Start-Up Nation

The Book of the Week is “Start-Up Nation, The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle” by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, published in 2009. The authors of this extended essay ponder why Israel had, at the book’s writing, a huger number of tech start-ups than all other industrialized nations, second only to the United States’. The reasons range from the cultural to the political to the economic.

The Israeli corporate and military mentality involves: complete focus; learning from errors (which are tolerated and treated as learning experiences); constant debriefings and self-criticism sessions; endless, heated debate; and empowerment of employees at all status levels to use their initiative and resources– even to the point of upstaging their bosses with their input. This atmosphere encourages independent thinking, and discourages herd mentality and blind obedience.

Militarily, all Israelis serve a minimum of two to three years and then become reservists for two more decades. Close social ties are formed that foster business relationships later. The exceptional rising stars participate in special nine-year training programs that create  “foxes” rather than “hedgehogs.” Foxes use diverse skills from operating and maintaining high-tech equipment to imaginatively solving problems.

After serving their country, many Israelis then attend university. Finally, employers consider quality and quantity of military experience as major hiring criteria.

The authors provided real-life examples of how the traits Israelis possess cause them to gravitate toward entrepreneurial ventures. In 1965, in one instance, kibbutzniks digging a well hoping to find drinking water instead encountered warm, salty water. A creative academic advised them to breed tropical food-fish. By-products of the fish-farm were used for fertilizer for their olive and date trees.

Read the book to learn of additional characteristics of and actions taken by Israelis and their government that have helped them achieve technological advances in various economically rewarding areas, including medicine, auto manufacturing and computing.

Ethel Merman, An Autobiography

The Book of the Week is “Ethel Merman, An Autobiography” with George Eells, published in 1978.

Born in 1912 in Astoria (a section of Queens in New York City), Ethel Merman started singing when she was five years old. Her parents encouraged her to do so. By the tail end of the 1920’s, she had acquired stenography/shorthand training and had become a secretary, just in case the show business thing didn’t work out.

Working full-time during the day, and singing in dives at night and on weekends, Merman was extremely lucky to be “discovered” in a matter of a few years. She got herself an agent and was off and running. She played in big-name clubs, movie venues and vaudeville theaters in and around New York City– doing five shows a day at the Brooklyn Paramount. She got to meet celebrities like singer Guy Lombardo and composer George Gershwin. She sang in the musical “Girl Crazy” on Broadway.

Merman never had singing lessons or a vocal coach; she was just a natural. Early on, Ginger Rogers got paid $1,500 a week, while Merman got $375. For a number of years, Merman moved back and forth between Los Angeles to make movies, and New York City to appear in Broadway musicals.

In the 1930’s, Broadway musicals thrived. The culture was such that “Nobody worried whether it [a song] fit logically into the score, and the successful songwriters thought more about reaching the top of the Hit Parade than integrating the song into the story.” She played Annie in “Annie Get Your Gun” eight times a week for two years between 1945 and 1946.

The one beef Merman had about her fabulous career, though, was the media’s intrusion into her private life. Read the book to learn the details of her almost instantaneous and long-lived success, her psychologically troubled love life, and much more.

Rat Island

The Book of the Week is “Rat Island” by William Stolzenburg, published in 2011. This series of anecdotes described what frequently happens when some humans observe that a particular species is in danger, and with the best of intentions, attempt to counteract the perceived adverse effects of the situation.

Such campaigns have been repeated for centuries, always with unintended consequences and mixed results. For, the people involved have impure motives, and the manipulation of nature over the course of decades inevitably results in a “pox on everyone’s house.”

In the 1800’s, for instance, explorers introduced cats to eliminate an excess of rats in Oceania. Unsurprisingly, the food chain was disrupted, and the rabbit population increased. Rabbits killed the sheep in New Zealand, upsetting the people there. The latter took action by bringing in ferrets, weasels and stoats. The duck and parrot numbers were negatively affected.

Sometimes people are the predators. Other causes of the near-extinction of a species include statistically unusual weather, oil spills or disease. In New Zealand, people almost eliminated green parrots, poaching and smuggling them for their looks.

In another instance, the kakapo (another bird) was endangered by other animals. In the mid-1890’s, some sympathetic New Zealanders therefore sequestered the birds on an isolated island so they could multiply in peace. However, weasels found their way into the protected habitat, anyway.

Some tools of the trade among supposed “friends” of the environment who are only trying to prevent extinctions, include:  poison, guns, traps, hunting dogs, and ammunition shot from helicopters. And on at least one occasion:  hormonally-juiced Judas pigs that led to a spike in the number of eagles and drop in foxes on one island. Moreover, there are people who derive pleasure from cruelty to animals in the name of saving endangered species.

Read the book to learn of the checkered fortunes of the birds of the Aleutian Islands and Anacapa Island, the wildlife around Bering Island and other regions, and the constant tug-of-war among government agencies (such as Fish and Wildlife) responsible for those regions, conservationists and animal-rights activists.

Clinton and Me

The Book of the Week is “Clinton and Me, A Real Life Political Comedy” by Mark Katz, published in 2003. This is the engaging story of how an incurable wiseass used his comedic talent and skills in the political arena.

Born in 1963 in Brooklyn, the precocious author  received a political education in his formative years, thanks to the Watergate hearings. He was a class clown in school, no doubt. Careerwise, he began as a low-level staffer for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Next he cut his teeth as an unpaid volunteer on the Mike Dukakis presidential campaign. “My year on the Dukakis campaign sensitized me to the outrageous, insidious and coded tactics…[of evil, mudslinging political consultants]” Of course, there is nothing new under the sun. Katz then did a stint copywriting in general advertising prior to the advent of the World Wide Web.

Finally, the author parlayed this foundation into a relatively brief but rewarding set of adventures writing jokes contained in speeches for President Bill Clinton. Read the book to learn the lessons the author learned, in making a living for a politician soliciting laughs.


The Book of the Week is “CATS, CHOCOLATE, CLOWNS, and other amusing, interesting and useful subjects covered by newsletters.” (sic) edited by Greg Mitchell, published in 1982. This is a hodgepodge of trivia– highlights of newsletters on every conceivable subject in the universe. It might be recalled that newsletters– publications on niche topics– were all the rage in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

One interesting tidbit includes a quote from Kirkegaard: “People demand freedom of speech to make up for the freedom of thought they avoid.” One of countless others is a brief description of cross-dominant eyesight. Baseball players who have it tend to be better hitters. It means that a right-hander sees better from the left eye, and vice versa. In 1980, 70% of Kansas City Royals players had cross-dominant eyesight, and thus the team had the best hitting record that season.

The cliche bears repeating ad infinitum:  There’s nothing new under the sun. At the book’s writing, John Leo, in Discover magazine commented that Americans were afraid of computers because “…computers destroy privacy, eliminate jobs, carry the TV generation even further from literacy… and allow WWIII to be launched entirely by technical error.”

Read the book to learn a vast quantity of other datums, the likes of the aforementioned gems.

Chocolate Nations

The Book of the Week is “Chocolate Nations, Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa” by Orla Ryan, published in 2011. This slim volume described the situations in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire at the book’s writing, with regard to growing the crop that ultimately becomes chocolate. Both countries had command economies and a large number of farmers with small landholdings growing the cocoa-bean trees.

Ghana has grown cocoa at least since the late 1800’s. Even after it declared its independence from Great Britain in 1957, it had a series of tyrannical leaders, each replacing the next via coups. They kept the farmers poverty-stricken by setting the price the government paid for cocoa.  Some farmers illegally sold their harvests to Cote d’Ivoire for better prices. Around 2009, Ghana was producing approximately one fifth of the world’s cocoa; Cote d’Ivoire, about one third.

Even after independence in 1960, the latter’s former colonizer, France, invested in cocoa farming there. However, the dictator became well-liked by encouraging laborers from Burkina Faso and Mali to farm cocoa and coffee in his country. He gave land to those from the Baoule tribe who tilled it.  His excessive spending to support his lifestyle and that of his loyal servants, resulted in huge debts, which he tried to reduce by cutting wholesale prices paid to cocoa farmers.  The nation saw a bloody civil war from 2000 to 2003.

In the first decade of the 21st century, hysteria ruled the airwaves in the United States over the accusation of abusive child labor on the cocoa farms. It was unclear whether the accusation was true, as data were anecdotal, ulterior motives abounded among the accusers (such as NGOs, tabloid reporters and even a politician), and the culture of the cocoa growers provided plausible denial that truant children were being enslaved. For, farming families tended to be large so that the kids’ assistance could help keep the family in business.

It appears that cocoa farming is unlikely to change significantly in the near future in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire because “For smallholders, the cocoa market can seem little more than a plaything in the hands of a few large companies and speculators.”

Read the book to learn more details.

Sandy Koufax

The Book of the Week is “Sandy Koufax, A Lefty’s Legacy” by Jane Leavy, published in 2002.  This is a biography of a legendary Major League Baseball pitcher who played for the Dodgers from the mid 1950’s to the mid 1960’s.

SIDENOTE:  The nature of this short paperback’s structure makes it repetitive and disorganized. It appears that the author is trying to build suspense by providing an entire one-chapter-per-inning description of a historic game pitched by Koufax in September 1965,  interspersed with chapters on other subjects. It doesn’t work. Perhaps the author thought the reader has the attention span of a fly, and wouldn’t be able to handle the whole game in one go. Too bad, because the content of the book is full of facts, figures and what seems to be thorough research.

Born in December 1935, Koufax’s full first name was Sanford. His initial dream was to play for the New York Knicks basketball team.  He was an excellent all-around athlete. However, in college, he got the chance to pitch.

The then-New York Dodgers scout who observed Koufax saw exceptional potential, although others thought his pitching was wild and inconsistent. Even thought he had almost no experience, the Dodgers extended an offer to him, to which he committed. Koufax played his first season of professional ball in 1955.  The next four seasons, he was benched most of the time, but his pitching was improving. He became a starter in 1962.

The year 1963 was the first in which the media revealed tabloid gossip on the private lives of professional athletes, including that of Koufax. Prior to that, the media merely reported on sports-related information. One nosy news outlet had a field day when it found out that Koufax  was adopted. That opened the floodgates on asking personal questions of players.

Read the book to learn about the sad state of affairs in sports medicine– during Koufax’s generation– that made top athletes’  careers all too short, the painkillers used at that time, how biomechanics and arthroscopic surgery have evolved since then, a vast quantity of other information on Koufax, including how, after retirement from baseball, “He became a serious runner, a marathoner who smoked, competing in Europe, where he was least likely to be recognized.”

Fire-Breathing Liberal

The Book of the Week is “Fire-Breathing Liberal” by Rep. Robert Wexler With David Fisher, published in 2008. This is a political career memoir that failed to list the sources of its facts and figures.

Nevertheless, Wexler credibly wrote mostly about how he eventually got elected to the House of Representatives as a Democrat from Florida.  He was an attorney, but in 1987, decided to run for the office of Palm Beach County Commissioner in Florida. A lawyer in West Palm Beach offered his firm’s support to Wexler at a fund raiser at Mar-a-Lago– Donald Trump’s country club (but of course the implication was that Wexler would pass legislation favorable to the firm’s interests). Wexler’s opponent engaged in mudslinging by saying that Wexler was Donald Trump’s puppet. With that, the opponent won the election.

Two years later, older and wiser, Wexler ran for Florida state senator. He gave out pot holders as a promotional gift and won that election. He had learned that he needed to hire people with specialized skills sets and experience, such as a professional fund raiser, a pollster, a media adviser, a direct mail expert, a TV commercial producer, a campaign manager, etc.

The author also wrote about how the Republicans, especially Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay in 1994, were mean of spirit, petty and vengeful when they achieved a majority in Congress. They abused their considerable power by bullying fellow Representatives with whom they disagreed.

In 1996, even two years before Gingrich had sworn in Wexler as a Representative, Democrats had filed 76 ethics claims against Gingrich with the Ethics Committee. He was fined $300,000 for violations– the largest fine ever against a Speaker of the House.

After 9/11, the Democrats were tricked into initially favoring invading Iraq because reputable officials such as Colin Powell told them that it was necessary, implying that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction. Wexler, too, was fooled.

In September 2003, about six months into the war, Wexler asked Paul Bremer, Ambassador supervising the provisional government in Iraq at a hearing of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Congress, how many Iraqis, civilians and soldiers had died since the president had declared the war. Bremer said he himself didn’t know. “Bremer’s complete disinterest in the human cost of the war on the Iraq side was telling… anyone who dared question or criticize the administration’s policy was attacked and smeared.”

According to Wexler, in 2003, the Republicans labeled a budget bill an “emergency measure.” This allowed them to reduce the time allotted to House members to read the bill, from 48 hours to 1 hour. The bill was 3,000 pages, and it involved the spending of $1 trillion.

As is well known, in 1998, former investigator Ken Starr spent more than a year poring over the intimate details of former President Bill Clinton’s sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky “like a desperate reporter for a tabloid newspaper.” Wexler argued vociferously against impeaching Clinton, saying, “Unlike Bill Clinton, George Bush and Dick Cheney have betrayed the country, not their wives.”

Another point in Wexler’s rant was the fact that during his public service career, Republicans had “… misused the political and legal systems for a decade… it was a vendetta. It was about gaining a political advantage no matter what the cost to the nation.”

Read the book to learn of numerous other instances of the immature, power-hungry behavior of Republicans and the nasty business of politics in general during the Bush administration, in which Wexler participated (he wasn’t just an observer, and he himself wasn’t entirely innocent of hypocrisy).

SIDENOTE: In connection with vendetta, it appears that, as payback against the Republicans for the 1990’s witch-hunts against Bill Clinton, the Democrats “investigated” Hillary’s actions, and decided she did nothing criminally wrong. Case closed.  The media are spewing the usual tabloid gossip, opinions and trivia on the overall political circus.

There is nothing new under the sun. Such tit-for-tat kindergarten nonsense has been the norm for CENTURIES in this nation.  Pox on everyone’s houses.

Abba Eban

The Book of the Week is “Abba Eban, An Autobiography” by Abba Eban, published in 1977.

Eban was born in South Africa in 1916. His biological father died when he was a baby. He, his older sister and mother moved to England shortly thereafter, and he got a stepfather, who was a medical doctor. He was under pressure from his grandfather to engage in scholarly pursuits until he was fourteen, when the latter died. Eban won a scholarship to study at Queens’ College, Cambridge. He took to the cause of Zionism while there.

Starting in the late 1930’s Eban used his then-marketable skills of writing and making speeches in an effort to convince Jews to help with the military defeat of Hitler. During the war, he worked in military intelligence. Once Germany’s genocidal threat had been eliminated, he helped the Jews claim their national rights through his employment at the Jewish Agency, first in London, then in New York City.

After the war, Great Britain gave up the Zionist cause. No one knew which group– 300,000 Arabs or 600,000 Jews– would populate the territory of Palestine. Even after the United Nations vote on September 1, 1947 on whether to grant sovereignty to Palestine  (renamed Israel), military action was required to prevent other peoples from ruling it. For, British troops agreed to leave on or before May 15, 1948, at which time, the Jews would be left to their own devices as to how to govern their binational State. In 1949, Israel was admitted to the United Nations.

In the autumn of 1959, the author and his growing family (whom he hardly ever saw) moved back to Washington D.C. to represent that city and Israel at the United Nations. His working hours were long and he was on call 24/7. He was required to travel internationally very frequently and sometimes unexpectedly, to make speeches and negotiate between and among various nations during crises, wars and geopolitical gatherings.

Eban described in detail, the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, among other serious episodes of multinational importance. He theorized that it resulted in increased power for French leader Charles de Gaulle but decreased power for Great Britain. Besides, “No nation except the United States could negotiate to help balance the power between the Arabs and the Israelis and the Arabs’ alliance with Soviet power.”

In the late 1960’s, Israeli homes got broadcast-television. Prior to its initiation, however, there were heated discussions among government officials as to content. One genre was to be educational shows hosted by teachers. Some people argued that the teachers needed to show proper religious reverence by wearing a yarmulke while on camera. Others pointed out that most of the teachers were women. One joker suggested a solution:  that the programs advise viewers to put a yarmulke on top of the TV set to comply with Jewish law.

Read the book to learn of the author’s adventures as a representative of the Knesset, president of the Weizmann Institute, government minister in various subject-areas, and global diplomat who took at least some of the blame or credit for Israel’s military actions.