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Greatest Hits: Book Reviews

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'Panic: The Betrayal of Capitalism by Wall Street and Washington' by Andrew Redleaf and Richard Vigilante

This scary and well-written book offers one of the best overviews I've encountered of the financial meltdown. The authors offer possible solutions for avoiding future meltdowns, including eliminating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, fewer unnecessary government regulations and a rejection of the Too Big To Fail philosophy.

Scott Grannis, a man whose opinions I respect offered this: "In addition to offering numerous and seemingly paradoxical insights into markets and investing, the book does a great job of explaining how the financial crisis of 2008 came about and how, with the help of hugely misguided government intervention, it eventually led to a global recession.

In my professional career I have spent hundreds of hours trying to explain derivatives to colleagues, professionals, and executives, so I was amazed to see what a good job the book does of making extremely complex securities understandable to just about anyone."

This book makes a great companion to 'Endgame: The End of the Debt Supercycle and How It Changes Everything'. Read 'em both and you'll be ready to debate Paul Krugman. (posted 12/12/11, permalink)

'Once Upon a Car: The Fall and Resurrection of America's Big Three Auto Makers - GM, Ford, and Chrysler' by Bill Vlasic

This is a fast-paced narrative about the trials and tribulations of GM, Ford and Chrysler in the 21st Century. Detroit's business model of the past 60 years was no longer working and the financial crunch of 2008 turned the Big Three's sniffles into pneumonia.

Vlasic, a veteran auto reporter and Detroit bureau chief for The New York Times, tells a riveting story. He takes us into the boardrooms of the Big Three and enumerates the three differing paths taken by each automaker. Especially revealing are GM's board meetings in 2006, when directors ignore ominous trends in favor of incremental (inconsequential) changes.

Although Vlasic tries to avoid the Heros and Villains Syndrome, GM CEO Rick Wagoner comes off as a clueless dolt, while Alan Mulally of Ford is portrayed - fairly, I think - as a prescient outsider with a bold vision. (I must confess that I was initially skeptical of Mulally.) Of Alan M., Vlasic has written, "The former Boeing executive's fresh approach turned the company around and kept it from begging for a government bailout. "These three companies have been slowly going out of business for eighty years," he (Mulally) said. "And their arrogance caught up with them.""

book review Joe SherlockWagoner's attempts at a GM-Ford merger and GM-Chrysler merger are amusing in a what-the hell-was-he-thinking kind of way. Vlasic has noted that Rick Wagoner and Bob Lutz were convinced GM was on the right track, until the 2008 recession. Wagoner lost his job after leading the Big Three to Washington for emergency assistance. "The moral of the story," Wagoner later said, "is never put yourself in a position where you have to go down there (Washington, DC)." Lutz added, "Those people down there (Congress) hate us."

When Wagoner was finally fired, my pick for the new CEO was ignored.

We learn that the Germans at Daimler were dying to dump their low-margin American arm for years. And - by implication - that Cerberus never did its due-diligence homework before acquiring Chrysler.

I recommend this book with one reservation: I'm skeptical about Vlasic's claim that the Big Three are on the Comeback Trail. Ford, yes but I'm not so sure about GM and Chrysler. These two formerly-bankrupt companies claim to be making money now but given the convoluted accounting used by big firms - who knows? Accountants can twist the numbers to meet management's scenario du jour. It reminds me of the old vaudeville tailor joke: "You want a blue suit? Abe, turn on the blue light."

General Motors has left taxpayers on the hook for over $15 billion as of this writing. I remain unconvinced that the Chrysler-Fiat hookup will work long term, given the proposed to sprinkle a blend of Fiat offerings into the Chrysler mix.

As I had predicted, the Fiat 500 has been less than a resounding success in America so far. It's not exactly selling like hotcakes. Or biscotti. The aging, market-saturated Mini outsells the 500 by almost 3 to 1.

It is important to remember that 2011 sales figures are distorted in favor of the Big Three by the severe parts shortages for Japanese brands resulting from Japan's tsunami in March.

This book is a good companion to Steve Rattner's 'Overhaul'. The pair will provide a more comprehensive view of the auto industry's recent troubles. (posted 11/11/11, permalink)

book review'Merchants of Speed: The Men Who Built America's Performance Industry' by Paul D. Smith

This book is about hot rodding and the enthusiastic entrepreneurs who designed and manufactured the parts that made it all possible. It included a fair number of black and white period photographs.

Companies profiled included Ansen Automotive, Edelbrock heads and manifolds, Crane Cams, Hilborn Fuel Injection, Iskenderian Racing Cams, Weiand heads and manifolds and Offenhauser speed equipment.

I should have loved this book. It had a lot of elements to appeal to me: a car-centric subject, nostalgia (I remember ads from many of the companies profiled in this book in old 1950s/60s issues of car magazines - Hot Rod, Rod & Custom, etc.) and tales of small business owners - their successes and travails.

Instead, I found it almost unreadable. It was badly written and poorly organized. Each company should have been profiled in a fairly consistent reportorial fashion - the classic who/what/when/where/why format.

Instead, stories were uneven, with some people and their businesses profiled in depth and others sketched lightly with a glaring absence of detail.

Nowhere did I find small business lessons - why some firms prospered while others withered and died. Or, what made some business a roaring success. My guess is a consistent ad program, offering of branded merchandise - t-shirts, hats, decals, etc.- for hot-rodder wannabes and a diversity of product - speed equipment for engines other than just the ol' Ford flathead were three key ingredients found in the more successful firms. But I shouldn't be guessing; after reading this book, I should know the answer.

Statistics - sales figures, number of employees, rate of growth and/or decline - were almost nonexistent.

'Merchants of Speed' could have been a sparkling gem. Instead, I found it to be rough, dull and unpolished. (posted 10/18/11, permalink)

'The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century' by Scott Miller

Whenever I read books such as this, I realize how little history I've been taught. Even in my day, school-learned history was, at best, an old satellite view from 80,000 feet up - a broad glance not much detail. I know just enough to realize that The Boxer Rebellion didn't involve men's underwear, the Haymarket Riot had something to do with Chicago and that 'Remember The Maine' was a Spanish American War slogan but that's about all. No 'I'll take San Juan Hill for $200, Alex' for me, please.

Miller's book is about the McKinley assassination and much more. It is a slice of American history, covering elements of the last decade of the 19th Century and the dawn of the 20th. It is told in an interesting, almost novel-like fashion, reminiscent of the writings of Eric Larson.

I learned many things from the book including the fact that McKinley's wife, Ida, was a fragile being with a nervous temperament and she knitted to calm herself, especially after a spell or fit. During her lifetime, she knitted over 5,000 pairs of slippers. I also enjoyed the almost-farcical story of the 'surrender' of Guam by the Spanish to American Captain Henry Glass.

This well-written hardback educated and entertained me. I recommend it highly, especially if you like American history. (posted 10/11/11, permalink)

'In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir' by Dick Cheney

In this autobiography, former Vice President Dick Cheney paints a portrait of American politics over 40+ years reflects upon on his role in the many historic events from the period.

I was surprised to learn that the Cheneys were piloting a black 1965 Volkswagen Beetle around D.C. during the same time that we had our '63 and '67 black Bugs.

The book confirmed my opinion that Cheney made tough, mostly correct decisions during difficult, challenging times. In their respective books, it becomes obvious that neither Bush nor Cheney were willing to ask Americans to make fiscally prudent sacrifices (curtailed spending, caps on entitlements, reduced foreign aid, diminished home/student loan programs, etc.) to help fund the War on Terror.

Cheney offered little in the way of explanation, providing an oversimplified overview of the 2008 financial crisis. For all the accomplishments of the Bush-Cheney Administration, the failure to cut spending - especially during the period when Congress was Republican-controlled - will be a large stain on its reputation.

Nevertheless, 'In My Time' is thought-provoking, well-written and a recommended read. (posted 9/27/11, permalink)

'Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It' by Don Peck

I cringe at books and magazine articles that try to drive home points of with little vignettes. Consider "Frank Massoli (a pseudonym)" - stories are less credible when real names aren't used - and his struggle to find employment, as related by sympathetic author Peck. Of course, 47 year-old Frank didn't help himself when he told a church-paid human resources consultant, "Kiss my ass." No wonder he can't find/keep a job.

This book is full of dubious anecdotes, banal musings and political correctness with an obligatory slam at the Tea Party thrown in for good measure. The recommended solutions are tired, progressive and counter-intuitive. Did I mention Tax the Rich? Did I mention that Peck is features editor at The Atlantic? Are you not surprised?

I mourn the poor trees which have given their lives to produce the multitudinous copies of this otiose hardback, many of which will soon be found on remainder shelves. Circle of Life: from pulp to pap.

Verdict: Don't bother. (posted 9/19/11, permalink)

'After America: Get Ready for Armageddon' by Mark Steyn

I loved this book. Ann Coulter wrote of it, "Only Mark Steyn can write about the decline of America and leave you laughing." The subject matter - a world without American leadership - is very somber but Mark is the guy who quietly cracks one-liners while you're standing in line at a funeral home viewing.

In his earlier book, the New York Times bestseller, 'America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It', Mark predicted collapse for the rest of the Western World. Now, he adds, America has joined the Europeans on the great rush to self-destruction.

The Obama-lead attempt to take over America with Big Regulations and Big Government has speeded things up. Steyn has written that "if you're not on welfare, working in the welfare office or working for a "green solutions" company that's landed the government contract for printing the recycled envelopes in which the welfare checks are mailed out, it's not an attractive society to be in. It's not a place to run a small business – a feed store or a plumbing company or anything innovative, all of which will be taxed and regulated into supporting that seventy-something per cent.

After all, what does it matter if your business goes under? Either you'll join the government workforce, or you'll go on the dole. So you too will become part of the dependent class, or the class that's dependent upon the dependent class. Either way, Big Government wins."

It is ironic that Steyn's book was released August 8th, the first business day after Standard and Poor downgraded America from a AAA credit rating.

Steyn writes in a style that makes you chuckle, even as he doles out doom about America's future. While entertaining, this book is well-referenced throughout. I recommend it. (posted 9/12/11, permalink)

'Righteous Indignation: Excuse Me While I Save the World' by Andrew Breitbart

First a disclosure - I'm biased. Have you ever had an irrational 'bad chemistry' reaction to someone you've never met but only seen on television or in the movies? They might be a wonderful person in real life but you quickly change the channel or close your eyes whenever they appear.

My personal list includes Dick Armey (a smart guy with good ideas but I could never warm up to him), Eddie Fisher - even before he was known for sleaziness, Whoopi Goldberg, Meryl Streep, Howie Mandel, Andy Williams, Pat Boone, Jimmy Swaggart, auto writer/hack/hag Jean Jennings, Betty Davis, Kathy Griffin, Geraldo Rivera, Portland weatherman Dave Salesky, The Judds, Cat Stevens (even before he became a Muslim loon). There's probably more I haven't thought of yet. Oh, yeah ... Andrew Breitbart.

That said, this is an excellent book. Part autobiography, part story-telling, part rant, Breitbart provides a peek behind the slick media curtain into how the mainstream media manipulates the news and wages a partisan political battle for the heart and soul of America.

He reveals the details of his conversion from a liberal college slacker to the conservative stalwart he has become. He has evolved into an online media powerhouse, launching multiple high traffic web sites (Big Government, Big Hollywood, Big Journalism, etc.). His sites were the conduit for the big ACORN expose last year.

In this book, Breitbart is a occasionally little too self-congratulatory and a bit bombastic at times, but this is a great book nonetheless. I recommend it, even though I'm not interested in having a beer with Andrew. (posted 8/22/11, permalink)

'The Jersey Sting: A True Story of Crooked Pols, Money-Laundering Rabbis, Black Market Kidneys, and the Informant Who Brought It All Down' by Ted Sherman and Josh Margolin

In the summer of 2009, the blog Gawker headlined "Everybody in New Jersey Was Arrested Yesterday." It was the culmination of one of the largest-ever federal sting operations in U.S. history. This book, authored by two reporters from The Star-Ledger, details the real story behind the biggest corruption bust in New Jersey's notoriously corrupt history.

Having lived in New Jersey for over 10 years, I got to see some of the political corruption up close. So this book attracted my interest. It's been over 30 years since I lived there but not much seems to have changed. The crooks are still running the asylum. Hudson County is described as a place "so renowned for stuffing ballot boxes with votes of dead people that former governor Brendan Byrne still gets laughs on the dinner circuit when he says he wants to be buried in Hudson 'so I can stay active in politics'."

Among the forty-four people arrested in July 2009 were three mayors, five Orthodox rabbis, two state legislators, and the flamboyant deputy mayor of Jersey City, Leona Beldini, once a stripper using the stage name Hope Diamond. At the center of it all was a dubious character named Solomon Dwek, who perpetrated a $50 million Ponzi scheme before copping a plea and wearing a wire as a secret FBI undercover informant, setting up friends, partners, rabbis, and dozens of politicians. And a kidney broker.

The details are amazing and it was surprising how stupid, gullible and greedy most of the politicians were.

If you are interested in politics and corruption, you'll find this book fascinating. (posted 8/17/11, permalink)

'In The Garden Of Beasts' by Erik Larson

The term 'nonfiction chronicle' is easily applied to Larson's books. They are based entirely on well-researched facts but are written with the excitement and intrigue of a novel. Erik's earlier work, 'Devil in the White City', is the poster child of the genre.

His latest work is not fast-paced but is a shocking and vivid portrait of Berlin during the first years of Hitler's reign, as seen through the eyes of the professorial American Ambassador William E. Dodd and his promiscuous, impressionable daughter, Martha.

Dodd, a principled but unassuming and scholarly man, is ridiculed behind his back by the elites of the State Department, where he received the nickname 'Ambassador Dud'. He was never able to convince his superiors of the danger of Hitler's increasing power and the ever-increasing violence against dissidents and Jews. The Roosevelt administration was more concerned about collecting the $1.2 billion debt that Germany owed American creditors.

I was surprised at the pervasive anti-Semitism which prevailed in the Roosevelt Administration. William Phillips, Undersecretary of State, noted that Atlantic City was "infested with Jews. In fact the whole beach scene on Saturday afternoon and Sunday was an extraordinary sign - very little sand to be seen, the whole beach covered by slightly clothed Jews and Jewesses."

Wilbur J. Carr, an assistant Secretary of State, used the slur, "kikes", noting that many Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia were "filthy, un-American and often dangerous in their habits." He, too, visited Atlantic City and disparaged the Jews he found there. "Jews everywhere, and of the commonest kind." Carr reported that the dining room of the tony Claridge Hotel was full of Jews "and few presented a good appearance. Only two others besides myself in dinner jacket. Very careless atmosphere in dining room." The following evening, Carr dined at a different hotel.

Meanwhile back in Berlin, Martha Dodd became mesmerized by the glamorous parties and the high-minded chatter of the artsy class. She had numerous affairs with the city's elite, including the head of the Gestapo and a Soviet spy. Eventually, thick-headed Martha saw the Nazis for what they are: cruel, vicious, power-hungry wolves who hated many ... but, most of all, the Jews.

Dodd left his ambassadorship in 1937, returned home and spent his few remaining years warning of the Nazi threat. Sadly, he was mostly ignored. And forgotten. Martha flirted with Communism and died exiled in Prague.

Mary Ann Gwinn, of the Seattle Times, described this book as, "what happened in Nazi Germany in 1933 and 1934, when a bunch of sadists and psychopaths took over a country and the rest of humanity sat on its hands."

'In The Garden Of Beasts' is a compelling story and a good read. (posted 8/9/11, permalink)

Joe Sherlock book review

'Endgame: The End of the Debt Supercycle and How It Changes Everything' by John Mauldin and Jonathan Tepper

This is a scary book. The authors pull no punches, noting that almost every developed country in the world is facing tough choices. Most of these countries have aging populations who expect government support (social security and medical plans) - promised and implied. These ever-increasing obligations combined with a worldwide collapse in the financial and real estate markets have put many nations' fiscal survival in jeopardy. The authors have stated, "Conventionally computed deficits will rise precipitously. Unless the stance of fiscal policy changes, or age-related spending is cut." Ireland, Japan, Spain, UK and the U.S. must face "the politically treacherous task of cutting future age-related liabilities."

The United States is certainly in trouble but many other countries are in even worse shape.

Japan is described as a "bug in search of a windshield." The authors pointed out that, in the early 1990s, "to cushion the blow of the downturn, the central Japanese government spent insane amounts of money building bridges to nowhere and on other public works projects with no ability to increase productivity in the real economy." Sound familiar? Does the term 'shovel ready' ring a bell? History repeats itself. By the way the Japanese stimulus didn't work." In 1990, Japan represented 14% of the global economy. "Now it is 8% ... and falling."

In the Disaster Known As Greece, in the past decade "the wage bill of the Greek public sector has doubled, in real terms - and that number doesn't take into account the bribes collected by public officials."

"The Greek public health-care system spends far more on supplies than the European average - and that it is not uncommon ... to see nurses and doctors leaving the job with their arms filled with paper towels and diapers and whatever else they can plunder from the supply closet. .. People who got to public health clinics assume they will need to bribe doctors to actually take care of them."

Endgame details the Debt Supercycle and the sovereign debt crisis, and shows that there are no good choices. We're gonna feel pain.

Regardless of what our policymakers do, we are looking at a decade of slow growth, high unemployment, and more recessions. The 2008 crisis did not create a garden-variety 'business-cycle recession'. It has given us a much more troubling falling asset recession which will characterized by a long period of debt reduction and stagnation. We have to make tough choices about stopping deficits and beginning to reduce our nearly unmanageable debt.

Temporary inducements like cash-for-clunkers and homebuyer credits are simply Keynesian-style narcotics, temporarily numbing immediate pain but prolonging long-term discomfort by delaying the normal healing action of the marketplace and by rendering the patient unconscious and unable to make the tough choices required.

The book provides a detailed analysis on the financial crisis, what caused it and what is likely to follow after the crisis. I wish it had contained more about what individual investors should be doing. There is a chapter allegedly covering this subject but sadly, it is of the wishy-washy, on-one-hand versus the other-hand variety, in contrast to the rest of the book which is far more decisive.

Overall, this was well-written book which did an admirable job of explaining obtuse and esoteric economics concepts and consquences to the lay reader. (posted 7/27/11, permalink)

'In Fifty Years, We'll All Be Chicks' by Adam Carolla

How can you not like a book that - early on - states, "What we used to settle with common sense or a fist, we now settle with hand sanitizer and lawyers." I first became aware of Adam Carolla when he was the co-host of the late, great 'The Man Show'.

He was hilarious back then and, judging by the book, still is. I found myself laughing aloud frequently as I read along. From the much-overblown, possibly nonexistent Peanut Allergy Scare to why every vehicle in the world has child-protective seat belts except school buses, his outlook is shatteringly accurate while flying in the face of political correctness.

Carolla bemoans "the pussification of America," where everything carries warning labels and we are urged/commanded/browbeaten to tiptoe around certain societal groups - blacks, Mexicans and gays are oft-mentioned - lest we commit the mortal sin of ethnic stereotyping. Adam manages to nail formulaic ethnic behavior in this book with great humor. He also refers to Port-A-Potties as Mexican Space Shuttles.

As to the 'Don't Eat Beef, Eat Fish' movement, he wrote, "Fish are essentially cannibals. They eat smaller versions of themselves. This would be like me saying, 'I'm hungry. Get me a midget.'"

And birds, well ... Adam believes they hate us and that's why they crap on our cars. "And, if you own a restaurant by the ocean, you might as well paint your roof white. They should just call those restaurants Bird Shit by the Sea. I love when the plastic owl they put on the roof to scare off seagulls is covered in bird shit. The seagull is saying, 'Hey, tough guy. I'm on to your ruse. Hold on, I ate Mexican last night.'"

He added, "Let's be honest - if you could fly, you'd shit on things, too. You'd be like, 'Hey, there's the mayor's motorcade.'"

You may not agree with everything in this book. Carolla has no time for the late Robert Palmer, describing his music as "horrible songs made tolerable by the coke whores pretending to play guitar behind him." I'm not a big fan of '80s music (1956-65 is more my era), but I always enjoyed Mr. Palmer's videos. On the other hand, Adam proclaims that "reggae music sucks." Amen, brother.

Important questions of our time are raised, like why all airport shuttle vans smell like ass - instead of those "double doors, there should have just been cheeks that opened up."

Advice on personal safety is offered: "The best form of home security is a Confederate Flag. The Stars and Bars on the flagpole in front of your house lets everyone know that not only do you have guns, but you're probably cleaning them right now."

Adam has opined that welfare is "nothing but monetary methadone" and it doesn't work. Neither do school lunch programs. And he has made a cogent case against each. In a discussion of population control, he has asked, "When is a politician on either side of the aisle going to have the balls to pipe up and say, 'Poor people. Stop shitting out kids'? ... Who is that filling our prisons? ... our soup kitchens?"

In Carolla's mind, gays qualify as a race because "they have anti-defamation leagues, their own parts of cities and parades." He continued, "But I love the gays. All they do is pay taxes for schools they don't use, for prisons they don't inhabit, and to repair potholes their peach-colored Mini Cooper convertibles don't create. Meanwhile, they rarely use government programs and they don't crap out kids that use up resources. ... The gays take care of their homes and their community." Kind of like the Amish but trendier. And gayer.

Using nothing but his observational abilities and caustic wit, Adam also takes on passion-fruit iced tea, tampon strings, bottled water served in restaurants, ketchup packets, back-up beepers and much more.

All in all, this book was an easy - and very funny - read. (posted 7/14/11, permalink)

'Known and Unknown: A Memoir' by Donald Rumsfeld

This a thorough book. Too thorough. It is full of details from the author's 'personal archive' and is truly mind-numbing. At 350-400 pages, with a good editor deftly wielding a finely-honed scalpel, this could have been an damn good read.

At 700-plus pages, not including acronym lists, the many photos, the List of Illustrations, the fifty pages of Notes, the many footnotes and the inevitable Index, this book is a rambling, out-of-control bore machine.

Whadda want to know about Rummy's life? The details are here - both the important ones and the trivial. He once met Elvis. He found Nixon complex and hard to read. Well, duh. He networked with a lot of politicians and policy wonks - both famous people and folks I've never heard of. He didn't get along with rich blowhard Nelson Rockefeller. Yeah, well who did? The family car was a Volvo; why am I not surprised? He and Dick Cheney knew each other way back when. Gerald Ford wasn't a very good president. Already knew that. There were lots of disagreements and fights over the War on Terror, Iraq and Afghanistan. Yup, heard about that for years.

nvqrxdesadtrekldsaio ............ Ow! Damn, I just fell asleep and my head hit the keyboard.

Rumsfeld certainly had a long, varied, distinguished and adventuresome career and was a witness to much important history over the past four decades. He's quite candid about those with whom he disagreed - especially in later years. But important events are burdened by unnecessary and excessive details; therefore, the book fails to live up to expectations. (posted 5/26/11, permalink)

'The Thank You Economy' by Gary Vaynerchuk

The author, a self-described "serial entrepreneur," is co-owner and director of operations of the Wine Library in Springfield, NJ - a spirits retailing operation started by his father - and an advocate of using social media to promote products and grow a business.

Gary Vaynerchuk has claimed that because of his customer service efforts, Wine Library grew from a $4 million dollar business to a $45 million business within five years.

Customer service is something that smart businesses have been practicing for thousands of years. But Vaynerchuk claims that we are "living through the biggest culture shift of our time. The internet, itself, is 17-years-old. It's just hitting the social part of its life." He posits that social networking, such as Twitter and Facebook represent new vital opportunities for customer service. And implies that old-fashioned ideas of customer care are dead.

His book contains much cheerleading on behalf of social media. But when he eventually gets around to case studies, each one is a "gee whiz" tale, unsupported by factual data - numbers - documenting the claimed success. Increased sales? Increased profitability? Improved return on investment? Not in the book.

Never mind, proclaims Gary. Numbers are irrelevant. Return on Investment? Who cares. "There is enormous ROI in social media. It's like my famous saying though, "What's the ROI of your mother?" The data isn't as black and white like it has been in the past. I firmly believe that the brands that have a soul and a heart and understand how to scale this will win."

Hmmmm. If you you're reporting 'heart and soul' rather than financial results, maybe the whole idea is bogus. Sounds like unicorn flatulence and rainbows to me.

You want data-backed results? Here's a real story: In late 1986, I read 'Marketing Warfare' by Al Ries & Jack Trout - a wonderful book. I read it three times and then declared war on my biggest competitor in the display business. In 12 months, I obtained over $1 million in increased business as a result of my 'warfare' strategy. Our firm's market share jumped by double-digits. Because our customers were now buying on factors other than price, we were able to raise prices and improve profitability by an average of 11.7%. Unlike Gary, I have published the numbers to support my story.

The acrylic display business is very competitive but, by combining smart marketing, tested promotions and exceptional service, our company grew rapidly and prospered. Our stock display line included transparent acrylic cubes as well as clear display risers. By the time we sold the company in 1989, we had over 525 different display products in stock for immediate shipment.

Here's another 'reach out to customers' success story, which also includes numerical results. See, it's not hard. If you have a good business, you're tracking your operational data continuously. It doesn't take deep data-mining to get the facts. And learn what works and what doesn't. Unless you're Gary. Or his buddies.

Many of the examples in the book are very small operators: a dentist, an attorney and A J Bombers, a single-location burger joint in Milwaukee, WI. Boloco, a Boston-based restaurant chain of 18 stores, offers "Inspired Burritos." It was started in 1996 and is a huge Twitter fan but no data is made available to support Boloco's enthusiasm. Everything is anecdotal.

Joie de Vivre, a California chain of 32 upscale hotels, seems to simply deliver a good old-fashioned customer care in every way, including its online communications.

Much is made in the book about referrals from happy customers - something which happens whether they're Tweeting or not. There's even a mention of the old 80/20 rule somewhere - something about 80% of your repeat business comes from 20% of customers. Nothing new there.

I've known about the 80/20 rule all my life and wrote about the 20/20/60 rule here. But someone has actually published an 80/20 book. One of the tenets of the book, 'The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Achieving More with Less' by Richard Kock, is that 80% of all effort is wasted on stuff that doesn't produce results.

Maybe businesses spending time answering Tweets is in that '80% wasted effort' category. We don't know because Vaynerchuk hasn't proved otherwise.

'The Thank You Economy' is a complete waste of time and money. It is also an annoyance because it promises so much (with excessive teasing, threatening, cajoling and repetition) but delivers almost nothing. Verdict: As un-recommended as possible. (posted 5/16/11, permalink)

'The Bible Of Unspeakable Truths' by Greg Gutfeld

Greg Gutfeld is a brilliantly funny social commentator. His middle-of-the-night cult show, 'Red Eye', is fast-paced and interesting.

'The Bible of Unspeakable Truths' is pure, unadulterated Gutfeld. Before there was 'Red Eye', there was 'The Daily Gut', Greg's blog. Many of the mini-chapters in the book were former Gut postings and/or 'Gregalogues', the awesome ranting editorials delivered on 'Red Eye.'

The book is full of his best diatribes - Greg deconstructs politics, pop culture, media, kids, disease, political correctness, race, food - pretty much everything. With a sprinkling of houseboy and fat jokes.

Chapters are short and humorous, ranging from two sentences to two pages. Chapter titles include such enticements as 'Mexicans Are Good People - It's Mexico That Sucks', 'Meaning Well Is A Camouflage For Ruining Your Life', 'Katie Couric Is More Important Than The Average College Freshman's (Even If She Looks Remarkably Like An Elf)', 'Gitmo Is No Worse Than Summer Camp', 'Pacifists Are Parasites', 'The Sharpest Toys Are The Best Toys' and 'Propaganda is Highly Underrated'.

It's a biting, insightful tome and an easy read. And if you don't agree with me, you are - as Greg would say - a racist homophobe who eats unicorn platters while dining with Hitler. (posted 5/11/11, permalink)

'Overhaul: An Insider's Account of the Obama Administration's Emergency Rescue of the Auto Industry' by Steven Rattner

This is a good book, written by a uniquely informed source. I have criticized the philosophy of the auto bailouts and some of the solutions implemented but I learned much from the Rattner's book. Thankfully, the author has created an interesting, fast-paced read. Rattner has a good command of the facts and, while he clearly has a liberal point of view, he spreads criticism and praise exactly where he feels it belongs, regardless of political philosophy or party affiliation.

Some reviewers have called this page-turner "self-serving." Maybe, but Steve's book is the first out and right now its the only game in town.

When the auto bailouts were first proposed by the Bush Administration, I was against them. It seemed unfair to Ford, that Chrysler and General Motors would get funding, protection and backing from the government, which could put FoMoCo at a competitive disadvantage.

In October '08, when the bankruptcies of automakers were first being discussed and there was hand-wringing over the "catastrophic collapse of the entire industry", I had opined that, if McDonald's went out of business tomorrow, we wouldn't become vegetarians. Or starve. We'd simply trot across the street to Burger King. Or Arby's.

Yes, there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth. McDonald's workers would lose their jobs - probably only for a short time, because Burger King et al would soon be hiring extra help to handle the increased volume of business. Bun and catsup suppliers who were tight with Mickey D would lose all their business - but, if they were smart, they'd already be selling to other fast food joints (it's called 'customer diversification') and would quickly make up the lost business as other firms grew to fill the McD-sized gap.

In the same way, auto buyers would still buy vehicles. They just might be Fords or some Asian transplant brand from their U.S.-based factories.

joe sherlock car book reviewI was pessimistic about Chrysler's survival when it first filed for that bizarre banana-republic bankruptcy, aka Obamaruptcy. And the subsequent shotgun marriage to Fiat (a questionable automaker with neither U.S. presence or expertise). This was a nuptial which only made sense after a lot of drinking or a severe head injury. The death of Chrysler would probably have helped Ford and GM; many Chrysler customers would buy other American offerings.

A regular Chapter 11 bankruptcy for GM would have allowed an orderly disposition of unprofitable plants, dealers and products. But those things didn't happen. Instead, GM was treated to a trick, pseudo-bankruptcy. Part of it was to appease "stakeholder" and major Obama supporter United Auto Workers.

All of that said, the book sheds much light on behind-the-scene events:

Ron Gettelfinger, UAW President, opined early on that General Motors was probably in worse shape than Chrysler. It turned out - as Steve and Team Auto peeled back the layers of rot and obfuscation - that Gettelfinger was pretty much right. But GM was deemed too big to fail by the Obama Administration.

During negotiations, Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne came off as lying, self-promoting SOB who readily and regularly reneged on promises.

I was surprised at how close Rattner's Team Auto came to implementing 'Plan B' (if Fiat backed out of the deal), where GM would take over Chrysler's Jeep and minivan line, while the remainder of Chrysler - plants and dealers - was liquidated. I think it might have produced a healthier long-term outcome.

General Motors had abysmal financial controls. Rattner observed, "That a global company could have such a shoddy bookkeeping system was mind-boggling."

GM couldn't even forecast cash flow needs: CFO Ray Young didn't know how much cash was needed day-to-day. He initially said $11 billion was the figure - an astronomically high number. The actual daily operational cash requirement was probably closer to half Young's claim. Young's staff was always late with required reports.

The late Alfred P. Sloan, long-time president and chairman of General Motors from 1923 to '37 - who built the successful automaker using a well-differentiated product line and tight controls, was probably spinning in his grave at 7,500 rpm after Young's multiple failures to deliver critical data on the mixed-together-in-a-bucket, badge-engineered GM offerings.

sherlock car blogRattner's tome decisively demonstrated that GM's management was clueless, insular and had no believable financial controls. He wrote that senior executives "spent 80% of their time gathering data and only 20% analyzing it." Based on some of the personnel tales in the book, it appeared that The General had adapted the infamous Dead Horse Strategy approach in the Human Resources Department.

Team Auto established a goal of not only rescuing a failing General Motors but also putting in place the right management to assure future success. But, even after the bailout and ouster of Rick Wagoner, the New Shiny GM was still had its head in the sand. Requesting development funding for the next generation Ecotec four-cylinder engine, General Motors could provide no justifying figures (such as Return on Investment) for the $1.2 billion proposal.

Delphi, the former GM parts subsidiary, was nosing around Team Auto for some bailout money. Rattner asked them how many people they employed. The response: 146,600 workers. "How many of them are in the U.S.?" queried Steve. "The quick answer - 18,900 - exceeded my pessimistic expectations. Most of Delphi's labor force - it turned out - was in Mexico, Brazil and China."

I would point out that, once upon a time, Delphi subassembly plants dotted rural mid-America, providing work for folks in Indiana, Illinois, upper New York state and the like. Most of those jobs are now gone from the U.S..

Fritz Henderson, GM's CEO (Wagoner's replacement, later fired), said that productivity of GM workers in Mexico was "at least as good as the U.S. - maybe better." But U.S. union workers received $55 per hour versus $7 for Mexico, $4.50/hour in China and $1 per hour in India. In those countries, General Motors "is considered a high paying employer."

The book contains legitimate praise of President Bush whom Rattner generally derided and considered criticism of President Obama. Steve was frustrated when the Obama administration refused to work with the Bush administration on the car crisis during the transition period. This exacerbated an already critical situation.

Rattner showed Obama as "out to get" the car companies" and the administration "making political decisions about how to deal with bankrupt automakers GM and Chrysler."

When Obama grimaced when told of the plan to pay GM CEO Rick Wagoner a $7.1 million severance package after Obama ordered that he be sacked, Rattner wrote, "Suddenly I felt that I was indeed in the presence of a community organizer."

He described presidential political adviser David Axelrod coming to car meetings armed with poll data to support the takeover and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel identify Congressmen in whose districts large Chrysler facilities were located. And the many congresspeople from both parties who jawboned Team Auto over auto dealership cuts in their districts. This was a distraction and a time-waster.

Rattner said Obama was frustrated with the auto companies from the start: Obama asked, "Why can't they make a Corolla?" A question which once again demonstrated the business ignorance of Obama and his minions.

car book review

Capitalism is a game of survival of the financially fittest and the most fleet of market-savvy foot. Corporate America is littered with the skeletons of companies whose offerings didn't change with the times - trolley car manufacturers, railroads, hat blockers, fitters of spats, corset firms, etc., etc. Or businesses that failed to keep up with competition and market trends: Mervyn's, Wilson's Leather, Studebaker, Tower Record stores, Bennigan's, etc. Time will tell whether General Motors and Chrysler will survive until 2020.

Whatever the outcome, the story of Steven Rattner's brief but intense stint as car czar has made for a pretty remarkable tale. His book offers a special and compelling insight into the intersection of big business, politics and government.

If you're at all interested in the car biz, it's a must-read. (posted 1/28/11, permalink)

'Going Home To Glory: A Memoir of Life With Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961 to 1969' by David and Julie Eisenhower

This tome is about Dwight D. Eisenhower from his return to private life to his death eight years later. It covers the period of Ike's waning influence, health crises, physical decline and his gradual disconnect from world events.

While it is challenging to write a book about a someone's declining years and make it interesting, a skillful author can bring it off. Good examples include 'Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley' by Peter Guralnick which chronicled The King's descent into drugged oblivion and 'The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Volume II: Alone, 1932-1940' William Manchester, which covered the period when Winston was an outcast in his own party and derided by most as a warmongering relic.

The authors of 'Going Home To Glory' failed to make the book interesting. The work is full of seemingly useless details with neither relevant connecting threads nor lessons. It offers no significant insights into Eisenhower's last years. Sum-up: a boring read. (posted 1/10/11, permalink)

'At Home' by Bill Bryson

In this book subtitled 'A Short History of Private Life', Bryson takes readers on a tour of his 160 year-old house, a former parsonage. Along the way, he reconstructs the fascinating history of the domesticity, room by room. Bryson's thoughts wander afar, discussing glass windows, cholera outbreaks, wigs, the invention of the lawn mower, why castles didn't have much furniture and more. He moves from one subject to the next with equal amounts of genuine enthusiasm.

Here are some things I learned:

In midwestern America, the absence of wood and coal for stove fuel caused people to make do with substitutes including dried cow pies which were known euphemistically as 'surface coal'.

The Drummond or calcium light, employed a ball of lime. First used for lighthouses, it was later employed in theaters, where it was focused as a beam and cast upon selected performers. This is where the phrase "stepping into the limelight" originated.

18th and 19th Century houses were quite cold. Thomas Jefferson once complained that he had to stop writing one evening because the ink in his inkwell froze. In 1866, one person recorded that "even with two furnaces alight and all fireplaces blazing," the temperature of his Boston home never rose above 38 degrees.

The Great London fire of 1666 (13,200 houses and 140 churches destroyed) was nothing compared to the Great Fire of London in 1212. Five people were killed in the 1666 event; 12,000 were killed in 1212.

The owner of the colossal Blenheim Palace (300 rooms, a seven-acre footprint on 22,000 acres of prime land), the Duke of Marlborough, was so cheap that he refused to dot his i's in order to save on ink.

Once it was discovered that the deadly scurvy was caused by a citrus-poor diet, the British Naval Board refused to pay for lemon juice, found to be most effective. Instead, it supplied sailors with lime juice which was cheaper. That's why British sailors are called 'limeys'.

The Leyland Steam Power Company built a steam-powered lawn mower but it proved so unwieldy and massive - it weighed over 3,000 pounds - that it "was only ever barely under control and in constant danger of plowing through fences and hedges." The firm went from making bad lawn mowers to bad cars under the name British Leyland.

car blog

Opened in 1873, the Midland Hotel at St. Pancras Station in London was intended to be the most magnificent hotel in the world. But the designer provided just four bathrooms to be shared among six-hundred bedrooms. Almost from the day of its opening, the hotel was a failure.

The book is a history trivia gold mine and fun to read, too. I recommend it. (posted 1/3/11, permalink)

'Decision Points' by George W. Bush

The former president has written a candid account of the critical decisions that shaped his presidency. Mr. Bush has pointed out that "perceptions are shaped by the clarity of hindsight. In the moment of decision, you don't have that advantage." This is an honest book, rather than a self-serving memoir.

I enjoyed reading it. I did not agree with some of Bush's decisions and felt that in the midst of two expensive wars, neither he nor the Congress summoned the courage to ask Americans to make fiscally prudent sacrifices (curtailed spending, caps on entitlements, reduced foreign aid, diminished home/student loan programs, etc.). Nevertheless, I found his decisions were made with good intentions and after serious deliberation.

After reading the chapter on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, I realized that most of the blame lies with local and state officials.

I enjoyed many of the Texas slang expressions, especially the quip about people who are "book smart and sidewalk stupid."

President Bush and his team kept us safe for eight years and thwarted numerous terror attacks. For that alone, he deserves our thanks. When he left office with a miserable approval rating, I remarked that time would be kind to George W. Bush had to put up with a biased media constantly demeaning him. But he took it all in stride. Unlike his successor, who - as I wrote on my blog back on October 29, 2008 - is a thin-skinned man. History shows that such easily-offended men make lousy presidents.

Not even two years into his presidency, Barack Obama is facing falling like-a cinderblock-in-an-elevator-shaft approval ratings, stubbornly high unemployment, record high bank failures and devastating midterm election results. George Bush now has higher favorability ratings that the current president and those 'Miss Me Yet?' posters with GWB's photo are flying off store shelves.

joe sherlo0ck car blog

In 'Decision Points', W. comes across as a likable fellow who is comfortable in his own skin. In reviewing the book, Richard C. Stoyeck wrote, "In the end it seemed to me that if George Bush was your friend, you didn't need many more friends - you were covered."

A well-known historian once said that you can't begin to write history for 40 to 50 years after an event - the details, consequences and context aren't really complete until that much time has passed.

'Decision Points' is not a history book but will be used by future historians as reference material. I think that 50 years out, they will view George W. Bush in a kindlier, gentler light than today's Instahistorians. (posted 12/17/10, permalink)

'Blood, Iron and Gold: How the Railroads Transformed the World' by Christian Wolmar

auto blogWolmar has written a spirited, fact-filled overview of rail transport. He celebrates railroads as the central innovation of the industrial revolution, releasing economic and social energies on an unprecedented scale.

The railroads did more than just increase travel or expand local and national economies. Trains created a manufacturing industry from local cottage craft works, made perishables widely available and inspired the concept of 'vacations' They truly changed the way human beings experienced life.

This fast-paced book is full of gems. I learned that:

Richard Trevithick had a short but crucial role in the railroad history when he came up with the idea of putting a steam engine on rails.

But "in 1801, he (also) produced the world's first successful steam road carriage, which drove into a ditch because there was no steering mechanism and then exploded because he and his colleagues went off to the pub, forgetting to extinguish the fire under the boiler."

The progress of railroads in Italy "was speeded up by the modernizing Pope Pius IX, who was elected to the papacy in 1846 and controlled a large chunk of central Italy through the sovereignty of the Papal States. His predecessor, Gregory XVI, had been adamantly opposed to new-fangled devices - not only trains, but also other inventions such as gas lighting in the streets of Rome."

"The U.S. transcontinental railroad was made possible by Abraham Lincoln, who passed the Pacific Railroad Act through Congress in 1862 (in the midst of the Civil War), helped by the absence of southern politicians who had stymied previous attempts at legislation."

The transcontinental road was greatly underwritten by the government using direct payments, loans and land grants.

The 432-page book is well-written, informative and easy to read. (posted 11/10/10, permalink)

More book reviews are posted here.


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