Crossfire Hurricane

Peter Strzok’s memoir “Compromised – Counterintelligence And The Threat of Donald J. Trump” offers a fascinating review of the investigation into allegations of Russian influence on President-Elect Donald J. Trump and the Hillary Clinton email controversy.  

Electing our leaders in democratic, fair processes is a topic I greatly care about. Understanding the mechanics of intelligence operations and information control is a topic I frequently read about. So I was eager to read more about the intelligence work that took place when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump faced off for a historic election. 

Peter Strzok is a career law enforcement officer having served as the FBI’s Deputy Assistant Director of Counterintelligence. There is no doubt about his integrity, service, and devotion to the agency. Yet his personal communications indicated otherwise. Unfortunately, his memoir “Compromised” is detailed regarding Trump, but silent regarding his motives. The book is loosely broken into chronological events. While it isn’t written chronologically per se, the reader can trace back steps to the investigation into Hillary Clinton, the ill-advised commentary of former FBI Director James Comey, and subsequently the election of Trump. When it comes to telling a compelling narrative to explain the individual steps necessary in an intelligence investigation of this magnitude, I missed clear language, process steps, and clarity to help readers understand the process. Why did the FBI do what it did? Instead, Strzok tells his own subjective story, which greatly diminishes the learning value of this read and quickly becomes a dull endeavor. 

Altogether, it was a mediocre yet well-written read that didn’t add any new information to the already dense coverage of the events. Moreover, I can’t quite be sure of the neutrality of this memoir given the author’s personal actions which found no mention in the entire book.

Why Are We Polarized?

Are we bound to follow tribal instincts when logic should lead us across the political aisle?

When I hear that the American political system isn’t broken, but exactly working as designed I can’t help but wonder how this can be true in times of all-encompassing social media, rapid loss of attention, and increasing discrimination of economic opportunity. However Ezra Klein’s book Why We’re Polarized claims that, and more, that this working political system is polarized by us as we are getting polarized by it. As confusing as it starts, Klein nevertheless does a fantastic job to elaborate his thoughts throughout ten chapters spread over 268 pages with convincing research and easy-to-read prose.

Frankly, I found this general topic challenging to comprehend. Hence Klein’s book appears to me neither a clear-cut psychological review of polarization nor is it a deep dive into America’s governance and democratic institutions. It comes across as a hybrid of history lessons, democratic ideas, and political media management. In light of such a mess I tend to gravitate to first principles: what is polarization? 

According to Klein “the logic of polarization is to appeal to a more polarized public, (so) political institutions and actors behave in more polarized ways. As political institutions and actors become more polarized, they further polarize the public.

Explaining polarization with polarization isn’t helpful. After searching for adequate definitions I found myself trapped in deciding between constitutional polarization and political polarization and the iterative sense of polarization. Interpreting Klein’s logic polarization may be a deviation from core political beliefs toward ideological extremes in an effort to reach a new audience. That in turn perpetuates a more extreme behavior of political actors and institutions. As Klein argues:   

“This sets off a feedback cycle: to appeal to a yet more polarized public, institutions must polarize further; when faced with yet more polarized institutions, the public polarizes further, and on on.”

It’s not an ideal beginning to a complex story, but it makes the most out of it. Across the first few chapters, Klein dives into the history of the American political system; mainly how Democrats turned liberal and Republicans became conservative. When it comes to group identity, the book dives deeper into the psychological aspects of us voters. 

“We became more consistent in the party we vote for not because we came to like our party more– indeed, we’ve come to like the parties we vote for less–but because we came to dislike the opposing party more.”

To put it simply Klein argues we have a stronger loyalty to our group than we have to our own ideology. Add in some cases a strong repulsion of the other group’s belief system. Klein continues:

“The human mind is exquisitely tuned to group affiliation and group difference. It takes almost nothing for us to form a group identity, and once that happens, we naturally assume ourselves in competition with other groups. The deeper our commitment to our group becomes, the more determined we become to ensure our group wins.”

There is plenty of well-established scientific research to concur with this notion. While the psychology of the crowd is one factor in this complex analysis, Klein manages to clarify that our identity, more than our previous system of beliefs, where we live, or who we associate with, dictates our sense of loyalty. And no other entity threatens our identity as much as the media. American media, the press, and political journalism are by nature mouthpieces of certain political powers – and always have been. Following the hotly contested Presidential election in the year 2000, the election of America’s first African-American President in 2008, and the consistently increasing economic gap between those who repair, clean, transport, deliver, and educate our communities and those who (merely) push paper our American identity has never been more called into question as it is today; especially in policy proposals of aspiring presidential candidates. Klein does not shy away from criticizing the media’s contribution to the skewed, partisan landscape:

“If we (the media) decide to give more coverage to Hillary Clinton’s emails than to her policy proposals–which is what we did–then we make her emails more important to the public’s understanding of her character and the potential presidency than her policy proposals. In doing so, we shape not just the news but the election, and thus the country.”

Overall, though, Klein’s book feels like a warm conversation with someone who is genuinely interested in understanding how we got where we are. He offers a clear diagnosis of the current State of the Union without swaying too far into either political camp, but falls short in offering a pathway forward or even mere suggestions on how to bridge the gap between opposing (political) viewpoints; therefore groups. Ezra Klein’s advice is “to pay attention to identity. What identity is that news article invoking? What identity is making you defensive? What does it feel like when you get pushed back into an identity? Can you notice when it happens?”

It is an engaging book that provides insight into the political discourse of America beyond New York or California. While it is well written and researched it feels more like a conversation, a starting point, rather than a solution or a means forward. 

Ballistic Books: Tesla, Inc.

What drives consumer demand for Tesla vehicles? Its cult-like following is certainly stronger online than economic numbers would suggest. Few books chronicle the electrical revolution of the automotive industry. These recommendations will help you learn more about Tesla, Inc, where it came from, and where it is headed.

Ballistic books is a series to present literature of interest. Each edition is dedicated to a specific topic. I found it challenging to discover and distinguish good from great literature. With this series, I aim to mitigate that challenge.

  1. Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Bet of the Century by Tim Higgins

“Tale of Tesla, Elon Musk is inherently dramatic and compellingly told in ‘Power Play’ – Camila Domonoske

  1. Tesla, Elon Musk, and the EV Revolution: An in-depth analysis of what’s in store for the company, the man, and the industry by a value investor and newly-minted Tesla owner by Vitaliy Katsenelson

“A great, thought-provoking analysis of Tesla that is well balanced and makes you really think about Tesla, its future, and the future of electric vehicles.” – John Paul

  1. Insane Mode: How Elon Musk’s Tesla Sparked an Electric Revolution to End the Age of Oil by Hamish McKenzie

“McKenzie has delivered a narrative that both fascinates and frustrates: Musk’s passion for a clean-energy future is contagious, but at the same time it’s painful to see the struggle of the electric-car industry to widen its market and win over more consumers. “Insane Mode” will leave you wondering how different our roads would look if we embraced a technology that almost seems inevitable, batteries included.” – David Silverberg

  1. Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors by Edward Niedermeyer

“Tesla fans may hate the book ‘Ludicrous’ but both they and critics should read it” – Sam Abuelsamid

  1. Tesla: How Elon Musk and Company Made Electric Cars Cool, and Remade the Automotive and Energy Industries by Charles Morris

“A great collection of facts and knowledge about the early history of Tesla. It includes over 500 footnotes with sources and is based on personal interviews with Tesla founders.” – Mikolaj Misiurewicz

  1. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

“Any list of books about Tesla, Inc. would be incomplete without a closer look at the real-world ‘Iron Man’ – the creator of Tesla, SpaceX, The Boring Company, Neuralink, and Twitter – Elon Musk.” – Anonymous

How To Built Community To Influence Elections

Read this book to improve your civic engagement and create a more meaningful neighborhood.

Eitan Hersh is an associate professor of political science at Tufts University. In his latest book “Politics Is For Power – How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change” he decries the virtue signaling that is political hobbyism on social media and makes a case for grassroots politics. 

Political hobbyism can be identified as short-lived, current affair commentary on social media that results in no real-world change. It delivers a feeling of participation. We all have done it to some extent. Yet, Hersh finds, especially the political left fails to recognize that real political change is driven by a few selected local leaders who listen to the needs of a community. Consistent in-person community outreach builds a stronger community that is rather aligned than divided on overarching, public policy programs. 

“Political hobbyism is to public affairs what watching SportsCenter is to playing football.”

Source: College-Educated Voters Are Ruining American Politics by Eitan Hersh

Among the many well-told stories in this book, Hersh offers a prominent example of Starbucks founder Howard Schultz. For a brief moment in the 2020 U.S. Presidential Elections Schultz entertained an independent bid for the highest position in this country. Remember, Starbucks was built over decades of carefully choosing product ingredients, the ambiance of its stores, and hiring local leaders to represent its brand. It was a slow expansion from Seattle to the greater Pacific Northwest and year by year to more States across the United States. But when it came to his own campaign bid, Schultz seemingly forgot his patient business acumen but threw endless money at cable news and talk shows to make his case in less than eighteen months. Obviously, from the outside and in hindsight, this approach reeks of failure when it took years to build the Starbucks brand nationwide. Why would he seriously believe to reach the same market plurality in the political domain in just eighteen months? Because politics were only a hobby to Howard Schultz. 

“Politics Is For Power” is appropriate for community leaders, new and seasoned neighbors, social justice warriors and keyboard cowboys, and anybody really interested in improving civic engagement in their community. Personally, I loved the idea of using political donations instead of buying political ads to rather spend it on support for local community organizers who engage in face-to-face conversations with the local community and actually listen. Crafting impactful, social and economic policies is an arduous process that can only succeed if all voices of society have been heard. Furthermore, Hersh created captivating storylines condensed and spread across each chapter, which really brings home his point about taking action requires getting out the door, talking to your neighbors, and listen. 

Lastly, if you’re still reading, I feel it’s necessary to call out editorial ingenuity when it is due: this book has 217 pages, 22 chapters, and encompasses 5 parts. Each page is formatted for the reader’s pleasure. Chapters are comprehensive yet not longer than a commute to work would be. And its parts really provide a structure around the argument that highlights the thoughtful content of the book. Kudos, Simon & Schuster!

Hit Hard, Hit Everyone, And Hit Them All At Once

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis viewed big government and big corporations as symptoms of a “curse of bigness”. Their sheer size places a stranglehold around the democratic neck of economic freedom, or, to put it in simple terms: it takes away choice. Tim Wu, who is a law professor at Columbia University, argues in his most recent book “The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age” to break up modern, large trusts of the digital age to immediately boost free market competition. But, in order to understand how he got to this conclusion, it is necessary to take a closer look at the historical context and how antitrust law and economic policy developed throughout some of the most impactful years for the United States of America. 

tl;dr

This paper is a supplement to the book “The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age.” It covers the years between 1920-1945, with a focus on the New Deal, and represents material left out of the original book.

Make sure to read the full supplement titled The Curse of Bigness: New Deal Supplement between chapters 3 and 4 of the book with the same title by Tim Wu at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3646258

Thurman Arnold speaks with a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee in March 1938. (Source: WyoHistory.org)

In this supplement, Wu covers how the United States experimented with central planning and policies resulting in a state-managed economy similar to communism in the Soviet Union or state-sponsored socialism in Italy or Germany only to fail catastrophically. He goes on to detail large chain retailers’ quest against the Robinson-Patman Act. The J.C. Penneys, Sears, and Woolworths of the era. Lastly, he takes a look at Alcoa and the question of the benign monopoly. Is it beneficial to allow a single player to dominate a market segment when it offers fair prices without any apparent economic harm? To this, Federal Appellate Court Justice Billings Learned Hand had to state: 

“The Sherman Act has wider purposes. Many people believe that possession of unchallenged economic power deadens initiative, discourages thrift, and depresses energy; that immunity from competition is a narcotic, and rivalry is a stimulant to industrial progress; that the spur of constant stress is necessary to counteract an inevitable disposition to let well enough alone.”

Perhaps what makes this supplement great and worth a read is Wu’s historical account of Thurman Arnold. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed little-known Arnold from Wyoming to become the U.S. Attorney General for the Antitrust Division in 1938. Unlike any other antitrust enforcer before or since, Arnold went on to file 1,375 complaints in 213 prosecutions involving 40 industries, while pursuing 185 investigations – all by 1939. Arnold went after the car industry, the film industry, big pharma, big banks, and so many more. His strategy would become known as “shock treatment” whereby a lawsuit would target not just one monopolist, but all its vertically and horizontally integrated co-conspirators. It was as simple as “hit hard, hit everyone, and hit them all at once.”

This supplement is a must-read if you are about or in the process of reading the curse of bigness. If you have ever seen “The Men Who Built America” the historical context of the supplement will serve as valuable knowledge. If you rather watch Tim Wu talk about his book and his learnings, watch this

Meaning Is The New Money

This provocative new book on religion and work in the technology sector will make you see life in a different light.

According to 4 U.S.C. §4 the United States is one Nation under God. H.R. 619 (84th) passed and approved by President Dwight D. Eisenhower mandates the official motto of the United States “In God We Trust” to appear on all currency issued by the Federal Government of these United States. Without a doubt, religion and spirituality are deeply rooted in this country. Hence it comes as no surprise when Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley Carolyn Chen posits “Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley” in her new book Work Pray Code

“Today, companies are not just economic institutions. They’ve become meaning-making institutions that offer a gospel of fulfillment and divine purpose in a capitalist cosmos.”

The colorful, borderline-sacred language of this statement illustrates Chen’s ambitions to base the premise of this book on the workplace is replacing religious needs. At her core argument, Chen reasons companies create a meaningful work experience by emulating religious themes, omitting the spiritual or discriminating aspects of faith, which is becoming a substitute for exercising religion outside of work and with the community.

“Religions and companies are collective enterprises. They are ‘faith communities’, communities that support the act of faith. On one level, faith communities do this by articulating the articles of faith– the doctrines, creeds, and sacred texts and teachings. For most companies, and many other organizations, these articles of faith are their mission statement and statement of core values.”

Taken at face value, Chen makes it appear that companies’ mission statements emulate or are synonymous with religious beliefs. However, a closer look reveals that the mission statements of neither Google, Meta (née Facebook) nor Microsoft purport articles of faith. Taking it a step further, if Chen defines religions as collective enterprises, I’d argue companies may as well be independent organizations each governed by unique financial and economic goals, limited by available budget and human resources. A number of technology companies operating out of Silicon Valley engage in eco-friendly sustainability to power data centers and other parts of the organization, but is the water supply division of Meta truly vested in the intricacies of reviewing python code to reign in inauthentic behavior and other automated malicious behavior on Instagram? Could each division link the other’s efforts back to the mission statement? Whose division will shut down first to protect the integrity of the mission statement? I have doubts. 

“In the Silicon Valley workplace, work and life are no longer separate and opposing spheres because life happens at work. In fighting the notion that work and life occupy distinct spaces and times, tech companies are reviving a much older way of organizing society. In agrarian societies, work and life were integrated for both women and men. The farm was both home– where people ate, slept, and played– and workplace– where people labored and participated in the economic system. Industrialization began to impose stark boundaries between work and life, particularly for men. Work became confined to a particular space, time, and logic– the factory, with its rhythm governed by the values of efficiency and productivity. Life– defined as activities that don’t contribute to production– happened outside of the factory in the home, church, neighborhood, bowling alley, baseball diamond, saloon, hair salon, and so on. […] Today’s tech company is returning to the undifferentiated spheres of its preindustrial predecessor, however, by making life a part of work.”

This paragraph resonated with me for its accuracy and insight. Coming from a farmer’s family, I experienced some variation of an undifferentiated sphere where work and life all took place at the same time. Somewhere along the road, it all separated into standalone parts of our day. As a technology company, an unrelenting global market of competition for highly-skilled talent as well as pushing products directly to the consumer in real-time is an incentive to maximize productivity and workforce utilization by ensuring a highly-skilled employee is 100% focused on its division’s roadmap and driving execution of it.

I cannot make up my mind about this book. On one hand, Chen makes a valid point by stating technology companies emulate religious characteristics in order to alleviate their employee’s spiritual needs. Moreover, I subscribe to the general argument of mindfulness in conjunction with corporate materialism appears to create an industrial-technology complex that emanates virtues and exercises characteristics of religions. On the other hand, however, I fail to identify a link between a technology company using methods and characteristics developed to further religious beliefs resulting in a replacement theory that Chen appears to offer in her introduction. I view these efforts as motivated by raw capitalism: to benefit its workforce and increase productivity, utilization, and retention as a side effect. Furthermore, her focus is exclusively on technology companies located in Silicon Valley. In reality, however, technology companies are located all over the United States with varying numbers of full-time employees. Limiting her research on the technology sector alone appears to be a flimsy base for a solid argument too. For example, 3M, General Motors, Kraft Heinz, and even Exxon Mobile have a history of wide-ranging benefits similar to Silicon Valley. Setting aside economic motives, Chen missed out on exploring these other sectors including academia, which is known for its fraternal, cult-esque exclusivity, and the almighty military, which is known for strict indoctrination and behavioral codes

Altogether I learned a lot about the perception and correlation of both religion and Silicon Valley. Whether it applies to the modern workplaces as Carolyn Chen weaves it together remains to be discovered by the reader. Perhaps concluding with more critique than praise for Work Pray Code is a good thing for it forced me to reflect on some preconceived notions about religion. Chen devoted an entire chapter to the art of reflection and I found Lin Chi’s quote to question more perfect to end: “if you meet the Buddha, kill him.” But before you do, read this book.

Ballistic Books: Social Media

What would society look like without social media? Where would technology be if it weren’t for Meta, formerly known as Facebook, pushing the boundaries of human attention and social connectivity? When Facebook became “a thing” I was hesitant to create an account because, at the time, I had a MySpace and an ICQ account, and SMS was sufficient for staying connected with my community. Little did I know, how meaningful Facebook would become by allowing me to create international connections, find people to do local activities with, and reminisce on “the good ol’ days”. An Ugly Truth tells a different story. It alleges Facebook prioritized platform growth over user security and content integrity. While bashing Facebook is a sure-fire way of getting attention in a market that competes for attention, I look forward to learning more about the complex machine that operates Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. From No Filter, I hope to learn more about how Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger built their photo-sharing app that would become Instagram. Apparently, it’s building on the American drama film The Social Network which tells Mark Zuckerberg’s ideation and launch of thefacebook.com. Lastly, Hatching Twitter is an honorary mention. It’s a story that should be a movie. I read it a while back and, in light of Elon Musk running it into the ground, will likely read it again.

Ballistic books is a series to present literature of interest. Each edition is dedicated to a specific topic. I found it challenging to discover and distinguish good from great literature. With this series, I aim to mitigate that challenge.

  1. An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination by Sheera Frenkel & Cecilia Kang 

Sheera Frenkel is a technology reporter based in San Francisco. You can find Sheera Frenkel on Twitter @sheeraf. Cecilia Kang is a technology reporter for The New York Times. You can find Cecilia Kang on Twitter @ceciliakang

  1. No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram by Sarah Frier

Sarah Frier is a technology reporter for Bloomberg News out of San Francisco. You can find Sarah Frier on Twitter @sarahfrier

  1. Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal by Nick Bilton
(Source: Sage)

Nick Bilton is a British-American journalist, author, and filmmaker. He is currently a special correspondent at Vanity Fair. You can find  Nick Bilton on Twitter @nickbilton

Becoming Boss

Do you have what it takes to be a leader? Probably not. But that’s all right. In her mid-twenties, Julie Zhuo answered the call for leadership when she became a manager at Facebook. In her book, she compiled her mistakes, lessons, and strategies to lead people and create better organizations – so you can learn to become a leader.

What do you do when everyone looks to you for guidance and leadership? Some thrive in the spotlight. Others crumble and fail. Julie Zhuo went from being the first intern “at this website called Facebook” to becoming a Vice President of Product Design in her 13.5 years at the social network. Her career is not a career of an outlier but a results-driven, hard-working individual. Managing people is no different. Managers are made, not born. 

The Making of a Manager is a field guide for growth. First, I read it cover-to-cover. Then I realized how powerful each chapter is by itself and started keeping it near my desk to calibrate my thinking against experiences at work. Zhuo describes her growth through a forward-leaning approach to people management. Most notably, her approach seeks to stress test her own leadership protocol to fail – only to allow her a chance to improve it. It’s hard work. Dedication. And (my personal favorite) thoughtful questions directed at peers, partners, reports, but perhaps most importantly herself. After all, leadership starts with managing yourself.   

Any entrepreneur will benefit from her early experience at a company that would grow to redefine how people connect with one another. Any employee in a large organization will relate to her tactful yet challenging questions during individual and group meetings. Zhuo’s relatable and empathetic writing style reels in any reader contemplating a career in people management. That being said, the market for business books is quite saturated with leadership or self-improvement books and to some, her experience might be too far from reality given her unique circumstances coming up at Facebook. To this day, I truly enjoy reading her posts or notes and the general public can do so too on her blog The Looking Glass, or on her website at https://www.juliezhuo.com/

Who Holds The Pen? 

Richard Stengel’s memoir illustrates the complexity of modern government.

Richard Stengel served as the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs alongside the 68th Secretary of State John Kerry. In his memoir “Information Wars – How We Lost The Global Battle Against Disinformation & What We Can Do About It” he recounts his time working for the Obama administration. Arguably, the Obama administration was a forward-leaning government calibrated to modern technology with a pulse on current affairs. Stengel really captures the struggles that even a modern government must overcome. From protocol and etiquette at meetings to the clearance protocol of social media use and other technology. When recounting his efforts to drive the democratic narrative online, combatting bad actors in the process, Stengel observed: 

“One of the things I’d noticed in government is that people who had never been in media, who had never written a story or produced one, […] who didn’t understand audiences or what they liked, seemed to think it was easy to create content. People had the illusion that because they consumed something, they understood how it worked.

This fallacy applies to many more segments of society, not just government. It illustrates how technology is misunderstood by the public who tend to forget that policy decisions and strategy at scale, impacting thousands if not millions of people, are incredibly tough to fine-tune and nuanced at all levels. Stengel offers an example of counter-messaging the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram social media by leveraging the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC). Boko Haram had kidnapped some 276 girls from a secondary school in Nigeria. The idea was simple: show support for the kidnapped girls in an online campaign. Stengel approved the content for the campaign. Ten days later, he found out the content was objected by the Africa bureau. After updating the content with feedback from the Africa bureau, the content was approved but not through the clearance process because the Bureau of Intelligence and Research had objected on those changes. Ten days of silence on social media is tantamount to a lifetime of non-existence. Stengel went on learning that things he’d expect to take hours would take days; things he’d expect to take days would take weeks; things that he’d expect to take weeks would take months. Many more governmental departments default to “No” than to a “Yes”. It really made me think about new ways to improve government. But it is also an urgent reminder that government needs disruption.  

Another interesting lesson from this book is the balance between diplomacy, career development and leadership. His interactions with the Secretary of State John Kerry testify to Stengel’s business acumen despite working for the government. About Kerry Stengel notes:

“He’s permanently leaning forward. That was his attitude about the world as well. To plunge in, to move forward, to engage. There’s no knot he doesn’t think he can untie, no breach that he can’t heal. For him, the cost of doing nothing was always higher than that of trying something.

It’s almost bittersweet to read these lines of optimism considering the slow pace the State Department moved during these heydays of ISIS, Al-Qaeda or Boko Haram all the way leading up to the Russian influence operation to undermine the 2016 US Presidential elections. Then again, Stengel really captured the predicament of the government at the time when he writes:

“What few of us understood at that point was that our opponents– Russia as well as ISIS –wanted us to get into a back-and-forth with them. It validated what they were doing, brought us down to their level, and besides, we weren’t as good at it as they were. They won when they got us to respond in kind.”

Engagement and impressions are everything online. Capturing our attention is the success metric for effective influence operations. This can be an overt diplomatic endeavor, like the Iran Nuclear deal, that sought to bring the United States and Iran a step closer together, or it can be a clandestine operation, like ‘Glowing Symphony’, that sought to deplatform ISIS and eradicate their narrative online. 

Information Wars should have been titled with a more accurate title. Other than that I found Stengel’s memoir quite illuminating when it comes to government processes and how the State Department aligns itself with the current administration. As a journalist-by-trade and former managing editor of Time Magazine, Stengel’s writing style is simple and narrating. The density could have been better. It sometimes feels like a magazine. Across 7 parts and numerous chapters a lot of personal anecdotes and experience dilute the lessons of this book. Without that, this 314 page memoir could have been a concise non-fiction on influence operations and a concise memoir about his life. 

How To Bring People Together And Create Meaningful Memories

Everything you ever wanted to know about gathering strangers, colleagues, friends, or family under a variety of circumstances so they will connect and cherish the event.

Priya Parker is an expert in conflict resolution. Throughout her career, her work often required facilitating high-stakes meetings between different political leaders around the world. This helped her to collect first-hand experience about how we connect with one another and what makes a gathering meaningful. In essence that is what The Art Of Gathering – How We Meet And Why It Matters is all about. It’s a root cause analysis that identifies the levers to make an event become a lasting memory. Her premise is centered around the fallacy of the “chill host”. A chill host is overly concerned about the logistics of an event instead of caring about the people and their experiences. It’s the type of “hands-off” host who sits back on the night of the gathering. Parker argues the event starts at the moment of the first conception and it ends (sometimes) long after people have left the premises. A host needs to identify beforehand the “why” they’re really gathering. What meaning is to be conveyed by bringing a certain group of people together? Who to invite? Who to cut? And where would be the optimal environment to accommodate individuals’ preferences? A host needs to be disciplined, proactive and leveraging pop-up rules. 

An illustration of the former is about her first experience with the female period. When she was eleven years old, she got her first period – at a friend’s house. Insecure about it, she didn’t tell anybody, but went back home and told her mom eventually. Eleven is an age where beliefs and judgments correlate with people’s reactions. Her mom’s reaction to learning about her daughter’s first period was one of celebration. She danced, hooted, and hollered with joy. Inadvertently or intentionally, her mom taught her daughter that being a woman, the unique features that make a woman female, was something to be celebrated, cherished, and embraced. Her mom even threw her a period party. How about that! 

Whereas an example for the latter is what Parker coined “The Château Principle”. Thereunder the host needs to realize that the choice of venue is among the most powerful levers over the guests’ behavior. Her example revolves around the infamous failure of merger negotiations between the French cellphone provider Alcatel and the American telecommunications equipment provider Lucent. (Read this analysis for more details) Initially, both parties prepared the merger diligently in good faith and geared up to create a “marriage of equals”. To finalize the deal, both parties were supposed to meet in a nondescript airport hotel in New Jersey. However, when an Alcatel executive fell ill, they requested the meeting to be held in France in the Château Des Mesnuls, a renaissance style castle. While it’s speculation to find out the real reasons for the failure of the merger, a few Lucent executives recounting the negotiations observed how the château brought out the Frenchness of the French. Alcatel employees became comfortable asserting their dominance on home turf which reflected a certain arrogance and hubris that tipped the negotiations to fall apart. Location, location, location is real-estate wisdom that also applies to gatherings. 

Parker wrote The Art Of Gathering across 281 pages segmented into 8 chapters. It is a quick and easy read yet I found some paragraphs could have been edited more succinctly. Her voice can come across as overbearing or patronizing, but I view this as part of re-learning a part of my life that I neglected for far too long. Notably understanding gatherings as social contracts with certain responsibilities is incredibly helpful. In addition to offering practical tips on how to discover, structure, and select event details I was surprised by how easy it seems to translate her findings to cyberspace, e.g metaverse gatherings in virtual reality or group events and chats on Facebook. Anyone quite interested in the subject of crowd psychology will be able to fill in knowledge gaps and view certain aspects of their social gatherings through a new, fresh lens. 

Book recommendations ebb and flow. Some find me by chance. Others are the product of premeditated research. The Art Of Gathering was recommended to me by my dear friend Nichole. The story of how we met goes beyond the scope of this blog, but I will document this: it was under the most random, endearing, and meaningful circumstances crammed into one weekend somewhere around Seattle. Flying boxed wine bags, neon lights, and deep, mind-absorbing conversations included.   

In case you are not into reading an entire book on the single topic of bringing people together then I would recommend watching this video. Parker says “how we gather is how we live”. How do you live your life?