab where I once worked.
The author mistakenly intermingles the terms precision, standardization, repeatability and quality. They are not the same thing, although they are cousins. The book suffers because of it. The author seems to have a bias toward English tech history, although American technical development had superseded the Brits by the 1870s. The author does point out that, in the early 19th century, inventor Thomas Blanchard developed methods for producing interchangeable, standardized components for guns produced at the Harpers Ferry Armory. These components were machine-made in their entirety, inspiring the American phrase "lock, stock and barrel."
I was frustrated by the lack of explanatory drawings/images in the early part of the book. Later on, the photos were too small and inferior in quality. There were no color photos in the book. At the end, the author inexplicably moved from the super-accuracy of jet engines, clean rooms and satellite components to the art of bamboo. It's as if he ran out of stuff to write about. Go figure.
Verdict: While I learned a few things from 'The Perfectionists', and the book's concept was intriguing, the delivery left much to be desired. Far from perfect, it wasn't awful but I'm hesitant to recommend it. (posted 1/2/19, permalink)
More book reviews are posted here.
Other Pages Of Interest
copyright 2019 - Joseph M. Sherlock - All applicable rights reserved
The facts presented in this blog are based on my best guesses and my substantially faulty geezer memory. The opinions expressed herein are strictly those of the author and are protected by the U.S. Constitution. Probably.
If I have slandered any brands of automobiles, either expressly or inadvertently, they're most likely crap cars and deserve it. Automobile manufacturers should be aware that they always have the option of trying to change my mind by providing me with vehicles to test drive. I'll dutifully report my road test impressions on this car blog.
If I have slandered any people or corporations in this blog, either expressly or inadvertently, they should buy me strong drinks (and an expensive meal) and try to prove to me that they're not the jerks I've portrayed them to be. If you're buying, I'm willing to listen.