The Mansions of Long Island’s Gold Coast

The Book of the Week is “The Mansions of Long Island’s Gold Coast” by Monica Randall, published in 1979. This book describes disgusting excess; specifically, the luxurious residences built or owned by the super-rich on the north shore of Long Island, New York starting in the late 1800’s. It would have been helpful for the reader to see one or more maps to understand their locations.

The areas mentioned included Manhasset, Roslyn, Sands Point, Lattingtown, Glen Cove, Bayville, Syosset, Woodbury, Old Westbury, Centerport, Oyster Bay, Great Neck, Huntington, Jericho, Hempstead, Oak Point, Cold Spring Harbor and Northport.

Leisure activities enjoyed on the grounds of the estates included fox hunting, swimming, billiards, tennis, golf, horseback riding, dancing, cinema, bowling, squash, riflery, gardening, tea parties, boating, music, theater, skiing, etc., etc., etc.

Tens of workers were required to maintain all the different structures and serve the people on the properties daily, to say nothing of special events. Many good times were had through the years; however, many properties were abandoned during WWII, as the household help aided in the war effort. Another reason the mansions stood idle for decades, is that the residents died and their families could not afford the upkeep. Property taxes rose and it was just easier to default on them. Vandals and thieves ravaged the unsecured buildings. A very few were converted into tourist attractions.

Read the book to learn the details on the people involved with the estates, and their features and fates.

Brain Rules

[SIDENOTE: Strangely, anytime, but only when this blogger writes something controversial, or about Donald Trump, WordPress crashes. Just an observation.]

The Book of the Week is “Brain Rules” by John Medina, published in 2008.

The author wrote about various factors that affect brain function, and how the brain can function better with regard to exercise, evolutionary developments, memory, driving, sleep, stress, the senses and gender.

The author claimed that studies have shown that any amount of exercise is better for the brain and body as a whole than no exercise at all. Intelligence can be maximized in work and school environments when people have a knowledge-base plus creativity. Other research showed that a simple experience of magazine-reading changed the neurons in the brain of one identical twin but not the other twin who hadn’t done magazine-reading.

Medina related a few anecdotes from his personal life to illustrate his points. A memorable incident for him occurred when a dog came out of a lake and shook water all over him. During those ten seconds, a normal human brain would “…recruit[s] hundreds of different brain regions and coordinate[s] the electrical activity of millions of neurons.”

The author cited blind gender studies in which subjects were asked their opinions of a person’s behavior; subjects held negative opinions of the person they were told was female, and positive opinions when told the person was male.

Medina crowed about how awesome retention was when research subjects were subjected to multi-sensory presentations (such as academic lectures, as when visuals, written text and verbal communication were used) as opposed to any of these alone.  He advocated minimizing the reading by subjects of large chunks of text because tests showed that it was not as effective at getting subjects to retain information as was multi-media.

It appeared that the author was promoting dumbed-down education in general; perhaps because it is in the best interest of any university professor to tow his employer’s line (and possibly the government’s) in order to continue to receive research grants and further his or her career.

Read the book to learn of more neurological studies and the author’s ideas (which he admits are fantasies) that might improve cognitive functioning at work or school.

The Franchise

The Book of the Week is “The Franchise, A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine” by Michael MacCambridge, published in 2009. There were two attempts to publish a magazine called Sports Illustrated in the late 1930’s and again in the late 1940’s, but both failed after a few years.

In summer 1954, Sports Illustrated (SI) was launched for wealthy men who engaged in golfing, croquet and yachting. Time, Inc. was able to arouse significant interest in its new magazine venture by soliciting existing subscribers of Time and Life.

Sidenote– The New Haven line leased out private rail cars to wealthy Westchester-County New York commuters. Rye was one train stop of the 1950’s Sports Illustrated’s first project manager, who got his shoes shined and was served ice water on his way to work.

Postwar prosperity and more leisure time allowed Americans to do more ping pong, softball, bowling, roller skating and boating. The original goal was for the publication to project a brand image of superiority in quality and comprehensiveness in coverage. However, target readers– athletes and spectators– were not thought of as intellectuals, so there was doubt as to whether they would read a magazine, even if it was about their hobbies.

The 1960’s saw television decrease the intellect of the nation as a whole, but it caused the popularity of such spectator sports as baseball, football and basketball, to soar.

The main competitive advantage of the magazine was full color photos. The publishing of those photos, even when generated with the latest technology, was very expensive and had a lead time of days. Nevertheless, in those days, publishers were willing to spend lots of money to ensure quality, and gave new projects lots of time to develop into successful ventures. SI was losing money for ten years before it turned the corner.

Long lunches and greatly exaggerated expense-account claims were also rife then. As were excessive alcohol consumption and bloated staffing. Starting in spring 1974, at SI, there was a team of four editors for every single article in every issue.

In September 1979, the magazine’s major area of dominance (college football and basketball recaps) was attacked with the introduction of ESPN.

Beginning in the late 1980’s, staffers “…willfully blurred the line between… edit and business, publicity and journalism.” The ethics conflict peaked during the 1996 Olympics, when “… the effect of having the business side of the magazine promoting an event that the editorial side was covering was profound and distracting.”

Read the book to learn of the other obvious contrasts between Sports Illustrated‘s early history and the current climate in magazine publishing in general in terms of sloppiness, illiteracy and lack of fact-checking, not to mention lack of ethics (mostly due to unwillingness to spend money on quality, and too much focus on the big dollar sign); the people who ran SI; their office politics; and their ability to change with the times.

The Monopolists

The Book of the Week is “The Monopolists, Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game” by Mary Pilon, published in 2015.

A passionate believer in Henry George’s philosophy– a Georgist– invented a board game called “The Landlord’s Game” which she patented in January 1904. The game had two versions, one whose object was to win by generating a monopoly; the other, to win by generating wealth through free-market competition. The latter was accompanied by the philosophy (Georgism) that land belongs to everyone, so only real-property ownership should be taxed, not income from other sources. In those days, ownership of land was a major source of income, but there was only so much land to go around.

Another incarnation of the aforementioned game– the monopoly-creating version only– was played by hundreds of Quakers and university students across the country. They made modifications to the names on the board spaces and the various rules on property purchases, monetary distribution, jail, etc. People fashioned their own boards, pieces, cards and money.

Somehow, Atlantic City streets became a theme for the property names of the game version eventually sold by Parker Brothers. In Atlantic City, the streets physically represented the division of rich and poor people, while the game indicated which was which by their purchase prices.

Read the book to learn the details of how Parker Brothers came to own the intellectual-property rights to Monopoly (by fittingly using tactics of monopolists), and how those rights were contested in prolonged, grueling litigation.

Unsolved Science

The Book of the Week is “Unsolved Science” by Bill Price, published in 2016.

This book is a compilation of articles discussing the various areas of science that humans have still to decipher.

One reason scientific mysteries remain is that they lie in regions difficult and expensive to study, such as the deep oceans and outer space.

Although it is known that humans have roughly half of the same DNA as bananas and 99% of chimpanzees, it is unclear what accounts for the differences in intelligence and linguistics between humans and the latter.

Read the book to learn why it is so difficult to find a cure for cancer; the causes of long-term global temperature changes; the pros and cons of nuclear power; and many other mysteries of the universe.

Jim Henson, The Biography

The Book of the Week is “Jim Henson, the Biography” by Brian Jay Jones, published in 2013. This large volume describes the life of a super-successful puppeteer who brought innovation to the genre of puppetry.

Born in September 1936, Henson grew up alternately Mississippi and Maryland. He was best known for creating “Muppets”– a cross between puppets and marionettes. Henson took his time about finishing college at the University of Maryland studying set design. Initially, he thought he wanted to develop a behind-the-scenes career in theater. But he was an early adopter of the new medium of television and wanted to do puppet shows on it. In 1955, he made his Muppets TV debut with Jane, the woman who would later become his wife and bear his five children. He fell into a brilliant puppetry career instead.

Henson’s performances extended to the talk-show circuit, during which the early Muppet characters he created, lip-synched to songs and mimed comedic storylines. The skits would usually end with an explosion or one character’s eating another. Very quickly, he became a highly paid entertainer. In the summer of 1958, he went on a research expedition to Europe, where puppetry was much more popular than in the United States. Americans thought of puppet shows as appropriate mostly for children.

Despite Henson’s desire to become known as a respected puppeteer for audiences of all ages, he became famous for creating some major characters that appeared on a groundbreaking children’s TV show– Sesame Street. Nevertheless, the Muppets appeared in some forgettable skits for Saturday Night Live (SNL) in its first season. True story. Union rules required that SNL writers rather than Henson’s, compose said skits. The SNL people didn’t know the Muppets like Henson’s did. After several false starts and many rejections, Henson finally achieved one of his goals. In autumn 1976, a CBS affiliate in England finally gave the Muppets their first weekly TV series.

Read the book to learn of Henson’s cinematic successes and failures, his management style (or lack thereof), the key people in his organization, other major highlights of his career, his marital infidelity, and what transpired just as he was in the thick of difficult negotiations to sell his company to Disney. The reason for the difficulty was that “In show business in particular, where so much depends on the ruthless art of the deal, Jim’s generosity and genuine respect for talent… made for an unconventional way of doing business.”

Man of the House

The Book of the Week is “Man of the House” by Tip O’Neill with William Novak, published in 1987.  This is the career memoir of Tip O’Neill, politician from Massachusetts.

O’Neill had a leg up in politics because his father controlled thousands of civil service jobs as a member of the Cambridge City Council and superintendent of sewers in the very early 1900’s.  Born in December 1912, O’Neill himself was elected to the Massachusetts legislature at just 24 years old. In 1977, he was named Speaker of the House.

In the 1940’s, members of the federal government made numerous, important deals behind closed doors. Secrecy prevailed with regard to the federal budget. When the author protested that a pork-barrel project for his state had been omitted after approval in 1949, a colleague reassured him, “We’ll just put it back in… After all, nobody knows what the figures were.”

Conflicts of interest also abounded, but were considered business as usual in the early to mid-twentieth century.  For example, all Congressmen’s expenses of a 1950’s annual leisure event at the Cleveland Indians’ spring training camp in Daytona Beach, Florida were paid for by local merchants: every Easter break, the two major political parties played a baseball game against each other. The purpose was to promote the area as a vacation destination. According to the author, the Democrats always won. However, he remarked that one Congressman alone usually cannot push through legislation and that is why bribery of one House member doesn’t work.

Another memorable, one-time, traumatic event for the author was when a shooting spree took place on the House floor in March 1954. The five gunmen from Puerto Rico injured several people but no one was killed. Fatefully, just prior to the incident, O’Neill had been called outside by a Boston Globe reporter.

In September 1967, O’Neill informed his constituents that he was changing from hawk to dove on the Vietnam War. This was a politically unpopular action, as the press and most of the Democrats still favored the war. Various members of the CIA and the military had secretly agreed with him. His reasoning was that, because President Lyndon Johnson was refraining from using aggressive firepower, the Americans could never win militarily. Johnson feared that mining harbors, disabling bridges and power plants in Vietnam would spark involvement by the Russians and/or Chinese. So, inefficient guerrilla warfare continued for years, taking many lives needlessly.

Additionally, the author showed that there’s nothing new under the sun. In the 1970’s, Evans and Novak, a well-known pair of political journalists, were nicknamed “Errors and Nonfacts” around D.C. “They’re also known for publishing negative stories about members of Congress, stories often leaked to them by people who don’t have much knowledge and aren’t much respected on Capitol Hill.” Besides, O’Neill wrote that a power-hungry Chief of Staff working for a president who likes to delegate is a “formula for disaster.”

On another topic, the author commented that President Jimmy Carter was the one who actually implemented deregulation in various industries and drew attention to the ballooning federal deficit. Nevertheless, in 1977, Carter’s energy bill would need to be reviewed by as many as seventeen different committees and subcommittees in the House, and each group would object to portions of the document. Read the book to learn how O’Neill was instrumental in getting the package passed; the evils that Presidents Nixon and Reagan perpetrated; what Lee Iacocca did; how the attitude of Americans has become mean-spirited starting under Reagan, and much more.

Against the Grain

The Book of the Week is “Against the Grain” by Boris Yeltsin, published in 1990. This is the career memoir of the Soviet politician.

Born in 1931, Yeltsin always had a keen sense of justice that got him into trouble.  For, his country’s leadership ruled by fear, force and deferment to the head of state for ultimate authority on all matters, rather than (like in the U.S.) open discussion, checks and balances, and consensus more or less.

After graduating from university, he learned all twelve building trades– carpenter, plasterer, glazier, painter, etc. He then decided to put his management skills to work for the Soviet government in the 1970’s.

Yeltsin was First Party Secretary in Sverdlovsk for nineteen years. He started a chess club after Anatoly Karpov complained that there was none in his district. He also organized a local volleyball team, as that was his favorite sport. He built a road and improved the housing of the worst-off citizens there.

By the early 1980’s, the government of the U.S.S.R. had fallen into stagnation under a lack of strong leadership from Leonid Brezhnev.

Crooked backroom deals were the norm, as top government officials were resistant to sacrifice their lavish perks in order to serve their nation’s citizens. Such perks included use of a luxury dacha, a car and driver available 24/7, the highest level of medical expertise the country had to offer, and a variety of expensive foods that were unavailable to the general population. Even so, because all of these were actually State-owned, the top government official (Gorbachev) could confiscate any of them on a whim. Furthermore, Yeltsin wrote, “It had been drummed into everyone from kindergarten onward that we were supposed to thank the Party [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] for all our achievements.”

Gorbachev’s attempts to reform his nation’s government resulted in two linguistic terms that were tossed around for a decade or so:  glasnost and perestroika. Yeltsin had a strong desire to implement the policies they were supposed to represent. A sign that the former was working, was the unprecedented Moscow newspaper coverage of stories on vice and corruption among local politicians. However, it took some years for the author and others to engender the power struggle required to get the country moving again.

In June of 1988, the author delivered a government-conference speech that contained the following: “Clearly, we all need to master the rules of political discussion, to tolerate dissenting opinions as Lenin did; not to hang labels on people and not to regard them as heretics.”

Read the book to learn how the author came to hold different Moscow political positions while numerous government officials and organizations tried to discredit him and ruin his reputation; and of his proposals to improve the governance of the then-Soviet Union.