Sunday, January 31, 2010

Richistan - by Robert Frank

"Richistan" is a book that provides some insight into the lifestyles of the rich (some may not really be considered famous). The author, Robert Frank, maintains a blog for the Wall Street Journal entitled The Wealth Report. On June 5, 2007, his post, "Why Richistan? Why Now?" was about the release of this book on that day. In this article, he points out that "the wealthy weren’t just getting wealthier — they were forming their own virtual country. They were wealthier than most nations, with the top 1% controlling $17 trillion in wealth. And they were increasingly building a self-contained world, with its own health-care system (concierge doctors), travel system (private jets, destination clubs) and language. ... They had created their own breakaway republic — one I called Richistan. ... The real story behind all this wealth, however, isn’t in the numbers. It’s in the people, and how they’re changing the culture and character of wealth in America. Richistan is largely about a country in flux — one in which Old Money is being shoved aside by self-made entrepreneurs, philanthropy is changing from passive check-writing to “high-engagement philanthropy" ... Most of all, Richistan is about the entertaining way that today’s rich are making, spending, donating and living with their wealth."

Although Richistan's population is less than 10 million today, they control more than 90% of America's wealth. Even in Richistan, however, there is a hierarchy. Lower Richistan with its members having only $1 million to $10 million in net worth are considered by many to be simply affluent, rather than true Richistanis. The world of personal jets, amazing yachts, and corporation sized house staffs, are found in Middle and Upper Richistan, as well as Billionaireville. Just as the gap between the most wealthy and the poor is ever widening, so is a similar gap between the wealthiest and entry-level Richistanis. In case you are too jealous of those in Richistan, however, apparently, having all of that money brings its own set of problems. Improving (or even just maintaining) ones lifestyle can be stressful. For example, Richistan is faced with a much higher inflation rate.

Although this book is only a few years old, it precedes most of the recent and dramatic economic downturn. As such, a recurring thought to me throughout the book, was what impact, if any, that the recent economic crisis had on Richistan. In a March 18, 2009 blog post entitled "Help, I’ve Been Deported From Richistan", Frank somewhat addreses just this question. He explains that, "now, the Richistan border is jammed–with people getting deported. It turns out that many of these immigrants acted like they belonged but were really illegal aliens who got into Richistan with tourist visas and fake passports, also known as borrowed money. Others lost their right to citizenship through their investments: The number of millionaires dropped by a quarter last year and is likely to drop again this year." I would expect, however, that the things have probably turned around more quickly for Richistan than the rest of us. In reality, recent events have probably only accelerated even further separation of Richistan, and its wealth, from the rest of society.

As a former foreign correspondent, Robert Frank states his intent and goal to "cover Richistan just as I would cover another country. I wouldn’t judge the rich as heroes or villains, any more than I would judge Indonesians when covering Indonesia. My job would simply be to tell the reader what their world is like and what’s happening there." I think he did an admirable job of achieving this goal. I found the book both informative and entertaining, but always objective.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar - by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein

Philosophy is normally "not my thing." In general, I am not a "big thinker" and my interests lie more in the details of how things work rather than in questions such as "why do they exist?" or "what is the greater purpose or meaning?." I do enjoy humor, however, and to me, even a corny joke can be quite enjoyable. This offering, then, which frames philosophical concepts in terms of jokes, is my kind of philosophy book. The authors present philosophy and comedy in a manner they term "philogagging." From Aristotle to Augustine, Nietzsche, Descartes, and Sartre, the concepts of many philosophers are illustrated in a lighthearted and amazingly comprehensible manner through jokes. If you're not into deep philosphical thinking, this book offers some exposure to some weighty thoughts in a very light manner.

There are a number of reasons one may want to read this book. The authors are real philosophy majors with a Harvard academic pedigree. This book could be used as a tool to help one learn and better understand philosophy. The presentation of concepts in the context of jokes was, for my simple brain, very helpful to better understanding and comprehension. While I certainly learned from this book, however, I did not treat it as a textbook. Enjoyment and entertainment was my objective and I was a satisfied customer. While stand-up comics would probably be hard pressed to find material in this book, I found it quite humorous. While what is funny and what is not can be a very subjective opinion, I found this book funny enough to keep me hooked and wanting to read more. I enjoyed this book in both its concept and its organization. I recommend it. Cathcart and Klein also have a new book: Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates: Using Philosophy (and Jokes!) to Explore Life, Death, the Afterlife, and Everything in Between
which looks to be in a similar vein. If you enjoy politics, you may consider Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington. Look for either or both of these in a future review. I intend to check them out when I get the chance.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Winner - by David Baldacci

LuAnn Tyler is a very poor young mother in Georgia with movie star looks, little education, and a loser boyfriend. Responding to a potential job interview, she is offered a chance to become the guaranteed winner of the national lottery. LuAnn, a good and moral person, struggles with any involvement in something illegal like cheating to win the lottery, but in an unexpected and unfortunate turn of events is forced into accepting the deal, winning the money, and then disappearing from sight.

After ten years of living like a fugitive, LuAnn sneaks back into the United States under her new name. When a reporter stumbles across an unexpected anomaly and the man behind the lottery fix gets wind of her return against his will, however, LuAnn has a serious problem. I don't want to give too much of the story away, but LuAnn is not the only person who is hiding behind a different identity. In fact, it is a fairly common theme throughout the novel. Baldacci does a great job at intertwining deception and truth to keep the reader guessing.

I found "The Winner" to be very enjoyable and a great read. I was hooked throughout. As you might expect in a thriller, most of the characters are quite extraordinary - none of your run of the mill or average types. All are very well developed, however, and very human. I was able to relate to, on some level, each of the characters on this book. Don't get me wrong, I was behind LuAnn throughout the book, but Baldacci does a great job of incorporating shades of morality throughout the book to make me think about what is right, what is wrong, and what would I do. How could I not recommend it.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

After the Stroke: My Journey Back to Life - by Mark McEwen

The version I read of this book was actually titled "Change in the Weather." As the same book (to my understanding) is currently being marketed and sold as "After the Stroke," I am using the current title and cover image for this review.

While I was never a regular viewer of CBS morning news shows, I do know who Mark McEwen is and find him to be a very likable and talented celebrity. In 2005, after having moved to Orlando, where he was news anchor for a local station there, Mark suffered a stroke during a visit to Baltimore. This was mis-diagnosed, and on his trip home, he subsequently suffered a massive stroke. This book provides a sketch of Mark's life both before and after the stroke. This narrative about his life not only bolstered my positive opinion of him as an on-air personality, but also showed him to be courageous, hard-working, and caring, while at the same time very human.

A stated purpose of the book is to educate about stroke and stroke prevention. By sharing his first hand experience, McEwen does this quite effectively. Although I have had some personal exposure to friends and family who have experienced relatively minor strokes, reading this book made me acutely aware of how little I really knew. Whether this information will be of use to you in stroke prevention, early detection of possible stroke in you or someone around you, or in understanding the implications and possibilities of stroke recovery, this is information we all should know. Stroke is the third leading cause of death in America and the leading cause of adult disability. According to the National Stroke Association, up to 80% of all strokes are preventable.