Wednesday, May 24, 2023

How Big Things Get Done: The Surprising Factors That Determine the Fate of Every Project, from Home Renovations to Space Exploration and Everything In Between (Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner)

Large-scale projects such as airport terminals, power plants, stadiums, and performing arts venues often cost more than what’s advertised and very often don’t deliver what is promised by public officials when they announce their big project. There are a lot of reasons for why big things come in over budget and often later than promised.  Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner uncover some of the secrets to how successful projects can be executed on time and within budget in their entertaining book How Big Things Get Done: The Surprising Factors That Determine the Fate of Every Project, From Home Renovations to Space Exploration and Everything In Between.

This book dives into what drives the success and ability of the project to be completed on time. According to the authors, less than one half of one percent of major projects are completed on time and within budget. Based on this statistic, it’s pretty easy to see that failure to plan properly and account for a slew of potential factors is planning to fail.

The authors offer eleven rules of thumb at the end of the book to help in decision making. The most important rules include asking “why” and ensuring that the team of people involved in a major project is right. The best projects have well-functioning teams that can work through disputes and perform to goals and standards. Teamwork and proper planning go a long way and How Big Things Get Done offers plenty of sound advice for projects of all sizes.


Sunday, April 30, 2023

Dinner with the President: Food, Politics, and a History of Breaking Bread at the White House (Alex Prud'homme)

Alex Prud’homme is a culinary historian, authoring several books about Julia Child. His love of storytelling on the importance of cooking in culture shows up in Dinner with the President: Food, Politics, and a History of Breaking Bread at the White House. This book is a chronology of over two dozen administrations and how they used food to entertain and guide policy, and how the subtle (and not-so-subtle) remarks that a President made had national repercussions. 

Prud’homme draws on the remarks Anthony Bourdain made in 2016, stating “there’s nothing more political than food” as inspiration for the book’s material. Taking us back to the 1790’s, the author talks about how a number of the nation’s most consequential decisions were decided over dinners or were food-based in nature. In addition to these, you learn about the tastes of many of the nation’s presidents, like John Adams preferring hard cider every morning and George H.W. Bush making his distaste for broccoli known. With the latter, the nation’s broccoli farmers had a harsh response to his feelings on their crop.

The highlight of Dinner with the President is the recipes at the end, like Dwight Eisenhower’s steak and Lady Bird Johnson’s Texas chili. The book reads part chronology, part cookbook, and part a series of short stories about how our country has used food to entertain, to politicize, and make important decisions. While the author’s politics sometimes seep through into his writing, this book is a worthy look at our country’s culinary path interwoven through the nation’s highest political office.


Sunday, April 23, 2023

Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement from Cubits to Quantum Constants (James Vincent)

Measuring out ingredients for cooking or distances to travel is something we generally take for granted. Most of the world uses metric measurements, with England using a hybrid of Imperial (miles, pounds, and inches) and metric, and the United States and a few others holding onto the Imperial system of measurement. How did these measurements come about and how did the world drift mostly towards one system while a couple of countries held fast to tradition? James Vincent answers those questions in Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement from Cubits to Quantum Constants.

Vincent charts the origins and evolution of how humans measure everything, including day length and years. The evolution of the calendar to the current system, an attempt by the French to change the calendar completely on its ear, and why we have 24 hours and 60 minutes is discussed in detail. Ever wondered how the kilogram is calculated or how a meter is measured? This book will answer those questions and more.

Beyond Measure occasionally wades into the torrent of politics, sometimes a bit too far from a balanced perspective where the author’s opinions take over the reader’s journey. However, his enthusiasm for explaining how measurements have been defined and evolved over time and some of the quirkier battles over how we measure, is very enjoyable. Beyond Measure ultimately measures up to provide a good understanding of how we quantify the world around us.


Wednesday, April 19, 2023

It Happened Right Here: America's Pop Culture Landmarks (Chris Epting)

Like Chris Epting, I've always been interested in learning where a big event happened. There's just something about standing in the spot of a big cultural "happening" that is profound to me. I was a big fan of Epting's books in the early 2000s -- James Dean Died Here, Elvis Presley Passed Here, and Marilyn Monroe Dyed Here -- so I was happy to see that he finally came out with another book of this type, It Happened Right Here: America's Pop Culture Landmarks.

If you've ever wanted to find out exactly where big events in music, sports, history, etc. happened, this is your book. Want to know where the house made famous in the Brady Bunch is? Or the dorm room where Facebook was created? It's all in here. What's always most exciting about Epting's books for me is finding out things that happened where I lived. Who knew that I lived very close to where Babe Ruth might have hit baseball's longest ever home run?

If you're at all interested in pop culture, It Happened Right Here is a fascinating read. I strongly recommend any of Epting's books.


Wednesday, April 12, 2023

The LEGO Story: How a Little Toy Sparked the World's Imagination (Jens Andersen)

Over 80 million kids around the globe receive a box of LEGO blocks annually. LEGO has grown over the decades from a wood toy shop in Denmark into the plastic brick and play material enterprise that is known worldwide. Jens Andersen chronicles the history of LEGO and the family ownership that has driven its growth and success in The LEGO Story: How a Little Toy Sparked the World’s Imagination.

The town of Billund, Denmark, is the home of LEGO. The LEGO Story chronicles the relationship that the company, the Kirk Christiansen family that has owned and steered the company for decades, and the town have had with each other. LEGO wasn’t always successful, suffering through financial crunches and struggles at various times throughout its history. Like any successful family-controlled business, its ability to adapt in bad times and to generational leadership changes has been critical to its success. While forays into hybrid wood and plastic toys and amusement parks ultimately fell by the wayside, LEGO’s ability to pivot to plastic bricks and strategically grow its brand have steered it to become a billion dollar, international enterprise.

Any business lessons to be gleaned through the book are picked up between the lines; however, the book’s history does provide a narrative that shows how a successful enterprise was able to grow and adapt over time. Those lessons, while not screaming at the reader, are easy to see in this historical narrative of a childhood favorite.


Thursday, March 30, 2023

For Profit: A History of Corporations (William Magnuson)

Over time, corporations have grown in size and influence, generating massive amounts of wealth in many cases while “moving fast and breaking things” in others. The history of corporations dates back to before the Roman Empire and have evolved from being private-public partnerships to private entities that generally benefit society at large. In For Profit: A History of Corporations, William Magnuson discusses the history of corporations from their incorporation as a concept in the Roman Republic.

Initially, corporations were established to help the Roman Republic with services and projects by wealthy individuals who teamed up with others to provide capital and resources to Rome as a means to help them in their battles against enemies outside of the Republic’s growing boundaries. Corporations have evolved since then; Magnuson looks at eight examples of different companies and how they impacted both the greater population and the evolution of business. Those impacts changed over time, from the benevolence of the Medici family in Florence to the monies given by Rockerfeller and Carnegie for public libraries and other civic projects. However, Magnuson argues that corporations haven’t always behaved admirably over time.

Magnuson closes the book by arguing for a number of steps that corporations can take to reclaim a spirit of civic virtue, similar to “stakeholder capitalism” that you may hear about in the media. While some of the suggestions are noble if not altruistic, some (such as treating workers right) are common sense approaches that should be adhered to. Magnuson’s book is a concise snapshot of the evolution of corporations over time.


Thursday, March 16, 2023

Brotherhood of the Flying Coffin: The Glider Pilots of World War II (Scott McGaugh)

The Waco CG-4A was a military glider that was used by the Americans in World War II to carry troops and cargo behind enemy lines while also taking out enemy military installations. These planes could fly independently or get towed behind a larger cargo plane and were used to carry out high-risk military operations. They became known as “flying coffins” because of the risk of being shot out of the sky, or simply crashing due to turbulence and weather. Scott McGaugh captures the stories of these brave men who flew in these planes in Brotherhood of the Flying Coffin: The Glider Pilots of World War II. 

McGaugh’s book goes into detail about the use of these military gliders in the European theater of World War II, as well as the stories of those who flew in these risky missions from their debut in Sicily in 1943 to their final use in the late stages of World War II in 1945. Their most critical contributions arguably occurred in the Battle of the Bulge, delivering medical goods and gasoline to troops that were surrounded by Germans.

McGaugh highlights the stories of these battle-tested individuals, bringing to the forefront unsung and often anonymous individuals who contributed to the Allied victory in Europe. His detailed analysis of their contributions, along with transcribed oral histories, brings to life another chapter in the history of World War II.