Tag Archives: History

Debt by David Graeber


  1. The author argues that the standard account of monetary history is precisely backwards. We did not begin bartering, discover money, and then, lastly, create credit systems. It was the absolute opposite – debt and credit systems came first, then money, and then, in some places, barter systems

Key Takeaways

  1. To argue with the king, you must use the king’s language
    1. Galilean Relativity
  2. Interesting that it seems to be a universal that humans feel a moral duty to repay any loans made. In this sense, obligations are also thought of as debt. This book will discuss at length money‘s capacity to turn moral obligations into simple arithmetic. This ability has allowed for specific quantification of what is owed. Specific amounts owed is linked inherently to violence as it is now easy to see what is expected and rightfully owed to someone else. Converting human relations into mathematical numbers underlies much of the problems but are dealing with today
  3. The author dispels the notion that a barter society was the foundation of money. This is widely believed, but nobody has been able to prove that this in fact was the system used by any large and thriving group of people
  4. If money is simply a yardstick what does it measure? Debt. It is an IOU. It allows various people institutions and others who want to trade to be able to do so with less friction, come to a mutual agreement as to what constitutes a fair trade. Does not measure the value of the object as much as it does the trust that we have another human beings. The form the currency takes hardly matters as long as people trust it except it as an IOU and the government excepts it as a form of taxation can be considered currency
  5. Unlike commonly thought, markets do not spring forth before governments, but the opposite. This contradicts what Adam Smith and many modern economist say. Governments spend a lot of their time and focus trying to create a market where one currently doesn’t exist. If Adam Smith was right and there was profit to be had, these markets would spring up spontaneously
  6. Markets and taxation seem to have sprung up from the need to support large armies. If you could create or do something of value that the army would pay you for, all of a sudden you’ve created a vast machine to create valuable goods and sustain your army
  7. The foundations of money seem to be things that were originally the most appropriate things to sacrifice to the gods. For example, oxen were often used as the currency the people spoken and they were also the most common sacrificial animal
  8. If reciprocation is at the root of all exchange, debt could be considered the foundation of morality
  9. Debt is a very specific sort of situation between specific people, people who consider each other similar – similar in status and skills in important ways but are currently unequal but there is a way to set matters straight. Hierarchy plays a huge role – if the debtor cannot restore equality, it is likely something other than debt or there is some larger problem. A debt can then be thought of as an exchange that is not yet brought to completion. Debt is what happens between equality. An interesting definition of debt is a situation or two equals decide one will no longer be equal until the debt is repaid
  10. Saying Please and thank you is a democratization of equality, treating everyone the same way that you only used to have to treat lords in the past. “Thank you” derives from “I will remember this” and often times the reply is “it’s nothing” showing that there is no debt, nothing to repay or remember 
  11. The author makes an interesting argument that money first surfaced and evolved as a form of repayment for things that truly could never be repaid – human lives, for example
  12. The author makes a distinction between commercial economies and human economies. Commercial economies are what the west is familiar with and human economies use currency as a means of keeping tabs on moral obligations, creating, maintaining and severing relations between people. It is more social than commercial. This is how a debt can start as a moral obligation but lead to immoral behavior and violence. Currency could never substitute for a human but in many cultures as human as a substitute for another human. You had to disentangle and rip the person from their context before they could be made upon or asleep. The person had to be abstract from what they truly are every move from any context and their web of relations never mind if people they were a human being
  13. Times of war correlate with increased usage of precious metals as money whereas times of peace correlate with systems of credit as trust in the other person is enough
  14. The author argues against the implicit assumption that paying back ones debt is akin to morality. In fact, some of our greatest institutions – the us government – have trillions of dollars of debt that it will likely never pay back.
  15. Debt is the perversion of a promise

What I got out of it

  1. Great books use their specific topic to open up a wedge to a whole world of ideas and topics. Debt falls into that category – such a rich history of human civilization, trade, economics, psychology, and more. 

Pieces of the Action by Vannevar Bush


  1. Bush recounts his more than 60 years of experience as a leading scientist and innovator 

Key Takeaways

  1. We need, today, something we can be genuinely proud of. It should help to dissipate the gloom. For we have been losing our pride of accomplishment in these recent days. Pride of the right sort does not go before a fall; pride of accomplishment leads to greater accomplishment
  2. There are two primary ways in which to lose a battle or a campaign, assuming nearly equal antagonists as far as equipment, morale, and sizes of forces are concerned. One is to have confused lines of authority. The other is to have a top commander with poor judgment
  3. A military organization needs to be tight-knit if it is to fight well. And loosening it in time of war, with the idea of making it able to progress more rapidly on weapons, would be fraught with the danger that the loosening might be in the wrong places and lead to a lot of damage. Second, that there should be close collaboration between the military and some external organization, made loose in its structure on purpose. And the relationship should be a cordial one, assured to be so by the supreme command. 
  4. I never made a single technical contribution whatever to the war effort. At times I have been called an “atomic scientist,” it would have been fully as accurate to call me a child psychologist 
  5. In an industry that has become closely standardized, where nearly all competing companies are comfortably making profits, minor improvements can readily be introduced, but major improvements are up against a stone wall
  6. Edison was a very good inventor, a still better promoter, but in some ways a poor experimenter. Some of his experimentation was crude, to say the least. When we talk about the Edisonian method, which means to try everything without any theory to guide you, just hit or miss, we are talking about very poor experimentation. But Edison was such a good promoter that he could advance even with poor experimental data
  7. There are two main ways to go about inventing. One is to see a public need, or desire, and scurry about to find a way of meeting it. The other is to develop new knowledge and see where it leads. The first method was distinctly Edison’s. Today the second is the most commonly used. Of course, the new knowledge must be directed into channels where there may be useful results
  8. How as it possible for a highly intelligent group of men to pursue diligently for months a false theory, without every attacking it? The simple fact was that Joffe was above all criticism. One does not question his savior. 
  9. Patent laws and anti-trust laws, alongside a common language, a uniform market and nearly uniform customs, have helped spur the innovation in this country 
  10. My dad taught me some things about public speaking which have helped me along the way. One point which has saved me many a headache was this: never start a speech unless you have clearly in mind the sentence with which you are going to conclude. Another point involved some interesting psychology, of an informal sort. He told me, “When you are making a speech your mind is in 3 parts. One is paying attention to your actual wording at the moment. Another is roaming ahead to plan what you will say next. A third is following behind, picking up slips you may have made. Suppress that htird part or it will get you into trouble
  11. One of the finest courses I ever took was on non-Euclidean geometry…Was this a foolish thing for a young engineer to study? It was one of the most valuable courses I ever took. Here was a subject where one depended completely on careful logical reasoning. If one followed his intuition for just an instant he was inevitably lost. It was grand teaching. 
  12. There is a vast difference between understanding a problem in terms of equations and diagrams and understanding it in terms of copper and iron. A physicist can work out the stresses and geometry of a harness, but the farm boy understands the horse. I have known men (I have had them work for me) who were rather helpless on the mathematical analysis of circuits but who could go to a complex relay assemblage that was misbehaving and put their finger right on the fault. So I think the fundamentals of almost any subject, the simplest part, the core, can be taught to youngsters who are just beginning to learn and can be taught to them easily. If this is done, the student who really has an interest will carry through to quite an extraordinary extent on his own. I do not think it is worthwhile in trying t do this to take the matter into subtleties which will not really come into the youngster’s experience for many years. For a principle once learned is soon forgotten unless it gets exercised
  13. The task of teaching in the colleges is not merely to provide students with the skills necessary for a professional career and also to prepare them for the bases on which informal collaboration with their fellows is facilitated, but to go beyond these and provide the foundations for associative relationships that may become worthy, not merely trivial, and which confer genuine satisfaction upon those who participate. Thus we need a balance. Alongside the course in the mathematics of electric circuits we need a course in the history of ideas. And we need that balance wherever older minds seek to help younger minds on the way of life. 
  14. I am convinced that the greater men are, greater in the best sense, the more simple are their relations likely to be, the more wholesome, in their homes and with their real friends

What I got out of it

  1. A bit too long for my taste but it had some real gems. Amazing to get a glimpse inside the brain and experience of one of the world’s leading scientists during some of the most pressing and unstable times. 

General Fox Conner: Pershing’s Chief of Operations and Eisenhower’s Mentor by Steven Rabalais


  1. Rabalais uncovers the details behind Fox Conner’s background and his influence on military history, including General Pershing and Dwight Eisenhower. “The legacy of this quintessential man-behind-the-scenes indeed endures. As Black Jack Pershing’s chief of operations and Dwight Eisenhower’s mentor, Fox Conner left an unmistakable imprint upon his nation’s military history. Were they alive today, Pershing and Eisenhower, as well as George Marshall and George Patton—all titans of 20th-century American military history—would each offer eloquent testimony that Conner’s memory belongs within their ranks. As Eisenhower said of Conner in a 1964 interview: “In sheer ability and character, he was the outstanding soldier of my time.”

Key Takeaways

  1. As Pershing’s chief of operations for the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) during World War I, Fox Conner directed the development and successful deployment of American combat forces in France. Pershing considered Conner to have been “a brilliant soldier” and “one of the finest characters our Army has ever produced.” Pershing paid tribute to Conner by telling him: “I could have spared any other man in the AEF better than you.” Fox Conner commanded Dwight Eisenhower when both were stationed in the Panama Canal Zone in the 1920s. Despite having been part of the high command that had helped win the “War to End All Wars,” Conner held the then-unorthodox view that the American Army would fight a second war in Europe within two decades. Conner imparted that belief to his protégé Eisenhower and transformed him from a struggling young officer facing a court-martial into one of the Army’s rising stars.
  2. But as Fox Conner bore his burden in the cotton field, his daydreams carried him to fields of battle far away from Calhoun County. In Fox’s mind, his back carried a soldier’s pack rather than a burlap sack. Instead of stumbling behind a plow, he was marching behind a caisson. Even when raking manure in the Mississippi heat, Fox saw the pungent piles as the opposing lines of two armies; he maneuvered them with his rake as a general would move his divisions upon a map.
  3. Conner believed he could compete academically; those that he could not outthink, he could outwork.
  4. In the fall of 1897, Company A received a new tactical officer to enforce discipline in the company. The new “tac” himself had been the top graduate of the West Point Class of 1886; he knew all the cadet tricks, including the places where men hid to smoke.
  5. Leavenworth’s “applicatory method” drew heavily upon military history to analyze the quandaries faced by an army’s high command and to devise solutions under rapidly changing conditions. Students learned, through map exercises, to plan and control the movement of troops from afar.
  6. Conner also came to understand the shame that permeated the French Army over its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, which resulted in France’s loss of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine in 1871. Despite the passage of four decades, France’s desire for revenge—and for recapture of the lost provinces—still smoldered.
  7. President Wilson named one of his brightest generals to lead the incursion into Mexico: John J. Pershing. In a controversial move a decade earlier, Theodore Roosevelt had promoted Black Jack Pershing, over 762 superior officers, directly from captain to brigadier general. For the Mexican operation, Pershing selected several of the Army’s most promising young officers to accompany him, including George Patton.
  8. Believing that Conner was “exceptionally well qualified” to carry out the critical planning functions required of the Operations Section, Palmer resolved to “pry him loose” from the Inspector General. Palmer took his request to Chief of Staff Harbord, who warned Palmer of a potential problem with Conner’s transfer to the Operations Section: Conner of the field artillery and the infantryman Palmer each held the rank of lieutenant colonel. Each arm of service, however, controlled its own promotions. If the artillery promoted Conner to colonel first, Palmer would then have to step aside and serve under the higher-ranking officer. “If that should happen,” Palmer told Harbord, “I would be very glad to change desks with Conner.” He added: “I recommended him for the job because I believe that nobody else is so well fitted to serve in that capacity and I certainly would not revoke the recommendation even if it should prove prejudicial to my own fortunes.” Palmer recalled that “Harbord smiled somewhat at my high-minded speech but agreed to let me have the man I wanted.” According to Palmer, “Fox Conner soon proved his worth many times over in the Operations Section.”
  9. To begin lifting French morale, Pershing ordered his staff officers to display a sense of optimism at all times; a positive attitude became “a matter of duty,” as Conner put it.
  10. Conner recognized that the inability of either side to advance on the Western Front had produced a stalemate that “showed most of the characteristics of siege warfare.” Pershing, however, did not intend simply to feed his men into the same trenches that had devoured the young British and French men before them. Instead, the American commander aimed to “force the Germans out of their trenches and beat them in the open.”
  11. Summerall made enemies that day, but he also developed a much more important ally. Just as Pershing had not allowed the personal affront of a West Point cadet to affect his judgment as to Fox Conner’s suitability for duty on the AEF staff, he also looked past Charles P. Summerall’s arrogance. Impressed with the colonel’s abilities, Pershing asked the War Department to transfer Colonel Summerall to France for service in the AEF.
  12. Six months earlier, Conner had been on mundane duty as an inspector. The combination of Palmer’s misfortune and Conner’s own perseverance placed Fox Conner in position to direct the development and deployment of an army that would number in the millions and play a decisive role in the deadliest war humankind had fought to that time. In James G. Harbord’s opinion, Conner “probably had no superior as an operations chief in the Allied armies. How much he contributed to the success of the AEF has never been adequately stated.” In time, historians would label Conner “the genius of operations,” and “the brains of the AEF.”
  13. Eisenhower recalled that he mostly worked to “prevent the dry rot of tedious idleness.”
  14. “Conner had long had his eyes on Marshall.” On July 13, 1918, George Marshall reported for duty in Conner’s Operations Section. Marshall faced an adjustment to what he termed the “strange atmosphere” of Chaumont. As his new colleagues discussed the broad details of planning an army of millions, Marshall found himself in a “different world” from divisional headquarters, which concerned itself much more with how Chaumont’s directives affected soldiers in the field. Marshall wrote of the different viewpoints of the GHQ and field officers: “Each man was living in his own little world, ignorant to a surprising degree of all that occurred elsewhere.”
  15. Fox Conner had long-recognized the importance of Allied “unity of action.”
  16. Among the American casualties on the first day of the attack was Lieutenant Colonel George Patton. With his tanks unable to advance, Patton located some lost infantrymen and began to lead them forward when a bullet from a German machine gun tore into his left thigh. The upward trajectory of the slug left an exit wound “just at the crack of my bottom,” as Patton described it to his wife Beatrice. Patton also relayed his doctor’s amazement that the bullet had not damaged any nerves or arteries in the area. He attributed his survival to “fate.”
  17. By late October, as the French and British offensives to the west continued to succeed, Pershing and his staff began to recognize that Foch’s strategy to end the war in 1918 might actually work. Acutely aware of the AEF’s poor showing—and that jockeying among the Allies for postwar influence had begun—Pershing dispatched Fox Conner to meet the press and to tell the AEF’s side of the story regarding its contribution to the Allied cause.
  18. “You can’t let up,” Conner argued. “In order to keep up the push constantly, all the time, you have got to keep divisions in longer than we would like to.”
  19. At the war’s outset in April 1917, Fox Conner had been an undistinguished major, in one of the least glamorous bureaus of the War Department, whose primary battles had been against health problems. Nineteen months later, he wore a general’s star and sat in the inner circle that surrounded America’s most powerful soldier since Ulysses S. Grant. At age 44, Conner was only midway through his career. With Pershing’s sponsorship behind him, and another 20 years of military service ahead, Fox Conner stood poised to reach the pinnacle of his profession.
  20. Conner stressed the war’s “one great lesson”—which he feared was “soon to be forgotten” as the nation returned to peace: “The unprepared nation is helpless in a great war unless it can depend upon other nations to shield it while it prepares,” a lesson he thought had been borne out by “every scrap of the history” of the AEF. The highlight of Conner’s postwar service in France came on June 28, 1919, when he had accompanied Pershing to the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles to witness the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Among other provisions, the peace treaty required Germany to pay billions of dollars in reparations and to cede Alsace-Lorraine and other industrial regions to France. The terms also limited Germany to an army of 100,000 with no conscription or air force or submarines. Germany accepted sole responsibility for starting the war. The treaty also created a new League of Nations to establish the principle of collective security to maintain world peace. Amid the smiles and congratulations exchanged among the victors that day, Fox Conner felt uneasy. Having witnessed how the shame of defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 had fueled the desire for revenge in his French comrades, Conner doubted how long the words of a treaty would quell the warrior spirit of the militaristic—and humiliated—German nation.
  21. “From the beginning,” Eisenhower recalled in his 1967 memoirs, he and Patton “got along famously.” The two officers shared similar views concerning the potential of armored warfare. Although prevailing Army doctrine limited the tank’s role—and speed—to the support of advancing foot soldiers, Patton and Eisenhower each foresaw the tank’s potential to become the spearhead of an independent and rapid-attack force. According to Eisenhower, Patton predicted in 1919: “I’ll be Jackson, you’ll be Lee. I don’t want to do the heavy thinking; you do that and I’ll get loose among our – – – – [sic] enemies, and really tear them to pieces.” Patton and Eisenhower also became close personal friends. In their spare time, Eisenhower distilled gin while Patton brewed beer, which they enjoyed at “Club Eisenhower,” their name for Eisenhower’s quarters. Eager for advancement, the two officers also studied the exercises given students at the Leavenworth staff college. Mostly, though, Patton and Eisenhower talked tanks with “the enthusiasm of zealots,” as Eisenhower put it. Dwight Eisenhower had found a good friend in George Patton— as he would learn in the coming year.
  22. In a 1967 monograph, Chynoweth recounted a conversation in which Eisenhower acknowledged his “guiding philosophy” for serving under Conner: “I forget my own ideas and do everything in my power to promote what he says is right.” Chynoweth asked: “Right or wrong?” Eisenhower purportedly replied: “The Commanding Officer is never wrong with me.” 
  23. Conner also interacted with his men on a daily basis as he made his rounds through the post on a horse named Old Bill. As Eisenhower put it, Conner “never abandoned the position—and no senior officer ever should—of being an instructor.” Once, Conner encountered some Puerto Rican soldiers on a work detail who did not know how to use a scythe to cut grass, so he dismounted and gave a demonstration. When a team of horses got a wagon stuck in jungle mud and would not move, despite the cursing and beating of their teamsters, Conner took the reins and calmed the horses; according to Eisenhower, Conner “just talked to them and they went right out of the mud.” Similarly, Betsey Conner’s 1987 letter recalled an instance in which her father worked with his troops to tame a gun-shy mule that bolted each time any cannon fired. Conner had the mule hitched to a sled loaded with rocks. When the guns resumed fire, the frightened beast kicked up a whirlwind of dirt as it tried to run but could not move. Eventually, the mule, like the men of the 20th Brigade, settled down under Conner’s firm leadership.
  24. In Betsey Conner’s estimation, “Daddy really knew mules and horses and men.” Conner briefly discussed his views on the relationship between a commander and his troops in the foreword to a 1922 book, titled Principles of Command, by Major Ralph Jones. Conner began with the premise, borrowed from an Alexander Pope poem, that “the proper study of mankind is man.” He then addressed the importance, to a military commander, of a basic understanding of human psychology. Despite his view that “the usual text on psychology is so abstruse as to be understandable only to the professor,” Conner nonetheless believed that “the motives which control the majority of men and the mainsprings which actuate those motives are comparatively simple and few in number.” He then referred his readers to Major Jones’s book to learn the fundamental principles of applying psychological principles to command of troops.
  25. Fox Conner did not speak to Eisenhower about Napoleon or any other great commander of the past, nor did he discuss the importance of history to the development of a well-rounded military officer. Instead, Conner drew three novels from the shelves of his collection and handed them to his assistant. “You might be interested in these,” Conner suggested in his quiet Mississippi drawl. Thus began what Eisenhower described in At Ease, as a three-year “graduate school in military affairs and humanities.”In his 1986 work, The Challenge of Command, former West Point history professor Roger Nye cited the examples of what “Eisenhower had in Fox Conner, Napoleon in de Guibert, and Philip of Macedon in Socrates,” as examples of how “a great teacher” can impart to a young officer the “insights and values” necessary for later success in high command. Professor Nye also lauded Fox Conner as “the most celebrated” example of a mentor—one whose “chief function is to cause his people to become better learners.” Eisenhower said as much of Conner, but in simpler terms: “He was my teacher.” As Eisenhower phrased it, his commander was a “smart, patient man, and he decided that I ought to amount to something; so he was going to see if I would.”
    1. Conner loaned Eisenhower three works of historical fiction—The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame), The Long Roll by Mary Johnston (granddaughter of Confederate General Joseph Johnston), and The Crisis by American author Winston Churchill (no relation to the more famous Briton of the same name.)
    2. Conner gradually led Eisenhower to a more advanced level of military study. The general introduced his assistant to the writings of the 19th-century Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, whose On War remains an influential treatise on warfare. Eisenhower struggled to grasp the military maxims set forth by Clausewitz, so Conner had Eisenhower read the book three times to drive home the lessons. Conner would quiz Eisenhower as to what each Clausewitzian principle meant. In a 1966 letter, Eisenhower identified On War as the book that had most profoundly influenced his military career. George Patton recounted one World War II debate over strategy in which Eisenhower became “very pontifical and quoted Clausewitz to us.”
    3. Conner told his protégé: “In all military history, only one thing never changes—human nature. Terrain may change, weather may change, weapons may change … but never human nature.”
    4. Eisenhower frequently used-two particular sayings he had learned from Conner: “Always take your job seriously, never yourself ” and “All generalities are false, including this one.”
    5. “There is no question of his molding my thinking on this from the time I was thirty-one,” Eisenhower said in a 1964 interview. Eisenhower similarly recalled, in other interviews, that Conner “kept dinning into me that I had to prepare myself for command because the future of the nation depended on my readiness and that of men of my time.” According to Eisenhower, “the necessity of being prepared for war was a product of something that just seeped into me from the teachings of this man.”
  26. Fox Conner also viewed Woodrow Wilson’s concept that the nation had actually fought a “war to end all wars” as a “mere slogan of propaganda.” In contrast to the isolationist sentiment then prevalent in the United States, Conner repeatedly told Eisenhower that American participation in another large-scale European war was “almost a certainty.” Again reflecting his admiration for the defeated Germans, Conner told his assistant: “You can’t take the strongest, most virile people in Europe and put them in the kind of straitjacket that this treaty attempts to do.” According to Eisenhower, Conner also foresaw a future German–Japanese alliance, which he thought the Soviet Union might join as well.
  27. Regarding the necessity of junior officers being subordinate to their superiors, Chynoweth wrote: “There is a lesson in it. I never learned the lesson.”
  28. Conner also addressed the inadequacy of military spending in a 1928 article titled “The National Defense.” True to form, Conner grounded his thesis in history, beginning with the War of 1812 and proceeding through the Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish–American War, and the recently concluded Great War. Conner quoted each era’s leading lawmakers, who had all argued—shortly before the outbreak of war—that military spending constituted an unnecessary waste. Conner pointed out that the same views prevailed in the America of the 1920s, again imperiling the nation’s defense.
  29. In France, Eisenhower studied the areas of the Western Front he had written about in 1927; he then revised his guidebook. According to historian Carlo D’Este, “Eisenhower’s sense of history had been so well honed by Fox Conner,” that he was able to fully grasp the significance of the sites.
  30. Fox Conner soon learned that he, as a high-ranking military officer during the 1930s, was almost as removed from the American mainstream as were his monastic neighbors. As noted in historian Russell Weigley’s History of the United States Army, a “gloomy, negative kind of pacifism, automatically hostile to any measure which might improve the Army” prevailed in the nation during the Great Depression. Bug recalled that when her husband opened a bank account, the teller “eyed him with great suspicion” and “was not impressed.” Despite a number of public appearances by Conner that were covered by the The Boston Daily Globe newspaper, Bug wrote that “the Proper Bostonians [did] not even know we were there.”
  31. According to one newspaper article, Conner kept a schedule that “would have exhausted many a younger man.” He inspected each of the camps, several of which required treks into remote forest locations. Conner ate with the men to assure the quality of their rations; he also took the time to ask questions and listen to answers.
  32. Marshall offered encouraging words: “With your literary ability, your general military knowledge and your comprehensive knowledge of affairs in France, coupled with your ability to reduce things to simplicities, you are better prepared to write such a book than anyone else I know in the Army.”
  33. “Division, corps, and army commanders must be capable of sitting in front of a map and dictating a complete field order,” Conner proclaimed.
  34. The president heeded their advice. On September 1, 1939—the day Germany invaded Poland to trigger World War II in Europe—George Marshall became the Army’s chief of staff. Marshall’s appointment reflected the president’s selection of yet another general in the mold of Fox Conner lead the Army.
  35. Letter from Eisenhower to Fox: Dear General, More and more in the last few days my mind has turned back to you and to the days when I was privileged to serve intimately under your wise counsel and leadership. I cannot tell you how much I would appreciate, at this moment, an opportunity for an hour’s discussion with you on problems that constantly beset me
  36. Eisenhower wrote in 1948: “Allied unity, and the ways and means of attaining it, constituted the principal war lesson”—as Fox Conner had told him it would be. In a 1967 interview with historian Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower credited his many discussions with Conner, as well as his own reading on the history of coalition warfare, as the keys to his success in effective allied unity.

What I got out of it

  1. I had hardly heard about Fox Conner before reading this book but his influence on military history is profound. He was a mentor to Pershing and Eisenhower, impacting how WWI and WWII were fought and prepared for. “He operated behind the scenes, so to speak,” Mac Conner wrote. “The general public was and is unaware of his value to the military and to the country … his true legacy stretched far beyond his own wonderful military career.”

My Forty Years With Ford by Charles Sorensen


  1. Charles Sorsensen worked with Henry Ford longer than anyone else and in this book recounts how it was to work with Ford and how life at the company evolved over the decades. 

Key Takeaways

  1. Sorensen gained Henry Ford’s respect by translating Ford’s design concepts into wooden parts that could be seen and studied. Advancing rapidly, he was second in command of Piquette production by 1907….Sorensen’s “crowning achievement,” Ford historian Ford R. Bryan wrote in 1993, was the “design of the production layout of the mammoth Willow Run Bomber Plant.” Others have cited as Sorensen’s greatest accomplishment his role in the development of mass production….Six years before we installed it, I experimented with the moving final assembly line which is now the crowning touch of American mass production. Before the eyes of Henry Ford, I worked out on a blackboard the figures that became the basis for his $5 day and the overwhelming proof of the present economic truism that high wages beget lower-priced mass consumption.
  2. During the nearly forty years I worked for Henry Ford, we never had a quarrel. If we disagreed on policy, or anything else, a quiet discussion settled things. I don’t recall ever receiving a direct order, “I want this done” or “Do it this way.” He got what he wanted by hint or suggestion. He seldom made decisions—in fact, when I brought a matter up for his approval, his usual reply was, “What are we waiting for? Go ahead!”
  3. I believe there are three main reasons for my long tenure. One advantage I had over others was that, from my pattern-making days on, I could sense Henry Ford’s ideas and develop them. I didn’t try to change them. This was not subservience. We were pioneering; we didn’t know whether a thing was workable until we tried it. So, Mr. Ford never caught me saying that an idea he had couldn’t be done. If I had the least idea it couldn’t, I always knew that the thing would prove or disprove itself. When designers were given Mr. Ford’s ideas to execute, the usual result was incorporation of some of their ideas, too. But it was part of my patternmaking training to follow through with what was given me. I suppose that was why Mr. Ford turned to me. Another reason for my long tenure was that I minded my own business. Production—whether it was automobiles, tractors, aviation motors, or B-24 bombers—its planning, installation and supervision was a seven-days-a-week job. I had no time for the outside interests of Henry Ford which arose as he grew older. Labor matters were not in my province. I took no part in his crusades like the World War I Peace Ship to “get the boys out of the trenches by Christmas.” I was not involved in his miscast and fortunately unsuccessful candidacy for United States senator. I did not share his racial prejudices or his diet fads, except that by preference I am a teetotaler and nonsmoker. I might scour the country for automobile parts but not for antiques for Greenfield Village. He gave up trying to make a square dancer out of me. By sticking to my job of production and not mixing in outside affairs, the white light of publicity fortunately did not beat down upon me until World War II, when I had been with Mr. Ford for more than thirty-five years. I avoided headlines by preference.
  4. He was unorthodox in thought but puritanical in personal conduct. He had a restless mind but was capable of prolonged, concentrated work. He hated indolence but had to be confronted by a challenging problem before his interest was aroused. He was contemptuous of money-making, of money-makers and profit seekers, yet he made more money and greater profits than those he despised. He defied accepted economic principles, yet he is the foremost exemplar of American free enterprise. He abhorred ostentation and display, yet he reveled in the spotlight of publicity. He was ruthless in getting his own way, yet he had a deep sense of public responsibility. He demanded efficient production, yet made place in his plant for the physically handicapped, reformed criminals, and human misfits in the American industrial system. He couldn’t read a blueprint, yet had greater mechanical ability than those who could. He would have gone nowhere without his associates, we did the work while he took the bows, yet none of us would have gone far without him. He has been described as complex, contradictory, a dreamer, a grown-up boy, an intuitive genius, a dictator, yet essentially he was a very simple man.
  5. In engineering work in the drafting room, it was plain to the men to whom he gave his work that he could not make a sketch or read a blueprint. It was to his everlasting credit that, with his limited formal education, his mind worked like a modern electronic calculating machine and he had the answer to what he wanted. The trick was to fathom the device or machine part that was on his mind and make the object for him to look at. That was where I came in.
  6. Henry Ford was no mystic or genius. He was a responsible person with determination to do his work as he believed it should be done. This sense of responsibility was one of his strongest traits.
  7. This ability to sense signs of the times and to counteract forces that showed danger signals was almost uncanny. I would go to him with problems that looked insurmountable. Nothing appeared to frighten him….There is no doubt that Henry Ford had courage. Probably he will never be glorified for his Peace Ship excursion; but no one can tell me it didn’t take courage to undertake it. It took courage, too, to fight the Selden patent, to hold to his fixed idea of a cheap car, to battle dividend-hungry boards of directors, to build River Rouge plant in the face of stock-holder opposition.
  8. It parallels in a small way, but is only partially accountable for, his long-time habit of stirring up associates to see their reactions under stress. His lasting accomplishments were achieved when facing down opposition, such as when his directors opposed the Model T idea…Constant ferment—keep things stirred up and other people guessing—was the elder Ford’s working formula for progress.
  9. Henry Ford’s greatest failure was in expecting Edsel to be like him. Edsel’s greatest victory, despite all obstacles, was in being himself.
  10. He could not make a speech. His few attempts to talk to a group of people were pitiful.
  11. With the obvious exception of his single-purpose goal of a cheap car for the masses, a set policy was next to impossible with him. It was impossible because by nature he was an experimenter.
  12. When he wanted to size up a man quickly he loaded him with power. If the man took the least advantage of his new position he got some kind of warning, not from Henry Ford but from the least expected quarter. How he accepted the warning was what Henry Ford was watching. If he went to Ford to see if the warning was really coming from him, he would be encouraged to disregard everything. That would throw him off completely, but in a few days he was out, completely mystified over what had really happened.
  13. I learned not to take advantage of Mr. Ford or of his generosity. I could sense what he wanted and I did not need to be told what to do.
  14. Henry Ford was opinionated in matters about which he knew little or nothing. He could be small-minded, suspicious, jealous, and occasionally malicious and lacking in sincerity. He probably hastened the death of his only son.
  15. He came close to wrecking the great organization he had built up. These were his defects. Taken by themselves, they were grave faults, and it might well be wondered how one could retain one’s self-respect and still serve such a man. But when weighed against his good qualities, his sense of responsibility, his exemplary personal life, and his far-reaching accomplishments, these defects become microscopic. It is not for his failings but for his impact upon his time and his momentous part in liberating men from backbreaking toil that he will stand out in the future…It was destined to make motor transport universal, to attain mass production, to demonstrate the superiority of an economy of abundance over one of scarcity, and to begin the elevation of a standard of living to a height never before dreamed of.
  16. Ford was not an expert, and he didn’t rely upon experts, whether they were scientists, engineers, railroad men, economists, educators, business executives, or bankers. He was an individualist who arrived at conclusions—both right and wrong—by independent thought.
  17. One is rigid system, in which rules tend to be paramount; the other is flexible method, in which the objective comes first.
  18. We trained thousands of mechanics that way. When foremen or executive supervisors were needed, they were picked from men who showed ability in operating machines. This was a fundamental principle during the first three periods of Ford Motor Company. Good managers at Ford had to have some of these qualities: (i) Refreshing simplicity. (2) Brains. (3) Education. (4) Special technical ability. (5) Tact. (6) Energy and Grit. (7) Honesty. (8) Judgment. (9) Common sense. (10) Good health.
  19. In today’s industrial organizations a situation rather than the personality is the dominant factor. The situation controls, and the true leader is the one who responds immediately and effectively to the situation. And, since a situation is always primary, authority derives from function rather than position. The responsibility is for and not to.
  20. Too often the concern of corporation executives about their titles—even size and furnishings of their offices—deflects thought and energy from jobs they are supposed to do. That concern may whet ambition—but with a wrong emphasis. In the absence of a flock of titles, such things didn’t worry us at Ford.
  21. Selection is too narrow a word when thinking of building for leadership. Inside any company, some of the ablest men are never selected. They just get a job in the old-fashioned way and emerge on merit. A smart boss watches for them and does something about it as soon as they emerge. Some may have formal education but many do not. It is still the glory of our country that this doesn’t matter. A man is doomed not by being uneducated but by remaining so. Who can tell us what leadership is? It is a radiant quality which some men possess which makes others swing joyously into common action. What they do is wisely conceived and eminently fair. Such leadership, which is above all the characteristic of American production and the function of voluntary effort, springs from mutual understanding. The boss must know the worker and the worker must know the boss. They must respect each other.
  22. Ford knew when to give praise when it was due and when to make fair criticism when that was due. These are two of the strongest attributes of wise leadership, particularly when dealing with the imaginative and creative personalities so much needed in industry.
  23. It isn’t the incompetent who destroy an organization. The incompetent never get into a position to destroy it. It is those who have achieved something and want to rest upon their achievements who are forever clogging things up. To keep an industry thoroughly alive, it should be kept in perpetual ferment.
  24. When one man began to fancy himself an expert, we had to get rid of him. The minute a man thinks himself an expert he gets an expert’s state of mind, and too many things become impossible. The Ford operations and creative work were directed by men who had no previous knowledge of the subject. They did not have a chance to get on really familiar terms with the impossible.
  25. Proved competence in some field plus intellectual curiosity and audacity are to me essential qualities. The trick is to detect them.
  26. As time went on, Wills specialized less in development work and more in metallurgy and tool design.
  27. It was the great common sense that Mr. Ford could apply to new ideas and his ability to simplify seemingly complicated problems that made him the pioneer he was.
  28. To get everything simple took a lot of fussy work.
  29. Many of the world’s greatest mechanical discoveries were accidents in the course of other experimentation. Not so Model T, which ushered in the motor transport age and set off a chain reaction of machine production now known as automation. All of our experimentation at Ford in the early days was toward a fixed and, then, wildly fantastic goal.
  30. It was because of our constant tinkering that we were so right in many of the things we made.
  31. Today, we do not hear so much about “mass production” as we do about “automation.” Both evolve from the same principle: machine-produced interchangeable parts and orderly flow of those parts first to subassembly, then to final assembly. The chief difference is that mechanized assembly is more complete in automation; where men once tended machine tools, the job is now done electronically, with men, fewer of them, keeping watch over the electronics.
  32. Next, he required each bidder to submit prices based on material, labor, and other overhead, and even the amount of profit. Under such a system there was no question about costs being kept down, and the savings were tremendous. Instead of being resented, Diehl was very much respected by suppliers, for although their prices were kept in line they were assured of profit.
  33. Henry Ford had no ideas on mass production. He wanted to build a lot of autos. He was determined but, like everyone else at that time, he didn’t know how. In later years he was glorified as the originator of the mass production idea. Far from it; he just grew into it, like the rest of us. The essential tools and the final assembly line with its many integrated feeders resulted from an organization which was continually experimenting and improvising to get better production…Today historians describe the part the Ford car played in the development of that era and in transforming American life. We see that now. But we didn’t see it then; we weren’t as smart as we have been credited with being. All that we were trying to do was to develop the Ford car. The achievement came first. Then came logical expression of its principles and philosophy. Not until 1922 could Henry Ford explain it cogently: “Every piece of work in the shop moves; it may move on hooks on overhead chains going to assembly in the exact order in which the parts are required; it may travel on a moving platform, or it may go by gravity, but the point is that there is no lifting or trucking of anything other than materials.” It has been said that this system has taken skill out of work. The answer is that by putting higher skill into planning, management, and tool building it is possible for skill to be enjoyed by the many who are not skilled.
  34. Machines do not eliminate jobs; they only make them easier—and create new ones.
  35. The Ford Model T was built so that every man could run it. Ford mass production made it available to everyone. Ford wages enabled everyone to afford it. The Ford $5 day rejected the old theory that labor, like other commodities, must be bought in the cheapest market. It recognized that mass producers are also mass consumers, that they cannot consume unless they are able to buy.
  36. Ever since it was founded, Ford Motor Company had shared some of its prosperity with its people. Employees who had been with the company for three years or longer received 10 per cent of their annual pay, and efficiency bonus checks were handed to executives and branch managers….It was just good, sound business. As Henry Ford said at the time, it was not “charity” but “profit sharing and efficiency engineering.”
  37. Five years later, when the minimum wage had been increased to $6 a day, we knew that our establishment of the $5 minimum for an eight-hour day was one of the best cost-cutting moves we had ever made.
  38. With them, profits came first and set the price accordingly. Ford held that if the price is right the cost will take care of itself. Price first, then cost, was a paradox. It ran counter to prevailing business practice, but Ford made it work.
  39. During World War I, Mr. Ford was contemplating a reduction of $80 a car. Since the company was turning out 500,000 cars a year, it was argued that this would reduce the company’s income by $40,000,000. This calculation had nothing to do with the matter. What was entirely overlooked was the fact, as brought out in the $ 5-day calculations, that the $80 reduction would sell more than 500,000 cars and that the savings from the lower costs of greater production would more than absorb the price cut.
  40. No matter how efficient that manufacturing, coal and iron costs are prime elements in determining the cost of the completed automobile. These fluctuation costs are beyond the control of other auto companies. When Ford built the River Rouge plant he either owned or had lined up enough coal and iron deposits to handle his production. Thus, he controlled sources of his two most important materials.
  41. As a result, Ford Motor Company emerged from World War II to peacetime manufacture of automobiles with five great advantages over its competitors: First, as we have seen, it had its own source of raw materials. Second, it had the world’s greatest, most complete industrial manufacturing plant—the biggest machine shop on earth. Third, the Rouge plant, with assets of $1,500,000,000, was owned outright and was built out of profits and not a cent of borrowed money. Fourth, it had a work force and supervision at the foreman level trained in Ford production methods. Fifth, it had its own steel mill and therefore was unaffected by a steel shortage after the war which crippled the operations of many less fortunate companies. True, its postwar top management was new, but given those five incalculable advantages, how could it fail?
  42. When something new and different is sought, it is useless to copy; start fresh on a new idea. This means fresh minds at work.
  43. These stockholders had originally put up $33,100. Sixteen years later they sold out for more than $105,000,000. Also, in those sixteen years, their total dividends were more than $30,000,000.
  44. The skill in manufacturing the finished article was reflected in the planning. Casual visitors looking at parts being made would be astonished to see how simple it was to make a crankshaft. What they did not see was the time and experience involved in designing and in the organization that was responsible for it.
  45. These superintendents and their assistants were not of the sitdown type. I did not permit the top men to hold down a chair in an office. My formula for them was “You’ve got to get around.” In addition to watching work progress, I insisted that they keep their plants clean. I insisted upon spotlessness and kept an ever-watchful eye on conveniences and facilities that would lighten men’s work loads.
  46. We automobile men didn’t want to run a railroad, but we were driven to it because this appeared the best solution to a vexing problem. By 1920, Ford was producing a million cars a year—more than the railroads could swiftly deliver. The bottleneck was freight shipments…With motor transport on the increase and threatening their revenues, railways had little incentive to help auto manufacturers.
  47. It was apparent that, while the Russians had stolen the Fordson tractor design, they did not have any of our specifications for the material that entered into the various parts. And you can’t find that out merely by pulling the machine apart and studying the pieces…But ever since that day I never felt particular concern about the Russian competition in the Ford product field.
  48. Mr. Ford’s remark to me back in 1912, “Give them any color they want so long as it is black,” epitomized the reasons for Model T’s success and its ultimate decline.
  49. I had been telling him that with his new venture he might control or dominate the motorcar business. We had 50 percent of it in 1924. His reply to control was “Charlie, I don’t want all the business. Twenty-five percent will satisfy me.” Of course, to me that looked like coasting along, but it gave me a hint of why he was not in a hurry to start up; he could get all the business he wanted.
  50. It was not until I pointed out that we might set new standards in building them that I secured Henry Ford’s consent to make 4,000 Pratt & Whitney engines.
  51. First, break the plane’s design into essential units and make a separate production layout for each unit. Next, build as many units as are required, then deliver each unit in its proper sequence to the assembly line to make one whole unit—a finished plane.
  52. “Unless you see a thing, you cannot simplify it. And unless you can simplify it, it’s a good sign you can’t make it.”
  53. It had always been our policy at Ford for everyone to start at the bottom. Kanzler was one of the few exceptions and largely for that reason, I think, Mr. Ford avoided him.
  54. My best friends are my critics. You say, “Why did I not develop a real successor?” Mr. Ford, like many men of his kind, never had a successor, they just can’t acknowledge that such a thing is possible. Was his son even a possible successor? This war program which he, Henry Ford, never entered into, and which he would not take the slightest interest, got me in trouble plenty with him. Can’t you use your imagination a bit? I was the only authority in the Company that Washington recognized. I am the victim of that situation. I got out on my own all right rather than follow his son. That is all. Now, tell me, how could I develop an organization that would live on after I am, or he is, gone? My only ambition was to do exactly that. His grandsons, three of them, coming along, I felt I was living for them. In the bottom of my heart I still feel that way.

What I got out of it

  1. Really interesting to learn more about Henry Ford and the Ford empire, the good and the bad. The courage it took to take Ford to where it got and his great failure in not treating his only as his own person, driving him to illness and fracturing the relationship are worth noting. People are complex and multi-faceted, not all good nor all bad. Ford had some huge negative character flaws, but also some great ones. We should learn from him – both what to do and what to avoid.

The Last Lion by William Manchester


  1. Manchester describes not only the man, but the times, context, history, background, “gestalt” in which he lived. “This is a biography and not a history, but you are often confused because they are in fact quite different. A biography details the life, context, times, and decisions of a man and is not merely a chronological recounting of the past. As a biographer, we try to re-create an illusion of the man’s life to give people a true sense for who they were and the circumstances they were dealt.”

My favorite Churchill speeches – Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat, We Shall Fight on the Beaches, Their Finest Hour

Favorite quotes

  • What is our [Britain’s] War Policy? – I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.” Just as Churchill predicted, the road to victory in World War II was long and difficult: France fell to the Nazis in June 1940.
  • On a particular day when the Royal Air Force had amazing results, Winston’s famous line was, “never have so many owed so much to so few.”

Key Takeaways

Vol. 1: 1847-1932 Visions of Glory

  1. Many men have judgment, few have insight. He was an extroverted intuitive and his capacity to inspire and unite was unrivaled. He preferred to work by intuition and impulse rather than analysis. This is what the country needed at this time but it rubbed many people the wrong way. Most men misjudge their importance, Churchill did not. He was indispensable
  2. In the age of the specialist, he was the antithesis. He was a Renaissance man in every sense of the word. The defender of freedom, a poet a writer, a statesman, a politician, a biographer, a historian, one who is a force of character and can never be summed up easily. He is one of history‘s great men.  It is pointless to expect consistency and balance in genius.  He was different from other men and had what seemed to be built in shock absorbers that allowed him to continue on through all his defeat and downturns.  It was said that one of the strongest traits was his ability to focus on one thing and doing it exceedingly exceedingly well. That is a trait of genius .
  3. Deep insight and not stability were his forte. He knew the British people had to be united when Hitler came to power.
  4. Although Winston was brave and a strategic mastermind, it was his mastery of the English language which set him apart and helped him shape history.
  5. The book begins with a deep dive of the British empire and how large and dominant it was at its height –  spanning 3x the size of the Roman empire! This unstoppable mindset and the belief that it was the British right to rule is important to understand and cover because it heavily influenced Churchill in many ways 
  6. He spoke to the British people, the world, like nobody before or since. He was raw, real, unabashed
  7. In all his life he showed incredible courage – from his time in the military to his final days as a politician. He was accused of loving war but this was not the case. He felt the heaviness but knew he had to step up or things would get much worse
  8. Winston was as much American as he was British. His mother was from New York and he loved her dearly but she neglected him early on. Later, however, because of her promiscuity and relationships with multiple wealthy and influential men, she was able to open many doors for Winston. His nurse was the most important person in his life until he was 20. He was also beat savagely at his boarding school, was bored in class, and rebelled against authority. His only defense was an unconquerable will and he showed how stubborn and iconoclastic he was early on.  He struggled mightily in school, never achieving good grades and hardly getting into colleges or prestigious schools.  
  9. His father was a prominent politician but played his cards wrong and ended up being kicked out, never to return again. He deeply loved his father and considered him an idol, but his father neglected him and hardly spoke to him because he didn’t achieve in traditional measures. Famous men are typically the product of unhappy childhoods
  10. Churchill had great faith but also believed you have the power to change things. He changed his image to one of an athlete, a bulldog, to display to others his courage and confidence
  11. Churchill is one of the most losing politicians of all time. He switched parties numerous times, rubbed people the wrong way, and was often thought as a charlatan who had a lot of talent and intellect but didn’t know how to harness it 
  12. He always fought for and rooted for the underdog, as he himself was the underdog. He suffered serious bouts of depression and melancholy, was bullied as a kid and never fit in. The most insecure and oppressed people seek external approval and Churchill was no different. He simply wanted people to applaud him and tell him how great his works were, not to offer critical feedback or advice. He always thought that he was destined for greatness and was rather arrogant about it at times. He loved being the center of attention and would often listen to his own speeches and re-read his own work to listen to himself 
  13. It was said that Churchill was a simple man – he simply enjoyed the best of everything 
  14. Churchill never had a feel for the British public. He simply did his own thing. He was born into a society where class differences were prevalent and accepted. It was said that he would’ve been just fine in the feudal society.  His aristocratic heritage was the cause of many blind spots but it was also responsible for his great talents as well. He was never accused for being humble and owned up to that
  15.  Churchill had an incredible memory, able to remember and recite thousands of lines of poetry and what he remembered he hardly forgot.  He was also an incredible writer and made his money as a journalist and author.  Since he was young, the only thing he wanted was become master of the written and spoken word.  He didn’t improvise. He planned and wrote ahead of time and wrote most of his speeches in the bathtub with a cigar. He dictated his speeches to a secretary who typed them up then came the scissors and the glue to rearrange the lines multiple times before the final draft was ready.  The final draft had bigger letters for what he wanted to emphasize spacing between words that he wanted to stress and bolded others what he thought most important 
  16. Churchill was a voracious reader, remembering everything he read and calling the dead authors his friends from whom he often pulled from. He was never a man for small talk
  17.  In his early 20s he got shipped off to India with the British army. It was at this point that he started becoming an auto didactic, reading everything from Aristotle to Plato to Socrates, learning from the lessons of history.  He allowed himself to believe whatever he wanted to believe even if paradoxical or contradictory and let reason take him wherever she might.  It was at this time he decided he wanted to get into parliament, but first he decided he needed to be a famous war hero who displayed courage. He brilliantly manipulated his mother and her lovers so that he could be on the front lines where ever the fiercest battles were 
  18. Churchill had his own path, he fashioned his own life. He didn’t follow anyone 
  19. Churchill went down to South Africa during the Boer War. He was held captive there for some time and showed great courage throughout his time there. Once he came back to Britain, he had earned a lot of political power and recognition. He had parties fighting for him to join their constituencies and the people were excited about him.  He became magnetic around this time and soon a great speaker. He memorized every word he wanted to say, just like his father had.  Nobody put in more work to prepare for his speeches but it was paradoxical that he was also the quickest on his feet. Churchill didn’t care about  approval, he simply wanted attention.  
  20. One of Churchill‘s advantages was his lack of formal education. He questioned everything, thought from first principles, and wasn’t afraid of stating simple truths. These were things which others, who were more buttoned up and had more classical training, did not even consider or were too afraid to even think about 
  21. One must be always ready to change sides, if that is the side of justice.  What is the use of supporting your side only when it’s right? It is exactly at the time when they are wrong, when there is disagreement, that you must step up and speak.  He fought for what he thought was right, not what his party said was right. This made him many enemies on all sides and when he was young, he wasn’t able to handle this solitude too well. He went into deep bouts of depression. He experienced this later on too but managed them and learned how to handle them when he was alone and behind closed doors. He jumped sides early on from a tory to a liberal. One said this was ambition because he could move ahead faster but he retaliated by saying that some men change parties to match their principles whereas others change their principles to match their parties 
  22. Winston as awkward with women. He really only liked talking about himself and abhorred small talk. He eventually became very dependent on his wife but early on he didn’t seem to respect women too much
  23. Traditional religions were losing their grip on the English and they were looking for substitutes. This meant that dogmatic, hardheaded, and simple answers to complex questions attract people because this allows them to have something to hold onto that feels concrete 
  24. By the early 1900s, the British had conquered pretty much everything there was to conquer. This just stifled people’s energy and innovation, making them turn inwards and expecting higher levels of innovation and fulfillment to come from England herself
  25. Men rarely understand the sources of their strength 
  26. His same qualities attracted and repelled – his compulsive and witty conversation offended and attracted
  27. His capacity for work is difficult to even understand but he still had time for polo, leisure, travel, and more. 
  28.  He was in egoist in the true sense of the word – whatever he was focused on was then, by definition, the most important 
  29. England for centuries adopted the grand strategy of allying with the second most powerful country in Europe and that is how they defeated Napoleon, but the strategy was not written down until Churchill came along.  The English Navy also had a mandate that they must be more powerful than the second and third most powerful navies.  
  30. The best admirals do not risk the vessels that they’re given, they win by superior strategy. During World War I, Churchill was the First Admiral and although his thinking and strategies on the war were spot on, he didn’t have authority to fully carry them out. He wanted to open up a second front in the Dardanelles so that they could exploit the Axis Powers unstable ally, Turkey, and gain the upper hand. It didn’t work however because the top brass wasn’t committed and people ended up blaming him for the fiasco and wanted to exclude him from the cabinet after the war. After the war it was determined that if his strategy was followed through correctly and effectively the war could’ve ended several years earlier. He saw that trench warfare was savage and there was no decisive advantage. That’s why he fought so hard for gaining control of the Dardanelles but it didn’t pan out because he didn’t have authority to do things as he saw fit and those in charge we’re stuck in the past and couldn’t change their strategies as the technology changed. Generals tend to fight their last war 
  31. Change is the master key. Particular parts of the mind can be tired by overuse but it can be rested by using other parts of the mind. This is why Churchill loved to draw – it was his escape, a way to recharge
  32. At it’s apex, politics, strategy, economics are all one. 
  33. This understanding of strategy and military maneuvering was second to none.  However, after World War I, he was blamed for many fiascoes and things that he really wasn’t in charge of. During and after the war, Churchill experienced much isolation and criticism. Clementine told him his flaws, how his confrontational nature, need for the limelight, and sharp words earned him many enemies, distancing first rate men and attracting those who were fickle and could turn on him at any time. 
  34. It is amazing what people can justify to themselves by changing their reasoning 
  35. After WWI, the Russian and Bolshevik threat was not wasted on Churchill. He wanted to suppress them militarily but PM Lloyd George was vehemently against it and Winston had learned his lesson that he should not bulldoze his way through life when those who make the ultimate decision are so against it 
  36. One of Churchill’s biggest battles was with Communism. However, he often mistook pink for red and had major battles with the socialist labor unions. He was the Chancellor at this point and doing an excellent job. He was gaining great popularity and people were guessing when he would end up at 10 Downing St. as prime minister but there was hesitation too because he was still independent and not beholden to any one political party 
  37. Churchill was against Gandhi’s freedom of India mostly because it was out of an old school of thought that Britain had to hold onto their colonies or else they would become irrelevant. But, he also argued that the tens of millions of untouchables were in a position worse than slaves and if left alone, the country was and these people would be in a worse position because of all the religious infighting. However, it was also a difficult time to get the British population to really care for it was in the middle of the Great Depression. He was a political pariah through much of this period 
  38. Churchill became one of the world’s highest paid and most prolific writers. He sold books magazines articles and earned a healthy living off these skills 
  39. Churchill was one of the first to see the writing on the wall and understand how dangerous Hitler was and how damaging the treaty of Versailles was.  He recognized some of himself in Hitler even though he understood, before anyone else, the evil vision that Hitler had. Hitler too recognized his greatest foil in Churchill even though Churchill was not in power 

Vol. II: 1932 – 1940 Alone

  1. Churchill loved his baths and was very particular about them. They had to be filled the right amount and at the right temperature before he would jump in. He started every day with breakfast in bed and spent several hours reading editorials and newspapers.
  2. Although he is known for always drinking, he was never drunk and said that he got more out of alcohol than alcohol I’ve gotten out of him 
  3.  Churchill had a faculty for organizing large works, had an uncanny ability to focus on what he was working on in that moment, and did a surprising amount of the first hand reading, writing, and synthesizing of his works 
  4. He would spend between 6-8 preparing for a 40 minute speech and he made it a priority to remove all bureaucratic jargon and include as many visuals and emotional ties as he could.  He was extremely precise with his words and demanded the same of others 
  5. He could recite entire epic poem from memory but had trouble remembering the names of his servants. He treated them quite poorly and would often times act childish and impulsive if they didn’t understand him or do as he wished.  In one quarrel with one of the servants, the servant lashed out and said that Winston was rude first and Churchill replied, “yes I was, but I am a great man!” There was no arguing this as everyone in the house knew he was right.  He was not a man to apologize but he would sit show he was sorry I being appreciative for what you have done for him 
  6. The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him and the easiest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him and show that distrust 
  7. I would rather be right than consistent 
  8. Other than Churchill, few others saw the writing on the wall and how hungry Germany was to recover their honor at the first possibility. They had hate in their hearts, were embarrassed by the Versailles Treaty and wanted revenge. One of the more shortsighted and devastating decisions was to try to recoup some of the losses from the Great Depression by having the losers of the war pay for it. This germinated hatred and the desire for revenge which culminated in World War II 
  9. No trap is as deadly as the trap you set for yourself. Many other political and astute figures were duped by Hitler. They were drawn in by his magnetism and believed him when he said that all he was looking for was peace 
  10. Political genius lies in seeing over the horizon anticipating a future invisible to others
  11. He was a poor politician by the traditional sense of the word, although he was the most gifted orator of his time. He didn’t have the patience to proceed by traditional parliamentary processes and he didn’t have the skill to manipulate the House 
  12. Although he was a brilliant strategist, he missed how important and decisive submarine and air dominance would come to be. He was far ahead in calling for a rearmament and strengthening of England to offset the not so secret rearmament of Germany 
  13. Stanley Baldwin was the most popular and powerful PM in a long time and he knew that he would lose that if he were to call for a rearmament of England. This might have been the right call even though it was a tough and unpopular decision 
  14. Great wars usually come only when both sides have high confidence in victory 
  15. The blind spot of the time was that everyone preferred peace to war because of the atrocities seen in World War I. However, Hitler managed to  unite and set fire to a huge group of people who felt betrayed, broken, and who wanted revenge. They were willing to fight to regain their honor when nobody else was 
  16. When Hitler invaded the Rhineland, all the officers were terrified because they knew that if France acted they would be crushed. It was later learned that this was when Hitler was most nervous but he saw the risk is worth taking.  According to existing treaties, if France was attacked and they mobilized, Britain would send troops to support but they decided not to. The British decided to call this an assertion of equality rather than an act of war 
  17. Men of genius are able to focus on one thing exclusively more intensely than average man and never tire. Churchill’s focus was now on Hitler at the exclusion of everything else. He did whatever he thought was needed to stop him even before others even recognized the danger he posed
  18. Hitler understood his orderly people and knew he couldn’t usurp the government. So, he went about acquiring power through normal means and moved his way up. He used the secret police and other intimidation methods to get votes but it was done with the intention of looking legitimate in the eyes of the people so that they would accept him 
  19. Churchill understood that short simple words that were commonly understood or more powerful and effective than fancy words. He also believed that the key to a rousing speech was sincerity the speaker had to truly believe and be enthusiastic about what he was talking about and then it would be infectious 
  20. 1937 was a difficult year for Churchill. King Edward abdicated the throne in order to marry Mrs. Simpson and the way that Winston handled the situation and his ties to the king and his constant call for rearmament in order to equal Germany strength left him with no political power and he even contemplated leaving politics altogether
  21. As a political outcast he didn’t have the same constraints and expectations as those who held responsibility and this allowed him to maneuver and track down information on Germany’s position and actions that otherwise may have been difficult or riskier to attain
  22. Really interesting to learn more about the mindset and priorities of people at the time. Appeasement was the route they took because everyone was so shell-shocked and devastated by World War I that everyone was trying to avoid war at all costs and keep the economy strong and growing. Many saw how powerful Hitler and Germany were becoming but we’re reluctant to act on it for fear of war and economic devastation 
  23. Hitler’s invasion of the Sudetenland was one of those rare historical moments which took on a momentum of its own and exerted its own field of pressure 
  24. Prime minister Chamberlain was ineffective in dealing with Hitler. He didn’t understand how ambitious he was or how vengeful the country was. Churchill, on the other hand did. He and Hitler were very much the same and may be why they understood each other – they were both both artistic, believed in the supremacy of their countries, that they were men destined for greatness, and both used their intuition rather than reason to lead 
  25. In hindsight, the appeasement efforts were pitiful and ineffective but at the time, the public was so distraught by the first world war that they cheered the concessions made to Germany regarding Czechoslovakia.  This Munich Agreement had torn the government in the country apart as people were either applauding Chamberlain and the peace he had manufactured or understood that this was only a temporary solution that Hitler would be back and stronger than ever 
  26. Wise men avoid extravagant predictions
  27. Churchill was a terrific writer and thinker as he was able to assemble droves of information in his head, form it into a prism. and reflect it with blinding leaps of intuition.  His writing and research helped him dive into the past and find patterns that would help him navigate through World War II 
  28. Churchill was willing to change his mind in order to protect his country. Even though he hated the Bolsheviks, he knew that an alliance with Russia was a great idea so that Hitler would have a two front war if it got to that point 
  29. The present is not tidy or understandable and, once it has become the past, if one tries to make it neat, it only becomes implausible  
  30. A fundamental misconception about dictators in this time was that they could be reasoned and negotiated with. They hate compromise and negotiation 
  31. The British ruling class we’re also known as the leisure class and they hated to be in a hurry. They disappeared on the weekends and could not be reached. Hitler, knowing this, took advantage of that by making big moves and key decisions on the weekend when the people with the power and authority to make decisions weren’t around. He used velocity to his advantage 

Vol. 3: 1940-1945 Defender of the Realm

  1. Britain finally declared war on Germany and soon after Churchill joined the Admiralty. Someone who worked closely with him recounts how big of a difference his presence made to all levels, both civilian and military
  2. Churchill likes risks and always sought ways to bring the war to the enemy
  3. The English navy taught their cadeets that the greatest sin was to lose their ships and therefore, when war came, they were very conservative and risk averse
  4. Churchill was known for his incredible work ethic and crazy hours but he still needed to sleep about 8 hours within a 24 hour period, they were just more erratic than most
  5. Hitler famously used velocity to his advantage with the blitzkrieg. However, he also importantly avoided going strength to strength and always sought weaknesses that could be exploited. Hitler had hardly traveled abroad but he had an intuitive sense for finding people’s and country’s weaknesses and exploiting them.
  6. A couple days after Germany attacked the lowlands and France, Neville Chamberlain resigned so that Churchill could form a national government. Churchill felt like his whole life was leading up to this point, that he was walking with destiny
  7. Churchill never delegated any PM decisions because he wanted to be number one but also because he wanted to know everything, allowing him to form the hologram in his head. He saw bigger picture than anyone but also got into the weeds. He issued ear plugs for soldiers because it was so loud on the frontlines, he used WWI memorabilia if it was still functional, asked what would happen to the animals at the zoo if it was bombed, etc.
  8. Getting America involved in the war was one of Churchill’s most important objectives. He worked FDR and Harry Hopkins, charming both of them and eventually getting America to agree to the lend lease program. Churchill knew he had convinced them when Hopkins rose during a dinner with Churchill and quoted from the Book of Ruth: “Whither thou goest I will go, and whither thou lodgest I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God,” he declared, dramatically adding, “even to the end.” Churchill wept openly.
  9. The furnace of war had smelted out all the base metals from him. – Chamberlain on Churchill
  10. While he could be rough, he had a deeply empathetic streak. He also saw things simply, which is why the masses loved him
  11. He kept a box with organized folders out of which he ran the country and the war
  12. He required each command he gave to be answered in writing because this ensured that nothing was confused or misunderstood
  13. He was a man of action who didn’t care much for fancy social theories. He cared about what worked. However, he was very well read as he believed this was a very effective form of action
  14. Every report had to be summarized in less than one page before he would look at and sign off on it
  15. He was hard on others but he was even harder on himself
  16. Churchill didn’t go to church often and when asked about this, he said he wasn’t a pillar of the church, but a buttress – supporting from the outside rather than the inside
  17. He was of the belief that in peace times, be good to all, but during times of war, only show absolute fury
  18. He digested history to the point that he could recount every detail. He made them his personal memories and it informed his life and decisions
  19. Napoleon urged his men to never form a static picture of what he thought the enemy might do. Maginot clearly didn’t heed this sage advice. He and Petain concluded that the Germans would never come through the Ardennes because it was too thick of a forest. This was clearly a huge blind spot
  20. On a particular day when the Royal Air Force had amazing results, Winston’s famous line was, “never have so many owed so much to so few.”
  21. Winston was very thoughtful and deliberate about he he communicated with the masses, making sure that steps were taken so that they knew how hard the army, navy, and military were fighting on their behalf, stoking their patriotism, bravery, and courage
  22. Something Germany didn’t understand was the tenacity of the British. Parliament voted 341-4 to fight on and avoid a peace treaty. In a divided government, this is an incredible show of unity
  23. Eventually a ministry of information was created to help combat Germany’s propaganda. Churchill called this department a “stand alone and off-the-shelf unit”
  24. Churchill abides by the law of flexibility and opportunism – allowing himself to react and make decisions as situations unfold – rather than sticking to rigid grand plans
  25. Churchill was a great painter and understood that war, like painting, is a situation where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts 
  26. Niels Bohr had a rule that things were either explained clearly or accurately, but they could not be both
  27. If there is only one option on the table, it is not an option
  28. Churchill had an encyclopedic knowledge of warfare and came to many of the same conclusions that von Clausewitz did – confuse and deceive the enemy, add idiosyncratic elements to your charges, capture armies and not real estate, and more

What I got out of it

  1. Like great biographers do, Manchester gives an intense look into the context, time, environment, in which Churchill live. Loved hearing about his quirks, his “gyroscope” which kept him on the right track regardless of the public’s mood, his oratorical skills, and so much more

On Grand Strategy by John Lewis Gaddis

Longer write-up and full notes can be found below. Excellent book if you’re interested in strategy and seeing how it has played out and been shaped over the last several millennia

Energy and Civilization: A History by Vaclav Smil

  1. A comprehensive account of how energy has shaped society throughout history, from pre-agricultural foraging societies through today’s fossil fuel–driven civilization.
Key Takeaways
  1. Energy is the only universal form of currency. It must be transformed in order to get anything done. Although the concept is universal, defining what energy is has proven hard. Matter is energy at rest, it can take many forms, and can’t be destroyed
  2. The entire flow of history can be seen as the desire for control of more versatile and condensed field of energy and converting it faster and with more efficiency to light, heat or motion
  3. Human bipedalism, ability to throw and hunt and make fire and to harvest nutrient dense foods, allowed for our ancestors to grow in size, strength, and brain power. We were able to spread to new areas and adapt thanks to these tools. Our ability to run long distances and perspire turned us into diurnal hunters who could chase big animals down due to overheating and exhaustion
  4. Agriculture and domestication of plants and animals obviously had huge impacts on how we lived, ate, traveled, and even how our bodies functioned. All animal meats and mushrooms have complete proteins but most cereals do not
  5. There are three steps in the agricultural revolution: the use of animals which helps eliminate the most difficult jobs, freeing up time to pursue other activities or simply make the work easier for the us; fertilization and irrigation which helps the whole process become more efficient; broader array of crops which helps make the whole process more productive and robust
  6. Energy use per person has gone down and become more efficient, also needing less economic growth to reach prosperous levels
  7. Increasing energy use is only linearly correlated at early stages of introduction with diminishing returns once most of the population gets the basics
  8. Search for new more and better energy sources has led towards innovation, globalization, change in social hierarchy, spread of wealth, and much more
What I got out of it
  1. An incredibly detailed and in depth look at the evolution of energy from hand tools to weapons to steam and internal combustion engines to nuclear power plants to forms of transportation. Their role, how they’ve shaped our lives and how they came to be

Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II by Robert Kurson

  1. John Chatterton and Richie Kohler risked their lives to explore a sunken WWII sunken German U-Boat just 60 miles off the coast of New Jersey
Key Takeaways
  1. Diving for shipwrecks is one of the most dangerous professions but even here it tends not to be the obstacles that kill divers, but their reaction to them. Great divers learn to overcome their emotions and their inborn fight or flight instincts and remain calm when most would panic. Liberated from his instincts he becomes something else, a freak of nature
  2. Fix the first problem fully and wholly before even thinking of addressing the second
  3. When a man finds what he is supposed to do or where he is supposed to be, it is impossible to be lost
  4. Chatterton, Nagel, and the rest of the crew couldn’t believe they had found a German U-Boat. The definitive moment came when they found a statue of the German eagle
  5. Always take your swing while the other guy is telling you how badly he’s going to beat you up
  6. After months of diving, hours of research, three lives lost, Chatterton and Kohler finally thought they had identified the U-Boat as boat U857
  7. It is amazing how murky and complex things can get when you leave it to experts. In order to feel confident, you have to do your own work and come to your own conclusions
What I got out of it
  1. Really exciting and well told stories about an unlikely find just 60 miles off the coast of New Jersey. The risk these men put on solving this mystery is amazing

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

  1. Although it may not seem like it, violence has seen a steady downward trend over the last several hundred years and we may in fact be living in the most peaceful time in our history. This book describes why this has occurred
Key Takeaways
  1. Hard to make any real progress when you are constantly worried about being attacked and pillaged. Changes not only how life is lived but also how life is understood
  2. Decline in violence has been paralleled by changes in the perception and glorification of violence and brutality, letting “the better angels of our nature” shine through and gain the spotlight
  3. Humans are not innately good nor bad – we have inner demons and angels and, along with culture and history, these guide men in their use of violence
  4. 6 major trends
    1. Pacification process – Shift from anarchy of hunter gatherer to more organized, agricultural life.
    2. Civilizing process – consolidation of land into feudal territories with a central authority
    3. Humanitarian revolution – progress towards removal of group-wide violence such as slavery and despotism
    4. Long peace – after WWII, major world powers have stopped waging wars on one another
    5. New peace – organized wars of all kinds have been on the decline
    6. The rights revolutions – more and more groups are gaining undisputed universal rights
  5. 5 inner demons
    1. Predatory violence
    2. Dominance
    3. Revenge
    4. Sadism
    5. Ideology
  6. 4 better angels
    1. Empathy
    2. Self control
    3. Moral sense through culture
    4. Faculty of reason
  7. 5 historical forces which have driven decreasing violence
    1. The Leviathan – legitimate use of force is encouraged by the central power and makes people feel they are on the right side of the angels when they use violence
    2. Feminization – increased respect for women and women’s rights
    3. Commerce – exchange of goods and ideas allowed quicker spread of more enlightened culture and is not zero sum
    4. Cosmopolitanism – literacy, mobility and mass media allow people to absorb different cultures and move away from immediate surroundings
    5. Escalator of reason – force people to reframe violence and see it as something which we can reduce
  8. Describes in gruesome detail the violence and its common occurrence during the hunter gatherer and early agricultural times. Especially as it’s depicted in the Bible
  9. Honor is a strange thing in that it exists only because we believe others believe it exists
  10. The US has a much higher homicide rate than Europe and most other developed countries and southern US far higher than northern. The author says that a culture of honor which was passed down from herders is the reason. Most southerners descended from herders and herders have a quicker anger trigger and are more likely to retaliate because livestock is easy to steal whereas land, which is what most northerner’s wealth was tied to, isn’t.
  11. One universal constant of violence is that 15-30 year old men conduct most of it
  12. Nature abhors a lop sided sex ratio
  13. Government does not deter violence because its citizens feels like Big Brother is always watching but because there is a reliable and consistent system in place where there is a good shot that you’ll get caught and punished if you commit a crime
  14. As books became more abundant after the printing press, the “bubble of empathy” was inflated as people were more commonly learning about secular rather than only religious topics and able to take fresh perspectives through novels and travel books
  15. War has steadily been decreasing in number but increasing in its total damage
  16. Wars declined substantially in the 18th century as many of the world powers shifted from conquest to commerce.
  17. Democracy, trade and intergovernmental ties reduce violence due to intermingling and inter-reliance
  18. To kill millions, more than weapons, you need an ideology
  19. The author believes that the single greatest catalyst of the rights revolution was the increasing spread and usage of technology which fostered noble action.
  20. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is one of the most important ideas / explanations of the 20th century. It has found that the “tit-for-tat” strategy most often leads to the best outcomes. If you mirror what the other party does, you get the most cooperation and benefits. An even superior strategy, which could be taken advantage of if there are too many “defectors” or “freeloaders” is tit-for-tat with added forgiveness. Mirror what the other person/team/company/etc. does and if they make a decision once which hurts you, forgive them (once).
  21. Increasing self-control over the last several centuries is a key reason for the huge drops in violence we have seen. A culture of honor shifted to a culture of dignity where men were more respected for their self control than for lashing out for any offenses
  22. Intelligence and self-control are the best predictors of success and decreased violence in both individuals and states. Reason has shown to negatively correlate to violence and the Flynn Effect (increasing intelligence seen over periods of decades rather than generations) have helped decrease violence
What I got out of it
  1. A deep and fascinating book. Does a great job of taking a big picture historical overview to describe many trends which have led to decreasing violence

Jesus: A 21st Century Biography by Paul Johnson

  1. Author wrote this book to broadly summarize the life of Jesus and to explain the joy he gets from following him
Key Takeaways
  1. Jesus was born in the context of a very powerful and expanding Rome and a wealthy Judea ruled by Herod
  2. When Gabriel told Mary that she would bear Jesus, The Annunciation as it later became known, is one of the most touching moments in history
  3. Jesus’ time as a shepherd affected him throughout his life – his love of high places for prayer and how he delivered and thought about sermons
  4. No prophet is accepted in his own country
  5. Jesus was a reluctant performer of miracles as he knew that this could cause a stir and possibly riots. It made people realize he was special but also aroused the anger of the authorities
  6. Jesus’ teachings were often new and counterintuitive. They stressed forgiveness and inner acceptance rather than riches and outer rewards
  7. Compassion has quite literally no limits. Not race, sex, religion, status or any other common dividing line
  8. Jesus was a poet and almost always used very memorable images and parables to get his lessons across. It was his way of directing and capturing emotion
  9. We are all neighbors and our salvation and happiness depends on kindness and charity, not tribe or nationality or race
  10. Heaven is not so much about justice as mercy
  11. Jesus’ redeeming feature was his friendliness, opennness and willingness to listen. He accepted everyone as they were
  12. Jesus made marriage indissoluble and this gave women status like never before. He was also unique in his love of children and their innocence
  13. The aim of Jesus was not to change the world but to make its inhabitants fit for the kingdom of God. He did not want to start a new regime but portray a new way of life. A leader whose goals are entirely spiritual was new to the world at this point
  14. Personality is unique but incomplete. Soul is given by God and has a need to return. Through free will we can accept this and return to the kingdom
  15. You cannot lay down laws of love but you can show them and that is how Jesus lives his life
  16. A life of mercy is a holy one. Grace is mercy. By showing mercy, we act as close to God as we can
  17. He was a man who always kept his head, was always equanimous
  18. Was against those whose minds were closed
  19. Truth is both found in God and in nature. That is why he went to the desert to pray
  20. Jesus frightened the current religious orders as he was attracting a huge following. The priests trembled for their lives, jobs and property. They did not believe or understand that Jesus’ kingdom was solely a spiritual one
  21. Pilate did not condemn Jesus because he thought he was guilty but because he was afraid that the Jewish religious leaders would report him to Rome. In fact, him and his wife thought him innocent
  22. After the crucifixion, Jesus was resurrected and Mary Magdalene was the first to see him and to report back to the Disciples. Shortly after, there was a mass baptism for 3,000 people and thus began Christianity
  23. The Gospels are meant to be read and re-read, gaining something new or a deeper understanding every time
What I got out of it
  1. I really enjoyed and learned a lot about Jesus, his teachings and more from this short biography