How The U.S. Air Force Won WWII

On August 6, 1945 at 8:15 AM the Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber named after its pilot’s mother, was well above the city of Hiroshima in Japan. Its bomb bay opened and it released the infamous payload codenamed “Little Boy”. 53 seconds later and the city of Hiroshima resembled hell. This first ever wartime use of a nuclear weapon arguably expedited the Japanese decision to surrender the war. Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book “The Bomber Mafia” chronicles the renegade group of pilots who went well beyond the call of duty leading up to this point in history. They redefined military strategy that would become the foundation for the Air Force to eventually separate from the Army as an independent military branch. They utilized precision bombing tactics and creative strategy to attack the enemy from ever-changing angles at breathtaking casualty and destruction rates. While the nuclear attack on Hiroshima resulted in about 4.7 square miles of damage, the Bomber Mafia devised and executed incendiary air raid missions that destroyed ten times more enemy infrastructure and killed hundreds of thousands more. During Operation Meetinghouse, the single most deadly bomber attack in human history, as much as 16 square miles of Tokyo were destroyed. More than 100,000 civilians were killed and over one million left homeless. Gladwell presents the impossibility of choice these men were faced with in a page-turning fashion. 

The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War is unlike his previous books. He doesn’t introduce unknown facts or thought-provoking theories but instead zooms in on a specific moment in WWII history. Gladwell tries to answer the question what does it mean when technology and best intentions collide in the heat of war? All wars present a moral conflict. What allows Bomber Mafia to stand out is the impossibility of choice that these US military officials and soldiers were faced with: invasion by land, timed-precision bombing of high-value targets or relentless sorties dropping an inferno on enemy cities? Win at all cost versus a more humane approach to war. Like most of Gladwell’s books, its insights are easily transferable into our modern times. The Bomber Mafia takes place in the context of WWII but the moral dilemma it describes is relevant for 21st-century technology, for example when we think about artificial intelligence and human medicine or algorithm structure and social media.

“Curtis LeMay won the battle. Haywood Hansell won the war.”

The paperback’s metrics are 9 chapters plus author’s note and conclusion divided into two parts and spread across 206 pages. Apparently this book was conceived as an audiobook. The paperback only functions as a second addition. I didn’t miss anything noteworthy, but I have read the audiobook has more flesh to it. 

On Tyranny

A pocket guide for civil disobedience to safe democracy.

Democracy requires action. Timothy Synder’s “Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century” inspires action. In his short pocket guide, Synder offers civic lessons ranging from taking responsibility for the face of the world to political awareness all the way to what it really means to be a patriot. His theme is ‘those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it’. It struck me as an ideal guide to give out at demonstrations or town hall meetings. His ideas for civic measures are worth recounting for they aim to protect the integrity of democracy. That being said, most of his lessons should be working knowledge for every citizen. 

Twitter And Tear Gas

Zeynep Tufekci takes an insightful look at the intersection of protest movements and social media.

Ever since I’ve read Gustave Le Bon’s “The Crowd”, I’ve been fascinated with crowd psychology and social networks. In “Twitter And Tear Gas – The Power And Fragility Of Networked Protests” Zeynep Tufekci connects the elements of protest movements with 21st-century technology. In her work, she describes movements as

“attempts to intervene in the public sphere through collective, coordinated action. A social movement is both a type of (counter) public itself and a claim made to a public that a wrong should be righted or a change should be made.”

In times of far-reaching social media platforms, restricted online forums, and end-to-end encrypted private group chats, the means to organize a protest movement have drastically changed. 

“Modern networked movements can scale up quickly and take care of all sorts of logistical tasks without building any substantial organizational capacity before the first march or protest. (…) The Gezi Park moment, going from almost zero to a massive movement within days clearly demonstrates the power of digital tools. However, with this speed comes weakness, some of it unexpected. First, the new movements find it difficult to make tactical shifts because they lack both the culture and the infrastructure for making collective decisions. Often unable to change course after the initial, speedy expansion phase, they exhibit a ‘tactical freeze’. Second, although their ability (as well as their desire) to operate without defined leadership protects them from co-optation or “decapitation,” it also makes them unable to negotiate with adversaries or even inside the movement itself. Third, the ease with which current social movements form often fails to signal an organizing capacity powerful enough to threaten those in authority.”

While these movements often catch the general public by surprise, it really does come down to timing and committment by a group of decentralized actors. These actors, who come from all walks of life, seek to connect with others as rapidly as possibly by leveraging the unrestricted powers of social media. Social media creates ties with a variety of supporters. Tufekci points out

“people who seek political change, the networking that takes place among people with weak ties is especially important. People with strong ties already share similar views (…). Weaker ties may be far-flung and composed of people with varying political and social ties. Also, weak ties may create bridges to other clusters of people in a way strong ties do not.”

Protest movements predating social media often shared similarities with multi-day music festivals, overnight camps or even military training exercises. They instill a sense of camaraderie which attracts a certain type of indivudal. Today’s protest movements differ from those days in that they can erupt quickly, but fall apart as fast as they came to be. Still 

“many people are drawn to protest camps because of the alienation they feel in their ordinary lives as consumers. Exchanging products without money is like reverse commodity fetishism: for many, the point is not the product being exchanged but the relationship that is created.”

In addition the speed at which modern movements operate serves as an invitation for individuals disconnected from broader society or individuals who simply prefer the short-lived special operation to right a policy wrong over the long-term work required to build and maintain relationships that are powerful enough to organically drive a change of policy.

“Some online communities not only are distant from offline communities but also have little or no persistence or reputational impact. (…) Social scientists call this the “stranger-on-a-train” effect, describing the way people sometimes open up more to anonymous strangers than to the people they see around every day. (…) Such encounters can even be more authentic and liberating.”

Tufekci spends much time on describing the evolution of social interactions in a networked space, the social inertia that needs to be managed in order to pick up momentum, but she also offers some insights on defensive considerations to make a protest movement work. First and foremost, a protest movement garners attention online, which in turn creates an influx of supporters. It will also attract opposition from private individuals, political opponents, and current political leaders. Those in power had previously relied upon, and in some countries still rely upon, censorship and suppression of information. Twitter and other social media platforms have disrupted this control over the narrative:

“To be effective, censorship in the digital era requires a reframing of the goals of censorship not as a total denial of access, which is difficult to achieve, but as a denial of attention, focus, and credibility In the networked public sphere, the goal of the powerful often is not to convince people of the truth of a particular narrative or to block a particular piece of information from getting out, but to produce resignation, cynicism, and a sense of disempowerment among the people.”

I apologize for using a wealth of quotes from her book, but it’s best described there, in her own words. Protests movements are here to stay. Understanding how democratic nations evolve their policies, right political wrongs, and influence authoritarian nations through subtle policy, online protest and real-world tear gas confrontation will help us make more informed decisions as we pick our political battles. Zeynep Tufekci put together a well-researched account that helps to make sense of the most important, controversial online protest movements from the Occupy Gezi/Wall Street movements to the Eqyptian Revolution to the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter and MeToo or the March For Our Lives. There are two noticeable drawbacks of this otherwise excellent book. First, the chapters appear uncoordinated within the book and are too long. The reader can’t take a breather without feeling to lose a thought. Second, her examples are chronologically disconnected from the actual movements. While this helps to illustrate a certain point, I found it to be a confusing feat. Twitter And Tear Gas has its own website. Check it out at https://www.twitterandteargas.org/ or reach out to the author on Twitter @zeynep 

Bitcoin Billionaires

Bitcoin is a fascinating digital currency. Its almost mythical origin story combined with the promise of decentralizing the financial system makes for a great story. Bitcoin Billionaires, however, doesn’t tell that great story. 

I recognize the challenges that come with writing about an emerging technology. Bitcoin’s presumed inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, is nowhere to be found. Bitcoin’s record keeping technology, aka the blockchain, has become a buzzword for modern privacy advocats and fintech entrepreneurs. Over the years, Bitcoin forked many times over to create an ecosystem of improved mutations of the Genesis Block, notably Bitcoin Cash and Bitcoin Gold. It also inspired a number of new cryptocurrencies along the way. 

That being said, Bitcoin Billionaires – A True Story of Genius, Betrayal And Redemption is mildly entertaining hackwork. Amazon’s recommendation algorithm put this book on my radar. The title seemed clickbait, but I usually approach books with an open mind. As I skimmed the sales page, learning more and more about its content, I became quite excited to read Bitcoin Billionaires. I wanted to learn more about the history of Bitcoin, who was driving the technology and where sound development might take it. Cryptocurrencies will become part of our financial future. Understanding its roots, knowing its key individuals, and piecing together the milestones that got us where we are today (a single Bitcoin is worth $37,431.29 according to CoinMarketCap) might inspire me and other individuals to prepare for a better financial future. Bitcoin Billionaires answered none of it.  Instead the author appeared to use his platform to brown-nose the main protagonists Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss.

Bitcoin Billionaires appears to start out where The Accidental Billionaires ended. I wasn’t aware of the connection or read the book, but I’ve seen the movie adaptation “The Social Network”. For a few awkward chapters, the author tries hard to paint the picture of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss as upstanding, hard-working heroes that made the unfortunate encounter with an evil, self-absorbed software prodigy, who pulled one over them. This unfortunate encounter left them $65 million – arguably the foundation for the Winklevii future successes in crypto-finance.

The author introduces a variety of characters associated with BitInstant, an early exchange platform for Bitcoin, which is at the center of Bitcoin Billionaires. The Winklevii twins ended up investing in the company and its founder Charlie Schrem. In a predictable pattern, the author continues his love musings about the Winklevii twins while degrading all other characters. This is really where the book plateaus – a back and forth about meetings, running BitInstant, promoting Bitcoin, etc. There is no mention of the actual technology that drives Bitcoin. Let alone any mention of crypto competition, e.g. Kraken (2011), CoinBase (2012) or Binance (2017). BitInstant was founded in 2011 and ceased operations in 2014. Yet the author rides on this single, shadow platform as if it had any meaningful impact on the proliferation of Bitcoin. Gemini, founded by the Winklevii twins, and ShapeShift, founded by Erik Voorhees, do make it into the book, but again without much detail on the technology or startup history. Furthermore, the author fails to mention any other Bitcoin Billionaires, e.g. Sam Bankman-Fried, Chris Larsen or Brian Armstrong among many others. 

Altogether Bitcoin Billionaires left an impression of tabloid writing style meets not knowing anything about cryptocurrency. It doesn’t tell the story of Bitcoin – the technology. Billionaires, who made their fortune from investing in Bitcoin, are nowhere to be found in this book. And there is nothing, that brings together all the random excerpts about the Winklevoss’ brothers.

The lesson is this: buy cryptocurrencies, but don’t buy Bitcoin Billionaires.*

(* For obvious reasons, this is not to be considered financial advice. Invest at your own risk. Investor discretion is advised.)

An Ode To Diplomacy

There are few books that taught me more about the strategic decisions behind U.S. foreign policy than the Back Channel. Bill Burns’ account is both a history lesson and an upbeat reminder of the value of diplomacy.

The Back Channel by Bill Burns is a well-written, historic memoir of one of the finest career diplomats in the foreign service. Exceptionally clear-eyed, balanced, and insightful in both voice and content, Burns walks the reader through his three decades of foreign service. Starting out as the most junior officer of the U.S. embassy in Jordan under then Secretary of State George Shultz, Burns quickly made a name for himself in the Baker State Department through his consistency, ability to mediate and deliver, but also his foreign language skills including Arabic, French, English and Russian. In describing “events” at the State Department, Burns strikes a perfect balance between the intellectual depth of his strategic thinking against the contours of U.S. foreign policy. He offers a rare insight into the mechanics of diplomacy and the pursuit of American interests. For example, Burns illustrates the focus of the H.W. Bush administration in Libya was on changing behavior, not the Qaddafi regime. Sanctions and political isolation had already chastised Qaddafi’s sphere of influence, but American and British delegations supported by the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) interdiction in the Mediterranean were able to convince Qaddafi to give up the terrorism and WMD business. “He needed a way out, and we gave him a tough but defensible one. That’s ultimately what diplomacy is all about – not perfect solutions, but outcomes that cost far less than war and leave everyone better off than they would otherwise have been.”

I was too young to remember the German Reunification, but I vividly remember the Yeltsin era, its mismanaged economic policy, and the correlating demise of the Russian Ruble sending millions of Russians into poverty. When Al-Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11, I was glued to the news coverage for days, weeks on end – forever changing my worldviews and national identity. Burns memoir offers a new, liberating viewpoint for me about these events; it helped me to connect their impact on the foreign policy stage and subsequent decisions by world leaders. This really manifests in his description of Obama’s long-game in a post-primacy world:

“Statesmen rarely succeed if they don’t have a sense of strategy – a set of assumptions about the world they seek to navigate, clear purposes and priorities, means matched to ends, and the discipline required to hold all those pieces together and stay focused. They also, however, have to be endlessly adaptable – quick to adjust to the unexpected, massage the anxieties of allies and partners, maneuver past adversaries, and manage change rather than be paralyzed by it. (…) Playing the long game is essential, but it’s the short game – coping with stuff that happens unexpectedly – that preoccupies policymakers and often shapes their legacies.”

But aside from candid leadership lessons and rich history insights, what makes the Back Channel so captivating is the upbeat and fervent case for diplomacy. Burns goes out of his way detailing the daily grind that is required to serve and succeed in the State Department:

“As undersecretary, and then later as deputy secretary, I probably spent more time with my colleagues in the claustrophobic, windowless confines of the White House Situation Room than I did with anyone else, including my own family. (…) Our job was to propose, test, argue, and, when possible, settle policy debates and options, or tee them up for the decision of cabinet officials and the president. None of the president’s deputy national security advisors, however, lost sight of the human element of the process. (…) We were, after all, a collection of human beings, not an abstraction – always operating with incomplete information, despite the unceasing waves of open-source and classified intelligence washing over us; often trying to choose between bad and worse options.”

Moreover Burns offers lessons for aspiring career diplomats:

“Effective diplomats (also) embody many qualities, but at their heart is a crucial trinity: judgment, balance, and discipline. All three demand a nuanced grasp of history and culture, mastery of foreign languages, hard-nosed facility in negotiations, and the capacity to translate American interests in ways that other governments can see as consistent with their own – or at least in ways that drive home the cost of alternative courses. (…) What cannot be overstated, however, is the importance of sound judgment in a world of fallible and flawed humans – weighing ends and means, anticipating the unintended consequences of well-intentioned actions, and measuring the hard reality of limits against the potential of American agency.”

All taken together make the Back Channel a must-read of highest quality for anyone interested in U.S. foreign policy or diplomacy. I would even think the shrewd political observations captured in the Back Channel make for a valuable read with regard to domestic policy or current affairs, but a modicum of international policy awareness is still required. The Back Channel’s only drawback is its predominant focus on American interests in the Middle East and Europe. I can’t help but wonder how the United States would look like today had its political leadership opted for a strategy of offshore-balancing instead of a grand strategy of primacy; more focused on pressing domestic issues such as trade or immigration with our immediate neighbors Canada, Mexico and northern Latin America. I’m curious to hear Burns’ thoughts on this. Perhaps he’ll cover this arena after finishing his term as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Left Of Launch

The Perfect Weapon is an intriguing account of history’s most cunning cyberwarfare operations. I learned about the incremental evolution of cyberspace as the fifth domain of war and how policymakers, military leaders and the private technology sector continue to adapt to this new threat landscape.  

Much has been written about influence operations or cyber criminals, but few accounts present so clearly a link between national security, cyberspace and foreign policy. Some of the stories told in The Perfect Weapon touch upon the Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections, the 2015 hack of the Ukrainian power grid, the 2014 Sony hack, the 2013 revelations by Edward Snowden and many other notable breaches of cybersecurity. These aren’t news anymore, but help to understand America’s 21st century vulnerabilities.

Chapter 8 titled “The Fumble” left a particular mark on me. In it, Sanger details the handling of Russian hackers infiltrating the computer and server networks of the Democratic National Committee. The sheer lethargy by officials at the time demonstrated over months on end, including Obama’s failure to openly address the ongoing cyber influence operations perpetrated by the Russians ahead of the elections, was nothing particularly new yet I still felt outraged by what now seems to be obvious. The chapter illustrates some governance shortcomings that we as a society need to overcome in order to address cyberattacks but also build better cyber defense mechanisms.

Left of Launch is a strategy to leverage cyberwarfare or other infrastructure sabotage to prevent ballistic missiles from being launched

But the most insights for me came from the books cross-cutting between the cyberspace/cybersecurity domain to the public policy domain. It showed me how much work is still left to be done to educate our elected officials, our leaders and ourselves about a growing threat landscape in cyberspace. While technology regulation is a partisan issue, only bi-partisan solutions will yield impactful results.

David E. Sanger is a great journalist, bestselling author and an excellent writer. His storytelling is concise, easy to read and accessible for a wide audience. Throughout the book, I never felt that Sanger allowed himself to get caught up in the politics of it but rather maintained a refreshing neutrality. His outlook is simple: we need to redefine our sense of national security and come up with an international solution for cyberspace. We need to think broadly about the consequences of cyber-enabled espionage and cyberattacks against critical infrastructures. And we need to act now.

Nations Fail, But Why?

Is it because the culture of some nations is inferior to that of others? Is it because the natural resources of some nations are less fertile and valuable? Or is it because some nations are in more advantageous geographical locations? Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson argue the wealth of some nations can be traced back to their institutions – inclusive institutions to be precise that enable its citizens to partake in the political process and economic agenda. It’s an argument for a decentralized, democratic control structure with checks and balances to hold elected officials accountable and ensure shared economic benefits. Thus they conclude nations fail when a ruling elite creates extractive institutions designed to enrich only themselves on the back of the masses. More democracy is the answer to our looming political and economic problems according to the authors. Therefore political leaders must focus on the disenfranchised, the forgotten – those who have been left behind. It’s a conclusion hard to contend with. 

Altogether, though, this book is disappointing. Among the various economic theories that try to explain the wealth of nations, the authors fail to create quantifiable definitions for their premise. By failing to define inclusion and extraction the reader never learns about required elements, political structures and economic (minimum) metrics that can be measured or produce reliable data. Instead the authors appear to cherry-pick historic examples to demonstrate the perils of extraction and highlight the benefits of inclusive institutions. Throughout the book this reaches an absurd level of comparing contemporary nations with ancient nations without regard to (then) current affairs, social cohesion, trade or world events. This creates a confusing storyline jumping through unrelated examples from Venice to China to Zimbabwe to Argentina to the United States. I found the repetition of their inclusiveness and extraction argument quite draining for it seems to appear on every page. 

Why Nations Fail is an excellent history book full of examples for the success or failure of governance. The stories alone are well-researched, detailed and certainly a pleasure to read. However the author’s explanation for the economic failure of nations is vague and conjecture at best. They fail to answer the origins of power with quantifiable evidence and how prosperous (or poor) nations manipulate power. Altogether this book would have been awesome if it were reduced to a few hundred pages and less repetitive.

The Universe, Explained By Neil deGrasse Tyson

When I think about the universe, distant galaxies and the concept of time I feel easily overwhelmed. The cosmos seems detached from my earthly, daily life with my meaningless human problems. To understand it seems to require complex mathematics and in-depth proficiency in advanced physics. This often leads to a feeling of intimidation. Something observed throughout human history. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a master of translating the comprehensive and complex theories of astrophysics into layman’s terms. He’s quite the opposite of being intimidated when it comes to the universe. With his concise and intriguing book Astrophysics For People In A Hurry he offers an in-route for us mere mortals to learn more about the universe and by extension – us. 

I generally don’t like hardcover editions but this one is in a perfect size to page ratio, which only increased my excitement. Appropriate reader’s break points are strategically placed every other twenty pages. This creates a welcoming reader’s feel of brevity of a book that is already edited down to just 208 pages. Rest assured though Neil deGrasse Tyson delivers on his reputation to explain the science of the universe as a human endeavor: the first few chapters cover the origins of our story. Explaining the big bang theory that is not a TV show with an historic account enriched with analogies such as

“we are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out – and we have only just begun.”

Against this backdrop, Neil deGrasse Tyson continues to detail the concepts of orbiting planets, which form galaxies. Earth is part of the Milky Way galaxy. Examining galaxy clusters with basic laws of physics revealed dark matter “which makes no assertion that anything is missing, yet nonetheless implies that some new kind of matter exists, waiting to be discovered.” And if planets, galaxies, multiverses and dark matter aren’t blowing your mind already then dark energy might just get you there. Dark energy is presumably “a quantum effect where the vacuum of space, instead of being empty, actually seethes with particles and their antimatter counterparts. They pop in and out of existence in pairs, and don’t last long enough to be measured.”

Next, Neil deGrasse Tyson does us all a favor by refreshing our memory of the periodic table in a short chemistry of the universe breakdown. It’s remarkable that I could unclutter some semblance of understanding throughout this section having loathed chemistry class in high school. Did you know that the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is the second largest consumer of helium second only to the U.S. military? Or that uranium, neptunium and plutonium all follow one another in the periodic table and all lend their names to later discovered planets? Except for Pluto, of course, who was added as a planet under false pretenses assuming it’d be equal in size and mass to our earth (It isn’t. And Pluto is not a planet.) In his concluding remarks, Neil deGrasse Tyson demonstrates the humbling effects of cosmology on our existence as we humans are a mere smudge on the hourglass of time. He offers a philosophical way forward to set aside human conflict for our drive to explore and grow our minds.

Astrophysics For People In A Hurry is a page-turner, but not as easy as one would hope. Some preexisting knowledge will help to follow the astrophysics theories presented in this book. Albeit some theories were over my head anyway. Nonetheless, the message of this book is not so much about feeling overwhelmed and intimidated but an openness to learning, exploring and to embrace the unknown. Neil deGrasse Tyson does well communicate that we’re not just part of this universe, but its core ingredients are within us. We are the universe. 

I’ll leave you with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s eloquent yet mind-boggling answer to the question: “What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the universe?” 

One Flew Over The Bitcoin Mine

Rarely have I found myself more confused about technology than after reading George Gilder’s “Life After Google – The Fall of Big Data and the Rise of the Blockchain Economy.” A book, supposedly, on the very technology of big data and the blockchain.

In twenty-five chapters across 276 pages, the author attempts to show off but not discuss, how the internet as we know it came into our daily lives. Gilder uses a wealth of buzzwords without ever defining them for the reader. The compounding effect of broad terminology, out-of-place analogies that seemingly disrupt the storytelling, make this book a dense and frustrating read. Even for the tech-savvy. He moves from monetary theory to artificial intelligence to silicon valley startup culture without skipping a beat. Until the underwhelming end of the book, I failed to understand the author’s rage against Google and new, emerging technology companies. In the absence of a clear theme of this book, I tried to theorize that the author set out to warn against Google’s free products, attempts to predict the end of the free product business model as the economy is moving towards cryptographic ledgers, most notably blockchain technology and decentralized cryptocurrency. However, Gilder then compares bitcoin to gold and points out the flaws of a scarce resource to become a stable coin in an economy. How this all ties together or even argues for a future with a decreased need of big data processing remains unclear. Why he chose not to discuss cybersecurity as the most potent threat to fiduciaries within a digitalized, capitalistic system remains unclear. This book is incoherent while being overly focused on ideological aspects. It would have served the readers to restrict the discussion to the actual technology.

With all that in mind, I feel this book has some minuscule merit for a philosophical audience without much need for technical detail. Gilder delivers on creating an entry-level overview for future exploration of blockchain technology, large scale computing and its implementation within an economic system that is supported by for-profit corporations. But beyond that, I feel, I am left more confused than enlightened about the interplay between data processing within financial markets, artificial intelligence deployed to equalize market barriers and blockchain as technology that would enable a seismic shift towards decentralized currencies. 

Just Try One More

And find out what you are made of. In her autobiography, American ultra-marathon open water swimmer and international swimming hall of famer, Penny Lee Dean describes overcoming life’s adversities and conquering the elements when you just try one more.

Water is an unforgiving element. The oceans are a hostile domain for man. Unlike land, where an ultra-marathon runner may rest during a grueling 100 mile race, the open waters have no mercy: stop swimming and you’ll die. This makes swimming an intriguing sport for many athletes. When it comes to long-distance swimming, however, there are few people as groundbreaking as Penny Lee Dean.

As a native of California, her childhood is marked by moving around several swimming clubs across the Bay Area. Through a series of setbacks within short-distance races Penny identified her talent and passion for endurance swimming. Those early days were filled with invaluable lessons to improve swimming style and to build up mental and physical strength. The longer the swims, the more she needed to acknowledge pain and then go beyond it.

“In marathon swimming, more than in any other sport, the mental attitude is at least 85 percent of the battle.”

What I found fascinating about Penny Lee Dean is her early dream of swimming the English Channel. This goal weaves like a red thread throughout this book. It guides and drives all her important decisions. And in order to make her dream become a reality she was fortunate enough to have an influential coach: Siga Rose. They quickly became a high-performing unit with Siga taking Penny to the next level in a dynamic, ever-changing ocean environment. Persistent training in the ocean with increasing distances elevated Penny into a position where she would attempt to swim 22 miles across open water from Los Angeles to Catalina crossing the Catalina Channel.

Her relationship with her family, in particular her mother, is fraught with a deep struggle for love and compassion. Her account of her mother appears like a pendulum that would swing from love and care to not feeling supported and left vulnerable. While her mother was instrumental to find the best coaches and teammates available in the early 1970s Penny also saw the relationship of her mother and father break apart. The emotional struggle with it helped her to build up a mental fortitude that is fueled by an intensity to go further, faster.

Despite her personal adversities with her family, her internal battles against herself, Penny always found her way back to just try one more and see where it would take her. With this unshakable attitude she overcame unimaginable physical pain, emotional stress, jellyfish and the mental trepidation when faced with dynamic swells, waves, high winds and ever changing open water conditions. 

I found many invaluable lessons in Penny Lee Dean’s autobiography. Her description of building up mental toughness through setting affirmations, repeating affirmations and linking those affirmations to concrete goals are commonplace nowadays, but her story takes place in the 1970s when amateur and professional sports were far from scientifically researched as they are nowadays. I was also intrigued by her daily, unwavering discipline. It almost appears as if her daily schedule didn’t change for about two decades: rise by 6am, training in between 6:45am to 6pm, and in bed by 9pm. It speaks to the sacrifices athletes must take on in order to achieve greatness. But it also speaks to the level of passion and dedication she had for the sport. While I chose this book to learn more about overcoming the elements and testing myself in the open waters I sure don’t see myself swimming at ultra-marathon distances. However, the beauty of this autobiography is its simple message: just try one more when you feel you can’t go any further. It’s applicable to your studies, to your family or work struggles or when life hit you hard. Just Try One More is just that: don’t think, do it.