Hedy Lamarr: A Hollywood Tale where Truth is Stranger than Fiction

Hedy Lamarr in Hollywood DaysWith rare exceptions, the movie stars we encounter do precious little beyond their acting craft that warrants more than just a “gawk factor” response.

Probably the most famous of those exceptions is Ronald Reagan, who also happened to become one of the 20th Century’s most consequential presidents.

But there are others as well. In 2000, I remember reading an obituary of film star Hedy Lamarr, the bombshell beauty active during Hollywood’s “golden age” of the 1940s. There was a passing reference in the obit about Lamarr collaborating on several important inventions, with patents involved also.

I filed this away in my mind as an “interesting factoid” about a woman who otherwise led a pretty typical life of a Hollywood actress – not least her vampy screen name and her six marriages. (Her full name was a real mouthful: Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler Mandl Markey Loder Stauffer Lee Boies!)

Now we have a new book that’s just been published, and it sheds fascinating light on the “inventive” aspects of Lamarr’s life. As explained in Richard Rhodes’ book, Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, it turns out that even as Lamarr was wowing her movie audiences, she was also deeply involved in the invention of the frequency-hopping spread spectrum radio.

“What’s that?” you might ask. It’s technology that harnesses the rapid switching of communications signals among a spread of different frequencies. And it’s the basis for what gives us the functionality of the digital gadgets we use today, from cellphones to GPS units and barcode scanners.

How this came about was due in large part to Lamarr’s background. Instead of being a product of America’s small towns who traveled to California to make it big in the film industry, Hedy was from cosmopolitan Vienna – born into a prosperous family during the waning years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

As a girl, Hedy had a natural aptitude for math and science, finding these subjects most interesting of all. But educated in the arts (ballet) and music in accordance with a young girl of her social standing, Hedy then began working with film director Max Reinhardt in Berlin, eventually starring in major roles. A few of these, such as Gustav Machatỷ’s steamy film Ecstacy, tested the limits of censorship, earning her a certain notoriety.

In 1933 – barely 20 years old – she married Friedrich Mandl, a Viennese munitions magnate who became involved with supplying arms to the German government shortly thereafter. Mandl objected to Hedy’s film career – effectively banning her from the industry in favor of being the head of household at Schloss Schwarzenau, the family’s castle-compound.

Mandl also took her to meetings with technicians and business partners, which is where she began to learn about munitions and the technology behind them.

As a well-educated intellectual and individualist – as well as a person with Jewish lineage – Hedy was strongly opposed to what was occurring in Austria politically. The formal Anschluss with Nazi Germany would come about in 1938, but even before then, close collaboration was developing between the two countries.

Hedy would depart Vienna prior to the union of Germany and Austria, but not before doing two things. First, in true pillow-talk form redolent of a Hollywood thriller, she learned as much information from her husband about munitions and weapons as she could. Then she ditched the country for Paris (taking her expensive jewelry with her), and proceeded to divorce him.

It was in Paris that she met Louis B. Mayer, who convinced her to join MGM in Hollywood where he gave her the screen name “Hedy Lamarr.” She would go on to make 20 films during her Hollywood career, the most successful of them being Samson & Delilah.

But it was also in Hollywood that Lamarr became involved with inventions. At a dinner party, she was introduced to George Antheil, the infamous enfant terrible of avant garde classical music in America. One of Antheil’s most notorious and controversial compositions was the Ballet Mécanique, a music score that utilizes a bank of player pianos operating simultaneously.

In conversations, the two discovered their mutual interest in technology … soon realizing that they could pool their knowledge and apply for a patent on a “secret information system.” The patent utilized a piano roll as a device to change between 88 frequencies, thereby making radio-guided torpedoes harder for enemies to detect or jam.

Although the patent was approved in the early 1940s, the idea wouldn’t be implemented until 1962 during the Kennedy Administration’s Cuban blockade.

More importantly for us, the frequency-hopping concept served as the basis for the advent of spread-spectrum communications technology. Lamarr would finally be given public credit for her invention in 1997 in an award bestowed on her by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (co-inventor Antheil had died in 1959).

In later years, Lamarr moved away from Hollywood and essentially shed the limelight, living quietly in Florida where she died in 2000. In accordance with her wishes, her ashes were returned to Austria and scattered in the Vienna Woods, — the storied grounds memorialized in the sweet melodies of Johann Strauss Jr. and Rudolf Sieczyński … but that had also borne silent witness to so much of Europe’s 20th Century turbulence and strife.

It was a fitting ending for a life that was likewise noteworthy – even by Hollywood’s own outré standards!

Amidst the Depression … An Inspiring Tale

Samuel J. Stone, aka "B, Virdot"
Samuel J. Stone, the real identity of "B. Virdot," whose act of kindness benefited the citizens of Canton, Ohio in the Winter of 1933.
One topic that’s been “done to death” in the world of books is that of the Great Depression. It seems very little new could possibly be written about it. But I’ve come across a very interesting book just published that sheds new light on this chapter of American history – and does so with a personal poignancy that strikes right to the heart.

The book is A Secret Gift: How One Man’s Kindness – and a Trove of Letters – Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression, written by Ted Gup, a former investigative reporter with the Washington Post (ISBN-10: 1594202702 … also available in a Kindle edition). It’s about an act of kindness done by the owner of a chain of clothing stores, who posted a pseudonymous announcement in December 1933 in his hometown (Canton, Ohio) newspaper offering to send holiday cheer to those in need.

The holiday cheer was in the form of $5 checks (worth about $100 in today’s money) which were sent to ~150 families in response to letters received that described family hardships of that year – one of the worst of the entire Great Depression. The announcement stated that the identities of the letter-writers would be kept secret “until the very end.”

This act of kindness would remain hidden for decades until Ted Gup’s mother (the daughter of the benefactor) gave the author a suitcase filled with memorabilia from her father, Samuel J. Stone. Among the artifacts was a bundle of letters written to a person named “B. Virdot.”

At first seemingly unrelated to the author’s grandfather, the giveaway clue was an old clipping of the “B. Virdot” newspaper announcement, revealing that “B. Virdot” was, in actuality, Samuel Stone.

The letters sent by families laid low by the economic events of the day revealed that the Great Depression did not discriminate by social class or status. Some of the checks Mr. Stone sent were to former business owners who had lost their companies, savings, insurance policies and homes.

Many other checks were sent to families of more modest means; one was sent to a recently widowed mother of two children who had no savings and a house mortgage. “It looks pretty dark sometimes but we still hold on to that ray of hope – that this terrible depression will soon be over,” she wrote. She went on to state, “I have never received charity of any kind.”

That’s one of the themes that runs through the letters: These were people with dignity, who were not inclined to ask for charity nor even to discuss their plight with others. They had played by the rules in their lives – taking responsible jobs, buying homes, building their savings, raising their families – until the collapse of the economy and closure of the banks robbed them of nearly everything.

Drawing on his investigative reporting background, Ted Gup proceeded to research as many of the families as he could find, to learn more about them and to interview their descendants (he would eventually interview nearly 500 descendants).

One of the interesting aspects of this endeavor was how few of the people he interviewed really understood (or even knew) the hardships that their families had suffered in that time. Yet tell-tale signs were there when descendants were told of the events those many years ago. One son spoke of his mother: “There was a loss of confidence. For her, the good times were wonderful, then all hell broke out. Friends of hers said she had been full of pep and vigor. I didn’t know her that way at all, so I think it probably did a job on her.”

Dignity was important to these people of the 1930s, when folks felt uncomfortable talking about hardships with their relatives or with their children. Yet they opened up to a total stranger in their letters – maybe the only time they ever did so. One man asked “B. Virdot” to reveal his real name to him so that one day he might repay the gift with interest.

But Samuel Stone never did so. Instead, he took his secret to the grave. And his grandson discovered that this wasn’t the only secret his grandfather had kept. Instead of being “Samuel J. Stone, born in Pittsburgh” as he’d always claimed, Ted Gup found out that his grandfather’s real name was Sam Finkelstein … and instead of being from Pennsylvania, he had been born in Dorohoi, Rumania.

Not only that, it turns out that Sam Finkelstein entered the United States illegally and never normalized his immigration status – even after becoming a prosperous businessman in America. Even much later, during World War II when the U.S. government required foreign-born residents to register or risk deportation, Samuel Stone was still afraid to take any chances and did not step forward.

So what in the end was the basis for Samuel Stone’s gesture to his fellow Canton residents? Was it an act of kindness delivered anonymously so that the families in question could maintain their dignity and not have to face the person who knew their innermost hardships and fears? Or was it Stone’s own fear of being discovered as an illegal alien that kept his gifts anonymous?

That part of the story will never be explained. But thanks to Ted Gup, the grandson, we have a surprising new story to add to the chronicles of the Great Depression.

And this one is more inspiring, heartwarming – and intensely personal – than any other I’ve read. As the author himself states, “For one moment, in one forgotten town, one man managed to shrink the vastness of the Depression to a human scale.”

As a side note, Samuel Stone would keep his promise “until the very end,” but 400 of the descendants of those who wrote the letters held a gathering in Canton just last week in a reunion that was never meant to happen — but did, thanks to this book. (And one of those who wrote a letter to “B. Virdot,” now a a 90-year-old woman, was actually on hand for the occasion.)

This book is definitely at the top of my list for holiday gift-giving this season. I heartily recommend it – it’s that good.

College education in America: What the hey, let’s party!

The Five-Year Party, by Craig BrandonJust in time for the upcoming school year, a new book has hit the stores that launches a fierce attack against today’s college education in America. As a father of one recent college grad plus another daughter just beginning her sophomore year, The Five-Year Party: How Colleges Have Given Up on Educating Your Child, by Craig Brandon (ISBN #ISBN-13: 978-1935251804) caught my eye.

Brandon is a former education reporter and college writing instructor. What’s his main beef? That college administrators have taken advantage of government loan largesse and other programs to create a campus environment that’s hardly conducive to the disciplined intellectual labor of learning. The way Brandon sees it, college administrators are more interested in students’ pocketbooks than their intellects.

Brandon trains most of his firepower on liberal arts colleges, many of which he characterizes as “education-free zones” where quaint traditional notions of learning – like attending classes and doing assigned homework – have gone by the boards. He cites statistics that only ~30% of students enrolled in liberal arts institutions graduate in four years … and that fully 60% take six years or more to get their undergraduate degrees.

The book outlines the conditions that contribute to these sorry statistics. Extensive student loan and grant programs mean that few if any students ever pay the “book rate” tuition at a private college or university. This has made it easier for institutions to raise tuition rates far in excess of the inflation rate.

Brandon claims it has also led school administrators to tolerate – even abet – the extra years students spend on campus. After all, it’s more money for them to pay officials their lucrative salaries … not to mention bankrolling the country-club like student centers and new athletic facilities that seem to be on every college’s wish list.

And during that extended time on campus, it’s “party on!” Never mind the lower educational standards … it’s easier and far more lucrative for colleges to give students what they want, rather than what they need, to build meaningful careers afterwards.

And what about the instructors? They may well lament the decline in educational standards. But they’ve found out the hard way that to enforce rigorous educational standards in the classroom invites a flurry of negative reviews on student evaluation forms (that are easily accessible online) – reviews that are often linked to tenure and promotion decisions. It’s easier to go with the flow, provide reasonably entertaining lectures … and give out decent grades to all but the worst performers.

But what does this mean for those students who decide to work hard during their college years and to graduate on time? They may end up with a degree that’s devalued in the eyes of employers.

Moreover, the general decline in the value of a college degree affects even those schools that have tried hardest to maintain the traditional rigors of education that once characterized nearly all liberal arts schools – practices such as requiring students to take extensive coursework in subjects that go beyond their chosen field of study.

Colleges like Davidson in North Carolina, Hillsdale in Michigan and Rhodes in Tennessee may make studying and achieving top grades a huge challenge for their students … but their regional reputations mean that those degrees don’t carry much cachet beyond a 300-mile radius of the school.

Meanwhile, students who attend some of the nation’s better-known ivy league universities or “near ivy” institutions sail on through, cafeteria-style, taking only coursework that is easiest or of greatest interest to them.

Who’s the bigger chump then?

It’s a bit painful to read The Five-Year Party … and hard to finish it without feeling pretty depressed about the state of liberal arts education in America. Besides, does anyone know of a liberal arts school or university that has actually gotten a good handle on controlling its spending? I can’t think of one.

This book makes it easier to recognize the merits of America’s community colleges, which help kids start out their higher education in ways that allow them to explore different areas of interest without the distractions of the “party hearty” campus atmosphere – or breaking the family bank for that matter. Institutions like Chesapeake College in my home area on Maryland’s Eastern Shore are doing yeomen work in this regard, and they deserve better recognition for it.

Joel Kotkin: America’s Best Years Are Still Ahead

The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050 by Joel KotkinIn the study of demographics – a field that has had its share of doomsayers over the years – the irrepressible Joel Kotkin has been a continuing voice of optimism. The Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and an authority on economic, political and social trends as well as demographics, Kotkin has also been one to defend suburbia as one of the key ingredients of successful urban development.

It’s been interesting to watch how these views have played out in relation to the predilection of many in the American elite to denigrate anything pertaining to the suburban lifestyle. In their characterization, “suburbia” is synonymous with faceless neighborhoods punctuated by numbingly similar commercial strip developments featuring cookie-cutter national chain stores and restaurants. The only difference between suburban Los Angeles and suburban Chicago is the palm trees.

The suburban mindset has also been maligned by many as being obsessed with material pursuits and economic upward mobility … and possessing little if any thinking that’s “progressive.”

As an example of this side of the debate, the publication of Richard Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class – with its claims that metropolitan areas with high concentrations of high-tech employees, artists, musicians and gay people correlate to a higher level of economic development – articulates a theory that has been far better received by the news media and other members of the American intelligentsia.

Now, along comes Kotkin’s newest book … and with it his latest intriguing predictions. In The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, Kotkin argues that the coming 40 years will witness a resurgent America, even as the population swells by another 100 million souls. Comparing the birth rates of America to all other developed nations, along with the continued in-migration of people from other countries – particular Asian and Latin American – Kotkin contends that no other country anywhere will enjoy such ethnic diversity. And to Kotkin, youth and diversity equate with strength.

By contrast, Kotkin maintains that “most of the developed countries in both Europe and Asia will become veritable old-age homes.” Many of these nations, with their generous social safety nets, will face huge pension obligations without having younger workers to help shoulder the costs.

Kotkin’s bottom-line prediction is that Europe and Asia will decline even as America thrives. And not just economically but also culturally: “The most affluent, culturally rich and successful nation in human history.”

Kotkin also believes that the large new numbers of Americans will flock to – where else – the suburbs, which he characterizes as “the best, most practical choice for raising their families and enjoying the benefits of community.”

No doubt, there will be those who question Mr. Kotkin’s conclusions and predictions. What about the rise of China? How will illegal versus legal immigration affect social and economic trends? How about the widening gulf between the earning power of “technocrats” and the rest of the population? Not to mention the collapse of the family unit which has rendered so much of the fabric of “inner-urban” America dysfunctional at best … hopeless at worst?

Either way, this book is very interesting and helps us reappraise some of the “big trends” in social demography. The theories of Richard Florida’s “creative class” ring decidedly less compelling today, barely six or seven years on. It’s time now to consider Joel Kotkin’s interesting theories — with the same critical eye, of course.

Let’s Revisit the Yugo!

Yugo advertisementThose of us “of a certain age” remember well when the Yugo car was introduced to America with great fanfare. In 1985, the prospect of purchasing a small vehicle with an even smaller price tag (~$3,990) was irresistible to many – even with the high gasoline prices and gas lines of the 1970s looking more distant in the rearview mirror. For those on a budget, who could resist the allure of buying a new car for $99 down and a $99 monthly payment?

Here’s a startling statistic that bears this out: When the Yugo was introduced in the summer of 1985, more than 1,000 of them were sold in one day. In fact, the Yugo was to be the fastest-selling first-year European import ever sold into the U.S. – a record that stands yet today.

But in just a few short years, the Yugo would go from being a star to being a dud … from being the “it” car to being the butt of jokes.

How could this happen? The answers are found in a just-released book “The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History,” written by Jason Vuic (ISBN-13: 978-0809098910). This pithy, irreverent volume takes readers on a merry romp through its 250+ pages … and things never have time to become dull.

One of the earliest signs that the Yugo might not be all it was cracked up to be came when its American investors decided to drive a Yugo car across the country. What better way to test the product? In retrospect, they should have heeded the clear warning signs: the new car broke down not once … not twice … but three times during its ~3,000 mile journey.

Undeterred, they plowed ahead, forming a national dealer network and trumpeting the Yugo as a fresh, affordable European car that came with a small price tag and a big attitude.

But the reviews were scathing from the get-go. The car broke down during a road test by Motor Trend, leading the magazine to conclude that the vehicle was “hard to recommend at any price.” Some customers reported that their new Yugos came off the dealer lot with rust spots already showing in the trunk. That plus noisy brakes … rough-riding clutch … and a few other deficiencies not normally experienced until any other car is years old.

Predictably, it didn’t take long for the magic to wear off. By the time of Saturday Night Live’s famous parody of the Yugo – its fake TV ad for the Adobe clay car (at $179 apiece) – Yugo dealers across America were already closing their doors.

Actually, what’s most surprising to read is that the Yugo actually continued to be manufactured in Europe as late as 2008.

In retrospect, I suppose the Yugo wasn’t a complete waste of time. It helped us realize – once again – that despite the enduring appeal of a low-cost alternative, there’s no substitute for producing a quality product.

It’s also given us 25 years of great jokes.

Improving the Prognosis for Patient Safety in Hospitals

"Josie's Story" Book"Safe Patients, Smart Hospitals" BookThere’s a newly published book just out on the issue of patient safety in U.S. hospitals that’s quite an interesting read. The book is titled Safe Patients, Smart Hospitals (Hudson Street Press, ISBN-13: 978-1594630644), written by Peter Pronovost, Ph.D, M.D., a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and Eric Vohr, former assistant director of media relations at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and an instructor of technical writing at the school. Dr. Pronovost is also Medicaid director for the Johns Hopkins Center for Innovation in Quality Patient Care. (The book is also available in a Kindle edition.)

Instead of presenting us with a dry tome like so many other books on healthcare issues, this volume starts out with a true-life medical case where procedures and protocol at a top-notch healthcare institution were not enough to save the life of a patient.

The example the authors use to introduce us to the issue of patient safety is Josie King, an 18-month old girl who was the victim of accidental scalding by hot water and who was admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital with second-degree burns. Unfortunately, the little developed a bacterial infection from a central line catheter while in the hospital, which was then improperly treated, leading to her death.

Living not far from Baltimore area, I recall this story as being big news in the local media market back in 2001 when the case occurred. Numerous stories were broadcast along with concerns raised as to how such events could have happened at one of America’s most prestigious healthcare institutions. (The child’s mother, Sorrel King, also wrote a book about the incident – Josie’s Story – published last year.)

Both Dr. Pronovost and Mr. Vohr are intimately familiar with the Josie King tragedy because of their first-hand knowledge of the events at the time. In fact, Dr. Pronovost used the experience to develop a simple set of usage guidelines for central line catheters – reducing a ~120-page thicket of inconsistent, confusing procedures and guidelines down to a five-step checklist. When a test program across 50 intensive-care units in Michigan hospitals used the five-step checklist in lieu of the traditional guidelines, there was a dramatic reduction in the incidence of catheter line infections to near zero, along with saving an estimated 2,000 lives.

In their book, Messrs. Pronovost and Vohr are basically issuing a “call to action” for taking a similar approach to a myriad of other surgical and related procedures at hospitals. But the book also pinpoints significant hurdles the authors believe are standing in the way of action. These range from having a lack of uniform standards from one hospital to another … a propensity for doctors and other medical staff to stick to existing behaviors and protocols even if they have shortcomings … the sometimes insufficient lines of communications between physicians and nurses … and, not least, the unwillingness of some surgeons, as the prima donnas of their hospitals, to taking direction, advice or orders from other medical staff members.

In my line of work, I have the opportunity to interact with healthcare organizations ranging from smaller community hospitals to large regional “destination” health centers. From my experience, I tend to agree with the authors that different hospitals have different protocols, different priorities, and different cultures, which could certainly lead to different patient outcomes in some cases.

Nevertheless, I have never seen a case of wanton disregard for patient safety. From what I’ve observed, I think any problems that might arise would more likely come from the large volume of patients being cared for, along with the constantly evolving technologies and procedures. It’s really too bad that medical staff members aren’t blessed with a 36-hour day, because so many seem to put forth a 36-hour effort within a 24-hour day … day in and day out.

Perhaps for this reason as much as any other, it is interesting – and welcome – to read of practicals way to improve patient safety through using steps such as ones outlined by Dr. Pronovost and Mr. Vohr in their book. For anyone interested or involved in the healthcare industry, it’s a volume definitely a worth reading.

Mathematicians and the Meltdown

I can’t wait for the release of The Quants, a new book by Wall Street Journal reporter Scott Patterson about the role of so-called “quant funds” in the financial near-meltdown in September 2008, to be published on February 2. The weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal printed excerpts from the book, a powerful indictment of the mathematicians and computer whizzes who “nearly destroyed Wall Street.”

According to Patterson, “quants” was a name given to “traders and financial engineers who used brain-twisting math and super-powered computers to pluck billions in fleeting dollars out of the market.” In a major departure from traditional trading – evaluating individual companies’ management, performance and competitive positions – the quants used mathematical formulae to wager on which stocks will rise or fall.

Because of breakthroughs in the application of mathematics to financial markets – some of them so novel so as to have won their discoverers Nobel Prize awards — quant funds had quickly come to dominate Wall Street, with most of them piling up profits day after day. (To the senior brass at the investment houses, who likely knew little if anything about how these funds operated except that they made a lot of money, a hands-off policy seemed just the thing.)

And just as in so many other fields, technology elevated the “nerds” to the position of “stars” – with commensurately stratospheric compensation.

Unfortunately, in September 2008 the quant funds could not anticipate the effect of the collapse of the housing market bubble. In fact, this development turned the mathematical formulae of the quant funds on their head: What should have declined, rising … and what should be going up, dropping.

Patterson’s book promises to go into the details of just how things spun out of control, as seen through the eyes of key Wall Street managers such as the piano-playing, songwriting Peter Muller, founder of Morgan Stanley’s Process Driven Trading (PDT) quant fund, and Cliff Asness, formerly of Goldman Sachs and leader of the Applied Quantitative Research (AGR) quant fund.

In addition to presenting all the facts and all the drama, I’m hoping that Patterson will offer a few observations on how we can avoid a debacle like this from happening again in the future.

Another key question is whether any of the proposed regulations being debated in Congress will address the practices of quant funds – or is it all too complicated for anyone to figure out?

If that’s so, it’s pretty scary.

This just in: The organization stinks. Now, what are you going to do about it?

I Hate People BookI’m in the midst of reading an interesting book with a provocative title: “I Hate People!: Kick Loose from the Overbearing and Underhanded Jerks at Work and Get What You Want Out of Your Job.” (Little, Brown Publishing, ISBN-10: 0316032298 … also available in a Kindle edition.)

I think this book takes some risks. It certainly bursts a few bubbles in the conventional thinking about organizations and how they work. If you read it, be prepared to discard some of those platitudinous notions about shared mission and vision, organizational behavior, teamwork, matrix management and all the rest.

Coauthored by Jonathan Littman and Marc Hershon, this book fearlessly tackles the thing many workers know but are afraid to say out loud: Every day they come in the office, people have to deal with colleagues who exhibit a host of traits they frankly can’t stand.

We’re well familiar with the types … and Littman and Hershon give us catchy names to describe them, such as:

“Stop Sign” — the person who always finds something wrong or unworkable with the latest idea/product/strategy/solution being proposed. (And isn’t it interesting how many of those issues would entail that person having to contribute a bit more time and effort of his or her own?)

“Switchblade” — be very careful of these people … they’re highly dangerous when you’re not looking!

“Happy Face” — you know, the folks who approach their work at the office the same way they circulate at a cocktail party or spend an evening at the country club.

Or “Time Waster” — there’s no explanation at all needed for this common specimen!

The idea of “teamwork” comes in for pointed criticism by the authors as well. In theory, teams are all about working together to achieve consensus and implement better programs or initiatives that everyone can support. Littman and Hershon remind us that too often, teams produce nothing more than mushy “group think.”

And the bigger the team, the more tepid the results. The authors contend that only a few team members carry their own weight; the others can get away easily with little more than just showing up at meetings. For this reason, we’re advised to join teams of no more than four or five people, where “hiding in plain sight” is far more difficult to pull off.

A good thing about this book is that instead of presenting a litany of problems and then just leaving the entrails on the floor, Littman and Hershon provide ideas for how to work around all of the mediocrity and the frustration. They sugggest practicing “solo-crafting.” What’s that? Basically, it’s taking it upon yourself to “just do it” rather than passing the buck or relying on others. Or, as the authors put it: Stop talking, stop acting, start doing.

The book is quick to point out that solo-crafting doesn’t mean becoming a loner or maverick. It also doesn’t mean becoming a peacock, screaming “Look at me, I’m so great!” — just the kind of person everyone loves to hate.

Instead, by accomplishing more while working within the orgnizational structure, Littman and Hershon contend that you’ll find yourself being recognized for your ability to actually accomplish what others simply give lip service to. And that will result in being asked to perform more key tasks, with more opportunity to be recognized and rewarded for a job well done. Solo, of course.